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.
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!’
The art of politely disagreeing with someone and ……taking on board criticism as a positive process.
Aristotle said; ‘The more you know, the more you realize 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.
I got lost in its labyrinth prose as my mind dived into the writer’s world. I was a nine year old Pakistani girl and was teleported to Southern America during the Civil War. I remember carrying the faded old bookshop copy of ‘Gone with the wind’ by Margaret Mitchell with me to my mother’s village on a visit and sitting in various nooks reading it, under the shade of the neem tree, in cool dark corners of musty rooms absentmindedly eating firni from earthen potsor sitting on the burning steps bordering the grounds while my brother and the rest of the children played cricket. They would throw dead twigs at me to attract my attention and I was so engrossed that I hardly felt them. ‘At least fetch the ball if you won’t play.’
I am a natural worrier and the best line I took away from this book was the ability of the heroine to relegate a problem to the next day, ‘I’ll think of it tomorrow.’ It helped me because tomorrow the problem was still there but I was a little more stronger to handle it. A little more prepared and a little more ready.
The second book was ‘The secret garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett about a spoilt child’s discovery of a key leading to a hidden garden which changes her personality. The idea of discovering a fertile land to plough in at the whim of my imagination touched a chord and evoked wander. There was a possibility of a different world which could be all mine to flourish in. I could plant flowers and plants in dull mud and create something beautiful even if it was just for my own amusement.
The third one, was ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho, a tale of a boy who travels far and wide for a treasure that is hidden in his back yard all along. It’s wisdom spoke to me and enticed me to travel. As a teenager I wanted to spread my wings, I wanted to discover and explore, mix and mingle, welcome the different and push away the familiar. Travel does that, it broadens your horizons. That is necessary for eventually appreciating what we already have. In order to discover the treasure, one has to be ready to appreciate it. As I grew older and transformed from lead to gold like the process of alchemy, I found that the only treasure in the world worth having – happiness, doesn’t lie in restless pursuits of adventure but in simple warm moments spent in a place you can truly call ‘home’.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am not what you would call an ‘avid’ reader. This piece doesn’t come from my pretentious need to prove how well-read I am. The popular advice is that to become a writer you must read, read and then read some more and I understand the logic of it. For a writer reading is what training is to an athlete. It keeps the mind in shape and fit to create. But for me it’s gets a little more complicated. Books for me are not a buffet. They are a treat. They are sacred. You don’t fall in love with any and every one. If I pick up a book, I want to get lost in it, I want to live a life with it and make it a part of mine. If I pass a book store, I am drawn inside it by an almost a supernatural pull. I cannot resist it’s magnetism. I will pass through it, touch the books lined neatly in the shelves as if paying homage, like the hand of a worshipper touching the bell in a temple as he enters it. Only if a book whispers to me, it speaks it’s silent language and I understand, beyond the marketing gimmick of a well-crafted blurb or an attractive cover image, only then can I commit to it.
A scene from a Drew Barrymore movie, Ever After, throws light on this feeling. Upon entering a massive library Prince Henry offers her, ‘Pick one (a book).’ And Danielle replies, ‘I could no sooner choose a favourite star in the heavens.’
I believe that a book that you are meant to read chooses you because it’s meant to impact you in some way. Every well thought out word harbouring a genuine emotion has a unique power to change your perspective and even your life. It is the wisdom of a life lived through an individual and by reading their thoughts you catch a bit of their soul, which in turn enriches yours.
For this reason, I liked ‘The binding’ by Bridgett Collins because it designates a magical aura to a book. It touted the idea that having a book written about a part of your life can make you forget it. In the process of ‘binding’ you give away your deepest woes, a troubling awful part of your life in exchange for a clean slate. Though the idea itself didn’t appeal, our memories-terrible or beautiful form a part of us, books were not just words on paper-they were magic able to change your life.
It’s the same with writers. I cannot fall in love with any writer who has written a favourite book of mine. Their written word is a part of them but it still doesn’t define them. To fall in love with an author is a different matter altogether. A book, written by an author, I feel is not completely his but his reader’s debt on him waiting to be paid. A child waiting to be born for this world is not the property of his parents. The author cannot help but give birth to it. An author could be a beautiful enlightened soul whom I could fall in love with but his work could fail to inspire me, not because I consider it bad but because it doesn’t talk to me. Arundhati Roy is one such example. I love her for who she, what she stands up for, and generally what she goes about doing in her life but I cannot read her, I cannot relate to her written word.
There have been many love affairs, that have become a part of my soul, like a sprinkling of gold dust that has attached itself to me every time I have read something from cover to cover. The process has made me cry, laugh, smile, and fall in love. In the end, the person writing this piece is not just Salmah Ahmed but an amalgamation of all the writers who’ve generously given me a part of themselves through their written words.
I walked up to my husband with a determined mind. Enough was enough.
Many a times he had been careless about it and many a times I had suffered it’s repercussions and the aftermath. As he frowned intently at the screen of his laptop, one finger about to press send to a work email, I confronted him.
‘From now on you cannot use the B word or the M word in front of our baby.’
My husband’s finger froze in mid-air, email forgotten, and a look of shock spread across his face.
‘Huh? What? I’ve never sworn at you and I can’t imagine swearing in front of her at all!’ he defended himself hotly.
I frowned, taking a step back and then laughed. My husband viewed me with caution as if staring at a volcano which might or might not erupt at any moment.
‘I meant the words – Biscuit or Milk.’ I clarified. ‘She’s begun to recognise words now. She wants both these things any time of the day if you mention it even once. I want her to eat healthy meals not just….’
‘Sal…’ my husband interrupted, his eyes darting from me to baby and then back.
He pointed at her.
It was too late. I turned around to see the baby point dangerously with forceful little shrieks. I was directed by the point to the specific cupboard that had the specific biscuit packet. The rich tea ones she wasn’t supposed to have.
I directed an accusing glare at my husband. He gave me a smug look wagging a finger at me, ‘Shouldn’t have used the B word.’
Introduction: We are all learning to function in a virus ridden world. It’s changed the way we live. In these frightening uncertain times, a dash of humour may help to keep your sanity intact. At least it works for me! Corona Ke Side effects are short humorous write ups detailing how life has changed since the strike of the Big Villain.
The blog is approx. 2000 words and a 7 minute read.
Effect 1: There is a new Big V (Villain) in our lives which leaves Voldemort shuddering.
Three weeks ago in Westfield shopping centre, London (no ‘suggested’ lockdown in the UK then):
Hubby fixing the pram quickly to plonk our crying baby in it as I struggle to keep her occupied with a rattle which she has grown out of now. She is one year old and expects to be taken seriously. She points to objects wanting them to be brought to her like the Queen of England (who at this moment is MIA having been whisked away urgently due to one of her staff members catching ‘you-know-what’).
Well, my baby might as well stand in. She has the royal manners to match and treats us no more than disobedient serfs. As he dilly and dallies with the various knobs and bolts of the complicated pram that might as well be a war machine, I grow impatient. ‘Lower that lever type thingy from there.’
He gives me a superior look and I know what that means. It says, Really? You realise you are talking to an engineer here.
‘Aray, it’s that one.’ I growl at him while my baby points away with her tiny little finger raising her eyebrows at me. I have to comply with explanations, ‘That’s a shop!’
Another aggressive point, ‘Window!’
People turn around to glance at my rude cat calls.
I look at my husband with the same bright smile and monosyllable, ‘Hurry!’
He frowns at me, ‘Why don’t you do it then?’
He’s got the pram dismantled but it’s floppy. ‘There is a pedal thing at the back.’
‘Usko Karo!’ I instruct him as my baby not getting attention now starts crying loudly. He ignores me thinking he knows best.
‘Usko KARO NA! KARO NA!’ I yell over my crying baby, pointing at him huddled behind the pram.
The crowds part, they give us a wide birth, I hear audible gasps and a scream. I look around to see people fleeing from us in all directions. I redden and my husband gets up slowly. ‘Thanks! They all think I’m a confirmed case now.’
Effect 2: Clean, clean, clean, din raat karen hum clean!
I have amped up my cleaning by 200%, scrubbing and disinfecting around the house and sometimes I feel it’s what I do all day long. My baby is an observant little munchkin as most one years old are. She has picked up on the new world order quite quickly. She reaches for her baby wipes with great difficulty even if they’re placed far away from her, picks out a wipe and starts scrubbing the table tops or any surface she can reach thoroughly with her small hands imitating me.
Watching me wash my hands a million times, she follows suit. When her hands get dirty, she shows them to me palms up, even in between meal times, refusing her meal until her hands are clean again. This means wastage of many more wipes which are already in short supply.
The other morning, around 5:30 am, she climbed over me with great difficulty like one climbs K2, trying to get to a tissue box. I pulled her back many times but she was desperate to get it. Finally giving in, I pulled out a tissue and handed it to her, ‘Here, happy?’
She grinned widely and then started scrubbing my face and nose. At 5:30 in the morning.
Effect 3: You long for forbidden pleasures like ……scratching nose.
Why is it that when we are forbidden to do something we want to do it more. I haven’t ever felt like scratching my face, my nose, my forehead and even my mouth as much as I feel like doing it now. Just because I shouldn’t. Just because it’s forbidden.
Normally, I would love the chance of never getting out of house and had to drag myself out, packing the baby bag, getting dressed, making sure baby was fed and changed and it seemed like a long drawn out marathon before getting to the front door; exhausted even before venturing out. However, it had to be done for baby classes, the GP visit or the walk which was good for the baby.
Now, when I cannot do this anyway I should feel thrilled and instead I feel this compulsive need to walk the streets like a lone ranger singing;
‘Corona ke Mausam main…hmmmm….tanhai ke aalam main….hmmm….mein ghar se nikal aya, mask bhi saat laya…Abhi zinda hoon tou jeene do….Saans bhar ke pee lene do ..’
Effect 4: You watch stuff that you wouldn’t even think of in good times prior to 2020.
Watched everything reasonably palatable on Netflix already? No worries- watch cool adverts on you tube!
I was watching an old Pakistani advert today, Dettol Sheron ke panje, 2017, in which children were shown aggressively hand washing, forcing the adults (a little weird but ok) to do so as well and using an antiseptic gel where soap water wasn’t available. Love the lines in there Sher apne panje nahi dhote…answer magar chohe bhi apne panje nahi dhote. And haath kaun dhoye bahut door hai washroom..answer- hospital bhi bahut door hai kahi wahan na jana per jaye. Incredibly far sighted. Dettol knew. Dettol has always been our friend.
Soon, there might be host of antiseptic gel and cleaning spray brand adverts with the cleaning tool featured as a super hero with a cape flying at the back fighting against the biggest evil villain virus of them all. Play superman theme tune. And the Covid-19 red pointy ball quivers in fear in a corner.
Effect 5: Doing things you never did before, from the limited confines of your home, like suddenly taking to tweeting ferociously.
Still bored out of your wits (in between cleaning/home schooling your darlings demons?)-No problem tweet the UK PM, the Mayor and add BBC for the heck of it! Not just once but multiple times every day. Last time, I was this active on twitter was when I was newly pregnant and my hormones were all over the place. Then, I was tweeting away about some fire which broke out in our neighbourhood and the pictures were used in all the leading newspapers. Now, the topic of my tweets is why are some people who can easily work from home not being allowed to?
I was this close to tweeting Shahrukh khan as well asking him what his opinion was on this issue. Imagine, trains are still full, offices are full with the big bad virus roaming free. The UK government guidelines still say ‘IF POSSIBLE, work from home’ which some employers are using as leeway to harass very reluctant staff to make the perilous journey from home via tubes to their office. To update you -my tweets have been royally ignored with zero impact but hey a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do!
Effect 6: Appreciating things and people you never did before.
Doctors have always been revered in Pakistan. The prized hunted bahu is always a doctor and the prized damaad for that matter too. We address them as doctor sahib and try our best to please them. Not so much in UK. GPs and hospital staff are routinely abused and shouted at. It’s so bad that they have posters up in their hospitals and clinics asking staff to be reasonable and not abuse them.
A heart felt message from a doctor in UK, just off his shift was in tears saying that after this is all over he just wants doctors and nurses to be given nothing big but just some respect some extra coffee breaks or free parking space. This was his level of expectation and I cried along with him.
Today, at 8:00pm there was scheduled clapping for NHS workers across the UK from doorsteps, windows etc. As I clapped I felt obliged, proud and grateful to not only the health care workers in UK, but in Pakistan and all over the world. For the first time, I regretted ignoring my mother’s express wish that her daughter should be a doctor.
Moreover, we begin appreciating things we took so much for granted. Like the cleanish air we breathe. The handshakes between colleagues, the hugs between relatives, the kisses to children, the stroll to the market and missing days of cleaning at home because the maasi didn’t turn up.
Effect 7: New thriller-A walk on the wild side.
Our Boris Bhai said between clenched teeth, ‘You are allowed one exercise per day outdoors, alone or with your family members!’ I’ve normally kept myself locked up in the house but as the BBC radio host advised recently in a gentle philosophical tone ‘If you feel yourself climbing up the walls and it’s all getting a bit too much, just get out for a walk for a bit (of course maintaining required distance etc.).’ I gave myself a hard look in the mirror. Crazy yet or crazy not? Would picking a flower in a love me love me not mode prove my madness? I looked around. No flower in sight. It was a non-essential item so why would it be in the house stocked with pastas, rice, daal and kitchen towels. I looked at the walls. While they didn’t look tempting enough to climb up I wanted to give them a kick or two.
I decided I needed a walk. Mindful of maintaining a 2 meters distance between myself and any other brave soul who was out probably doing their quota of one exercise or shopping for necessities. As the saying these days goes ‘Stay six feet apart or go six feet under!’. I needn’t worry. People roaming the streets were as scared as I was and engaging in a little co-ordinated dance. See a human coming down the lane, assess if he is going to cross road to other side, if not you do. I inch towards the road and he does too. It’s all a bit confusing. One of us is sure to die of a car accident before catching something off each other. Finally, he jumps onto the road to avoid me and dashes to the other side narrowly missing a speeding car. I sigh in relief.
A few meters down, I hear footsteps behind me. Egad! Someone is following me. Will they actually cross me? The tension builds up. I speed up, the irritating person behind me speeds up as well. I break into a run crossing the road to the other side. Finally safe! I look around to see who my evil follower was. A woman is pointing at something shiny on the floor. My glittery wallet. Ah shucks! I nod in understanding from the other side and wait for her to leave. I then dash to pick up my wallet which must have slipped out of my coat pocket.
The walk has tensed me more than relaxed me, like being in a moving thriller. Will you bump into someone with the virus today? Will you survive the journey home? On the way back to my house I cross the primary school right on the main road off our street. The school is shut down, deserted and a few drawings made by the toddlers are put up on the fence/hedge with notes to doctors, teachers and postmen thanking them for what they do (Pics attached). It’s the sweetest thing and puts a big smile on my face. There’s a small little drawing saying ‘I hope you are happy at home, learning and keeping safe. Look after yourself.’ Colourful rainbows drawn remind me there is still hope and happiness at the end of this storm.
The walk is suddenly worth it. I used to get irritated at crossing a bunch of screaming/unruly toddlers every day on my way to work and I suddenly realise how much I miss them. I pray they are safe. I pray everyone is safe and healthy. May Allah keep us all in his protection. Inshallah.
P.S. Having put up with me till the end, I thank you and bid you farewell for now. You missed a spot of grease in that corner of your work top right there and I need to go spray the whole house and myself with Dettol water as well.
Image credit: The idealist-FB.
The drawings are by children in a nearby school in my neighbourhood.
You know when they say ‘listen to your parents’. And we never do.
As a child we don’t want to as we don’t have much sense.
As a teenager the urge to rebel is too strong.
As an adult we think we know better.
In fact there is a very narrow window in our lives when we actually call our parents incessantly to ask them for advice.That window is mostly post children when we are in the same boat as them and can relate to them.
My dad has always been what we called a ‘clean machine’. My mum has struggled all her life to tell him to not ‘waste’ tissues to pick up/touch dirty objects that may/may not be infected or ‘waste’ so much soap washing hands religiously.
When we came home from shopping, he would make us wash our hands and any area that was in contact with the germy outdoor world. When we came from the hospital or even the dentist he would make us change our clothes and wash hands or preferably take a shower. Everyone else would tell us germs are good, dirt is good as it builds our immunity. My dad would shake his head and point to the sink.
With the Covid-19 pandemic breaking out and spreading rapidly across the globe, a friend recently asked me forlornly – what will we do? I told her I will just carry on doing what my dad has always told me to do. And hope for the best.
Yes, take the virus seriously as it is spreading fast but please also do the following;
There is a lot of information circulating out there- believe reliable sources and facts not conspiracy theories.
Don’t spiral into panic; as it may effect your mind before it effects your body. Pray or meditate whatever works for you.
Be humane and considerate; Leave some soap/tissues for other people on the shelves as you need them to be clean as well.
Stay at home as much as you can and keep your children with you, limit exposure to big gatherings. Try to work from home if you can.
Above all -keep clean. Clean your hands and surfaces religiously.
As international women’s day approaches, I wanted to quote some women writers who have inspired millions with their wit, wisdom and courage. Quoting only a few of them is difficult because there are so many women out there, some living and some in a better place, who are torch bearers and the reason that a modicum of love and harmony still exists in the world today. They define the spirit of feminism. I’ll start with women who come to my mind first and since I am in love with words, those who give them their due importance.
‘A word after a word after a word is power.’ Margaret Atwood.
‘The words that come out of our mouth do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space, and they will come back to us in due time.’ Elif Shafaq.
In today’s digital world, words have a power that is unprecedented. They can spew hate, be brand ambassadors to misogyny and prejudice creating a world of intolerance. They can also be used to uplift progressive causes and be the precursors of change as they spread their wings to spread love. A typed word sent out, like the written word in eons gone by, now has a power akin to a weapon. We as soldiers just need to know how to use it.
In the words of Atwood again, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
This sentence harks true specially today when the blanket slogan of ‘Mera Jism Meri Marzi’ and a group of women coming out on the streets for a peaceful march to protest against the crimes committed against her person has become a topic of heated debate. Is it right or wrong? Is it vulgarity prompting these women or aligning their views to the west? The slogans appear confused, varied and disjointed, you wander? It’s not the fault of the women scribbling them because the crimes against them have been so varied and so confounding in themselves. There is a story in each billboard, a dark terrible story if someone were only to stop and ask.
This line from Atwood, sitting so far away from our Aurat March, explains why men hold the reins a little tighter around a woman’s neck. We cannot laugh at a superior, can we? Only at an equal. We can joke with an equal, we can mock them but we dare not stare in a superior’s eyes and demand they behave themselves. Men in a misogynistic culture expect women to know their place, that place is not of equality, it’s the same place as their mothers and sisters have and the women before them. ‘A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.’ Atwood. As long as they don’t talk openly about all the abuse they face on a daily basis, they are free to think. That’s progressive. The freedom to think but, ‘As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking.’ Virginia Woolf.
Islamic values are used to make sure women like the colouring of a toddler stays inside the lines. The same Islam vanishes from their vocabulary and line of thought, when they grope women in crowded streets, when they leer at them, rape them, beat them black and blue and finally kill them in spirit and body. Why are women marching, you ask? Because they are afraid that men will kill them one day, they will kill their soul, their spirit, their dignity before they kill their bodies. They cannot articulate what it is they are shouting for. But can we just take heed that they are shouting? They are in agony. Taking notice there is a problem is the least you can do.
The role of media in bringing about change for women is undebatable. Women binge watch TV plays and if a repeated message plays on like persistent advertising with a narrative calling them weak, helpless and put upon, subconsciously they won’t be surprised when it happens to them. Media has the power to open forums of discussions and debate or to cash in on cheap ratings. Of course they can show the ugly truth of our world ‘as is’, putting up their hands helplessly and saying this is exactly what happened or ‘happens’ in our society but they can also open a narrative saying this is how things should happen and let that out as the accepted practice.
A writer that I have admired from a long time, Haseena Moin, says, “I wrote strong female characters that were bold and courageous and could have a good laugh along the way. Today’s plays either show the women to be weak, submissive and oppressed or the conniving home-wrecker. This simplification of complex issues needs to stop.” I grew up watching Tara of Shehzori, Sana of Unkahi, Zara of Tanhaiyaan and Dr. Zoya of Dhoop Kinare and I aspired to be as bold and brave as them, their feet firmly planted on the ground and a humility and humour that could laugh at their own weaknesses but never doubt their inner strength. I look for these characters in vain these days. No matter how strong a female character, it never inspires a dream in me.
Personally, for me there are so many stars that I’ll have to write a novel on all my favourites, some well-known, some unknown and some fictional. For me the brightest of them all is still my mother. Not because she is a saint, has never done anything wrong and I have placed her on a pedestal like we are wont to do with our maters. She is a strong courageous woman, who has lived life on her own terms, has made mistakes, fallen, stood up and marched right ahead with her head held high. My favourite quote from her is, ‘Fall, fail, or weep but never accede to disrespect and final defeat.’
To sum it up, women should set the standard and template of how we need to be treated. ‘I always deserve the best treatment because I never put up with any other.’ Jane Austen. It’s not as simple and we will be mistreated multiple time in the process. As long as we know what the goal is and that goal is clear of how we want to be treated we need to fight towards it. It’s an ongoing war to change mindsets and culture but you only need three weapons to win any war; courage, intelligence and persistence. And I really hope we win this one for our daughters and granddaughters.
Fierce rain beat against the window pane, clawing at it like razor sharp nails and the sound scratched at her brain. Just a few more moments, she pacified herself. Her carer placed her chocolate milkshake by her side, smiled and nodded at her ‘It will be over soon’. She drank it without taking a breath. The gnawing voices in her mind ebbed away as permanent sleep beckoned her kindly. ‘Thank you’ she addressed her carer who placed the empty sleeping pills bottle back in the drawer. The carer sat beside her waiting to hear her breathing halt and when she was as still as a coffin, she pulled her gold chain roughly from her sagging neck, took off the gold bangles from her wrinkled spotted arms and walked out of the room.
Note: This story is based on true events. Some details and names have been changed to maintain privacy.
The Snake Jinn.
Synopsis: A couple, Farah and Arham desperate to have children visit a Pir famous in a small town for controlling Jinns and presenting them in the form of snakes. The snake talks in a human voice and answers questions the visitors ask and prays for them. The couple are required to spend the night in the Pir’s Haveli as the Jinn visits after Fajar prayers. All is not what it seems and they soon discover that the Pir gets a sadistic pleasure in instilling fear in his visitors hearts specially those who defy him. An intrusive question from Farah, irks the Pir who vows to teach her a lesson.
This is approx. 6000 words and a 20 minute read.
Farah wheeled in the tea trolley to the drawing room where someone had cracked a joke and the tinkling of laughter bounced off the walls and mixed with the warm glow of the chandelier overhead. It was the first time after her father in law has been diagnosed with cancer that the home had been blessed with a little happiness. Her father in law’s diagnoses had happened a few days after her marriage and it had affected her relationship with her in laws. She had sometimes caught undertones in conversations of how she was unlucky for the family.
It had been four years since her wedding and they were childless. She suspected the reason was that her husband never spent much time with her because he was stressed most of the time. He slept with his ailing father most nights as he didn’t trust the twenty hour nurse. She didn’t want to put additional demands on him knowing he was already stretched thin. Her father in law had headed the family business and had to step down after his illness and Arham was finding it hard to fit into his shoes. He lacked his father’s business acumen which meant they had gone from profit to loss in a few years with savings rapidly depleting due to the ongoing treatment.
She smiled with relief at the temporary lifting of perpetual clouds of sorrow in their house. Arham’s cousin and his wife had travelled to Lahore for a wedding from Islamabad and were staying with them for the night. ‘Oh ho, you shouldn’t have bothered Bhabhi, after such a lavish dinner, there is no space in my tummy for these puddings and pastries!’ Arham’s cousin, Monib remarked.
‘Then you can have green tea, bhai.’ Farah smiled at him.
‘That serves him right. I think he was counting on you to insist that he must have the sweets.’ His wife, Sarah teased her husband.
Arham directed a frown at Farah. ‘Please, don’t take it the wrong way. You must have the sweets Monib!’
‘You can spoil him if you want but he has to deal with his weight issues.’ Sarah laughed looking pointedly at his bulging middle.
‘What? This is just the fitting of my shirt. I have a six pack beneath this.’ Monib said patting his belly.
‘Yes, I am sure, just like Salman Khan right?’ His wife joked. Arham laughed and Farah stopped pouring the tea to look at him. She had missed that sound.
‘Aray, better than him. I am much younger.’
Farah looked wistfully at the interaction between the spouses. It was flowing so easily. She was envious of it. She hardly exchanged two lines with her husband the whole day.
‘I am not joking. You have to be fit, you’ll soon be a father.’
‘Congratulations Sarah!’ Farah came to sit next to Sarah. She didn’t know she was pregnant. She knew they had been married for a long time as well, almost five years and this was their first pregnancy.
‘Thank you,’ she replied taking the cup of tea from her.
‘Can I ask, did you seek any treatment for it?’ Farah couldn’t help asking, her face reddening. It was a private question but she was desperate to get pregnant herself. Maybe that would be the one thing that changed the dynamics of her relationship.
Sarah smiled brightly. ‘We didn’t have any medical problems at all. That’s what the doctors kept telling us but then we recently……’ Sarah went quiet and stole a glance at her husband. Her husband looked at her with raised eyebrows.
‘Should we tell them about Atharan Hazari?’
For a moment Monib grew serious, all mirth wiped off his face then he shrugged lightly, his expression lightening again. ‘Yes, why not? Maybe they can benefit from it as well.’
‘What is Atharan Hazari?’ Arham asked Monib.
‘It’s a place where this famous Pir lives. His name is Jamal. He is well known in the area and lots of people visit him to ask about their fortune or to pray for them. If I hadn’t seen it myself I wouldn’t have believed it either. This Pir has Jinns under his control and he presents them in snake form to people who visit him. The snake talks to you in a human voice and answers whatever questions you have.’
‘What?’ Arham smirked in disbelief.
‘I am serious, yar! We heard of him from some family friends and went to see him. He told his Jinn to pray for us. I don’t know whether it was coincidence or not but we got pregnant a few months afterwards. His Jinn only visits him after Fajar prayers so he asks the visitors to spend the night in his Haveli. This guy doesn’t look like it but he seems loaded with money, his haveli must have at least fifty rooms.’
‘Really? How does he do it?’ Arham regarded his cousin thoughtfully.
‘By the ancient art of ventriloquism,’ Farah interrupted in an amused tone.
‘Not everything is a joke, Farah,’ Arham told her.
Farah was getting an uneasy feeling at where the conversation had gone. ‘I don’t believe in all this. Humans are above Jinns in status so why would Allah listen to a Jinn’s prayers?’
The severity with which Farah spoke caused everyone to look at her. ‘You are right Bhabhi,’ Monib said quietly. ‘Allah is the only one who grants wishes but when a person is desperate they try different avenues, they ask many people to pray for them just for peace of mind, you know?’
Farah glanced at her husband who was still deep in thought. Monib looked at his wife. ‘I think my wife looks tired and we should retire before she starts feeling faint.’
Arham got up immediately, ‘Yes, sure! Farah please show them their rooms and please let us know if you need anything at night.’
Later that night, when Farah came out of the washroom she saw her husband sitting on their bed staring into space. She sat next to him and placed a hand on his arm. ‘Can I get you anything?’ she asked softly. Arham shook his head and as she was about to get up he caught her hand and pulled her gently back down. ‘We should try it, you know?’ Arham looked at her intently.
‘Try what?’ she asked.
‘The Atharan Hazari Pir.’ Farah shook her head.
‘What are you talking about? Illiterate people go to such Pirs and Fakirs.’
‘Why do you always have to have an opinion about everything. Why can’t you just go along with me for once.’
She knew he meant she had not wanted to go for IVF. According to her and the doctors there was no need for it. They had to just keep trying. It was an invasive and costly procedure and they were short of money anyway. She had argued with him if he wanted a child right away they could adopt the millions of unfortunate children who lived a life of destitution because they didn’t have a home. Farah looked away from him. It was the first time she had seen him alive and cheerful. And now there was something new, a hope in his face. He turned to catch her hand again, a little too tightly.
‘It’s not only for us. I can ask about my dad as well. Maybe he could….help.’
Farah turned to stare at him biting back the retorts that came to her lips. She understood how the business of hope and fear was the biggest money generator for such imposters but she didn’t have the heart to argue with him and to crush his hope. Besides what would happen if they paid this imposter a visit, nothing would change and they would lose some more money? That was happening anyway.
‘Alright,’ Farah gave in. Arham let out a satisfied sigh and switched off his bedside lamp. He started snoring peacefully almost immediately. Farah got inside the covers of their bed but lay awake for a while staring at the revolving fan overhead.
A few days later, Arham and Farah were on the road to Atharan Hazari. Arham had insisted they go there sooner than later. He had talked to the Pir, Jamal on the phone and had told Farah how respectful and decent the man had sounded. He had told him that he would consider it an honour if they spent the night in his Haveli.
Farah yawned, glancing at her watch which showed 10:30 pm, and then returned her gaze to the spotlighted vision of the grey road illuminated in front of them from the headlights of their speeding car. She had been busy with her household chores and her husband had been in office all day and as soon as he had come home they had got ready and headed out in their car. A few yellow street lights lit up small patches of the long stretch of gravel. She wandered if it was difficult for him to drive like this. The tunnel vision of the road gave her an eerie feeling and she turned her face to look out of the window at the deserted fields either side of the road. A few lonely trees glowed against a dull moonlit sky in the distance. Their arms stuck out awkwardly as if telling her urgently to stop and head back.
She opened her eyes wide, struggling to keep herself awake and stole a quick glance at her husband at the wheel. She saw him yawn as well and remembered the saying about them being contagious.
‘You caught it from me!’ she smiled at him.
‘Caught what?’ he asked her. He hadn’t noticed her yawn. ‘Don’t distract me from driving.’ He was tense. She could tell the way he clutched the steering wheel.
‘It’s not safe to drive when you are feeling sleepy.’
‘Should I remind you why we are driving at night? We don’t have a choice in the matter.’
The reprimand silenced her and she reclined against the seat wanting to disappear inside it. The warmth of the balmy night and the boredom of silence finally pushed her into slumber.
Farah didn’t know when she had dozed off when a sudden jerk and a loud screeching noise woke her up with a start. She heard her husband swearing beside her. She found he had exited the car slamming the door behind him and was staring at something on the road in front of the car. ‘What happened?’ she exclaimed as she got out of the car hurriedly running to him. She stepped back as soon as she was near him, her hand covering her mouth. She tried to push back the sick in her throat. A milky white goat was lying injured on the road. He was convulsing as blood spilled out of his neck where the front of the car had slammed into it.
‘How could you have not seen it……’ she shouted at him impulsively and then stepped back as her husband took a few angry steps towards her. Something changed in his demeaner as he saw her panic and he ran his fingers through his hair. He turned to face the road in front of him.
‘It’s my fault. I fell asleep at the wheel.’ He confided in a small voice. ‘You were right.’ Farah’s tense muscles relaxed as she realised this was the first time he had given her credit for anything. She was still finding it hard to have a conversation in front of a dying goat.
‘Can we help it?’ she asked looking from him to the goat. Arham rolled his eyes at her. ‘How? Are you a vet?
‘We could find a nearby residence of a farmer, they might know what to do.’
‘You want me to wade through these fields to find a farmer?’ Arham asked incredoulsy.
Farah bit her lip. ‘We could take it to this Jamal’s house, he could…’ Arham shook his head at her.
‘Yes, we’ll tell him to pray for our dying hope, my dying dad and this dying goat all at once.’ Tears sprang up to Farah’s eyes. ‘Let’s move it to the side of the road at least?’ Farah pleaded. Arham sighed and nodded.
‘Wait.’ Farah cried. She took off her red veil and tied the bleeding neck of the goat tightly with it. Arham dragged the goat off the road panting with the effort.
‘Get back in the car.’ He ordered dusting his hands. She noticed his shirt and sleeves were stained with blood in a few places now. Glancing at the goat one last time, she offered a silent apology to it. It’s eyes were glazed over in pain counting it’s last shallow breaths. As the car started and splashed through the blood on the road, Farah’s heart froze as she saw the goat through her rear view mirror stand up gracefully from the side of the road with her red veil flying in the wind, look straight at her for a moment, shake it’s head forcefully as if to say NO and then disappear. She swung towards her husband clutching his arm in fright and he jerked her hand away roughly. ‘What are you trying to do? Make me have another accident?’ Farah took a sharp breath in and turned again to look back through the window. She couldn’t see the goat this time. She wandered how she had seen him before as the road behind her was bathed in darkness now. She must still be in shock. Her husband had started talking on his mobile phone.
‘…… yes Jamal saab, we are on our way. Just wanted to know which street to take the turn, ok….right…thank you, we’ll see you soon.’
The car turned sharply into a narrow street off the main road and dust splashed upwards like a storm. Farah held on to the door handle. ‘It looks quite deserted here.’ She strained to see any sign of civilisation but there were no houses or lights. She couldn’t even make out the trees anymore and wandered where the moon had hidden. All she could see was the mud path in front of them leading to deeper darkness. Farah swallowed. ‘Arham?’ He was still glancing at the messages on his phone. He finally looked at her fleetingly.
‘Hmmm, ok now, don’t talk unnecessarily as you have a habit of doing once we are there. You know women are not supposed to be so forward in such small towns. And please cover yourself properly with your shawl.’
Farah nodded but her heart had started beating fast. A sudden premonition was pulsing inside her, growing bigger the longer they drove.
Farah finally noticed a small lamp floating in mid-air a little distance away from her. She rubbed her eyes and then as they neared the lamp she saw a tea vendor stall. Her husband slowed the car and brought it to a halt near the vendor. He lowered his window and called out to him. The vendor was seated on the stool and took his time leisurely walking up to the car, his hand holding the oil lamp. He was wiry thin with sharp glittering eyes constantly on the move. In the darkness his colour appeared a sickly grey. ‘Do you want some tea Sahib?’ the vendor asked with a grin showing his yellow crooked teeth stained with betel leaves.
‘No, I simply want to know am I on the right way to Jamal Pir’s Haveli?’
The vendor smiled, his eyes wandered to Farah. ‘Yes, you are Sahib. Follow this road and you’ll soon see the haveli. Sahib, why are you going there?’
Arham snapped his finger at the vendor, ‘Hey, look at me when you are talking. It’s none of your business. A lot of people go there to consult him, isn’t that true?’
The vendor nodded his eyes still darting to Farah. ‘Sure, they do Sahib. But you don’t look like the type who would visit there. I don’t think…..’
‘It doesn’t matter what you think…’ Arham cut him short. He started the ignition of the car. Farah looked at the vendor who was still staring at her. The car sped forward and the vendor and his stall disappeared except for the floating oil lamp.
Arham slowed the car as he saw the massive iron gate and brick wall that bordered the Haveli. A massive stone and brick structure jutted out from behind it. It had arched windows which threw shadows across each other in the moonlight. The gate was opened by a watchman and the car entered the driveway and parked. Farah looked around. Beside the driveway was a cemented courtyard surrounded with ancient trees. She wrapped her white shawl tightly around her head and covered her body properly. Arham and Farah were accompanied to the courtyard by the watchman who introduced them to an ordinary looking man wearing a black shalwar kameez. ‘This is Pir Sahib.’
‘Welcome, welcome.’ The man who appeared to be in his mid-forties, stepped forward the epitome of hospitality. He was clean shaven and had thick black hair. ‘I was waiting here for you since your call as I wanted to receive you in person. Please come this way.’ Farah was surprised. The man’s appearance and manner was simple and humble and not what she was expecting.
Jamal directed them inside the main section of the Haveli which was where his family lived. They entered a spacious living room and a dining area adjacent to it with dated furniture. When they were seated he asked Arham to tell him little about himself. When he asked about his caste and Arham replied that he was a Sheikh but his wife was Sayed (direct descendants from the holy prophet PBUH), the man turned to look at Farah bowing his head slightly with one hand on his heart as a sign of respect. ‘Sister, I have deep respect for Sayeds and I am honoured that I am your host.’
‘I have heard from my cousin that you control Jinns and they answer questions for your visitors.’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘The Jinn appears as a snake and speaks itself when asked questions?’
‘I choose whatever form I want it to appear in. I want it to appear as a snake so it does. It is my servant and does what I ask of it.’
‘How did you get into this practice?’ Arham asked curiously.
‘I had to work really hard to rise to this position. I went to Bengal and learnt from the masters. I did Chillas -the spiritual practice of meditation and fasting for forty days on land and even in the shores of the Arabian sea. I have been tested and have gone through torture of body and soul. My will had to be rock solid. Not everyone can do it.’ He said smiling.
‘But why did you choose to go through it then?’
‘To help unfortunate people in need. If I can help them get relief from their worries I feel my troubles weren’t in vain.’
‘Why do you choose snake as the form for your Jinn to appear in?’ Farah asked unable to stop herself. Jamal looked at her surprised as if he had expected her to be mute and Arham frowned at her. He had told her to remain silent and she had disobeyed him again. Farah felt she had to intervene as Arham was taking a keen interest and actually believing this imposter’s lies.
Jamal stared at Farah for a moment and then smiled. ‘To instil fear.’
‘I thought your purpose was to help people?’
‘Fear is linked to power and power to respect and obedience. You cannot make people respect you unless they fear you a bit.’
‘And if the people who visit you are so senseless with fear they are unable to achieve their purpose. You have chosen a form that makes them uneasy to begin with so they lose their ability to think and are intimidated by you.’
Jamal shook his head, ‘The visitors know that it’s not a real snake and has no ability to bite or harm them. I make that very clear. It’s a Jinn under my control and does nothing if I don’t want it to.’
‘Then why not choose a bird or a cat?’
‘Farah!’ Arham whispered urgently to shut her up.
Jamal laughed and turned to Arham. ‘I think your Sayed wife is very scared of snakes.’
Farah gave him a cold look. ‘I am neither scared of your Jinn, your snakes or whatever tricks you use to intimidate illiterate people. Yes, I am from a Sayed family and it is our belief that these beings cannot harm us. They are scared of us.’ She told him proudly looking him squarely in the eye.
Jamal smiled knowingly and looked back at her intently, ‘Really sister, you are sure?’
‘Yes.’ Farah answered. Jamal nodded still smiling.
The food was served in the dining area by Jamal’s second wife. Farah noticed something odd about her but couldn’t quite understand what it was. Half her face was covered with a veil but she could see big round lifeless eyes and a round doll like face that had almost plastic like skin stretched over it. She avoided making eye contact with anyone and kept her face down while serving dinner but did not join them for the meal. It was nearly 12am and after dinner, Jamal directed them through a corridor into a sparsely furnished bedroom. There were two single beds in the room at opposite ends to each other, a cupboard and a dressing table. They were on the ground floor and the door to all the rooms opened to the courtyard. ‘Sister, we’ll wake you in the morning for Fajar prayers.’
Farah paled and turned around sharply to face Jamal. ‘What do you mean? My husband will sleep here with me.’
Arham turned to Jamal, ‘We were under the impression that we would share a room?’
Jamal shook his head firmly. ‘That’s not possible. This is my private house. My wife, daughter and sisters sleep in the rooms adjacent to each other. A strange man like yourself cannot enter and sleep in these premises. I will escort you to the guest rooms where all the visiting men sleep. At the same time I cannot allow your wife to sleep in the guest house as there are many strange men there and I don’t want to take responsibility of what might go wrong, you see.’
Farah held on to Arham’s arm in panic. ‘I refuse to sleep here alone.’
‘No problem. I will fetch my daughter. She will come and sleep with you.’ Jamal assured her and walked out of the room. Upon re-entering the room he was directing a teenage girl who was so drowsy that upon entering she lay on the bed nearest to her and went to sleep.
Arham turned to Farah, ‘Look, he does make sense. There is nothing to worry about. Just call me if you need anything, ok?’
‘It’s settled then. Come Arham saab, let me show you to your room.’ The men exited the room closing the door behind them. Farah looked around. The teenage girl was now snoring lightly and the only other bed didn’t have a quilt on it. It just had a mattress, sheet and a pillow. She was thankful it wasn’t winter. She sat down on the bed heavily. An uneasy feeling was growing from the pit of her stomach and clutching her heart with ice cold fingers. She jumped a little when she heard a knock on the door. Praying it would be Arham she ran to the door and swung it open to find Jamal standing there. She stepped back in alarm. She had left her purse with her mobile on the bed. She could run to speed dial him.
‘You look frightened already, sister. I just came to check if everything is ok?’
Farah pulled herself up to her full height. She was determined not to show him any sign of her fear. ‘No, I am fine.’ She lied bravely.
‘Are you sure you aren’t feeling scared yet?’ Jamal smiled looking into her eyes.
‘I am sure. I want to rest now. You may leave.’ Farah told him coldly as if addressing an inferior.
‘Very well. I wish you a very good sleep.’ He told her, bowing mockingly and closing the door behind him.
An unknown fear had gripped Farah now. She knew something bad would happen to her but she didn’t know what. She lay down on the bed and instinctively cocooned herself with her white shawl from her head to her toes turning the edges of the shawl inwards so no part of her body was left exposed as if it was a shield. She shut her eyes tightly knowing something evil was about to happen. Within minutes of her covering herself like this, she felt something wriggling on top of her body and she knew it was his snake. She cursed Jamal in her heart. She had challenged him with her defiance and he was now proving that he could scare her. At first Farah’s mind and body froze with terror and then a Surah came to her lips automatically. She began reciting it with fervour. It was Surah Nas. She recited it from 12am to 5:00am and the snake kept wriggling all over her body covered with the shawl until the Fajar Azan resounded and the ordeal ended. Farah lay numb under her shawl unable to move. Her mouth was dry and her head was throbbing. A knock sounded on the door and it broke her terrorised stupor. She ran to the door and opened it to find Jamal and her husband standing there. Arham stepped forward and placed a hand on her shoulder. ‘Are you alright? You look pale.’ The colour was drained out of Farah’s face and her eyes were red.
Jamal stepped forward, ‘So, I hope you didn’t get scared, my esteemed Sayed sister?’
Farah took a step forward and raised her chin. ‘No.’ she replied shakily, ‘There was nothing to get scared about.’ She tried to keep her expression neutral and calm.
‘After you say your Fajar prayers, breakfast will be served in the dining room and then we can convene for what you are really here for.’ Jamal informed Arham.
When Arham and Farah were alone, Arham hugged her. Farah buried her face in his chest. ‘How could you leave me alone here?’ she asked him in hurt voice.
‘I didn’t. I was sitting outside this room the whole night. Come I’ll show you.’ He took her to the window which was open for fresh air. She looked out to see the courtyard and a neem tree in the middle of it she hadn’t noticed before. ‘I was seated under that tree the whole night to keep watch over this room. I thought there was something suspicious about this man so I didn’t want to leave you alone. I was waiting to see if he entered your room or if I heard you call for help I would come in. Hey, look at me, did something happen?’
Farah continued looking at the neem tree. ‘Not what you think. Let’s get this over with and get out of here.’
Shortly after Fajar prayers and breakfast, the couple were seated on a woven mat on the floor in a small room with no furniture except a low chair placed opposite them where Jamal was seated. There was a cupboard built into the wall and a single window in the room. It was the place where he summoned his Jinn. Farah had once again taken great care to cover her body with her white shawl.
Jamal asked Arham to check the lock on the cupboard and the window and make sure it was bolted tight. Arham got up and checked the locks. They were tightly closed.
‘When my Jinn enters this room, the locks will open by themselves. That is the sign the Jinn has entered the room. He will climb on each of you in order to get to know you so that he can answer your questions.’
Farah intervened, ‘No, I wouldn’t like the snake to come near me. Please ask him not to. I wouldn’t like to ask him any questions about myself anyway.’
‘As you wish,’ Jamal acceded smiling.
Jamal closed his eyes and started muttering something. A few moments later, a sharp sound resounded across the room of locks opening one after another. Farah was the first to see a black slithering mass on the mat next to Jamal. It’s shape wasn’t like a normal snake. It was lumpy and jelly like. ‘Salam Baba ji.’ He addressed the snake. ‘These people have come to pay you a visit.’ A child like voice emanated from the snake. Farah couldn’t decipher it clearly but it seemed like the snake had responded to him. ‘If you want you can give Baba ji a tip of your choice. Hold the money high above your head and he will take it from you.’
Arham fished around in his wallet for a 1000 rupee note. While he was busy, Farah noticed a speedy movement as if smoke drifting towards her and then a massive weight on her left shoulder. She turned her face away so she couldn’t see the creature but she could see it’s tail lying in her lap from the corner of her eyes. She tried her best to control the vomit rising in her throat. Arham had fished out the money now and held it above his head and snake leapt forward to grab it like a flash of black lightning. It climbed over Arham, then slithered down and was soon back at it’s place near the pir.
‘My father is quite sick, he has cancer. He is undergoing the best treatment money can buy. Will he be cured, will the cancer recede?’
The snake spoke in the same child-like voice. ‘He won’t survive for long. His days are numbered.’
‘My wife and I are trying for children, will we conceive soon?’ Arham asked.
Farah had averted her eyes away from the snake and the pir. She didn’t want to be part of this sick scene anymore. She had no interest in the Jinn’s answers. She wanted to get up and walk out and was counting the minutes.
‘You will have children but not from the woman beside you.’
Arham grew silent for a few minutes as if digesting this information.
Noticing the disappointment in Arham’s face, Jamal interrupted, ‘Any more questions?’
‘No,’ Arham shook his head. ‘Can you ask it…..him to pray for what we want?’
‘Yes of course, he always prays for the hidden desires in your heart. He knows what they are as soon as he makes physical contact with you. Babaji, please pray that this couple has children and the father recovers from his illness.’
The snake whispered something inaudible and fell silent.
‘Well, then Babaji will take his leave now. If you want to give him a parting tip you can hold it over your head again as before.’
Arham held out another 1000 rupee note. The snake darted towards him like black smoke, the note was snatched from his hand and the snake disappeared from the room.
‘Well, I hope you are satisfied with your visit?’ Jamal asked amiably.
Arham raised himself, helping Farah up. ‘Thank you for your hospitality.’
Jamal got up from his chair, ‘No problem at all. We consider guests like family. Feel free to come here any time you want.’
Arham nodded and turned towards the door holding Farah’s hand.
‘One more thing,’ Jamal interrupted. ‘Drive back carefully. We don’t want you to have another accident.’ He smiled.
Farah turned to face him. His eyes gleamed in the dim lamps of the room and she thought the lighting was tricking her but for a moment the reflection in his eyes was enhanced and she could see the white goat with her red veil flying in the wind. She shuddered.
‘Yes, I’ll be careful.’ Arham said and walked out of the room hastily. Walking towards the car, he turned to Farah, ‘I don’t remember telling him about our accident, did I mention it?’
‘No.’ Farah answered looking straight ahead. They got in the car and Arham started the engine. In the rear view mirror, they saw Jamal who had come out to courtyard waving goodbye.
When they were out of the house and a long way down the road, Arham whistled in relief. ‘What a weird night.’ Farah was silent. Dawn had broken through the folds of the sky and brilliant hues of pink and gold stained the distant horizon. The light was still soft and the air smelt of fragrant dew drops on wet grass. They passed the tea vendor who waved to them. Arham slowed the car down as he passed him. ‘This isn’t the same guy as last night.’ The vendor was a teenage boy who ran to greet them as the car slowed down, ‘Saab, would you like some tea?’ he asked eagerly.
‘Uh, no. Does your father mind the stall at night?’ Arham asked.
‘No, Saab, my father passed away an year ago.’
‘We saw someone minding this stall last night around 11pm.’
‘That’s impossible, Saab. I shut the stall down after maghrib prayers. I feel scared of all the Jinns around these parts. My father never minded the stall. He was a servant in Jamal Pir’s Haveli. I started this stall as a source of income after he died. I have a large family to feed, five younger siblings.’
Arham looked at Farah who was still quite and staring ahead.
‘That’s strange.’ Arham remarked.
‘No, but here is some money anyway.’ Arham offered him three 1000 rupee notes.
‘Thank you Saab, but this is a lot of money.’ The boy said surprised.
‘It’s alright keep it. Pray for us.’
‘Sure Saab, may Allah give you whatever you want provided it’s good for you.’
Arham stared at the boy. ‘Why did you say if it’s good for you?’
‘My mother says, sometimes Allah withholds something from us that we really want because he knows it’s not good for us. Obtaining it will cause us grave sorrow that we might not be able to handle.’
Arham nodded thoughtfully and patted the boy’s shoulder. ‘You are a good boy. My advice is set up your stall somewhere else.’
‘I know Saab, there are so many visitors to the Haveli that I make good money. But you’re right, I’ve seen strange things happening here.’
Arham drove on. A few miles down the highway he remarked. ‘There is no sign of that goat or the blood. Someone must have helped the animal after all.’
‘It wasn’t real.’ Farah spoke finally, her voice hoarse as if she had a sour throat.
‘The goat, the tea vendor last night, all of it…’
Arham glanced at Farah, ‘Are you feeling alright?’
Farah turned to face him finally, ‘Yes. I am feeling better.’ Her expression was blank as if all her emotions had been exhausted.
‘I just want you to know what the Jinn said back there…about us having children. I didn’t believe him, not about us and not about my dad, ok? I was a fool to visit this place and I am sorry for putting you through this unpleasantness.’
Farah smiled at her husband, ‘Why did you give the tea vendor more money than you gave the Jinn?’
Arham smiled sheepishly, ‘I was trying to redeem myself. He was more worthy of our kindness, he had a pure heart and his prayers have more of a chance of being heard.’
‘That was nice of you.’ Farah looked out of the window.
‘I know there is a but waiting to come out.’ Farah looked at him.
‘Have you tried praying yourself? When was the last time you prayed without someone forcing you to do it?’
Arham fell silent and stared at the road ahead. She was right. He checked the time on his watch. He would reach home before Zuhr prayers and would start from today. Even if his prayers were not answered he was sure he would obtain inner peace.