Shahnaz met Sikander at the Bank. His family had moved from Islamabad and he had joined as Head of External Sales at Shahnaz’s branch. Shahnaz’s interactions with boys and then men as she had grown up was vague and distant, a vestige of having lost her father early and also because her mother was a staunch believer in her widowed-turned-spinster status: that manifestation tended to keep many conundrums and scandals at bay. Shahnaz had grown up surrounded by that man-exclusive maternal aura and had unconsciously imbibed the essence of that nature of separation from the opposite gender. And so, her university life had taken its course endowing her with a degree, the friendship of two girls from her class and the reputation of an ice maiden among the rest. Her mind sometimes did wander into the what-if realms of relationsips and significant others, but her outer physiology remained unfailingly stoic and uninterested. It was, therefore, to her great bewilderment when Sikander began to seek out her company and more so that she was not averse to his attention. He persevered beyond her serious, no nonsense facade and managed to reveal a lightheartedness and approachability that was a surprise to both of them. Over the next few months, Shahnaz blossomed in her new cheerful and social avatar.
Shahnaz also began to take an interest in her weight for the first time ever. Sikander was tall and lean, with not an ounce of extra fat on him. While she was by no South Asian standards overweight, she did by intercontinental standards carry a couple of soul-food tyres around her middle; and her arms were decidedly flabby. Shahnaz began her workout regimen in June, one of the most oppressive months of the year in Karachi. She believed that for this enterprise (of losing weight) to also gain the benevolence of the universe, she herself needed to undertake some semblance of discomfort too. And so, every evening, after work, and after a hurried cup of tea with her mother, she would go downstairs and walk in the parking quadrangle of her apartment building. While she continued to drink her tea mellowed with full cream milk and sweetened with the usual two teaspoons full of sugar, her teatime samosas she had given up entirely over the last few weeks. She was determined to lose at least ten kgs.
The first evening that she went downstairs, the big built guard that looked somewhat like a bulldog was on duty. Despite having been a part of the Mall Court security team for the last ten years, he still surveyed everyone like he was seeing them for the first time; the women especially. Shahnaz had not made up her mind whether in fact he was actually creepy or just unfortunate in the way his lower jaw hung pendulously, eternally open to the elements, while his papaya seed eyes bored into the soul of any person walking across the parking lot. She stood near the lift, mentally mapping out a route: should she go left and avoid the guard altogher at the start of her exercise, giving herself time to rally her inner strength before she had to pass through the X-ray of his stare? Or should she just bite the bullet head on and then relax as she walked out of the radar of his scrutiny? It was a painful conundrum and she stood there for what seemed like an eternity trying to make up her mind.
“Kya haal hai bhai?”(1), said a voice from behind her. It was Shah sahib*, the longest residing habitant of Mall Court, and a haji* – he made sure everyone knew and remembered those two cogent facts. His father had bought an apartment when they’d just been built twenty five years ago. Shah Manzoor had inherited the property eventually and had in addition to his official role as the head of the Mall Court Committee, also made various efforts through the years to install himself as the unofficial head of the Mall Court household such as it was. There wasn’t a wedding, a new job or indeed the movement of a piece of furniture that didnt receive the final word from Shah sahib.
“Salam alaikum Shah sb. Bilkul theek, ji”(2), Shahnaz responded, adjusting her dupatta, pulling it across one shoulder and tying it diagonally at her hip. He looked at her questioningly. When Shahnaz didn’t respond to his need-to-know-everything look, he finally asked her what she was doing standing around in the parking lot.
“Walk kar rahi hoon Shah sb”(3), she said with an almost maniacal grin, and then as if energized by the unexpected acrobatics of the muscles of her face, she did just that, heading right, into the eye of the bulldog. That evening she walked for forty five minutes followed by the unblinking stare of the guard on one end and by her own meandering thoughts on the other. She decided that she had duly earned her dinner of mutton pulao that night.
Annie had been at the bank for a year already when Shahnaz had joined. She was the locker custodian, had glorious hair and a high pitched voice. When she laughed, her voice crescendoed into peal after peal of shrill hilarity, moving one to quite earnestly appreciate the soundlessness of silence. Still, she was a pretty girl with pretty ways, assailing the senses in different ways for different people: The branch manager with his delicate aural sensibilities, had summarily banished her to the basement with the lockers and the sound proof walls. The Operations manager with a soft spot for luxurious manes, had decided soon after that the basement was a good place to have his lunch. In all this drama, Shahnaz and Annie had struck up a lunch time friendship, which the Ops Manager (who was also Annie’s boss) some days infringed upon with the cocksure air of the man-in-charge. On those days Annie was quiet, Qasim sb was voluble and Shahnaz was monosyllabic.
It had now been four months of working with Sikander and two of walking away the samosa kilos that had squatted familiarly on her hips for the past so many years. It had also been three months since she felt her heart flutter for the first time and two weeks since her weighing scale had declared her a whole seven kgs lighter. Life was good and Shahnaz was at the very centre of that happy wholesomeness.
That evening, Shahnaz got ready to go downstairs for her walk. She looked at her dupatta and then at the looseness of her kurta, its seams almost daily, being relegated further and further away from the curves they had originally draped. She smiled at herself in the mirror, proud of her new body. She decided she could finally dare to confidently go without her dupatta.
“Loopata de wachava”(4), said her mother’s voice from the next room. It had to be the maternal sixth sense, thought Shahnaz chuckling, relieved in a way that her newest body positivity adventure was snuffed at source.
She wore a chiffon dupatta, its powder pink sheerness apparent even as it lay like a sash from her shoulder to her hip. She plugged in her earphones and turned on her music. The lilting strains of Ali Sethi and Taylor Swift wafting in her ears not only made the three quarters of an hour fly by, but also allowed her to block out anxious thoughts of staring guards and curious onlookers.
“Kya haal hai Shahnaz?”(5), said a loud voice, breaking through the insulating barrier of her music. She took off her earphones and smiled brightly at Shah sahib. She was feeling happy, wonderful and nothing could dampen that exhilaration; not even bossy old Shah sb.
“Salam alaikum Shah sb. Main theek hoon. Aap kaisay hain?”(6) she inquired cheerfully. Shah Manzoor smiled back at her, his eyes crinkling with pleasure while he stroked his greying beard; for once he had nothing more to say. Shahnaz grinned even brighter, raring to go on the wings of everything wonderful that were pulling at her.
“Khuda hafiz Shah sb”(7), she said and walked away with a spring in her step. She became aware suddenly of her bottom; her recent scrutiny of her attractively diminishing proportions had included her behind and she now felt it rise and fall bouncily as she walked on. She was also aware that Shah sb was still standing somewhere behind her. She laughed softly, wrapped in the euphoria of her youth and the in warmth of new love.
(1): “How are you friend?” in Urdu.
* Sahib/ Sb: a term of respect for an older man.
* Haji: one who has performed Hajj or the Islamic pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
(2): “I’m perfectly well” in Urdu.
(3): “I’m walking, Shah sahib” in Urdu.
(4): “Put on your dupatta” in pushto.
(5): “How are you Shahnaz?” in Urdu.
(6): “Hello Shah Sahib. I’m well. How are you?” in Urdu.
(7): “Goodbye Shah sahib” in Urdu