Shahzad is tall and handsome. Every morning he greases his hair with ample amounts of mustard oil and brushes his teeth with a miswak before beginning his usual routine of chores.
He is barely thirty, fair skinned, wiry and lithe. He moves with that easy grace which only a Hindu boy from the androon shehr, the walled city of Lahore, can possess.
He tells me stories of Hindu gods and goddesses, his love for his wife and his two-months-old son, his work with the renovation of their local mandir, his mother’s failing health…
I sit in my bed, yawning, dreading another day of endless work when he breezes into my room, collecting used plates and tea cups from the last night and washing them up in the sink, before brewing me a fresh cup of coffee.
He is always cheerful; humming a bollywood tune, chatting on the phone with his wife, smiling, arguing, teasing.
Shahzad Malhotra is the salt of the earth.
“Salam daactar sahib!” his voice is singsong and he speaks in thick majhi dialect.
I smile and rub my eyes as he moves about the dorm room.
I try and fail to get angry over being woken up so early on a Sunday morning. Shahzad makes my coffee, dark, strong and sugar-free. He butters up a toast and puts it in front of me.
I pick up the paper on my bedside table and take a sip of my coffee.
Shahzad is lounging on the carpeted floor near my bed, helping himself to some toast. He looks up at me. His eyes are dancing.
“Who is it, daactar sahib?”
I am confused. “Kon?” I raise an eyebrow.
“The one who keeps you awake all night. The one who makes you work out and stay fit. The one who tells you to try all these crazy hairstyles. Who is she?” he is smiling mischievously,“There has to be a woman in your life! Just look at you!”
I am taken aback. I try to smile but only end up grimacing. I feel heated up. Feel my face burning.
I never knew Shahzad noticed such things about me. Yes, before his marriage, he would tell me all about his ‘love affairs’ and texting and late night phone calls & I would laugh and cheer him up.
Yes, I went to his wedding when he finally married the girl of his dreams. Yes, I always enjoyed talking to him…but was he looking for a narrative similar to his own in my life as well?
Suddenly, I feel an inexplicable surge of grief. My heart constricts painfully.
We are not all as lucky as you when it comes to love, Shahzad, I want to tell him. We don’t all find our life partners as easily as you did.
Instead I mumble something incoherent. He mistakes it for my modesty.
“Sharmaen mat daactar sahib!” he chuckles.
“No really, there is no one, Shahzad,” I tell him.
“Koi tou hae. There has to be someone! Is it a girl from your class?” he laughs at my unease.
I laugh too. A little hysterically. I want to tell him about Sibtain, my first love. I want to tell him how he still haunts my dreams. I want to tell him about Subuk and how he makes me tongue tied. I want to tell him about all the guys I have went out with recently.
Instead I stay silent, sipping from my coffee cup, refusing to make eye contact with Shahzad.
The truth is, I am afraid of the scorn and disgust I know he would express the moment I tell him I am queer. I am afraid of the way his eyes would get cold and aloof after I come out to him. I am afraid of never hearing his light hearted banter and foolish jokes again.
So I keep my secret to myself and try to shrug off his curiosity with a carefree chuckle, “Shahzad you know you would be the first to know the day I finally fall for a girl!” I tell him.
Which is nothing but the truth. In a way.
Inside I feel broken and sad. I can’t swallow the buttered toast. My eyes are burning.
Shahzad senses the change in my mood and makes up some excuse to leave the room.
Why is my existence still a big fat lie to so many people in my life? People I genuinely care about? Why is my narrative such a taboo in my society? Why am I still afraid of coming out to so many people who matter so much to me?
I think about amma, abba, appa. I think about Saad and Bilal and Talha and Moiz. I want to share the wonderful delights of my love life with them. I want them to be happy for me. To support me. To tell me that in the end I am gonna find that special someone.
But something deep inside of me cringes at the idea. They would never understand. They would alienate me. Withdraw their love.
I imagine amma’s pained face. Think about abba’s sad pout. I hear the words ‘gandoo’ 'chakka’ 'launday baaz’ being hurled at me…
I shudder at the thought.
I feel a tear lurking at the corner of my eye. I blink furiously.
I pick up my phone. I want to talk to bhaiyya or Tess or Umaima, someone who knows. And understands. I wanna hear their gentle words. Let them make my pain go away. Let them ease me back into my usual state of careful numbness…