Short Story: Layla’s Magic Powder

 

credits: shutterstock

“Don’t disrespect my taste buds with this!”, the eighty-five year old Layla shoved her blue rimmed dinner plate. The mole on the right corner of her lips danced as she grimaced at her customised menu. Layla’s personal cook/maid cooked for her. He previously worked at a prison and never relinquished the chance to squeeze in an anecdote or two. Layla was convinced this food was her son’s revenge for making him eat aubergine and potatoes every Thursday till he turned seventeen.

Every morning Layla soaked in the warm star in the sky as she pulled aside the curtains. Every morning her creased eyelids closed while she made a solemn prayer cursing the doctor, nurses, pharmaceutical companies, and the hospital. That memory was a mountain pressing down on her. She wanted to scrub that moment, wipe it, thrash it out like a horrid blood stain on white. Like a trespassing intruder who stole everything, Esophageal Cancer had sealed her fate.

As far back as her temporal lobe would take her, her pathan-blooded senses saw and smelled the world of crimson chillies, sunlit turmeric, roasted cumin, crushed coriander and earthly spice concoctions. While little rosy-cheeked girls from the Hunza valley collected wild alpine flowers to stick on homemade dolls with yarn hair. Little rosy-cheeked Layla collected spices and herbs. She discovered her obsession with cooking when she turned ten, almost like a revelation from God.  Her mother’s cramped kitchen became her playground where she ran, tumbled and swirled with recipes her conservative household devoured but never understood. A kitchen where many mornings were spent by her family of eight, in anticipation of the fresh aroma of flat bread made in desi ghee (clarified butter), and the eager crackling of fried eggs that her mother cooked.

Teenage years were spent listening to mother lecture her sisters and Layla on the virtues of modesty and speaking low. A slipping chador from the sisters’ curly brown heads was the cause of shaking heads. Layla realised early on, if she were to get anywhere in life, she just had to ‘nod and smile’.

She nodded, smiled, cursed, spit and bared in the name of her passion. “For what?,” she often said to herself. Her son took over the restaurant she had spent decades creating. Now her story was just about gnawing cells. The day she turned eighty-five, Layla had been in remission for six months. She didn’t want to silently beat her chest that day. She tucked her newborn locks into a flimsy ponytail and promised herself a treat. Months of chemo had left her feeling and looking like a jellyfish. But just the thought of her planned adventure made her cheeks bleed pink. On her way back from the doctor, Layla called her son.

“Where are you Jazib?”.

“At the restaurant, where else could I be? Is something wrong?”

“I am all right, I thought we would have dinner tonight, at home. Since this old hag is still alive at eighty five!”  Layla asked the driver to take her to her sinful destination.

She spotted the mango-yellow carved door of the bistro from far. It was safely tucked within the womb of the two hundred year old Bazar, Anarkali, named after the infamous slave girl buried nearby. The tale of Anarkali and Prince Saleem’s love affair never left Layla’s heart. It didn’t take long for her imagination to kick in as scenes of their morbid story played in her head. Most of it was processed heresy passed down from generations of voracious lovers. But something about Anarkali’s inhuman cries when she was damned behind a brick wall choked Layla. The defeat, the gurgling breath, and the tears that refused to fall from Anarkali’s shocked eyes; Layla could see it all.

Her driver parked behind the restaurant, in an alley with maroon paan-stains, dogs lapping up brown water from potholes, and a consistent buzz of onlookers with unashamed gaping eyes. Layla tightened her chador and refused her walking stick , as she limped towards ‘Gul-e-Layla’. For a minute she thought she saw Jamal standing there with his endearing secret-spilling smile. The same smile that dressed his face when his fingers traced on diagonally-lined freckles across nineteen year old Layla’s right cheek. Sometimes Layla’s fingers glided across her face the same way when she peered into the engraved, chipped mirror her mother gave as dowry.

Her friend was long gone. But he left behind its and bits of himself all over the place just for her. ‘Gul-e-Layla’ was untouched, like she had left it, almost four decades ago. A beehive of hungry people swarmed in and out. Red paint peeled off like a chrysalis, and brown tables rocked with every bite, as feet moved on the crooked grey floor. Jasmine was placed in small pots in every corner.

She walked towards the end of the room, and found an empty table. The bewitching voice of Reshma played in the background. Happy, simple times budded in her head as the crooner sang on.  Someone lowered the sound of the radio and Layla was pushed back into reality. She didn’t ask for the menu.  A young boy with hair like a bear, jogged over to the table to take her order.  The ten-minute wait made her emaciated stomach a breeding ground for hungry Pathan warriors. She savoured every bite, like lovers caressing each other for the last time. The flavourful chicken karahi, savoury tangy chickpeas curry and roasted buttery naans with sesame seeds, were Layla’s deadly sins.

“Stop smiling you old hag! You have to stop, or they’ll know what you’ve been up to!”, she chided herself as she made her way home.Her son would catch on to her quicker than a suspicious wife smelling an unfamiliar scent on her husband’s neck. She changed into fresh clothes and sprayed on her jasmine scent.

Later that night, she almost puked her innards out. But first she made sure to turn up the volume. Melody queen Noor Jehan was best heard on a blaring tape recorder.

“Mujh se pehli si muhabbat mere mehboob na maang

Oh my lover, don’t ask me for the love I once gave you…”.

She grabbed two antacids from her bedside table that was cramped with medicine like the local pharmacy . “Pop away these death pills all you want”, she muttered, “You’re still not going to die.”

The dinner table was full. The son, the grandchildren, the food, and chatter of the passing day.

Boiled pumpkin and lentil broth mocked at Layla from her plate.

********************

Today’s ZerotoHero assignment: publish a post based on your own, personalized take on today’s Daily Prompt.

Daily Prompt for the day: Rings of fire – Do you love hot and spicy foods or do you avoid them for fear of what tomorrow might bring? 

 

 

I now know better : Short-story

(roughly based on a true story)

I am a sixteen year old Pakistani girl, from a poor, uneducated family. My life is a cliche’ you read about in books or watch in mindless dramas. What you will read here may not come as a surprise to many who are from Pakistan or India. But if you are from a rich country, your jaws may still drop with disbelief.

I am a religous girl. I pray and take Quran classes. I cover myself to ward off malicious stares. Because around here, men think it is their right to torment girls and women with their penetrating gazes. That of course is as common as flies swarming over roadside food stalls. I used to work as a kitchen helper at someone’s home. I was only thirteen. They were good people and I was happy. Then for some personal reasons I stopped work.

This was when my parents declared my existence a huge burden. My parents were overwhelmed. Marriage prospects appeared from distant relatives in our village. I played along because parents always know better.

I was married off soon enough. I remember feeling scared but my heart was also excited and hopeful.

They told me he was thirty years old, from our village and well- settled. He had good money to support me. My parents said that’s all I would ever need.

Everyone gave me forced, false reassuring smiles. Everyone was blind. I was too.

Three and a half months of torture was in store for me. Complete and utter hopelessness. Not only was he almost fifty years old, he was already married with an entire family. My marital bliss included abuse of all sorts including his previous wife’s beatings. I wanted to kill myself. But I have strong faith in my Creator and that stood between me and a bottle of poison.

A year later, I am back at work. I still bleed profusely every month because of things he did to me. I can’t stand for long stretches of time and easily fall short of breath. My parents can’t look me in the eye without feeling shame and regret.

I smile now because I am alive. I smile because I did not have to endure hell for long. I smile because maybe my creator has something good in store for me. And if not so, then at least I have become stronger. I will never let anything like this happen to my younger sister. I will not sell my soul under the guise of a good daughter who is supposed to obey her parents even if it means a leap in a bottomless pit.

I am a 16 year old Pakistani girl from a poor, uneducated family, and I now know better.

Short Story – A hoping, hopping Robin

Daily Prompt: Moment of kindness

Describe a moment of kindness, between you and someone else — loved one or complete stranger.

I watched in awe as she flew by with perfection. Wind soaring beneath her wings, carrying her forward like an invisible hand showing the way. To her, my mother, that freedom was bliss. To me, it was an impossible feat. I was the odd one out. My siblings were older and normal. I was not, by most standards. While they flew to their feather’s desire, plucking straw for their nests or snatching worms for their stomachs, I just sat and fantasized on my favorite drooping branch. I felt as if the decaying offshoot was a reflection of myself; wilting yet stubbornly alive. Sitting there somehow made me feel powerful enough to dream. I dreamed of happily singing along my brothers and sisters. I dreamed of flying early in the morning to catch some fresh breakfast. I also dreamed of  dying and of shedding both my wings; the healthy and the abnormally short one.

We lived on the oldest oak tree in the park. People scurried about like ants. Jubilant music flowed from ice cream trucks. Excited dogs ran besides their owners and the dreadful cats. Lots and lots of cats. I spent a large part of my day trying not to fall off the branch and into some odd cat’s sneering, smelly mouth. The thought of its whiskers pinching my flesh was particularly disturbing. Though some days I contemplated jumping on purpose. Fortunately those moments ended as soon as I saw my delicious lunch wiggling in my mother’s beak. I loved to eat. My sister often told me I would end up a fat Robin. Fat, sick, ugly, useless…. was an endless list I secretly loved adding words to.

Mother’s stash of hope was as inexhaustible as the number of worms creeping up; at the right place, right time. When I first discovered I had a ‘bad’ wing by birth, she gave me hope. When I was ridiculed by others in the family, she assured me things would change. She was right, but not quite the way I had hoped she would be.

One day, as I was waiting on my favorite branch, the rays of sunlight seemed dimmer than usual, like the weakening pulse of a heart, limping towards silence. I saw neighboring birds fly on by in a hurry. I felt sick. Something was wrong. She was late. I would’ve been starving, if it were any other day. But it was not. I dozed on and off, sitting alone on that branch, shivering like a crumpled leaf in the wind. That night, I dreamed of her gloriously descending from the sky, engulfing me in her warm, cozy wings. I dreamed of our flight together.

Night turned into day. My fellow birds cheerfully chirped across the park.  I felt hopeful of her arrival. Hope soon turned into despair, then sheer desperation. I peered down from the tree. Everything was dead slow. I saw no cats and no people. I thought about jumping down. I couldn’t fly but I could always hop. A hoping hopping Robin. I would’ve smiled at such clever word play if it were any other day. But it was not.  I jumped on the lower branch and onto the next one; one hop after the other and I was finally on the ground. In one feathery piece of dread.

Time passed in slow motion. I heard life ahead. Children and their parents were happily walking along the pebbly walkway. I remember sitting with mother and watching life pass us by. I remember her telling me about how kind some of these humans were. I remember listening to children’s laughter and thinking to myself, “That sure is a kind laughter”!

I suddenly snapped out of my dreams and saw a pretty little girl with dark brown curls you could get lost in. She held a scruffy doll clinging closely to her chest. She sent a wave of warmth to my heart. She stopped midway and noticed something. I followed her gaze to a flowery bush a few steps ahead. I jumped on further.  She gasped with dismay at the same time as I almost fainted with horror. There lying stone cold on her back was my mother. Her beak wide open as if the last word on her mouth was hope. The girl hurriedly ran ahead and picked her up. I could see a tear rolling down the girl’s cheek. She caressed my mother with her soft hand. She even kissed her on the feathers. She did everything I would have done. I hopped on near. She grabbed a little stick and made her way onto a small dirt patch next to the bush. She dug a hole and gently placed my mother in it. She covered it carefully and placed a pebble on top. She stood there watching the tiny grave when her father called: “Hope! Come here sweetheart. It’s time to go home!”. She brushed away her tears and ran to join her father.

From then on, I knew one thing. That moment of kindness was enough for me to survive. My mother had given me hope and the will to live all these years. And now this gentle soul was to do the same. I hopped on behind her, as fast as I could.

Fast, hoping, hopping Robin.

Not just four stars….

True stories are the best. All the academy awards in the world cannot do justice to real life depictions. This is just one of those hazy reviews of a life greatly lived, topped of course with some necessary touches of fantasy and fiction, for you; the readers.

A 10 year old girl with the world’s hope and dreams trapped in little soulful eyes, hurried home from school so that she could get  back to her homework. The dilapidated mohalla where she lived with her parents and siblings reeked of poverty yet the smell of love overpowered it all. Tiny pathways connected all homes, like a stringent network of capillaries. Voices skipped from one room to the other in such closely placed houses. Laughter and cries; gibberish and screams.

She loved how words connected on paper. She adored school. All those books about fairies, Jinns, Castles transported her to places she could never even dream of. These dreams were as short-lived as a person’s childhood. She was taken out because it was time to migrate to another land. People in her country had been clawing at each others throats for a long time. Muslims vs. Hindus; British vs. Muslims; Hindus vs. British. Same people – Different combinations. Now it was time for a new land.

Everything was a hodgepodge. Kind of like the spicy curry ingredients her mother cooked in her huge steel pot. How could you just get up and leave your country just because everyone was doing it? For safety reasons, she heard from relatives. You will be a free Muslim there, she was told by her parents. She was confused. She prayed five times a day and no one ever stopped her. How freer could she be? She just held on tightly to her small dupatta and gathered her few belongings, her heart fluttering as she thought about the long train ride ahead.

After a restless and dangerous ride of many hours, she was told they had arrived. Many people had not made it alive. Trains had been ransacked and people brutally murdered like useless insects. But they arrive in one physical piece, but with hearts divided in two. Pakistan was her new home now. She looked outside of her window, waiting to see some magical land of flying horses, fairies dressed in gold, angels giving away sugary flat bread. Nothing. It was all the same. Barren land, disheveled people dragging their belongings, with frightful, bloodshot eyes. Some even had blood on their clothes and faces.

She accompanied her family to some distant relative’s place,which was equally depressing. Her enthusiasm died a slow torturous death, like the goat that was sacrificed last year on Eid.  She did not like what she saw as she peered outside the buggy, on her way to her new temporary house. It was far worse than her little cupboard containing a few broken dolls she had left behind in a waterfall of tears. The entire city was like an abandoned circus; as if someone had left in a terrible hurry. It was all there but nothing looked right.

They acquired a small place of their own, in a cramped neighborhood. The people were friendly, especially to a 10 year old. As she grew up, they were not so friendly any more. She turned 15 and all the friendly smiles turned to obnoxious stares. It was time for her to get married, which to her meant only one thing; no more school. Her academic life was over for good this time. She was wedded to an unknown man whose face she saw the day of their wedding.

At a young age she had realized the power of being thankful, no matter what. Her gratitude stood resolute in front of all the setbacks that followed. A huge family of typical overpowering in-laws, a suffocating house, and a 15 year old daughter-in-law who only new how to cook potato and meat curry with roti. Her rotis were the best. Her mother took pride in that fact. In the years to come, her cooking left everyone with exploding bellies, licked fingers; still asking for more. She then learnt to sow and stitch, to weave and crochet, to clean, to give,…and to give some more. Who was to know, this was something she would be doing all her life. Give, that is.

She gave birth to a daughter the very next year. The minute she laid eyes on her daughter, she knew she was going to do one thing, and one thing alone. Send her to school, and never deprive her of such a blessing. After that a long line of children arrived, three of whom died in infancy. She was left to take care of seven children on a meager income and a husband who was hardly ever around. She was a disciplinarian when it came to school. Although not educated enough herself, she ensured that her children got the best possible education. After years of blood and sweat, the family finally left their archaic neighborhood and moved to greener pastures. She had her own beautiful home. She could finally sit on her own porch in those glorious mid-morning hours; when the soft sunlight greeted her plants as she ate oranges with sprinkled salt, and read the Urdu newspaper.

All her children went to universities and adopted the best professions of the time. She knew how to be a friend and took great care of the friends she made during her life. Wherever she went, she was the life of the room. Her contagious laughter, her interesting anecdotes and amusing vocabulary made her presence difficult to ignore. She had incredible general knowledge; about politics, about celebrities, about her religion Islam. She was a voracious reader with an uncanny memory. Despite the world’s problems stubbornly gnawing at her feet, her charming smile never left her thin lips. She never stopped thanking her creator.

She is over 75 years old now. She still loves weddings, praying, putting chameli (Jasmine) flowers in her ears, music, reading, and a good joke. A true patriot; despite having the option to move out with her children who are happily settled abroad, she chooses to stay back. Living with a bad heart and extreme pain all over, she is peaceful and content. I have never once seen her complain or whine about her health.

She is my beautiful grandmother; the most brave and strong woman I know. She gave a large part of her love and prayers to me too, and for that I will forever be grateful. There so much that I can say about her, yet it will never be enough. Behind her wrinkled face and a joyous smile remains a life ingrained with years of hard work, faith and the ability to make the most out of what you have.

If you ask her, she will tell you how her life has been God’s beautiful gift to her, which she chose to wrap with her own bows of strength and determination.

If you ask me, her life story is worth all the stars in the world. Not just four stars.

***********

Daily Prompt Challenge: Four Stars: Write a review of your life — or the life of someone close to you — as if it were a movie or a book.