NOW AVAILABLE IN PAKISTAN! “The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta and Other Stories”

Dear friends and family,

“The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta and other Stories” and “Curious Animals…” are NOW AVAILABLE IN PAKISTAN at the following locations:

LIBERTY BOOKS at all their locations in KARACHI and LAHORE

PARAMOUNT BOOKS in KARACHI (Main bookstore at PECHS and the Agha Khan bookstore)
Paramount Books in FAISALABAD and in ISLAMABAD

ORDER YOUR BOOKS ONLINE AT:

http://libertybooks.com and

https://paramountbooks.com.pk/

Do get your copies; and do let me know what you think 🤓

Here’s to Reading, Dreaming and Becoming 🌸

https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSdSbbFuA/

VERSE | NO THANK YOU

“I love you and only you
You fill my heart in every way
I will be but a shell if you
Call it quits and leave me some day”
Said the man with the twisted lips
As he held her close, hands on her hips
He’d done this a lot and then changed gears
The words felt absurd even to his own ears.

She looked into eyes that were gleaming with fire
Was it hope, was it love, was it lustful desire?
The three entities then followed behind
As she walked into the space of her heart and her mind
There she sat them down, the judicious sleuth
And looked into their faces now lit up with truth
Hope sat there wilted, there was hardly a trace
Of sincerity and faith on its mottled face
Love was like a wraith of its radiant self
Like old dust that had drifted off of the shelf
Smouldering away in the furthest corner
With sly little tentacles sat covetous Desire
It looked at her trying to hide its true hues
But in the light of the soul that was hard to do.

She lifted the heavy hands from her hips
Bestowed a smile from her beautiful lips
“I suppose I should say a heartfelt thank you
But I won’t; those words, they just don’t ring true”.

SHORT STORY | THE FALL – (A Prequel)

T = 0

December 24th, 2022

Despite its inherent catastrophic nature, the end had come quickly, almost mechanically. Its very swiftness had robbed it of the tragedy and chaos that usually accompany annihilation events. Some say it had started with the largely unnotable skirmish on the Russo-Ukrainian border. President Putin had fallen gravely ill at about the same time. His infirmity somehow catalysed the inscrutable little exchange of fire into an all out war as Russian troops marched belligenterlty into Kyiv. At about the same time, there was a devastating tsunami that whipped up in the Indian Ocean, a formidable ghost of its 2004 predecessor. The deluge ravaged twenty countries across Asia and East Africa in its deadly wake. In the space of a week, half the world had gone into emergency mode. The other half watched in a stupor of pandemic fatigue even as the new horrors unravelled. Two days after the tsunami, the Ukrainian troops fell to the wayside. No blood was shed, no words were spoken, no flags were raised or lowered. The invaders and the invaded sat together watching the world fall to pieces around them.

That is when she had come; the Mind-bender as she came to be called: Arfaana, a 35 year old woman who had until recently also been a mother of two. She had walked into Lafayette Square in Washington DC and screamed. She had screamed until she couldn’t scream anymore. And then she had wailed, her rhythmical moans echoing like the tolling of a doomsday bell. People had stopped in their tracks frozen. At first. And then something extraordinary had happened. There are many versions of the event but they all agree that somehow in that moment of tremendous anguish and pain, humanity had connected. At some combined cosmic and primitive level, the energy across the square had come together and found a harmony of purpose.

There was an almost communal climax of wretchedness and despair as one and all, the people had screamed and bellowed and wailed until there was not one unbruised throat left in the square. Arfaana had walked into the Capitol building then, her eyes wet and blazing at the same time; propelled onwards by a force of over five thousand strong. There she had spoken to silent, awestruck law makers and executors of the Republic. They had listened when she had called for the laying down of all arms; of creating a colourblind society; of sharing the world’s resources with all; of de-weaponizing the world. They had heard her speak of a new community, built on the vestiges of humanity that still remained in their current world. They say, Arfaana, the first Wise One, had summarily robbed them of their will that day. She had bent their minds to her way. Everything had changed after that. In a bizarre balancing act following The Fall that was marked with such colossal swells of angst and pain, the societal shift had happened quickly, almost mechanically.

T + 10 years

December 24th, 2032

Arfaana sat in the Discourse Room in Serenity Dome 1, in Washington. These safe havens had mushroomed after The Fall and now mainly housed within their impregnable, tranquil cores, the women of the planet. She had just had news that the two thousandth dome had been erected, this one in Lahore Pakistan. She had called her contemporary in South Asia to congratulate her on the milestone. The fissure in the Subcontinental patriarchal structures had been one of the hardest to make. But when the women had risen, the change again had been swift and mechanical. Hotels and guest houses had been converted to makeshift shelters for women across the subcontinental land mass. Ultimately, heritage buildings had been commandeered and lovingly converted into the very first Serenity Domes. There the female collective had regrouped and reformed their communities, one troublesome, caustic law at a time. It had taken the better part of the last decade to purge the South Asian society of its ingrained psyche of male privilege. From the roti seller* at the tandoor* to the testosterone driven CEO in his boardroom, they had all had to relearn the new ethos. There had been countless incarcerations as age old gender roles battled in the new environment. Many of the men had been “shifted” to shanty towns just outside city limits. These meandering, heaving masses of corrugated iron roofs, scrap material and sheets of plastic had burgeoned and blustered for years with the full might of the patriarchy.

In the sixth year of The Fall, the slum population had evened out and by the eighth year, it was finally in decline. Mindsets had been changed; the new norms had been learnt one bitter lesson at a time. There were still the odd ragtag bands of ex-society men who had refused to assimilate and who still blew off steam by plastering city squares with old world propaganda. The Wise Ones took a largely tolerant view of these muscle flexing shenanigans, letting the idiots tell their now obsolete “tales full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”(1). The adage adapted from old world literature had become their mainstream maternal approach. Indeed, the Wise Ones made every effort towards non-violence. They knew that their primary focus needed to be the new generation of men and women across the globe. They would be brought up with new codes of morality, community and awareness. They would be the ultimately balanced beings – both genders at ease with their masculine and their feminine sides.

By the fifth year, another epic milestone was achieved – planet-wide nuclear disarmament. By the eighth year of The Fall, global military spending had been reduced to less than 0.3% of world GDP. The planet was recovering in big and small ways as fossil fuels were steadily replaced with alternative forms of energy. By the end of a decade of the event, as resources were redistributed, lifestyles across the globe had become more or less consistent – typified by the western middle class before The Fall.

It had been a momentous journey of the mind, the heart and the will, thought Arfaana as she emerged from her musing. The women had finally triumphed! This last thought crossed her mind with almost academic stridency, repeated as it had been at so many pivotal moments in the last ten years. She paused, just for a moment. The slightest of pauses for a twinkling of a moment. And yet, in that tiny instance something had taken fledgling root. An awareness of imbalance; a new kind of an imbalance. Earth was transforming into the proverbial Venus. Hidden in that romantic confluence were dark shadows, whispering their own doomsday songs. Songs of a new, belligerent, unsound matriarchy.

Arfaana blinked, willing away the disturbing thoughts that were now crowding at the very edges of her mind. She knew these unsummoned visitors would bide their time, until they had gathered in their vastness aided by that formidable Truth teller, her Intuition. Arfaana rallied. They, the women had changed the world, one rotting, crumbling societal edifice at a time. They were saving the very humanity of human beings. They were building back compassion, harmony, cooperation and culture into their societies. They were building back better(2) … the hackneyed phrase from old world politics came stomping in, marching alongside her bolstering, purposeful train of thought. The hypocrisy, the bigotry and the irony that accompanied the catchphrase also came sashaying in, looking into her soul with their smug little faces. Venus Rising indeed! they seemed to say.

Arfaana picked up her com-set to call her Planning Manager. She wanted to make a change in the Earth and Science curriculum – the historical, mythical, science fictional allusions to Venus as anything but the second planet from the AM Star were to be omitted. There was still too much counter-matriarchal ammunition out there for the nay-sayers and the satire writers; their reformed world structure was still too new for such erratic emotionalism. The “Sun”, now called the AM Star had ceased to be called by its old name because of its masculine phonetics and the psycho-circularity of the word: Sun = Son = Sun. Venus too would be relegated to its astrophysical purity without the dubious romanticism given to it by old world patriarchy. One of the Wise Ones had said something about Earth too … even “earth” had begun to sound mannish.

They would have to revisit academic curricula around the world, review the very semantics of language itself, to purge it of its inherent masculinity.

Arfaana took a sip of her steaming mug of tea. She sat up and gazed into the distance, her determination strong and unwavering. Even if their new collective ethos was somewhat imperfect; even if their matriarchal restructuring sometimes seemed like barely cloaked knee jerk reactions to their gender-biased past, it was now the women’s turn.

* Roti-seller: Seller of Indian/ Pakistani flat bread.

* Tandoor: Also known as tannour it is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking. The tandoor is something of a transitional form between a makeshift earth oven and the horizontal-plane masonry oven.

(1): Quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

(2): The Build Back Better Plan was a legislative framework proposed by the 46th U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of his inauguration

SHORT STORY | THE FALL

The AM star was just peeping out over the horizon. Soon it would envelope all and sundry in its orange-blue glow. I woke up as the motorised blinds whooshed back into their dark recesses near the ceiling and a shimmering oval of light perched on the left side of my forehead like a glittery fascinator*. I kept my eyes closed, enjoying the blissful moments of just waking up, my senses treading the softness between complete wakefulness and dawn time dreams. I breathed in deeply, feeling the gentle warmth on the skin of my forehead. It caressed my scalp and then flowed down towards my extremities. I should have risen then; but I lingered in the afterglow, wiggling my toes to heighten the delicate sensations now leaving my body in undulating waves. Five minutes later when the AM rush had fully subsided, I opened my eyes. I smiled – widely. It was going to be a glorious day.

I live in a Bachelor Colony; we are the near-perfect males and also the genomic seed-sowers of Avartha – Earth as some of the old guard sometimes still refer to our planet. Earth, the old masculine term that has like a lot of other nomenclature on Avartha, been relegated to history books, a heated City Hall session and story-telling. We of the Bach-Col* help to keep the population flourishing together with the Double X-elences* of the Procreation Dome. The Bach-Col is a whimsical enclosure full of beautiful things, both natural and unnatural. We are constantly surrounded by serenity and comfort. And D~alliance – the testosterone-quelling drug that all residents of the Bach-Col receive when they came of age. It was what made Avartha great, the Wise Ones said. The Wise Ones knew exactly when each boy came of age, varied as the onslaught of puberty was across geographies and junior Bach-Cols. Nature despite being tamed for the most part, still made unpredictable leaps in transforming a boy to a man. Still, the mean coming of age in West Avartha was 12 years, 7 months. I had come of age on my 13th birthday.

I am meeting Ramiz. He lives in the Service colony. Early on, as an infant, in fact, barely a few weeks old he had tested positive for early onset dementia. The OmniEssence – that triumph of biotechnology, had passed her resounding verdict as she did with every male born on Avartha. And so Ramiz had been castrated as all non Bachelor Colony infant boys were. Ever since, he had been nurtured as Maintenance staff, a worker ant for the upkeep of the Procreation dome and the Bachelor Colonies. Little girls that were imperfect in big or small ways, however, became doctors, professors, writers, engineers, spiritualists and stateswomen. They dominated the world of learning, finance, politics and religion. The women in fact, all of them, now superintended the planet in one way or another. They were the Wise Ones.

I am meeting Ramiz today. We had met six months ago on my birthday when he was assigned to lead my party preparations. Bach-Col boys had grand birthday celebrations and even grander seeding day festivities. I had had eighteen of the former and two of the latter. Someone had dared me to dance with the ruggedly handsome Service boy, and I had. We had kissed that night. It had been beautiful then and in retrospect, also academically interesting. Service boys never kissed like that; they were not supposed to want to kiss. It was a revelation for both of us and had over time, morphed into what I would call Love. Ramiz called it “camaraderie”. I had laughed and he had blushed. We both knew he was trying to make it all seem kosher, mundane even, in the pervasive, criss crossing lines of the moral and physical rules that defined our world. We had met up every week since then; our love and camaraderie growing like star jasmine, brisk, strong and all-encompassing.

I am meeting Ramiz at the Ahyoka* lake just outside the city today. That has been our rendezvous point for the past four months after nearly being caught together in my quarters. Bach-Cols and Servicers* are not supposed to fraternise and they are certainly not supposed to be lovers. I had been surprised at how easy it had been to circumvent Avarthan laws outside city limits, and was often ruminative about why there were not more like us: Cross sectional couples; couples outside the Procreation Dome and the exacting laws that governed it. I always ceased my pondering beyond this point – the godesses did not need to eavesdrop on another mortal thought and warp it into yet another ruse to trip up Avarthakind*. So after short, mostly inadvertent forays into puzzlement and awe on the subject, I would retract, unhandling my thoughts and stashing them away into the secret little spaces of my mind.

I was supposed to meet Ramiz today. In the little sheltered recess two hundred paces westwards from the lake. He had not shown up. I had waited for over an hour and then headed to the Service Col. I had never been there before but I knew his quarter number. Room 42 was empty; like no one had lived there in a long time. I knocked on two of the adjoining quarters. Both Servicers seemed not to know Ramiz. How was it possible? How had he just vanished? How could he just cease to exist?

There was something else; something niggling at the edges of my mind. Everytime I tried to think of what could have happened to Ramiz, I lost my train of thought, the images scattering like hundreds of dandelion papas across the vastness of Avartha on a wayward breeze. I was puzzled and a little alarmed. But mostly puzzled. I was mildly anxious too because I didn’t feel the emotional whiplash of newly inflicted wounds or of broken dreams. In fact, I had felt more sadness when I had lost my favourite pair of boots to the hitch-hiking* fungus.

Back in my apartment, I put on the record player and lay down. The mind numbing melody of the “Infinite Improbability Drive”* thrummed through the room and my mind. I closed my eyes and fled into the familiar heart and mind space that music always took me to. I slowed down my breathing as I had been taught to do since I was four years old. I decelerated the rate of my inhalations to five a minute. My anxiety and my confusion subsided. Slowly, gradually I sank deeper into the restoring, enveloping clouds of my subconscious until I heard the comforting voice of the Wise speak:

“You are home. You are safe. You have learned. Thou shalt not covet anyone outside the Procreation Dome. Thou shalt remain pure of seed and spirit for Mother Avartha, the giver of life and the forger of destines. You are home. You are safe ….”

Read Part Two here: SHORT STORY | THE FALL – (A Prequel)

* Fascinator: A type of formal headwear, its function being purely ornamental.

* Bach-Col: Bachelor Colony

* Double X-elences: The women of Avartha who from time to time, gave birth in line with keeping the Avarthan population in healthy, burgeoning mode. Female DNA is made up of two X chromosomes and hence the term.

* Ahyoka: A female Cherokee name meaning “She brought happiness”

* Servicers: Males who had at birth, been diagnosed with some congenital flaw and were relegated to the positions of workmen and service staff across Avartha.


* Avarthakind: the people of Avartha.

* Hitch-hiking Fungus: Fungus that grows close to the ground transferring onto treading leather, canvas and rubber. Picked up by footwear, it moves from one place to another very much like a hitch-hiker and hence the term.

* Infinite Improbability Drive: part of the soundtrack from the 2005 movie “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, based on Douglas Adams’ book of the same title.

SHORT STORY | THE RELUCTANT JULIET – Part Three

(I)

The girls were finally on their way to hut number 76 in Hawks Bay. The beach itself remained a largely elusive thing even as their driver left the bustling highway and turned off towards the coast. The traffic was just as snarly as on the main road as six and eight wheeler goods transport vehicles plied a road that had seen better days at least fifty years ago. The girls were nevertheless agog. Every fleeting and lingering vista of the sea elicited an exclamation of happy surprise from both women. Even their driver, taken up with the enthusiasm of his passengers would point out an especially large swell just breaking on the coast, or a jagged rock hiding a structural pearl of some sort – hidden from prying eyes, opulent huts owned by the well heeled movers and shakers of the city nestled behind some of these precipitous facades.

They finally arrived at the designated hut, to all purposes looking quite deserted. When they got out of the car the first faint signs of life floated on the sea air from the front (or was it the back?) of the hut. It was Bhangra music; so the dance floor acrobatics had already begun Sophia thought with a grin. She herself was given to a more demure sashaying of a dancing evening, but Farina would be in her element! Her friend was already smiling and humming along with the Daler Mehndi tune wafting from the seafront. Her eyes were bright and in her mind Sophia was convinced, she was already bounding and cavorting with the wild abandon of a Bhangra caper. Sophia laughed – this was going to be a fun evening.

Sophia paid their driver for his transport as much as for his services as their tour guide. She had been assured by her friend Qasim that there would be more than enough cars and someone would be sure to give the girls a lift back to their hotel. The path to the front was dimly lit so that they had to pick their way carefully to avoid stumbling on the craggy ground – discretion was always the better part of valour when kicking up one’s heels, or otherwise revelling in an Islamic republic.

The scene at the seafront was like something out of fantasy folklore; a glittering wonderland. The front of the hut (which was situated at the back, away from public scrutiny and righteousness) was lit up with a thousand delicate fairy lights; some of them twinkled on and off while others waxed and waned delicately. The concrete patio was set up with a raised wooden platform that was the dance floor. Placed all around this platform were four seater tables and chairs. Each table was adorned with a tealite in gust-proof holders. They flickered mesmerisingly, throwing around huge shadows further away from the hut and smaller table-bound penumbras closer to the cabin. There were about fifty people milling around or sitting at the little white tables.

It was 8 O’ clock and less than half the guests had yet arrived. Sophia looked around for Qasim; he was nowhere to be seen. The girls then did what every out-of-towner does at the beach in Karachi – they went scrambling down the small precipice at the sea edge of the hut and onto the beach. They then took off their sneakers and dug their toes into the sand. Farina gave a little whoop of joy and rushed towards the gently foaming surf. Sophia, with her dread of creatures creeping in the dark, made more gingerly progress towards the rhapsodic call of the Arabian Sea. They soon realized that they were not the only ones ankle deep in the briny water; there were other seaside ingenues like themselves who were just as dazzled by the wizardry of the ocean.

‘Sophia! Sophia! Hi! Hey! Come back up!’ called a voice from the top of the precipice. Sophia turned away from the magical froth at her feet to the silhouette of a man standing on the promontory – it was Qasim. She waved at him and the two girls clambered back up to the top.

‘Welcome to Karachi madam!’ said a now smiling Qasim. She gave him a quick hug and introduced Farina whom he had heard about enough to know fairly well, but was meeting only just now.

‘Come, I want to introduce you to a few people’, he said and whisked them both off towards a corner of the fairytale patio.

‘Sophia, Farina, this is Samara, Tazeen, Asif and this is Uzair’

‘Everyone, this is Sophia and this is her doctor friend Farina!’ Qasim finished with a cheeky grin.

Sophia grimaced at Qasim – ever the joker! Farina cringed just a little before laughing out loudly, breaking through the awkwardness of that last bit. Proud as she was of her professional title, she hated being introduced as a doctor in social settings. She had, even in her short association with the title, seen how it prompted people’s baser instincts to surface; ranging from a fawning over their new doctor connection” to bombarding her with an inexhaustible roster of the many others in her field they intimately knew. She hated being a statistic, she had declared to Sophia, “that was bandied around as a flex” at social gatherings. Sophia, the quintessential introvert herself, understood the sentiment all too well.

Soon, the duo armed with glasses of orange juice, was dancing to western pop songs from the 80s, frequently peppered with a rousing tune from the subcontinental music scene. The dance floor that night, saw a bizarre mix of genres as the moonwalk was quickly followed by the high energy leaps and hops of the Bhangra which was followed by John Travolta’s evergreen Grease moves. There was a lot of laughter amid sky high spirits.

Half an hour later, Sophia found herself dancing with Uzair, a wide grin fixed on her face. She was vaguely aware of the fact that her facial muscles had been in stretched-out mode for the last twenty minutes and had been maintaining that exhausting protraction more or less of their own accord. She tried to reel in the smile, to pull her mouth together, but it continued to break out into a dimpled grin, taunting all her efforts at restraint. She looked at the glass of orange juice in her hand, wondering if she could possibly lay the blame for her giddiness elsewhere. But it was just plain old orange juice – sweet, citrusy and wholesome.

There is something to be said for the pure headiness of self suggestion. And so Sophia gave up her endeavours to sober up, allowing herself to be swept up on the wings of gaiety, euphoria … and new emotions. She remembered that she laughed a lot and was acutely aware of Uzair’s eyes on her. Farina who was dancing with a sprightly group nearby sensed the undercurrents with a barely concealed delight of her own, a voyeurystic thrill. She was also tripping on OJ* and on the gambolling winds that were carrying in all this surplus of good cheer from beyond the seaside horizon.

Sophia and Farina caught each other’s eyes at some point and laughed wildly. It was an interlude of intense emotions. whether it was delicate flirtation that seemed to surge into ardent courtship or a private little smile that swelled into crazy laughter.

At midnight, the spirited festivity mellowed as the bride and groom to-be entered upon the stage of the beach hut. They both had yellow flower wreaths of gladioli and marigold around their necks. The bride also wore ear rings and bracelets made of the same yellow blooms. She looked sweetly whimsical, a quirky hybrid of the east and the west as she sat in her jeans and t-shirt festooned with the flowers of the eastern bride-in-waiting.

Soon it was 3 O’ clock in the morning. But the party was far from over as the reveling crowd flowed in and out of the hut in constant waves, sometimes dancing and sometimes sitting, until another fabulous song came on. Sophia and Farina however, were done for the day. Drained and exhausted as the adrenaline rush of the last few hours slowed to the sluggish circadian rhythm typical of that late hour. A few carloads had just started to leave so the exodus although far from its mass had slowly begun. Sophia looked around for Qasim; he would know if one of the departing cars had space for the two girls to be dropped off at their hotel. He was sitting in a corner of the narrow veranda, surrounded by a group of low key revellers, crooning a zen-like medley ranging from the Vital Signs* to Frank Sinatra. Sophia stood at the periphery of this assemblage unsure of what to do. He was in the very middle of being the coincidental star of the evening and she was loathe to break that trance for him as much as for his smiling, humming swaying audience.

It was Farina who came up to her just then saying that she’d found someone who would give them a lift into the city. It was Uzair. He was going back with a friend he’d said, and since they had an otherwise empty car, would be happy to take the girls back to their hotel.

(II)

The next morning Sophia had a text message from Uzair: would she and Farina like to be shown around the city? He’d be more than glad to be their guide for the day. Also, there was the annual food bazaar being held at the Park Towers.

So many unexpected, inadvertent tour guides in the City by the Sea! thought Sophia laughing to herself, a smile of quiet pleasure settling itself on her face. Farina was excited at the prospect too, not only because in her ten months in the city, her experience of all noteworthy sights and sounds had been limited to within a 5 km radius of the hospital which was where she stayed as well, but also because there was the promise of being a first hand witness to a good old real life romance; titillating entertainment; seeing a brand new love story unfold (regardless of the ending) before her very eyes! She felt her own heart skip a beat much like it did when she read the old world romances of Georgette Heyer or the dazzlingly brazen love stories of Nora Roberts.

And so, a plan was firmed up and at noon, Uzair picked them up to show them around Karachi’s hotspots. As they drove around, or walked or sat in the winter sunshine, the conversation was easy and the mood was light; Sophia felt a warm little glow around her heart. She wondered once again, at the serenity with which she had acknowledged this fledgling beat of new emotions.

It was close to midnight when the girls got back to their room. It had been a marvellously eventful day, gratifying for both girls in their own ways: Sophia had allowed herself to go with the flow, experiencing a whole new sweep of feelings as Uzair gently wooed her. Farina had enjoyed watching the subtle courtship as much as she had relished their day of food and adventure. The combined mental and emotional exertion made up as it was of strange and new things had been intense. And so despite being suffused in a kind of exhausted elation as the glow of the day still clung to them, sleep came quickly and restfully.

(III)

‘He’s nice Sophie’, Farina said suddenly at breakfast the next morning.

Both girls had slept soundly and Sophia had dreamt. Copiously; towards dawn as she normally did. She wasn’t quite sure of the essence of those dreams, but she had dreamt and that meant something new was taking shape on the horizon.

She smiled at Farina, feeling herself flush.

‘Yes, he is’, she said, unwilling to outwardly commit more than that to the fickleness of the universe.

She wanted to share the latest text message from Amir Taurab with her best friend, as she always did. He had been the topic of many an exasperated, tragi-comedic conversation between them. She picked up her phone and opened up the message, immediately closing it. Something held her back this time. She didn’t trust the usual predictability or equanimity of her emotions this time. The truth was, she didn’t feel like the reluctant Juliet anymore. She felt herself flush again.

Yes, there were changes in the air; Sophia could sense them, smell them almost. The atoms ricocheting around her were carrying a new energy. In the wisdom that the universe sometimes bestows on her creatures, Sophia knew then that her serene acknowledgement of the situation was but the natural first act of stepping into altogether new shoes; changing her sensible flat pumps for peep-toe heels. She also knew cloaked in the same clear-thinking aura that when she was kind to herself on the precipice of a great change, the universe tended to be kinder too.

Smiling at Farina, Sophia picked up her mug of tea, and took a sip of the hot, soul uplifting brew. She looked out of the window at the lushness outside and then beyond into the sunlit horizon.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/19/winds-of-change-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/21/winds-of-change-part-two/

* OJ: orange juice

* Vital Signs: a Pakistani pop group famous in the 80s and the 90s.

SHORT STORY | THE RELUCTANT JULIET – Part Two

(I)

It has to be said here dear reader, that Sophia was not exactly a tomboy, but neither did she exude the ripe femininity of a femme fatale – she lacked the necessary airs and graces required for that delicate drama. Ironically however, it was this very lack of the obvious, the normative and the expected that made men hesitate and look again; to ponder for a while (for there was never any of the usual emotional agitation of new love urging them quickly on); and then to feel the brush of something oddly tender stir their hearts.

And so it was that despite not fitting the mould of the eastern debutante, a sizeable male demographic in Sophia’s circle of friends and acquaintances had at various times been in love with her or imagined they were in love with her. Many in the latter category, when they did look into the varying depths of their hearts where infatuations tend to swarm tumultuously about and realized that it wasn’t love after all, did a curious U-turn: From the fickle pursuers with the furtive motives, they morphed into almost belligerent beings; their attitude now towards Sophia one of self conscious nonchalance, bordering on brusqueness. It was indeed an emotional sluiceway of confounding vibes and vehemence that was directed towards her. She had in turn, in the interest of careful self preservation, developed an outer shell of hardened nacre: genial with all, friends with some but allowing no one within the inner sanctums of her heart.

To say that she left a trail of bruised hearts and tempers in her wake, would not be entirely true. For with her reticence to be coveted, she also brought a grace to all those unrequited overtures of love. Even when she was aware of a heart roving in her general vicinity, looking for a way into her auricles, she pretended not to see it scramble about; all the while maintaining an everyday sunniness that made it appear as if she was obtuse, blind even, to the iridescent hues of romance. So that the men, sincere and otherwise walked away with their dignity intact and their egos secure.

(II)

Sophia opened up the old samsonite suitcase, its well-worn and weather-beaten visage a reminder of its dutiful service to her father on his many business trips in and outside the country. Despite its toilsome age, it was yet, whole and undamaged. She dusted it off and started to pack for her trip to Karachi. She was going to attend a friend’s wedding in the City by the Sea.

Twenty minutes into her packing, Sophia sat on her bed for a minute to look at her phone. There was a message there from Amir Taurab – how he had got her personal mobile number is another entirely different tale of dogged determination and out of the purview of this story. But he had, and he had now sent his one careful message of the week; connecting with her in one way or another, all in the guise of inquiring about the state of his account or about one of the financial schemes of the bank. She sighed inwardly and opened the message:

Hello Sophia ji, I’ve been thinking for a very long time now and I wonder if you would go out for dinner with me. I am sorry if this message offends you, I did not meant for it to do that.

“Meant” for it to do that … Sophia’s Elf of Fastidium piped up in some corner of her brain while she read and re-read the message with her other self preserving nacreous part – the part reserved for intentional and incidental admirers. She was also aware now, of a third part of her brain that was watching all this piqued neural activity with a quiet interest; a calm, serene anticipation. She focused on this part of her sensibilities. Was she losing her self protective edge? Did she need to be this bullishly self preserving? Why had she given him her number? Did she want to be forever alone? Did she not want a companion? Sophia blinked as much with stupefaction as with the glimmers of a new realisation. She looked at the message again, ignoring the typo (she sincerely hoped it was a typo … why did she sincerely hope it was a typo?!), locked her phone with deliberate care and put it away, together with her bounding and rebounding thoughts. She needed to pack.

(III)

Sophia landed at the Quaid-e-Azam international airport in Karachi at 1 O’ clock in the afternoon. The big city bustle overwhelmed her as soon as she walked out of the Arrivals lounge into the bright sunlight of an otherwise cool December day. She was immediately mobbed by staff from the various taxi kiosks that lined the entirety of the wide corridor all the way to the parking lot. They were all talking as one, urging her to pick them! Pick me! Pick me! is all she heard as her jangled nerves negotiated through the shouting milieu. She craned her neck and finally spied the White Cabs stall a few feet down the corridor. She pushed her trolley purposefully onwards at which the frenzied crowd around her finally parted very much like the Red Sea did for Moses.

Forty five minutes later, she was at the front desk of the Avari hotel being checked into her room. She was going to pick up Farina – (Doctor Farina now!) – from the hospital in a couple of hours. She grinned happily. Farina was Sophia’s best friend. They had known each other since they’d first met at six years old in boarding school in the salubrious hills of Murree. They had spent ten years together under the tutelage and guardianship of Irish Catholic nuns until trained and mentored into upstanding young women, they were then handed back permanently into the care of their parents. Even though both girls had set themselves medical career goals in school, Sophia had gone on to do business studies while Farina was now doing her residency in general surgery at one of the leading university hospitals in Karachi. Their reunions were always effusive and joyous.

Sophia and Farina arrived at the hotel, surrounded by the cheerful air of shared confidences and humour, carried along as these are on endless streams of conversation and banter. There was going to be no more time today to continue to catch up over copious cups of tea like they usually did. As soon as they were back from the hospital, it was time to get ready for the pre-wedding party at the beach. Beach parties were still a novelty for both girls, having grown up in their various mountain and river bound cities. At 6 O’ clock, their rental car arrived to pick them up and drive them to Hawks Bay beach.

Sophia was looking forward to the evening not only because it was a long weekend away from work and that she would be spending it in the company of her best friend, but also because some secret little part of her heart had opened up just a tiny bit to experience new emotions in new ways amid a gamut of new and exciting possibilities.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/19/winds-of-change-part-one/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/24/the-reluctant-juliet-part-three/

SHORT STORY | THE RELUCTANT JULIET – Part One

The alarm went off like a screaming banshee, putting an end to Sophia’s dawn time dreams. She had chosen this whining, grating sound to wake up to when she’d got her new phone two years ago, and had kept it; like a sadistic reminder of the torturously early mornings that she had to endure. She sat up in bed trying to hold onto the fleeing threads of her early morning subconscious meanderings. These were the most lucid and memorable of her REM world of visions and omens, the two intuitive genres in which she had learnt to see them pan out, in some way, in her universe.

She got out of bed, the dysania* wrapping around her like a gnarly, leather cloak – impenetrable and rough until the first sips of her tea. And because she wasn’t a “morning person”, that blessed first cup was consumed not at home since she got up with just enough time to get ready in a petulant rush, but at the office. This meant that the brooding glower of the sleep-deprived followed her into the brightly lit portals of corporate enterprise. The tea boy however, was trained to perfection and was the only one really who had the temerity to smile at her while placing within five minutes of her arrival, a steaming mug of the revitalizing beverage in front of her. He would then watch with gratified concentration, as his brew slayed the shrew. The caffeine in the otherwise unremarkable tea blend would work its magic and Miss Sophia would then bestow her first smile of the day on him, the bearer of invigorating brews!

It was the middle of the month, the time when monthly deposit sales goals took on a manic urgency of delivery, wildly elevating the stress hormone levels across the entire Premier Banking floor. The collective cortisol deluge was enough to drown out all undercurrents of cheerfulness and most elements of grace. And it frequently did. Today however, Sophia at least, felt a lightheartedness: one of her customers (he’d been banking with her for a year now) had promised to transfer USD 250,000/- into his foreign currency account with the bank, that was also tagged to her as his relationship manager. That inflow would help to meet her Foreign Currency sales objectives nicely for the month. She allowed herself a little smile while she sipped on her tea, bequeathing it on one of the most critical staff at her workplace: Arshad, the tea boy, that concocter of blessed brews!

The world of Consumer Banking at the foreign banks in the urban centres was, by default, peopled with attractive young professionals mostly under the age of thirty. They were, most of them, graduates of foreign universities and carried themselves with the aplomb of corporate royalty; that imperial air only ever set aside for the rich, the famous and the hefty deposit deliverers. The aesthetic wisdom of this human resourcing, long ago vetted and abetted by the forefathers of the service industry, had played out most satisfactorily in the Pakistani market too. Comely countenances and pleasant demeanours had seen the bank through many a national financial crisis, process breakdown and personality foible. A smile, a gesture and a sashay of well heeled personal service have indeed, countless times worked their magic in smoothing ruffled tempers and preventing stinging letters of complaint being received at management levels or worse, by the banking ombudsman.

Sophia sipped on her third mug of tea of the day. Her lead generation calls were done and she was now at 3 O’ clock in the afternoon, waiting for Amir Taurab to come in and hand deliver the receipt from his remitting bank. He had insisted on giving her the largely superfluous document to ensure his weekly visit to see Sophia Zaidi was still professionally cloaked, thin as that veneer of business formality was. The truth was that Amir Taurab had fallen for his Relationship Manager and had over the last eleven months made every attempt to titillate, impress and win her over. But she was a different cup of tea; a rich high-grown infusion. She was a waif of a woman with the charisma of a queen, unaffected by the trivialities of wealth, good looks and social stature. Heck! He brought them all to the table in not entirely modest degrees either. She had responded genially enough but had kept him at arms length, ever polite, ever proper and oh ever so lovely!

Amir Taurab arrived at exactly 3.05 pm and sat directly across from Sophia’s work station so that if she looked up, she had no recourse but to lock eyes with him. He wore his dark glasses because he believed that they lent him a gravitas over and above the other aesthetics he naturally exuded. Sophia was busy with another client so he waited. The Floor Manager approached him (like she tiresomely always did!) and asked if she might help him. He politely declined (like he tirelessly always did) and said he would wait for Ms, Sophia to attend to him. He had a dull suspicion that his infatuation with his RM* had not gone unnoticed by the rest of her hawk-eyed colleagues.

By and by the object of his affection looked up and at him. He nodded in gracious acknowledgement.

Sophia filled in the term deposit form for another customer (he had been one of her first deposit customer when she had started out as a personal account officer three years ago). She glanced up to ask him about something on the form and looked right into the barely concealed, Rayban Wayfarer-darkened gaze of Amir sahib. God! He was so … indelicate about his feelings. He nodded at her in that strange ostrich like way, to which she dutifully responded with a small smile and a little nod of her own. She wished he’d back off; without taking offence or the entirety of his premier relationship off the bank’s books. It was a sensitive and sometimes stressful balancing act for the female staff at the bank: keeping impassioned admirers at bay, while showing just enough interest to keep them from absconding money bags and baggage.

Twenty minutes later the document was delivered and steaming cups of tea were being partaken of amid the usual banter:

Sophia: ‘Thank you Amir sahib. I’ll make sure to follow up on this remittance. It should be with us in seventy two hours at the latest’.

Amir Taurab: ‘Please call me Amir. The “sahib” makes it all so formal. Otherwise I’ll have to reciprocate with “Sophia ji”.’

Sophia: ‘It’s a bit unusual to do that Amir sahib. I hope you understand’.

A sweet smile; placatory dimpling: holding-on-to-the-deposit geniality. And yet again, for the hundredth time, the ruse of charm and amiability sat nicely between them, gratifying both, customer and Relationship Manager in their own particular ways.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/21/winds-of-change-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/24/the-reluctant-juliet-part-three/

* Dysania: the inability to wake up in the morning. A chronic difficulty in getting out of bed.

* RM: Relationship Manager

SHORT STORY|VELVET DREAMS – Part Two

(I)

It was Torturesome Thursday today. The day appointed for the once a week dinner at his father’s house; the house Saqib grew up in and one that he now felt an intense dislike for. But it was an obligatory chore set in stone by his domineering father. Only hospitalisation and out of town visits ever broke this constancy ritual. The old patriarch looked at him with the cold tenacity that had always made him writhe outwardly for all to see, and that he had now been able to turn inwards for his soul to witness only. He looked away as he always did, focusing on something else, willing his racing heart to slow down, to mimic the calmness that he had schooled his exterior to feign. To fake it till his jittery ventricles made it.

His mother sat like a sack of ripe potatoes as she always did, unfeeling, uncaring, uninterested. Growing up, he had blamed her for her stuporous attitude towards the well being of her children. Now, he understood that it was her way of protecting her sanity; the only weapon she had in her meagre armoury of defence against the titanic, intimidating, bullying persona of her husband. He watched her as she smiled at him wanly, crinkling up the corners of her otherwise dead eyes. She would have been a happy woman with someone else. With anyone else he thought.

He looked at Shuja who was sitting beside him and felt the familiar surge of quiet joy. He smiled despite the ritual Thursday evening cross currents. The warmth nestling in that corner of the dining room did not escape the allseeing eyes of Sikander Zaka as he focused his attention on the duo to his right.

“Have you started your Math tuition with Master Edwards?”, he asked his grandson who was digging with gusto into his chicken biryani.

Shuja looked up from his plate directly at his grandfather, “Dadaji, I told you I don’t want to do Math or Ad Math. I want to do graphic art and design. I want to work in textiles’.

He looked towards his father for a moment and added, ‘I want to explore interior design too. I want to beautify homes’.

Sikander Zaka Khan looked for a measured moment at his grandson and then turned the full force of his august stare on his 45 year old son. He expected him to intervene and put a stop to the nonsense his grandson was spewing. He expected him to shake his errant prodigy and drum some sense into his juvenile head. But Saqib did nothing of the sort. He sat there mutely. In his own tortured universe he was willing his son to understand, to know that there was no choice in the matter of his education or the career mapped out for him. At the very least, he was willing with all his might, for his son to not take on his grandfather. It never ended well.

When Saqib did not speak up, Sikander Zaka passed the irrefutable verdict himself.

“You will call the tutor and have him start coming in from next week. He needs to be on top of his game if he’s going to get into Imperial College London. The Zaka men have been going there for four generations. There will be no exception for the fifth. Get his head out of the clouds and start drilling some sense into him about his roots”.

‘Ji Abba’ was all Saqib managed to say. He felt his son’s eyes boring holes into his head. He couldn’t meet that gaze; that accusatory, disappointed, angry gaze directed at him by his beloved Shuja. He wished he had the courage to stand up to his father … to stand up for his son. But he didn’t. And now his own son was old enough to discern his cloying, wretched cowardice too. The boy for whom he had been a champion, a hero, was now seeing him without his cloak … without his clothes! He suddenly had the mad urge to laugh, to guffaw, to throw his hands into the air and shout. My cloak! My clothes! Without my clothes! But he didn’t. Instead he concentrated on the leg piece on his plate, meticulously dismembering it until all there remained was an odd looking creature in front of him. It wasn’t chicken anymore. It was his father’s accusing finger; his index digit that was pointing fixedly at him. He wanted to shatter it, annihilate it. And he did, as he grabbed it and broke it into two.

The sudden adrenaline rush of the defiance, limited as it was to duelling a drumstick, gave him the courage also to finally look towards his son again. Shuja who had so short a while ago been surrounded by a halo of wholesome, beautiful energy was now enveloped by the same dark and leaden patriarchal cloak that draped Roman godlike around the shoulders of his grandfather, and that bound his father like a strait jacket. Few Zaka men had been able to break through this mould of formidable authoritarianism, in both its capacities of executioner and the executed. And so it was that the maned lions of each generation took on the roles of family dictators while the rest contented themselves with the dubious luxury of privileged servitude. Until the great Sikander Zaka Khan was alive, Saqib was quite completely in the latter category and Shuja was being groomed to follow suit. There was only ever one maned lion in a Zaka pride.

(II)

Shuja had a younger sibling, a sister – little Serena. She was seven years old: still too young to sense the disturbing undercurrents of family politics, but old enough to know that she was a beautiful girl. Those ethereal looks were a resounding gift from her mother almost as if in compensation for everything else that was maternal and missing in their equation. The wet nurse who had been by Hina Zaka’s side during both births, had stayed on when Serena was born. To all intents and purposes, she was Serena’s caregiver and her emotional anchor. But this story is about the men in the Zaka family so that’s all there is to say in these lines, of the granddaughter of the house.

It has to be said here however, that the missing maternal link in Shuja and Serena’s case had nothing to do with Saqib as the family patriarch. It was more a tragedy of errors committed as it was by the elders of both families in their age old endeavours of growing their empires. To leave an ever burgeoning legacy of wealth and privilege for the boys who would be born and who would inherit the family crowns. Hina, at the time of her marriage had already been in a five year love affair. Saqib had a mild suspicion that it had since grown and settled into something that he couldn’t quite approach or touch. To all intents and purposes, there was no couplehood in their equation. There was however a sense of quiet harmony that was scrupulously maintained for the fickle eyes of the public and for the unsparing scrutiny of Sikander Zaka.

Saqib had graciously accepted the truth of things and had tried to be both parents to his children. It has to also be said that he had succeeded better with Shuja than he had with Serena.

(III)

The Monday following the Torturesome Thursday at his father’s house, Saqib called Master Edwards. He knew he should have made that phone call the very next day of his father’s austere instructions, but he had dragged his feet. Partly because he had been angry enough to dissent, the quiet mutiny lasting a whole three days, and also because he had seen the hurt in his boy’s eyes. He had seen something cracking and something else putting down gnarled tenacious roots. Was it resignation … rebellion… or… despair? He had not dwelled on the nervous, fearful quickening of his own heart as he swallowed the bile that had instantly risen to his throat.

Master Edwards was completely booked up but he would make the time – for Mr. Sikander’s sake. Everyone who was anyone made time for Sikander Zaka’s sake. The laws of the jungle were the same whether it was the creatures of the forest doing Sher Khan’s* bidding or the city’s rank and file acquiescing to Sikander Khan’s demands.

But the best laid plans – especially if they are executed with disheartenment and dread, do not always beget desired results. Sometimes the universe itself tires of the hypocrisy of men and calls them out with its own jarring, cosmic rattle. And so it came to pass that Master Edwards did come by on the following Tuesday at exactly 9 O’ clock in the evening. He was shown into the study to await the Zaka scion.

Shuja had come back from school that day and had closeted himself in his room. Annual exams were around the corner: those great dividers between those who would rise into the precious ranks of engineers and doctors and those who would not. The ruthless separators of the wheat from the chaff.

There was now an eerie quiet in the room. In the speckled light from the LED lit orb of the world, shadows danced across Shuja’s prone body. Skipping across his face and down his arms to his hands from which dripped gleaming streams of life. Silver and black shimmers that congealed into a dark void on the floor.

There was a scream and a bustle. Shuja’s ashen body was bundled up into the car and raced through the blood-staunching, life-saving portals of the nearest hospital.

A few hours later, the worst was over and Shuja had managed to choose a side. With the optimistic zeal of the young, he had decided to live. Saqib sat by his son’s side, a mixture of emotions ricocheting in the space where his heart used to be. It wasn’t there anymore he was sure. Not literally of course but in the profoundest ways that make one human, that make one a parent. He had during the last three hours even toyed with the idea of losing his beloved child and had felt a bizarre relief at the thought. Relief for Shuja’s ultimate release and for himself as a cowardly, paralysed father who could not support and safeguard his son. He had also felt guilt, searing shame, grief and resignation. But when his son had finally stirred, he had also felt a warm flood of love and a fierce sense of protection. And those emotions had stayed with him long after everything else had evaporated into the ether.

He would give Master Edwards a trite farewell. His services wouldn’t be required anymore. He would himself enroll his son into the Arts stream. They would look for the best colleges that offered the courses Shuja wanted to specialise in. He would help him set up his studio and his graphic design business. He would be his son’s biggest champion. He would take on the world for his precious first born. He would shout it out at Bungalow 77/1, in the old man’s study where the loudest decibels had always ever been just a whisper. He would tell his father that it was enough! That he wasn’t going to sacrifice his son’s happiness in his perverted path of warped legacies and conventions… he would appeal to his father’s better judgment … he would plead for his kindness …

He would beg him to release Shuja from the Zaka shackles.

Saqib looked at his sleeping son for a long time and then looked out of the window at the moon that was looking back at him like a sentinel cyclops. His revolutionary thoughts gradually stumbled, wavered and then fell limply like a wet flag. He knew he couldn’t do anything. The burden of the patriarchy was too formidable for him to challenge or negotiate with. Saqib hunched, once again occupying the modest space that he always had, and looked quietly at his son.

When Shuja was home, when he was well again, when he was happy and once again ensconced in his favourite velvet dream, he would, ever so gently, try to make him see sense.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/07/velvet-dreams-part-one/

* Sher Khan: Sher Khan is a fictional Bengal tiger and the main antagonist of Rudyard Kipling's “Jungle Book”

SHORT STORY | VELVET DREAMS – Part One

Saqib Zaka looked at the sheet of paper in his hands. He stared at the short pithy statements that descended down its length, as they looked back at him accusingly, tauntingly. There was some colour on the paper too – an angry red gash against three of the statements. Four-letter gashes in fact, that had blurred before his anxious scrutiny; FAIL they proclaimed loud enough for the whole universe to hear. Saqib shook his head slightly, willing away the buzzing swarm of desperate thoughts that were crowding out all sanity, dignity and even his ability to read. He looked at the transcript again and finally set the truth free: he had failed his pre-engineering exam, for the second time.

Thirty years hence, that memory had stuck to him like rust; constantly eating away at his calmness and purpose. He had tried, in his intrepid moments, to shake the constancy of the memory off, to replace it with the triumphs that had also since found their circuitous way to him. But the recollection and all its accompanying sinking, shrinking, benumbing sensations had prevailed like insidious tenants in the space of his mind.

Saqib sighed and looked around him. The imposing room that had been his father’s office and was now, by default, his, shimmered in the late afternoon light coming in through the window. Despite his best effort not to, his eyes came to rest on the canvas that hung on the wall directly opposite his desk. It was a complex piece of Gestural Abstract art which had hung in the stately room for at least the last twenty years. In its monochromatic palette of random splashes, he always saw a figure, broken down and disjointed reaching for the ground with such desperation that it was almost like he was willing the earth to swallow him whole; annihilate his whole existence. The hugeness of the canvas added to the enormity of hopelessness that spilt from it; flowing into the room like a constant, unending stream of emotional sludge. He hated the piece. And yet, it hung there smug and superior, intimidating and authoritative, alive and kicking. It was one of his father’s favourite pieces of art.

A knock at the door halted his mangled introspection. The rest of the day passed in a flurry of activity that slowly abated around 6 O’ clock. Saqib then picked up his Smythson Panama briefcase and headed for his car. His father would be in tomorrow. Over the last year, more and more, the reigns of the company had been shifted officiously, almost belligerently from father to son. Even so, Sikander Zaka Khan swept into the office once a week, taking everything by storm. It took a day for the dust to settle, while his own reputation as the able scion of the family business was depleted slowly but surely, like the helium escaping from a balloon that had the smallest of perforations in it. With each passing week, even the most stoic of Sikander Zaka and Son employees had seen the boss’s offspring for the chip of the old block that he was definitely not. Ever so gradually, almost imperceptibly, there had been a change in the organisational culture as boardroom debates became more lively, just short of being heated, and the ambient murmur of the executive floor rose a few, not unnoticeable decibels. Saqib had watched all this silently, knowing it was just another counter intuitive ploy by which his father was toughening him up for the role of CEO of one of the largest textile spinning units in Karachi.

While a myriad ungracious, unforgiving thoughts passed through his mind about his unemancipated state, Saqib was also keenly aware of how his Harrods Roquefort bread was buttered: he knew he lacked the rigour and the character for a regular corporate job. He couldn’t see himself slogging 9 to 5 with only thirty days of paid leave. If he was absolutely candid with himself, he knew also, that he didn’t have the requisite skill set either, armed even though he was with his Bachelors degree from the Imperial College London. The couple of Finance courses that he hadn’t quite cleared in the first go, were another echoing reminder of his failure. He knew that to live in the lap of luxury that he was used to, he would have to sacrifice his life choices to a considerable extent and his sense of self, quite entirely. If it had been up to him, he would have become an interior designer … moonlighting as a chef. He loved the aesthetics of furniture and food. He had singlehandedly furnished and decorated his beautiful home. The fact that his wife was quite happy to let him take the lead on all home improvement projects had helped considerably in helping to keep his heart where his home was. His glamorous home on Khayaban-e-Shamsheer was the envy of many a well heeled housewife with whom he readily and fondly shared his vast stores of knowledge, from the best upholsterer in town to the florist who had the freshest imported blooms. His home was indeed, a loving tribute to all his most precious and unrequited dreams.

“Hello Abu”, came the cracked voice from the lounge as Saqib opened the front door to his house. Despite the burden of his innermost thoughts that had today descended upon him like a flood, he smiled. Shuja was growing up and his body was being put to the age old test of the transition from boy to man. His voice had started to break a couple of months ago, a fact that had quickly become a point of many light hearted moments between father and son. He was sprawled on his favourite lounger, his PS4 controller in his hands. Father and son had picked the soft blue fabric for the sofa together and the reupholdstered seat had become Shuja’s favourite chair in the house. His Velvet Dream he had once called it. Saqib had smiled at the aptness of the name for the chair and also for his own secret little stash of them. Shuja was a good child. He was also very creative and talented. And brave. Saqib acknowledged this last characteristic with some trepidation. There was so much potential danger embodied in that attribute that he couldn’t quite bring himself to look upon it as a quality, a gift. With his unusually honed skill as an artist and his love of cooking, he was quite the apple of his father’s eye. And in the sanctity of his home, Saqib allowed his heart to swell with pleasure. He looked at his fourteen year old son, his eldest, with a mixture of pride and joy.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/08/velvet-dreams-part-two/

SHORT STORY | LOVE IN RAWALPINDI – Part Two

In late August Nighat met someone at a niece’s wedding; a retired colonel who, after ten years living abroad, had returned to spend his twilight years in the relative comfort of his family home in Pindi. At seventy, Dilawar Khan had already been a widower for the last twenty years, and his two grownup children were now settled in the US.

He had most serendipitously met this fascinating child-woman and was at once taken with her. Guided by the self assuredness of his ten socially liberated years in Boston, he let Nighat know during the course of that very evening, that he was quite definitely enamoured with her and would love to further pursue the sentiment. Nighat bewildered by such directness while also excited at the prospect of a new admirer, was a mass of blushing, toothy smiles and fidgety movements.

Her mother, blissfully unaware of her daughter’s encounter, was sitting among the other matriarchs who were critically analysing the scene in front of them, one minute detail at a time. Her younger brother however, had seen the exchange with some foreboding. He and his older brother had never been fond of imagining their mature sister “in love”. It was embarrassing and mildly shameful. They had therefore, in complete earnestness to not only preserve their male protector sensibilities but also the honour of their forefathers, always made sure that any dubious male advances made towards their sister were nipped squarely in the bud. That night he whispered of the episode into his mother’s erstwhile ears.

Nighat was given a dressing down fit for a rebellious teenager. In her mother’s eyes, the extra forty six odd years of age and experience that had piled onto her daughter since her sixteenth birthday, were meaningless in the harshness of the world. She needed to be reminded every so often that all this love shuv* was unbecoming of her; that she was too innocent to protect herself against the wily shenanigans of lusty army men – (they were a particular weakness with her simple minded daughter); and that her place was at her mother’s side – safe, companionless and respectable.

Nighat would have probably forgotten the entire unsavoury episode (for the ending full of maternal fire and brimstone, had killed off any ardent vibes she’d felt during the short encounter), had it not been for a text message that she got a month later. It was from Dilawar Khan.

Her heart had beaten just a tad too wildly as she sat in her Vice Prinicpal office. She had cancelled the meeting she was scheduled to have with a member of the Punjab Text book board and had spent the afternoon mulling over things. How had he got her number she wondered with a little thrill in her heart. He must truly have feelings for her if he had taken the trouble to track her down she thought. Was it right even to respond to him, a seventy year old man she thought with the caution of the underaged, the reticence of the discerning minor who’s aware of being propositioned by a not altogether respectable adult. Somewhere in her mind, there was also a grown up voice that was countering all these adolescent qualms: You’re a sixty one year old woman; you can take care of yourself. He must really be interested in you to have managed to get your number. Write back to him.

And so she did, igniting the sparks of a relationship that had all the classic, wholesome elements, but which in the loving hands of family, could also annihilate her and any remaining love shuv in her heart. It was delicate, eggshell ground that she would be treading on.

After a fortnight of texting back and forth and one clumsy attempt at a video call, made as it was in the dead of night out on her terrace to the accompaniment of the neighbourhood mongrels baying at the full moon (or another wretched dog day), they had decided to meet. Nighat had wisely surmised that it would be best if the meeting was clandestine and attempted in the early hours of the morning. Her morning walk was the perfect camouflage for this rendezvous and for the many others that would follow she hoped. And so they met on an Autumn morning at the F9 park in Islamabad, far enough away from Pindi based nosy neighbours and watchful family members. It was 5.30 in the morning and the sun was just winking over the horizon. There was a gleeful nip in the air, as it sent shivers down Nighat’s spine and played hide and seek with her chiffon dupatta. Dilawar Khan had come dressed in his track pants and a light sweater. He had on a cream pakol* that hugged his head snugly, and was thus by and large impervious to the frolicsome cupidity of the morning breeze. They met at the third bench from the entrance: close enough to catch sight of one another entering the park and far enough away from the groggily prying eyes of gate security and the handful of other dawn perambulators.

They walked in silence for about ten minutes, seeming to the casual passerby, a mature, long time couple out on their regular morning walk, lost in their own worlds. But Nighat was lost for words, mainly because it had been a while since she had last had a paramour to exchange sweet nothings with at the rosy break of day, and also because her dupatta kept flying up, covering her face and gagging her everytime she opened her mouth to say something. Dilawar Khan was gallantly waiting for the object of his affection to utter the first sentence of their maiden date.

“Why don’t you tie this down by your side?’ said a now smiling Dilawar as he watched Nighat’s ineffective endeavours to bring her dupatta to heel.

‘Yes! Yes…. That’s a good idea!’, responded his ever so slightly flushed and agitated female companion.

With the dupatta issue resolved, they began to finally talk. Easy, effortless conversation flowed during their hour long walk. By 6.30, sunlight had flooded every nook and cranny of the park, warming all its creature denizens and visitors. On their way back, Dilawar Khan stopped Nighat at the fifth bench from the entrance, far enough away from all eyes, took her hand and gently kissed it.

They met up for a month of morning walks after that. Nighat lost five kilograms over the next six weeks, not so much from her diligent seven day a week physical exertion as from the appetite suppressing effects of new love. Her mother was happy to see her looking after herself. The usually carelessly ministered to greys in her daughters thick hair that she so often chided her for, now reposed in a constant cloak of blue-blackness. Her daughter was looking younger in fact; she was glowing. Her mother also glowed in her daughter’s singular contentment and healthfulness.

Dilawar Khan was a shrewd and practical man who had learnt through his own trials and tribulations that it was sometimes best to let sleeping dogs lie. And he advised Nighat as much when she spoke of disturbing her mother’s bliss of ignorance about them. He had gleaned enough about her through their conversations to know that informing the matriarch would not only needlessly antagonise and upset her but would most definitely also put a resounding end to their happily budding love affair. It was best to keep it between themselves while making every effort in their individual life spaces, to find opportunities for spending more time together.

Nighat mulled over this deception. She had always told her mother everything that affected her life in consequnetial and in trivial ways. And her mother had always advised her … no, expected her to obey her ironclad ethos of widowhood that she had chosen for herself and the virtuous spinsterhood that she’d elected for her daughter. She felt a small twinge of resentment as episodes big and small flitted through her mind where her mother had left her bereft emotionally and mentally. For the first time in her life, Nighat decided she would make a decision for herself, by herself . Even so, many times over the course of the next few months, Nighat was assailed by occasional waves of contrition followed by the urgent urge to divulge. Both fragilities came upon her together leaving her anxious and stressed out. But her wonderful new reality always managed to appease her guilt. With time, and the urbane influence of her partner, she came to accept her sovereignty over her own thoughts and actions; and also over her love life.

It has now been ten years since Nighat and Dilawar first met, and five years since they made their relationship public and licensed – (they graciously waited until after the matriarch went to meet her maker).

So if you ever find yourself undertaking a dawn time ramble at the F9 park – the views of the Margala hills are always spectacular – and you see two seniors, a giggly woman and a smiling man, you may have just chanced upon one of the most triumphant love affairs of the city.

* Love Shuv: Urdu/ Hindi colloquialism to show a disparagement for the sentiment of love.

* Pakol: A soft round-topped men's hat, typically of wool and found in any of a variety of earthy colors: brown, black, grey, ivory or dyed red using walnut. It is also known as the Chitrali cap after Chitral, where it is believed to have originated.


Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/06/love-in-rawalpindi-part-one/

SHORT STORY | LOVE IN RAWALPINDI – Part One

LISTEN TO AN EXCERPT BEING READ AT: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSdRVkkeJ/?k=1

Nighat pumped the accelerator and the clutch in frustration. The traffic on Murree road at this time was absolutely crazy. The end-of-school rush was upon everyone and it was mostly the hapless parents or their designated drivers who were on the road at this time. The only other people who dared to brave the snaking snags of congestion were responding to some emergency which only the Murree road route could resolve or, like herself, had been struck by temporary insanity. Her mother had even told her not to venture out at 1.30 in the afternoon, but she was on the adrenaline high of new clothes.

Nighat lived in Rawalpindi but much preferred availing herself of a handful of essential services from its twin city, included among which was her Darzi*. And so, when her tailor had called to say that her latest batch of shalwar kameezes* was ready, she just had to get to him, despite the snarly perils of the mid afternoon journey on Murree road. Her enthusiasm was now as wilted and droopy as was her hair in the August humidity. She touched the inky black mop on her head, patting it gingerly. She really needed to fix the airconditioner in her car – the fault-finding thought clipped up to her smugly as so many others had over the last thirty minutes – like censorial mother superiors.

An hour and a half later, she was at the Abpara market in sector G-6 in Islamabad, ensconced in the cool interior of Alamdar Tailor shop – Specialist in Alteration of Ladies and Gents. The proprietor, a portly man in his 60s was observant, agile and practical like most of his fellow dressmakers tended to be. When you’re a women’s outfitter in an Islamic Republic, you either need to be overtly homosexual or a man who is very obviously living a fairy tale perfect family life – in either case and for all to see, not having any need for minor titillations obtained at the expense of his female customer base. Master Alamdar was a happy hybrid of the two avatars. He wore pristinely stitched, bright coloured kurtas accentuated with antimony filled eyes, and his person surrounded by the heady bouquet of Ajmal Black Rose (unisex) attar. He also had a picture of his children (when they were all four of them, under eight years old), sitting on a shelf right behind him and in plain sight of all his customers. That same picture had been prominently displayed for at least the last twenty years, for the visual reassurance of all who sought his services. And so, both Master sahib and his motely brigade of begums happily played along with the ageless, faithful family harmony that emanated from his place of business.

Nighat however always liked to go just a little further in all her interactions with the opposite gender. At sixty one years old she was still a teenager at heart, abetted in equal measure by her own excitable nature as by the ironhandedness of her mother, the inimitable matriarch of their home. She now smiled coyly at Master Alamdar who smiled genially back while they both sipped on ice cold fantas. Nighat’s clothes were ready but after her hair raising, brake and accelerator fury of the last two hours on the road, she was inclined to sit back a little and enjoy a cold drink in the attar-redolent company of her tailor.

Master Alamdar was also an expert at deciphering which of his clients he could be extra chatty with and Nighat baji* was one of them. The two would wax eloquent on everything from the state of the weather to the weight lost or gained by Nighat. He had a talent for gauging and dressing the yo-yoing proportions of many of his lady customers. Tailors in Islamic republics are trained to observe from afar and can get a lady’s measurements pitch perfect from a handful of wary, discreet glances at her dupatta clad body.

Nighat was a burly woman, built more for the wrestling ring than for the more delicate shenhanigns of the catwalk. But her heart was bound in ribbons of old world romance that fluttered around her ample stature at all times. She was fond of imagining herself as a damsel in distress or a damsel in copious demand or a damsel on the fashion ramp; always a damsel of dainty things. This delicate demeanour exuding from her big frame was oddly endearing and so she had had a couple of brushes with real life romance too. Both times, the men had been retired army captains with twirly moustaches and receding hairlines that were assiduously cloaked in the inkiness of Bigen BB1, Blue-black hair dye. Both times too, she had been in her 40s and had considered herself “too young and impressionable” to have furthered the love interests: Those two opportunities to settle down had come and gone, and she had wisely put down her failure to romantically launch into either, as a late blooming on her part. Now in her 60s she felt readier than ever to become someone’s doting better half and a stay-at-home wife.

Nighat came from a family of modest businessmen and redoubtable matriarchs. Once in a while however, the one-off daughter with delicate sensibilities who was in constant need of protection, was born into the family. And so it was, that after four generations of formidable women, Nighat had come along as that dubious exception; the providential balancer of the Amazonian equation of their household

For all her social guilelessness, Nighat was a good teacher and had risen slowly but steadily in the academic ranks of her school system. She had started out as a Social Studies teacher twenty years ago. At sixty one, she had officially retired a year ago and was currently on an extendable three year contract as the vice principal of one of the flagship branches of the school in Rawalpindi. In her current senior capacity, she also conducted Teacher Training sessions for new entrants into the teaching system of the franchise. This meant frequent travel in and around the smaller cities and towns in Punjab and KPK*. She relished these week long trips away from home, even though she was accompanied most times by her eternal chaperon, her mother. She didn’t mind having her along: Her days were busy at work and the evenings were devoted to relishing rich pulaos* and mutton karahis* from the bazaar and watching movies from the limited repertoire of the guest house television cable service. She always found some park or walking area in town where she went for her early morning constitutional: a 45 minute ramble. Her mother was usually fast asleep at that time and she enjoyed the solitude and serenity of her sunrise circuit around the track in the city she was visiting.

* Shalwar Kameez: The traditional dress of women and men in the Punjab region of northwestern India and in Pakistan. The outfit comprises a pair of trousers (shalwar) and a tunic (kameez) that is usually paired with a scarf (dupatta).

* Darzi: Urdu for Tailor/ dress maker

* Attar: A fragrant essential oil, typically made from rose petals.

* Baji: In Urdu, term of respect used for older sister or an older woman.

* KPK: Abbreviation for Khyber Pukhtun Khwa - the northwestern province of Pakistan.


* Pulao: pilaf or pulao is a dish originating from the East, consisting of rice flavoured with spices and cooked in stock, to which meat, poultry, or fish may be added.

* Karahi:
A Karahi is a tomato, ginger and garlic heavy curry cooked with various types of meat.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/08/love-in-rawalpindi-part-two/

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