Ahmad, K.B. (2007). Plans in Pink published in Neither Night Nor Day, 13 stories by women writers from Pakistan. HarperCollins Publishers, New Delhi, India.
(I am posting this story here at the insistence of my friends who will just not stir themselves to buy the book and yet keep asking me about when it will be available online. Finally, I’ve given in.) Plans in Pink is the story that was revised and rerevised to suit the ideals of a few Pakistani editors and publishers and even then did not get published. After multiple rejections on this side of the border, I decided to leave it almost to its second draft format – stubbornness of a mother denying the flaws of a newborn child. Providing it space, I call it now and have never had reason to regret it. It was in this ‘almost 2nd draft’ form that it was discovered first by an Indian website hosting prominent writers from the subcontinent
and then later was picked up by Rakhshanda Jalil for publication in a book edited by her. I consider this story to be one of the major landmarks in my writing life as far as learning the ropes of the writing business is concerned. I hope you enjoy the delicate web as much as I enjoyed spinning it.
Do leave your comments,
Kiran Bashir Ahmad
Heaven apartments were pink in colour. Perhaps the builder had the pale tints of sunrise in mind when he built it, but no matter what rationale one chose to give it, the fact remained there that standing tall, stark and solid through three years of the glaring sun, the lashing rain, the smoking vehicles of one of Karachi’s major arteries and numerous leaking bathrooms of their own design – they were now a bright, gaudy pink in colour rather closely resembling the hues of a tomboyish girl’s kameez which had remained unwashed for over a week. The girl – she had a definite role or rather would have a definite role but for now – the colour…
On a more positive note, the colour did distinguish the long line of apartments from the other grey, brown or white structures in the vicinity, which was exactly what Samina had in mind while explaining the address somewhat hurriedly to her daughter’s tutoress. What could a workingwoman do when literally everything had to be done on a Sunday, cooking for the week, doing the previous week’s laundry and the list went on…
“Its pink!” she had been forced to scream into the receiver through the increasing noise of the static.
“What stink?” came through the rather confused voice of Valerie.
The message had finally got through after a moment of sheepish embarrassment on either ends of the line and now Valerie was putting down the receiver, chewing on her stub of pencil like a meditative calf as her eyes took in the litter of the once neat and tidy room where numerous students had diligently learnt their ‘oh so difficult English lessons’. She could almost picture Ali and Mishal, or Al and Mish as her mother had liked to call the twins, sitting together on the cushy sofa below the window and reciting Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”. It was a poem usually reserved for the 10th graders at which level it was taught in their school but Valerie chose to make an exception in this case, as the twins proved to be an exceptionally bright pair, who, at their twelve years of age understood the various nuances of rhyme as well, if not better than the dull 9th and 10th grader lot she usually tutored.
It was their mother Mrs Samina Tariq she had been talking to. A good natured, helpful and inordinately stupid woman was Valerie’s first impression of her and now as she again surveyed her flight schedule, she smiled and hummed to herself happy that her guess had been correct. Though how on earth her mother would manage to stay on in Samina’s house for a whole year was a mystery Valerie chose not to dwell on. It was causing her a headache and plus the thought – the very thought of finally being independent was overwhelming. “Yes, better not think about it.” She chose instead to think of Sam…Sam – Samina, back to Samina… Valerie could remember the look on Samina’s face when her mother had tried to call Samina ‘Sam’. She laughed to herself. Apart from that first blunder things had gone on smoothly.
Samina had been a gem. “Of course!” she had gushed, “I can understand how difficult it is for you now that you are going to Australia. Don’t you worry. She can stay with me till she sets things in order here and joins you.”
“It’ll only take around two or three weeks I’m sure,” Valerie had beamed at her.
“Oh she’s more than welcome! I will look after your mother like my own. The children can sleep with me…so much the better since Tariq isn’t here…” but that was all that Valerie had heard or had needed to hear, she was already far away, blissful in her thoughts of Australia where somewhere sunnysam, as his nickname on the net proclaimed, was waiting for her as he himself put it, “as breathlessly as if on the edge of a diving board.” Valerie could almost picture his muscular and fully toned body in the pair of swimming trunks along with a few other toiletries she had sent him a month after their online relationship had commenced, thanks to one of the more popular Christian dating websites, and a week after he had told her he was serious in his intentions and wanted to marry her. She had sent him the trunks and had in return received a box of twelve long stemmed roses; white with a blush of crimson at the edges. Mrs D’ Souza had been unexpectedly encouraging. Valerie again looked at the ticket – Valerie D’ Souza was printed neatly at the top – a one-way ticket to the land down under…and with luck she would never have to bear with her mother’s foibles again, not for a year at least till when she would have to arrange for her to come to Australia…that was her mother’s plan, but in the meantime Valerie hoped she would be able to locate a comfortable old people’s home…
I was looking into the strip of mirror embedded on my cupboard and only Valerie’s sheet of shiny black hair was visible to me, yet I knew she was thinking about the future. The future – the word came fully loaded – expectations, responsibilities and desires, but above all, uncertainty. I wondered whether I had done the right thing in allowing her to dream, then shrugged the troubling thought out of my mind. Had I ever been wrong? And Valerie after all was my daughter. She could take care of herself. I was sure of that. Hadn’t she twisted Samina round her little finger? Granted, that I had guided her but she had managed the last part quite well. I was sure that she would be able to do the same with Sam. Once she had the nationality, there would be no need of him. There was one problem though. She said she loved him. Love over what? A computer? I was sure, as I pinned up my grey hair in the pink butterfly clip I reserved for that purpose, that all the love would go right out the swimming pool once Valerie had a chance to compare a Pakistani-Australian banker’s lifestyle with that of her beloved swimmer. That the said banker, James, was also from our community made the package more attractive.
One part of my plan was complete. The house was sold, I had a place to stay and Valerie had her ticket. Now I only had to see off Valerie and then land up two weeks later in Australia myself, unknown to any but James and of course Samina. “Come to think of it, the only one, who did not know that my so-called lie to Samina was actually the truth, was Valerie!” She would thank me later. Plus I could always say that I meant it to be a surprise. Did she think I was actually going to stay on here like the rest of them – the greying old wives of greying old remnants of the 60’s? An unsightly lot I found them, ambling forward wearily like turtles, poking their sticks here and there nervously like mice scuttling the ground as they walked up the drive of the Grand Club periodically to play the same old Mah-jong or chess or bridge – oh they were all alike! Dull people with dull lives. The Lord alone knew how long I would live and as long as I did I wanted to see the world and secure my youngest daughter a good future as I had done with Melanie. Wasn’t Melanie now living securely in Canada where her husband – also one of my findings in the community – worked in the oil fields? The thought was intensely comforting; like a woolly blanket on this cold December night. She had also considered herself to be smitten by that fellow…what-was-his-name-now…It would be history repeating itself, nothing more.
* * *
The scrawny ginger and black speckled cat arched its back and tried to dive in deeper into the rotting rubbish pile beside a wall from which the pink paint was slowly peeling away. Its tail lashed out against the brutality of this cold December day. That its nameless and homeless existence would soon be changed by the arrival of a burly middle-aged female dressed also in a similarly shaded pink dress, was a matter far beyond its comprehension – for the moment at least.
Peering out the window of her third floor apartment in anticipation of her guest, Samina had a much better idea, that’s what she thought in any case, of the road on which things were to proceed. She had met Valerie’s mother – Mrs D’ Souza …come to think of it, she did not even know her first name – on two occasions only and had summed her up as a sweet old thing. A bit batty surely, but no harm in her. Her arrival would create quite a stir in the neighbourhood, but for her own purposes Mrs D’ Souza was the ideal person. After all, where else could she find someone who could manage her children in these winter vacations while she went out to work? She was sure that Valerie’s mother would prove to be an excellent housekeeper as well. Her first aim surely was to make her delay her flight and if that failed then a delay could always be caused…
The group of rag pickers stood staring at the gate – looks of mingled shock and awe writ large on their grimy faces. They stood staring for a minute and then as if on cue started sniggering at the sight of an old woman wearing… Could it be? A dress! They moved over gingerly to the boundary wall of the rubbish dump outlining the apartment blocks for a closer look.
“She’s a Mem Sahib!” said one in an awe struck tone, slipping over the stinking mound barefooted in his hurry to see a glimpse of her legs.
“You’re an idiot!” said one of the older boys cuffing him on the head with the younger one’s rubber slipper, which had fallen at his feet. He pulled him up. “Look at her face!” he said knowingly. “She can’t be one. Get back to work now.” The younger one was silenced and an assortment of cuffs and blows was enough to persuade the rest to resume their work. It would be much later in the evening when they would all be sitting on their haunches in front of Qalandar’s restaurant waiting for someone to donate food, that he would find out from the cart pushers of the area that she indeed was a foreigner by heritage and a non Muslim too!
For the time being he stole fervent side-glances at this new finding as the group rummaged in the dump for paper, broken shards of glass and even edible titbits for a change of taste.
“Meow!” the speckled cat was sniffing expectantly at his gunny bag.
He threw a stone at it, which caught it on the leg, and it meowed loudly and piteously.
It was this movement and then the meow that followed it, which drew my attention to the park beside the gate. Before this, I had been surveying the line of apartments in front of me while the taxi driver removed my luggage.
“Yes, they are pink,” I was thinking, “and yes, there is a stink too!” The pink heaven was standing tall before me, made more colourful by the washing that billowed gently from almost all the balconies.
Heaven apartments indeed! The rotting rubbish in front of it, the ragged little boys playing cricket on the rest of the land, the rag pickers sifting through the dump and the peeling paint outlined by yellowing pipes, made it look more like something out of a ‘Reality Bites’ TV Show! I nostalgically thought of my own comfortable flat, which had been sold off by now, and of Valerie’s tears when I had stopped her from going up the lift to see it one more time. That girl did have a tendency to get emotional. Just like her father, God bless him.
“Let bygones be bygones,” I had told her as I held her back. “Look towards the future!”
I had led her to the radio cab and we said our goodbyes at the airport – Valerie’s teary and mine, calm. Couldn’t really blame her for that of course. She had no idea that she would be seeing me sooner than she expected to.
I had spent the last few days in packing my stuff and the morning in handing over the keys of the apartment to the new owners. Now I smiled at my own joke as I stood outside my temporary ‘heaven-cum-haven’. This would be the final goodbye to my numbered days in Karachi.
All this and more was in my mind as my legs carried me easily across the ground to past the little urchins staring at me quite openly to where the rag pickers stood with their sacks over their shoulder also staring unabashedly. Nothing new for me, I knew they had little chances of seeing a woman’s legs and here I was, providing them with every opportunity to do so. The uncouth little brats! I admonished the one before me for hitting the cat and picked up the limping cat using the same handkerchief, which till then I had been holding to my nose. I have always loved animals. At one time I had eight cats and two children all in one flat. Now to see one in pain and move on would have been an anomaly. I carried it away still feeling their eyes at my back.
“No use,” I told myself, “some people never learn.”
Samina was watching the entire scene from above with no uncertain amount of trepidation in her heart. She hadn’t bargained on a cat entering the fray! This would have to be dealt with was her foremost thought as she left the window and headed for the door.
Flat number 20-C was the second apartment. I gave the rest a cursory look and signalled the driver to bring my luggage. Samina met me at the foot of the stairs. I had been framing the right words for a greeting when her shriek startled me. Her eyes were resting on the cat cradled in my arms. I held out my hand in greeting and she started sneezing and gesturing at the cat, which now showed an inclination to run away. I started to explain but there was a clatter above us and Mish’s braided hair bobbed into view. A moment later she had hugged me, kissed me and taken the cat from me with many ohs and ahs of concern. I smiled at her and felt the tension disappear from the corners of my lips.
“See you and me…same, same Pinky auntie!” she said tugging at her kameez and then my dress and indicating the colour.
Samina had stopped sneezing. I don’t know how else to describe it but when I looked into her eyes, which had a relenting look now, I had the uncanny feeling that I was being judged.
It was on the third day of my stay with the family that Samina asked me how long I planned to stay with them. I was surprised at the question but didn’t show it.
“I told you my ticket is booked for the 21st of December. I want to be there with Valerie on Christmas,” I told her.
She looked disappointed. “I’m quite delighted to have you here you know and so are the children and you did say that Valerie is going to meet her fiancé. Don’t you think she could do with a little more time on her own?”
“Good Lord!” I thought to myself, “does she really mean to saddle me with her children and the house while she goes out to work?” This was going beyond anything! My definite refusal was taken quite calmly. A bit too calmly I felt. Samina nodded, pressed my hand gently and expressed her regret.
My flight was on the 21st of December. A day earlier I had my luggage ready and it was night when I proceeded to check on the time of departure for my flight in order to cal the radio cab for the airport. That’s when I found that the ticket had simply disappeared. The 21st of December – the day I was supposed to leave in a radio cab, I left in an ambulance. I had just had a heart attack.
* * *
Gloria Park. The plaque still adorns the gate of a certain pink boundary wall and the children playing inside, if you bother to ask them about the unusual foreign name in a very close knit and obviously conservative Muslim mohalla, will tell you quite boastfully that it was one of their Pinky auntie’s influential friends who got the rubbish dump converted into a park for the sole purpose of allowing her young and inexperienced teenage attendant to guide her wheelchair in the open for much needed fresh air in the evenings and that Gloria was Pinky auntie’s first name which he put on the plaque as a tribute to her love for gardening. If you ask where you can meet her they will point upwards and say in heaven.
Pinky auntie must have been quite a favourite you will observe, for the children look both eager and bashful when questioned about her. Further questioning will reveal she used to sit with them at night and tell them all stories of Princes and Princesses and far away lands. The flat in which she lived was filled with uncles and aunties all the time and they would have taken her away if Mish baji, as the children call her in respect, had not become so upset at the thought of losing her friend. You will learn that she did lose her ultimately, as Pinky auntie passed away a month after her heart attack.
There is a ginger and black speckled cat watching you as you are listening to all this. At night when the children have ceased playing, it goes and looks for scraps under the benches lining the boundary wall. Sometimes it finds something and sometimes it doesn’t, but it simply curls up in either case near the place where the rubbish dump used to be and waits for pink lines to outline the edge of the night – a time when a girl with long plaits swinging behind her as she comes running to the edge of the park, will bring a portion of leftovers and hurriedly run away again with a swift pat to its head. Far away in another land across the oceans, another well fed and similarly speckled cat is sleeping peacefully on a rug as a brown hand strokes it gently and thinks of her mother who loved cats so much.