Today has dawned as one of those
Days that make me gripe
I sit up in bed thinking of all
The things that I don’t like
It’s useless today to try and be
Tolerant and benign
So here’s an unlovely ode to things
That get on these nerves of mine
I hate early mornings
And tepid cups of tea
I abhor geckos on the wall
Even if they’re nowhere near me
I can’t stand milky coffee
But I cringe when it’s too strong
Too much sugar makes me gag
Too little pulls me down
I so hate the humidity
And what it does to my hair
Like an alien in residence
It waves its million arms in the air
I hate breaking with the
Predictability of my grind
First my latte, then some work
Then some angst if you don’t mind
But I also hate when twilight sets
On my day off from routine
From the clutches of mundania
Self imposed as that may be
I hate margarine for what
It does to my intestines
Anaphylactic shock and awe
Are then wholly, soully mine
I can’t stand the loud caws
Of aggressive city crows
Scavenging, ravaging their
Insidious way indoors
But I also dread the day my
Neighbourhood mynahs don’t come by
I don’t care that my avian favouritism
Is then guiltless and alive
On these days I also detest
All our erstwhile politicians
I wish they’d all go and drown
In the tumultuous Indian Ocean
The Arabian Sea just seems
Like a seriously dubious route
They’d go Gulf country visiting
And come right back home to loot
I hate that I hate my life
When my hormones are awry
When everything seems absurd
A frickin’ painful enterprise
Yup, It’s one of those days again
When I’ve woken with a groan
It’s going be 24 hours of
Whinge and hate and moan
I looked in rapture at the rose
As it waxed in the sun
A bold and brilliant orange
In its emerald column
It was absolutely perfect!
Its beauty was sublime
There was little reason
In the soil to bide its time
I felt a maddening urge
To pluck it off its stem
To put it in a vase
To covet that lovely gem
The sunset-coloured rose
Would glorify my room
The garden would do without
This one splendid bloom
The yen turned to despair
That rose I had to have
And so the stem that held the bloom
Felt the force of my bare hands
The break, it was not clean
Nor did it cleave in two
The stem that bore the rose
From the part that bore the roots
The rose hung limply down now
Its head grazing the ground
Its petals seemed to fold in
As it moaned without a sound
I watched its resplendence
Its spirit and its mirth
Flow out of it bit by bit
Back into mother earth
A lancing stab came tearing in
Somewhere around my heart
I had mauled and ravaged
Nature’s precious art
I can still see the rose
As it lay waning in the sun
Like a little cut that never heals
The memory of it still thrums.
Look softly my darling
When you look at me
Be calm and be tender
As I take my leave
I want to remember
Your lovely face
Serene and peaceful
As I leave this place
Let us talk of things
That are close to our hearts
Of bittersweet endings
Of gentle new starts
Of faces and places
Those still here, those gone
Of tea-cozied rainy days
As I hum my last song
Look softly my dear one
When you look at me
Let your beautiful smile
Be the last thing I see
Shahnaz came home from the office one evening to find a guest. It was Sikander’s mother. Shahnaz had met her at the office once when she had come to get some bank related work done. Sikander had introduced her to his mother then.
She freshened up quickly and came out to the lounge. Their guest was getting up to leave. Before she could get a chance to crossexamine her mother as to the purpose of the visit, Mahjabeen had breezed out of the apartment. It was a neignour’s son’s wedding, and the women of Mall Court were all caught up in the communal festivity and frenzy of preparation.
The next evening, mother and daughter sat down for tea as usual. Shahnaz took a sip of the hot, spirit-fortifying brew as she eyed the plate of samosas. Today her mother had made her favourite, delicate little beef samosas and it was difficult to not reach out and pop one into her mouth. But she’d been good; very good. She had not touched a samosa or a pakora* for the last two months even though the former, in its various delicious avatars, lay temptingly before her at every tea time. Shahnaz sighed and focused for a while on the new hollow concavneess of her belly. She smiled and looked at her mother. Mahjabeen was lost in thought.
“Aday, walay?”(1), she asked her mother.
“Shah sb de”(2), her mother responded simply.
The head of their committee and their communal lives had proposed for her daughter. Shahnaz blinked, taking in this bizarre information. And then she laughed; uproariously, until the tears streamed down her face.
“Lewanay de buda”(3), she finally said to her mother.
Still wiping away the tears of laughter, she asked her mother about the guest from last night. As it turned out, Sikander’s mother had gone to university with Mahjabeen in Islamabad. When they had moved to Karachi about a year ago, the two women had reconnected. They had both recently realized that their children worked in the same bank and at the same branch. And so she had come over with a profound request in mind: to enlist Mahajbeen’s daughter’s help in finding out about Annie; a colleague at the bank and Sikander’s love interest.
Shahnaz confused and dazed, looked at her mother. The bubbles of her recent rollicking laughter were still floating around in her belly. What was her mother saying! She was saying other things, about Sikander’s marriage. To Annie. About timelines; wedding cards. She suddenly felt like the breath had been knocked out of her. Disconnected phrases pinged on Shahnaz’s brain as she felt around for some semblance of order, of sense. A cacophony that had started in her head came crashing down into her ears and then grabbed at her throat. She looked at her mother unhearing, unblinking.
“Shahnaz, bachay* …?” she saw her mother mouth the words, but she still only heard the roar of a tumultuous ocean in her ears. Even as she let the tsunami of her broken, flooded heart carry her away inside, she remained silent, tomblike on the outside. She sat there quietly for a long time.
Mahjabeen was agitated and then thoughtful. She had balked at the quiet confidence with which Shah sb had presented the proposal. It had not been too many years ago that he had made a similar offer to Mahjabeen for herself. She had immediately and resoundingly rejected the notion of remarrying. Shah Manzoor had never brought it up again, until now, extending the offer a generation down the line. He was 50, Shahnaz was 23. Mahjabeen did not outright refuse the proposal and from that absence of a rejection, there bloomed hope like a wild flower in Shah Manzoor’s besotted heart.
Over the next month, Mahjabeen’s domestic burdens were eased in big and small ways as Shah Manzoor bestowed his largesse on her household. His driver made the arduous trips to the bank for her to pay her utility bills, took her appliances for repair, took her linen to the dhobi*, brought it back and deposited hefty bags of fruit at her doorstep, compliments of his employer. Mahjabeen who had always been reliant on taxis and rickshaws, was suddenly elevated in great part beyond these mass market modes of transport for the general mobility and flow of her life. These subtle and overt facilitations slowly picked their way through the reticent iciness of Mahjabeen’s heart where her daughter was resident. And so, the proposed union that had seemed ridiculous a month ago, began to appear less bizarre while also holding the conventional glimmer of longevity and ease. A large part of that aura of acceptance was lent to it by Shahnaz herself: Two days after the discussion between mother and daughter, Shahnaz had informed her mother that she would marry Shah sb. Mahjabeen had told her to think about it, that the world was her oyster. Her daughter had looked at her as if she’d just swallowed that oyster whole; her entire world lying vanquished and decomposing inside her.
Preparations for a winter wedding began at TP-2. Mahjabeen had informed her brothers of the union; they were completely supportive. They had always been somewhat offended and on edge after their sister moved to Karachi. Grounding, entrenching milestones like respectable marriages meant less for them to worry about in terms of unexpected calamities defiling their family name and also the ever present possibility of having to extend themselves financially. It didn’t matter that they had had nothing to do with their sister for the first ten years of her moving to Karachi, and when they did reconnect it was as unemotional as it was practical: After the initial pleasantries were out of the way they wondered if a distant cousin visiting the city by the sea for the first time could stay with Mahjabeen for a few days. Of course she could; the hospitality had been extended graciously and generously.
Mahjabeen had kept in touch with her older brother after that, more out of an innate compulsion to feel like she still belonged to a larger family of siblings, cousins aunts and uncles rather than any sentimental bond; if ever there had been one, the sibling tug of affection had long since relaxed its pull. Now when Karim lala* heard the news of his niece’s impending nuptials he was genuinely happy. He had never met Shah Manzoor but had heard of him from his sister off and on, always at the influential front and centre of life at Mall Court. The man’s age was irrelevant; he would make a good husband for his niece. He had informed Mahjabeen that he and his family would attend the wedding in December.
Shahnaz gave up her evening walks, devoting herself entirely to assembling her trousseau and to baking. She baked every weekend, ferociously, constantly, going through her recipe book twice over. Everyone bought her delectable desserts. Shah sb made fliers for this home economics enterprise of his fiancé : “Shah’s Bakes” they proclaimed in big green letters (‘Shah’ after all was the first part of Shahnaz’s name too he had said to Mahjabeen). He even had their newspaper delivery man pass them around in the city. At some point over the next month or so he suggested to Shahnaz that she give up her bank job and focus on her baking business. And with time, a burgeoning family he thought. Shah Manzoor devoutly believed in the divine strength of numbers; theirs would be a vast, happy family.
Shahnaz gave in her one month notice and continued to bake up a storm that in its growing undualtions found its way further and further outside Mall court. Shah sb had got a rickshaw to do deliveries for those who could not themselves pick up the delicacies prepared by the talent-abundant hands of his wife; the soon-to-be prefix was just a formality now.
Soon, the nippy winds of early December began to blow across the city making its denizens don sweaters, jackets and even woollen caps in its 20 degree coolness. Shahnaz had steadily put back on the seven kgs she had lost. She didn’t need the scale that was lying in a forgotten corner of her bathroom to confirm that fact; she could feel it in the satiated plumpness of her belly and the chafing of her upper arms against her body.
It was one week before the wedding. Shahnaz and Mahjabeen were having their evening tea. Tea time with her mother had now become Shannaz’s single anchor of reminiscence, a vestige of a warm, safe past that she had let go; buried in the space of her liver, allowing only the pleasure of this little evening repast with her mother to gently flow towards her heart, to remind her just a little bit of her old self. She was quick to banish any vulnerability that threatened to overtake her during this dusk time mother-daughter companionship. She had already in her mind, put her frivolous, childish past forever behind her.
Shahnaz looked at her mother who was gazing at her daughter, as she did nowadays, for signs of capitulation, of rethinking her decision. Shahnaz smiled reassuringly at Mahjabeen even as she felt something wrench in her belly. She willed herself to focus on her bubble of calm: having tea with her mother and samosas with her tea. Still smiling, she breathed in deeply and reached for her third samosa.
(1): “Mother, what is it?” in pushto
(2): “It is Shah sahib” in pushto
(3): “The old man is crazy” in pushto
* Pakora: fried fritters made of vegetables such as potatoes and onions, coated in seasoned gram flour batter and deep fried.
* Bachay: Child in urdu and pushto
* Dhobi: A washerman/ woman who washes clothes for a living in Urdu
* Lala: suffix used with a name to show respect for an older man/ brother.
Shahnaz met Sikander at the Bank. His family had moved from Islamabad and he had joined as Head of External Sales at Shahnaz’s branch. Shahnaz’s interactions with boys and then men as she had grown up was vague and distant, a vestige of having lost her father early and also because her mother was a staunch believer in her widowed-turned-spinster status: that manifestation tended to keep many conundrums and scandals at bay. Shahnaz had grown up surrounded by that man-exclusive maternal aura and had unconsciously imbibed the essence of that nature of separation from the opposite gender. And so, her university life had taken its course endowing her with a degree, the friendship of two girls from her class and the reputation of an ice maiden among the rest. Her mind sometimes did wander into the what-if realms of relationsips and significant others, but her outer physiology remained unfailingly stoic and uninterested. It was, therefore, to her great bewilderment when Sikander began to seek out her company and more so that she was not averse to his attention. He persevered beyond her serious, no nonsense facade and managed to reveal a lightheartedness and approachability that was a surprise to both of them. Over the next few months, Shahnaz blossomed in her new cheerful and social avatar.
Shahnaz also began to take an interest in her weight for the first time ever. Sikander was tall and lean, with not an ounce of extra fat on him. While she was by no South Asian standards overweight, she did by intercontinental standards carry a couple of soul-food tyres around her middle; and her arms were decidedly flabby. Shahnaz began her workout regimen in June, one of the most oppressive months of the year in Karachi. She believed that for this enterprise (of losing weight) to also gain the benevolence of the universe, she herself needed to undertake some semblance of discomfort too. And so, every evening, after work, and after a hurried cup of tea with her mother, she would go downstairs and walk in the parking quadrangle of her apartment building. While she continued to drink her tea mellowed with full cream milk and sweetened with the usual two teaspoons full of sugar, her teatime samosas she had given up entirely over the last few weeks. She was determined to lose at least ten kgs.
The first evening that she went downstairs, the big built guard that looked somewhat like a bulldog was on duty. Despite having been a part of the Mall Court security team for the last ten years, he still surveyed everyone like he was seeing them for the first time; the women especially. Shahnaz had not made up her mind whether in fact he was actually creepy or just unfortunate in the way his lower jaw hung pendulously, eternally open to the elements, while his papaya seed eyes bored into the soul of any person walking across the parking lot. She stood near the lift, mentally mapping out a route: should she go left and avoid the guard altogher at the start of her exercise, giving herself time to rally her inner strength before she had to pass through the X-ray of his stare? Or should she just bite the bullet head on and then relax as she walked out of the radar of his scrutiny? It was a painful conundrum and she stood there for what seemed like an eternity trying to make up her mind.
“Kya haal hai bhai?”(1), said a voice from behind her. It was Shah sahib*, the longest residing habitant of Mall Court, and a haji* – he made sure everyone knew and remembered those two cogent facts. His father had bought an apartment when they’d just been built twenty five years ago. Shah Manzoor had inherited the property eventually and had in addition to his official role as the head of the Mall Court Committee, also made various efforts through the years to install himself as the unofficial head of the Mall Court household such as it was. There wasn’t a wedding, a new job or indeed the movement of a piece of furniture that didnt receive the final word from Shah sahib.
“Salam alaikum Shah sb. Bilkul theek, ji”(2), Shahnaz responded, adjusting her dupatta, pulling it across one shoulder and tying it diagonally at her hip. He looked at her questioningly. When Shahnaz didn’t respond to his need-to-know-everything look, he finally asked her what she was doing standing around in the parking lot.
“Walk kar rahi hoon Shah sb”(3), she said with an almost maniacal grin, and then as if energized by the unexpected acrobatics of the muscles of her face, she did just that, heading right, into the eye of the bulldog. That evening she walked for forty five minutes followed by the unblinking stare of the guard on one end and by her own meandering thoughts on the other. She decided that she had duly earned her dinner of mutton pulao that night.
Annie had been at the bank for a year already when Shahnaz had joined. She was the locker custodian, had glorious hair and a high pitched voice. When she laughed, her voice crescendoed into peal after peal of shrill hilarity, moving one to quite earnestly appreciate the soundlessness of silence. Still, she was a pretty girl with pretty ways, assailing the senses in different ways for different people: The branch manager with his delicate aural sensibilities, had summarily banished her to the basement with the lockers and the sound proof walls. The Operations manager with a soft spot for luxurious manes, had decided soon after that the basement was a good place to have his lunch. In all this drama, Shahnaz and Annie had struck up a lunch time friendship, which the Ops Manager (who was also Annie’s boss) some days infringed upon with the cocksure air of the man-in-charge. On those days Annie was quiet, Qasim sb was voluble and Shahnaz was monosyllabic.
It had now been four months of working with Sikander and two of walking away the samosa kilos that had squatted familiarly on her hips for the past so many years. It had also been three months since she felt her heart flutter for the first time and two weeks since her weighing scale had declared her a whole seven kgs lighter. Life was good and Shahnaz was at the very centre of that happy wholesomeness.
That evening, Shahnaz got ready to go downstairs for her walk. She looked at her dupatta and then at the looseness of her kurta, its seams almost daily, being relegated further and further away from the curves they had originally draped. She smiled at herself in the mirror, proud of her new body. She decided she could finally dare to confidently go without her dupatta.
“Loopata de wachava”(4), said her mother’s voice from the next room. It had to be the maternal sixth sense, thought Shahnaz chuckling, relieved in a way that her newest body positivity adventure was snuffed at source.
She wore a chiffon dupatta, its powder pink sheerness apparent even as it lay like a sash from her shoulder to her hip. She plugged in her earphones and turned on her music. The lilting strains of Ali Sethi and Taylor Swift wafting in her ears not only made the three quarters of an hour fly by, but also allowed her to block out anxious thoughts of staring guards and curious onlookers.
“Kya haal hai Shahnaz?”(5), said a loud voice, breaking through the insulating barrier of her music. She took off her earphones and smiled brightly at Shah sahib. She was feeling happy, wonderful and nothing could dampen that exhilaration; not even bossy old Shah sb.
“Salam alaikum Shah sb. Main theek hoon. Aap kaisay hain?”(6) she inquired cheerfully. Shah Manzoor smiled back at her, his eyes crinkling with pleasure while he stroked his greying beard; for once he had nothing more to say. Shahnaz grinned even brighter, raring to go on the wings of everything wonderful that were pulling at her.
“Khuda hafiz Shah sb”(7), she said and walked away with a spring in her step. She became aware suddenly of her bottom; her recent scrutiny of her attractively diminishing proportions had included her behind and she now felt it rise and fall bouncily as she walked on. She was also aware that Shah sb was still standing somewhere behind her. She laughed softly, wrapped in the euphoria of her youth and the in warmth of new love.
(1): “How are you friend?” in Urdu.
* Sahib/ Sb: a term of respect for an older man.
* Haji: one who has performed Hajj or the Islamic pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
(2): “I’m perfectly well” in Urdu.
(3): “I’m walking, Shah sahib” in Urdu.
(4): “Put on your dupatta” in pushto.
(5): “How are you Shahnaz?” in Urdu.
(6): “Hello Shah Sahib. I’m well. How are you?” in Urdu.
(7): “Goodbye Shah sahib” in Urdu
Riaz khan dug with gusto into his dinner of shami kebab*, daal and karela. He looked at the vegetable on his plate and thought about his long-standing mental affiliation with it. Usually the image in his mind made him wince, with relief almost, like peeling off a scab; a mental catharsis for the scores of unrequited what-ifs that off and on gathered in his mind. He now collected the spice-infused, ridged green loops between a bit of roti to chew them down before finally vanquishing them, bitterness and all in his large intestine. The existential angst with which he juxtaposed himself body and soul on the bitter gourd now made him chuckle. His own Kharoos Karela avatar had probably been much more caustic than the enterprising vine had ever itself aspired to be! He laughed aloud at the imagery, almost choking on his food. Jasmina looked at her brother benignly. She liked this change that had come over her usually melancholy sibling. He was happier, healthier and talkative; well, not as much as she would have liked but still, there was much more he offered now besides his monosyllabic grunts. She snorted in good cheer, puffing out her chest like a hen fluffing up with maternal compassion before sitting back down on her eggs. Mariam gamely grinned back at both of them.
“Come, I want to show you something”, said Riaz Khan wheeling himself towards his bedroom window. He did that quite often now, without buckling under the creaky protestations of his muscles. Besides everything else that Mariam had been doing for him, she had also started him on an intensive physiotherapy regimen. What he used to grudgingly subject himself to once or twice a week before, he now looked forward to every day, sometimes twice a day. Over the last three months, his triceps had become stronger and he could now lift himself off the bed and into the wheelchair on his own. The first time he performed this feat, he was overwhelmed, feeling his throat tighten with emotion. Never being one to check into the water works department, and not intending to start then, he had swallowed hard. But it had been tough this time, calling on his self control. This simple act of independence was a rare step forward for his sluggish, time-battered body. Usually the milestones he racked up drove him slipping and sliding ever closer to the ultimate end. That day he’d actually felt brave and hopeful.
“What is it?”, asked a curious Mariam, peering at the tree outside the window.
“Look to where I’m pointing, between those two branches … higher up.. do you see them?”
“Is that a … are those bulbuls?”
Riaz Khan nodded, smiling at her. They both watched as the two birds took turns singing to each other, encircled in the rustling arms of the Gulmohar tree. Riaz Khan had shared his secret with Mariam. He had done it on the spur of the moment; unthinkingly. He was not usually one to act impulsively. He believed that the best decisions were made after a generous labour of thought and internal dialogue. But today, still on the adrenaline high of having, self-sufficiently hoisted himself off the bed and into his wheelchair, he had gone with the flow; been spontaneous. He would of course later in a quiet moment, reflect on this episode to see if he still felt good about it or whether he wanted to kick himself for his impulsiveness. The fact that he couldn’t, even if he was inclined to do the latter was one of those ironic jabs of nature conspiring with the language of his thoughts that made him sometimes groan and at other times laugh uncontrollably. Today, his face creased into a wide grin as he glanced at Mariam and then back at the enchantment of the scene outside.
That night, while he was in bed, Mariam had come in to ask him if he wanted to use the toilet. He didn’t; but he also realized with an elation that if he did need to go, he could could get himself there on his own. He had grinned at the thought and she had smiled back.
He wondered how it would be if she tucked him in … tucked herself in with him. He shifted his position, physically trying to place these strange new thooghts in some perspective. Was he falling in love with his carer? Transference the shrinks called that state of love. He looked at Mariam, embarrassed by the machinations of his body and his heart. He focused on her unibrow, trying to poke a hole in the gaily bobbing balloon of his feelings. Immediately he felt remorse – that was unkind. And ineffective. He had now also become fond of the lusty sprouting of hair that weaved its robust, unbroken path across her forehead. Riaz Khan stayed awake for most of that night imagining a hundred different scenarios with Mariam at their front and center. In many of them, Jasmina too jostled her way in; these he steadfastly removed from the queue. By the morning, he was feeling oddly energised and determined.
“Marriage?! Are you mad Riaz Khan?” said a startled Jasmina when he had told her what was on his mind.
“She’s the caregiver; the domestic. You’re imagining yourself to be in love with her. Infatuation is what it is. Don’t you go and tell her of any of these wild fancies of yours, you’ll scare the woman away”.
“And don’t forget that she’s Christian”, Jasmina added forebodingly, delivering what seemed to her, the final nail in the coffin that she had quickly mustered up for the inauspicious zombies of love that her brother had resurrected overnight.
The end of that summer came quickly and cleanly. Jasmina called Yousuf Alves and asked him to resume his old position. In the wake of his sister fitting in so well at Bait-ul-Muskaan and he himself finding another client, Yousuf had let the status quo prevail for the past six months. Mariam had filled in admirably, Madam Jasmina added, but it was not seemly for a woman to be caring for a man on a long term basis. It was best if he returned or found an appropriate replacement.
A week after Riaz Khan had identified and given a name to the fluttering in his heart, and three days since he had spoken to his sister of what he intended to do about it, Mariam was gone. Riaz Khan did not protest. Nor did he ask to see Mariam one last time before she left Bait-ul-Muskaan. Yousaf returned and settled into Riaz Khan’s routine like a well worn shoe. Together they again treaded the faded old paths of the life that had been Riaz Khan’s for the last twenty years.
Riaz Khan sat in his wheelchair looking out of the window in his room. The Gulmohar had already begun to mottle and shed its summer foliage. The bulbuls’ nest that usually lay screened, secret and full of life, now lay bare and exposed to the chill winter winds. The birds too had forsaken the desolation of their surroundings and flown away to warmer climes. Riaz Khan looked at the empty nest waiting for some emotion, any emotion to overtake him; for some sentiment from the slew of feelings that had poured over him so readily over the last few months: nostalgia, hope, sadness, desperation even. There was nothing.
But he lingered, and even as he looked at the joyless scene outside, he felt the faintest glimmer of something stirring, something silvery around the greyness that sat in his heart: the birds … they’d be back in a few months to renew, rebuild and revel in the bounties of summer, and the tree would be full of birdsong once again.
Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/27/bulbuls-nest-part-one/
Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/28/bulbuls-nest-part-two/
* Shami Kebab: A round patty of minced lamb and lentils cooked in a tandoor; often served with a small salad with a yoghurt and mint dressing.
Mary aka Mariam arrived in Bait-ul-Muskaan on the following Monday. She was dressed in the quintessential Pakistani nurse’s uniform of pristine white shalwar kameez and a matching cotton dupatta. She was a big built woman with sinewy arms – brawny tributes to all the caregiving she had done over the last three decades. The unibrow that ran across her forehead was her other distinguishing feature. It was oddly likeable, growing on most people for various reasons: The women in the households she had been employed at, saw it as the unerring physical bulwark that would naturally keep their men on the right side of decency; the men, well, many secretly liked the idiosyncrasy. It was almost like nature conspiring with them to give them a bit of incognito titillation. And so, in the midst of all this covert appreciation there had been one affair, with the son of the patient she was caring for. The memory of the end of that episode still stung the back of her eyelids. That had been the first and the last time she had allowed her personal life to interfere with her professional one.
Riaz Khan instantly liked the look of the big, solid woman. She exuded efficiency and readiness. And she was also reserved, answering only the questions that were put to her by Jasmina and asking a few of her own regarding her client’s daily regimen.
Riaz Khan allowed himself to finally relax. Mariam the replacement would do for the next month or so.
The days spun into weeks and the weeks rolled into months and soon it was July. Mariam had been a part of Bait-ul-Muskaan now for three months and had settled into the largely quiet routine of her employers. Although she undertook most of Riaz Khan’s lifting, shifting, wheeling, medicating and back and feet scrubbing, she also helped Jasmina during her grocery shopping sprees. These were formidable ventures undertaken once a month and Jasmina was nothing if not painstakingly particular. She had been known to scour a dozen grocery stores for a specific variety of detergent and all the department stores in DHA* for her preferred brand of hand cream. This monthly enterprise was the singular adrenaline rush in the otherwise still lives of the women of Bait-ul-Muskaan, with one boldly leading the charge and the other following in her exhausting wake. As the clock ticked on in the quest for a particularly elusive item, the serene atmosphere dissolved into chaos, inquiries became increasingly brusque and voices were raised to screeching-crescendo levels.
Once everything or its grudgingly serviceable alternative was procured, the ride back home was always dealthly silent with one woman allowing her organs to slowly cease beating their battle drums, while the other looked diligently ahead, making herself as unobtrusive as her muscly bulk would allow. It was nothing less than a Hundred Year war – with each of Jasmina’s years in all their ferociousness equal to multiple battle years – waged against the fickle nature of supply chains and the infuriating thriftiness of retail inventory. Riaz Khan had early on in the shrewd wisdom that the universe had bequeathed on him for her other excesses against him, ceased to participate in these market (mis)adventures. He was thus the only occupant of the house that retained his peace of mind in the hours that followed the return of the sometimes ruffled and sometimes vanquished brigade, with their sometimes list-fulfilled and sometimes list-lustre spoils of retail war.
Over the months, Mariam had fortified herself for these mentally and physically depleting excursions by going to bed after a supper of lightly buttered toast and green tea. She slept better and tended to have fewer nightmarish dreams where she was plodding through HKB* and Carrefour* with chains on her feet and Jasmina on her shoulders loudly urging her on. She had had that exact lucid dream in the early hours of the morning following her first grocery trip at Bait-ul-Muskaan. She had also had a generous portion of Nihari from Zakir Tikka the night before so the toss up between the instigators of her frightful visions was even. Nevertheless, she had woken up in a cold sweat, feeling disoriented and afraid. She had then decided to change at least what she could of the two tormenting events: the marketing was out of her control but the post-trip dinner she could make light and gut-easy. It was either her tranquilized digestive system or the fact that her nerves just got better at handling shopping day offensives, but she was spared Jasmina and HKB related nightmares after that.
Aside of the one day in a month where she was the matriarch’s companion in the madness of the outside world, stoked to its full fruition by the older woman, Mariam was by Riaz Khan’s side most of the other days. She helped him from his bed into the wheelchair, from there to the WC and then to the shower where she would vigorously scrub his back and his feet while he sat in his underwear. The awkwardness of the first couple of bath times had long since dissipated in the efficient, no nonsense air that she surrounded herself with. While Riaz Khan completed his toilette, she would make his bed and get a boiled egg and toast ready for him. She would accompany him while he breakfasted, with her second mug of morning tea. He would then read for a while after which he napped for an hour. In this time, Mariam would wash or iron her clothes.
At 4 o’ clock every afternoon, the occupants of Bait-ul-Muskaan would come together to have tea in the veranda overlooking the garden. After that mostly quiet repast where Jasmina made an occasional remark on the avian and floral sightings in the garden, Riaz Khan hrmphed and Mariam studiously followed Jasmina’s variously pointing hand, the trio would disperse. Jasmina would return to the ever-demanding bowels of the house while Mariam would take Riaz Khan for a stroll in the garden. The first couple of months of these perambulations had been quiet. Then Riaz Khan had spoken about the Gulmohar tree. He had climbed it as a child and had even fallen from its topmost branches (about eight feet high then) landing unscathed onto the grass. He had laughed wryly at this cosmic teasing of what was to come later. Mariam had listened, overwhelmed by her suddenly vocal employer. He had looked back at her then and she had seen, behind his black-framed spectacles, the amber-green flecks in his eyes,. She had smiled and said something about silver linings and glasses half full. He had laughed uproariously and she had grinned back.
After that episode, the garden became their place for conversations and laughter. The whole day would pass in almost complete silence until after tea time when the two would stroll, chat and revel in the profusion of their surroundings and in the pleasure of each other’s company. This nature-stirred, time-bound lightness of spirit suited them both.
Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/27/bulbuls-nest-part-one/
Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/29/bulbuls-nest-part-three/
* DHA: Defence Housing Authority, a vast residential community across various cities in Pakistan.
* HKB: A department store chain across Pakistan - Haji Karim Buksh.
* Carrefour: A large French multinational consisting of grocery stores, supermarkets and hypermarkets, with presence in Pakistan too.
Riaz Khan looked out of the window at the tree in the garden. He sought the bulbul’s nest that always peeked reassuringly through the noon-lit foliage. It had become a daily ritual of quiet joy for him as he sat shaved and ready in his wheelchair. The rest of the summer days followed on the heels of this scene, sometimes bearable and mostly held in the reins of monotony and of Jasmina Khan, his sister and the matriarch of their home. It used to be his home. But that fact had become forgotten and buried in the dust and dreariness of time.
Jasmina had early on as a girl shown glimmerings of the formidable homemaker that her mother was. By fifteen she could cook the full range of gastronomic delights from the eastern and the western hemispheres. And by nineteen, she was the deputy matriarch of Bait-ul-Muskaan*, with only marriage breaking that indomitable influence. For a short while though, like an accidental blip in the fabric of the universe. The subsequent course-correction was swift and absolute: she was widowed within two years of her marriage in which time, both her parents had also passed away. She again took up domestic command at Bait-ul-Muskaan like she had never really left the place, donning her mother’s terrific mantle with alacrity and ease. To this perfection, she also brought an overarching bossiness that made short shrift of household issues as well as her brother’s peace of mind.
For her part, Jasmina never thought she was doing anything that was not wholly right and responsible, and that she was mistress of nothing more than she truly deserved. Riaz Khan, on the other hand, often thought that he was paying penance for some ill he’d done Jasmina in another life. He would grumble and assert and she would admonish and revoke. The siblings had been living in this lopsided arrangement for well over thirty years now.
Riaz Khan was a paraplegic and had been for almost two decades. An accident that could have been avoided in retrospect (all accidents seem avoidable in retrospect he thought) had left him unable to use his legs. On good days, he was still able to appreciate the abiding functionality of his upper body. On bad days, he felt like a vegetable, specifically a karela*. He had embodied its unapologetic caustic quality, full of texture and nuance, culminating in a unique flavour that wasn’t everyone’s choice of bharta*. That’s what he was; on the not so good days – a Kharoos* Karela. To his mind even that tragic conjecture; that animation of the inanimate held some optimism. This meant that his depression was as yet not in the fatalistic realms of the psychotic, just marking time in its safely lunatic layers. That deduction didn’t bother him. He now used the “P” word easily, cheerfully even, because in his mind, it was the kind of madness that gave him the will to live on in the taxing world that was his and Jasmina’s, around which orbited a few acquaintances like visible but distant satellites.
Riaz Khan looked out at the Gulmohar tree that at that time of the year was resplendent in its beautiful flame-like flowers. Some of its branches were so close to the window that he could reach out and touch them even from his wheelchair. But today his attention was not on the summer-flushed efflorescence of the tree. He was looking at the bulbul’s nest which lay, once again, like a perfect little bowl in the crook of two branches, at a forty degree angle above his line of sight. He had first spied it a couple of years ago and had felt a little rush of pleasure. For some inexplicable reason, he had kept that bit of serendipity to himself; guarding it almost jealously from the knowledge of the others. There were precious few things that were within the domain of his exclusive awareness and gratification, given his more than usual reliance on those around him for everything really.
The secret had stayed with him through the summer months of the previous year and the year before that, scattering in the autumn breeze as both, nest and birds disappareared. The other day he had seen it again. Nest Kintsugi* he thought to himself: Broken and rebuilt again, more beautiful because it was familiar and yet new. The Gulmohar secret, in so faithfully revisiting him again, had become ever more precious. He smiled widely when he finally caught sight of the songful little birds.
It was time for lunch and Yousaf had come into the room to wheel him to the dining room. Yousaf Alves was Riaz Khan’s full time care-giver and lived at Bait-ul-Muskaan.
“You know I don’t like cabbage. It gives me gas. Painful gas”, grumbled Riaz Khan.
“I only cook it once a week”, countered Jasmina. “The flatulence is good for your gut. It’s not like your intestines are getting any exercise to help them move things along”.
“Oh for goodness sake Jasmina. Nobody wants to hear your detailed analysis of my biology. I’ll just have the daal*”.
Jasmina laughed cheerfully. For all his moodiness he was a softie, her brother and she felt no disinclination in allowing him to tell her off now and then. That grace she always found in her heart for her beloved sibling. Riaz may be four years older than her, but they both knew who wore the waistcoat in the house.
There was a message from Yousaf’s home on Monday morning: his wife had fallen ill. She was pregnant with their second child and it was proving to be a difficult gestation. He had twice before gone for a week at a time and the agency had dutifully provided his replacement. Both times Riaz khan had borne the inexpert ministrations of the substitute with the resignation of a martyr. He had waited eagerly and desperately for his Man Friday to return. Yousaf had, in his five years in the service of the older man, become quite indispensable to the latter mainly because of his adeptness but also because of his nature which was quiet and reseverd. Riaz Khan himself was a man of few words and those had become ever scarcer amid the vocal abundance of his sister. She spoke both their minds, even if she happily and grossly misinterpreted his.
“Yousaf has extended his leave. And with this Corona business, the agency can’t find anyone suitable to send over in place of the current replacement. So Yousuf’s sister is coming to fill in for him. She’s a trained caregiver too”, said Jasmina walking into Riaz Khan’s room.
Why didnt she ever knock! Did losing his ability to walk, strip him also of his privacy! thought Riaz Khan irritably for the thousandth time.
It had been an interminable week for him in the inexpert hands of the substitute carer whose unwieldy labour was thankfully coming to an end today. He had been looking forward to Yousuf’s return the following day, and now this!
Riaz Khan looked at his sister darkly. She stared unflinchingly back at him as one would at a petulant child.
He tried desperately to look for the silver lining in this piece of news. He had to. His thoughts had been festering for the last week and he needed to emerge from the grayness, or he’d go into a depression. It had happened in the earlier days of his affliction. He had spent months in the throes of wretched thoughts and desperate notions. And then one day he had decided that life was still worth living even if it was for the occasional heart warmers like Nihari* from Zakir Tikka, a book that temporarily gave him wings and rainy afternoons.
She was Yousuf’s sister, and so it was logical to hope that she would be as efficient as her brother was. And quiet. At the very least, she would be far better than her bumbling predecessor. Riaz Khan was small built and managing his movements in and out of the wheel chair would not be too difficult. He took in a deep breath, called on his faculties of fortitude and hoped for the best.
Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/28/bulbuls-nest-part-two/
Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/29/bulbuls-nest-part-three/
* Bulbul: medium sized songbirds. These birds are distributed across most of Africa and into the Middle East, tropical Asia to Indonesia, and north as far as Japan.
* Bait-ul-Muskaan: House of smiles/ laughter
* Bharta: A Pakistani/ Indian dish of vegetables (such as eggplant and often onion or tomato) that have been cooked usually by roasting and then mashed together with pungent spices.
* Karela: Bitter gourd in Urdu.
* Kharoos: Urdu colloquialism for someone who is hard, uncompromising and joyless.
* Kintsugi: Also known as kintsukuroi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.
* Daal: cooked lentils in Urdu
* Nihari: Originating in Mughal India, this is slow-cooked meat, mainly a shank cut of beef, lamb and mutton, or goat meat, as well as chicken and bone marrow. It is flavoured with various spices.
It was Wednesday afternoon. Bano was done with bridge and Adar had come back from the stock exchange. With their greater purposes of the day done, they rendezvoused at one of their oft frequented coffee shops. Bano ordered tea and cakes; Adar ordered a latte. The foamy brew always fortified him in the presence of his wife. He was up to any conversation then.
“He’s such a show off”
“He come to the cafe in his father’s mercedes. You know the one in that strange yellow colour – like a sick canary. It’s the only one of its kind in the city ….”
Adar looked up, ears prickling with a mixture of curiosity and indignation. It was Giallo Modena, the colour! He and Farshad had especially had it custom-painted. He shifted in his chair but the occupants of the table behind him remained infuriatingly out of sight.
“We had decided to meet up at The Veranda. You know, that new cafe. Well everyone else was there too! First of all he walked in late -“
“Don’t say that. That’s also my X’s name … ugh!”
(A giggle from the next table)
“Anyway, he then insisted on taking ten minutes before he finally made his lumbering way to me. You know how he walks – like he’s holding a 40kg bag in each hand”.
(More giggles from the table)
Bano looked straight ahead, stlll, statue-like. Her outraged ears had taken centre stage on this occasion, their lack of tongue notwithstanding.
“Why’d he take ten minutes to come over?”
“Because he had to stop and talk to Aliya and Maham. These two are always desperately in his way. Uff!”
“Anyway, he came over and gave me a kiss. No, three. You know, I think he was making sure everyone saw it. Like marking his territory”
“Like a doggo”
“Farshad the grey hound in the cafe!”
“Farshad the poodle around you!”
Adar shifted to the right. He was riveted. If only he could get a glimpse of the conversationalists. Bano continued to stare straight ahead with the stillness of the ocean just before it roars into a tsunami. Between the couple sat a pause so pregnant that the tea brewed twice over, creating two or three increasingly caustic versions of itself, and the latte simply collapsed into a tattered frill around the inner edges of the mug.
“Then what happened? Tell me na, is it lurrrve?”
“I don’t know. I can’t tell. I mean he’s so full of himself. I can’t tell whether I just make him love himself more or whether I figure in there somewhere too”.
“So he’d gone to get his visa and apparently he’d told the consular off at the American embassy”.
“She’d asked him how long he was going to the US for and he’d told her for far shorter than she’d been resident in his country”.
(Laughter from the next table)
Bano’s lips twitched in an indecipherable expression. Adar grinned in spite of himself.
“…so arrogant, like he’s god’s gift to everyone!”
“…. yeah … but he’s good looking!”
Bano turned her face ever so slightly towards the next table. There was the faintest hint of appreciation for that bit of sensibility that had trickled into the otherwise unfiltered barrage of adolescent angst.
(More giggles from the other side followed by a request for the bill and finally an exit).
“It’s your fault you know. You spoil him”.
“Don’t you start with me Adarmard. I’m not in the mood”, said Bano uncharacteristically, turning her face away from battle and from her instigating husband, to look again at the display cabinet of cakes. The pineapple upside down in a curious way, reminded her of her own state of mind at that moment: displaced, askew, jangled. She sniffed haughtily as if one last vigorous whiff of the ambient unpleasantness would turn things the right side up again. She hadn’t even glanced at the girls in front of her who’d been describing the Unwala scion in those … pedestrian terms; making him seem flawed and reduced. The art of knowing is also knowing what to ignore, someone had sagely said, and this unpleasantness which had already been denied her sight, was also going to be steadfastly put out of her mind. She sniffed again for good measure and took a long, cleansing sip of her tea.
Adar Unwala looked at his wife for a while as a panoply of emotions skipped across her face, each dealt with and dismissed in quick succession. Then she had looked away and detached herself from the entire episode leaving him with the hatchet and the axe. The thought that she may retrace her steps later to retrieve them bared its teeth unkindly in the back of his mind.
He sighed at his wife’s erstwhile profile, turned studiously away from him and also from any exchange that might have been had to let the air out of the bloated atmosphere that once again sat between them. He blinked once, twice and wheezed into a napkin, clearing his mind and bolstering himself with the din that ensued from his vocal chords. After a little while he smiled widely and wondered if he should have another latte.
Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/21/the-dna-lottery-part-one/
* Late Latif: Urdu colloquialism for someone who is habitually late.
* Phir: “Then” in Urdu
“Why did you have to tell Imtiaz we have a penthouse in London?” questioned Adarmard Unwala, red faced and wrathful.
His inquiry was shot like an arrow at his wife’s back which was turned towards him as she sat facing her dressing table mirror. He generally made these aft-aimed assaults because then he could say what was on his mind; or at least as much as he dared get away with. His wife, after one of these musters of initiative from him, quite completely usurped the offensive and let him have it back ten times more ferociously. She was then relentless, focused and quite triumphant in reducing him ego and all to his precise 5 feet, 5 inches. These backside jabs always seemed like a bad idea in hindsight. But Adar Unwala was the eternal optimist and he rallied with the buoyancy of a helium balloon in the prime of its flatus. Reduced and brought to heel for the moment, he would smile blotchily at his enraged wife, handing over the battle axe into her expert hands. Tajbano Unwala would deliver a final withering blow to his already chastised ego and then fling both axe and pique into the far corner of the room. There they would lie until the next time he picked them up, wobbling and mottling under their weight until he once again handed them gratefully back to her.
It was a good thing that neither Bano Unwala nor her husband held spousal grudges, or the end of their quarrels and the ebb and flow of life in general would have been worse than medieval torture. Quite entirely for Adar Unwala that is, who would have early on joined the ranks of the vanquished and deceased husbands who live on epileptically in the memories of their robust better halves. Bano would have prevailed of course and lived to tell the tale of her unending patience and fortitude.
So it was fortunate indeed that the couple quarreled in such perfect accord that while one gamely tossed up both their shares of invective and unholy suggestions into the fray, the other graciously fizzled all out. It was a match made in heaven … well, somewhere close to the cosmic limit of things.
Bano Unwala was a ship of a woman – 5’8” and magnificently girthsome. She carried her 150 kilos with the grace of a swan: bulbous limbs treading awkwardly but invisibly beneath yards of delicately billowing silk and chiffon. She was also the queen of her social realm and took full credit for all the fortuitous happenings in and around it. Whether it was a friend’s triple bypass that had gone roaringly well while she was resident at their home or the happy spell of rain that fell in the parched deserts of Dubai when she was visiting her sister, she was the unrivalled trustee and bequeather of the universe’s kindness in her environs. If the gentle patter of rain one day, however, was followed by a dust storm of epic proportions the next day that uprooted the shed and the dog kennel, sending them careening into the Arabian desert, well, that was squarely due to some faltering in the moral and ethical compass of her hosts. Something they had done to deserve this unholy wrath of which she too gamely and graciously partook with them, she would smile with moist eyes. Karma was quick and relentless she always said knowingly.
Adar had over his two decades with Bano, perfected his unreadable face: one which absorbed all but gave away nothing. For to pay attention was expected, but to disagree with his wife in company was tantamount to betrayal and would be dealt with likewise when he and Bano were alone. And so he would listen to his wife who in turn would enthral and terrify their friends and family with declarations of celestial favours and also of brimstone and hellfire. It was an oft performed, much loved scene delivered with queenly aplomb every single time. Bano didn’t socialize; she held court.
Adar Unwala was small and retiring. His life had been devoted quite entirely to being the second shadow of his formidable wife in the event that her own defected from under the sheer thunderousness of its owner. He was also the in-house punching bag and the inescapable other half of their marital equation. Adar Unwala cheerfully shouldered these various burdens, the optimism borne more out of habit and a tenacious will to live, than any obscure masochistic inclinations. He did in another lifetime, before being encircled in the hefty arms of marital bliss, have his brash and bold moments. But with time and the unflagging force of Bano, he had become quiet and wry. The former state of being made the latter quality especially prominent and entertaining. Adar Unwala didn’t have conversatons; he performed them.
Adar was also an avid reader. He was often driven to reading poetry which he discovered, was surprisingly effective in dispelling the clouds of gloom and doom that sometimes overtook him. It was not so much the substance of the verse, but the rhyme and meter that would slowly file off the sharp edges and bit by bit, let the sun into his soul again. His favourite genre however, one that he read when he was in full possession of his composure and his serenity, was memoirs of rags to riches industrialists and business tycoons. He read these tomes not so much to gain pithy insight into how to get rich. The Unwala coffers had been quite copiously overflowing for the past many generations. No, it was almost a catharsis in reverse psychology – how it would be to have nothing; to not be identified as one of the Unwalas or as Tajbano’s husband but simply as Adermard. His keen and extended perusal of the books to date however had led him to believe that most men liked being in the clutches of influence and power, and the occasional matriarch. As kismet would have it, he had gone into the sweeping embrace of the latter and had quite completely given up any delusions of the former. He had continued to read other men’s stories nevertheless, more for the occasional nuggets of bizarre personal eccentricities and foibles they sometimes threw at him. These he would then mull over with angst, awe or amusement, filling his time and his thoughts with existential what-ifs and wild imaginings. He loved his story time.
Bano and Adar had been together for twenty one years and had produced a happy hybrid of themselves in their son. Farshad had his father’s grey eyes and his mother’s unremitting gaze. He had also inherited his mother’s stature but by dint of hard work, had extricated himself from the legacy of her bulk. Still, he tended to carry himself like there were two of him. He was intelligent and self assured like his mother with a tendency towards an almost happy cynicism like his father. Everyone remarked about how he had won the DNA lottery.
Farshad Unwala hadn’t grown into adulthood; it had metamorphosed to fit him.
Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/22/the-dna-lottery-part-two/
I met Zainab after almost fifteen years. We hadn’t seen each other since school. We had been good friends growing up. Then my family and I moved to Canada and we somehow lost touch. I saw her that day when I went to pick my daughter up from Mrs. Abad’s Academy. Her son, Zain is in the same school. We recognised each other instantly. It was a warm reunion. There was none of the awkwardness of long absences and radio silences. We easily picked up from where we had left off a decade and a half ago. She was glowing.
I saw Marrya like an apparition. I was feeling a familiar tingle in the tips of my fingers and in the space behind my eyes – something was about to happen. She had smiled so widely and come up to me. We had hugged. I held on to her, trying to steady myself, to focus on something, to let the feeling pass quickly, unobtrusively. She had tears in her eyes. Why was she crying? I didn’t know why she was crying. I knew I should be concerned, I should ask her why. But I had to stop my mind from picking me up and whisking me away. Not there, not at that time. So I hugged her again. Outside, I kept focusing on the hug and on Marrya. Inside, I held on with both hands to the railing so that I wouldn’t be swept up in the current that was coursing through me. I don’t know how long I held her like that, but the episode passed. I could feel thermal waves undulating on my face and my chest, enfolding me in their warmth. I was back in control.
Marrya had been my best friend in school.
We met up a few times after that first encounter at our children’s school. She was the same … and also different. There was a serenity about her but there was also a wildness in her eyes sometimes. She would get agitated and then very still. Almost like there was something going on on the inside. Like a battle … maybe a conversation with herself. I wasn’t sure. Until Zainab talked to me. We were sitting in her home catching up on old times with a couple of hours to spare before picking up the children from school. I noticed her odd look then. One moment she was laughing and then … she held onto my arms, with that feral look in her eyes. She said she was having an episode. I looked at her not entirely understanding but somehow knowing that I needed to reassure her. So I nodded, encouraging her to talk. To tell me what was happening. She was dazed and confused for almost an hour. And incoherent. I tried to have her sip some water but she said she’d drown. I wanted to take her to the hospital, a clinic, but she shook her head. No! No! I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you. Wait, I’ll tell you. It took forty five minutes before she was herself again. I held her in my arms and she remained there quietly.
She then looked at me through calm, bright eyes. I could tell she was lucid, peaceful again. She then told me about her Glimmer.
I finally told Marrya about the Glimmer. I needed to tell someone and she was there with me again when I was … swept up. She seemed to understand … but in the way that normal people empathise with the handicapped: her face was sheathed in lines of concern and her kindness was effusive. I’m not being sarcastic. I was grateful to her for listening to me. For letting me talk. It was my first time talking of my inner self … my inner world, and the words were not coming easily. I was fumbling but she was listening. And I was grateful for that.
Like a dirty disease, the Glimmer … my Glimmer had stayed hidden, vilified and excluded for so long that it had begun to fester, spilling a dreary pall over my lucid days … hours. Someone else now knew and in some strange way I had this sense that it was essential – for Zain – that Marrya knew. I also felt a lightness of being; a headiness almost that my Glimmer had, through my words, found its way out. I was swept up again but in the real life throes of relief and joy. I laughed.
I hope Marrya doesn’t think I’m crazy. I’m really hoping she doesn’t. I didn’t tell her about Zoya and Gula. Time enough for that. She asked me why I wasn’t taking the medication and whether I believed in the mystic healing of Sufi saints. I think she was satisfied with my responses. I’ve refound a friend.
I was torn. Between my promise of secrecy to Zainab and the insticintive obligation I felt to let someone else know. I wanted to tell Asif, Zainab’s husband but I’d only ever met him once and he was out of town a lot. I wondered if he was aware of Zainab’s episodes; if he’d witnessed them … I wasn’t sure. Then I thought of talking to Zainab’s mother, Arifa aunty. She had always been a fragile, bird-like creature and from what Zainab had said, her delicate constitution had not fared well with time. She had moved to the UK to live with her sister when the latter had got widowed. That was a year ago. I had to think … I had to think about who to let in on Zainab’s state of well being …. her state of mind.
Was Zainab going crazy? Was she losing her mind? Did insanity run in her family? What about Zain? These thoughts now regularly ran headlong into me in my waking hours.
It was so quick. The van had come careening into our car. There was an explosion in my head. I felt a tidal wave carrying me away from the scene in front of me; away from the collision. I tried to concentrate on the steering wheel to regain control but everything was slipping away. Then I’d seen Zain lying there unblinking … dead? I had screamed then. Again and again. To hold onto him; to hold onto myself.
Then the accident happened. Zainab and Zain were in the car. Zain had broken his arm but he was alright. Zainab had hit her head and had been brought to the hospital, disoriented and confused.
I hugged Zain and told him everything would be alright. He was sitting with his father on the sofa outside Zainab’s room.
Zainab had sustained a severe concussion Arif had said. She was dazed but awake.
A concussion. Something in the pit of my stomach turned. I was afraid.
I walked in.
I was in a garden. It was shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight. I was sitting in a rocking chair.
How did I get into a rocking chair?
Something was not right …
Where was Zain? How was Zain? I felt for the cold, hard surface of the railing; I couldn’t see it but I felt it. I needed to get back.
I saw Marrya. She was faded, shadowy, her outline coming in and out of my sight. I grabbed her arm; I had to know before she disappeared. Before I disappeared.
Where is Zain?
He’s fine she said.
He’s fine I said. He’s fine … he is fine …. he is alright …
I breathed. I relaxed.
I lost my hold on the railing.
Zainab was looking straight up at the ceiling when I walked into the room. I called to her but she didn’t move. I went up to her and looked into her eyes. There was that wild look again. I felt my own heart beating wildly. I felt nauseous.
Where is Zain, she asked. I told her he was alright, that he was sitting outside with his father. After that she became calm. Stuporous.
I held her hand.
She finally closed her eyes and slept.
Zoya- You’re ok Mama. You’re ok.
Gula- You’re fine. Breathe
I was sitting in a garden. It was shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight. My favourite time of the day. The light was falling in beautiful undulating patterns on the grass: golden whorls and paisleys, fluttering tendrils and fronds played hide and seek with one another. All Gula’s exquisite handiwork. There was the sound of birds as they rallied themselves for one last forage before getting into their safe little spaces for the night. I was sitting in a rocking chair. I breathed. I smiled.
Gula – And here’s a steaming mug of tea – Tea Tang, Hillcrest, your favourite. And a book of short stories, with a little bit of the real, and a bit of the ethereal. Just like you like them.
Zoya, eyes shining- read one out loud!
I grinned. It was perfect.
Something had happened…. but it was alright now … I couldn’t remember anymore … but it was alright …
I was tired but I was so happy. I smiled at little Zoya and put her in my lap.
Tomorrow we’ll read. I kissed her little head as she leaned back on my chest. I put my own head back.
I finally closed my eyes and slept.
Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/13/the-glimmer/
She felt her brain glimmer as it always did before she lost it.
Found yourself Gula had said from behind her hippocampus when she had been whisked into the inner spaces of her mind in those early days. Zoya had smiled her bright smile at her in cheerful confirmation of her sister’s mental wisdom. Gula was always foremost in telling it like it was. When Zainab and the rest of the world were trying to make it right, make it all normal, Gula would put a spanner in the works … tell the truth. In a strange way, having the truth set free, always made Zainab feel better. Of course she never articulated out loud all this straight talk that was strewn more and more in her neural pathways by Gula. But she was secretly relieved that there was someone else to reassure her that she wasn’t alone .. that she wasn’t mad.
Little Zoya and Gula lived inside. In Zainab’s mind.
Zainab put away the ironing, deliberately, slowly and then sat down and began to rock back and forth gently, almost imperceptibly. She stared at the switch on the wall; she needed to focus on something to let the episode pass. She had to let it wash over her gently and without her full participation. She had things to do.
Today she couldn’t walk around the house with the glimmer. That only made it brighter, and when she roamed the house in its throes, she walked also into the furthest spaces of her mind where she would then be lost for hours at a time. What were fleeting moments of rest and relief within, were protracted hours of a psychotic episode outside. It was a balancing act that she had performed for the last fourteen months, never mastering it, always just scraping by. On the outside.
She kept her eyes glued to the wall switch. Gradually it’s innocuous cream colour filled with texture, kinetic layers and a myriad other hues in the snow white to clotted cream spectrum. She absorbed the details as she slowly stilled her mind. When she could see fluid little fragments of the silver-grey railing, she knew she could relax; she was at the waning end of her episode. The railing was always there – stretching behind her, in front of her and alongside her; not always visible, but always reachable. Even at the throbbing, pulsing heart of her Glimmer, she knew that as long as she could keep her grip on it she could find her way out; get back to real life. The paling shimmered hazily, insubstantially now as it moved in and out of her sight.. her mind. She concentrated. After a while, it slowly forged itself into an unbroken, glinting beacon guiding her back into the real world.
It had taken half an hour of concerted effort to wrest herself away from Zoya’s pleading voice and Gula’s requests to look at her needlework; her brain stitching. She made lovely patterns. Sometimes she cross stitched when the world outside was not so ferocious, and then Zainab could sense in the faintest of tones, what was happening outside; she would remain hidden and protected but Gula’s weave would let in little speckles of outside light and with them silent, fuzzy, slow moving images that made Zainab think of how old sepia-toned movies without sound might have been like. At other times, Gula would do a precise filling stitch to block out everything from the outside. Sometimes she would hem when Zainab was feeling especially anxious about having left something important undone before being whisked in. Gula would then gently neaten the frayed edges of Zainab’s mind, tucking away her anxiety in horizontal spaces that were 0.75 inches wide. Zainab would watch the hypnotic action of the needle going in and out, in and out, in and out in Gula’s deft hands, and she would feel better. Sometimes, however, Gula would rip it all apart. Zainab hated that but Gula said it was necessary sometimes to restart. To forget and begin again. Sometimes Zainab did forget and was able to begin again. At other times, she remembered and the new stitches Gula put in felt like lancing pin pricks in her body. Tridents of pain would poke at her head and her chest throughout the rest of the day.
She had things to do. It was Zain’s parent-teacher meeting today. She had to get ready and look the part in less than an hour.
“How did the PTM go”, asked Tariq when they were all sitting around the dinner table that night.
“It was alright. Zain is doing generally well” said Zainab smiling at her eight year old from across the table.
Zain shifted uncomfortably in his seat but he was grateful for this little lie by his mother. A white lie because he was having problems only with Urdu and Islamiyat. White lies were not as bad as … black lies. He smiled suddenly at this turn of phrase that had suddenly popped into his mind. He was sure he had come up with something new. He would ask Miss Malik tomorrow.
“Did you go with the driver?”
“Yes … yes i went with the driver. We even stopped at Burger King for lunch”, Zainab looked again at her son who was now smiling widely. She smiled back at him. These moments were so precious when she was in the same room, in the same time and space with her son. He had seen her mentally disappear from his world a few times and had over the past year become somewhat withdrawn. She had explained to him as best as she could that her mind worked differently and sometimes she needed to shut down on the outside so she could rest. Most people went to sleep to rest. This was like her sleep. He had listened quietly and had then turned his face away. He was too young to understand what was happening, Zainab had reasoned with herself. She needed to be around him more when she was … herself and less when she was gripped in the bewildering throes of an epoisode.
Zainab had been a teacher at one of the leading schools in the city. She had taught the grade five curriculum for over ten years before resigning just over a year ago, in the wake of her first glimmer. Unfamiliar with the two people who occupied that new world and unversed in the fluid tapestry of her mind, she had been afraid and anxious as she had walked into it that first time. Outwardly she had just zoned out.
The damn stress nowadays can do that. Go home darling, the other teachers had said.
Take some time out, the principal had suggested.
You need to slow down, the doctor had ordered.
And so she had complied on all fronts. She had gone home, tendered in her resignation as a teacher and focused on being a full time housewife. She was also given a rainbow of pills to take every day. Beautiful little things, with deceptive inclinations. They were supposed to make her feel better, to relax her highly strung nerves. But they just made her numb, emotionless. She didn’t even want to look at Zain when she was in their deadening hold. So three months in, armed also with a better understanding that the Glimmer was not her mind’s version of a wasteland for loonies but her secret refuge, she had just stopped taking them. Her world …. worlds had changed. With time and the subtle machinations of her mind, reality had become a shifting concept as the Glimmer became more and more substantial, burgeoning with a constant stream of experiences as she was whisked back and forth. She had no command over the forces that buffeted her in and out of her two worlds. She had only learnt through sheer necessity, to sometimes control the amount of time she was pulled away from the world where she was a mother. Zain still needed her.
Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/14/the-glimmer-part-2/