SHORT STORY|VELVET DREAMS – Part Two

(I)

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.

(II)

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.

(III)

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.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/07/velvet-dreams-part-one/

* Sher Khan: Sher Khan is a fictional Bengal tiger and the main antagonist of Rudyard Kipling's “Jungle Book”

SHORT STORY | VELVET DREAMS – Part One

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.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/08/velvet-dreams-part-two/

SHORT STORY| MOHABBAT MEIN TWIST – Part Three

(I)

The sisters didn’t speak of the confidence sharing or the fragile moment of overt affection that they had bestowed on one another. But for Aliya there was now, added to the light footedness of new love, also the bouyant warmth of a sisterhood that had matured, mellowed overnight from the abrasive harshness of a protracted adolescence. She’d seen the soft inside of her diamond hearted sister. It had been a coming of age of the two women bound as they were by their shared DNA.

The next two months passed in a haze of coffee outings and the odd soirée at a friend’s house. Ali and Aliya attended most of these social dos together. Although they had grown closer in some ways, there was no physicality. Aside of one random kiss that Ali had dropped on her in a state of high spirits, there was no intimacy. So even though this was her first real relationship, she had felt her cautionary sixth sense kick in a few times. She had also caught him, in their quiet moments together, seeming to look more at her bulk than at her; but only for a moment. It had made her shift uncomfortably. Then almost instantly he would remember something else to talk about and the smile hovering uncertainly around his mouth would return to his eyes. And so the euphoria of being in his company, of never running out of chatter, of being sought out, had superseded all the other foreboding notions that sometimes reared theirs sage but irksome heads.

Hesitantly at first, Aliya had quite earnestly tried to include Saira in her plans with Ali. Saira always declined. This socialising with her sister was still too new; uncharted territory for the sure footed Saira. Also she was adamant about not stealing the limelight from her sister because she always had, everywhere. This relationship had to mature beyond the skin deep surface to surer ground before she would join the duo. She already had a trail of ill gotten admirers in her wake: Many a friend’s ardent suitor after having met Saira, had lost his original romantic plot and veered off after her, leaving the detritus of cursing girl friends, bands of sparring women, and specifically for Saira, the dubious reputation of being a “man eater”. Her sister had never had a man before so she had been spared that added insult to injury. Saira had in fact, met Ali a few times and they had exchanged basic pleasantries. To her mind he had displayed no particular quality to indicate that he was immune to random female charms, even if they were not in any way cast in his general direction. There were more than a few times that Saira had looked in the mirror, into the depths of her hazel eyes and wondered if she was really evil or if the world around her was just deficient in personal ethics. The toss up was even keeled depending on her state of mind during those moments of introspection.

(II)

There was a party at a friend’s to which Saira was going but Aliya was not. She had come down with a cold and was going to spend the evening tucked into her duvet with a flask of hot tea and the company of her best friend. Although they’d talked on the phone, she had met Saqib only a couple of times over the last two months. On hearing that she was spending the evening in the quietude of her home finally, he had walked across to see her. Saira looked in on the pair, waved a cheery farewell and whisked off to the party.

Saqib sat down on the twin bed next to the one Aliya was snuggled up in. He looked at her, his heart skipping a beat even after all these years of being friends. He loved her. He always had really. She was a beautiful girl who was in the wrong environment he thought for an uncharitable but brutally honest moment. Her sister and her mother had made it difficult for her to really open up and blossom. She was usually closed in, clammed up; but he had seen the dazzling little glimpses every now and then of the woman she really was. Of course all these sentiments meandered cozily within the innermost confines of his own heart. He had never spoken to Aliya about how he felt. In a whimsical way, he thought the universe would intervene when the time was right. He and Aliya shared that ephemeral belief about things, about their world.

He looked at her now, her beautiful skin even more radiant in the heat of her flu induced fever. His heart did another little skip as he looked at her, smiling in the warmth of his secret … held in the protective palms of the universe… to float into their shared ether when the time was right… soon he’d thought only two months ago. Now … well, now, he felt like a transparent wall had come up between them, looking very surmountable still. Like he could just reach through and pull her into a tender hug. It was strange but her relationship with Saqib had not changed a thing. He still felt the quiet elation and the intimacy of their close kinship. They spent the evening talking easily, comfortably until Aliya was ready to sleep. On his way out, Munir uncle had invited him for a glass of scotch. Saqib enjoyed the company of this older, scholarly, wise man, just as much as Munir Mian appreciated the sensible, grounded younger man. It was after midnight when Saqib finally walked back home.

(III)

The thing happened abruptly, unexpectedly, in the throes of alcoholic fuzziness and it has to be added, in the thick of stage haziness from the fog machine. It was one of those Saturday nights in November when it was chilly, romantic and many a heart was fluttering on its wayward sleeve. People were huddled together around gas heaters set around the garden. The inner sanctums belonged to the energetic and sure footed as they cavorted euphorically to the dance beats of the 80s and the 90s. Saira had ramped up not only her spirits with four vodka and oranges, but also her step count of the day with an hour on the floor with the other dancing queens. She now sat on one of the chairs inside surrounded by the extra warm stupor in and around her.

‘Oh hello’ came a voice from somewhere to her left.

She squinted through the mind and machine fog as she tried to locate the owner of the voice. She was wondering if in fact it was a figment of her swirling imagination when someone dropped into the chair next to hers. It was Ali.

Fifteen minutes into their banter, Ali placed a confident hand on Saira’s thigh. Her reflexes were slow which he took for compliance. When he leaned over to kiss her, Saira suddenly leaped up slapping his head away. She could feel the multi-layered warmth leaving her body in a visceral, almost palpable way, like the blood draining from a severed artery. She stood up, swaying ever so slightly and turned towards the now blubbering man.

‘You bloody a**hole! Don’t you come near me again’. She thought only for a split second before adding, ‘Or my sister’.

The thing about blood being thicker than water is that when that adage does hold up, it brings entire families closer than they ever were before the calamity struck. And so it was with the twins. Saira came into Aliya’s room the next morning and sat on the bed opposite hers just as Aliya was reading a meandering text from Ali that sounded as cryptic as it did defensive. But he had mentioned Saira in it.

‘What happened’, Aliya asked simply looking at her sister’s drawn face.

‘It’s Ali … he’s a creep’ Saira said looking at her sister hoping that their new found understanding would make the awkwardness, the hurtfulness of this incidence easier to manage. When Aliya continued to look at her with clear, questioning eyes, Saira began to relate what had happened. Aliya listened quietly, unmovingly until Saira was done.

She then looked towards the window, willing away the tears that had sprung to her eyes. She had known there was something amiss about her equation with Ali, something that just didn’t sit properly, uprightly. But to have made moves on her sister after everything that they had shared … What had they shared? Easy banter about things that they both liked but that was it. And if she was absolutely honest with herself, she had imagined more than a few scenarios where he had shown his unabashed preference for Saira. No… she wasn’t shocked. She was hurt. She swallowed hard, but the tears came anyway and she cried as Saira hugged her, silently weeping with her.

That was another thing the sisters never spoke of again but it had brought them closer; and that was what mattered Aliya thought to herself in her moments of not entirely happy reminiscences and uneasy introspection.

(IV)

Saqib was at his best friend’s side after that. He came by everyday even if it was for twenty minutes at a time to see how Aliya was faring. Her cold was better and between her bruised heart slowly repairing itself and the bouts of wretchedness that assailed her off and on, there were glimmers of her lovely smile again.

‘I’ve put on 3kgs in the last ten days Saqib’, Aliya said laughing through her tears. She was trying to see the lighter side of things… that was who she was. Positive and unputdownable was his Aliya. He felt his heart bursting with affection and a strange pride for who this girl was, to him and to the rest of the world. He smiled at her with love in his eyes.

Saqib had spoken to the Wellness Centre that Aunty Maryam (Aliya’s mother) had been raving about. They had a nutritionist (who absolutely looked the part of course, he grinned) and a physiotherapist specialising in chronic injuries (childhood handicaps included). So he and Aliya were both going to enrol together.

She smiled at Saqib feeling the familiar warmth and comfort that she always did when they were together. She had always basked in the glow unquestioningly. Now she touched it, feeling it all over. Maybe … maybe they had always had something special between them transcending friendship she thought. She waited for her heart to respond to her timorous suggestion: it fluttered ever so slightly and then beat strongly, happily, serenely. She felt a lump rise in her throat and felt her eyes sting just a little. She grinned at Saqib.

She didn’t want to tell him that she loved him just as he was: melting brown eyes, the sweetest smile, rolling gait and all. He didn’t want to ruin the camaraderie of their shared enterprise by telling her that he’d had all the physiotherapy he would ever need and that his walk wasn’t going to benefit from this new intervention; and that he had always loved her as she was.

It was going to be a shared labour of determination and love for themselves and for each other.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/28/short-story-mohabbat-mein-twist-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/29/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-two/

* Mohabbat Mein Twist: “A twist in the Love story”. “Mohabbat” means “Love” in Urdu.

SHORT STORY | MOHABBAT MEIN TWIST – Part Two

(I)

Aliya and Saira had cousins in high places; their mother’s brother owned a prestigious ad agency. While their uncle was a prominent presence in many a corporate board room, his wife and children had donned the mantle of the most formidable movers and shakers on the flambouyant party circuit. The Lahore party scene was known for its extravagance and its scandals. Many were the nights that started out genteel and elegant and that ended in the wastelands of too much alcohol, too much food and rapidly unravelling sophistication. Hearty breakfasts of halwa puri* and trite and contrite phone calls between the triumphant and the fallen of the previous night were then the order of the next morning.

Courtesy of their cousins, both girls had debuted on the Lahore party circuit some five years ago and now at twenty five years old, both occupied their own distinct places: Saira was the quintessential diva, the sought after bachelorette at the apex of the food chain and a secret Firestarter – (she appeased her conscience with the fact that she only ever lit a match to already smoldering goods; purging was her goal she professed).

Aliya occupied the small cerebral fringe (aka people carrying more than the regular baggage who had to park it somewhere for the evening she thought wryly, no self deprecating pun intended she always emphatically added to herself). This group sat mostly on the sidelines, analysed everything from the sublime to the ridiculous and assiduously avoided the frenzied eye of the social storm heaving and roiling in front of them. They were the designated drivers and general voices of reason when shindig hell broke loose upon the by then madly gyrating, occasionally screeching horde, their strobe-lit shiny faces appearing to grimace almost fiendishly in the pulsating greens, blues and reds – like a late 20th century version of Dante’s Inferno. And when one of this group was going through personal trauma, of which there were more than a few occasions since the afflicted, in irony’s own twisted dance, tend to get more than their fair share of the ball curving back at them, the whole coterie drank too much in comfort and commiseration.

It was on one such occasion when Aliya had for a while, abandoned her station of the lawn chair critics, that it happened. The day that she felt an almost fossilised stirring in her heart. The last time she had felt this elated anxiety was when she had lost 10 kgs off her 100kg frame – that was five years ago, in the bright eyed, stomach rumbling anticiaption of her first ever ball of the season. God! the naivete, the cloying innocence she thought unable to control the self reproach that often overtook her now when she flashed back to half a decade ago.

She had been looking for Saira in the thick of the milieu in front of her, when he had come up to her. Behind her actually. She had been craning her neck, fervently hoping she wouldn’t have to dive into the throng milling about the bar area outside.

‘I have a bit of an advantage. Can I help with the subject seeking?’ he’d asked conversationally.

Aliya had turned around at this unexpected whisper in her ear … offer of help, she corrected herself practically, also bracing herself for whomever she would encounter.

‘You’re Saira’s sister aren’t you?’ he added smilingly when there was no response to his first question.

Aliya blinked once, twice, frowned ever so slightly and nodded with a ghost of a smile in return. He was obviously one of her sister’s snooty male acquaintances.

‘I saw her at the gate a little while ago’ he added looking towards the far end of the lawn at the other throng at the entrance.

‘Thanks’, Aliya responded briefly, looking at her watch and making to walk back to the comfort of her group.

‘I didn’t mean to spook you,’ he quickly added. ‘Just came to, you know, chat’. He looked at her with no hint of any snide humour or quiet judgement. She stood for a while unsure of where this exchange was leading.

‘I’m Ali – Ali Basit’ he said smiling at her.

‘I’m Aliya, Aliya Muneer’ she finally responded smiling back despite herself.

(II)

It was 9 O’clock in the morning. Aliya opened her eyes, feeling disoriented. She had had her recurring dream – this time though, she was plummeting into water, an ocean, when her nameless, faceless champion had at the very last moment, broken her fall. There was also something else on the periphery of her morning visions … someone else … Ali, she thought with a happy smile that became suddenly self conscious and then was wiped mostly off as she gathered up her floating, rhapsodic musings.

It had been an eventful night; one of the few she had spent mostly on her feet rather than on the seat that probably bore the mark of her loyal and substantive bottom by now she thought laughing inside: The handful of prestigious party planners and their furniture did the rounds of all the functions in their City of Gardens. She had been skeptical of a decent conversation unfolding in the midst of the revelry and the excess but that is exactly what had happened. She and Ali had stood for what had seemed like hours talking about the comic enigma that was Sheikh Rasheed*, the inevitability of a zombie apocalypse and the best mutton karahi* in the city. It had been a lovely evening. She smiled again, this time allowing her pleasure to course through her body as she stretched out with the gratified languor of a just-fed cat.

Aliya had only a mug of coffee that morning. Her usual breakfast gusto was lost in the crush of butterflies that was dancing around in her stomach. Her sister looked at her strangely and smiled. Aliya braced herself for another thwack in the gut … or maybe, today it would only be a light little missile of words that would just graze her shoulder, vanishing into the small obscurity of missed barbs. For today she felt fortified, invincible, of mind and heart.

Ali called her that afternoon and for the next week of afternoons. Aliya lived for that week, in a strange bubble of euphoria and starvation. She felt the hunger pangs but nothing in the fridge, on the table or on Food Panda seemed like it would appease the ache in her belly. So she resorted to having copious cups of unsweetened tea throughout the day, winding it all down (up!) with the sugary burst from a bowl of fruit for dinner. In her few clear-headed moments amidst the fog of passion that had befuddled her brain, she admitted that there was nothing quite like fledgeling love to help shed unwanted burdens of the body and the mind.

Her mother was ecstatic at the change in her daughter. She was looking better, happier and dared she say it, thinner. Her father watched her quietly, thoughtfully. He knew his daughter enough to gauge that something out of the ordinary was happening; something that could culminate in quiet triumph or great distress for his sensitive child. He realized he was more concerned about than interested in the cause for his daughter’s moony behaviour.

(III)

‘What is it?’, came the question finally from Saira on the sunday when she was going to go out for coffee with Ali.

‘What do you mean?’ Aliya responded in her characteristic defensive manner even though she had been anticipating the query for a while now. Her usually fleet-footed sister had shown remarkable forebreance this time.

‘Give me a break yaar*. Just tell me’, Saira looked at her pointedly, her toast halted midair like a hovering premonition of doom in the event of anything withheld or concealed.

Aliya sighed inwardly while retaining her stoic, watchful front. She had learnt to be wary with her sister. It was a caution that harked back to their childhood; when Saira used to rat on her to their mother when she used to sneak in a snack in the midst of her many maternally imposed and managed diets. She remembered little else from her childhood as vividly as she remembered her mother’s admonishing stares and her perpetually rumbling stomach. Suffice to say that theirs was not the winsome twinsome of the year, never had been. Theirs was a difficult relationship that had settled into a watchful acceptance by one and a relaxed bossiness by the other.

Still, this was her first serious love affair, thought Aliya; well, it was on its way to becoming one at least. It had all the glimmerings and the trappings of a love affair, a serious one, that could have … auspicious endings. She didn’t want to dive into the relationship boxes created by society; that could jinx the entire liaison. There was time enough for it to fit itself neatly into one of the institutions of blessed convention. Her mind was wandering she realized – this was her first serious love affair she thought again, marshalling her faculties of reason and goodwill, and she needed for her sister to be supportive. This once.

‘There’s someone …. someone I’ve met’, Aliya said to her sister, looking at her, wishing earnestly that she would respond with grace; that she would be nice. This once.

Saira looked at her sister for a long moment, then looked away and brought the toast to her mouth biting into it with sharp-toothed ferocity almost, thought Aliya. She looked away and sighed, this time outwardly. Who was she fooling? Saira didn’t understand her; never had. She understood her joys and her heartaches even less …

Aliya suddenly felt soft arms around her shoulders and a kiss on the back of her head.

‘I’m happy for you Aloo’, Saira whispered, continuing to hug her.

Aliya turned her head to look at her sister, expecting to see a mocking smile or a spiteful grin. There was only her sister’s gently smiling face and her eyes that were reflecting the quiet hurrah in her heart. Saira came around and sat down on the chair next to hers and laughed now, self consciously almost.

‘You’d better get this right Aloo; I’m not going to be the good samaritan saving the day for you’ she joked realising that she needed to break the spell before it became by its uncharacteristic softness, unwholesome and unkind. She had always been agitated by her twin; by her total lack of being able to look out for herself, look after herself in any way. Over the years, she had allowed her concern to morph into derision and sarcasm. She never intended to be cruel but she knew she had been a little sadistic over the years. And now, her sister was glowing in the warmth of a formidable venture; a venture of the heart. So rare were these scintillating personal moments with her sister; and she had to let her know, this once, that she was her biggest champion.

Aliya was looking at her sister as a myriad gentle emotions flitted across Saira’s face. What a watershed moment this was for their sisterhood! The surface had been scratched and there was a nice person under there after all thought Aliya, now grinning widely. A shared joy multiplies manifold. She laughed softly in pure elation and hugged her sister.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/28/short-story-mohabbat-mein-twist-part-one/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/31/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-three/

* Mohabbat Mein Twist: “A twist in the Love story”. “Mohabbat” means “Love” in Urdu.

* Halwa Puri: A traditional Pakistani breakfast that features semolina pudding or halwa and a soft fried dough called poori. Halwa is typically made with a mixture of fried semolina and sugar syrup, which is then combined with nuts such as pistachios and almonds.

* Sheikh Rasheed: A politician who is currently serving as the Interior Minister of Pakistan. He is known for his peculiar, flambouyant style.

* Mutton Karahi: A Mughlai dish that is traditionally cooked in a wok or karahi. The rich mutton curry is made by slow cooking lamb pieces with tomatoes, onion, garlic and garam masala.

* Yaar: Means “friend” in Urdu/ Hindi. It's a popular term in Indian English, used especially as a term of address for “friend.” It ultimately comes, via Urdu, from the Persian and Arabic yar, meaning “friend,” and is recorded in English as early as the 1960s.

SHORT STORY | MOHABBAT MEIN TWIST* – Part One

(I)

Aliya opened one bleary eye to glance at the clock on her bedside table. It was just past 6 O’ clock. She felt a familiar quickening of her pulse as she thought of the day ahead, the obstacles to be surmounted. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. There was nothing on the agenda today, stress free as it was in the aftermath of her masters exams. Her anxious nature still had to catch up to the fact as she stilled her agitated heart. She turned on her side, away from the window and the blitheful rays of sunshine that glanced cheerily off her desk that lay in the corner of the room. She’d sleep in today she thought, catching at the fading strings of dawn time dreams. Soon, she was back in the familiar collage of her recurring dream visions: she was falling off some place – the catapulting surface was always different – and she always experienced the same great fright, and she always just about missed the concrete or the jungle floor or the carpeted surface below as her foggy saviour came to her rescue. His … her … (another conundrum) face was never clear, remaining obscured by the ephemeral mists of her dreams.

She finally arose at 11 O’ clock when her mother came into her room armed with clean laundry and the loud efficiency of having been at the helm of the domestic wheel for the last four hours. She felt groggy and tired even after her ten hours of sleep. She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her double chin was looking more pendulous than ever she thought. She clutched at the rolls on her stomach, feeling for the insidious deposit of more weight. She had been good about her meals this past month and had not given in to any stress eating even though she had been in the throes of her exams. Her nails had taken the brunt of that deprival as they now sat like ravaged half moons in their nail beds. She looked at the weighing scale lying right opposite the WC, its meticulous placement a tribute to her weight loss earnestness. She decided today was not a day for unpleasant metric system surprises and pointedly ignored it through the course of her morning ablutions.

‘Hello late latif*’, her father called out to her cheerfully as Aliya walked into the lounge. She smiled. Her father, Mian Muneer, could brighten most of her days, afflicted as they were with her mother’s constant anguished refrains for her to lose “at least ten kgs!” and her own unremitting anxiety about her weight, and everything else too. In all that maternal censure and self deprecation, he was like a breath of fresh air. Never remarking about her weight, let’s be honest she thought, her bulk. Never making her cringe at the sight of her reflection or at the sight of food even when her stomach was rumbling from protracted deprivation. He loved her just as she was, her beloved father.

‘Good morning Baba*’, Aliya responded with a kiss on his cheek.

‘Aloo*, there are parathas* for brekkie, come get them!’ came a jaunty call from the dining room. She walked towards the voice (dubiously) and towards its announcement of gastronomic delights (zealously), her stomach rumbling with hunger – was it hunger or comfort-seeking she thought fleetingly. For the former came with relatively guilt free appeasement while the latter needed to be worked through mentally and emotionally and if all went well, was rebutted, ignored, nipped in the gut. She accepted also, that despite all the diligent evaluation, she had never been very good at distinguishing between the two, as hunger loomed large on most food horizons.

Saira was sitting at the head of the table looking, even at that early hour of the day (for she too had woken up only after 10) fresh, dewy and gorgeous. This was her twin sister, the sum total of her antithesis. Aliya helped herself to three parathas and an omelette. She could feel her sister’s eyes on her; she was going to say something, she always did … irksome at best and hurtful at worst.

‘Go easy sis, that’s a thousand calories right there’ Saira released the expected verbal arrow as she put a condensed milk laden piece into her own mouth.

Aliya gave a wry smile as she loaded her parathas with condensed milk and cream.

‘Aliya, what are you doing?’ came the accusatory voice from behind her. Their mother had come in and was discharging her duty as the maternal voice of reason and outrage.

‘Having breakfast Amma’, Aliya responded doggedly. Damned if she was going to be denied the first meal of the day, twelve hours after her last one too, in all its life (and courage fostering!) fulfilment.

Her mother gave an exasperated sigh and walked out. Saira sniggered. It was just another day at 14-Z in DHA, Lahore.

(II)

Aliya had dug into her breakfast as she dug in her heels every so often when she felt the world closing in on her; Judging her, railing at her, accusing her. She had ended up having four and a half parathas. She stood looking into her wardrobe, eating herself up inside now, for her breakfast time excess; cursing her food induced and reduced anxiety. No, food didn’t induce her anxiety (except in her apocalyptic fantasies when the world was overrun by zombies and all kinds of human nutrition was scarce); it was her panacea in fact, for the maddening world around her. She sighed deeply, chose a grey baggy shirt and black track pants. She was in the mood to merge with her dreary thoughts today. She was meeting her best friend and neighbour, Saqib in a little while. He was going to help her fill in the forms for the Masters in Sociology course at Uppsala university in Sweden.

Saqib Mir was the only child of his parents, the apple of their eye, the next progenitor of their eminent lineage and the scion of the family business. Marring this perfection was a somewhat unsymmetrical gait as he was also crippled by childhood polio. The whys and wherefores of how he had contracted the disease are foggy; rife with rumour and speculation until about decade or so ago, the direful hypotheses were now obscured by an acceptance born of familiarity. For those who had known him forever, it had become like a little smudge on a Sadequain* painting that has with time, blurred into oblivion. For those meeting him for the first time, while there were no origin-theories being bandied about anymore, there was almost always that self conscious nonchalance of trying not to notice the obvious. Saqib felt both, a sense of quiet amusement and compassion for this denominator knowing the mental exhaustion their involuntary Secret Spy syndrome was bestowing on them. Humanity, even amidst the deficiencies of the developing world, has largely got used to polio free perfection; a certain basic physical congruity is a sacred expectation especially among the upper crusts of society. Saqib then was the paradoxical element that jarred the sensibilities of the well heeled more than it did that of his favourite chai wallah’s or fruit wallah’s. They acknowledged his disfigurement in a practical, unselfconscious way. He was crippled and so what? He couldn’t run but he could still walk and get about unaided. Saqib was well liked in the more modest social circles too.

The Mians and the Mirs had been neighbours for fifteen years and Aliya and Saqib had become kindred souls for each other, afflicted as they both were with their respective vulnerabilities.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/29/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/31/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-three/

* Mohabbat Mein Twist: “A twist in the Love story”. “Mohabbat” means “Love” in Urdu.

* Late Latif: In Urdu, a fond colloquialism for a tardy person

* Baba: In Urdu, a term used to denote an old man and also used for father.

* Aloo: Aliya’s nickname. Also meaning “potato” in Urdu.

* Paratha: A flatbread native to the Indian subcontinent, where wheat is the traditional staple. Paratha is an amalgamation of the words parat and atta, which literally means layers of cooked dough.


* Sadequain: Renowned Pakistani artist known for his calligraphy and painting.

SHORT STORY | LOVE IN RAWALPINDI – Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

SHORT STORY | LOVE IN RAWALPINDI – Part One

LISTEN TO AN EXCERPT BEING READ AT: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSdRVkkeJ/?k=1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Darzi: Urdu for Tailor/ dress maker

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

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

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


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

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

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

SHORT STORY| ROSE TALCUM POWDER – Part Two

(I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(II)

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

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

(III)

‘Zulaikha? ….

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

‘Sana is your daughter … my god!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rizwan turned around and left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Amma: Mother in Urdu

* Baita: Child in Urdu

* Jora: Dress/ ensemble in Urdu

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


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

SHORT STORY | ROSE TALCUM POWDER – Part One

A babble of raised voices filtered upstairs from the salon on the ground floor. Sana looked up from the video she was watching on her phone and wondered if it was another begum of leisure who was throwing a royal fit. How she hated this raucous upheaval of the sanctity of her home! Why couldn’t they just live respectably in a non commercial area that was devoid of beauty parlors, tandoors* and paan walas*. It was one of the reasons why she hadn’t invited any of her friends over from work yet. Most of them didn’t even know that her mother owned a salon on the fringes of phase 5 in DHA*. She and her mother lived above the salon in a two bedroom unit. Aside of the little oasis in their immediate surroundings, their apartment overlooked vast expanses of undeveloped land in the otherwise lush and burgeoning Defence Housing society of Lahore.

Sana sighed and walked out onto the balcony. It was only 5 O’ clock in the evening which meant another three hours of salon frenzy, a myriad cars parked downstairs, watched over by as motley a crowd of drivers. She sometimes stood in the creeper latticed shadows of the terrace and spun entire character sketches in her head about each of the men who sat waiting for their lady employers to emerge from the secret sanctums within, blow-dried, beautified and seasonally bedecked: The wedding season metamorphoses were quite spectacular, transforming many plain-jane bibi-jis* into princesses.

During her tale-weaving meditations, Sana would focus on one of the men gathered below – on his facial hair, his clothes and the way in which he huddled or draped himself on a chair in the Driver’s sitting area outside. From the shrinking violet to the wily watchful types to the portly, loud and laughing types, she’d seen them all and then zoomed into their lives with the telescope of her lively imagination. Today she focused on a vocal one with a twirled mustache and slickly oiled hair: he seemed like the kind who was happily married in a village somewhere in the interior of Punjab but who also had a local lady love; maybe the maid from across the street … He would steal ripely blooming roses for her from his bibiji’s garden and douse himself in ittar on his evenings off when he would go to meet her. Date nights, desi* style.

At a quarter to nine, Zulaikha walked into the lounge upstairs. She went straight to the bathroom to wash her face and perform her ablutions for the one prayer a day she religiously performed. She sat at her dressing table and looked at her reflection for a moment. She then took the powder puff of her rose talcum powder and dabbed it on her neck and her feet and finally on her hands. She rubbed it in gently, inhaling its sweet fragrance like she had done for the last 30 years. She then spread out her janamaz*. Fifteen years on, there were only a few vestiges that reminded Zulaikha of her past; the Rose talcum powder was one of those. It had been a panacea for most ills of the body, the mind and the heart: A burn or a rash or a gash; a bad day or a headache or nausea were all dispelled with the healing softness and the soothing bouquet of her Yardley’s rose scented talcum powder.

Her Isha* prayers done, she went into the kitchen to see what there was for dinner. It was Sunday so Sana had been off from work. Her daughter worked in a bank as a Customer Service Officer. Every time Zulaikha thought of her daughter sitting at her desk in the cool and respectable environs of the Muslim Commercial Bank, she felt a little surge of pride in her heart and a tug of emotion in her throat. Sana had broken through the generations of tradition that had dogged the footsteps of the women in their family. For as long as she could remember, theirs had been a long and uninterrupted lineage of dancing girls. Zulaikha would be the last of that insidious matriarchal line; and Sana would be the first of the virtuous and respectable patriarchy.

There was two day old biryani* in the fridge and some chicken karahi* that they had had for lunch that afternoon. She took out both containers and set them on the counter. They would serve themselves and heat their food in the microwave. After all these years of living with the amenities of modern city life, Zulaikha still marvelled at the technology that surrounded them. She now watched from a safe distance as the display on the microwave efficiently counted down the minutes while its shallow bowels generated enough heat to turn her insides to ash if she stood too close. Like so much in life, the electronic conveniences had also come into their home with their fair share of facts and fiction.

‘Sana! Come and serve yourself’, Zulaikha called out to her daughter.

Sana meandered in from her room, surrounded by the stupor of an uneventful day and an especially protracted afternoon siesta. She served herself some biryani with a generous serving of yogurt on the side. The watered down raita that usually came with the spiced up rice did nothing to pacify her screaming taste buds. She had not inherited her spicy food genes from her mother (or even her father probably) and the biryani made her sniffle and snort as the spice turned on her internal fire-fighting waterworks; unless she added on some cooling yogurt to the gastronomic fray.

Mother and daughter sat in silence while eating their food. Zulaikha was ticking off a mental list of salon supplies she would need to get the next day. Every month, she restocked her inventory from her two main suppliers. They had both been kind to her when she had started her own beauty parlour ten years ago; on many occasions, marking more than their due time on their accounts receivable. She had in turn, remained their loyal customer as her business had grown along with the size of her orders. Mrs. Anwar was the third customer this month who had asked her about laser hair removal. Zulaikha wondered how much of an investment would be needed to add that service on to her beauty parlour repertoire …

Sana looked at her plate, carefully spooning a dollop of cold Nestle yogurt onto her biryani before putting the mixture into her mouth. She enjoyed the burst of coolness on her tongue and palate before the chillies began their now sluggish assault. She had always had a quirky palate and happily mixed textures and flavours that gave even her mother occasion to pause. The biryani and yogurt mixture was definitely not her most outlandish combination of food. She thought of Rizwan. He loved his biryani; the spicier the better. She smiled to herself, instinctively gathering up the corners of mouth in the next instant. Rizwan was her secret. For now.

Zulaikha looked at her daughter who was deep in conversation with herself. She recognised that ethereal, far away look that came over her lovely face then. Her daughter had a secret. Zulaikha smiled to herself; she’s know soon enough. She shared a tender and close bond with her only child. She thought back to how their lives had changed over the last fifteen years. Zulaikha had got a job at a local salon and had shown a natural talent for catalyzing aesthetic transformations, conjuring up all shades of loveliness on plain, sometimes marred canvases. Sana had got into a good school and from there she had gone to university. Both mother and daughter had thrived in their new environment. They were a million miles away from their room in Qaisery Gate in Faisalabad.

That night Sana got a text message from Rizwan. He had finally spoken to his mother about her. That was all he said but it made her nauseous in a strange way: a combination of excitement and anxiety was turning her stomach which had already been grumbling in petulant protest at the earlier biryani onslaught. She sat up and had an antacid with a full glass of water. Then she picked up her phone again to read the message.

He had told his mother that he was interested in her. That was all. That was everything! That would mark the absolute, final end of the old, and the beginning of something new, dignified and permanent. No one would be able to take that away from her.

She re-read the message a few times, trying to bring her frenzied, racing mind back to the moment; back from its leaping somersaults into the sacred, secret visions of her future. Her nausea quelled, she leaned against the headboard of her bed, smiling at her screen as it lit up her face in the quiet of an otherwise uneventful Sunday night.

* Tandoor: Also known as tannour is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking.

* Paan-wala: Paan is a preparation combining betel leaf with areca nut widely consumed throughout Southeast Asia/ the Indian subcontinent. Paan-wala is one who sells paan.


* DHA: Defence Housing Authority, a planned housing scheme in a number of cities in Pakistan

* Bibi-ji: Respectful term of address for the lady of the house usually used by the domestic staff of the house across the Indian sub continent.


* Desi: Urdu/ Hindi meaning local/ of South East Asian origin.

* Janamaz: Muslim prayer mat

* Isha: The fifth and last prayer of the day in Islam

* Biryani: A mixed rice dish originating among the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. It is made with Indian spices, rice, and meat, and sometimes eggs or vegetables also such as potatoes and brinjal.

* Chicken karahi: a spicy chicken dish of the Indian subcontinent. It is usually made in a heavy, cast iron pan called the karahi and hence the name.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/07/22/rose-talcum-powder-part-two/

SHORT STORY | MISTRESS OF HER KISMET – Part Two

Over the course of the last year, it had become a weekly tradition for Zubaida and Sikander to meet for lunch at a little restaurant near the Malik Art Studio. There were a handful of safe, soul-restoring places around the city that Zubaida frequented as much for their therapeutic vibes as for their practical purposes. One of them was Yousuf’s Cafe. Right from the start, it had evoked remembrances of another time, another life. Over time, her memories associated with the place had distilled to a few heart-warming images: her brother Yousuf’s 10 year old face smiling at her; Zubaida reading him stories of Jinns* and courageous raja’s*; his eyes lighting up when she got him the occasional treat of Sohan Halwa*. He had morphed into more than the ugly culmination of her life in Hasilpur. In the strangest happenstance, she had found her brother again in the little cafe with his name.

It was Wednesday and Zubaida sat at Yousuf’s Cafe with her first steaming cup of tea. She was waiting for Sikander who always arrived at least 30 minutes later than the appointed hour. It was a foible that had grated on her hyper-organised approach to life but which she had with time, and a softening of her heart, managed to compartmentalise as a minor personality flaw. She had realized that if she reasoned things out in her head, covering the entire gamut of its strengths and its weaknesses, she was able to approach it with much greater tranquility and acceptance. And so it had been with Sikander’s tardiness. She always planned little things to tick off her To Do list while she waited for him to appear. Today she pulled out her phone and looked at the word that had become one of her revitalising life mantras and with time, also an integral part of her calligraphic renderings: Al-Hakam– one of the 99 names of Allah in Arabic meaning “The Impartial Judge”.

This was going to be her second collection in three years that was dedicated to this divine quality. Most of the previous collection had been acquired by a single private collector who had also been inimitably discreet about his identity. She had always wondered who it was that had felt the same resonance with the concept of supreme justice.

Sikander walked in at exactly 2.10pm, forty minutes late, smiling and completely oblivious of the time transgression. In her rationalising enterprise on this particular flaw, she had also concluded, among other things, that this was an idiosyncrasy that was almost communal in Lahore. It was completely normal to arrive two hours late for social functions and at least half an hour late for work-related obligations. She smiled at him and put away her phone, having decided on the colour scheme for her Al-Hakam exhibition. They had their usual lunch of Pulao* and Aloo tamatar*, a specialty at Yousaf’s. The conversation was easy and varied, nurtured by time, familiarity and their fondness for each other. Their Wednesday gastronomic adventures usually ended in uncharacteristically speedy farewells as both headed to their respective homes for their food-induced siestas.

Later that evening, Zubaida sat at a pristine canvas repeating the word “Al-Hakam” in a low, melodious murmur. She was as immersed in the powerful essence of the word as she was in the image it now evoked in her mind. Zubaida had decided on sepia tones for this series, with abstract backgrounds in the 3 main colours of turquoise, gold and maroon. She would in her subtle style, vary the sepia shades and the undulations of her Khat* across each painting. She got to work on her first canvas.

She finally looked up from her work at past 9pm. She had been absorbed in sketch work for the last three hours. She heated up some daal and a mixed vegetable curry that she’d cooked the previous day. She had already had two chapatis* delivered from the tandoor* downstairs. After dinner, she took out her diary to write down her tasks and reminders for the next day. This urban life hack had with time, also become one of her practical meditations that she performed with unremitting regularity. The smallest task was recorded meticulously so that every evening she had a page full of practical, sovereign affirmations for the next day. The planning of her day, the writing it all down reminded her, more than anything else, that she was in control of her life, of her movements … of her body.

Tomorrow she was planning on visiting the Singer electronics store and buying her first ever washing machine. Sikander had convinced her of its paramount importance in everyday life. Sunday had usually been laundry day for her, an unconscious vestige of her life in the village when the whole family’s clothes would be washed in a big tin tub and the courtyard would be overspread by colourful lines of billowing shalwars, kameezes and dupattas. She now had a plastic bucket at home which had been sufficient for her week’s washing.

Zubaida grinned at Sikander. Some things still delighted her like they would a child. She was pleased and proud of her newest purchase, and awed, as she was off and on at the bounties of her life as a mistress of her own kismet. Her face was transformed at those moments when her guard fell and her dark brown eyes shone, reflecting her inner light. It was one of those precious moments that Sikander was witnessing and he smiled, feeling a now familiar, gentle wrench of his heart. Washing machine buying day was as good as any to propose to her.

After dinner and in the privacy of his bedroom, Sikander mulled again on the events of the afternoon. He had known Zubaida long enough to expect the unexpected. And that was exactly what had happened. He had come right out simply and directly, and asked her to marry him. He’d made a statement, almost a demand of her to marry him he thought cringing a little in retrospect. He had not hoped for her to say yes; he’d expected her to say yes. The swagger of patriarchy ran deep he thought ruefully and smiled despite himself.

She had looked at him calmly, almost tenderly and then just said no. Sikander had built up this moment so much in his mind that he had not taken a rejection into account at all. But when he was faced with it, the honesty of their relationship transformed it from an irreparable lancing of the ego to just another truth between them, another matter of fact. There was a silence that followed, not awkward, not brimming with heightened emotion; just a calming quiet where the last few pieces of their particular puzzle floated into place. Theirs was not going to be a traditional union, but she was still his chosen one.

Zubaida brought her brand new washing machine, together with a myriad of strange emotions back home with her. She had predicted that something of this sort may happen – they both liked each other. She had also imagined more than a few times, of how she would go about handling a proposal from her one soul mate: a rejection couched in profuse apologies, long winded explanations, shouldering the blame for not being normal enough to embrace healthy conventions, and the ultimate risk of losing his friendship. None of that had transpired. It was a simple, undramatic moment of truth where their special relationship did all the talking that was necessary. No words were exchanged yet a whole new understanding was reached. Their relationship was not going to be boxed under already existing labels. It had sprouted its own unique wings and it would fly with its own momentum in its own way.

She had never felt surer or more confident of her soul kinship with Sikander as she did post the afternoon’s events. She knew that he understood her reasons for not taking the traditional route. Still, they were her reasons not his. He had respected and accepted them nevertheless.

Their equation had survived the greatest disavowal of convention; and embedded in there was the most sublime justice. She smiled gently with a little word on her lips: “Al-Hakam”.

* Jinn: Supernatural creatures in early pre-Islamic Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology.

* Raja: Prince in Urdu/ Hindi.

* Sohan Halwa: A traditional dense, sweet confection that has been popular in South Asia since the Mughal era.

* Pulao: A one pot rice dish made by cooking fragrant basmati rice with aromatic spices, herbs & sometimes stock.

* Aloo tamatar: Potatoes with spicy tomato gravy.

* Khat: Letter or alphabet in Urdu.

* Chapati: Also known as roti, is unleavened flatbread originating from the Indian subcontinent.

* Tandoor: Also known as tannour is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking.


Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/07/09/mistress-of-her-kismet-part-one/

SHORT STORY | MISTRESS OF HER KISMET – Part One

This story may be read as a continuation of an earlier piece of work titled The Sins of Our Fathers. You can read that here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/09/sins-of-our-fathers-part-one/

Zubaida looked at herself in the mirror as she always did before heading out of her one room apartment; straight into the eyes of her reflection. She passed on her daily affirmation to herself: that she was her own be all and end all. No matter how wonderful life sometimes got, no matter how much of the drug of complacency it tried to suffuse her with, she would remain alert. This recall was a vital part of the start of every day for Zubaida; and the subliminal messaging to herself as she looked directly into the windows of her own soul, was to her the most effective way of keeping herself vigilant and grounded. She had been on her own for the last thirteen years and she had survived, indeed thrived in the general ebb and flow of life.

Zubaida lived in Shadman in Lahore and was a professional calligrapher. She specialised in oils on canvas. Her shaded, monochromatic depictions of Quranic verses had not only earned her a name in the city’s Islamic Modern Art community but had with time, become a reliable and consistent source of income. Ten years ago, she had gradually begun to supplement her Urdu tuition earnings with sales of one or two canvases every month. Over the last five years, her art sales had become her primary source of income.

Zubaida stepped out of her apartment locking it behind her. She walked towards the stairwell and per habit, looked again at the door ensuring the padlock was securely in place. She always made absolutely sure that her home was safe.

She got into a taxi and headed for Malik Art Studio in Model Town. The gallery and the curator of its masterpieces such as they were, had both been kind to Zubaida. She had in turn, responded with her own sense of loyalty, declining offers to exhibit at some of the other local studios that speciliazed in Islamic art. Her latest calligraphy series was going on display soon. She had learnt with time and experience, that masterminding the entire exhibition process from start to finish tended to lead to fewer last minute fires to put out. Today, she was going to see how her ten pieces of work would be displayed in the upcoming Eid exhibition.

She spent two hours in the voluble company of Malik sahib, deciding on the frames and the placement of each canvas.

‘Sikander was here yesterday. He has already promised to buy two of your pieces’, Iqbal Malik said, his eyes glinting with the combined thrill of giving Zubaida news of Sikander and the prospect of a tidy profit.

Sikander Ilyas was the scion of the Ilyas Ceramics and Tile Manufacturing, a keen appreciator of art and in Zubadia’s case, of the artist too. He had met the serious young woman two years ago during one of her exhibitions and was almost immediately taken in by her no nonsense demeanour that was also simultaneously rooted in a quaint naïveté. The combination had quite swept Sikander off his feet. He hadn’t said anything of the rumblings of his heart to Zubaida. Not so much because romance seemed like a superfluous sentiment around the sedate woman, but because he himself had been grappling with his feelings. He was expected to marry someone from his class; someone eligible and beautiful; a society damsel.

Zubaida was the antithesis of all that. She had grown up in rural Punjab and at the tender age of seventeen had undergone a brutal sentencing by the local community for a social transgression committed by her uncle: the girl had survived a Jirga*-ordained revenge rape. In the eyes of the world, she was a stigmatized woman; tainted and unmarriagable. In his eyes, while she was tainted, he had been trying to work around the unmarriagble aspect of it. He had decided that time was the best moderator of troublesome peeves and had decided to go with the flow.

Two years on, he was more in love than ever before and the walls of culture and tradition that had kept him privileged and safe, had been slowly eroded by floods of patriarchal contrariness and social defiance. Sometimes, he wondered at the change that he’d undergone as a person and especially as a man in his community. His heightened sensitivity to the pervasive chauvinism that flourished so brazenly in his Islamic republic had given him his fair share of sleepless nights. The not so infrequent introspective moments that also now crept upon him, left him appalled and ashamed. Time had in fact been a ruthless arbiter, opening his eyes to a world that he and the rest of the male fraternity of his homeland had helped to build, brick by twisted brick.

In a world that was seeming increasingly at odds with reality, Zubaida appeared more and more like the only lucid woman around. And so, Sikander was now quite decidedly ready to ask Zubaida to marry him.

Even so, while his internal ideology had changed, he was still a consummate part of the social and patriarchal structures that had always defined him; that he called his roots. No matter how he envisioned it, it was going to be a challenge seeing this undertaking of the heart through …

But damned be the world! Well … he’d handle his parents and they’d handle the rest of the world.

Zubaida had at first been wary of Sikander’s interest in her. In the thirteen years since her life had been turned upside down and which she had since built back one vital milestone at a time, one thing had become resonantly clear: she would maintain her independence no matter what; and a husband did not feature in any conventional, orthodox way in that ultimate life stratagem. Despite her overtly disinterested bearing however, there had been a motley assortment of hopefuls who had vied for her attention. She had held on as practically to her Unavailable status as she had been factual about her past.

All her suitors were made aware of her particular “standing” in society immediately upon their disclosure of their besotted hearts. Some had retreated mumbling sympathetic apologies, less out of shame for the toxicity of the patriarchy that had perpetrated the tragedy and more for how her irrevocably stigmatised situation would affect their own social standing. Others had shown surprising strength of character, whether fleeting or more deep-rooted, whether spurred on by pure adrenalin or by something less chemical and more ideological, and repeated their desire to partner with her in the sacred (and hopefully abiding!) contract of the Nikah*. She had seen off the disillusioned devotees with a gracious farewell and the tenacious lot, with a polite refusal. It had never been hard to do. Her heart had remained utterly unaffected and composed; until Sikander had come along. With time, the man had got under her skin. He had changed in ways she could understand and respect; in ways that gave her hope and warmed her.

* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.

* Revenge Rape: Or Honour Revenge is a sentencing usually inflicted on an innocent woman by a council of elders in rural communities, as retribution for a crime committed by usually a male member of her family.

* Nikah: In the Islamic tradition, the marriage contract is signed during the Nikah ceremony and it is during this event that the bride and groom say, “I do.”


Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/07/12/mistress-of-her-kismet-part-two/

SHORT STORY | KEEPING THE FAITH – Part Two

Angela had planned their final exit from Mall Square with dignified efficiency, helped as she would be with the gracious support of her long time friends. But sometimes, the best laid plans can get washed down rutted roads that one has not seen nor ever imagined. And so it was that one after another, her carefully constructed relocation schemes crumbled shapelessly in the mire of undisguised faces and unfeigned intentions that had suddenly, unexpectedly surfaced. The sisterhood of Faith had gone careening down the hill, crashing into the emptiness below.

Of the four friends she had appealed to for help, only one had come through – partially. Rashmi’s guest house was occupied by a foreign friend of her daughter’s (that was a bald faced lie!); Sandali had three warehouses in Nugegoda but they were all also suddenly occupied with overflowing inventory (just last week that factory cupboard was bare!); Sarah had no help at home and her sister in law was laid up with a chronic condition (that hale and hearty woman who had never been sick a day in the last 15 years that she’d known her!); and Thilini had offered to have Dilshan and Angela over for a fortnight. After that they were going to finally begin the renovation on their house which they had been postponing for the last five years and which the Covid lockdown had somehow given the much needed impetus for.

It had been a week of revelations, teetering friendships, somber musings and a clarity about her world that had momentarily blinded her. Despite it all, she had taken each disclaimer, coated as it was in pots of sacchrinous sweetness, with calmness and poise.

She had just come back from the hospital where they had moved Dilshan from Intensive Care to a General Ward. It would be another few days before he would be able to come home. “Home” … the word now agitated her; made her nervous, clutching at her throat and stinging her eyes. She was not generally given to sentimentality or self pity and had gone through much in life, stoic and dry-eyed. But this was not like any other curve ball that the universe had thrown at her in the past. This was her entire world toppling down around her. Her sacred world made up of special hand picked individuals who shared the same ethos and the same moral high ground. It was like the ultimately twisted confession where the priest was found to be the greatest sinner. All those sophisticated, benevolent people – her friends – showing up, personifying everything that they had hated about the rest. It was a heartbreaking reality check and it took a lot of Angela’s self possession and control to not just sit down and cry.

Even if she was made of sterner stuff that allowed her to push the pieces of her recently fragmented world into some steely hollow of her mind, she still had the vacating of the premises to deal with.

On a whim, she spoke to the long time security guard of the condomninium. Did he by chance know of any apartment that was available for rent above the 8th floor? Mr. Surdheen did in fact: it was one of Bilal Rahuman’s apartments on the 10th floor. Angela frowned and then swallowed hard – controlling both, her anxiety at the mention of the Muslim name, as well as the long nurtured prejudices that now automatically sprang along with the nomenclature. When Angela didn’t say anything, Surdheen volunteered to speak to the apartment owner – if she wished. He had known the lady long enough to have gauged her jaundiced eye towards everyone really, except Mr. Augustine who managed the mini mart on the premises; he was Catholic. Surdheen himself was Muslim but like so many in his melting pot of a homeland, he lived peacably enough with his Buddhist, Hindu and Christian countrymen. This lady was different. The Mall Square staff had occasionally discussed Angela’s undisguised faith biases and had decided in their combined goodwill that she must have had a bad experience sometime in life to have made her like this.

These days, in the wake of all the recent events, Angela had seemed less and less devoted to her preferences of faith and community; and while she would not normally single out Surdheen to speak to of anything really, she had instinctively gone to him. She knew that he had been at the apartment complex the longest and usually had the most reliable information on tenants, landlords and even the shenanigans of the real estate agents. Usually she would tap into Surdheen’s fount of information via Augustine or one of the other Mall Square staff.

She accepted his offer, thanked him and went back inside. Bilal Rahuman … the name was vaguely familiar, flitting around the edges of her memory. No, she couldn’t recall where she might have heard it. Maybe it was just another Muslim name that she’d heard and while earlier she would have caught it through one ear and ushered it roundly out the other, sometimes these names did tend to stick. This must be one of those sticky Muslim names. That evening Surdheen came to her apartment to give her Bilal Rahuman’s number. She could call him whenever she liked, Mr. Rahuman had informed Surdheen.

Angela had a restless night. Random thoughts that had before evoked simple irritation or plain out ire, now went plodding through her mind like a herd of unhurried elephants – each large, clear and washed clean of the dust that had blurred its tremendous form: She recalled the unremitting distaste with which she’d always regarded bearded men in their “wahabi maxis” as she and her group had called them … thawbs* was the term wasn’t it …..; and the Muslim call to prayer that had always grated on her ears – she had even railed about its primitive, cacophonous quality in the condominium WhatsApp group; and Surdheen and the other two Muslim security guards at Mall Square that she somehow always managed to omit when she was giving the annual gratuity to the rest of the staff. And now she was going to call on one of them and ask for help because there was no one else to turn to. She cringed inwardly, not because of any vestigial aversion as she usually did, but because of a distinct throb of conscience. For the first time, she felt guilty. And wretched. And tired. At some point amid this moral onslaught of her senses, Angela finally fell asleep.

She woke up late the next morning, but feeling rested; surer of herself and what she had to do next. There were no more expectations left to crash and burn and therefore no more emotional turmoil to deal with. She’d experienced it in all its duplicitous ferocity with her inner circle and was already on the other side of it.

She sat up in the chair, fortifying herself with her purposeful stance, picked up the phone and dialled Bilal Rahuman’s number.

He answered on the third ring and greeted her cordially after she had introduced herself.

“How is Dilshan aiya* feeling? Surdheen was telling me he had got the virus”. Angela murmured something about her husband having thankfully turned the corner.

“He is a good man. My duas* for his speedy recovery. I remember meeting him seven years ago when he came to look at my 10th floor apartment at Mall Square. It wasnt quite the right choice for you folks at that time from what I understood. I haven’t changed very much in it but if it suits your requirements now, you’re welcome to rent it”

It so happened that Angela and Dilshan had liked Bilal Rahuman’s apartment seven years ago too; but the owner’s persuasions of faith had not sat well with Angela then. And so they’d gone for their second choice – the more appropriately denominated Mrs. D’Souza’s flat on the 9th floor.

By the fifth day of her telephone conversation with Bilal Rahuman, Angela had shifted to her new home. Her new landlord had instructed Surdheen and his team to help Mrs. Dias with the move.

It was 6 O’ clock in the evening. Angela and Dilshan’s entire 9th floor apartment now lay packed in suitcases and cartons in the two bedrooms of their new 10th floor home. When the last suitcase had been wheeled in, she thanked Surdheen and his helpers and tipped them somewhat self consciously; there was no familiar precedence of grace or gratuity there to take comfort from.

She sat down in the lounge and looked around her. The combination display cabinet and book case that both she and Dilshan had loved as soon as they’d seen it seven years ago, was still sitting there, in all its teak burnished stateliness. The setting sun filtering in through the balcony doors lit up the single item that lay on the third shelf of the cabinet – a Taj Mahal snow globe. A slow smile spread across her face as she picked up the new yet familiar weight in her hands and turned it over. The little pieces of silver flitter foil fell around the iconic landmark like crumbs from a pie … humble pie she thought unconsciously and reddened ever so slightly. She turned it over in her hands a few more times and then set it down gently.

Dilshan was coming home tomorrow. She would unpack her own snow globes and add them to the shelf. She would liven up the room a little to welcome her husband to their new home.

* Thawb: An ankle-length garment, usually with long sleeves. It is commonly worn by men in the Arabian Peninsula.

* Aiya: term for older brother/ older man in Singhalese.

* Dua: In Islamic terminology, duʿāʾ literally means invocation, an act of supplication. The term is derived from an Arabic word meaning to 'call out' or to 'summon', and Muslims regard this as a profound act of worship.


* Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/24/keeping-the-faith-part-one/

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