This is a tribute to all the women in fact who are oppressed, reduced and shamed in the name of religion, and who still find the strength and dignity to go on another day.
O Talib*, O ye self-professed Learned One,
I have something to say to you. You can whip up monsters from the air and call them your Shariah*. You can torture and mangle “your” women, break their spirits and their bodies and call it the Word of God. You can wear your imperious lungee* and as it swishes around in the wind, you imagine the very angels dancing around you. You grow your hairy beards, and hide your malevolent grins behind them. You rumble and you roar and that is your devotion. You maim and you kill and you call that Divine intervention.
But then secretly you also glance at your reflections and you see what we all see: imperfect, angry, reviled men trying to validate their existence in the only way they can - by wiping the planet clean of the scourge of the Double (H)Ex*. But then you pause with the greatest effort known to the Men of God and you think: How can we annihilate this evil, garbed in soft flesh if we are to propagate and procreate? How else are we to add to the rank and file of Allah’s soldiers?
The conundrum is excruciating. So you continue to brutalize and ravage just short of pushing her six feet under. Just so you can crush her under you instead and make her pay for staying alive. To bear and to beget your many sons. To nurture and feed your rabid army of the Men of Allah.
O Ye Men of Allah,
I have something to say to you. Hear me.
I am the Daughter of the Universe; the Yin to your Yang, the ultimate balancing act of God’s will gone wrong in your hands.
Hear me. We will be who we are: the proud women of Afghanistan. Our honour lies serenely, supremely, completely in the depths of our own eyes, not in yours.
Look at me. Don’t hide behind your fragile male bravado. Look at me. Don’t turn your suddenly shameful eyes away.
Look at me. Look at me.
Look at me as I rise like a Phoenix from the ashes that you kicked aside. Look at me as I look at you. Look at me and see what you have become. Look at me as your heart Drains … Shrivels …. Breaks …. Burns in its own hell.
Hear me, my voice will echo through my sisters even if mine falls silent. You will Hear me.
Look at me, even if it is at my corpse as I go to meet my Maker. You will Look at me.
For Allah hears me. For Allah sees me.
Allah stands behind me as we both look at you. As we both await you.
* Double (H)Ex: Word play on the double X chromosomes that all female mammals possess. Hex is a spell or a curse.
* Talib: Scholar; Learned one.
* Shariah: Islamic law derived from the teachings of the Quran but mainly from the Prophet Muhammad. It is not a list of rules but rather a set of principles on aspects of life, including marriage, divorce, finance and rituals such as fasting and prayer.
US Hegemony, Its Lingering Pakistan/ Afghanistan Embarrassment and now a Taliban Government
It was the early 80s. I still vividly remember as a child, standing on the side of the iconic Mall road in Murree (a mountain resort town situated about 30kms northeast of Islamabad in Punjab, Pakistan, and also home to a number of missionary boarding schools) with compatriots from my school and others, waving little Pakistani and American flags as President Zia ul Haq accompanied by the then US Vice President, George H. W. Bush (Bush Senior) drove by in their endless cavalcade of black luxury sedans. For us it was a joyous day out of the regular rigour of boarding school life; for Pakistan it was the beginning of the end of its Rising Star status in the region.
Pakistan, so geostrategically well situated to catalyse the downfall of the Soviet empire- the one thorn in the side of the Americans and the only obstacle to an all out USA dominated planet- was requested to become Ally Numero Uno. And we complied in the then considered most shrewd and cunning manner – through religiously radicalising, arming and mobilising an entire nation in a war that was to turn in on itself for decades after the USSR fell. By God, did we comply! And for very little in return. A statesman at the helm of affairs at the time (or even a half-way successful businessman like Donald Trump armed as he is with his career collage of bankruptcies), rather than a religiously devout military man like Zia Ul Haq, would have at least got us better trade deals to help shore up the economy once the dust of battle settled. But these are wishful conjectures…and the rest as they say, is history.
Soviet Russia sputtered and fell and the USA couldn’t get out of the region fast enough, leaving two countries with populations in the area of 130 million (circa 1992) to clean up the mess. But radical religion has a way of festering, sometimes out of sight, and emerging multiplied, more virulent, more destructive and deadlier than before. And that has been the dubious Vestige of Alliance bestowed on the two countries, the “rewards” of which we are continuing to grimly reap. Kabul, once considered the Paris of the East, is now a wraith of its former self, and the country has been declared a failed state. Pakistan itself has been teetering on the edge of the abyss of Pariah States. It’s people have undergone decades of global dismissal at best and damnation at worst. Despite being the fifth most populous country in the world and a nuclear power, it has fallen behind all its compatriots on almost every index of progress, prosperity and nationhood. The war on terror in fact, has purportedly cost the Pakistani economy a total of almost USD 130 billion since 2001.
And now in a not entirely shocking but surprising turn of events, Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban. I’m not even sure anymore as to how appropriate the term “fallen” is in this case. After all, for 40 years, the country was propped up by mostly US military might and the puppet government that it supported. The powers that be, were quite completely ignorant of the real dynamics of the region: the centuries old tribalism, the multicultural factionalism. They were attempting to colour Afghanistan with the same brush that they have done in almost all of their other failed military endeavours of the 20th and 21st centuries. They were trying to homogenise the country; bring it to heel via a myopic vision that they thought was applicable to all the tribes, all the different kinds of people that made up the rich social and cultural fabric of Afghanistan. They failed, utterly and completely.
The below are a few key reasons for this most recent watershed moment in the country:
⁃ The average Afghan, (mean age: 20 years) having lived in a state of mostly active war, has developed an innate distrust of its sham government and its “enablers” (the West). They see the country as having been taken over, “invaded” by the US; and that has never been a sustainable state of affairs for the proud, sovereign Afghan people. And so, after 40 years of occupation, many in the beleaguered country preferred to opt for the dystopic, ultra orthodox approach of the Taliban since it also brought with it freedom from the invading forces. There was thus, a perfect storm created at the centre of which was the formidable desire for self determination.
⁃ The last 20 years have purportedly seen billions of dollars siphoned towards the Afghan cause. But when you have a country with no economy to speak of, no development and no nation building, the aid tends to find its way into the local pockets of the crooked and the powerful. And so it has been with Afghanistan with very little of the aid finding its way to the communities at large. Investing in building trade and industry would have been the optimal way to make real, effective inroads into the lives of the people. But that requires sitting down with the people, understanding them and working with them at grass root levels. That was never the agenda of the US. They wanted things done their way backed by the full force of their military might. Which brings me to the third point.
⁃ The average Afghan also saw that there was massive corruption in the government, among the very people who were supposed to lead them out of their war-driven poverty. Over the past 40 years, a complete and utter trust deficit had grown between the people and their “infidel-supported” puppet government – there was no fifth, sixth or twentieth chance left to give to their leaders; no opportunities for do-overs by their government. And so, the exit of the allied troops also served as the inflection point for their exploitative, demoralised leadership to be overturned. That the Taliban were doing the overturning was inconsequential. At the end of the day, they in all their perverse, radical glory, were still their fellow citizens, their brothers in arms.
And so it was, that on a balmy August day in 2021, Afghanistan was once again a free country. Bizarre as it sounds given who freed the proud Afghan people, that for them, is the inalienable truth.
The million dollar question now is how the brand new Afghan sovereignty will be managed by the Taliban leadership. It is important to note that they as a faction, are also older, wiser and more cognisant of global norms, ethics and diplomacy. They are aware also that they are no longer a rag tag militia group hiding in caves and living on the edge with no clear and sustainable vision or mission. They have been catapulted against all odds (or indeed because of them!) into the role of the leaders of their homeland. They know they’ve outgrown the plundering, riotous band of robbers and murderers that they were. They know they now have the formidable task of the leadership and governance of almost 40 million people. The Taliban are aware that almost overnight they have morphed into statesmen.
The million dollar question beckons again: how are the Taliban going to go about being national leaders who will also be welcome on International platforms? A state that other countries will engage with on trade, diplomacy, military/defense, intelligence and foreign aid? They know they cannot exist as a dystopian island unto themselves; even if they have the inclination, they don’t have the means.
The early glimmerings in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover indicate that it can go either way: their spokesperson is articulate and willing to share their points of view and to be questioned by mainstream international media. So far, the sound bites have been almost liberal by historical Taliban standards.
While I, as a woman, would not want to be a citizen of the newly independent state, I would still pause before summarily dismissing the new regime. We are living in strange times where no nation can lay claim anymore to being more righteous than the rest and presume to lead the natives out of their ignorance (everyone now has public skeletons in their History closets). These are also times where global ethics and policies are constantly being reshaped by the voices of the people of the world as they look for the truth; as they learn to separate the chaff from the grain on the information super highway.
While everything right now points to the country being pulled back into the dark ages, while our knee jerks are all about reclaiming the land back from the Taliban, we need to pause. We need to wait and watch. Like I said, we are living in strange times and while we continue to champion human rights, to raise our voices for the basic freedoms of every citizen everywhere, we still need to be aware that the one size of the western democratic ideal doesn’t fit all.
Closer to home, countries like Pakistan, Russia, China and Iran have a direct stake in this new equation since any militant activity will tend to spillover into these countries either in the form of terrorism or refugees or both as has been the unfortunate case in Pakistan. Now is the critical juncture where all the allies (and the adversaries!) in the region need to come together to make this transition in the Afghan government as seamless as possible, while also ensuring that the small steps made towards modernization and individual emancipation in the country over the last few years, are not completely decimated by the new orthodox Islamist regime.
This is a tribute of determination, hope and new beginnings not only for the Pakistani women, but for all the heroic women around the world who are speaking out and standing up for themselves against all manner of cruel and brutal patriarchy. It is also a testimonial and a resounding voice of support for those brave sisters of ours who are living from day to day, facing their detractors with courage and resilience in the hope of a better tomorrow.
I have grown in its shadow; I have felt its hot breath As it slithers around me; dogging my every step. I hear it jeer in the brightness of day On streets and in parks and in quiet cafes. I see it brazenly growl at my sisters too As it strides along its pernicious route. It thunders and lashes and speaks in strange tongues My head is reeling; there’s no air in my lungs! From quiet dark murmurs it’s upsurged to discord The brutal Patriarchy - our master and lord!
I’ve decided I won’t heed its vanquishing rail I’ve resolved I will fight it tooth and nail. And so I have become one of the “pariah” few Who is resoundingly calling for something new. I make my case; then await the backlash For sticks and stones; a bruise and a gash. There are more like myself who are throwing back the knives, We’re banding together to take back our lives. One more voice, one more person, one more protest We’re the Women of _____ ; and we’re up to this test.
From the farthest reaches of our blessed land We will raise our voices, our spirits, our hands; Let’s tell them, That’s it! That’s enough! No more! We won’t be your chattels, your “Islamic honour”. We won’t hide away so you can roam free With your hormones and lust; your uncontrollable needs. We won’t be degraded, threatened and shamed While you play out your age old tribal games. We, your wives, your sisters and your daughters Will be shepherded no more like lambs to the slaughter.
We are the tender, formidable half of our world We are the guides, the teachers and the nurturers We birth generations to carry precious legacies Of peace and love; progress and humanity. For too long have those reins been usurped by the men We are taking them back on every continent. We will be your equals in every way Step down from those pedestals; come out of your caves. Hold our hands as your partners as together we walk We have risen; we are strong; we are the Dome of the Rock*.
* Dome of the Rock: A holy site in Jerusalem which hosts the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, a seventh-century structure believed to be where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
I’ve seen the colours of loneliness I’ve seen their moldering faces I’ve seen them fill the keening voids Of our broken, scattered places. It’s the grey of the sky just before it descends In blinding cascades Of granite and slate While waiting for that one special friend of the heart Who’s gone an infinite distance apart. Gone forever; not coming back. It’s the darkening shades of smoke and ash Stifling and choking. It’s emotional whiplash.
It’s the curdled russet and clotted yellow Of dying leaves Still on the trees. It’s the hope that once blossomed, Now just a vanishing dream; Like fading delusions; And fractured illusions. Like wasting ivy, still clinging tightly To the mottled, purple-bruised spaces within.
It’s the decayed red of old blood That has flowed and then congealed From scarred old wounds In the fallow fields Of the innermost corners of your being. It’s the throbbing new cuts of remembrance-pain That sear you with their scarlet heat Scorching your insides until there remain Only the rust-dripping embers of defeat.
It’s these mottled hues and grainy textures Of mangled hearts and hurting souls Its the piercing, stinging, strangling tightness In the pit of the stomach; in the back of the throat. In the end, it is all of this That make up the tinctures of loneliness That fill up all our sad and desolate spaces.
Lockdowns, inbound, not allowed to go out. While Queen Corona, that prima donna gaily traipses all about. She’s making sure we don’t forget Her microscopic savageness! So she merrily mutates every 60 days In Vietnam, Brazil, India and the UK. I do despise her with a passion so! That dung of Newt; that Toady’s toe!
I tried to see the cosmic grace; Nature’s reckoning, her showing us our place; Cloaked in all her viral majesty, Bequeathing wisdom in all this travesty … But enough already! How much more Do you want us humans to buckle down and endure? You know we’re as stubborn as the proverbial asses No amount of beating will turn us into planet-loving masses!
So begone! Away with you, Ye vile Covid, Get out of our systems - Scat! Move it! Two years is enough of a pandemic battle; Go away! Depart with your deathly rattle. Even Nature is kind after tap-tapping her cane; You’ve ravaged our bodies; now you’re driving us insane. Seclusion, Solitude, I’m so done with these Ice Maidens Give me a cafe, a bar and a mall that is laden With throngs of happy and virus-free crowds Chattering, nattering and walking about!
This ode is for you as an un-fond farewell Please go to Mars; I hear its volcanoes are swell!
The below verse is somewhat farcical and maybe even a tad fanciful; but sometimes it takes a bit of a tongue-in-cheek nudge to arouse our fitfully slumbering consciences. May we all continue to persevere towards creating a better, nobler world.
I look at social media and I see anger and hate and prejudice; I look at the television and I see propagandists, debauched messiahs and wily pundits; I look at the newspaper and I see political intrigue, national fatigue and ceaseless power mongering - It goes on, never ending, ignited with the fire from our fossil fuel stores … I look within me and I see the mirror of my mind reflecting, deflecting, dodging and fending The piercing, stabbing, blinding light from all this frantic, raving media commotion.
I look around me and I see love and peace and co-existence; I look around me and I see people coming together to help, protect and build better; I look around me and I see the universe weaving, constantly interlacing Harmony. It goes on, forever, propelled by the spirit and soul of our humanity … I look within me and I can feel my heart echoing, returning, rebounding and celebrating The warm glow, the shimmer and gleam of the wonderful world around me.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Oh, but it doesn’t end there. Some endings are just not fairytale-ish. If I gave in to my easeful delusions, I would be naive and tragically remiss. Here’s the deal: Human beings are sometimes cruel and that creates a gross impasse And that’s when we need to use our own eyes and our moral compass The world around us may glimmer and shine in serene equilibrium While pockets of humanity elsewhere thrash in blood-letting delirium. Look for yourself, seize your courage, tell your truth, play your part This is our ONE world; our one chance. We don’t have the luxury of a Re-start.
Global politics, our collective Moral Compass and the Palestinian tragedy
Funny what our world has become. We grow, we evolve, we hope to become ever better versions of ourselves, and then life gets in the way; our pursuit of success and even our quest for happiness gets in the way. Somewhere down the line, we’ve lost the actual essence of those pursuits; we’ve lost touch with what makes us human – the heart and soul equation we call our Moral Compass. This degradation of our will to distinguish between what feels wrong and what doesn’t, deep in our gut, has gone on for so long that now we don’t even recognise when we are party to cruelty, injustice or irrationality in the name of ideology, faith and correctness.
We, as a species however, are not innately bad. The overwhelming majority of us mean well. We want to do the right thing; we want to stand for the right causes; we want to speak up where it matters. But so insidious and crafty is the state of our global politics and the malicious power mongering that goes on in its toxic folds, that for large swathes of humanity to be duped, brain-washed and even numbed to atrocities is now completely normal.
The one double edged sword where the glint of steel can go either way is digital media. While it is rife with conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies, there is also a healthy spectrum of enterprising, truth telling news and information sources on there. What becomes a necessary obligation on behalf of us, the bulk of humanity using these platforms, is to do the work to separate the grain from the chaff; the truth from the lies; the sincere from the duplicitous. That will depend heavily on first, how true we stay to our own value systems and then, on how we navigate through the tortuous labyrinth of information surrounding us.
Case in point: the Palestinian tragedy. The bare-faced atrocities have gone on for so long, that we seem to have lost our collective capacity to see them for what they are. And all the while, they have become ever more brazen and cruel. If this was a hypothetical study, it would be an open and shut case long before it had even reached its current levels of criminality. And yet, while we are ideologically devoted to fair play, we appear to have lost our will, our voice and our moral authority to really make it happen. The overwhelming reason: Because the global power brokers, deal makers and profiteers continue to blast their deafening megaphones with cooked up intrigues and imagined threats, confusing, bewildering and paralysing the rest of us.
In the wake of the recent unrest however, despite all the grossly biased journalism and political posturing, it’s been heartening to see the entire international community come together as one, to voice their concerns; to make their genuine feelings about the situation heard. This time, our collective moral compass seems to be swinging in the right direction. We have proven that the vast majority of us still believe in basic decency and justice.
This then is something of a hope and a prayer for the truth seekers and the compass bearers out there. May we continue to find the moral and ideological strength to discern, weigh in and be heard. For the Palestinians and for all the others that are disenfranchised, marginalised and oppressed. Let us take back the global diplomacy narrative from the politicians and their funding platforms. Let us put back some soul and some humanity into the voices that we are raising for a more just and honest world.
* Title inspiration from Fassbinder’s 1973 movie of the same name.
A little background to the below piece. My evening walk is as integral a part of my day as my first copiously caffeinated cup of tea. I venture out 6 days a week, inclement weather notwithstanding, and no matter where I am (I have an uncanny resourcefulness for finding workout venues, even if the source of my next meal disquietingly eludes me). And having followed this body and mind discipline for close to 20 years now, i have had ample opportunity to observe, experience and expertly categorise my fellow park-goers. What follows is the somewhat meandering result. If some of it resonates with other fellow walking track creatures, the bleary-eyed hours writing it, were not for naught!
It all started in those very early days Social media was limited, it was the digital Stone Age. Post a relationship, solo-winging it again, No other pastime seemed to make sense. So jiggity jog, I began doing the laps And that’s when I discovered the creatures of the track.
This funny set is the first that I came by: The posse of old gents who give you the glad eye. And if they’re feeling especially brave, They will ardently stalk you around the enclave. The dignified gait transforms into a stampede Which an imminent coronary doesn’t seem to impede! The breath is ragged, the pupils dilated If I wasn’t The Stalked, I’d have slowed down and waited!
The next of the regular crowd in the park Is the muscle bound ‘Lone Ranger’ who’s out for a lark. Acutely aware of his tittering fans Like a peacock he’ll do his trademark dance; (Read: do a slow jog looking totally focused But we know his nonchalance is quite entirely bogus!)
Then there’s the most entertaining stream: The ladies who’re out there to see and be seen. They glow and they glitter and shine in their gear Quite confident they’ve outdone all of their peers. Most have come from vast distances off Because Wednesday is ‘event day’ at the Racecourse! They walk and they talk and they scan their environs Hoping to catch a gander of the super fine ‘uns. (Please note that I feel abundant affection For this vibrant, spirited ladies’ faction).
Then there’re the crowds of parents and children Of bicycles and tricycles and scootie action; Of badminton, football and even cricket Right in the midst of the walking thicket. Of aimless ambling and head-on collisions; Guardians and wards on their own park missions. Of flash mob type coordinated collectives Sweating it out over their synched acrobatics. This crowd doth teach uncommonly well The precision art of duck, dive and repel.
But I’d be amiss if this septet ignored The likes of myself in the regular park hoard. Yes, I’m the one that’s outrunning demons Not one or two, but prodigious legions! Eyes straight ahead, “baton” in hand, I march to the sound of my own brass band! I may even come across as a tad bit demented But a bracing, tearing traipse is so well worth it!
And so in closing, It’s quite essential to mention That in building satire into this narration, I mean to soften the blow of my words Because haranguing I definitely am still, by God! A little more farce? To the whole park crowd: You’re the molasses in my tea, there isn’t a doubt!
Asha adjusted her bra after a final pat on its other, non-fleshy contents; the fifteen thousand rupees now nestling securely in its pendulous grasp. It was the day she had to drop off the rent at her landlord’s house on her way back from work. She smiled widely and catching her reflection in the little mirror on the wall, became at once guarded, gathering up the grin into a coy little smile. Dark spirits were everywhere and she knew innately through generations of stories and behavioural legacies that she couldn’t be overt with the profoundness of her joy. Bad omens had a propensity of springing from the happiest of moments.
Even so, she walked to work with a spring in her step. She was a short, portly woman so that buoyancy itself was a purveyor and teller of her bliss to even the least discerning of spectators. In her mind though, while she had to watch herself outwardly, her thoughts were free to roam unfettered in her secret spaces of delight. Finally! Finally the day that she and her husband had been dreaming of for the last 25 years was around the corner: their eldest son, Danish was graduating from university with a Bachelors degree. He would change his world; his sister’s future; their combined fortunes. She would quit her job as a maid and her husband would stop cleaning the sewage lines he’d been wallowing knee-deep in for the last two decades. The smell never quite washed off his skin now. They’d build their own little house; no more scraping and scrounging every month to meet the rent – that monster that loomed large with ravening regularity outside their tiny two room hovel.
Her breath caught in her throat as she allowed her imagination to revel in the bountifulness of precious opportunity and new beginnings. She looked towards the sky with a little prayer on her lips whispering a soft Hai Bhagwan … to the gods and goddesses, this time for their unconditional beneficence. Her prayers were usually modest, economical, always allowing for the fickleness of fate and the peevishness of deities. She never asked for the requiescence of impossible dreams; only the rendering of realistic milestones such as they were in the thorny existence of her people. But this time, she had put in the work; For 25 years, 10 hours every day; of her blood, sweat and tears; of washing, sweeping and cooking for others. This time, her life’s main purpose would be done when her son graduated from university. She could do with every ounce of celestial magnanimity and largesse in the completion of this, her most blessed enterprise.
‘Walaikum salam. Kya baat hai? Aaj bari khush lag rahi ho’(1)said her employer as Asha walked into the apartment, her face flushed with her recent cerebration. She smiled shyly and decided that the home where she had been working for the last five years was as devoid of ill omens as a place could be, and proceeded to share her good news. Her employer, Baji or older sister as Asha and the vast majority of domestic staff called their female employers, had always been good to her and most of all, was undiscriminating. Unlike the vast masses, she was surprisingly unaffected by the faith of those who cooked and cleaned for her. That was probably one of the main reasons for the longevity of Asha’s current employment. She glowed in the rare telling of an even rarer propitious event in her life. Her Baji was genuinely happy for her and told her that she was expecting a box of Asha’s special home made gulab jamun* the day of Danish’s graduation.
Besides being the curator of discreet, precious dreams, Asha was an accomplished cook and was the designated neighbourhood sweetmeat maker for festivals like Diwali and Holi. Her services were also sought out during Eid celebrations by those whose gastronomic inclinations outweighed their fear of moral transgression: If she cooked in their homes, in their vessels, the designated sin allocation was greatly reduced. And then, there were other prayerful ways to wash away such lesser impieties …
Asha got to work, her mind far away in fields of her own dreams. During her short break for lunch, she pulled out her phone to look at he her son’s smiling face on the display screen. He’d been at the front and center of her mind today, pulling at her heart strings and filling her thoughts. She suddenly recalled the words of a relative who imagined himself to be something of a fortune teller. He’d said, Danish would he famous- his name would be in the newspapers …
She smiled indulgently. She’d be happy with his uneventful graduation and an unremarkable transition into the cadres of bank officers that she saw driving to work every day. Rising every morning with their big dreams and fulfilling them in the cool sanctums of enterprise that towered on both sides of the I.I. Chundrigar road. They were resplendent in their suits and ties – Danish would be resplendent in his suit and tie! She felt a little shiver run up her spine as her one prodigious vision for her one son enveloped her in its fiery, explosive embrace.
Today she was leaving early to stop by the landlord’s and to visit the Punch Mukhi Hanuman Mandir in Soldier bazaar. Like all her compatriots, while she revered the entire deific gamut, she had her divine favourites too, and hers were Lords Shiva and Hanuman.
After a brief stop at her landlord’s house, with the month’s obligation fulfilled, she caught the W11 bus to Soldier bazaar and made her way to the temple. Even though it was a Thursday, the wide arched entryways into the temple were thronging with worshippers. The Maha Shivrathri* festival was approaching and while the actual event would take place at the Shiv Mandir in Umerkot a month from now, the regular petitioners like herself and the generally devoted were already faithfully marking time at their city temples. She had already asked her employer for a week off in March when she and her family would travel to the southern part of Sind to Amarkot as Asha and her community referred to the fort city among themselves; harking back to the days when the city was ruled by its Hindu founder Maharaja Amar Singh. It was one of the many little linguistic deviations that they held onto among themselves, from the Islamic recolouring of history in their now Islamic homeland. Despite the prevalent lack of formal education, these pithy historical and cultural facts had permeated through their community as a meaningful reminder that they were as much a part of the rich tradition and history of the land as their Muslim neighbours and rulers were. Rulers, because there was also still a vestigial sense of being the minority peasantry in someone else’s kingdom. But these were the visceral, unavoidable facts of being a part of the fabric of the country; and despite the ordinary and extraordinary odds, there were also glimmers and inklings of a better future. A future secured by their children and spearheaded by the tireless enterprise of their parents and grandparents.
Asha walked into the temple and sat down on the cool black and white tiles. She closed her eyes and folded her hands in supplication and prayer. She had to talk to the deities, beseech them, cajole them for their blessings; for their generosity and their kindness. This time, she had no bargaining chip to offer. She wanted the whole blessed profusion of her son’s graduation, job and future.
Asha remembered the incidents of the next two days in a haze of delirium and torment. It had been a sticker with a verse on it. Someone had put it on Danish’s text book. He had removed it and pasted it on the desk. And then … she couldn’t think beyond that sequence of events. It ratcheted through her head in an endless loop, protecting her and agonising her in turn. The innate self preservation instinct of a mother with another yet vulnerable, yet susceptible child, prevented her from recalling the entire tragedy. The tragedy that had transformed joyous anticipation and smiling fortunes into a cruel, heart-wrenching finale.
The local paper called it a “scuffle on university grounds triggered by a wilful act of blasphemy”. While Danish survived the savage mob that was out for blood-thirsty retributon, he was not spared the statutory penance of his act. And so, he was stripped of his university credentials and incarcerated for “desecration of the Quran”. With him he brought down the tenuous little edifice of dreams and aspirations of yet another generation of his family.
In the wake of the tragedy, Asha’s husband had called her employer saying she was ill and would be away for 10 days. Now they also had to contend with keeping this new born scandal under wraps from employers, neighbours and random justice wielders.
Asha went back to work after a week. It took her those many days to pick up the broken pieces of her heart and put them away in some dark corner where no one, not even she could see them. She had to go on. There was 12 year old Ramesha to look after. She would have to uproot and reseed her dreams, her prayers and her hopes. She would have to go on.
‘Kya haal hai Asha? Theek ho abhi?’(2) asked her Baji with a look of concern on her face. Asha responded automatically with the alacrity born of the restlessness of time and the lightning glance of never-to-return opportunities of her world.
‘Gulab jamun ka intezar hai – Inshallah, abhi itni dair nahi rahi’(3), she added smiling. Asha touched her heart as if in placation, humble recall, while the broken pieces inside huddled a little more into her grieving, weeping spaces.
(1): ‘What’s up? You’re looking very happy today!’
* Gulab Jamun: A milk-solid based sweet from the Indian subcontinent.
* Maha Shivrathri: A major festival in Hinduism, the solemn occasion marks a remembrance of overcoming darkness and ignorance in life and the world. It is observed by remembering Shiva and chanting prayers, fasting, and meditating on ethics and virtues such as honesty, non-injury to others, charity, forgiveness, and the discovery of Shiva.
(2): ‘How are you Asha? Are you recovered now?’
(3): ‘I’m still waiting for the gulab jamun. God willing, it can’t be long now’
Teatime- a word that invokes so many nostalgic memories, while also carrying with it the promise of another little social do right around the corner. I write this from the subcontinental (read: classic) perspective where tea means exactly that, and is not in fact a culinary codeword for another meal…like dinner perhaps!
Having lived in a country, nigh upon six years now, which is known for its magnificent tea plantations, I came here expecting to be swept off my feet with supremely flavourful tea served with as much fanfare. But oh, the lost pleasure of the perfect cup of tea! Not only has the stately beverage been woefully overshadowed by its more robust cousin, the sinewy coffee, but the genteel art of tea making itself has been all but sabotaged by our time-constrained lifestyles.
Tepid tea, (whatever happened to tea-cosies?) just this side of being too anaemic or too vigorous, is the norm at most places. Tea brewing is a lost art that even tea timers haven’t been able to revive (those aging relics that lie there, unused, taunting tea drinkers; and then fading a little more into oblivion as they realise the futility of their efforts). Tea strainers are further dying remains of the classic tea trolley. So, even potentially good cups of tea will quickly take on a bizarre, almost bovine experience as one chews the leaves along with each sip.
The silver lining in all this post modern annihilation of the elegant art of tea making is the teatime legacy my sisters and I have carried into our lives. Having grown up in a home where tea and the accompanying panoply was the norm, this has been a delightful happenstance. Teatime at home consisted of lavish spreads of everything from pastries and sandwiches to biscuits and dahi bhallas*. And of course it meant steaming pots upon pots of Kenyan tea laced ever so delicately with earl grey. It became an affair, synonymous with togetherness, laughter and chatter. A time for capricious banter and tender confidences- a caffeine-warmed embrace of the ebb and flow of our lives. And at the centre of this lovely intimacy was my mother, the gracious matriarch who made this teatime magic happen.
In conclusion, of all the tea connoisseurs/ growers/ curators of the experience on the island, I ask that you breathe fresh life into this exquisite tradition. It is the assured panacea to many a dreadful day, of which sadly, we have all seen our fair share lately. In the words of Bernard-Paul Heroux, “There is no trouble so great or so grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea”; the “nice” there being replete with all manner of ambrosial and soul and spirit uplifting possibilities.
*Dahi Bhalla: a savoury, yogurt-based snack indigenous to the subcontinent.