He had been sitting there for quite a while as he had reached before time. Clad in his best button-down shirt, khakis, and polished brogues, he was an anachronism in the quaint café frequented by college students and young professionals. Assaulted by bold stares and muted whispers, he had taken refuge in his smartphone. To the same page, he had probably visited a thousand times in the past couple of months.
There she was. Smiling at the world with eyes that twinkled. He couldn’t remember when he had smiled like that. Probably never. He had been a brooder who spoke little and smiled even less.
The tinkling bell signaled the arrival of another guest. He looked up and found himself looking at the face from the mobile. The whispers gained in volume as she headed straight to his table, her cropped silver hair framing her face like a sparkling halo, the daintily embroidered chiffon saree enveloping her like gossamer.
“You look older than I thought,” she said as she sat opposite him.
“You look prettier than I thought,” he mumbled, surprised at his own bravado.
“Liar! Flirting with a wrinkled old lady. Your intentions do not seem at all proper!” she exclaimed and he flushed crimson.
“Age is just a number,” he stammered.
“And so are BP and glucose figures. You have no right to raise my levels, sitting there, looking so handsome. I’m sure the collective heartbeat of the room has doubled in rate since you’ve been here.” She retorted in the same breath.
He realized with wonder that his lips had twitched into a probable smile.
How long had it been? Six months?
He ordered some black coffee which arrived immediately. She ordered a blueberry muffin, raspberry truffle cheesecake, and a cream vanilla latte with extra sugar.
As he listened to the suicidal order, she winked at him. It resulted in him gulping a large mouthful of the steaming coffee and burning his insides. As he spluttered, she gave him a dimpled smile and said,
“Serves you right. You were being all judgemental at my order. You wouldn’t be if you tasted the heavenly cheesecake they serve here. I have a very strict diet and even stricter children who ensure I follow the stupid diet. Today is my day to be wild.”
As soon as the order was brought, she attacked the cheesecake with gusto, stopping only after the last crumb was devoured. She leaned back with a sigh.
“You should eat something. At your age, keeping glucose levels in control is important. Try the muffin. I’m willing to share.” Another dazzling smile.
“Why are you so quiet? You’re far more loquacious in writing.” She inquired as she slurped her latte, licking the froth off her lips with childlike abandon.
He wanted to say so many things but didn’t know where to begin.
“You rrr…write so well. I have rrr…read all your poems,” he stammered.
“You’re repeating yourself. Not that I’m complaining. Your words are music to my ears and a balm to my troubled soul. You’re the only person I know who even reads what I write. Everyone else treats it as a punishment and lives in perpetual fear of being subjected to a forced recital.”
He hesitated. How could he tell the radiant creature before him that she wasn’t at all what he had expected. Her poems were stark, raw, and full of grief. Reading her words had felt as if someone knew his loss, and recognized his pain. When his wife succumbed to cancer six months earlier, it had been a loss compounded, the principal being their son’s death in an accident. Nothing had given his broken heart comfort until he had stumbled on her poetry page.
How could she, with her laughter and zest for life, have known what he had gone through? The grief that made putting one foot after another difficult? The pain that seared his chest with each breath he took? The tears that hadn’t been shed but made into a cross to be borne, the cross of living?
He had messaged her, conveying his appreciation of her work. She had responded, guarded at first but soon the strangeness had worn off. They had gushed over Ghalib and Meer, disagreed on Iqbal, and found common ground in Faiz and Sahir. They had dissected ghazals, never their lives. He didn’t tell her about his loss and she didn’t tell him how she made grief, an acquaintance.
She had surprised him by asking him out. So here he was, sitting before her, as awed with her joyous beauty as he had been with the beauty of her words. When he didn’t say anything for a long time, she looked up. His face was a question she was familiar with.
“You’re wondering how I can write of pain and grief and yet can be so cheerful?”
He was startled and wondered if she was offended but she continued with equanimity.
“My husband had the biggest of hearts. Big, not strong. He loved my writing. There was a time I wrote of love and longing, of passion, of joy, of life, all for his eyes only. However, good times and good fortunes don’t last. My husband’s last wish was for me to keep writing and keep smiling. I couldn’t break his heart when he was gone, could I?
So I molded my pain into words while I enjoyed life in spite of the disapproving stares. I write, I smile and try to make others smile with me. Life isn’t meant for tears.”
Her courage amazed him. A couplet written by Nida Fazli tumbled from his lips, unintended.
‘Ghar se masjid door hai, chalo aisa kar lein.
Kisi rote hue bachche ko hansaya jaye.’
The twinkle in her eyes was back.
“Exactly. And you’re just like a kid, awed out of words in the presence of this erudite poetess.”
He laughed, not letting hesitation hold him back this time.
Pic credit : Ilknur Celik at Pexels.com
Ghazals: a form of urdu poetry
“Ghar se masjid door hai, Chalo aisa kar lein. Kisi rote hue bachche ko hansaya jaye.”
The mosque is far from home. For our worship let’s make a crying child laugh instead.