Fiction, Romance

Hope and Morgan Freeman are stupid!

You know, I always believed Morgan Freeman’s supposedly iconic dialogue from ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, “Hope is a dangerous thing,” was utterly stupid. I mean what an Oscar-winning multi- millionaire knows about the emotion of hope and the countless aspirations that a human heart attaches to it. Nothing.

Seven months and 27 days later, I began to live by it. It all started that fateful morning, when Daddy was reading out the newspaper to me, while I played hide and seek with my Winnie the Pooh in bed.

Any TedEx speaker or some monk of the highest grade could not have consoled my bleeding heart; such was the intensity of the ‘news’. And for a split second, I could feel my soul escaping my now feeble body. All by myself, I cried back to sleep.

Hussain, knowing how melodramatic I could get, jumped in for some damage control. At 12:45, right after his Abbu left for their footwear shop, he woke me up with his repeated calls. Even with the glazing ‘poor connection’ notification adoring his screen, he could see me weep. His eyes suggested he could sense my despair that found an outlet in the form of tear beads that ran through my arms and settled on my lap, soiling my cushions. I was like an adamant toddler, crying for a candy that was too hard for her barely-there teeth.

“Do you…you…know…” I asked.

“I know…listen…I do know…calm down first”

“Skype is banned…,” I replied.

“In Pakistan…from 31st March…Yes I know but you need to calm down first, Jiniya. How do you plan on chalking out an alternative if you continue sobbing.” Hussain is my logical Pakistani and I am his emotional ‘cry machine Hindustani’.

“We won’t see…we won’t see each other again…Oh God! Please tell me this is a hoax…Why would they shut down? You and I talk over it daily. Skype is doing so well,” I ranted.

Honestly, it wasn’t. With hardly half a million accounts and far lesser advertisements, this announcement comes as no shock to Hussain Al Masseri. It was me who was in complete denial.

Before hanging up, Hussain commanded in his husky voice, “Just run through our loveliest conversation tonight and go off to sleep.”

“What about alternate plan?” I quizzed.

“One thing at a time, Jiniya,” Hussain signed off.

Right after the Liberation War, when Skype was still in fashion and a big rage among third world countries, Hussain ‘accidentally’ added me on Skype. A story I find hard to digest. It was my display picture, I am telling you!

In his whimsical voice, I found, like me, a true patron of Art. He had me on our very first call, just by reciting:

Out beyond the idea

Of wrong doing and right doing;

There is a field,

I will meet you there

He loved Rumi and preferred Jayanta Mahapatra and Kamala Das over Manto. That was what set him apart from mere mortals; his ability to look beyond the obvious and hold his ground against all odds. Talk about the never-ending tension between our respective nations, he would snap, “An art lover never dreads the distance or loathes the boundaries, they go where words, music…their craft takes them.”

Hibiscuses growing in my mother’s garden caught his fancy for two reasons- he loved vibrancy and Karachi did not have it in abundance. On Sundays, it was our ritual to show each other hibiscuses of our lands. He would often wonder, “Just like us humans, even the flowers look alike. I don’t understand why this bloodshed.”

Hussain was born to a staunch Islamic father and a liberal mother. His Abbuji is the reason why we could not connect on Orkut, for he apparently knew about it all too well and learning about befriending a Hindustani would automatically make Hussain a kaafir. Hussain was queer and cryptic, he would never hang out with his mates from college and always branded them as ‘other people’ and called himself ‘not for this world’.

Despite the 12 o’clock curfew, we would stay up till wee hours of the night chatting away. About the magnificent Taj Mahal, the parallelly-running rivers right outside his home that would never meet, my broken bicycle, his blue eyes set on a chocolate brown chiseled face, his desire to study liberal arts, my love for Ashton Kutcher; our lives together.

The day after the terrible news struck, felt better. And Hussain made it all the more wonderful.

“Here is the plan. We both wanted to flee our countries since forever. Let us apply to University of Iowa, their acceptancy rate is 88%.”

“Daddy will never say yes to it.”

“He would…score 115 in TOEFL, both Iowa and Daddy will accept.”

“On a scale of 10, how sure are you about the results?”

“Almost certain.”

“Let us give this a shot,” I gave in.

“Good girl! Now comes the hard part. TOEFL, SoPs, transcripts are serious business and require immense attention. Therefore, we will talk on 31st March itself”

“But…”

“Listen, desperate times call for desperate measures. Give it your best and we will pose together near the Statue of Liberty.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

“Is there some other girl and you are doing this only to shoo me away?”

“Whattttt???…(laughs) Girls here think I need help.”

Help? He is way too smart for all of them.

Hussain and I are like two stark opposite characteristic traits of Bella from ‘Twilight’ saga; I was the one irrevocably in love and he preferred to suffer in silence.

With a little help from Mumma, I managed to buy two earthen piggy banks and labelled them: ‘application fee for Iowa’ and ‘visa process’.

I studied relentlessly, losing track of days and nights. All this because I had faith in Freeman’s conviction.

We will pose together near the Statue of Liberty.

The urge to end up in the same city was so strong that I no longer paid attention to Daddy’s rant on communalism or even helped Mumma with household chores. How could I risk TOEFL?

Even though laser wired fences and Benazir Bhutto and Atal Bihari Bajpayee posed hurdles on both sides of the disturbed nations, I somehow found myself wondering off to the forbidden territory. My mind was asking a thousand question per second? Has Hussain taken the test already? Has he cleared the visa process? I hated Hussain for the self-imposed ultimatum and even more for being able to stick to it.

Hibiscus seeds packed, woollen garments stacked up, and with a heavy heart, I hosted the farewell party for my friends and folks. “The excitement will kill me. Why can’t I call a day prior?…I hate diktats”

After pacing up and down the veranda, the ‘call of the century’ had finally come. Singh uncle from across the street could hear my heartbeats but who was complaining. I pulled off an extremely desperate stint; received the call after first ring.

“Look at you! You have grown so thin, been mugging away?”

My heart was pining for you, hence the weight loss. You idiot!

“You look malnourished,” I observed.

“Been thinking about me?” I teased.

“Hmmm…how are your plants? Nurturing them well.”

“Thanks for dodging. They reminded me of you, every day.”

“Do you want to talk about the time we were apart” I asked.

Stoic silence.

“Do you want to talk about our plan?”

“Oh, about that…So…I hate to break this to you now but my Abba passed away the month before and being his only son, I have to take care of his business and my mother here.”

“You said you were too unconventional to be domesticated.”

“I can shun the world but not them. I … have withdrawn my application.”

When were you planning on telling me?”

“Jiniya, please.”

“I better go, Ammi is a little disoriented these days. Good luck”

Call disconnected

Dialling

Call dropped

Dialling

Call dropped

Dialling

Call dropped

Dialling

Screen goes blank

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Fiction

8-8-8

On a sunny morning Jiniya is invariably filled with zeal and her energy reaches its brim within minutes of waking up. As if the first ray of sun that touches her freckled face infects the half-hyper half-curious child in her with ardent zest. Zest to chase the only purpose of her life- fulfilling her semi-broken dreams.

Average looking with a visibly bloated face, Jiniya has always dreaded looking back at bygones. “I feel naked,” she had told her mother once. Her face is a blank notebook, neither exhibits the volcano that may have erupted within her nor does it show any signs of joy.

But she has her off days, especially when clouds dance aimlessly in the sky and hover around the mighty Sun. “Just like emotions, clouds and raindrops exude weakness. I feel powerless,” asserts the plain-faced marketing officer.

She is her 9-year-old self on damp days, as she would often jokingly call a rainy day, it magically draws her back to the golden days- days her mother thinks are testament to how lively and bright she had once been.

On that day, she slipped into a maroon-coloured pajama and requested her privacy be uncompromised with. Jiniya flipped through the pages of the book she was reading a couple of days back but couldn’t recollect the plot now.

And before she could keep the book back to where it belongs, she dozed off.

“Why are you coming home this late? Why did you not take an Umbrella?” enquired her mother who has long given up on trying to ‘infuse’ life in her daughter.

“Sorry, I know I should have informed you. Mom, I got drenched. Can I stay over? I have to leave for work early in the morning,” asked the 9-year-old in her.

“Your brother and sister are on my bed, don’t ask me why. They call it ‘cosy’ or something similar to that. Will that be okay,” Jiniya’s former ‘bosom friend’ asked hesitantly.

Jini assured her mummy that wouldn’t be a problem as the hall room was empty. One blanket. One pillow and she will sail through the night.

A thundering sound came from inside, as if the worn-out house had begun to crumble and will crash on their heads in a matter of few minutes. “Oh! Your daddy will never change. He is such a light sleeper that even an ant’s movement wakes him up.”

He staggered his way out of the house, each step a battle in itself. Daddy, despite the wrinkled forehead and saggy cheeks, looked concerned. With great struggle, he lifted the dirt-clad towel to rinse off rain water from her hair.

“My old man has really grown old,” she thought to herself as her kohl-rimmed eyes gave way to a teardrop.

As a juvenile, she had taken immense pride in her father. She would break into an innocent grin every time someone said she has inherited her father’s pointy nose or his soft curls. Her father had always been a man of few words and did not have even an iota of talent in showering love. He said the kindest of things wearing the bluntest expression imaginable to mankind. Like this one time when she had topped the class and he did the unthinkable. He brought her close to his face, combed her messy hair in clean plates and said, “You make me proud. I was the happiest the day you were born,” he said without a sparkle in his eyes. Not even a brief smile yet what he said  went on to live with her forever.

“How did you come home? It is pouring badly. Why did you not go to your place?” asked the concerned father who was happy as well as astonished to see his independence-seeking daughter standing at his doorstep, seeking shelter.

“Daddy, My house is situated at a distance of 8 minutes from our…your place. Anddd…my office is situated at a distance of 8 minutes from your place. So I came here, since it is the closest,” said Jiniya, awkwardly.

He gazed at her. She has known this gaze for eternity yet not been able to formulate a fitting response for it. The gaze of hopelessness, he wants to say something but he wouldn’t.

Every time he gave her that gaze, she looked away. She never bothered to ask what it meant, he never felt the necessity to explain.

“Here! Come to my room, sleep with me…This hall room cannot keep you warm.”

“Okayy”, she said, perplexed. She was right, she will never understand her old man.

With great effort he lifted his right hand, clutched it to her left palm and started moving towards the room. Each step reminded her of the times they went to school together and she would tell him tales of what had happened the day before.

Sure he was a man of few words but never forbade her from talking endlessly. He felt a sense of inclusiveness in those stories. He knew he was a part of whichever world she was living in.

“Go get the maroon-coloured blanket from my cupboard. It is the thickest of all,” commanded her old man.

She slept in no time as she had been working the whole week without any break.

He ran his cold fingers around her head.

“Don’t smoke baba (he lovingly called her, sometimes). Your heath has deteriorated.”

“I always see you smoke, at times standing at the balcony of your office, at times at the backyard of your house. Is something bothering you? Baba. Baba. Tell me.”

“I know you are unhappy but you are too proud a woman to accept that. Your eyes don’t twinkle anymore. What is bothering you, baba? Why do you smoke? Don’t”

She woke up like she had been battered in her dream. Reluctantly, Jiniya lifted the book from the edge of her bed and placed it on the table.

Despite screaming out a couple of times, Maa wouldn’t come. She walked to the kitchen and opened the window.

“You had always been worried for me Daddy, stop it now. You are old, rest well there,” she said looking at his tomb. Ten years have passed by but his last words still ring in her ears. Like his death has been a joke, a game, that he had always been around. Watching, crying, lamenting. Always around.

She wiped the corner of her eyes and reached for the cigarette. Then threw it away. No, she wouldn’t. She cannot. Her Baba has asked her not to.

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