women

Portraits – His neighbor-coworker

She often comes late to work. Nobody really minds but her boss doesn’t appreciate it. Although he does ask about it once. Her excuses are fickle. She says she comes late because she has to prepare breakfast for her mother who is old. ‘But you could make her breakfast early and leave for work on time?’

‘Yes but then I have to give her medicines too.’ She drags her words a little when she doesn’t have good answers.

‘Can’t the medicines be given a little early too?’ her boss asks still pretending composure. ‘Yes sir. No sir. Actually, she’s very old so I give her the medicines myself’, she shifts from one foot to another. She has a little problem standing on her feet for too long these days. The doctor has asked her to go for physiotherapy but she’s been procrastinating because it is not covered in the company’s medical insurance. ‘Just try to reach office till 9:30’, her boss finally closes the discussion. ‘Yes sir’, she pauses, thinks, ‘okay sir’, she puts a full stop. She’s not satisfied with how it ended, but she drags her feet away and out from his office and towards her workstation.

She must be around 57. Or at least that’s what the younger employees think. She hasn’t given the company much—she’s a data operator—just her years of service. She comes late, leaves early and works around three hours in total if we count her individual contribution per day. Most of the time she forgets her due assignments and someone has to remind her politely what she has been missing. People are generally considerate of her old age.

Ms. Raima is a short stubby lady who wears long Kameez with chappals that make distinct noise of dragging feet from ten meters away. She dyes her hair a shade darker than blonde whose roots she gets renewed after every 15 days. ‘You know Papa doesn’t particularly like unkempt hair.’ She explains. Her favorite person in the world is her father—only he’s not in this world anymore. She calls him Papa. She mentions Papa at least once every day. She mentions him in the present tense. So if you were new around her, you would think Papa is alive. So Papa likes to take a nap in the afternoon, he thinks it’s good for health. Papa always thinks highly of people who wear white. It’s Papa’s favorite color. Papa’s favorite poet is Ghalib, he absolutely loves his poetry—and so she does too.

When she does not come to work one day and you ask her the next day, just out of courtesy, the reason of her absence, she tells you that it was Papa’s 11th death anniversary yesterday; it’s only then that you realize that Papa has actually been gone for more than a decade now. ‘You know Papa never likes to make a big deal out of anything, so I just took leave to recite Quran all day and make some Biryani and distribute it among my sisters and brothers and their children. No big deal. But it took all day.’ Her eyebrows shoot up while her head nods. ‘I didn’t want to come today—I was so tired, but Papa doesn’t appreciate when people take their work for granted, so I had to come.’

She has been working in the company for more than 18 years now but she still doesn’t have a decided commute to and from the office. She hails a different rickshaw every day after work and tells him the route to her house. No matter how the situation of the roads of Karachi  is—due to traffic, protests, exhibitions, presence of high government officials in the city—the rickshaw has to take the route she dictates—because, that’s the best possible route to her place.

Most of the colleagues in her department are male except three younger women—one of them sits right across her. She really likes her. Whenever the girl wears a new dress, she asks her to stand up and show her how it looks. The girl mostly feels awkward but obliges. She then nods her head and smiles, and tells her that the dress looks lovely. ‘Light colors suit you very much. I don’t wear light colors to office because I come by rickshaw and there is so much dirt in the air that the clothes get ruined on the way’, she says. ‘Most of my dresses I wear are old ones. Beta, why would someone ruin their new clothes for office?’ She asks the girl. ‘It’s a waste of money.’ She shakes her head. But then she smiles and takes the girl’s hand, her voice goes down conspiringly, ‘you know, you should rather be saving this money for your wedding.’

Nobody understands where her money goes to. She earns a handsome salary after 18 years of service and doesn’t have most obligations people her age have. She didn’t marry, in case you were wondering.

But she should really go see a physiotherapist now. The drag in her feet while walking is increasing and so are her complaints. She’s been taking off every other week and can’t stand properly for more than two minutes. She also offers her prayer on a chair and feels cold even when it’s 37 degrees outside. Her colleagues wouldn’t mind otherwise but when she asks the office boy in the middle of the noon to go and turn off their side of the air conditioning, it does get really hot and suffocating—until someone passive-aggressively starts whining about how hot it is outside today that even the ACs are not working and the other person replies that the ACs are working but theirs have been turned off because Ms. Raima was feeling cold, that Ms. Raima realizes that it’s time to restore the system to normal.

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Stars

Stars. She didn’t remember when she started noticing stars in the sky. Probably when all the normal kids do—in bedtime stories, and toys and in fairy-tales; when their teachers draw those colorful little stars on their soft little hands. But she started making her universe under the stars later.

In the village they all slept under the stars. Her grandparents, her aunts and uncles, her cousins, younger and older than her. And so, when she visited her village, with her parents and brother, she would sleep in the large courtyard too—wooden charpoys spread across the yard, beneath the neem trees, everyone would fall sleep under one sky looking into the dark night and millions of stars above them.

You dream about what you think about. Or, you dream about what you want to think about. She dreamt about neem trees, and nights full of stars and waking up early and running away with cousins to the nearby stream while their aunt would prepare breakfast for them. But sometimes, she also dreamt about the large vacant three storey house whose shadow fell upon their courtyard as the day matured. She never knew why she dreamt about the house. They often talked about it—she and her cousins. Perhaps it was haunted. Sometimes they would peek into the windows. But the only room they could see through one of the windows would be dark and empty. Perhaps she dreamt about the house because it blocked her view of the blanket of stars from far East.

As the years passed, network towers came into her view of her starry nights. More things would keep adding themselves to her view of stars. The trips to village decreased slowly and then ended abruptly. But obstructions kept adding up to her view of stars wherever she went. Slowly, she began to live with them. She would adjust to smog thinning the stars, buildings blocking her view of the sky, clouds of doubt and distrust, until one day, her view to up above was completely shadowed by a man over her who claimed to take a right over her under a lawful agreement—until she could not see anything above her, could not breathe, could not envision a life beyond that darkness. She would reason with herself later that he had the right over her, but what could she do about the stars floating under her eyes that she had stenciled straight from up above?

Guard

He is asking for too much money but she gives in. It’s past six on a Friday. If she says no and decides to wait for another one, it’ll probably be too late and she’ll be stuck in traffic for another hour and a half at least. So she gets in the rickshaw.

But she holds her bag a little too tighter from its strap.

The rickshaw-wala starts the rickshaw and adjusts his rear-view mirror so that he has a clear view of her. She curses without moving her lips.

By now she has witnessed this thousands of times probably but she can never used to it. So she does her daily exercise of lifting her dupatta from her shoulders and puts it over her head, brings both ends of it in front and holds them together with one hand, the other hand gripping her bag-strap. This cloth over her head works as her protector right now, from ruining her hair in the polluted, humid Karachi weather and of course from those stares, or at least that’s how she thinks.

The traffic is slow, vehicles too close. The rickshaw crawls along with the rest of the transport. A bike comes twining and comes to a halt right beside the rickshaw. It’s so close she can smell the stink of cigarettes off the clothes of these boys. They peer inside the rickshaw one by one. She pretends she does not notice but can observe their piercing gaze through her peripheral view. One of them smiles.

The traffic moves. The bike manages to zigzag its way through.

The city is changing its color. From blue to yellow to orange.  She sees an old man, stick thin on his crutches standing in the middle of the road, hands stretched out, unfazed by the horrors of the road. She shudders.

Saddar. Burns Road. Narrower streets. Smells of food, of rotten meat, of paan spits, of boiling gutters at sides, the stench is overwhelming. She covers her nose with her scarf. Maybe someday she will get used to it. Some day she won’t care. But today is not the day. The sheer presence of life on these streets is suffocating. Food, men, children, crows hovering above their heads, broken roads, bikers breaking signals rendering traffic officers powerless—this city frightens her. It claws at her. Imagine if there is a bomb blast at a place like this. Where is the security? Who protects these people except God? Imagine if the bomber is right here, lurking among these people, watching, planning his move. Imagine the havoc. The destruction. The lifelessness amongst life. She shakes her head trying to push away the thought of it.

She comes back to reality when the rickshaw-wala takes a turn she doesn’t recognize.Where is he taking her? Her grip tightens on the strap of her bag.  She voices her concern.

“baji ye short-cut hai, fikar na karo aap ko ghar pohuncha dun ga” (it’s a shortcut baji, don’t worry I’ll get you home), he mocks looking at her from the mirror. He does not like to be dictated.

She weighs her options. She can’t jump from this rickshaw on a comparatively empty narrow road, he can catch her easily, she can’t take that risk. She can see some people walking but she doesn’t know if they can help her. Her mind wanders towards her phone. It’s in the bag along with hundred other things. The sky has turned reddish brown by now. It would be fruitless to try searching it. So she resorts to the only help. She starts reciting Ayat-ul-kursi. Soon she is reciting all small surahs she had learnt as a child and promises God that she’ll offer prayer tonight if she’s not raped, killed and thrown in some gutter.

The rickshaw takes a turn towards left and they’re out on a road she can recognize.

She breathes. Her grip loosens a little.

The sky has turned the darker shade of blue.

Another signal. Another set of billboards. Another set of beggars.

A transgender comes towards the rickshaw. He is wearing green clothes, glitter and golden earrings. He has his back on her while he talks on the phone. She quickly zips open her bag and rummages her wallet. He has seen her by now. While still talking on the phone he comes to stand by the side of the rickshaw. The rickshaw-wala watches as a keen spectator from his mirror while she looks for a twenty rupee note.

Koi baat nahin baji das de den” (it’s alright baji, give me ten), the transgender smiles. He has read her mind and peeked into her wallet.

The signal turns green. The rickshaw starts moving slowly. She quickly takes out ten rupees and hands it over to him. The fair colored transgender holds both his hands together in the gesture of gratitude, mouths a ‘thenk-you’ and walks away.

The sky is a shade of gray clouds. It might drizzle if not rain tonight. The moon hides completely behind the thick clouds today. No play today. No pretense.

More green signals. More billboards. More beggars. More streets. She might reach home safe today.

 

 

Author’s Note: My short story ‘Guard’ was featured in November 2016’s East Lit (a journal focused on creative writing, English literature and art specifically from East and South East Asia) issue. Here’s the link to it:

https://www.eastlit.com/eastlit-november-2016/eastlit-content-november-2016/southlit-supplement-november-2016/guard/