VERSE | LOOK SOFTLY

Look softly my darling 
When you look at me
Be calm and be tender
As I take my leave

I want to remember
Your lovely face
Serene and peaceful
As I leave this place

Let us talk of things
That are close to our hearts
Of bittersweet endings
Of gentle new starts

Of faces and places
Those still here, those gone
Of tea-cozied rainy days
As I hum my last song

Look softly my dear one
When you look at me
Let your beautiful smile
Be the last thing I see
Painting by my sister, Zeenath

VERSE | DO YOU REMEMBER?

Do you remember when you felt the blood
Gushing through your body
You felt it etch into your being
All the kindness, courage and love
That you thought you could ever feel
And your heart sang!

Do you remember how your breath
Caught in your throat. The sheer shock
Of those emotions rocking you inside
You felt so overwhelmed that your tear ducts
Felt the strain. You blinked your wet eyes
And your heart sang!

You looked straight ahead
The wave kept rising in your chest
You felt like you were everything
That you were meant to be. Your atoms ricocheted
With those around you. Nature played
A little bit of handball as she caught
Your atoms in her hands and passed her own to you
And your heart sang!

Do you remember feeling like this was
The perfect moment in your time
In your space, in your place
And everything had come together that day to remind you
That your heart was aligned with all
That defined you as the happiest version of yourself
And oh your heart, it sang!

You don’t remember - not really. Neither do I. I mean
I remember the warmth in my being, the love flowing out
In waves, in rivers. A oneness with the essence of the world
But beyond that, I can’t remember; I can’t evoke the feeling
Something has gone awry, something has been lost
Along the way
But I still see its ghost flitting
Vaguely passing before my eyes when I am still
But my heart, it doesn’t sing.

VERSE | THE IMPERMANENCE OF BEING

I wake up, my mind numb, my legs feeling
Like 10 kg bags of wet cement
Have been tied to my ankles; weighting
Me down, ripping a dent
With my name in the fabric of the universe.
I think briefly of yesterday, it was the reverse
Of the state of my mind, as it ties and it binds
Me today as if to remind
Me that nothing ever is permanent - No.
Nothing stays forever, it isn’t meant to.
Charmed luck, joy, good health and peace
Hardship, tragedy, anxiety and disease
They come, they take their turns at the wheel
Some lasting longer, some just touch you and flee.
I wake up, my mind numb, my body feeling like lead
But tomorrow I’m hoping I won’t feel so dead.

VERSE | THE ANATOMY OF HOPE

It is feeling like the world has overcome 
You body and soul and then some
It’s like drowning in a bottomless sea
Gasping, gasping, trying to breathe
Sputtering, choking reaching for air
Crashing, thrashing limbs everywhere;
It’s feeling the whole world closing in
Vision blurring, darkness descending.
It’s being sure that many endings are near:
Of wanting, of living and even of fear;
It’s feeling the numbness spread like a pall
Binding you, blinding you even as you fall
Into the swirling, whirling abyss
Of dead emotions; of nothingness.

It’s finally seeing the smallest of gleams
Picking the darkness at its hoary seams
Little by little the flicker grows bright
Ever so slowly it pierces the night.
Your leaden heart too warms in the heat
Resuming its vital, pulsating beat;
You rise to the surface on a rip tide
You’re thawing and warming on the inside.
You break the surface of your despair
As your throttled lungs fill up with air;
Gasping, gasping you take in a breath
Sputtering and choking you hold on to the thread
Of the world coming back within reach;
Hope on strong wings, has ended the siege

She gathers you up in her healing arms
Anointing you with her soothing balms
Freeing you, steeling you so that you may walk
Another day with strength and love in your heart.

VERSE | THE SHADES OF LONELINESS

I’ve seen the colours of loneliness
I’ve seen their moldering faces
I’ve seen them fill the keening voids
Of our broken, scattered places.
It’s the grey of the sky just before it descends
In blinding cascades
Of granite and slate
While waiting for that one special friend of the heart
Who’s gone an infinite distance apart.
Gone forever; not coming back.
It’s the darkening shades of smoke and ash
Stifling and choking. It’s emotional whiplash.

It’s the curdled russet and clotted yellow
Of dying leaves
Still on the trees.
It’s the hope that once blossomed,
Now just a vanishing dream;
Like fading delusions;
And fractured illusions.
Like wasting ivy, still clinging tightly
To the mottled, purple-bruised spaces within.

It’s the decayed red of old blood
That has flowed and then congealed
From scarred old wounds
In the fallow fields
Of the innermost corners of your being.
It’s the throbbing new cuts of remembrance-pain
That sear you with their scarlet heat
Scorching your insides until there remain
Only the rust-dripping embers of defeat.

It’s these mottled hues and grainy textures
Of mangled hearts and hurting souls
Its the piercing, stinging, strangling tightness
In the pit of the stomach; in the back of the throat.
In the end, it is all of this
That make up the tinctures of loneliness
That fill up all our sad and desolate spaces.

SHORT STORY| THE GODS OF FURY

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’

VERSE| THE WOODEN BENCH

We have all, at some time or another been overwhelmed, overpowered, bested by our grief, anxiety and wretchedness. At those times, some of us have also been lucky enough to have that one place where we have, for a while, found some degree of quietude and peace. This is a tribute to those secret little places and spaces of comfort and healing in our lives.

There is this wooden bench I like
It’s not fancy; quite the common type.
Cloaked in by the dappled canopy
Of a gracefully pirouetting Mara tree,
It sits in the park like a dear old friend
It’s well-worn embrace ever welcoming.
A young couple walks up, caught in the grips of wrath
Love is lost; it’s the wretched aftermath;
Words are exchanged until the fury’s spent
Frustration - Anxiety - Sadness - Silence.
Then they sit down on the wooden bench ...
Gradually, muscles relax and nerves untense.
Even if it is a passing interlude,
Loads are lightened; hearts are soothed.

Wild flowers grow lushly around its feet
Bobbing bright heads to Earth’s vital beat.
The bench sits there like a quiet friend
It’s well-worn seat ever welcoming.
A man sits down in a state of unease
Holding on to his hat in an errant breeze.
He picks up his phone and looks at the screen;
The unlit glass reflects the tranquil scene ...
He looks up and around him his brow somewhat eased
Fleeting albeit, he’s found his moment of peace.

Songful birds and their terrestrial friends
Roam warbling and chittering around the bench;
Hoping for a serendipitously fallen treat
They browse busily around the seat.
A wheelchair-bound man looks up at an overcast sky;
His female companion already has water in her eyes.
They sit side by side in worlds of their own
Reminisnce weighs heavy of days that are gone ...
A mynah trills as a light drizzle falls
And a sweet petrichor briefly dispels the pall.
The man looks at her, takes her hand and she smiles
For now they’re alright; tomorrow is still a while.

I too have sat in Nature’s restoring arms
On that bench where she weaves her alchemical charms.
I too have unburdened my hopes and my fears
I too have laid my bursting heart bare;
And I have heard her soothing murmurs
That have quietened my deepest despair.
I’ve looked into her soft eyes from that corner in the park
For a time, my soul too has emerged from the dark;
The clouds have parted; the sun has shone through
And I’ve breathed more easily, sitting on that wooden pew.

VERSE| I AM ALRIGHT

You ask me if I’m alright ...
I am alright, but the stabbing ache in my heart is not alright.

You ask me if I’m ok ...
I am ok, but the stranglehold of despair around my throat is not ok

You ask me if I’m fine ...
I am fine, but the icy grip of fear in my soul is not fine.

I need to remove the steely shards from my heart, one piercing sliver at a time;
Even if a hole, an abysmal gorge remains, I can learn to fill it with other things, better things.

I need to loosen the malevolent grip of hopelessness, one hoary, gnarled finger at a time;
And learn to open myself up to the comfort of a quiet, gentle embrace.

I need to thaw the icicles of dread, one knifelike lance at a time;
and learn to warm my soul with the simple heat of being alive.

I know that I need to learn to separate my angst from my being; learn to put the wretchedness to bed
So that every so often, I am able to feel whole, happy and free.

And so my friend, when you ask me if I am well
I say I am well, because I’m learning to take care of the most fragile parts of myself.

I will be alright; I will be fine; I will be ok

VERSE|DUST IN OUR EYES

Inspired by the vastness of our universe, and the impermanence and fragility of our own little blue green planet. 
The moon hangs low like a key lime pie
In a firmament strewn with golden gleams of zest;
The sky like a cosmic porcelain platter
Holds this sweet perfection in a state of rest

I sip on my tea as I sit back in my chair
And look at the glimmering stars up on high
My mind is a telescope of infinite scale
My soul, a radar that amplifies

I see nebulous orbs dancing around;
I see their frigid friends standing their ground;
I see the little ones and the gargantuan greats;
I see the middling ones jostling for space.

I see luminous worlds move in grandiose arcs
Leaving star dust in their celestial wake;
I see comets race into ethereal depths,
Gleefully chased by their blazing tails

I see weighty old stars in their twilight of being
Collapse in a mighty roar of ultimate endings;
I see embryonic knots of vital masses,
Heating up at their core in hopeful beginnings

I see torus-shaped, shard-textured asteroid belts
Circling around an oblong of planets;
I feel the formidable power of gamma ray bursts,
As they cannonade up vaults of ink-silver granite

I see pulsars and quasars whirling around;
Solar winds spreading out in feathered plumes.
I hear the happy hum of the cosmos above me,
Like a foetus hears her mother from inside the womb.

I collapse the telescope of my mind;
I shut down the radar of my soul.
I look back down into the eyes of our Earth,
Now blurred and smudged with eventide kohl

I don’t hear the hum of her kinetic voice;
Nor feel the tenderness of her warm embrace.
I don’t smell the bouquet of her fragrant skin;
Nor see the glow of her beautiful face

The cosmos continues to dazzle and shine
To skip and to leap, to dive and to fly;
While our own little world continues to be
The storm in our teacups; the dust in our eyes.
“Earth’s crammed with heaven…
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”
Elizabeth B. Browning

VERSE| RAVAGED

A tribute (brutal and raw so we don’t forget) to all those courageous girls who have been made victims of our ugly patriarchal social fabric, and who have stood up to their tormentors/ violators and even their protectors to stop the abuse. And to those brave, brave girls who continue to fight to survive another day. May we see this horror begin to end in our lifetimes.

It’s my wedding day today; i am 17 years old.
It is also the 6th anniversary of the 28th time “It” happened,
And the 3rd anniversary of the 153rd time.
I have this terrible memory - my teachers call it a photographic memory.
I remember everything. I can’t forget even when i want to.
My mind is a notebook, each page blazing with the clarity of vulgar recall
I have tried to be good; to remember only what i should
But I have this terrible memory...

Today I’m to wed my uncle - My father’s younger brother.
For him, it is also the 6th anniversary of the 28th time “It” happened.
And all the anniversaries in between.
I wonder if he remembers the 28th time...the 10th time....
The First time...
I wonder if his memory is as unforgiving as mine.
My notebook has no entries on conjectures, or pain or anguish
Not mine; not anyone else’s.
It is only the sum total of the number of times “It” happened.
Each page pristine, detailed, crystal clear, with edges as sharp as knives;
Bestowing countless paper cuts as they stir secretly in my head.
Those blessed paper cuts ... mental cuts .... numberless abrasions, innumerably inflicted to forget a page;
To forget one instance.
That never happens.
But i find some peace as the physical pain temporarily cloaks me in its tenderly piercing grasp.

Today I will become the wife of Harris lala* .... Harris.... No, I can’t bring myself to drop the suffix
Maybe he will finally become nameless. Tranquilizingly, numbingly, mercifully nameless.
My mother is relieved... she has been a silent witness (his co-conspirator?) to the last 5 anniversaries of when “It” first happened
My father hasn’t really spoken to me in 3 years (his Protector?) .... not since the day I tried to tell him that his brother had ... had been ... my mind still refuses to name “It”
Today I also learned that I’d stood first in the Board matriculation exam.
I resent that accolade .... that worldly consummation of my terrible memory.... my terrifyingly acute, my savage, unrelenting memory.

Today, my tormenter (my violator?) will become my partner for life
Today, I’m going to finally close the Notebook in my mind
Today, I’m going to be respectable once again.
Today will be the First day of the consummation of my marriage!

(Today will be the 389th time that i will be ravaged).

De Khudai pe aman.

Lala: term of respect for older male relative, mainly denoting “big brother”. Used commonly across most communities in Pakistan and the northern parts of India.

VERSE|The Lady with the Mona Lisa Smile

For the gracious Padmini Pelpola – the lady who lit up the porch every evening at number 12 Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha.

We were in the throes of the affliction, all lives tossed quite asunder,
Everyone struggling with their own version of their worlds-turned-upside-down.
I too was grappling with the changes
In a curfew-riddled cocoon of my own.
There was a painful psychosis that had swept over the city
And it was all we could do to hold on to little glimmers of patience, resilience and hope.

It was in this atmosphere, saturated as I was with pandemic fatigue
Holding onto the one thing i knew that helped me to center
To fight off the depression for one more day - my evening walk;
It was then that I saw her sitting in that little porch near the car park of the apartment building.
A vision of serenity, grace and beauty, borne of a life well-lived.

She was holding court as I came to see she would, every evening
Equally at ease with her solitude, as with the conversational company of those that sought her out;
She was scintillating, she was vibrant, she was calm and she was kind.
I watched in awe and then through occasional glances.
For i was mesmerised and yet I was aware that I might spook her -
Spook the perfection of those two blissfully normal hours of which she was the gracious alchemist.

So I looked forward to my evening walk in the apartment parking lot,
For that was the extent of our locked-down freedom.
And i looked forward to saying hello to her and to receiving in return, her lovely smile every time.
I fed off the revitalizing energy of that precious little exchange for the next six weeks.
And then things returned to normal and I didn’t see her for a while.
But the memory of those heart-warming little interactions stayed with me like the glow of a just-settled sunset.

And then I heard that she’d passed on. Suddenly. Just like that.
And the news hit me in a strange, inexplicably sad manner.
And I realised that I didn’t know her at all, and yet, for me and a handful of others,
She had been the unwavering harbinger of a wonderful, uplifting calmness at a time of great disquietude.

And so I write this little eulogy, a remembrance if you will
Of a life well-lived, and I am sure, a soul well-loved;
Of the lady with the Mona Lisa Smile.

De Khudai pe aman

VERSE| I Need To Find You Again

I wrote this dedication 8 years ago for my mother who passed away in October 2012 after a very brave, very arduous battle with cancer. She’s missed everyday, but now also celebrated every day. She remains the Queen of our Hearts.

My heart’s shattered into little pieces.
My mind struggles to synthesise reality.
I find myself suspended in painful limbo - i look for you; catch glimpses of you in everything around me - and then you’re gone.
I’m left staring at vestiges - a vase of flowers you fixed; a shirt you hemmed; a text you wrote.

Your courage, your grace, your love and your compassion;
These are such dauntingly enormous qualities.
With you around, i gave myself false courage: I had your DNA; i was bound to be in some small measure, the Woman of Substance that you were.
Now I can’t find the courage nor the grace. And my love and my compassion seem spent.
I need to know you’re still around.....

Even as I write this, I see your beautiful, smiling face looking right at me - vibrant, loving, comforting, happy.

I need to synchronise my heart with yours again, Mama.
I need to find my “Woman of Substance” that you have bequeathed to the three of us.
I need to find you again.

And as in birth, so in adulthood, I WILL find you again.

I love you.

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