Batool found herself entranced by a day in mid-March, a memory ensconced in the dimly lit basement of a government building where she and a colleague lingered, wrestling with a mound of overdue tasks.
As time passed, this day took on a foreboding hue, casting shadows over her life. In its aftermath, she found herself losing yet again, her colleague slipping away just as her husband had done before. The loss now made her a double widow, a reality she struggled to comprehend even after six months of her husband’s untimely departure. The gnawing question remained: Why did fate persist in its unrelenting cruelty towards her?
The sudden and jolting demise of her husband had thrown her into a state of disbelief, a perpetual realm of denial. The agonizing pain, at times unbearable, would surge forth especially when memories of their shared everyday existence materialized, persistently haunting her. Amidst the turmoil, she pondered if anything had the power to ease the anguish, to halt the relentless pain, if only momentarily. Could love be the balm she sought?
Life became a bleak canvas after her loss, each day devoid of purpose. Yet, a spark emerged unexpectedly, an incandescent passion for her boss at the new workplace. A man of utmost caution, he shared this trait with her, both naturally drawn to circumspection. A stranger at first, Batool embarked on this new professional alliance only weeks prior to her husband’s passing.
The boss’s full name intrigued her, an oddity in its own right. His unwavering attention to detail occasionally irked her, his penchant for perfectionism conflicting with her sensibilities. Yet, it was the stark contrast between his courteous demeanor and the tales of his sternness that intrigued her. His physical attributes, though mentioned, were but a backdrop to his allure, as Batool, in her middle fifties, grappled with her own sense of self.
In contrast, her late husband was her rock, albeit a fatherly figure rather than a husband. In him, she had found solace following her father’s passing, her devotion unwavering as she tended to his every need. Despite her ceaseless care, he was snatched away by an unexpected heart attack, leaving her with a void that ached with emptiness.
The void within her, now echoing with loneliness, yearned for connection once more. A compelling need for companionship spurred Batool to divert her thoughts towards her enigmatic boss. However, her pursuits were thwarted by a conservative society and its strictures, the boundaries of mourning still firmly in place. Though bereavement leave was granted, its confines were established by Islamic law, the period rigorously adhered to.
The boss, unbeknownst to her, was but a partial presence in her life, a mask covering her face in more ways than one. The pandemic, while fraught with hardship, offered a semblance of solace as it concealed the wrinkles she dreaded, a token of the passage of time. Both boss and subordinate veiled themselves, yet the chasm between them persisted, accentuated by his occasional unveiling.
Guilt gripped her as her thoughts strayed towards her boss, a transgression during the time of mourning. Society’s gaze bore down on her, compelling her to shroud her interactions with men in propriety. The land she inhabited, a realm of martyrs and widows, frowned upon such emotions. Zainab, a fellow widow, became emblematic of societal expectations, her decade-long grief forming a stark juxtaposition against Batool’s nascent passion.
Struggling with societal norms, Batool confronted her own complexity. In the throes of middle age, she found herself enmeshed in a tangle of emotions, navigating feelings of shame, longing, and confusion. Her clandestine glances towards her boss, tinged with desire, cast her into a realm of discomfort. She resolved to address her emotions, to confess her loyalty to her late husband, a declaration sent via modern means.
Her message elicited a response, a call set for a mere ten minutes later. The conversation unfolded, revealing an unexpected revelation: her boss was Christian. This revelation quashed any budding hopes, religious disparities rendering their connection unviable. While suspicions arose regarding the abrupt end of the call, Batool’s mind churned with uncertainty, torn between love, faith, and societal obligations.
The months ticked by, the veil of mourning receding to reveal the prospect of reconciliation. The end of the bereavement period coincided with Ramadan, a period of spiritual reflection and abstinence. As the month drew to a close, a message broke through the silence, summoning Batool to her boss’s office. Grateful for the opportunity, she eagerly embraced the chance to rectify past missteps.
The meeting began, instructions imparted, and work commenced. The boss’s office, usually bustling with activity, now shielded them from the world outside. As Batool hesitated at the door, torn between propriety and her desire to remain alone with him, fate intervened. The boss’s invitation guided her to a seat beside him, their conversation shrouded by her mask.
An exchange of folders prompted a confusing mix-up, the blue folder replaced by its red counterpart. A lapse in concentration or a twist of fate resulted in her unintended transgression. His patience waned, his words curt, delivering a declaration that shattered her hopes. His intention to transfer her to another department pierced her heart, leaving her in a haze of disappointment and bewilderment.
In the wake of this incident, Batool’s thoughts became a swirling vortex of conjectures, each scenario playing out in her mind like echoes reverberating within the Marabar Caves of Forster’s “A Passage to India.” Memories of past discussions with friends about the novel resurfaced, her own experiences now mirrored in Adela Quested’s enigmatic journey. The truth remained elusive, an unfathomable puzzle that eluded her grasp.
Batool’s longing to unravel the events of that fateful day persisted, her determination unyielding. Amidst the uncertainty, a memory resurfaced, the moment when their worlds briefly collided as his finger brushed against her hand. This touch, a mere flicker in time, became a tether to her emotions, a testament to the intricate dance of desire, guilt, and the unknown.
Cover image by Christina Langford-Miller / Unsplash. The copyright of ‘Veiled Whispers ’ belongs to Bushra Juhi Jani.