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Naseer lay beside his wife in the dark and wished he had never seen that video. He blamed it for all the trouble they had been having lately. He knew Rasheeda was angrier than she had ever been in all their years of marriage. Ever since he first asked her the question, she had flung her silence at him. But that was only during the day, in front of the rest of the family. At night, after the children were asleep, she hadn't been so quiet. Now, with his blood cooling, he thought of mollifying her as he had done for many nights lately, and making her understand with clear, logical, unemotional explanations why he needed her to do this for him. She was his wife, for God's sake. He had rights, didn't he?
"Rasheeda! Listen–" he began.
"Fifteen years we've been married and now you want me to do this–this thing!" His wife sat up abruptly, reached for her nightgown, and thrust her head into it.
Oh God, here she goes again.
"Allah, please put some sense into this man. Is this a good thing to ask your wife to do? I've had three of his children and now he asks me for this . . ." Her voice was muffled but the aggrieved tone came through loud and clear.
She acts as if she has a Star TV channel blasting directly into Allah's living room. As if He's just waiting there, eager to listen to Madam Rasheeda. Naseer knew the situation was serious, but he couldn't help smiling in the dark.
"Allah, he has gone mad. His body's noise is louder than any voice of reason," Rasheeda continued.
Why does she talk so loud? Naseer twisted his head around to make sure the door to the children's bedroom was closed. She will probably wake the children and his brothers and their wives and his mother the way she's carrying on. Surely his brothers didn't have troubles like his: a recalcitrant wife who sat up in bed at night and belligerently talked to her God.
He looked at her now as she sat marooned in the middle of the bed. The light from the streetlamp filtered through the cotton curtains, turning her broad back pale blue. It was hot and still and Naseer shivered involuntarily as the sweat on his legs dried.
A few nights ago, he had even cited the teachings of the mullahs exhorting Muslim wives to listen to their husbands in all things. But then she was hardly the sort to be frightened by the mullahs, not with her direct line to Allah.
"But Allah, I'll tell you one thing. Never shall I submit to this man's whims. I'll do my duty as a wife, but where is it written that I have to do such things?" Rasheeda's monologue showed no signs of flagging.
That last bit was for his benefit, not Allah's, thought Naseer as he reached for his pajamas at the foot of the bed. And what was this about doing her duty as a wife? When she was in bed with him, she didn't just lie there hating it like some other women he had heard about. He should know. She liked the stroking and rubbing all right. Not that there had been too much of that lately. Take tonight. He hadn't cared to slip his hand down her body and finish her off. He'd asked her right in the middle of it all, gasping the question at her, shameless in his need. But once again she said no, shaking her head from side to side, her eyes tightly closed. So he had ended it quickly and not bothered with her at all. But it wasn't right, and he didn't like it. Naseer shifted uncomfortably on the far side of the bed. He liked his fingers being swallowed up in her slopes and ridges and bumps, in that hidden, miniature landscape all her own. He liked having her face turned up at him, her eyes gone far away to the place where her feeling was building. He liked her giggling, embarrassed because she thrashed about so much. She'd always giggled, ever since the first time, a few months after their wedding when he had finally stumbled on how to pull her across the threshold of fear and nervousness to pleasure.
Her complaints to Allah done at last, Rasheeda lay down, taking care to not brush against him in the muggy dark. Everything had been fine right until the moment he sat down on the black rattan chair in Khaleel's shadowed living room and the video player was turned on.
Naseer had gone over to his cousin Khaleel's place to ask his opinion about a new van he wanted to buy. He'd use it to deliver hardware supplies from his store to customers who phoned in their orders. One had to move with the times. Khaleel had his own auto repair shop and could pick out a bad vehicle from a good one by merely listening to the sound of its engine, like a doctor to a patient's chest. Nusrat, his second brother's wife, had called loudly after him from the kitchen window as he opened the gate and stepped out into the street. "It's kababs tonight, so don't be late. You know how Rasheeda won't eat without you."
Adnan, thin and gangly, with Rasheeda's fine, flyaway hair, was playing cricket in the street in front of the house. After a quick sideways glance confirming that his father had stopped to watch him, he gazed seriously at the ball. Old Janaki Ram was sitting on his stoop in his striped undershorts, customary teacup in hand.
"Your boy is hitting four after four today," he said. Naseer smiled and rubbed at his beard to hide his pride.
A few minutes into Adnan's turn at the wicket, Naseer started down the street and Adnan lifted his hand off the bat for a second in farewell. Naseer fought an impulse to tell Adnan to go home before it got too dark. He was fourteen and Naseer didn't want to embarrass him in front of his friends.
The street barely managed to squeeze between the buildings that lined its length. The houses scrunched up against each other and in the shadows of the late evening they seemed to draw closer together, huddling over the street like gossipy old women. The houses around here had hardly changed from when his father's father had first moved in here. Naseer looked up affectionately at the lacy wooden balconies, their curlicued railings still overhung with the saris housewives had forgotten to take inside from the sun. As he walked he greeted the men resting from the heat on the porches, old men who, with the memories of his father still fresh in them, expected him to stop and inquire respectfully about the gout or kidney stones or unemployed son they suffered from.
Here and there transistor radios played softly, the tinny voice of Lata Mangeshkar singing a song about being stricken sleepless by love. One stanza flowed into another, accompanying him from porch to porch all the way down until he turned the corner onto Khaleel's street.
Here the houses around him were newer. Bright whitewashed walls shouldered up against worn stone flared and dimmed in the light of passing cars. A shiny black Fiat jutted out of a gate, taking up street space. Khaleel's place was the last one, just before the street curved away at an angle.
When Naseer got to the door the house was dark, yet he could see the TV's staccato flicker in the living room through the opaque windowpane. At his knock the TV was switched off. Khaleel took his time to answer the door.
"Oh! It's you. I thought it was Baba come back from Madras early," Khaleel said, wiping his palm down the front of his shirt.
Khaleel's father had a twenty-year-old property dispute that came up for a hearing every few years and took him away from home. The old man's tenacity had become a joke in the family.
"I rented a VCR for the day–thought I'd watch some films. You know how Baba is so strict and all, not allowing us to do anything." Khaleel moved aside to let Naseer in.
"All the women kissing men in broad daylight in front of the children, this TV sheevee will destroy the country yet . . ." Naseer mimicked his uncle's disgruntled old man's voice.
Khaleel didn't laugh as he usually did.
Looking at his cousin now, Naseer thought, as he had many times before, how strange it was that all the men in his family were short and wiry and bearded.
"So what're you watching? Anything with Amitabh in it?" Naseer loved the actor. When Sholay had been released, he had seen it five times.
"No," Khaleel said. "Come on in and see for yourself."
When Khaleel switched on the VCR, there were two foreigners on the screen–a woman and a man. The man lay on the bed and the woman knelt between his legs. White skin, golden hair, smooth nakedness. She bent down. Then she opened her mouth over him. After one frozen minute of incredulity, everything inside Naseer contracted. He put his hands over his stomach as if to contain the faint tremors he felt starting. He watched the woman, her movements sometimes languid, sometimes frenzied, her cheeks working. It was unbelievable that any woman would admit a man inside her face, to touch her tongue and her teeth and the inside of her cheeks. The two of them seemed bound together in some extreme ecstasy, the man watching the woman looking at him. They took a long time to finish. Watching the man as he arched on the bed, Naseer felt as if he was about to lose control and slide off the chair trembling and moaning–right there in Khaleel's mother's living room with its bright blue carpet and showcase filled with the ceramic dogs her daughter had sent from Dubai.
Naseer got up abruptly and mumbled something to Khaleel about coming back another time. Moving toward the door, Naseer saw himself reflected indistinctly on the TV screen, his shadowy form moving closer as he neared the set. Khaleel barely acknowledged his departure, and his eyes, glittering in the blue light, remained riveted on the screen.
Outside, Naseer leaned against the wall and breathed deeply. He could feel the rough stubble of its surface pressing against his shoulder blades and back through the thin muslin of his kurta. The wall was uncomfortably warm.
He couldn't bring himself to walk just yet, not with this hot weight in him, as if everything inside had descended to settle around his lower stomach and thighs. It was almost pain but not quite, he thought, shocked at the great scrabbling need that stretched down his middle. There had been a time when he was twenty-three and just married to Rasheeda when he could go four times a night. The greediness of a recent virgin–that's what it had been. The need had been a constant unfulfilled thrum in him. Now here it was again, as if someone had plucked hard at a taut string that ran from his head down to his toes.
When he finally pushed himself away from the wall and started walking home, he felt grateful that the old men on the stoops had gone inside to their dinners. He had heard the boys who hung around the college cafeteria snicker about things like this a long time ago, but it had always remained some mythic thing that occurred elsewhere, not in a home, not on an ordinary bed.