Uzma’s eyes were fixed on the clock. She had to wait for nine more seconds till it was exactly 3:00am. Her trance was broken by the scorching last breath of the cigarette between her fingers. This pain was short-lived.
There were no signs of Ali’s return. Maintaining a smooth marriage was never on his priority list. Neither was this new to Uzma, nor was it the reason of her sleeplessness tonight. In her 12 years spent in London, she had experienced insomnia every December.
The melancholic mewling of very noisy Frederic III was becoming unbearable. Its monotony seemed to be drilling a hole from Uzma’s left temple to the right. She feared the noise would wake little Sana up who had fallen asleep after a long bedtime storytelling session. She smoothed her unwrinkled bed sheets wearily and stood up; gathering her hair in a taut, untidy bun which immediately fell back loose, unfastened. She walked into the lounge to find a big mess the cat had created; a chewed up family album was the first to alarm her.
Oh my God, what have you done, Freddie?
The cat responded by lovingly caressing her ankle with its head.
The ripped album pricked her like a needle in the heart. On the front page, the 80’s Kodak model’s colour-blocked face was now chewed to a distorted horror. Uzma fell to her knees and picked up the album. Memories of her childhood and teen years flashed in front of her already sore eyes. Almost 7000 miles away, this love felt the purest; family.
As she went through the album, she found not photos, but detailed bittersweet accounts of her life.
Uzma’s eighth birthday:
What a lovely day it had been. Of course, until Mama had told her to wait until her brothers had had enough cake.
“Badtameezi nahi karo! Behnein humesha bhaiyon ke bad khaati hain!” (Don’t misbehave! Sisters always wait until their brothers are done eating) she had said.
But mama always said this, and it did usually did hurt Uzma. Except, today, it was her special day. She deserved to be the first one to fill herself plump with her car-shaped cake. Uzma felt some heaviness in her chest but moved to the next photo.
Eid of 1988:
A sad pishwas-clad Uzma sat with her two brothers. The children had waited for their Eidi (money given to children by elders on Eid) all day. Mama jaan had given the boys a hundred rupees each. It was a big amount back then for a child to receive. Uzma eagerly awaited her turn. And then Mama jaan gave her, her Eidi: fifty rupees.
Uzma’s heart sank. She enquired as to why she was granted half her brothers’ share.
Her mother had said, again,
Don’t argue! You are a girl, Uzmi. You don’t have the kind of expenses your brothers have.
Shahid Bhai’s first child:
There it was; a picture of a proud grandmother who had flown in from Florida just to see her new grandson. She stood hovering a thousand rupee note over the child to ward off the evil eye.
This was the same grandmother who, four years ago, was satisfied with only some emailed pictures of Uzma’s daughter, Sana.
Her eyes welled up with tears. Mama’s favouritism for her sons was evident. The reminiscing had rejuvenated the suppressed heartache of a neglected daughter. How her mother had not attended her recital because she had to go to Shahid bhai’s annual sports day. How she had failed to remember Beena’s birthday numerous times but it was a tradition to feed the poor at Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s tomb on Ahmed’s birthdays. How Mama didn’t come to see her off when she left for Australia for her scholarship. How many times Mama jaan could have embraced her and she didn’t.
Uzma picked up the phone and called her mother.
How are you, Mama? I miss you so much.
I’m good, beta, just ate lunch. It’s
hot in Karachi tod–
Mama jaan… I want you to come to London immediately. Please don’t say no.
The wretchedness in her tone was easy for a mother to sense. Uzma sucked in her tears and swallowed the dense, obstinate lump in her throat.
Khairiyat, Uzmi? (Is everything okay, Uzmi?)
I feel depressed, Mama. Please come to me.
Stop crying, dear, things happen. Have you had a fight with Ali? It is called marriage, it isn’t easy. You are thirty-four, Uzmi. I brought you up to be stronger than–
Maa, are you going to come to London or not?
“I would have come had it not been for Shahid,” she said.
You know I cannot go on one day without him.