SHORT STORY | SAMOSAS WITH TEA – Part Three

(1)

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.

(II)

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.

(III)

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.

SHORT STORY | SAMOSAS WITH TEA – Part Two

(I)

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.

(II)

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

SHORT STORY | SAMOSAS WITH TEA – Part One

(I)

Shahnaz deposited her bag in her bedroom and joined her mother in the lounge for tea. It was a balmy Friday evening and the start of the weekend. She picked up an aaloo samosa*, her favourite kind, and began to slowly, pleasurably bite into its crispy outer layer to get to its spice-laden heart. She closed her eyes each time she bit into the hot crunchy pastry. Her evening cup of tea accompanied by the savoury snack fresh out of the samosa wala’s pan of bubbling hot oil was by far one of her favourite daily indulgences; the other one being a hot shower no matter what the season outside was. Both rituals marked the end of her workday and the beginning of a long evening that she would spend partly with her mother and partly in her room, floating between the two as she willed.

The four or five hours before bedtime did not have any preset form or structure, their very fluidity and spontaniety refreshing and restoring her. She finished her samosa and eyed another. Every once in a while, when her tastebuds still tingled with post-samosa pleasure, their savoury receptor cells not quite gratified, she would reach for another. She never had more than two, superstitious about the plus-two extravagance slyly wreaking havoc in her arteries and rendering forever her beloved samosa into the realms of pastries non grata. Her mother urged her to have another, she always did. Both women wore their bulk easily and becomingly.

Shahnaz lived with her mother in a two bedroom apartment in Clifton. The two had lived in the same flat for the last fifteen years. In fact Shahnaz was only seven when they had moved from Islamabad to Karachi. It had been an arduous and exhausting move, undertaken against the wishes of Mahjabeen’s brothers and indeed the whole extended family. After all, how would a newly widowed woman cope on her own in a strange city they had questioned, affronted and appalled. Karachi for the rest of the citizenry, might as well have been another nation state altogether with its remote proximity to everywhere else in the country, and its distinct melting pot of cultures. But Mahjabeen had been adamant, her steadfastness in most part aided by her best friend who lived in Karachi and who had masterminded the entire abscondement from the life that was being diligently prepared for her by her family.

She would have in the wake of her widowhood, been expected to live with her older brother, his wife and their four children. Aside of the fact that her brother, Qasim Jan was the embodiment of unflagging aloofness, he was also a man of a painfully conservative bent. He had already arranged the betrothal of his only daughter; she was five at the time. Mahjabeen herself had spent ten wonderful years with a husband who had been kind, generous and forward looking. He had encouraged her to do her bachelors and then her masters in Geography. After graduation, she picked up the silver thread of Initiative that was so devotedly woven into the fabric of their homestead by her husband, and of her own volition enrolled in a teachers training program. She had managed all this with Shahnaz as a baby and then a toddler. Asfand had enabled her in ways that practically and profoundly went much beyond just his approval as the head of their little family. He had changed, fed and played with their little daughter when Mahjabeen had board exams to prepare for; seamlessly, graciously for weeks upon weeks, shouldering chores that usually lay in the domain of her responsibilities. She sometimes secretly wondered if in fact her life with Asfand was too good to be true; whether the universe itself held them in the blessed hollow of its hands. She would then recite a prayer to ward off ill omens and evil eyes; her unfailing devoutness was her offering to the Divine to always keep her family together.

And then one day just like that, her little world came crashing down around her. Asfand slipped away, his life snuffed out in a split second on the motorway. She was left with seven year old Shahnaz, but also a spirit that was dogged and determined. When her best friend and the principal of a leading school in Karachi offered her a job, she forged the rest of the exit for herself. Within a month, she was in a completely new city, a new environment and a new home.

Shahnaz had been an introverted little girl and had struggled with accepting her suddenly fatherless existence, coupled as that reality was with the unfamiliarity of their new home. She had mourned her father in the innocent, raw manner of a child, crying herself to sleep for weeks afterwards. But the newness of fresh starts, when one does embark on them, is oftentimes a healing elixir in itself. And so, Shahnaz and Mahjabeen had slowly, a day at a time, emerged from their cocoon of painful memories that over the years, lost their piercing sting, becoming softer for both of them to recall and to share.

These last fifteen years in their adopted city had been blessed in other ways too; bestowing an ungrudging share of triumphs and joyfulness on mother and daughter. Mahjabeen was now heading the junior section at Tasneem’s school and Shahnaz, now 22 had just started working at a bank.

(II)

Life at Mall Court was generally neighbourly. Most of the residents knew one another, coming together in good times and in bad. The two women had attended six weddings and six funerals in the last decade and a half. The fact that the communal joys and sorrows were even keeled somehow didn’t take away from the overall sense of contentment and gratefulness. Maybe it was this very spirit of community that insulated the residents from the harshness of their individual tragedies. And so, life for the mother and the daughter had been as good as they could have hoped for.

Both women loved their food. The oilier and the richer, the better. While Mahjabeen could cook almost the entire spectrum of local cuisine (the deliberate exceptions being paya* and mutton Kunna*), Shahnaz was a gourmet maker of desserts. From the syrupy gulab jamun to the multi layered tiramisu to the minced beef samosas that promised the most stellar crunch, she could masterfully muster them all. Shahnaz had in fact made reasonable amounts of pocket money from the sale of her baked goods over the last few years. Most of her customers were the Mall Court residents, rallying together as always to support one of their own, and in no small part, to also indulge their insatiable South Asian appetites for fresh-off-the-pan, sweet, rich dessert.

* Aaloo Samosa:  Aaloo: Potato in Urdu. Samosa: A fried or baked pastry with a savory filling, including ingredients such as spiced potatoes, onions, and peas.

* Paya: The main ingredients of the dish are the trotters (or hoof of a cow, goat, buffalo or sheep) cooked with various spices.


* Kunna: The term means clay pot in Punjabi. Originating from the Chiniot district in the state of Punjab Pakistan, Kunna is a heavy meat dish that is made with several spices and tender mutton.

VERSE | FOR MY MOTHER, ON HER BIRTHDAY 🌺

It’s your birthday today 
And I wanted to say
That I wish I could see you
For a little while today
That your essence surrounds me
On all of my days
Even if you are a breath or eons away
That I love you
And I miss you everyday.
Even if my words limited as they are
While making their cosmic way to you
Should lose their form, be strewn apart
That the love in them still finds its way to you

I hope that you are happy and you’re well
I hope you still have your special sparkle
I hope you’re still lighting up lives
As a friend, a mentor, a spirit divine
I hope your radiant glow also reaches within
To make your big, lovely heart sing

My dearest I hope you get this message of mine
In these words, on the breeze or in the warm sunshine
My memories of you are full of joy
Uplifting, heartwarming, they don’t usually hurt
But today thoughts of you that flit through my mind
Bring a sweet achiness to my throat

It’s your birthday dear Mama and I wanted to say
May the choicest of blessings fill your time and space.

SHORT STORY | RAAT KI RANI* – Part Two

(I)

Raza Murad was what is universally known as a “confirmed bachelor”. In the South Asian context however, this is a misnomer since no man is ever over the hill and there is always a good, respectable bahu* to be had. Raza Murad however, had tended to go with the universal meaning of the term and had kept swarms of eager aunties at bay, armed as they were with proposals for their daughters and with time, for themselves too. Raza Murad was in fact, in a whimsical twist of fate, a doppleganger of Waheed Murad, the quintessential chocolate hero of the 60s and 70s Pakistani cinema. Despite an abundance of ingredients for leaving a long line of bruised and broken hearts in his wake, 60 year old Raza had only ever been in two relationships. The first had been with a man. There had been no physicality there (except for one time in the beginning of the companionship). They had lived together for ten years and then his partner had succumbed to congestive heart disease.

The second relationship had started when he was forty five, and had culminated in a six year marriage. There were no children – he couldn’t have them. She had left him when she had got the opportunity to immigrate to Canada. He had stayed behind not so much because he had opted to, but because she had.

For the last decade or so, Raza Murad had been living alone and tending to his little farm in Bedian, a mostly agricultural area about 30 kms from the Lahore city centre. His farming enterprise which had started out as a hobby, was now a lucrative little business, financing the upkeep of his home and his pet indulgence: rare editions of books by Urdu writers; his trio of first editions of the works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ismat Chughtai and Ibn-e-Insha were his pride and joy. With time, a modest little library had sprung up around these three mighty pillars. The fourth prop was built somewhat bashfully but prolifically from his own attempts at satire and romance. In the spirit of a true literary purist, he tried to keep the two genres largely separate but there were many instances where before he was quite aware, they had coupled to form a sometimes absurd and sometimes comical tapestry of odes and comeback-odes. It was a cathartic endeavour for the generally low key Raza Murad.

Most of Raza Murad’s farm produce made its way to the Sabzi Mandi*. He had also set up a stall at the Good Market that was held in Defence every Saturday. Here he sold avocados, litchi and jaman which were bought fast and furiously by the ladies who strolled in their dozens through the market to sight-see and socialise.

Raza Murad met Haniya when she and her children had moved into his rental property in Model town about a year ago. He was instantly taken in by the woman with the big brown eyes and the quiet manner. She even had a flick of grey hair, exquisite in its placement: gently traversing the distance from her widow’s peak to behind her left ear, and in its singularity: the one and only shot of grey in her otherwise dark brown hair. He knew it was a beautiful foible of nature but in its perfection, it could have been wrought by the deft machinations of a hairdresser given to the classic whimsy of old world charm.

Over the next few months, he had visited Haniya on some repair related pretexts a few times. These were undertaken to more fully understand what he felt rather than in any subtle rituals of courtship. After a decade of being alone, he wanted to make sure this sudden, unexpected urge for her company was not in fact some late-aged infatuation. It wasn’t, he had realized. That was when in a fit of organic creativity, he had decided to carry a carton full of the fruit and the vegetables of his labour to Model town every Tuesday. Haniya had been surprised that he did home deliveries, to which he had mumbled something about fickle shelf life and customer satisfaction. The weekly fruit and vegetable deliveries had over the last few months morphed into Tuesday afternoons of easy conversations, gentle laughter and the doing away of burdensome labels like bhai* and behen*.

(II)

The bell rang just as Haniya had washed and put away the lunch dishes. She adjusted her dupatta, took a quick almost furtive peek at herself in the little mirror near the entrance and went to open the gate.

“I’ve brought you lychees today. They’re delicious. You and the children will enjoy them” said a smiling Raza as Haniya opened the gate for him. Her eyes danced as she smiled in happy acknowledgment, more from the pleasure of seeing him rather than the anticipation of lychees for dessert that night. Still with the happy tingle in her spine, she suddenly asked him to drive his cultus into the house. Now his eyes were dancing too. While he got back into the car to drive into Haniya’s home, she looked away for a minute, to calm herself. What is wrong with you? You have two grown up children! she chided herself, willing the sobriety of the reminder to discipline her wildly beating heart. But in the next instant, she was grinning widely again. She chuckled at the rebelliousness of her own emotions, feeling like an adolescent with a secret crush. Hers had been Sean Connery … and Waheed Murad. She lifted the corner of her dupatta to her mouth to hide the laughter that was now bubbling in her throat.

Raza glanced at Haniya as she looked away, lightly covering her face with her dupatta. He wondered if she was in fact already regretting her knee jerk invitation for him to drive into the house. He sat in the car and looked away for a few seconds to give her time to compose herself, to make up her mind.

“Are you going to keep sitting there or are you going to come out ji*? If you do come out, I can make us some tea”.

While Haniya and Raza sipped on hot tea, sitting on the steps of the little veranda outside with a carton between them bursting with yellows, greens and reds, Laiba watched from inside. She felt an odd sensation in the pit of her stomach as she saw her mother …. flirting with a man. She has a right to live her own life, a part of her reasoned quietly. But the part of her that looked on with a premonition of doom and even mild disgust gathered in strength and moral outrage. By the time Raza departed thirty minutes later leaving behind a medley of fresh produce and a little song in Haniya’s heart, Laiba was seething with righteous anger. That evening she refused to come out for dinner and the next morning she had left the house before Haniya had woken up.

“Amma, we need to talk” said Ali quietly when mother and son were sitting in the lounge after dinner the next day. Haniya looked at her son with a steady gaze. Her daughter’s complete boycott of her since the previous evening had prepared her for the talk, the reminder of respectability.

“That man who comes to deliver vegetables ….”

“Raza Murad is his name” Haniya interjected gently while still looking directly at Ali.

“Yes, him. What’s going on Amma?”

“Nothing is going on beta*. He delivers vegetables and we have a conversation”

“And that’s all?” asked Ali, his face now blotchy with indignation as well as the embarrassment of having this conversation with his mother.

So like his father he looks …the thought whispered through Haniya’s mind even as she focused on her own composure.

“That’s all beta”.

That’s all Haniya said to herself too. That is all.

“Is that all?” Raza asked Haniya when she called him a few days later to ask him not to come for the next fortnight; she and her family were going out of town.

“Yes … that’s all“, she said by way of ending the conversation.

“Ok, let me know when you are back …”

“Yes … I’ll call you … we’ll get in touch when we are back”. She ended the call, feeling morally upright, while the cloak of respectability tightened around her, squeezing her, reducing her so she could keep fitting into the blessed box.

Respectable but boxed in. Wanton but free. Respectable … wanton … respectable … shameless … free … shameless —

She breathed in deeply to still the suffocating thoughts that were ricocheting through her head; to dislodge the tension that had built up like a wall in her chest. She then blinked twice, three times while looking straight into the heart of the glimmering horizon.

(III)

That evening Haniya sat on the steps of her veranda looking at the jasmine that was growing in the far corner of the little garden. It was resplendent with sweet smelling flowers. They were her favourite flowers – always abundant and always redolent. Faizan used to like their fragrance too and would often bring in a handful when the shrub was abloom in their old home. Raat ki rani for my raat ki Raani he used to say to her, the mixture of humour and intimacy making her redden and laugh. She would put them in a bowl full of water and gradually their delicate fragrance would fill the whole room. She smiled at the memory that had, like the scent of the night blooming jasmine, gently assailed her.

She and Faizan had planted a shrub in their old house twenty years ago and it had grown and settled in their garden spreading its sweet bouquet around their home for over fifteen years. Throughout the hot months, it had sprung into a throng of flowers, like a snow mirage in the corner of their summer-baked garden. One summer, a year or so after Faizan had passed away, it had just stopped flowering and by winter it had withered away. She had refused to plant anything there, mourning in equal measure, her dead garden companion and her deceased husband. The empty space in the corner of the garden became an oddly cathartic reminder of the emptiness in her heart.

When she had moved into her new home a year ago, she had in the throes of new beginnings and old memories, planted a jasmine sapling in the garden. It had over the last year, grown and flourished, and was now riotous in its first efflorescence.

Haniya looked at the blooming, burgeoning shrub for a while; its vitality was almost palpable in the deepening shadows of dusk. She went towards the plant and plucked a handful of the flowers. She breathed in their sweet scent, full of freshness and newness. She inhaled deeply and then buried her face in their velvety softness. She stayed that way for a minute, maybe two and then looked up, smiling. The shapes and textures of her feelings, that for so long had been put away like wedding joras* their time and place having come and gone once and for all, now gathered again bright and beautiful in her heart. She reached for them in the sweet fragrance of the jasmine, as she brought her flower-strewn palms up to her face again. She felt her heart swell with a cresting, suffusing joy as it released its own sweet petrichor.

She loved her children but she knew she could be more than a mother and a grandmother, and so much more than this shadow of herself that she had become.

There in the gathering dusk, amid the jasmine blossoms, she felt the warm effusion of all that she had yet to give, and also the soft, malleable space in her heart where she could yet receive. She would be like the jasmine: redolent in its garden bed, fragrant in a bowl of water and tender in the warmth of the hands. Just like the vital little flowers bloomed again and again, cradled in the arms of nature and the universe, so could she. So would she.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/06/25/raat-ki-rani/

* Raat ki Raani: The night blooming jasmine. Literally the term means “queen of the night”.

* Bahu: Bride/ daughter in law in Urdu.


* Sabzi Mandi: Wholesale vegetable market

* Bhai: Brother in Urdu

* Behen: Sister in Urdu

* Ji: A general term of respectful acknowledgment

* Beta: Son in Urdu

* Jora: Dress/ outfit

SHORT STORY | RAAT KI RANI* – Part One

(I)

Haniya looked at the pin prick of blood on her index finger, lingering on its vital redness just a moment longer than usual. It was Tuesday today. She blinked, her mouth curving into a faint smile, and then wiped her finger with a rag strewn with little speckles of rust-red.

Haniya sewed initially because she had the skill and she liked the meditative quality of the needle going in and out of the fabric. With time and the fickle nature of circumstances, that labour of love had morphed into an exertion underscored by urgency and need. There was a little money that came in from a couple of modest investments that her husband had made, and a small monthly stipend that her brother sent her. These meagre streams of income Haniya augmented with the little windfalls that she received for her delicate needlework.

After her husband had died six years ago, she had taken on the role of the provider and the “man” of the house. That last title was foisted upon her when she had scared off two thieves, adolescents really, who had come to burgle her home; of what, she still sometimes wondered as she mentally scanned the modest contents of their two bedroom townhouse rental.

She put the shirt down with its spray of jasmine that was slowly coming to life under her deft handiwork. She took a sip of her tea – her fifth cup since the morning and it was only noon now. Her mind wandered as the still hot liquid warmed up her cache of memories. Faizan had loved his tea too. She would make two steaming cups when he came in through the door at 6 o’ clock in the evening. Husband and wife would then sit in each other’s company, communicating almost solely through harmonious sips of the hot beverage. Faizan had been a man of few words, and he was especially grateful for the acknowledgment and understanding of this quiet reticence by his wife. For him, the highest form of language was one of the heart and of harmony of action. His evening cup of tea in the quiet company of Haniya was probably one of his dearest forms of togetherness. On weekends the couple would demolish almost a quarter bag of tea leaves, taking turns to cook a potful, its four-cup contents disappearing in under half an hour each time.

Haniya sighed wistfully. She missed him. She missed being held close. She missed the vital warmth at night, on the right side of their bed … her bed now. She missed having a companion.

Haniya had been a voluble, chirpy young woman when she had got married at 21. Under the calming, quiet influence of her husband, coupled with the fact that they had their first child five years later, she had gradually spoken less and less. Over the years, she had slowly replaced her outer chatter with the quietude of inner serenity. Now, sometimes days went by and she hardly said a word out loud until both her children came back home from university. Both, Ali and Laiba had fitted into and then emulated their parents’ reserve. And so, the years had plodded on largely to the hazy sounds of life from outside of their quiet bubble of existence.

Haniya picked up her empty cup and went to the kitchen. It was almost 1 o’ clock. She needed to start preparing lunch. Laiba would be home at 3. Ali had just started working at a bank and usually came home after 7.

(II)

“Amma, I’m never getting married” said Laiba as they both sat at the little dining table over plates of two day old daal* and sabzi*, their protracted spice-infused marination made up for with fresh, hot roti from the tandoor* downstairs. Haniya looked at her second born with a little smile.

It was a game they played occasionally to call to heel any depressing thoughts that at various times, tended to meander through the purple-grey spaces in the minds of the two women. Before either drifted into inner worlds with clouded skies, shutting out the late afternoon sunshine falling on her face, the other would pull her right back.

Her mother’s morning musings were still etched in her face and Laiba, reading them, had dropped a conversational grenade to shatter any bruise-coloured doors closing out the brightness of the day. She was happy and an essential part of the fruition of that sentiment for her, was seeing her mother’s gentle smile.

“And why is that?” asked Haniya, her own smile widening at her daughter’s bright-eyed playfulness.

“Because I’m going to miss these vintage daal and sabzi lunches amma – straight up manna from heaven they are!”

Haniya laughed at the affectionate sarcasm thrown at her by her feisty daughter while Laiba grinned back with dancing eyes.

(III)

It was Tuesday today. Vegetable delivery day. Vegetables and conversation day. Vegetables, conversation and a bit of a happy flurry of the heart day. Haniya smiled. Even the dispiriting act of putting three-day old curry back into the fridge for another meal, didn’t dampen the pleasure of her Tuesday afternoons. She looked outside the kitchen window at a world that was shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight. She felt a happy little surge in her own heart as she glanced at herself in the glass door of the kitchen cabinet. Seeing the smile spreading to the corners of her brown eyes, she instinctively lowered her gaze, collecting herself. Those crows feet were only ever supposed to crinkle in pleasure for her children … and later, for her grandchildren, she chided herself. She sighed, feeling the tentacles of exasperation and helplessness slowly coil around her solar plexus.

Why? she asked herself in the next instant, reaching for her heart, fortifying herself against the censorial voices of tradition and expectations. Why did happiness for her have to always be a borrowed emotion – borrowed from her children and even from her unborn grandchildren? Borrowed for a brief while and then returned; always given back; never made her own. Why did she have to become a hollow shell of herself because she was widowed, permanently denouncing the vital, pulsing, feeling part of her? Why couldn’t she allow herself to be happy for herself; for something that was specifically, wholly, stirringly hers?

Because you’re a middle aged widow with grown up children, berated the part of her that was used to being loud, commanding and keeping her respectable.

This emotional tug of war had of late often and passionately hurtled and leaped within her, with sometimes one and sometimes the other side coming out stronger. Haniya now willed herself, as she had learnt to do over the last few months, to focus only on the feeling of warmth that had been sweeping her up in its flow. Thinking beyond the visceral emotion, invariably woke up a whole slew of confusing, disapproving thoughts that would then mock and scold her until there was no pleasure left anymore in her Tuesday afternoons. Her afternoons that were filled with all shades of greens, reds and yellows as she bought a whole week’s worth of vegetables from Raza bhai. Raza – the bhai* had been largely dispensed with six months into these Tuesday afternoon exchanges, only ever surfacing if one of the children was within earshot of their conversation. These improvisations were made intuitively, unthinkingly.

Haniya Faizan was a respectable, middle class woman and following social norms was a part of her DNA which had also faithfully served her self preservation instinct. She was not a woman who went against the flow of convention. Despite her vivid imagination which often took her away on cathartic flights of fancy, she had for all practical purposes, fitted herself into the box of widowhood that was resoundingly set at her door when her husband had passed away. She had then dutifully also folded up her sexuality and put it safely away in the box to let it molder in the blessed throes of time and aloneness.

Haniya was still youngish however – 48 – and so despite society’s asexual prescription for her for having survived her husband, there was always a motley brigade of men that roamed around the box, hoping for Haniya to make a fissure just big enough for them to strut in. For most of these hopefuls, the end of their particular widow-exploit was yet murky in their minds; so much of that depended on the woman. If she relented, they could bestow her with male companionship, diligently cloaked from the world, and their wives. If she didn’t, well some would leave it at that, while a not entirely insignificant number of others would put in focused efforts to torment her in big and small ways. The patriarchy, on such occasions, is said to be a mysterious beast, sweeping up entire communities of men and women in its ravenous wake. So far however, and especially after the encounter with the fresh-faced thieves, Haniya had been spared proposals of both, the decent and indecent varieties.

But there were changes afoot; little dalliances from the norm that were making their way into Haniya’s heart and she was feeling their, as yet unformed textures, with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/04/raat-ki-raani-part-2/

* Raat ki raani: the night-blooming jasmine

* Daal: A Pakistani/ Indian dish made of dried, split pulses that do not require soaking before cooking.

* Sabzi: vegetables in Urdu


* Bhai: Brother in Urdu.

* Tandoor: also known as tannour it is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking, mostly flat breads.

VERSE | WAR

LISTEN TO THE POEM BEING READ AT: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMLSPk6FW/
Cannons boom, bombs explode 
The world is the home of war
Lieutenants give crisp commands
To their soldiers, weary and sore

The tribunal sits in their gilded halls
Drinking their whisky tea
The senior most is ninety years old
The youngest is seventy three

They take pride in stoking this war
‘Tis the battle of righteous men
Sending sons and daughters to fight
While they cackle in unison

There’s chaos and killing; a dread that is stilling
The conflict they’ve wrought makes no sense
The old men don’t care, as war trumpets blare
Charged by the flourish of their pens

Soon the booming cannons and the bombs
Will end their brutal repartee
Of slashing and slaying - their bloody tribute paid
To their masters across the seas

The dead will be many, they’ll lie in the mud
Young soldiers from both sides, together
The grief and the pain will be the same
In the broken hearts of all the mothers

War is Jang* is война* is Guerre*
There is no pretty word for it
That can honour or extol or purify
The endless sea of blood it lets

As cannons boom, bombs explode
And the world crashes and burns
The inflection point for humankind
Is now at the cusp of no return.
Jang/ война/ Guerre: The word “war” in Urdu, Russian and French respectively.

VERSE | PRECIOUS DAYS

LISTEN TO THE POEM BEING READ AT: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSddVeUtc/?k=1 
I’m sitting today at a new cafe 
They bring me my tea in a beautiful cup
And a saucer to match. I catch
My breath. It reminds me so much
Of the tea set so loved
And cared for by your beautiful hands.
Of the cups of tea that were sipped
In your company, by smiling lips
Listening to a conversation
Laughing at a joke
And your own tinkling laugh
I remember it. I choke.

I remember so many late afternoons
Like the one that just pierced my heart
So many memories, tender and raw
Memories that flood in and then depart
Replaced by others, thronging along …
Like the one of you putting an earring on
My ear where the flesh always fused
Making it an adventure, a laugh a ruse.
Or when you bit into an elephant’s ear
The pastry, the confection, the palmier!
The chemo still filling your vital veins
Dripping its disease numbing potion within
You still grinned; your face came alight
You kept all the simple joys alive.
And then I’m assailed by another memory
Of another cafe where you and I had tea,
You sipped it slowly with your eyes closed
Your beautiful face in gentle repose
You smiled and I heard a contented sigh
And that smile from your lips reached your twinkling eyes …

Today, I’m sitting at a new cafe
But in my mind I’m with you on all those precious days.

VERSE | A SWEET MOMENT IN TIME

Sometimes while I sit, engrossed in life
My brow lightly furrowed, concentrating
On getting the task at hand done
Running my five miles in the circle of creation

I hear a rustle, a little whisper
Of someone on the periphery of my thoughts
I glance up, as if to see the vision
Of that someone that always flits across
My mind on busy days like these
Resting otherwise in my heart;
I glance as if that heavenly soul has
Bridged our realms that are so far apart.

I look up, afraid to lose the thread
Of that feeling, that gentle touch
Of someone nestling in my core
Someone beloved, someone missed so much.
I look beyond into the blurry depths
Of my vision, desperately holding on
To that fleeting caress upon my cheek
Gifted, bestowed by a precious one.

The atoms of day, ricochet and I blink
Once, twice. I am back in the circle of life
I grope twice, three times for that lucid moment
When i was in the same space, alongside
Someone who most days quietly rests
In the warmest nooks of my being
A cherished one who on special days like this
Takes my hand, eyes twinkling as she beams!

I glance up, my soul surging with joy
For that precious moment, filling the void.
Sometimes while I sit, engrossed in life
I am touched by a beloved for a sweet moment in time.

SHORT STORY|THE GIRL WITH THE PAISLEY DUPATTA* – Part Two

(I)

Qasim Khan, together with his brother, Zahid Khan lived in their ancestral home in Peshawar. Their children had grown up together, with of course the virtues of restraint and inhibition instilled from the very beginning into every girl child. As providence had it, there were only two girls born in Mishal’s generation – so far that is, given the erratic procreativity that often times flourished in joint family systems, with sometimes mothers and daughters falling simultaneously pregnant. As things were at the time, Qasim Khan and Zahid Khan each, had two sons and a daughter. In their homestead, girls were promised off to eleigible boys and men as closely related to their immediate family, and as early as possible. And so, three years ago, Mishal was betrothed to her cousin, Dawood, the older of Zahid Khan’s two sons.

Mishal’s Nikah* ceremony in all its quiet austerity had taken place when she had just turned thirteen. Even at that tender age, she was aware and sensitive to the implications of being “handed over” to her uncle’s family; of now being Zahid Khan’s wellspring of honour, modesty and one of two future perpetuators of his genomic lineage. She had carried that burden with the eqaniamity borne of nurture and naïveté, until that day when the protective walls of her home had come tumbling down around her: It was six months after her nikah to Dawood while she was back home for the Eid holidays. It was also the scorching peak of summer when the whole household would be cloaked in post-lunch torpor, dead to the world until the cooler evening breezes stirred the stillness. She had gone to the kitchen to look for a snack when he had come upon her. She was still surrounded by the langurous afterglow of her recent siesta when Dawood had jumped on her. He had thrown her to the ground and groped, prodded and choked her with such ferocity that she was left battered and utterly bewildered. He had only let go because he had heard the landline ring and knew that someone was going to rise to answer it.

Mishal lay there on the tiled floor, reeling from what had just happened. Her young mind, unable to recognise the atrocity and the ugliness of the episode in its immediate aftermath, was in a flux of confusion and anger. She got to her feet and fixed her shirt, tentatively touching her arm where a weal was already forming. She felt her bruised throat and catching sight of her reflection in the glass door of the cabinet, saw also a rip in the neckline of her kameez. She stared at the image. The searing heat of embarrassment and shame now beginning to fill her every pore. She felt like she was choking again but this time it was her own guilt and distress that had her in their stranglehold. Barely able to breathe, she picked her dupatta up off the floor and made her way back to the bedroom. Her mother was just waking up. Kulsoom took one look at her daughter, got up and locked the bedroom door. She sat her distraught, sobbing daughter down and managed to extricate the gist of what had happened to her. Kulsoom held her daughter close for a little while; held her one last time at the threshold of her childhood. Then she took her across once and for all, into her own encumbered, wary and confined world, just as Kusloom’s mother had done with her. She had hoped that her only daughter would thrive in the joys of childhood just a little longer; that her spontaneous laughter carried as it was on the tide of light hearted innocence, would ring in the house for a few more years. But she also knew that women’s hopes were like fragile petals, to drop off or be plucked at the will of God or the whims of the men in their lives. What was done was done. She held her daughter by her shoulders and looking straight into her eyes she told her that this episode was to remain unspoken of, forever closed, forgotten.

(II)

Mishal sat in her bedroom that she shared with her mother and her six year old brother. Over the last three years, a lot had changed. She had almost overnight matured into not only a woman but had over the years developed an abhorrence for her husband-to-be and an acute dislike for the other men of the household, including her father. She thought back to the day that Dawood had accosted her … assaulted her. She had been told to forget, to wash her mind clean of the event. Her mother in fact, had never mentioned it again. Ever. Hiding behind the ego and cowardice of patriarchy as its accomplice numero uno! Mishal thought with resentment. She imagined countless scenarios where Dawood would just vanish from her life. Sometimes these daydreams were soothing, calming; at others it was not enough to imagine – she had to reassure herself in a raw, racking, visceral way that she was in charge of her life. So she had acted out, mostly in school; she wouldn’t study if she didn’t want to; she would eat only a teaspoonful for the whole day if she so desired; she wouldn’t wash her hair for a fortnight if the whim overtook her. With time and her insatiable need to feel in control of her life, she had expanded the limits of her rebellion: she had even tried to run away from school. She hadn’t meant to, seriously … but she had to try it. Of course, Mother Gertrude had had one of her long sermon-like talks with her. She did say that she wouldn’t mention the ‘misadventure’ to her father … Mishal had almost wished that her principal had told her father, only so she could see some emotion, any emotion on his cold, stone-like face.

Something else was stirring at the back of Mishal’s thoughts today. She got up and walked over to her wardrobe, reaching into the far depths of its uppermost shelf. That’s where she had stowed it away, her red paisley dupatta. In the days after Dawood had attacked her in the kitchen, she had gone out of her way to avoid any contact with him, mealtimes being the necessary exception. Despite that and because he could, she thought bitterly, he had tormented and agonised her, intimidated and bullied her in all the big and little ways that are meant to break the spirit. One day a few months after the episode, he had again cornered her, but this time, had the good sense not to touch her. Her whole demeanour was that of a she wolf ready to gouge out her assialant’s eyes. He had laughed at her and then incensed by the look of loathing and fear on her face, he had said something chilling to her: that he’d gone after her because of the way she was dressed, provocatively; without her hijab and with only that fancy red paisley dupatta around her. She was asking for it, he’d added. She had growled at him because she had only her raw emotion to show. There was no biting retaliation, no barbs, no words that she could hurl at him. She only felt her wounded spirit bleed again making her snarl, and then sob with relief after he had gone. She remembered how long and hard she had looked at her paisley dupatta: questioningly, accusingly, sadly, confusedly, angrily, tearfully, and finally with defeat. She had put it away and never worn it again. But it had over time in some inexplicable way, become her banner of hope, of freedom, of daring to be more than she was ever permitted to be. And so she took it out every once in a while, looked at the beautiful red and yellow paisley pattern on its coral background, felt its softness and then fortified, she’d put it away. In its corner – resplendent, hidden, secret.

(III)

The news arrived in the household in little driblets, almost like the patriarchal universe was delivering it gently, even faultily, one shattering little fact at a time. They first heard that Zahid Khan and Dawood had been in an accident on their way back from Islamabad. After an hour of frantic calling and finding out, they learnt that they were admitted to a hospital in Hassan Abdal*; but that they were alright. There was a general release of tension at this last bit of news. Mishal’s father had left for Hasan Abdal as soon as he’d confirmed their whereabouts.

It was around 4 O’ clock in the evening when they received the call from Qasim Khan. His brother and his nephew had both died on the spot. He was bringing their bodies back home.

Kulsoom broke this final piece of news first to her daughter and then to her sister in law. The children would find out in their own way soon enough.

Mishal heard the news silently, looking at her mother with clear, calm eyes. She watched her minister to her sister-in-law who had just lost two of the men in her family in one go. She turned away, feeling her own flood of emotions so tumultuous and thick that her head spun and all she could hear was the roar of an endless, open ocean in her ears … the mad, frantic, powerful, unbound, pounding of her own heart. Her breath was almost ragged as she went to her bedroom. She opened her cupboard and retrieved the red paisley dupatta. She then removed the innocuous, white hijab and slowly, gently almost reverently draped the veil about her, lightly covering her head. She sat on her bed and looked out of the window, calm, serene and with the large, steady flame of hope already melting the corrosive, numbing chill around her heart.

* Dupatta: A shawl traditionally worn by women in the Indian subcontinent. 

* Nikah: The Nikah ceremony is the Muslim marriage ceremony. In the Islamic tradition, the marriage contract is signed during the Nikah and it is during this event that the bride and groom say, “I do.”

* Hasan Abdal: A city in the Punjab Province of Pakistan, located 40 km northwest of the country's capital city, Islamabad.


Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/28/paisley-dupatta-part-one/

SHORT STORY|THE GIRL WITH THE PAISLEY DUPATTA* – Part One

Qasim Khan sat in Mother Gertrude’s office, silent, motionless and without a trace of any emotion on his stoic, weather-beaten face. He had been especially summoned by the Principal of the all girls missionary school in the mountain resort town of Murree. After the sanctification of the Church in 1857, missionary schools had mushroomed across the picturesque town that was located at the foothills of the Himalayas. By the late 1980s, third generation conventarians were graduating from these institutions of academic learning and character building. Like so many other girls of the privileged set across the country, Qasim Khan’s daughter too had spent a large part of the last 10 years of her life as a boarder at the Claudine Thevenet Convent under the tutelage and guardianship of mostly Irish Catholic nuns. She was now done with her O’levels and on her way out of the Convent, together with 15 of her contemporaries.

Qasim Khan was a matter of fact man; not given to flights of fancy or intrigue or even introspection. He lived a respectable life; did what he had to do and kept himself securely grounded in all that was tangible, objective and real. He had neither the inclination nor the desire to poke into the deeper, more profound meaning of things just because he suffered momentary pangs of conscience, had unrequited aspirations or felt any other sensation of inadequacy. The space between his two dimensional view of life and Sublimity was largely apparitional and elusive to Qasim Khan. And so he sat with dead pan detachment, neither wondering nor concerned about the purpose of the meeting. He would know soon enough.

‘Good afternoon Mr. Khan. Thank you for coming to see me’, said Mother Gertrude as she walked briskly into her office.

Qasim Khan nodded with a smile and waited to hear the reason for the meeting. This was not a new turn of events; he had over the last few years, been summoned by his daughter’s school principal on more than a few occasions.

The 70 year old abbess had in her lifetime as the guardian of scores of girls entrusted in her care, learnt a thing or two about family psychology. And Mishal Khan’s homestead was one of those complicated types that had over the years given rise to more than a few such requests to meet with her parents; of the two, her father appearing every time. Whenever the girl came back from one of her vacations at home, she was subdued for weeks afterwards. In her senior years, the strained quietness had morphed into academic rebellion as Mishal’s grades plummeted. Over the last three years in fact, she had performed temperamentally on her quarterly assessments and barely scraped through her year-end exams. Every effort made by her teachers to talk to her and then to discipline her, had failed. The conversational, psycho-therapeutic attempts made by Mother Gertrude had also had no effect on the girl’s erratic behaviour. And now she had sat for her O levels and no matter what the outcome, she’d be permanently wrested from the refuge of her boarding school and the daily camaraderie of her friends, both cathartic mainstays such as they were, in her seemingly troubled life otherwise.

Mother Gertrude felt a rush of anxiety and concern for her ward. This was it. She had to try and get through to Mishal’s father. Qasim Khan had over the last few years attended every one of the beginning of term meetings she had requested to discuss his daughter’s academic and behavioural issues; had listened politely but disconnectedly, and promised to sort out whatever the problem was. And then Mishal came back, and the cycle continued unchanged, unabated. The wise old nun knew however that the angst and grief that Mishal doled out to her teachers and caregivers, was a balancing act of nature; a burden undertaken, a load dispensed. In the greater cosmic harmony of things, Mishal healed, rebuilding her spirit, even as she acted out.

‘Mishal will be going home for good this time Mr. Khan, and I continue to be worried about her. She is a sensitive girl and requires care and attention. She hesitated before continuing on, ‘It may be a good idea for her to get some professional psychological help’. She looked at the man sitting in front of her for any signs of having understood the seriousness of his daughter’s situation. He looked back at her unblinkingly, robotically with a small smile plastered diligently on his otherwise impassive face. This was definitely not going to be one of her triumphant, meaningful moments where she was able to bridge trust and understanding gaps between a parent and child – a parent and one of her girls; and the implications were disheartening. She swallowed hard with a sense of foreboding settling in the pit of her stomach.

Qasim Khan, together with fifteen sets of one or both parents, waited outside on the parlour flat for their daughters to be released for a final time, into their care. It was already 4pm and he was going to make the four hour journey back home the same day. As a rule, he preferred not to travel after sundown along the tortuous roads, winding 7500 feet down towards the plains. Mishal came down the stairs finally, followed by one of the school’s handymen who was carrying her trunk balanced expertly on his left shoulder. Somewhere in some vague recess of his mind, he had marvelled at the strength and agility of these mountain men as they ran up and down dozens of steep steps, multiple times, transporting laden trunks to waiting cars. Consciously, he was only aware of a critical task being done to expedite their departure.

‘Salam alaikum Baba*’ she said simply and followed him to the car parked at the end of the serpentine driveway. She looked back one last time at the stone steps, at the red painted flower pots where yellow and orange geraniums bobbed their heads in the wind; at the entrance to the visitor’s parlour; at the volley ball court; at the monkey bar; at the Teachers Cottage and finally at the dormitories – those safe havens that during the day, held the entire school in their immediate vista and at dusk, the twinkling lights of the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad on their horizon. She was suddenly, without warning caught in a flood of emotions. She blinked and responded as she always did when she was overwhelmed by the vulnerability of pain, grief or even joy: she frowned and looked straight ahead, blocking out the memories and the feeling, steeling her heart, making it impenetrable.

Once in the car, she took out a square piece of white linen from her backpack and put on her hijab. Qasim Khan sat in front with the driver. Father and daughter began their journey towards Peshawar in silence; neither was wistful nor remembering nor talking about this epic last journey away from the school and the sanctum that had been a home away from home for Mishal for more than half her life.

* Dupatta: a shawl traditionally worn by women of the Indian subcontinent.

* Baba: a term of respect used for an older man; also used for one’s father.


Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/30/paisley-dupatta-part-two/
Featured

FEATURE| THE NOSTALGIA OF A NICE CUP OF TEA

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

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

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

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

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

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