Akbar awakens in his mother’s soft lap. He doesn’t remember falling asleep, nor does he remember if the curtains in this room have been opened all day. Through the sliver escaping from between the thick print, he can see that the morning sky has paled as it rumbles under the bellowing Asr azaan. The television in the corner of his mother’s room is buzzing with a heavily made-up anchor robotically sharing the details of a young woman who had been killed in their sleep.
His mother’s fingers are rubbing soft circles on his heavily gelled scalp as he feels her lap rise and fall with the weight of her prayers mumbled between every breath. As he begins to stir, her fingers make their way down to his cheeks and cup them gently.
“You’re awake, my moon?”
He groans a response.
“How are you feeling now?” she slides her small, wrinkled hand onto his forehead, spreading her fingers and applying pressure ever so gently. “How’s the headache?”
He stays quiet. Instead he closes his eyes again to breathe in the smell of freshly starched cotton and motia that lives within the fibers of his mother’s clothes. Her being. A smell that has always meant comfort, safety, healing, and protection. He wants to stay cocooned for as long as possible but just as he’s about to drift off to sleep again, he hears his older brother’s footsteps from down the hall, making their way over to his mother’s bedroom door. His mother’s lap stiffens.
The door opens and from his vantage point of her lap, Akbar sees a lopsided version of his older brother walk into the room, pause at the doorframe and shove his hands into his charcoal grey pockets.
“How are you feeling Akbar?”
Akbar begins to sit up, buying time by making sure each move takes an extra five seconds, as he pulls his weight and forces himself into a cross-legged position on the hard bed next to his mother. She maintains a grip on her son, her hand slipping from his head to his knees as he sits up.
“I’m okay Bhaiya,” he says slowly, surprised that he still had a voice after all the howling and screaming earlier. “I guess I was just shocked.”
His brother nods as his mother exclaims, “Of course you were, my child, of course you were!” her voice cracks with every syllable as both her sons look at her with caution, expecting the tears to soon follow. And sure enough, her eyes carry a pool as she shifts her gaze from one son to the other.
“Of course he’s shocked,” she repeats, her hand falling off his lap to cup her other one, as if dissolving into prayer. “She’s gone. She’s just gone. Of course, he’s heartbroken, aren’t you?”
Hearing his mother repeat a truth he tried to undo by taking a nap pushes his heart into his stomach. Regretting his decision to wake up at all, Akbar meets his brother’s eyes and asks, “Where is she?”
“She’s been moved to a morgue from the hospital. Her family is on their way over, their flight lands-” Bhaiya stops to check his thick watch. “In less than an hour.”
Is there a right way to ask what he wants to next? Carefully phrasing it in his head before asking aloud, Akbar questions, “What all do they know so far?” Instead of continuing to maintain eye contact for the rest of the conversation, Akbar lets the question float in the air as he shifts his attention to squirming off the bed and shuffling his feet into the rubber slippers sprawled out haphazardly on the marble floor beneath him.
He could be mistaken, but Akbar thinks he catches Bhaiya slowly shaking his head so subtly, its like an accidental flinch from a bobblehead under a weak fan.
“They heard about the mugging,” Bhaiya says. “All we told them is that she hasn’t made it but that we were still at the hospital at the time. That was hours ago. Then her father called an hour and a half ago to say they’re boarding and they’ll be here soon.”
By the time he finishes speaking. Akbar is standing opposite his older brother. The six-year age difference has melted into mere frosted tips in his brother’s hair and beard, but beyond that two stand today as shadows of one another. Akbar’s lips have purpled over the years and Bhaiya has a tan line from a wedding ring that he never takes off, but apart from the minor differences, you could mistake the two of them for twins.
Akbar had grown up idolizing Bhaiya. Their oldest sister never moved back after college, eventually meeting her husband in California and living the white-American dream. That, coupled with their thirteen-year age difference, meant she always felt like more of a cousin than an actual sister to Akbar. Bhaiya, on the other hand, was always around. Performing with his guitar at their school’s talent show as everyone would cheer him on and people would smack Akbar on the back, almost congratulating him for having such a cool brother. The school head boy, cricket team captain, his high school sweetheart now the mother of his daughter – Bhaiya didn’t only have his own life together, but he managed to be present for everyone else too. In the stands at each of Akbar’s football matches even if he spent most of the first season on the bench; staying in the hospital with their father every night after he slipped into a coma years ago; turning down his dream job to move back home so their mother wouldn’t be alone once Abba passed away.
Today he stepped up again, but today there is too much fog clouding Akbar’s consciousness to tune in long enough to express any gratitude. He simply nods at his brother and squeezes past him, down the empty corridor to his room and shut the door.
Akbar never planned on moving back either. Not just home, but Karachi. The summer before senior year at NYU, he threw himself into finding a job. Any job that would allow him to attain a valid working visa and extend his stay in America. And sure enough, before the end of his penultimate semester, a professor hired him at their firm for a low-paying job in Manhattan. Akbar remembers calling up Bhaiya as soon as he found out, floating through the pigeon-lined pavements of the city, expecting an enthusiastic encouragement to go out and celebrate. Instead he got a rather stern lecture on responsibility and adulthood that he finished listening to while hitting his dab pen, zoning his brother’s uncharacteristically nasal voice out.
Which perhaps wasn’t the best idea. Working in the city did not quite have the same charm as being a college student in the city – he couldn’t roll over the next morning and get high, deciding not to go to class at the last minute. He couldn’t continue living in the apartment he loved once his roommates moved out after graduation, so he had to move to a six-floor walkup that had a perpetual soundtrack of rats scurrying behind the piss-stained walls. Spontaneous drinking plans turned into hangovers that he would navigate from the porcelain seat of his office’s toilet at eight in the morning, rather than huddled in bed fondling himself and ordering in food. In short, living abroad was not all it’s talked up to be. Especially when you have the brilliantly cushy alternative of coming back home to a chauffeur, a personal cook, a mansion, a mother that refuses to let you grow up, and a wallet that never runs dry. So, he accepted the transition gracefully.
Of course, she made it so much easier. Akbar met Farwa exactly two days after moving back, four years ago. She was best friends with his friend’s then-new girlfriend and had recently moved to Karachi after spending her entire life in Lahore. A picture from the wedding they met at that first night, is still on Akbar’s dresser as he walks into his room right now and shuts out the reality behind him – in his room she’s still alive.
In his room, she’s only recently picked out the rust duvet spread neatly on his king-sized bed that he sits on right now. In his room, she’s still taking a shower in the bathroom while he rolls both of them a joint rather than rolling one just for himself right now. In his room, the smell of her shampoo from this morning still lingers in the air and the sheets are still wrinkled, each crease carrying her earthy scent, perfumed over with jasmine. In his room, she has only just draped the towel over his desk chair with the promise to pick it up soon before it dampens the cushion. In his room, she could be the reason his phone is buzzing on that desk right now, probably to ask when he will come to pick her up. It’s definitely not buzzing in the corner with condolence messages, because in his room, she’s still alive.
As he licks the paper gently, he thinks of their last kiss. He was dropping her home after they spent the night together. She was still wearing her raw silk white saari blouse from the engagement party the night before but had donned his deep green flannel on top and a pair of his old sweatpants. He jokingly teased her outfit while grazing his finger against her dark collarbone that shone starkly against the white, and she had laughed it off, softly kissing his fingers as they made their way up to her shoulder.
“So,” she asked as he turned around to put on his seat belt before beginning to drive. “Have you thought more about our conversation from last night?”
“Fuck I left my cigarettes upstairs,” he said, patting down his pockets. He rolled his window down and shouted out to the guard on the other side of the large wooden gate, “Gul Muhammad! Get my cigarettes and a lighter from inside, quickly!”
“Akbarrrr,” she cooed, calling him out on his distracted response, at which he sighed and rolled his eyes.
“What, babe? What do you want me to say?”
“I want to know if you’ve given it any more thought.”
“It’s been less than twelve hours Farwa, can you at least give me some time?” he had snapped and then honked at Gul inside who was clearly taking way too long.
“You haven’t even congratulated me yet, you know,” she had said, her frizzy hair creating a shadow on her dewy morning face.
There is a knock on his door.
“Come!” he says through a bubble of smoke.
The house boy, Karim, enters cautiously but stays behind the door. “Sahaab, Baray Sahaab said to let you know that people and the body will be here in an hour.”
Akbar blinks slowly in acknowledgment and gestures to close the door, but Karim pauses.
“Also Begum Sahiba was saying you should eat something. Can I bring something to your room?”
“It’s okay Karim, leave me alone.”
Karim shifts his weight and considers this instruction, then tries once more. “A cup of tea only maybe? It’s already ready.”
Akbar leans back against his headboard and stares at the earnest look on this eighteen-year old’s face. Earnest, but perhaps a little fearful too. It’s been a scary day. Out of his own niceness and merely for the boy’s wishes, Akbar smiles an empty smile and says, “Sure.”
Just as Karim closes the door behind him, Akbar catches the last sound waves rippling in the air from downstairs. The sound of furniture being pushed against the marble floor to make more room. The sound of chairs being unstacked in the garden below his bedroom window. The tinkling and rattling of crockery as hundreds of cups of tea are prepared. Akbar takes his time to finish his joint that only adds to the fog in his head, sips the lukewarm tea half-heartedly, and then decides to take a shower. When he walks out in a towel, his skin rubbed raw, he sees that his mother has already ironed and prepared an appropriate kurta shalwar for him to slip into, before finally heading downstairs.
Technically there are still fifteen minutes left within the hour window that Karim had given him, but as Akbar makes his way down the grand staircase lined with family portraits, he sees a few guests already making themselves comfortable downstairs. He recognizes his aunt – his father’s youngest sister – sitting on the floor and adjusting a georgette dupatta on her heavily dyed head. Her daughter sits next to her, whispering something in her five-year old son’s ear. On the sofa – that is usually in the center of the room but today has been pushed against the wall with a grand picture window overlooking their garden – sits Farwa’s maternal grandmother. As her only relative that lives in Karachi, Akbar isn’t surprised to see that she’s already here. What he is, is uncomfortable. Perhaps in an effort to maintain an aura of normalcy or perhaps because no one else has been paying attention, the television on the wall is still switched on, with an extremely sweaty reporter sharing some new tragedy that had taken place in Sialkot earlier today.
“The police say that while he has been apprehended, there is still need for more investi-” Akbar’s nephew grabs the remote from across the room based on his mother’s whispered instructions and she puts it on mute.
Through the picture window, he can see that the preparation has diffused outside as well; the garden decorated with scattered chairs and Karim going around asking if anyone wants tea. Amongst the handful of men that have arrived, he also spots the private security that Bhaiya hires at the company’s events. Seven-foot-tall all-black-clad robots have been stationed by the open gate and in different corners of the garden, while one of them patrols around.
Akbar desperately wants to make his way over to the men because he knows none of them will know what to say to him so they’ll stay quiet; which he prefers over the intrusive questioning, heavy wailing, and the dramatic calls to God and Ali and Hussain that he’s about to walk into.
His cousin, Maham, spots him first. She stands up and rushes over, throwing her arms around someone she has always considered her own baby brother, and lets him fold himself over her so he can rest his unshaven cheek on her shoulder.
“God, I’m so sorry Akoo,” she whispers, holding him tight. His phupo is standing too now, and Farwa’s nani has started the wailing. He hugs his phupo, ruffles his nephew’s hair and joins her Nani on the sofa, resting a hand on her knee and whispering salaam.
Farwa had taken him to meet her before. Last year after her surgery, they both visited her in the hospital and then he accompanied her a couple of times to her house too. Nani was the only family member who hadn’t given her blessing right away. Not that they were ever engaged, but considering how open they were about their relationship and especially how excited her family in Lahore had been, Nani’s reservations always made him nervous. Maybe that was the point. Unlike the rest of her family, she wasn’t easily pleased with the fact that their daughter had landed a rich, successful man from a respectful family. She took one look at Akbar from her hospital bed that first night and seemed to make up her mind about him.
Today he can’t look her in the eye, so he fixates on a white rose on her otherwise all black attire, as he waits for her to grab his hand too. She doesn’t. Instead, she stares blankly at the glitching television screen and wails, “My little girl. My sweet angel. How could He do this? I’ll never understand.”
From his peripheral, Akbar spots Bhaiya’s wife, Saleha, emerging from basement holding a stack of the Quran’s siparas. Her baby bump is beginning to show a lot more, especially in this blue kameez that looks rather old but was probably one of the few funeral-appropriate outfits she can still fit into. She places the siparas on a table by the entrance next to the rosaries and a burning incense stick. Her three-year-old daughter trails aimlessly behind her, holding onto one end of her mother’s dupatta while studying the circus unfolding in her home. More people begin to trickle in, hugging Saleha Bhabi as they enter and then pausing to stare at Akbar comforting Farwa’s Nani. The spectacle they’re all really here for.
“We should’ve been in an Imam Bargah,” Nani mumbles through her tissue as she blows her nose to make space for more tears and more snot. “What is the point of everyone coming here?”
Akbar catches his breath in his throat, blocking any words that would’ve come out. Saleha Bhabi speaks up for him, her gentle voice commanding the entire room in case anyone else is wondering this too, “We didn’t want her family to land in an Imam Bargah. We can do the namaaz-e-janaaza here too; Zain has asked an Imam to be here before Maghrib.”
As the ladies begin to discuss the pros and cons of this decision amongst themselves, Akbar escapes out to the garden that is now cluttered with confused faces as they shake each other’s hands. The second they see Akbar, they begin to swarm around him, grabbing him into hugs and patting his back from behind.
“So sorry for your loss.”
“May God bless her soul.”
“God, what a horrible thing to witness!”
“They better find those motherfuckers.”
“And even if they don’t, son, don’t worry because God will make sure they repent.”
Finally he’s pulled into a direction he’s not planning on running from. His best friend, Mustafa, grabs his arm and pulls him outside the gate towards his car that’s parked under a tree rumored to have been planted by Akbar’s great-grandfather. As the two walk towards the car, he can already make out the familiar faces sitting inside: Anum his oldest friend and a family friend, Farhan the trio that completes his and Mustafa’s friendship, and his girlfriend, Laila. Farwa’s best friend.
“Man, I don’t know,” Akbar starts to say but Mustafa pulls him harder. They both settle in the front seats of the car, for which he is grateful because that means he doesn’t have to turn around to face anyone. The radio is blaring some unfortunate remix of a vaguely familiar song that Mustafa turns down as they settle into their seats. White noise is comforting after all.
The second Akbar sits down he feels familiar hands grab his shoulders from behind as his friends rub them in silence. They know no words need to be said. He’s pretty sure they wouldn’t know what to say anyway. It takes him a minute to realize that there’s one pair of hands missing. Looking into the rearview mirror as Mustafa passes him a flask and a joint, he makes eye contact with Laila. Her large eyes that are usually piercing, are hidden behind shock, grief, and thick glasses she never wears in public. Devoid of make-up, she looks younger today despite the matronly dupatta on her head that keeps slipping off her shoulders no matter how many times she fidgets with it. As they make eye contact, Akbar asks, “You okay Laila?”
She scoffs and stays silent. Sitting in the middle, Farhan has his arm around her, but she won’t lean on him. On the radio in the back, the RJ muffles a lame joke about the male gaze, that wouldn’t hold a candle to the look she’s giving him right now. She maintains eye contact so intense that it makes Akbar rethink his evaluation of her eyes not being as piercing today.
“How are you, Akbar?” she asks, her tone eerily leveled despite her trembling shoulders and leaking face.
He sheepishly smiles a humorless smile and nods at her, “Yeah, guess it was a fucking stupid question, sorry.” Throwing his head back to take a swig, he passes the flask directly to her. She simply shakes her head and says dryly, “And that’s another one.”
Farhan grabs the flask and kisses her temple as Anum studies Akbar. He catches her from the corner of his eye and turns his full attention to her, which she returns with a genuine, sympathetic smile. A love song begins to play and Mustafa quickly changes the station to listen to two women argue about something that pales in significance right now.
“I know you don’t want to talk about it,” Laila chimes in again from the back, “but you have to know why I’m asking. I… I need to know about the mugging.”
“Baby, you sure?” Farhan whispers. “I don’t know if now is the time and place...”
“Her funeral isn’t the time or place to find out how my best fucking friend just died?” Laila snapped, her voice rising with every word and slapping each of them across the face.
“No, you’re right,” Akbar says before anyone else can protect him again. “I just don’t know what to tell you, it happened so fast…”
Everyone stays silent, staring at him with bugging eyes. He shifts against the leather, the sweat sticking to his fresh kameez as the seat squeaks in pain under his weight.
“For fucks’ sake, you have no idea how bad you make me feel about myself sometimes Farwa,” he remembers mumbling at her earlier this morning. “Do you think it’s easy for me to hear that they want to send you to Australia for a year? How do you want me to react?”
“I want you to be happy for me!” she had pressed back, just as the cigarettes finally made their way to his window. Akbar grabbed them but didn’t start the car. “I know this is a lot for us to digest as a couple, but can we just celebrate my promotion for a second before we jump into making it about us?”
“Oh so I’m making it about myself now too, nice,” he said, shoving a cigarette into his mouth as she grabbed her head and groaned. “It’s not like we had planned a life together, its not like we were going to get engaged this year, its not like I can have any feelings about you bailing on that now, right?”
“Are you serious? Who said I'm bailing? It’s a year and then I'm back again! I’ve been grinding at this job, can’t you see what a dream this opportunity is?”
“I thought the dream was us!” Akbar shouted back, slamming his open palm against the steering wheel.
Probably don’t need to tell them the details of their fight.
“I don’t even know man,” Akbar tries with Laila again. “I was dropping her home in the morning today. She slept over last night after Rohail’s engagement thing. We parked in this random gully so I could grab more fucking cigarettes and when I, like… like I was pulling my wallet out and still sitting. In the car. And then this guy. This guy smacked his gun on her window, kind of like, knocking with it?” He finds himself numbly mimicking the actions as the story goes on. “She screamed and I was trying to stay calm so I rolled my window a little bit, hoping they’ll come on my side, but they didn’t.”
“He, the same guy. Anyway, he kept saying put this window down and I said man, look just come here. Come here, we’ll talk. What do you want, you know? And he was getting pissed and he said if you don’t open the door and give up the girl, I’ll kill you both.”
“Wait he wanted her?” Farhan mumbles out of horror.
“He- like he escalated to that point outta nowhere, yeah, it was fucked up, and obviously she was freaking out so she’s like just drive off, just drive off. And I was just reaching near the cupholder but I think he thought I’m about to pull the gear and suddenly drive off, so he-”
There’s a pause. In the silence, Akbar can now tell that the women on the radio are aggressively discussing the importance of Aurat March. Mustafa changes the station again.
“He shot her.” Laila completes it through a tight voice.
“Yeah,” Akbar replies, his head falling with the word, so his bearded chin is practically touching his chest. He doesn’t realize it until Mustafa reaches out to pat his knee, but he’s crying again.
“Then?” Laila chimes in again.
Looking up confused, Anum asks for him, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what did you do? Where did the guy go? Didn’t anyone else see? Do we have any chance of catching him even? You saw his face right? Is there an investigation? I mean he murdered her, how can we just leave it at-”
“I got to go inside,” Akbar says as he watches more people walk into his gate. A swamp of black and grey and white heads all bowed in the presence of death, only looking up to study the welcoming party of armed guards. Before his friends can object, he scoots out of the airconditioned car and joins the crowd. It’s easier to face awkward condolences than having to relive the story of what happened.
As he enters the gate, he sees Bhaiya standing at the entrance greeting everyone and thanking them for coming, accepting their blessings whenever they were scarcely shared. But Akbar also notices how as soon as they walk past his brother, the hushed conversations amongst each other continue. What are they even talking about? Funerals are supposed to be silent.
He stands next to his brother, both of them resembling two wide, six-foot pillars standing tall, carrying the family name. The garden is now filled with men – some grabbing rosaries and siparas, some making conversation, some sitting silently, one of them has dosed off already. Through the window, he can see that his mother has taken a seat next to Farwa’s grandmother as they both rock gently back and forth to the beat of their prayers.
“Akbar.” Bhaiya says, nudging him gently and pulling his attention back to the gate as a taxi pulls up.
Her father steps out first. He is dressed in a Polo t-shirt with the company logo and khaki pants – the picture of a man who started this regular Monday by intending to go to his small car-showroom before he received ‘the phone call’. He holds the door open for Farwa’s mother who steps out from the back, looking even smaller than Akbar remembered. Her grey hair has been pulled into a tight bun that exposes her face even more at a time that Akbar is trying to avoid it entirely. Despite the tear-stained cheeks and thirty more years of wrinkles, she looks exactly like Farwa. Her younger brother steps out from the other side too. Akbar thought he was still at college these days. How is he here?
Bhaiya walks over to them as her brother, Raza, pays the taxi driver and grabs their carry-on from the trunk. Farwa’s father shakes his hand but continues to stare at Akbar over his shoulder.
“Salaam Uncle, Aunty,” Akbar says, shaking Uncle’s hand and then leaning in to hug Aunty before she steps back. He waits for an explanation given with a polite, abashed smile as if to make a lame excuse but instead she says in a voice colder than he’d ever heard it before, “I just want to see her.”
“Aunty,” Akbar tries again as he attempts to focus on her but it’s hard to focus on anything when tears begin to blur one’s vision entirely. “She’s coming… She-”
“I’ve spoken to the facility,” Bhaiya speaks up. “They’re on their way with her. The Imam is sitting inside too. Please, come inside and have a glass of water or something.”
“What’s all the security for?” her father asks, subtly twirling his index finger to gesture at the armed guards.
“We just wanted to make sure that the evening goes smoothly, and we’re prepared for anything,” Bhaiya says matter-of-factly. He maintains eye contact with her father for another minute – or eternity – and then repeats his suggestion about having a glass of water. Bhaiya spreads his right arm out to guide them towards the gate like someone directing a lost airplane, and the rest of them follow suit, grateful for some kind of direction.
Akbar remembers Abba’s funeral. Everyone had grabbed him and hugged him, rocking him back and forth to a lullaby of grief and love. And he had needed that. He had needed to be held back then and he needs to be held today. And sure enough, people are hugging him today and offering their condolences. But do they think he doesn’t notice the way their head tilts when they ask how he’s doing? Do they really believe that he doesn’t see them squint their eyes as they study his responses? Can they not tell that he knows he’s being watched?
“You okay?” Bhaiya asks, slipping off his glasses to wipe them clean with the edge of his starched kameez.
“Yeah,” Akbar replies, not meaning to let his voice crack. Hearing his brokenness out loud, he turns to his older brother suddenly feeling like he was five years old again, and says through quivering lips, “I think I just need to be held.”
Bhaiya stays silent as he slips his glasses back on, his jaw subtly grinding his teeth as he considers his brother’s request. “I am holding you, Akbar. What else do you think we’re doing?”
Akbar watches his brother walk off, his posture dignified and his head held high. His white kurta glitters under the sun, much like Farwa’s white blouse this morning. Before it was stained. Before it was cut off her body. Before it was discarded in a small plastic bag that he was handed at the hospital by a nurse while a doctor spewed his rehearsed condolences.
“I’m glad you were with her,” a hoarse voice breaks his train of thought as Akbar looks over and sees Raza sauntering his way over. “Before she died.”
Akbar nods, unsure of what to say to this kid.
“Because I mean if she was coming home alone,” he continues, slipping a cigarette in his mouth. His eyes look glassy, sunken and unslept, his clothes wrinkled, and his hair unwashed, but his voice remains composed. “She would’ve been so much more terrified. And a bigger target. Don’t you think so?”
Akbar nods again. Then shrugs. Then shakes his head, grateful to see Mustafa walking over to them too. The three of them stand with their shoulders aligned as Raza smokes his cigarette, watching the plethora of confused mourners in the garden.
“I do,” he continues. “She may have even met the same fate bu- I don’t know… I guess I’m just grateful that she wasn’t alone.”
“I don’t know about same fate dude,” Mustafa says, his voice slightly slurring. For fuck’s sake. “They may have really gotten her you know?”
“Gotten her?” Raza asks as his voice drops dangerously low, turning his neck completely to face Akbar’s clearly inebriated friend.
“Yeah man, those guys- when they were yelling at Akbar that they want the girl… I mean that’s a different ‘fate’, you know?”
“Wait what the fuck?” Raza throws the bud to the ground even though there are easily another five puffs left in that. “What the fuck do you mean? Was it a mugging, or attempted kidnapping?”
Looking visibly confused and alarmed, Mustafa begins to stammer, and Akbar continues to look directly ahead, hoping the ground will open up and swallow him whole. Luckily before it could, Gul Muhammad announces from the gate, “Bhai Sahaab, the body is here.”
Akbar can practically see the word ‘body’ float out of Gul Muhammad’s mustached lips and be carried through the garden, through the main doors of the house, and into the lounge. Before Akbar could decide on a reaction himself, he can see the women inside beginning to stir, the men starting to stand up, and her father joining his son near the gate again. She’s here.
On their first anniversary, Akbar had told her he wants to marry her. She had laughed at him, teasing him for being so corny and extra, and he had ducked his head as damage control for his flushed face, because he had meant it. They were both lying naked in his bed, her shaven legs stretched across his torso as he massaged her ankles while she lay flat on her back, her body decorated in goosebumps from the air conditioner. She said when she was ready to get married, the world better watch out. She told him it would be a show-stopping event, a huge, extravagant affair – one that no one in her small family had ever had or seen before. Where she would be dressed to the nines like an otherworldly goddess, commanding all the attention as she enters on a jhoola, resting on her brother’s and friends’ shoulders.
It may not have been the same vision, but for what its worth, Akbar can't help but think how she’s certainly attained a version of that dream today. A metal bed is unloaded from the back of the van as all eyes, inside the house and outside, stare in silence. The bed is gently placed on Raza’s, her father’s, Bhaiya’s, and Akbar’s shoulders before others join in to help. They swim their way indoors through the silent crowd where all the women are sitting. As soon as they enter, Farwa’s mother falls by her own mother’s feet, shoving her dupatta into her mouth to muffle a shriek that still manages to tear through Akbar’s soul. From the corner of his eye, he sees Saleha Bhabi asking everyone who’s not related to her or friends with her to clear the room out of respect for her loved ones. She doesn’t ask Akbar to leave but he catches the look that washes over her eyes as she contemplates it.
She’s lying right here. Her father’s trembling fingers daintily reveal her face from the folds of the white cloth she’s wrapped up in. Her pierced eyebrow appears first, except they’ve taken out the piercing she had fought to get in tenth grade. The streaks of mascara on her cheeks from crying in the car earlier this morning have been wiped clean. Her lips that were twitching in horror and fear are now spread against her skin in a soft smile. The temple against which he had held his gun to get her to shut the fuck up is covered in a bandage.
Her family falls over her and Akbar allows his eyes to slide away as sweat begins to build a pool in the dent above his lips. The chai he had a little while ago is performing summersaults in his stomach as he tries to distract himself by looking at the muted television screen. A screen that depicted another family mourning their own loss. Another life lost due to an average love story.
Feeling the chai rush up to his throat and ready to spew out of his mouth, Akbar tries to breathe through the rest of this nightmarish reality, refusing to accept this as the beginning of the worst.
Almost as if he can hear his younger brother, Bhaiya walks over to Akbar at the back of the room, hands him a glass of cold water and says, “Keep it together. It’s almost over.” As Akbar takes the water and the hint, his brother finally switches the television off.