He looked at me with eyes of love
I could not hold his gaze
My heart lay closed and tightly bound
In yards of purple lace
It once had soared high above
Where eagles roam the skies
But since then it had plummeted
It had shrivelled up and dried
By and by it beat again
As I slowly found my peace
But it still liked to hide away
In its blue-violet niche
So when he looked at me with eyes
That spoke of tender starts
I looked away, there was no way
Into my blue-bruised heart
Someday when the colours change
Of the blood that flows within
Of when my heart reddens anew
And once more soars and sings
I hope that I can hold that gaze
So full of affection
Until then I hope to heal enough
To want to love again
I sometimes wonder if I heard
A new rustle in the trees
Would I be brave enough
To open up my door and see
I wonder if I ever heard
Its tread outside my place
Would I be calm and ready
To meet it face to face
I might sit still holding my breath
This would be something new
But it is all eventual
It’s what we all go through
If it looked at me and held
Out its hoary palm
I wonder if I’d have courage enough
To clasp it in my own
If it stood to lead ahead
Waiting for my cue
I wonder if I would follow it
Into the cosmic blue
If indeed it came to me
While I was fast asleep
I wonder if I would float away
On wings of final dreams
And so I hope that when I hear
My name called to depart
That in serenity and grace I walk
The all-eternal path
I looked in rapture at the rose
As it waxed in the sun
A bold and brilliant orange
In its emerald column
It was absolutely perfect!
Its beauty was sublime
There was little reason
In the soil to bide its time
I felt a maddening urge
To pluck it off its stem
To put it in a vase
To covet that lovely gem
The sunset-coloured rose
Would glorify my room
The garden would do without
This one splendid bloom
The yen turned to despair
That rose I had to have
And so the stem that held the bloom
Felt the force of my bare hands
The break, it was not clean
Nor did it cleave in two
The stem that bore the rose
From the part that bore the roots
The rose hung limply down now
Its head grazing the ground
Its petals seemed to fold in
As it moaned without a sound
I watched its resplendence
Its spirit and its mirth
Flow out of it bit by bit
Back into mother earth
A lancing stab came tearing in
Somewhere around my heart
I had mauled and ravaged
Nature’s precious art
I can still see the rose
As it lay waning in the sun
Like a little cut that never heals
The memory of it still thrums.
I feel it shifting
The air around me
It hums a new dirge
In the rustle of the trees
It wafts through copses
Of almond and neem
Fraught with scent-memories
Right out of my dreams
The Earth wears a glimmer
Like it’s pulled out taut
Like a tiger just caught
I feel her eyes bore
Deep into my soul
Flecked with vermilion
Full of phantoms and ghouls
I feel her hot breast
As she holds me close
Her lifeblood in throes
I hear it sometimes
Her seized-seismic sigh
It thrums in my head
Like death’s lullaby
Look softly my darling
When you look at me
Be calm and be tender
As I take my leave
I want to remember
Your lovely face
Serene and peaceful
As I leave this place
Let us talk of things
That are close to our hearts
Of bittersweet endings
Of gentle new starts
Of faces and places
Those still here, those gone
Of tea-cozied rainy days
As I hum my last song
Look softly my dear one
When you look at me
Let your beautiful smile
Be the last thing I see
Located in the mountains of Central Sri Lanka, and about 30 kms from the city of Anuradhapura, lies the ancient Ritigala Buddhist monastery. Dating back two millennia, the monastic complex is an epic work of mindful architecture connected via a continuous, forest-hemmed stone walkway.
The 1.2 km hike begins at the office of the on-site branch of Department of Archeology of Sri Lanka close to the foot of the Banda Pokuna, an ancient man-made reservoir with a circumference of almost 400 metres. Erected right down to the base are stone steps that circle the entirety of the reservoir. Here visitors to the monastery possibly completed their ablutions before heading on towards one of the many Padhanaghara – double platform structures made from massive pieces of granite linked together by a stone bridge; these served as meditation spaces. There are over 60 such double platforms over 120 acres at Ritigala. Among these structures are also the vestiges of what was once a “hospital” complete with root grinding stones and Ayurvedic oil baths with sophisticated drainage systems; the foundations of “floating air conditioned” rooms; and ornately decorated urinals to remind one of the fickleness of power and glory.
We began our journey at the Banda Pokuna into this ancient realm held as it was in the benevolent arms of nature herself. As soon as we started walking up the granite pathway, we felt the aura around us shift; take on an ethereal feel. The place manifests a melancholic trance in which one becomes completely cloaked, experiencing each of its elements in vivid sensory detail: The murmuring forest, the life force of its roots underfoot, the iridescent salamanders flicking between the stones and the continuous pathway like a silver beacon to venues of meditation and peace.
Trees, some old as age itself, their serpentine roots traversing the forest floor as far as the eye can see, shade the path with their green verdancy. As we hiked uphill, the atmosphere continued to thrum with their primal energy as one ancient one whispered and its murmur was carried like an undulating wave through the rest of the grove. Then all would be quiet except for the chirr of the crickets and the chorus of a songbird. It felt like we were witnesses to the sharing of a sage old secret; the trees of Ritigala retelling it among themselves and then quieting down as 21st century humans hiked up its ancient trails. Then whispering it again, until one stops to listen; and then the pulse slows down as the heart beats to the gentle rhythm of the humming trees. If ever there was a place where one can SEE one’s feelings, this mystical pathway held in the embrace of the ancients is that place.
Serenity is everywhere. The scene is mesmeric. The trees continue to tell their tales in the sun dappled patterns that shimmer on the path and on our skins; like golden runes that speak of the most profound quietude and peace.
To stand there and to take all this in is like absorbing the quiet energy of all that the monsastery once embodied; the tread of thousands of devotees; their quiet meditation, their rhythmic chants and even the ascendency of their consciousness. One can almost see the ascetics of old and the seekers of calm walk up the steps, their spirit energy conjured up again by the gentle cantillation of the trees. The experience rouses in turn, awe and an overwhelming humility; an acute awareness of the smallness of the individual and the profoundness of the collective.
We came away from Ritigala cloaked in the magic of nature that has continued to keep its erstwhile history vibrating through its quadrangles, pillars and its meandering walkway. The Ritigala monastery is truly a mystical portal through time.
Shahnaz came home from the office one evening to find a guest. It was Sikander’s mother. Shahnaz had met her at the office once when she had come to get some bank related work done. Sikander had introduced her to his mother then.
She freshened up quickly and came out to the lounge. Their guest was getting up to leave. Before she could get a chance to crossexamine her mother as to the purpose of the visit, Mahjabeen had breezed out of the apartment. It was a neignour’s son’s wedding, and the women of Mall Court were all caught up in the communal festivity and frenzy of preparation.
The next evening, mother and daughter sat down for tea as usual. Shahnaz took a sip of the hot, spirit-fortifying brew as she eyed the plate of samosas. Today her mother had made her favourite, delicate little beef samosas and it was difficult to not reach out and pop one into her mouth. But she’d been good; very good. She had not touched a samosa or a pakora* for the last two months even though the former, in its various delicious avatars, lay temptingly before her at every tea time. Shahnaz sighed and focused for a while on the new hollow concavneess of her belly. She smiled and looked at her mother. Mahjabeen was lost in thought.
“Aday, walay?”(1), she asked her mother.
“Shah sb de”(2), her mother responded simply.
The head of their committee and their communal lives had proposed for her daughter. Shahnaz blinked, taking in this bizarre information. And then she laughed; uproariously, until the tears streamed down her face.
“Lewanay de buda”(3), she finally said to her mother.
Still wiping away the tears of laughter, she asked her mother about the guest from last night. As it turned out, Sikander’s mother had gone to university with Mahjabeen in Islamabad. When they had moved to Karachi about a year ago, the two women had reconnected. They had both recently realized that their children worked in the same bank and at the same branch. And so she had come over with a profound request in mind: to enlist Mahajbeen’s daughter’s help in finding out about Annie; a colleague at the bank and Sikander’s love interest.
Shahnaz confused and dazed, looked at her mother. The bubbles of her recent rollicking laughter were still floating around in her belly. What was her mother saying! She was saying other things, about Sikander’s marriage. To Annie. About timelines; wedding cards. She suddenly felt like the breath had been knocked out of her. Disconnected phrases pinged on Shahnaz’s brain as she felt around for some semblance of order, of sense. A cacophony that had started in her head came crashing down into her ears and then grabbed at her throat. She looked at her mother unhearing, unblinking.
“Shahnaz, bachay* …?” she saw her mother mouth the words, but she still only heard the roar of a tumultuous ocean in her ears. Even as she let the tsunami of her broken, flooded heart carry her away inside, she remained silent, tomblike on the outside. She sat there quietly for a long time.
Mahjabeen was agitated and then thoughtful. She had balked at the quiet confidence with which Shah sb had presented the proposal. It had not been too many years ago that he had made a similar offer to Mahjabeen for herself. She had immediately and resoundingly rejected the notion of remarrying. Shah Manzoor had never brought it up again, until now, extending the offer a generation down the line. He was 50, Shahnaz was 23. Mahjabeen did not outright refuse the proposal and from that absence of a rejection, there bloomed hope like a wild flower in Shah Manzoor’s besotted heart.
Over the next month, Mahjabeen’s domestic burdens were eased in big and small ways as Shah Manzoor bestowed his largesse on her household. His driver made the arduous trips to the bank for her to pay her utility bills, took her appliances for repair, took her linen to the dhobi*, brought it back and deposited hefty bags of fruit at her doorstep, compliments of his employer. Mahjabeen who had always been reliant on taxis and rickshaws, was suddenly elevated in great part beyond these mass market modes of transport for the general mobility and flow of her life. These subtle and overt facilitations slowly picked their way through the reticent iciness of Mahjabeen’s heart where her daughter was resident. And so, the proposed union that had seemed ridiculous a month ago, began to appear less bizarre while also holding the conventional glimmer of longevity and ease. A large part of that aura of acceptance was lent to it by Shahnaz herself: Two days after the discussion between mother and daughter, Shahnaz had informed her mother that she would marry Shah sb. Mahjabeen had told her to think about it, that the world was her oyster. Her daughter had looked at her as if she’d just swallowed that oyster whole; her entire world lying vanquished and decomposing inside her.
Preparations for a winter wedding began at TP-2. Mahjabeen had informed her brothers of the union; they were completely supportive. They had always been somewhat offended and on edge after their sister moved to Karachi. Grounding, entrenching milestones like respectable marriages meant less for them to worry about in terms of unexpected calamities defiling their family name and also the ever present possibility of having to extend themselves financially. It didn’t matter that they had had nothing to do with their sister for the first ten years of her moving to Karachi, and when they did reconnect it was as unemotional as it was practical: After the initial pleasantries were out of the way they wondered if a distant cousin visiting the city by the sea for the first time could stay with Mahjabeen for a few days. Of course she could; the hospitality had been extended graciously and generously.
Mahjabeen had kept in touch with her older brother after that, more out of an innate compulsion to feel like she still belonged to a larger family of siblings, cousins aunts and uncles rather than any sentimental bond; if ever there had been one, the sibling tug of affection had long since relaxed its pull. Now when Karim lala* heard the news of his niece’s impending nuptials he was genuinely happy. He had never met Shah Manzoor but had heard of him from his sister off and on, always at the influential front and centre of life at Mall Court. The man’s age was irrelevant; he would make a good husband for his niece. He had informed Mahjabeen that he and his family would attend the wedding in December.
Shahnaz gave up her evening walks, devoting herself entirely to assembling her trousseau and to baking. She baked every weekend, ferociously, constantly, going through her recipe book twice over. Everyone bought her delectable desserts. Shah sb made fliers for this home economics enterprise of his fiancé : “Shah’s Bakes” they proclaimed in big green letters (‘Shah’ after all was the first part of Shahnaz’s name too he had said to Mahjabeen). He even had their newspaper delivery man pass them around in the city. At some point over the next month or so he suggested to Shahnaz that she give up her bank job and focus on her baking business. And with time, a burgeoning family he thought. Shah Manzoor devoutly believed in the divine strength of numbers; theirs would be a vast, happy family.
Shahnaz gave in her one month notice and continued to bake up a storm that in its growing undualtions found its way further and further outside Mall court. Shah sb had got a rickshaw to do deliveries for those who could not themselves pick up the delicacies prepared by the talent-abundant hands of his wife; the soon-to-be prefix was just a formality now.
Soon, the nippy winds of early December began to blow across the city making its denizens don sweaters, jackets and even woollen caps in its 20 degree coolness. Shahnaz had steadily put back on the seven kgs she had lost. She didn’t need the scale that was lying in a forgotten corner of her bathroom to confirm that fact; she could feel it in the satiated plumpness of her belly and the chafing of her upper arms against her body.
It was one week before the wedding. Shahnaz and Mahjabeen were having their evening tea. Tea time with her mother had now become Shannaz’s single anchor of reminiscence, a vestige of a warm, safe past that she had let go; buried in the space of her liver, allowing only the pleasure of this little evening repast with her mother to gently flow towards her heart, to remind her just a little bit of her old self. She was quick to banish any vulnerability that threatened to overtake her during this dusk time mother-daughter companionship. She had already in her mind, put her frivolous, childish past forever behind her.
Shahnaz looked at her mother who was gazing at her daughter, as she did nowadays, for signs of capitulation, of rethinking her decision. Shahnaz smiled reassuringly at Mahjabeen even as she felt something wrench in her belly. She willed herself to focus on her bubble of calm: having tea with her mother and samosas with her tea. Still smiling, she breathed in deeply and reached for her third samosa.
(1): “Mother, what is it?” in pushto
(2): “It is Shah sahib” in pushto
(3): “The old man is crazy” in pushto
* Pakora: fried fritters made of vegetables such as potatoes and onions, coated in seasoned gram flour batter and deep fried.
* Bachay: Child in urdu and pushto
* Dhobi: A washerman/ woman who washes clothes for a living in Urdu
* Lala: suffix used with a name to show respect for an older man/ brother.
Shahnaz met Sikander at the Bank. His family had moved from Islamabad and he had joined as Head of External Sales at Shahnaz’s branch. Shahnaz’s interactions with boys and then men as she had grown up was vague and distant, a vestige of having lost her father early and also because her mother was a staunch believer in her widowed-turned-spinster status: that manifestation tended to keep many conundrums and scandals at bay. Shahnaz had grown up surrounded by that man-exclusive maternal aura and had unconsciously imbibed the essence of that nature of separation from the opposite gender. And so, her university life had taken its course endowing her with a degree, the friendship of two girls from her class and the reputation of an ice maiden among the rest. Her mind sometimes did wander into the what-if realms of relationsips and significant others, but her outer physiology remained unfailingly stoic and uninterested. It was, therefore, to her great bewilderment when Sikander began to seek out her company and more so that she was not averse to his attention. He persevered beyond her serious, no nonsense facade and managed to reveal a lightheartedness and approachability that was a surprise to both of them. Over the next few months, Shahnaz blossomed in her new cheerful and social avatar.
Shahnaz also began to take an interest in her weight for the first time ever. Sikander was tall and lean, with not an ounce of extra fat on him. While she was by no South Asian standards overweight, she did by intercontinental standards carry a couple of soul-food tyres around her middle; and her arms were decidedly flabby. Shahnaz began her workout regimen in June, one of the most oppressive months of the year in Karachi. She believed that for this enterprise (of losing weight) to also gain the benevolence of the universe, she herself needed to undertake some semblance of discomfort too. And so, every evening, after work, and after a hurried cup of tea with her mother, she would go downstairs and walk in the parking quadrangle of her apartment building. While she continued to drink her tea mellowed with full cream milk and sweetened with the usual two teaspoons full of sugar, her teatime samosas she had given up entirely over the last few weeks. She was determined to lose at least ten kgs.
The first evening that she went downstairs, the big built guard that looked somewhat like a bulldog was on duty. Despite having been a part of the Mall Court security team for the last ten years, he still surveyed everyone like he was seeing them for the first time; the women especially. Shahnaz had not made up her mind whether in fact he was actually creepy or just unfortunate in the way his lower jaw hung pendulously, eternally open to the elements, while his papaya seed eyes bored into the soul of any person walking across the parking lot. She stood near the lift, mentally mapping out a route: should she go left and avoid the guard altogher at the start of her exercise, giving herself time to rally her inner strength before she had to pass through the X-ray of his stare? Or should she just bite the bullet head on and then relax as she walked out of the radar of his scrutiny? It was a painful conundrum and she stood there for what seemed like an eternity trying to make up her mind.
“Kya haal hai bhai?”(1), said a voice from behind her. It was Shah sahib*, the longest residing habitant of Mall Court, and a haji* – he made sure everyone knew and remembered those two cogent facts. His father had bought an apartment when they’d just been built twenty five years ago. Shah Manzoor had inherited the property eventually and had in addition to his official role as the head of the Mall Court Committee, also made various efforts through the years to install himself as the unofficial head of the Mall Court household such as it was. There wasn’t a wedding, a new job or indeed the movement of a piece of furniture that didnt receive the final word from Shah sahib.
“Salam alaikum Shah sb. Bilkul theek, ji”(2), Shahnaz responded, adjusting her dupatta, pulling it across one shoulder and tying it diagonally at her hip. He looked at her questioningly. When Shahnaz didn’t respond to his need-to-know-everything look, he finally asked her what she was doing standing around in the parking lot.
“Walk kar rahi hoon Shah sb”(3), she said with an almost maniacal grin, and then as if energized by the unexpected acrobatics of the muscles of her face, she did just that, heading right, into the eye of the bulldog. That evening she walked for forty five minutes followed by the unblinking stare of the guard on one end and by her own meandering thoughts on the other. She decided that she had duly earned her dinner of mutton pulao that night.
Annie had been at the bank for a year already when Shahnaz had joined. She was the locker custodian, had glorious hair and a high pitched voice. When she laughed, her voice crescendoed into peal after peal of shrill hilarity, moving one to quite earnestly appreciate the soundlessness of silence. Still, she was a pretty girl with pretty ways, assailing the senses in different ways for different people: The branch manager with his delicate aural sensibilities, had summarily banished her to the basement with the lockers and the sound proof walls. The Operations manager with a soft spot for luxurious manes, had decided soon after that the basement was a good place to have his lunch. In all this drama, Shahnaz and Annie had struck up a lunch time friendship, which the Ops Manager (who was also Annie’s boss) some days infringed upon with the cocksure air of the man-in-charge. On those days Annie was quiet, Qasim sb was voluble and Shahnaz was monosyllabic.
It had now been four months of working with Sikander and two of walking away the samosa kilos that had squatted familiarly on her hips for the past so many years. It had also been three months since she felt her heart flutter for the first time and two weeks since her weighing scale had declared her a whole seven kgs lighter. Life was good and Shahnaz was at the very centre of that happy wholesomeness.
That evening, Shahnaz got ready to go downstairs for her walk. She looked at her dupatta and then at the looseness of her kurta, its seams almost daily, being relegated further and further away from the curves they had originally draped. She smiled at herself in the mirror, proud of her new body. She decided she could finally dare to confidently go without her dupatta.
“Loopata de wachava”(4), said her mother’s voice from the next room. It had to be the maternal sixth sense, thought Shahnaz chuckling, relieved in a way that her newest body positivity adventure was snuffed at source.
She wore a chiffon dupatta, its powder pink sheerness apparent even as it lay like a sash from her shoulder to her hip. She plugged in her earphones and turned on her music. The lilting strains of Ali Sethi and Taylor Swift wafting in her ears not only made the three quarters of an hour fly by, but also allowed her to block out anxious thoughts of staring guards and curious onlookers.
“Kya haal hai Shahnaz?”(5), said a loud voice, breaking through the insulating barrier of her music. She took off her earphones and smiled brightly at Shah sahib. She was feeling happy, wonderful and nothing could dampen that exhilaration; not even bossy old Shah sb.
“Salam alaikum Shah sb. Main theek hoon. Aap kaisay hain?”(6) she inquired cheerfully. Shah Manzoor smiled back at her, his eyes crinkling with pleasure while he stroked his greying beard; for once he had nothing more to say. Shahnaz grinned even brighter, raring to go on the wings of everything wonderful that were pulling at her.
“Khuda hafiz Shah sb”(7), she said and walked away with a spring in her step. She became aware suddenly of her bottom; her recent scrutiny of her attractively diminishing proportions had included her behind and she now felt it rise and fall bouncily as she walked on. She was also aware that Shah sb was still standing somewhere behind her. She laughed softly, wrapped in the euphoria of her youth and the in warmth of new love.
(1): “How are you friend?” in Urdu.
* Sahib/ Sb: a term of respect for an older man.
* Haji: one who has performed Hajj or the Islamic pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
(2): “I’m perfectly well” in Urdu.
(3): “I’m walking, Shah sahib” in Urdu.
(4): “Put on your dupatta” in pushto.
(5): “How are you Shahnaz?” in Urdu.
(6): “Hello Shah Sahib. I’m well. How are you?” in Urdu.
(7): “Goodbye Shah sahib” in Urdu
Shahnaz deposited her bag in her bedroom and joined her mother in the lounge for tea. It was a balmy Friday evening and the start of the weekend. She picked up an aaloo samosa*, her favourite kind, and began to slowly, pleasurably bite into its crispy outer layer to get to its spice-laden heart. She closed her eyes each time she bit into the hot crunchy pastry. Her evening cup of tea accompanied by the savoury snack fresh out of the samosa wala’s pan of bubbling hot oil was by far one of her favourite daily indulgences; the other one being a hot shower no matter what the season outside was. Both rituals marked the end of her workday and the beginning of a long evening that she would spend partly with her mother and partly in her room, floating between the two as she willed.
The four or five hours before bedtime did not have any preset form or structure, their very fluidity and spontaniety refreshing and restoring her. She finished her samosa and eyed another. Every once in a while, when her tastebuds still tingled with post-samosa pleasure, their savoury receptor cells not quite gratified, she would reach for another. She never had more than two, superstitious about the plus-two extravagance slyly wreaking havoc in her arteries and rendering forever her beloved samosa into the realms of pastries non grata. Her mother urged her to have another, she always did. Both women wore their bulk easily and becomingly.
Shahnaz lived with her mother in a two bedroom apartment in Clifton. The two had lived in the same flat for the last fifteen years. In fact Shahnaz was only seven when they had moved from Islamabad to Karachi. It had been an arduous and exhausting move, undertaken against the wishes of Mahjabeen’s brothers and indeed the whole extended family. After all, how would a newly widowed woman cope on her own in a strange city they had questioned, affronted and appalled. Karachi for the rest of the citizenry, might as well have been another nation state altogether with its remote proximity to everywhere else in the country, and its distinct melting pot of cultures. But Mahjabeen had been adamant, her steadfastness in most part aided by her best friend who lived in Karachi and who had masterminded the entire abscondement from the life that was being diligently prepared for her by her family.
She would have in the wake of her widowhood, been expected to live with her older brother, his wife and their four children. Aside of the fact that her brother, Qasim Jan was the embodiment of unflagging aloofness, he was also a man of a painfully conservative bent. He had already arranged the betrothal of his only daughter; she was five at the time. Mahjabeen herself had spent ten wonderful years with a husband who had been kind, generous and forward looking. He had encouraged her to do her bachelors and then her masters in Geography. After graduation, she picked up the silver thread of Initiative that was so devotedly woven into the fabric of their homestead by her husband, and of her own volition enrolled in a teachers training program. She had managed all this with Shahnaz as a baby and then a toddler. Asfand had enabled her in ways that practically and profoundly went much beyond just his approval as the head of their little family. He had changed, fed and played with their little daughter when Mahjabeen had board exams to prepare for; seamlessly, graciously for weeks upon weeks, shouldering chores that usually lay in the domain of her responsibilities. She sometimes secretly wondered if in fact her life with Asfand was too good to be true; whether the universe itself held them in the blessed hollow of its hands. She would then recite a prayer to ward off ill omens and evil eyes; her unfailing devoutness was her offering to the Divine to always keep her family together.
And then one day just like that, her little world came crashing down around her. Asfand slipped away, his life snuffed out in a split second on the motorway. She was left with seven year old Shahnaz, but also a spirit that was dogged and determined. When her best friend and the principal of a leading school in Karachi offered her a job, she forged the rest of the exit for herself. Within a month, she was in a completely new city, a new environment and a new home.
Shahnaz had been an introverted little girl and had struggled with accepting her suddenly fatherless existence, coupled as that reality was with the unfamiliarity of their new home. She had mourned her father in the innocent, raw manner of a child, crying herself to sleep for weeks afterwards. But the newness of fresh starts, when one does embark on them, is oftentimes a healing elixir in itself. And so, Shahnaz and Mahjabeen had slowly, a day at a time, emerged from their cocoon of painful memories that over the years, lost their piercing sting, becoming softer for both of them to recall and to share.
These last fifteen years in their adopted city had been blessed in other ways too; bestowing an ungrudging share of triumphs and joyfulness on mother and daughter. Mahjabeen was now heading the junior section at Tasneem’s school and Shahnaz, now 22 had just started working at a bank.
Life at Mall Court was generally neighbourly. Most of the residents knew one another, coming together in good times and in bad. The two women had attended six weddings and six funerals in the last decade and a half. The fact that the communal joys and sorrows were even keeled somehow didn’t take away from the overall sense of contentment and gratefulness. Maybe it was this very spirit of community that insulated the residents from the harshness of their individual tragedies. And so, life for the mother and the daughter had been as good as they could have hoped for.
Both women loved their food. The oilier and the richer, the better. While Mahjabeen could cook almost the entire spectrum of local cuisine (the deliberate exceptions being paya* and mutton Kunna*), Shahnaz was a gourmet maker of desserts. From the syrupy gulab jamun to the multi layered tiramisu to the minced beef samosas that promised the most stellar crunch, she could masterfully muster them all. Shahnaz had in fact made reasonable amounts of pocket money from the sale of her baked goods over the last few years. Most of her customers were the Mall Court residents, rallying together as always to support one of their own, and in no small part, to also indulge their insatiable South Asian appetites for fresh-off-the-pan, sweet, rich dessert.
* Aaloo Samosa: Aaloo: Potato in Urdu. Samosa: A fried or baked pastry with a savory filling, including ingredients such as spiced potatoes, onions, and peas.
* Paya: The main ingredients of the dish are the trotters (or hoof of a cow, goat, buffalo or sheep) cooked with various spices.
* Kunna: The term means clay pot in Punjabi. Originating from the Chiniot district in the state of Punjab Pakistan, Kunna is a heavy meat dish that is made with several spices and tender mutton.
There was once a little sub
He was called Eleos*-Blue
His daddy had swum in world war One
His mummy in world war two
He had grown up being taught
That his role was to fight
To carry sailors in deep waters
Where there was zero light
His little body had been trained
To dive in extra deep
Sharks and squids and anglerfish
Would never make that trip
But in his tinny tiny heart
The little sub didn’t like
The grownup chore that they called war
He was a happy little tyke
When the admirals saw that he
Would beam with the purest joy
Everytime he was visited
By a little girl or boy
They took him to the water park
And put him in the pool
And there he still swims happily
There never was a sub so cool!
* Eleos: In ancient Athens, Eleos was the personification of mercy and compassion – the counterpart of the Roman goddess Clementia.
Qayum Alam: (smiling at his wife’s uncharacteristically mysterious manner) “Where are we going Bats? The suspense is killing me”
Batool: (Awash in a wave of overwhelming anticipation) “Oh, you’ll soon find out. I can only tell you that it’ll be the surprise of a lifetime”
Qayyum Alam (smiling to himself, thinking he wasn’t the only one, after all, who’d been busy lately)
[At the KILLA office]
Qayum Alam: “You!”
Madam J: “Hain*!”
Inamullah K: “Allah khair*!”
Chaddu: “Ji, ji! Bismillah*!”
Batool: (Pointing to Masood Khan who was sitting comfortably in a chair) “What is he doing here?”
Qayum Alam: (To Jahanara who was also sitting comfortably in a chair) “What are you doing here?
Madam J: (To Qayum Alam while adjusting her billowing chiffon dupatta and releasing a petrichor of roses that engulfed the room) “What in the world are you doing here?”
Inamullah K: (Sweating profusely and looking around like a caged hare) “Please sit down. Everyone, please. Let me explain. There was a mistake. A little error … Chaddu sb, will you tell?”
Chaddu: (Standing unobtrusively in a corner, shaking his head vehemently; no he would not)
Batool: (Refusing to sit down and glaring at Inamullah Karamat) “Inamullah sb, is this some kind of a sick joke?”
Qayum Alam: (Sitting down in a chair) “Bats, what is this place and why is Madam Jahanara here?”
Madam J: “Masood Khan and I have arrived just a few minutes ago. To get to the bottom of all this. (Turning to Inamullah Karamat while the bracelets on both her wrists jingled briskly)
Madam J: “So, Mr. Inam is it? Why has your colleague there been taking photos of the guard at my apartment building, Masood Khan here? Not once, not twice but a few times now. Are you planning on launching a modelling career for him or are you voyeurs of some distasteful variety? Hmm? Masood Khan caught him today getting into a rickshaw outside my apartment building and brought him to me. He wouldn’t say much except that there was a meeting today. So we came to see what the fuss was all about”.
Inamullah K: (Still sweating profusely and mopping his face with a large red handkerchief) “I … the thing is madam …” (looking towards Chaddu for some helpful interjection) “Chaddu sb ___?”
Chaddu: (Still standing away from the group, still silent as a tomb, looking studiously at the ballpoint in his hands).
Batool: (Taking matters into her own hands and turning on her husband who was now sitting near the other man) “I know you’re having an affair QA!”
Qayum Alam: (Perplexed and confused) “What? Have you lost your mind Bats?”
Inamullah K: (Having given up trying not to sweat up a storm, the perspiration now flowing in sopping rivers down the front of his shirt) “If you will just let me explain __”
Batool: (Reddening with frustration and indignation) “I have photos! (Turning to the sweating sleuth) “Inamullah sb, the photos!”
Inamullah K: (Pulling on his suspenders, unconsciously facilitating the even flow of his secretions down the entirety of his shirt) “The thing is Mrs. B … the thing is that the photos are definitely of this guard whom your husband used to sit with. Yes! there is no mistake there”.
Inamullah K: (Losing steam and looking desperately around for inspiration and courage to continue. Catching sight of Madam Jahanara’s beatifically smiling face) “The thing is Madam, your .. err … Mr. B sat with the guard waiting for Madam Jahanara to finish her morning classes. Singing classes. So he could get his singing lessons. She’s a great singer!” (Smiling foolishly while pulling out a second handkerchief, this one white, like a flag of surrender, and mopping his face again, looking just a tad hopeful about this nightmare ending).
Qayum Alam: (Throwing up his hands in exasperated defeat) “There goes my anniversary surprise!”
Batool: (Still standing rooted to the ground and still red and wrathful) “What singing classes? What about my husband having an affair with the guard? (Pointing to a bewildered Masood Khan) “With him!”
Qayum Alam: (Finally shocked and stupefied) “An affair? With Masood Khan?!” (Now watching his wife for signs of a mental breakdown) “Bats my darling have you finally lost your marbles? (Then looking around) “What is this place?”
Inamullah K: (Having finally stymied the outward flow of his life force) “Sir respectfully, we are KILLA. We have been private investigators and settlers of truth for …” (looking at Qayum Alam’s darkening expression and deciding it was a good time to let the situation play itself out while keeping his marketing spiel and his investigative findings to himself).
Madam J: (Tinkling like bells while raising a pudgy hand to hold it daintily under her chin while looking at Batool, her whole posture one of barely contained mirth) “An affair! Oh dear!” (Laughing now full throatedly while the scent of roses floated delicately around her).
Qayum Alam: (Also seeing the comedy of errors, joining in the laughter).
Inamullah K: (Attempting a few sporting grins but each time being almost masochistically drawn to Batool’s face which had morphed into a Mughal battle field complete with stampeding elephants and red eyed soldiers with murder on their minds. Immediately tamping down on any lightness of spirit he might have called upon, and looking straight ahead with mouth pursed as if about to painstakingly whistle).
Batool: (Finally sinking into a chair. With Masood khan forgotten, now looking at the diva sitting in front of her, unsure for probably the first time in her life of what to say) “The messages! The texts! Laila!”
Qayum Alam: (Placing a hand on his wife’s arm, still looking for her missing marbles) “Laila?”
Batool: (Collecting herself) “The laila with whom you wanted to do your dil diyan gallan!”
Qayum Alam: (Looking stunned for a moment, then placing both hands on his wife’s indignant shoulders) “Those were the songs I was rehearsing for our anniversary. Madam Jahanara was coaching me. It was a surprise. I was going to sing them for you. Layla by Eric Clapton and Dil diyan gallan by Atif Aslam”.
Batool: (Lost for words again. Then instinctively) “You spelled it L.A.I.L.A. That’s L.A.Y.L.A …”
Qayum Alam: (Trying hard not to laugh) “I never was good at spelling darling” (then looking at his wife’s face as she slowly, hesitantly changed mental gears and began fitting the offending blocks of information into their non offending places. The laughter that had been bubbling up in the pit of his belly came booming out again, pulling at his tear ducts on the way).
Madam J: (Chortling along gaily).
Chaddu: (Still standing in the shadows chuckling abashedly).
Inamullah K: (With its intended purpose served, pushing white-flag handerkerchif back into the pocket of his trousers) “What a blessed ending. What a blessed ending”.
Qayum Alam: (Standing up and pulling his wife into an embrace) “Oh darling bats, dearest darling, batty bats!”
The thing about love is that it makes you do the strangest things with the best of intentions. Old love like ours; young love like in the movies, in the face of adversity (real or imagined) it all rallies in the same way. I would not call what happened a misadventure, I told QA. No, it was an irrefutable testament of my loyalty and devotion to our marriage of 40 years, and counting.
Speaking of money, Inamullah Karamat offered me a 50% discount seeing as how fictitious his “facts” had turned out to be. I was very much of the mind to retrieve the original 50% too but QA thought it was a fitting 40th anniversary gesture of magnanimity. I hrmphed noncomittally, letting my husband have the last intelligible word this time. He had earned it.
The annivaerasy party is 3 days away and QA has persevered with his singing lessons. I insisted of course; it’s not important how you start an enterprise, but how you finish it, as someone has so aptly said.
Of course, I can’t speak for the croakiness he might visit on the world when trying on a melody. Time will tell, because his audience definitely will not … thankfully. That reticence would be yet another wonderful social foible: being compassionately tone deaf and unfailingly appreciative of the host. At least to his face. I too will probably have to keep what my ears hear, to myself; after all, he is going to be giving Eric Clapton and Atif Aslam a run for their money just for me.
But when all is said and done, we will have been together for 40 years and nothing on that day could spoil that abiding fact.
That dear readers, is how this story ends, quite fortuitously and for the betterness of all. (I looked it up – that is in fact a word, and what a charming word it is).
Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/08/09/cheating-spouse-part-one/
Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/08/11/the-cheating-spouse-part-two/
* Tum: You in urdu.
* Hain: a colloquial expression in Urdu indicatin puzzlement and confusion.
* Allah Khair: “May God protect us” in Urdu.
* Ji, Ji, Bismillah: Ji = “Yes/ Ok” in Urdu. Bismillah = “may god endow this event with his blessings” in colloquial Urdu.
Inamullah Karamat – Lead Investigator:
I, Inamullah Karamat have been a private investigator and settler of truth for twenty years now. I help people find out what is really happening with their loved ones. My only condition is that the subject of my inquiry be a close family member of my clients. I will not investigate strangers for reasons that are now as stringently professional as the repurcussions were once painfully personal. It is also for this reason that I do not openly or conventionally advertise my services. The Karamat Investigation & Lead Location Agency (KILLA) clients are all referral based from my loyal set of customers and even some transgressors-turned-customers.
I charge PKR one lakh for intra-city investigations and PKR two lakhs plus food and board for out of city work. KILLA has been at the forefront of bringing many knotty and frustrating cases to their final rest.
I first got a call from Mrs. B a few days ago (we never use the full names of our clients). She was a referral from another very good client of ours, Mrs. J. (I had done a bit of sleuthing for Mrs. J not so long ago on a nurse who is now settled in Sahiwal).
Mrs. B was going to explain her entire case to me on the phone but I firmly stopped her. Sharing initial information on any digital medium is against my professional credo. I insist on meeting in person. Complete and utter discretion is what I always encourage. Until end of case. Then I hand over a copy of all evidence to the client if they so wish. The agency maintains the record for a period of five years and then destroys it, upholding secrecy, reputation and space optimization.
Today, Mrs. B will be coming to my office.
I had to look for a dupatta in my wardrobe. One that matched one of my current suits of shalwar kameez. I myself am not a regular wearer of this garment. I find it gets in the way of so many things including my patience. I found a black one with enormous orange flowers, a vestige from an old suit that had lived the course of its natural life in my wardrobe at least a decade ago. I matched it to a sober black outfit that had burgundy paisleys on it. I was going to meet the private eye today and I had to look the part of the chaste woman who had been wronged. That avatar is important in our blessed homeland; to stave off conventional conjectures of how it might have been the woman’s fault, starting from the way she is dressed. I was in two minds about putting the dupatta on my head. I decided against it and instead wore gargantuan dark glasses, another yesteryear token in my wardrobe that had bested the trends of time.
I called Inamullah Karamat for the exact location in Aabpara market. He told me to meet him near the Jallandar Burger stand. I knew where that was.
I had just arrived at the rendezvous point when I saw a large man, obtrusive in the belly that perched unreservedly in front of him and the bright red suspenders between which he emphasised it. He was standing near the burger stand with his hands in his pockets and looking casual but also very conspicuous. The scene did not look promising for enterprises of the undercover variety. I myself do not usually judge a book by its cover (or suspenders) but I have to say that when I saw Inamullah Karamat, lead investigator, I felt somewhat anxious about him being the agent of my covert and cautious venture.
Assalam alaikum Mrs. B., he said. Aap fikar na karein. Is guthi ko ham suljha kar chorain gai (1).
I looked at the man, not knowing exactly how to respond to this salutation full of committment and promise. He didn’t even know my issue yet and he was already assuring me of success. I was impressed. My drooping confidence in the investigator who was going to unearth difficult but essential truths for me, was resurrected once again.
I returned his greeting with a smile full of gratitude and encouragement.
We went to KILLA’s office.
Last night, I felt a strange inclination to look at my husband’s phone. I would never do that normally but I felt compelled. (In retrospect, the karmic hands of the universe were guiding me). There was nothing strange in the call list. I opened up his messages and that’s where I found probably the most damning evidence of his infidelity. Oh QA! why at this stage in our perfectly harmonious lives are you stirring that pot of luv shuv! There it was, the second last message from someone he had saved as MJ; the one just before the meme he had sent me of getting a bottle of medication for joint pain and then ironically not even being able to open the bottle.
Sun le meri dil diyan galan (2)
The two messages glimmered back at me baring their incisors full of venom and the imprints of a woman called Laila. I was livid. And so upset. It suddenly hit me how much I loved QA and also of my now shattered bubble of confidence that he loved me back. I mean we were going to be celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary soon. 40 years! And he’s telling another woman of the state of his wretched heart! I decided that I was definitely more livid than I was upset.
I shared the messages with Inamullah sb*. (He had offered that I call him Inam bhai* but that just sounded awkward for a man I’d just met, and especially one I was paying to spy for me).
He said that he would soon have something concrete to share with me.
Inamullah Karamat, Lead Investigator:
My colleague, Chaddu sb, started shadowing the subject after the visit from Mrs. B and payment of the 50% advance. After three weeks, we had collected enough evidence to formulate our conclusion. It was a tricky situation and one that I had not expected. How my client would react I could only guess at with apprehension while also calling on the blessings and forgiveness of the Almighty. (Toba! Toba!* Sometimes my work did heave up absurdities and enigmas that shocked and awed). We had established beyond a shadow of doubt that the subject, Mrs. B’s husband was going twice a week to the West Breeze apartments in Golra and meeting Masoom Khan the guard. (The J in the MJ saved on the subject’s phone was a ploy to mislead). They would sit together outside for close to an hour after which they would then both disappear inside the building. There they would stay for another 45 minutes. After that the guard would emerge (looking refreshed and happy – this was Chaddu sb’s personal observation and appears relevant to the case). 15 to 20 minutes later, the subject would emerge (with a spring in his step – also Chaddu sb’s observation).
Please note that we only put down prima facie observations, commonsensical deductions and facts into our case files so my personal thoughts on the propriety or impropriety of people’s behaviour are not relevant and therefore will not be made a part of this narration. The conclusion was that Mrs. B’s suspicions were indeed correct and her husband was having an affair; with the guard at West Breeze. Laila was the subject’s term of endearment for Masood Khan.
As I mentioned, informing the client of our findings is an event always fraught with emotion: incredulity, disbelief, shock, screaming denials and sometimes even a barrage of invective hurled at me for being the barer of facts. Finally there is either seething anger for the subject or copious tears for oneself. (Given that the clients already know that something is going on, the slew and intensity of emotions nevertheless pour forth thick and heavy. I have trained my ears and my nerves for this onslaught and have learnt early on not to take it personally). I was expecting nothing less in this case especially given the particular nature of the affair. I prepared to call Mrs. B to inform her of the facts. I would also request a final meeting where I will formally hand over the completed case file to her and receive the balance payment.
What rubbish! Have you lost your mind?!, the loud and berating eruption was out of my mouth before I could quite catch at the magma that went coursing through the ether to attack Inam Karamat’s ear at the other end. Immediately after, I capitulated to the best of my ability. He was just the bearer of the offending information.
I asked him if he was completely sure; that this was very unlike my husband. I mean, there had never ever been any indication to suggest that he was … not heterosexual.
Inam Karamat said that unfortunately he was was quite sure and that he had photo evidence: three sets of pictures of three separate occasions confirming the fact. To establish pattern be-yaand shedo of dowt, Inam Karamat added in English, thus endowing the otherwise implausible information with the absolute certainty that conclusions delivered in english tend to do.
I mean the affair was bad enough but to have it with another man! Somehow I couldnt even at my most uncharitable (or broadminded depending on how you approach the situation) imagine my husband involved in a homosexual relationship. Agonisingly, I was also overcome by the conundrum of whether QA’s pronouns were still he/ him or whether he now entertained an altogether changed identity. One thing I was sure of though – his adjectives: nasty and sly. Outrageous and shameful. Crazy as a March hare!
I asked Inamullah sb if he could send me a photo of the other man. He obliged. I took one look at the grinning face and was overcome with bewilderment; that changed to seething fury quite quickly.
Tomorrow I’m going to KILLA for the final time; with my husband. I haven’t told him where we are going of course. He deserves the humiliation of having his not so secret, sordid affair revealed to the world. Well… to the employees of the agency at least. I have to admit, the fact that they already know, has significantly watered down the catharsis of my retributive thoughts. Still, I don’t consider myself a vengeful woman, so this “catching out” scheme will have to do.
Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/08/09/cheating-spouse-part-one/
Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/08/12/cheating-spouse-part-three/
(1): “Don’t you worry. We will definitely resolve this pickle of a case”.
* Laila: a term of endearment for a lady love in Urdu.
(2): “Listen to the love language of my heart”
* Sb: Short for Sahib. In Urdu, a title of respect for a man.
* Bhai: brother in Urdu
* Toba! Toba!: In Islam the term means vowing to sin no more. In everyday use, it expresses blame, dislike, disapprobation, abhorrence, or contempt.