A dark hush fell upon the hall, as the Maulvi nodded to his daughter and asked for his spectacles. He perched them on his nose and peered sternly at Kemal, nodding disapprovingly, it seemed, all the time. After examining him from top to toe, the Maulvi’s eyes came to rest upon Kemal’s hands—quite empty, save for the humility in which they were folded.
Fatima nudged the Maulvi with her elbow, and the old man cleared his throat. “So you come empty handed at my door and ask for the apple of my eye. Is that fair price for one so beautiful, so accomplished?”
“I know all about you—your speech and your prospects. Why, I even know about the goat— there are no secrets between daughter and father here. I know what people say behind my back—that I’m a greedy old man who will sell off his daughter for the highest price.”
“I was not involved, I—.” Sweat formed at Kemal’s temple as the old man’s voice rose.
“Well, son, let me tell you, she’s not for sale—no man may put a price on my daughter. Do you think I will give her away to be a third wife in some harem…or risk a blind, wasted, twisted, mutated blind freak—like myself—as my grandchild by marrying her in blood relations?”
Kemal was shivering in his boots now; he gulped, but no words would come forth in his defense.
“So I’m glad you have come—empty-handed, but with your decency intact. What you offer— as hope and a future for my beloved daughter here—I warmly and humbly accept.”
A tear stole into the old rascal’s eye and his lips quivered as he embraced his daughter’s betrothed.
The steam train swayed and jerked on its way to Bombay, plowing through the green and brown Indian landscape, covering its passengers with hot dust and soot. The wooden benches made their backs sore, while noisy fans above blew air that scalded faces and dried sweat running down their backs. Fatima, wearing her bridal suit under her burqa, sat on the window seat, looking dreamily out at the blur of mango orchards and golden sugarcanes. Kemal, with his head nesting on her shoulder, dozed and swayed with the lurching coach.
“Are you awake?” she said when he suddenly sat up erect at a particularly hard jolt.
“Yes, I am now.” Kemal yawned and reached out for her hand.
“Don’t you have any shame?” she slapped his hand away. “In front of all these people.”
“But you are my begum now.”
“Do as you please with your begum within the four walls of your house, Kemal Mian.”
“Hmm…” Kemal stretched and nestled against his woman.
“Was the story about the silver salver true, Kemal?”
“I believe so,” he replied. “Some man gave it when I was standing on your threshold, with nothing but hope in my heart and in my empty pockets.”
“Did you know him?”
“No—but he vaguely resembled someone who came in my dream the night before, asking me to keep the faith—and I had nothing but faith that morning.”
“Must have been a Farishtey, then,” she smiled and closed her eyes.
‘I thought it was some agent sent by your father to corrupt me,’ Kemal mused, and smiled.
“It indeed is Allah’s will,” she muttered, “Amin,” raising her hands in prayer.