Mahejabeen, the Unwed Widow

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic


Mahe Jabeen and Aftab together formed a typical picture of contrasts. Yet, they were in silent and never-spoken mutual admiration. They took time to find commonality in their contradictions masked
for long.

Submitted: December 16, 2014

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Submitted: December 16, 2014

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Mahejabeen, the Unwed Widow

A short story by

Babul Nasar

The University should not have looked like that; it was the venue for an odd scene that winter Monday. The January breeze was unusually cold. Teachers, students, support staff, local legislators, campus ladies and personnel from nearby establishments had gathered at University Plaza. Festoons and placards presented a riot of fuming expressions. Screaming loudspeakers and heated arguments added to the commotion. A massive procession would shortly march to lodge furious protests with the government.

Several pairs of eyes suddenly turned, one after the other, to the main gateway to the administrative block. The familiar white Maruti-Suzuki car was cruising to the academic complex. It halted abruptly some paces from the crowd. Dr. Mahejabeen Nasreen of the Department of Languages emerged and talked briefly with a lady colleague and, in a moment, she was helped back into her car. The Maruti-Suzuki took a u-turn, sped away and disappeared.

“Mahejabeen went back without talking to us. Boycott this traitor from the teachers’ fraternity” was an irate remark. Others joined in to condemn Mahejabeen.

***

Dr. Mahejabeen Nasreen is the only child of Professor Khayyam Husnain, an internationally acclaimed historian. Her entrancing eyes reminded one of an unfathomable cosmic lake of divine serenity. Her broad forehead radiated purity. Her braided black hairs dangled down to hips. Her teeth sparkled between the pink lips when she smiled, rarely though. Her unblemished skin glowed.

As a girl child she was an envy of all other families. Mahejabeen was a brilliant student from school to the doctoral classes. Her parents desired her to study science for they thought she had immense prospects here. It was the young lady’s own decision to go for higher studies in the English Literature. Extraordinarily obedient to family elders as Mahejabeen was, this event was indeed exceptional. Was she becoming too independent? The playful girl was transforming into an adult. Mahejabeen was shaping up somewhat precociously. Her altering curves had begun attracting attention. Her father’s friends most of whom senior professors, too were no exceptions; they would ogle her from the corners of their eyes.

It was signal for the parents to act. The adolescent was asked to don the burqua, a head-to-toe veil to protect her from devil’s gaze. Mahejabeen obeyed unquestioningly. She would avoid mixing with boys, and later with male colleagues. While a doctoral student at age 22 years, many branded her an archaic and orthodox Muslim woman.

Mahejabeen wrote short stories, poems, critiques and book reviews under her pseudonym Pindre Jindrea.

Pindre Jindrea was already distinguished in the literary world of Indian English by the time Dr. Mahejabeen Nasreen was in her teens. It was a classic example of contradiction of sorts for those few who knew both Mahejabeen and Pindre; while Mahejabeen was a burqua-clad five-times-a-day namaaz-offering Muslim; Pindre was a completely different person-in-print, analytical, open, poetical and outgoing.

***

The consistent spot for Mahejabeen in the University outside of her Department was the Central Library cubicle number three; the reading table always littered with notepads and moth-eaten oldies to the latest editions. She barely interacted with others. Advances by male colleagues were civilly yet resolutely blocked. Any flirtation with her was impossible! Much too proud, was she?

At this stage of her life, the family was overwhelmed with marriage proposals from the best of suitors.

It was a summer afternoon. The ambience of the Central Library was quite uncomfortable especially due to high humidity. Mahejabeen, with books in hand, stood stunned as she entered cubicle number three. Oblivious of her presence, Dr. Aftab Alam investigated the table looking for something, only god knew what.

On coming back to senses, Mahejabeen blasted: “What’re you doing in my cubicle?” ‘I am nott. You in my cubicle! Where you shifted my luggage?’ asked Aftab, his face exuding disgust. Aftab didn’t even bother to glance at her. Mahejabeen shook in rage. She rushed to the Assistant Librarian and literally dragged her to cubicle number three. Aftab was still busy with his exploration.

“Aftab Sahab, you are in the wrong cubicle. Yours is the cubicle number four, the adjacent one,” said the official with great courtesy.

Aftab looked at her, then at Mahejabeen and muttered, ‘Soary, bhery soary.’ He walked out in a huff.

Mrs. Kavita Singh, the Librarian counselled with motherly affection: ‘Mahejabeen, please do not take offence. Forgive him. Aftab Sahab is an innocent person, almost childlike. A great mathematician he really is! He has just won yet another international award for his globally acclaimed researches. You already know that he is such a forgetful man that the students nicknamed him Dr. Forget. I will ask him to apologise and I am sure he would do it.”

Mahejabeen still panted in annoyance.

***

Dr. Aftab Alam aka Dr. Forget presented ugly looks. Unkempt hair, dark skin and protruding yellowish teeth made him uniquely identifiable. He wore an unwashed blue striped two-piece suit with a thinly knotted deep red tie even during the summer months. His worn out shoes were perhaps never polished. He always appeared hurried, worried and buried in deep thought. Aftab spoke very sparingly except when delivering lectures. His talks were unimpressive and language, especially his English, was an utterly butterly type. His students say that Dr. Forget spoke English in his mother tongue! One even wondered: ‘How the hell do his shittily drafted papers get published in international journals?’

In the late afternoon that same Monday, Aftab stood in silence in cubicle number three gazing at the floor.

“I beg apology, Doctor Mahejabeen Nasreen. I am extremely soary”, mumbled Aftab. Mahejabeen was nonplussed.

‘Alright!’ was all she could speak. She felt a peculiar mix of aversion and sympathy for Aftab who stood unmoved until Mahejabeen literally yelled, ‘OK; now go.’

On enquiry by Mrs. Singh, Mahejabeen said, “Oh, awfully awkward. So very disgusting! He didn’t leave my cubicle until I shouted ‘now go’.

Mrs. Singh narrated Aftab’s background.

‘He is a self made man. Born to daily wager parents, he spent the childhood in penury. The parents died early. Aftab then grew up in the Islamia Orphanage where he still lives. He is in a state of poverty because he donates his entire salary to the orphanage. Aftab has never known happiness and love. He has annihilated all desire for good life. He has even stopped dreaming.’

***

A week later, while Mahejabeen was at the desk of the Assistant Librarian, Dr. Forget came hurriedly and asked: ‘My pen, not on my table. I leave pen here?’

‘Aftab Sahab, please check your pockets’, the lady suggested.

Aftab groped his pockets and pulled out the jotter pen from the back pocket. He was embarrassed; ‘You see, I have nine and a half pockets. I am confused. Thanks.’

‘How come you have nine and a half pockets?’ Mrs. Singh was inquisitive.

Aftab blinked and said, ‘Five in coat, one in shirt, three outside and half inside the pant. So, total nine and a half.’

The lady continued, ‘Aftab Sahab, you should better get married now, your wife surely will help you remember where you keep your things.’

Aftab: ‘Well, I’m most ugly. No woman ever will even imagine marrying me. I was born alone, live alone and will die alone.’ There was a veiled painful protest in his voice. Aftab turned around.

On to his cubicle, eyes welled up!

‘Did you hear him, Mahejabeen?’

Mahejabeen: ‘Yes. He is an extreme pessimist. Dr. Forget is a psychological case and needs expert counselling.’

Mrs. Singh mumbled thoughtfully, ‘Aftab Sahab is a saintly person with a great soul. There resides within him a true beauty masked by his visible clumsiness. He surely deserves a better deal in life. Alas, there was someone to make him feel wanted. Someone somewhere to make him taste the love he so craves! I only wish, if I were a young lady like you, Mahejabeen, I would have had surely gone for him.’

Mahejabeen replied to Mrs. Singh consolingly, ‘Yes, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. In his case one has to pierce through the mask Dr. Forget wears. Don’t worry. Always remember that Allah has made every creature in pairs. Someone somewhere will pop up some day for Dr. Forget. Now let’s have tea.’

The two women talked while sipping tea. Weeks went by uneventfully. Dr. Forget and Mahejabeen sporadically exchanged ‘As salaam o alaikum’ and ‘Wa alaikum as salaam’.

***

Monsoon had arrived a little sooner than predicted by the meteorology department. It was raining heavily on a weekend-eve afternoon. Mrs. Singh requested Dr. Forget and Mahejabeen to her office chamber for tea. Mrs. Singh stood up to prepare the beverage with the make shift arrangement.

Mahejabeen offered help and said, ‘I’m the youngest one and I’d make the tea.’ Mrs. Singh nodded with a warm smile and added, ‘Yah, you’re the youngest, the most talented and beautiful, so much like a fairy.’ Mahejabeen blushed.

Dr. Forget looked at her for a moment; then shivered, his eyes shifted focus to the outside at the huge flowering tree in full bloom. He sat awkwardly vigorously shaking his right leg, then the left. Aftab changed postures at quick intervals, nonstop. He would sometime search his nine and a half pockets looking for something he never retrieved. He was trying consciously to cover his protruding teeth with parched lips.

Aftab, already nervous and trembling, held the cup while staring at his worn out shoes. In the process, some tea spilled over his greasy coat. He kept the cup on the table and wiped the brew with bare palms. Mahejabeen offered him her hanky. Dumb founded, Aftab looked at Mahejabeen and took her handkerchief muttering, ‘Me soary for soiling the hanky.’

Mahejabeen: ‘It’s ok.’

‘I will wash and return it on Monday’, replied Aftab in his patent soft tone.

The promised Monday came but Dr. Forget did not show up.

***

Dr. Forget approached the Library the next afternoon in more than his usual hurry. He dashed straight to cubicle number three, put a small gift packet on Mahejabeen’s reading table, turned back and went out.

It was her first ever gift from an unrelated male. Emotions crisscrossed her like a typhoon within moments. Mahejabeen thought: ‘this is sheer flirtation; no this is blatant insult, perhaps this was Dr. Forget’s idiocy or may be it’s ……!’

Mahejabeen marched to Mrs. Singh and waited quietly for sometime till she was free from lending out books. Mahejabeen waived her to move to the chamber. Mrs. Singh asked ‘Some serious issues?’

‘Yes, very serious. This …, this Man ….’ half replied Mahejabeen and handed over the gift-wrapped packet.

‘What’s it? May I open it?’ Mrs. Singh unwrapped the packet. She was delighted to discover a set of handkerchiefs. ‘For me?’ she asked.

Mahejabeen: ‘No, this was put on my table by this man Aftab. You say he’s the purest soul around, but you’re mistaken. This Aftab man is a flirt. I’ll make him realise his real status. Idiot, how dare he?’

Mrs. Singh tried to calm Mahejabeen reiterating that Aftab could not have meant any offence and guaranteed to talk to Aftab.

Mrs. Singh strode to cubicle number four where Dr. Forget with elbows on the table rested his forehead on the palms. The lady thumped on the table to draw attention.

Mrs. Singh to Dr. Forget: ‘Aftab Sahab, what’s the matter? Why did you gift this packet to Mahejabeen?’

Dr. Forget nervously responded: ‘I forgot her handkerchief, I mean lost it. So, I did not come yesterday and thought about what to do. I bought this packet. I knew she would not like it. Her item was so good. What to do now?’

Five minutes later, Aftab stepped into Mahejabeen’s cubicle and stood in silence while Mahejabeen ignored him. She heard the benign voice muttering, ‘I am soary, bhery soary. I lost your rectangular hanky. Please keep these.’

Mahejabeen could not contain her laughter and said, ‘Ok, but why six of these?’

Soary. Then please keep one. I moved from shop to shop to buy one thirtysix square inch rectangular hanky. The shop man did not give one but sold six pieces telling that singles cannot be sold. You see I first time in life buy for woman. So I am bhery soary.’

Mahejabeen spoke cajolingly in their common mother tongue, Urdu, to make the conversation easy for Aftab: ‘Alright, I keep all of these. And, thanks!’

Dr. Forget blinked a hundred times before profusely thanking her.

Mahejabeen and Aftab chanced to glance at each other a bit later while leaving the library premises but Dr. Forget appeared to be in deep meditation and forgot to reply to her good bye. What kind of a poor mannered man this Aftab is, she thought.

***

Winter was approaching. The weather was comfortable. Conversations were now more relaxed, as the language of communication had gradually become their mother tongue. The chats were more or less regular by now.

Mrs. Singh was curious one morning to find that Dr. Forget borrowed books unrelated to Mathematics; just several volumes on art, worn out Greek philosophy books, photography journals and film magazines.

Mrs. Singh was worried: ‘Is Dr. Forget forgetting his own subject? Or, is he getting derailed?’ 

She was still more amazed to note Mahejabeen borrowing the illustrated ‘Beauty and the Beast’ meant for children. Mrs. Singh attempted to find out why was a scholar of repute would suddenly go for children’s books. Mahejabeen’s reply was polite but evasive. 'Hah, for neighbourhood children'; she’s being deceptive!

Mrs. Singh, bitten by the curiosity bug, sat with Dr. Forget in his cubicle.

‘Oh, I am trying to reformulate a mathematical law for women’s beauty. I mean facial beauty. People have done these exercises since the times of Pythagoras with his golden ratio and Plato with his forms to DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man to The Golden Ratio based on Fibonacci Numbers. You see, the Golden Ratio is ? = 1.618 033 ... I find that all past and present studies on the Mathematics of Beauty have failed to derive a calculable theorem for Absolute Beauty. You see I know that there is an additional dimension that is difficult to quantify. I am working on this ‘something’, kind of inner beauty but it’s quantification I don’t know yet.’

The lady was completely flummoxed. She understood nothing of the long lecture except remembering that there was something like an absolute beauty that Aftab was keen to fathom. Just to keep the conversation going, she asked about ‘absolute beauty’.

Aftab: ‘You see absolute beauty is that standard infinite beauty that is used to measure the relative beauty of all other beauties.’

Mrs. Singh found all the talk much too heavy and opted to leave. As a matter of courtesy, she shot a parting question, ‘Any example of your absolute beauty?’

Dr. Forget, in his excitement to further elaborate on the topic, said, ‘Yes, yes. Sure. You see my absolute beauty is ….. is that of Mahejabeen’. He shut up abruptly looking at the lady as if begging for pardon.

Mrs. Singh was stunned.

***

Mahejabeen was kind of amused, not angry, on hearing the story from Mrs. Singh. She rubbished Aftab’s research on the ground that mathematical formulae or the laws of physics cannot truss beauty. In her view beauty is larger than the seven skies bundled together and deeper than the stack of seven oceans.

‘Beauty is not just shape of the eyes, position of the nose or the curvature of the chin. It is timeless, shapeless and immeasurable. The real beauty lies buried deep inside - compressed into tiny spots sometime cajoling you and at other time zooming out flooding everything around with divine light. We can only feel beauty but cannot measure it. There is beauty in you and in me; even in that ugly man. One needs an inner vision to sense beauty. Scientists just cannot fathom the enormity of real beauty; beauty is beyond comprehension of a mathematician.’

Mrs. Singh was, by now, thoroughly perplexed.

***

The elder lady was in a relaxed mood at a tea session enjoying the warmth during the month of approaching winter.

Mrs. Singh asked Aftab if he was tipped to go to the USA soon.

‘You see Massachusetts Institute of Technology has offered me a visiting professorship for two years and have agreed to fund my researches on the trajectory of meteorites in the space. I have to report during February next year.’ said Aftab.

Mrs. Singh deliberately evaded his research topic and spoke just for the sake of conversation.

‘That is hardly two months away and you would be out of the country for two years. You will miss out Mahejabeen’s wedding slated for April.’

Mahejabeen blushed. Aftab was silent. Abruptly, the atmosphere was heavy.

Mrs. Singh immediately changed topic. She told Aftab it was time for him to shape up with new clothes, shoes and tie. Encouraged by the advent of a lighter moment Mahejabeen added to the list, ‘You should ride a new motor cycle now and stop cycling to the University.’

The change was perceptible. Aftab smiled oftener than before. Mahejabeen was unaltered and Mrs. Singh stayed put. The three talked with each other more congenially.

Time passed swiftly adding more fragrance each day to the air. And, the month of January that brought with it a tickling winter ambiance. The University felicitated Dr. Forget for being conferred a prestigious Fellowship.

Mrs. Singh invited Aftab for a family dinner before leaving the country.

The same offer to Mahejabeen was, however, courteously declined.

She silently contemplated for a few minutes then with her eyes focused on the ceiling said, ‘Aftab Sahab, why don’t you come to meet my father before you go to the United States?’

Dr. Forget instantly brightened up.

‘Yes, yes, sure. Professor Khayyam Husnain has been my ideal and inspiration, always. Yes, yes I call on him Saturday at four in the afternoon.’ He then murmured as if talking to himself, ‘He is such a high profile gentleman. Will he meet me?’

Mrs. Singh intervened and assured Aftab, ‘Yes he will meet you. Just call on him at his residence. Saturday is our holiday and he will be home. Remember, you are coming to my home on Sunday. Right?’

***

Mrs. Husnain was blissfully surprised on that Saturday to notice Mahejabeen humming Urdu poetry, especially ghazals. Mahejabeen had left her shampooed hair flowing freely. She was dazzling, a fairy straight from the heavens in the white shalwar-suit; the dopatta over the head sliding intermittently. The young lady hopped from room to room like an all-white butterfly. As the evening descended, Mahejabeen was suddenly very upset and gloomy.

Mrs. Husnain had no clue about her daughter’s abrupt mood shift. Professor Husnain, on the other hand, had closeted himself in the study room through the day; he was writing his research paper oblivious of the goings on at home and outside.

***

Mrs. Husnain’s heart thudded on that fateful Monday forenoon when Mahejabeen came back home from the University unexpectedly early completely dishevelled; her eyes blank and wide open. The mother barely spoke in a hoarse voice: ‘What happened, my child?’

Ammi, I’m now a widow; Dr. Aftab is reported to have died.’ shrieked Mahejabeen; her wail was heart piercing!

Mrs. Husnain stood traumatized, motionless as if paralysed. Words choked her gullet. She blacked out.

The quiet of a graveyard lingered till the afternoon when the telephone suddenly demolished the silence, stopped and then rang again, and again. The instrument exploded again. Mrs. Husnain, with great effort, picked up the receiver.

Professor Khayyam Husnain was on the other side.

‘Kausar, the protest rally is over and I’m rushing to the Medical College Hospital. I’ll be home late, may be past midnight.’

He added, ‘Dr. Aftab Alam was on way to meet me Saturday last in the afternoon when a bike-snatchers’ gang shot at him and the rider. The bastards took away Aftab’s brand new motorbike. Very sadly, the bike rider breathed last. May his soul rest in eternal peace! Ameen. Aftab who was the pillion rider got grievous bullet injuries. He is fighting for life in the ICU. It is an extremely grave situation. Only Allah’s miracle can save him. Pray to Allah for Aftab’s life. Pray for him.’ He hung up abruptly.

***

There is always a morning even after the darkest night!

Eight years since that day make a lengthy time. These years passed like waves of highs and lows, of sluggishness and of rapids for Mrs. Husnain. She recalled, as she did each time, the marrow pulverising shriek, ‘Ammi, I’m now a widow’ this evening again.

Mrs. Kausar Husnain was chatting over the web cam with Mahejabeen, her six-year-old son, Iqbal and the three-year-old daughter, Curie.

Professor Khayyam Husnain came from his study room and joined the chat. ‘Hi, Curie my darling doll, how do you do?’

Curie appeared full-blown on the computer screen and greeted with ‘Atth thalaam Nana jaan.’

Her grandpa replied with great affection, ‘Wa alaikum as-salaam, my child.’

Professor Khayyam Husnain asked the little angel to call her father to face the webcam.

Mahejabeen’s husband appeared on the screen. Professor Khayyam Husnain asked, ‘How’s everything, Aftab, my son?’

***

 

 

 


© Copyright 2019 Babul Nasar. All rights reserved.

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