Written on the pale wall, the slogan greeted her on the first day of her job. She was standing in a dimly lit, narrow reception area. It was desperately in want of a receptionist as there were no visible directions about where she was supposed to go. She gathered her teal patterned muffler and covered her face as a protective response against her nerves, which were threatening to overcome her resolve for a yearning for the signature hustle and bustle of a London evening filled her. But there was only the mild noise filtering from the bar above to keep her company. Previous day’s events ran before her eyes like that of a play she had watched repeatedly.
She was clutching a letter in her hands that congratulated her on securing a position. A position which she had never applied for. But it incited her interest many degrees more than the prospect of engaging with an unknown family and educating their children. A tedious but also the only other means of earning for her. Curiosity coupled with the greed of being called the 1st woman to be selected for the work of such a unique nature motivated her. She looked at the letter again for reassurance. .
The SLitS Headquarters,
October 16th, 18____,
As per our previous correspondence, we offer you the said position. Consider this letter your official appointment. Please take note that you, under no circumstances, are to show this to anyone. If you want to decline, then burn the letters and speak no word about them. However, if you were to accept, then we request your presence at The SLitS Headquarter (basement of The 1888 Bar) today at sharp 20:00.
May the Power of Words shine over you!
Secret Literary Society.
She ventured forward and after a few minutes located a spiral staircase leading deep into the building.
A year later
She was standing in the lavish garden of a grand mansion that she was to enter in due course. The paper in her gloved hands read,
“Story-telling is not mere escapism. It is more real than reality; truer than the truth.”
Chilling air cut through despite her heavy corset, abundantly ruffled bustle skirt, and a copious amount of hosiery. Her ample bosom peeked out of the sensuous V-neck of her bodice, which was tighter than the pursed lips of her mother, when she lost her temper. A Gainsborough hat covered her curls, except for a few strands that were let loose purposefully. While her figure was plump in all the right places, her face — if not flattered with hair — heavily inclined towards corpulence.
She looked about her anxiously. It had taken her more than the standard 3 days to avail the invitation to this ball. She had almost lost hope, except in her line of work, one did not have the luxury of giving up. She sighed and threw back her shoulders before she entered the royal venue with a lady-like gait she had been practicing for a month.
Blood-red carpet covered the floor of the gigantic hall. Draping the 7 feet tall windows, the satin curtains in a shade of deep burgundy shielded the room from the gloomy weather outside. Within a few moments, she had detected her target and was moving towards him but was hindered by her hostess. As guided by her mentor at the SLitS headquarter, she fended off the emergency by cutting her off mid-dialogue without appearing curt or disregarding in the least.
She noticed that the night was advancing fast. Soon the mad chaos of colliding bodies in the jolly ritual called dance will ensue. It would be impossible to get hold of her target then. She decided that it was time to make her move. But —
“A woman of exceptional beauty in a room full of prospective grooms, interested not in even one of them only falls short in terms of suspicion to a handsome bachelor, with a large income and handsome disposition yet who was not pursued by a string of women,” said a velvety, almost intoxicating voice.
She stopped dead in her tracks. Her eyes closed in a gesture of frustration, not unlike someone who was caught in the midst of performing an illegal deed. With great difficulty, she brought herself to face the watchful eyes under the drooping upper lids of this man of extraordinary eminence.
He was towering her 5 ft. 4” figure by a good 8 inches. Devoid of his wide-brimmed hat, sporting a tuft of curled hair neatly separated in a straight middle parting, and dressed in a silk frock coat of indescribable brown hue, he looked a character from the 17th century.
“Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde,” she curtsied and offered him her hand.
His Grecian features transformed utterly as he boomed with laughter and kissed her outstretched hand.
“It is odd you presented your left … ” He lost consciousness mid-sentence. Her backup had caught him and transferred him into another room before he had completed his fall.
By the time, Wilde came to his senses, a crucial piece of information had been exchanged between the 9th Marquees of Queens-berry and a charming lady who was never again seen in the same circle. It was an information that could char the name of a certain Lord Alfred Douglas for debauchery of inconceivable nature.
“A few years and his work would have bestowed upon him success and popularity,” she told a mysterious man in black, “Why did we do this to him?”
“I may not have foreseen the level of injustice they perpetrated on him,” said the man but without even a shred of remorse in his voice. “Nonetheless” he added, “Our actions have only made him immortal.”
“Because that is our job,” she retorted, “We kill wordsmiths to immortalize them.”
The man had had enough. “His work is larger than his life and our sins,” he told the girl he had recruited a few years ago, “Besides,” he said adjusting his bowler hat on his head, “He isn’t dead, yet.”
A strange woman visited the most controversial prisoner of his time. What a scandal! thought everyone at the prison.
The powers that be had wanted to keep the whole affair a secret; thus, it was on every tongue like the other secrets of the literary world. Why was every great writer afflicted with misfortune? Why was there always a back-story about the best of storytellers? These were more than mere coincidences. Spicing up the lives of great writers was the job for which our protagonist had been hired!
“Why have you come here, dear lady?” questioned a prisoner whose glory and dignity had been drowned in a gong that still echoed “Shame!” “Shame!”
A veil covered the face of the woman in black, but he knew who she was. He looked down at the gloved hand more lethal than the most venomous serpent living in the depths of the African jungles.
“Apologizing will not absolve me or undo my deed,” she said in a sepulchral tone, “I want you to remember who you are irrespective of what happens in this dreadful place.”
She offered him her hand again. This time it was the right one.
“De Profundis,” wrote the queer prisoner on a sheet of paper that night.
Sorry for being MIA for so long. But the promise of a story still stands. It is not much of story and more of a jumbled up thoughts of a disturbed mind on a long sleepless night.
Without further ado, here you go:
The Miracle of a Dream
She was standing in a desert. Everything was barren just like her life. The meager plants had turned inside themselves for sustainability. The few rodents and reptiles had hidden under the many layers of glistening sand. Only the sun was abundant, busy drying each grain it touched. Why, she thought, even my dreams are empty.
A boy tapped at her shoulder. She looked around, slightly startled.
“What are you looking for?” He asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied truthfully.
“But,” he said with a smile, ” You never not know.”
“You mean to say we always know?” She said.
He shook his head. “No. That is not what I meant.”
When she continued to look baffled, he ventured, “Always knowing would be like knowing exactly what needs knowing. What I meant is you are never completely clueless. There will be some hunch…intuition.”
The next morning she woke up fresh. Her mind was made. She knew what to do. It was all clear in her dream. She will just trust her instincts!
She did. She told the one the one thing she had wanted to tell him.
Like all her hunches, decisions, and wishes, this was also wrong… terrible and utterly wrong.
‘Who should I trust if I can’t even trust myself?’ She thought. A life full of uncertainties was ahead of her, with death, the only certain eventuality!
I can’t speak for other people because their minds are not on the list of places I had checked into but my own thoughts, I have visited often. Thus, I know the questions that arrive in this desolate place I call my brain. They used to be simpler and consulting a parent, a friend or a teacher sufficed. Yet, they grew complex. I can’t say on which exact date the change happened. All I know is that now, I have queries with no answers.
The people I used to look up to are as much confused as I am. When they had no replies to my wandering abstractions, they silently accepted me as their own.
“Congratulations! You have crossed the threshold of black and white. Welcome to the Grey zone where everything is muddled up,” they informed me.
I cannot turn to them with my pleas no more.
I have learned to ignore my mind, my conscious, and its ramblings but it continues to gnaw and nag me. When the tossing and turning of these contemplations chew away a chunk of my brain, I go to Google. If natural intelligence is failing me, I try artificial intelligence. If nothing else, it kills time. Afterward, I am left with a hundred new types of hopelessness.
The familiar wave of despondency engulfs me. I smile. The exhaustion takes over my senses and I sleep. My brain, however, stays awake bringing me fresh thoughts from the realm of horror to ponder over in my dreams. Sometimes, the audacious bastard brings forth pleasant fantasies of a time to come or a few cherished moments from the times gone past. There is nothing wrong with the latter as long as you are asleep but the moment, the first surge of consciousness hits me, all the niceness melts into a sharp tinge of longing that slowly settles into my mounting melancholy.
The hustle of the day conquers my being and the cycle repeats.
The dead screen of my old Nokia phone sprang to life as my rather annoying ring tone pierced the silence of the empty auditorium. I ignored it.
Ba Dum TSS
Another beep. My 6-year-old niece had set this tone when she was visiting me with her Mama. I kept the tune because it reminded me of her and made me smile. I am a sentimental fool. I often wonder if my students have any idea how ordinary a person I am. They idolize me for my radical philosophies. Little do they know, I only play a part, since impressing them is my job. The other day, I heard one of the boys comparing me to Iron Man. I have no such delusions. At the most, I am Groot — the little one!
The phone stopped buzzing. Safe to handle, I thought. A few missed calls and two messages from the same number! I opened one of them.
“Your short story has won second prize. Congratulations! Time to celebrate. PBS.”
PBS was my editor-cum-publisher. I should be dancing joyously for my huge accomplishment — international recognition and an actual prize! I tried to smile but my cemented jaws did not permit me that indulgence. The spacious hall felt claustrophobic. I pocketed my phone, hung my bag, and left the lecture hall.
I needed fresh air. I decided to walk home instead of taking the bus. I retrieved the manuscript of my story from my satchel. I had been carrying this copy with me since the past seven years. PBS got his hands on it just a year ago. Before that, it had visited the desks of at least 50 different publishers. At one time, my friends used to joke that every publisher in America must have read and rejected my story at least once in their career.
“What is the most common interview question for an editor/publisher’s job in America?” one of my comrades told this joke on every gathering.
“Have you rejected Khizer Hassan’s story? And if the applicant’s reply is in the affirmative, they hire him on the spot.” My friends are jerks!
I glanced at the loosely bound white sheets, heavily edited by PBS. I read one particularly red paragraph.
“The h̶a̶z̶e̶l̶ colored eyes of the little boy were devoid of all emotion except for hatred. The abhorrence was a reflection from the weapon pointing at his chest. The P̶a̶l̶e̶s̶t̶i̶n̶i̶a̶n̶ boy had acknowledged defeat. ‘Perfect’, thought the war photographer as he captured the expression in his camera. It was art, for which he will win many awards.”
I looked away in disgust. My cellphone was now ringing incessantly. Congratulations were pouring in. “Finally! =P,” my clown of a friend had texted. I put it on silent mode. I forced myself to look at another paragraph.
“The woman was begging them to spare her. Yet, their hateful lust was not familiar with mercy. T̶h̶e̶y̶ ̶p̶u̶l̶l̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶h̶e̶r̶ ̶h̶e̶a̶d̶s̶c̶a̶r̶f̶,̶ ̶l̶a̶u̶g̶h̶i̶n̶g̶…”
There was no other mention of the character’s ethnicity/religion in that part and so there were no other edits either. My house was only a few strides away. I decided to stop at the nearby café for a cup of coffee. As I went through the rest of the story, sipping my scalding espresso, I registered various replaced, marked, and deleted words. I̶s̶l̶a̶m̶,̶ ̶M̶u̶s̶l̶i̶m̶s̶,̶ ̶F̶a̶i̶t̶h̶,̶ ̶P̶a̶l̶e̶s̶t̶i̶n̶e̶,̶ ̶R̶o̶h̶i̶n̶g̶y̶a̶,̶ ̶K̶a̶s̶h̶m̶i̶r̶,̶ ̶I̶s̶l̶a̶m̶o̶p̶h̶o̶b̶i̶a̶, so on and so forth.
PBS had cleansed it thoroughly. There was not even a shadow left of the context I wrote it in. I recalled my meeting with him. I was visiting my sister in the States when he had called me. He needed to discuss the story with me.
“Khizer,” he had said, “Great literature is never specific. Reach out to everyone.”
“That will just murder my perspective,” I had protested, “The pleas of my people will drown in the sea of this generalization.”
This offended him. In those 6 years, he was the only one to recognize the potential in my tale. I didn’t want to tickle him the wrong way. Yet, I couldn’t stop feeling that he missed the whole point of my work.
“Everyone has rejected your story,” he said. “Because of its political incorrectness. Stick to your stubbornness and you can spend the rest of your life with this manuscript dangling at your side.”
He hurled the pages towards me, gesturing for me to leave.
When I reached the door, he added, “Or you can always publish it with any of your local publishers.” He sniggered and lighted a cigar.
I can’t say if his demeaning behavior made me do it or my desperation to see the work of my life in print, but next day I submitted the story to him.
“Publish it,” I told him and he beamed with victory.
“Keep the edits,” I added in a small voice, rather unnecessarily. He returned me the battered manuscript. He had a soft copy.
I was home now. I found the published version of the story and read the heart wrenching tale. I could tell that every mother reading it will shed tears at the little boy’s death. Every mother, I thought, Muslim, American, Israelite, Indian… I pictured how the rape of the innocent woman will break everyone’s heart into a million pieces. The suffering of humanity will move them. They will tell each other what a touching story this Asian guy has penned. “So relatable, given the current situation of the world,” one of them would say, imagining the atrocities their race might be facing. “So true,” their friend would reply thinking of their own pains.
Nobody will grasp my side of the story. Being politically correct has robbed me of my opinion. I know it’s a nice a story but not the one I wanted to tell.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, entities, or actual events is purely coincidental.
‘Super’ is what they called me
‘Magical’ was how I was described
when all failed, I was the one who survived.
I saw my fellows wither,
For they could not compete
against the changing times.
Then said the world ‘Goodbye!’
I endured it all,
season after season.
I grew stronger,
With every passing obstacle.
The harsh weather didn’t cut me through
And the head wind lifted me high!
It was the loneliness
that has stung the worst.
But since I had suffered a lot
and adapted according to my fate,
the nature gave me a mate.
We reproduced and multiplied!
Best of the genes, we passed on,
for my counterpart too was
a breed quite high!
Sooner than I’d liked it to be
The time to depart arrived
‘What was the point of toiling through
if at the end of it all,
I had to die?’
The Reaper,however, yawned
Disnterested in my thoughts.
It had a job and I had to oblige.
My only solace after my demise:
‘I had done well in life’
There was a progeny
most likely to succeed
In the world I had left by
‘In my future generations,
I will live forever’
The consoling thought
made me smile .
In the Afterlife, I met my old colleagues
It bemused me to see them so satisfied.
I spent time watching over my kith and kin.
While those losers sat and enjoyed.
‘It is because they have no one,’
I smirked day and night.
Then it happened that shook me through.
The word for which I lived and died,
with a bang, it was destroyed.
What were my troubles for?
The extreme pains I had gotten by.
The world for which,
I had planned and strategised
Like a puff of smoke in the skies.
I wish I was someone else… anybody’d do except this person that I am. I wish I could craft like some of my friends do. Beautiful gifts they create out of random, most useless stuff. All I have ever done is destroy everything. Or I could clean like a washing machine or perhaps like a vaccum cleaner but heck… I can’t even clean like humans do.
I want to cook too. Like a chef or even better… like my mom. Yet, eating is the only art I know.
I wish I was not so tired always. I wish all the fantasies I have of completing some amazing projects turn into a reality. Peeling off vegetables, changing sheets, taking care of house decor…
Why is it so hard to get out of the bed? Some days I’d like to metamorphose… like that Kafkan Gregor. Is there anyone out there who will silently put their foot on me and whistle a bit… to cover the sound of my shrieks ?
“Saab! This is the finest, the juiciest item, I have here,” the shop-keeper was advertising a product to a handsome gentleman.
I threw a shy glance in the said customer’s direction. With an immaculate garb, that must have taken him a few hours to assemble, the youth gave the airs of an elitist dandy. The scornful look, he had fixed on the carefully skinned poultry, only strengthened my apprehensions.
“Under normal conditions, I won’t be here, buying meat,” he was saying, “I have employees for such jobs.” What a snot! I thought.
“Today is a special occasion though so I will inspect the poultry myself, which judging by this lousy flesh you are offering me is not up to the mark,” he continued, “This has gone soft. I want it to be tender but firm.” Impossible expectations, I thought.
The butcher looked disappointed. He was hoping to get rid of that chicken today. It was not a fresh product, and he needed to sell it ASAP. Yet, that didn’t stop him from showing better stock to this young man. He couldn’t afford to lose a customer of his stature over a rancid hen.
The arrogant buyer selected the healthiest bird from the livestock that was cooped up inside various cages, which stood over one another.
He handed over his pick to the storekeeper and said, “I take this reluctantly. It is not up to my standard but then I am very hard to please!” He smiled. The effect it had on his features was singularly grotesque. Good looks, despite their legendary powers can’t cover the flaws originating from an unpleasant disposition, I thought.
Meanwhile, the chicken-seller sealed the fate of the fat hen with a swift yet powerful blow. Then he said, “Saab, don’t mind my asking but what is the important event?”
The abhorrent smile deepened as he answered, “A girl and her parents are coming to our place. You know, a marriage proposal. She might be the one although I doubt that very much. Standards!” He winked at the butcher, received his now neatly bagged meat, paid, and left in a hurry.
The shop-keeper pocketed the money greedily. He proceeded to hang the naked bird that nobody wanted on a wire. He had to display it; he was desperate!
I gazed after the fading figure of the self-indulgent buyer. I had played the role of the chicken in the society for too long. I knew, by experience that he will choose his wife, the way he had bought his meat. A woman or a chicken, at the end of the day, is nothing more than a piece of flesh!