Valentines Week 2024 Contest
BY SARA SIDDIQUI CHANSARKAR
Copyright is held by the author.
ALL EYES are on Farha as she dances to the rhythm of the dholak, ghungroos jingling around her ankles, the moon watching over her. She’s in her aunt’s courtyard where women have gathered to sing and dance the night before Cousin Arshad’s wedding.
Her Aunt Meher’s son, Arshad. Her childhood mate, Arshad. Her first love, Arshad. Meant-to-be-her-husband, Arshad.
Their alliance had been arranged by their mothers when Farha was an infant and Arshad, three. Growing up, he visited every summer with his mother. She rode on the rear seat of his bicycle, his frame protecting her from wind and sun. He plucked mangoes off the trees for her, she mixed lemonade for him. He was the father of her doll babies, his was the face she dreamed of kissing, his was the name she wanted to inscribe with henna on her palms. Yet, he was going to marry someone else.
The moonlit courtyard, the whitewashed walls, the fragrance rising from potted jasmine were rightfully hers. They should have been celebrating her. Now, they’ll have to witness the movement of her feet to the beat of her fractured heart. Farha dances and dances.
Meher wants her niece Farha to stop dancing like a dervish, her kameez soaked with sweat, her dupatta heaped beside her, her hair loose from the braid. She can’t bear to see Farha suffering.
Meher has loved Farha from the time she was a baby. That day, when Farha had fluttered her button eyes open while sleeping along Meher’s forearm, she said to her younger sister, “Nishat, I’ll make your daughter mine. She’ll be the bride for my Arshad. From sisters, we’ll become in-laws.”
Nishat’s eyes brimmed with happiness as she wrapped an arm around Meher’s shoulders. Three-year-old Arshad sitting beside Meher pulled his thumb from his mouth and touched the baby’s soft cheek.
How Meher wishes she hadn’t made the impulsive promise to her sister, how she wishes Arshad hadn’t fallen in love with a girl at the engineering college, how she wishes she could keep her word to Nishat.
When Meher informed Nishat of Arshad’s intention to marry another girl, there were allegations, apologies, and tears. She hadn’t expected her sister and niece to show up for the wedding, yet here they were. Regret trickles through Meher’s veins as Farha continues to dance and dance.
Nishat urges her daughter to pause her frenzied dancing but Farha pays no heed. Helpless, Nishat picks up the fallen dupatta so her daughter’s feet won’t get entangled in the cloth.
When Nishat told Farha about the invitation to Arshad’s wedding, she wept inconsolably, mumbling, “I won’t marry another man,” and, “May the girl Arshad’s marrying die.”
Nishat was furious with her nephew Arshad. Whenever he and Meher visited, Nishat gave the boy the newest towel, the best piece of the goat, and set a fan at the foot of his bed. When Arshad gained admission to the engineering college, Nishat gifted him a gold-rimmed watch. And, this is how he rewards her — by choosing to marry another girl? Could his engineer wife be as pretty as her Farha? Could her rotis be as perfect as Farha’s?
Nishat can never forgive Arshad, yet she cannot break ties with her only sister, so she comes for the wedding. She brings Farha along because she wants her to come face-to-face with reality. Now, she regrets her decision as Farha continues to dance and dance.
Arshad is on a bus, heading home for his wedding. He had saved his one-week vacation for the honeymoon with his love, his Sheeba, a classmate from the engineering college.
When he told his mother about his intention to marry Sheeba, she was hysterical. “Go marry whoever you want but don’t ever look back. Your Ammi’s dead to you,” she spoke in hyperbole and accused him of deception.
He protested, “It’s unfair to hold me to a commitment you made, Ammi. It was child’s play, being a father to Farha’s dolls and pretend-sleeping next to her. I never touched as much as her finger after we grew up, never made any promises.”
Eventually, his mother relented and agreed to his marriage with Sheeba.
Arshad regrets breaking Farha’s heart. He remembers how tenderly she had bandaged his knee once when he fell off the bicycle. He cares for Farha, too, but his heart sings for only Sheeba.
He’d hoped Farha wouldn’t come for the wedding, but now that she was there, he didn’t know how to face her — should he apologize, justify his position, or say nothing?
His phone vibrates and he reaches for it.
While women are singing and Farha is dancing, a kitchen maid enters the courtyard and whispers something in Meher’s ear. She rises, a hand at her waist, exhausted from the wedding preparations.
Back after 10 minutes, Meher informs everyone Arshad had called. The bride-to-be has had a severe allergic reaction to some beauty treatment and has been hospitalized. The wedding would have to be postponed.
As reality sinks in, Meher slumps to the floor. “All the guests, all the preparations. What should I do?”
“Don’t worry, Sister,” Nishat hugs her sister. “Thank Allah that Arshad is safe.”
Other women chime in to offer solace and opinions. “Maybe Allah doesn’t like this alliance,” and, “This is a signal from the skies,” and, “It’s better to find another match for Arshad.”
The word spreads around the circle of women, and they stop singing and beating the dholak. Farha, oblivious to the news, dances and dances until the only sound she can hear is the rhythm of her ghungroos. She pauses and catches the drift of the conversation. Relieved, she sits on the floor, tilts the pedestal fan toward her face, and smiles at the moonbeams silvering her face.
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American writer. She is the author of Morsels of Purple and Skin Over Milk, and is currently working on her first novel. Her stories and essays have won several awards and have been published in numerous anthologies and journals. She is a fiction editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. More at https://saraspunyfingers.com, Twitter: @PunyFingers