SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 3)

“I have a bit of a secret to tell you”, said Sabeen lounging contentedly on the sofa near the wall.

Dinner had been fabulously satisfying. She’d had two helpings of the fettuccine in all its curried glory and had just finished a not ungenerous slice of hot apple pie. The sprites of Gastronomical Excesses were prancing merrily around in her stomach while the much-worshipped gods of Abstinence were only vague entities in her subconscious for now. The satiated body had further banished discretion and circumspection as the evening wore on. There was no cautionary gut feel nor any protective sixth sense reining in her excitement and her urge to share her joy. She was on the tipping point of divulging the ultimate secret; an affair so close to her heart that she hadn’t breathed a word about it to anyone yet for fear of jinxing the whole business.

Farzana looked up at Sabeen expectantly, her eyes bright, the ice cream laden spoon forgotten mid-air. She loved a good secret and Sabi usually wasn’t very forthcoming with her confidences. Farzana on the other hand, compelled by force of habit and an actual physical discomfort in the company of an unshared secret, happily let loose the flood gates when thus encumbered. This was going to be quite a treat!

“Kya? Batao na…..”(1), Farzana responded tentatively, afraid to disturb the amenability of the moment. One could never tell with Sabi she thought; one moment she was happy and talkative and the next, like a closed up clam with social issues.

Sabi was making her wait it out as always. Farzana felt the hair on her arms prickling in anticipation and also a growing sense of wariness. Uncharitable thoughts began glutting her mind… despite being one of her best friends, Sabi, in Farzana’s mind, had always resented her more “privileged love interest” liaisons. There had been one occasion in fact, where she’d come and stolen her man right from under her nose! She ignored the nagging post script that always followed that thought….the fact that Arsalan had always maintained that he and Farzana were never “going out”, and that he had told her quite early on that he was interested in her friend from Faisalabad. Even so, she thought, he and Farzana had attended two parties together; granted it was together with other friends. But he was Mian Jalaluddin’s grandson and she had exclusive entitlement until he too had seen the light of day and reciprocated. He would have – ultimately, Farzana thought ruefully, had Sabeen not come into the picture. The memory of the day she’d invited Sabi over to meet Arsalan still made her cringe with ardent regret. Her only consolation was that that entanglement hadn’t lasted long!

She caught Sabi looking at her thoughtfully. Farzana was getting visibly agitated at not only the prospect of being secret-deprived at the nth hour of confidence-sharing, but also by the strange look on Sabi’s face.

I’m your best friend yaar. Mujh se kya chupana. I’m like an open book with you. Batao na”(2), Farzana cajoled, moving closer to the still reposing, still contemplating Sabeen.

“I’m getting engaged, Fara; to the Nawab* of Bahawalpur”, came the deadpan response. Delivered with just that air of indifference to make it into a screaming headline.

Sabeen looked at Farzana, a slow smile spreading across her face. She knew her friend enough to expect any of a range of emotions; barely concealed resentment being one of the more realistic predispositions on this occasion. As time had lapsed, their bachelorette banner had determinedly unfurled in Spinster Territory, changing perceptions, prospects, attitudes and with it, notions of self worth. And Farzana was painfully besieged by the change in social status, spawning a wave of desperate love affairs and subsequent unpredictable outbursts. Sabeen was earnestly hoping this wasn’t one such instant; she was really hoping, yearning for a propitious ending to this evening.

Farzana blinked uncertainly, and slowly put the dripping spoon of ice cream into her mouth. She felt hassled and unsure; hassled about whether Sabi was in fact telling the truth, and unsure whether she herself had heard it right.

“Kaunsa nawab?(3) What are you saying? Farzana managed to ask, looking agitatedly at Sabeen. Her feeling of unease grew as the enormity and sensibility of the affirmation dully sank in. She swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly feeling dry even as she sensed the sweet liquid sliding down her throat. She was unaware of the change in her expression or her bearing as she stared unblinkingly at Sabeen while hunched over in an almost foetal position in the chair opposite. She waited for a response; laughter, some reassurance that this was just a really terrible joke.

Sabeen sat up and looked directly at Farzana, taking both of her hands in hers. She suddenly felt an intense desire to have her friend acknowledge her joy, and to be happy for her. She wanted Fara to understand that this was not just another ephemeral burst of scarlet on the romantic horizon. This boded longevity and was replete with not only the rainbow hues of new love, but also the many shades of grey that constituted a real relationship. This was going to be her “happily ever after”.

Farzana looked on in confused fascination; at this point, she was only aware of the maniacal intensity of Sabeen’s hold of her hands and thinking if in fact her friend had finally given in to senility just shy of her 50th birthday. She was talking of Nawabs and horses and knights….had she said horses or princes…? She wasn’t quite sure. But there was music playing, so Farzana did the only thing that seemed lucid to her at the time.

She pulled up a startled Sabeen and said, “let’s dance meri jaan(4)….. all those extra calories you’ve had today are making you sound crazy!”

And she whirled her friend around the room, grinning loonily while humming along to Jenny Young’s quirky love refrain:

“….Here is a heart,

I made it for you so take it.

Battered and braised,

Grilled and sautéed

Just how you like it…”

De Khudai pe aman.

(1): “What? Tell me…”

(2): “What do you have to hide from me…… tell me”

(3): “What prince?”

(4): “my love”

*Nawab: ruler/ prince. (Largely a figurative title now but still respected as incumbents of a privileged lineage).

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 2)

“….. If you change your mind, I’m the first in line, Honey I’m still free, Take a chance on me!” Farzana hummed along to ABBA’s whimsical lyrics as she sat in the lounge, clumsily dabbing on the 4th layer of metallic silver nail polish on her fingernails. The two battery operated tealites were already dancing a merry jig on the wall from where Farzana’s grandfather’s portrait, enshrined in a gilt-edged frame, looked on in grim reproach. It was just a little past 8pm and house no. 64 in GOR* was buzzing with high spirited energy and excitement. The evening looked very promising indeed, in the wake of juicy gossip to share and sultry confidences to bestow and receive.

Finally there was the grating squeal of the gate being opened and the crunch of the driveway gravel underfoot – both sounds now almost subliminal nuances of incoming visitors who were still 10 feet or so away from the main door. A little window of opportunity which Farzana always utilised to look herself dead in the eye in the lounge mirror, followed by a quick all over glance ending (most times!) in a final pleased pout.

“Sabi jaan!(1) It’s been too long!, exclaimed Farzana giving Sabeen a quick hug and two airy kisses in the relative proximity of her cheeks, while she ushered her in. Sabeen smiled broadly, looking in turn, at Farzana’s face and then at the fat golden brown braid of hair perched precariously on top of her head.

“It’s always fabulous to see you, babe! Sabeen said laughing exultantly.

“I’ve ordered your favourite dish from the club and your favourite dessert. You’re not still dieting are you? Aaj tau na kar yaar!(2)” Farzana pleaded cajolingly, taking her friend’s hand.

“You know i don’t have carbs at night; it’s always just a salad and some fruit. How do you think i maintain this body, meri jaan(3)? But I will have copious cups of tea”, Sabeen responded while looking around her.

The house was looking shabbier, dowdier and sadder. Over the years, the sparkle and gleam facilitated by copious government contracts accorded in the 60s and 70s to Mohammad Iftikhar Buksh, (Farzana’s father, who was also Sabeen’s father’s childhood friend) had waned with the timorous finality of the end of an epoch. Farzana remained an odd spectre of that era, languishing absurdly in the throes of practical everyday life.

Sabeen looked at Farzana with an almost tender look and then sighed. Farzana was a difficult person to be nice to, and Sabeen accepted that she herself wasn’t a saint either. So for the past 50 years, the affiliation between the two was generally that of strained congeniality, sugar-coated with exaggerated shows of affection. Occasional verbal sparring sessions helped to balance out the sugary sweetness.

Anyhow, thought Sabeen, it had been six months since she had last seen Fara. Having known this childhood friend since they were toddlers, she could easily read Farzana’s excitement and genuine pleasure to see her. Sabeen’s heart too, was feeling light and yielding. Today, they’d chat, they’d laugh, they’d connect, and then there would be the blithesome physical and material dissection of all the eligible men in town, and the happy prospecting of new beaus on the urban horizon. In all the discordant milieu of their association, she stolidly shared her involuntary single status with her friend. A shared nemesis, which had been the dubious trigger for more than a few misunderstandings between the two, she thought wryly. All in all though, Fara wasn’t a bad sort; she was just plagued by her own demons as were most people including herself, she thought in that charitable moment of reflection.

Sabeen leaned back in the sofa with a satisfied sigh. She’d probably peg today down as a cheat day – that fettuccine looked just like the mouth-watering curry hybrid we desis* love so much, and were so spectacular at concocting around every cuisine. The light trundle of the tea trolley propelled her hollow gut into a tentative rumbling dance.

She smiled to herself ….Princess Sabeen! Maybe…. probably… hopefully! She laughed at her own childlike excitement, while a delightful little secret flitted around the periphery of her present elation.

De Khudai pe aman

*GOR: Government Officers Residence – an elite neighbourhood in Lahore where the privileged segment of the bureaucracy resides

(1) – “love

(2) –“my friend, at least today, don’t!”

(3) – “my love”

*Desi: a colloquial term used to define the residents of the larger subcontinent comprising of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 1)

“Kya museebat hai! Aa rahi hoon na!”(1), came the plaintive screech from the inner sanctum of the house. With A fleeting look of trepidation on her face, Shabana the part-time domestic hesitated momentarily outside her querulous employer’s bedroom door. Then with a toss of her well oiled head, she turned back towards the kitchen. She’d show her!

Within the slumbersome recesses of the room, Farzana was lounging in bed, kohl-lined green eyes closed, a smear of red lipstick on her chin and a bandana tying back unwashed hair. It was a sunday evening; tomorrow was office again. The relentless ghosts of Weekend-Past had always sung their doleful dirge to her for as long as she could remember. But Farzana was nothing if not ardently buoyant and had always held these phantoms at bay with dogged contrivance. This usually meant a longer than usual afternoon nap suffused with soulful visions of luxurious foreign trips for two, extravagant parties on the arm of some Mr. Delicious and generally canoodling with all manner of knights in shining armour while being delightfully enagaged in a variety of high society shenanigans. Her enduring adage: If one dreams hard enough, dreams do come true. And so Farzana had spent the last 20 years in the protracted throes of Sunday afternoon REMs* that could brimmeth a romantic sea or two over.

The ringing of her mobile phone put a definitive end to her already waning weekend stupor. She picked it up with the jaded weariness of a finch in a cage. It was a friend who was visiting from Faisalabad and with whom she had a complicated relationship as relationships go between two world-weary, yet desperately optimistic females of a certain age. She was coming over for dinner. The typical Sunday evening dullness started to fade in the burgeoning glow of anticipation and excitement, and Farzana almost smiled. She got up languorously as she contemplated her overflowing wardrobe, replete with fashion assurances spanning at least three riotous decades.

Farzana walked to her bedroom door, with a skip in her step. She was almost decided on what she was going to wear, including the hair piece which made her look like royalty; well, political royalty at least. She had always liked Yulia Tymoshenko’s* thick plaited hair that she wore like a tiara; and she’d been practising her faux braid-atop-the-head look for just such an occasion. She was going to dazzle tonight!

“Shabana! Shabaanaa! Ander aajao. Mehmaan arahay hain aaj raat!”(2), Farzana yelled through the open kitchen door into the falling dusk outside. She had a knotty affiliation with her maid as both faithfully lived out the entirety of the dramatic domestic plots of all the Indian soaps ever aired. The conflict originated from both women artfully and emphatically portraying the insidious role of the mother in law, while neither was capable of personifying the demurely mute bahu*. The resulting sparks were the stuff of Stephen King’s Firestarter* plots – on steroids. For now, the arduously-employed had voluntarily relieved herself of her domestic duties and had gone to her brother’s house on the other side of town. She wouldn’t be back tonight. This act of rebellion still didn’t dampen the zestful spirits of the evening. Farzana would order in from the club – Fettuccine Alfredo and apple pie ala mode. The old family retainer was still around and despite her failing eyesight and an incorrigible disposition for small talk with all and sundry, she’d undertake the making of the tea and the wheeling in of the trolley.

It was 6.30pm. Farzana had an hour and a half to look the part of the pampered, carefree denizen of her abode. She wore leather jeggings and a fuschia satin top that fitted just a tad too snugly around her troublesome middle. Over time, she’d lost the affinity for exercise and also the self consciousness that comes with the somewhat latterly acquired corpulence. Her legs were still her best feature, and she preened in front of the mirror in decades old Guccis that had faithfully withstood the naphthalene-assailed tests of time. The face was then meticulously creamed, powdered and rouged in a timeless regimen that too, had been diligently passed down the line by similarly festooned matriarchs of the family.

She bustled about the house, every so often glancing appreciatively at the image in the cabinet mirror, pouting fish-mouthed, back at her.

Yes, she was consummately primed to be the Queen of the night.

De Khudai pe aman

(1): “What’s the problem! I’m coming out already!”

(2): “Come inside, we have guests coming over tonight!”

*Bahu: daughter in law in Urdu/ Hindi

*REM: Rapid Eye Movement A phase of sleep accompanied by low muscle tone and the propensity to dream vividly

*Yulia Tymoshenko: Former PM of Ukraine (2005- 2010)

*Firestarter: A 1980 Stephen King novel about a lass who is an accomplished arsonist in the tradition of most reviled, ostracised anti heroes

OPINION|What a Wonderful World!

I’m being facetious. It is quite far from being any version of wonderful, cohesive or civilised. As the Novel Corona traipses through our towns and cities like a merciless diabolist, we as humankind, as a planet, could not be rent more asunder.

How did we get here? When did all the values of humankind that stirred the heroic tales of yore become so tenebrous, so archaic? How did we become so divided, so intolerant, so extreme? How, despite belonging to the same species, did we become so “different”? And how did those contrived differences take on such a toxic, pestiferous life of their own?

We, as human beings, have been teetering on the edge of our humanity for some time now. The constant slide towards the precipice of retrogression has been insulated only by the crowdedness of our lives and the increasing obscureness of what we are, at our very core, as civilised beings. Indeed, we have, for quite some time now, been navigating the waters of life with a broken moral compass.

The stark wretchedness of our complete inability to come together as a global collective with a common objective has been grimly parodied by the current pandemic. It has laid bare that which was barely concealed: the self-defeating, meteoric rise in national isolationism and exclusionary economics. It has highlighted the dangerous precedent set by the Post-Trump “America/ My Country First” mantra, while any similitude of a global community ideology/ platform has become a mere spectre in the darkness of the 2020 world stage.

If one steps back to look at where we are after 200,000 years of evolvement, even the most practical and jaded amongst us would cringe at what we bring to the Evolutionary Table. The Novel Corona has struck at the very core of our collective societal and sovereign ethics, morality and probity, exposing them for the tarnished chattels they have become. It has, however, also afforded us the opportunity to visualise the propitious crossroads we are at, as a species.

“The Anthropocentric Age – the first age in which humankind is the dominant species on the planet – cuts both ways: it is up to us to destroy or save the planet. We certainly have the ability”, said Craig Ventor. Can we then, overcome our disparate, divided egos and concertedly embark on an intrepid new philosophy for A Brave New World? Or are we going to wait for that epochally-inevitable “Alien/ Divine” intervention to then put us on the straight and narrow?

In the words of Issac Asimov: “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be”.

Right now, viewed from a cosmic lens, Earth appears to be blunderous, sick and unkind. That is not the legacy we want to leave to the universe.

De Khudai pe aman.

OPINION|The Myth of Super-Luxury Condominiums – Part Deux

(When the Food Chain upends – The age of fastidiousness, curfews and microscopic annihilators)

The current high stress, painfully limiting, curfew-constrained environment has been a fitting test for how well the Super luxurious developments in the city have responded to the basic needs of their residents – like the politico with the 100 watt smile and zero good intentions. Yes, it has been quite entirely dismal. One can probably, in a fit of magnanimity (and copiously blithesome inebriation), forgive the unconscionable oversights; but what has to be gleaned from all this all-out service ineptitude are lessons for other such times. For other such pestilentially afflicted times, there will be.

Besides the obvious and debilitating confinement brought on by the various lockdowns and curfews, there has followed in its wake, the almost non-existent fall back protocols for the supply of basic necessities and services at the besieged condos in the heart of “Premium Colombo”. Residential complexes in other areas/ townships, in fact, have had much better organised conduits of supply to meet demand. The worst faring have indeed, been the Super Luxury developments.

On a personal note, if it had not been for a friend’s domestic aid living in Homagama* from where he sourced vegetables, fruit and dairy, I’d be living off Lilly’s** 10 day old food, fastidiously apportioning it and then scraping the last bits off so that the further lack of dish washing soap at least, wasn’t going to be a problem.

My Super premium condominium actually has a mini market on the premises. Needless to say, it remains shut quite frequently even at the most easeful of social times so it was no surprise to see its sombrely shuttered facade through this entire ordeal; a jeering reminder of how fickle the entire super luxury leitmotif really is.

The management of these developments needs to rouse itself from the salubriously benumbing breezes of the Galle Face Green and look at actually making “Life in the times of the Bacillus Extremis” less arduous for their high-paying residential populace. It’s time to re-evaluate essential skeletal staff numbers together with what constitutes essential services, to ensure life can go on in the sundered cocoons everyone is being forced to build around them. Standing agreements with grocery stores, pharmacies and even laundry services, will be integral towards appreciably improving life in isolation for the residents of the Premium branded residencies.

Time to look and act beyond having the residential address doing all the high-caliber talking. Time to get your hands dirty and implement some real value- added services for the convenience of the residents. The age of the Mighty Microbes is only just beginning and we need to have a head start in making sure we adapt our lives likewise, underscored by carefully deliberated standards of comfort, safety and sophistication.

De Khudai pe aman

Mahvash.

*Homagama: a little town 24kms south east of Colombo in Sri Lanka

**Lilly: a wicked cook who, twice-weekly, whips up gastronomical delights for me; and who heretofore has also been the bearer of all perishable food to my humble abode. Without her, my larder is as barren as the Gobi desert in June.

SOCIAL FARCE|Hairy adventures

(From a lass’s perspective)

Having been blessed with hair that is as voluminous as it is scanty, to this day i continue to be amazed at its anti-gravity feats. I’m waxing eloquent on the subject because folks, my ‘crowning glory’ has experienced an epoch of action: a naive debutante phase, an eerily long era of high adventure, periods of abandonment and not infrequent disasters, all interspersed with the odd interval of a somewhat happy equilibrium. Yes, this head of hair has probably gone down in the annals of “Strand, Bristle and Postiche” history in some other dimension where Keratin is at the top of the food chain! (Postiche, because every alternate universe will have its AI cross/ torch to bear…)

The debutante phase is the most nostalgic – so little effort and yet so much on-point oomph emanated from this crown in the 80s. (The mullet was probably inspired by commodious heads of hair like mine). I was the envy of more than one abundantly silky-tressed beholder with her own hair flowing like a tropical waterfall. This amazing denominator included my beautiful, sleek-haired sister who also went down the dubious path of frizzy perms for a few years, and from which she triumphantly emerged unscathed and glossy-headed (a shout-out to you Zar 😘).

Let me liken the high adventure phase of my coiffure to a zombie invasion on a city – you can run, but you can’t hide from the ever expanding blood/ melanin thirsty, heat and humidity crazed horde that is bearing down on you one frizzy, split-ended head at a time! At the end, you pray for a miracle in the form of an antidotal vaccine (read, conditioner!), or to dream one last time of running in zombie-free fields of gold with thick, lustrous hair flowing down your back until ….. *chomp* – the end.

Gruesome, yes, but then i didn’t quite promise you literary rose gardens either 😉

Nope, no perennial rose gardens, but the elusive yet ever-present silver lining, i do pledge to regale you with in most of my babble. So on that cheery note, I’m delighted to share that the ‘happy equilibrium’ phase is currently upon me. I’m still not sure whether it’s actually my intrepid mop finally acing climate change, or whether it’s illusions of contentment brought on by decades of mental hair fatigue. You know, Mother Nature’s no-frills way of telling me that i can’t control everything, and that my hair was put on my head to forever remind me of that! Either way, I am pretty close to hair nirvana, and hoping that my vision is perennially clouded by these gloriously crowning hues. 🙏🏽

De khudai pe aman

OPINION|The perils of being somewhat discerning!

The title does sound somewhat entitled, and snooty even, but please bear with me. I speak from a multitude of recent experiences that has had me picking at my voluminous but sparsely populated noggin (whether of the keratin or grey matter variety, I leave to your gentle conjecture!😁), and gnashing my already well-worn enamel.

Having been a part of the Customer Experience realm for close on 20 years in an exacting industry like the financial services, has honed my BS radar and quite woefully lowered my threshold for plain old bad service of any variety. That’s not to say that I will ruthlessly judge a service provider for delayed service or even providing a pot of tepid tea (the latter though, will depend largely on my then caffeinated state of well being! Tepidophobia is a thing and is quite devoutly and unashamedly a part of my prized anxieties!)

I am speaking of a consistently poor stream of delivery, for instance in the provision of a good or service which, by its nature, is conveyed over a period of time. The caveat is not in the mistakes that can occur – to err is human and all that jazz. Plus, reliable research* has shown that customers tend to remain more loyal to a brand where they have experienced some issues but where the service recovery was substantive, timely and focused. More so than even with places where they have not yet undergone a service breakdown. No, the caveat is not in the faux pas occurring; it is in the dismal failure to even genuinely attempt to fix things. An apathetic attitude is the icing on that poison toffee apple. Too many times, processes are formulated with no attention to service recovery protocols. That is a death blow to repeat business and as we all know, the pie is only so big.

I feel 3 Kgs lighter after that blog post (‘rant’ just sounds guilt-ridden which brings with it its own …. weight (‘burden’ just sounds even weightier!) And since ‘slender body’ and ‘good hair’ days are few and far between after 40, I’m going to go with this being a thoughtful study in the “benefits” of being discerning 🤓

Khudai pe-aman – (may you grow, glow and prosper, or just simply maintain your status quo for now. Until we meet again).

*Reliable research: opinions gleaned not only from the nerdy ramblings of academics or the corporate savvy presentations of management consultants, but from the life experiences of yours truly. That i do promise you with all my heart – to wax (and wane) eloquent with the utmost honesty until death…or just the digital milieu, do us part!