STORIES

by  Khalid Sohail

Mother Earth Is Sad  Existential Dilemma
People Who Travel On The Trails  An Immigrant In His Own Country 
A Short Distance In A Long Time  Yousaf's Mother Of Our Time 
Open And Closed Doors  Bigamy 
Algebra Or Geometry A Woman Who Interpreted Dreams 
In Two Boats  Devta  
Pictures Hanging On The Walls Breakthrough 
 Island  Broken Man
The Woman In The Watchtower  Khala Jan
       

                         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  MOTHER EARTH IS SAD

 

And Other Stories

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     K. Sohail


MOTHER EARTH IS SAD

 

and Other Stories

 

 

 

 

 

 

                    by

 

         K. Sohail


All rights reserved, including the right

                     of reproduction in whole or part

     in any form.

 

(C) Copyright by K. Sohail

 

 

 

         Cover by

  Sean McQuay

 

 

Back cover picture by

           Rasheed Nadeem

 

 

                       

    Published by

           Darvesh Books & Films Canada

1600 Aimco Blvd., Suite 6

    Mississauga, Ont.

           Canada

         L4W 1V1

 

Fax: 905-238-0634

 

             E-Mail Address:

alilodhi@inforamp.net

 

          Website:

WWW.darvesh.on.ca

 

ISBN #: 0-9683038-4-6

 

 

 

 

                       


       Dedicated

 

                     to

 

                   my Grandmother

 

from whom I inherited

 

wisdom and humanitarian values

 

 

 


   Translations from Urdu

                    by

 

      Sain Sucha

      Ann Pogue

  Anne Aguirre

   Raja Ahmed

                  and

         K. Sohail

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

                Page

 

Introduction                             7

 

1.      Mother Earth Is Sad              11

 

2.      People Who Travel On The Trails                               43

 

3.      A Short Distance In A Long Time                       49

 

4.      Open And Closed Doors                     55

 

5.      Algebra Or Geometry                               63

 

6.      In Two Boats                      73

 

7.      Pictures Hanging On The Walls                      83

 

8.      Island                     93

 

9.      The Woman In The Watchtower                         99

 

10.    Existential Dilemma                109

 

11.    An Immigrant In His Own Country                     117

 

12.    Yousaf's Mother Of Our Time                       125

 

13.    Bigamy             135

 

14.    A Woman Who Interpreted Dreams                     147

 

15.    Devta                     153

 

16.         Breakthrough            157


 

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

 

A few years ago while I was travelling in Pakistan, I stopped in Karachi for a few days to meet some of my writer friends. They invited me to their literary gathering to read a short story. While I arrived at that meeting I was approached by a young literary journalist who wanted to interview me. When I accepted her proposal, she opened her brief case and took out a questionnaire. It was the first time in my life that I was being inter­viewed live in front of a group of established poets, fiction writers and critics.

         "I'm ready, you can start any time." I welcomed the journal­ist's questions.

         "Sohail," she said. "I'm quite aware you have created poems and short stories, written essays and travelogues and translated world literature into Urdu. I?m curious to know what do you consider your primary literary identity? With which genre do you identify?"

         "None of them," I responded spontaneously. With my brief and evasive answer she became puzzled and I realized that the rest of her questions were based on a definitive answer to the first question. Even other writers present in the meeting looked a bit lost. For a few seconds I remained quiet but then I felt that I should clarify my position. I said,

         "As a writer, I have adopted a personal philosophy about myself, social relationships and the nature of the universe. Through my writings I have tried to share my observations and experiences. I am trying to create a map of my personal and global dreams. My writings are the dots, lines and curves that complete that map."

         In that interview I expressed my views on the dual nature of literature. On one hand it is the creative expression of the writer and on the other hand it builds a bridge between the writer and his readers. I believe that a successful piece of literature fulfills both criteria simultaneously. I feel that if my creations are not understood or appreciated by my readers, it is my loss. I am always ready to go back to the drawing board to improve my writings so that I can improve my creative relation­ship with my readers. I feel that the special bond between the writer and the reader should be respected and valued. I want to share my experiences with my readers in a creative way and not try to impress them. I believe that a genuine writer is known by his humility rather than by arrogance.

         In my eyes a writer is a member of that caravan of scientists, philosophers and artists who dream of a better tomorrow for the whole of mankind and struggle all their lives to achieve that goal. The only difference is that scientists take the route of logic, philosophers the route of intuition, and artists the route of aesthetics. Their routes might be different but their goal is the same. They all try to understand the dynamics of individual and collective problems of mankind and try to solve the mystery of life.

         I have been a student of science, philosophy and literature since my teenage years. I see myself as a prism absorbing the light from those disciplines and traditions, and radiating that light out through my writings like the colours of a rainbow. I believe that literature is the meeting point between social problems and aesthetic values, and between the writer's personal life and the history of literature.

         If the writer is successful in creating a balance between all of these factors, the creative product becomes meaningful and touches the heart, mind and soul of the reader.

         As an immigrant writer, I am also a member of that caravan of writers who by immigration from East to the West, the Third World to the First World, have experienced the pains and ecstasies of immigration. Those immigrants and those writers who have success­fully resolved the conflicts of two languages, cultures and lifestyles have been blessed with the opening of the third eye, the eye that can peep into the depths of the human soul. I believe the immigrant writer has become a metaphor for the struggles of the twentieth century.

         The way I consider the choice of poems, short stories or essays is secondary to my desire for creative expression; similarly I feel that the choice of a descriptive, symbolic or abstract style is also secondary to creative communication. If the creative product can put its fingers on the pulse of the readers then it is successful, otherwise not. I feel that a genuine writer is sincere, in touch with his own truths and keeps on improving his literary skills. A writer, like any other artist, is a marathon runner and needs a lifelong commitment to art to be successful.

         In the last twenty-five years I have touched a number of milestones in my creative journey. There was a time I used to have rain in the depths of my soul and would compose a couple of poems or create a couple of stories; and then there was a dry period for weeks or months. But in the last few years I feel as if creative springs are flowing in my heart and generating literary products. To maintain a continuous flow of these springs I have adopted a lifestyle that includes:

reading books in the evening

doing creative writing in the mornings

regularly composing letters to friends, writing per­sonal diaries

or translating world literature and

travelling to far off lands every few weeks to complete my unfinished projects.

          Such a routine has not only helped me stabilize my creative life but has also played a major role in my literary evolution. I acquire a lot of artistic satisfaction by that process. Although it has been an uphill struggle, the support and genuine construc­tive criticism of my writer friends has made it very enjoyable and meaningful and that is why I consider myself a lucky man and a fortunate writer.

        

 

 

 

 

    -  *  -




 

 

 

 

Tonight

when you asked me to read you a bedtime story

I got lost in the labyrinth of my past.

I remember

reading you bedtime stories

when you were a little girl

stories

that grandmothers read to their

 granddaughters

stories

in which Princes marry Princesses and live happily ever after

stories

that are based on fantasy rather than reality

stories

that act as lullabies and put little girls to sleep. But the story I am going to share with you tonight is different from all the stories that I shared with you when you were just a child. It is a new story. It is a story that will take the whole night to tell. You are a young woman now and you can easily miss a night of sleep. This story you will one day share with your own granddaughter and it will be passed on from one generation to the next and cherished by the children of our future generations.

         It is a story of a mother and a motherland in which the mother was separated from her children as they decided to leave home and explore other worlds. Those children lived a life of exile and adopted other motherlands. Their natural mother, who had fed them with her milk and nurtured them with her own blood became lonely, sad and felt very alone in her old age. This is the story of that sad mother.

 

My Dear Child!

Once a mother or a motherland

becomes so old and barren that

her body becomes a cactus,

her hands start to tremble

her eyesight becomes weak

and

her breasts secrete poison rather than milk and honey

then, when

her children try to embrace her

they get bruised and hurt,

they cry and bleed,

they leave their mother

and go to far off lands

and never return

and even when they do return

for short visits,

they come

out of sympathy

and pity

and a feeling of obligation.

They return

to console her,

and not

out of genuine

caring

         and affection

               and love

and that delicate and sensitive thread

that binds them together

is torn apart.

 

 

The umbilical cord is severed;

the sacred relationship is wounded.

They lick their wounds,

mother on one side

children on the other.

 

My Darling!

After I returned from my world trip

in which I visited

my children and grandchildren

who are spread

from North America to South Africa

from Western Europe to the Middle East

where they have made

those foreign lands their homes,

I have been experiencing sleepless nights.

In the last few months

I have consulted numerous

         doctors,

                  hakims,

                        medicine men

                               and

                                 spiritual healers

Some say

         my illness is physical,

Others say

         it is psychological,

while some others insist

         it is spiritual.

It is an illness

         that has swept

               my whole body,

                        my whole being.

It is an illness

         that has no name

               no treatment

                        no remedy

                               no solace.

It is an illness

         that haunts

               every vein of my body

               every cell of my mind

               every depth of my soul.

It is an illness

         that has poisoned

               my every hope

               my every desire

               my every prayer.

 

My Child!

         If I were a poetess or a writer I would have artistically and eloquently written my biography and the history of my motherland, but I neither have a pen in my hand nor a university degree in my pocket. I am an illiterate and uneducated person in the eyes of others. I am well aware that it is not because I was stupid, rather, I was smarter and brighter than my brothers, but I was deprived of a formal education because I was a girl. In the environment in which I was raised, girls were not allowed to go to schools, colleges and universities. They were trained to do household work and taught to cook, clean and wash. They were conditioned to sacrifice their lives and their futures for their families. So while my brothers achieved university degrees I looked after the household duties. I never acquired the wealth of education. I remained poor and one can imagine the future of a community where half of the population is raised in the darkness of ignorance. They cannot read or write a word, they cannot sign legal documents. But I loved knowledge so I started to study the book of life and realized that to learn about life one does not have to study textbooks or have a formal education. I met so many uneducated people who have greater insight into life and are wiser than those who have university degrees.

 

Dear Child!

         I am so glad that you obtained your Masters in Journalism. I am so proud of you for having achieved such a heightened sense of social consciousness that you write the stories of the oppressed and the deprived of our society. Perhaps one day you can write my story, the story of your own grandmother, a story that is not only the story of our family but also of our time.

         It is the story of our motherland that we call Punjab, a land that embraces five rivers which irrigate our farms. The farms produce crops for the farmers. Unfortunately the farmers never reap the fruits of what they sew. While those farmers feed the whole country their own children go to bed hungry and they don't have enough money to marry off their daughters.

 

Darling!

Whether they are rivers of Punjab

or any other motherland

they are all related

to the tall, graceful mountains,

the mountains who wear crowns of snow

         upon their heads.

When those crowns

melt in summer

they descend to the valleys

and flow as rivers.

As rivers

they acquire names and identities

but then,

one day those rivers

merge into the ocean.

In that process

who knows

what they gain

and what they lose.

 

Dear Daughter!

         Our family is not any different from those rivers. We started our journey from the mountains and valleys of Kashmir, where our forefathers and foremothers used to live. Kashmir was always known for

         chirping birds

         fragrant flowers

         starry nights

         sunny days

         and

         beautiful lakes.

People

from all over the world

used to come

to spend summers in Kashmir,

a paradise on Earth.

But then

our ancestors had to leave

that paradise.

They packed their belongings

and carried their tents

on their backs.

They said goodbye

to their motherland.

It was the first immigration

within our family;

it turned out to be

the first of many.

When people

leave their home

they sever their bond

with their homeland

and then they are unable to find peace

in any other homeland.

So

the caravan of our family left Kashmir

and came to Punjab

where they

attached their tents and their hearts

to the new land.

Those folks

         who spoke Kashmiri

         as their mother tongue

         came to speak Punjabi fluently

         two generations later.

They believed

         they found a new homeland

         but it was an illusion.

The happiness,

         the hope,

         the bond,

         the peace

         they had discovered

         was only temporary.

The sword of History fell

         and

               cut the hearts into two.

 

Not only Kashmir and Bengal

         but also

               the motherland of Punjab

                        became divided into two,

                               and once again

                                 we became refugees.

We had to move

         from East Punjab to West Punjab.

At first we experienced

the massacre of Julianwala Bagh

and lost

many of our dear ones

and then

one day

at midnight

one motherland became two

and two brothers

who were born from the same womb

breast-fed by the same mother

spoke the same mother tongue

cultivated the same farms

became bloodthirsty stepbrothers.

They reminded us of the time

when

Habeel and Qabeel

two sons of Adam

fought

and one brother killed the other.

 

My Sweetheart!

The second immigration

was far more painful than the first.

 

In the first

our ancestors had only lost their homes

while in the second

daughters lost their innocence

and fathers

their pride.

The disasters of the first

we heard with our ears,

the disgrace of the second

we saw with our eyes.

God knows how many

mornings turned sad,

afternoons remorseful

and

evenings depressed.

I used to snuggle up

with my two daughters and two sons

in bed;

sleepless nights were spent

in fear.

Your grandfather,

who was a Kashmiri Shawl merchant

in Calcutta

used to be away from home

for months at a time

and I

used to look after

the home and the children

all by myself.

Those days were hard.

Every news that we received

was bad news.

My sister and brother left for Lahore and wanted me and the children to join them but I stayed behind and waited for your grandpa.

Every day that passed

seemed like a decade

every night like a century.

Finally

when your grandfather arrived,

we decided to leave.

With empty hands

we moved on.

We left behind

our property,

the business

and a furnished home.

         Your grandfather had a good friend who used to look after us when he was away. He loved us and we trusted him. The day we decided to move, your grandfather's friend went to get us a taxi so that we could go to the railway station; he never came back.

         We waited impatiently for him for an hour, and then another, until finally three hours or more had passed. When he did not return we realized he had been killed by a sword, a kirpan or a gun.

         So your grandfather went out himself to get a taxi. It was a risky affair. Halfway he met a Sardarji, his childhood buddy.

         "Khawaja Sahib! Where are you going?" he asked.

         "To get a taxi for the children."

         "Don't go any further. If you approach the four corners you will be killed. Go back. I will try my best to get a taxi."

         After a few minutes he came with a taxi, hid us in it and took us to the railway station.

         When we arrived at the station we found out that the train had been waiting for the past forty-eight hours. The driver was afraid to leave the station as he did not want the train ambushed and the passengers subsequently killed. People were clinging to the train like honeybees to the honeycomb. People were sitting in the seats, on the floor, on the footsteps and hanging from the windows. We asked the children to wait, perhaps for a miracle, for surely a miracle was needed to transport us from the dangers of Amritsar to the safety of Lahore.

         After twenty-four hours of waiting, the train whistle blew and we were ready to depart. Your grandpa had a dangerous but novel idea. "Why don't we travel on the roof" and we all climbed on top of people's shoulders and got to the roof of the train, risking our lives in doing so.

         The train left the station and started to crawl cautiously, as if afraid. It was terrifying as we slowly moved toward the border. We covered a two-hour journey in twelve hours. When we arrived at the Lahore station everybody was relieved to have escaped what seemed a death sentence. Your grandfather and I had tears in our eyes. Mine were tears of joy, happy that my children had been saved, his were tears of sadness, as he had lost his friend. That loss wounded your grandfather's heart. It was a wound that never healed. That immigration was painful and heartbreaking. It was like crossing a river

         a river of blood,

         a river of fire,

         a river of divided loyalties

                broken faiths

                and shattered dreams.

Some stayed behind,

         some drowned halfway

         and some arrived at the other shore.

We would never know for sure what we had lost and what we had gained on that journey.

         Those who arrived in the promised land found a dedicated gardener and joined him in sewing fresh seeds.

They prepared and offered

         the soil of hope

               the sunshine of ambitions

                        the blood of sacrifice

                         and

                                 the water of prayers.

They hoped that when the plants grew and became strong shady trees they would enjoy the fruits of peace, justice and friendship.

         Before the first year was over the gardener parted. He suffered from tuberculosis. He had spent sleepless nights pacing back and forth in his room worrying about the members of his new family in the new motherland. He used to dream about the trees of democracy, secular views and humanitarian values in his garden.

         The death of the gardener was a bad omen for the garden.

         A stormy wind started to blow.

         It was a wind that uprooted the new

               plants and replaced them with seeds

               of prejudice and religious

                  fanaticism.

         The wind blew out the candles of

                  tolerance and acceptance.

         Friends who seemed honest and caring

                  turned selfish and sadistic.

         The golden dream of the new motherland

                  turned into a nightmare.


         My sister in Lahore

               who had a small home

               but a big heart

               let us stay with her.

         We faced pain

                  poverty

                  prejudice

               but remained patient.

         I endured hardships

               but did not complain

         I washed clothes

               with chilling cold water in winters

                  baked bread

               on burning coals

               in hot summers.

         I worked hard

               and was able to send

               my four children

               to schools, colleges and

                  universities.

         I had promised myself that I will treat my daughters and sons alike and expose them both to higher education. I was proud to fulfil my promise to myself.

         When your older uncle passed his Masters examination and stood first in the university, I was ecstatic. I distributed sweets to my friends and relatives and food to the poor. That was the first day in the new homeland when the whole family was euphoric.

         Your uncle started to teach in the university and we could then afford a bigger home, a home that had a shady tree in the backyard. I remember how we used to rest in the shade in the summer time. It used to be so hot that the sparrows, the pigeons and the hens would rest under the shade of that tree as well. Your uncle soon established himself in the academic circles. He was a bright and a dedicated teacher. He not only taught his students the information in the textbooks he also shared his

philosophy about

         peace

         justice

         harmony

         cooperation

         and working together

         for a better future.

He inspired his students

         to be builders

         of a new homeland

         a homeland that

         they could be proud of one day.

But that dream did not last very long.

As the time passed,

         the winds of intolerance and prejudice

         became stronger and stronger

         and struck

         a certain segment of the community.

A certain minority

         became the scapegoat.

Their members were declared outsiders.

They were socially boycotted.

They were publicly insulted.

People threw garbage in front of their homes.

They were deprived of their civil rights.

Their patriotism and faith were questioned.

They were forced to defend themselves.

 

 

 

Darling!

Whenever children start to feel as if

         they are stepchildren in their own homes, it is a bad omen

         for the motherland.

Whenever the waves of anger, resentment and

         bitterness ran high, the feelings of

         good will are drowned

Whenever the flames of prejudice and

         intolerance go wild, the bonds of caring

         and cooperation turn into ashes.

People who were hoping to live in

         promised land found themselves in a

         war zone.

Holy war was declared in the city of peace.

         A close friend of your uncle, who was a caring, nurturing and dedicated teacher and had helped his students to learn how to read and write and develop their characters was caught in the crossfire.

         He was declared an atheist and condemned to be stoned.

         The students surrounded his home, confiscated his academic and holy books, his wife's clothes and children's toys. They piled the family's belongings outside the house and set them on fire. Murder would have been committed if the family were at home that day; we witnessed yet another miracle.

         When your uncle tried to stop them, they said, "Go away and be thankful we are not burning your home."

         That incident broke your uncle's heart, and when he returned home, he and your grandfather cried the whole night together. They wept, tried to console each other and tried to lick their wounds. Your grandfather said that he had lost a friend and hoped to gain a motherland where people would be able to transcend their anger and bitterness. He hoped for a land where people could live in peace and harmony. He was shocked to see people declaring holy war against their own brethren. That reminded him of Jung-e-Jamel, in which Mohammed's wife Aisha and cousin and Caliph Ali were on opposite sides. It was hard for people to decide who was in the right and who was in the wrong.

         Your uncle was so troubled by his friend's predicament that he wore black robes for weeks. He decided that a motherland in which students do not respect their teachers was not worthwhile. To protect his self-respect he left home one night and never returned. He was the first son to leave his mother, his motherland, and emigrated to unknown destinations. He did not look back. He did not want to see tears in his mother's eyes. He knew those tears would make it difficult for him to part.

         For a long time I went looking for him. I wandered the streets. I went to numerous schools and friends' houses searching for him. I felt as if he was like Prophet Yousaf who was thrown in a well by his stepbrothers. I wept like Yousaf's father, the Prophet Jacob, but it was all in vain.

         Finally I got a letter in the mail. Your uncle and his friend whose home was burnt by the students had left the country. Your uncle's friend joined the faculty of science at a university in Europe while your uncle went to South Africa to start a new life.

         Losing my oldest son was like losing my right arm.

         Your grandfather was grieving too.

         He used to say

         Is this

               the new garden,

               the new law,

               the new traditions

                        for which we have sacrificed

                               so much?

         After my oldest son left the motherland I focused on my younger son and my two daughters. I helped them complete their education and in that process I learnt that I was educating myself. I realized that what I had not learnt from my parents, I was learning from my children and I became aware that

         every son teaches his father

         every daughter teaches her mother

         and

         every new generation teaches the older generation. They show us new paths which lead to new destinations. They make us see life through their eyes. My own thirst for knowledge was quenched through the education of my children.

         In spite of the storms and strong winds that were destroying the garden, there were a lonely few who protected the plants of honesty, justice and liberty with their dear lives. Their efforts were however fruitless.

         Before democratic rule had an opportunity to gain strength from its people, it was toppled by the dictatorship.

         Before the institutions of human rights were fully established,

         autocratic systems took over.

         Before the masses had fully recovered from the tornado of religious fanaticism,

         they were hit by the earthquake of oppressive regimen.

         People on the streets were shocked

                  because their

                  tongues were slashed,

               lips sealed

               and

                  voices silenced.

They were not allowed to express their opinions and feelings on the radio, television, or newspapers. They felt chained and suffocated in their own homes.

         At that turning point both of my daughters spoke out against the oppression. One fought for human rights and the other for women's rights. One proved that the office workers, the farmers and the factory workers were denied their self-respect and the other showed that women had become second class citizens. They were neither given their due rights in mosque or in parliaments. In spite of their talent, ability and character they were not allowed to be leaders.

         People in power could not tolerate such criticism. They declared my daughters as traitors and dismissed them from their jobs. Within no time, a doctor and a professor became jobless.

         They contacted their older brother in South Africa and asked his opinion. He said it is not worthwhile living in a motherland that does not respect her children and citizens. So my daughters left, one went to Western Europe and the other to North America. Those women who were insulted and rejected by their own people, were welcomed by a different motherland. They were given jobs, and respected by the people.

         When my daughters left, I felt as if I lost my left arm. I cried so long that there were no tears left in my eyes.

         For the next few years there was only your younger uncle at home. When he went to university, that left only your grandfather and myself at home. We felt lonely and sad. The house felt like a graveyard.

         Your grandfather took his retirement and had the time then to open the windows of his past. He reminisced about his old home, old homeland, old friends. His dreams were as wrinkled as his face.

         He would stare into the space all day long and would tell his son that it was his duty to take care of his new homeland because people had sacrificed so much to acquire that homeland. Your uncle was so taken by his father's advice that he joined the army.

         He wanted to protect his motherland.

         He wanted to look after the garden so that the flowers, birds and plants were not attacked and ruined by alien forces.

         For a while he was positioned on the border of Kashmir, the motherland where his ancestors lived generations ago,

         the motherland whose heart has been divided into two,

         the motherland who was unaware of his future.

         He was surprised that the natives of Kashmir were never asked about their opinions and their desires.

         He felt as if two grooms had been duelling for a bride, willing to kill each other in the process. Nobody thought of asking the bride which groom she preferred. Perhaps she did not like either one of them and wanted to live a free and independent life.

         Once, your uncle came home for holidays and while listening to the radio, he heard some bad news. The sword of History had struck once again and this time it had separated the Eastern and the Western parts of the motherland.

         The army was called, and your uncle had to leave at once. He was sent to the Eastern part with thousands of other soldiers. Those army men who were trained to defend their country against the enemy, were ordered to attack and open fire on their own brothers and sisters.

         Thousands of soldiers obeyed the orders but your uncle refused. He was court-martialled and sent to jail.

         The motherland was in a state of shock. Her heart, having been previously divided in two, was severed once again.

         Whatever dream remained in the hearts of children of the sacred land, turned into yet another nightmare.

         Whatever plants that had been grounded in the new soil twenty-four years ago, grew to become large trees, but they harvested only bitter fruits. The caretakers of that garden wondered whether it was that the seeds were faulty or that the trees did not bear sweet fruits because they never received clear water, fresh air and enough sunshine. The plants did not receive the warmth and nurturance they deserved to grow to their full potential.

         On that land, tall, concrete statues of religious ideals that had been erected by the people and stood for years untouched, were now eaten away by linguistic and cultural conflicts as white ants devour and cause the destruction of whole buildings. The structures fell to the ground.

         They tragedy was that the people who were destroying the garden were not the outsiders, they were themselves the children of the promised land, descended from the original caretakers.

         When your uncle was released from jail, he was a changed men. He was resentful. He felt that his motherland was haunted by army ghosts. He was angry that his love, his honesty, his integrity and loyalty were questioned. He used to say that his loyalty remained with the common people and his motherland and not with the army or the government. He used to say that the faces of army generals and the political leaders change over time, but the people and the motherland are lasting entities.

         Nobody listened to him.

         Finally he, like his older brother, left his motherland late in the night and never returned.

         Much later I discovered that he had become a businessman in the Middle East and had been learning Arabic from Arab bedouins.

         My youngest child had now left his homeland. Your grandfather and myself were all that remained of the family. We were now totally alone, our nest was empty. Our children, young birds we had fed with our own milk and blood had flown away. Now there were only two of us to console each other and cry on each other's shoulders. Although my brother and sister's children took care of us, it was not the same. We painfully missed our own children.

         I used to wonder why I was being punished. I was paying for a crime I had not committed, nor had the motherland, and she payed the same price as I. We did not deserve the punishment we were given.

         It was just when all hope seemed lost, that a new chapter started in the history of this land. It was a new beginning and appeared nothing short of a miracle.

It was a movement of the populace.

Masses of people awakened.

The people crowded the streets.

Lips that had been sealed,

                  opened once more.

Bruised, swollen tongues

               began to sing.

The poor,

         the deprived,

               the underprivileged,

                        the minority groups,

                               started to protest.

They began to fight for their rights.

         There was an atmosphere of hope, ambition and desire. It was a dream-like state that made us feel like we were floating in the air.

         During that time, all the sons and daughters of the motherland who were living in exile and had adopted other motherlands, were invited back. They were reassured that their lives would be respected. Your aunt and uncles were planning to return. They felt optimistic in spite of the opposition expressed by their spouses and children. They realized that they were still bound to their mothers and motherlands with a delicate thread, remains of the umbilical cord.

         But that promise was never fulfilled; it was a dream that never materialized. People's desires, their hopes and their wishes were small buds that were snipped before they could fully blossom. The army regimen struck them with a bolt of lightening. It was as if a young Princess of democracy was knocked unconscious, just as she was beginning to awaken. She laid in a state of paralysis from the drug given to her by religion and dictatorship.

         It was but a few, the chosen, privileged leaders of our land who wanted to keep the masses silenced. The underprivileged were induced into a state of deep sleep where they were harmless and defenceless against the evil rulers.

         So your mother, your aunt and your uncles who had planned to return home, had to change their minds.

         At that time I realized that a return to the homeland would never be possible. The mother and the motherland were now permanently separated from her children.

         Your grandfather felt the anguish and the pain more deeply than any of us. He never did recover from this, his final crisis. One morning I found his cold, dead body lying next to mine when I awoke. The suffering had finally ended.

         His eyes were still open. He was staring into space as if searching for the dream that had not yet been fulfilled. He fantasized that the dream he had for his whole lifetime, would finally come true. Sadly though, his dream was throttled by cold, metallic, sadistic hands. Hands of oppression.

         It was a sad and gloomy day when I informed my children of their father's death but not as sad as what followed. Not one of them could come for your grandfather's funeral. His dead body was bathed, carried and put into the ground for its final rest by strangers. That was my breaking-point. When I saw the faces of people I did not know at your grandfather's funeral, I could not bear the pain and fainted, falling to the ground.

 

 

Dear Child!

         When I realized that my children could never come to see their mother again, I decided I must go to them. I ventured away from my homeland and visited my children and their families in all the various parts of the world. I bought a round-the-world ticket and packed my bags. It was the first time I had stepped into an aeroplane. That trip was a novel experience for me. It made me see the world through different eyes.

         My first stopover was in Europe where I met my daughter and her family. I met your aunt, her husband and children in Paris. Her children did not know a word of Urdu or Punjabi and I did not know a word of French. My daughter was working as a psychiatrist in a French hospital while her husband was a university professor. He was a dignified and respectable man. He was very affectionate and kind towards me. I stayed with them in Paris for a few weeks and then I travelled with them across Europe. We travelled by Eurorail and I saw England, Germany, Holland and the Scandinavian countries.

         During that trip, I saw a lot and I learnt a lot.

         For the first time in my life I saw

         - gay men and lesbian women

         - girls who had shaved their heads and boys who were

           wearing earrings

         - labourers who were living in overcrowded, shabby rooms like sheep in a stable. They saved every penny they made and sent it to their mothers so that they could build a palace on their motherland.

And I saw

         - bazaars where one could buy nan kababs, kulchay, kheer, halwa, gujraila, haleem, nihari and other Eastern delicacies.

         In the end I visited the Scandinavian countries and saw the building where the geniuses of our time are awarded the Nobel Prize each year. I was pleasantly surprised to see the name of your uncle's friend in that list. Remember his old friend who was declared an atheist in his own country and whose house was attacked and burned to the ground by the students? He survived only because he was fortunate enough not to be at home that day.

         I attended a function in Stockholm where I met a Sardarni. She said, "Aunty! Don't you recognize me?"

         When I looked more closely with my old eyes I remembered her. As a child she would come to our home to play. She was the daughter of that Sardar who had hid us in his taxi and transported us to the railway station when we fled Amritsar.

         "How are you sweetheart?" I asked.

         "Aunty! I don't want to share the details, but since you left, we have not been happy. My two brothers lost their lives in the struggle of the Golden Temple and my father died from the shock of that news. I have left my motherland and am residing here now." I could feel the sadness in her eyes and in her voice.

         When I returned to Paris I attended a European Conference of Psychiatrists where your aunt presented a paper on "Psychotherapy with Immigrants." I felt proud of my daughter. The experts and professors that attended the conference were quite impressed by her lecture.

         After finishing my tour of Europe, I flew to North America where I stayed with you, your mother and your family in Canada. I felt very spoiled. Your family took such great care of me and they took me to see the sights of North America. I visited Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada. I went to the United States and got to see the studio in Hollywood, a broadway play in New York and the casinos of Los Vegas. I saw the United Nations building in New York where the representatives of the first world decide the future of the masses of the third world.

         I also visited Washington, a state where on one hand people are mugged, looted, raped and killed right in broad daylight; on the other hand, it is a state in which the president of the United States resides. If he is not reelected, he gracefully hands over the keys of the White House to the next elected president and is able to return to his home to become a university professor or a volunteer in any Social Welfare Organization. He does not interfere with the government affairs after he is not in office.

         During my stay in North America I met quite a few lawyers, doctors, engineers, businessmen and other professionals who were physically in the West but their hearts and souls remained in the East, attached to their motherland with an invisible umbilical cord. It was not infrequent for them to feel nostalgic. I also met a number of Eastern writers, musicians and artists who were well respected in the West and had become a part of the mainstream of their adopted country.

         It was during that visit that you had expressed a desire to come back to see me and find out about the lands of Punjab, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kashmir and hear the story of your family and ancestors. You hoped it would broaden your professional and existential horizons and make you not only a better person but also an enriched journalist. I welcomed you with open arms and an open heart.

         After visiting my daughters, I flew to South Africa to visit my older son. I stayed with your eldest uncle, his wife and children who lived in Durban. His children were surprised to know that their grandmother did not speak English and I was surprised to find out that my son was an active member of the Blacks' movement. He was fighting for their rights. He informed me that, like the Caste System in India, people in South Africa were divided into Whites, Coloured, Indians and Blacks, based on the colour of their skin. Their skin colour had become a more important characteristic than their personalities.

         My son had become the right hand man to Nelson Mandela and he had joined a group that for a quarter of a century worked diligently and made sacrifices in order to rescue their gardener. It was the gardener who had spent a large part of his life in the isolation of a jail on a deserted island, the gardener who was planting new trees which stood for freedom and civil rights and hoped that Blacks would be able to vote one day and chose their own leader, a prime minister or a president.

         I asked my son why he had joined the Blacks while he was not one of them. He reminded me that Gandhi was a citizen of South Africa before he came to India and started the movement for independence. The day India and Pakistan gained independence from the British rule was the day we became indebted to South Africa. He felt that by joining the movement of liberation in South Africa, he was returning that historical favour.

         When I finished my visit to South Africa and flew to Saudi Arabia to meet my youngest son, I wondered while sitting in the plane how more unfortunate and unlucky a mother or a motherland can be than that her sons and daughters who had made significant contributions in the field of science, psychology, art and politics were condemned in their own home.

         They were considered

         atheists because of their scientific discoveries,

         pornographers because of their artistic creations

         and

         traitors because of their political views and involvements.

         For their accomplishments,

                their brothers and sisters

                were willing to stone them to death.

 

Dear Daughter!

         The more I felt excited and proud of my children when I visited them in Europe, North America and South Africa, the more I felt ashamed and embarrassed when I visited with my son in the Middle East.

         My son had left the traditions of his family and ancestors behind and was living the life of a playboy. He drank and gambled and slept with women indiscriminately. He said, "Mom! Honesty, love and integrity are all mirages. Life is short and we should enjoy it to the maximum. We only live once." He had adopted a hedonistic lifestyle.

         I was extremely anguished to see that Arabs treated Asians as people inferior to them and they had become second class citizens in those countries.

         I visited Mecca and the Holy Mosque in Medina and was surprised to see that the Prince of Arabia had built a palace taller than the house of God and when they invited him to join the sacred ceremony of changing Ghilaf-e-Kabba (Cover of Kabba), he was too drunk to join the devoted Muslims and stumbled over the stairs. They had to continue the ceremony without him.

         That day I realized why Arabs had invited American soldiers to fight for them in the Gulf War.

         I was so heart-broken that I shortened my visit, in spite of my son's insistence that I stay longer.

         I returned to my motherland the next day. The journey had enlightened me in many ways, yet by the end, after my turbulent visit with my youngest son, I began to spit blood. I was extremely tired. It was difficult to endure such a long and painful journey at my stage of life.

         It has been a blessing that you came to visit me. It gives me a chance to relieve the pressure from my chest. I am glad you are here, but the tragedy is that since I have returned, I am feeling unwell. I feel haunted by the past.


         It is an illness

               that has swept

               my whole body

               my whole being.

         It is an illness

               that has no name

               no treatment

               no remedy

               no solace.

         It is an illness

               that haunts

                        every vein of my body

                        every cell of my mind

                        every depth of my soul.

         It is an illness

               that has poisoned

                        my every hope

                        my every desire

                        my every prayer.

         Since I have returned

               I have realized that

               the conflicts of the people of our motherland are not any different than the conflicts of other motherlands.

         Whether they are conflicts which are darkened by shadows of ignorance and poverty, or haunted by the ghosts of prejudice and hatred,

         these conflicts persevere

         they are felt by people all over the globe.

I have become aware that

         whether they are experienced by

                  children or the elderly

                  women or men

               the rich or the poor

         all passengers with conflict

         travel in the same boat.

         They are all children

         of the same mother,

         a mother,

         who has tears in her eyes

         when she looks at her children

         wherever they may be.

I have also realized that

         whether they are

                  humans or animals

                        birds or fish

         they are all children

               of Mother Earth

         and when the mother

               looks at their miseries

                        she shudders with pain,

         sometimes we feel her shuddering

               as earthquakes

         and at other times

               we experience her sighs

         as strong winds, storms and tornados.

         I have come to the realization that as long as the sons and daughters of Punjab were living in their own home they had their identifies like Ravi and Satlaj, the rivers of Punjab but when they moved to the four corners of the world they merged into the ocean of mankind.

         Who knows

           what is gained

               and what is lost

                 when rivers

                        descend into

                        the depths of an ocean.

 

My Dear Daughter!

         I am aware that these pains and sorrows are not only the pains and sorrows of this century. We will experience new tragedies in the twenty-first century when the children of Mother Earth will move to live on Venus and Mars and Mother Earth will become sad once again.

 

Darling!

         When your grandfather died there was nobody to look after his dead body and bury him. It saddened me greatly. For this reason I have made a request in my will. When I die, I want to be cremated. My ashes should be divided in two parts. One part is to be buried next to your grandfather's grave and the other half is to be shared equally among my four children in the four corners of the world.

 

Dear Daughter!

         If my children cannot come to me then I must go closer to them.

         I wish them happiness and peace wherever they live. They are my gifts to life and the future of humanity.

         If I am sad, then it is my fate to be that way. I will find happiness only when I am close to them and in that journey I may have to turn into ashes.

 

 

 

    -  *  -

 




 

 

 

 

 

Several years have passed and now he has reached old age. He has returned to the same trail from which he started his journey such a long time ago. He is surprised with what he now sees.

         He had not realized that the journey of life was so cyclical in nature. He thought to himself, "Travelling from childhood to old age and then back again from old age to childhood, one passes through many cycles."

         When he began his journey as a child, he walked such a long distance on the highway with his family, the same highway that many generations had walked before. His family tried to persuade him that if he were ever faced with a crisis, his relatives would be there to help get him back on his feet; they would act as crutches and be supportive of him. His family would encourage him, and they would pray for him. They tried to convince him that it was the best choice he could make in his life to choose to follow the traditions of his ancestors. But, he felt suffocated in that environment. He longed for fresh air. He had been convinced by family members that it was a sign of emotional immaturity when one complained. He was told he must be patient and tolerant; he would get used to the hardships he faced.

         He listened to his ancestors for a very long time, both patiently and attentively; but, his heart was not convinced and one day he left the familiar highway his family travelled and began his journey alone. He started out on his own trail.

         When he parted he heard many warnings from concerned relatives:  "The sheep that leaves the herd regrets it in the end." His family members tried to discourage him, but he did not turn back. He followed the calling of his heart hoping to fulfil his dreams. He had not gone far before he stumbled and fell. He was flat on his face and unable to get up. He cried in desperation and hoped then that his family members would come to his rescue. No one came. In the far off distance he heard a voice echo the words "Didn't we warn you not to go alone?"

         He might have died there, alone, had not a kind stranger come to help him. The stranger had also left his own family's highway and made a trail for himself. The two became friends and supported each other in their arduous journey. They realized that their bond of friendship was stronger than a blood relationship.

         While they were travelling together they passed another highway that was travelled by familiar tribesmen. The tribal leader invited the two lonely travellers to join the tribe. They agreed to join the caravan, but it was not long afterward that they realized that the tribesmen worshipped the same idols as did the ancestors of their past. The travellers were convinced that they could not join the tribe in idol-worshipping and so they left that highway as well and sought again another trail not so well travelled. At the time of department they were again warned of the terrible circumstances that may follow once they left the security of the tribe. They listened to the warnings of the tribesmen, but they followed their own hearts hoping to be much more successful this time, now that they were two.

         It was not far along the trail before they faced yet another dilemma:  they found themselves lost within the darkness of a dense jungle. They cried out for help, hoping that the men and women of the tribe would hear their pleas and come to rescue them; they waited in anticipation, but not one sympathetic voice was heard in the distance in response to their calls.

         While they were still struggling to find their way, they discovered others, who like themselves, had left their own tribes, their own homes and their belongings, and embarked on a journey which began with a call from within; these people too, were following their hearts. When the jungle sojourners met the two lonely travellers they invited them to join. This gesture of kindness from a small group of strangers was life-sparing.

         The next day they packed their few belongings, took down their tents, and embarked upon the trail once again. The new trail lead them to another highway on which the people of their own time were travelling. Again, they were asked to join their own people, but they did not. They kept to their own path and travelled on their own trail, keeping to the call from within.

         It has been a long time since those incidents took place. Now that he has come back to the same trail in his old age from which he started his journey such a long time ago, he is surprised to find that the trail he had once chosen, has become a highway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

    -  *  -

 

 

 

 


 


A SHORT DISTANCE IN A LONG TIME

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

There were millions of us, but only a few hundred have survived to tell the story. "Are we lucky to be alive, or are we unlucky, because we have to stay behind, grieving the loss of our friends?"

         Our mothers laid millions of eggs only a few feet away from the ocean, in various locations all over the world. They hoped that we would be able to travel that short distance to reach our destination; but, those few feet took us an eternity to conquer. We were back to our roots, back to the carefully chosen places our mothers had selected for concealing the eggs from human, animal, or bird's threatening view. Only a handful of us have survived to be able to return to the point of inception where the story begins and the cycle starts all over again. We consider ourselves fortunate to be able to reminisce about the past and to have a hopeful expectation for our future.

         Our mothers laboured painstakingly in an attempt to protect us. They dug holes in the sand so they could lay their eggs, hoping these eggs would be well hidden from our human neighbours; but they came to the beaches in search of us just the same. Relentlessly the men and women hunted, ravaging the sand until they discovered some of us. They filled their bags and their satchels, and took the eggs away, content that they had pursued and then captured. If they had taken the time to look back, they would have seen the tears in our mothers' eyes for they knew that some of us would be sold in the market, others would be given to children for the vitamin and protein value, and some would be eaten by men who hoped that it would enhance their sexual prowess; we were unsure whether this was a myth or a reality.

         Alongside the human hands there were the birds that employed their sharp pointed beaks to discover us and then break our fragile outer coverings so they could drink our contents before we were even born. We were nothing more than appetizers to them.

         Those of us who did hatch had but one goal in mind. We sought refuge in the water; all we had to do was to journey those few feet. But those few feet were laden with hurdles, and they seemed too many to overcome. We had no idea which of us would make it and which would fall prey to circumstance.

         We were so different from one another and yet collectively, we were members of the same group. Our sizes differed, our forms differed, dependent upon the part of the world in which we were conceived. Some of us were as tiny as a silver coin while others were as big as the wheel of a bicycle. Most of us had a helmet for protection; others did not. Under that hardened facade we were soft and tender, a vulnerability we chose not to disclose. When we awoke, and started to crawl towards the water we were an army of great magnitude, at least in number.

         The first enemy that we encountered were the predatory birds. They were circling the area, or sitting on rocks, waiting for us to emerge. When we started to move they screamed in excitement and swooped down to attack us. We were rendered helpless because our size was too diminutive and we lacked strength in our youth.

         The second of our foes were the lizards. They appeared out of nowhere and lapped at us with their voracious tongues. They were enormous in contrast to us, and we were unable to defend ourselves. In one big swoop, they ate us alive.

         If we were fortuitous enough to survive the first two enemies we were attacked by the third - the crabs. As fierce and dangerous as they appeared, we still fought back hoping that this time we had a chance because, at least, they were equal to us in size. They pulled us farther away from the ocean while we pushed back, hoping to get closer to the water. This dance of death would often go on for hours. Neither of us would give up. For a few minutes one side would succeed and then exhaustion took over and the other side would regain its strength. It would have been easier to succumb yet we were known for our stamina:  the folk tale of the tortoise and the hare boasts of our endurance; we are marathon runners, slow but consistent. And so our battle with the crabs went on.

         Some of our battles we won, while others we lost. Our only strength was in the size of our army; we were so many in number that a handful of birds, reptiles, or human beings could only kill so many of us.

         Finally a few of us were able to come close enough to the water that we could feel and smell the tide; then a predator would attack with its claw. All there was left to do was to hope that our guardian angel would be watching over for us. We did the best we could, but still we could not embrace the ocean. Those of us who were blessed with good luck were dropped from the mouths of the predators which placed us a few inches closer to the water's edge.

         The most unfortunate of the deaths occurred when accidentally some of us were trampled under the heavy bodies of our mothers who sought refuge in the water as well.

         Once we had reached the water we felt reasonably safe until a few of us were grasped by the mouths of fish; it was then that we realized that we weren't even safe in the ocean, the one abode that we so desperately tried to reach. Those of us who grew and became strong enough to face our enemies and the harsh environment, knew that we had to repeat the tradition. We had to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors and go back to the shore to dig our holes and lay our eggs. We had to repeat that comic yet tragic drama, generation after generation. We had to lay at least one hundred eggs for one egg to survive and reach adulthood; the few meagre feet reappeared hauntingly in our minds.

         We are optimistic. Perhaps our human neighbours have become friendlier; perhaps they have become enlightened. We only hope that they begin to believe in co-existence, and that they will preserve our eggs so that we can safely hatch. Only then can we identify ourselves with our caring friends who share this earth so that we have only to produce one or two babies and feel confident that they will survive. It is the cynical ones we fear, who remind us that there is a distinction between the privileged and less fortunate; in the Western world the privileged can afford to have one or two children while still others in the Third world have to give birth to dozens of children to ensure that one will survive - survive and travel a short distance from their birth place to school to the workplace - it is but a short distance that is covered over a long period of time, sometimes generations.

 

 

 

 

 

    -  *  -


OPEN AND CLOSED DOORS

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

The first meeting with you appears to be from yesterday, and yet if feels as if centuries not merely years have passed. Some of the impressions from this period are still fresh in my mind, but some of the memories, after going through the turbulence of my heart, have faded.

         After wading through the stream of youth and crossing the river of adolescence I finally reached the land of manhood, and it was then that I saw you coming down from the mount of alienation. When we came closer my heart was beating wildly, while beads of perspiration glistened on your forehead. Our tongues were mute. On seeing you closely I thought of a house in which secrecy had its abode, its doors and windows shut tightly to guard against intruders; when I looked at myself, I was reminded of that habitation where staleness and retention dwelled, and all of its doors and windows were open to let the fresh air circulate.

         I opened all the doors of my being and invited you in, but your modesty and the uncertainty of your heart became a chain on your feet. After saying "I don't know you. I am so uncertain" you became quiet. I stood silent for a while, and then I moved on.

         While I wandered along my path of loneliness, I met you at every crossroad. Whether it was you or your alter ego is difficult to know. Like the hues of a rainbow, you appeared in many faces around me. At one time I visualized you with long black hair, blue eyes and light skin, while at another time your hair was short, eyes dark and skin brown. Each time I saw you, there were subtle differences in your appearance. There were times that I was struck by your beauty, times that I was mesmerized by your friendly air. Sometimes you smiled at me, while on the other occasions you were quite serious. In each of your appearances I met you enthusiastically; however, the walls of formality stood firmly in the way. Many times you looked dubiously at me, wondering how I could keep so many doors of my being open to you, a behaviour that seemed so alien.

         The sun of time continued to shine, and the ice of our relationship slowly began to melt. One afternoon we sat on the bank of a river for hours. You asked me many questions, and I told you the story of my past. You listened attentively as if analyzing each situation, and when I tried to reach the depths of your soul, you unlocked a couple of windows but kept the other entrances tightly shut. On each door that I came to, "Wait" was inscribed, and I returned smiling. Circumstances allowed me to meet your alter egos, and you perhaps met my alter egos. Separation, proceeded by intimacy, followed the pattern of lunar cycles.

         One evening you accepted the invitation to come to my home. You came toward me like a young frightened child who wades hesitantly into a cold pond. I offered you a glass of wine, but you insisted on a cup of tea, leery that the wine would open a few more windows and doors. You didn't stay long. I could not tell for sure if you really did not wish to stay, or if traditions, like a magnet, pulled you away from me. Without crossing the river of circumstances I could not reach you, so I, along with my alter egos swam the current of a changing tide hopeful that an unexpected change in force would bring us together.

         Many suns rose and set; many moons appeared and disappeared, and like the changing face of the moon, you appeared to me. Then one night you discarded the veils of shame and modesty, and walking confidently, you entered through one door of my existence. We embraced in such a way that it was as if we had waited for that moment since the beginning of time. We touched, tasted and felt each other, and in the mirrors of one another's experiences we tried to make up our own beings. You opened a door of your being, and after entering through a door of my being, closed that door from inside. That night we were so intoxicated with each other's nearness that neither of us mentioned our alter egos. Before you left you tried to shut the other doors of my being, but you did not succeed.

         You came again the following week, but your inner as well as outer person had changed. The colour of your skin, expressions of your face, and your emotional reactions were all different. I could not determine if it was you or one of your alter egos that had come to see me; I was however aware that this person had entered through a different door, and she too tried to close various doors, and I had to smile.

         I kept on trying to open more doors and see more of your personality, while you went on closing the remaining entrances to my being. Many delicate moments came and went during these encounters; there were good times and there were bad. Some meetings tasted nectar, others bitter like gall.

         One night, the moon had hidden itself behind the clouds, which spread themselves like mascara on the sky; it rained like an outburst of tears. We took each other in our arms to avert the chill of the evening air when suddenly the telephone rang. It was your alter ego. I was speechless. Neither could I say anything to her, nor could I speak to you. We hadn't yet come out of that storm when someone interrupted and knocked at yet another door. I didn't answer, but she had a key and unlocked the door. I found the two of you very similar, you both looked at one another with great intensity, and then back at me, ruminating. Suddenly you reached for a dagger tucked under the pillow and struck me in the back. The blow rendered me unconscious. I don't recall how long I remained in that state but do remember awakening to the soothing caress of your hand. One alter ego tenderly dressed my wounds while the other tore them open again. I could not determine which of the two you were, the healer, or the assassin. My whole being ached. You had embedded the dagger in such a place that I could have been left impotent forever; whether it was good luck or bad, I recovered. I wondered then how you and your alter ego really felt about me and my alter ego.

         The framed pink heart in my room turned scarlet.

         Springs turned into summers and many autumns embraced winters while we tried to loosen the knots of our relationship, our fingers bleeding in the process. The stronger our feelings became, the more our relations seemed like double-edged swords. The harder we tried to resolve our differences, the more entangled they became. At one point it felt as if I, you, my alter egos, and your alter egos were all members of the same family. Our pains and pleasures, our griefs and joys seemed to poison our relationship drop by drop, and our prejudices rode our beings like ghosts.

         As time progressed our fingers lost their sharp talons, and yet our disputes became only worse. Our mutual bonds seemed to weaken, and were swept away by the torrents of jealousy and antagonism. Not only did the flowers lose their colours, but their thorns became more pronounced, stinging as the seasons changed.

         One night you came to me raging in anger, you opened a new door, and closed all other doors behind which your alter egos stood. You threatened me with the termination of our relationship and then stormed out of my home. In the process of trying to close the doors of my being, many doors of your being opened, and the few glimpses that I could catch were enough to amaze me. It seemed that in the pursuit of one of my alter egos you had once again climbed the mount of alienation so that you might descend into the valley of affection for another being. All of your alter egos stood stunned behind each and every door.

         In my room I looked at the framed heart which was changing its colour from scarlet to dark brown; I heard the mourning cry of blackening roses.

         Centuries lapsed, and our sighs of anguish were voiced. It was then that you presented me with two alternatives: either you wanted to keep open only the doors to friendship, or you insisted on closing all other doors if you were to remain emotionally involved in the relationship. I demanded that all of the doors remain open.

         Neither could we agree nor disagree and the train of time continued to click along its track. It stopped and started at various junctions allowing passengers to mount and dismount, while we never seemed to reach our destination. In all this time the bitterness toward each other increased and then subsided while we went on lamenting the fogging of the mirrors of our souls. It seemed as if you could never really get to know me completely, nor could I discover the mystery of your being. We both turned back halfway.

         Today I feel the palpitations of my heart, uncertain if they have been provoked by fear or anticipation. Your eyes on the other hand twinkle like stars, a reflection that we could go beyond the halfway point. The moon of hope and the sun of experience shall be our guides.

         The frame in my room is now blank; it awaits some eternal inscription.

 

 

 

 

    -  *  -

 


ALGEBRA OR GEOMETRY

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

She was lying next to me in bed. Playing with my beard she said, "You learnt French yesterday. It's my turn to learn Urdu today."

         "Sure."

         "What do you call a friend in Urdu?"

         "Dost."

         "And a lover?"

         "Ashiq."

         "And a girlfriend?"

         "There is no word for girlfriend in Urdu."

         "And what do you call dating."

         "There is no word for that either."

         "Then who do people marry in Pakistan?"

         "Their fiances."

         "And how are fiances acquired?"

         "Friends or relatives choose them for people."

         "Do people sleep with their fiances?"

         "Forget about sleeping. They can't even meet or talk to them."

         "Then who do poets converse with in their poems?"

         "Their imaginary beloveds."

         "Don't these beloveds become their wives later on?"

         "You are so innocent! For an Urdu poet his beloved never becomes his wife and his wife is never his beloved."

         "It is beyond my understanding."

         "Mine too."

         "Why is that?"

         "Because our intelligence has its limitations."

         "Do you consider me your girlfriend?"

         "Yes, I do."

         "What do you tell your mother about me?"

         "Nothing."

         "Why is that?"

         "Because she is dear to me."

         "You must be kidding."

         "No, not at all. Last time I showed her my girlfriend's pictures she stayed up crying and praying for me all night asking God to forgive me."

         "Your mom sounds very conservative."

         "From a Canadian point of view."

         "And from Pakistani point of view?"

         "She is like other mothers."

         "Does your mom want you to get married?"

         "Of course."

         "To whom?"

         "To any woman."

         "You are an interesting man."

         "All the women I know tell me the same thing."

         "And I like you."

         "That's nice of you."

         "And I love you."

         "Thanks very much."

         "Do you love me?"

         "No."

         "Why is that?"

         "Because I care about you."

         "What a devil you are. Let's go to sleep."

 

 

    -  *  -

 

 

 

         "I want to have a serious talk with you."

         "Go ahead."

         "Do you realize that we have been dating for six months?"

         "Yes, I do."

         "And exclusively too?"

         "That's true."

         "So tell me, where is this relationship going?"

         "What do you mean? Does it have to go anywhere?"

         "Where is its destination?"

         "It is a destination in itself."

         "What does it mean to you?"

         "Meaning is a relative thing."

         "You are again turning it into a philosophical discussion. I am talking seriously."

         "I am serious too."

         "So what's ahead in our future?"

         "I am not a fortune-teller."

         "Then what do you want in this relationship?"

         "I don't think that will make any difference."

         "I think that will make the ultimate difference."

         "Maybe."

         "Let me be honest and straightforward. I want to live with you."

         "I can't live with anyone."

         "What do you mean by that?"

         "I couldn't live with my mother, sister or any friend."

         "But I am not your mother, sister or friend."

         "I am a difficult man to live with."

         "Stop all that nonsense. You are being evasive. You are as slippery as a fish. I will not be distracted by your poetry or psychology. I want you to put your cards on the table."

         "What cards?"

         "I feel that you are not committed to the relationship."

         "That is true."

         "You never were."

         "That's true too."

         "And you never will be."

         "That is possible too."

         "And I am wasting my time."

         "What is that supposed to mean?"

         "My life is not a toy that you can play around with."

         "A woman told me once that I would never be able to love any woman."

         "Why is that?"

         "Because I am in love with my own dreams."

         "I want to end this dating game. I want to either get married or live with someone."

         "With whom?"

         "With you."

         "With me? How come?"

         "Because I love you. But you are an eternal playboy. No promises, no commitment."

         "I don't make false promises."

         "You don't make true promises either. You just live in the present. You want to be an existentialist. Let me tell you dear that this is life. It is not a psychiatric interview where you can play the game of here and now."

         "You look angry."

         "I don't just look angry, I am angry, I am angry that I have fallen in love with an irresponsible man like you. You don't even have the guts to get angry. You pretend that you are a wise mystic. I am not sure whether you are a mystic or an impotent man. Only impotent men don't get angry. You can only feel anger if you have loved someone. What the hell do you want? Do you want me to live with you or break off the relationship?"

         "Do I have to decide or do you?"

         "You."

         "Why me? The person who raises the question has to answer it first."

         "What the hell do you care? You don't give a damn if I stay or leave. You will start creating poems or write a short story about this incident and think that you have matured and sublimated all your negative feelings. All these things look good in books, more so in heavenly books. Any man who cannot experience feelings of anger, hatred and sadness should commit suicide."

         "Are you encouraging me to kill myself?"

         "Oh stupid idiot! I am trying to teach you the abc's of love. I fail to understand how a man who has never loved anyone can be a poet or a psychiatrist. All your philosophy and literature is like a fizzy drink that has gone flat. I have finally come here to get a straight answer."

         "You don't need to get so sentimental."

         "And you don't need to act like Mahatma Buddha."

         "I started dating you because you were not interested in the drudgeries of marriage."

         "I was not then but I am now."

         "You are changing your principles and you are expecting me to change mine too."

         "I didn't know that I would start to care about you so much that I would be willing to gamble my life."

         "Who is responsible for that?"

         "You."

         "How is that possible?"

         "You discouraged me consciously but encouraged me unconsciously."

         "What can I say now? There is something called principle."

         "What kind of principle? Look who is talking. Life is not like algebra where knowing (a + b)2 can solve all the problems. Life is like geometry where you have to find a new solution to each problem. I think I will stop seeing you and break off the relationship."

         "I will feel sad about it."

         "No, you won't. You are lying. You don't feel sad about anything. I am looking for a man who can be a long-term partner, who can share the pains and ecstasies of my life."

         "I can join you in your good and bad times but I can't join you in having babies and making a family."

         "Don't expect anything from me from now on. I will see you around some day."

         "Sure."

 

    -  *  -

 

         "How come you're here so late in the evening."

         "I came to see you and offer you a gift."

         "What a nice painting. It is beautiful. It is called

friends ... I thought it would be a painting of a half naked woman."

         "Everything has a time and a place"

 

  (After a while)

 

         "We are no longer a boyfriend and a girlfriend, right?"

         "That's true."

         "Then what would you call our relationship?"

         "The same as the name of this painting - friends."

         "What does that mean?"

         "We will see each other once in a while and share our pains and ecstasies."

         "How often would we meet?"

         "Whenever we feel like it and whenever we are free."

         "Would we sleep together."

         "No."

         "Why not?"

         "Friends don't sleep together."

         "Why don't they sleep together?"

         "They just don't."

         "Do you have a girlfriend now?"

         "No, I don't."

         "And I don't have a boyfriend. As long as you don't have another girlfriend and I don't have another boyfriend what's wrong with sleeping together?"

         "Wrong?"

         "Why don't you stay here tonight."

 

 

 

 

 

    -  *  -

 

 


 


IN TWO BOATS

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

"Mommy, where are you going today", Shabana asked me when she heard me humming a song.

         "My darling Robert is coming this evening and we are dining together."

         "Am I going to accompany you?"

         "I am afraid not. I have arranged for a baby-sitter for you ... Barbara. She will come at six with her daughter Sandra who is also seven, the same age as you. You may play with her till eight, and then its time for bed."

         Shabana became quiet ... sort of sad. I knew she did not like me to go out. Twice before she had fallen sick and started vomiting, and I had to cancel my plans for the evening.

         "Girlie, finish your homework while I take a shower! If Barbara comes, open the door for her", I said, and went to the bathroom.

         I closed the door and stood in front of the full length mirror. I really loved the mirrors in American houses. I appreciated the landlords who had fit these mirrors in the bedrooms and bathrooms, because I enjoyed looking at my body.

         I loosened the hair-bun on my head and let the hair fall down my back. Then I took off my blouse and held my breasts in my palms. I could see my slightly darker nipples and ripe breasts through my thin brassiere. I touched my nipples with my finger-tips and a smile dawned upon my lips. "Whenever I touch your lips I feel as if I am caressing your nipples!", I remember Robert whispering that in my ears.

         When I was a young girl in Pakistan I was forbidden to touch my breasts and fondle them. I was also unfamiliar with my body for many years. Robert's way of caressing sent waves of new sensations through my being. Actually it was Robert who had really introduced me to my own body.

         I removed my thin brassiere and hung it on the peg. "Why did they make me wear those hard, almost cardboard-like brassieres in my youth?" I wondered, and thought about the heroines in Indian films who have artificial-looking cones in their stiff brassieres. In America, women like the natural shape of their bosoms; besides, a brassiere's function was to lend support to the breasts, not deform them.

         Then I studied my stomach, navel, legs and feet. Their complexion still retained the freshness of my youth. How glad I was that I had separated from Perwaiz after eight years of marriage. In the grip of matrimony my youth had started to decline rapidly. Once again I took a full view of my five foot seven inch frame in the mirror. Perwaiz was shorter than I. Perhaps that was the reason he tried so hard to always give me commands in order to suppress my personality. But I was also a rustic lass from the Punjab! How could he dwarf me? I had a heart pulsating with youthful emotions. I might have put up with that if I were in Pakistan, but here in America it made no sense. Here women are equal to men, and they have as many civil rights as men. What had my mother gained by spending her whole life with my father. She had merely aged quickly and expired long before her death. I am young, and not only do I want to live, but I want to live happily. "To be happy is every human being's basic right!", a friend of mine told me. What a pity that there are millions of women who are deprived of this right. But happiness is something each individual must find personally, and not just sit and wait for its descent. That is why when I had told Perwaiz that I was not satisfied with our marriage and wanted to seek happiness on my own, he had looked at me as if I had come from another planet. He had never imagined that I would leave him.

         "Why are you unhappy?" he had asked me.

         "When we make love, you roll over and fall asleep as soon as it's over. I get no pleasure from it, and I haven't had an orgasm for ages."

         He stared at me with wide eyes. He was finding it difficult to believe that I could talk to him like that.

         "How will you take care of yourself?" He tried to change the topic.

         "Nature provides sustenance even to worms in the stones. After all, my parents supported me till I graduated from the university. I will get a job - my arms, my legs and my mind still function!"

         "What will we do with our daughter Shabana?"

         "Do with her? She will live with me; you may fetch her whenever you feel like it."

         Perwaiz still believed that I was pulling his leg.

         When he came home one day I was packing the suitcase.

         "What's going on?" he asked me, astonished.

         "I have found a nice two-bedroom flat in the eastern part of the town. It's about twenty miles from here, and it takes only half an hour by subway. Shabana will attend a near-by school."

         "And what will happen to me?" Desperation cast its shadow on Perwaiz's face.

         "I don't know. You are not a invalid. You will have to look after yourself. I've found a job in a store over there."

         Perwaiz went into shock. A few of my friends helped me secure a loan and find a job.

         I am a Punjabi. If I had not shown him that I can stand on my own two feet, I would no longer be able to live with myself. The same Perwaiz who had always played the big, strong role, now spent months in his apartment alone. He fed himself poorly and whenever he came to see Shabana he appeared depressed. He had probably thought that I would feel pity for him, but I had made a firm decision, and once a decision is reached it must be carried out to the bitter end.

         The first few months on my own were spent paying off my debts and in the decoration of the flat.

         When I started the shower the water was cold. Steam rose from the hot water tap when I turned it on. I began rubbing my body vigorously with soap. "How great it is to shower with Robert!", I recalled. The very thought brought a wave of excitement to my being.

         I shampooed my hair. I had bought "Head and Shoulders" shampoo only yesterday, because Robert liked it so much.

         Ashok was the supervisor of the department in which I worked. He was from India. I didn't care about his origin. He was handsome and intelligent, and treated me nicely. We had tea together several times and we even dined together on occasion. Until then, I had never slept with anyone but my husband. The thought of sleeping with a stranger added an extra beat to my heart.

         Then one day I brought Ashok home with me. It was almost ten in the evening. Shabana was fast asleep. Once we had sent the baby-sitter home, Ashok and I listened to music for a while, and then I took him to my bedroom.

         Every muscle in my body felt charged. His lips were thick but delicious.

         The next morning I made the introductions. "This is my daughter Shabana and this is uncle Ashok." Shabana ran to her room and started to weep. Ashok left soon afterward and never returned. Perhaps he was embarrassed. Shabana vomited the whole day.

         After a few weeks had passed I found a better job in another store and I transferred there. Later on I heard that Ashok told many Indians that he had slept with me. I was very hurt and angry, but I kept quiet.

         The owner of the new store was an American. He liked me, and would buy flowers and small gifts for me. I responded to him with friendly smiles, without giving him too much. As time went on, I thought about having a relationship with him. After all, I was a free woman, and he appeared to be a decent fellow. I had never been intimate with a white man and now was my chance. What was the harm in it? I started showing interest in Walter. Then one evening he was my guest. He came to dinner and left the next morning after breakfast. That day, I also introduced my daughter to my guest.

         "This is Shabana, and this is uncle Walter?" On that occasion she neither ran to her room nor cried; she just sat there silently.

         Afterwards when I talked to her she was furious.

         "Mother, why do you call him my uncle? He is not related to me either through you or daddy."

         "We work in the same place."

         "But why did he stay here overnight?"

         "He is my friend. Your boy and girl friends come here to spend the weekends."

         Shabana went to the kitchen in a foul mood. She vomited that day as well.

         In those days my baby-sitter used to be a poor Pakistani woman. She had no one and I had given her the job because I felt pity for her, however, she was unfaithful. She spread gossip about me among a score of people telling them that Walter had spent the night with me and so I dismissed her.

         My friendship with Walter did not last very long. I learned later that he had sexual encounters with a number of women in our department. When I bid him farewell he did not protest. I was angry that he had put my name on his list of victims, but what could have I done? He was definitely better than Ashok because he did not try to soil my name in the community.

         Deep within me, hatred for my community was building. These people didn't want to see a woman happy under any circumstances, and they tried to trample her on every occasion.

         Then one evening I attended a wedding; many Indian and Pakistani dignitaries were also invited. I was standing in a corner holding a glass of wine when I heard some whispers among other women.

         "Look at Fauzia. She drinks alcohol!"

         "She also has a bad character."

         "She abandoned that poor Perwaiz."

         "I wonder how many men she beds with?"

         "Ashok has also enjoyed her charm!"

         "She brings home whites from her job!"

         "She is an adulteress!"

         I could no longer restrain myself and joined the gathering.

         "Why are you talking behind my back. Talk to me directly. I am a free woman and do as I please. I had not even met Perwaiz when I married him; nor had any one asked my opinion of the marriage. No one protested then. He was a stranger. As far as I'm concerned, sleeping with a stranger is fornication, while going to bed with a man of my own choice is not."

         It was as if lightning had struck.     They could never have imagined that I would challenge them so openly.

         As chance would have it, Ashok passed by.

         "Ashok, come here." I called him in front of everyone. He approached us timidly. "Don't you have any honour? I respected you. I thought you were a sincere person. I invited you to my home; and I don't invite everyone there. I also introduced you to my daughter, and a dishonourable person like you bad-mouthed me. What were you looking for? A simpleton of nineteen years? The moment you met a thirty-year old woman, you lost your head. Have you also lost your masculinity?"

         Ashok was totally shaken. "Fauzia, please forgive me, I made a grave mistake" he said.

         "I'll forgive you this time but don't ever treat a woman in the same manner again. When will you men learn to respect women?"

         All the women were astounded. Even I was shocked at my bravery.

         I rinsed the shampoo from hair and applied the conditioner. How pleasant it was when Robert ran his fingers through my hair!

         After that encounter I shortened the number of times I met with Pakistanis and Indians. My American friends gave me much of the company; especially Barbara, who was also single and a member of my fitness club. She told me that most men only sought sexual pleasure. "If you want a decent fellow you ought to wait!" she had advised me. Then she introduced me to Robert, who she knew quite well.

         "Robert is my friend. He's a sincere man. He is also my cousin. If he were not my first cousin I would have dated him myself!"

         "But I have another problem."

         "What's that?"

         "My daughter!"

         "I too have a daughter. Her name is Sandra. In the beginning she used to be very upset and would get a queasy stomach, but now she has become accustomed to our situation."

         One day I talked to Perwaiz. He was angry. Shabana told him about her meeting with Robert.

         "Who is this uncle Robert?" he asked in a sarcastic manner.

         "Who are you to ask! I am not your wife any longer. I am a free bird. My job, my home and my friends are my concern!"

         "I am concerned about Shabana."

         "I am as worried about her as you are. I care for her as much as I can. Separation is difficult for children and it takes times for them to accept it. Once she grasps the situation she won't be as perplexed to see an `aunty' with you or an `uncle' with me.

         Perwaiz calmed down. He was spellbound when he saw my courage. He was likely under the impression that I would defend my position apprehensively.

         When I came out of the bathroom, Barbara and Sandra had already arrived.

         Shabana sat there looking sad and miserable. By that time she had already vomited once. When I went to the bedroom to change my clothes Barbara followed me and said, "Today is your acid test. If you cancel your date today then that would mean in the future your daughter will be deciding your life for you."

         Tears filled my eyes. It was easy to come clean with Ashok and Perwaiz but very difficult not to bend before my daughter.

         I asked Shabana to sit with me. I cleaned her face with a towel and then phoned Robert. "Hello Robert! My daughter is not feeling well. Instead of picking me up at seven, please proceed directly to the restaurant; I shall meet you there at seven thirty. Is it okay with you? Bye!"

         Shabana looked grave, while Barbara was smiling. For a while I played with Shabana and Sandra, then made them some orange juice and gave Barbara a rum and Cola.

         Shabana recovered, and started playing with Sandra. After half an hour I winked at Barbara and left my home. In the car I

looked at my lips, they were red.

         "Whenever I touch your lips I feel as if I am caressing your nipples!" Once again I recalled Robert's whispers.

 

    -  *  -

 


PICTURES HANGING ON THE WALLS

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first time I hung my "nature" pictures on the walls of the clinic, I didn't think of them as bearing any relationship to psychotherapy: but, after I met Natalie, I was forced to look at them from a different angle.

         I have always been fond of nature. Perhaps it was because I grew up in a home which was a few miles outside of the city and was surrounded by the beauty of nature. There was a river on one side of our home and fruit and vegetable orchards on the other two sides. I used to go for long walks and enjoy the water, the birds, and the animals. I felt at ease and at one with them. There was also a park near our house which was abundant with shady trees. It was quite common for me to climb up a tree and read a book while my friends looked for me.

         Some people believe that throughout our lives we keep looking for an environment similar to the one in which we were raised; so, a few years ago when I decided to move to Toronto, I knew that I did not want to live in the heart of the city. It was too full of tall buildings, crowded streets, and pollution. I wanted to work in a hospital which was not in the downtown area but not too far out of the city either. Some of my friends suggested the Whitby Psychiatric Hospital and informed me that it was nearly thirty miles out of the city of Toronto. I remember the day I rented a car and came to Whitby to see the hospital; I was pleasantly surprised. The hospital was built on Lake Ontario which looked so peaceful that day; it was also surrounded by more than a hundred acres of land, populated only by trees and grass. I was even fortunate enough to see a dozen or more Canadian geese and seagulls resting in the shade. They seemed to be having a special get-together. I was so impressed by the hospital that I went to see Dr. Chang, who was the Psychiatrist-in-Chief. After I introduced myself, I told him that I had fallen in love with the hospital and wanted to work there. Dr. Chang greeted me, smiled, and said "You can start tomorrow." I told him that I had to go back to Saint John, New Brunswick to resign from my previous job before I could start the new one. So we both agreed that I would start working in January of 1984, and I did.

         Alongside my fondness of nature, I have also enjoyed my role as an amateur photographer. I must have taken hundreds of pictures over the years and made dozens of photo albums. I even went back to Pakistan to gather pictures of my childhood. In spite of my keen interest in pictures, I had no knowledge of the art of photography. My friends suggested that I buy an expensive camera and take a course in photography. I told them I have always been irritated by training courses. It surprised me to hear that so many Canadians took courses to learn how to swim, play tennis, and even cook. I told them that I learned all those things on my own. I could understand people taking courses if they wanted to participate in the Olympics, but if they wanted to do something as a hobby and for their personal enjoyment then I didn't see the need of a training programme. I had never had the desire to become a professional photographer so I never enroled in any of the courses that were offered.

         After coming to Whitby I met Monica, an English lady in her sixties who was an accomplished artist of her time. She suffered from Chronic Depression and in the last few years she had stopped painting. In my first couple of interviews with her I realized that previous doctors had tried to treat her with medications. None of them had focused on the artistic dimension of her life. One day I made the suggestion that she resume painting; I felt it was the only way that her depression would improve. In the beginning she thought I was joking but when she realized that I was serious she replied, "I don't think I'll be able to paint again." Then she sighed deeply and started to reminisce. "There was a time that I had my paintings exhibited in the galleries. I used to receive letters which complemented me for my achievements; editors would write about me and my works of art in the newspaper, and I used to have students who studied directly under me."

         "But you can do that all over again." I tried to reassure her.

         "Dr. Sohail! Art is freedom of expression. No one can force a person to create. Being a writer yourself, you must realize that you cannot force people to write poems, and even if you did, the poems created would be lifeless."

         "But one can train and condition oneself to create more." Then I told her the story of Pegge Hopper, a Hawaiian artist whose interview I had read in an anthology of her paintings called Women of Hawaii. In the interview Pegge was asked what she had learned during the four years she studied at the New York School of Arts. She replied that before she went to school she would wait for a moment of inspiration before she picked up her brush to paint; after her training she would sit with her paints and brushes in front of the easel every day. Since she waited in anticipation of those creative moments every day, they came to her more often.

         I asked Monica if she could bring out her brushes and her colours and sit in front of the easel for a couple of hours, two or three times a week. For the first few weeks she practised that exercise but nothing happened. It wasn't long before the creative juices did flow, and then she felt overwhelmed. She completed nearly a dozen paintings within a few months time and according to her, they were better than they had ever been before.

         Some of those paintings were purchased for three to four hundred dollars even before they were completed. Monica's rediscovery of her creative self not only helped her depression and increased her self confidence, but it also enhanced my interest in art and paintings. When I enquired about Monica's creative work she told me that whenever she saw an impressive natural scene she captured it on film and later on she would paint it on the canvas. Gradually I became more aware of the relationship between photography and painting through the creative expressions of her art work.

         Coincidentally, during those days, one of my colleagues introduced me to Mary Ellen, an artist who lived in Whitby. I was pleasantly surprised to meet an artist who not only had a good understanding of the human psyche but also had a keen awareness of social and political processes. It did not take us long to become friends. When I saw her creative work I realized that her paintings were shot with black and white film. She painted a few distinct parts of the pictures to produce the desired effect. I had never before seen such a creative synthesis of photography and painting. The colours she chose for the pictures were sometimes changed from the original, often different only in a subtle shade from the natural colours. This added a unique dimension to her art. Mary Ellen was exploring the creative relationship between human beings and their environments. Mary Ellen introduced me then to her brother Sean who was not only an artist but he was a poet as well. Next I met their mutual friend Rowena who told me that as an artist, she "thought in colours".

         Meeting these artists opened my third eye and I started to see trees, birds, animals and other objects of nature from a different angle. It was as if I was developing a new relationship with my environment.

         During the same period of time, I visited San Francisco to attend a poetry conference with my friend Zahid and while shopping at Fisherman's Wharf, we saw a beautiful camera. It was not only automatic, it also had a built in zoom lens. We were so excited to find such a camera that we bought two of them, one for each of us.

         After that purchase I felt like a child with a new toy; I carried my camera with me wherever I went. In the next few months I took pictures of anything and everything that sparked my interest, or appeared impressive. On my next trip, which was to Venezuela, I took the camera with me, now one of my friends. When I developed the pictures of my trip I was pleasantly surprised with the results. I had taken a photo of the sunset over the ocean with a sailboat in the distance. It was so beautiful and artistic that I jumped with excitement. That was my first real victory. I showed that picture to many of my friends. They were as surprised as I was with the results.

         At the same time Monica took part in an exhibition of her paintings. She took pictures of her paintings and had them laminated by a local photographer. I liked the idea. The pictures, laminated on a wooden board, looked much better than framed photos. So, I enlarged my picture of the Venezuelan sunset and had it laminated. It turned out to be quite impressive.

         My interest in nature and taking pictures of trees, birds, lakes and sunsets continued. I took my camera with me wherever I went. It became my third eye. In the next two years I took dozens of pictures in dozens of cities throughout Asia, Europe, and North America of various natural scenes.

         Finally I selected a few pictures which included:

         - a picture of the sunset in Venezuela

         - a picture of a turtle eating leaves from a bush in Barbados

         - a picture of waterlilies in Paris

         - a seagull standing on one leg on a small beach in Oshawa

I hung these pictures in my office. I also hung a few pictures of Niagara Falls and seagulls frolicking in the water nearby; these I placed on the walls of the waiting room  of our clinic. Those pictures added an artistic touch to the otherwise neutral decor of the clinic. They were hanging on the walls for more than a year when Natalie forced me to see them and think about them for a different perspective.

         I met Natalie a few months ago when she was suddenly discharged from one of the inpatient units because she had broken one of the rules of the ward. She was asked to see me to be followed as an outpatient. When I met her the first time she was curled up in a chair in my office. She looked to be in her twenties and was holding a stuffed bird in her arms. When I said hello, she stared at me angrily, but did not utter a word.

         When I introduced myself, she remained silent. I felt a bit lost. To show some personal interest I asked her "What kind of toy are you carrying?" Even before I finished my sentence she screamed "I want to see a female therapist."

         I tried to explain to her that I worked with a team of mental health professionals and there were a few female nurses on the team. I reassured her that if she wanted to see a female therapist I could arrange that for her and I got her an appointment with Joan, one of our mental health nurses.

         After a couple of weeks when I met Natalie and Joan, Natalie told me "I hate all men, and I hate you the most."

         I smiled and said, "You have a right to hate me, but I would like to know why you hate me so much?"

         She said, "You called my friend (she pointed to the stuffed bird that she was carrying) a toy. You insulted my friend and you insulted me."

         "But I had no intention of insulting either one of you. I'll be more careful in the future."

         During that visit she agreed to see me for half an hour every other week. The next time she came to see me she still looked angry. She said, "I don't want to sit in the chair. I want to sit on the floor."

         I thought for a few seconds and then I got her a cushion from the waiting room so she did not have to sit on the floor as my office was not carpeted.

         In the next few sessions she told me that she hated people and that she loved birds and animals. She would not touch human beings and did not want to be touched by them.

         She was still a mystery to me. At the end of the interview she told me that she wrote poems. I responded, "I would like to read them. They might help me to understand you."

         In the next session she brought her poems but did not show them to me. She said, "I don't trust you yet."

         In the next session she gave me the book but asked me not to read the poems until she left. I obliged.

         When I read the poems I realized that she was physically, emotionally and sexually abused by her father. Those traumatic experiences had made her very bitter. Maybe that was why she hated people so much, especially men. I felt very sympathetic towards her. In the next session I told her that I felt sad when I read her poetry but I was optimistic that if she continued with her therapy that she would be able to live a happy and productive life. She looked at me with unbelieving and untrusting eyes as if she was saying "That's what all the therapists say." I did not respond.

         After that incident every time I met with her, I found her a little less angry.

         Then one day I entered my office and saw a picture of a bird on the blackboard in my office; I used that blackboard for the education of my patients and their families. I recognized the bird right away. It looked exactly like Natalie's friend. I knew it was her present to me.

         In the next interview I thanked Natalie for her present. Without saying a word she put her cushion on the floor and sat down, leaning against the wall. She looked relaxed for the first time. I felt as if we were approaching a breakthrough.

         After a few minutes I could not resist and so I asked her "Natalie, I feel as if you don't hate me anymore?"

         She agreed.

         "And your attitude has changed."

         She agreed again.

         "What made that change?" I was curious.

         She gave me a brief response. "Your pictures."

         I was puzzled. "My pictures?"

         "I have been looking at the pictures hanging on the walls. I think that if you took pictures of the lake, the birds and animals with so much affection, then you can't be such a bad person after all."

         And then she smiled for the first time. It was the smile that every therapist waits for, a smile that is the first turn towards healthy relationships and destinations.

         After Natalie left my office that day, I kept thinking about the pictures hanging on the walls, the way I am today.

 

 

 

 

 

    -  *  -


     ISLAND

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

         "Are your parents alive?"

         "Yes."

         "When was the last time you met them?"

         "Ten years ago."

         "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

         "Yes, I do."

         "When was the last time you saw them?"

         "Seven years ago."

         "Where did you see them?"

         "In a supermarket."

         "Do you have any friends?"

         "No."

         "Where do you live then?"

         "On the street."

         "Do you have any source of income?"

         "Not at all."

         "Then how do you live?"

         "I just live."

         "For how long have you been living like this?"

         "For twelve years."

         "What do you want in life?"

         "Nothing."

         "What's your aim in life?"

         "I have none."

         "Can I arrange welfare for you?"

         "No thanks."

         "How about a place to live?"

         "Don't bother."

         "You must need money for food?"

         "No. I am fine."

         "How can we help you?"

         "Don't worry. I will be okay."

My social worker felt helpless. She did not know what to say.

         The police brought him to the hospital. He had been wandering around on the streets for weeks. He had no food; no shelter. He looked like a bagman. The weather too was getting cold. The winter had its first snowfall. The police became worried when they found him one night sleeping in a bus stand. He looked pale and weak. They thought he may freeze to death.

         "Admit him doctor and look after him," one of the police officers had suggested.

         "Do you want to be admitted?" I asked him.

         "No thanks. I am not sick."

         I felt helpless too. The social worker called his parents. They came and took him home to look after him.

         After a couple of days the police brought him back. We were facing the same dilemma again. The social worker called his sister this time. She came and took him but he took off after a week.

         The police brought him to the hospital once again. They believed he was crazy and should be locked up in a psychiatric hospital for a few months. I did not agree. I thought he was an eccentric and non-conformist. The society and the police could not tolerate him. The social worker this time sent him to a boarding home. The police threatened him that if he was found again loitering in the city streets, he would be put in jail. He smiled. He didn't care.

         A few weeks later, on a Sunday morning, a young man was taking his son for a morning walk in the city park. The child saw something floating in the pond in the middle of the park. He asked his father, "What is that, Daddy?"

         The young man recognized the object. It was a dead body. The bloated corpse was floating upside down. He hurriedly called an ambulance from a nearby phone booth. The paramedics came and put the body in a body bag and placed it on a stretcher inside the ambulance. The young man and his son accompanied them to the hospital emergency department.

         While I was examining the body, the child stood there bewildered. He looked at his father and squeezed his hand. "Daddy," he softly asked.

         "What is it my son?"

         "Our teacher told us that if something is surrounded by water, it is called an island."

         "That's true."

         "Was this man an island, Dad?"

         The young father picked up the child, smiled, and hugged him softly.

 

 

 

 

    -  *  -

 

 


 


           THE WOMAN IN THE WATCHTOWER

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

"I have been married for seven years but I am celibate for seven months. I don't know what is wrong. I feel confused. Every night when I go to bed, my husband, Walter, is still watching TV. He comes to bed when I have gone to sleep. I went to see my doctor. He says Walter is going through the change of life. I have never heard men going through the change of life. The doctor says `Give him some time, he will be okay'. But I feel nervous. I don't know what's wrong with him. Is he becoming impotent? Is he having an affair? Is he losing interest in sex forever? Maybe we will just be friends for the rest of our lives. But I don't want to be friends with my husband. I want us to be lovers. What do you think? You are a psychiatrist. You know all the answers."

         While Monica was talking I could see tears rolling down her cheeks. She wasn't eating. She had filled her plate with the steak, mushrooms, rice and pasta, but she had only eaten half of her dinner. Her glass of wine was still full. While she was talking I was wondering about my own relationship. How could I tell her that I was in a similar situation. I had been celibate for six months too. My girlfriend was unsure of her love for me and I was nervous about the outcome of our relationship.

         "Your story makes me feel sad." I was sympathetic. I looked at the candle on the table. She had tears in her eyes too.

         Jessica had been a good host. She had done all the cooking on her own. She knew that Monica and I wanted to meet, so one day when she called me to tell me that Monica was coming to her place for dinner, I was quite willing to change my plans and join them.

         The first time I met Monica was a few weeks earlier when she was attending the security booth called the Gatehouse which was outside Jessica's apartment building. Monica was wearing a blue uniform. She stopped me at the gate the way she stopped all the visitors.

         "Who are you visiting sir?" She was pleasant but I could see mischievousness in her eyes, as if asking me `Are you here to pick up someone else's wife!'

         "Jessica" I answered briefly.

         "What's her buzzer number?"

         "I think it is 113." I was never sure of the numbers.

         "What building does she live in?"

         "I don't know the number. It is the first one on the right."

         "What's her apartment number?"

         "I don't remember. Do you want me to check? She changes her apartment so frequently I sometimes forget, and end up driving to her previous apartment."

         "No that's okay."

         "You'd be a good police investigator," I smiled.

         "Funny, funny," she laughed. "Let me check with Jessica."

         So she spoke with Jessica on the phone and then asked the last question.

         "What's your car plate number?"

         "Do you want my telephone number too." And we both laughed out loud. She let me in and when I came upstairs I asked Jessica, "Who is that woman in the watchtower?"

         "Why?"

         "She is nuts."

         "Oh Monica, she is a sweetheart! She is lots of fun."

         Later on Jessica called me to tell me that Monica thought I was cute. After that Jessica mentioned Monica a few times and told me that she wanted to meet me. Whenever I came and Monica was attending the booth, she would let me in without asking questions. I was always curious about people in watchtowers. I thought they knew all kinds of secrets, and as a writer I always wanted to meet them.

         The evening I met Monica for dinner at Jessica's place, I did not recognize her. She was wearing a green top and black trousers. She was not in her usual blue uniform. She seemed very excited. She told me that most tenants were reserved and distant. Jessica was one of the few who would invite her for a cup of tea. She was thrilled to be invited for dinner and she had heard that I was a writer and a psychiatrist, so she was a bit nervous meeting me.

         After Monica and I got our glasses of wine and Jessica went to prepare dinner, we started to talk in the living room. Monica went on talking for nearly an hour with minor interruptions and brief questions from me. She had a lot to share and since I found her experiences interesting, I let her talk.

         "I have been working here for fifteen months. It is a nice job, comfortable, but sometimes I feel lonely cooped up in that little room with a little TV. I like day shifts the most, night shifts are a little scary, the evening shifts are sometimes so busy they are crazy. But those are the ones that are most interesting."

         "What's interesting about them?"

         "Last week someone's boyfriend came in. I did not let him in because I knew his girlfriend was with another man.

         "I sometimes set people up too. There are so many single and lonely men and women living in these buildings. They work all day long and watch TV or do aerobics in the evening. I gave one man a number of a woman and asked him to call her. She waited and waited. She was desperate to meet him. But when he did not call her in three months, I confronted him. He apologized. I told him I thought he was gay. The next day that jerk sent a box of chocolates for that woman. What an idiot.

         "But we also have a middle aged gay man in this building. There are two young teenagers who visit him regularly, one on Tuesday evenings, the other on Thursday evenings."

         "Do they stay overnight?"

         "No just for a couple of hours. He sometimes comes for a chat. He always bums cigarettes. He says he is trying to quit. One day I told him I ran out of cigarettes and asked him to go to the corner store and get me a pack and he did. He did not even charge me anything. I even told him he was gay."

         "How do you know?" he asked.

         "I let your friends in every week."

         "Oh! That's true" he said, and smiled.

         "We also have another woman who is looking for a stud."

         "What does that mean?"

         "She wants to have a child but does not want to get married. I suggested she look into artificial insemination. She said these days you can't have fresh sperm. It can cause diseases. One has to wait for six months and use frozen sperm.

         We also have high class prostitutes here. I think they call them "Call Girls." I see special limos coming here. Someone told me they are university students and earn their money this way for their tuition fees. One is a student of philosophy and the other psychology. I wanted to talk to them once but they were in a hurry."

         "But what do you like the best about the job?"

         "The camera. I can turn on the TV anytime and see what is happening. There are cameras in the elevators, ramps, parking lots and jacuzzi. I saw women getting in the jacuzzi naked. I saw two women necking, two men naked holding hands, and a man and a woman making love. A couple of times I turned on the intercom and said `Are you having a good time?' They didn't know who was talking."

         When we sat down to have dinner, Jessica joined us in the conversation too.

         "Is there anything about your job that worries you?"

         "Yeah! A couple of things. There is a young man who lives here. He is emotionally disturbed. Whenever his girlfriend dumps him he gets depressed and suicidal, sometimes angry and violent. Once he was so upset, he broke the windows. I called 911 and the police came right away and took him to the hospital. He has a new girlfriend now. She looks like a nice girl. But she does not know his past.

         But the main thing that worries me is the apartment in which they gamble all night long. The people have lots of guns. I think they are trouble. I would not be surprised if there is a murder here one of these days."

         "In my building?" Jessica looked pale.

         "No, the next building."

         "Did you tell the police?"

         "The police know it all."

         "Why don't you tell us about your own family, since you have fifteen brothers and sisters." Jessica wanted to change the subject.

         "Yes, we are sixteen in all. My mother is 83 and my father 93. My mother loved children. She is Catholic. She says if she had to do it all over again she would have had twenty. We used to have a big table, eight on one side, eight on the other, one parent at each end. We had at least one student in each grade of the school. When I married my first husband I was surprised to know that he was one of nineteen children. But his family was quite dysfunctional, I found out later on. He was very abusive. He was an alcoholic, and jealous. It was hell living with him. I stuck around only because of my children. The day my last child went to university, I packed my bags and left."

         "What's the worst thing he did to you?"

         "I used to keep a diary which I wrote in every day for twenty years. I kept it locked inside a special cabinet. I told my husband about it, and then I came home from work one day and found he had burned the entire cabinet, because it was locked and that infuriated him. I cried for months. I never wrote a word again.

         "After I left him I was alone for three years. I had lost trust and faith in men and relationships. Then I met my present husband. We were both patients in the same hospital at the same time. We were the only two smokers on the ward, so we used to meet in the smoking room and offer each other cigarettes. Cigarettes led to beers and then dinners. We were living together after six months. He is so kind and gentle and caring. I can't believe someone can be so nice to me. But now in the last few months, I don't know what happened."

         Monica was quiet again. She looked sad.

         Jessica brought some tea and dessert. It was chocolate cake. She has known me for nearly ten years but still does not remember that I don't like chocolate; and I, knowing her for this long, could not remind her. So I ate half of the cake.

         "Do you think there is hope?" Monica asked.

         "I am an eternal optimist. Maybe he is just going through a rough time."

         "Do you think he still loves me?"

         "Do you still love him?"

         "Yes I do. But I don't know anymore. I don't know how to find out what true love is."

         "My grandmother used to say `True love is the one that can wait.'"

         "I can wait."

         Jessica was being a little mischievous and so she asked, "But what are you going to do while you are waiting? Do you want to borrow my dildo?"

         "No, I am self-sufficient."

         "Does that mean you are self-abusive?"

         "They used to call it self-abuse in Victorian times."

         "And these days?"

         "Self-pleasure. Maybe I will marry a third time, a rich man this time."

         When I was driving home that evening I wondered how come even after listening to Monica's story I could not tell her that I was celibate for six months too and it wasn't that bad after all. It builds one's character.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    -  *  -


 


EXISTENTIAL DILEMMA

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

It has been nearly four years since I went to see the principal of my school and told him that after teaching philosophy to high school students for twenty years I had come to the realization that whatever was truly worthwhile in life could not be taught. I wanted to resign from my job but my principal, who was a caring man, did not accept my resignation. He wanted me to stay for another five years so that I would qualify for a handsome pension which was offered after twenty five years of service. He asked me if I would prefer teaching another subject or another class, but I turned his offer down and shared with him some of my inner turmoil; he was very sympathetic, and made the counter-offer of an extended leave of absence and suggested that I see a psychiatrist. He recommended that I see an Asian psychiatrist as he would have a better appreciation for my personal and cultural dilemmas.

         Now I have been seeing a therapist for the last four years. My therapist is a gentle, soft spoken, kind-hearted person. He is nearly my age and shares a similar background. He is a good listener and shows a lot of compassion; but, I feel that I have not made any progress, as I am as troubled as I was four years ago. Sometimes I feel as if I should stop consulting him. I see it as a waste of his time. My therapist disagrees. He, on the other hand, is optimistic. He tries to tell me that I have grown, that I have matured in the last four years; but, the changes are ever so subtle. He speaks to me with a convincing voice; his face is so innocent and gentle that I find it hard to disagree with him, so I continue the therapy.

         When I look back at our four years together I realize that I never became dependent on my therapist, as I have always believed that each one of us has our own cross to carry. Other people can make suggestions but they can't live our lives for us.

         During the first year of therapy when I shared a few glimpses of my life with my therapist he told me that I was ambivalent about my job and my life. He believed that at the same time I liked and disliked, loved and hated teaching. I personally believed that a teacher was like a prophet. I also believed that teachers were capable of brainwashing children and such a conflict was poisoning my mind, my soul, and my life; since I could not resolve my conflict, I was trying to dissolve it by giving up my job altogether. I thought my therapist was right, but his interpretation seemed an over-simplification of my dilemma.

         We reached a turning point in therapy one day when my therapist said, "You don't belong in teaching" and I responded "I feel as if I don't belong anywhere". That answer intrigued my therapist and when he pursued that line of thinking further, I told him that all the men and women I knew belong to one group or another and identify with others in some regard: language, religion, ethnicity, profession, culture, or some other dimension, but I felt I did not belong anywhere and did not identify with any one particular group.

         My therapist was puzzled. Perhaps he had not yet met any such person. When he asked me to explain what I was thinking, I replied that in spite of being a man by gender, I could easily identify with women. I showed him some of the poems and stories I had written from a female perspective. My therapist was taken back as he had never met a man who wrote as a woman. I told him that it wasn't a conscious effort on my part. I never sat down with the purposeful intention of writing as a woman. I identified with women's problems to such an extent that subconsciously I composed poems as a woman. It was only after a couple of years of writing poetry that someone brought it to my attention that those poems were written as a woman; it was then that I became aware of the phenomenon. That same day my therapist told me I was neurotic; in addition I had problems with identity. Once again I felt as if it was an over-simplification.

         As my therapy and self-discovery continued congruently I shared with my therapist that the problem with gender was only one of a series of dilemmas I faced on a day to day basis. Another source of conflict was in the realm of my religious beliefs.

         "What is your religious identity?" he inquired.

         "I don't have one." I answered softly.

         "What do you mean you don't have one?"

         That was the first time I sensed a tone of resentment in his voice. I'm sure he thought I was giving him a hard time, but I was serious, and as honest with him as I could be with myself. He continued, stating that "Everyone has parents who belong to a religious group."

         "Yes, that is true. My parents are Muslims; but that is their identity and I don't believe in the same things they do. It is not that I have anything against Islam, it's just that I don't have any religious beliefs of my own. I respect other people's beliefs and even assisted when my parents performed their pilgrimage in Mecca; but, I did not personally participate in the pilgrimage even when I had the opportunity.

         "Then what is it that you do believe in?" My therapist sounded impatient.

         "I can't give you a simple answer. On one hand I respect and believe in all religions because I have inherited them from my ancestors; those philosophies of life, as I call them, help me understand the moral evolution of human societies; on the other hand I don't follow any religious doctrine. I don't pray. I don't fast. I don't perform any one ritual and that is why I am not a member of any religious community. Last month a member of a religious organization called me and asked me on the phone, "Are you a Muslim?" When I said `No' there was a long silence on the other end of the line.

         After sharing those details, at the end of the third year of therapy, my therapist told me that I was a borderline case which probably meant that I did not fit into any one of his traditional categories. I sometimes feel that my therapist was as unsure of the whole predicament as I, and he was trying to cover up his confusion with jargons that did not mean anything to me. Finally, one day my therapist became quite agitated with me and asked, "Why don't you want to join a group or organization?"

         "Because membership in one group exclusively divides people rather than uniting them."

         "How does that happen?" My therapist appeared lost.

         "When  someone joins one group he is automatically dissociated from all other groups. And by doing so he falls prey to the Us - Them phenomenon. Once people are divided on the basis of religion or any other basis. Then it is only a matter of time before the conflicts reach such an intensity that the feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness, and even hatred prevail. Historically, human beings have been divided on the basis of different parameters: East against West, North against South, Right wing against Left wing, Conservatives against Liberals, Women against Men, Blacks against Whites and so forth.

         I always believed that all human beings, regardless of their race, colour, age or gender are all members of the same human family. Our collective salvation is in cooperation rather than competition or confrontation. That is why philosophically I am a member of all the groups, but in reality, a member of none; in joining one group, I will be excluded from all the others.

         In the last few months I have shared with my therapist that I have been living in two cultures at the same time; the Eastern one in which I grew up, and the Western culture that I have chosen to live in; I am trying to find a synthesis between the two but have not been successful so far. It was then that I saw the special twinkle in his eyes. He said,  "Now I know what your problem is?"

         "What is it?" I was curious.

         "You are a marginal man."

         "What does that mean?"

         "You are stuck between two cultures. You are experiencing the same fate as all of the first generation immigrants."

         Once again, I was disappointed.

         Finally one day I could no longer resist; I opened my heart to my therapist and I said, "Why is it that you can only see me from a clinical perspective?

         "How come you always see me as a problem and shower me with diagnoses and labels?

         "Why don't you ever try to understand my human condition and appreciate my existential dilemma?"

         And then I suggested that we meet in a different setting.

         My therapist told me that I had challenged him and he had to think about it for a few days before he accepted or refused my invitation.

         A couple of weeks passed and I did not hear from my therapist. I wondered whether I should try to contact him once again or stop the therapy for good.

         And then one evening I decided that I should stop analyzing my life and start living it. I realized that for four years I had been intellectualizing everything I did, everything I thought. I also realized that my therapist resided inside me and the time had come for the therapist and the client to embrace each other. I searched for a job in which there was no need for extensive talk, analysis and intellectualization.

         Finally I decided to pursue my profession as a teacher, only this time I would work with deaf and mute children because I felt that they were the people who communicated without the need for talking, and lived without the need for intellectualizing.

         So when I went back to see my principal after such a long time, he welcomed me. I told him that I was willing to come back to work on one condition.

         "What is the condition?"

         "I would like to work with deaf and mute children."

         "But why is that?" he looked puzzled.

         "Because they communicate without talking and live without intellectualizing."

         Although the principal did not fully comprehend my dilemma yet he was thrilled to have me back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    -  *  -


              AN IMMIGRANT IN HIS OWN COUNTRY

 

 

(Dedicated to Anne Aguirre, Saeed Anjum and

Mary Ellen McQuay, my family members who

 inspired me to create this story)

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

When I finished the painting I realized that it was the picture of an old man having Christmas dinner all by himself. Although the Christmas lights, the tree and the candles in the background, the turkey, the homemade bread and the bottle of wine had a euphoric touch, the empty chair on the other side of the table was a sad note. I was not aware that I was painting a self-portrait. I could not imagine having a Christmas dinner without my wife, who died ten years ago, after forty years of companionship, and my children, who had deserted me. How could you celebrate Christmas without a family? I was brought up in the tradition that Christmas was the time of the year when the children and the parents and aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents all got together and exchanged gifts and celebrated.

         But that was all a dream for me. After my wife died, my son married a Jewish woman and my daughter started living with an Indian atheist. I felt cut off from all my family. They never called or invited me. The last time we all got together was last Christmas Eve. I had prepared a big meal, decorated the tree, and bought the presents and the special wines they liked. I had invited my children and their spouses for six o'clock. I set the table, lit the candles, and after waiting for half an hour I put the turkey and the bread on the table. While waiting for them I started to drink. By the time they arrived at eight p.m. I was quite drunk and angry. They made an excuse about the traffic but I was not in any mood to listen to those excuses. I lost control and started to shout and scream. I told them loud and clear that I felt rejected and abandoned by them since they had stopped visiting or inviting me over after their mother died. I accused them of coming to see me only at Christmas to relieve their guilt and receive presents. I asked them to leave without eating dinner or exchanging presents. They wanted to apologize but I kicked them out.

         The next day when I regained by senses, I realized what I had done. At first I thought I was drunk and angry and had not meant what I said, but gradually it dawned on me that I truly had meant every word. It was just that alcohol had given me the courage and strength to say all those things that I could not say when I was sober.

         So I never called to apologize.

         I felt lonely in my own home and in my own town, the town in which I have lived my entire life, but all my childhood friends were either dead or gone away to far off places. I did not even have their address or telephone numbers. I did not have a single close friend in the whole wide world except my painting brush, the brush that could pour out my sadness and existential isolation onto the canvas. But then I used to cry looking at my own paintings.

         And one day my son called, and told me that since I had not accepted his wife, he was going to break up his relationship with me. I felt so sad and lonely that I went for a long walk. That was the first day in my whole life that the thought crossed my mind, "Isn't it better to die in peace than lead a lonely and miserable

life" and I started to walk towards the lake. After walking for fifteen or twenty minutes I felt chilly and I stopped in the local library to have some rest. While I was standing in the hall I saw a poster on the notice board stating that an Asian writer and psychotherapist, Dr. Sohail, was delivering a lecture that evening. The title was "We All Have Two Families". I was so drawn by the title that I stayed.

         I would have never thought that that evening would become a turning point in my life.

         The essence of his presentation was that all of us have two families, a family we are born into and a family that we make for ourselves. The first is the family of relatives and the second the family of friends and lovers. I was quite intrigued by his ideas, so I went to talk to him after his presentation. He was an interesting man. When I told him that I paint, he showed a keen interest in looking at my paintings and wanted to share his poems and short stories with me. I was pleasantly surprised. Over the next few months we became friends. It was the first time I had sat down with a man who was not from an Anglo-saxon background and had not been brought up in a Christian environment. Every time I met him he had fascinating stories to tell. He told me how his parents had moved from India to Pakistan because they believed in a separate homeland for Muslims and they had wars between India and Pakistan. Sohail vividly remembered when he had to dig trenches for women and children during the war and how one night a whole village was bombarded because one villager had taken out his gun and tried to shoot the plane. Although Sohail grew up in that environment, he believed that religion had come to unite and not separate people. He felt that political and religious parties had sacrificed the masses to gain power. He did not care how many countries we had in the world - it was the common man and woman that mattered, not the governments. I was always fascinated listening to him. He made me think about issues that I had never thought seriously about before.

         One evening he invited me to his place to meet one of his friends. His name was Danish. He was also from a Muslim family but he had been brought up in India.

         "So both of you are from rival countries." I chuckled.

         "But now we are friends." Danish said and hugged Sohail. I was pleasantly surprised to see an affectionate relationship between two Asian men which I have rarely seen between two North American men.

         Danish was quite inquisitive about my paintings. I told him that I painted what I felt and what I experienced. They were the paintings of a lonely man. Danish told me that he grew up in Calcutta where he used to participate in street plays. Most of those plays had left-wing leanings and were critical of the government, so many of his friends were picked up by the police and had to spend a few nights in jail. I was amazed to discover that he could speak Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and English. I wondered what it would have been like if I had learned French, Spanish, German and one of the Native Indian languages alongside English. Meeting Sohail and Danish made me curious about other languages, cultures, values, traditions, and lifestyles. I had never travelled but I felt that knowing one person from any culture intimately is a good introduction to that way of life.

         A few months after that, I met Nora, an Argentinean lady, in the university cafeteria. She told me that she was a refugee as her life was in danger in Argentina. I could not imagine how that was possible. She told me that she and her brother were involved in a party that was trying to overthrow the dictatorship. Finally they were caught and put in jail. Her brother was killed and she managed to escape. In Canada she was teaching Spanish literature and was doing her Ph.D. on the relationship between creativity and madness.

         One of the interesting things I discovered about Nora after we became friends was her indifference to religion. She never discussed God or the Holy scriptures or life after death. All those issues that had haunted me for years because of my strict Irish Catholic upbringing were non-issues for Nora. She told me that her parents were atheists and intellectuals and they had never discussed God or religion at home.

         And then one day when I went to a story-telling evening at the local library, I met Angela who was a nurse from Trinidad. She was an excellent singer. Her smile and charm were contagious. I could see many men trying to get close to her but she managed to keep a pleasant distance from them. She was quite religious but was a liberal person and never imposed her views on other people. It took me a while to get used to the emotional intensity she had. She told me that the people from the Caribbean Islands were quite emotional. She said one could feel these emotions in Black music. In the beginning I found it overwhelming but then I started to enjoy her company and introduced her to some of my other friends. It took me some time to become aware of the fact that the Caribbean Islands were multicultural, that various languages and religions have been co-existing together for decades.

         Once I started making new friends and enjoying their company, I realized that my loneliness was dwindling and my existential horizons were broadening.

         In the next couple of years I met Harry who was from Yugoslavia and had worked on farms for years before he could escape from the Communist regime. I also became friends with Marrium who was from Ethiopia. She had fascinating life experiences to share. She told me that her grandfather was a Muslim who used to travel to different African countries and had relationships with women wherever he went. He had eleven children in eleven different countries in Africa. Her grandmother was a Catholic because when she was four, she and her older brother found her family dead as a result of famine. They left their home and walked for miles, until they found a church. They met a kind-hearted priest who adopted them and looked after them. So they became Catholics.

         One other friend that became a part of my circle was Shabir who was from South Africa. He was a psychiatrist and was quite mischievous. He shared with me that he grew up in an environment where he was considered an Indian child and could not mix or socialize or go to school with whites or coloured or black children. He and his family and his community were completely segregated. He was usually harassed by the police because of his white girlfriend.

         I could not imagine a country where the police controlled people's romantic lives.

         So finally I decided to invite all these friends for Christmas dinner and I presented them with a painting in which they were all sitting around the table eating turkey and homemade bread, sipping wine in the candlelight.

         The painting was in bright colours depicting the mood of a family reunion but there were dark shadows in the background and one could make out a few sad faces, the faces of those people who had lost their own families, and could not make new ones. They felt like strangers in their own homes. The faces of those people from my past still haunted me. It took me a long time to realize that in the last few decades my environment had gradually changed so much, that like many others, I had become an immigrant in my own country as I was surrounded by people from all over the world.

         After that dinner I thought I should invite my children again and accept their partners of life wholeheartedly. I wondered why, like many people of my background, I couldn't accept them before.

         Maybe my children were a few steps ahead of me.

 

 

 

    -  *  -

 


 

 

 

 

 

YOUSAF'S* MOTHER OF OUR TIME

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

      Yousaf was a famous figure in Middle Eastern religious mythology known to Christians as Joseph, through the Bible story of Joseph and the Coat of Many Colours.  His brothers, jealous of Yousaf, threw him into a well to die. His grief-stricken father, the prophet Jacob, wept so much that he went blind. Meanwhile, Yousaf was rescued by a passing caravan and taken to Egypt. Yousaf was so charming and handsome that the mayor's wife Zulaikha fell in love with him and tried to seduce him. Yousaf was accused of having an affair with her and was sent to prison. In the prison he became popular for his ability to interpret his fellow prisoners' dreams. Eventually the King sent for Yousaf to interpret his dreams and offered him a high position in his court.



 

 

 

 

 

 

She would sit in the sun on the roof of her house, and daydream the whole day long. Her dreams were like buds which had withered before they had the chance to bloom. The extensive daydreaming had weakened her eyesight, and she feared that she, like Jacob, would lose her eyesight one day, waiting for her son to return; if her son did one day return to her, then she would only be able to recognize him with her touch, and not her eyes.

         Along with the fading of her sight, she was also losing her physical strength; the silver in her hair and the aching in her joints only succeeded in gaining momentum. Her diet, like her dreams, was becoming flavourless and insipid:  she dare not enjoy the taste of salt for fear of her blood pressure rising, and she was forbidden to savour the sweetness of desserts due to her diabetes.

         When she dared to share her fears with her husband, he would resort to giving advice instead of listening; he counselled her to assist him with spreading the news of Allah and advised her to pay homage to Him. He responded, "Children are entrusted to us by Allah. He gives when He pleases, and He takes away when He so wishes. We must not put so much hope and expectation into our children."

         She had stopped meeting with her friends and relatives. No longer did she attend the celebrations held for birthdays and marriages, or the ceremonies for births and deaths. She passed her days feeling alone and abandoned, silently shedding her tears. The wounds she suffered from the last gathering had not yet healed completely. She had heard so many unkind words passed that evening:

         - Look at her, she has grown old before her time!

         - Just how many women are there in the Third World who lose their vivacity at such an early age!

         - Her physical ailments have turned her head completely

           grey!

         - She and her husband share the same house, and yet it is as

           if they live in two separate worlds!

         - The loss of her son has devoured her!

         She remembered leaving the party early, feeling as if she must, and all the way home, she dried her tears with her stole. "If my son were here beside me now, he would surely put balm on my painful wounds", she thought to herself. Then she wondered a moment and said, "Even when he was here, he never had the time. He never took the time away from his poetry and short stories to listen to the call of my heart. He preferred his friends to his own family. I remember that in his absence one of his poet friends had come to visit."

         He asked, "Aunty, how are you feeling? Is there anything I can do for you while I am here?"

         "My dear boy, I see you more than I see my own son. How lucky your mother is to have a son like you! Why does my son not live with his family the way that you do with yours?"

         "Aunty, I am an ordinary poet, and I am to look after my family. Your son is an extraordinary man. He has made all mankind his family. You should speak in praise of your son in the same way that his friends are proud of him!"

         "Child, my son and I do not know how to talk to each other any more. Before he was even able to speak as a child, it was I that knew all that he wanted to say, but now it is so different. We are worlds apart. Ever since he has started to compose poetry, wide creeks have come between us."

         "Aunty, my mother and every other mother of a poet will say the same thing."

         "But, my son, surely I shall perish in his absence!"

         For a moment she stood there silently and thought of her son. She then remembered his poem He Would Never Return and a crushing wave of pain rose in her heart.

         Each Thursday she went to the tomb of Data Sahib* and gave alms, and once a year she would offer a black lamb as pilgrimage so that her son, the poet, her Yousaf, would be protected against the evil eye.

         "Why don't you just get him married off?" so many of her friends would ask.

         "He does not wish to get married," she would reply, briefly, and then change the subject.

         He was a handsome man. Even since his youth he has been chased by more wayward ladies, the Zulaikhas from his town. So many mothers have wished to have him as their son-in-law; but, those who knew him well would say that he did not believe in traditional relationships, and he wanted no part in marriage.

         Both his love affairs and his poetry gained fame since his College days. In his first published poem Dedication To An Unacquainted Sweetheart, he smashed the idols of patriotism, religion, colour and creed. His story A Kiss had created a scandal in the whole university. He tried to pave a new path for male and female relationships through his creative works. He had grown tired of the shadows, of the ghosts which had ruled human liberation. He wanted the walls of hypocrisy and extortion to come tumbling down. He wanted the night of union to be cherished and the night of separation to be banned forever. In his student days, the books by Faiz, Minto, and Faraz were his

 

____________________________________________________

* The shrine of a Muslim saint buried in Lahore, Pakistan.


companions. Those who were more perceptive said that he was born in the wrong country, and that someday his abilities would become public knowledge, and his name would be known far and wide - either as a well-known writer or as a notorious poet.

         "Son, you must keep away from women; protect yourself, for they will put a spell on you!" his mother warned.

         In the meantime, his father, who was an admirer of Iqbal, murmured: "India's poets, sculptors and short story writers. The minds of these are ridden by women."

         And he would reply in Minto's words that if male pigeons sing when they see their doves, and stallions neigh when they see their mares, then what could be wrong with a man who composes poetry or writes short stories when he sees a woman?

         One day, Yousaf packed his books, a few articles of clothing, and left his home as he felt suffocated in that atmosphere.

         "Mother, I am going to wander into the world and search now for myself."

         "When will you return, son?"

         "Dear mother, the paths that we choose to follow in life are only one-way streets. One cannot make a U-turn once you are on a highway."

         Twenty years passed, and for Yousaf's mother, every day seemed like a year and every night seemed as if a century of time had elapsed. She had not slept peacefully for even one night during these two decades; often she would be awakened abruptly from her sleep, reminiscing of her lost son.

         From time to time one of her son's friends would drop by and she would ask the friend, "Have you heard from my son? What kind of a job does he have?"

         "He is a student of psychology. He interprets the meaning of dreams for the people he meets," the friend would reply.

         "Yes, but in the meantime, his own mother's golden dreams are turning into nightmares," she would respond forlornly.

         "Aunty dear, do not worry. One day your son will be famous - a renowned poet!"

         "No son, no one really appreciates a poet. In this world there is no value given to poetry and to dreams. Ghalib was an esteemed poet but a man to be scorned; he spent the better part of his life drinking alcohol which was procured by borrowed money."

         Close by, Yousaf's father sat on his prayer rug writing to his poet son, "My boy, as well as the words of different poets, sometimes you should also read the words of Allah."

         More time passed, and then one day Yousaf's friend presented both parents with fifteen one-thousand rupee bills and said, "Aunty, the publisher has sent this money for you. He says that your son's books have started to sell."

         "Many, many thanks to you son. Come and share our joy. Have something sweet. Eat these luddoos* and take these dried dates with you. I have been saving them for quite some time. They have been blessed with the holy words from the Quran."

         Yousaf's mother bought two black lambs at the market for one-thousand rupees and presented them as an offer, at the Shrine of Data Sahib. With the remaining fourteen-thousand rupees, she made arrangements for the addition of two new rooms to their home. When the first room was complete she hung her son's picture on the wall on one side of the room.

         "Why don't you put the picture in the middle of the room?", one of her friends asked.

         "I have left room for his wife's photograph; it will hang on the other side of the wall," she replied.

         "But he does not want to get married."

____________________________________________________

* A Pakistani sweet, often eaten at happy occasions


         "He will one day, when the phantom of poetry finally abandons him."

         One night, Yousaf's mother woke up with a fright. She called to her husband for comfort. "I've had a nightmare."

         "What is it?"

         "I saw a vision of my son. He was drenched in blood."

         "For heavens sake woman! Go back to sleep! It is midnight."

         "No," she cried. "No!"

         The following morning she went to the telegram office with her husband. They tried to place a telephone call, but there was no response so they sent a telegram.

         The next evening, the son's friend came to the door with the bad news.

         "Your son has had a car accident. He is in the hospital."

         On hearing the news, Yousaf's mother sank to the floor on her knees; within the next few hours she seemed to age several more years.

         The police had gone to the scene of the accident and examined Yousaf's car. It had collided with a truck and was now completely wrecked. Only the licence plate, LUVING, remained undamaged.

         All the relatives gathered at the family home. The next telegram that arrived reported that Yousaf had died.

         His mother made arrangements for his grave. Yousaf had always been close to his maternal grandmother, and so it was agreed upon to bury him beside his grandmother.

         Yousaf's mother cried for two long days and two very long nights; her husband, in the meantime, recited the Quran and tried to console his wife with words from the Holy Scriptures. That gave her no solace.

         A third telegram arrived the next day that said her son's corpse would not be returned to their village. When the police investigated the accident they found his driver's licence, on which he had written a testimony that said he agreed to donate his body to the students of medicine when he died; his eyes and his heart specifically, were to be a gift to women.

         Once the relatives had left the house and gone back to their own homes, Yousaf's mother woke up in the middle of the night and went to the cemetery. She stood beside her son's grave for a very long time, gazing at the emptiness below. After quite some time she descended into the grave.

         In the grave she slept peacefully for the first night in twenty years, perhaps because she was lying beside her own mother, or because she had now accepted that her son would never return; or maybe it was because she was completely and utterly exhausted.

 

 

 

    -  *  -

 

 

                       


 


    BIGAMY

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

The telegram was lying on the table. It read: "Susan! My brother died last Friday. Family suggested I marry my sister-in-law. I agreed. Date not decided. Hope you and Michael are well. Miss you. Saif."

         "Bastard." I murmured to myself. "How can he do this to me."

         I called my travel agent and booked the next flight to Pakistan. I found out that the minimum time I could spend there was a week because there were only weekly direct flights between Toronto and Lahore, Pakistan.

         I sent a telegram to Saif informing him of my arrival. I had always wanted to visit India and Pakistan but I had never dreamt that I would be visiting Pakistan under these circumstances.

         I consulted my lawyer who informed me that bigamy was illegal according to the Canadian law. If Saif brought his second wife to Canada, he could be charged.

         I arranged for two weeks vacation from work and asked my sister to take care of Michael while I was gone. I told everybody that Saif's brother had died and I was going to Pakistan to offer him support. No one except my lawyer knew that Saif had decided to have a second wife. I did not know how to tell people. It was so bizarre, so absurd. It was craziness.

 

    -  *  -

 

         On the plane, I felt as if I was already in Pakistan. Everyone around me was speaking Urdu, Punjabi or Pashto. I could not understand a word they spoke. For the first time in my life I felt like a member of a minority and I could empathize how new immigrants must feel when they don't understand the local language.

         While flying to Pakistan I was reminiscing about the past ten years of my life, spent with Saif. I remembered our get togethers, our discussions, our ups and downs in the relationship and our dialogues about different aspects of life. Once he had said,

         "Susan! I don't think you should marry me."

         "Why not?"

         "Because I know you more than you know me."

         "What makes you say that?"

         "Because I have lived in Canada for ten years, I know your culture, the culture you grew up in. But you never lived in Pakistan. You don't know my culture."

         "But I am marrying you, not your culture."

         "My culture is a very important part of me. I have left my culture but my culture has not left me. You are marrying someone you don't fully know."

         "Those sound like lame excuses. I think you are afraid of commitment. You are nervous and apprehensive about marrying someone who has already been married and who has a son."

         "No, that's not true. You, I and Michael have been living together for more than a year and we are happy. Why do you feel you need a marriage certificate?"

         "So that our living together becomes socially and legally accepted. Michael adores you. He is so attached to you. He loves you more than his biological father. His father was always drinking. He abused me and my son for many years. Finally, when we met you, there was a sense of hopefulness in our lives. It was as if God sent you to us. I think Michael would like you to adopt him."

         "Okay. Then we will get married. You set the date, make the arrangements, and I will sign the papers. I love Michael and I love you and it does not matter to me whether we are legally married or not."

         So we got married and Saif adopted Michael and we lived happily, as a family. I was so used to living with an abusive husband that I could not believe that Saif could be so nice to me. It was hard for me to accept his affection. Small things used to surprise me. He would bring presents, take Michael for long walks in the park and make Pakistani sweets for us. He gave me back rubs when I was tired. It was wonderful. I was never treated so well. I felt like a princess. But I was always apprehensive. I always believed deep down inside me that it would not last. For some reason I believed it was temporary. My close friends reassured me that because I had been an abused woman, I had lost faith in men and intimate relationships. They encouraged me to trust Saif whole-heartedly. He was a sensitive and caring man. They told me that my doubts and insecurities could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I undermined the relationship, it may destroy it.

         And then the words of the telegram echoed through my mind like sharp daggers that pierced my soul. It shocked my entire existence; it was my worst nightmare. The loving relationship we had built was crumbling to the ground as if struck suddenly by an earthquake.

 

    -  *  -

 

         Saif came to the airport to receive me. He looked sad. It seemed as if he had not slept for days. He had been crying. I told him I wanted to stay in a hotel. I did not want to be surrounded by dozens and dozens of people, members of an extended family who were mourning and grieving. Saif respected my wishes and put me up in a nice hotel.

         After I recovered from the jet lag and got used to the overcrowded and dusty city I met with Saif for dinner. I was angry and very hurt. I told him off.

         "You bastard! How could you do this to me. You always told us that you loved us. You have been living with us for ten years and now you come home and decide to marry your sister-in-law just because your brother died. Have you always loved the woman? Did you have an affair with her? Have you always had fantasies of screwing her?

         "You never had the courtesy or the decency to discuss it with me or ask my opinion. You just informed me as if I was your secretary or a neighbour. You've treated me like an acquaintance and not your wife.

         "Don't you know I am your legally wedded wife and we live in a civilized society where we have only one spouse and one lover at a time. In Canada bigamy is illegal. If you ever brought your second wife to Canada then either you will go to jail or I will commit suicide."

         I don't remember what else I said in the heat of the moment. I was full of rage and I wanted to dump it all on him. He sat there quietly. He did not say a word. Finally I provoked him, "Don't you have anything to say?"

         "No, not at this time. I don't think you will listen to me. You are angry."

         "I am not angry." I shouted. "Tell me right now. I can't waste any time. I am not here to play games. I want to know the truth, the whole truth. Did you have an affair with your sister-in-law?"

         "I will come back tomorrow" Saif said, "when you are calmer."

         Saif left after dinner, and I cried all night long. I could not believe that my worst fears were indeed coming true. I could imagine any husband leaving his wife but I could not believe Saif having a second wife. I was also surprised that Saif was not perturbed by my anger. He even thought it was justifiable. The more I thought about him the less surprised I got. Saif was always a determined man. He always knew what he wanted in his life. He never wasted time in idle discussions. He had his own beliefs and he did what he believed was right.

         Maybe I should listen to him and try to understand his point of view? I said to myself. I was ready to be calm when he came to see me the next evening.

         "Why are you marrying your sister-in-law?" I asked him in a more gentle tone.

         "Susan! Marrying Surriya, my sister-in-law is not any different than when I married you. When I met you, you were suffering. You had a young son that you loved and you wanted only the best for him, but you were married to an alcoholic who was abusive to both of you. I felt sympathetic. I wanted to rescue both of you from that hell. My love for you and Michael developed later on. You were dating me for a year and living with me for another year even when you were legally married to Jeff. At that time you were practising bigamy."

         "But I was not sleeping with him when I moved in with you."

         "That was later on. For the first year, that you were dating me you were sleeping with both of us."

         "But at that time I was not serious about you, and I was sleeping with him because I was scared of him."

         "Listen Susan! I am not asking you to explain yourself to me. You are an adult and you are ultimately responsible for your choices and the decisions you make. You don't owe me an explanation. I am just sharing with you my point of view. If you get angry again then I won't be able to share my thoughts."

         "I am sorry. Go ahead."

         "My dear! You know that I love you and Michael dearly. I adore both of you. I was a lonely man when I met you and I am glad that you accepted me. Those ten years that I spent with you and Michael were the most fulfilling years of my life. But now I am at another junction. My brother Awais was killed. He was an honourable man. He was a school principal and one of the delinquent boys of his school belonged to a very rich family. He hardly studied but his family wanted him to pass his matriculation exam with distinction. His parents offered one lakh rupees to my brother as a bribe. Awais turned the offer down. He treated their son like all the other students in his class, and the boy failed. The following week, the results were announced and shortly thereafter my brother was killed. The whole school and the community have mourned his death. He was well-respected. The family were concerned for his wife and three young children. They wanted a guardian who could take care of the children. Susan! You have to realize that in the third world countries there are no government and social agencies to help such families. To ensure the well-being and the education of the children, the elders of the family asked me to marry my sister-in-law, and I have agreed. This type of marriage is arranged primarily to adopt those three children the way you had asked me to adopt Michael."

         "Would you be sleeping with you sister-in-law?"

         "Susan! You are missing the point. Why are you so preoccupied with sex?"

         "I hate the thought of a competition."

         "Anyhow the point is that I am marrying Surriya so that my nephew and nieces can have a half-decent life."

         "How much time would you spend with them?"

         "I can live six months in Canada and six months in Pakistan for a few years until these children grow older. Perhaps I will spend winters in Pakistan and summers in Canada."

         "Listen Saif! Such an arrangement seems bizarre to me. Do you know any other man who has two wives?"

         "Yes, my uncle has two wives."

         "Can I meet his first wife?"

         "That's no problem. But I thought you did not want to meet my family."

         "That will be an exception."

         "Okay. I will arrange it for tomorrow."

 

    -  *  -

 

         So I met Razia, Saif's uncle's first wife. She was a middle aged lady with greying hair. She had a graceful look about her.

         I spent the entire evening with her. She had a female servant, Nooran who prepared dinner for us. During the dinner I asked,

         "You gave permission to your husband to have a second wife."

         "Yes, I did."

         "Why was that?"

         "I could not have any children and my husband loved children. He was the only son in his family. If I did not give him permission he would have divorced me and would have married the second wife. I could not have all of him without fulfilling his desire to have a family, so I had a choice. Either to lose him completely or let him marry again and be indebted to me for the rest of his life."

         "Did he have children from his second marriage?"

         "Yes, one son and one daughter."

         "How do you feel about those children?"

         "I have looked after them. I have baby-sat them. They were, after all, children of my husband."

         "What were your living arrangements?"

         "We lived separately. He lived three days and nights with me and the same with his second wife. He alternated weekends. So we shared him equally."

         "Did you feel jealous?"

         "Once in a while. But I did not let jealousy rule my life. I could have left him but after twenty-five years I am glad I did not leave him. I still believe I was his first love."

         "What kind of relationship have you had with his second wife?"

         "We never get together. But if I get her on the phone while looking for my husband, we are civil to each other. We've never had any problem. She is glad that the children are fond of me. We share the husband and the children together."

         "This is all so new to me. I have been living in the West, and I could have never imagined this arrangement. It is so very foreign to me."

         "Susan! It all boils down to acceptance. If you care about someone you are willing to accept many things. And let me be honest. I only have a grade eight education. If I would have left my husband I would have either been on the street prostituting myself or I would have starved to death. Now I am leading a respectful life. I have a roof over my head. Let me face the reality. I am barren and in this society it is hard for a barren woman to live respectfully. I have to share what I have. If I had a university degree and I was financially independent like you, it may have been different."

         "Aunty! do you know any woman who has two husbands?"

         "My servant Nooran, she had two husbands. Would you like to talk to her?"

         "Sure."

         Surriya invited Nooran in and she had tea with us.

         Nooran shared with me that she grew up in the tribes high up in the mountains. In those tribes there was a scarcity of women and to marry a woman one had to pay large amounts of money. Sometimes one man could not afford to marry a woman so two men would put their money together to marry the same woman. Nooran was very beautiful when she was young, so she demanded 30,000 Rs. for her wedding. While other women in her tribe were asking only 10,000 Rs. Since one person could not afford 30,000 Rs. two farmers put their life earnings together and put 15,000 Rs. each to marry Nooran. She spent alternate weeks with her two husbands. She changed husbands after Friday prayers. Her husbands lived separately and had no direct connection with each other. Nooran lived like that for twenty years. She told me that in those tribes the children carried the mother's names rather than the father's.

         Unfortunately there was an epidemic of cholera in that tribe. Hundreds of people died and both of Nooran's husbands fell prey to that epidemic. In her old age Nooran came to the city and started looking after Razia. Both older women were happy living in the same house.

         I was intrigued, and amazed when I listened to those stories.

 

    -  *  -

 

         When I was flying back to Toronto a week later by PIA I felt like a different woman. I had never thought that one week could affect someone so much.

         On the day of Saif's wedding I sent him a telegram stating,

         "Congratulations on your special day. My lawyer will be in touch with you soon."

 

    -  *  -


 


A WOMAN WHO INTERPRETED DREAMS

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

         All her life she believed she was a modern messiah but .....

         She had spent many years

         learning

         how to descend into the dark recesses of the mind,

         learning

         how to discover the secrets of the soul

         and

         learning

         how to interpret dreams.

         Dreams

         were like

         treasures from the underground world;

         when she had collected

         enough of those treasures

         she dedicated her life

         to

         sharing them with others.

         Every morning she went to the clinic and spent her day listening to other people's stories, helping them solve the riddles of their lives. It was as if she lit a candle of hope which would burn in the dark corners of the people's hearts.

         She felt as if those troubled souls were lost in a jungle. Dozens of trails surrounded the souls but each person was not able to choose the trail that lead to the highways of their lives.

         She shared with those troubled minds that by opening their outer eyes they had closed their inner eyes - those of their heart. They were so involved with their turbulent environments that they had lost touch with their inner selves; lost within the "humdrum" of the outside world they could not hear the music inside.

         When she met people who led hectic lives she would suggest that they stop a minute, steal a few moments from their routinely busy days so that they could ponder over their dreams and listen to the whispers of their hearts, the whispers that shared the secrets of the highways.

         For years she helped people with a wide range of existential dilemmas but gradually it was those people who had romantic and sexual problems that would frequent the clinic.

         One man shared with her that he was thirty-five years old and he was still a virgin. He had never seen the naked body of a woman and had never experienced the magic of the intimate touch of a woman. In his dreams he would kiss the eyes, cheeks, and lips of a beautiful woman. He would embrace her body and became intoxicated by her company but when he woke up in the morning, he felt even more lonely than he had before.

         Another man shared that he was trapped in a loveless marriage for years. His relationship with his wife reminded him of fruits that had become dry because every drop of their juice had already been squeezed from the fruit. Even if he had to make love to his wife he fantasized about other women; without the fantasy, he was impotent. He was unhappy but he did not want to leave his wife because he felt bound to the promise he made to live with her for the rest of his life.

         The third man who came to see her shared that he got so fed up with his bland marriage that he started having an affair with another woman. His mistress knew about his wife but his wife did not know about his mistress. He was always in conflict. On one hand he felt guilty about his infidelity but on the other hand he felt pleased that his affair was keeping his marriage together. If he did not have a mistress he would have divorced his wife a long time ago. Whatever happiness he acquired from the company of his mistress was passed along to his wife. Such a conflict became a thorn in his soul. He spent sleepless nights worrying about it.

         One other man who came to see her told her that he got so fed up with traditional relationships that he said goodbye to all of them. He felt free, like a bird. He dated and slept with any woman he desired. Many times he had lunch with one woman, dinner with another and breakfast with yet another. Although his life was filled with romance he still was not happy. He wanted to look into his own soul but he found all the windows and doors closed.

         She listened to the stories, dilemmas and dreams patiently day after day of those men and many others who could not share their private lives with their families, friends or colleagues. They felt relieved to share their heartaches with her and she believed that she was the messiah of her era who helped men overcome times of difficulty.

         When people inquired about her philosophies of life she shared that she believed that life was an ocean and the human heart was a boat. As long as the boat was in good condition, it could float above thousands of tons of water and no harm would come to the passengers; however, if there was but a small hole in the bottom, then even a bucket full of water could lead to peril: the boat, inevitably, sank. She told people that when they lost touch with themselves and did not listen to the whispers of their souls their hearts broke and they became overwhelmed by the ocean of life.

         She was so good in interpreting people's dreams that instead of calling her a therapist they called her "a woman who interpreted dreams."

         Her practice continued for years. She would have listened and interpreted the dreams forever but she experienced a change in herself. She was no longer as enthusiastic and adventurous as she had been previously. She felt as if her own soul was inhabited by white ants. She couldn't listen to her own music inside. She felt numb. One day when she closed her eyes the windows of her dreams opened and she found herself in another era, a century before her times. She was living in the period when most of the people used to live in villages and went to big towns and cities only occasionally.

         Those male villagers who were unhappy with their romantic and sexual lives visited prostitutes in big cities, satisfied their sexual desires and went back to their faithful wives in the villages. When they felt guilty they visited their priests confessed their sins and were asked to pray as penance to cleanse themselves from the dirt of their sins.

         In her dreams she observed that one day the village priest went to the big city and unexpectedly met the prostitute whom the men of his congregation visited. He felt as if he had known her all his life. He felt attracted to her and asked her out for the evening. She agreed. They dined, drank, danced and finally spent the night together.

         Her dream took an interesting turn when in the morning neither the priest nor the prostitute came out of the bedroom. She was curious as to their whereabouts, so she went inside. The bedroom decor was just like her own, including her very own four poster bed. She approached the woman lying on the bed and it was her own face she saw.

         After that dream she never returned to the clinic. People say she left town. Those people who used to share their dreams with her speculated that she saw a dream herself, and left so that she could interpret her own dream. Perhaps she is now discovering the trail that leads to her highway in life.

 

    -  *  -

 


      DEVTA

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

         "Devta1  has died."

         The news spread in town like wild fire. The smoke of hopelessness and uncertainty was widespread.

         The people still remembered that period vividly when their days of ease felt short and their nights of misery had begun to appear unending.

         When their children, strong men and the aged had started to crumble from the inside:

         their hearts had saddened;

         the fire in their spirits had lost is glow;

         the settling ash on their bodies had reached their necks;

         the fragrance from their characters had dissipated;

         and their eyes had lost their lustre.

         The whole town was enveloped by a cloud of gloom.

         When people tried to look into the depths of their souls they saw only ashes-

         Neither had they any yearning nor any dream,

         And they nurtured no storm in their life?s stream,

         There were no sparks, nor burning fire

         Just a coat of ashes covering their entire being.

         Then one day a stranger told the people that far from that town, in the foot of a hill, lived a Devta whose nearness would rekindle their torch of life.

 

____________________________________________________

1       In Hindu/Urdu it means God, a demigod, a holy man or a good man.

 

         The people travelled hundreds of miles until they reached the foot of the hill, where the dwellers from many other towns had gathered to receive the gift of renaissance from the Devta.

         The Devta was a tall, long-haired male whose face gleamed with the zest for living and whose eyes glowed with warmth. He wore a long gown, his speech was eloquent and had a rich timber to it. Devta greeted each man, woman and child with a smile, shook their hands, talked to them, embraced them and sent them back home with his blessings.

         That nearness to him induced new hope, courage, strength and excitement in the people.

         When the people returned to their town the ashes which had smouldered in their souls changed to embers. Each person brought with him a new desire, dream, or devotion.

         In this way the ashen faces of the people slowly began to beam with life's sheen and joy.

         In the life of the people of that town the joyful days became longer and sorrowful nights shorter.

         After that whenever the warmth of their soul slackened they would go to the hill and pay a visit to Devta.

         Then one day came the news that Devta was dead.

         Whole crowds of people went rushing to the mountain in whose bosom that Devta used to spend his days. There was no Devta to greet them, only his corpse waited for them. But before his death Devta had left a message for the people, written with his finger-tips in the moist ground. The message read: "Every person among you is a Devta."

 

 

    -  *  -


BREAKTHROUGH

 

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

There are many nights I lie awake tossing and turning in bed asking myself:

        Is Irfan a saint or a madman?

        Has he experienced spiritual awakening or has he indeed lost his mind?

        I am quite aware that I am neither a psychologist nor a mystic; the human mind has always been a mystery to me; nor do I know to what great depths spirituality can take a man. Maybe that's why I keep quiet when my friends ask me "What went wrong?"

        I have nothing to say to them. My face becomes flushed and I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes. It takes every last drop of strength in me to fight back the tears. But, I do. I keep them inside for I know that what I fear most is that my tears will not stop. They will become a river... salty, tepid, then cold at the heart of the ocean where they end their journey.

        My situation rings with irony. Until last year I would have never dreamt that my life would be what it has now become, I would have never thought that people could change so much at our stage in life. I believed Irfan and I had a happy family life. I used to believe that I knew him better than he knew himself but then something tragic happened. He changed so drastically that it became very painful to live with him. It has come to the point that I wonder whether it would be better to leave him before I start hating him. I would like to leave with fond memories of our twenty-eight years of marriage, not the pain of the last few months.

        It is ironic that I still love the man, and I believe that he is still affectionate and caring in his own bizarre way. It's this constant pain that I can't stand any more. There is an aching feeling in my heart, a coldness from the depths of the ocean that has been contaminated with toxic wastes; it is as if Irfan's thoughts are contaminated and he is being led down the river of despair. If I did not care or if I did not love him it may be easier. I wonder if all this would have happened if we never came to Canada?

 

    -  *  -

 

        I remember the day Saadia received her letter of acceptance from McMaster University to medical school. She called her father at the University of Toronto to share the good news. Irfan was thrilled. It was uncharacteristic of Irfan to leave work early, but that day he found it inconceivable to stay. He was in a mood to celebrate. On the way home he stopped at the liquor store to buy a bottle of champagne. He rushed through the door, gave Saadia an affectionate hug, and reached for the champagne bottle. The cork separated from the neck of the bottle and squealed as if it too shared the excitement of the day. The champagne seemed happy to be finally released from its confinement and bubbled over onto Irfan's hand, then down his arm. We giggled with surprise and Irfan said:  "I am so very proud of you Saadia. Today I feel as if I am the luckiest man in Canada. Let's throw a big party before you leave. Call Adeel in California and we shall begin our preparations."

        Saadia was flushed and overwhelmed with excitement. She had never before seen her father in such ecstasy. She rushed to the phone to call her brother. "Come as soon as you can. You should see our father. He is going through a metamorphosis before my very eyes." Adeel called back the next day and said that his girlfriend Joanne wanted to join us for this special occasion. Irfan and I were thrilled because we had heard so much about Joanne but we had not yet met her. I asked Saadia if she wanted to invite her boyfriend Manmohan to the party because we had never met him either. He lived in Hamilton and did not have a car so Saadia used to drive to Hamilton to meet him and that was one reason Saadia had applied to McMaster University so that they both could be at the same campus. Manmohan was a student of political science.

        That evening Irfan shared something unusual with me:  for many years a painting of a dancing peacock hung on the wall in his office. His father had given him the painting when we left Pakistan. He hung it there to remind him of his father, but he had never appreciated the painting. After Saadia's call he felt a sense of euphoria. He started dancing around the office, singing Urdu songs, telling jokes to his students and colleagues and when he came back to his office he looked up and saw the familiar painting. He looked at it now in a different light. He realized the peacock with his cute head, long neck and beautifully spread wings was dancing as if it was in a trance like a sufi or intoxicated with passion like a lover. Irfan was so excited that afternoon that finally his secretary sent him home saying "I have never seen you so happy. Today is not a day for work. You should be at home. Go home and celebrate."

        Irfan told me that while he was driving home to Whitby from the University of Toronto that afternoon in his black Jaguar he was reminiscing about his eighteen years in Canada. He saw himself as a very lucky man and was thankful for the blessings he had been given:  a charming and faithful wife, beautiful children, a big house with a swimming pool and a tennis court, a beautiful boat which he named `Noah's Ark' and a cottage he called `Irfan Mahal'. What he felt most fortunate about was that both of their children were accepted to universities and were ensured to have the best education they could afford. It made Irfan think about some of his Asian acquaintances who had worked so hard to obtain university degrees but remained unemployed because their degrees were not accepted by the Canadian authorities, and those other friends who were feeling unhappy and miserable because of their family problems.

        Irfan told me how much he appreciated my support and recog­nized the sacrifices I had made for the sake of the children and the family. He told me he felt proud of our companionship and the love we shared.

        I was really surprised at how sentimental Irfan had become that evening. I knew that he cared for his family but I had never realized the intensity of it. When he kissed me on my forehead and said "Janum! My sweetheart! I would not have been able to do it without you." I had tears in my eyes.

 

    -  *  -

 

        Now that I look back I realize that Irfan was euphoric that day; he was as hyperactive as a four year old child, but at that time I thought he was just excited about his daughter's future. It hadn't even crossed my mind that he may be feeling a sense of loss, a sense of sadness that his younger child was leaving the nest, and was therefore trying to cover up his true feelings. For the next two weeks we made preparations for the party. We made lists of dishes we would serve, desserts and guests that would be invited. Saadia promised to make vegetable dishes, I prepared all the desserts and Irfan did the preparation for a "Bihari" and "Chappal" kebabs, the kebabs that his students, colleagues and friends loved so much.

        The party was a big hit. It extended over the entire weekend and everyone had a good time. They played tennis, swam in the pool and enjoyed the barbecue. Our guests complimented us for the wonderful party we had arranged. Now that I think about that weekend I remember a few things that I had not previously paid any attention to. 

        I remember the Saturday night dinner:  Irfan was sitting at one end of the table and I at the other end. Saadia and her boyfriend Manmohan were seated on Irfan's right side and Adeel and his girlfriend Joanne on his left side. That was a special occasion for us because that was the first time that the whole family got together for dinner since Adeel had gone to university. It was also the first time that Irfan and I had met Manmohan and Joanne. Irfan welcomed them warmly and thanked them for making the occasion special for all of us.

        The dinner started with warmth and affection. We shared jokes and progressed to the discussion of the relationship between creativity and insanity. Joanne shared with us that she and Adeel were actively involved in library research and interviewing writers, painters and musicians who suffered from mental illness. She was also planning to interview the family members of many artists and mentally ill people; she believed that there was a genetic link between creativity and insanity. She had found a study done in Iceland that proved the number of creative people in the families of mentally ill people were two to three times more than the average population. Joanne shared with us that her parents were musicians. Saadia told her that she could interview our family because Irfan's brother was a famous writer and his uncle had suffered a nervous breakdown. Irfan enjoyed the discussion and even jokingly added "Our family is blessed with divine madmen."

        But as the dinner continued and Manmohan started talking about his family, Irfan became more anxious. Manmohan told us that his father was a Hindu and his mother a Muslim. Each of them wanted to give their children traditional names:  they came to an agreement that the male children would be given Hindi names and the girls Muslim names. So it came to be that Manmohan's full name was Manmohan Sharma and his sister was Saima Begum. Everyone seemed amused by Manmohan's story except Irfan, who looked puzzled and somewhat irritated. When Manmohan shared that his father was a close friend of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and was quite impressed by Azad's predictions of Pakistan's political future, Irfan seemed all the more distressed. He got up before the dinner ended and went to the washroom. He returned for a brief period, only to excuse himself for the evening, and went to his bedroom.

        The next day Irfan was his usual cheerful and polite self. He welcomed all his friends and played tennis while wearing his special T-shirt that said "For tennis players, love means nothing"; but he seemed to avoid contact with Manmohan. He introduced Joanne to many of his friends but did not include Manmohan in these introductions which was totally out of character for him. I could see what Irfan was doing, I didn't know for sure whether is was intentional or an oversight, and made my best efforts to introduce Manmohan to any new guests that dropped by. After the party was over and everybody left I gently confronted Irfan and asked, "Why is it that you don't like Manmohan?" Irfan did not deny it. He just said, "He makes me uncomfortable." I asked Irfan to elaborate but he could not say what it was about Manmohan that bothered him and acknowledged that the young man was respectful and polite towards him. 

        Irfan did not talk about Manmohan again nor did I bring up the subject, hoping that in time Irfan would develop a fondness for Manmohan. Perhaps if he met with Manmohan a few more times, he would get used to the idea that Saadia had a Hindu boyfriend. He might even start to like Manmohan, who I found to be a decent and charming young man, and Manmohan certainly seemed to care a lot about Joanne. 

        The day we went to McMaster University to drop Saadia at the hostel, Manmohan received us and approached Irfan with open arms, wanting to give him a hug. Irfan stepped back and instead of reciprocating the hug, offered Manmohan his hand. Irfan became stiff and maintained a polite but formal distance and made the meeting as brief as possible.

        On our drive back Irfan was quiet for the longest time. Finally I asked, "What is it that is making you so sad? The thought of losing your daughter to the university or losing her to Manmohan?" 

        Irfan hesitated and then replied, "I don't trust him."

        "What is it about him that you don't trust?"

        "There is nothing concrete, it is just my gut reaction. Call it my instinct if you will."

        "Come on Irfan!" I tried to lighten the mood. "It is not your instinct, it is your prejudice and double standards. You don't like him because he is not a Muslim and you are scared that your dear and only daughter might marry him. You might think that you are an atheist and a liberal man but deep down you are quite religious and traditional. You seemed quite pleased and proud to meet Joanne because she was Adeel's girlfriend. How would you feel if Joanne's parents were prejudiced against Adeel the way you are against Manmohan?"

        Irfan stopped the car in front of the donut shop to have a cup of tea and during the conversation said, "Janum! Whatever you are saying makes sense intellectually but emotionally it bothers me and one cannot reason with emotions. I have not been sleeping well lately worrying about it." That was the first time as far as I can remember that Irfan had acknowledged that he had spent a few sleepless nights. Even then I thought it was a passing phase and he would be okay in a few weeks. I believed he was grieving his daughter's loss and experiencing the early signs of the Empty Nest Syndrome.

 

    -  *  -

 

        For the next few weeks Irfan remained quiet and distant. He kept himself busy with work and rarely joked around. I was feeling lonely too. I called Saadia every day because I missed her so much. To keep myself occupied I developed a keen interest in gardening and bought quite a few plants. I even bought a couple of gardening books so I could learn more about plants and their habits. I loved spending time in the garden and it always felt good to dig into the soil with my bare hands.

        And then something terrible happened. We received a call from Pakistan that Irfan's father passed away unexpectedly. We were in shock. Irfan became even more reserved and retreated into his shell. He stopped eating and did not go to work for three days. He did not shave or take a shower, which was unusual for him, a man who prided himself on meticulous grooming. I wanted to be supportive but he pushed me away. I knew he was very close to his father and felt bad that he could not see his father in his last days.

        A few more days passed and then Irfan started to talk. He was reminiscing about his childhood and teenage years. One evening after dinner he started talking about his father and their relationship; I sat quietly and listened, allowing him to express his grief. He said:

        "My dad was a man of principle. He had his own values and his own philosophy and he followed them religiously. I remember when I was in high school I wanted to participate in the elections. I was hopeful that I would win the presidential election because I was quite popular not only in my own class but in the whole school as well. My close friends encouraged and supported me.

        "So I got the application forms and filled them but before I could submit them to the elections office I had to get them signed by my father. I thought my dad would be pleased. I was hoping he would be proud of me. Instead, he refused to sign the papers. I was shocked. He asked me,

        `Do you want to become the president of the student union?'

        `Yes, I do.'

        `Then, you don't deserve to be.'

        `Why not?'

        `Anyone who wants to be the president should be disqualified. There is a danger he will abuse his power. In a genuinely honest and democratic system people ask and request a person to be their leader while the person asked refuses it because he thinks it is a lot of responsibility. He reluctantly accepts it. I am not signing the papers.'

        "At that time I was angry and disappointed in my father. It took me a long time to understand and appreciate his philosophy.

        "I also heard that in the last few months of his life my father had become a saint, a mystic, a darvesh. It is unfortunate that I could not spend much time with him.

        "A few weeks before he died he wrote me a letter and shared his wisdom and insights into life. That letter was simple but quite profound. I wished I had discussed it with him. I will cherish that letter for the rest of my life."

        "What did he write in the letter?" I asked.

        "He wrote, `There are three paths open to man to discover the ultimate truth:

        The path of intellect ? scientists follow that path.

        The path of intuition ? mystics follow that path, and

        The path of aesthetics ? artists follow that path. So there should be no conflict between genuine scientists, mystics and artists. They complement rather than contradict each other.'

        "Dad was such a wise man."

        Irfan started to cry. I put my hand on his shoulder to console him.

        The first day he went back to work I was surprised to see him going to work in jeans. He did not even shave.

        That evening he told me that he looked at the painting of the dancing peacock on the wall and saw his ugly feet and remembered that his father had told him that although the peacock was the most beautiful animal in the jungle, nature had given him ugly feet so that he does not become too arrogant and does not lose his humility.

        When I asked Irfan to fly to Pakistan to attend his father's funeral he replied that he could not go:  his three Ph.D. students were defending their theses in the next few weeks and he was one of the examiners. He said he would prefer to go on Chehlum, the ceremony held on the fortieth day after death. Regrettably he could not do that because Saadia needed money to go to a conference. Without discussing his plans to go to Pakistan he gave his airfare to Saadia. I felt bad. When I asked him the reason for not going he shrugged it off, saying it was one of the prices immigrants must pay to live in a distant land.

 

    -  *  -

 

        Time seemed to pass slowly as Irfan spent most of his days pensively and quietly. Then one day Irfan came home telling me he had become friends with Saleem who was a professor of Islamic History. Saleem had a keen interest in human spirituality. He gave Irfan a number of booklets to read. I remember seeing him reading a book about the lives of sufis.

        One day Irfan told me that he was going to Eid prayers with Saleem, and I could not resist asking,

        "Why now? In the eighteen years we have been in Canada, I have never seen you go for Eid prayers. Furthermore, I didn't think you believed in God, prophets or the holy scriptures."

        Irfan said that Saeed wanted him to attend the ceremony for social and cultural reasons rather than religious ones.

        Now that I look back, those Eid prayers and the khutba seemed to be a turning point for Irfan. When he came back it was as if he were star-struck. He spoke as if he were in a trance. The man I had lived with for so many years was not easily impressed, and he was very much impressed by the speaker that day. It seemed to make a significant change in his life. 

        For the next few weeks Irfan kept on talking about the speaker and his message. Irfan remembered half of that speech by heart. I don't remember the details myself but I do remember Irfan talking about Eric Fromm's book which the speaker had quoted. He highlighted that there were two kinds of people in the world having two kinds of personalities, lifestyles and personal philosophies. The speaker said,

        "In the first group there are people who want to have things, to own houses, boats, cars, cottages, hoping that those things will make them happy. But unfortunately they are never happy because they are greedy. Once they become millionaires they want to become multimillionaires. Once they have a house for themselves they want more for their children and grandchildren. They always focus on that part of the glass that is half empty.

        "In the second group there are people who want to be, who want to develop themselves, who want to grow. Such people are happy in life because their emphasis in life is not greed, but contentment. They value their personal and spiritual qualities and emphasize the same for their children. Such people, instead of being greedy, are usually quite generous. They focus on that part of the glass that is half full."

        Irfan felt that people in the West, being part of a capitalistic consumer society, have become the "TO HAVEs" while people in the East because of their religious and spiritual traditions are the "TO BEs". Unfortunately those people who immigrate from East to West might become financially well off after a few years of hard work, but the price they pay is that they lose their contentment of heart and peace of mind.

        Irfan also shared with me a story he heard in that speech, of a king who went to the jungle hunting with some of his companions. When he saw a beautiful deer he asked his companions to stay behind and he followed the deer on his own. After a couple of hours not only did he not hunt the deer, he also lost his companions. For the next twenty-four hours he wandered around in fear, fear of being killed by wild animals and the fear that accompanies feeling like a lost soul. 

        He was so thirsty that he could hardly speak. Finally he saw a tent outside which a darvesh, a saint, a Holy Man was meditating. The king approached the darvesh and asked for a glass of water. The darvesh recognized the king, smiled and said,

        "There is a price for everything in the world."

        "How much?"

        "Half of your kingdom" and offered him a paper and a pencil. The king hesitated for a few seconds and then offered half of his kingdom in writing to the darvesh. The darvesh offered him a glass of water from his pitcher.

        After the king left the darvesh, he went again looking for his companions - not only could he not find them, he also developed abdominal pain from not being able to pass water. After twenty-four hours of agony he returned to the darvesh again, begging for his help.

        "Sure I can help," the darvesh said, "but everything has a price."

        "How much?"

        "Half of your kingdom," and offered the king the paper and the pencil again.

        Once more the king hesitated. Then he offered the remaining half of his kingdom in writing to the darvesh.

        Darvesh offered him some wild herbs and a glass of water and asked him to lie down for a few minutes. Those herbs were quite effective and the king passed the water and felt relieved.

        The king thanked the darvesh and went on his way. As he was leaving, he looked back and saw the darvesh standing outside his tent, tearing the pieces of paper which now were deed to the king's entire kingdom, and throwing them into the open fire. The king ran back and asked the darvesh, "Why have you done this? Do you know what you are doing?"

        "Are you surprised?"

        "That paper gives you ownership to my whole kingdom."

        "Yes, and it seems that your whole kingdom is worth but a glass of water" the darvesh said, smiling.

 

     - * -

 

        One morning Irfan came downstairs and told me that he did not sleep well. He tossed and turned in bed, he was restless. He felt it had something to do with the speech, and was surprised that it had affected him so much. The speaker's words "cross-roads," "soul-searching" and "spiritual bankruptcy" had pierced his heart like draggers and he felt as if he was bleeding inside. He was becoming painfully aware that he had a spiritual vacuum in his life. He was blessed with a lovely family and all the comforts of the materialistic world but cursed because he did not enjoy an inner peace. That night he realized that coming to Canada was not more than buying an illusion or following a mirage.

        Irfan tossed and turned in bed yet another night. He was kept from sleep with the words that haunted his mind like a tormented spirit:  I should resign from my job, I don't deserve it. These thoughts had never before crossed his mind. 

        When he could not sleep he remembered his last visit with his mother and the gift she had given him:  the Holy Quran. He got out of bed and looked for his copy of the Quran.

        "Who is it?" I called out loudly, knowing my voice cracked with the fear that my body felt.

        "It's me."

        "What are you doing? I heard noises and I thought there was a burglar in the house."

        "I'm looking for my copy of Holy Quran in the old trunk."

        "It isn't there. You haven't touched it in years so I put it away in storage in the basement."

        Irfan came back to bed and said, "Honey, I want to resign from my job."

        "Are you crazy? Why are you mentioning it at this ungodly hour of the night. Maybe you have nothing better to think about. Go to sleep. An empty mind is a devil's workshop."

        I rolled over and fell asleep again but Irfan remained restless. "Devil's workshop - maybe that's it. Maybe I have been a devil and did not even know it," he thought to himself.

        Finally exhaustion hit and Irfan fell asleep for a couple of hours; when he woke he found that he had had a wet dream. In his dream he was making love to one of his students, a beautiful charming French girl, a student that many male students wanted to date. She was so attractive that many professors felt jealous that she was in Irfan's class, and not one of their own.

        Irfan went to the bathroom to take a shower. He felt guilty that he had a wet dream while sleeping next to me with whom he had not made love to for months:  when he went to bed after watching the midnight news on TV or reading his books, it was so late that I had already gone to sleep.

        The guilt that Irfan felt was compounded by a memory of his teenage years. He had frequent wet dreams then, which meant that he should take a bath early in the morning, known as a "ghusl." If he did take the ghusl, it was like announcing to the entire family that he had a wet dream. He couldn't stand the humiliation; but, he was supposed to attend morning prayers with his father, and to recite the prayers without taking a bath first was considered blasphemous. It was a sensitive age; he remembered feeling guilty quite frequently.

        The next day Irfan started his usual morning ritual with a shower. He usually felt refreshed and invigorated, but this morning Irfan still felt an overwhelming sense of fatigue. So much so that he picked up the phone and called the school to inform them he would not be in. I had never seen him take a sick day in the entire time he had been working at the university. I knew then that he was in grave shape. 

        "What's wrong Irfan?"

        "I feel guilty."

        "About what?" I wasn't sure whether he felt guilty because he was not going to work, had been rude to me the night before, or there was still another reason.

        "I want to resign from my job."

        "What are you talking about? Resign and do what? Lead a retired life. Both of our children are in university and need our help financially right now."

        I left the room. I did not want to discuss the issue any further. Having lived with Irfan for twenty-seven years, I had learnt that every so often he got preoccupied with crazy ideas, the ideas that were fantasies rather than realities. I remembered when Irfan was obsessed for a few weeks with the idea of going to South America and then living there permanently; but then he realized that without knowing Spanish he would have great difficulty.

        I also remember when Irfan talked day and night about learning to fly and someday buying a small plane so that he could fly all over Canada and the United States on the weekends. But when he realized that even after spending thousands of dollars and months of training the tiny Cesna plane was not any faster than his Jaguar and even more dependent upon the weather conditions he gave up the idea.

        There were times when I called him "Sheikh Chilli" a mythological character who counted chickens even before the eggs were laid. I thought it was another fantasy, another whim, another day dream. The only thing that surprised me was that in the past his fantasies made him happy, excited and euphoric, but this time he was puzzled, confused and even perturbed. I felt uneasy around him. He was surrounded by a disturbing aura.

        When Irfan did not feel better even after a couple of days and started reading the Holy Quran excessively, I got worried. I also realized that he had built a wall around him. He was in his shell and I could not reason with him. Finally I suggested that we go away to the cottage for a long weekend because in the past whenever Irfan was stressed with his job we went to the cottage and a few days of relaxing, long walks by the lakeside and reading books made him feel better. There was no T.V. or telephone, no distractions from the real world. 

        Irfan agreed to the idea and said, "It will give me some time to meditate and do some soul-searching." So we both went to the cottage in Lindsay, an hour's drive north of Whitby, where we lived.

 

    -  *  -

 

        It was now as if the preceding few days had been an omen for what was to follow. The trip to the cottage proved to be the burial ground of Irfan's past, the life we had known with him. The first day he tried to relax but couldn't. The next day it got worse. I remember sitting in front of the fireplace in the cottage quite worried about Irfan, who had gone for a long walk. I had sensed that "something was not right" for the last few months but I had not taken it seriously. I had not heeded to my instincts. I blamed the changes in Irfan on the grief he felt for his father's death. I was concerned about Irfan's newly diagnosed hypertension and remember the doctor's suggestion that he must go on a low cholesterol diet. Irfan was told he must not eat eggs, fatty and greasy foods and red meat. I knew how much Irfan loved beef and lamb because he used to say, "I am glad I am born in a Muslim family and not a Hindu family because I enjoy the taste of red meat." More recently I felt there was more to his condition than I could comprehend. I was concerned because he was becoming irrational.

        When Irfan returned from his long walk at night, he came in the door in a flurry. He shouted my name "Rafeeqa." It made me feel nervous. Irfan had never spoken so loudly and never called me by my real name. We used to call each other "Janum," "Honey" or "My Love."

        "Come on in," I said to the shadow in the darkness. As he approached his face became clearer. I was astonished. He was flushed, his body glistened with sweat and his whole being was shaking tremulously. 

        "Are you okay Janum?" I asked in a gentle tone.

        "I am cursed. The devil has paralysed my left side" and he started pacing back and forth in the living room even without taking off his overcoat.

        "You are not paralysed Janum." I tried to reassure him.

        But he kept on saying "I am a sinner. The devil has captured my soul. I am forever cursed."

        There was a large mirror in one end of the room. Irfan kept on pacing back and forth mumbling to himself and watching himself in the mirror.

        I watched him pace with tears in my eyes. I was sitting on the sofa. The fire in the fireplace was getting cold.

        I was nervous and scared. I was no longer in doubt that he was affected mentally as I could not talk to him rationally. I was also cursing myself for having suggested we come to the cottage in the middle of winter. There was nobody else in the neighbourhood at that time of the year and the closest convenience store and pay phone were two miles away. I felt I could not risk leaving Irfan alone while he was in that condition, even for a brief time. 

        After an hour of pacing in the room he stopped, drank a couple of glasses of water and then started to pace again. I asked him to go to bed but he did not stop. He mumbled "I am burning. Burning in hell. I need water to cool me off."

        That night I remained awake and yet it was if I were asleep and having the worst nightmare of my life. I realized what a dilemma it was to live in a foreign land, what pain one must suffer as an immigrant. "It's only when one faces a crisis that one realizes the importance of the extended family" I thought.

        Finally around 5:00 a.m. Irfan was beginning to waiver. He became sluggish and I gently coaxed him to the sofa. He was exhausted and he finally fell asleep, still wearing his overcoat and boots. I sneaked out without concern for locking the doors behind me. The keys were in Irfan's overcoat pocket and I couldn't take the risk of waking him. As soon as I was out the door I quickened my pace. I began to run to the nearest phone to call the operator. I told the operator and the police were I was. Within a few minutes the police and the ambulance arrived.

        When the female police officer approached me I was so overwhelmed I could hardly speak. I mumbled "Husband ... sick" and then broke down in tears. The officer took me into her cruiser and reassured me. When I felt a little better I brought them to the cottage.

        When I entered the cottage Irfan was no longer lying on the sofa. He was taking a shower. I called to him and asked him to get dressed. Luckily he did. Then I told him that the ambulance was there to take him to the hospital. The moment Irfan saw the police officer he screamed like a wild animal.

        "Go away. Go away." he shouted. "I am cursed. I am a sinner. I need to wash my sins. Go away." I felt helpless as I could not convince him to go to the hospital voluntarily. Finally the police had to restrain and handcuff him to take him to the nearest hospital, in Lindsay. The duty doctor admitted Irfan after listening to my story, and gave him an injection of Chlorpromazine to calm him down.

        Irfan was transferred to a separate room so that he could be under constant nursing supervision. I thanked the police officer and ambulance driver and they left to resume their routine duties.

 

    -  *  -

 

        When I informed Saadia and Adeel they came to the hospital as soon as they could. Saadia drove from Hamilton while Adeel took the next flight from California. They were surprised to see their father in a hospital bed and shocked by his physical appearance; he was quite confused and required constant nursing observation. The doctor felt strongly that Irfan was experiencing a nervous breakdown and was making arrangements to send him to the psychiatric hospital for assessment and treatment. I was terrified with the thought of a "mental hospital." I was scared that a Canadian doctor would not understand him and will not discharge him.

        I discussed the issue with my family in Pakistan on the phone and with Irfan's friend Saqib. I decided to take Irfan to Pakistan rather than transfer him to a mental hospital. Saqib volunteered to fly with us to Pakistan to ensure that Irfan took his medications on the plane and I did not have to deal with an unexpected incident. Adeel and Saadia did not agree with me but they were respectful of my wishes. They felt their father would get better care in Canada than in Pakistan. When I told Irfan the plans, he did not object.

        While Saqib stayed with Irfan in the hospital for a couple of days I came to Whitby to make arrangements to fly to Pakistan. After I finished the packing I went to my bedroom. Adeel and Saadia were sitting in the living room talking. Because it was so quiet I could overhear their conversation. They thought I had gone to sleep; I was really surprised at what I heard them say.

        Adeel said, "Saadia! You know our mom and dad had an arranged marriage which was the tradition in those days so I can't completely blame them for their poor choices. I sometimes wonder though whose idea it was to bring them together in a matrimonial relationship. I am quite sure now that the relatives and friends who brought them together were quite short-sighted. Maybe they thought that just because both of them belonged to Kashmiri families they would get along fine. They did not pay attention to their individual personalities. Other than their eating habits, clothing styles and language they had nothing in common. I don't think one needed to be a psychoanalyst to see that those two families were and still are worlds apart. Mom's folks are pragmatic, down to earth, conservative and family oriented while dad's family is creative, imaginative, philosophical, well educated and individualistic. None of mom's siblings have a degree while all of Dad's siblings are university graduates. Dad's family members are not only eccentric but even a little crazy."

        Saadia responded, "One other interesting thing about them was that mom was the oldest of the four sisters and was used to being the caretaker. She was a serious, reserved and pragmatic person. She was not only responsible and dependable but also iron-willed. On the other hand dad was the baby in the family, the youngest of the four children. He was a carefree man who enjoyed telling jokes, playing cards and tennis. Dad's older sister, Aunty Zubaida was also a strong woman. In the beginning when Mom moved in with Dad's family there was a lot of tension between mom and aunty but after dad passed his Ph.D. exam and decided to move to Canada the tension subsided.

        "It was as if dad and mom came from two different planets. They had two different philosophies. The only thing that kept them together, like many other Asian marriages, were the children. We were the crazy glue for their relationship and since we left, the marriage is falling apart.

        "Adeel, do you feel that having a nervous breakdown is a more graceful way of ending the marriage."

        "It is more acceptable than having an affair."

        I was feeling sleepy but it was an eye-opener to overhear my children's dialogue.

 

    -  *  -

 

Dear Adeel and Saadia:

        I miss you both so much. Four months have passed since we last saw one another. I think back now and regret not keeping a journal. So much has happened. I feel the need now to share some of the details. I don't know what else to do. I am at the end of the road after having crossed hills and mountains, pebbles and jagged-edged rocks. I was hoping to find the ocean at the end of the path, hoping to refresh myself and find rejuvenation, hoping to swim in the depths of the sea, the waves coming over me and erasing the painful memories of these months, giving back to me my lost youth and the energy and excitement of my relationship with Irfan; instead, my journey has scarred me forever. The path has been poorly lit and slow to travel like walking along a sandy beach wearing heavy boots. I have been suffocating and unable to free myself from the clutches of a thorny bush. I have been fighting against the odds and fear I am losing my strength, the strength and fortitude so characteristic of my heredity. I pray that my family would not see me as weak, having given up. I think of them now and remember why we had come here in the first place.

        Irfan was so restless then, restless from agitation. He seemed to be exploring his inner self but it was the darkness within that he found and I fear it kept him from tranquillity. Irfan would not sleep. He stayed awake day and night, either pacing incessantly or standing as if in a stupor for hours on end. He would not speak. I would approach him to offer him solace but it was as if he was deaf and mute. Nothing penetrated his internal darkness.

        We were all so afraid that the whole family, your uncle Mohsin, aunts Haleema and Saleema, and your grandmother Safia, stayed up day and night to look after him. This lasted a week before each one of us became irritable, moody and unable to agree on a solution to the problem. Finally, we decided to take shifts caring for your father. Since there were five of us, we concluded that each shift would be six hours long. One person would sit with your father while the other four rested.

        Your father was unaffected by our meetings, he remained in his catatonic state, eating little, drinking in excess:  a glass of water every half an hour. He mumbled as he reached for the cup, "Must cool down ... feeling hot ... burning up inside ... the fires of hell are scorching my insides." What he was saying made no sense to any of us. Again, when I approached him, softly, warmly, as non-threatening as I could, to ask him the simplest of things like requesting he undress for sleep, he paced the hall or stood motionless. I remember weeping in my room, alone, for hours. I could not be of any help to Irfan in his greatest hour of need. "Through sickness and in health" I remember thinking, and feeling guilty that I was letting him down, and unable to fulfil the responsibilities of my role as his wife.

        Then it seemed I had no more tears to shed; I felt relieved somehow. I sat in silence, the night was beginning to envelope the room. I watched as the darkness of night crept in until I could not longer make out the familiar surroundings of my room, a room I had known for so long. The darkness brought an eerie sense of unfamiliarity and accompanying fear. I knew then what Irfan was feeling. His darkness had made him a stranger in his own home, the physical body he had carried with him for fifty years.

        I knew what had to be done. Irfan needed professional help. I asked my family members to meet with me and discussed a plan with them. Each person had a different suggestion. Haleema had discussed your father with her family doctor, Dr. Saeed, who recommended a specialist in internal medicine. This seemed a safe and satisfying route to take. We all agreed that we would rule out all possibilities of physical illness before jumping to the much feared conclusion that Irfan suffered from mental illness.

        Dr. Mahmood listened to the story, examined Irfan, and performed a few simple tests. We were relieved at his final diagnosis. Irfan suffered from Diabetes Insipidus, hence his insatiated desire for water. His kidneys could not manage the overabundance of water he was drinking and soon became overworked. Dr. Mahmood felt that there was a problem with the pituitary gland as well; it was not producing enough anti-diuretic hormone. He told us the problem could be solved with hormone injections, and the emotional symptoms would resolve once the injections took effect. Until that time Dr. Mahmood prescribed a few minor tranquilizers to help Irfan sleep at night and relax during the day. His only regret was that the injections were not available in Pakistan and they would be very expensive. He did however know of a way to get them from a company in England.

        It seemed our troubles were coming to an end; it was only a matter of time. We felt so empowered by the thought of Irfan's health improving that we were able to think more clearly. A few of our cousins volunteered to share the nursing care when they heard the news. There was a shimmer of hope, it served as light for the darkened room. There was cause now to celebrate but it was not a whole-hearted celebration as yet. Irfan's family members were not there to share our joy. I was surprised and disappointed by their apparent lack of concern. Irfan's brother came to visit for an hour. We shared the situation with him in every detail but he never did return. Irfan's sisters did not even call. I realized then how different our families were and remember the criticism in your voices the night I overheard your conversation. I wondered now if you still felt so critical towards my pragmatic and conservative family. Irfan's family, however well-educated and imaginative, was not able to offer any creative solutions to the problems their brother Irfan faced. The word "individualistic" you used to describe your father's family seemed to fit. They were indeed concerned only for themselves ? their individual selves or so it seemed to me then. In spite of my disappointment I refused to be embittered by their apparent lack of concern. Your father would have defended them somehow, saying that "each of us expresses our affection and our concern in unique and different ways". I felt hurt, deeply hurt and emotionally scarred the night I overheard the two of you talking. Today I am glad for the differences between our families ? at least I had some help in caring for your father.

        The injections arrived and we gave them as prescribed. Day after day, we watched and waited for signs of improvement in your father's condition. There were subtle changes, the most notable was that Irfan finally slept at night. At first it was for only a few hours a night. During that time he did not drink or need to wake to pass water; we were hopeful that finally the injections were taking effect. Two more weeks passed and some of Irfan's agitation subsided. He was able to speak to me at last, without starring blankly into space. We contacted Dr. Mahmood again, and he re-examined Irfan. He concluded that it was the tranquilizers that were most effective, not the injections. In fact, there had been no noted improvement in the blood work since the injections started.

        The family met again. They were disappointed but did not feel defeated. They were willing to go another step further. I admired their determination. I thought then that it is so true that one does not realize what you have until it is gone. Irfan and I had lived in Canada for eighteen years, building strength from one another and then as the two of you grew, we became four. We stuck together. But there were really no crises, not like the one I have been experiencing this year. It is true that "This has been my aazmaish," my test of strength, spiritually and physically and I am sure that I could not have got this far without the support of my extended family.

        I was now time to try less traditional ways. Aunt Saleema suggested that we consult a hakim she knew. He believed in herbal remedies and was greatly respected by the town folk. He came to our home and listened to the story. I felt as if the secrets of my inner soul had become a public affair. The story got easier to tell, but the embarrassment never vanished. Hakim Sahib prescribed wild herbs for Irfan. These herbs would not be easy to find:  they were available only in the mountains in a place called Abbotabad; our cousins agreed to make the journey and begin their search for Irfan's cure.

        We waited patiently for their return. Irfan ate very little and he continued to drink quite a lot of water. Emotionally, he was a see-saw. When he was feeling down he would not speak. He wandered around aimlessly. Overall it was not as excessive as it had been in the beginning. The new development was his ritual of bath. Two, three, sometimes four times a day he would bathe. He might spend up to an hour in the bathroom. I feared that he may become ill from the cold which would only compound the current problem.