I saw a man at a street vendor’s today He was engaged in the enterprise of buying fruit His expression was a breath short of displeased He wanted a bargain; he planned to depart with his loot. The air conditioned grocery store was his next stop Where he paid three times as much for some shrivelled carrots. I watched these transactions in the street and the store The poor man got swindled; the rich just made more I watched capitalism play out its gory game But I just watched, my mouth was scotch-taped.
I saw a runner deliver food today To someone in a swanky neighbourhood The man came out, took his food, turned around The rider waited a while, staying where he stood But the man had disappeared into the embrace Of his upmarket condo, his ultra elegant space Discretionary income was for parties and clothes Doling out tips was for mass market folks I watched these Economics of One play out But I just watched, my hands were bound.
I have seen these and many more Unbalanced, unequal, sad acts of trade The shiny big ones always splashed with largesse The small, modest ones always selfishly made. The serendipity of kindness and grace The simplicity of a helping hand Are like ships that we have lost at sea Broken pieces now and then washing up on the sand. I watch these exploits crush and agonise But I just watch, I am paralysed.
I see a woman standing at the traffic light Even in her shabbiness, she’s neat and clean She stands on the wayside wondering For the hundredth time what she is doing on the street. People look at her from their car windows A nonchalant glance up and then away Their psycho-social barriers Comfortingly coming down to save their day From unpleasant pangs of conscience As they niggle at the edges of their minds The world is troubled, their impact small Sometimes it’s just better to be blind.
She looks at the faces in the cars Indifferent, unseeing; wishing her away She clutches the hem of her tattered shirt Picks up the gumption to still walk their way She looks at a lady who hasn’t averted her eyes The shame is too much and she swallows hard Even so, she manages a faint little smile Hoping for kindness, compassion, regard The lady looks up, seeing her for the first time She’s irritated, she’s irked for letting her guard down Beggars, pleaders of various requests Destroy her peace of mind, she frowns.
She waves a dismissive hand at the sight And looks away, she will not lock eyes Maybe the beggar will go to the next car With her chafing, imploring enterprise The woman feels the withering blow As she hurriedly backs away from the car The wounds in her heart are bleeding anew Everyday there are fewer healing scars She stumbles back onto the foot path Eyes stinging with hopelessness and fatigue This world seems done with the likes of her She too is done with her destiny.
Despite its inherent catastrophic nature, the end had come quickly, almost mechanically. Its very swiftness had robbed it of the tragedy and chaos that usually accompany annihilation events. Some say it had started with the largely unnotable skirmish on the Russo-Ukrainian border. President Putin had fallen gravely ill at about the same time. His infirmity somehow catalysed the inscrutable little exchange of fire into an all out war as Russian troops marched belligenterlty into Kyiv. At about the same time, there was a devastating tsunami that whipped up in the Indian Ocean, a formidable ghost of its 2004 predecessor. The deluge ravaged twenty countries across Asia and East Africa in its deadly wake. In the space of a week, half the world had gone into emergency mode. The other half watched in a stupor of pandemic fatigue even as the new horrors unravelled. Two days after the tsunami, the Ukrainian troops fell to the wayside. No blood was shed, no words were spoken, no flags were raised or lowered. The invaders and the invaded sat together watching the world fall to pieces around them.
That is when she had come; the Mind-bender as she came to be called: Arfaana, a 35 year old woman who had until recently also been a mother of two. She had walked into Lafayette Square in Washington DC and screamed. She had screamed until she couldn’t scream anymore. And then she had wailed, her rhythmical moans echoing like the tolling of a doomsday bell. People had stopped in their tracks frozen. At first. And then something extraordinary had happened. There are many versions of the event but they all agree that somehow in that moment of tremendous anguish and pain, humanity had connected. At some combined cosmic and primitive level, the energy across the square had come together and found a harmony of purpose.
There was an almost communal climax of wretchedness and despair as one and all, the people had screamed and bellowed and wailed until there was not one unbruised throat left in the square. Arfaana had walked into the Capitol building then, her eyes wet and blazing at the same time; propelled onwards by a force of over five thousand strong. There she had spoken to silent, awestruck law makers and executors of the Republic. They had listened when she had called for the laying down of all arms; of creating a colourblind society; of sharing the world’s resources with all; of de-weaponizing the world. They had heard her speak of a new community, built on the vestiges of humanity that still remained in their current world. They say, Arfaana, the first Wise One, had summarily robbed them of their will that day. She had bent their minds to her way. Everything had changed after that. In a bizarre balancing act following The Fall that was marked with such colossal swells of angst and pain, the societal shift had happened quickly, almost mechanically.
T + 10 years
December 24th, 2032
Arfaana sat in the Discourse Room in Serenity Dome 1, in Washington. These safe havens had mushroomed after The Fall and now mainly housed within their impregnable, tranquil cores, the women of the planet. She had just had news that the two thousandth dome had been erected, this one in Lahore Pakistan. She had called her contemporary in South Asia to congratulate her on the milestone. The fissure in the Subcontinental patriarchal structures had been one of the hardest to make. But when the women had risen, the change again had been swift and mechanical. Hotels and guest houses had been converted to makeshift shelters for women across the subcontinental land mass. Ultimately, heritage buildings had been commandeered and lovingly converted into the very first Serenity Domes. There the female collective had regrouped and reformed their communities, one troublesome, caustic law at a time. It had taken the better part of the last decade to purge the South Asian society of its ingrained psyche of male privilege. From the roti seller* at the tandoor* to the testosterone driven CEO in his boardroom, they had all had to relearn the new ethos. There had been countless incarcerations as age old gender roles battled in the new environment. Many of the men had been “shifted” to shanty towns just outside city limits. These meandering, heaving masses of corrugated iron roofs, scrap material and sheets of plastic had burgeoned and blustered for years with the full might of the patriarchy.
In the sixth year of The Fall, the slum population had evened out and by the eighth year, it was finally in decline. Mindsets had been changed; the new norms had been learnt one bitter lesson at a time. There were still the odd ragtag bands of ex-society men who had refused to assimilate and who still blew off steam by plastering city squares with old world propaganda. The Wise Ones took a largely tolerant view of these muscle flexing shenanigans, letting the idiots tell their now obsolete “tales full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”(1). The adage adapted from old world literature had become their mainstream maternal approach. Indeed, the Wise Ones made every effort towards non-violence. They knew that their primary focus needed to be the new generation of men and women across the globe. They would be brought up with new codes of morality, community and awareness. They would be the ultimately balanced beings – both genders at ease with their masculine and their feminine sides.
By the fifth year, another epic milestone was achieved – planet-wide nuclear disarmament. By the eighth year of The Fall, global military spending had been reduced to less than 0.3% of world GDP. The planet was recovering in big and small ways as fossil fuels were steadily replaced with alternative forms of energy. By the end of a decade of the event, as resources were redistributed, lifestyles across the globe had become more or less consistent – typified by the western middle class before The Fall.
It had been a momentous journey of the mind, the heart and the will, thought Arfaana as she emerged from her musing. The women had finally triumphed! This last thought crossed her mind with almost academic stridency, repeated as it had been at so many pivotal moments in the last ten years. She paused, just for a moment. The slightest of pauses for a twinkling of a moment. And yet, in that tiny instance something had taken fledgling root. An awareness of imbalance; a new kind of an imbalance. Earth was transforming into the proverbial Venus. Hidden in that romantic confluence were dark shadows, whispering their own doomsday songs. Songs of a new, belligerent, unsound matriarchy.
Arfaana blinked, willing away the disturbing thoughts that were now crowding at the very edges of her mind. She knew these unsummoned visitors would bide their time, until they had gathered in their vastness aided by that formidable Truth teller, her Intuition. Arfaana rallied. They, the women had changed the world, one rotting, crumbling societal edifice at a time. They were saving the very humanity of human beings. They were building back compassion, harmony, cooperation and culture into their societies. They were building back better(2) … the hackneyed phrase from old world politics came stomping in, marching alongside her bolstering, purposeful train of thought. The hypocrisy, the bigotry and the irony that accompanied the catchphrase also came sashaying in, looking into her soul with their smug little faces. Venus Rising indeed! they seemed to say.
Arfaana picked up her com-set to call her Planning Manager. She wanted to make a change in the Earth and Science curriculum – the historical, mythical, science fictional allusions to Venus as anything but the second planet from the AM Star were to be omitted. There was still too much counter-matriarchal ammunition out there for the nay-sayers and the satire writers; their reformed world structure was still too new for such erratic emotionalism. The “Sun”, now called the AM Star had ceased to be called by its old name because of its masculine phonetics and the psycho-circularity of the word: Sun = Son = Sun. Venus too would be relegated to its astrophysical purity without the dubious romanticism given to it by old world patriarchy. One of the Wise Ones had said something about Earth too … even “earth” had begun to sound mannish.
They would have to revisit academic curricula around the world, review the very semantics of language itself, to purge it of its inherent masculinity.
Arfaana took a sip of her steaming mug of tea. She sat up and gazed into the distance, her determination strong and unwavering. Even if their new collective ethos was somewhat imperfect; even if their matriarchal restructuring sometimes seemed like barely cloaked knee jerk reactions to their gender-biased past, it was now the women’s turn.
* Roti-seller: Seller of Indian/ Pakistani flat bread.
* Tandoor: Also known as tannour it is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking. The tandoor is something of a transitional form between a makeshift earth oven and the horizontal-plane masonry oven.
(1): Quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
(2): The Build Back Better Plan was a legislative framework proposed by the 46th U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of his inauguration
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?
It was Torturesome Thursday today. The day appointed for the once a week dinner at his father’s house; the house Saqib grew up in and one that he now felt an intense dislike for. But it was an obligatory chore set in stone by his domineering father. Only hospitalisation and out of town visits ever broke this constancy ritual. The old patriarch looked at him with the cold tenacity that had always made him writhe outwardly for all to see, and that he had now been able to turn inwards for his soul to witness only. He looked away as he always did, focusing on something else, willing his racing heart to slow down, to mimic the calmness that he had schooled his exterior to feign. To fake it till his jittery ventricles made it.
His mother sat like a sack of ripe potatoes as she always did, unfeeling, uncaring, uninterested. Growing up, he had blamed her for her stuporous attitude towards the well being of her children. Now, he understood that it was her way of protecting her sanity; the only weapon she had in her meagre armoury of defence against the titanic, intimidating, bullying persona of her husband. He watched her as she smiled at him wanly, crinkling up the corners of her otherwise dead eyes. She would have been a happy woman with someone else. With anyone else he thought.
He looked at Shuja who was sitting beside him and felt the familiar surge of quiet joy. He smiled despite the ritual Thursday evening cross currents. The warmth nestling in that corner of the dining room did not escape the allseeing eyes of Sikander Zaka as he focused his attention on the duo to his right.
“Have you started your Math tuition with Master Edwards?”, he asked his grandson who was digging with gusto into his chicken biryani.
Shuja looked up from his plate directly at his grandfather, “Dadaji, I told you I don’t want to do Math or Ad Math. I want to do graphic art and design. I want to work in textiles’.
He looked towards his father for a moment and added, ‘I want to explore interior design too. I want to beautify homes’.
Sikander Zaka Khan looked for a measured moment at his grandson and then turned the full force of his august stare on his 45 year old son. He expected him to intervene and put a stop to the nonsense his grandson was spewing. He expected him to shake his errant prodigy and drum some sense into his juvenile head. But Saqib did nothing of the sort. He sat there mutely. In his own tortured universe he was willing his son to understand, to know that there was no choice in the matter of his education or the career mapped out for him. At the very least, he was willing with all his might, for his son to not take on his grandfather. It never ended well.
When Saqib did not speak up, Sikander Zaka passed the irrefutable verdict himself.
“You will call the tutor and have him start coming in from next week. He needs to be on top of his game if he’s going to get into Imperial College London. The Zaka men have been going there for four generations. There will be no exception for the fifth. Get his head out of the clouds and start drilling some sense into him about his roots”.
‘Ji Abba’ was all Saqib managed to say. He felt his son’s eyes boring holes into his head. He couldn’t meet that gaze; that accusatory, disappointed, angry gaze directed at him by his beloved Shuja. He wished he had the courage to stand up to his father … to stand up for his son. But he didn’t. And now his own son was old enough to discern his cloying, wretched cowardice too. The boy for whom he had been a champion, a hero, was now seeing him without his cloak … without his clothes! He suddenly had the mad urge to laugh, to guffaw, to throw his hands into the air and shout. My cloak! My clothes! Without my clothes! But he didn’t. Instead he concentrated on the leg piece on his plate, meticulously dismembering it until all there remained was an odd looking creature in front of him. It wasn’t chicken anymore. It was his father’s accusing finger; his index digit that was pointing fixedly at him. He wanted to shatter it, annihilate it. And he did, as he grabbed it and broke it into two.
The sudden adrenaline rush of the defiance, limited as it was to duelling a drumstick, gave him the courage also to finally look towards his son again. Shuja who had so short a while ago been surrounded by a halo of wholesome, beautiful energy was now enveloped by the same dark and leaden patriarchal cloak that draped Roman godlike around the shoulders of his grandfather, and that bound his father like a strait jacket. Few Zaka men had been able to break through this mould of formidable authoritarianism, in both its capacities of executioner and the executed. And so it was that the maned lions of each generation took on the roles of family dictators while the rest contented themselves with the dubious luxury of privileged servitude. Until the great Sikander Zaka Khan was alive, Saqib was quite completely in the latter category and Shuja was being groomed to follow suit. There was only ever one maned lion in a Zaka pride.
Shuja had a younger sibling, a sister – little Serena. She was seven years old: still too young to sense the disturbing undercurrents of family politics, but old enough to know that she was a beautiful girl. Those ethereal looks were a resounding gift from her mother almost as if in compensation for everything else that was maternal and missing in their equation. The wet nurse who had been by Hina Zaka’s side during both births, had stayed on when Serena was born. To all intents and purposes, she was Serena’s caregiver and her emotional anchor. But this story is about the men in the Zaka family so that’s all there is to say in these lines, of the granddaughter of the house.
It has to be said here however, that the missing maternal link in Shuja and Serena’s case had nothing to do with Saqib as the family patriarch. It was more a tragedy of errors committed as it was by the elders of both families in their age old endeavours of growing their empires. To leave an ever burgeoning legacy of wealth and privilege for the boys who would be born and who would inherit the family crowns. Hina, at the time of her marriage had already been in a five year love affair. Saqib had a mild suspicion that it had since grown and settled into something that he couldn’t quite approach or touch. To all intents and purposes, there was no couplehood in their equation. There was however a sense of quiet harmony that was scrupulously maintained for the fickle eyes of the public and for the unsparing scrutiny of Sikander Zaka.
Saqib had graciously accepted the truth of things and had tried to be both parents to his children. It has to also be said that he had succeeded better with Shuja than he had with Serena.
The Monday following the Torturesome Thursday at his father’s house, Saqib called Master Edwards. He knew he should have made that phone call the very next day of his father’s austere instructions, but he had dragged his feet. Partly because he had been angry enough to dissent, the quiet mutiny lasting a whole three days, and also because he had seen the hurt in his boy’s eyes. He had seen something cracking and something else putting down gnarled tenacious roots. Was it resignation … rebellion… or… despair? He had not dwelled on the nervous, fearful quickening of his own heart as he swallowed the bile that had instantly risen to his throat.
Master Edwards was completely booked up but he would make the time – for Mr. Sikander’s sake. Everyone who was anyone made time for Sikander Zaka’s sake. The laws of the jungle were the same whether it was the creatures of the forest doing Sher Khan’s* bidding or the city’s rank and file acquiescing to Sikander Khan’s demands.
But the best laid plans – especially if they are executed with disheartenment and dread, do not always beget desired results. Sometimes the universe itself tires of the hypocrisy of men and calls them out with its own jarring, cosmic rattle. And so it came to pass that Master Edwards did come by on the following Tuesday at exactly 9 O’ clock in the evening. He was shown into the study to await the Zaka scion.
Shuja had come back from school that day and had closeted himself in his room. Annual exams were around the corner: those great dividers between those who would rise into the precious ranks of engineers and doctors and those who would not. The ruthless separators of the wheat from the chaff.
There was now an eerie quiet in the room. In the speckled light from the LED lit orb of the world, shadows danced across Shuja’s prone body. Skipping across his face and down his arms to his hands from which dripped gleaming streams of life. Silver and black shimmers that congealed into a dark void on the floor.
There was a scream and a bustle. Shuja’s ashen body was bundled up into the car and raced through the blood-staunching, life-saving portals of the nearest hospital.
A few hours later, the worst was over and Shuja had managed to choose a side. With the optimistic zeal of the young, he had decided to live. Saqib sat by his son’s side, a mixture of emotions ricocheting in the space where his heart used to be. It wasn’t there anymore he was sure. Not literally of course but in the profoundest ways that make one human, that make one a parent. He had during the last three hours even toyed with the idea of losing his beloved child and had felt a bizarre relief at the thought. Relief for Shuja’s ultimate release and for himself as a cowardly, paralysed father who could not support and safeguard his son. He had also felt guilt, searing shame, grief and resignation. But when his son had finally stirred, he had also felt a warm flood of love and a fierce sense of protection. And those emotions had stayed with him long after everything else had evaporated into the ether.
He would give Master Edwards a trite farewell. His services wouldn’t be required anymore. He would himself enroll his son into the Arts stream. They would look for the best colleges that offered the courses Shuja wanted to specialise in. He would help him set up his studio and his graphic design business. He would be his son’s biggest champion. He would take on the world for his precious first born. He would shout it out at Bungalow 77/1, in the old man’s study where the loudest decibels had always ever been just a whisper. He would tell his father that it was enough! That he wasn’t going to sacrifice his son’s happiness in his perverted path of warped legacies and conventions… he would appeal to his father’s better judgment … he would plead for his kindness …
He would beg him to release Shuja from the Zaka shackles.
Saqib looked at his sleeping son for a long time and then looked out of the window at the moon that was looking back at him like a sentinel cyclops. His revolutionary thoughts gradually stumbled, wavered and then fell limply like a wet flag. He knew he couldn’t do anything. The burden of the patriarchy was too formidable for him to challenge or negotiate with. Saqib hunched, once again occupying the modest space that he always had, and looked quietly at his son.
When Shuja was home, when he was well again, when he was happy and once again ensconced in his favourite velvet dream, he would, ever so gently, try to make him see sense.
Saqib Zaka looked at the sheet of paper in his hands. He stared at the short pithy statements that descended down its length, as they looked back at him accusingly, tauntingly. There was some colour on the paper too – an angry red gash against three of the statements. Four-letter gashes in fact, that had blurred before his anxious scrutiny; FAIL they proclaimed loud enough for the whole universe to hear. Saqib shook his head slightly, willing away the buzzing swarm of desperate thoughts that were crowding out all sanity, dignity and even his ability to read. He looked at the transcript again and finally set the truth free: he had failed his pre-engineering exam, for the second time.
Thirty years hence, that memory had stuck to him like rust; constantly eating away at his calmness and purpose. He had tried, in his intrepid moments, to shake the constancy of the memory off, to replace it with the triumphs that had also since found their circuitous way to him. But the recollection and all its accompanying sinking, shrinking, benumbing sensations had prevailed like insidious tenants in the space of his mind.
Saqib sighed and looked around him. The imposing room that had been his father’s office and was now, by default, his, shimmered in the late afternoon light coming in through the window. Despite his best effort not to, his eyes came to rest on the canvas that hung on the wall directly opposite his desk. It was a complex piece of Gestural Abstract art which had hung in the stately room for at least the last twenty years. In its monochromatic palette of random splashes, he always saw a figure, broken down and disjointed reaching for the ground with such desperation that it was almost like he was willing the earth to swallow him whole; annihilate his whole existence. The hugeness of the canvas added to the enormity of hopelessness that spilt from it; flowing into the room like a constant, unending stream of emotional sludge. He hated the piece. And yet, it hung there smug and superior, intimidating and authoritative, alive and kicking. It was one of his father’s favourite pieces of art.
A knock at the door halted his mangled introspection. The rest of the day passed in a flurry of activity that slowly abated around 6 O’ clock. Saqib then picked up his Smythson Panama briefcase and headed for his car. His father would be in tomorrow. Over the last year, more and more, the reigns of the company had been shifted officiously, almost belligerently from father to son. Even so, Sikander Zaka Khan swept into the office once a week, taking everything by storm. It took a day for the dust to settle, while his own reputation as the able scion of the family business was depleted slowly but surely, like the helium escaping from a balloon that had the smallest of perforations in it. With each passing week, even the most stoic of Sikander Zaka and Son employees had seen the boss’s offspring for the chip of the old block that he was definitely not. Ever so gradually, almost imperceptibly, there had been a change in the organisational culture as boardroom debates became more lively, just short of being heated, and the ambient murmur of the executive floor rose a few, not unnoticeable decibels. Saqib had watched all this silently, knowing it was just another counter intuitive ploy by which his father was toughening him up for the role of CEO of one of the largest textile spinning units in Karachi.
While a myriad ungracious, unforgiving thoughts passed through his mind about his unemancipated state, Saqib was also keenly aware of how his Harrods Roquefort bread was buttered: he knew he lacked the rigour and the character for a regular corporate job. He couldn’t see himself slogging 9 to 5 with only thirty days of paid leave. If he was absolutely candid with himself, he knew also, that he didn’t have the requisite skill set either, armed even though he was with his Bachelors degree from the Imperial College London. The couple of Finance courses that he hadn’t quite cleared in the first go, were another echoing reminder of his failure. He knew that to live in the lap of luxury that he was used to, he would have to sacrifice his life choices to a considerable extent and his sense of self, quite entirely. If it had been up to him, he would have become an interior designer … moonlighting as a chef. He loved the aesthetics of furniture and food. He had singlehandedly furnished and decorated his beautiful home. The fact that his wife was quite happy to let him take the lead on all home improvement projects had helped considerably in helping to keep his heart where his home was. His glamorous home on Khayaban-e-Shamsheer was the envy of many a well heeled housewife with whom he readily and fondly shared his vast stores of knowledge, from the best upholsterer in town to the florist who had the freshest imported blooms. His home was indeed, a loving tribute to all his most precious and unrequited dreams.
“Hello Abu”, came the cracked voice from the lounge as Saqib opened the front door to his house. Despite the burden of his innermost thoughts that had today descended upon him like a flood, he smiled. Shuja was growing up and his body was being put to the age old test of the transition from boy to man. His voice had started to break a couple of months ago, a fact that had quickly become a point of many light hearted moments between father and son. He was sprawled on his favourite lounger, his PS4 controller in his hands. Father and son had picked the soft blue fabric for the sofa together and the reupholdstered seat had become Shuja’s favourite chair in the house. His Velvet Dream he had once called it. Saqib had smiled at the aptness of the name for the chair and also for his own secret little stash of them. Shuja was a good child. He was also very creative and talented. And brave. Saqib acknowledged this last characteristic with some trepidation. There was so much potential danger embodied in that attribute that he couldn’t quite bring himself to look upon it as a quality, a gift. With his unusually honed skill as an artist and his love of cooking, he was quite the apple of his father’s eye. And in the sanctity of his home, Saqib allowed his heart to swell with pleasure. He looked at his fourteen year old son, his eldest, with a mixture of pride and joy.