“And why not?” she said. “Mahmud was your friend. It was you who fixed my marriage with him. Couldn’t you have asked at least?”
“Ask? But I did ask—your family.”
“Family—who are they? They’re just family.”
“What do you mean?”
“The family wasn’t important. You were.”
“For me. You mattered to me. They didn’t.”
“Sarwat …” now he was truly rattled. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
He got his answer all right; not from her words, but from her bold, silent eyes.
He leaned back in the chair and began looking around, embarrassed.
She got up and began pacing around the room. Then she said, “Naim, women can be incredibly patient and modest. You cannot even imagine how much. In fact, up until recently I wouldn’t have dared to look you in the face and talk to you. But now, after everything I have been through, I have no energy left for patience or modesty. I’m already thirty‑two years old, and I’ve seen life in most of its forms, however hidden or covered.”
“I’d thought of the world as being very large; its immensity, its problems would help me forget everything. What wouldn’t a woman do to keep her head high? She will deceive everyone, even herself, right up to the end. Don’t ever think that I’m blaming Mahmud for anything. My husband is a very nice person. He has never hurt me.…”
He sprang to his feet, but sat back down just as suddenly.
She continued, still pacing, “It’s been a full ten years since we got married but not once in all this time have I been able to talk with him openly. God knows I’ve tried. Every single day and every single night. Believe me, I have …”
“For God’s sake, shut up!”
“Every single night, in fact at every single instant, I’ve had this terrible feeling that somewhere along the line I’ve lost something—something that is essential for sincerity between two individuals. The loss has been gnawing away at my heart incessantly. Then, well, there comes a day when one begins to choke on one’s breath, when one feels, inexorably, how futile it all is. How terribly futile and pointless it all is.”
“Sarwat Begum,” he interjected, “you cannot turn it all around now, can you?”
“True. But I can at least put an end to that pain.”
“And just how do you propose to do that?”
“Naim,” she said, “something is suffocating me. There is some unfinished business.”
“How can I possibly help?”
“Set me free.”
“How?” he shouted. “How?”
Then, the sight of her silent eyes made bold by longing, and of her lamenting, despairing, but flagrant hands spread out in the air in eloquent entreaty immobilized him completely.
When it was past midnight, he awoke to the thought that love, too, came in a whole spectrum of shades. There was the love that robbed you. But no matter what sort it was, love was love; it had the power, at least, to distance a man from himself and carry him to something far greater.
In the early part of the night he had asked her just one question, “Do you always sleep naked?” “Shh …” she had merely hissed, as one does to stop a child from being too inquisitive in sacred places or at funerals. That “Shh …” turned out to be the only thing she uttered during the whole night. There are many kinds of women, he thought, feeling a bit surprised. Take this one: until this evening she had remained utterly sexless and unattractive. But then had turned out to be so spontaneous, so amazingly incandescent, so vibrant with life that she had carried him to the summit of unimaginable bliss in an instant. When love and a woman come together, a miracle is born. One gets to experience a segment of life through this miracle. Be it sublime or base, it is momentous all the same, because of its truly exquisite power to transform and exalt man—even to immortality. And he was discovering all this only now—he who had thought that he knew all there was to know about man from birth to death, who had a taste of all life’s highs and lows, its pain and comforts; he who had thought that nothing, absolutely nothing, could surprise him any more. He was truly astonished to see how that same moment which he had experienced innumerable times with other women since puberty—the moment which had sometimes left him ashamed, sometimes full of anxiety, and sometimes simply satiated—how that moment, when love and a woman’s perfect willingness blend, could suddenly both give man (in spite of its inherent poverty) the heady experience of power and introduce him to the heights of self‑absorption where he could melt and permeate the whole universe. When passion has run its course, and the blood has chilled, love is what remains behind—like the memory of a good time, a memory more enduring and pleasant than the time itself. Or like the fugitive scent of a rose: no matter how intangible, it is still more real than its bloom…
He was discovering all that tonight. But that blissful moment had flitted away. His conqueror’s body, now sated and calm, lay stretched out on the bed as he stared vacantly at the ceiling. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness in the room. A lot was going through his mind, but every now and then he threw a distracted glance at the woman who was staring at the wall, her back turned towards him. Her long, dark body, which she had not even bothered to cover, was tremulous; she was continuously bursting into a series of gentle but deep, muffled and unfamiliar laughs—or perhaps they were sobs. Several times he felt the urge to get up and find out whether she was laughing or crying, but in spite of his best efforts he could not lift himself up, or even move a finger. He just lay there: his body victorious and calm, his heart full of death.
And so, after thirty‑two years of pleasant and unpleasant experiences, she—who lay with her face to the wall—had finally learned that one didn’t suffer from one’s own fate or deeds in life, but from the chance of birth. Desires—fulfilled or unfulfilled—what did they give us? They only made us poorer. We had to suffer them equally. Once two hearts have lost their harmony, they drift apart. Nothing can bring them back together, not even the sacrifice of body. Perhaps she was crying after all.