SHORT STORY | RAAT KI RANI* – Part One

(I)

Haniya looked at the pin prick of blood on her index finger, lingering on its vital redness just a moment longer than usual. It was Tuesday today. She blinked, her mouth curving into a faint smile, and then wiped her finger with a rag strewn with little speckles of rust-red.

Haniya sewed initially becasue she had the skill and she liked the meditative quality of the needle going in and out of the fabric. With time and the fickle nature of circumstances, that labour of love had morphed into an exertion underscored by urgency and need. There was a little money that came in from a couple of modest investments that her husband had made and a small monthly stipend that her brother sent her. These meagre streams of income Haniya augmented with the little windfalls that she received for her delicate needlework.

After her husband had died six years ago, she had taken on the role of the provider and the “man” of the house. That last title was foisted on her when she had scared off two thieves, adolescents really, who had come to burgle her home; of what, she still sometimes wondered as she mentally scanned the modest contents of their two bedroom townhouse rental.

She put the shirt down with its spray of jasmine that was slowly coming to life under her deft handiwork. She took a sip of her tea – her fifth cup since the morning and it was only noon now. Her mind wandered as the still hot liquid warmed up her cache of memories. Faizan had loved his tea too. She would make two steaming cups when he came in through the door at 6 o’ clock in the evening. Husband and wife would then sit in each other’s company, communicating almost solely through harmonious sips of the hot beverage. Faizan had been a man of few words, and he was especially grateful for the acknowledgment and understanding of this quiet reticence by his wife. For him, the highest form of language was one of the heart and of harmony of action. His evening cup of tea in the quiet company of Haniya was probably one of his dearest forms of togetherness. On weekends the couple would demolish almost a quarter bag of tea leaves, taking turns to cook a potful, its four-cup contents disappearing in under half an hour each time.

Haniya sighed wistfully. She missed him. She missed being held close. She missed the vital warmth at night, on the right side of their bed … her bed now. She missed having a companion.

Haniya had been a voluble, chirpy young woman when she had got married at 21. Under the calming, quiet influence of her husband, coupled with the fact that they had their first child five years later, she had gradually spoken less and less. Over the years, she had slowly replaced her outer chatter with the quietude of inner serenity. Now, sometimes days went by and she hardly said a word out loud until both her children came back home from university. Both, Ali and Laiba had fitted into and then emulated their parents’ reserve. And so, the years had plodded on largely to the hazy sounds of life from outside of their quiet bubble of existence.

Haniya picked up her empty cup and went to the kitchen. It was almost 1 o’ clock. She needed to start preparing lunch. Laiba would be home at 3. Ali had just started working at a bank and usually came home after 7.

(II)

“Amma, I’m never getting married” said Laiba as they both sat at the little dining table over plates of two day old daal* and sabzi*, their protracted spice-infused marination made up for with fresh, hot roti from the tandoor* downstairs. Haniya looked at her second born with a little smile.

It was a game they played occasionally to call to heel any depressing thoughts that at various times, tended to meander through the purple-grey spaces in the minds of the two women. Before either drifted into inner worlds with clouded skies, shutting out the late afternoon sunshine falling on her face, the other would pull her right back.

Her mother’s morning musings were still etched in her face and Laiba, reading them, had dropped a conversational grenade to shatter any bruise-coloured doors closing out the brightness of the day. She was happy and an essential part of the fruition of that sentiment for her, was seeing her mother’s gentle smile.

“And why is that?” asked Haniya, her own smile widening at her daughter’s bright-eyed playfulness.

“Because I’m going to miss these vintage daal and sabzi lunches amma – straight up manna from heaven they are!”

Haniya laughed at the affectionate sarcasm thrown at her by her feisty daughter while Laiba grinned back with dancing eyes.

(III)

It was Tuesday today. Vegetable delivery day. Vegetables and conversation day. Vegetables, conversation and a bit of a happy flurry of the heart day. Haniya smiled. Even the dispiriting act of putting three-day old curry back into the fridge for another meal, didn’t dampen the pleasure of her Tuesday afternoons. She looked outside the kitchen window at a world that was shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight. She felt a happy little surge in her own heart as she glanced at herself in the glass door of the kitchen cabinet. Seeing the smile spreading to the corners of her brown eyes, she instinctively lowered her gaze, collecting herself. Those crows feet were only ever supposed to crinkle in pleasure for her children … and later, for her grandchildren, she chided herself. She sighed, feeling the tentacles of exasperation and helplessness slowly coil around her solar plexus.

Why? she asked herself in the next instant, reaching for her heart, fortifying herself against the censorial voices of tradition and expectations. Why did happiness for her have to always be a borrowed emotion – borrowed from her children and even from her unborn grandchildren? Borrowed for a brief while and then returned; always given back; never made her own. Why did she have to become a hollow shell of herself because she was widowed, permanently denouncing the vital, pulsing, feeling part of her? Why couldn’t she allow herself to be happy for herself; for something that was specifically, wholly, stirringly hers?

Because you’re a middle aged widow with grown up children, berated the part of her that was used to being loud, commanding and keeping her respectable.

Haniya willed herself, as she had learnt to do over the last few months, to focus only on the feeling of warmth that had been sweeping her up in its flow. Thinking beyond the visceral emotion, invariably woke up a whole slew of confusing, disapproving thoughts that would then mock and scold her until there was no pleasure left anymore in her Tuesday afternoons. Her afternoons that were filled with all shades of greens, reds and yellows as she bought a whole week’s worth of vegetables from Raza bhai. Raza – the bhai* had been largely dispensed with six months into these Tuesday afternoon exchanges, only ever surfacing if one of the children was within earshot of their conversation. These improvisations were made intuitively, unthinkingly.

Haniya Faizan was a respectable, middle class woman and following social norms was a part of her DNA which had also faithfully served her self preservation instinct. She was not a woman who went against the flow of convention, and had fitted herself into the box of widowhood that was resoundingly set at her door when her husband had passed away. She had then dutifully folded up her sexuality and put it safely away in the box to let it molder in the blessed throes of time and aloneness.

Haniya was still youngish however – 48 – and so despite society’s asexual prescription for her for having survived her husband, there was always a motley brigade of men that roamed around the box, hoping for Haniya to make a fissure just big enough for them to strut in. For most of these hopefuls, the end of their particular widow-exploit was yet murky in their minds; so much of that depended on the woman. If she relented, they could bestow her with male companionship, diligently cloaked from the world and their wives. If she didn’t, well some would leave it at that, while a not entirely insignificant number of others would put in focused efforts to torment her in big and small ways. The patriarchy, on such occasions, is said to be a mysterious beast, sweeping up entire communities of men and women in its ravenous wake. So far however, and especially after the encounter with the fresh-faced thieves, Haniya had been spared proposals of both, the decent and indecent varieties.

But there were changes afoot; little dalliances from the norm that were making their way into Haniya’s heart and she was feeling their, as yet unformed textures, with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation.

* Raat ki raani: the night-blooming jasmine

* Daal: A Pakistani/ Indian dish made of dried, split pulses that do not require soaking before cooking.

* Sabzi: vegetables in Urdu


* Bhai: Brother in Urdu.

* Tandoor: also known as tannour it is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking, mostly flat breads.

VERSE | I LURRRVE YOU!

This is for the ladies. Amidst all the funniness abounding in the verse, there is a subtle message of self love and self reliance.

Here’s hoping that we can always read between the literal and figurative noisy lines that may be thrown at us in the name of love. And that our peace of mind and our sense of self worth always supersede other enterprises of the liver (jigar) and the heart!

No offence to my male family, friends and acquaintances - these are truth-telling times!
He said I love you 
Like I have never loved another
I said you’re 48 and you’re still
Looking for that perfect other?

Surely you’ve felt something in that realm
You have walked down lovers lanes
Were you perchance arm in arm
With your tonic and your gin?
And not a woman whom you’d consider
A partner and a friend
No, she was always just a trip
A means towards an end
Each bedecked your evenings out
The “I love yous” that left your lips
Were whispered as sweet nothings
In between your boozy sips
And now you tell me that
You’re in love with me too
Except it’s not your usual form
You don’t know what’s happened to you!
Maybe your three-month romances
Would extend to five with me
But the Shallow Hal* in you, pal
Is still waiting to count to three
And then your extra special
Trademark escape artistry
Will take center stage
It’ll be the same old page
From your book of Love for Free

That day he said I love you
Like I have never loved before
I said dear boy you wouldn’t know true love
If it speared you in your gall bladder
…. and why I am undoubtedly the man of your dreams!”
* Shallow Hal: A 2001 Hollywood Rom-Com in which Hal, a shallow man who only dates attractive women, falls in love with Rosemary, after being hypnotized to see the inner beauty of women, not knowing that she is obese.

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 must die?

NOW AVAILABLE IN PAKISTAN! “The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta and Other Stories”

Dear friends and family,

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SHORT STORY | THE DANCE OF THE PEACOCK – Part Two

(I)

The peacock was now an intermittent visitor to the garden at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui, just as Sumaira’s 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.

(II)

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

“Guria, chai”(1), came the papery voice from the doorway. The old retainer had watched 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.

(III)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(IV)

“It was so untimely. So strange….”

“May Allah bless her with Jannat al Firdaus*”

“May her soul rest in peace”

“Allah knows best….”

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

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

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

* Amaltas: The Indian Laburnum tree

(2) “May God keep us from harm”

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

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

* Haveli: “Mansion” in Urdu

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

SHORT STORY | THE DANCE OF THE PEACOCK – Part One

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

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

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

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

VERSE | THE FAIRYTALE

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.

VERSE | THE CARPING JUDICIARY

LISTEN TO THE POEM BEING READ AT:  https://vm.tiktok.com/ZSeopaVK6/
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.

BOOK LAUNCH! THE GIRL WITH THE PAISLEY DUPATTA

Dear all,

It is with a mixture of joy, some pride and truckloads of excitement that I announce the publishing of my second book – my book of short stories. This enterprise of the heart has been in the making for the past two years and has finally culminated into an anthology of tales.

It is said that shame dies when stories are told in safe places. THE GIRL WITH THE PAISLEY DUPATTA AND OTHER STORIES forges within its pages the sanctity and dignity that allow fragile stories to become powerful, purposeful, healing and exhilarating epics of personal courage and enterprise.

Many of the stories within this book are from outside the bell curve of our lives, and come straight from the truth-telling corners of the heart: from the brutal vigilante justice dispensed in the name of religion in “The Gods of Fury”; to the harrowing custom of honour revenge in the “Sins of our Fathers”; to the patriarchal ruthlessness that so many young women are subjected to in the title story “The Girl with the Paisley Dupatta”.

Others are stories of women and men negotiating life, love, friendship, careers and tradition in the sometimes tumultuous and many times limiting folds of their families and their communities: from the love affair of the enterprising 61 year old Nighat in “Love in Rawalpindi”; to the shenanigans of a dancing queen in “Riotous Love”; to the complicated friendship between two society girls in “Days of Purgatory”.

The last three stories in the book are a tribute to that most ingenious art form, political satire.

These tales will make you laugh, cry and ruminate in equal measure while niggling at the peripheries of conventional value systems.

The book is currently available at the Jam Fruit Tree bookstore on Galle Road in Colombo. I will try and make it available for friends and family in Pakistan and Dubai soon.
To pre-order your copy of the book, please contact me here. It may take me some time, but I will try and get it to you 🤓

VERSE | THE QUINTESSENTIAL SINNER

She gets out of the car, adjusting her shalwar 
The legs one mustn’t behold, out of their fabric strongholds
The ankles though, for a moment show
Their shameful curvature.

It can’t be helped you see, we are bipedal beings
But we can’t see the nuances of practical biology
When blinded by the nobility of our formidable patriarchy,
And cloaked in out great
Fervour of faith.

And so she bends just a little to adjust the errant drape
And while she endeavours, to hold together
Her blessed modesty
Some man out there, finds her morality in disrepair
What is she bending for, like a dirty, depraved w****!

And the floods of moral outrage at this corrupt spectacle
In their godly country, cause a debacle
Every man takes it upon himself to deface this hideousness
He then looks to his companions, all now chomping at their bits

They rush upon this evil scene, of the wicked and immoral queen
For a queen she is, from head to toe.
Evil, wicked, shameful though!
She makes their blood gush in great floods
Testosterone-filled, Squelching like mud
She makes their heads swim in strange ways
Where she is master and they are slaves.

God does not permit, such sacrilege
Where genders abandon their rightful places
Men are meant to lead them forth
Moral compasses pointing true north
Held aloft by everything, a woman does, from breathing in
To the way she walks in crowded streets:
Ankles hidden, inconspicuous feet.

And that is why an errant sister in faith
(A woman who is alone and out and about!)
Reeking of impudence in her unveiled state
(Putting her entire morality in doubt!)
May naturally be seen by her brothers devout
As a wanton woman standing at hell’s gates.

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