‘No, you’ve never met him. He studied at Cambridge and not with me at Lincoln’s Inn but as boys we were very close in Pakistan and we went to the same boarding school. I would like you to meet him.’ Mazhar seemed very happy at the prospect of meeting his old friend. ‘I am meeting him after office and I’ll bring him over for dinner.’
‘What would he like to eat?’
Mazhar made a few suggestions and left for work.
Khadija prepared the dinner well in time; when the bell rang she was in the room putting her son to sleep. When she opened the door she saw a familiar looking man with Mazhar. Although she could not place him immediately she knew for sure she had seen him before. The man too looked as if he had recognized her and fixed her with a penetrating stare. Mazhar introduced the two of them. ‘Khadija, this is my friend Asim. Asim meet my wife, Khadija.’
Khadija welcomed him and made some polite conversation. Asim responded, and though Khadija felt a strange inhibition in him she did not pay any notice to it. ‘Perhaps he is worried about something,’ she thought to herself as she went to the kitchen to start laying dinner.
Mazhar and Asim stayed in the living room chatting. As Khadija set the plates on the table she felt Asim’s gaze on her. She looked up at him and he quickly averted his gaze, turning his attention to Mazhar. Mazhar, busy relating some incident, did not notice anything, but Khadija felt a wave of anxiety run through her. She had undoubtedly seen this man before, but where?
She went back to the kitchen to take something out when like a flash she remembered. ‘Cambridge University…Cambridge…Asim…Oh God!’ she felt the ground slipping away beneath her feet.
She had never imagined ever meeting a former client, let alone how she would react if she did. How would she hide? Was she to lose everything? Was everything going to end? In a flash?
She closed the fridge and going to the kitchen sink splashed cold water on her face. There was no doubt that Asim had recognized her. Or had he? ‘After all, so many years have passed…and I am all covered up in a chador. I looked different then …different style of dressing, short hair, make up…maybe he is just suspicious…not quite sure…perhaps once again Allah had hidden me from others…’
Sick with fear, she went back to the dining room and put the food on the table. She could not make herself look at Asim. Mazhar and Asim came to the table. ‘Come Khadija, let’s start dinner,’ Mazhar called her as she started to leave the room.
‘Why don’t the two of you start? I’m not hungry,’ she forced herself to reply, keeping her voice calm and a smile plastered to her lips.
‘Even so, have a bit,’ Mazhar insisted.
‘No, I am really not hungry. Please start before the food gets cold,’ she quickly slipped into the kitchen before Mazhar could insist again.
‘Khadija is a great cook. She has learnt to cook Pakistani dishes to perfection…’ Khadija could hear Mazhar talking to Asim. She could not hear what Asim said in reply.
‘I’ve never known you to be so formal before, Asim. Since when have you adopted such graces…?’ Mazhar’s voice floated across the dining room to the kitchen. Each word seemed like a blow to her stomach. ‘Has he really recognized me? And will he…will he…’ but no, she could not let her mind wander there.
When the men finished eating, Khadija went in to serve tea. There was no mistaking the coldness and contempt she saw in Asim’s eyes now. There was no room left for doubt. He had recognized her. Having served tea she returned to the kitchen. She was shivering uncontrollably. She wanted to go back and beg Asim to not recognize her; to help her keep her secret; to help her deny the past as she had done so successfully for three years now; to not destroy her home and family; but she could do none of this.
A short while after tea, Mazhar got up to drop Asim to his cousin’s house where he was staying. ‘I’ll be back in half an hour,’ Mazhar told Khadija with a smile as she went to lock up after them.
She locked the door and returned to the living room. She could not control herself any longer. Like a child she burst into tears. She sobbed inconsolably, and then very agitated, she began to pace the room. ‘What can I do so to save my family? What should I say to stop Mazhar from leaving me? Is all this going to end? Will all that I cherish end? Did I build my home on sand that the first wave will sweep it away? What will I do if Mazhar abandons me?’ Restlessly she paced to and fro; then suddenly, she ran to the bathroom. ‘Oh God, hide my faults. Oh God, hide my faults,’ she prayed as she completed her ablutions. She spread out the prayer mat and bowed down in prostration.
‘Oh God, do not let Asim reveal my secret to Mazhar,’ she prayed earnestly, repeating all the supplications she knew. She realized she had been praying for over an hour. Mazhar had still not returned. ‘Asim must have told Mazhar everything,’ she accepted the fact with resignation, ‘but that does not mean that Mazhar will leave me. We have lived together for three years; he loves me; I am his son’s mother; he will never abandon me or our son like this. He can’t destroy his own home. Of course he will be angry; he will scream and rant, but it will pass. He cannot survive without me or our son. Four years he had waited for me; for me he broke all ties with his mother and father, with his brothers and sisters; so how is it possible that he will abandon me for my past life? And then for three years I have been the model wife. I have obeyed his every whim. He is proud of me; he praises me all the time so then how can he leave me?’
‘I will tell him everything. I will tell him how desperate I was; how I had no choice. He will understand. Why will he not understand? He loves me.’ Wiping the tears that were streaming down her cheeks, she was desperately trying to convince herself that nothing would change between her and Mazhar.
‘He has been teaching me to read the Quran. He emphasizes the importance of good deeds, and forgiveness and clemency are good deeds. He who is good cannot be without sympathy. And Mazhar is good…and kind. He can never, never be cruel.’
The hands on the clock moved relentlessly forward, her life too moved on its course. The tick-tocking of the clock marked the passage of time; and with every second her life seemed to slip lower. The hands on the clock had their circuit to complete and her life too seemed to have its own circuit: from the depths of despair to light and back again and again. The clock now showed 12 midnight—one second, two seconds, three seconds, the hands now moved past midnight marking the early hours of the morning.
Khadija picked up the Holy Quran. She could stop the relentless passing of time, but God could prevent her life from another spiral of destruction. And it was to Him she turned. She prayed to God to keep her from devastation. But was she the one falling? Or was it someone else? When one loses is it really a loss? Or is it that someone else has been found wanting?
‘You have been very quiet tonight, Asim,’ Mazhar observed in the car.
‘No, not really…no such thing,’ Asim replied with a smile.
‘Did you like Khadija?’
Instead of replying, Asim shot Mazhar a quick look and responded with a question of his own, ‘What was her name before she changed it to Khadija?’
‘Catherine Brown. I used to call her Cathy.’
‘Where is her family?’
‘Khadija’s? She has no family so to speak. She was an only child. Her father was a Pakistani. He abandoned the family before Khadija was born and her mother is dead. She was living on her own when we met.’
‘What did she do before your marriage?’ Asim continued the interrogation.
Mazhar was perplexed by Asim’s questions. His friend was not as a rule overly inquisitive, and to question him thus about Khadija…
‘She worked in a shop as a sales girl,’ Mazhar replied shortly.
‘Sales girl? Is that all?’ Asim smirked.
Mazhar looked at Asim in annoyance. ‘What do you mean? Why the insinuation?’
‘Mazhar, you should not have married Cathy.’ Asim said at last.
Mazhar did not appreciate his friend’s remark. ‘Khadija…not Cathy. And why should I not have married her?’ Mazhar was angry now.
‘No, not Khadija…Cathy. The sort of woman she is, she cannot become a Muslim just by reciting the kalima.’
‘Mind your language, Asim,’ Mazhar roared. ‘I will not have you speak disparagingly of my wife. I did not allow my parents to bad mouth her and you have no right whatsoever to speak ill of her.’
‘Anyone can say anything about the woman you call your wife; it makes no difference.’
Mazhar looked at Asim in surprise. ‘Do you know Khadija?’
‘Why don’t you pull over somewhere and park the car and we can talk.’
‘We can talk now.’
‘No, I would prefer for you to park first,’ Asim insisted.
Without protesting Mazhar found a spot and parked the car. Asim could sense Mazhar was on edge but before he could say anything, Mazhar spoke, ‘Look Asim, if you want to tell me about some affair Khadija may have had before we got married, then don’t. I have married her knowing of all this. In this society a lot of things that may not be acceptable to us are a part of their lives. Our traditions and our culture are different from theirs, and often may be even contradictory. I am well aware of these differences and considered them carefully. I realized that there would be episodes in Khadija’s life which would not be approved of in our society and would be against the principles of our religion. But I made a decision not to probe. I judge Khadija from the time we married. And in these three years she had proved to be an exemplary wife and mother and she is making every effort to be a good Muslim too.
‘In any case, Khadija has never made a pretense about piety before marriage. She told me she had a couple of boyfriends before she met me and that she used to drink. I accepted this because as I said all this is part of the Western culture..’
‘Is that all Cathy has told you about her past? Nothing else?’ Asim kept his voice noncommittal.
‘That is all she has told me. I don’t think there is anything else.’
‘You think wrong. I want you to listen to me carefully. The woman you know as Catherine Brown I knew as the Dusky Damsel.’
Mazhar flared up again. ‘Whatever name you may know her by, I have told you I am not interested in her past or in her previous boyfriends.’
‘There is a marked difference between a boyfriend and a client.’
Mazhar felt his blood run cold. He felt the inside of the car freeze. ‘Perhaps I heard wrong. Perhaps Asim is using the wrong word,’ he thought frantically as he stared at his friend with unblinking eyes.
‘She is a call girl.’ Asim emphasized the word.
‘You are talking rubbish!’ Mazhar retorted.
Without replying, Asim took out his wallet and began to rummage through it. Pulling out a tiny address book he looked for a name and in a loud voice read out a phone number. Mazhar could feel ants crawling on his flesh.
‘This is Cathy’s number in Leicester,’ Asim said.
Mazhar gripped the steering wheel hard to steady the tremble in his hands. How did Asim know Khadija had lived in Leicester?
‘Three years ago a friend had given me this number,’ Asim continued in a somber tone. ‘I had spent a night with her.’ Asim now read out the address of Cathy’s flat in Leicester. Mazhar felt the darkness of the night outside penetrate his very being.
‘A number of my friends in Cambridge were among her regular clients. That is how I got to know of her; through a friend. I did not know her as Catherine Brown; to us she was known as the Dusky Damsel. The relationship we had with her required no other name.’
‘I recognized her the minute I entered your house, and I think she recognized me too. That is the reason why I was so quiet during dinner, and also why Catherine avoided dinner. I was shocked when you introduced her as your wife; I did not know whether you had knowingly married a prostitute or whether you had done it in ignorance. Now I am convinced you were unaware of Cathy’s past.’
Mazhar stared out of the car; the drifting snow falling on the windscreen had all but obliterated the world outside. He felt paralyzed, unable to move.
‘East or West, no one knowingly marries a prostitute,’ Asim sermonized. ‘I don’t know how exemplar a wife she is; it is possible that she now leads a life of complete purity. But for how long? For two years? For five years? Or ten? In any case Western women are not known to remain faithful, and then a prostitute? How long will you keep a watch on her? How many people will you prevent her from meeting? Can you have faith in a woman who married you under false pretences? Can you trust her not to betray your confidence? And your future generations…’ Asim’s voice trailed off.
Sometimes that which is not said is crueler than what is spoken, and Mazhar swallowed all the bitterness of the unsaid word.
‘Sons are a different matter,’ Asim began again after a long silence, ‘but daughters? Have you ever thought what will happen if your wife gives birth to a daughter? What will a woman who has spent the better half of her life as a call girl teach her daughter? If generations are defined by bloodlines, then what sort of an inheritance are you passing on? This woman will defile your family line for generations to come. So far you only have a son and he is an infant; so no harm will have been done if you part from her at this stage. Your fate is still in your hands. Once time has elapsed, you will find it increasingly difficult,.’
Asim poured bile into Mazhar’s ears. Visibility through the windshield was now nil. Snow had covered it completely hiding the world from the gaze of viewers—it suited Mazhar’s mood perfectly. He had no wish to see the world anymore. Asim grasped Mazhar’s hand; the hand that was gripping the steering wheel. ‘Are you all right?’
Mazhar looked at him with vacant eyes.
‘Think carefully about what I have said, Mazhar. I am not asking you to make a decision because of what I say. Whatever you choose to do, the decision will have to be yours alone. I am only telling you what I know because you are a friend and as a friend I cannot let you remain in the dark. If not today then tomorrow or some other day Cathy’s secret will be unveiled. Then you will blame me for not telling you this before. And the later it is the more difficult it will be for you to separate from Cathy.’
Without a word, Mazhar started the car. Asim moved his hand away from Mazhar’s. He could understand what must been going through his friend’s heart and mind. There was total silence in the car. There was nothing more to be said. In silence Mazhar drove up to Asim’s cousin’s house. The two of them sat quietly in the car in the dark. Then putting his hand on Mazhar’s shoulder, Asim began, ‘If what I have said…’
‘No more,’ Mazhar interrupted him. ‘Don’t say anything. Let me think. You go now.’
Asim left and Mazhar drove away.
The night was bleak and a long road lay ahead…was there ever such darkness? He saw the last three years of his life crumbling away like so much sand. Who was she: Khadija Noor or Catherine Brown…or the Dusky Damsel? Was he such a fool that he did not recognize a prostitute for what she was? Or was he simply so unlucky that he got a call girl for a wife?
He pulled to the side of the road and taking out his cigarette pack began to smoke furiously, drawing the smoke deep in his lungs. There was very little traffic on the road now because of the lateness of the hour. Shock. Anger. Grief. Disbelief. He tried to analyze his feelings. He recalled their conversation in the park, ‘My name? My name is Catherine Brown. You can call me Cathy.’
‘I trusted that woman. I gave her all. And what has she given me in return? She has thrown dust in my eyes. In three years she has not told me the truth about herself.’ The shock of the discovery was passing now, being replaced by a cold rage.
He was not a chain smoker, but that night he had no idea how many cigarettes he smoked in the car. He ran out of cigarettes. There was no traffic on the road now. The windscreen was again covered with snow. The car was dense with smoke and the side windows were fogged over. He did not attempt to see the time. There are times in a man’s life when the world is so murky that one feels trapped in a Bermuda Triangle-type situation. And there is no way out.