VERSE | REAWAKENING

I remember, I remember 
A little girl I used to know
She was bright-eyed and joyful
Her spirit had a special glow

She was filled with compassion
And a courage that fairly roared
The world was her oyster
She had found her wings and soared

But then I lost sight of that
Special one when I left home
To let marriage settle me
In its no nonsense folds

Time went on as it does
And more and more I found myself
Thinking of the little girl
A tender nostalgia for a friend

I looked for her on winter trips
That I occasionally made back home
But she seemed to have melted
Into the fading mists of dawn

When life came full cycle and
My youngest daughter was wed
I came back to write and roost
To my childhood homestead

There one balmy summer day
As I began to write
The story that had been hiding away
In the tumultuousness of life

The little girl peeked out at me
Not from behind the door
But from the page that I was writing on
From the ink on it that flowed

That day I met her again
Her happy laugh warmed my heart
Even as she flitted in and out
Of my vision at the start

But then she gently held my hand
As I wrote page after page
And I remembered, I remembered
As I found myself again.

VERSE | SWEET AWKWARDNESS

They look at each other 
Awkwardly
It’s been thirty five years
Since they’d last seen each other
Blood has flowed thinner, starker than water
For the two sisters
Now standing together

They sit down
It’s in the younger one’s home
The older one perches on her seat
Hands clasped around her knees
Knees bunched together awkwardly

The younger one makes the tea
The steaming, billowing pour
Softening, mollifying the tension
That has stretched like taut skin
Raw, painful, blue-complexioned
On the surface of the atmosphere

The older one reaches for the milk
She pours it into her cup of tea
Hesitates and looks at her
Wondering if she still drinks it
The same way she did before

The younger one nods, smiles ever so faintly
She puts the sugar in
Looks at the older one inquiringly
No, she didn’t have sugar in her tea
From each other, they both look away
At the steaming cups on the tray

The brews in the cups
Swirl for a while
Spin and beguile
Then come to rest
Pulling a film of whey and casein
Around their hearts
Hiding away from the scene
Hiding away from the awkwardness

“Do you remember -“
“Do you remember -“
“You used to love the milk skin on the tea”
“I used to love the milk skin on my tea”

They look at each other
At last
They laugh
Sweet-awkwardly
Eyes moist, hearts beating fast
The tension is torn away
Finally
In the gush of warmth
From the tea
From she looking at her
From her looking back smilingly

The older one looks at her cup
The smile still playing on her lips
She picks up her spoon
To remove the cream
Her sister never had it
Today she wouldn’t too

The younger one looks at her cup
Gazing down at the membrane
Floating in the milky brew
She picks up her cup
Her sister always had it
Today she would too.
Featured

VERSE | NOSTALGIA

She steps into the car
Its gleaming surfaces
Adorned with gladioli and motia*
She’s the bride tonight
Garlands also lovingly
Entwine in her hair
Their fragrance filling
The nighttime air
Eyes bright
Face shining with expectation
She glances behind her
Just for a moment
One last time
At that spot where she stood
Leaving behind her childhood
Marking the end of her maidenhood
She smiles
Nostalgia now sits there
Young, hopeful and light
Eyes bright
Face shining with expectation
Waiting to fill the space
That has been so tenderly placed
Into her sacred embrace.
* Motia: The Jasmine flower.

VERSE | KNOWING

For every smile upon your lips 
A million more have beamed
On happy faces old and young
With joyfulness they’ve gleamed

For every tear that you have spilt
When sadness cleaved the air
Countless others have also grieved
From the depths of their despair

When You have laughed with tears of joy
Right from your belly out
There have been a billion others
Who’ve chortled in delight

So live completely sit with both
Your joy and with your pain
The energy that thrums in you
Flows in everyone the same

For every smile that’s on your lips
For every tear that falls
Someone somewhere feels the same
Someone is sharing it all.
Featured

VERSE | METAMORPHOSIS

This is for all those who have survived emotionally, mentally and physically abusive relationships. For those who have discovered the precious blessing of sleeping deeply, peacefully without being haunted by crippling anxiety and the renewed torture that every new day would inevitably bring in its wake.

I look at him 
Threatening, raging
Berating me
The cruel words sidling in
Between his verbal pounding
I recognise, I see
His enterprise
To humiliate me
To agitate, to fluster me
To intimidate
To paralyze me.
I’m going to leave you
One of these days
If you tell
Anyone anywhere
About any of this
I swear
I will make you into the beas
t
The one unfit
The one tearing down this relationship


I look at him
Frozen in place
My heart still
I’m incapable
Of seeing beyond
My fear
I’m incapable
Of seeing anything
Beyond the terrifying sacredness
Of the union
We signed together
I’m incapable
I’m powerless
I’m numb
All I hear is a hum
A white noise in my head
Autonomous, involuntary
Humming humming humming
Preserving my sanity
Maybe my life …

And then one day
He followed through
On all the threats
That he had let loose
Into the fabric
Of our togetherness
I’m l e a v i n g y o u
He said, emotionless
This time there was no
Placating hum
No cloaking thrum
Inside of me
Hiding me, shrouding me
I looked at him
Cold sweat gripping
My face, my neck
The insides of my thighs
Dripping, dripping endlessly
But my mouth was parched
My lips were dry
I felt like I was going to die

But I didn’t crumble
In the wind
Whirling in the murky
Depths of things
I survived
I stayed alive
That shared horizon
Spilling blood
Dirty linen streaked with mud
Was washed into the sea
Decaying into infinity
A whole new realm had suddenly
Stretched out in front of me
Full of peace and gratefulness
Gladness and serenity
Where I was calm and I was whole
I had my body and my soul
There was no fear
No agony
No trauma filled spaces
Beckoning me

Like Kafka’s Metamorphosis*
In reverse
I have broken through the curse
No more thrashing, crashing heart
Petrified and frozen limbs
No more grim hellishness
Of emotional poison stings
Making me cry, making me cringe
I’m still here. I’m here still
My lungs now take in their fill
My heart is beating rhythmically
No suffocating anxiety
Once more I hold the hand of the child
That has lived in my soul all this while
For her
Nothing is impossible.
* KAFKA’S METAMORPHOSIS: 
Metamorphosis is a novella written by Franz Kafka which was first published in 1915 and is considered one of his best works. The main themes revolve around the burden of responsibility, isolation and alienation, and sacrifice.

VERSE | c-ART-arsis

It was one of those treacherous days 
That squats in front of you
Exhausting and depleting
It drains you through and through

I was overcome with listlessness
A pall lay all around
I sat staring into space
Completely stupor-bound

I needed to break the torpor
I needed to feel alive
I recalled some pithy words I’d heard
Of drawing to revitalise

Sketch anything on a blank page
The sage had thus advised
So out I got my notebook
The blank one, without lines

I looked at my set of markers
They were the watercolour sort
Liquid-lovely for colouring in
Already drawn out art

I picked out a green one
The black just seemed too staid
I then sat staring into the creamy
Depths of my blank page

It was said that if you then find
Yourself in a conundrum
Imagination hiding away
No muse, no inspiration

Then just write something positive
And let your mind roam free
The words will inspire by and by
A masterpiece of imagery

“CHOOSE the world you WANT” I wrote
Feeling a wry smile om my lips
So many empty words they seemed
Skepticism had me in its grip

I drew dancing confetti to bring
Some joy to the lifeless leaf
Adding comet-like tails to the C and T
Shedding some existential grief

Then I added whorls and twirls
To the words I’d written down
In reds and blues and oranges
Purples, violets and browns

The sentence glimmered on the page
In colourful celebration
In all the rainbow hues and more
An uplifting declaration

I smiled, the sluggish spell now gone
Every flourish had set me free
Enshrined in my mood uplifting art
The words now also surrounded me.

VERSE | GRIT

For all the women and the men supporting them; for all those who get up every morning and despite all odds make it through the day surviving, shining, rising. For the friends and families of Sara, Mahsa, Noor, Qurat Ul Ain and of the countless nameless others like them: your grit is everything.

When it’s been tormenting
Day after day. With no respite
And I just don’t have it in me to fight
To battle on
When I’m war-weary
When there is no end in sight
And all I want to do
Is sit in a dark room
And let its coolness shroud me
Until I can feel the hair
Stand on my skin. There
Is suddenly more to the day
Than the heaviness in my heart
And the endlessness of the grey
That has been flowing, gripping choking me
Keeping me doubled down on my knees
There’s more beyond that malevolent mien
Images, memories driving me insane

Now -

Now there is also something
On the outside of me
A little chill
A little photo on the window sill
Both pull at me in different ways
One makes icicles
To sear through
The magma that has congealed
Inside of me
The other makes my blood flow warm
Streaming, coursing through my veins
Reminding me that I am home
My spirit and my fortitude
Still cloak my shoulders
Strong and true
I sit up straight
As they reverberate
Through every atom of my being
And they chant
An age old song
Of others like me
Who’ve fought on
Their hearts fused forever
With the loved ones they’ve lost
And I know
That I’m not wielding my sword alone
Featured

VERSE | FALL FAREWELLS

A melancholy rustle stirs in the leaves
Holding heavy in their boughs
Their green, green garbs have faded
They are in mourning now

For the bounties once bestowed on them
By spring and then by summer
Now they curl their mottled frames
In the briskness of September

Lady Autumn has this special
Cleansing Ritual that she wields
Back into the earth they go
Flowers, butterflies and leaves

The promise of new beginnings too
Is buried with their shapes
For when spring comes round again
For when again they will all wake

The leaves are weary as they cling
To seasons that have gone
But soon they too will hear her sing
The soothing song of Fall

VERSE | LOOK SOFTLY

Look softly my darling 
When you look at me
Be calm and be tender
As I take my leave

I want to remember
Your lovely face
Serene and peaceful
As I leave this place

Let us talk of things
That are close to our hearts
Of bittersweet endings
Of gentle new starts

Of faces and places
Those still here, those gone
Of tea-cozied rainy days
As I hum my last song

Look softly my dear one
When you look at me
Let your beautiful smile
Be the last thing I see
Painting by my sister, Zeenath

SHORT STORY | ONE FLEW OVER THE BULBUL’S NEST – Part Two

(I)

Mary aka Mariam arrived in Bait-ul-Muskaan on the following Monday. She was dressed in the quintessential Pakistani nurse’s uniform of pristine white shalwar kameez and a matching cotton dupatta. She was a big built woman with sinewy arms – brawny tributes to all the caregiving she had done over the last three decades. The unibrow that ran across her forehead was her other distinguishing feature. It was oddly likeable, growing on most people for various reasons: The women in the households she had been employed at, saw it as the unerring physical bulwark that would naturally keep their men on the right side of decency; the men, well, many secretly liked the idiosyncrasy. It was almost like nature conspiring with them to give them a bit of incognito titillation. And so, in the midst of all this covert appreciation there had been one affair, with the son of the patient she was caring for. The memory of the end of that episode still stung the back of her eyelids. That had been the first and the last time she had allowed her personal life to interfere with her professional one.

Riaz Khan instantly liked the look of the big, solid woman. She exuded efficiency and readiness. And she was also reserved, answering only the questions that were put to her by Jasmina and asking a few of her own regarding her client’s daily regimen.

Riaz Khan allowed himself to finally relax. Mariam the replacement would do for the next month or so.

(II)

The days spun into weeks and the weeks rolled into months and soon it was July. Mariam had been a part of Bait-ul-Muskaan now for three months and had settled into the largely quiet routine of her employers. Although she undertook most of Riaz Khan’s lifting, shifting, wheeling, medicating and back and feet scrubbing, she also helped Jasmina during her grocery shopping sprees. These were formidable ventures undertaken once a month and Jasmina was nothing if not painstakingly particular. She had been known to scour a dozen grocery stores for a specific variety of detergent and all the department stores in DHA* for her preferred brand of hand cream. This monthly enterprise was the singular adrenaline rush in the otherwise still lives of the women of Bait-ul-Muskaan, with one boldly leading the charge and the other following in her exhausting wake. As the clock ticked on in the quest for a particularly elusive item, the serene atmosphere dissolved into chaos, inquiries became increasingly brusque and voices were raised to screeching-crescendo levels.

Once everything or its grudgingly serviceable alternative was procured, the ride back home was always dealthly silent with one woman allowing her organs to slowly cease beating their battle drums, while the other looked diligently ahead, making herself as unobtrusive as her muscly bulk would allow. It was nothing less than a Hundred Year war – with each of Jasmina’s years in all their ferociousness equal to multiple battle years – waged against the fickle nature of supply chains and the infuriating thriftiness of retail inventory. Riaz Khan had early on in the shrewd wisdom that the universe had bequeathed on him for her other excesses against him, ceased to participate in these market (mis)adventures. He was thus the only occupant of the house that retained his peace of mind in the hours that followed the return of the sometimes ruffled and sometimes vanquished brigade, with their sometimes list-fulfilled and sometimes list-lustre spoils of retail war.

Over the months, Mariam had fortified herself for these mentally and physically depleting excursions by going to bed after a supper of lightly buttered toast and green tea. She slept better and tended to have fewer nightmarish dreams where she was plodding through HKB* and Carrefour* with chains on her feet and Jasmina on her shoulders loudly urging her on. She had had that exact lucid dream in the early hours of the morning following her first grocery trip at Bait-ul-Muskaan. She had also had a generous portion of Nihari from Zakir Tikka the night before so the toss up between the instigators of her frightful visions was even. Nevertheless, she had woken up in a cold sweat, feeling disoriented and afraid. She had then decided to change at least what she could of the two tormenting events: the marketing was out of her control but the post-trip dinner she could make light and gut-easy. It was either her tranquilized digestive system or the fact that her nerves just got better at handling shopping day offensives, but she was spared Jasmina and HKB related nightmares after that.

Aside of the one day in a month where she was the matriarch’s companion in the madness of the outside world, stoked to its full fruition by the older woman, Mariam was by Riaz Khan’s side most of the other days. She helped him from his bed into the wheelchair, from there to the WC and then to the shower where she would vigorously scrub his back and his feet while he sat in his underwear. The awkwardness of the first couple of bath times had long since dissipated in the efficient, no nonsense air that she surrounded herself with. While Riaz Khan completed his toilette, she would make his bed and get a boiled egg and toast ready for him. She would accompany him while he breakfasted, with her second mug of morning tea. He would then read for a while after which he napped for an hour. In this time, Mariam would wash or iron her clothes.

(III)

At 4 o’ clock every afternoon, the occupants of Bait-ul-Muskaan would come together to have tea in the veranda overlooking the garden. After that mostly quiet repast where Jasmina made an occasional remark on the avian and floral sightings in the garden, Riaz Khan hrmphed and Mariam studiously followed Jasmina’s variously pointing hand, the trio would disperse. Jasmina would return to the ever-demanding bowels of the house while Mariam would take Riaz Khan for a stroll in the garden. The first couple of months of these perambulations had been quiet. Then Riaz Khan had spoken about the Gulmohar tree. He had climbed it as a child and had even fallen from its topmost branches (about eight feet high then) landing unscathed onto the grass. He had laughed wryly at this cosmic teasing of what was to come later. Mariam had listened, overwhelmed by her suddenly vocal employer. He had looked back at her then and she had seen, behind his black-framed spectacles, the amber-green flecks in his eyes,. She had smiled and said something about silver linings and glasses half full. He had laughed uproariously and she had grinned back.

After that episode, the garden became their place for conversations and laughter. The whole day would pass in almost complete silence until after tea time when the two would stroll, chat and revel in the profusion of their surroundings and in the pleasure of each other’s company. This nature-stirred, time-bound lightness of spirit suited them both.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/27/bulbuls-nest-part-one/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/29/bulbuls-nest-part-three/

* DHA: Defence Housing Authority, a vast residential community across various cities in Pakistan.

* HKB: A department store chain across Pakistan - Haji Karim Buksh.

* Carrefour:
A large French multinational consisting of grocery stores, supermarkets and hypermarkets, with presence in Pakistan too.

SHORT STORY | ONE FLEW OVER THE BULBUL’S NEST – Part One

(I)

Riaz Khan looked out of the window at the tree in the garden. He sought the bulbul’s nest that always peeked reassuringly through the noon-lit foliage. It had become a daily ritual of quiet joy for him as he sat shaved and ready in his wheelchair. The rest of the summer days followed on the heels of this scene, sometimes bearable and mostly held in the reins of monotony and of Jasmina Khan, his sister and the matriarch of their home. It used to be his home. But that fact had become forgotten and buried in the dust and dreariness of time.

Jasmina had early on as a girl shown glimmerings of the formidable homemaker that her mother was. By fifteen she could cook the full range of gastronomic delights from the eastern and the western hemispheres. And by nineteen, she was the deputy matriarch of Bait-ul-Muskaan*, with only marriage breaking that indomitable influence. For a short while though, like an accidental blip in the fabric of the universe. The subsequent course-correction was swift and absolute: she was widowed within two years of her marriage in which time, both her parents had also passed away. She again took up domestic command at Bait-ul-Muskaan like she had never really left the place, donning her mother’s terrific mantle with alacrity and ease. To this perfection, she also brought an overarching bossiness that made short shrift of household issues as well as her brother’s peace of mind.

For her part, Jasmina never thought she was doing anything that was not wholly right and responsible, and that she was mistress of nothing more than she truly deserved. Riaz Khan, on the other hand, often thought that he was paying penance for some ill he’d done Jasmina in another life. He would grumble and assert and she would admonish and revoke. The siblings had been living in this lopsided arrangement for well over thirty years now.

Riaz Khan was a paraplegic and had been for almost two decades. An accident that could have been avoided in retrospect (all accidents seem avoidable in retrospect he thought) had left him unable to use his legs. On good days, he was still able to appreciate the abiding functionality of his upper body. On bad days, he felt like a vegetable, specifically a karela*. He had embodied its unapologetic caustic quality, full of texture and nuance, culminating in a unique flavour that wasn’t everyone’s choice of bharta*. That’s what he was; on the not so good days – a Kharoos* Karela. To his mind even that tragic conjecture; that animation of the inanimate held some optimism. This meant that his depression was as yet not in the fatalistic realms of the psychotic, just marking time in its safely lunatic layers. That deduction didn’t bother him. He now used the “P” word easily, cheerfully even, because in his mind, it was the kind of madness that gave him the will to live on in the taxing world that was his and Jasmina’s, around which orbited a few acquaintances like visible but distant satellites.

Riaz Khan looked out at the Gulmohar tree that at that time of the year was resplendent in its beautiful flame-like flowers. Some of its branches were so close to the window that he could reach out and touch them even from his wheelchair. But today his attention was not on the summer-flushed efflorescence of the tree. He was looking at the bulbul’s nest which lay, once again, like a perfect little bowl in the crook of two branches, at a forty degree angle above his line of sight. He had first spied it a couple of years ago and had felt a little rush of pleasure. For some inexplicable reason, he had kept that bit of serendipity to himself; guarding it almost jealously from the knowledge of the others. There were precious few things that were within the domain of his exclusive awareness and gratification, given his more than usual reliance on those around him for everything really.

The secret had stayed with him through the summer months of the previous year and the year before that, scattering in the autumn breeze as both, nest and birds disappareared. The other day he had seen it again. Nest Kintsugi* he thought to himself: Broken and rebuilt again, more beautiful because it was familiar and yet new. The Gulmohar secret, in so faithfully revisiting him again, had become ever more precious. He smiled widely when he finally caught sight of the songful little birds.

It was time for lunch and Yousaf had come into the room to wheel him to the dining room. Yousaf Alves was Riaz Khan’s full time care-giver and lived at Bait-ul-Muskaan.

“You know I don’t like cabbage. It gives me gas. Painful gas”, grumbled Riaz Khan.

“I only cook it once a week”, countered Jasmina. “The flatulence is good for your gut. It’s not like your intestines are getting any exercise to help them move things along”.

“Oh for goodness sake Jasmina. Nobody wants to hear your detailed analysis of my biology. I’ll just have the daal*”.

Jasmina laughed cheerfully. For all his moodiness he was a softie, her brother and she felt no disinclination in allowing him to tell her off now and then. That grace she always found in her heart for her beloved sibling. Riaz may be four years older than her, but they both knew who wore the waistcoat in the house.

There was a message from Yousaf’s home on Monday morning: his wife had fallen ill. She was pregnant with their second child and it was proving to be a difficult gestation. He had twice before gone for a week at a time and the agency had dutifully provided his replacement. Both times Riaz khan had borne the inexpert ministrations of the substitute with the resignation of a martyr. He had waited eagerly and desperately for his Man Friday to return. Yousaf had, in his five years in the service of the older man, become quite indispensable to the latter mainly because of his adeptness but also because of his nature which was quiet and reseverd. Riaz Khan himself was a man of few words and those had become ever scarcer amid the vocal abundance of his sister. She spoke both their minds, even if she happily and grossly misinterpreted his.

(II)

“Yousaf has extended his leave. And with this Corona business, the agency can’t find anyone suitable to send over in place of the current replacement. So Yousuf’s sister is coming to fill in for him. She’s a trained caregiver too”, said Jasmina walking into Riaz Khan’s room.

Why didnt she ever knock! Did losing his ability to walk, strip him also of his privacy! thought Riaz Khan irritably for the thousandth time.

It had been an interminable week for him in the inexpert hands of the substitute carer whose unwieldy labour was thankfully coming to an end today. He had been looking forward to Yousuf’s return the following day, and now this!

Riaz Khan looked at his sister darkly. She stared unflinchingly back at him as one would at a petulant child.

He tried desperately to look for the silver lining in this piece of news. He had to. His thoughts had been festering for the last week and he needed to emerge from the grayness, or he’d go into a depression. It had happened in the earlier days of his affliction. He had spent months in the throes of wretched thoughts and desperate notions. And then one day he had decided that life was still worth living even if it was for the occasional heart warmers like Nihari* from Zakir Tikka, a book that temporarily gave him wings and rainy afternoons.

She was Yousuf’s sister, and so it was logical to hope that she would be as efficient as her brother was. And quiet. At the very least, she would be far better than her bumbling predecessor. Riaz Khan was small built and managing his movements in and out of the wheel chair would not be too difficult. He took in a deep breath, called on his faculties of fortitude and hoped for the best.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/28/bulbuls-nest-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/29/bulbuls-nest-part-three/

* Bulbul: medium sized songbirds. These birds are distributed across most of Africa and into the Middle East, tropical Asia to Indonesia, and north as far as Japan.

* Bait-ul-Muskaan: House of smiles/ laughter

* Bharta: A Pakistani/ Indian dish of vegetables (such as eggplant and often onion or tomato) that have been cooked usually by roasting and then mashed together with pungent spices.

* Karela: Bitter gourd in Urdu.

* Kharoos: Urdu colloquialism for someone who is hard, uncompromising and joyless.

* Kintsugi: Also known as kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.

* Daal: cooked lentils in Urdu


* Nihari: Originating in Mughal India, this is slow-cooked meat, mainly a shank cut of beef, lamb and mutton, or goat meat, as well as chicken and bone marrow. It is flavoured with various spices.

VERSE | SEPIA STORMS

I hear the leaves rustle in the breeze
The gust picks up slowly, gradually
I hear the rattle of a window
The one that lies loosely in its frame
Like a watchful sentry
Announcing the entry
Of a wayward breeze
That rolls in through its screen
To knock upon the door
At the end of the corridor

I walk out of my bedroom into the lounge
The sentinel window
Is now trembling, recoiling
Rattling its pane
Warning of rain
That will soon moisten
Its face; gushing,
Rushing, tearing
The dust off old memories -
Renewing the pain

I see the first flash of lightning and then
The thunder breaks
The storm has arrived
I look at it through the window
Now lying quietly in its frame
Soon the glisten of its pane
Swells into a stream flowing
Down silently, as I sit quietly
With the sweet ache
Of old memories again