Fat as a Chinese lantern blown up to human proportions, the groom sat on the dais. Next to him the bride was a red speck, barely with enough space for half her body. The moulvi
had facilitated the oaths, gotten the consent that sealed the nikkah
between woman and man, and the shehnai master had been given his cue. The tune had snaked up and wound through the crowd. Guests that had sat grumbling for the last hour because it was well past their dinner hour, perked up. The wedding was a trial to sit through for the year’s best meal every one of them would ingest. They were to taste the grease dripping from the lamb on their tongues. The saffron scent rising off the biryani was impossible not to run toward, abandoning life and limb and spouse. The feast was feet away, behind the shamiana tent.
The groom’s parents sat near the dais along the side. The father watched the ceremony with the stolid, unmoving gaze of an overlord. Next to him his wife wept, but not out of happiness or heartbreak. She was worried. The baby-faced, baby-fat groom would fall into ruin out of her care, even though he’d be living with his wife right there under the roof of his parents. The moulvi
looked to Sharif Qureshi, the groom’s father, and nodded, indicating the completion of the formal ceremony.
Sharif Qureshi faced the guests. Behind him, the bride and groom stepped off the dais. Surrounded by the women of her family, the bride was moved into the house. The groom lumbered to his feet in three separate moves, the dais creaking nervously under his weight. The moulvi
feared it wouldn’t bear the tension and hurried off the platform. Sharif Qureshi waited for his son to join him.
“This is a great moment in my life,” he said. “My son, the future of this family, has taken the step toward a new life today. With all your blessings, he and his wife will carry on the Qureshi name with pride and dignity. Nothing less than dignity and pride has stood the name on its feet in this town. Everything I have, everything I’ve worked for, everything I’ve built will one day be his.” He clapped his son’s whaleback. Ahmed Nabi Qureshi wobbled from the impact, coughed and broke wind. Sharif gave him a sideways look of contempt. “May God bless them, and may God bless this happy occasion.”
Her entire body would be stiff and in pain for the rest of her life if that human cannonball her father had sold her as bride to wasn’t kept in check, and at bay.
Inside the house, Laila said she needed to use the bathroom, and she wanted to be alone. Two of her three sisters, grumbled. Laila cut them off. It was her day and she would decide how she wanted it to go. It was not her day, her eldest sister insisted. Laila pushed past them, making them follow her frantically.
She told them to stay away until she called for them. After the women left her in the third-floor bedroom she would share with her husband, Laila drew back the portion of the sari covering her head.
Her neck was stiff. All that staring at the ground, the stupid show of humility, eyes downcast, mouth clamped shut, for hours on end. Her entire body would be stiff and in pain for the rest of her life if that human cannonball her father had sold her as bride to wasn’t kept in check, and at bay. The weight of the jewelry on her was more than she weighed herself. She took off the headpiece, the Nauratan necklace, the anklets and the bangles. Removed, each article gave her the sensation of shackles coming off, making her lighter and lighter. Other women would die a thousand deaths for jewelry of the kind that now lay discarded on the bed like trash.
Laila unwrapped her wedding sari, stepped out of it, opened the door, and looked right and left.
A shadow moved at the end of the balcony.
The moon was a silver coin dipped in the river.
The shadow grew long legs that stepped into the moonbeams drowning the balcony. Arms dangled at the sides of the shadow. By the time it was close enough for Laila to pick up the familiar scent, the shadow produced the outline of a head, down the sides of which fell rich coils of hair as black as the night around the moon, smothered in coconut oil. She grabbed one of the sleek, bony hands.
Altaf’s weight on her was not as she imagined her husband’s would be. Altaf’s was tolerable, and she pushed back against it with familiarity, with will and fortitude, and pleasure.
Downstairs, the festivities were drowned by the rise of the qawwali’s
serpentine serenade to every lover that ever loved and lost, and to the saints who also lived in the songs as paragons. The winding notes of the harmonium rose and fell. Tabla beats pumped out vigorously. The music moved back and forth, high and low, deeply sonorous, terse and vibrant, immediate, urgent, and suddenly slow and doleful, until it was spent.
All the more reason it broke Laila’s heart that Shireen would live out her life in meek servitude being transferred from the home of her father and mother to the home of her mother-in-law.
In the silence Altaf pulled away. Before Laila found the cold ground against the bottoms of her feet, he was dressed.
“Wedding felicitations,” Altaf whispered, lacing it with a soft laugh. His breath was mint and alcohol.
“Get lost!” Laila laughed out loud. She lifted the hurricane lantern from the floor and took it to the dressing table her father-in-law had gifted her. The three-paneled mirrors were gilt-edged in gold and framed in platinum. The black teakwood still shone. Laila slashed a brush through her hair, the brutal swipes swishing like gasps.
“Let me,” said Altaf, stopping her hand.
“What sort of man are you?” said Laila, loosening her grip.
Altaf silently ran the brush through her hair half a dozen times in long strokes.
“Always, and then some more, your man.”
“Don’t ever write me poetry, whatever else you do,” Laila laughed. It was a short, sharp set of scales, and when she turned around, Altaf was no longer there. The door, too, had been shut. From outside came a high-pitched inquiry.
“What is it?” Laila asked, holding her ear inches from the door.
“Downstairs,” said the voice. It was her youngest sister, Shireen.
“Get in here.” Before Shireen knew she was pulled into the room. Laila, half-dressed, shocked her sister.
“Oh, my God, on your wedding day,” Shireen clamped a hand over her own mouth. “You’re shameless. I’m next, you know.”
“You’re a simpleton,” said Laila, winding the sari around her. She took the jewelry off the bed, where they’d lain while she and Altaf were on it. In a few quick moves she’d placed them on her head and body exactly as they’d been earlier. “Get married, have a hundred children, and swoon at the feet of your in-laws.”
Laila gave Shireen a look that stopped her from speaking again. Shireen watched Laila become the bride once again that had been married by the moulvi
less than an hour ago. Knocks sounded, followed by inquiring tones.
“I told you people I’ll call you when I’m ready,” Laila shouted. She could see her two other sisters smacking their foreheads in the manner of their late mother, signifying the witnessing of a world-shattering calamity. Of the sisters, Shireen and Laila were the most alike as siblings. All the more reason it broke Laila’s heart that Shireen would live out her life in meek servitude being transferred from the home of her father and mother to the home of her mother-in-law.
In feigned meekness, Laila stepped out of the room with her head and eyes down.
Nadeem Zaman is a Bangladeshi-born American fiction writer. His first collection of short stories is forthcoming from Bengal Lights Books and his debut novel, In the time of the Others, from Picador.