Are you for real?

credits: shutterstock

Ever heard of the Russian nesting doll , Matryoshka? They are fascinating dolls placed one inside the other in decreased sizes. Almost like us fancy creatures don’t you think (not as dolled up of course). We have so many faces that are hiding behind one another. These are images that we sketch for, and according to, the people around us. Personalities within personalities. Layers behind layers.

“Be yourself!” “Don’t be fake!” These are such overrated terms. What is ‘being yourself’ anyway? Are you for real when you try to impress your friends by trying to dress like them, or walk and talk like them? Or Are you for real when your boss can’t stand the outspoken you, so you pull out another face? A more befitting picture that won’t burst the boss’s glassy ego. How about that woman at your friend’s wedding who you thought was so over the top and crude. Only a week later you saw her working behind a cash counter, as polite and timid as a deer. Or is that drunkard man real whose abusive tongue paralyzes many but most of his hours are spent feeding the homeless? Or how real is that chaste, pious man the world sings praises for when in the dark of the night he mistreats his wife like nobody’s business. Or is that girl real who got married thinking she was a pretty decent human being. But one fine day, she realized how wrong she was. People didn’t see her goodness. She was a complete imposter in her own eyes. Her only refuge was the custom-made mold she was expected to fit into. Her existing face was not good enough. It was time to order a new copy which was easy because shipping was instant and free. So who’s real and who isn’t? Is anyone really fake or are they just doing what everyone does? Change faces faster than a chameleon changes its color.

Almost throughout my elementary and high school years, I was one of the popular kids. Sports, music, studies, I was mostly at the top of my game. Then we moved towards the end of my high school and I was thrown into a new place with an alien system and cruel glances. I was in a torturous parallel dimension where nothing made sense. That was by far the worst year of my school life. Ever. Pimply craters were furiously invading my skin. I had a huge bout of low self-esteem and my classfellow’s indifference didn’t help much. Each day I thought about my old school, my old friends, my old face. The real me. Or so I thought. Because I sure wasn’t this weak, ugly, good for nothing kid, was I? It took me almost a year to get back into my game, when students around me began to realize I wasn’t too bad after all. The ‘cool’ kids started making friends with me because I got good grades and was assigned the president of the school’s sports club. How about that! I was around such gracious people! Now that I look back I didn’t do much except rummage through my supply of masks that I thought would help me get through.  The shy girl. The book worm. The nobody. The athlete. The friend. My first encounter with the master of shuffling faces that I had become.

That year in school, as the unwanted new kid I learned a number of things that now make sense. I hid behind all those layers because I wanted to fit in. I wanted my old, glorified self back. It all levels down to how I viewed myself in the eyes of others. Self-confidence can be an overrated term but sometimes that is all you need to preserve what’s left of yourself.Because if you don’t save your essential core from withering away, then no matter how many layers you reveal, you will never stop running, or hiding.

That is why the Matryoshka doll will always amaze me. You never know what to expect when you dig deeper. Keep peeling, keep pulling out. What’s behind face number one? What’s behind face number two? Can anyone really tell?

Many will answer that its the way we have been created. Mufti-faceted beings with the most complex of processes breeding within. But then what sets us apart from each other if all of us have the same gazillion faces that appear when we sense a distress signal? What defines our quintessential nature? How do I know what my true face is?  I can only ask the same questions over and over again. And after that I will go back to my business of shuffling faces the next morning, because the hunt for finding the real me is sort of a losing battle for now.

But do me a favor, ask yourselves this today. “Are you for real?”


Blogging 101: Day twenty-one: build on your new-to-you-post

This post is inspired from a quote I wrote about writing. About how we re-invent ourselves over and over again. It got me thinking and this entire concept of multiple faces and masks came to mind.


Good, honest writing…

Good, honest writing is like ripping open your heart and sewing it back up; one raw emotion, one meaningful word at a time.

Like shedding your old skin for something newer and more refined.

Like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly; over and over again.

*Nida S.*

* Today’s assignment on zerotohero challenge: build your storyteller’s toolbox by publishing a post in another format or a style you’ve never used before.

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? 



Zero to Hero day 6 Challenge: Is your life really yours?

For day-six, the challenge was to write to a ‘dream reader’ and to bring in a new element of writing that hasn’t been tried before. I am writing a poem addressed to a large section of my country’s people who cannot break away from dated customs and beliefs, even if they want to.  People who spend their entire lives in fear of what other people will say if they speak the truth or live by their own will. These people might never read what I have to say, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. In many cases, I am also shamefully part of this culture.

Wrapped up in notions, ideas so unwarranted

Believing things made up long ago, by an old woman who never existed

Marrying off your children with borrowed money and tears

Now you can’t have a wedding without feeding fat rears

Giving dowry to your daughters, rich or poor

God forbid, wouldn’t want to upset the young boor

Afraid of breathing, terrified of being

“What will they say?”, a thought forever clinging

Stuffing money in greedy pockets, under the table,over your conscience

When will it all change, this hypocrisy, this pretense?

Daggers of judgment, piercing our souls

From the color of your skin, to what you throw in the bin

Is your life really yours?

Mocking stares line the maps of our roads

From choosing what to wear, to finding life partners

Is your life really yours?