| Mahvash K. Mohtadullah | October 2023 | Short Story |
Aliya opened one bleary eye to glance at the clock on her bedside table. It was just past 6 o’clock. She felt a familiar quickening of her pulse as she thought of the day ahead, the obstacles to be surmounted. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. There was nothing on the agenda today, stress-free as it was in the aftermath of her Masters exams. Her anxious nature still had to catch up to that fact as she stilled her agitated heart. She turned on her side, away from the window and the bright rays of sunshine that glanced cheerily off her desk that lay in the corner of the room. She’d sleep in today she thought, catching at the fading strings of her dawn-time dreams. Soon, she was back in the familiar collage of her recurring dream visions: she was falling off someplace – the catapulting surface was always different – and she always experienced the same great fright, and she always just about missed the concrete or the forest floor or the carpeted surface below as her foggy saviour came to her rescue. His … her … (another conundrum) face was never clear, remaining obscured by the ephemeral mists of her dreams.
She finally arose at 11 o’clock when her mother came into her room armed with clean laundry and the loud efficiency of having been at the helm of the domestic wheel for the last four hours. Aliya felt groggy and tired even after her ten hours of sleep. She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her double chin was looking more pendulous than ever she thought. She had clutched at the rolls on her stomach, feeling for the insidious deposit of more weight. She had been good about her meals this past month and had not given in to any stress eating even though she had been in the throes of her exams. Her nails had taken the brunt of that deprival as they now sat like ravaged moons in their nail beds. She looked at the weighing scale lying right opposite the WC, its meticulous placement a tribute to her weight loss earnestness. She decided today was not a day for unpleasant metric system surprises and pointedly ignored it through the course of her morning ablutions.
‘Hello late latif*,’ her father called out to her cheerfully as Aliya walked into the lounge. She smiled. Her father, Mian Muneer, could brighten most of her days, afflicted as they were with her mother’s constant anguished refrains for her to lose “at least ten kgs!” and her own unremitting anxiety about her weight, and everything else too. In all that maternal censure and self-deprecation, he was like a breath of fresh air. Never remarking about her weight, let’s be honest she thought, her bulk. Never making her cringe at the sight of her reflection or the sight of food even when her stomach was rumbling from protracted deprivation. He loved her just as she was, her beloved father.
‘Good morning, Baba,’ Aliya responded with a kiss on his cheek.
‘Aloo*, there are parathas for brekkie, come get them!’ came a jaunty call from the dining room. She walked towards the voice (cautiously) and towards its announcement of gastronomic delights (zealously), her stomach rumbling with hunger – was it hunger or comfort-seeking she thought fleetingly. For the former came with relatively guilt-free appeasement while the latter needed to be worked through mentally and emotionally and if all went well, was rebutted, ignored, and nipped in the gut. She accepted also, that despite all her diligent evaluation, she had never been very good at distinguishing between the two, as hunger loomed large on most of her food horizons.
Saira was sitting at the head of the table looking, even at that early hour of the day (for she too had woken up only after 10) fresh, dewy and gorgeous. This was her twin sister, the sum total of her antithesis. Aliya helped herself to three parathas and an omelette. She could feel her sister’s eyes on her; she was going to say something, she always did … irksome at best and hurtful at worst.
‘Go easy sis, that’s a thousand calories right there,’ Saira released the expected verbal arrow as she put a condensed milk-laden piece into her own mouth.
Aliya gave a wry smile as she loaded her parathas with condensed milk and cream.
‘Aliya, what are you doing?’ came the accusatory voice from behind her. Their mother had come in and was discharging her duty as the maternal voice of reason and outrage.
‘Having breakfast, Amma,’ Aliya responded doggedly. Damned if she was going to be denied the first meal of the day, twelve hours after her last one too, in all its life (and courage fostering!) strength.
Her mother gave an exasperated sigh and walked out. Saira sniggered. It was just another day at 14-Z2 in DHA, Lahore.
Aliya had dug into her breakfast as she dug in her heels every so often when she felt the world closing in on her, judging her, railing at her, accusing her. She had ended up having four and a half parathas. She stood looking into her wardrobe, eating herself up inside now for her breakfast time excess; cursing her food reduced and induced anxiety. No, food didn’t induce her anxiety (except in her apocalyptic fantasies when the world was overrun by zombies and all kinds of human nutrition were scarce); it was her panacea in fact, for the maddening world around her. She sighed deeply and chose a grey baggy shirt and black track pants. She was in the mood to merge with her dreary thoughts today. She was meeting her best friend and neighbor, Saqib in a little while. He was going to help her fill in the forms for the Masters in Sociology course at Uppsala University in Sweden.
Saqib Mir was the only child of his parents, the apple of their eye, the next progenitor of their eminent lineage and the scion of the family business. Marring this perfection was a somewhat unsymmetrical gait as he was also crippled by childhood polio. The whys and wherefores of how he had contracted the disease are foggy. Rife with rumor and speculation until about a decade or so ago, the gloomy hypotheses were now obscured by an acceptance borne of familiarity. For those who had known him forever, it had become like a little smudge on a Sadequain* painting that has with time, blurred into oblivion. For those meeting him for the first time, while there were no origin theories being bandied about anymore, there was almost always that self-conscious nonchalance of trying not to notice the obvious. Saqib felt both, a sense of quiet amusement and compassion for this denominator. Humanity, even amidst the deficiencies of the developing world, has largely got used to polio-free perfection; a certain basic physical congruity is a sacred expectation, especially among the upper crusts of society. Saqib then was the paradoxical element that jarred the sensibilities of the well-heeled more than it did that of his favorite chai wallah or fruit wallah. They acknowledged his disfigurement in a practical, unselfconscious way. He was crippled and so what? He couldn’t run but he could still walk and get about unaided. Saqib was well-liked in the more modest social circles too.
The Mians and the Mirs had been neighbors for fifteen years and Aliya and Saqib had become kindred souls for each other, afflicted as they both were with their respective vulnerabilities.
Aliya and Saira had cousins in high places; their mother’s brother owned a prestigious ad agency. While their uncle was a prominent presence in many a corporate board room, his wife and children had donned the mantle of the most formidable movers and shakers on the flamboyant party circuit. The Lahore party scene was known for its extravagance and its scandals. Many were the nights that started out genteel and elegant and that ended in the wastelands of too much alcohol, too much food and rapidly unravelling sophistication. Hearty breakfasts of halwa puri6 and trite and contrite phone calls between the triumphant and the fallen of the previous night were then the order of the next morning.
Courtesy of their cousins, both girls had debuted on the Lahore party circuit some five years ago and now at twenty- five years old, both occupied their own distinct places: Saira was the quintessential diva, the sought-after bachelorette at the apex of the food chain and a secret Fire-starter – (she appeased her conscience with the fact that she only ever lit a match to already smoldering goods; she maintained that purging was her goal).
Aliya occupied the small cerebral fringe (aka people carrying more than the regular baggage who had to park it somewhere for the evening, no self-deprecating pun intended she added wryly to herself). This group sat mostly on the sidelines, analyzed everything from the sublime to the ridiculous and studiously avoided the frenzied eye of the social storm heaving and roiling in front of them. They were the designated drivers and general voices of reason when shindig hell broke loose upon the by-then madly gyrating, occasionally screeching horde, their strobe-lit shiny faces appearing to grimace almost fiendishly in the pulsating greens, blues and reds – like a late 20th-century version of Dante’s Inferno. And when one of Aliya’s fringe group members was going through personal trauma, of which there were more than a few occasions since the afflicted, in irony’s own twisted dance, tend to get more than their fair share of the ball curving back at them, the whole coterie drank too much in comfort and commiseration.
It was on one such occasion when Aliya had for a while, abandoned her station of the lawn chair critics, that it happened. The day that she felt an almost fossilized stirring in her heart. The last time she had felt this elated anxiety was when she had lost 10kgs off her 90kg frame – that was five years ago, in the bright-eyed, stomach-rumbling anticipation of her first-ever ball of the season. God! The naiveté, the cloying innocence she thought unable to control the self- reproach that often overtook her now when she flashed back to half a decade ago.
She had been looking for Saira in the thick of the milieu in front of her when he had come up to her. Behind her actually. She had been craning her neck, fervently hoping she wouldn’t have to dive into the throng milling about the bar area outside.
‘I have a bit of an advantage. Can I help with the subject- seeking?’ he’d asked conversationally.
Aliya had turned around at this unexpected whisper in her ear … offer of help, she corrected herself practically, also bracing herself for whomever she would encounter.
‘You’re Saira’s sister, aren’t you?’ he added smilingly when there was no response to his first question.
Aliya blinked once, twice, frowned ever so slightly and nodded with a ghost of a smile in return. He was obviously one of her sister’s snooty male acquaintances.
‘I saw her at the gate a little while ago,’ he added looking towards the far end of the lawn at the other throng at the entrance.
‘Thanks,’ Aliya responded briefly, looking at her watch and making to walk back to the comfort of her group.
‘I didn’t mean to spook you,’ he quickly added. ‘Just came to, you know, chat.’ He looked at her with no hint of any snide humor or quiet judgement. She stood for a while unsure of where this exchange was leading.
‘I’m Ali – Ali Basit,’ he said smiling at her.
‘I’m Aliya, Aliya Muneer,’ she finally responded smiling back despite herself.
It was 9 o’clock in the morning. Aliya opened her eyes, feeling disoriented. She had had her recurring dream – this time though, she was plummeting into water, an ocean, when her nameless, faceless champion had at the very last moment, broken her fall.There was also something else on the periphery of her morning visions … someone else … Ali, she thought with a happy smile that became suddenly self-conscious and then was wiped mostly off as she gathered up her floating, rhapsodic musings.
It had been an eventful night; one of the few she had spent mostly on her feet rather than on the seat that probably bore the mark of her loyal and generous bottom by now she thought laughing inside. She had been skeptical of a decent conversation unfolding in the midst of the revelry and the excess but that is exactly what had happened. She and Ali had stood for what had seemed like hours talking about the comic enigma that was Sheikh Rasheed*, the inevitability of a zombie apocalypse and the best mutton karahi in the city. It had been a lovely evening. She smiled again, this time allowing the pleasure to course through her body as she stretched out with the gratified languor of a just-fed cat.
Aliya had only a mug of coffee that morning. Her usual breakfast gusto was lost in the crush of butterflies that was dancing around in her stomach. Her sister looked at her strangely and smiled. Aliya braced herself for another thwack in the gut … or maybe, today it would only be a light little missile of words that would just graze her shoulder, vanishing into the small obscurity of missed barbs. For today she felt fortified, invincible, of mind and heart.
Ali called her that afternoon and for the next week of afternoons. Aliya lived for that week, in a strange bubble of euphoria and starvation. She felt the hunger pangs but nothing in the fridge, on the table or on the food delivery apps seemed like it would appease the ache in her belly. So she resorted to having copious cups of unsweetened tea throughout the day, winding it all down (up!) with the sugary burst from a bowl of fruit for dinner. In her few clear-headed moments amidst the fog of passion that had befuddled her brain, she admitted that there was nothing quite like fledgeling love to help shed unwanted burdens of the body and the mind.
Her mother was ecstatic at the change in her daughter. She was looking better, happier and dared she say it, thinner.
Her father watched her quietly, thoughtfully. He knew his daughter enough to gauge that something out of the ordinary was happening; something that could culminate in quiet triumph or great distress for his sensitive child. He realized he was more concerned about than interested in the cause of his daughter’s moony behavior.
‘What is it?’ came the question finally from Saira on the Sunday when she was going to go out for coffee with Ali.
‘What do you mean?’ Aliya responded in her characteristic defensive manner even though she had been anticipating the query for a while now. Her usually fleet-footed sister had shown remarkable forbearance this time.
‘Give me a break, yaar. Just tell me.’ Saira looked at her pointedly, her toast halted midair like a hovering premonition of doom in the event of anything withheld or concealed.
Aliya sighed inwardly while retaining her stoic, watchful front. She had learnt to be wary of her sister. It was a caution that harked back to their childhood; when Saira used to rat on her to their mother when she used to sneak in a snack in the midst of her many maternally imposed and managed diets. She remembered little else from her childhood as vividly as she remembered her mother’s admonishing stares and her perpetually rumbling stomach. Suffice to say that theirs was not the winsome twin-some of the year; never had been. Theirs was a difficult relationship that had settled into a watchful tolerance by one and a relaxed bossiness by the other.
Still, this was her first serious love affair, thought Aliya; well, it was on its way to becoming one at least. It had all the glimmerings and the trappings of a love affair, a serious one, that could have … auspicious endings. She didn’t want to dive into the relationship boxes created by society; that could jinx the entire thing.There was time enough for it to fit itself neatly into one of the institutions of blessed convention. Her mind was wandering she realized – this was her first serious love affair she thought again, marshaling her faculties of reason and goodwill, and she needed for her sister to be supportive. This once.
‘There’s someone … someone I’ve met,’ Aliya said to her sister, looking at her, wishing earnestly that she would respond with grace; that she would be nice. This once.
Saira looked at her sister for a long moment, then looked away and brought the toast to her mouth biting into it with sharp-toothed ferocity almost, thought Aliya. She looked away and sighed, this time outwardly. Whom was she fooling? Saira didn’t understand her; never had. She understood her joys and her heartaches even less…
Aliya suddenly felt soft arms around her shoulders and a kiss on the back of her head.
‘I’m happy for you, Aloo,’ Saira whispered, continuing to hug her.
Aliya turned her head to look at her sister, expecting to see a mocking smile or a spiteful grin. There was only her sister’s gently smiling face… Saira came around and sat down on the chair next to hers and laughed now, self-consciously almost.
‘You’d better get this right, Aloo; I’m not going to be the good Samaritan saving the day for you,’ she joked realizing that she needed to break the spell before it became by its uncharacteristic softness, unwholesome and unkind. She had always been agitated by her twin; by her total lack of being able to look out for herself, look after herself in any way. Over the years, she had allowed her concern to morph into derision and sarcasm. She never intended to be cruel, but she knew she had been a little sadistic over the years. And now, her sister was glowing in the warmth of a formidable venture, a venture of the heart. So rare were these scintillating personal moments with her sister, that she had to let her know, at least this once, that she was her biggest champion.
Aliya was looking at her sister as a myriad of gentle emotions flitted across Saira’s face. What a watershed moment this was for their sisterhood! The surface had been scratched and there was a nice person under there after all thought Aliya, now grinning widely. She laughed softly in pure elation and hugged her sister.
The sisters didn’t speak of the confidence sharing or the fragile moment of overt affection that they had bestowed on one another. But for Aliya, there was now, added to the light footedness of new love, also the new warmth of a sisterhood that had matured; mellowed overnight from the abrasive harshness of a protracted adolescence. She’d seen the soft inside of her diamond-hearted sister. It had been a coming of age of the two women bound as they were by their shared DNA.
The next two months passed in a haze of coffee outings and the odd soirée at a friend’s house. Ali and Aliya attended most of these social dos together. Although they had grown closer in some ways, there was no physicality. Aside from one random kiss that Ali had dropped on her in a state of high spirits, there was no intimacy. So even though this was her first real relationship, she had felt her cautionary sixth sense kick in a few times. She had also caught him, in their quiet moments together, seeming to look more at her bulk than at her, but only for a moment. It had made her shift uncomfortably. Then almost instantly he would remember something else to talk about and the smile hovering uncertainly around his mouth would return to his eyes. And so, the euphoria of being in his company, of never running out of chatter, of being sought out, had superseded all the other foreboding notions that sometimes reared their irksome heads.
Hesitantly at first, Aliya had quite earnestly tried to include Saira in her plans with Ali. Saira always declined. This socialising with her sister was still too new, uncharted territory for the sure-footed Saira. Also, she was adamant about not stealing the limelight from her sister because she always had, everywhere. This relationship had to mature beyond the skin- deep surface to surer ground before she would join the duo. She already had a trail of ill-gotten admirers in her wake: Many a friend’s ardent suitor after having met Saira, had lost his original romantic plot and veered off after her, leaving the detritus of cursing girlfriends, bands of sparring women, and specifically for Saira, the dubious reputation of being a “man-eater”. Her sister had never had a man before, so she had been spared that added insult to injury. Saira had, in fact, met Ali a few times and they had exchanged basic pleasantries. To her mind, he had displayed no particular quality to indicate that he was immune to random female charms, even if they were not in any way cast in his general direction. There were more than a few times that Saira had looked in the mirror, into the depths of her hazel eyes and wondered if she was really evil or if the world around her was just deficient in personal ethics. The toss-up was even-keeled depending on her state of mind during those moments of introspection.
There was a party at a friend’s to which Saira was going but Aliya was not. She had come down with a cold and was going to spend the evening tucked into her duvet with a flask of hot tea and the company of her best friend. Although they’d talked on the phone, she had met up with Saqib only a couple of times over the last two months. On hearing that she was spending the evening in the quietude of her home finally, he had walked across to see her. Saira looked in on the pair, waved a cheery farewell and whisked off to the party.
Saqib sat down on the twin bed next to the one Aliya was snuggled up in. He looked at her, his heart skipping a beat even after all these years of being friends. He loved her. He always had. She was a beautiful girl who was in the wrong environment he thought for an uncharitable but brutally honest moment. Her sister and her mother had made it difficult for her to really open up and blossom. She was usually closed in, clammed up; but he had seen the dazzling little glimpses every now and then of the woman she really was. Of course, all these sentiments meandered cosily within the innermost confines of his own heart. He had never spoken to Aliya about how he felt. In a whimsical way, he thought the universe would intervene when the time was right. He and Aliya shared that ephemeral belief about things, about their world.
He looked at her now, her beautiful skin even more radiant in the heat of the fever brought on by her flu … His heart did another little skip as he looked at her, smiling in the warmth of his secret … held in the protective hands of the universe… to float into their shared ether when the time was right… soon he’d thought only two months ago. Now … well, now, he felt like a transparent wall had come up between them, looking very surmountable still. Like he could just reach through and pull her into a tender hug. It was strange but her relationship with Saqib had not changed a thing. He still felt the quiet elation and the intimacy of their close kinship. They spent the evening talking easily, and comfortably until Aliya was ready to sleep. On his way out, Munir uncle had invited him for a glass of scotch. Saqib enjoyed the company of this older, scholarly, wise man, just as much as Munir Mian appreciated the sensible, grounded younger man. It was after midnight when Saqib finally walked back home.
The thing happened abruptly, unexpectedly, in the throes of alcoholic fuzziness and it has to be added, in the cloak of visual haziness from the fog machine. It was one of those Saturday nights in November when it was chilly, romantic and many a heart was fluttering on its wayward sleeve. People were huddled together around gas heaters set around the garden. The inner sanctums belonged to the energetic and nimble- footed as they cavorted euphorically to the dance beats of the 80s and the 90s. Saira had ramped up not only her spirits with four vodka and oranges but also her step count of the day with an hour on the floor with the other dancing queens. She now sat on one of the chairs inside surrounded by the extra warm stupor in and around her.
‘Oh hello,’ came a voice from somewhere to her left.
She squinted through the mind and machine fog as she tried to locate the owner of the voice. She was wondering if, in fact, it was a figment of her swirling imagination when someone dropped into the chair next to hers. It was Ali.
Fifteen minutes into their banter, Ali placed a confident hand on Saira’s thigh. Her reflexes were slow which he took for compliance. When he leaned over to kiss her, Saira suddenly leapt up slapping his head away. She could feel the multi-layered warmth leaving her body in a visceral, almost palpable way, like the blood draining from a severed artery. She stood up, swaying ever so slightly and turned towards the now blubbering man.
‘You bloody a**hole! Don’t you come near me again!’ She thought only for a split second before adding, ‘Or my sister.’
The thing about blood being thicker than water is that when that adage does hold up, it brings entire families closer than they ever were before the calamity struck. And so it was with the twins. Saira came into Aliya’s room the next morning and sat on the bed opposite hers just as Aliya was reading a meandering text from Ali that sounded as cryptic as it did defensive. But he had mentioned Saira in it.
‘What happened?’ Aliya asked simply looking at her sister’s drawn face.
‘It’s Ali … he’s a creep,’ Saira said looking at her sister hoping that their newfound understanding would make the awkwardness, the hurtfulness of this incident easier to manage. When Aliya continued to look at her with clear, questioning eyes, Saira began to relate what had happened. Aliya listened quietly, motionlessly until Saira was done.
She then looked towards the window, willing away the tears that had sprung to her eyes. She had known there was something amiss about her equation with Ali, something that just didn’t sit properly, uprightly. But to have made moves on her sister after everything that they had shared … what had they shared? Easy banter about things that they both liked but that was it. And if she was absolutely honest with herself, she had imagined more than a few scenarios where he had shown his unabashed preference for Saira. No … she wasn’t shocked. She was hurt. She swallowed hard, but the tears came anyway, and she cried as Saira hugged her, silently weeping with her.
That was another thing the sisters never spoke of again, but it had brought them closer, and that was what mattered Aliya would muse later in her moments of bitter-sweet reminiscences.
Saqib was at his best friend’s side after that. He came by every day even if it was for twenty minutes at a time to see how Aliya was faring. Her cold was better and between her bruised heart slowly repairing itself and the bouts of wretchedness that assailed her off and on, there were glimmers of her lovely smile again.
‘I’ve put on 3kgs in the last ten days, Saqib,’ Aliya said laughing through her tears. She was trying to see the lighter side of things … that was who she was. Positive and unputdownable was his Aliya. He felt his heart bursting with affection and a strange pride for who this girl was, to him and to the rest of the world. He smiled at her with love in his eyes.
Saqib had spoken to the Wellness Centre that Aunty Maryam (Aliya’s mother) had been raving about. They had a nutritionist (who absolutely looked the part, of course, he had recounted grinning) and a physiotherapist specialising in chronic injuries (childhood handicaps included). So he and Aliya were both going to enrol together.
She smiled at Saqib feeling the familiar warmth and comfort that she always did when they were together. She had always basked in the glow unquestioningly. Now she touched it, feeling it all over. Maybe … maybe they had always had something special between them transcending friendship she thought. She waited for her heart to respond to her timorous suggestion: it fluttered ever so slightly and then beat strongly, happily, serenely. She felt a lump rise in her throat and felt her eyes sting just a little. She grinned at Saqib.
She didn’t want to tell him that she loved him just as he was: melting brown eyes, the sweetest smile, rolling gait and all. He didn’t want to ruin the camaraderie of their shared enterprise by telling her that he’d had all the physiotherapy he would ever need and that his walk wasn’t going to benefit from this new intervention; and that he had always loved her as she was.
It was going to be a shared labour of determination and love for themselves and for each other.
*Late Latif: In Urdu, a fond colloquialism for a tardy person.
*Aloo: Aliya’s nickname. Also meaning “potato” in Urdu.
*Sadequain: Renowned Pakistani artist, known for his calligraphy and painting.
*Sheikh Rasheed: A Pakistani politician known for his peculiar, flamboyant style.
Mahvash considers herself somewhat of a serial corporate rut absconder. Only because a sabbatical that was to last a year, has turned to eight, and she still see no end in sight. Before that, she worked in the Financial Services Industry. When she’s not writing, she’s fussing in her head, over ideologies of social justice and equality, with superhero twists! Her stories and poems have appeared in The Rumen, Sequoia Speaks, Recesses and Double Speak magazines.
Photo via Unsplash
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