Tehzeeb Hasan’s house – Jasmine Villa – was old and rundown and sat squat in the middle of a small patch of garden that was filled with the fragrance of malligai poo blossoms. Her mother Amina had planted the tree when she got married and the tender malligai poo plant had been carefully transplanted from her own mother’s house in Vellore and brought here all those years ago.
When people pushed open the half-rusted pink gate as they came inside, they often stared at the strange surroundings but then the lush scent of jasmine would surprise them and take them unawares. Tehzeeb’s father Yusuf had bought the house (villa in name only) decades ago when land prices were cheap and one could actually afford to buy land in Fraser Town. He had intended to demolish the house and build a fresh and sparkling new building from scratch. Three floors. Economical and clean. They would live on the topmost and rent out all the other floors.
But the land was under dispute (which was why he had got it for so cheap) and he was not allowed to touch the house until the dispute was resolved. With much money going to the lawyers and then to the hospitals for his wife’s illness, Yusuf had never got around to building the house of his dreams. He continued to work for others as an accountant and never made much money. He continued to go to work on his tattered scooter even as everything around him changed.
The house was the one thing that didn’t change. His daughters had been born here but his wife had not been able to see them grow into beautiful young women. She had died of cancer a few years ago. Tehzeeb had been just 16 then and Ana and Athiya had been 15 and 14 respectively. But Yusuf went on, much to the dismay of his relatives, refusing to remarry like many other men did.
Tehzeeb knew her father missed her mother. She saw it on his face whenever he sat down on the steps of the house, which had become his refuge after he retired. She read it in his demeanour when he would sigh and watch the mynahs flit around the branches while he wrote Urdu poetry elegantly on a notepad. And she wished there was something she could do to ease his pain. Tehzeeb felt everything keenly. She was observant to a fault and very good at reading emotions. She was tall and slender and had wavy dark brown hair that reached her waist. Already, aunties were chasing her father, sending rishtas for her, but he had refused. Tehzeeb had spoken to him one day, after her fifth semester concluded, telling him that she wanted to work in an NGO after her final semester in college.
Her father had merely smiled and patted her hand. “You do what you want, beta,” he told her. His words had filled Tehzeeb with hope. Her younger sisters were still studying like her, but she knew that her father wouldn’t steamroll over their dreams. She knew they were lucky to have someone like him.
As she sat in her room with the mouldy green paint – it had been advertised as moss green many years ago – she wondered what her future would bring. Her father had assured her that she could work for a couple of years at least until it would be time for her to get married.
She had just returned from work a little while back. She was working at an NGO for women and there were days when she came back filled with hope, and others when she would cry in the shower, thinking about some of the things other women endured.
She was just headed for her shower when her youngest sister Athiya walked inside, talking to someone on the phone. Athiya dropped her bag on the ground and flung her dupatta on the bed. She looked irritated.
“I said no when you asked me in college and I’m saying no now,” she said firmly. Tehzeeb frowned.
What was the matter? Her youngest sister Athiya was a firebrand and known to lose her temper in seconds.
“Listen fucker, I told you I’m not interested!” she shouted suddenly.
Tehzeeb groaned. “Athiya, language!” she told her sister in a loud whisper. “Abbu will hear!” Athiya’s nostrils were flared as she ignored her.
“Don’t call me again!” Athiya told the person on the other end and switched off the call angrily. She turned to Tehzeeb with a warning look on her face. “Api, don’t start!”
“I’ve had a shitty day already. I cannot wait to say goodbye to this fucking college!” she said as she grabbed a towel and headed off to the bathroom, disrobing on the way as she went.
“Don’t finish all the hot water in the geyser!” Tehzeeb called out. But Athiya didn’t reply. Ana walked in then, her hands on her hips when she saw the mess that Athiya had made in the room.
“Is she being a brat again?” she asked, her lips pursed.
Tehzeeb shrugged. Athiya had taken their mother’s death the worst. While Tehzeeb and Ana had managed to get over their grief, it had not been that easy for their youngest sister, who had been the baby of the family. Even now, six years later, Athiya carried that hurt within her and it often manifested itself in outbursts.
“How was your day?” Tehzeeb asked Ana. Ana didn’t reply immediately. She walked up to the mess that Athiya had made and gingerly picked up all the dirty clothes with her thumb and fingertip. She turned to Tehzeeb and shook her head, making a “shh” sound with her mouth. Minutes later, they heard the shower being shut off. Athiya was probably wrapping her towel around her body. She opened the door and the steam from inside billowed out and barely had she stepped outside when Ana had flung the dirty clothes on her.
“Api!” Athiya screamed. “I just had a bath!”
“And now you can put your clothes in the washing machine, where they belong,” Ana told her sweetly.
Tehzeeb slapped her forehead with her palm. “Stop it you two. I’m tired,” she said as she went inside the still warm bathroom.
Their house was small. They had only two bedrooms, a hall, and a kitchen. The three of them in one room was not easy to manage, especially now. Growing up too, it had been a nightmare. When her parents were younger and she was small, she had often heard her father promise her mother that he would build the new house for them. Even then she had known that it would never happen.
Excerpted with permission from One Way to Love, Andaleeb Wajid, Westland.