The afternoon sun glowed with its glory on the fine architectures of Lucknow, known for its traditions, polite mannerisms, and rich food. But one such fine architecture remained hidden from the eyes of the world- a yellow bungalow in the large shrubs of Bougainvillea that never saw sunlight. Except for Zariah’s room. A few rays of the sun peeked inside, from a crack in the ceiling to witness the contrast of events- to witness a prostitute, praying in a brothel.
Water rested like dewdrops on the tips of her hair as proof of that evening’s shower. The pain passed through the nerves of her right hand like bolts of lightning as she raised her hands for dua; her way of talking to her Lord. Tears blurred her vision as she watched her hands with sadness that rested on her heart. Her lips moved to ask forgiveness for the sins she had been committing for the past seven years. At the age of eleven, she found herself standing in the rooms of pale-colored walls, with a constant disgusting whiff hanging heavily in the air. She had no idea how she had ended up here and all she could see in her hazy memory was a platform on which she and her mother were waiting upon until her mother had gone to fetch a water bottle and someone had covered Zariah’s lips. That was all.
The commotion outside her room broke her reverie and Zariah knew it would be Amma, their Madam who would be scolding the girls to leave the place for business. This was the time of the day when the girls, especially young ones were supposed to stand near the stations of the city to lure customers for their business and she was aware that she didn’t have to go just because of the wound in her elbow. A wound from yesterday when she had denied one of the customer’s absurd requests and Amma had to show her wrath with a broken glass bottle. But it was not much for her, after seeing so many things in all these years. The knock on the door forced Zariah to leave her prayer nook, to open the door to see Noori.
“Gul,” The name which she had gotten in these streets, “we’re heading out. Amma said to prep up, since you aren’t getting off for today.” Her voice was sharp, just like her eyes which were penetrating the loose bandage of her elbow. Zariah didn’t know Noori’s real name but Amma called her Noori. A girl who had chosen this job to support her family of two younger sisters and a mother and that was why she was willing to do everything which would put her in the good books of Amma.
“And stop bothering him.” Noori raised her finger to gesture towards the ceiling, “He doesn’t listen to us. We’re filthy.”
Zariah gave a small smile to her while closing the door on her face and got back to her praying nook to complete her supplications.
His legs froze as his hand crushed the envelope in his hand, looking at the scene unfolding in front of him. Khalam Khan was sure if he stood there for another minute, he would lose his life. He gulped down a lump in his throat which made it hard for him to utter a word, looking at his wife who was now trying to fix her dress properly and at that man who was her cousin and was now trying his best to avoid his gaze.
Yes, he had caught his wife cheating on him.
“Khalam, I can explain.”
Sakina moved near him as he took a step back, gesturing to her to stop. Didn’t he love her enough? He remembered in the four years of their marriage, everything had been perfect. He worked as a cop in the Delhi Police Department and owned a bungalow where he lived happily with his wife. But maybe that happiness was only one-sided, and maybe his wife hadn’t been happy with him at all.
“Don’t say anything.”
Khalam saw a stranger in the woman in front of him as she shook her head. There was shame on her face but no regret.
“It was just a mistake, please forgive me.”
Khalam turned away from her, unable to shake off what he had seen earlier which seemed to have etched itself vividly in his memory.
“Leave my house, Sakina.”
Khalam came near the living room sofa with defeated steps, fully ignoring the pleading voice of his wife. The sun hid behind the clouds, too embarrassed to look at the dejected man. Just when he thought that his life was getting more than perfect, destiny had to push him towards the ground. He opened his fisted hand to see the crushed envelope, the envelope which held his promotion letter. He had been promoted as the Senior Inspector. How happy had he been to share this with his wife- his reason for coming earlier to home.
The door closed with a thud as Zariah fixed the thin pullover around her body, her body tired as an aftermath of what had been done to her. The bedside table held a tiny bundle of money that her customer had given her because she had been a good girl. Not even touching it, Zariah made her way to the washroom where she had to clean herself again.
The water always felt futile as it couldn’t remove the dirt that had been staining her permanently over the years. The dirt of various hands and touches was stuck on her body and no water, nothing could ever erase it. The sun had bid its goodbye to the residents of Lucknow when Zariah left the washroom in a bright red salwar kameez, an order from Amma that bright colors always made customers happy.
Just when Zariah was on the threshold of her room, an unconscious man caught her attention. The top buttons of his shirt were opened as his features looked tired and sweaty. Amma was yelling at some of her men, throwing annoyed glances at him in-between
“Who is he, Amma?”
Zariah couldn’t stop herself from asking that question. The face of that man felt familiar, and bringing someone to this place was like pushing them off a cliff.
“Noori found him on the station, fell unconscious at her feet. He’s drunk,” Amma said in a clipped tone, throwing a glance at her and then, at that unconscious man.“Take him to your room, Gul.” Zariah was dumbfounded by the orders as Noori glared at her. “And I don’t want any problems.”
Noori stomped her feet as she went back to her room while Zariah watched silently as the men took that unconscious man to her own room. Why did he seem so familiar? Was he a regular customer? No, there was something else. This man’s aura spoke that he didn’t belong here.
The man was lying on his front on her bed and was barely conscious. Zariah took her handkerchief from the dresser and wiped the drool from the corner of his lips, only to get her wrist caged between his cold hand.
Zariah’s eyes widened as she placed her free hand on her lips before a gasp escaped between them. It wasn’t his words but his voice that pushed Zariah into the pit of realization. He was Khalam Khan, a great scholar who resided near her childhood home and had learned the whole Quran by heart by the age of 12. She couldn’t have gotten a teacher better than this man. This was the reason why he had felt so familiar. Because this man had been her teacher.
Zariah never imagined she would meet her teacher again after all these years, let alone in a place like this which would change their whole sacred relationship of a teacher and a student. She slowly wiggled her hand out of his hold as Khalam turned on his side with a groan.
Taking some steps away from him, Zariah switched off the lights of the room to allow only the faint moonlight from the little crack of the ceiling. She sat down on the floor, resting her back on the wall. Her eyes were stuck on the silhouette of her teacher. What forced him to consume that foul drink to reach this state? What had happened in his life which made him like this? She could only remember him as an easy-going, cheerful young boy who was twelve years older than her.
There were many things which were standing between them; differences, years, and questions and she didn’t know when she fell asleep with all these doubts weighing her down.
Faint light pierced his eyes, faint enough to be aware of its existence. Khalam groaned as his head pounded with a terrible headache when he tried to open his eyes while getting up. The place felt odd in the blue fluorescent light when his mind began to become alarmed at his surroundings; a cheaply decorated room with a stream of beads around the bedsides, old lanterns hanging on the ceiling, and the thick scent of roses.
The opening door caught his attention as a young girl came inside and halted in her steps as she saw him awake. “What is this place?” Khalam kept his voice at the edge of strictness as the girl slowly placed the pitcher on the bedside table, totally ignoring him.
“You were too drunk last night. Noori brought you here.” She took a step back, making sure they had a good distance between them as she stood by the wall in front of the bed.
He didn’t know what to reply to that. It had been two months since he had been transferred to Lucknow due to his promotion, and still, Khalam couldn’t forget what his wife had done. He was left with no other option but to let that drink veil over all sorts of heavy emotions that weighed his heart down. He had soon fallen down the road of alcoholism just after he had divorced Sakina, a week after he found her cheating. It had helped him forget about Sakina but as it began to overpower his mind, he could only imagine Sakina with that man and nothing else. And when he couldn’t get a grip of his mind in that condition, he had no right to blame what others were doing with him.
Khalam’s eyes again went to that girl who was still silently observing him, her hands folded behind. Her hair was long below her waist which she had used to cover her bosom, her dress not revealing at all unlike many others Khalam had seen. From her features, she looked quite mature but yet it felt like she didn’t belong there just like other girls of her age. But was it his hungover mind or the remnants of alcohol, had she looked attractive to his eyes? He couldn’t remember what had happened between them last night but he wanted to relive those moments, just to forget about his wife.
Khalam got up and came closer to her, in a long stride. Holding her wrist in his tight grip, he said, “Come.”
“What are you doing?” She began to wiggle her hand out of his hold as he made his way to the bed, pushing her down.
“Just doing what we did last night.”
Khalam opened his shirt buttons with a hurried pace and a gruntled moan from his throat filled the room as the girl pushed him, with force, and got away quickly from the bed.
“We did nothing, Ustad.” Her voice broke at the end as Khalam was shocked to hear that word from her. It had been so many years since he heard that, his students used to call him that, the students who used to learn the Quran from him. Did that-
“Who are you?”
“Zariah, if could remember in your engulfed mind.” Zariah said as her eyes watched him scornfully, “I don’t know what pushed you into drinking but don’t make me more of a sinner by committing this sin with me.” Tears brimmed her eyes which held disgust and she barely managed to croak, “I wouldn’t be able to live with that hailing over my conscience.”
Khalam covered his lips to get a grip on his emotions. Was that shock, surprise, sadness, or remorse? But whatever it was, it was too much to handle. She was the brightest student of his, the youngest ones among others to complete the Quran. He never thought he would meet her like this and what he was about to do with her!
“What are you doing here, Zariah?”
“Cruel destiny, Ustad. Got kidnapped by them at the age of eleven and from seven years, I’m stuck here.” Zariah said in an unsteady, fearful voice with unsureness of revealing this held on to her as she sat on the floor while he remained standing. “I tried running away so many times but I couldn’t and every time, they would punish me with something more terrible than before, just like cutting my elbows or my palms.”
A shiver ran down Khalam’s spine as he heard what she had been going through. When he got transferred to Delhi, he lost contact with everybody in Lucknow and now he was back and nothing was the same as before.
“What did you go through, Ustad, to be in this place?”
“Life. My wife cheated on me with her cousin.”
Zariah nodded her head, as she whispered, “Allah doesn’t burden a soul beyond that it can bear,” her fingers leisurely moving on the brown mat.
“You still remember that?”
“That’s all I remember, Ustad. It was your teachings that I’m still going on with this life, in hope of Allah’s mercy.” In their whole conversation, now was the time when Khalam saw a faint smile on Zariah’s lips as she was too proud of him, “They all say we are too dirty and Allah doesn’t look at dirty things. But I think he looks at everything. It is human nature to categorize everything in good and bad, and Allah only sees our true intention, our hearts.”
Khalam lost his speech over her explanation. He was a scholar of the Quran of his time and when he got everything, he left it all because he had no time for his Creator who gave him everything, and here, his student had gripped his teachings like it was her last hope.
He moved towards the door as he was ashamed to stand in front of her anymore, his heart beating too loudly in fear of the unknown, “I will pray that we don’t meet again, Ustad.”
Khalam nodded with a small smile fully understanding what she meant and as he exited that place, he was already calling his junior to inform him about the next place they had to raid, this yellow bungalow.