Extract from ‘The Veil’, a short story from the collection The Other
“They decided to meet on a no moon night. Each had a reason. She wanted to lose her shadow in the dark so that the world may not see. And for him, he wanted to see his shadow in her light.”
As her kohl eyes danced on the pages of the book where two lovers were meeting, Saheba lifted her feet up and the silver anklets with little bells made a jingling sound. Even without looking, she knew the slender curves of her ankles looked beautiful. Her thin lips parted as the fingers of the lovers in the book touched. Her nipples tensed but all that the lovers did was exchange letters standing in the dark alley of the mohalla. Saheba shut the book and turned over.
Only their fingers touched, there is nothing wrong in that.
Placing the book on her chest, she imagined the next scene. How the girl would tuck the letter safely under her kurti. Her heart beating a thousand times she would wait for the right moment to open it. Only when everybody has slept she would take it out, her face half covered with the blanket. How she would pause, a shy smile on her lips, reading it over and over again before returning it to its safe place…
Raza gently lifted her chin without removing the veil, which fell just short of her soft pink lips. He noticed the tremble and smiled. Saheba knew no matter how much she talked to herself, it would be unnerving to feel Raza’s hands over her body. But she also knew the words he would whisper in her ears would make her go into his arms. Maybe he would gift her the bundle of letters he had been writing on the nights that separated them. Maybe then she will rest her head against his chest and read one of them aloud, filling in all the years of desire and longing of the girl inside her.
So when Raza’s lips found hers, she coyly hid her face in the hollow of his neck. Her eyes flickered when she felt his hand unzip her silk shirt. Before she could lift her head, his fingers were caressing the flesh on her bare back and then her breasts. A tear trickled down as her marriage consummated in the silence of the night.
In the daylight, the house was too small to find a corner for romance, and in the night, Raza was always too eager. Days passed trying to fit into the place that was to be her home all her life.
That day, Saheba had stepped outside Mehrauli with Raza after a year. She didn’t have many places to remember; her life had been practically spent on two roads in Delhi. One that led her from home in Chandni Chowk to her college and the other that took her to the labyrinth of Mehrauli’s lanes. Of course, she could never ever forget the forbidden road she had once travelled with Ameena to India Gate.
Clutching her daughter tightly with one hand, her eyes looked with wonder at every minute detail of the Metro. She had seen the train only in some Bollywood movies. Meanwhile, seeing that their mother was not answering any of their questions, Rukhsana and Amaan had busied themselves going around the pole inside the train.
The haat was decorated exotically for Diwali with stalls where artisans exhibited hand-made things. Saheba threw the bottle-green and yellow-ochre phulkari odni over her shoulders and looked at herself in the small mirror that hung on the wall. Inspite of the years behind her, Saheba’s face had not lost its softness. Her almond eyes had fine lines around them now but they still had that charm to hold the gaze of an onlooker. As she flipped the dupatta over the other shoulder, she saw Raza look at her intently. The moment lingered in her eyes before she let it go. She turned over the white slip stapled to the corner of the dupatta and placed it back gently.
“Arey, you don’t want to buy it? I have the money, don’t worry.”
“It is very expensive. Moreover, where will I wear it? So many clothes already buried in the trunk.”
Saheba dismissed it and moved ahead. It was then that her eyes saw it. An aluminium letter box painted with flowers and leaves on a tree in the bold strokes of Gond art. She picked it up with both the hands. Tilting her head, she smiled at the thin slit just below the canopy of the painted tree. She opened the small shutter below it and put her hand inside. She laughed at the thought of finding a letter.
“I want to buy this!”
“This? What will you do with a letter box?”
Saheba gave it to the artisan who looked at her in anticipation.
“Pack this please,” she said.
“Saheba, buy that dupatta. Why waste money on this?”
She turned to look at him. Never had he seen such anger in her eyes before. She took the letter box now wrapped in the newspaper and walked away with Rukhsana and Amaan.
First thing in the morning she asked Raza to nail it outside the door. She checked the shutter and put her hand inside again, smiling as if somebody had tickled her. Thereafter, she left no chance to look at it every now and then. She would steal a glance while dusting the house, rolling the chapattis, leaving for the bus-stop to pick Rukhsana and Amaan, or when putting coal pieces in the hookah. Raza could see her obsession with the aluminium box, but was unable to comprehend the reason.
One day, he asked casually on dinner table, winking at Rukhsana, “Did someone write a letter to you?”
Saheba’s fingers slowly crushed the ball of rice in her hand, her eyes glued to the steel plate, watching a frozen moment from the past melt.
Raza’s eyes followed her as she washed her hands before retreating into the bedroom. Next morning he noticed how Saheba didn’t open the door to put her hand inside the letter box and dust it with her dupatta. There was no discussion or mention or occasion to look at the letter box for days.
One morning, Saheba heard a hammering sound at the door. She saw Raza straighten out the letter box that was hanging precariously to one side.
“You no longer take care of your letter box,” he said.
Saheba ran her dainty fingers over the brown branches laden with yellow and red flowers. As a custom she opened the shutter and put her hand inside. Her hand moved deftly, unable to believe. Dumbfounded, she took out the neatly folded white paper. She opened to check if something was written. It indeed was a letter. She quickly tucked it under her kurti, deciding to look at it when everybody was away.
The golden rays peeping into the small mirrors on your dupatta, making a thousand suns dance on your face. I dare not touch and burn the spectacle. So I will hold your glow in my palms like a firefly, and let my heart flutter. That way the moment will last even when it is over, that way you will stay with me even when you are gone.
The words whispered in her ears as the red colour of the mutton curry deepened into maroon. They roared above the screeching sound of the wheels while she waited for the bus to arrive. They tickled the back of her nape when she spread out her arms on the bed in the afternoon. She opened the trunk to take out the golden dupatta she had worn for her engagement. The zari on the borders had become dull and dark. The mirrors had chipped but when she draped it, the reflection in the mirror was still beautiful.
She paused outside the Qutub Complex which she had visited a couple of times with Raza in the first month of marriage before moving ahead towards Azeem Khan tomb. The deserted tomb was not popular and frequented like Qutub Minar. People said it had nothing much to offer except for a clear view of the sunset. Saheba sat on the large stone facing the vast horizon, words from the letter echoing in her ears.
Raza had noticed the freshness and the spark in her eyes on the breakfast table. Saheba smiled as she went to and fro from the kitchen, making aloo paranthas.
Saheba took out the second letter from behind the green branches of the letter box without any rush.
In the silence of the ruins, I will hear it all. The tip-toeing of your desires, the turning and twisting of your dreams, the cacophony of your laughter, the pauses of your beauty. I will mix them all with the stillness of my night and let the song play over and over for nights and days.
With the sound of azaan reverberating in the air, that evening Saheba didn’t go to the dargah but instead walked towards Zafar Mahal. She stared the large lock on the tall wooden gate. Then she noticed the small door cut out in it. She bent down to step inside the ruins where the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was buried. She could feel her chest under the malmal dupatta heave up and down as she read the words from the letter sitting in a quiet corner of Zafar Mahal. Head leaning against the dilapidated wall, she imagined the words taking shape between two lovers. In that moment, she couldn’t make out their faces but could clearly see the love entwining them. If she would stretch out her hand, she could touch it with her fingers.
She returned late that evening. Raza looked at her suspiciously as she walked to the bedroom without offering any explanation of her whereabouts. He noticed how she looked lost as she served dinner and ate every morsel with a long pause.
“Why didn’t you tell me that the tap in the washing area was leaking? I would have got it fixed!”
Raza had not probed further, just looked at her as if she was a mystery.
If I throw the stone of my desire in water, the ripples will make the reflection of your face go away. Holding my breath, I will watch you. When you find me dead, wake me up with the touch of your lips. A death I desire more than my life.
Saheba had read about the secret meetings of Razia Sultan and Yakut in the darkness of night while the world slept. Away from the prying eyes of the kingdom, they used to meet in a boat that looked like a jahaz in the reflection of the water. The Jahaz Mahal standing right in the middle of Mehrauli today was nothing but a shadow of their love. Never wanting to look inside the dirty complex, that morning, after reading the letter, Saheba’s feet had turned towards it.
Holding her bags of vegetables she looked through the honeycombed window. She could make out there was water but it was tough to imagine it was once a lake. Her eyes moved beyond the green fungi and imagined the nights of passion between them.
That night when Raza wrapped his arm around her waist, Saheba awash with desire, surrendered herself into his arms.
Raza felt her grip in his hand loosening up. He could hear her feet rustle into her slippers, the screech of the chair as she sat down in the lobby, her bangles jingle as she wrote the next letter. Morning must be a few hours away, he thought sleepily. His eyes remained closed but his mind wondered. However, he didn’t have the energy to understand. All he knew was he would have to remain asleep, to wake up a few minutes before Saheba got up before she opened the door of the house to check the letter box.
‘The Other’ is published by StoryMirror and edited by Abha Iyengar and Mona Verma