I laugh unabashedly, from the belly out Someone has said something absurd They all watch me in derision and doubt This woman who shouldn’t be seen or heard She speaks! What social license does she bear? She’s no debutante, she’s no political heir Yet she comes to these exclusive soirées And instead of blurring, fading away Into the background, this upstart lets down her hair
I walk out gaily, dressed like a queen I bump into my neighbour, the virulent Sameen Her face already garbed in a smug smile She says “Where to Maha? So dressed to kill?” I laugh loudly, her smile falters a bit “Just to the market, to get some things A shirt from Sapphire, two thootis* of kheer* A tub of it’s-none-of-your-business-my-dear Is there something you would like me to bring?
I’ve been alone these twenty five years But I’ve never been lonely, I decided that early I surmounted my doubts conquered my fears It wasn’t easy, it took a few years It took some lonesomeness, some vanishing acts From folks I called friends and even family who cracked Under the pressure of seeing me break out Of the box built for me by the socially devout But I dug in my heels, I wasn’t going back
Now there are friends and well wishers anew In all that chaff, I found these gems too They give me hope, they let me be me It’s been food for my soul, this honesty I know who I am and who I want to be And it’s not a reflection of what society Has plotted and planned for someone that swerves Through fate or design, outside its bell curve I’m contented, eccentric and oh so happy!
* Jawab-e-Shikwa: “Shikwa” (Complaint in Urdu) and “Jawab-e-Shikwa” (Response to Complaint) are poems written by the poet Mohammad Iqbal. They are known for their lyrical beauty and depth of thought
* Thooti: a small clay saucer in which some Pakistani and Indian desserts are sold in order to keep them cool and fresh
I’m alone … but I’m not really alone In all the ways that don’t matter That shouldn’t matter, I’m never alone In all the ways that I need someone In all the ways of being human I’m alone. There is no one.
It wasn’t always like this, this lonesomeness It came on slowly as time went by As I transitioned, nay devolved Dislodged from the blessed marital fold From a wife to a wretched divorcee From a daughter to a social deportee
I couldn’t be the woman he’d conceptualised His wife to be. Already fantasizing He was in heaven itself, spoilt for choice By the virgins lined up in waiting For him to pick one or four to be his own I got picked first, then I got disowned.
I’ve been alone these twenty five years Fading ever more into the background As time trudges on with heavy treads My aura fades, my voice has no sound I tried to talk louder at first to be heard But the booming voices of the world Were louder still, my voice was drowned
Now I sit alone marking time For when the cosmos sees fit to smile In a new welcome; in a final decline I see people but they see me not They saw me only when I came out Of the box, against the tide of tradition Then there was outrage, there was derision
I don’t go out anymore nor do I Try to be bigger than the box fitted for me I sit in it quietly, patiently Lonely oh so lonely … but not really In all the ways that shouldn’t matter Im not alone. They all watch me In all the ways that would make my heart sing I’m alone, waiting for the final curtain.
Why? She asks me why do I Not get to do the things that he Does so freely, so independently Cavorting with opportunities Expanding his experience of the world That we both live in; why just he?
Why? She asks me why am I Held back by you and the others The elders of the family The uncles and the brothers For my own good I’m told Walled in like Rapunzel, from the world?
Why? She asks me why can’t I Go out on my own. Why can’t I Even stay alone at home? Why have I been singled out Among my siblings as the burdensome one The ill-fated sister among the men?
Why? She asks me have you built These rules to limit my existence Holding me back, making me doubt Myself, my being, my purpose in life Strangling my dreams to always stand Centuries behind a boy or a man?
Why? She asks me why are you Complicit in this chauvinistic ruse? Why did you learn to become small To deliberately set yourself up for a fall? You were better than everyone A hero …. No a heroine!
You my mother, the architect Of dreams, of hopes and even homes Why did you let it all go? Why are you expecting me to do The same, be a wraith of myself A fragile decoration on the shelf
Until I become someone’s wife Until you can pass on the keys of my life To someone else … to some man else Why? She asks me as the tears well In eyes that see the truth of the world That see the expanse of her wretched road
That is why they killed them all off The babies, the girls born centuries ago There was divine justice in that Saving them from a world that sat In Judgement, in anger, in self pride Over girls that survived the infanticide
Tell me mother, why was I Born a woman into this life? Why was I born into this home my dignity defaced, my wings shorn? Why do I feel like to get a fair try At life, another life, I first need to die?
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”
A little disclaimer: This particular piece is not a critique of the ideology of marriage itself, but the warped manner in which it is used to keep young women in check. To prevent them from breaking through the heavily-manned barriers created for them by society.
I’m going to tell you a little story Of a girl who loved too much, Lived too much, hoped too much. They said, she was too much! She was a queen, a young one But she had that zest for life That is so rare and beautiful That is also so ominous and direful
The story goes that she was born In the wrong place at the wrong time Nothing seemed to feel right in fact. She was told to be someone that She wasn’t. She was taught, against her will To be the clone of a fantasy That had persisted for centuries
And so the queen crumbled Atom by atom, bit by bit, little by little She fell apart like a young sapling That has been buffeted and knocked about By righteous winds whipped up By those who were afraid of her Of our queen getting out of the box That they had so faithfully built for her
She finally broke into a million pieces And she plummeted She had once known how to fly like an eagle To soar up to the top of the world. But that memory was gone; pounded out And so she fell Hitting the ground six feet deep And that is where she now sleeps.
Do you remember when you felt the blood Gushing through your body; You felt it etch into your being All the kindness, courage and love That you thought you could ever feel; And your heart sang!
Do you remember how your breath Caught in your throat. The sheer shock Of those emotions rocking you inside. You felt so overwhelmed that your tear ducts Felt the strain. You blinked your wet eyes And your heart sang!
You looked straight ahead, The wave kept rising in your chest. You felt like you were everything That you were meant to be. Your atoms ricocheted With those around you. Nature played A little bit of handball as she caught Your Atoms in her hands and passed her own to you And your heart sang!
Do you remember feeling like this was The perfect moment in your time, In your space, in your place; And everything had come together that day to remind you That your heart was aligned with all That defined you as the happiest version of yourself; And oh your heart, it sang!
You don’t remember - not really. Neither do I. I mean I remember the warmth in my being, the love flowing out In waves, in rivers. A oneness with the essence of the world. But beyond that, I can’t remember; I can’t evoke the feeling. Something has gone awry, something has been lost Along the way. But I still see its ghost flitting, Vaguely passing before my eyes when I am still. But my heart, it doesn’t sing.
She’s probably flown in on her witch’s broom AS her sullen starchiness sweeps the room She looks around her and she spies Young women having a good time She glowers at the girls In their shorts and in their skirts The lines between her brows grow grim Huddling together like dowager twins Then they rise up in stark rebuke Clamouring, hammering “I’m judging you!”
He sits in the cafe looking around A smoking gun dangling from his mouth As he peers over the smoke It’s gnarled fingers like a cloak Hide the vileness in his eyes He stares at the woman who sits alone She ignores his lecherous stare He taps his gun, his yellow teeth bared Smoke-grey lips curl into an ugly “U” Leering, sneering “I’m judging you!”
This judiciary are the insidious dregs Of a society that has no legs No kind eyes. Their hearts are still Yet they sit there determined to fill Precious spaces in our lives With their hats and their beehives. They hold on to crass old ways As their own insecurities play Out an age old tune Croaking, choking “I’m judging you!”
Give not a hoot nor a call To them sitting in their Halls Of Judgement. They are not fit Not a thimble, not a whit! Stand your ground with those that will Force upon you their own bitter pills Calmly cut them down to size Look them in their jaundiced eyes When you spy their mottled souls Their power fades to judge you at all
Live your life how you will Reach for the stars, ride the wind May you always find your spark Even when all around you is dark Move away when you feel dragged Down, down; making you feel bad. Build within you your own compass Of dignity, courage and kindness So that the only one ever judging you Is YOU dear one, only ever you.
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.