Wanted to share with you the first ever review of my book of short stories “The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta and other stories”. The review was done by Maha Qazi of the YouTube channel Maha’s Musings.
She’s done a pretty good summary of the book in general and has also mentioned very relevant specifics from within some of the stories.
Take a look!
(P.S. I would describe myself as a “corporate RUT absconder. A bit of a Nutty enigma in the intro there! 😅)
The peacock was now an intermittent visitor to the garden at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui, just as Sumaira’s heartiness had become more and more an occasional companion. She couldn’t help drawing a comparison between the bird seeking out her garden and her wellbeing seeking out the door. She was not a woman who wavered in the face of unexplained apprehensions but lately she had begun to feel the chills of superstition in her heart. This house… its walls… everything reeked of secrets and forebodings lately. When she felt especially dispirited, she would get into the car and drive around the city, seeking out quiet green glades where she would stop and breathe in. Her own beautiful garden awaited in magnificent repose and yet she sought serenity elsewhere. The irony didn’t escape her and yet, the ghosts of something …someone now pursued her there, making her anxious and guarded.
Sumaira however dug her heels in. She was the queen of her new home now and the occasional rush of doomful thoughts was not going to deter her from living the life of her dreams. She had in fact, managed to organise a grand reception at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui and had invited all her friends and relatives from Lahore. The haveli had, unsparingly and graciously housed twenty five of her guests. The rest were put up at the Sultan Grand Hotel. For three days the guests enjoyed the largesse of the house and its hostess. Zahid made it back on the last day; he had been away in Lahore to attend to Kulsoom who had refused any sustenance for the last three days. She had looked at her husband of fifteen years almost questioningly when he had come into her room – was there a celebration at their home she had asked gazing at him with clear, bright eyes. He had mumbled something unintelligible and then cajoled her to eat something. She had acquiesced quietly. He was used to Kulsoom’s strange connection with the universe; with her uncanny instinct to pick up on people and their vibes in ways that appeared confounding and bizarre. He had stayed on that night and the next day in Lahore to ensure Kulsoom had abandoned any ideas of fasting indefinitely, and had returned to Shiekupura the day after.
Sumaira was sitting in the veranda while a cool crisp breeze blew around her. It was the tail end of February and the morning still came upon the world with a fortifying vigour. She closed her eyes and let the wind sweep her up on its bracing wings. She suddenly felt an odd discomfiture and opened her eyes. There in the garden, right in front of her was the peacock. She hadn’t seen it in a couple of months and now it stood there almost like it was watching her. She shivered slightly feeling again, the hairs stand on the back of her neck. The peacock suddenly fanned out its tail, turned around and began to walk with graceful, rhythmic steps. It was dancing. Even as it unfurled its lustiness onto the world, Sumaira felt something squeezed inside her as a sense of foreboding joined hands with the tightness in her chest. She swallowed hard and looked away from the scene of exaggerated, excessive beauty and perfection. It was like nature was enjoying a farcical interlude in her garden.
“Guria, chai”(1), came the papery voice from the doorway. The old retainer had watched Sumaia looking at the mesmeric scene in front of her with a long thoughtful look of her own. She had muttered a little prayer and had then made her presence known.
“It has been many years since I last saw a peacock coming to the garden so frequently”, she said as she rolled out the trolley with its solitary cup of tea.
“It was when Zohaib baba left us. He was only 8 years old you know. The amalthas* was blooming just like this and the peacock had danced then too. Tauba Tauba! Allah khair karay”(2)
Sumaira stared at the old woman uncomprehendingly at first and then with a sudden burst of rage that was visceral and raw. Her hammering heart had found the vent it so urgently needed to not come right out of her chest and spill onto the floor. She launched at the old woman – for voicing the kind of calamitous, hideous thoughts that were already lancing at her insides, for always seeming to know more than she would ever know.
“Don’t talk rubbish!”
“Keep your sordid superstitions to yourself”
She felt her breath coming in ragged gasps as she turned around, away from the shadowy face of the old retainer.
“Now leave me alone!”
An hour later, Sumaira still sat outside. Why had she felt like the old woman had jabbed her finger right into her ventricle? Like they had both seen her world ending and the ancient one had been the one to announce it. She had tried to calm herself, to grasp at logic and reality; both qualities had become like feeble wraiths in the face of all the foreboding phantasms conjured up by the two creatures, the feathered and the weathered. The gusting February wind seemed to have further given the phantoms temerity and substance, and had carried them to every corner of the garden.
Sumaira breathed in deeply. With each measured breath, she felt her perspective gradually shift from the occult to the real, from the spirit world to the spring-laden one around her. Where the peacock was just a bird that found solace in her garden much as she did, and where nature’s extravagances were pleasurable blessings rather than premonitions of doom.
Sumaira looked behind her at the darkened doorway. She was now washed over with a sense of remorse that was almost comforting in its safe, unthreatening feel. She sat for a while longer, bolstering her confidence in the rational, sensible, phantom-free universe around her. She then got up to look for Khala*, intending to repair the damage done by momentarily frayed nerves.
The old woman had seen her fair share of ups and downs and had over the decades, negotiated through the myriad tempers of the ladies of the house (the begums and their offsprings included). She chuckled and grinned toothlessly at Sumaira when she was proffered an apology, “Koi baat nahin guria. Kabhi khushi, kabhi gham”(3)
Sumaira came away not entirely sure of the old woman’s state of mind but glad that the state of their hearts was again restored.
The next few months passed in quiet harmony as Zahid remained mostly in Sheikhupura with only a fortnightly visit to Lahore.
It was going to be their anniversary soon Sumaira thought – May 16th. She marveled at the briskness with which a year had passed; a whole year since she had become Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui and the … the Lady of Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui. She still couldn’t see herself as the Matriarch because there were older things and beings in the haveli* that somehow impaired her absolute dominion of the great house: She still felt hesitant when she walked into certain rooms in the house, and was assailed more than a few times by a strange uncertainty in the almost vapory presence of the feeble old retainer. The latter seemed to be almost on standby, to be waiting for something … someone.
Sumaira had begun to counter the assaults of the uninvited, unfriendly thoughts inside her head with strident changes of scene that she wrought on the outside. She had redone the master bedroom very soon after she had come to the house. That was followed by the lounge and the dining room and recently, the room which had always made her shudder with foreboding: the space that had been Kulsoom’s sanctuary where she was said to escape for hours at a time to get far from the madding crowd. That crowd, Sumaira mused, would have included not only people but the freakish cacophony of Kulsoom’s own thoughts too. Sumaira had seen the look on Peeno Khala’s face as she had the ancient teak furniture removed piece by piece. The deep lines on the old retainer’s brow and around her mouth were shadowed with omens and premononitions of a gloom that were almost palpable. Sumaira ignored them, as she did the unsettled feeling in the pit of her own stomach.
On the eve of their anniversary, Zahid was called away to Lahore again. Kulsoom had been hospitalised after a series of seizures. They were in the process of doing some tests but they thought that she had suffered a stroke.
When Sumaira got the news, she felt like a veil had been lifted from her eyes, her heart. It had been a camouflage of her own making which she had doggedly pulled around her face, refusing to see what the universe was telling her. The peacock, the constant unsettled feeling, the premonitions of doom – they had all meant something! Kulsoom was … she was going to die. That was what the haveli had been telling her as it held her in its almost sentient embrace this past year. It was telling her to wait, to be patient; it was telling her that she would finally get what she had worked for, what she truly deserved.
She suddenly felt a strange elation and a magnanimity of spirit that made her breathless. She would go to Lahore. She would stand by her husband’s side even as he stood by the side of his dying ex-wife. She would show him and the world that she had a heart so big that she had graciously, lovingly fitted everyone into it including “the other woman”. The woman who had made constant demands on her husband’s heart and mind. The woman who until now, had always wrung from her a strange mixture of animosity and misgiving.
Yes, she would go to Lahore. She would go to the hospital and look down at the depleting woman, and she would forgive Kulsoom for all her transgressions into her marriage and into her life. She got into the car and started on her journey.
“It was so untimely. So strange….”
“May Allah bless her with Jannat al Firdaus*”
“May her soul rest in peace”
“Allah knows best….”
Zahid Siddiqui sat in the great drawing room at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui surrounded by friends and family pouring forth their condolences. It was now a month after the burial and the house was flooded with well wishers.
“I have arranged for fresh flowers for the grave. Come, have something to eat”, said Kulsoom as she led Zahid and the guests into the dining room that shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight.
(1) “Little one, tea is served”. In Urdu “Guria” literally means a doll and is sometimes used as a term of endearment for a young girl.
* Amaltas: The Indian Laburnum tree
(2) “May God keep us from harm”
* Khala: “Aunt”/ mother’s sister in Urdu.
(3) “Don’t worry little one. Life is sometimes joyous and sometimes sorrowful”
Sumaira came out into the veranda to the shrill scream of a peacock. The bird sat resplendent and angry in the garden looking at the house as if at a particularly baneful beast. She was gripped in a flux of emotions as she caught her breath at the iridescence of its plumage in the morning sun, while also feeling a rush of anxiety that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. She stood for a while looking at the bird which quieted down almost instantly upon seeing her. After a few minutes, it flew up into the branches of the Indian laburnum tree; it’s blue green hues cavorting with the yellow of the flowers that seemed to bedeck its entire body. It was one of those rare, serendipitous displays of nature that arouse awe and melancholia. The early morning, newly-wed euphoria slowly drained from her body as Sumaira looked at the bird and the tree a last time before turning back into the house.
She blinked brightly trying to catch at the disappearing threads of quiet joy she had woken up with. But something had tramped along that path in the last fifteen minutes and she now felt strangely deflated and watchful. How had a peacock, that beautiful creature created so much disquiet in her heart she wondered irritably. For that was the only vision that had intercepted the flow of good cheer that had of late become her regular day time companion; that made her smile a lot and even skip like a giddy school girl when she was alone. Everything was so perfect! Yes, everything WAS so perfect repeated a quiet voice in her head, relegating in an instant, all that defined her wonderful life right now, into the past.
“Khala! Chai le aain(1)”, she said louder than she had intended to. Loud enough to drown out the ominous thoughts whirling around in her head; loud enough also for the great old retainer to have heard her the first time round.
She came into the lounge shuffling behind a tea trolley which carried a single cup of tea. All tasks that were beyond the enterprise of wheels that also doubled as support for her frail frame, had long ago become obsolete calls to duty for Peeno khala. Still, she persevered in her service to the haveli* and its occupants with the same tenacity of spirit as when she had first come to the great house as a seventeen year old widow. That was almost seventy years ago. She was now as much a part of the house as it was a part of her. Sumaira often wondered if in fact the bricks and mortar of the haveli were somehow entwined with the sinew and soul of its ancient caretaker.
Sumaira had married the love of her life. It had been a tortuous path – one wrought with moral dilemmas and all-consuming desires. He had been married; he loved his wife – his ex-wife now – but he loved Sumaira too. He had wanted to make her his second wife. It had taken five long years of persuasion and infinite wiles and guiles to make him see sense. He could only have one – she had passed the ultimatum with strategic precision of opportunity and dexterity. That was almost six months ago. Since then, she had been ensconced as Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui in Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui*, the ancestral family haveli in the heart of Sheikhupura. Her nemesis, Zahid’s ex-wife Kulsoom, had since been settled into an apartment in Lahore.
Despite the euphoria of knights in charcoal grey shalwar kameez sweeping her off her feet, and other such romantic dreams come true, Sumaira sometimes felt a pang of conscience, a momentary qualm. She had broken a home to build her own; the detritus washing back to her in waves as she regularly heard driblets of disturbing news about Kulsoom. The tight knit community of the city she now called home, ensured that she was made aware, one way or another. Kulsoom was not doing well and Zahid was often called to Lahore to attend to her ailments, which were seeming more and more psychological than physical. Sumaira tried to be magnanimous, to not feel overpowering resentment at this monopoly of her husband by his ex-wife. She was still basking in the newness of her beautiful home and the privileges of being Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui, and so she was able to display appropriate concern and compassion everytime Zahid bade her farewell for a Kulsoom-related trip to Lahore.
Kulsoom had always been sensitive, a “seer” some claimed. She was an ethereal child, mostly in a world of her own, stepping out only occasionally for festivals and funerals. She and Zahid had had one son who had died when he was eight years old. Kulsoom had never quite recovered from that incident and had withdrawn into a shell of her own making where only Zahid and a handful of other people were allowed access.
For Sumaira, the spookiness that surrounded Kulsoom had over time somehow made her less human, less prone to feeling any great tragedy or joy. And so, she had persevered in her enterprise of taking the Zahid Siddiqui marital crown for herself. Kulsoom with her faraway looks and her spaced out existence would get over it, she always told herself. But sometimes – once in a while, another voice from the deepest recesses of her being would rise up stridently to provoke and condemn.
Today was one of those days.
(1): “Aunty, bring the tea”
* Haveli: Mansion, in Urdu
* Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui: The Siddiqui Abode, in Urdu
Story inspiration from Hector Munro’s short story titled “The Cobweb”
Sheila had gone back to Dhaka after a month in Colombo. Despite not being a happy work traveller, she was grateful for her recent trips which had been taking her to the sun-kissed shores of Sri Lanka and into the warm embrace of the man she was falling in love with. Sheila was a realist and had taken her time with letting Cupid carry out his soppy shenanigans with her heart. But she had finally given in and was now quite surely slipping and sliding into the full throes of love.
It was a week after her return that she saw it – the picture of Sam with a girl. It was on his FB profile. She felt her heart sink and then shrivel. Not in the desperate, wanting to die manner; but in the heartbroken, disappointed but determined not to drown way. She sent him one message asking if he was seeing someone else. He replied in the affirmative. The exchange was polite and estranged, like they had never actually met. She then blocked his number, wrapped up her bruised heart, threw herself into her work and prayed that her usual gumption would in time, minister and heal.
After Sheila left, Sam changed gears and put Angeline at the front and centre of his focus. The newness and the excitement of the engagement was now a month old distant memory but he still needed to act the part. He was looking to the future – a future that would be brightened and bolstered by a British passport. And for that, he would be the devoted, adoring fiancé. The couple coordinated on updating their profile pictures on social media, and the online universe too was informed of yet another fairytale prefect union in an otherwise imperfect world.
Two months later, Sam flew into a new sunrise, replete with new opportunities, his wedding and also a whole new demographic of women. That last bit he had not really planned for, but old habits die hard and man is nothing if not fallible. That combined with the universe’s love of satire, Sam soon found himself between his spanking new marriage and …the arms of another woman, and then another and another. He’d met the first one at his wedding in fact. She was a pretty little thing with eyes like cornflower blue sapphires – a confection of island vibes with a continental flavour. He hadn’t meant to play around but it had happened, again and again after that. It was like he hadn’t quite come to terms with the exclusivity that marriage enjoins on a couple. Angeline was heartbroken; but the scales tilted quite completely towards the pure wrath she felt. She had given this man her heart and her soul – diva style, in all its glorious trappings, and he had squandered it by chasing other women … cheap, wanton women. She hated the women as much as she resented the fact that despite everything, she wasn’t enough for Sam.
After his second error in judgement, Sam was packed off back to the island that had, at various times in his life, held him both broken and whole in her arms. This time he stepped onto her soil feeling somewhat vanquished and victimised. It was true that he’d cheated on his wife but to be thrown out of the country was taking things too far. He was now without a job, without prospects and living with his parents.
After a month of wallowing in self pity, Sam roused himself and sauntered back into the familiar folds of friends and family. His post- Kent story was as varied as his audiences tended to be. The family heard of it as a marital spat which may resolve itself in time; his friends heard of the psychotic harridan that he had married and the newcomers into his life knew only that he was footloose and fancy free.
A year passed and then two. Somewhere down the road, there was a troublesome patch-up between Angeline and Sam that then oscillated between periods of superlative love and violent hate. When the former elation hit, he would whisk himself off to the UK for a few months of honeymoon-happy times; and when the mood pendulum swung southwards, it would bring everything that was good, whole and happy about their union crashing down around them, culminating also for Sam, in a one way ticket back to Tear Drop* isle.
Sam had, at various times, during his UK banishment periods, bumped into Sheila. Her work now brought her regularly to the island for months at a time. And every time he’d seen her, he had felt the familiar old stirring in his heart and in his groin. The urge to possess would come striding in making him feel agitated and he had to admit it, even somewhat desperate. And so he had gone up to her, again and again, expecting her to thaw in the sizzle of his masculinity. He expected her to melt when he spoke of the vicious rumours concerning a marriage he’d never contracted. But she had always looked at him as if she’d laid eyes on a steaming pile of refuse. His cruel mouth that most times so convincingly dressed itself in a heart-melting smile, curled into a grimace to reflect the person within whenever he felt agitated or ungratified. She was now able to see him for what he was.
He however, was taken aback; this was not the customary reception he got even from the ones whose hearts he had mauled in the wake of his lusty rampages. At the start of his attempts at rekindling an association, she had refused to acknowledge him at all. Three years down the road, she had begun to respond with a terse hello. The tempered approach was more to do with the fact that Colombo was a small place making even the most unpleasant of encounters a statistical probability, and also because she had realized that nursing grudges even of the most noble variety, tended to eat at the person that is wronged more than they ever affect the perpetrators themselves.
Four years into his bruised and battered marriage, Sam chanced upon Sheila once more as he had done on so many different occasions. This time however, she actually had a conversation with him. A real conversation after years of strained reticence. He told her then that he had in fact been married but had for the past two years, been divorced. That his ex wife was psychotic and the union had not been able to survive the emotional battering ram that she had wielded on it so regularly and so enthusiastically. Sheila had listened; she hadn’t said anything. She tended to be reserved when it came to ugly gossip and to the torrid tales told by people who themselves had also shown up to be less than perfect specimens of the humankind that they were so distressed by. Then began a cautious friendship. Sheila and Sam went for drinks together and then dinner. But she still kept him at arms length. She was now aware enough to realize that he made for a good fair weather friend, someone to spend a social evening out with; but that anything beyond that was doomed to failure. And so, as the months passed and Sam felt himself being pulled deeper into the throes of what to him felt like the most genuine relationship he had ever had, Sheila on her part, steadfastly maintained the essential formality of friendship.
“Hi, Sheila right?” came a strident voice from in front of her. Sheila looked up in surprise, her knotty Kakuro* enterprise forgotten in the wake of the enraged woman standing at her table, staring down at her.
“Hello, yes…” Sheila was wondering who this was. Even as she filtered through her memory for an inkling of familiarity, the woman had launched her attack.
“Thank you for teaching me!” she said raising her voice quite a few decibels above the ambient hum of the coffee shop while looking at Sheila with the purest animosity.
It took Sheila a few moments to gather her wits, scattered as they were by this onslaught out of the blue.
“What… who are you?”
“You know my husband quite well – Sam Sivathamby?”
“Sam? Sam is married?”
“Yes! And I’m his wife!”
“Calm down! I had no clue he was still married. He told me he was divorced.”
Even while she said this, Sheila realized she was responding on the back foot to the woman fuming in front of her. She wanted to say instead that she had no romantic designs on Sam Sivathamby. That those had faded into the mists like ghosts of a Christmas that had come and gone at least four years ago. That while he now may be holding a flame for her, the one she had carried for him had been doused by lies and deceit a long time ago. But the woman in front of her was livid and Sheila’s intuition told her that she was beyond any logic and honesty that could dampen her immediate sense of righteous indignation.
“Calm down. I had no clue of your existence”, Sheila said again.
The woman glared at Sheila, her eyes blazing, reaching it seemed into her arsenal of resentment and hate that she had so meticulously and passionately amassed in the wake of her cheating husband. Instead, she turned away for a moment and when she looked back at Sheila, something different, something visceral seemed to have fallen into place.
Angeline stood looking at Sheila. Her outrage suddenly seemed ridiculous, pantomimed. The “other women” whom she had conditioned herself to hate with such intensity, who in all likelihood were themselves lured, trapped and played, were not the problem. They never had been. It was just easy to blame them. It had allowed her to keep the bubble that was Angeline and Sam, intact. In all its toxicity and ugliness, she had kept it together by not only whitewashing the man that was her husband but also by painting the other women in all the hideous hues that hell threw up in the wake of one scorned.
Now, the charade was over. The bubble had burst.
She took in a deep breath, feeling the bitterness and the anger leave her body. She felt oddly light as she finally reached for the feeling that had been hiding in the pit of her stomach all these years. The scene so charged with righteous fury a moment ago, transformed into one of clarity, honesty and acceptance.
“I … I’m sorry. Can we talk? I’m Angeline”.
* Tear Drop Island: One of the many whimsical names given to Sri Lanka because it is shaped like a tear drop.
* Kakuro: A Japanese logic puzzle that is often referred to as a mathematical transliteration of the crossword.
Angeline had arrived a week ago. It had been a whirlwind of lunches, high teas and inebriated evenings. Both Sam and Angeline were glowing in the newness of their couplehood, their romance springing wings in the festive Colombo air. That was also when he had got a message from Sheila. She was back in town. He had read the text with a mixture of pleasure and anxiety. Colombo was a small place and with the way he and Angeline were going about town, they could very likely bump into her. He couldn’t have that. He still felt the mad urge to get under her skin, to possess her. He did not respond to the message then. Once the hook was in place, he liked to take his time. Sheila will wait to hear from him. But not for too long. He had this impression that she wasn’t the kind to get desperate in love. The kind of desperation that he had made full use of in most of his other link-ups. Many of the women he had pursued had hung on frenziedly even when the excitement of the chase was over for him. It was why he kept them all at arms length; never inviting them home or on getaways to his secret hideaways around the island. Shiela was different. She was in control. So far.
Two days later, Sam responded to Sheila’s message and they met up on a Thursday evening. Angeline was busy with a family dinner that he had opted out of. It was the perfect opportunity to continue his other lustful undertaking. He walked into the alfresco bar and saw her sitting, serene and solitary at the far end of the table. His heart skipped a beat and his resolve to conquer intensified. They had a glass of wine and then he took her out for a drive. They went back to the hotel where she was staying, and they kissed. But she was not ready to go down the Sam-sired rabbit hole. He realised that he had to take it slow with her; he didn’t want to spook her. The urge to possess and devour was overwhelming, but he exercised restraint. He would have her, later rather than sooner, but he would.
Sheila’s sister and brother in law were arriving in Colombo in a couple of days. He definitely did not want to go down the road of meeting relatives. This was not meant to be a long term association. He would have to disappear for a bit. He’d come back later and he’d make sure he made her warm up to him again after that bit of essential escape artistry on his part. He had received a few messages from Sheila to which he had sent no response.
The next three weeks passed in a blur as he and Angeline prepared for the engagement amid the general festivity of the season.
The deed was done. He and Angeline were engaged. However, the euphoria that he had felt at the very thought of the milestone earlier, was now gone. A staleness was spreading over the now official union. He frowned. It was done. He had wanted it and he had got it.
Later that evening the engagement party whisked themselves off to the club for further revelry. Despite his six glasses of single malt, Sam had a vague feeling of anticlimax. He emptied the contents of the seventh glass down his throat and got up to dance. He suddenly caught sight of Sheila. She was dancing – with a man. Another man. Not him, but someone else. He felt the warm fuzziness slowly leave his body as he looked at her her. He wanted to grab her and hold her close. He hated the sight of the other man. He continued to look at her. Suddenly he felt Angeline grab him from behind, and cling to him. The heat of her body irritated him. He turned around and looked at her in barely concealed disgust.
“You’re drunk. Go home before you do something stupid. Go and sleep it off”.
Angeline watched her fiancé’s face, contorted now in spiteful contempt, his mouth twisting in that cruel way that it sometimes did. Even in her alcoholic stupor, she felt a ripple of fear course through her. She blinked. Maybe she was too drunk and imagining scenes from her version of relationship hell.
She had allowed herself to be bundled into a taxi and whisked off home, away from the mad cacophony of the club and hopefully, also from her anxious, tumultuous thoughts.
Sam had then gone back in, and headed straight for Sheila. Beyond her initial surprise at seeing him there, she was ineffusive at his sudden appearance after almost a month of radio silence. He looked at her and placed a protective, possessive arm across the back of her chair. He then got to work, channeling the full force of his guileful charm towards the object of his obsession. The fact that she had appeared happy and unbroken in the wake of his disappearance from her life had hit him like a ton of bricks. His vanishing act had been calculated and temporary but she wasn’t to know that. And yet, she had appeared cheerful and whole and in the thick of things. That evening he acted on the overwhelming and single minded urge to lure her back into his web before anyone else got to her. He had in fact, momentarily and in a screwy twist of irony, felt the same desperation that he usually precipitated in the wake of his myriad frivolous love affairs.
A week later, Angeline left for Margate. She was the drama teacher at a secondary school there and was in the throes of putting together a new and quirky version of The West Side Story, where villains were not entirely villainous and the good guys were all too fallible. She was a master craftsmen, and had a knack for taking old world literature and breathing new life into it. She planted little bites of present day reality into sixty and seventy year old tales to nip at the sensibilities of her fan base, which now consisted of more than just the parents of her students. She had also recently opened up her own theatre company; the Drama Queens had got their very first season commission to perform at the Hazlitt Theatre in Maidstone in the spring. She was going to be busy while also getting the paperwork completed for her husband-to-be to join her a month later.
That month back in his bachelor avatar, Sam rallied and shone. He had also redoubled his manipulation and bewitchery of Sheila. With time, he had become both fascinated and intimidated by the woman he had come to know. It had been a slow process as his usual love lusts tended to go, but he had finally enchanted and mesmerised her and made her fall in love with him. He wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to marry her. Aloud, on wine filled evenings, he had spoken of wanting to have children with her. The way in which she had looked searchingly into his eyes, into his soul, had rattled him. It was something he’d said to sweet talk her, to coax her into letting her guard down. To get under her skin. Usually, he felt nothing whispering these alcohol induced happy-ever-afters. She was different however; dignified and self assured, and he actually felt guilty off and on when he made one of his dramatic long term affirmations to her. Being a seasoned and indiscrimate assailer of hearts however, Sam paid little heed to thes pin pricks of conscience. He continued his tender assaults until it was time yet again for Sheila to go back to Dhaka and for him to start on his new adventure in England.
Angeline woke up to the tinny version of Vivaldi’s Spring* as her phone rang. It was Sam. Her sleep-filled face lit up as she reached across to her bedside table to pick it up.
“Hello darling! I’m coming over to make you breakfast!” chirped his upbeat voice from the other end of the line.
Angeline sat up in bed, her face now wreathed in a grin.
“I’m waiting. Come!” she said. The call ended but she still held onto her phone as its customary morning coolness began to thaw in the glow from her skin. She laughed a little laugh of pure joy and exultation. She was absolutely, totally in love. All over again in fact; the adolescent romance rekindling like the spark had never quite gone out.
Sam and Angeline had been childhood sweethearts. They’d lived through the civil war in their country and through all its small and large inconveniences – much of the privileged class had been spared the actual horrors as many had fled to safer geographies before the demons of war and atrocity had landed at their doorsteps. Angeline’s parents had relocated the family to Margate in Kent in the UK; its miles upon miles of sandy beaches a fond reminder of the ones they’d left behind.
Sam’s family had moved to the capital metropolis of Colombo. There they had quickly become a part of the still multi-ethnic, generally harmonious melting pot of communities. Sam had gone to school, made friends and had ultimately landed a job in the corporate sector. And through it all, Sam had basked in a coveted secret: Quite early on, he had realized that he was a charmer and over the years, he had taught himself to skilfully wield that weapon of lust and passion; for a weapon is what his single-minded, amorous pursuits had become, and he used it expertly and unsparingly in all his major and minor interactions with the ladies. It is not far from the truth to say that he had in his wake, left a sizeable brigade of confused, heartbroken and furious women.
But Angeline was nothing if not bouyant and optimistic. With a marriage a piece behind each of them, second time was going to be lucky she thought with hope and elation.
She had come with her parents to the home country as she always did, once a year. This time however, Sam had bestowed her with more than his customary single visit. He had in fact, been coming over to their home in Battarmulla almost every day, seeking out her company and stirring up little sparks of joy in her heart … and her body. She had always thought he was gorgeous but with that distant adoration one usually reserves for a favourite movie star. Now everything seemed more visceral, more real including the way her breathing quickened when she saw him.
And so, it had turned out to be one of many beautiful mornings of shared gastronomic labor, tingly closeness and enough oxytocin to sink the whole kitchen. For Angeline and Sam, the rest of the fortnight passed in a blur of meeting up with friends and dancing many a night away cloaked in the fuzzy warmth of wine and ultimately in each other’s arms. By the time Angeline was leaving for Margate, their couplehood was official.
Angeline left and Sam picked right up from where he’d left off. It was another Saturday night and Sam had decided to go to the club. He sat at the bar brooding seductively. He knew he had the goods to approach whomever he wanted to; he was fully aware that he brought more than his fair share of charisma and beguilement to any table occupied by the ladies. Tonight though, he had come with the boys. They would drink, exchange a few words and absorb the scene full of women and other men who were also out and about to see and be seen. If any of them caught sight of an especially delectable specimen of the opposite sex, they’d sportingly and magnanimously bring the tantalising exhibit to the others’ attention. It was an unspoken camaraderie between many a band of adventuring men out on the town in the wake of a spirited weekend.
He had caught sight of her then. She was also sitting at the bar. He smouldered in her direction but only for a few moments. The room was too thick with people and their ricocheting hormones for his silent seduction to work. So he asked one of the barmen to take a message across. She then had only to look at him for his charm to do the rest of the work. The messenger came back after a bit with an unsatisfactory answer. So, she was a tough one. He could feel his pulse quicken as it always did when he was up against a challenging object of lust. He sent the bartender again, this time with a little more detail about himself. He had deployed this strategy of sharing his persuasive corporate background on a few other instances and had successfully thawed the occasional ice maiden he had encountered. Sure enough! She had finally looked his way. He bid a cheeky adieu to his comrades and walked towards what looked like a promising rest of the evening.
Sam had not been prepared for such an onslaught of his senses. She had been cheerful, confident and also quite unmoved by his allure beyond engaging in a friendly conversation. He had to deploy the full force of not only his ample charm but also his intellect. She challenged him in ways that other women of an evening out, did not. His efforts had been rewarded not in the fashion that he was used to but for his state of mind and heart at the time, it was enough as she agreed to him dropping her and her friend off at their hotel later that night. They were visitors to the island and were leaving for their home in Dhaka in a week. He felt the familiar urgency to wrap up this pursuit, the way he did all of his passionate endeavours.
The next evening, he met up with both women at the bar of their hotel. They all had too much wine while listening to the resident band play tunes from the 80s. Again, the evening had come to a close … not entirely satisfactorily. He had now also begun to get the distinct impression that this was not going to end the way he wanted it to. She was not besotted or taken in by his singular attention to her. He, on the other hand, had begun to “catch feelings” as his nephew said when he came to pick him up after one of his chaperoned dates with Sheila; her friend was always there in what was feeling more and more like a quaint modern day version of a Victorian courtship. His agitation however, had quite quickly transformed to a focused assault of her heart and her mind. He had to get under her skin and into her head before he could advance in any other direction.
Sheila left for her home in Dhaka, but was coming back again for some work in a couple of weeks. He would wait.
Sam was feeling euphoric and invincible these days. It was his high period. He had just emerged from months of listlessness and lethargy, and the hell that was other people; he truly admired Sartre’s* unapologetic disinclination towards tolerating humanity. Half the time he could absolutely relate, but these days he was feeling alive. And after the less than perfect lust enterprise of the last ten days, he wanted desperately to bask in the triumph of effortlessly captured hearts. And so, he had called Angeline and told her that he loved her. And then, he had asked her to marry him. The adrenaline and the dopamine had then gone to work as he raced around on a delirious high. In some lucid corner of his mind though, he had been almost as surprised as she was when he’d popped the question. But he was feeling good and this was going to be good. Angeline the woman, and Angeline the diva had always made him feel good. This was probably what love was. His mind wandered. Sheila also made him feel good; alive. He’d just met her; he hardly knew her. She was a passing fancy he told himself; although as fleeting fancies went, she was obviously not passing out of his system fast enough. She had a strange air of mystery and reserve which had mesmerised him, and so she too swirled around in his thoughts for the next few weeks.
Sam was smiling. Angeline was coming to town next month. They were going to be engaged. He thought of all the men that constantly hovered about her like moths around a flame, wanting in one way or another, to make her their own. The thought of their crushed and defeated love quests made his heart swell even bigger. She was going to officially become his woman, Mrs. Sivathamby. He grinned.
When are you coming back? Thinking of you – he wrote the message and sent it into the ether to find its intended recipient. Sheila’s phone lit up as she received the message. She looked at it musingly. Was this getting serious she wondered. She looked at it a little longer and in her deliberate introspective way, decided to wait until later to respond.
* Vivaldi’s “Spring”: Part of a musical composition called “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi, a 17th century Italian composer. The first concerto of the composition is Spring, describing its freshness and beauty.
* Sartre: A 20th century French playwright, novelist and political activist as well as a leading figure in French philosophy and Marxism. “Hell is other people” is a famous line from his 1944 play No Exit.
I look at his face. Now lined with deep wrinkles; each one a surly witness to a deed committed a long time ago. Deeds? How many of his perverse thoughts had he acted out since then?
I look at his face as he smiles. The gleam of his sins unhidden, unbidden, pierces the atmosphere like flying shards of broken glass. They fall everywhere – treacherous, menacing and so sly. Of course, no one sees them but me. I see each insidious piece as clearly as I remember what happened so many years ago.
I look at the face of the old family retainer. The man who has spent over twenty five years in my parents’ home. My home. The man I have known since I was seven years old. The man who I now detest. But my hate is private. Painfully private. It roils and screams in the most secret recesses of my mind. And my heart keeps pace. Racing, pounding, pulsing with revulsion and frustration. That combination is such an odd one. It sucks the essence out of you. It saps you of your sense of self and leaves you feeling hollow and wretched. You try and pull yourself together and then you’re knocked down again by a flood of ugly memories. The deed was singular, the one and only. But the memory has multiplied, spread like a fungus around the edges of my hippocampus. After thirty years, most times now it lies quietly, unobtrusively. At other times, it flies at me taking over my being. Like now. Because he’s here. In my home.
He has come to pay his respects to my parents. He has done this periodically since his retirement twelve years ago. I look at his face. I look at the ugly caricature of a smile pasted on it. I look around me at the faces of my mother and my father. They are smiling back. I look away. I pull myself together and while I look back at the scene, pretending to not remember, pretending to play along – I have perfected this dreadful deception over the last three decades – my mind is assaulted, attacked with a force that is visceral and raw. The multiplied, grotesquely teeming memories of that day march in with their battering rams.
I was eleven. My young body was just budding. I became aware of that fact on that day. He said he wanted to show me something. He took me into the kitchen. That kitchen is also embedded in my memory like a gravestone. He squatted on the floor and pulled me close. Then he showed me pictures: Naked men and women entwined with one another in black and white, stared back into my bewildered eyes. He pulled me closer. He was saying something to me.
I suddenly became aware of the weight of his arms around my waist. Just a minute ago, he was the trusted old family retainer, a protector, another father figure in the house, someone who was still watching me grow up. Someone who, in our household was given all the respect one does to an older relative. Even in my all-cloaking innocence, I suddenly felt anxious. Afraid. Even though the figments of my apprehension were like unclear wraiths flitting about in my mind, intuition had kicked in. I knew this was not right. And yet, he was Kabeer chacha*; the man who served as the ward and protector of the children of the house – me and my brother – when my parents were not at home. The man who was the embodiment of paternal care and concern. He was now also the man who had in the last few minutes molested my young mind.
I pulled away. My instinct told me to do so. I also somehow knew that I had to behave normally. I asked him where he had got the photos. I remember, he smiled then. Now when I am assailed by the memory, I can see the ugly perversity under his saccharinus smile as he said he had many more that he would show me. I also remember the one and only thing I managed to say to him then: “I don’t want to see any more. I don’t like them”. And that was it. I’m not sure if my sense of being violated could be any more tormenting or distressing if that initial predatory act had been followed by more. I’m not even sure if I consider myself lucky that that was the extent of the ravagement. The only thing I am sure of is that I still carry the brutalising memory and also the overwhelming burden of keeping it a secret.
I look at his face now. I feel an acid revulsion. But I can’t show it. The whole family treats him like one of their own. I’m repulsed by that realization but I can’t show it. I was too young, too naive, too unprepared to have processed the vile act when it transpired. And now, thirty years after it happened, the burden of tradition, shame and the messiness of an aftermath has further paralysed me.
Such is the double edged sword that is the south Asian equation between the young and the old. The right to speak and to be heard is the absolute privilege of the latter. The dutiful acquiescence, the respectful submission of the young, to the gracious, the bizarre and even the evil inclinations that the respected elder might bring to this equation is also absolute.
He suddenly takes my eight year old niece’s hand and pulls her to him. He is sitting on his haunches just as he had done thirty years ago and he’s holding her close, just as he had gripped me thirty years ago. I freeze. But only for a few seconds. The bile rises to my throat followed by the tightening noose of a sob. I choke back both. I can feel my eyes stinging but I smile at little Sania and tell her it is time to bake our brownies. I take her hand and pull her away. Even as I walk away with her, I feel the hot tears as they spill down my face. I wipe them away as fast as they come. No one should see. No one can know. It is still my private affliction and I will live with it as best as I can. But I also know now that I can protect the rest of the children of the family in our home.
I feel a blaze in my heart – cleansing, renewing and strengthening. I look at Sania’s lovely little face shining with excitement and the pure joy of childhood and I grin at her. I kiss the top of her head and we take over the kitchen.
* Chacha: An Urdu term meaning uncle. Also used as a term of respect for an older man.
It is with a mixture of joy, some pride and truckloads of excitement that I announce the publishing of my second book – my book of short stories. This enterprise of the heart has been in the making for the past two years and has finally culminated into an anthology of tales.
It is said that shame dies when stories are told in safe places. THE GIRL WITH THE PAISLEY DUPATTA AND OTHER STORIES forges within its pages the sanctity and dignity that allow fragile stories to become powerful, purposeful, healing and exhilarating epics of personal courage and enterprise.
Many of the stories within this book are from outside the bell curve of our lives, and come straight from the truth-telling corners of the heart: from the brutal vigilante justice dispensed in the name of religion in “The Gods of Fury”; to the harrowing custom of honour revenge in the “Sins of our Fathers”; to the patriarchal ruthlessness that so many young women are subjected to in the title story “The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta”.
Others are stories of women and men negotiating life, love, friendship, careers and tradition in the sometimes tumultuous and many times limiting folds of their families and their communities: from the love affair of the enterprising 61 year old Nighat in “Love in Rawalpindi”; to the shenanigans of a dancing queen in “Riotous Love”; to the complicated friendship between two society girls in “Days of Purgatory”.
The last three stories in the book are a tribute to that most ingenious art form, political satire.
These tales will make you laugh, cry and ruminate in equal measure while niggling at the peripheries of conventional value systems.
The book is currently available at the Jam Fruit Tree bookstore on Galle Road in Colombo. I will try and make it available for friends and family in Pakistan and Dubai soon. To pre-order your copy of the book, please contact me here. It may take me some time, but I will try and get it to you 🤓
Despite its inherent catastrophic nature, the end had come quickly, almost mechanically. Its very swiftness had robbed it of the tragedy and chaos that usually accompany annihilation events. Some say it had started with the largely unnotable skirmish on the Russo-Ukrainian border. President Putin had fallen gravely ill at about the same time. His infirmity somehow catalysed the inscrutable little exchange of fire into an all out war as Russian troops marched belligenterlty into Kyiv. At about the same time, there was a devastating tsunami that whipped up in the Indian Ocean, a formidable ghost of its 2004 predecessor. The deluge ravaged twenty countries across Asia and East Africa in its deadly wake. In the space of a week, half the world had gone into emergency mode. The other half watched in a stupor of pandemic fatigue even as the new horrors unravelled. Two days after the tsunami, the Ukrainian troops fell to the wayside. No blood was shed, no words were spoken, no flags were raised or lowered. The invaders and the invaded sat together watching the world fall to pieces around them.
That is when she had come; the Mind-bender as she came to be called: Arfaana, a 35 year old woman who had until recently also been a mother of two. She had walked into Lafayette Square in Washington DC and screamed. She had screamed until she couldn’t scream anymore. And then she had wailed, her rhythmical moans echoing like the tolling of a doomsday bell. People had stopped in their tracks frozen. At first. And then something extraordinary had happened. There are many versions of the event but they all agree that somehow in that moment of tremendous anguish and pain, humanity had connected. At some combined cosmic and primitive level, the energy across the square had come together and found a harmony of purpose.
There was an almost communal climax of wretchedness and despair as one and all, the people had screamed and bellowed and wailed until there was not one unbruised throat left in the square. Arfaana had walked into the Capitol building then, her eyes wet and blazing at the same time; propelled onwards by a force of over five thousand strong. There she had spoken to silent, awestruck law makers and executors of the Republic. They had listened when she had called for the laying down of all arms; of creating a colourblind society; of sharing the world’s resources with all; of de-weaponizing the world. They had heard her speak of a new community, built on the vestiges of humanity that still remained in their current world. They say, Arfaana, the first Wise One, had summarily robbed them of their will that day. She had bent their minds to her way. Everything had changed after that. In a bizarre balancing act following The Fall that was marked with such colossal swells of angst and pain, the societal shift had happened quickly, almost mechanically.
T + 10 years
December 24th, 2032
Arfaana sat in the Discourse Room in Serenity Dome 1, in Washington. These safe havens had mushroomed after The Fall and now mainly housed within their impregnable, tranquil cores, the women of the planet. She had just had news that the two thousandth dome had been erected, this one in Lahore Pakistan. She had called her contemporary in South Asia to congratulate her on the milestone. The fissure in the Subcontinental patriarchal structures had been one of the hardest to make. But when the women had risen, the change again had been swift and mechanical. Hotels and guest houses had been converted to makeshift shelters for women across the subcontinental land mass. Ultimately, heritage buildings had been commandeered and lovingly converted into the very first Serenity Domes. There the female collective had regrouped and reformed their communities, one troublesome, caustic law at a time. It had taken the better part of the last decade to purge the South Asian society of its ingrained psyche of male privilege. From the roti seller* at the tandoor* to the testosterone driven CEO in his boardroom, they had all had to relearn the new ethos. There had been countless incarcerations as age old gender roles battled in the new environment. Many of the men had been “shifted” to shanty towns just outside city limits. These meandering, heaving masses of corrugated iron roofs, scrap material and sheets of plastic had burgeoned and blustered for years with the full might of the patriarchy.
In the sixth year of The Fall, the slum population had evened out and by the eighth year, it was finally in decline. Mindsets had been changed; the new norms had been learnt one bitter lesson at a time. There were still the odd ragtag bands of ex-society men who had refused to assimilate and who still blew off steam by plastering city squares with old world propaganda. The Wise Ones took a largely tolerant view of these muscle flexing shenanigans, letting the idiots tell their now obsolete “tales full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”(1). The adage adapted from old world literature had become their mainstream maternal approach. Indeed, the Wise Ones made every effort towards non-violence. They knew that their primary focus needed to be the new generation of men and women across the globe. They would be brought up with new codes of morality, community and awareness. They would be the ultimately balanced beings – both genders at ease with their masculine and their feminine sides.
By the fifth year, another epic milestone was achieved – planet-wide nuclear disarmament. By the eighth year of The Fall, global military spending had been reduced to less than 0.3% of world GDP. The planet was recovering in big and small ways as fossil fuels were steadily replaced with alternative forms of energy. By the end of a decade of the event, as resources were redistributed, lifestyles across the globe had become more or less consistent – typified by the western middle class before The Fall.
It had been a momentous journey of the mind, the heart and the will, thought Arfaana as she emerged from her musing. The women had finally triumphed! This last thought crossed her mind with almost academic stridency, repeated as it had been at so many pivotal moments in the last ten years. She paused, just for a moment. The slightest of pauses for a twinkling of a moment. And yet, in that tiny instance something had taken fledgling root. An awareness of imbalance; a new kind of an imbalance. Earth was transforming into the proverbial Venus. Hidden in that romantic confluence were dark shadows, whispering their own doomsday songs. Songs of a new, belligerent, unsound matriarchy.
Arfaana blinked, willing away the disturbing thoughts that were now crowding at the very edges of her mind. She knew these unsummoned visitors would bide their time, until they had gathered in their vastness aided by that formidable Truth teller, her Intuition. Arfaana rallied. They, the women had changed the world, one rotting, crumbling societal edifice at a time. They were saving the very humanity of human beings. They were building back compassion, harmony, cooperation and culture into their societies. They were building back better(2) … the hackneyed phrase from old world politics came stomping in, marching alongside her bolstering, purposeful train of thought. The hypocrisy, the bigotry and the irony that accompanied the catchphrase also came sashaying in, looking into her soul with their smug little faces. Venus Rising indeed! they seemed to say.
Arfaana picked up her com-set to call her Planning Manager. She wanted to make a change in the Earth and Science curriculum – the historical, mythical, science fictional allusions to Venus as anything but the second planet from the AM Star were to be omitted. There was still too much counter-matriarchal ammunition out there for the nay-sayers and the satire writers; their reformed world structure was still too new for such erratic emotionalism. The “Sun”, now called the AM Star had ceased to be called by its old name because of its masculine phonetics and the psycho-circularity of the word: Sun = Son = Sun. Venus too would be relegated to its astrophysical purity without the dubious romanticism given to it by old world patriarchy. One of the Wise Ones had said something about Earth too … even “earth” had begun to sound mannish.
They would have to revisit academic curricula around the world, review the very semantics of language itself, to purge it of its inherent masculinity.
Arfaana took a sip of her steaming mug of tea. She sat up and gazed into the distance, her determination strong and unwavering. Even if their new collective ethos was somewhat imperfect; even if their matriarchal restructuring sometimes seemed like barely cloaked knee jerk reactions to their gender-biased past, it was now the women’s turn.
* Roti-seller: Seller of Indian/ Pakistani flat bread.
* Tandoor: Also known as tannour it is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking. The tandoor is something of a transitional form between a makeshift earth oven and the horizontal-plane masonry oven.
(1): Quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
(2): The Build Back Better Plan was a legislative framework proposed by the 46th U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of his inauguration
The AM star was just peeping out over the horizon. Soon it would envelope all and sundry in its orange-blue glow. I woke up as the motorised blinds whooshed back into their dark recesses near the ceiling and a shimmering oval of light perched on the left side of my forehead like a glittery fascinator*. I kept my eyes closed, enjoying the blissful moments of just waking up, my senses treading the softness between complete wakefulness and dawn time dreams. I breathed in deeply, feeling the gentle warmth on the skin of my forehead. It caressed my scalp and then flowed down towards my extremities. I should have risen then; but I lingered in the afterglow, wiggling my toes to heighten the delicate sensations now leaving my body in undulating waves. Five minutes later when the AM rush had fully subsided, I opened my eyes. I smiled – widely. It was going to be a glorious day.
I live in a Bachelor Colony; we are the near-perfect males and also the genomic seed-sowers of Avartha – Earth as some of the old guard sometimes still refer to our planet. Earth, the old masculine term that has like a lot of other nomenclature on Avartha, been relegated to history books, a heated City Hall session and story-telling. We of the Bach-Col* help to keep the population flourishing together with the Double X-elences* of the Procreation Dome. The Bach-Col is a whimsical enclosure full of beautiful things, both natural and unnatural. We are constantly surrounded by serenity and comfort. And D~alliance – the testosterone-quelling drug that all residents of the Bach-Col receive when they came of age. It was what made Avartha great, the Wise Ones said. The Wise Ones knew exactly when each boy came of age, varied as the onslaught of puberty was across geographies and junior Bach-Cols. Nature despite being tamed for the most part, still made unpredictable leaps in transforming a boy to a man. Still, the mean coming of age in West Avartha was 12 years, 7 months. I had come of age on my 13th birthday.
I am meeting Ramiz. He lives in the Service colony. Early on, as an infant, in fact, barely a few weeks old he had tested positive for early onset dementia. The OmniEssence – that triumph of biotechnology, had passed her resounding verdict as she did with every male born on Avartha. And so Ramiz had been castrated as all non Bachelor Colony infant boys were. Ever since, he had been nurtured as Maintenance staff, a worker ant for the upkeep of the Procreation dome and the Bachelor Colonies. Little girls that were imperfect in big or small ways, however, became doctors, professors, writers, engineers, spiritualists and stateswomen. They dominated the world of learning, finance, politics and religion. The women in fact, all of them, now superintended the planet in one way or another. They were the Wise Ones.
I am meeting Ramiz today. We had met six months ago on my birthday when he was assigned to lead my party preparations. Bach-Col boys had grand birthday celebrations and even grander seeding day festivities. I had had eighteen of the former and two of the latter. Someone had dared me to dance with the ruggedly handsome Service boy, and I had. We had kissed that night. It had been beautiful then and in retrospect, also academically interesting. Service boys never kissed like that; they were not supposed to want to kiss. It was a revelation for both of us and had over time, morphed into what I would call Love. Ramiz called it “camaraderie”. I had laughed and he had blushed. We both knew he was trying to make it all seem kosher, mundane even, in the pervasive, criss crossing lines of the moral and physical rules that defined our world. We had met up every week since then; our love and camaraderie growing like star jasmine, brisk, strong and all-encompassing.
I am meeting Ramiz at the Ahyoka* lake just outside the city today. That has been our rendezvous point for the past four months after nearly being caught together in my quarters. Bach-Cols and Servicers* are not supposed to fraternise and they are certainly not supposed to be lovers. I had been surprised at how easy it had been to circumvent Avarthan laws outside city limits, and was often ruminative about why there were not more like us: Cross sectional couples; couples outside the Procreation Dome and the exacting laws that governed it. I always ceased my pondering beyond this point – the godesses did not need to eavesdrop on another mortal thought and warp it into yet another ruse to trip up Avarthakind*. So after short, mostly inadvertent forays into puzzlement and awe on the subject, I would retract, unhandling my thoughts and stashing them away into the secret little spaces of my mind.
I was supposed to meet Ramiz today. In the little sheltered recess two hundred paces westwards from the lake. He had not shown up. I had waited for over an hour and then headed to the Service Col. I had never been there before but I knew his quarter number. Room 42 was empty; like no one had lived there in a long time. I knocked on two of the adjoining quarters. Both Servicers seemed not to know Ramiz. How was it possible? How had he just vanished? How could he just cease to exist?
There was something else; something niggling at the edges of my mind. Everytime I tried to think of what could have happened to Ramiz, I lost my train of thought, the images scattering like hundreds of dandelion papas across the vastness of Avartha on a wayward breeze. I was puzzled and a little alarmed. But mostly puzzled. I was mildly anxious too because I didn’t feel the emotional whiplash of newly inflicted wounds or of broken dreams. In fact, I had felt more sadness when I had lost my favourite pair of boots to the hitch-hiking* fungus.
Back in my apartment, I put on the record player and lay down. The mind numbing melody of the “Infinite Improbability Drive”* thrummed through the room and my mind. I closed my eyes and fled into the familiar heart and mind space that music always took me to. I slowed down my breathing as I had been taught to do since I was four years old. I decelerated the rate of my inhalations to five a minute. My anxiety and my confusion subsided. Slowly, gradually I sank deeper into the restoring, enveloping clouds of my subconscious until I heard the comforting voice of the Wise speak:
“You are home. You are safe. You have learned. Thou shalt not covet anyone outside the Procreation Dome. Thou shalt remain pure of seed and spirit for Mother Avartha, the giver of life and the forger of destines. You are home. You are safe ….”
* Fascinator: A type of formal headwear, its function being purely ornamental.
* Bach-Col: Bachelor Colony
* Double X-elences: The women of Avartha who from time to time, gave birth in line with keeping the Avarthan population in healthy, burgeoning mode. Female DNA is made up of two X chromosomes and hence the term.
* Ahyoka: A female Cherokee name meaning “She brought happiness” * Servicers: Males who had at birth, been diagnosed with some congenital flaw and were relegated to the positions of workmen and service staff across Avartha.
* Avarthakind: the people of Avartha.
* Hitch-hiking Fungus: Fungus that grows close to the ground transferring onto treading leather, canvas and rubber. Picked up by footwear, it moves from one place to another very much like a hitch-hiker and hence the term.
* Infinite Improbability Drive: part of the soundtrack from the 2005 movie “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, based on Douglas Adams’ book of the same title.
The girls were finally on their way to hut number 76 in Hawks Bay. The beach itself remained a largely elusive thing even as their driver left the bustling highway and turned off towards the coast. The traffic was just as snarly as on the main road as six and eight wheeler goods transport vehicles plied a road that had seen better days at least fifty years ago. The girls were nevertheless agog. Every fleeting and lingering vista of the sea elicited an exclamation of happy surprise from both women. Even their driver, taken up with the enthusiasm of his passengers would point out an especially large swell just breaking on the coast, or a jagged rock hiding a structural pearl of some sort – hidden from prying eyes, opulent huts owned by the well heeled movers and shakers of the city nestled behind some of these precipitous facades.
They finally arrived at the designated hut, to all purposes looking quite deserted. When they got out of the car the first faint signs of life floated on the sea air from the front (or was it the back?) of the hut. It was Bhangra music; so the dance floor acrobatics had already begun Sophia thought with a grin. She herself was given to a more demure sashaying of a dancing evening, but Farina would be in her element! Her friend was already smiling and humming along with the Daler Mehndi tune wafting from the seafront. Her eyes were bright and in her mind Sophia was convinced, she was already bounding and cavorting with the wild abandon of a Bhangra caper. Sophia laughed – this was going to be a fun evening.
Sophia paid their driver for his transport as much as for his services as their tour guide. She had been assured by her friend Qasim that there would be more than enough cars and someone would be sure to give the girls a lift back to their hotel. The path to the front was dimly lit so that they had to pick their way carefully to avoid stumbling on the craggy ground – discretion was always the better part of valour when kicking up one’s heels, or otherwise revelling in an Islamic republic.
The scene at the seafront was like something out of fantasy folklore; a glittering wonderland. The front of the hut (which was situated at the back, away from public scrutiny and righteousness) was lit up with a thousand delicate fairy lights; some of them twinkled on and off while others waxed and waned delicately. The concrete patio was set up with a raised wooden platform that was the dance floor. Placed all around this platform were four seater tables and chairs. Each table was adorned with a tealite in gust-proof holders. They flickered mesmerisingly, throwing around huge shadows further away from the hut and smaller table-bound penumbras closer to the cabin. There were about fifty people milling around or sitting at the little white tables.
It was 8 O’ clock and less than half the guests had yet arrived. Sophia looked around for Qasim; he was nowhere to be seen. The girls then did what every out-of-towner does at the beach in Karachi – they went scrambling down the small precipice at the sea edge of the hut and onto the beach. They then took off their sneakers and dug their toes into the sand. Farina gave a little whoop of joy and rushed towards the gently foaming surf. Sophia, with her dread of creatures creeping in the dark, made more gingerly progress towards the rhapsodic call of the Arabian Sea. They soon realized that they were not the only ones ankle deep in the briny water; there were other seaside ingenues like themselves who were just as dazzled by the wizardry of the ocean.
‘Sophia! Sophia! Hi! Hey! Come back up!’ called a voice from the top of the precipice. Sophia turned away from the magical froth at her feet to the silhouette of a man standing on the promontory – it was Qasim. She waved at him and the two girls clambered back up to the top.
‘Welcome to Karachi madam!’ said a now smiling Qasim. She gave him a quick hug and introduced Farina whom he had heard about enough to know fairly well, but was meeting only just now.
‘Come, I want to introduce you to a few people’, he said and whisked them both off towards a corner of the fairytale patio.
‘Sophia, Farina, this is Samara, Tazeen, Asif and this is Uzair’
‘Everyone, this is Sophia and this is her doctor friend Farina!’ Qasim finished with a cheeky grin.
Sophia grimaced at Qasim – ever the joker! Farina cringed just a little before laughing out loudly, breaking through the awkwardness of that last bit. Proud as she was of her professional title, she hated being introduced as a doctor in social settings. She had, even in her short association with the title, seen how it prompted people’s baser instincts to surface; ranging from a fawning over their new “doctor connection” to bombarding her with an inexhaustible roster of the many others in her field they intimately knew. She hated being a statistic, she had declared to Sophia, “that was bandied around as a flex” at social gatherings. Sophia, the quintessential introvert herself, understood the sentiment all too well.
Soon, the duo armed with glasses of orange juice, was dancing to western pop songs from the 80s, frequently peppered with a rousing tune from the subcontinental music scene. The dance floor that night, saw a bizarre mix of genres as the moonwalk was quickly followed by the high energy leaps and hops of the Bhangra which was followed by John Travolta’s evergreen Grease moves. There was a lot of laughter amid sky high spirits.
Half an hour later, Sophia found herself dancing with Uzair, a wide grin fixed on her face. She was vaguely aware of the fact that her facial muscles had been in stretched-out mode for the last twenty minutes and had been maintaining that exhausting protraction more or less of their own accord. She tried to reel in the smile, to pull her mouth together, but it continued to break out into a dimpled grin, taunting all her efforts at restraint. She looked at the glass of orange juice in her hand, wondering if she could possibly lay the blame for her giddiness elsewhere. But it was just plain old orange juice – sweet, citrusy and wholesome.
There is something to be said for the pure headiness of self suggestion. And so Sophia gave up her endeavours to sober up, allowing herself to be swept up on the wings of gaiety, euphoria … and new emotions. She remembered that she laughed a lot and was acutely aware of Uzair’s eyes on her. Farina who was dancing with a sprightly group nearby sensed the undercurrents with a barely concealed delight of her own, a voyeurystic thrill. She was also tripping on OJ* and on the gambolling winds that were carrying in all this surplus of good cheer from beyond the seaside horizon.
Sophia and Farina caught each other’s eyes at some point and laughed wildly. It was an interlude of intense emotions. whether it was delicate flirtation that seemed to surge into ardent courtship or a private little smile that swelled into crazy laughter.
At midnight, the spirited festivity mellowed as the bride and groom to-be entered upon the stage of the beach hut. They both had yellow flower wreaths of gladioli and marigold around their necks. The bride also wore ear rings and bracelets made of the same yellow blooms. She looked sweetly whimsical, a quirky hybrid of the east and the west as she sat in her jeans and t-shirt festooned with the flowers of the eastern bride-in-waiting.
Soon it was 3 O’ clock in the morning. But the party was far from over as the reveling crowd flowed in and out of the hut in constant waves, sometimes dancing and sometimes sitting, until another fabulous song came on. Sophia and Farina however, were done for the day. Drained and exhausted as the adrenaline rush of the last few hours slowed to the sluggish circadian rhythm typical of that late hour. A few carloads had just started to leave so the exodus although far from its mass had slowly begun. Sophia looked around for Qasim; he would know if one of the departing cars had space for the two girls to be dropped off at their hotel. He was sitting in a corner of the narrow veranda, surrounded by a group of low key revellers, crooning a zen-like medley ranging from the Vital Signs* to Frank Sinatra. Sophia stood at the periphery of this assemblage unsure of what to do. He was in the very middle of being the coincidental star of the evening and she was loathe to break that trance for him as much as for his smiling, humming swaying audience.
It was Farina who came up to her just then saying that she’d found someone who would give them a lift into the city. It was Uzair. He was going back with a friend he’d said, and since they had an otherwise empty car, would be happy to take the girls back to their hotel.
The next morning Sophia had a text message from Uzair: would she and Farina like to be shown around the city? He’d be more than glad to be their guide for the day. Also, there was the annual food bazaar being held at the Park Towers.
So many unexpected, inadvertent tour guides in the City by the Sea! thought Sophia laughing to herself, a smile of quiet pleasure settling itself on her face. Farina was excited at the prospect too, not only because in her ten months in the city, her experience of all noteworthy sights and sounds had been limited to within a 5 km radius of the hospital which was where she stayed as well, but also because there was the promise of being a first hand witness to a good old real life romance; titillating entertainment; seeing a brand new love story unfold (regardless of the ending) before her very eyes! She felt her own heart skip a beat much like it did when she read the old world romances of Georgette Heyer or the dazzlingly brazen love stories of Nora Roberts.
And so, a plan was firmed up and at noon, Uzair picked them up to show them around Karachi’s hotspots. As they drove around, or walked or sat in the winter sunshine, the conversation was easy and the mood was light; Sophia felt a warm little glow around her heart. She wondered once again, at the serenity with which she had acknowledged this fledgling beat of new emotions.
It was close to midnight when the girls got back to their room. It had been a marvellously eventful day, gratifying for both girls in their own ways: Sophia had allowed herself to go with the flow, experiencing a whole new sweep of feelings as Uzair gently wooed her. Farina had enjoyed watching the subtle courtship as much as she had relished their day of food and adventure. The combined mental and emotional exertion made up as it was of strange and new things had been intense. And so despite being suffused in a kind of exhausted elation as the glow of the day still clung to them, sleep came quickly and restfully.
‘He’s nice Sophie’, Farina said suddenly at breakfast the next morning.
Both girls had slept soundly and Sophia had dreamt. Copiously; towards dawn as she normally did. She wasn’t quite sure of the essence of those dreams, but she had dreamt and that meant something new was taking shape on the horizon.
She smiled at Farina, feeling herself flush.
‘Yes, he is’, she said, unwilling to outwardly commit more than that to the fickleness of the universe.
She wanted to share the latest text message from Amir Taurab with her best friend, as she always did. He had been the topic of many an exasperated, tragi-comedic conversation between them. She picked up her phone and opened up the message, immediately closing it. Something held her back this time. She didn’t trust the usual predictability or equanimity of her emotions this time. The truth was, she didn’t feel like the reluctant Juliet anymore. She felt herself flush again.
Yes, there were changes in the air; Sophia could sense them, smell them almost. The atoms ricocheting around her were carrying a new energy. In the wisdom that the universe sometimes bestows on her creatures, Sophia knew then that her serene acknowledgement of the situation was but the natural first act of stepping into altogether new shoes; changing her sensible flat pumps for peep-toe heels. She also knew cloaked in the same clear-thinking aura that when she was kind to herself on the precipice of a great change, the universe tended to be kinder too.
Smiling at Farina, Sophia picked up her mug of tea, and took a sip of the hot, soul uplifting brew. She looked out of the window at the lushness outside and then beyond into the sunlit horizon.
It has to be said here dear reader, that Sophia was not exactly a tomboy, but neither did she exude the ripe femininity of a femme fatale – she lacked the necessary airs and graces required for that delicate drama. Ironically however, it was this very lack of the obvious, the normative and the expected that made men hesitate and look again; to ponder for a while (for there was never any of the usual emotional agitation of new love urging them quickly on); and then to feel the brush of something oddly tender stir their hearts.
And so it was that despite not fitting the mould of the eastern debutante, a sizeable male demographic in Sophia’s circle of friends and acquaintances had at various times been in love with her or imagined they were in love with her. Many in the latter category, when they did look into the varying depths of their hearts where infatuations tend to swarm tumultuously about and realized that it wasn’t love after all, did a curious U-turn: From the fickle pursuers with the furtive motives, they morphed into almost belligerent beings; their attitude now towards Sophia one of self conscious nonchalance, bordering on brusqueness. It was indeed an emotional sluiceway of confounding vibes and vehemence that was directed towards her. She had in turn, in the interest of careful self preservation, developed an outer shell of hardened nacre: genial with all, friends with some but allowing no one within the inner sanctums of her heart.
To say that she left a trail of bruised hearts and tempers in her wake, would not be entirely true. For with her reticence to be coveted, she also brought a grace to all those unrequited overtures of love. Even when she was aware of a heart roving in her general vicinity, looking for a way into her auricles, she pretended not to see it scramble about; all the while maintaining an everyday sunniness that made it appear as if she was obtuse, blind even, to the iridescent hues of romance. So that the men, sincere and otherwise walked away with their dignity intact and their egos secure.
Sophia opened up the old samsonite suitcase, its well-worn and weather-beaten visage a reminder of its dutiful service to her father on his many business trips in and outside the country. Despite its toilsome age, it was yet, whole and undamaged. She dusted it off and started to pack for her trip to Karachi. She was going to attend a friend’s wedding in the City by the Sea.
Twenty minutes into her packing, Sophia sat on her bed for a minute to look at her phone. There was a message there from Amir Taurab – how he had got her personal mobile number is another entirely different tale of dogged determination and out of the purview of this story. But he had, and he had now sent his one careful message of the week; connecting with her in one way or another, all in the guise of inquiring about the state of his account or about one of the financial schemes of the bank. She sighed inwardly and opened the message:
Hello Sophia ji, I’ve been thinking for a very long time now and I wonder if you would go out for dinner with me. I am sorry if this message offends you, I did not meant for it to do that.
“Meant” for it to do that … Sophia’s Elf of Fastidium piped up in some corner of her brain while she read and re-read the message with her other self preserving nacreous part – the part reserved for intentional and incidental admirers. She was also aware now, of a third part of her brain that was watching all this piqued neural activity with a quiet interest; a calm, serene anticipation. She focused on this part of her sensibilities. Was she losing her self protective edge? Did she need to be this bullishly self preserving? Why had she given him her number? Did she want to be forever alone? Did she not want a companion? Sophia blinked as much with stupefaction as with the glimmers of a new realisation. She looked at the message again, ignoring the typo (she sincerely hoped it was a typo … why did she sincerely hope it was a typo?!), locked her phone with deliberate care and put it away, together with her bounding and rebounding thoughts. She needed to pack.
Sophia landed at the Quaid-e-Azam international airport in Karachi at 1 O’ clock in the afternoon. The big city bustle overwhelmed her as soon as she walked out of the Arrivals lounge into the bright sunlight of an otherwise cool December day. She was immediately mobbed by staff from the various taxi kiosks that lined the entirety of the wide corridor all the way to the parking lot. They were all talking as one, urging her to pick them! Pick me! Pick me! is all she heard as her jangled nerves negotiated through the shouting milieu. She craned her neck and finally spied the White Cabs stall a few feet down the corridor. She pushed her trolley purposefully onwards at which the frenzied crowd around her finally parted very much like the Red Sea did for Moses.
Forty five minutes later, she was at the front desk of the Avari hotel being checked into her room. She was going to pick up Farina – (Doctor Farina now!) – from the hospital in a couple of hours. She grinned happily. Farina was Sophia’s best friend. They had known each other since they’d first met at six years old in boarding school in the salubrious hills of Murree. They had spent ten years together under the tutelage and guardianship of Irish Catholic nuns until trained and mentored into upstanding young women, they were then handed back permanently into the care of their parents. Even though both girls had set themselves medical career goals in school, Sophia had gone on to do business studies while Farina was now doing her residency in general surgery at one of the leading university hospitals in Karachi. Their reunions were always effusive and joyous.
Sophia and Farina arrived at the hotel, surrounded by the cheerful air of shared confidences and humour, carried along as these are on endless streams of conversation and banter. There was going to be no more time today to continue to catch up over copious cups of tea like they usually did. As soon as they were back from the hospital, it was time to get ready for the pre-wedding party at the beach. Beach parties were still a novelty for both girls, having grown up in their various mountain and river bound cities. At 6 O’ clock, their rental car arrived to pick them up and drive them to Hawks Bay beach.
Sophia was looking forward to the evening not only because it was a long weekend away from work and that she would be spending it in the company of her best friend, but also because some secret little part of her heart had opened up just a tiny bit to experience new emotions in new ways amid a gamut of new and exciting possibilities.