Series 2: "Checkmate" Part 8 In trying to forget, we remember instead
How could that possibly be? Why was Usman Khan’s name written in the father’s slot? Shamim Aunty’s husband’s name was Tanveer Ahmed, not Usman Khan. As I read on, the shock turned to nightmare; Abba jee’s name was written in the slot of wali (guardian).
Tanveer Ahmed was one of the two required witnesses. Annie’s father, or the father I knew, was not listed as her father or her wali on her nikkahnama (marriage document) but a ‘witness’?? I read the document again, my mind in utter denial. Was Annie Usman Khan’s daughter?
There were probably countless Usman Khans in the world, but it had to be more than a coincidence to have my father’s name and his name together on a document as important as the nikahnama. With the document in hand, I got up slowly. Ammi jee would have the answer to this. She always had the answers.
She was in the kitchen, busy preparing lasagne; Omer’s favourite dish. I pulled out a kitchen chair and sat down quietly, trying to find the right words to frame my question. I couldn’t trust myself to speak. She turned around in surprise.
“Did you find the stamps and envelope you were looking for?” she asked. Then seeing the paper in my hand she added, “You haven’t mailed that bill yet? You’d better hurry or you’ll miss today’s mail.” I didn’t answer.
“Marium? Is everything alright?” She suddenly noticed how quiet I was and walked over.
“I don’t know Ammi jee,” I felt lost.
Or maybe it was time to start ‘finding’ things again.
“Please sit here.” I motioned to a chair next to me.
She didn’t sit. She gently took the paper from my hand, took one look and sighed. She pulled out a chair and sat down.
“This wasn’t meant for you to see.”
“Is this the same Usman Khan that I think it is?” My voice sounded unfamiliar to my own ears. I continued, “If it is, then why is his daughter in Shamim Aunty’s house?”
“Annie is Shamim and Tanveer’s adopted child. She is Usman Khan’s daughter.”
Ammi jee had come straight to the point. But she wasn’t making sense at all. She was increasing my confusion with every revelation.
“But why would they adopt Usman Khan’s daughter?” I asked. “Of all the children they could have adopted…”
“Because we asked them to.” I thought I had misheard her.
“Are you saying she is....” This time my voice wasn’t hollow. It was a hoarse whisper.
“Yes, Marium. She is your daughter.”
Ammi jee answered calmly. She had folded the nikkahnama neatly.
“She was legally adopted by Tanveer as soon as she was born. Abba jee was present at the adoption. All of us decided to move to LA together a few years later. We wanted to be a part of her life too....”
“‘Part of her life?” I interrupted her harshly, my voice loud.
The reality sank in like acid, searing my insides.
“And you didn’t think I had a right to be a part of her life too....”
I couldn’t believe that my own mother had denied me ‘life’ all these years by denying me my child.
“No, Marium. You didn’t.”
I had underestimated my mother’s brutal realism.
“You know why? Because you had messed up your life. We cleaned up your mess. Like good parents, we cleaned it up for you.”
Her voice was bitter this time.
“Then why didn’t you just let her stay in the orphanage. It would have been better than…this…. to have known her all my life as a total stranger.”
I was shattered, my mind in a whirl.
“Really, Marium? You really think so?” she asked, the bitterness was replaced by reason this time.
“You really think we could have left your daughter, our granddaughter, ‘knowingly’ in an orphanage? To be adopted by anyone, not knowing who was raising her to become what? No, Marium, we couldn’t leave her there.”
I only stared at her, at a total loss for words.
“You know why, Marium?” she asked.
“Because it would have killed us. You made your new life. You lived. But to have Annie in an orphanage knowingly would have killed your Abba jee and me.”
“Yes, Ammi jee, I lived,” I said, broken and defeated.
“But I’ve lived in torment and you’ve been a witness to that torment. What kind of mother does that to her own daughter?”
“A sensible mother Marium,” she said, patting my hand.
“A sensible and rational one. You had thrown caution to the wind. We couldn’t throw away ours. We had to do what was right.”
“I could have been a part of her life too, Ammi jee,” I implored, unable to accept her rationality or her logic.
“No you couldn’t.” She got up, filled the electric tea kettle and turned it on.
“If you had been a part of her life, you would never have gotten out of your past, married respectably or have the life you have now.”
She came and sat in front of me,
“You had gotten into a good college and had a bright future ahead of you. Regardless of your past, as long as it remained your past, your chances of getting married to a good Muslim boy were untainted. You still had your chance to move ahead.”
“But I could have married Usman and kept Annie too...”
Ammi jee laughed and shook her head.
She got up to pour the tea.
“Oh Marium... you’re too old to be talking so naively. Islam is a kind religion, but not all Muslims are merciful.”
I couldn’t imagine what she was getting at.
Understanding my confusion, she continued,
“Do you really think Usman would have married you? Do you honestly believe that his family would have accepted you and a daughter born out of wedlock for their only son?”
Ammi jee could be so cruelly honest sometimes. Her honesty felt murderous at that moment.
“No, my dear, this happens in books and in the societies where individuals are unburdened by families, values, religious beliefs and concerns for their future generations. Usman aside, no one would have married you with luggage like Annie. At least not a Muslim”
She stopped to let it sink in. She had prepared two cups of tea by now.
“Do you remember Hawthorne’s Scarlett Letter?” She asked, placing my cup in front of me and sitting down with hers.
I nodded. A quote from the book slipped into my mind,
“….we must not always talk in the marketplace of what happens to us in the forest”, I whispered.
She looked at me and then smiled, probably surprised that I had remembered the right quote at such an opportune moment.
“A Muslim woman’s life is much like that quote. You may be a second generation Pakistani, but you still needed to marry a Muslim and raise a good family. Annie’s presence in your life would never have let this happen.”
I stared at my hands, tears brimming in my eyes. There was a knot in my throat. Ammi jee was still talking.
“For everyone’s sake, Ryna’s above all, you’ve been wise all these years to keep the past buried. Annie has found her wings. She knows she is adopted, but Usman Khan is just a name to her. Abba jee said he loved her very much and hence wanted to sign as her wali.”
She paused for a moment then added with a hint of advice,
“I suggest you let these names remain names to her. Don’t try to give faces to them.”
“Does Shamim aunty know?”
I asked, my mind now thinking about the ‘parents’ of my daughter who had haunted my thoughts for over 20 years.
“No. Shamim and Tanveer know nothing except that they did a favour to some Pakistani girl that Abba jee knew by adopting her child to give her a Muslim home and upbringing. In turn they got a child they could never have.”
She took a sip of her tea.
“You and I buried the past in Louisiana 23-years-ago. Let it stay buried there, Marium. Otherwise, it will cause nothing but grief to everyone.”
I knew she was right.
How do you justify an illegitimate child to your children whom you’re teaching the importance of adhering to Islamic moral codes in the US? How do you explain it to your husband? And above all, how would you explain it to the child herself? The truth of her existence would have shattered her.
“It is best not to question your father about anything,” Ammi jee said.
“It took him years to stop questioning how it could have gone so wrong; where ‘he’ could have gone so wrong.”
She was right again. The combination of two colours isn’t always a brilliant, new colour; it is often a dreary, depressing shade of brown or dark grey. It would be brutishly selfish to splash the dreary colours of my past over the merry, vibrant hues in the lives of the people in my present.
I heard the garage door opening. The kids and Abba jee were back from the movie. Soon the house would be filled with happy sounds of my ‘present’. I thought about my ‘past’. She was happily creating her new ‘present’ with a good life partner in San Diego. She didn’t deserve to be overwhelmed with an extremely burdensome ‘past’.
My silence was enough to tell Ammi jee that I had understood what she was telling me. She picked up the nikkahnama and left the kitchen, leaving me to absorb it all. She knew well enough it would take time.
Who says our mistakes dim with time? They might dim, but they stay with us and they keep us tethered to their memory forever. They run in our blood. Yes, we ‘try’ to forget but this ‘trying’ is only to give ourselves some false sense of achievement. In reality, we all know that in trying to forget, we remember instead.