One cannot be humble and aware of oneself at the same time.
- Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet
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“I’m afraid I have a confession to make,” she said, cold and shaking hands clutching the phone tightly.
“I’m listening,” was all he said.
“Not like this. Not on the phone. Meet me at the park in half an hour,” saying thus she hung up.
On the other end of the line, he put down the receiver and let out a sigh. Of relief or frustration, he did not know.
He wasted no time and quickly put on his jacket and shoes. Having securely locked the door, he started out towards the park. It was barely a ten minutes’ walk to the park from where he lived and he was aware that the appointed time for the meeting was half an hour away, but he needed to sort out his thoughts before he met her and he felt that a walk would be helpful.
The air was growing chilly and the wind stronger as he approached the park. He had intended to take a long walk around the park but upon reaching there he realized that they had not agreed upon a specific place for rendezvous in the enormous park. He didn’t want to keep her waiting and further delay their long-awaited meeting. So he decided to sit down on a bench placed near the entrance.
As he waited, he hummed softly to himself, with his head bent backward and his eyes closed. A particularly cold breeze passed him and he shuddered in response, pulling his jacket closer. He opened his eyes and saw that the clouds were gathering, making the chilly winter day even colder.
I wonder whose parade will be rained over today, he thought to himself.
A smile found its way to his lips as he recalled that he had said something similar to her when he had met her for the first time. He was slightly surprised when it occurred to him that three months had already passed since their first meeting.
Their meeting was set up by a mutual friend, or rather spouses of their respective friends. His friend’s wife knew her from their time together in university. She worked as a librarian and lived alone, having been orphaned at an early age because of an accident.
He had secured a job in the HR department of a reputable firm and was looking to get married and settle down; he had no family except for a married sister living in the States and he found the bachelor life not quite to his liking.
When he had mentioned this to Akram, a close childhood friend, he'd said that his wife had told him a few days ago that a friend of hers was also looking to get married.
“A very nice, intelligent girl, and a devout Muslim. Would you like me to arrange a meeting with her?”
The consent was given from both the parties and so the husband and wife, playing matchmaker, set up a meeting for them in the girl’s house.
The girl’s house happened to be near his house; he could very well walk to the place but it was raining very heavily that day and he was afraid that he’d spoil his best kurta. So he took his car and was there in less then five minutes. He parked the car and rushed into the house. The door was opened by Akram.
“Assalamualaikum,” he greeted him. “Come on in. She’s waiting.”
Compared to the cold and chilly breeze outside, the house was warm and toasty. He was greeted by the smell of fresh coffee as he passed through the lobby towards the living room. His nerves were calmed down.
It was a small apartment, but very neat and well-kept. The floor was covered with a thick brown carpet and potted plants were placed near curtained windows. There was a plush couch placed adjacent to a window and beside it stood a small coffee table. On the coffee table there was a porcelain dish with an assortment of cakes and biscuits, beside which stood a tall, porcelain coffee pot and a cup with a saucer. To the wall opposite to the couch stood a bookshelf which wasn’t very wide but was tall enough to cover the entire height of the wall, leaving only an inch or so. It was filled with books and some showpieces.
The bright golden lights that illuminated the room, together with the potted plants and the wooden bookshelf yielded the place a cosy and welcoming ambience.
He stood at the door for a long moment, taking in his surroundings. Akram had disappeared further inside the house after showing him to the living room. He knew that Nairah, his wife was also there with him. He could see nobody from where he stood in the doorway.
He walked towards the couch and at once saw a woman sitting in a chair right opposite to the couch. She had been hidden from his view by the bookshelf.
She sat up very straight when he entered.
She greeted him with, “Assalamu’alaikum” and gestured with her hand, asking him to take a seat on the couch.
Staring at him was a pair of large, warm brown eyes. The woman was wearing a niqab and burqa. Everything of her face and body were hidden under a black cloak, except for her eyes.
He belatedly realised that he hadn’t replied to her salaam and said, “Walaikumasalaam.”
He racked his brain, trying to remember what he wanted to say to her.
“I wonder whose parade is being rained on right now,” he finally said punctuating the sentence with an awkward laugh and signalling towards the window. He immediately felt silly and cursed silently.
She turned around to look outside the window and chuckled.
What is one even supposed to say in such situations as these? He asked himself. He seemed to have forgotten everything he had prepared before coming here. To his great surprise and relief, she effortlessly took the lead.
She asked him some questions about his work and education and he in turn asked her about the same.
He learnt that she had studied her M.A. in English Literature and that the librarian job was actually part-time; her main job was as a freelance writer. And her name was Maryam Fatima.
“Ibrahim,” he said, informing her of his name. “Ibrahim Ali.”
She might have smiled under her niqab, for there was a pause before she said, “Please help yourself to some biscuits and coffee. There’s cake too.”
“No, thank you. I’m alright,” he declined.
“Please, I insist,” she said. “I must tell you, that the cakes are from the bakery across the street and are the best that can be found in the city. I can personally vouch for this, because there is not one bakery in the city that I haven’t tried. And so far, none has beaten this one. It’s actually quite famous. You must have heard of it?”
He told her that he had not before saying, “You must be really fond of sweets.”
She shook her head and said, “I’m really fond of food.”
Again, he had a feeling that she was smiling under the veil and had a quiet thought that he might like to actually see her smile someday. Her voice was soft and feminine but had a ring to it; something clear and solid like metal that made it impossible to deny a request made in such a voice.
The meeting was short and ended sooner than he had expected. After all, there was only so much two strangers meeting in such a setting for the first time could talk about.
When most of the conversation had ceased, he felt it right to take his leave. He got up and greeted her with a salaam, and she replied but remained seated and did not follow him to the door. Instead Akram emerged from inside and saw him out.
“I’ll come visit you at your apartment in the evening,” he said.
Ibrahim nodded and said his salaam to Akram before leaving. It had stopped raining and slivers of sunlight were peeping through the grey clouds, here and there, shining on puddles of water on the ground and on the droplets on the rain-washed green leaves of the trees.
“What a nice weather,” Ibrahim sighed to himself, a smile on his face.
Later that evening, when Akram visited Ibrahim, the first question he asked was, “So, do you want to meet her again?”
Ibrahim considered this for a few moments before nodding slowly.
“Sure, why not?” he replied.
After that they met many times. On their second meeting, he learned that Maryam was fond of reading, which was one of the reasons why she had chosen to work as a librarian.
“Do you read?” she asked.
He hesitated before answering, “Yes, I do read.”
Well, it’s not a complete lie, reading the newspaper also counts as reading.
Maryam was more talkative than she had been the first time. They spoke at length about books and the habit of reading; he kept up with her by supplying bits of information from his scanty experience of reading the prescribed novels of English syllabus from school.
She told him that her favourite book was Les Miserables.
“Earlier it was Pride and Prejudice, when I was younger. I was really taken by the idea of a romance between a smart but poor girl and a rich and arrogant man who is tamed by the girl,” she said, a smile in her voice. “ But I read Les Miserables half a year ago and it just stunned me. Pride and Prejudice and my love for it seemed juvenile in comparison... I don’t have the book though, I borrowed it from the library, but I wish to own it. Les Miserables I mean. It’s a huge book, it has five volumes you know. Download e-books? Yes I suppose I could do that, but I like the feeling of holding the book in my hand. And the smell of paper... don’t you think so too?”
He could only smile in response and say that he liked the way the morning paper smelled too.
Ibrahim was impressed by the depth of knowledge Maryam had of not only books and literature, but all sorts of other things.
“Oh, just little things I picked up here and there while reading,” Maryam said dismissively when he complimented her.
He had begun to think of her as a very incredible woman. He didn’t know if it was love yet, but he definitely admired her greatly.
It soon developed into a routine for both of them - every Friday afternoon, they would sit together, Maryam in her chair beside the shelf and Ibrahim on the couch opposite to her and they would talk for hours together, until the sun had set and it was dark outside, over several cups of coffee and, occasionally, pastries or brownies from the bakers across the street. Sometimes Akram or Nairah would join them for a little while or one of them would come from the kitchen to the living room to only refill the coffee pot, before disappearing inside the house again.
He had visited her in the library twice, after which she forbade him from it.
“Its inappropriate,” she said, in her firm, silvery, steel-like voice. “I have a certain image and a moral system, which does not allow me to engage in such behaviour.”
He understood what she meant. He apologized.
“It’s alright,” she said. “Besides, this is my workplace. And it’s a library. The one place where it’s actually impossible for two people to hold a decent conversation.”
He was sure she was smiling under her veil. He chuckled, and apologized one more time before leaving.
The next day, she apologized to him.
“I hope you did not take offense to what I said yesterday,” she said, sounding distressed. “But I hope you understand-“
He assured her that he had not taken any offence at all and was actually impressed by her assertiveness and her beliefs and scruples.
As a matter of fact, he had grown to respect and admire her even more. He had realised that he had indeed been mistaken in paying her such unsolicited visits; his own beliefs should not have allowed him to.
He had also come to realise that, in this regard, they were more similar than he had initially imagined. His friends called him conservative - he thought of himself as devout. Ibrahim had always been very enthusiastic about his religion and liked to talk about Islamic doctrines and spirituality very much. He had many thoughts and ideas regarding these things, but unfortunately, very few people to share them with. It was unusual in this day and age, to find young people so interested in these things. In his friend circle, Ibrahim was nicknamed, as a joke, 'budhe maulvi sahab' or mister old monk. Akram was the only friend who understood him and whom he could hold a decent conversation with.
And now, there was Maryam. Ibrahim found Maryam as keen and passionate as him. Often, they would talk hours on end only about their ideas on religion and spirituality. Again, he was amazed at how informed and well read she was on the subject. Each conversation left Ibrahim feeling both content and eager for more. Whenever he left her company, he felt like something was building up inside him and it fortified with every meeting.
They never met anywhere other than in her living room. Ibrahim had wanted to take her to lunch or invite her to his house, but he knew by intuition that she would refuse, even if he offered to invite both Akram and his wife too, so that they wouldn’t be alone together. He decided to remain content for the time being. He did once bring her a gift, and although at first she declined it, he had been able to persuade her to keep it.
“What is it that it’s so huge and heavy?” Maryam asked as she unwrapped the gift. “My God! It’s the five volumes of Les Miserables and in hard cover! You shouldn’t have...”
“I believe ‘thank you’ is what you mean to say”, he said, smiling widely.
“Thank you,” she replied in a soft voice. Her brown eyes were shining with a childlike glee as she opened and examined all the five books.
Ibrahim observed that Maryam did not simply like reading; she revered books and spoke of them fondly, like an old friend. When he asked her about it she replied, “Because books don’t judge you, based on your appearance or personality. They appear the same to everybody. They also don’t demand anything from you.”
She also told him that although she worked as a freelance writer, her articles got published regularly in bi-monthly magazine. He subscribed to the magazine as soon as he got home that day.
He once asked her, “Do you believe in love at first sight?”
“No,” she replied firmly. “Love at first sight, if not a myth, is a frivolity. Such a thing is based merely on outward appearances, as you can’t say much about a person at first sight. Love is supposed to grow as you understand and become closer to a person. That kind of love is more firm and resolute. If it happens in a flash, it also falls apart in a flash.
“Romeo and Juliet is presented as the epitome of true love but frankly I was put off when I first read it. It seemed all too very casual and impulsive to me. Critics and experts might disagree, but that’s just my opinion. On the other hand, look at Darcy and Elizabeth! Their love develops and grows throughout the story. And they had the happy ending.”
“I’m sorry,” she said sheepishly after a pause. “But I feel strongly on the subject.”
“Clearly,” Ibrahim smiled.
There followed a long moment of silence while he contemplated how to begin what he was about to say next.
“Maryam, we’ve been meeting for quite a long time now –“ he began.
“Two months,” she interrupted, in a quiet voice.
“It doesn’t seem like two months, it seems like a few hours and yet I feel like I’ve known you forever. I have made my decision, I want to know yours. Will you marry me?”
She was silent for a long moment.
“Do you love me?” she said finally.
He was taken aback by the directness of the question, but honestly replied, “I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t know if it’s possible to fall in love in such a short time, but I know that you are wonderful woman, a unique woman. You are someone I don’t want to let go of, because I know I won’t find another one like you. I want you in my life. It’ll be closer to perfection with you in it.”
He could only watch her in muted anxiety as she absently stared off in space.
Finally, in a barely audible whisper, she said, “I pray you, do not fall in love with me, for I am falser than vows made in wine.”
Those were the last words exchanged between them.
Suddenly, she called for Akram's wife Nairah.
He could only stare at her, helpless and confused.
Nairah rushed in, and Akram after her.
“Maryam, what’s wrong?” Nairah asked.
“We’re done for today Nairah. Akram Bhai, please escort Ibrahim outside.”
It was that voice again, that nobody could resist. They did as they were told, although each of their bewilderment was equal.
Ibrahim did not meet Maryam the following day, or the day after. Soon days turned into weeks.
Akram and Nairah refused to divulge any information about Maryam, they only said that she wanted to spend some time alone. He did not even have her phone number and he couldn’t get Akram or Nairah to give it to him. When, after weeks of frustration and agitation, he took the initiative to visit her house himself, he found her gone and the house locked.
He then went to the library she worked at and learned that she hadn’t been coming to work either and was on leave. He somehow managed to coax Maryam’s phone number out of Vin, a boy who did odd chores in the library.
He tried to contact her but she was reluctant to get in touch with him. Then finally after days of pleading, she had agreed to meet him with the strange declaration that she had something to confess. He wondered what she wanted to tell him. He realized that even after all this time, he did not know a lot about her life, and she had never shared any secrets of hers. She must have some, everybody did.
Or maybe she wanted to make a confession of love.
The thought made his heart flutter. He raised his eyes to the sky again and let out a deep breath. He lowered his gaze and then he saw a woman. This time her face was uncovered and although he was seeing it for the first time, he knew it was her. Part of it was because Nairah was pushing -
His smile immediately died as he registered it – she was in a wheelchair. Nairah was pushing her along. She was wearing her black abayah which was gathered up and tucked on the side to show a prosthetic leg. Her expression was grave and sad.
He froze on the bench, not able to take his eyes off her as she advanced towards him.
When she was only a few feet away from him, she asked Nairah to leave. Nairah nodded and went to stand at a little distance from them. She stared at him for a long moment and then tears welled up in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said, taking him by surprise.
He was speechless.
“I wanted to tell you. It was never my intention to deceive you. You have the right to know, which is why I’m here before you today. I’ve lifted my veil to show you the real me.”
“When did it happen?” he asked quietly.
“When I was sixteen. In a car accident. I dislocated my spine and lost my right leg because of an infection in the injury caused by the accident. A nerve damage in my left leg also made it pretty much useless.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“I... I wanted to, I almost did, many times. I didn’t tell you initially because I wanted you to see me for who I am, and not be repulsed or pity me because of my disability. Don’t blame Nairah and Akram, I made them promise that they wouldn’t tell you.... I’m sorry to have deceived you. In the past, I’ve been rejected many times just because of my disability and I wanted to show and... maybe, also to reassure myself that I am more than my disability.
“I was planning to tell you the third time we met, but I had become embarrassed to show my flaws to you. You were so good and wonderful in so many ways and I could sense that you thought me to be just as wonderful. I couldn’t bear to shatter that image. But that is no excuse really. I have deceived you and I’m very sorry.”
He listened silently to all that she said. He felt betrayed but not offended. He was disappointed that she had not trusted him enough to let him know and that he had not been able to make himself a person to her that she could trust. Even now, she spoke as if she thought he wouldn’t accept her.
He slowly got up, eyes never leaving her face, and walked over to her. He crouched before her.
He looked at her face properly for the first time. Her face was small and petite with delicate elfin features, her skin a beautiful, rich honey-beige tone, the kind that made you want to reach out and touch it as if to confirm its softness. There was warmth, kindness and a saccharine charm in her face.
Their eyes met for a moment before she averted them.
“I wish you’d trust me more and not think so little of my judgement,” he said softly. She looked at him again, with expectant eyes. “This is a very small thing, a mere hurdle. There’ll be greater hurdles in life later on, greater tests that we’ll face together...”
She closed her eyes and bit her lip. “You don’t have to force yourself. I don’t want your sympathy. I don’t want you to regret it later.”
“It’s not sympathy! It’s selfishness. I told you before, I don’t think I’ll find another one like you and I don’t want lose you. You are everything I want in a wife and more.”
He was now almost pleading her.
When she was silent, he continued, “I know it’s going to be difficult and we won’t be like any other married couple, but I promise you, we’ll be happier than most other, you and I.”
“I’m not worried about my happiness, as much as I’m afraid about yours. It sounds very romantic and noble Ibrahim, but in reality it’s very difficult.”
He began to speak but she cut him off.
“I know that I said that people did not give me a chance just because of my disability, but even I realise, in my heart of hearts that this is my wishful thinking. Getting married and leading a subnormal life...”
“Then you should not have met me, you should not have spoken to me. If you had to push me away like this, you shouldn’t have made me like you so much. You shouldn’t have made me fall in love with you!” he said, his voice rising as his agitation increased.
She held her face in her hands and sobbed, “I’m really sorry. I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have hidden anything from you...”
“You know Maryam,” he began. He had calmed down a little as a new realisation dawned on him. “I would have liked you just as much if you had told me about your disability right at the beginning. I would have still met you the second time and I would have still come to love you. I don’t hold it against you and I never will. I promise that.”
She looked up and fresh tears fell from her eyes.
“You’re not just saying that?” she asked.
“I’m not.” He replied firmly. He smiled at her and she smiled back.
His smile grew into a grin as he quoted, “You have bewitched me body and soul, and I love, I love, I love you.”
She chuckled as she wiped her tears.
“So, somebody’s been reading. When did you become a fan of Pride and Prejudice?” she teased him.
“More like studying. I wanted to know more about you and I read somewhere that you can tell what kind of a person one is by analysing the books they read.”
“Really now? But I should inform you that the dialogue you quoted is from the movie; it’s not the original one from the book.”
“Ah, classic mix up.”
She chuckled and he savoured the sound.
“See,” he told her. “You’re not my Juliet after all.”