I’m going to tell you a little story Of a girl who loved too much, Lived too much, hoped too much. They said, she was too much! She was a queen, a young one But she had that zest for life That is so rare and beautiful That is also so ominous and direful
The story goes that she was born In the wrong place at the wrong time Nothing seemed to feel right in fact. She was told to be someone that She wasn’t. She was taught, against her will To be the clone of a fantasy That had persisted for centuries
And so the queen crumbled Atom by atom, bit by bit, little by little She fell apart like a young sapling That has been buffeted and knocked about By righteous winds whipped up By those who were afraid of her Of our queen getting out of the box That they had so faithfully built for her
She finally broke into a million pieces And she plummeted She had once known how to fly like an eagle To soar up to the top of the world. But that memory was gone; pounded out And so she fell Hitting the ground six feet deep And that is where she now sleeps.
I saw a man at a street vendor’s today He was engaged in the enterprise of buying fruit His expression was a breath short of displeased He wanted a bargain; he planned to depart with his loot. The air conditioned grocery store was his next stop Where he paid three times as much for some shrivelled carrots. I watched these transactions in the street and the store The poor man got swindled; the rich just made more I watched capitalism play out its gory game But I just watched, my mouth was scotch-taped.
I saw a runner deliver food today To someone in a swanky neighbourhood The man came out, took his food, turned around The rider waited a while, staying where he stood But the man had disappeared into the embrace Of his upmarket condo, his ultra elegant space Discretionary income was for parties and clothes Doling out tips was for mass market folks I watched these Economics of One play out But I just watched, my hands were bound.
I have seen these and many more Unbalanced, unequal, sad acts of trade The shiny big ones always splashed with largesse The small, modest ones always selfishly made. The serendipity of kindness and grace The simplicity of a helping hand Are like ships that we have lost at sea Broken pieces now and then washing up on the sand. I watch these exploits crush and agonise But I just watch, I am paralysed.
I see a woman standing at the traffic light Even in her shabbiness, she’s neat and clean She stands on the wayside wondering For the hundredth time what she is doing on the street. People look at her from their car windows A nonchalant glance up and then away Their psycho-social barriers Comfortingly coming down to save their day From unpleasant pangs of conscience As they niggle at the edges of their minds The world is troubled, their impact small Sometimes it’s just better to be blind.
She looks at the faces in the cars Indifferent, unseeing; wishing her away She clutches the hem of her tattered shirt Picks up the gumption to still walk their way She looks at a lady who hasn’t averted her eyes The shame is too much and she swallows hard Even so, she manages a faint little smile Hoping for kindness, compassion, regard The lady looks up, seeing her for the first time She’s irritated, she’s irked for letting her guard down Beggars, pleaders of various requests Destroy her peace of mind, she frowns.
She waves a dismissive hand at the sight And looks away, she will not lock eyes Maybe the beggar will go to the next car With her chafing, imploring enterprise The woman feels the withering blow As she hurriedly backs away from the car The wounds in her heart are bleeding anew Everyday there are fewer healing scars She stumbles back onto the foot path Eyes stinging with hopelessness and fatigue This world seems done with the likes of her She too is done with her destiny.
Despite its inherent catastrophic nature, the end had come quickly, almost mechanically. Its very swiftness had robbed it of the tragedy and chaos that usually accompany annihilation events. Some say it had started with the largely unnotable skirmish on the Russo-Ukrainian border. President Putin had fallen gravely ill at about the same time. His infirmity somehow catalysed the inscrutable little exchange of fire into an all out war as Russian troops marched belligenterlty into Kyiv. At about the same time, there was a devastating tsunami that whipped up in the Indian Ocean, a formidable ghost of its 2004 predecessor. The deluge ravaged twenty countries across Asia and East Africa in its deadly wake. In the space of a week, half the world had gone into emergency mode. The other half watched in a stupor of pandemic fatigue even as the new horrors unravelled. Two days after the tsunami, the Ukrainian troops fell to the wayside. No blood was shed, no words were spoken, no flags were raised or lowered. The invaders and the invaded sat together watching the world fall to pieces around them.
That is when she had come; the Mind-bender as she came to be called: Arfaana, a 35 year old woman who had until recently also been a mother of two. She had walked into Lafayette Square in Washington DC and screamed. She had screamed until she couldn’t scream anymore. And then she had wailed, her rhythmical moans echoing like the tolling of a doomsday bell. People had stopped in their tracks frozen. At first. And then something extraordinary had happened. There are many versions of the event but they all agree that somehow in that moment of tremendous anguish and pain, humanity had connected. At some combined cosmic and primitive level, the energy across the square had come together and found a harmony of purpose.
There was an almost communal climax of wretchedness and despair as one and all, the people had screamed and bellowed and wailed until there was not one unbruised throat left in the square. Arfaana had walked into the Capitol building then, her eyes wet and blazing at the same time; propelled onwards by a force of over five thousand strong. There she had spoken to silent, awestruck law makers and executors of the Republic. They had listened when she had called for the laying down of all arms; of creating a colourblind society; of sharing the world’s resources with all; of de-weaponizing the world. They had heard her speak of a new community, built on the vestiges of humanity that still remained in their current world. They say, Arfaana, the first Wise One, had summarily robbed them of their will that day. She had bent their minds to her way. Everything had changed after that. In a bizarre balancing act following The Fall that was marked with such colossal swells of angst and pain, the societal shift had happened quickly, almost mechanically.
T + 10 years
December 24th, 2032
Arfaana sat in the Discourse Room in Serenity Dome 1, in Washington. These safe havens had mushroomed after The Fall and now mainly housed within their impregnable, tranquil cores, the women of the planet. She had just had news that the two thousandth dome had been erected, this one in Lahore Pakistan. She had called her contemporary in South Asia to congratulate her on the milestone. The fissure in the Subcontinental patriarchal structures had been one of the hardest to make. But when the women had risen, the change again had been swift and mechanical. Hotels and guest houses had been converted to makeshift shelters for women across the subcontinental land mass. Ultimately, heritage buildings had been commandeered and lovingly converted into the very first Serenity Domes. There the female collective had regrouped and reformed their communities, one troublesome, caustic law at a time. It had taken the better part of the last decade to purge the South Asian society of its ingrained psyche of male privilege. From the roti seller* at the tandoor* to the testosterone driven CEO in his boardroom, they had all had to relearn the new ethos. There had been countless incarcerations as age old gender roles battled in the new environment. Many of the men had been “shifted” to shanty towns just outside city limits. These meandering, heaving masses of corrugated iron roofs, scrap material and sheets of plastic had burgeoned and blustered for years with the full might of the patriarchy.
In the sixth year of The Fall, the slum population had evened out and by the eighth year, it was finally in decline. Mindsets had been changed; the new norms had been learnt one bitter lesson at a time. There were still the odd ragtag bands of ex-society men who had refused to assimilate and who still blew off steam by plastering city squares with old world propaganda. The Wise Ones took a largely tolerant view of these muscle flexing shenanigans, letting the idiots tell their now obsolete “tales full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”(1). The adage adapted from old world literature had become their mainstream maternal approach. Indeed, the Wise Ones made every effort towards non-violence. They knew that their primary focus needed to be the new generation of men and women across the globe. They would be brought up with new codes of morality, community and awareness. They would be the ultimately balanced beings – both genders at ease with their masculine and their feminine sides.
By the fifth year, another epic milestone was achieved – planet-wide nuclear disarmament. By the eighth year of The Fall, global military spending had been reduced to less than 0.3% of world GDP. The planet was recovering in big and small ways as fossil fuels were steadily replaced with alternative forms of energy. By the end of a decade of the event, as resources were redistributed, lifestyles across the globe had become more or less consistent – typified by the western middle class before The Fall.
It had been a momentous journey of the mind, the heart and the will, thought Arfaana as she emerged from her musing. The women had finally triumphed! This last thought crossed her mind with almost academic stridency, repeated as it had been at so many pivotal moments in the last ten years. She paused, just for a moment. The slightest of pauses for a twinkling of a moment. And yet, in that tiny instance something had taken fledgling root. An awareness of imbalance; a new kind of an imbalance. Earth was transforming into the proverbial Venus. Hidden in that romantic confluence were dark shadows, whispering their own doomsday songs. Songs of a new, belligerent, unsound matriarchy.
Arfaana blinked, willing away the disturbing thoughts that were now crowding at the very edges of her mind. She knew these unsummoned visitors would bide their time, until they had gathered in their vastness aided by that formidable Truth teller, her Intuition. Arfaana rallied. They, the women had changed the world, one rotting, crumbling societal edifice at a time. They were saving the very humanity of human beings. They were building back compassion, harmony, cooperation and culture into their societies. They were building back better(2) … the hackneyed phrase from old world politics came stomping in, marching alongside her bolstering, purposeful train of thought. The hypocrisy, the bigotry and the irony that accompanied the catchphrase also came sashaying in, looking into her soul with their smug little faces. Venus Rising indeed! they seemed to say.
Arfaana picked up her com-set to call her Planning Manager. She wanted to make a change in the Earth and Science curriculum – the historical, mythical, science fictional allusions to Venus as anything but the second planet from the AM Star were to be omitted. There was still too much counter-matriarchal ammunition out there for the nay-sayers and the satire writers; their reformed world structure was still too new for such erratic emotionalism. The “Sun”, now called the AM Star had ceased to be called by its old name because of its masculine phonetics and the psycho-circularity of the word: Sun = Son = Sun. Venus too would be relegated to its astrophysical purity without the dubious romanticism given to it by old world patriarchy. One of the Wise Ones had said something about Earth too … even “earth” had begun to sound mannish.
They would have to revisit academic curricula around the world, review the very semantics of language itself, to purge it of its inherent masculinity.
Arfaana took a sip of her steaming mug of tea. She sat up and gazed into the distance, her determination strong and unwavering. Even if their new collective ethos was somewhat imperfect; even if their matriarchal restructuring sometimes seemed like barely cloaked knee jerk reactions to their gender-biased past, it was now the women’s turn.
* Roti-seller: Seller of Indian/ Pakistani flat bread.
* Tandoor: Also known as tannour it is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking. The tandoor is something of a transitional form between a makeshift earth oven and the horizontal-plane masonry oven.
(1): Quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
(2): The Build Back Better Plan was a legislative framework proposed by the 46th U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of his inauguration
It’s Strange How some people call all the shots For you and me; on what’s right and what’s not On how we should all live our lives On what we should want to grow and to thrive. And we follow them like so many mice The Pied Piper surely leaves us no choice
It’s Strange How some nations are on top of their game And others continually parry insults and blame Some swirl around in their blood, sweat and tears While others race on winds of good cheer And yet we stand by like so many sheep The First World Dream will not let us be
It’s Strange How the spirit of our humanity Has gone into permanent servitude For the battle of egos of the few Losing our grip on what’s right and true And we circle around like so many moths Burning our wings in the flames of their wrath
It’s Strange How hard it has become of late To step out of the comfort of the bell curve Created to kill off the being that’s you Teaching you how you must hate and love And we fight on like so many soldiers sore Thinking one more battle will win us the war
It’s Strange Even as I write these lines A question skips on the edge of my mind No, there are two for misery loves company Who’ll tell me the answers that I seek to find - When did the glow inside you cease to exist? When did Instinct and Courage let go of my wrists?
The girls were finally on their way to hut number 76 in Hawks Bay. The beach itself remained a largely elusive thing even as their driver left the bustling highway and turned off towards the coast. The traffic was just as snarly as on the main road as six and eight wheeler goods transport vehicles plied a road that had seen better days at least fifty years ago. The girls were nevertheless agog. Every fleeting and lingering vista of the sea elicited an exclamation of happy surprise from both women. Even their driver, taken up with the enthusiasm of his passengers would point out an especially large swell just breaking on the coast, or a jagged rock hiding a structural pearl of some sort – hidden from prying eyes, opulent huts owned by the well heeled movers and shakers of the city nestled behind some of these precipitous facades.
They finally arrived at the designated hut, to all purposes looking quite deserted. When they got out of the car the first faint signs of life floated on the sea air from the front (or was it the back?) of the hut. It was Bhangra music; so the dance floor acrobatics had already begun Sophia thought with a grin. She herself was given to a more demure sashaying of a dancing evening, but Farina would be in her element! Her friend was already smiling and humming along with the Daler Mehndi tune wafting from the seafront. Her eyes were bright and in her mind Sophia was convinced, she was already bounding and cavorting with the wild abandon of a Bhangra caper. Sophia laughed – this was going to be a fun evening.
Sophia paid their driver for his transport as much as for his services as their tour guide. She had been assured by her friend Qasim that there would be more than enough cars and someone would be sure to give the girls a lift back to their hotel. The path to the front was dimly lit so that they had to pick their way carefully to avoid stumbling on the craggy ground – discretion was always the better part of valour when kicking up one’s heels, or otherwise revelling in an Islamic republic.
The scene at the seafront was like something out of fantasy folklore; a glittering wonderland. The front of the hut (which was situated at the back, away from public scrutiny and righteousness) was lit up with a thousand delicate fairy lights; some of them twinkled on and off while others waxed and waned delicately. The concrete patio was set up with a raised wooden platform that was the dance floor. Placed all around this platform were four seater tables and chairs. Each table was adorned with a tealite in gust-proof holders. They flickered mesmerisingly, throwing around huge shadows further away from the hut and smaller table-bound penumbras closer to the cabin. There were about fifty people milling around or sitting at the little white tables.
It was 8 O’ clock and less than half the guests had yet arrived. Sophia looked around for Qasim; he was nowhere to be seen. The girls then did what every out-of-towner does at the beach in Karachi – they went scrambling down the small precipice at the sea edge of the hut and onto the beach. They then took off their sneakers and dug their toes into the sand. Farina gave a little whoop of joy and rushed towards the gently foaming surf. Sophia, with her dread of creatures creeping in the dark, made more gingerly progress towards the rhapsodic call of the Arabian Sea. They soon realized that they were not the only ones ankle deep in the briny water; there were other seaside ingenues like themselves who were just as dazzled by the wizardry of the ocean.
‘Sophia! Sophia! Hi! Hey! Come back up!’ called a voice from the top of the precipice. Sophia turned away from the magical froth at her feet to the silhouette of a man standing on the promontory – it was Qasim. She waved at him and the two girls clambered back up to the top.
‘Welcome to Karachi madam!’ said a now smiling Qasim. She gave him a quick hug and introduced Farina whom he had heard about enough to know fairly well, but was meeting only just now.
‘Come, I want to introduce you to a few people’, he said and whisked them both off towards a corner of the fairytale patio.
‘Sophia, Farina, this is Samara, Tazeen, Asif and this is Uzair’
‘Everyone, this is Sophia and this is her doctor friend Farina!’ Qasim finished with a cheeky grin.
Sophia grimaced at Qasim – ever the joker! Farina cringed just a little before laughing out loudly, breaking through the awkwardness of that last bit. Proud as she was of her professional title, she hated being introduced as a doctor in social settings. She had, even in her short association with the title, seen how it prompted people’s baser instincts to surface; ranging from a fawning over their new “doctor connection” to bombarding her with an inexhaustible roster of the many others in her field they intimately knew. She hated being a statistic, she had declared to Sophia, “that was bandied around as a flex” at social gatherings. Sophia, the quintessential introvert herself, understood the sentiment all too well.
Soon, the duo armed with glasses of orange juice, was dancing to western pop songs from the 80s, frequently peppered with a rousing tune from the subcontinental music scene. The dance floor that night, saw a bizarre mix of genres as the moonwalk was quickly followed by the high energy leaps and hops of the Bhangra which was followed by John Travolta’s evergreen Grease moves. There was a lot of laughter amid sky high spirits.
Half an hour later, Sophia found herself dancing with Uzair, a wide grin fixed on her face. She was vaguely aware of the fact that her facial muscles had been in stretched-out mode for the last twenty minutes and had been maintaining that exhausting protraction more or less of their own accord. She tried to reel in the smile, to pull her mouth together, but it continued to break out into a dimpled grin, taunting all her efforts at restraint. She looked at the glass of orange juice in her hand, wondering if she could possibly lay the blame for her giddiness elsewhere. But it was just plain old orange juice – sweet, citrusy and wholesome.
There is something to be said for the pure headiness of self suggestion. And so Sophia gave up her endeavours to sober up, allowing herself to be swept up on the wings of gaiety, euphoria … and new emotions. She remembered that she laughed a lot and was acutely aware of Uzair’s eyes on her. Farina who was dancing with a sprightly group nearby sensed the undercurrents with a barely concealed delight of her own, a voyeurystic thrill. She was also tripping on OJ* and on the gambolling winds that were carrying in all this surplus of good cheer from beyond the seaside horizon.
Sophia and Farina caught each other’s eyes at some point and laughed wildly. It was an interlude of intense emotions. whether it was delicate flirtation that seemed to surge into ardent courtship or a private little smile that swelled into crazy laughter.
At midnight, the spirited festivity mellowed as the bride and groom to-be entered upon the stage of the beach hut. They both had yellow flower wreaths of gladioli and marigold around their necks. The bride also wore ear rings and bracelets made of the same yellow blooms. She looked sweetly whimsical, a quirky hybrid of the east and the west as she sat in her jeans and t-shirt festooned with the flowers of the eastern bride-in-waiting.
Soon it was 3 O’ clock in the morning. But the party was far from over as the reveling crowd flowed in and out of the hut in constant waves, sometimes dancing and sometimes sitting, until another fabulous song came on. Sophia and Farina however, were done for the day. Drained and exhausted as the adrenaline rush of the last few hours slowed to the sluggish circadian rhythm typical of that late hour. A few carloads had just started to leave so the exodus although far from its mass had slowly begun. Sophia looked around for Qasim; he would know if one of the departing cars had space for the two girls to be dropped off at their hotel. He was sitting in a corner of the narrow veranda, surrounded by a group of low key revellers, crooning a zen-like medley ranging from the Vital Signs* to Frank Sinatra. Sophia stood at the periphery of this assemblage unsure of what to do. He was in the very middle of being the coincidental star of the evening and she was loathe to break that trance for him as much as for his smiling, humming swaying audience.
It was Farina who came up to her just then saying that she’d found someone who would give them a lift into the city. It was Uzair. He was going back with a friend he’d said, and since they had an otherwise empty car, would be happy to take the girls back to their hotel.
The next morning Sophia had a text message from Uzair: would she and Farina like to be shown around the city? He’d be more than glad to be their guide for the day. Also, there was the annual food bazaar being held at the Park Towers.
So many unexpected, inadvertent tour guides in the City by the Sea! thought Sophia laughing to herself, a smile of quiet pleasure settling itself on her face. Farina was excited at the prospect too, not only because in her ten months in the city, her experience of all noteworthy sights and sounds had been limited to within a 5 km radius of the hospital which was where she stayed as well, but also because there was the promise of being a first hand witness to a good old real life romance; titillating entertainment; seeing a brand new love story unfold (regardless of the ending) before her very eyes! She felt her own heart skip a beat much like it did when she read the old world romances of Georgette Heyer or the dazzlingly brazen love stories of Nora Roberts.
And so, a plan was firmed up and at noon, Uzair picked them up to show them around Karachi’s hotspots. As they drove around, or walked or sat in the winter sunshine, the conversation was easy and the mood was light; Sophia felt a warm little glow around her heart. She wondered once again, at the serenity with which she had acknowledged this fledgling beat of new emotions.
It was close to midnight when the girls got back to their room. It had been a marvellously eventful day, gratifying for both girls in their own ways: Sophia had allowed herself to go with the flow, experiencing a whole new sweep of feelings as Uzair gently wooed her. Farina had enjoyed watching the subtle courtship as much as she had relished their day of food and adventure. The combined mental and emotional exertion made up as it was of strange and new things had been intense. And so despite being suffused in a kind of exhausted elation as the glow of the day still clung to them, sleep came quickly and restfully.
‘He’s nice Sophie’, Farina said suddenly at breakfast the next morning.
Both girls had slept soundly and Sophia had dreamt. Copiously; towards dawn as she normally did. She wasn’t quite sure of the essence of those dreams, but she had dreamt and that meant something new was taking shape on the horizon.
She smiled at Farina, feeling herself flush.
‘Yes, he is’, she said, unwilling to outwardly commit more than that to the fickleness of the universe.
She wanted to share the latest text message from Amir Taurab with her best friend, as she always did. He had been the topic of many an exasperated, tragi-comedic conversation between them. She picked up her phone and opened up the message, immediately closing it. Something held her back this time. She didn’t trust the usual predictability or equanimity of her emotions this time. The truth was, she didn’t feel like the reluctant Juliet anymore. She felt herself flush again.
Yes, there were changes in the air; Sophia could sense them, smell them almost. The atoms ricocheting around her were carrying a new energy. In the wisdom that the universe sometimes bestows on her creatures, Sophia knew then that her serene acknowledgement of the situation was but the natural first act of stepping into altogether new shoes; changing her sensible flat pumps for peep-toe heels. She also knew cloaked in the same clear-thinking aura that when she was kind to herself on the precipice of a great change, the universe tended to be kinder too.
Smiling at Farina, Sophia picked up her mug of tea, and took a sip of the hot, soul uplifting brew. She looked out of the window at the lushness outside and then beyond into the sunlit horizon.
It has to be said here dear reader, that Sophia was not exactly a tomboy, but neither did she exude the ripe femininity of a femme fatale – she lacked the necessary airs and graces required for that delicate drama. Ironically however, it was this very lack of the obvious, the normative and the expected that made men hesitate and look again; to ponder for a while (for there was never any of the usual emotional agitation of new love urging them quickly on); and then to feel the brush of something oddly tender stir their hearts.
And so it was that despite not fitting the mould of the eastern debutante, a sizeable male demographic in Sophia’s circle of friends and acquaintances had at various times been in love with her or imagined they were in love with her. Many in the latter category, when they did look into the varying depths of their hearts where infatuations tend to swarm tumultuously about and realized that it wasn’t love after all, did a curious U-turn: From the fickle pursuers with the furtive motives, they morphed into almost belligerent beings; their attitude now towards Sophia one of self conscious nonchalance, bordering on brusqueness. It was indeed an emotional sluiceway of confounding vibes and vehemence that was directed towards her. She had in turn, in the interest of careful self preservation, developed an outer shell of hardened nacre: genial with all, friends with some but allowing no one within the inner sanctums of her heart.
To say that she left a trail of bruised hearts and tempers in her wake, would not be entirely true. For with her reticence to be coveted, she also brought a grace to all those unrequited overtures of love. Even when she was aware of a heart roving in her general vicinity, looking for a way into her auricles, she pretended not to see it scramble about; all the while maintaining an everyday sunniness that made it appear as if she was obtuse, blind even, to the iridescent hues of romance. So that the men, sincere and otherwise walked away with their dignity intact and their egos secure.
Sophia opened up the old samsonite suitcase, its well-worn and weather-beaten visage a reminder of its dutiful service to her father on his many business trips in and outside the country. Despite its toilsome age, it was yet, whole and undamaged. She dusted it off and started to pack for her trip to Karachi. She was going to attend a friend’s wedding in the City by the Sea.
Twenty minutes into her packing, Sophia sat on her bed for a minute to look at her phone. There was a message there from Amir Taurab – how he had got her personal mobile number is another entirely different tale of dogged determination and out of the purview of this story. But he had, and he had now sent his one careful message of the week; connecting with her in one way or another, all in the guise of inquiring about the state of his account or about one of the financial schemes of the bank. She sighed inwardly and opened the message:
Hello Sophia ji, I’ve been thinking for a very long time now and I wonder if you would go out for dinner with me. I am sorry if this message offends you, I did not meant for it to do that.
“Meant” for it to do that … Sophia’s Elf of Fastidium piped up in some corner of her brain while she read and re-read the message with her other self preserving nacreous part – the part reserved for intentional and incidental admirers. She was also aware now, of a third part of her brain that was watching all this piqued neural activity with a quiet interest; a calm, serene anticipation. She focused on this part of her sensibilities. Was she losing her self protective edge? Did she need to be this bullishly self preserving? Why had she given him her number? Did she want to be forever alone? Did she not want a companion? Sophia blinked as much with stupefaction as with the glimmers of a new realisation. She looked at the message again, ignoring the typo (she sincerely hoped it was a typo … why did she sincerely hope it was a typo?!), locked her phone with deliberate care and put it away, together with her bounding and rebounding thoughts. She needed to pack.
Sophia landed at the Quaid-e-Azam international airport in Karachi at 1 O’ clock in the afternoon. The big city bustle overwhelmed her as soon as she walked out of the Arrivals lounge into the bright sunlight of an otherwise cool December day. She was immediately mobbed by staff from the various taxi kiosks that lined the entirety of the wide corridor all the way to the parking lot. They were all talking as one, urging her to pick them! Pick me! Pick me! is all she heard as her jangled nerves negotiated through the shouting milieu. She craned her neck and finally spied the White Cabs stall a few feet down the corridor. She pushed her trolley purposefully onwards at which the frenzied crowd around her finally parted very much like the Red Sea did for Moses.
Forty five minutes later, she was at the front desk of the Avari hotel being checked into her room. She was going to pick up Farina – (Doctor Farina now!) – from the hospital in a couple of hours. She grinned happily. Farina was Sophia’s best friend. They had known each other since they’d first met at six years old in boarding school in the salubrious hills of Murree. They had spent ten years together under the tutelage and guardianship of Irish Catholic nuns until trained and mentored into upstanding young women, they were then handed back permanently into the care of their parents. Even though both girls had set themselves medical career goals in school, Sophia had gone on to do business studies while Farina was now doing her residency in general surgery at one of the leading university hospitals in Karachi. Their reunions were always effusive and joyous.
Sophia and Farina arrived at the hotel, surrounded by the cheerful air of shared confidences and humour, carried along as these are on endless streams of conversation and banter. There was going to be no more time today to continue to catch up over copious cups of tea like they usually did. As soon as they were back from the hospital, it was time to get ready for the pre-wedding party at the beach. Beach parties were still a novelty for both girls, having grown up in their various mountain and river bound cities. At 6 O’ clock, their rental car arrived to pick them up and drive them to Hawks Bay beach.
Sophia was looking forward to the evening not only because it was a long weekend away from work and that she would be spending it in the company of her best friend, but also because some secret little part of her heart had opened up just a tiny bit to experience new emotions in new ways amid a gamut of new and exciting possibilities.
The alarm went off like a screaming banshee, putting an end to Sophia’s dawn time dreams. She had chosen this whining, grating sound to wake up to when she’d got her new phone two years ago, and had kept it; like a sadistic reminder of the torturously early mornings that she had to endure. She sat up in bed trying to hold onto the fleeing threads of her early morning subconscious meanderings. These were the most lucid and memorable of her REM world of visions and omens, the two intuitive genres in which she had learnt to see them pan out, in some way, in her universe.
She got out of bed, the dysania* wrapping around her like a gnarly, leather cloak – impenetrable and rough until the first sips of her tea. And because she wasn’t a “morning person”, that blessed first cup was consumed not at home since she got up with just enough time to get ready in a petulant rush, but at the office. This meant that the brooding glower of the sleep-deprived followed her into the brightly lit portals of corporate enterprise. The tea boy however, was trained to perfection and was the only one really who had the temerity to smile at her while placing within five minutes of her arrival, a steaming mug of the revitalizing beverage in front of her. He would then watch with gratified concentration, as his brew slayed the shrew. The caffeine in the otherwise unremarkable tea blend would work its magic and Miss Sophia would then bestow her first smile of the day on him, the bearer of invigorating brews!
It was the middle of the month, the time when monthly deposit sales goals took on a manic urgency of delivery, wildly elevating the stress hormone levels across the entire Premier Banking floor. The collective cortisol deluge was enough to drown out all undercurrents of cheerfulness and most elements of grace. And it frequently did. Today however, Sophia at least, felt a lightheartedness: one of her customers (he’d been banking with her for a year now) had promised to transfer USD 250,000/- into his foreign currency account with the bank, that was also tagged to her as his relationship manager. That inflow would help to meet her Foreign Currency sales objectives nicely for the month. She allowed herself a little smile while she sipped on her tea, bequeathing it on one of the most critical staff at her workplace: Arshad, the tea boy, that concocter of blessed brews!
The world of Consumer Banking at the foreign banks in the urban centres was, by default, peopled with attractive young professionals mostly under the age of thirty. They were, most of them, graduates of foreign universities and carried themselves with the aplomb of corporate royalty; that imperial air only ever set aside for the rich, the famous and the hefty deposit deliverers. The aesthetic wisdom of this human resourcing, long ago vetted and abetted by the forefathers of the service industry, had played out most satisfactorily in the Pakistani market too. Comely countenances and pleasant demeanours had seen the bank through many a national financial crisis, process breakdown and personality foible. A smile, a gesture and a sashay of well heeled personal service have indeed, countless times worked their magic in smoothing ruffled tempers and preventing stinging letters of complaint being received at management levels or worse, by the banking ombudsman.
Sophia sipped on her third mug of tea of the day. Her lead generation calls were done and she was now at 3 O’ clock in the afternoon, waiting for Amir Taurab to come in and hand deliver the receipt from his remitting bank. He had insisted on giving her the largely superfluous document to ensure his weekly visit to see Sophia Zaidi was still professionally cloaked, thin as that veneer of business formality was. The truth was that Amir Taurab had fallen for his Relationship Manager and had over the last eleven months made every attempt to titillate, impress and win her over. But she was a different cup of tea; a rich high-grown infusion. She was a waif of a woman with the charisma of a queen, unaffected by the trivialities of wealth, good looks and social stature. Heck! He brought them all to the table in not entirely modest degrees either. She had responded genially enough but had kept him at arms length, ever polite, ever proper and oh ever so lovely!
Amir Taurab arrived at exactly 3.05 pm and sat directly across from Sophia’s work station so that if she looked up, she had no recourse but to lock eyes with him. He wore his dark glasses because he believed that they lent him a gravitas over and above the other aesthetics he naturally exuded. Sophia was busy with another client so he waited. The Floor Manager approached him (like she tiresomely always did!) and asked if she might help him. He politely declined (like he tirelessly always did) and said he would wait for Ms, Sophia to attend to him. He had a dull suspicion that his infatuation with his RM* had not gone unnoticed by the rest of her hawk-eyed colleagues.
By and by the object of his affection looked up and at him. He nodded in gracious acknowledgement.
Sophia filled in the term deposit form for another customer (he had been one of her first deposit customer when she had started out as a personal account officer three years ago). She glanced up to ask him about something on the form and looked right into the barely concealed, Rayban Wayfarer-darkened gaze of Amir sahib. God! He was so … indelicate about his feelings. He nodded at her in that strange ostrich like way, to which she dutifully responded with a small smile and a little nod of her own. She wished he’d back off; without taking offence or the entirety of his premier relationship off the bank’s books. It was a sensitive and sometimes stressful balancing act for the female staff at the bank: keeping impassioned admirers at bay, while showing just enough interest to keep them from absconding money bags and baggage.
Twenty minutes later the document was delivered and steaming cups of tea were being partaken of amid the usual banter:
Sophia: ‘Thank you Amir sahib. I’ll make sure to follow up on this remittance. It should be with us in seventy two hours at the latest’.
Amir Taurab: ‘Please call me Amir. The “sahib” makes it all so formal. Otherwise I’ll have to reciprocate with “Sophia ji”.’
Sophia: ‘It’s a bit unusual to do that Amir sahib. I hope you understand’.
A sweet smile; placatory dimpling: holding-on-to-the-deposit geniality. And yet again, for the hundredth time, the ruse of charm and amiability sat nicely between them, gratifying both, customer and Relationship Manager in their own particular ways.
It was Torturesome Thursday today. The day appointed for the once a week dinner at his father’s house; the house Saqib grew up in and one that he now felt an intense dislike for. But it was an obligatory chore set in stone by his domineering father. Only hospitalisation and out of town visits ever broke this constancy ritual. The old patriarch looked at him with the cold tenacity that had always made him writhe outwardly for all to see, and that he had now been able to turn inwards for his soul to witness only. He looked away as he always did, focusing on something else, willing his racing heart to slow down, to mimic the calmness that he had schooled his exterior to feign. To fake it till his jittery ventricles made it.
His mother sat like a sack of ripe potatoes as she always did, unfeeling, uncaring, uninterested. Growing up, he had blamed her for her stuporous attitude towards the well being of her children. Now, he understood that it was her way of protecting her sanity; the only weapon she had in her meagre armoury of defence against the titanic, intimidating, bullying persona of her husband. He watched her as she smiled at him wanly, crinkling up the corners of her otherwise dead eyes. She would have been a happy woman with someone else. With anyone else he thought.
He looked at Shuja who was sitting beside him and felt the familiar surge of quiet joy. He smiled despite the ritual Thursday evening cross currents. The warmth nestling in that corner of the dining room did not escape the allseeing eyes of Sikander Zaka as he focused his attention on the duo to his right.
“Have you started your Math tuition with Master Edwards?”, he asked his grandson who was digging with gusto into his chicken biryani.
Shuja looked up from his plate directly at his grandfather, “Dadaji, I told you I don’t want to do Math or Ad Math. I want to do graphic art and design. I want to work in textiles’.
He looked towards his father for a moment and added, ‘I want to explore interior design too. I want to beautify homes’.
Sikander Zaka Khan looked for a measured moment at his grandson and then turned the full force of his august stare on his 45 year old son. He expected him to intervene and put a stop to the nonsense his grandson was spewing. He expected him to shake his errant prodigy and drum some sense into his juvenile head. But Saqib did nothing of the sort. He sat there mutely. In his own tortured universe he was willing his son to understand, to know that there was no choice in the matter of his education or the career mapped out for him. At the very least, he was willing with all his might, for his son to not take on his grandfather. It never ended well.
When Saqib did not speak up, Sikander Zaka passed the irrefutable verdict himself.
“You will call the tutor and have him start coming in from next week. He needs to be on top of his game if he’s going to get into Imperial College London. The Zaka men have been going there for four generations. There will be no exception for the fifth. Get his head out of the clouds and start drilling some sense into him about his roots”.
‘Ji Abba’ was all Saqib managed to say. He felt his son’s eyes boring holes into his head. He couldn’t meet that gaze; that accusatory, disappointed, angry gaze directed at him by his beloved Shuja. He wished he had the courage to stand up to his father … to stand up for his son. But he didn’t. And now his own son was old enough to discern his cloying, wretched cowardice too. The boy for whom he had been a champion, a hero, was now seeing him without his cloak … without his clothes! He suddenly had the mad urge to laugh, to guffaw, to throw his hands into the air and shout. My cloak! My clothes! Without my clothes! But he didn’t. Instead he concentrated on the leg piece on his plate, meticulously dismembering it until all there remained was an odd looking creature in front of him. It wasn’t chicken anymore. It was his father’s accusing finger; his index digit that was pointing fixedly at him. He wanted to shatter it, annihilate it. And he did, as he grabbed it and broke it into two.
The sudden adrenaline rush of the defiance, limited as it was to duelling a drumstick, gave him the courage also to finally look towards his son again. Shuja who had so short a while ago been surrounded by a halo of wholesome, beautiful energy was now enveloped by the same dark and leaden patriarchal cloak that draped Roman godlike around the shoulders of his grandfather, and that bound his father like a strait jacket. Few Zaka men had been able to break through this mould of formidable authoritarianism, in both its capacities of executioner and the executed. And so it was that the maned lions of each generation took on the roles of family dictators while the rest contented themselves with the dubious luxury of privileged servitude. Until the great Sikander Zaka Khan was alive, Saqib was quite completely in the latter category and Shuja was being groomed to follow suit. There was only ever one maned lion in a Zaka pride.
Shuja had a younger sibling, a sister – little Serena. She was seven years old: still too young to sense the disturbing undercurrents of family politics, but old enough to know that she was a beautiful girl. Those ethereal looks were a resounding gift from her mother almost as if in compensation for everything else that was maternal and missing in their equation. The wet nurse who had been by Hina Zaka’s side during both births, had stayed on when Serena was born. To all intents and purposes, she was Serena’s caregiver and her emotional anchor. But this story is about the men in the Zaka family so that’s all there is to say in these lines, of the granddaughter of the house.
It has to be said here however, that the missing maternal link in Shuja and Serena’s case had nothing to do with Saqib as the family patriarch. It was more a tragedy of errors committed as it was by the elders of both families in their age old endeavours of growing their empires. To leave an ever burgeoning legacy of wealth and privilege for the boys who would be born and who would inherit the family crowns. Hina, at the time of her marriage had already been in a five year love affair. Saqib had a mild suspicion that it had since grown and settled into something that he couldn’t quite approach or touch. To all intents and purposes, there was no couplehood in their equation. There was however a sense of quiet harmony that was scrupulously maintained for the fickle eyes of the public and for the unsparing scrutiny of Sikander Zaka.
Saqib had graciously accepted the truth of things and had tried to be both parents to his children. It has to also be said that he had succeeded better with Shuja than he had with Serena.
The Monday following the Torturesome Thursday at his father’s house, Saqib called Master Edwards. He knew he should have made that phone call the very next day of his father’s austere instructions, but he had dragged his feet. Partly because he had been angry enough to dissent, the quiet mutiny lasting a whole three days, and also because he had seen the hurt in his boy’s eyes. He had seen something cracking and something else putting down gnarled tenacious roots. Was it resignation … rebellion… or… despair? He had not dwelled on the nervous, fearful quickening of his own heart as he swallowed the bile that had instantly risen to his throat.
Master Edwards was completely booked up but he would make the time – for Mr. Sikander’s sake. Everyone who was anyone made time for Sikander Zaka’s sake. The laws of the jungle were the same whether it was the creatures of the forest doing Sher Khan’s* bidding or the city’s rank and file acquiescing to Sikander Khan’s demands.
But the best laid plans – especially if they are executed with disheartenment and dread, do not always beget desired results. Sometimes the universe itself tires of the hypocrisy of men and calls them out with its own jarring, cosmic rattle. And so it came to pass that Master Edwards did come by on the following Tuesday at exactly 9 O’ clock in the evening. He was shown into the study to await the Zaka scion.
Shuja had come back from school that day and had closeted himself in his room. Annual exams were around the corner: those great dividers between those who would rise into the precious ranks of engineers and doctors and those who would not. The ruthless separators of the wheat from the chaff.
There was now an eerie quiet in the room. In the speckled light from the LED lit orb of the world, shadows danced across Shuja’s prone body. Skipping across his face and down his arms to his hands from which dripped gleaming streams of life. Silver and black shimmers that congealed into a dark void on the floor.
There was a scream and a bustle. Shuja’s ashen body was bundled up into the car and raced through the blood-staunching, life-saving portals of the nearest hospital.
A few hours later, the worst was over and Shuja had managed to choose a side. With the optimistic zeal of the young, he had decided to live. Saqib sat by his son’s side, a mixture of emotions ricocheting in the space where his heart used to be. It wasn’t there anymore he was sure. Not literally of course but in the profoundest ways that make one human, that make one a parent. He had during the last three hours even toyed with the idea of losing his beloved child and had felt a bizarre relief at the thought. Relief for Shuja’s ultimate release and for himself as a cowardly, paralysed father who could not support and safeguard his son. He had also felt guilt, searing shame, grief and resignation. But when his son had finally stirred, he had also felt a warm flood of love and a fierce sense of protection. And those emotions had stayed with him long after everything else had evaporated into the ether.
He would give Master Edwards a trite farewell. His services wouldn’t be required anymore. He would himself enroll his son into the Arts stream. They would look for the best colleges that offered the courses Shuja wanted to specialise in. He would help him set up his studio and his graphic design business. He would be his son’s biggest champion. He would take on the world for his precious first born. He would shout it out at Bungalow 77/1, in the old man’s study where the loudest decibels had always ever been just a whisper. He would tell his father that it was enough! That he wasn’t going to sacrifice his son’s happiness in his perverted path of warped legacies and conventions… he would appeal to his father’s better judgment … he would plead for his kindness …
He would beg him to release Shuja from the Zaka shackles.
Saqib looked at his sleeping son for a long time and then looked out of the window at the moon that was looking back at him like a sentinel cyclops. His revolutionary thoughts gradually stumbled, wavered and then fell limply like a wet flag. He knew he couldn’t do anything. The burden of the patriarchy was too formidable for him to challenge or negotiate with. Saqib hunched, once again occupying the modest space that he always had, and looked quietly at his son.
When Shuja was home, when he was well again, when he was happy and once again ensconced in his favourite velvet dream, he would, ever so gently, try to make him see sense.
Saqib Zaka looked at the sheet of paper in his hands. He stared at the short pithy statements that descended down its length, as they looked back at him accusingly, tauntingly. There was some colour on the paper too – an angry red gash against three of the statements. Four-letter gashes in fact, that had blurred before his anxious scrutiny; FAIL they proclaimed loud enough for the whole universe to hear. Saqib shook his head slightly, willing away the buzzing swarm of desperate thoughts that were crowding out all sanity, dignity and even his ability to read. He looked at the transcript again and finally set the truth free: he had failed his pre-engineering exam, for the second time.
Thirty years hence, that memory had stuck to him like rust; constantly eating away at his calmness and purpose. He had tried, in his intrepid moments, to shake the constancy of the memory off, to replace it with the triumphs that had also since found their circuitous way to him. But the recollection and all its accompanying sinking, shrinking, benumbing sensations had prevailed like insidious tenants in the space of his mind.
Saqib sighed and looked around him. The imposing room that had been his father’s office and was now, by default, his, shimmered in the late afternoon light coming in through the window. Despite his best effort not to, his eyes came to rest on the canvas that hung on the wall directly opposite his desk. It was a complex piece of Gestural Abstract art which had hung in the stately room for at least the last twenty years. In its monochromatic palette of random splashes, he always saw a figure, broken down and disjointed reaching for the ground with such desperation that it was almost like he was willing the earth to swallow him whole; annihilate his whole existence. The hugeness of the canvas added to the enormity of hopelessness that spilt from it; flowing into the room like a constant, unending stream of emotional sludge. He hated the piece. And yet, it hung there smug and superior, intimidating and authoritative, alive and kicking. It was one of his father’s favourite pieces of art.
A knock at the door halted his mangled introspection. The rest of the day passed in a flurry of activity that slowly abated around 6 O’ clock. Saqib then picked up his Smythson Panama briefcase and headed for his car. His father would be in tomorrow. Over the last year, more and more, the reigns of the company had been shifted officiously, almost belligerently from father to son. Even so, Sikander Zaka Khan swept into the office once a week, taking everything by storm. It took a day for the dust to settle, while his own reputation as the able scion of the family business was depleted slowly but surely, like the helium escaping from a balloon that had the smallest of perforations in it. With each passing week, even the most stoic of Sikander Zaka and Son employees had seen the boss’s offspring for the chip of the old block that he was definitely not. Ever so gradually, almost imperceptibly, there had been a change in the organisational culture as boardroom debates became more lively, just short of being heated, and the ambient murmur of the executive floor rose a few, not unnoticeable decibels. Saqib had watched all this silently, knowing it was just another counter intuitive ploy by which his father was toughening him up for the role of CEO of one of the largest textile spinning units in Karachi.
While a myriad ungracious, unforgiving thoughts passed through his mind about his unemancipated state, Saqib was also keenly aware of how his Harrods Roquefort bread was buttered: he knew he lacked the rigour and the character for a regular corporate job. He couldn’t see himself slogging 9 to 5 with only thirty days of paid leave. If he was absolutely candid with himself, he knew also, that he didn’t have the requisite skill set either, armed even though he was with his Bachelors degree from the Imperial College London. The couple of Finance courses that he hadn’t quite cleared in the first go, were another echoing reminder of his failure. He knew that to live in the lap of luxury that he was used to, he would have to sacrifice his life choices to a considerable extent and his sense of self, quite entirely. If it had been up to him, he would have become an interior designer … moonlighting as a chef. He loved the aesthetics of furniture and food. He had singlehandedly furnished and decorated his beautiful home. The fact that his wife was quite happy to let him take the lead on all home improvement projects had helped considerably in helping to keep his heart where his home was. His glamorous home on Khayaban-e-Shamsheer was the envy of many a well heeled housewife with whom he readily and fondly shared his vast stores of knowledge, from the best upholsterer in town to the florist who had the freshest imported blooms. His home was indeed, a loving tribute to all his most precious and unrequited dreams.
“Hello Abu”, came the cracked voice from the lounge as Saqib opened the front door to his house. Despite the burden of his innermost thoughts that had today descended upon him like a flood, he smiled. Shuja was growing up and his body was being put to the age old test of the transition from boy to man. His voice had started to break a couple of months ago, a fact that had quickly become a point of many light hearted moments between father and son. He was sprawled on his favourite lounger, his PS4 controller in his hands. Father and son had picked the soft blue fabric for the sofa together and the reupholdstered seat had become Shuja’s favourite chair in the house. His Velvet Dream he had once called it. Saqib had smiled at the aptness of the name for the chair and also for his own secret little stash of them. Shuja was a good child. He was also very creative and talented. And brave. Saqib acknowledged this last characteristic with some trepidation. There was so much potential danger embodied in that attribute that he couldn’t quite bring himself to look upon it as a quality, a gift. With his unusually honed skill as an artist and his love of cooking, he was quite the apple of his father’s eye. And in the sanctity of his home, Saqib allowed his heart to swell with pleasure. He looked at his fourteen year old son, his eldest, with a mixture of pride and joy.