SHORT STORY | ONE FLEW OVER THE BULBUL’S NEST – Part Three

(I)

Riaz khan dug with gusto into his dinner of shami kebab*, daal and karela. He looked at the vegetable on his plate and thought about his long-standing mental affiliation with it. Usually the image in his mind made him wince, with relief almost, like peeling off a scab; a mental catharsis for the scores of unrequited what-ifs that off and on gathered in his mind. He now collected the spice-infused, ridged green loops between a bit of roti to chew them down before finally vanquishing them, bitterness and all in his large intestine. The existential angst with which he juxtaposed himself body and soul on the bitter gourd now made him chuckle. His own Kharoos Karela avatar had probably been much more caustic than the enterprising vine had ever itself aspired to be! He laughed aloud at the imagery, almost choking on his food. Jasmina looked at her brother benignly. She liked this change that had come over her usually melancholy sibling. He was happier, healthier and talkative; well, not as much as she would have liked but still, there was much more he offered now besides his monosyllabic grunts. She snorted in good cheer, puffing out her chest like a hen fluffing up with maternal compassion before sitting back down on her eggs. Mariam gamely grinned back at both of them.

“Come, I want to show you something”, said Riaz Khan wheeling himself towards his bedroom window. He did that quite often now, without buckling under the creaky protestations of his muscles. Besides everything else that Mariam had been doing for him, she had also started him on an intensive physiotherapy regimen. What he used to grudgingly subject himself to once or twice a week before, he now looked forward to every day, sometimes twice a day. Over the last three months, his triceps had become stronger and he could now lift himself off the bed and into the wheelchair on his own. The first time he performed this feat, he was overwhelmed, feeling his throat tighten with emotion. Never being one to check into the water works department, and not intending to start then, he had swallowed hard. But it had been tough this time, calling on his self control. This simple act of independence was a rare step forward for his sluggish, time-battered body. Usually the milestones he racked up drove him slipping and sliding ever closer to the ultimate end. That day he’d actually felt brave and hopeful.

“What is it?”, asked a curious Mariam, peering at the tree outside the window.

“Look to where I’m pointing, between those two branches … higher up.. do you see them?”

“Is that a … are those bulbuls?”

Riaz Khan nodded, smiling at her. They both watched as the two birds took turns singing to each other, encircled in the rustling arms of the Gulmohar tree. Riaz Khan had shared his secret with Mariam. He had done it on the spur of the moment; unthinkingly. He was not usually one to act impulsively. He believed that the best decisions were made after a generous labour of thought and internal dialogue. But today, still on the adrenaline high of having, self-sufficiently hoisted himself off the bed and into his wheelchair, he had gone with the flow; been spontaneous. He would of course later in a quiet moment, reflect on this episode to see if he still felt good about it or whether he wanted to kick himself for his impulsiveness. The fact that he couldn’t, even if he was inclined to do the latter was one of those ironic jabs of nature conspiring with the language of his thoughts that made him sometimes groan and at other times laugh uncontrollably. Today, his face creased into a wide grin as he glanced at Mariam and then back at the enchantment of the scene outside.

That night, while he was in bed, Mariam had come in to ask him if he wanted to use the toilet. He didn’t; but he also realized with an elation that if he did need to go, he could could get himself there on his own. He had grinned at the thought and she had smiled back.

He wondered how it would be if she tucked him in … tucked herself in with him. He shifted his position, physically trying to place these strange new thooghts in some perspective. Was he falling in love with his carer? Transference the shrinks called that state of love. He looked at Mariam, embarrassed by the machinations of his body and his heart. He focused on her unibrow, trying to poke a hole in the gaily bobbing balloon of his feelings. Immediately he felt remorse – that was unkind. And ineffective. He had now also become fond of the lusty sprouting of hair that weaved its robust, unbroken path across her forehead. Riaz Khan stayed awake for most of that night imagining a hundred different scenarios with Mariam at their front and center. In many of them, Jasmina too jostled her way in; these he steadfastly removed from the queue. By the morning, he was feeling oddly energised and determined.

(II)

“Marriage?! Are you mad Riaz Khan?” said a startled Jasmina when he had told her what was on his mind.

“She’s the caregiver; the domestic. You’re imagining yourself to be in love with her. Infatuation is what it is. Don’t you go and tell her of any of these wild fancies of yours, you’ll scare the woman away”.

“And don’t forget that she’s Christian”, Jasmina added forebodingly, delivering what seemed to her, the final nail in the coffin that she had quickly mustered up for the inauspicious zombies of love that her brother had resurrected overnight.

The end of that summer came quickly and cleanly. Jasmina called Yousuf Alves and asked him to resume his old position. In the wake of his sister fitting in so well at Bait-ul-Muskaan and himself finding another client, Yousuf had let the status quo prevail for the past six months. Mariam had filled in admirably, Madam Jasmina added, but it was not seemly for a woman to be caring for a man on a long term basis. It was best if he returned or found an appropriate replacement.

A week after Riaz Khan had identified and given a name to the fluttering in his heart, and three days since he had spoken to his sister of what he intended to do about it, Mariam was gone. Riaz Khan did not protest. Nor did he ask to see Mariam one last time before she left Bait-ul-Muskaan. Yousaf returned and settled into Riaz Khan’s routine like a well worn shoe. Together they again treaded the faded old paths of the life that had been Riaz Khan’s for the last twenty years.

(III)

Riaz Khan sat in his wheelchair looking out of the window in his room. The Gulmohar had already begun to mottle and shed its summer foliage. The bulbuls’ nest that usually lay screened, secret and full of life, now lay bare and exposed to the chill winter winds. The birds too had forsaken the desolation of their surroundings and flown away to warmer climes. Riaz Khan looked at the empty nest waiting for some emotion, any emotion to overtake him; for some sentiment from the slew of feelings that had poured over him so readily over the last few months: nostalgia, hope, sadness, desperation even. There was nothing.

But he lingered, and even as he looked at the joyless scene outside, he felt the faintest glimmer of something stirring, something silvery around the greyness that sat in his heart: the birds … they’d be back in a few months to renew, rebuild and revel in the bounties of summer, and the tree would be full of birdsong once again.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/27/bulbuls-nest-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/28/bulbuls-nest-part-two/

* Shami Kebab: A round patty of minced lamb and lentils cooked in a tandoor; often served with a small salad with a yoghurt and mint dressing.

SHORT STORY | ONE FLEW OVER THE BULBUL’S NEST – Part Two

(I)

Mary aka Mariam arrived in Bait-ul-Muskaan on the following Monday. She was dressed in the quintessential Pakistani nurse’s uniform of pristine white shalwar kameez and a matching cotton dupatta. She was a big built woman with sinewy arms – brawny tributes to all the caregiving she had done over the last three decades. The unibrow that ran across her forehead was her other distinguishing feature. It was oddly likeable, growing on most people for various reasons: The women in the households she had been employed at, saw it as the unwavering physical bulwark that would naturally keep their men on the right side of decency; the men, well, many secretly liked the idiosyncrasy. It was almost like nature conspiring with them to give them a bit of incognito titillation. And so, in the midst of all this covert appreciation there had been one affair, with the son of the patient she was caring for. The memory of the end of that episode still stung the back of her eyelids. That had been the first and the last time she had allowed her personal life to interfere with her professional one.

Riaz Khan instantly liked the look of the big, solid woman. She exuded efficiency and readiness. And she was also reserved, answering only the questions that were put to her by Jasmina and asking a few of her own regarding her client’s daily regimen.

Riaz Khan allowed himself to finally relax. Mariam the replacement would do for the next month or so.

(II)

The days spun into weeks and the weeks rolled into months and soon it was July. Mariam had been a part of Bait-ul-Muskaan now for three months and had settled into the largely quiet routine of her employers. Although she undertook most of Riaz Khan’s lifting, shifting, wheeling, medicating and back and feet scrubbing, she also helped Jasmina during her grocery shopping sprees. These were formidable ventures undertaken once a month and Jasmina was nothing if not painstakingly particular. She had been known to scour a dozen grocery stores for a specific variety of detergent and all the department stores in DHA* for her preferred brand of hand cream. This monthly enterprise was the singular adrenaline rush in the otherwise still lives of the women of Bait-ul-Muskaan, with one boldly leading the charge and the other following in her exhausting wake. As the clock ticked on in the quest for a particularly elusive item, the serene atmosphere dissolved into chaos, inquiries became increasingly brusque and voices were raised to screeching-crescendo levels.

Once everything or its grudgingly serviceable alternative was procured, the ride back home was always dealthly silent with one woman allowing her organs to slowly cease beating their battle drums, while the other looked diligently ahead, making herself as unobtrusive as her muscly bulk would allow. It was nothing less than a Hundred Year war – with each of Jasmina’s years in all their ferociousness equal to multiple battle years – waged against the fickle nature of supply chains and the infuriating thriftiness of retail inventory. Riaz Khan had early on in the shrewd wisdom that the universe had bequeathed on him for her other excesses against him, ceased to participate in these market (mis)adventures. He was thus the only occupant of the house that retained his peace of mind in the hours that followed the return of the sometimes ruffled and sometimes vanquished brigade, with their sometimes list-fulfilled and sometimes list-lustre spoils of retail war.

Over the months, Mariam had fortified herself for these mentally and physically depleting excursions by going to bed after a supper of lightly buttered toast and green tea. She slept better and tended to have fewer nightmarish dreams where she was plodding through HKB* and Carrefour* with chains on her feet and Jasmina on her shoulders loudly urging her on. She had had that exact lucid dream in the early hours of the morning following her first grocery trip at Bait-ul-Muskaan. She had also had a generous portion of Nihari from Zakir Tikka the night before so the toss up between the instigators of her frightful visions was even. Nevertheless, she had woken up in a cold sweat, feeling disoriented and afraid. She had then decided to change at least what she could of the two tormenting events: the marketing was out of her control but the post-trip dinner she could make light and gut-easy. It was either her tranquilized digestive system or the fact that her nerves just got better at handling shopping day offensives, but she was spared Jasmina and HKB related nightmares after that.

Aside of the one day in a month where she was the matriarch’s companion in the madness of the outside world, stoked to its full fruition by the older woman, Mariam was by Riaz Khan’s side most of the other days. She helped him from his bed into the wheelchair, from there to the WC and then to the shower where she would vigorously scrub his back and his feet while he sat in his underwear. The awkwardness of the first couple of bath times had long since dissipated in the efficient, no nonsense air that she surrounded herself with. While Riaz Khan completed his toilette, she would make his bed and get a boiled egg and toast ready for him. She would accompany him while he breakfasted, with her second mug of morning tea. He would then read for a while after which he napped for an hour. In this time, Mariam would wash or iron her clothes.

(III)

At 4 o’ clock every afternoon, the occupants of Bait-ul-Muskaan would come together to have tea in the veranda overlooking the garden. After that mostly quiet repast where Jasmina made an occasional remark on the avian and floral sightings in the garden, Riaz Khan hrmphed and Mariam studiously followed Jasmina’s variously pointing hand, the trio would disperse. Jasmina would return to the ever-demanding bowels of the house while Mariam would take Riaz Khan for a stroll in the garden. The first couple of months of these perambulations had been quiet. Then Riaz Khan had spoken about the Gulmohar tree. He had climbed it as a child and had even fallen from its topmost branches (about eight feet high then) landing unscathed onto the grass. He had laughed wryly at this cosmic teasing of what was to come later. Mariam had listened, overwhelmed by her suddenly vocal employer. He had looked back at her then and she had seen, behind his black-framed spectacles, the amber-green flecks in his eyes,. She had smiled and said something about silver linings and glasses half full. He had laughed uproariously and she had grinned back.

After that episode, the garden became their place for conversations and laughter. The whole day would pass in almost complete silence until after tea time when the two would stroll, chat and revel in the profusion of their surroundings and in the pleasure of each other’s company. This nature-stirred, time-bound lightness of spirit suited them both.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/27/bulbuls-nest-part-one/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/29/bulbuls-nest-part-three/

* DHA: Defence Housing Authority, a vast residential community across various cities in Pakistan.

* HKB: A department store chain across Pakistan - Haji Karim Buksh.

* Carrefour:
A large French multinational consisting of grocery stores, supermarkets and hypermarkets, with presence in Pakistan too.

SHORT STORY | ONE FLEW OVER THE BULBUL’S NEST – Part One

(I)

Riaz Khan looked out of the window at the tree in the garden. He sought the bulbul’s nest that always peeked reassuringly through the noon-lit foliage. It had become a daily ritual of quiet joy for him as he sat shaved and ready in his wheelchair. The rest of the summer days followed on the heels of this scene, sometimes bearable and mostly shrouded in the reins of monotony and of Jasmina Khan, his sister and the matriarch of their home. It used to be his home. But that fact had become forgotten and buried in the dust and dreariness of time.

Jasmina had early on as a girl shown glimmerings of the formidable homemaker that her mother was. By fifteen she could cook the full range of gastronomic delights from the eastern and the western hemispheres. And by nineteen, she was the deputy matriarch of Bait-ul-Muskaan*, with only marriage breaking that indomitable influence. For a short while though, like an accidental blip in the fabric of the universe. The subsequent course-correction was swift and absolute: she was widowed within two years of her marriage in which time, both her parents had also passed away. She again took up the domestic reins at Bait-ul-Muskaan like she had never really left the place, donning her mother’s terrific mantle with alacrity and ease. To this perfection, she also brought an overarching bossiness that made short shrift of domestic issues as well as her brother’s peace of mind.

For her part, Jasmina never thought she was doing anything that was not wholly right and responsible, and that she was mistress of nothing more than she truly deserved. Riaz Khan, on the other hand, often thought that he was paying penance for some ill he’d done Jasmina in another life. He would grumble and assert and she would admonish and revoke. The siblings had been living in this lopsided arrangement for well over thirty years now.

Riaz Khan was a paraplegic and had been for almost two decades. An accident that could have been avoided in retrospect (all accidents seem avoidable in retrospect he thought) had left him unable to use his legs. On good days, he was still able to appreciate the abiding functionality of his upper body. On bad days, he felt like a vegetable, specifically a karela*. He had embodied its unapologetic caustic quality, full of texture and nuance, culminating in a unique flavour that wasn’t everyone’s choice of bharta*. That’s what he was; on the not so good days – a Kharoos* Karela. To his mind even that tragic conjecture; that animation of the inanimate held some optimism. This meant that his depression was as yet not in the fatalistic realms of the psychotic, just marking time in its safely lunatic layers. That deduction didn’t bother him. He now used the “P” word easily, cheerfully even, because in his mind, it was the kind of madness that gave him the will to live on in the taxing world that was his and Jasmina’s, around which orbited a few acquaintances like visible but distant satellites.

Riaz Khan looked out at the Gulmohar tree that at that time of the year was resplendent in its beautiful flame-like flowers. Some of its branches were so close to the window that he could reach out and touch them even from his wheelchair. But today his attention was not on the summer-flushed efflorescence of the tree. He was looking at the bulbul’s nest which lay, once again, like a perfect little bowl in the crook of two branches, at a forty degree angle above his line of sight. He had first spied it a couple of years ago and had felt a little rush of pleasure. For some inexplicable reason, he had kept that bit of serendipity to himself; guarding it almost jealously from the knowledge of the others. There were precious few things that were within the domain of his exclusive awareness and gratification, given his more than usual reliance on those around him for everything really.

The secret had stayed with him through the summer months of the previous year and the year before that, scattering in the autumn breeze as both, nest and birds disappareared. The other day he had seen it again. Nest Kintsugi* he thought to himself: Broken and rebuilt again, more beautiful because it was familiar and yet new. The Gulmohar secret, in so faithfully revisiting him again, had become ever more precious. He smiled widely when he finally caught sight of the songful little birds.

It was time for lunch and Yousaf had come into the room to wheel him to the dining room. Yousaf Alves was Riaz Khan’s full time care-giver and lived at Bait-ul-Muskaan.

“You know I don’t like cabbage. It gives me gas. Painful gas”, grumbled Riaz Khan.

“I only cook it once a week”, countered Jasmina. “The flatulence is good for your gut. It’s not like your intestines are getting any exercise to help them move things along”.

“Oh for goodness sake Jasmina. Nobody wants to hear your detailed analysis of my biology. I’ll just have the daal*”.

Jasmina laughed cheerfully. For all his moodiness he was a softie her brother and she felt no disinclination in allowing him to tell her off now and then. That grace she always found in her heart for her beloved sibling. Riaz may be four years older than her, but they both knew who wore the waistcoat in the house.

There was a message from Yousaf’s home on Monday morning: his wife had fallen ill. She was pregnant with their second child and it was proving to be a difficult gestation. He had twice before gone for a week at a time and the agency had dutifully provided his replacement. Both times Riaz khan had borne the inexpert ministrations of the substitute with the resignation of a martyr. He had waited eagerly and desperately for his Man Friday to return. Yousaf had, in his five years in the service of the older man, become quite indispensable to the latter mainly because of his adeptness but also because of his nature which was quiet and reseverd. Riaz Khan himself was a man of few words and those had become ever scarcer amid the vocal abundance of his sister. She spoke both their minds, even if she happily and grossly misinterpreted his.

(II)

“Yousaf has extended his leave. And with this Corona business, the agency can’t find anyone suitable to send over in place of the current replacement. So Yousuf’s sister is coming to fill in for him. She’s a trained caregiver too”, said Jasmina walking into Riaz Khan’s room.

Why didnt she ever knock! Did losing his ability to walk, strip him also of his privacy! thought Riaz Khan irritably for the thousandth time.

It had been an interminable week for him in the inexpert hands of the substitute carer whose unwieldy labour was thankfully coming to an end today. He had been looking forward to Yousuf’s return the following day, and now this!

Riaz Khan looked at his sister darkly. She stared unflinchingly back at him as one would at a petulant child.

He tried desperately to look for the silver lining in this piece of news. He had to. His thoughts had been festering for the last week and he needed to emerge from the grayness, or he’d go into a depression. It had happened in the earlier days of his affliction. He had spent months in the throes of wretched thoughts and desperate notions. And then one day he had decided that life was still worth living even if it was for the occasional heart warmers like Nihari* from Zakir Tikka, a book that temporarily gave him wings and rainy afternoons.

She was Yousuf’s sister, and so it was logical to hope that she would be as efficient as her brother was. And quiet. At the very least, she would be far better than her bumbling predecessor. Riaz Khan was small built and managing his movements in and out of the wheel chair would not be too difficult. He took in a deep breath, called on his faculties of fortitude and hoped for the best.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/28/bulbuls-nest-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/29/bulbuls-nest-part-three/

* Bulbul: medium sized songbirds. These birds are distributed across most of Africa and into the Middle East, tropical Asia to Indonesia, and north as far as Japan.

* Bait-ul-Muskaan: House of smiles/ laughter

* Bharta: A Pakistani/ Indian dish of vegetables (such as eggplant and often onion or tomato) that have been cooked usually by roasting and then mashed together with pungent spices.

* Karela: Bitter gourd in Urdu.

* Kharoos: Urdu colloquialism for someone who is hard, uncompromising and joyless.

* Kintsugi: Also known as kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.

* Daal: cooked lentils in Urdu


* Nihari: Originating in Mughal India, this is slow-cooked meat, mainly a shank cut of beef, lamb and mutton, or goat meat, as well as chicken and bone marrow. It is flavoured with various spices.

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