All Drama, No Queen: Read an excerpt from Andaleeb Wajid’s latest romance
Note to self: Never drop an egg on your kitchen floor.
Second note to self: Never wipe it with the rag that you normally use to clean kitchen surfaces.
Now my whole kitchen stinks of egg. Maybe I should cancel dinner at home and take them to a restaurant. But do I really want to see Irshad sit across me at a fancy candlelit restaurant with Shagufta’s talons firmly embedded in his biceps, whispering things in his ear?
For that matter, what’s to stop her from doing it here? I place the chocolate cake in the oven, shut the door and get up. I don’t want to think about it. But I don’t know how much longer I can pretend I can’t see them canoodling, like I’ve been doing the past few days.
My stomach clenches in anger but I take a deep breath and try to keep calm. Why couldn’t I have found Irshad just six months ago? He was single then, and would happily have moved to Bangalore. He would have set up his clinic and fallen in love with me and proposed. We would have got married and lived happily ever after.
I still believe that it’s possible, no matter what Priya tells me. She thinks I’m being crazy, trying to split up Irshad and Shagufta, but she doesn’t understand the depth of my feelings for him. Sometimes it scares me too.
Shaking my head, I finish preparations for dinner, and once everything is done, I spray lemon-scented air freshener liberally in the air. I grab a quick shower in my room, wishing I could tell Shagufta to get lost and never come back.
Irshad was attacked by Reshma Phuppu’s husband and his goons a month ago. When he was discharged from hospital, I brought him back here with me to take care of him. But of course, Shagufta had come to Bangalore by then and they were both staying here in my house.
Shagufta has been hankering to go back to Mumbai, but Irshad is reluctant. Maybe he wants to take it easy after nearly losing his life. I wish it’s because he is beginning to have feelings for me. Ever since she came to Bangalore, I haven’t had a conversation with Irshad alone.
I finish my shower, trying to channel my thoughts in a different direction because everything hurts.
Seeing them together hurts.
In my room, I go through the clothes in my wardrobe, glad to be back in my own house after so long. While I love Priya to bits and she will always be like my sister, I realize I didn’t think of her apartment as mine. I missed my home.
Priya will never really get why I love this house so much. It’s where my parents lived, where their essence still lingers. If I shut my eyes and transport myself back to those years, I can almost see Abba squinting his eyes at something or sitting at his desk and signing papers. Ammi would always smell of expensive perfume and turpentine, a combination that still reminds me of her.
Irshad gets it, although he too is of the opinion that I should sell the house and buy an apartment, because it would make my life easier. Well, who wants an apartment?
I’m wearing a red kurti and neon green leggings. My clothes reflect my mood tonight and I can’t change that, no matter how much Shagufta stares at me with her wide, kohl-lined eyes, dressed in her sophisticated pastel-silk wardrobe. I leave my hair open, and it’s looking a bit wild tonight. I’m deliberately being the complete opposite of Shagufta. Her hair is never out of place, not one strand, and it’s like she carries a beauty salon in her handbag.
I do wonder what Irshad makes of this whole thing. He knows how I feel about him, thanks to blabbermouth Priya. Initially, he’d been shocked, but I’ve been careful to hide my feelings.
The oven timer dings, and I walk back to the kitchen. I look at the walls of this house, at the little curios Abba liked to decorate the house with, at the solid evidence of their presence in the house, and I whisper to them: Abba, Ammi, you’re with me, right?
The doorbell rings and I make a face. I’ve tried giving Irshad a set of keys to the house but Shagufta hands them back to me every single time, sweetly proclaiming that they’re not planning to stay for long, so why bother with the responsibility?
Taking a deep breath, I go up to the door and open it. There they are—the love of my life and his fiancée from hell.
I paste a grin on my face and let them in, determined to smile through dinner even if it kills me. Irshad walks inside, an uneasy smile on his face. In fact, I don’t even remember him smiling any other way, because ever since Shagufta came to Bangalore, this is how it’s been.
Shagufta drops several expensive-looking thick paper bags on the sofa and removes her nude four-inch heels. She puts her head on the sofa and sighs expansively.
What? Shopping in Bangalore sucks? I want to ask her savagely, but I keep the smile on my face. Do it for Irshad, I tell myself. He looks tired, and I want to immediately go to him and massage his temples. She’s an idiot. He’s just recovering and she’s keeping him out all day. Obviously, he’s exhausted.
‘Tea?’ I ask them both even though it’s late in the day. Irshad loves tea and I’ve begun to have cups of it to give him company, just for an excuse to sit with him and talk. Coffee, my first love, will have to forgive me for this betrayal.
‘Yes!’ Irshad looks relieved. He glances at Shagufta, whose eyes are still shut. She makes a face even then. But he looks at me gratefully, and in that brief moment, it’s all worth it.
‘None for me!’ Shagufta says, opening her eyes and staring at me like a predatory cat. ‘I was planning to get some green tea teabags but I thought, why bother. We’re not going to be here for long.’ Her usual refrain, of course.
Ignoring her, I get up and walk to the kitchen to make tea, when she trails behind me.
‘Look, Farida, don’t bother with dinner, okay? We had something to eat and we’re not that hungry. I feel really bad you’re constantly cooking for us,’ she says, although she doesn’t really look like she’s feeling bad. There’s an air of victory about her face and I pretend to smile even as I swallow the anger that has erupted inside.
‘Oh cool. No problem then. I won’t make dinner just for myself. I’ll probably Swiggy something,’ I tell her as I place the pan on the stove for the tea. She observes me in silence as I pound some ginger in a mortar rather enthusiastically (because in my head it’s her face) and then add it to the milk.
Apart from that first showdown that she had with me when she came here after Irshad’s attack, she hasn’t really brought up her relationship with him, and I’m glad, because I don’t know if I can bear hearing about it from her. She doesn’t know the extent of my feelings for Irshad or she would have parcelled him back to Mumbai instantly. She just thinks I’m some annoying female relative that Irshad feels sorry for.
Since Irshad knows how I feel, I’m worried that he will tell her one day and then that’ll be it. I will never see him again.
‘Sure you don’t want some?’ I ask conversationally, because she’s still looking at me. I turn to her and see that her eyes are narrowed.
‘You already cooked dinner,’ she says accusingly, looking at the casserole on the counter.
‘You could have messaged me,’ I tell her, not backing down. ‘I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble.’
She doesn’t say anything but flounces off, ostensibly to her room. Within minutes, she’s back, furious.
‘What’s this stupid eggy smell everywhere?’ she asks.
‘Where?’ I ask. The look of surprise on my face is so genuine, I would have believed it myself.
‘In my room. In the bathroom, on the dresser!’ she mutters.
‘I’ve no idea,’ I tell her fervently, straining the tea into two mugs. When the kitchen floor started smelling of egg, I didn’t think twice. I took the rag with which I’d wiped the broken egg and rubbed it all over the surfaces in her room before I went for my shower.
‘I’ll tell Chinamma to clean your room properly tomorrow,’ I tell her as I take the tea to the living room. Irshad is sitting on the sofa, now wearing a T-shirt and track pants. He takes the mug from me gratefully, our eyes meeting for a second. My heart does a little bumpity-bump, but the moment is destroyed when Shagufta sits down on the sofa, complaining of a horrid sewer-like eggy smell in her room.
‘I can’t even shower, the smell is that bad,’ she moans.
‘Use my bathroom,’ Irshad offers generously.
Her face lights up.
‘But my whole room stinks,’ she says.
‘Then stay there, na,’ he suggests. I feel the blood drain from my face. All I know is that they’re engaged. But how intimate are they? Would they sleep together in the same room? I’d thought Irshad would be a little more circumspect, especially in consideration of my feelings. Had I unintentionally pushed Shagufta into his arms and given her what she wanted?
‘There’s a room on the terrace. I’ll sleep there till the smell goes off,’ he says. Phew. The relief on my face is evident, I’m sure.
‘But why? I’m fine with sleeping in your room . . . with you,’ Shagufta says. My ears turn red. If Priya were here, she would have told me to not be so dramatic or hypocritical.
Irshad smiles as he sips the tea. ‘We’re not married yet, Shagufta. I’m a little old-fashioned that way and I don’t think your dad would approve. Speaking of, hasn’t he been asking you to come back?’
Oh. This is news. Shagufta looks annoyed that he would bring it up in front of me. Her father runs the cardiology department of the fancy-ass hospital where they both work.
‘Yes, he has. But I told him I will come back when you’re well. In fact, darling, don’t you think we should book our tickets soon?’ she asks, placing her hand on his wrist.
The bruises on his body have just begun to fade. I remember what he looked like when those rowdies beat him to a pulp. I will remain eternally thankful to Ajay for stepping in and saving his life. But now . . . here she is, asking him to come back with her. The moment I’ve been dreading ever since I knew she was coming to Bangalore.
I don’t even blink as I sip the scalding tea, the heat burning the roof of my mouth and my tongue as I stare at Irshad.
‘Look, I took a leave of absence from the hospital after my . . . accident. I need some time to sort all this out in my head. I’m fine now. I’ll be back home in a week or so. You should go back though. Your father is getting antsy,’ he says.
I’ve lost all feeling in my tongue as I continue sipping the tea. I can just about imagine that idiot Mini’s reaction if she could see me now.
‘Dimwit,’ she would have called me. I miss that girl sometimes.
‘But you’re coming back to Mumbai, right?’ she persists.
‘Of course,’ Irshad assures her.
‘He’ll be coming back to end things with you and move to Bangalore to live with me.’
Obviously, I didn’t say it out aloud. But I swear Irshad and I are connected in this weird way because he just glances at me, frowns a little and shakes his head slightly. I shrug. What? I didn’t say anything.
‘Fine. I’ll book my tickets,’ Shagufta says, getting up and trailing her fingers over Irshad’s fine shoulders. She’s unaware that my stomach has repeatedly clenched and unclenched itself so hard it hurts. If I’d actually made the effort at so much clenching, I would have fabulous abs. ‘But where will you stay?’
‘Here,’ he says.
‘Alone? With . . . Farida?’ she says my name with such difficulty, as though merely uttering it made her physically sick.
‘What are you implying, Shagufta?’ Irshad asks her and her face flushes. Please don’t let him say that she’s like my younger sister. Please, I pray fervently.
‘Right. She’s like your younger sister, no?’ Shagufta announces, more for her own sake than anybody else’s. She’s waiting for Irshad to agree with her, however.
I make up my mind that if Irshad agrees with her, then I need to accept it and—I wince at the words—move on. Because once he sees me as his little sister, there’s nothing I can do to change his perception.
He doesn’t look too pleased to be put on the spot like this. My phone rings.
‘I need to take this,’ I tell them as I get up and walk to my room. I don’t care if he agrees with Shagufta in my absence to pacify her. As long as I don’t hear it . . . as long as I don’t hear his mouth form those words, I’m okay.
(Excerpted with permission from All Drama, No Queen by Andaleeb Wajid, published by Penguin Random House India in 2021)