Aasha gave me a cultured smile as she presented me the sparkling white china cup with aromatic tea in it. But my joke was worth a laugh, I wondered a little annoyed. What happened to the Aasha that burst into a robust laughter at the silliest of jokes? I observed her closely as she resumed her work in the kitchen with practiced expertise. She was dressed as if she were about to go out; a skinny tight blue jeans with a fancy black cotton top that did not seem comfortable at all. She even had a little makeup on. Her demeanour was calm and composed and her face, expressionless. She had also lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw her. I recalled her telling me that she was joining a gym over a phone call.
This was not the Aasha I grew up with. The girl whose entry was announced by elaborate chiming Indian accessories and a pleasant laughter was not here anymore. Even though I was meeting her after almost two years, one does not expect to meet a completely different person altogether. What happened to the colourful salwars and flashy dupattas? What happened to the impatience of her character and multitudes of fleeting expressions that adorned her face twenty-four seven? What happened to my elder sister in all these years? Even though I was wondering about all these questions, I knew the answer to them pretty clearly.
As I watched the defiant school feminist make lunch for me, I was forced to recall all the articles she used to write for an online feminist portal. Some of their titles swam in my mind as I heard the rattle of utensils like a music I didn’t like.
‘Being a Woman Does Not Mean Compromise’.
‘It’s a Man’s World But Women Run It”
“Importance of Sisterhood”
“Married, Feminist and Housewife”
I know those words would be accusing her of hypocrisy now and burning a hole in her soul.
The thought made me nauseous and I decided to give up on finishing the tea. The silence between me and Aasha was unsettling for me because I wasn’t familiar with such a scenario. We used to have hours dedicated to pointless banter and numerous stories about each other’s life. There was judging and giggling and even fights but never silence.
Some decisions in a person’s life really take a toll on them. There are some decisions that you want to take and some that you feel like you have to take and it’s always the latter that render you speechless, sometimes for your entire life. The decisions that take your life away from your values are the hardest to make and they leave a lasting impact. They have the power to crush your previous sense of identity and then, you are left in the dark, desperately trying to form a new one. More than often, this new shattered identity that you form is a culmination of bits and pieces borrowed from others.
After that one taxing day in July of 2012, Aasha forgot who she was. On that day she was suddenly thrown into a Robert Frost poem and was facing a forked road in the journey of her previously proud and happy life. She had to choose one out of the two and I witnessed her breaking down in front of those long-stretching and seemingly dark roads; her beliefs faltering, her convictions losing strength and her confidence slowly disappearing in the musty monsoon air, making it heavier on our chests.
Kabir had left his phone at home before going on one of his many Europe tours. Kabir was Aasha’s high school sweetheart. She had never known romantic love outside of Kabir and she never even wanted to. He was the perfect guy in her mind. Respectful, ambitious, caring and even a male feminist. At the delicate age of eighteen, Aasha was drooling over baby socks in kids’ clothing stores and imagining her dream house with Kabir.
She always yearned for a happy family life since we never had one. An absentee mother and a very busy father didn’t account for a family as such. So, we found solace and family in each other. During truth and dares, whenever she was asked what her deepest desire was, she always said she wanted a blissful and coherent family life where everyone is there for each other. I found my mother figure in her and she was trying to be the mother figure she never had.
She didn’t want to become a female President or a CEO. She wanted to become a nurturer. I knew it from a very young age. The amount of blossomed sunflowers in our balcony garden were a proof of her motherly instincts. I was a proof of her motherly instincts. She was determined to prove that a housemaker could also be a feminist. She just wanted to build a home and be the strongest and most supportive pillar of it. But now, only the pillar was visible with all its cemented strength and Aasha was nowhere to be found.
When she saw the texts and pictures of Nadia in Kabir’s phone that day, her world and beliefs crumbled like stale bread and I could do nothing but watch it disintegrate. It was just before I was about to leave for Canada.
Kabir was cheating on her. As she investigated more after her initial shock, she found out that he had been cheating on her for solid eight years now. His business trips were trips to the other woman as well and his love was divided in two.
So there she was with the forked road glaring down condescendingly on her like a strict professor with folded arms, waiting for her to give the correct answer. But she didn’t know what the correct answer was.
I expected my sister to choreograph a big confrontation when Kabir returned to pick up his phone but she wordlessly gave it back to him and wished him a happy journey. I also assumed that she would leave everything behind and accompany me to Canada to start a fresh life. She did ponder upon that possibility for a long time before choosing the road she did. But unlike the defiant rebel she previously was, she chose to stay.
Wasn’t she the one who stood by her best friend when she was procuring a divorce on the basis of her husband’s romantic affairs? I remember Aasha stringently counselling Heena and giving her numerous reasons to not stay in a relationship that had no trust or equal emotional investment. So what was different now?
You might wonder why would a girl who never compromised on her ideals and was ridiculously proud of them, not leave in such a circumstance. Wasn’t cheating, in a marriage or any relationship, in the list of ‘not acceptable 101’? Wasn’t staying with the defaulter a form of submission and unhealthy compromise?
I never had the courage to ask the reason for her staying. I never had the courage to bring this topic up again. Being the only one who knew about this limited my scope of verbal deliberation. But in my head I thought of the numerous reasons that might have made Aasha stay.
Maybe it was for her little six year old boy. Maybe she stayed to give Abeer a happy and coherent family. The Stockholm Syndrome of Motherhood often forced you to make unreasonable sacrifices.
Maybe she stayed because she married too young and didn’t have the financial stability to start a fresh life. How would she support a kid and herself when she was financially dependent on Kabir? She wouldn’t be able to give Abeer the lifestyle he was accustomed to already.
Or maybe it was just fear. Fear of starting over and starting alone. Fear of not having a complete family again. Dread of probably not finding love again. Loneliness can be really scary when you’ve grown up with it. It makes it very hard to leave behind the person who filled in the gap. Probably she even had the fear of society, which was unlikely though. But you can never tell how strong someone’s abstract convictions are until it is time to incorporate them in their intimately private lives.
Whatever the reason might be, she chose the road that led back to Kabir and the enormous empty house that felt emptier since July twenty third. She chose the road of denial; carrying on with her life as it was.
She would never tell Abeer of his father’s liaisons, she once told me. She did not want to taint the superhuman respect Abeer had for his father. Moreover, she did not want to indoctrinate the thought that cheating was acceptable in Abeer’s innocent mind even if she was accepting it.
She never even told Kabir that she knew about Nadia. Everything she was going through was inside her body that had practiced composure to perfection. But I could see her insecurities manifesting in her appearance. She was trying to turn into Nadia now. She had discarded the Indian clothes she adored and her wardrobe was now full of jeans and dresses and tank tops. She had developed a vehement dislike for her own chubbiness which once was “enviable curves” for her. She had given away her loud laughter and garrulous character for proficient sophistication. Probably she had the banal hope of getting Kabir back to herself if she could imitate Nadia. This made me sad. My sister thought that her supposed shortcomings were the reason behind Kabir’s philandering and that shattered me to no extent.
As she came back in hall to sit beside me and ask about my work I heard the message tone of Kabir’s phone as it lighted on the table next to us. We both peered to see Nadia’s name flash on the screen. Aasha’s eyes became blue for a nanosecond before they went back to their trained calmness. She pressed the power button to switch off the lighted phone and turned towards me to resume the meaningless conversation.
My heart sank to my stomach as I searched for my sister while she indulged in small talk.