Dec 24, 2011

Black Magic

By Zoha Jabbar

The American awoke with a groan. The bed-covers were sticking to him, drenched in sweat. David thrashed wildly till he escaped the sarcophagus of heat, cursing loudly. He picked up his phone violently and left a message with the Embassy, "I hate Karachi. Get me out of here!"

The humid night pressed against the windowpanes, fighting to come in. He walked over to the windows and threw them open, but it was even more balmy and humid outside. A quick movement in the garden caught his eye, a little boy leaped over the wall and ran off into the plot next door.

David bolted down the stairs and out the front door to see what was going on. He tried to climb the same wall that the boy had leaped over, but it was too high. "How could he have...?" David ran his hands over his face, thinking that he needed to stop imagining things. Just then, he saw something white lying near his feet. He bent and picked it up, it was a skullcap, too small for an adult. He threw it over a wall, muttering, "Damn squatters!"

He made his way back to the house, thinking about the family of squatters that the Embassy had unceremoniously thrown out of the guest-house a few days before David had arrived in Pakistan. He made a mental note to tell the officials about this incident with the boy. He now wished he had kept the skullcap as evidence.

A shadow moved across the lawn. Startled, David looked up and saw something hanging from the porch light. As he neared it, a nauseating smell hit him with full force. Trying not to gag, he examined the strange thing dangling from the light. He reached out and touched it, immediately drawing his hand back as he felt warm feathers under his fingers. The object spun to reveal itself to be a dead crow, with a long horizontal cut across its middle, its intestines spilling out. David fell on all fours, vomiting copiously before he blacked out.
                                                                                 * * *

"David baba, wake up!" Someone was slapping his face lightly, he opened his eyes and found himself lying on the porch, his old Pakistani maid and her small daughter crouching on each side of him. "Get him some water," Gulshan said to the little girl in Udru. David slowly raised himself off the ground, and rubbed his face, sore from lying on the hard porch. 
"What happened to you, David baba? Why are you lying out here?" Gulshan peered anxiously into his eyes. 
"I don't know," David replied, "what happened to the crow?"
"Crow? What are you talking about? Let's get you inside."
He allowed himself to be led into the house.

"What happened to your hair?" Gulshan's daughter asked him shyly. His hand shot up to his shoulder length hair, and he found himself grasping at nothing. It was gone, snipped off at odd angles. His nails, too, were missing; untidily cut into twisted half-moon shapes.
"I didn't do this!" he said, panicking. 
Gulshan smiled at him, "You Americans and your drinking."
David shook his head vehemently, "I don't drink,  something's wrong." He narrated the little boy and the crow incident to Gulshan, whose expression of disbelief was quickly transformed to one of horror.

"Baba, you're a victim of black magic. That explains the hair and nails. In order to cast something upon you, a person would need your hair and nails. " She looked terrified. 
"Black what? No, they're just squatters messing around. They're angry about losing their resting place." His voice took on a tone of practicality.
"Do you have lemons in the house, David sahab?" the little girl spoke from behind them.
"Lemons?" he asked, confused.
"It's a simple way of checking," the girl replied, "you cut open a lemon to see if it looks normal. If it does, then you don't need to worry."

Gulshan and the girl went off to look for the fruit, while David collapsed onto a chair with his head in his hands., trying to process all that had happened. A scream pierced the silence. David ran to see what had caused Gulshan's daughter to shriek in such a bloodcurdling manner. She pointed to the living room window, from which they could clearly see a cat hanging upside down from a tree. It's head on the ground.
                                                                            * * *

They all gathered around as David sliced open the lemon, and all of them fell to the floor at the sight of it's blood-red interior.

Dec 21, 2011


By Alisha Sethi

With Christmas approaching fast, the scene at the North Pole was one of havoc and hysteria. Reindeers were excercising to build up strength for all the long journeys they would soon have to undertake ; Santa's helpers (the elves) were busy manufacturing goods in the factories; and last but not the least the Santas were sorting out their Wish Lists.Wish Lists were mailed to them early November and now the Santas were busy planning their itineraries, which house to visit first which to visit last and all that. However in the midst of all this madness, sat Martin, a most unhappy Santa, sulking in the corner of his cubicle. He had been in service for twenty years now, twenty long years of delivering presents and having kids pull his beard but not once had he been appreciated. Not once had he been made Star of the Year. He was fed up of his job, his life and the same monotonous routine that took place every year. Each year Martin's mind would race through the endless career alternatives that waited out there, he was not quite sure what they were but he knew that there were many and he knew that they HAD to be more exciting than being a Santa. He had been thinking of resigning since quite a while now but because of the severe consequences of leaving the profession, he just couldn't bring himself to do it. People didn't just become Santas, either you were born into the profession or you weren't, and he,Martin, was born a Santa. His ancestors had been Santas too, he couldn't just pack up his bags and leave. It was Forbidden.

On the 26th of November 2011, a miracle happened. His colleague,who had been with him in service since the start, couldn't remember his name.Ralph, looking around for an intern to deliver files to the office of the Head,saw Martin sitting at his desk and asked him if he was new. Upon looking at the appalled look on Martin's face, Ralph realized that he was mistaken and then made several attempts to recall Martin's name. Morris, Mickey and others were tried in vain before Ralph finally slammed the files on Martin's desk and told him, whoever the hell he was, that he wanted the files delivered to the Head right away. 

Something snapped inside Martin.

Suddenly all of the reasons why he couldn't, why she shouldn't, leave his job flew out of his mind and a wave of anger and determination took over. Fury raced through his veins and clouded all sense of reason. He marched up to the office of the Head, but not with the purpose of delivering the files.

Without knocking on the door, as required by unspoken and unwritten rules he banged open the door.

" That's it! I've had enough! I'm done! I want to resign NOW!", yelled Martin.

The Head, Sir Christopher Jones, looked taken aback at first due to the hard,blazing look on Martin's face, but then within a few seconds of the outburst, he regained his usual calm demeanor. 

" Excuse me? ", Sir Christopher said.

Martin retorted that what the Head had heard in the first go was right, that he, Martin was sick of being a Santa and wanted an out. Then without waiting for any further questions, Martin went on to narrate how much he loathed being invisible and doing a meaningless job.  The Head listened patiently and waited for Martin to finish, however after all the endless complaining was done all that came out of Sir Christopher's mouth was a simple ' No '. He told the elf sitting in the corner of the room to escort Martin out of the room. The elf, copying his boss' smug and sarcastic smile took an entirely bewildered looking Martin out of the room and then slammed the door on his face.

Though it was clear that the Head wanted Martin to forget the conversation ever happened, it was very difficult to do so. Not only had Martin not given up but also the constant whispering and muttering that always surrounded him these days made it very hard for him to put that little outburst out of his mind.He was greeted by stiff looks wherever he went. He could sense people pointing at him behind his back, referring to him as the traitor' or the rebel , the person who dared to go against tradition. Every Santa felt honoured to be part of a family which had for years engaged in a 'noble profession' and since Martin on the contrary loathed his ancestors for forcefully deciding his future the moment he was born, he was the Oddity. A disgrace to all Santas. Rumours quickly spread suggesting reasons why Martin could possibly want to leave service, some, the wackier ones, involved him wanting to be a disco dancer at a shabby pub instead.  His reindeers, who he thought for years to be his loyal friends, had also turned their backs on him. One of them actually assaulted Martin.

However Martin's sense of determination had not left him. He turned a blind eye and deaf ear to all the disapproval that surrounded him and worked on his plan with renewed vigour. His plan involved the father of the only kid that Martin had grown to like over the years. The father, Rupert, was a nutty scientist. When they had met last Christmas, Rupert had told Martin that he was working on a machine that could go anywhere in the world within a few minutes. The machine,which was called Rocker 007, was going to be complete roughly around the end of 2011. One phone call was all that was needed to put his plan in action. 

Exactly a week before Christmas when everyone was so busy that they had even forgotten to gossip about Martin, something rather starnge happened. The elves,busy in loading prepapred packages into trunks, noticed the sky grow darker.  The sudden lack of light was felt by many others who left whatever they were doing and turned to look up at the sky to discover a possible source of obstruction for the sun. And then they saw it. A flying rocket, atleast thats what it looked like, was coming down upon the North Pole fast. The moment it touched the ground all went dark and there was lots of screaming to be heard. The darkness though left as quickly as it came, and once the crowd had accustomed themselves to the sudden light they saw something which made their eyeballs pop. Martin, with a man on his side, was sitting in a machine full of what appeared to be suitcases. Then suddenly, a puff of smoke emerged from the engine of the machine and left a message in the sky:

                                                           SO LONG LOSERS!
The sound of Martin's evil laughter, echoed loud and clear in the ears of the baffled community of the North Pole.

The Cage

By Zoha Jabbar

They throw you in, ignoring your pleas of innocence. All they have is a shadow of a doubt, but it's enough. You land face-down on the gravel floor, pain jolting through your entire body. You gag at the pungent stench of urine that hovers over you, envelopes you like a shroud. The lights go off, plunging the tiny cell into darkness, interrupted by the pale light of a single, naked bulb that hangs overhead. You go over to it, like a moth, desperately in search of even the tiniest flicker of hope. You pace around the miniscule cell, a caged animal, trapped.

You long to rest your head on a pillow, but all you have is a hard bench, and you lie on it, looking up at the pitted, pockmarked ceiling. You close your eyes and try to pretend you're under the open sky, but not even the strongest, most vividly imaginative mind can escape the putrid stench that permeates every cell of your body.

You need to empty your bladder, but refuse to use that revolting urinal in the corner of the cage. Eventually, sleep, your temporary saviour, takes you in its embrace. A wetness rouses you. It's still dark, so you haven't slept too long. The smell is more intense now, you've wet yourself. You jump off the bench and huddle in a corner of the cell, iron bars, cold and hard, pressing into your back.

You're shaking, and sweating. You lean back and rest your head against a wall, but a smear of brown catches your eye. Hoping it isn't what you fear, but knowing that it probably is, you curl up into a foetal position on the floor. You breathe through your mouth, tasting the salt of tears. 

They find you like that the nest morning. A guard unlocks the door and struts in, jangling the keys, and evil glint in his eye. He says something you don't understand. And when you don't respond, he kicks you in the ribs, hard. You shrivel under his malicious gaze and he strikes again. You hear something crack.
"Answer me, you bastard!" He yells derisively.
All you can manage is a low moan, you try to move but the pain is unbearable. He kicks you again, this time in the stomach, and leaves, slamming the cell shut. His laughter, your rushing blood and pounding heart form a steady beat that ricochets off the walls of your mind. You slowly sink into darkness. 

You spend your days sitting by the door, fingering the metal bars, watching your fingers flex and unflex as you stroke the cold lines that separate you from humanity. You no longer wish for the things you yearned for all your life. You only want a pillow, and the open sky. You long for fresh air.

The light-bulb flickers and dies, throwing you into darkness that presses down on you like soil on a coffin. You weep silently at first, and then the deep, heaving sobs ripple through your body. You cry with luxuriant abandon. You surrender yourself completely to your tears.

You hit your head on the wall, and scrunch your eyes against the pain. You must continue on. You rear back and hit your head again. And again. You repeat this like a ritual. It is religious in nature, of course it is. You will keep at it until you see heaven and hell and the gods and stars. You feel pain flowing through you, but you know it will not last. Soon, the comfortable numbness will take you away. This is the only form of escape left, you must keep at it. You will keep at it. It's the only option. You hit your head on the wall, laughing at how simple it is to escape. You laugh and laugh, and hit your head on the wall again. So simple, it's a wonder you didn't think of it before.

Q) You are in Hell. Describe what it is like.

By Farwa Haider

The cold, steel walls of the elevator vibrated for a millisecond as it stopped on Level Nine.
The doors separated as a saccharine voice emerged from the crackling intercom.
“Welcome to the Ninth Circle of Hell. We hope you enjoy your stay no matter how long it may be. Thank you for riding Edison Elevators. ‘Edison- Nobody’s perfect!’”
I stepped out and immediately wrapped my arms around myself. It was freezing! I should have listened to Alighieri and instructed that I be buried in my fur coat.
The elevator vanishes, leaving only some disturbed snow behind.
The area looks barren and empty. I guess when it comes to the Ninth Circle of Hell people are fashionably late- and perhaps better-dressed as well.
All around me is a white and blue wasteland with mounds and mountains of snow and ice, higher and larger than Mount Everest itself.
The wind keeps blowing in my face. I touch my nose but it’s cold and solid. My nose is frozen!
In the distance, over the mournful wailing of the wind I hear someone scream “Avalanche!” The scream is very similar to the way that mountaineer screamed in Vertical Limit, the voice filled with terror and boldness- of all the words to scream, he screams the obvious. I guess we’re all here because we were bold, because we dared! Dared to rise above a world filled with concerns for others. Dared to live and win for ourselves and ourselves only! I wonder if Ayn Rand’s here too.
The thunderous sound of the avalanche is getting closer. And closer. And closer.
I keep tripping and slipping over ice. I don’t know where to run! I can’t see! This cold wind is like a sharp knife that’s been jabbed into my eyes. I feel a powerful tug on my shirt.
“Follow me!” says an urgent, husky voice.
My hands hang loosely by my side as my rescuer pulls and tugs and swears. I don’t know if he’s swearing at me of the avalanche or our luck.
“There is no luck in Hell. You make your own luck the same way you made it back home,” says a familiar voice.
Suddenly, the wailing of the wind, the thunder of the avalanche and the stabbing pain and numbness of my face disappear.
“You can open your eyes now”
I do so. The avalanche disappears down a glowing, gaping abyss. From afar it  looks like the ice floor cracked. Awful groans emerge from it.
My eyes! I can see again! They feel great, as if a jug of warm water was poured over them.
The terrain is still the same except that there are two people standing in front of me. One is a heavy-set, bearded man wearing a beaver and a brown leather jacket. There are dark circles under his eyes and he seems like the kind who can will a person to shoot himself.
Beside him is a tall man, lean with a wide forehead and a big nose. He has a gun slung over a shoulder and looks bored- Charleton Heston! He’s here too!”
“Are you going to stand there with your mouth open like a retard or praise my acting in Ben-Hur,” he said in a monotone.
Before I could stammer out a reply the other man says gruffly “Where the hell are we?”
“Why in Hell, of course. The Ninth Circle if you want details. Really! The fools they send down here are increasing by the number lately. I should complain to the big guy about this!”
“Big guy? You mean the Devil?” I say quickly. Heston just cocked his eye-brow and started walking.
“Let’s keep this nice and short. I have a spa treatment to return to. Welcome to Hell. Yes, there will be tests of your strengths, endurance and patience till you’re left pulling your hair out and begging God for forgiveness. Don’t worry. It’s not so bad here. We have therapy and spa treatments and Roman Polanski puts on a show every weekend. You’ll get used to it.”
It sure seems nice. People smile and nod at me as I walk by. Most of them have parts of their bodies missing but seem least bothered. I could get used to this.
“Oh Farwa, you’re here too? I always knew you were a bad egg!” a voice squeals in my ear. I freeze with horror.
Oh no! Kulsoom Khala’s here too? This truly is Hell!


By Nayab Tufail

A tray of “zarda” has always visually appealed to me like our very own desi version of the rainbow. Delicate, almost heavenly, saffron-hued basmati rice, boiled, sculptured by the soft, loving fingers of my grandmother into a flawless mound on the tray.Zarda at home was always decorated with as much care and perfection as the bride of our family. I remember once seeing the women of the house prepare zarda in the kitchen. After the mound was shaped, Ammi stuck in neon green crunchy pistachios and fragrant cardamoms, Chachi sprinkled flakes of snowy barfee, after which dadi plopped in the sticky miniature gulab jamuns. Once they were done , they looked at it with the pleasure of having created a work of art, and I looked at it with greedy anticipation, licking my lips.

The delight of popping a voluptuous, gooey gulab jamun into my mouth, from the untouched zarda tray is incomparable to any other mischevious pleasure I ever relished as a child. That pleasure was closely followed by the pain of Ammi twisting my ear , but then and even now, a gulab jamun is worth it all. When we were finally allowed to taste the coveted zarda I found surprises resting on my fork in every bite I was about to take. Sometimes jewel-like red jelly or a soothing clove, or a luscious sultana raisin and at times traces of the shimmering silver foil that garnished it. Zarda was the queen of foods, resting on the exclusive crystal tray,its throne. It exuded redolences of homemade rosewater and melting gulab jamuns- aromatic ecstasy. Every bite felt like heaven on my tongue. It was like the various diverse flavours mingled in my mouth, tickling my tongue playfully. It is now that I realize zarda might have really been a piece of art. A tray of zarda still always smells of the delicious love of my dadi jaan, the magic of eastern spices and my innocent childhood temptations.

Dec 15, 2011

The sunset? Or a mere reflection of my life?

By Ilsa Rashid

Q. Describe a sunset from the perspective of a sad person.

Have you ever noticed that hair-thin, black line on the horizon?
I never did either, until today. I had noticed the white sand reflect the sun’s rays. I had felt the water kiss my toes and shy away. I had felt the wind stir up melodies to which the gulls danced. Today, however, the horizon has my attention. It’s vivid, it’s defined—yet, it’s untouchable.

The expanse of graphite or deep Malva, as Rochelle put it, boasts great strength, vim and spirit. Like a raging beast it charges towards me, but merely strokes my feet with a frothy blanket. It’s like the storm within me once; full of anger, pride and argour. Who knew that my fate was like
the water’s; that after years of struggle I, too, would be as enervated as a tide on the shore.

The water is calm today. All I hear is the distant slosh of waves, the cry of a few gulls and from somewhere inside me, resonant silence. I’m amazed how much the ocean and I have in common. Of course, the only exception is that the ocean is home to billions, where I myself am homeless. Lost. Rejected.

The sun castes almost fluorescent rays of crimson that travel all the way to me, casting the spotlight I never got—or deserved—as they said. My eyes follow the golden trail the sun has laid for me, inviting me to it… No, I’ve burnt enough. I’d rather not walk it.

By now, the sun itself is defeated. I feel better knowing that I’m not the only sinking, grieving and descending into a Stygian death. Nevertheless, I’m jealous. The fireball has everything I don’t; fame, respect, notoriety and life. It will rise again with energy and vitality where I will immerse into the gloom of these murky waters.

It’s hard to ignore the sky in the background. The backdrop is painted in lively shades of yellow and peach where it meets the water and merges into strands of purple of the thin veins on my hands in winters. It finally opens into that blue everyone associates with hope and peace and freedom. Don’t you think it’s the most haunting of all colours? It’s empty, it’s hollow and it’s intimidating. It’s the sad colour of dismay, betrayal and of a lingering threat behind a beauty. Rochelle sure looked beautiful in that colour.

Soon, it will be dark.
Soon, the sun will surrender to death, and so will I.