My secret double life when I played Tambola

“My name is Nida Bab —- ur” My voice went MIA midway as I nervously introduced myself . It was 1999. I was 16 and conducting Tambola at Lahore’s Services Club for the first time. I remember one of the ‘uncles’ asking if anyone was interested in conducting one of the houses. We had played Tambola as a family before too. Even in cities like Quetta. Or at least my brother and I’d be there even if we weren’t old enough to play. My parents always took me for a confident, brave girl. I still, to this day, don’t know why. They nudged me and there I was. The object of many stares. I was the new kid on the block. A block that monopolized in mostly older men from The Armed Forces and their families.
So every Saturday evening, I voraciously learned about life. About war, love, marriage, infidelity, racism, language, sports, natural disasters, history. I’d like to attribute a chunk of my life’s knowledge to these grandiose evenings.
6 and 5… Indo Pak war.. 65, Arab-Israel 67
All the wives… 55
Flirty, dirty , 30… Naughty at the age of 40 unlucky for some – a baker’s dozen – 13

Devastating earthquake, 35

Over the ropes, 6

Roman Gangsters – 27

Tony Blair’s den – 10

Heinz varieties.. 57. (I appreciated this fact decades later as I voraciously shopped for Heinz ketchup on my monthly grocery rampages. ).

Sweet 16 – call for whistles.. (yes I too was 16)

Fat lady in a fix – 86
That summer of—- a love story that never completed… 42
You get the picture?

And then I was advised by parents and other grownups to come up with more creative ways to announce numbers. So I did my bit. I thought about numbers. I thought about words. And tried to put them all together and hoped everyone noticed what the new kid had done. I used fancy words like midnight and haunting when talking about 12. Grandpa with a son -81. I was all for equal gender representation and I didn’t want the grandpas to feel left out. Or replace Bhaati Gate with Golden Gate – 48 . After all I was bringing a little San Francisco into Lahore. I want to Break Free at 23. This I suspect was a subconscious release of pent up emotions of a hormonal teenager. And no. I didn’t end up breaking free. But back then, with my chic new Tambola lingo, I thought I was doing great service to my country and its honourable defenders. I took my part-time fame seriously.

I’d even ask some of my friends to come and see me in action. I’d dress up. And pay particular attention to my otherwise mediocre wardrobe. I’d try to subdue the galloping horses in my heart as Saturday approached, as an attempt to hide my bloating enthusiasm. I worked on my English accent so it didn’t sound too English.. or too Urdu-ish. Something in between that would leave a good impression. “Oh, she speaks good English.” Or “who does she think she is anyway? Shakespeare?” It was either of the two or maybe something barely acceptable in between. But at least on my face all the uncles and aunties were polite and rather amused. Or bemused. I remember sometimes going without the parents and instead taking my younger brother and a couple of friends. We’d laugh, act as if it wasn’t a big deal when I rose from the commoners table and stepped on to the Majestic throne of the ‘Caller.’ And we’d eat the famous BBQ chicken, kabab, chicken Handi, and sesame seed naan. And then I’d sign on my father’s membership card. Because this was the ‘when-you-have-no-money- way to go about it. This was me bursting at the seams of cool-hood. While doing my job with a rather non-chalant attitude, I vowed to defend my numbers and words with all the courageous valour I had learnt as the daughter of an Army Officer. I would have paraded down to the caller table and saluted to my loyal audience if I could’ve. Like I said. It was serious business for me.

Over the years, my tambola adventures led me to conduct at Defence Club and then Lahore Gymkhana. Gymkhana was like the Beethoven of Clubs and tambolas. But by then it was just something I did over the week. A double identity. Whenever I wasn’t studying for an exam or working on an important project. Or later on not busy with work. I’d tag along with my doting parents and conduct my concert of numbers. After I got married, I even dragged my poor husband to witness my secret double life. I still, to the day don’t know if he was impressed. Or if he had second thoughts that day. I fear I won’t have the stomach to ask him. And well after kids and then moving to Canada it all came to an abrupt stop.

Almost after 2 decades since the day it all began I got the chance again when I visited Pakistan a few months ago. Lahore Gymkhana Club. Time stood still within those walls. The same words. The same numbers. The same witty exchanges between veteran Tambola goers (with exceptions of a few faces that had sadly departed to their higher calling). Numbered sheets, neon highlighters, clipboards, fried fish, chicken chops, club sandwich, servers, polite salaams and eye-waves from afar, claps, cheering over winning money, booing over loosing, rapt attention and bathroom and phone breaks midway, post-game frustrations over not winning a single penny. I didn’t exactly feel the uncontrollable excitement the 16 year old once felt . But I felt welcome. I felt at home. I saw my parents sitting with me like they once did. I saw what a long way we’d all come. And I also saw how nothing had really changed. Like riding, or swimming, or driving.. tambola also sinks into your bones. And whether you come as a 16 year old, a 36 year old or a 56 year old, it’s like you never left.

P.s; for those who may mistake this for an addiction. Please do so by all means ☺️. I have seen how Bingo is played. So it’s pretty similar. But we like announcing our numbers with fun descriptions that lend meaning to otherwise ordinary numbers. You have to experience the whole Pakistani Tambola / Army culture in real life to understand it. Also, there are no in-betweens here. You either love it. Or you don’t. You obviously know my side.

This miracle is mine

So my older two.. R & R are both quite amused with my routine here in Lahore at my parents’ place. During breakfast Daughter remarked:

“mama you’re really enjoying your break!”

me: from what beta?

“from the kitchen!” (Cue: surge of joy)

Then later on son noticed how I was sitting relaxed reading a book and drinking tea, which I didn’t have to make. He noticed from the other room, grinned and said:

“mama… Maujen!!!!” (Cue: pinching myself to make sure it’s real)

Spending time with parents, friends, and focusing on myself. Please excuse this bout of narcissism quite unbecoming of a mother… but mauj indeed!

Nearing 40 and at times feeling like the Wicked Witch of the West crumpled under the woes of the indignant modern life…. this carefree/short-lived spurt of life while visiting my parents, is uncanny. Magical. And this urgency, this feeling that if I close my eyes, the bubble will burst. It’s nothing I’ve experienced before. A few years ago if you’d have asked me, I might have put it differently. But now. I know enough of life’s fickle abandonment. And I choose to be entranced in this spell for as long as I can. To hold on to every speck of the fairy dust.

As mothers we always want our little ones to learn from experiences. It’s good if they realize certain things in life sooner, right? That these little pleasures you get at your parents’ home are a big deal. The real deal. Especially after you’ve officially graduated on to real life. And also happen to live continents away. It strikes you like lightening. But I know. This is an abundance of life-text for them at this point. And it’d be unfair to want them to turn into little know-it-all Socrates. Let them savour these years of ‘taking it all for granted’, I say. Though I never leave the chance to shake my finger at them whilst lecturing about ‘being grateful.’ But who am I kidding? Let them celebrate life’s blissful ignorance. Some things, if they are fortunate enough, will come in their due time.

Though years from now… I suspect(replace at your discretion : secretly pray) I may ask them to visit. I may ask them to take a break and unwind at their parents’ home. I hope they’ll look forward to coming. As much as I always do. And when they visit, I hope I do justice. And make them feel safe and happy. No matter how old, or whichever way their lives unfold.

So maybe that’s when they will understand these little pleasures. Luxury that is almost a God given right at your parents’ home. No matter how rich or poor, the comfort found behind those closed doors, between a mother’s embrace and a father’s doting gaze, is a miracle.

In an era where feelings, emotions, care and regard are sidelined. Where material worth outweighs all other measures of humanity. Where we doubt everything we do and want to do it another way. The better way. The way they show us online or on TV. Because doubt sells, doubt makes money. Where purity is outdated. And selflessness is archaic. It is important to remember there is a home. Filled with people who would go to ends of the Earth for you. People who will love you with all your cracks and potholes (no pun intended). Who will love you even if you’re a full grown woman who seems to know it all. But she never does. Definitely not at her parents’ home.

I feel like an old Windows Desktop. The one we’d smack on the head to get it to reboot, with dust flying off. That’s me. Rebooted ‘n Revived. So I don’t know about other people. And what they say about miracles and magic. But this safe haven is about me. And where I came from. Tucked between childhood pictures. In furniture as old as I am. In countless hazy memories. In old faces. In familiar places. This life away from life. This miracle is mine.

Canadian Summer, Mama and Softball.

Image credits: Cintia Freitas

Summer of 2019.

36 (and a half) year old me, grass and dirt fields, 27 ounce end-loaded Louisville, cleats, gloves, SPN balls, and softball friends. That about sums it all up. Well at least on the face of it.

I don’t know if I can put words to it all. Words that dig deep and show what it means to me.

When you’re as old as you are.. have a family… work… commitments…you get the drift. When you’re desperately counting on your beloved support system in the form of your husband, parents, relatives, babysitters just so you can make it to the game.

When you’re bubble-wrapped with labels : Muslim Pakistani Canadian Immigrant Woman who isn’t expected to play sports at this age….let alone feel so passionate about a sport that is quite unknown in her culture.

It’s especially harder because it’s always been there. I first learned how to play Softball at school in Quetta(God Bless our principal for introducing the game to us)… more than 2 decades ago. A city where this was as alien as well.. aliens themselves. And then I caught a few glimpses of it in the hot and eager Lahori summers of grades 9 and 10. And that was that. I’d thought this chapter was closed forever. Until it wasn’t.

It’s especially harder when there is always the possibility of injury on the field.. and a mom of 3 can’t really afford that now can she ? A bruised eye.. a broken thumb…a twisted ankle or worse. Or when on some days your post-game body seeks mercy and tons of Tylenol because it hurts everywhere. But you get back up on your life-horse and trot on.

It’s especially harder to explain it to those bewildered and amused looks you sometimes get when you say you play in a softball league.

“Wow really?! The super excited ones.

Or “Oh.. softball?!” The taunting ones.

Or just the silent observers.

Now don’t worry. That’s as hard as it gets.

Because from there on it’s all soul-bursting happy. From there on it’s about exuberant butterflies in the stomach and a galloping heartbeat as I run towards home plate or hear the whip of my bat. From there on it’s all about those liberating and self-defining moments spent playing ball.

And then it’s the women I play with. It’s a LOT about them you know. This passion resurfaced because of them and Sisterhood Softball League (SSL) I am here playing softball, because of SSL. The acceptance. The love. The sisterhood. The motivation. The encouragement. The will. My summers are all about this inspirational juice.

Growing up, I loved sports movies. The underdogs beating the odds at the end and what not! The skills, the training.. the perseverance….oh I savoured every scene. I don’t know if we truly fall under the category. But I do know that we’ve all grown immensely. From Act One of the scene till now… it’s a new ballgame for many of us! Patience. Skills. Getting a hold of anxiety and nerves. Determination. Not giving up even if it feels physically impossible. Learning from defeats and the wins. Keeping your head held high, but with humility. This 90 minute crash course is as real as it gets.

I see that a lot of us are on the same boats. Boats that are bursting on the seams with life. Boats that are sometimes hard to maneuver because docking on a shore for some downtime seems impossible. But still… we manage to sail on by. Every Sunday morning.. or every other nightly game… we steer our boats away from the noise and dock at this safe place … our safe place…on the softball field.

So yes. I still don’t think I can explain it. But as I keep playing every season there will come a day when I won’t find the need to explain it anymore. Even to myself.

Because at that point I might(or might not) have subdued those raised eyebrows , the bewilderment, those self-doubts. But that won’t matter. Because I might have made a difference where it does matter.

My children.

For them to see me taking time out for practice and strategy. To see me anxiously gearing up on Sunday mornings and tip-toeing out the door at 7 am. Or to see me coming back sweaty, dirty, sore but ecstatic. For them to see my eyes light up just at the mention of softball.

For them it will be a norm. Something that mama has to do. And eventually they’ll realize the urgency of it all.

There will be things in life that they must do. While those actions may be hard to define, these same actions will define them. Actions , though within the boundaries of their religion and faith, may still be unacceptable.

And at any point if they stumble. I hope that they will remember how and why their mama played ball.

Image credits: Fatima Q

Cleansed.

“I still have a lot of issues with my skin. The ugliness is glaringly obvious”, said Sara.

Maira peered closer to examine. She saw active acne, scars and other entities usually accused and hated for trespassing on skin.

“Don’t worry. You have young, vibrant skin! These treatments will help! I already see a difference from when you came last time.”

“I know but I’ve been so depressed. I don’t want to look at the mirror.”

Maira smiled. She always smiled when people casually threw around this word.

She decided to change the conversation as she applied cleansing lotion on Sara’s face. Nice and subtle.. rotating upward movements. Kind of like how life should be lived Maira always thought to herself.

“So what have you been eating? Fresh vegetables, fruits, more water?

“I just don’t have the energy for extra work you know. With the kids’ unending demands and husband’s crazy schedule, endless chores….”, complained Sara.

“If you won’t look out for yourself who will?” Maira replied in her soft motherly tone. “I always cook Kaddu-gosht(pumpkin and meat) curry for myself even though I know no one’s going to eat it but me!”

“What about your husband? Doesn’t he like your cooking?” My husband eats everything I cook but I still feel he never really appreciates my efforts.”

Maira turned to switch on the facial machine. She paused a bit before answering.

“I am a single mom,” the smile never left her face.

Sara became quiet. The unexpected reply caught her off-guard.

The initial cleansing was done. Now on to the real stuff. The suction mechanism of this new-age facial was so satisfying. It sucked up all the muck and grime from the pores. Painless. Exhilarating. Life-changing.

“I’m so sorry, I would never have guessed! You’re so lively and positive MashA Allah! I rarely meet people like you. Everyone around me just tends to bring me down.”

“It took some hard lessons. I wasn’t always like this.”

The monotonous whirring and buzzing of the suction filled up the silence. But Maira had more to say.

“He was a loving man. My husband. Not like the typical overbearing sort. But he didn’t want me to work because the children were small. So I always resented that. I took that single issue and obsessed over it. Until it just took over my life. I felt trapped.”

“I know how that feels.. I always….”, sara wanted to say more but stopped midway.

“We moved into our own home. My boys were growing too fast. Husband was busy in work. But he always made time to call. “What’s up wife?” He’d say it in the tone of that famous cartoon…”what’s up doc?!” I always smiled when he did that but something had changed. I reciprocated with a bored, hallow response. I was stuck in my head. I had eyes but I couldn’t see past my desires. I had a heart but I felt numb. ”

“Did you finally break away?” Sara questioned with hesitation.

Maira didn’t reply. She went on. “It was my 40th birthday. I was a deadbeat by then. Moody and passionless. My husband wanted to take us out for dinner. I didn’t want to go but I complied. ”

Maira turned off the machine. It was time for the mask. “Let me know if it stings or anything. We’ll wash it off after 20 minutes InshA Allah.”

“I put on my black and blue shalwar kameez. He never liked it much but I did. And I thought to myself. It’s MY birthday. ”

“He called and said he was running late and that he’d meet us at the restaurant. It was our favourite seafood joint in Mississauga. I resented even that. At this point I thought I had no love in my heart for him.”

“The children and I waited at our table. He was later than usual. I called and his machine answered. I was appalled at his carelessness. ”

Sara wanted to speak but the mask was stiffening so she just listened.

“The waiter came to our table with a thin, wrapped, rectangular box. He smiled shyly and handed it over saying it was for me. I was dying of embarrassment by then. What a bright idea this was?! ”

“I opened up the box. It had an envelope in it with his writing. ”

At this point Maira’s voice started to break. Sara felt confused. She still couldn’t speak. Maira continued.

“I remember that letter by heart.”

“Dearest wife. You might think I don’t see what you’re going through. You might think I don’t feel what you’re feeling. And honestly sometimes I don’t. But I love you too much to waste time in the confusions and the questions. There’s another letter enclosed in this box.”

“It just ended abruptly. My heart was galloping. My kids were looking at me as if I had gone crazy or something. ”

“I opened the second letter with trembling hands. I feared the worst. ”

“Congratulations Maira! You’ve been accepted to our School of Professional Aestheticians……”

“I couldn’t read further. My eyes blurred. It was no secret that this was my passion. I always shared details of this school and programme with him. And I always thought he wasn’t listening. Here he was applying on my behalf all along.”

Maira cleared her throat and said she’d remove the mask now. Sara’s eyes were watering.

“I called him. Maybe a dozen times. His machine answered. I was panicking now. I took the kids and drove home.”

“Your skin looks so shiny and clean MAshA Allah!” Maira suddenly remarked. “I’ll now apply toner, an acne-solution, sunscreen and moisturizer to finish off.”

Sara was too engrossed in the story to care at this point. “Where was your husband?” She was finally able to talk.

“The call came about 2 hours after we reached home. At this point I was on my prayer mat, asking for Allah’s forgiveness. I knew I had fumbled. He had to call soon. He had to.”

“The home phone rang. The call display said, Hubs. Where were you, I sobbed and screamed into the phone.”

“Hello is this Mr. Ibrahim’s home? This is Police Officer Ben. Unfortunately he’s been in an accident….”

“Oh my God…”, Sara had no words.

“You know what I’ve learned from all of this?”

Sara had never seen such hopeful eyes before.

“This tragedy brought out my worst. And best. I was a thankless, impatient person. Someone who questioned Allah every step of the way. What I was really supposed to do was Thank HIM with every breath. This journey tore me apart and ripped away a huge chunk of my heart. But it did something magical in the process. It cleansed my soul. It sucked out the muck, the grime It made me new and shiny…,” “just like your skin,” she added with a smile.

Sara held on to every word. Then she finally summoned the courage to ask,”Did he make it?”

“He passed away a week after my birthday. The accident had rendered him unconscious. And that’s how he left us. Without the blink of an eye. This was 10 years ago. I have two grown kids now just finishing their universities.”

Her eyes gleamed with pride. Those brown eyes had no room for sadness anymore. No regrets. No complaints. Just humility. And a full, open heart beating to the rhythm of Alhamdulillah.

“Fiction Story but Inspired by true events”

Nida Shahzeb

***short story written and selected for Global Muslim Writers contest***

http://www.globalmuslimwriters.com/2019/07/cleansed.html?m=1

http://www.globalmuslimwriters.com/2019/07/short-listed-writing-contestants-for.html?m=1