The following has been excerpted with the publisher's permission from Umera Ahmad's Till Death Do Us Part, a translation of Man-o-Salwa. A popular author and screenplay writer, Ahmad's works have been turned into TV hits like Zindagi Gulzar Hai.
'My God!' A scream escaped her when she saw the coat.
'Why? Don't you like it?' He pretended ignorance.
'Ten very good coats could be had for the price of this one. You really are a spendthrift!' She was really annoyed.
'So shall I return this and get you ten very good coats?' he asked in the same tone.
'How much money must you have squandered in your life buying women mink coats like this?'
He looked at her, speechless. 'What women?' His response was spontaneous.
'Well, there's no need to be so angry,' she replied defensively, realizing that it was something she should not have said.
Without a word, and furious, he walked out of her apartment. Distraught, she ran after him. 'I was just joking. Anyway--now get over it. OK? I'm sorry...Do you want me to go down on my knees and beg forgiveness? Oh, please say something! I'm asking you to excuse me--what more do you want me to do? Die?'
She was distressed as she followed him to his car. He stopped.
'I would not have minded so...but this vulgar statement of yours...' He was deeply upset.
'Don't give me such expensive gifts,' she said in a serious voice, interrupting him.
'Why not?' he frowned.
'Because I cannot reciprocate with expensive presents for you.'
'Who's asking you for any gifts?'
'No one is asking me, but it makes me feel insignificant, very small.'
'The basic reason is that your mind is small, and a small mind can only think small thoughts.' He stood there shouting at her and then, standing by his car in the parking lot, continued to scold her. 'No intelligent man should fall in love with a stupid woman,' he finally concluded.
'Oh, so that sums it up! Neither am I stupid, nor are you intelligent. Come, let's go back.' She spoke calmly as she grabbed his arm and dragged him away from the car. He was tight-lipped for a few moments, but then burst out laughing.
'You have no idea how cold it is out here--and you dragged me out all the way. See, my hands have turned blue.' All the way back to the apartment, she kept talking.
A ball dropped from the juggler's hands and rolled towards his feet. He nudged it back with the tip of his shoe and moved on towards the next beggar. The man was playing his flute and nodded in welcome when he saw him coming. But for the first time today, he did not notice the greeting. Instead his eyes were fixed on the red Italian shoes she had bought yesterday from a trendy shop, after trying on fifty pairs.
A shiver ran up his spine. Was she mad to have discarded her shoes on the pavement and to walk home barefoot in this cold weather? What would the snow and the rough surface of the pavement have done to her feet? He felt as though he'd been punched in the stomach.
She had wanted a pair of red shoes to match her red outfit. They had searched in four different shops and then turned into the fifth. He was quite irritated by then, while she was cheerful and chirpy as usual.
'Just what sort of shoes do you want?' he finally asked when she had rejected the fifteenth pair. In response she gave him a serious three-minute lecture on the colour, design, style and standard of the shoe: all he fathomed was that it was a pair of red shoes with stiletto heels that she wanted.
'Why don't you buy shoes in some other colour?' he asked in a cautionary tone as they entered the seventh shop. She gave him such a withering look that he felt embarrassed.
'My clothes are red,' she stated, enunciating each word as an adult would explain to a child. 'So common sense dictates that I should get red shoes to match,' she added. He did not bother to say anything further.
'Somewhere there must be a pair of red shoes with her name on them. What more do I have to do but escort her,' he thought to himself. And when he was convinced that nowhere in this city did such a pair of shoes exist, she turned to him as she tried on yet another pair.
'I think these are just right. What do you think?'
'Just perfect.' He immediately pulled out his wallet. She laughed out loud at his gesture.
'At least look at what I've selected, see how they look on my feet.'
'However they may look, I'm very happy that you've at last found something you like.'
As he took out his credit card, he looked in a cursory manner at her shoes. They looked pretty on her feet; but so did the other fifty pairs she'd tried on in the last five hours at the scores of other shoe shops.
And the $250 Italian shoes, found after a five-hour search, were now lying on the uneven pavement before the flute player, who must have been equally amazed to see her cast off her shoes and walk barefoot in this severe, bone-piercing cold. He must have thought that she too must be stoned or drunk.
Her mink coat, her shoes, her watch, and mobile phone all lay scattered along the pavement--what else did she have on her to be thus discarded? He knew she had only two things left: the red dress she was wearing and her ring, the only piece of jewellery she wore that day. The dress was her own--had he bought it for her, she'd have flung it away too as she had flung away whatever gifts he had given her.
The middle-aged woman sketching on the pavement was the fifth beggar--and the ring ought to be lying with her. He stood before her. The woman was out of her senses or that's what was believed. Unlike the other four, she never raised her head to look at anyone.
She would always draw the same man's face--a handsome young man--and she drew his face from different angles. Doubtless, she was an expert at sketching. They would often stand near her and watch her at work, and by now were quite familiar with the young man's face.
'Who could this man be?' She asked him one day. 'Her son, may be?'
'No, it's not my son,' the woman replied, unexpectedly.
She looked at the woman, amazed, and then at the sketch as she stood there transfixed with her hands deep in her coat pockets.
'Then who is it?' she asked. The woman turned to look at her: a strange expression filled her face, her eyes.
'Anyway, let it be.' The woman did not respond, and she did not pursue it--she understood.
The woman continued to draw the same face, and on her right hand was the platinum ring that seven days and seventeen hours ago he had give his friend at three in the morning.
'I can't understand where it could have gone.' It was three o'clock in the morning. He was in her apartment, turning his coat and jacket pockets inside out, searching. He decided to try one last time.
'What's gone missing?' she asked stifling a yawn, her eyes droopy with sleep.
'It was a ring.' He was checking the inside pocket of his jacket.
'What ring?' Yawning, she flopped down on the sofa; she could barely stay on her feet in her drowsy state.
'There was a ring,' he repeated as he shook out his jacket again.
'Or is there some other problem?' She patted the cushion into place.
'What problem?' He was surprised.
'Now if you should turn up at someone's place at three in the morning, this is what you should expect to be asked.' She piled up the cushions in one corner of the sofa and lay down.
'When you leave, make sure the door's shut properly. What are you doing now?' She was about to lie down but she suddenly sat up when she saw him move the chairs around, looking for something on the floor.
'I think it must be here somewhere,' he replied without looking at her.
'I'm going to sleep now and if you must move any chairs around, please do it without making a noise. Will you dig up my apartment in search of a ring?' she muttered annoyed as she lay down and closed her eyes.
He was right: the ring lay on the floor, near the door. He breathed a sigh of relief. It had taken him five minutes to find it, but she was already fast asleep. He came up to the sofa and called her softly but she did not wake up. Then squatting down beside her he gently took her hand in his own and carefully slipped the ring on her finger. Then going to her bedroom, he brought a blanket and covered her, and very quietly, left her apartment.
Till death do us part. Even standing at this distance he could clearly read the words engraved on the ring. What was she trying to do? Was she throwing him out of her life or removing herself from his?
Part 1 of Till Death Do Us Part by Umera Ahmed is available from today on the Juggernaut Books app for Android and iOS.Suggest a correction