Short story: Lappitop

Rich. That’s what they are. Terribly, horribly stuffed with things they don’t need. Like my grandmother’s brother’s plastic bag suffocating with free rice every Friday outside the mosque in Malpur, my village. My dado always spoke about luscious green giants of the Marghala Hills that protected our homes from the Djinns. I remember thinking about whether they’d protect us from the humans too.

My heart runs fast, almost like it’ll die if it doesn’t escape. I don’t like to wash these deeshes that baji ji’s(madam boss) sister brought from Englaaand. I also don’t like to dust the creepy faces baji ji’s uncle collected from Afreeka. My baji ji makes it a point to remind me every day. “I will throw you to the dogs if you break anything!!!” I always smile my big smile, but in my head when she threatens me. Everything gets worse when she sees me smile. Back home, we have plenty of fur-scratching homefull dogs. They have no home, but they have me and my sister.

Then there are the children. Ali is ten, a year younger than I am. Sara is only five and she is my secret city sister. That’s what she and I whisper to each other when I braid her hair or play hide ‘n seek. I don’t know what my ‘baji ji’ will do if she ever found out. Probably throw me to the dogs. I can’t help but smile again, but inside my head.

Unhappy. That’s what they are. Terribly, horribly unhappy. Baji’s husband, the rich man who gives me money at the end of the month is stranger than our village crazy person who goes around with a half moustache and screams that the world is going to end soon. Baji ji’s husband has angry eyebrows, like they will jump right out and smack you. He rarely speaks, even to his children. When he is at home, which is not often, he sits in his room, staring at something called a lattpop…lappitop or something like that. I think it’s what they call a baby compooter.

Once I was sent by baji to give him tea. It was a rare occasion when I saw his eyebrows at peace, while crazily punching the buttons on that thing. Like his fingers were tiny fly swatters and the keys, flies. We don’t have fly killers in the village. We roll up old papers and practice our aiming skills. He has tie-dyed marble eyes and a grey-greenish shaved face that reminds me of the sticky lizards swimming on our roof back home. Our roof with all the patchy cement looks like snake skin. Snake Vs. Lizard. I’d like the front seats to that show. Wrestling is serious business in my village. You can joke about the Mosque’s Imam’s crooked eyes, or about the neighbor aunti’s monkeyish screams at night, but never about wrestling.

Baji ji mostly speaks on four occasions. First, when she is scolding me. Second, when she is scolding her children. Third, when she is fighting with her husband. And fourth, when she is talking to faces on her lappitop or the phone. Ali stays in his room after school. His fingers crawling all over gadgets like spider legs. I once woke up to a spider scurrying across my face when I was six. My sister came to the rescue and smashed it on my nose, then ran away crying. Another time she cried till she couldn’t breath was when I was leaving for Islamabad. Abba didn’t say goodbye. I blamed his gangerine-infested leg.

I can’t talk to a ‘box’ like they do. I can’t even watch TV for long. The TV at my parents’ place doesn’t have a remote control. So my sister and I run to adjust the volume or change the channels more than we actually sit down to watch. One time, we were in such a hurry to win our abba’s praise and see who turned it off first, we almost knocked it off from the stack of faded beetroot coloured bricks used as its table. My amma had spread her favourite embroidered dupatta over the bricks to make the table look pretty. Abba didn’t mind the almost-accident and just muttered something about it being a good riddance. And that, “…it creates unhappy minds and unsatisfied hearts. ” I wonder how he came up with that. Baji ji never gives away anything until her husband forces it out of her. Like he did with this TV. It’s just her bad words that she can’t keep inside her teeth-brimming mouth. I’ve never seen so much white in one mouth. It reminds me of my dado’s funeral.

A light bulb hangs in the centre of our main room that’s the size of baji ji’s kitchen. I feel sad for the bulb, alone and hanging upside down like a post-sacrificial goat.But I like electricity. It lets me see my family’s faces when the sky tucks itself into its favourite black blanket. We only have one blanket. Baji’s husband gave it to us one winter morning after I heard her scream like a cat who’s tail got caught in the door and then the whole house caught fire. Fire does’t scare me. It lets me see my family’s faces when there’s no electricity. Amma says that the fire makes her see greenish-brown fairies of Malpur dancing in my eyes. I have my abba’s skinny arms, legs and broad feet. Amma says she only gave me her best, her perky nose with a bump at the end. The sort that would break the fall when rolling down a steep hill. And her almond-coloured skin.

We like to sit and talk around the fire that abba builds for us. We all merge into each other and form a giant sunflower, huddled towards the warm light. They are the happiest flowers I know. My mother doesn’t talk much when we gather. She just smiles wide enough for her thin lips to disappear between each other. Instead, she prefers stringing together colourful beads on weak threads that she sells outside our village’s one-door girls’ school. Colourful, small, round, shiny beaded bracelets are a hit with young school girls.

“Salma!” I hear Baji ji shouting my name. I try to numb by head by thinking of abba. Nights when he’d take me out for walks after a meal of lentils and roti. Nights when Abba still had his good leg, he gathered wood with hands that had veins protruding like roots from our Malpur trees. I’d tag along and watch the stars. My abba never went to school. But he knew his specks in the sky. An old employer when abba worked as a driver in the city taught him about the faraway worlds. The stars are the same here in the city. But they don’t seem as bright as my village stars.

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My ears warn me about Baji ji stomping towards me with her noisy shoes. I don’t think I will last long here. I say this every other month. I think I will go back home. I say this every other day. But then I think about Sara. And how few years from now she’ll be sitting locked in her room, getting sucked into a star-less world, with no light except from the TV or lappitop machines. That thought makes it hard to breathe. Like someone just sneaked in and strangled my neck from the inside.

“I am done with you! I will surely throw you to the dogs today!” Baji ji digs her nails into my arms and drags me. I remember the colourful beads nudging each other to keep hanging, keep shining, keep being. I remember my mother’s lip-lost face. I smile my big smile again, but inside my head.

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Short story Fiction : A writer’s muse

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Dry leaves somersaulted across the road. He crushed the few that landed under his well-worn moccasins. Crunch. Crunch. The sound filled up all the spaces where he felt like a non-writer. The sound pushed past the stale odor of unused ideas. Dug beneath layers of recycled frustration. The sound was a pleasant distraction.

He knew he had a story in him. A thought resuscitated on the worst of days. This morning, he took it more seriously than before. Last February, he dared to go to a coffee shop to find his writing muse. He spent the day over-stressed and over-dressed. A probable bad combination for some writers. A definite one for him.

Almost a year and a half later, there he was again. Sitting on the park side bench trying to look like an important person, doing important work. There he was, hoping to squeeze out a story from his guts , wringing till every last drop came on paper. A buzzing, whizzing park was perfect. A meeting point where inspiration could woo its evil twin into a  slow, dignified death. So far the only dignity he encountered was of the leaves that died with honour under his feet. It was still a better bet than sitting cooped up like a rabid chicken, clucking and clicking on his desktop 25 hours of the day. 24 was never his number. 24 rejected manuscripts. 24 years of abuse. 24 landlords.

His mother always joked about the sardine tin his apartment complex was. One building stuck to another building that was stuck to another. His room was as tight as his lips got every time anyone asked about his published books. The sacred most point in the room was a walnut oak, crooked book shelf that leaned towards the right like it was trying to show him something. He made up hidden messages and symbols from ordinary everyday objects. Most of the shelf was filled with mummified manuscripts. The rest he categorized by his appetite from sumptuous to inedible. He re-read the latter the most. The most important part of the shelf was an entire section reserved for his unborn books. A book nursery of sorts. He would stand in front of it twice each day. An excited parent-to-be, all giddy and anxious about the future.

Sometimes he didn’t mind reliving the 21st century version of the hunchback. Bending over his favorite notebook, his leather-bound, fading Esmerelda.  Jotting down story ideas and anticipating of his turning to dust when separated.”Nah.” He decided there was always time to die dramatically. Today he was going to spend a day at the park.

Wind stopped in its weightless tracks to ruffle the skirts of passing girls. And skewed the hats of little boys playing catch under the shaded trees. Maybe he could write a love story that began at the tree near the merry-go-round, and ended in the graveyard in the next block. “Nah.” He wanted to write something rustic, more basic. But what was more basic than love, life and death? He was still hopeful.

A little girl slipped and fell in front of him. Behind her loud wails, he thought of a rock climbing protagonist falling to her fate in the Karakoram. “Nah, ” he mumbled before walking over to help the girl. She limped away without a thank you, and much louder sobs.

The wind calmed down. His nerves didn’t. Nothing spoke or touched him the way he had imagined. His words were still locked shut. He stood up to stretch his cramped knees beneath plaid trousers. Just then, the sound of gravel pressing against the ground caught his attention.

A woman, in her 40’s, rolled over in her wheelchair. She paused  for a breathless second and gave him the most liberating smile. Freedom lived on those lips. Pearl drops danced in her cheeks without care. Blood breathed life into his fingers.

Esmerelda was calling. He picked up his notebook and followed his inspiration.

Short-story: Playing Jenga for love.

Anna’s intense concentration stopped the habitual quiver in her fingers as she formed a tiny tower of wooden blocks. Tooth-less and teeth-filled smiles of her now,possibly decades old children gawked at Telsa from the surrounding walls of Anna’s room. Telsa nervously shifted in her seat when those infant eyes met her’s. Anna didn’t like that anyone stared at her children’s pictures for long. Telsa quickly averted her glance and checked her watch.

Herma’s usual spot across from Telsa was empty. “Telsa, let’s put baby powder in her pea puree this time,” said Anna with an air of accomplishment. Last time she had put  sugar in her lentils. Telsa never took part but just pretended to agree. Herma never noticed the changed flavours. She also never came on time.

Their favourite block-stacking-and-crashing game, Jenga, began in Anna’s stuffy nursing home room every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday morning like a sacred ritual; obsolete, staunch and oddly invigorating, much like Anna. Other days were reserved for bingo, exercise and Frank Sinatra sing-a-along programs. These women were wrinkly hamsters living on stolen time in their cages.

Anna punched her table as the door slid open and in limped the curly haired 80 year old Herma who secretly loved that she was the youngest in the room. “Dammit Herma! Get on with it will you!”, Anna shrieked.

Chairs were pulled up, blocks were set and ready to be pulled apart and toppled over.

Anna pulled first. She was the dominant one. It was just a game to Telsa, but she dare not say that out loud. Anna would bite off her lips with straight, ivory tinted teeth. Herma wanted to be the first one, but she was not in the mood for confrontation.

“Watch and learn!” Anna announced right before she grappled the loose block from the tower, akin to a cautious dentist at work.

“How I hate that bastard! Did I tell you two about my ex-husband?” Anna suddenly began her best-loved topic of conversation.

“Hmmm.” Telsa was sympathetic for the hundredth time, possibly even more.  Herma was busy burping.

“The platypus left me for that slutty duck! I am glad I never met her or I’d have been in jail now.” Anna continued.

“Well you certainly ain’t in no Palace right now Anna!” Herma couldn’t help herself.

Anna spat at Herma. Quite literally. The wide honey oak table in between saved the other two from the salivic shower. “You’re in my room, so my rules. Shut the hell up!”

It was Telsa’s turn. She braced herself as the wobbly tile tilted below the block she had just removed.

“I gift-wrapped my soul for him you know. ” Anna’s harsh tone mellowed and she took a pink napkin with white doves. There were no tears. But she wiped her eyes as if rehearsing for the real deal. The smeared crusted maroon lipstick made her look morbid. “I am beautiful aren’t I?” Telsa nodded.  Herma controlled her laughter.

“Then why?” This time her tears gushed. Telsa’s green eyes watered up, as if in a compulsion to join the teary river that gushed in the room. She had eternally damned herself to cry for others.

“I am sure he always loved you, and no other,” came Telsa’s over-rehearsed reply.

“What do you know?!” A raucous crow just replaced the mellow squeak in Anna’s throat. “You’re as wretched of a woman as I am.” Telsa bit her tongue. She could taste the bloody saliva.  The tower gracefully dismembered itself as an army of wooden soldiers rose on each side.

“Why you gotta talk like dat to her?” Herma defended Telsa.

Anna ignored Herma and continued. “He took my children and my dignity. Neither came back.” Telsa leaned forward to console but Anna screamed with blood in her eyes, “Why can’t you just do your turn?”  The game was almost over.

Anna suddenly sprang up as if the chair had developed canines. Her trembling legs dragged her to a wrought-iron night stand. A golden velvet pouch peeked through her pale hands as she took out an envelope, and from it a letter.

“His last words before sucking down those pills.” She stared at her only two friends. “He apologised, you know. Damn well regretted leaving me!” She smiled with hurt and contentment all rolled up in a bitter-sweet strudel. She took a minute to read the letter under her breath and carefully folded it back in its rightful creases.

Knock. Knock.

Someone was at the  half-opened door. Herma quickly called out, “Come on in, nothing to hide here!” It was  the new Nurse Wilma. She had joined just a week ago. A woman in her mid 50’s, with a surly air about her, like someone who’d been rudely stripped off her royalty and could kill for the lost title.

Anna had missed her morning medication for dementia. “Hello ladies,” said Nurse Wilma, uninterested in what was going on in the room. She handed the pills to Anna and waited for her to squeeze them down. Nurse Wilma turned to leave, but paused for a minute to look at the pictures on the wall. Telsa noticed and was about to comment when Nurse Wilma rushed out without another word.

Anna was trapped in a daze. “He gave my grandmother’s precious ruby bracelet to that wretch, you know. He never admitted but I know. That cut me real bad. Real bad.” She was scratching her left hand without looking up.

It was down to the last few moves. Herma complained about being hungry. Telsa scooped her arm over for her turn. Her hands wobbled and the patchy tower finally gave away.

“HA! You gals can never win from me!” Anna was back to her competitive self. She stood up to celebrate with some coffee.

“Anybody got anything to eat around here?” Herma spoke looking at the ceiling. She then leaned across and whispered to Telsa, “Why you gotta take her shit every day? See she never talks to me this way. I know how to set her straight. Why don’t we hide one of those kids’ pictures?!”

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Nurse Wilma stepped out for a quick smoke. Those children on the wall. She knew those eyes. She’d know them anywhere.

“But how could it be?! He told me that his wife had died in an accident. Who was Anna then? Why did she have those children’s pictures?!” She started to sweat under her wool coat.

She rolled up her sleeves to cool down.Glistening red stones peaked from her wrist.

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National Blog Posting Month - November 2014

I am participating in the National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo) – November 2014. This is an awesome venture of Blogher.com. In their own words:

“Every November, thousands of bloggers commit to posting daily. But it’s about much more than getting that post up—it’s about community and connection. It’s also about honing your craft, challenging yourself, and taking your blog to the next level.”

I will write every day of November. This is my fourth post.

#NaBloPoMo – Day 4

 

 

Short Story: Spilt milk

‘Baba! Rida isn’t listening to me! She spilled all her milk. ‘ My son repeated himself almost four times but I couldn’t hear a word. Tears welled up as my children’s blurry faces screamed in front of me. Everything  was incoherent. As far as I was concerned, my world had stopped rotating. The sun refused to rise. And gravity had pulled a disappearing act.  Their mother, my beloved wife, was alone in the hospital, fighting a death sentence. And here I was, cleaning up spilt milk.

I dropped off the children at a distant relative’s house because my wife was in ICU. The city was humming with life. Whereas I felt as dead as an autumn leaf crushed under a heavy boot. Traffic was slower than usual. I saw happy pedestrians crossing the street. Mothers pushing their strollers with smiles of exasperation. The lights turned green and I didn’t budge. The car behind me didn’t honk. As if a sign from above, this little act showed respect for my feelings. Thinking that a rude honk could tear open a heart already on the verge of dying.  The world showed me sympathy. Their eyes brimming with pity. I didn’t like any of it. I didn’t want any of it.

My car pulled up in the crowded parking lot. At home I wanted nothing but to rush to the hospital. And now that I was here, my legs turned to steel. My hands became numb. I couldn’t move. The thick air inside the car gave off faint whiffs of my wife’s favorite perfume. I opened the dashboard and found her comb and her pink nail polish. I always made fun of her fetish for nail polish. Ever since the children, she never got time to put on nail polish while getting ready to go somewhere. Once the kids were buckled up in the car, she’d take it out of the dashboard and apply it on her hands and feet. Every time I made an abrupt stop, she’d give me her infamous look. Eyebrows furrowed, a suppressed smile and wide open black eyes that made me burst out laughing. Who in her right mind would put on nail polish in a moving car? Only she had a plausible answer for that. She always had an answer. Almost always.

I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead on the steering wheel. Faint sounds of ambulance sirens and voices bounced off my ears. Tears rolled down like lost streams of water with no ocean to merge into. I was a man. I was not supposed to cry uncontrollably. I was not supposed to shake with fear and bang my head against the bathroom mirror. I was not supposed to do a lot of things. Yet control was the first thing to disappear like soul from a dead body. I opened the door without looking and suddenly I heard a scream. I jumped out and saw a small, bald child crying at his bottle of chocolate milk spilled on the floor. ‘I am so sorry I should have looked before I opened the door.’  I bent down to help his mother clean up. She apologetically said it was not my fault, as if it was her fault her son was crying. The child was pale yellow like a wilting sunflower. My heart jumped as I saw his sorrowful eyes. I could have done anything for those eyes. After cleaning up I asked the mother if her son was all right. ‘Nothing a little medicine won’t cure, right Sam?’ She lovingly hugged her son, but her eyes betrayed the truth. He was far from ‘all right’. But she was with him and maybe that’s all that mattered.

I went back into the car and took out my wife’s nail polish. I felt a bit better. What perfect timing as I smiled looking up at the feeble ray of sunshine peaking through overpowering clouds. Maybe the child’s pain made it acceptable for me to lessen my pain. As if his anguish sucked in some of mine. I pressed the elevator button and made a solemn prayer to God. To give me the strength to make her smile. To give me the ability to be the best father. To give me the power to make every minute of our lives matter.

 

** This story is inspired by a true incident. I hope and pray that Allah gives health and strength to the concerned family. I also pray for cancer patients and their families suffering all over the world. Only Allah can give them the needed strength to fight such a monster. Amen. **