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

VERSE | THE QUIRKS OF WAXING LYRICAL

I thought I’d write a poem today 
For a change, a cheerful one
It seems like my prolific poetry
Is making me the Queen of Glum

It’s not that I don’t see the beauty
The hope and joy that abound
In big and small spaces
In young and old faces
Oh i see it all around!

But I also see life’s glimmer
Fade away, get slowly dimmer
In close and distant places
In fresh and weathered faces
And my own feelings grow grimmer

The angst nudges the bard in me
Unlike any rush of triumph or glee
The words spill out agonised, enraged
In wounded quatrains upon the page
(And I have to say!)
I feel lighter for the venting spree

So I thought I’d write a poem to tell
Whether in fact I am capable
Of verse that won’t assault your tear ducts
Or indeed get your adrenaline up
(What can I say!)
These are the quirks of waxing lyrical

VERSE | A HEARTACHE SHARED

She looks at me hesitantly 
There is something on her mind
I feel her turmoil, her anxiety
But I’m also aware of the impropriety
Of looking straight into her soul
Uninvited, I can’t make bold
Enough to let her know
That I know that something is not right

She looks away, I continue to read
The label on the jar of cream in my hands
Luxury Hand Lotion it says
Lilac and English lavender
I am acutely aware of her disquietude
Intensely, minutely even as I
Focus on the object I cannot put down …
She finally speaks to me with her eyes

Have you ever felt unlike yourself?
Like it was not you who was experiencing
The pain … the loss … the tragedy …
Like you were on the outside, just watching?
The jar of cream breaks free from the spell
As I face her with all of my being
It now sits on the table flat and still
As I look at her, letting my heart speak

I know, dearest one … I can feel your hurt
Talk to me, or don’t talk at all
Let it all out or just set it free
In the secret spaces of your soul
Listen to your grief, speak to it too
Until the throb recedes a notch or two
Then let me in, let me hold you close
Let me share your pain as I sit with you

VERSE | HEARTBREAK

I feel a rage 
It’s not the flaming, blazing kind
Nor is it the hating kind
It’s disappointment mixed with hurt
A betrayal mixed with cheerlessness
It’s a whipping, bruising buffeting
It’s a faded, jaded trustfulness
It’s a crashing and a burning
Without smoke, without fire
It’s the turning into ash
Of something held so close
Of something tender and so dear
Of a precious, precious thing
Of a pearl old as the years.

I feel a rage
But in its manifestation
There is no acid hotness
Only a painful heaviness
That sits mostly in my throat
Huddled there, straining to emerge
In tears or in words
I’m capable of neither.
Even as it squeezes me
Choking, asphyxiating me
In its throttling stranglehold
I’m hoping for some peace and grace
Hoping even in the throes
Of this weary, bleary rage.

VERSE | KNIGHT SPIDER

LISTEN TO THE POEM BEING READ AT: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSde12G2A/?k=1
I saw a little spider today
Weaving itself a pathway;
In silken thread and zestful strides
It made its way up the side
Of the glass wall close to me
I kept watching it carefully
Partly because horror flicks
Have made me squirm around these arachnids
But mostly because of the enterprise
It put into its little life

It climbed halfway up the glass
And then a gust of wind alas!
Tore its thready ladder up
It swayed before going plop!
Right onto the table where
I sat with my coffee to stare
At this busy creature lift
Its body up bit by bit

I moved back in mild alarm
Not because I’d come to harm
That was not the thought I had
My arachnophobia got me to stand
It sat there a little concussed I think
Before it gathered up its wits
And off it went climbing again
Forming anew, repairing

With so much drama in its life
Buffeting winds, with predators rife
The spider stays focused on its goals
It weaves its web, mends broken holes.
We can learn a thing or eight
From this marvellous arachnid -
To go on even when we’ve gone plop!
To persevere, to climb back up
Folks, if little spidey can be
A superhero, so can we.

VERSE | A LOVE STORY

LISTEN TO THE POEM BEING READ AT: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSewAcj86/
When he smiles
His mouth curves up a little
Just a bit. The teeth don’t show.
But sometimes a rare glimpse of ivory snow
Peeks through. Like weathered pages
From a book that has seen the ages;
That has been loved, and also has
Been tossed around in the hands
Of those that loved it less -
Now hiding its parchment yellowness

When she smiles
Her cheeks skip up, joining hands
With the crow’s feet at the corners
Of her eyes. Hands and feet
Join together in a wreathe
Its flowers have been abloom a while
Many now wear waning smiles
Just a few are waxing still
Of bountiful life taking their fill

When they look at each other
He and she
And they smile for all the world to see
The mouths, the noses and the cheeks
The enamel pearls, the crow’s feet
All fade away as eyes light up;
Two sets of windows brighten up
Spangled pathways to twin souls.
The radiant smiles reach deep inside
To gently touch two pages bright
Of a love story, both new and old

SHORT STORY | THE MAN WITH THE TWISTED LIPS – Part Three

(I)

Sheila had gone back to Dhaka after a month in Colombo. Despite not being a happy work traveller, she was grateful for her recent trips which had been taking her to the sun-kissed shores of Sri Lanka and into the warm embrace of the man she was falling in love with. Sheila was a realist and had taken her time with letting cupid carry out his soppy shenanigans with her heart. But she had finally given in and was now quite surely slipping and sliding into the full throes of love.

It was a week after her return that she saw it – the picture of Sam with a girl. It was on his FB profile. She felt her heart sink and then shrivel. Not in the desperate, wanting to die manner; but in the heartbroken, disappointed but determined not to drown way. She sent him one message asking if he was seeing someone else. He replied in the affirmative. The exchange was polite and estranged, like they had never actually met. She then blocked his number, wrapped up her bruised heart, threw herself into her work and prayed that her usual gumption would in time, minister and heal.

After Sheila left, Sam changed gears and put Angeline at the front and centre of his focus. The newness and the excitement of the engagement was now a month old distant memory but he still needed to act the part. He was looking to the future – a future that would be brightened and bolstered by a British passport. And for that, he would be the devoted, adoring fiancé. The couple coordinated on updating their profile pictures on social media, and the online universe too was informed of yet another fairytale prefect union in an otherwise imperfect world.

Two months later, Sam flew into a new sunrise, replete with new opportunities, his wedding and also a whole new demographic of women. That last bit he had not really planned for, but old habits die hard and man is nothing if not fallible. That combined with the universe’s love of satire, Sam soon found himself between his spanking new marriage and …the arms of another woman, and then another and another. He’d met the first one at his wedding in fact. She was a pretty little thing with eyes like cornflower blue sapphires – a confection of island vibes with a continental flavour. He hadn’t meant to play around but it had happened, again and again after that. It was like he hadn’t quite come to terms with the exclusivity that marriage enjoins on a couple. Angeline was heartbroken; but the scales tilted quite completely towards the pure wrath she felt. She had given this man her heart and her soul – diva style, in all its glorious trappings, and he had squandered it by chasing other women … cheap, wanton women. She hated the women as much as she resented the fact that despite everything, she wasn’t enough for Sam.

After his second error in judgement, Sam was packed off back to the island that had, at various times in his life, held him both broken and whole in her arms. This time he stepped onto her soil feeling somewhat vanquished and victimised. It was true that he’d cheated on his wife but to be thrown out of the country was taking things too far. He was now without a job, without prospects and living with his parents.

After a month of wallowing in self pity, Sam roused himself and sauntered back into the familiar folds of friends and family. His post- Kent story was as varied as his audiences tended to be. The family heard of it as a marital spat which may resolve itself in time; his friends heard of the psychotic harridan that he had married and the newcomers into his life knew only that he was footloose and fancy free.

(II)

A year passed and then two. Somewhere down the road, there was a troublesome patch-up between Angeline and Sam that then oscillated between periods of superlative love and violent hate. When the former elation hit, he would whisk himself off to the UK for a few months of honeymoon-happy times; and when the mood pendulum swung southwards, it would bring everything that was good, whole and happy about their union crashing down around them, culminating also for Sam, in a one way ticket back to Tear Drop* isle.

Sam had, at various times, during his UK banishment periods, bumped into Sheila. Her work now brought her regularly to the island for months at a time. And every time he’d seen her, he had felt the familiar old stirring in his heart and in his groin. The urge to possess would come striding in making him feel agitated and he had to admit it, even somewhat desperate. And so he had gone up to her, again and again, expecting her to thaw in the sizzle of his masculinity. He expected her to melt when he spoke of the vicious rumours concerning a marriage he’d never contracted. But she had always looked at him as if she’d laid eyes on a steaming pile of refuse. His cruel mouth that most times so convincingly dressed itself in a heart-melting smile, curled into a grimace to reflect the person within whenever he felt agitated or ungratified. She was now able to see him for what he was.

He however, was taken aback; this was not the customary reception he got even from the ones whose hearts he had mauled in the wake of his lusty rampages. At the start of his attempts at rekindling an association, she had refused to acknowledge him at all. Three years down the road, she had begun to respond with a terse hello. The tempered approach was more to do with the fact that Colombo was a small place making even the most unpleasant of encounters a statistical probability, and also because she had realized that nursing grudges even of the most noble variety, tended to eat at the person that is wronged more than they ever affect the perpetrators themselves.

Four years into his bruised and battered marriage, Sam chanced upon Sheila once more as he had done on so many different occasions. This time however, she actually had a conversation with him. A real conversation after years of strained reticence. He told her then that he had in fact been married but had for the past two years, been divorced. That his ex wife was psychotic and the union had not been able to survive the emotional battering ram that she had wielded on it so regularly and so enthusiastically. Sheila had listened; she hadn’t said anything. She tended to be reserved when it came to ugly gossip and to the torrid tales told by people who themselves had also shown up to be less than perfect specimens of the humankind that they were so distressed by. Then began a cautious friendship. Sheila and Sam went for drinks together and then dinner. But she still kept him at arms length. She was now aware enough to realize that he made for a good fair weather friend, someone to spend a social evening out with; but that anything beyond that was doomed to failure. And so, as the months passed and Sam felt himself being pulled deeper into the throes of what to him felt like the most genuine relationship he had ever had, Sheila on her part, steadfastly maintained the essential formality of friendship.

(III)

“Hi, Sheila right?” came a strident voice from in front of her. Sheila looked up in surprise, her knotty Kakuro* enterprise forgotten in the wake of the enraged woman standing at her table, staring down at her.

“Hello, yes…” Sheila was wondering who this was. Even as she filtered through her memory for an inkling of familiarity, the woman had launched her attack.

“Thank you for teaching me!” she said raising her voice quite a few decibels above the ambient hum of the coffee shop while looking at Sheila with the purest animosity.

It took Sheila a few moments to gather her wits, scattered as they were by this onslaught out of the blue.

“What… who are you?”

“You know my husband quite well – Sam Sivathamby?”

“Sam? Sam is married?”

“Yes! And I’m his wife!”

“Calm down! I had no clue he was still married. He told me he was divorced.”

Even while she said this, Sheila realized she was responding on the back foot to the woman fuming in front of her. She wanted to say instead that she had no romantic designs on Sam Sivathamby. That those had faded into the mists like ghosts of a Christmas that had come and gone at least four years ago. That while he now may be holding a flame for her, the one she had carried for him had been doused by lies and deceit a long time ago. But the woman in front of her was livid and Sheila’s intuition told her that she was beyond any logic and honesty that could dampen her immediate sense of righteous indignation.

“Calm down. I had no clue of your existence”, Sheila said again.

The woman glared at Sheila, her eyes blazing, reaching it seemed into her arsenal of resentment and hate that she had so meticulously and passionately amassed in the wake of her cheating husband. Instead, she turned away for a moment and when she looked back at Sheila, something different, something visceral seemed to have fallen into place.

Angeline stood looking at Sheila. Her outrage suddenly seemed ridiculous, pantomimed. The “other women” whom she had conditioned herself to hate with such intensity, who in all likelihood were themselves lured, trapped and played, were not the problem. They never had been. It was just easy to blame them. It had allowed her to keep the bubble that was Angeline and Sam, intact. In all its toxicity and ugliness, she had kept it together by not only whitewashing the man that was her husband but also by painting the other women in all the hideous hues that hell threw up in the wake of one scorned.

Now, the charade was over. The bubble had burst.

She took in a deep breath, feeling the bitterness and the anger leave her body. She felt oddly light as she finally reached for the feeling that had been hiding in the pit of her stomach all these years. The scene so charged with righteous fury a moment ago, transformed into one of clarity, honesty and acceptance.

“I … I’m sorry. Can we talk? I’m Angeline”.

* Tear Drop Island: One of the many whimsical names given to Sri Lanka because it is shaped like a tear drop.

* Kakuro: A Japanese logic puzzle that is often referred to as a mathematical transliteration of the crossword.

SHORT STORY | THE MAN WITH THE TWISTED LIPS – Part Two

(I)

Angeline had arrived a week ago. It had been a whirlwind of lunches, high teas and inebriated evenings. Both Sam and Angeline were glowing in the newness of their couplehood, their romance springing wings in the festive Colombo air. That was also when he had got a message from Sheila. She was back in town. He had read the text with a mixture of pleasure and anxiety. Colombo was a small place and with the way he and Angeline were going about town, they could very likely bump into her. He couldn’t have that. He still felt the mad urge to get under her skin, to possess her. He did not respond to the message then. Once the hook was in place, he liked to take his time. Sheila will wait to hear from him. But not for too long. He had this impression that she wasn’t the kind to get desperate in love. The kind of desperation that he had made full use of in most of his other link-ups. Many of the women he had pursued had hung on frenziedly even when the excitement of the chase was over for him. It was why he kept them all at arms length; never inviting them home or on getaways to his secret hideaways around the island. Shiela was different. She was in control. So far.

Two days later, Sam responded to Sheila’s message and they met up on a Thursday evening. Angeline was busy with a family dinner that he had opted out of. It was the perfect opportunity to continue his other lustful undertaking. He walked into the alfresco bar and saw her sitting, serene and solitary at the far end of the table. His heart skipped a beat and his resolve to conquer intensified. They had a glass of wine and then he took her out for a drive. They went back to the hotel where she was staying, and they kissed. But she was not ready to go down the Sam-sired rabbit hole. He realised that he had to take it slow with her; he didn’t want to spook her. The urge to possess and devour was overwhelming, but he exercised restraint. He would have her, later rather than sooner, but he would.

Sheila’s sister and brother in law were arriving in Colombo in a couple of days. He definitely did not want to go down the road of meeting relatives. This was not meant to be a long term association. He would have to disappear for a bit. He’d come back later and he’d make sure he made her warm up to him again after that bit of essential escape artistry on his part. He had received a few messages from Sheila to which he had sent no response.

The next three weeks passed in a blur as he and Angeline prepared for the engagement amid the general festivity of the season.

(II)

The deed was done. He and Angeline were engaged. However, the euphoria that he had felt at the very thought of the milestone earlier, was now gone. A staleness was spreading over the now official union. He frowned. It was done. He had wanted it and he had got it.

Later that evening the engagement party whisked themselves off to the club for further revelry. Despite his six glasses of single malt, Sam had a vague feeling of anticlimax. He emptied the contents of the seventh glass down his throat and got up to dance. He suddenly caught sight of Sheila. She was dancing – with a man. Another man. Not him, but someone else. He felt the warm fuzziness slowly leave his body as he looked at her her. He wanted to grab her and hold her close. He hated the sight of the other man. He continued to look at her. Suddenly he felt Angeline grab him from behind, and cling to him. The heat of her body irritated him. He turned around and looked at her in barely concealed disgust.

“You’re drunk. Go home before you do something stupid. Go and sleep it off”.

Angeline watched her fiancé’s face, contorted now in spiteful contempt, his mouth twisting in that cruel way that it sometimes did. Even in her alcoholic stupor, she felt a ripple of fear course through her. She blinked. Maybe she was too drunk and imagining scenes from her version of relationship hell.

She had allowed herself to be bundled into a taxi and whisked off home, away from the mad cacophony of the club and hopefully, also from her anxious, tumultuous thoughts.

Sam had then gone back in, and headed straight for Sheila. Beyond her initial surprise at seeing him there, she was ineffusive at his sudden appearance after almost a month of radio silence. He looked at her and placed a protective, possessive arm across the back of her chair. He then got to work, channeling the full force of his guileful charm towards the object of his obsession. The fact that she had appeared happy and unbroken in the wake of his disappearance from her life had hit him like a ton of bricks. His vanishing act had been calculated and temporary but she wasn’t to know that. And yet, she had appeared cheerful and whole and in the thick of things. That evening he acted on the overwhelming and single minded urge to lure her back into his web before anyone else got to her. He had in fact, momentarily and in a screwy twist of irony, felt the same desperation that he usually precipitated in the wake of his myriad frivolous love affairs.

(III)

A week later, Angeline left for Margate. She was the drama teacher at a secondary school there and was in the throes of putting together a new and quirky version of The West Side Story, where villains were not entirely villainous and the good guys were all too fallible. She was a master craftsmen, and had a knack for taking old world literature and breathing new life into it. She planted little bites of present day reality into sixty and seventy year old tales to nip at the sensibilities of her fan base, which now consisted of more than just the parents of her students. She had also recently opened up her own theatre company; the Drama Queens had got their very first season commission to perform at the Hazlitt Theatre in Maidstone in the spring. She was going to be busy while also getting the paperwork completed for her husband-to-be to join her a month later.

That month back in his bachelor avatar, Sam rallied and shone. He had also redoubled his manipulation and bewitchery of Sheila. With time, he had become both fascinated and intimidated by the woman he had come to know. It had been a slow process as his usual love lusts tended to go, but he had finally enchanted and mesmerised her and made her fall in love with him. He wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to marry her. Aloud, on wine filled evenings, he had spoken of wanting to have children with her. The way in which she had looked searchingly into his eyes, into his soul, had rattled him. It was something he’d said to sweet talk her, to coax her into letting her guard down. To get under her skin. Usually, he felt nothing whispering these alcohol induced happy-ever-afters. She was different however; dignified and self assured, and he actually felt guilty off and on when he made one of his dramatic long term affirmations to her. Being a seasoned and indiscrimate assailer of hearts however, Sam paid little heed to thes pin pricks of conscience. He continued his tender assaults until it was time yet again for Sheila to go back to Dhaka and for him to start on his new adventure in England.

SHORT STORY | THE MAN WITH THE TWISTED LIPS – Part One

(I)

Angeline woke up to the tinny version of Vivaldi’s Spring* as her phone rang. It was Sam. Her sleep-filled face lit up as she reached across to her bedside table to pick it up.

“Hello darling! I’m coming over to make you breakfast!” chirped his upbeat voice from the other end of the line.

Angeline sat up in bed, her face now wreathed in a grin.

“I’m waiting. Come!” she said. The call ended but she still held onto her phone as its customary morning coolness began to thaw in the glow from her skin. She laughed a little laugh of pure joy and exultation. She was absolutely, totally in love. All over again in fact; the adolescent romance rekindling like the spark had never quite gone out.

Sam and Angeline had been childhood sweethearts. They’d lived through the civil war in their country and through all its small and large inconveniences – much of the privileged class had been spared the actual horrors as many had fled to safer geographies before the demons of war and atrocity had landed at their doorsteps. Angeline’s parents had relocated the family to Margate in Kent in the UK; its miles upon miles of sandy beaches a fond reminder of the ones they’d left behind.

Sam’s family had moved to the capital metropolis of Colombo. There they had quickly become a part of the still multi-ethnic, generally harmonious melting pot of communities. Sam had gone to school, made friends and had ultimately landed a job in the corporate sector. And through it all, Sam had basked in a coveted secret: Quite early on, he had realized that he was a charmer and over the years, he had taught himself to skilfully wield that weapon of lust and passion; for a weapon is what his single-minded, amorous pursuits had become, and he used it expertly and unsparingly in all his major and minor interactions with the ladies. It is not far from the truth to say that he had in his wake, left a sizeable brigade of confused, heartbroken and furious women.

But Angeline was nothing if not bouyant and optimistic. With a marriage a piece behind each of them, second time was going to be lucky she thought with hope and elation.

She had come with her parents to the home country as she always did, once a year. This time however, Sam had bestowed her with more than his customary single visit. He had in fact, been coming over to their home in Battarmulla almost every day, seeking out her company and stirring up little sparks of joy in her heart … and her body. She had always thought he was gorgeous but with that distant adoration one usually reserves for a favourite movie star. Now everything seemed more visceral, more real including the way her breathing quickened when she saw him.

And so, it had turned out to be one of many beautiful mornings of shared gastronomic labor, tingly closeness and enough oxytocin to sink the whole kitchen. For Angeline and Sam, the rest of the fortnight passed in a blur of meeting up with friends and dancing many a night away cloaked in the fuzzy warmth of wine and ultimately in each other’s arms. By the time Angeline was leaving for Margate, their couplehood was official.

(II)

Angeline left and Sam picked right up from where he’d left off. It was another Saturday night and Sam had decided to go to the club. He sat at the bar brooding seductively. He knew he had the goods to approach whomever he wanted to; he was fully aware that he brought more than his fair share of charisma and beguilement to any table occupied by the ladies. Tonight though, he had come with the boys. They would drink, exchange a few words and absorb the scene full of women and other men who were also out and about to see and be seen. If any of them caught sight of an especially delectable specimen of the opposite sex, they’d sportingly and magnanimously bring the tantalising exhibit to the others’ attention. It was an unspoken camaraderie between many a band of adventuring men out on the town in the wake of a spirited weekend.

He had caught sight of her then. She was also sitting at the bar. He smouldered in her direction but only for a few moments. The room was too thick with people and their ricocheting hormones for his silent seduction to work. So he asked one of the barmen to take a message across. She then had only to look at him for his charm to do the rest of the work. The messenger came back after a bit with an unsatisfactory answer. So, she was a tough one. He could feel his pulse quicken as it always did when he was up against a challenging object of lust. He sent the bartender again, this time with a little more detail about himself. He had deployed this strategy of sharing his persuasive corporate background on a few other instances and had successfully thawed the occasional ice maiden he had encountered. Sure enough! She had finally looked his way. He bid a cheeky adieu to his comrades and walked towards what looked like a promising rest of the evening.

Sam had not been prepared for such an onslaught of his senses. She had been cheerful, confident and also quite unmoved by his allure beyond engaging in a friendly conversation. He had to deploy the full force of not only his ample charm but also his intellect. She challenged him in ways that other women of an evening out, did not. His efforts had been rewarded not in the fashion that he was used to but for his state of mind and heart at the time, it was enough as she agreed to him dropping her and her friend off at their hotel later that night. They were visitors to the island and were leaving for their home in Dhaka in a week. He felt the familiar urgency to wrap up this pursuit, the way he did all of his passionate endeavours.

The next evening, he met up with both women at the bar of their hotel. They all had too much wine while listening to the resident band play tunes from the 80s. Again, the evening had come to a close … not entirely satisfactorily. He had now also begun to get the distinct impression that this was not going to end the way he wanted it to. She was not besotted or taken in by his singular attention to her. He, on the other hand, had begun to “catch feelings” as his nephew said when he came to pick him up after one of his chaperoned dates with Sheila; her friend was always there in what was feeling more and more like a quaint modern day version of a Victorian courtship. His agitation however, had quite quickly transformed to a focused assault of her heart and her mind. He had to get under her skin and into her head before he could advance in any other direction.

Sheila left for her home in Dhaka, but was coming back again for some work in a couple of weeks. He would wait.

(III)

Sam was feeling euphoric and invincible these days. It was his high period. He had just emerged from months of listlessness and lethargy, and the hell that was other people; he truly admired Sartre’s* unapologetic disinclination towards tolerating humanity. Half the time he could absolutely relate, but these days he was feeling alive. And after the less than perfect lust enterprise of the last ten days, he wanted desperately to bask in the triumph of effortlessly captured hearts. And so, he had called Angeline and told her that he loved her. And then, he had asked her to marry him. The adrenaline and the dopamine had then gone to work as he raced around on a delirious high. In some lucid corner of his mind though, he had been almost as surprised as she was when he’d popped the question. But he was feeling good and this was going to be good. Angeline the woman, and Angeline the diva had always made him feel good. This was probably what love was. His mind wandered. Sheila also made him feel good; alive. He’d just met her; he hardly knew her. She was a passing fancy he told himself; although as fleeting fancies went, she was obviously not passing out of his system fast enough. She had a strange air of mystery and reserve which had mesmerised him, and so she too swirled around in his thoughts for the next few weeks.

Sam was smiling. Angeline was coming to town next month. They were going to be engaged. He thought of all the men that constantly hovered about her like moths around a flame, wanting in one way or another, to make her their own. The thought of their crushed and defeated love quests made his heart swell even bigger. She was going to officially become his woman, Mrs. Sivathamby. He grinned.

When are you coming back? Thinking of you – he wrote the message and sent it into the ether to find its intended recipient. Sheila’s phone lit up as she received the message. She looked at it musingly. Was this getting serious she wondered. She looked at it a little longer and in her deliberate introspective way, decided to wait until later to respond.

* Vivaldi’s “Spring”: Part of a musical composition called “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi, a 17th century Italian composer. The first concerto of the composition is Spring, describing its freshness and beauty.

* Sartre: A 20th century French playwright, novelist and political activist as well as a leading figure in French philosophy and Marxism. “Hell is other people” is a famous line from his 1944 play No Exit.