The peacock was now an intermittent visitor to the garden at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui, just as Sumaira’s heartiness had become more and more an occasional companion. She couldn’t help drawing a comparison between the bird seeking out her garden and her wellbeing seeking out the door. She was not a woman who wavered in the face of unexplained apprehensions but lately she had begun to feel the chills of superstition in her heart. This house… its walls… everything reeked of secrets and forebodings lately. When she felt especially dispirited, she would get into the car and drive around the city, seeking out quiet green glades where she would stop and breathe in. Her own beautiful garden awaited in magnificent repose and yet she sought serenity elsewhere. The irony didn’t escape her and yet, the ghosts of something …someone now pursued her there, making her anxious and guarded.
Sumaira however dug her heels in. She was the queen of her new home now and the occasional rush of doomful thoughts was not going to deter her from living the life of her dreams. She had in fact, managed to organise a grand reception at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui and had invited all her friends and relatives from Lahore. The haveli had, unsparingly and graciously housed twenty five of her guests. The rest were put up at the Sultan Grand Hotel. For three days the guests enjoyed the largesse of the house and its hostess. Zahid made it back on the last day; he had been away in Lahore to attend to Kulsoom who had refused any sustenance for the last three days. She had looked at her husband of fifteen years almost questioningly when he had come into her room – was there a celebration at their home she had asked gazing at him with clear, bright eyes. He had mumbled something unintelligible and then cajoled her to eat something. She had acquiesced quietly. He was used to Kulsoom’s strange connection with the universe; with her uncanny instinct to pick up on people and their vibes in ways that appeared confounding and bizarre. He had stayed on that night and the next day in Lahore to ensure Kulsoom had abandoned any ideas of fasting indefinitely, and had returned to Shiekupura the day after.
Sumaira was sitting in the veranda while a cool crisp breeze blew around her. It was the tail end of February and the morning still came upon the world with a fortifying vigour. She closed her eyes and let the wind sweep her up on its bracing wings. She suddenly felt an odd discomfiture and opened her eyes. There in the garden, right in front of her was the peacock. She hadn’t seen it in a couple of months and now it stood there almost like it was watching her. She shivered slightly feeling again, the hairs stand on the back of her neck. The peacock suddenly fanned out its tail, turned around and began to walk with graceful, rhythmic steps. It was dancing. Even as it unfurled its lustiness onto the world, Sumaira felt something squeezed inside her as a sense of foreboding joined hands with the tightness in her chest. She swallowed hard and looked away from the scene of exaggerated, excessive beauty and perfection. It was like nature was enjoying a farcical interlude in her garden.
“Guria, chai”(1), came the papery voice from the doorway. The old retainer had watched Sumaia looking at the mesmeric scene in front of her with a long thoughtful look of her own. She had muttered a little prayer and had then made her presence known.
“It has been many years since I last saw a peacock coming to the garden so frequently”, she said as she rolled out the trolley with its solitary cup of tea.
“It was when Zohaib baba left us. He was only 8 years old you know. The amalthas* was blooming just like this and the peacock had danced then too. Tauba Tauba! Allah khair karay”(2)
Sumaira stared at the old woman uncomprehendingly at first and then with a sudden burst of rage that was visceral and raw. Her hammering heart had found the vent it so urgently needed to not come right out of her chest and spill onto the floor. She launched at the old woman – for voicing the kind of calamitous, hideous thoughts that were already lancing at her insides, for always seeming to know more than she would ever know.
“Don’t talk rubbish!”
“Keep your sordid superstitions to yourself”
She felt her breath coming in ragged gasps as she turned around, away from the shadowy face of the old retainer.
“Now leave me alone!”
An hour later, Sumaira still sat outside. Why had she felt like the old woman had jabbed her finger right into her ventricle? Like they had both seen her world ending and the ancient one had been the one to announce it. She had tried to calm herself, to grasp at logic and reality; both qualities had become like feeble wraiths in the face of all the foreboding phantasms conjured up by the two creatures, the feathered and the weathered. The gusting February wind seemed to have further given the phantoms temerity and substance, and had carried them to every corner of the garden.
Sumaira breathed in deeply. With each measured breath, she felt her perspective gradually shift from the occult to the real, from the spirit world to the spring-laden one around her. Where the peacock was just a bird that found solace in her garden much as she did, and where nature’s extravagances were pleasurable blessings rather than premonitions of doom.
Sumaira looked behind her at the darkened doorway. She was now washed over with a sense of remorse that was almost comforting in its safe, unthreatening feel. She sat for a while longer, bolstering her confidence in the rational, sensible, phantom-free universe around her. She then got up to look for Khala*, intending to repair the damage done by momentarily frayed nerves.
The old woman had seen her fair share of ups and downs and had over the decades, negotiated through the myriad tempers of the ladies of the house (the begums and their offsprings included). She chuckled and grinned toothlessly at Sumaira when she was proffered an apology, “Koi baat nahin guria. Kabhi khushi, kabhi gham”(3)
Sumaira came away not entirely sure of the old woman’s state of mind but glad that the state of their hearts was again restored.
The next few months passed in quiet harmony as Zahid remained mostly in Sheikhupura with only a fortnightly visit to Lahore.
It was going to be their anniversary soon Sumaira thought – May 16th. She marveled at the briskness with which a year had passed; a whole year since she had become Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui and the … the Lady of Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui. She still couldn’t see herself as the Matriarch because there were older things and beings in the haveli* that somehow impaired her absolute dominion of the great house: She still felt hesitant when she walked into certain rooms in the house, and was assailed more than a few times by a strange uncertainty in the almost vapory presence of the feeble old retainer. The latter seemed to be almost on standby, to be waiting for something … someone.
Sumaira had begun to counter the assaults of the uninvited, unfriendly thoughts inside her head with strident changes of scene that she wrought on the outside. She had redone the master bedroom very soon after she had come to the house. That was followed by the lounge and the dining room and recently, the room which had always made her shudder with foreboding: the space that had been Kulsoom’s sanctuary where she was said to escape for hours at a time to get far from the madding crowd. That crowd, Sumaira mused, would have included not only people but the freakish cacophony of Kulsoom’s own thoughts too. Sumaira had seen the look on Peeno Khala’s face as she had the ancient teak furniture removed piece by piece. The deep lines on the old retainer’s brow and around her mouth were shadowed with omens and premononitions of a gloom that were almost palpable. Sumaira ignored them, as she did the unsettled feeling in the pit of her own stomach.
On the eve of their anniversary, Zahid was called away to Lahore again. Kulsoom had been hospitalised after a series of seizures. They were in the process of doing some tests but they thought that she had suffered a stroke.
When Sumaira got the news, she felt like a veil had been lifted from her eyes, her heart. It had been a camouflage of her own making which she had doggedly pulled around her face, refusing to see what the universe was telling her. The peacock, the constant unsettled feeling, the premonitions of doom – they had all meant something! Kulsoom was … she was going to die. That was what the haveli had been telling her as it held her in its almost sentient embrace this past year. It was telling her to wait, to be patient; it was telling her that she would finally get what she had worked for, what she truly deserved.
She suddenly felt a strange elation and a magnanimity of spirit that made her breathless. She would go to Lahore. She would stand by her husband’s side even as he stood by the side of his dying ex-wife. She would show him and the world that she had a heart so big that she had graciously, lovingly fitted everyone into it including “the other woman”. The woman who had made constant demands on her husband’s heart and mind. The woman who until now, had always wrung from her a strange mixture of animosity and misgiving.
Yes, she would go to Lahore. She would go to the hospital and look down at the depleting woman, and she would forgive Kulsoom for all her transgressions into her marriage and into her life. She got into the car and started on her journey.
“It was so untimely. So strange….”
“May Allah bless her with Jannat al Firdaus*”
“May her soul rest in peace”
“Allah knows best….”
Zahid Siddiqui sat in the great drawing room at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui surrounded by friends and family pouring forth their condolences. It was now a month after the burial and the house was flooded with well wishers.
“I have arranged for fresh flowers for the grave. Come, have something to eat”, said Kulsoom as she led Zahid and the guests into the dining room that shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight.
(1) “Little one, tea is served”. In Urdu “Guria” literally means a doll and is sometimes used as a term of endearment for a young girl.
* Amaltas: The Indian Laburnum tree
(2) “May God keep us from harm”
* Khala: “Aunt”/ mother’s sister in Urdu.
(3) “Don’t worry little one. Life is sometimes joyous and sometimes sorrowful”
Sumaira came out into the veranda to the shrill scream of a peacock. The bird sat resplendent and angry in the garden looking at the house as if at a particularly baneful beast. She was gripped in a flux of emotions as she caught her breath at the iridescence of its plumage in the morning sun, while also feeling a rush of anxiety that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. She stood for a while looking at the bird which quieted down almost instantly upon seeing her. After a few minutes, it flew up into the branches of the Indian laburnum tree; it’s blue green hues cavorting with the yellow of the flowers that seemed to bedeck its entire body. It was one of those rare, serendipitous displays of nature that arouse awe and melancholia. The early morning, newly-wed euphoria slowly drained from her body as Sumaira looked at the bird and the tree a last time before turning back into the house.
She blinked brightly trying to catch at the disappearing threads of quiet joy she had woken up with. But something had tramped along that path in the last fifteen minutes and she now felt strangely deflated and watchful. How had a peacock, that beautiful creature created so much disquiet in her heart she wondered irritably. For that was the only vision that had intercepted the flow of good cheer that had of late become her regular day time companion; that made her smile a lot and even skip like a giddy school girl when she was alone. Everything was so perfect! Yes, everything WAS so perfect repeated a quiet voice in her head, relegating in an instant, all that defined her wonderful life right now, into the past.
“Khala! Chai le aain(1)”, she said louder than she had intended to. Loud enough to drown out the ominous thoughts whirling around in her head; loud enough also for the great old retainer to have heard her the first time round.
She came into the lounge shuffling behind a tea trolley which carried a single cup of tea. All tasks that were beyond the enterprise of wheels that also doubled as support for her frail frame, had long ago become obsolete calls to duty for Peeno khala. Still, she persevered in her service to the haveli* and its occupants with the same tenacity of spirit as when she had first come to the great house as a seventeen year old widow. That was almost seventy years ago. She was now as much a part of the house as it was a part of her. Sumaira often wondered if in fact the bricks and mortar of the haveli were somehow entwined with the sinew and soul of its ancient caretaker.
Sumaira had married the love of her life. It had been a tortuous path – one wrought with moral dilemmas and all-consuming desires. He had been married; he loved his wife – his ex-wife now – but he loved Sumaira too. He had wanted to make her his second wife. It had taken five long years of persuasion and infinite wiles and guiles to make him see sense. He could only have one – she had passed the ultimatum with strategic precision of opportunity and dexterity. That was almost six months ago. Since then, she had been ensconced as Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui in Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui*, the ancestral family haveli in the heart of Sheikhupura. Her nemesis, Zahid’s ex-wife Kulsoom, had since been settled into an apartment in Lahore.
Despite the euphoria of knights in charcoal grey shalwar kameez sweeping her off her feet, and other such romantic dreams come true, Sumaira sometimes felt a pang of conscience, a momentary qualm. She had broken a home to build her own; the detritus washing back to her in waves as she regularly heard driblets of disturbing news about Kulsoom. The tight knit community of the city she now called home, ensured that she was made aware, one way or another. Kulsoom was not doing well and Zahid was often called to Lahore to attend to her ailments, which were seeming more and more psychological than physical. Sumaira tried to be magnanimous, to not feel overpowering resentment at this monopoly of her husband by his ex-wife. She was still basking in the newness of her beautiful home and the privileges of being Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui, and so she was able to display appropriate concern and compassion everytime Zahid bade her farewell for a Kulsoom-related trip to Lahore.
Kulsoom had always been sensitive, a “seer” some claimed. She was an ethereal child, mostly in a world of her own, stepping out only occasionally for festivals and funerals. She and Zahid had had one son who had died when he was eight years old. Kulsoom had never quite recovered from that incident and had withdrawn into a shell of her own making where only Zahid and a handful of other people were allowed access.
For Sumaira, the spookiness that surrounded Kulsoom had over time somehow made her less human, less prone to feeling any great tragedy or joy. And so, she had persevered in her enterprise of taking the Zahid Siddiqui marital crown for herself. Kulsoom with her faraway looks and her spaced out existence would get over it, she always told herself. But sometimes – once in a while, another voice from the deepest recesses of her being would rise up stridently to provoke and condemn.
Today was one of those days.
(1): “Aunty, bring the tea”
* Haveli: Mansion, in Urdu
* Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui: The Siddiqui Abode, in Urdu
Story inspiration from Hector Munro’s short story titled “The Cobweb”
I saw a little spider today Weaving itself a pathway; In silken thread and zestful strides It made its way up the side Of the glass wall close to me I kept watching it carefully Partly because horror flicks Have made me squirm around these arachnids But mostly because of the enterprise It put into its little life
It climbed halfway up the glass And then a gust of wind alas! Tore its thready ladder up It swayed before going plop! Right onto the table where I sat with my coffee to stare At this busy creature lift Its body up bit by bit
I moved back in mild alarm Not because I’d come to harm That was not the thought I had My arachnophobia got me to stand It sat there a little concussed I think Before it gathered up its wits And off it went climbing again Forming anew, repairing
With so much drama in its life Buffeting winds, with predators rife The spider stays focused on its goals It weaves its web, mends broken holes. We can learn a thing or eight From this marvellous arachnid - To go on even when we’ve gone plop! To persevere, to climb back up Folks, if little spidey can be A superhero, so can we.
Spring turns to autumn which moults Into winter. The winds blow cold And the skies are a myriad shades Of grey. The trees in their glades Stand stark and naked. Their leaves Now mottled, dying underneath Trampling feet. Hurrying feet across Paths well trodden and paths that are lost In the gloom. Winter’s dirge Fills the spaces in between to merge With the Mist. She throws a blanket On the quiet world. And then she touches My cheek. I turn my face away and she spreads Her arms. I’m enveloped from toes to head From right hand to left. I stand still and let her feel. She takes her fill And then undoes her vapory hold. I finally see The path stretching clear ahead of me.
Sometimes while I sit, engrossed in life My brow lightly furrowed, concentrating On getting the task at hand done Running my five miles in the circle of creation
I hear a rustle, a little whisper Of someone on the periphery of my thoughts I glance up, as if to see the vision Of that someone that always flits across My mind on busy days like these Resting otherwise in my heart; I glance as if that heavenly soul has Bridged our realms that are so far apart.
I look up, afraid to lose the thread Of that feeling, that gentle touch Of someone nestling in my core Someone beloved, someone missed so much. I look beyond into the blurry depths Of my vision, desperately holding on To that fleeting caress upon my cheek Gifted, bestowed by a precious one.
The atoms of day, ricochet and I blink Once, twice. I am back in the circle of life I grope twice, three times for that lucid moment When i was in the same space, alongside Someone who most days quietly rests In the warmest nooks of my being A cherished one who on special days like this Takes my hand, eyes twinkling as she beams!
I glance up, my soul surging with joy For that precious moment, filling the void. Sometimes while I sit, engrossed in life I am touched by a beloved for a sweet moment in time.
Lockdowns, inbound, not allowed to go out. While Queen Corona, that prima donna gaily traipses all about. She’s making sure we don’t forget Her microscopic savageness! So she merrily mutates every 60 days In Vietnam, Brazil, India and the UK. I do despise her with a passion so! That dung of Newt; that Toady’s toe!
I tried to see the cosmic grace; Nature’s reckoning, her showing us our place; Cloaked in all her viral majesty, Bequeathing wisdom in all this travesty … But enough already! How much more Do you want us humans to buckle down and endure? You know we’re as stubborn as the proverbial asses No amount of beating will turn us into planet-loving masses!
So begone! Away with you, Ye vile Covid, Get out of our systems - Scat! Move it! Two years is enough of a pandemic battle; Go away! Depart with your deathly rattle. Even Nature is kind after tap-tapping her cane; You’ve ravaged our bodies; now you’re driving us insane. Seclusion, Solitude, I’m so done with these Ice Maidens Give me a cafe, a bar and a mall that is laden With throngs of happy and virus-free crowds Chattering, nattering and walking about!
This ode is for you as an un-fond farewell Please go to Mars; I hear its volcanoes are swell!
The beautiful tropical monsoon sky That changes colours in the blink of an eye. Inspiring awe in its kaleidoscopic wake It shifts and shimmers; now translucent, now opaque.
From the deepest depths of a cornflower blue To the delicate flush of a just ripe peach, It drifts and glimmers in rainbow hues An iridescent paradise just out of reach.
Then there’s the never ending mesmeric motion Of the cresting and falling Indian Ocean; It’s white laced edges hugging the shore In a primal dance telling tales of yore. This is the magic of the Lighthouse* promontory Where the heavens lustily encircle the sea.
The dust and clamour of the city assailed her with its brawny vigour as soon as she walked out of the airport in Karachi. She looked for Rustum’s familiar face in the surrounding milieu of cacophonous welcoming parties, stuporous janitorial staff and the predatory hordes of taxi kiosk attendants. In his low key, efficient manner her driver located her before she had caught sight of him. He took control of her luggage trolley and led the way expertly through the throng to the parked car.
At home, she was greeted with the faint smell of lavender Lysol mixed in with the fading aroma of freshly cooked, spice-resplendent food. Layla felt her stomach rumble in anticipation as she went into the kitchen to look at the gastronomic delights rustled up by her housekeeper. She’d cooked bitter gourd stuffed with minced beef, and fried okra. The hot pot had four still warm chapatis nestled in its cozy interior – one for her and three for the driver. She had a hot bath; relished her quiet dinner and sat back in the sofa, enveloping herself in the familiar sounds of silence of her apartment.
It was good to be back home.
Her phone rang as soon as she was turning in for the night. It was Sumaira.
‘Yay! You’re back!’ she said as soon as Layla picked up the phone. It was good to hear Sumaira’s voice – still buoyant, still chirpy, even at the waning end of the day.
‘I am back! Missed you woman!’ said Layla rousing herself from her solitary stupor. They talked for a while but Sumaira gave nothing away about who her mystery man was. After fifteen minutes of circling around the obvious with blitheful nimbleness, Sumaira finally ceased her torture of her friend and hung up with an exuberant bye and a kiss. Layla was left fretting in the grips of intrigue and conjecture for more than an hour afterwards. She gave an exasperated sigh and picked up a book to distract herself and to lull her somewhat jangled nerves. Sumaira was a tormenter and a bewilderer and even with her best friend, there were no special confidence privileges until she decided so.
After work the next day, Layla headed for La Etilier Suma to catch her friend in her own workplace where she was more likely to reveal and embellish than to bedevil and distract. Sumaira was bent over a sketch and was delicately filling the colours into each roseate and paisley, the very picture of imperturbable professionalism.
Layla looked at her for a moment and grinned ‘Maestro, thy deception is done. Out with it!’
Sumaira looked up startled. There was a pattern emerging to her being caught off guard she thought fleetingly before she closed her sketch book and stood up to hug her friend. She laughed as she sat back down.
‘It’s Karim’ she said simply.
‘Karim who?’ asked Layla while deftly suppressing the inadvertent bloom of emotions in her own heart at the mention of that name; that was still her little secret …
‘Of “Karamat and Sons” – Karim Zaidi’
Layla looked at Sumaira uncomprehendingly for a moment. But only for a moment.
‘Wow, really?’ she mananged to say while quieting her now pitching, hammering, lurching heart.
‘It was one of those unexpected things. I mean we’ve known him forever from a distance haven’t we? He was always so quiet… so aloof. But he’s actually a lovely man. Sophisticated, well read and …uff… those eyes!’ Sumaira gushed, laughing at her own quickened heart even as she glowed in the sharing of fledgling but precious confidences.
Layla looked at her friend as swarms of disconnected thoughts rampaged through her own head: What were the odds? Of all the men Sumaira could have had out there! Had she misjudged his quiet demeanour? Did she think he was the one man who would remain perfectly unaffected by Sumaira’s charms? Why did she think he was going to fall into her lap just like that? Why couldn’t he have fallen into her lap just like that? Well played, Universe! …
‘… and we spent that entire evening together’ Sumaira ended smiling.
Layla hadn’t heard very much after the First Disclosure and now looked at her friend with new eyes … hurting and resentful; stabbing and piercing; stinging and pricking eyes. She blinked twice, three times, willing away the flood that was gathering at the peripheries of her eyelids.
She said nothing but she smiled, for the benefit of her friend. Her angst, like her secret, was also her own now; and even in the throes of her frenzied emotions she knew now was not the time for either affliction to rear its tormented head.
That evening Layla sat with her solitude and her despair; the tranquility of her three week vacation, a now buried and forgotten memory. She washed her face and looked into the mirror. She lifted up the corners of her mouth in what should have been a smile but was instead a grotesque caricature of joy. She froze her face in the lopsided grimace, forcing herself to recall similar moments from her past; moments of self loathing, of unremitting agony, of wanting to end it all …
But she didn’t feel any of her earlier sense of tragedy. She felt only a pervasive emptiness that was almost narcotic in its numbness. She realized that she was not the tortured 17 year old anymore. She was a resilient, stalwart product of the curve ball life had pitched at her. She’d learnt to bat right back, into the eye of the storm. Even when her ordinary and extraordinary anxieties overwhelmed her, she remained afloat with her head above the water; taking in the serenity of the entire ocean rather than the tempestuousness of the cresting and falling waves around her.
She would survive this too.
Life, of course, was full of surprises, but she also knew the limits of joyful happenstance. Even while she sat on her wooden bench, enveloped in her solitude, daydreaming of knights in charcoal grey shalwar kameez, she was at peace with the calming ordinariness of the relationships in her real life. Ultimately, even when she made her brief, magical forays into What-Could-Have-Been, she always veered right back to reality. So yes, she would survive this.
Her friendship with Sumaira was worth more than a few lusty pulls of her heartstrings. Her soul connection with her best friend had to be worth more than her illusions of love and couple-hood; for that was what her fantasy romance had been – a theatre of the heart.
She drew back the curtains on the night sky and lay down, looking at the vastness of the city from her 7th floor sanctum. In time, the city lights faded in the radiant luminescence of a milk moon that shone into her bedroom lighting up her face as she slept.
‘I hear you’re quite the designer – I myself was a coffin maker in the US. Fancy coffins are big business there’, said someone who’s name she’d forgotten but who was steadfastly standing by her side while carrying on a mostly non-reciprocal conversation. Sumaira smiled blandly yet again and took a sip of her sprite and soda. She wondered for the 10th time in as many minutes where Hassan had disappeared to. Usually the crowd was larger and she was familiar with many of the usual suspects at these soirées. This appeared almost like a last minute attempt to make something of a Friday night – the patchy crowd that had gathered was dolorous and … sticky.
She excused herself from Mr. Glue-some, and walked purposefully towards nowhere in particular.
She stood in an unobtrusive corner of the garden and took a deep breath. God! When did unfamiliar crowds start getting to her? She usually loved the banter and the energy. It was this whole marriage prospect that was playing with her mind; even the oddball, to-meet-and-to-forget strangers at a party were now threatening to join the Groom Queue lined up in her head.
She needed a real drink.
‘Hello. I hope I’m not barging in on your … lonesomeness’, said a low mirthful voice near her. She looked up, startled to find Karim smiling at her, suddenly becoming conscious of her uncharacteristic shadowy form and furrowed brow.
‘Hi’ she smiled a little self consciously, feeling a tinge of discomposure touch her cheeks. The light and shadow accentuated her flush making Karim momentarily catch his breath. She shone even when she cloaked herself in eventide shadows … he thought in that moment of mush and liquid emotions.
‘I didn’t see you here … I was looking for Hassan and, you know, trying to hide from a Party Romeo’ she said laughingly, in superintendence once again of her wits and her charm.
Karim laughed and looked again at her beautiful face. He was still feeling the afterglow of the earlier heat of the moment; a pleasurable warmth that belied the usual gin and tonic haze he surrounded himself with at these social affairs. They stood in that corner of the garden, chatting comfortably about nothing in particular, blanketed from the world, while a nebulous moon looked on.
Like Layla, Sumaira too lived alone, but in the bounteous arms of a family homestead that was equipped with its crew of maids, gardeners and all the other amenities that are de rigeur for many privileged South Asian families who live between two or even three homes. Sumaira’s parents lived in Kent in the UK but came home every winter. Karachi’s winter, if its spring-like coolness can, at all be called that, was short and flamboyant. It was when the flowers bloomed and the parks were full of promenading, socialising hordes of Karachiites, glad of the faint, sometimes even fondly imagined, nip in the air. There was that handful of wintry days however, when one definitely needed a sweater or a jacket to brace against an almost desert-like evening chill.
She was having her first of many mugs of coffee of the day, a faraway look in her eyes. Asha, the old family retainer broke into her reverie to ask about what to cook for dinner. That question had become a pet peeve, resounding as it did with the regularity of sunrise, while holding within it none of the sustaining, nurturing quality. Asha’s cooking had suffered in almost defiant sympathy with her aching bones and failing eyesight.
She told her to make a salad. She’d have eggs and salad for dinner tonight.
Her phone lit up momentarily. She glanced at it abstractedly and then picked it up. She smiled; it was a message from Karim. Well.. it was more a forward really of something they had talked about the other evening, but still …
Was she falling in love with Karim? She asked herself upfront, point blank.
She wasn’t wholly sure, but he was definitely on the short list now … at the very tippy top …
Layla lay on the sofa in the lounge. The television was droning on in the background; her father was fast asleep on his recliner after a fulsome meal; her mother was on the phone with one of her sisters. She sighed contentedly. It had been a relaxing, settling, centering fortnight in Lahore. She still had another week to go before she descended into the tumultuous and confusing but also loving and giving arms of her adopted city. She looked at her phone. Layla had been so caught up in the happy sociability of parents and home that she hadn’t noticed the almost radio silence where there was usually a daily digital exchange between the friends. After a somewhat cryptic message that she had received from Sumaira last week, she hadn’t heard from her at all. She’d said something about having met someone new; about short lists that were becoming ever shorter and a choice that was becoming ever clearer. So, the Husband Hunt was in full progress Layla thought and waited for the familiar tightening of her chest. She felt only a nostalgia; a gentle wistfulness. It was the way of things. Sumaira would get married and she may even get busy as married couples do. But their friendship would stand the test of matrimony and its many busying enterprises. She felt unusually accepting and calm.
She suddenly missed her best friend, her soul sister. She typed in a message and put her phone away. She got up in the brightened spirits that were the trademark bestowal of all her home visits and gave her mother a quick bear hug from behind. They were going for their post dinner stroll in the lane outside the house. She looked up at the clear night sky with its winking constellations. Amid all that starry brilliance rested a demure quarter moon like a half closed eye …
It’s probably going to be Dawood, thought Layla musingly as she went through a mental list of eligible husbands for Sumaira. After her initial rush of anxiety where she had imagined herself being left alone with only a dolefully fluttering spinster flag as her constant companion, she’d pulled herself together. It wasn’t that her fear of losing her best friend to Wedded Bliss(ters!) had just disappeared; it was more a deliberate effort to closet the feeling until it had faded away, as most tragic things tend to, into some sort of emotional oblivion. So now, in that wholly preoccupying mental distraction mode that is such a friend at times like these, she was engrossed in the arduous and exacting task of ‘Guessing the Groom’.
Even with the inherent ironies of the phrase, Dawood was the ‘perfect husband material’, she thought. A lean, mean, money-making machine! She grimaced inwardly – that definitely was an uncharitably crude sentiment with regard to her best friend’s prospects. Fundamentally true but …. indelicate. Now, she was also momentarily overtaken with the anxiety of self doubt – was she acting out some sort of repressed resentment because Sumaira had broken their bond of friendship? Had Sumaira broken their bond of friendship? Was she never going to see her again after she had a ring on her finger? Each subsequent question sounded more ludicrous than the last; and yet, there was an instinctive feel of baser truths in all of it.
Layla took a deep breath and continued to pack her suitcase. The Eid holidays were around the corner and she was going to Lahore for at least a fortnight. The holidays were a week long but she had an office in her hometown too so she was planning on mixing business with pleasure … and a bit of escape artistry. Yes, she was going to get away, for a while at least, from the changes that were looming large on the entirety of her life in Karachi.
Sumaira was sitting with her feet up on the easy chair in the inner sanctums of her boutique. The belle of the party circuit was also the creator of many a dream wardrobe. She was a gifted designer with patterns and colours that stood out in the cacophonous milieu of formal wear. She was looking at pictures on her phone, her mind extrapolating sensory stimulation to long term marital success. She had a shortlist now. Of course, each candidate had already, many times over, declared his undying love, while also logically certifying the longevity of their particular match.
The whole process – this picking of a man to be my partner for life; it was all so clinical, she thought. No butterflies in the stomach; no happy anticipation. Just another trek down the Boulevard of Tradition. She had expected the lead up to marriage to be a little more exciting. The flat feeling in the pit of her stomach almost made her wish that she’d married at 23 so she could have floated on the blissful waves of premarital innocence and naïveté at least for a while. There would be time enough for reality to bite and for her to learn the wisdom of mustering her own happiness. Now, she had the stoicism of experience but had lost the euphoria of guilelessness. Life! Always about toss-ups.
There were twenty unread messages in her “Friends and Frenemies” chat group. She opened it and saw Hassan leading the weekend charge as usual. He had asked everyone to name a song that best described them. Sumaira was glad of the diversion and was wondering whether in fact, she was Patti LaBelle’s ‘Lady Marmalade’ or Whitney Houston’s “Every woman” when Layla poked her head in through the doorway.
“Hey! I’m glad you’re here; was going to call you” said Sumaira smiling up at her friend. “Tell me, what’s a song that describes you?”
“That’s easy! I am a Rock” said Layla, delicately assuming the Chin Mudra* with her hands and closing her eyes.
“That’s a quiet song isn’t it? God! I need some of that quietness in my life right now, even if it’s for a day!” said Sumaira earnestly but uncharacteristically and typed her response into the already buzzing online conversation thread.
Kareem picked up his phone and looked at his messages. 157 unread messages in the chat group he rarely looked at during the week. He now tapped on it and looked at the last few entries. Simon and Garfunkel … he smiled. That had been his signature song throughout his quiet, largely solitary teen years and now, it evoked a sense of nostalgia, comfort and serenity. It was Sumaira’s entry … He looked thoughtful; he hadn’t imagined her to be the kind that stayed shielded in her armour and hidden in her room. He looked at her display photo. She really was gorgeous.
“When are you coming back?” asked Sumaira while they both dug into their Calypso salads.
“Two weeks, maybe three if I have to do a detailed audit of the Lahore branches” said Layla looking assiduously into the depths of her salad.
“That’s almost a month! Hurry back… I need my best friend by my side to help me pick my Shahzada Gulfaam(1)”, she laughed and kissed Layla on the cheek. She had to get her friend to relax around the thought of her marriage. She knew hardly anything would change; but Layla had her own conversations with the universe and sometimes she took the circuitous route to seeing things that for others were in plain sight. Many times she had been right to do so … This time, Sumaira hoped her friend’s hesitancy was just the knee jerk reaction of her social anxiety and not a prophetic omen of things to come.
Layla looked at Sumaira, realising her friend was worrying on her behalf. “I know! I’d kill you if you just went eenie meenie miny moe and deprived me of the pleasure of a SWOT analysis on your husband to be!”
Sumaira chuckled, relieved to see the humour returning to their equation.
Layla grinned. Even as she lightened the atmosphere, she was bolstering her own heart …
I am a rock, I am an island …
(1) Shahzada Gulfaam: Urdu colloquialism for ‘Prince Charming’
Karim sat at the desk in his office, looking at a piece of random poetry that had found its way to his “Friends and Frenemies” WhatsApp chat group. The group always came alive on Friday afternoons. He was now re-reading the verse for the third time, a slow smile playing about his lips.
There is this wooden bench I like It’s not fancy; quite the common type. Cloaked in by the dappled canopy Of a gracefully pirouetting Mara tree, It sits in the park like a dear old friend It’s well-worn embrace ever welcoming....
He was reminded of a bench of his own; in a private little place that he occasionally went to, away from the cacophony of life. The little stanza had been forwarded a few times so there was no indication of the original author. He took a sip of his tepid tea, grimaced and decided it was one of those bench-visiting, soul-appeasing days. He picked up his laptop and descended into the imposing atrium of “Karamat and Sons Steel Works”. He looked at the newly refurbished company logo across the reception wall and sighed inwardly. Whether he liked it or not; despite it all being what he hadn’t quite aspired for himself, he was the scion of the Karamat and Sons empire such as it was, and he was going to have to fill in those shoes.
He got into his jeep and drove “into the sunset” as he liked to imagine. So private and precious was his little place of solace that he dared not refer to it out loud. For the heart and the mind have a precocious way of conspiring sometimes, exposing sentiments and truths that were supposed to be forever held in the most hidden recesses of one’s being. It had been a month since he was last there and this little ditty that had serendipitously, unexpectedly floated in across the cyber ether had suddenly rekindled his solitude yen. He longed to sit on that incongruous little bench on the beach. Placed exactly so on his specific instructions, it sat at the very edge of the lapping waves. Behind him was the biscuit coloured hut, made deliberately obscure against its golden-tan background of sand and rock; before him was the vast expanse of the sea encompassing his secluded world in her vital arms. The hut was built on one of the little promontories that jutted out to sea on an otherwise, gently undulating beach front. This secret place of solace, on more than a few occasions, had inspired Karim too, to muse poetically; with always the same refrain serenely coming to mind:
**I am monarch of all I survey; My right there is none to dispute; From the centre all round to the sea I am lord of the fowl and the brute ...
Today, however, he didn’t sit on the bench. He took off his shoes, rolled up his trousers and walked along the beach. One of the silent meditative motions he inadvertently engaged in while sitting on his bench was to assiduously keep his feet dry in the frolicsome advance and retreat of the waves. Today, he sought out the gentle waves, the soft foam breaking at his ankles, leaving lacy outlines around his footprints in the sand. Today, instead of William Cowper’s soothing verse, the two lines, somewhat adapted, of the mystery poet, came knocking on the periphery of his solitude …
It sits on the beach like a dear old friend It’s well-worn embrace ever welcoming....
He was in love! With whoever had written those words! He laughed out loud at his usually Victorian Judge-sober heart as it somersaulted in time with the dancing waves. He knew he was momentarily infatuated with a figment of his imagination; but he allowed himself to grin widely as he created blitheful footprints in the sand around his wooden bench.
It was late evening. Layla sat on the floor, leaning against the footboard of the bed in Sumaira’s room, her legs stretched out in front of her. She was concentrating on a piece of a poetry that had flitted into her mind in the comforting haze of a post dinner, eve-of-the-weekend stupor.
“Layla, I think I’m done with the single life. I think I’m ready to take a husband; to have kids and become a matriarch in some elegant home!”
Layla looked up at her friend for indications of the tongue in cheek humour that was such a large part of her personality. She saw a contemplative Sumaira, lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling, her face wearing a thoughtful expression.
“What do you mean? I mean, this is sudden!” said Layla still waiting for the easy chortle of her free-thinking, conventions-defying friend.
Layla looked keenly at Sumaira and thought, “Good God! She’s avoiding even looking at me now. Is she really serious…?”
“I know! But look, I’m 35 and now’s the time … “ Sumaira said a little hesitantly. Because what she left unsaid was what they had always laughed at; the norms of society on when to marry and when (and whether in fact!) to have children or to instead, adopt.
“You know what Layla, we should both think about settling down. It’ll be fun to become a part of the mainstream for a while. We can always “lovingly” rebel when all’s said and done … you know, to keep it from getting old. To keep us from getting old and jaded.”
“Settling down? laughed Layla. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you use that turn of phrase.Wasn’t it being shackled down that you called it?”
“Sweetheart, I’m serious. We’ve done what we had to in the ways of being single and unattached. I want someone significant in my life now”, said Sumaira looking directly at Layla at last.
“She means it! Damn hell! What am I going to do? Be the eternal spinister? God!–– What’s wrong with me? It was bound to happen. It’s not such a bad thing…. She’s right, I should think about it too…” Layla was putting in copious effort to rein in her inadvertent wave of anxiety.
Sumaira looked at her friend fondly as she saw a myriad emotions flash in quick succession on that sweet face. Change, no matter how natural, organic and sequential in the larger scheme of things, always took Layla by surprise. She was a creature of habit and loved her constancy rituals of friendship, loving and living. But she was resilient and an oddly beloved child of the universe. She wouldn’t be surprised if somehow, somewhere, even before Sumaira had cherry-picked a potential mate from amongst her coterie of admirers, Layla found her great love.
** Verse from William Cowper’s “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk”