Second Hand Living

I bring out an old bottle of transparent nail varnish and polish my nails with it to dissuade myself from biting my nails close to the skin. It hurts when I touch the keyboard, wash the thousandth vessel of the day, and when I accidentally graze my hands against the desk. I pray with the nail polish on, the wazu I do before my prayer is technically incomplete because the water doesn’t touch my nails, but I don’t really care. If there’s a God who cares about me, She would also care about my nails, I figure. I am anxious about a looming cloud on the horizon but I cannot make out its shape. Something is amiss or about to happen, but I can’t tell what. Of all the things I could inherit from my mother, I would have loved to get her sense for food and her green thumb for all plants she has met or is yet to meet. I would love to understand food the way she does, but I can’t say if I have been able to learn that from her. It is a pity because, as a writer, I want to be able to gaze into the promise of a future where I write an essay about beautiful Urdu words casually spoken at home and the nostalgia of a perfectly cooked mutton dish such that it becomes a shadow of time imprinted in words. But this might never be. What I inherited from my mother, though, is her sense of foreboding just before a pall of gloom is about to enter our lives. What a time to inherit this foreboding! What a time to be alive! 

Long ago, I wrote a short story about three women who die and go to the afterlife. There, they meet God who happens to be a woman and afterlife doesn’t look like what they were taught on Earth. I threw in paintings, the characters’ worldly conflicts, an American diner that serves any dish (I know, I tried to make it funny) while these three women figure out what to do with their lives now that even the concept of Heaven and Hell has gone to hell on a handcart. My writing workshop mentor asked me to re-visit the story after a couple of years, and I did rewrite a bit of it but I never did it all the way. I wonder maybe it is time to take another swing at it. Before the pandemic, I wanted to not only re-write that short story but also the story of how my own life was supposed to go. Reimagine! That’s what this life was supposed to be about. Now, however, the past is a dream and the future is a watercolour blur with all the colours smudged, not forming a real shape. I place this watercolour blur inside a glass frame and look at it every day just to reassure myself it is there even though it makes no sense right now. What I desperately miss is some sort of stability, a sure-footedness beneath my feet. If the universe cannot afford me that, I could do with a story arc, you know? Like how all the traditional stories go? An affirmation that, after we walk out of this, a glorious sun will shine and everything that has been askew will find its home centre once more.  

The other day I was watching a quintessential Bollywood movie. Its usual inane characters and privilege aside, the feeling it left me with was that if we showed enough courage, there would be a happily ever after. I think that’s what is missing in most stories around us, in the stories of our own lives — for no matter how much courage people show, there’s not really a happily ever after, is there? Maybe that’s why we used to fill our movies and stories with the promise of a golden rainbow after the courageous dark night. I want to see that coming back, I really do. It just behooves the notion that if we cannot afford a happily ever after in our imagination, then how can we afford it in our lives? Wouldn’t that be the real re-imagination of our lives? That we had the audacity to dream differently? 

And then, right as rain, the foreboding comes to pass. A tragedy falls into our homes and I can now understand why I had been biting my nails all the time, why I had been anxious. I say a prayer for the dead, call my mother’s elder sister, and listen to her cry on the phone. I want to hug this woman who raised me like her own daughter, but I cannot do that. For over one year now, I have not been able to manage this feeling of foreboding I inherited, so I leave it be. I check my menstruation app to validate if it’s my hormones and if so, I can just ignore it. My mother says that some of my habits I may have inherited from my paternal grandmother, and good God, how I disliked that woman. So there’s not much consolation in terms of all these women who now live inside me and in that cornucopia of eccentric traits I received. You’d think they could have done better. For the love of all that is feminine, leave me with traits that I can use in this world. No? All that reimagining of my life has taken a running jump out of the window and escaped into the far unknown. I guess I am just going to have to start all over again. 

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