Alireza is in tears; his wet face a contortion of grief and pain. Men crying always make me uncomfortable; it punctures all offensive mechanisms in me, especially if the person is one close to me. We are seated in Alireza’s parents ancient, second floor tiny apartment in Dongri, a rather dingy community of Mumbai, India. The apartment is crowded, with every conceivable household element cramped into the one room home. The tiny kitchen on one end is crowded with pots and pans and other kitchen amenities. There are clothes everywhere, on the single bed where Alireza sleeps with his wife, cordoned off by a simple portable curtain for privacy; the rest sleep on the floor a few feet away. There are loads of clothes under the bed, piled high on top of two cupboards and lined out to dry in the four corners of the room, jerking around at the whim of a gusty wind that blows in from the wide open windows to one side of the room. Also blowing in with the wind is the sound of humanity outside; shrill motorbikes toots and people shouting. Also wafting in is Dongri’s steadfast stink of sewer and shit. It gives me the creeps, every time I visit, how this family can live together is such cramped area; Alireza has two other brothers and a sister.
I have known Alireza since he was about ten. Son of a petty clerk with a dismal salary, I was introduced to him almost fourteen years ago. Even at that tender age, he was a remarkable child, smart and striking, with impeccable manners, though impressionable; I was instantly drawn to him. So I kept in touch, following his progress through high school and aiding his college tuition when affordability became an issue.
At age twenty-three, he fell in love with a Khoja girl one year his senior and, against his parent’s wishes, married her. When I was informed and invited to the wedding, I had mixed feelings. I wished he had waited to complete his college education but more importantly, I felt he was marrying into an unequal partner. The girl was a high school dropout, lived with her parents in an equally cramped place and was much too assertive for Alireza’s gentle, amiable temperament. Sarah, to me, was and is very outspoken and brazen, a deadly combination for a woman in India. Glib, she is, and forthright in her opinions, especially those that rubs the established, old school Khoja ‘mentality’ the ‘wrong’ way. But I wished him well and was genuinely happy for him.
So it is not too much of a shock to learn Sarah has left her husband of fifteen months in a huff, taking their newborn baby girl with her. Shaukat, Alireza’s father meets me at the Khoja mosque in Dongri and pleads with me to do something, get them back together. Why he thinks me, a divorced man with rocky prior relationships qualifies for such a herculean task is baffling. Yet, Shaukat implores me to talk to his son and advise him to take his wife back. Why, Shaukat has his izzat to consider; still has a maiden daughter, how would she expect decent rishteys in this situation?
And so here I am, listening to Alireza’s many, many gripes about his wayward wife. Here is his tale:
I was madly in love with Sarah, still am; she still rules my dreams. Everything was perfect except for the damned serials of Bollywood. Serials like Johda Akber and Pavitra Rista and Kabool Hai. Before marriage, I was the only thing important in her life. But as soon as we settled into a routine life, Johda Akber and others suddenly became her priority. She spent hours glued to the TV and followed the nonsense and filth on it. I tolerated this because my Mum and sister were as addicted and all of them avidly dissected the foolishness. I began to sleep alone, much before the idiocy ended after midnight most nights; I have to catch the train for work by seven in the morning. Johda Akber ended my sex life and a hot breakfast Sarah fed me before the invasion. She also stopped praying Fajr, unable to wake up on time most days.
When I complained to my in-laws, I was advised to put their daughter to work. Work will keep her mind occupied, they counseled, she will have no time for the accursed serials. But before she could start a job hunt, Sarah became pregnant. In my happiness, I gifted her a fancy Samsung Galaxy and our relationship promptly went from the frying pan to the fire; I simply invited the shaitan into our lives. The culprit was Johda Akber before but then Whatsup took over. Ya Allah!
Alireza covers his face with his palms and shudders; painful sobs rock his body while I sit in wretchedness and do nothing. My mind tells me to console him, hug him, but my body refuses to move; I feel miserable, I hate myself. He quiets down after a while and continues:
It is Whatsup the moment she opens her eyes to the last second before she falls asleep, save only for Johda Akber and other episodes. Every aspect of our lives and of her friends and relatives became public. When the communal toilets at the end of the corridor got backed up, why, the entire Pala Ghali Khoja community was talking about it. I wish they had come here and taken in the stench as well. Sarah has a bunch of friends, all on this crazy device. I think I have developed blood pressure between the Whatsup chime and Johda Akber theme song; I can feel my heart palpitate every time they come on...
I burst out laughing, finding that funny, but Alireza gawks at me in surprise, a hurt look on his teary face. I shut up fast fast.
She let go of her Samsung only when the labor pains became intolerable and the nurse at the hospital refused to let her take it to the delivery room. We have a beautiful baby now, looks just like Sarah. I am surprised my baby didn’t come out with a cellphone stuck to her ear...
Alireza affords himself the tiniest of a smile at the quip, but sobers up instantly as other dark thoughts take control.
You know what broke the camel’s back in our relationship? Three months after Zainab was born, she was giving her mother the cutest of smiles, gurgling and cooing like all babies do, trying to communicate with her mother. The baadbakth of my wife simply ignored her. I mean she was engrossed in texting away on her Samsung, oblivious of her daughter wanting attention. I snapped! I lost it! I grabbed the phone from Sarah and slammed it on the floor and made mincemeat of it. Just for a brief moment, this gave me supreme satisfaction, the first time I was happy to blow away Rs.40,000.
I detect a gleam of satisfaction in Alireza’s eyes, which are lost into a faraway place, relishing the moment perhaps?
Whatup is in the US, no Uncle?
It is my heart’s turn to get palpitations. He just called me uncle; a highly derogatory title, for me, connoting advanced age. I want to reprimand him but let it go; do not want to agitate him more than he is already. So I nod agreement.
I will take the makers of Johda Akber and others to court here in India for ruining my marriage. You take Whatsup to court in the US for me, okay?
Note: Although I have used my imagination to make this episode hopefully enjoyable, this sad incident is true; the case was referred to a Khoja marriage reconciliation committee and now languishes there. I have information it will be forwarded to a marja representative shortly. For obvious reasons, all names are fictitious.