I encourage her to leave the brothel, but she is scared of Khaala and the consequences; Zulaikha might have her face disfigured by acid by Khaala’s goons. I accompany her to a local but foreign affiliated and funded NGO for battered women who refuse help initially, but quickly change their minds when I assert myself and firmly tell them I will make it my business to propagate their existing attitude on my return to the US. Zulaikha gets shelter, few (used) clothes and one hot meal a day.
I see Zulaikha very frequently, at the spot in Chopatty Beach, for meals at restaurants and at my place in Bandra. Mrs. D’Souza goes berserk with surprise, consternation, disgust and ‘I did not think you were like this’ comments. Arguments follow, some heated, but I prevail in the end when I threaten to leave and demand return of prepaid rent and deposit. She relents then, but insists I keep my bedroom door open all times Zulaikha visits. I give Zulaikha (some) money with which she keeps her paan habit alive, warning her no further support if there is any ganja involved. I also visit the smelly, crowded and filthy alley at Grant Road where her life as a prostitute played out but cannot muster the courage to actually enter the building.
Zulaikha expands dramatically, rapidly, from a slim, trim girl to a chubby, plump woman with a healthy glow that all expectant mothers develop. Alarming is her vivacious appetite for food; she wolves down everything in sight and more, leaving my wallet uncomfortably thin. With no occupation, her presence at Mrs. D’Souza’s residence is by nine in the morning, sometimes even before I return from my morning run. She declares I am nuts I run, is wowed by my sweat-soaked attire; this concept is alien to her and suggests the spent energy would be better served pursuing other activities instead. Her early arrivals cause considerable disquiet for Mrs. D’Souza, who grumbles nonstop but still serves Zulaikha butter tea with cookies and freely dispenses advise on healthy pregnancy and childbirth.
I finish my book research by March 1995 and get ready to return home to US. I break this news to Zulaikha who takes it quite dramatically; she disappears. When she does not show up for three days, prompting a protest from Mrs. D’Souza even, I go look for her, rather concerned. She is neither at the shelter nor at the brothel; I ask a prostitute a street away from the building. Looking me up and down, lips revealing stained red teeth, she huskily tells me ‘She disappeared few weeks ago, maybe she has a aadmi, her child’s father? She’s expecting, you know? I’m available Hero, nothing in here.’ She pats her stomach, indicating a flat gut; I shudder and make a hasty retreat, with her cursing in Marathi at my rapidly receding back.
I find Zulaikha exactly where we first met, sitting on the bench at an almost empty beach. Her mouth is full of paan and a glazed look tells me she is high on ganja. As gently as I can, for I am not a very tolerant person to stupidity, try and explain all the horrible effects ganja can have on her child. I assure her I will be in touch from Texas, will help her pay the very subsidized nursing home bill where the NGO has registered her baby’s delivery and also help with money for the baby once born. ‘But what about the baby, Sahib, where will I keep her? What will become of her, growing up at a brothel where I will return after you leave? Why can’t you adopt her and take her with you to Amrika if you don’t want me. I will eek out an existence here, but not my baby. Please Sahib, marry me, I will make you the happiest man on earth, I know how to please a man, what makes them happy. Please Sahib…’ My heart hurts.
It takes me all day to calm Zulaikha down, this girl-child with whom I have so bonded and grown much fond of. I insist she return home to Muzafferpur, which is the only viable solution, an option she has steadfastly before rejected. I very firmly insist return to any brothel is not a choice, under any circumstance. It takes a while, a whole week, but she finally relents. However, she makes me swear on the Quraan she sometimes sees me reciting, that I would return to see her baby, and I concede. She says she will name the baby, if a girl, Sultana, after my long-lost first-born; claims she loves the name and as gratitude and love for her Sahib – me. In return, I make her promise she will begin reciting regular prayers, so she prays sometimes in my presence, a nervous, shy beginning but more assured as her Mama day draws near. Baby Sultana is born a preemie, arriving five weeks early, on May fifth, but healthy, thank Allah. Mrs. D’Souza agrees to keep mum and baby for three month after delivery, only if I pay her the usual rent; I accept.
I return about three months later, in June, when Mumbai is oppressively hot and humid, heralding the coming of monsoon rains. Zulaikha frets on the phone before I arrive, saying she is not convinced I will return, complains she does not want to travel with the baby during the rains and train tickets are hard to come by, so please hurry up. My first sight of Baby Sultana is a heart tug, especially when she clasps her tiny, delicate fingers to my finger and doesn’t let go. But a blast of shock is when she opens her eyes and looks at me; the hair on my hands leap erect, my heart palpitates. Cat eyes, a copy of her Mama!
I meet Zulaikha and Baby Sultana twice again, on my regular visits to India, in Mumbai; they take a train all the way from Muzafferpur. Zulaikha stiches clothes for a living from a sewing machine I purchase for her; she reconciles and lives with her now widowed father and married brother; both younger sisters are married. She has kicked her ganja habit, she tells me, but still indulges in homemade paan, baring red stained teeth and tongue as evidence. Baby Sultana is two when I last meet her, a replica of her Mama, babbling non-stop, coyly warming up to me when I shower her with gifts from the US. When I tell Zulaikha of my pending marriage in July of 1998, I notice hurt and sadness in her eyes. ‘Now you will forget about us Sahib, your wife will consume your life from now on.’ When I protest, she quips in defiance ‘Bah! I know…I am a woman. But don’t you worry; there are men who want to marry me as well…I have several rishteys pending. Perhaps I will accept one…’
The girl disengages our eye-talk and moves to sit next to the Arab man who pauses in his squabble with the Filipino salesgirls. He looks at the girl, I imagine, with love and tenderness, and then does something quite alien to his custom and culture. Very briefly, but assuredly, he reaches around and grasps the girl’s shoulders, whose face is expressionless still and addresses the Filipinos, ‘Show something nice for my wife, something very beautiful…’ The man glances at the (apparent) older wife, who has paused in her destruction of merchandise to glare at him. As if touched by live wire, the man let go his grip and gently, lovingly, whispers something in younger wife’s ear, who continues being expressionless, then resumes his tirade against the Filipinos.
I still stare at the girl, heart thumping and desperately hope she will engage in eye-talk once again; with all my heart, I force her to look at me, but I am to be disappointed. I leave, but with a heavy heart and worried, tangled thoughts. Can it be possible? Is it her? So young, not even sixteen, married to an already married, half-dead, apparently wealthy, stingy buffoon? Can it? Those exclusive eyes, are they Baby Sultana’s? Zulaikha’s Baby Sultana…?