I had eaten my fifth puri and wiped the bowl of the halva clean. The phone rang. You wanted to meet. I wanted to sleep. You came over in the evening and drove us round and round in circles around Model Town talking about the greatest Russian novelists of all time. I looked out of the window and thought how we were going round in circles, the planet was going round in circles. I was overcome by nausea. You bought me a bottle of water and dropped me home.
It was the beginning or something like that.
The electricity had gone again. I kept a count of the number of times we were out of power on a white, ruled notebook I had bought for you, for your copious note taking, but then it was so white and clean that I decided to keep it for myself. There were four crosses on it for this week. There was also a line by Faiz Ahmed Faiz in Urdu. I had copied it down myself to practice the script. Ammi said that my handwriting looked like ants crawling on the notebook. What did Ammi know? Ammi was blind.
We went to Prague for our first vacation together. Being stuck in a traffic jam on the Charles Bridge is not my idea of love, but you were overjoyed. You carried The Unbearable Lightness of Being all around, in your brown backpack alongside chocolates, a Nikon camera, and condoms. I carried a purse stuffed with chimney cake in one hand and a bottle of beer in another.
We spent afternoons in city parks wondering what the sky looked like at night but never knowing because we fell fast asleep from all the walking.
For thirteen days I woke up at the crack of dawn. Never since.
I once knew a man who woke up very early, bought the first newspaper to hit the stands and played the flute on his way back to his apartment. He was my neighbour. I could hear him close the apartment door behind him every morning. One evening, I was sitting on the stairs and smoking a pipe. I had picked up the habit during my volunteer days at an old age home. He stopped next to me and gave me his pretty smile. I asked him to stop playing the flute. He said no. He asked me to stop smoking. I said no.
That weekend, I saw him caked in white power and smelling faintly of ammonia. I’m making a tea table from papier–mâché, he smiled his sweet smile. I was in college. I was taken aback when I thought of his hands working up a paste of paper and glue and water. He was a builder. He was a flute player. He was an investment banker. He was a cook. He was. He was. He was. I was just a student smoking too much to forget that I owed something to the environment, my family, to myself to make something of my life.
As far as I was truly concerned, I owed nothing to no one.
One night, the Everything Man knocked on my door and handed me a casserole. I invited him in and offered him some of the cheap wine I had bought for myself. He declined. I insisted. He had two sips before he set the glass down on the floor. I had no tea table made out of papier mache. We sat on my white and purple mattress, the lonely stars peeking inside my room, and ate the lasagna he had cooked with wooden forks.
I poked around for some meat. There was none.
I thought of home, of my Nanijaan’s cooking, of my Ammi’s whining that the food was too spicy, of my Nanajaan’s soft grey eyes, of my dead father.
Growing up, I feared that Ammi would feed me to the dogs in the locality. I maintained a safe distance from them on my walks to the grocery store, strolls in the park, and even at homes of friends. Mostly, I drove in my battered car and didn’t get off until absolutely necessary. I had almost gone out of my mind in college trying to select friends who didn’t have dogs. I was a social outcast for a few months. Then, they gave my condition a name and now my fears were now normalised, brought into colloquial parlance, accepted as commonplace and legitimate all because of nomenclature. I had cynophobia. I was now a sweet, foreign girl with an illness. I was harmless. I was the harmed. I was now pitied from afar. I suspected I was laughed at in my absence.
Leaving my mother didn’t erase the fear she had instilled in me. You told me that there were dogs in the Qur’an. The verse on The Cave, you said. Look up history, you said. But this had nothing to do with religion. My mother just wanted to kill me, I cried. You held me close and said that no dog was ever going to harm me. You were tender and protective in the face of my imprinted psychological fears. I looked up history anyway.
But this was much, much later.
Before this, I met Abigail with whom I hung out. I noticed her as she rode around on her bicycle a lot and spent an inordinate time in the fiction section of the library. I looked her up on the college Intranet and read her stories and essays. She wrote about gay women, old towns in which synagogues went missing, lots of exquisitely described sex, and each one of her stories had motifs of water, oceans, ponds. Some of her essays delved into religion while one of them spoke in detail about her fear of dogs. And then, I introduced myself to her over cardboard coffee in the cafe. We hung out a few times a month, ate kosher meat (as far as I was concerned it only had to be meat), and avoided dogs together. I bought myself a bicycle. On some weekday evenings, we hopped from bar to bar looking for cute guys with whom we could come back to my apartment.
The Everything Man was now a regular with his casserole and he told me once. “Date better men.”
I heard it as “Date betterment.”
I wanted to kiss him on the mouth.
The Indian step-cousin came home after she heard that Ammi had passed away. She woke me up from my afternoon nap with her consistent knocking. The electricity had gone again. I wiped my sweaty face with a dupatta and opened the door to a small, round head with smiling eyes.
“I thought you were going to stay with us,” I said to her out of politeness. “We have room now that Ammi is no more.”
She said she was sorry for my loss. I said I was sorry for hers. Her husband had died in a bomb blast in Lahore and she said she was visiting his grave. I wasn’t sure if there was anything to bury and I said so. She smiled as if she had heard that many times. Then, she said she did.
She was tiny and reflective. And she was always asking questions.
What was your Ammi like?
Why did you return from Birmingham?
Can I meet your cousins?
I gave shorter answers.
She was okay.
I am going back.
She asked me to visit her one day. I said I would. I didn’t ever intend to.
Indian step-cousin stayed for a few weeks and I saw her infrequently. Sometimes, I would go to the house where she put up with her dead husband’s friends and call upon her saying the oft-repeated lie, I was just passing by. Her face was opening up as days elapsed and I could see she was starting to look happy. I visited her less often.
She called me from the airport before she left.
I imagined her plane crossing the sky and blowing up into pieces. She was a blood relative, a neighbour, and I could see nothing common between us. We shared history, ancestry, and yet. I wrote an email to Everything Man without a subject or even a salutation.
Why should I care about my step-cousin from India?
Why shouldn’t I care about my step-cousin from India?
If there is something that breaks my heart into two, four, eight, sixteen…it is the memory of an acidic fight I had with my husband and when he told me — We’re in this for better or for worse. I almost-cry when I hear the words in a song or in a dialogue of a Hollywood movie. This is why I haven’t left him. This is why I will never leave him.
He’s a solid kind of a guy, dependable, even. He brings the wine, never forgets to close the door to my room, even quotes Bollywood lines for me. He hates Bollywood, the poor bugger. I feel sad for him at such times, how is this man such a pristine model of mud? How has he never understood the power of Shah Rukh Khan on the silver screen?
And then suddenly, one day, we move to the London. He buys himself a Royal Enfield motorcycle and a leather jacket.
I find myself ambling along the streets of the capital waiting for the time when I can make myself useful again, listen to people talk about their wounds again, and try to heal them one psychiatric prescription at a time. I work in shelters and communities, do volunteer work, and read pamphlets about love for others, charity, and the prayers to say before one sleeps at night. I try to recall the Quran lessons during my childhood. I cannot recall a single surah except the first one. I say it at night before I sleep. My husband asks me if I am humming a song.
I say yes, Shah Rukh Khan’s new movie is out.
The next day he comes home with two tickets. We ride to the cinema on the Bullet.
My life is now complete. I could fucking die. But I don’t admit it to anyone. Not even myself.
At one of the shelters, I meet an Egyptian woman with flaming red hair. I can’t take my eyes off her. She is stunning. I make excuses to spend time with her, follow her wherever she goes. I read up on the current state of Egypt. It sounds grim. A coup. A dictator. An instability. A shut down on freedom of speech. Textbook denouement. All of us know how this cookie will crumble. I remind myself all news sounds grim and that is why I don’t read the news.
I forget about the Egyptian woman because by then, I have met a Greek woman. Then, a Kazakh woman. I wish I were a lesbian. I want to kiss all of them. I want to be all of them. One day, I get asked by the Egyptian woman to write an essay about my personal experiences of being female bound by the patriarchy. She’s going to curate the essays, compile them and get them published. I tell her I cannot write.
The truth is, well, I cannot write but also that I don’s want to write. I don’t want her to see me, up close, intimate, my heart on a page as if that’s what all this living is supposed to amount to. I don’t want to end up as a motherloving essay. When I was drinking cheap wine, and staring at the stars from my creaking apartment in Birmingham, I wanted to save something — coral reefs, tigers in India, paper inside the offices of medical insurance companies — something, anything. I wanted to crawl across the earth and pick up the blown up pieces of our fellow humans and put them back together. Not anymore.
Now I just want to stop drinking that fucking cheap white wine and stop working at shelters. But these women, Egyptian, Greek, Kazakh, and even the British make me want to return day after day, to look at them, their lives, their hair, their conflicts, as if I were in love with them. As if I had finally found peace.
I wanted to slap the Indian step-cousin. She kept in touch and it made my blood boil. I didn’t tell my husband this, but he was no fool. He gave me and my rage the distance it needed. He had learnt first-hand how to do so years ago when Ammi was alive. It was the morning he woke up to the smell of cookies baking in the oven.
White chocolate macadamia nut cookies.
The kitchen stood in a mess and I was covered in castor sugar. Perfect setting for making out, I should think so. At least that’s what the cookie companies seem to think. And I would have made love to him on the kitchen floor had my mother not asked a distant aunt to send over an assortment of three cakes for his birthday. She slipped in a note in Urdu saying “In case she wants to buy a cake instead of making one at home.“
I fed the three cakes to the neighbourhood gutter.
On his birthday, we had the cookies with milk.
Then, we went to the finest restaurant in all of United Kingdom. I paid the bill, signed it, and couriered it to my mother.
It was the perfect Sunday. I remember it all too clearly because it was exactly how Sundays should be. The amaltas were blooming and the sunlight was just skimming the surface of everything it touched. To me, it seemed like the day after the world had ended. We could start over, I said to him. We had been engaged for two weeks. Why? he asked holding my hand. Not us, the world, I mean. We could believe that the world has reset itself and washed out the blood and vileness off it. It was that kind of a day. The whole city seemed at peace as if history had crept off like thieves escaping at night. Oblivion was now a gift.
He smiled at me.
I had the minimalism I wanted. My life was a picture perfect clothesline on a summer morning, smelling of water and jasmine. There was a blue breeze, slowly melting ice, an unmoving kitten, and large open spaces. There was no wanting. Just the perception that this too shall pass and become the untouched memory encased in a vial and thrown away into the ocean.
There were yellow flowers at my feet.
Did I ever think it could better? Oh, of course, I thought it could.
Everything Man and I were having dinner. For that evening, I had stuffed potato and cheese inside a chicken and cooked it to a perfect golden brown. (Don’t believe everything my mother implies. She’s a bitch.) We cut it neatly into small pieces and ate as if we were invited to a royal dinner while the TV played the news.
We still sat on the mattress because now I had convinced myself that I was going to be Spartan about my life. Those days, I had decided to be chic and vintage and nonchalant — all at the same time. I was going to wear cashmere blouses. I was going to make my brown skin glisten with sweat. I was going to paste the walls of my apartment with textbook pages I loved. And then, Everything Man waltzed in with a carefully curated life of his own choosing. I wanted to be near him. I wanted to hear his stupid anecdotes about choosing between blue and grey shirts. I wanted to see him build his fucking papier-mâché assortments and play his blessed flute. I wanted to spend time with him tossing chopped vegetables into garlic butter. On days either of us was away, I missed his presence around me. I was very clear that I didn’t want a boyfriend. But I wanted intimacy with his routine. One of those days I knew I was going to kiss him. It was tearing up my heart.
So. Coming back to the TV.
It showed a mother crying over the blurred face of her dead son. I put pieces of chicken in my mouth and chewed them well. He did the same but I could feel him slowing down. Now the boy’s body was wrapped with a white cloth and a man was carrying it. I kept my pace, looked at the screen with rapt attention, still eating while thinking of the rituals needed before burial. The boy’s father was now saying that they had buried him the same day he had died. I still ate the chicken. Everything Man had stopped eating. I finished the food on my plate and licked off the sauce. Everything Man switched off the TV.
Yes, I did believe everything was going to be fine.
You think one of these days it will all make sense. It will all fall into place like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, right? Wrong. It never will. Or more accurately, who cares? I don’t.
I meet all sorts of people at the clinic with all their banged up, gruesome stories. They are bruised and maimed and hurt in ways beyond comprehension that sometimes even I forget to breathe. You think you’ve heard them all, the stories of how women are compromised, assaulted inside so-called safe spaces, men are raped as children and even adults, kids are penetrated and butchered and pissed on, how everyone can see arms crawling from behind, hear voices no one else is hearing, and some of them can’t tell the time because they weren’t taught how. But when a whole person slashes their arms in front of you spraying blood all over your new spectacles, it makes you think again. Makes you numb and robs you of your ability to perceive your humanity. Your heart is beating at a rhythm you don’t identify with. Your arms and legs are not full of flesh and blood anymore. Your skin becomes one with the skin of all people and touching it reverberates a pain of which you can’t find the source. Being naked becomes hard. I know I’ve had a bath in my clothes sometimes fearing to look down at my skin. I know I’ve not wanted sex for days. I know I’ve wanted to stay alone and cry for the crimes not committed to me.
I know. And I un-know. I know, And I un-know. And it goes on and on and on.
It has never made sense but gradually, painfully it has ceased to become a surprise. That, in itself, is a blessing.
Routine is a gift. Even if it means that you know they’re going to beat you every day. It is when they don’t that fear comes crawling.