Reading from my book of short stories, “THE GIRL WITH THE PAISLEY DUPATTA”. The book is available at Sarasavi, Barefoot, Jam fruit Tree, Expographics and Pendi in Sri Lanka and at Readings, Liberty Books and Paramount Books in Pakistan.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Many of the stories in this book are from outside the bell curve of our lives, embracing sensitive social elements that are spoken of either in subdued whispers or not at all: from the brutal vigilante justice dispensed in the name of religion in “The Gods of Fury”; to the harrowing custom of honour revenge in the “Sins of our Fathers”; to the patriarchal ruthlessness that so many young women are subjected to in the title story “The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta”.
Some of the other stories are of women and men negotiating life, love, friendship, careers and tradition in the sometimes tumultuous and many times limiting folds of their families and their communities: from the enterprising love affair of 61 year old Nighat in “Love in Rawalpindi”; to the shenanigans of a dancing queen in “Riotous Love”; to the complicated friendship between two middle aged unmarried society girls in “Days of Purgatory”.
The last three stories are a tribute to that most ingenious art form, political satire.
These tales will make you laugh, cry and ruminate in equal measure while niggling at the peripheries of conventional value systems.
In late August Nighat met someone at a niece’s wedding; a retired colonel who, after ten years living abroad, had returned to spend his twilight years in the relative comfort of his family home in Pindi. At seventy, Dilawar Khan had already been a widower for the last twenty years, and his two grownup children were now settled in the US.
He had most serendipitously met this fascinating child-woman and was at once taken with her. Guided by the self assuredness of his ten socially liberated years in Boston, he let Nighat know during the course of that very evening, that he was quite definitely enamoured with her and would love to further pursue the sentiment. Nighat bewildered by such directness while also excited at the prospect of a new admirer, was a mass of blushing, toothy smiles and fidgety movements.
Her mother, blissfully unaware of her daughter’s encounter, was sitting among the other matriarchs who were critically analysing the scene in front of them, one minute detail at a time. Her younger brother however, had seen the exchange with some foreboding. He and his older brother had never been fond of imagining their mature sister “in love”. It was embarrassing and mildly shameful. They had therefore, in complete earnestness to not only preserve their male protector sensibilities but also the honour of their forefathers, always made sure that any dubious male advances made towards their sister were nipped squarely in the bud. That night he whispered of the episode into his mother’s erstwhile ears.
Nighat was given a dressing down fit for a rebellious teenager. In her mother’s eyes, the extra forty six odd years of age and experience that had piled onto her daughter since her sixteenth birthday, were meaningless in the harshness of the world. She needed to be reminded every so often that all this love shuv* was unbecoming of her; that she was too innocent to protect herself against the wily shenanigans of lusty army men – (they were a particular weakness with her simple minded daughter); and that her place was at her mother’s side – safe, companionless and respectable.
Nighat would have probably forgotten the entire unsavoury episode (for the ending full of maternal fire and brimstone, had killed off any ardent vibes she’d felt during the short encounter), had it not been for a text message that she got a month later. It was from Dilawar Khan.
Her heart had beaten just a tad too wildly as she sat in her Vice Prinicpal office. She had cancelled the meeting she was scheduled to have with a member of the Punjab Text book board and had spent the afternoon mulling over things. How had he got her number she wondered with a little thrill in her heart. He must truly have feelings for her if he had taken the trouble to track her down she thought. Was it right even to respond to him, a seventy year old man she thought with the caution of the underaged, the reticence of the discerning minor who’s aware of being propositioned by a not altogether respectable adult. Somewhere in her mind, there was also a grown up voice that was countering all these adolescent qualms: You’re a sixty one year old woman; you can take care of yourself. He must really be interested in you to have managed to get your number. Write back to him.
And so she did, igniting the sparks of a relationship that had all the classic, wholesome elements, but which in the loving hands of family, could also annihilate her and any remaining love shuv in her heart. It was delicate, eggshell ground that she would be treading on.
After a fortnight of texting back and forth and one clumsy attempt at a video call, made as it was in the dead of night out on her terrace to the accompaniment of the neighbourhood mongrels baying at the full moon (or another wretched dog day), they had decided to meet. Nighat had wisely surmised that it would be best if the meeting was clandestine and attempted in the early hours of the morning. Her morning walk was the perfect camouflage for this rendezvous and for the many others that would follow she hoped. And so they met on an Autumn morning at the F9 park in Islamabad, far enough away from Pindi based nosy neighbours and watchful family members. It was 5.30 in the morning and the sun was just winking over the horizon. There was a gleeful nip in the air, as it sent shivers down Nighat’s spine and played hide and seek with her chiffon dupatta. Dilawar Khan had come dressed in his track pants and a light sweater. He had on a cream pakol* that hugged his head snugly, and was thus by and large impervious to the frolicsome cupidity of the morning breeze. They met at the third bench from the entrance: close enough to catch sight of one another entering the park and far enough away from the groggily prying eyes of gate security and the handful of other dawn perambulators.
They walked in silence for about ten minutes, seeming to the casual passerby, a mature, long time couple out on their regular morning walk, lost in their own worlds. But Nighat was lost for words, mainly because it had been a while since she had last had a paramour to exchange sweet nothings with at the rosy break of day, and also because her dupatta kept flying up, covering her face and gagging her everytime she opened her mouth to say something. Dilawar Khan was gallantly waiting for the object of his affection to utter the first sentence of their maiden date.
“Why don’t you tie this down by your side?’ said a now smiling Dilawar as he watched Nighat’s ineffective endeavours to bring her dupatta to heel.
‘Yes! Yes…. That’s a good idea!’, responded his ever so slightly flushed and agitated female companion.
With the dupatta issue resolved, they began to finally talk. Easy, effortless conversation flowed during their hour long walk. By 6.30, sunlight had flooded every nook and cranny of the park, warming all its creature denizens and visitors. On their way back, Dilawar Khan stopped Nighat at the fifth bench from the entrance, far enough away from all eyes, took her hand and gently kissed it.
They met up for a month of morning walks after that. Nighat lost five kilograms over the next six weeks, not so much from her diligent seven day a week physical exertion as from the appetite suppressing effects of new love. Her mother was happy to see her looking after herself. The usually carelessly ministered to greys in her daughters thick hair that she so often chided her for, now reposed in a constant cloak of blue-blackness. Her daughter was looking younger in fact; she was glowing. Her mother also glowed in her daughter’s singular contentment and healthfulness.
Dilawar Khan was a shrewd and practical man who had learnt through his own trials and tribulations that it was sometimes best to let sleeping dogs lie. And he advised Nighat as much when she spoke of disturbing her mother’s bliss of ignorance about them. He had gleaned enough about her through their conversations to know that informing the matriarch would not only needlessly antagonise and upset her but would most definitely also put a resounding end to their happily budding love affair. It was best to keep it between themselves while making every effort in their individual life spaces, to find opportunities for spending more time together.
Nighat mulled over this deception. She had always told her mother everything that affected her life in consequnetial and in trivial ways. And her mother had always advised her … no, expected her to obey her ironclad ethos of widowhood that she had chosen for herself and the virtuous spinsterhood that she’d elected for her daughter. She felt a small twinge of resentment as episodes big and small flitted through her mind where her mother had left her bereft emotionally and mentally. For the first time in her life, Nighat decided she would make a decision for herself, by herself . Even so, many times over the course of the next few months, Nighat was assailed by occasional waves of contrition followed by the urgent urge to divulge. Both fragilities came upon her together leaving her anxious and stressed out. But her wonderful new reality always managed to appease her guilt. With time, and the urbane influence of her partner, she came to accept her sovereignty over her own thoughts and actions; and also over her love life.
It has now been ten years since Nighat and Dilawar first met, and five years since they made their relationship public and licensed – (they graciously waited until after the matriarch went to meet her maker).
So if you ever find yourself undertaking a dawn time ramble at the F9 park – the views of the Margala hills are always spectacular – and you see two seniors, a giggly woman and a smiling man, you may have just chanced upon one of the most triumphant love affairs of the city.
* Love Shuv: Urdu/ Hindi colloquialism to show a disparagement for the sentiment of love.
* Pakol: A soft round-topped men's hat, typically of wool and found in any of a variety of earthy colors: brown, black, grey, ivory or dyed red using walnut. It is also known as the Chitrali cap after Chitral, where it is believed to have originated.
Nighat pumped the accelerator and the clutch in frustration. The traffic on Murree road at this time was absolutely crazy. The end-of-school rush was upon everyone and it was mostly the hapless parents or their designated drivers who were on the road at this time. The only other people who dared to brave the snaking snags of congestion were responding to some emergency which only the Murree road route could resolve or, like herself, had been struck by temporary insanity. Her mother had even told her not to venture out at 1.30 in the afternoon, but she was on the adrenaline high of new clothes.
Nighat lived in Rawalpindi but much preferred availing herself of a handful of essential services from its twin city, included among which was her Darzi*. And so, when her tailor had called to say that her latest batch of shalwar kameezes* was ready, she just had to get to him, despite the snarly perils of the mid afternoon journey on Murree road. Her enthusiasm was now as wilted and droopy as was her hair in the August humidity. She touched the inky black mop on her head, patting it gingerly. She really needed to fix the airconditioner in her car – the fault-finding thought clipped up to her smugly as so many others had over the last thirty minutes – like censorial mother superiors.
An hour and a half later, she was at the Abpara market in sector G-6 in Islamabad, ensconced in the cool interior of Alamdar Tailor shop – Specialist in Alteration of Ladies and Gents. The proprietor, a portly man in his 60s was observant, agile and practical like most of his fellow dressmakers tended to be. When you’re a women’s outfitter in an Islamic Republic, you either need to be overtly homosexual or a man who is very obviously living a fairy tale perfect family life – in either case and for all to see, not having any need for minor titillations obtained at the expense of his female customer base. Master Alamdar was a happy hybrid of the two avatars. He wore pristinely stitched, bright coloured kurtas accentuated with antimony filled eyes, and his person surrounded by the heady bouquet of Ajmal Black Rose (unisex) attar. He also had a picture of his children (when they were all four of them, under eight years old), sitting on a shelf right behind him and in plain sight of all his customers. That same picture had been prominently displayed for at least the last twenty years, for the visual reassurance of all who sought his services. And so, both Master sahib and his motely brigade of begums happily played along with the ageless, faithful family harmony that emanated from his place of business.
Nighat however always liked to go just a little further in all her interactions with the opposite gender. At sixty one years old she was still a teenager at heart, abetted in equal measure by her own excitable nature as by the ironhandedness of her mother, the inimitable matriarch of their home. She now smiled coyly at Master Alamdar who smiled genially back while they both sipped on ice cold fantas. Nighat’s clothes were ready but after her hair raising, brake and accelerator fury of the last two hours on the road, she was inclined to sit back a little and enjoy a cold drink in the attar-redolent company of her tailor.
Master Alamdar was also an expert at deciphering which of his clients he could be extra chatty with and Nighat baji* was one of them. The two would wax eloquent on everything from the state of the weather to the weight lost or gained by Nighat. He had a talent for gauging and dressing the yo-yoing proportions of many of his lady customers. Tailors in Islamic republics are trained to observe from afar and can get a lady’s measurements pitch perfect from a handful of wary, discreet glances at her dupatta clad body.
Nighat was a burly woman, built more for the wrestling ring than for the more delicate shenhanigns of the catwalk. But her heart was bound in ribbons of old world romance that fluttered around her ample stature at all times. She was fond of imagining herself as a damsel in distress or a damsel in copious demand or a damsel on the fashion ramp; always a damsel of dainty things. This delicate demeanour exuding from her big frame was oddly endearing and so she had had a couple of brushes with real life romance too. Both times, the men had been retired army captains with twirly moustaches and receding hairlines that were assiduously cloaked in the inkiness of Bigen BB1, Blue-black hair dye. Both times too, she had been in her 40s and had considered herself “too young and impressionable” to have furthered the love interests: Those two opportunities to settle down had come and gone, and she had wisely put down her failure to romantically launch into either, as a late blooming on her part. Now in her 60s she felt readier than ever to become someone’s doting better half and a stay-at-home wife.
Nighat came from a family of modest businessmen and redoubtable matriarchs. Once in a while however, the one-off daughter with delicate sensibilities who was in constant need of protection, was born into the family. And so it was, that after four generations of formidable women, Nighat had come along as that dubious exception; the providential balancer of the Amazonian equation of their household
For all her social guilelessness, Nighat was a good teacher and had risen slowly but steadily in the academic ranks of her school system. She had started out as a Social Studies teacher twenty years ago. At sixty one, she had officially retired a year ago and was currently on an extendable three year contract as the vice principal of one of the flagship branches of the school in Rawalpindi. In her current senior capacity, she also conducted Teacher Training sessions for new entrants into the teaching system of the franchise. This meant frequent travel in and around the smaller cities and towns in Punjab and KPK*. She relished these week long trips away from home, even though she was accompanied most times by her eternal chaperon, her mother. She didn’t mind having her along: Her days were busy at work and the evenings were devoted to relishing rich pulaos* and mutton karahis* from the bazaar and watching movies from the limited repertoire of the guest house television cable service. She always found some park or walking area in town where she went for her early morning constitutional: a 45 minute ramble. Her mother was usually fast asleep at that time and she enjoyed the solitude and serenity of her sunrise circuit around the track in the city she was visiting.
* Shalwar Kameez: The traditional dress of women and men in the Punjab region of northwestern India and in Pakistan. The outfit comprises a pair of trousers (shalwar) and a tunic (kameez) that is usually paired with a scarf (dupatta).
* Darzi: Urdu for Tailor/ dress maker
* Attar: A fragrant essential oil, typically made from rose petals.
* Baji: In Urdu, term of respect used for older sister or an older woman.
* KPK: Abbreviation for Khyber Pukhtun Khwa - the northwestern province of Pakistan.
* Pulao: pilaf or pulao is a dish originating from the East, consisting of rice flavoured with spices and cooked in stock, to which meat, poultry, or fish may be added.
* Karahi:A Karahi is a tomato, ginger and garlic heavy curry cooked with various types of meat.