Wiping the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief, Rasheed stepped on to a wide street. He looked around, a hand shielding his face from the bright sun. Around him thronged people talking in strange accents and languages, excitedly exploring Singapore’s version of New York’s 5th Avenue. He had looked up the name of the store on his phone while in the hotel but half an hour later, he still hadn’t been able to locate the store. He decided it was time to walk into a store and ask for directions.
“Excuse me, please, I’m looking for the Eternal store?”
“Éternel” she said, correcting his pronunciation and giving him a withering look. His beard tended to have that effect on some people, he thought. No, he thought, mentally shaking his head. I need to make my 70 excuses. Maybe she’s just having a bad day.
“It’s on the next level. You’ll need to take the escalator” she said coldly before turning to talk to another customer.
He politely thanked her and walked towards the escalator. He puzzled over the sales assistant’s reaction: In the two weeks he’d been in Singapore, its people seemed to be fall over each other to help someone in need, yet it seemed like asking for directions was tantamount to being a criminal.
The staff at the Éternel outlet warmly greeted him as he stepped into the store. Bags of all sizes and colours lined the walls: he smiled inwardly as he pictured his wife going goggle-eyed at the sight of all the bags. For the umpteenth time, he wished he could have brought her along. It had been a long time since they had even gone on a shopping trip together, forget a trip outside the country.
“How may I help you, sir?” asked a young man approaching him with a smile.
“I’m looking for a bag for my wife. She’s a little crazy about your brand”, Rasheed admitted with a smile, recalling Mahira’s conversation with her sister over the phone. Mahira had rejected the idea of ordering the bag from the US and having it shipped to India. I don’t want it that badly. I might even look at some preloved ones if I can find them, she’d said over the phone. But Rasheed had seen her poring over the website for days together even after that conversation. She hadn’t said a word to him though, figuring he wouldn’t be interested. But in their eight years together, there were few things that he’d seen her get so excited about, so when he’d read that they had just opened an outlet in Singapore, he kept it to himself.
“Well, I’m not sure but I think I heard her mention a Diana line. This is going to be a surprise for her”
The sales assistant nodded with quiet eagerness. “Yes sir, that line is very popular among mothers-to-be.”
“Yes, that must be on the one, then” said Rasheed, relieved and smiling. “We have two kids and one on the way.”
“Congratulations”, the sales assistant bowed and then gestured towards his right. “Please step this way.”
Rasheed ran his eyes along all the bags and was bewildered. He had no idea which style Mahira would prefer.
“Shall I go over the features of each bag, sir?” the assistant asked, perhaps noticing the baffled look on Rasheed’s face.
Rasheed shook his head. There was no way knowing the features would help him decide. “Please just tell me what your best-selling bags are, and then I’ll pick one.”
The sales assistant turned to the shelves behind him and put three bags on the counter. Rasheed brightened immediately. “The red one, please.” He didn’t know much about bags, but he did know his wife’s favourite colour.
The sales assistant nodded as if in approval. It just struck Rasheed then that he hadn’t looked at the price tag. Mentally steeling himself, he discreetly turned the tag towards him, then gulped.
“It’s from our latest collection sir, I’m sure your wife will love it” the sales assistant said as if on cue.
“Well, she’d better” said Rasheed with a smile, and they laughed.
He collected the bag now placed in the store’s brightly-coloured gift box, thanked the salesman warmly and walked out of the store with a swing in his step. He couldn’t wait to see Mahira’s reaction! He hailed a passing taxi: fifteen hours until he could meet her.
* * *
It was barely a five hour flight but Rasheed was having a hard time sitting still. At four months, this Dawah trip had been the longest time he'd been away from his wife. He had made it a point to write her letters whenever he was visiting a new country. He loved reaching his hotel and finding a letter from her waiting for him. In her last letter, she too had seemed restless and anxious to see him. She still had a couple of months to go before her due date but she was having a tough time managing the kids without him. He looked at his watch again and shut his eyes, hoping to get some sleep.
* * *
Marwah and Hasan rushed towards him as he got out of the cab. He could see Mahira standing in the doorway in her ink blue prayer dress and a cream-coloured dupatta wrapped around her head. She was grinning and he ached to hold her. He had always thought pregnancy made her look even more beautiful.
After they had had lunch and the kids were taking a nap, he led her by the hand to the sofa and asked her to sit down beside him. She laughed at this unexpected display of his romantic side and sat down gracefully – or as gracefully as a pregnant woman could.
He reached behind the sofa and pulled out the box holding the Éternel bag from where he'd stowed it earlier. He watched with glee as her eyes widened and she grabbed the box from his hands.
"Wow! Wait... is this an Éternel bag? For me?!"
He nodded, a little worried now that she might not like his choice.
She tore the wrapping paper, eyes wide, until finally the lid came free of the box. She gasped as she lifted the bag into the air with both hands.
"Allahu Akbar! The Mona bag?! How did you even know?! And red?! It's red! Oh, it's so beautiful! I didn't even know they had a store in Singapore! "
She flung her arms around him, squeezing him with all her strength.
she said, kissing him repeatedly as he laughed.
"Wow, I’d have bought it much earlier if I’d known I’d get such a reaction” Rasheed said, holding her palms to his face.
Her smile faded then, and concern look took its place. "But this must have cost a..." she trailed off as he put a finger against her lips.
"Shush. Just don’t get used to it!" He said kissing her as she smacked his shoulder. She stood up and began strutting around the room with the bag on her shoulder.
He stretched out on the sofa and said, "Let's go out for dinner tonight. We can leave the kids with Ammi. I have so much to tell you."
"Oh yes, let’s. And this bag is dying to go and see the world! I love you, honey!" Mahira said, looking over at him as she opened the bag.
"Are you talking to me or the bag?" Rasheed mumbled, now half asleep on the sofa. She laughed, took a long look at his scruffily handsome form lying limp on the sofa and walked into their bedroom feeling grateful that he was home.
* * *
It was almost 8 pm by the time they were ready to leave for the restaurant. Ammi had decided to come over for the night so they were spared the trouble of dropping and picking up the children.
They stood outside the closed door, Rasheed putting on his shoes and Mahira dressed in her favourite grey abayah with a deep red scarf that matched her new bag. It gladdened Rasheed’s heart to see her so happy. The first few years of their life together had been difficult as his freelance Web development business was still gasping for air. They were always pinching pennies then and he'd hated having to use Mahira's savings to run the house. When the dawah bug bit him and he began going abroad for weeks at a time, she was unhappy at having to take care of the kids alone. But as time went by, and the weekly Quran classes that they attended together began to have their effect, things changed. Now she would be the one pushing him out of the door, saying that she hoped Allah ta'ala would give her a share of the reward too.
Watching her laugh, being back home with the kids' ruckus in the background, feeling the cool night breeze on his face… he hoped that this moment would last forever.
"Mahira! Mahira bete!” a shrill familiar voice rang out behind them, startling them.
"Mahira bete! Assalamualaikum! Do you remember me? “Tahira bi loomed closer, wearing a faded blue saree and a straggly black scarf half-covering her head.
"Assalamualaikum Rasheed beta, hope you are well by Allah's grace.” she added, turning towards him.
They both greeted her back. "Why don't you come in, Tahira Bi?" Mahira said kindly.
"Nai, nai beta. I know you two have lots to do. I'm just an old lady... why would you bother with me...?"
Rasheed left the inevitable protests to Mahira.
"Bete... don't mind me... I'm an old woman. Ah, I've seen better days... oh, my wedding had been such a fine one... one never lacked for money in those days. Now so many daughters to be married... It's good you have one son and hopefully the next is also a boy ... no burdens there. Oh well, Allah gives us... what can we say..."
Rasheed took a deep breath. He recalled that she had held them up for hours the last time she had visited. He politely said, "Tahira bi, we have to go somewhere... We're getting late. Can we help you with something...?"
“Oh no, no... well actually... my husband you know, may Allah bless him, he's dead and my daughter… her wedding is in two months. I need money for her dowry, the other side is creating trouble… if you could help… what can an old woman do, but pray to Allah! Mahira bete, if you have any clothes you want to give: old or new, any jewelry, anything is welcome. Last time you gave me your pink saree for the engagement, everybody liked it… if this time too…” she trailed off looking expectantly at Mahira.
Rasheed sighed. He watched as Mahira obligingly went inside. Surprisingly, she returned within a few minutes.
“Tahira bi, when you told me the wedding was coming up, I began putting together a few things. Nida is so beautiful, I’m sure these sarees will look good on her. Some of these are new so make sure you put them in her trousseau.”
“Oh Mahira beti, may Allah bless you with lots of boys! I thank Allah for people like you!”
Mahira touched her arm and said with a smile, “Bas Tahira bi. We’re just the channels through which Allah gives. All praise belongs to Him.”
Mahira turned to lock the door again when Tahira Bi said “Bete…”
“Ji, Tahira Bi?”
“Bete, that bag on your arm is so nice. My daughter always wanted a red bag. It will look so good on her on her wedding day. If you could spare it… Nida will be so happy” she said, an eager look on her face.
Rasheed started and then whirled to face Mahira. She was calm and looking at him, as if seeking permission. He wrestled with the feelings that rose to his throat, and then taking a deep breath, shrugged and began looking at his shoes.
“Sure, Tahira bi, let me just pull out my wallet. It’s new, so there’s nothing else in it yet” said Mahira, taking her wallet out of the bag and handing over the bag to Tahira bi.
“Oh Mahira beti, may Allah ta’ala bless you! My Nida will be so happy. I’ll come by next week with the wedding invitations… I won’t keep you two any longer!” hoisting the two bags on her shoulders she walked away in her shuffling gait.
“You didn’t have to…”
Mahira put a finger gently to her husband’s lips and recited, “Wa ma indallahi…”
“… Khayrun wa Abqa”, he completed the verse with her. And that which is with Allah is better and everlasting.
He might be the one calling people to Islam, but his wife was the one living it, Rasheed thought. He put his arm around her and walked her to the car.
“Will you take me with you, when you go shopping?” he said turning to look at her, as he started the car.
“Shopping? When am I going shopping?” she asked, puzzled.
“At the Friday market”, he said looking through the windscreen at the road in front of him.
“There’s a Friday market?”
“Yes, in Jannah”. He said turning to look at her with a smile.
“There’s a market in Jannah?” she said, laughing. Her deep red scarf enhanced the natural glow of her face.
He nodded and turned towards her. “Anas, may Allah be pleased with him, said that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah's peace and blessings be upon him, said, "In Jannah there is a market to which the people will come every Friday. The northern wind will blow and shower fragrance on their faces and clothes and, consequently, it will enhance their beauty and loveliness. They will then return to their families who will also have increased in their beauty and loveliness, and their families will say to them: 'We swear by Allah that you have been increased in beauty and loveliness since leaving us.' Thereupon they will reply: 'We swear by Allah that you have also been increased in beauty and loveliness since we left you.”
Mahira leaned over to his side and kissed him on the cheek.
"In sha Allah my dear, in sha Allah"