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.
Following from “Creatures of the Park” (link attached below), this piece is inspired by my varied experiences at the 2 or 3 cafes I frequent in Colombo city. As with my regular evening walk, I am also a devout tea and latte aficionado. And as a creature of habit, I do tend to absorb the full gamut of gastronomic, service and atmospheric experiences at the handful of places I go to. So here is my affable ode to the characters who, like me, are also found at the oft-frequented coffee places around town.
Angst, amusement and even downright vexation Are some sentiments that have inspired this particular narration. Because when my adrenaline is not racing haphazardly around, Yours truly can’t weave verse or prose that is suitably profound. So here’s a bit of a congenial ramble About coffee shop folks and their queer, quirky angles.
The first of this set that I chanced to espy, Was the gaggle of ladies who meet over coffee and pie. They are genteel and smiling and conversing lightly Of Ruwani’s boyfriend and Andrew’s new-found sobriety. Of weddings and parties and stand-out memorial services; Of yoga class affairs and other sexagenarian caprices.
Following sharply on the last set’s heels, Is the would-be Romeo who’s eternally spinning his wheels. While on his regular tarriance through the cafe, He’ll go through the motions, happily epitomising the cliche-Sauntering gait, wandering eyes, and obnoxiously loud! Because how else would this Adonis be noticed by the crowd? This one engenders both frustration and pity, Deluded sense of self; diddly squat in the mental kitty.
This next one (my favourite) is quite off the charts, The 93 year old with tremendous love in his heart! He’s delicate and fragile and yet undauntingly sure Of his libidinous vigor and marvellous allure. He speaks in faint tones, each gossamer vein outlined; “I want to make love to you”, he solemnly opines. [True story!]
There is also the resident troop of servers, With personas as varied as their gelato flavours. There’s the hero who averts a gastronomic disaster; And the shrinking violet who couldn’t have disappeared faster. You’ll also see “Lurch” on his tropical vacation Waiting tables, no doubt, for some fiscal augmentation. (Who’d have believed the fiendish frugality Of the profusely gilded Addams Family!) There’s also Happy and Dopey and Sneezy and Bashful- Each cafe with its own quirky take on the fairytale.
The likes of me, of course, continue to be, The nose-in-the-book kind, with the-tail-on-the-seat. Looking up only to rest remonstrating muscles, Perennially ensnared in the Introvert’s social tussle: Latte on standby, with napkins and spoon, I’m in a world of my own in the bustling tea room.
The rest of the coffee shop throng is assorted The foodies, the guzzlers, the loners, the courted. The suited and booted, the flip-flopped, the Collared* A theatrical cycle of life streaming onward. This gamut of movement, that with spirit is rife Is what makes modest coffee shops larger than life. And so I continue to frequent the tea rooms and cafes To reclusively delight in the milieu and lacteous lattes.
* Collared: priests, monks and other caffeine-relishing clergymen.
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!
A little background to the below piece. My evening walk is as integral a part of my day as my first copiously caffeinated cup of tea. I venture out 6 days a week, inclement weather notwithstanding, and no matter where I am (I have an uncanny resourcefulness for finding workout venues, even if the source of my next meal disquietingly eludes me). And having followed this body and mind discipline for close to 20 years now, i have had ample opportunity to observe, experience and expertly categorise my fellow park-goers. What follows is the somewhat meandering result. If some of it resonates with other fellow walking track creatures, the bleary-eyed hours writing it, were not for naught!
It all started in those very early days Social media was limited, it was the digital Stone Age. Post a relationship, solo-winging it again, No other pastime seemed to make sense. So jiggity jog, I began doing the laps And that’s when I discovered the creatures of the track.
This funny set is the first that I came by: The posse of old gents who give you the glad eye. And if they’re feeling especially brave, They will ardently stalk you around the enclave. The dignified gait transforms into a stampede Which an imminent coronary doesn’t seem to impede! The breath is ragged, the pupils dilated If I wasn’t The Stalked, I’d have slowed down and waited!
The next of the regular crowd in the park Is the muscle bound ‘Lone Ranger’ who’s out for a lark. Acutely aware of his tittering fans Like a peacock he’ll do his trademark dance; (Read: do a slow jog looking totally focused But we know his nonchalance is quite entirely bogus!)
Then there’s the most entertaining stream: The ladies who’re out there to see and be seen. They glow and they glitter and shine in their gear Quite confident they’ve outdone all of their peers. Most have come from vast distances off Because Wednesday is ‘event day’ at the Racecourse! They walk and they talk and they scan their environs Hoping to catch a gander of the super fine ‘uns. (Please note that I feel abundant affection For this vibrant, spirited ladies’ faction).
Then there’re the crowds of parents and children Of bicycles and tricycles and scootie action; Of badminton, football and even cricket Right in the midst of the walking thicket. Of aimless ambling and head-on collisions; Guardians and wards on their own park missions. Of flash mob type coordinated collectives Sweating it out over their synched acrobatics. This crowd doth teach uncommonly well The precision art of duck, dive and repel.
But I’d be amiss if this septet ignored The likes of myself in the regular park hoard. Yes, I’m the one that’s outrunning demons Not one or two, but prodigious legions! Eyes straight ahead, “baton” in hand, I march to the sound of my own brass band! I may even come across as a tad bit demented But a bracing, tearing traipse is so well worth it!
And so in closing, It’s quite essential to mention That in building satire into this narration, I mean to soften the blow of my words Because haranguing I definitely am still, by God! A little more farce? To the whole park crowd: You’re the molasses in my tea, there isn’t a doubt!
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”
There was a nip in the air as the sun settled rosily into the waiting horizon. Layla looked across the Arabian Sea, directly into the heart of the still bright sun. She did that sometimes when she was looking beyond her world for ethereal clues; cosmic answers. In her transiently altered reality, as grey-black floaters swam around her field of vision, she imagined some message, some intuition taking form. She thought she saw a face this time … a mouth … a pair of dark brown eyes …
She looked away from the horizon and glanced guiltily at her companion; she wanted to make sure Sumaira hadn’t seen through her “sunset illusions”. She needn’t have worried; her friend was immersed in her own world of imagination and thought. Layla smiled, basking in the warm vestiges of her little vision from the universe.
Sumaira and Layla were the quintessential best friends. They’d known each other only for the last 10 years but their effortless bond belied just a decade of friendship. They were each other’s soul sisters as they liked to say. Their friendship wasn’t based so much on similarities as it was on their happy incongruities. Layla was the nerd, a whimsical poet and a shrinking violet of the post modern variety – an introvert with occasional, blitheful bouts of extroversion. Through most of her adolescence, she had been beset by insecurity and a few unnerving moments of “ending it all”. She was born with a slight facial deformity that favoured the right side of her face. While it was barely noticeable when her face was at rest, it did give her a lopsided smile. To those who knew her, it was an endearing part of her personality; to her it had been the savage hand of karma at work. With time and the wisdom life is wont to bestow on the fortunate few, she had learnt to accept and even embrace her little peculiarity. It helped to keep her introverted bubble intact while doing away with the inadvertent negative qualities of arrogance and aloofness that the world tends to otherwise bestow on the quiet and the restrained.
Sumaira was the looker, the social butterfly and the life of the party. The world had always been her oyster and she had partaken of it sumptuously, delectably. Despite the generous loving hand of the universe holding her in its plentiful trough, Sumaira had also learnt a wisdom, a sageness about life and its fickle quality. Surrounded as she was with admirers and opportunities, she unremittingly took to her friendship with Layla to balance her emotional and spiritual equation. The two had struck a chord at the very heart of their being and so it was that the most sought after bachelorette in town and the ethereal child had connected and become kindred spirits.
“Are you going to Hasan’s party tomorrow?” asked Sumaira breaking through their companionable silence.
“You know, I do feel the diva inside me flexing for an evening out, so yeah, let’s go!” said Layla with a cheeky grin.
Sumaira laughed and pinched her crazy friend. She loved Layla’s delightful bolts from her reclusive bubble. When she put her mind to it, she was quite the charmer! She linked her arm with Layla’s as they walked slowly to the car. Clifton beach was now bathed in a hazy luminescence as it held on delicately to the sun’s afterglow.
Layla lived alone in Karachi. An endeavour that at first had appeared fraught with unsurity and anxiety, was now a providential panacea to the bustling, crowding world outside. Her family home was in Lahore which she visited often and gladly. But she always looked forward to coming back to the quiet joy and peace of her own place. She had a handful of friends in Karachi that she occasionally met. Sumaira was the exception and she was happy to regularly, unreservedly share her mental and social space with her best friend.
Tonight, Layla felt an odd elation. She sat looking unlisteningly to Fareed Zakaria on CNN. She was trying to recall the source of her hazy euphoria …. her sunset illusion…. She’d seen someone; the outline of someone in that moment of solar blurriness. She’d seen the face that had launched a thousand what-ifs in her mind for the past two years now. She had actually seen Karim’s face this time. She grinned like a loon. It didn’t matter that they had only ever just nodded at each other in fleeting acknowledgement. What mattered was that she’d had a sign from the universe.
This piece is inspired by the dramatic elements of surprise that are innate to tropical weather. An ethereal tribute to Sri Lanka. Title inspiration from Mark Medoff’s 1979 play titled “Children of a Lesser God”. Screen-adapted in 1986 by the same title. Indra: Hindu storm god Yu Shi: Chinese rain god Zeus: Greek storm god Calandra: Greek goddess of rain Olympus: Abode of the gods and site of the throne of Zeus
Having lived in the golden arms of a tropical island in the Indian Ocean for over 5 years now, I have had ample opportunity to experience its whimsical flirtations with the weather gods. From a spirited lightsaber play with Indra*, to a blitheful dance in the rain with Yu Shi* to a gladiatorial display of stormy rage and thunder with Zeus*, the tear drop island of Sri Lanka has perfected a celestial theatre all its own. The spectators, all its creature denizens, are left sometimes daunted, sometimes dazzled but mostly awed.
Here’s my attempt at describing a not so unusual day in the equatorial climes of Serendib.
Act 1 - Scene 1: I wake up to a pale amber light filling the space above the curtain rails in my bedroom. The usually glad-eyed sun is in a somber mood today as I draw back the drapes on an overcast day. I can feel the fickle aura of the atmosphere seep into my bones and I know it’s going to be one of those weather-wise dramatic days. I arm myself with an umbrella as I step out into the late morning torpor. For while the heavens prepare to unleash their elemental surprises for the day, the moisture laden warmth of the tropics continues to caress all and sundry with sticky-wet fingers. The clouds continue to gather in thick-bodied eskers along the horizon while the sky above shifts between a myriad shades of grey. The trees sway to the side favoured by the wind, rustling prophetically of things to come. Then suddenly they are still, silent. A storm is brewing.
Act 1 - Scene 2: As far away as the rain bearing clouds appeared 20 minutes ago, they have magically, mysteriously traversed the curvature of our atmosphere and are now directly overhead. The grey of the sky becomes opaque like thick wedges of granite. Even though you’ve witnessed this drum roll of a scene a million times, it stops you in your tracks, makes you look up, sends the smallest of cold shivers down your spine. If you’re indoors, you look on from the safety of your enclosed space. If you’re in your car, you hurry home; if you’re walking, you quicken your steps to the nearest shelter. And then the weather gods begin their ethereal orchestra as big fat drops of rain begin to pelt the earth in an opening prelude.
Act 1 - Scene 3: Lightning forks through the sky in an ever widening mesh across the city, its jagged ends tearing into the clouds overhead. Jeering, threatening, laughing Thunder strides along with its booming megaphone. The stuporously falling rain has now transformed into sinewy sheets that cut diagonally into the stinging, singing earth. The usually bustling streets are almost empty; when the gods are at play, the mortals look on from safe distances. Maternal Calandra* cloaks the city in a gentle haze, blurring out the most riotous parts of the explosive crescendo. And the rain continues to come down.
Act 2 - Scene 1: The glistening leaves on the rain-washed trees rustle in the evening breeze, shaking off their watery burdens drop by drop. The Earth rises from her lotus position, stretching out her arms, a sweet petrichor exuding from every pore. Flying, crawling, creeping creatures poke out wary heads, blinking at their shimmering world. The more intrepid venture out for a last meal before their day is finally done. Fledglings raise a stridently petulant clamour, instinctively aware that the beast has moved on and their world is once more safe and bounteous. People hurry on with their lives, still guarded, still weather-anxious but impelled by that unceasing urge to get up and go on. There is a final roll of distant thunder as Zeus laughs one last time. The clouds clear and a rosy orange sunset appears on the horizon as the rest of the deific thespians head back to Olympus*, their cosmic romping done for the day.
Act 2 - Carpe Momentum: The late evening breeze is cool and crisp as it darts nimbly into gardens and homes, nipping gently at sun-browned skin. The sky is clearer, brighter as Orion and Taurus blink in nocturnal wakefulness. The smaller creatures are abed, while the bigger ones slow down in the gentle luminescence of a clear, fragrant night. Tomorrow will be another day with its own atmospheric act and aura, for that is the way of the lusty tropics. And the children of the weather gods will awaken to a new day, fresh beginnings and another chance to get it right.