SHORT STORY | THE RELUCTANT JULIET – Part Three

(I)

The girls were finally on their way to hut number 76 in Hawks Bay. The beach itself remained a largely elusive thing even as their driver left the bustling highway and turned off towards the coast. The traffic was just as snarly as on the main road as six and eight wheeler goods transport vehicles plied a road that had seen better days at least fifty years ago. The girls were nevertheless agog. Every fleeting and lingering vista of the sea elicited an exclamation of happy surprise from both women. Even their driver, taken up with the enthusiasm of his passengers would point out an especially large swell just breaking on the coast, or a jagged rock hiding a structural pearl of some sort – hidden from prying eyes, opulent huts owned by the well heeled movers and shakers of the city nestled behind some of these precipitous facades.

They finally arrived at the designated hut, to all purposes looking quite deserted. When they got out of the car the first faint signs of life floated on the sea air from the front (or was it the back?) of the hut. It was Bhangra music; so the dance floor acrobatics had already begun Sophia thought with a grin. She herself was given to a more demure sashaying of a dancing evening, but Farina would be in her element! Her friend was already smiling and humming along with the Daler Mehndi tune wafting from the seafront. Her eyes were bright and in her mind Sophia was convinced, she was already bounding and cavorting with the wild abandon of a Bhangra caper. Sophia laughed – this was going to be a fun evening.

Sophia paid their driver for his transport as much as for his services as their tour guide. She had been assured by her friend Qasim that there would be more than enough cars and someone would be sure to give the girls a lift back to their hotel. The path to the front was dimly lit so that they had to pick their way carefully to avoid stumbling on the craggy ground – discretion was always the better part of valour when kicking up one’s heels, or otherwise revelling in an Islamic republic.

The scene at the seafront was like something out of fantasy folklore; a glittering wonderland. The front of the hut (which was situated at the back, away from public scrutiny and righteousness) was lit up with a thousand delicate fairy lights; some of them twinkled on and off while others waxed and waned delicately. The concrete patio was set up with a raised wooden platform that was the dance floor. Placed all around this platform were four seater tables and chairs. Each table was adorned with a tealite in gust-proof holders. They flickered mesmerisingly, throwing around huge shadows further away from the hut and smaller table-bound penumbras closer to the cabin. There were about fifty people milling around or sitting at the little white tables.

It was 8 O’ clock and less than half the guests had yet arrived. Sophia looked around for Qasim; he was nowhere to be seen. The girls then did what every out-of-towner does at the beach in Karachi – they went scrambling down the small precipice at the sea edge of the hut and onto the beach. They then took off their sneakers and dug their toes into the sand. Farina gave a little whoop of joy and rushed towards the gently foaming surf. Sophia, with her dread of creatures creeping in the dark, made more gingerly progress towards the rhapsodic call of the Arabian Sea. They soon realized that they were not the only ones ankle deep in the briny water; there were other seaside ingenues like themselves who were just as dazzled by the wizardry of the ocean.

‘Sophia! Sophia! Hi! Hey! Come back up!’ called a voice from the top of the precipice. Sophia turned away from the magical froth at her feet to the silhouette of a man standing on the promontory – it was Qasim. She waved at him and the two girls clambered back up to the top.

‘Welcome to Karachi madam!’ said a now smiling Qasim. She gave him a quick hug and introduced Farina whom he had heard about enough to know fairly well, but was meeting only just now.

‘Come, I want to introduce you to a few people’, he said and whisked them both off towards a corner of the fairytale patio.

‘Sophia, Farina, this is Samara, Tazeen, Asif and this is Uzair’

‘Everyone, this is Sophia and this is her doctor friend Farina!’ Qasim finished with a cheeky grin.

Sophia grimaced at Qasim – ever the joker! Farina cringed just a little before laughing out loudly, breaking through the awkwardness of that last bit. Proud as she was of her professional title, she hated being introduced as a doctor in social settings. She had, even in her short association with the title, seen how it prompted people’s baser instincts to surface; ranging from a fawning over their new doctor connection” to bombarding her with an inexhaustible roster of the many others in her field they intimately knew. She hated being a statistic, she had declared to Sophia, “that was bandied around as a flex” at social gatherings. Sophia, the quintessential introvert herself, understood the sentiment all too well.

Soon, the duo armed with glasses of orange juice, was dancing to western pop songs from the 80s, frequently peppered with a rousing tune from the subcontinental music scene. The dance floor that night, saw a bizarre mix of genres as the moonwalk was quickly followed by the high energy leaps and hops of the Bhangra which was followed by John Travolta’s evergreen Grease moves. There was a lot of laughter amid sky high spirits.

Half an hour later, Sophia found herself dancing with Uzair, a wide grin fixed on her face. She was vaguely aware of the fact that her facial muscles had been in stretched-out mode for the last twenty minutes and had been maintaining that exhausting protraction more or less of their own accord. She tried to reel in the smile, to pull her mouth together, but it continued to break out into a dimpled grin, taunting all her efforts at restraint. She looked at the glass of orange juice in her hand, wondering if she could possibly lay the blame for her giddiness elsewhere. But it was just plain old orange juice – sweet, citrusy and wholesome.

There is something to be said for the pure headiness of self suggestion. And so Sophia gave up her endeavours to sober up, allowing herself to be swept up on the wings of gaiety, euphoria … and new emotions. She remembered that she laughed a lot and was acutely aware of Uzair’s eyes on her. Farina who was dancing with a sprightly group nearby sensed the undercurrents with a barely concealed delight of her own, a voyeurystic thrill. She was also tripping on OJ* and on the gambolling winds that were carrying in all this surplus of good cheer from beyond the seaside horizon.

Sophia and Farina caught each other’s eyes at some point and laughed wildly. It was an interlude of intense emotions. whether it was delicate flirtation that seemed to surge into ardent courtship or a private little smile that swelled into crazy laughter.

At midnight, the spirited festivity mellowed as the bride and groom to-be entered upon the stage of the beach hut. They both had yellow flower wreaths of gladioli and marigold around their necks. The bride also wore ear rings and bracelets made of the same yellow blooms. She looked sweetly whimsical, a quirky hybrid of the east and the west as she sat in her jeans and t-shirt festooned with the flowers of the eastern bride-in-waiting.

Soon it was 3 O’ clock in the morning. But the party was far from over as the reveling crowd flowed in and out of the hut in constant waves, sometimes dancing and sometimes sitting, until another fabulous song came on. Sophia and Farina however, were done for the day. Drained and exhausted as the adrenaline rush of the last few hours slowed to the sluggish circadian rhythm typical of that late hour. A few carloads had just started to leave so the exodus although far from its mass had slowly begun. Sophia looked around for Qasim; he would know if one of the departing cars had space for the two girls to be dropped off at their hotel. He was sitting in a corner of the narrow veranda, surrounded by a group of low key revellers, crooning a zen-like medley ranging from the Vital Signs* to Frank Sinatra. Sophia stood at the periphery of this assemblage unsure of what to do. He was in the very middle of being the coincidental star of the evening and she was loathe to break that trance for him as much as for his smiling, humming swaying audience.

It was Farina who came up to her just then saying that she’d found someone who would give them a lift into the city. It was Uzair. He was going back with a friend he’d said, and since they had an otherwise empty car, would be happy to take the girls back to their hotel.

(II)

The next morning Sophia had a text message from Uzair: would she and Farina like to be shown around the city? He’d be more than glad to be their guide for the day. Also, there was the annual food bazaar being held at the Park Towers.

So many unexpected, inadvertent tour guides in the City by the Sea! thought Sophia laughing to herself, a smile of quiet pleasure settling itself on her face. Farina was excited at the prospect too, not only because in her ten months in the city, her experience of all noteworthy sights and sounds had been limited to within a 5 km radius of the hospital which was where she stayed as well, but also because there was the promise of being a first hand witness to a good old real life romance; titillating entertainment; seeing a brand new love story unfold (regardless of the ending) before her very eyes! She felt her own heart skip a beat much like it did when she read the old world romances of Georgette Heyer or the dazzlingly brazen love stories of Nora Roberts.

And so, a plan was firmed up and at noon, Uzair picked them up to show them around Karachi’s hotspots. As they drove around, or walked or sat in the winter sunshine, the conversation was easy and the mood was light; Sophia felt a warm little glow around her heart. She wondered once again, at the serenity with which she had acknowledged this fledgling beat of new emotions.

It was close to midnight when the girls got back to their room. It had been a marvellously eventful day, gratifying for both girls in their own ways: Sophia had allowed herself to go with the flow, experiencing a whole new sweep of feelings as Uzair gently wooed her. Farina had enjoyed watching the subtle courtship as much as she had relished their day of food and adventure. The combined mental and emotional exertion made up as it was of strange and new things had been intense. And so despite being suffused in a kind of exhausted elation as the glow of the day still clung to them, sleep came quickly and restfully.

(III)

‘He’s nice Sophie’, Farina said suddenly at breakfast the next morning.

Both girls had slept soundly and Sophia had dreamt. Copiously; towards dawn as she normally did. She wasn’t quite sure of the essence of those dreams, but she had dreamt and that meant something new was taking shape on the horizon.

She smiled at Farina, feeling herself flush.

‘Yes, he is’, she said, unwilling to outwardly commit more than that to the fickleness of the universe.

She wanted to share the latest text message from Amir Taurab with her best friend, as she always did. He had been the topic of many an exasperated, tragi-comedic conversation between them. She picked up her phone and opened up the message, immediately closing it. Something held her back this time. She didn’t trust the usual predictability or equanimity of her emotions this time. The truth was, she didn’t feel like the reluctant Juliet anymore. She felt herself flush again.

Yes, there were changes in the air; Sophia could sense them, smell them almost. The atoms ricocheting around her were carrying a new energy. In the wisdom that the universe sometimes bestows on her creatures, Sophia knew then that her serene acknowledgement of the situation was but the natural first act of stepping into altogether new shoes; changing her sensible flat pumps for peep-toe heels. She also knew cloaked in the same clear-thinking aura that when she was kind to herself on the precipice of a great change, the universe tended to be kinder too.

Smiling at Farina, Sophia picked up her mug of tea, and took a sip of the hot, soul uplifting brew. She looked out of the window at the lushness outside and then beyond into the sunlit horizon.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/19/winds-of-change-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/21/winds-of-change-part-two/

* OJ: orange juice

* Vital Signs: a Pakistani pop group famous in the 80s and the 90s.

SHORT STORY | THE RELUCTANT JULIET – Part Two

(I)

It has to be said here dear reader, that Sophia was not exactly a tomboy, but neither did she exude the ripe femininity of a femme fatale – she lacked the necessary airs and graces required for that delicate drama. Ironically however, it was this very lack of the obvious, the normative and the expected that made men hesitate and look again; to ponder for a while (for there was never any of the usual emotional agitation of new love urging them quickly on); and then to feel the brush of something oddly tender stir their hearts.

And so it was that despite not fitting the mould of the eastern debutante, a sizeable male demographic in Sophia’s circle of friends and acquaintances had at various times been in love with her or imagined they were in love with her. Many in the latter category, when they did look into the varying depths of their hearts where infatuations tend to swarm tumultuously about and realized that it wasn’t love after all, did a curious U-turn: From the fickle pursuers with the furtive motives, they morphed into almost belligerent beings; their attitude now towards Sophia one of self conscious nonchalance, bordering on brusqueness. It was indeed an emotional sluiceway of confounding vibes and vehemence that was directed towards her. She had in turn, in the interest of careful self preservation, developed an outer shell of hardened nacre: genial with all, friends with some but allowing no one within the inner sanctums of her heart.

To say that she left a trail of bruised hearts and tempers in her wake, would not be entirely true. For with her reticence to be coveted, she also brought a grace to all those unrequited overtures of love. Even when she was aware of a heart roving in her general vicinity, looking for a way into her auricles, she pretended not to see it scramble about; all the while maintaining an everyday sunniness that made it appear as if she was obtuse, blind even, to the iridescent hues of romance. So that the men, sincere and otherwise walked away with their dignity intact and their egos secure.

(II)

Sophia opened up the old samsonite suitcase, its well-worn and weather-beaten visage a reminder of its dutiful service to her father on his many business trips in and outside the country. Despite its toilsome age, it was yet, whole and undamaged. She dusted it off and started to pack for her trip to Karachi. She was going to attend a friend’s wedding in the City by the Sea.

Twenty minutes into her packing, Sophia sat on her bed for a minute to look at her phone. There was a message there from Amir Taurab – how he had got her personal mobile number is another entirely different tale of dogged determination and out of the purview of this story. But he had, and he had now sent his one careful message of the week; connecting with her in one way or another, all in the guise of inquiring about the state of his account or about one of the financial schemes of the bank. She sighed inwardly and opened the message:

Hello Sophia ji, I’ve been thinking for a very long time now and I wonder if you would go out for dinner with me. I am sorry if this message offends you, I did not meant for it to do that.

“Meant” for it to do that … Sophia’s Elf of Fastidium piped up in some corner of her brain while she read and re-read the message with her other self preserving nacreous part – the part reserved for intentional and incidental admirers. She was also aware now, of a third part of her brain that was watching all this piqued neural activity with a quiet interest; a calm, serene anticipation. She focused on this part of her sensibilities. Was she losing her self protective edge? Did she need to be this bullishly self preserving? Why had she given him her number? Did she want to be forever alone? Did she not want a companion? Sophia blinked as much with stupefaction as with the glimmers of a new realisation. She looked at the message again, ignoring the typo (she sincerely hoped it was a typo … why did she sincerely hope it was a typo?!), locked her phone with deliberate care and put it away, together with her bounding and rebounding thoughts. She needed to pack.

(III)

Sophia landed at the Quaid-e-Azam international airport in Karachi at 1 O’ clock in the afternoon. The big city bustle overwhelmed her as soon as she walked out of the Arrivals lounge into the bright sunlight of an otherwise cool December day. She was immediately mobbed by staff from the various taxi kiosks that lined the entirety of the wide corridor all the way to the parking lot. They were all talking as one, urging her to pick them! Pick me! Pick me! is all she heard as her jangled nerves negotiated through the shouting milieu. She craned her neck and finally spied the White Cabs stall a few feet down the corridor. She pushed her trolley purposefully onwards at which the frenzied crowd around her finally parted very much like the Red Sea did for Moses.

Forty five minutes later, she was at the front desk of the Avari hotel being checked into her room. She was going to pick up Farina – (Doctor Farina now!) – from the hospital in a couple of hours. She grinned happily. Farina was Sophia’s best friend. They had known each other since they’d first met at six years old in boarding school in the salubrious hills of Murree. They had spent ten years together under the tutelage and guardianship of Irish Catholic nuns until trained and mentored into upstanding young women, they were then handed back permanently into the care of their parents. Even though both girls had set themselves medical career goals in school, Sophia had gone on to do business studies while Farina was now doing her residency in general surgery at one of the leading university hospitals in Karachi. Their reunions were always effusive and joyous.

Sophia and Farina arrived at the hotel, surrounded by the cheerful air of shared confidences and humour, carried along as these are on endless streams of conversation and banter. There was going to be no more time today to continue to catch up over copious cups of tea like they usually did. As soon as they were back from the hospital, it was time to get ready for the pre-wedding party at the beach. Beach parties were still a novelty for both girls, having grown up in their various mountain and river bound cities. At 6 O’ clock, their rental car arrived to pick them up and drive them to Hawks Bay beach.

Sophia was looking forward to the evening not only because it was a long weekend away from work and that she would be spending it in the company of her best friend, but also because some secret little part of her heart had opened up just a tiny bit to experience new emotions in new ways amid a gamut of new and exciting possibilities.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/19/winds-of-change-part-one/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/10/24/the-reluctant-juliet-part-three/

VERSE | GREATER PURPOSES

It was the weekend finally
We were going out on the town
We each had our agendas you see
Both, earnest and profound

My friend, she got dressed to kill
There was no other way
I put on my tinted chapstick
Fixed my hair around my face

She was going to Dolmen mall
To see and to be seen
Popping mouth, bouffant teased out
Skin whitened with sun screen

I was going to walk and walk
Get in my daily step count
And then to sit at the cafe
Watch the flowing, madding crowd

The two pursuits although at odds
Gave neither of us cause
To sigh in consternation and put
Either mission on pause

We roamed around the mall, my watch
clocking my exertion
She flitted from store to store
Appreciating her reflection

She tried on half a dozen shirts
I tried on two or three
We emerged victorious
Light of wallet, full of glee.

Then we finally set down
Our retail therapy loads
At the strategic little cafe
To eat and people-watch.

A pretty boy was walking by
She willed him to look at her
They exchanged a longish glance
She blushed, her heart a-flutter

She fiddled delicately with her food
While checking out the scene
I demolished what was on my plate
Crumbed chicken and salad greens

At ten I eyed my watch and grinned
18k steps, I felt like a champion
She looked at her new clothes and smiled
Both our greater purposes were done.

SHORT STORY| EUSTACE SHERGILL – Part One

Anita walked into the room with a spring in her step and a song on her lips. Today though, she wasn’t going to belt it out diva style – she was saving her rich alto for the karaoke evening tonight. She stole these evenings of song and meter with the panache of Victorian highway men; effortlessly, cleanly and with a swashbuckling bow.

Her father was sitting in his easy chair poring over the paper. He was tut-tutting quietly in full conversation with his news-fretting self. ‘Another elopement that has ended badly. When will they learn to be content on their own sides of the fence … the scandal … the violence. Tsk! So needless. God protect us …’

‘Daddy, who are we trying to protect ourselves from?’ chirped Anita cheekily.

‘Our foolishness. Our madness’ her father responded with a sigh. He looked at his daughter thoughtfully trying to glance into her future; read her heart. She was such an exuberant girl. He worried about her sometimes surrounded as she was with all her Muslim friends … girls and boys. She tended to be trusting, unrestrained and had been in a roaring affair with life since she was born. If anyone took the bull by the horns and danced with it too, it was his Annie. Where did she get it from … her zest for life; her tenacious survival instinct. It was an enigma both he and his wife had pondered over with sometimes apprehension and at others, elation. How he loved his little girl! And how he agonized too … These were not good times. There were too many inter faith love stories that had gone wrong. Wild hearts and racing hormones that had headed straight for family guillotines; brazed together as they were from the bottomless patriarchal pits of honor, ego and vanity. Eustace Shergill aka Yousuf Shergill with his diminutive form and distrust of even the neighborhood feline’s seasonal caterwauling, was a perennially worried man.

Anita looked at her father fondly. The furrows in his brow had deepened over the last few years, giving this lamb of a man the look of a tyrant. His fleet-footed movements further belied his fragility of form and spirit. Irony was indeed rife with this dear man; her beloved father.

She kissed him on the cheek and took away his newspaper.

‘Daddy, come to the market with me. I need to get some snacks for this evening. The gang is coming over’ she said brightly knowing how he loved these little jaunts with her.

He grinned at her from behind his glasses and rose nimbly to his feet.

‘Let me get the shopping bag’ he said, walking purposefully out of the room.

‘Did I switch the fan off …?’ He wondered aloud when they were on the road. His expression was thoughtful, strained.

‘Daddy, relax. We’ll be back in 20 minutes’ Anita piped up knowing full well he would stew over the fact until they got back home. Unless – she created a magnificent enough diversion! Usually one of her punny jokes, that she had a bizarre flair for creating, got him to ease up, if only fleetingly.

‘Ok, what’s an Optimistic Wise Man called?’ She asked emphasizing the three words and grinning to herself. This was a good one.

‘Hmm … a Sage-o-glass-full? said her father, momentarily distracted and in the spirit of the drollery.

‘Nope. You won’t get this one. It’s one of my better ones’ she said sassily laughing with the combined pleasure of the joke and her father’s smiling face.

‘A Kan-garoo!’ she said with the flourish of a stand up comic at the end of a particularly successful segment.

‘You know – Kangaroo … “Can-guru”, she grinned at her father.

He laughed out loudly with a mixture of pleasure and pride in his bright, vivacious daughter. Anita followed with a bow such as she could manage on the road, from the driver’s seat.

They drove on in silence for a while, Anita still warm in the glow of her recent comedy, while Yousaf Shergill despite himself was back in the living room, fretting about the ominously spinning fan.

Seeing her father’s worried expression, Anita persevered with her enterprise of distraction and diversion, now bringing up a nugget of new information about her work.

‘We’re moving our office to Clifton next month’ she said non chalantly, waiting for the endearingly familiar change of gears in her father’s mind as he temporarily relieved himself of one burden and picked up another. Although these initial sound bites of news were yet out of his immediate capacity to worry about; still too new in their tendencies and their implications. He looked at her questioningly, the fan forgotten in as much as it could be, given that it was only moments ago in his mind, whirling to a calamitous descent onto the lounge table.

“You’re moving office? Is Maham moving too?’ He asked referring to her boss, now full of curious inquiry.

The rest of the 15 minute drive was spent with Anita waxing eloquent on the newly refurbished office, which was also luckily, quite a lot closer to home. Annie would be only a 10 minute drive away! He smiled toothfully, delightedly – a burden laid to rest; a serendipitous blessing received.

Yousuf Shergill was a partner in a company that provided Visa, Citizenship and Residency Services to off shore journeying hopefuls. It had been a flourishing little enterprise. Years of reading immigration laws from across the world, solely for the fascinating study they provided in social and ideological behaviour, had made him a natural at his chosen profession. He could tell through just a brief conversation with the candidate and a cusrsory glance through his brimming, reverently clutched folder of documents whether in fact he would have the pleasure of kissing the motherland a gracious farewell, or whether he had embarked on an ill fated (blessed!) enterprise. Mr. Shergill, despite and imaginably because of his many anxieties and misgivings, was a firm believer of staying put where the roots were. If their own homeland was a maze of dichotomies and confusion, he believed the rest of the world was as labyrinthine and befuddling as the tangled jungles of the Amazon. So while he happily gave advice and facilitated a few flights of fancy and more of the traditional metallic, tangible variety, he was himself happy to be living in his cacophonous but familiar city of Karachi.

* EUSTACE: A word of Greek origin meaning “steadfast” and “fruitful/ productive”.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/14/eustace-shergill-part-two/

SHORT STORY| EUSTACE SHERGILL – Part Two

Yousaf Shergill had lost his wife five years earlier to oesophageal cancer. It was quick and matter of fact; she was diagnosed in June and was gone by November of the same year. She had left as she had lived – quietly and discreetly. While Anita had struggled, grieved and then begun to heal as grown up children do when they lose a parent, Yousuf Shergill had come away from the tragedy permanently stricken, anxious and displaced. He had stopped going to work, instead having the knottiest applications sent to him at home where he pored over them feverishly, concentrating on finding the elusive thread to immigration success while also, for a time, escaping, from the pain of loneliness, memory and recall. The new arrangement suited him, considerably placating his anxiety about not being available on the off chance that Annie required a lift home or in case of another unforeseen disaster.

The Clifton branch welcomed Anita with open arms. It was a flagship consumer banking office and as such was staffed with the young movers, shakers and charmers of the city: vibrant energy and winsome smiles went a long way towards meeting monthly sales targets. Anita with her buoyant personality fitted right in. Coupling up in the office, although not rife was not infrequent either; and when you put a crowd of outgoing, frolicsome young professionals together, the sparks are bound to fly. It took a little over four months for Anita and Bilal to acknowledge their special bond; another two months for Bilal to introduce her to his family; and yet another three for Anita to bring up the subject with her father.

‘Daddy, I’m going to tell you something but I want you to promise me you’ll listen’, began Anita gently but sure-footedly. She wasn’t abashed by her predicament as much as she was concerned about its effect on her father’s state of mind. His moments of joy and peace were so few and far between that the guilt of weighing him down with yet another piece of unsettling information was overwhelming. But the sooner she unburdened herself the better … for everyone.

‘I’ve met someone … at work. His name is Bilal’, she added simply.

Yousuf Shergill looked at her first smilingly, then uncomprehendingly and finally with great foreboding. What was she saying? Did their community use that name …? Did he know any other Bilals from the neighbourhood …? No, he didn’t think he did … The only Bilal he knew was the vegetable vendor who was bearded, be-capped and the picture of Muslim piety … He was visibly grappling with the crowd of inauspicious thoughts that were pitching around in his head.

‘I’ve met his parents. They are lovely people’, added Anita helpfully, trying now to mollify and mitigate.

Yousuf Shergill only looked at his daughter mutely. He didn’t know what to say; and even if he did he was sure he’d lost his ability to convey anything meaningful right now. He simply added this new piece of information, of consternation and trepidation to the vast reservoir of issues that was always stirring at the back of his mind, and left it there for the time being. Right now, he needed all his faculties to maintain some semblance of normalcy in front of his daughter; to keep his face from scrunching into a piteous ball; to keep from weeping for everything that was, and that now, wasn’t anymore.

That night Anita slept fitfully. Her father’s complete lack of a reaction was more disconcerting than any outrage or reprimand. His chiding would have meant that he was processing the news and would in time come to terms with it even if he wouldn’t fully accept it. His silence was eerie, ominous; almost prophetic …

Yousuf Shergill lay awake for a long time that night. He remembered a similar situation; an almost identical story that he had heard many times over, in all its ferocity and horror while he was growing up. His father, Kenneth Shergill had also fallen in love with a Muslim girl in his hometown of Kasur. The couple had shown a passion and fervour that had ruinously hastened the end of that love affair. The girl’s family had abducted him on his way back from work one day and had kept him locked up in a basement for seventeen days. They had beaten and starved him and finally when they were sure they’d broken his spirit, they had dumped him at the Kasur railway junction. He had crawled home somehow. Within six weeks of the incidence, he was summarily married to his cousin because some cultural aspects of their Islamic republic just made sense when choices were few and scandals needed to be subdued, conciliated. And the rest, as they say is history. Yousuf Shergill’s father had dutifully passed on that dread to his son who grew up requisitely wary, nervous and chafing.

Yousuf Shergill spent the rest of the night wary, nervous and chafing.

The next morning, Anita was long gone by the time her father woke up. He came into the lounge, disoriented and alarmed. He picked up his mobile and dialled his daughter’s number, almost immediately ringing off. He took a deep breath – of course she was alright. She was at work. He needed to calm down and think things through. He needed to think of the implications. He needed to figure out the chances of success of his daughter’s enterprise … much like he would with an especially complicated immigration case. Yes, he’d build a case; a water-tight position where, no matter what, his daughter would land on the other side, unscathed, whole and well. Yousuf Shergill got to work on the most crucial case of his lifetime.

A week after her confession to her father, she brought Bilal to the house to meet him; on her father’s request. Yousuf Shergill was surprisingly calm and even congenial, asking about his work and his family. He then regaled both his daughter and her suitor with anecdotes and pithy, little-known facts about his hometown of Kasur. Anita had never seen her father so animated about his paternal homestead as he was today. She smiled, glowing with quiet relief and joy – her father was coming around. The evening ended with her father inviting Bilal for lunch at the Defence club the following week – just the two of them.

The next few weeks passed in a blur of work, home and the occasional visit from Bilal. His fondness and was it awe almost … of her father had grown quickly, unobtrusively. She could see it in the way Bilal mentioned her father when they were alone, with quiet, respectful regard. She was bemused and grateful and decided not to question either of those sentiments.

‘When we do get married, we’re going to move to our own place’ said Bilal musingly one afternoon at lunch.

‘And you my darling, can do what you want – work, not work, go on an adventure, fly a kite or a plane!’ He said grinning widely at Anita.

She laughed, punching him in the arm.

‘You’re most kind but I think I’ll stick to doing what I do best which is being Maham’s fixer-upper and the life of this old place’ she said grinning back at him.

As an afterthought, she added half jokingly as one does with matters that are innately serious but best broached with the subtlety of farce, ‘what if you decide to change your mind once we’re married… hmm?’

‘Unlikely my queen. Your father will have my head and bury it at the Kasur railway junction!’

And so it was that during lunch at the Defence club, Yousuf Shergill had wrapped up his most challenging case yet. He had told his daughter’s suitor an anecdote from his childhood. A story very similar to Bilal and Annie’s in fact. He had just changed it a bit; where his grandfather together with a vast and ferocious throng of family, friends and loyalists had exacted a revenge so bloody and brutal on Kenneth Shergill’s abductors at the Kasur Railway station that the local papers had written about it for weeks afterwards. The courts and the lawyers were unable to file anything against Kenneth’s family.

That afternoon Eustace Shergill had made it gravely, abundantly clear that no one messed with the Shergills of Kasur.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/16/eustace-shergill-part-one/

VERSE| CREATURES OF THE PARK

A little background to the below piece. My evening walk is as integral a part of my day as my first copiously caffeinated cup of tea. I venture out 6 days a week, inclement weather notwithstanding, and no matter where I am (I have an uncanny resourcefulness for finding workout venues, even if the source of my next meal disquietingly eludes me). And having followed this body and mind discipline for close to 20 years now, i have had ample opportunity to observe, experience and expertly categorise my fellow park-goers. What follows is the somewhat meandering result. If some of it resonates with other fellow walking track creatures, the bleary-eyed hours writing it, were not for naught!

It all started in those very early days
Social media was limited, it was the digital Stone Age.
Post a relationship, solo-winging it again,
No other pastime seemed to make sense.
So jiggity jog, I began doing the laps
And that’s when I discovered the creatures of the track.

This funny set is the first that I came by:
The posse of old gents who give you the glad eye.
And if they’re feeling especially brave,
They will ardently stalk you around the enclave.
The dignified gait transforms into a stampede
Which an imminent coronary doesn’t seem to impede!
The breath is ragged, the pupils dilated
If I wasn’t The Stalked, I’d have slowed down and waited!

The next of the regular crowd in the park
Is the muscle bound ‘Lone Ranger’ who’s out for a lark.
Acutely aware of his tittering fans
Like a peacock he’ll do his trademark dance;
(Read: do a slow jog looking totally focused
But we know his nonchalance is quite entirely bogus!)

Then there’s the most entertaining stream:
The ladies who’re out there to see and be seen.
They glow and they glitter and shine in their gear
Quite confident they’ve outdone all of their peers.
Most have come from vast distances off
Because Wednesday is ‘event day’ at the Racecourse!
They walk and they talk and they scan their environs
Hoping to catch a gander of the super fine ‘uns.
(Please note that I feel abundant affection
For this vibrant, spirited ladies’ faction).

Then there’re the crowds of parents and children
Of bicycles and tricycles and scootie action;
Of badminton, football and even cricket
Right in the midst of the walking thicket.
Of aimless ambling and head-on collisions;
Guardians and wards on their own park missions.
Of flash mob type coordinated collectives
Sweating it out over their synched acrobatics.
This crowd doth teach uncommonly well
The precision art of duck, dive and repel.

But I’d be amiss if this septet ignored
The likes of myself in the regular park hoard.
Yes, I’m the one that’s outrunning demons
Not one or two, but prodigious legions!
Eyes straight ahead, “baton” in hand,
I march to the sound of my own brass band!
I may even come across as a tad bit demented
But a bracing, tearing traipse is so well worth it!

And so in closing, It’s quite essential to mention
That in building satire into this narration,
I mean to soften the blow of my words
Because haranguing I definitely am still, by God!
A little more farce? To the whole park crowd:
You’re the molasses in my tea, there isn’t a doubt!

SHORT STORY| THE GODS OF FURY

Asha adjusted her bra after a final pat on its other, non-fleshy contents; the fifteen thousand rupees now nestling securely in its pendulous grasp. It was the day she had to drop off the rent at her landlord’s house on her way back from work. She smiled widely and catching her reflection in the little mirror on the wall, became at once guarded, gathering up the grin into a coy little smile. Dark spirits were everywhere and she knew innately through generations of stories and behavioural legacies that she couldn’t be overt with the profoundness of her joy. Bad omens had a propensity of springing from the happiest of moments.

Even so, she walked to work with a spring in her step. She was a short, portly woman so that buoyancy itself was a purveyor and teller of her bliss to even the least discerning of spectators. In her mind though, while she had to watch herself outwardly, her thoughts were free to roam unfettered in her secret spaces of delight. Finally! Finally the day that she and her husband had been dreaming of for the last 25 years was around the corner: their eldest son, Danish was graduating from university with a Bachelors degree. He would change his world; his sister’s future; their combined fortunes. She would quit her job as a maid and her husband would stop cleaning the sewage lines he’d been wallowing knee-deep in for the last two decades. The smell never quite washed off his skin now. They’d build their own little house; no more scraping and scrounging every month to meet the rent – that monster that loomed large with ravening regularity outside their tiny two room hovel.

Her breath caught in her throat as she allowed her imagination to revel in the bountifulness of precious opportunity and new beginnings. She looked towards the sky with a little prayer on her lips whispering a soft Hai Bhagwan … to the gods and goddesses, this time for their unconditional beneficence. Her prayers were usually modest, economical, always allowing for the fickleness of fate and the peevishness of deities. She never asked for the requiescence of impossible dreams; only the rendering of realistic milestones such as they were in the thorny existence of her people. But this time, she had put in the work; For 25 years, 10 hours every day; of her blood, sweat and tears; of washing, sweeping and cooking for others. This time, her life’s main purpose would be done when her son graduated from university. She could do with every ounce of celestial magnanimity and largesse in the completion of this, her most blessed enterprise.

‘Walaikum salam. Kya baat hai? Aaj bari khush lag rahi ho’(1) said her employer as Asha walked into the apartment, her face flushed with her recent cerebration. She smiled shyly and decided that the home where she had been working for the last five years was as devoid of ill omens as a place could be, and proceeded to share her good news. Her employer, Baji or older sister as Asha and the vast majority of domestic staff called their female employers, had always been good to her and most of all, was undiscriminating. Unlike the vast masses, she was surprisingly unaffected by the faith of those who cooked and cleaned for her. That was probably one of the main reasons for the longevity of Asha’s current employment. She glowed in the rare telling of an even rarer propitious event in her life. Her Baji was genuinely happy for her and told her that she was expecting a box of Asha’s special home made gulab jamun* the day of Danish’s graduation.

Besides being the curator of discreet, precious dreams, Asha was an accomplished cook and was the designated neighbourhood sweetmeat maker for festivals like Diwali and Holi. Her services were also sought out during Eid celebrations by those whose gastronomic inclinations outweighed their fear of moral transgression: If she cooked in their homes, in their vessels, the designated sin allocation was greatly reduced. And then, there were other prayerful ways to wash away such lesser impieties …

Asha got to work, her mind far away in fields of her own dreams. During her short break for lunch, she pulled out her phone to look at he her son’s smiling face on the display screen. He’d been at the front and center of her mind today, pulling at her heart strings and filling her thoughts. She suddenly recalled the words of a relative who imagined himself to be something of a fortune teller. He’d said, Danish would he famous- his name would be in the newspapers …

She smiled indulgently. She’d be happy with his uneventful graduation and an unremarkable transition into the cadres of bank officers that she saw driving to work every day. Rising every morning with their big dreams and fulfilling them in the cool sanctums of enterprise that towered on both sides of the I.I. Chundrigar road. They were resplendent in their suits and ties – Danish would be resplendent in his suit and tie! She felt a little shiver run up her spine as her one prodigious vision for her one son enveloped her in its fiery, explosive embrace.

Today she was leaving early to stop by the landlord’s and to visit the Punch Mukhi Hanuman Mandir in Soldier bazaar. Like all her compatriots, while she revered the entire deific gamut, she had her divine favourites too, and hers were Lords Shiva and Hanuman.

After a brief stop at her landlord’s house, with the month’s obligation fulfilled, she caught the W11 bus to Soldier bazaar and made her way to the temple. Even though it was a Thursday, the wide arched entryways into the temple were thronging with worshippers. The Maha Shivrathri* festival was approaching and while the actual event would take place at the Shiv Mandir in Umerkot a month from now, the regular petitioners like herself and the generally devoted were already faithfully marking time at their city temples. She had already asked her employer for a week off in March when she and her family would travel to the southern part of Sind to Amarkot as Asha and her community referred to the fort city among themselves; harking back to the days when the city was ruled by its Hindu founder Maharaja Amar Singh. It was one of the many little linguistic deviations that they held onto among themselves, from the Islamic recolouring of history in their now Islamic homeland. Despite the prevalent lack of formal education, these pithy historical and cultural facts had permeated through their community as a meaningful reminder that they were as much a part of the rich tradition and history of the land as their Muslim neighbours and rulers were. Rulers, because there was also still a vestigial sense of being the minority peasantry in someone else’s kingdom. But these were the visceral, unavoidable facts of being a part of the fabric of the country; and despite the ordinary and extraordinary odds, there were also glimmers and inklings of a better future. A future secured by their children and spearheaded by the tireless enterprise of their parents and grandparents.

Asha walked into the temple and sat down on the cool black and white tiles. She closed her eyes and folded her hands in supplication and prayer. She had to talk to the deities, beseech them, cajole them for their blessings; for their generosity and their kindness. This time, she had no bargaining chip to offer. She wanted the whole blessed profusion of her son’s graduation, job and future.

Asha remembered the incidents of the next two days in a haze of delirium and torment. It had been a sticker with a verse on it. Someone had put it on Danish’s text book. He had removed it and pasted it on the desk. And then … she couldn’t think beyond that sequence of events. It ratcheted through her head in an endless loop, protecting her and agonising her in turn. The innate self preservation instinct of a mother with another yet vulnerable, yet susceptible child, prevented her from recalling the entire tragedy. The tragedy that had transformed joyous anticipation and smiling fortunes into a cruel, heart-wrenching finale.

The local paper called it a “scuffle on university grounds triggered by a wilful act of blasphemy”. While Danish survived the savage mob that was out for blood-thirsty retributon, he was not spared the statutory penance of his act. And so, he was stripped of his university credentials and incarcerated for “desecration of the Quran”. With him he brought down the tenuous little edifice of dreams and aspirations of yet another generation of his family.

In the wake of the tragedy, Asha’s husband had called her employer saying she was ill and would be away for 10 days. Now they also had to contend with keeping this new born scandal under wraps from employers, neighbours and random justice wielders.

Asha went back to work after a week. It took her those many days to pick up the broken pieces of her heart and put them away in some dark corner where no one, not even she could see them. She had to go on. There was 12 year old Ramesha to look after. She would have to uproot and reseed her dreams, her prayers and her hopes. She would have to go on.

‘Kya haal hai Asha? Theek ho abhi?’(2) asked her Baji with a look of concern on her face. Asha responded automatically with the alacrity born of the restlessness of time and the lightning glance of never-to-return opportunities of her world.

‘Gulab jamun ka intezar hai – Inshallah, abhi itni dair nahi rahi’(3), she added smiling. Asha touched her heart as if in placation, humble recall, while the broken pieces inside huddled a little more into her grieving, weeping spaces.

(1): ‘What’s up? You’re looking very happy today!’

* Gulab Jamun:
A milk-solid based sweet from the Indian subcontinent.

* Maha Shivrathri: A major festival in Hinduism, the solemn occasion marks a remembrance of overcoming darkness and ignorance in life and the world. It is observed by remembering Shiva and chanting prayers, fasting, and meditating on ethics and virtues such as honesty, non-injury to others, charity, forgiveness, and the discovery of Shiva.

(2): ‘How are you Asha? Are you recovered now?’

(3): ‘I’m still waiting for the gulab jamun. God willing, it can’t be long now’

FEATURE| THE NOSTALGIA OF A NICE CUP OF TEA

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT STORY| SOUL SISTERS – Part Five

The dust and clamour of the city assailed her with its brawny vigour as soon as she walked out of the airport in Karachi. She looked for Rustum’s familiar face in the surrounding milieu of cacophonous welcoming parties, stuporous janitorial staff and the predatory hordes of taxi kiosk attendants. In his low key, efficient manner her driver located her before she had caught sight of him. He took control of her luggage trolley and led the way expertly through the throng to the parked car.

At home, she was greeted with the faint smell of lavender Lysol mixed in with the fading aroma of freshly cooked, spice-resplendent food. Layla felt her stomach rumble in anticipation as she went into the kitchen to look at the gastronomic delights rustled up by her housekeeper. She’d cooked bitter gourd stuffed with minced beef, and fried okra. The hot pot had four still warm chapatis nestled in its cozy interior – one for her and three for the driver. She had a hot bath; relished her quiet dinner and sat back in the sofa, enveloping herself in the familiar sounds of silence of her apartment.

It was good to be back home.

Her phone rang as soon as she was turning in for the night. It was Sumaira.

‘Yay! You’re back!’ she said as soon as Layla picked up the phone. It was good to hear Sumaira’s voice – still buoyant, still chirpy, even at the waning end of the day.

‘I am back! Missed you woman!’ said Layla rousing herself from her solitary stupor. They talked for a while but Sumaira gave nothing away about who her mystery man was. After fifteen minutes of circling around the obvious with blitheful nimbleness, Sumaira finally ceased her torture of her friend and hung up with an exuberant bye and a kiss. Layla was left fretting in the grips of intrigue and conjecture for more than an hour afterwards. She gave an exasperated sigh and picked up a book to distract herself and to lull her somewhat jangled nerves. Sumaira was a tormenter and a bewilderer and even with her best friend, there were no special confidence privileges until she decided so.

After work the next day, Layla headed for La Etilier Suma to catch her friend in her own workplace where she was more likely to reveal and embellish than to bedevil and distract. Sumaira was bent over a sketch and was delicately filling the colours into each roseate and paisley, the very picture of imperturbable professionalism.

Layla looked at her for a moment and grinned ‘Maestro, thy deception is done. Out with it!’

Sumaira looked up startled. There was a pattern emerging to her being caught off guard she thought fleetingly before she closed her sketch book and stood up to hug her friend. She laughed as she sat back down.

‘It’s Karim’ she said simply.

‘Karim who?’ asked Layla while deftly suppressing the inadvertent bloom of emotions in her own heart at the mention of that name; that was still her little secret …

‘Of “Karamat and Sons” – Karim Zaidi’

Layla looked at Sumaira uncomprehendingly for a moment. But only for a moment.

‘Wow, really?’ she mananged to say while quieting her now pitching, hammering, lurching heart.

‘It was one of those unexpected things. I mean we’ve known him forever from a distance haven’t we? He was always so quiet… so aloof. But he’s actually a lovely man. Sophisticated, well read and …uff… those eyes!’ Sumaira gushed, laughing at her own quickened heart even as she glowed in the sharing of fledgling but precious confidences.

Layla looked at her friend as swarms of disconnected thoughts rampaged through her own head: What were the odds? Of all the men Sumaira could have had out there! Had she misjudged his quiet demeanour? Did she think he was the one man who would remain perfectly unaffected by Sumaira’s charms? Why did she think he was going to fall into her lap just like that? Why couldn’t he have fallen into her lap just like that? Well played, Universe! …

‘… and we spent that entire evening together’ Sumaira ended smiling.

Layla hadn’t heard very much after the First Disclosure and now looked at her friend with new eyes … hurting and resentful; stabbing and piercing; stinging and pricking eyes. She blinked twice, three times, willing away the flood that was gathering at the peripheries of her eyelids.

She said nothing but she smiled, for the benefit of her friend. Her angst, like her secret, was also her own now; and even in the throes of her frenzied emotions she knew now was not the time for either affliction to rear its tormented head.

That evening Layla sat with her solitude and her despair; the tranquility of her three week vacation, a now buried and forgotten memory. She washed her face and looked into the mirror. She lifted up the corners of her mouth in what should have been a smile but was instead a grotesque caricature of joy. She froze her face in the lopsided grimace, forcing herself to recall similar moments from her past; moments of self loathing, of unremitting agony, of wanting to end it all …

But she didn’t feel any of her earlier sense of tragedy. She felt only a pervasive emptiness that was almost narcotic in its numbness. She realized that she was not the tortured 17 year old anymore. She was a resilient, stalwart product of the curve ball life had pitched at her. She’d learnt to bat right back, into the eye of the storm. Even when her ordinary and extraordinary anxieties overwhelmed her, she remained afloat with her head above the water; taking in the serenity of the entire ocean rather than the tempestuousness of the cresting and falling waves around her.

She would survive this too.

Life, of course, was full of surprises, but she also knew the limits of joyful happenstance. Even while she sat on her wooden bench, enveloped in her solitude, daydreaming of knights in charcoal grey shalwar kameez, she was at peace with the calming ordinariness of the relationships in her real life. Ultimately, even when she made her brief, magical forays into What-Could-Have-Been, she always veered right back to reality. So yes, she would survive this.

Her friendship with Sumaira was worth more than a few lusty pulls of her heartstrings. Her soul connection with her best friend had to be worth more than her illusions of love and couple-hood; for that was what her fantasy romance had been – a theatre of the heart.

She drew back the curtains on the night sky and lay down, looking at the vastness of the city from her 7th floor sanctum. In time, the city lights faded in the radiant luminescence of a milk moon that shone into her bedroom lighting up her face as she slept.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/22/soul-sisters-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/26/soul-sisters-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/28/soul-sisters-part-three/

Read Part Four here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/03/soul-sisters-part-four/

SHORT STORY| SOUL SISTERS – Part Four

‘I hear you’re quite the designer – I myself was a coffin maker in the US. Fancy coffins are big business there’, said someone who’s name she’d forgotten but who was steadfastly standing by her side while carrying on a mostly non-reciprocal conversation. Sumaira smiled blandly yet again and took a sip of her sprite and soda. She wondered for the 10th time in as many minutes where Hassan had disappeared to. Usually the crowd was larger and she was familiar with many of the usual suspects at these soirées. This appeared almost like a last minute attempt to make something of a Friday night – the patchy crowd that had gathered was dolorous and … sticky.

She excused herself from Mr. Glue-some, and walked purposefully towards nowhere in particular.

She stood in an unobtrusive corner of the garden and took a deep breath. God! When did unfamiliar crowds start getting to her? She usually loved the banter and the energy. It was this whole marriage prospect that was playing with her mind; even the oddball, to-meet-and-to-forget strangers at a party were now threatening to join the Groom Queue lined up in her head.

She needed a real drink.

‘Hello. I hope I’m not barging in on your … lonesomeness’, said a low mirthful voice near her. She looked up, startled to find Karim smiling at her, suddenly becoming conscious of her uncharacteristic shadowy form and furrowed brow.

‘Hi’ she smiled a little self consciously, feeling a tinge of discomposure touch her cheeks. The light and shadow accentuated her flush making Karim momentarily catch his breath. She shone even when she cloaked herself in eventide shadows … he thought in that moment of mush and liquid emotions.

‘I didn’t see you here … I was looking for Hassan and, you know, trying to hide from a Party Romeo’ she said laughingly, in superintendence once again of her wits and her charm.

Karim laughed and looked again at her beautiful face. He was still feeling the afterglow of the earlier heat of the moment; a pleasurable warmth that belied the usual gin and tonic haze he surrounded himself with at these social affairs. They stood in that corner of the garden, chatting comfortably about nothing in particular, blanketed from the world, while a nebulous moon looked on.

Like Layla, Sumaira too lived alone, but in the bounteous arms of a family homestead that was equipped with its crew of maids, gardeners and all the other amenities that are de rigeur for many privileged South Asian families who live between two or even three homes. Sumaira’s parents lived in Kent in the UK but came home every winter. Karachi’s winter, if its spring-like coolness can, at all be called that, was short and flamboyant. It was when the flowers bloomed and the parks were full of promenading, socialising hordes of Karachiites, glad of the faint, sometimes even fondly imagined, nip in the air. There was that handful of wintry days however, when one definitely needed a sweater or a jacket to brace against an almost desert-like evening chill.

She was having her first of many mugs of coffee of the day, a faraway look in her eyes. Asha, the old family retainer broke into her reverie to ask about what to cook for dinner. That question had become a pet peeve, resounding as it did with the regularity of sunrise, while holding within it none of the sustaining, nurturing quality. Asha’s cooking had suffered in almost defiant sympathy with her aching bones and failing eyesight.

She told her to make a salad. She’d have eggs and salad for dinner tonight.

Her phone lit up momentarily. She glanced at it abstractedly and then picked it up. She smiled; it was a message from Karim. Well.. it was more a forward really of something they had talked about the other evening, but still …

Was she falling in love with Karim? She asked herself upfront, point blank.

She wasn’t wholly sure, but he was definitely on the short list now … at the very tippy top …

Layla lay on the sofa in the lounge. The television was droning on in the background; her father was fast asleep on his recliner after a fulsome meal; her mother was on the phone with one of her sisters. She sighed contentedly. It had been a relaxing, settling, centering fortnight in Lahore. She still had another week to go before she descended into the tumultuous and confusing but also loving and giving arms of her adopted city. She looked at her phone. Layla had been so caught up in the happy sociability of parents and home that she hadn’t noticed the almost radio silence where there was usually a daily digital exchange between the friends. After a somewhat cryptic message that she had received from Sumaira last week, she hadn’t heard from her at all. She’d said something about having met someone new; about short lists that were becoming ever shorter and a choice that was becoming ever clearer. So, the Husband Hunt was in full progress Layla thought and waited for the familiar tightening of her chest. She felt only a nostalgia; a gentle wistfulness. It was the way of things. Sumaira would get married and she may even get busy as married couples do. But their friendship would stand the test of matrimony and its many busying enterprises. She felt unusually accepting and calm.

She suddenly missed her best friend, her soul sister. She typed in a message and put her phone away. She got up in the brightened spirits that were the trademark bestowal of all her home visits and gave her mother a quick bear hug from behind. They were going for their post dinner stroll in the lane outside the house. She looked up at the clear night sky with its winking constellations. Amid all that starry brilliance rested a demure quarter moon like a half closed eye …

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/22/soul-sisters-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/26/soul-sisters-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/28/soul-sisters-part-three/


Read Part Five here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/06/soul-sisters-part-five/

SHORT STORY| SOUL SISTERS – Part Three

It’s probably going to be Dawood, thought Layla musingly as she went through a mental list of eligible husbands for Sumaira. After her initial rush of anxiety where she had imagined herself being left alone with only a dolefully fluttering spinster flag as her constant companion, she’d pulled herself together. It wasn’t that her fear of losing her best friend to Wedded Bliss(ters!) had just disappeared; it was more a deliberate effort to closet the feeling until it had faded away, as most tragic things tend to, into some sort of emotional oblivion. So now, in that wholly preoccupying mental distraction mode that is such a friend at times like these, she was engrossed in the arduous and exacting task of ‘Guessing the Groom’.

Even with the inherent ironies of the phrase, Dawood was the ‘perfect husband material’, she thought. A lean, mean, money-making machine! She grimaced inwardly – that definitely was an uncharitably crude sentiment with regard to her best friend’s prospects. Fundamentally true but …. indelicate. Now, she was also momentarily overtaken with the anxiety of self doubt – was she acting out some sort of repressed resentment because Sumaira had broken their bond of friendship? Had Sumaira broken their bond of friendship? Was she never going to see her again after she had a ring on her finger? Each subsequent question sounded more ludicrous than the last; and yet, there was an instinctive feel of baser truths in all of it.

Layla took a deep breath and continued to pack her suitcase. The Eid holidays were around the corner and she was going to Lahore for at least a fortnight. The holidays were a week long but she had an office in her hometown too so she was planning on mixing business with pleasure … and a bit of escape artistry. Yes, she was going to get away, for a while at least, from the changes that were looming large on the entirety of her life in Karachi.

Sumaira was sitting with her feet up on the easy chair in the inner sanctums of her boutique. The belle of the party circuit was also the creator of many a dream wardrobe. She was a gifted designer with patterns and colours that stood out in the cacophonous milieu of formal wear. She was looking at pictures on her phone, her mind extrapolating sensory stimulation to long term marital success. She had a shortlist now. Of course, each candidate had already, many times over, declared his undying love, while also logically certifying the longevity of their particular match.

The whole process – this picking of a man to be my partner for life; it was all so clinical, she thought. No butterflies in the stomach; no happy anticipation. Just another trek down the Boulevard of Tradition. She had expected the lead up to marriage to be a little more exciting. The flat feeling in the pit of her stomach almost made her wish that she’d married at 23 so she could have floated on the blissful waves of premarital innocence and naïveté at least for a while. There would be time enough for reality to bite and for her to learn the wisdom of mustering her own happiness. Now, she had the stoicism of experience but had lost the euphoria of guilelessness. Life! Always about toss-ups.

There were twenty unread messages in her “Friends and Frenemies” chat group. She opened it and saw Hassan leading the weekend charge as usual. He had asked everyone to name a song that best described them. Sumaira was glad of the diversion and was wondering whether in fact, she was Patti LaBelle’s ‘Lady Marmalade’ or Whitney Houston’s “Every woman” when Layla poked her head in through the doorway.

“Hey! I’m glad you’re here; was going to call you” said Sumaira smiling up at her friend. “Tell me, what’s a song that describes you?”

“That’s easy! I am a Rock” said Layla, delicately assuming the Chin Mudra* with her hands and closing her eyes.

“That’s a quiet song isn’t it? God! I need some of that quietness in my life right now, even if it’s for a day!” said Sumaira earnestly but uncharacteristically and typed her response into the already buzzing online conversation thread.

Kareem picked up his phone and looked at his messages. 157 unread messages in the chat group he rarely looked at during the week. He now tapped on it and looked at the last few entries. Simon and Garfunkel … he smiled. That had been his signature song throughout his quiet, largely solitary teen years and now, it evoked a sense of nostalgia, comfort and serenity. It was Sumaira’s entry … He looked thoughtful; he hadn’t imagined her to be the kind that stayed shielded in her armour and hidden in her room. He looked at her display photo. She really was gorgeous.

“When are you coming back?” asked Sumaira while they both dug into their Calypso salads.

“Two weeks, maybe three if I have to do a detailed audit of the Lahore branches” said Layla looking assiduously into the depths of her salad.

“That’s almost a month! Hurry back… I need my best friend by my side to help me pick my Shahzada Gulfaam(1)”, she laughed and kissed Layla on the cheek. She had to get her friend to relax around the thought of her marriage. She knew hardly anything would change; but Layla had her own conversations with the universe and sometimes she took the circuitous route to seeing things that for others were in plain sight. Many times she had been right to do so … This time, Sumaira hoped her friend’s hesitancy was just the knee jerk reaction of her social anxiety and not a prophetic omen of things to come.

Layla looked at Sumaira, realising her friend was worrying on her behalf. “I know! I’d kill you if you just went eenie meenie miny moe and deprived me of the pleasure of a SWOT analysis on your husband to be!”

Sumaira chuckled, relieved to see the humour returning to their equation.

Layla grinned. Even as she lightened the atmosphere, she was bolstering her own heart

I am a rock, I am an island …

(1) Shahzada Gulfaam: Urdu colloquialism for ‘Prince Charming’

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/22/soul-sisters-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/26/soul-sisters-part-two/

Read Part Four here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/03/soul-sisters-part-four/

Read Part Five here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/06/soul-sisters-part-five/

SHORT STORY| SOUL SISTERS – Part Two

Karim sat at the desk in his office, looking at a piece of random poetry that had found its way to his “Friends and Frenemies” WhatsApp chat group. The group always came alive on Friday afternoons. He was now re-reading the verse for the third time, a slow smile playing about his lips.

There is this wooden bench I like
It’s not fancy; quite the common type.
Cloaked in by the dappled canopy
Of a gracefully pirouetting Mara tree,
It sits in the park like a dear old friend
It’s well-worn embrace ever welcoming....

He was reminded of a bench of his own; in a private little place that he occasionally went to, away from the cacophony of life. The little stanza had been forwarded a few times so there was no indication of the original author. He took a sip of his tepid tea, grimaced and decided it was one of those bench-visiting, soul-appeasing days. He picked up his laptop and descended into the imposing atrium of “Karamat and Sons Steel Works”. He looked at the newly refurbished company logo across the reception wall and sighed inwardly. Whether he liked it or not; despite it all being what he hadn’t quite aspired for himself, he was the scion of the Karamat and Sons empire such as it was, and he was going to have to fill in those shoes.

He got into his jeep and drove “into the sunset” as he liked to imagine. So private and precious was his little place of solace that he dared not refer to it out loud. For the heart and the mind have a precocious way of conspiring sometimes, exposing sentiments and truths that were supposed to be forever held in the most hidden recesses of one’s being. It had been a month since he was last there and this little ditty that had serendipitously, unexpectedly floated in across the cyber ether had suddenly rekindled his solitude yen. He longed to sit on that incongruous little bench on the beach. Placed exactly so on his specific instructions, it sat at the very edge of the lapping waves. Behind him was the biscuit coloured hut, made deliberately obscure against its golden-tan background of sand and rock; before him was the vast expanse of the sea encompassing his secluded world in her vital arms. The hut was built on one of the little promontories that jutted out to sea on an otherwise, gently undulating beach front. This secret place of solace, on more than a few occasions, had inspired Karim too, to muse poetically; with always the same refrain serenely coming to mind:

**I am monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute ...

Today, however, he didn’t sit on the bench. He took off his shoes, rolled up his trousers and walked along the beach. One of the silent meditative motions he inadvertently engaged in while sitting on his bench was to assiduously keep his feet dry in the frolicsome advance and retreat of the waves. Today, he sought out the gentle waves, the soft foam breaking at his ankles, leaving lacy outlines around his footprints in the sand. Today, instead of William Cowper’s soothing verse, the two lines, somewhat adapted, of the mystery poet, came knocking on the periphery of his solitude …

It sits on the beach like a dear old friend
It’s well-worn embrace ever welcoming....

He was in love! With whoever had written those words! He laughed out loud at his usually Victorian Judge-sober heart as it somersaulted in time with the dancing waves. He knew he was momentarily infatuated with a figment of his imagination; but he allowed himself to grin widely as he created blitheful footprints in the sand around his wooden bench.

It was late evening. Layla sat on the floor, leaning against the footboard of the bed in Sumaira’s room, her legs stretched out in front of her. She was concentrating on a piece of a poetry that had flitted into her mind in the comforting haze of a post dinner, eve-of-the-weekend stupor.

“Layla, I think I’m done with the single life. I think I’m ready to take a husband; to have kids and become a matriarch in some elegant home!”

Layla looked up at her friend for indications of the tongue in cheek humour that was such a large part of her personality. She saw a contemplative Sumaira, lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling, her face wearing a thoughtful expression.

“What do you mean? I mean, this is sudden!” said Layla still waiting for the easy chortle of her free-thinking, conventions-defying friend.

Layla looked keenly at Sumaira and thought, “Good God! She’s avoiding even looking at me now. Is she really serious…?”

“I know! But look, I’m 35 and now’s the time … “ Sumaira said a little hesitantly. Because what she left unsaid was what they had always laughed at; the norms of society on when to marry and when (and whether in fact!) to have children or to instead, adopt.

“You know what Layla, we should both think about settling down. It’ll be fun to become a part of the mainstream for a while. We can always “lovingly” rebel when all’s said and done … you know, to keep it from getting old. To keep us from getting old and jaded.”

“Settling down? laughed Layla. “That’s the first time I’ve heard you use that turn of phrase. Wasn’t it being shackled down that you called it?”

“Sweetheart, I’m serious. We’ve done what we had to in the ways of being single and unattached. I want someone significant in my life now”, said Sumaira looking directly at Layla at last.

“She means it! Damn hell! What am I going to do? Be the eternal spinister? God!–– What’s wrong with me? It was bound to happen. It’s not such a bad thing…. She’s right, I should think about it too…” Layla was putting in copious effort to rein in her inadvertent wave of anxiety.

Sumaira looked at her friend fondly as she saw a myriad emotions flash in quick succession on that sweet face. Change, no matter how natural, organic and sequential in the larger scheme of things, always took Layla by surprise. She was a creature of habit and loved her constancy rituals of friendship, loving and living. But she was resilient and an oddly beloved child of the universe. She wouldn’t be surprised if somehow, somewhere, even before Sumaira had cherry-picked a potential mate from amongst her coterie of admirers, Layla found her great love.

** Verse from William Cowper’s “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk”

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/22/soul-sisters-part-one/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/04/28/soul-sisters-part-three/

Read Part Four here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/03/soul-sisters-part-four/

Read Part Five here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/06/soul-sisters-part-five/

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