SHORT STORY|RIOTOUS LOVE – Part Two

Two weeks after Dharshini’s fall on the dance floor, the pain was gone along with any memory of it and all the wise resolutions made around preserving and safeguarding fragile body parts. Tuesday evening’s dance class was full of kinetic energy and impressive manoeuvres. Everyone had now been in the class for at least a month and even the most ungainly ones were showing glimmerings of talent; the improvements motivated by instructor infatuation and cheerful sociability were vast and pervasive. Dharshini had missed a fortnight of classes but she made up for lost time with her innate sense of rhythm, a natural vigor and the impetus of new love in her heart. So she danced and pranced and leaped around with wild abandon, taking many of her contemporaries by surprise; so much so that a number of times, the floor was left entirely to the explosive gymnastics of Dharshini and her gratified partner of the moment.

After class, while she was still wrapped in the warm glow of her recent exercise, Daniel approached her. He was happily surprised at her performance, he said. She was gifted. Dharshini smiled coyly and looked at him from deep, chocolate brown eyes surrounded by their fringe of thick lashes. Her undeniably superlative feature, her eyes were less windows to her soul and more her covert Weapon of Rapture. She blinked them, looking down and then up and then to one side, interspersing her optical guiles with little smiles and other enchanting expressions that left the object of her visual assault weak in the knees and short of breath. Daniel too capitulated under that focused bewitchery.

They went out to lunch twice and then finally to dinner. Dharshini had early on analysed the situation in minute detail and had decided that she would take this fabulous chance at romance. She had protected her tender heart for just such a once… twice … in a lifetime occasion. So for her, these meals and meet-ups were the steady, respectable progression to an ever lasting union. She was already feeling like a new woman; her old marriage now increasingly morphing into a burden that was best laid to rest at the earliest. She had thought about that aspect too. She would go about it civilly. There was no love lost in that equation as things stood right now; they were both in it because it was convenient and because they were partners in a shared business. She’d break off the marital ties but keep the business partnership going. She was shrewd enough to realize that while she would couple up with the new love of her life, it would be wise to remain the mistress of her own fortunes and the bills that came with it. Her husband was a practical man and wasn’t given to the egoistic bouts of anger and retribution that came so naturally to so many men concerning their women and their finances. After all, they’d been physically estranged for the last ten years and separated for the last eight. He would understand. She had invited Daniel over for dinner to her house the following evening. She had also asked her husband to come earlier that day to have a chat. She hadn’t explained any specifics; just that she wanted to run something by him. Both men had accepted their respective invitations.

Daniel was on the rebound. He had realized that when he began to respond to the advances of his most vivacious student – 57 year old Dharshini. The age difference notwithstanding, there was an almost predictable old-world doggedness with which this romance was progressing. He enjoyed her company immensely and felt the physical pull of her loveliness, but he was also acutely aware of his prevalent state of mind: He was loathe to commit to anything traditional or long term at the current time. He was footloose after years of being shackled in a loveless marriage and knew that he wanted to remain fancy free for a while. She was a good sort; a convent bred girl of conventional values. She was definitely not the sort you conscripted for your rebound shenanigans. And now she’d invited him over to her house – the ultimate gesture of commitment to a promising potential mate. Daniel sighed resignedly. He had to back off.

The next day, Dharshini got the text message an hour before her husband was due to arrive. It was simple and to the point. Daniel couldn’t make it for dinner; he was tied up somewhere. Also, he wanted to assure her that he was committed to their friendship but nothing more. He was sure that she already knew this but as a rule he liked to keep things above board and crystal clear for the benefit of all concerned. He hoped she had a good evening and that he looked forward to seeing her at the next dance class.

She looked at her phone for a long while, the screen darkening and then lighting up when she pressed on it, the words misting over and then reappearing alternately. At first she felt only numb; then injured and somewhat misled and betrayed. There was no anger however; just a strange sense of dejavu. Like she’d seen this pattern before; knew it from somewhere. In a disconnected, detached way, she’d visualized it play out numerous times before as she’d walked away from each one of her ardent entourage of devotees; only this time, she was at the receiving end. She blinked in disbelief and amazement and even managed to smile ruefully in a momentary pang of realisation and mortification.

She finally put the phone away and looked at her watch. Her husband would be here any minute now. They’d have some coffee and she would ask him if he was selling his grey Toyota Aqua. He had spoken of putting it on the market and it was time that she acquired a new carriage for herself.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/03/riotous-love-part-one/

Featured

SHORT STORY|RIOTOUS LOVE – Part One

Dharshini got into her red Honda Fit, wincing in pain. The visit to the orthopaedic specialist had become essential after a week of agony; her whole right leg throbbed like the devil! She knew she had weak knees, troublesome joints and yet, she’d whirled about that room like her behind was on fire! God! Hormones … or was it the lack of them … she thought wearily, the thrill and the motivation of that performance both now squatting in her head like large stupid birds, staring blandly at her. She grimaced as she gently pressed the accelerator, and drove into the Galle Road traffic.

Dharshini, known fondly and unfondly as Dharshi by her various circles of friends and frenemies was 57, bold and beautiful. The perfection marred, just as all sublime things tend to be, in this case, with osteoarthritic joints. Still, she carried herself with the easy confidence borne of almost always standing out in a room full of people. The occasions where she was upstaged, were few and summarily forgotten under dutiful bouts of social amnesia; both, by her and her coterie of cohorts. She was hands down, the alpha of her group, a fact that nobody could deny or indeed, had the temerity to.

A month or so ago, Dharshini had signed up for social dancing classes. She’d heard rumblings of this venue of perspiration and contortions being the place to meet “Good” people. “Eligible” was of course not what she was looking for; after all she was a married woman. Not entirely happily, and not quite cohabiting with her somewhat estranged spouse, but still to all intents and purposes, secured in sacred wedlock. That fact had been conveniently relevant thus far in keeping at bay, the droves of ill suited middle aged and senior hopefuls who constantly vied for her hand and her heart. She had developed a rejection strategy all her own: with every new admirer, although she knew from the outset how it would end, she would only gently, gradually pass on that knowledge to him; after exacting a few lunches, a trip or two for herself and her girl friends and maybe even a bauble or two, in at least silver. It was a sweet, harmless enterprise she always thought coyly, where both parties benefited. She was not one given to dwelling on the aftermath of a broken heart; her moral due diligence ended with her making it resoundingly clear at some point, that she was only ever a friend. And that even if there was some misunderstanding that she hoped that her most recently crushed courter had enjoyed their camaraderie and that they’d continue to be genial with each other. She’d bestow her most beatific smile and come away contented and cheerful, warm in the glow of a problem solved and her moral compass pointing truly heavenwards.

It was on the Dance floor – that battlefield of laborious leg work and fitful grace, that she’d met Danny. A 45 year old divorcee, Daniel had recently moved back to Sri Lanka after a 10 year stint at marriage and business in Brisbane, Australia. Both had come crashing around him about a year ago. He’d decided then that home was where the heart really was and had, bag, baggage and a dog, returned to his hometown of Colombo. He had always loved dancing and was quite consummately professional at executing the lusty, physical moves of the salsa, bachata and the waltz. In an effort to forget the last decade, he plunged into everything that had defined him before he moved abroad and that ironically, went against many of his predilections now. And so, one of the first things he’d done was to sign up as an instructor at his old social dancing school. A decade ago, he’d been one of their more popular teachers with an avid throng of female admirers who were obliged by their fluttering hearts to sign up as students too. It was a lucrative scheme for dashing Danny and a two hour theatre of titillation and thrills for the dancing brigade. Danny had in fact, met his ex-wife at that very school. She had no talent for the Waltz but had sure-footedly danced her way into his heart. That was really the only time they had ever danced for the sheer pleasure of it. After matrimony settled them into its no-nonsense folds, she realized that she quite despised the art form and he realized with some alarm and then resignation that that fact was the least of his marital woes.

Like the other women, Dharshini too had found herself responding to the agile charms of her dance instructor. He had, on more than a few occasions, taken her as his partner to demonstrate to the rest of the class, a particularly complex move full of wild, rousing acrobatics. She came away from these twists and spins breathless and reddened with exertion and excitement. She was sure he too felt his heart strings being jiggled and jostled in all that animated physicality and closeness. He was different though. He wasn’t smiling too readily at her; or babbling; or otherwise showing any signs of being under the influence of her enchantment and allure. Traditionally she was the pursued and the besotted men did all the labour-intensive pursuing. He was congenial but just distant enough to show that he was in control of the situation and if this … this thing… had to go anywhere, it was for her to make the first move. This realisation was both heady and new. She had smiled to herself. There was something else that was new here too: her heart after ages, was beating for someone else!

And so Dharshini had thrown herself into her Salsa and Bacahata lessons, three times a week. A fortnight into the enterprise, she had slipped and fallen on the tiled floor, landing directly on her knees. In the heat of the moment and in the insular glow that now surrounded her at every class, she didn’t feel the pain nor the ominous creaking of her joints every time she bent her knees or leaped deer-like out of her partner’s arms onto the hard floor. She went to bed in a haze of contentment and love. She even felt a random gentle wave of affection rise for all her other unfortunate suitors who had gone their own way. I hope they’re all happy just as I am, she’d thought charitably, big-heartedly. And with that she drifted off into a dreamless, restful sleep.

‘Why was I jumping like a monkey on steroids? Why? Why?’ Dharshini complained bitterly to Sabeena on the phone the next morning. Her mid morning phone chats with one or another of her friends marked the start of every day. She always came away feeling invigorated, light of load and rearing to get on with the rest of her day. Sabeena too came away from the phone call, her inner calm now quite shattered by the torturous raving and ranting of her bossy but well-meaning friend.

The morning after her fall, Dharshini hadn’t been able to bend her right knee at all, and had thought it was best if she stayed in bed. These restful, placatory measures had often worked when her joints occasionally rebelled in the tropical rains and humidity. This was the first time, however, that she’d subjected them to such pounding, ceaseless torture. For two whole weeks! They were obviously going to act like petulant, griping grande dames. For Dharshini, her ankles and her knees were like a twinsome of spinsterly companions that had set up permanent residence on her person. While everything else felt youthful and sprightly, these joints never matched up. They creaked and complained at the slightest intrusion of weather or activity and it took large doses of rest and relaxation to get their grumbling soreness to settle.

The pain had not subsided even after a week of missing classes and tending to her knees. She had finally decided to see her orthopaedic specialist. The doctor and she shared a love-hate relationship on behalf of her joints which he quite practically considered his wards too. He knew that Dharshini only ever came to him when things had gone from bad to worse and when he’d have to resort to strongly advising, cajoling and then threatening, to have her be more compliant. She knew that the good doctor meant well but he was always so grim and pessimistic; always making her feel old and doddery.

‘Mrs. Gunaratne, have you been trying to run relays lately?’ he asked feeling her swollen right knee. She grimaced and mumbled something unintelligible. The universe and he both knew what she meant.

‘You have weak joints Mrs. G. There is hardly any cartilage left in your right knee and the gel* injections are soon going to be insufficient to keep it going. It’s knee replacement surgery for you if this goes on’, he said darkly but also with some satisfaction. He was really quite at his wits end with patients like Mrs. Gunaratne who refused to take supplements, had congenital osteoarthritis and were always up to some joint-jarring misadventure.

‘Doctor Herath, please just give me the injection and I promise to take the pills. I have to go soon. I have another appointment’, Dharshini said somewhat testily. But not too aggressively. He was after all the best orthopaedic surgeon in town. And when it was absolutely necessary, he would be the one to endow her with a set of new knees. She always balked at the idea of surgery and not even the prospect of agreeable, maiden knees could dispel her horror of the surgeon’s scalpel.

* Gel injections: One of the more effective treatments for arthritis is gel knee shots — also referred to as viscosupplementation or hyaluronic acid injections.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/05/riotous-love-part-two/

SHORT STORY|THE GIRL WITH THE PAISLEY DUPATTA* – Part Two

(I)

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.

(II)

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.

(III)

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.


Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/28/paisley-dupatta-part-one/

SHORT STORY|SERENDIB LODGE – Part Two

The advances, hesitant at first, became more tenacious and vigorous as Sherry Kumar began to actively pursue Manel. She, for her part, was first puzzled, then agitated and finally began to perform a series of vanishing acts which left her breathless and her pursuer more ardent than ever before. This relentless cat and mouse chase continued for a month before a mentally exhausted Manel finally allowed herself to be cornered by her beaming, zealous stalker. She faced him shaking with unspent fury – How dare he! How dare he make her want to run away from her own home!

‘How dare you! How dare you chase me like I’m some leyna*! This is my home! Stop hassling me or I’ll – I’ll hit you!’ she raged, her racing heart threatening to break through her rib cage.

‘I just want to talk to you …’ Sherry Kumar responded placatingly. He hadn’t realized how deplorably his earnest efforts to just have a chat with her had been perceived. He was a little stunned, but mostly exhilirated at finally having the chance to lay his heart bare. For Sherry Kumar was in love; he had been, in fact, since his first fortnight at Serendib Lodge. Usually he’d beam and blink in blue-green tones at his object of affection and that sealed the deal, or not, with both probabilities playing out in equal measure. This was a first where he’d had to so passionately chase after someone for over a month and then be called a stalker for it.

‘What do you want?’ asked Manel, her face set in a frown that, by its sheer comical ferocity, indicated that it was far from being a regular visitor on that usually peaceful countenance. Even while she showed her unmitigated displeasure on the outside, she was more in control on the inside, seeing the man in front of her for the unexceptional mortal he was and not the fire-breathing dragon who’d been chasing her right into her nightmares for the past month.

‘I like you and I want to take you out to dinner’, said Sherry Kumar also back in control of the situation, and continuing down the oft-beaten path of his love lusts.

Manel looked at him as if she had just been handed a bag of rotten eggs.

‘I don’t want to go out to dinner with you. Stop coming after me or I’ll tell Melba’ she said in what was supposed to be the ultimate threat.

It has to be said that her complete and utter disdain and repulsion was borne more from her complete naïveté regarding relationships and their tortuous, sometimes awkward beginnings, than any real distaste for the man. She, however, wasn’t able to tell the difference – not yet.

And so Sherry Kumar retreated – for now.

After their first tumultuous meeting at the foot of the stairs, life had gone back to being ordinary and unremarkable. Manel remained wary but kept herself prepared for any recurrence of the earlier embarrassing episode, with regular doses of fortifying self talk. She went about her day, studiously avoiding her pursuer’s eyes but steadfastly fighting the urge to flee whenever he was around.

It was in February, three months after Sherry Kumar arrived at Serendib Lodge that he came down with dengue fever, the mosquito borne tropical disease that reduced brawny men to waifs of their former selves while in the throes of the fever. Sherry Kumar was no exception as the fever ravaged him for the next fortnight. He lay listlessly, sometimes appearing half dead and at others, quite completely corpse-like. His ruddy face was wan and the healthful glow of his bald head had reduced to a feverish, clammy glisten.

Manel became his inadvertent nurse and caregiver. Through those two weeks of delirium and exhaustion, she was at his side, feeding him, cleaning after him, helping him to the toilet, sponge bathing him and medicating him. As with most situations which show up the vulnerability and frailty of creatures, this too inspired sympathy, kindness and in Manel’s case, a softening of the heart. She now looked at the man lying lifelessly before her, willing him to heal and be whole again; to smile again; to talk to her again … to say some things to her again …. She looked away, blushing with the brazenness of her own thoughts; and then regained her composure with that censorious self deprecation that is such a hallmark of both, actual women of the cloth and those that avidly and truly imagine themselves to be nun-like: you’re 60 years old – love is for the young and carefree. Stop behaving like a giggly teenager!

With that, she went back to her nursing responsibilities with the chill of abstinence in her eyes and the armour of prohibition around her heart.

On the tenth day, Sherry Kumar woke up to Manel’s strained, serious countenance. She was reading a copy of the Pirith Potha*. He looked at her, instinctively wary of reigniting the fuse; and yet, there she was, so close, so reachable.

‘Hello Manel, nice to see you in my bedroom’ he said rustling up his characteristically optimistic spirit even as he lay there physically weak and spent.

Manel smiled in spite of herself. She allowed herself to look into the depths of those green eyes, mustering up the courage to briefly speak the language of the heart with this strange man; this oddly endearing man.

Sherry Kumar got well and back on his feet over the next ten days. He was gentle and subdued in his interactions with Manel – he had realized the discordance of his customary romantic ways with this extraordinary woman. Manel, in turn realized that she enjoyed his company; and more importantly, that she permitted herself to enjoy his attention. There was no trace of his earlier brutish, overbearing attitude. She was convinced that the sickness had changed him in some mysterious but blessed manner.

Mel saw the burgeoning friendship of the two with some foreboding. She wasn’t sure whether it was her own sense of self preservation or her concern for her friend of four decades that stoked her apprehension. She didn’t dwell on the motives for too long; those were irrelevant. What was important was that she talk to Manel; drum some sense into her. She had lost her head nursing that idiot.

So she sat Manel down and delivered a sermon full of horror, fire and brimstone. Manel listened with awe and then misgiving and finally, shame.

Sherry Kumar approached Manel once more, hesitantly but earnestly: Would she marry him he asked. Manel was adamantly clear – she would not.

It was November again and Sherry Kumar had left Serendib Lodge six months ago. He had remained in touch with Mel through text messages and FaceBook posts. He had no connection with Manel.

‘Manel look at this photo, aney*!’, said Mel one afternoon while they were both sitting in the veranda while billowing grey sheets of rain fell outside. It was a photo of Sherry Kumar with Shilpa, a girl who had frequented their home for years until she had moved to Kandy as, first a caregiver and then a companion to a recently widowed elderly woman. The caption read, “Just married! With my dream girl”

Aney ara pissa*, he’s finally got married!’ chortled Mel.

Manel looked at the image for a while, a crowd of emotions ricocheting through her head – sadness, regret, relief, disappointment and finally, defeat. She knew she had made the right decision and yet her heart fluttered brokenly. In her mind, even though she had rejected her suitor, he would remain devoted to her; even in the sea of people around him; amidst his cresting and waning relationships, he would continue to hold a candle for her. She smiled and then without warning even to herself, she cried, the tears falling like a river down her face while her heart shrivelled into a ball.

Mel looked at her incredulously, bewildered by her behaviour, ‘what’s wrong? God knows how long this will last. Thank God you escaped his clutches’.

Manel wept silently for a while and then nodded in acquiescence … resignation. She looked outside at the garden, trying to let go, to reach ahead; to reach beyond herself and her inexplicable grief.

The rain had stopped and turgid drops of water fell from the leaves on the trees as they stirred almost in sympathy and understanding for the lonely woman who walked among them.

* Leyna: Squirrel, in Sinhalese
* Aney: colloquial Sinhalese for “Aww, bless!”

* Pirith Potha: Book of Buddhist religious verses that are recited for protection. “Pirith” is the Sinhalese word for “Paritta” (in Pali) which means Protection.
* Aney ara pissa: colloquial Sinhalese for “oh that crazy lovable idiot”

SHORT STORY| EUSTACE SHERGILL – Part One

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 Man called?’ 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”.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/14/eustace-shergill-part-two/

SHORT STORY| EUSTACE SHERGILL – Part Two

Yousaf Shergill had lost his wife five years earlier to oesophageal cancer. It was quick and matter of fact; she was diagnosed in June and was gone by November of the same year. She had left as she had lived – quietly and discreetly. While Anita had struggled, grieved and then begun to heal as grown up children do when they lose a parent, Yousuf Shergill had come away from the tragedy permanently stricken, anxious and displaced. He had stopped going to work, instead having the knottiest applications sent to him at home where he pored over them feverishly, concentrating on finding the elusive thread to immigration success while also, for a time, escaping, from the pain of loneliness, memory and recall. The new arrangement suited him, considerably placating his anxiety about not being available on the off chance that Annie required a lift home or in case of another unforeseen disaster.

The Clifton branch welcomed Anita with open arms. It was a flagship consumer banking office and as such was staffed with the young movers, shakers and charmers of the city: vibrant energy and winsome smiles went a long way towards meeting monthly sales targets. Anita with her buoyant personality fitted right in. Coupling up in the office, although not rife was not infrequent either; and when you put a crowd of outgoing, frolicsome young professionals together, the sparks are bound to fly. It took a little over four months for Anita and Bilal to acknowledge their special bond; another two months for Bilal to introduce her to his family; and yet another three for Anita to bring up the subject with her father.

‘Daddy, I’m going to tell you something but I want you to promise me you’ll listen’, began Anita gently but sure-footedly. She wasn’t abashed by her predicament as much as she was concerned about its effect on her father’s state of mind. His moments of joy and peace were so few and far between that the guilt of weighing him down with yet another piece of unsettling information was overwhelming. But the sooner she unburdened herself the better … for everyone.

‘I’ve met someone … at work. His name is Bilal’, she added simply.

Yousuf Shergill looked at her first smilingly, then uncomprehendingly and finally with great foreboding. What was she saying? Did their community use that name …? Did he know any other Bilals from the neighbourhood …? No, he didn’t think he did … The only Bilal he knew was the vegetable vendor who was bearded, be-capped and the picture of Muslim piety … He was visibly grappling with the crowd of inauspicious thoughts that were pitching around in his head.

‘I’ve met his parents. They are lovely people’, added Anita helpfully, trying now to mollify and mitigate.

Yousuf Shergill only looked at his daughter mutely. He didn’t know what to say; and even if he did he was sure he’d lost his ability to convey anything meaningful right now. He simply added this new piece of information, of consternation and trepidation to the vast reservoir of issues that was always stirring at the back of his mind, and left it there for the time being. Right now, he needed all his faculties to maintain some semblance of normalcy in front of his daughter; to keep his face from scrunching into a piteous ball; to keep from weeping for everything that was, and that now, wasn’t anymore.

That night Anita slept fitfully. Her father’s complete lack of a reaction was more disconcerting than any outrage or reprimand. His chiding would have meant that he was processing the news and would in time come to terms with it even if he wouldn’t fully accept it. His silence was eerie, ominous; almost prophetic …

Yousuf Shergill lay awake for a long time that night. He remembered a similar situation; an almost identical story that he had heard many times over, in all its ferocity and horror while he was growing up. His father, Kenneth Shergill had also fallen in love with a Muslim girl in his hometown of Kasur. The couple had shown a passion and fervour that had ruinously hastened the end of that love affair. The girl’s family had abducted him on his way back from work one day and had kept him locked up in a basement for seventeen days. They had beaten and starved him and finally when they were sure they’d broken his spirit, they had dumped him at the Kasur railway junction. He had crawled home somehow. Within six weeks of the incidence, he was summarily married to his cousin because some cultural aspects of their Islamic republic just made sense when choices were few and scandals needed to be subdued, conciliated. And the rest, as they say is history. Yousuf Shergill’s father had dutifully passed on that dread to his son who grew up requisitely wary, nervous and chafing.

Yousuf Shergill spent the rest of the night wary, nervous and chafing.

The next morning, Anita was long gone by the time her father woke up. He came into the lounge, disoriented and alarmed. He picked up his mobile and dialled his daughter’s number, almost immediately ringing off. He took a deep breath – of course she was alright. She was at work. He needed to calm down and think things through. He needed to think of the implications. He needed to figure out the chances of success of his daughter’s enterprise … much like he would with an especially complicated immigration case. Yes, he’d build a case; a water-tight position where, no matter what, his daughter would land on the other side, unscathed, whole and well. Yousuf Shergill got to work on the most crucial case of his lifetime.

A week after her confession to her father, she brought Bilal to the house to meet him; on her father’s request. Yousuf Shergill was surprisingly calm and even congenial, asking about his work and his family. He then regaled both his daughter and her suitor with anecdotes and pithy, little-known facts about his hometown of Kasur. Anita had never seen her father so animated about his paternal homestead as he was today. She smiled, glowing with quiet relief and joy – her father was coming around. The evening ended with her father inviting Bilal for lunch at the Defence club the following week – just the two of them.

The next few weeks passed in a blur of work, home and the occasional visit from Bilal. His fondness and was it awe almost … of her father had grown quickly, unobtrusively. She could see it in the way Bilal mentioned her father when they were alone, with quiet, respectful regard. She was bemused and grateful and decided not to question either of those sentiments.

‘When we do get married, we’re going to move to our own place’ said Bilal musingly one afternoon at lunch.

‘And you my darling, can do what you want – work, not work, go on an adventure, fly a kite or a plane!’ He said grinning widely at Anita.

She laughed, punching him in the arm.

‘You’re most kind but I think I’ll stick to doing what I do best which is being Maham’s fixer-upper and the life of this old place’ she said grinning back at him.

As an afterthought, she added half jokingly as one does with matters that are innately serious but best broached with the subtlety of farce, ‘what if you decide to change your mind once we’re married… hmm?’

‘Unlikely my queen. Your father will have my head and bury it at the Kasur railway junction!’

And so it was that during lunch at the Defence club, Yousuf Shergill had wrapped up his most challenging case yet. He had told his daughter’s suitor an anecdote from his childhood. A story very similar to Bilal and Annie’s in fact. He had just changed it a bit; where his grandfather together with a vast and ferocious throng of family, friends and loyalists had exacted a revenge so bloody and brutal on Kenneth Shergill’s abductors at the Kasur Railway station that the local papers had written about it for weeks afterwards. The courts and the lawyers were unable to file anything against Kenneth’s family.

That afternoon Eustace Shergill had made it gravely, abundantly clear that no one messed with the Shergills of Kasur.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/16/eustace-shergill-part-one/

SHORT STORY| THE GODS OF FURY

Asha adjusted her bra after a final pat on its other, non-fleshy contents; the fifteen thousand rupees now nestling securely in its pendulous grasp. It was the day she had to drop off the rent at her landlord’s house on her way back from work. She smiled widely and catching her reflection in the little mirror on the wall, became at once guarded, gathering up the grin into a coy little smile. Dark spirits were everywhere and she knew innately through generations of stories and behavioural legacies that she couldn’t be overt with the profoundness of her joy. Bad omens had a propensity of springing from the happiest of moments.

Even so, she walked to work with a spring in her step. She was a short, portly woman so that buoyancy itself was a purveyor and teller of her bliss to even the least discerning of spectators. In her mind though, while she had to watch herself outwardly, her thoughts were free to roam unfettered in her secret spaces of delight. Finally! Finally the day that she and her husband had been dreaming of for the last 25 years was around the corner: their eldest son, Danish was graduating from university with a Bachelors degree. He would change his world; his sister’s future; their combined fortunes. She would quit her job as a maid and her husband would stop cleaning the sewage lines he’d been wallowing knee-deep in for the last two decades. The smell never quite washed off his skin now. They’d build their own little house; no more scraping and scrounging every month to meet the rent – that monster that loomed large with ravening regularity outside their tiny two room hovel.

Her breath caught in her throat as she allowed her imagination to revel in the bountifulness of precious opportunity and new beginnings. She looked towards the sky with a little prayer on her lips whispering a soft Hai Bhagwan … to the gods and goddesses, this time for their unconditional beneficence. Her prayers were usually modest, economical, always allowing for the fickleness of fate and the peevishness of deities. She never asked for the requiescence of impossible dreams; only the rendering of realistic milestones such as they were in the thorny existence of her people. But this time, she had put in the work; For 25 years, 10 hours every day; of her blood, sweat and tears; of washing, sweeping and cooking for others. This time, her life’s main purpose would be done when her son graduated from university. She could do with every ounce of celestial magnanimity and largesse in the completion of this, her most blessed enterprise.

‘Walaikum salam. Kya baat hai? Aaj bari khush lag rahi ho’(1) said her employer as Asha walked into the apartment, her face flushed with her recent cerebration. She smiled shyly and decided that the home where she had been working for the last five years was as devoid of ill omens as a place could be, and proceeded to share her good news. Her employer, Baji or older sister as Asha and the vast majority of domestic staff called their female employers, had always been good to her and most of all, was undiscriminating. Unlike the vast masses, she was surprisingly unaffected by the faith of those who cooked and cleaned for her. That was probably one of the main reasons for the longevity of Asha’s current employment. She glowed in the rare telling of an even rarer propitious event in her life. Her Baji was genuinely happy for her and told her that she was expecting a box of Asha’s special home made gulab jamun* the day of Danish’s graduation.

Besides being the curator of discreet, precious dreams, Asha was an accomplished cook and was the designated neighbourhood sweetmeat maker for festivals like Diwali and Holi. Her services were also sought out during Eid celebrations by those whose gastronomic inclinations outweighed their fear of moral transgression: If she cooked in their homes, in their vessels, the designated sin allocation was greatly reduced. And then, there were other prayerful ways to wash away such lesser impieties …

Asha got to work, her mind far away in fields of her own dreams. During her short break for lunch, she pulled out her phone to look at he her son’s smiling face on the display screen. He’d been at the front and center of her mind today, pulling at her heart strings and filling her thoughts. She suddenly recalled the words of a relative who imagined himself to be something of a fortune teller. He’d said, Danish would he famous- his name would be in the newspapers …

She smiled indulgently. She’d be happy with his uneventful graduation and an unremarkable transition into the cadres of bank officers that she saw driving to work every day. Rising every morning with their big dreams and fulfilling them in the cool sanctums of enterprise that towered on both sides of the I.I. Chundrigar road. They were resplendent in their suits and ties – Danish would be resplendent in his suit and tie! She felt a little shiver run up her spine as her one prodigious vision for her one son enveloped her in its fiery, explosive embrace.

Today she was leaving early to stop by the landlord’s and to visit the Punch Mukhi Hanuman Mandir in Soldier bazaar. Like all her compatriots, while she revered the entire deific gamut, she had her divine favourites too, and hers were Lords Shiva and Hanuman.

After a brief stop at her landlord’s house, with the month’s obligation fulfilled, she caught the W11 bus to Soldier bazaar and made her way to the temple. Even though it was a Thursday, the wide arched entryways into the temple were thronging with worshippers. The Maha Shivrathri* festival was approaching and while the actual event would take place at the Shiv Mandir in Umerkot a month from now, the regular petitioners like herself and the generally devoted were already faithfully marking time at their city temples. She had already asked her employer for a week off in March when she and her family would travel to the southern part of Sind to Amarkot as Asha and her community referred to the fort city among themselves; harking back to the days when the city was ruled by its Hindu founder Maharaja Amar Singh. It was one of the many little linguistic deviations that they held onto among themselves, from the Islamic recolouring of history in their now Islamic homeland. Despite the prevalent lack of formal education, these pithy historical and cultural facts had permeated through their community as a meaningful reminder that they were as much a part of the rich tradition and history of the land as their Muslim neighbours and rulers were. Rulers, because there was also still a vestigial sense of being the minority peasantry in someone else’s kingdom. But these were the visceral, unavoidable facts of being a part of the fabric of the country; and despite the ordinary and extraordinary odds, there were also glimmers and inklings of a better future. A future secured by their children and spearheaded by the tireless enterprise of their parents and grandparents.

Asha walked into the temple and sat down on the cool black and white tiles. She closed her eyes and folded her hands in supplication and prayer. She had to talk to the deities, beseech them, cajole them for their blessings; for their generosity and their kindness. This time, she had no bargaining chip to offer. She wanted the whole blessed profusion of her son’s graduation, job and future.

Asha remembered the incidents of the next two days in a haze of delirium and torment. It had been a sticker with a verse on it. Someone had put it on Danish’s text book. He had removed it and pasted it on the desk. And then … she couldn’t think beyond that sequence of events. It ratcheted through her head in an endless loop, protecting her and agonising her in turn. The innate self preservation instinct of a mother with another yet vulnerable, yet susceptible child, prevented her from recalling the entire tragedy. The tragedy that had transformed joyous anticipation and smiling fortunes into a cruel, heart-wrenching finale.

The local paper called it a “scuffle on university grounds triggered by a wilful act of blasphemy”. While Danish survived the savage mob that was out for blood-thirsty retributon, he was not spared the statutory penance of his act. And so, he was stripped of his university credentials and incarcerated for “desecration of the Quran”. With him he brought down the tenuous little edifice of dreams and aspirations of yet another generation of his family.

In the wake of the tragedy, Asha’s husband had called her employer saying she was ill and would be away for 10 days. Now they also had to contend with keeping this new born scandal under wraps from employers, neighbours and random justice wielders.

Asha went back to work after a week. It took her those many days to pick up the broken pieces of her heart and put them away in some dark corner where no one, not even she could see them. She had to go on. There was 12 year old Ramesha to look after. She would have to uproot and reseed her dreams, her prayers and her hopes. She would have to go on.

‘Kya haal hai Asha? Theek ho abhi?’(2) asked her Baji with a look of concern on her face. Asha responded automatically with the alacrity born of the restlessness of time and the lightning glance of never-to-return opportunities of her world.

‘Gulab jamun ka intezar hai – Inshallah, abhi itni dair nahi rahi’(3), she added smiling. Asha touched her heart as if in placation, humble recall, while the broken pieces inside huddled a little more into her grieving, weeping spaces.

(1): ‘What’s up? You’re looking very happy today!’

* Gulab Jamun:
A milk-solid based sweet from the Indian subcontinent.

* Maha Shivrathri: A major festival in Hinduism, the solemn occasion marks a remembrance of overcoming darkness and ignorance in life and the world. It is observed by remembering Shiva and chanting prayers, fasting, and meditating on ethics and virtues such as honesty, non-injury to others, charity, forgiveness, and the discovery of Shiva.

(2): ‘How are you Asha? Are you recovered now?’

(3): ‘I’m still waiting for the gulab jamun. God willing, it can’t be long now’

SHORT STORY| SOUL SISTERS – Part Five

The dust and clamour of the city assailed her with its brawny vigour as soon as she walked out of the airport in Karachi. She looked for Rustum’s familiar face in the surrounding milieu of cacophonous welcoming parties, stuporous janitorial staff and the predatory hordes of taxi kiosk attendants. In his low key, efficient manner her driver located her before she had caught sight of him. He took control of her luggage trolley and led the way expertly through the throng to the parked car.

At home, she was greeted with the faint smell of lavender Lysol mixed in with the fading aroma of freshly cooked, spice-resplendent food. Layla felt her stomach rumble in anticipation as she went into the kitchen to look at the gastronomic delights rustled up by her housekeeper. She’d cooked bitter gourd stuffed with minced beef, and fried okra. The hot pot had four still warm chapatis nestled in its cozy interior – one for her and three for the driver. She had a hot bath; relished her quiet dinner and sat back in the sofa, enveloping herself in the familiar sounds of silence of her apartment.

It was good to be back home.

Her phone rang as soon as she was turning in for the night. It was Sumaira.

‘Yay! You’re back!’ she said as soon as Layla picked up the phone. It was good to hear Sumaira’s voice – still buoyant, still chirpy, even at the waning end of the day.

‘I am back! Missed you woman!’ said Layla rousing herself from her solitary stupor. They talked for a while but Sumaira gave nothing away about who her mystery man was. After fifteen minutes of circling around the obvious with blitheful nimbleness, Sumaira finally ceased her torture of her friend and hung up with an exuberant bye and a kiss. Layla was left fretting in the grips of intrigue and conjecture for more than an hour afterwards. She gave an exasperated sigh and picked up a book to distract herself and to lull her somewhat jangled nerves. Sumaira was a tormenter and a bewilderer and even with her best friend, there were no special confidence privileges until she decided so.

After work the next day, Layla headed for La Etilier Suma to catch her friend in her own workplace where she was more likely to reveal and embellish than to bedevil and distract. Sumaira was bent over a sketch and was delicately filling the colours into each roseate and paisley, the very picture of imperturbable professionalism.

Layla looked at her for a moment and grinned ‘Maestro, thy deception is done. Out with it!’

Sumaira looked up startled. There was a pattern emerging to her being caught off guard she thought fleetingly before she closed her sketch book and stood up to hug her friend. She laughed as she sat back down.

‘It’s Karim’ she said simply.

‘Karim who?’ asked Layla while deftly suppressing the inadvertent bloom of emotions in her own heart at the mention of that name; that was still her little secret …

‘Of “Karamat and Sons” – Karim Zaidi’

Layla looked at Sumaira uncomprehendingly for a moment. But only for a moment.

‘Wow, really?’ she mananged to say while quieting her now pitching, hammering, lurching heart.

‘It was one of those unexpected things. I mean we’ve known him forever from a distance haven’t we? He was always so quiet… so aloof. But he’s actually a lovely man. Sophisticated, well read and …uff… those eyes!’ Sumaira gushed, laughing at her own quickened heart even as she glowed in the sharing of fledgling but precious confidences.

Layla looked at her friend as swarms of disconnected thoughts rampaged through her own head: What were the odds? Of all the men Sumaira could have had out there! Had she misjudged his quiet demeanour? Did she think he was the one man who would remain perfectly unaffected by Sumaira’s charms? Why did she think he was going to fall into her lap just like that? Why couldn’t he have fallen into her lap just like that? Well played, Universe! …

‘… and we spent that entire evening together’ Sumaira ended smiling.

Layla hadn’t heard very much after the First Disclosure and now looked at her friend with new eyes … hurting and resentful; stabbing and piercing; stinging and pricking eyes. She blinked twice, three times, willing away the flood that was gathering at the peripheries of her eyelids.

She said nothing but she smiled, for the benefit of her friend. Her angst, like her secret, was also her own now; and even in the throes of her frenzied emotions she knew now was not the time for either affliction to rear its tormented head.

That evening Layla sat with her solitude and her despair; the tranquility of her three week vacation, a now buried and forgotten memory. She washed her face and looked into the mirror. She lifted up the corners of her mouth in what should have been a smile but was instead a grotesque caricature of joy. She froze her face in the lopsided grimace, forcing herself to recall similar moments from her past; moments of self loathing, of unremitting agony, of wanting to end it all …

But she didn’t feel any of her earlier sense of tragedy. She felt only a pervasive emptiness that was almost narcotic in its numbness. She realized that she was not the tortured 17 year old anymore. She was a resilient, stalwart product of the curve ball life had pitched at her. She’d learnt to bat right back, into the eye of the storm. Even when her ordinary and extraordinary anxieties overwhelmed her, she remained afloat with her head above the water; taking in the serenity of the entire ocean rather than the tempestuousness of the cresting and falling waves around her.

She would survive this too.

Life, of course, was full of surprises, but she also knew the limits of joyful happenstance. Even while she sat on her wooden bench, enveloped in her solitude, daydreaming of knights in charcoal grey shalwar kameez, she was at peace with the calming ordinariness of the relationships in her real life. Ultimately, even when she made her brief, magical forays into What-Could-Have-Been, she always veered right back to reality. So yes, she would survive this.

Her friendship with Sumaira was worth more than a few lusty pulls of her heartstrings. Her soul connection with her best friend had to be worth more than her illusions of love and couple-hood; for that was what her fantasy romance had been – a theatre of the heart.

She drew back the curtains on the night sky and lay down, looking at the vastness of the city from her 7th floor sanctum. In time, the city lights faded in the radiant luminescence of a milk moon that shone into her bedroom lighting up her face as she slept.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/22/soul-sisters-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/26/soul-sisters-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/28/soul-sisters-part-three/

Read Part Four here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/03/soul-sisters-part-four/

SHORT STORY| SOUL SISTERS – Part Four

‘I hear you’re quite the designer – I myself was a coffin maker in the US. Fancy coffins are big business there’, said someone who’s name she’d forgotten but who was steadfastly standing by her side while carrying on a mostly non-reciprocal conversation. Sumaira smiled blandly yet again and took a sip of her sprite and soda. She wondered for the 10th time in as many minutes where Hassan had disappeared to. Usually the crowd was larger and she was familiar with many of the usual suspects at these soirées. This appeared almost like a last minute attempt to make something of a Friday night – the patchy crowd that had gathered was dolorous and … sticky.

She excused herself from Mr. Glue-some, and walked purposefully towards nowhere in particular.

She stood in an unobtrusive corner of the garden and took a deep breath. God! When did unfamiliar crowds start getting to her? She usually loved the banter and the energy. It was this whole marriage prospect that was playing with her mind; even the oddball, to-meet-and-to-forget strangers at a party were now threatening to join the Groom Queue lined up in her head.

She needed a real drink.

‘Hello. I hope I’m not barging in on your … lonesomeness’, said a low mirthful voice near her. She looked up, startled to find Karim smiling at her, suddenly becoming conscious of her uncharacteristic shadowy form and furrowed brow.

‘Hi’ she smiled a little self consciously, feeling a tinge of discomposure touch her cheeks. The light and shadow accentuated her flush making Karim momentarily catch his breath. She shone even when she cloaked herself in eventide shadows … he thought in that moment of mush and liquid emotions.

‘I didn’t see you here … I was looking for Hassan and, you know, trying to hide from a Party Romeo’ she said laughingly, in superintendence once again of her wits and her charm.

Karim laughed and looked again at her beautiful face. He was still feeling the afterglow of the earlier heat of the moment; a pleasurable warmth that belied the usual gin and tonic haze he surrounded himself with at these social affairs. They stood in that corner of the garden, chatting comfortably about nothing in particular, blanketed from the world, while a nebulous moon looked on.

Like Layla, Sumaira too lived alone, but in the bounteous arms of a family homestead that was equipped with its crew of maids, gardeners and all the other amenities that are de rigeur for many privileged South Asian families who live between two or even three homes. Sumaira’s parents lived in Kent in the UK but came home every winter. Karachi’s winter, if its spring-like coolness can, at all be called that, was short and flamboyant. It was when the flowers bloomed and the parks were full of promenading, socialising hordes of Karachiites, glad of the faint, sometimes even fondly imagined, nip in the air. There was that handful of wintry days however, when one definitely needed a sweater or a jacket to brace against an almost desert-like evening chill.

She was having her first of many mugs of coffee of the day, a faraway look in her eyes. Asha, the old family retainer broke into her reverie to ask about what to cook for dinner. That question had become a pet peeve, resounding as it did with the regularity of sunrise, while holding within it none of the sustaining, nurturing quality. Asha’s cooking had suffered in almost defiant sympathy with her aching bones and failing eyesight.

She told her to make a salad. She’d have eggs and salad for dinner tonight.

Her phone lit up momentarily. She glanced at it abstractedly and then picked it up. She smiled; it was a message from Karim. Well.. it was more a forward really of something they had talked about the other evening, but still …

Was she falling in love with Karim? She asked herself upfront, point blank.

She wasn’t wholly sure, but he was definitely on the short list now … at the very tippy top …

Layla lay on the sofa in the lounge. The television was droning on in the background; her father was fast asleep on his recliner after a fulsome meal; her mother was on the phone with one of her sisters. She sighed contentedly. It had been a relaxing, settling, centering fortnight in Lahore. She still had another week to go before she descended into the tumultuous and confusing but also loving and giving arms of her adopted city. She looked at her phone. Layla had been so caught up in the happy sociability of parents and home that she hadn’t noticed the almost radio silence where there was usually a daily digital exchange between the friends. After a somewhat cryptic message that she had received from Sumaira last week, she hadn’t heard from her at all. She’d said something about having met someone new; about short lists that were becoming ever shorter and a choice that was becoming ever clearer. So, the Husband Hunt was in full progress Layla thought and waited for the familiar tightening of her chest. She felt only a nostalgia; a gentle wistfulness. It was the way of things. Sumaira would get married and she may even get busy as married couples do. But their friendship would stand the test of matrimony and its many busying enterprises. She felt unusually accepting and calm.

She suddenly missed her best friend, her soul sister. She typed in a message and put her phone away. She got up in the brightened spirits that were the trademark bestowal of all her home visits and gave her mother a quick bear hug from behind. They were going for their post dinner stroll in the lane outside the house. She looked up at the clear night sky with its winking constellations. Amid all that starry brilliance rested a demure quarter moon like a half closed eye …

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/22/soul-sisters-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/26/soul-sisters-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/28/soul-sisters-part-three/


Read Part Five here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/06/soul-sisters-part-five/

SHORT STORY| SOUL SISTERS – Part Three

It’s probably going to be Dawood, thought Layla musingly as she went through a mental list of eligible husbands for Sumaira. After her initial rush of anxiety where she had imagined herself being left alone with only a dolefully fluttering spinster flag as her constant companion, she’d pulled herself together. It wasn’t that her fear of losing her best friend to Wedded Bliss(ters!) had just disappeared; it was more a deliberate effort to closet the feeling until it had faded away, as most tragic things tend to, into some sort of emotional oblivion. So now, in that wholly preoccupying mental distraction mode that is such a friend at times like these, she was engrossed in the arduous and exacting task of ‘Guessing the Groom’.

Even with the inherent ironies of the phrase, Dawood was the ‘perfect husband material’, she thought. A lean, mean, money-making machine! She grimaced inwardly – that definitely was an uncharitably crude sentiment with regard to her best friend’s prospects. Fundamentally true but …. indelicate. Now, she was also momentarily overtaken with the anxiety of self doubt – was she acting out some sort of repressed resentment because Sumaira had broken their bond of friendship? Had Sumaira broken their bond of friendship? Was she never going to see her again after she had a ring on her finger? Each subsequent question sounded more ludicrous than the last; and yet, there was an instinctive feel of baser truths in all of it.

Layla took a deep breath and continued to pack her suitcase. The Eid holidays were around the corner and she was going to Lahore for at least a fortnight. The holidays were a week long but she had an office in her hometown too so she was planning on mixing business with pleasure … and a bit of escape artistry. Yes, she was going to get away, for a while at least, from the changes that were looming large on the entirety of her life in Karachi.

Sumaira was sitting with her feet up on the easy chair in the inner sanctums of her boutique. The belle of the party circuit was also the creator of many a dream wardrobe. She was a gifted designer with patterns and colours that stood out in the cacophonous milieu of formal wear. She was looking at pictures on her phone, her mind extrapolating sensory stimulation to long term marital success. She had a shortlist now. Of course, each candidate had already, many times over, declared his undying love, while also logically certifying the longevity of their particular match.

The whole process – this picking of a man to be my partner for life; it was all so clinical, she thought. No butterflies in the stomach; no happy anticipation. Just another trek down the Boulevard of Tradition. She had expected the lead up to marriage to be a little more exciting. The flat feeling in the pit of her stomach almost made her wish that she’d married at 23 so she could have floated on the blissful waves of premarital innocence and naïveté at least for a while. There would be time enough for reality to bite and for her to learn the wisdom of mustering her own happiness. Now, she had the stoicism of experience but had lost the euphoria of guilelessness. Life! Always about toss-ups.

There were twenty unread messages in her “Friends and Frenemies” chat group. She opened it and saw Hassan leading the weekend charge as usual. He had asked everyone to name a song that best described them. Sumaira was glad of the diversion and was wondering whether in fact, she was Patti LaBelle’s ‘Lady Marmalade’ or Whitney Houston’s “Every woman” when Layla poked her head in through the doorway.

“Hey! I’m glad you’re here; was going to call you” said Sumaira smiling up at her friend. “Tell me, what’s a song that describes you?”

“That’s easy! I am a Rock” said Layla, delicately assuming the Chin Mudra* with her hands and closing her eyes.

“That’s a quiet song isn’t it? God! I need some of that quietness in my life right now, even if it’s for a day!” said Sumaira earnestly but uncharacteristically and typed her response into the already buzzing online conversation thread.

Kareem picked up his phone and looked at his messages. 157 unread messages in the chat group he rarely looked at during the week. He now tapped on it and looked at the last few entries. Simon and Garfunkel … he smiled. That had been his signature song throughout his quiet, largely solitary teen years and now, it evoked a sense of nostalgia, comfort and serenity. It was Sumaira’s entry … He looked thoughtful; he hadn’t imagined her to be the kind that stayed shielded in her armour and hidden in her room. He looked at her display photo. She really was gorgeous.

“When are you coming back?” asked Sumaira while they both dug into their Calypso salads.

“Two weeks, maybe three if I have to do a detailed audit of the Lahore branches” said Layla looking assiduously into the depths of her salad.

“That’s almost a month! Hurry back… I need my best friend by my side to help me pick my Shahzada Gulfaam(1)”, she laughed and kissed Layla on the cheek. She had to get her friend to relax around the thought of her marriage. She knew hardly anything would change; but Layla had her own conversations with the universe and sometimes she took the circuitous route to seeing things that for others were in plain sight. Many times she had been right to do so … This time, Sumaira hoped her friend’s hesitancy was just the knee jerk reaction of her social anxiety and not a prophetic omen of things to come.

Layla looked at Sumaira, realising her friend was worrying on her behalf. “I know! I’d kill you if you just went eenie meenie miny moe and deprived me of the pleasure of a SWOT analysis on your husband to be!”

Sumaira chuckled, relieved to see the humour returning to their equation.

Layla grinned. Even as she lightened the atmosphere, she was bolstering her own heart

I am a rock, I am an island …

(1) Shahzada Gulfaam: Urdu colloquialism for ‘Prince Charming’

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/22/soul-sisters-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/26/soul-sisters-part-two/

Read Part Four here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/03/soul-sisters-part-four/

Read Part Five here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/06/soul-sisters-part-five/

SHORT STORY| SOUL SISTERS – Part Two

Karim sat at the desk in his office, looking at a piece of random poetry that had found its way to his “Friends and Frenemies” WhatsApp chat group. The group always came alive on Friday afternoons. He was now re-reading the verse for the third time, a slow smile playing about his lips.

There is this wooden bench I like
It’s not fancy; quite the common type.
Cloaked in by the dappled canopy
Of a gracefully pirouetting Mara tree,
It sits in the park like a dear old friend
It’s well-worn embrace ever welcoming....

He was reminded of a bench of his own; in a private little place that he occasionally went to, away from the cacophony of life. The little stanza had been forwarded a few times so there was no indication of the original author. He took a sip of his tepid tea, grimaced and decided it was one of those bench-visiting, soul-appeasing days. He picked up his laptop and descended into the imposing atrium of “Karamat and Sons Steel Works”. He looked at the newly refurbished company logo across the reception wall and sighed inwardly. Whether he liked it or not; despite it all being what he hadn’t quite aspired for himself, he was the scion of the Karamat and Sons empire such as it was, and he was going to have to fill in those shoes.

He got into his jeep and drove “into the sunset” as he liked to imagine. So private and precious was his little place of solace that he dared not refer to it out loud. For the heart and the mind have a precocious way of conspiring sometimes, exposing sentiments and truths that were supposed to be forever held in the most hidden recesses of one’s being. It had been a month since he was last there and this little ditty that had serendipitously, unexpectedly floated in across the cyber ether had suddenly rekindled his solitude yen. He longed to sit on that incongruous little bench on the beach. Placed exactly so on his specific instructions, it sat at the very edge of the lapping waves. Behind him was the biscuit coloured hut, made deliberately obscure against its golden-tan background of sand and rock; before him was the vast expanse of the sea encompassing his secluded world in her vital arms. The hut was built on one of the little promontories that jutted out to sea on an otherwise, gently undulating beach front. This secret place of solace, on more than a few occasions, had inspired Karim too, to muse poetically; with always the same refrain serenely coming to mind:

**I am monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute ...

Today, however, he didn’t sit on the bench. He took off his shoes, rolled up his trousers and walked along the beach. One of the silent meditative motions he inadvertently engaged in while sitting on his bench was to assiduously keep his feet dry in the frolicsome advance and retreat of the waves. Today, he sought out the gentle waves, the soft foam breaking at his ankles, leaving lacy outlines around his footprints in the sand. Today, instead of William Cowper’s soothing verse, the two lines, somewhat adapted, of the mystery poet, came knocking on the periphery of his solitude …

It sits on the beach like a dear old friend
It’s well-worn embrace ever welcoming....

He was in love! With whoever had written those words! He laughed out loud at his usually Victorian Judge-sober heart as it somersaulted in time with the dancing waves. He knew he was momentarily infatuated with a figment of his imagination; but he allowed himself to grin widely as he created blitheful footprints in the sand around his wooden bench.

It was late evening. Layla sat on the floor, leaning against the footboard of the bed in Sumaira’s room, her legs stretched out in front of her. She was concentrating on a piece of a poetry that had flitted into her mind in the comforting haze of a post dinner, eve-of-the-weekend stupor.

“Layla, I think I’m done with the single life. I think I’m ready to take a husband; to have kids and become a matriarch in some elegant home!”

Layla looked up at her friend for indications of the tongue in cheek humour that was such a large part of her personality. She saw a contemplative Sumaira, lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling, her face wearing a thoughtful expression.

“What do you mean? I mean, this is sudden!” said Layla still waiting for the easy chortle of her free-thinking, conventions-defying friend.

Layla looked keenly at Sumaira and thought, “Good God! She’s avoiding even looking at me now. Is she really serious…?”

“I know! But look, I’m 35 and now’s the time … “ Sumaira said a little hesitantly. Because what she left unsaid was what they had always laughed at; the norms of society on when to marry and when (and whether in fact!) to have children or to instead, adopt.

“You know what Layla, we should both think about settling down. It’ll be fun to become a part of the mainstream for a while. We can always “lovingly” rebel when all’s said and done … you know, to keep it from getting old. To keep us from getting old and jaded.”

“Settling down? laughed Layla. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you use that turn of phrase. Wasn’t it being shackled down that you called it?”

“Sweetheart, I’m serious. We’ve done what we had to in the ways of being single and unattached. I want someone significant in my life now”, said Sumaira looking directly at Layla at last.

“She means it! Damn hell! What am I going to do? Be the eternal spinister? God!–– What’s wrong with me? It was bound to happen. It’s not such a bad thing…. She’s right, I should think about it too…” Layla was putting in copious effort to rein in her inadvertent wave of anxiety.

Sumaira looked at her friend fondly as she saw a myriad emotions flash in quick succession on that sweet face. Change, no matter how natural, organic and sequential in the larger scheme of things, always took Layla by surprise. She was a creature of habit and loved her constancy rituals of friendship, loving and living. But she was resilient and an oddly beloved child of the universe. She wouldn’t be surprised if somehow, somewhere, even before Sumaira had cherry-picked a potential mate from amongst her coterie of admirers, Layla found her great love.

** Verse from William Cowper’s “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk”

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/22/soul-sisters-part-one/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/28/soul-sisters-part-three/

Read Part Four here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/03/soul-sisters-part-four/

Read Part Five here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/06/soul-sisters-part-five/

SHORT STORY|A BRAVE NEW WORLD*

A tribute to the brave young men and women who battle everyday to come to terms with their identity and a perennially judgmental, dogmatic society. May each of you find the strength to be the truest and best version of yourself.

Geena woke up with a monster of a headache. She sat up slowly, disoriented, the neurons in her brain firing a piercing staccato. She held her throbbing head as the events of the previous evening flitted across her hippocampus in discordant technicolour… a night out with friends, B52 shots, Neelu was there, more shots, they’d talked, vodka shots, she was definitely the one, they’d danced, even more shots, they’d kissed…. The memories bounced around her head in weird harmony with the stabs of pain in her body, making her grimace. Geena, the fighter of causes, the Robina-hood of small but essential kindnesses, the dogged agent of change for others, was a frightened, anxious little girl when it came to herself. When did she become so weak? She frowned against the whipping, curdling flow of her boozy blood, arming herself with the shifty valour of self-suggestion.

Say it Geena! Just own it! SAY IT OUT LOUD!

Her head pounded harder, punishing her… for what? For what she wanted to say? For what she couldn’t say? She quivered with the effort.

She couldn’t voice it; her identity, her very being continued to hide inside her like a deep, dark, dirty secret. She crumpled, her spine bent, her voice as silent as the tombs of long forgotten conquerors. No, this wasn’t the day she was going to be her own hero.

Geoff came inside the house, tossing his keys onto the console table. He was glad to be home; it had been an unusually busy Sunday morning. He went straight up to Geena’s room and found her still in bed. She was asleep. He looked at her, at the exhaustion etched in her beautiful face, at the sweet innocence that still enfolded his 18 year old daughter. It had been another one of those nights when she’d arrived home drunk, angry and tearful. How he wished his wife, Ruwani was still around… was still alive. She had been the loving, grounding anchor for this now somewhat dissonant family. He sighed… Ruwani would have known how to handle this teenage angst. He had tried talking to Geena but had always come up against a wall as fortified as it was high; she wouldn’t let him in. He got himself a glass of ice cold water and sat down, mindlessly switching on the television. Anderson Cooper on CNN was saying something about America’s decaying morality…

Something was nagging at him. It was something about morality and uprightness. About righteousness. It was about family values, about being respectable and … being normal. There was an elusive element of normalcy that seemed to be missing from his life… from Geena’s life…

He shook off the strange, disconcerting feelings – like he always did. He’d have to talk to Geena about her drinking. And he’d make it a point to ask about that new boy he’d seen with her group the other day. He never thought he’d say this to her before she was 30, but a nice boy in her life would actually be good for her.

Geena woke up at past 6pm, splintery glimmers of her hangover still keeping her company. She took a couple of panadols to quiet the tumult in her head and lay back in bed, looking at the ceiling overhead. As the pain receded, she became aware of a faint little feeling in her chest… a feeling of something new, something spirited, something honest. It warmed her, tickled her, strengthened her. She smiled tremulously, blinking in the anticipation of the ultimate truth-telling, of a final release from her demons. She was going to talk to her father about it. She was going to tell him that she … she liked girls. She always had. She was a lesbian. That word… still awkward on the tongue and yet that’s what she was. She let the idea float around her head, felt it fuse with her thoughts, sensed it coursing through her body.

She grinned widely – hopeful, nervous, anxious… but mostly hopeful.

It was another Friday night at apartment TP-1.

Tonight though, there was the ragged aura of broken hearts. The truth-telling, the sharing of confidences, the spiritual reckoning had been had. A father sat slumped in his chair, wounded, silent. A daughter stood looking at him, shattered, resigned, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Despite everything, he wanted to reach out. Even in the abyss of her despair, she looked at him, willing him to reach out.

De Khudai pe aman

*A Brave New World: Title inspiration from Aldous Huxley’s dystopian social science fiction novel of the same name.