Dedicated to all the Malalas* of the world – to the ones who have already risen like phoenixes and the ones that are getting there. May you be ever bigger than the boxes you are put in. May you dream, grow and glow.
Tabassum sat in her lounge, painting her nails while the lilting strains of Nayyara Noor’s* soulful voice filled the little room. She hummed along, looking up every now and then when she heard a particularly profound couplet in the ghazal*, moving her head in the ways of the ultimate connoisseur of philosophy and verse. She was a woman of leisure with fond delusions of being an inimitable role model in the bogs of spinning spousal moral compasses and the vast deserts of poor taste and form. In her mind, 53 year old Tabassum was a wife and a home maker beyond reproach.
She held out her hands to let her nails dry while she glided almost stuporously on the melodious air that filled the room. There was a languid dreaminess in her heavy lidded eyes, and the lustiness of the moment on her parted lips. She unselfconsciously embodied the drama of her surroundings no matter what the source or how inapt her ensuing expression was. Besides being the consummate mistress of the house, she was also the queen of her very own social realm. Her subjects were the surprisingly sizeable group of friends who had bested the tests of time and her eccentricity; and her old and new hangers-on who loved the animation and melodrama she brought into their online lives; Tabassum also held regular, spirited court on FaceBook.
She picked up her phone after the enterprise on her nails was done and glanced through her FB timeline. She spied a post that agitated her as few other things did. It was the picture of a resplendent Malala* on the cover of Vogue magazine. Somehow the very sight of the girl angered her. Overtly, she didn’t have to explain why – there were enough people in her virtuous homeland who shared the same irritation and disdain for this little upstart. For that’s what she was. She had nothing to show for herself except, well… a bullet in the head, and the whole world was raving about her. Not only that. She had made her escape from the country and was now living like a queen somewhere. Free, independent and influential. God! How she hated her – this western agent! She had often wondered if in fact the whole being-shot-in-the-head incidence was a charade engineered by the malevolent powers out to destroy her beloved country.
She frowned and looked at the image again because despite herself, she was also a self styled doyen of fashion. She enlarged the photo so that she could examine every visible and invisible fibre and pore in the photo. Having completed her scrutiny, she left her usual scathing remark online, about unconventional women and their dubious claims to fame. After 45 minutes she checked to see if her dutiful coterie of online followers had seen and indeed liked her comment. There were lots of ways she passed the message between the lines and the pixels if one of her brigade had been remiss in acknowledging and appreciating the gems of wisdom and virtue that she liberally dispersed in the social media ether.
She then diligently put down her own likes and comments on the photos, rants and jokes of the other movers and shakers in her online orbit. And with that done, she rose to deal with the real world concerns of maids, clothes, coffee mornings and exciting excursions of both, the shopping and sight seeing varieties. Today, she was getting ready for the latter. Tabassum was also a member of the Twin City Society of Art and Culture, and today they were going to Taxila – a city of archeological significance, its origins dating back to 1000 BCE with ruins from the Mauryan, Indo-Greek and Kushan empires. But all that learning was an irrelevant consequence of these trips for Tabassum who had neither the inclination nor the interest in broken down places that were not hiding some post modern secret, like a cafe or a mall within their distressed facades. No, she was going on this trip for the pure pleasure of social camaraderie and the tremendous photo opportunities it would provide. Early on in her excursions with the group, she had realized with puzzlement and amusement that a lot of people were really quite genuinely stir crazy for battered old history. She had also learnt that ancient digs like the ones in Taxila were the perfect backdrop for her online stream of interesting and crowd-drawing photos. She had chosen her outfit a week ago – a silk hand painted russet kameez with a green silk dupatta and cream cotton pants. She would wear her silver Multani jhumkay* and her regular collection of 8 rings – 6 for her fingers and 2 for her toes. She had her maid take the usual photos of her, thus garbed and bejewelled before she left for the excursion meeting point in Saddar, Rawalpindi.
Arsalan was there. The Adonis of their group that every female quite literally adored, an infatuation they joked about openly. Most of the ladies were to all intents and purposes, happily married and had joined the club to see the sights that tourists and historians would allegedly pay an arm and a leg for (this was part of the club slogan in fact), and also because there are 24 hours in a day and one can only sleep so much and shop so much. This education in history and culture was an endeavour that many of their husbands looked on with approval and even some relief: while they were thus occupied, there was far less of an outward leak in the family finances.
The Club president and chief event organiser, Saqib Dogar, was a Professor of Archeology at the Quaid-e-Azam university in Islamabad. He had set up the club expecting his students and others of a similar academic bent to join in its adventuring wake. instead, he had had the pleasure of welcoming many of the ladies that lunched, and a few that had traipsed all over the world and had traditionally left the local sight seeing to the natives. Now, it was the cool thing to do: the partaking of the bourgeois flavours of their richly blessed motherland. Saqib Dogar was a gentleman, a widower of many years and therefore, quite completely clueless with regard to the fairer sex. Somewhat flummoxed initially, he had decided that he’d treat his lady members like he would his students. That was familiar terrain and he felt reasonably equipped, and in charge. The professorial attitude of their bespectacled Chair of the club towards them suited the ladies perfectly. In a country where inter-gender interactions between strangers and acquaintances were awkward at best, this teacher-student arrangement was familiar and comfortable for both parties. And so, the club had blossomed and burgeoned as its numbers grew and in a fanciful twist of fate, it now had over a 100 members, 86 of which were women. Arsalan was then, coveted not only as the overehmlingly scarce gender member of the club, but also because he embodied the fantasies of many subcontinental women – tall, fair and green eyed, with a full head of hair. To this perfection he also brought a friendly disposition and a proficiency in both, his spoken Urdu and English. He was the inadvertent star of the group as the women flirted with him good humoredly but unabashedly.
Tabassum was the exception. She didn’t flirt. She smouldered, much like kindling that refuses to light does – mulishly and petulantly. With dogged guilefulness and an air of mystery, she wielded her rapturous spells such as they were. This quiet but laborious onslaught ensured that she was not able to focus on anything that was said about the historic site they were visiting, but it was also the time where there were no crass, crude, overt shenanigans from the other women. They were all too busy taking photographs of the place and listening to Saqib sahib drone on. She had, during these deafening silences full of unspoken messages, seen Arsalan glance at her a few times. At these times, she had smiled the smile of one sharing a covetous secret. Arsalan had always smiled back and for her, that was enough. While she imagined this special exchange to be private and confidential, the silent drama was as palpable as it must have been in the silent movies of the 1920s. No one could say that they heard any incriminating declarations of the heart, but everyone could see that their Greta Garbo* was hopelessly in love with their John Gilbert*. Everyone also had the good sense to not say anything in the larger interest of preserving the general geniality of the group.
What they didn’t realize was that this focused effort at vying for the attention of the most sought after member of their group had very little to do with any real romantic interest. No, Tabassum was the epitome of the honourable housewife. It was her naive way of proclaiming her reign, her queenliness. If Arsalan began to regard her as a special friend, it automatically enhanced her image and with it, her social clout. Nothing gave her more satisfaction than to raise an opinion, ludicrous and inane as it might be, and to have the people she knew accept it and even imbibe it, make it their own. And then quote it to an ever expanding wave of newly informed, morally uplifted swathe of humanity.
Arsalan for his part, wisely behaved as if he had no clue of this particular fan fever and went about his cheerful way acquainting himself with the history and culture of the country – his book on Tourism in 21st Century Pakistan was finally, well and truly underway.
* Title inspiration from Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem with the same name and sung most famously, by Nayyara Noor. A Pakistani writer, he is best known for his progressive writings which were as popular in pre-Partition India as he was appreciated across the world for his ghazals and verse.
* Ae Jazba-e-Dil Gar Main Chahoon: First line of the verse translating to: “O Valiant Heart, if I so desire, all my dreams and aspirations can be within my reach.”
* Nayyara Noor: A Pakistani singer considered one of South Asia's popular film songs playback singer and stage performer.
* Jhumka: A style of earring worn by women of the Indian Subcontinent.
* Malala: Malala Yousafzai, often referred to mononymously as Malala, is a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.
* Greta Garbo and John Gilbert: Both stars of the silent movie era before transitioning to sound films.
* Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/17/ae-jazba-e-dil-part-two/