A blog about poetry, fiction, London life, and new mum experiences
Author: Salmah Ahmed
I am an accountant by profession, I completed my ACCA (as a challenge as I was horrible in Maths)) and by default have always landed finance jobs. My real love though has always been something else. Being a Pakistani girl, my desi parents wouldn't have me study for a degree in English Literature or something art oriented. I was required to be practical and choose some professional field of study. However, I have always loved to write, doesn't matter about what, it's my favourite 'escape' place-my secret garden. I have always typed these short pieces secretly, on my laptop, knowing they would never be seen by a living person and feeling safe in that knowledge. Recently, however my dear friend Nisha encouraged me to start a blog because I would write and bore her with these long novel like emails. I have also recently become a mother to a beautiful baby girl and it has been a wonderful, crazy and blessed experience.
Every woman in Pakistan has faced some form of sexual harassment. I’m going to recount the least unpleasant one for me. A group of twenty something men eve teased me while I was walking to the nearby shop with our middle aged female house help. I was eleven years old at the time and I still remember what they said. I remember feeling terrified and sick. Our house help found this very amusing for some reason. She stressed upon me to take it as a compliment. This is the extent to which it’s normalised.
We don’t want an unsafe society but it’s anything but safe. Sexual abuse and violence has become a norm. Luck is the only element saving you right now. The element that determines you aren’t at the wrong place at the wrong time.
In this scenario what can we do to solve the problem? Here are a few things that may work.
Muting yourself and listening helps us understand the nature and extent of the suffering of vulnerable people in society. The first step to change is acknowledging there is a problem.
Dissociating ourselves from the problem will not help. When darkness and evil is allowed to spread, it’s ripple effects ruin more lives than the ones directly touched by it.
Good won’t triumph over evil, unless good people rise up and fight it. Change will not happen unless privileged members of society join and spearhead the fight. In Pakistan that status is given to men. Patriarchy ensures it. Thus, if you see any form of harassment raise your voice against it and fight it. Fight against your friends, family and strangers.
Women need to change their attitude as well. Silence is no longer an option. Complacence is no longer wise. Don’t protect or fear your family members. Raise your voice against abuse and report it even if the preparator is someone close to you. View the crime for what it is. A threat to society at large if it’s allowed to go unchecked. Don’t think you have an invisibility cloak because of your chosen reasons.
Do not list sociological factors and apologize for rape. It isn’t a just crime of untamed sexual desire. It’s a crime of hate, domination, power and subjugation. It is practised on the weak, helpless and vulnerable. Even if you take away the rapist’s genitals, they’ll find other ways to harm and gain power over their targeted prey.
Do not ostracize rape survivors. Do not sensationalise their trauma. Do not make them feel small or fallen or whatever centuries of filth has been stuffed in your mind by popular media and older generations. Protect their identity, protect their dignity like your own, support them and stand by them. Empathise but do not patronise, do not judge, do not criticise. They haven’t ‘lost’ anything precious. They are brave survivors.
Most of all, we are in trying times and we are all anxious and scared. But please don’t step back, don’t hide away, don’t quit your jobs, don’t lock yourself away in your homes. If you do that, you are feeding into the culture of fear the criminals want you to feed into. They want to intimidate you. This is the time to be more aggressive not be more timid. Fight, with weapons, fight with your pen, fight with your will and fight with your hands and feet. But FIGHT you must.
We all want a safe country. A country where rapists roam free and victims are blamed is thrown back centuries in progressiveness. Let’s all join hands to bring about change.
The incident is all over the news. Terrible, inhumane and sick. A mother was gang raped on a highway in Pakistan. In front of her three small children. Her car was stranded on the motorway when it ran out of fuel. Why was she raped? According to the CCPO (Chief of Police, Lahore) she took the wrong road. Yes, you read that right. Obviously she should have taken GT road, duh! Also, who doesn’t check their fuel before getting out on a drive? There are a lot of other theories. She shouldn’t have been driving out late at night with her children at 1:30am. She should also have been with a man. She might not have been that religious. Why didn’t she call the police? Are you sure she wasn’t ‘asking for it’? Was she wearing the right dress, by right I mean covered from head to toe? The focus is on the victim. The blame lies with her. Never mind that women get raped inside their homes as well. They don’t have to get out on a street for it.
It’s time we stop protecting and hiding the real reason for rape: The Rapists. Because that’s what we’ve been doing; enabling them since eons. Victims are hushed up for the sake of their family’s false honour. You protect your sons/brothers for their perverseness, you make allowances for them, you grant them unlimited power, rights and privileges. Their whereabouts are not questioned. Their friends are not scrutinised. Their privacy is respected. They are allowed to stay out late. Their eve teasing is looked upon as a big joke, their language can be dirty, they are allowed to flirt, harass and stalk women at workplaces, educational institutions and public places. Why? Because they are men after all, red blooded young men. They can’t help themselves. It’s time we get up and take a closer look at how we are raising men around us. The men in our family, because all this starts from our home.
This is for men in general:
-When a woman talks to you whether online or in person, she isn’t asking to be flirted with.
-When a woman occupies a public space she isn’t asking to be assaulted or harassed.
-When a woman drives alone at night she isn’t asking to be raped.
Sorry to break it you, but these rapists are not demons who come from hell occasionally to wreak havoc on earth. They are human. They live amongst us. They could be related to us. They could work with us. They could be our best pals. They could be people in power, they could be your managers at work or they could be our house help. And you could be their next victim. The focus needs to shift to them.
A severe view must be taken on their punishment. They should be given the harshest punishment by law. They should be hanged. It’s a trending hashtag and I hope it has it’s required effect. But the real change is going to happen if men are as outraged as women for such crimes. It’s not a choice anymore. It’s a necessity. Men cannot distance themselves from this crime saying this will never happen to women in our family because of x y z reason. They cannot laugh at #metoo anymore. They cannot slut shame or victim blame assaulted women anymore. Because it’s spreading like a deadly virus and one day, it will come around to your door. It’s your wives, daughters and sisters that will be their next target. For many, that one day has already come and gone. Most women in the country, most women in your family may have already lived through that day and you may not even know because our society has put a lock on their mouth called ‘shame and honour’.
It’s time to break the silence. It’s time to stand up and speak up about crimes committed on women, even if they aren’t related to you, even if you see eve teasing or any harassment on the street. It’s time to fight against and report such heinous crimes. It shouldn’t be accepted as the norm that these predators and rapists can get away with it. We need to cancel this social acceptance and start a zero tolerance movement against it.
Sunday is my lie in day. I deserve a day off from the 5:30/6:00 am routine of milk feeding and changing my toddler. This suggestion came from my hubby who has been efficiently handling this for quite a few weekends now. When I do come downstairs, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 9am our open plan kitchen is in a mess. Toys, random pieces of food, all kitchen cans and containers are strewn all over. I ignore all of it benignly to focus on getting my cuppa chai and porridge, the problems of the world can wait till after breakfast.
While my porridge is being microwaved, the baby is pulling at my leg. I have an awww moment. She missed me. As I pick her up to hug her, a stink crushes my nostrils almost (mind you – almost, as I’m a pro now) killing my appetite. I look around for hubby and he is no where to be seen. I resign myself to changing her poo filled nappy. After her bum is clean as a whistle, hubby comes dashing from a corner of the house carrying a container of water and some cotton wool.
‘I got this!’ He announces like a super hero all set to rid the world of Thanos single handedly.
‘It’s done.’ I tell him, with only a hint of resentment in my tone. And then because he has been a gem managing her while keeping her and himself alive all morning I peck him on the cheek. He beams.
In the middle of my first bite of porridge, while I am nestled on the sofa catching up on some news, hubby rushes in, a sheepish smile gracing his adorable face. Yes, it’s adorable when I am rested. ‘Need to go toilet.’ He says placing her on the sofa next to me.
Baby sensing fishy business about to unfold, starts bawling, not putting up with being dumped unceremoniously.
‘Ok! Ok! I’m not going anywhere!’ He sits beside her, gooey eyed how his baby is so attached to him.
‘You need to stay for a bit and then slide away unnoticed…’ like one of those detectives in crime shows he regularly watches. He nods in understanding. I feel he would have this sliding away routine down pretty well as he’s seen it only a thousand times. So when baby’s back is turned on the sofa, I give him a nod. Run for it. He gets up and dashes.
Now, this is just my partial opinion but there couldn’t be a more awkward dash in the history of dashes. Far from the quite sleuth like getaway, he gets up running like wolves are at his heels. His foot gets caught in the leg of the side table, slamming loudly against it, the porridge falls to the floor, my tea falls to the floor and the side table topples over. He looks at the mess and then at us frozen mid run. Both baby and I look at him with amused incredulity like watching a unicorn turning into a hippo. He takes one tentative step towards the door and predictably baby starts crying with a look like ‘you guys left me no choice’.
Needles to say, ‘Operation stealthy exit’ is a massive failure folks.
Or do you feel it’s like standing on a beach staring out into the ocean of your past, as each wave touches your bare feet it pulls you in, deeper into the ocean without any effort on your part. Soon you are knee deep and then waist deep in memories. You’re left looking around wondering how did I get here?
One of my favourite movies had a dialogue which stuck with me. A rough translation goes like this, ‘Always look forward in life, leave the past where it belongs and move on.’ Ironically, that’s the opposite of what the leads in the movie actually do. Anyhow, somehow this line has come back to bite me more than once. Every single time, I’ve opened that tempting door to the past, it’s swung right back in my face.
The chime of a church bell, swirling thick mist, the smell of steamy cocoa, colourful paperclips, letters on lined paper, crispy samosas fresh out of boiling oil with ice cold Pakola, and many more feels can set me off. I am reminded of long forgotten friends and dive right in that ocean of memories hoping to find a secret world I’ve missed of colourful flora and fauna. Instead there is a chasm of vapid nothingness. But I am looking at those days and those people with sepia coloured lenses which give everything a golden glow. Reality never measures up to the pretty version in my head.
When I make contact it’s like reaching out to the alien world up there. Surprisingly, there is no common ground, and sometimes not even enough civil ground for us to tread on. Since this has happened with me more than a few times, I have kept the dialogue from the movie as my mantra of sorts. Always look forward in life. I’ll add a few here to make the point stick; Let the past be. Do not dig up old graves. Let the dead lie in peace. As long as I follow this mantra I am fine. The problem begins when I ignore this principle and look back.
Just to make it clear; nothing untoward has ever happened. None of my forgotten friends turned out to be serial killers. It just leaves a lingering distaste, you know? Like when you are expecting a crème brulee and a Jell-O turns up (yeah ok, that was borrowed from Pretty Woman). And somehow in this process, of reaching out, making contact and trying to renew an old friendship due to my sentimentalism (which most times is a by-product of boredom), I end up ruining those happy memories in my head. In their place a question mark is left hanging: how did you ever get on with this person? Like how? Are you even the same person?
The logical part of me reasons that as time passes we grow and change. We experience a multitude of sorrows and joys. We live through our interpretations of heaven and hell. We grow older, we get stronger, we fight the punches life throws at us, picking our broken bones and moving on. Sometimes taking a break to recover enough and then get right back at it. Our bodies change, but most importantly our feelings and perspectives change as well. We will never be the same people we were. Therefore, it is reasonable that our buddies from the past would have changed as well.
So, I don’t look at my stumbling on the path leading back a few times with too much concern. But yeah, walking forward is definitely better.
It had rained, the wet mud on the roads, the dank smell of gutters, gave evidence of it. Tamara stepped out of the revolving glass doors and flinched at the gust of wind that lashed against her face. Her hair flew over her face and she tied them back severely with a clutch. It had been busy in office. She liked days like these when she couldn’t even look up from her desk top screen. They didn’t given her time to think.
She walked down Eldon street, frowning at the overcast sky. It was 5:25 pm and she followed the herd of smartly dressed sheep heading feverishly towards the station.
She was walking past Krispy Kreme when she felt her mobile vibrate in my pocket. She pulled it out and continued walking. It was a missed call from Ali.
She needed to call him back but first she needed to make another call. She dialled the number.
‘Hi, what time will you be home?’ He sounded in a hurry.
She had now stepped into the main section of the station, flooded by light from the glass ceiling overhead. It always felt surreal. Like a giant conservatory.
‘The usual, you remember the fish you need to pick up for dinner?’
‘Yeah, my mum is coming tomorrow and will stay for a few days.’
‘Great, perfect weekend, I’m getting to the platform, anything else?’ Impatience creeped into her voice. Her mother in laws visits were merry go rounds of sarcasm and thinly veiled insults on housekeeping skills or anything else she could associate with her.
He paused. She could hear his irritated sighing. When had talking become so hard? Correction: Impossible.
‘Fine, see you then.’ He ended their romantic spousal talk.
She heard the line go dead with relief.
The Shenfield train was leaving in six minutes from platform 16. She speed dialled Ali on the way. ‘Hi, you called?’ her voice was warmer, husky with anticipation.
‘I think we should meet right now.’ Bloody enigmatic, as usual. Darker clouds gathered overheard and spread a shadow on her giant conservatory.
‘What do you mean? I’m headed home.’ she stepped aside, close to platform 10, out of the way of the frantic crowd.
‘I mean I need to see you, it’s better if we talk in person.’
‘About what? I’m late already. Can it wait?’
‘No…’ she heard his anguished bark. ‘It’s gone on long enough.’
‘Ok, just tell me now if it’s so urgent.’
‘Gina and I, we met, we are working on our issues. I don’t think we should meet anymore T. I love you, but I can’t live a double life. Maybe it’s best for you too.’
The station felt tipsy. The crowds rushed in on her.
‘Are you still there?’
‘Yes….’ she swallowed hard, finding her voice.
‘I’m sorry.’ He was gone, just like he had entered her life. In a rush.
She turned around and began running towards the metropolitan line. She felt the sharp sting of tears at the back of her eyes. The world was suddenly misty and she almost stumbled down the steps to the Underground. An tall Arab man in a blue jumper, stepped forward. ‘You OK?’ she ignored him and continued forward. She ran to the ticket barriers which had just been closed off. She saw a TFL staff member standing beside the barriers. ‘I need to get in, please.’
‘Sorry, madam, there has been an incident on the tracks.’
‘No, you don’t understand. I have to get home.’ she shouted. Used to raised voices during stressful times, he simply ignored her now as another man questioned him.
The blue of his jumper came into her line of vision again. ‘Tube closed, where you go?’ she realised she was shaking badly and this man was holding her arm, probably afraid she would fall over. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She opened them to find him still in front of her with worried chestnut eyes.
She was about to say something, but suddenly, she realised she didn’t need to worry. She sank down on the steps. She didn’t need to go home. She didn’t have a home anymore. She needed to file divorce papers. There was so much to do. As some trains re-started their routes, she sat staring at the world rush past her to catch the last trains out of the city. She sang an old song softly to herself. The same man was sitting beside her eating a baguette now. She didn’t know how much time had gone by. ‘I hear this song before.’ He gave her a thumbs up. She turned around at him and started laughing hysterically.
My one year old baby loves the books with textures that she can touch with her little finger. A favourite book of hers is; ‘This is not my unicorn’.
She touches the rough hooves, shakes her head – No…. this is not my unicorn.
She touches the shiny wings, shakes her head – No…. this is not my unicorn.
She touches the fluffy tale, shakes her head – No…. this is not my unicorn.
She comes to the end and sees the sparkly horn, laughs and claps her hands….Yes this is my unicorn.
Now, during quarantine my normal look is pyjamas with untidy tied up hair and no makeup.
Today, I looked at the useless fancy Kurtis in my cupboard and decided I should actually dress up for my husband once in a while. I took a shower, donned a cream lace number by Agha Noor, and touched up my lips with sparkling amethysts by L’Oréal.
I was drying my hair quickly when my husband walked in. It had the desired, predictable effect on him. It had quite an unpredictable effect on my baby. She looked at me, extended her tiny finger to touch my face and then shook her head – No….this is not my unicorn.
P.S. Do I need to say what she did when she saw me back in my PJs at night?
Now, naturally by the end of the day, chasing her around, saving her from a hundred precarious situations, and generally going batty and breathless; I was a bit snappy with her. She was showing her tactful displeasure by staring me down each time I stopped her shenanigans midway.
Generally, I felt we were pretty much on the same page;
Me- Mummy: Boss and Supreme Authority to be obeyed.
She-Cutie pie: who needs to go along with my dictation.
I got a rude shock when come evening, hubby walks in the door after work. My toddler is happily (point to be noted-happily) cuddling with me. She sets eyes on him, squeals, runs to him and then turns back and points accusingly at me, her face furious. Her point is so on point that it would have won her an Oscar if it was captured on screen.
My mouth is hanging open now, my hubby giving me a suspicious look as if I’ve tortured her the whole day. Wordlessly, he hugs her and takes her away, cooing to her ‘It’s ok, baby, papa is here!’
I storm after the duo, ‘What does she mean by that point?’
‘You tell me?’ he asks with narrowed eyes.
I launch into a tirade of how tiring it was for me to look after her the whole day, while she is giving me a sceptical look as if she isn’t buying my story. My hubby nods his head in sympathy. In that moment, I’m happy she can’t phrase sentences right now. An evil emoji prominent in my head and then overshadowed by a nervous one, knowing soon enough she’ll have a whole list of complaints jotted down for him to go through and I would be left stammering my weak defence.
He noticed her from the corner of his eye. She moved past the chairs and desks and sat in front of him. For those few minutes, there was only the two of them in the classroom. Every fibre of his being was aware of her. He didn’t know her yet but he knew she had settled within him. The teacher asked him a question and he didn’t even hear him. He was asked to stand up and he mumbled an apology. She turned around and looked up at him. There it was, in a glance she had captured his soul and it was burning in her eyes.
He asked her out a few days later. It was in the college canteen. She saw him walk towards her and suddenly became self-conscious. She pushed back her hair from her face and swallowed the piece of sandwich in her mouth quickly.
‘Hi, my name is Maaz.’
‘That’s a funny name.’
‘Why should I tell you?’
‘Because I need to know who I’ll be getting married to.’
She stared at him and blushed. When she walked away her friend whom he hadn’t even noticed told him, ‘Her name is Maheen.’ He nodded still looking at her walking away from him.
They would sit in the garden bordering the basketball field after classes, sunlight warming the flame of their new love. Their silence was just as comfortable as their conversation. Books were uselessly spread out in front of them in pretence of study. She didn’t remember what they talked about. He held on to her hand, only her hand.
Valentine’s day was coming up and she was excited wandering what he would do, hoping it would be special. She waited the whole day and he didn’t give her any flowers or chocolates. She didn’t even see him. She was disappointed. She wanted to hear him say those three words to her. When she started her last class, feeling furious, she saw him waving to her from the window asking her to come out.
He took her to the roof of the building. He had prepared an elaborate romantic set up with rose petals, a blanket, a picnic basket and candles. She was delighted. He bolted the door leading down to the stairwell. He led her by the hand to the spot hidden away from the entrance to the stairs by a cemented water tank. She looked around and no one was there. It was their private heaven.
She sat down on the blanket and he presented a single red rose to her. ‘Thank you,’ she smiled.
He pulled out a velvet box which held an expensive rubies and diamond bracelet. She began shaking her head, but he kissed her to silence her. Before they both knew what was happening, before they could pull themselves back from the land of passion a lot had happened. Maaz withdrew from her breathless and drugged. ‘Give me a minute.’ He ran to the other side of the cemented water tank and closed his eyes, clutching at his mouth. What had he done? He saw her approach him adjusting her clothes and smoothing her hair. ‘I’m getting late,’ she whispered, avoiding his eyes. He wanted to say something, anything to her but he couldn’t. The words froze in his mouth.
She unlocked the door to the stairwell and ran down the steps. After he summoned up the courage he messaged her that night, ‘Are you alright?’ she didn’t reply. After half an hour of waiting he called her. He kept calling her the whole night but she didn’t answer. She didn’t come to college for a few days and then he finally saw her. She was sitting with her friend. He ran up to her, ‘Can we talk?’
She looked up at him, ‘Yes?’
‘No.’ His world shattered. She didn’t trust him anymore.
She didn’t talk to him and when he tried to she would avoid looking at him. She wouldn’t even sit with him in the garden in the open. Maaz knew he had lost her. He finally approached her after many days of seeing her become more and more distant. He had come to a painful conclusion; she hated him now, he had lost his respect in her eyes and by imposing on her again and again he was bothering her. It was better to leave her alone.
‘I know you can’t stand me anymore, I can’t take us back to where we were so it’s better that we break up. It’ll be easier to move on.’
She looked into his eyes and nodded. ‘Ok.’
Her parents fixed her marriage. She was engaged and the marriage was after one month. She was distributing her wedding cards in the canteen to her friends when he came towards her.
‘So, I don’t get a card?’
She smiled, ‘No.’
‘Because I wouldn’t want to be invited to your wedding either.’ He nodded and left.
There was a party in the college and he lost his temper. Someone had made a comment about how hot she looked and then added something he couldn’t tolerate. He got into a fight and was dragged out by his friend. ‘What are you doing? If you still love her why don’t you just say sorry even if it’s not your fault and get back together.’
‘I can’t. We can’t go back to where we were.’
‘Then don’t go back, you fool, move forward.’
‘She’s getting married.’
‘That’s because you never asked her to marry you.’
Maaz stared at him. How could he be so stupid? That was it. That was what she had wanted. A simple proposal.
She was about to get in her car after the party when he ran up to her and held on to her arm. ‘I know I messed up, I should have asked long ago. That same day. But I’m asking you now. Will you marry me? I’ll send my parents over if you allow me.’
‘It’s too late.’
‘It isn’t, until you are actually married.’
‘It’s less than a month away.’
‘Just give me one more chance?’
‘Ok.’ The weight that had been sitting on her heart lifted away in a fleeting second.
She cried, begged and pleaded with her parents. She told them about how important he was to her. She convinced them if they married her to the man of their choice she would be miserable and she’ll make him miserable. ‘Why didn’t you tell us before?’ They asked her.
‘We developed some misunderstandings and now they are over.’
Maaz’s parents came over to her house as if they were doing them a favour. His mother was anything but polite. She criticised everything, the food, their house, their residential area and then openly insulted their caste. Her father finally got up and said, if she had so many problems with them she should leave.
When Maheen told him what had happened he begged his mother to apologise and she shook her head. ‘What do you see in that ordinary girl, and their ordinary family? I will not apologise at all. Do you want to compromise your mother’s respect for the sake of a mere girl?’
Maaz called Maheen, ‘I can’t convince her to apologise but if you want I can come to your house to apologise on her behalf, I don’t know what else I can do.’
‘If she knew this was important for you she wouldn’t have behaved this way. My parents will not allow me to marry you now.’
‘So let’s marry without their permission.’
Maaz sighed heavily, ‘Just convince them then, tell them how important this is for you. Tell them what our relationship is and how you will be better off if you marry me.’
‘How important it is for me?
‘For both of us, but yes, more for you.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Come on, Maheen. If that guy you were getting married to knew about us, what we’ve done, he would never accept you.’
‘You think everyone is like you? Maybe, I should tell him about it then and see if he still thinks I’m acceptable.’
Maaz scoffed, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea if you want him to reject you. Maybe that’ll help our cause.’
There was silence on her end.
‘I’m not trying to put you down. We are on the same side in this fight remember? We are fighting for our love.’
‘I’m fighting for something else as well, like my respect and my family’s respect that you keep snatching away from me and then behave as if it doesn’t matter.’
He was silent and belatedly realised he should have said sorry.
She cut off the call.
Maheen met her fiancé in an outdoor coffee shop. She had asked for the meeting.
He was all charm and good manners. She was a ball of nerves.
‘I need to tell you something. After this you can decide whether you still want to go ahead with the marriage.’
‘I want to be honest. I am not a virgin. I had a boyfriend and we …it was just once and I didn’t know we were going to, I mean I didn’t really plan it.’
‘Ok.’ He looked away and then back at her. ‘Thank you for being honest with me. But that’s in your past isn’t it, everyone has a past. I’ve been in few serious relationships myself while studying and working abroad and I’m not a virgin either. It doesn’t matter to me and from what you’re telling me it seems like you didn’t even want to do it in the first place.’
‘Then I don’t see what the problem is? It doesn’t change anything for me.’
She was stunned into silence. She had expected him to throw the plate in front of him and walk away in righteous indignation. They continued their tea date and the more time she spent with him, the more completely accepted she felt, with all her flaws.
Maaz called her that night. ‘Did you tell him?’ she could hear the smirk in his tone.
‘What did he say?’
‘He said it was ok with him.’
There was silence on his end. She could feel his nervousness radiate from across the phone line.
She met him in college the next day and he asked her, ‘What will you do now?’
‘Depends on whether your parents will come to my home, apologise for their earlier behaviour and ask for my proposal respectfully.’
Maaz shook his head, ‘I’ve tried, they won’t.’
‘Then you know what I will do.’ She walked away from him.
It was the day before her wedding and her last day in college. She saw him sitting on the steps in the sun. She walked towards him and stopped at the bottom step.
‘I just wanted to say good bye.’
‘Right. Good bye.’ She couldn’t see his eyes, they were covered with sun glasses.
‘Ok, take care.’
She turned around and then heard his voice. He had stepped down a few stairs and his eyes were bare now.
She saw a lot of things she didn’t want to see in them.
‘I really wish you a very happy married life. He is a very lucky man to have you.’
Three years later, he was shopping with his mother for some jewellery for his fiancé. It was Valentine’s day and the cheap red hearts and the fake flowers all over the mall disgusted him. He was getting married in three months. She was a nice girl but nothing like Maheen. No one was like Maheen. He had never felt that connection with any girl, although he had searched for it everywhere. His phone started ringing, it was his fiancé. The signals were bad in the shop so he stepped out and then he spotted her.
A few shops down, Maheen was absentmindedly tracing the fabric of a dress with her fingers. He heard his fiancé repeatedly call his name, fearing she had lost him again. He shut off his phone. He walked towards her and saw her notice him. She frowned and looked away and he stopped in his tracks. She didn’t want to meet him. He made a u-turn and disappeared behind a corner, leaning against a wall. How dumb of him to assume she would even want to talk to him.
He was about to turn back towards the jewellery shop when he heard her voice.
She was there, looking more beautiful than she had ever looked. Marriage suited her. Her husband was taking care of her.
‘How are you?’ she asked, coming nearer when he remained frozen. There it was shining brightly once again, the purest part of his soul in her eyes.
He finally shook himself, ‘I’m doing great! It’s so strange, running into each other after three years and two months and a half months, right?’ He rolled his eyes inwardly, might as well say and three days, forty-five minutes and thirty seconds as well, you idiot.
She laughed, ‘I was in London these past few years. I’ve just come back.’
‘That makes sense then.’
‘I went to all the places you talked about from when you were there. The stand-up theatres, secret cinema, Camden town market, the black sheep coffee shops, you know all the offbeat places.’
Excitement danced in her eyes. He hid a frown, she was saying I instead of we. Did her husband leave her to explore the city alone?
‘Do you have some time for coffee?’ he took a leap of faith. He told himself it would be ok if she shut him down.
‘I’m addicted to coffee now, sure!’
They were seated in one of the fancy franchise coffee outlets. She frowned when she sipped from her cup. ‘Not as good?’ he asked.
She shook her head, wrinkling her nose and put her cup down.
‘So, are you married now?’ she asked with a grin. ‘Have you forgotten your wife somewhere in this mall?’
No, but he just remembered his mother in the jewellery shop. It didn’t matter. She could wait for a bit.
‘Not yet, but I’m about to get married.’
He saw her smile waver and then it was over bright, ‘Congratulations!’
‘I better get going, I need to get back to my …’
‘Husband? Have you forgotten him somewhere in this mall?’
She had got up, picking up her bag, she looked down at him with an amused smile. ‘I would have if I had one, unfortunately I don’t. I’ve never had one. Take care.’
His heart slammed in his chest. She turned around casually and walked away. She was out of his sight soon. He wanted to run after her but an inner voice stopped him. If you go after her today, you will bloody well make sure you deserve her or let her go now. He battled with himself for what seemed like an eternity. Yes, I’m ready, he finally convinced his conscience.
She was about to exit the mall when he sprinted after her, breathless and pulled her arm to face him. ‘Hi.’ He doubled over with exhaustion and held up his finger.
She looked at him in surprise and then around her at the people who were turning around now to stare.
‘I forgot to say something up there.’
‘Ok, I’m going to try this a third time and I assure you I will not make a complete ass of myself this time.’
He bent down on one knee in front of her. A crowd was beginning to gather around them now and a few teenage girls had got their phone cameras out.
‘Maheen, will you marry me, please?’
She looked around at the crowd, turning red with embarrassment.
‘Please get up, what are you doing….’
‘By the way, are you single?’
‘What?’ she looked around distractedly, ‘Yes, I am .’
He sighed with relief. ‘Ok, so will you?’
‘No, I can’t,’ she refused him firmly and loudly.
His heart sank to the depths of misery and a gloom settled on the excited crowd gathered around them who had been waiting for her answer as well.
Then a girl yelled from the crowd, ‘Say yes, Maheen.’
Another man shouted the same slogan, ‘Say yes, Maheen.’
Very soon the crowd reverberated with the uneven request. Maaz got up from the floor and gave her a sheepish smile and she glared at him.
A little girl came up to her and pulled her veil, ‘Say yes, Maheen.’
Maaz spotted his mother make her way through the crowd towards them and he frowned. Yes, he hadn’t thought of that. His mother stepped forward and looked from the girl to her son, then her eyes rested on her son.
In the last three years she had never seen him this happy and alive. She had seen him crash and burn many times. She had seen him lose interest in food, having fun and going out with his friends. She has seen him having sleepless nights. She had seen him adopt a polite disinterested manner with his fiancé. She had seen him get lost in his own world in the middle of a conversation. She had seen him becoming someone else. As if his soul was missing.
‘Say yes, Maheen.’ His mother stood at a distance and their eyes met. Her eyes had a silent apology and Maheen smiled warmly at her.
She turned to Maaz, ‘Yes.’
The crowd started clapping and cheering, the big heart pinata hanging over the mall burst into a million heart shaped confetti and a bollywood love song began blaring at full volume.
Maheen turned to Maaz, shaking her head in embarrassment, ‘This is the most cringiest, cheesiest and childish proposal ever.’
He took a bow, his eyes dancing with laughter, ‘You’re welcome!’
Aristotle said; ‘The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know.’
There is a profound wisdom in the above quote. The more educated, qualified and successful we become the more arrogant and set we tend to become in our beliefs that we know everything, that our opinion is right and nothing at all can change it. If someone puts forth a differing opinion we smirk at it, we discount it, but we don’t step back even for a moment to think, yes maybe this could make sense. Whereas, I feel if we were truly enlightened we would actually accept that the more we learn, the more there is still to learn.
That learning can come from anywhere. That learning can come from a source we consider inferior or beneath us.
There is a trend in social media interactions that a point of view is debated vociferously and even rudely when we don’t see eye to eye (no, not Tahir shah’s version).
Normally, when an original post is shared on social media, a barrage of varying viewpoints are thrown at it. I am all for the opinion that if we disagree with a certain opinion we word it in a polite manner putting our argument across so that it adds to the discussion and doesn’t become an angry personal spat. After all, the writer has the right to post the opinion whether we agree with it or not.
At the same time, if we consider ourselves serious bloggers then the responsibility of managing a discussion falls a little more on our shoulders than the people commenting. Each opinion on an original post should merit respect from the writer unless the writer is just looking for self-validation. After all, the post is meant for an audience and should be designed to spur a dialogue, it is not a royal statement issued to the masses expecting them to nod their heads in agreement. Each negative or positive opinion garnered (provided it falls in the category of polite discourse) could be taken as an engagement on the post, not as an affront to the intellect of the writer.
The problem is, when you do take out time to actually comment on a post there are economies of scale in operation, it is taking you away from many other worthwhile posts you could have learnt from as well. If your opinion is then treated as it doesn’t make an iota of difference to the life and times of the magical author, it does feel like a let-down. You want those ten minutes of your life back.
With true wisdom comes humility that maybe, just maybe we might have said/written something wrong and this goes both for the commenters and the writers. I feel we, as Pakistanis, severely lack the ability to apologise. We hate saying sorry. We will fight to death with our swords out but we will not back down from an argument.
I am writing a fiction series at the moment and whenever someone comments on it, saying it’s great etc. I always ask them did you find anything wrong with it or anything you think should change. This is not because I don’t have confidence in my ability to craft a story or my skill as a writer but because I value their feedback. It feels great if someone actually takes the time to point out my flaws. They are taking their precious time to analyse something I have written and I always consider it a huge compliment.
I have noticed, over the years that I am too humble. I accept that I might be wrong a bit too easily but in my opinion that is not my weakness or inability to stand my ground but a readiness to learn from a different perspective than mine. Even if I feel I am right, and I engage with a differing opinion in a dialogue it teaches me something new. A new perspective of looking at my set view point.
On the other hand, if I put my viewpoint in a glass jar for display, guarding it carefully so no one can shatter it, I am in terrible danger of it rotting away eventually.