I glanced at the clock. It was almost 2pm. I’d told him to be here half an hour ago. I had planned the times to coincide with Mamma and Nannie’s trip to the Shopping Centre. They had much to do with the wedding coming up this weekend. Zubeida and Imtiaaz were at Madrasa and would return with Babba at five.
I paced up and down my room, stepping onto the small balcony, peeking down the road to catch a glimpse of him. Still nothing. I perched on the bed, placed a hand over my heart, trying to calm the erratic drumming.
This last month had been the worst time of my life! And it wasn’t as if I hadn’t known it was coming! Every muslim girl knows her wedding day is bound to happen. And it should be the happiest day ever.
Yet, it snuck up on me. I’d finished school last year and considered studying further to become a lawyer. Ruhaan enrolled at Capricorn College in Polokwane, fulfilling his dream of becoming a sound engineer. How I savoured his words, his experience, his freedom.
I thought back to when we first met in Nirvana primary school. A few kids were bullying me out of my tuck shop money. Ruhaan watched the tussle and came to my rescue. Taller than them and sturdy, he confiscated the money, returning it to me with a shy smile. We became inseparable. A close friendship that meant everything to me.
The fact that Ruhaan and I belonged to different religions didn’t bother me. We were best friends, and that was all that mattered. Spending time together outside of school was always tricky, considering muslim girls weren’t allowed out of the house without their family hovering close by. We were innovative though, finding ways to get around this. Ruhaan had become quite the pro at scaling the wall at the back of our double-story house, and with the help of foot-holds we’d created, gained access to my room from the east balcony. When the coast was clear, we’d watch movies, chat or just chill. We had a few close shaves at times, but somehow managed to keep our hangouts a secret from my family.
I didn’t particularly hold a close alliance to my culture, even though it was ingrained in me from a young age. All I was certain of was that I needed to follow the path my parents bestowed upon me. So a day after my 18th birthday, I was summoned to the visitors’ lounge. Babba was wearing his customary thobe over loose trousers and sandals, lighting a cigarette. Mamma had just finished praying, removing her hijab to settle down to a cup of masala tea.
“Nasreen, you’ve reached the age of maturity,” said Babba, the words rolling out of his bearded mouth. “And since you’re the eldest, we have great news to share,” he continued, pulling on the cigarette. “We’ve found a suitor from an affluent family who wishes to marry you, uniting our families in the sanctity of marriage.”
I was speechless. This couldn’t be happening! Not now, not when I had dreams of studying further. Becoming someone. I ran to Mamma, hoping she’d save me from this fate. She welcomed me, running her hand over my arm, planting a soft kiss on my forehead.
“Don’t worry my child, he’s a good man. Brought up well like you. You’ll fit into their family.”
“Only thing is,” said Babba, killing the cigarette, “they stay in Port Elizabeth. We won’t see you much. But I’m sure Faizel will bring you to visit.”
Tears streamed down my cheeks. I wanted to scream. To shout. A thousand emotions aching to explode, yet none finding their way out. How could they ruin my life like this? In such a callous manner? Not want me to be happy?
I cried for two solid days, refusing to leave my room, to eat or shower. My parents allowed this, checking on me, assuring all would be okay. Zubeida and Imtiaaz, witnessing my sadness, took on my chores, tidied my room and played my favourite movies.
Faizel and his family arrived over the weekend amidst fanfare in our household. Mamma had outdone herself, cooking pots of layered mutton, basmati rice and melting potatoes. Nannie fried dozens of koeksisters, smothered in syrup, rolled in coconut, ready for tea-time treats.
Faizel, I was told, was 25. He was short, stocky, with beady eyes that ran over every inch of my covered body. His father had similar features, while his mother was willowy, with the kindest green eyes. As we sat down to tea, Faizel and I were motioned to take the centre settee. I huddled up to the far end. The distance between us cold and uninviting. The conversation ran around Faizel taking over his father’s fabric business. They were the largest stockist in the Eastern Cape and were thriving. They lived in a mansion in Walmer, close to the coast. Faizel and I would be fortunate to have our own wing after we married.
Mamma and Babba escorted Faizel’s family to the dining room for supper, leaving Faizel and I alone. He turned to me, giving me a slight smile.
“I’m glad to finally meet you, Nasreen. I’ve heard good things about you.” He patted my hand. I flinched as if scorched by fire.
“Look,” he countered. “I know this can’t be easy for you. But I’m sure it will work out.”
“How can you be so certain?” I questioned. “You don’t know me. How can you assume we’ll love each other and be happy?”
“I hope you’re not one of those naïve girls who fantasises about romantic marriages,” said Faizel, minus the smile, in a tone that froze my insides. “In our culture, that doesn’t exist. You learn to love the man you marry, produce children, and contribute to the fortune of our family. That is all the happiness one needs.”
We sat in silence for the next few minutes. Tears veiled my eyes. My body trembled. Every muscle was fired up, wanting to run, escape my fate, this family, the life I was destined for.
Mamma called us to join them for supper. I was relieved when I wasn’t forced to sit beside Faizel, instead grabbing a chair close to Zubeida.
“Nasreen, are you okay?” asked Zubeida, searching my eyes for an answer.
I didn’t speak, yet my sister of 13, understood. She filled my plate with food. Nudged me to eat, and distracted me with lame jokes. Faizel was kept busy with Babba expressing interest in his business dealings. The table was abuzz with conversation, cheer and pretence.
It was agreed that the wedding would take place in a month. Sufficient time to plan an elaborate gathering of 500 family members. My family would fork out the cost of it all. An expense they could ill afford, but would take on as I was the first to marry, uniting the families in prosperity. I was escorted on numerous trips to the dressmaker to decide on a gown I wanted to wear. Since I showed no interest, Mamma arranged it all. She selected the style, bridesmaid dresses, every tiny detail, ensuring my wedding would be bragged about for months to come.
I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I would be leaving Nirvana, the only place I’d lived, leaving my family and most of all, Ruhaan. I couldn’t imagine not seeing him, not being with him. I couldn’t believe I was starting the next chapter without him. I hadn’t seen him since I’d found out about my imminent wedding. I hadn’t taken his messages or calls, not knowing how to break it to him.
Then he pitched up one evening on the balcony, just after I’d turned down the lights to go to sleep. I heard the faint whistle, the one he’d taught me in school, our special calling for each other. I flicked on the bedside lamp, leaped out of bed, rushing to lock the bedroom door to prevent being caught. I opened the balcony door, allowing him in.
Ruhaan entered, lifting his hoody from his head, revealing a mop of black hair, hazel eyes and strong cheekbones. “Naaz,” he demanded, grabbing hold of me, “what’s going on? Why haven’t you answered my calls?” He loosened his grip as soon as he spotted my tears.
“I’m sorry, Ruhaan.” My words a mere whisper. “I didn’t know how to tell you.”
“Just tell me. You know we don’t keep secrets,” he pleaded, dabbing the tears away.
“I’ve been proposed to,” I stammered. “His name is Faizel and he lives in PE. After the wedding, we’ll move there, away from my family … and you.”
He said nothing for what felt like forever. Staring into my eyes, clenching his jaw. Then he folded me in his arms, and I fell apart. The pain seeped to the fore. All the emotions I’d been dealing with alone, erupted. Gently he stroked my hair, held me tight, offering comfort.
We dropped to the floor, sitting with our backs against my bed. I hugged my knees, missing his embrace already.
“I don’t know what to do, Ruhaan. I don’t want to get married. I’m not ready to move away from my family, to leave us.”
“I understand,” he said. “But what choice do you have? You can’t go against your culture, your parents. It’s a battle you won’t win.”
As much as I wanted him to say something different, to offer a glimmer of hope, I knew he was right. There was no way out. No amount of crying or fighting would change my path.
We sat side by side, my head on his shoulder, staring into the night sky. For that moment, I felt safe, loved and at peace. Ruhaan did that for me, helped me see reason, guiding me every step of the way. I didn’t want to imagine how it would be without him. Didn’t want our bond to end.
As we stepped onto the balcony, just before he began his descent, I hugged him, breathed him in. With our faces inches apart, I whispered, “See me every night. I won’t be able to do this without you.”
“Of course,” he said. “I can’t stay away even if I tried.”
I didn’t plan what happened next. I wanted to thank him for coming around, for caring… so I kissed him. As my lips found his, it felt like a natural instinct, yet at the same time, forbidden. Ruhaan at first hesitated, tensed, but didn’t fight it, instead drawing me closer, deepening the kiss. We stood connected, letting it sink in, the magnitude of the barrier we’d broken.
He soon departed with a promise to return the next night.
I hadn’t considered what it would be like to be in a relationship with Ruhaan. Even though we were of Indian descent, a relationship between a muslim and a hindu was frowned upon. Marrying into another culture led to a lifetime of shame and disownment. He was my best friend, and now that I was being forced to let go of him, it was clear that I’d always loved him. Tracing my lips, recalling our kiss, I knew he felt the same way. I sunk into bed dreaming of him, falling into a peaceful sleep.
Each night Ruhaan would appear at the same time. We’d talk about the wedding edging closer, the fuss being made, the stress it was causing. The only thing keeping us sane was the hours spent in my room, cuddling, kissing, developing a desire to stay together.
Yet as much as we tried to fool ourselves that we could get lost in us, the reality was that the wedding festivities were about to begin this evening and would last until the weekend. It meant that we wouldn’t be able to meet again, ever. I needed to see him, to be with him one last time.
Finally. A jean-clad Ruhaan climbed over the balcony. My heart skipped several beats as I ran to him.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” I moaned.
“Sorry Naaz. I got delayed.” I wanted to be angry with him, to have more opportunities to argue, but sadly that couldn’t be, so I forgave him with a tender kiss.
As we untangled, I warned, “We don’t have much time now. It’s going to be difficult to be together after this.”
“I know,” said Ruhaan as if in pain. “I wish I could stop this wedding. Take you away from it all. I won’t be able to carry on without you, Naaz.”
“I feel the same way, sweet Ruhaan,” I stroked his beautiful face, running my eyes over his lips, wanting to get lost in them. “I have one last request.”
“Anything,” he whispered.
“Make love to me.”
Ruhaan froze in disbelief. He raked his fingers through his hair. “C’mon Naaz, don’t mess around. I can’t do that. You’re about to marry another man. I can’t take that from you.”
“Why not?” I threw back. “I love you, not him! I’ve always loved you. Please, Ruhaan,” I pleaded.
Those hazel eyes that I adored softened as he stared into me. “Are you sure?”
I grabbed his hand, leading him to bed. “Yes. A hundred times over.”
We made love into the afternoon, the sun bathing us in its warmth. It didn’t matter that I was promised to another. In that moment, time stood still. We belonged only to each other. Fulfilling an act that felt right, that could never be erased.
After Ruhaan climbed over the balcony for the last time, I waited until he was safely away. I checked the time, it was almost 4pm. I had an hour. I ran into my en-suite bathroom, opened the tap to fill the bath. Heading to the basin, I threw back some pain tablets, washing them down with water. I locked the bathroom door and began undressing. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror. I was glowing.
As the water cloaked me, I flicked open the straight-razor, the one I had taken from Babba’s cabinet in the morning. Holding it unsteadily, I placed it against my left forearm, slicing through the radial artery of my wrist. The pain was blinding, demanding attention. Blood gushed everywhere, spilling into the water, turning into streaks of pink. I did the same to the right arm. I dropped the razor into the water, letting my arms fall in. I was starting to feel light-headed, struggling to focus. I thought of my family, the genuine love I had for them. Finding me this way would hurt them.
“Please forgive me,” I prayed.
I saw a young Ruhaan chasing me around the school field, the sound of laughter surrounding us. The older version schooling me in kissing, adoring my body, confessing his love to me. It was getting harder to stay awake, to hold the images. I stopped fighting, closed my eyes, whispering one last time.
“I love you, Ruhaan.”
© Sumi Singh