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Noorabad News. Part 2

Chapter 3.

On a quiet Monday morning, in the middle of January, an old man with coloured patches stitched in his loose clothes and unkempt long white hair disembarked from a train in the town of Noorabad. He had a ruddy complexion and his gait was sturdy. He didn’t look austere or ailing but he didn’t look well rested and fed either. He had the look of a faqir but his eyes were as sharp as cut glass. He had a satchel around his shoulders. He walked out of the station and came to the bus stand, looking around him as if searching for something. He finally spotted the sacred fig tree in a corner with outstretched branches like beckoning arms and he walked towards it. He placed his satchel down on the cool mud and lay down flat on his back, his hand shading his eyes and went to sleep.

‘Our town must be famous for its generosity. Beggars are travelling a long way to seek it,’ Majid Ali remarked observing the beggar from his place next to a wheeled newspaper stand that served brewed tea and snacks. He was holding a national newspaper in his left hand and a cup of steaming tea in his right hand. A wooden board on the top of the shop read ‘Karim News’ in bright red paint. It was the only shop on the single platform of the railway station for  refreshments, groceries and utilities, at the corner of Azadbaksh road leading to the centre of the town of Noorabad. It was a small settlement, that boasted of a white marble mosque with lapis lazuli stone work and Quranic inscriptions painted in gold caligraphy, a primary and secondary school, a college, a hospital, a library, small clinics and a variety of eateries and shops.

In the small lanes of its old inner city, lines of kaarigars specializing in handmade gold work zardozi and precious gemstone and beadwork sat in small shuttered shops in a rows across each other, working diligently for some assignment big city designers threw their way. They never saw the finished product which was put together in a workshop in Lahore or Islamabad but the meagre income thrown their way was enough for their simple survival. A few lanes down from the gold work kaarigars, there was another lane where tie and die workers rinsed yards of cloths in contrasting colours of ink blue and white, magenta and rust, parrot green and brick to their exact order specification. Another lane housed the wood work kaarigars and their dusty workshops. It was the noisiest lane. They sat carving motifs on small gift boxes, doors and tables for private and retail clients. The town had a sparse population of only a few thousand residents and most families knew each other well.

‘This poor beggar must have been misled. He should turn around and go back where he came from.’ Karim, the owner of the stand answered swatting flies from the pakoras he had fried ten minutes ago.

Majid grunted in agreement and then turned his attention to the newspaper in his hand. ‘It’s the same every day, isn’t it? No sign of any positive news. It’s all about killings, looting and corruption, it’s a bloody mess!’

‘We complain about the mess Majid bhai, but no one cleans the mess. The reporters will report what sells their papers and the public buys the papers to add spice to their dull lives and to feel they are better off than the unfortunate people who make these headlines.’ Karim remarked dryly.

Majid shrugged at this answer and resumed his reading. Karim liked to keep his freshly fried fare covered most of the time, but the aroma of an open tray of fried samosas helped in luring customers to his shop. He timed the cooking of his hot snacks well. He knew the timings of the buses that came to the bus stop and most of the time the drivers called him themselves to inform him if there were any delays. This way the drivers were guaranteed freshly brewed tea and snacks after a long drive.

Karim knew his business well and made a decent amount of money by selling tea, snacks and the latest newspapers and magazines. His samosas were crisp and fresh, but the tamarind chutney as an accompaniment for them was famous. It was a chutney he had perfected through trial and error, over many years, adding the right blend of spices and ripe tamarinds. It was meant to enhance the flavour of the samosas when dipped in generously. Some brave customers licked the chutney afterwards with their bare fingers not minding it’s sharp and spicy tanginess. Karim read two popular daily newspapers at the crack of dawn after his fajar prayers so he could converse in an informed manner on current affairs with customers who happened to stop by his stall.

Majid Abidi liked spending time with Karim, even though he was an eunuch, he never acknowledged him as a friend but he made it a point to come to his stand once every few days to get the daily newspaper and have tea. He also liked hanging out around the bus stand. It was his dream to leave the small town one day. Majid worked in the local hospital as a pharmacist. He had obtained a basic pharmacy qualification from the city which helped him secure his job from the money he had saved, and since he assisted the doctors and nurses on a daily basis when there was shortage of staff he had learnt much more than prescription of medicines. From administering injections to assisting in surgeries, Majid had made good progress. If his father hadn’t deserted his mother to live with his second wife in Lahore and spent most of his savings and pension on her, he would have had a chance to become a doctor.

The familiar sound of the colourful coach revving into the bus stand outside the railway station, raising a cloud of dust in its wake, disturbed the latent quiet that prevailed over the small town bus depot. The few pigeons that were trying to ravage the seeds strewn by Karim earlier flapped their wings with all their might to make a hasty getaway. Karim knew what it was like to be hungry and it was part of his morning routine to scatter bird feed across the grounds of the depot. The bus wheezed to a halt, the old engines protesting at the reckless and jerky parking. Passengers began to climb down the steps of the bus and noise like a firecracker exploded in the depot. ‘Hand me the red bag! No, the one to the right!’ A passenger shouted instructions to the driver’s assistant who had climbed up the roof of the bus where all the bags were stored for the journey. The assistant threw more bags down the roof of the bus.

Most passengers, including the driver, made their way to Karim’s refreshment stand. Karim sprung into the role of animated salesman. He had made it his job to know the regulars well enough to welcome them back home with specific queries, ‘Salam Rahim Sahab, what did the doctor say about your heart, everything well, inshallah?’ and accosted the new customers with cheerful greetings ‘Sir, would you like a warm cup of tea and some pakoras to take away the fatigue of your journey, I’ve made everything fresh this morning. Are you visiting someone in our town?’ Karim did not speak like a typical eunuch as he was the only one of his kind in the town. He hadn’t picked up the habits of other eunuchs who danced and begged for a living. Since the regulars knew Karim and grudgingly respected the way he had struggled to make an honest living for himself, only a few of them mocked him as was the custom with eunuchs. The newcomers, surprised at the respect with which the locals treated him, followed suit cautiously.

As Karim was now occupied with the business of his stall and having read his paper, Majid looked up curiously at the passengers making their way from the bus. Among the passengers to alight from the bus, a young man wearing a checked dark blue shirt and jeans stepped down holding a duffel bag. The young man made his way, like the rest of his fellow passengers, towards Karim’s stall. Midway, he noticed Majid standing near Karim’s stall. Their eyes met for a moment and then Majid looked away quickly. The young man stopped mid stride and then turned sideways to head off into the town rather than take the diverted route through the stall.

Soon Karim had tended to all his customers and most of them had some form of snack or tea in their hands. The passengers were engaging in conversations with each other. Karim, like always, had not missed the one customer who had not made his way to his stall and he knew the reason why. He came out of his stall to stand aside with and addressed Majid over the din of conversation.

‘Majid bhai, I think you scared away one of my regular customers.’

‘What do you mean?’ Majid asked frowning.

‘Junaid,’ Karim said jerking his head towards Junaid’s receding back.

‘He didn’t stop at my stall because you were here. Why do you avoid each other now? Weren’t you friends in school?

Majid smiled at Karim, ‘We were, until he learned the concept of status. He might not have wanted to mix with my bad blood as his mother used to say.’

Karim laughed, ‘Is that a viable concept for forming and dissolving relationships, bad blood? Look at me, I don’t know who’s blood runs in my veins, it may be the noblest blood and look where I am.’

Majid shrugged, ‘It might just be an opinion of a former nauch girl’s son, but I think you have noble blood in your veins, Karim.’

Karim felt sorry for the beggar. He realised he must be hungry. He walked forward and left some food, and some rupees in an empty tin container for him. The Fakir didn’t seem to notice.

As evening drew in, Karim shuttered down his main shop at the railway station and locked his wheeled stand. He was about to leave for his house passing the bus stand when he glanced at the beggar now awake and still seated in the same position under the peepal tree. Karim was surprised at his serene expression and the untouched food and money. He hadn’t eaten anything all day. He walked back to his shop, got some pakoras and jalebi left over from the morning and a bottle of water. He walked to the Fakir and wordlessly placed the food wrapped in the daily newspaper near his feet. The Fakir glanced at the water and waved his hand, shunning it. Karim felt anger rise up inside him at the beggar’s slight. 

‘I give you food and you act this way? I’m not trash to be insulted like this, you are the beggar, not me!’

The Fakir looked at him in surprise, ‘Have I asked for anything? Who is the beggar then?’

‘I have seen many frauds like you. You take money by tricks and fraud, you are a waste of my time.’

‘Be humble, bache, keep your head bowed down always. This mud you stand on, it’s nothing to you. Isn’t it so? You ignore it, yet you exist by the grace of this very earth. You exist by the grace of this air around you. Of the trees and mountains, and all this has no value in terms of the coins you throw at me that you feel so proud of. Be humble, it is there now and it can suddenly disappear. And what will you do if it is suddenly taken away from you?’

Ashamed, Karim bowed his head down, ‘I am sorry I yelled at you, baba, I apologize humbly. I do not offer this as a charity but as a humble offering.’ He turned around to leave when he heard the Fakir muttering to himself.

‘So arrogant and yet so kind, such turmoil inside you. So many storms flare inside you, and you put up such a brave front. No one knows your pain do they? No one knows the pain you carry inside you. The tears you cry at night.’

Karim turned around and said, ‘What?’

The Fakir waved his hand again distractedly, ‘No matter no matter, it is nothing.’

Karim knelt down next to him in agitation, ‘No, no, tell me baba, how do you know how I feel inside? I haven’t spoken to anyone about it, yet you seem to see deep inside me!’

The Fakir nodded wisely, his forehead lining with centuries of worries, ‘For years and years all of your life, in pain and silence.’

Karim nodded his head miserably, ‘Yes baba. Yes.’ Tears started streaking down his cheeks and wept for a long time in front of the Fakir. His whole life swam through his bleary eyes.

Karim was found on the steps of the local mosque one night, no one knew who had left him there but there is only one logical explanation, shame and guilt at being parents of a child who is neither male nor female or both. He often wondered if his parents felt any emotion at all when deciding to abandon a child only a few days old.

The Islamic cleric of the local mosque, Qazi Haq, found him early in the morning when he opened the mosque for the early morning call for prayer, he took him to his house straight away as his good deed of the year and put him in his wife’s lap. ‘This is Allah’s test for us,’ he told his wife. ‘We have been entrusted with the responsibility of protecting this unfortunate child, giving him a new life, and our kindness will be rewarded in the hereafter even if we look after this child for a few years. I will name him Karim, so he can grow up and return the same generosity to someone else in need of it.’ He knew this conversation as it was narrated to him many times by the maulvi to impress how grateful he should be to him.

His wife had four small children of her own at the time and did not take kindly to this hassle of raising another baby whom she considered untouchable. She couldn’t go against her strict husband’s wishes and had no choice but to do the bare minimum in feeding, washing and clothing the new born in morsels and rags from her own children’s leftovers. She ignored his crying most of the time until he was big enough to walk and eat himself. Once he was older, any attempt at his part to ingratiate himself with her would irritate her, when she couldn’t ignore him she would beat him with the stick she used to stoke her kitchen fire.

He became terrified of her beatings. He started spending more time in the mosque, near his benefactor Qazi Haq, than at the house and one day he asked the maulvi’s permission if he could sleep in the mosque instead. Qazi was saddened by this request as he knew what had prompted it but he agreed. He was aware of his wife’s attitude and how it was getting worse towards him with his growing age. He obtained religious education from the maulvi when he could and cleaned the mosque in his spare time.

Karim paused in his thoughts, his tears drying on his face by the wind, to see a stray plastic bag develop wings from a passing breeze and sway gracefully around the depot, it’s flimsy form inflated with air. It was pitiful to watch because Karim knew the plastic bag would eventually fall but he felt like cheering for it anyway. It was having it’s moment, it’s taste of ecstatic freedom, until it would be snatched up and thrown in the rubbish again. Karim wondered when he would have that fleeting moment, or would he ever have it?

He had received basic religious education from the mosque for free and afterwards tutors in the local primary school let him sit at the back of the class rooms on the floor in exchange for cleaning services around the school premises. Having thus taught himself some basic education, he started earning a living from a very young age. No one looked out for him and he was mostly ignored as an outcast but he knew everyone well. He made sure to observe them to learn whom to avoid.

Through odd jobs around the town over the years he saved enough money to invest in his shop which provided him a livelihood. He also managed to build himself a small hut out of wood and discarded corroborated iron sheets in a clearing in the forest. The area wasn’t too deep in the forest and a mile’s walk brought you to the graveyard and a few kilometres climb takes you to the stream that flows down from the waterfall. Local government officials threatened to tear the hut down many times as he had no legal right to the land it stood on but a little bribe always diverted their attention to another pressing matter.

The Fakir squinted his eyes, peering at him, as if he was partly blind and then nodded thoughtfully.

‘Yes,’ the Fakir said finally in a gravelly voice. ‘I expected you to be the one.’

‘The one?’ Karim asked curiously, rousing from his deep thoughts.

‘My companion,’ he told him as if it was an obvious fact.

‘Baba, I request you to go back to where you came from. This is no place for someone like you.’

He removed his woollen shawl and placed it near the Fakir’s feet. ‘Please take this, it’ll get cold at night.’ He longed to get to the seclusion of his woodland hut. It was getting dark. He stood up but remained glued to the spot waiting, sensing the Fakir had more to say.

‘Who can carry so much pain? Who can carry so much weight? Even the strongest tree needs to bend or it will break in half….find the way…find the right way to the truth…so what if he doesn’t recognise you as his own, so what if he doesn’t put his hand on your head and acknowledge you as belonging to him? There are other things that are far more important in life. There are other places that call to you that are far more necessary for you to travel to, there are other people you belong with and who will welcome you with open arms and you only have to go on a journey to seek them.’

Karim stood very still, in a state of uncertainty and suspense. He waited for the Fakir to say something else but the Fakir lay back down as if exhausted and closed his eyes. He waited for a few moments and then draped the shawl over the Fakir’s reclining body and walked away from him.

……………………..

Aisha had finished sweeping the floors and cleaning all the dishes in the kitchen. She had finally come to lay down on her bed. Her bones ached with the back breaking work she had to do all day long. Her mother in law was a tough taskmaster. She made sure Aisha never got a moment’s rest. If she was done with her chores for a gap of half an hour, she would be called to press her legs or massage oil in her hair. Aisha stared up at the ceiling. It was past midnight. She heard the door barge open and her husband approach noisily. She shut her eyes tight, trying to delay the impending horror.

She felt a rough nudge on her arm, ‘Get me dinner, woman.’ He growled.

She got up immediately without saying a word. He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back.

‘Since you don’t use your tongue should I pull it out? Say yes, when I order you.’

‘Yes,’ she replied meekly.

He grinned letting her go. She scurried out, relaxing at escaping violence tonight. She quickly heated his dinner and made fresh flat bread for him. She rushed back to his room, hoping he would have gone to sleep but he was awake. Her heart sank. With her head bent down, she placed the tray in front of him on the table. He took a bite of his food and spat it out. His face turned red with anger.

‘Are you trying to poison me, whore?’ he yelled at her. ‘Why did you put so much chillies?’

Aisha knew this was just an excuse. It was chillies one day, salt the next and the flat bread wasn’t round enough the third. He approached her dangerously and she stepped back from him, stumbling and trying to steady herself. Her eyes darted, trying to find non-existent places to hide and escape from him. He pulled her hair first.

‘No matter how hard I try, you never learn, do you?’ he whispered furiously. ‘Today, I’ll teach you for good, bitch.’

He pushed her down and she fell on the floor. He kicked her repeatedly on her side, back and stomach. Aisha was so used to his beatings that she only whimpered, she didn’t yell or scream. She knew the louder she screamed the more passionately he would beat her. Finally exhausted, he walked away to the same food and started calmly eating it as if nothing had happened. She pulled her bleeding body up slowly, crawling to the bed and trying to stand. She gave up and collapsed on the floor again. Tears flowing freely now. She was surprised they still came. Her tears should have dried by now. Suddenly, a vision of her uncle, her mother’s brother wiping her tears sprang to her mind. She was a little girl and she had hurt her leg. He had consoled her, wiping her tears and offered her an ice cream. She focused on that act of kindness to fight against the pain crushing her frail bruised body. A faint glimmer of hope penetrated her dark world.

Chapter 4.

Iftikhar Mian had just stepped out of the arched doorway leading to the courtyard, smoothing his starched white kurta with his wet hands. The four carat sapphire ring on the ring finger of his right hand caught the sun and glowed brightly, spraying light like marbled dust across the floor. He picked up a comb and a small mirror from the mahogany chest of drawers on his way. A carved rosewood armchair and table were placed strategically in the centre of the courtyard for maximum exposure to the temperamental February sun. Now comfortably seated in his armchair, he held his mirror up and began grooming his greying moustache, humming an old Ghazal. On the small wood table in front of him was his daily morning newspaper.

He smiled at the many fallen legumes of the tamarind tree that was planted in his front garden, beyond the courtyard. He took immense pride in maintaining it, although it didn’t require that much upkeep. It’s evergreen leaves and three hundred year life span gave him a sense of permanence. The tree was a lot older than his ancestral home and had seen many of his ancestors come and go. It would still be here long after he was gone. It’s fruit enjoyed by his grandchildren and then their children. He decided to tell his wife to prepare her delicious chutney and they could enjoy with samosas from Shebu’s stall. Fatima begum had more than once told him to get rid of it as it was taking up too much space in their garden but like most things she complained about, he ignored with a good humoured smile.

A black cat, the one of many things associated with Iftikhar Mian that irked Fatima begum no end, sidled up to him and lay curled at his feet. Iftikhar Mian bent down to stroke the smooth fur on her head and back and she purred. He didn’t know from whence it came and where it went, but she was a moody creature. Unreliable and independent, she came and went as she pleased. She didn’t depend on the Mian household for her meals but if milk was given to her she would graciously accept it, sipping it delicately, as if doing him a favour. Iftikhar Mian was incredibly fond of her, he would occasionally talk to her and had come to rely on her as a confidante over the years.

There was a loud knock on the door. He sighed irritably. It was the only time he could spend in peace, undisturbed by any member of his household. He looked forward to his morning newspaper, his cup of tea and no conversation or interaction of any kind.

Iftikhar Main dragged himself to the gate and opened it with a deep frown. A jovial face of the postman looked up at him as soon as he swung the smaller door open.

‘Salam Mian Saheb! How are you this morning? To be honest I feel so happy when I receive a post in your name only because I get a chance to come and have a little chat with you otherwise we hardly talk!’

‘Gulu Mian, the pleasure is mine, but nowadays people have stopped writing to each other like they used to. It’s a dying art form.’

‘You are absolutely right! Sometimes I feel I should write people some fake letters myself to stoke the fire of communication. It is bad for my line of work if no one writes to each other.’

‘I am sure your profession is quite safe. Now tell me, what have you got for me?’

‘Here, it is from Gujrat city. Your family lives there, if I am not mistaken?’

Iftikhar Mian frowned. He did not have any close family as such and not people who would write to him anyway. His parents had died in a car crash fifteen years ago and his only sister passed away two years ago after an asthma attack. He stared blankly at the letter Gulu was holding out for him in his hand and reluctantly extended his hand to accept it.

‘Well, nice catching up with you Mian Saheb. I have more letters to deliver now.’

‘Would you like to have a cup of tea before you go?’ he offered, hoping Gulu would refuse.

‘I am on duty but next time.’

With that, Gulu buckled his satchel, efficiently like a soldier strapping in his armour, sat on his bicycle and peddled away down the street raising a small cloud of dust behind him.

Iftikhar Mian jerked back to avoid the flying dirt and wiped his white kurta with his hands self-consciously. He had just taken a bath and changed into clean clothes.

Iftikhar Mian walked back briskly to his seat, sighing with relief that the interruption was over. He put on his reading glasses and ripped the envelope open. He turned the page around to see who had signed it and saw the name Aisha in neat hand writing. He smiled. It was his only niece, his late sister’s daughter. He remembered how he used to sit with an eight-year old Aisha and make her practice her handwriting on lined writing books he had bought for her. He turned the letter over and began reading, the smile still on his face.

‘Salam, my dear mamu,

I hope my mamijan, my cousins Saba and Junaid bhai are well.’

Fatima begum opened the small kitchen window overlooking the courtyard and frowned at her husband of twenty-two years. ‘Mian Saheb, you really are the limit! The sun is on top of our heads and you are still lazing around!’. He was about to frown when he caught the aroma of brewing cardamom tea from the kitchen stove and smiled instead. ‘Begum, chai first, then I’m all yours.’

Iftikhar Mian resumed reading the letter.

‘I wish I could write and tell you the same about myself but I am far from well. As you know, my mother got me married to my father’s friend two years ago and you attended my wedding. You prayed for my happy married life. I wish your prayers had come true. I soon discovered that my in-laws had lied about my husband’s education, he didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. He was uneducated. He never completed his metric and dropped out after the 8th standard. My father-in-law wasn’t my father’s friend, in fact, he was my father’s lender. He loaned him a big sum of money that he had lost in a business venture.  I was compensation for this lost money. After marriage, I was treated as nothing more than a maid in my new home. I was made to work like a dog from morning to night doing all the household chores even when I had high fever. I never complained as my mother had taught me to be patient and be regular in my prayers and Allah would make my life better. Things became worse instead of getting better. My husband who worked in Sahiwal got fired from his job in the factory and he arrived home frustrated and angry. I discovered he took opium regularly and he would beat me without any provocation from my end. I lost the baby in my womb after one such beating. My mother in law intervened after this and told my husband to stop beating me for some time. I recovered and for a while I thought things may have improved. My husband got a job in a ladies readymade clothes shop. He began earning well. I was expecting again. One day, he got into a fight with the owner of the shop as he discovered my husband had been stealing money from the till regularly in small sums. My husband came home drunk after this and when I questioned him what had happened, he kicked me and beat me up so badly that I landed up in hospital. I stayed there for two months as I had fractures on my ribs and arm. I am tired of being patient. I want to get out of this hell. My mother is no more and I don’t have anyone to turn to except you. I want to leave my in-laws house but I have nowhere to go. If it isn’t too much trouble I want to come and stay with you. I promise I will not stay for long. I will try and find some employment and move out as soon as I have collected enough money. 

Your unfortunate niece,

Aisha.’

Iftikhar Mian’s outrage escalated to anger as he neared the end of the letter. He made up his mind that he will not leave his niece a minute in that hell hole. He would book a bus ticket for tomorrow morning and bring his niece back with him. His wife needed to be convinced though. He was aware she had an orthodox view of the world and a woman’s place in it and he knew the discussion would take quite a while. He would postpone it for the afternoon. He folded the letter neatly, put it back in it’s envelope and waited for his wife’s arrival with the tea. He traced the carving in the arm of his chair with his fingertip.

Fatima Begum sighed after her first morning interaction with her husband. She knew it was useless arguing with him before he had had his first cup of morning tea. She strained the tea leaves through the glistening copper strainer from her dowry and poured the steaming tea into two china mugs. She placed the mugs on a steel tray and walked out towards her husband. Wordlessly, the tea was handed over and accepted. Iftikhar mian acknowledged her effort with a smile and enthusiastically blew into the cup to cool the hot liquid before taking his first sip. He took in a deep breath afterwards and declared. ‘Begum, no one makes better chai than you!’ 

Fatima Begum ignored him and called out to Sakina, the maid, who was washing the dishes in one corner of the open courtyard where a small brick enclosure and a tap made for a multi-functional washing area. A small jasmine plant near the washing area was in full bloom and Sakina would often take her time polishing the mix of steel and copper dishes just to enjoy the fragrance and remain seated.

‘Get me a chair, Sakina, and hurry up with those dishes. You have been at them the whole morning’. Sakina reluctantly got up from her station and hurried to do her bidding and Iftikhar Mian’s brow furrowed.

‘Did you have anything to discuss with me, begum?’

‘Why, Mian sahib? I cannot sit and have my tea with you?’

‘No, no,’ Mian Saheb said hurriedly, ‘I would love nothing better than your company. I am seldom graced with it is all I am saying. You are so very busy at this hour of the day!’

‘And you have all the time in the world at this precise hour of the day?’

Mian Sahab was befuddled. He thought it best not to respond and await whatever misery lay ahead of him.

Sakina had fetched the chair by now and Fatima begum lowered herself into it. She took the mug of tea from the tray and handed the empty tray to Sakina. ‘Keep this in the kitchen and check whether Saba is getting ready or she will be late for her college.’ She turned her attention to her husband who was now looking at her with as much apprehension as a school child waiting for the principal to give him a scolding.

‘Mian Sahab, I wanted to have a serious word with you about your daughter.’

‘Saba? What has she done?’ Mian Saheb was confused. His daughter had never given them any cause for concern or troubled them in her eighteen years of life. She was a ray of sunshine which brought a smile to Iftikhar Mian’s face whenever she came in his presence.

‘Saba is of marriageable age now and it is our duty to find a suitable groom for her.’ Fatima begum said irritably.

Mian Saheb let out a laugh, relieved it wasn’t anything serious or anything at all about him.

‘So you find this idea of doing something responsible for a change funny, do you?’

‘Begum,’ Mian Saheb began in a conciliatory tone. ‘She has not completed her studies yet, she needs to at least finish her bachelor’s degree and then we can think about her marriage. You know she is in her final year.’

‘I know, but good proposals are not hanging from your precious tree like tamarinds. We need to spread the word and start looking. It will take some time to find the right boy from a good family as well. Once we do, we can get a small ceremony done like an engagement and wait for her studies to finish. Do you agree?’

‘Yes, of course, you are absolutely right.’ Mian Saheb said squirming a little, wishing he was whisked away to another quite place where he was left in peace to enjoy his tea.

‘So, it is settled. Please let Qazi sahib know about our intentions, he must come into contact with a lot of religious boys from our neighbourhood. Meanwhile, I will approach my sister Kulsoom in the city so she can talk to those ladies who arrange marriages, they might know eligible single boys.’

‘That is great, Begum. You seem to have the plan all mapped out! I must get going now. I promised to meet Hakeem sahib today. I will mention it to him, maybe he knows someone.’

‘That Hakeem? That odd recluse who lives alone with the potions he makes himself? I think he is half crazed. He doesn’t know a worthy soul except you. If you are going out, please head to the masjid to talk to Qazi first.’

‘Yes, of course!’ Mian Saheb smiled. He had found an exit at last from the grilling.

Noorabad News. Part 3

Chapter 5.

Iftikhar Mian opened the cobalt steel gate of his house that led on to the narrow brick lane. He had a karukali hat in his hand and adjusted it on his head before stepping out. He had also worn a brown checked blazer that his son had got him as a present. With determined steps he walked along the path heading neither to the Qazi nor to his friend Fazal Haq who was at the Kitab Ghar at this time of day and would be for most of the day. Mian Saheb did plan on meeting him but later on in the day. His purpose and agenda for today was much more important for any delay. He had been mulling over his problem for weeks now and he needed an expert opinion on it.

He had a habit of walking with his head down. In the narrow lanes that surrounded most triple story houses in his neighbourhood there were a lot of speed bumps for wayward scooter drivers and street repair works with no signs to warn hapless pedestrians if they weren’t careful. He heard a familiar voice call his name and looked up to see the Qazi walking towards him from the opposite end of the lane.

Assalam alaikum Iftikar Mian! where are you headed to your Kitab ghar?’ he greeted him warmly.

Kitab Ghar was Iftikhar Mian’s pet project for over ten years. He wanted to build an ambitious library that would be a monument as well salvation to an ordinary town of ordinary people. It would be a place of learning for young and old. Where children came to study after school and where narrow visions of adults widened as they imbibed new ideologies. He had already divided the library into varied sections, factual and fiction, by topics of interest, by subjects varying from astronomy to geology, by authors from Freud to Gibran. However, his personal love was a tribute to Urdu literature and poetry. A tribute to his country’s culture and celebration of its talent. It was Mian’s Kitab Ghar, his legacy.

Although it was still under construction, Kitab ghar had become the meet up place, a clique, for a handful of retired journalists and professors, the few visionaries; whom Iftikhar Mian thought worthy of the title. He did not prefer sycophants who aligned to his views, instead he preferred those that opposed his views vehemently but with logic and intelligence. They preferred convening in flesh for an exchange of ideas, unlike the young who used social media, every Tuesday and Friday to read together and comment on the deteriorating state of politics, economy, culture, youth and the neighbourhood upkeep. It was an opportunity for them to feel their voices were still heard or mattered at all.

‘Yes, I was headed there for a while,’ Mian Saheb said without meeting Qazi’s eyes.

‘I was actually headed to get those pakoras from Shebu’s stand. He is setting up his stall near your house these days.’

‘He knows where all the pakora-lovers live!’

‘No doubt, my daughter loved them when I got them for her last time and now the little one has made me promise to get it for her when I come home today or I will be refused entry into my own home!’

‘Ha, how old is your little one now?’

‘Six years, mashallah! Time really does fly, my friend, my youngest boy will be two soon.’ Mian Saheb nodded trying to hide the incredulous look on his face. Where did this Qazi get the stamina at sixty-two ripe years to keep producing these babies. He knew he had ten grown up children and these last two completed a dozen.

‘I will walk you to the pakora stand.’ Mian Saheb thought he might as well do what his wife had asked of him so that he could enjoy a peaceful evening at home when he returned.

‘Oh no, my friend, you don’t have to make a detour just for me!’ The Qazi said raising his hand in protest.

‘Oh, I am doing it for the pakoras. I will take some for Fazal as well.’ Qazi smiled at this and they both turned towards the pakora stand. ‘I had something important to ask you as well, Qazi Saheb, if you don’t mind.’ The Qazi gave him a quizzical look.

‘How can I be of help?’

‘My daughter, Saba, is of marriageable age, as my wife has pointed out many times, although I feel she is still too young to be married off right now. However, my Begum wanted me to raise this request with you. If you know of any suitable single men would you be able to recommend….’

‘Consider it done, I will definitely keep an eye out for a suitable young man. Mian Ji, please do note that your daughter is not ‘too young’ to be married. It is a father’s duty to marry off his daughter as soon as she reaches puberty. Now, I know we live in a society that values English and western style education and you have been a good father allowing your daughter to complete her basic studies but there is no point in her carrying on her higher education as her main role as a Muslim woman is to complete the faith of her husband and subsequently gain the higher status of being a mother. She already has full knowledge of the Quran as I have coached her myself and that is all she needs for success in her life.’

Mian Saheb suddenly felt hot under his woollen coat and tried adjusting his collar. He did not want to get into an argument with the orthodox cleric and so he nodded and smiled in agreement.

‘I must get going now, I am already very late.’

‘No pakoras then?’ Qazi asked him confused at the sudden change in his companion’s mood.

‘Oh no, I live right next to him so I will drop by his stall later.’ Both gentlemen wished each other a good day and Mian Saheb hurried down the street. The Qazi stared for a while at Mian Saheb’s receding back and then turned around towards the stand.

…………………………………….

The light from the high afternoon sun drifted and dissolved like smoke down the open sky-light across the Homeopathic doctor’s waiting room, casting a spotlight in the corner where Iftikhar Mian was seated uncomfortably in a stiff wooden chair. A large wooden table was placed in the centre of the room and there were some magazines strewn across it titled ‘Jaago’, ‘Dilfareb’ and the daily newspaper- ‘Aaj ki Awaz’. An incense stick was lighted in a silver stand and the perfumed fumes rose from it irritating Mian Saheb’s nose. He tried to ignore the smell but it itched his nostrils and he finally sneezed hard. Shaking his head, he focused on the magazines but a glance at the collection brought a scowl to his pleasant face. ‘Aaj ki Awaz’ was the rival newspaper of ‘Hamari Dunya’ where worked for before his retirement. A reporter from ‘Aaj ki Awaz’ had a habit of always getting wind of a story before he could and publishing it just before he had a chance. A few wooden benches and chairs surrounded the centre table. The lamps on the walls made a feeble attempt at banishing the approaching darkness creeping into the corners of the dark room. There was another man seated on the opposite end of the room, in an equally uncomfortable chair. He was reading ‘Aaj ki Awaz’ which was enough for Mian Saheb to not want to engage in conversation with him.

A young boy, ten years of age, a crisp white shirt which was neatly tucked inside his khakhi knee length shorts peered through the door to the waiting room.

‘Iftikhar Mian Saheb? Hakeem ji will see you now.’ The boy called out in high octane voice that was yet to crack.

Iftikhar Mian got up promptly, straightening his starched white Kurta with his hands and adjusting the woollen topi on his head whilst making his way slowly across the hallway. He smiled at the boy while passing him by. ‘How are you Gullu?’ Gullu gave him a half smile. He was not allowed to talk to the Hakeem’s patients.

‘Adaab, Hakeem Saheb!’ Iftikhar Mian greeted the Hakeem enthusiastically as he stepped inside the Hakeem’s offices.

The Hakeem had been studying a magazine article through his round reading glasses which were attached to a golden chain around his neck, a cup of tea steamed at his side in a small earthen-ware cup on a low meenakari rosewood table. He wore an olive toned shalwar kameez and a qaraquli hat. His salt and pepper beard was thick, covering his jawline and reaching downward to almost entirely obscure his neck. He was seated on the red and navy Persian carpet spread out across the length of the room. Behind him was an oak cupboard with bottles of different shapes and colours. The contents of these bottles varied from herbs, powders and tiny white tablets. He had got up at the sound of Iftikhar Mian’s greeting as a sign of respect to welcome him and shake his hand. ‘Adaab, Mian ji, Please have a seat,’ He returned the greeting with equal enthusiasm. Mian Saheb was the Hakeem’s oldest and most valued customers.

Iftikhar Mian sat on the cushioned floor of the Hakeem’s office. He leaned against a navy velvet bolster with twined golden tassels. The Hakeem’s office did not have any chairs. He had a unique set of medical beliefs which argued amongst other things that seating, sleeping and eating on the floor had specific health benefits. Iftikhar Mian was a disciple of the Hakeem’s medical expertise and over the years the Hakeem had singlehandedly cured many serious and not so serious ailments that Iftikhar Mian either had or imagined he had.

Before Mian Saheb had a chance to explain what he had come in for the Hakeem adjusted his glasses and glanced at Ifitikhar Mian with a keen eye. ‘Your colour is bordering on the paler side since I last saw you, Mian Saheb! Let me read your nabz.’ The Hakeem believed that doing a pulse diagnosis was an important aide in getting to the bottom of any ailment.

Ifitkhar Mian complied, leaning his elbow on the table and presented his hand to the Hakeem. The Hakeem placed his thumb on Mian’s left wrist at the precise vein for an informed reading. He stopped and listened for a few moments furrowing his thick unruly brow. Then after a while he leaned back against the cupboard behind him. ‘Your pulse tells an interesting story, Mian Saheb.’ He stated in a grave manner.

‘Nothing can be hidden from a medicine man! At times my heart flutters like a bird about to take flight and feels as if it will break out of its rib cage, I have strange palpitations for no reason, I feel short of breath, I feel energetic and listless at the same time, I feel restless as if I want to run a million miles and then the next moment I feel so exhausted I feel like lying down!’ Mian finished in the rush of words with great feeling and then shook his head. ‘Please tell me what is happening to me.’

‘Do you remember when you first started experiencing these sensations?’ Hakim asked in a disapproving tone.

‘I remember,’ Mian said softly. He looked away from the Hakeem’s intense eyes and gazed dejectedly at the wall behind him, which had an oil painting of a village maiden filling water from a well. The maiden’s eyes were downcast, a long veil covering her head and part of her forehead, but the smile on her face was coquettish. ‘It was the first time I saw our divorced neighbour on the terrace adjoining our roof. She moved to the house next to ours a few weeks ago.  She was putting up a saffron coloured veil to dry on the washing line and through the veil I could make out the delicate frame of her face. Her glass earrings caught the sunlight and blinded me for a moment and then pulled my attention towards her.’ Iftikhar Mian sighed heavily. ‘That was the moment. I know this is highly inappropriate but I haven’t been able to get that vision out of my addled brain. I haven’t ventured up on my roof since then and have been taking my morning tea downstairs in the courtyard instead. This has led to frequent early morning interactions with my wife which is quite undesirable. It brings me into the direct line of vision from her usual haunt in the kitchen and she keeps giving me new tasks to complete every day.’ He said bowing his head sadly. 

The Hakeem got up and walked in a laboured manner up and down the small room, his limbs stiff from sitting cross legged on the floor for a long time. He stroked his beard in deep thought and finally spoke heavily, ‘Unfortunately, you are a patient of Moh and if not checked this will lead to the more dangerous sentiment of Uns.’ The Hakeem raised his hand sensing the impending protest, ‘I know, I know, traditionally this is not a medical ailment but at your age it is a dangerous condition indeed.’

Moh and Uns, you say?’ Mian asked incredulously. The Hakeem nodded seriously. ‘But attraction and attachment are hardly diseases, Hakeem Sahib!’ Mian said with a slight laugh, relieved he hadn’t developed an incurable heart condition.

‘Really?’ Hakeem challenged with raised eyebrows. ‘This condition is like poison for a middle aged man like yourself and knowing you as I know you, it can have a ravaging effect on your sensitive and imaginative nature. I have seen young men struggle with the emotional demands of this condition, they are spurred into illogical actions and dangerously stupid antics. In your case, if remained unchecked it can harm your heart, your mind and most importantly your family!’ Hakeem halted to take note of the uncertain expression on Iftikhar Mian’s face and then continued.

‘I see you aren’t convinced. Let me explain it in a way you might understand. Uns is akin to a precious gemstone, like the rare sapphire on your ring finger. It may collide with your fate or coexist with it in prosperity. It can turn fortunes, make beggars kings but it can kill as well. Everyone wants it but it’s not for everyone. It’s precious, yearned for, pulsing with the brilliant light of life and the deadly colour of poison. The shade is deep and alluring, holding the mysteries of the oceans, where fantasies swim in the shape of mermaids and sharks lurk waiting to draw blood.’ The Hakeem, exhausted with this passionate speech, sat down leaning against the cushions placed against the wall.

‘But Hakeem ji, you talk against the emotion of attachment as if it was a demonic creature out to harm unsuspecting men. Surely all attachment cannot be bad?’

‘There is only one kind of attachment that we must strive for, and that is the love of our Allah, our Almighty Creator. That alone can bring peace into our lives and keep all demons at bay. We shouldn’t get attached to any material possession or person on this earth as this is all transient and a distraction to our true purpose.’

Mian Saheb duly chastened, observed the Hakeem silently for a few moments, afraid to disturb him. ‘So, Hakeem ji, what do you prescribe for my condition?’ he finally asked.

The Hakeem reached behind him to get a small bottle with the tiny white tablets from the cupboard and handed him a mixture wrapped in a piece of paper. ‘Have one teaspoon after breakfast and dinner every day.’

Mian nodded and took the bottle and prescription ‘Thank you.’ He reached into his pocket for his wallet. ‘Please Hakeem ji, you must take some payment this time.’

The Hakeem raised his hand. ‘You know I have never taken payment from you and I will not start now. But heed my words,’ the Hakeem halted to give Iftikhar Mian a stern look, ‘I know it will be hard but do not look at her. If you don’t it will be like throwing a match to oiled wood, before you know it, it will go up in flames and burn everything in it’s stead. You will feel the pull like the magnetic force of the sun, but whatever happens, avoid the object of your Uns at all costs. Come to see me again after two weeks and we will see what your condition looks like.’

……………………

Iftikhar Mian arrived home to find his wife shouting at Sakina. ‘Have you lost all the strength in your arms? Come on, sweep the flower beds too, I don’t want to see any rotten leaves lying around.’

Iftikhar Mian coughed, ‘Rotten leaves are actually good for flower beds begum, we just need to prepare them to make compost.’

‘Will you prepare the compost? Should I tell Sakina to give you the heap of dead leaves?’

‘Uh…Me? No, actually I am a bit busy right now.’

‘Then let me tend to my plants in my own way.’

‘Ok.’ Mian Saheb said in a small voice and then waited patiently looking at his wife.

‘Why are you standing there like this? Haven’t you had lunch at the club?’

‘Actually, I have had lunch but I was hoping to have a talk with you, begum.’

‘Can it not wait? You know I am in the middle of something.’

‘Yes, it can definitely wait.’ Iftikhar Mian agreed whole heartedly and kept standing in the same spot patiently waiting for his wife.

‘Sakina, stop day dreaming girl! Start again from there.’

Sakina gave a long suffering look to Iftikhar Mian and he smiled back in empathy.

‘What was that? Now you are standing there exchanging these furtive looks with my maid Mian Saheb, shame on you!’

Iftikhar Mian laughed, ‘You know very well I am waiting here for you, begum while admiring your ever green beauty, like Ghalib said;

A lifetime passes before a sigh shows its effects


Who would wait so long to see you fixing the tangles in your hair?

‘For heaven’s sake, Mian ji, leave the poor dead poet alone. Let his soul rest in peace. Fine, I know you will not let me do my work until you have had your little talk.’ Fatima begum was about to sit on the chair in the courtyard when Iftikhar Mian shook his head.

‘We should have this conversation in private.’

Fatima begum glanced at Sakina who smiled knowingly. ‘Why are you smiling, girl? Have you received a proposal? I want this courtyard spic and span when I return.’

‘You are the limit, Mian Saheb! What do you mean you want to talk in private in broad daylight? What will the maid think? You have two full grown children!’ she admonished Iftikhar Mian blushing deeply as she accompanied him inside the house.

‘You misunderstood me, begum! I don’t have any romantic intentions for our rendezvous at least not for now,’ he said with a wink. ‘I wanted to talk to you about my niece.’

Iftikhar Mian had led his wife to the living room. 

‘What about your niece?’ Fatima begum asked in a confused tone.

Iftikhar Mian narrated the contents of the letter he had received that morning and told his wife of his intention to bring his niece to stay with them.

‘Look Mian Saheb, you know what my views are about these things. Once wed, a girl needs to compromise and stay in her marital home until her death. I would say the same to my daughter on her wedding day. Nowadays, girls want everything to be perfect form day one. They aren’t patient. This niece of yours, I am sure is making a mountain out of a molehill. I would advise you to visit her and talk to her husband and in-laws so they know she has someone to look out for her. Warn them that if they misbehave someone will question them. They will get scared and start treating her well. Take Junaid with you so they see a strong brother by her side as well but don’t bring her here. It will end her marriage. You will be doing her more harm than good. She has her whole life ahead of her, who will marry her? What kind of life will she lead? She is talking about moving out once she has enough money, first what work will she do to get this money? And if she starts living alone, will she not be exploited? She will be just an easy prey for men as a single divorced girl living by herself.’

Iftikhar Mian grew quite nodding in agreement to end the conversation with his wife. He walked up the stairs to the roof. He knew Firdous didn’t frequent the roof in the afternoon and he would be quite safe to walk the length of it to reflect on the issue of his niece. He began pacing up and down it’s length.

His wife had talked sense, he hadn’t thought about what his niece would do once she came to stay with them. It would not be so easy for her to remarry. She talked about working and living by herself but these weren’t practical ideas. What work would she do? She was Intermediate pass. She hadn’t done any degree or any technical studies. He knew he couldn’t allow her to stay alone, it was a big risk for a young girl. She would have to live with him but for how long, he would not live forever and after he died what would happen to her? There was a lot to think about and Iftikhar Mian realized he hadn’t given it as much thought as this matter demanded. His wife was right about one thing. At the very least he needed to go and check on his niece. Maybe things had improved since she wrote that letter. Maybe if he warned her husband he would back off. The letter was a week old. He knew his son’s visit was due soon. He decided to wait for him and then plan a trip to Gujrat.

He was about to turn back to the staircase to go down for lunch when he heard a scream. He ran towards the wall joining his house to Firdous’s house and saw her veil had caught fire. She was screaming trying to free herself from the rising flames but the veil was tied in a knot around at her waist and it was proving difficult for her to shake it off herself. Iftikhar Mian leapt across over the waist length wall and jumped down landing on her roof. He ran forward and caught the veil pulling it free from her body and then dousing the flames with his feet. He turned to her when the fire was out and placed his hands on her shoulders pulling her forward asking her if she was alright. She smiled at him. ‘Thank you. You are a hero, Mian Saheb! You saved my life!’ Firdous spoke the words he had never imagined even in his dreams.

‘What’s happening here?’ Fatima begum was standing staring at them from across the wall. Her brows were snapped together angrily. Iftikhar Mian turned to stare at her. Sakina was standing by her side shaking her head disapprovingly at him. Iftikhar Mian grew red and pulled away from Firdous quickly. ‘Begum? What are you doing here? You never come up to the roof!’

‘I came here to ask Sakina to clean the floor as it was long overdue but now I think I should have come here more often. I see this has been a blind spot you are taking advantage of.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Iftikhar Mian asked flustered. He looked at Firdous. She was standing with her head down as if caught in a shameful act and she did not have a veil on. He could understand why his wife might think something untoward had happened between them.

‘You have the guts to ask me this when I have caught you in broad daylight? Hai Allah, to think you have two grown up children. Imagine what they would think about you if they found out?’

‘Begum, please!’ Iftikhar Mian pleaded, embarrassed for Firdous more than himself. ‘It’s not what you think. Firdous bibi had her veil on fire and I had to leap over the roof to save her.’

‘Wah! What a courageous and selfless soul you are,’ Fatima begum remaked sarcastically. ‘If that were the case where is the burnt veil?’ she peered over the wall looking around for it.

Iftikhar Mian shook his head impatiently, ‘Of course, you never believe me! You always want proof. Here it is, right here….’ He pointed to the floor and was stunned to see no burnt veil lying there. He blinked in surprise and turned around in a circle trying to locate it.

‘Well? Where is it?’ Fatima begum snapped. Sakina tut tutted at the situation and placed a sympathetic hand on Fatima begum’s arm offering her sympathy.

Iftikhar Mian stuttered and stammered. He didn’t have an answer. He turned to Firdous for help who gave him a blank look.

‘Yes, exactly as I thought.’ Fatima Begum said furiously and stormed off. Iftikhar Mian called out to her and then awkwardly climbed the wall back to his own roof.

He caught Fatima begum going down the second flight of staircase. ‘Please begum! It’s not what you think it looked like.’

‘Hmph’ Sakina made a derisive sound.

‘You go down and complete your chores.’ He ordered her harshly and Sakina stepped back in fright. She ran downstairs leaving the couple alone.

‘I assure you! Do you think I would leap across a roof wall at this age for any other reason than an absolute emergency? I think Firdous bibi must have removed the burnt veil.’

‘Mian Saheb, you are on very thin ice at the moment and if I see you on that roof again, god help you.’ Fatima begum told him angrily before walking down the staircase.

Iftikhar Mian sighed in relief, wiping the thick sweat off his forehead. His heart was beating fast with all the excitement. Less than a few hours after the Hakeem had warned him he had disobeyed his instructions of keeping away from Firdous. The Hakeem had been right. It was having an adverse effect on his wellbeing. He could feel his blood pressure rise and his pulse race. All he could think of was to curl up in his bed and go to sleep for a few hours. 

…..……………….

Doctor Shareef woke up in the middle of the night with a cough. He reached for the jug his wife normally placed on his bed side table with a covered glass. Today the jug was missing. He turned around in his bed and realised his wife was missing as well. He got up grumbling. Now, he would have to go all the way to the kitchen in the cold to fetch it himself water. His wife knew he had an early start the next morning. He got out of his bed, walked down the hall and entered the kitchen. He was appalled at what he saw his wife doing inside.

‘Ruku! I thought we discussed this long ago and you secretly went behind my back?’ He walked up to her and snatched the small packet with a herbal powder in it and threw it to the floor angrily. The doctor’s wife, Rukaya’s face turned red with embarrassment. She looked down. ‘Why do you need to take these useless herbs when I am giving you medicine?’

‘I have told you I don’t trust your western medicine. They all have side effects. They make me feel worse. Sometimes my head hurts, sometimes I get a rash..’

‘So you can tell me what side effect you get and I will change the medicine for you.’

‘Hakeem sahib says all allopathy medicine have side effects. Some evident and some hidden but they all weaken your body instead of making it stronger.’

The doctor banged his fist on the kitchen counter. ‘That illiterate man. You think he knows better than me?’ he asked furiously.

Rukaya fell silent and tried to calm her husband, ‘I never said he is better than you. You are most important for me but I just feel he can cure me in a better way.’

‘Rukaya, you have irritable bowel syndrome. You just need to avoid the mugs of spices you put in the food and have the medicine I give you on time.’

‘Hakeem sahib says spices have healing powers. I only put the spices in my food that he approves and besides since I have started his herbal prescription I haven’t been ill at all.’

The doctor couldn’t believe his wife, out of all the people in the world, refused to trust him and if his own wife refused to trust him who else in the town would. He decided enough was enough. He would need to take the matter up with the Hakeem himself and tell him to back off corrupting his wife’s simple mind.

………………………………

Dara Khan walked forlornly down the narrow brick lane. His shoulders slumped and his head bent down, a posture quite unbecoming of an aspiring journalist. He counted the pebbles that he passed, kicking one in his agitation. What made for an interesting journalistic story in a dull place like Noorabad? Did he need to invent one or sensationalise existing facts?

A few loud voices interrupted the musings in his head. He looked up to see the neighbourhood Hakeem engaged in a verbal fight with the Doctor who practised a few streets down from him. He squinted and moved forward through the rapidly gathering crowd.

‘You listen to me, you imposter! You cannot practice this heathen form of prolonging the suffering of the people in this town just because of some misplaced whim you have!’ the doctor, in his white coat and red face, yelled from the opposite side of the street flailing his arms and pointing towards the crowd.

‘At least I don’t inject and feed poison to people in pretence of curing them.’ The Hakeem replied heatedly, he pointed his walking stick at the doctor in accusation.

‘What do you mean I feed them poison?’ the doctor yelled, ‘I have a degree in medicine unlike you. Who has educated you; the gnomes in the garden?’

‘I use natural herbs and plants, nothing artificial which has any adverse effect on the human body!’ The Hakeem replied with a superior air.

The Doctor sniggered, ‘Is that why the sprain in your leg is getting worse instead of better, and that’s why you are limping away with that stick you carry?’

‘So, what would you have me do? Come to you for addictive pain killers which target the symptoms and not the root cause of my injury? My muscles just need rest, a hot compress, herbal massage oils and time to heal. Something you don’t have the brains to understand.’

‘You are nothing but a clown, brewing potions and performing tricks to mislead people and I won’t allow any more of this.’

‘A clown? Is that why your wife always comes to my door to cure her ailments although her own husband is such a great doctor?’

The doctor fumed in silence. He did not have an answer to the Hakeem’s jibe. His wife was out of his control completely and it was true she trusted the wily imposter’s prescriptions rather than a qualified doctor’s advice.

‘If I catch you prescribing medicine to my wife again, I will burn down your sham practice myself, do you hear?’ the doctor was now beside himself with anger.

The Hakeem laughed and addressed the be speckled wiry assistant by his side, ‘Take your doctor to get his blood pressure checked up. I think he might need some of his own pills which might cure him for now and weaken some organ of his body.’ 

 The doctor ran forward to attack the Hakeem. The two men grabbed each other’s collars and took flings at each other. They both stumbled and fell on the floor and were separated by a few elder men in the crowd who begged them to have some sense and consider their positions before resorting to petty violence.

The crowd that was gathered watching the show was divided in their loyalties. Some were sworn believers of the Hakeem’s ancient art of herbalism and others adhered to modern medicine for the smallest of ailments. Earlier on in the fight, they whispered in indignation on cue at each remark that was flung from the two opponents like watching a tennis match passionately. The two factions had cheered their favourite on in the fist fight. Soon, the fight was broken up by a few older men in the crowd but the crowd was yearning for more. They attacked one another, first with words and then with limbs, taking sides and taunting those who didn’t agree with them.

Dara Khan had stepped forward where he had front row view of the fight unfurling between the two opposing schools of thought and his smile slowly turned to a wide grin. He had found his eureka moment.

Next day he left a small typed page on his editor’s cluttered desk marked urgent in red for attention and a sticky note that read ‘the reason to keep me.’

Noorabad News: 14.01.2018

Showdown between old world Hakeem and new age Doctor!

A mob fight broke out on Jugni street on 13th January 2018 at noon. The fight, that led to damage of a local grocery store and minor injuries sustained by three men who were taken to the hospital, followed shortly after a verbal spat between Hakeem Gul Baksh of Jugni street and Doctor Faraz Sheikh who has a clinic on Rawal road. The clash between the two school of thoughts was witnessed by the residents of Jugni street who began arguing the points raised by the two opponents. In the argument that transpired it was discovered that the doctor’s own wife has been a long term patient of the Hakeem and distrusts her husband’s modern medicine methodology which caused the Doctor to confront the Hakeem outside his clinic. The Hakeem argued that allopathy caused short term gain and long term harm to the human body and the Doctor called the Hakeem an imposter who has possibly obtained his qualification from garden gnomes.

What is your view on this issue? Send us your comments on our webpage http://www.noorabadnews.com/doctorhakeemdebate. Your opinion matters to us.

About the Author Dara Khan: This is your special feature correspondent who captures stories that come from your town and touch your heart. Your neighbourhood news will be brought to you as soon as it transpires so you will never feel left out with what’s happening in the world you live in. Watch this space for more.

Dara Khan.

The story ran, Mojib beamed and slapped Dara’s back boisterously and the website crashed with the heated debate through comments that mostly opposed the Hakeem’s obsolete methods to cure serious ailments. The Hakeem was happily ignorant of the damage the newspaper had done to his professional practice but he was amongst the few people in the world who did not work for monetary gain but the joy of doing what he loved and his regular clients visited him irrespective of the negative reviews published in the newspaper.

…………………………

Dealing with the attack of the ‘taunties’.

I was sitting minding my own business in a family dinner gathering, and an older family relative took it upon herself to tell me what was what. Now, if it was about a gaping lack in my decorum or manners, I would put my hands up and accept her mission to slay me, but this wasn’t about that. She had an opinion about everything that I happened to be doing wrong in my life, according to her view of what my life should be like. She went on to express it loudly, repeatedly and persistently in front of the twenty people gathered there. She did come up with snide, humorous one liners which were quite innovative, to give the devil it’s due.

In Pakistan, there is an unsaid rule of compliance to our elders, especially if you’re female. It comes in the package of being a well brought up lady. Since, we live in a culture that teaches the young to obey the old blindly and replying back is like a sin, I humbly kept my mouth shut. By the end of the evening, I was dashing out to the parapet to wail into the lonely night.

Now, some people may say that having acquired a number of years under her belt like medals in a war, she had the right to bring her unsolicited wisdom to the table. I should have taken it in my stead. After all, as women we do have to go through life dealing with all sorts of unpleasant things, like period cramps. But this got me so down that I succumbed to one of those anonymous posts on a Facebook group. I laid out my sorrow for unknown ladies to buck me up and it worked, as I was too embarrassed to share it with my family. The problem is as nice girls we have been taught to never be associated with a tongue and a strong opinion. You don’t like something, go cry in the shower or the online equivalent of it – an anonymous post.

As I didn’t fall pregnant after two seconds of being married to my husband, I am not sure how many times I was asked quite gruffly when I would have a baby by random older women qualifying as ‘aunties’ as they were known in some vague capacity to the family. In weddings, on the street, in parties, in a cinema and a roller coaster ride (true story). This never failed to make me miserable and I would hide the mist in my eyes behind an over bright smile, hoping my kajal remains intact.

Now really, it is time to stand up to the attack of the ‘taunties’ *(not my term) i.e. aunties who taunt, in your life. You don’t like something they say, tell them right then, albeit politely. Seems like an obvious thing to do, but sadly for many Pakistani girls it remains an uphill struggle to obtain a voice and express their feelings. Respect is a return gift, irrespective of age. For those mothers lucky to have baby girls, teach them to speak their mind before telling them to shut up. Being outspoken is not equal to being rude. Mic drop.

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay 

Is fiction really fictitious?

A pink moon is shining down on us. Yes, you got that right. Pink moon. But see, it’s fiction. Anything can happen in fiction, right? It doesn’t have to be a lived and breathed experience. Apparently not for some people who think it’s all about reality and real life experiences twisted into fiction to hide *insert gasp here* dark secrets and true identities. No, sorry to burst that bubble.

I released a poem called, tourist eyes on my Facebook account a while back with the clear heading -FICTION. And then flowed the sombre sympathies from friends. Family was too busy hiding their faces in embarrassment. I mean who announces the end of their marriage so blatantly on a social platform. Does she have any sense of decorum? I got some toned down public messages of sympathy and then an outpour of no holds barred queries in my inbox. I got tired of replying and just ignored the rest of my messages. Let them assume I’ve split up from my husband, whom, just to clarify I am very much still partnered up with.

I am writing a novel where a crime takes place and I’m now curious if people will automatically assume it’s happened to me. I am also curious as to what readers think of this notion. Do they think a story teller cannot cook up made up characters out of thin air by the power of their imagination and then weave a purely fictional tale? If I write a character similar to myself, is it automatically me? I admit that I’ve made this error myself. Before I started this long and tedious journey of writing for no apparent reason or reward; I asked an author if the protagonist was like him. Now, I understand how he must have done a roll of the eyes and emitted a long suffering sigh at my assumption.

To argue both sides of the coin, nothing can be purely fictional. We see things happen around us and it automatically translates to our written word. We see a shocking piece of crime flash on the news and it impacts us to the extent that it forms a subconscious layer in our soul. We might take those bitter or good memories, consciously or subconsciously, and draft it into a tale. But that is the reservoir of the writer. The treasure trove where those items are stored. The magic room where memories of everything we have ever seen or heard or lived are kept safe. We may use this storeroom to embellish our fictional piece. If we were to create a character for example, we might take the gravelly voice of a fruit vendor, the eyes of a ware wolf and the irritating habit of saying shushhhh from your mother’s bossy second cousin. You put all these together to make the character whole. The character is still not real but he isn’t all fake either.

It’s still the writer’s creation. That must be appreciated or at least understood. It is not about me, my husband, my friends and my neighbours. A piece of fiction is fictional, folks. Don’t over think it.

Image from google, not my credit.

The existential crisis of motherhood.

I was never a baby person. I would look upon these crying yet cute specimens of pro-creation when I came upon them occasionally with a polite smile and an aloof nod. Babies didn’t like me much either. They started bawling upon contact. When I got married, children were meant to follow like a checklist item. I couldn’t live my marital life in peace until I popped one out. Constant nagging, questioning and prayers followed me wherever I went. Thus, I embarked happily on the mission to birth one. Afterall, how difficult could it be?

Gob smacked

When I was pregnant, I thought labour was the difficult part. Motherhood is something else. It is one of those things that you need to experience to understand. Like sky diving or citing a ghost. I had an easy pregnancy. I didn’t even have morning sickness. Sure, labour was like being trampled over by a truck at high speed but afterwards was something else. I still don’t have a word for it because I was meant to use the word ‘elated’. But elated was not my word to start with. Gob smacked came close.

The big switch

As a new mum you are expected to immediately switch into the doting role of a mother hen fussing over her chicklets. Many times it takes a long while to bring yourself into that mode. It’s not like a switch being turned on. For some women, it might be but others may require some time to come to terms with how much life has changed for them. It was a progressive trend of love and adoration for me. Each day that passed I fell more in love with my baby. My mother pointed this out recently that I’m kissing her all the time. I didn’t even notice.

Guilt in a loop

I see vlogs of super mummies (they call themselves that), with shiny makeup and even shinier meal ideas for their little ones. They even make funny face shapes with fruit on their overnight oats before presenting it to their darlings. My little one on the other hand doesn’t consider oats a food group. I suspect she thinks it’s play dough. There is always judgement thrown at a mother. It could be well meaning but condescending advice or downright disapproval. There is a constant comparison with other babies. Hence, the constant nagging guilt that you aren’t doing enough.

Carry on, Jeeves

It doesn’t matter if I’m popping an extra strength vitamin every day to lug my baby around. I don’t have the strength to charge through the day with a toothy grin and a super mum cape. Most of this lethargy lies in my brain. For most of my life I’ve had to just look after myself. Now, I have a headstrong toddler who controls me. She controls my actions, my phone, my sleep, whom I talk to and when. She dials my father and mother randomly for which I take credit. She also dials every forgotten contact on my phone for which I am quick to pin the blame on her. It’s a constant battle of wills with her and she wins hands down each time.

No break, No sick leave, No rest

There was a video of people being interviewed for a fake job with the duties of a mother. It was called ‘Director of Operations’. Most interviewees laughed at the ‘inhumane’ and ‘insane’ nature of the role. It’s known to be the toughest job in the world. It’s all true but you still do it. And you feel a sense of achievement and love unlike anything you have ever done. You carry on despite lack of sleep, cramps and sickness because your baby takes precedence over everything.

Couple goals

Sometimes, I look back at all the romantic travel and dinner pictures with my husband and wonder if we are the same couple. After the baby, couple time is replaced mostly with shift duty. Couple goals takes a backseat. We don’t have enough time to engage in a two minute dialogue forget anything else. In those occasions where we try and demonstrate physical affection our baby comes flapping her hands in disapproval to shoo us away from each other. One day, she will grow up and understand the concept of romance so we’ll be allowed to have some. Until then, we just have to sneak it in when she’s sleeping, if we have any energy left.

Forever love (read worry)

Once you become a mother, there is no escape from the constant worry of making sure your baby is safe, happy, healthy and is living the best life they can. This worry is all encompassing and doesn’t ever go away. Even when your baby is no longer dependent on you and might herself be a mother of a baby. Your happiness and health is directly related to her. My mother would constantly worry about me and I would tell her not to. Now, I see myself doing it and my mother tells me off about it. It’s a never ending cycle.

Writing Woes

Being a writer and a mum? There is a covert assumption thrown at me that to write I may be ignoring my priority-my baby. But here’s the thing; I ‘steal’ this time for myself. I sneak it in when she naps or when she sleeps at night. It’s my one act of redemption to claim some ‘me time’. It keeps me sane, grounded and happy. It doesn’t tire me out, in fact it refreshes me and makes me a happier person. Afterall, a happy mum leads to a happy baby.

Being a mother is part of who I am. It’s not everything I am or can be in life.

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Can you see us now?

In markets, in schools, in offices, in streets

In homes, in bedrooms, in safe havens

The fabled beasts roam free

They aren’t real -they bear no name, no shame,

We’re real -we cry, we bleed, we bear this sin,

Our dignity is splashed like blood on canvas

Our feelings torched so hell can stoke it’s fire

These beasts prey at night, at day,

They eat our flesh until bloodied and raw

They proceed to the eat chunks from our soul

So that it can never be whole again

Can you see our tears, can you see our haunted eyes?

Can you see our shaking, terrified hearts and limbs?

Can you see what they do to us?

Can you finally see us now?

Even then you expect us to smile, to dress up, to simper for you?

To be the best wife, lover, mother, sister, daughter to you?

To bear this burden, this fear, all alone?

To never let it show, to never let it out?

Can you finally see what we go through in our lives?

And even now you won’t protect us?

Even now you won’t speak for us?

Even now you won’t stand up for us?

Image by Alexandra Haynak from Pixabay 

Stand up, speak up and fight.

The incident is all over the news. Terrible, inhumane and sick. A mother was gang raped on a highway in Pakistan. In front of her three small children. Her car was stranded on the motorway when it ran out of fuel. Why was she raped? According to the CCPO (Chief of Police, Lahore) she took the wrong road. Yes, you read that right. Obviously she should have taken GT road, duh! Also, who doesn’t check their fuel before getting out on a drive? There are a lot of other theories. She shouldn’t have been driving out late at night with her children at 1:30am. She should also have been with a man. She might not have been that religious. Why didn’t she call the police? Are you sure she wasn’t ‘asking for it’? Was she wearing the right dress, by right I mean covered from head to toe? The focus is on the victim. The blame lies with her. Never mind that women get raped inside their homes as well. They don’t have to get out on a street for it.

It’s time we stop protecting and hiding the real reason for rape: The Rapists. Because that’s what we’ve been doing; enabling them since eons. Victims are hushed up for the sake of their family’s false honour. You protect your sons/brothers for their perverseness, you make allowances for them, you grant them unlimited power, rights and privileges. Their whereabouts are not questioned. Their friends are not scrutinised. Their privacy is respected. They are allowed to stay out late. Their eve teasing is looked upon as a big joke, their language can be dirty, they are allowed to flirt, harass and stalk women at workplaces, educational institutions and public places. Why? Because they are men after all, red blooded young men. They can’t help themselves. It’s time we get up and take a closer look at how we are raising men around us. The men in our family, because all this starts from our home.

This is for men in general:

-When a woman talks to you whether online or in person, she isn’t asking to be flirted with.

-When a woman occupies a public space she isn’t asking to be assaulted or harassed.

-When a woman drives alone at night she isn’t asking to be raped.

Sorry to break it you, but these rapists are not demons who come from hell occasionally to wreak havoc on earth. They are human. They live amongst us. They could be related to us. They could work with us. They could be our best pals. They could be people in power, they could be your managers at work or they could be our house help. And you could be their next victim. The focus needs to shift to them.

A severe view must be taken on their punishment. They should be given the harshest punishment by law. They should be hanged. It’s a trending hashtag and I hope it has it’s required effect. But the real change is going to happen if men are as outraged as women for such crimes. It’s not a choice anymore. It’s a necessity. Men cannot distance themselves from this crime saying this will never happen to women in our family because of x y z reason. They cannot laugh at #metoo anymore. They cannot slut shame or victim blame assaulted women anymore. Because it’s spreading like a deadly virus and one day, it will come around to your door. It’s your wives, daughters and sisters that will be their next target. For many, that one day has already come and gone. Most women in the country, most women in your family may have already lived through that day and you may not even know because our society has put a lock on their mouth called ‘shame and honour’.

It’s time to break the silence. It’s time to stand up and speak up about crimes committed on women, even if they aren’t related to you, even if you see eve teasing or any harassment on the street. It’s time to fight against and report such heinous crimes. It shouldn’t be accepted as the norm that these predators and rapists can get away with it. We need to cancel this social acceptance and start a zero tolerance movement against it.

Operation stealthy exit

Sunday is my lie in day. I deserve a day off from the 5:30/6:00 am routine of milk feeding and changing my toddler. This suggestion came from my hubby who has been efficiently handling this for quite a few weekends now. When I do come downstairs, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 9am our open plan kitchen is in a mess. Toys, random pieces of food, all kitchen cans and containers are strewn all over. I ignore all of it benignly to focus on getting my cuppa chai and porridge, the problems of the world can wait till after breakfast.

While my porridge is being microwaved, the baby is pulling at my leg. I have an awww moment. She missed me. As I pick her up to hug her, a stink crushes my nostrils almost (mind you – almost, as I’m a pro now) killing my appetite. I look around for hubby and he is no where to be seen. I resign myself to changing her poo filled nappy. After her bum is clean as a whistle, hubby comes dashing from a corner of the house carrying a container of water and some cotton wool.

‘I got this!’ He announces like a super hero all set to rid the world of Thanos single handedly.

‘It’s done.’ I tell him, with only a hint of resentment in my tone. And then because he has been a gem managing her while keeping her and himself alive all morning I peck him on the cheek. He beams.

In the middle of my first bite of porridge, while I am nestled on the sofa catching up on some news, hubby rushes in, a sheepish smile gracing his adorable face. Yes, it’s adorable when I am rested. ‘Need to go toilet.’ He says placing her on the sofa next to me.

Baby sensing fishy business about to unfold, starts bawling, not putting up with being dumped unceremoniously.

‘Ok! Ok! I’m not going anywhere!’ He sits beside her, gooey eyed how his baby is so attached to him.

‘You need to stay for a bit and then slide away unnoticed…’ like one of those detectives in crime shows he regularly watches. He nods in understanding. I feel he would have this sliding away routine down pretty well as he’s seen it only a thousand times. So when baby’s back is turned on the sofa, I give him a nod. Run for it. He gets up and dashes.

Now, this is just my partial opinion but there couldn’t be a more awkward dash in the history of dashes. Far from the quite sleuth like getaway, he gets up running like wolves are at his heels. His foot gets caught in the leg of the side table, slamming loudly against it, the porridge falls to the floor, my tea falls to the floor and the side table topples over. He looks at the mess and then at us frozen mid run. Both baby and I look at him with amused incredulity like watching a unicorn turning into a hippo. He takes one tentative step towards the door and predictably baby starts crying with a look like ‘you guys left me no choice’.

Needles to say, ‘Operation stealthy exit’ is a massive failure folks.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay 

When nostalgia strikes….stay put.

Do you feel nostalgia hurt like bee stings?

Or do you feel it’s like standing on a beach staring out into the ocean of your past, as each wave touches your bare feet it pulls you in, deeper into the ocean without any effort on your part. Soon you are knee deep and then waist deep in memories.  You’re left looking around wondering how did I get here?

One of my favourite movies had a dialogue which stuck with me. A rough translation goes like this, ‘Always look forward in life, leave the past where it belongs and move on.’ Ironically, that’s the opposite of what the leads in the movie actually do. Anyhow, somehow this line has come back to bite me more than once. Every single time, I’ve opened that tempting door to the past, it’s swung right back in my face.

The chime of a church bell, swirling thick mist, the smell of steamy cocoa, colourful paperclips, letters on lined paper, crispy samosas fresh out of boiling oil with ice cold Pakola, and many more feels can set me off. I am reminded of long forgotten friends and dive right in that ocean of memories hoping to find a secret world I’ve missed of colourful flora and fauna. Instead there is a chasm of vapid nothingness. But I am looking at those days and those people with sepia coloured lenses which give everything a golden glow. Reality never measures up to the pretty version in my head.

When I make contact it’s like reaching out to the alien world up there. Surprisingly, there is no common ground, and sometimes not even enough civil ground for us to tread on. Since this has happened with me more than a few times, I have kept the dialogue from the movie as my mantra of sorts. Always look forward in life. I’ll add a few here to make the point stick; Let the past be. Do not dig up old graves. Let the dead lie in peace. As long as I follow this mantra I am fine. The problem begins when I ignore this principle and look back.

Just to make it clear; nothing untoward has ever happened. None of my forgotten friends turned out to be serial killers. It just leaves a lingering distaste, you know? Like when you are expecting a crème brulee and a Jell-O turns up (yeah ok, that was borrowed from Pretty Woman). And somehow in this process, of reaching out, making contact and trying to renew an old friendship due to my sentimentalism (which most times is a by-product of boredom), I end up ruining those happy memories in my head. In their place a question mark is left hanging: how did you ever get on with this person? Like how? Are you even the same person?

The logical part of me reasons that as time passes we grow and change. We experience a multitude of sorrows and joys. We live through our interpretations of heaven and hell. We grow older, we get stronger, we fight the punches life throws at us, picking our broken bones and moving on. Sometimes taking a break to recover enough and then get right back at it. Our bodies change, but most importantly our feelings and perspectives change as well. We will never be the same people we were. Therefore, it is reasonable that our buddies from the past would have changed as well.

So, I don’t look at my stumbling on the path leading back a few times with too much concern. But yeah, walking forward is definitely better.  

Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay