SHORT STORY | THE DANCE OF THE PEACOCK – Part Two

(I)

The peacock was now an intermittent visitor to the garden at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui, just as Sumaira’s heartiness had become more and more an occasional companion. She couldn’t help drawing a comparison between the bird seeking out her garden and her wellbeing seeking out the door. She was not a woman who wavered in the face of unexplained apprehensions but lately she had begun to feel the chills of superstition in her heart. This house… its walls… everything reeked of secrets and forebodings lately. When she felt especially dispirited, she would get into the car and drive around the city, seeking out quiet green glades where she would stop and breathe in. Her own beautiful garden awaited in magnificent repose and yet she sought serenity elsewhere. The irony didn’t escape her and yet, the ghosts of something …someone now pursued her there, making her anxious and guarded.

Sumaira however dug her heels in. She was the queen of her new home now and the occasional rush of doomful thoughts was not going to deter her from living the life of her dreams. She had in fact, managed to organise a grand reception at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui and had invited all her friends and relatives from Lahore. The haveli had, unsparingly and graciously housed twenty five of her guests. The rest were put up at the Sultan Grand Hotel. For three days the guests enjoyed the largesse of the house and its hostess. Zahid made it back on the last day; he had been away in Lahore to attend to Kulsoom who had refused any sustenance for the last three days. She had looked at her husband of fifteen years almost questioningly when he had come into her room – was there a celebration at their home she had asked gazing at him with clear, bright eyes. He had mumbled something unintelligible and then cajoled her to eat something. She had acquiesced quietly. He was used to Kulsoom’s strange connection with the universe; with her uncanny instinct to pick up on people and their vibes in ways that appeared confounding and bizarre. He had stayed on that night and the next day in Lahore to ensure Kulsoom had abandoned any ideas of fasting indefinitely, and had returned to Shiekupura the day after.

(II)

Sumaira was sitting in the veranda while a cool crisp breeze blew around her. It was the tail end of February and the morning still came upon the world with a fortifying vigour. She closed her eyes and let the wind sweep her up on its bracing wings. She suddenly felt an odd discomfiture and opened her eyes. There in the garden, right in front of her was the peacock. She hadn’t seen it in a couple of months and now it stood there almost like it was watching her. She shivered slightly feeling again, the hairs stand on the back of her neck. The peacock suddenly fanned out its tail, turned around and began to walk with graceful, rhythmic steps. It was dancing. Even as it unfurled its lustiness onto the world, Sumaira felt something squeezed inside her as a sense of foreboding joined hands with the tightness in her chest. She swallowed hard and looked away from the scene of exaggerated, excessive beauty and perfection. It was like nature was enjoying a farcical interlude in her garden.

“Guria, chai”(1), came the papery voice from the doorway. The old retainer had watched Sumaia looking at the mesmeric scene in front of her with a long thoughtful look of her own. She had muttered a little prayer and had then made her presence known.

“It has been many years since I last saw a peacock coming to the garden so frequently”, she said as she rolled out the trolley with its solitary cup of tea.

“It was when Zohaib baba left us. He was only 8 years old you know. The amalthas* was blooming just like this and the peacock had danced then too. Tauba Tauba! Allah khair karay”(2)

Sumaira stared at the old woman uncomprehendingly at first and then with a sudden burst of rage that was visceral and raw. Her hammering heart had found the vent it so urgently needed to not come right out of her chest and spill onto the floor. She launched at the old woman – for voicing the kind of calamitous, hideous thoughts that were already lancing at her insides, for always seeming to know more than she would ever know.

“Don’t talk rubbish!”

“Keep your sordid superstitions to yourself”

She felt her breath coming in ragged gasps as she turned around, away from the shadowy face of the old retainer.

“Now leave me alone!”

An hour later, Sumaira still sat outside. Why had she felt like the old woman had jabbed her finger right into her ventricle? Like they had both seen her world ending and the ancient one had been the one to announce it. She had tried to calm herself, to grasp at logic and reality; both qualities had become like feeble wraiths in the face of all the foreboding phantasms conjured up by the two creatures, the feathered and the weathered. The gusting February wind seemed to have further given the phantoms temerity and substance, and had carried them to every corner of the garden.

Sumaira breathed in deeply. With each measured breath, she felt her perspective gradually shift from the occult to the real, from the spirit world to the spring-laden one around her. Where the peacock was just a bird that found solace in her garden much as she did, and where nature’s extravagances were pleasurable blessings rather than premonitions of doom.

Sumaira looked behind her at the darkened doorway. She was now washed over with a sense of remorse that was almost comforting in its safe, unthreatening feel. She sat for a while longer, bolstering her confidence in the rational, sensible, phantom-free universe around her. She then got up to look for Khala*, intending to repair the damage done by momentarily frayed nerves.

The old woman had seen her fair share of ups and downs and had over the decades, negotiated through the myriad tempers of the ladies of the house (the begums and their offsprings included). She chuckled and grinned toothlessly at Sumaira when she was proffered an apology, “Koi baat nahin guria. Kabhi khushi, kabhi gham”(3)

Sumaira came away not entirely sure of the old woman’s state of mind but glad that the state of their hearts was again restored.

(III)

The next few months passed in quiet harmony as Zahid remained mostly in Sheikhupura with only a fortnightly visit to Lahore.

It was going to be their anniversary soon Sumaira thought – May 16th. She marveled at the briskness with which a year had passed; a whole year since she had become Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui and the … the Lady of Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui. She still couldn’t see herself as the Matriarch because there were older things and beings in the haveli* that somehow impaired her absolute dominion of the great house: She still felt hesitant when she walked into certain rooms in the house, and was assailed more than a few times by a strange uncertainty in the almost vapory presence of the feeble old retainer. The latter seemed to be almost on standby, to be waiting for something … someone.

Sumaira had begun to counter the assaults of the uninvited, unfriendly thoughts inside her head with strident changes of scene that she wrought on the outside. She had redone the master bedroom very soon after she had come to the house. That was followed by the lounge and the dining room and recently, the room which had always made her shudder with foreboding: the space that had been Kulsoom’s sanctuary where she was said to escape for hours at a time to get far from the madding crowd. That crowd, Sumaira mused, would have included not only people but the freakish cacophony of Kulsoom’s own thoughts too. Sumaira had seen the look on Peeno Khala’s face as she had the ancient teak furniture removed piece by piece. The deep lines on the old retainer’s brow and around her mouth were shadowed with omens and premononitions of a gloom that were almost palpable. Sumaira ignored them, as she did the unsettled feeling in the pit of her own stomach.

On the eve of their anniversary, Zahid was called away to Lahore again. Kulsoom had been hospitalised after a series of seizures. They were in the process of doing some tests but they thought that she had suffered a stroke.

When Sumaira got the news, she felt like a veil had been lifted from her eyes, her heart. It had been a camouflage of her own making which she had doggedly pulled around her face, refusing to see what the universe was telling her. The peacock, the constant unsettled feeling, the premonitions of doom – they had all meant something! Kulsoom was … she was going to die. That was what the haveli had been telling her as it held her in its almost sentient embrace this past year. It was telling her to wait, to be patient; it was telling her that she would finally get what she had worked for, what she truly deserved.

She suddenly felt a strange elation and a magnanimity of spirit that made her breathless. She would go to Lahore. She would stand by her husband’s side even as he stood by the side of his dying ex-wife. She would show him and the world that she had a heart so big that she had graciously, lovingly fitted everyone into it including “the other woman”. The woman who had made constant demands on her husband’s heart and mind. The woman who until now, had always wrung from her a strange mixture of animosity and misgiving.

Yes, she would go to Lahore. She would go to the hospital and look down at the depleting woman, and she would forgive Kulsoom for all her transgressions into her marriage and into her life. She got into the car and started on her journey.

(IV)

“It was so untimely. So strange….”

“May Allah bless her with Jannat al Firdaus*”

“May her soul rest in peace”

“Allah knows best….”

Zahid Siddiqui sat in the great drawing room at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui surrounded by friends and family pouring forth their condolences. It was now a month after the burial and the house was flooded with well wishers.

“I have arranged for fresh flowers for the grave. Come, have something to eat”, said Kulsoom as she led Zahid and the guests into the dining room that shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight.

(1) “Little one, tea is served”. In Urdu “Guria” literally means a doll and is sometimes used as a term of endearment for a young girl.  

* Amaltas: The Indian Laburnum tree

(2) “May God keep us from harm”

* Khala: “Aunt”/ mother’s sister in Urdu.

(3) “Don’t worry little one. Life is sometimes joyous and sometimes sorrowful”

* Haveli: “Mansion” in Urdu

* Jannat-al-Firdaus: the highest place in Heaven

SHORT STORY | THE DANCE OF THE PEACOCK – Part One

Sumaira came out into the veranda to the shrill scream of a peacock. The bird sat resplendent and angry in the garden looking at the house as if at a particularly baneful beast. She was gripped in a flux of emotions as she caught her breath at the iridescence of its plumage in the morning sun, while also feeling a rush of anxiety that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. She stood for a while looking at the bird which quieted down almost instantly upon seeing her. After a few minutes, it flew up into the branches of the Indian laburnum tree; it’s blue green hues cavorting with the yellow of the flowers that seemed to bedeck its entire body. It was one of those rare, serendipitous displays of nature that arouse awe and melancholia. The early morning, newly-wed euphoria slowly drained from her body as Sumaira looked at the bird and the tree a last time before turning back into the house.

She blinked brightly trying to catch at the disappearing threads of quiet joy she had woken up with. But something had tramped along that path in the last fifteen minutes and she now felt strangely deflated and watchful. How had a peacock, that beautiful creature created so much disquiet in her heart she wondered irritably. For that was the only vision that had intercepted the flow of good cheer that had of late become her regular day time companion; that made her smile a lot and even skip like a giddy school girl when she was alone. Everything was so perfect! Yes, everything WAS so perfect repeated a quiet voice in her head, relegating in an instant, all that defined her wonderful life right now, into the past.

“Khala! Chai le aain(1)”, she said louder than she had intended to. Loud enough to drown out the ominous thoughts whirling around in her head; loud enough also for the great old retainer to have heard her the first time round.

She came into the lounge shuffling behind a tea trolley which carried a single cup of tea. All tasks that were beyond the enterprise of wheels that also doubled as support for her frail frame, had long ago become obsolete calls to duty for Peeno khala. Still, she persevered in her service to the haveli* and its occupants with the same tenacity of spirit as when she had first come to the great house as a seventeen year old widow. That was almost seventy years ago. She was now as much a part of the house as it was a part of her. Sumaira often wondered if in fact the bricks and mortar of the haveli were somehow entwined with the sinew and soul of its ancient caretaker.

Sumaira had married the love of her life. It had been a tortuous path – one wrought with moral dilemmas and all-consuming desires. He had been married; he loved his wife – his ex-wife now – but he loved Sumaira too. He had wanted to make her his second wife. It had taken five long years of persuasion and infinite wiles and guiles to make him see sense. He could only have one – she had passed the ultimatum with strategic precision of opportunity and dexterity. That was almost six months ago. Since then, she had been ensconced as Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui in Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui*, the ancestral family haveli in the heart of Sheikhupura. Her nemesis, Zahid’s ex-wife Kulsoom, had since been settled into an apartment in Lahore.

Despite the euphoria of knights in charcoal grey shalwar kameez sweeping her off her feet, and other such romantic dreams come true, Sumaira sometimes felt a pang of conscience, a momentary qualm. She had broken a home to build her own; the detritus washing back to her in waves as she regularly heard driblets of disturbing news about Kulsoom. The tight knit community of the city she now called home, ensured that she was made aware, one way or another. Kulsoom was not doing well and Zahid was often called to Lahore to attend to her ailments, which were seeming more and more psychological than physical. Sumaira tried to be magnanimous, to not feel overpowering resentment at this monopoly of her husband by his ex-wife. She was still basking in the newness of her beautiful home and the privileges of being Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui, and so she was able to display appropriate concern and compassion everytime Zahid bade her farewell for a Kulsoom-related trip to Lahore.

Kulsoom had always been sensitive, a “seer” some claimed. She was an ethereal child, mostly in a world of her own, stepping out only occasionally for festivals and funerals. She and Zahid had had one son who had died when he was eight years old. Kulsoom had never quite recovered from that incident and had withdrawn into a shell of her own making where only Zahid and a handful of other people were allowed access.

For Sumaira, the spookiness that surrounded Kulsoom had over time somehow made her less human, less prone to feeling any great tragedy or joy. And so, she had persevered in her enterprise of taking the Zahid Siddiqui marital crown for herself. Kulsoom with her faraway looks and her spaced out existence would get over it, she always told herself. But sometimes – once in a while, another voice from the deepest recesses of her being would rise up stridently to provoke and condemn.

Today was one of those days.

(1): “Aunty, bring the tea

* Haveli: Mansion, in Urdu

* Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui: The Siddiqui Abode, in Urdu

Story inspiration from Hector Munro’s short story titled “The Cobweb”

VERSE | A LOVE STORY

LISTEN TO THE POEM BEING READ AT: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSewAcj86/
When he smiles
His mouth curves up a little
Just a bit. The teeth don’t show.
But sometimes a rare glimpse of ivory snow
Peeks through. Like weathered pages
From a book that has seen the ages;
That has been loved, and also has
Been tossed around in the hands
Of those that loved it less -
Now hiding its parchment yellowness.

When she smiles
Her cheeks skip up, joining hands
With the crow’s feet at the corners
Of her eyes. Hands and feet
Join together in a wreathe
Its flowers have been abloom a while
Many now wear waning smiles
Just a few are waxing still
Of bountiful life taking their fill.

When they look at each other
He and she
And they smile for all the world to see
The mouths, the noses and the cheeks
The enamel pearls, the crow’s feet
All fade away as eyes light up;
Two sets of windows brighten up
Spangled pathways to twin souls.
The radiant smiles reach deep inside
To gently touch two pages bright
Of a love story yet untold.

SHORT STORY | THE SERIAL LOVER – Part Three

(I)

Sheila had gone back to Dhaka after a month in Colombo. Despite not being a happy work traveller, she was grateful for her recent trips which had been taking her to the sun-kissed shores of Sri Lanka and into the warm embrace of the man she was falling in love with. Sheila was a realist and had taken her time with letting Cupid carry out his soppy shenanigans with her heart. But she had finally given in and was now quite surely slipping and sliding into the full throes of love.

It was a week after her return that she saw it – the picture of Sam with a girl. It was on his FB profile. She felt her heart sink and then shrivel. Not in the desperate, wanting to die manner; but in the heartbroken, disappointed but determined not to drown way. She sent him one message asking if he was seeing someone else. He replied in the affirmative. The exchange was polite and estranged, like they had never actually met. She then blocked his number, wrapped up her bruised heart, threw herself into her work and prayed that her usual gumption would in time, minister and heal.

After Sheila left, Sam changed gears and put Angeline at the front and centre of his focus. The newness and the excitement of the engagement was now a month old distant memory but he still needed to act the part. He was looking to the future – a future that would be brightened and bolstered by a British passport. And for that, he would be the devoted, adoring fiancé. The couple coordinated on updating their profile pictures on social media, and the online universe too was informed of yet another fairytale prefect union in an otherwise imperfect world.

Two months later, Sam flew into a new sunrise, replete with new opportunities, his wedding and also a whole new demographic of women. That last bit he had not really planned for, but old habits die hard and man is nothing if not fallible. That combined with the universe’s love of satire, Sam soon found himself between his spanking new marriage and …the arms of another woman, and then another and another. He’d met the first one at his wedding in fact. She was a pretty little thing with eyes like cornflower blue sapphires – a confection of island vibes with a continental flavour. He hadn’t meant to play around but it had happened, again and again after that. It was like he hadn’t quite come to terms with the exclusivity that marriage enjoins on a couple. Angeline was heartbroken; but the scales tilted quite completely towards the pure wrath she felt. She had given this man her heart and her soul – diva style, in all its glorious trappings, and he had squandered it by chasing other women … cheap, wanton women. She hated the women as much as she resented the fact that despite everything, she wasn’t enough for Sam.

After his second error in judgement, Sam was packed off back to the island that had, at various times in his life, held him both broken and whole in her arms. This time he stepped onto her soil feeling somewhat vanquished and victimised. It was true that he’d cheated on his wife but to be thrown out of the country was taking things too far. He was now without a job, without prospects and living with his parents.

After a month of wallowing in self pity, Sam roused himself and sauntered back into the familiar folds of friends and family. His post- Kent story was as varied as his audiences tended to be. The family heard of it as a marital spat which may resolve itself in time; his friends heard of the psychotic harridan that he had married and the newcomers into his life knew only that he was footloose and fancy free.

(II)

A year passed and then two. Somewhere down the road, there was a troublesome patch-up between Angeline and Sam that then oscillated between periods of superlative love and violent hate. When the former elation hit, he would whisk himself off to the UK for a few months of honeymoon-happy times; and when the mood pendulum swung southwards, it would bring everything that was good, whole and happy about their union crashing down around them, culminating also for Sam, in a one way ticket back to Tear Drop* isle.

Sam had, at various times, during his UK banishment periods, bumped into Sheila. Her work now brought her regularly to the island for months at a time. And every time he’d seen her, he had felt the familiar old stirring in his heart and in his groin. The urge to possess would come striding in making him feel agitated and he had to admit it, even somewhat desperate. And so he had gone up to her, again and again, expecting her to thaw in the sizzle of his masculinity. He expected her to melt when he spoke of the vicious rumours concerning a marriage he’d never contracted. But she had always looked at him as if she’d laid eyes on a steaming pile of refuse. His cruel mouth that most times so convincingly dressed itself in a heart-melting smile, curled into a grimace to reflect the person within whenever he felt agitated or ungratified. She was now able to see him for what he was.

He however, was taken aback; this was not the customary reception he got even from the ones whose hearts he had mauled in the wake of his lusty rampages. At the start of his attempts at rekindling an association, she had refused to acknowledge him at all. Three years down the road, she had begun to respond with a terse hello. The tempered approach was more to do with the fact that Colombo was a small place making even the most unpleasant of encounters a statistical probability, and also because she had realized that nursing grudges even of the most noble variety, tended to eat at the person that is wronged more than they ever affect the perpetrators themselves.

Four years into his bruised and battered marriage, Sam chanced upon Sheila once more as he had done on so many different occasions. This time however, she actually had a conversation with him. A real conversation after years of strained reticence. He told her then that he had in fact been married but had for the past two years, been divorced. That his ex wife was psychotic and the union had not been able to survive the emotional battering ram that she had wielded on it so regularly and so enthusiastically. Sheila had listened; she hadn’t said anything. She tended to be reserved when it came to ugly gossip and to the torrid tales told by people who themselves had also shown up to be less than perfect specimens of the humankind that they were so distressed by. Then began a cautious friendship. Sheila and Sam went for drinks together and then dinner. But she still kept him at arms length. She was now aware enough to realize that he made for a good fair weather friend, someone to spend a social evening out with; but that anything beyond that was doomed to failure. And so, as the months passed and Sam felt himself being pulled deeper into the throes of what to him felt like the most genuine relationship he had ever had, Sheila on her part, steadfastly maintained the essential formality of friendship.

(III)

“Hi, Sheila right?” came a strident voice from in front of her. Sheila looked up in surprise, her knotty Kakuro* enterprise forgotten in the wake of the enraged woman standing at her table, staring down at her.

“Hello, yes…” Sheila was wondering who this was. Even as she filtered through her memory for an inkling of familiarity, the woman had launched her attack.

“Thank you for teaching me!” she said raising her voice quite a few decibels above the ambient hum of the coffee shop while looking at Sheila with the purest animosity.

It took Sheila a few moments to gather her wits, scattered as they were by this onslaught out of the blue.

“What… who are you?”

“You know my husband quite well – Sam Sivathamby?”

“Sam? Sam is married?”

“Yes! And I’m his wife!”

“Calm down! I had no clue he was still married. He told me he was divorced.”

Even while she said this, Sheila realized she was responding on the back foot to the woman fuming in front of her. She wanted to say instead that she had no romantic designs on Sam Sivathamby. That those had faded into the mists like ghosts of a Christmas that had come and gone at least four years ago. That while he now may be holding a flame for her, the one she had carried for him had been doused by lies and deceit a long time ago. But the woman in front of her was livid and Sheila’s intuition told her that she was beyond any logic and honesty that could dampen her immediate sense of righteous indignation.

“Calm down. I had no clue of your existence”, Sheila said again.

The woman glared at Sheila, her eyes blazing, reaching it seemed into her arsenal of resentment and hate that she had so meticulously and passionately amassed in the wake of her cheating husband. Instead, she turned away for a moment and when she looked back at Sheila, something different, something visceral seemed to have fallen into place.

Angeline stood looking at Sheila. Her outrage suddenly seemed ridiculous, pantomimed. The “other women” whom she had conditioned herself to hate with such intensity, who in all likelihood were themselves lured, trapped and played, were not the problem. They never had been. It was just easy to blame them. It had allowed her to keep the bubble that was Angeline and Sam, intact. In all its toxicity and ugliness, she had kept it together by not only whitewashing the man that was her husband but also by painting the other women in all the hideous hues that hell threw up in the wake of one scorned.

Now, the charade was over. The bubble had burst.

She took in a deep breath, feeling the bitterness and the anger leave her body. She felt oddly light as she finally reached for the feeling that had been hiding in the pit of her stomach all these years. The scene so charged with righteous fury a moment ago, transformed into one of clarity, honesty and acceptance.

“I … I’m sorry. Can we talk? I’m Angeline”.

* Tear Drop Island: One of the many whimsical names given to Sri Lanka because it is shaped like a tear drop.

* Kakuro: A Japanese logic puzzle that is often referred to as a mathematical transliteration of the crossword.

SHORT STORY | THE SERIAL LOVER – Part Two

(I)

Angeline had arrived a week ago. It had been a whirlwind of lunches, high teas and inebriated evenings. Both Sam and Angeline were glowing in the newness of their couplehood, their romance springing wings in the festive Colombo air. That was also when he had got a message from Sheila. She was back in town. He had read the text with a mixture of pleasure and anxiety. Colombo was a small place and with the way he and Angeline were going about town, they could very likely bump into her. He couldn’t have that. He still felt the mad urge to get under her skin, to possess her. He did not respond to the message then. Once the hook was in place, he liked to take his time. Sheila will wait to hear from him. But not for too long. He had this impression that she wasn’t the kind to get desperate in love. The kind of desperation that he had made full use of in most of his other link-ups. Many of the women he had pursued had hung on frenziedly even when the excitement of the chase was over for him. It was why he kept them all at arms length; never inviting them home or on getaways to his secret hideaways around the island. Shiela was different. She was in control. So far.

Two days later, Sam responded to Sheila’s message and they met up on a Thursday evening. Angeline was busy with a family dinner that he had opted out of. It was the perfect opportunity to continue his other lustful undertaking. He walked into the alfresco bar and saw her sitting, serene and solitary at the far end of the table. His heart skipped a beat and his resolve to conquer intensified. They had a glass of wine and then he took her out for a drive. They went back to the hotel where she was staying, and they kissed. But she was not ready to go down the Sam-sired rabbit hole. He realised that he had to take it slow with her; he didn’t want to spook her. The urge to possess and devour was overwhelming, but he exercised restraint. He would have her, later rather than sooner, but he would.

Sheila’s sister and brother in law were arriving in Colombo in a couple of days. He definitely did not want to go down the road of meeting relatives. This was not meant to be a long term association. He would have to disappear for a bit. He’d come back later and he’d make sure he made her warm up to him again after that bit of essential escape artistry on his part. He had received a few messages from Sheila to which he had sent no response.

The next three weeks passed in a blur as he and Angeline prepared for the engagement amid the general festivity of the season.

(II)

The deed was done. He and Angeline were engaged. However, the euphoria that he had felt at the very thought of the milestone earlier, was now gone. A staleness was spreading over the now official union. He frowned. It was done. He had wanted it and he had got it.

Later that evening the engagement party whisked themselves off to the club for further revelry. Despite his six glasses of single malt, Sam had a vague feeling of anticlimax. He emptied the contents of the seventh glass down his throat and got up to dance. He suddenly caught sight of Sheila. She was dancing – with a man. Another man. Not him, but someone else. He felt the warm fuzziness slowly leave his body as he looked at her her. He wanted to grab her and hold her close. He hated the sight of the other man. He continued to look at her. Suddenly he felt Angeline grab him from behind, and cling to him. The heat of her body irritated him. He turned around and looked at her in barely concealed disgust.

“You’re drunk. Go home before you do something stupid. Go and sleep it off”.

Angeline watched her fiancé’s face, contorted now in spiteful contempt, his mouth twisting in that cruel way that it sometimes did. Even in her alcoholic stupor, she felt a ripple of fear course through her. She blinked. Maybe she was too drunk and imagining scenes from her version of relationship hell.

She had allowed herself to be bundled into a taxi and whisked off home, away from the mad cacophony of the club and hopefully, also from her anxious, tumultuous thoughts.

Sam had then gone back in, and headed straight for Sheila. Beyond her initial surprise at seeing him there, she was ineffusive at his sudden appearance after almost a month of radio silence. He looked at her and placed a protective, possessive arm across the back of her chair. He then got to work, channeling the full force of his guileful charm towards the object of his obsession. The fact that she had appeared happy and unbroken in the wake of his disappearance from her life had hit him like a ton of bricks. His vanishing act had been calculated and temporary but she wasn’t to know that. And yet, she had appeared cheerful and whole and in the thick of things. That evening he acted on the overwhelming and single minded urge to lure her back into his web before anyone else got to her. He had in fact, momentarily and in a screwy twist of irony, felt the same desperation that he usually precipitated in the wake of his myriad frivolous love affairs.

(III)

A week later, Angeline left for Margate. She was the drama teacher at a secondary school there and was in the throes of putting together a new and quirky version of The West Side Story, where villains were not entirely villainous and the good guys were all too fallible. She was a master craftsmen, and had a knack for taking old world literature and breathing new life into it. She planted little bites of present day reality into sixty and seventy year old tales to nip at the sensibilities of her fan base, which now consisted of more than just the parents of her students. She had also recently opened up her own theatre company; the Drama Queens had got their very first season commission to perform at the Hazlitt Theatre in Maidstone in the spring. She was going to be busy while also getting the paperwork completed for her husband-to-be to join her a month later.

That month back in his bachelor avatar, Sam rallied and shone. He had also redoubled his manipulation and bewitchery of Sheila. With time, he had become both fascinated and intimidated by the woman he had come to know. It had been a slow process as his usual love lusts tended to go, but he had finally enchanted and mesmerised her and made her fall in love with him. He wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to marry her. Aloud, on wine filled evenings, he had spoken of wanting to have children with her. The way in which she had looked searchingly into his eyes, into his soul, had rattled him. It was something he’d said to sweet talk her, to coax her into letting her guard down. To get under her skin. Usually, he felt nothing whispering these alcohol induced happy-ever-afters. She was different however; dignified and self assured, and he actually felt guilty off and on when he made one of his dramatic long term affirmations to her. Being a seasoned and indiscrimate assailer of hearts however, Sam paid little heed to thes pin pricks of conscience. He continued his tender assaults until it was time yet again for Sheila to go back to Dhaka and for him to start on his new adventure in England.

SHORT STORY | THE SERIAL LOVER – Part One

(I)

Angeline woke up to the tinny version of Vivaldi’s Spring* as her phone rang. It was Sam. Her sleep-filled face lit up as she reached across to her bedside table to pick it up.

“Hello darling! I’m coming over to make you breakfast!” chirped his upbeat voice from the other end of the line.

Angeline sat up in bed, her face now wreathed in a grin.

“I’m waiting. Come!” she said. The call ended but she still held onto her phone as its customary morning coolness began to thaw in the glow from her skin. She laughed a little laugh of pure joy and exultation. She was absolutely, totally in love. All over again in fact; the adolescent romance rekindling like the spark had never quite gone out.

Sam and Angeline had been childhood sweethearts. They’d lived through the civil war in their country and through all its small and large inconveniences – much of the privileged class had been spared the actual horrors as many had fled to safer geographies before the demons of war and atrocity had landed at their doorsteps. Angeline’s parents had relocated the family to Margate in Kent in the UK; its miles upon miles of sandy beaches a fond reminder of the ones they’d left behind.

Sam’s family had moved to the capital metropolis of Colombo. There they had quickly become a part of the still multi-ethnic, generally harmonious melting pot of communities. Sam had gone to school, made friends and had ultimately landed a job in the corporate sector. And through it all, Sam had basked in a coveted secret: Quite early on, he had realized that he was a charmer and over the years, he had taught himself to skilfully wield that weapon of lust and passion; for a weapon is what his single-minded, amorous pursuits had become, and he used it expertly and unsparingly in all his major and minor interactions with the ladies. It is not far from the truth to say that he had in his wake, left a sizeable brigade of confused, heartbroken and furious women.

But Angeline was nothing if not bouyant and optimistic. With a marriage a piece behind each of them, second time was going to be lucky she thought with hope and elation.

She had come with her parents to the home country as she always did, once a year. This time however, Sam had bestowed her with more than his customary single visit. He had in fact, been coming over to their home in Battarmulla almost every day, seeking out her company and stirring up little sparks of joy in her heart … and her body. She had always thought he was gorgeous but with that distant adoration one usually reserves for a favourite but unattainable movie star. Now everything seemed more visceral, more real including the way her breathing quickened when she saw him.

And so, it had turned out to be one of many beautiful mornings of shared gastronomic labor, tingly closeness and enough oxytocin to sink the whole kitchen. For Angeline and Sam, the rest of the fortnight passed in a blur of meeting up with friends and dancing many a night away cloaked in the fuzzy warmth of wine and ultimately in each other’s arms. By the time Angeline was leaving for Margate, their couplehood was official.

(II)

Angeline left and Sam picked right up from where he’d left off. It was another Saturday night and Sam had decided to go to the club. He sat at the bar brooding seductively. He knew he had the goods to approach whomever he wanted to; he was fully aware that he brought more than his fair share of charisma and beguilement to any table occupied by the ladies. Tonight though, he had come with the boys. They would drink, exchange a few words and absorb the scene full of women and other men who were also out and about to see and be seen. If any of them caught sight of an especially delectable specimen of the opposite sex, they’d sportingly and magnanimously bring the tantalising exhibit to the others’ attention. It was an unspoken camaraderie between many a band of adventuring men out on the town in the wake of a spirited weekend.

He had caught sight of her then. She was also sitting at the bar. He smouldered in her direction but only for a few moments. The room was too thick with people and their ricocheting hormones for his silent seduction to work. So he asked one of the barmen to take a message across. She then had only to look at him for his charm to do the rest of the work. The messenger came back after a bit with an unsatisfactory answer. So, she was a tough one. He could feel his pulse quicken as it always did when he was up against a challenging object of lust. He sent the bartender again, this time with a little more detail about himself. He had deployed this strategy of sharing his persuasive corporate background on a few other instances and had successfully thawed the occasional ice maiden he had encountered. Sure enough! She had finally looked his way. He bid a cheeky adieu to his comrades and walked towards what looked like a promising rest of the evening.

Sam had not been prepared for such an onslaught of his senses. She had been cheerful, confident and also quite unmoved by his allure beyond engaging in a friendly conversation. He had to deploy the full force of not only his ample charm but also his intellect. She challenged him in ways that other women of an evening out, did not. His efforts had been rewarded not in the fashion that he was used to but for his state of mind and heart at the time, it was enough as she agreed to him dropping her and her friend off at their hotel later that night. They were visitors to the island and were leaving for their home in Dhaka in a week. He felt the familiar urgency to wrap up this pursuit, the way he did all of his passionate endeavours.

The next evening, he met up with both women at the bar of their hotel. They all had too much wine while listening to the resident band play tunes from the 80s. Again, the evening had come to a close … not entirely satisfactorily. He had now also begun to get the distinct impression that this was not going to end the way he wanted it to. She was not besotted or taken in by his singular attention to her. He, on the other hand, had begun to “catch feelings” as his nephew said when he came to pick him up after one of his chaperoned dates with Sheila; her friend was always there in what was feeling more and more like a quaint modern day version of a Victorian courtship. His agitation however, had quite quickly transformed to a focused assault of her heart and her mind. He had to get under her skin and into her head before he could advance in any other direction.

Sheila left for her home in Dhaka, but was coming back again for some work in a couple of weeks. He would wait.

(III)

Sam was feeling euphoric and invincible these days. It was his high period. He had just emerged from months of listlessness and lethargy, and the hell that was other people; he truly admired Sartre’s* unapologetic disinclination towards tolerating humanity. Half the time he could absolutely relate, but these days he was feeling alive. And after the less than perfect lust enterprise of the last ten days, he wanted desperately to bask in the triumph of effortlessly captured hearts. And so, he had called Angeline and told her that he loved her. And then, he had asked her to marry him. The adrenaline and the dopamine had then gone to work as he raced around on a delirious high. In some lucid corner of his mind though, he had been almost as surprised as she was when he’d popped the question. But he was feeling good and this was going to be good. Angeline the woman, and Angeline the diva had always made him feel good. This was probably what love was. His mind wandered. Sheila also made him feel good; alive. He’d just met her; he hardly knew her. She was a passing fancy he told himself; although as fleeting fancies went, she was obviously not passing out of his system fast enough. She had a strange air of mystery and reserve which had mesmerised him, and so she too swirled around in his thoughts for the next few weeks.

Sam was smiling. Angeline was coming to town next month. They were going to be engaged. He thought of all the men that constantly hovered about her like moths around a flame, wanting in one way or another, to make her their own. The thought of their crushed and defeated love quests made his heart swell even bigger. She was going to officially become his woman, Mrs. Sivathamby. He grinned.

When are you coming back? Thinking of you – he wrote the message and sent it into the ether to find its intended recipient. Sheila’s phone lit up as she received the message. She looked at it musingly. Was this getting serious she wondered. She looked at it a little longer and in her deliberate introspective way, decided to wait until later to respond.

* Vivaldi’s “Spring”: Part of a musical composition called “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi, a 17th century Italian composer. The first concerto of the composition is Spring, describing its freshness and beauty.

* Sartre: A 20th century French playwright, novelist and political activist as well as a leading figure in French philosophy and Marxism. “Hell is other people” is a famous line from his 1944 play No Exit.

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.

SHORT STORY| MOHABBAT MEIN TWIST – Part Three

(I)

The sisters didn’t speak of the confidence sharing or the fragile moment of overt affection that they had bestowed on one another. But for Aliya there was now, added to the light footedness of new love, also the bouyant warmth of a sisterhood that had matured, mellowed overnight from the abrasive harshness of a protracted adolescence. She’d seen the soft inside of her diamond hearted sister. It had been a coming of age of the two women bound as they were by their shared DNA.

The next two months passed in a haze of coffee outings and the odd soirée at a friend’s house. Ali and Aliya attended most of these social dos together. Although they had grown closer in some ways, there was no physicality. Aside of one random kiss that Ali had dropped on her in a state of high spirits, there was no intimacy. So even though this was her first real relationship, she had felt her cautionary sixth sense kick in a few times. She had also caught him, in their quiet moments together, seeming to look more at her bulk than at her; but only for a moment. It had made her shift uncomfortably. Then almost instantly he would remember something else to talk about and the smile hovering uncertainly around his mouth would return to his eyes. And so the euphoria of being in his company, of never running out of chatter, of being sought out, had superseded all the other foreboding notions that sometimes reared theirs sage but irksome heads.

Hesitantly at first, Aliya had quite earnestly tried to include Saira in her plans with Ali. Saira always declined. This socialising with her sister was still too new; uncharted territory for the sure footed Saira. Also she was adamant about not stealing the limelight from her sister because she always had, everywhere. This relationship had to mature beyond the skin deep surface to surer ground before she would join the duo. She already had a trail of ill gotten admirers in her wake: Many a friend’s ardent suitor after having met Saira, had lost his original romantic plot and veered off after her, leaving the detritus of cursing girl friends, bands of sparring women, and specifically for Saira, the dubious reputation of being a “man eater”. Her sister had never had a man before so she had been spared that added insult to injury. Saira had in fact, met Ali a few times and they had exchanged basic pleasantries. To her mind he had displayed no particular quality to indicate that he was immune to random female charms, even if they were not in any way cast in his general direction. There were more than a few times that Saira had looked in the mirror, into the depths of her hazel eyes and wondered if she was really evil or if the world around her was just deficient in personal ethics. The toss up was even keeled depending on her state of mind during those moments of introspection.

(II)

There was a party at a friend’s to which Saira was going but Aliya was not. She had come down with a cold and was going to spend the evening tucked into her duvet with a flask of hot tea and the company of her best friend. Although they’d talked on the phone, she had met Saqib only a couple of times over the last two months. On hearing that she was spending the evening in the quietude of her home finally, he had walked across to see her. Saira looked in on the pair, waved a cheery farewell and whisked off to the party.

Saqib sat down on the twin bed next to the one Aliya was snuggled up in. He looked at her, his heart skipping a beat even after all these years of being friends. He loved her. He always had really. She was a beautiful girl who was in the wrong environment he thought for an uncharitable but brutally honest moment. Her sister and her mother had made it difficult for her to really open up and blossom. She was usually closed in, clammed up; but he had seen the dazzling little glimpses every now and then of the woman she really was. Of course all these sentiments meandered cozily within the innermost confines of his own heart. He had never spoken to Aliya about how he felt. In a whimsical way, he thought the universe would intervene when the time was right. He and Aliya shared that ephemeral belief about things, about their world.

He looked at her now, her beautiful skin even more radiant in the heat of her flu induced fever. His heart did another little skip as he looked at her, smiling in the warmth of his secret … held in the protective palms of the universe… to float into their shared ether when the time was right… soon he’d thought only two months ago. Now … well, now, he felt like a transparent wall had come up between them, looking very surmountable still. Like he could just reach through and pull her into a tender hug. It was strange but her relationship with Saqib had not changed a thing. He still felt the quiet elation and the intimacy of their close kinship. They spent the evening talking easily, comfortably until Aliya was ready to sleep. On his way out, Munir uncle had invited him for a glass of scotch. Saqib enjoyed the company of this older, scholarly, wise man, just as much as Munir Mian appreciated the sensible, grounded younger man. It was after midnight when Saqib finally walked back home.

(III)

The thing happened abruptly, unexpectedly, in the throes of alcoholic fuzziness and it has to be added, in the thick of stage haziness from the fog machine. It was one of those Saturday nights in November when it was chilly, romantic and many a heart was fluttering on its wayward sleeve. People were huddled together around gas heaters set around the garden. The inner sanctums belonged to the energetic and sure footed as they cavorted euphorically to the dance beats of the 80s and the 90s. Saira had ramped up not only her spirits with four vodka and oranges, but also her step count of the day with an hour on the floor with the other dancing queens. She now sat on one of the chairs inside surrounded by the extra warm stupor in and around her.

‘Oh hello’ came a voice from somewhere to her left.

She squinted through the mind and machine fog as she tried to locate the owner of the voice. She was wondering if in fact it was a figment of her swirling imagination when someone dropped into the chair next to hers. It was Ali.

Fifteen minutes into their banter, Ali placed a confident hand on Saira’s thigh. Her reflexes were slow which he took for compliance. When he leaned over to kiss her, Saira suddenly leaped up slapping his head away. She could feel the multi-layered warmth leaving her body in a visceral, almost palpable way, like the blood draining from a severed artery. She stood up, swaying ever so slightly and turned towards the now blubbering man.

‘You bloody a**hole! Don’t you come near me again’. She thought only for a split second before adding, ‘Or my sister’.

The thing about blood being thicker than water is that when that adage does hold up, it brings entire families closer than they ever were before the calamity struck. And so it was with the twins. Saira came into Aliya’s room the next morning and sat on the bed opposite hers just as Aliya was reading a meandering text from Ali that sounded as cryptic as it did defensive. But he had mentioned Saira in it.

‘What happened’, Aliya asked simply looking at her sister’s drawn face.

‘It’s Ali … he’s a creep’ Saira said looking at her sister hoping that their new found understanding would make the awkwardness, the hurtfulness of this incidence easier to manage. When Aliya continued to look at her with clear, questioning eyes, Saira began to relate what had happened. Aliya listened quietly, unmovingly until Saira was done.

She then looked towards the window, willing away the tears that had sprung to her eyes. She had known there was something amiss about her equation with Ali, something that just didn’t sit properly, uprightly. But to have made moves on her sister after everything that they had shared … What had they shared? Easy banter about things that they both liked but that was it. And if she was absolutely honest with herself, she had imagined more than a few scenarios where he had shown his unabashed preference for Saira. No… she wasn’t shocked. She was hurt. She swallowed hard, but the tears came anyway and she cried as Saira hugged her, silently weeping with her.

That was another thing the sisters never spoke of again but it had brought them closer; and that was what mattered Aliya thought to herself in her moments of not entirely happy reminiscences and uneasy introspection.

(IV)

Saqib was at his best friend’s side after that. He came by everyday even if it was for twenty minutes at a time to see how Aliya was faring. Her cold was better and between her bruised heart slowly repairing itself and the bouts of wretchedness that assailed her off and on, there were glimmers of her lovely smile again.

‘I’ve put on 3kgs in the last ten days Saqib’, Aliya said laughing through her tears. She was trying to see the lighter side of things… that was who she was. Positive and unputdownable was his Aliya. He felt his heart bursting with affection and a strange pride for who this girl was, to him and to the rest of the world. He smiled at her with love in his eyes.

Saqib had spoken to the Wellness Centre that Aunty Maryam (Aliya’s mother) had been raving about. They had a nutritionist (who absolutely looked the part of course, he grinned) and a physiotherapist specialising in chronic injuries (childhood handicaps included). So he and Aliya were both going to enrol together.

She smiled at Saqib feeling the familiar warmth and comfort that she always did when they were together. She had always basked in the glow unquestioningly. Now she touched it, feeling it all over. Maybe … maybe they had always had something special between them transcending friendship she thought. She waited for her heart to respond to her timorous suggestion: it fluttered ever so slightly and then beat strongly, happily, serenely. She felt a lump rise in her throat and felt her eyes sting just a little. She grinned at Saqib.

She didn’t want to tell him that she loved him just as he was: melting brown eyes, the sweetest smile, rolling gait and all. He didn’t want to ruin the camaraderie of their shared enterprise by telling her that he’d had all the physiotherapy he would ever need and that his walk wasn’t going to benefit from this new intervention; and that he had always loved her as she was.

It was going to be a shared labour of determination and love for themselves and for each other.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/28/short-story-mohabbat-mein-twist-part-one/

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/29/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-two/

* Mohabbat Mein Twist: “A twist in the Love story”. “Mohabbat” means “Love” in Urdu.

SHORT STORY | MOHABBAT MEIN TWIST – Part Two

(I)

Aliya and Saira had cousins in high places; their mother’s brother owned a prestigious ad agency. While their uncle was a prominent presence in many a corporate board room, his wife and children had donned the mantle of the most formidable movers and shakers on the flambouyant party circuit. The Lahore party scene was known for its extravagance and its scandals. Many were the nights that started out genteel and elegant and that ended in the wastelands of too much alcohol, too much food and rapidly unravelling sophistication. Hearty breakfasts of halwa puri* and trite and contrite phone calls between the triumphant and the fallen of the previous night were then the order of the next morning.

Courtesy of their cousins, both girls had debuted on the Lahore party circuit some five years ago and now at twenty five years old, both occupied their own distinct places: Saira was the quintessential diva, the sought after bachelorette at the apex of the food chain and a secret Firestarter – (she appeased her conscience with the fact that she only ever lit a match to already smoldering goods; purging was her goal she professed).

Aliya occupied the small cerebral fringe (aka people carrying more than the regular baggage who had to park it somewhere for the evening she thought wryly, no self deprecating pun intended she always emphatically added to herself). This group sat mostly on the sidelines, analysed everything from the sublime to the ridiculous and assiduously avoided the frenzied eye of the social storm heaving and roiling in front of them. They were the designated drivers and general voices of reason when shindig hell broke loose upon the by then madly gyrating, occasionally screeching horde, their strobe-lit shiny faces appearing to grimace almost fiendishly in the pulsating greens, blues and reds – like a late 20th century version of Dante’s Inferno. And when one of this group was going through personal trauma, of which there were more than a few occasions since the afflicted, in irony’s own twisted dance, tend to get more than their fair share of the ball curving back at them, the whole coterie drank too much in comfort and commiseration.

It was on one such occasion when Aliya had for a while, abandoned her station of the lawn chair critics, that it happened. The day that she felt an almost fossilised stirring in her heart. The last time she had felt this elated anxiety was when she had lost 10 kgs off her 100kg frame – that was five years ago, in the bright eyed, stomach rumbling anticiaption of her first ever ball of the season. God! the naivete, the cloying innocence she thought unable to control the self reproach that often overtook her now when she flashed back to half a decade ago.

She had been looking for Saira in the thick of the milieu in front of her, when he had come up to her. Behind her actually. She had been craning her neck, fervently hoping she wouldn’t have to dive into the throng milling about the bar area outside.

‘I have a bit of an advantage. Can I help with the subject seeking?’ he’d asked conversationally.

Aliya had turned around at this unexpected whisper in her ear … offer of help, she corrected herself practically, also bracing herself for whomever she would encounter.

‘You’re Saira’s sister aren’t you?’ he added smilingly when there was no response to his first question.

Aliya blinked once, twice, frowned ever so slightly and nodded with a ghost of a smile in return. He was obviously one of her sister’s snooty male acquaintances.

‘I saw her at the gate a little while ago’ he added looking towards the far end of the lawn at the other throng at the entrance.

‘Thanks’, Aliya responded briefly, looking at her watch and making to walk back to the comfort of her group.

‘I didn’t mean to spook you,’ he quickly added. ‘Just came to, you know, chat’. He looked at her with no hint of any snide humour or quiet judgement. She stood for a while unsure of where this exchange was leading.

‘I’m Ali – Ali Basit’ he said smiling at her.

‘I’m Aliya, Aliya Muneer’ she finally responded smiling back despite herself.

(II)

It was 9 O’clock in the morning. Aliya opened her eyes, feeling disoriented. She had had her recurring dream – this time though, she was plummeting into water, an ocean, when her nameless, faceless champion had at the very last moment, broken her fall. There was also something else on the periphery of her morning visions … someone else … Ali, she thought with a happy smile that became suddenly self conscious and then was wiped mostly off as she gathered up her floating, rhapsodic musings.

It had been an eventful night; one of the few she had spent mostly on her feet rather than on the seat that probably bore the mark of her loyal and substantive bottom by now she thought laughing inside: The handful of prestigious party planners and their furniture did the rounds of all the functions in their City of Gardens. She had been skeptical of a decent conversation unfolding in the midst of the revelry and the excess but that is exactly what had happened. She and Ali had stood for what had seemed like hours talking about the comic enigma that was Sheikh Rasheed*, the inevitability of a zombie apocalypse and the best mutton karahi* in the city. It had been a lovely evening. She smiled again, this time allowing her pleasure to course through her body as she stretched out with the gratified languor of a just-fed cat.

Aliya had only a mug of coffee that morning. Her usual breakfast gusto was lost in the crush of butterflies that was dancing around in her stomach. Her sister looked at her strangely and smiled. Aliya braced herself for another thwack in the gut … or maybe, today it would only be a light little missile of words that would just graze her shoulder, vanishing into the small obscurity of missed barbs. For today she felt fortified, invincible, of mind and heart.

Ali called her that afternoon and for the next week of afternoons. Aliya lived for that week, in a strange bubble of euphoria and starvation. She felt the hunger pangs but nothing in the fridge, on the table or on Food Panda seemed like it would appease the ache in her belly. So she resorted to having copious cups of unsweetened tea throughout the day, winding it all down (up!) with the sugary burst from a bowl of fruit for dinner. In her few clear-headed moments amidst the fog of passion that had befuddled her brain, she admitted that there was nothing quite like fledgeling love to help shed unwanted burdens of the body and the mind.

Her mother was ecstatic at the change in her daughter. She was looking better, happier and dared she say it, thinner. Her father watched her quietly, thoughtfully. He knew his daughter enough to gauge that something out of the ordinary was happening; something that could culminate in quiet triumph or great distress for his sensitive child. He realized he was more concerned about than interested in the cause for his daughter’s moony behaviour.

(III)

‘What is it?’, came the question finally from Saira on the sunday when she was going to go out for coffee with Ali.

‘What do you mean?’ Aliya responded in her characteristic defensive manner even though she had been anticipating the query for a while now. Her usually fleet-footed sister had shown remarkable forebreance this time.

‘Give me a break yaar*. Just tell me’, Saira looked at her pointedly, her toast halted midair like a hovering premonition of doom in the event of anything withheld or concealed.

Aliya sighed inwardly while retaining her stoic, watchful front. She had learnt to be wary with her sister. It was a caution that harked back to their childhood; when Saira used to rat on her to their mother when she used to sneak in a snack in the midst of her many maternally imposed and managed diets. She remembered little else from her childhood as vividly as she remembered her mother’s admonishing stares and her perpetually rumbling stomach. Suffice to say that theirs was not the winsome twinsome of the year, never had been. Theirs was a difficult relationship that had settled into a watchful acceptance by one and a relaxed bossiness by the other.

Still, this was her first serious love affair, thought Aliya; well, it was on its way to becoming one at least. It had all the glimmerings and the trappings of a love affair, a serious one, that could have … auspicious endings. She didn’t want to dive into the relationship boxes created by society; that could jinx the entire liaison. There was time enough for it to fit itself neatly into one of the institutions of blessed convention. Her mind was wandering she realized – this was her first serious love affair she thought again, marshalling her faculties of reason and goodwill, and she needed for her sister to be supportive. This once.

‘There’s someone …. someone I’ve met’, Aliya said to her sister, looking at her, wishing earnestly that she would respond with grace; that she would be nice. This once.

Saira looked at her sister for a long moment, then looked away and brought the toast to her mouth biting into it with sharp-toothed ferocity almost, thought Aliya. She looked away and sighed, this time outwardly. Who was she fooling? Saira didn’t understand her; never had. She understood her joys and her heartaches even less …

Aliya suddenly felt soft arms around her shoulders and a kiss on the back of her head.

‘I’m happy for you Aloo’, Saira whispered, continuing to hug her.

Aliya turned her head to look at her sister, expecting to see a mocking smile or a spiteful grin. There was only her sister’s gently smiling face and her eyes that were reflecting the quiet hurrah in her heart. Saira came around and sat down on the chair next to hers and laughed now, self consciously almost.

‘You’d better get this right Aloo; I’m not going to be the good samaritan saving the day for you’ she joked realising that she needed to break the spell before it became by its uncharacteristic softness, unwholesome and unkind. She had always been agitated by her twin; by her total lack of being able to look out for herself, look after herself in any way. Over the years, she had allowed her concern to morph into derision and sarcasm. She never intended to be cruel but she knew she had been a little sadistic over the years. And now, her sister was glowing in the warmth of a formidable venture; a venture of the heart. So rare were these scintillating personal moments with her sister; and she had to let her know, this once, that she was her biggest champion.

Aliya was looking at her sister as a myriad gentle emotions flitted across Saira’s face. What a watershed moment this was for their sisterhood! The surface had been scratched and there was a nice person under there after all thought Aliya, now grinning widely. A shared joy multiplies manifold. She laughed softly in pure elation and hugged her sister.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/28/short-story-mohabbat-mein-twist-part-one/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/31/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-three/

* Mohabbat Mein Twist: “A twist in the Love story”. “Mohabbat” means “Love” in Urdu.

* Halwa Puri: A traditional Pakistani breakfast that features semolina pudding or halwa and a soft fried dough called poori. Halwa is typically made with a mixture of fried semolina and sugar syrup, which is then combined with nuts such as pistachios and almonds.

* Sheikh Rasheed: A politician who is currently serving as the Interior Minister of Pakistan. He is known for his peculiar, flambouyant style.

* Mutton Karahi: A Mughlai dish that is traditionally cooked in a wok or karahi. The rich mutton curry is made by slow cooking lamb pieces with tomatoes, onion, garlic and garam masala.

* Yaar: Means “friend” in Urdu/ Hindi. It's a popular term in Indian English, used especially as a term of address for “friend.” It ultimately comes, via Urdu, from the Persian and Arabic yar, meaning “friend,” and is recorded in English as early as the 1960s.

SHORT STORY | MOHABBAT MEIN TWIST* – Part One

(I)

Aliya opened one bleary eye to glance at the clock on her bedside table. It was just past 6 O’ clock. She felt a familiar quickening of her pulse as she thought of the day ahead, the obstacles to be surmounted. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. There was nothing on the agenda today, stress free as it was in the aftermath of her masters exams. Her anxious nature still had to catch up to the fact as she stilled her agitated heart. She turned on her side, away from the window and the blitheful rays of sunshine that glanced cheerily off her desk that lay in the corner of the room. She’d sleep in today she thought, catching at the fading strings of dawn time dreams. Soon, she was back in the familiar collage of her recurring dream visions: she was falling off some place – the catapulting surface was always different – and she always experienced the same great fright, and she always just about missed the concrete or the jungle floor or the carpeted surface below as her foggy saviour came to her rescue. His … her … (another conundrum) face was never clear, remaining obscured by the ephemeral mists of her dreams.

She finally arose at 11 O’ clock when her mother came into her room armed with clean laundry and the loud efficiency of having been at the helm of the domestic wheel for the last four hours. She felt groggy and tired even after her ten hours of sleep. She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her double chin was looking more pendulous than ever she thought. She clutched at the rolls on her stomach, feeling for the insidious deposit of more weight. She had been good about her meals this past month and had not given in to any stress eating even though she had been in the throes of her exams. Her nails had taken the brunt of that deprival as they now sat like ravaged half moons in their nail beds. She looked at the weighing scale lying right opposite the WC, its meticulous placement a tribute to her weight loss earnestness. She decided today was not a day for unpleasant metric system surprises and pointedly ignored it through the course of her morning ablutions.

‘Hello late latif*’, her father called out to her cheerfully as Aliya walked into the lounge. She smiled. Her father, Mian Muneer, could brighten most of her days, afflicted as they were with her mother’s constant anguished refrains for her to lose “at least ten kgs!” and her own unremitting anxiety about her weight, and everything else too. In all that maternal censure and self deprecation, he was like a breath of fresh air. Never remarking about her weight, let’s be honest she thought, her bulk. Never making her cringe at the sight of her reflection or at the sight of food even when her stomach was rumbling from protracted deprivation. He loved her just as she was, her beloved father.

‘Good morning Baba*’, Aliya responded with a kiss on his cheek.

‘Aloo*, there are parathas* for brekkie, come get them!’ came a jaunty call from the dining room. She walked towards the voice (dubiously) and towards its announcement of gastronomic delights (zealously), her stomach rumbling with hunger – was it hunger or comfort-seeking she thought fleetingly. For the former came with relatively guilt free appeasement while the latter needed to be worked through mentally and emotionally and if all went well, was rebutted, ignored, nipped in the gut. She accepted also, that despite all the diligent evaluation, she had never been very good at distinguishing between the two, as hunger loomed large on most food horizons.

Saira was sitting at the head of the table looking, even at that early hour of the day (for she too had woken up only after 10) fresh, dewy and gorgeous. This was her twin sister, the sum total of her antithesis. Aliya helped herself to three parathas and an omelette. She could feel her sister’s eyes on her; she was going to say something, she always did … irksome at best and hurtful at worst.

‘Go easy sis, that’s a thousand calories right there’ Saira released the expected verbal arrow as she put a condensed milk laden piece into her own mouth.

Aliya gave a wry smile as she loaded her parathas with condensed milk and cream.

‘Aliya, what are you doing?’ came the accusatory voice from behind her. Their mother had come in and was discharging her duty as the maternal voice of reason and outrage.

‘Having breakfast Amma’, Aliya responded doggedly. Damned if she was going to be denied the first meal of the day, twelve hours after her last one too, in all its life (and courage fostering!) fulfilment.

Her mother gave an exasperated sigh and walked out. Saira sniggered. It was just another day at 14-Z in DHA, Lahore.

(II)

Aliya had dug into her breakfast as she dug in her heels every so often when she felt the world closing in on her; Judging her, railing at her, accusing her. She had ended up having four and a half parathas. She stood looking into her wardrobe, eating herself up inside now, for her breakfast time excess; cursing her food induced and reduced anxiety. No, food didn’t induce her anxiety (except in her apocalyptic fantasies when the world was overrun by zombies and all kinds of human nutrition was scarce); it was her panacea in fact, for the maddening world around her. She sighed deeply, chose a grey baggy shirt and black track pants. She was in the mood to merge with her dreary thoughts today. She was meeting her best friend and neighbour, Saqib in a little while. He was going to help her fill in the forms for the Masters in Sociology course at Uppsala university in Sweden.

Saqib Mir was the only child of his parents, the apple of their eye, the next progenitor of their eminent lineage and the scion of the family business. Marring this perfection was a somewhat unsymmetrical gait as he was also crippled by childhood polio. The whys and wherefores of how he had contracted the disease are foggy; rife with rumour and speculation until about decade or so ago, the direful hypotheses were now obscured by an acceptance born of familiarity. For those who had known him forever, it had become like a little smudge on a Sadequain* painting that has with time, blurred into oblivion. For those meeting him for the first time, while there were no origin-theories being bandied about anymore, there was almost always that self conscious nonchalance of trying not to notice the obvious. Saqib felt both, a sense of quiet amusement and compassion for this denominator knowing the mental exhaustion their involuntary Secret Spy syndrome was bestowing on them. Humanity, even amidst the deficiencies of the developing world, has largely got used to polio free perfection; a certain basic physical congruity is a sacred expectation especially among the upper crusts of society. Saqib then was the paradoxical element that jarred the sensibilities of the well heeled more than it did that of his favourite chai wallah’s or fruit wallah’s. They acknowledged his disfigurement in a practical, unselfconscious way. He was crippled and so what? He couldn’t run but he could still walk and get about unaided. Saqib was well liked in the more modest social circles too.

The Mians and the Mirs had been neighbours for fifteen years and Aliya and Saqib had become kindred souls for each other, afflicted as they both were with their respective vulnerabilities.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/29/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-two/

Read Part Three here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/31/mohabbat-mein-twist-part-three/

* Mohabbat Mein Twist: “A twist in the Love story”. “Mohabbat” means “Love” in Urdu.

* Late Latif: In Urdu, a fond colloquialism for a tardy person

* Baba: In Urdu, a term used to denote an old man and also used for father.

* Aloo: Aliya’s nickname. Also meaning “potato” in Urdu.

* Paratha: A flatbread native to the Indian subcontinent, where wheat is the traditional staple. Paratha is an amalgamation of the words parat and atta, which literally means layers of cooked dough.


* Sadequain: Renowned Pakistani artist known for his calligraphy and painting.

THE SAYING MANTIS | On Dicey Relationships

A random (cheeky!) ramble about all the “Saas – Bahu*” relationships out there. Attempting to encapsulate the thinking of both, the usually entitled South Asian mother-in-law and the mostly afflicted SA daughter-in-law.

* Saas Bahu: mother-in-law and daughter-in-law

SHORT STORY | LOVE IN RAWALPINDI – Part Two

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.


Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/08/06/love-in-rawalpindi-part-one/

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