Ever After (Part 1)

Shagufta returned from her bookstore today, to see little Razia watching her favorite cartoon late in the night. She glanced at the clock. It was 10.30. She was late again today.   “Razia, it is too late beta. Why aren’t you in bed?”

“Sorry ammi, I wanted to have dinner with you.”

“What? You haven’t had dinner? Didn’t Kanu maushi make dinner? "

“I don’t know, ammi. I didn’t check. I wasn’t hungry.”

Shagufta ran to the kitchen. She opened the lid and breathed in the aroma of freshly made palak paneer. She served it in a plate and the two of them satiated their hunger. She mentally blessed Kanu maushi for being such a great cook. Then, she whipped up a chocolate smoothie, added a scoop of vanilla ice-cream with bits of almonds on top, just like Razia loved. She devoured it with the hugest possible grin.

“Why do you come home so late ammi?”   “Ammi has lots of work going on in the shop, beta. But I will try to come early tomorrow, I promise. Now, quickly brush your teeth and go off to bed!”

Razia reluctantly got up and stomped off. Shagufta smiled! Inspite of her occasional antics, she believed her daughter to be extremely understanding and well-behaved. How else would she be able to focus on her bookstore if Razia hadn’t been so mature at a tender age of six? Kanu maushi would pick her from school at three, and after giving her food and taking her for play, would leave in the evening at seven, and Shagufta would usually be home by nine. Never did she find a broken plate, or a messy room. Though she had her own fears of letting a kid stay alone at home for a couple of hours, she was always reassured when she would come home to find Razia playing with her blocks or sitting with a story book. On better days, she would be enthralled by her mother’s stories of wizards and goblins and princes and fairies. Shagufta enjoyed spinning out enchanted fairy tales and weaving a world of dreams and dazzles for Razia, and she would listen awestruck, with her big green eyes wide. Even though she was a spitting image of her mother, whenever Shagufta looked at her, she would remember Sameer.

Sameer had visited Kashmir with a group of friends in the summer of 2006, and when he went to enlist the services of a car hiring company in Srinagar, he met Shagufta. It was love at first sight for him. Shagufta’s father, who was the owner of the company didn’t realize how Sameer came in everyday on one pretext or the other, only to see Shagufta. They started meeting outside secretly after Shagufta’s college. Sameer would get lost in her Urdu and English poetry, and into her green eyes. The romance bloomed into love in no time, and when Sameer went back to Mumbai, he could only think of her.

One fine day, they decided to elope and marry, and Shagufta was transported from the rustic world of hills, valleys, and flowers to the fast tracks of a bustling city. She adapted soon, and a major reason was the bookstore that Sameer co-owned in Fort with his friend Amir. She would go to the store with him every day and read. She would never get tired of browsing through countless books, and many a times, joked that she married Sameer only for the bookstore. She continued her visits till she held Razia in her hands for the first time, three years after her marriage. Unfortunately, Razia was only four when Sameer died in a road accident. Shagufta’s world turned upside down. She took the hard decision of staying in Mumbai and raising her daughter and handling the bookstore at the same time. The two things that were entrenched in her soul as much as Sameer. That reminded her of some of the most beautiful memories she had with him, and the loveliest phase of her life.

Shagufta handled her bookstore with great acumen, and with full support from Amir. But, the advent of digitization, e - books, and online libraries posed a great threat to their business, and therefore, they had taken the bold decision to diversify into children’s toys too. She had invested a significant amount into this venture, and every day after the store closed, she would sit to work out the finances with Amir. She had taken a bank loan and now it was critical to make sure everything was smooth sailing. However, juggling between the store and Razia, Shagufta had no time for herself. She had no one to call her own, or to look for comfort when things were down. She had not spoken to her parents for a long time, out of fear of their rebukes. Plus, she was extremely settled in her routine, and had no inclination to rock the boat. Hence, she was completely oblivious to the advances made by handsome, well-to-do men who visited her bookstore. Extremely pretty and confident, she was desired by many good prospects, but Shagufta could not imagine being with anybody else after Sameer.

One day, when she finished reading the Snow White story to Razia, she was taken aback by her thoughtful intrigue.

“Ammi, when will you find your happily ever after?”

“I’m already happy my dear! I have you. And we have the bookstore with so many books!”

“But that’s not ‘happily ever after’ Ammi!” Razia considered her mother with intense eyes.

“Where is your prince?”

Shagufta was touched by her six-year-old’s concern.

“I don’t need a prince, my dearest. And, there are no princes in today’s world. They are only in stories.”

“So, will I not get a prince too?”

“Razia, you will grow up to be a lovely, smart, and confident girl who will get everything she wants!”

“What do you want, Ammi?”

Shagufta could not answer that question. She had never thought about it since Sameer’s death.

What did she want? Did she want a companion? Yes, maybe. But, only if it fit perfectly in the existing jigsaw of her life. She had no strength for any more transitions. She had no more courage to take any more bold decisions in her personal life. She may not be the happiest, but she was content. She knew she had options, but did she want to explore them?

Find out in chapter two.