SHORT STORY|A TWILIGHT IN TAPROBANA

Some background to this piece is essential I feel, to give it that bit of relatable relevance. Felicia’s character is based on an old family friend in Sri Lanka who is as lovely as she is absolutely, delightfully eccentric. Donald Rajapakse is a more sinister inspiration, based on the character of a man whom i know nothing of but who has been in my coffee shop writing space for the last 6 months – loud, obnoxious and a bit of a hassler. (I had to have the cafe management intervene to have him back off). Ruwani is a happy figment of my imagination, introduced to bring life and depth to the madcap machinations of my 2 main characters.

(I)

Felicia looked around her with the air of the resident matriarch, her gaze more acicular than that of a quality control inspector at a pharmaceutical manufactory. She noticed everything; from the brand of shoes on a toddler’s little feet to the caliber and concentration per square inch of a counterpart’s cosmetic applications. She sniffed delicately, her scan of the Cinnamon Grand lobby complete, and picked up her mug of double chocolate drizzled mochaccino.

She turned to Ruwani, her friend of 60 years and a bulwark of a woman in bearing and bulk.

“I’ve had a new salwar* stitched for the next meeting of the International Ladies’ Club. It’s from Pakistan. That Shihani thought she looked like a beauty queen with her Janpath market purchase. Did you see the cheap gold lace on her shawl?” She rolled her eyes as she spoke disparagingly of her social arch-nemesis.

Ruwani laughed her high tinkling laugh, delicately belying her ponderous mien. Her eyes twinkled as she said, “imitation is the purest form of flattery darling. She’s always looked up to you as her role model”. She laughed again at the mental image of Shihani looking up to Felicia as a role model of any sort. The two women could barely coexist in a social environment, and when they did somehow manage to come within six feet of each other, there was almost always a thrilling finale to the affair. The stuff of Page 3 high adventure.

Felicia frowned and took a slurpy swig of her saccharinus coffee, letting the heady brew course through her body, giving her the mental vigor to “drop it for now”. She had recently been diagnosed as a prediabetic and on the behest of her Ayurveda* guru, she had begun meditating to “will away the extra sugar” as she called it. She had also realised more recently that her willpower increased dramatically when her blood was fortified with caffeine or spirits. Still, she gave a last withering look to Ruwani before allowing the sugary caffeine to whisk away the wisecrack into some not so obscure recesses of her mind; the memory to be retrieved later, brazen and embellished, when she needed stirring reinforcements of lividity in the wake of an especially karmic day.

Ruwani watched Felicia’s face as expressions of resentment, detachment, reanimation and a final ferocity played out in the fond encore of an oft repeated act. Despite the bluff and bluster, Felicia was a good sort. The kind that needed copious scratching of the surface before any glimmers of goodness shone through though; a diamond in the consummate rough. Felicia Pelpola and Ruwani Edirisinghe had been friends for 50 years now and had had their fair share of fall-outs and run-ins. But time and grace (mostly on Ruwani’s side) had brought a bristly tenderness to their equation and their friendship had triumphantly weathered multitudinous storms in teacups and the occasional tsunami.

Felicia had, in her heydays, been quite the social starlet. She was the debutante that had changed the norms of the party circuit with her boisterous manner and her delicate anatomy. Her demeanour and her countenance were at such odds with each other that the resulting befuddlement of the senses became her piece de resistance. She provoked a serendipiptius sensation of attraction and discomfuture that pulled at all the male heart strings and incensed, in equal measure, the traditional ladies of leisure. Ruwani looked at her now robustly girthed friend and chuckled. Time had diminished her beauty yes, but had also compensated her unsparingly with a persona that strode into most rooms before her person did. She was absolutely, delightfully formidable!

“Oh look who’s here!” Ruwani, still grinning, looked towards where her friend was gesturing. Donald Rajapakse had just walked in, behatted and bellicose, loudly berating someone on his way into the coffee shop.

“Donnie! Donnie! Aney!* He’s getting deaf as a door nail!” crowed Felicia.

“DONNIE!”

There was startled hush in the cafe which neither Felicia nor Donald noticed as the one shrieked back a “Hellooo!” and the other cackled in what was meant to be a guileful titter. Donnie came towards them, swaying from side to side in his quintessential rheumatic lurch.

“Hello my beauties! How are my favourite ladies?”

Felicia smiled affectedly and in the high pitched, adenoidal voice reserved only for eligible men and her hair dresser, she quipped, “We are fiiiine! Having cappuccino. You want? Come sit aney!”

Donnie sat in the chair that afforded him the best view of his surroundings and looked around. Felicia continued to smile like a loon and shifted her bulk at a precipitous right angle towards Donnie’s chair, her hand delicately supporting her chin. But Donnie was already distracted by a solitary woman sitting two tables away, engrossed in a book. He stared hard, only half hearing what Felicia was chirping into his ear. When his hypnotic stare didn’t get the creature to look his way, he devolved in his trademark manner into Neanderthal mode and then there was a bustle and a frenzy as he guffawed, bellowed and produced all manner of primitive-man noises to hassle the object of his current coffee shop infatuation into acknowledging his presence. She did finally, by calling for the bill, casting a disdainful look towards the voluble, senior party of three and sauntering out into the sunshine. Donnie was woebegone as his buoyant hat came off and he sat there with an inadvertent twinkle on his bald head. But not for long; you can’t keep a socially catastrophic but tirelessly optimistic man down for long. And so the next couple of hours were spent sipping coffee and annihilating plates of mutton pies and smoked salmon wraps over boisterous conversation.

At 3pm, Donnie left the group to join another party at the 70s Club. Felicia took back command of her person and her surroundings and the next thirty minutes were spent in a focused wardrobe and character breakdown of the other coffee shop patrons. All in all, it had been a charming afternoon!

(II)

On the way home, both women were thoughtful mostly because of the stupor of all the food consumed and partly because of the waning day…. Life. Ruwani glanced at her friend who had leaned her head against the seat and closed her eyes, blocking out the world perhaps, after spending an afternoon in its fervid embrace. Ruwani looked outside her window. They had stopped at a traffic light. A young man on a motorbike was arguing with his female pillion as she pushed away from him clutching a Beverly Street bag to her chest. A snot-nosed boy ran across the road with a dripping ice cream cone in his hand, following a hassled mother. A tuk tuk driver looked at his phone in distressed anticipation while glancing every so often at the red traffic light. The only quietude in the scene outside surrounded a duo of mynahs promenading along the sidewalk in perfect creature harmony.

(III)

Back home and post a shower, Felicia sat at her dressing table looking at her reflection. She brushed her hair slowly, the once lustrous strands now feeling meagre and inadequate in her grasp. She looked at the lines in her face; each had become a more avid companion as the years had gone by. She looked away and out of her bedroom window. In the waning twilight she saw a pair of mynahs, frolicsome and songful, performing a last little dance before being blanketed by the stillness of the night.

*Salwar: local colloquialism for the Shalwar Kameez, the long shirt and loose pants indigenous to the northern subcontinent

*Ayurveda: An alternative medicine system with historical roots in the Indian subcontinent. 

*Aney: a colloquial Singhalese expression meant to show mild irritation/ concern.

SHORT STORY| SOILENT GREEN* – Part 1

COLOMBO; SRI LANKA:

September 21st, 2021; 10pm:

I breathed in deeply. I had to reduce my heart rate, get rid of all the disquieting thoughts ricocheting in my head and get my Calm back. I closed my eyes and focused on my chakras….each one visible, glowing, holding me safe….

There was a loud clamour from somewhere in the sprawling Sleeping area. I heard it but I ignored it. I kept my eyes closed and concentrated. Ten minutes later, I lay down and fled, thankfully, into a dreamless sleep.

September 29th, 2021; 8am:

I ate the bread and butter ravenously. Hungry as I’d been, I had skipped last night’s dinner of rice and fish curry. There was still enough food around to enable me to maintain the urban quirks of my palate. That meant no seafood and no pork; not even curries spiced with fish paste. I had been primarily subsisting on carbohydrates and sugar for the past 3 weeks.

We were almost into week 4 of The Turning as it had begun to be called; the Purge as i believed it was. That word; that thought for the ‘greater good’ helped me reason and compartmentalise the entire happening into serene, halcyon boxes in my mind even if it was for short periods of time. It helped me step back into the macrocosm of our very existence and to relieve to some extent, the enormity of our collective helplessness and anguish. And that was important to remain …. normal.

I got up to do the first of my 4 times daily, 20 minute ‘Corridor Walk’. A throw-back to my normal days and one which I held onto with the tenacity of a bulldog.

It had begun very soon after the Covid-19 vaccine went global.

At first, there were unexplained disappearances; mostly of middle aged men and women in the cities. They went to work and simply never came back. Then there were inexplicable instances of whole new patches of vibrant vegetation coming up in the meticulously preserved pristine spaces in and around concrete structures: A shrub appearing overnight, rising from a craggy cleft in the footpath where the earth sat between two imperfect flagstones; a vibrant, young bougainvillea suddenly sharing a fastidiously tamed flowerbed alongside its longtime botanical residents; groves of young Mara/ Rain trees appearing overnight parallel to the railways tracks creating a cool, shadowy pall over the carriages that still chugged back and forth carrying their human burdens.

Then there was the first sighting.

A woman walking along the Galle road had wrapped her arms around one of the Araliya* trees on the walkway and had simply… “melted”. She had disappeared; just ceased to exist anymore – like in a scene out of a real-life time travel thriller. And in the middle of that still tropical afternoon, the leaves on the tree had visibly rustled, almost like a joyous little victory dance after imbibing new life into its ancient architecture. Someone had got the episode on video….mid-disappearance.

It had gone viral with 30 billion views in 3 weeks.

It had also struck horror in the hearts of men.

First, there were slews of wild conjectures ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous; followed by extraterrestrial conspiracy theories; giving way finally to ceaseless terrified anticipation – who was next?

In the rush to get back to ‘normal’ post the Covid 19 outbreak, and under the dubious auspices of the current world leadership, the vaccine had been churned out in record time. But there was something not quite right with the Ac19-nCoV vaccine. It was causing a gross genetic mutation in at least one out of every 3 people who had it. It was metamorphosing them into Green Carbon; devolving complex human biological structures into the simpler compounds that we collectively called Mother Nature. It was terrifying; it was shocking; it was bizarre and it had led to the Great Chain of Being upending itself – Nature was God was Nature. And this Neo-vegetation grew thick around concrete structures, obliterating almost overnight, the greatest industrial revolution triumphs of man.

No Man is an Island.

People realised quite early on that their chances of survival multiplied manifold if they banded together in large numbers as close to the ground as possible. High rise buildings were abandoned, and the built-up ground floor areas were turned into mass shelters.

Endurance was easier in the city than in the thriving green environs of the suburbs. This allowed the Saw and Machete battles against the ever-advancing fury of Nature to be fought with some degree of success. For now.

Our group is tenanted at the local 5 star hotel, for a price. We still have the rare luxury of venturing out into the sunshine. Into the “great outdoors” – (what a morbid oddity that now sounds like!) – where a thick canopy of rustling leaves has not yet taken over every inch of the earth and the sky; always growing, always advancing, always darkening, before ultimately enfolding everything in its suffocating, chlorophyllic embrace.

I walk around the perimeter of our lobby-shelter, completing one 360 degree perambulation in a minute. Twenty such laps undertaken to think… think… make some sense of it all. To wrap my head around yet another new post pandemic Reality…. Ultimatum… Finality. To learn to accept….to ACCEPT. To rationalise and accept.

T + 28 Days Later

I hear the alarm go off. It is my turn to help clear the new vegetation outside. I pick up the machete (it’s a handy, lightweight version that I have become quite proficient at using) and go outside. I look at the luscious palm that has come up in the corner overnight – probably a hapless Covid-Vaxer* who had fled the suburban wilds and been vanquished instead by the insidious city-slicking verdancy. I have this strange urge to wrap my arms around it; to take a deep breath at last; to close my eyes and let what will be, just be….

I take up my machete and hit the stem once, twice, three times, until the sap oozes out thickly, flowing to the ground, feeding the greenness of the earth. I bring my foot down as hard as i can on the spot…the grass flattens momentarily and then bounces up defiantly. I choke back a sob as fury mixes with the hopelessness of it all.

The palm yields on the 5th stroke of my machete and falls to the ground.

It is not over yet.

De Khudai pe aman

*Soilent Green title inspiration from a 1973 American ecological dystopian thriller – “Soylent Green”, starring Charlton Heston.

*Araliya tree: the local name for the Plumeria or Frangipani.

*Covid Vaxer: Any of the 3 billion people who were administered the Covid 19 vaccination

Read SOILENT GREEN – Part 2 here: FICTION|SOILANT GREEN* – Part 2

POLITICAL FARCE|Gone With the ‘Tind’*

The “Brown Sahib” Aspirations of the 45th POTUS

Until very recently, i thought that the Brown Sahib* state of mind was the social cross borne by certain privileged demographics of the previously colonised and the enslaved. After 500 years of seeing the White Man do his thing, while ruling and owning large swathes of humanity, even the most tenaciously dogmatic among the brown and the black populations learnt to emulate their white coercers to survive, and in fact thrive. Over the ages, this brand of social exposure to both, the colonially enforced ways of the West and the doggedly defiant cultural elements of the East produced a quite unique post colonial urbanity, exclusive to the 1.5 billion indigenous people of the Indian subcontinent.

But turns out, mindsets are fickle things in our current bizarre, beleaguered world. The character and cultural traits that have been the sole tokens of the Brown Man for the past few hundred years, are now raising their sun-kissed heads in the pale white hearts of the colonists and the enslavers. Or at least one. And so, we bear bemused witness to an almost karmically apologetic social course correction, as the 45th POTUS (once the most powerful man on earth – makes the mind reel!) decided to make unwitting amends for his colonial predecessors, through personal example.

The Foreign Bahu*: If you’re a progressive and privileged brown person, you’ll do your Western Hemisphere stint and come back home, armed with not only a foreign degree but possibly a foreign wife too (Caucasian of course). Mixed race children, we believe, are known to better the family prospects in an ethnically and racially divided world. And so, if we give him the benefit of the doubt, the 45th POTUS married an Eastern European woman to even out the playing field for the rest of the world to aspire to greatness by association. And if we go with just our good old gut instinct on this POTUS, because eastern exoticism is a thing.

Misogynistic Ambitions: If you’re a Brown Man anywhere, you’ve been raised to believe that you’re the centre of everyone’s world, especially all the women that wittingly and unwittingly occupy your universe. The gruellingly paternalistic environment (from archaic Panchayat* codes to the gender despotism inherent in the Hudood Ordinance*) has been carefully maintained to consistently fuel that ego. And so, marvelling at the subcontinental man for knowing and showing what a tremendously huge gift from God he is, the 45th POTUS has frequently and passionately tried to “put women in their place”. From sexual misconduct to name calling, he continues to frenziedly negotiate his way through all his political and social interactions with the opposite gender.

Brown skin complex: 500 years of the White Man’s dominion has understandably wrought some social psychosis in its wake. One among them is the Brown man’s continued, thriving quest for white skin – literally. It may have started off as “if you can’t beat them, join them”, but over the ages, this ardour has taken on a life of its own. From the multibillion dollar fairness cream industry, to the “fair bahu*” syndrome, a laundry list of overt and covert skin colour stigmas has taken root and spread like gnarled old ivy over our social fabric. And so, the 45th POTUS, since he can’t get any paler, and deciding that racial irony is the best form of praise, has embodied a bullheaded brownness that is both unprecedented and scary. The resultant orangeness in fact, rivals a fiery tropical sunset during a duststorm.

Hirsute Motivations: We are a race that is (mostly!) endowed with and proud of an abundance of dark luxurious hair. So when we do experience a dearth in the follicular territory, we jump right on to the bandwagon of toupees, transplants and wigs. The resulting downiness ranges from the barely perceptible, all the way to the absurd and the ridiculous. And so the 45th POTUS has with all his heart, embraced the Brown Man’s tenacious hair love affair, and taken it into realms of comb-over inventiveness that no modern day tempest can rip asunder!

Despotic Tendencies: The urge and capacity to rule with an iron hand has traditionally been the way of the South, Central, Pacific and Middle Eastern blocs; with many countries having the dubious honour of martial law as state administration for more than half their independent existence. It is not so great a secret and opinion, that the Eastern and Southern hemispheres just do better with a hybrid democracy/ autocracy approach. And so the 45th POTUS, in his most outstanding tribute to the Brown and Black Man yet, established a unique First World dictatorship that set new global despotic standards. Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and even Kim Jong-un seem lumbering and lethargic in the wake of the autocratic inclinations and machinations of the Trumpian zeal.

To the (predominantly white) American populace at large we say a big Thank you for this peculiar apology in the shape of Donald J. Trump, for all the centuries of Black and Brown skinned subjugation. For providing so much comic relief when the world needed it most. For mortally endangering your nationhood and your political and economic progress built over hundreds of years. For racing, like sporting martyrs, to relinquish your identity as the leaders of the Free World.

But even we, the historically conquered and crushed, feel it’s a bit much. So please feel free to abandon any more such zealous, self defeating presidential level attempts at reparation. We will be happy with anyone sane, reasonable, half way eloquent and racially colour blind. Scratch the last; even the most delusional of us know that’s a big ask.

De Khudai pe aman.

*Brown Sahib: a colloquialism meaning brown master in the nature of his white predecessor. Now used farcically to define people from the subcontinent who behave like white people trapped in brown bodies.

*A wordplay on the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell, set amidst the American civil war and reconstruction period, entitled “Gone with the Wind”. (Screen-adapted in 1939).

*Tind: Punjabi/ Urdu colloquialism for ‘noggin’ or head or baldness.

*Bahu: Urdu/ Hindi for Bride.

*Panchayat: A village council of elders

*Hudood Ordinance: Gender-biased laws enacted in Pakistan in 1979 by the military ruler, General Zia ul Haq as part of an overall Islamization process. This was done, with American support as a part of a larger focused Islamic militarisation strategy to help fight the USA’s proxy war against Russia.

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 5)

A slate grey Mercedes S-class stopped at the traffic light near Kalma Chowk*. Its single occupant engaged in meditative contemplation, seemed unaware of the myriad admiring, envious and studiedly indifferent glances directed towards his carriage. At that moment, Saif too was thinking of how like Cinder-fella* he felt, enroute to the reception of his lady love in his modern day coach; this time, the Prince was going to be on social display. He looked at himself briefly in the rear view mirror and brushed back an invisible strand of hair. He was nervous… Saif was actually feeling those “monarchs* dancing in his gut” like his best friend and customary partner in crime, Zainab liked saying every time a new paramour sauntered into her life. They both knew it was more for the drama of it all, than any actual feeling of apprehension or distress. Together, they had triumphed over many a glitzy evening and had walked away effortlessly with all those tacit, transcendental laurels of Class A social circuit-eers. The pair had been the talk of the town for five years before the bawdy coterie of the Lahore party scene accepted that this was indeed just a friendship that was not going to go into any tantalising realms of couple-hood.

Sabeen was immersed in her own thoughts while she luxuriated in a bubble bath, languidly, delicately caressing the foamy peaks like so many fledgling dreams. She was already thinking of how she was going to be dividing her time between the largely unglamorous, small-town venue of All Things Princely, and the urban lavishness of her beloved city, Lahore. Saif had said they’d build a house, a mansion in fact, in the city. But that meant more time away from her urban roots while their castle slowly came up out of the air. The thought made her quite decidedly claustrophobic. They would have to rent…she shuddered at the bourgeois ring to that word. It would be very discreetly done and to everyone that mattered, they would own the place. She thought ahead to their very first party which they would host as a couple; and generations of matriarchal planning, organising and embellishing skills kicked in as she flash-imagined the affair right down to the white carnations arranged elegantly around the house, and the special bergamot incense from Harrods wafting in fragrant wreaths amidst the gracious company. She smiled widely, held up her head regally and then in a coquettish moment of elation, lifted a shapely leg and an arm in a comical, semi-submerged arabesque.

“Shabana! Mairay kapray lay ao!”(1), Farzana said loudly, wrapped in a towel, head bobbing like a chicken’s outside her bedroom door, while she tried to catch a glimspse of the madly elusive girl.

Aur teen samosay bhi thal lo(2), she added with a cheery lilt in her voice. She needed her fried food euphoria as she navigated through the laborious but much adored exercise of getting dressed for the evening. She had a plan. She had invited Farrukh over to even out the group this evening. The vital fourth person to help break awkward silences and to more essentially, balance out the conversation if the love birds got too chatty among themselves. That too had happened with Sabeen’s sometimes bossy love interests, leaving the loquacious Farzana wondering where her tongue had got to. Farrukh, Farzana’s eternal suitor, was one of those not so rare individuals who was infinitely endowed with the power of speech but lacked woefully in the power of conversation. And sometimes, the ensuing gibberish was Farzana’s soul food as she happily spaced out, while the other targets of the verbal onslaught were themselves, stunned into stupefied silence.

She had decided to wear a pale pink, diamanté encrusted chiffon sari this evening. It was the very same one worn by her mother when she had first been introduced to Farzana’s father 60 years ago. The diamantés had sparkled, the pink had glowed, the voluminous beehive bouffant had held and within twenty minutes, the conquest was complete, so it was said. And thus the ensemble was subsequently, reverently recruited from time to time to wield the same age old coupling alchemy.

Sabeen walked in first, resplendent in a peach and cream silk outfit. She tossed her bag on the sofa and walked towards the kitchen.

Sabeen: “Fara jaan*, do you have an apple? I’m starving”

Farzana: “I have qeemay walay samosay yaar; woh khao”(3)

Sabeen: “Chalo lay ao (4). Ive been good this past fortnight”

Farrukh: “Hello! Hello Ladies! I’m here!”

Sabeen: “Oh hello Farrukh, we’re kind of busy tonight….”

Farrukh: “I know! What fun! I’m here to meet and greet Shahzada Gulfaam* too!”

Farzana: “I invited him Sabi; four is a lucky number. [In a whisper]: “He can get the Rasmalai* from the Club later”.

Saif: “Hello ladies…”

Sabeen: “Saif! We didn’t hear you come in…”

Saif: “I saw the front door open so I let myself in”. [Smiling at Farzana]: “I hope it’s ok”

Farzana: “Yes yes! Please come in. I’m Fara… Farzana. Sabeen’s best friend”

Saif: “Yes I’ve heard a lot”. [Still smiling]: “Charmed”

Farzana: “And this is our friend Farrukh ____”

Farrukh: “YOU! What the hell is he doing here?”

Sabeen: “You know each other….? What’s going on?”

Farrukh: “This is the ass**** who ran off with my sister twenty years ago. She was all of 17 years old, you sick bas***d!”

Farzana: “Hai!* Sidra eloped with him?!”

Sabeen: “Saif….”

Farrukh: “We had to give him 5 crores* to keep his mouth shut. Bloody swine…. I’ll bet you that car outside isn’t his either!”

Sabeen: “Saif… is this ….” [sitting down slowly] “is this true?”

Saif: “Sabeen… it was fifteen years ago. It was a crazy time….. ”

Sabeen: “But you’re the Nawab of Bahawalpur! You’re Royalty…”

Saif: “Yes! Yes….. I’m the Nawabzada’s nephew…..he’s my uncle…

Sabeen: Nephew?

Farzana: Uncle?

Farrukh: Royalty my foot! He’s some far off orphan cousin of the Nawabzada. Spent so much time in the royal household, he’s lost his head!

Saif: [chuckling sheepishly] “Still… the 25th in line to the takht*…”

Farrukh: “Babe, I’m off. Can’t handle this. Sabeen, bhagao is beghairat ko”(5)

Sabeen sat still, an odd calm enveloping her. She felt almost disembodied as she leaned back slowly and looked straight ahead through half closed lids. She noticed a gecko on the wall opposite with a strangely twisted tail…. it was in agile readiness to attack something she couldn’t quite see. Something else was happening too…. another twisted tale…. the details were hazy…. lurking somewhere on the periphery of her mind….

Farzana stuffed an entire samosa into her mouth as she gawped from Sabeen to Saif and back to Sabeen. She was in social scandal heaven as she absorbed every concrete and intangible detail with the tenacity of a widow spider. The indefatigable Gossip Chronicler was in prime form! This had turned out to be the best evening in a long, long time. With barely concealed delight, her face shining, she decided it was now up to her largesse yet again to salvage an awkward situation.

“Chalo*….it was a long time ago. And Sidra is married now. And you never know, in villages life expectancy is not that long; loag jaldi mar khap jaatay hain(6)….. who knows Sabi love, Saif could still become Prince!”

Bibi, chai….”(7), Tehseen the old family retainer hobbled in with the groaning tea trolley.

She gave Saif a myopically appreciative glance, and then grinning conspiratorially, toothlessly at Sabeen and Farzana, she crowed delightedly:

Hai! Kinna sonra munda ai!”(8)

* Monarch: a type of butterfly with yellow and black colouring

*Chowk: intersection

*Cinder-fella: the male version of Cinderella; also a 1960 Jerry Lewis film

(1): “Shabana! Bring me my clothes!”

(2): “And fry up 3 samosas too”. (a samosa is a fried or baked pastry with a savoury filling)

*Jaan: love

(3) “I have mince filled samosas; have those”

(4): “ok, get them”

*Shahzada Gulfaam: Urdu colloquialism for ‘Prince Charming’

*Rasmalai: a classic subcontinental festive dessert made with milk, sugar and saffron

*Hai!: an exclamation; in this case, of distress

*Takht: princely seat/ throne

*Crore: 10 million

(5): “throw this shameless scoundrel out of the house”

*Chalo: figuratively in Urdu, ‘come on, cheer up!’

(6): “people tend to die off sooner”

(7): “Madam, tea is served”

(8): In Punjabi, “Oh! What a handsome young man!”

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 4)

Sabeen was reflective. Her life was on the verge of a vital transformation; for the better, she fervently hoped. Because despite her single status, she still enjoyed the infatuation of her niche coterie of admirers: A couple of feudal landlords with American college degrees, and a few doctors who had had short but sprightly stints working in the western hemisphere before returning homewards; both sets of suitors armed thus, with not only a foreign specialization but also, in their minds, a marvelously rejuvenated world view. This meant that they now felt abundantly persuadable to breaking with the weighty bonds of age old tradition for the spousal company of a mature (but delectable!) woman who knew her mind. And Sabeen, in her archetypal off-hand way, reveled in all this motely adoration.

She was shrewd enough, however, to slide off her otherwise frequently-worn rose coloured glasses when ruminating on important life issues. And so she found herself thoughtfully weighing the singular glory of being Nawabzadi* Sabeen against the more mundane exorbitance of being another gilded begum* in yet another one of the elite Punjabi families. Despite the former fortuity weighing down the scales in majestic excess, the toss up was bothering her. She was familiar with the lifestyles of her privileged friends and indeed, she herself hailed from much the same lineage. That fact in itself guaranteed financial security, social status of the general-privileged variety, plenty of personal space and… Boredom. The titled position, on the other hand, was replete with exciting new promises of grandeur and glory. She’d be the only one amongst her friends and cousins who would have conquered this new social apex.

Yet…. there was something she wasn’t quite sure of; and the burnish of vestigial royalty had a bit of a tarnished quality to it too…. She shook her head decidedly, repelling all these unpropitious notions. She was in fact, expecting to blithely deflect these very same protestations from other quarters, stemming as they would be from both, envy and concern. She was going to be one of the entitled few who would be written about in history books as Subcontinental Royalty!

A slow smile spread across her face, reaching her eyes and making her skin glow delicately. In that moment, she looked quite majestically beautiful!

The evening at Farzana’s last week had been enjoyable, despite the somewhat bizarre ending. She’d had to sit Fara down and explain to her through succinct, gentle, repeated statements that she was going to be married soon. Farzana had taken it in slowly and had finally smiled. Although the wide wide smile was contrived, she also knew that it was Fara’s way of coping with the news. Of coming to terms with her banner of singledom now doing it’s solitary undulation in No Man’s Land; treaded only by the wearisome few that Farzana had already done her courtship dance with. But no matter, she was going to make sure Fara was a part of everything now – there had to be some universal meaning, some karmic context to why she’d felt so impelled to share her secret with Fara…. even if it was in a gluttonously benumbed state of mind.

And so, this evening there was to be another soiree at Farzana’s, for the pure benefit of introducing to her friend, Sahibzada Saif Muzammil Shah, Heir Apparent to the Royal Takht* of Bahawalpur, and also her paramour. He’d said he was in town for some work with his lawyer and was staying overnight; and that he would be delighted to spend the evening with the ladies.

Farzana sat on her bed, staring into space. Desultorily she picked up the mug of coffee set there by Shabana and took a tentative sip of the sweet, milky liquid. Farzana’s reunion with her absconding maid the day after Sabeen’s visit had been fiery, teary and then affectionate, in a dizzying sequence of emotions as their post-spat reconciliations tended to be. All was well with her domestic world. But something else had fallen apart….Farzana felt isolated and even betrayed. In the wake of this impending betrothal, her best friend, her partner in crime and her cherished arch nemesis who at the end of the day, like Farzana, had unwaveringly maintained the Ms. In her title, was reneging on their shared conundrum. But it had been a happy conundrum full of the heady highs of new love and the showy shenanigans of early courtship, as each tried to out-do the other. Now, she was going to be alone; and her past liaisons suddenly flitted before her like stark, monumental failures.

“Hai Allah! Ab kya karoon”(1) she sighed despondently.

It wasn’t fair. Sabi was not only getting married, she was going to be the Nawabzadi of Bahawalpur! And with acquiescing to host the reception this evening, she genuinely felt like a lamb leading itself to the slaughter. Her absolute selflessness, she thought, and thus her duty to her best friend was complete with this generosity of spirit. She sighed again, delicately, misplacedly, clutching the right side of her chest.

And so despite wishing Sabi the worst of luck and resenting her with every breath in her body, Farzana was convinced she had taken the high road with this show of solidarity with her best friend. Her feelings of martyrdom grew and she felt saintly and ethereal, much like Mother Mary in all those nativity scenes, she thought in momentary awe of the ensuing mental image.

Her thoughts then wandered as they tend to when the heart is caught in purgatorial limbo, and she frowned slightly. She suddenly felt an onrush of unkind thoughts: had it been any of Sabi’s other friends, they’d have picked her to pieces with jealousy. She, Farzana, was always the large hearted, gracious one in matters of the heart she thought with the dramatic flair of a celluloid saint. At some point, the genuine despair had blended with high drama and Farzana, even with all her accumulated affliction, was now feeling quite fortified to charm and conquer. Her intended conquests of the evening had hazy outlines but her very nature compelled her towards a social horizon where she would, at the very least, stand shoulder to shoulder with Sabeen again.

She looked at the old Champion clock on the wall; it was just past 3pm. She got up blinking brightly; she had to look her best. She walked towards her teeming wardrobe, its ancient depths waiting faithfully to bedeck her yet again in all their idiosyncratic glory.

Nawabzadi: princess or lady of a royal house/ lineage

Begum: matriarch of the house; a term used generally by the privileged classes in the subcontinent.

Royal Takht: Royal seat/ throne

(1) – “Oh God! What do I do now!”

De Khudai pe aman.

SHORT STORY|2020: A Cosmic Odyssey

AD 2020 – THE ENCOUNTER

“It was the winter of our global discontent as we looked to the only country we’d been conditioned to, for solutions to all our real and existential problems”. That was a recurring information echo in my head after our last Ripple Effect Round Table* (Re-Rt). There was some compelling information to be had; some momentous intervention to be made, in the early decades of the 21st century. So now that It was my turn to follow the Infinite Ripple, I chose to wormhole* to the 45th President of the United States of America, the most powerful man on the planet in Alternate Reality Earth 42:0.

I had done my regular Ripple Voyage* prep on him. He was usually done with his presidential duties such as they were by late afternoon, and the subsequent hours were spent increasingly in a mixture of bewilderment, resentment and fury. His emotional feedback through the Ripple Effect -Round Table (Re-Rt) had been wildly ricocheting, charged with intensity and disquietude. The last time I’d experienced these wildly inconsistent cognition waves, was in the Enhanced Virtual Reality version of Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey*. His primitive man had emanated this cacophony of jangling emotions. I had had vertigo for 2 days after that. But this rubric of primeval sensational commotion had been rinsed from the human psyche centuries ago. So this was an unexpected aberration. Serendipitous really, in the otherwise temperate oceans of evolution. I was ecstatic. I was quite ready to get under the skin of Donald J. Trump.

I had wanted to pick a discourse with him between 3 and 6pm on a Sunday afternoon. These days he was usually at the White House. In the wake of a microbial blight, the world had pretty much changed, and so had the president’s residential habits, albeit, rather more cantankerously: Mar-a-Lago* continued to be an off-hours preference.

Precise 5D positioning in wormhole antimatter is still an elusive art form. And so I found myself in President Trump’s bedchambers at 10.43pm on a Pandesday* – the planet was largely in the throes of pandemic pandemonium and specific days of the week bore only timorous significance.

He was in his red pyjamas and was leafing abstractedly through January’s Issue of People’s magazine. His hair was in a little cascade of a ponytail on the top of his head, showing sizeable swathes of delicate pink baldness on either side. A little wave of Perception Clearance* and I was comfortably ensconced in a wing chair while he glanced up just once to acknowledge my presence.

Experience Log no. 1100/ AR Earth-42:0/ 2020/ Donald J Trump/ POTUS/ President’s Bedroom, The WH

Me: “Hello Mr. President. I’m Maya* from AR Earth 3.14″.

D.Trump: “Yes hello. Have you seen this photo of Meryl Streep? She looks frumpy. And believe me, she’s not. I always debunk Fake News. She should call out these unclassy magazines that make her look like Rosie O’ Donnell”.

Me: “That’s an unbecoming statement Mr. President”.

D. Trump: “Never liked the woman. Never liked the look of her either”.

Me: “There’s a pandemic on the planet. It appears to be quite serious. There are 1,233,402 dead already”.

D.Trump: [looking vaguely interested] “Really? That many?”

[Then looking suspiciously] “You’re not from Fake News yourself are you?”

[Then almost petulantly] “They’ve always got their daggers drawn against me”

Me: “I’m from Earth 3.14 sir, like I told you. Earth 42:0 has been whispering discordantly of late. I’m here to listen. Listening has a very special ripple effect in our shared cosmos”.

D.Trump: “I’ll tell you something then. I ran for president because I was an entertainer, a showman. I got a kick out of it. And I got stuck with the ball that I’m supposed to hoop in all these weirdly incredible ways . I don’t even like basketball. I’m a baseball kind of guy myself. Not that I’ve seen anything new on that front recently either”.

Me: “You’re the President of the most powerful country on the planet now”.

D.Trump: “I didn’t really ask for it. But yes I am! These damned Republicans were like headless chickens. I just wanted to have a bit of fun, get the cheers, the love. And 6 months later, let Clinton’s wife do all the boring presidential stuff”.

Me: “You have an opportunity to make a difference in the USA and indeed the world”.

D.Trump: “I have been doing just that. Been meeting with princes, princesses, queens sheikhs and dictators”.

[A small chuckle at this point] “Should I tell you a secret? …. I love that Kim Jong-un. We call each other all the time to talk about what we’ve had for dinner. Taco bowls are his favourite! That boy likes good old American fast food. I’d have invited him to Mar-a-Lago for a nice vacation but those Fake News people won’t let me live it down”.

Me: “That does sound counter-intuitive politically, but quite congenial on the human front”.

D.Trump: “He’s the king of all he surveys! No fake news there! Gave me quite a scare when he went awol recently. I like the guy…. although he could do with a decent haircut….”.

Me: “Mr. President, the world is in a state of flux. There’s disease compounded by unsurity, fear and disharmony. You’re in the perfect position to lead the global charge here”.

D.Trump: “It’s those crazy Chinese. The morons let the Wuhan Virus loose upon all of us. I’m just bored with all this death, death, death! Believe me, sometimes I think they’re making up all these numbers just to make me look bad….. Anyway, Mike Pence is dealing with it”.

Me: “Sir, some empathy goes a long way. EQ* is so much richer than any IQ”.

D.Trump: “Who’s that? Is that another Arab sheikh? Those Middle Easterners have a lot of money, and do damn all. Got a couple of billion green backs off them though. I am a businessman and I’m incredibly good at what i do”.

Me: “It’s a precious inflection point in time Mr. President. What the world leaders do now will have ripple effects for centuries to come”.

D.Trump: “You don’t say! I had done a great job with the economy. We were winning so much, we were almost tired of winning. The China virus has blown it all. I feel like kicking SleepyCreepy Jo* and Pocahontas* in the knees right now. You know for letting-off-steam reasons. And also because I hate them”.

Me: “Choose the nobler path. Use your office, your position to bring the people of the world together once again to fight a common adversary”.

D.Trump: “Do I look like Saint Peter? It’s every country for itself. America first!”

Me: “Then it’s the beginning of the end”.

D.Trump: “It sure is. We’re the United States Corporation of America. Not a charity”.

Me: “You’re the epitome of what’s going wrong with humanity sir. And it’s odd… but I see no cognizance of it on your part, nor any self awareness. It’s tragic.

I wish you well Mr. President. Goodbye”.

Ending Remarks: Earth 42:0 was/is tilting precariously on its cosmic equilibrium when it had called out to the universe. It’s spiritual cognition is impaired, it’s heart is displaced, it’s leadership is in disarray, and its people, indeed all its creatures great and small, are sick and dying.

Probable Prognosis: The end of a Cosmic Epoch and of Humankind on Earth 42.

GENESIS: The Novel Corona virus is in Transformation Cycle T+1. Evolution to Species Intelligentes*: Approximately 5 billion years.

GLOSSARY OF TERMS:

*Ripple Effect Round Table (RE-Rt): Somewhere in an advanced alternate universe, there are sophisticated human beings that are looking out for all of Earth’s vulnerable alternate versions. AR Earth 42:0, our world, is the hardest hit as its very energy and life force is in calamitous dissonance. The RE-Rt is a select group of people which attempts to bring balance, harmony and synergy to all life across the cosmos.

*Wormhole: a structure linking disparate points in spacetime.

*Ripple Voyage: time travel to fix epochal cosmic issues

*2001: A Space Odyssey: A 1968 science fiction novel by British science fiction writer, futurist and inventor, Arthur C. Clarke.

*Mar-a-Lago: A resort and national historic landmark in Palm Beach, Florida. Owned now by Donald Trump.

*Pandesday: any day in the course of the Novel Corona virus Pandemic lock down.

*Perception Clearance: a shifting of energy to harmonise two alternate realities to facilitate inter-dimensional contact.

*Maya: In Hinduism/ Buddhism, the power by which the universe becomes manifest; the illusion or appearance of the phenomenal world.

EQ: Emotional Quotient- a measure of emotional intelligence.

*SleepyCreepy Jo: Trump’s savaging of Joe Biden – the 46th POTUS

*Pocahontas: Trump’s savaging of Elizabeth Warren – US senator and Ex 2020 Democratic Presidential Hopeful

*Species Intelligentes: Intelligent Species, in Latin.

Some other Trump favourites:

Favourite Actress: Meryl Streep

Favourite Sport: Baseball

Favourite Arch Nemesis: Rosie O’ Donnell

Favorite Words/ Phrases: Moron, Stupid, Incredible, Fake News, Great, Crazy, Believe me, Winning, Damn, (Un)classy, A lot of money, Wuhan Virus, Chinese Virus, America First!

Favorite Food: Junk food including the Mexican Taco bowl

Logic for the Numbers used:

No. 42: the alleged answer to life and the universe as a whole as per Douglas Adams in his book “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and a number of other philosophers/ thinkers.

No. 420: a colloquialism used in Urdu/ Hindi to depict slyness/ insidiousness. It is also cannabis culture slang for marijuana and hashish consumption, especially smoking around the time 4:20 p.m., and also refers to cannabis-oriented celebrations that take place annually on April 20 (which is 4/20 in U.S. form).

No. 1100: Mar-a-Lago address

No. 22/7: the value of Pi – the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It has special significance in nature too.

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 3)

“I have a bit of a secret to tell you”, said Sabeen lounging contentedly on the sofa near the wall.

Dinner had been fabulously satisfying. She’d had two helpings of the fettuccine in all its curried glory and had just finished a not ungenerous slice of hot apple pie. The sprites of Gastronomical Excesses were prancing merrily around in her stomach while the much-worshipped gods of Abstinence were only vague entities in her subconscious for now. The satiated body had further banished discretion and circumspection as the evening wore on. There was no cautionary gut feel nor any protective sixth sense reining in her excitement and her urge to share her joy. She was on the tipping point of divulging the ultimate secret; an affair so close to her heart that she hadn’t breathed a word about it to anyone yet for fear of jinxing the whole business.

Farzana looked up at Sabeen expectantly, her eyes bright, the ice cream laden spoon forgotten mid-air. She loved a good secret and Sabi usually wasn’t very forthcoming with her confidences. Farzana on the other hand, compelled by force of habit and an actual physical discomfort in the company of an unshared secret, happily let loose the flood gates when thus encumbered. This was going to be quite a treat!

“Kya? Batao na…..”(1), Farzana responded tentatively, afraid to disturb the amenability of the moment. One could never tell with Sabi she thought; one moment she was happy and talkative and the next, like a closed up clam with social issues.

Sabi was making her wait it out as always. Farzana felt the hair on her arms prickling in anticipation and also a growing sense of wariness. Uncharitable thoughts began glutting her mind… despite being one of her best friends, Sabi, in Farzana’s mind, had always resented her more “privileged love interest” liaisons. There had been one occasion in fact, where she’d come and stolen her man right from under her nose! She ignored the nagging post script that always followed that thought….the fact that Arsalan had always maintained that he and Farzana were never “going out”, and that he had told her quite early on that he was interested in her friend from Faisalabad. Even so, she thought, he and Farzana had attended two parties together; granted it was together with other friends. But he was Mian Jalaluddin’s grandson and she had exclusive entitlement until he too had seen the light of day and reciprocated. He would have – ultimately, Farzana thought ruefully, had Sabeen not come into the picture. The memory of the day she’d invited Sabi over to meet Arsalan still made her cringe with ardent regret. Her only consolation was that that entanglement hadn’t lasted long!

She caught Sabi looking at her thoughtfully. Farzana was getting visibly agitated at not only the prospect of being secret-deprived at the nth hour of confidence-sharing, but also by the strange look on Sabi’s face.

I’m your best friend yaar. Mujh se kya chupana. I’m like an open book with you. Batao na”(2), Farzana cajoled, moving closer to the still reposing, still contemplating Sabeen.

“I’m getting engaged, Fara; to the Nawab* of Bahawalpur”, came the deadpan response. Delivered with just that air of indifference to make it into a screaming headline.

Sabeen looked at Farzana, a slow smile spreading across her face. She knew her friend enough to expect any of a range of emotions; barely concealed resentment being one of the more realistic predispositions on this occasion. As time had lapsed, their bachelorette banner had determinedly unfurled in Spinster Territory, changing perceptions, prospects, attitudes and with it, notions of self worth. And Farzana was painfully besieged by the change in social status, spawning a wave of desperate love affairs and subsequent unpredictable outbursts. Sabeen was earnestly hoping this wasn’t one such instant; she was really hoping, yearning for a propitious ending to this evening.

Farzana blinked uncertainly, and slowly put the dripping spoon of ice cream into her mouth. She felt hassled and unsure; hassled about whether Sabi was in fact telling the truth, and unsure whether she herself had heard it right.

“Kaunsa nawab?(3) What are you saying? Farzana managed to ask, looking agitatedly at Sabeen. Her feeling of unease grew as the enormity and sensibility of the affirmation dully sank in. She swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly feeling dry even as she sensed the sweet liquid sliding down her throat. She was unaware of the change in her expression or her bearing as she stared unblinkingly at Sabeen while hunched over in an almost foetal position in the chair opposite. She waited for a response; laughter, some reassurance that this was just a really terrible joke.

Sabeen sat up and looked directly at Farzana, taking both of her hands in hers. She suddenly felt an intense desire to have her friend acknowledge her joy, and to be happy for her. She wanted Fara to understand that this was not just another ephemeral burst of scarlet on the romantic horizon. This boded longevity and was replete with not only the rainbow hues of new love, but also the many shades of grey that constituted a real relationship. This was going to be her “happily ever after”.

Farzana looked on in confused fascination; at this point, she was only aware of the maniacal intensity of Sabeen’s hold of her hands and thinking if in fact her friend had finally given in to senility just shy of her 50th birthday. She was talking of Nawabs and horses and knights….had she said horses or princes…? She wasn’t quite sure. But there was music playing, so Farzana did the only thing that seemed lucid to her at the time.

She pulled up a startled Sabeen and said, “let’s dance meri jaan(4)….. all those extra calories you’ve had today are making you sound crazy!”

And she whirled her friend around the room, grinning loonily while humming along to Jenny Young’s quirky love refrain:

“….Here is a heart,

I made it for you so take it.

Battered and braised,

Grilled and sautéed

Just how you like it…”

De Khudai pe aman.

(1): “What? Tell me…”

(2): “What do you have to hide from me…… tell me”

(3): “What prince?”

(4): “my love”

*Nawab: ruler/ prince. (Largely a figurative title now but still respected as incumbents of a privileged lineage).

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