POETRY READING | BEAUTIFUL STRANGER

My book of poetry and essays SHIMMERING SCRAPS OF POETRY AND MADNESS will be available in bookstores across Pakistan and Sri Lanka at the end of December 2022.

FRIENDS IN SL can get their copies TODAY from the Jam Fruit Tree bookstore on Galle road in Colombo via call/ WhatsApp to 072-7268078.

Shimmering Scraps is a collection of poems and essays, rumblings of the heart about the joys, the truths, the pain, the controversies, the funniness and the wonder that criss cross all our lives in one way or another.

The book is divided into five sections: Joy, Foot-in-the-mouth, Truth, Hope and Serenity. The Truth and Foot-in-the-Mouth categories are especially brazen and raw. As with most such uninhibited writing, the objective is to assail the sensibilities and even if just for a while, to look the truth right in its jaundiced eye. The other three sections are largely whimsical and uplifting very much like walking through a zen corridor, which I’m hoping, will also soften the sensory assault of the former two segments.

VERSE | TEA FOR TWO

It was two for tea and tea for two
Both meeting after a decade or two
Friends of old, kins of the heart
Separated by time and circumstance
Chatter and laugh over tea for two

Tea for two and two for tea
Neighbours for a year, kindred souls for twenty-three
They’d seen each other through thick and thin
Loving Kintsugi* mending walls where they’d grown thin
Catch up over two for tea

It was two for tea and tea for two
From working together their friendship grew
They had rejoiced in one another’s highs
And had held each other’s hands in trying times
Rendezvous over tea for two

Tea for two and two for tea
The sister and the brother sat quietly
The coolness of bruised hearts lay around
The air was rent with empty sounds
As they tried to build bridges over two for tea

It is usually two for tea and tea for two
That brings hearts together, both the sunny and the blue
Loving ones forge more joyful memories
Aching ones for a while find some peace
When they come together over tea for two.
* Kintsugi: The Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold — built on the idea that in embracing flaws and imperfections, you can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.

VERSE | BEAUTIFUL STRANGER

I see her in the cafe 
She’s sitting on her own
Like me.
A cup of coffee
Rests in front of her
Lines huddle in the space between her brows
They’re furrowed now
In some private grief or anxiety
Only her cup knows for sure
As she stares into the darkness within
Her lips tremble for a moment
Just a bit. She takes a quick sip
Of the vitalising potion
Swallowing her emotions
Down they both go
The sadness and the coffee
Lingering on the inside now
I feel my heart go out to her
It hovers around her table
Softly, silently, wordlessly
I want to follow too
But we are strangers
It wouldn’t do
She looks up. She sees me
I smile and then I look away guiltily
Outside the window
And then down at my own cup of tea

I see her looking at me
Just a glance, a little look
Then away from the nook
I am sitting at
But that little exchange is everything
Even in that whisper
Of a gaze, that smile
I feel her compassion
Shimmering around me
Gently, silently, comfortingly
I look at her as she sits there
In her wheelchair
Reminding me that frailty
Is never on the outside
Her own courage shining bright
Has skipped across the room
Transforming into a tenderness
Shattering my spell of gloom
My heart lifts and wafts out to her
I want to follow after
But we are strangers
I turn back to my cup
And I smile
I hesitate just for a while
And then I beam across the room to her
My heart now light with gratefulness
Lit up by a beautiful stranger

VERSE | THE PLEASURE OF KINGS

I go to the kitchen and switch on the light 
A hazy, 5 watt bulb warms to life
I then put the kettle on
And while it sings its little song
I fix my square blue-flowered tray
Strainer, spoon and a little bowl
And one of my mugs adds to the whole
With a pinch of the most fragrant earl grey
It sits in its saucer and awaits
The steamy pour from the spout
Of the kettle as the water gushes out

Onto the teabag it flows in a rush
Steaming vapour billowing up
The mug is filled almost to the brim
Just enough space for milk, not skimmed
(Low fat is the best I can do
Playing around with tea is taboo!)
Then the iris-strewn tea tray goes
To the lounge, loaded with its amenities
In all of this, as its centrepiece
My mug puts on a steamy show

It blows kisses in fragrant plumes
Sending them wafting across the room
I kiss it back with my first sip
It’s the one that has the scalding nip
I close my eyes as it slides down
My throat, searing the flesh around
But that is the pleasure of tea drinking
A self-immolation fit for a king

SHORT STORY | SAMOSAS WITH TEA – Part One

(I)

Shahnaz deposited her bag in her bedroom and joined her mother in the lounge for tea. It was a balmy Friday evening and the start of the weekend. She picked up an aaloo samosa*, her favourite kind, and began to slowly, pleasurably bite into its crispy outer layer to get to its spice-laden heart. She closed her eyes each time she bit into the hot crunchy pastry. Her evening cup of tea accompanied by the savoury snack fresh out of the samosa wala’s pan of bubbling hot oil was by far one of her favourite daily indulgences; the other one being a hot shower no matter what the season outside was. Both rituals marked the end of her workday and the beginning of a long evening that she would spend partly with her mother and partly in her room, floating between the two as she willed.

The four or five hours before bedtime did not have any preset form or structure, their very fluidity and spontaniety refreshing and restoring her. She finished her samosa and eyed another. Every once in a while, when her tastebuds still tingled with post-samosa pleasure, their savoury receptor cells not quite gratified, she would reach for another. She never had more than two, superstitious about the plus-two extravagance slyly wreaking havoc in her arteries and rendering forever her beloved samosa into the realms of pastries non grata. Her mother urged her to have another, she always did. Both women wore their bulk easily and becomingly.

Shahnaz lived with her mother in a two bedroom apartment in Clifton. The two had lived in the same flat for the last fifteen years. In fact Shahnaz was only seven when they had moved from Islamabad to Karachi. It had been an arduous and exhausting move, undertaken against the wishes of Mahjabeen’s brothers and indeed the whole extended family. After all, how would a newly widowed woman cope on her own in a strange city they had questioned, affronted and appalled. Karachi for the rest of the citizenry, might as well have been another nation state altogether with its remote proximity to everywhere else in the country, and its distinct melting pot of cultures. But Mahjabeen had been adamant, her steadfastness in most part aided by her best friend who lived in Karachi and who had masterminded the entire abscondement from the life that was being diligently prepared for her by her family.

She would have in the wake of her widowhood, been expected to live with her older brother, his wife and their four children. Aside of the fact that her brother, Qasim Jan was the embodiment of unflagging aloofness, he was also a man of a painfully conservative bent. He had already arranged the betrothal of his only daughter; she was five at the time. Mahjabeen herself had spent ten wonderful years with a husband who had been kind, generous and forward looking. He had encouraged her to do her bachelors and then her masters in Geography. After graduation, she picked up the silver thread of Initiative that was so devotedly woven into the fabric of their homestead by her husband, and of her own volition enrolled in a teachers training program. She had managed all this with Shahnaz as a baby and then a toddler. Asfand had enabled her in ways that practically and profoundly went much beyond just his approval as the head of their little family. He had changed, fed and played with their little daughter when Mahjabeen had board exams to prepare for; seamlessly, graciously for weeks upon weeks, shouldering chores that usually lay in the domain of her responsibilities. She sometimes secretly wondered if in fact her life with Asfand was too good to be true; whether the universe itself held them in the blessed hollow of its hands. She would then recite a prayer to ward off ill omens and evil eyes; her unfailing devoutness was her offering to the Divine to always keep her family together.

And then one day just like that, her little world came crashing down around her. Asfand slipped away, his life snuffed out in a split second on the motorway. She was left with seven year old Shahnaz, but also a spirit that was dogged and determined. When her best friend and the principal of a leading school in Karachi offered her a job, she forged the rest of the exit for herself. Within a month, she was in a completely new city, a new environment and a new home.

Shahnaz had been an introverted little girl and had struggled with accepting her suddenly fatherless existence, coupled as that reality was with the unfamiliarity of their new home. She had mourned her father in the innocent, raw manner of a child, crying herself to sleep for weeks afterwards. But the newness of fresh starts, when one does embark on them, is oftentimes a healing elixir in itself. And so, Shahnaz and Mahjabeen had slowly, a day at a time, emerged from their cocoon of painful memories that over the years, lost their piercing sting, becoming softer for both of them to recall and to share.

These last fifteen years in their adopted city had been blessed in other ways too; bestowing an ungrudging share of triumphs and joyfulness on mother and daughter. Mahjabeen was now heading the junior section at Tasneem’s school and Shahnaz, now 22 had just started working at a bank.

(II)

Life at Mall Court was generally neighbourly. Most of the residents knew one another, coming together in good times and in bad. The two women had attended six weddings and six funerals in the last decade and a half. The fact that the communal joys and sorrows were even keeled somehow didn’t take away from the overall sense of contentment and gratefulness. Maybe it was this very spirit of community that insulated the residents from the harshness of their individual tragedies. And so, life for the mother and the daughter had been as good as they could have hoped for.

Both women loved their food. The oilier and the richer, the better. While Mahjabeen could cook almost the entire spectrum of local cuisine (the deliberate exceptions being paya* and mutton Kunna*), Shahnaz was a gourmet maker of desserts. From the syrupy gulab jamun to the multi layered tiramisu to the minced beef samosas that promised the most stellar crunch, she could masterfully muster them all. Shahnaz had in fact made reasonable amounts of pocket money from the sale of her baked goods over the last few years. Most of her customers were the Mall Court residents, rallying together as always to support one of their own, and in no small part, to also indulge their insatiable South Asian appetites for fresh-off-the-pan, sweet, rich dessert.

* Aaloo Samosa:  Aaloo: Potato in Urdu. Samosa: A fried or baked pastry with a savory filling, including ingredients such as spiced potatoes, onions, and peas.

* Paya: The main ingredients of the dish are the trotters (or hoof of a cow, goat, buffalo or sheep) cooked with various spices.


* Kunna: The term means clay pot in Punjabi. Originating from the Chiniot district in the state of Punjab Pakistan, Kunna is a heavy meat dish that is made with several spices and tender mutton.

VERSE|THE QUIET TEA BAG

This started out as a children’s poem and ended on a not so PG-13 note. (Or maybe I’m being overly protective of our 21st century babes who are not so much in the woods as we were!). Anyway, reproducing it here for my readers. Let me know what you think. Cheers.

There was once a teabag 
The orange pekoe kind
more shy and timid little leaves
Would be hard to find.

She sat in her little bowl
With all her other tea friends
Raspberry and Chamomile
And Lemon tea with mint

They tried to talk to O. Pekoe
But she would turn away
Wrapping her little string around
her filter-paper sachet

Then one day the tea bags saw
The handsome Earl grey gent
He sat in his aluminium foil
Scented and Elegant

They looked at him in caffeine tones
twirling their little strings
While O. Pekoe sat primly there
Now and then peeking out at him

Then came the lady of the house
And put the kettle on
The teabags rustled in suspense
Who’d Earl grey have along?!

Earl grey sat in stately grace
Inside the china cup
Wearing his bergamot bouquet
Waiting for his tea time love

And then out of the blue
Orange pekoe was lifted up
And placed alongside Earl grey
In the pretty China cup.

They smiled at one another
their strings entwined in love
The perfect pair to ever make
The nicest brew in a cup.

Their love suffused the teacup
With the most divine of flavours
Caffeine and tannins flowing forth
In hot and steaming rivers.

Thus was spent their one time love
To create sweet nostalgia
A Tea Time special between good friends
In the romance of the camellias.

VERSE| CREATURES OF THE COFFEE SHOPS

Following from “Creatures of the Park” (link attached below), this piece is inspired by my varied experiences at the 2 or 3 cafes I frequent in Colombo city. As with my regular evening walk, I am also a devout tea and latte aficionado. And as a creature of habit, I do tend to absorb the full gamut of gastronomic, service and atmospheric experiences at the handful of places I go to. So here is my affable ode to the characters who, like me, are also found at the oft-frequented coffee places around town.

Angst, amusement and even downright vexation
Are some sentiments that have inspired this particular narration.
Because when my adrenaline is not racing haphazardly around,
Yours truly can’t weave verse or prose that is suitably profound.
So here’s a bit of a congenial ramble
About coffee shop folks and their queer, quirky angles.

The first of this set that I chanced to espy,
Was the gaggle of ladies who meet over coffee and pie.
They are genteel and smiling and conversing lightly
Of Ruwani’s boyfriend and Andrew’s new-found sobriety.
Of weddings and parties and stand-out memorial services;
Of yoga class affairs and other sexagenarian caprices.

Following sharply on the last set’s heels,
Is the would-be Romeo who’s eternally spinning his wheels.
While on his regular tarriance through the cafe,
He’ll go through the motions, happily epitomising the cliche-Sauntering gait, wandering eyes, and obnoxiously loud!
Because how else would this Adonis be noticed by the crowd?
This one engenders both frustration and pity,
Deluded sense of self; diddly squat in the mental kitty.

This next one (my favourite) is quite off the charts,
The 93 year old with tremendous love in his heart!
He’s delicate and fragile and yet undauntingly sure
Of his libidinous vigor and marvellous allure.
He speaks in faint tones, each gossamer vein outlined;
“I want to make love to you”, he solemnly opines. [True story!]

There is also the resident troop of servers,
With personas as varied as their gelato flavours.
There’s the hero who averts a gastronomic disaster;
And the shrinking violet who couldn’t have disappeared faster.
You’ll also see “Lurch” on his tropical vacation
Waiting tables, no doubt, for some fiscal augmentation.
(Who’d have believed the fiendish frugality
Of the profusely gilded Addams Family!)
There’s also Happy and Dopey and Sneezy and Bashful-
Each cafe with its own quirky take on the fairytale.

The likes of me, of course, continue to be,
The nose-in-the-book kind, with the-tail-on-the-seat.
Looking up only to rest remonstrating muscles,
Perennially ensnared in the Introvert’s social tussle:
Latte on standby, with napkins and spoon,
I’m in a world of my own in the bustling tea room.

The rest of the coffee shop throng is assorted
The foodies, the guzzlers, the loners, the courted.
The suited and booted, the flip-flopped, the Collared*
A theatrical cycle of life streaming onward.
This gamut of movement, that with spirit is rife
Is what makes modest coffee shops larger than life.
And so I continue to frequent the tea rooms and cafes
To reclusively delight in the milieu and lacteous lattes.
* Collared: priests, monks and other caffeine-relishing clergymen.

Read “Creatures of the Park” here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/11/the-creatures-of-the-park-2/

TRIPPING GOALS | CALAMANSI COVE VILLAS – Part Deux

HOTEL: CALAMANSI COVE VILLAS BY JETWING
AT: Wijerama Road, Balapitiya 80550
TYPE: LUXURY BOUTIQUE HOTEL (with 12 villas in total)
DISTANCE FROM COLOMBO: ABOUT 2 HOURS DOOR TO DOOR

So back we went a-tripping to Balapitiya; the second time in a month – that seafront is quite fabulous! (Read about the first visit here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/02/11/trippinggoals/ )

I have to spend some time waxing eloquent on the sublime quality of the beach at the Calamansi Cove Villas. The soft, powdery sand is only the beginning. If you’re a sea-splashing adventurer, nicely ensconced between the swashbuckling surfers and the comatose horizon watchers, then this place is perfect! We treaded the satiny sand into the sea at around 5.15pm on both days that we were there.

The sun was hanging at a pendulous 70 degree angle to the horizon, its daytime energy already transformed into eventide warmth. The sea, at that time, was calm and lovely, like a sheet of shimmering glass. We floated along on gentle swells watching a strawberry pink sunset putting itself to bed. And then suddenly there were clouds overhead and the breeze whipped up the waves into a lively frenzy. The benign undulations became cresting and crashing waves that would have been perfect for a bit of body boarding. Not having access to any boards, we just expended our energy standing our ground (or turning an inadvertent somersault) in the rushing undercurrents. Throughout, the water was almost tepid, warmed by the tropical sun; it was like being in a giant jacuzzi (with the heat setting at its lowest!)

The rest of the trip kind of unfurled around our sea experience. The only difference from our last trip being that this time we stayed at the Calamansi suite situated on the first floor as opposed to the villas that are all at ground level. It was a beautifully appointed apartment, and was spacious and bright. The only thing that detracted from the ultimate experience of seaside luxury was the lack of a tub or a jacuzzi. That would have been the superlative frill in the sumptuous resort experience. But like I said, the sun-warmed waters of the Indian Ocean made up quite nicely for the lack of any man made tributes to the same. The view of the ocean from the airy balcony was somewhat impaired due to the regulatory fringe of tsunami-ready palms waving their green fronds at eye level.

I’d be doing a disservice to discerning resort goers and the establishment if I didn’t add on some Opportunites for Improvement.

-The set menu was fabulous at breakfast but became increasingly lacklustre by dinner. The Calamansi kitchen produces excellent local fare but struggles with continental cuisine. A little more effort/ finesse on that front would make a big difference to the overall food  experience.
-The electric kettles (we experienced 2 in quick succession!) are a boiling water disaster waiting to happen. They don’t go off on their own and by the time I switched ours off from the mains, the whole kettle was scalding hot, including the on/off button. Got a first degree burn on my hand to show for it. The resort also ran out of regular black/ English breakfast tea bags ... while the ginger, green and earl grey sachets danced around in unmitigated abundance!
-The duvets continue to be made for the tundra freeze; I was obliged to play a seemingly endless game of hide n seek with mine all night. I suppose some like it hot!

The service team was exceptional as always. From graciously obliging us with culinary favours, to arranging a taxi post haste when our car refused to start (yes, karmically gentle misadventure to balance out the happy times!), the Calamansi crew are quite the hospitality champions. Thank you again, to the whole team for another memorable getaway.

The Calamansi Suite

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 5)

A slate grey Mercedes S-class stopped at the traffic light near Kalma Chowk*. Its single occupant engaged in meditative contemplation, seemed unaware of the myriad admiring, envious and studiedly indifferent glances directed towards his carriage. At that moment, Saif too was thinking of how like Cinder-fella* he felt, enroute to the reception of his lady love in his modern day coach; this time, the Prince was going to be on social display. He looked at himself briefly in the rear view mirror and brushed back an invisible strand of hair. He was nervous… Saif was actually feeling those “monarchs* dancing in his gut” like his best friend and customary partner in crime, Zainab liked saying every time a new paramour sauntered into her life. They both knew it was more for the drama of it all, than any actual feeling of apprehension or distress. Together, they had triumphed over many a glitzy evening and had walked away effortlessly with all those tacit, transcendental laurels of Class A social circuit-eers. The pair had been the talk of the town for five years before the bawdy coterie of the Lahore party scene accepted that this was indeed just a friendship that was not going to go into any tantalising realms of couple-hood.

Sabeen was immersed in her own thoughts while she luxuriated in a bubble bath, languidly, delicately caressing the foamy peaks like so many fledgling dreams. She was already thinking of how she was going to be dividing her time between the largely unglamorous, small-town venue of All Things Princely, and the urban lavishness of her beloved city, Lahore. Saif had said they’d build a house, a mansion in fact, in the city. But that meant more time away from her urban roots while their castle slowly came up out of the air. The thought made her quite decidedly claustrophobic. They would have to rent…she shuddered at the bourgeois ring to that word. It would be very discreetly done and to everyone that mattered, they would own the place. She thought ahead to their very first party which they would host as a couple; and generations of matriarchal planning, organising and embellishing skills kicked in as she flash-imagined the affair right down to the white carnations arranged elegantly around the house, and the special bergamot incense from Harrods wafting in fragrant wreaths amidst the gracious company. She smiled widely, held up her head regally and then in a coquettish moment of elation, lifted a shapely leg and an arm in a comical, semi-submerged arabesque.

“Shabana! Mairay kapray lay ao!”(1), Farzana said loudly, wrapped in a towel, head bobbing like a chicken’s outside her bedroom door, while she tried to catch a glimspse of the madly elusive girl.

Aur teen samosay bhi thal lo(2), she added with a cheery lilt in her voice. She needed her fried food euphoria as she navigated through the laborious but much adored exercise of getting dressed for the evening. She had a plan. She had invited Farrukh over to even out the group this evening. The vital fourth person to help break awkward silences and to more essentially, balance out the conversation if the love birds got too chatty among themselves. That too had happened with Sabeen’s sometimes bossy love interests, leaving the loquacious Farzana wondering where her tongue had got to. Farrukh, Farzana’s eternal suitor, was one of those not so rare individuals who was infinitely endowed with the power of speech but lacked woefully in the power of conversation. And sometimes, the ensuing gibberish was Farzana’s soul food as she happily spaced out, while the other targets of the verbal onslaught were themselves, stunned into stupefied silence.

She had decided to wear a pale pink, diamanté encrusted chiffon sari this evening. It was the very same one worn by her mother when she had first been introduced to Farzana’s father 60 years ago. The diamantés had sparkled, the pink had glowed, the voluminous beehive bouffant had held and within twenty minutes, the conquest was complete, so it was said. And thus the ensemble was subsequently, reverently recruited from time to time to wield the same age old coupling alchemy.

Sabeen walked in first, resplendent in a peach and cream silk outfit. She tossed her bag on the sofa and walked towards the kitchen.

Sabeen: “Fara jaan*, do you have an apple? I’m starving”

Farzana: “I have qeemay walay samosay yaar; woh khao”(3)

Sabeen: “Chalo lay ao (4). Ive been good this past fortnight”

Farrukh: “Hello! Hello Ladies! I’m here!”

Sabeen: “Oh hello Farrukh, we’re kind of busy tonight….”

Farrukh: “I know! What fun! I’m here to meet and greet Shahzada Gulfaam* too!”

Farzana: “I invited him Sabi; four is a lucky number. [In a whisper]: “He can get the Rasmalai* from the Club later”.

Saif: “Hello ladies…”

Sabeen: “Saif! We didn’t hear you come in…”

Saif: “I saw the front door open so I let myself in”. [Smiling at Farzana]: “I hope it’s ok”

Farzana: “Yes yes! Please come in. I’m Fara… Farzana. Sabeen’s best friend”

Saif: “Yes I’ve heard a lot”. [Still smiling]: “Charmed”

Farzana: “And this is our friend Farrukh ____”

Farrukh: “YOU! What the hell is he doing here?”

Sabeen: “You know each other….? What’s going on?”

Farrukh: “This is the ass**** who ran off with my sister twenty years ago. She was all of 17 years old, you sick bas***d!”

Farzana: “Hai!* Sidra eloped with him?!”

Sabeen: “Saif….”

Farrukh: “We had to give him 5 crores* to keep his mouth shut. Bloody swine…. I’ll bet you that car outside isn’t his either!”

Sabeen: “Saif… is this ….” [sitting down slowly] “is this true?”

Saif: “Sabeen… it was fifteen years ago. It was a crazy time….. ”

Sabeen: “But you’re the Nawab of Bahawalpur! You’re Royalty…”

Saif: “Yes! Yes….. I’m the Nawabzada’s nephew…..he’s my uncle…

Sabeen: Nephew?

Farzana: Uncle?

Farrukh: Royalty my foot! He’s some far off orphan cousin of the Nawabzada. Spent so much time in the royal household, he’s lost his head!

Saif: [chuckling sheepishly] “Still… the 25th in line to the takht*…”

Farrukh: “Babe, I’m off. Can’t handle this. Sabeen, bhagao is beghairat ko”(5)

Sabeen sat still, an odd calm enveloping her. She felt almost disembodied as she leaned back slowly and looked straight ahead through half closed lids. She noticed a gecko on the wall opposite with a strangely twisted tail…. it was in agile readiness to attack something she couldn’t quite see. Something else was happening too…. another twisted tale…. the details were hazy…. lurking somewhere on the periphery of her mind….

Farzana stuffed an entire samosa into her mouth as she gawped from Sabeen to Saif and back to Sabeen. She was in social scandal heaven as she absorbed every concrete and intangible detail with the tenacity of a widow spider. The indefatigable Gossip Chronicler was in prime form! This had turned out to be the best evening in a long, long time. With barely concealed delight, her face shining, she decided it was now up to her largesse yet again to salvage an awkward situation.

“Chalo*….it was a long time ago. And Sidra is married now. And you never know, in villages life expectancy is not that long; loag jaldi mar khap jaatay hain(6)….. who knows Sabi love, Saif could still become Prince!”

Bibi, chai….”(7), Tehseen the old family retainer hobbled in with the groaning tea trolley.

She gave Saif a myopically appreciative glance, and then grinning conspiratorially, toothlessly at Sabeen and Farzana, she crowed delightedly:

Hai! Kinna sonra munda ai!”(8)

* Monarch: a type of butterfly with yellow and black colouring

*Chowk: intersection

*Cinder-fella: the male version of Cinderella; also a 1960 Jerry Lewis film

(1): “Shabana! Bring me my clothes!”

(2): “And fry up 3 samosas too”. (a samosa is a fried or baked pastry with a savoury filling)

*Jaan: love

(3) “I have mince filled samosas; have those”

(4): “ok, get them”

*Shahzada Gulfaam: Urdu colloquialism for ‘Prince Charming’

*Rasmalai: a classic subcontinental festive dessert made with milk, sugar and saffron

*Hai!: an exclamation; in this case, of distress

*Takht: princely seat/ throne

*Crore: 10 million

(5): “throw this shameless scoundrel out of the house”

*Chalo: figuratively in Urdu, ‘come on, cheer up!’

(6): “people tend to die off sooner”

(7): “Madam, tea is served”

(8): In Punjabi, “Oh! What a handsome young man!”

SHORT STORY|Days of Purgatory – (Part 4)

Sabeen was reflective. Her life was on the verge of a vital transformation; for the better, she fervently hoped. Because despite her single status, she still enjoyed the infatuation of her niche coterie of admirers: A couple of feudal landlords with American college degrees, and a few doctors who had had short but sprightly stints working in the western hemisphere before returning homewards; both sets of suitors armed thus, with not only a foreign specialization but also, in their minds, a marvelously rejuvenated world view. This meant that they now felt abundantly persuadable to breaking with the weighty bonds of age old tradition for the spousal company of a mature (but delectable!) woman who knew her mind. And Sabeen, in her archetypal off-hand way, reveled in all this motely adoration.

She was shrewd enough, however, to slide off her otherwise frequently-worn rose coloured glasses when ruminating on important life issues. And so she found herself thoughtfully weighing the singular glory of being Nawabzadi* Sabeen against the more mundane exorbitance of being another gilded begum* in yet another one of the elite Punjabi families. Despite the former fortuity weighing down the scales in majestic excess, the toss up was bothering her. She was familiar with the lifestyles of her privileged friends and indeed, she herself hailed from much the same lineage. That fact in itself guaranteed financial security, social status of the general-privileged variety, plenty of personal space and… Boredom. The titled position, on the other hand, was replete with exciting new promises of grandeur and glory. She’d be the only one amongst her friends and cousins who would have conquered this new social apex.

Yet…. there was something she wasn’t quite sure of; and the burnish of vestigial royalty had a bit of a tarnished quality to it too…. She shook her head decidedly, repelling all these unpropitious notions. She was in fact, expecting to blithely deflect these very same protestations from other quarters, stemming as they would be from both, envy and concern. She was going to be one of the entitled few who would be written about in history books as Subcontinental Royalty!

A slow smile spread across her face, reaching her eyes and making her skin glow delicately. In that moment, she looked quite majestically beautiful!

The evening at Farzana’s last week had been enjoyable, despite the somewhat bizarre ending. She’d had to sit Fara down and explain to her through succinct, gentle, repeated statements that she was going to be married soon. Farzana had taken it in slowly and had finally smiled. Although the wide wide smile was contrived, she also knew that it was Fara’s way of coping with the news. Of coming to terms with her banner of singledom now doing it’s solitary undulation in No Man’s Land; treaded only by the wearisome few that Farzana had already done her courtship dance with. But no matter, she was going to make sure Fara was a part of everything now – there had to be some universal meaning, some karmic context to why she’d felt so impelled to share her secret with Fara…. even if it was in a gluttonously benumbed state of mind.

And so, this evening there was to be another soiree at Farzana’s, for the pure benefit of introducing to her friend, Sahibzada Saif Muzammil Shah, Heir Apparent to the Royal Takht* of Bahawalpur, and also her paramour. He’d said he was in town for some work with his lawyer and was staying overnight; and that he would be delighted to spend the evening with the ladies.

Farzana sat on her bed, staring into space. Desultorily she picked up the mug of coffee set there by Shabana and took a tentative sip of the sweet, milky liquid. Farzana’s reunion with her absconding maid the day after Sabeen’s visit had been fiery, teary and then affectionate, in a dizzying sequence of emotions as their post-spat reconciliations tended to be. All was well with her domestic world. But something else had fallen apart….Farzana felt isolated and even betrayed. In the wake of this impending betrothal, her best friend, her partner in crime and her cherished arch nemesis who at the end of the day, like Farzana, had unwaveringly maintained the Ms. In her title, was reneging on their shared conundrum. But it had been a happy conundrum full of the heady highs of new love and the showy shenanigans of early courtship, as each tried to out-do the other. Now, she was going to be alone; and her past liaisons suddenly flitted before her like stark, monumental failures.

“Hai Allah! Ab kya karoon”(1) she sighed despondently.

It wasn’t fair. Sabi was not only getting married, she was going to be the Nawabzadi of Bahawalpur! And with acquiescing to host the reception this evening, she genuinely felt like a lamb leading itself to the slaughter. Her absolute selflessness, she thought, and thus her duty to her best friend was complete with this generosity of spirit. She sighed again, delicately, misplacedly, clutching the right side of her chest.

And so despite wishing Sabi the worst of luck and resenting her with every breath in her body, Farzana was convinced she had taken the high road with this show of solidarity with her best friend. Her feelings of martyrdom grew and she felt saintly and ethereal, much like Mother Mary in all those nativity scenes, she thought in momentary awe of the ensuing mental image.

Her thoughts then wandered as they tend to when the heart is caught in purgatorial limbo, and she frowned slightly. She suddenly felt an onrush of unkind thoughts: had it been any of Sabi’s other friends, they’d have picked her to pieces with jealousy. She, Farzana, was always the large hearted, gracious one in matters of the heart she thought with the dramatic flair of a celluloid saint. At some point, the genuine despair had blended with high drama and Farzana, even with all her accumulated affliction, was now feeling quite fortified to charm and conquer. Her intended conquests of the evening had hazy outlines but her very nature compelled her towards a social horizon where she would, at the very least, stand shoulder to shoulder with Sabeen again.

She looked at the old Champion clock on the wall; it was just past 3pm. She got up blinking brightly; she had to look her best. She walked towards her teeming wardrobe, its ancient depths waiting faithfully to bedeck her yet again in all their idiosyncratic glory.

Nawabzadi: princess or lady of a royal house/ lineage

Begum: matriarch of the house; a term used generally by the privileged classes in the subcontinent.

Royal Takht: Royal seat/ throne

(1) – “Oh God! What do I do now!”

De Khudai pe aman.