SHORT STORY|SERENDIB LODGE – Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so Sherry Kumar retreated – for now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT STORY|SERENDIB LODGE – Part One

‘Chhip! Yanna!’(1), Manel scolded a cheerfully departing squirrel as it scampered off with a big chunk of foam from one of the sofa cushions in the veranda. She had a love-hate relationship with these feisty little denizens of the garden: she screamed and hollered at their fervent pillaging of everything that could be bitten or gnawed off, while she tut-tutted in sympathy when she found one of them dead in the flower beds; the victim of either a rodent-hunting garandia* or of the easeful burden of old age such as it tended to come upon them in their bountiful lives at 75, High Level Road.

She picked up the maimed cushion and dusted it down as if re-settling it diligently into its comfortable nook would somehow repair the damage. With Manel, a lot was symbolic and much was left to the quite often, fickle good graces of the universe.

Manel lived with Melba aka Mel, her companion and friend of 42 years and the matriarch and grande dame of their house in Nugegoda. She had brought Manel to her home from the Evelyn Nurseries orphanage in Kandy when Manel was 18 years old. Recently divorced and on her own for the first time in her 28 years, Mel had embarked on this enterprise of companionship with much deliberation and reflection. She was the product of missionary school education and the Colombo elite, a combination that, while breeding the well-heeled socialites of the city, also begot dozens of cultured, articulate but professionally unqualified widows and divorcees . These inhabitants of the now fringes of privilege – since the elite bell curve was usurped quite entirely by the debutantes and the still-married – were not only summarily launched into solitary independent lives but also into a world where they had to learn to fend for themselves. And Mel had gone at it with the tenacity of a bull dog: unlearning, relearning, challenging and changing the day to day norms and expectations that had bound her life so fully in her maiden days and even during her short wedded life. After four decades of dealing with the petulant, cantankerous universe of her existence, she had ripened Into a woman of many words and a somewhat short fuse that quite persuasively masked a still tender heart.

Manel was the antithesis of everything Mel was. Where Mel was loud and commanding, Manel was soft and placating; where one bull-dozed into situations, the other treaded with caution. It would be unjust to imagine that Manel’s reticence of nature and restraint were borne of Mel’s draconian demeanour; the matriarch was especially gentle with her beloved shrinking violet and protected her fiercely from the waywardness of the world. It was quite logical to imagine then that Manel was most likely bestowed with her acute sensitivity by the frivolous hands of nature itself. Physically too, the two were in serene discordance with each other: Mel was tall and willowy, while her companion was short and plump. One fiddled with the food on her plate, preferring instead to have a cigarette dangling from a mouth that was simultaneously engaged in an epic telling or retelling; the other made short, efficient shrift of every fulsome meal in front of her. And so the two women had lived together in almost improbable but perfect harmony and neither could imagine being without the companionship of the other.

Over the last twenty years, the two women had made such basic arrangements in their home that had allowed them to let out the three rooms upstairs to paying guests. Staying at the Serendib Lodge was just a little less than checking into a bed and breakfast and a tad more than residing in a friendly stranger’s home, where there was no expectation of guests at all. The set up, despite its informality and simplicity, did quite well, supplementing the meagre income that Mel received from her other modest assets. Their guests were multi cultural and for the most part, gracious and undemanding. Some even put down semi-permanent roots staying six months or a year in the hospitable lodgings of the two women. Mel revelled in the new company while Manel’s associations were mostly limited to the quiet sharing of meals and the simple exchange of pleasantries when she passed them on the stairs or at the main door. She liked it that way – the house alive with energy she could feel but activity she could, for the most part, not see or be a part of.

It was the festive season, a day in November in fact, when Chirkoot Kumar first came to stay at Serendib Lodge. Better know as Sherry Kumar, he tended to hide the hapless burden of his first name, a dubious gem bestowed on him by his paternal grandfather, away from the judging eyes of the world. He was a short, stout man with a gleaming bald head and a perennial smile on his round face. Looking at the world dead on from the otherwise unremarkable face was a pair of striking green eyes. They were large and chameleon-like, changing colours in congruence with their surroundings. He swept into the two women’s lives like a ship into harbour – grandly, triumphantly and with the resounding drop of an anchor. To all intents and purposes, it appeared that he had come to stay. At 65 years old, he was still in love with life and went about it with the zeal of a teenager. Mel immediately took to him, spending every hour that he had free and in the house, at his side. They talked about politics, cricket, the sorry state of the world, the even sorrier state of their social peers and the best koththu in town. She had in her earlier gusto for the scintillating company, tried a bit of flirtation too which was met with smiling equanimity by Sherry and a soon-to-follow chiding, deriding note to herself. She wasn’t the “falling in love” type! She was the chatty, smart-alecky sort who liked nothing better than to regale and be regaled; to banter endlessly until the sun came up or went down depending on what defined the tail end of a 4 hour session of gab and gossip.

Through this reverberating environment of ceaseless chatter, Manel continued to be quiet and retiring. She had yet again seen the entire sequence of a relationship, such as it occasionally tended to assail Mel, unfold in quick time and then settle into an easy camaraderie. She had at its various junctures, felt amusement, anxiety and finally a peaceful acclimatisation to its newest flame, who was now a friend in Mel’s life. She didn’t resent the fact that Mel spent less and less time with Manel these days. She had her hands full doing the laundry and the cooking for the three and sometimes four and five residents of Serendib Lodge; and of course, she loved her time in the garden. It was a little patch of emerald green surrounded by a wondrous array of colours and chaos that looked like it had dropped right off a nature painter’s canvas. She had a flair for creating life that revelled in the joy of wild abandon. Cats claws and Thunbergia climbed curving and looping around Araliya, Mango and Indian almond trees, leaving bright splashes of yellow, purple and white in their meandering wake. For the time that she was in the garden, Manel was one with the burgeoning, budding world around her.

(1) Chhip! Yanna!: Colloquial Sinhalese for “Shoo! Go away!”

* Garandia: Sri Lankan Rat snake that feeds on rodents


Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/24/serendib-lodge-part-two/

VERSE| MY NOISE-CANCELLING HEADPHONES

The below verse is somewhat farcical and maybe even a tad fanciful; but sometimes it takes a bit of a tongue-in-cheek nudge to arouse our fitfully slumbering consciences. May we all continue to persevere towards creating a better, nobler world.

I look at social media and I see anger and hate and prejudice;
I look at the television and I see propagandists, debauched messiahs and wily pundits;
I look at the newspaper and I see political intrigue, national fatigue and ceaseless power mongering -
It goes on, never ending, ignited with the fire from our fossil fuel stores …
I look within me and I see the mirror of my mind reflecting, deflecting, dodging and fending
The piercing, stabbing, blinding light from all this frantic, raving media commotion.

I look around me and I see love and peace and co-existence;
I look around me and I see people coming together to help, protect and build better;
I look around me and I see the universe weaving, constantly interlacing Harmony.
It goes on, forever, propelled by the spirit and soul of our humanity …
I look within me and I can feel my heart echoing, returning, rebounding and celebrating
The warm glow, the shimmer and gleam of the wonderful world around me.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . .


Oh, but it doesn’t end there. Some endings are just not fairytale-ish.
If I gave in to my easeful delusions, I would be naive and tragically remiss.
Here’s the deal: Human beings are sometimes cruel and that creates a gross impasse
And that’s when we need to use our own eyes and our moral compass
The world around us may glimmer and shine in serene equilibrium
While pockets of humanity elsewhere thrash in blood-thirsty delirium.
Look for yourself, seize your courage, tell your truth, play your part
This is our ONE world; our one chance. We don’t have the luxury of a Re-start.

SHORT STORY| EUSTACE SHERGILL – Part One

Anita walked into the room with a spring in her step and a song on her lips. Today though, she wasn’t going to belt it out diva style – she was saving her rich alto for the karaoke evening tonight. She stole these evenings of song and meter with the panache of Victorian highway men; effortlessly, cleanly and with a swashbuckling bow.

Her father was sitting in his easy chair poring over the paper. He was tut-tutting quietly in full conversation with his news-fretting self. ‘Another elopement that has ended badly. When will they learn to be content on their own sides of the fence … the scandal … the violence. Tsk! So needless. God protect us …’

‘Daddy, who are we trying to protect ourselves from?’ chirped Anita cheekily.

‘Our foolishness. Our madness’ her father responded with a sigh. He looked at his daughter thoughtfully trying to glance into her future; read her heart. She was such an exuberant girl. He worried about her sometimes surrounded as she was with all her Muslim friends … girls and boys. She tended to be trusting, unrestrained and had been in a roaring affair with life since she was born. If anyone took the bull by the horns and danced with it too, it was his Annie. Where did she get it from … her zest for life; her tenacious survival instinct. It was an enigma both he and his wife had pondered over with sometimes apprehension and at others, elation. How he loved his little girl! And how he agonized too … These were not good times. There were too many inter faith love stories that had gone wrong. Wild hearts and racing hormones that had headed straight for family guillotines; brazed together as they were from the bottomless patriarchal pits of honor, ego and vanity. Eustace Shergill aka Yousuf Shergill with his diminutive form and distrust of even the neighborhood feline’s seasonal caterwauling, was a perennially worried man.

Anita looked at her father fondly. The furrows in his brow had deepened over the last few years, giving this lamb of a man the look of a tyrant. His fleet-footed movements further belied his fragility of form and spirit. Irony was indeed rife with this dear man; her beloved father.

She kissed him on the cheek and took away his newspaper.

‘Daddy, come to the market with me. I need to get some snacks for this evening. The gang is coming over’ she said brightly knowing how he loved these little jaunts with her.

He grinned at her from behind his glasses and rose nimbly to his feet.

‘Let me get the shopping bag’ he said, walking purposefully out of the room.

‘Did I switch the fan off …?’ He wondered aloud when they were on the road. His expression was thoughtful, strained.

‘Daddy, relax. We’ll be back in 20 minutes’ Anita piped up knowing full well he would stew over the fact until they got back home. Unless – she created a magnificent enough diversion! Usually one of her punny jokes, that she had a bizarre flair for creating, got him to ease up, if only fleetingly.

‘Ok, what’s an Optimistic Wise Man called?’ She asked emphasizing the three words and grinning to herself. This was a good one.

‘Hmm … a Sage-o-glass-full? said her father, momentarily distracted and in the spirit of the drollery.

‘Nope. You won’t get this one. It’s one of my better ones’ she said sassily laughing with the combined pleasure of the joke and her father’s smiling face.

‘A Kan-garoo!’ she said with the flourish of a stand up comic at the end of a particularly successful segment.

‘You know – Kangaroo … “Can-guru”, she grinned at her father.

He laughed out loudly with a mixture of pleasure and pride in his bright, vivacious daughter. Anita followed with a bow such as she could manage on the road, from the driver’s seat.

They drove on in silence for a while, Anita still warm in the glow of her recent comedy, while Yousaf Shergill despite himself was back in the living room, fretting about the ominously spinning fan.

Seeing her father’s worried expression, Anita persevered with her enterprise of distraction and diversion, now bringing up a nugget of new information about her work.

‘We’re moving our office to Clifton next month’ she said non chalantly, waiting for the endearingly familiar change of gears in her father’s mind as he temporarily relieved himself of one burden and picked up another. Although these initial sound bites of news were yet out of his immediate capacity to worry about; still too new in their tendencies and their implications. He looked at her questioningly, the fan forgotten in as much as it could be, given that it was only moments ago in his mind, whirling to a calamitous descent onto the lounge table.

“You’re moving office? Is Maham moving too?’ He asked referring to her boss, now full of curious inquiry.

The rest of the 15 minute drive was spent with Anita waxing eloquent on the newly refurbished office, which was also luckily, quite a lot closer to home. Annie would be only a 10 minute drive away! He smiled toothfully, delightedly – a burden laid to rest; a serendipitous blessing received.

Yousuf Shergill was a partner in a company that provided Visa, Citizenship and Residency Services to off shore journeying hopefuls. It had been a flourishing little enterprise. Years of reading immigration laws from across the world, solely for the fascinating study they provided in social and ideological behaviour, had made him a natural at his chosen profession. He could tell through just a brief conversation with the candidate and a cusrsory glance through his brimming, reverently clutched folder of documents whether in fact he would have the pleasure of kissing the motherland a gracious farewell, or whether he had embarked on an ill fated (blessed!) enterprise. Mr. Shergill, despite and imaginably because of his many anxieties and misgivings, was a firm believer of staying put where the roots were. If their own homeland was a maze of dichotomies and confusion, he believed the rest of the world was as labyrinthine and befuddling as the tangled jungles of the Amazon. So while he happily gave advice and facilitated a few flights of fancy and more of the traditional metallic, tangible variety, he was himself happy to be living in his cacophonous but familiar city of Karachi.

* EUSTACE: A word of Greek origin meaning “steadfast” and “fruitful/ productive”.

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

SHORT STORY| EUSTACE SHERGILL – Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed, punching him in the arm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

OPINION| WORLD ON A WIRE*

Global politics, our collective Moral Compass and the Palestinian tragedy

Funny what our world has become. We grow, we evolve, we hope to become ever better versions of ourselves, and then life gets in the way; our pursuit of success and even our quest for happiness gets in the way. Somewhere down the line, we’ve lost the actual essence of those pursuits; we’ve lost touch with what makes us human – the heart and soul equation we call our Moral Compass. This degradation of our will to distinguish between what feels wrong and what doesn’t, deep in our gut, has gone on for so long that now we don’t even recognise when we are party to cruelty, injustice or irrationality in the name of ideology, faith and correctness.

We, as a species however, are not innately bad. The overwhelming majority of us mean well. We want to do the right thing; we want to stand for the right causes; we want to speak up where it matters. But so insidious and crafty is the state of our global politics and the malicious power mongering that goes on in its toxic folds, that for large swathes of humanity to be duped, brain-washed and even numbed to atrocities is now completely normal.

The one double edged sword where the glint of steel can go either way is digital media. While it is rife with conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies, there is also a healthy spectrum of enterprising, truth telling news and information sources on there. What becomes a necessary obligation on behalf of us, the bulk of humanity using these platforms, is to do the work to separate the grain from the chaff; the truth from the lies; the sincere from the duplicitous. That will depend heavily on first, how true we stay to our value systems and then, on how we navigate through the tortuous labyrinth of information surrounding us.

Case in point: the Palestinian tragedy. The bare-faced atrocities have gone on for so long, that we seem to have lost our collective capacity to see them for what they are. And all the while, they have become ever more brazen and cruel. If this was a hypothetical study, it would be an open and shut case long before it had even reached its current levels of criminality. And yet, while we are ideologically devoted to fair play, we appear to have lost our will, our voice and our moral authority to really make it happen. The overwhelming reason: Because the global power brokers, deal makers and profiteers continue to blast their deafening megaphones with cooked up intrigues and imagined threats, confusing, bewildering and paralysing the rest of us.

In the wake of the recent unrest however, despite all the grossly biased journalism and political posturing, it’s been heartening to see the entire international community come together as one, to voice their concerns; to make their genuine feelings about the situation heard. This time, our collective moral compass seems to be swinging in the right direction. We have proven that the vast majority of us still believe in basic decency and justice.

This then is something of a hope and a prayer for the truth seekers and the compass bearers out there. May we continue to find the moral and ideological strength to discern, weigh in and be heard. For the Palestinians and for all the others that are disenfranchised, marginalised and oppressed. Let us take back the global diplomacy narrative from the politicians and their funding platforms. Let us put back some soul and some humanity into the voices that we are raising for a more just and honest world.

* Title inspiration from Fassbinder’s 1973 movie of the same name. 

VERSE| CREATURES OF THE PARK

A little background to the below piece. My evening walk is as integral a part of my day as my first copiously caffeinated cup of tea. I venture out 6 days a week, inclement weather notwithstanding, and no matter where I am (I have an uncanny resourcefulness for finding workout venues, even if the source of my next meal disquietingly eludes me). And having followed this body and mind discipline for close to 20 years now, i have had ample opportunity to observe, experience and expertly categorise my fellow park-goers. What follows is the somewhat meandering result. If some of it resonates with other fellow walking track creatures, the bleary-eyed hours writing it, were not for naught!

It all started in those very early days
Social media was limited, it was the digital Stone Age.
Post a relationship, solo-winging it again,
No other pastime seemed to make sense.
So jiggity jog, I began doing the laps
And that’s when I discovered the creatures of the track.

This funny set is the first that I came by:
The posse of old gents who give you the glad eye.
And if they’re feeling especially brave,
They will ardently stalk you around the enclave.
The dignified gait transforms into a stampede
Which an imminent coronary doesn’t seem to impede!
The breath is ragged, the pupils dilated
If I wasn’t The Stalked, I’d have slowed down and waited!

The next of the regular crowd in the park
Is the muscle bound ‘Lone Ranger’ who’s out for a lark.
Acutely aware of his tittering fans
Like a peacock he’ll do his trademark dance;
(Read: do a slow jog looking totally focused
But we know his nonchalance is quite entirely bogus!)

Then there’s the most entertaining stream:
The ladies who’re out there to see and be seen.
They glow and they glitter and shine in their gear
Quite confident they’ve outdone all of their peers.
Most have come from vast distances off
Because Wednesday is ‘event day’ at the Racecourse!
They walk and they talk and they scan their environs
Hoping to catch a gander of the super fine ‘uns.
(Please note that I feel abundant affection
For this vibrant, spirited ladies’ faction).

Then there’re the crowds of parents and children
Of bicycles and tricycles and scootie action;
Of badminton, football and even cricket
Right in the midst of the walking thicket.
Of aimless ambling and head-on collisions;
Guardians and wards on their own park missions.
Of flash mob type coordinated collectives
Sweating it out over their synched acrobatics.
This crowd doth teach uncommonly well
The precision art of duck, dive and repel.

But I’d be amiss if this septet ignored
The likes of myself in the regular park hoard.
Yes, I’m the one that’s outrunning demons
Not one or two, but prodigious legions!
Eyes straight ahead, “baton” in hand,
I march to the sound of my own brass band!
I may even come across as a tad bit demented
But a bracing, tearing traipse is so well worth it!

And so in closing, It’s quite essential to mention
That in building satire into this narration,
I mean to soften the blow of my words
Because haranguing I definitely am still, by God!
A little more farce? To the whole park crowd:
You’re the molasses in my tea, there isn’t a doubt!

SHORT STORY| THE GODS OF FURY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PHOTO VOCE|Jetwing Lighthouse, Galle

The beautiful tropical monsoon sky
That changes colours in the blink of an eye.
Inspiring awe in its kaleidoscopic wake
It shifts and shimmers; now translucent, now opaque.

From the deepest depths of a cornflower blue
To the delicate flush of a just ripe peach,
It drifts and glimmers in rainbow hues
An iridescent paradise just out of reach.

Then there’s the never ending mesmeric motion
Of the cresting and falling Indian Ocean;
It’s white laced edges hugging the shore
In a primal dance telling tales of yore.
This is the magic of the Lighthouse* promontory
Where the heavens lustily encircle the sea.

SHORT STORY| SOUL SISTERS – Part Five

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

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

It was good to be back home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s Karim’ she said simply.

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

‘Of “Karamat and Sons” – Karim Zaidi’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She would survive this too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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