FLASH FICTION | A DIALOGUE WITH THE DEVIL

(I)

Where else would I be?

Are you there?

I mean are you really there or is it just my mind filling in the dialogue?

Dialogue by its very essence means a conversation between two people

People?

Beings then.

I call myself a ____. But I have so many questions in my head. Secret. All secret. Shared with no one. I don’t want to be termed an infidel. A pariah.

What questions?

Why is religion so … restraining? Incarcerating almost. And claustrophobic.

I want to be good. I want to receive your divine blessings. I want to go to heaven. But I sometimes feel so trapped here.

You have a mind. Listen to it.

I do. And it tells me that the rituals of religion have overtaken my humanity. I do them with more earnestness than any act of actual kindness or empathy or consideration for the people around me. I feel like a fraud. Like I’m doing all this so I can go to heaven and not … not because I really want anyone to benefit from any of my good deeds in themselves.

My mother is going to perform her third pilgrimage … blessed is she! But I can’t help thinking that in place of raking in more divine favour, she could have instead funded the education of our driver’s daughter. She’s such a smart girl but was pulled out of school because it was a choice between her and her brother. Why does wanting my mother to forgo her holy pilgrimage to help someone at home seem right to me? And yet, thinking that seems sinful? And why must I give fully only to those poor that share my exact faith even if I have to look for them on the streets, and give grudgingly or not at all to the Hindu woman who slaves in my kitchen everyday? Why does that seem incredibly unkind to me, and yet even thinking about the inconsideration somehow seems sinful? Like I’m questioning the very fundamentals and wisdom of my faith.

When I’m alone and these thoughts take over my heart and mind, I get frustrated because I can’t do what really feels right to me. I feel like I’m being cold, calculating, ruthless. And then I get panic attacks because thinking like that just seems damnable and wrong. Everything is upside down and inside out. Nothing makes sense anymore.

When you feel right in your gut about something, anything, a conundrum, then that is your moral obligation. Religion is just another name given to that personal value system, that credo.

But I’m not always sure. There are so many mixed messages. The world has changed and yet we have not. We are discouraged from embracing that change in ways that should happen naturally. Change does not sit well with the communities and the people that were enlightened by your wisdom and guidance so many ages ago. They still want to hold on to all those early norms and customs. It seems unnatural. Counter-intuitive. And yet, I want to do what’s right. I want to go to heaven.

Is …. Is there a heaven?

What is your concept of heaven?

What I’ve been told: a place of ease and abundance. Also a place where so much that I’m not allowed to do in this world, I can freely do there.

That sounds complex.

Yes! Again, I feel like a fraud. Why are so many things sinful and wrong in this life and yet those same acts and liberties will be allowed in the blessed heavens?

You tell me.

But it’s in the teachings. Revealed through your blessed apostle. It is your final word.

You have hundreds of years of history behind you. Your humanity and your spirit together with your instinct, make up your three most enlightened and reliable guides. Let them lead you and you will gradually find your way: a state of being that will make you feel light and joyful on the inside. You know, it’s true when someone said that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

That last bit was funny; I’m actually smiling. That felt good. But …religion is never lighthearted; it’s not meant to be cheerful or playful.

Any enterprise of the body and the soul that stops you from feeling happy on the inside, is not viable in the long term.

(II)

I listened to my heart and my mind. I tried to do what felt right at the deepest, truest part of me rather than what I’ve been taught is right.

And how did you feel?

I felt elated, free, at one with everything around me. No one was beyond your divine magnanimity no matter what they believed in; it was their goodness that was at the front and centre of any and all consequences. I felt an overwhelming compassion for everyone, every creature. There was nothing binding me down in odd, contrived ways. Rituals became so secondary. They ceased to define my whole belief system and instead became the anchors that I sometimes went to when I felt agitated or overcome. Sometimes I even felt like I had no … religion; at least, no mainstream religion. My renewed faith was like a shimmering pathway in my own heart and mind. I began to question things without feeling guilty, and I looked for answers. I began to see so many similarities with others who are faith-wise not like us. My perspective evolved … changed. I realized how difficult it was to identify and focus on the differences rather than on the similarities; how unnatural that was. We were all the same. I felt free, grateful, confident. And heaven would be more of this.

More of what?

More of every one of us trying to be ever better versions of ourselves. Our true selves. Our natural, spiritual selves. Because there is so much joy and freedom in that. So much honesty. So much harmony. So much peace of mind. Such lightness of spirit. That has to be what heaven feels like.

Yes, I listened to my inner voice and everything seemed so easy, so natural, so unbinding.

You LISTENED to your inner voice. You used the past tense. Why?

Yes, I did. Because my new sense of godliness came with a tremendous price. Everyone around me, those I love, those I look up to, those that have always guided me and protected me, they didn’t like what I had become. I felt my mother’s painful disappointment, my brother’s deafening silence and my father’s quiet fury. It has to mean something … all this outrage and disillusionment.

What do you believe in now?

I believe there is sagacity in the old ways. I believe in everything that I have been taught. I believe in the precise observance of rituals to keep us focused and dedicated. I believe that our differences are important and cannot be ignored; that these differences, even if they appear small, many times outweigh our similarities. They keep us cohesive as a community, an impregnable force that can withstand an assault of any kind. More importantly, I believe that we are not all equal in the eyes of the Divine. In terms of faith, we have got it as right as imperfect human beings can get a belief system. The final Hereafter will be ruthless, exacting for the unbelievers and also for those of us believers that stray from the one true path.

That sounds ominous.

That feels safe. I feel protected, part of a whole, when I reaffirm this credo. There has to be a reason for why so many believe these tenets. Why we are so many many millions strong. I can’t lose sight of the bigger picture by focusing on the inner, confounding, disquieting workings of my heart and my mind. They are distracting, frustrating and damaging to me, to my wellbeing in the Hereafter.

Damaging to your peace of mind too?

Faith is not about peace of mind. It is about a constant battle inside. An unending war against the voices of excess and those that would try to tempt us from our one, sacred path. Complete peace of mind is an intemperance, an indulgence, a fantasy. I’m sticking to my guns now. You can’t confuse me.

You are not God! With all your postulations about questioning everything, looking for answers, listening to my heart, focusing on the fairytale of my own spirituality, my peace of mind.

You are the devil pretending to be Divine!

(III)

I blocked the other voice. I ended the dialogue. I turned away. I turned away feeling triumphant and blessed. I had vanquished the unsettling, misleading rumbling inside. I had been lured away from the wisdom of centuries and I had found my way back. I basked in my victory.

Even as the muscles of my face celebrated the triumph of my soul, I felt something wrenching in my gut. I resolutely swallowed the acid aftertaste that rose to my mouth.

SHORT STORY | THE DNA LOTTERY – Part Two

It was Wednesday afternoon. Bano was done with bridge and Adar had come back from the stock exchange. With their greater purposes of the day done, they rendezvoused at one of their oft frequented coffee shops. Bano ordered tea and cakes; Adar ordered a latte. The foamy brew always fortified him in the presence of his wife. He was up to any conversation then.

“He’s such a show off”

“What happened?”

“He come to the cafe in his father’s mercedes. You know the one in that strange yellow colour – like a sick canary. It’s the only one of its kind in the city ….”

Adar looked up, ears prickling with a mixture of curiosity and indignation. It was Giallo Modena, the colour! He and Farshad had especially had it custom-painted. He shifted in his chair but the occupants of the table behind him remained infuriatingly out of sight.

“We had decided to meet up at The Veranda. You know, that new cafe. Well everyone else was there too! First of all he walked in late -“

“Late latif*”

“Don’t say that. That’s also my X’s name … ugh!”

(A giggle from the next table)

“Anyway, he then insisted on taking ten minutes before he finally made his lumbering way to me. You know how he walks – like he’s holding a 40kg bag in each hand”.

(More giggles from the table)

Bano looked straight ahead, stlll, statue-like. Her outraged ears had taken centre stage on this occasion, their lack of tongue notwithstanding.

“Why’d he take ten minutes to come over?”

“Because he had to stop and talk to Aliya and Maham. These two are always desperately in his way. Uff!”

“Anyway, he came over and gave me a kiss. No, three. You know, I think he was making sure everyone saw it. Like marking his territory”

“Like a doggo”

“Farshad the grey hound in the cafe!”

“Farshad the poodle around you!”

(Laughter)

Adar shifted to the right. He was riveted. If only he could get a glimpse of the conversationalists. Bano continued to stare straight ahead with the stillness of the ocean just before it roars into a tsunami. Between the couple sat a pause so pregnant that the tea brewed twice over, creating two or three increasingly caustic versions of itself, and the latte simply collapsed into a tattered frill around the inner edges of the mug.

“Then what happened? Tell me na, is it lurrrve?”

“I don’t know. I can’t tell. I mean he’s so full of himself. I can’t tell whether I just make him love himself more or whether I figure in there somewhere too”.

Phir*?”

“So he’d gone to get his visa and apparently he’d told the consular off at the American embassy”.

“Noo!”

“Yes!”

“She’d asked him how long he was going to the US for and he’d told her for far shorter than she’d been resident in his country”.

(Laughter from the next table)

Bano’s lips twitched in an indecipherable expression. Adar grinned in spite of himself.

“…so arrogant, like he’s god’s gift to everyone!”

“…. yeah … but he’s good looking!”

Bano turned her face ever so slightly towards the next table. There was the faintest hint of appreciation for that bit of sensibility that had trickled into the otherwise unfiltered barrage of adolescent angst.

(More giggles from the other side followed by a request for the bill and finally an exit).

“It’s your fault you know. You spoil him”.

“Don’t you start with me Adarmard. I’m not in the mood”, said Bano uncharacteristically, turning her face away from battle and from her instigating husband, to look again at the display cabinet of cakes. The pineapple upside down in a curious way, reminded her of her own state of mind at that moment: displaced, askew, jangled. She sniffed haughtily as if one last vigorous whiff of the ambient unpleasantness would turn things the right side up again. She hadn’t even glanced at the girls in front of her who’d been describing the Unwala scion in those … pedestrian terms; making him seem flawed and reduced. The art of knowing is also knowing what to ignore, someone had sagely said, and this unpleasantness which had already been denied her sight, was also going to be steadfastly put out of her mind. She sniffed again for good measure and took a long, cleansing sip of her tea.

Adar Unwala looked at his wife for a while as a panoply of emotions skipped across her face, each dealt with and dismissed in quick succession. Then she had looked away and detached herself from the entire episode leaving him with the hatchet and the axe. The thought that she may retrace her steps later to retrieve them bared its teeth unkindly in the back of his mind.

He sighed at his wife’s erstwhile profile, turned studiously away from him and also from any exchange that might have been had to let the air out of the bloated atmosphere that once again sat between them. He blinked once, twice and wheezed into a napkin, clearing his mind and bolstering himself with the din that ensued from his vocal chords. After a little while he smiled widely and wondered if he should have another latte.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/21/the-dna-lottery-part-one/

* Late Latif: Urdu colloquialism for someone who is habitually late.

* Phir: “Then” in Urdu

SHORT STORY | THE DNA LOTTERY – Part One

“Why did you have to tell Imtiaz we have a penthouse in London?” questioned Adarmard Unwala, red faced and wrathful.

His inquiry was shot like an arrow at his wife’s back which was turned towards him as she sat facing her dressing table mirror. He generally made these aft-aimed assaults because then he could say what was on his mind; or at least as much as he dared get away with. His wife, after one of these musters of initiative from him, quite completely usurped the offensive and let him have it back ten times more ferociously. She was then relentless, focused and quite triumphant in reducing him ego and all to his precise 5 feet, 5 inches. These backside jabs always seemed like a bad idea in hindsight. But Adar Unwala was the eternal optimist and he rallied with the buoyancy of a helium balloon in the prime of its flatus. Reduced and brought to heel for the moment, he would smile blotchily at his enraged wife, handing over the battle axe into her expert hands. Tajbano Unwala would deliver a final withering blow to his already chastised ego and then fling both axe and pique into the far corner of the room. There they would lie until the next time he picked them up, wobbling and mottling under their weight until he once again handed them gratefully back to her.

It was a good thing that neither Bano Unwala nor her husband held spousal grudges, or the end of their quarrels and the ebb and flow of life in general would have been worse than medieval torture. Quite entirely for Adar Unwala that is, who would have early on joined the ranks of the vanquished and deceased husbands who live on epileptically in the memories of their robust better halves. Bano would have prevailed of course and lived to tell the tale of her unending patience and fortitude.

So it was fortunate indeed that the couple quarreled in such perfect accord that while one gamely tossed up both their shares of invective and unholy suggestions into the fray, the other graciously fizzled all out. It was a match made in heaven … well, somewhere close to the cosmic limit of things.

Bano Unwala was a ship of a woman – 5’8” and magnificently girthsome. She carried her 150 kilos with the grace of a swan: bulbous limbs treading awkwardly but invisibly beneath yards of delicately billowing silk and chiffon. She was also the queen of her social realm and took full credit for all the fortuitous happenings in and around it. Whether it was a friend’s triple bypass that had gone roaringly well while she was resident at their home or the happy spell of rain that fell in the parched deserts of Dubai when she was visiting her sister, she was the unrivalled trustee and bequeather of the universe’s kindness in her environs. If the gentle patter of rain one day, however, was followed by a dust storm of epic proportions the next day that uprooted the shed and the dog kennel, sending them careening into the Arabian desert, well, that was squarely due to some faltering in the moral and ethical compass of her hosts. Something they had done to deserve this unholy wrath of which she too gamely and graciously partook with them, she would smile with moist eyes. Karma was quick and relentless she always said knowingly.

Adar had over his two decades with Bano, perfected his unreadable face: one which absorbed all but gave away nothing. For to pay attention was expected, but to disagree with his wife in company was tantamount to betrayal and would be dealt with likewise when he and Bano were alone. And so he would listen to his wife who in turn would enthral and terrify their friends and family with declarations of celestial favours and also of brimstone and hellfire. It was an oft performed, much loved scene delivered with queenly aplomb every single time. Bano didn’t socialize; she held court.

Adar Unwala was small and retiring. His life had been devoted quite entirely to being the second shadow of his formidable wife in the event that her own defected from under the sheer thunderousness of its owner. He was also the in-house punching bag and the inescapable other half of their marital equation. Adar Unwala cheerfully shouldered these various burdens, the optimism borne more out of habit and a tenacious will to live, than any obscure masochistic inclinations. He did in another lifetime, before being encircled in the hefty arms of marital bliss, have his brash and bold moments. But with time and the unflagging force of Bano, he had become quiet and wry. The former state of being made the latter quality especially prominent and entertaining. Adar Unwala didn’t have conversatons; he performed them.

Adar was also an avid reader. He was often driven to reading poetry which he discovered, was surprisingly effective in dispelling the clouds of gloom and doom that sometimes overtook him. It was not so much the substance of the verse, but the rhyme and meter that would slowly file off the sharp edges and bit by bit, let the sun into his soul again. His favourite genre however, one that he read when he was in full possession of his composure and his serenity, was memoirs of rags to riches industrialists and business tycoons. He read these tomes not so much to gain pithy insight into how to get rich. The Unwala coffers had been quite copiously overflowing for the past many generations. No, it was almost a catharsis in reverse psychology – how it would be to have nothing; to not be identified as one of the Unwalas or as Tajbano’s husband but simply as Adermard. His keen and extended perusal of the books to date however had led him to believe that most men liked being in the clutches of influence and power, and the occasional matriarch. As kismet would have it, he had gone into the sweeping embrace of the latter and had quite completely given up any delusions of the former. He had continued to read other men’s stories nevertheless, more for the occasional nuggets of bizarre personal eccentricities and foibles they sometimes threw at him. These he would then mull over with angst, awe or amusement, filling his time and his thoughts with existential what-ifs and wild imaginings. He loved his story time.

Bano and Adar had been together for twenty one years and had produced a happy hybrid of themselves in their son. Farshad had his father’s grey eyes and his mother’s unremitting gaze. He had also inherited his mother’s stature but by dint of hard work, had extricated himself from the legacy of her bulk. Still, he tended to carry himself like there were two of him. He was intelligent and self assured like his mother with a tendency towards an almost happy cynicism like his father. Everyone remarked about how he had won the DNA lottery.

Farshad Unwala hadn’t grown into adulthood; it had metamorphosed to fit him.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/22/the-dna-lottery-part-two/

SHORT STORY | THE GLIMMER – Part Two

Marrya:

I met Zainab after almost fifteen years. We hadn’t seen each other since school. We had been good friends growing up. Then my family and I moved to Canada and we somehow lost touch. I saw her that day when I went to pick my daughter up from Mrs. Abad’s Academy. Her son, Zain is in the same school. We recognised each other instantly. It was a warm reunion. There was none of the awkwardness of long absences and radio silences. We easily picked up from where we had left off a decade and a half ago. She was glowing.

Zainab:

I saw Marrya like an apparition. I was feeling a familiar tingle in the tips of my fingers and in the space behind my eyes – something was about to happen. She had smiled so widely and come up to me. We had hugged. I held on to her, trying to steady myself, to focus on something, to let the feeling pass quickly, unobtrusively. She had tears in her eyes. Why was she crying? I didn’t know why she was crying. I knew I should be concerned, I should ask her why. But I had to stop my mind from picking me up and whisking me away. Not there, not at that time. So I hugged her again. Outside, I kept focusing on the hug and on Marrya. Inside, I held on with both hands to the railing so that I wouldn’t be swept up in the current that was coursing through me. I don’t know how long I held her like that, but the episode passed. I could feel thermal waves undulating on my face and my chest, enfolding me in their warmth. I was back in control.

Marrya had been my best friend in school.

Marrya:

We met up a few times after that first encounter at our children’s school. She was the same … and also different. There was a serenity about her but there was also a wildness in her eyes sometimes. She would get agitated and then very still. Almost like there was something going on on the inside. Like a battle … maybe a conversation with herself. I wasn’t sure. Until Zainab talked to me. We were sitting in her home catching up on old times with a couple of hours to spare before picking up the children from school. I noticed her odd look then. One moment she was laughing and then … she held onto my arms, with that feral look in her eyes. She said she was having an episode. I looked at her not entirely understanding but somehow knowing that I needed to reassure her. So I nodded, encouraging her to talk. To tell me what was happening. She was dazed and confused for almost an hour. And incoherent. I tried to have her sip some water but she said she’d drown. I wanted to take her to the hospital, a clinic, but she shook her head. No! No! I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you. Wait, I’ll tell you. It took forty five minutes before she was herself again. I held her in my arms and she remained there quietly.

She then looked at me through calm, bright eyes. I could tell she was lucid, peaceful again. She then told me about her Glimmer.

Zainab:

I finally told Marrya about the Glimmer. I needed to tell someone and she was there with me again when I was … swept up. She seemed to understand … but in the way that normal people empathise with the handicapped: her face was sheathed in lines of concern and her kindness was effusive. I’m not being sarcastic. I was grateful to her for listening to me. For letting me talk. It was my first time talking of my inner self … my inner world, and the words were not coming easily. I was fumbling but she was listening. And I was grateful for that.

Like a dirty disease, the Glimmer … my Glimmer had stayed hidden, vilified and excluded for so long that it had begun to fester, spilling a dreary pall over my lucid days … hours. Someone else now knew and in some strange way I had this sense that it was essential – for Zain – that Marrya knew. I also felt a lightness of being; a headiness almost that my Glimmer had, through my words, found its way out. I was swept up again but in the real life throes of relief and joy. I laughed.

I hope Marrya doesn’t think I’m crazy. I’m really hoping she doesn’t. I didn’t tell her about Zoya and Gula. Time enough for that. She asked me why I wasn’t taking the medication and whether I believed in the mystic healing of Sufi saints. I think she was satisfied with my responses. I’ve refound a friend.

Marrya:

I was torn. Between my promise of secrecy to Zainab and the insticintive obligation I felt to let someone else know. I wanted to tell Asif, Zainab’s husband but I’d only ever met him once and he was out of town a lot. I wondered if he was aware of Zainab’s episodes; if he’d witnessed them … I wasn’t sure. Then I thought of talking to Zainab’s mother, Arifa aunty. She had always been a fragile, bird-like creature and from what Zainab had said, her delicate constitution had not fared well with time. She had moved to the UK to live with her sister when the latter had got widowed. That was a year ago. I had to think … I had to think about who to let in on Zainab’s state of well being …. her state of mind.

Was Zainab going crazy? Was she losing her mind? Did insanity run in her family? What about Zain? These thoughts now regularly ran headlong into me in my waking hours.

Zainab:

It was so quick. The van had come careening into our car. There was an explosion in my head. I felt a tidal wave carrying me away from the scene in front of me; away from the collision. I tried to concentrate on the steering wheel to regain control but everything was slipping away. Then I’d seen Zain lying there unblinking … dead? I had screamed then. Again and again. To hold onto him; to hold onto myself.

Marrya:

Then the accident happened. Zainab and Zain were in the car. Zain had broken his arm but he was alright. Zainab had hit her head and had been brought to the hospital, disoriented and confused.

I hugged Zain and told him everything would be alright. He was sitting with his father on the sofa outside Zainab’s room.

Zainab had sustained a severe concussion Arif had said. She was dazed but awake.

A concussion. Something in the pit of my stomach turned. I was afraid.

I walked in.

Zainab:

I was in a garden. It was shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight. I was sitting in a rocking chair.

How did I get into a rocking chair?

Something was not right …

Zain!

Where was Zain? How was Zain? I felt for the cold, hard surface of the railing; I couldn’t see it but I felt it. I needed to get back.

I saw Marrya. She was faded, shadowy, her outline coming in and out of my sight. I grabbed her arm; I had to know before she disappeared. Before I disappeared.

Where is Zain?

He’s fine she said.

He’s fine I said. He’s fine … he is fine …. he is alright …

I breathed. I relaxed.

I lost my hold on the railing.

Marrya:

Zainab was looking straight up at the ceiling when I walked into the room. I called to her but she didn’t move. I went up to her and looked into her eyes. There was that wild look again. I felt my own heart beating wildly. I felt nauseous.

Where is Zain, she asked. I told her he was alright, that he was sitting outside with his father. After that she became calm. Stuporous.

I held her hand.

She finally closed her eyes and slept.

Zainab:

Zoya- You’re ok Mama. You’re ok.

Gula- You’re fine. Breathe

I was sitting in a garden. It was shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight. My favourite time of the day. The light was falling in beautiful undulating patterns on the grass: golden whorls and paisleys, fluttering tendrils and fronds played hide and seek with one another. All Gula’s exquisite handiwork. There was the sound of birds as they rallied themselves for one last forage before getting into their safe little spaces for the night. I was sitting in a rocking chair. I breathed. I smiled.

Gula – And here’s a steaming mug of tea – Tea Tang, Hillcrest, your favourite. And a book of short stories, with a little bit of the real, and a bit of the ethereal. Just like you like them.

Zoya, eyes shining- read one out loud!

I grinned. It was perfect.

Something had happened…. but it was alright now … I couldn’t remember anymore … but it was alright …

I was tired but I was so happy. I smiled at little Zoya and put her in my lap.

Tomorrow we’ll read. I kissed her little head as she leaned back on my chest. I put my own head back.

I finally closed my eyes and slept.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/13/the-glimmer/

SHORT STORY | THE GLIMMER – Part One

(I)

She felt her brain glimmer as it always did before she lost it.

Found yourself Gula had said from behind her hippocampus when she had been whisked into the inner spaces of her mind in those early days. Zoya had smiled her bright smile at her in cheerful confirmation of her sister’s mental wisdom. Gula was always foremost in telling it like it was. When Zainab and the rest of the world were trying to make it right, make it all normal, Gula would put a spanner in the works … tell the truth. In a strange way, having the truth set free, always made Zainab feel better. Of course she never articulated out loud all this straight talk that was strewn more and more in her neural pathways by Gula. But she was secretly relieved that there was someone else to reassure her that she wasn’t alone .. that she wasn’t mad.

Little Zoya and Gula lived inside. In Zainab’s mind.

Zainab put away the ironing, deliberately, slowly and then sat down and began to rock back and forth gently, almost imperceptibly. She stared at the switch on the wall; she needed to focus on something to let the episode pass. She had to let it wash over her gently and without her full participation. She had things to do.

Today she couldn’t walk around the house with the glimmer. That only made it brighter, and when she roamed the house in its throes, she walked also into the furthest spaces of her mind where she would then be lost for hours at a time. What were fleeting moments of rest and relief within, were protracted hours of a psychotic episode outside. It was a balancing act that she had performed for the last fourteen months, never mastering it, always just scraping by. On the outside.

She kept her eyes glued to the wall switch. Gradually it’s innocuous cream colour filled with texture, kinetic layers and a myriad other hues in the snow white to clotted cream spectrum. She absorbed the details as she slowly stilled her mind. When she could see fluid little fragments of the silver-grey railing, she knew she could relax; she was at the waning end of her episode. The railing was always there – stretching behind her, in front of her and alongside her; not always visible, but always reachable. Even at the throbbing, pulsing heart of her Glimmer, she knew that as long as she could keep her grip on it she could find her way out; get back to real life. The paling shimmered hazily, insubstantially now as it moved in and out of her sight.. her mind. She concentrated. After a while, it slowly forged itself into an unbroken, glinting beacon guiding her back into the real world.

It had taken half an hour of concerted effort to wrest herself away from Zoya’s pleading voice and Gula’s requests to look at her needlework; her brain stitching. She made lovely patterns. Sometimes she cross stitched when the world outside was not so ferocious, and then Zainab could sense in the faintest of tones, what was happening outside; she would remain hidden and protected but Gula’s weave would let in little speckles of outside light and with them silent, fuzzy, slow moving images that made Zainab think of how old sepia-toned movies without sound might have been like. At other times, Gula would do a precise filling stitch to block out everything from the outside. Sometimes she would hem when Zainab was feeling especially anxious about having left something important undone before being whisked in. Gula would then gently neaten the frayed edges of Zainab’s mind, tucking away her anxiety in horizontal spaces that were 0.75 inches wide. Zainab would watch the hypnotic action of the needle going in and out, in and out, in and out in Gula’s deft hands, and she would feel better. Sometimes, however, Gula would rip it all apart. Zainab hated that but Gula said it was necessary sometimes to restart. To forget and begin again. Sometimes Zainab did forget and was able to begin again. At other times, she remembered and the new stitches Gula put in felt like lancing pin pricks in her body. Tridents of pain would poke at her head and her chest throughout the rest of the day.

She had things to do. It was Zain’s parent-teacher meeting today. She had to get ready and look the part in less than an hour.

(II)

“How did the PTM go”, asked Tariq when they were all sitting around the dinner table that night.

“It was alright. Zain is doing generally well” said Zainab smiling at her eight year old from across the table.

Zain shifted uncomfortably in his seat but he was grateful for this little lie by his mother. A white lie because he was having problems only with Urdu and Islamiyat. White lies were not as bad as … black lies. He smiled suddenly at this turn of phrase that had suddenly popped into his mind. He was sure he had come up with something new. He would ask Miss Malik tomorrow.

“Did you go with the driver?”

“Yes … yes i went with the driver. We even stopped at Burger King for lunch”, Zainab looked again at her son who was now smiling widely. She smiled back at him. These moments were so precious when she was in the same room, in the same time and space with her son. He had seen her mentally disappear from his world a few times and had over the past year become somewhat withdrawn. She had explained to him as best as she could that her mind worked differently and sometimes she needed to shut down on the outside so she could rest. Most people went to sleep to rest. This was like her sleep. He had listened quietly and had then turned his face away. He was too young to understand what was happening, Zainab had reasoned with herself. She needed to be around him more when she was … herself and less when she was gripped in the bewildering throes of an epoisode.

Zainab had been a teacher at one of the leading schools in the city. She had taught the grade five curriculum for over ten years before resigning just over a year ago, in the wake of her first glimmer. Unfamiliar with the two people who occupied that new world and unversed in the fluid tapestry of her mind, she had been afraid and anxious as she had walked into it that first time. Outwardly she had just zoned out.

The damn stress nowadays can do that. Go home darling, the other teachers had said.

Take some time out, the principal had suggested.

You need to slow down, the doctor had ordered.

And so she had complied on all fronts. She had gone home, tendered in her resignation as a teacher and focused on being a full time housewife. She was also given a rainbow of pills to take every day. Beautiful little things, with deceptive inclinations. They were supposed to make her feel better, to relax her highly strung nerves. But they just made her numb, emotionless. She didn’t even want to look at Zain when she was in their deadening hold. So three months in, armed also with a better understanding that the Glimmer was not her mind’s version of a wasteland for loonies but her secret refuge, she had just stopped taking them. Her world …. worlds had changed. With time and the subtle machinations of her mind, reality had become a shifting concept as the Glimmer became more and more substantial, burgeoning with a constant stream of experiences as she was whisked back and forth. She had no command over the forces that buffeted her in and out of her two worlds. She had only learnt through sheer necessity, to sometimes control the amount of time she was pulled away from the world where she was a mother. Zain still needed her.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/14/the-glimmer-part-2/
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BOOK REVIEW | THE GIRL WITH THE PAISLEY DUPATTA

Hello folks,

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! 😅)

https://youtu.be/-uyrbICrQW8

SHORT STORY | THE DANCE OF THE PEACOCK – Part Two

(I)

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

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

(II)

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

“Guria, chai”(1), came the papery voice from the doorway. The old retainer had watched Sumaira 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 desperately 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, earthy feel. She sat for a while longer, bolstering her confidence in the rational, sensible, phantom-free universe around her. She then got up to look for Khala*, intending to repair the damage done by momentarily frayed nerves.

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

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

(III)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(IV)

“It was so untimely. So strange….”

“May Allah bless her with Jannat al Firdaus*”

“May her soul rest in peace”

“Allah knows best….”

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

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

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

* Amaltas: The Indian Laburnum tree

(2) “May God keep us from harm”

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

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

* Haveli: “Mansion” in Urdu

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

SHORT STORY | THE DANCE OF THE PEACOCK – Part One

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

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

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

She came into the lounge shuffling behind a tea trolley which carried a single cup of tea. All tasks that were beyond the enterprise of wheels that also doubled as support for her frail frame, had long ago become obsolete calls to duty for Peeno khala. Still, she persevered in her service to the haveli* and its occupants with the same tenacity of spirit as when she had first come to the haveli as a seventeen year old widow. That was almost sixty 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. And six months ago. she had finally 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

SHORT STORY | THE MAN WITH THE TWISTED LIPS – Part Three

(I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(II)

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

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

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

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

(III)

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

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

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

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

“What… who are you?”

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

“Sam? Sam is married?”

“Yes! And I’m his wife!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT STORY | THE MAN WITH THE TWISTED LIPS – Part Two

(I)

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

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

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

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

(II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(III)

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

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

SHORT STORY | THE MAN WITH THE TWISTED LIPS – Part One

(I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(II)

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

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

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

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

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

(III)

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

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

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

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

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