VERSE | DO YOU REMEMBER?

Do you remember when you felt the blood
Gushing through your body;
You felt it etch into your being
All the kindness, courage and love
That you thought you could ever feel;
And your heart sang!

Do you remember how your breath
Caught in your throat. The sheer shock
Of those emotions rocking you inside.
You felt so overwhelmed that your tear ducts
Felt the strain. You blinked your wet eyes
And your heart sang!

You looked straight ahead,
The wave kept rising in your chest.
You felt like you were everything
That you were meant to be. Your atoms ricocheted
With those around you. Nature played
A little bit of handball as she caught
Your Atoms in her hands and passed her own to you
And your heart sang!

Do you remember feeling like this was
The perfect moment in your time,
In your space, in your place;
And everything had come together that day to remind you
That your heart was aligned with all
That defined you as the happiest version of yourself;
And oh your heart, it sang!

You don’t remember - not really. Neither do I. I mean
I remember the warmth in my being, the love flowing out
In waves, in rivers. A oneness with the essence of the world.
But beyond that, I can’t remember; I can’t evoke the feeling.
Something has gone awry, something has been lost
Along the way.
But I still see its ghost flitting,
Vaguely passing before my eyes when I am still.
But my heart, it doesn’t sing.

SHORT STORY | I REMEMBER

I look at his face. Now lined with deep wrinkles; each one a surly witness to a deed committed a long time ago. Deeds? How many of his perverse thoughts had he acted out since then?

I look at his face as he smiles. The gleam of his sins unhidden, unbidden, pierces the atmosphere like flying shards of broken glass. They fall everywhere – treacherous, menacing and so sly. Of course, no one sees them but me. I see each insidious piece as clearly as I remember what happened so many years ago.

I look at the face of the old family retainer. The man who has spent over twenty five years in my parents’ home. My home. The man I have known since I was seven years old. The man who I now detest. But my hate is private. Painfully private. It roils and screams in the most secret recesses of my mind. And my heart keeps pace. Racing, pounding, pulsing with revulsion and frustration. That combination is such an odd one. It sucks the essence out of you. It saps you of your sense of self and leaves you feeling hollow and wretched. You try and pull yourself together and then you’re knocked down again by a flood of ugly memories. The deed was singular, the one and only. But the memory has multiplied, spread like a fungus around the edges of my hippocampus. After thirty years, most times now it lies quietly, unobtrusively. At other times, it flies at me taking over my being. Like now. Because he’s here. In my home.

He has come to pay his respects to my parents. He has done this periodically since his retirement twelve years ago. I look at his face. I look at the ugly caricature of a smile pasted on it. I look around me at the faces of my mother and my father. They are smiling back. I look away. I pull myself together and while I look back at the scene, pretending to not remember, pretending to play along – I have perfected this dreadful deception over the last three decades – my mind is assaulted, attacked with a force that is visceral and raw. The multiplied, grotesquely teeming memories of that day march in with their battering rams.

I was eleven. My young body was just budding. I became aware of that fact on that day. He said he wanted to show me something. He took me into the kitchen. That kitchen is also embedded in my memory like a gravestone. He squatted on the floor and pulled me close. Then he showed me pictures: Naked men and women entwined with one another in black and white, stared back into my bewildered eyes. He pulled me closer. He was saying something to me.

I suddenly became aware of the weight of his arms around my waist. Just a minute ago, he was the trusted old family retainer, a protector, another father figure in the house, someone who was still watching me grow up. Someone who, in our household was given all the respect one does to an older relative. Even in my all-cloaking innocence, I suddenly felt anxious. Afraid. Even though the figments of my apprehension were like unclear wraiths flitting about in my mind, intuition had kicked in. I knew this was not right. And yet, he was Kabeer chacha*; the man who served as the ward and protector of the children of the house – me and my brother – when my parents were not at home. The man who was the embodiment of paternal care and concern. He was now also the man who had in the last few minutes molested my young mind.

I pulled away. My instinct told me to do so. I also somehow knew that I had to behave normally. I asked him where he had got the photos. I remember, he smiled then. Now when I am assailed by the memory, I can see the ugly perversity under his saccharinus smile as he said he had many more that he would show me. I also remember the one and only thing I managed to say to him then: “I don’t want to see any more. I don’t like them”. And that was it. I’m not sure if my sense of being violated could be any more tormenting or distressing if that initial predatory act had been followed by more. I’m not even sure if I consider myself lucky that that was the extent of the ravagement. The only thing I am sure of is that I still carry the brutalising memory and also the overwhelming burden of keeping it a secret.

I look at his face now. I feel an acid revulsion. But I can’t show it. The whole family treats him like one of their own. I’m repulsed by that realization but I can’t show it. I was too young, too naive, too unprepared to have processed the vile act when it transpired. And now, thirty years after it happened, the burden of tradition, shame and the messiness of an aftermath has further paralysed me.

Such is the double edged sword that is the south Asian equation between the young and the old. The right to speak and to be heard is the absolute privilege of the latter. The dutiful acquiescence, the respectful submission of the young, to the gracious, the bizarre and even the evil inclinations that the respected elder might bring to this equation is also absolute.

He suddenly takes my eight year old niece’s hand and pulls her to him. He is sitting on his haunches just as he had done thirty years ago and he’s holding her close, just as he had gripped me thirty years ago. I freeze. But only for a few seconds. The bile rises to my throat followed by the tightening noose of a sob. I choke back both. I can feel my eyes stinging but I smile at little Sania and tell her it is time to bake our brownies. I take her hand and pull her away. Even as I walk away with her, I feel the hot tears as they spill down my face. I wipe them away as fast as they come. No one should see. No one can know. It is still my private affliction and I will live with it as best as I can. But I also know now that I can protect the rest of the children of the family in our home.

I feel a blaze in my heart – cleansing, renewing and strengthening. I look at Sania’s lovely little face shining with excitement and the pure joy of childhood and I grin at her. I kiss the top of her head and we take over the kitchen.

* Chacha: An Urdu term meaning uncle. Also used as a term of respect for an older man.

VERSE | JOY MEETS WORLD

It was just another day
I was going to my cafe
I got onto the escalator
Inching me up on my north-easterly way

I turned around to the sound
Of a straining, hassled parent
As he looked at his little one
His mildly stern gaze quite apparent

The boy looked away; he was not in the mood
To be held back from his play
The stairs running up all on their own!
What fun to skip around on them all day!


I sensed his bright happy energy
Even as his little hand was grasped
In restraint; in gentle admonishment
Grown-up impatience was writ quite large!

The agitatated parent caught my eye
As I took in the scene from five stairs above
I smiled; he smiled; something freed up
And he looked back down at his little son

He picked him up and kissed his cheek
Then up on his shoulders the little boy went
The child gave a glorious whoop of joy
As on the magical stairway he made his ascent.

I looked up, the special journey was ending
I bade it farewell with a skip and a hop
The child still grinning chortled with laughter
It was just another sweet day out and about.

SHORT STORY | MISTRESS OF HER KISMET – Part Two

Over the course of the last year, it had become a weekly tradition for Zubaida and Sikander to meet for lunch at a little restaurant near the Malik Art Studio. There were a handful of safe, soul-restoring places around the city that Zubaida frequented as much for their therapeutic vibes as for their practical purposes. One of them was Yousuf’s Cafe. Right from the start, it had evoked remembrances of another time, another life. Over time, her memories associated with the place had distilled to a few heart-warming images: her brother Yousuf’s 10 year old face smiling at her; Zubaida reading him stories of Jinns* and courageous raja’s*; his eyes lighting up when she got him the occasional treat of Sohan Halwa*. He had morphed into more than the ugly culmination of her life in Hasilpur. In the strangest happenstance, she had found her brother again in the little cafe with his name.

It was Wednesday and Zubaida sat at Yousuf’s Cafe with her first steaming cup of tea. She was waiting for Sikander who always arrived at least 30 minutes later than the appointed hour. It was a foible that had grated on her hyper-organised approach to life but which she had with time, and a softening of her heart, managed to compartmentalise as a minor personality flaw. She had realized that if she reasoned things out in her head, covering the entire gamut of its strengths and its weaknesses, she was able to approach it with much greater tranquility and acceptance. And so it had been with Sikander’s tardiness. She always planned little things to tick off her To Do list while she waited for him to appear. Today she pulled out her phone and looked at the word that had become one of her revitalising life mantras and with time, also an integral part of her calligraphic renderings: Al-Hakam– one of the 99 names of Allah in Arabic meaning “The Impartial Judge”.

This was going to be her second collection in three years that was dedicated to this divine quality. Most of the previous collection had been acquired by a single private collector who had also been inimitably discreet about his identity. She had always wondered who it was that had felt the same resonance with the concept of supreme justice.

Sikander walked in at exactly 2.10pm, forty minutes late, smiling and completely oblivious of the time transgression. In her rationalising enterprise on this particular flaw, she had also concluded, among other things, that this was an idiosyncrasy that was almost communal in Lahore. It was completely normal to arrive two hours late for social functions and at least half an hour late for work-related obligations. She smiled at him and put away her phone, having decided on the colour scheme for her Al-Hakam exhibition. They had their usual lunch of Pulao* and Aloo tamatar*, a specialty at Yousaf’s. The conversation was easy and varied, nurtured by time, familiarity and their fondness for each other. Their Wednesday gastronomic adventures usually ended in uncharacteristically speedy farewells as both headed to their respective homes for their food-induced siestas.

Later that evening, Zubaida sat at a pristine canvas repeating the word “Al-Hakam” in a low, melodious murmur. She was as immersed in the powerful essence of the word as she was in the image it now evoked in her mind. Zubaida had decided on sepia tones for this series, with abstract backgrounds in the 3 main colours of turquoise, gold and maroon. She would in her subtle style, vary the sepia shades and the undulations of her Khat* across each painting. She got to work on her first canvas.

She finally looked up from her work at past 9pm. She had been absorbed in sketch work for the last three hours. She heated up some daal and a mixed vegetable curry that she’d cooked the previous day. She had already had two chapatis* delivered from the tandoor* downstairs. After dinner, she took out her diary to write down her tasks and reminders for the next day. This urban life hack had with time, also become one of her practical meditations that she performed with unremitting regularity. The smallest task was recorded meticulously so that every evening she had a page full of practical, sovereign affirmations for the next day. The planning of her day, the writing it all down reminded her, more than anything else, that she was in control of her life, of her movements … of her body.

Tomorrow she was planning on visiting the Singer electronics store and buying her first ever washing machine. Sikander had convinced her of its paramount importance in everyday life. Sunday had usually been laundry day for her, an unconscious vestige of her life in the village when the whole family’s clothes would be washed in a big tin tub and the courtyard would be overspread by colourful lines of billowing shalwars, kameezes and dupattas. She now had a plastic bucket at home which had been sufficient for her week’s washing.

Zubaida grinned at Sikander. Some things still delighted her like they would a child. She was pleased and proud of her newest purchase, and awed, as she was off and on at the bounties of her life as a mistress of her own kismet. Her face was transformed at those moments when her guard fell and her dark brown eyes shone, reflecting her inner light. It was one of those precious moments that Sikander was witnessing and he smiled, feeling a now familiar, gentle wrench of his heart. Washing machine buying day was as good as any to propose to her.

After dinner and in the privacy of his bedroom, Sikander mulled again on the events of the afternoon. He had known Zubaida long enough to expect the unexpected. And that was exactly what had happened. He had come right out simply and directly, and asked her to marry him. He’d made a statement, almost a demand of her to marry him he thought cringing a little in retrospect. He had not hoped for her to say yes; he’d expected her to say yes. The swagger of patriarchy ran deep he thought ruefully and smiled despite himself.

She had looked at him calmly, almost tenderly and then just said no. Sikander had built up this moment so much in his mind that he had not taken a rejection into account at all. But when he was faced with it, the honesty of their relationship transformed it from an irreparable lancing of the ego to just another truth between them, another matter of fact. There was a silence that followed, not awkward, not brimming with heightened emotion; just a calming quiet where the last few pieces of their particular puzzle floated into place. Theirs was not going to be a traditional union, but she was still his chosen one.

Zubaida brought her brand new washing machine, together with a myriad of strange emotions back home with her. She had predicted that something of this sort may happen – they both liked each other. She had also imagined more than a few times, of how she would go about handling a proposal from her one soul mate: a rejection couched in profuse apologies, long winded explanations, shouldering the blame for not being normal enough to embrace healthy conventions, and the ultimate risk of losing his friendship. None of that had transpired. It was a simple, undramatic moment of truth where their special relationship did all the talking that was necessary. No words were exchanged yet a whole new understanding was reached. Their relationship was not going to be boxed under already existing labels. It had sprouted its own unique wings and it would fly with its own momentum in its own way.

She had never felt surer or more confident of her soul kinship with Sikander as she did post the afternoon’s events. She knew that he understood her reasons for not taking the traditional route. Still, they were her reasons not his. He had respected and accepted them nevertheless.

Their equation had survived the greatest disavowal of convention; and embedded in there was the most sublime justice. She smiled gently with a little word on her lips: “Al-Hakam”.

* Jinn: Supernatural creatures in early pre-Islamic Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology.

* Raja: Prince in Urdu/ Hindi.

* Sohan Halwa: A traditional dense, sweet confection that has been popular in South Asia since the Mughal era.

* Pulao: A one pot rice dish made by cooking fragrant basmati rice with aromatic spices, herbs & sometimes stock.

* Aloo tamatar: Potatoes with spicy tomato gravy.

* Khat: Letter or alphabet in Urdu.

* Chapati: Also known as roti, is unleavened flatbread originating from the Indian subcontinent.

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


Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/07/09/mistress-of-her-kismet-part-one/

SHORT STORY | MISTRESS OF HER KISMET – Part One

This story may be read as a continuation of an earlier piece of work titled The Sins of Our Fathers. You can read that here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/09/sins-of-our-fathers-part-one/

Zubaida looked at herself in the mirror as she always did before heading out of her one room apartment; straight into the eyes of her reflection. She passed on her daily affirmation to herself: that she was her own be all and end all. No matter how wonderful life sometimes got, no matter how much of the drug of complacency it tried to suffuse her with, she would remain alert. This recall was a vital part of the start of every day for Zubaida; and the subliminal messaging to herself as she looked directly into the windows of her own soul, was to her the most effective way of keeping herself vigilant and grounded. She had been on her own for the last thirteen years and she had survived, indeed thrived in the general ebb and flow of life.

Zubaida lived in Shadman in Lahore and was a professional calligrapher. She specialised in oils on canvas. Her shaded, monochromatic depictions of Quranic verses had not only earned her a name in the city’s Islamic Modern Art community but had with time, become a reliable and consistent source of income. Ten years ago, she had gradually begun to supplement her Urdu tuition earnings with sales of one or two canvases every month. Over the last five years, her art sales had become her primary source of income.

Zubaida stepped out of her apartment locking it behind her. She walked towards the stairwell and per habit, looked again at the door ensuring the padlock was securely in place. She always made absolutely sure that her home was safe.

She got into a taxi and headed for Malik Art Studio in Model Town. The gallery and the curator of its masterpieces such as they were, had both been kind to Zubaida. She had in turn, responded with her own sense of loyalty, declining offers to exhibit at some of the other local studios that speciliazed in Islamic art. Her latest calligraphy series was going on display soon. She had learnt with time and experience, that masterminding the entire exhibition process from start to finish tended to lead to fewer last minute fires to put out. Today, she was going to see how her ten pieces of work would be displayed in the upcoming Eid exhibition.

She spent two hours in the voluble company of Malik sahib, deciding on the frames and the placement of each canvas.

‘Sikander was here yesterday. He has already promised to buy two of your pieces’, Iqbal Malik said, his eyes glinting with the combined thrill of giving Zubaida news of Sikander and the prospect of a tidy profit.

Sikander Ilyas was the scion of the Ilyas Ceramics and Tile Manufacturing, a keen appreciator of art and in Zubadia’s case, of the artist too. He had met the serious young woman two years ago during one of her exhibitions and was almost immediately taken in by her no nonsense demeanour that was also simultaneously rooted in a quaint naïveté. The combination had quite swept Sikander off his feet. He hadn’t said anything of the rumblings of his heart to Zubaida. Not so much because romance seemed like a superfluous sentiment around the sedate woman, but because he himself had been grappling with his feelings. He was expected to marry someone from his class; someone eligible and beautiful; a society damsel.

Zubaida was the antithesis of all that. She had grown up in rural Punjab and at the tender age of seventeen had undergone a brutal sentencing by the local community for a social transgression committed by her uncle: the girl had survived a Jirga*-ordained revenge rape. In the eyes of the world, she was a stigmatized woman; tainted and unmarriagable. In his eyes, while she was tainted, he had been trying to work around the unmarriagble aspect of it. He had decided that time was the best moderator of troublesome peeves and had decided to go with the flow.

Two years on, he was more in love than ever before and the walls of culture and tradition that had kept him privileged and safe, had been slowly eroded by floods of patriarchal contrariness and social defiance. Sometimes, he wondered at the change that he’d undergone as a person and especially as a man in his community. His heightened sensitivity to the pervasive chauvinism that flourished so brazenly in his Islamic republic had given him his fair share of sleepless nights. The not so infrequent introspective moments that also now crept upon him, left him appalled and ashamed. Time had in fact been a ruthless arbiter, opening his eyes to a world that he and the rest of the male fraternity of his homeland had helped to build, brick by twisted brick.

In a world that was seeming increasingly at odds with reality, Zubaida appeared more and more like the only lucid woman around. And so, Sikander was now quite decidedly ready to ask Zubaida to marry him.

Even so, while his internal ideology had changed, he was still a consummate part of the social and patriarchal structures that had always defined him; that he called his roots. No matter how he envisioned it, it was going to be a challenge seeing this undertaking of the heart through …

But damned be the world! Well … he’d handle his parents and they’d handle the rest of the world.

Zubaida had at first been wary of Sikander’s interest in her. In the thirteen years since her life had been turned upside down and which she had since built back one vital milestone at a time, one thing had become resonantly clear: she would maintain her independence no matter what; and a husband did not feature in any conventional, orthodox way in that ultimate life stratagem. Despite her overtly disinterested bearing however, there had been a motley assortment of hopefuls who had vied for her attention. She had held on as practically to her Unavailable status as she had been factual about her past.

All her suitors were made aware of her particular “standing” in society immediately upon their disclosure of their besotted hearts. Some had retreated mumbling sympathetic apologies, less out of shame for the toxicity of the patriarchy that had perpetrated the tragedy and more for how her irrevocably stigmatised situation would affect their own social standing. Others had shown surprising strength of character, whether fleeting or more deep-rooted, whether spurred on by pure adrenalin or by something less chemical and more ideological, and repeated their desire to partner with her in the sacred (and hopefully abiding!) contract of the Nikah*. She had seen off the disillusioned devotees with a gracious farewell and the tenacious lot, with a polite refusal. It had never been hard to do. Her heart had remained utterly unaffected and composed; until Sikander had come along. With time, the man had got under her skin. He had changed in ways she could understand and respect; in ways that gave her hope and warmed her.

* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.

* Revenge Rape: Or Honour Revenge is a sentencing usually inflicted on an innocent woman by a council of elders in rural communities, as retribution for a crime committed by usually a male member of her family.

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


Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/07/12/mistress-of-her-kismet-part-two/

VERSE | THE SHADES OF LONELINESS

I’ve seen the colours of loneliness
I’ve seen their moldering faces
I’ve seen them fill the keening voids
Of our broken, scattered places.
It’s the grey of the sky just before it descends
In blinding cascades
Of granite and slate
While waiting for that one special friend of the heart
Who’s gone an infinite distance apart.
Gone forever; not coming back.
It’s the darkening shades of smoke and ash
Stifling and choking. It’s emotional whiplash.

It’s the curdled russet and clotted yellow
Of dying leaves
Still on the trees.
It’s the hope that once blossomed,
Now just a vanishing dream;
Like fading delusions;
And fractured illusions.
Like wasting ivy, still clinging tightly
To the mottled, purple-bruised spaces within.

It’s the decayed red of old blood
That has flowed and then congealed
From scarred old wounds
In the fallow fields
Of the innermost corners of your being.
It’s the throbbing new cuts of remembrance-pain
That sear you with their scarlet heat
Scorching your insides until there remain
Only the rust-dripping embers of defeat.

It’s these mottled hues and grainy textures
Of mangled hearts and hurting souls
Its the piercing, stinging, strangling tightness
In the pit of the stomach; in the back of the throat.
In the end, it is all of this
That make up the tinctures of loneliness
That fill up all our sad and desolate spaces.

SHORT STORY| THE SINS OF OUR FATHERS – Part Two

It had been decided. Zubaida would be given to the fallen girl’s family as retribution for the crime. An eye for an eye. Rab Nawaz had no family of his own so his brother, his next of kin, would deliver on the blood loyalty. For Haq Nawaz, there was no land to give away, no jewellery; only a part of his honour – in this case, his daughter. He had been forced to perform a cold blooded calculation and had chosen Zubaida, his second daughter. The daughter with no prospects right now would pay the penance for the “family crime”. A burqa-clad Zubaida was brought before the tribunal and told the verdict. She could not protest nor could she lay claim to any innocence. In the eyes of the community, she was now as complicit in the crime as Rab Nawaz was. After sworn statements issued by both parties in the presence of the elders, confirming the fairness and completenss of the arbitration and decree, the assembly disbursed. A woman from the complainant’s family took Zubaida away.

The tribunal had been merciful; they had not insisted on a witness-led consummation of the sentence and nor had they demanded that Zubaida show her face at the council gathering.

Zubaida was locked up in a little room at the far end of the house she was brought to. She sat on the floor with her arms around her knees, rocking back and forth in the primitive rhythm of self consolation and comfort. Her thoughts were mercifully foggy, indistinct as she sat with her eyes closed. In the haze of her delirium and her innocence, she was waiting for the ultimate end; for someone to kill her in cold blood. For that was what the jirga had said justice looked like: an eye for an eye. She keened hoarsely, unaware of her low, anguished moans. She sat there through the night rocking and waiting, gripped in a relentless pall of dread. At dawn she finally slumped to the floor in an exhausted sleep.

She was woken up by the woman who had been at the tribunal. She had come in with some water and a dry roti. Zubaida looked at the roti* her mouth quivering, as a whole new flood of emotions overpowered her weary, drained body. For her just the sight of the meagre sustenance was a gesture of mercy, kindness and humanity; the smallest sign of hope where there had up to now, been only the wasteland of pain and imminent death. The icy grip around her heart loosened as she felt the tears roll down her face. Her heart burst. She looked at the woman, her body now racked with sobs that she couldn’t control; She cried in relief; she cried in despair; she cried in the great grief that was now hers to endure. She cried for everything that she had left behind. She cried until there were no more tears left to shed; until all her memories had left her; until she could close her eyes again and sleep.

Muhammad Adil, the runaway girl’s brother had come back from the city two days after the meeting of the tribunal. The family had been waiting for their first born to deliver on the justice ordained by the jirga*; to inflict a purging, a punishment that would duteously avenge their sullied honour. The girl would be stripped of her virtue and her modesty. Muhammad Adil would perform the “honour revenge”. After that she would be sent back to her family. They had no use nor any place for tainted women in their home. Let her own family grapple with the consequences of a fallen daughter.

For Muhammad Adil’s family, their own daughter was now dead. She had died the day she had broken through the protective, respectable safeguards of their home, and eloped. And so, Zubaida was raped by Muhammad Adil and two other men in the family over three days, in line with the mourning period for the dead. They were a God-fearing family and would do only what was necessary to reclaim their honour as was ordained by their sacred, long standing beliefs: One fallen daughter avenged by violating the innocent body and spirit of another. An eye for an eye. The entire act of retribution was intertwined with faith and justice as they took turns punishing their “perpetrator”. For that was what Zubaida now was; in their eyes and in the eyes of all their ancestral, patriarchal and time-honoured laws and traditions. After justice was exacted, she was put on a bus for her hometown in Hasilpur.

Zubaida sat in the bus, a serene, calm woman. She had been dragged to hell and she had found her way back to the land of the living. Through her nightmare, she had found a supernormal source of strength and a determination that had saved her and sustained her, and that now shone like an aura around her. She had survived; she would endure.

It was a bittersweet homecoming of the middle child of their family. Haq Nawaz was glad that she was alive but couldn’t in all the wisdom bequeathed to him by his forefathers, find solace in Zubaida being back home. That never happened in these tragedies; the girl necessarily sacrificed herself – one way or another. And here she was, alive and even happy. No, it was not happiness … it was more, an unnerving, chilling resolve in her face. He was afraid of his own daughter and the few times that they did speak, he couldn’t bring himself to look at her. Zubaida’s mother, with her fount of affection borne of always protecting, giving and sacrificing for her children, was less ambivalent. She held her daughter close to her for many moments. Zubaida had come back and that was God’s will. But she was also acutely aware of the will of the men around her. And their single mindedness many times superseded the tenets of faith. They would not let her daughter live in peace. They would not let the family be in peace.

Zubaida sat outside on the manji* with her parents and her sister. She was looking into their faces reaching within herself for some emotion, some joy or relief. She found none. Her parents now seemed old, wretched and diminished by life and the choices they had made. She felt nothing at being reunited with them or her sister.

Yousuf came home a few hours later. Instinctively and unabashedly he hugged his sister. She held him gently and then smiled at her beloved brother. It was the only time she had felt a vestigial wave of warmth wash over her since she’d arrived.

Yousuf gazed at his beloved sister with affection and even a little awe. She looked thoughtfully back at the face that she’d loved so dearly for the past ten years. This boy, her little brother, was the scion of their homestead. He was destined to perpetuate the family name and with it, all the norms, the cruelty and the tragedy that came with being a man in their community. He could so easily be another Rab Nawaz or Mohammad Adil …

A mass of contradictory emotions rose in her chest and then settled into nothingness. She looked away from those eyes full of inquiry and concern, unable to respond in the language of the soul. There was nothing left there anymore either.

Despite old world traditions and the sinewy tribal pillars of revenge and retribution, the world had grown smaller even for the feudal communities, who sometimes successfully as in Zubaida’s case, and other times falteringly and failingly, lived according to the exacting traditions of their forefathers. And so, in Zubaida’s case too, the story could not be secretly and utterly relegated to the annuls of tribal lore, as it meandered its way to the press and then to social media. There was a flurry of outrage and offers of assistance that ricocheted in the ether, not very much of which spilled out into the real world. Help in fact, came from an unexpected quarter: the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organisation (MMWWO). Mukhtaran Mai*, that shadowy figure who was only ever talked of in hushed tones, had now inadvertently become Zubaida’s larger than life superhero.

Six months after her ordeal, Zubaida was whisked away one last time from her parents’ home. This time however, she chose to leave. She’d been offered shelter at the MMWWO and in the wake of her matriculation exam, the opportunity to pursue a vocation of her choice in Lahore. The universe was finally responding in ways that she could understand and take advantage of.

She looked at the enrolment form that she had been filling, her pen poised over the signature line, and finally signed it “Zubaida Bibi”. Like her new mentor, she too was discarding burdensome last names. In a world which had done away with all the familial bonds of love, protection and nurturing that last names were meant to embody, it now seemed a superfluous and deceptive affectation.

She was glad to be in the real world. Buffeted as it was with trials and tribulations, it would also give her the chance to be the mistress of her own fate. She had lost her innocence but also with it, her deluded visions of a world that was never going to be kind to her. It would be real however, and she would get her own stab at levelling out the odds that were thrown at her.

And for now, that was sufficient.

* Roti: a round flatbread native to the Indian subcontinent, usually made from stoneground whole wheat flour.

* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.

* Charpai or Manji: A traditional woven bed used across South Asia.

* Mukhtaran Mai: a Pakistani human rights activist. In June 2002, Māī was the victim of a gang-rape sanctioned by a tribal council of the local Mastoi Baloch clan, as a form of 'honour revenge'.

SHORT STORY| THE SINS OF OUR FATHERS – Part One

Zubaida looked into the little mirror that hung on a nail on the otherwise bare wall of the room. She took a bit of kohl on her little finger and applied it on her lower eyelids. She thought for a moment of putting a bit of rouge on her lips but decided against it. Her mother would have her take it off anyway. It was 6 O’ clock in the morning of a special day today. She and twenty five other girls from her school who had only last week sat for the last paper of their matriculation exam, were going on a trip. It was the traditional annual outing for the graduating class to a local historical or cultural site. Zubaida’s class was going to Uch Sharif, a holy city that had been a regional metropolitan centre in the 12th and 17th centuries. It was renowned even in the present day for its centuries old historic shrines dedicated to Muslim mystics. Zubaida had been to Uch Sharif once before when she was five years old. The family – Zubaida, her parents and her seven year old sister, Arifa – had gone there to plead for the divine intervention of the Sufi saints for the blessing of a male child in the family. That was twelve years ago; she remembered little of the experience except that her mother had cried a lot and her father had not said a word until they got back home the next day. Uch Shrif was a four hour bus drive away from their home in Hasilpur*.

Ten year old Yousaf was waiting for his older sister when she emerged from their two room hut. It was a little more than a hut now after a concrete roof had been laid and a door fixed at the entrance. Their house had been a fond and arduous labor of love for the last fifteen years now, belied less and less by the outer facade and more and more by the state inside: The mud floor had caved in at various places creating hazardous little potholes across the 20 foot space; the two jute charpais* needed to be restrung; the rest of the furniture sparse and meagre as it was, was also holding together only with Arifa and their mother’s constant deft machinations.

Yousaf slept outside in the courtyard with his father on the cotton manji* that also served as the seating arrangement for the family during meals and when visitors came over. At night, the two rooms of the house exclusively became the women’s quarters as was the norm when space was limited and children were growing up. Despite the distance between the sisters and the brother that was assiduously nurtured as they grew into adolescence, Yousaf had maintained a close and affectionate bond with Zubaida. He was still young enough to consider his sisters as more than just temporary family appendages that would be permanently severed in a few years. She was his unlikely but larger than life role model. Zubaida would read him stories about jinns*, flying castles and brave princes. He would listen enraptured and agog as she read out each tale with the expressive artistry of a professional story teller.

Yousuf himself couldn’t read no matter how hard he tried. The alphabets jumbled up in front of him sending him into a panic. He’d got beatings in class for his inability to tackle his Alif, bai, pai*. When he was eight, his father had pulled him out of school. As long as he could write his name, there really was no more need of an education. He would have his hands full dealing with life as a man of the house in a few years. Better to start educating him on that front than on the leadership qualities of Baba-e-Qaum* or the rousing poetry of Allama Iqbal*. Arifa too had not fared too well academically and was also taken out of school when she was twelve. She was now nineteen and engaged to be married to Zahoor Sipra. She was a good looking girl and the proposals had come in thickly over the last few years. Haq Nawaz was shrewd when it came to long term unions; whether it was letting out a part of his two acre land to share croppers or deciding on lucrative matches for his daughters. He had waited until Ghulam Sipra had sent a proposal for Arifa for his second son. Ghulam Sipra was a wealthy man with fifteen acres of land and cattle. The union would change their fortunes considerably. In time, he would buy a clerical position for Yousuf at one of the smaller Union council government offices in the district.

Arifa’s wedding was set for March of next year, just three months away. The little family nest egg was going to be wholly used for the occasion and its multitudinous expenses. A suitable match would be found for Zubaida too, sourced through the auspicious new prosperity and connections of by then, her well-married sister. Indeed, Arifa’s betrothal was a calculated all-out move from whence the blessed, bountiful turn in their fortunes would follow.

Zubaida emerged from the inner sanctums of their home and spied Yousuf awake and waiting for her to come out. She smiled at him and through force of habit, went to fix his hair and straighten out his bedraggled night shirt that was four sizes too big for him – a hand-me-down from their father. He looked at her with shining eyes speaking volumes in that one completely happy expression. Theirs was a language of the soul, spoken through the eyes and gentle smiles. That is how they shared their most profound thoughts such as they were in their little world – through expressions of wondrous excitement, great joy or boundless sorrow, transcending the constraints and inhibitions of words. She felt her little brother’s excitement for her; his innocent awe at the prospect of her big adventure. She grinned at him as she put on her green cotton dupatta and placed a bottle of water and some food for the journey into her school bag. She had 50 rupees with her that she’d collected over the last two occasions of Eid. She would bring back something for him from Uch Sharif; a little momento and some sohan halwa* which he loved.

Yousuf walked with her to the meeting point where the bus was supposed to pick up the girls from their neighbourhood and watched her embark on her exciting voyage to that magical place he had heard so much about. Uch Sharif was where the saints had called to him to be born as the son of Haq Nawaz … and he also believed, as the brother of Zubaida. Although he never said that last part out loud. Something in the way his sisters were connected to him and the family, the protected, guarded, almost secret way in which they existed, prevented him from saying things that related them to the saints. Those saints were powerful, free and revered by everyone, even the richest man in Hasilpur.

That evening a tired but happy Zubaida came home to tragedy and chaos. Rab Nawaz, her father’s brother, had run off with a girl from Rasulabad. It was not a matter that would be solved with any due diligence by the light-handed law enforcement. In such cases the local tribal council of the community rallied to serve justice in the age old ways of their forefathers. The laws of the state were soft and morally deficient, and had allowed too many brutes to escape unscathed. A Jirga* of the elders was convening in the morning to review the case and decide on the outcome.

A sullen, raw moon rose upon Haq Nawaz’s home that night, staring coldly into the little courtyard and through the curtains, into the rooms. It was not going to be a night of serenity or sleep.

* Hasilpur:  A city of 500,000 people situated between the Sutlej River and the Indian border, about a 100 km east of the district of Bahawalpur.

* Charpai or Manji: A traditional woven bed used across South Asia.

* Jinn: supernatural creatures in early pre-Islamic Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology.

* Alif, bai, pai: the ABCs of the Urdu language.

* Baba-e-Qaum: the title “Father of the Nation” given to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the first Governor General of Pakistan.

* Allama Iqbal: South Asian Muslim writer, philosopher, and politician, whose poetry and vision of a cultural and political ideal for the Muslims of British-ruled India animated the impulse for the creation of Pakistan.

* Eid: Muslim religious festivals celebrated twice a year.

* Sohan Halwa: A traditional dense, sweet confection that has been popular in South Asia since the Mughal era.

* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.

SHORT STORY|RIOTOUS LOVE – Part Two

Two weeks after Dharshini’s fall on the dance floor, the pain was gone along with any memory of it and all the wise resolutions made around preserving and safeguarding fragile body parts. Tuesday evening’s dance class was full of kinetic energy and impressive manoeuvres. Everyone had now been in the class for at least a month and even the most ungainly ones were showing glimmerings of talent; the improvements motivated by instructor infatuation and cheerful sociability were vast and pervasive. Dharshini had missed a fortnight of classes but she made up for lost time with her innate sense of rhythm, a natural vigor and the impetus of new love in her heart. So she danced and pranced and leaped around with wild abandon, taking many of her contemporaries by surprise; so much so that a number of times, the floor was left entirely to the explosive gymnastics of Dharshini and her gratified partner of the moment.

After class, while she was still wrapped in the warm glow of her recent exercise, Daniel approached her. He was happily surprised at her performance, he said. She was gifted. Dharshini smiled coyly and looked at him from deep, chocolate brown eyes surrounded by their fringe of thick lashes. Her undeniably superlative feature, her eyes were less windows to her soul and more her covert Weapon of Rapture. She blinked them, looking down and then up and then to one side, interspersing her optical guiles with little smiles and other enchanting expressions that left the object of her visual assault weak in the knees and short of breath. Daniel too capitulated under that focused bewitchery.

They went out to lunch twice and then finally to dinner. Dharshini had early on analysed the situation in minute detail and had decided that she would take this fabulous chance at romance. She had protected her tender heart for just such a once… twice … in a lifetime occasion. So for her, these meals and meet-ups were the steady, respectable progression to an ever lasting union. She was already feeling like a new woman; her old marriage now increasingly morphing into a burden that was best laid to rest at the earliest. She had thought about that aspect too. She would go about it civilly. There was no love lost in that equation as things stood right now; they were both in it because it was convenient and because they were partners in a shared business. She’d break off the marital ties but keep the business partnership going. She was shrewd enough to realize that while she would couple up with the new love of her life, it would be wise to remain the mistress of her own fortunes and the bills that came with it. Her husband was a practical man and wasn’t given to the egoistic bouts of anger and retribution that came so naturally to so many men concerning their women and their finances. After all, they’d been physically estranged for the last ten years and separated for the last eight. He would understand. She had invited Daniel over for dinner to her house the following evening. She had also asked her husband to come earlier that day to have a chat. She hadn’t explained any specifics; just that she wanted to run something by him. Both men had accepted their respective invitations.

Daniel was on the rebound. He had realized that when he began to respond to the advances of his most vivacious student – 57 year old Dharshini. The age difference notwithstanding, there was an almost predictable old-world doggedness with which this romance was progressing. He enjoyed her company immensely and felt the physical pull of her loveliness, but he was also acutely aware of his prevalent state of mind: He was loathe to commit to anything traditional or long term at the current time. He was footloose after years of being shackled in a loveless marriage and knew that he wanted to remain fancy free for a while. She was a good sort; a convent bred girl of conventional values. She was definitely not the sort you conscripted for your rebound shenanigans. And now she’d invited him over to her house – the ultimate gesture of commitment to a promising potential mate. Daniel sighed resignedly. He had to back off.

The next day, Dharshini got the text message an hour before her husband was due to arrive. It was simple and to the point. Daniel couldn’t make it for dinner; he was tied up somewhere. Also, he wanted to assure her that he was committed to their friendship but nothing more. He was sure that she already knew this but as a rule he liked to keep things above board and crystal clear for the benefit of all concerned. He hoped she had a good evening and that he looked forward to seeing her at the next dance class.

She looked at her phone for a long while, the screen darkening and then lighting up when she pressed on it, the words misting over and then reappearing alternately. At first she felt only numb; then injured and somewhat misled and betrayed. There was no anger however; just a strange sense of dejavu. Like she’d seen this pattern before; knew it from somewhere. In a disconnected, detached way, she’d visualized it play out numerous times before as she’d walked away from each one of her ardent entourage of devotees; only this time, she was at the receiving end. She blinked in disbelief and amazement and even managed to smile ruefully in a momentary pang of realisation and mortification.

She finally put the phone away and looked at her watch. Her husband would be here any minute now. They’d have some coffee and she would ask him if he was selling his grey Toyota Aqua. He had spoken of putting it on the market and it was time that she acquired a new carriage for herself.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/03/riotous-love-part-one/

SHORT STORY|RIOTOUS LOVE – Part One

Dharshini got into her red Honda Fit, wincing in pain. The visit to the orthopaedic specialist had become essential after a week of agony; her whole right leg throbbed like the devil! She knew she had weak knees, troublesome joints and yet, she’d whirled about that room like her behind was on fire! God! Hormones … or was it the lack of them … she thought wearily, the thrill and the motivation of that performance both now squatting in her head like large stupid birds, staring blandly at her. She grimaced as she gently pressed the accelerator, and drove into the Galle Road traffic.

Dharshini, known fondly and unfondly as Dharshi by her various circles of friends and frenemies was 57, bold and beautiful. The perfection marred, just as all sublime things tend to be, in this case, with osteoarthritic joints. Still, she carried herself with the easy confidence borne of almost always standing out in a room full of people. The occasions where she was upstaged, were few and summarily forgotten under dutiful bouts of social amnesia; both, by her and her coterie of cohorts. She was hands down, the alpha of her group, a fact that nobody could deny or indeed, had the temerity to.

A month or so ago, Dharshini had signed up for social dancing classes. She’d heard rumblings of this venue of perspiration and contortions being the place to meet “Good” people. “Eligible” was of course not what she was looking for; after all she was a married woman. Not entirely happily, and not quite cohabiting with her somewhat estranged spouse, but still to all intents and purposes, secured in sacred wedlock. That fact had been conveniently relevant thus far in keeping at bay, the droves of ill suited middle aged and senior hopefuls who constantly vied for her hand and her heart. She had developed a rejection strategy all her own: with every new admirer, although she knew from the outset how it would end, she would only gently, gradually pass on that knowledge to him; after exacting a few lunches, a trip or two for herself and her girl friends and maybe even a bauble or two, in at least silver. It was a sweet, harmless enterprise she always thought coyly, where both parties benefited. She was not one given to dwelling on the aftermath of a broken heart; her moral due diligence ended with her making it resoundingly clear at some point, that she was only ever a friend. And that even if there was some misunderstanding that she hoped that her most recently crushed courter had enjoyed their camaraderie and that they’d continue to be genial with each other. She’d bestow her most beatific smile and come away contented and cheerful, warm in the glow of a problem solved and her moral compass pointing truly heavenwards.

It was on the Dance floor – that battlefield of laborious leg work and fitful grace, that she’d met Danny. A 45 year old divorcee, Daniel had recently moved back to Sri Lanka after a 10 year stint at marriage and business in Brisbane, Australia. Both had come crashing around him about a year ago. He’d decided then that home was where the heart really was and had, bag, baggage and a dog, returned to his hometown of Colombo. He had always loved dancing and was quite consummately professional at executing the lusty, physical moves of the salsa, bachata and the waltz. In an effort to forget the last decade, he plunged into everything that had defined him before he moved abroad and that ironically, went against many of his predilections now. And so, one of the first things he’d done was to sign up as an instructor at his old social dancing school. A decade ago, he’d been one of their more popular teachers with an avid throng of female admirers who were obliged by their fluttering hearts to sign up as students too. It was a lucrative scheme for dashing Danny and a two hour theatre of titillation and thrills for the dancing brigade. Danny had in fact, met his ex-wife at that very school. She had no talent for the Waltz but had sure-footedly danced her way into his heart. That was really the only time they had ever danced for the sheer pleasure of it. After matrimony settled them into its no-nonsense folds, she realized that she quite despised the art form and he realized with some alarm and then resignation that that fact was the least of his marital woes.

Like the other women, Dharshini too had found herself responding to the agile charms of her dance instructor. He had, on more than a few occasions, taken her as his partner to demonstrate to the rest of the class, a particularly complex move full of wild, rousing acrobatics. She came away from these twists and spins breathless and reddened with exertion and excitement. She was sure he too felt his heart strings being jiggled and jostled in all that animated physicality and closeness. He was different though. He wasn’t smiling too readily at her; or babbling; or otherwise showing any signs of being under the influence of her enchantment and allure. Traditionally she was the pursued and the besotted men did all the labour-intensive pursuing. He was congenial but just distant enough to show that he was in control of the situation and if this … this thing… had to go anywhere, it was for her to make the first move. This realisation was both heady and new. She had smiled to herself. There was something else that was new here too: her heart after ages, was beating for someone else!

And so Dharshini had thrown herself into her Salsa and Bacahata lessons, three times a week. A fortnight into the enterprise, she had slipped and fallen on the tiled floor, landing directly on her knees. In the heat of the moment and in the insular glow that now surrounded her at every class, she didn’t feel the pain nor the ominous creaking of her joints every time she bent her knees or leaped deer-like out of her partner’s arms onto the hard floor. She went to bed in a haze of contentment and love. She even felt a random gentle wave of affection rise for all her other unfortunate suitors who had gone their own way. I hope they’re all happy just as I am, she’d thought charitably, big-heartedly. And with that she drifted off into a dreamless, restful sleep.

‘Why was I jumping like a monkey on steroids? Why? Why?’ Dharshini complained bitterly to Sabeena on the phone the next morning. Her mid morning phone chats with one or another of her friends marked the start of every day. She always came away feeling invigorated, light of load and rearing to get on with the rest of her day. Sabeena too came away from the phone call, her inner calm now quite shattered by the torturous raving and ranting of her bossy but well-meaning friend.

The morning after her fall, Dharshini hadn’t been able to bend her right knee at all, and had thought it was best if she stayed in bed. These restful, placatory measures had often worked when her joints occasionally rebelled in the tropical rains and humidity. This was the first time, however, that she’d subjected them to such pounding, ceaseless torture. For two whole weeks! They were obviously going to act like petulant, griping grande dames. For Dharshini, her ankles and her knees were like a twinsome of spinsterly companions that had set up permanent residence on her person. While everything else felt youthful and sprightly, these joints never matched up. They creaked and complained at the slightest intrusion of weather or activity and it took large doses of rest and relaxation to get their grumbling soreness to settle.

The pain had not subsided even after a week of missing classes and tending to her knees. She had finally decided to see her orthopaedic specialist. The doctor and she shared a love-hate relationship on behalf of her joints which he quite practically considered his wards too. He knew that Dharshini only ever came to him when things had gone from bad to worse and when he’d have to resort to strongly advising, cajoling and then threatening, to have her be more compliant. She knew that the good doctor meant well but he was always so grim and pessimistic; always making her feel old and doddery.

‘Mrs. Gunaratne, have you been trying to run relays lately?’ he asked feeling her swollen right knee. She grimaced and mumbled something unintelligible. The universe and he both knew what she meant.

‘You have weak joints Mrs. G. There is hardly any cartilage left in your right knee and the gel* injections are soon going to be insufficient to keep it going. It’s knee replacement surgery for you if this goes on’, he said darkly but also with some satisfaction. He was really quite at his wits end with patients like Mrs. Gunaratne who refused to take supplements, had congenital osteoarthritis and were always up to some joint-jarring misadventure.

‘Doctor Herath, please just give me the injection and I promise to take the pills. I have to go soon. I have another appointment’, Dharshini said somewhat testily. But not too aggressively. He was after all the best orthopaedic surgeon in town. And when it was absolutely necessary, he would be the one to endow her with a set of new knees. She always balked at the idea of surgery and not even the prospect of agreeable, maiden knees could dispel her horror of the surgeon’s scalpel.

* Gel injections: One of the more effective treatments for arthritis is gel knee shots — also referred to as viscosupplementation or hyaluronic acid injections.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/05/riotous-love-part-two/

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/

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