SHORT STORY | ONE FLEW OVER THE BULBUL’S NEST – Part Three

(I)

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.

(II)

“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 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.

(III)

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.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/27/bulbuls-nest-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/28/bulbuls-nest-part-two/

* Shami Kebab: A round patty of minced lamb and lentils cooked in a tandoor; often served with a small salad with a yoghurt and mint dressing.

SHORT STORY | ONE FLEW OVER THE BULBUL’S NEST – Part Two

(I)

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 unwavering 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.

(II)

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.

(III)

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.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/27/bulbuls-nest-part-one/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/29/bulbuls-nest-part-three/

* 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.

SHORT STORY | ONE FLEW OVER THE BULBUL’S NEST – Part One

(I)

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 shrouded 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 the domestic reins 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 domestic 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.

(II)

“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.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/28/bulbuls-nest-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/29/bulbuls-nest-part-three/

* Bulbul: medium sized songbirds. These birds are distributed across most of Africa and into the Middle East, tropical Asia to Indonesia, and north as far as Japan.

* Bait-ul-Muskaan: House of smiles/ laughter

* Bharta: A Pakistani/ Indian dish of vegetables (such as eggplant and often onion or tomato) that have been cooked usually by roasting and then mashed together with pungent spices.

* Karela: Bitter gourd in Urdu.

* Kharoos: Urdu colloquialism for someone who is hard, uncompromising and joyless.

* Kintsugi: Also known as kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.

* Daal: cooked lentils in Urdu


* Nihari: Originating in Mughal India, this is slow-cooked meat, mainly a shank cut of beef, lamb and mutton, or goat meat, as well as chicken and bone marrow. It is flavoured with various spices.

FLASH FICTION | A DIALOGUE WITH THE DEVIL

(I)

Are you there?

Where else would I be?

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

People?

Beings then.

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.

What questions?

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.

(II)

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!

(III)

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.

SHORT STORY | THE DNA LOTTERY – Part Two

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”

“What happened?”

“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 -“

“Late latif*”

“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!”

(Laughter)

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”.

Phir*?”

“So he’d gone to get his visa and apparently he’d told the consular off at the American embassy”.

“Noo!”

“Yes!”

“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.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/21/the-dna-lottery-part-one/

* Late Latif: Urdu colloquialism for someone who is habitually late.

* Phir: “Then” in Urdu

SHORT STORY | THE DNA LOTTERY – Part One

“Why did you have to tell Imtiaz we have a penthouse in London?” questioned Adarmard Unwala, red faced and wrathful.

His inquiry was shot like an arrow at his wife’s back which was turned towards him as she sat facing her dressing table mirror. He generally made these aft-aimed assaults because then he could say what was on his mind; or at least as much as he dared get away with. His wife, after one of these musters of initiative from him, quite completely usurped the offensive and let him have it back ten times more ferociously. She was then relentless, focused and quite triumphant in reducing him ego and all to his precise 5 feet, 5 inches. These backside jabs always seemed like a bad idea in hindsight. But Adar Unwala was the eternal optimist and he rallied with the buoyancy of a helium balloon in the prime of its flatus. Reduced and brought to heel for the moment, he would smile blotchily at his enraged wife, handing over the battle axe into her expert hands. Tajbano Unwala would deliver a final withering blow to his already chastised ego and then fling both axe and pique into the far corner of the room. There they would lie until the next time he picked them up, wobbling and mottling under their weight until he once again handed them gratefully back to her.

It was a good thing that neither Bano Unwala nor her husband held spousal grudges, or the end of their quarrels and the ebb and flow of life in general would have been worse than medieval torture. Quite entirely for Adar Unwala that is, who would have early on joined the ranks of the vanquished and deceased husbands who live on epileptically in the memories of their robust better halves. Bano would have prevailed of course and lived to tell the tale of her unending patience and fortitude.

So it was fortunate indeed that the couple quarreled in such perfect accord that while one gamely tossed up both their shares of invective and unholy suggestions into the fray, the other graciously fizzled all out. It was a match made in heaven … well, somewhere close to the cosmic limit of things.

Bano Unwala was a ship of a woman – 5’8” and magnificently girthsome. She carried her 150 kilos with the grace of a swan: bulbous limbs treading awkwardly but invisibly beneath yards of delicately billowing silk and chiffon. She was also the queen of her social realm and took full credit for all the fortuitous happenings in and around it. Whether it was a friend’s triple bypass that had gone roaringly well while she was resident at their home or the happy spell of rain that fell in the parched deserts of Dubai when she was visiting her sister, she was the unrivalled trustee and bequeather of the universe’s kindness in her environs. If the gentle patter of rain one day, however, was followed by a dust storm of epic proportions the next day that uprooted the shed and the dog kennel, sending them careening into the Arabian desert, well, that was squarely due to some faltering in the moral and ethical compass of her hosts. Something they had done to deserve this unholy wrath of which she too gamely and graciously partook with them, she would smile with moist eyes. Karma was quick and relentless she always said knowingly.

Adar had over his two decades with Bano, perfected his unreadable face: one which absorbed all but gave away nothing. For to pay attention was expected, but to disagree with his wife in company was tantamount to betrayal and would be dealt with likewise when he and Bano were alone. And so he would listen to his wife who in turn would enthral and terrify their friends and family with declarations of celestial favours and also of brimstone and hellfire. It was an oft performed, much loved scene delivered with queenly aplomb every single time. Bano didn’t socialize; she held court.

Adar Unwala was small and retiring. His life had been devoted quite entirely to being the second shadow of his formidable wife in the event that her own defected from under the sheer thunderousness of its owner. He was also the in-house punching bag and the inescapable other half of their marital equation. Adar Unwala cheerfully shouldered these various burdens, the optimism borne more out of habit and a tenacious will to live, than any obscure masochistic inclinations. He did in another lifetime, before being encircled in the hefty arms of marital bliss, have his brash and bold moments. But with time and the unflagging force of Bano, he had become quiet and wry. The former state of being made the latter quality especially prominent and entertaining. Adar Unwala didn’t have conversatons; he performed them.

Adar was also an avid reader. He was often driven to reading poetry which he discovered, was surprisingly effective in dispelling the clouds of gloom and doom that sometimes overtook him. It was not so much the substance of the verse, but the rhyme and meter that would slowly file off the sharp edges and bit by bit, let the sun into his soul again. His favourite genre however, one that he read when he was in full possession of his composure and his serenity, was memoirs of rags to riches industrialists and business tycoons. He read these tomes not so much to gain pithy insight into how to get rich. The Unwala coffers had been quite copiously overflowing for the past many generations. No, it was almost a catharsis in reverse psychology – how it would be to have nothing; to not be identified as one of the Unwalas or as Tajbano’s husband but simply as Adermard. His keen and extended perusal of the books to date however had led him to believe that most men liked being in the clutches of influence and power, and the occasional matriarch. As kismet would have it, he had gone into the sweeping embrace of the latter and had quite completely given up any delusions of the former. He had continued to read other men’s stories nevertheless, more for the occasional nuggets of bizarre personal eccentricities and foibles they sometimes threw at him. These he would then mull over with angst, awe or amusement, filling his time and his thoughts with existential what-ifs and wild imaginings. He loved his story time.

Bano and Adar had been together for twenty one years and had produced a happy hybrid of themselves in their son. Farshad had his father’s grey eyes and his mother’s unremitting gaze. He had also inherited his mother’s stature but by dint of hard work, had extricated himself from the legacy of her bulk. Still, he tended to carry himself like there were two of him. He was intelligent and self assured like his mother with a tendency towards an almost happy cynicism like his father. Everyone remarked about how he had won the DNA lottery.

Farshad Unwala hadn’t grown into adulthood; it had metamorphosed to fit him.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/22/the-dna-lottery-part-two/

SHORT STORY | THE GLIMMER – Part Two

Marrya:

I met Zainab after almost fifteen years. We hadn’t seen each other since school. We had been good friends growing up. Then my family and I moved to Canada and we somehow lost touch. I saw her that day when I went to pick my daughter up from Mrs. Abad’s Academy. Her son, Zain is in the same school. We recognised each other instantly. It was a warm reunion. There was none of the awkwardness of long absences and radio silences. We easily picked up from where we had left off a decade and a half ago. She was glowing.

Zainab:

I saw Marrya like an apparition. I was feeling a familiar tingle in the tips of my fingers and in the space behind my eyes – something was about to happen. She had smiled so widely and come up to me. We had hugged. I held on to her, trying to steady myself, to focus on something, to let the feeling pass quickly, unobtrusively. She had tears in her eyes. Why was she crying? I didn’t know why she was crying. I knew I should be concerned, I should ask her why. But I had to stop my mind from picking me up and whisking me away. Not there, not at that time. So I hugged her again. Outside, I kept focusing on the hug and on Marrya. Inside, I held on with both hands to the paling so that I wouldn’t be swept up in the current that was coursing through me. I don’t know how long I held her like that, but the episode passed. I could feel thermal waves undulating on my face and my chest, enfolding me in their warmth. I was back in control.

Marrya had been my best friend in school.

Marrya:

We met up a few times after that first encounter at our children’s school. She was the same … and also different. There was a serenity about her but there was also a wildness in her eyes sometimes. She would get agitated and then very still. Almost like there was something going on on the inside. Like a battle … maybe a conversation with herself. I wasn’t sure. Until Zainab talked to me. We were sitting in her home catching up on old times with a couple of hours to spare before picking up the children from school. I noticed her odd look then. One moment she was laughing and then … she held onto my arms, with that feral look in her eyes. She said she was having an episode. I looked at her not entirely understanding but somehow knowing that I needed to reassure her. So I nodded, encouraging her to talk. To tell me what was happening. She was dazed and confused for almost an hour. And incoherent. I tried to have her sip some water but she said she’d drown. I wanted to take her to the hospital, a clinic, but she shook her head. No! No! I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you. Wait, I’ll tell you. It took forty five minutes before she was herself again. I held her in my arms and she remained there quietly.

She then looked at me through calm, bright eyes. I could tell she was lucid, peaceful again. She then told me about her Glimmer.

Zainab:

I finally told Marrya about the Glimmer. I needed to tell someone and she was there with me again when I was … swept up. She seemed to understand … but in the way that normal people empathise with the handicapped: her face was sheathed in lines of concern and her kindness was effusive. I’m not being sarcastic. I was grateful to her for listening to me. For letting me talk. It was my first time talking of my inner self … my inner world, and the words were not coming easily. I was fumbling but she was listening. And I was grateful for that.

Like a dirty disease, the Glimmer … my Glimmer had stayed hidden, vilified and excluded for so long that it had begun to fester, spilling a dreary pall over my lucid days … hours. Someone else now knew and in some strange way I had this sense that it was essential – for Zain – that Marrya knew. I also felt a lightness of being; a headiness almost that my Glimmer had, through my words, found its way out. I was swept up again but in the real life throes of relief and joy. I laughed.

I hope Marrya doesn’t think I’m crazy. I’m really hoping she doesn’t. I didn’t tell her about Zoya and Gula. Time enough for that. She asked me why I wasn’t taking the medication and whether I believed in the mystic healing of Sufi saints. I think she was satisfied with my responses. I’ve refound a friend.

Marrya:

I was torn. Between my promise of secrecy to Zainab and the insticintive obligation I felt to let someone else know. I wanted to tell Asif, Zainab’s husband but I’d only ever met him once and he was out of town a lot. I wondered if he was aware of Zainab’s episodes; if he’d witnessed them … I wasn’t sure. Then I thought of talking to Zainab’s mother, Arifa aunty. She had always been a fragile, bird-like creature and from what Zainab had said, her delicate constitution had not fared well with time. She had moved to the UK to live with her sister when the latter had got widowed. That was a year ago. I had to think … I had to think about who to let in on Zainab’s state of well being …. her state of mind.

Was Zainab going crazy? Was she losing her mind? Did insanity run in her family? What about Zain? These thoughts now regularly ran headlong into me in my waking hours.

Zainab:

It was so quick. The van had come careening into our car. There was an explosion in my head. I felt a tidal wave carrying me away from the scene in front of me; away from the collision. I tried to concentrate on the steering wheel to regain control but everything was slipping away. Then I’d seen Zain lying there unblinking … dead? I had screamed then. Again and again. To hold onto him; to hold onto myself.

Marrya:

Then the accident happened. Zainab and Zain were in the car. Zain had broken his arm but he was alright. Zainab had hit her head and had been brought to the hospital, disoriented and confused.

I hugged Zain and told him everything would be alright. He was sitting with his father on the sofa outside Zainab’s room.

Zainab had sustained a severe concussion Arif had said. She was dazed but awake.

A concussion. Something in the pit of my stomach turned. I was afraid.

I walked in.

Zainab:

I was in a garden. It was shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight. I was sitting in a rocking chair.

How did I get into a rocking chair?

Something was not right …

Zain!

Where was Zain? How was Zain? I felt for the cold, hard surface of the railing; I couldn’t see it but I felt it. I needed to get back.

I saw Marrya. She was faded, shadowy, her outline coming in and out of my sight. I grabbed her arm; I had to know before she disappeared. Before I disappeared.

Where is Zain?

He’s fine she said.

He’s fine I said. He’s fine … he is fine …. he is alright …

I breathed. I relaxed.

I lost my hold on the railing.

Marrya:

Zainab was looking straight up at the ceiling when I walked into the room. I called to her but she didn’t move. I went up to her and looked into her eyes. There was that wild look again. I felt my own heart beating wildly. I felt nauseous.

Where is Zain, she asked. I told her he was alright, that he was sitting outside with his father. After that she became calm. Stuporous.

I held her hand.

She finally closed her eyes and slept.

Zainab:

Zoya- You’re ok Mama. You’re ok.

Gula- You’re fine. Breathe

I was sitting in a garden. It was shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight. My favourite time of the day. The light was falling in beautiful undulating patterns on the grass: golden whorls and paisleys, fluttering tendrils and fronds played hide and seek with one another. All Gula’s exquisite handiwork. There was the sound of birds as they rallied themselves for one last forage before getting into their safe little spaces for the night. I was sitting in a rocking chair. I breathed. I smiled.

Gula – And here’s a steaming mug of tea – Tea Tang, Hillcrest, your favourite. And a book of short stories, with a little bit of the real, and a bit of the ethereal. Just like you like them.

Zoya, eyes shining- read one out loud!

I grinned. It was perfect.

Something had happened…. but it was alright now … I couldn’t remember anymore … but it was alright …

I was tired but I was so happy. I smiled at little Zoya and put her in my lap.

Tomorrow we’ll read. I kissed her little head as she leaned back on my chest. I put my own head back.

I finally closed my eyes and slept.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/13/the-glimmer/

SHORT STORY | THE GLIMMER – Part One

(I)

She felt her brain glimmer as it always did before she lost it.

Found yourself Gula had said from behind her hippocampus when she had been whisked into the inner spaces of her mind in those early days. Zoya had smiled her bright smile at her in cheerful confirmation of her sister’s mental wisdom. Gula was always foremost in telling it like it was. When she and the rest of the world were trying to make it right, make it all normal, Gula would put a spanner in the works … tell the truth. In a strange way, having the truth set free, always made Zainab feel better. Of course she never articulated out loud all this straight talk that was strewn more and more in her neural pathways by Gula. But she was secretly relieved that there was someone else to reassure her that she wasn’t alone .. that she wasn’t mad.

Little Zoya and Gula lived inside. In Zainab’s mind.

Zainab put away the ironing, deliberately, slowly and then sat down and began to rock back and forth gently, almost imperceptibly. She stared at the switch on the wall; she needed to focus on something to let the episode pass. She had to let it wash over her gently and without her full participation. She had things to do.

Today she couldn’t walk around the house with the glimmer. That only made it brighter, and when she roamed the house in its throes, she walked also into the furthest spaces of her mind where she would then be lost for hours at a time. What were fleeting moments of rest and relief within, were protracted hours of a psychotic episode outside. It was a balancing act that she had performed for the last fourteen months, never mastering it, always just scraping by. On the outside.

She kept her eyes glued to the wall switch. Gradually it’s innocuous cream colour filled with texture, kinetic layers and a myriad other hues in the snow white to clotted cream spectrum. She absorbed the details as she slowly stilled her mind. When she could see fluid little fragments of the silver-grey railing, she knew she could relax; she was at the waning end of her episode. The railing was always there – stretching behind her, in front of her and alongside her; not always visible, but always reachable. Even at the throbbing, pulsing heart of her Glimmer, she knew that as long as she could keep her grip on it she could find her way out; get back to real life. The paling shimmered hazily, insubstantially now as it moved in and out of her sight.. her mind. She concentrated. After a while, it slowly forged itself into an unbroken, glinting beacon guiding her back into the real world.

It had taken half an hour of concerted effort to wrest herself away from Zoya’s pleading voice and Gula’s requests to look at her needlework; her brain stitching. She made lovely patterns. Sometimes she cross stitched when the world outside was not so ferocious, and then Zainab could sense in the faintest of tones, what was happening outside; she would remain hidden and protected but Gula’s weave would let in little speckles of outside light and with them silent, fuzzy, slow moving images that made Zainab think of how old sepia-toned movies without sound might have been like. At other times, Gula would do a precise filling stitch to block out everything from the outside. Sometimes she would hem when Zainab was feeling especially anxious about having left something important undone before being whisked in. Gula would then gently neaten the frayed edges of Zainab’s mind, tucking away her anxiety in horizontal spaces that were 0.75 inches wide. Zainab would watch the hypnotic action of the needle going in and out, in and out, in and out in Gula’s deft hands, and she would feel better. Sometimes, however, Gula would rip it all apart. Zainab hated that but Gula said it was necessary sometimes to restart. To forget and begin again. Sometimes Zainab did forget and was able to begin again. At other times, she remembered and the new stitches Gula put in felt like lancing pin pricks in her body. Tridents of pain would poke at her head and her chest throughout the rest of the day.

She had things to do. It was Zain’s parent-teacher meeting today. She had to get ready and look the part in less than an hour.

(II)

“How did the PTM go”, asked Tariq when they were all sitting around the dinner table that night.

“It was alright. Zain is doing generally well” said Zainab smiling at her eight year old from across the table.

Zain shifted uncomfortably in his seat but he was grateful for this little lie by his mother. A white lie because he was having problems only with Urdu and Islamiyat. White lies were not as bad as … black lies. He smiled suddenly at this turn of phrase that had suddenly popped into his mind. He was sure he had come up with something new. He would ask Miss Malik tomorrow.

“Did you go with the driver?”

“Yes … yes i went with the driver. We even stopped at Burger King for lunch”, Zainab looked again at her son who was now smiling widely. She smiled back at him. These moments were so precious when she was in the same room, in the same time and space with her son. He had seen her mentally disappear from his world a few times and had over the past year become somewhat withdrawn. She had explained to him as best as she could that her mind worked differently and sometimes she needed to shut down on the outside so she could rest. Most people went to sleep to rest. This was like her sleep. He had listened quietly and had then turned his face away. He was too young to understand what was happening, Zainab had reasoned with herself. She needed to be around him more when she was … herself and less when she was gripped in the bewildering throes of an epoisode.

Zainab had been a teacher at one of the leading schools in the city. She had taught the grade five curriculum for over ten years before resigning just over a year ago, in the wake of her first glimmer. Unfamiliar with the two people who occupied that new world and unversed in the fluid tapestry of her mind, she had been afraid and anxious as she had walked into it that first time. Outwardly she had just zoned out.

The damn stress nowadays can do that. Go home darling, they’d said.

Take some time out, the principal had suggested.

You need to slow down, the doctor had ordered.

And so she had complied on all fronts. She had gone home, tendered in her resignation as a teacher and focused on being a housewife. She was also given a rainbow of pills to take every day. Beautiful little things, with deceptive inclinations. They were supposed to make her feel better, to relax her highly strung nerves. But they just made her numb, emotionless. She didn’t even want to look at Zain when she was in their deadening hold. So three months in, armed also with a better understanding that the Glimmer was not her mind’s version of a wasteland for loonies but her secret refuge, she had just stopped taking them. Her world …. worlds had changed. With time and the subtle machinations of her mind, reality had become a shifting concept as the Glimmer became more and more substantial, burgeoning with a constant stream of experiences as she was whisked back and forth. She had no command over the forces that buffeted her in and out of her two worlds. She had only learnt through sheer necessity, to sometimes control the amount of time she was pulled away from the world where she was a mother. Zain still needed her.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/14/the-glimmer-part-2/

SHORT STORY | RAAT KI RANI* – Part Two

(I)

Raza Murad was what is universally known as a “confirmed bachelor”. In the South Asian context however, this is a misnomer since no man is ever over the hill and there is always a good, respectable bahu* to be had. Raza Murad however, had tended to go with the universal meaning of the term and had kept swarms of eager aunties at bay, armed as they were with proposals for their daughters and with time, for themselves too. Raza Murad was in fact, in a whimsical twist of fate, a doppleganger of Waheed Murad, the quintessential chocolate hero of the 60s and 70s Pakistani cinema. Despite an abundance of ingredients for leaving a long line of bruised and broken hearts in his wake, 60 year old Raza had only ever been in two relationships. The first had been with a man. There had been no physicality there (except for one time in the beginning of the companionship). They had lived together for ten years and then his partner had succumbed to congestive heart disease.

The second relationship had started when he was forty five, and had culminated in a six year marriage. There were no children – he couldn’t have them. She had left him when she had got the opportunity to immigrate to Canada. He had stayed behind not so much because he had opted to, but because she had.

For the last decade or so, Raza Murad had been living alone and tending to his little farm in Bedian, a mostly agricultural area about 30 kms from the Lahore city centre. His farming enterprise which had started out as a hobby, was now a lucrative little business, financing the upkeep of his home and his pet indulgence: rare editions of books by Urdu writers; his trio of first editions of the works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ismat Chughtai and Ibn-e-Insha were his pride and joy. With time, a modest little library had sprung up around these three mighty pillars. The fourth prop was built somewhat bashfully but prolifically from his own attempts at satire and romance. In the spirit of a true literary purist, he tried to keep the two genres largely separate but there were many instances where before he was quite aware, they had coupled to form a sometimes absurd and sometimes comical tapestry of odes and comeback-odes. It was a cathartic endeavour for the generally low key Raza Murad.

Most of Raza Murad’s farm produce made its way to the Sabzi Mandi*. He had also set up a stall at the Good Market that was held in Defence every Saturday. Here he sold avocados, litchi and jaman which were bought fast and furiously by the ladies who strolled in their dozens through the market to sight-see and socialise.

Raza Murad met Haniya when she and her children had moved into his rental property in Model town about a year ago. He was instantly taken in by the woman with the big brown eyes and the quiet manner. She even had a flick of grey hair, exquisite in its placement: gently traversing the distance from her widow’s peak to behind her left ear, and in its singularity: the one and only shot of grey in her otherwise dark brown hair. He knew it was a beautiful foible of nature but in its perfection, it could have been wrought by the deft machinations of a hairdresser given to the classic whimsy of old world charm.

Over the next few months, he had visited Haniya on some repair related pretexts a few times. These were undertaken to more fully understand what he felt rather than in any subtle rituals of courtship. After a decade of being alone, he wanted to make sure this sudden, unexpected urge for her company was not in fact some late-aged infatuation. It wasn’t, he had realized. That was when in a fit of organic creativity, he had decided to carry a carton full of the fruit and the vegetables of his labour to Model town every Tuesday. Haniya had been surprised that he did home deliveries, to which he had mumbled something about fickle shelf life and customer satisfaction. The weekly fruit and vegetable deliveries had over the last few months morphed into Tuesday afternoons of easy conversations, gentle laughter and the doing away of burdensome labels like bhai* and behen*.

(II)

The bell rang just as Haniya had washed and put away the lunch dishes. She adjusted her dupatta, took a quick almost furtive peek at herself in the little mirror near the entrance and went to open the gate.

“I’ve brought you lychees today. They’re delicious. You and the children will enjoy them” said a smiling Raza as Haniya opened the gate for him. Her eyes danced as she smiled in happy acknowledgment, more from the pleasure of seeing him rather than the anticipation of lychees for dessert that night. Still with the happy tingle in her spine, she suddenly asked him to drive his cultus into the house. Now his eyes were dancing too. While he got back into the car to drive into Haniya’s home, she looked away for a minute, to calm herself. What is wrong with you? You have two grown up children! she chided herself, willing the sobriety of the reminder to discipline her wildly beating heart. But in the next instant, she was grinning widely again. She chuckled at the rebelliousness of her own emotions, feeling like an adolescent with a secret crush. Hers had been Sean Connery … and Waheed Murad. She lifted the corner of her dupatta to her mouth to hide the laughter that was now bubbling in her throat.

Raza glanced at Haniya as she looked away, lightly covering her face with her dupatta. He wondered if she was in fact already regretting her knee jerk invitation for him to drive into the house. He sat in the car and looked away for a few seconds to give her time to compose herself, to make up her mind.

“Are you going to keep sitting there or are you going to come out ji*? If you do come out, I can make us some tea”.

While Haniya and Raza sipped on hot tea, sitting on the steps of the little veranda outside with a carton between them bursting with yellows, greens and reds, Laiba watched from inside. She felt an odd sensation in the pit of her stomach as she saw her mother …. flirting with a man. She has a right to live her own life, a part of her reasoned quietly. But the part of her that looked on with a premonition of doom and even mild disgust gathered in strength and moral outrage. By the time Raza departed thirty minutes later leaving behind a medley of fresh produce and a little song in Haniya’s heart, Laiba was seething with righteous anger. That evening she refused to come out for dinner and the next morning she had left the house before Haniya had woken up.

“Amma, we need to talk” said Ali quietly when mother and son were sitting in the lounge after dinner the next day. Haniya looked at her son with a steady gaze. Her daughter’s complete boycott of her since the previous evening had prepared her for the talk, the reminder of respectability.

“That man who comes to deliver vegetables ….”

“Raza Murad is his name” Haniya interjected gently while still looking directly at Ali.

“Yes, him. What’s going on Amma?”

“Nothing is going on beta*. He delivers vegetables and we have a conversation”

“And that’s all?” asked Ali, his face now blotchy with indignation as well as the embarrassment of having this conversation with his mother.

So like his father he looks …the thought whispered through Haniya’s mind even as she focused on her own composure.

“That’s all beta”.

That’s all Haniya said to herself too. That is all.

“Is that all?” Raza asked Haniya when she called him a few days later to ask him not to come for the next fortnight; she and her family were going out of town.

“Yes … that’s all“, she said by way of ending the conversation.

“Ok, let me know when you are back …”

“Yes … I’ll call you … we’ll get in touch when we are back”. She ended the call, feeling morally upright, while the cloak of respectability tightened around her, squeezing her, reducing her so she could keep fitting into the blessed box.

Respectable but boxed in. Wanton but free. Respectable … wanton … respectable … shameless … free … shameless —

She breathed in deeply to still the suffocating thoughts that were ricocheting through her head; to dislodge the tension that had built up like a wall in her chest. She then blinked twice, three times while looking straight into the heart of the glimmering horizon.

(III)

That evening Haniya sat on the steps of her veranda looking at the jasmine that was growing in the far corner of the little garden. It was resplendent with sweet smelling flowers. They were her favourite flowers – always abundant and always redolent. Faizan used to like their fragrance too and would often bring in a handful when the shrub was abloom in their old home. Raat ki rani for my raat ki Raani he used to say to her, the mixture of humour and intimacy making her redden and laugh. She would put them in a bowl full of water and gradually their delicate fragrance would fill the whole room. She smiled at the memory that had, like the scent of the night blooming jasmine, gently assailed her.

She and Faizan had planted a shrub in their old house twenty years ago and it had grown and settled in their garden spreading its sweet bouquet around their home for over fifteen years. Throughout the hot months, it had sprung into a throng of flowers, like a snow mirage in the corner of their summer-baked garden. One summer, a year or so after Faizan had passed away, it had just stopped flowering and by winter it had withered away. She had refused to plant anything there, mourning in equal measure, her dead garden companion and her deceased husband. The empty space in the corner of the garden became an oddly cathartic reminder of the emptiness in her heart.

When she had moved into her new home a year ago, she had in the throes of new beginnings and old memories, planted a jasmine sapling in the garden. It had over the last year, grown and flourished, and was now riotous in its first efflorescence.

Haniya looked at the blooming, burgeoning shrub for a while; its vitality was almost palpable in the deepening shadows of dusk. She went towards the plant and plucked a handful of the flowers. She breathed in their sweet scent, full of freshness and newness. She inhaled deeply and then buried her face in their velvety softness. She stayed that way for a minute, maybe two and then looked up, smiling. The shapes and textures of her feelings, that for so long had been put away like wedding joras* their time and place having come and gone once and for all, now gathered again bright and beautiful in her heart. She reached for them in the sweet fragrance of the jasmine, as she brought her flower-strewn palms up to her face again. She felt her heart swell with a cresting, suffusing joy as it released its own sweet petrichor.

She loved her children but she knew she could be more than a mother and a grandmother, and so much more than this shadow of herself that she had become.

There in the gathering dusk, amid the jasmine blossoms, she felt the warm effusion of all that she had yet to give, and also the soft, malleable space in her heart where she could yet receive. She would be like the jasmine: redolent in its garden bed, fragrant in a bowl of water and tender in the warmth of the hands. Just like the vital little flowers bloomed again and again, cradled in the arms of nature and the universe, so could she. So would she.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/06/25/raat-ki-rani/

* Raat ki Raani: The night blooming jasmine. Literally the term means “queen of the night”.

* Bahu: Bride/ daughter in law in Urdu.


* Sabzi Mandi: Wholesale vegetable market

* Bhai: Brother in Urdu

* Behen: Sister in Urdu

* Ji: A general term of respectful acknowledgment

* Beta: Son in Urdu

* Jora: Dress/ outfit

SHORT STORY | RAAT KI RANI* – Part One

(I)

Haniya looked at the pin prick of blood on her index finger, lingering on its vital redness just a moment longer than usual. It was Tuesday today. She blinked, her mouth curving into a faint smile, and then wiped her finger with a rag strewn with little speckles of rust-red.

Haniya sewed initially because she had the skill and she liked the meditative quality of the needle going in and out of the fabric. With time and the fickle nature of circumstances, that labour of love had morphed into an exertion underscored by urgency and need. There was a little money that came in from a couple of modest investments that her husband had made, and a small monthly stipend that her brother sent her. These meagre streams of income Haniya augmented with the little windfalls that she received for her delicate needlework.

After her husband had died six years ago, she had taken on the role of the provider and the “man” of the house. That last title was foisted upon her when she had scared off two thieves, adolescents really, who had come to burgle her home; of what, she still sometimes wondered as she mentally scanned the modest contents of their two bedroom townhouse rental.

She put the shirt down with its spray of jasmine that was slowly coming to life under her deft handiwork. She took a sip of her tea – her fifth cup since the morning and it was only noon now. Her mind wandered as the still hot liquid warmed up her cache of memories. Faizan had loved his tea too. She would make two steaming cups when he came in through the door at 6 o’ clock in the evening. Husband and wife would then sit in each other’s company, communicating almost solely through harmonious sips of the hot beverage. Faizan had been a man of few words, and he was especially grateful for the acknowledgment and understanding of this quiet reticence by his wife. For him, the highest form of language was one of the heart and of harmony of action. His evening cup of tea in the quiet company of Haniya was probably one of his dearest forms of togetherness. On weekends the couple would demolish almost a quarter bag of tea leaves, taking turns to cook a potful, its four-cup contents disappearing in under half an hour each time.

Haniya sighed wistfully. She missed him. She missed being held close. She missed the vital warmth at night, on the right side of their bed … her bed now. She missed having a companion.

Haniya had been a voluble, chirpy young woman when she had got married at 21. Under the calming, quiet influence of her husband, coupled with the fact that they had their first child five years later, she had gradually spoken less and less. Over the years, she had slowly replaced her outer chatter with the quietude of inner serenity. Now, sometimes days went by and she hardly said a word out loud until both her children came back home from university. Both, Ali and Laiba had fitted into and then emulated their parents’ reserve. And so, the years had plodded on largely to the hazy sounds of life from outside of their quiet bubble of existence.

Haniya picked up her empty cup and went to the kitchen. It was almost 1 o’ clock. She needed to start preparing lunch. Laiba would be home at 3. Ali had just started working at a bank and usually came home after 7.

(II)

“Amma, I’m never getting married” said Laiba as they both sat at the little dining table over plates of two day old daal* and sabzi*, their protracted spice-infused marination made up for with fresh, hot roti from the tandoor* downstairs. Haniya looked at her second born with a little smile.

It was a game they played occasionally to call to heel any depressing thoughts that at various times, tended to meander through the purple-grey spaces in the minds of the two women. Before either drifted into inner worlds with clouded skies, shutting out the late afternoon sunshine falling on her face, the other would pull her right back.

Her mother’s morning musings were still etched in her face and Laiba, reading them, had dropped a conversational grenade to shatter any bruise-coloured doors closing out the brightness of the day. She was happy and an essential part of the fruition of that sentiment for her, was seeing her mother’s gentle smile.

“And why is that?” asked Haniya, her own smile widening at her daughter’s bright-eyed playfulness.

“Because I’m going to miss these vintage daal and sabzi lunches amma – straight up manna from heaven they are!”

Haniya laughed at the affectionate sarcasm thrown at her by her feisty daughter while Laiba grinned back with dancing eyes.

(III)

It was Tuesday today. Vegetable delivery day. Vegetables and conversation day. Vegetables, conversation and a bit of a happy flurry of the heart day. Haniya smiled. Even the dispiriting act of putting three-day old curry back into the fridge for another meal, didn’t dampen the pleasure of her Tuesday afternoons. She looked outside the kitchen window at a world that was shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight. She felt a happy little surge in her own heart as she glanced at herself in the glass door of the kitchen cabinet. Seeing the smile spreading to the corners of her brown eyes, she instinctively lowered her gaze, collecting herself. Those crows feet were only ever supposed to crinkle in pleasure for her children … and later, for her grandchildren, she chided herself. She sighed, feeling the tentacles of exasperation and helplessness slowly coil around her solar plexus.

Why? she asked herself in the next instant, reaching for her heart, fortifying herself against the censorial voices of tradition and expectations. Why did happiness for her have to always be a borrowed emotion – borrowed from her children and even from her unborn grandchildren? Borrowed for a brief while and then returned; always given back; never made her own. Why did she have to become a hollow shell of herself because she was widowed, permanently denouncing the vital, pulsing, feeling part of her? Why couldn’t she allow herself to be happy for herself; for something that was specifically, wholly, stirringly hers?

Because you’re a middle aged widow with grown up children, berated the part of her that was used to being loud, commanding and keeping her respectable.

This emotional tug of war had of late often and passionately hurtled and leaped within her, with sometimes one and sometimes the other side coming out stronger. Haniya now willed herself, as she had learnt to do over the last few months, to focus only on the feeling of warmth that had been sweeping her up in its flow. Thinking beyond the visceral emotion, invariably woke up a whole slew of confusing, disapproving thoughts that would then mock and scold her until there was no pleasure left anymore in her Tuesday afternoons. Her afternoons that were filled with all shades of greens, reds and yellows as she bought a whole week’s worth of vegetables from Raza bhai. Raza – the bhai* had been largely dispensed with six months into these Tuesday afternoon exchanges, only ever surfacing if one of the children was within earshot of their conversation. These improvisations were made intuitively, unthinkingly.

Haniya Faizan was a respectable, middle class woman and following social norms was a part of her DNA which had also faithfully served her self preservation instinct. She was not a woman who went against the flow of convention. Despite her vivid imagination which often took her away on cathartic flights of fancy, she had for all practical purposes, fitted herself into the box of widowhood that was resoundingly set at her door when her husband had passed away. She had then dutifully also folded up her sexuality and put it safely away in the box to let it molder in the blessed throes of time and aloneness.

Haniya was still youngish however – 48 – and so despite society’s asexual prescription for her for having survived her husband, there was always a motley brigade of men that roamed around the box, hoping for Haniya to make a fissure just big enough for them to strut in. For most of these hopefuls, the end of their particular widow-exploit was yet murky in their minds; so much of that depended on the woman. If she relented, they could bestow her with male companionship, diligently cloaked from the world and their wives. If she didn’t, well some would leave it at that, while a not entirely insignificant number of others would put in focused efforts to torment her in big and small ways. The patriarchy, on such occasions, is said to be a mysterious beast, sweeping up entire communities of men and women in its ravenous wake. So far however, and especially after the encounter with the fresh-faced thieves, Haniya had been spared proposals of both, the decent and indecent varieties.

But there were changes afoot; little dalliances from the norm that were making their way into Haniya’s heart and she was feeling their, as yet unformed textures, with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/04/raat-ki-raani-part-2/

* Raat ki raani: the night-blooming jasmine

* Daal: A Pakistani/ Indian dish made of dried, split pulses that do not require soaking before cooking.

* Sabzi: vegetables in Urdu


* Bhai: Brother in Urdu.

* Tandoor: also known as tannour it is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking, mostly flat breads.

BOOK REVIEW | THE GIRL WITH THE PAISLEY DUPATTA

Hello folks,

Wanted to share with you the first ever review of my book of short stories “The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta and other stories”. The review was done by Maha Qazi of the YouTube channel Maha’s Musings.

She’s done a pretty good summary of the book in general and has also mentioned very relevant specifics from within some of the stories.

Take a look!

(P.S. I would describe myself as a “corporate RUT absconder. A bit of a Nutty enigma in the intro there! 😅)

https://youtu.be/-uyrbICrQW8

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