SHORT STORY | THE RELUCTANT JULIET – Part Three

(I)

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.

(II)

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.

(III)

‘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.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/19/winds-of-change-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/21/winds-of-change-part-two/

* OJ: orange juice

* Vital Signs: a Pakistani pop group famous in the 80s and the 90s.

SHORT STORY | THE RELUCTANT JULIET – Part Two

(I)

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.

(II)

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.

(III)

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.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/19/winds-of-change-part-one/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/24/the-reluctant-juliet-part-three/

SHORT STORY | THE RELUCTANT JULIET – Part One

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.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/21/winds-of-change-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/24/the-reluctant-juliet-part-three/

* Dysania: the inability to wake up in the morning. A chronic difficulty in getting out of bed.

* RM: Relationship Manager

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