SHORT STORY | ROSE TALCUM POWDER – Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

* Janamaz: Muslim prayer mat

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

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

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

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

SHORT STORY| AE JAZBA-E-DIL GAR MEIN CHAHOON – Part Two

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.


Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/15/ae-jazba-e-dil-part-one/

SHORT STORY| AE JAZBA-E-DIL GAR MEIN CHAHOON – Part One

Dedicated to all the Malalas* of the world – to the ones who have already risen like phoenixes and the ones that are getting there. May you be ever bigger than the boxes you are put in. May you dream, grow and glow.

Tabassum sat in her lounge, painting her nails while the lilting strains of Nayyara Noor’s* soulful voice filled the little room. She hummed along, looking up every now and then when she heard a particularly profound couplet in the ghazal*, moving her head in the ways of the ultimate connoisseur of philosophy and verse. She was a woman of leisure with fond delusions of being an inimitable role model in the bogs of spinning spousal moral compasses and the vast deserts of poor taste and form. In her mind, 53 year old Tabassum was a wife and a home maker beyond reproach.

She held out her hands to let her nails dry while she glided almost stuporously on the melodious air that filled the room. There was a languid dreaminess in her heavy lidded eyes, and the lustiness of the moment on her parted lips. She unselfconsciously embodied the drama of her surroundings no matter what the source or how inapt her ensuing expression was. Besides being the consummate mistress of the house, she was also the queen of her very own social realm. Her subjects were the surprisingly sizeable group of friends who had bested the tests of time and her eccentricity; and her old and new hangers-on who loved the animation and melodrama she brought into their online lives; Tabassum also held regular, spirited court on FaceBook.

She picked up her phone after the enterprise on her nails was done and glanced through her FB timeline. She spied a post that agitated her as few other things did. It was the picture of a resplendent Malala* on the cover of Vogue magazine. Somehow the very sight of the girl angered her. Overtly, she didn’t have to explain why – there were enough people in her virtuous homeland who shared the same irritation and disdain for this little upstart. For that’s what she was. She had nothing to show for herself except, well… a bullet in the head, and the whole world was raving about her. Not only that. She had made her escape from the country and was now living like a queen somewhere. Free, independent and influential. God! How she hated her – this western agent! She had often wondered if in fact the whole being-shot-in-the-head incidence was a charade engineered by the malevolent powers out to destroy her beloved country.

She frowned and looked at the image again because despite herself, she was also a self styled doyen of fashion. She enlarged the photo so that she could examine every visible and invisible fibre and pore in the photo. Having completed her scrutiny, she left her usual scathing remark online, about unconventional women and their dubious claims to fame. After 45 minutes she checked to see if her dutiful coterie of online followers had seen and indeed liked her comment. There were lots of ways she passed the message between the lines and the pixels if one of her brigade had been remiss in acknowledging and appreciating the gems of wisdom and virtue that she liberally dispersed in the social media ether.

She then diligently put down her own likes and comments on the photos, rants and jokes of the other movers and shakers in her online orbit. And with that done, she rose to deal with the real world concerns of maids, clothes, coffee mornings and exciting excursions of both, the shopping and sight seeing varieties. Today, she was getting ready for the latter. Tabassum was also a member of the Twin City Society of Art and Culture, and today they were going to Taxila – a city of archeological significance, its origins dating back to 1000 BCE with ruins from the Mauryan, Indo-Greek and Kushan empires. But all that learning was an irrelevant consequence of these trips for Tabassum who had neither the inclination nor the interest in broken down places that were not hiding some post modern secret, like a cafe or a mall within their distressed facades. No, she was going on this trip for the pure pleasure of social camaraderie and the tremendous photo opportunities it would provide. Early on in her excursions with the group, she had realized with puzzlement and amusement that a lot of people were really quite genuinely stir crazy for battered old history. She had also learnt that ancient digs like the ones in Taxila were the perfect backdrop for her online stream of interesting and crowd-drawing photos. She had chosen her outfit a week ago – a silk hand painted russet kameez with a green silk dupatta and cream cotton pants. She would wear her silver Multani jhumkay* and her regular collection of 8 rings – 6 for her fingers and 2 for her toes. She had her maid take the usual photos of her, thus garbed and bejewelled before she left for the excursion meeting point in Saddar, Rawalpindi.

Arsalan was there. The Adonis of their group that every female quite literally adored, an infatuation they joked about openly. Most of the ladies were to all intents and purposes, happily married and had joined the club to see the sights that tourists and historians would allegedly pay an arm and a leg for (this was part of the club slogan in fact), and also because there are 24 hours in a day and one can only sleep so much and shop so much. This education in history and culture was an endeavour that many of their husbands looked on with approval and even some relief: while they were thus occupied, there was far less of an outward leak in the family finances.

The Club president and chief event organiser, Saqib Dogar, was a Professor of Archeology at the Quaid-e-Azam university in Islamabad. He had set up the club expecting his students and others of a similar academic bent to join in its adventuring wake. instead, he had had the pleasure of welcoming many of the ladies that lunched, and a few that had traipsed all over the world and had traditionally left the local sight seeing to the natives. Now, it was the cool thing to do: the partaking of the bourgeois flavours of their richly blessed motherland. Saqib Dogar was a gentleman, a widower of many years and therefore, quite completely clueless with regard to the fairer sex. Somewhat flummoxed initially, he had decided that he’d treat his lady members like he would his students. That was familiar terrain and he felt reasonably equipped, and in charge. The professorial attitude of their bespectacled Chair of the club towards them suited the ladies perfectly. In a country where inter-gender interactions between strangers and acquaintances were awkward at best, this teacher-student arrangement was familiar and comfortable for both parties. And so, the club had blossomed and burgeoned as its numbers grew and in a fanciful twist of fate, it now had over a 100 members, 86 of which were women. Arsalan was then, coveted not only as the overehmlingly scarce gender member of the club, but also because he embodied the fantasies of many subcontinental women – tall, fair and green eyed, with a full head of hair. To this perfection he also brought a friendly disposition and a proficiency in both, his spoken Urdu and English. He was the inadvertent star of the group as the women flirted with him good humoredly but unabashedly.

Tabassum was the exception. She didn’t flirt. She smouldered, much like kindling that refuses to light does – mulishly and petulantly. With dogged guilefulness and an air of mystery, she wielded her rapturous spells such as they were. This quiet but laborious onslaught ensured that she was not able to focus on anything that was said about the historic site they were visiting, but it was also the time where there were no crass, crude, overt shenanigans from the other women. They were all too busy taking photographs of the place and listening to Saqib sahib drone on. She had, during these deafening silences full of unspoken messages, seen Arsalan glance at her a few times. At these times, she had smiled the smile of one sharing a covetous secret. Arsalan had always smiled back and for her, that was enough. While she imagined this special exchange to be private and confidential, the mute drama was as palpable as it must have been in the silent movies of the 1920s. No one could say that they heard any incriminating declarations of the heart, but everyone could see that their Greta Garbo* was hopelessly in love with their John Gilbert*. Everyone also had the good sense to not say anything in the larger interest of preserving the general geniality of the group.

What they didn’t realize was that this focused effort at vying for the attention of the most sought after member of their group had very little to do with any real romantic interest. No, Tabassum was the epitome of the honourable housewife. It was her naive way of proclaiming her reign, her queenliness. If Arsalan began to regard her as a special friend, it automatically enhanced her image and with it, her social clout. Nothing gave her more satisfaction than to raise an opinion, ludicrous and inane as it might be, and to have the people she knew accept it and even imbibe it, make it their own. And then quote it to an ever expanding wave of newly informed, morally uplifted swathe of humanity.

Arsalan for his part, wisely behaved as if he had no clue of this particular fan fever and went about his cheerful way acquainting himself with the history and culture of the country – his book on Tourism in 21st Century Pakistan was finally, well and truly underway.

* Title inspiration from Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem with the same name and sung most famously, by Nayyara Noor. A Pakistani writer, he is best known for his progressive writings which were as popular in pre-Partition India as he was appreciated across the world for his ghazals and verse.

* Ae Jazba-e-Dil Gar Main Chahoon: First line of the verse translating to: “O Valiant Heart, if I so desire, all my dreams and aspirations can be within my reach.”

* Nayyara Noor: A Pakistani singer considered one of South Asia's popular film songs playback singer and stage performer.

* Jhumka: A style of earring worn by women of the Indian Subcontinent.

* Malala: Malala Yousafzai, often referred to mononymously as Malala, is a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.

* Greta Garbo and John Gilbert: Both stars of the silent movie era before transitioning to sound films.

* Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/17/ae-jazba-e-dil-part-two/

VERSE | CORONA NON GRATA

Lockdowns, inbound, not allowed to go out.
While Queen Corona, that prima donna gaily traipses all about.
She’s making sure we don’t forget
Her microscopic savageness!
So she merrily mutates every 60 days
In Vietnam, Brazil, India and the UK.
I do despise her with a passion so!
That dung of Newt; that Toady’s toe!

I tried to see the cosmic grace;
Nature’s reckoning, her showing us our place;
Cloaked in all her viral majesty,
Bequeathing wisdom in all this travesty …
But enough already! How much more
Do you want us humans to buckle down and endure?
You know we’re as stubborn as the proverbial asses
No amount of beating will turn us into planet-loving masses!

So begone! Away with you, Ye vile Covid,
Get out of our systems - Scat! Move it!
Two years is enough of a pandemic battle;
Go away! Depart with your deathly rattle.
Even Nature is kind after tap-tapping her cane;
You’ve ravaged our bodies; now you’re driving us insane.
Seclusion, Solitude, I’m so done with these Ice Maidens
Give me a cafe, a bar and a mall that is laden
With throngs of happy and virus-free crowds
Chattering, nattering and walking about!

This ode is for you as an un-fond farewell
Please go to Mars; I hear its volcanoes are swell!

SHORT STORY|THE GIRL WITH THE PAISLEY DUPATTA* – Part Two

(I)

Qasim Khan, together with his brother, Zahid Khan lived in their ancestral home in Peshawar. Their children had grown up together, with of course the virtues of restraint and inhibition instilled from the very beginning into every girl child. As providence had it, there were only two girls born in Mishal’s generation – so far that is, given the erratic procreativity that often times flourished in joint family systems, with sometimes mothers and daughters falling simultaneously pregnant. As things were at the time, Qasim Khan and Zahid Khan each, had two sons and a daughter. In their homestead, girls were promised off to eleigible boys and men as closely related to their immediate family, and as early as possible. And so, three years ago, Mishal was betrothed to her cousin, Dawood, the older of Zahid Khan’s two sons.

Mishal’s Nikah* ceremony in all its quiet austerity had taken place when she had just turned thirteen. Even at that tender age, she was aware and sensitive to the implications of being “handed over” to her uncle’s family; of now being Zahid Khan’s wellspring of honour, modesty and one of two future perpetuators of his genomic lineage. She had carried that burden with the eqaniamity borne of nurture and naïveté, until that day when the protective walls of her home had come tumbling down around her: It was six months after her nikah to Dawood while she was back home for the Eid holidays. It was also the scorching peak of summer when the whole household would be cloaked in post-lunch torpor, dead to the world until the cooler evening breezes stirred the stillness. She had gone to the kitchen to look for a snack when he had come upon her. She was still surrounded by the langurous afterglow of her recent siesta when Dawood had jumped on her. He had thrown her to the ground and groped, prodded and choked her with such ferocity that she was left battered and utterly bewildered. He had only let go because he had heard the landline ring and knew that someone was going to rise to answer it.

Mishal lay there on the tiled floor, reeling from what had just happened. Her young mind, unable to recognise the atrocity and the ugliness of the episode in its immediate aftermath, was in a flux of confusion and anger. She got to her feet and fixed her shirt, tentatively touching her arm where a weal was already forming. She felt her bruised throat and catching sight of her reflection in the glass door of the cabinet, saw also a rip in the neckline of her kameez. She stared at the image. The searing heat of embarrassment and shame now beginning to fill her every pore. She felt like she was choking again but this time it was her own guilt and distress that had her in their stranglehold. Barely able to breathe, she picked her dupatta up off the floor and made her way back to the bedroom. Her mother was just waking up. Kulsoom took one look at her daughter, got up and locked the bedroom door. She sat her distraught, sobbing daughter down and managed to extricate the gist of what had happened to her. Kulsoom held her daughter close for a little while; held her one last time at the threshold of her childhood. Then she took her across once and for all, into her own encumbered, wary and confined world, just as Kusloom’s mother had done with her. She had hoped that her only daughter would thrive in the joys of childhood just a little longer; that her spontaneous laughter carried as it was on the tide of light hearted innocence, would ring in the house for a few more years. But she also knew that women’s hopes were like fragile petals, to drop off or be plucked at the will of God or the whims of the men in their lives. What was done was done. She held her daughter by her shoulders and looking straight into her eyes she told her that this episode was to remain unspoken of, forever closed, forgotten.

(II)

Mishal sat in her bedroom that she shared with her mother and her six year old brother. Over the last three years, a lot had changed. She had almost overnight matured into not only a woman but had over the years developed an abhorrence for her husband-to-be and an acute dislike for the other men of the household, including her father. She thought back to the day that Dawood had accosted her … assaulted her. She had been told to forget, to wash her mind clean of the event. Her mother in fact, had never mentioned it again. Ever. Hiding behind the ego and cowardice of patriarchy as its accomplice numero uno! Mishal thought with resentment. She imagined countless scenarios where Dawood would just vanish from her life. Sometimes these daydreams were soothing, calming; at others it was not enough to imagine – she had to reassure herself in a raw, racking, visceral way that she was in charge of her life. So she had acted out, mostly in school; she wouldn’t study if she didn’t want to; she would eat only a teaspoonful for the whole day if she so desired; she wouldn’t wash her hair for a fortnight if the whim overtook her. With time and her insatiable need to feel in control of her life, she had expanded the limits of her rebellion: she had even tried to run away from school. She hadn’t meant to, seriously … but she had to try it. Of course, Mother Gertrude had had one of her long sermon-like talks with her. She did say that she wouldn’t mention the ‘misadventure’ to her father … Mishal had almost wished that her principal had told her father, only so she could see some emotion, any emotion on his cold, stone-like face.

Something else was stirring at the back of Mishal’s thoughts today. She got up and walked over to her wardrobe, reaching into the far depths of its uppermost shelf. That’s where she had stowed it away, her red paisley dupatta. In the days after Dawood had attacked her in the kitchen, she had gone out of her way to avoid any contact with him, mealtimes being the necessary exception. Despite that and because he could, she thought bitterly, he had tormented and agonised her, intimidated and bullied her in all the big and little ways that are meant to break the spirit. One day a few months after the episode, he had again cornered her, but this time, had the good sense not to touch her. Her whole demeanour was that of a she wolf ready to gouge out her assialant’s eyes. He had laughed at her and then incensed by the look of loathing and fear on her face, he had said something chilling to her: that he’d gone after her because of the way she was dressed, provocatively; without her hijab and with only that fancy red paisley dupatta around her. She was asking for it, he’d added. She had growled at him because she had only her raw emotion to show. There was no biting retaliation, no barbs, no words that she could hurl at him. She only felt her wounded spirit bleed again making her snarl, and then sob with relief after he had gone. She remembered how long and hard she had looked at her paisley dupatta: questioningly, accusingly, sadly, confusedly, angrily, tearfully, and finally with defeat. She had put it away and never worn it again. But it had over time in some inexplicable way, become her banner of hope, of freedom, of daring to be more than she was ever permitted to be. And so she took it out every once in a while, looked at the beautiful red and yellow paisley pattern on its coral background, felt its softness and then fortified, she’d put it away. In its corner – resplendent, hidden, secret.

(III)

The news arrived in the household in little driblets, almost like the patriarchal universe was delivering it gently, even faultily, one shattering little fact at a time. They first heard that Zahid Khan and Dawood had been in an accident on their way back from Islamabad. After an hour of frantic calling and finding out, they learnt that they were admitted to a hospital in Hassan Abdal*; but that they were alright. There was a general release of tension at this last bit of news. Mishal’s father had left for Hasan Abdal as soon as he’d confirmed their whereabouts.

It was around 4 O’ clock in the evening when they received the call from Qasim Khan. His brother and his nephew had both died on the spot. He was bringing their bodies back home.

Kulsoom broke this final piece of news first to her daughter and then to her sister in law. The children would find out in their own way soon enough.

Mishal heard the news silently, looking at her mother with clear, calm eyes. She watched her minister to her sister-in-law who had just lost two of the men in her family in one go. She turned away, feeling her own flood of emotions so tumultuous and thick that her head spun and all she could hear was the roar of an endless, open ocean in her ears … the mad, frantic, powerful, unbound, pounding of her own heart. Her breath was almost ragged as she went to her bedroom. She opened her cupboard and retrieved the red paisley dupatta. She then removed the innocuous, white hijab and slowly, gently almost reverently draped the veil about her, lightly covering her head. She sat on her bed and looked out of the window, calm, serene and with the large, steady flame of hope already melting the corrosive, numbing chill around her heart.

* Dupatta: A shawl traditionally worn by women in the Indian subcontinent. 

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

* Hasan Abdal: A city in the Punjab Province of Pakistan, located 40 km northwest of the country's capital city, Islamabad.


Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/28/paisley-dupatta-part-one/

SHORT STORY|THE GIRL WITH THE PAISLEY DUPATTA* – Part One

Qasim Khan sat in Mother Gertrude’s office, silent, motionless and without a trace of any emotion on his stoic, weather-beaten face. He had been especially summoned by the Principal of the all girls missionary school in the mountain resort town of Murree. After the sanctification of the Church in 1857, missionary schools had mushroomed across the picturesque town that was located at the foothills of the Himalayas. By the late 1980s, third generation conventarians were graduating from these institutions of academic learning and character building. Like so many other girls of the privileged set across the country, Qasim Khan’s daughter too had spent a large part of the last 10 years of her life as a boarder at the Claudine Thevenet Convent under the tutelage and guardianship of mostly Irish Catholic nuns. She was now done with her O’levels and on her way out of the Convent, together with 15 of her contemporaries.

Qasim Khan was a matter of fact man; not given to flights of fancy or intrigue or even introspection. He lived a respectable life; did what he had to do and kept himself securely grounded in all that was tangible, objective and real. He had neither the inclination nor the desire to poke into the deeper, more profound meaning of things just because he suffered momentary pangs of conscience, had unrequited aspirations or felt any other sensation of inadequacy. The space between his two dimensional view of life and Sublimity was largely apparitional and elusive to Qasim Khan. And so he sat with dead pan detachment, neither wondering nor concerned about the purpose of the meeting. He would know soon enough.

‘Good afternoon Mr. Khan. Thank you for coming to see me’, said Mother Gertrude as she walked briskly into her office.

Qasim Khan nodded with a smile and waited to hear the reason for the meeting. This was not a new turn of events; he had over the last few years, been summoned by his daughter’s school principal on more than a few occasions.

The 70 year old abbess had in her lifetime as the guardian of scores of girls entrusted in her care, learnt a thing or two about family psychology. And Mishal Khan’s homestead was one of those complicated types that had over the years given rise to more than a few such requests to meet with her parents; of the two, her father appearing every time. Whenever the girl came back from one of her vacations at home, she was subdued for weeks afterwards. In her senior years, the strained quietness had morphed into academic rebellion as Mishal’s grades plummeted. Over the last three years in fact, she had performed temperamentally on her quarterly assessments and barely scraped through her year-end exams. Every effort made by her teachers to talk to her and then to discipline her, had failed. The conversational, psycho-therapeutic attempts made by Mother Gertrude had also had no effect on the girl’s erratic behaviour. And now she had sat for her O levels and no matter what the outcome, she’d be permanently wrested from the refuge of her boarding school and the daily camaraderie of her friends, both cathartic mainstays such as they were, in her seemingly troubled life otherwise.

Mother Gertrude felt a rush of anxiety and concern for her ward. This was it. She had to try and get through to Mishal’s father. Qasim Khan had over the last few years attended every one of the beginning of term meetings she had requested to discuss his daughter’s academic and behavioural issues; had listened politely but disconnectedly, and promised to sort out whatever the problem was. And then Mishal came back, and the cycle continued unchanged, unabated. The wise old nun knew however that the angst and grief that Mishal doled out to her teachers and caregivers, was a balancing act of nature; a burden undertaken, a load dispensed. In the greater cosmic harmony of things, Mishal healed, rebuilding her spirit, even as she acted out.

‘Mishal will be going home for good this time Mr. Khan, and I continue to be worried about her. She is a sensitive girl and requires care and attention. She hesitated before continuing on, ‘It may be a good idea for her to get some professional psychological help’. She looked at the man sitting in front of her for any signs of having understood the seriousness of his daughter’s situation. He looked back at her unblinkingly, robotically with a small smile plastered diligently on his otherwise impassive face. This was definitely not going to be one of her triumphant, meaningful moments where she was able to bridge trust and understanding gaps between a parent and child – a parent and one of her girls; and the implications were disheartening. She swallowed hard with a sense of foreboding settling in the pit of her stomach.

Qasim Khan, together with fifteen sets of one or both parents, waited outside on the parlour flat for their daughters to be released for a final time, into their care. It was already 4pm and he was going to make the four hour journey back home the same day. As a rule, he preferred not to travel after sundown along the tortuous roads, winding 7500 feet down towards the plains. Mishal came down the stairs finally, followed by one of the school’s handymen who was carrying her trunk balanced expertly on his left shoulder. Somewhere in some vague recess of his mind, he had marvelled at the strength and agility of these mountain men as they ran up and down dozens of steep steps, multiple times, transporting laden trunks to waiting cars. Consciously, he was only aware of a critical task being done to expedite their departure.

‘Salam alaikum Baba*’ she said simply and followed him to the car parked at the end of the serpentine driveway. She looked back one last time at the stone steps, at the red painted flower pots where yellow and orange geraniums bobbed their heads in the wind; at the entrance to the visitor’s parlour; at the volley ball court; at the monkey bar; at the Teachers Cottage and finally at the dormitories – those safe havens that during the day, held the entire school in their immediate vista and at dusk, the twinkling lights of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad on their horizon. She was suddenly, without warning caught in a flood of emotions. She blinked and responded as she always did when she was overwhelmed by the vulnerability of pain, grief or even joy: she frowned and looked straight ahead, blocking out the memories and the feeling, steeling her heart, making it impenetrable.

Once in the car, she took out a square piece of white linen from her backpack and put on her hijab. Qasim Khan sat in front with the driver. Father and daughter began their journey towards Peshawar in silence; neither was wistful nor remembering nor talking about this epic last journey away from the school and the sanctum that had been a home away from home for Mishal for more than half her life.

* Dupatta: a shawl traditionally worn by women of the Indian subcontinent.

* Baba: a term of respect used for an older man; also used for one’s father.


Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/30/paisley-dupatta-part-two/

SHORT STORY|SERENDIB LODGE – Part Two

The advances, hesitant at first, became more tenacious and vigorous as Sherry Kumar began to actively pursue Manel. She, for her part, was first puzzled, then agitated and finally began to perform a series of vanishing acts which left her breathless and her pursuer more ardent than ever before. This relentless cat and mouse chase continued for a month before a mentally exhausted Manel finally allowed herself to be cornered by her beaming, zealous stalker. She faced him shaking with unspent fury – How dare he! How dare he make her want to run away from her own home!

‘How dare you! How dare you chase me like I’m some leyna*! This is my home! Stop hassling me or I’ll – I’ll hit you!’ she raged, her racing heart threatening to break through her rib cage.

‘I just want to talk to you …’ Sherry Kumar responded placatingly. He hadn’t realized how deplorably his earnest efforts to just have a chat with her had been perceived. He was a little stunned, but mostly exhilirated at finally having the chance to lay his heart bare. For Sherry Kumar was in love; he had been, in fact, since his first fortnight at Serendib Lodge. Usually he’d beam and blink in blue-green tones at his object of affection and that sealed the deal, or not, with both probabilities playing out in equal measure. This was a first where he’d had to so passionately chase after someone for over a month and then be called a stalker for it.

‘What do you want?’ asked Manel, her face set in a frown that, by its sheer comical ferocity, indicated that it was far from being a regular visitor on that usually peaceful countenance. Even while she showed her unmitigated displeasure on the outside, she was more in control on the inside, seeing the man in front of her for the unexceptional mortal he was and not the fire-breathing dragon who’d been chasing her right into her nightmares for the past month.

‘I like you and I want to take you out to dinner’, said Sherry Kumar also back in control of the situation, and continuing down the oft-beaten path of his love lusts.

Manel looked at him as if she had just been handed a bag of rotten eggs.

‘I don’t want to go out to dinner with you. Stop coming after me or I’ll tell Melba’ she said in what was supposed to be the ultimate threat.

It has to be said that her complete and utter disdain and repulsion was borne more from her complete naïveté regarding relationships and their tortuous, sometimes awkward beginnings, than any real distaste for the man. She, however, wasn’t able to tell the difference – not yet.

And so Sherry Kumar retreated – for now.

After their first tumultuous meeting at the foot of the stairs, life had gone back to being ordinary and unremarkable. Manel remained wary but kept herself prepared for any recurrence of the earlier embarrassing episode, with regular doses of fortifying self talk. She went about her day, studiously avoiding her pursuer’s eyes but steadfastly fighting the urge to flee whenever he was around.

It was in February, three months after Sherry Kumar arrived at Serendib Lodge that he came down with dengue fever, the mosquito borne tropical disease that reduced brawny men to waifs of their former selves while in the throes of the fever. Sherry Kumar was no exception as the fever ravaged him for the next fortnight. He lay listlessly, sometimes appearing half dead and at others, quite completely corpse-like. His ruddy face was wan and the healthful glow of his bald head had reduced to a feverish, clammy glisten.

Manel became his inadvertent nurse and caregiver. Through those two weeks of delirium and exhaustion, she was at his side, feeding him, cleaning after him, helping him to the toilet, sponge bathing him and medicating him. As with most situations which show up the vulnerability and frailty of creatures, this too inspired sympathy, kindness and in Manel’s case, a softening of the heart. She now looked at the man lying lifelessly before her, willing him to heal and be whole again; to smile again; to talk to her again … to say some things to her again …. She looked away, blushing with the brazenness of her own thoughts; and then regained her composure with that censorious self deprecation that is such a hallmark of both, actual women of the cloth and those that avidly and truly imagine themselves to be nun-like: you’re 60 years old – love is for the young and carefree. Stop behaving like a giggly teenager!

With that, she went back to her nursing responsibilities with the chill of abstinence in her eyes and the armour of prohibition around her heart.

On the tenth day, Sherry Kumar woke up to Manel’s strained, serious countenance. She was reading a copy of the Pirith Potha*. He looked at her, instinctively wary of reigniting the fuse; and yet, there she was, so close, so reachable.

‘Hello Manel, nice to see you in my bedroom’ he said rustling up his characteristically optimistic spirit even as he lay there physically weak and spent.

Manel smiled in spite of herself. She allowed herself to look into the depths of those green eyes, mustering up the courage to briefly speak the language of the heart with this strange man; this oddly endearing man.

Sherry Kumar got well and back on his feet over the next ten days. He was gentle and subdued in his interactions with Manel – he had realized the discordance of his customary romantic ways with this extraordinary woman. Manel, in turn realized that she enjoyed his company; and more importantly, that she permitted herself to enjoy his attention. There was no trace of his earlier brutish, overbearing attitude. She was convinced that the sickness had changed him in some mysterious but blessed manner.

Mel saw the burgeoning friendship of the two with some foreboding. She wasn’t sure whether it was her own sense of self preservation or her concern for her friend of four decades that stoked her apprehension. She didn’t dwell on the motives for too long; those were irrelevant. What was important was that she talk to Manel; drum some sense into her. She had lost her head nursing that idiot.

So she sat Manel down and delivered a sermon full of horror, fire and brimstone. Manel listened with awe and then misgiving and finally, shame.

Sherry Kumar approached Manel once more, hesitantly but earnestly: Would she marry him he asked. Manel was adamantly clear – she would not.

It was November again and Sherry Kumar had left Serendib Lodge six months ago. He had remained in touch with Mel through text messages and FaceBook posts. He had no connection with Manel.

‘Manel look at this photo, aney*!’, said Mel one afternoon while they were both sitting in the veranda while billowing grey sheets of rain fell outside. It was a photo of Sherry Kumar with Shilpa, a girl who had frequented their home for years until she had moved to Kandy as, first a caregiver and then a companion to a recently widowed elderly woman. The caption read, “Just married! With my dream girl”

Aney ara pissa*, he’s finally got married!’ chortled Mel.

Manel looked at the image for a while, a crowd of emotions ricocheting through her head – sadness, regret, relief, disappointment and finally, defeat. She knew she had made the right decision and yet her heart fluttered brokenly. In her mind, even though she had rejected her suitor, he would remain devoted to her; even in the sea of people around him; amidst his cresting and waning relationships, he would continue to hold a candle for her. She smiled and then without warning even to herself, she cried, the tears falling like a river down her face while her heart shrivelled into a ball.

Mel looked at her incredulously, bewildered by her behaviour, ‘what’s wrong? God knows how long this will last. Thank God you escaped his clutches’.

Manel wept silently for a while and then nodded in acquiescence … resignation. She looked outside at the garden, trying to let go, to reach ahead; to reach beyond herself and her inexplicable grief.

The rain had stopped and turgid drops of water fell from the leaves on the trees as they stirred almost in sympathy and understanding for the lonely woman who walked among them.

* Leyna: Squirrel, in Sinhalese
* Aney: colloquial Sinhalese for “Aww, bless!”

* Pirith Potha: Book of Buddhist religious verses that are recited for protection. “Pirith” is the Sinhalese word for “Paritta” (in Pali) which means Protection.
* Aney ara pissa: colloquial Sinhalese for “oh that crazy lovable idiot”

SHORT STORY|SERENDIB LODGE – Part One

‘Chhip! Yanna!’(1), Manel scolded a cheerfully departing squirrel as it scampered off with a big chunk of foam from one of the sofa cushions in the veranda. She had a love-hate relationship with these feisty little denizens of the garden: she screamed and hollered at their fervent pillaging of everything that could be bitten or gnawed off, while she tut-tutted in sympathy when she found one of them dead in the flower beds; the victim of either a rodent-hunting garandia* or of the easeful burden of old age such as it tended to come upon them in their bountiful lives at 75, High Level Road.

She picked up the maimed cushion and dusted it down as if re-settling it diligently into its comfortable nook would somehow repair the damage. With Manel, a lot was symbolic and much was left to the quite often, fickle good graces of the universe.

Manel lived with Melba aka Mel, her companion and friend of 42 years and the matriarch and grande dame of their house in Nugegoda. She had brought Manel to her home from the Evelyn Nurseries orphanage in Kandy when Manel was 18 years old. Recently divorced and on her own for the first time in her 28 years, Mel had embarked on this enterprise of companionship with much deliberation and reflection. She was the product of missionary school education and the Colombo elite, a combination that, while breeding the well-heeled socialites of the city, also begot dozens of cultured, articulate but professionally unqualified widows and divorcees . These inhabitants of the now fringes of privilege – since the elite bell curve was usurped quite entirely by the debutantes and the still-married – were not only summarily launched into solitary independent lives but also into a world where they had to learn to fend for themselves. And Mel had gone at it with the tenacity of a bull dog: unlearning, relearning, challenging and changing the day to day norms and expectations that had bound her life so fully in her maiden days and even during her short wedded life. After four decades of dealing with the petulant, cantankerous universe of her existence, she had ripened Into a woman of many words and a somewhat short fuse that quite persuasively masked a still tender heart.

Manel was the antithesis of everything Mel was. Where Mel was loud and commanding, Manel was soft and placating; where one bull-dozed into situations, the other treaded with caution. It would be unjust to imagine that Manel’s reticence of nature and restraint were borne of Mel’s draconian demeanour; the matriarch was especially gentle with her beloved shrinking violet and protected her fiercely from the waywardness of the world. It was quite logical to imagine then that Manel was most likely bestowed with her acute sensitivity by the frivolous hands of nature itself. Physically too, the two were in serene discordance with each other: Mel was tall and willowy, while her companion was short and plump. One fiddled with the food on her plate, preferring instead to have a cigarette dangling from a mouth that was simultaneously engaged in an epic telling or retelling; the other made short, efficient shrift of every fulsome meal in front of her. And so the two women had lived together in almost improbable but perfect harmony and neither could imagine being without the companionship of the other.

Over the last twenty years, the two women had made such basic arrangements in their home that had allowed them to let out the three rooms upstairs to paying guests. Staying at the Serendib Lodge was just a little less than checking into a bed and breakfast and a tad more than residing in a friendly stranger’s home, where there was no expectation of guests at all. The set up, despite its informality and simplicity, did quite well, supplementing the meagre income that Mel received from her other modest assets. Their guests were multi cultural and for the most part, gracious and undemanding. Some even put down semi-permanent roots staying six months or a year in the hospitable lodgings of the two women. Mel revelled in the new company while Manel’s associations were mostly limited to the quiet sharing of meals and the simple exchange of pleasantries when she passed them on the stairs or at the main door. She liked it that way – the house alive with energy she could feel but activity she could, for the most part, not see or be a part of.

It was the festive season, a day in November in fact, when Chirkoot Kumar first came to stay at Serendib Lodge. Better know as Sherry Kumar, he tended to hide the hapless burden of his first name, a dubious gem bestowed on him by his paternal grandfather, away from the judging eyes of the world. He was a short, stout man with a gleaming bald head and a perennial smile on his round face. Looking at the world dead on from the otherwise unremarkable face was a pair of striking green eyes. They were large and chameleon-like, changing colours in congruence with their surroundings. He swept into the two women’s lives like a ship into harbour – grandly, triumphantly and with the resounding drop of an anchor. To all intents and purposes, it appeared that he had come to stay. At 65 years old, he was still in love with life and went about it with the zeal of a teenager. Mel immediately took to him, spending every hour that he had free and in the house, at his side. They talked about politics, cricket, the sorry state of the world, the even sorrier state of their social peers and the best koththu in town. She had in her earlier gusto for the scintillating company, tried a bit of flirtation too which was met with smiling equanimity by Sherry and a soon-to-follow chiding, deriding note to herself. She wasn’t the “falling in love” type! She was the chatty, smart-alecky sort who liked nothing better than to regale and be regaled; to banter endlessly until the sun came up or went down depending on what defined the tail end of a 4 hour session of gab and gossip.

Through this reverberating environment of ceaseless chatter, Manel continued to be quiet and retiring. She had yet again seen the entire sequence of a relationship, such as it occasionally tended to assail Mel, unfold in quick time and then settle into an easy camaraderie. She had at its various junctures, felt amusement, anxiety and finally a peaceful acclimatisation to its newest flame, who was now a friend in Mel’s life. She didn’t resent the fact that Mel spent less and less time with Manel these days. She had her hands full doing the laundry and the cooking for the three and sometimes four and five residents of Serendib Lodge; and of course, she loved her time in the garden. It was a little patch of emerald green surrounded by a wondrous array of colours and chaos that looked like it had dropped right off a nature painter’s canvas. She had a flair for creating life that revelled in the joy of wild abandon. Cats claws and Thunbergia climbed curving and looping around Araliya, Mango and Indian almond trees, leaving bright splashes of yellow, purple and white in their meandering wake. For the time that she was in the garden, Manel was one with the burgeoning, budding world around her.

(1) Chhip! Yanna!: Colloquial Sinhalese for “Shoo! Go away!”

* Garandia: Sri Lankan Rat snake that feeds on rodents


Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/24/serendib-lodge-part-two/

SHORT STORY| EUSTACE SHERGILL – Part One

Anita walked into the room with a spring in her step and a song on her lips. Today though, she wasn’t going to belt it out diva style – she was saving her rich alto for the karaoke evening tonight. She stole these evenings of song and meter with the panache of Victorian highway men; effortlessly, cleanly and with a swashbuckling bow.

Her father was sitting in his easy chair poring over the paper. He was tut-tutting quietly in full conversation with his news-fretting self. ‘Another elopement that has ended badly. When will they learn to be content on their own sides of the fence … the scandal … the violence. Tsk! So needless. God protect us …’

‘Daddy, who are we trying to protect ourselves from?’ chirped Anita cheekily.

‘Our foolishness. Our madness’ her father responded with a sigh. He looked at his daughter thoughtfully trying to glance into her future; read her heart. She was such an exuberant girl. He worried about her sometimes surrounded as she was with all her Muslim friends … girls and boys. She tended to be trusting, unrestrained and had been in a roaring affair with life since she was born. If anyone took the bull by the horns and danced with it too, it was his Annie. Where did she get it from … her zest for life; her tenacious survival instinct. It was an enigma both he and his wife had pondered over with sometimes apprehension and at others, elation. How he loved his little girl! And how he agonized too … These were not good times. There were too many inter faith love stories that had gone wrong. Wild hearts and racing hormones that had headed straight for family guillotines; brazed together as they were from the bottomless patriarchal pits of honor, ego and vanity. Eustace Shergill aka Yousuf Shergill with his diminutive form and distrust of even the neighborhood feline’s seasonal caterwauling, was a perennially worried man.

Anita looked at her father fondly. The furrows in his brow had deepened over the last few years, giving this lamb of a man the look of a tyrant. His fleet-footed movements further belied his fragility of form and spirit. Irony was indeed rife with this dear man; her beloved father.

She kissed him on the cheek and took away his newspaper.

‘Daddy, come to the market with me. I need to get some snacks for this evening. The gang is coming over’ she said brightly knowing how he loved these little jaunts with her.

He grinned at her from behind his glasses and rose nimbly to his feet.

‘Let me get the shopping bag’ he said, walking purposefully out of the room.

‘Did I switch the fan off …?’ He wondered aloud when they were on the road. His expression was thoughtful, strained.

‘Daddy, relax. We’ll be back in 20 minutes’ Anita piped up knowing full well he would stew over the fact until they got back home. Unless – she created a magnificent enough diversion! Usually one of her punny jokes, that she had a bizarre flair for creating, got him to ease up, if only fleetingly.

‘Ok, what’s an Optimistic Wise Man called?’ She asked emphasizing the three words and grinning to herself. This was a good one.

‘Hmm … a Sage-o-glass-full? said her father, momentarily distracted and in the spirit of the drollery.

‘Nope. You won’t get this one. It’s one of my better ones’ she said sassily laughing with the combined pleasure of the joke and her father’s smiling face.

‘A Kan-garoo!’ she said with the flourish of a stand up comic at the end of a particularly successful segment.

‘You know – Kangaroo … “Can-guru”, she grinned at her father.

He laughed out loudly with a mixture of pleasure and pride in his bright, vivacious daughter. Anita followed with a bow such as she could manage on the road, from the driver’s seat.

They drove on in silence for a while, Anita still warm in the glow of her recent comedy, while Yousaf Shergill despite himself was back in the living room, fretting about the ominously spinning fan.

Seeing her father’s worried expression, Anita persevered with her enterprise of distraction and diversion, now bringing up a nugget of new information about her work.

‘We’re moving our office to Clifton next month’ she said non chalantly, waiting for the endearingly familiar change of gears in her father’s mind as he temporarily relieved himself of one burden and picked up another. Although these initial sound bites of news were yet out of his immediate capacity to worry about; still too new in their tendencies and their implications. He looked at her questioningly, the fan forgotten in as much as it could be, given that it was only moments ago in his mind, whirling to a calamitous descent onto the lounge table.

“You’re moving office? Is Maham moving too?’ He asked referring to her boss, now full of curious inquiry.

The rest of the 15 minute drive was spent with Anita waxing eloquent on the newly refurbished office, which was also luckily, quite a lot closer to home. Annie would be only a 10 minute drive away! He smiled toothfully, delightedly – a burden laid to rest; a serendipitous blessing received.

Yousuf Shergill was a partner in a company that provided Visa, Citizenship and Residency Services to off shore journeying hopefuls. It had been a flourishing little enterprise. Years of reading immigration laws from across the world, solely for the fascinating study they provided in social and ideological behaviour, had made him a natural at his chosen profession. He could tell through just a brief conversation with the candidate and a cusrsory glance through his brimming, reverently clutched folder of documents whether in fact he would have the pleasure of kissing the motherland a gracious farewell, or whether he had embarked on an ill fated (blessed!) enterprise. Mr. Shergill, despite and imaginably because of his many anxieties and misgivings, was a firm believer of staying put where the roots were. If their own homeland was a maze of dichotomies and confusion, he believed the rest of the world was as labyrinthine and befuddling as the tangled jungles of the Amazon. So while he happily gave advice and facilitated a few flights of fancy and more of the traditional metallic, tangible variety, he was himself happy to be living in his cacophonous but familiar city of Karachi.

* EUSTACE: A word of Greek origin meaning “steadfast” and “fruitful/ productive”.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/14/eustace-shergill-part-two/

SHORT STORY| EUSTACE SHERGILL – Part Two

Yousaf Shergill had lost his wife five years earlier to oesophageal cancer. It was quick and matter of fact; she was diagnosed in June and was gone by November of the same year. She had left as she had lived – quietly and discreetly. While Anita had struggled, grieved and then begun to heal as grown up children do when they lose a parent, Yousuf Shergill had come away from the tragedy permanently stricken, anxious and displaced. He had stopped going to work, instead having the knottiest applications sent to him at home where he pored over them feverishly, concentrating on finding the elusive thread to immigration success while also, for a time, escaping, from the pain of loneliness, memory and recall. The new arrangement suited him, considerably placating his anxiety about not being available on the off chance that Annie required a lift home or in case of another unforeseen disaster.

The Clifton branch welcomed Anita with open arms. It was a flagship consumer banking office and as such was staffed with the young movers, shakers and charmers of the city: vibrant energy and winsome smiles went a long way towards meeting monthly sales targets. Anita with her buoyant personality fitted right in. Coupling up in the office, although not rife was not infrequent either; and when you put a crowd of outgoing, frolicsome young professionals together, the sparks are bound to fly. It took a little over four months for Anita and Bilal to acknowledge their special bond; another two months for Bilal to introduce her to his family; and yet another three for Anita to bring up the subject with her father.

‘Daddy, I’m going to tell you something but I want you to promise me you’ll listen’, began Anita gently but sure-footedly. She wasn’t abashed by her predicament as much as she was concerned about its effect on her father’s state of mind. His moments of joy and peace were so few and far between that the guilt of weighing him down with yet another piece of unsettling information was overwhelming. But the sooner she unburdened herself the better … for everyone.

‘I’ve met someone … at work. His name is Bilal’, she added simply.

Yousuf Shergill looked at her first smilingly, then uncomprehendingly and finally with great foreboding. What was she saying? Did their community use that name …? Did he know any other Bilals from the neighbourhood …? No, he didn’t think he did … The only Bilal he knew was the vegetable vendor who was bearded, be-capped and the picture of Muslim piety … He was visibly grappling with the crowd of inauspicious thoughts that were pitching around in his head.

‘I’ve met his parents. They are lovely people’, added Anita helpfully, trying now to mollify and mitigate.

Yousuf Shergill only looked at his daughter mutely. He didn’t know what to say; and even if he did he was sure he’d lost his ability to convey anything meaningful right now. He simply added this new piece of information, of consternation and trepidation to the vast reservoir of issues that was always stirring at the back of his mind, and left it there for the time being. Right now, he needed all his faculties to maintain some semblance of normalcy in front of his daughter; to keep his face from scrunching into a piteous ball; to keep from weeping for everything that was, and that now, wasn’t anymore.

That night Anita slept fitfully. Her father’s complete lack of a reaction was more disconcerting than any outrage or reprimand. His chiding would have meant that he was processing the news and would in time come to terms with it even if he wouldn’t fully accept it. His silence was eerie, ominous; almost prophetic …

Yousuf Shergill lay awake for a long time that night. He remembered a similar situation; an almost identical story that he had heard many times over, in all its ferocity and horror while he was growing up. His father, Kenneth Shergill had also fallen in love with a Muslim girl in his hometown of Kasur. The couple had shown a passion and fervour that had ruinously hastened the end of that love affair. The girl’s family had abducted him on his way back from work one day and had kept him locked up in a basement for seventeen days. They had beaten and starved him and finally when they were sure they’d broken his spirit, they had dumped him at the Kasur railway junction. He had crawled home somehow. Within six weeks of the incidence, he was summarily married to his cousin because some cultural aspects of their Islamic republic just made sense when choices were few and scandals needed to be subdued, conciliated. And the rest, as they say is history. Yousuf Shergill’s father had dutifully passed on that dread to his son who grew up requisitely wary, nervous and chafing.

Yousuf Shergill spent the rest of the night wary, nervous and chafing.

The next morning, Anita was long gone by the time her father woke up. He came into the lounge, disoriented and alarmed. He picked up his mobile and dialled his daughter’s number, almost immediately ringing off. He took a deep breath – of course she was alright. She was at work. He needed to calm down and think things through. He needed to think of the implications. He needed to figure out the chances of success of his daughter’s enterprise … much like he would with an especially complicated immigration case. Yes, he’d build a case; a water-tight position where, no matter what, his daughter would land on the other side, unscathed, whole and well. Yousuf Shergill got to work on the most crucial case of his lifetime.

A week after her confession to her father, she brought Bilal to the house to meet him; on her father’s request. Yousuf Shergill was surprisingly calm and even congenial, asking about his work and his family. He then regaled both his daughter and her suitor with anecdotes and pithy, little-known facts about his hometown of Kasur. Anita had never seen her father so animated about his paternal homestead as he was today. She smiled, glowing with quiet relief and joy – her father was coming around. The evening ended with her father inviting Bilal for lunch at the Defence club the following week – just the two of them.

The next few weeks passed in a blur of work, home and the occasional visit from Bilal. His fondness and was it awe almost … of her father had grown quickly, unobtrusively. She could see it in the way Bilal mentioned her father when they were alone, with quiet, respectful regard. She was bemused and grateful and decided not to question either of those sentiments.

‘When we do get married, we’re going to move to our own place’ said Bilal musingly one afternoon at lunch.

‘And you my darling, can do what you want – work, not work, go on an adventure, fly a kite or a plane!’ He said grinning widely at Anita.

She laughed, punching him in the arm.

‘You’re most kind but I think I’ll stick to doing what I do best which is being Maham’s fixer-upper and the life of this old place’ she said grinning back at him.

As an afterthought, she added half jokingly as one does with matters that are innately serious but best broached with the subtlety of farce, ‘what if you decide to change your mind once we’re married… hmm?’

‘Unlikely my queen. Your father will have my head and bury it at the Kasur railway junction!’

And so it was that during lunch at the Defence club, Yousuf Shergill had wrapped up his most challenging case yet. He had told his daughter’s suitor an anecdote from his childhood. A story very similar to Bilal and Annie’s in fact. He had just changed it a bit; where his grandfather together with a vast and ferocious throng of family, friends and loyalists had exacted a revenge so bloody and brutal on Kenneth Shergill’s abductors at the Kasur Railway station that the local papers had written about it for weeks afterwards. The courts and the lawyers were unable to file anything against Kenneth’s family.

That afternoon Eustace Shergill had made it gravely, abundantly clear that no one messed with the Shergills of Kasur.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/16/eustace-shergill-part-one/

SHORT STORY| SOUL SISTERS – Part Five

The dust and clamour of the city assailed her with its brawny vigour as soon as she walked out of the airport in Karachi. She looked for Rustum’s familiar face in the surrounding milieu of cacophonous welcoming parties, stuporous janitorial staff and the predatory hordes of taxi kiosk attendants. In his low key, efficient manner her driver located her before she had caught sight of him. He took control of her luggage trolley and led the way expertly through the throng to the parked car.

At home, she was greeted with the faint smell of lavender Lysol mixed in with the fading aroma of freshly cooked, spice-resplendent food. Layla felt her stomach rumble in anticipation as she went into the kitchen to look at the gastronomic delights rustled up by her housekeeper. She’d cooked bitter gourd stuffed with minced beef, and fried okra. The hot pot had four still warm chapatis nestled in its cozy interior – one for her and three for the driver. She had a hot bath; relished her quiet dinner and sat back in the sofa, enveloping herself in the familiar sounds of silence of her apartment.

It was good to be back home.

Her phone rang as soon as she was turning in for the night. It was Sumaira.

‘Yay! You’re back!’ she said as soon as Layla picked up the phone. It was good to hear Sumaira’s voice – still buoyant, still chirpy, even at the waning end of the day.

‘I am back! Missed you woman!’ said Layla rousing herself from her solitary stupor. They talked for a while but Sumaira gave nothing away about who her mystery man was. After fifteen minutes of circling around the obvious with blitheful nimbleness, Sumaira finally ceased her torture of her friend and hung up with an exuberant bye and a kiss. Layla was left fretting in the grips of intrigue and conjecture for more than an hour afterwards. She gave an exasperated sigh and picked up a book to distract herself and to lull her somewhat jangled nerves. Sumaira was a tormenter and a bewilderer and even with her best friend, there were no special confidence privileges until she decided so.

After work the next day, Layla headed for La Etilier Suma to catch her friend in her own workplace where she was more likely to reveal and embellish than to bedevil and distract. Sumaira was bent over a sketch and was delicately filling the colours into each roseate and paisley, the very picture of imperturbable professionalism.

Layla looked at her for a moment and grinned ‘Maestro, thy deception is done. Out with it!’

Sumaira looked up startled. There was a pattern emerging to her being caught off guard she thought fleetingly before she closed her sketch book and stood up to hug her friend. She laughed as she sat back down.

‘It’s Karim’ she said simply.

‘Karim who?’ asked Layla while deftly suppressing the inadvertent bloom of emotions in her own heart at the mention of that name; that was still her little secret …

‘Of “Karamat and Sons” – Karim Zaidi’

Layla looked at Sumaira uncomprehendingly for a moment. But only for a moment.

‘Wow, really?’ she mananged to say while quieting her now pitching, hammering, lurching heart.

‘It was one of those unexpected things. I mean we’ve known him forever from a distance haven’t we? He was always so quiet… so aloof. But he’s actually a lovely man. Sophisticated, well read and …uff… those eyes!’ Sumaira gushed, laughing at her own quickened heart even as she glowed in the sharing of fledgling but precious confidences.

Layla looked at her friend as swarms of disconnected thoughts rampaged through her own head: What were the odds? Of all the men Sumaira could have had out there! Had she misjudged his quiet demeanour? Did she think he was the one man who would remain perfectly unaffected by Sumaira’s charms? Why did she think he was going to fall into her lap just like that? Why couldn’t he have fallen into her lap just like that? Well played, Universe! …

‘… and we spent that entire evening together’ Sumaira ended smiling.

Layla hadn’t heard very much after the First Disclosure and now looked at her friend with new eyes … hurting and resentful; stabbing and piercing; stinging and pricking eyes. She blinked twice, three times, willing away the flood that was gathering at the peripheries of her eyelids.

She said nothing but she smiled, for the benefit of her friend. Her angst, like her secret, was also her own now; and even in the throes of her frenzied emotions she knew now was not the time for either affliction to rear its tormented head.

That evening Layla sat with her solitude and her despair; the tranquility of her three week vacation, a now buried and forgotten memory. She washed her face and looked into the mirror. She lifted up the corners of her mouth in what should have been a smile but was instead a grotesque caricature of joy. She froze her face in the lopsided grimace, forcing herself to recall similar moments from her past; moments of self loathing, of unremitting agony, of wanting to end it all …

But she didn’t feel any of her earlier sense of tragedy. She felt only a pervasive emptiness that was almost narcotic in its numbness. She realized that she was not the tortured 17 year old anymore. She was a resilient, stalwart product of the curve ball life had pitched at her. She’d learnt to bat right back, into the eye of the storm. Even when her ordinary and extraordinary anxieties overwhelmed her, she remained afloat with her head above the water; taking in the serenity of the entire ocean rather than the tempestuousness of the cresting and falling waves around her.

She would survive this too.

Life, of course, was full of surprises, but she also knew the limits of joyful happenstance. Even while she sat on her wooden bench, enveloped in her solitude, daydreaming of knights in charcoal grey shalwar kameez, she was at peace with the calming ordinariness of the relationships in her real life. Ultimately, even when she made her brief, magical forays into What-Could-Have-Been, she always veered right back to reality. So yes, she would survive this.

Her friendship with Sumaira was worth more than a few lusty pulls of her heartstrings. Her soul connection with her best friend had to be worth more than her illusions of love and couple-hood; for that was what her fantasy romance had been – a theatre of the heart.

She drew back the curtains on the night sky and lay down, looking at the vastness of the city from her 7th floor sanctum. In time, the city lights faded in the radiant luminescence of a milk moon that shone into her bedroom lighting up her face as she slept.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/22/soul-sisters-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/26/soul-sisters-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/28/soul-sisters-part-three/

Read Part Four here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/03/soul-sisters-part-four/

SHORT STORY| SOUL SISTERS – Part Four

‘I hear you’re quite the designer – I myself was a coffin maker in the US. Fancy coffins are big business there’, said someone who’s name she’d forgotten but who was steadfastly standing by her side while carrying on a mostly non-reciprocal conversation. Sumaira smiled blandly yet again and took a sip of her sprite and soda. She wondered for the 10th time in as many minutes where Hassan had disappeared to. Usually the crowd was larger and she was familiar with many of the usual suspects at these soirées. This appeared almost like a last minute attempt to make something of a Friday night – the patchy crowd that had gathered was dolorous and … sticky.

She excused herself from Mr. Glue-some, and walked purposefully towards nowhere in particular.

She stood in an unobtrusive corner of the garden and took a deep breath. God! When did unfamiliar crowds start getting to her? She usually loved the banter and the energy. It was this whole marriage prospect that was playing with her mind; even the oddball, to-meet-and-to-forget strangers at a party were now threatening to join the Groom Queue lined up in her head.

She needed a real drink.

‘Hello. I hope I’m not barging in on your … lonesomeness’, said a low mirthful voice near her. She looked up, startled to find Karim smiling at her, suddenly becoming conscious of her uncharacteristic shadowy form and furrowed brow.

‘Hi’ she smiled a little self consciously, feeling a tinge of discomposure touch her cheeks. The light and shadow accentuated her flush making Karim momentarily catch his breath. She shone even when she cloaked herself in eventide shadows … he thought in that moment of mush and liquid emotions.

‘I didn’t see you here … I was looking for Hassan and, you know, trying to hide from a Party Romeo’ she said laughingly, in superintendence once again of her wits and her charm.

Karim laughed and looked again at her beautiful face. He was still feeling the afterglow of the earlier heat of the moment; a pleasurable warmth that belied the usual gin and tonic haze he surrounded himself with at these social affairs. They stood in that corner of the garden, chatting comfortably about nothing in particular, blanketed from the world, while a nebulous moon looked on.

Like Layla, Sumaira too lived alone, but in the bounteous arms of a family homestead that was equipped with its crew of maids, gardeners and all the other amenities that are de rigeur for many privileged South Asian families who live between two or even three homes. Sumaira’s parents lived in Kent in the UK but came home every winter. Karachi’s winter, if its spring-like coolness can, at all be called that, was short and flamboyant. It was when the flowers bloomed and the parks were full of promenading, socialising hordes of Karachiites, glad of the faint, sometimes even fondly imagined, nip in the air. There was that handful of wintry days however, when one definitely needed a sweater or a jacket to brace against an almost desert-like evening chill.

She was having her first of many mugs of coffee of the day, a faraway look in her eyes. Asha, the old family retainer broke into her reverie to ask about what to cook for dinner. That question had become a pet peeve, resounding as it did with the regularity of sunrise, while holding within it none of the sustaining, nurturing quality. Asha’s cooking had suffered in almost defiant sympathy with her aching bones and failing eyesight.

She told her to make a salad. She’d have eggs and salad for dinner tonight.

Her phone lit up momentarily. She glanced at it abstractedly and then picked it up. She smiled; it was a message from Karim. Well.. it was more a forward really of something they had talked about the other evening, but still …

Was she falling in love with Karim? She asked herself upfront, point blank.

She wasn’t wholly sure, but he was definitely on the short list now … at the very tippy top …

Layla lay on the sofa in the lounge. The television was droning on in the background; her father was fast asleep on his recliner after a fulsome meal; her mother was on the phone with one of her sisters. She sighed contentedly. It had been a relaxing, settling, centering fortnight in Lahore. She still had another week to go before she descended into the tumultuous and confusing but also loving and giving arms of her adopted city. She looked at her phone. Layla had been so caught up in the happy sociability of parents and home that she hadn’t noticed the almost radio silence where there was usually a daily digital exchange between the friends. After a somewhat cryptic message that she had received from Sumaira last week, she hadn’t heard from her at all. She’d said something about having met someone new; about short lists that were becoming ever shorter and a choice that was becoming ever clearer. So, the Husband Hunt was in full progress Layla thought and waited for the familiar tightening of her chest. She felt only a nostalgia; a gentle wistfulness. It was the way of things. Sumaira would get married and she may even get busy as married couples do. But their friendship would stand the test of matrimony and its many busying enterprises. She felt unusually accepting and calm.

She suddenly missed her best friend, her soul sister. She typed in a message and put her phone away. She got up in the brightened spirits that were the trademark bestowal of all her home visits and gave her mother a quick bear hug from behind. They were going for their post dinner stroll in the lane outside the house. She looked up at the clear night sky with its winking constellations. Amid all that starry brilliance rested a demure quarter moon like a half closed eye …

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/22/soul-sisters-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/26/soul-sisters-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/28/soul-sisters-part-three/


Read Part Five here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/06/soul-sisters-part-five/

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