Lubna Sheykh (name altered) is a rather assertive, rather plump, rather dark thirty-something, who works as a Guest Relationship Manager for the hotel I usually stay at Mumbai, near the Chakrappaty International Airport. Her most winning features are two deep dimples on her chubby cheeks that feature prominently, whether smiling (which is often) or scowling (which I have seldom seen) or chewing (which is frequent) and her bubbling personality. As a regular at the hotel, I get to see and talk to her quite often and we sit and chitchat sometimes; I naturally babble away about my baby – CAI.
Lubna is quite interested and impressed with CAI’s global activities and offers to accompany me to Afghanistan sometimes, an offer I immediately rebuff, since that country is not ready for the gentler gender, in my line of work. The lady is affronted; I can see, since the dimples vanish, replaced by a steely look in the eyes and daring, challenging expression on her face. I guess Lubna is not at her senior position at the hotel by being meek and submissive. She calms down a bit after I tell her of the challenges travelling into remote Afghanistan entail, especially after she hears about the squatting in the dark when nature calls, with a lotta in one hand and a torch on another. She loses appetite for Afghanistan altogether after I tell her a harmless field rat startled me so violently once when squatting, I fell butt first on the frozen earth.
The lady has been bugging me to visit her home, for dinner, and meet her family. I assume she is being polite, but when she asks me again, this time, I agree and we decide on dinner at her place after her stint ends at 5 PM tomorrow. I want us to take a cab, but Lubna looks at me in astonishment. It’ll take us two hours and more in this rush hour Mumbai traffic. We’ll go by the metro and a small portion by train.
Ha! The metro is fine – modern, clean and air-conditioned, even though it’s crowded with people returning home from work; we have to stand all the way to Andheri Station, however. It is the local train from here to her home that is painful. The platform is swarming with so much humanity, it is difficult to breathe, even. Seeing me squirm, Lubna grabs my hand and barges her way close to the platform edge. She could take the ladies only section, which is a bit less cramped, but insists on accompanying me, as if a guardian angle. A train rumbles in, brakes squealing; the crowd surges forward, I am propelled forward involuntarily, despair I will lose my marbles, but find myself inside the tram, jam-packed like sardines, my face in very close proximity of an unkempt Sardarji; the guy has overflowing hair everywhere, including visible moist armpits. I gasp for air and look away wildly, seeking my guardian, since I have lost physical and visual contact with her. I feel a tap on my back and her almost laughing but assuring voice; I’m right behind you. This squeeze is only to the next junction; most people will get off for another line there. Hang on tight! Do I have a choice?
I am so relieved when the agony ends and we walk a short distance to her apartment; my clothes are a mess, crumpled in the crush, but, at least, I am breathing. We slog up three stories to Lubna’s apartment in a nondescript residential complex that has ubiquitous warning signs of every nature: ‘No outside car parking’ ‘No vendors allowed’ ‘No selling apartments without prior permission’ ‘No paan spitting’ ‘No eve teasing’…
Please don’t mind my mother, Sir, pleads Lubna as we plod up, she will complain to you about me a lot. She does it to everybody visiting. But she means well and is simply worried about me. Her age and the onset of Alzheimer are making her a bit eccentric.
No kidding. The mother is tall and gaunt, with large wild, frantic eyes; does not in the least resemble her daughter. It is a small but comfortable apartment. I am made to sit next to Mum, who sits under a portrait of a portly man who stares at me sternly; the face has Lubna written all over it; the Papa. A furious overhead fan stirs up everything unsecured, making the garland around Papa’s portrait dance drunkenly. Lubna hands me a cool glass of sweet coconut water and disappears to freshen up and change. Lucky her. I am all rumpled and bothered from the ordeal of the train.
Haa, Bete, so, are you married?
Mum asks suddenly, as I am gulping down the coconut water. The water enters the no-entry passage and it takes me a good while to recover from the coughing and hacking that follows; Mum is unruffled. She begins talking about Lubna, as if to herself, in a monotonous voice. Her Hindi is Hyderabadi, so is full of rich Urdu grammar, some of it beyond me.
I raised her and Salim alone from age six when Ahmed died; Allah knows how difficult that was. But she is hard headed, this daughter of Ahmed’s. There were so many rishteys when she was eighteen and nineteen. From good, wealthy families. But no, she wanted to go to college. Some good that college did her. Look at her. Middle aged, dark, overweight and single…
I feel terrible for Lubna. To hear her Mum put her down like this is very sad. Apart from her weight and skin tone, she is really a terrific person. And to be privy to her Mum’s profound anguish about her daughter being single makes me feel like a snoop and I hate it. Mum looks at me.
Haa, Bete, are you married?
I cringe and want to flee. Where is Lubna? Surely it can’t take this long to change. What is she changing to, anyway? Mum does not wait for my answer. She continues.
No rishteys anymore. None. Who would want her now? Hai! What will become of her? I tell her to look out for any reasonable man who will marry her. Even a divorced man. Chalenga. Even as a second marriage. Chalenga. What choice does she have? My daughter? Hai! What will become of her? I tell her to go out with friends and meet people more. But no. She works long hours, comes home, sits around staring at the nonsenses on TV and eats junk. Pizza and chips. She has put on so much weight. Who’ll marry her now? Hai! What will become of her…
Mum stops and stares at me, a puzzled look on her worried face, as if she sees me for the first time. She opens her mouth and closes it. Makes a face and asks.
Haa, Bete, are you married?
Ya Allah! I am rescued by the arrival of Salim, Lubna’s younger brother, his pretty wife and their very pudgy infant son. Salim is like his mother what Lubna is to the late Papa. Lubna reappears and we have a superb Hyderabadi dinner that is loaded with three days worth of calories. Mum leaves me alone, busy fussing over Ahmed, the infant named after Papa.
I take an AC taxi back to the hotel. It still takes me over an hour with the trailing traffic snares but at least, I do not have to contend with moist armpits.
Note: As head of CAI, I am, mistakenly, sometimes, consulted by desperate fathers looking out for suitable rishteys for daughters past prime marriage age. Sadly, the culprit has always been the girl’s choice of education over early marriage. This choice has inherent pains – of age and merit. I have tried to capture this dilemma with this light but real story of Lubna here. This problem, however, is very acute, serious; I have, unfortunately, no answers.