Sangeetha Vallat | July 2023 | Short Story |

Four. The number of times Zubeida was airborne between Kochi and Dubai. On her maiden journey when the aeroplane ascended, she mumbled prayers, eyes scrunched shut her henna-stained palms entwined with Irfan’s. He whispered, “I am with you, now and forever.”

The next time Zubeida planed was when her Uppa passed. Irfan terminated an official visit and met her at the Dubai airport. Their hands interlaced throughout the journey as she soaked his shirt with tears.

Now Zubeida was on a final journey. Never to return to Dubai. And she was alone.

Or not.

Zubeida wanted to fly.

This idea had sprouted when she sat on the lap of an uncle from Dubai and ran her tiny fingers on an embossed velvet picture and lisped A for A-E-R-O-P-L-A-N-E. 

Every time an aeroplane roared, she bolted out, abandoning everything to gaze up, waving and leaping, her bunny teeth widening a glimmer. Zubeida, the pampered youngest in a family of eight, was the first person to board an aeroplane. 

In the quaint coastal town, almost all the menfolk worked in the Middle East, but her father prided over his sons, who managed the family business, instead of slaving across the oceans. With an assertive name, ‘All you need’ the family business was profitable. So, Zubeida became the talk of the town when she married a person working in Dubai.

When Zubeida finished school, her family sought a suitable boy. Uppa wanted a groom from the same district. The thought of not seeing his sweetest child for long periods crippled him, but the alliances the marriage broker provided, failed to gratify. If Ikkaka liked a boy, Ithaa pointed out a flaw. If Ithaa preferred someone, then Kunj-ikka rebelled. Zubeida wondered if she would ever be married!

One morning surfing the television, Zubeida chanced upon a documentary on Dubai’s splendour and the Burj Al Arab hotel. Nary a passport in hand, Zubeida wistfully let her dreams fly, wishing to see this grandeur someday.

A week later, when her Kunj-ikka informed that his friend, working in Dubai, would visit them for a ‘bride seeing’, Zubeida’s jaws crashed to the ground. Still, unwilling to leave her family and migrate to the Gulf, she refused to be paraded. 

“Grab the chance and escape from this small town. You wanted to fly on an aeroplane?”

“Umma, I wanted to fly to different places on work and not marry and fly away.”

“Women cannot work outside the house. Girls would kill to marry a Dubai groom. Now smile, don’t scowl.”

Zubeida reluctantly dressed, and when serving tea to the groom’s family, she tripped on the carpet, sloshed the tea, and dumped the serving tray on the table. She averted her face and dashed inside with a fluttering heart. Her face flushed, not for her slipshod behaviour but for recognizing the groom.

It was him.

In the tea shop beside the madrasa, Zubeida had observed Irfan’s gaze on her and adored how he flicked his head to settle the wavy hair flopping on the forehead. And at her cousin’s wedding, Irfan had served her extra chatti pathiri, eliciting giggles from her girl gang. 

Later, Irfan confessed to Zubeida that his heart had raced since the first time he saw her at a crowded playground, amidst the hoots and whistles renting the air, during the Malabar cup football finals. Zubeida, dressed in a sunflower-yellow skirt and blouse, a white hijab on her head, had clutched her Ikkakka’s hands and walked to the row in front of him. Irfan’s heart lurched to his mouth. Even when his favourite team lost the finals, he sauntered with his head in the clouds, humming a melody. Then when he saw her recently at a friend’s wedding, he sealed the idea and decided to take up the job in the Gulf. To provide her the best possible life.

Before Zubeida could thank her stars for bringing Irfan to her doorstep, the scuffle pierced her reverie. Uppa retreated to his earlier stand of not sending Zubeida to a land of strangers. Zubeida was in a quandary when Kunj-ikka asked for her opinion. She saw Uppa’s unblinking stare and discerned the stinging sensation in his eyes but surprised herself by saying, “I want to go to Dubai.”

Umma did a U-turn empathizing with her husband’s pain and began to convince Kunj-ikka and Zubeida to abide their father. Zubeida knew that she was her Uppa’s world. Once when Uppa had taken her to the shop, she slipped and scraped her knees. It was a surface wound, barely a drop of blood seeped, but Uppa had blamed himself for his recklessness and begged forgiveness from Allah. Likewise, he now blamed himself for allowing Kunj-ikka to bring Irfan home.

Love blinded Zubeida. The latent attraction toward Irfan blossomed exponentially.

Umma hollered curses at her womb that bore Satan and cursed Zubeida to everlasting doom. Then came the statement every mother tells her daughter, “You will understand when you become a mother!”

Uppa never uttered a word to Zubeida. Not then. And never again.

Ikkakka arranged the nikkah. Irfan had come on a month’s leave. Umma complained that there wasn’t enough time for the elaborate rituals. Ikkakka hired vilikarathis or ‘inviters’ to handover wedding invitations. Umma arranged women from the neighbouring village to make the difficult snacks Paneeneer Petti and Panjara Patta for the groom’s family.  Day and night women engaged in Arikutthu Cheral, pounding tonnes of rice and masala powders. The house was filled with laughter during Vettilla Kettu when hundreds of betel leaf paan were folded, and a lavish dinner was arranged in the front courtyard. Everyone dressed in hues of gold and shimmering red jostled to click pictures with the family.

The traditional attired women danced the Oppana with Zubeida coy in the middle. A small confusion arose when a new member of the Oppana gang clapped her hands during the Oppana chaayal. A matriarch raised her voice and exhibited her annoyance and explained the difference between Oppana chaayal and Oppana murukkam. As things settled down with the dancers, Zubeida’s uncle whined that his Kunjan Urapichathu, the coveted dessert had a runny egg yolk. Amidst the chaos finally, Irfan and Zubeida were united in holy matrimony, blessed by well-wishers.

Next day, Zubeida accompanied Irfan to his home. On receiving a phone call, Irfan disappeared with his friends and returned home after two days. Zubeida felt blindfolded and abandoned in a village fair as a stream of visitors arrived to ‘see’ the new bride. Irfan explained later that a friend had met with an accident, and he was at the hospital, donating blood and arranging money for the surgery. Irfan’s mother snickered and stated that her son would even cut his limb if it would help someone. Zubeida prided over Irfan’s goodness but wasn’t ready to sacrifice her life. She vowed to shower infinite love on him, enough for him to forget about altruistic ventures. 

Irfan soon returned to Dubai without enjoying the Piyapla Kolu the 40 days feast while Zubeida awaited her visa. The impending flight worried her, as none of her family possessed a passport to accompany her to Dubai.

But Irfan surprised everyone by flying home to take his bride across the ocean. She collapsed into his arms. Everyone praised Irfan and pronounced Zubeida lucky. Deaf aunts and toothless uncles to acne riddled teenagers accompanied them to the airport. Like a political rally a string of vehicles reached the airport.

But Uppa stayed home.

The spiralling heat in August sapped Zubeida as she stepped out of the air-conditioned confines of the airport. Irfan offered her labaan which she relished. He explained butter milk and curd came in bottles and tetra packs and no one fermented milk to curd. But the skyscrapers on the Sheik Zayed Road parched her throat as her lips refused to unite.  Reaching home, Zubeida frantically searched for the other rooms in their apartment.

“Where is the rest of the house?”

“Insha-Allah, soon we can move into a bigger house. This is a studio. Everything in one room.”

“Aah, OK. I like it. This way, you will always be in my eyesight!”

Days transitioned to months and whenever Zubeida chatted with Umma on video calls she saw her Uppa in the periphery. After a while Zubeida ceased asking Umma to plead on her behalf.

One night Zubeida woke sobbing. Irfan advised her to visit India for a few days if she missed her family. Zubeida lay her head on his chest and said, “You are my family. And Uppa is still angry with me. I will go when he accepts us.”

“Zubi, we hurt your Uppa. Don’t behave like this. Placate him, tell him that his little girl will be a mother soon.”

“Hmmm. Later.”

To cheer her, Irfan drove her to the Burj Al Arab. They lunched at the submarine restaurant, the glass walls overlooking the splendid sea life. The sumptuous 7 course meal was a symphony of flavors. For Zubeida the highlight of the lunch fare was the extra dessert served by the table steward, a treat to the lovely couple from his hometown. Irfan had to peel her away from her never ending conversations about the trees and fishes in the pond of her village.  

Irfan informed Zubeida that he had borrowed money from his friends to take her there. She puffed her face and advised him to save money. She rued that, assailed by pregnancy nausea, she had puked every bit of the sensational lunch.

“The joy in your eyes was worth the overtime needed to return the loan. Insha-Allah, we will go again.” 

Irfan satiated every wish of hers.

When Ikkakka relayed the news of Uppa’s demise, Zubeida was wracked with guilt. Irfan cut his official trip to Oman and met her at the Dubai airport. All through the journey he consoled his grieving wife.     

Now, Zubeida was in her final trimester; by now, she should have reached India, her parents’ home for birthing her firstborn. In the entire world, all plans suffered abortion. Everybody grieved—no celebrations or gatherings happened. The pandemic shadowed all existence. Flights remained cancelled. Fortunately, Zubeida could book her ticket on the Vande Bharat bubble services to Kerala. A last resort as the wretched Coronavirus rendered everyone’s world topsy-turvy.

Zubeida slammed the suitcase tight and clicked the locks. She rechecked her mobile. Irfan was late. He had promised to take her to the Thumbay hospital for getting the permission-to-fly certificate. Zubeida stretched her sore back, gently circling her palms on her plump belly and cooed to her baby.

“Uppa will be here soon, don’t worry. Let’s drink milk.”

Zubeida waddled to the corner of their studio, decanted the remaining milk, and warmed it. Irfan abhorred milk. Zubeida understood the necessity of every penny saved; she couldn’t waste the milk. A chuckle escaped her lips at a memory when Irfan had mentioned he desired four children, and she had swatted at his hands, giggling.

“I cannot run after four brats, begging them to drink milk. Why so many children?”

“My children and milk? No way!” He winked and added, “So our house will always echo with laughter and squeals. You will never miss me when I go to work.”

“That’s impossible. No number of kids can replace your presence.” She kissed the tip of his nose.

Irfan had tickled her as she squealed and laughed.

Zubeida gulped the milk and rested. The couch in the living room sagged and creaked each time she sat. Irfan sniggered at it, and she would mock pout, only to laugh at each other’s silly faces. Then he would cup her face and whisper, “You make my ordinary life, extraordinary.” As she drew patterns on his lush beard with her fingers blinking back tears of mirth. This was their thing.

After an hour of languid household drudgery, Zubeida checked the time. She re-dialled Irfan’s number. An Arabic voice drawled. Zubeida hurled the mobile on the bed. It somersaulted and landed on the other side. With a sharp intake of breath, Zubeida clutched her belly and cautiously bent to pick it up. Then, ascertaining that the fall hadn’t damaged the display, she phoned her friend, whose phone went unanswered.

“Allah! What’s happening? Where’s everybody?!”

Zubeida booked a Careem cab. Then, armed with a mask and gloves, she locked the house. Struggling with the gloves, she futilely tried Irfan’s number.

She reached the hospital on time and received the necessary certificate and the negative PCR report and taxied home, expecting to find Irfan waiting, but in vain.

Zubeida picked the invisible crumbs on the table, refilled the bottles of pulses and condiments. She fiddled the TV remote. Next, redialling his number she felt her innards constrict. When the hour crossed 9.00 pm, she contacted his friend.

“Hello. Zubeida here. Irfan-Ka hasn’t come home yet. He left yesterday and continued the night shift, but now I can’t reach him on the phone.”

“Hello, Zubeida. All well? Irfan is busy. His phone battery has drained. I will send someone to stay with you tonight.”

“That’s alright. I can stay alone. Can you call Irfan so I can talk to him?”

“Erm, he is operating a machine and cannot speak to you now.”

Irfan’s sudden indifference stung her. Zubeida had followed up on her vow, and Irfan never stayed back late at work or went out to meet friends without taking her along. He was ecstatic at her pregnancy and assured to be with her before she could think of needing him. She switched off the muted TV muttering under her breath as all the serials followed the trope of extra marital affairs.

Zubeida warmed up lunch leftovers and forced herself to eat. She touched her belly; the baby was lethargic today. A feeling of unease sheathed her as she prayed for the baby’s good health. She realized it was late in India to speak with Umma, so instead, she took the prayer beads and rolled them with her fingers, reciting the tasbih.

Last few weeks, Irfan had been busy coordinating with the Indian Embassy and the Pravasi Malayalee association, arranging the repatriation of the Indians stuck in the UAE due to Covid. Moreover, Irfan assisted in obtaining the clearance certificates adhering to the government protocols. The remains of the Covid-positive patients had to be sealed according to the WHO guidelines. Assimilation of these procedures exhausted him, and the other day he confided in her about the helplessness of people.

“It hurts when after all the difficulties, we send the bodies to India, and they’re returned, citing silly reasons like insufficient clearances to admit them into the country.”

“Ikka, you are working nonstop. Soon I will leave. Please spend time with me.”

“Zubi, these people need me. Now is the time to worry about humanity. Don’t be selfish. Once the baby is born, I will come and spend all my time with you.”

It had been days since Irfan and Zubeida shared a meal or had silly fights. She missed him already. As exhaustion tugged Zubeida, she slipped into a fitful sleep.

Zubeida squinted through the windows in the morning. A gloomy curtain of mist lay suspended. She pulled the duvet tighter and willed the tears from tumbling. Because once they started, it would be a tsunami. No sign of Irfan, yet. In a few hours, she had to reach the airport.

“Irfan has fever and is sleeping.” The friend answered.

“I am flying today! Wake him and ask him to come home now!”

“You be ready, I will drop you at the airport.”

Zubeida wondered if Irfan was miffed. Or planning a surprise and flying along to India.

This was the first time she would be travelling alone. Irfan wanted to save his annual leave so he could travel to see the baby. Zubeida secretly hoped that he would join her at the airport. She even checked the wardrobe to see if his clothes were missing and deflated like a balloon, finding all his clothes lined up neatly.

A few friends dropped in to bid farewell. The women sniffled and hugged her; sombreness permeated. Irfan’s friend drove her to the airport.

“Why is Irfan doing this? Does he have a fever, or is it something else?”

The friend stiffened like a starched shirt. “With Corona spreading, he doesn’t want to risk infecting you, especially now.”

Zubeida waited until the final boarding call for her flight, hoping for Irfan to appear.

As the airplane surged, she glanced at the sailboat building and sighed. Finishing the formalities at the Nedumbassery airport and collecting her luggage, Zubeida stepped out to see Ikkakka and Irfan’s Uppa waiting. Her brother took her directly to the hospital overriding Zubeida’s protests. She wondered why Irfan’s Uppa avoided her eyes as if he wasn’t happy to see her.

The next day, when the doctors confirmed all her parameters were stable, Ikkakka gathered her in his arms and relayed the tragic news.

The noises around faded from her ears. Her breath sputtered as she tried to grasp the imperceptible hands that betrayed her. 

Irfan had suffered a fatal cardiac arrest once infected with Covid. Fearing her delicate condition, friends in UAE and family in India had decided to ascertain her medical fitness before revealing it.

His embalmed body had travelled in the cargo with her. The respective officials had sped up the formalities in dispatching Irfan’s body.

She hadn’t travelled alone after all.

Zubeida quivered, and her keening rattled the insides of people around. Placing one foot in front of another was too challenging for her. As she slumped onto the floor, her hijab snagged a nail on the wall, and her dark curls tumbled out.  

Nothing else held relevance other than her irretrievable loss. She berated herself that when Irfan was dying, she had been thinking about wastage of milk! At how silly her worries were when life slid from her. A volley of questions loomed in her mind.

If only…

She couldn’t remember the last words he had spoken to her. When did they last hug?

She had eventually failed to keep her vow.

Zubeida’s Umma folded her hands, pleading. “Allah, the words I uttered in anger have come true! I wish I had my tongue pulled out.”

The Imam stood at Irfan’s head facing the qiblah, and the men stood in an odd numbered rows reciting the salat janazah. The prayers were recited standing and silently only portions voiced aloud. The embalmed body couldn’t be washed so the men placed the three pieces of shroud cloth on the body.

Suddenly, there was a commotion in the crowd. A man carrying a white bundle rushed in and whispered to the Imam.

“My baby was stillborn, and I don’t have money for a separate grave. Can you please bury my child along with him? Please?”

The Imam congregated with the men of Irfan’s family. 

“Allahu Akbar. Irfan is useful to someone even after death.”

The Imam accepted the tiny body, gently placed it on Irfan’s chest and closed the casket. The unfortunate fathers threw three handfuls of mud on their sons’ collective casket. Everyone chorused, ‘We created you from it, and return you into it, and from it we raise you a second time.’ Zubeida’s and Irfan’s brothers descended the casket into the grave, dug parallel to Mecca.

“Eat this talbina, it soothes and takes away some of the grief.” Umma spooned a morsel to calm Zubeida’s roiling heart. Kunj-ikka sat beside her informing about the dual burial.

“Allah called Irfan to paradise early, and he was unable to see his child, but blessed to carry and protect another baby in his last journey. Allahu Akbar,” Zubeida cradled and rocked herself as tears drenched her baby bump.

Zubeida’s official mourning period was four months and ten days. She would birth during this period. Raise her child, in mourning. Because the symptoms of her bereavement would never abate.

And Zubeida never wanted to fly again.


Sangeetha Vallat is passionate about Books, Friends and Conversations. She endeavours to immortalise the anecdotes of people encountered on her travels and life in the Middle East. Sangeetha recounts the tales of the eclectic passengers she dispensed tickets to during her stint in the Indian Railways. Her stories have carved a niche in many anthologies and online publications. She is currently working on her Railway Memoir. 


Photo by Milind Shah via Unsplash

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