Dr. Henana Berjes
Frozen Tears and the Bridge called Hope.
While wandering through the desert, I surreptitiously, wondered about the Meadows. I had grown up in meadows, and somehow the barren landscape never seemed to appeal to my senses but I couldn't tell him that, as if that part of my thoughts was too clandestine, too sacred, to let him enter it.
I looked out for foliage, in this scant landscape. Had Nature forgotten to splash this part of the world with green or perhaps the pristine golden brown had overflowed as she was busy decking out the rest of the Earth in the blues and oranges and multiple other hues?
Or was it deliberate?
Like the blotch on the moon or like a little bit of ugliness makes you realise the importance of beauty.
The barren desert reminded me of the lush green world that I had left behind forever.
Abdullah adored the desert. He had grown up here. The Desert, to him, was not just motherland; it was the Mother, held in a sort of sublime reverence that I sometimes failed to understand. It was as if this part of the world had been consecrated by God himself, or so he believed. I could not contradict him, I might have been burnt down at the pyre of his thoughts so I kept mine to myself.
I had met Abdullah at the Airport. At that time I was, I'd say, barely into youth, a silly youngster who had just turned 23 recently graduated from medical school. Life, to me, was just a dream to be woven into reality as you chose it to be. Nothing called despair or sorrow had ever entered into my heart. Life was an enormous roller coaster ride and I was ready for the challenge. That was it.
It was my maiden international flight to the desert country. I had chosen to work abroad, not for money but for the adventure it offered. Abdullah bumped into me at the huge queue for visa check. He was all dressed up in white, with a white traditional headdress. He looked like a native.
"I am sorry Miss,"
He said helping me pick up the papers scattered all over the place as a result of his huge camera hitting my right hand. My passport had flown into another queue.
"It's okay," I flustered, partly getting used to the black cloak, the Abaya that I was supposed to wear in this country and partly over the fact that nobody wanted to speak in English. I felt every inch an outsider.
"I am so sorry," He said rescuing my passport and handing it back to me
"India? He guessed it from the dark blue colour of my passport.
"Saudi!" I suggested, looking at his green one.
"Yes," He said with a smile; that later on, I realised was so well associated with this question, in this country.
His demeanour was friendly so I felt comfortable immediately.
Being away from home for the first time and into a totally alien land, as my mom called it, I just melted into this warm welcome.
Our queues were separate, as per the stringent rules of the country. Abdullah smiled at me from his queue as I exited past the visa check counter to collect my luggage. I smiled back.
"Khamseen riyal" The man at the telecom counter told me as I bought the sim card from him, "Give more Khamseen Riyal, haada miya Riyal."
“How much more do I have to pay?” I asked again.
"Fifty more," someone said, toning down the sound of 't' in fifty.
I searched for a 50 Riyal note as I realised the familiar voice speaking over my head in beautiful Arabic slang was none other than Abdullah's.
I won't deny that it was wonderful seeing him again.
It was some trouble taking out further change from all the stuff that I was carrying in my arms; He guessed my discomfort and in a very gentlemanly way offered to hold my things till I settled down the bill.
We reached the escalators that exited from the main building; a car from the ministry would be waiting for me near the gate so I actually wasn't apprehensive about a handsome Saudi guy accompanying me till there.
It was safe and somehow he seemed friendly.
There wasn't much talking between us except that I told him that I was a physician. He told me that he was a freelance photographer and roamed about the world in search of "stuff he could relate to" but nothing came close to his heart as the desert did. The desert was his raison d'etre.
At the exit terminal, I saw a man dressed in white, with the same headdress that Abdullah had, holding a placard that displayed my name. "Dr.Sanjana, India.”
I rushed towards him with my baggage, nearly forgetting my companion whom I remembered after I had turned the corner. He was looking at me, a bit confused now. I waved at him and he soon joined me.
Abdullah exchanged a few words with the cab driver, which I didn't understand before I waved him a final bye from the rear window and that was the last I saw of him, at least for the next few months.
Life is not a Petrarchan sonnet, beautiful in its timing, perfect in its appeal and sometimes you really fail to understand what happened at a particular moment and why did it happen. You might say because it was destined to be so.
I was destined to meet Abdullah once again.
The month of October had barely set in and I missed home. I loved the fall, with its auburn and gold hues, its taking over of the greens and slowly turning them into crisp gold. It reminded me of my quaint little home in the Himalayas. I was born and brought up in the mountains where seasons changed, I sighed, looking out of the window at the erect date palm trees lining the entrance to the hospital, swaying elegantly in the breeze. They were as green as always. I had decided to go back home after I finished my yearly contract with the hospital.
"Enough of this adventure…!"I sighed going back to my Chair as I awaited the next patient.
The nurse announced the name of the next patient, and suddenly a familiar face appeared at the door. It was him after all these months and I was a bit surprised for I wasn't expecting him. Not in the least. A faint laugh escaped my lips as he, apparently, too was taken by surprise, fake as I would come to know later on for he had inquired the name of the hospital from the driver that day at the airport and he knew my name from the placard too but all that would come later.
He told me an entirely different story for the visit and the chance meeting that day and somehow, we exchanged numbers.
I told him that I was planning to leave the country and a sad look crossed his face.
It was too obvious.
He left soon after that but the look on his face kept haunting me for the rest of the day.
I wanted to call him but decided against it.
He called around nine pm that day and the next and the next and the next.
Our simple discussions turned fiery over the days, his words starting to blaze in my heart and mine in his. The phone calls turned more clandestine and the hours started stretching into midnight then into dawn. I don't exactly remember what we talked about but it became a habit, a habit that I couldn't get over. Dark circles seeped under my hazel eyes, my heart skipped at the mention of his phone call and suddenly I was in love with a man from another Culture, another Nation, another Religion and another Country. There was nothing common between us except the desire to be together forever.
We could not meet. Occasionally, he would come to the hospital but it was apparent that everyone was watching.
What was a young Saudi youth from a reputed family doing in the hospital talking to an equally young expatriate doctor?
Eyebrows started rising.
And then I met Rania.
A simple explanation as to why many of life's major questions remain unanswered might be due to the fact that we fail to answer them at the proper time. I failed to answer mine at least till the moment they became huge and actually unanswerable.
Rania had asked me a simple question and she had expected a simple answer, perhaps I failed to realise the intensity of her situation or perhaps I was too engrossed in viewing life in its rosy hues that I didn't comprehend what she was pointing at.
On a frosty December morning, I received a most unexpected visitor. An elegantly dressed lady, carrying an expensive Chanel handbag and wearing an exotic perfume with a disarming smile on her lips, entered my modest apartment.
She introduced herself as Rania, an entrepreneur by trade. She owned a chain of boutiques all over the province and she was the daughter of the most prosperous gentleman in the area, but what was she doing here?
Engaged, engaged since adolescence to the person I loved the most, and she couldn't live without…
Of all the eligible bachelors in the whole Kingdom..!
Abdullah, whose name had been written against mine, aeons ago or why would I be here, in this alien land…!
I couldn't breathe…
She wanted me to give up on Abdullah, or suffer.
He never told me of his engagement but it hardly mattered.
She had lost the war for now; I shut the door and broke down.
My contract ended but I didn't go back home. We went to Dubai and it was in this beautiful city, among his few friends that we got married.
I was a Muslim now and I had sealed all routes that lead back home.
My family back home was a sectarian Jat family. They would have had me killed if they found out that I had married without their permission, leave alone marrying into another community. Honour killings were very common in our community.
Abdullah faced a similar dilemma, maybe even bigger than mine, which, eventually would be mine too.
He had broken off his engagement with Rania, and the two families, who were business partners as well, would become the worst of enemies if they found out about us.
So what was the alternative?
In love, you rarely see what you ought to.
You dare not venture past the rosy twilight of your vision, for what lies beyond the dark is scary.
The future was bleak, but when I was with Abdullah, I felt secure.
In those moments, nothing mattered.
My vacation ended fast,
Moments spent in love, happiness, and trust are, as ephemeral as the morning glory.
Abdullah loved me with an intensity that equalled mine but reciprocated love is so short-lived, so endearing yet so killing.
We couldn't be together even though we were married.
My passport still showed my status as single and so did his.
It was, as if we had committed a huge crime by getting married, we just couldn't be together.
I resumed my Job in the country and he went back to his family. This was my second year of stay in the desert kingdom. My phone calls back home became shorter and less frequent.
But then I had to go back to India for a fortnight, as my elder brother was getting married.
The trip back home felt strange, as if I was being torn away from myself.
He escorted me to the airport, the place where we had met for the first time, but I couldn't even shake hands with him, leave alone hugging him tightly.
He waved at me from far, tears welling up in his eyes, as I tried holding on to the storm growling inside my seemingly placid demeanour.
"Fi Amaan Allah" I whispered silently, as the plane flew towards a destination that no more felt like home.
Delhi is a crowded place when you compare with any other city outside India but there's something essentially democratic about it, its Hindustani feel, the common dialect that everyone uses and understands and the way that no one bothers about you which makes you feel relaxed.
On checking out at the Indira Gandhi international airport, the first thing I felt was that the long absence had changed the place a lot. The airport seemed roomier than before and a number of new shops lined the aisles on both sides. A huge carved elephant stood near the doorway where people posed against it for pictures as memorabilia of India, I smiled…
I had nothing to take back as memorabilia, I had lost everything and I didn't know where I stood and where home was!
My brother met me at the exit.
A faint hint of recognition crossed his face which he jerked away before looking back at me once again.
“Sanju” a cry escaped his lips as he rushed towards me “Whatever has happened to you, you've lost so much weight,”
He hugged me so tight, I could hardly breathe.
I felt like crying.
Here I was among my family, my own kind, where on any other day of vacation I'd have been on cloud nine.
I didn't know how to respond to his endearments.
My heart was inflicted with a seething pain. I had my own troubles.
The drive home was a long one, even longer than I was used to. It seemed like a part of an unending ordeal. I was melancholy and sad.
My brother attributed my mood changes to the long journey and absence away from home. He tried hard to make me laugh but all he could elicit was a half-hearted smile.
I couldn't pretend or rather didn't want to.
I could see a worried look on his face and I saw him shaking his head once or twice as we drove home via highway 9 at full speed.
Home was a welcome sight this cold evening of December where I was setting foot after two long years.
Everyone was glad to see me as I was to see them but I missed him. The person whom I had left behind 5000 kilometres from where I was now, who was just a phone call away. Something stopped me from breaking out in tears right there.
Mom finally rescued me from the crowd of uncles and aunts who had flown in from all parts of India for the wedding.
I rushed to my room on the pretext of being tired after the long journey, locked the door and dialled his number. It must have been 4:00 in the morning there.
He picked it up at the first bell and hung up to call back.
“Hey” I answered.
"I wanted to call you but I didn't know if it would be proper. Why didn’t you call me as soon as you reached India?" He seemed worried.
“I got busy at the immigration check and then I saw my brother so I couldn't…”I told him.
“I miss you Sanju. Come back soon.” His voice sounded hoarse.
“Miss you too…,” I whispered, swallowing the lump that had risen in my throat.
I hung up. I wanted to cry.
A two-minute call was no consolation for the days I had spent missing him but I didn't want him to know what exactly I was going through.
The visit home had me visualise the repercussions of what I had done. I wasn't penitent but a strange emptiness started engulfing me from inside. There were too many “what ifs..!”
What if…my family found about us..?
What if Rania's did…? She already knew everything and she was heartbroken. A heart, broken in love is as sharp as broken glass. It can cause a lot of damage. It can kill. I dared not face the truth.
The marriage week went by swiftly and as I waved the honeymoon couple goodbye I had made up my mind. I had decided to stay back in India.
Sometimes we don't really know what we are capable of till we really have no choice left. I still loved Abdullah and there wasn't any doubt about it but the reality of where I stood had jerked me out of my fragile make-believe world. The enormity of the act that I had committed gave me sleepless nights. I changed my phone number, Erased all data and contact files from my cell phone and yet I couldn't erase the memories that I had earned. They refused to be burned down to ashes and the ache stayed. The fact that now, I was a married woman, made the pain even worse.
Maybe if I'd have been forced to stay back, it would have been different but self-inflicted punishments are the worst because you cannot even complain.
It was my second month in India. I had severed all ties with the desert kingdom as if I had never visited that place. My family never asked me about that place after they realised that the mention brought an unnaturally turbulent response from me but something wasn't quite right and everyone guessed that.
It was on a sunny afternoon on Sunday when my parents were off visiting relatives and I was alone at home that a soft knock sounded on the main door.
I bunched up my long hair in a messy bun and opened the door.
If the sky would have fallen down on me, I wouldn't have been so astonished but seeing him there, in my house, with overgrown stubble and sunken eyes was something that I had never expected.
I fainted in his arms.
Between tears and soft kisses, I opened my eyes to see Abdullah holding me in his arms.
“I…I didn't mean to kill you…” he smiled
“Well, you almost did…”I smiled back and at that moment nothing else mattered.
Abdullah told me that he had been really scared for me when I didn't call him back after that first call. He had waited, anticipating the worst as my phone was constantly switched off. Finally, expecting that the worst might have already happened, he had decided to come himself to search for me. He had managed to get my address from the hospital where I worked.
“I thought that your family had found out about us. I was so scared for you…”
We were sitting in a nearby restaurant.
“Were you planning to get killed too…?”I asked him.
“I don't know and at that moment it didn’t matter.” He answered
“Listen Sanju, I am in India on a six-month tourist visa and after that, I have to go back, you have to come back with me” He implored.
“Now, you really do want to get us killed,” I smiled at him. “What do you want me to do? Elope with you…?”
“That,” he said looking straight into my eyes, “you've already done a year ago. I just want you to come back with me as my wife this time.”
“What…? But what do we tell your family…? And what do I tell mine..?” I stammered. “We couldn't possibly stay together.”
“How could we ever convince them?”
“I don't want to convince anybody, I just want to be with you Sanju.” He said
“I’ve told Rania about us and she said that she was willing to help. We'll find a way to convince my family eventually. Just come, please…!”
“Rania…willing to help…!”
Something wasn't exactly right here. If first impressions count, Rania couldn't be trusted. She was too arrogant, and what about his family. ? How could he ever convince them?
What indigenous methodology had he stumbled upon or was it a figment of his own imagination? Was he totally out of his mind or was it really as easy as he made it to sound?
Even if I assumed it to be as beautifully easy as he made it out to be, what would I tell my family?
The big question still loomed large.
“Why are you so quiet Sanju?” His distant voice jerked me out of my reverie.
"Listen, Abdullah,” I said looking directly into his worried eyes.
“It is not only about you and your family. Don't I have a family too? What about them? What explanation do I give them? Tell me, Abdullah? And you know what? They wouldn't forgive me. They wouldn't accept it. I belong to a sectarian Jat family. There hasn't been an inter-caste marriage in our family in the last 5 generations leave aside getting married to someone from another PLANET!”
I almost broke down. This wasn't a proper place to cry for we were surrounded by people.
He searched my face with a shocking expression and I knew that I had hurt him.
Here was this man who had travelled five thousand kilometres to be with the love of his life and all that he had received was rejection.
“What were you thinking then Sanju?” He finally spoke in a hurtful tone. “What were you thinking when we stepped upon this path together? Where was all this logic about family and cultural differences when we got married? Why are you telling me all this now when I have reached a point where a life without you is unimaginable?”
His voice was hoarse and a notch higher in pitch than before. People had started noticing us now.
“Let's go somewhere else,” I said getting up from the chair, “this is no place to talk.”
He got up, reluctantly. I could see his steps faltering as we walked towards the door. He appeared tired. I had put him through a lot lately but I didn't feel like analysing anything at this moment. It was all so messed up. I didn't know what I was heading towards. Abdullah had finally decided to go back.
It was his last day in India and no matter how much he tried to convince me, I wasn't prepared. I was trying to be pragmatic. Yes, I knew that I had blundered once, but this was no solution. I told him that I'd stay in touch with him and maybe, in the meantime could find a way out without endangering his life or mine but now he must go, for it was too dangerous.
Fate is a cruel player at times and no matter how good a hand you play, you are destined to lose. It seemed funny that after Abdullah should leave for Delhi and I had decided not to go with him that the cruellest thing should come to pass.
My brother found out about us. I don't know how but he suddenly confronted me with each meticulous detail.
It seemed like he had been suspecting me since the day he met me at the airport and now he threatened to kill him before he reached Delhi…
I saw him leaving in a fit of anger that I had never seen on his face. I was too dumbstruck to react.
It was as if I had put Abdullah's life in danger. Why did I have to be such a fool? Why did I not walk away with him when he had asked me to? I felt like vomiting but there was no time to lose. I had to inform him that his life was in danger.
I called him and told him everything that had come to pass between me and my brother. He was a foreigner in my country and could be easily identified.
I made him bribe the taxi driver for a totally different destination.
He wouldn't go to Delhi. We would meet in Chandigarh.
Whatever transpired after that would make a wonderful part of any adventure movie but living the adventure is a totally different feeling especially when you know that you are doomed either way.
Rania's family had made it sure that Abdullah could never enter his motherland again without falling into their hands and if he did, I couldn't imagine a worse fate for him.
My family, my precious family had severed all ties with me and it was a blessing as my brother said that they weren't after my life!
We had nowhere left to go!
Jordan is a lush green country with its share of golden deserts and blue seas. It is one of the few places in the world that can boast of owning all the three besides my Motherland of course. We were here on a fourteen-day visit visa and would be crossing over to Saudi Arabia from Aqaba on the Jordanian side to Haql on the Saudi side via the Durra border crossing and that too, illegally. Suddenly we had turned fugitives in a world where just a couple of months ago we would have been treated as respectable citizens. Strange, what love could do to you and stranger, what you were capable of doing for people you loved?
Abdullah’s brother had promised to help him find safe passage home. Home meant somewhere in the desert but not yet close enough. Home was somewhere, where we would be safe but maybe not safe enough.
What had I done to my life and his but nothing mattered when he held me in his strong arms and said that he loved me. Suddenly his love was more than anything else that I could ever have asked for.
His brother arranged the things we would need on this dangerous but much-needed journey into the desert kingdom. The vision of the fenced Saudi Arabian border was all that I needed to fall down on my knees and cry, tears soaking my black veil which I had finally got used to. It painfully reminded me of my first day as a fresh graduate as I had set foot on the Arabian soil for adventure not realising in that moment that the second time I would enter this country would be as a woman that even I failed to recognise. Abdullah looked at me with tears in his eyes. I felt a bout of vomiting and then I fainted in his arms.
My first recollection of the peaceful haven called Haql was of a tidy little room with light pouring from a small fenced window. I could see white clouds decked on the clear blue sky. The air smelled of sea spray. I sat upright to realise that my head hurt bad. Abdullah was sleeping next to me. I gazed at his sunken eyes where dark circles had formed; His well-kept goatee had turned into an unkempt shaggy beard. He looked tired. I felt an invincible love rising inside my chest for him and I gently kissed his forehead. This was one man I was willing to fight the world for..!
“You okay?” He asked pulling up into sitting position, “You had fainted”
“Yes, much better now but I need water and Adol.” I answered “but where are we?”
“Home...!” He smiled.
“Home…! Where is home? I asked baffled now.
“Where the heart is,” He smiled quoting the famous anecdote, “and right now my heart is here..!”
The ‘home’ was a peaceful quaint little house located a bit away from the red sea but you could feel the sea spray in the air. The coasts of three significant countries could be seen from this part of the fourth country that I was in and yet none of them was ‘home…!’
Abdullah had grown up here as my unborn child would now but I wandered restlessly and aimlessly in the desert looking far into the sand dunes and with a sense of unbelongingness creeping into every single cell of my body. I had grown up in meadows among daisy and buttercup lined stretches of grass. This wasn’t a picture that fitted well in my heart but I couldn’t tell him that. He was going through his own share of troubles having been alienated in his own land. We were two misfit pieces of a jigsaw puzzle trying our best to fit in somewhere but fate had something else in store.
On a cold desert afternoon, as the sun raced towards the horizon casting a spell of orange all over the skyline where a chevron of birds were rushing home, a steel grey land cruiser sped over the sand in a direction where I knew Abdullah was. As if on a whim, I ran after the jeep, my black abaya flitting in the harsh desert wind. I heard a gunshot and then suddenly everything became silent. In that deafening silence where I could even hear my heart race, the screeching of tyres of a retreating jeep suddenly made sense.
A strange pain gripped my abdomen as I ran barefooted to where the shot had sounded from. A sight that would haunt me forever awaited me. Sprawled on the brown sand was the body of the person that I had loved with all my soul. Fresh blood oozed out from his head turning his white headdress into a bright red. He had died before I could even reach him. He had died even before I could say goodbye. I tore at my hair, and thrashed at my abdomen and there, on that fateful evening of July exactly three years after my first visit to the desert kingdom, I lost the two most important people of my life, Abdullah and our unborn child Zeyad, the bridge that I had hoped would have united two families someday but all that I was left with were tears that froze in my eyes that evening forever..!