He says they’re a bunch Of thieves and thugs Who have looted the nation Of its tea and its mugs They took the dregs of the Earl grey too! Those boot-polishing, lily-livered brutes!
They say he’s a nut job with lunatic illusions Of grandeur and psuedo-pious, Dipped-in-angel-dust delusions He’s not a statesman, he’s an unbridled curse! Our friends across the pond agree that’s what he is This has-been sportsman with his peerni* and tawiz*!
The citizens bewildered and confused Are wondering with whom they should side The saga plays out again, sly and crude Where the nation is taken for a frenzied ride The horse has long since become a lame ass Feeding on national common sense with a side of grass
The Paya* and Diesel Management says a lot The Dharna* Skipper flourishes his “Absolutely Not”! The repartee continues in savage tones We watch from the relative safety of our homes Then the power goes out and all is dark The slate is wiped clean, we are back at the start.
* Peerni: A Muslim holy woman
* Tawiz: An amulet worn for good luck and protection
* Paya: A specialty dish in the subcontinent, the main ingredients are trotters cooked in various spices
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.
I opened the curtains to the sun peeping through Pillowy clouds were floating around - just a few I stood at the window, the sleep fading away I smiled - We were going on our seaside trip today!
I packed up my bag, threw in my shorts A couple of shirts and two pairs of socks Even by the coast I traipse around in my sneakers I grinned as I also packed my Bluetooth speaker
I went to the kitchen to make myself tea Put on the kettle and looked out at the sea Visible only from that room - the irony! I giggled - I’d soon be walking on a soft sandy beach
A steaming cup in my hand, I went to my lounge I watched a pelican as it flew drunkenly around It had become suddenly overcast and grey I laughed, it was going to be a nice drive to the bay
And then I went to the loo for a minute or five I was getting ready, my partner was about to arrive I came out to a full fledged tropical squall I guffawed at the tragedy of the “best laid plans” and all!
I closed the curtains, the sun had been snatched up by Zeus It was noon but he was obviously in one of his moods I lay down, took a deep breath, closed my eyes I sighed - The tropical weather gods loved to surprise!
The sisters didn’t speak of the confidence sharing or the fragile moment of overt affection that they had bestowed on one another. But for Aliya there was now, added to the light footedness of new love, also the bouyant warmth of a sisterhood that had matured, mellowed overnight from the abrasive harshness of a protracted adolescence. She’d seen the soft inside of her diamond hearted sister. It had been a coming of age of the two women bound as they were by their shared DNA.
The next two months passed in a haze of coffee outings and the odd soirée at a friend’s house. Ali and Aliya attended most of these social dos together. Although they had grown closer in some ways, there was no physicality. Aside of one random kiss that Ali had dropped on her in a state of high spirits, there was no intimacy. So even though this was her first real relationship, she had felt her cautionary sixth sense kick in a few times. She had also caught him, in their quiet moments together, seeming to look more at her bulk than at her; but only for a moment. It had made her shift uncomfortably. Then almost instantly he would remember something else to talk about and the smile hovering uncertainly around his mouth would return to his eyes. And so the euphoria of being in his company, of never running out of chatter, of being sought out, had superseded all the other foreboding notions that sometimes reared theirs sage but irksome heads.
Hesitantly at first, Aliya had quite earnestly tried to include Saira in her plans with Ali. Saira always declined. This socialising with her sister was still too new; uncharted territory for the sure footed Saira. Also she was adamant about not stealing the limelight from her sister because she always had, everywhere. This relationship had to mature beyond the skin deep surface to surer ground before she would join the duo. She already had a trail of ill gotten admirers in her wake: Many a friend’s ardent suitor after having met Saira, had lost his original romantic plot and veered off after her, leaving the detritus of cursing girl friends, bands of sparring women, and specifically for Saira, the dubious reputation of being a “man eater”. Her sister had never had a man before so she had been spared that added insult to injury. Saira had in fact, met Ali a few times and they had exchanged basic pleasantries. To her mind he had displayed no particular quality to indicate that he was immune to random female charms, even if they were not in any way cast in his general direction. There were more than a few times that Saira had looked in the mirror, into the depths of her hazel eyes and wondered if she was really evil or if the world around her was just deficient in personal ethics. The toss up was even keeled depending on her state of mind during those moments of introspection.
There was a party at a friend’s to which Saira was going but Aliya was not. She had come down with a cold and was going to spend the evening tucked into her duvet with a flask of hot tea and the company of her best friend. Although they’d talked on the phone, she had met Saqib only a couple of times over the last two months. On hearing that she was spending the evening in the quietude of her home finally, he had walked across to see her. Saira looked in on the pair, waved a cheery farewell and whisked off to the party.
Saqib sat down on the twin bed next to the one Aliya was snuggled up in. He looked at her, his heart skipping a beat even after all these years of being friends. He loved her. He always had really. She was a beautiful girl who was in the wrong environment he thought for an uncharitable but brutally honest moment. Her sister and her mother had made it difficult for her to really open up and blossom. She was usually closed in, clammed up; but he had seen the dazzling little glimpses every now and then of the woman she really was. Of course all these sentiments meandered cozily within the innermost confines of his own heart. He had never spoken to Aliya about how he felt. In a whimsical way, he thought the universe would intervene when the time was right. He and Aliya shared that ephemeral belief about things, about their world.
He looked at her now, her beautiful skin even more radiant in the heat of her flu induced fever. His heart did another little skip as he looked at her, smiling in the warmth of his secret … held in the protective palms of the universe… to float into their shared ether when the time was right… soon he’d thought only two months ago. Now … well, now, he felt like a transparent wall had come up between them, looking very surmountable still. Like he could just reach through and pull her into a tender hug. It was strange but her relationship with Saqib had not changed a thing. He still felt the quiet elation and the intimacy of their close kinship. They spent the evening talking easily, comfortably until Aliya was ready to sleep. On his way out, Munir uncle had invited him for a glass of scotch. Saqib enjoyed the company of this older, scholarly, wise man, just as much as Munir Mian appreciated the sensible, grounded younger man. It was after midnight when Saqib finally walked back home.
The thing happened abruptly, unexpectedly, in the throes of alcoholic fuzziness and it has to be added, in the thick of stage haziness from the fog machine. It was one of those Saturday nights in November when it was chilly, romantic and many a heart was fluttering on its wayward sleeve. People were huddled together around gas heaters set around the garden. The inner sanctums belonged to the energetic and sure footed as they cavorted euphorically to the dance beats of the 80s and the 90s. Saira had ramped up not only her spirits with four vodka and oranges, but also her step count of the day with an hour on the floor with the other dancing queens. She now sat on one of the chairs inside surrounded by the extra warm stupor in and around her.
‘Oh hello’ came a voice from somewhere to her left.
She squinted through the mind and machine fog as she tried to locate the owner of the voice. She was wondering if in fact it was a figment of her swirling imagination when someone dropped into the chair next to hers. It was Ali.
Fifteen minutes into their banter, Ali placed a confident hand on Saira’s thigh. Her reflexes were slow which he took for compliance. When he leaned over to kiss her, Saira suddenly leaped up slapping his head away. She could feel the multi-layered warmth leaving her body in a visceral, almost palpable way, like the blood draining from a severed artery. She stood up, swaying ever so slightly and turned towards the now blubbering man.
‘You bloody a**hole! Don’t you come near me again’. She thought only for a split second before adding, ‘Or my sister’.
The thing about blood being thicker than water is that when that adage does hold up, it brings entire families closer than they ever were before the calamity struck. And so it was with the twins. Saira came into Aliya’s room the next morning and sat on the bed opposite hers just as Aliya was reading a meandering text from Ali that sounded as cryptic as it did defensive. But he had mentioned Saira in it.
‘What happened’, Aliya asked simply looking at her sister’s drawn face.
‘It’s Ali … he’s a creep’ Saira said looking at her sister hoping that their new found understanding would make the awkwardness, the hurtfulness of this incidence easier to manage. When Aliya continued to look at her with clear, questioning eyes, Saira began to relate what had happened. Aliya listened quietly, unmovingly until Saira was done.
She then looked towards the window, willing away the tears that had sprung to her eyes. She had known there was something amiss about her equation with Ali, something that just didn’t sit properly, uprightly. But to have made moves on her sister after everything that they had shared … What had they shared? Easy banter about things that they both liked but that was it. And if she was absolutely honest with herself, she had imagined more than a few scenarios where he had shown his unabashed preference for Saira. No… she wasn’t shocked. She was hurt. She swallowed hard, but the tears came anyway and she cried as Saira hugged her, silently weeping with her.
That was another thing the sisters never spoke of again but it had brought them closer; and that was what mattered Aliya thought to herself in her moments of not entirely happy reminiscences and uneasy introspection.
Saqib was at his best friend’s side after that. He came by everyday even if it was for twenty minutes at a time to see how Aliya was faring. Her cold was better and between her bruised heart slowly repairing itself and the bouts of wretchedness that assailed her off and on, there were glimmers of her lovely smile again.
‘I’ve put on 3kgs in the last ten days Saqib’, Aliya said laughing through her tears. She was trying to see the lighter side of things… that was who she was. Positive and unputdownable was his Aliya. He felt his heart bursting with affection and a strange pride for who this girl was, to him and to the rest of the world. He smiled at her with love in his eyes.
Saqib had spoken to the Wellness Centre that Aunty Maryam (Aliya’s mother) had been raving about. They had a nutritionist (who absolutely looked the part of course, he grinned) and a physiotherapist specialising in chronic injuries (childhood handicaps included). So he and Aliya were both going to enrol together.
She smiled at Saqib feeling the familiar warmth and comfort that she always did when they were together. She had always basked in the glow unquestioningly. Now she touched it, feeling it all over. Maybe … maybe they had always had something special between them transcending friendship she thought. She waited for her heart to respond to her timorous suggestion: it fluttered ever so slightly and then beat strongly, happily, serenely. She felt a lump rise in her throat and felt her eyes sting just a little. She grinned at Saqib.
She didn’t want to tell him that she loved him just as he was: melting brown eyes, the sweetest smile, rolling gait and all. He didn’t want to ruin the camaraderie of their shared enterprise by telling her that he’d had all the physiotherapy he would ever need and that his walk wasn’t going to benefit from this new intervention; and that he had always loved her as she was.
It was going to be a shared labour of determination and love for themselves and for each other.
Aliya and Saira had cousins in high places; their mother’s brother owned a prestigious ad agency. While their uncle was a prominent presence in many a corporate board room, his wife and children had donned the mantle of the most formidable movers and shakers on the flambouyant party circuit. The Lahore party scene was known for its extravagance and its scandals. Many were the nights that started out genteel and elegant and that ended in the wastelands of too much alcohol, too much food and rapidly unravelling sophistication. Hearty breakfasts of halwa puri* and trite and contrite phone calls between the triumphant and the fallen of the previous night were then the order of the next morning.
Courtesy of their cousins, both girls had debuted on the Lahore party circuit some five years ago and now at twenty five years old, both occupied their own distinct places: Saira was the quintessential diva, the sought after bachelorette at the apex of the food chain and a secret Firestarter – (she appeased her conscience with the fact that she only ever lit a match to already smoldering goods; purging was her goal she professed).
Aliya occupied the small cerebral fringe (aka people carrying more than the regular baggage who had to park it somewhere for the evening she thought wryly, no self deprecating pun intended she always emphatically added to herself). This group sat mostly on the sidelines, analysed everything from the sublime to the ridiculous and assiduously avoided the frenzied eye of the social storm heaving and roiling in front of them. They were the designated drivers and general voices of reason when shindig hell broke loose upon the by then madly gyrating, occasionally screeching horde, their strobe-lit shiny faces appearing to grimace almost fiendishly in the pulsating greens, blues and reds – like a late 20th century version of Dante’s Inferno. And when one of this group was going through personal trauma, of which there were more than a few occasions since the afflicted, in irony’s own twisted dance, tend to get more than their fair share of the ball curving back at them, the whole coterie drank too much in comfort and commiseration.
It was on one such occasion when Aliya had for a while, abandoned her station of the lawn chair critics, that it happened. The day that she felt an almost fossilised stirring in her heart. The last time she had felt this elated anxiety was when she had lost 10 kgs off her 100kg frame – that was five years ago, in the bright eyed, stomach rumbling anticiaption of her first ever ball of the season. God! the naivete, the cloying innocence she thought unable to control the self reproach that often overtook her now when she flashed back to half a decade ago.
She had been looking for Saira in the thick of the milieu in front of her, when he had come up to her. Behind her actually. She had been craning her neck, fervently hoping she wouldn’t have to dive into the throng milling about the bar area outside.
‘I have a bit of an advantage. Can I help with the subject seeking?’ he’d asked conversationally.
Aliya had turned around at this unexpected whisper in her ear … offer of help, she corrected herself practically, also bracing herself for whomever she would encounter.
‘You’re Saira’s sister aren’t you?’ he added smilingly when there was no response to his first question.
Aliya blinked once, twice, frowned ever so slightly and nodded with a ghost of a smile in return. He was obviously one of her sister’s snooty male acquaintances.
‘I saw her at the gate a little while ago’ he added looking towards the far end of the lawn at the other throng at the entrance.
‘Thanks’, Aliya responded briefly, looking at her watch and making to walk back to the comfort of her group.
‘I didn’t mean to spook you,’ he quickly added. ‘Just came to, you know, chat’. He looked at her with no hint of any snide humour or quiet judgement. She stood for a while unsure of where this exchange was leading.
‘I’m Ali – Ali Basit’ he said smiling at her.
‘I’m Aliya, Aliya Muneer’ she finally responded smiling back despite herself.
It was 9 O’clock in the morning. Aliya opened her eyes, feeling disoriented. She had had her recurring dream – this time though, she was plummeting into water, an ocean, when her nameless, faceless champion had at the very last moment, broken her fall. There was also something else on the periphery of her morning visions … someone else … Ali, she thought with a happy smile that became suddenly self conscious and then was wiped mostly off as she gathered up her floating, rhapsodic musings.
It had been an eventful night; one of the few she had spent mostly on her feet rather than on the seat that probably bore the mark of her loyal and substantive bottom by now she thought laughing inside: The handful of prestigious party planners and their furniture did the rounds of all the functions in their City of Gardens. She had been skeptical of a decent conversation unfolding in the midst of the revelry and the excess but that is exactly what had happened. She and Ali had stood for what had seemed like hours talking about the comic enigma that was Sheikh Rasheed*, the inevitability of a zombie apocalypse and the best mutton karahi* in the city. It had been a lovely evening. She smiled again, this time allowing her pleasure to course through her body as she stretched out with the gratified languor of a just-fed cat.
Aliya had only a mug of coffee that morning. Her usual breakfast gusto was lost in the crush of butterflies that was dancing around in her stomach. Her sister looked at her strangely and smiled. Aliya braced herself for another thwack in the gut … or maybe, today it would only be a light little missile of words that would just graze her shoulder, vanishing into the small obscurity of missed barbs. For today she felt fortified, invincible, of mind and heart.
Ali called her that afternoon and for the next week of afternoons. Aliya lived for that week, in a strange bubble of euphoria and starvation. She felt the hunger pangs but nothing in the fridge, on the table or on Food Panda seemed like it would appease the ache in her belly. So she resorted to having copious cups of unsweetened tea throughout the day, winding it all down (up!) with the sugary burst from a bowl of fruit for dinner. In her few clear-headed moments amidst the fog of passion that had befuddled her brain, she admitted that there was nothing quite like fledgeling love to help shed unwanted burdens of the body and the mind.
Her mother was ecstatic at the change in her daughter. She was looking better, happier and dared she say it, thinner. Her father watched her quietly, thoughtfully. He knew his daughter enough to gauge that something out of the ordinary was happening; something that could culminate in quiet triumph or great distress for his sensitive child. He realized he was more concerned about than interested in the cause for his daughter’s moony behaviour.
‘What is it?’, came the question finally from Saira on the sunday when she was going to go out for coffee with Ali.
‘What do you mean?’ Aliya responded in her characteristic defensive manner even though she had been anticipating the query for a while now. Her usually fleet-footed sister had shown remarkable forebreance this time.
‘Give me a break yaar*. Just tell me’, Saira looked at her pointedly, her toast halted midair like a hovering premonition of doom in the event of anything withheld or concealed.
Aliya sighed inwardly while retaining her stoic, watchful front. She had learnt to be wary with her sister. It was a caution that harked back to their childhood; when Saira used to rat on her to their mother when she used to sneak in a snack in the midst of her many maternally imposed and managed diets. She remembered little else from her childhood as vividly as she remembered her mother’s admonishing stares and her perpetually rumbling stomach. Suffice to say that theirs was not the winsome twinsome of the year, never had been. Theirs was a difficult relationship that had settled into a watchful acceptance by one and a relaxed bossiness by the other.
Still, this was her first serious love affair, thought Aliya; well, it was on its way to becoming one at least. It had all the glimmerings and the trappings of a love affair, a serious one, that could have … auspicious endings. She didn’t want to dive into the relationship boxes created by society; that could jinx the entire liaison. There was time enough for it to fit itself neatly into one of the institutions of blessed convention. Her mind was wandering she realized – this was her first serious love affair she thought again, marshalling her faculties of reason and goodwill, and she needed for her sister to be supportive. This once.
‘There’s someone …. someone I’ve met’, Aliya said to her sister, looking at her, wishing earnestly that she would respond with grace; that she would be nice. This once.
Saira looked at her sister for a long moment, then looked away and brought the toast to her mouth biting into it with sharp-toothed ferocity almost, thought Aliya. She looked away and sighed, this time outwardly. Who was she fooling? Saira didn’t understand her; never had. She understood her joys and her heartaches even less …
Aliya suddenly felt soft arms around her shoulders and a kiss on the back of her head.
‘I’m happy for you Aloo’, Saira whispered, continuing to hug her.
Aliya turned her head to look at her sister, expecting to see a mocking smile or a spiteful grin. There was only her sister’s gently smiling face and her eyes that were reflecting the quiet hurrah in her heart. Saira came around and sat down on the chair next to hers and laughed now, self consciously almost.
‘You’d better get this right Aloo; I’m not going to be the good samaritan saving the day for you’ she joked realising that she needed to break the spell before it became by its uncharacteristic softness, unwholesome and unkind. She had always been agitated by her twin; by her total lack of being able to look out for herself, look after herself in any way. Over the years, she had allowed her concern to morph into derision and sarcasm. She never intended to be cruel but she knew she had been a little sadistic over the years. And now, her sister was glowing in the warmth of a formidable venture; a venture of the heart. So rare were these scintillating personal moments with her sister; and she had to let her know, this once, that she was her biggest champion.
Aliya was looking at her sister as a myriad gentle emotions flitted across Saira’s face. What a watershed moment this was for their sisterhood! The surface had been scratched and there was a nice person under there after all thought Aliya, now grinning widely. A shared joy multiplies manifold. She laughed softly in pure elation and hugged her sister.
* Mohabbat Mein Twist: “A twist in the Love story”. “Mohabbat” means “Love” in Urdu.
* Halwa Puri: A traditional Pakistani breakfast that features semolina pudding or halwa and a soft fried dough called poori. Halwa is typically made with a mixture of fried semolina and sugar syrup, which is then combined with nuts such as pistachios and almonds.
* Sheikh Rasheed: A politician who is currently serving as the Interior Minister of Pakistan. He is known for his peculiar, flambouyant style.
* Mutton Karahi: A Mughlai dish that is traditionally cooked in a wok or karahi. The rich mutton curry is made by slow cooking lamb pieces with tomatoes, onion, garlic and garam masala.
* Yaar: Means “friend” in Urdu/ Hindi. It's a popular term in Indian English, used especially as a term of address for “friend.” It ultimately comes, via Urdu, from the Persian and Arabic yar, meaning “friend,” and is recorded in English as early as the 1960s.
Aliya opened one bleary eye to glance at the clock on her bedside table. It was just past 6 O’ clock. She felt a familiar quickening of her pulse as she thought of the day ahead, the obstacles to be surmounted. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. There was nothing on the agenda today, stress free as it was in the aftermath of her masters exams. Her anxious nature still had to catch up to the fact as she stilled her agitated heart. She turned on her side, away from the window and the blitheful rays of sunshine that glanced cheerily off her desk that lay in the corner of the room. She’d sleep in today she thought, catching at the fading strings of dawn time dreams. Soon, she was back in the familiar collage of her recurring dream visions: she was falling off some place – the catapulting surface was always different – and she always experienced the same great fright, and she always just about missed the concrete or the jungle floor or the carpeted surface below as her foggy saviour came to her rescue. His … her … (another conundrum) face was never clear, remaining obscured by the ephemeral mists of her dreams.
She finally arose at 11 O’ clock when her mother came into her room armed with clean laundry and the loud efficiency of having been at the helm of the domestic wheel for the last four hours. She felt groggy and tired even after her ten hours of sleep. She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her double chin was looking more pendulous than ever she thought. She clutched at the rolls on her stomach, feeling for the insidious deposit of more weight. She had been good about her meals this past month and had not given in to any stress eating even though she had been in the throes of her exams. Her nails had taken the brunt of that deprival as they now sat like ravaged half moons in their nail beds. She looked at the weighing scale lying right opposite the WC, its meticulous placement a tribute to her weight loss earnestness. She decided today was not a day for unpleasant metric system surprises and pointedly ignored it through the course of her morning ablutions.
‘Hello late latif*’, her father called out to her cheerfully as Aliya walked into the lounge. She smiled. Her father, Mian Muneer, could brighten most of her days, afflicted as they were with her mother’s constant anguished refrains for her to lose “at least ten kgs!” and her own unremitting anxiety about her weight, and everything else too. In all that maternal censure and self deprecation, he was like a breath of fresh air. Never remarking about her weight, let’s be honest she thought, her bulk. Never making her cringe at the sight of her reflection or at the sight of food even when her stomach was rumbling from protracted deprivation. He loved her just as she was, her beloved father.
‘Good morning Baba*’, Aliya responded with a kiss on his cheek.
‘Aloo*, there are parathas* for brekkie, come get them!’ came a jaunty call from the dining room. She walked towards the voice (dubiously) and towards its announcement of gastronomic delights (zealously), her stomach rumbling with hunger – was it hunger or comfort-seeking she thought fleetingly. For the former came with relatively guilt free appeasement while the latter needed to be worked through mentally and emotionally and if all went well, was rebutted, ignored, nipped in the gut. She accepted also, that despite all the diligent evaluation, she had never been very good at distinguishing between the two, as hunger loomed large on most food horizons.
Saira was sitting at the head of the table looking, even at that early hour of the day (for she too had woken up only after 10) fresh, dewy and gorgeous. This was her twin sister, the sum total of her antithesis. Aliya helped herself to three parathas and an omelette. She could feel her sister’s eyes on her; she was going to say something, she always did … irksome at best and hurtful at worst.
‘Go easy sis, that’s a thousand calories right there’ Saira released the expected verbal arrow as she put a condensed milk laden piece into her own mouth.
Aliya gave a wry smile as she loaded her parathas with condensed milk and cream.
‘Aliya, what are you doing?’ came the accusatory voice from behind her. Their mother had come in and was discharging her duty as the maternal voice of reason and outrage.
‘Having breakfast Amma’, Aliya responded doggedly. Damned if she was going to be denied the first meal of the day, twelve hours after her last one too, in all its life (and courage fostering!) fulfilment.
Her mother gave an exasperated sigh and walked out. Saira sniggered. It was just another day at 14-Z in DHA, Lahore.
Aliya had dug into her breakfast as she dug in her heels every so often when she felt the world closing in on her; Judging her, railing at her, accusing her. She had ended up having four and a half parathas. She stood looking into her wardrobe, eating herself up inside now, for her breakfast time excess; cursing her food induced and reduced anxiety. No, food didn’t induce her anxiety (except in her apocalyptic fantasies when the world was overrun by zombies and all kinds of human nutrition was scarce); it was her panacea in fact, for the maddening world around her. She sighed deeply, chose a grey baggy shirt and black track pants. She was in the mood to merge with her dreary thoughts today. She was meeting her best friend and neighbour, Saqib in a little while. He was going to help her fill in the forms for the Masters in Sociology course at Uppsala university in Sweden.
Saqib Mir was the only child of his parents, the apple of their eye, the next progenitor of their eminent lineage and the scion of the family business. Marring this perfection was a somewhat unsymmetrical gait as he was also crippled by childhood polio. The whys and wherefores of how he had contracted the disease are foggy; rife with rumour and speculation until about decade or so ago, the direful hypotheses were now obscured by an acceptance born of familiarity. For those who had known him forever, it had become like a little smudge on a Sadequain* painting that has with time, blurred into oblivion. For those meeting him for the first time, while there were no origin-theories being bandied about anymore, there was almost always that self conscious nonchalance of trying not to notice the obvious. Saqib felt both, a sense of quiet amusement and compassion for this denominator knowing the mental exhaustion their involuntary Secret Spy syndromewas bestowing on them. Humanity, even amidst the deficiencies of the developing world, has largely got used to polio free perfection; a certain basic physical congruity is a sacred expectation especially among the upper crusts of society. Saqib then was the paradoxical element that jarred the sensibilities of the well heeled more than it did that of his favourite chai wallah’s or fruit wallah’s. They acknowledged his disfigurement in a practical, unselfconscious way. He was crippled and so what? He couldn’t run but he could still walk and get about unaided. Saqib was well liked in the more modest social circles too.
The Mians and the Mirs had been neighbours for fifteen years and Aliya and Saqib had become kindred souls for each other, afflicted as they both were with their respective vulnerabilities.
Our blue green world is going to POT Not the stuporous, cheering kind The elating, fascinating kind The happily beclouding kind The angst all a-blurring sort No, all that it certainly is not
But our world is going to POT Not the souffle baking sort Not the healthy steaming kind Not the chicken tikka fry Nor the chuck roast braising sort No, none of that comforting lot
But our world is going to POT Not the bowel movement kind The cleansing of the intestines The calming morning ritual kind The 1 kg load lessening sort No, of the closet family it’s not
But our world is going to POT Moral compass broken down Compassion harder to be found Dignity, serenity, gratefulness Are just so many hollow sounds In the flowing waters of life From cresting fullness back to the ground
Yes, our world is going to POT Not the stuporous, cheering kind Not the soufflé baking sort Not the morning ritual kind. But the saddening, maddening sort The depressing, disappointing sort The “I’m done with it. Over and out.” That’s how our world is going to pot.
‘There you are! I’ve been looking all morning for you!’, said a chirpy Rizwan when he finally saw Sana.
Sana grinned back, still cloaked in her haze of joy. She had been assigned to the locker area in the basement for the day since the regular staff had called in sick.
‘We’re going out for lunch. There’s a lot to talk about’, said Rizwan, gently ushering her towards the main door. Rizwan was a Premier Relationship Manager at the bank and came from a long line of illustrious financiers. He had been with the bank for five years now and had risen steadily through the ranks aided in no small part by his strategic connections, but also by an innate ability to inspire trust. The combination had helped him build one of the biggest consumer deposit portfolios in the bank. He had seen Sana on her first day at work two years ago and had pursued her with the same genial tenacity as he did his customers. She had responded to his attentions and two years on, they were finally ready to make their love public … by now, the whole bank knew; their families were next.
‘My mother wants to come over to your place’, Rizwan said once they were sitting at their favourite restaurant in Gulberg.
Sana had prepared for this moment. Her mother had prepared for this moment. She would talk to her mother about Rizwan and they would do the needful to get through the inevitable background checks and first time visits. Zulaikha believed that their past although behind them, was a part of their lives that would have to be brought up at some point when forging new relationships. Good people were a rare commodity, but they existed. And those were the ones that deserved the truth even if it was nothing more than information about a past (and a profession) that did not define their lives in any way anymore.
Sana was of a different point of view. She had been eight years old when Zulaikha had decamped from her old life and come to Lahore to start anew. Old enough to remember but young enough to not have had any real part in the world that was once her mother’s. She was determined to take her mother’s secret … her secret, with her to the grave. People were judgmental and unforgiving. There was a very small window of virtue and acceptability that was allowed to people of their dubious circumstances and she was not going to forego the opportunity with needless pangs of conscience, to leap through to the other side. There was no need to share distasteful nuggets of history with a community that they were trying to become a part of. She had told her mother as much.
Sana came home that evening with a spring in her step. She waited impatiently for her mother to finish off at work and come upstairs. Today was inventory day at Rose Beauty Salon so her mother wouldn’t get upstairs until after 10 O’clock. Sana had a quick shower and went out onto the balcony. It was just past seven and there were three cars parked downstairs. The drivers’ sitting area was empty. So the ladies had driven themselves, she mused leaning against the balcony railing. Probably working women; business women maybe with boutiques or bakeries of their own. Women of leisure and enterprise. Her mind wandered into the fantasy world that she now created with such dexterity for the protagonists that sat in and around her mother’s salon.
Zulaikha came upstairs at past 10 O’ clock. It had been a tiring day but she felt a sense of contentment. She had been able to acquire a laser hair removal unit from another salon that was divesting its business (its female proprietor had probably fallen on hard times, or she was moving out of the country to join a son or a daughter who had finally found a foothold in their overseas Land ofOpportunity). She herself had thought about leaving the country many times during her fledgling, struggling years in Lahore. Thankfully however, the opportunity had never arisen and now, wiser and more aware, she realized that she was far better off in her paradoxical homeland than she would ever be in America or Europe where petrol station attendant and fast food restaurant jobs were the disappointing finales to many off-shore dreams.
Sana was waiting for her. Zulaikha smiled at her daughter’s barely contained excitement; at her slightly flushed cheeks and her bright eyes. She was a beautiful girl by any standards she thought for the thousandth time, immediately staving off the evil eye by taking a little kohl from under her eye and dabbing it ever so lightly behind Sana’s ear. Sana hugged her mother and sat her down.
‘Amma*, there’s someone … there’s someone who wants to meet you’, she said taking her mother’s hands in hers and looking at her. She let her hot cheeks and shy smile convey the delicate gist of her story.
Zulaikha realized that this was the secret Sana had been toying with at quiet moments during their meals and probably during her recent late nights when she’d wake up to catch her sitting up in bed, with a far away look in her eyes.
‘Who is it baita*?’ Zulaikha asked simply, letting her daughter take the lead in her confession of the heart.
‘He works with me at the bank. He’s senior to me. Comes from a family of bankers’.
‘His mother wants to come and see you … and me’, Sana added self consciously.
Zulaikha looked into her daughter’s shining eyes. Her own heart was beating like a drum as she kissed her daughter on her cheeks. It was happening finally. The family curse was splintering, losing its multi-generational stranglehold. Her daughter was going to become someone’s wife; she would take a respectable last name; she would hold her head up high. Her children will have a family name they will proudly carry forward. Sana would be the antithesis of everything that she had ever been.
Zulaikha hugged her daughter close, waves of joy, relief and pride washing over her. She swallowed hard; she was not a woman given to tears or drama. She had gone through the ebb and flow of her own life with a composure that had also become the salient hallmark of her establishment. Just as parlour skirmishes died a quick and unremarkable death at Rose Beauty Salon, special moments of joy and accomplishment also treaded with light footsteps in the lives of the two women.
There was a rush of activity in the apartment the following Saturday. Rizwan and his mother were coming for tea. Sana looked at herself in the mirror. She was resplendent in a powder blue linen jora* with light blue embroidery around the neckline and the sleeves. She had braided her long hair and brought the braid to the front over her right shoulder. She applied a pale pink lipstick and smiled at her reflection, as much in appreciation of the visage looking back at her, as to calm herself. This was it. It had to go well.
Zulaikha wore a white embroidered cotton shirt with a plain white shalwar and a rose pink dupatta. She looked in the mirror, steeling herself; she automatically reached for her talcum powder. She laughed quietly, reminding herself that today was an occasion to wrap herself up in the sophisticated cloak of Dior rather than in the comforting blanket of gently blooming roses. She spritzed herself behind her ears, on her neck and on her wrists with the heady perfume, took one last look at herself in the mirror and walked out towards an evening that would be momentous, uplifting and transforming for her daughter. She was going to make sure it went well.
‘Anila baji… i didn’t know … I didn’t know …
‘Sana is your daughter … my god!
Zulaikha looked at the woman standing at her door, bewildered and silent after her initial shocked utterance. Anila Talib looked back at the woman she had met almost fourteen years ago at the salon she frequented at the time. It was the same Zulaikha; the one who used to do her manicures and pedicures; the dancing girl from Faisalabad.
Najma, the proprietor of the salon had told her in hushed tones about her newest recruit. The woman had escaped the brothel where she worked and had somehow found her way to Lahore. She was accompanied by her daughter, even then, a lovely young child. Najma had taken her in, trained her and kept her terrible secret safe, for the most part.
‘Are you going to stand there blocking the way or can I come in?’ Anila Talib said smiling gently at the stunned woman in front of her.
‘Please come in …’, Zulaikha managed to whisper hoarsely. Her head was still reeling and she couldn’t fully grasp at any of the myriad emotions that were crashing in titanic waves upon her: shock, shame, tears … shame, shame, more shame! She stood in the grip of this cacophony of emotions, unconsciously holding the end of her dupatta, wringing it like she would squeeze these last ten minutes from her memory – bleach it clean, scrub it raw, never to remember.
Anila Talib looked at the distraught woman. Even in the bizarre, emotionally charged atmosphere, she couldn’t help thinking how little the woman had changed. She still had her youthful figure and that beautiful, translucent skin.
‘Sit down Zulaikha, we need to talk’, Anila Talib finally said.
Zulaikha sat down mechanically still holding the now clammy, crumpled edges of her dupatta.
She looked at her daughter who was standing in a corner of the room, unmoving, statue-like. She wondered briefly if Sana had fainted … but she wouldn’t be standing if she had … had she maybe lost her mind, become mad with the shock …
‘Sana, come and sit down’, she called to her daughter. Sana didn’t move.
‘Rizwan, this is … this is Zulaikha … Zulaikha aunty. I’ve known her since Najma’s time. She was training at —-
‘___ So this is the …. the woman from Faisalabad’, cut in Rizwan icily. He had been standing at the door, rooted as it were, between the precious moment of a few minutes ago and the unholy disaster that was unfolding now. He had known that Sana was from Faisalabad and he had also known that her mother owned a salon. The rest of the sordid puzzle fell into place after he saw his mother’s reaction.
Anila Talib looked at her son. His face was as flushed as his brow was thunderous. He was looking at his mother with an expression that made her cold, that kicked awake monsters from her own battered store of memories. That was her husband’s look just before he devolved into a beast. She watched her son silently, a sickening realisation dawning on her: he was a man now and he was at his very core, his father’s son.
Rizwan turned around and left.
The two women sat next to each other; each floundering in her own bog of pain and tragedy. It was like a curtain had been lifted from the screen of their lives. The dull, dim, ugly edges that had always encircled them, now appearing stark and naked. There were no pretences, no veneers, no pardah* on the sins of their society against them. They sat there face to face with their most painful truths. For a while, the modest apartment was transformed into a temple, a mosque of divine revelations and silent, brutal confessions.
Both women wept; one for the patriarchal bondage and brutality that was thrust upon her, and the other for the patriarchal security and virtue that had forsaken her.
Even as time stood still for the three women in the room, outside it had marched purposefully into the duskiness of late evening. Anila Talib finally turned towards Zulaikha and hugged her once more before she left their Sanctum of Dire Truths, Zulaikha knew, never to return.
Zulaikha also knew that this was the start of a completely new chapter in her life; in her daughter’s life. Sana had beheld the truth and felt its soul-singeing fury. Zulaikha too had felt its caustic burn; but this time she had also felt the pain recede.
She had gradually become aware of a strange sensation. It came upon her quietly, gently, embracing her whole being. She felt free. She felt a lightness of spirit she had never before experienced. She felt strong and invincible. Her eyes shone with a new light as she sat up and took a deep breath, filling her lungs with air.
Even If this was a temporary fortification of her spirit, it would do. If every once in a while, when life became formidable, and she could call on this surity, this serenity, it would do.
Zulaikha got up and walked towards her daughter. She turned her around gently and held her close for a long while. When she felt the convulsing sobs ebb into the stoic beating of her daughter’s heart, she looked into her eyes and kissed her on her forehead.
‘It will be alright my darling. One day at a time. You and I … we will learn to love ourselves, our brave history and all. You will look in the mirror and see yourself, and not a reflection of what the world wants you to be. We’ve survived so far, and by God, we will continue to do so – on our terms now. We will live, love and laugh. We will have our share of joy. I promise you that’.
‘One day at a time my dearest. We will be alright’.
* Amma: Mother in Urdu
* Baita: Child in Urdu
* Jora: Dress/ ensemble in Urdu
* Pardah: A religious and social practice of female seclusion prevalent among some Muslim communities. Veil/ covering.
A babble of raised voices filtered upstairs from the salon on the ground floor. Sana looked up from the video she was watching on her phone and wondered if it was another begum of leisure who was throwing a royal fit. How she hated this raucous upheaval of the sanctity of her home! Why couldn’t they just live respectably in a non commercial area that was devoid of beauty parlors, tandoors* and paan walas*. It was one of the reasons why she hadn’t invited any of her friends over from work yet. Most of them didn’t even know that her mother owned a salon on the fringes of phase 5 in DHA*. She and her mother lived above the salon in a two bedroom unit. Aside of the little oasis in their immediate surroundings, their apartment overlooked vast expanses of undeveloped land in the otherwise lush and burgeoning Defence Housing society of Lahore.
Sana sighed and walked out onto the balcony. It was only 5 O’ clock in the evening which meant another three hours of salon frenzy, a myriad cars parked downstairs, watched over by as motley a crowd of drivers. She sometimes stood in the creeper latticed shadows of the terrace and spun entire character sketches in her head about each of the men who sat waiting for their lady employers to emerge from the secret sanctums within, blow-dried, beautified and seasonally bedecked: The wedding season metamorphoses were quite spectacular, transforming many plain-jane bibi-jis* into princesses.
During her tale-weaving meditations, Sana would focus on one of the men gathered below – on his facial hair, his clothes and the way in which he huddled or draped himself on a chair in the Driver’s sitting area outside. From the shrinking violet to the wily watchful types to the portly, loud and laughing types, she’d seen them all and then zoomed into their lives with the telescope of her lively imagination. Today she focused on a vocal one with a twirled mustache and slickly oiled hair: he seemed like the kind who was happily married in a village somewhere in the interior of Punjab but who also had a local lady love; maybe the maid from across the street … He would steal ripely blooming roses for her from his bibiji’s garden and douse himself in ittar on his evenings off when he would go to meet her. Date nights, desi* style.
At a quarter to nine, Zulaikha walked into the lounge upstairs. She went straight to the bathroom to wash her face and perform her ablutions for the one prayer a day she religiously performed. She sat at her dressing table and looked at her reflection for a moment. She then took the powder puff of her rose talcum powder and dabbed it on her neck and her feet and finally on her hands. She rubbed it in gently, inhaling its sweet fragrance like she had done for the last 30 years. She then spread out her janamaz*. Fifteen years on, there were only a few vestiges that reminded Zulaikha of her past; the Rose talcum powder was one of those. It had been a panacea for most ills of the body, the mind and the heart: A burn or a rash or a gash; a bad day or a headache or nausea were all dispelled with the healing softness and the soothing bouquet of her Yardley’s rose scented talcum powder.
Her Isha* prayers done, she went into the kitchen to see what there was for dinner. It was Sunday so Sana had been off from work. Her daughter worked in a bank as a Customer Service Officer. Every time Zulaikha thought of her daughter sitting at her desk in the cool and respectable environs of the Muslim Commercial Bank, she felt a little surge of pride in her heart and a tug of emotion in her throat. Sana had broken through the generations of tradition that had dogged the footsteps of the women in their family. For as long as she could remember, theirs had been a long and uninterrupted lineage of dancing girls. Zulaikha would be the last of that insidious matriarchal line; and Sana would be the first of the virtuous and respectable patriarchy.
There was two day old biryani* in the fridge and some chicken karahi* that they had had for lunch that afternoon. She took out both containers and set them on the counter. They would serve themselves and heat their food in the microwave. After all these years of living with the amenities of modern city life, Zulaikha still marvelled at the technology that surrounded them. She now watched from a safe distance as the display on the microwave efficiently counted down the minutes while its shallow bowels generated enough heat to turn her insides to ash if she stood too close. Like so much in life, the electronic conveniences had also come into their home with their fair share of facts and fiction.
‘Sana! Come and serve yourself’, Zulaikha called out to her daughter.
Sana meandered in from her room, surrounded by the stupor of an uneventful day and an especially protracted afternoon siesta. She served herself some biryani with a generous serving of yogurt on the side. The watered down raita that usually came with the spiced up rice did nothing to pacify her screaming taste buds. She had not inherited her spicy food genes from her mother (or even her father probably) and the biryani made her sniffle and snort as the spice turned on her internal fire-fighting waterworks; unless she added on some cooling yogurt to the gastronomic fray.
Mother and daughter sat in silence while eating their food. Zulaikha was ticking off a mental list of salon supplies she would need to get the next day. Every month, she restocked her inventory from her two main suppliers. They had both been kind to her when she had started her own beauty parlour ten years ago; on many occasions, marking more than their due time on their accounts receivable. She had in turn, remained their loyal customer as her business had grown along with the size of her orders. Mrs. Anwar was the third customer this month who had asked her about laser hair removal. Zulaikha wondered how much of an investment would be needed to add that service on to her beauty parlour repertoire …
Sana looked at her plate, carefully spooning a dollop of cold Nestle yogurt onto her biryani before putting the mixture into her mouth. She enjoyed the burst of coolness on her tongue and palate before the chillies began their now sluggish assault. She had always had a quirky palate and happily mixed textures and flavours that gave even her mother occasion to pause. The biryani and yogurt mixture was definitely not her most outlandish combination of food. She thought of Rizwan. He loved his biryani; the spicier the better. She smiled to herself, instinctively gathering up the corners of mouth in the next instant. Rizwan was her secret. For now.
Zulaikha looked at her daughter who was deep in conversation with herself. She recognised that ethereal, far away look that came over her lovely face then. Her daughter had a secret. Zulaikha smiled to herself; she’s know soon enough. She shared a tender and close bond with her only child. She thought back to how their lives had changed over the last fifteen years. Zulaikha had got a job at a local salon and had shown a natural talent for catalyzing aesthetic transformations, conjuring up all shades of loveliness on plain, sometimes marred canvases. Sana had got into a good school and from there she had gone to university. Both mother and daughter had thrived in their new environment. They were a million miles away from their room in Qaisery Gate in Faisalabad.
That night Sana got a text message from Rizwan. He had finally spoken to his mother about her. That was all he said but it made her nauseous in a strange way: a combination of excitement and anxiety was turning her stomach which had already been grumbling in petulant protest at the earlier biryani onslaught. She sat up and had an antacid with a full glass of water. Then she picked up her phone again to read the message.
He had told his mother that he was interested in her. That was all. That was everything! That would mark the absolute, final end of the old, and the beginning of something new, dignified and permanent. No one would be able to take that away from her.
She re-read the message a few times, trying to bring her frenzied, racing mind back to the moment; back from its leaping somersaults into the sacred, secret visions of her future. Her nausea quelled, she leaned against the headboard of her bed, smiling at her screen as it lit up her face in the quiet of an otherwise uneventful Sunday night.
* Tandoor: Also known as tannour is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking.
* Paan-wala: Paan is a preparation combining betel leaf with areca nut widely consumed throughout Southeast Asia/ the Indian subcontinent. Paan-wala is one who sells paan.
* DHA: Defence Housing Authority, a planned housing scheme in a number of cities in Pakistan
* Bibi-ji: Respectful term of address for the lady of the house usually used by the domestic staff of the house across the Indian sub continent.
* Desi: Urdu/ Hindi meaning local/ of South East Asian origin.
* Janamaz: Muslim prayer mat
* Isha: The fifth and last prayer of the day in Islam
* Biryani: A mixed rice dish originating among the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. It is made with Indian spices, rice, and meat, and sometimes eggs or vegetables also such as potatoes and brinjal.
* Chicken karahi: a spicy chicken dish of the Indian subcontinent. It is usually made in a heavy, cast iron pan called the karahi and hence the name.
It was at lunch during the Taxila trip that someone brought up Malala’s latest Vogue interview in which she had, among other things, voiced her opinion on the tradition of marriage. The group was split right down the middle with their sentiments on the Pakistani activist’s preferences on relationships. Arslan and Tabassum were in opposite camps. The whole difference of opinion would have been laughed off such as it tends to be, for the most part, in a voluntary social gathering of adult men and women. However, Malala had always been Tabassum’s one sore point; her Achilles’ heel. And today it transformed the charming middle aged woman into a raving harridan. Arsalan watched her in horrified awe as she let slip a few unsavoury adjectives; and once Tabassum’s boiling blood had become tepid, she retreated into silence. Except this time, it was stony and cold with no passionate, lovesick undercurrents.
After lunch, the party prepared to go the local handicrafts store in the city. Najma was walking with Arsalan, both were in deep conversation about something. Tabassum was following behind with two of her Club companions who were also her freinds. They were talking of the Peshawari Pulao* they had just had for lunch and wondering why their own endeavors didn’t offer up the same flavour. Tabassum was only half listening as she looked at the duo in front of her. She had never really liked Najma with her western ideals and her constant criticism of the bureaucracy of the country. And now, she was trying to be extra pally with Arsalan. She glowered in their direction for a little while and then judiciously turned her head away, brushing the scene out of her line of sight and out of mind.
Later that evening Tabassum sat in her lounge listening to one of her many Ghazal CDs. She was busy fixing and then uploading her photos of the day to her social media pages when she read another piece of irritating news about an upcoming event – the Aurat March*. The platform that, in her morally outraged opinion, gave licence to shameless, foul mouthed women to march on the streets of their Islamic republic and wave placards with the most obscene things written on them. Apparently there was another march organised for the approaching weekend. She immediately copied the news and condemned it roundly on her FB page. Then she put her phone away for the usual 40 minutes or so to wait for her online brigade to acknowledge and like her post. Her husband was already in bed – he rose early and went to bed early in line with the wisdom of their elders. She couldn’t quite emulate that sagacity but she felt a great vicarious satisfaction in her husband following this tradition. She made herself a cup of tea and sat down to enjoy the myriad blessings of the night in her home: The solitude, the lilting strains of music and a hot brew amid a flurry of online activity. This was bliss.
She smiled and picked up her phone, looking at her 40 minute old post. Forty likes she thought with inadvertent satisfaction and 12 comments too. The naysayers she responded to with her usual rough-around-the-edges politeness and the ones that rhetorically agreed with her, were rewarded with hugs and kisses. Then she saw Najma’s comment endorsing the upcoming Aurat March. All the anger and bitterness of the day came crashing down on her again, ruining her calm and stillness. Tabassum lashed out with the uninhibited abandon of a shrew on an her annual venge quest. That night she surprised her followers, her friends and even herself.
By the next morning, random trickles of conscience and good sense had begun to make her cringe inwardly. Because despite her own eccentricities and her innate biases that are so often bestowed in good faith by parents and elders, she was at heart, well meaning. Outwardly, however, she continued to be appropriately offended by the very concept of the scandalous Aurat March and by anyone who supported it.
There was a lot of online and broadcast activity around Malala’s interview and the upcoming Aurat march this morning. It was turning into one of those rare days of introspection and barebones moral reckoning for Tabassum. And so, despite herself, as she sat with her second cup of tea of the morning and her phone, she looked again at the picture of Malala; at her young, hopeful face; at her red shalwar kameez and her blue chiffon dupatta that was made to flutter breezily, joyfully around her. She looked at her gently smiling face and the eyes that were looking down almost in contentment; in gratefulness; in having nothing more to prove to the world. A judging world she thought, and then looked up slowly, hesitantly to face the spectre of truth in front of her … a censorial world of which she was a part too. A voluble part. She had only very rarely and inadvertently, gone into the depths of her feelings for this Pakistani woman. Because every time she did, there was an uncomfortable flurry of emotions that was at complete odds with those she outwardly advocated. The sensations that assailed her were of having missed out; of having been short-changed by life, by her choices and even by the choices of her parents. Those realisations, the few times she had allowed them to sink in, were troubling and unnerving. So she had battled them with a belligerence and a passion that wiped out any disquieting traces of envy and desire. And that is why she hated Malala so much; for showing Tabassum up, to her innermost, truth-telling self, as duplicitous and two-faced.
She resented her for embodying all the facets of a modern Pakistani woman and for being able to live a life of her own choosing. For questioning sage, old traditions; for enduring; for shining on even after everything that was done to break her spirit. She was the public and secret aspiration of every Pakistani girl and woman, and because what she projected was contrary to everything they had been taught was morally and patriotically right and true, she was also disliked with the same passion. That was another truth of why so many like her felt bitter towards the girl. In the end, it was nothing more than latent, simmering resentment at being deprived of so many opportunities to be the best versions of ourselves. Tabassum swallowed hard, took a sip of her now tepid tea and looked into the distance. At a world that not only she but so many other women like her could see but chose not to acknowledge. Close, yet so far away; attainable and yet, so out of reach. If only she had the strength, the heart ….
Tabassum shook her head trying to dispel the empty feeling of despair that was overtaking her in the aftermath of her introspection. She pulled herself together. What she needed, she decided, was a clean break from social media and the news in general. She was losing her peace of mind and her usually charming, laid back aura. She would give FB a break, and with it to all the agitation and the moral pricks and jabs that it launched so open handedly and so often. With that she put away her phone, closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the sofa, while Nayyara Noor filled the quiet space of the room and her mind with her hypnotic rendition of Faiz’s poetry:
VERSE: Ae Jazba e dil gar main chahoon Har cheez muqabil aa jae Manzil Kay liye do gaam chaloon Aur samnay manzil aa jae
TRANSLATION: O Valiant heart, if I so desire, All my dreams and aspirations can be within my grasp. I need only take two steps towards my destination And it will reach out to me the rest of the way.
* Peshawari Pulao: A rice-based recipe that originated in the north of Pakistan but is popular across the country as a dish prepared for special occasions.
* Aurat March: An annually-held social/political demonstration, organized in various cities of Pakistan to commemorate International Women’s Day.