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 dearest friend 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.
‘The reluctant fundamentalist’ was on my TBR for a long time. However, when a book gains iconic status it becomes somehow less enticing because of its abundant, in your face accessibility, it doesn’t sparkle like a rare, hidden gem waiting to be discovered.
This is not a lengthy book and I finished it in two sittings. Hamid delivers formal, archaic prose as the only voice of a twenty-something university lecturer Changez. Changez accosts an American seated in a Lahori café, and proceeds to enamour him, and us, with his tale of love and loss in the land of abundance and opportunity. The American he chooses to confide his story in, is fidgety, distracted and more interested in the delicious food (perhaps the novel’s only wholesome aspect), but all this doesn’t bother Changez who religiously pivots back to his grim story that only reveals his motives as more ignoble as it progresses. After graduating from Princeton, Changez embarks on a highflying financial career, and begins his courtship of a rich American society belle. After the 9/11 attacks, he is inundated with feelings of inadequacy and betrayal both from the country and woman of his dreams.
An interview with Mohsin Hamid in 2007 with New York Times reads more like a FBI interrogation, as the interviewer either with a cheeky, familiar repertoire, or hostile suspicion (I fail to comprehend) quizzes Hamid thus:
‘I don’t think I can trust you.’
‘Is this how you felt when the towers fell?’
‘Why did you choose to silence the American in the novel?’
‘But no one is silencing you. To the contrary, you’re scheduled to visit Miami and Cambridge and Washington this week to promote a novel of which there are already more than 100,000 copies out there.’
Hamid bats her grilling mildly and amiably, and I wonder how he doesn’t get offended. Did his publicists prepare him for this reaction?
This is a discussion with a prominent, best-selling fiction author whose book was short-listed for the Booker prize. We’re in 2022, and the same prejudice and fear of Muslims and Pakistan prevails at a global level. If Hamid’s objective was explaining his protagonist’s feelings of resentment to America, it doesn’t seem to have succeeded. Some western readers dismiss Pakistanis as a mass of highly ‘un-reluctant’ fundamentalists with a government at its helm that refuses to do anything to quash those sentiments (Guardian 2012 book review of TRF). Others lift an eyebrow at this narrative where the protagonist smiles as the towers fall on TV, with a told you so! Most others, do not care, like most of us are shrouded in casual, routine apathy, unless these global events directly impact us in some way. I believe we bestow trust and merit to those who earn it, despite their race, creed and nationality, and that’s how it should be.
Do I relate to Hamid’s protagonists? The answer is no. Hamid himself is a Princeton graduate who does not harbour these feelings of resentment and has never abandoned his life and career in his country of choice. But if this is not the narrative for the average, affluent, highly educated Pakistani, then I wonder is it possible for anyone, even the average, poor, illiterate Pakistani to look at a scene of brutal, carnage of working class civilians and smile in pleasure, unless their heart is inked in evil or they’re the spawn of Lucifer (handsome though he is in his movie avatar)? Then who does this voice belong to – a minute fraction of Pakistanis brainwashed by convoluted ideology since infancy or the outsider mainstream media perception of Pakistan?
I feel the protagonist is guilty of the same logic he accuses America and his lover of, that of living in a glorious self-righteous nostalgia and a concept of his peoples’ (Muslims) former grandeur. Is it time to step out of that illusion of past glory, and start acknowledging, building and representing an urgent present, that is much more complex than what conveniently corroborates stereotypes?
On their wedding night, in a hotel suite, a fighting couple headed for divorce, discover a suitcase in the closet with a dead body inside. What happens next?
This is a work of fiction and a murder mystery but the inspiration comes roughly from a newspaper report of a fire breaking out in Regent Plaza hotel, Karachi in 2016.
This is a 5000 word short story and a 17 minute read.
Sonia stepped inside the room of the luxury hotel bridal suite. She looked around at the two towel doves pecking one another, rose petals strewn in a heart shape on the white cotton sheets and flower bouquets placed artfully around the room. She bent her head shyly walking forward, daintily holding on to her traditional red and gold heavy embroidered gown. The weight of her embroidered veil was pushing down on the her elaborate hair do but she tried to keep her neck gracefully straight. When she had reached the centre of the room she hesitated undecided what to do next. She turned around to look back at Bilal, her husband. He was looking handsome in his cream and gold shervani. She remembered the remarks of her relatives earlier that night telling her how lucky she was. Her cousins commented on his looks, the aunties exclaimed how rich he was and all of them wanted to know how she had caught him as if he was some rare kind of fish. When she explained that he had pursued her and convinced her to marry him they refused to believe her. Looking at him now she knew they were right. She was lucky. All her prayers of a happy life had been answered.
He had been standing still watching her and now he came closer, smiling. She smiled back at him coyly. He leaned forward and whispered in her ear, ‘You look lovely tonight.’ His tone was soft, like petals brushing against skin and then with equal softness he added, ‘A lovely little moron.’ She pulled back from him startled. He laughed derisively at her shocked expression. ‘You really thought I would marry someone like you for love, and especially after what you did?’
‘What do you mean someone like me?’ she asked, her expression crestfallen.
He looked at her deliberately from head to toe. ‘Someone so ordinary.’ She stepped back as if he had taken a fling at her. Noticing her hurt look he put up his hands. ‘Look, you are alright but not enough to tempt someone like me into spending my whole life with you.’ He finished his analyses dispassionately.
‘Why did you marry me then?’ she asked genuinely confused. She turned around to look at the beautiful hotel room waiting for clowns to jump out from behind the curtains. Was this his idea of a practical joke? Did he have a twisted sense of humour?
‘For revenge. Tomorrow morning I will divorce you.’ He told her calmly. There was a finality in his tone.
‘Revenge, for what?’ she stammered still processing the information in her brain.
‘You are dumber than I thought. For insulting me in front of my friends. You slapped me remember?’
‘That’s because your friends and you were eve teasing my friend.’
‘So, what? She was hot, and a woman should know better than to take on men otherwise there are consequences. You remember what you said that day in your little tirade?’
She strained to remember but she couldn’t. It seemed so long ago. A lifetime back.
‘You said “No self-respecting woman would marry or fall in love with someone like me.” Well, here you are. After what you said that day, my friends challenged me to a bet to shatter your inflated ego.’
‘So your apology and your confessions of love were fake. You were just pretending to go to the mosque with my father every day to be a better man?’
‘Great, one point for finally getting it.’ He shrugged and turned to pick up the room menu. She swayed where she was standing. Her father was a heart patient and she had three unmarried sisters all younger than her. What would a divorce mean to her family? She couldn’t think of that right now. Shock was rapidly ebbing away from her brain and fury was settling in.
‘You think you can trick me into…….. you won’t get your way with me tonight,’ she yelled at him angrily, ‘I am leaving right now and if you try to stop me, I….’ she faltered. He raised his eyebrows curiously. ‘I will kick your balls so hard you…’
He raised a hand. ‘I get the picture. You can stay , you can leave, I don’t really give a bat’s wing.’ He turned his attention to the menu card. His disinterest added further insult to her injury. ‘Anyhow, I am ordering the chef’s special club sandwich with the thick fries. If you plan to stay you can tell me what you would like now?’ he asked her politely. She stared at him. She wondered whether he was unhinged.
Wiping the sweat off her forehead, she realised she was feeling faint and needed to get out of the heavy dress that was now suffocating her. She pulled open the zip of her bag, pushing the revealing night gowns impatiently aside to take out the plainest dress she could find. It was bright pink with dull gold embroidery all over it. She frowned at it but she realised it would have to do for now. She also fished out her vanity case and stormed into the bathroom locking the door firmly. She roughly pulled at the hundred pins in her hair and an equal number of safety pins to keep her bridal veil in place. Her friend, the same one who she had stood up for, had whispered mischievously in her ear before she stepped out of her house, ‘Take his help with undressing. You will never get out of all this alone.’
Thanks Mariam, she thought bitterly, why couldn’t you have slapped him yourself, then you would be here instead of me. The same instant she felt thick guilt rise up like bile in her throat. She couldn’t wish this fate on an enemy let alone her friend. He was right, she was a moron for not seeing through him. It had taken him just two months to convince her and her family for marriage. When her hair and her dress remained intact, despite her pulling and tugging, she sank down to the spotless marble floor and buried her face in her hands. Hot tears rose to her eyes but she pushed them back. She would not give that bastard the satisfaction of making her weep.
With great effort she pulled herself up and splashed cold water on her face. She pulled open the vanity box and saw large scissors peeping out of it. She cut open her dress callously with them until she could finally wriggle out of it. She walked into the shower. Her elaborate hairdo disintegrated in the hot water and she pulled out the pins with ease. She felt calmer as the warm water washed over her. She decided she was quite safe in the room with that man. She didn’t want to call him her husband anymore. He wasn’t interested in her. Tomorrow morning she would go home and explain what had happened. She wanted to delay the ordeal her family would have to go through. She dressed herself hurriedly, towelling her hair dry and leaving them loose. There wasn’t a trace left of the thick layer of makeup that had cost her father thousands of rupees. The fake eyelashes, artful contouring and glowing highlighters were all sitting in the gutter.
She walked out of the bathroom to find him lying on the bed. He had changed into black pyjamas and a t-shirt and was flicking through the channels on the TV. He looked up at her as she entered the room and his eyes followed her as she walked across it, picking up the menu card. She realised he was giving her an odd look.
‘What?’ she snapped. He shook his head and looked away. She concentrated on the menu and selected an option.
‘Hasn’t your food arrived?’ she asked curtly. Without waiting for his reply she added, ‘Order number 9 for me.’
He gave her an amused look. ‘So you plan on staying tonight?’
‘Why, you said you don’t care either way, right?’
‘That’s right.’ He picked up the phone and gave the order, then shoved earphones in his ears and closed his eyes.
Her suitcase was lying wide open and the nighties she had rifled through were hanging out of it. She decided to place it in the cupboard till the morning. She closed the zip and wheeled the bag to the walk in wardrobe. The lights came on automatically as she stepped in. She slid the oak doors of the wardrobe open and pulled back in surprise. There was already a suitcase exactly like hers lying inside. She thought it might be his luggage although she remembered distinctly that the bellboy had brought up her suitcase and a light duffle bag for him. She shrugged and placed her luggage in another section of the spacious wardrobe.
She was about to slide the door of the wardrobe shut when she saw what looked like the sparse hair on top of a human head peeping out from an angle of the suitcase where the zip had torn. She undid the zip trying to get a better view and as she saw what was inside a terrified scream escaped her. She stumbled backwards. Lying wrapped up in bubble wrap was a dead body of a man. His limbs had been folded at various angles to fit inside the suitcase. As Sonia pulled back in shock, the bag now open fell out of the cupboard and the body slid out of it. It now lay face up on the marble floor, it’s still eyes staring lifelessly at her. When she was able to move her frozen legs she ran out of the room and called Bilal. With music blaring in his eardrums, he was oblivious to her cries. She ran up to him angrily and roughly pulled his earphones out. ‘What kind of sick jokes are you playing with me?’ she shouted at him.
Bilal got up startled. ‘What is it now?’
‘There is a dead man or a man pretending to be dead inside the closet. What the hell is happening here?’
‘What are you talking about?’ he asked surprised at how hysterical she was.
‘Go to the closet and have a look for yourself.’ She pointed towards the room, her hands shaking. Bilal got up at her direction and walked inside the walk in wardrobe. A few minutes later he walked out, stunned. The colour had drained from his face.
‘This is very….’ He shook his head, lost in thought.
‘Very what?’ she asked impatiently.
‘Strange. That…… ,’ he hesitated pointed towards the wardrobe room, ‘corpse is not supposed to be here.’
‘What are you waiting for then? Call the hotel staff, ask them why it’s here and tell them to take it away.’
He rolled his eyes walking rapidly towards her, ‘You think this is some dirty towel that I should call the reception staff about and demand it to be taken away.’
‘I don’t understand. It’s their room, they should know something.’
‘I booked this room for our honeymoon. The hotel staff must have checked it and cleaned it before giving it to us. Do you think they would overlook a dead body lying in a big suitcase in their cupboard?’
‘What are you trying to say?’
Bilal shook his head. ‘I don’t know but at the moment, I can’t trust this hotel. This couldn’t have happened without at least one of the hotel staff’s knowledge. Someone is trying to frame us.’
‘Why would the hotel do this?’
‘Someone is obviously colluding with or bribing the hotel staff to set us up.’
‘Oh god, but why?’ Sonia’s patience was wearing out. Her nerves were already on edge.
Bilal shrugged. ‘Even if I call the reception staff up here, they will call the police and they will assume we have something to do with this.’
‘The police can check the CCTV. They can see what happened.’
‘There are no CCTVs in the bedrooms.’
‘But it will show we entered the room alone, without that man and the bag.’
‘Did you notice that the suitcase with the corpse is exactly like your suitcase?’
Sonia’s hand flew to her mouth. He was right. The police could assume they had brought the dead body in with them. But why would they do that? There was no motive.
‘Why would we kill him? We don’t even know him.’ At the back of her mind it registered that she was using ‘we’ for them. They were a ‘we’ now.
‘I know him.’ Bilal announced heavily and sank down on the bed.
Sonia paled. ‘You killed him? You are a murderer as well?’ she pointed a finger at him. His brows snapped.
‘No, are you crazy? And what do you mean by also? You are accusing me as if I am already a proven rapist or worse and besides why would I kill him, leave him here and then come back with you to this same suite. If I had to murder someone I would do it in a lonely place where I could get rid of the body with ease. Preferably in a forest and burn the body. That way there is no DNA.’
‘You know an awful lot about how to murder someone. Is that your family business?’ She asked suspiciously.
‘It’s just common sense.’
‘How did you know that dead man anyway?’
‘He was the husband of a woman I had an affair with.’ He told her distractedly.
‘I can’t believe this!’ Sonia marvelled at how he had uttered the line as if it was part of his daily routine to sleep around with married women.
‘You have motive.’ She said, her heart sinking.
‘No, he had motive to kill me. He was jealous of me.’
‘You could also have been jealous of him. Jealous boyfriend kills husband.’ She headlined for him.
He nodded. ‘Fair point.’
Sonia ran her fingers through her wet hair. A thought struck her. She had nothing to do with all this. He had booked the room. They had his credit card details and address and she was getting a divorce from him the next morning so this wasn’t her problem. ‘OK, look. I changed my mind about staying tonight. I think I will leave right now. It was nice knowing you.’ She smiled nodding politely at him and turned around towards the door. Bilal got up and grabbed her arm turning her around roughly to face him.
‘Darling, you are an accomplice in this now. We were both in the room with the dead body. Even if you leave the police can pull your details from the copy of ID I provided for you and can locate you.’
Sonia pulled her arm free from his grip and groaned. ‘I should have shot you in the face instead of slapping you,’ she fumed.
‘Well, you missed your chance,’ he offered sympathetically and then bit his lip, ‘So, we could put the body back in the suitcase and throw it out of that window and then leave the room. That way no one will find anything when we leave this room and they won’t associate us with the murder.’
‘That is assuming no one sees us throwing this heavy suitcase out of the window and also assuming there are no cameras outside the room capturing us doing this.’
‘Then you come up with something?’ he told her defensively.
There was a knock on the door and Sonia screamed. ‘Relax, it might be our dinner order.’ Bilal said walking forward.
‘Or the police.’ Sonia whispered urgently. ‘At least put the body back into the suitcase and….’ she added but Bilal was already at the door. Sonia dashed inside the walk in wardrobe and started struggling with the body trying to squish it back inside the suitcase. She heard the trolley of food being wheeled in and then the waiter’s voice.
‘If there is anything else you need, sir, please let us know. We have a special menu you could order that is not printed in the room menu for the obvious reasons. You would need to ask the reception staff for it.’ She heard the waiter’s discreet tone.
‘Yes, good idea! I will call to find out more. Can’t wait.’ Bilal replied with exaggerated enthusiasm. She wondered what the secret menu was. Alcohol?
In her struggle with the body, she knocked over a glass vase which smashed to pieces on the floor.
‘Is everything alright, sir?’ The waiter asked.
‘Yes, don’t worry.’ He reassured the waiter.
‘You want me to clear whatever is broken, sir?’ she heard footsteps approach the room and placed a hand over her mouth staring frantically at the body still sprawled across the floor. Another pair of footsteps rapidly followed the first. ‘No, no. I didn’t give you permission to go there. My wife is changing in the wardrobe room so you can leave now unless you want me to report you to the management.’ Bilal told him curtly.
‘Oh, I’m sorry sir. I didn’t mean to intrude. I just wanted to offer my help.’ The waiter replied, his tone clearly disappointed. He left the room hurriedly.
Bilal entered the room and looked at her exasperatedly, ‘Couldn’t you wait two minutes to start creating a ruckus?’
Sonia approached him with an excited look, ‘I am certain it’s this waiter. He is the guy colluding with whoever to frame you otherwise he wouldn’t be in such a hurry to enter this room.’
‘It doesn’t matter. We are running out of time. We need to get out of this mess.’
Sonia and Bilal looked at the dead body as if waiting for it to give them an answer.
‘You know, it serves you right. You cheated this poor man of his dignity by having an affair with his wife and now he’s come back to haunt you.’ Sonia told him angrily when she could think of nothing else.
‘He wasn’t a poor man, ok? He was a drug junkie who regularly beat his wife up. In fact his wife, Rani told me he was into selling drugs as well. Maybe some rival drug gang killed him, I guess we’ll never know. But poor Rani wore layers of foundation to cover the bruises. Why do you think she was having an affair with me? At least she felt a little better when she was with me.’
‘What a great social worker you are.’ Sonia said sarcastically.
Bilal rolled his eyes. ‘Why do women always pivot from the main point? Why can’t you stay in the discussion and not go off into side lanes?’
‘What if we just leave from this room pretending we don’t have any idea about the suitcase.’
‘The police will come after us because we booked this room. Why can’t you get something so simple. The dead body is now associated with us unless we do something to get rid of it.’
Sonia craned her neck to look up at the ceiling and nodded. She walked out of the wardrobe room and walked around the bedroom staring up at the ceiling and muttering to herself.
‘Why are you looking up at the ceiling. Prayers won’t save you right now.’ Bilal remarked.
‘Hush, prayers have always saved me by the way. Let me think.’ Sonia walked up and down the room quietly for a few moments concentrating hard. Bilal sighed placing his hands on his hips waiting for her. She finally turned around to face him.
‘Ok, I have an idea. We smash all the smoke detectors in this suite and then set the bag on fire. When it is completely charred we set the room on fire. You said if you were to get rid of a body without any DNA or trace you would burn it. Since the smoke detectors won’t work we could delay the hotel staff coming up to check up on the room. By then everything in the room, including the body would have burnt and it would seem as if it was an accident. We will go downstairs, pretend we have had a fight and ask to be checked out right away. By the time the fire in the room is discovered we would have left.’
‘I meant set a fire in a forest, not in the middle of a hotel. The nearby suites, hall everything will also burn down. A fire can get out of hand very quickly and there might be some hidden fire alarms in this room.’
‘My sister worked as part of this hotel’s management for a while. She complained about the faulty fire safety equipment but no one listened to her. There are only smoke detectors in the rooms and fire alarms outside in the corridors. When we head out we can alert the suites on our floor by triggering the fire alarm in the corridor so they can leave their rooms well in time before the fire gets out of hand on this floor. We will also stuff the vents and close the windows in the wardrobe room tightly so the fire is contained to that room until the hotel staff can bring it under control. I’ll leave my ironing rod on so it would seem like that was the cause of the fire.’
‘This weird plan will never work. It’s too complicated and risky.’
‘Do you have a better plan?’
Bilal fell silent and then sighed. The scheme was elaborate, complicated and risky but they were in a risky mess as well. He sighed, agreeing. ‘Alright then.’
It was 2am at night. The concierge was trying very hard not to doze off. His senior had just gone out for his break. This was his first job in a hotel. The lobby was deserted. Maybe a couple of winks won’t hurt anyone. He was about to place his face in his arms on the desk when the fire alarm went off. The concierge wandered if it was a fake alarm. One of those test alarms or a maybe a faulty one going off. He didn’t have much experience working in a hotel so he didn’t know. He was sure someone more senior would tend to it. A moment later he was stunned to see a couple shouting at each other, carrying their bags and heading towards him.
‘I can’t spend a minute of my life with you.’ Bilal shouted at Sonia and then turned towards the man at reception, ‘Check us out right away. Charge my card now.’
‘I can’t stand to see your ugly face as well. It looks like a cross between a snake and a crocodile. ’ Sonia retorted haughtily.
‘My ugly face? Look at your face. You look like a female baboon.’
The concierge stared from Bilal to Sonia. ‘Sir, can I ask what’s the problem? Did you not like our service. Should I call the manager?’
‘No need to bother him. It’s not your hotel. Your hotel is brilliant. It’s her. I can’t stand her. Come on boy. Hurry up. Process my credit card. I want to leave her at her father’s house and pretend this wedding never happened.’
‘Yes sir.’ The concierge nervously pulled up Bilal’s details and then processed the card. Meanwhile a stream of hotel guests from their floor flooded the lobby muttering angrily at being woken up by an alarm so late at night.
‘What is happening here?’ Bilal asked the concierge faking curiosity.
‘Oh, I think sir, maybe a faulty alarm has gone off. I am sure it’s nothing to worry about and someone is looking at it right this moment.’
Bilal and Sonia exchanged a look.
‘Payment processed?’ Bilal asked.
‘Yes, sir.’ The concierge nodded and smiled. ‘Should I ask for your car to be brought out?’
‘No need, we’ll ask the doorman. Just help us with the luggage as no one else seems to be here.’ Bilal and Sonia walked out of the revolving glass doors exiting the hotel. Bilal caught Sonia’s hand and hurried past the doorman who gave them a bow. ‘Sir, can I get you anything?’ he asked.
‘Yes, get my car in less than two minutes.’ Bilal told him giving him the car keys and a five thousand rupee note. A driver drove the car up to the main door and then handed the key back to Bilal. Bilal held open the passenger seat door for Sonia and then climbed into the driver’s seat. He thanked his good sense that he had chosen his black Audi with no silly flower decorations to draw attention to it. They had exited the main gate of the hotel and were driving down the street when they saw a police vehicle speeding up to the gate from the opposite side. Bilal glanced at Sonia. ‘That was a narrow escape.’
His phone beeped. Bilal swiped to open a message that read: ‘Hope you liked your wedding gift. Enjoy the rest of your life.’
‘It was her.’ he exclaimed in disbelief.
‘The jealous wife. Rani. She murdered her husband and tried to frame me for his murder, can you believe it?’
‘I thought she was grateful to you for making her feel better?’ Sonia asked, amusement lacing her tone.
‘Apparently, she wanted me to marry her instead of you. I think she couldn’t bear being cheated on. Ironic as she was cheating on her husband.’
‘Whatever, I just want to get home.’ Sonia told him impatiently. Bilal accelerated and the powerful engine roared. The car sped down the deserted street, night lamps casting spotlights on stray dogs and homeless men passed out on the pavement. He glanced at the beautiful woman seated in his passenger seat. They had been driven to the hotel by his driver in the backseat of the car. This was the first time any girl was seated in the front seat beside him. He recalled his rule of allowing only his life partner to sit in the passenger seat with him. He smiled involuntarily.
‘You know, your weird plan actually worked. I didn’t think it would.’
‘Are you complimenting me?’
‘I’m impressed. You know an awful lot about how to get rid of dead bodies. Are you sure this isn’t your family business?’
Sonia shrugged and repeated his own line. ‘It’s just common sense.’
‘Can we reconsider the divorce? Let’s start fresh? I think I might have lost my heart to you back there.’
It was her turn to laugh at him derisively. ‘You know what they say; fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. Besides, you are so ordinary. Not enough to tempt me anymore.’
Bilal laughed heartily. ‘Ok, madam, whatever you want. You saved my life back there otherwise I would be rotting in jail right now. I lied about your ID card. They didn’t have your details except your name. I’m sure Rani had made sure to tip the police about me not you. So I owe you.’
‘Interesting. Since you owe your life to me, I’ll think about when to take it back.’
Bilal gave her a curious look. Sonia lowered the car window, closed her eyes and let the cool night breeze run through her open hair.
The police car swerved to a stop in the hotel’s driveway and the inspector, followed by two constables tried to approach the front door but were stopped by one of hotel staff. The inspector turned to glance back at the huge crowd of hotel guests in their night suits gathered in the outer gardens.
‘Sir, you cannot go in there.’ One of the hotel staff warned running towards the Inspector. ‘There has been a fire and we have evacuated the whole hotel.’
‘But I have a tip off about a murder. Who’s in charge here?’
The manager approached the inspector. ‘How can I help you? Are you here for the fire?’
‘That’s what the fire department is for. Haven’t you called them?’
‘Yes, they are on their way here.’
‘Look, we had an anonymous tip for a murder in room number 402. I need to check it.’
‘That’s impossible, the fourth floor is where the fire broke out. That is definitely closed to public. Thankfully the fire alarm on the floor worked, I mean not that our fire alarms don’t work.’ He added quickly wiping the sweat off his forehead, ‘But no one was injured or burnt. We have managed to evacuate the whole hotel and done a head count.’
The inspector looked up at thick smoke swirling out of the terraces of one of the top floors.
‘Do you know who was in room number 402?’
‘Yes, I remember checking them in earlier. I can’t recall their names but they are a newly-wed couple on their honeymoon. They must be in the crowd outside.’
The blaring sirens of the fire engine sounded as it entered the hotel grounds.
The Inspector sighed. It was getting late. He scratched his head. Murder was the last thing a honeymooning couple would think of doing specially in a hotel suite unless one of them killed the other in a fit of fury. He had handled cases where the husband killed his wife on their wedding night assuming she wasn’t a virgin. He made a mental note to find the details of the couple and check both were alive. He decided someone had played a prank on him tonight, possibly that irritating nephew of his. He motioned to his constables. ‘Let’s go.’
As the police drove away the manager decided to update the fire security of the hotel as soon as he was able to, like that irritating know it all girl had warned him. This was a close call and an eye opener for him. He wondered how many people would have died or been injured if the fire alarms hadn’t work.
Everything, and if not everything, then most things, are out of your fragile control.
Have you ever felt the itch to speak in a crowded room?
No, not the way you normally speak i.e. apologetic, appeasing, unsure, after a thorough spell, grammar and societal approval check in your head and each sentence dressed in piety and purity.
But the way men do, with gravity and bravado, wanting and expecting your crude word to be taken seriously, reflected on for its depth and width with sage little nods following its limp wake, even on an inane remark like the season’s mangoes weren’t ripe enough.
But you hold your peace, to keep the peace.
Have you ever felt like-screaming out loud, crying out loud, swearing out loud, whacking some misogynistic ass with a blunt or sharp object near you?
You stayed mute, kept yourself very still, sipped some scalding tea to cool your fraught nerves. And when you were able to control those wild impulses bubbling just beneath the surface of your fevered skin, went about your daily chores with a strained smile.
The problem is we have glorified patience to such an extent that it’s become synonymous with certain people. Like womanhood.
Of course we’re allowed to speak bitter truths, it’s a sort of democracy, isn’t it? If the state knows what that means. We’re only allowed to speak them in the garb of digestible humour, with wit and winsomeness, with entertaining coquettishness, with sidelong, intoxicating, winged-eyeliner glances, so we don’t upset the precarious power balance of the sexes, even if the audience is our own sex.
Humour for us isn’t a choice, a diversion or entertainment, it’s a defence mechanism, a shield to fend off attacks and a makeshift weapon, the kind gorilla warriors use with creative flair to attack organised armies, like burning tyres and sharp disc plates.
You can tell yourselves, instead of crying in the shower, that you spoke up. You don’t have to lie awake in your bed staring up at the colossal darkness gathering up on your side of the ceiling, you can tell that darkness to scoot, find a different room and another lonely, suppressed woman, because you spoke up.
Fingers flying over the keyboard, barely touching, caressing it like a beloved, sacred tool. Jumbled thoughts unfurling like a discarded yarn of wool. Tongue-tied, lost, dead me finding regeneration. That feeling of letting out, pouring of soul into the cup of nirvana. Discovering what being alive means and still tasting divinity. Finally finding a channel, that winding rocky pathway to self.
What is writing to some of us? Clue: it’s not just a hobby. It runs it’s tendrils deep into your core, it soaks you up like being drenched by a waterfall. Like a tear, a hearty laugh, a passionate kiss, great sex, you feel it in all your being, not just the point of contact.
Yet, you lose it – occasionally, predictably. You get caught up in the daily grind, that robotic, sensible, selfless life you’ve convinced yourself is what adults do. The gift gets the hint, it lets you be, understanding, respecting your needs. Or it feels ignored and sulks like a lover taking offence. You have to coax it back, by sweet words, by candles and coddling, by odes. Is this what we’re doing, paying platitudes to the miffed gift? Convincing it how much it means to us? Surely, it knows. Something that is the essence of your soul knows how much it means to you.
Or is it working a mystery beyond us? To shower it’s presence sparingly so we can cope, we aren’t blinded by it, or drowned inside of it. Is it working to protect us from our own destructive tendencies? Isn’t that reducing it to a hit, a cocaine shot? Destructive in large doses, and offering enlightening, ecstatic insights in intermittent hits. Being in love, being high, or being creative is like playing the cat and mouse game. The cat and mouse are interchangeable, we chase or we’re chased, we kill or we’re killed.
The gift, the bliss, watches, that all-knowing, slanting gaze from afar, a smirk on it’s perfect chiselled features, mocking, it’s form like a sleek goddess, gold skin glistening, tempting –just out of reach.
This novel caught me unprepared, in all my ignorance of Palestinian literature, dragged me along in a lashing current and threw me in an exhilarating yet dangerous waterfall of great magnitude and force. At the end of it, I revelled in the calm ripples of hope. It is befitting it ends with ‘Joy’, where love wins because the journey starts with loss of innocence and desperation. There is so much to say about this novel, yet I feel possessive of my thoughts. When a novel changes a part of you, it becomes personal and you don’t want to share it with the world. But this novel must be spoken about, as it’s not only a powerful feat of literature but also a very relevant, important novel.
A few pages in and I was awestruck by what Abulhawa herself admires in the writing of Baldwin and Kanafani. ‘They wrote with the same passion, the same irreverence and defiance; with overlapping wounds and bottomless love for their people.’ And so does she. Never once does she waver, backtrack, pander and justify. I won’t compliment her writing as ‘unapologetic’ (as I’ve seen one interviewer mention), because writing shouldn’t be apologetic in the first place!
Abulhawa delivers with compelling honesty a crystal clear perspective of the Palestinian people, their torment and humiliation at the displacement enforced on them by Israeli Zionists, their pride in and love for their homeland and heritage, the compromises they’re forced to make in countries that never own them up, their unbeatable spirit and heroic fight for their stolen land at the great risk of losing their life, possessions and loved ones. It demonstrates how our ancestral land knits the fabric of our identity and that link can never be broken no matter where we re-locate. It demonstrates the power of sustained resistance to oppression. You lose when you quit, or as Baldwin states- “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.”
The protagonist-Nahr, is subjected to every imaginable torture, abandoned as a young wife, she has to resort to prostitution to ensure a secure future for her family, is physically and sexually assaulted multiple times, is imprisoned and tortured for sixteen years yet instead of feeling sorry for her, I can only admire her. What’s inspiring about her is her defiance and strength of character to rebel, laugh, dance, and love in the face of the storms tearing her world apart. In one scene she sings in an Israeli courtroom during her trial to show her disregard for Israeli authority.
What protects us against the loveless world, or what will protect us, from a world that demonises people they label ‘disposable’, is unity. We might be prosecuted, short-changed, de-humanized, but if we honour and love each other -we can fight that world.
The narrative doesn’t associate ‘shame’ with torture that is designed to humiliate. Instead, the scars are recognised as medals of survival and courage. It exposes the superficial concept of honour and these lines are too bad-ass not to be quoted. “We are not all blessed to receive a good education and inherit what it takes to live with some dignity. To exist on your own land, in the bosom of your family and your history. To know where you belong in the world and what you’re fighting for. To have some goddamn value…some of us, Madam Honor, end up with little choice but to Fuck. For. Money.”
And – “What’s truly revolutionary in this world is to relinquish the belief that you have a right to an opinion about who another person chooses to fuck and why.”
One thing that I didn’t understand or agree with was the lovability of Um Baraq (Nahr’s procurer for sex trade and close friend). Nahr forgives her easily and loves her like a sister, even though she is responsible for some of the worst experiences of her life, tricking her into inebriation and prostitution in the first place, blackmailing her back into prostitution with compromising pictures and sending her to an event where she’s absent while Nahr gets gang-raped and almost killed. She also bails her out of trouble time and again, but for me, that did not tip the scales in her favour. By the end of the novel, I couldn’t love her as Nahr does.
In her cube prison, Nahr retains her characteristic defiance, she dances, writes and sings but doesn’t break or bend, and shows us how true heroes never give up in the fight against injustice- no matter how powerful the enemy might be or how long the fight may last.
I’ll end with these two quotes.
“I allow myself to imagine that the dignities of home and freedom might be the purview of the wretched of this earth.”
“……the state will always find a way to imprison those who are truly free, who do not accept social, economic, or political chains.”
Every single time, I try to focus on the positives this happens. A new barbarity.
I feel ashamed, sick and terrified. I proudly proclaimed on Independence Day that good people outnumber the bad in Pakistan. But 400 men groped and assaulted a single young girl for hours. How’s that for a ratio? How is that for outnumbering?
Her fault? She was trying to celebrate Independence day at a national monument in Lahore, making a video, trying to feel proud of her country. She didn’t know that women have nothing to celebrate. They were never free. They never gained independence.
I want to feel good about my land. But I say this sitting in London, where I can be part of any crowd, walk down any street, without being treated like the victim in Manto’s thanda gosht.
I have never been to Minaar e Pakistan, or any concert or even a mall unescorted. I wasn’t allowed by my father, because probably he knew what happens there and he wanted to protect me. Not because he was conservative, but because he was scared. But you know what happens when you hide women from animal like men? This is what happens.
Does every woman now need police escort services to step out of her house? How can their brothers/fathers fight 400 men? Today this crowd had the guts to toss around a woman like a rag doll in a public place, tomorrow they will scale the walls of your house to get to your women.
Women can keep wailing and shouting for change, its not going to make a dent in a patriarchal society. It’s time for men to wake up from whatever denial they’re all living in like Amir khan’s character in three idiots. All is not well. Media is not making it bigger than it is. I think even the media is shocked at the scale and barbarity of this violence.
It’s time men start a mass protest. Start it now, before every woman runs out of the country, if she’s able to.
-We’re big foodies. It’s our entertainment. You get the most tastiest food, even in the most cheapest places. More money won’t fetch you more quality for once! Biryani and mangoes are legitimate bribes.
– We’re dead serious about our hospitality. If you happen to be our guest, you don’t have to pay for a single item of your spend. And we will protect you with our life.
– We’re intensely loyal to our family and friends and sometimes even our bosses at work. We will go to any extent, even to our own detriment, to stand by them.
-Sufism and spiritualism are an important part of our culture.
-We like Indians. Because -relatability. Many positive and negative cultural practices/mindsets are literally the same.
-We are crazy about cricket, we design our own dresses, we get offended if a shop keeper doesn’t at least pretend to bargain with us, we love rain, we love chai, we love to sing, we believe in miracles and prayers, we fall in love easily.
This place I call home. Home is where the heart is. Or that’s what’s they say. I feel it’s more intense, home is where your soul is. Your body may roam the world, but your soul stays stuck, locked in your homeland. It’s triumphs make you smile, it’s achievements make you proud but when it hurts, you hurt, when it cries, you cry, when it breaks and burns, a part of you shatters. You try and fix those problems that they say are too big for you, too complex, too old, too rooted in the land like mountains, yet you try, you stand with the weak, you speak up, you fight, you do anything you think you should or can to save that small part of the world that you can call your own, from rot and decay -to protect, to cherish and love.
This land which survives, from a short changed beginning, to a crossfire and clash of Titans in between, to various misguided and corrupt leaders, Pakistan is resilient, regenerative and has shown a constant history of rebelling against evil in any form, be it political, radical, criminal, or cultural. We’re assaulted by it and sometimes overwhelmed, but we don’t give in, good people outnumber the bad and are constantly fighting for change, rejecting nonsense that is passed on as the ‘right’ or the ‘only’ way. Even if it’s fed into our system, like poison, our body vomits it out. Our rebellion comes from the side that is extremely empathetic, hospitable, welcoming and spiritual.
Our ethos directs us to co-exist in peace. We yearn for order, justice and discipline that we’ve seldom been blessed with, and look for in various nooks, corners, texts and promises. But what really keeps the country thriving is the will and motivation of the common Pakistanis trying to protect, provide and care for their home and family.
Some ‘Patriots’ of mine and other countries, near and far, concern themselves with beating their respective drum of praise, hiding their evil, and only letting the good come out in the news, but beyond the image building gimmicks, every single country has its fair share of evil.
Let’s face and defeat that together.
Let’s free ourselves of prejudice, hate and violence.
Let’s ensure life with autonomy and dignity of every individual, irrespective of birth, class, religion, race, or borders.
Let’s give precedence to the only thing that matters -peace and love.
I have never been popular, in school or later on in life, because I hate fitting into a hierarchical system of popularity. I abhor sycophancy. I cannot agree with someone for the sake of it, just because they’re my friend, family or managers at work. I thought I would grow out of this social awkwardness and rigidity, but I find with time, I care less about the superficial opinion of others. I cannot in all intellectual honesty, applaud people when there is nothing to applaud. I find it hard to fake my passions and emotions. It’s a weakness, because a few white lies are necessary for survival and success, especially in Pakistan.
Pakistanis are a clannish lot. We hold loyalty dearer than honesty. We naturally fall into groups, alliances and fit ourselves into the most accessible and relatable herd. This means that we find ourselves in any scenario being the mindless sheep following a symbolic leader/mentor we admire and looking to them for cues on how to act or even think in a socially acceptable manner. Even in intellectual platforms, in classrooms, or in social situations, I’ve seen people holding back their opinion until the informal mentor or leader has spoken. We go to great lengths to prove our loyalty to our clan or group. We gush easily and agree easily. We find it hard to disagree or think independently and unapologetically. If we don’t toe the line we are shunned as the ‘ones who don’t fit in’. I understand that we are tempted to agree with people we like or admire, return favours and cheer on our friends. There is an expectation to do so if you’re a ‘friend’, but such a process seems much like a barter transaction, exchanging favours, praise and acceptance.
Shouldn’t intellectual independence be valued? Shouldn’t debate and opposing ideas in the realms of courtesy and barring personal attacks be encouraged? There is nothing wrong with disagreement, how else are we to learn from ideas radically different from our own?
Anyway, this is just me thinking…in my isolated bubble.
“Customary laws differ considerably among the different regions and ethnicities of Pakistan. …..Everywhere, however, the basic unit is the same, just as it is in Pakistani rural and to a lesser extent urban societies: the ‘patriarchal’ extended family: ‘patriarchal’, though as innumerable Pakistani and Indian daughters-in-law are bitterly aware, behind the patriarchal façade, the grey eminence, the greatest tyrant and the most ruthless enforcer of custom in these families is quite often the senior female.”
Lieven, Anatol. Pakistan: A Hard Country.
I do not agree with Lieven, as there is no patriarchal ‘façade’ here. It exists, and is real, but he makes a valid point about the enforcers of custom being the senior females in any household. Women who have been prosecuted under tyrannical patriarchy and have lived with misogyny their whole lives, learn to imbibe and internalise it to the extent that they themselves become tyrants in their household, long after the patriarch is gone. They maintain the order of patriarchy as they know no other world where women can exist. Should a woman projecting the same narrative be pitied, shielded and not be censured at all? What is the alternative of not calling out such women?
We know of many mothers who shame their sons for not being ‘honourable’ when their daughters engage in free will. We know of many mother in laws, who make their daughter in law’s life hell simply for their existence in their sons life, as they have gone through a similar pattern of abuse. Such older women, having never challenged the status quo, never fought for their own rights and the rights of their daughters and daughters in law, have achieved an exalted status within patriarchy that they are proud of. They reap the rewards of upholding cherished misogynistic customs. They do not deserve brownie points, validation, praise or pity for maintaining the status quo. In fact, it would be dangerous to not speak out against that narrative, which coming out from a woman’s mouth is just as toxic as coming out from a man’s mouth, because if that narrative is not challenged or questioned, it would become an acceptable stance where many women who live day to day with the same ideals enforced in their psyche, would turn their heads down and continue accepting that as the norm.
Women have fought to create safe online spaces for themselves where they can post, question ideas, seek help (mostly anonymously), and learn from new points of view. The ideas in these platforms could be revolutionary for them and help them understand the injustice of their daily lives. If a narrative that has been enforced on them since childhood is then questioned and debated, it might make an impact on their mind and rouse them to think, stand up and revolt. There is no courage, no glory, in keeping the blinders on and cribbing in hushed voices about the evil patriarchs, but never doing anything about it. But what they can change is themselves and thereby change the narrative for their daughters and hopefully their sons. Alternatively, in every culture, there are unethical opportunists, who use the existing system to their own benefit while being hypocrites at the same time. These opportunists, are not victims of the system, they play the system, for their own selfish agendas while leaving behind a chain of damage and not caring two cents about it.
Moreover, the smug misogynists who watch silently from the side-lines are not going to change, because it doesn’t suit them to do so. You can critique and call them out till the cows come home, but would they even lend an ear to beings they consider far inferior to themselves and their intellectual superiority? Mostly they won’t even bother getting into a debate, they will give you a few vile abuses and move on to their comfort zones.
Abuse, and the propagation of it, by either a man or a woman is just as reprehensible and worth being condemned. If we are quick to call out misogyny, we should condemn internalised misogyny as well which is really a shield to it. We need to smash the shield to get at what’s behind it. A man could be a smart puppeteer by not speaking up himself, and letting a woman do his dirty job, but how can we pin him down for not doing or saying anything? How can we exempt an adult of their abusive opinions and actions? Provocation and expectation by someone else, and hundred other social factors could tempt us to commit a crime, but at the end of the day, the person who commits a crime must be held accountable for it.
If women face injustice, women must unite, stand up against it and change their mindsets. There is power in numbers. Unified voices make a difference. Patriarchy isn’t going to give women their rights on a silver platter at a few disjointed voices calling them out, unless women stand tall together, support one another as a coherent group and fight for them. If women are never questioned or censured for their dogmatic, regressive views, thereby imposing on them the urgent need to re-evaluate, think and change, and instead are ignored and pitied for the abuse they propagate, things will go back to square one and the cycle of abuse will continue unhindered. A culture of change needs to be set in motion now. That will only happen, if those deeply affected by it -women, change themselves and fight. Even if we aren’t as ‘privileged’, ‘empowered’ or ‘enlightened’ as we perceive ourselves to be, we can still bring about change. A single voice matters. A single act of defiance matters.