A slate grey Mercedes S-class stopped at the traffic light near Kalma Chowk*. Its single occupant engaged in meditative contemplation, seemingly unaware of the myriad admiring, envious and studiedly indifferent glances directed towards his carriage. At that moment, Saif too was thinking of how like Cinder-fella* he felt, enroute to the reception of his lady love in his modern day coach; this time, the Prince was going to be on social display. He looked at himself briefly in the rear view mirror and brushed back an invisible strand of hair. He was nervous… Saif was actually feeling those “monarchs dancing in his gut” like his best friend and customary partner in crime, Zainab liked saying every time a new paramour sauntered into her life. They both knew it was more for the drama of it all, than any actual feeling of apprehension or distress. Together, they had triumphed over many a glitzy evening and had walked away effortlessly with all those tacit, transcendental laurels of a socially relevant affair. The pair had been the talk of the town for 5 years before the prurient coterie of the Lahore party scene accepted that this was indeed just a friendship that was not going to go into any tantalising realms of couple-hood.
Sabeen was immersed in her own thoughts while she luxuriated in a bubble bath, languidly, delicately caressing the foamy peaks like so many fledgling dreams. She was already thinking of how she was going to be dividing her time between the largely unglamorous, small-town venue of All Things Princely, and the urban lavishness of her beloved city, Lahore. Saif had said they’d build a house, a mansion in fact, in the city. But that meant more time away from her urban roots, and the thought made her quite decidedly claustrophobic. They would have to rent…she shuddered at the bourgeois ring to that word. It would be very discreetly done and to everyone that mattered, they would own the place. She thought ahead to their very first party which they would host as a couple; and generations of matriarchal planning, organising and embellishing skills kicked in as she flash-imagined the affair right down to the white carnations arranged elegantly around the house, and the special bergamot incense from Harrods wafting in fragrant wreaths around the gracious company. She smiled widely, held up her head regally and then in a coquettish moment of elation, lifted a shapely leg and an arm in a comical, semi-submerged arabesque.
“Shabana! Mairay kapray lay ao!”(1), Farzana said loudly, wrapped in a towel, head bobbing like a chicken’s outside her bedroom door, while she tried to catch a glimspse of the madly elusive girl.
“Aur teen samosay bhi thal lo“(2), she added with a cheery lilt in her voice. She needed her fried food euphoria as she navigated through the laborious but much adored exercise of getting dressed for the evening. She had a plan. She had invited Farrukh over to even out the group this evening. The essential fourth person to help break awkward silences and to more essentially, balance out the conversation if the love birds got too chatty among themselves. That too had happened with Sabeen’s sometimes bossy love interests, leaving the loquacious Farzana wondering where her tongue had got to. Farrukh, Farzana’s eternal suitor, was one of those not so rare individuals who was infinitely endowed with the power of speech but lacked woefully in the power of conversation. And sometimes, the ensuing gibberish was Farzana’s soul food as she happily spaced out, while the targets of the verbal onslaught were stunned into stupefied silence.
She had decided to wear a pale pink, diamanté encrusted chiffon sari this evening. It was the very same one worn by her mother when she had first been introduced to Farzana’s father 60 years ago. The diamantés had sparkled, the pink had glowed, the voluminous beehive bouffant had held and within 20 minutes, the conquest was complete, so it was said. And thus the ensemble was subsequently, reverently recruited from time to time to wield the same age old coupling alchemy.
Sabeen walked in first, resplendent in a peach and cream silk outfit. She tossed her bag on the sofa and walked towards the kitchen.
Sabeen: “Fara jaan*, do you have an apple? I’m starving”
Farzana: “I have qeemay walay samosay yaar; woh khao”(3)
Sabeen: “Chalo lay ao (4). Ive been good this past fortnight”
Farrukh: “Hello! Hello Ladies! I’m here!”
Sabeen: “Oh hello Farrukh, we’re kind of busy tonight….”
Farrukh: “I know! What fun! I’m here to meet and greet Shahzada Gulfaam* too!”
Farzana: “I invited him Sabi; four is a lucky number. [In a whisper]: “He can get the Rasmalai* from the Club later”.
Saif: “Hello ladies…”
Sabeen: “Saif! We didn’t hear you come in…”
Saif: “I saw the front door open so i let myself in”. [Smiling at Farzana]: “I hope it’s ok”
Farzana: “Yes yes! Please come in. I’m Fara… Farzana. Sabeen’s best friend”
Saif: “Yes I’ve heard a lot”. [Still smiling]: “Charmed”
Farzana: “And this is our friend Farrukh ____”
Farrukh: “YOU! What the hell is he doing here?”
Sabeen: “You know each other….? What’s going on?”
Farrukh: “This is the ass**** who ran off with my sister 20 years ago. She was all of 17 years old, you sick bas***d!”
Farzana: “Hai!* Sidra eloped with him?!”
Farrukh: “We had to give him 5 crores* to keep his mouth shut. Bloody swine…. I’ll bet you that car outside isn’t his either!”
Sabeen: “Saif… is this ….” [sitting down slowly] “is this true?”
Saif: “Sabeen… it was 15 years ago. It was a crazy time….. ”
Sabeen: “But you’re the Nawab of Bahawalpur! You’re Royalty…”
Saif: “Yes! Yes….. I’m the Nawabzada’s nephew…..he’s my uncle…
Farrukh: Royalty my foot! He’s some far off orphan cousin of the Nawabzada. Spent so much time in the royal household, he’s lost his head!
Saif: [chuckling sheepishly] “Still… the 25th in line to the takht*…”
Farrukh: “Babe, I’m off. Can’t handle this. Sabeen, bhagao is beghairat ko”(5)
Sabeen sat still, an odd calm enveloping her. She felt almost disembodied as she leaned back slowly and looked straight ahead through half closed lids. She noticed a gecko on the wall opposite with a strangely twisted tail…. it was in agile readiness to attack something she couldn’t quite see. Something else was happening too…. another twisted tale…. the details were hazy…. lurking somewhere on the periphery of her mind….
Farzana stuffed an entire samosa into her mouth as she gawped from Sabeen to Saif and back to Sabeen. She was in social scandal heaven as she absorbed every concrete and intangible detail with the tenacity of a widow spider. The indefatigable Gossip Chronicler was in prime form! This had turned out to be the best evening in a long, long time. With barely concealed delight, her face shining, she decided it was now up to her largesse yet again to salvage an awkward situation.
“Chalo*….it was a long time ago. And Sidra is married now. And you never know, in villages life expectancy is not that long; loag jaldi mar khap jaatay hain(6)….. who knows Sabi love, Saif could still become Prince!”
“Bibi, chai….”(7), Tehseen the old family retainer hobbled in with the groaning tea trolley.
She gave Saif a myopically appreciative glance, and then grinning conspiratorially, toothlessly at Sabeen and Farzana, she crowed delightedly:
“Hai! Kinna sonra munda ai!”(8)
*Cinder-fella: the male version of Cinderella; also a 1960 Jerry Lewis film
(1): “Shabana! Bring me my clothes!”
(2): “And fry up 3 samosas too”. (a samosa is a fried or baked pastry with a savoury filling)
(3) “I have mince filled samosas; have those”
(4): “ok, get them”
*Shahzada Gulfaam: Urdu colloquialism for ‘Prince Charming’
*Rasmalai: a classic subcontinental festive dessert made with milk, sugar and saffron
*Hai!: an exclamation; in this case, of distress
*Takht: princely seat/ throne
*Crore: 10 million
(5): “throw this shameless scoundrel out of the house”
*Chalo: figuratively in Urdu, ‘come on, cheer up!’
(6): “people tend to die off sooner”
(7): “Madam, tea is served”
(8): In Punjabi, “Oh! What a handsome young man!”