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But for Inaya, this was just the beginning and the long road ahead did not lead anywhere even remotely close to marriage and domestic bliss.
The burnt gold swan sitting on the mantelpiece, gleamed in the bright sun rays streaming inside the spacious living room and proudly displayed the name, Inaya Zahra – Golden Swan Changemaker of the Year Award.
The perfumed fragrance of fresh jasmine wafted in through the large casement windows. This was Inaya’s favourite corner in the whole house. The adjoining balcony, housing a variety of seasonal flowers and ornamental greens, was her oasis of calm in the midst of her daily hustle.
Reclining against the colourful cushions strewn across the sprawling beige sofa, Inaya adjusted the long, bejewelled pin holding her carelessly knotted bun. At 38, Inaya had a pleasing face – not traditionally beautiful but one with a certain brightness, maturity and affability that comes with experience and fulfillment.
“Ma’am, congratulations once again on winning this coveted award! Must be a proud day for you?!” began Meera enthusiastically. The reticent Inaya had assiduously avoided media glare all these years. She shared practically nothing of her personal life on social media. A budding journalist, Meera was on cloud nine, having bagged this prestigious assignment of covering Inaya Zahra’s story.
“So tell me Ma’am, how did it all begin? Has it been a smooth journey for you? What about your family…did they support you?”
Inaya looked fixedly at a painting on the wall for a few minutes, trying hard to wrest herself from the long, dark passage of memories. Finally she spoke, measuring every word as she did.
“Well, Meera, nothing very dramatic out there, I’m afraid. I belong to an affluent, conservative family of Meerut that upheld marriage as the raison d’etre for every girl. Completing my Masters in Social Work was considered an aberration in itself. And when I opted to join a reputed NGO and draw a modest salary, my extended family denounced it as complete blasphemy….the ultimate blotch on our family honour!”
Here Inaya gave out an imperceptible sigh as Meera shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. Pain and regret were clearly etched on Inaya’s face, even after so many years, as she travelled back in time. She recalled how their relatives and so-called well-wishers had never left an opportunity to interrogate her on her workplace, her salary and her colleagues….her male colleagues, to be precise. Snide and suggestive comments would follow.
Surprisingly, Inaya’s academic and professional accolades, the respect she commanded among her peers, or the inspiring nature of her work failed to evoke any sense of pride or satisfaction among anyone in her family. Environmental conservation, sustainable development, education and empowerment of tribal women were issues she was most passionate about, but something that least excited her family.
“Aadaab Madamji!” Inaya was jolted back to reality as Shaheen respectfully greeted Meera, wheeling in a serving trolley. It was laden with a tea set and some hors d’oeuvres, filling the room with a fresh, appetising aroma. Shaheen, Inaya’s Girl Friday for over nine years now, poured out the tea for the two ladies.
“Thank you,” Meera said, as she sipped on the flavourful Darjeeling tea and took in the interiors of the room. The pastel palette, the minimalist furniture, the handcrafted decor accents – they all added a touch of understated elegance, beauty and character to the home and spoke volumes of its mistress. In spite of her many successes, Inaya detested opulence and propaganda – rather, she let her work do the talking!
Conscious of the rather longish break, Inaya resumed the interview.
“Work at the NGO was good – there was so much to learn and do. I made new friends. But somewhere there was an invisible barrier, a lack of connection with my colleagues. Thanks to my upbringing and conditioning, I always remained this withdrawn nerd who spoke less, especially with men, never laughed out loud or let her hair down. I went to the office, did my work, and went home. I wasn’t too close with the people at work for these very reasons. They would all make plans to go out somewhere after work. To decompress, they called it. To have fun. I had to come back home so that my parents didn’t worry about anything untoward happening to me. But it was more to satisfy the wagging tongues of the many aunties in the family who were appalled that my parents were ‘letting me work’ instead of getting me married. You get the drift?” Inaya asked ruefully. “It was those moments of self-doubt and mortification that strengthened my resolve to adopt a child…a girl child…and give her the best of education, exposure and experiences that I possibly could.”
Meera was about to pose her next question when she was interrupted by a little cherubic girl who breezed into the room like a burst of sunshine. Dressed in a dainty yellow frock, hair neatly plaited, she was clutching a drawing sheet close to her bosom, like a hard-earned reward.
“Ammi look, isn’t it beautiful? I did it myself!” The child held aloft a freshly painted portrait, most certainly of Inaya, love and pride brimming in her innocent, hazel-brown eyes. She planted a kiss on Inaya’s cheek and gleefully pranced around the room, displaying the painting jubilantly.
“Yes sweetheart, it’s beautiful…I love it…thank you so much!” Inaya replied, her voice faintly quivering with maternal affection.
Meera almost dropped her pen. Inaya had a daughter?! How come she didn’t know… Meera always did her homework thoroughly before conducting an interview. So had she missed something this time?
Mother and daughter spoke for a few more minutes, both absorbed in their own little private space, oblivious of the world outside. The bond they shared looked so pristine, almost sublime, it transported Meera to another world.
Their little tete-a-tete over, the girl hopped and skipped her way out of the room. Meera did nothing to hide her amazement as Inaya smiled knowingly.
“Haha Meera, your face tells me you’re surprised. That’s Noor, my 5-year old daughter. ‘Noor’ means radiance – she’s, indeed, the shining beacon of hope, light and motivation in my life. Most people are startled when they see us together. But that’s okay, I don’t mind. If anything, it makes me feel doubly proud. And before you ask me anything else, let me tell you that I’m both Mom and Dad to Noor – there’s no room for anyone else here!” Inaya said the last sentence with such an air of finality and firmness that Meera, though curious, decided against posing any further questions on this.
“Coming back to my journey,” Inaya continued in a calm voice, ”After my longish stint with the NGO, I moved on to working with the Kuki, Adi and Angami tribes of north-east India.
The terrain and living conditions were very difficult; their acceptance of change, delayed. But we persisted and made considerable progress, breaking one small barrier at a time. Only after I finished my tenure there did I decide to bring Noor home. These days I take up projects which do not require me to travel much. In fact, sometimes I take her with me on short tours so she can see for herself what it means to live life on the fringes. I had always wanted to be this hands-on parent who would be there for her child at all times….a parent who would understand her, trust her, encourage her, and be her multipurpose comfort pillow. And I’m glad I’m largely able to do justice to my dream.” Inaya’s voice was laced with satisfaction and gratitude.
The interview continued for some time before Meera finally stepped out of the house. ‘A cracker of a story,’ she thought to herself smugly, ‘Can’t wait to see it in print!’
Meanwhile, Inaya went into her bedroom and softly shut the door behind her. After a long time, she suddenly felt the need for some uninterrupted personal space, away from the unspoken questions and anxious, concerned glances of Shaheen. The interview had opened a floodgate of memories for her; laid bare the carefully buried innermost recesses of her heart; and she needed time to process things.
She opened her wardrobe and took out an old photograph. It showed a much younger Inaya engaged in an animated discussion with a man, about her age. Inaya took a long, hard look at the photograph and then gently, almost reverentially, placed it on the bed and sat beside it. The fond moments that she shared with Aadil had left a breadcrumb trail in her mind and today she felt tempted to walk down that path.
Aadil was a civil engineer overseeing a road building project in Meghalaya. A chance meeting at a tea shack led to many subsequent meet-ups. The man had an earthy pragmatism and earnestness about him. He looked more dependable than dapper, more real than rich. The dank weather played Cupid as their common love for the mountains, ginger tea, lamb biriyani and Ghalib’s shayari hotfooted their casual friendship to a deeper alliance. They started enjoying each other’s company and shared a unique comfort level.
Even after completing his project and returning to Delhi, Aadil would regularly call Inaya and they would chat for hours on end. There was no eloquent declaration of love, no lofty promises made and yet, both knew in their hearts that they were meant to be together. Inaya, however, always had a slight misgiving, a tiny voice gnawing away in one corner of her soul, warning her of an impending unhappiness. And very soon her premonition came true.
Both Inaya and Aadil were in their early thirties and their respective families had started pressuring them for marriage. Several worthy proposals were lined up for Aadil; not so many for Inaya. But Inaya, though suffused with the ruddy glow of love, was not yet ready to get entangled in the web of matrimonial obligations. She had dreams to fulfil and goals to achieve. Aadil did understand her passion and zeal and respected it. In fact, he was even willing to wait, provided the end was in sight. But for Inaya, this was just the beginning and the long road ahead did not lead anywhere even remotely close to marriage and domestic bliss.
The parting was agonisingly painful… in fact, it was only after they had separated did Inaya realise how deeply she was invested in this relationship. She had earlier set up her own little ‘bachelor pad’ in Lucknow and this cosy niche now became her haven where she could unwind, sulk, fret or simply cry herself to sleep on certain days.
Meanwhile, work was piling up. Inaya Zahra gradually became a name to reckon with, in her chosen domain. The next three years went in achieving some significant milestones in her career. Only after that did she pause to take a breath. She chose this period to complete the long and complicated process of adoption and brought little Noor home.
Inaya took a sabbatical for six months which helped her strike a seamless chord with Noor. A single, successful woman opting to adopt a girl child – Inaya’s predicament once again provided grist to the familial rumour mills. But this time around, she was better prepared to handle it. She was no longer letting others take ownership of her life and her aspirations. Motherhood was something she had long been looking forward to, with or without marriage. Sure enough, it was a bumpy ride, a test of patience, a never-ending saga of trial and error but one that was worth all of it. Noor lived up to her name – she changed Inaya’s trajectory of life and injected a virulent happiness in her woebegone veins. Inaya finally felt complete…accomplished…validated!
“Ammi, where’s my new colouring set?” Noor cried impatiently from outside the bedroom door.
“Yes Betu, I’m coming,” Inaya brushed aside the cobwebs of the past from her mind and opened the door. As she placed the colour pencils in Noor’s tender palms, Inaya silently pledged to paint her universe with all the dazzling colours of the rainbow and more!
This story was shortlisted for our March 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest.
Image source: Free Photos on pixabay
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