No one shows up to an Indian dinner party on time. Everyone knows to come at least two hours after the stated invitation, but her husband had gotten the odd notion that they would “come early and leave early.” As Mumtaz expected, only the arthritic mother-in-law was there to greet them at the door.
“Jamilla is still upstairs getting ready. Come talk to me, my dear.” She grabs Mumtaz’s elbow with surprising strength and directs her toward the sofas in the women’s parlor. Her husband and children disappear with the host’s teenage sons. They would probably play pool in the Siddiqis’ amply proportioned walk-out basement until the dinner call.
Mumtaz restrains herself from tracing the outline of the flowers on the patterned couch. Instead, she fingers her bead necklace. “Are you sure I can’t help in the kitchen, Aunty?”
“Oh why do that? You look so beautiful in your sari, wouldn’t want to get it dirty. Besides,” the old woman sniffs, “Jamilla is having everything catered. It’s chaotic in there.” She waves her hands dismissively. It is clear that her daughter-in-law has failed on the hostess front by not cooking all the dishes herself. This party will have at least eighty people in attendance, and the Siddiqis entertain on a regular basis. If they can afford to get the caterers, why not?
With the hostess indisposed, Mumtaz’s obligation is clear: sit with the mother-in-law and entertain. She tries to remember the old woman’s repertoire of health problems, but before she can say anything, the Aunty bursts out, “I hear you are taking an Arabic class at the mosque?”
Mumtaz is confused by why the old woman would ask a question about classes. Ancient Indian women never take classes on Islam, they consider themselves authorities on the subject and could probably tell those instructors a thing or two.“Yes, I’m taking the class. It’s on Arabic language in the Quran. It’s very good.”
“Ahh.” Is that a twinkle in her dark brown eyes? “So you like the instructor?”
“Abbas Haddad? Yes, he’s very good, quite knowledgeable. He’s a hafiz, you know.”
“Oh yes, I know that.” The old woman smiles contentedly and leans back into the soft cushions. “Did you know that he used to be principal of the Islamic Cultural Academy?”
“The big Islamic school downtown?” The Aunty nods. It is one of the largest Muslim schools in the metropolitan area. Why was Abbas Haddad exiled to the far northern suburbs? ”No, I wasn’t aware of that, Aunty. We just moved here a year ago.”
“Is that how long you’ve been here? My dear, it feels like you’ve been here for much longer.” The old woman pats her knee. “Well, then, of course you wouldn’t know about him. You see, he had to leave as principal. He was having an affair with the school librarian.” Mumtaz winces.
Mumtaz had been taught from an early age that even listening to gossip was a sin, but this situation is particularly tricky. She is conversing with an Aunty and cutting off an elder is an inviolable sin. The best you can do is re-direct their attention to a different topic, but adultery is a juicy commodity in the community. If you had asked Mumtaz ten years ago what she thought of adulterers, she would have dutifully repeated the old Sunday School lesson: both parties ought to be punished because infidelity creates distrust in the community. Despite the well-rehearsed maxim, Mumtaz realizes life has taught her different lessons. Marriages fall apart, in ways that are surprising to all parties involved.
Despite the move, she suspects their secrets are starting to weigh her husband down. The new job in the big city had been his idea—You want Idries to have access to the best doctors, don’t you?—but this fresh start had not provided enough energy to jettison the past. He had begun to compare her to other men’s wives, and nothing she did was measuring up to these cosmopolitan domestic goddesses. Any day now, she told herself, any day he is going to start that affair. It’s just a matter of time.
“Don’t you have a shoulder that gives you a lot of pain in the winter? How is it doing now, in summer?”
“Oh my dear, you remembered?” clucks the old woman.“Just the other day I went to my doctor. He gave me a referral to an orthopedic surgeon. I may need a shoulder replacement!”
The doorbell rings and Mumtaz jumps up from the sofa. “You let me get that Aunty, you just rest.” She races over to the foyer, eager for a conversation buffer. She opens the door, and there stands an ancient couple with their college-age grandson. The old woman is a friend of the mother-in-law.
“The men and kids are in the basement,” Mumtaz explains. “Aunty, why don’t you come sit with us?” She directs the old women to the floral sofas. The hostess’ mother-in-law has stood up and she meets them halfway.
She says to her friend, “Mumtaz here is taking Abbas Haddad’s Arabic class!”
The other Aunty arches her eyebrow. “You don’t say? Do you know I heard he had an affair with a student when he was getting his master’s degree?”
Mumtaz steps on the hem of her sari. She hears the popping of glass beads and sequins. She bends down and starts brushing the broken glass into her hand. Life always makes the same demands on her: pick up the pieces; hide what is damaged. It makes no difference whether she is treading her hem in a beautiful mansion, or that quiet autumn afternoon, five years ago now.
Mumtaz pulled the pressure cooker out of the cupboard and set it on the stove. She turned the burner to medium-low and measured just enough canola oil to cover the bottom of the pot. She added a pale bay leaf, six whole cloves, two three-inch-long cinnamon sticks, a spoonful of cumin seeds and a spoonful of black peppercorns to the oiled pot. She took two black cardamom pods and split the pods by biting into them with her back molars. She tossed the broken pods into the pressure cooker and stirred the spice mix once, making sure everything was covered in a thin layer of oil. As she opened the refrigerator to get an onion, she suddenly heard the oddest howl come from upstairs. It sounded like a trapped animal. Did the children let some outside creature into the house? Idries’ kindergarten teacher had a wide variety of caged animals in her classroom and the boy talked about those creatures every time he got off the school bus. She wouldn’t shout at the children, they would only lie if they did coax some dirty stray cat inside, better to be sure. She turned off the burner and went up the stairs.
“Asra?” she yelled, but her oldest daughter didn’t respond. Mumtaz didn’t hear any more animal sounds, and as she turned the corner a bit out of breath, she paused in the door to her son’s room.
Idries was lying on the floor, his whole body writhing, his eyes rolled to the back of his head so only the whites were visible. Asra and Aliya were frozen against the wall, clutching each other, tears streaming down their faces. Mumtaz rushed over to the boy’s side. His mouth was chattering, teeth clenching, but no words. “Idries? Idries!” He didn’t respond. She tried to hold down his arms or legs to stop the flailing motion. He hit her in the nose and she recoiled from the blast of pain. Mumtaz covered her nose with both hands. She felt a sticky sensation, put one finger up to her nostril, tapped. Her retracted finger revealed a thick gob of blood. She looked down at her thrashing son. Blood was now gushing along one side of Idries’ mouth.
Mumtaz turned to her oldest daughter, “Go call 911!”
Asra stood up slowly, nodded her head, and dashed out of the room, tears streaming down her face. Mumtaz looked down at her son. How long had he been having this fit? Each second slowed and then expanded, and then he suddenly stopped. His muscles relaxed, he curled up into a ball and his eyes closed. Mumtaz shook him.
“Let me sleep!” He said angrily, brushing her hand off his shoulder.
The ambulance arrived a few minutes later.
The medical professionals had all reassured her that the first seizure was a one-time incident, brought on by a virus, something that occasionally happens to small children, something he would outgrow. But what made that one cold December night different from all the other quiet nights they’d enjoyed since the supposed “one time incident”? Perhaps the origins of that second seizure began in the ridiculous Italian restaurant, her husband’s favorite, where they had celebrated his 40th birthday. They “stayed up way past their bedtime,” her husband joked on the way home. Imtiaz had conquered them all with his magnanimous charm. Two other families bathed in his limelight as he doled out generous helpings from the family-style platters of pasta. “You must take seconds or you offend me,” flashing his most seductive smile. A tiramisu topped with candles, and let the children join in with the huffing and puffing, “Before this place burns down!” Perhaps there had been too many flickering Christmas tree lights and overhead fans. Was it the shadows that brought it on? The quick succession of dark and light cast off from the surface of whirling blades.
At the hour when the angels come closest to the earth, when everyone lies exhausted in their beds from the birthday celebration, Mumtaz heard for a second time the trapped animal howl from Idries’ room. The clock read 3 a.m. She hustled out of the bed, sprinted to her son’s room, and flipped on the light switch. He made no sound now, silent in his bed as all his limbs convulsed uncontrollably. His eyes lolled around the sockets, a trickle of blood raced down the side of his mouth. She sat next to him on the bed so he wouldn’t roll off onto the floor.
This wasn’t supposed to be happening. They had Idries tested, his brain activity was normal, neurologic tests normal. The blood was from biting his tongue, but even that became normal, the tissue had all grown back. Everything was supposed to be normal now.
But this beside her on the bed was not normal. She couldn’t hold her child, he might accidentally smack her. She started to pet his hair, quietly told him that she loved him. Idries stared fiercely at her, but despite the intensity of his gaze, she felt invisible. She remembered the Day of Judgment described in the Quran, a day when the mountains will be like tufts of wool flung into the sky and the people will be scattered moths, when the dead burst out of their graves and no one will recognize their dearest friends or family. Idries was breathing in quick intakes of air, then his lips flapped as though he was bleating, as though he was a sheep. Mumtaz felt a fine mist of saliva and blood on her face. The bloody mist covered her nightgown, the bed sheets, her son.
Her husband stood in the doorway, groggy with sleep, rubbing his eyes at the enfolding nightmare.
“Call 911 and bring me a wet washcloth.”
The tank was huge and the glass walls are clean, but none of the children were paying attention to the tropical fish that flit back and forth among the rocks. Idries was more interested in his Harry Potter book. Mumtaz furtively glanced across the room at the child strapped into a wheelchair. She was wearing a helmet and seemed to have a hard time controlling her neck, she lolled from shoulder to shoulder. Mumtaz knew she ought to feel lucky, she would never be strong enough to parent a child in that condition. She ought to feel grateful that Idries’ seizures were relatively rare, usually occurring at night. He looked no different from any other child. She started to finger the pearl beads on her necklace. Two years with this capricious illness, pulling her in ways she could never have anticipated. “Why ask directions if you don’t want to go to the village?” was her grandfather’s old Punjabi saying, but sometimes life left you stranded in the village.
Their new landscape was first dominated by CAT and MRI scans, but it was only a matter of time before they were replaced by a series of specters. Although the specter of cancer was dispersed by a battery of grainy brain images, new ghosts stepped in to fill the void. The discovery of ‘brain abnormalities in the frontal lobe’ added the phantom of potential brain surgery. The specter of brain damage was a constant worry. How many of his brain cells had been destroyed, how many will be destroyed if they can’t control the seizures? At night, when she lay awake waiting for the sound of something trapped, Mumtaz kept company with the specter of sudden cardiac death. His heart might stop while he’s seizing. The family learned to navigate the labyrinthine worlds of health insurance coverage, medical specialists, and revolving pharmaceutical therapies. Unlike childhood cancer which can rally a community together for fundraising, offers of casserole, car pools, and sympathetic head shaving, Mumtaz learned that epilepsy was to be put in the closet with other awkward family skeletons. Her husband insisted they keep Idries’ condition secret.
“Seizure disorder is not a mental illness, it is a condition.”
“Call it for what it is, epilepsy!” His enraged face turned purple. “And I don’t care what you think, the average person, if he saw Idries having a seizure, he would think the boy was mentally ill.” Their transformation became complete. They were the family with big secrets.
The men are standing in line for seconds. As soon as Asra sees her father enter the room, she gulps down her food and rushes over to his side. The elderly man Imtiaz had been talking to smiles at Asra and pats her on the head.
“So Beti, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
Asra spins the silver and pink bangles on her wrist. “I want to be a neurosurgeon first, and then once I have established my reputation, I would like to become a hospital administrator.”
The stout man slaps his knee with delight. “MD and MBA!” He plucks a mini-samosa off the chafing dish and pops it into his mouth, grinning.
Imtiaz puts his hand on his daughter’s shoulder, squeezes it, and beams at her with his flashing teeth. Asra cranes her head towards him, the sunflower following the light.
Aliya tugs at the folds of Mumtaz’s sari, “Ammi, I want to go home. When can we go home?” Aliya has been clinging to her since dinnertime, her typical behavior at large dinner parties with unfamiliar children and the potential shame of her nervous stomach. Mumtaz catches the eye of her husband and sends him a pleading look, nodding down at Aliya the barnacle child. Imtiaz shakes his head in irritation.
“We have to wait for them to serve the tea,” whispers Mumtaz. She gazes at Idries, sitting alone in a corner, plowing through his third helping of nihari. He dips his naan carefully into the reddish brown gravy, pinches off strands of pinkish beef, and raises the dish to his chin, hastily stuffing his gravy-bread-meat creation into his mouth. The new medication is more effective at controlling his seizures, but it has increased his appetite. The kids at his junior high school won’t see him have a seizure or call him ‘crazy’, but they probably refer to him as ‘fatty’.
“Aliya, don’t you want to play with the other children?” Aliya shakes her head furiously and buries her face in Mumtaz’s lap. Mumtaz sighs, but this is one battle she cannot win. She surveys the room of South Asian women wearing elaborate shalwar kameez and saris, balancing paper plates on their knees and daintily picking through the final remnants of their meal. They are carefully made-up, coiffed, and bedecked in heavy gold jewelry. A large screen television blares the latest Bollywood music video, but Mumtaz is drawn to the movie-poster-sized wedding photos of the dinner party hosts. The bride wears a traditional red wedding gown with heavy gold embroidery. In her left nostril is a two-inch hoop nose ring with a gold chain that attaches to her earring. The elaborate nose ring was a wedding accessory, traded in after the honeymoon for the hallmark of respectable married life: a solitaire diamond stud. They were probably married in the early 90s, the bride has the modest, downcast eyes pose, but she has a demure Mona Lisa smile. At the beginning of the millennium, brides were taught to look directly at the camera with a big smile on their face, “the confident modern woman” stance. The groom wore a gray European suit and tie. Although he may have aspired to portray virtuous manliness, Mumtaz sees “Sahktee may agana” on his young, cubby face: a deer caught in the headlights.
“Nadia tells me she wants her nose pierced, but her brother scolded her. I tell her when she is engaged she can get her nose pierced,” says a woman to Mumtaz’s left. She wears a magenta and emerald green kurta pajamas, and she must have spent a lot of time bunching the leggings in order to form those perfect, equal sized wedges around her ankles. She uses the naan to wipe up the soggier dinner portions on her paper plate.
“Omer is quite right to lecture his sister,” replies her friend wearing a black shalwar kameez dotted with silver spangles. “Nose piercing does not mean the same thing here. Girls think it is some kind of fashion statement. Or invitation.”
Magenta pajamas says,“We’re planning to have Nadia engaged her senior year of high school. Finding a good match shouldn’t be a problem, she’s got a cute figure. But her sisters?” She sighs heavily.
“Nudrat needs to lose at least twenty pounds.”
“I know. Shaima’s going to give me her grapefruit diet. She lost fifteen pounds, just by eating grapefruits.” She wipes each of her fingers with a napkin. “And Nisreen has got to wear contacts, but the child is stubborn like her father. She insists on wearing those heavy glasses. She says it is easier to read with the glasses.”
“That girl always has her head in a book. No wonder her vision is so poor.” Black and silver spangles is shredding meat off a chicken drumstick. “Too much reading.”
Mumtaz realizes she hasn’t thought about Idries’ marriage in years. She can no longer formulate any expectations for her son. How could she possibly give him a traditional arranged marriage? No Indian family would marry their daughter to an epileptic because they would be too afraid of the genetic consequences for the grandchildren. What girl would take on the burden of caring for someone with seizure disorder? Mumtaz tells herself she just wants Idries to have a normal life. But a single thought keeps surfacing in her mind: What is normal for Idries?
Mumtaz scrubs the soap in her hand, creating a generous bubbling lather which she smears over her hands and wrists. She slowly twists her glass bangles, three at a time, carefully guiding them over her pudgy wrists. She drops the clinking bangles on a tray. She’ll organize them and put them away in the morning. Her husband, wearing sweats and an old t-shirt, squeezes toothpaste onto his electric toothbrush at his sink. Perhaps it is the his and hers sinks that have kept us together so long. As she takes off the long gold earrings, she peers at the dark circles under her eyes. The cucumber slices and chamomile tea bags are not doing the job, she is just going to have to bite the bullet and buy the Fair & Lovely skin cream.
“You should get that nihari recipe,” he enunciates carefully while brushing his teeth.
Mumtaz nods. She doesn’t tell him the caterers made the nihari.
He spits his toothpaste into the sink and turns on the tap. “And her paya, that is how you make it! Soft, no rubbery bits of cartilage.” He fills a glass with water, and rinses his teeth three times, spitting after each swish.
“I agree,” says Mumtaz picking up her hairbrush and slowly brushing her hair. The paya was made by the ancient mother-in-law, and the old woman plans to take the recipe for her signature dish to the grave. These details would only annoy her husband.
He wipes his mouth with the towel and tosses it on the floor. “And get the name for Jamilla’s interior decorator. Their house is so put together, all the colors of the walls different, and yet they blend together so well. It’s like something out of a magazine, very classy. You have done nothing with our house. Everything is a big blank. Whitewashed, like an institution.”
Mumtaz bends her neck, her hair falls forward covering her face, and she begins to brush her hair from the base of head towards her face. Her words keep time to the brushstrokes, “Like a mental institution.”
He crosses his arms and stares at her face reflected in the mirror.“Why do you have to say things like that?”
She looks at his red face through the strands of her hair. She straightens up, pushes the hair out of her eyes, and puts the hairbrush down on the counter, calmly addressing his sulking reflection. “I know that you didn’t want a handicapped child. Our lives would have been very different if Idries never had a seizure. None of us wanted this epilepsy, but this is the challenge that God has given us. This is our kismet.”
Her husband gapes, then snaps his mouth shut and turns away. She watches as he grabs his pillow from their bed and stalks out of the bedroom, another night on the basement couch.
Mumtaz resumes brushing her hair facing the mirror. Should they try the marriage counselor again? They tried that once in the old town. Mumtaz puts the brush down and unhooks her sari blouse. The hooks strain at the seams, and she just had the blouse taken out last month. She’ll have to ask Shaima for the grapefruit diet. She unfastens the sari petticoat and steps out of it. She picks up the petticoat, the blouse, and Imtiaz’s towel, stuffing them in the clothes hamper. She takes her flannel nightgown off the door peg, pulls the gown over her head. Her husband’s charm is reserved for his work colleagues, prominent friends, and Asra. Mumtaz reflects that she isn’t on his Top Ten list, he’s not interested in seducing her. She might have walked out years ago, but there are children. The calculations are more complex.
As she pulls back the sheets, she remembers the horror stories from other women, stories told in hushed whispers at the end of dinner parties. These are suburban tragedies, men who divorce their wives and start a new family in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. They never pay a dime of child support, and they never see the children from their first, failed marriages. The women are left at the mercy of disapproving extended family or charitable mosque foundations, the children abandoned by their fathers. Idries needs his father. She will not jeopardize her child’s health for something as ephemeral as personal happiness. In a few years, the boy will be 18, college age and independent. He can get his own health coverage through university. He’ll be safe from his father’s caprices and neglect. She drags the comforter to her chin.
She hears the yowl. 2 a.m. Two months out since Idries’ last episode. She was so hopeful about this new medication, but maybe they just haven’t hit the right dose. Mumtaz leaves the bed quickly and quietly, trying not to wake her sleeping husband. She swiftly moves down the dark hall, enters Idries’ bedroom and switches on the bedside lamp.
Her son’s arms and legs are moving spastically, but not as ferociously as in the past. The blood hasn’t started oozing from his mouth. She sits on the bed next to him and smooths down his hair. She is suddenly overcome with a powerful feeling of love for her son. It swells around her chest and for the first time she when she looks at her seizing son, she is not afraid of him. Mumtaz gently cups his cheek with her hand and says, “Idries, I love you, and I am here for you. I love you.”
She looks into his eyes expecting to see nothing, but despite the unfocused vision and the shaking, she is shocked to see something new. The moment reminds her of the day she walked out to the bird feeder and saw a huge hawk in the branch of the oak tree. Before the bird flew off, they stared at each other, an escalating awareness of a consciousness different from her own.
After a few seconds, his tremors cease, his eyes close, and his muscles slacken. As he eases into a deep slumber, she leaves the room, returning with a wet washcloth. Mumtaz dabs the blood from his lips, she adjusts the bed linens and removes the bloodstained pillows. She will come back in ten minutes to wake him and try to coax a pill down his throat. He will try to dismiss her, insisting he just wants to sleep. In the morning, Mumtaz will call the neurologist, and the dosage on the new medication will be increased. The trick is to find the right drug and the right concentration. It’s just a matter of time.