I’m in Karachi after two and a half years of Pandemic gridlocks, and it’s been a whirlwind of a homecoming. Besides grappling with the major and minor curveballs that my micro and macro environments tend to throw at me off and on, I have also been able to indulge in some nostalgia: found my little book in which I’ve put down a few poems that I’d written in my teens. Even at that tender age, external stimuli hit hard! 😅 Below is one of my verses from my adolescent days.
I was walking through the woods one day With my thoughts in a turmoil Oblivious to nature was I - To the trees and the grass and the soil
I was attempting to decipher The meaning of strife and war Was it political agitation For the enforcement of a law?
Or was it as I believed the cause Of a moment’s disarray Of a value old as age itself - The simple Human Way
Where was the compassion that Bespoke the worth of one? Had the shield of dignity and love Been replaced by the gun?
Where was the pride in good deeds Where was the humility? Was everything really shrouded by The veil of frailty?
Frailty of causes And frailty of sense Had the once true noble values Become a mere pretence?
I was looking for the answers I was seeking a refuge From the grief and the confusion that Had overcome me like a deluge
It was then that I heard whispering The soil, the grass, the trees “You already have the answers Now you only have to see
When man was made a brother Unto the other one The moulding of a sacred Tradition had begun
So when war threatens to break this bond Their spirit shall hold them fast For that was always meant to be Unto the very last”.
It’s Strange How some people call all the shots For you and me; on what’s right and what’s not On how we should all live our lives On what we should want to grow and to thrive. And we follow them like so many mice The Pied Piper surely leaves us no choice
It’s Strange How some nations are on top of their game And others continually parry insults and blame Some swirl around in their blood, sweat and tears While others race on winds of good cheer And yet we stand by like so many sheep The First World Dream will not let us be
It’s Strange How the spirit of our humanity Has gone into permanent servitude For the battle of egos of the few Losing our grip on what’s right and true And we circle around like so many moths Burning our wings in the flames of their wrath
It’s Strange How hard it has become of late To step out of the comfort of the bell curve Created to kill off the being that’s you Teaching you how you must hate and love And we fight on like so many soldiers sore Thinking one more battle will win us the war
It’s Strange Even as I write these lines A question skips on the edge of my mind No, there are two for misery loves company Who’ll tell me the answers that I seek to find - When did the glow inside you cease to exist? When did Instinct and Courage let go of my wrists?
I am Laughter and I am Tears I am the apex of my most lucid Fears I am Joy and I am Peace I am all that the tranquil dove sees I am Chaos, I am Discord I am the Trodden, I am Master and Lord I am Winter and I am Spring I wither, I fade and I waken again I am Rage and I am Love I’m the depths of the ocean, I am the heavens above I am the Devil and I am the Saint I’m rampant, unbridled and also restrained. I am the Thundering Eye of the storm I am the Deluge that it brings along I am the Space Dust whirling around Deformed defacements that once were sound I am also the Centre of the Universe I’m the Infinite Beauty of prose and verse I am Kindness and I am Faith I am Hope and I am Grace I am the Atom, I am the Whole I am the Body, I am the Soul I am whoever that I want to be I am Maya*, I am Cosmic Energy.
* MAYA: The personification of the idea that the material world is illusory. Maya is a female name in various languages. In Sanskrit, for instance, it means "illusion or magic", and is also an alternate name of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. In the Tupi language, of southern Brazil, it means "mother". In the Māori language, it means "courage" or "bravery".
The sisters didn’t speak of the confidence sharing or the fragile moment of overt affection that they had bestowed on one another. But for Aliya there was now, added to the light footedness of new love, also the bouyant warmth of a sisterhood that had matured, mellowed overnight from the abrasive harshness of a protracted adolescence. She’d seen the soft inside of her diamond hearted sister. It had been a coming of age of the two women bound as they were by their shared DNA.
The next two months passed in a haze of coffee outings and the odd soirée at a friend’s house. Ali and Aliya attended most of these social dos together. Although they had grown closer in some ways, there was no physicality. Aside of one random kiss that Ali had dropped on her in a state of high spirits, there was no intimacy. So even though this was her first real relationship, she had felt her cautionary sixth sense kick in a few times. She had also caught him, in their quiet moments together, seeming to look more at her bulk than at her; but only for a moment. It had made her shift uncomfortably. Then almost instantly he would remember something else to talk about and the smile hovering uncertainly around his mouth would return to his eyes. And so the euphoria of being in his company, of never running out of chatter, of being sought out, had superseded all the other foreboding notions that sometimes reared theirs sage but irksome heads.
Hesitantly at first, Aliya had quite earnestly tried to include Saira in her plans with Ali. Saira always declined. This socialising with her sister was still too new; uncharted territory for the sure footed Saira. Also she was adamant about not stealing the limelight from her sister because she always had, everywhere. This relationship had to mature beyond the skin deep surface to surer ground before she would join the duo. She already had a trail of ill gotten admirers in her wake: Many a friend’s ardent suitor after having met Saira, had lost his original romantic plot and veered off after her, leaving the detritus of cursing girl friends, bands of sparring women, and specifically for Saira, the dubious reputation of being a “man eater”. Her sister had never had a man before so she had been spared that added insult to injury. Saira had in fact, met Ali a few times and they had exchanged basic pleasantries. To her mind he had displayed no particular quality to indicate that he was immune to random female charms, even if they were not in any way cast in his general direction. There were more than a few times that Saira had looked in the mirror, into the depths of her hazel eyes and wondered if she was really evil or if the world around her was just deficient in personal ethics. The toss up was even keeled depending on her state of mind during those moments of introspection.
There was a party at a friend’s to which Saira was going but Aliya was not. She had come down with a cold and was going to spend the evening tucked into her duvet with a flask of hot tea and the company of her best friend. Although they’d talked on the phone, she had met Saqib only a couple of times over the last two months. On hearing that she was spending the evening in the quietude of her home finally, he had walked across to see her. Saira looked in on the pair, waved a cheery farewell and whisked off to the party.
Saqib sat down on the twin bed next to the one Aliya was snuggled up in. He looked at her, his heart skipping a beat even after all these years of being friends. He loved her. He always had really. She was a beautiful girl who was in the wrong environment he thought for an uncharitable but brutally honest moment. Her sister and her mother had made it difficult for her to really open up and blossom. She was usually closed in, clammed up; but he had seen the dazzling little glimpses every now and then of the woman she really was. Of course all these sentiments meandered cozily within the innermost confines of his own heart. He had never spoken to Aliya about how he felt. In a whimsical way, he thought the universe would intervene when the time was right. He and Aliya shared that ephemeral belief about things, about their world.
He looked at her now, her beautiful skin even more radiant in the heat of her flu induced fever. His heart did another little skip as he looked at her, smiling in the warmth of his secret … held in the protective palms of the universe… to float into their shared ether when the time was right… soon he’d thought only two months ago. Now … well, now, he felt like a transparent wall had come up between them, looking very surmountable still. Like he could just reach through and pull her into a tender hug. It was strange but her relationship with Saqib had not changed a thing. He still felt the quiet elation and the intimacy of their close kinship. They spent the evening talking easily, comfortably until Aliya was ready to sleep. On his way out, Munir uncle had invited him for a glass of scotch. Saqib enjoyed the company of this older, scholarly, wise man, just as much as Munir Mian appreciated the sensible, grounded younger man. It was after midnight when Saqib finally walked back home.
The thing happened abruptly, unexpectedly, in the throes of alcoholic fuzziness and it has to be added, in the thick of stage haziness from the fog machine. It was one of those Saturday nights in November when it was chilly, romantic and many a heart was fluttering on its wayward sleeve. People were huddled together around gas heaters set around the garden. The inner sanctums belonged to the energetic and sure footed as they cavorted euphorically to the dance beats of the 80s and the 90s. Saira had ramped up not only her spirits with four vodka and oranges, but also her step count of the day with an hour on the floor with the other dancing queens. She now sat on one of the chairs inside surrounded by the extra warm stupor in and around her.
‘Oh hello’ came a voice from somewhere to her left.
She squinted through the mind and machine fog as she tried to locate the owner of the voice. She was wondering if in fact it was a figment of her swirling imagination when someone dropped into the chair next to hers. It was Ali.
Fifteen minutes into their banter, Ali placed a confident hand on Saira’s thigh. Her reflexes were slow which he took for compliance. When he leaned over to kiss her, Saira suddenly leaped up slapping his head away. She could feel the multi-layered warmth leaving her body in a visceral, almost palpable way, like the blood draining from a severed artery. She stood up, swaying ever so slightly and turned towards the now blubbering man.
‘You bloody a**hole! Don’t you come near me again’. She thought only for a split second before adding, ‘Or my sister’.
The thing about blood being thicker than water is that when that adage does hold up, it brings entire families closer than they ever were before the calamity struck. And so it was with the twins. Saira came into Aliya’s room the next morning and sat on the bed opposite hers just as Aliya was reading a meandering text from Ali that sounded as cryptic as it did defensive. But he had mentioned Saira in it.
‘What happened’, Aliya asked simply looking at her sister’s drawn face.
‘It’s Ali … he’s a creep’ Saira said looking at her sister hoping that their new found understanding would make the awkwardness, the hurtfulness of this incidence easier to manage. When Aliya continued to look at her with clear, questioning eyes, Saira began to relate what had happened. Aliya listened quietly, unmovingly until Saira was done.
She then looked towards the window, willing away the tears that had sprung to her eyes. She had known there was something amiss about her equation with Ali, something that just didn’t sit properly, uprightly. But to have made moves on her sister after everything that they had shared … What had they shared? Easy banter about things that they both liked but that was it. And if she was absolutely honest with herself, she had imagined more than a few scenarios where he had shown his unabashed preference for Saira. No… she wasn’t shocked. She was hurt. She swallowed hard, but the tears came anyway and she cried as Saira hugged her, silently weeping with her.
That was another thing the sisters never spoke of again but it had brought them closer; and that was what mattered Aliya thought to herself in her moments of not entirely happy reminiscences and uneasy introspection.
Saqib was at his best friend’s side after that. He came by everyday even if it was for twenty minutes at a time to see how Aliya was faring. Her cold was better and between her bruised heart slowly repairing itself and the bouts of wretchedness that assailed her off and on, there were glimmers of her lovely smile again.
‘I’ve put on 3kgs in the last ten days Saqib’, Aliya said laughing through her tears. She was trying to see the lighter side of things… that was who she was. Positive and unputdownable was his Aliya. He felt his heart bursting with affection and a strange pride for who this girl was, to him and to the rest of the world. He smiled at her with love in his eyes.
Saqib had spoken to the Wellness Centre that Aunty Maryam (Aliya’s mother) had been raving about. They had a nutritionist (who absolutely looked the part of course, he grinned) and a physiotherapist specialising in chronic injuries (childhood handicaps included). So he and Aliya were both going to enrol together.
She smiled at Saqib feeling the familiar warmth and comfort that she always did when they were together. She had always basked in the glow unquestioningly. Now she touched it, feeling it all over. Maybe … maybe they had always had something special between them transcending friendship she thought. She waited for her heart to respond to her timorous suggestion: it fluttered ever so slightly and then beat strongly, happily, serenely. She felt a lump rise in her throat and felt her eyes sting just a little. She grinned at Saqib.
She didn’t want to tell him that she loved him just as he was: melting brown eyes, the sweetest smile, rolling gait and all. He didn’t want to ruin the camaraderie of their shared enterprise by telling her that he’d had all the physiotherapy he would ever need and that his walk wasn’t going to benefit from this new intervention; and that he had always loved her as she was.
It was going to be a shared labour of determination and love for themselves and for each other.
Aliya and Saira had cousins in high places; their mother’s brother owned a prestigious ad agency. While their uncle was a prominent presence in many a corporate board room, his wife and children had donned the mantle of the most formidable movers and shakers on the flambouyant party circuit. The Lahore party scene was known for its extravagance and its scandals. Many were the nights that started out genteel and elegant and that ended in the wastelands of too much alcohol, too much food and rapidly unravelling sophistication. Hearty breakfasts of halwa puri* and trite and contrite phone calls between the triumphant and the fallen of the previous night were then the order of the next morning.
Courtesy of their cousins, both girls had debuted on the Lahore party circuit some five years ago and now at twenty five years old, both occupied their own distinct places: Saira was the quintessential diva, the sought after bachelorette at the apex of the food chain and a secret Firestarter – (she appeased her conscience with the fact that she only ever lit a match to already smoldering goods; purging was her goal she professed).
Aliya occupied the small cerebral fringe (aka people carrying more than the regular baggage who had to park it somewhere for the evening she thought wryly, no self deprecating pun intended she always emphatically added to herself). This group sat mostly on the sidelines, analysed everything from the sublime to the ridiculous and assiduously avoided the frenzied eye of the social storm heaving and roiling in front of them. They were the designated drivers and general voices of reason when shindig hell broke loose upon the by then madly gyrating, occasionally screeching horde, their strobe-lit shiny faces appearing to grimace almost fiendishly in the pulsating greens, blues and reds – like a late 20th century version of Dante’s Inferno. And when one of this group was going through personal trauma, of which there were more than a few occasions since the afflicted, in irony’s own twisted dance, tend to get more than their fair share of the ball curving back at them, the whole coterie drank too much in comfort and commiseration.
It was on one such occasion when Aliya had for a while, abandoned her station of the lawn chair critics, that it happened. The day that she felt an almost fossilised stirring in her heart. The last time she had felt this elated anxiety was when she had lost 10 kgs off her 100kg frame – that was five years ago, in the bright eyed, stomach rumbling anticiaption of her first ever ball of the season. God! the naivete, the cloying innocence she thought unable to control the self reproach that often overtook her now when she flashed back to half a decade ago.
She had been looking for Saira in the thick of the milieu in front of her, when he had come up to her. Behind her actually. She had been craning her neck, fervently hoping she wouldn’t have to dive into the throng milling about the bar area outside.
‘I have a bit of an advantage. Can I help with the subject seeking?’ he’d asked conversationally.
Aliya had turned around at this unexpected whisper in her ear … offer of help, she corrected herself practically, also bracing herself for whomever she would encounter.
‘You’re Saira’s sister aren’t you?’ he added smilingly when there was no response to his first question.
Aliya blinked once, twice, frowned ever so slightly and nodded with a ghost of a smile in return. He was obviously one of her sister’s snooty male acquaintances.
‘I saw her at the gate a little while ago’ he added looking towards the far end of the lawn at the other throng at the entrance.
‘Thanks’, Aliya responded briefly, looking at her watch and making to walk back to the comfort of her group.
‘I didn’t mean to spook you,’ he quickly added. ‘Just came to, you know, chat’. He looked at her with no hint of any snide humour or quiet judgement. She stood for a while unsure of where this exchange was leading.
‘I’m Ali – Ali Basit’ he said smiling at her.
‘I’m Aliya, Aliya Muneer’ she finally responded smiling back despite herself.
It was 9 O’clock in the morning. Aliya opened her eyes, feeling disoriented. She had had her recurring dream – this time though, she was plummeting into water, an ocean, when her nameless, faceless champion had at the very last moment, broken her fall. There was also something else on the periphery of her morning visions … someone else … Ali, she thought with a happy smile that became suddenly self conscious and then was wiped mostly off as she gathered up her floating, rhapsodic musings.
It had been an eventful night; one of the few she had spent mostly on her feet rather than on the seat that probably bore the mark of her loyal and substantive bottom by now she thought laughing inside: The handful of prestigious party planners and their furniture did the rounds of all the functions in their City of Gardens. She had been skeptical of a decent conversation unfolding in the midst of the revelry and the excess but that is exactly what had happened. She and Ali had stood for what had seemed like hours talking about the comic enigma that was Sheikh Rasheed*, the inevitability of a zombie apocalypse and the best mutton karahi* in the city. It had been a lovely evening. She smiled again, this time allowing her pleasure to course through her body as she stretched out with the gratified languor of a just-fed cat.
Aliya had only a mug of coffee that morning. Her usual breakfast gusto was lost in the crush of butterflies that was dancing around in her stomach. Her sister looked at her strangely and smiled. Aliya braced herself for another thwack in the gut … or maybe, today it would only be a light little missile of words that would just graze her shoulder, vanishing into the small obscurity of missed barbs. For today she felt fortified, invincible, of mind and heart.
Ali called her that afternoon and for the next week of afternoons. Aliya lived for that week, in a strange bubble of euphoria and starvation. She felt the hunger pangs but nothing in the fridge, on the table or on Food Panda seemed like it would appease the ache in her belly. So she resorted to having copious cups of unsweetened tea throughout the day, winding it all down (up!) with the sugary burst from a bowl of fruit for dinner. In her few clear-headed moments amidst the fog of passion that had befuddled her brain, she admitted that there was nothing quite like fledgeling love to help shed unwanted burdens of the body and the mind.
Her mother was ecstatic at the change in her daughter. She was looking better, happier and dared she say it, thinner. Her father watched her quietly, thoughtfully. He knew his daughter enough to gauge that something out of the ordinary was happening; something that could culminate in quiet triumph or great distress for his sensitive child. He realized he was more concerned about than interested in the cause for his daughter’s moony behaviour.
‘What is it?’, came the question finally from Saira on the sunday when she was going to go out for coffee with Ali.
‘What do you mean?’ Aliya responded in her characteristic defensive manner even though she had been anticipating the query for a while now. Her usually fleet-footed sister had shown remarkable forebreance this time.
‘Give me a break yaar*. Just tell me’, Saira looked at her pointedly, her toast halted midair like a hovering premonition of doom in the event of anything withheld or concealed.
Aliya sighed inwardly while retaining her stoic, watchful front. She had learnt to be wary with her sister. It was a caution that harked back to their childhood; when Saira used to rat on her to their mother when she used to sneak in a snack in the midst of her many maternally imposed and managed diets. She remembered little else from her childhood as vividly as she remembered her mother’s admonishing stares and her perpetually rumbling stomach. Suffice to say that theirs was not the winsome twinsome of the year, never had been. Theirs was a difficult relationship that had settled into a watchful acceptance by one and a relaxed bossiness by the other.
Still, this was her first serious love affair, thought Aliya; well, it was on its way to becoming one at least. It had all the glimmerings and the trappings of a love affair, a serious one, that could have … auspicious endings. She didn’t want to dive into the relationship boxes created by society; that could jinx the entire liaison. There was time enough for it to fit itself neatly into one of the institutions of blessed convention. Her mind was wandering she realized – this was her first serious love affair she thought again, marshalling her faculties of reason and goodwill, and she needed for her sister to be supportive. This once.
‘There’s someone …. someone I’ve met’, Aliya said to her sister, looking at her, wishing earnestly that she would respond with grace; that she would be nice. This once.
Saira looked at her sister for a long moment, then looked away and brought the toast to her mouth biting into it with sharp-toothed ferocity almost, thought Aliya. She looked away and sighed, this time outwardly. Who was she fooling? Saira didn’t understand her; never had. She understood her joys and her heartaches even less …
Aliya suddenly felt soft arms around her shoulders and a kiss on the back of her head.
‘I’m happy for you Aloo’, Saira whispered, continuing to hug her.
Aliya turned her head to look at her sister, expecting to see a mocking smile or a spiteful grin. There was only her sister’s gently smiling face and her eyes that were reflecting the quiet hurrah in her heart. Saira came around and sat down on the chair next to hers and laughed now, self consciously almost.
‘You’d better get this right Aloo; I’m not going to be the good samaritan saving the day for you’ she joked realising that she needed to break the spell before it became by its uncharacteristic softness, unwholesome and unkind. She had always been agitated by her twin; by her total lack of being able to look out for herself, look after herself in any way. Over the years, she had allowed her concern to morph into derision and sarcasm. She never intended to be cruel but she knew she had been a little sadistic over the years. And now, her sister was glowing in the warmth of a formidable venture; a venture of the heart. So rare were these scintillating personal moments with her sister; and she had to let her know, this once, that she was her biggest champion.
Aliya was looking at her sister as a myriad gentle emotions flitted across Saira’s face. What a watershed moment this was for their sisterhood! The surface had been scratched and there was a nice person under there after all thought Aliya, now grinning widely. A shared joy multiplies manifold. She laughed softly in pure elation and hugged her sister.
* Mohabbat Mein Twist: “A twist in the Love story”. “Mohabbat” means “Love” in Urdu.
* Halwa Puri: A traditional Pakistani breakfast that features semolina pudding or halwa and a soft fried dough called poori. Halwa is typically made with a mixture of fried semolina and sugar syrup, which is then combined with nuts such as pistachios and almonds.
* Sheikh Rasheed: A politician who is currently serving as the Interior Minister of Pakistan. He is known for his peculiar, flambouyant style.
* Mutton Karahi: A Mughlai dish that is traditionally cooked in a wok or karahi. The rich mutton curry is made by slow cooking lamb pieces with tomatoes, onion, garlic and garam masala.
* Yaar: Means “friend” in Urdu/ Hindi. It's a popular term in Indian English, used especially as a term of address for “friend.” It ultimately comes, via Urdu, from the Persian and Arabic yar, meaning “friend,” and is recorded in English as early as the 1960s.
Aliya opened one bleary eye to glance at the clock on her bedside table. It was just past 6 O’ clock. She felt a familiar quickening of her pulse as she thought of the day ahead, the obstacles to be surmounted. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. There was nothing on the agenda today, stress free as it was in the aftermath of her masters exams. Her anxious nature still had to catch up to the fact as she stilled her agitated heart. She turned on her side, away from the window and the blitheful rays of sunshine that glanced cheerily off her desk that lay in the corner of the room. She’d sleep in today she thought, catching at the fading strings of dawn time dreams. Soon, she was back in the familiar collage of her recurring dream visions: she was falling off some place – the catapulting surface was always different – and she always experienced the same great fright, and she always just about missed the concrete or the jungle floor or the carpeted surface below as her foggy saviour came to her rescue. His … her … (another conundrum) face was never clear, remaining obscured by the ephemeral mists of her dreams.
She finally arose at 11 O’ clock when her mother came into her room armed with clean laundry and the loud efficiency of having been at the helm of the domestic wheel for the last four hours. She felt groggy and tired even after her ten hours of sleep. She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her double chin was looking more pendulous than ever she thought. She clutched at the rolls on her stomach, feeling for the insidious deposit of more weight. She had been good about her meals this past month and had not given in to any stress eating even though she had been in the throes of her exams. Her nails had taken the brunt of that deprival as they now sat like ravaged half moons in their nail beds. She looked at the weighing scale lying right opposite the WC, its meticulous placement a tribute to her weight loss earnestness. She decided today was not a day for unpleasant metric system surprises and pointedly ignored it through the course of her morning ablutions.
‘Hello late latif*’, her father called out to her cheerfully as Aliya walked into the lounge. She smiled. Her father, Mian Muneer, could brighten most of her days, afflicted as they were with her mother’s constant anguished refrains for her to lose “at least ten kgs!” and her own unremitting anxiety about her weight, and everything else too. In all that maternal censure and self deprecation, he was like a breath of fresh air. Never remarking about her weight, let’s be honest she thought, her bulk. Never making her cringe at the sight of her reflection or at the sight of food even when her stomach was rumbling from protracted deprivation. He loved her just as she was, her beloved father.
‘Good morning Baba*’, Aliya responded with a kiss on his cheek.
‘Aloo*, there are parathas* for brekkie, come get them!’ came a jaunty call from the dining room. She walked towards the voice (dubiously) and towards its announcement of gastronomic delights (zealously), her stomach rumbling with hunger – was it hunger or comfort-seeking she thought fleetingly. For the former came with relatively guilt free appeasement while the latter needed to be worked through mentally and emotionally and if all went well, was rebutted, ignored, nipped in the gut. She accepted also, that despite all the diligent evaluation, she had never been very good at distinguishing between the two, as hunger loomed large on most food horizons.
Saira was sitting at the head of the table looking, even at that early hour of the day (for she too had woken up only after 10) fresh, dewy and gorgeous. This was her twin sister, the sum total of her antithesis. Aliya helped herself to three parathas and an omelette. She could feel her sister’s eyes on her; she was going to say something, she always did … irksome at best and hurtful at worst.
‘Go easy sis, that’s a thousand calories right there’ Saira released the expected verbal arrow as she put a condensed milk laden piece into her own mouth.
Aliya gave a wry smile as she loaded her parathas with condensed milk and cream.
‘Aliya, what are you doing?’ came the accusatory voice from behind her. Their mother had come in and was discharging her duty as the maternal voice of reason and outrage.
‘Having breakfast Amma’, Aliya responded doggedly. Damned if she was going to be denied the first meal of the day, twelve hours after her last one too, in all its life (and courage fostering!) fulfilment.
Her mother gave an exasperated sigh and walked out. Saira sniggered. It was just another day at 14-Z in DHA, Lahore.
Aliya had dug into her breakfast as she dug in her heels every so often when she felt the world closing in on her; Judging her, railing at her, accusing her. She had ended up having four and a half parathas. She stood looking into her wardrobe, eating herself up inside now, for her breakfast time excess; cursing her food induced and reduced anxiety. No, food didn’t induce her anxiety (except in her apocalyptic fantasies when the world was overrun by zombies and all kinds of human nutrition was scarce); it was her panacea in fact, for the maddening world around her. She sighed deeply, chose a grey baggy shirt and black track pants. She was in the mood to merge with her dreary thoughts today. She was meeting her best friend and neighbour, Saqib in a little while. He was going to help her fill in the forms for the Masters in Sociology course at Uppsala university in Sweden.
Saqib Mir was the only child of his parents, the apple of their eye, the next progenitor of their eminent lineage and the scion of the family business. Marring this perfection was a somewhat unsymmetrical gait as he was also crippled by childhood polio. The whys and wherefores of how he had contracted the disease are foggy; rife with rumour and speculation until about decade or so ago, the direful hypotheses were now obscured by an acceptance born of familiarity. For those who had known him forever, it had become like a little smudge on a Sadequain* painting that has with time, blurred into oblivion. For those meeting him for the first time, while there were no origin-theories being bandied about anymore, there was almost always that self conscious nonchalance of trying not to notice the obvious. Saqib felt both, a sense of quiet amusement and compassion for this denominator knowing the mental exhaustion their involuntary Secret Spy syndromewas bestowing on them. Humanity, even amidst the deficiencies of the developing world, has largely got used to polio free perfection; a certain basic physical congruity is a sacred expectation especially among the upper crusts of society. Saqib then was the paradoxical element that jarred the sensibilities of the well heeled more than it did that of his favourite chai wallah’s or fruit wallah’s. They acknowledged his disfigurement in a practical, unselfconscious way. He was crippled and so what? He couldn’t run but he could still walk and get about unaided. Saqib was well liked in the more modest social circles too.
The Mians and the Mirs had been neighbours for fifteen years and Aliya and Saqib had become kindred souls for each other, afflicted as they both were with their respective vulnerabilities.
This is a tribute to all the women in fact who are oppressed, reduced and shamed in the name of religion, and who still find the strength and dignity to go on another day.
O Talib*, O ye self-professed Learned One,
I have something to say to you. You can whip up monsters from the air and call them your Shariah*. You can torture and mangle “your” women, break their spirits and their bodies and call it the Word of God. You can wear your imperious lungee* and as it swishes around in the wind, you imagine the very angels dancing around you. You grow your hairy beards, and hide your malevolent grins behind them. You rumble and you roar and that is your devotion. You maim and you kill and you call that Divine intervention.
But then secretly you also glance at your reflections and you see what we all see: imperfect, angry, reviled men trying to validate their existence in the only way they can - by wiping the planet clean of the scourge of the Double (H)Ex*. But then you pause with the greatest effort known to the Men of God and you think: How can we annihilate this evil, garbed in soft flesh if we are to propagate and procreate? How else are we to add to the rank and file of Allah’s soldiers?
The conundrum is excruciating. So you continue to brutalize and ravage just short of pushing her six feet under. Just so you can crush her under you instead and make her pay for staying alive. To bear and to beget your many sons. To nurture and feed your rabid army of the Men of Allah.
O Ye Men of Allah,
I have something to say to you. Hear me.
I am the Daughter of the Universe; the Yin to your Yang, the ultimate balancing act of God’s will gone wrong in your hands.
Hear me. We will be who we are: the proud women of Afghanistan. Our honour lies serenely, supremely, completely in the depths of our own eyes, not in yours.
Look at me. Don’t hide behind your fragile male bravado. Look at me. Don’t turn your suddenly shameful eyes away.
Look at me. Look at me.
Look at me as I rise like a Phoenix from the ashes that you kicked aside. Look at me as I look at you. Look at me and see what you have become. Look at me as your heart Drains … Shrivels …. Breaks …. Burns in its own hell.
Hear me, my voice will echo through my sisters even if mine falls silent. You will Hear me.
Look at me, even if it is at my corpse as I go to meet my Maker. You will Look at me.
For Allah hears me. For Allah sees me.
Allah stands behind me as we both look at you. As we both await you.
* Double (H)Ex: Word play on the double X chromosomes that all female mammals possess. Hex is a spell or a curse.
* Talib: Scholar; Learned one.
* Shariah: Islamic law derived from the teachings of the Quran but mainly from the Prophet Muhammad. It is not a list of rules but rather a set of principles on aspects of life, including marriage, divorce, finance and rituals such as fasting and prayer.
KINDNESS, it’s such a simple thing And yet we speak of it like it was the benevolence of kings DIGNITY, such a basic quality And yet we are in awe of it like it was the Pope’s homily COURAGE, that gritty stuff of warriors! We speak of it like it was an unmasterable barrier HONESTY, its whiteness, and its shades of grey Always so elusive, like catching the sun’s rays Being SELF-AWARE, that dialogue with one’s core Only Maharishis* can ever open up that door
Depleting self-suggestion tells us How unconquerable are the odds Of mastering these exalted traits; This stuff of Allamahs* and gods. Look within yourself and tell me That you don’t see the shimmer Of all these “divine” elements Some bright, some a little dimmer
It’s time to wrap yourself in your kindness and dignity To feel the potent warmth of your courage and honesty That is you, that’s how you were built to be Take your inertia and your self doubt And finally throw them out to sea.
* Maharishi: A great Hindu sage or spiritual leader
* Allamah: An honorary and prestigious title carried by only the very highest scholars of Islamic thought, jurisprudence, and philosophy. It is used as an honorific in Sunni Islam as well as in Shia Islam. Allamah is a leader for the Islamic faith.
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.
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.