[Winning Story] An Escapist’s Version of Reality

Winning story of the 3rd Annual Short Story Writing Competition organized by Hiba

10 escapist version of realityI vividly remember the disastrous day my mom forced an Abaya on me. I was an extremely outgoing girl, the very opposite of what my mom wanted me to be. My life revolved around partying, hanging out with school friends, and especially socializing around the many social networking sites on the World Wide Web. One of my closest friends was an emerging musician, and although I did not have a knack for music, she was my source for the latest gossip relating to our school’s social scene.

It was after a parent-teacher meeting at school that my mom became adamant upon having me wear an Abaya: by hook or by crook. In normal circumstances, I would surely not have given in to her way, but back then, I knew that I had lost my ground as my teacher had informed her about all my ‘extra-curricular activities’. My mother was furious. However, it was not her anger that struck me the most; it was the fact that I had betrayed her trust that caused her to hurt most, and that made me reflect upon my character and the path of disloyalty I was treading.

The initial few days of being shrouded in an Abaya were quite miserable. The many times that I would run a critical gaze down my Abaya-donned body made me deeply regret my agreement to have it as an identity for the rest of my life.

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The Four Orange Rinds

Orange Rinds

Suleman loved fruit, and there was plenty of it to enjoy in Pakistan. Living in Karachi, he enjoyed mangoes, oranges, pomegranates, pears, peaches, grapes, melons… such a wide variety of fruit, which came one after the other throughout the year from all parts of Pakistan. Today, after a heavy dinner at home, he had an orange. It was so sweet and juicy that Suleman, not a very religious person, spontaneously uttered ‘Alhumdulillah’ with pleasure. Suleman then forgot all about it. His career, work and entertainments kept him very busy and happy with his life.

Zaheeruddin Niazi was very grateful to Allah (swt). His orange orchard had 742 trees on his 20-acres farm. He loved each tree like his own child. His oranges with sticker “Shireen Sweet – Niazi Farm” were the best oranges in the entire Attock Mianwali area. They fetched the best price and were sold out in advance well before season.

FSC113 was the angel responsible for fruit supply to Suleman. There were hundreds of angels with all types of duties for fulfilling the needs of each individual on earth. Some angels were providing the exact Rizq appointed each year for a person; some were protecting the body, ears or eyes, while others were responsible for all types of food supply. FSC was an easy designation for the angel in charge of ‘fruit supply chain’. Since there were hundreds of fruit varieties, there were over 150 angels for bringing different fruits to Suleman. Allah’s (swt) vast network worked day and night for bringing Rizq and sustenance to His creation. All was planned to perfection and ran like clockwork.

Currently, FSC113 had the single duty by his supervisor to supply the best oranges available in Pakistan to Suleman. He had to supply 240 oranges in that particular season, which was not a bad bargain for offering Shukr for one orange! Suleman had shown gratitude, and Allah (swt) never forgets such things. FSC113’s job was not easy. He targeted Zaheer’s farm, since it was the best. Next, he targeted trees number 303, 304 and 305, which were in the best location and produced the most succulent sweet oranges in the entire orchard.

FSC113 settled next to these trees, in order to oversee their production for the next four months. He was dozing, when the hot sunrays jolted him awake; too much sun, he noted. The oranges will dehydrate and lose some glucose content and sweetness! FSC113 rushed skywards and instantly arranged for a cloud cover from his fellow cloud angel, which cut down the sunrays to just the right amount for providing sunlight, but not too harshly. FSC113 sighed with relief. He was well in control. He handled numerous daily challenges, such as ensuring the right amount of water supply, fertile soil conditions, absence of disease, and pest control when needed. He either brought the matter to the attention of Zaheer through intuition or whisperings or took help from his fellow angels, like he had done just now.

Finally, the oranges ripened and were packed and ready to be sent to Peshawar. But, at the last moment, the wholesaler called Zaheer that he had lots of stock, so if he wished, he could send it elsewhere. Zaheer had bookings from everywhere, so he directed the fruit to Quetta. Suddenly, it started to rain heavily in Quetta valley and the truck driver was instructed to change the route to Karachi. The Shireen Sweet were meant for a Gulshan fruit vendor. The truck driver, however, was obliged to grant a favour to his friend in the DHA fruit market. He promised the Gulshan vendor to bring his oranges on the next trip.

One day, Suleman got out of his office, intending to head straight home. But, as he approached the high street, he remembered that they were out of fruit. At the last moment, he turned his car, parked in front of his fruit vendor, and called him through the car’s window:

“Oranges hain (Do you have oranges)?”

“Jee Sahib; abhi taza aye hain. ‘Sweet Shireen’ bohot aala aur meetha hai. (Yes sir. Fresh oranges are here. ‘Sweet Shireen’ are very high quality and sweet.)”

“Theek hai, theek hai bhai, do dozen do – aur jaldi. (Alright, alright, brother. Give me two dozen and hurry!)”

He pays and drives home.

After dinner, Suleman asks his wife for an orange, but she is busy enjoying her banana. He tells his daughter, Sharmeen, to bring one for him. She picks one up, her phone rings, and she puts it down again. Suleman grunts and picks one up for himself. He cuts it in his usual four slices and eats it. No doubt, it was absolutely delicious. Suleman gets up to wash his hands, when he hears the Adhan and suddenly remembers Mufti Sahib’s talk of last Friday on Shukr. He sits down again, brings his hand together and says: “Alhumdulillah”.

More than 150 angels, who had worked hard to bring these oranges to Suleman’s plate, were all standing by the table, waiting to see the effect of their handwork. Suddenly, all of them broke out in a thunderous applause and bowed down to Allah (swt) saying what they said, when they bowed in front of Adam: “Allah Almighty, yes, You know what we know not!”

Allah (swt) then signals to His Archangel, who then just for a moment lifts the veils of ignorance from Suleman’s mind, giving him the gift of understanding and perception. In a flash, Suleman sees where his oranges were grown, how they were protected from sun, rain, disease, and pests and how they were switched from going to Peshawar to Quetta to Karachi and then from Gulshan to DHA. He saw how, by the greatest of miracles all the way from Mianwali traveling over a thousand miles in a period of four months, the oranges landed on his plate!

The veil lifted, and he was back in the world, sobbing like a child. He could barely make it to his bedroom, where he fell on his prayer mat, his body racking with sobs of Shukr, Shukr, Shukr – Alhumdulliah. “Oh Allah (swt), in my slumber, I did not know, but now I know how Rahim how Karim and how Rahman You are. Oh, the Mighty One! Oh, the Great One! Accept my thanks and also accept my repentance for not being grateful for my daily blessing. I know now, and I will be your true and grateful servant for the rest of my life.”

Suleman then collected the four rinds of the orange. After drying them in the sun for a few days, he had them carefully placed in two jars. One jar sits on his plush office desk and the other in his study at home. They serve as constant reminders to be grateful and not to forget his great enlightening experience, which changed his life forever!

Yet Another Migration

road-201x288By Iqra Asad – Medical student, Lahore

Life is a bridge spanning two eternities—voyaging from one to another; we cannot turn back. We are merely nomads, trudging a treacherous path, taking our homes with us, for no earthly place is our eternal abode. From joy to sorrow, from youth to adulthood, from thoughtlessness to wisdom, from life to death; each migration is a world in its entirety. Each migration is steeped in its own uncertainty. The heart longs to go back, the feet go on, for no force can swim against the current of time. We must go wherever it takes us. From one migration to another, on and on, until we are swept into the boundless ocean of the eternity to come, where our weary souls find rest.

I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew:

Of wind I sang, a wind there came and in the branches blew.

…But if of ships I now should sing, what ship would come to me,

What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?

There was a time I, too, believed that there was a way back. That going onward was a matter of choice. That one could flee from the mists of the unknown into the soothing world of all things familiar. Ah, what a fool I was. Life is a strict teacher; it gives the test first and the lesson afterward. And so I learned that at every new port, there is no ship to take you back. You must travel on to seas uncharted. The sea of your passing becomes a sea once known, enshrined in the hallowed halls of memory, one you can recall but not relive. The path onward is steeped in doubt and imbued with excitement. Fear is coupled with anticipation. Remorse blends with wonder. It is a tumultuous ride; once you are on it, there is no telling where it will go. It is taxing but rewarding, daunting but impelling. Weak hearts perceive nothing but the hardship and misery; the strong sense the challenge and the adventure. It took many migrations to strengthen this flimsy heart of mine.

I was still gullible, still swayed by fear and doubt, still susceptible to the winds of change, when she came to me. God breathed the soul of a lily into her rosy cheeks and set the spine of a soldier in her unbending back. Small, sheltered and vulnerable, a tiny bundle of life, I never dreamed that my little bead would grow into a luminous pearl. You know how they say that so-and-so was born with a silver spoon in his mouth? She was born with the feather of intellect in her hair, my lovely little daughter.

Having migrated into motherhood, I assumed all my major travels lay behind me. Little did I know the paths I would tread with my Saria. The paths of experience that intertwined her migrations with mine, until they seemed almost my own.

She did not know migrations were the stuff of life until she experienced her first physical one.

“Mommy, will there be McDonald’s in Pakistan?”

“Yes, Saria.”

“And Pizza Hut?”

“Of course, dear.”

“And school? And TV? And chocolate?” The list went on and on.

“Saria, it’s just like America. You were born there.”

“When we’ll come back I’ll tell all my friends!” The little face glowed with childish certainty. She had not the faintest idea that there would be no going back.

“Mommy, it’s all dirty. I don’t like this country.”

“It’s not that bad, even though it’s not as developed as America, you know.”

“They should tidy it up more.” Settling into the new house, meeting the whole family for the first time, studying in a new school, training her palate to an entirely new cuisine; there was a multitude of new experiences for Saria.

“Mommy, it’s Red Colour Day at school.”

“They didn’t send a note, darling.”

“Not this one. My real school. The one in America.”

“Saria.” I took her hands in mine, pulled her close. “This is your real school.” She stared at me uncomprehendingly for a moment, then drew back roughly and shrieked, “No, it’s not! It’s not, it’s not, it’s not!”

“Saria—”

“We’re not staying here! I can’t live here! I can’t!”

Can’t. Won’t. Isn’t. Not. Bitter words of revolt punctuated her speech in the days to come. It took a long time for acceptance to sink in, and that, too, riddled with grief. It was her first brush with reality. It readied her for all the journeys life would lay at her feet in the years to come.

“Mama.” Saria had shed her American skin and slithered quietly into a native one over the years. “Look at this.” Her fingers caressed the material of a pair of shorts she had unearthed from the depths of her closet. “I can’t believe I used to wear shorts. Mama, can you believe, I used to wander around the house in a vest sometimes.”

“That was a sleeveless shirt.”

“It was almost a vest. Mama, I used to have arm-wrestling matches with the boys in my class. Imagine!”

“You were in primary school.”

She sighed. “Water fights. I can’t have those anymore. I can’t run. I can’t shout. I can’t…Mama, I can’t do anything now.”

“Saria…”

“I’m suffocating.” She clutched her head. “I’m trapped in this ridiculously huge cage. I want to be free again.”

I sat down on the bed next to her and ran my fingers through her hair. “Saria, I can’t run either.”

“Only because you’d trip over your own feet!”

“Really?” I tugged at her sleeve. “Let’s see it then, my girl.” Saria sat up straight. “Last one to the gate is a rotten egg!”

We rushed through the house in one blur of motion. Saria beat me to it. She clutched her side, panting. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes were shining.

“You still have to take me to buy a new dress!”

“Oh, I thought there was nothing you could do now?”

Saria smiled.

She was a born philosopher, she of the feather of intellect. With the years her theories evolved from childish prattle to actual sense. Sometimes she surprised me with her thoughts.

“Mama,” she would say, in tones suggesting she was talking of the market rates of celery, “You know what I think about suicide?”

“No,” I would reply.

“I think people take their own lives because they don’t want to move on, and they keep trying to go back.”

“Back where?”

“Into the past.”

“I thought it was because they couldn’t see a way out.”

“That too. There’s always a way, though it isn’t necessarily out. There’s no such thing as ‘having no choice’. There’s always a choice. Even if it’s between braving it out and killing yourself.” She lapsed into silence.

“What are you thinking?”

“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“Letting go.” She moved her head away. “It’s hard. Letting go of the past. Accepting that you can’t get it back again.”

“Saria…”

“That’s it, isn’t it?” Her eyes were filled with tears now. “We had to let go of Ami.”

“Saria.” It was a sigh. “She is in a much better place than we are now.”

“I know.” She looked straight at me. “But that doesn’t make it any easier, does it? She’s not coming back. We’re not getting her back again. She was my only living grandmother.” Her voice broke.

I had to speak evenly so my voice didn’t follow suit. “Saria…one day…”

“I know, I know, we’ll see her again. That’s nice and all, but that doesn’t make it stop hurting.”

I did not say anything. It is hard for the one who migrates, and it is hard for those who are left behind.

“Mama,” Saria went on. “I used to think moving here from America was hard. But Mama…Ami told me, when Pakistan was made, and she migrated to it with her family, they had to leave all their things behind. Everything they knew. Their house. Their furniture. Their belongings. Their relatives. They had to let go of so much. When they reached Pakistan, they didn’t go straight into a new house like we did when we came here. They had to wait while everything was sorted out. It wasn’t easy. It couldn’t have been…” I did not interrupt her. “Mama, just think, if they hadn’t migrated here, we wouldn’t be here. We could be anywhere. Mama, if they had been killed on the way, you and I wouldn’t even exist!”

“Don’t say that.”

“Just think about it. It’s enough to give you the shivers.”

“It would. My little girl can’t even bear to part with her Barbie dolls.”

“Mama, that was ages ago.”

Was it ages? Even ages seem to pass by in the blink of an eye. Time is a torrent, and it carries you along so fast you hardly get time to latch onto anything before it has slipped out of your hands. Saria, my Saria, is leaving me now. She will leave me and enter a new life, a new home, a new family, a new existence. She is borne away from me on the tides of matrimony. The house will ring with her laughter no more. No more will she pinch my cheeks and tease me in that characteristic way of hers. It is…yet another migration. A migration to top all migrations, a migration that seeds so many more. And so on the cycle will continue, every new path leading on to so many more, paths upon paths, twisting and turning out of sight. This is the road that has been, is, and will be, trodden by humanity into the mists of infinity, until all the drops coalesce and flow into the eternal destination, beyond which there are no more migrations.

This short story was one of the finalists in A Life-Changing Experience, a story-writing competition organized by Hiba Magazine

A Woman of Substance (A True Story)

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“Confront the dark parts of yourself and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.” (August Wilson)

She might not be the wealthiest, the most famous or the most influential woman. However, she is an inspiration to all the women out there. In these times, when the ‘weaker’ gender in our country is forced to sell her body to earn a living, Nazeeran Begum refused to give in. To the eyes of a casual observer, she might appear as another housemaid, dusting off dirt and cleaning up the mess created by other people. But in her own life, she cleaned up the mess that her family had created and dusted off the dirt of despair from her shoulder to move on in life. She mustered all her leftover courage and decided to nurture it even in the darkest of times to help her gain a new life.

Nazeeran Begum’s humility can make anyone mindful of one’s own attitude. She has a very strong Punjabi accent but replies ‘Walaikum Assalam’ as properly as any Arab would. She does not sit on the couch. Instead, she chooses to settle down on the floor cushion. “These couches and chairs make people lazy, and I need my strength – can’t afford old age, you know,” she remarks at the shiny, wooden furniture. She is always clad in her white Chaddar (a traditional long piece of cloth) with silver embroidery, unravelling from many corners now, and a clean lawn suit. Along with her little black pouch for keeping her bus fare, she carries a bag of clothes wherever she goes.

Her problems in life started quite early – she was only nine years old, when her mother died. “I belonged to a rich family back in Rajanpur, my village in Dera Ghazi Khan. My father was a Zameendar (landlord) and remarried after my mother’s death. The stepmother was not a surprise at all. She kept my father drunk and her sons, my half brothers, took over the property. The beginning of my sorrows were triggered when my father died. I was twenty years old then,” she tells. She wipes off her tears and bravely tells how she denied all the urges to cut her wrists or to drink poison. Nazeeran Begum has always been a devout Muslim and believes that it is a sin to commit suicide. She was then forced to marry a farmer who used to work in her father’s fields. He was a compulsive gambler and married Nazeeran for money. When her step brothers took everything, her husband beat her and locked her in a room. “Things got worse when I got pregnant; I had twins – a girl and a boy,” she adds somberly.

Her baby girl was taken away by her husband, who sold her for a mere amount of five thousand. According to Nazeeran Begum, that was the worst day of her life. But even that incident didn’t break her spirits; she worked untiringly in the fields, carried manure, reared cattle and raised a son on her own. Although she was illiterate, she managed to get her son admitted in a school. Her husband mostly came home drunk and hit her with anything he found. After twenty years of her marriage, her husband came home one night and divorced her. “He was drunk and had lost all of his senses. He threw me out and locked the door behind me. I stayed up all night for him to come out the next day, but there was nothing left for me. I was divorced. My son refused to leave with me,” she laments.

At that point, when Nazeeran had nowhere to go, no place to hide and her clothes were tattered and torn, her old neighbour, who knew Nazeeran before marriage, took her into her own house. Both of them left Rajanpur and came to Karachi. They resided there in the little huts underneath the pulls with snake charmers. Nazeeran puts her hands over her ears to express her utmost disgust regarding those initial days. She started working as a housemaid, commonly known as a Masi in Karachi. “I was determined to earn Rizq-e-Halal. I never went for any illegitimate means of earning money. Many women, who lived in the huts near mine, were involved in prostitution and smuggling, but I never supported the idea of selling my flesh to anyone,” she states boldly. “The primary reason was my faith in Allah (swt). I had enough stamina to cling onto my religion even during those times.”

When Nazeeran Begum earned enough money, she moved out of that hut to a decent, rented quarter in Shah Faisal Colony. She started selling undergarments, socks and handkerchiefs, too, for extra money. “Working in different households meant interaction with all sorts of people. I started socializing. I met many poor women like me. Since I had to look after myself only, I began saving a lot. I progressed onto selling fabric, but at the same time, I did not stop my cleaning business either,” she says.

“I met several women in my new neighborhood, who were living hand-to-mouth and worked extra hours like me to earn a living. That was the time when I started collecting Zakat, in order to buy sewing machines for those women, so that they could start a new business for earning more,” tells Nazeeran. Her fabrics business was doing well – she earned enough to buy a small quarter of her own in Bakhtawar Goth.

“I have started looking after girls, who are either turned out of their houses or divorced, just like me. I teach them sewing and cleaning, so that they do not go for illicit means to earn bread and butter. It’s for my daughter I lost once,” she pauses and starts weeping for the first time during the conversation.

Beaten, torn down, driven out of house, once stranded on the streets, harassed by snake charmers and bereaved of her own children and father’s property, Nazeeran now lives in a house of her own and has a stall at Erum Centre, where she sells fabrics. She not only brought herself out of darkness but also illuminated the lives of many women like her. She is the living example of courage, hope and faith. However, most importantly, she is a perfect example of a woman, who never compromised her self-respect, honour and dignity for the sake of money. Nazeeran dedicates her life to her lost daughter, whom she hopes to meet in Jannah.