In the Winter, there is a thin sheet of grey over the sky. Zakir liked to believe that past the clouds, the sky was as blue as it was in the spring before the monsoon turned everything brown. Zakir did not know it yet, nor would he ever know, how it came to be. When Winter refused to leave.
The sun was bright, so much that it made Zakir’s eyes sting when he tilted his head up. In his house, there were other men, out on the veranda. They always seemed to find a way in, past the guards at the gate. It wasn’t like that when his father was alive. The men didn’t freely wander in and out. But he liked how it was now. He was sitting on the left side of the big jhula, and his friends, so close they could be brothers, were scattered on lawn chairs and chaarpais. They were laughing. They were always laughing. Zakir liked it like this.
Babban came with the chai. For as long as Zakir could remember, Babban had lived with them. Once, he was quick on his feet, but he was slower now and had started to grow his beard long. His hands were shaking a little, making the teacups clink against the saucers. He set the tray down on one of the chaarpais. He walked over to Zakir and handed him the loose change from the sauda that morning. In his good mood, Zakir shook his head, and let Babban keep the change.
In his house, there were other women, curtained inside the big room. His wife was inside, nursing their twin daughters. Rihanna and Rukhsana were born three months ago in the springtime. Zakir knew, and so did the rest of the world, that the two girls were the most beautiful. Everyone who had come to their aqiqah had said so, especially the women, who had made the effort to go look at the babies. The men had been in the garden, sitting in small clusters in cane chairs with their plates full of food on their laps.
Zakir made to get up, but his best friend, Arshad, grabbed his forearm and held him back in his spot on the big jhula.
“Where are you going, Zakir mia?” He said so in a teasing tone, showing his teeth, brown around the edges from munching on unnecessary tobacco and lack of manjan.
“Nowhere.” Zakir replied in kind, “Just going to go check on Begum Sahiba.”
The rest of the men laughed like Zakir had made an actual joke. He didn’t understand. Then, he looked around his circle of friends, lazing around, the buttons of their sherwanis undone and white kurtas showing through and soaking in sweat, their toupees abandoned around their feet. He understood. Zakir shook his head and got up, picked up his toupee and unfolded it. After placing it on his head carefully he reached for his cane. It was polished wood, a deep brown, with a gold ring around its handle. The handle itself was circular, so Zakir could fit his hand around it with no
discomfort. It had belonged to his father, but now, it was his. He took out the pocket watch, the chain pulled on the crisp fabric of his own sherwani, and gazed at it. The ticking sound. The birds chirping. He took in a breath. He put it back in his pocket.
“I will return shortly, please enjoy your chai,” he said to their coterie and then turned to look at Arshad. Arshad gave him a small, knowing smile. Zakir found relief in that, he nodded.
It was now night. The moon was lost and the stars were brighter. As Zakir was finishing his prayers, he felt the cool summer breeze. Assalamu’alaykum-warahamat’ullah. Assalamu’alaykum-warahamat’ullah. First to the left and then to the right. He brought his hands close together, palms rounded just a little bit, bringing them closer to his face. Ameen.
He got up from his kneeling position on the ground and heard his knees crack. Shurkha’allaham-dulillah. He picked up the mat. It was his mother’s, she had brought it with her from Mecca when she had gone for the Umrah. Zakir folded it, draped it over his arm and went down the stairs.
When he walked through the door of their room, Begum startled and moved to sit up from her lying position on the diwan. He motioned her with her hand. The other woman scarped to get her dupatta over her head from where it had fallen over her shoulder and got up from the floor. Her foot got caught in her salwar in haste and she tumbled sightly. She rushed to leave, stopping slightly a little way from Zakir, muttered a quick “Salam”, and disappeared through the door. Zakir put his cane on the hook by the door and walked over to little bed where Rihanna and Rukhsana lay
sleeping, with a pillow on each side. Rukhsana’s hands were clutched around a silver rattle. Zakir slowly untangled her fingers and held then. He bent down and blew first on Rihanna with his eyes closed, and then on her younger twin. He kissed both their foreheads. They were breathing lightly, silent moans escaping their lips. His favourite sound. Hope. He moved over to their bed and walked over to Begum. She was watching him with curious eyes, quickly reverting them to her lap as he neared. Zakir put a gentle hand on her head, where her dupatta was half-covered her silky dark hair which shone slightly in the candlelight. He looked down at her and blew on her head.
“Assalamu’alaykum”, her voice was light and breathy, as if her heart was beating fast.
“Wa’alaykum-as-salam”, Zakir greeted, maybe louder and bolder. He didn’t realise. For him, he was her equal.
He took off his toupee and folded it along its crease. He put it away in the drawer. He patted the pocket of his cotton sherwani and pulled out the pocket watch. It had a gold frame and was studded with small diamonds along the circumference. It made a ticking sound, they all did. But for Zakir, this particular one was his third favourite sound. Time. The pocket watch had belonged to his grandfather. It had the numbers in Roman-numerals. Once, when he was younger, his grandfather had sat Zakir on his lap and showed him the watch on a late summer evening. He taught him the alphabets that translated to numbers. Zakir had been amazed, staring at it, barely making out the words Rolex through the shiny surface. Zakir unclipped it and set it down on his dresser, and then took off his rings. He undressed, taking a while like he always did. He hung his clothes back into his almirah and put on his other kurta fresh from the wash.
The bed dipped as Zakir sat down, raising his legs to lay down. The right one first and then the left. He blew out the light from the torch next to the bed and pulled the razai over him. Begum’s bangles made a sound as she adjusted herself, curling to her left like she always did. Zakir moved his forehead closer to her and touched it to her shoulder.
“Shab’ba-khair.” Zakir pulled back and rested his head on his own pillow.
“Shab’ba-khair.” Her voice was dreamy. It was his second favourite sound. Love.
And when Rihanna would wake up crying a couple hours later, Begum would feed her. Zakir would get up to hold her and rock her back and forth until she quieted down, holding his finger. And Zakir would let her even when her silver kadda would dig into his forearm. He would smile.
The boy slept soundly in the room upstairs, content. He had spent the evening with Baba. Baba had shown him the library, and he sat near the window and read.
When Rukhsana got married, it was bitter-sweet autumn. The house was full, all three stories. And when Rukhsana cried on Rihanna’s shoulder, Zakir’s heart broke. He walked away to a secluded corner of the room, and took out his pocket watch, and held it tightly. He put it back and wiped the estranged tear from his cheek. He walked back to the commotion. Ladies he didn’t k