Cookies and Constellations (A short story inspired by true events)

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It was hot. Too hot. Zoya’s dupatta seemed to tighten like a noose around her neck as sweat tricked down her spine. Surely she should not be feeling claustrophobic in this large room with the air conditioner on full blast. Then why did her heart hammer as if she had just run a marathon? She would have screamed but suddenly it felt like all the air had left her lungs.

“So, what kind of cuisine do you cook well dear?”  The high pitched nasal voice left a ringing in her ears as she turned to face the speaker. “Uh, well my father always loves it when I make his special breakfast cheese omelet,” Zoya replied attempting to plaster a polite smile on her face. Across the room, her father beamed with pride and affection. On the other hand, the middle aged lady’s unimpressed expression did nothing to calm her nerves. Her mother quickly jumped into the conversation to salvage her culinary reputation in front of prospective in-laws. Zoya listened as her mother narrated a story from the previous Eid, when she had prepared exceptional biryani. Apparently, all the guests had generously showered her with tons of praise. Strangely, Zoya remembered it as the never-to-be-repeated-Eid-biryani-fiasco. They had been forced to order takeout to feed their guests. Predictably, the lady could not stand it any longer and launched into a saga paying homage to her son’s perfection.

She had heard horror stories about such visits before but had always treated them as exaggerations. Now, Zoya could sympathize with generations of poor girls exposed to this sort of trauma. Instead of a seemingly innocent proposal, it was playing out like a deal with the devil: a fight for her very soul! Earlier in the day, she had somehow kept it together while helping to prepare a grand welcome for the expected guests.

Her mother had the whole house in uproar, snapping at anyone who dared to stand idle in her presence. She could not remember the last time her house had looked this immaculate. Delicious goodies had been brought in from the local bakery, including her favourite cookies. “Everything has to be perfect for this afternoon’s tea!” her mother had constantly stressed. Zoya had observed her sister’s failed attempt at sneaking a cookie followed by loud reprimanding by their mother. Within minutes, sharp maternal scrutiny had shifted her way as the critical gaze had landed on a clock. “Why are you not dressed yet?” the frazzled hostess had demanded in a panicked tone. Rushing into her room, Zoya had hurriedly dressed while rummaging through her limited cosmetics’ collection. Her hair had just not been in the mood to settle down and she had been worried about tripping in her only decent pair of heels. “Everything is happening so fast!” she had complained to herself. Looking back, that was probably why she was caught unawares by the current situation.

Sighing to herself, Zoya tried to believe that patience was a virtue and prayed hard to get out of the present predicament in one piece. The shuffling of feet and creak of sofas brought her out of her reverie. “We will let you know of our decision then”, the lady stated in a regal tone as she walked towards the exit in her now familiar stately manner. Concealing her relief, Zoya joined in the polite farewells, bracing herself for the in depth analysis that was sure to continue in the following days.

After hearing no news from the matchmaker or the family in question for three days, her mother’s patience finally cracked. As she left to make a phone call to the matchmaker, the atmosphere in the room turned alert. Zoya pretended not to care but her pounding heart betrayed her true emotions. She didn’t lift her gaze as her mother returned and sank into the chair next to her. “Unhone kaha k sitarey nahi mile (They claimed that the stars did not match)”, she revealed in an unbelieving murmur. As Zoya’s head snapped up in shock, a moment of stunned silence descended upon the audience. Then hysterical laughter burst out from the corner her sister occupied. She was dumbstruck by the sheer absurdity of the statement. As far as Zoya was concerned, she had just dodged a bullet.  A glance at her father confirmed he was red faced and fuming with barely restrained rage. With great effort, it seemed, he kept his composure and stalked out of the room. Her mother made to follow him in her trance like state but stopped short as her sister blurted out, “Tmhare sitarey gardish mein hain Zee! (Your stars seem to be in revolution Zee!)” As Zoya watched her sister side step a well aimed smack on the shoulder from their mother, she had a feeling this was only the beginning.

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