Silja, squeezed the ring back onto her finger. It was too tight. It didn’t fit. It hurt and didn’t feel right. All of which was indicative about her life right now.
Today was her wedding day; she was to marry Sanjay. She didn’t really know Sanjay, she certainly didn’t love him. She stared despairingly into the bathroom mirror, felt that familiar lump in her throat, gulped and blinked back tears that started to burn at the back of her eyes.
‘Silja, don’t be long– we need to go soon.’ Her sister Meera called from outside the bathroom. Meera was sweet, kind, good, obedient and easily pleased. Half turning towards the door Silja replied ‘Almost done,’ Silja’s voice seemed disconnected to her thoughts; words tumbled out without being connected to her inner feelings. She had always done this- responded with a reply people wanted to hear.
When she was little she dressed up in her mother’s wedding clothes. Her mother would always tell her how wonderful her wedding would be, how beautiful she would look and how much her husband would love her. She thought of Sanjay and the day they had been introduced. She’d walked into his parents’ large reception room. It was a huge room, light, airy and spacious. It had been expensively furnished. Two long leather chocolate coloured sofa’s sat in the middle of the room opposite the long, bay windows. Beneath the windows stood an oval shaped newly polished oak table on which was placed a vase containing freshly cut flowers; their scent was pungent..
Sanjay stood next to his mother. His father greeted Silja’s father and ushered them in to the room. Sanjay was tall and slim, his hair raven black and stylishly cut. He had dark eyes and long eyelashes, his nose was small and aquiline his lips were thin, his chin was small. He was a handsome man. He was dressed in traditional pakistani clothes: shalawar kameez and churidar pajama; it was a bluish grey and made of a very expensive fine cloth.
His mother, who was also strikingly good looking, with strong dark eyes and hair pulled back over a high intelligent forehead moved forward and announced. ‘Silja this is Sanjay’. Sanjay held out his hand formally, it felt limp and damp in her own. He smiled politely but his eyes remained distance- detached. In that moment she felt that behind this mask he was laughing at her, almost mocking her – he was aware of something that she wasn’t. They sat. Tea was served.
She knew her father had wanted the marriage. He’d wanted his daughter to marry into wealth. ‘Well there was enough wealth here’, thought Silja. The meeting had been brief. After polite and somewhat awkward conversation and the rings had been exchanged, Sanjay made his apologies and excuses to leave. Silja’s father thanked Sanjay’s parents for the invitation, sealed a date for the engagement; agreeing that the wedding would take place three months from now.
‘Only three months – but I hardly know him’, she wanted to scream at her father. They got in the car; her father was on his mobile. Silja remained silent all the way home. She felt empty, numb and powerless. She was twenty-two years old her life should be just beginning - it felt like it was over.
At home Silja said she needed to check her emails and went to her room. She fell on her bed, faced down and sobbed. She stayed there all afternoon until her mother called her down to help with the evening meal.
‘What did you think of him dear’, enquired her mother gently,
‘Your father is certain you made an effective impression on the family’.
‘Oh he seemed quite nice’. Responded Silja dismissively. ‘Mum’ began Silja, ‘I have just graduated with a 2:1 degree in biological sciences I would really love to go on and do a PhD.’
‘But Silja’, reprimanded her mother, ‘you will be too busy being a wife and starting a family to complete another long and intense course!’
Silja turned away from her mother to hide the anger and torment on her face. ‘But it’s my life!’ she wanted to scream. She turned back to her mother, handing her a borek pastry and smiled sweetly.
Her mother took it and said ‘You know that arranged marriages form a vital part of our culture. Our society thrives and succeeds through following………….’ Her mother droned on. Silja had stopped listening. She didn’t want to do their bidding; only be true to herself.
Both families met again three weeks later at the engagement. It had been held at the local cricket club. It was a beautiful sunny day in late May. There were lots of people there. They had congregated around the cricket house - a one story building, painted brilliant white. The sun bounced off its walls causing Silja to squint. At the front of the building was three sets of French windows, they were open, pulled back and fastened to the walls. Guests were coming in and out sipping lassi and eating pistachio kulfi. The grounds were immaculately kept; the golf course was verdant and lush green.
Sanjay’s father, spotted them, waved cheerfully and came over. He shook Silja’s father’s hand warmly ‘so good to see you again’ he exclaimed. He turned to Silja ‘You look as beautiful as the day young lady, my son will be delighted to see you – I shall let him know you are here’. With that he turned and walked towards a group of men. Silja followed him weave in and out of people and approach Sanjay. He said something to Sanjay who immediately turned his gaze towards Silja. For a moment Silja thought his eyes turned cold and hard, his lips twisted slightly but as they made eye contact his expression was instantly replaced with a smile. Sanjay said something to the man on his right and accompanied his father back to her.
Sanjay greeted her parents formally. He took Meera’s hand and declared ‘Mr Khan was it possible to have produced two equally exquisite looking daughters!’ He was polished and educated. His manners were impeccable. He took Silja’s hand and lifted to his lips and placed a delicate kiss on the back of it. His lips were cold. He said something about the amount of guests that had arrived and that they had been spoilt with such glorious sunshine. He then took Silja’s arm and led her around the party introducing her to various guests. They arrived at his cousin Amira’s side. Silja sat next to her. He made his excuses to leave saying that he had to sort out some business with a friend.
Silja watched him. He headed towards a tall, slender and well groomed man who had rather large eyes and a very full mouth. When he saw Sanjay he smiled warmly at him. The two men embraced each other as if they might be related. With that Sanjay, half turned in Silja’s direction and vanished with his friend amidst the crowd.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Meera was knocking on the bathroom door. Silja’s thoughts rushed back to the present. ‘Come on Silja,’ Meera said impatiently,’ we need to go now or we’ll be late’. Silja took a deep breath; she knew there was only one way out of this. She shivered and reached into the back of the medicine cabinet and behind the antiseptic mouthwash she found the small bottle of insulin, a needle and surgical tape. She took the items out and taped the needle to the bottle, lifted her dress and stashed them securely in the waistline of her tights. She would take it after the wedding; she had to say goodbye to her family first.
‘At last!’ cried Meera as Silja walked out of the front door. ‘Sorry’, replied Silja rather nervously and slipped into the car beside her sister. When they arrived at the mosque her father was talking to Sanjay’s father who looked rather cross. Her father saw her and immediately hurried over. ‘Hello darling’, he said trying to sound cheerful but was clearly nervous, ‘there’s a bit of a delay, Sanjay isn’t here yet but we believe he is on his way. Just wait here with Meera’. He walked back to the entrance where Sanjay’s father stood talking on the phone.
Ten minutes later a black car pulled up alongside Silja. A man got out of the back seat. He glanced at her and began walking towards Sanjay’s father. She did not recognise him. As she peered inside the car she saw another man sitting on the back seat. He was hunched over with his head in his hands. He looked up. His large eyes were bloodshot and there were tear stains on his cheeks, his full lips quivered slightly. She recognised him straight away. He was the man Sanjay had been speaking to at the engagement party. ‘I’m sorry’. He began. ‘Sanjay is dead. I found him hanged in his room. We, we ......we were lovers’. His head fell back into his hands and he began to sob quietly. Silja felt the blood drain from her face; she stepped back and turned and saw Sanjay’s father fall to his knees. He let out the most chilling and heartbreaking howl.