Warped Shadows

a novel

1. Jasmina

Sharp taps on my front door. Who could be out there so early in the morning? I peep through the opening in the window curtain. Nothing I can see in the murky mist. Peril lurking in the pea-soup fog? The indignant wind gods the Anemoi inhaling the savage smog out for revenge?

Continuous short and long taps as if someone telegraphing is my name: di-dah-dah-dah di-dah di-di-dit…, but I cannot see anyone out there. My mind goes back to an earlier time in my life. Morse code for my name I had learned earnestly as a girl guide

Butterflies in my stomach, my eyes glued to the window. Slowly a silhouette appears, turns into a bluish blob as it walks towards the door.

‘Can I come in, Jasmina?’

Who could that be? No one here knows my name; my first morning in my new house in a new city. My lips buttoned up in fear, my heart trembling. I draw my dressing gown together, my body armour. Look for a butter knife, my Excalibur sword.

‘I live in the block of flats down the street,’ the voice continues—the soft, melodic voice of a young boy. ‘Not as fancy as your new house but still cosy.’

After drumming up a wee bit of courage, I opened the door and let him in. ‘How could you knock at my door from so far away,’ regaining my composure, I wonder loudly.

‘Don’t be spooked by this action at a distance,’ he says as he walks in dim light towards the living room. ‘It’s a simple matter of bending Newton’s gravity.’

What a boy! Trying to impress an old woman as if I was his new girlfriend. Practising, perhaps.

‘Or a matter of bending the mind?’ I mutter, thinking that fear makes the mind irrational. We humans might be the most intelligent beings on the planet, but our minds are inherently lazy; they subconsciously rely on shortcuts to make crazy conclusions, such as turning random sounds into orderly Morse code taps.

‘I help neighbours with their computers,’ he continues ignoring my comment. ‘I thought you might need some help.’

‘At this ungodly hour?’

‘Not ungodly for yoga devotees waiting for sunrise for their daily sun salutations.’

‘What do you mean?’

 He ignores my question and continues, ‘I was passing by when I saw the lights on upstairs. Some writers start working early in the morning to brighten up their creative minds with the bursts of the golden dawn, I reckon.’

 ‘You have been to this house before?’ I ask absent-mindedly, wondering: How does he know I’m writing my life story? A long time ago, I was a journalist in a faraway land, but no one here knew about my past.

‘No, it’s the first time. The old couple before you feared computers as if they were ghosts. Devil’s tool, the old man shouted and pushed me out when I went to see them. His eyes alwayhttps://www.zingmagic.com/bridge/BridgeBidding glued to his old cathode-ray TV screen; his brain roasted by radioactivity. Now in a nursing home. Cancer, I reckon.’

I turn the lights on. I’m kind of mesmerised as the boy continues talking, his face solemn as a choirboy singing in a cathedral, ‘Now you see these 5G towers everywhere; they emit lethal rays that burn your brain. You can’t even stop them by wearing aluminium foil-lined baseball caps. They create new kinds of viruses in the air. The deadly viruses that can wipe us all out in a global pandemic. Never walk near them and never buy a 5G phone, Jasmina. I’m warning you.’

He takes off his jacket and tosses it on the floor as he might have done in his house if his mother was not watching. He touches a silvery necklace around his neck and says, ‘You have to wear one of these anti-5G necklaces to save yourself. Jesus saves but not from 5G nastiness.’ He pulls up a chair and sits at the kitchen table, his hands clasped and elbows resting on the table. ‘What’s for breakfast? I love pancakes.’

[more to come]

© Surendra Verma 2021

2. NISHA

Fucked by a fickle finger of fate. This phrase sums up my life. An innocent life totally fucked up by a fucked-up beast. Brace yourself for a heart-wrenching story. Pour yourself a stiff drink. Make it double, as Jasmina did when I told her my story. In the winter of 1970. The day after, Jasmina’s benefactor VJ died under mysterious circumstances, as the police report said. Murdered he was.

The day my story begins appears in history books as the day in 1947 when British India mutated into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. The first day of a Mahabharata-like family feud that never ends. A dark, diabolic, despairing day that turned into a cold, creepy, constant reminder of our primal inhumanity. In my mind, the day is imprinted on some stubborn brain cells that refuse to die and do not let the trauma fade away with time.

It was a warm and humid August morning. The sun was playing hide-and-seek with clouds, oblivious to this clichéd concept. Thundery, dark monsoon clouds. The kind of clouds that bring smiles of hope on the worried faces of farmers and innocent faces of schoolchildren. Heavy rain brings a good harvest, and perhaps a school holiday, a rainy-day holiday. Two millenniums ago, such a cloud made Kalidasa wonder, Can a cloud bear messages that only humans can convey? In Meghaduta (Cloud Messenger), the Indian Bard exhorts the cloud to bear a message from a lover parted from his love by God’s wrath. But I had no need for such a messenger. When you are nine, clouds are merely clouds. They can only carry rain. The rain that forms large puddles of water. Puddles that become home to tadpoles, cute little tadpoles. Tadpoles that turn into ugly frogs that croak day and night.

Wearing a baggy salwar kameez, I walked to school with a muslin bag hanging from my shoulders. No. I was running, jumping over puddles, humming a Punjabi folk song, Lathe di chadar ute saleti rang mahiya, aa baho saamne bhavein de baho kand maahiyaa, my school bag swinging on my hips. The bag had nothing but a grey slate in a wooden frame and a slate pencil. And my lunch: a stuffed potato roti laced with delicious mango chutney. I was a sunny and smart girl and amazed my classmates by doing big sums like multiplying 2788 by 360 on my slate in seconds. Sometimes I would draw a map of Australia on my slate, and inside the map, I would draw a strange animal I called kaangaa-roo and then I would put my hands on my cheek and hop and dance and sing in a funny language. And children would form a circle around me and imitate me.

When I reached my school in a small town near Lahore on the Lahore-Amritsar railway line, I didn’t hear the usual cries of ‘Nisha, Nisha, come, come, play with us’ from my classmates. I was surprised to see all children and teachers gathered outside the schoolhouse. They were surrounded by some fifty men carrying guns and swords. A white-bearded man was carrying a green flag with a white crescent in the centre and a five-pointed star hoisted on a long bamboo pole. No one told me that they were staging an outdoor play this morning. I quietly joined my class.

Mrs Qureshi, the headmistress, was addressing the assembly. The other two teachers, Mrs Bedi and Mrs Sood, were standing next to her. Their pale faces and trembling hands betrayed Mrs Qureshi’s calm and confidence. I could only understand from Mrs Qureshi’s speech was that my town was no longer in India. It was now a Pakistani town. Pointing towards the flag, Mrs Qureshi said that Pakistan’s leader, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, yesterday raised our national flag in Karachi …

‘Begum, cut the crap and ask Muslim children to go inside the schoolhouse and Hindu children to assemble near the flag,’ shouted a man with a long beard brandishing a ten-times longer sword in his hand.

Fatima, my friend, whispered to me, ‘He is the mullah of our mosque. He is Mrs Qureshi’s husband.’

‘I’ll never do such a thing,’ Mrs Qureshi said in a defiant tone and started reading loudly from a piece of paper, ‘Children, in his speech Quaid-i-Azam said: You are free; you’re free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan.’

A wrestler-like big man with a twelve-bore gun slung across his left shoulder and a shining sword in his right hand pointed the sword at Mr Qureshi’s neck, ‘Maulvi, divorce this bitch right now, otherwise I will cut your head before I mow down these little Hindu bastards.’

All other men pointed their guns or swords towards Mr Qureshi and shouted, ‘Enough is enough. Do as Pahalvan Sahib say. Divorce her, and then we can deal with her.’

In a trembling voice, Mr Qureshi said, ‘Begum, talaq, talaq, talaq.’ Mrs Qureshi was now a divorced woman as her husband had said the Arabic word talaq to her three times.

[more to come]

© Surendra Verma 2021