VERSE | CRACKED EDGES

I feel like cobwebs have grown in places 
Where once there were gleaming surfaces
In the sunshiny spaces of my mind
It’s getting harder and harder to find
The memory of that warm glow
I felt when I went about my day
It had lived on the side table
Near the vase of poppies and the picture frames
Now it’s gone, lost somewhere
I can’t find it in the haze in there

I can’t find the memory of the eagerness
That cloaked my every enterprise
That memory sat near the poppy vase
Both fractured, broken over time

I can’t find the memory of loving so hard
That my heart felt like it would burst
I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face
The cosmos would thrum in my chest and my throat

I can’t find the dream where I ran down a hill
And then went soaring up into the sky
On wings of quick-silvery lightness
Laughing; whooping with pure joy

Now that room of memories in my mind
Is shabby, desolate, decayed
I sometimes squint beyond the haze
Looking for reminders of earlier times
But the cobwebs grow in thick wedges
And empty frames stare back with cracked edges

VERSE | ALONE, JAWAB-E-SHIKWA*

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

* Kheer: rice pudding in Urdu

VERSE | ALONE

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.

VERSE | WHY?

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?

VERSE | NATIONAL (PH)ANTHEM

LISTEN TO THE POEM BEING READ OUT HERE: https://vt.tiktok.com/ZSdfND9do/
He says they’re a bunch 
Of thieves and thugs
Who have looted the nation
Of its tea and its mugs
They took the dregs of the Earl grey too!
Those boot-polishing, lily-livered brutes!

They say he’s a nut job with lunatic illusions
Of grandeur and psuedo-pious,
Dipped-in-angel-dust delusions
He’s not a statesman, he’s an unbridled curse!
Our friends across the pond agree that’s what he is
This has-been sportsman with his peerni* and tawiz*!

The citizens bewildered and confused
Are wondering with whom they should side
The saga plays out again, sly and crude
Where the nation is taken for a frenzied ride
The horse has long since become a lame ass
Feeding on national common sense with a side of grass

The Paya* and Diesel Management says a lot
The Dharna* Skipper flourishes his “Absolutely Not”!
The repartee continues in savage tones
We watch from the relative safety of our homes
Then the power goes out and all is dark
The slate is wiped clean, we are back at the start.
* Peerni: A Muslim holy woman

* Tawiz: An amulet worn for good luck and protection

* Paya: A specialty dish in the subcontinent, the main ingredients are trotters cooked in various spices

* Dharna: A peaceful demonstration

VERSE | A HEARTACHE SHARED

She looks at me hesitantly 
There is something on her mind
I feel her turmoil, her anxiety
But I’m also aware of the impropriety
Of looking straight into her soul
Uninvited, I can’t make bold
Enough to let her know
That I know that something is not right

She looks away, I continue to read
The label on the jar of cream in my hands
Luxury Hand Lotion it says
Lilac and English lavender
I am acutely aware of her disquietude
Intensely, minutely even as I
Focus on the object I cannot put down …
She finally speaks to me with her eyes

Have you ever felt unlike yourself?
Like it was not you who was experiencing
The pain … the loss … the tragedy …
Like you were on the outside, just watching?
The jar of cream breaks free from the spell
As I face her with all of my being
It now sits on the table flat and still
As I look at her, letting my heart speak

I know, dearest one … I can feel your hurt
Talk to me, or don’t talk at all
Let it all out or just set it free
In the secret spaces of your soul
Listen to your grief, speak to it too
Until the throb recedes a notch or two
Then let me in, let me hold you close
Let me share your pain as I sit with you

VERSE | BEAUTIFUL LAHORE

LISTEN TO THE POEM BEING READ HERE: https://vt.tiktok.com/ZSdfyAeep/
The green of its grass
The gleam of its lights
The vestiges of old world
Splendour in its sights

The scent of its jasmine
It’s blooming beds of flowers
It’s sun yellow amalthas*
Pendent in graceful bowers

Its little gardens street-side
Manicured like queens
Its men-in-waiting
Watching over the scene

Its shiny happy people
Their hearts full of joy
The radiant faces
Of every girl and boy

Its golden brightness
Its days all a-shimmer
Its chimerical nights
Purple skies, stars a-glimmer

It’s spirit and its grit
It’s beauty that I behold
Fills me with sweet nostalgia
This place full of soul

This is my beloved city
That I wax eloquent for
This City of Gardens
My beautiful Lahore
* Amalthas: Indian Laburnum

VERSE | CHECKMATE

I’m in the throes of such exhaustion 
At all of this deception
This shameless commandeering
Of the resources of our nation
This unbridalled corruption
This lewd and shameless arrogance
This swagger, this ostentation
Like a monstrous pile of steaming
Shit!

I feel so much frustration
Such griping exasperation
At this propaganda, misinformation
At our barefaced prostration
To the lords of subjugation.
At our global commoditisation
At all this brazen exploitation
Like the hapless one who’s used to hearing
Checkmate!

VERSE | IN THE SHADOWS OF NIGHT-TIME

LISTEN TO THE POEM BEING READ AT: https://vt.tiktok.com/ZSdaYMvKB/
I’m looking out through my balcony door
The glass gleaming - I never miss that
That sheen itself is a pleasure to see
The gloss, the shine makes my heart glad

Then I look outside at the city lights
Some glimmering others sunny bright
I look beyond at the skyline that now
Boasts a few high rises above the eighth floor

My mind telescopes into some homes
But please hold that thought, don’t let it roam!
It’s not a voyeuristic enterprise of the mind
It’s reading the drive behind the grind

What makes that man who lives alone
In a one room apartment on the third floor
Wake up day after day after day?
What makes him go out his front door?

What special dreams has he woven with time?
Which ones has he decided to leave behind?
Is the light in his eyes still glowing bright
Or is he just stolidly marking time?

That woman who is holding down
Two jobs in two different parts of town
What is she hurrying and scouring for?
What makes her oblivious to her aches and her sores?

That young boy barely into his teens
His moustache is yet to take place of state
On his young, adolescent face
What is he doing out on the steets so late?

The young girl who sits up late by herself
Stitching joras* that must go on the shelf
Of an elite boutique. Do her dreams still speak?
Or are they now mute wraiths of themselves?

In the pit of my stomach lies a spot of guilt
The quickening of my heart tells me the truth
Of the relentless grind, the killer odds
But I tell myself - what can you possibly do

The gleaming door now to my back
I look over my balcony railing this time
Beyond is a world that is dusty and raw
My own pleasure wanes in the shadows of night-time
* Jora: In Urdu, a set of clothes, usually shalwar kameeze.

VERSE | OUR HUMANITY-FREE DIET

I’m in Karachi after two and a half years of Pandemic gridlocks, and it’s been a whirlwind of a homecoming. Besides grappling with the major and minor curveballs that my micro and macro environments tend to throw at me off and on, I have also been able to indulge in some nostalgia: found my little book in which I’ve put down a few poems that I’d written in my teens. Even at that tender age, external stimuli hit hard! 😅 Below is one of my verses from my adolescent days.

I was walking through the woods one day
With my thoughts in a turmoil
Oblivious to nature was I -
To the trees and the grass and the soil

I was attempting to decipher
The meaning of strife and war
Was it political agitation
For the enforcement of a law?

Or was it as I believed the cause
Of a moment’s disarray
Of a value old as age itself -
The simple Human Way

Where was the compassion that
Bespoke the worth of one?
Had the shield of dignity and love
Been replaced by the gun?

Where was the pride in good deeds
Where was the humility?
Was everything really shrouded by
The veil of frailty?

Frailty of causes
And frailty of sense
Had the once true noble values
Become a mere pretence?

I was looking for the answers
I was seeking a refuge
From the grief and the confusion that
Had overcome me like a deluge

It was then that I heard whispering
The soil, the grass, the trees
“You already have the answers
Now you only have to see

When man was made a brother
Unto the other one
The moulding of a sacred
Tradition had begun

So when war threatens to break this bond
Their spirit shall hold them fast
For that was always meant to be
Unto the very last”.

VERSE | HEARTBREAK

I feel a rage 
It’s not the flaming, blazing kind
Nor is it the hating kind
It’s disappointment mixed with hurt
A betrayal mixed with cheerlessness
It’s a whipping, bruising buffeting
It’s a faded, jaded trustfulness
It’s a crashing and a burning
Without smoke, without fire
It’s the turning into ash
Of something held so close
Of something tender and so dear
Of a precious, precious thing
Of a pearl old as the years.

I feel a rage
But in its manifestation
There is no acid hotness
Only a painful heaviness
That sits mostly in my throat
Huddled there, straining to emerge
In tears or in words
I’m capable of neither.
Even as it squeezes me
Choking, asphyxiating me
In its throttling stranglehold
I’m hoping for some peace and grace
Hoping even in the throes
Of this weary, bleary rage.

VERSE | FINDING MYSELF

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.

LISTEN TO THE POEM BEING READ AT: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSddAaCSr/?k=1
Yes, I waited a great big while 
For my knight in shining armour to arrive
To sweep me off my impatient feet
To finally enable me to start living my life.

He came to our door, not on a steed -
That’s the whimsical stuff of fairytales
Not really rigged for the 21st century.
The rest of the story I was sure prevailed.

And so he came to our house in a car
His mother and his sisters too
I dutifully served them tea and samosas
His eyes were fixed on me like glue

I tried to think of what I felt
Did he stir something in my heart
Did I feel a like-mindedness
Was he the catalyst to my big, bright start!

The only thing rolling around in my head
The only thing that I could really see
Was the freedom to do all that I couldn’t before
That sunlit pathway stretched ahead of me

I remember I smiled a little too avidly
He grinned like a loon right back
And so it was decided auspiciously
That we’d be married in three months stat!

The wedding was done, it was T-plus six months
And I sat at my dressing table
I looked at the face of the woman in front
Was she the euphoric lass of fables?

She looked back at me confusedly
I pretended I didn’t quite read
What her eyes were so desperately telling me -
That rabbit hole was just too deep.

I looked away, this wasn’t the first time
Of my inability to face the ghosts
Of broken hearts and shattered dreams
Of being deluded, of feeling lost

I had grown up believing with all my being
That my best life lay ahead
When I took on the mantle of someone’s wife
That’s what age-old tradition said

But that’s not true, I now know
When I can’t look at myself in the mirror
There are shackles anew, I’m so confused
My dreams couldn’t have been frailer

And so I wait yet again, but now
Free of archaic norms and guiles
For when I can find the courage to be
Who I really am, who I have been all this while.

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