Thursday, August 31, 2006

Book Excerpt II

Chapter One

My heart hammered persistently against my ribcage, beating out an alien tune. In its notes, I recognised fear, uncertainly, regret. I stared at his face, afraid to believe what my eyes revealed as truth, dreading the implications of accepting the reality. The implications - not only for my life, but for the lives of those who had, in the last fifteen years, become a part of me.

His face had aged; his body somewhat less. But after what we have been through, the lines around his eyes were to be expected. I had matching ones around my own eyes. Fine lines that were etched into the skin by an excess of tears and grief. His hands rested casually on the handlebars of a trolley and he appeared lost in thought. A good thing too, for if he were to see me, what would I do?

People milled around him, walking in both directions. The mannequins in plush department store windows glared at him, chiding him for the shabbiness of his attire while he just stood, placidly, lost in thought.

I crept deeper into the entrance of one of the stores. He must not see me. It would be suicide. The mall was an artificially lit haven from the winds that raged outside. Winter 2019, so unlike winter of 2004 - the winter when he became a part of me, a part that was critical to my survival. A part that I had valiantly fought to have for my own.

Love for a man long dead, rose like bile to my throat. No, no I mustn’t. It cannot be right. The walls began closing in upon themselves. The plush window displays sprang to life before my eyes. The tune played by my hammering heart became frenzied. Air was slowly squeezed out of my lungs. I was gasping, choking. Air, I needed air. I groped my way to the exit. The doors slid open, as though by some unseen hand.

I drank in the cold air greedily and my breathing evened out. The sun’s rays were superficial. The wind clawed at my face, stinging my cheeks. I burrowed into my jacket and walked until I found my car. I walked away, away from the face that I have loved for ever so long, clinging desperately to the hope that I’d find myself mistaken. That it would all turn out to be a dream.

Ahmed Nkosi, the boy who invaded my small space in the classroom at Benoni Muslim School. The boy who succeeded in being noticed while all the others like him lived as silent spectres in the hallways that spoke of equality in Islam. Ahmed Nkosi whose ready smile contrasted sharply with the blackness of his skin. He was the man for whom I had fought and won only to lose him again to fate.

It has been fifteen years, but I can still smell his skin. I could smell it then, as I stood watching him from the shadows. I can feel his hair, coarse and curly, springy beneath my touch. I remember the light that leapt into his eyes whenever he looked at me. I remember it all as though it was yesterday. Perhaps it was. A yesterday filled with promise of great things to come. A yesterday that reached into the present and directed all our lives. A yesterday immortalised in books all over the world. A yesterday so different from what I now call my today.

© Saaleha Bhamjee - 2006




Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Blogging

It was a little self-formed blogging group that got the ball rolling. Fellow bloggers leaving comments for one another on bits of literary creativity. The comments were often witty, sometimes funny, but most often complimentary. The group flourished, as did their literary dexterity.

But beneath all the camaraderie, an undercurrent began to flow that involved two of the most solitary. She told me that if felt as though she had found a piece of herself in him - the missing piece. The one most of us spend our entire lives looking for. He said that it felt as though he had found himself.

Pretty much the same thing, if you ask me. It wasn’t long before their friendship blossomed and became a romance, an informal one that left much unsaid. There were no exchanged endearments, no, ‘I love you’s because the way they had created it, obvious words became extraneous. There was one challenge to their relationship though, and that was the distance. But in this day and age of air travel, even that didn’t seem insuperable.

Days became months; they meshed so totally that even their comments on the blogs began to seem identical, words written by the same person. Of course the rest of us didn’t have the foggiest idea of what was going on. I did mention that they were the most solitary, didn’t I?

At length they decided that they had to meet. He would come to her. She would meet him at the airport. She said that the week before his arrival felt like waiting for a wedding day, yours. She would be meeting herself in a sense. The legendary 'soul mate'.

He mailed her from the airport. The flight was delayed. He’d be arriving at two in the morning. Well she wouldn’t let something as inconsequential as time stand in her way.

At 1:30am she could be found sitting on a bench at the airport, lost to the world, journeying with her soul, journeying with him. Some fifteen minutes later the news broke. The plane had gone missing just off the coast. They doubted that there would be any survivors.

His body was found the same day washed up on a beach. She said that they found him hugging his laptop. She remembers feeling a chill run through her body ten minutes before the news broke. She remembers having a vision, flames, metal, and then black water. His last moments? We’ll never know.

She’s become sort of queer now, doesn’t blog as much as before, writes like a child. Maybe when he died he took her mind. But you know what the strangest thing is? She says he visits her – every day. And she still gets e-mails from him…

© Saaleha Bhamjee - 2006

note: This little story was inspired by yesterday's poem and all the comments on Atyllah's blog dealing with Fate. I say this is ...Fate!




Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Twilight Zone

My love affair with words continues...


The beginnings were strange
The end stranger still
What started with an e-mail
Became a lasting tie

Words tangled, melded, met
Two worlds apart, but so alike, yet
Barriers melted in the heat of response
Age, race, religion, the lines ebb

Kindred spirits – so passé
But I suffered it – if only for a while
Ethereal, un-nameable, strangely surreal
A twilight zone - of anticipation

Tingling with excitement renewed
Eager, I thirst, almost love’s first
But not quite – not quite friendship either
A matching face in a sea of obscurity

And then he was gone

I move on now, into the deafening silence
Of children at play, drudgery, normalcy
Words beckon me to the twilight zone anew
Enticing, inviting, just beyond reach

Feel me, she says, as I drunkenly swirl
In the darkened recesses of your secret mind
Turn me over and over again, then pour me out
A piece of your soul, between your fingers –
I trickle
Fading away in the thieving wind
Of memory spent…

© Saaleha Bhamjee - 2006

Monday, August 28, 2006

Lunatic

They came out of their houses and stood on the sidewalk, gawping. It was a strange sight. A grown man, ranting and raving, throwing dishes about, threatening to kill his wife. Threatening to kill himself. Behaving like a child throwing a violent tantrum. That’s what they whispered to one another when he went inside. They wouldn’t dare talk while he was on the stoep. No telling what the lunatic would do.

After half an hour, during which he dragged her clothes outside, threw them onto the road, her brother arrived. He took her away – after he very nearly hit the crazy guy. And they still stood, little knots discussing what the problem was with that lunatic.

Ag, he’s just looking for attention. Stupid. Look at that vase that he just broke. Terrible. And it was cut glass too.”
“No, maybe he’s depressed.”
“Please, that’s just rubbish. Since when do Muslims get depressed? It’s his Imaan, his faith. It’s weak. I’m telling you.”
“No, maybe it’s a Jinn. Maybe he’s possessed by a jinn. I know my uncle Gulam, a Jinn got him. He was so strong when the Jinn started with him, that it took five of us to hold him down. And he could eat. One chicken was nothing for him.”
Heads nodded sagely. Yes, a Jinn. It had to be. He had that wild look about him. His eyes looked all black too. Of course no one attributed that to the darkness of the street.

“You know, maybe I must tell his wife to take him to Moulana Varachia. That Moulana is really good. Fatima’s daughter had a Jinn. She used to scream, Maghrib time, every day.”
Ya?”
Ya, hachoo. The Moulana showed them when he cut the lemon on her. It had meat inside. So he said it was a Jinn that was troubling her. You should have seen her tear her clothes when he started burning the Ta’weez.”
Haai? Tsk, tsk. They need to burn a few ta’weezes for this one here.”
“You know, my mother lives next to her brother’s place. I’ll pop in there later. Make it look like a co-incidence. Then I’ll tell her about Moulana Varachia. Eish, look, he’s throwing her pots out of the house.”
“Duck! There comes a thali.”

She ducked. A tray flew over her head and landed with a clang on the warm tarmac. He disappeared into the house, came out moments later, a gun in his hands. He pointed it first at his spectators. They scattered. Converged again in front of another house two doors up. They stood watching.

“Look, he‘s screaming. Says he’s going to shoot himself. He says she must come back.”
“You think we should phone her?”
“Nah, he’s just acting. Guys that really want to kill themselves don’t stand in the street and make a show of it.”
“If you ask me, I think it would be better if he just did it. Would save that stupid woman a lot of trouble. Because she doesn’t have the courage to leave him.”
Haai, don’t say that.”
“Look, he’s got the gun to his head.”
Ag, you’re talking rubbish. It must be empty.”

The blast rattled the windows, echoed. The blood splattered the wall.

“Quick, run inside. The cops will come just now."

And they did.

© Saaleha Bhamjee - 2006

Glossary

stoep - verandah

moulana - scholar - here it refers to someone adept at treating people afflicted by witchcraft or Jinn.

Maghrib - sunset. Believed to be the time when dark forces spread out to do their evil work

ta'weez - amulet

hachoo - really

thali - tray





Thinking

I’ve been thinking. (yeah, yeah, I know. Wow!) What is it that makes a truly great writer? It’s a question that somehow, I find very difficult to answer. A big part of me believes that it is the ability to get under the ‘skin’ of characters that you create. The ability to produce stuff that is both varied and interesting.

Since my creative well has just about run dry, I was wondering whether you guys had any ideas on the topic.

And that reminds me, the whole ‘well runs dry’ thing. How do you deal with that? Lehane, maybe you can tell me, because yours in certainly a bottomless well from whence creativity is regularly crystallised.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Her Fault

She was tall. Her face was clear, even toned; beautiful in a way that was neither classical nor striking. It was merely a pleasing combination of features that might have looked kitschy on another face. But what attracted me most to her, was her smile. When her lips parted they revealed teeth in straight rows, white, with canines that were slightly pointed. She was smiling at the shop assistant behind the counter now as she took the packet of hot buns and placed them in her trolley.

Her lips, I wondered what it would be like to taste them... Banish that thought - immediately. It was a scary thought, not only because she was a stranger, but because I could tell from the ring on her left hand that she was married. It wouldn’t do, this wandering away from the straight and narrow, but with Farah being what she is, it was hard to avoid

I felt a wave of nausea wash over me at the thought. Queasiness and guilt, with a generous helping of mortification - an altogether sobering combination. Was I no different from him then? It’s what he had said, wasn’t it? Her fault, all of it. It didn’t really matter that we were all hurt by his actions. That meant nothing at all. It didn’t matter that we lost everything because, as he claimed, it was her fault. It’s been twenty years but I cannot find it in my heart to forgive his mistake, his weakness, he had called it, one that was her fault.

“You hate me now,” he had said, a mordant smile tugging at his mouth, “but someday you will understand.” This exchange had taken place barely two years ago at a family get together where the topic of marriage, inevitably, was brought up.

Was this that day? Was it my turn to fall prey to the weakness I had once scorned? I ventured another look at her. She caught my eye. She smiled. My heart did an odd little jig in my chest. I caught my mind just in time, as it removed her scarf, and was busy unbuttoning her dress. Stop! It’s wrong. You can’t, you mustn’t. More than anything you must never be like him. You will hurt people too. Farah, however many her faults, is still your wife. She is Halaal, lawful, this woman is not.

******************************

I saw her on each of my trips to the supermarket. Or did I ensure that I undertook these trips on Wednesdays only, when I knew she would be there? A little lie to oneself can do wonders as balm for a tetchy conscience. On each visit, I’d watch her from behind the freezers - freezers filled with vegetables in brightly coloured packets. Bags upon bag of frozen vegetables and meat while my insides were thawed by the glow of her smile reflected off the faces of the various shop assistants. Whenever she looked my way, I would feign exaggerated interest in the frozen food. And then one evening she spoke to me.

I had been watching her as usual. I looked away momentarily to find that she had vanished. I scoured the bakery. She was nowhere to be found. I turned around planning to have a look amongst the aisles when I almost bumped straight into her trolley.

“Is this what you normally do to women when you go out shopping? Stare at them and then try to run them down?” Her words carried censure, but her smile, the full force of which was directed at my face now, robbing me of breath, did not. My ears grew uncomfortably hot and I looked away.

She laughed, a sound that was very nearly musical, uplifting.
“Umm, I’m really sorry. I, I didn’t mean...” I felt woefully inadequate. Ashamed perhaps too, as though I had been caught eavesdropping or spying.
“Never mind. Are you going to introduce yourself now?”
I cleared my throat, “Yes, umm, my name is Zahid.” I croaked. My cheeks were burning. Thank God for the beard.
“I’m Samara. Assalaamu alaikum.” That smile again.
“Wa alaikum salaam,” I responded, after another unsuccessful attempt at dislodging that darned frog that was making me sound like a teenager. Was it perhaps because her smile made me feel like one? Oh Allah, this is so wrong. I’m trying but it seems that I’m not in the driver’s seat anymore. An inward groan and silence.

****************************

She too loved reading. She had read Andrew Brown’s masterpiece. She had loved it. Zaphon too, another of her favourites. Was this fate? Farah noticed a change in me, she became even more acerbic. The more caustic her tongue, the greater my elation. Yes, if our friendship became something more, it would be her fault. The children were thrilled by the gifts they now received. I had reason to celebrate; I was alive – at last.

Our meetings at the supermarket were always capped with coffee at a little café that was part of the bookstore in the mall. Our voices mingled with the smell of new books, a giddy perfume in itself, and the seductive aroma of roasted coffee beans. Cappuccino was her favourite too, hot and sweet.

I lived from Wednesday to Wednesday. I learnt that she was married to a wealthy business man who spent half his life out of the country on business. Like me, she wanted friendship, not just the proverbial passing of ships in the night.

Then one morning I woke up, looked at barbed Farah in my bed and realised that I loved her not. I knew that our friendship, mine and Samara’s was already something more. The next step was inevitable. Allah, you know I have tried to make this woman happy. I, I just can’t help it. I fought it, you know I did. But I am so weak. Please give me strength. Protect me. The plea sounded markedly insincere.

******************************

I found her body warm and welcoming the first time we shared a bed. Her mouth was more than I had ever been able to fantasise. Her skin flowed beneath my fingers, pliant. Her smell sent me into spirals of ecstasy. It clung to me long after the initial, gnawing feelings of guilt ever could.

When I returned to Farah and the children that night, smelling of her, Samara who had awakened me from a slumber peopled by constant nightmares, the guilt created an ache inside of me that left me feeling disoriented and derelict. After Farah’s first tirade, the ache lessoned. By the time we retired to bed, the guilt had vanished and the painful desire to feel Samara in my arms once more had returned overwhelmingly.

And so it became a routine, the artifice, the excuses, all the feelings I had ever associated with an illicit relationship, save the shame. It was, after all, her fault.


© Saaleha Bhamjee - 2006

note: Nicky, I know you read this one. So bear with me.



Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Life Less Grey

Samiha sat on her prayer rug lost in thought. Her children were asleep and Farouk was with his second wife tonight. She enjoyed these moments, rare moments of tranquillity in a life that was fraught. She would sit like this for hours, allowing the sounds that were part of this old house to wash over her, until she fell asleep on the carpet. She’d sleep peacefully; unlike when Farouk was in the bed beside her. There was no anticipation today, no fears, or insecurities. She was tired, fatigued by the struggle and she found herself embroiled in. Lately she caught herself asking more and more whether it was really worth it.

Mrs Patel was coughing in her kitchen next door – separated from Samiha's bedroom by a door that remained locked. Their microwave pinged, announcing the food ready. The clatter of spoons against plates and pots being closed carried clearly into her bedroom. Their voices echoed in the passages of her mind. Munira’s - high pitched and nasal, grated on her nerves even though she was no longer there. If she had a genie, she’d wish them to a far away island. She’d undo Farouk’s marriage to Munira. But she hadn’t and so she was stuck with having to share her husband with a woman almost old enough to be her mother.

Was Farouk worth the struggle for his attention? Was he worth the unhappiness that ate away at her, a growing cancer that sullied her life, obliterated her relationship with her children and blackened her heart? It was almost a physical blackening. She fancied that should she dip her hand into her chest and touch her heart, it would come out black. Rancour did that to the heart. What were her prayers worth, all these prayers, five in a day, when she hated Munira so? When she sometimes fantasised about her lift club car being involved in a fatal crash?

Somewhere inside her the doubt niggled. What shortcomings did she have? Had she not always been a loving wife, a caring mother, a good cook? These things were important to Farouk, the last one particularly; in fact she often teased him saying he thought with his stomach as opposed to the part of the anatomy that was reputed to be vital to all men’s though processes. But when he ran off with Munira and performed the secret Nikaah, she realised that he was just like very other man. Her culinary expertise meant nothing at all.

But she was more than just a great cook. Did she not always make the time to assist him with his work in whatever way she could? Did she not do his bookwork, and other secretarial work? It must be the weight gain then. But having five children wasn’t kind on your figure. With each child your waist expanded and after each period of suckling, your breasts drew closer to the ground by an inch. Surely he understood this. And having five children had been his idea. Farouk was an only child and he had always craved a large family. Now that he had one of his own, he ran off to that old hag, whose boobs were probably halfway to her navel.


She let out a moan. Stop, stop this thinking. You need to accept. Just accept her, she’s not going anywhere. At least you know she won’t be having any children. And you’ll always be his first wife. Isn’t that supposed to be an honour? She’s old enough to be your mother, but you’re the senior wife. Just move on. Get a life, make some friends, go out. It’s your only choice. Besides, think of the children. Farouk may have hurt you, but he would never hurt his children. He loves them. And he is a really good provider is he not?

The road to acceptance was going to be hard, but she would do it… for the children.

*****************************

Grey

Grass dormant, in death like sleep
crunchy beneath her weakened feet
as she drags her tired shadow
on the path that grows ever narrow

each day the same, effete
a lurid picture, ghostly grey
the colour of each remaining day
was there a time when they were …more?

bright, alive, burning with possibility
a blank canvas to be filled with
tastes, textures and living
yes living…. would that she could

yet she filled it with regret
and more regret again
sorrow about what was
anger at what was not

she filled it with hate and greed
jealousy and simple misery
the colours that spilled
were reds, only reds – like blood

the blood of hate, and anger

her trees have long since borne fruit
her fruit have thorns, she cannot bear them
thorns that are children with loud voices
children who trample on her brown grass

the reds have faded - green at first
growing more grey with each passing day
her canvas is ruined – the work of her own hand
her shadow, like her soul – tired, worn, grey

She read the words over, twice and then thrice. They were true. Her daughter had written them. They described her. She read Zaakira’s blog from time to time. She never left a comment. She knew that someday Zaakira would be a famous writer. She certainly had material a plenty in the form of her parent’s marriage.

Farouk was dead, two years now. Samiha lived alone in a little simplex town house that she kept scrupulously clean. Lambat Street and the Patels were of another era. It was true that she didn’t like her grandchildren very much. She loved them, of course, because they were her blood, a reminder of Farouk and what he gave as well as what he did not. But she did not like them. They trampled on her lawn, broke her flowers and made too much noise.

Her sons stayed away because of this. But they did not understand her. Nor did they try to. They listened to their wives, the fools. They made time for their in-laws; the Nanas and Nanis who were so loving and allowed the children to jump on their beds. Well she never would.

But Zaakira, she was different. Perhaps because she was a woman. Perhaps because she knew how she would feel if her Saleem were to remarry.

**********************************

Samiha sat on the couch, her eyes, whitened by cataracts now, fixed on Zaakira’s face. She was incredulous. Surely her hearing wasn’t going too.

“Mummy, I thought I’d come and tell you that Saleem is getting married this weekend. She’s a young girl from Roshnee. She was his secretary. They will be having a small waleema. I’m throwing it for them. Will you come?”

Is this girl crazy? Her husband is marrying a spring chicken when she has daughters of marriageable age in her house and she will be throwing the feast for him. He was probably messing around with the little runt while he was married. Is she stupid? Hasn’t she learnt anything from my life?

“No, I won’t come, you want to know why?”

“Not really Mummy. Don’t say anything.” Tears swam in her eyes.

“Well, I’ll tell you. It’s because you are being stupid enough to allow that man, so like every other man, whose brains are lodged firmly between his thighs, to ruin your life.”

“But mummy, if I don’t, then I will ruin my own life.” The tears slipped slowly towards her chin. She gathered up her belongings and ran weeping to her car.

Samiha sat there. Minutes passed and she did not move. When she finally stood up, she went to the bathroom. She needed to perform ablution. She needed to pray. For the first time in years, her heart felt strangely lighter. After the prayer she would phone Zaakira to tell her that she would be attending the waleema.


© Saaleha Bhamjee - 2006

note: The poem 'Grey' has been posted on my blog a while ago. After writing it, I realised that it needed a story, and this is the one I came up with. Nicky will be familiar with the characters, from having read the first of these, a story entitled 'Meet the Patels'. The Patels are Samiha's neighbours. And I hope it has come across clearly that Samiha's husband has taken Mrs Patel's daughter as his second wife.

© Saaleha Bhamjee - 2006

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Time

The thing I remember most about him is his mouth. The way the spittle would gather at the corners when he went on a rampage. It didn’t take much to set him off, a forgotten kitaab, book. Homework incomplete. Anything. And he’d fly into a soaring rage. So I’d get to see the spittle often, too often.

He’d stand by our desks, a long cane in his hand. He’d listen intently to our recitation of the Quraan. The stick was quick to pick up any errors in pronunciation. We’d often feel it on our backs, or arms. Wherever he could reach. I’d read, under his cane’s vigilant glare, and tremble. My recitation would be halting, fearful. Thinking back, I realise that he was the reason I quit the Classes when I was twelve. It took many years before I could fully master the recitation of the Quraan. And it certainly didn't happen under his tutelage.

He had another habit too. That of throwing the chalkboard duster at anyone whom he felt was not paying attention to what he was saying, even when he was teaching History. And his aim was deadly. If he had the mind to it, he could probably gore out your eye with that thing. Now, nineteen years later, I have to ask myself why I thought History so boring. It's become quite a passion.But then, it wasn’t a matter for questioning. It was a given fact. History was dead. Excuse the pun.

I remember afternoons, sitting in the Madrassah, religious studies class, after the day at school, and feeling my eyelids succumb to the oppressive heat of the airless room or was it the ‘sakeena’ – tranquillity which is reported to descend on religious gatherings? Somehow, I could never figure which of the two was responsible. I would sway, drunkenly, and catch myself just before by head made contact with the desk. This is just one of the reasons I sat right at the back of the classroom.

I recall many afternoons, dragging my feet home from school. The tummy aches that plagued me on more days than was humanly possible for any ten-year old, are a vivid memory. I see myself inching my way towards the imposing face brick structure that took up a whole block. I see myself shilly-shallying as much as possible. Anything to delay the inevitable.

I don’t know whether it was his fury that had the undesirable effect of growing him in stature. Because he seemed taller than anyone I’d ever met, when we were in that little room, all of us seated on the carpeted floor. But when we were in the assembly hall, all the Ustaads, the teachers, standing together, I’d find his size perplexing; since he barely reached the chin of some of the other Ustaads at the Madrassah. And many of the older boys, those in high school, were taller than him.

When I returned to live in the same town, fifteen years later, and realised that my own children would attend that same institution, the first question that sprang to my mind, was whether he was still teaching. I was told that he was. Now he taught boys only, since they found him ‘unsuitable’ for girls. Wish they had realised it when I was a student. But that compounded my problem. I have sons. So I said a silent prayer, asking Allah to save my sons from ever having to be taught by him.

But why would a teacher who had made me miserable nineteen years ago be an issue? Because yesterday, at the mall, I saw him. He was with his son, who is like a miniature him, right down the great hooked proboscis that everyone called - and still call - 747, short for Boeing 747. His son even wears the same mini kurtas- shirts. White ones that reach just above the knee, when everyone else wears them to their calves or ankles.

But do you know what the strangest thing is? He is shorter than I am. A lot shorter. I could almost feel myself elongate when I saw him. Growing taller, bigger, and delightfully so. It was so empowering. And his hair that was always slick and glossy and black, is now peppered with white. His beard too. I’m not sure if my mind was playing tricks on me, but that snout of his, it’s definitely bigger. And I wonder why I hadn’t noticed then that his ears stick out - jet-wings, on a 747. Neat, huh? I think I read somewhere that noses and ears continue growing throughout your life. His must have had some powerful fertiliser.

Ah, Time, she’s a nasty one. She shrinks giants, grows cowering midgets and steals spittle from the corners of mouths. Yeah, she’s merciless.

That night when I got home, I read the Quraan after Maghrib, the prayer at sunset. And my recitation was halting. Some things… they defy even time.

© Saaleha Bhamjee - 2006






Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Prickly Questions

Another year lobbed off from my sanctioned time. And the moment for prickly questions. So, what’s it all for? A pointed question, but clearly one that screams for an answer. We awaken each day, do all the things that need doing, go to sleep, and then start the process all over again. If, like me, you’re a wannabe writer then you spend all of your allotted time writing, submitting, getting rejection slips and then starting the process again. So what the heck is it all for?

They tell you to make a name for yourself? Name recognition. Write op/ed pieces, get involved in the literary scene. But tell me, had any of you heard of JK Rowling before that Potter boy, or Khaled Husseini before the hare-lipped Kite Runner’s tragedy, or Carlos Ruiz Zaphon before the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? You hadn’t. And you know what? Neither had I. But they made it didn’t they?

I say, forget all the rhetoric, anachronisms, waste of ink (or finger tap dancing). Forget it all and just write. And the answer to the ‘pointed question’ becomes easy enough. Just because…


Passion is a magnificent thing.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Book excerpt

Note: Seems from now on, I'm going to have to state from the outset that , "This is Fiction!!!" The last post had a good few people wondering, I can see. So from now on, consider all posts as fiction unless otherwise stated. This is an excerpt form the book I am working on. It's a South African tale, set some fifteen years hence. I rewrote South Africa's future with this one.

Chapter Three

Luzile’s eyes were black. I knew them well for I secretly feared them. She fancied herself a second mother to me. I was in need of one.

My mother was a teacher at a primary school. She taught English. Each year-end she’d come home with gifts from her students. These gifts were normally expensive little ornaments. They came with touching ‘Thank You’ notes that spoke of what a wonderful teacher she was, about how sorely she would be missed. The ornaments occupied a place of honour in our house. They filled the T.V. cabinet. Row upon row of crystal, cut glass, and other little trinkets.

It was the one place in the house where my mother would never allow dust to settle. Luzile knew that. I remember spending many days sitting on the couch and watching her carefully remove them, dust them and place them back on their places. I sometimes thought that perhaps if I was a little trinket, I might get a second look from my mother. I sometimes wondered that if perchance the shelf should break, and all the little trinkets smash into tiny little fragments, whether Mummy would find time for a bedtime story. Occasionally, I asked her for one.

“Go to bed, Asma,” she’d say. “Mummy has to do her prep. Students depend on Mummy. Many of them have never spoken English before.”
In time I grew to resent the ‘students’ - children that I had never met.

I used to dream that I was a crystal swan and that Mummy was fighting with Lucy for breaking my wing.

But it was more than just a wing that Lucy had broken. She had broken me – totally.

If mothers hurt their children then Lucy was the perfect mother. The scars from her bouts of mothering were buried deep within me. Too deep for anyone to see.

She had a fair skin, for a Zulu woman. Her cheeks were fleshy, as was her forehead. These swallowed her tiny eyes when she laughed. And she laughed often, causing her entire flabby form to quake.

My earliest memories of Lucy’s mothering were of a game she called playing. It was a game where she would take me to my bedroom. She would lay me down on the soft grey carpet. She would undress me. I never looked at her during those games. I would keep my gaze fixed on the light fixture in my bedroom. It was a pale amber. Glass panels around a light bulb, flowers painted on all sides.

Whenever she played these games, I drowned in self loathing for days thereafter. I would scrub myself violently in the shower, leaving marks on my body. Evidence that she was careful not to leave.

I was repulsed by her secret. I suspected that the games were wicked. But surely you couldn’t tell any mother, second or not; that what she was doing was wrong.

I greeted each new day with ineffable dread. Would she want to play today? With each game, a piece of me died, and in its place a sturdy wall was built, until the walls around my heart were impregnable. In time, my mother’s indifference became extraneous, as did my father’s absence.

I became a master in the art of pretence. My smiles and laughs masked a darkness that became a part of my soul. In the darkest corners, I contemplated suicide.

My mother recalls me as a cheerful child, a child who was always trying to please. Did I please Lucy?

“You were always smiling,” she’d tell me, often in the midst of an argument about Ahmed. “It’s that boy…that kaffir.” I’d flinch at the sound of the word. “He’s changed you.” And she was right. He had wrought a change in me. But contrary to her opinion, I felt it to be a change for the better.

I digress. Back to Lucy. It was with great relief, that I started my schooling career. The joyous consequence of mornings in a classroom and afternoons in a madrassah class was that Lucy could no longer play.

I remember a day when I was in Grade Two; an Islamic Counselling Service visited our school. They were teaching a module entitled, “I’m Special”.

“If anyone touches you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, run away. Say no!” the woman in the tightly fastened scarf said to the class of rapt seven year olds.

I didn’t say no. I didn’t say no. It must then have been my fault. I could have done something. I could have run away. Did I perhaps like her game? No, no, I hated it. Then why did I tolerate it? Why did I protect her?

Years later, I bumped into Lucy’s sister, Thandi. She hugged me, asked about my parents. She showed genuine regret when I told her that my father had passed away and that my mother lived in another country. She then told me about Lucy. She had died.
“AIDS,” she whispered to me. Though I tried, I could not suppress the feeling of triumph, or perhaps it was satisfaction when I heard the news. Given a choice, I would have wanted not to hear about her. Given a choice, I would have her undone from the tapestry of my life.

© Saaleha Bhamjee - 2006

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Seasons for Falling

While we are on the topic of all things wordy:

I could never have foreseen the outcome of starting up an ill advised communication, not that I really gave it much thought. I just went with the flow, allowed myself to be swept away, off my feet and finally destroyed. It started with a letter to the editor of a newspaper. It was about an issue that was important to me then, even though I can scarcely remember it now.

He disagreed with my views, but he went ahead and ran the letter anyway. I challenged him, fool that I was, to clarify his position. He did - so eloquently, so beautifully, that by the time I read his first response, one of many that would follow in the ensuing months, I was already seduced by words that came at me with a force that robbed me of my breath and common sense.

Some women are suckers for good hair, good bodies, lots of money; I’m a sucker for words. Words that melt, create, destroy, entice, invite; words that leap off pages and screens and ensnare me in a golden web. I’m helpless under the spell of words.

And so began the flow of words - a current aside from the electricity that powered my PC. I became obsessive with my mail, checking up over and over in the day, waiting for his eloquence to delight me, beguile me, confuse me.

And I was confused, more than I’ve ever been before. I had been in a marriage of bodies and hearts for twelve years. I was committed to my man and my two little angels who often provided me with material to write about. I was content.

But I had never felt a meeting of souls before. Al and I were just too different. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not vilifying him. I loved him then, I love him now. He was my first love. We met when I was seventeen, were married when I was nineteen. He was six years older than I was, and no, I wasn’t pregnant, but I would have been, had we not married when we did. Dating boys is different from being with a man.

Al and I were fine for the first eight years of our marriage. My mind was slowly rotting under the piles of laundry, dishes and goo-goo gaa-gaa talk and he was busy building an empire. Then one day, I woke up and realised that I was really very depressed. Al was great. He found me an excellent psychologist, he stuck it out with me even when I refused to change the baby’s napkins, and he made sure that I never missed a session. The psychologist suggested I keep a journal as part of my therapy. I haven’t looked back since.

But that’s when Al and I began to drift apart. Al was the kind of guy who really thought less of words than he did of mosquitoes, a man who often told me that should he ever attempt to read the kind of volumes that I lost myself in, he’d need two lifetimes. And I believed him. He scarcely read my own writing. For him, they were just too many words and in all likelihood, they were not very good words either. He was probably too polite to say it straight.

So when Mr Seasoned Journalist, with his longish hair, roguish smile and twinkling green eyed galloped into my life on a steed of seductive words (he sent me a picture), I was all too eager to hurtle into a sunset the colour of books. And Mr Seasoned was an author too, published, mind you. And he thought I wrote ‘well’.

If you’ve ever spent four years collecting rejection letters from publishers, you’d understand just how attractive Mr Seasoned looked form my side of Smallsville. Oh and he’d travelled. The only travelling I had done by then was chatting with fellow writers in far flung corners of the globe.

I explained to Mr Seasoned my situation, I told him about Al and the kids. I told him that I was scared of falling. What I didn’t mention was that I had fallen already, hard and fast in a pool of gorgeous words that seemed to caress me in a way the Al never could.

What was I to do? Every morning I’d awaken in Al’s bed, the bed that we had shared for as long as I could remember and I’d be thinking of Mr Seasoned - imagining his arms around me instead of Al’s muscular ones, imagining him whispering the words to me that he only ever wrote. And it made me feel rotten.

You have no idea how many times I chided myself for being a fool, told myself that Mr Seasoned was probably not sitting in a corner waiting for me to run into his arms. He was probably seasoned in other things too. If he made love the way he wrote, he probably had woman queuing up to be his bedfellows. And they probably wouldn’t have two children in tow. They were probably pretty, young journalists looking for a bed up the ladder of literary success. And he was single.

After six months of mails that I feverishly hid from Al, Mr Seasoned finally asked for my telephone number. What now?

It would destroy everything. If his voice wasn’t sexy, deep, husky, my illusion would be shattered. And besides, he couldn’t possibly speak the way he wrote. Who used words like profligacy, effete and bellicose in their conversations?

Oh, what the heck, I finally thought. I needed to know, didn’t I? He probably did too. And so I called him. At first I thought that I had made a mistake. Surely this stammering, waffling, barely male voice on the other end of the line wasn’t Mr Seasoned? It couldn’t be! He was suave, sophisticated and articulate, wasn’t he?

I was destroyed, annihilated by the spell that I had allowed him to weave around my mind. I was also consumed with guilt. This would take many batches of pastries as atonement. I needed to make it up to Al.

After tearful remonstrations from my side, Al and I have reached a plateau of compromise. He reads one of every five articles/essays/stories/poems that I write and I promise myself never to attract a Mr Seasoned again. Of course I haven’t told Al about Mr Seasoned. The guy would probably need a head transplant if Al ever found out. But hey, at least I learnt to separate the word from the person.

© Saaleha Bhamjee - 2006

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Doppelganger

A real life experience gave me this. I have a double. Our names are identical, yes initials too. We were born in the same Islamic month. I've changed many things here, used loads of conjecture and come up with this piece of fiction. Allah willing it will never become reality. Don't think either of us would want that. and btw, neither of us think this way - it is just fiction, thank God for that.


We shared a name, a birthday, and eventually a husband. It was uncanny, weird, almost scary. Her name was Tasneem M Jassat. And now you know that that is my name too. She was four years older than I was, and like me, she was a writer. I first heard about her from friends and relatives who’d show me articles on the web, in newspapers, penned by her. They thought I had written them. They couldn’t have been more mistaken. Because our similarities ended there.

She was the day and I, the night. She came across as someone who had found herself, her voice as a writer, yet I was floundering, struggling to find mine. And how far I was from finding myself, even I could never have guessed. Her writings oozed confidence, crackled with authenticity, made me feel strangely lost. She spoke of things spiritual, physical, emotional. Things that I could barely understand.

In her personal life, she had everything going for her, a good husband, beautiful children, a home, everything. And there I was - an orphan, unmarried at twenty five and living alone. I’m not saying that I had a bad life though. I enjoyed myself, hung out with my buds, looked cheerful enough to fool everyone, but inside, I felt myself dying a slow and agonizing death. My life felt like a cul-de-sac. A deserted one.

We got in touch one day, after she learnt of my existence. We became friends. For me that is saying something. I don’t really make friends. I like aloneness. I’m comfortable that way. And then I learnt that, really we were more alike than two people should ever have the right to be.

*****************************

We share a name, right down to the initial in the middle. Yet we are as different in nature and function as the protons and electrons in an atom. But we were inextricably bound by a fate beyond our understanding, into a single atom.

She was young, pretty, confident. She held down a good job, had friends, and at twenty five, she was not burdened by all the things that shackle me. She didn’t enter into a marriage at the age of eighteen, doesn’t have any children and best of all, she drives. She’s free. No restrictions. She lives life to the fullest, parties, meets interesting people all the time. She’s lucky. And best of all, she’s always known that she wants to be a writer. Unlike me.

I ‘fell’ into writing, after a depression brought on by ‘my life’. I’ve been through more pain at twenty nine than most people get to experience in a lifetime. I’ve known intense unhappiness, and elation. My life has been a series of summer storms, one after the other.

Her writing, unlike mine, is elegant, eloquent, fluid. It’s that head start. How else can you explain someone four years your junior being able to produce better poetry and prose than you ever will? Egos demand plausible explanations.

I learnt of her existence quite by accident. A friend had seen her blog, seen a picture of this stunning brunette and wanted to know whether that was me. Sadly, it wasn’t. Although I wouldn’t mind looking like that, but three children does things to your body, that time on its own can never accomplish.

I got in touch. Turned out that she’s known of me a lot longer than I have of her. We became friends. I grew to like her, in spite of my professional jealousy.

*****************************************

She has cancer. She’s dying. When I first learnt of her, I had never imagined that I would grow to love someone who I once saw as an identity thief. But I have. We share so many things, our love for the wild, love for contemporary poetry, passion for words. I’ve visited her. Her home is a lovely place. Feels like it could well be my own. There is a warmth there, the kind of warmth that I have never had the good fortune of experiencing. There is a purity too. As though I had found all the things that were missing in my life in her. And now she’s is dying. The doctors have given her a month.

I was angry at first. Why did this always happen to me? Was my love a curse? Were people who received it always meant to suffer?

We spoke. And then I understood. I understood what ‘meant to be’, that overused cliché, was really all about.

We’ve merged. She’s gone - her body. I’m her. She’s me. She’s taken all my fears, insecurities, doubts. She’s taken them to her grave. Her children are mine, her life is mine. I’ve found myself, at last.

© Saaleha Bhamjee - 2006

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Escape

We all need our band aids. Undoubtedly, ice cream is one of the best. But guess what? Today, she won!

a
taste
of
heaven
chocolate
strawberry and
and chocolate again
swirling around my mouth
seducing my taste buds with
melting words, and saucy secrets
tracing a cool path, of feather light caress
transporting me to a place
far from anguish and
a festering sorrow
a band aid for all
anger, lost love
going straight
to my heart
and hips
and

no
not today
I'm not a fan of 'Poetry Blogs' but hey, this one needed an audience. Regulars, please bear with me.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Seduction of Words

I waited each day
for the colour to come
in words and phrases
that I longed to hear
whispered into my ear
warm breath
against my skin
inflaming
igniting

Doomed communicators
languishing in an
unnameable, indefinable ocean
of words
double edged swords

left with a nebulous wondering
a startling wandering

words
and more words
caressing
comforting
often seducing
a zephyr
across the ether
bringing painful truths
and half truths
and promise

I willed it to stop
yet I willed it not
the splashes of colour
on the grey landscape
of my existence
stark relief
alarming
enlightening
seduction of words
that came
and came...


Many of the stories in the collection grew from a poem. This is the poem for 'The Right Thing'. Thought I'd share it with you.




Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Right Thing - Islamic Short Fiction

The words tripped over themselves in their haste to get out of my mouth, as though they were poisonous. I felt my insides shrivel up as I said them.
“I’m sorry Anees, but I don’t think that your calling me is suitable. I am married. My husband trusts me and I don’t want to betray that trust. You’ve been a wonderful friend. We’ve made some great memories, but my conscience tells me that this is the end of the road.”

Anees seemed so blasé about the whole thing.

“I understand,” was all he said and then the phone went dead.
I sat back on the couch and closed my eyes as tears trickled out at the corners. Why was it always so hard to do the right thing?

The aloneness and then loneliness crept up on me. I felt bereft. I had effectively uprooted the only plant of human kindness in the desolate garden of my life, just as it was about to blossom. What have I done? The trickle threatened to become a flood. I choked on it. It wouldn’t do - all this foolishness. I had Zaakir and Anees would find the woman of his dreams soon. It couldn’t be me. But that little nagging voice wouldn’t hear of it. You want to be the woman of his dreams, it mocked.

Zaakir was away on business and the house was like a tomb, silent - except for that irksome voice - and claustrophobic. I felt cold, entombed as I was in misery. I needed the sun. The park, that’s where I would go, the one by the lake. It was always full of happy families. Maybe I could siphon off a jar of that happiness for myself. I needed it. And once Zaakir returned it would become a panacea that would ensure my survival.

Zaakir of the steely grey eyes and metallic personality. Zaakir of the invectives and jibes at my barrenness.
“You’re not a woman. Real women bear children.” I could hear his voice pour the words into my ears as I gathered my keys and set out for the park.

Why had I married him again? Ah, yes, because my mother had wished it. He was a wealthy man. He’d provide for her. She needed providing for. She had, after all, worked her entire life to rear me and provide for me, single handed. It was pay back time. And now she was gone. When I had assisted the ladies to wrap her in the white calico that was her shroud, I had known that I was wrapping the only reason for my marriage. When she had been laid in her sandy resting place, I knew that the reason was being buried forever.

There was a time, in the early years of our marriage when Zaakir, in awe of my appearance, perhaps, had lavished his attention on me. I believed him when he said that he loved me. I had grown to love him in return. But when three years passed and our marriage remained childless, he began to carp. After a while the love dissipated like mist in the sun. The dregs of that love, was loyalty.

Thank Allah for that loyalty, or I’d have continued the long - distance- something with Anees. But there was no danger of that now. Today’s conversation had seen to that.

Anees - meeting him had been the strangest quirk of fate, an e-mail gone astray. I had been trying to re-establish contact with Salma, an old school friend, after my mother’s death. She had settled in the UK years before. I never reached her, but I found Anees instead. He was funny, witty and very gentle – the very antithesis of the man I called my husband. One thing led to another. I’m not quite sure when we passed from being friends to something more - it all seems pretty homogenous now.

While I revelled in the feeling of being cherished, needed, I was consumed by guilt. And so I found myself sitting in the park, on a warm bench trying to capture some happiness after despoiling my only chance at it.

As much as I attempted to drive away any memories of Anees, that little voice kept on mulling over it out loud – in my head. It reminded me of the many months we spent mailing each other several times in the day. It mocked at me with the IM – instant messenger - marvel of technology, that allowed us to explore one another, probe all the recesses, allowing me to feel that I had known him forever. He was a year younger than I, and divorced. Like me, he was emotionally crippled by a relationship that had fallen far short of his expectations. In our loneliness and neediness we found each other. It hurt that he had been so nonchalant. But then he could. He was, after all, in another continent.

The park was full of children running, climbing, jumping, mothers remonstrating, and fathers lazing about on benches, or helping little ones down from the slides. The waters of the lake were shadowy, muddy, gentle ripples inspired by the wind, marring the surface. I stared unseeing, out at the water. Absentmindedly, I watched a family on the opposite bank - a young couple with a toddler. Even from this distance I could see the love they shared. It was there in the way the man rested his hand against hers when he passed her something. Or the way his gaze lingered on her face when he spoke to her.

I was drawn to them in a strange way, as though they’d offer answers to the questions that screamed inside my head; as though they’d be able to silence the voice. I began to walk towards them. As I neared, I realised that there was something oddly familiar about the man.

No, it couldn’t be! My mind was playing tricks on me. The woman too. I must be dreaming. I felt faint; strength ebbed out of my legs; beads of perspiration formed on my forehead. I turned abruptly, too abruptly. I fell. The man ran over to me.

His eyes searched mine, grey - the colour of rain clouds. The woman stood beside him. An unmistakable glimmer of recognition flickered across her face. Salma, I’d found her. Or rather she had found me - in my husband.

Note: This is definitely copyright. Please do not forward it to anyone. Someday it will form part of a collection of South African Short Fiction. Wish me luck. I have many more to write before it is worth anything. If you enjoyed it, then you need to sign the petition. It's somewhere on this page, the petition for more Islamic Fiction. Sign it.



Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Irresponsible Dogma

When I was growing up, I considered the ultimate act of treachery to concede the faults of my parents. While internally I may acknowledge them to be there, I would never allow for anyone to voice what I was thinking, even though it may be the truth. Alhamdulillah, today, I am a different person. The world can dish out all the criticism it wants, the world can spout both the truths and half truths, and I remain unmoved. It does not change what I believe about my parents in the least. And what is it that I believe? Simply this – I love them, wholeheartedly, I have a huge debt of gratitude to them and I would do anything for them. Along with this I also know that they are human, fallible like every human through the ages has been. Like me, they have their faults and it is not disloyalty for me to admit to these shortcomings. My emotions do not preside over my judgement.

But in spite of what I’ve believed as a growing child, about the wisdom of people who have lived a lot longer than I have, not all these people have evolved in the same way. Consider one of the most emotive issues in the world right now, the issue of Lebanon, one which is inextricably linked to that of Palestine. Listen to the rhetoric on both sides.

The Zionists and their supporters: Israel has been in existence even before Palestine. It is our land we have the right to it. Hizbullah and Hamas would like to see us destroyed. They are stockpiling rockets and weapons with which to destroy us. The world media is biased in favour of the Palestinians. They refuse to see our side of the story.

All this said with conviction, an unshakeable faith that whatever excesses are committed on their side are justified. It is aimed at protecting what they believe is theirs. No matter how many new ‘terrorists’ (their word, not mine) are created when families are needlessly killed in retaliation for acts of ‘terrorism’, it is all for the greater good. It is all so that Israel can continue to prosper.

Hamas and their supporters: The Zionists want to redraw the map of the Middle East. They want Israel to extend from the Nile to the Euphrates as was the vision of their forefathers. We have been living here for centuries. They have stolen our land and they continuously try to steal more. The world is silent on the atrocities that they commit every day in order to achieve this end.

All this said with conviction, unshakeable faith that whatever excesses committed on their side are justified. It is aimed at protecting what is left of what they believe was once theirs. No matter how many new violent IDF soldiers are created during ‘suicide bombings’ (their word, not mine) when little children are sometimes killed, it is all for the greater good. It is so that they can continue to survive and prevent Israel from walking all over them.

Strange, how alike these two arguments are. From the outset, let me state that, more than anything I would like to see a free Palestine. I would like to see a free Palestinian people, a sovereign state, people living in dignity, which is the birthright of every human being. I do not want to see the destruction of Israel because what has been done cannot be undone. No matter how wrong I believe the events of 1948 to be, they cannot be retracted. We must press on, in a manner of speaking.

But I do not believe that by stubbornly clinging to a belief that I am right, this dream will ever be realised. It is true, that peace is the result of justice. But the justice has to be on all sides.

What then is the way forward? I spoke to a fellow journalist the other day, telling him, that as journalists, we have the duty to call for sanity in the world, rather than egging the fighters on, on the Palestinian side. The net effect of this, would be egging the IDF soldiers on as well and the result of this kind of thinking is more dead bodies.

We should be calling for pressure to be exerted on Israel in order to end the occupation. We should call for impartial (yes, this excludes the US) arbitrators to step in and force both sides to sit down and attempt to find an equitable solution. Naturally, because of all this rhetoric, and dredging up of the past, there will be festering distrust on both sides, but it is the only way out.

I said that the blood letting had to stop.

He laughed at me. I then asked him whether he believed that the Palestinians enjoyed being killed all the time. I asked him whether he really believed that they want their children to grow up with all this anger, this hatred.
“Yes, they don’t mind,” he said, “because they believe in what they are doing.”
I was stunned. It comes back to my childhood thought processes again. A belief that if people are mine, they can only ever be right.

Can we really be so blind? It takes courage to stand up against oppression by outside forces and it takes Herculean valour to stand up against your own when you believe them to be wrong. South Africa saw such people in the form of George Bizos. Israel and Palestine have them too.

But their voices are drowned by the irresponsible, dogmatic calls that perpetuate the bloodshed. All justice loving people around the world are called upon to join arms and end the killing. It is the only way out.