The snow turned to ice rain. The roads were slippery. It was cloudy and dark. The car’s headlight illuminated only a small portion of the road ahead. The rest remained hidden in thick, wet darkness. Zee could hear the crystalised rain falling on the road and then crushing under the tyres.
And suddenly a small part of the sky changed, from pitch black to off-white. The road ahead changed its colour too, as did the trees that shaded the road. Even the Potomac (river) became more visible.
The light added a mysterious shade to everything within its range. The Watergate building, the Kennedy Centre and the Lincoln Memorial were pushed into the background.
The trees, the river and the sky became unmistakably clear. As if this sudden illumination had a hidden purpose: to show us how whatever we build around us is nothing more than a façade. Only the sky, river and trees are real.
Zee, who is Zubair to his family, stopped his car before the Memorial Bridge which divides Washington and Virginia. “I have crossed this bridge hundreds of time but now I do not recognise it.”
Zee was returning from a New Year party. It was a large gathering, so people split into small groups. Zee did not join any. He kept moving from one group to another.
An Indian friend – in America, Pakistanis have Indians friends too – stopped Zee and asked what he was looking for. Without waiting for an answer, he added: “Why look for what you have not lost? Why be lost in the search of what’s not lost?”
“After how many glasses?” asked Zee; suppressing his smile.
“I was quoting Rumi,” said Dev.
“Yes, you were, but after how many glasses?” Zee asked again.
“Who is counting,” Dev replied.
Zee moved towards the counter and picked up a can of diet coke. “Not drinking?” asked Seema, the host.
“No, I am the driver today, brought three people with me. Have to take them back too.”
A friend everybody called the Disco-Mullah came to Zee, pointed towards Dev and asked: “Does this self-proclaimed Sufi ever make sense?”
“We don’t come to these parties to make sense,” said Zee.
“I do, always,” said the Modern-Mullah.
“Yes, you do and that’s why you never have fun. Why do you even bother coming?” Zee asked.
“Ah my friend, I do my bit to show them the right path,” said the Disco-Mullah.
“It will be better to keep them in the right lane when they drive home after the party,” said Zee.
Most friends say the Disco-Mullah comes to these parties to nurture his ego.
“Do not remove nameplates from your doors. The visitor is struggling with his own identity, he has no time to identify you,” said Dev as Zee walked past him.
Zee went to another group where Rahila, a woman who always takes pride in being “a very successful housewife,” was reciting poems.
“This one is by Amrita Pretam,” a famous Punjabi intellectual,” she said.
Like most Punjabis, Indian or Pakistani, Zee also liked Amrita Pretam, who was known across the Subcontinent for a poem she wrote about the partition.
Since the group included both Indians and Pakistanis, Zee expected Rahila to recite the partition poem. She did not.
“This poem is about the regrets of a married woman,” she said, paused and began the poem:
“When I stepped on your bed I was not one, I was two One completely married; another completely virgin But for your pleasure I had to murder that virgin So I murdered her Murders that are considered legal and justified Only the disgrace that follows is unjustified So I swallowed the venom of that disgrace Then at dawn I noticed the stains of virginity And washed them Just as I washed other smelly parts of my body Then I faced the mirror The virgin was there, staring at me.”
Zee was shocked. “Not her,” he said to himself, “no, she obviously has no reason to share Amrita’s regrets.”
Amrita, he knew, had a disastrous first marriage which ended in separation. Rahila was a happily married mother of two beautiful children. Her husband was a successful businessman who never tired of praising his wife. She also appeared very fond of him. Their friends regarded them as a model couple.
“Why should she have such regrets?” Zee thought.
Later, he met Rahila while she was getting a glass of apple juice from the bar. Zee occasionally drinks red wine, using his heart condition as an excuse. But he never saw Rahila drinking alcohol.
“Do you share Amrita’s regrets?” he asked her.
She smiled and said: “Guess, don’t ask.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“South Asian women do not yet have the freedom to answer such questions, not even those who live in America,” she said.
For Zee, this was more shocking than the poem. Not knowing how to respond, he walked away.
Zee had another friend, Zinnia, who everyone knew had a stormy first marriage. One day she told her husband: “I am tired of your loveless embrace. You are tired of my nagging. Why don’t we end this façade and go our separate ways?”
And she left him. She never remarried. Lives with her two kids in a small apartment, drives an old car, does not wear expensive clothes but is happy that she ended a marriage that was not going anywhere.
But that’s Zinnia, open, frank and emotional. Rahila did not have any of these qualities or shortcomings, as some would say.
Rahila always had a smile on her face. Often came to parties holding her husband’s hand. Did not even let her children cry in a public place. “This is not your bedroom,” she would say whenever a child cried.
And that’s why even this poetic hint of her possible troubles surprised Zee.
“She must have taken some alcohol,” he thought. “It weakens your defences and you often acknowledge what you otherwise will not.”
Returning home, Zee noticed this unusual light that gave a new colour to everything, from trees and buildings to cars and people.
Zee felt as if the night was offering a rare glimpse of an unseen reality to those who cared to notice. Like a woman, who rarely allows more than a glimpse, whether in love or pain.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.