It’s the month to celebrate love! Enjoy this Valentine excerpt from Mohana Rajakumar.
Love Comes Later
Abdulla’s mind wasn’t on Fatima, nor on his uncles or cousins. Not even when he drove through the wrought iron entry gate, oblivious to the sprawl of family cars parked haphazardly in the shared courtyard, did he give them a thought. Despite the holy season, his mind was still hard at work. Mentally he clicked through a final checklist for tomorrow’s meetings. I can squeeze in a few more hours if Fatima is nauseous and sleeps in tomorrow, he thought, rubbing his chin. Instead of the stubble he had anticipated, his whiskers were turning soft. A trim was yet
another thing he didn’t have time for these days, though longer beards were out of fashion according to his younger brother Saad, who had been trying to grow one for years. Beard length. Just another change to keep up with.
Change was all around him, Abdulla thought. The cousins getting older, he himself soon to become a father. Abdulla felt the rise of his country’s profile most immediately in the ballooning volume of requests by foreign governments for new trade agreements. By the day, it seemed, Qatar’s international status was growing, which meant more discussions, more meetings.
He slid the car into a gap in the growing shadow between his father’s and grandfather’s houses. It would have to serve as a parking space. The Range Rover door clicked shut behind him as he walked briskly toward his father’s house, BlackBerry in hand, scrolling through his messages. Only then did the sound of wailing reach him, women in pain or grief, emanating from his Uncle Ahmed’s house across the courtyard. He jerked the hands-free device out of his ear and quickened his pace, jogging not toward the majlis where the rest of the men were gathering, but into the main living area of Uncle Ahmed’s, straight toward those unearthly sounds.
The sight of Aunt Wadha stopped him short. Disheveled, her shayla slipping as she howled, she was smacking herself on the forehead. Then came his mother, reaching her arms out to him with a tender, pitying look he hadn’t seen since his pet rabbits from the souq died. But it was Hessa, his other aunt – Fatima’s mother, his own mother-in-law – who sent him into a panic.
Ashen-faced, her lips bleeding, she was clutching the evil eye necklace he had bought Fatima on their honeymoon. At the sight of it, the delicate gold cord in Hessa’s hands instead of around his wife’s neck, Abdulla felt his knees buckle and the BlackBerry slip from his hand.
“What has happened?” he said. He looked from one stricken face to another.
Numbly, he saw his female cousins were there. At the sight of him, the older ones, glamorous Noor and bookish Hind, both now adult women in their own right, whom he hadn’t seen in years, jerked their shaylas from their shoulders to cover their hair and went into the adjoining room. In his haste, he hadn’t said “Darb!” to let them know he was entering the room.
“Abdulla, Abdulla…” his mother began, but she was thrust aside by Aunt Hessa.
“Fatima,” Hessa screamed, staring wildly at him. “Fatima!”
Rather than fall onto the floor in front of the women, Abdulla slumped heavily into the nearest overstuffed armchair. Fatima…
They left behind gangly nine-year-old Luluwa, Fatima’s sister, who resisted when they tried to take her with them. His father, gray-faced and tired, entered. Abdulla slouched and waited, the growing dread like something chewing at his insides. His father began to talk, but on hearing “accident” and “the intersection at Al Waab” he remembered the Hukoomi traffic service SMS. Then he heard “Ahmed,” and a shiver of horror ran up his back. The driver had been Ahmed, his uncle and father-in-law.
Later that night in the morgue, in the minutes or hours (he couldn’t keep track) while he waited to receive her body, Abdulla flicked his Zippo lighter open and struck it alight. Holding it just so, he burned a small patch on his wrist just below his watchstrap. Even this couldn’t contain his rage at the truck driver who came through without a scratch, at his uncle, or at himself.
The morgue was antiseptic, mercilessly public. The police advised against seeing her, insisting that he wouldn’t be able to erase the memory of a face marked with innumerable shards of glass.
Surrounded by family and hospital staff, he couldn’t hold her, talk to her, or stroke her slightly rounding stomach, the burial site of their unborn child. Any goodbyes he had hoped to say would have to be suppressed.
He would mourn the baby in secret. He hadn’t wanted to tell relatives about the pregnancy too soon in case of a miscarriage. Now it could never happen: the need to visibly accept God’s will in front of them would prevent him from crying it out—this woe upon woe that was too much to bear.
Fatima’s body was washed and wrapped, and the prayers said before burial. His little wife with the round face and knowing eyes he’d grown up next to in the family compound, and the baby he would never see crawl, sleep or walk, were hidden from him now for all eternity. The secret she was carrying was wrapped with her in a gauzy white kaffan, her grave cloth, when he was finally allowed to see them. The child would have been named after Abdulla’s grandfather if a boy, his grandmother if a girl, whose gender would now remain a mystery.
At the burial site, as was customary, he fell in line behind his father and uncles. Ahmed, the father, carried his daughter’s slight form.
They placed her on her right side.
Men came to lay the concrete slabs that sealed the grave, so her frame would not rise up as it decomposed in the earth. Abdulla regretted not having been able to stroke the softness of her chin or the imperceptibly rounding curve of her belly. I am burying my wife and our unborn child, he thought, the taste of blood filling his mouth from the force with which he bit his cheek to stem the tears. Their secret would have to be lost within her lifeless womb. News of a double tragedy would spread with the sand under doors and into the ears of their larger circle of acquaintances. Someone would call someone to read the Qur‘an over him. Someone would search out someone else for a bottle of Zamzam water from Mecca.
None of it would stop the acid from gnawing through his heart.
In swirls of conjecture and pity, his newly-assigned role as the widowed and grieving almost-father, would replace his role as the eldest grandchild in a fertile and happy extended family. His birth order had focused their marital intents on him. Caught between duty and tradition, he did the only thing he could do. He tried to forget that he had been too busy to drive Fatima that day, the day he lost a wife and a child because of his own selfishness. He had thought they had years ahead, decades, when they would have time to spend together. A chubby infant growing into a child who went to school, for whose school holidays they would have to wait to travel abroad, and eventually another child, maybe several more. Now none of this would ever be.
He should have died with them. But he kept on breathing—as if he had a right to air.
They returned from the funeral to gather at the home of the grieving parents for the ‘azaa, the receiving of condolences. Abdulla rode in the back seat of the Land Cruiser, his father at the wheel, his cousins and brothers messaging friends on various applications. For him there was no sharing of grief. This was his burden to bear alone.
He was the last to climb out of the car, but the first to see Luluwa hunched on the marble steps of Uncle Ahmed’s entryway. The lines around her mouth, pulling it downward, aging her face, drew his attention; the stooped shoulders spoke of a burden heavier than grief for her sister. His mother saw it at the same time and hurried over to the girl, concerned.
“Yalla, what is it?” she said, pulling her up.
Luluwa shook her head.
“Go inside, habibti,” said Abdulla’s mother, but Luluwa shook free and drew back, panic in her wide eyes. Abdulla’s mother turned her face back to the men. Then they heard the shouting.
“When? When did this all start?” Hessa’s voice screamed, raw and startling, from inside the open door. “Leave this house.”
The family halted in their tracks, exchanging uncertain glances.
Ahmed emerged, looking shaken but defiant, a weekender bag in one hand. Abdulla’s father, the eldest of the brothers, stepped forward and took him by the arm.
“Everyone is upset,” he whispered harshly. He was trying to lead him back inside, as his wife had done a moment ago with Luluwa, when Hessa burst forward into view, her face aflame with indignation.
“Tell them,” she spat at her husband. “Tell them now, so when you don’t come back here everyone will know why.”
The words made no sense to Abdulla. His first thought was to speak up and still the voices. He had already forgiven Ahmed in his mind. The accident hadn’t been his fault. “There’s no reason to throw him out,” he called out, half-climbing the steps. “It was my fault, not his. I should have been driving them.”
Hessa turned towards him and laughed in a way that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. “Who needs to throw him out when he’s leaving?” she said. “Leaving his daughter to a house with no man to look after her. She might as well have died with her sister.”
“Yuba, no,” Luluwa cried, moving toward her father, but her mother grabbed a fistful of her abaya and spun the girl around by the shoulders.
Abdulla’s mind whirred to compute what they were witnessing. A sudden white-hot rage stiffened his spine. His gaze narrowed on Ahmed. So the rumors were true, he thought.
“He doesn’t want me and so he doesn’t want you,” Hessa hissed, nose to nose with her daughter.
The family froze in the entryway as understanding sluiced them like rainwater. Ahmed stood for a moment in the glare of their stares. He shifted the weekender bag into his opposite hand.
Saoud, the middle brother, stepped forward to question Ahmed, the baby of the family, but Hessa wasn’t finished yet.
“Go,” she screamed at her husband. “You’ll never set foot in any house with me in it ever again.” She collapsed onto the floor, her abaya billowing up around her like a mushroom, obscuring her face.
Saoud moved quickly to stand in front of his brother as his wife helped Hessa up. “Think of your daughter,” she added pointedly. “The one that’s still alive.”
Abdulla brought Luluwa forward. Her face was tear-streaked and her body trembling so hard it was causing his hand to shake.
“Keep her, if you want,” Ahmed said, his glance flickering over Luluwa’s bent head. “My new wife will give me many sons.” He sidestepped Mohammed and Saoud, continuing on down the stairs towards his car.
The look Hessa gave Luluwa was filled with loathing. She dissolved into another flood of tears. The girl darted inside. Abdulla followed as his parents tried to deal with the aftermath of his uncle’s leaving. His aunt looked as though she might faint. His cousins’ faces were ashen.
Mohammed and Saoud murmured in low voices about the best way to deal with their brother’s child. She couldn’t live in a house with boys; one of those boys, her cousins, might one day be her husband.
He followed Luluwa’s wailings, sounds without any force, the bleating of a cat, like one of any number roaming the streets of the city. Without a male family member to look after her, she would be as abandoned as those animals. And, in the eyes of their society, as susceptible to straying. He found her on the sofa, typing away on her laptop, and hoped she wasn’t posting their family’s mess on the internet. Wedged next to her hip was an opaque paper bag stamped with their grandfather’s name, the white tops of a few pill bottles visible.
Abdulla came and sat on the sofa next to her, unsure of what to do next. He was assaulted by her screensaver, a photo of Fatima and Luluwa on the evening of the wedding reception. He hadn’t yet arrived with the male relatives; the bride and the rest of the women were still celebrating without hijab. His wife’s eyes stared back at him even as her sister’s now poured tears that showed no sign of stopping.
With trembling hands Luluwa wrenched open the bag of medicine and dug around for pills. She let the laptop slip and he caught it before it hit the floor. As he righted it, the heading of the minimized Google tab caught his attention: suicide. For one moment he allowed himself to admit that the idea she was apparently contemplating had begun to dance at the edge of his own mind.
“Don’t,” he said. “What will we do if both of you are gone?”
He put the laptop aside and, as if calming a wild colt, reached out slowly, deliberately, to take the bottle from her shaking hands. With little effort he wrenched it from her, and with it any remaining shred of strength. She dissolved into incoherent sobs, a raging reminder of what it meant to be alive, to be the one left behind.
Abdulla folded her into his arms, this slip of a girl who used to hide his car keys so that her weekend visits with her sister and brother-in-law wouldn’t have to end, this girl who had already lost so much, a sister and now a father and mother. Instead of shriveling into himself, as he had felt like doing from the moment he saw his family in mourning, Abdulla’s heart went out to Luluwa. He murmured reassurances, trying to reverse the mirror of his own loss that he saw reflected in her eyes.
“We can do this,” he said. “She would want us to.”
She pulled away to look at him.
“Together,” he said. From deep in his own grief he recognized the despair that would haunt him for years, and made a pledge to keep the decay he felt growing inside him from tainting someone so young. He would bear the guilt. It was his alone to bear.
He would speak to his father. If nothing else, perhaps Luluwa might gain a new
brother, and he a little sister. Small comfort, but tied together in the knowledge of
the loved one they had lost, a bond that might see them through what was to
Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar is a South Asian American who has lived in Qatar since 2005. Moving to the Arabian Desert was fortuitous in many ways since this is where she met her husband, had a baby, and made the transition from writing as a hobby to a full time passion. She has since published seven e-books including a mom-ior for first time mothers, Mommy But Still Me, a guide for aspiring writers, So You Want to Sell a Million Copies, a short story collection, Coloured and Other Stories, and a novel about women’s friendships, Saving Peace.
Her recent books have focused on various aspects of life in Qatar. From Dunes to Dior, named as a Best Indie book in 2013, is a collection of essays related to her experiences as a female South Asian American living in the Arabian Gulf. Love Comes Later was the winner of the Best Indie Book Award for Romance in 2013 and is a literary romance set in Qatar and London. The Dohmestics is an inside look into compound life, the day to day dynamics between housemaids and their employers.
After she joined the e-book revolution, Mohana dreams in plotlines. Learn more about her work on her website at www.mohanalakshmi.com or follow her latest on Twitter: @moha_doha.
Author website: http://www.mohanalakshmi.com