Haroon Tahir is a 21 year old Dubai kid, originally from Lahore. An avid reader, he has a degree from AUD with a major in Economics and a minor in Journalism. It may not seem like it at first glance, but he is also a poet and has had his work published in several publications.
The sound of chattering aunties, complaining uncles and cavorting, oblivious, playing children abruptly died down as a sea of faces turned towards the entrance of the wedding hall, like a synchronized Mexican wave in a football stadium. It was the bride making her way down the aisle, her hand tightly clutching her short-statured father’s arms. Like every precarious middle-class Pakistani bride, she did not look up to see her smiling, teary-eyed family or the faces of sneering aunties. She didn’t even look up to see her to-be husband, who had stood up from his seat on the wedding stage, his long scarf tucked neatly between his shoulder, it’s gaudy green color clashing with his darker skin. His peach, embroidered sherwani could barely mask his portly figure, his double chin bursting out of the tight, starched collar. As the bride made her way to the stage, she stole a look at her husband and slightly smiled.
Nazneen Haq was born into a middle-class family in suburban Lahore, the middle child of three daughters; her father was a junior accountant at a steel firm and her mother was an overbearing housewife. She was the most strikingly attractive one out of all her siblings, her skin fairer, her body more lithe and voluptuous and her eyes an intoxicating shade of hazel, flanked by long, curved eyelashes. She hated her suburban, unclean neighborhood. The streets were narrow, craggy and pothole-ridden with garbage often lined up on the sides, leaving a rancid smell that hung in the air.
She hated her house – it was too small, the architecture was too bland, too simple with tight rooms and a terrace that barely had enough shrubbery to pass for a garden. She hated the excruciatingly long rides on the rickshaw under the baking Lahore sun and the ogling eyes of the rickshaw-drivers. She hated how her richer, more affluent friends posted photos of their trips to Istanbul, their chic Aldo bags, and their air-conditioned Japanese sedans. She hated sharing her diminutive, suffocating room with her younger sister, she hated the mess she made, she hated her insufferably-loud snoring at night, and she hated the fact that she was always talking, whining, and complaining about one thing or another.
But despite the agonizing pains of her middle-class lifestyle, Nazneen had remained quiet. She had remained quiet when her mother scolded her for putting too much chili powder in the aloo gosht, or for not cleaning the dishes properly. She had remained quiet when her timid father asked her about her poor performance at school. Despite her abhorrence for her unbearable life, she had remained quiet. She had soldiered on.
To escape the pains of her quiet and disinteresting life, she had become romantically involved with her high school classmate, Zeeshan Ali, mostly because of his popularity and his star athlete status. Zeeshan had a bright, promising future ahead of him where he was poised to win a sports scholarship at LUMS University, the most prestigious institution in Lahore.
So, in hopes of a better lifestyle, Nazneen mesmerized him with her beauty and she held on to him, like a predator that tightly clutched its prey right before consuming it whole. She would reply dotingly to all his “I-love-yous” when they went for dates to the neighborhood ice cream parlor or the movie theater, she would stay up all night on the phone with him, barely listening to what he was saying (she would mostly remain quiet), and she would contently accept all his small gifts, not expressing her desire for classier, more expensive ones, whether it was the tiny keychain with her name, the custom-made mugs or the fresh, fragrant flowers. But what bothered her the most was that he drove a dingy old motorbike that shook and rattled, lived in a sparsely-decorated, miniscule house just two blocks away, and shared a disgustinglysimilar lifestyle to her.
Eight months had passed in their relationship when Nazneen’s mother received a phone call from her distant aunt. It was a marriage proposal, a rishta, she wanted Nazneen’s hand (and only Nazneen and not her less-prettier sisters) for her son, Ashfaq, a 31-year-old banker living and working in Dubai. He had seen her at a cousin’s wedding three months ago, and had grown extremely fond of her, particularly of how she had looked. Nazneen tried to eavesdrop from the hall as she heard her mother’s hesitant voice through the thin, craggy walls of her house.
“But… but what about Reehana, my eldest, she is much closer to Ashfaq’s age and would understand him much better…” said Nazneen’s mother, reluctantly.
“No, no, Farzana…” replied Afshaq’s mother, chewing vigorously on betel leaf, “My boy likes the middle one more, we must have her hand. Now don’t disappoint your loving sister and my son.” Nazneen’s mother pursed her lips and craned her neck forward. The years of housework had made her frail and weak, she had become only, but, a haunting silhouette of her acclaimed beauty in her younger years.
A suitor for her 23-year-old daughter was her main concern at this point, she had inherited her father’s rougher features and was almost about to finish college. It was imperative that she found a suitable proposal before tongues begun to wag and her daughter was deemed too old to be engaged. After a long, weighty pause, she replied, “Okay… I’ll ask the girl.”
Nazneen was pacing in the hall, like a patient’s anxious loved one outside the operating room, waiting, thinking, trying to remember who this Afshaq was. She tried to recall a face with that name but could not recollect any image, or even conjure up a face or a figure. Her youthful allure meant that it was hard for her to keep track of her admirers.
Her mother approached her, walking sluggishly with her back tilting forward. She saw no excitement or enthusiasm in her eyes – the kind of excitement that mothers usually have when they find out that they are about to be relieved of the burden of finding a suitor for their daughter. “I heard you and Khala Ghazala over the phone,” said Nazneen, her words cutting through the hot air in the hall. Her eyes dropped to the floor like a virginal, newly-wedded bride.
“She wants your hand,” she said, taking lengthy, heavy breaths in between, “for her eldest son, Ashfaq.” Her voice was much softer than usual, her tone more jovial and welcoming and her pitch less harsh and brash. Nazneen was not used to it.
“He lives in Dubai… makes good money. He seems like a nice man as well, I’m sure he’ll take good care of you.” It was the sort of tone a mother uses when she does not want to force her child into doing something, but her maternal instincts still want the child to go ahead with the decision. After all, Nazneen’s parents were much less conservative, less orthodox than their archetypal middle-class extended family– they wanted their daughters to be well-educated, they didn’t mind them having a career and they didn’t force their women into arranged marriages (unless extreme circumstances required it).
“He’s very normal in the way he looks, though, not like the kind of men you are used to,” added her mother as an interjection, one of her usual bitter remarks or both.
After her mother had finished talking, a lengthy silence dangled in the sweltering summer air. Nazneen remained quiet in response. Her silence was her agreement.
Nazneen had done what any sensible, reasonable woman would do. She had chosen to ignore the 11-year age difference with her to-be groom. She had chosen to leave Zeeshan. She had chosen to leave her middle-class lifestyle behind. She had chosen a favorable present over a bright future. She had chosen to marry Ashfaq.
Weeks later, Ashfaq visited Lahore for Eid. He gifted her elegant, embellished designer kurtis (the kind she had always wanted), he took her to the swankiest restaurants in M. M Alam road, Lahore’s most posh vicinity, in his dark blue, rented Japanese sedan and tended to all her little needs. During their rendezvouses, he told her of his apartment in the heart of Dubai, the beautiful view that you got of the glittering Dubai skyline from his room, his colleagues and their hilarious narrations at work. There was no mention of previous relationships. Nazneen didn’t bother asking.
Nazneen, like the shy, stoic fiancé she was, did not have much to say. She remained quiet. Sometimes, she laughed (more elegantly than her usual self) or let a smile creep up her face.
They were having dinner at a high-class Italian eatery when Ashfaq had mumbled “I’m not as rich as you think I am, though”. A sliver of white sauce dripped from the side of his mouth, while he aggressively gobbled at his fettuccine pasta.
“I’m sure you’re joking,” she laughed, those being one of the few words she said during the date. They both laughed together. But Ashfaq wasn’t joking.
She could not care less about his rotund, aged and hard-featured face, his obese body, the way he loudly munched on his food, his terrible habit of smoking and his passionless kisses – nowhere near as good as Zeeshan’s. She was ready to let herself fall into the cocooned, comforting life of an affluent housewife in the cosmopolitan city of Dubai. She had heard stories of how beautiful the city was, how your neck would ache from gazing up at the tall skycrapers all the time, how your feet would pain from walking kilometers in the malls and how serene and tranquil the golden beaches were, set against the sparkling, azure Arabian Sea. All the night Tahajjud prayers Nazneen had made for a better life and a good husband had finally been answered by the Almighty.
2 months after barely passing her board exams, Nazneen got married.
Today was her main day, her baraat, one of the many functions that constituted a typical, middle-class Pakistani wedding. It wasn’t as grand and lavish as she wanted it to be, the baraat venue was not a vast, palatial garden, there were no red rose bouquets on every table, her lehenga was not designed by a well-known designer and there was no DJ playing brash Bollywood music, mainly because the event was funded for by her father, as tradition and custom dictated. The bride’s side beaded a much greater financial burden than the groom, no matter how affluent his side was. That was just what the ritual was.
Ashfaq held the hand of his bride and helped her onstage, her hazel, kohl-accentuated eyes shimmered under the bright stage lights while her cheeks blushed a striking shade of rose-gold, the same shade a cloud-laden sky turns before the sun sets. He did not realize how beautiful his wife was. He could not wait for her icy, shy demeanor to thaw and for her to become the loving, subservient wife she was always meant to be.
As they took a seat on their poorly-padded couch on the stage, every other relative whipped out their smartphones and frantically started taking photos, as if the groom and bride were unknown celebrities that had suddenly rose to fame. The groom’s sherwani tugged at his mounds of fat, threatening to rip any minute, the buttons on his sherwani popped out as if his suit were a mouth trying to vomit them away. He softly whispered, “You look beautiful” in her ear as they smiled for the cameras. The bride had remained quiet. She only stole a quick glance at her groom in response.
She could not care about the flashing cameras, the tears of sadness and pride in her parents’ eyes, the congratulatory messages her relatives had come to give her on stage or the uncomfortableness and heftiness of her laboriously-embellished blood-red lehenga and bridal veil which caused her to crane her neck forward in a way hauntingly similar to her mother.
She was in a daze, she was consumed by the thoughts of Dubai, of the Burj Khalifa gleaming proudly in the desert sun, of a big room in her apartment which she would drape with black velvet curtains and paint a soft purple hue, of endless shopping trips in the vast malls.
3 weeks after her husband had left and all the necessary paperwork and visa arrangements were taken care of, Nazneen flew to Dubai. She clutched her passport and ticket to her chest as if it were a newborn, suckling baby as she made her way across the airport, partly hesitant, partly excited. It was her first ever time on an airplane, but she was still appalled by the crammed legroom, the tight and uncomfortable seating and the horrid air-conditioning which was the equivalent of a mouse blowing air on her. Still, she couldn’t wait to get to Dubai. She requested for a window seat so that she could admire the stunning, man-made scenery of Dubai. Her heart fluttered in her chest and pangs of excitement filled her lithe body as the plane took off, and she watched the dull scenery of Lahore disappear into the darkness of the cloud-laden night.
Ashfaq was waiting outside the arrivals gate, leaning against his tiny Korean hatchback when he saw his wife come through the doors. She awkwardly greeted and hugged her husband and sat in the car. She had remained quiet throughout the long drive, in the tedious morning traffic, partly because she was so mesmerized by Dubai’s scenery – it seemed as God’s own hand had come to clean the streets and the buildings as they glistened in the summer sun – and partly because she was disappointed. Ashfaq finally parked his car in a sand pit, next to a grey, dilapidated building. This was not the Dubai Nazneen had dreamed of, this was not the Dubai Ashfaq had talked of.
There were no flowers to welcome her inside, no welcome banners, no gift as Ashfaq led her into his studio apartment. Ashfaq had lost the romantic façade that came with being engaged.
But that was not the only disappointment for Nazneen. The apartment was scarcely bigger than her own room in Lahore, but the ceiling was even lower.
She went outside to the balcony, the glittering Dubai skyline was only a hollow silhouette in the distance, hidden by the decrepit, dull buildings of older Dubai. The baking, morning sun was beating down on her head as her eyes filled with raging tears. Her husband had lied to her, and it was not just only about the view from his room. Still, she had remained quiet. She let herself fall to the floor.