VERSE | FINDING MYSELF

A little disclaimer: This particular piece is not a critique of the ideology of marriage itself, but the warped manner in which it is used to keep young women in check. To prevent them from breaking through the heavily-manned barriers created for them by society.

LISTEN TO THE POEM BEING READ AT: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSddAaCSr/?k=1
Yes, I waited a great big while 
For my knight in shining armour to arrive
To sweep me off my impatient feet
To finally enable me to start living my life.

He came to our door, not on a steed -
That’s the whimsical stuff of fairytales
Not really rigged for the 21st century.
The rest of the story I was sure prevailed.

And so he came to our house in a car
His mother and his sisters too
I dutifully served them tea and samosas
His eyes were fixed on me like glue

I tried to think of what I felt
Did he stir something in my heart
Did I feel a like-mindedness
Was he the catalyst to my big, bright start!

The only thing rolling around in my head
The only thing that I could really see
Was the freedom to do all that I couldn’t before
That sunlit pathway stretched ahead of me

I remember I smiled a little too avidly
He grinned like a loon right back
And so it was decided auspiciously
That we’d be married in three months stat!

The wedding was done, it was T-plus six months
And I sat at my dressing table
I looked at the face of the woman in front
Was she the euphoric lass of fables?

She looked back at me confusedly
I pretended I didn’t quite read
What her eyes were so desperately telling me -
That rabbit hole was just too deep.

I looked away, this wasn’t the first time
Of my inability to face the ghosts
Of broken hearts and shattered dreams
Of being deluded, of feeling lost

I had grown up believing with all my being
That my best life lay ahead
When I took on the mantle of someone’s wife
That’s what age-old tradition said

But that’s not true, I now know
When I can’t look at myself in the mirror
There are shackles anew, I’m so confused
My dreams couldn’t have been frailer

And so I wait yet again, but now
Free of archaic norms and guiles
For when I can find the courage to be
Who I really am, who I have been all this while.

VERSE | PARADISE LOST

I see a woman standing at the traffic light
Even in her shabbiness, she’s neat and clean
She stands on the wayside wondering
For the hundredth time what she is doing on the street.
People look at her from their car windows
A nonchalant glance up and then away
Their psycho-social barriers
Comfortingly coming down to save their day
From unpleasant pangs of conscience
As they niggle at the edges of their minds
The world is troubled, their impact small
Sometimes it’s just better to be blind.


She looks at the faces in the cars
Indifferent, unseeing; wishing her away
She clutches the hem of her tattered shirt
Picks up the gumption to still walk their way
She looks at a lady who hasn’t averted her eyes
The shame is too much and she swallows hard
Even so, she manages a faint little smile
Hoping for kindness, compassion, regard
The lady looks up, seeing her for the first time
She’s irritated, she’s irked for letting her guard down
Beggars, pleaders of various requests
Destroy her peace of mind
, she frowns.

She waves a dismissive hand at the sight
And looks away, she will not lock eyes
Maybe the beggar will go to the next car
With her chafing, imploring enterprise
The woman feels the withering blow
As she hurriedly backs away from the car
The wounds in her heart are bleeding anew
Everyday there are fewer healing scars
She stumbles back onto the foot path
Eyes stinging with hopelessness and fatigue
This world seems done with the likes of her
She too is done with her destiny.

SHORT STORY | THE FALL – (A Prequel)

T = 0

December 24th, 2022

Despite its inherent catastrophic nature, the end had come quickly, almost mechanically. Its very swiftness had robbed it of the tragedy and chaos that usually accompany annihilation events. Some say it had started with the largely unnotable skirmish on the Russo-Ukrainian border. President Putin had fallen gravely ill at about the same time. His infirmity somehow catalysed the inscrutable little exchange of fire into an all out war as Russian troops marched belligenterlty into Kyiv. At about the same time, there was a devastating tsunami that whipped up in the Indian Ocean, a formidable ghost of its 2004 predecessor. The deluge ravaged twenty countries across Asia and East Africa in its deadly wake. In the space of a week, half the world had gone into emergency mode. The other half watched in a stupor of pandemic fatigue even as the new horrors unravelled. Two days after the tsunami, the Ukrainian troops fell to the wayside. No blood was shed, no words were spoken, no flags were raised or lowered. The invaders and the invaded sat together watching the world fall to pieces around them.

That is when she had come; the Mind-bender as she came to be called: Arfaana, a 35 year old woman who had until recently also been a mother of two. She had walked into Lafayette Square in Washington DC and screamed. She had screamed until she couldn’t scream anymore. And then she had wailed, her rhythmical moans echoing like the tolling of a doomsday bell. People had stopped in their tracks frozen. At first. And then something extraordinary had happened. There are many versions of the event but they all agree that somehow in that moment of tremendous anguish and pain, humanity had connected. At some combined cosmic and primitive level, the energy across the square had come together and found a harmony of purpose.

There was an almost communal climax of wretchedness and despair as one and all, the people had screamed and bellowed and wailed until there was not one unbruised throat left in the square. Arfaana had walked into the Capitol building then, her eyes wet and blazing at the same time; propelled onwards by a force of over five thousand strong. There she had spoken to silent, awestruck law makers and executors of the Republic. They had listened when she had called for the laying down of all arms; of creating a colourblind society; of sharing the world’s resources with all; of de-weaponizing the world. They had heard her speak of a new community, built on the vestiges of humanity that still remained in their current world. They say, Arfaana, the first Wise One, had summarily robbed them of their will that day. She had bent their minds to her way. Everything had changed after that. In a bizarre balancing act following The Fall that was marked with such colossal swells of angst and pain, the societal shift had happened quickly, almost mechanically.

T + 10 years

December 24th, 2032

Arfaana sat in the Discourse Room in Serenity Dome 1, in Washington. These safe havens had mushroomed after The Fall and now mainly housed within their impregnable, tranquil cores, the women of the planet. She had just had news that the two thousandth dome had been erected, this one in Lahore Pakistan. She had called her contemporary in South Asia to congratulate her on the milestone. The fissure in the Subcontinental patriarchal structures had been one of the hardest to make. But when the women had risen, the change again had been swift and mechanical. Hotels and guest houses had been converted to makeshift shelters for women across the subcontinental land mass. Ultimately, heritage buildings had been commandeered and lovingly converted into the very first Serenity Domes. There the female collective had regrouped and reformed their communities, one troublesome, caustic law at a time. It had taken the better part of the last decade to purge the South Asian society of its ingrained psyche of male privilege. From the roti seller* at the tandoor* to the testosterone driven CEO in his boardroom, they had all had to relearn the new ethos. There had been countless incarcerations as age old gender roles battled in the new environment. Many of the men had been “shifted” to shanty towns just outside city limits. These meandering, heaving masses of corrugated iron roofs, scrap material and sheets of plastic had burgeoned and blustered for years with the full might of the patriarchy.

In the sixth year of The Fall, the slum population had evened out and by the eighth year, it was finally in decline. Mindsets had been changed; the new norms had been learnt one bitter lesson at a time. There were still the odd ragtag bands of ex-society men who had refused to assimilate and who still blew off steam by plastering city squares with old world propaganda. The Wise Ones took a largely tolerant view of these muscle flexing shenanigans, letting the idiots tell their now obsolete “tales full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”(1). The adage adapted from old world literature had become their mainstream maternal approach. Indeed, the Wise Ones made every effort towards non-violence. They knew that their primary focus needed to be the new generation of men and women across the globe. They would be brought up with new codes of morality, community and awareness. They would be the ultimately balanced beings – both genders at ease with their masculine and their feminine sides.

By the fifth year, another epic milestone was achieved – planet-wide nuclear disarmament. By the eighth year of The Fall, global military spending had been reduced to less than 0.3% of world GDP. The planet was recovering in big and small ways as fossil fuels were steadily replaced with alternative forms of energy. By the end of a decade of the event, as resources were redistributed, lifestyles across the globe had become more or less consistent – typified by the western middle class before The Fall.

It had been a momentous journey of the mind, the heart and the will, thought Arfaana as she emerged from her musing. The women had finally triumphed! This last thought crossed her mind with almost academic stridency, repeated as it had been at so many pivotal moments in the last ten years. She paused, just for a moment. The slightest of pauses for a twinkling of a moment. And yet, in that tiny instance something had taken fledgling root. An awareness of imbalance; a new kind of an imbalance. Earth was transforming into the proverbial Venus. Hidden in that romantic confluence were dark shadows, whispering their own doomsday songs. Songs of a new, belligerent, unsound matriarchy.

Arfaana blinked, willing away the disturbing thoughts that were now crowding at the very edges of her mind. She knew these unsummoned visitors would bide their time, until they had gathered in their vastness aided by that formidable Truth teller, her Intuition. Arfaana rallied. They, the women had changed the world, one rotting, crumbling societal edifice at a time. They were saving the very humanity of human beings. They were building back compassion, harmony, cooperation and culture into their societies. They were building back better(2) … the hackneyed phrase from old world politics came stomping in, marching alongside her bolstering, purposeful train of thought. The hypocrisy, the bigotry and the irony that accompanied the catchphrase also came sashaying in, looking into her soul with their smug little faces. Venus Rising indeed! they seemed to say.

Arfaana picked up her com-set to call her Planning Manager. She wanted to make a change in the Earth and Science curriculum – the historical, mythical, science fictional allusions to Venus as anything but the second planet from the AM Star were to be omitted. There was still too much counter-matriarchal ammunition out there for the nay-sayers and the satire writers; their reformed world structure was still too new for such erratic emotionalism. The “Sun”, now called the AM Star had ceased to be called by its old name because of its masculine phonetics and the psycho-circularity of the word: Sun = Son = Sun. Venus too would be relegated to its astrophysical purity without the dubious romanticism given to it by old world patriarchy. One of the Wise Ones had said something about Earth too … even “earth” had begun to sound mannish.

They would have to revisit academic curricula around the world, review the very semantics of language itself, to purge it of its inherent masculinity.

Arfaana took a sip of her steaming mug of tea. She sat up and gazed into the distance, her determination strong and unwavering. Even if their new collective ethos was somewhat imperfect; even if their matriarchal restructuring sometimes seemed like barely cloaked knee jerk reactions to their gender-biased past, it was now the women’s turn.

* Roti-seller: Seller of Indian/ Pakistani flat bread.

* Tandoor: Also known as tannour it is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking. The tandoor is something of a transitional form between a makeshift earth oven and the horizontal-plane masonry oven.

(1): Quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

(2): The Build Back Better Plan was a legislative framework proposed by the 46th U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of his inauguration

VERSE | STRANGE-HEARTED

It’s Strange
How some people call all the shots
For you and me; on what’s right and what’s not
On how we should all live our lives
On what we should want to grow and to thrive.
And we follow them like so many mice
The Pied Piper surely leaves us no choice

It’s Strange
How some nations are on top of their game
And others continually parry insults and blame
Some swirl around in their blood, sweat and tears
While others race on winds of good cheer
And yet we stand by like so many sheep
The First World Dream will not let us be

It’s Strange
How the spirit of our humanity
Has gone into permanent servitude
For the battle of egos of the few
Losing our grip on what’s right and true
And we circle around like so many moths
Burning our wings in the flames of their wrath

It’s Strange
How hard it has become of late
To step out of the comfort of the bell curve
Created to kill off the being that’s you
Teaching you how you must hate and love
And we fight on like so many soldiers sore
Thinking one more battle will win us the war

It’s Strange
Even as I write these lines
A question skips on the edge of my mind
No, there are two for misery loves company
Who’ll tell me the answers that I seek to find -
When did the glow inside you cease to exist?
When did Instinct and Courage let go of my wrists?

VERSE | PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

“What is your name my dear
Where do you come from?”
(IN HER MIND)
I like the basic look of you
But what place do you call home?

I look at her expectant face
It’s so brimful of hope
I wonder if I should in fact
Play to her embedded tropes

I smile a little smile and then
I look her in the eye
“I’m from _____, my friend”.
I see her excitement wilt and die

She rallies as best she can
She goes to a lot of trouble
But I’ve put a big fat pin into
Her socio-cultural bubble

Her smile, it slowly wanes and then
It falters to a grim
Look of being unsure, like she’s
Invited the enemy in

I look into her eyes and see
Hesitancy, disappointment
I smile a bigger smile now
To appease, to be an ointment

A chance I give to those who seem
Caught in a state of flux
Their hearts and minds, in a grind
That confusion surely sucks!

But She doesn’t warm up to me
Her face is now quite set
The name and the person
Are no longer relevant

(IN HER MIND)
You’ve told me where you come from
That’s enough for me, thank you.
My steadfast biases have
Second-guessed the rest of you.

VERSE | THE QUINTESSENTIAL SINNER

She gets out of the car, adjusting her shalwar 
The legs one mustn’t behold, out of their fabric strongholds
The ankles though, for a moment show
Their shameful curvature.

It can’t be helped you see, we are bipedal beings
But we can’t see the nuances of practical biology
When blinded by the nobility of our formidable patriarchy,
And cloaked in out great
Fervour of faith.

And so she bends just a little to adjust the errant drape
And while she endeavours, to hold together
Her blessed modesty
Some man out there, finds her morality in disrepair
What is she bending for, like a dirty, depraved w****!

And the floods of moral outrage at this corrupt spectacle
In their godly country, cause a debacle
Every man takes it upon himself to deface this hideousness
He then looks to his companions, all now chomping at their bits

They rush upon this evil scene, of the wicked and immoral queen
For a queen she is, from head to toe.
Evil, wicked, shameful though!
She makes their blood gush in great floods
Testosterone-filled, Squelching like mud
She makes their heads swim in strange ways
Where she is master and they are slaves.

God does not permit, such sacrilege
Where genders abandon their rightful places
Men are meant to lead them forth
Moral compasses pointing true north
Held aloft by everything, a woman does, from breathing in
To the way she walks in crowded streets:
Ankles hidden, inconspicuous feet.

And that is why an errant sister in faith
(A woman who is alone and out and about!)
Reeking of impudence in her unveiled state
(Putting her entire morality in doubt!)
May naturally be seen by her brothers devout
As a wanton woman standing at hell’s gates.

SHORT STORY | MOHABBAT MEIN TWIST* – Part One

(I)

Aliya opened one bleary eye to glance at the clock on her bedside table. It was just past 6 O’ clock. She felt a familiar quickening of her pulse as she thought of the day ahead, the obstacles to be surmounted. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. There was nothing on the agenda today, stress free as it was in the aftermath of her masters exams. Her anxious nature still had to catch up to the fact as she stilled her agitated heart. She turned on her side, away from the window and the blitheful rays of sunshine that glanced cheerily off her desk that lay in the corner of the room. She’d sleep in today she thought, catching at the fading strings of dawn time dreams. Soon, she was back in the familiar collage of her recurring dream visions: she was falling off some place – the catapulting surface was always different – and she always experienced the same great fright, and she always just about missed the concrete or the jungle floor or the carpeted surface below as her foggy saviour came to her rescue. His … her … (another conundrum) face was never clear, remaining obscured by the ephemeral mists of her dreams.

She finally arose at 11 O’ clock when her mother came into her room armed with clean laundry and the loud efficiency of having been at the helm of the domestic wheel for the last four hours. She felt groggy and tired even after her ten hours of sleep. She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her double chin was looking more pendulous than ever she thought. She clutched at the rolls on her stomach, feeling for the insidious deposit of more weight. She had been good about her meals this past month and had not given in to any stress eating even though she had been in the throes of her exams. Her nails had taken the brunt of that deprival as they now sat like ravaged half moons in their nail beds. She looked at the weighing scale lying right opposite the WC, its meticulous placement a tribute to her weight loss earnestness. She decided today was not a day for unpleasant metric system surprises and pointedly ignored it through the course of her morning ablutions.

‘Hello late latif*’, her father called out to her cheerfully as Aliya walked into the lounge. She smiled. Her father, Mian Muneer, could brighten most of her days, afflicted as they were with her mother’s constant anguished refrains for her to lose “at least ten kgs!” and her own unremitting anxiety about her weight, and everything else too. In all that maternal censure and self deprecation, he was like a breath of fresh air. Never remarking about her weight, let’s be honest she thought, her bulk. Never making her cringe at the sight of her reflection or at the sight of food even when her stomach was rumbling from protracted deprivation. He loved her just as she was, her beloved father.

‘Good morning Baba*’, Aliya responded with a kiss on his cheek.

‘Aloo*, there are parathas* for brekkie, come get them!’ came a jaunty call from the dining room. She walked towards the voice (dubiously) and towards its announcement of gastronomic delights (zealously), her stomach rumbling with hunger – was it hunger or comfort-seeking she thought fleetingly. For the former came with relatively guilt free appeasement while the latter needed to be worked through mentally and emotionally and if all went well, was rebutted, ignored, nipped in the gut. She accepted also, that despite all the diligent evaluation, she had never been very good at distinguishing between the two, as hunger loomed large on most food horizons.

Saira was sitting at the head of the table looking, even at that early hour of the day (for she too had woken up only after 10) fresh, dewy and gorgeous. This was her twin sister, the sum total of her antithesis. Aliya helped herself to three parathas and an omelette. She could feel her sister’s eyes on her; she was going to say something, she always did … irksome at best and hurtful at worst.

‘Go easy sis, that’s a thousand calories right there’ Saira released the expected verbal arrow as she put a condensed milk laden piece into her own mouth.

Aliya gave a wry smile as she loaded her parathas with condensed milk and cream.

‘Aliya, what are you doing?’ came the accusatory voice from behind her. Their mother had come in and was discharging her duty as the maternal voice of reason and outrage.

‘Having breakfast Amma’, Aliya responded doggedly. Damned if she was going to be denied the first meal of the day, twelve hours after her last one too, in all its life (and courage fostering!) fulfilment.

Her mother gave an exasperated sigh and walked out. Saira sniggered. It was just another day at 14-Z in DHA, Lahore.

(II)

Aliya had dug into her breakfast as she dug in her heels every so often when she felt the world closing in on her; Judging her, railing at her, accusing her. She had ended up having four and a half parathas. She stood looking into her wardrobe, eating herself up inside now, for her breakfast time excess; cursing her food induced and reduced anxiety. No, food didn’t induce her anxiety (except in her apocalyptic fantasies when the world was overrun by zombies and all kinds of human nutrition was scarce); it was her panacea in fact, for the maddening world around her. She sighed deeply, chose a grey baggy shirt and black track pants. She was in the mood to merge with her dreary thoughts today. She was meeting her best friend and neighbour, Saqib in a little while. He was going to help her fill in the forms for the Masters in Sociology course at Uppsala university in Sweden.

Saqib Mir was the only child of his parents, the apple of their eye, the next progenitor of their eminent lineage and the scion of the family business. Marring this perfection was a somewhat unsymmetrical gait as he was also crippled by childhood polio. The whys and wherefores of how he had contracted the disease are foggy; rife with rumour and speculation until about decade or so ago, the direful hypotheses were now obscured by an acceptance born of familiarity. For those who had known him forever, it had become like a little smudge on a Sadequain* painting that has with time, blurred into oblivion. For those meeting him for the first time, while there were no origin-theories being bandied about anymore, there was almost always that self conscious nonchalance of trying not to notice the obvious. Saqib felt both, a sense of quiet amusement and compassion for this denominator knowing the mental exhaustion their involuntary Secret Spy syndrome was bestowing on them. Humanity, even amidst the deficiencies of the developing world, has largely got used to polio free perfection; a certain basic physical congruity is a sacred expectation especially among the upper crusts of society. Saqib then was the paradoxical element that jarred the sensibilities of the well heeled more than it did that of his favourite chai wallah’s or fruit wallah’s. They acknowledged his disfigurement in a practical, unselfconscious way. He was crippled and so what? He couldn’t run but he could still walk and get about unaided. Saqib was well liked in the more modest social circles too.

The Mians and the Mirs had been neighbours for fifteen years and Aliya and Saqib had become kindred souls for each other, afflicted as they both were with their respective vulnerabilities.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/29/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/31/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-three/

* Mohabbat Mein Twist: “A twist in the Love story”. “Mohabbat” means “Love” in Urdu.

* Late Latif: In Urdu, a fond colloquialism for a tardy person

* Baba: In Urdu, a term used to denote an old man and also used for father.

* Aloo: Aliya’s nickname. Also meaning “potato” in Urdu.

* Paratha: A flatbread native to the Indian subcontinent, where wheat is the traditional staple. Paratha is an amalgamation of the words parat and atta, which literally means layers of cooked dough.


* Sadequain: Renowned Pakistani artist known for his calligraphy and painting.

VERSE | LET ME BE ME

For all the girls, and the women young and old, who are made to feel less, inferior or impaired because they have dreams that are different to the ones dreamt up for them by others. May you find the strength and the passion to be you.

Why must I be what I don’t want to be?
Why must I change the state of my dreams?
Why must I cower in fear of my world?
Why must the story of my life stay untold?

Why must I hide myself away?
Why must I look behind me always?
Why must there always be danger to me?
To my spirit, my soul, my mind, my body?

Why can I not laugh out loud when I want?
Why must I hide all my joy in my heart?
Why can’t I turn my face to the sun?
Why must I hide in the shadows you’ve spun?

Why must I bear the ball and chain of my roots?
Why must I remain invisible and mute?
Why was I born if not to revel
In life’s ever cresting and falling swell?

I’m a child of this world, let me roam free
Let me think, let me speak, let me be me
I’m a creature of this earth, I belong everywhere
Let me spread my wings, let me lay my heart bare

Let me be, let me be, just what I want to be
Let me dream, let me dream, what I want to dream
Let me walk in this world unafraid and kind
Let my life tell the story of my heart and my mind.

VERSE | ANOTHER TIK IN THE WALL – Part Two

A tribute to all the young women who are constantly attempting to be bigger than the patriarchal shadows cast upon them. (This is in specific response to the most recent mauling by hundreds of men, of a girl who was making a video on Independence Day at Minar-e-Pakistan – a monument ironically, symbolising freedom and self determination).

There was once an average girl
Average I use to disclaim
That she was your happy gal next door
Not your wild and sassy dame

Not that there’s much wrong with that
It’s for those who tend to decry
The women greater than their veil
Behind which they ought to hide

Hide away from prying eyes
Hide away from sin
Hide their bodies, hands and feet
Hide their existence

The Sin that marches all about
Ready to be employed
In the lawless caveman hands
Of any man or boy

She decided she was bigger than
The shadows that cloaked her being
She was going to live her life
She would do so many things

She already had a fan base
She was a minor TikTok star
She would post quirky things
Of her adventures near and far

And so it was on Freedom Day
Full of patriotic zeal
That she went to the Minar*
To capture the national feel

And there is when it happened
The Sin awaiting its Amen
Was pulled to its fruition
By hundreds of stir-crazed men

Mauled and savaged was that girl
Because she had essayed
To be more than the sum of her
Shadows and opaque veils

And that’s the ominous legacy
Our nation tends to bestow
On any woman who attempts
To spread her wings, to grow.

There was once an average girl
She’s as average as she seems
In the Rank and file of nameless girls
Who’s dreams have been “washed clean”
* Minar: Means “Tower” in Urdu. Here it refers to Minar-e-Pakistan

Read Part One here:
https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/15/tiktok/

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