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/

SHORT STORY | KEEPING THE FAITH – Part Two

Angela had planned their final exit from Mall Square with dignified efficiency, helped as she would be with the gracious support of her long time friends. But sometimes, the best laid plans can get washed down rutted roads that one has not seen nor ever imagined. And so it was that one after another, her carefully constructed relocation schemes crumbled shapelessly in the mire of undisguised faces and unfeigned intentions that had suddenly, unexpectedly surfaced. The sisterhood of Faith had gone careening down the hill, crashing into the emptiness below.

Of the four friends she had appealed to for help, only one had come through – partially. Rashmi’s guest house was occupied by a foreign friend of her daughter’s (that was a bald faced lie!); Sandali had three warehouses in Nugegoda but they were all also suddenly occupied with overflowing inventory (just last week that factory cupboard was bare!); Sarah had no help at home and her sister in law was laid up with a chronic condition (that hale and hearty woman who had never been sick a day in the last 15 years that she’d known her!); and Thilini had offered to have Dilshan and Angela over for a fortnight. After that they were going to finally begin the renovation on their house which they had been postponing for the last five years and which the Covid lockdown had somehow given the much needed impetus for.

It had been a week of revelations, teetering friendships, somber musings and a clarity about her world that had momentarily blinded her. Despite it all, she had taken each disclaimer, coated as it was in pots of sacchrinous sweetness, with calmness and poise.

She had just come back from the hospital where they had moved Dilshan from Intensive Care to a General Ward. It would be another few days before he would be able to come home. “Home” … the word now agitated her; made her nervous, clutching at her throat and stinging her eyes. She was not generally given to sentimentality or self pity and had gone through much in life, stoic and dry-eyed. But this was not like any other curve ball that the universe had thrown at her in the past. This was her entire world toppling down around her. Her sacred world made up of special hand picked individuals who shared the same ethos and the same moral high ground. It was like the ultimately twisted confession where the priest was found to be the greatest sinner. All those sophisticated, benevolent people – her friends – showing up, personifying everything that they had hated about the rest. It was a heartbreaking reality check and it took a lot of Angela’s self possession and control to not just sit down and cry.

Even if she was made of sterner stuff that allowed her to push the pieces of her recently fragmented world into some steely hollow of her mind, she still had the vacating of the premises to deal with.

On a whim, she spoke to the long time security guard of the condomninium. Did he by chance know of any apartment that was available for rent above the 8th floor? Mr. Surdheen did in fact: it was one of Bilal Rahuman’s apartments on the 10th floor. Angela frowned and then swallowed hard – controlling both, her anxiety at the mention of the Muslim name, as well as the long nurtured prejudices that now automatically sprang along with the nomenclature. When Angela didn’t say anything, Surdheen volunteered to speak to the apartment owner – if she wished. He had known the lady long enough to have gauged her jaundiced eye towards everyone really, except Mr. Augustine who managed the mini mart on the premises; he was Catholic. Surdheen himself was Muslim but like so many in his melting pot of a homeland, he lived peacably enough with his Buddhist, Hindu and Christian countrymen. This lady was different. The Mall Square staff had occasionally discussed Angela’s undisguised faith biases and had decided in their combined goodwill that she must have had a bad experience sometime in life to have made her like this.

These days, in the wake of all the recent events, Angela had seemed less and less devoted to her preferences of faith and community; and while she would not normally single out Surdheen to speak to of anything really, she had instinctively gone to him. She knew that he had been at the apartment complex the longest and usually had the most reliable information on tenants, landlords and even the shenanigans of the real estate agents. Usually she would tap into Surdheen’s fount of information via Augustine or one of the other Mall Square staff.

She accepted his offer, thanked him and went back inside. Bilal Rahuman … the name was vaguely familiar, flitting around the edges of her memory. No, she couldn’t recall where she might have heard it. Maybe it was just another Muslim name that she’d heard and while earlier she would have caught it through one ear and ushered it roundly out the other, sometimes these names did tend to stick. This must be one of those sticky Muslim names. That evening Surdheen came to her apartment to give her Bilal Rahuman’s number. She could call him whenever she liked, Mr. Rahuman had informed Surdheen.

Angela had a restless night. Random thoughts that had before evoked simple irritation or plain out ire, now went plodding through her mind like a herd of unhurried elephants – each large, clear and washed clean of the dust that had blurred its tremendous form: She recalled the unremitting distaste with which she’d always regarded bearded men in their “wahabi maxis” as she and her group had called them … thawbs* was the term wasn’t it …..; and the Muslim call to prayer that had always grated on her ears – she had even railed about its primitive, cacophonous quality in the condominium WhatsApp group; and Surdheen and the other two Muslim security guards at Mall Square that she somehow always managed to omit when she was giving the annual gratuity to the rest of the staff. And now she was going to call on one of them and ask for help because there was no one else to turn to. She cringed inwardly, not because of any vestigial aversion as she usually did, but because of a distinct throb of conscience. For the first time, she felt guilty. And wretched. And tired. At some point amid this moral onslaught of her senses, Angela finally fell asleep.

She woke up late the next morning, but feeling rested; surer of herself and what she had to do next. There were no more expectations left to crash and burn and therefore no more emotional turmoil to deal with. She’d experienced it in all its duplicitous ferocity with her inner circle and was already on the other side of it.

She sat up in the chair, fortifying herself with her purposeful stance, picked up the phone and dialled Bilal Rahuman’s number.

He answered on the third ring and greeted her cordially after she had introduced herself.

“How is Dilshan aiya* feeling? Surdheen was telling me he had got the virus”. Angela murmured something about her husband having thankfully turned the corner.

“He is a good man. My duas* for his speedy recovery. I remember meeting him seven years ago when he came to look at my 10th floor apartment at Mall Square. It wasnt quite the right choice for you folks at that time from what I understood. I haven’t changed very much in it but if it suits your requirements now, you’re welcome to rent it”

It so happened that Angela and Dilshan had liked Bilal Rahuman’s apartment seven years ago too; but the owner’s persuasions of faith had not sat well with Angela then. And so they’d gone for their second choice – the more appropriately denominated Mrs. D’Souza’s flat on the 9th floor.

By the fifth day of her telephone conversation with Bilal Rahuman, Angela had shifted to her new home. Her new landlord had instructed Surdheen and his team to help Mrs. Dias with the move.

It was 6 O’ clock in the evening. Angela and Dilshan’s entire 9th floor apartment now lay packed in suitcases and cartons in the two bedrooms of their new 10th floor home. When the last suitcase had been wheeled in, she thanked Surdheen and his helpers and tipped them somewhat self consciously; there was no familiar precedence of grace or gratuity there to take comfort from.

She sat down in the lounge and looked around her. The combination display cabinet and book case that both she and Dilshan had loved as soon as they’d seen it seven years ago, was still sitting there, in all its teak burnished stateliness. The setting sun filtering in through the balcony doors lit up the single item that lay on the third shelf of the cabinet – a Taj Mahal snow globe. A slow smile spread across her face as she picked up the new yet familiar weight in her hands and turned it over. The little pieces of silver flitter foil fell around the iconic landmark like crumbs from a pie … humble pie she thought unconsciously and reddened ever so slightly. She turned it over in her hands a few more times and then set it down gently.

Dilshan was coming home tomorrow. She would unpack her own snow globes and add them to the shelf. She would liven up the room a little to welcome her husband to their new home.

* Thawb: An ankle-length garment, usually with long sleeves. It is commonly worn by men in the Arabian Peninsula.

* Aiya: term for older brother/ older man in Singhalese.

* Dua: In Islamic terminology, duʿāʾ literally means invocation, an act of supplication. The term is derived from an Arabic word meaning to 'call out' or to 'summon', and Muslims regard this as a profound act of worship.


* Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/24/keeping-the-faith-part-one/

SHORT STORY | KEEPING THE FAITH – Part One

LISTEN TO AN EXCERPT BEING READ AT: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSeKswDLn/

Angela was married to Dilshan, and one was hard pressed to find a more incongruent union that had somehow also withstood the test of time. So at odds was Angela’s marital partnership with everything that defined her now that she herself sat back in puzzlement over it sometimes. It was not so much that their personalities were so entirely different; for her it was the unassailable fact that he was a Buddhist and she a Christian. She had fallen in love and as things of the heart tend to do, they had led her down the one and only rabbit hole in the otherwise satisfyingly flat, burrow-free fields of her life. She was not exactly a devout catholic; she was just a formidable believer that her kind had got it as right as imperfect humans could get an ideology of faith, and that everyone else was paddling in karmically rough seas. The Dharmachakra* from her husband’s side was bad enough; but the Crescent and Star* that was always bursting into flames on the local and the global horizons was the very limit of her endurance: no she was not particularly fond of her Muslim fellow citizens and had made assiduous efforts throughout her life to stay as culturally and socially faithful to her Sri Lankan Christian roots as she could. That included giving a studiously wide berth to grocery stores, restaurants and neighbours that had even vaguely Muslim sounding names.

The most amazing part of this covert, no frills prejudiced way of life was the fact that Angela had embraced it in absolute good faith, asssured of the blessings of the universe. For she was, she believed, a straight talking good woman with a guaranteed one way ticket to whatever version of “heaven” there was atop the tropical rain clouds that floated perennially over their blessed island.

Dilshan was an old school gentleman and a good husband. Despite a regular stream of ample and compelling reasons to have nulled and voided the misadventure that was his marriage to Angela, he had persevered. Indeed, to anyone who knew them, it was stupefyingly clear that he had made it his life’s sole purpose to survive the partnership into old age or kick the bucket trying. He was a romantic at heart and time had also endowed him with an extreme myopia of mercifully both, his outer and his inner visions. He saw only enough of his wife’s lunatic biases that allowed him to smile indulgently followed immediately by a happy vacuousness. The haze in his mind had conspired with the love in his heart, keeping him true, enamoured and forgiving.

Life had been generally good to Angela and Dilshan.

They had two sons who were both living abroad and doing well. Angela and Dilshan had sold most of their assets to educate their progeny and now lived in comfortable rented spaces in the heart of Colombo. They had been at Mall Square now for seven years and with time the 9th floor apartment had become a haven for the couple, and a sanctuary for Angela’s formidable collection of orchids and snow globes and Dilshan’s more modest ammassment of mostly Nora Roberts and Stephen King novels. With time, Dilshan had lost the temerity for both genres and the books had glanced back from their glass cabinets like dowager lovers, sometimes giving him a wrinkly old glad eye and at others scaring him into the furthest recesses of his fuzziest thoughts.

It was June of 2020 – the Covid 19 pandemic was raging around the world with a virulence and a savagery that had shaken the planet. The little tear drop island was no exception and the city was just about emerging, beset and shaken from the first wave and a six week lockdown. It was at the tail end June in fact, when Dilshan had at first begun to feel listless and then been gripped in the throes of an unrelenting fever. He had tested negative for the virus, but he was nevertheless hospitalised and isolated. The virus was too new as were the diagnostics to test it. False negatives were far more dangerous than false positives, and so patients presenting with severe flu-like symptoms were administered the same quarantine protocols as were the Covid-positive cases.

Dilshan had been in hospital for a week when the call from Mrs. D’Souza came. Their landlady who lived in the UK was heading home to ride out the infectious wave that had brought her adopted country to its knees. She was in her 80s and the matriarch of her townhouse in Kent as well as the two properties she rented out on home shores. One of them was the Dias’s apartment. Mrs. D’Souza was coming home to roost and her nest of choice was going to be her Mall Square apartment. She duly invoked clause number 7 in their tenancy agreement and summarily served a two month notice to her tenants. Angela at first, indignant and outraged, was soon persuaded mainly by impassable legal obligations and to no small extent, by the christinanness of her landlady, to be mollified and to plead for a change of heart. Where were they to go at such short notice and under these horrendous Covid conditions? Mrs. D’Souza was polite but unyielding. Her other apartment was in a swanky new high rise and her Kuwaiti tenants there paid a premium which she was in no mind to sacrifice on the basis of a “shared faith”. She had been mildly amused at this last somewhat religio-phobic petition made by her tenant. Mrs. Dias had always been somewhat eccentric and time had obviously not been kind to her on that front. Mrs. D’Souza had always preferred to deal with the husband who was an upright, sensible man.

Angela sat in her verdantly riotous balcony that overlooked the park. It was just past 5 O’clock in the evening and her maid had brought her tea and Marie biscuits. She touched the head of one of her prized Foxtail orchids gently, distractedly while her mind was busy calculating, planning, fire fighting. She would have to enlist the help of some of her long time friends to help her pack up their apartment and to warehouse their belongings until they found another place. She and Dilshan would then have to move in with one of them. Staying with extended family on either side was out of the question since relationships on both sides had suffered the rigours of neglect and more than a few clashes of opinions over the last couple of decades. She picked up her phone to call Rashmi.

“Hello darling! Has that mean old crone allowed you to stay on?” chirped Rashmi as soon as she picked up the phone.

“No, we have to move. So much to do. I was wondering if you could help”, said Angela frowning into the distance, scanning the mental list she had prepared of the exact nature of assistance that she would be requesting from four of her closest friends.

“Of course darling. I can come by day after for a chat”, responded Rashmi.

“Can you come tomorrow?” asked Angela, “I don’t have too much time, and with Dilshan in the hospital, there is a lot to do”.

Rashmi had promised to come by the next day and help in whatever way she could. Angela had decided to ask her friend if she and Dilshan could stay for a few weeks in the guest quarters of their spacious Colombo 7 home.

Angela had actually begun to look forward to this little adventure: everyone would pitch in and get the laborious packing and storing work out of the way; and it might even be a vacation of sorts for her and Dilshan to stay at one of their friends’ homes in the city.

* DharmaChakra: Sanskrit for the dharma wheel, it is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism.  Around the globe it is used to represent Buddhism in the same way that a Cross represents Christianity or a Star of David represents Judaism. 

* Crescent and Star: The five pointed star reflects the Five Pillars of Islam which are central to the faith, and the crescent moon and stars are symbols relating to the greatness of the creator.


* Read Part two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/06/25/keeping-the-faith-part-two/

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|SERENDIB LODGE – Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so Sherry Kumar retreated – for now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT STORY|SERENDIB LODGE – Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Garandia: Sri Lankan Rat snake that feeds on rodents


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

FEATURE| THE NOSTALGIA OF A NICE CUP OF TEA

Teatime- a word that invokes so many nostalgic memories, while also carrying with it the promise of another little social do right around the corner. I write this from the subcontinental (read: classic) perspective where tea means exactly that, and is not in fact a culinary codeword for another meal…like dinner perhaps!

Having lived in a country, nigh upon six years now, which is known for its magnificent tea plantations, I came here expecting to be swept off my feet with supremely flavourful tea served with as much fanfare. But oh, the lost pleasure of the perfect cup of tea! Not only has the stately beverage been woefully overshadowed by its more robust cousin, the sinewy coffee, but the genteel art of tea making itself has been all but sabotaged by our time-constrained lifestyles.

Tepid tea, (whatever happened to tea-cosies?) just this side of being too anaemic or too vigorous, is the norm at most places. Tea brewing is a lost art that even tea timers haven’t been able to revive (those aging relics that lie there, unused, taunting tea drinkers; and then fading a little more into oblivion as they realise the futility of their efforts). Tea strainers are further dying remains of the classic tea trolley. So, even potentially good cups of tea will quickly take on a bizarre, almost bovine experience as one chews the leaves along with each sip.

The silver lining in all this post modern annihilation of the elegant art of tea making is the teatime legacy my sisters and I have carried into our lives. Having grown up in a home where tea and the accompanying panoply was the norm, this has been a delightful happenstance. Teatime at home consisted of lavish spreads of everything from pastries and sandwiches to biscuits and dahi bhallas*. And of course it meant steaming pots upon pots of Kenyan tea laced ever so delicately with earl grey. It became an affair, synonymous with togetherness, laughter and chatter. A time for capricious banter and tender confidences- a caffeine-warmed embrace of the ebb and flow of our lives. And at the centre of this lovely intimacy was my mother, the gracious matriarch who made this teatime magic happen.

In conclusion, of all the tea connoisseurs/ growers/ curators of the experience on the island, I ask that you breathe fresh life into this exquisite tradition. It is the assured panacea to many a dreadful day, of which sadly, we have all seen our fair share lately. In the words of Bernard-Paul Heroux, “There is no trouble so great or so grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea”; the “nice” there being replete with all manner of ambrosial and soul and spirit uplifting possibilities.

*Dahi Bhalla: a savoury, yogurt-based snack indigenous to the subcontinent.

VERSE| THE WOODEN BENCH

We have all, at some time or another been overwhelmed, overpowered, bested by our grief, anxiety and wretchedness. At those times, some of us have also been lucky enough to have that one place where we have, for a while, found some degree of quietude and peace. This is a tribute to those secret little places and spaces of comfort and healing in our lives.

There is this wooden bench I like
It’s not fancy; quite the common type.
Cloaked in by the dappled canopy
Of a gracefully pirouetting Mara tree,
It sits in the park like a dear old friend
It’s well-worn embrace ever welcoming.
A young couple walks up, caught in the grips of wrath
Love is lost; it’s the wretched aftermath;
Words are exchanged until the fury’s spent
Frustration - Anxiety - Sadness - Silence.
Then they sit down on the wooden bench ...
Gradually, muscles relax and nerves untense.
Even if it is a passing interlude,
Loads are lightened; hearts are soothed.

Wild flowers grow lushly around its feet
Bobbing bright heads to Earth’s vital beat.
The bench sits there like a quiet friend
It’s well-worn seat ever welcoming.
A man sits down in a state of unease
Holding on to his hat in an errant breeze.
He picks up his phone and looks at the screen;
The unlit glass reflects the tranquil scene ...
He looks up and around him his brow somewhat eased
Fleeting albeit, he’s found his moment of peace.

Songful birds and their terrestrial friends
Roam warbling and chittering around the bench;
Hoping for a serendipitously fallen treat
They browse busily around the seat.
A wheelchair-bound man looks up at an overcast sky;
His female companion already has water in her eyes.
They sit side by side in worlds of their own
Reminisnce weighs heavy of days that are gone ...
A mynah trills as a light drizzle falls
And a sweet petrichor briefly dispels the pall.
The man looks at her, takes her hand and she smiles
For now they’re alright; tomorrow is still a while.

I too have sat in Nature’s restoring arms
On that bench where she weaves her alchemical charms.
I too have unburdened my hopes and my fears
I too have laid my bursting heart bare;
And I have heard her soothing murmurs
That have quietened my deepest despair.
I’ve looked into her soft eyes from that corner in the park
For a time, my soul too has emerged from the dark;
The clouds have parted; the sun has shone through
And I’ve breathed more easily, sitting on that wooden pew.

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