Reading an excerpt from the short story “Velvet Dreams” from my book THE GIRL WITH THE PAISLEY DUPATTA. The anthology of short stories is available across bookstores in Sri Lanka and at Liberty Books and Paramount Books in Pakistan. Do get your copies folk 🌸
The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta is divided into three sections: Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the USA. The last category is an ode to that most ingenious art form – political satire.
Most of the stories in the book revolve around the social, cultural and even faith related challenges that women face in their day to day lives. This particular story however is about family pressure and the main protagonist is a man 🤓
Shahnaz came home from the office one evening to find a guest. It was Sikander’s mother. Shahnaz had met her at the office once when she had come to get some bank related work done. Sikander had introduced her to his mother then.
She freshened up quickly and came out to the lounge. Their guest was getting up to leave. Before she could get a chance to crossexamine her mother as to the purpose of the visit, Mahjabeen had breezed out of the apartment. It was a neignour’s son’s wedding, and the women of Mall Court were all caught up in the communal festivity and frenzy of preparation.
The next evening, mother and daughter sat down for tea as usual. Shahnaz took a sip of the hot, spirit-fortifying brew as she eyed the plate of samosas. Today her mother had made her favourite, delicate little beef samosas and it was difficult to not reach out and pop one into her mouth. But she’d been good; very good. She had not touched a samosa or a pakora* for the last two months even though the former, in its various delicious avatars, lay temptingly before her at every tea time. Shahnaz sighed and focused for a while on the new hollow concavneess of her belly. She smiled and looked at her mother. Mahjabeen was lost in thought.
“Aday, walay?”(1), she asked her mother.
“Shah sb de”(2), her mother responded simply.
The head of their committee and their communal lives had proposed for her daughter. Shahnaz blinked, taking in this bizarre information. And then she laughed; uproariously, until the tears streamed down her face.
“Lewanay de buda”(3), she finally said to her mother.
Still wiping away the tears of laughter, she asked her mother about the guest from last night. As it turned out, Sikander’s mother had gone to university with Mahjabeen in Islamabad. When they had moved to Karachi about a year ago, the two women had reconnected. They had both recently realized that their children worked in the same bank and at the same branch. And so she had come over with a profound request in mind: to enlist Mahajbeen’s daughter’s help in finding out about Annie; a colleague at the bank and Sikander’s love interest.
Shahnaz confused and dazed, looked at her mother. The bubbles of her recent rollicking laughter were still floating around in her belly. What was her mother saying! She was saying other things, about Sikander’s marriage. To Annie. About timelines; wedding cards. She suddenly felt like the breath had been knocked out of her. Disconnected phrases pinged on Shahnaz’s brain as she felt around for some semblance of order, of sense. A cacophony that had started in her head came crashing down into her ears and then grabbed at her throat. She looked at her mother unhearing, unblinking.
“Shahnaz, bachay* …?” she saw her mother mouth the words, but she still only heard the roar of a tumultuous ocean in her ears. Even as she let the tsunami of her broken, flooded heart carry her away inside, she remained silent, tomblike on the outside. She sat there quietly for a long time.
Mahjabeen was agitated and then thoughtful. She had balked at the quiet confidence with which Shah sb had presented the proposal. It had not been too many years ago that he had made a similar offer to Mahjabeen for herself. She had immediately and resoundingly rejected the notion of remarrying. Shah Manzoor had never brought it up again, until now, extending the offer a generation down the line. He was 50, Shahnaz was 23. Mahjabeen did not outright refuse the proposal and from that absence of a rejection, there bloomed hope like a wild flower in Shah Manzoor’s besotted heart.
Over the next month, Mahjabeen’s domestic burdens were eased in big and small ways as Shah Manzoor bestowed his largesse on her household. His driver made the arduous trips to the bank for her to pay her utility bills, took her appliances for repair, took her linen to the dhobi*, brought it back and deposited hefty bags of fruit at her doorstep, compliments of his employer. Mahjabeen who had always been reliant on taxis and rickshaws, was suddenly elevated in great part beyond these mass market modes of transport for the general mobility and flow of her life. These subtle and overt facilitations slowly picked their way through the reticent iciness of Mahjabeen’s heart where her daughter was resident. And so, the proposed union that had seemed ridiculous a month ago, began to appear less bizarre while also holding the conventional glimmer of longevity and ease. A large part of that aura of acceptance was lent to it by Shahnaz herself: Two days after the discussion between mother and daughter, Shahnaz had informed her mother that she would marry Shah sb. Mahjabeen had told her to think about it, that the world was her oyster. Her daughter had looked at her as if she’d just swallowed that oyster whole; her entire world lying vanquished and decomposing inside her.
Preparations for a winter wedding began at TP-2. Mahjabeen had informed her brothers of the union; they were completely supportive. They had always been somewhat offended and on edge after their sister moved to Karachi. Grounding, entrenching milestones like respectable marriages meant less for them to worry about in terms of unexpected calamities defiling their family name and also the ever present possibility of having to extend themselves financially. It didn’t matter that they had had nothing to do with their sister for the first ten years of her moving to Karachi, and when they did reconnect it was as unemotional as it was practical: After the initial pleasantries were out of the way they wondered if a distant cousin visiting the city by the sea for the first time could stay with Mahjabeen for a few days. Of course she could; the hospitality had been extended graciously and generously.
Mahjabeen had kept in touch with her older brother after that, more out of an innate compulsion to feel like she still belonged to a larger family of siblings, cousins aunts and uncles rather than any sentimental bond; if ever there had been one, the sibling tug of affection had long since relaxed its pull. Now when Karim lala* heard the news of his niece’s impending nuptials he was genuinely happy. He had never met Shah Manzoor but had heard of him from his sister off and on, always at the influential front and centre of life at Mall Court. The man’s age was irrelevant; he would make a good husband for his niece. He had informed Mahjabeen that he and his family would attend the wedding in December.
Shahnaz gave up her evening walks, devoting herself entirely to assembling her trousseau and to baking. She baked every weekend, ferociously, constantly, going through her recipe book twice over. Everyone bought her delectable desserts. Shah sb made fliers for this home economics enterprise of his fiancé : “Shah’s Bakes” they proclaimed in big green letters (‘Shah’ after all was the first part of Shahnaz’s name too he had said to Mahjabeen). He even had their newspaper delivery man pass them around in the city. At some point over the next month or so he suggested to Shahnaz that she give up her bank job and focus on her baking business. And with time, a burgeoning family he thought. Shah Manzoor devoutly believed in the divine strength of numbers; theirs would be a vast, happy family.
Shahnaz gave in her one month notice and continued to bake up a storm that in its growing undualtions found its way further and further outside Mall court. Shah sb had got a rickshaw to do deliveries for those who could not themselves pick up the delicacies prepared by the talent-abundant hands of his wife; the soon-to-be prefix was just a formality now.
Soon, the nippy winds of early December began to blow across the city making its denizens don sweaters, jackets and even woollen caps in its 20 degree coolness. Shahnaz had steadily put back on the seven kgs she had lost. She didn’t need the scale that was lying in a forgotten corner of her bathroom to confirm that fact; she could feel it in the satiated plumpness of her belly and the chafing of her upper arms against her body.
It was one week before the wedding. Shahnaz and Mahjabeen were having their evening tea. Tea time with her mother had now become Shannaz’s single anchor of reminiscence, a vestige of a warm, safe past that she had let go; buried in the space of her liver, allowing only the pleasure of this little evening repast with her mother to gently flow towards her heart, to remind her just a little bit of her old self. She was quick to banish any vulnerability that threatened to overtake her during this dusk time mother-daughter companionship. She had already in her mind, put her frivolous, childish past forever behind her.
Shahnaz looked at her mother who was gazing at her daughter, as she did nowadays, for signs of capitulation, of rethinking her decision. Shahnaz smiled reassuringly at Mahjabeen even as she felt something wrench in her belly. She willed herself to focus on her bubble of calm: having tea with her mother and samosas with her tea. Still smiling, she breathed in deeply and reached for her third samosa.
(1): “Mother, what is it?” in pushto
(2): “It is Shah sahib” in pushto
(3): “The old man is crazy” in pushto
* Pakora: fried fritters made of vegetables such as potatoes and onions, coated in seasoned gram flour batter and deep fried.
* Bachay: Child in urdu and pushto
* Dhobi: A washerman/ woman who washes clothes for a living in Urdu
* Lala: suffix used with a name to show respect for an older man/ brother.
Shahnaz met Sikander at the Bank. His family had moved from Islamabad and he had joined as Head of External Sales at Shahnaz’s branch. Shahnaz’s interactions with boys and then men as she had grown up was vague and distant, a vestige of having lost her father early and also because her mother was a staunch believer in her widowed-turned-spinster status: that manifestation tended to keep many conundrums and scandals at bay. Shahnaz had grown up surrounded by that man-exclusive maternal aura and had unconsciously imbibed the essence of that nature of separation from the opposite gender. And so, her university life had taken its course endowing her with a degree, the friendship of two girls from her class and the reputation of an ice maiden among the rest. Her mind sometimes did wander into the what-if realms of relationsips and significant others, but her outer physiology remained unfailingly stoic and uninterested. It was, therefore, to her great bewilderment when Sikander began to seek out her company and more so that she was not averse to his attention. He persevered beyond her serious, no nonsense facade and managed to reveal a lightheartedness and approachability that was a surprise to both of them. Over the next few months, Shahnaz blossomed in her new cheerful and social avatar.
Shahnaz also began to take an interest in her weight for the first time ever. Sikander was tall and lean, with not an ounce of extra fat on him. While she was by no South Asian standards overweight, she did by intercontinental standards carry a couple of soul-food tyres around her middle; and her arms were decidedly flabby. Shahnaz began her workout regimen in June, one of the most oppressive months of the year in Karachi. She believed that for this enterprise (of losing weight) to also gain the benevolence of the universe, she herself needed to undertake some semblance of discomfort too. And so, every evening, after work, and after a hurried cup of tea with her mother, she would go downstairs and walk in the parking quadrangle of her apartment building. While she continued to drink her tea mellowed with full cream milk and sweetened with the usual two teaspoons full of sugar, her teatime samosas she had given up entirely over the last few weeks. She was determined to lose at least ten kgs.
The first evening that she went downstairs, the big built guard that looked somewhat like a bulldog was on duty. Despite having been a part of the Mall Court security team for the last ten years, he still surveyed everyone like he was seeing them for the first time; the women especially. Shahnaz had not made up her mind whether in fact he was actually creepy or just unfortunate in the way his lower jaw hung pendulously, eternally open to the elements, while his papaya seed eyes bored into the soul of any person walking across the parking lot. She stood near the lift, mentally mapping out a route: should she go left and avoid the guard altogher at the start of her exercise, giving herself time to rally her inner strength before she had to pass through the X-ray of his stare? Or should she just bite the bullet head on and then relax as she walked out of the radar of his scrutiny? It was a painful conundrum and she stood there for what seemed like an eternity trying to make up her mind.
“Kya haal hai bhai?”(1), said a voice from behind her. It was Shah sahib*, the longest residing habitant of Mall Court, and a haji* – he made sure everyone knew and remembered those two cogent facts. His father had bought an apartment when they’d just been built twenty five years ago. Shah Manzoor had inherited the property eventually and had in addition to his official role as the head of the Mall Court Committee, also made various efforts through the years to install himself as the unofficial head of the Mall Court household such as it was. There wasn’t a wedding, a new job or indeed the movement of a piece of furniture that didnt receive the final word from Shah sahib.
“Salam alaikum Shah sb. Bilkul theek, ji”(2), Shahnaz responded, adjusting her dupatta, pulling it across one shoulder and tying it diagonally at her hip. He looked at her questioningly. When Shahnaz didn’t respond to his need-to-know-everything look, he finally asked her what she was doing standing around in the parking lot.
“Walk kar rahi hoon Shah sb”(3), she said with an almost maniacal grin, and then as if energized by the unexpected acrobatics of the muscles of her face, she did just that, heading right, into the eye of the bulldog. That evening she walked for forty five minutes followed by the unblinking stare of the guard on one end and by her own meandering thoughts on the other. She decided that she had duly earned her dinner of mutton pulao that night.
Annie had been at the bank for a year already when Shahnaz had joined. She was the locker custodian, had glorious hair and a high pitched voice. When she laughed, her voice crescendoed into peal after peal of shrill hilarity, moving one to quite earnestly appreciate the soundlessness of silence. Still, she was a pretty girl with pretty ways, assailing the senses in different ways for different people: The branch manager with his delicate aural sensibilities, had summarily banished her to the basement with the lockers and the sound proof walls. The Operations manager with a soft spot for luxurious manes, had decided soon after that the basement was a good place to have his lunch. In all this drama, Shahnaz and Annie had struck up a lunch time friendship, which the Ops Manager (who was also Annie’s boss) some days infringed upon with the cocksure air of the man-in-charge. On those days Annie was quiet, Qasim sb was voluble and Shahnaz was monosyllabic.
It had now been four months of working with Sikander and two of walking away the samosa kilos that had squatted familiarly on her hips for the past so many years. It had also been three months since she felt her heart flutter for the first time and two weeks since her weighing scale had declared her a whole seven kgs lighter. Life was good and Shahnaz was at the very centre of that happy wholesomeness.
That evening, Shahnaz got ready to go downstairs for her walk. She looked at her dupatta and then at the looseness of her kurta, its seams almost daily, being relegated further and further away from the curves they had originally draped. She smiled at herself in the mirror, proud of her new body. She decided she could finally dare to confidently go without her dupatta.
“Loopata de wachava”(4), said her mother’s voice from the next room. It had to be the maternal sixth sense, thought Shahnaz chuckling, relieved in a way that her newest body positivity adventure was snuffed at source.
She wore a chiffon dupatta, its powder pink sheerness apparent even as it lay like a sash from her shoulder to her hip. She plugged in her earphones and turned on her music. The lilting strains of Ali Sethi and Taylor Swift wafting in her ears not only made the three quarters of an hour fly by, but also allowed her to block out anxious thoughts of staring guards and curious onlookers.
“Kya haal hai Shahnaz?”(5), said a loud voice, breaking through the insulating barrier of her music. She took off her earphones and smiled brightly at Shah sahib. She was feeling happy, wonderful and nothing could dampen that exhilaration; not even bossy old Shah sb.
“Salam alaikum Shah sb. Main theek hoon. Aap kaisay hain?”(6) she inquired cheerfully. Shah Manzoor smiled back at her, his eyes crinkling with pleasure while he stroked his greying beard; for once he had nothing more to say. Shahnaz grinned even brighter, raring to go on the wings of everything wonderful that were pulling at her.
“Khuda hafiz Shah sb”(7), she said and walked away with a spring in her step. She became aware suddenly of her bottom; her recent scrutiny of her attractively diminishing proportions had included her behind and she now felt it rise and fall bouncily as she walked on. She was also aware that Shah sb was still standing somewhere behind her. She laughed softly, wrapped in the euphoria of her youth and the in warmth of new love.
(1): “How are you friend?” in Urdu.
* Sahib/ Sb: a term of respect for an older man.
* Haji: one who has performed Hajj or the Islamic pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
(2): “I’m perfectly well” in Urdu.
(3): “I’m walking, Shah sahib” in Urdu.
(4): “Put on your dupatta” in pushto.
(5): “How are you Shahnaz?” in Urdu.
(6): “Hello Shah Sahib. I’m well. How are you?” in Urdu.
Shahnaz deposited her bag in her bedroom and joined her mother in the lounge for tea. It was a balmy Friday evening and the start of the weekend. She picked up an aaloo samosa*, her favourite kind, and began to slowly, pleasurably bite into its crispy outer layer to get to its spice-laden heart. She closed her eyes each time she bit into the hot crunchy pastry. Her evening cup of tea accompanied by the savoury snack fresh out of the samosa wala’s pan of bubbling hot oil was by far one of her favourite daily indulgences; the other one being a hot shower no matter what the season outside was. Both rituals marked the end of her workday and the beginning of a long evening that she would spend partly with her mother and partly in her room, floating between the two as she willed.
The four or five hours before bedtime did not have any preset form or structure, their very fluidity and spontaniety refreshing and restoring her. She finished her samosa and eyed another. Every once in a while, when her tastebuds still tingled with post-samosa pleasure, their savoury receptor cells not quite gratified, she would reach for another. She never had more than two, superstitious about the plus-two extravagance slyly wreaking havoc in her arteries and rendering forever her beloved samosa into the realms of pastries non grata. Her mother urged her to have another, she always did. Both women wore their bulk easily and becomingly.
Shahnaz lived with her mother in a two bedroom apartment in Clifton. The two had lived in the same flat for the last fifteen years. In fact Shahnaz was only seven when they had moved from Islamabad to Karachi. It had been an arduous and exhausting move, undertaken against the wishes of Mahjabeen’s brothers and indeed the whole extended family. After all, how would a newly widowed woman cope on her own in a strange city they had questioned, affronted and appalled. Karachi for the rest of the citizenry, might as well have been another nation state altogether with its remote proximity to everywhere else in the country, and its distinct melting pot of cultures. But Mahjabeen had been adamant, her steadfastness in most part aided by her best friend who lived in Karachi and who had masterminded the entire abscondement from the life that was being diligently prepared for her by her family.
She would have in the wake of her widowhood, been expected to live with her older brother, his wife and their four children. Aside of the fact that her brother, Qasim Jan was the embodiment of unflagging aloofness, he was also a man of a painfully conservative bent. He had already arranged the betrothal of his only daughter; she was five at the time. Mahjabeen herself had spent ten wonderful years with a husband who had been kind, generous and forward looking. He had encouraged her to do her bachelors and then her masters in Geography. After graduation, she picked up the silver thread of Initiative that was so devotedly woven into the fabric of their homestead by her husband, and of her own volition enrolled in a teachers training program. She had managed all this with Shahnaz as a baby and then a toddler. Asfand had enabled her in ways that practically and profoundly went much beyond just his approval as the head of their little family. He had changed, fed and played with their little daughter when Mahjabeen had board exams to prepare for; seamlessly, graciously for weeks upon weeks, shouldering chores that usually lay in the domain of her responsibilities. She sometimes secretly wondered if in fact her life with Asfand was too good to be true; whether the universe itself held them in the blessed hollow of its hands. She would then recite a prayer to ward off ill omens and evil eyes; her unfailing devoutness was her offering to the Divine to always keep her family together.
And then one day just like that, her little world came crashing down around her. Asfand slipped away, his life snuffed out in a split second on the motorway. She was left with seven year old Shahnaz, but also a spirit that was dogged and determined. When her best friend and the principal of a leading school in Karachi offered her a job, she forged the rest of the exit for herself. Within a month, she was in a completely new city, a new environment and a new home.
Shahnaz had been an introverted little girl and had struggled with accepting her suddenly fatherless existence, coupled as that reality was with the unfamiliarity of their new home. She had mourned her father in the innocent, raw manner of a child, crying herself to sleep for weeks afterwards. But the newness of fresh starts, when one does embark on them, is oftentimes a healing elixir in itself. And so, Shahnaz and Mahjabeen had slowly, a day at a time, emerged from their cocoon of painful memories that over the years, lost their piercing sting, becoming softer for both of them to recall and to share.
These last fifteen years in their adopted city had been blessed in other ways too; bestowing an ungrudging share of triumphs and joyfulness on mother and daughter. Mahjabeen was now heading the junior section at Tasneem’s school and Shahnaz, now 22 had just started working at a bank.
Life at Mall Court was generally neighbourly. Most of the residents knew one another, coming together in good times and in bad. The two women had attended six weddings and six funerals in the last decade and a half. The fact that the communal joys and sorrows were even keeled somehow didn’t take away from the overall sense of contentment and gratefulness. Maybe it was this very spirit of community that insulated the residents from the harshness of their individual tragedies. And so, life for the mother and the daughter had been as good as they could have hoped for.
Both women loved their food. The oilier and the richer, the better. While Mahjabeen could cook almost the entire spectrum of local cuisine (the deliberate exceptions being paya* and mutton Kunna*), Shahnaz was a gourmet maker of desserts. From the syrupy gulab jamun to the multi layered tiramisu to the minced beef samosas that promised the most stellar crunch, she could masterfully muster them all. Shahnaz had in fact made reasonable amounts of pocket money from the sale of her baked goods over the last few years. Most of her customers were the Mall Court residents, rallying together as always to support one of their own, and in no small part, to also indulge their insatiable South Asian appetites for fresh-off-the-pan, sweet, rich dessert.
* Aaloo Samosa: Aaloo: Potato in Urdu. Samosa: A fried or baked pastry with a savory filling, including ingredients such as spiced potatoes, onions, and peas. * Paya: The main ingredients of the dish are the trotters (or hoof of a cow, goat, buffalo or sheep) cooked with various spices. * Kunna: The term means clay pot in Punjabi. Originating from the Chiniot district in the state of Punjab Pakistan, Kunna is a heavy meat dish that is made with several spices and tender mutton.
Qayum Alam: (smiling at his wife’s uncharacteristically mysterious manner) “Where are we going Bats? The suspense is killing me”
Batool: (Awash in a wave of overwhelming anticipation) “Oh, you’ll soon find out. I can only tell you that it’ll be the surprise of a lifetime”
Qayyum Alam (smiling to himself, thinking he wasn’t the only one, after all, who’d been busy lately)
[At the KILLA office]
Qayum Alam: “You!”
Madam J: “Hain*!”
Inamullah K: “Allah khair*!”
Chaddu: “Ji, ji! Bismillah*!”
Batool: (Pointing to Masood Khan who was sitting comfortably in a chair) “What is he doing here?”
QayumAlam: (To Jahanara who was also sitting comfortably in a chair) “What are you doing here?
Madam J: (To Qayum Alam while adjusting her billowing chiffon dupatta and releasing a petrichor of roses that engulfed the room) “What in the world are you doing here?”
Inamullah K:(Sweating profusely and looking around like a caged hare) “Please sit down. Everyone, please. Let me explain. There was a mistake. A little error … Chaddu sb, will you tell?”
Chaddu: (Standing unobtrusively in a corner, shaking his head vehemently; no he would not)
Batool: (Refusing to sit down and glaring at Inamullah Karamat) “Inamullah sb, is this some kind of a sick joke?”
QayumAlam: (Sitting down in a chair) “Bats, what is this place and why is Madam Jahanara here?”
Madam J: “Masood Khan and I have arrived just a few minutes ago. To get to the bottom of all this. (Turning to Inamullah Karamat while the bracelets on both her wrists jingled briskly)
Madam J: “So, Mr. Inam is it? Why has your colleague there been taking photos of the guard at my apartment building, Masood Khan here? Not once, not twice but a few times now. Are you planning on launching a modelling career for him or are you voyeurs of some distasteful variety? Hmm? Masood Khan caught him today getting into a rickshaw outside my apartment building and brought him to me. He wouldn’t say much except that there was a meeting today. So we came to see what the fuss was all about”.
Inamullah K: (Still sweating profusely and mopping his face with a large red handkerchief) “I … the thing is madam …” (looking towards Chaddu for some helpful interjection) “Chaddu sb ___?”
Chaddu: (Still standing away from the group, still silent as a tomb, looking studiously at the ballpoint in his hands).
Batool: (Taking matters into her own hands and turning on her husband who was now sitting near the other man) “I know you’re having an affair QA!”
QayumAlam: (Perplexed and confused) “What? Have you lost your mind Bats?”
InamullahK: (Having given up trying not to sweat up a storm, the perspiration now flowing in sopping rivers down the front of his shirt) “If you will just let me explain __”
Batool: (Reddening with frustration and indignation) “I have photos! (Turning to the sweating sleuth) “Inamullah sb, the photos!”
Inamullah K: (Pulling on his suspenders, unconsciously facilitating the even flow of his secretions down the entirety of his shirt) “The thing is Mrs. B … the thing is that the photos are definitely of this guard whom your husband used to sit with. Yes! there is no mistake there”.
Inamullah K: (Losing steam and looking desperately around for inspiration and courage to continue. Catching sight of Madam Jahanara’s beatifically smiling face) “The thing is Madam, your .. err … Mr. B sat with the guard waiting for Madam Jahanara to finish her morning classes. Singing classes. So he could get his singing lessons. She’s a great singer!” (Smiling foolishly while pulling out a second handkerchief, this one white, like a flag of surrender, and mopping his face again, looking just a tad hopeful about this nightmare ending).
QayumAlam: (Throwing up his hands in exasperated defeat) “There goes my anniversary surprise!”
Batool: (Still standing rooted to the ground and still red and wrathful) “What singing classes? What about my husband having an affair with the guard? (Pointing to a bewildered Masood Khan) “With him!”
QayumAlam: (Finally shocked and stupefied) “An affair? With Masood Khan?!” (Now watching his wife for signs of a mental breakdown) “Bats my darling have you finally lost your marbles? (Then looking around) “What is this place?”
Inamullah K: (Having finally stymied the outward flow of his life force) “Sir respectfully, we are KILLA. We have been private investigators and settlers of truth for …” (looking at Qayum Alam’s darkening expression and deciding it was a good time to let the situation play itself out while keeping his marketing spiel and his investigative findings to himself).
Madam J: (Tinkling like bells while raising a pudgy hand to hold it daintily under her chin while looking at Batool, her whole posture one of barely contained mirth) “An affair! Oh dear!” (Laughing now full throatedly while the scent of roses floated delicately around her).
Qayum Alam: (Also seeing the comedy of errors, joining in the laughter).
Inamullah K: (Attempting a few sporting grins but each time being almost masochistically drawn to Batool’s face which had morphed into a Mughal battle field complete with stampeding elephants and red eyed soldiers with murder on their minds. Immediately tamping down on any lightness of spirit he might have called upon, and looking straight ahead with mouth pursed as if about to painstakingly whistle).
Batool: (Finally sinking into a chair. With Masood khan forgotten, now looking at the diva sitting in front of her, unsure for probably the first time in her life of what to say) “The messages! The texts! Laila!”
QayumAlam: (Placing a hand on his wife’s arm, still looking for her missing marbles) “Laila?”
Batool: (Collecting herself) “The laila with whom you wanted to do your dil diyan gallan!”
QayumAlam:(Looking stunned for a moment, then placing both hands on his wife’s indignant shoulders) “Those were the songs I was rehearsing for our anniversary. Madam Jahanara was coaching me. It was a surprise. I was going to sing them for you. Layla by Eric Clapton and Dil diyan gallan by Atif Aslam”.
Batool: (Lost for words again. Then instinctively) “You spelled it L.A.I.L.A. That’s L.A.Y.L.A …”
QayumAlam: (Trying hard not to laugh) “I never was good at spelling darling” (then looking at his wife’s face as she slowly, hesitantly changed mental gears and began fitting the offending blocks of information into their non offending places. The laughter that had been bubbling up in the pit of his belly came booming out again, pulling at his tear ducts on the way).
Madam J: (Chortling along gaily).
Chaddu: (Still standing in the shadows chuckling abashedly).
Inamullah K: (With its intended purpose served, pushing white-flag handerkerchif back into the pocket of his trousers) “What a blessed ending. What a blessed ending”.
QayumAlam: (Standing up and pulling his wife into an embrace) “Oh darling bats, dearest darling, batty bats!”
The thing about love is that it makes you do the strangest things with the best of intentions. Old love like ours; young love like in the movies, in the face of adversity (real or imagined) it all rallies in the same way. I would not call what happened a misadventure, I told QA. No, it was an irrefutable testament of my loyalty and devotion to our marriage of 40 years, and counting.
Speaking of money, Inamullah Karamat offered me a 50% discount seeing as how fictitious his “facts” had turned out to be. I was very much of the mind to retrieve the original 50% too but QA thought it was a fitting 40th anniversary gesture of magnanimity. I hrmphed noncomittally, letting my husband have the last intelligible word this time. He had earned it.
The annivaerasy party is 3 days away and QA has persevered with his singing lessons. I insisted of course; it’s not important how you start an enterprise, but how you finish it, as someone has so aptly said.
Of course, I can’t speak for the croakiness he might visit on the world when trying on a melody. Time will tell, because his audience definitely will not … thankfully. That reticence would be yet another wonderful social foible: being compassionately tone deaf and unfailingly appreciative of the host. At least to his face. I too will probably have to keep what my ears hear, to myself; after all, he is going to be giving Eric Clapton and Atif Aslam a run for their money just for me.
But when all is said and done, we will have been together for 40 years and nothing on that day could spoil that abiding fact.
That dear readers, is how this story ends, quite fortuitously and for the betterness of all. (I looked it up – that is in fact a word, and what a charming word it is).
Something is up! I can feel it in my bones and in the whiffs of strange perfume that I get off and on from him, my husband. It is becoming more and more difficult to deny that he is having an affair. I, Batool Alam, 63 female, have been married to Qayum Alam, 65 male for forty years. In this day and age of fluid gender identities and unexpected unions and myself being a person of broad mind and zero judgmentalism, I wanted to clear who I am. My pronouns are she/ her. And despite all this other confusion and torment visited on me by his (most probable) affair, I am sure that QA’s pronouns have always been he/ him.
I teach English and Music at one of the leading international schools in the capital city of Islamabad. I also think it is pertinent to mention that Islamabad is considered one of the most beautiful capitals in the world – among the top five I think. That bit of aesthetic cum patriotic information by its very rarity, is essential to place in this narration in case it finds its meandering way beyond our borders. I am an ardent believer of the fact that in this day and age of passport strength being a thing, and us being among the hapless five bringing up the global rear of that hierarchy, that one must always grab opportunities to be an ambassador for one’s country.
I teach both, eastern and western music. I prefer the film and musical theatre melodies of the 70s and the 80s but I must add that I do allow the occasional Adele and Ali Sethi tunes to be performed and discussed in my class. I am tolerant like that. Open minded.
So as I was saying, my husband is, in all probability, cheating on me. I have sorrowfully but with great sangfroid (that’s one of my favourite words) made a list of all the evidence that has presented itself over the last month or so to arrive at that unhappy conclusion.
The first damning clue was the fact that after twenty years, Qayyum Alam made an excuse to not attend the fortnightly poetry recital at GAB Center. The Ghulam Abbas Baabul centre is the generous endowment of a connoisseur of the arts. Our benefactor is an entrepreneur who lives in Yucca Valley in California. He comes twice a year to Pakistan and then the best poets and playwrights of local and international renown grace the centre and enthral us all with their creations. I myself like poetry that has rhyme and meter – it shows skill. Free verse like a free range chicken just goes all over the place even if the end result is wholesome and salubrious. Give me a rhyming couplet even if it is of obscure meaning with only a passing nod to semantics. That is poetic license; arguably the best kind of license they have given out to date.
So as I was saying, my husband is most definitely having an affair. The Attar-e-Gulab* is the undeniable second clue. I myself prefer lighter, floral fragrances but each to her own I suppose. I just wish QA had let both the scent and the dame be rather than dousing himself in one while carousing with the other.
The third clue is his distractedness of late. I have not heard the satisfied hmmm after his first sip of afternoon tea. He has been gazing into the distance and just downing the cup like it was water rather than a potently brewed pot of ceylon tea. He has been wearing odd coloured socks; the only other time he did that was when he sat for his CPA examination forty five years ago. I wasn’t there of course but my mother in law (may she rest in peace) used to cackle when she used to tell the tale of Qayyum Alam’s mismatched socks being the third time lucky charm. You see, he had twice before failed the exams and had to resit them. These clues (subjective and circumstantial thus far) have been wafting around me for the past six weeks now, peri-confirming my suspicions. That just means one substantive evidence short of being fully confirmed. (Like peri-menopause. My experience with that peri phenomenon is a whole other story).
The summer holidays have begun for us teachers too about a week ago, so I have had a lot of time to hone in on the many indications of my husband’s recent waywardness. I myself am not one to wash my dirty linen in public but I had to talk to Jasmina Khan about it. She’s an old school friend. We barely see each other but our relationship is practical with none of the painful fluff of endless pleasantries and the ego hassles of unrequited social visits. I have to admit that I sometimes do feel a pang of guilt for not visiting her after she comes over to my place – (she does lives a forty five minute drive away and doesn’t work. I wouldn’t say that to her face though). Jasmina however, has never stoked my guilt into the dogged competition of who gets visited most. That is a quaint side effect of the hospitality of us South Asians: Guilting people into developing entirely new personalities and social lives. It is not always a bad thing, having multiple personalities to do justice to the various social commitments, but it is tiresome. I myself tend to fall somewhere between the hermits and the butterflies of the societal demographic. I think most people do. But i digress. This is about my husband; and his recent case of infidelity.
I called Jasmina and asked her for advice.
Batool, she said, rein him in at the earliest. Men sometimes like to go to other pastures. Not because they are greener but because they are elsewhere. And that is the enticement: the otherness. Not the betterness.
She told me about this private investigator, Inamullah Karamat. His office is in a small, nondescript building in the heart of Aabpara market and is difficult to find, for obvious reasons Jasmina had said. Getting caught out is not something people aspire to be and so there have been instances where the malefactors (the spied-upon) have taken the law into their own hands and tried to ruin and even beat up I. Karamat for uncovering the bitter truth. No, people don’t like being found out Jasmina had said, especially if they’re cheating, thieving or simply just eating too much. She told me of a friend who had her son followed to see what and how much he ate. He had, on discovering the spying enterprise (which was initiated solely for his betterment), unrestrainedly applied the full force of his 300 pounds on the ill-fated Inam Karamat. The investigator had come away with two broken ribs and a hairline fracture in one of his wrists. I was amazed at the dogged determination of the detective – it takes a man of courage to voluntarily and unflaggingly lead the charge in other people’s affairs. (It has to also be said that it takes a rich and guileful cuisine like ours to drive people towards breaking their calorie resolutions and their scales).
Jasmina gave me the number of Inamullah Karamat the proprietor and lead detective of the agency. I had a lot to think about (including whether in fact “betterness” is a word).
Jasmina’s pithy advice reverberated in my head and my chest the whole of that evening and the next day. She always knew what to do about some of the most convoluted and stigmatic issues; things people usually kept to themselves until they had fermented body and soul into a bitter soup. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to be one of those sad, soupy types.
I am quite clear and determined about what I have to do.
Riaz khan dug with gusto into his dinner of shami kebab*, daal and karela. He looked at the vegetable on his plate and thought about his long-standing mental affiliation with it. Usually the image in his mind made him wince, with relief almost, like peeling off a scab; a mental catharsis for the scores of unrequited what-ifs that off and on gathered in his mind. He now collected the spice-infused, ridged green loops between a bit of roti to chew them down before finally vanquishing them, bitterness and all in his large intestine. The existential angst with which he juxtaposed himself body and soul on the bitter gourd now made him chuckle. His own Kharoos Karela avatar had probably been much more caustic than the enterprising vine had ever itself aspired to be! He laughed aloud at the imagery, almost choking on his food. Jasmina looked at her brother benignly. She liked this change that had come over her usually melancholy sibling. He was happier, healthier and talkative; well, not as much as she would have liked but still, there was much more he offered now besides his monosyllabic grunts. She snorted in good cheer, puffing out her chest like a hen fluffing up with maternal compassion before sitting back down on her eggs. Mariam gamely grinned back at both of them.
“Come, I want to show you something”, said Riaz Khan wheeling himself towards his bedroom window. He did that quite often now, without buckling under the creaky protestations of his muscles. Besides everything else that Mariam had been doing for him, she had also started him on an intensive physiotherapy regimen. What he used to grudgingly subject himself to once or twice a week before, he now looked forward to every day, sometimes twice a day. Over the last three months, his triceps had become stronger and he could now lift himself off the bed and into the wheelchair on his own. The first time he performed this feat, he was overwhelmed, feeling his throat tighten with emotion. Never being one to check into the water works department, and not intending to start then, he had swallowed hard. But it had been tough this time, calling on his self control. This simple act of independence was a rare step forward for his sluggish, time-battered body. Usually the milestones he racked up drove him slipping and sliding ever closer to the ultimate end. That day he’d actually felt brave and hopeful.
“What is it?”, asked a curious Mariam, peering at the tree outside the window.
“Look to where I’m pointing, between those two branches … higher up.. do you see them?”
“Is that a … are those bulbuls?”
Riaz Khan nodded, smiling at her. They both watched as the two birds took turns singing to each other, encircled in the rustling arms of the Gulmohar tree. Riaz Khan had shared his secret with Mariam. He had done it on the spur of the moment; unthinkingly. He was not usually one to act impulsively. He believed that the best decisions were made after a generous labour of thought and internal dialogue. But today, still on the adrenaline high of having, self-sufficiently hoisted himself off the bed and into his wheelchair, he had gone with the flow; been spontaneous. He would of course later in a quiet moment, reflect on this episode to see if he still felt good about it or whether he wanted to kick himself for his impulsiveness. The fact that he couldn’t, even if he was inclined to do the latter was one of those ironic jabs of nature conspiring with the language of his thoughts that made him sometimes groan and at other times laugh uncontrollably. Today, his face creased into a wide grin as he glanced at Mariam and then back at the enchantment of the scene outside.
That night, while he was in bed, Mariam had come in to ask him if he wanted to use the toilet. He didn’t; but he also realized with an elation that if he did need to go, he could could get himself there on his own. He had grinned at the thought and she had smiled back.
He wondered how it would be if she tucked him in … tucked herself in with him. He shifted his position, physically trying to place these strange new thooghts in some perspective. Was he falling in love with his carer? Transference the shrinks called that state of love. He looked at Mariam, embarrassed by the machinations of his body and his heart. He focused on her unibrow, trying to poke a hole in the gaily bobbing balloon of his feelings. Immediately he felt remorse – that was unkind. And ineffective. He had now also become fond of the lusty sprouting of hair that weaved its robust, unbroken path across her forehead. Riaz Khan stayed awake for most of that night imagining a hundred different scenarios with Mariam at their front and center. In many of them, Jasmina too jostled her way in; these he steadfastly removed from the queue. By the morning, he was feeling oddly energised and determined.
“Marriage?! Are you mad Riaz Khan?” said a startled Jasmina when he had told her what was on his mind.
“She’s the caregiver; the domestic. You’re imagining yourself to be in love with her. Infatuation is what it is. Don’t you go and tell her of any of these wild fancies of yours, you’ll scare the woman away”.
“And don’t forget that she’s Christian”, Jasmina added forebodingly, delivering what seemed to her, the final nail in the coffin that she had quickly mustered up for the inauspicious zombies of love that her brother had resurrected overnight.
The end of that summer came quickly and cleanly. Jasmina called Yousuf Alves and asked him to resume his old position. In the wake of his sister fitting in so well at Bait-ul-Muskaan and he himself finding another client, Yousuf had let the status quo prevail for the past six months. Mariam had filled in admirably, Madam Jasmina added, but it was not seemly for a woman to be caring for a man on a long term basis. It was best if he returned or found an appropriate replacement.
A week after Riaz Khan had identified and given a name to the fluttering in his heart, and three days since he had spoken to his sister of what he intended to do about it, Mariam was gone. Riaz Khan did not protest. Nor did he ask to see Mariam one last time before she left Bait-ul-Muskaan. Yousaf returned and settled into Riaz Khan’s routine like a well worn shoe. Together they again treaded the faded old paths of the life that had been Riaz Khan’s for the last twenty years.
Riaz Khan sat in his wheelchair looking out of the window in his room. The Gulmohar had already begun to mottle and shed its summer foliage. The bulbuls’ nest that usually lay screened, secret and full of life, now lay bare and exposed to the chill winter winds. The birds too had forsaken the desolation of their surroundings and flown away to warmer climes. Riaz Khan looked at the empty nest waiting for some emotion, any emotion to overtake him; for some sentiment from the slew of feelings that had poured over him so readily over the last few months: nostalgia, hope, sadness, desperation even. There was nothing.
But he lingered, and even as he looked at the joyless scene outside, he felt the faintest glimmer of something stirring, something silvery around the greyness that sat in his heart: the birds … they’d be back in a few months to renew, rebuild and revel in the bounties of summer, and the tree would be full of birdsong once again.
Mary aka Mariam arrived in Bait-ul-Muskaan on the following Monday. She was dressed in the quintessential Pakistani nurse’s uniform of pristine white shalwar kameez and a matching cotton dupatta. She was a big built woman with sinewy arms – brawny tributes to all the caregiving she had done over the last three decades. The unibrow that ran across her forehead was her other distinguishing feature. It was oddly likeable, growing on most people for various reasons: The women in the households she had been employed at, saw it as the unerring physical bulwark that would naturally keep their men on the right side of decency; the men, well, many secretly liked the idiosyncrasy. It was almost like nature conspiring with them to give them a bit of incognito titillation. And so, in the midst of all this covert appreciation there had been one affair, with the son of the patient she was caring for. The memory of the end of that episode still stung the back of her eyelids. That had been the first and the last time she had allowed her personal life to interfere with her professional one.
Riaz Khan instantly liked the look of the big, solid woman. She exuded efficiency and readiness. And she was also reserved, answering only the questions that were put to her by Jasmina and asking a few of her own regarding her client’s daily regimen.
Riaz Khan allowed himself to finally relax. Mariam the replacement would do for the next month or so.
The days spun into weeks and the weeks rolled into months and soon it was July. Mariam had been a part of Bait-ul-Muskaan now for three months and had settled into the largely quiet routine of her employers. Although she undertook most of Riaz Khan’s lifting, shifting, wheeling, medicating and back and feet scrubbing, she also helped Jasmina during her grocery shopping sprees. These were formidable ventures undertaken once a month and Jasmina was nothing if not painstakingly particular. She had been known to scour a dozen grocery stores for a specific variety of detergent and all the department stores in DHA* for her preferred brand of hand cream. This monthly enterprise was the singular adrenaline rush in the otherwise still lives of the women of Bait-ul-Muskaan, with one boldly leading the charge and the other following in her exhausting wake. As the clock ticked on in the quest for a particularly elusive item, the serene atmosphere dissolved into chaos, inquiries became increasingly brusque and voices were raised to screeching-crescendo levels.
Once everything or its grudgingly serviceable alternative was procured, the ride back home was always dealthly silent with one woman allowing her organs to slowly cease beating their battle drums, while the other looked diligently ahead, making herself as unobtrusive as her muscly bulk would allow. It was nothing less than a Hundred Year war – with each of Jasmina’s years in all their ferociousness equal to multiple battle years – waged against the fickle nature of supply chains and the infuriating thriftiness of retail inventory. Riaz Khan had early on in the shrewd wisdom that the universe had bequeathed on him for her other excesses against him, ceased to participate in these market (mis)adventures. He was thus the only occupant of the house that retained his peace of mind in the hours that followed the return of the sometimes ruffled and sometimes vanquished brigade, with their sometimes list-fulfilled and sometimes list-lustre spoils of retail war.
Over the months, Mariam had fortified herself for these mentally and physically depleting excursions by going to bed after a supper of lightly buttered toast and green tea. She slept better and tended to have fewer nightmarish dreams where she was plodding through HKB* and Carrefour* with chains on her feet and Jasmina on her shoulders loudly urging her on. She had had that exact lucid dream in the early hours of the morning following her first grocery trip at Bait-ul-Muskaan. She had also had a generous portion of Nihari from Zakir Tikka the night before so the toss up between the instigators of her frightful visions was even. Nevertheless, she had woken up in a cold sweat, feeling disoriented and afraid. She had then decided to change at least what she could of the two tormenting events: the marketing was out of her control but the post-trip dinner she could make light and gut-easy. It was either her tranquilized digestive system or the fact that her nerves just got better at handling shopping day offensives, but she was spared Jasmina and HKB related nightmares after that.
Aside of the one day in a month where she was the matriarch’s companion in the madness of the outside world, stoked to its full fruition by the older woman, Mariam was by Riaz Khan’s side most of the other days. She helped him from his bed into the wheelchair, from there to the WC and then to the shower where she would vigorously scrub his back and his feet while he sat in his underwear. The awkwardness of the first couple of bath times had long since dissipated in the efficient, no nonsense air that she surrounded herself with. While Riaz Khan completed his toilette, she would make his bed and get a boiled egg and toast ready for him. She would accompany him while he breakfasted, with her second mug of morning tea. He would then read for a while after which he napped for an hour. In this time, Mariam would wash or iron her clothes.
At 4 o’ clock every afternoon, the occupants of Bait-ul-Muskaan would come together to have tea in the veranda overlooking the garden. After that mostly quiet repast where Jasmina made an occasional remark on the avian and floral sightings in the garden, Riaz Khan hrmphed and Mariam studiously followed Jasmina’s variously pointing hand, the trio would disperse. Jasmina would return to the ever-demanding bowels of the house while Mariam would take Riaz Khan for a stroll in the garden. The first couple of months of these perambulations had been quiet. Then Riaz Khan had spoken about the Gulmohar tree. He had climbed it as a child and had even fallen from its topmost branches (about eight feet high then) landing unscathed onto the grass. He had laughed wryly at this cosmic teasing of what was to come later. Mariam had listened, overwhelmed by her suddenly vocal employer. He had looked back at her then and she had seen, behind his black-framed spectacles, the amber-green flecks in his eyes,. She had smiled and said something about silver linings and glasses half full. He had laughed uproariously and she had grinned back.
After that episode, the garden became their place for conversations and laughter. The whole day would pass in almost complete silence until after tea time when the two would stroll, chat and revel in the profusion of their surroundings and in the pleasure of each other’s company. This nature-stirred, time-bound lightness of spirit suited them both.
* DHA: Defence Housing Authority, a vast residential community across various cities in Pakistan.
* HKB: A department store chain across Pakistan - Haji Karim Buksh. * Carrefour: A large French multinational consisting of grocery stores, supermarkets and hypermarkets, with presence in Pakistan too.
Riaz Khan looked out of the window at the tree in the garden. He sought the bulbul’s nest that always peeked reassuringly through the noon-lit foliage. It had become a daily ritual of quiet joy for him as he sat shaved and ready in his wheelchair. The rest of the summer days followed on the heels of this scene, sometimes bearable and mostly held in the reins of monotony and of Jasmina Khan, his sister and the matriarch of their home. It used to be his home. But that fact had become forgotten and buried in the dust and dreariness of time.
Jasmina had early on as a girl shown glimmerings of the formidable homemaker that her mother was. By fifteen she could cook the full range of gastronomic delights from the eastern and the western hemispheres. And by nineteen, she was the deputy matriarch of Bait-ul-Muskaan*, with only marriage breaking that indomitable influence. For a short while though, like an accidental blip in the fabric of the universe. The subsequent course-correction was swift and absolute: she was widowed within two years of her marriage in which time, both her parents had also passed away. She again took up domestic command at Bait-ul-Muskaan like she had never really left the place, donning her mother’s terrific mantle with alacrity and ease. To this perfection, she also brought an overarching bossiness that made short shrift of household issues as well as her brother’s peace of mind.
For her part, Jasmina never thought she was doing anything that was not wholly right and responsible, and that she was mistress of nothing more than she truly deserved. Riaz Khan, on the other hand, often thought that he was paying penance for some ill he’d done Jasmina in another life. He would grumble and assert and she would admonish and revoke. The siblings had been living in this lopsided arrangement for well over thirty years now.
Riaz Khan was a paraplegic and had been for almost two decades. An accident that could have been avoided in retrospect (all accidents seem avoidable in retrospect he thought) had left him unable to use his legs. On good days, he was still able to appreciate the abiding functionality of his upper body. On bad days, he felt like a vegetable, specifically a karela*. He had embodied its unapologetic caustic quality, full of texture and nuance, culminating in a unique flavour that wasn’t everyone’s choice of bharta*. That’s what he was; on the not so good days – a Kharoos* Karela. To his mind even that tragic conjecture; that animation of the inanimate held some optimism. This meant that his depression was as yet not in the fatalistic realms of the psychotic, just marking time in its safely lunatic layers. That deduction didn’t bother him. He now used the “P” word easily, cheerfully even, because in his mind, it was the kind of madness that gave him the will to live on in the taxing world that was his and Jasmina’s, around which orbited a few acquaintances like visible but distant satellites.
Riaz Khan looked out at the Gulmohar tree that at that time of the year was resplendent in its beautiful flame-like flowers. Some of its branches were so close to the window that he could reach out and touch them even from his wheelchair. But today his attention was not on the summer-flushed efflorescence of the tree. He was looking at the bulbul’s nest which lay, once again, like a perfect little bowl in the crook of two branches, at a forty degree angle above his line of sight. He had first spied it a couple of years ago and had felt a little rush of pleasure. For some inexplicable reason, he had kept that bit of serendipity to himself; guarding it almost jealously from the knowledge of the others. There were precious few things that were within the domain of his exclusive awareness and gratification, given his more than usual reliance on those around him for everything really.
The secret had stayed with him through the summer months of the previous year and the year before that, scattering in the autumn breeze as both, nest and birds disappareared. The other day he had seen it again. Nest Kintsugi* he thought to himself: Broken and rebuilt again, more beautiful because it was familiar and yet new. The Gulmohar secret, in so faithfully revisiting him again, had become ever more precious. He smiled widely when he finally caught sight of the songful little birds.
It was time for lunch and Yousaf had come into the room to wheel him to the dining room. Yousaf Alves was Riaz Khan’s full time care-giver and lived at Bait-ul-Muskaan.
“You know I don’t like cabbage. It gives me gas. Painful gas”, grumbled Riaz Khan.
“I only cook it once a week”, countered Jasmina. “The flatulence is good for your gut. It’s not like your intestines are getting any exercise to help them move things along”.
“Oh for goodness sake Jasmina. Nobody wants to hear your detailed analysis of my biology. I’ll just have the daal*”.
Jasmina laughed cheerfully. For all his moodiness he was a softie, her brother and she felt no disinclination in allowing him to tell her off now and then. That grace she always found in her heart for her beloved sibling. Riaz may be four years older than her, but they both knew who wore the waistcoat in the house.
There was a message from Yousaf’s home on Monday morning: his wife had fallen ill. She was pregnant with their second child and it was proving to be a difficult gestation. He had twice before gone for a week at a time and the agency had dutifully provided his replacement. Both times Riaz khan had borne the inexpert ministrations of the substitute with the resignation of a martyr. He had waited eagerly and desperately for his Man Friday to return. Yousaf had, in his five years in the service of the older man, become quite indispensable to the latter mainly because of his adeptness but also because of his nature which was quiet and reseverd. Riaz Khan himself was a man of few words and those had become ever scarcer amid the vocal abundance of his sister. She spoke both their minds, even if she happily and grossly misinterpreted his.
“Yousaf has extended his leave. And with this Corona business, the agency can’t find anyone suitable to send over in place of the current replacement. So Yousuf’s sister is coming to fill in for him. She’s a trained caregiver too”, said Jasmina walking into Riaz Khan’s room.
Why didnt she ever knock! Did losing his ability to walk, strip him also of his privacy! thought Riaz Khan irritably for the thousandth time.
It had been an interminable week for him in the inexpert hands of the substitute carer whose unwieldy labour was thankfully coming to an end today. He had been looking forward to Yousuf’s return the following day, and now this!
Riaz Khan looked at his sister darkly. She stared unflinchingly back at him as one would at a petulant child.
He tried desperately to look for the silver lining in this piece of news. He had to. His thoughts had been festering for the last week and he needed to emerge from the grayness, or he’d go into a depression. It had happened in the earlier days of his affliction. He had spent months in the throes of wretched thoughts and desperate notions. And then one day he had decided that life was still worth living even if it was for the occasional heart warmers like Nihari* from Zakir Tikka, a book that temporarily gave him wings and rainy afternoons.
She was Yousuf’s sister, and so it was logical to hope that she would be as efficient as her brother was. And quiet. At the very least, she would be far better than her bumbling predecessor. Riaz Khan was small built and managing his movements in and out of the wheel chair would not be too difficult. He took in a deep breath, called on his faculties of fortitude and hoped for the best.
I mean are you really there or is it just my mind filling in the dialogue?
Dialogue by its very essence means a conversation between two people
I call myself a ____. But I have so many questions in my head. Secret. All secret. Shared with no one. I don’t want to be termed an infidel. A pariah.
Why is religion so … restraining? Incarcerating almost. And claustrophobic.
I want to be good. I want to receive your divine blessings. I want to go to heaven. But I sometimes feel so trapped here.
You have a mind. Listen to it.
I do. And it tells me that the rituals of religion have overtaken my humanity. I do them with more earnestness than any act of actual kindness or empathy or consideration for the people around me. I feel like a fraud. Like I’m doing all this so I can go to heaven and not … not because I really want anyone to benefit from any of my good deeds in themselves.
My mother is going to perform her third pilgrimage … blessed is she! But I can’t help thinking that in place of raking in more divine favour, she could have instead funded the education of our driver’s daughter. She’s such a smart girl but was pulled out of school because it was a choice between her and her brother. Why does wanting my mother to forgo her holy pilgrimage to help someone at home seem right to me? And yet, thinking that seems sinful? And why must I give fully only to those poor that share my exact faith even if I have to look for them on the streets, and give grudgingly or not at all to the Hindu woman who slaves in my kitchen everyday? Why does that seem incredibly unkind to me, and yet even thinking about the inconsideration somehow seems sinful? Like I’m questioning the very fundamentals and wisdom of my faith.
When I’m alone and these thoughts take over my heart and mind, I get frustrated because I can’t do what really feels right to me. I feel like I’m being cold, calculating, ruthless. And then I get panic attacks because thinking like that just seems damnable and wrong. Everything is upside down and inside out. Nothing makes sense anymore.
When you feel right in your gut about something, anything, a conundrum, then that is your moral obligation. Religion is just another name given to that personal value system, that credo.
But I’m not always sure. There are so many mixed messages. The world has changed and yet we have not. We are discouraged from embracing that change in ways that should happen naturally. Change does not sit well with the communities and the people that were enlightened by your wisdom and guidance so many ages ago. They still want to hold on to all those early norms and customs. It seems unnatural. Counter-intuitive. And yet, I want to do what’s right. I want to go to heaven.
Is …. Is there a heaven?
What is your concept of heaven?
What I’ve been told: a place of ease and abundance. Also a place where so much that I’m not allowed to do in this world, I can freely do there.
That sounds complex.
Yes! Again, I feel like a fraud. Why are so many things sinful and wrong in this life and yet those same acts and liberties will be allowed in the blessed heavens?
You tell me.
But it’s in the teachings. Revealed through your blessed apostle. It is your final word.
You have hundreds of years of history behind you. Your humanity and your spirit together with your instinct, make up your three most enlightened and reliable guides. Let them lead you and you will gradually find your way: a state of being that will make you feel light and joyful on the inside.You know, it’s true when someone said that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.
That last bit was funny; I’m actually smiling. That felt good. But …religion is never lighthearted; it’s not meant to be cheerful or playful.
Any enterprise of the body and the soul that stops you from feeling happy on the inside, is not viable in the long term.
I listened to my heart and my mind. I tried to do what felt right at the deepest, truest part of me rather than what I’ve been taught is right.
And how did you feel?
I felt elated, free, at one with everything around me. No one was beyond your divine magnanimity no matter what they believed in; it was their goodness that was at the front and centre of any and all consequences. I felt an overwhelming compassion for everyone, every creature. There was nothing binding me down in odd, contrived ways. Rituals became so secondary. They ceased to define my whole belief system and instead became the anchors that I sometimes went to when I felt agitated or overcome. Sometimes I even felt like I had no … religion; at least, no mainstream religion. My renewed faith was like a shimmering pathway in my own heart and mind. I began to question things without feeling guilty, and I looked for answers. I began to see so many similarities with others who are faith-wise not like us. My perspective evolved … changed. I realized how difficult it was to identify and focus on the differences rather than on the similarities; how unnatural that was. We were all the same. I felt free, grateful, confident. And heaven would be more of this.
More of what?
More of every one of us trying to be ever better versions of ourselves. Our true selves. Our natural, spiritual selves. Because there is so much joy and freedom in that. So much honesty. So much harmony. So much peace of mind. Such lightness of spirit. That has to be what heaven feels like.
Yes, I listened to my inner voice and everything seemed so easy, so natural, so unbinding.
You LISTENED to your inner voice. You used the past tense. Why?
Yes, I did. Because my new sense of godliness came with a tremendous price. Everyone around me, those I love, those I look up to, those that have always guided me and protected me, they didn’t like what I had become. I felt my mother’s painful disappointment, my brother’s deafening silence and my father’s quiet fury. It has to mean something … all this outrage and disillusionment.
What do you believe in now?
I believe there is sagacity in the old ways. I believe in everything that I have been taught. I believe in the precise observance of rituals to keep us focused and dedicated. I believe that our differences are important and cannot be ignored; that these differences, even if they appear small, many times outweigh our similarities. They keep us cohesive as a community, an impregnable force that can withstand an assault of any kind. More importantly, I believe that we are not all equal in the eyes of the Divine. In terms of faith, we have got it as right as imperfect human beings can get a belief system. The final Hereafter will be ruthless, exacting for the unbelievers and also for those of us believers that stray from the one true path.
That sounds ominous.
That feels safe. I feel protected, part of a whole, when I reaffirm this credo. There has to be a reason for why so many believe these tenets. Why we are so many many millions strong. I can’t lose sight of the bigger picture by focusing on the inner, confounding, disquieting workings of my heart and my mind. They are distracting, frustrating and damaging to me, to my wellbeing in the Hereafter.
Damaging to your peace of mind too?
Faith is not about peace of mind. It is about a constant battle inside. An unending war against the voices of excess and those that would try to tempt us from our one, sacred path. Complete peace of mind is an intemperance, an indulgence, a fantasy. I’m sticking to my guns now. You can’t confuse me.
You are not God! With all your postulations about questioning everything, looking for answers, listening to my heart, focusing on the fairytale of my own spirituality, my peace of mind.
You are the devil pretending to be Divine!
I blocked the other voice. I ended the dialogue. I turned away. I turned away feeling triumphant and blessed. I had vanquished the unsettling, misleading rumbling inside. I had been lured away from the wisdom of centuries and I had found my way back. I basked in my victory.
Even as the muscles of my face celebrated the triumph of my soul, I felt something wrenching in my gut. I resolutely swallowed the acid aftertaste that rose to my mouth.
Showcased on the New Ink digital forum in Colombo on July 23rd 2022. Introducing my book of short stories “The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta” and reading an excerpt from the Sri Lankan section of the book: “Serendib Lodge”.
It was Wednesday afternoon. Bano was done with bridge and Adar had come back from the stock exchange. With their greater purposes of the day done, they rendezvoused at one of their oft frequented coffee shops. Bano ordered tea and cakes; Adar ordered a latte. The foamy brew always fortified him in the presence of his wife. He was up to any conversation then.
“He’s such a show off”
“He come to the cafe in his father’s mercedes. You know the one in that strange yellow colour – like a sick canary. It’s the only one of its kind in the city ….”
Adar looked up, ears prickling with a mixture of curiosity and indignation. It was Giallo Modena, the colour! He and Farshad had especially had it custom-painted. He shifted in his chair but the occupants of the table behind him remained infuriatingly out of sight.
“We had decided to meet up at The Veranda. You know, that new cafe. Well everyone else was there too! First of all he walked in late -“
“Don’t say that. That’s also my X’s name … ugh!”
(A giggle from the next table)
“Anyway, he then insisted on taking ten minutes before he finally made his lumbering way to me. You know how he walks – like he’s holding a 40kg bag in each hand”.
(More giggles from the table)
Bano looked straight ahead, stlll, statue-like. Her outraged ears had taken centre stage on this occasion, their lack of tongue notwithstanding.
“Why’d he take ten minutes to come over?”
“Because he had to stop and talk to Aliya and Maham. These two are always desperately in his way. Uff!”
“Anyway, he came over and gave me a kiss. No, three. You know, I think he was making sure everyone saw it. Like marking his territory”
“Like a doggo”
“Farshad the grey hound in the cafe!”
“Farshad the poodle around you!”
Adar shifted to the right. He was riveted. If only he could get a glimpse of the conversationalists. Bano continued to stare straight ahead with the stillness of the ocean just before it roars into a tsunami. Between the couple sat a pause so pregnant that the tea brewed twice over, creating two or three increasingly caustic versions of itself, and the latte simply collapsed into a tattered frill around the inner edges of the mug.
“Then what happened? Tell me na, is it lurrrve?”
“I don’t know. I can’t tell. I mean he’s so full of himself. I can’t tell whether I just make him love himself more or whether I figure in there somewhere too”.
“So he’d gone to get his visa and apparently he’d told the consular off at the American embassy”.
“She’d asked him how long he was going to the US for and he’d told her for far shorter than she’d been resident in his country”.
(Laughter from the next table)
Bano’s lips twitched in an indecipherable expression. Adar grinned in spite of himself.
“…so arrogant, like he’s god’s gift to everyone!”
“…. yeah … but he’s good looking!”
Bano turned her face ever so slightly towards the next table. There was the faintest hint of appreciation for that bit of sensibility that had trickled into the otherwise unfiltered barrage of adolescent angst.
(More giggles from the other side followed by a request for the bill and finally an exit).
“It’s your fault you know. You spoil him”.
“Don’t you start with me Adarmard. I’m not in the mood”, said Bano uncharacteristically, turning her face away from battle and from her instigating husband, to look again at the display cabinet of cakes. The pineapple upside down in a curious way, reminded her of her own state of mind at that moment: displaced, askew, jangled. She sniffed haughtily as if one last vigorous whiff of the ambient unpleasantness would turn things the right side up again. She hadn’t even glanced at the girls in front of her who’d been describing the Unwala scion in those … pedestrian terms; making him seem flawed and reduced. The art of knowing is also knowing what to ignore, someone had sagely said, and this unpleasantness which had already been denied her sight, was also going to be steadfastly put out of her mind. She sniffed again for good measure and took a long, cleansing sip of her tea.
Adar Unwala looked at his wife for a while as a panoply of emotions skipped across her face, each dealt with and dismissed in quick succession. Then she had looked away and detached herself from the entire episode leaving him with the hatchet and the axe. The thought that she may retrace her steps later to retrieve them bared its teeth unkindly in the back of his mind.
He sighed at his wife’s erstwhile profile, turned studiously away from him and also from any exchange that might have been had to let the air out of the bloated atmosphere that once again sat between them. He blinked once, twice and wheezed into a napkin, clearing his mind and bolstering himself with the din that ensued from his vocal chords. After a little while he smiled widely and wondered if he should have another latte.