For my beloved sister who is swept in the constant tides of farewells and then meeting-again-for-too-short-a-while. And for all the other parents whose fledglings have taken wing, may you continue to find your joy and serenity.
They are the quickening parts of you That you bestow upon the world Beings that become other people Independent. Adult. Then there’s the anxiety and tumult Of letting them go From the safe radius of the home From the proximity of your everyday touch From the protective circle of your sinewy arms Each muscle a testament To years of being superhuman A perpetual hero, a champion And now you also have Your own growing pains to bear Of them not being there As they make their start In places you can’t be Coming back to rest To lay down tired heads On other pillows, other beds Their childhood rooms Stirring softly with their scents But my dearest, don’t despair These aches pass, they morph They bloom into other things A kinship deep as all the seas A bond of care that is more even-keeled Conversations, confidences, the sharing of dreams
They are out there now Let them live and love With all their might You’ve done your part They know the tree The orchard, the seeds That they’ve sprung from Now let them go Let your fluttering, bursting heart Give them wings to fly Fly, fly, up, up high Into the vastness of the sky Let them whoop with joy Let them go Where the soul moves them Out into the brilliant world To take a little bit of it Make it their own Let them imprint it With their hearts and their minds Let them be quirky, let them be kind Let them be funny, let them be full Of passion, of hope, of tenderness Let them roar and cheer and also tear up At life’s beauty, excitement, its bruises and cuts Let them show all their own shades of loveliness Let them add to the shimmering throng Of all that’s vital, new and strong
And you, dear beloved With your empty nest Now filled with books Or paints or pets You who have begotten them Stand fast and true and wise Behind them. Cheer them on As they sing their own songs In the great choir of life.
It had been decided. Zubaida would be given to the fallen girl’s family as retribution for the crime. An eye for an eye. Rab Nawaz had no family of his own so his brother, his next of kin, would deliver on the blood loyalty. For Haq Nawaz, there was no land to give away, no jewellery; only a part of his honour – in this case, his daughter. He had been forced to perform a cold blooded calculation and had chosen Zubaida, his second daughter. The daughter with no prospects right now would pay the penance for the “family crime”. A burqa-clad Zubaida was brought before the tribunal and told the verdict. She could not protest nor could she lay claim to any innocence. In the eyes of the community, she was now as complicit in the crime as Rab Nawaz was. After sworn statements issued by both parties in the presence of the elders, confirming the fairness and completenss of the arbitration and decree, the assembly disbursed. A woman from the complainant’s family took Zubaida away.
The tribunal had been merciful; they had not insisted on a witness-led consummation of the sentence and nor had they demanded that Zubaida show her face at the council gathering.
Zubaida was locked up in a little room at the far end of the house she was brought to. She sat on the floor with her arms around her knees, rocking back and forth in the primitive rhythm of self consolation and comfort. Her thoughts were mercifully foggy, indistinct as she sat with her eyes closed. In the haze of her delirium and her innocence, she was waiting for the ultimate end; for someone to kill her in cold blood. For that was what the jirga had said justice looked like: an eye for an eye. She keened hoarsely, unaware of her low, anguished moans. She sat there through the night rocking and waiting, gripped in a relentless pall of dread. At dawn she finally slumped to the floor in an exhausted sleep.
She was woken up by the woman who had been at the tribunal. She had come in with some water and a dry roti. Zubaida looked at the roti* her mouth quivering, as a whole new flood of emotions overpowered her weary, drained body. For her just the sight of the meagre sustenance was a gesture of mercy, kindness and humanity; the smallest sign of hope where there had up to now, been only the wasteland of pain and imminent death. The icy grip around her heart loosened as she felt the tears roll down her face. Her heart burst. She looked at the woman, her body now racked with sobs that she couldn’t control; She cried in relief; she cried in despair; she cried in the great grief that was now hers to endure. She cried for everything that she had left behind. She cried until there were no more tears left to shed; until all her memories had left her; until she could close her eyes again and sleep.
Muhammad Adil, the runaway girl’s brother had come back from the city two days after the meeting of the tribunal. The family had been waiting for their first born to deliver on the justice ordained by the jirga*; to inflict a purging, a punishment that would duteously avenge their sullied honour. The girl would be stripped of her virtue and her modesty. Muhammad Adil would perform the “honour revenge”. After that she would be sent back to her family. They had no use nor any place for tainted women in their home. Let her own family grapple with the consequences of a fallen daughter.
For Muhammad Adil’s family, their own daughter was now dead. She had died the day she had broken through the protective, respectable safeguards of their home, and eloped. And so, Zubaida was raped by Muhammad Adil and two other men in the family over three days, in line with the mourning period for the dead. They were a God-fearing family and would do only what was necessary to reclaim their honour as was ordained by their sacred, long standing beliefs: One fallen daughter avenged by violating the innocent body and spirit of another. An eye for an eye. The entire act of retribution was intertwined with faith and justice as they took turns punishing their “perpetrator”. For that was what Zubaida now was; in their eyes and in the eyes of all their ancestral, patriarchal and time-honoured laws and traditions. After justice was exacted, she was put on a bus for her hometown in Hasilpur.
Zubaida sat in the bus, a serene, calm woman. She had been dragged to hell and she had found her way back to the land of the living. Through her nightmare, she had found a supernormal source of strength and a determination that had saved her and sustained her, and that now shone like an aura around her. She had survived; she would endure.
It was a bittersweet homecoming of the middle child of their family. Haq Nawaz was glad that she was alive but couldn’t in all the wisdom bequeathed to him by his forefathers, find solace in Zubaida being back home. That never happened in these tragedies; the girl necessarily sacrificed herself – one way or another. And here she was, alive and even happy. No, it was not happiness … it was more, an unnerving, chilling resolve in her face. He was afraid of his own daughter and the few times that they did speak, he couldn’t bring himself to look at her. Zubaida’s mother, with her fount of affection borne of always protecting, giving and sacrificing for her children, was less ambivalent. She held her daughter close to her for many moments. Zubaida had come back and that was God’s will. But she was also acutely aware of the will of the men around her. And their single mindedness many times superseded the tenets of faith. They would not let her daughter live in peace. They would not let the family be in peace.
Zubaida sat outside on the manji* with her parents and her sister. She was looking into their faces reaching within herself for some emotion, some joy or relief. She found none. Her parents now seemed old, wretched and diminished by life and the choices they had made. She felt nothing at being reunited with them or her sister.
Yousuf came home a few hours later. Instinctively and unabashedly he hugged his sister. She held him gently and then smiled at her beloved brother. It was the only time she had felt a vestigial wave of warmth wash over her since she’d arrived.
Yousuf gazed at his beloved sister with affection and even a little awe. She looked thoughtfully back at the face that she’d loved so dearly for the past ten years. This boy, her little brother, was the scion of their homestead. He was destined to perpetuate the family name and with it, all the norms, the cruelty and the tragedy that came with being a man in their community. He could so easily be another Rab Nawaz or Mohammad Adil …
A mass of contradictory emotions rose in her chest and then settled into nothingness. She looked away from those eyes full of inquiry and concern, unable to respond in the language of the soul. There was nothing left there anymore either.
Despite old world traditions and the sinewy tribal pillars of revenge and retribution, the world had grown smaller even for the feudal communities, who sometimes successfully as in Zubaida’s case, and other times falteringly and failingly, lived according to the exacting traditions of their forefathers. And so, in Zubaida’s case too, the story could not be secretly and utterly relegated to the annuls of tribal lore, as it meandered its way to the press and then to social media. There was a flurry of outrage and offers of assistance that ricocheted in the ether, not very much of which spilled out into the real world. Help in fact, came from an unexpected quarter: the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organisation (MMWWO). Mukhtaran Mai*, that shadowy figure who was only ever talked of in hushed tones, had now inadvertently become Zubaida’s larger than life superhero.
Six months after her ordeal, Zubaida was whisked away one last time from her parents’ home. This time however, she chose to leave. She’d been offered shelter at the MMWWO and in the wake of her matriculation exam, the opportunity to pursue a vocation of her choice in Lahore. The universe was finally responding in ways that she could understand and take advantage of.
She looked at the enrolment form that she had been filling, her pen poised over the signature line, and finally signed it “Zubaida Bibi”. Like her new mentor, she too was discarding burdensome last names. In a world which had done away with all the familial bonds of love, protection and nurturing that last names were meant to embody, it now seemed a superfluous and deceptive affectation.
She was glad to be in the real world. Buffeted as it was with trials and tribulations, it would also give her the chance to be the mistress of her own fate. She had lost her innocence but also with it, her deluded visions of a world that was never going to be kind to her. It would be real however, and she would get her own stab at levelling out the odds that were thrown at her.
And for now, that was sufficient.
* Roti: a round flatbread native to the Indian subcontinent, usually made from stoneground whole wheat flour.
* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.
* Charpai or Manji: A traditional woven bed used across South Asia.
* Mukhtaran Mai: a Pakistani human rights activist. In June 2002, Māī was the victim of a gang-rape sanctioned by a tribal council of the local Mastoi Baloch clan, as a form of 'honour revenge'.
Zubaida looked into the little mirror that hung on a nail on the otherwise bare wall of the room. She took a bit of kohl on her little finger and applied it on her lower eyelids. She thought for a moment of putting a bit of rouge on her lips but decided against it. Her mother would have her take it off anyway. It was 6 O’ clock in the morning of a special day today. She and twenty five other girls from her school who had only last week sat for the last paper of their matriculation exam, were going on a trip. It was the traditional annual outing for the graduating class to a local historical or cultural site. Zubaida’s class was going to Uch Sharif, a holy city that had been a regional metropolitan centre in the 12th and 17th centuries. It was renowned even in the present day for its centuries old historic shrines dedicated to Muslim mystics. Zubaida had been to Uch Sharif once before when she was five years old. The family – Zubaida, her parents and her seven year old sister, Arifa – had gone there to plead for the divine intervention of the Sufi saints for the blessing of a male child in the family. That was twelve years ago; she remembered little of the experience except that her mother had cried a lot and her father had not said a word until they got back home the next day. Uch Shrif was a four hour bus drive away from their home in Hasilpur*.
Ten year old Yousaf was waiting for his older sister when she emerged from their two room hut. It was a little more than a hut now after a concrete roof had been laid and a door fixed at the entrance. Their house had been a fond and arduous labor of love for the last fifteen years now, belied less and less by the outer facade and more and more by the state inside: The mud floor had caved in at various places creating hazardous little potholes across the 20 foot space; the two jute charpais* needed to be restrung; the rest of the furniture sparse and meagre as it was, was also holding together only with Arifa and their mother’s constant deft machinations.
Yousaf slept outside in the courtyard with his father on the cotton manji* that also served as the seating arrangement for the family during meals and when visitors came over. At night, the two rooms of the house exclusively became the women’s quarters as was the norm when space was limited and children were growing up. Despite the distance between the sisters and the brother that was assiduously nurtured as they grew into adolescence, Yousaf had maintained a close and affectionate bond with Zubaida. He was still young enough to consider his sisters as more than just temporary family appendages that would be permanently severed in a few years. She was his unlikely but larger than life role model. Zubaida would read him stories about jinns*, flying castles and brave princes. He would listen enraptured and agog as she read out each tale with the expressive artistry of a professional story teller.
Yousuf himself couldn’t read no matter how hard he tried. The alphabets jumbled up in front of him sending him into a panic. He’d got beatings in class for his inability to tackle his Alif, bai, pai*. When he was eight, his father had pulled him out of school. As long as he could write his name, there really was no more need of an education. He would have his hands full dealing with life as a man of the house in a few years. Better to start educating him on that front than on the leadership qualities of Baba-e-Qaum* or the rousing poetry of Allama Iqbal*. Arifa too had not fared too well academically and was also taken out of school when she was twelve. She was now nineteen and engaged to be married to Zahoor Sipra. She was a good looking girl and the proposals had come in thickly over the last few years. Haq Nawaz was shrewd when it came to long term unions; whether it was letting out a part of his two acre land to share croppers or deciding on lucrative matches for his daughters. He had waited until Ghulam Sipra had sent a proposal for Arifa for his second son. Ghulam Sipra was a wealthy man with fifteen acres of land and cattle. The union would change their fortunes considerably. In time, he would buy a clerical position for Yousuf at one of the smaller Union council government offices in the district.
Arifa’s wedding was set for March of next year, just three months away. The little family nest egg was going to be wholly used for the occasion and its multitudinous expenses. A suitable match would be found for Zubaida too, sourced through the auspicious new prosperity and connections of by then, her well-married sister. Indeed, Arifa’s betrothal was a calculated all-out move from whence the blessed, bountiful turn in their fortunes would follow.
Zubaida emerged from the inner sanctums of their home and spied Yousuf awake and waiting for her to come out. She smiled at him and through force of habit, went to fix his hair and straighten out his bedraggled night shirt that was four sizes too big for him – a hand-me-down from their father. He looked at her with shining eyes speaking volumes in that one completely happy expression. Theirs was a language of the soul, spoken through the eyes and gentle smiles. That is how they shared their most profound thoughts such as they were in their little world – through expressions of wondrous excitement, great joy or boundless sorrow, transcending the constraints and inhibitions of words. She felt her little brother’s excitement for her; his innocent awe at the prospect of her big adventure. She grinned at him as she put on her green cotton dupatta and placed a bottle of water and some food for the journey into her school bag. She had 50 rupees with her that she’d collected over the last two occasions of Eid. She would bring back something for him from Uch Sharif; a little momento and some sohan halwa* which he loved.
Yousuf walked with her to the meeting point where the bus was supposed to pick up the girls from their neighbourhood and watched her embark on her exciting voyage to that magical place he had heard so much about. Uch Sharif was where the saints had called to him to be born as the son of Haq Nawaz … and he also believed, as the brother of Zubaida. Although he never said that last part out loud. Something in the way his sisters were connected to him and the family, the protected, guarded, almost secret way in which they existed, prevented him from saying things that related them to the saints. Those saints were powerful, free and revered by everyone, even the richest man in Hasilpur.
That evening a tired but happy Zubaida came home to tragedy and chaos. Rab Nawaz, her father’s brother, had run off with a girl from Rasulabad. It was not a matter that would be solved with any due diligence by the light-handed law enforcement. In such cases the local tribal council of the community rallied to serve justice in the age old ways of their forefathers. The laws of the state were soft and morally deficient, and had allowed too many brutes to escape unscathed. A Jirga* of the elders was convening in the morning to review the case and decide on the outcome.
A sullen, raw moon rose upon Haq Nawaz’s home that night, staring coldly into the little courtyard and through the curtains, into the rooms. It was not going to be a night of serenity or sleep.
* Hasilpur: A city of 500,000 people situated between the Sutlej River and the Indian border, about a 100 km east of the district of Bahawalpur.
* Charpai or Manji: A traditional woven bed used across South Asia.
* Jinn: supernatural creatures in early pre-Islamic Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology.
* Alif, bai, pai: the ABCs of the Urdu language.
* Baba-e-Qaum: the title “Father of the Nation” given to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the first Governor General of Pakistan.
* Allama Iqbal: South Asian Muslim writer, philosopher, and politician, whose poetry and vision of a cultural and political ideal for the Muslims of British-ruled India animated the impulse for the creation of Pakistan.
* Eid: Muslim religious festivals celebrated twice a year.
* Sohan Halwa: A traditional dense, sweet confection that has been popular in South Asia since the Mughal era.
* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.
Qasim Khan, together with his brother, Zahid Khan lived in their ancestral home in Peshawar. Their children had grown up together, with of course the virtues of restraint and inhibition instilled from the very beginning into every girl child. As providence had it, there were only two girls born in Mishal’s generation – so far that is, given the erratic procreativity that often times flourished in joint family systems, with sometimes mothers and daughters falling simultaneously pregnant. As things were at the time, Qasim Khan and Zahid Khan each, had two sons and a daughter. In their homestead, girls were promised off to eleigible boys and men as closely related to their immediate family, and as early as possible. And so, three years ago, Mishal was betrothed to her cousin, Dawood, the older of Zahid Khan’s two sons.
Mishal’s Nikah* ceremony in all its quiet austerity had taken place when she had just turned thirteen. Even at that tender age, she was aware and sensitive to the implications of being “handed over” to her uncle’s family; of now being Zahid Khan’s wellspring of honour, modesty and one of two future perpetuators of his genomic lineage. She had carried that burden with the eqaniamity borne of nurture and naïveté, until that day when the protective walls of her home had come tumbling down around her: It was six months after her nikah to Dawood while she was back home for the Eid holidays. It was also the scorching peak of summer when the whole household would be cloaked in post-lunch torpor, dead to the world until the cooler evening breezes stirred the stillness. She had gone to the kitchen to look for a snack when he had come upon her. She was still surrounded by the langurous afterglow of her recent siesta when Dawood had jumped on her. He had thrown her to the ground and groped, prodded and choked her with such ferocity that she was left battered and utterly bewildered. He had only let go because he had heard the landline ring and knew that someone was going to rise to answer it.
Mishal lay there on the tiled floor, reeling from what had just happened. Her young mind, unable to recognise the atrocity and the ugliness of the episode in its immediate aftermath, was in a flux of confusion and anger. She got to her feet and fixed her shirt, tentatively touching her arm where a weal was already forming. She felt her bruised throat and catching sight of her reflection in the glass door of the cabinet, saw also a rip in the neckline of her kameez. She stared at the image. The searing heat of embarrassment and shame now beginning to fill her every pore. She felt like she was choking again but this time it was her own guilt and distress that had her in their stranglehold. Barely able to breathe, she picked her dupatta up off the floor and made her way back to the bedroom. Her mother was just waking up. Kulsoom took one look at her daughter, got up and locked the bedroom door. She sat her distraught, sobbing daughter down and managed to extricate the gist of what had happened to her. Kulsoom held her daughter close for a little while; held her one last time at the threshold of her childhood. Then she took her across once and for all, into her own encumbered, wary and confined world, just as Kusloom’s mother had done with her. She had hoped that her only daughter would thrive in the joys of childhood just a little longer; that her spontaneous laughter carried as it was on the tide of light hearted innocence, would ring in the house for a few more years. But she also knew that women’s hopes were like fragile petals, to drop off or be plucked at the will of God or the whims of the men in their lives. What was done was done. She held her daughter by her shoulders and looking straight into her eyes she told her that this episode was to remain unspoken of, forever closed, forgotten.
Mishal sat in her bedroom that she shared with her mother and her six year old brother. Over the last three years, a lot had changed. She had almost overnight matured into not only a woman but had over the years developed an abhorrence for her husband-to-be and an acute dislike for the other men of the household, including her father. She thought back to the day that Dawood had accosted her … assaulted her. She had been told to forget, to wash her mind clean of the event. Her mother in fact, had never mentioned it again. Ever. Hiding behind the ego and cowardice of patriarchy as its accomplice numero uno! Mishal thought with resentment. She imagined countless scenarios where Dawood would just vanish from her life. Sometimes these daydreams were soothing, calming; at others it was not enough to imagine – she had to reassure herself in a raw, racking, visceral way that she was in charge of her life. So she had acted out, mostly in school; she wouldn’t study if she didn’t want to; she would eat only a teaspoonful for the whole day if she so desired; she wouldn’t wash her hair for a fortnight if the whim overtook her. With time and her insatiable need to feel in control of her life, she had expanded the limits of her rebellion: she had even tried to run away from school. She hadn’t meant to, seriously … but she had to try it. Of course, Mother Gertrude had had one of her long sermon-like talks with her. She did say that she wouldn’t mention the ‘misadventure’ to her father … Mishal had almost wished that her principal had told her father, only so she could see some emotion, any emotion on his cold, stone-like face.
Something else was stirring at the back of Mishal’s thoughts today. She got up and walked over to her wardrobe, reaching into the far depths of its uppermost shelf. That’s where she had stowed it away, her red paisley dupatta. In the days after Dawood had attacked her in the kitchen, she had gone out of her way to avoid any contact with him, mealtimes being the necessary exception. Despite that and because he could, she thought bitterly, he had tormented and agonised her, intimidated and bullied her in all the big and little ways that are meant to break the spirit. One day a few months after the episode, he had again cornered her, but this time, had the good sense not to touch her. Her whole demeanour was that of a she wolf ready to gouge out her assialant’s eyes. He had laughed at her and then incensed by the look of loathing and fear on her face, he had said something chilling to her: that he’d gone after her because of the way she was dressed, provocatively; without her hijab and with only that fancy red paisley dupatta around her. She was asking for it, he’d added. She had growled at him because she had only her raw emotion to show. There was no biting retaliation, no barbs, no words that she could hurl at him. She only felt her wounded spirit bleed again making her snarl, and then sob with relief after he had gone. She remembered how long and hard she had looked at her paisley dupatta: questioningly, accusingly, sadly, confusedly, angrily, tearfully, and finally with defeat. She had put it away and never worn it again. But it had over time in some inexplicable way, become her banner of hope, of freedom, of daring to be more than she was ever permitted to be. And so she took it out every once in a while, looked at the beautiful red and yellow paisley pattern on its coral background, felt its softness and then fortified, she’d put it away. In its corner – resplendent, hidden, secret.
The news arrived in the household in little driblets, almost like the patriarchal universe was delivering it gently, even faultily, one shattering little fact at a time. They first heard that Zahid Khan and Dawood had been in an accident on their way back from Islamabad. After an hour of frantic calling and finding out, they learnt that they were admitted to a hospital in Hassan Abdal*; but that they were alright. There was a general release of tension at this last bit of news. Mishal’s father had left for Hasan Abdal as soon as he’d confirmed their whereabouts.
It was around 4 O’ clock in the evening when they received the call from Qasim Khan. His brother and his nephew had both died on the spot. He was bringing their bodies back home.
Kulsoom broke this final piece of news first to her daughter and then to her sister in law. The children would find out in their own way soon enough.
Mishal heard the news silently, looking at her mother with clear, calm eyes. She watched her minister to her sister-in-law who had just lost two of the men in her family in one go. She turned away, feeling her own flood of emotions so tumultuous and thick that her head spun and all she could hear was the roar of an endless, open ocean in her ears … the mad, frantic, powerful, unbound, pounding of her own heart. Her breath was almost ragged as she went to her bedroom. She opened her cupboard and retrieved the red paisley dupatta. She then removed the innocuous, white hijab and slowly, gently almost reverently draped the veil about her, lightly covering her head. She sat on her bed and looked out of the window, calm, serene and with the large, steady flame of hope already melting the corrosive, numbing chill around her heart.
* Dupatta: A shawl traditionally worn by women in the Indian subcontinent.
* Nikah: The Nikah ceremony is the Muslim marriage ceremony. In the Islamic tradition, the marriage contract is signed during the Nikah and it is during this event that the bride and groom say, “I do.”
* Hasan Abdal: A city in the Punjab Province of Pakistan, located 40 km northwest of the country's capital city, Islamabad.
Qasim Khan sat in Mother Gertrude’s office, silent, motionless and without a trace of any emotion on his stoic, weather-beaten face. He had been especially summoned by the Principal of the all girls missionary school in the mountain resort town of Murree. After the sanctification of the Church in 1857, missionary schools had mushroomed across the picturesque town that was located at the foothills of the Himalayas. By the late 1980s, third generation conventarians were graduating from these institutions of academic learning and character building. Like so many other girls of the privileged set across the country, Qasim Khan’s daughter too had spent a large part of the last 10 years of her life as a boarder at the Claudine Thevenet Convent under the tutelage and guardianship of mostly Irish Catholic nuns. She was now done with her O’levels and on her way out of the Convent, together with 15 of her contemporaries.
Qasim Khan was a matter of fact man; not given to flights of fancy or intrigue or even introspection. He lived a respectable life; did what he had to do and kept himself securely grounded in all that was tangible, objective and real. He had neither the inclination nor the desire to poke into the deeper, more profound meaning of things just because he suffered momentary pangs of conscience, had unrequited aspirations or felt any other sensation of inadequacy. The space between his two dimensional view of life and Sublimity was largely apparitional and elusive to Qasim Khan. And so he sat with dead pan detachment, neither wondering nor concerned about the purpose of the meeting. He would know soon enough.
‘Good afternoon Mr. Khan. Thank you for coming to see me’, said Mother Gertrude as she walked briskly into her office.
Qasim Khan nodded with a smile and waited to hear the reason for the meeting. This was not a new turn of events; he had over the last few years, been summoned by his daughter’s school principal on more than a few occasions.
The 70 year old abbess had in her lifetime as the guardian of scores of girls entrusted in her care, learnt a thing or two about family psychology. And Mishal Khan’s homestead was one of those complicated types that had over the years given rise to more than a few such requests to meet with her parents; of the two, her father appearing every time. Whenever the girl came back from one of her vacations at home, she was subdued for weeks afterwards. In her senior years, the strained quietness had morphed into academic rebellion as Mishal’s grades plummeted. Over the last three years in fact, she had performed temperamentally on her quarterly assessments and barely scraped through her year-end exams. Every effort made by her teachers to talk to her and then to discipline her, had failed. The conversational, psycho-therapeutic attempts made by Mother Gertrude had also had no effect on the girl’s erratic behaviour. And now she had sat for her O levels and no matter what the outcome, she’d be permanently wrested from the refuge of her boarding school and the daily camaraderie of her friends, both cathartic mainstays such as they were, in her seemingly troubled life otherwise.
Mother Gertrude felt a rush of anxiety and concern for her ward. This was it. She had to try and get through to Mishal’s father. Qasim Khan had over the last few years attended every one of the beginning of term meetings she had requested to discuss his daughter’s academic and behavioural issues; had listened politely but disconnectedly, and promised to sort out whatever the problem was. And then Mishal came back, and the cycle continued unchanged, unabated. The wise old nun knew however that the angst and grief that Mishal doled out to her teachers and caregivers, was a balancing act of nature; a burden undertaken, a load dispensed. In the greater cosmic harmony of things, Mishal healed, rebuilding her spirit, even as she acted out.
‘Mishal will be going home for good this time Mr. Khan, and I continue to be worried about her. She is a sensitive girl and requires care and attention. She hesitated before continuing on, ‘It may be a good idea for her to get some professional psychological help’. She looked at the man sitting in front of her for any signs of having understood the seriousness of his daughter’s situation. He looked back at her unblinkingly, robotically with a small smile plastered diligently on his otherwise impassive face. This was definitely not going to be one of her triumphant, meaningful moments where she was able to bridge trust and understanding gaps between a parent and child – a parent and one of her girls; and the implications were disheartening. She swallowed hard with a sense of foreboding settling in the pit of her stomach.
Qasim Khan, together with fifteen sets of one or both parents, waited outside on the parlour flat for their daughters to be released for a final time, into their care. It was already 4pm and he was going to make the four hour journey back home the same day. As a rule, he preferred not to travel after sundown along the tortuous roads, winding 7500 feet down towards the plains. Mishal came down the stairs finally, followed by one of the school’s handymen who was carrying her trunk balanced expertly on his left shoulder. Somewhere in some vague recess of his mind, he had marvelled at the strength and agility of these mountain men as they ran up and down dozens of steep steps, multiple times, transporting laden trunks to waiting cars. Consciously, he was only aware of a critical task being done to expedite their departure.
‘Salam alaikum Baba*’ she said simply and followed him to the car parked at the end of the serpentine driveway. She looked back one last time at the stone steps, at the red painted flower pots where yellow and orange geraniums bobbed their heads in the wind; at the entrance to the visitor’s parlour; at the volley ball court; at the monkey bar; at the Teachers Cottage and finally at the dormitories – those safe havens that during the day, held the entire school in their immediate vista and at dusk, the twinkling lights of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad on their horizon. She was suddenly, without warning caught in a flood of emotions. She blinked and responded as she always did when she was overwhelmed by the vulnerability of pain, grief or even joy: she frowned and looked straight ahead, blocking out the memories and the feeling, steeling her heart, making it impenetrable.
Once in the car, she took out a square piece of white linen from her backpack and put on her hijab. Qasim Khan sat in front with the driver. Father and daughter began their journey towards Peshawar in silence; neither was wistful nor remembering nor talking about this epic last journey away from the school and the sanctum that had been a home away from home for Mishal for more than half her life.
* Dupatta: a shawl traditionally worn by women of the Indian subcontinent. * Baba: a term of respect used for an older man; also used for one’s father.
Anita walked into the room with a spring in her step and a song on her lips. Today though, she wasn’t going to belt it out diva style – she was saving her rich alto for the karaoke evening tonight. She stole these evenings of song and meter with the panache of Victorian highway men; effortlessly, cleanly and with a swashbuckling bow.
Her father was sitting in his easy chair poring over the paper. He was tut-tutting quietly in full conversation with his news-fretting self. ‘Another elopement that has ended badly. When will they learn to be content on their own sides of the fence … the scandal … the violence. Tsk! So needless. God protect us …’
‘Daddy, who are we trying to protect ourselves from?’ chirped Anita cheekily.
‘Our foolishness. Our madness’ her father responded with a sigh. He looked at his daughter thoughtfully trying to glance into her future; read her heart. She was such an exuberant girl. He worried about her sometimes surrounded as she was with all her Muslim friends … girls and boys. She tended to be trusting, unrestrained and had been in a roaring affair with life since she was born. If anyone took the bull by the horns and danced with it too, it was his Annie. Where did she get it from … her zest for life; her tenacious survival instinct. It was an enigma both he and his wife had pondered over with sometimes apprehension and at others, elation. How he loved his little girl! And how he agonized too … These were not good times. There were too many inter faith love stories that had gone wrong. Wild hearts and racing hormones that had headed straight for family guillotines; brazed together as they were from the bottomless patriarchal pits of honor, ego and vanity. Eustace Shergill aka Yousuf Shergill with his diminutive form and distrust of even the neighborhood feline’s seasonal caterwauling, was a perennially worried man.
Anita looked at her father fondly. The furrows in his brow had deepened over the last few years, giving this lamb of a man the look of a tyrant. His fleet-footed movements further belied his fragility of form and spirit. Irony was indeed rife with this dear man; her beloved father.
She kissed him on the cheek and took away his newspaper.
‘Daddy, come to the market with me. I need to get some snacks for this evening. The gang is coming over’ she said brightly knowing how he loved these little jaunts with her.
He grinned at her from behind his glasses and rose nimbly to his feet.
‘Let me get the shopping bag’ he said, walking purposefully out of the room.
‘Did I switch the fan off …?’ He wondered aloud when they were on the road. His expression was thoughtful, strained.
‘Daddy, relax. We’ll be back in 20 minutes’ Anita piped up knowing full well he would stew over the fact until they got back home. Unless – she created a magnificent enough diversion! Usually one of her punny jokes, that she had a bizarre flair for creating, got him to ease up, if only fleetingly.
‘Ok, what’s an Optimistic Wise Mancalled?’ She asked emphasizing the three words and grinning to herself. This was a good one.
‘Hmm … a Sage-o-glass-full? said her father, momentarily distracted and in the spirit of the drollery.
‘Nope. You won’t get this one. It’s one of my better ones’ she said sassily laughing with the combined pleasure of the joke and her father’s smiling face.
‘A Kan-garoo!’ she said with the flourish of a stand up comic at the end of a particularly successful segment.
‘You know – Kangaroo … “Can-guru”, she grinned at her father.
He laughed out loudly with a mixture of pleasure and pride in his bright, vivacious daughter. Anita followed with a bow such as she could manage on the road, from the driver’s seat.
They drove on in silence for a while, Anita still warm in the glow of her recent comedy, while Yousaf Shergill despite himself was back in the living room, fretting about the ominously spinning fan.
Seeing her father’s worried expression, Anita persevered with her enterprise of distraction and diversion, now bringing up a nugget of new information about her work.
‘We’re moving our office to Clifton next month’ she said non chalantly, waiting for the endearingly familiar change of gears in her father’s mind as he temporarily relieved himself of one burden and picked up another. Although these initial sound bites of news were yet out of his immediate capacity to worry about; still too new in their tendencies and their implications. He looked at her questioningly, the fan forgotten in as much as it could be, given that it was only moments ago in his mind, whirling to a calamitous descent onto the lounge table.
“You’re moving office? Is Maham moving too?’ He asked referring to her boss, now full of curious inquiry.
The rest of the 15 minute drive was spent with Anita waxing eloquent on the newly refurbished office, which was also luckily, quite a lot closer to home. Annie would be only a 10 minute drive away! He smiled toothfully, delightedly – a burden laid to rest; a serendipitous blessing received.
Yousuf Shergill was a partner in a company that provided Visa, Citizenship and Residency Services to off shore journeying hopefuls. It had been a flourishing little enterprise. Years of reading immigration laws from across the world, solely for the fascinating study they provided in social and ideological behaviour, had made him a natural at his chosen profession. He could tell through just a brief conversation with the candidate and a cusrsory glance through his brimming, reverently clutched folder of documents whether in fact he would have the pleasure of kissing the motherland a gracious farewell, or whether he had embarked on an ill fated (blessed!) enterprise. Mr. Shergill, despite and imaginably because of his many anxieties and misgivings, was a firm believer of staying put where the roots were. If their own homeland was a maze of dichotomies and confusion, he believed the rest of the world was as labyrinthine and befuddling as the tangled jungles of the Amazon. So while he happily gave advice and facilitated a few flights of fancy and more of the traditional metallic, tangible variety, he was himself happy to be living in his cacophonous but familiar city of Karachi.
* EUSTACE: A word of Greek origin meaning “steadfast” and “fruitful/ productive”.
Teatime- a word that invokes so many nostalgic memories, while also carrying with it the promise of another little social do right around the corner. I write this from the subcontinental (read: classic) perspective where tea means exactly that, and is not in fact a culinary codeword for another meal…like dinner perhaps!
Having lived in a country, nigh upon six years now, which is known for its magnificent tea plantations, I came here expecting to be swept off my feet with supremely flavourful tea served with as much fanfare. But oh, the lost pleasure of the perfect cup of tea! Not only has the stately beverage been woefully overshadowed by its more robust cousin, the sinewy coffee, but the genteel art of tea making itself has been all but sabotaged by our time-constrained lifestyles.
Tepid tea, (whatever happened to tea-cosies?) just this side of being too anaemic or too vigorous, is the norm at most places. Tea brewing is a lost art that even tea timers haven’t been able to revive (those aging relics that lie there, unused, taunting tea drinkers; and then fading a little more into oblivion as they realise the futility of their efforts). Tea strainers are further dying remains of the classic tea trolley. So, even potentially good cups of tea will quickly take on a bizarre, almost bovine experience as one chews the leaves along with each sip.
The silver lining in all this post modern annihilation of the elegant art of tea making is the teatime legacy my sisters and I have carried into our lives. Having grown up in a home where tea and the accompanying panoply was the norm, this has been a delightful happenstance. Teatime at home consisted of lavish spreads of everything from pastries and sandwiches to biscuits and dahi bhallas*. And of course it meant steaming pots upon pots of Kenyan tea laced ever so delicately with earl grey. It became an affair, synonymous with togetherness, laughter and chatter. A time for capricious banter and tender confidences- a caffeine-warmed embrace of the ebb and flow of our lives. And at the centre of this lovely intimacy was my mother, the gracious matriarch who made this teatime magic happen.
In conclusion, of all the tea connoisseurs/ growers/ curators of the experience on the island, I ask that you breathe fresh life into this exquisite tradition. It is the assured panacea to many a dreadful day, of which sadly, we have all seen our fair share lately. In the words of Bernard-Paul Heroux, “There is no trouble so great or so grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea”; the “nice” there being replete with all manner of ambrosial and soul and spirit uplifting possibilities.
*Dahi Bhalla: a savoury, yogurt-based snack indigenous to the subcontinent.