I had grown up away from my homeland as far as I could remember. The only memories I had of as a kid, were of this place. We had fled our homeland many years ago. I was young, a year old I suppose, maybe younger. I remember my parents telling me I had celebrated my first birthday here .
There were many others like us. A few families lived down the street, but yet no one could say that we had THAT common bond-we were so different. The women never left their homes and we never got to see their faces. Sometimes you could see their eyes when they weren't netted under their burquas. But that was rare.
Sometimes when their families would join us for dinner, the men asked their women to go upstairs. They weren't allowed to eat with the rest of us. They would shoot glances at my father for doing the same and my mother would get up from the table, hesitantly and reluctantly but not wanting to earn disapproval in this part of our social circle. But my father. He would comfortably sit down in his chair and hold my mother's hand at the table and stop her as soon as he felt her rising. He smiled at his friends and would say, " Bhai, there is nothing wrong with having a woman on your right, eating the same food at the same time. Nur will be eating with us at this table." The glances turned into 'few-second stares' at my father, mother, his hand on hers and then each other. That would be the end of the discussion. My mother sensing the awkwardness would smile at my father. She was a lucky woman, I was a lucky daughter, only because he was a different man.
After serving dinner, mother would join the women upstairs, excusing herself for some womanly talks. My mother's head was uncovered, unlike theirs ofcourse and the women smiled enviously at her freedom and luck.
Somehow, as I grew, I insisted on wearing my black hijab. Occasionally I would cover my face, letting only my eyes devour the world, and letting the strangers around feast their eyes to the beauty of mine lined darkly with black Kohl.
" Mashallah!" Many of our kind had exclaimed before. My eyes, the only things on my face I appreciated. Probably the compliments had gotten to me. But I loved them. I loved how they talked for me. Probably that's why I liked letting them speak for me.
My father didn't particularly like it. He was different. He thought I was doing it because I felt out of place among our kind. But that was NOT my reason. I wore it because I somehow felt closer to who I was. I wasn't ashamed of it. I always believed that it was a choice that I had made to be different. I loved being the one with a difference.
I didn't wear my hijab too often. It was something I wore on occasion when I felt like being the one people were intrigued with. There was one particular place in the city-the spice market-where I always covered my face. Thousands of eyes followed. Some stared until I pierced them with a sudden look of mine, right into their eyes. I'd had people look back almost a second later, their head oscillating between what was in their hand or what they were doing and my covered face. There was one particular shop my mother always took me to, where she believed the rarest of the spices were always there. The owner-Mrs. Desai- and my mother were well-acquainted, actually they were friends now. For many years now my mother had been coming to this very store, every month on the same date to buy spices. Our families often had tea together, dinner occasionally.
Today, as I stood behind mother, I noticed a young handsome figure standing beside Mrs. Desai. His back was towards us, his muscular arms bare in his vest, as he talked in a fast British accent on the phone. Mother and Mrs. Desai started with their customary ritual of gossip. Mrs. Desai patted the figure beside her and he turned around to look at her, a distracted stammer now escaping his mouth.
"Put the phone down now will you? You hardly ever visit and now when you're here you don't give me a fair share of time." Mrs. Desai complained.
"Yeah.. Uh.. Uh.. I will talk to you later. In the evening. Yes. Yes. Okay. Take Care." He said into the phone. " What do you mean I haven't given you enough time? I've been here all week and this is my first call in 6 days."
"I'm a mother. That will never be enough."
He sighed and hugged her. It was a rare, unseen, honest gesture and it made me smile. His eyes caught mine looking and he probably could tell I was smiling. He let go off his mother, who was already talking to mine in a fast, chatty voice. Mother opened the small door on the side that led to the other side of the counter and both the ladies went in through the curtained door to have tea inside the house.
" You're mom, she isn't wearing a.. wearing a.. Umm.. " He scrambled about in his head looking for the right word. His voice was nice and deep.
"Hijab " I answered in a quiet voice, slightly intrigued about what he was going to say next.
"Oh. Yes. She isn't wearing that. Why are you?"
"Its a choice."
He looked at me with an expression I couldn't tell apart from confused and bewildered or unbelieving.
" A choice? That's a first."
" I love the air of mystery it creates around me." I laughed.
"I would know." He admitted. He was looking me right in the eye now. I stared back.
"I like being different." I said. " I think its a part of me somewhere. I don't wear it all the time. But for some reason I always wear it when I come to this market, to this store."
"Your eyes." He blinked a couple of times as he said that. "What color are they? Jade green or are they kind of grey?" He was staring intently now. " Excuse my manners. I shouldn't stare. I'm sorry, I didn't catch what you were saying."
I grinned. This was interesting. " I said I don't wear my hijab all the time. But I'm always wearing it when I'm here. "
"Any particular reason?"
"No, not really." I'd never known the reason.
"Is there any chance you might make an exception today?" He teased.
" Is there some reason I should?"
"Yes, I only tend to customers who I can actually see and talk to and whose voices aren't slightly muffled by a piece of cloth." He teased.
"Well, in that case, I'm sorry to disappoint you. My mother is the customer actually. I'm just helping and keeping her company."
"By the looks of it, she already has some right now." He motioned to the door they'd gone through. "If you're helping, you might just buy whatever it is that she needs to. She'll be back by then."
I rolled my eyes and turned around. I heard him chuckle. I walked around the first counter on my right, picked up a small basket and walked around the store collecting packets of spices that flavored our food. I placed the basket on the counter.
"How much will that be?"
It took a while for him to finally pay attention to what I was saying. He smiled. I had a feeling it wasn't for me but for himself. I watched him bill everything and place it in a brown paper bag.
As he handed the change to me, I picked up my paper bag and mother walked out followed my Mrs. Desai.
"Yes. Yes. No excuses. Dinner at my place tomorrow night." Mother's invitation was more familial than anything else. " Oh, you have the stuff already. I hope Kunal kept you company." A teasing grin spread across the faces of both the old women.
"Mrs. Desai and you ammi! " I sighed. " Namaste Aunty." And we walked out the entrance of the shop, the bell on the door ringing as we opened it.
Later that evening my mother swore she saw Kunal staring.. no GAPING at me. I ignored her teasing. But inside, I felt an eagerness to see him the following night.
Dinners at our place were never a quiet event. Mom loved cooking and all day she cooked and cleaned and washed with willingness. When father got home from work, he quickly dressed for it was almost time for the guests to arrive. I had helped mother set the table right after I got back from a party with my mates at university. I didn't really feel like changing but went upstairs for I was overdressed for the occasion. The black piece of cloth was still hanging over the nail on the frame of my dressing table. I had half a smiling thought to wear it again tonight. But instead took out a light blue and white one for the night. It matched the fawn colored jeans and blue shirt that I was wearing. As I pinned the cloth across my face, covering everything below my eyes, I heard a faint knock on my door.
"Come in." I answered the knock quickly. I was in a hurry to attend on to the guests despite my lazy self. I soon realized that I wouldn't be going down for a while now.
"They told me you were in your room. I would have waited but who wants to sit and talk to oldies." His deep voice was quieter today. These are the moments I hate, when my eyes give away emotions I want to keep to myself. I stared at him. His collared shirt, sleeves rolled up, fit his broad shoulders perfectly. His hair-light brown- weren't properly combed, just brushed with his fingers I suppose. The shirt wasn't completely buttoned up and I could see a hint of his chiseled chest.
"I thought you don't wear your.. um.. hijab all the time. Why now? You're not in store anymore." He tried to make conversation again.
This time I answered. "Yes, but I like having people intrigued by me."
"I would say you like attention. Mind if I make myself at home?" He teased.
"Please do. And maybe you're right. I haven't really thought about it." I sat on my dressing table chair, and looking into the mirror I put the last pin in place.
It was quiet for a while. And I took a little more time to settle my hijab. It wasn't long. I didn't like the ones that covered half of my upper torso.
I saw his reflection staring at me in the mirror. I turned around to face him, hoping he would start some conversation but knowing it was my turn.
"So is it difficult, wearing it?" He asked.
"Not really. You have to be careful while putting the pins in place." I was weirdly relieved.
"Do you have matching ones for every dress you own. Like girls collect bags and scarfs?" He laughed.
"I have my share of the bags and scarfs.. and shoes. But these, I have four. The black one's my favorite." I said lightly. I motioned to the light green and cream colored ones folded on my table.
"Mine too." There was something about the way he looked at me then. I couldn't make out what it was because I'd never had someone look at me that way.
"Uhmm.. okay!?" I wasn't sure about what to say.
For a while, we sat quietly. I tried not to meet his gaze.
"We should join the others for dinner." I managed to say without stuttering.
I stood up and he followed. But before we reached the door, he caught hold of my elbow and with the slightest strength pushed me against the wall next to the table. My heart pounded as his eyes bore into mine.
"Now, just hold on one second." He unpinned the hijab and as the cloth fell across my face, this time revealing what I was hiding behind it, a low gasp escaped his lips. I felt his hand brush against my cheek with the slightest touch.
You're beautiful was all he managed to say. I could feel my cheeks burn and I was sure they were the color of blood by now. His hand felt cold. For a while, his eyes lingered on my lips. I was biting them nervously. A few moments later, he pinned back the piece of cloth.
" You know, I wouldn't blame you if you wore that all the time. It makes it easier to resist you." He looked away and went back to sit on the bed. " By the way, black looks better."
I've been married to Kunal for six years now. For six years, I've been wearing my hijab whenever I've wanted to. I've been walking beside a man, who is more than happy to accept how I feel about my identity, who is proud to walk aside someone who believes being different is her right. There's something else that hasn't changed though. Something that I hope never will. Something that reassures me that its not necessary for the magic to die after being together for so long. Everytime he unpins my black hijab, a low gasp escapes his lips and I can hear how much he means it when he says he thinks I'm beautiful. When he stays up long nights with me, making me coffee so I don't fall asleep, I know he knows how much my priorities and freedom mean to me. I can feel the pride in his voice when he says, She's the one, always will be.