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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
The alarm went off like a screaming banshee, putting an end to Sophia’s dawn time dreams. She had chosen this whining, grating sound to wake up to when she’d got her new phone two years ago, and had kept it; like a sadistic reminder of the torturously early mornings that she had to endure. She sat up in bed trying to hold onto the fleeing threads of her early morning subconscious meanderings. These were the most lucid and memorable of her REM world of visions and omens, the two intuitive genres in which she had learnt to see them pan out, in some way, in her universe.
She got out of bed, the dysania* wrapping around her like a gnarly, leather cloak – impenetrable and rough until the first sips of her tea. And because she wasn’t a “morning person”, that blessed first cup was consumed not at home since she got up with just enough time to get ready in a petulant rush, but at the office. This meant that the brooding glower of the sleep-deprived followed her into the brightly lit portals of corporate enterprise. The tea boy however, was trained to perfection and was the only one really who had the temerity to smile at her while placing within five minutes of her arrival, a steaming mug of the revitalizing beverage in front of her. He would then watch with gratified concentration, as his brew slayed the shrew. The caffeine in the otherwise unremarkable tea blend would work its magic and Miss Sophia would then bestow her first smile of the day on him, the bearer of invigorating brews!
It was the middle of the month, the time when monthly deposit sales goals took on a manic urgency of delivery, wildly elevating the stress hormone levels across the entire Premier Banking floor. The collective cortisol deluge was enough to drown out all undercurrents of cheerfulness and most elements of grace. And it frequently did. Today however, Sophia at least, felt a lightheartedness: one of her customers (he’d been banking with her for a year now) had promised to transfer USD 250,000/- into his foreign currency account with the bank, that was also tagged to her as his relationship manager. That inflow would help to meet her Foreign Currency sales objectives nicely for the month. She allowed herself a little smile while she sipped on her tea, bequeathing it on one of the most critical staff at her workplace: Arshad, the tea boy, that concocter of blessed brews!
The world of Consumer Banking at the foreign banks in the urban centres was, by default, peopled with attractive young professionals mostly under the age of thirty. They were, most of them, graduates of foreign universities and carried themselves with the aplomb of corporate royalty; that imperial air only ever set aside for the rich, the famous and the hefty deposit deliverers. The aesthetic wisdom of this human resourcing, long ago vetted and abetted by the forefathers of the service industry, had played out most satisfactorily in the Pakistani market too. Comely countenances and pleasant demeanours had seen the bank through many a national financial crisis, process breakdown and personality foible. A smile, a gesture and a sashay of well heeled personal service have indeed, countless times worked their magic in smoothing ruffled tempers and preventing stinging letters of complaint being received at management levels or worse, by the banking ombudsman.
Sophia sipped on her third mug of tea of the day. Her lead generation calls were done and she was now at 3 O’ clock in the afternoon, waiting for Amir Taurab to come in and hand deliver the receipt from his remitting bank. He had insisted on giving her the largely superfluous document to ensure his weekly visit to see Sophia Zaidi was still professionally cloaked, thin as that veneer of business formality was. The truth was that Amir Taurab had fallen for his Relationship Manager and had over the last eleven months made every attempt to titillate, impress and win her over. But she was a different cup of tea; a rich high-grown infusion. She was a waif of a woman with the charisma of a queen, unaffected by the trivialities of wealth, good looks and social stature. Heck! He brought them all to the table in not entirely modest degrees either. She had responded genially enough but had kept him at arms length, ever polite, ever proper and oh ever so lovely!
Amir Taurab arrived at exactly 3.05 pm and sat directly across from Sophia’s work station so that if she looked up, she had no recourse but to lock eyes with him. He wore his dark glasses because he believed that they lent him a gravitas over and above the other aesthetics he naturally exuded. Sophia was busy with another client so he waited. The Floor Manager approached him (like she tiresomely always did!) and asked if she might help him. He politely declined (like he tirelessly always did) and said he would wait for Ms, Sophia to attend to him. He had a dull suspicion that his infatuation with his RM* had not gone unnoticed by the rest of her hawk-eyed colleagues.
By and by the object of his affection looked up and at him. He nodded in gracious acknowledgement.
Sophia filled in the term deposit form for another customer (he had been one of her first deposit customer when she had started out as a personal account officer three years ago). She glanced up to ask him about something on the form and looked right into the barely concealed, Rayban Wayfarer-darkened gaze of Amir sahib. God! He was so … indelicate about his feelings. He nodded at her in that strange ostrich like way, to which she dutifully responded with a small smile and a little nod of her own. She wished he’d back off; without taking offence or the entirety of his premier relationship off the bank’s books. It was a sensitive and sometimes stressful balancing act for the female staff at the bank: keeping impassioned admirers at bay, while showing just enough interest to keep them from absconding money bags and baggage.
Twenty minutes later the document was delivered and steaming cups of tea were being partaken of amid the usual banter:
Sophia: ‘Thank you Amir sahib. I’ll make sure to follow up on this remittance. It should be with us in seventy two hours at the latest’.
Amir Taurab: ‘Please call me Amir. The “sahib” makes it all so formal. Otherwise I’ll have to reciprocate with “Sophia ji”.’
Sophia: ‘It’s a bit unusual to do that Amir sahib. I hope you understand’.
A sweet smile; placatory dimpling: holding-on-to-the-deposit geniality. And yet again, for the hundredth time, the ruse of charm and amiability sat nicely between them, gratifying both, customer and Relationship Manager in their own particular ways.
The sisters didn’t speak of the confidence sharing or the fragile moment of overt affection that they had bestowed on one another. But for Aliya there was now, added to the light footedness of new love, also the bouyant warmth of a sisterhood that had matured, mellowed overnight from the abrasive harshness of a protracted adolescence. She’d seen the soft inside of her diamond hearted sister. It had been a coming of age of the two women bound as they were by their shared DNA.
The next two months passed in a haze of coffee outings and the odd soirée at a friend’s house. Ali and Aliya attended most of these social dos together. Although they had grown closer in some ways, there was no physicality. Aside of one random kiss that Ali had dropped on her in a state of high spirits, there was no intimacy. So even though this was her first real relationship, she had felt her cautionary sixth sense kick in a few times. She had also caught him, in their quiet moments together, seeming to look more at her bulk than at her; but only for a moment. It had made her shift uncomfortably. Then almost instantly he would remember something else to talk about and the smile hovering uncertainly around his mouth would return to his eyes. And so the euphoria of being in his company, of never running out of chatter, of being sought out, had superseded all the other foreboding notions that sometimes reared theirs sage but irksome heads.
Hesitantly at first, Aliya had quite earnestly tried to include Saira in her plans with Ali. Saira always declined. This socialising with her sister was still too new; uncharted territory for the sure footed Saira. Also she was adamant about not stealing the limelight from her sister because she always had, everywhere. This relationship had to mature beyond the skin deep surface to surer ground before she would join the duo. She already had a trail of ill gotten admirers in her wake: Many a friend’s ardent suitor after having met Saira, had lost his original romantic plot and veered off after her, leaving the detritus of cursing girl friends, bands of sparring women, and specifically for Saira, the dubious reputation of being a “man eater”. Her sister had never had a man before so she had been spared that added insult to injury. Saira had in fact, met Ali a few times and they had exchanged basic pleasantries. To her mind he had displayed no particular quality to indicate that he was immune to random female charms, even if they were not in any way cast in his general direction. There were more than a few times that Saira had looked in the mirror, into the depths of her hazel eyes and wondered if she was really evil or if the world around her was just deficient in personal ethics. The toss up was even keeled depending on her state of mind during those moments of introspection.
There was a party at a friend’s to which Saira was going but Aliya was not. She had come down with a cold and was going to spend the evening tucked into her duvet with a flask of hot tea and the company of her best friend. Although they’d talked on the phone, she had met Saqib only a couple of times over the last two months. On hearing that she was spending the evening in the quietude of her home finally, he had walked across to see her. Saira looked in on the pair, waved a cheery farewell and whisked off to the party.
Saqib sat down on the twin bed next to the one Aliya was snuggled up in. He looked at her, his heart skipping a beat even after all these years of being friends. He loved her. He always had really. She was a beautiful girl who was in the wrong environment he thought for an uncharitable but brutally honest moment. Her sister and her mother had made it difficult for her to really open up and blossom. She was usually closed in, clammed up; but he had seen the dazzling little glimpses every now and then of the woman she really was. Of course all these sentiments meandered cozily within the innermost confines of his own heart. He had never spoken to Aliya about how he felt. In a whimsical way, he thought the universe would intervene when the time was right. He and Aliya shared that ephemeral belief about things, about their world.
He looked at her now, her beautiful skin even more radiant in the heat of her flu induced fever. His heart did another little skip as he looked at her, smiling in the warmth of his secret … held in the protective palms of the universe… to float into their shared ether when the time was right… soon he’d thought only two months ago. Now … well, now, he felt like a transparent wall had come up between them, looking very surmountable still. Like he could just reach through and pull her into a tender hug. It was strange but her relationship with Saqib had not changed a thing. He still felt the quiet elation and the intimacy of their close kinship. They spent the evening talking easily, comfortably until Aliya was ready to sleep. On his way out, Munir uncle had invited him for a glass of scotch. Saqib enjoyed the company of this older, scholarly, wise man, just as much as Munir Mian appreciated the sensible, grounded younger man. It was after midnight when Saqib finally walked back home.
The thing happened abruptly, unexpectedly, in the throes of alcoholic fuzziness and it has to be added, in the thick of stage haziness from the fog machine. It was one of those Saturday nights in November when it was chilly, romantic and many a heart was fluttering on its wayward sleeve. People were huddled together around gas heaters set around the garden. The inner sanctums belonged to the energetic and sure footed as they cavorted euphorically to the dance beats of the 80s and the 90s. Saira had ramped up not only her spirits with four vodka and oranges, but also her step count of the day with an hour on the floor with the other dancing queens. She now sat on one of the chairs inside surrounded by the extra warm stupor in and around her.
‘Oh hello’ came a voice from somewhere to her left.
She squinted through the mind and machine fog as she tried to locate the owner of the voice. She was wondering if in fact it was a figment of her swirling imagination when someone dropped into the chair next to hers. It was Ali.
Fifteen minutes into their banter, Ali placed a confident hand on Saira’s thigh. Her reflexes were slow which he took for compliance. When he leaned over to kiss her, Saira suddenly leaped up slapping his head away. She could feel the multi-layered warmth leaving her body in a visceral, almost palpable way, like the blood draining from a severed artery. She stood up, swaying ever so slightly and turned towards the now blubbering man.
‘You bloody a**hole! Don’t you come near me again’. She thought only for a split second before adding, ‘Or my sister’.
The thing about blood being thicker than water is that when that adage does hold up, it brings entire families closer than they ever were before the calamity struck. And so it was with the twins. Saira came into Aliya’s room the next morning and sat on the bed opposite hers just as Aliya was reading a meandering text from Ali that sounded as cryptic as it did defensive. But he had mentioned Saira in it.
‘What happened’, Aliya asked simply looking at her sister’s drawn face.
‘It’s Ali … he’s a creep’ Saira said looking at her sister hoping that their new found understanding would make the awkwardness, the hurtfulness of this incidence easier to manage. When Aliya continued to look at her with clear, questioning eyes, Saira began to relate what had happened. Aliya listened quietly, unmovingly until Saira was done.
She then looked towards the window, willing away the tears that had sprung to her eyes. She had known there was something amiss about her equation with Ali, something that just didn’t sit properly, uprightly. But to have made moves on her sister after everything that they had shared … What had they shared? Easy banter about things that they both liked but that was it. And if she was absolutely honest with herself, she had imagined more than a few scenarios where he had shown his unabashed preference for Saira. No… she wasn’t shocked. She was hurt. She swallowed hard, but the tears came anyway and she cried as Saira hugged her, silently weeping with her.
That was another thing the sisters never spoke of again but it had brought them closer; and that was what mattered Aliya thought to herself in her moments of not entirely happy reminiscences and uneasy introspection.
Saqib was at his best friend’s side after that. He came by everyday even if it was for twenty minutes at a time to see how Aliya was faring. Her cold was better and between her bruised heart slowly repairing itself and the bouts of wretchedness that assailed her off and on, there were glimmers of her lovely smile again.
‘I’ve put on 3kgs in the last ten days Saqib’, Aliya said laughing through her tears. She was trying to see the lighter side of things… that was who she was. Positive and unputdownable was his Aliya. He felt his heart bursting with affection and a strange pride for who this girl was, to him and to the rest of the world. He smiled at her with love in his eyes.
Saqib had spoken to the Wellness Centre that Aunty Maryam (Aliya’s mother) had been raving about. They had a nutritionist (who absolutely looked the part of course, he grinned) and a physiotherapist specialising in chronic injuries (childhood handicaps included). So he and Aliya were both going to enrol together.
She smiled at Saqib feeling the familiar warmth and comfort that she always did when they were together. She had always basked in the glow unquestioningly. Now she touched it, feeling it all over. Maybe … maybe they had always had something special between them transcending friendship she thought. She waited for her heart to respond to her timorous suggestion: it fluttered ever so slightly and then beat strongly, happily, serenely. She felt a lump rise in her throat and felt her eyes sting just a little. She grinned at Saqib.
She didn’t want to tell him that she loved him just as he was: melting brown eyes, the sweetest smile, rolling gait and all. He didn’t want to ruin the camaraderie of their shared enterprise by telling her that he’d had all the physiotherapy he would ever need and that his walk wasn’t going to benefit from this new intervention; and that he had always loved her as she was.
It was going to be a shared labour of determination and love for themselves and for each other.
Aliya and Saira had cousins in high places; their mother’s brother owned a prestigious ad agency. While their uncle was a prominent presence in many a corporate board room, his wife and children had donned the mantle of the most formidable movers and shakers on the flambouyant party circuit. The Lahore party scene was known for its extravagance and its scandals. Many were the nights that started out genteel and elegant and that ended in the wastelands of too much alcohol, too much food and rapidly unravelling sophistication. Hearty breakfasts of halwa puri* and trite and contrite phone calls between the triumphant and the fallen of the previous night were then the order of the next morning.
Courtesy of their cousins, both girls had debuted on the Lahore party circuit some five years ago and now at twenty five years old, both occupied their own distinct places: Saira was the quintessential diva, the sought after bachelorette at the apex of the food chain and a secret Firestarter – (she appeased her conscience with the fact that she only ever lit a match to already smoldering goods; purging was her goal she professed).
Aliya occupied the small cerebral fringe (aka people carrying more than the regular baggage who had to park it somewhere for the evening she thought wryly, no self deprecating pun intended she always emphatically added to herself). This group sat mostly on the sidelines, analysed everything from the sublime to the ridiculous and assiduously avoided the frenzied eye of the social storm heaving and roiling in front of them. They were the designated drivers and general voices of reason when shindig hell broke loose upon the by then madly gyrating, occasionally screeching horde, their strobe-lit shiny faces appearing to grimace almost fiendishly in the pulsating greens, blues and reds – like a late 20th century version of Dante’s Inferno. And when one of this group was going through personal trauma, of which there were more than a few occasions since the afflicted, in irony’s own twisted dance, tend to get more than their fair share of the ball curving back at them, the whole coterie drank too much in comfort and commiseration.
It was on one such occasion when Aliya had for a while, abandoned her station of the lawn chair critics, that it happened. The day that she felt an almost fossilised stirring in her heart. The last time she had felt this elated anxiety was when she had lost 10 kgs off her 100kg frame – that was five years ago, in the bright eyed, stomach rumbling anticiaption of her first ever ball of the season. God! the naivete, the cloying innocence she thought unable to control the self reproach that often overtook her now when she flashed back to half a decade ago.
She had been looking for Saira in the thick of the milieu in front of her, when he had come up to her. Behind her actually. She had been craning her neck, fervently hoping she wouldn’t have to dive into the throng milling about the bar area outside.
‘I have a bit of an advantage. Can I help with the subject seeking?’ he’d asked conversationally.
Aliya had turned around at this unexpected whisper in her ear … offer of help, she corrected herself practically, also bracing herself for whomever she would encounter.
‘You’re Saira’s sister aren’t you?’ he added smilingly when there was no response to his first question.
Aliya blinked once, twice, frowned ever so slightly and nodded with a ghost of a smile in return. He was obviously one of her sister’s snooty male acquaintances.
‘I saw her at the gate a little while ago’ he added looking towards the far end of the lawn at the other throng at the entrance.
‘Thanks’, Aliya responded briefly, looking at her watch and making to walk back to the comfort of her group.
‘I didn’t mean to spook you,’ he quickly added. ‘Just came to, you know, chat’. He looked at her with no hint of any snide humour or quiet judgement. She stood for a while unsure of where this exchange was leading.
‘I’m Ali – Ali Basit’ he said smiling at her.
‘I’m Aliya, Aliya Muneer’ she finally responded smiling back despite herself.
It was 9 O’clock in the morning. Aliya opened her eyes, feeling disoriented. She had had her recurring dream – this time though, she was plummeting into water, an ocean, when her nameless, faceless champion had at the very last moment, broken her fall. There was also something else on the periphery of her morning visions … someone else … Ali, she thought with a happy smile that became suddenly self conscious and then was wiped mostly off as she gathered up her floating, rhapsodic musings.
It had been an eventful night; one of the few she had spent mostly on her feet rather than on the seat that probably bore the mark of her loyal and substantive bottom by now she thought laughing inside: The handful of prestigious party planners and their furniture did the rounds of all the functions in their City of Gardens. She had been skeptical of a decent conversation unfolding in the midst of the revelry and the excess but that is exactly what had happened. She and Ali had stood for what had seemed like hours talking about the comic enigma that was Sheikh Rasheed*, the inevitability of a zombie apocalypse and the best mutton karahi* in the city. It had been a lovely evening. She smiled again, this time allowing her pleasure to course through her body as she stretched out with the gratified languor of a just-fed cat.
Aliya had only a mug of coffee that morning. Her usual breakfast gusto was lost in the crush of butterflies that was dancing around in her stomach. Her sister looked at her strangely and smiled. Aliya braced herself for another thwack in the gut … or maybe, today it would only be a light little missile of words that would just graze her shoulder, vanishing into the small obscurity of missed barbs. For today she felt fortified, invincible, of mind and heart.
Ali called her that afternoon and for the next week of afternoons. Aliya lived for that week, in a strange bubble of euphoria and starvation. She felt the hunger pangs but nothing in the fridge, on the table or on Food Panda seemed like it would appease the ache in her belly. So she resorted to having copious cups of unsweetened tea throughout the day, winding it all down (up!) with the sugary burst from a bowl of fruit for dinner. In her few clear-headed moments amidst the fog of passion that had befuddled her brain, she admitted that there was nothing quite like fledgeling love to help shed unwanted burdens of the body and the mind.
Her mother was ecstatic at the change in her daughter. She was looking better, happier and dared she say it, thinner. Her father watched her quietly, thoughtfully. He knew his daughter enough to gauge that something out of the ordinary was happening; something that could culminate in quiet triumph or great distress for his sensitive child. He realized he was more concerned about than interested in the cause for his daughter’s moony behaviour.
‘What is it?’, came the question finally from Saira on the sunday when she was going to go out for coffee with Ali.
‘What do you mean?’ Aliya responded in her characteristic defensive manner even though she had been anticipating the query for a while now. Her usually fleet-footed sister had shown remarkable forebreance this time.
‘Give me a break yaar*. Just tell me’, Saira looked at her pointedly, her toast halted midair like a hovering premonition of doom in the event of anything withheld or concealed.
Aliya sighed inwardly while retaining her stoic, watchful front. She had learnt to be wary with her sister. It was a caution that harked back to their childhood; when Saira used to rat on her to their mother when she used to sneak in a snack in the midst of her many maternally imposed and managed diets. She remembered little else from her childhood as vividly as she remembered her mother’s admonishing stares and her perpetually rumbling stomach. Suffice to say that theirs was not the winsome twinsome of the year, never had been. Theirs was a difficult relationship that had settled into a watchful acceptance by one and a relaxed bossiness by the other.
Still, this was her first serious love affair, thought Aliya; well, it was on its way to becoming one at least. It had all the glimmerings and the trappings of a love affair, a serious one, that could have … auspicious endings. She didn’t want to dive into the relationship boxes created by society; that could jinx the entire liaison. There was time enough for it to fit itself neatly into one of the institutions of blessed convention. Her mind was wandering she realized – this was her first serious love affair she thought again, marshalling her faculties of reason and goodwill, and she needed for her sister to be supportive. This once.
‘There’s someone …. someone I’ve met’, Aliya said to her sister, looking at her, wishing earnestly that she would respond with grace; that she would be nice. This once.
Saira looked at her sister for a long moment, then looked away and brought the toast to her mouth biting into it with sharp-toothed ferocity almost, thought Aliya. She looked away and sighed, this time outwardly. Who was she fooling? Saira didn’t understand her; never had. She understood her joys and her heartaches even less …
Aliya suddenly felt soft arms around her shoulders and a kiss on the back of her head.
‘I’m happy for you Aloo’, Saira whispered, continuing to hug her.
Aliya turned her head to look at her sister, expecting to see a mocking smile or a spiteful grin. There was only her sister’s gently smiling face and her eyes that were reflecting the quiet hurrah in her heart. Saira came around and sat down on the chair next to hers and laughed now, self consciously almost.
‘You’d better get this right Aloo; I’m not going to be the good samaritan saving the day for you’ she joked realising that she needed to break the spell before it became by its uncharacteristic softness, unwholesome and unkind. She had always been agitated by her twin; by her total lack of being able to look out for herself, look after herself in any way. Over the years, she had allowed her concern to morph into derision and sarcasm. She never intended to be cruel but she knew she had been a little sadistic over the years. And now, her sister was glowing in the warmth of a formidable venture; a venture of the heart. So rare were these scintillating personal moments with her sister; and she had to let her know, this once, that she was her biggest champion.
Aliya was looking at her sister as a myriad gentle emotions flitted across Saira’s face. What a watershed moment this was for their sisterhood! The surface had been scratched and there was a nice person under there after all thought Aliya, now grinning widely. A shared joy multiplies manifold. She laughed softly in pure elation and hugged her sister.
* Mohabbat Mein Twist: “A twist in the Love story”. “Mohabbat” means “Love” in Urdu.
* Halwa Puri: A traditional Pakistani breakfast that features semolina pudding or halwa and a soft fried dough called poori. Halwa is typically made with a mixture of fried semolina and sugar syrup, which is then combined with nuts such as pistachios and almonds.
* Sheikh Rasheed: A politician who is currently serving as the Interior Minister of Pakistan. He is known for his peculiar, flambouyant style.
* Mutton Karahi: A Mughlai dish that is traditionally cooked in a wok or karahi. The rich mutton curry is made by slow cooking lamb pieces with tomatoes, onion, garlic and garam masala.
* Yaar: Means “friend” in Urdu/ Hindi. It's a popular term in Indian English, used especially as a term of address for “friend.” It ultimately comes, via Urdu, from the Persian and Arabic yar, meaning “friend,” and is recorded in English as early as the 1960s.
Aliya opened one bleary eye to glance at the clock on her bedside table. It was just past 6 O’ clock. She felt a familiar quickening of her pulse as she thought of the day ahead, the obstacles to be surmounted. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. There was nothing on the agenda today, stress free as it was in the aftermath of her masters exams. Her anxious nature still had to catch up to the fact as she stilled her agitated heart. She turned on her side, away from the window and the blitheful rays of sunshine that glanced cheerily off her desk that lay in the corner of the room. She’d sleep in today she thought, catching at the fading strings of dawn time dreams. Soon, she was back in the familiar collage of her recurring dream visions: she was falling off some place – the catapulting surface was always different – and she always experienced the same great fright, and she always just about missed the concrete or the jungle floor or the carpeted surface below as her foggy saviour came to her rescue. His … her … (another conundrum) face was never clear, remaining obscured by the ephemeral mists of her dreams.
She finally arose at 11 O’ clock when her mother came into her room armed with clean laundry and the loud efficiency of having been at the helm of the domestic wheel for the last four hours. She felt groggy and tired even after her ten hours of sleep. She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her double chin was looking more pendulous than ever she thought. She clutched at the rolls on her stomach, feeling for the insidious deposit of more weight. She had been good about her meals this past month and had not given in to any stress eating even though she had been in the throes of her exams. Her nails had taken the brunt of that deprival as they now sat like ravaged half moons in their nail beds. She looked at the weighing scale lying right opposite the WC, its meticulous placement a tribute to her weight loss earnestness. She decided today was not a day for unpleasant metric system surprises and pointedly ignored it through the course of her morning ablutions.
‘Hello late latif*’, her father called out to her cheerfully as Aliya walked into the lounge. She smiled. Her father, Mian Muneer, could brighten most of her days, afflicted as they were with her mother’s constant anguished refrains for her to lose “at least ten kgs!” and her own unremitting anxiety about her weight, and everything else too. In all that maternal censure and self deprecation, he was like a breath of fresh air. Never remarking about her weight, let’s be honest she thought, her bulk. Never making her cringe at the sight of her reflection or at the sight of food even when her stomach was rumbling from protracted deprivation. He loved her just as she was, her beloved father.
‘Good morning Baba*’, Aliya responded with a kiss on his cheek.
‘Aloo*, there are parathas* for brekkie, come get them!’ came a jaunty call from the dining room. She walked towards the voice (dubiously) and towards its announcement of gastronomic delights (zealously), her stomach rumbling with hunger – was it hunger or comfort-seeking she thought fleetingly. For the former came with relatively guilt free appeasement while the latter needed to be worked through mentally and emotionally and if all went well, was rebutted, ignored, nipped in the gut. She accepted also, that despite all the diligent evaluation, she had never been very good at distinguishing between the two, as hunger loomed large on most food horizons.
Saira was sitting at the head of the table looking, even at that early hour of the day (for she too had woken up only after 10) fresh, dewy and gorgeous. This was her twin sister, the sum total of her antithesis. Aliya helped herself to three parathas and an omelette. She could feel her sister’s eyes on her; she was going to say something, she always did … irksome at best and hurtful at worst.
‘Go easy sis, that’s a thousand calories right there’ Saira released the expected verbal arrow as she put a condensed milk laden piece into her own mouth.
Aliya gave a wry smile as she loaded her parathas with condensed milk and cream.
‘Aliya, what are you doing?’ came the accusatory voice from behind her. Their mother had come in and was discharging her duty as the maternal voice of reason and outrage.
‘Having breakfast Amma’, Aliya responded doggedly. Damned if she was going to be denied the first meal of the day, twelve hours after her last one too, in all its life (and courage fostering!) fulfilment.
Her mother gave an exasperated sigh and walked out. Saira sniggered. It was just another day at 14-Z in DHA, Lahore.
Aliya had dug into her breakfast as she dug in her heels every so often when she felt the world closing in on her; Judging her, railing at her, accusing her. She had ended up having four and a half parathas. She stood looking into her wardrobe, eating herself up inside now, for her breakfast time excess; cursing her food induced and reduced anxiety. No, food didn’t induce her anxiety (except in her apocalyptic fantasies when the world was overrun by zombies and all kinds of human nutrition was scarce); it was her panacea in fact, for the maddening world around her. She sighed deeply, chose a grey baggy shirt and black track pants. She was in the mood to merge with her dreary thoughts today. She was meeting her best friend and neighbour, Saqib in a little while. He was going to help her fill in the forms for the Masters in Sociology course at Uppsala university in Sweden.
Saqib Mir was the only child of his parents, the apple of their eye, the next progenitor of their eminent lineage and the scion of the family business. Marring this perfection was a somewhat unsymmetrical gait as he was also crippled by childhood polio. The whys and wherefores of how he had contracted the disease are foggy; rife with rumour and speculation until about decade or so ago, the direful hypotheses were now obscured by an acceptance born of familiarity. For those who had known him forever, it had become like a little smudge on a Sadequain* painting that has with time, blurred into oblivion. For those meeting him for the first time, while there were no origin-theories being bandied about anymore, there was almost always that self conscious nonchalance of trying not to notice the obvious. Saqib felt both, a sense of quiet amusement and compassion for this denominator knowing the mental exhaustion their involuntary Secret Spy syndromewas bestowing on them. Humanity, even amidst the deficiencies of the developing world, has largely got used to polio free perfection; a certain basic physical congruity is a sacred expectation especially among the upper crusts of society. Saqib then was the paradoxical element that jarred the sensibilities of the well heeled more than it did that of his favourite chai wallah’s or fruit wallah’s. They acknowledged his disfigurement in a practical, unselfconscious way. He was crippled and so what? He couldn’t run but he could still walk and get about unaided. Saqib was well liked in the more modest social circles too.
The Mians and the Mirs had been neighbours for fifteen years and Aliya and Saqib had become kindred souls for each other, afflicted as they both were with their respective vulnerabilities.
‘There you are! I’ve been looking all morning for you!’, said a chirpy Rizwan when he finally saw Sana.
Sana grinned back, still cloaked in her haze of joy. She had been assigned to the locker area in the basement for the day since the regular staff had called in sick.
‘We’re going out for lunch. There’s a lot to talk about’, said Rizwan, gently ushering her towards the main door. Rizwan was a Premier Relationship Manager at the bank and came from a long line of illustrious financiers. He had been with the bank for five years now and had risen steadily through the ranks aided in no small part by his strategic connections, but also by an innate ability to inspire trust. The combination had helped him build one of the biggest consumer deposit portfolios in the bank. He had seen Sana on her first day at work two years ago and had pursued her with the same genial tenacity as he did his customers. She had responded to his attentions and two years on, they were finally ready to make their love public … by now, the whole bank knew; their families were next.
‘My mother wants to come over to your place’, Rizwan said once they were sitting at their favourite restaurant in Gulberg.
Sana had prepared for this moment. Her mother had prepared for this moment. She would talk to her mother about Rizwan and they would do the needful to get through the inevitable background checks and first time visits. Zulaikha believed that their past although behind them, was a part of their lives that would have to be brought up at some point when forging new relationships. Good people were a rare commodity, but they existed. And those were the ones that deserved the truth even if it was nothing more than information about a past (and a profession) that did not define their lives in any way anymore.
Sana was of a different point of view. She had been eight years old when Zulaikha had decamped from her old life and come to Lahore to start anew. Old enough to remember but young enough to not have had any real part in the world that was once her mother’s. She was determined to take her mother’s secret … her secret, with her to the grave. People were judgmental and unforgiving. There was a very small window of virtue and acceptability that was allowed to people of their dubious circumstances and she was not going to forego the opportunity with needless pangs of conscience, to leap through to the other side. There was no need to share distasteful nuggets of history with a community that they were trying to become a part of. She had told her mother as much.
Sana came home that evening with a spring in her step. She waited impatiently for her mother to finish off at work and come upstairs. Today was inventory day at Rose Beauty Salon so her mother wouldn’t get upstairs until after 10 O’clock. Sana had a quick shower and went out onto the balcony. It was just past seven and there were three cars parked downstairs. The drivers’ sitting area was empty. So the ladies had driven themselves, she mused leaning against the balcony railing. Probably working women; business women maybe with boutiques or bakeries of their own. Women of leisure and enterprise. Her mind wandered into the fantasy world that she now created with such dexterity for the protagonists that sat in and around her mother’s salon.
Zulaikha came upstairs at past 10 O’ clock. It had been a tiring day but she felt a sense of contentment. She had been able to acquire a laser hair removal unit from another salon that was divesting its business (its female proprietor had probably fallen on hard times, or she was moving out of the country to join a son or a daughter who had finally found a foothold in their overseas Land ofOpportunity). She herself had thought about leaving the country many times during her fledgling, struggling years in Lahore. Thankfully however, the opportunity had never arisen and now, wiser and more aware, she realized that she was far better off in her paradoxical homeland than she would ever be in America or Europe where petrol station attendant and fast food restaurant jobs were the disappointing finales to many off-shore dreams.
Sana was waiting for her. Zulaikha smiled at her daughter’s barely contained excitement; at her slightly flushed cheeks and her bright eyes. She was a beautiful girl by any standards she thought for the thousandth time, immediately staving off the evil eye by taking a little kohl from under her eye and dabbing it ever so lightly behind Sana’s ear. Sana hugged her mother and sat her down.
‘Amma*, there’s someone … there’s someone who wants to meet you’, she said taking her mother’s hands in hers and looking at her. She let her hot cheeks and shy smile convey the delicate gist of her story.
Zulaikha realized that this was the secret Sana had been toying with at quiet moments during their meals and probably during her recent late nights when she’d wake up to catch her sitting up in bed, with a far away look in her eyes.
‘Who is it baita*?’ Zulaikha asked simply, letting her daughter take the lead in her confession of the heart.
‘He works with me at the bank. He’s senior to me. Comes from a family of bankers’.
‘His mother wants to come and see you … and me’, Sana added self consciously.
Zulaikha looked into her daughter’s shining eyes. Her own heart was beating like a drum as she kissed her daughter on her cheeks. It was happening finally. The family curse was splintering, losing its multi-generational stranglehold. Her daughter was going to become someone’s wife; she would take a respectable last name; she would hold her head up high. Her children will have a family name they will proudly carry forward. Sana would be the antithesis of everything that she had ever been.
Zulaikha hugged her daughter close, waves of joy, relief and pride washing over her. She swallowed hard; she was not a woman given to tears or drama. She had gone through the ebb and flow of her own life with a composure that had also become the salient hallmark of her establishment. Just as parlour skirmishes died a quick and unremarkable death at Rose Beauty Salon, special moments of joy and accomplishment also treaded with light footsteps in the lives of the two women.
There was a rush of activity in the apartment the following Saturday. Rizwan and his mother were coming for tea. Sana looked at herself in the mirror. She was resplendent in a powder blue linen jora* with light blue embroidery around the neckline and the sleeves. She had braided her long hair and brought the braid to the front over her right shoulder. She applied a pale pink lipstick and smiled at her reflection, as much in appreciation of the visage looking back at her, as to calm herself. This was it. It had to go well.
Zulaikha wore a white embroidered cotton shirt with a plain white shalwar and a rose pink dupatta. She looked in the mirror, steeling herself; she automatically reached for her talcum powder. She laughed quietly, reminding herself that today was an occasion to wrap herself up in the sophisticated cloak of Dior rather than in the comforting blanket of gently blooming roses. She spritzed herself behind her ears, on her neck and on her wrists with the heady perfume, took one last look at herself in the mirror and walked out towards an evening that would be momentous, uplifting and transforming for her daughter. She was going to make sure it went well.
‘Anila baji… i didn’t know … I didn’t know …
‘Sana is your daughter … my god!
Zulaikha looked at the woman standing at her door, bewildered and silent after her initial shocked utterance. Anila Talib looked back at the woman she had met almost fourteen years ago at the salon she frequented at the time. It was the same Zulaikha; the one who used to do her manicures and pedicures; the dancing girl from Faisalabad.
Najma, the proprietor of the salon had told her in hushed tones about her newest recruit. The woman had escaped the brothel where she worked and had somehow found her way to Lahore. She was accompanied by her daughter, even then, a lovely young child. Najma had taken her in, trained her and kept her terrible secret safe, for the most part.
‘Are you going to stand there blocking the way or can I come in?’ Anila Talib said smiling gently at the stunned woman in front of her.
‘Please come in …’, Zulaikha managed to whisper hoarsely. Her head was still reeling and she couldn’t fully grasp at any of the myriad emotions that were crashing in titanic waves upon her: shock, shame, tears … shame, shame, more shame! She stood in the grip of this cacophony of emotions, unconsciously holding the end of her dupatta, wringing it like she would squeeze these last ten minutes from her memory – bleach it clean, scrub it raw, never to remember.
Anila Talib looked at the distraught woman. Even in the bizarre, emotionally charged atmosphere, she couldn’t help thinking how little the woman had changed. She still had her youthful figure and that beautiful, translucent skin.
‘Sit down Zulaikha, we need to talk’, Anila Talib finally said.
Zulaikha sat down mechanically still holding the now clammy, crumpled edges of her dupatta.
She looked at her daughter who was standing in a corner of the room, unmoving, statue-like. She wondered briefly if Sana had fainted … but she wouldn’t be standing if she had … had she maybe lost her mind, become mad with the shock …
‘Sana, come and sit down’, she called to her daughter. Sana didn’t move.
‘Rizwan, this is … this is Zulaikha … Zulaikha aunty. I’ve known her since Najma’s time. She was training at —-
‘___ So this is the …. the woman from Faisalabad’, cut in Rizwan icily. He had been standing at the door, rooted as it were, between the precious moment of a few minutes ago and the unholy disaster that was unfolding now. He had known that Sana was from Faisalabad and he had also known that her mother owned a salon. The rest of the sordid puzzle fell into place after he saw his mother’s reaction.
Anila Talib looked at her son. His face was as flushed as his brow was thunderous. He was looking at his mother with an expression that made her cold, that kicked awake monsters from her own battered store of memories. That was her husband’s look just before he devolved into a beast. She watched her son silently, a sickening realisation dawning on her: he was a man now and he was at his very core, his father’s son.
Rizwan turned around and left.
The two women sat next to each other; each floundering in her own bog of pain and tragedy. It was like a curtain had been lifted from the screen of their lives. The dull, dim, ugly edges that had always encircled them, now appearing stark and naked. There were no pretences, no veneers, no pardah* on the sins of their society against them. They sat there face to face with their most painful truths. For a while, the modest apartment was transformed into a temple, a mosque of divine revelations and silent, brutal confessions.
Both women wept; one for the patriarchal bondage and brutality that was thrust upon her, and the other for the patriarchal security and virtue that had forsaken her.
Even as time stood still for the three women in the room, outside it had marched purposefully into the duskiness of late evening. Anila Talib finally turned towards Zulaikha and hugged her once more before she left their Sanctum of Dire Truths, Zulaikha knew, never to return.
Zulaikha also knew that this was the start of a completely new chapter in her life; in her daughter’s life. Sana had beheld the truth and felt its soul-singeing fury. Zulaikha too had felt its caustic burn; but this time she had also felt the pain recede.
She had gradually become aware of a strange sensation. It came upon her quietly, gently, embracing her whole being. She felt free. She felt a lightness of spirit she had never before experienced. She felt strong and invincible. Her eyes shone with a new light as she sat up and took a deep breath, filling her lungs with air.
Even If this was a temporary fortification of her spirit, it would do. If every once in a while, when life became formidable, and she could call on this surity, this serenity, it would do.
Zulaikha got up and walked towards her daughter. She turned her around gently and held her close for a long while. When she felt the convulsing sobs ebb into the stoic beating of her daughter’s heart, she looked into her eyes and kissed her on her forehead.
‘It will be alright my darling. One day at a time. You and I … we will learn to love ourselves, our brave history and all. You will look in the mirror and see yourself, and not a reflection of what the world wants you to be. We’ve survived so far, and by God, we will continue to do so – on our terms now. We will live, love and laugh. We will have our share of joy. I promise you that’.
‘One day at a time my dearest. We will be alright’.
* Amma: Mother in Urdu
* Baita: Child in Urdu
* Jora: Dress/ ensemble in Urdu
* Pardah: A religious and social practice of female seclusion prevalent among some Muslim communities. Veil/ covering.
A babble of raised voices filtered upstairs from the salon on the ground floor. Sana looked up from the video she was watching on her phone and wondered if it was another begum of leisure who was throwing a royal fit. How she hated this raucous upheaval of the sanctity of her home! Why couldn’t they just live respectably in a non commercial area that was devoid of beauty parlors, tandoors* and paan walas*. It was one of the reasons why she hadn’t invited any of her friends over from work yet. Most of them didn’t even know that her mother owned a salon on the fringes of phase 5 in DHA*. She and her mother lived above the salon in a two bedroom unit. Aside of the little oasis in their immediate surroundings, their apartment overlooked vast expanses of undeveloped land in the otherwise lush and burgeoning Defence Housing society of Lahore.
Sana sighed and walked out onto the balcony. It was only 5 O’ clock in the evening which meant another three hours of salon frenzy, a myriad cars parked downstairs, watched over by as motley a crowd of drivers. She sometimes stood in the creeper latticed shadows of the terrace and spun entire character sketches in her head about each of the men who sat waiting for their lady employers to emerge from the secret sanctums within, blow-dried, beautified and seasonally bedecked: The wedding season metamorphoses were quite spectacular, transforming many plain-jane bibi-jis* into princesses.
During her tale-weaving meditations, Sana would focus on one of the men gathered below – on his facial hair, his clothes and the way in which he huddled or draped himself on a chair in the Driver’s sitting area outside. From the shrinking violet to the wily watchful types to the portly, loud and laughing types, she’d seen them all and then zoomed into their lives with the telescope of her lively imagination. Today she focused on a vocal one with a twirled mustache and slickly oiled hair: he seemed like the kind who was happily married in a village somewhere in the interior of Punjab but who also had a local lady love; maybe the maid from across the street … He would steal ripely blooming roses for her from his bibiji’s garden and douse himself in ittar on his evenings off when he would go to meet her. Date nights, desi* style.
At a quarter to nine, Zulaikha walked into the lounge upstairs. She went straight to the bathroom to wash her face and perform her ablutions for the one prayer a day she religiously performed. She sat at her dressing table and looked at her reflection for a moment. She then took the powder puff of her rose talcum powder and dabbed it on her neck and her feet and finally on her hands. She rubbed it in gently, inhaling its sweet fragrance like she had done for the last 30 years. She then spread out her janamaz*. Fifteen years on, there were only a few vestiges that reminded Zulaikha of her past; the Rose talcum powder was one of those. It had been a panacea for most ills of the body, the mind and the heart: A burn or a rash or a gash; a bad day or a headache or nausea were all dispelled with the healing softness and the soothing bouquet of her Yardley’s rose scented talcum powder.
Her Isha* prayers done, she went into the kitchen to see what there was for dinner. It was Sunday so Sana had been off from work. Her daughter worked in a bank as a Customer Service Officer. Every time Zulaikha thought of her daughter sitting at her desk in the cool and respectable environs of the Muslim Commercial Bank, she felt a little surge of pride in her heart and a tug of emotion in her throat. Sana had broken through the generations of tradition that had dogged the footsteps of the women in their family. For as long as she could remember, theirs had been a long and uninterrupted lineage of dancing girls. Zulaikha would be the last of that insidious matriarchal line; and Sana would be the first of the virtuous and respectable patriarchy.
There was two day old biryani* in the fridge and some chicken karahi* that they had had for lunch that afternoon. She took out both containers and set them on the counter. They would serve themselves and heat their food in the microwave. After all these years of living with the amenities of modern city life, Zulaikha still marvelled at the technology that surrounded them. She now watched from a safe distance as the display on the microwave efficiently counted down the minutes while its shallow bowels generated enough heat to turn her insides to ash if she stood too close. Like so much in life, the electronic conveniences had also come into their home with their fair share of facts and fiction.
‘Sana! Come and serve yourself’, Zulaikha called out to her daughter.
Sana meandered in from her room, surrounded by the stupor of an uneventful day and an especially protracted afternoon siesta. She served herself some biryani with a generous serving of yogurt on the side. The watered down raita that usually came with the spiced up rice did nothing to pacify her screaming taste buds. She had not inherited her spicy food genes from her mother (or even her father probably) and the biryani made her sniffle and snort as the spice turned on her internal fire-fighting waterworks; unless she added on some cooling yogurt to the gastronomic fray.
Mother and daughter sat in silence while eating their food. Zulaikha was ticking off a mental list of salon supplies she would need to get the next day. Every month, she restocked her inventory from her two main suppliers. They had both been kind to her when she had started her own beauty parlour ten years ago; on many occasions, marking more than their due time on their accounts receivable. She had in turn, remained their loyal customer as her business had grown along with the size of her orders. Mrs. Anwar was the third customer this month who had asked her about laser hair removal. Zulaikha wondered how much of an investment would be needed to add that service on to her beauty parlour repertoire …
Sana looked at her plate, carefully spooning a dollop of cold Nestle yogurt onto her biryani before putting the mixture into her mouth. She enjoyed the burst of coolness on her tongue and palate before the chillies began their now sluggish assault. She had always had a quirky palate and happily mixed textures and flavours that gave even her mother occasion to pause. The biryani and yogurt mixture was definitely not her most outlandish combination of food. She thought of Rizwan. He loved his biryani; the spicier the better. She smiled to herself, instinctively gathering up the corners of mouth in the next instant. Rizwan was her secret. For now.
Zulaikha looked at her daughter who was deep in conversation with herself. She recognised that ethereal, far away look that came over her lovely face then. Her daughter had a secret. Zulaikha smiled to herself; she’s know soon enough. She shared a tender and close bond with her only child. She thought back to how their lives had changed over the last fifteen years. Zulaikha had got a job at a local salon and had shown a natural talent for catalyzing aesthetic transformations, conjuring up all shades of loveliness on plain, sometimes marred canvases. Sana had got into a good school and from there she had gone to university. Both mother and daughter had thrived in their new environment. They were a million miles away from their room in Qaisery Gate in Faisalabad.
That night Sana got a text message from Rizwan. He had finally spoken to his mother about her. That was all he said but it made her nauseous in a strange way: a combination of excitement and anxiety was turning her stomach which had already been grumbling in petulant protest at the earlier biryani onslaught. She sat up and had an antacid with a full glass of water. Then she picked up her phone again to read the message.
He had told his mother that he was interested in her. That was all. That was everything! That would mark the absolute, final end of the old, and the beginning of something new, dignified and permanent. No one would be able to take that away from her.
She re-read the message a few times, trying to bring her frenzied, racing mind back to the moment; back from its leaping somersaults into the sacred, secret visions of her future. Her nausea quelled, she leaned against the headboard of her bed, smiling at her screen as it lit up her face in the quiet of an otherwise uneventful Sunday night.
* Tandoor: Also known as tannour is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking.
* Paan-wala: Paan is a preparation combining betel leaf with areca nut widely consumed throughout Southeast Asia/ the Indian subcontinent. Paan-wala is one who sells paan.
* DHA: Defence Housing Authority, a planned housing scheme in a number of cities in Pakistan
* Bibi-ji: Respectful term of address for the lady of the house usually used by the domestic staff of the house across the Indian sub continent.
* Desi: Urdu/ Hindi meaning local/ of South East Asian origin.
* Janamaz: Muslim prayer mat
* Isha: The fifth and last prayer of the day in Islam
* Biryani: A mixed rice dish originating among the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. It is made with Indian spices, rice, and meat, and sometimes eggs or vegetables also such as potatoes and brinjal.
* Chicken karahi: a spicy chicken dish of the Indian subcontinent. It is usually made in a heavy, cast iron pan called the karahi and hence the name.
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.