Faith: more and more, a tenuous ideology as it has traditionally existed. Increasingly, we are seeing how conventional belief systems are becoming less and less able to minister to the spiritual needs of believers at large.
As our spheres of existence evolve, leaping and bounding into the digital age; as we progressively become part of a smaller and smaller global village, we are also increasingly being faced with unprecedented challenges in terms of how we interact with the communities we live in, and others around the world. More and more we see how intolerance, hate and suffering are being directly perpetrated in the dubious paths of organized belief systems. The way I see it, we have slowly but surely lost our humanity to the relentless machinations of modern day religious powerhouses.
What is Faith then, in the current times? What does it mean to be devout and devoted? Is it a copious measure of ritual practice while the heart continues to race in fear and the mind is a cacophony of discord in times of trial? Is it the demonstration of exalted acts performed in the way of glorifying one’s particular belief system which, at its very core, is selfish and ungenerous? Where every “good deed” is performed on a quid pro quo basis: you are charitable primarily so YOU can go to heaven, and not because someone is needy – (that’s just a circumstantially advantageous outcome). You go to church and to the mosque so YOU can get into the Almighty’s good books so YOU can skip into Eden, not because you have the well- being of your community at heart. All, spiritually depleting ideologies of faith practised solely from a fear of consequences, rather than the simple desire to embody and celebrate our humanity.
What is it then, to truly believe? Could it be simply, the genuine attempt to be the best version of oneself spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically? To be able to look within to become a force for good without? To be able to think for oneself more and to rely less on the divisive narrative of neo-evangelists? Is it to finally pay fit tribute to our innate “God-given” spiritual and mental prowess? To finally breaking through the webs of intrigue and confusion woven by self serving belief systems and sifting through the spiritual antimatter for ourselves.
Look around you. Nature itself has manifested how irrelevant caste, creed and racial differences are. How even more insignificant religiously wrought community and political boundaries are: The recent Corona virus pandemic didn’t pick political or religious sides. No one was beyond the reach of its pestilential nature. Why then are we not heeding what we instinctively know to be true: That our shared humanity is bigger than any individual religion. That our communal joys and sorrows are more spiritually potent than any Sunday service or Friday ‘Khutba’*. That together we are a stronger, better, more spiritually evolved species than we are when projecting our differences of Faith. At the end of the day, the very essence of all religions is entrenched not only in equality, kindness and charity among “our own flock”, but in thoughtfully and inclusively channeling these attributes to ensure one becomes a more universal force for good.
It is time. Time to break through the inertia and the paralysis of our different religions; of the illogical but deeply ingrained ways we are taught to hate one another. It is time to start having the difficult but essential discussions on renewing and revitalising our counter intuitive belief systems. It is time to take back our hijacked/ distorted ideologies of belief and once again breathe the essence of universal humanity into them.
* Khutba: publicly held formal sermon, especially delivered after the communal Friday prayers in the Islamic religion.
Over the course of the last year, it had become a weekly tradition for Zubaida and Sikander to meet for lunch at a little restaurant near the Malik Art Studio. There were a handful of safe, soul-restoring places around the city that Zubaida frequented as much for their therapeutic vibes as for their practical purposes. One of them was Yousuf’s Cafe. Right from the start, it had evoked remembrances of another time, another life. Over time, her memories associated with the place had distilled to a few heart-warming images: her brother Yousuf’s 10 year old face smiling at her; Zubaida reading him stories of Jinns* and courageous raja’s*; his eyes lighting up when she got him the occasional treat of Sohan Halwa*. He had morphed into more than the ugly culmination of her life in Hasilpur. In the strangest happenstance, she had found her brother again in the little cafe with his name.
It was Wednesday and Zubaida sat at Yousuf’s Cafe with her first steaming cup of tea. She was waiting for Sikander who always arrived at least 30 minutes later than the appointed hour. It was a foible that had grated on her hyper-organised approach to life but which she had with time, and a softening of her heart, managed to compartmentalise as a minor personality flaw. She had realized that if she reasoned things out in her head, covering the entire gamut of its strengths and its weaknesses, she was able to approach it with much greater tranquility and acceptance. And so it had been with Sikander’s tardiness. She always planned little things to tick off her To Do list while she waited for him to appear. Today she pulled out her phone and looked at the word that had become one of her revitalising life mantras and with time, also an integral part of her calligraphic renderings: Al-Hakam– one of the 99 names of Allah in Arabic meaning “The Impartial Judge”.
This was going to be her second collection in three years that was dedicated to this divine quality. Most of the previous collection had been acquired by a single private collector who had also been inimitably discreet about his identity. She had always wondered who it was that had felt the same resonance with the concept of supreme justice.
Sikander walked in at exactly 2.10pm, forty minutes late, smiling and completely oblivious of the time transgression. In her rationalising enterprise on this particular flaw, she had also concluded, among other things, that this was an idiosyncrasy that was almost communal in Lahore. It was completely normal to arrive two hours late for social functions and at least half an hour late for work-related obligations. She smiled at him and put away her phone, having decided on the colour scheme for her Al-Hakam exhibition. They had their usual lunch of Pulao* and Aloo tamatar*, a specialty at Yousaf’s. The conversation was easy and varied, nurtured by time, familiarity and their fondness for each other. Their Wednesday gastronomic adventures usually ended in uncharacteristically speedy farewells as both headed to their respective homes for their food-induced siestas.
Later that evening, Zubaida sat at a pristine canvas repeating the word “Al-Hakam” in a low, melodious murmur. She was as immersed in the powerful essence of the word as she was in the image it now evoked in her mind. Zubaida had decided on sepia tones for this series, with abstract backgrounds in the 3 main colours of turquoise, gold and maroon. She would in her subtle style, vary the sepia shades and the undulations of her Khat* across each painting. She got to work on her first canvas.
She finally looked up from her work at past 9pm. She had been absorbed in sketch work for the last three hours. She heated up some daal and a mixed vegetable curry that she’d cooked the previous day. She had already had two chapatis* delivered from the tandoor* downstairs. After dinner, she took out her diary to write down her tasks and reminders for the next day. This urban life hack had with time, also become one of her practical meditations that she performed with unremitting regularity. The smallest task was recorded meticulously so that every evening she had a page full of practical, sovereign affirmations for the next day. The planning of her day, the writing it all down reminded her, more than anything else, that she was in control of her life, of her movements … of her body.
Tomorrow she was planning on visiting the Singer electronics store and buying her first ever washing machine. Sikander had convinced her of its paramount importance in everyday life. Sunday had usually been laundry day for her, an unconscious vestige of her life in the village when the whole family’s clothes would be washed in a big tin tub and the courtyard would be overspread by colourful lines of billowing shalwars, kameezes and dupattas. She now had a plastic bucket at home which had been sufficient for her week’s washing.
Zubaida grinned at Sikander. Some things still delighted her like they would a child. She was pleased and proud of her newest purchase, and awed, as she was off and on at the bounties of her life as a mistress of her own kismet. Her face was transformed at those moments when her guard fell and her dark brown eyes shone, reflecting her inner light. It was one of those precious moments that Sikander was witnessing and he smiled, feeling a now familiar, gentle wrench of his heart. Washing machine buying day was as good as any to propose to her.
After dinner and in the privacy of his bedroom, Sikander mulled again on the events of the afternoon. He had known Zubaida long enough to expect the unexpected. And that was exactly what had happened. He had come right out simply and directly, and asked her to marry him. He’d made a statement, almost a demand of her to marry him he thought cringing a little in retrospect. He had not hoped for her to say yes; he’d expected her to say yes. The swagger of patriarchy ran deep he thought ruefully and smiled despite himself.
She had looked at him calmly, almost tenderly and then just said no. Sikander had built up this moment so much in his mind that he had not taken a rejection into account at all. But when he was faced with it, the honesty of their relationship transformed it from an irreparable lancing of the ego to just another truth between them, another matter of fact. There was a silence that followed, not awkward, not brimming with heightened emotion; just a calming quiet where the last few pieces of their particular puzzle floated into place. Theirs was not going to be a traditional union, but she was still his chosen one.
Zubaida brought her brand new washing machine, together with a myriad of strange emotions back home with her. She had predicted that something of this sort may happen – they both liked each other. She had also imagined more than a few times, of how she would go about handling a proposal from her one soul mate: a rejection couched in profuse apologies, long winded explanations, shouldering the blame for not being normal enough to embrace healthy conventions, and the ultimate risk of losing his friendship. None of that had transpired. It was a simple, undramatic moment of truth where their special relationship did all the talking that was necessary. No words were exchanged yet a whole new understanding was reached. Their relationship was not going to be boxed under already existing labels. It had sprouted its own unique wings and it would fly with its own momentum in its own way.
She had never felt surer or more confident of her soul kinship with Sikander as she did post the afternoon’s events. She knew that he understood her reasons for not taking the traditional route. Still, they were her reasons not his. He had respected and accepted them nevertheless.
Their equation had survived the greatest disavowal of convention; and embedded in there was the most sublime justice. She smiled gently with a little word on her lips: “Al-Hakam”.
* Jinn: Supernatural creatures in early pre-Islamic Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology.
* Raja: Prince in Urdu/ Hindi.
* Sohan Halwa: A traditional dense, sweet confection that has been popular in South Asia since the Mughal era.
* Pulao: A one pot rice dish made by cooking fragrant basmati rice with aromatic spices, herbs & sometimes stock.
* Aloo tamatar: Potatoes with spicy tomato gravy.
* Khat: Letter or alphabet in Urdu.
* Chapati: Also known as roti, is unleavened flatbread originating from the Indian subcontinent.
* Tandoor: Also known as tannour is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking.
Zubaida looked at herself in the mirror as she always did before heading out of her one room apartment; straight into the eyes of her reflection. She passed on her daily affirmation to herself: that she was her own be all and end all. No matter how wonderful life sometimes got, no matter how much of the drug of complacency it tried to suffuse her with, she would remain alert. This recall was a vital part of the start of every day for Zubaida; and the subliminal messaging to herself as she looked directly into the windows of her own soul, was to her the most effective way of keeping herself vigilant and grounded. She had been on her own for the last thirteen years and she had survived, indeed thrived in the general ebb and flow of life.
Zubaida lived in Shadman in Lahore and was a professional calligrapher. She specialised in oils on canvas. Her shaded, monochromatic depictions of Quranic verses had not only earned her a name in the city’s Islamic Modern Art community but had with time, become a reliable and consistent source of income. Ten years ago, she had gradually begun to supplement her Urdu tuition earnings with sales of one or two canvases every month. Over the last five years, her art sales had become her primary source of income.
Zubaida stepped out of her apartment locking it behind her. She walked towards the stairwell and per habit, looked again at the door ensuring the padlock was securely in place. She always made absolutely sure that her home was safe.
She got into a taxi and headed for Malik Art Studio in Model Town. The gallery and the curator of its masterpieces such as they were, had both been kind to Zubaida. She had in turn, responded with her own sense of loyalty, declining offers to exhibit at some of the other local studios that speciliazed in Islamic art. Her latest calligraphy series was going on display soon. She had learnt with time and experience, that masterminding the entire exhibition process from start to finish tended to lead to fewer last minute fires to put out. Today, she was going to see how her ten pieces of work would be displayed in the upcoming Eid exhibition.
She spent two hours in the voluble company of Malik sahib, deciding on the frames and the placement of each canvas.
‘Sikander was here yesterday. He has already promised to buy two of your pieces’, Iqbal Malik said, his eyes glinting with the combined thrill of giving Zubaida news of Sikander and the prospect of a tidy profit.
Sikander Ilyas was the scion of the Ilyas Ceramics and Tile Manufacturing, a keen appreciator of art and in Zubadia’s case, of the artist too. He had met the serious young woman two years ago during one of her exhibitions and was almost immediately taken in by her no nonsense demeanour that was also simultaneously rooted in a quaint naïveté. The combination had quite swept Sikander off his feet. He hadn’t said anything of the rumblings of his heart to Zubaida. Not so much because romance seemed like a superfluous sentiment around the sedate woman, but because he himself had been grappling with his feelings. He was expected to marry someone from his class; someone eligible and beautiful; a society damsel.
Zubaida was the antithesis of all that. She had grown up in rural Punjab and at the tender age of seventeen had undergone a brutal sentencing by the local community for a social transgression committed by her uncle: the girl had survived a Jirga*-ordained revenge rape. In the eyes of the world, she was a stigmatized woman; tainted and unmarriagable. In his eyes, while she was tainted, he had been trying to work around the unmarriagble aspect of it. He had decided that time was the best moderator of troublesome peeves and had decided to go with the flow.
Two years on, he was more in love than ever before and the walls of culture and tradition that had kept him privileged and safe, had been slowly eroded by floods of patriarchal contrariness and social defiance. Sometimes, he wondered at the change that he’d undergone as a person and especially as a man in his community. His heightened sensitivity to the pervasive chauvinism that flourished so brazenly in his Islamic republic had given him his fair share of sleepless nights. The not so infrequent introspective moments that also now crept upon him, left him appalled and ashamed. Time had in fact been a ruthless arbiter, opening his eyes to a world that he and the rest of the male fraternity of his homeland had helped to build, brick by twisted brick.
In a world that was seeming increasingly at odds with reality, Zubaida appeared more and more like the only lucid woman around. And so, Sikander was now quite decidedly ready to ask Zubaida to marry him.
Even so, while his internal ideology had changed, he was still a consummate part of the social and patriarchal structures that had always defined him; that he called his roots. No matter how he envisioned it, it was going to be a challenge seeing this undertaking of the heart through …
But damned be the world! Well … he’d handle his parents and they’d handle the rest of the world.
Zubaida had at first been wary of Sikander’s interest in her. In the thirteen years since her life had been turned upside down and which she had since built back one vital milestone at a time, one thing had become resonantly clear: she would maintain her independence no matter what; and a husband did not feature in any conventional, orthodox way in that ultimate life stratagem. Despite her overtly disinterested bearing however, there had been a motley assortment of hopefuls who had vied for her attention. She had held on as practically to her Unavailable status as she had been factual about her past.
All her suitors were made aware of her particular “standing” in society immediately upon their disclosure of their besotted hearts. Some had retreated mumbling sympathetic apologies, less out of shame for the toxicity of the patriarchy that had perpetrated the tragedy and more for how her irrevocably stigmatised situation would affect their own social standing. Others had shown surprising strength of character, whether fleeting or more deep-rooted, whether spurred on by pure adrenalin or by something less chemical and more ideological, and repeated their desire to partner with her in the sacred (and hopefully abiding!) contract of the Nikah*. She had seen off the disillusioned devotees with a gracious farewell and the tenacious lot, with a polite refusal. It had never been hard to do. Her heart had remained utterly unaffected and composed; until Sikander had come along. With time, the man had got under her skin. He had changed in ways she could understand and respect; in ways that gave her hope and warmed her.
* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.
* Revenge Rape: Or Honour Revenge is a sentencing usually inflicted on an innocent woman by a council of elders in rural communities, as retribution for a crime committed by usually a male member of her family.
* Nikah: In the Islamic tradition, the marriage contract is signed during the Nikah ceremony and it is during this event that the bride and groom say, “I do.”
It had been decided. Zubaida would be given to the fallen girl’s family as retribution for the crime. An eye for an eye. Rab Nawaz had no family of his own so his brother, his next of kin, would deliver on the blood loyalty. For Haq Nawaz, there was no land to give away, no jewellery; only a part of his honour – in this case, his daughter. He had been forced to perform a cold blooded calculation and had chosen Zubaida, his second daughter. The daughter with no prospects right now would pay the penance for the “family crime”. A burqa-clad Zubaida was brought before the tribunal and told the verdict. She could not protest nor could she lay claim to any innocence. In the eyes of the community, she was now as complicit in the crime as Rab Nawaz was. After sworn statements issued by both parties in the presence of the elders, confirming the fairness and completenss of the arbitration and decree, the assembly disbursed. A woman from the complainant’s family took Zubaida away.
The tribunal had been merciful; they had not insisted on a witness-led consummation of the sentence and nor had they demanded that Zubaida show her face at the council gathering.
Zubaida was locked up in a little room at the far end of the house she was brought to. She sat on the floor with her arms around her knees, rocking back and forth in the primitive rhythm of self consolation and comfort. Her thoughts were mercifully foggy, indistinct as she sat with her eyes closed. In the haze of her delirium and her innocence, she was waiting for the ultimate end; for someone to kill her in cold blood. For that was what the jirga had said justice looked like: an eye for an eye. She keened hoarsely, unaware of her low, anguished moans. She sat there through the night rocking and waiting, gripped in a relentless pall of dread. At dawn she finally slumped to the floor in an exhausted sleep.
She was woken up by the woman who had been at the tribunal. She had come in with some water and a dry roti. Zubaida looked at the roti* her mouth quivering, as a whole new flood of emotions overpowered her weary, drained body. For her just the sight of the meagre sustenance was a gesture of mercy, kindness and humanity; the smallest sign of hope where there had up to now, been only the wasteland of pain and imminent death. The icy grip around her heart loosened as she felt the tears roll down her face. Her heart burst. She looked at the woman, her body now racked with sobs that she couldn’t control; She cried in relief; she cried in despair; she cried in the great grief that was now hers to endure. She cried for everything that she had left behind. She cried until there were no more tears left to shed; until all her memories had left her; until she could close her eyes again and sleep.
Muhammad Adil, the runaway girl’s brother had come back from the city two days after the meeting of the tribunal. The family had been waiting for their first born to deliver on the justice ordained by the jirga*; to inflict a purging, a punishment that would duteously avenge their sullied honour. The girl would be stripped of her virtue and her modesty. Muhammad Adil would perform the “honour revenge”. After that she would be sent back to her family. They had no use nor any place for tainted women in their home. Let her own family grapple with the consequences of a fallen daughter.
For Muhammad Adil’s family, their own daughter was now dead. She had died the day she had broken through the protective, respectable safeguards of their home, and eloped. And so, Zubaida was raped by Muhammad Adil and two other men in the family over three days, in line with the mourning period for the dead. They were a God-fearing family and would do only what was necessary to reclaim their honour as was ordained by their sacred, long standing beliefs: One fallen daughter avenged by violating the innocent body and spirit of another. An eye for an eye. The entire act of retribution was intertwined with faith and justice as they took turns punishing their “perpetrator”. For that was what Zubaida now was; in their eyes and in the eyes of all their ancestral, patriarchal and time-honoured laws and traditions. After justice was exacted, she was put on a bus for her hometown in Hasilpur.
Zubaida sat in the bus, a serene, calm woman. She had been dragged to hell and she had found her way back to the land of the living. Through her nightmare, she had found a supernormal source of strength and a determination that had saved her and sustained her, and that now shone like an aura around her. She had survived; she would endure.
It was a bittersweet homecoming of the middle child of their family. Haq Nawaz was glad that she was alive but couldn’t in all the wisdom bequeathed to him by his forefathers, find solace in Zubaida being back home. That never happened in these tragedies; the girl necessarily sacrificed herself – one way or another. And here she was, alive and even happy. No, it was not happiness … it was more, an unnerving, chilling resolve in her face. He was afraid of his own daughter and the few times that they did speak, he couldn’t bring himself to look at her. Zubaida’s mother, with her fount of affection borne of always protecting, giving and sacrificing for her children, was less ambivalent. She held her daughter close to her for many moments. Zubaida had come back and that was God’s will. But she was also acutely aware of the will of the men around her. And their single mindedness many times superseded the tenets of faith. They would not let her daughter live in peace. They would not let the family be in peace.
Zubaida sat outside on the manji* with her parents and her sister. She was looking into their faces reaching within herself for some emotion, some joy or relief. She found none. Her parents now seemed old, wretched and diminished by life and the choices they had made. She felt nothing at being reunited with them or her sister.
Yousuf came home a few hours later. Instinctively and unabashedly he hugged his sister. She held him gently and then smiled at her beloved brother. It was the only time she had felt a vestigial wave of warmth wash over her since she’d arrived.
Yousuf gazed at his beloved sister with affection and even a little awe. She looked thoughtfully back at the face that she’d loved so dearly for the past ten years. This boy, her little brother, was the scion of their homestead. He was destined to perpetuate the family name and with it, all the norms, the cruelty and the tragedy that came with being a man in their community. He could so easily be another Rab Nawaz or Mohammad Adil …
A mass of contradictory emotions rose in her chest and then settled into nothingness. She looked away from those eyes full of inquiry and concern, unable to respond in the language of the soul. There was nothing left there anymore either.
Despite old world traditions and the sinewy tribal pillars of revenge and retribution, the world had grown smaller even for the feudal communities, who sometimes successfully as in Zubaida’s case, and other times falteringly and failingly, lived according to the exacting traditions of their forefathers. And so, in Zubaida’s case too, the story could not be secretly and utterly relegated to the annuls of tribal lore, as it meandered its way to the press and then to social media. There was a flurry of outrage and offers of assistance that ricocheted in the ether, not very much of which spilled out into the real world. Help in fact, came from an unexpected quarter: the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organisation (MMWWO). Mukhtaran Mai*, that shadowy figure who was only ever talked of in hushed tones, had now inadvertently become Zubaida’s larger than life superhero.
Six months after her ordeal, Zubaida was whisked away one last time from her parents’ home. This time however, she chose to leave. She’d been offered shelter at the MMWWO and in the wake of her matriculation exam, the opportunity to pursue a vocation of her choice in Lahore. The universe was finally responding in ways that she could understand and take advantage of.
She looked at the enrolment form that she had been filling, her pen poised over the signature line, and finally signed it “Zubaida Bibi”. Like her new mentor, she too was discarding burdensome last names. In a world which had done away with all the familial bonds of love, protection and nurturing that last names were meant to embody, it now seemed a superfluous and deceptive affectation.
She was glad to be in the real world. Buffeted as it was with trials and tribulations, it would also give her the chance to be the mistress of her own fate. She had lost her innocence but also with it, her deluded visions of a world that was never going to be kind to her. It would be real however, and she would get her own stab at levelling out the odds that were thrown at her.
And for now, that was sufficient.
* Roti: a round flatbread native to the Indian subcontinent, usually made from stoneground whole wheat flour.
* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.
* Charpai or Manji: A traditional woven bed used across South Asia.
* Mukhtaran Mai: a Pakistani human rights activist. In June 2002, Māī was the victim of a gang-rape sanctioned by a tribal council of the local Mastoi Baloch clan, as a form of 'honour revenge'.
Zubaida looked into the little mirror that hung on a nail on the otherwise bare wall of the room. She took a bit of kohl on her little finger and applied it on her lower eyelids. She thought for a moment of putting a bit of rouge on her lips but decided against it. Her mother would have her take it off anyway. It was 6 O’ clock in the morning of a special day today. She and twenty five other girls from her school who had only last week sat for the last paper of their matriculation exam, were going on a trip. It was the traditional annual outing for the graduating class to a local historical or cultural site. Zubaida’s class was going to Uch Sharif, a holy city that had been a regional metropolitan centre in the 12th and 17th centuries. It was renowned even in the present day for its centuries old historic shrines dedicated to Muslim mystics. Zubaida had been to Uch Sharif once before when she was five years old. The family – Zubaida, her parents and her seven year old sister, Arifa – had gone there to plead for the divine intervention of the Sufi saints for the blessing of a male child in the family. That was twelve years ago; she remembered little of the experience except that her mother had cried a lot and her father had not said a word until they got back home the next day. Uch Shrif was a four hour bus drive away from their home in Hasilpur*.
Ten year old Yousaf was waiting for his older sister when she emerged from their two room hut. It was a little more than a hut now after a concrete roof had been laid and a door fixed at the entrance. Their house had been a fond and arduous labor of love for the last fifteen years now, belied less and less by the outer facade and more and more by the state inside: The mud floor had caved in at various places creating hazardous little potholes across the 20 foot space; the two jute charpais* needed to be restrung; the rest of the furniture sparse and meagre as it was, was also holding together only with Arifa and their mother’s constant deft machinations.
Yousaf slept outside in the courtyard with his father on the cotton manji* that also served as the seating arrangement for the family during meals and when visitors came over. At night, the two rooms of the house exclusively became the women’s quarters as was the norm when space was limited and children were growing up. Despite the distance between the sisters and the brother that was assiduously nurtured as they grew into adolescence, Yousaf had maintained a close and affectionate bond with Zubaida. He was still young enough to consider his sisters as more than just temporary family appendages that would be permanently severed in a few years. She was his unlikely but larger than life role model. Zubaida would read him stories about jinns*, flying castles and brave princes. He would listen enraptured and agog as she read out each tale with the expressive artistry of a professional story teller.
Yousuf himself couldn’t read no matter how hard he tried. The alphabets jumbled up in front of him sending him into a panic. He’d got beatings in class for his inability to tackle his Alif, bai, pai*. When he was eight, his father had pulled him out of school. As long as he could write his name, there really was no more need of an education. He would have his hands full dealing with life as a man of the house in a few years. Better to start educating him on that front than on the leadership qualities of Baba-e-Qaum* or the rousing poetry of Allama Iqbal*. Arifa too had not fared too well academically and was also taken out of school when she was twelve. She was now nineteen and engaged to be married to Zahoor Sipra. She was a good looking girl and the proposals had come in thickly over the last few years. Haq Nawaz was shrewd when it came to long term unions; whether it was letting out a part of his two acre land to share croppers or deciding on lucrative matches for his daughters. He had waited until Ghulam Sipra had sent a proposal for Arifa for his second son. Ghulam Sipra was a wealthy man with fifteen acres of land and cattle. The union would change their fortunes considerably. In time, he would buy a clerical position for Yousuf at one of the smaller Union council government offices in the district.
Arifa’s wedding was set for March of next year, just three months away. The little family nest egg was going to be wholly used for the occasion and its multitudinous expenses. A suitable match would be found for Zubaida too, sourced through the auspicious new prosperity and connections of by then, her well-married sister. Indeed, Arifa’s betrothal was a calculated all-out move from whence the blessed, bountiful turn in their fortunes would follow.
Zubaida emerged from the inner sanctums of their home and spied Yousuf awake and waiting for her to come out. She smiled at him and through force of habit, went to fix his hair and straighten out his bedraggled night shirt that was four sizes too big for him – a hand-me-down from their father. He looked at her with shining eyes speaking volumes in that one completely happy expression. Theirs was a language of the soul, spoken through the eyes and gentle smiles. That is how they shared their most profound thoughts such as they were in their little world – through expressions of wondrous excitement, great joy or boundless sorrow, transcending the constraints and inhibitions of words. She felt her little brother’s excitement for her; his innocent awe at the prospect of her big adventure. She grinned at him as she put on her green cotton dupatta and placed a bottle of water and some food for the journey into her school bag. She had 50 rupees with her that she’d collected over the last two occasions of Eid. She would bring back something for him from Uch Sharif; a little momento and some sohan halwa* which he loved.
Yousuf walked with her to the meeting point where the bus was supposed to pick up the girls from their neighbourhood and watched her embark on her exciting voyage to that magical place he had heard so much about. Uch Sharif was where the saints had called to him to be born as the son of Haq Nawaz … and he also believed, as the brother of Zubaida. Although he never said that last part out loud. Something in the way his sisters were connected to him and the family, the protected, guarded, almost secret way in which they existed, prevented him from saying things that related them to the saints. Those saints were powerful, free and revered by everyone, even the richest man in Hasilpur.
That evening a tired but happy Zubaida came home to tragedy and chaos. Rab Nawaz, her father’s brother, had run off with a girl from Rasulabad. It was not a matter that would be solved with any due diligence by the light-handed law enforcement. In such cases the local tribal council of the community rallied to serve justice in the age old ways of their forefathers. The laws of the state were soft and morally deficient, and had allowed too many brutes to escape unscathed. A Jirga* of the elders was convening in the morning to review the case and decide on the outcome.
A sullen, raw moon rose upon Haq Nawaz’s home that night, staring coldly into the little courtyard and through the curtains, into the rooms. It was not going to be a night of serenity or sleep.
* Hasilpur: A city of 500,000 people situated between the Sutlej River and the Indian border, about a 100 km east of the district of Bahawalpur.
* Charpai or Manji: A traditional woven bed used across South Asia.
* Jinn: supernatural creatures in early pre-Islamic Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology.
* Alif, bai, pai: the ABCs of the Urdu language.
* Baba-e-Qaum: the title “Father of the Nation” given to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the first Governor General of Pakistan.
* Allama Iqbal: South Asian Muslim writer, philosopher, and politician, whose poetry and vision of a cultural and political ideal for the Muslims of British-ruled India animated the impulse for the creation of Pakistan.
* Eid: Muslim religious festivals celebrated twice a year.
* Sohan Halwa: A traditional dense, sweet confection that has been popular in South Asia since the Mughal era.
* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.
Global politics, our collective Moral Compass and the Palestinian tragedy
Funny what our world has become. We grow, we evolve, we hope to become ever better versions of ourselves, and then life gets in the way; our pursuit of success and even our quest for happiness gets in the way. Somewhere down the line, we’ve lost the actual essence of those pursuits; we’ve lost touch with what makes us human – the heart and soul equation we call our Moral Compass. This degradation of our will to distinguish between what feels wrong and what doesn’t, deep in our gut, has gone on for so long that now we don’t even recognise when we are party to cruelty, injustice or irrationality in the name of ideology, faith and correctness.
We, as a species however, are not innately bad. The overwhelming majority of us mean well. We want to do the right thing; we want to stand for the right causes; we want to speak up where it matters. But so insidious and crafty is the state of our global politics and the malicious power mongering that goes on in its toxic folds, that for large swathes of humanity to be duped, brain-washed and even numbed to atrocities is now completely normal.
The one double edged sword where the glint of steel can go either way is digital media. While it is rife with conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies, there is also a healthy spectrum of enterprising, truth telling news and information sources on there. What becomes a necessary obligation on behalf of us, the bulk of humanity using these platforms, is to do the work to separate the grain from the chaff; the truth from the lies; the sincere from the duplicitous. That will depend heavily on first, how true we stay to our own value systems and then, on how we navigate through the tortuous labyrinth of information surrounding us.
Case in point: the Palestinian tragedy. The bare-faced atrocities have gone on for so long, that we seem to have lost our collective capacity to see them for what they are. And all the while, they have become ever more brazen and cruel. If this was a hypothetical study, it would be an open and shut case long before it had even reached its current levels of criminality. And yet, while we are ideologically devoted to fair play, we appear to have lost our will, our voice and our moral authority to really make it happen. The overwhelming reason: Because the global power brokers, deal makers and profiteers continue to blast their deafening megaphones with cooked up intrigues and imagined threats, confusing, bewildering and paralysing the rest of us.
In the wake of the recent unrest however, despite all the grossly biased journalism and political posturing, it’s been heartening to see the entire international community come together as one, to voice their concerns; to make their genuine feelings about the situation heard. This time, our collective moral compass seems to be swinging in the right direction. We have proven that the vast majority of us still believe in basic decency and justice.
This then is something of a hope and a prayer for the truth seekers and the compass bearers out there. May we continue to find the moral and ideological strength to discern, weigh in and be heard. For the Palestinians and for all the others that are disenfranchised, marginalised and oppressed. Let us take back the global diplomacy narrative from the politicians and their funding platforms. Let us put back some soul and some humanity into the voices that we are raising for a more just and honest world.
* Title inspiration from Fassbinder’s 1973 movie of the same name.
Asha adjusted her bra after a final pat on its other, non-fleshy contents; the fifteen thousand rupees now nestling securely in its pendulous grasp. It was the day she had to drop off the rent at her landlord’s house on her way back from work. She smiled widely and catching her reflection in the little mirror on the wall, became at once guarded, gathering up the grin into a coy little smile. Dark spirits were everywhere and she knew innately through generations of stories and behavioural legacies that she couldn’t be overt with the profoundness of her joy. Bad omens had a propensity of springing from the happiest of moments.
Even so, she walked to work with a spring in her step. She was a short, portly woman so that buoyancy itself was a purveyor and teller of her bliss to even the least discerning of spectators. In her mind though, while she had to watch herself outwardly, her thoughts were free to roam unfettered in her secret spaces of delight. Finally! Finally the day that she and her husband had been dreaming of for the last 25 years was around the corner: their eldest son, Danish was graduating from university with a Bachelors degree. He would change his world; his sister’s future; their combined fortunes. She would quit her job as a maid and her husband would stop cleaning the sewage lines he’d been wallowing knee-deep in for the last two decades. The smell never quite washed off his skin now. They’d build their own little house; no more scraping and scrounging every month to meet the rent – that monster that loomed large with ravening regularity outside their tiny two room hovel.
Her breath caught in her throat as she allowed her imagination to revel in the bountifulness of precious opportunity and new beginnings. She looked towards the sky with a little prayer on her lips whispering a soft Hai Bhagwan … to the gods and goddesses, this time for their unconditional beneficence. Her prayers were usually modest, economical, always allowing for the fickleness of fate and the peevishness of deities. She never asked for the requiescence of impossible dreams; only the rendering of realistic milestones such as they were in the thorny existence of her people. But this time, she had put in the work; For 25 years, 10 hours every day; of her blood, sweat and tears; of washing, sweeping and cooking for others. This time, her life’s main purpose would be done when her son graduated from university. She could do with every ounce of celestial magnanimity and largesse in the completion of this, her most blessed enterprise.
‘Walaikum salam. Kya baat hai? Aaj bari khush lag rahi ho’(1)said her employer as Asha walked into the apartment, her face flushed with her recent cerebration. She smiled shyly and decided that the home where she had been working for the last five years was as devoid of ill omens as a place could be, and proceeded to share her good news. Her employer, Baji or older sister as Asha and the vast majority of domestic staff called their female employers, had always been good to her and most of all, was undiscriminating. Unlike the vast masses, she was surprisingly unaffected by the faith of those who cooked and cleaned for her. That was probably one of the main reasons for the longevity of Asha’s current employment. She glowed in the rare telling of an even rarer propitious event in her life. Her Baji was genuinely happy for her and told her that she was expecting a box of Asha’s special home made gulab jamun* the day of Danish’s graduation.
Besides being the curator of discreet, precious dreams, Asha was an accomplished cook and was the designated neighbourhood sweetmeat maker for festivals like Diwali and Holi. Her services were also sought out during Eid celebrations by those whose gastronomic inclinations outweighed their fear of moral transgression: If she cooked in their homes, in their vessels, the designated sin allocation was greatly reduced. And then, there were other prayerful ways to wash away such lesser impieties …
Asha got to work, her mind far away in fields of her own dreams. During her short break for lunch, she pulled out her phone to look at he her son’s smiling face on the display screen. He’d been at the front and center of her mind today, pulling at her heart strings and filling her thoughts. She suddenly recalled the words of a relative who imagined himself to be something of a fortune teller. He’d said, Danish would he famous- his name would be in the newspapers …
She smiled indulgently. She’d be happy with his uneventful graduation and an unremarkable transition into the cadres of bank officers that she saw driving to work every day. Rising every morning with their big dreams and fulfilling them in the cool sanctums of enterprise that towered on both sides of the I.I. Chundrigar road. They were resplendent in their suits and ties – Danish would be resplendent in his suit and tie! She felt a little shiver run up her spine as her one prodigious vision for her one son enveloped her in its fiery, explosive embrace.
Today she was leaving early to stop by the landlord’s and to visit the Punch Mukhi Hanuman Mandir in Soldier bazaar. Like all her compatriots, while she revered the entire deific gamut, she had her divine favourites too, and hers were Lords Shiva and Hanuman.
After a brief stop at her landlord’s house, with the month’s obligation fulfilled, she caught the W11 bus to Soldier bazaar and made her way to the temple. Even though it was a Thursday, the wide arched entryways into the temple were thronging with worshippers. The Maha Shivrathri* festival was approaching and while the actual event would take place at the Shiv Mandir in Umerkot a month from now, the regular petitioners like herself and the generally devoted were already faithfully marking time at their city temples. She had already asked her employer for a week off in March when she and her family would travel to the southern part of Sind to Amarkot as Asha and her community referred to the fort city among themselves; harking back to the days when the city was ruled by its Hindu founder Maharaja Amar Singh. It was one of the many little linguistic deviations that they held onto among themselves, from the Islamic recolouring of history in their now Islamic homeland. Despite the prevalent lack of formal education, these pithy historical and cultural facts had permeated through their community as a meaningful reminder that they were as much a part of the rich tradition and history of the land as their Muslim neighbours and rulers were. Rulers, because there was also still a vestigial sense of being the minority peasantry in someone else’s kingdom. But these were the visceral, unavoidable facts of being a part of the fabric of the country; and despite the ordinary and extraordinary odds, there were also glimmers and inklings of a better future. A future secured by their children and spearheaded by the tireless enterprise of their parents and grandparents.
Asha walked into the temple and sat down on the cool black and white tiles. She closed her eyes and folded her hands in supplication and prayer. She had to talk to the deities, beseech them, cajole them for their blessings; for their generosity and their kindness. This time, she had no bargaining chip to offer. She wanted the whole blessed profusion of her son’s graduation, job and future.
Asha remembered the incidents of the next two days in a haze of delirium and torment. It had been a sticker with a verse on it. Someone had put it on Danish’s text book. He had removed it and pasted it on the desk. And then … she couldn’t think beyond that sequence of events. It ratcheted through her head in an endless loop, protecting her and agonising her in turn. The innate self preservation instinct of a mother with another yet vulnerable, yet susceptible child, prevented her from recalling the entire tragedy. The tragedy that had transformed joyous anticipation and smiling fortunes into a cruel, heart-wrenching finale.
The local paper called it a “scuffle on university grounds triggered by a wilful act of blasphemy”. While Danish survived the savage mob that was out for blood-thirsty retributon, he was not spared the statutory penance of his act. And so, he was stripped of his university credentials and incarcerated for “desecration of the Quran”. With him he brought down the tenuous little edifice of dreams and aspirations of yet another generation of his family.
In the wake of the tragedy, Asha’s husband had called her employer saying she was ill and would be away for 10 days. Now they also had to contend with keeping this new born scandal under wraps from employers, neighbours and random justice wielders.
Asha went back to work after a week. It took her those many days to pick up the broken pieces of her heart and put them away in some dark corner where no one, not even she could see them. She had to go on. There was 12 year old Ramesha to look after. She would have to uproot and reseed her dreams, her prayers and her hopes. She would have to go on.
‘Kya haal hai Asha? Theek ho abhi?’(2) asked her Baji with a look of concern on her face. Asha responded automatically with the alacrity born of the restlessness of time and the lightning glance of never-to-return opportunities of her world.
‘Gulab jamun ka intezar hai – Inshallah, abhi itni dair nahi rahi’(3), she added smiling. Asha touched her heart as if in placation, humble recall, while the broken pieces inside huddled a little more into her grieving, weeping spaces.
(1): ‘What’s up? You’re looking very happy today!’
* Gulab Jamun: A milk-solid based sweet from the Indian subcontinent.
* Maha Shivrathri: A major festival in Hinduism, the solemn occasion marks a remembrance of overcoming darkness and ignorance in life and the world. It is observed by remembering Shiva and chanting prayers, fasting, and meditating on ethics and virtues such as honesty, non-injury to others, charity, forgiveness, and the discovery of Shiva.
(2): ‘How are you Asha? Are you recovered now?’
(3): ‘I’m still waiting for the gulab jamun. God willing, it can’t be long now’
We are such a plagued nation, full of dichotomies and hypocrisies. Respectability, patience and civility have forsaken our national psyche a long, long time ago.
And so we blunder and bluster and we barge ahead with nothing to show for our high-handedness but a spiritually depleted image of the crescent moon and star … It is heartbreaking to think this is the best we can be.
The very essence of our religion continues to be hijacked by those that want to keep pulling us into the dark ages. In the midst of all the inane interpretation and bizarre commentaries around the tenets of our religion, we have gone from one abysmal depth to the next. Each “moral incidence” so much more ludicrous than the last, that we have as a nation quite absolutely forgotten real empathy, intelligence and our sense of community. We have forgotten what it means to be a part of a religion that is innately compassionate, tolerant and peaceful. Case in point: our freakish position and regulation around Blasphemy. A colonial construct, it never existed in its current form and fury in the predominantly Muslim ruled subcontinent before the nineteenth century. And then, it was signed into law to ensure that the differences between the 2 major religions were highlighted rather than the similarities which had bound them into a relatively homogenous society before then. That served to keep the two communities divided and separate which suited our occupiers in their machiavellian Game of Thrones.
Since then and more than in any other Muslim country, the Blasphemy Law has become a chip on our collective Pakistani shoulders that we love to invoke when we want to remind ourselves of who’s the boss. What we fail to take into account is that in a country that is 97% Muslim, we are overhwlemingly The Boss. Our religion is not under threat; we are not a minority trying to keep our vulnerable communities safe. We are the ones in control and therefore the ones obligated to show compassion and forebearance. Instead, we have as a society and a State created a monster in the name of religion.
The truth of the matter is that Islam has not laid down any set definition or punishment for Blasphemy. (Remember… Islam started out as a compassionate, progressive and tolerant religion). As such there are as many interpretations of the word and the laws governing it as there are scholars and Muslim countries. And yet, we in Pakistan have ensured that we make the ultimate brutal joke of the concept, punishing only those who are the least capable of defending themselves – the poor and the minorities. Our short history is rife with shamefully copious examples.
There is much to be done on the socio-religious fronts in our besieged country to render our communities more humane and inclusive. There is also ample opportunity to mend our policies where they are the most cruel and unusual; and our Blasphemy Laws are as good a place as any to start.
And so it was on another quite uneventful day that the PM of our besieged nation finally put in his two bits to exacerbate our social dilemma just a little more. The tenuous progress that we had made, all things considered (the “Aurat” [Women’s] March, the now audible Moderate social segment lobbying for change, the little everyday triumphs of the Pakistani woman) were pushed right out the window with a single damning sentence. With one unthinking response, Imran Khan gave license to 120 million of the nation’s denizens to judge, demean and assault the other 120 million based on nothing more than macho whims and fancies.
Still, I’m sincerely hoping it was a primal knee jerk reaction not entirely thought through (our patriarchy is copiously given to that). The alternative would mean that he’s been well and truly conditioned by the right wing brigade outside of his home; and by the crystal balls of a soothsaying spouse inside.
If I put aside all emotions and outrage (and believe me, that takes some doing in this case) and analyse it for what it is, it still comes across as grossly irresponsible coming from a Head of Government. More so, because so many of us who believe in a better, more progressive, more prosperous Pakistan have consistently jumped to his defense over the past not entirely scintillating 3 years. When his naysayers condemned him; when his detractors demonised him; when other global leaders criticized him, there was a bulwark of us who stood by him, defended him and made excuses for him. After all, he was a newbie in politics and he had the right to make his share of mistakes in matters of governance and international diplomacy.
But this…. this has really been heart breaking. Disappointing. Infuriating. Like the tragic submersion of the last lifeboat on a sinking ship. One would think that for someone who’s been married 3 times, who consistently exercised his right to seek the most optimal mate for himself; one who obviously appreciated a woman who knew her mind, was aware of her rights and who lived by those credos, would be more sensitive to the adversities that the average woman suffers in Pakistan. Whether it is exercising her right to education, to working, to her freedom, to her basic safety, to making every effort to be the fullest and best version of herself. Instead, Imran Khan behaved like the archetypal patriarchal male who’s been caught with his shalwar down and has to somehow deflect the blame elsewhere.
The truth is, there is still no one else out there to honestly attend to the matters of the State. Here the qualifying word is Honesty. In our nation mired as it is in subversive political antics and corruption; where every preceding head of State has somehow managed to defraud, snatch and steal from the ever suffering public, IK was an honest to goodness breath of fresh air. We the women have, through the unceasing trials and tribulations perpetrated by the men in and around our circles of life, learnt a wisdom that has also been our survival tactic: to look at the larger picture, put aside even monumental grudges and march on. That’s what makes us formidable but also vulnerable. So while we march on Mr.PM, we also look to you to do your duty: Apologize publicly to the 120 million women of the country that you’re leading. Not because we would wither away without those words of redress, but because we want to continue to feel relatively safe in the land we call home.
Recently there was a simple, endearing display of affection between a couple that had just decided to spend the rest of their lives together. The proposal was made on the University of Lahore campus amidst their friends and was followed by an affectionate hug between the couple. That embrace was so demonised by the vocal right, that it now hangs like the sword of democles over the heads of the hapless couple*. A hug! Their fault was that they behaved normally in a sweet moment of joy, rather than in the unnatural constipated manner that is de rigeur and “decent” for all happy occasions involving a man and a woman. Most of the social media comments about the incident have left me not only stunned but also depressed. They well and truly show up the ugly patriarchal underbelly of our besieged society.
From celebrating birthdays to personal successes to proposals, the way of the pious right around their other halves in public is to behave with no more feeling than a vacuum cleaner. (Or a toaster if your tech knee jerk brings visions of food to mind rather than a sparkling floor!)
When did we become so hypocritical, intolerant and judgmental? It could have been during the focused militant Islamization of the country in the wake of the American proxy war with Soviet Russia. Or, it could have been the critical tipping points where socio religious decisions that could have laid the blueprints for a more equitable, inclusive and psychologically healthy society, were made instead to appease the extremist fringe which has always had the loudest megaphones. And so now in 2021, while the rest of the world is debating AI* ethics, we still consider half our human population as circumstantial, where laws and rights blur into oblivion: if you happen to inherit the Y chromosome, every opportunity opens up to you; but if you land up with the double (h)ex, you’re left to the mercy of male egos, testosterone-fuelled whims and religious fillibusters. Indeed, it is this gross distortion in how the State views each gender that has led to this stunning breakdown of social normalcy.
This dismal failing on the part of our legislative bodies and our religious leadership has also led to what can only be described as a collectivenational psychosis. Women and men alike are exhibiting bizarre mental derangement, with one imagining the world revolves around him and the other, that the world does indeed revolve around him. Oh, and she helps to spin it.
So detrimental to our social structures and mental and emotional wellness is this state of affairs that as with any imbalance in nature be it physical or emotional, there are ultimately equalizing and opposing forces to repair the equilibrium (bless Newton!). And so, in the case of our Islamic republic, despite being the alleged custodians of orthodoxy and conservatism, we also have the dubious recognition of being one of the top porn searching/ watching countries in the world. (There are some Western and African countries that surpass our national porn viewership but they don’t profess to be Islamic, Christian or Jewish Republics. They are secular states and largely follow the philosophy of “live and let live” that we combatively decry). Does Islam consider this kind of sexual titillation a cardinal sin? Yes absolutely. Is that a deterrent? Never, in spite of all the impassioned denials. Can we sit back and morally judge this fall from grace? No; since it is, in big part, the attempt of our human psyche to compensate for the abnormal lack of everyday warmth and emotional fulfilment in even normal, legally contracted relationships.
Relegating all kinds of affection behind closed doors also paints the most innocent gestures of love and care with the brush of indecency and impropriety. Children in our society never see their parents sharing a quick hug or a kiss on the cheek in public; and because they don’t see that affection, they never learn to associate it with the simple fact of being human, being a family and being connected. And so we’re assiduously spawning generations that are increasingly intolerant, embarrassed and offended by any overt show of warmth, affection and joy.
I recall a couple of episodes from my own corporate life where I was also a member of the Committee on Ethical Conduct. The committee, expected to dispense disciplinary action, was shown CCTV footage of young boys and girls, fresh entrants into the corporate fold, caught in compromising situations in little-used ATM kiosks. These hijab-wearing young women and bearded young men were probably from stiflingly conservative households. Having had no outlet for even normal social interactions with the opposite sex while growing up, and later, outside of work, led them to commit unthinking acts of pent up frustration. These were not “bad” men and women. They were the unfortunate products of our small minded, aberrant approach to inter-gender community, accessibility and interaction.
Until we stop claiming the moral high ground with nothing dazzling to show for it; until we stop judging and look beyond ourselves at some of the progressive ways of the rest of humankind that is almost 8 billion strong; until we stop associating rigidity and patriarchy with the essence of Islam, we will continue to erode the very humanity from our societies. We will continue to devolve until there is nothing left but the detritus of hate, bigotry and dogmatism.
The violent invective and demeaning actions we reserve for any kind of openness have to stop. The egos have to be reined in. We as a nation and as an Islamic community need to unlearn the intolerance and hypocrisy around love, and relearn how to feel comfortable with expressions of basic warmth and affection. There has to be more to us than unkempt beards, holy wars and houri* birthrights.
It’s time we found and focused on other, more positive legacies of our rich Islamic heritage.
** Title inspiration and adaptation from the 1985 Gabriel G. Marquez novel titled “Love in the time of Cholera” * Read the original News story here: https://ara.tv/g558y * AI: Artifical Intelligence *Houri: a beautiful young woman, especially one of the virgin companions of the faithful in the Muslim Paradise.
Day ends and darkness sweeps in, Enveloping the ready and the unready into its blackened folds. It scuttles into crannies and leaps into fissures, Blotting out the light for another 8 hours ... or eternity... Tonight, am I happy to be in its restful, warm embrace Galvanizing my body and my spirit for tomorrow? Or am i dreading the walk with Erebus* in the murky corridors of gloom? The choice is mine to make.
Night ends and daylight marches in Casting off the monochromatic grey-black silhouettes. Lingering shadows disappear; the sounds of silence explode into daytime clamor. Exultant photons ricochet through the air As Earth waltzes around her own cosmic maypole; one dance done, another begun. Am I ready to seize the day today? Or am I dreading the tread of Helios* outside my bedroom window? The choice is mine to make.
The gods of Myth and the gods of Now Continue their battle in the sacred space of my heart. They wrangle with each other, the twain never meeting; Perpetuating confusion, torment and intrigue; Shredding my soul as the spoils of their unholy war. Will I continue to shed blood, lose hope and malinger for the false prophets within? Or am I ready to make this day, this life, my own? It is MY choice to make.
*Erebus: The god of Darkness in Greek mythology *Helios: the god of the Sun in Greek mythology
A tribute to the brave young men and women who battle everyday to come to terms with their identity and a perennially judgmental, dogmatic society. May each of you find the strength to be the truest and best version of yourself.
Geena woke up with a monster of a headache. She sat up slowly, disoriented, the neurons in her brain firing a piercing staccato. She held her throbbing head as the events of the previous evening flitted across her hippocampus in discordant technicolour… a night out with friends, B52 shots, Neelu was there, more shots, they’d talked, vodka shots, she was definitely the one, they’d danced, even more shots, they’d kissed…. The memories bounced around her head in weird harmony with the stabs of pain in her body, making her grimace. Geena, the fighter of causes, the Robina-hood of small but essential kindnesses, the dogged agent of change for others, was a frightened, anxious little girl when it came to herself. When did she become so weak? She frowned against the whipping, curdling flow of her boozy blood, arming herself with the shifty valour of self-suggestion.
Say it Geena! Just own it! SAY IT OUT LOUD!
Her head pounded harder, punishing her… for what? For what she wanted to say? For what she couldn’t say? She quivered with the effort.
She couldn’t voice it; her identity, her very being continued to hide inside her like a deep, dark, dirty secret. She crumpled, her spine bent, her voice as silent as the tombs of long forgotten conquerors. No, this wasn’t the day she was going to be her own hero.
Geoff came inside the house, tossing his keys onto the console table. He was glad to be home; it had been an unusually busy Sunday morning. He went straight up to Geena’s room and found her still in bed. She was asleep. He looked at her, at the exhaustion etched in her beautiful face, at the sweet innocence that still enfolded his 18 year old daughter. It had been another one of those nights when she’d arrived home drunk, angry and tearful. How he wished his wife, Ruwani was still around… was still alive. She had been the loving, grounding anchor for this now somewhat dissonant family. He sighed… Ruwani would have known how to handle this teenage angst. He had tried talking to Geena but had always come up against a wall as fortified as it was high; she wouldn’t let him in. He got himself a glass of ice cold water and sat down, mindlessly switching on the television. Anderson Cooper on CNN was saying something about America’s decaying morality…
Something was nagging at him. It was something about morality and uprightness. About righteousness. It was about family values, about being respectable and … being normal. There was an elusive element of normalcy that seemed to be missing from his life… from Geena’s life…
He shook off the strange, disconcerting feelings – like he always did. He’d have to talk to Geena about her drinking. And he’d make it a point to ask about that new boy he’d seen with her group the other day. He never thought he’d say this to her before she was 30, but a nice boy in her life would actually be good for her.
Geena woke up at past 6pm, splintery glimmers of her hangover still keeping her company. She took a couple of panadols to quiet the tumult in her head and lay back in bed, looking at the ceiling overhead. As the pain receded, she became aware of a faint little feeling in her chest… a feeling of something new, something spirited, something honest. It warmed her, tickled her, strengthened her. She smiled tremulously, blinking in the anticipation of the ultimate truth-telling, of a final release from her demons. She was going to talk to her father about it. She was going to tell him that she … she liked girls. She always had. She was a lesbian. That word… still awkward on the tongue and yet that’s what she was. She let the idea float around her head, felt it fuse with her thoughts, sensed it coursing through her body.
She grinned widely – hopeful, nervous, anxious… but mostly hopeful.
It was another Friday night at apartment TP-1.
Tonight though, there was the ragged aura of broken hearts. The truth-telling, the sharing of confidences, the spiritual reckoning had been had. A father sat slumped in his chair, wounded, silent. A daughter stood looking at him, shattered, resigned, her breath coming in ragged gasps. Despite everything, he wanted to reach out. Even in the abyss of her despair, she looked at him, willing him to reach out.
De Khudai pe aman
*A Brave New World: Title inspiration from Aldous Huxley’s dystopian social science fiction novel of the same name.