VERSE | THE PERFECT LATTE

She bubbles and she froths
She spills over on the table cloth
She frolics and she plays
My steaming mug of latte

Voluminous creamy lace
Hiding her caffeinated face
Her heart swells in youthful glee
On the table in front of me.

I read; wait a while; turn a page
In latte time, it’s already middle age
The lace is tattered, burnt skin showing through
The passionate heat has left the brew

Mindful of its waning charm, I grip
My mug of latte to take a sip.
I grimace, the perfect moment has passed
I get a mouthful of tepid coffee, alas!
She’d sat before me, in gracious state
I ignored the moment, realized too late.

And so it is with so much in our lives
Rich with serendipity, with do-overs rife
But We sit back ignoring the universe
Rueing our luck - ‘Our fate is cursed!’
Opportunities come and pass us by
‘It’s just God’s will’ we blame it on high.

But here’s the truth, simple and clear
The passivity, the stupor is unfounded fear.
So as each opportubity bubbles and froths
Onto your life’s pristine table cloth
Know this is your moment to make your own
Reach out to receive it before it has flown.

SHORT STORY | LOVE IN RAWALPINDI – Part Two

In late August Nighat met someone at a niece’s wedding; a retired colonel who, after ten years living abroad, had returned to spend his twilight years in the relative comfort of his family home in Pindi. At seventy, Dilawar Khan had already been a widower for the last twenty years, and his two grownup children were now settled in the US.

He had most serendipitously met this fascinating child-woman and was at once taken with her. Guided by the self assuredness of his ten socially liberated years in Boston, he let Nighat know during the course of that very evening, that he was quite definitely enamoured with her and would love to further pursue the sentiment. Nighat bewildered by such directness while also excited at the prospect of a new admirer, was a mass of blushing, toothy smiles and fidgety movements.

Her mother, blissfully unaware of her daughter’s encounter, was sitting among the other matriarchs who were critically analysing the scene in front of them, one minute detail at a time. Her younger brother however, had seen the exchange with some foreboding. He and his older brother had never been fond of imagining their mature sister “in love”. It was embarrassing and mildly shameful. They had therefore, in complete earnestness to not only preserve their male protector sensibilities but also the honour of their forefathers, always made sure that any dubious male advances made towards their sister were nipped squarely in the bud. That night he whispered of the episode into his mother’s erstwhile ears.

Nighat was given a dressing down fit for a rebellious teenager. In her mother’s eyes, the extra forty six odd years of age and experience that had piled onto her daughter since her sixteenth birthday, were meaningless in the harshness of the world. She needed to be reminded every so often that all this love shuv* was unbecoming of her; that she was too innocent to protect herself against the wily shenanigans of lusty army men – (they were a particular weakness with her simple minded daughter); and that her place was at her mother’s side – safe, companionless and respectable.

Nighat would have probably forgotten the entire unsavoury episode (for the ending full of maternal fire and brimstone, had killed off any ardent vibes she’d felt during the short encounter), had it not been for a text message that she got a month later. It was from Dilawar Khan.

Her heart had beaten just a tad too wildly as she sat in her Vice Prinicpal office. She had cancelled the meeting she was scheduled to have with a member of the Punjab Text book board and had spent the afternoon mulling over things. How had he got her number she wondered with a little thrill in her heart. He must truly have feelings for her if he had taken the trouble to track her down she thought. Was it right even to respond to him, a seventy year old man she thought with the caution of the underaged, the reticence of the discerning minor who’s aware of being propositioned by a not altogether respectable adult. Somewhere in her mind, there was also a grown up voice that was countering all these adolescent qualms: You’re a sixty one year old woman; you can take care of yourself. He must really be interested in you to have managed to get your number. Write back to him.

And so she did, igniting the sparks of a relationship that had all the classic, wholesome elements, but which in the loving hands of family, could also annihilate her and any remaining love shuv in her heart. It was delicate, eggshell ground that she would be treading on.

After a fortnight of texting back and forth and one clumsy attempt at a video call, made as it was in the dead of night out on her terrace to the accompaniment of the neighbourhood mongrels baying at the full moon (or another wretched dog day), they had decided to meet. Nighat had wisely surmised that it would be best if the meeting was clandestine and attempted in the early hours of the morning. Her morning walk was the perfect camouflage for this rendezvous and for the many others that would follow she hoped. And so they met on an Autumn morning at the F9 park in Islamabad, far enough away from Pindi based nosy neighbours and watchful family members. It was 5.30 in the morning and the sun was just winking over the horizon. There was a gleeful nip in the air, as it sent shivers down Nighat’s spine and played hide and seek with her chiffon dupatta. Dilawar Khan had come dressed in his track pants and a light sweater. He had on a cream pakol* that hugged his head snugly, and was thus by and large impervious to the frolicsome cupidity of the morning breeze. They met at the third bench from the entrance: close enough to catch sight of one another entering the park and far enough away from the groggily prying eyes of gate security and the handful of other dawn perambulators.

They walked in silence for about ten minutes, seeming to the casual passerby, a mature, long time couple out on their regular morning walk, lost in their own worlds. But Nighat was lost for words, mainly because it had been a while since she had last had a paramour to exchange sweet nothings with at the rosy break of day, and also because her dupatta kept flying up, covering her face and gagging her everytime she opened her mouth to say something. Dilawar Khan was gallantly waiting for the object of his affection to utter the first sentence of their maiden date.

“Why don’t you tie this down by your side?’ said a now smiling Dilawar as he watched Nighat’s ineffective endeavours to bring her dupatta to heel.

‘Yes! Yes…. That’s a good idea!’, responded his ever so slightly flushed and agitated female companion.

With the dupatta issue resolved, they began to finally talk. Easy, effortless conversation flowed during their hour long walk. By 6.30, sunlight had flooded every nook and cranny of the park, warming all its creature denizens and visitors. On their way back, Dilawar Khan stopped Nighat at the fifth bench from the entrance, far enough away from all eyes, took her hand and gently kissed it.

They met up for a month of morning walks after that. Nighat lost five kilograms over the next six weeks, not so much from her diligent seven day a week physical exertion as from the appetite suppressing effects of new love. Her mother was happy to see her looking after herself. The usually carelessly ministered to greys in her daughters thick hair that she so often chided her for, now reposed in a constant cloak of blue-blackness. Her daughter was looking younger in fact; she was glowing. Her mother also glowed in her daughter’s singular contentment and healthfulness.

Dilawar Khan was a shrewd and practical man who had learnt through his own trials and tribulations that it was sometimes best to let sleeping dogs lie. And he advised Nighat as much when she spoke of disturbing her mother’s bliss of ignorance about them. He had gleaned enough about her through their conversations to know that informing the matriarch would not only needlessly antagonise and upset her but would most definitely also put a resounding end to their happily budding love affair. It was best to keep it between themselves while making every effort in their individual life spaces, to find opportunities for spending more time together.

Nighat mulled over this deception. She had always told her mother everything that affected her life in consequnetial and in trivial ways. And her mother had always advised her … no, expected her to obey her ironclad ethos of widowhood that she had chosen for herself and the virtuous spinsterhood that she’d elected for her daughter. She felt a small twinge of resentment as episodes big and small flitted through her mind where her mother had left her bereft emotionally and mentally. For the first time in her life, Nighat decided she would make a decision for herself, by herself . Even so, many times over the course of the next few months, Nighat was assailed by occasional waves of contrition followed by the urgent urge to divulge. Both fragilities came upon her together leaving her anxious and stressed out. But her wonderful new reality always managed to appease her guilt. With time, and the urbane influence of her partner, she came to accept her sovereignty over her own thoughts and actions; and also over her love life.

It has now been ten years since Nighat and Dilawar first met, and five years since they made their relationship public and licensed – (they graciously waited until after the matriarch went to meet her maker).

So if you ever find yourself undertaking a dawn time ramble at the F9 park – the views of the Margala hills are always spectacular – and you see two seniors, a giggly woman and a smiling man, you may have just chanced upon one of the most triumphant love affairs of the city.

* Love Shuv: Urdu/ Hindi colloquialism to show a disparagement for the sentiment of love.

* Pakol: A soft round-topped men's hat, typically of wool and found in any of a variety of earthy colors: brown, black, grey, ivory or dyed red using walnut. It is also known as the Chitrali cap after Chitral, where it is believed to have originated.


Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/06/love-in-rawalpindi-part-one/

SHORT STORY | LOVE IN RAWALPINDI – Part One

Nighat pumped the accelerator and the clutch in frustration. The traffic on Murree road at this time was absolutely crazy. The end-of-school rush was upon everyone and it was mostly the hapless parents or their designated drivers who were on the road at this time. The only other people who dared to brave the snaking snags of congestion were responding to some emergency which only the Murree road route could resolve or, like herself, had been struck by temporary insanity. Her mother had even told her not to venture out at 1.30 in the afternoon, but she was on the adrenaline high of new clothes.

Nighat lived in Rawalpindi but much preferred availing herself of a handful of essential services from its twin city, included among which was her Darzi*. And so, when her tailor had called to say that her latest batch of shalwar kameezes* was ready, she just had to get to him, despite the snarly perils of the mid afternoon journey on Murree road. Her enthusiasm was now as wilted and droopy as was her hair in the August humidity. She touched the inky black mop on her head, patting it gingerly. She really needed to fix the airconditioner in her car – the fault-finding thought clipped up to her smugly as so many others had over the last thirty minutes – like censorial mother superiors.

An hour and a half later, she was at the Abpara market in sector G-6 in Islamabad, ensconced in the cool interior of Alamdar Tailor shop – Specialist in Alteration of Ladies and Gents. The proprietor, a portly man in his 60s was observant, agile and practical like most of his fellow dressmakers tended to be. When you’re a women’s outfitter in an Islamic Republic, you either need to be overtly homosexual or a man who is very obviously living a fairy tale perfect family life – in either case and for all to see, not having any need for minor titillations obtained at the expense of his female customer base. Master Alamdar was a happy hybrid of the two avatars. He wore pristinely stitched, bright coloured kurtas accentuated with antimony filled eyes, and his person surrounded by the heady bouquet of Ajmal Black Rose (unisex) attar. He also had a picture of his children (when they were all four of them, under eight years old), sitting on a shelf right behind him and in plain sight of all his customers. That same picture had been prominently displayed for at least the last twenty years, for the visual reassurance of all who sought his services. And so, both Master sahib and his motely brigade of begums happily played along with the ageless, faithful family harmony that emanated from his place of business.

Nighat however always liked to go just a little further in all her interactions with the opposite gender. At sixty one years old she was still a teenager at heart, abetted in equal measure by her own excitable nature as by the ironhandedness of her mother, the inimitable matriarch of their home. She now smiled coyly at Master Alamdar who smiled genially back while they both sipped on ice cold fantas. Nighat’s clothes were ready but after her hair raising, brake and accelerator fury of the last two hours on the road, she was inclined to sit back a little and enjoy a cold drink in the attar-redolent company of her tailor.

Master Alamdar was also an expert at deciphering which of his clients he could be extra chatty with and Nighat baji* was one of them. The two would wax eloquent on everything from the state of the weather to the weight lost or gained by Nighat. He had a talent for gauging and dressing the yo-yoing proportions of many of his lady customers. Tailors in Islamic republics are trained to observe from afar and can get a lady’s measurements pitch perfect from a handful of wary, discreet glances at her dupatta clad body.

Nighat was a burly woman, built more for the wrestling ring than for the more delicate shenhanigns of the catwalk. But her heart was bound in ribbons of old world romance that fluttered around her ample stature at all times. She was fond of imagining herself as a damsel in distress or a damsel in copious demand or a damsel on the fashion ramp; always a damsel of dainty things. This delicate demeanour exuding from her big frame was oddly endearing and so she had had a couple of brushes with real life romance too. Both times, the men had been retired army captains with twirly moustaches and receding hairlines that were assiduously cloaked in the inkiness of Bigen BB1, Blue-black hair dye. Both times too, she had been in her 40s and had considered herself “too young and impressionable” to have furthered the love interests: Those two opportunities to settle down had come and gone, and she had wisely put down her failure to romantically launch into either, as a late blooming on her part. Now in her 60s she felt readier than ever to become someone’s doting better half and a stay-at-home wife.

Nighat came from a family of modest businessmen and redoubtable matriarchs. Once in a while however, the one-off daughter with delicate sensibilities who was in constant need of protection, was born into the family. And so it was, that after four generations of formidable women, Nighat had come along as that dubious exception; the providential balancer of the Amazonian equation of their household

For all her social guilelessness, Nighat was a good teacher and had risen slowly but steadily in the academic ranks of her school system. She had started out as a Social Studies teacher twenty years ago. At sixty one, she had officially retired a year ago and was currently on an extendable three year contract as the vice principal of one of the flagship branches of the school in Rawalpindi. In her current senior capacity, she also conducted Teacher Training sessions for new entrants into the teaching system of the franchise. This meant frequent travel in and around the smaller cities and towns in Punjab and KPK*. She relished these week long trips away from home, even though she was accompanied most times by her eternal chaperon, her mother. She didn’t mind having her along: Her days were busy at work and the evenings were devoted to relishing rich pulaos* and mutton karahis* from the bazaar and watching movies from the limited repertoire of the guest house television cable service. She always found some park or walking area in town where she went for her early morning constitutional: a 45 minute ramble. Her mother was usually fast asleep at that time and she enjoyed the solitude and serenity of her sunrise circuit around the track in the city she was visiting.

* Shalwar Kameez: The traditional dress of women and men in the Punjab region of northwestern India and in Pakistan. The outfit comprises a pair of trousers (shalwar) and a tunic (kameez) that is usually paired with a scarf (dupatta).

* Darzi: Urdu for Tailor/ dress maker

* Attar: A fragrant essential oil, typically made from rose petals.

* Baji: In Urdu, term of respect used for older sister or an older woman.

* KPK: Abbreviation for Khyber Pukhtun Khwa - the northwestern province of Pakistan.


* Pulao: pilaf or pulao is a dish originating from the East, consisting of rice flavoured with spices and cooked in stock, to which meat, poultry, or fish may be added.

* Karahi:
A Karahi is a tomato, ginger and garlic heavy curry cooked with various types of meat.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/08/love-in-rawalpindi-part-two/

VERSE | RECLAIMING OUR HUMANITY

KINDNESS, it’s such a simple thing
And yet we speak of it like it was the benevolence of kings
DIGNITY, such a basic quality
And yet we are in awe of it like it was the Pope’s homily
COURAGE, that gritty stuff of warriors!
We speak of it like it was an unmasterable barrier
HONESTY, its whiteness, and its shades of grey
Always so elusive, like catching the sun’s rays
Being SELF-AWARE, that dialogue with one’s core
Only Maharishis* can ever open up that door

Depleting self-suggestion tells us
How unconquerable are the odds
Of mastering these exalted traits;
This stuff of Allamahs* and gods.
Look within yourself and tell me
That you don’t see the shimmer
Of all these “divine” elements
Some bright, some a little dimmer

It’s time to wrap yourself in your kindness and dignity
To feel the potent warmth of your courage and honesty
That is you, that’s how you were built to be
Take your inertia and your self doubt
And finally throw them out to sea.
* Maharishi: A great Hindu sage or spiritual leader

* Allamah: An honorary and prestigious title carried by only the very highest scholars of Islamic thought, jurisprudence, and philosophy. It is used as an honorific in Sunni Islam as well as in Shia Islam. Allamah is a leader for the Islamic faith.

OPINION | FAITH

Faith: more and more, a tenuous ideology as it has traditionally existed. Increasingly, we are seeing how conventional belief systems are becoming less and less able to minister to the spiritual needs of believers at large.

As our spheres of existence evolve, leaping and bounding into the digital age; as we progressively become part of a smaller and smaller global village, we are also increasingly being faced with unprecedented challenges in terms of how we interact with the communities we live in, and others around the world. More and more we see how intolerance, hate and suffering are being directly perpetrated in the dubious paths of organized belief systems. The way I see it, we have slowly but surely lost our humanity to the relentless machinations of modern day religious powerhouses.

What is Faith then, in the current times? What does it mean to be devout and devoted? Is it a copious measure of ritual practice while the heart continues to race in fear and the mind is a cacophony of discord in times of trial? Is it the demonstration of exalted acts performed in the way of glorifying one’s particular belief system which, at its very core, is selfish and ungenerous? Where every “good deed” is performed on a quid pro quo basis: you are charitable primarily so YOU can go to heaven, and not because someone is needy – (that’s just a circumstantially advantageous outcome). You go to church and to the mosque so YOU can get into the Almighty’s good books so YOU can skip into Eden, not because you have the well- being of your community at heart. All, spiritually depleting ideologies of faith practised solely from a fear of consequences, rather than the simple desire to embody and celebrate our humanity.

What is it then, to truly believe? Could it be simply, the genuine attempt to be the best version of oneself spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically? To be able to look within to become a force for good without? To be able to think for oneself more and to rely less on the divisive narrative of neo-evangelists? Is it to finally pay fit tribute to our innate “God-given” spiritual and mental prowess? To finally breaking through the webs of intrigue and confusion woven by self serving belief systems and sifting through the spiritual antimatter for ourselves.

Look around you. Nature itself has manifested how irrelevant caste, creed and racial differences are. How even more insignificant religiously wrought community and political boundaries are: The recent Corona virus pandemic didn’t pick political or religious sides. No one was beyond the reach of its pestilential nature. Why then are we not heeding what we instinctively know to be true: That our shared humanity is bigger than any individual religion. That our communal joys and sorrows are more spiritually potent than any Sunday service or Friday ‘Khutba’*. That together we are a stronger, better, more spiritually evolved species than we are when projecting our differences of Faith. At the end of the day, the very essence of all religions is entrenched not only in equality, kindness and charity among “our own flock”, but in thoughtfully and inclusively channeling these attributes to ensure one becomes a more universal force for good.

It is time. Time to break through the inertia and the paralysis of our different religions; of the illogical but deeply ingrained ways we are taught to hate one another. It is time to start having the difficult but essential discussions on renewing and revitalising our counter intuitive belief systems. It is time to take back our hijacked/ distorted ideologies of belief and once again breathe the essence of universal humanity into them.

* Khutba: publicly held formal sermon, especially delivered after the communal Friday prayers in the Islamic religion.

SHORT STORY | WHEN THE ROSES BLOOMED – Part Two

(I)

Rizwan Talib pulled into the bustling commercial area in phase 2. He was picking up his wife for lunch. He was the Regional Manager at one of the Big 5 banks in the country, and his schedule was relentless. But Tuesday afternoons were dedicated with focused zeal to having lunch together; to making the time to talk, and keeping the mad whirl of their lives at bay for ninety minutes.

He looked at his phone for a bit and then put it away. He was fastidious about the subtle lines that separated so many things from each other; that when observed gave meaning to the essential nuances of life: the line between work and pleasure; a drink or five; pain and agony; and the line between optimal and disproportionate time spent on electronic devices.

He looked out of the window of his car at the tinted scene before him. His eye caught a dog-eared poster that had obviously been reposing in the corner of the wall for a while now. It had the smiling face of a prominent Pakistani television actress extolling the benefits of Astra margarine. That smile suddenly kindled a stream of memories; images that he had assiduously stored away in the corners of his mind where they were difficult to find, to relive. Without warning, they now gathered together and assailed him like a swarm of locusts … of springtime butterflies … swarming, flooding, pervading. Sana’s face skipped right up to his retina as he saw her smiling back at him from the poster on the wall. He was caught unaware, unprepared for the emotional whiplash as he stared at the image. He looked away, willing the experience to abate, to flicker out of his mind like that of any random hoarding that is passed on the road. He took a deep breath steadying his nerves. He had not even spoken to Amara of that episode in his life. He had bound his mother to secrecy over the matter too.

Amara finally came down from her third floor office and smiled her brilliant smile at her husband. They’d been married five years now and as marriages go, theirs was now definitely on the healthy, non toxic side she thought gratefully. It wasn’t a perfect union but they’d learned to respect each other and to be aware of the complacency and entitlement that usually crept into the territory. She had insisted in fact that they get their equation right before producing the next generation. Five years on, she felt readier, easier with the concept of being parents to a happy brood of their own. She thought she may bring it up at today’s lunch. Rizwan would be thrilled. He had wanted to don the mantle of fatherhood as soon as they’d got married. Well, if she was completely honest, it was his father’s heartfelt desire for his son, driven in large part, by the age old patriarchal urge to continue the male lineage. Her father-in-law in fact, was absolutely sure it was going to be a grandson whenever they did have their first child – Biology and the Y chromosome-donor be damned she thought ruefully. Her mother-in-law was less demanding. She in fact, was a breath of fresh air as mothers-in-law went. She was largely non-interfering, easy to be with and had a wise, grownup relationship with her son; a surprising contrast to the majority of the apron string-tied, mother and son affiliations she was privy to around her.

‘Hello darling, how’s the day looking so far?’, asked Rizwan as Amara sat in the car. He looked at her familiar, endearing face, testing his own stoicism against the assault of unsolicited flashbacks.

She kissed him on the cheek, a fleeting socially conscious graze befitting the environment around them: Family run grocery stores, a few cloth merchants, a DVD store and a small madrassah occupied the block where she perched in her third floor office.

‘Good! Good! It’s been a productive day!’ Amara responded settling back into her seat.

Amara was a social worker and was passionate about her call of duty. For that was what she considered her profession to be: her moral duty to the beleagured world around her. Her influential business family background had played no small part in forging the success of her NGO as she continually shattered the proverbial glass ceilings around her, taking on one thorny, controversial issue after another. Her latest foray was into the shadowy lives of the women that filled the doorways of the city brothels. She had painstakingly established trust amongst a few of the women who were at that age where being labelled pariahs by their community for telling their story was a small price to pay for the 20 odd years they’d spent in its onerous, unyielding clutches. She had by some happenstance also discovered another critical lead, a woman who had broken her own shackles of subjugation and stigma and was now a thriving entrepreneur in the city. She was going to meet her next week.

They went to Freddy’s Cafe that day. They also spoke of finally breaking the sound and comfortable stalemate of their couplehood and starting a family soon.

(II)

On Tuesday morning, Amara walked into the flagship Gulberg branch of Rose Beauty Salon. The salon girls were still in the process of dusting shelves, setting down magazines on the ledges in front of customer seats and organizing manicure and pedicure trays. A waif of a girl walked up to her smilingly and took her to an office at the back when she told her that she had an appointment with Sana Khan.

Sana smiled at her visitor and immediately offered her a hot beverage – her regular start of day stimulant. A hot cup of tea, in fact, was the national panacea for many a weary work day, while also making conversations of the heart easier, wrapping them as it so wonderfully did, in its steam-misted cloaks.

‘I wanted to tell my story … my mother’s story to the world’, said Sana simply, once pleasantries were exchanged and they were both settled with their mugs of tea.

‘And that’s what we’re going to do’, Amara said smiling at the beautiful, serene woman in front of her.

On Wednesday afternoon, Rizwan left for Singapore for a sales conference. He would be gone for fortnight. Those became the momentous two weeks when all the stars aligned just so to lead up to a watershed moment for the man who had wanted to forget it all and for the woman who was finally memorialising it all.

Sana had asked Amara for a platform to speak from. And Amara had chosen the Pakistan Tedx* stage to bring Sana’s story to not only the Pakistani community of thinkers and innovators, but also to the world that believed the Pakistani woman was besieged and beset by the most toxic patriarchy. She was going to present the antithesis of this stereotype to the world; to show them how even the most afflicted, stigmatized Pakistani woman could rise like a phoenix from the ashes. She had a veritable fairy tale to share in the vastness of their imperfect world.

(III)

Rizwan walked into the hall at the Gadaffi stadium and sat right in front, courtesy of the organizing committee led by his wife. The hall, seating three hundred people, was brimful, with some of the well connected but late-to-the-ticket-stands, even sitting on the steps in the aisles.

The lights dimmed and Amara came onto the stage to make the introductions. The spot light then panned onto the wings on the right from where emerged a resplendent, beautiful woman. She smiled at the audience and began to speak.

Rizwan together with hundreds of others watched as the woman spoke with an honesty that was raw, brave and painful. As she strung together bruised bead after bead of the story of her life, there was uncomfortable fidgeting and the turning away of ashamed, embarrassed eyes, but there was no one left in the hall to don the mantle of virtuous patriarchy. The woman in front of them had stripped away any veneers of morality and rectitude.

‘I have never met my father. In fact, I have no idea who he is. I was born in a brothel in Qaisery Gate in Faisalabad to a woman who was a dancing girl by night and a dreamer, a rebel by day. She had dreams, big dangerous, formidable dreams of being more than a dancing girl. So when I was eight years old, my mother escaped with me. We came to Lahore, and ran into shackles of a different kind – the judging eyes of society. This time however, we stayed. We dug our heels into the ground that we called home and we persisted; my mother and I, we toughed it out’.

‘Today I will share with you the story of how two women from a red light dsitrict have survived and thrived in our beautiful City of Gardens’.

* Tedx: TED Conferences - Technology, Entertainment, Design is an American media organization that posts talks online for free distribution under the slogan "ideas worth spreading". TEDx is focused on a local, geographic area. It is a local gathering where TED-like talks and presentations are shared with the community.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/07/30/city-of-gardens-part-one/

SHORT STORY | WHEN THE ROSES BLOOMED – Part One

The tinny sing-song bell tinkled in the background as Sana looked over the accounts. She was sitting in the little back office of her Gulberg salon looking over the business books as she always did the first Monday of the month. She sat back after a while and stretched languidly, resting her head on the back of her chair. She let her mind break free from its leathery restraints of reality and flit into her teeming world of reminiscences. It used to be fantasy yarns that she used to spin when she was younger. Now she traipsed through the past, reliving the potent, vital parts of it, sometimes with a “what if” twist to a particular memory that could have been better, happier. But her trips down memory lane now were almost always analytical, controlled, without the painful bite of emotion. Time had shown her how to purposefully navigate through the spaces of her heart and mind

That morning while she was looking through her desk drawer for the ever elusive stapler, she had come upon a vestige of her old life; from ten years ago in fact: A certificate of achievement for participating in the Banking Ethics and Fair Conduct seminar. She was working in a bank then as a Customer Service Officer. Young, hopeful … deluded. Naive, she thought allowing the wisdom of the years to soften her self deprecation. That had been a short lived career spanning a mostly uneventful two years and ending with the finale of an Indian soap opera.

She smiled gently. What a journey it had been since her childhood at Qaisery Gate in Faisalabad. Her mother had been a dancing girl with big personal dreams. The two were paradoxes that were bound to create storms, tsunamis. But they had escaped their two room hovel and made it to Lahore; their city of dreams, aspirations and independence. Their city of a different kind of enterprise, for she had a long time ago, ceased to regard her mother’s earlier profession with the outraged, judging eyes of society. It had been Zulaikha’s enterprise, honest and true. Colouring it with any palate but that of earnest, tenacious survival was not in the purview of imperfect men. Or women. Over the years, Lahore had truly become their city of joyful gardens.

Sana Khan, together with her mother, Zulaikha, now managed six salons across the city. The last ten years had been momentous in the lives of the two women. Every star in the firmament had shone brightly upon their endeavours as they leaped and bounded to the very top of the burgeoning beauty industry of their city of gardens, and of world class brides and begums.

Sana had got a myriad qualifications as a cosmetologist and an aesthetician. She was hands down, one of the best beauticians in town and often led the charge in introducing cutting edge western cosmetic procedures to the city, or even artfully modifying them to better suit the Asian hair and skin aesthetic. Her bold hold of her art form combined with her unrelenting perseverance had even won Sana a number of international beauty entrepreneurship awards. She and her mother were now working on a line of artisanal hair and skin care products with Saleh Hussain, a leading industrialist in the city.

It was Saleh Hussain’s first foray into the beauty industry, urged on as much by the familiar thrill of entrepreneurship as the peculiar new pull of his heart strings. He was “developing feelings” for Sana as he liked to muse in quiet moments. Her pride, her carriage, her focus, her forthrightness …. her laugh, her imagination and that translucent skin had all evoked feelings he had only ever experienced once before. He had been in relationships of course, ample and assorted, but his heart had beaten only for one other woman in this way. He had lost her to cervical cancer before they were even married. It had been an arid, drab relationship terrain that had spread out in his heart over the last 15 years. Until he had met Sana. The woman had beetled over his dreary, joyless core, scarab style: iridiscent, bold and beautiful. But it had only been six months since he’d met her and he wanted to be very sure he didn’t rush anything into the pitfalls of oblivion or worse still, enduring, abiding resentment.

Zulaikha had watched the business interest taking a secret little personal turn as the usually unflappable Saleh Hussain had begun to flap ever so slightly when her daughter was around. Minute nervous gestures, careful forebearance even during light moments, and the look of adoration that lit up his eyes every time the dignified, restrained expression momentarily dissolved. Almost imperceptibly but surely, the man was falling in love. She smiled her own little smile as she recalled another incident from ten years ago. That fateful day that another love interest had summarily walked out of their door, branding their threshold with the savage cross of stigma and disgrace.

Sana had been inconsolable for months afterwards. She had resigned her job at the bank and had stayed in the apartment, confining herself to her room for days at a time. Deep wounds of the spirit and the heart had been inflicted and it took time, togetherness and the absolute will to go on that had finally ended her daughter’s tragedy. She had in her role as the mother, the protector and the caregiver, found ever new stores of tenacity and toughness. And one day, her daughter had emerged from her all-encompassing grief like a butterfly from her cocoon. She had soared into the brightness of the sky, not looking down, heedless of the gravity and the noise of society and of their circumstances.

They had then together, taken the oars of their lifeboat and had rowed through the cresting and crashing waves of the next four years. And finally, the universe was appeased, fickle fates were pacified and six years ago, the tide had turned.

What a journey it had been since her days at Nizam’s Guest house of Gems in Qaisery Gate.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/02/city-of-gardens-part-2/

KIDSBOOKS | AXIE THE SALAMANDER

There once was a salamander 
That lived near Mexico City
She had baby pink feathery gills
And was really rather pretty

She was called Axolotl
After the crazy Aztec god
Who changed into a salamander
To avoid the blade of the sword

But Axie was a wise amphibian
she was already ten years old
She swam in the waters of her lake
Eating larvae, fish and worms

Axie also had a brother
He was called Axie-2
He’d swim about and gaily shout
At tadpoles that hatched anew

But when there was danger
From birds and Axo-catchers
The Axo siblings hid away
In the depths of their lake waters

So if you’re ever roaming around
The lakes of Mexico City
You might just see the Axie twins
So have your camera ready!

VERSE| I AM THE MAN

How many more of our girls will it take in its perverse, rabid death grip before we as a society change our attitudes to the way we bring up our sons? This is for Noor, Qurat-ul-Ain, Saima and the countless nameless others that we never get to hear of.

I am a man
I was born the only son of the family
I was born in the arms of plenty even when scarcity surrounded me
I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth even while my sisters shared the dregs of their copper bowls
I was born with the mantle of privilege and opportunity cloaking my lusty body.

I am a man
I grew up learning that I was better than my sisters.
I grew up knowing I was special.
I grew up expecting the world to be my oyster.
I grew up demanding that every whim and every fancy be fulfilled as naturally as I breathed.

I am a man
I know I am one of the special Male Fraternity
I know I have a world of unique advantages in my patriarchal homeland
I know that I can let my unbridled desires carry me on strong, brawny wings
I know that I can have anything I want.

I am a man
I take what I want every time I want it
I seize what my heart desires whenever it feels thus inclined
I possess by true means or false, whatever I covet
I destroy by any means I can that which I cannot have.

I am the man
I am the man who wanted a woman who did not want me
I am the man who was insulted, offended, livid at this dismissal of my desires
I am the man who then ignited the flame of his honour and masculinity
I am the man who avenged the unrequited heat of his loins

I am the man
I was born with the mantle of privilege and opportunity cloaking my lusty body.
I grew up knowing I was special.
I knew that I could have anything I wanted.
I destroyed by any means that which I could not have.
I am the man who ended her.

KIDSBOOKS | THE CURIOUS LITTLE AYE AYE

The Aye Aye is a primate 
That lives in Madagascar
She lives in trees and won’t come down
No matter how nicely you ask her

She has big round yellow eyes
That are her torches in the night
They help her look for juicy bugs
That are hiding out of sight.

Tap tapping with her fingers long
She knocks on the trunks of trees
She’s quite polite and lady like
And will enter with an “If you please”

But once she finds an insect horde
She rips away the bark
Then she perches on a branch
To dine finely in the dark.

For fun she scampers all along
The branches of the trees
Her squirelly tail like a balancing rail
Helps her jump with perfect ease

And thats the tale of the oddity
That looks like a little bear
The Aye Aye with her shining eyes
That lives in Madagascar.

KIDSBOOKS | SPARKLEMUFFIN THE SPIDER

There was once a spider small
He was only a quarter inch tall
But what he lacked in height and strength
He made up for with his confidence

He was quite an exceptional dancer
A funny leg shaker, a cheerful prancer
He had bright blue and red stripes on him
This happy little spider called Sparklemuffin

Sparklemuffin was always showing off
His marvellous dance skills to his lady loves
And when he was being especially cute
He’d wave his dancing legs all about

He’d wiggle and waggle his body around
Sending love signals through the ground
The girls would twitter upon their twigs
As Sparkly performed his wonderful jigs

Then the ladies would all cheer and clap
As he finally unfolded his belly flap
Performing his grand finale for them
He’d mix salsa with some moon-walking

His show done, he’d climb up on the fence
And bow and curtsy for his audience
You’ll never see a more absurd drama king
Than the rocking and rolling little sparklemuffin.

SHORT STORY| ROSE TALCUM POWDER – Part Two

(I)

‘There you are! I’ve been looking all morning for you!’, said a chirpy Rizwan when he finally saw Sana.

Sana grinned back, still cloaked in her haze of joy. She had been assigned to the locker area in the basement for the day since the regular staff had called in sick.

‘We’re going out for lunch. There’s a lot to talk about’, said Rizwan, gently ushering her towards the main door. Rizwan was a Premier Relationship Manager at the bank and came from a long line of illustrious financiers. He had been with the bank for five years now and had risen steadily through the ranks aided in no small part by his strategic connections, but also by an innate ability to inspire trust. The combination had helped him build one of the biggest consumer deposit portfolios in the bank. He had seen Sana on her first day at work two years ago and had pursued her with the same genial tenacity as he did his customers. She had responded to his attentions and two years on, they were finally ready to make their love public … by now, the whole bank knew; their families were next.

‘My mother wants to come over to your place’, Rizwan said once they were sitting at their favourite restaurant in Gulberg.

Sana had prepared for this moment. Her mother had prepared for this moment. She would talk to her mother about Rizwan and they would do the needful to get through the inevitable background checks and first time visits. Zulaikha believed that their past although behind them, was a part of their lives that would have to be brought up at some point when forging new relationships. Good people were a rare commodity, but they existed. And those were the ones that deserved the truth even if it was nothing more than information about a past (and a profession) that did not define their lives in any way anymore.

Sana was of a different point of view. She had been eight years old when Zulaikha had decamped from her old life and come to Lahore to start anew. Old enough to remember but young enough to not have had any real part in the world that was once her mother’s. She was determined to take her mother’s secret … her secret, with her to the grave. People were judgmental and unforgiving. There was a very small window of virtue and acceptability that was allowed to people of their dubious circumstances and she was not going to forego the opportunity with needless pangs of conscience, to leap through to the other side. There was no need to share distasteful nuggets of history with a community that they were trying to become a part of. She had told her mother as much.

Sana came home that evening with a spring in her step. She waited impatiently for her mother to finish off at work and come upstairs. Today was inventory day at Rose Beauty Salon so her mother wouldn’t get upstairs until after 10 O’clock. Sana had a quick shower and went out onto the balcony. It was just past seven and there were three cars parked downstairs. The drivers’ sitting area was empty. So the ladies had driven themselves, she mused leaning against the balcony railing. Probably working women; business women maybe with boutiques or bakeries of their own. Women of leisure and enterprise. Her mind wandered into the fantasy world that she now created with such dexterity for the protagonists that sat in and around her mother’s salon.

Zulaikha came upstairs at past 10 O’ clock. It had been a tiring day but she felt a sense of contentment. She had been able to acquire a laser hair removal unit from another salon that was divesting its business (its female proprietor had probably fallen on hard times, or she was moving out of the country to join a son or a daughter who had finally found a foothold in their overseas Land of Opportunity). She herself had thought about leaving the country many times during her fledgling, struggling years in Lahore. Thankfully however, the opportunity had never arisen and now, wiser and more aware, she realized that she was far better off in her paradoxical homeland than she would ever be in America or Europe where petrol station attendant and fast food restaurant jobs were the disappointing finales to many off-shore dreams.

Sana was waiting for her. Zulaikha smiled at her daughter’s barely contained excitement; at her slightly flushed cheeks and her bright eyes. She was a beautiful girl by any standards she thought for the thousandth time, immediately staving off the evil eye by taking a little kohl from under her eye and dabbing it ever so lightly behind Sana’s ear. Sana hugged her mother and sat her down.

Amma*, there’s someone … there’s someone who wants to meet you’, she said taking her mother’s hands in hers and looking at her. She let her hot cheeks and shy smile convey the delicate gist of her story.

Zulaikha realized that this was the secret Sana had been toying with at quiet moments during their meals and probably during her recent late nights when she’d wake up to catch her sitting up in bed, with a far away look in her eyes.

‘Who is it baita*?’ Zulaikha asked simply, letting her daughter take the lead in her confession of the heart.

‘He works with me at the bank. He’s senior to me. Comes from a family of bankers’.

‘His mother wants to come and see you … and me’, Sana added self consciously.

Zulaikha looked into her daughter’s shining eyes. Her own heart was beating like a drum as she kissed her daughter on her cheeks. It was happening finally. The family curse was splintering, losing its multi-generational stranglehold. Her daughter was going to become someone’s wife; she would take a respectable last name; she would hold her head up high. Her children will have a family name they will proudly carry forward. Sana would be the antithesis of everything that she had ever been.

Zulaikha hugged her daughter close, waves of joy, relief and pride washing over her. She swallowed hard; she was not a woman given to tears or drama. She had gone through the ebb and flow of her own life with a composure that had also become the salient hallmark of her establishment. Just as parlour skirmishes died a quick and unremarkable death at Rose Beauty Salon, special moments of joy and accomplishment also treaded with light footsteps in the lives of the two women.

(II)

There was a rush of activity in the apartment the following Saturday. Rizwan and his mother were coming for tea. Sana looked at herself in the mirror. She was resplendent in a powder blue linen jora* with light blue embroidery around the neckline and the sleeves. She had braided her long hair and brought the braid to the front over her right shoulder. She applied a pale pink lipstick and smiled at her reflection, as much in appreciation of the visage looking back at her, as to calm herself. This was it. It had to go well.

Zulaikha wore a white embroidered cotton shirt with a plain white shalwar and a rose pink dupatta. She looked in the mirror, steeling herself; she automatically reached for her talcum powder. She laughed quietly, reminding herself that today was an occasion to wrap herself up in the sophisticated cloak of Dior rather than in the comforting blanket of gently blooming roses. She spritzed herself behind her ears, on her neck and on her wrists with the heady perfume, took one last look at herself in the mirror and walked out towards an evening that would be momentous, uplifting and transforming for her daughter. She was going to make sure it went well.

(III)

‘Zulaikha? ….

‘Anila baji… i didn’t know … I didn’t know …

‘Sana is your daughter … my god!

Zulaikha looked at the woman standing at her door, bewildered and silent after her initial shocked utterance. Anila Talib looked back at the woman she had met almost fourteen years ago at the salon she frequented at the time. It was the same Zulaikha; the one who used to do her manicures and pedicures; the dancing girl from Faisalabad.

Najma, the proprietor of the salon had told her in hushed tones about her newest recruit. The woman had escaped the brothel where she worked and had somehow found her way to Lahore. She was accompanied by her daughter, even then, a lovely young child. Najma had taken her in, trained her and kept her terrible secret safe, for the most part.

‘Are you going to stand there blocking the way or can I come in?’ Anila Talib said smiling gently at the stunned woman in front of her.

‘Please come in …’, Zulaikha managed to whisper hoarsely. Her head was still reeling and she couldn’t fully grasp at any of the myriad emotions that were crashing in titanic waves upon her: shock, shame, tears … shame, shame, more shame! She stood in the grip of this cacophony of emotions, unconsciously holding the end of her dupatta, wringing it like she would squeeze these last ten minutes from her memory – bleach it clean, scrub it raw, never to remember.

Anila Talib looked at the distraught woman. Even in the bizarre, emotionally charged atmosphere, she couldn’t help thinking how little the woman had changed. She still had her youthful figure and that beautiful, translucent skin.

‘Sit down Zulaikha, we need to talk’, Anila Talib finally said.

Zulaikha sat down mechanically still holding the now clammy, crumpled edges of her dupatta.

She looked at her daughter who was standing in a corner of the room, unmoving, statue-like. She wondered briefly if Sana had fainted … but she wouldn’t be standing if she had … had she maybe lost her mind, become mad with the shock …

‘Sana, come and sit down’, she called to her daughter. Sana didn’t move.

‘Rizwan, this is … this is Zulaikha … Zulaikha aunty. I’ve known her since Najma’s time. She was training at —-

‘___ So this is the …. the woman from Faisalabad’, cut in Rizwan icily. He had been standing at the door, rooted as it were, between the precious moment of a few minutes ago and the unholy disaster that was unfolding now. He had known that Sana was from Faisalabad and he had also known that her mother owned a salon. The rest of the sordid puzzle fell into place after he saw his mother’s reaction.

Anila Talib looked at her son. His face was as flushed as his brow was thunderous. He was looking at his mother with an expression that made her cold, that kicked awake monsters from her own battered store of memories. That was her husband’s look just before he devolved into a beast. She watched her son silently, a sickening realisation dawning on her: he was a man now and he was at his very core, his father’s son.

Rizwan turned around and left.

The two women sat next to each other; each floundering in her own bog of pain and tragedy. It was like a curtain had been lifted from the screen of their lives. The dull, dim, ugly edges that had always encircled them, now appearing stark and naked. There were no pretences, no veneers, no pardah* on the sins of their society against them. They sat there face to face with their most painful truths. For a while, the modest apartment was transformed into a temple, a mosque of divine revelations and silent, brutal confessions.

Both women wept; one for the patriarchal bondage and brutality that was thrust upon her, and the other for the patriarchal security and virtue that had forsaken her.

Even as time stood still for the three women in the room, outside it had marched purposefully into the duskiness of late evening. Anila Talib finally turned towards Zulaikha and hugged her once more before she left their Sanctum of Dire Truths, Zulaikha knew, never to return.

Zulaikha also knew that this was the start of a completely new chapter in her life; in her daughter’s life. Sana had beheld the truth and felt its soul-singeing fury. Zulaikha too had felt its caustic burn; but this time she had also felt the pain recede.

She had gradually become aware of a strange sensation. It came upon her quietly, gently, embracing her whole being. She felt free. She felt a lightness of spirit she had never before experienced. She felt strong and invincible. Her eyes shone with a new light as she sat up and took a deep breath, filling her lungs with air.

Even If this was a temporary fortification of her spirit, it would do. If every once in a while, when life became formidable, and she could call on this surity, this serenity, it would do.

Zulaikha got up and walked towards her daughter. She turned her around gently and held her close for a long while. When she felt the convulsing sobs ebb into the stoic beating of her daughter’s heart, she looked into her eyes and kissed her on her forehead.

‘It will be alright my darling. One day at a time. You and I … we will learn to love ourselves, our brave history and all. You will look in the mirror and see yourself, and not a reflection of what the world wants you to be. We’ve survived so far, and by God, we will continue to do so – on our terms now. We will live, love and laugh. We will have our share of joy. I promise you that’.

‘One day at a time my dearest. We will be alright’.

* Amma: Mother in Urdu

* Baita: Child in Urdu

* Jora: Dress/ ensemble in Urdu

* Pardah: A religious and social practice of female seclusion prevalent among some Muslim communities. Veil/ covering.


Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/07/19/rose-talcum-powder-part-one/