By Faisal Pakkali
I used to write poetry. Don’t worry, I’m better now. During the days of angst and poetry, my life consisted of Tumblr posts, Instagram, little pastel graphics I’d make that were nothing really (but got quite a few likes), quirky romance movies with oddball characters and guilty pictures of actors on the ipod touch that I begged my parents to buy for me. And of course, poetry. My secret was Pablo Neruda:
“I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.”
Ah, how my heart flutters even now. Of course when I read my own poetry from back then, it is not such a pleasant experience for my heart or my ego. But in those days poetry was my one weapon against the world. And the world, looming large, was my mom. When you are a fifteen-year-old girl in an orthodox Tamil Muslim household, you don’t spend much time going out of the house. Thus by this time I had developed acute cabin fever against my house and my mom. At least my dad came home late. But my mom would always be there, sharper than my conscience ever was.
Once I was in my room on my laptop. I was watching a Jonas Brothers live performance on YouTube. I was watching Joe on the mike and all the girls screaming. It seemed that each and every one of them was more beautiful than I was. None of them had the inflamed red spot I was sporting on my nose just then. None of them had to hide their hair under a scarf. Speaking of which, none of them had my frizzy hair. My mom was beautiful with fair clear skin and high cheekbones and full lips. I am on the other hand oily skinned and acne prone with chubby thighs.
Just then my mom entered my room with some clothes to arrange in my cupboard. I closed the window on my laptop, but she had noticed what I was watching. I could not prevent myself from looking shifty even though, technically, I hadn’t done anything wrong. She did not prevent herself from flaring her nostrils and nodding her head. She quietly arranged the clothes in my cupboard and went out. Then she came back in with some more clothes that she started stacking in my cupboard once more. As she did so she murmured:
“You know Neimat, you’ve changed a lot these days. So much Ibadah you had. Now you’re starting to change.”
“What?’ I asked. I hated the high pitched petulant tone of my voice.
“These days your mind is not where it should be. That’s all.”
But then she went on, “What are you doing all the time on the computer Neimat? Hm? You know your aunts and all don’t even allow your cousins on Facebook. What are you doing chatting all the time?”
“Just be careful Neimat. And remember Allah is watching. All this is natural.”
There was a vague, ominous tone to her words, cocked and loaded with menacing implications. She would have done well as a member of the Mafia.
“Shaitan will put these thoughts in your head at your age. But you must be strong.”
I sighed. “Yes mom.” I said.
She turned around and the severe look on her face softened. She smiled and, coming closer, took my face in both her hands, her cool fingers stroking my cheeks.
“My Neimat is strong I know. At least you have Ibadah and pray five times a day. As long as you do that Shaitan will stay away a bit.”
“Ya Allah help me purify my thoughts and my body. Keep the devil far from me and help me be a good Muslim.”
I imagined my mom nodding approvingly as I did so. But I feel like we pray to different Gods. Her God had flared nostrils, his hands were on his hips and he took account of each action and thought, nodding his head vengefully and biding the time when he could punish you.
My Allah, when I imagine him in my head, has the face of my grandfather, wrinkled with time and smiles. As a child my grandfather always used to take me for trips into town back in Tirunelveli. He would get me these red apple-shaped lollies at one of the stalls in the junction. I didn’t know him well after those days and when he died (when I was around eleven) I didn’t feel particularly sad, but from my early childhood Allah has always had the face of my grandfather.
And my Allah wept for me when I did stupid things and was happy for me when something nice happened to me. He was loving and forgiving and above all understanding. He understood how bad my day was when I don’t respond to mom’s attempts at a conversation. He understood the fears mom felt when she saw her daughter growing up.
Sometimes I just go through the motions when I pray. But he understands. Allah has ninety nine names in Islam. I gave him a hundredth: “The Understander.”
I once showed my mother a poem I had written specially for her. It was a bitter, symbolic interior monologue that dealt with the relationship between the two of us.
I gave my mom the iPad in her room. I had posted it on my poetry blog (I have since deleted the blog). The olive green drapes were drawn against the sunlight and a warm green light rippled throughout the room. She read it lying on the bed. It took her nearly ten minutes to say anything. All the while I walked around the room excitedly trying to occupy myself. I picked up and set down knick knacks from the shelves while giving sideward glances to my mom’s impassive face lit up by the blue glow of the iPad.
What kind of a reaction did I expect?
In the silliest of my fantasies, she quietly gave me back the iPad and never spoke about it again, but from then on there would be a marked improvement in the way she treated me. But to tell the truth I was quite fearful. I expected a fight and I was having second thoughts.
“Mmm…” said my mom, jolting me out of my reverie.
“Yeah?” I said my heart beating fast.
“It’s nice. It’s nice… Did you put it up on your blog? It’s got some likes. That’s good.”
“… Yeah.” I said.
“It’s good only but, Neimat, why don’t you try writing something else? Like articles maybe?
“I don’t know. Something more…worthwhile?”
She laughed at the look on my face.
“No, no, no, no. I meant…something easy to understand. Something a lot of people can read…”
Eventually I left and then stumbled into my own room. There after closing the door shut, sitting on the edge of my bed, I had a good cry: my tears hot, my nose wet. After the release I wondered what I could do that was more worthwhile. After all she was right. The bitch. I wasn’t going to do anything with my poetry or with my silly doodles. As I lay back in bed I saw a dull grey life of mediocrity and wistfulness ahead of me. I saw myself at eighty, wearing a Hijab and thumbing my prayer beads and boring my grandchildren with long droning tales that belied a bitter, tearful spirit. My only refuge would be that I was a good Muslim. I would become bitter and my personality would sour with the tang of fire and brimstone the way my mother’s personality seemed to have at the time.
I sighed and sat higher up on the cushions on my bed, my knees bunched up in front of me. I picked up the small Dua book from my table, which was placed adjacent to my bed against the wall, and I read. But none of the Hadeeth or Dua seemed to relate to me right then. And it was time for Maghreb anyway. So I went to the washroom and I took Wodhu. Then I prayed the three Rakat in my room. As I finished and sat on the Musallah everything was quiet. My mind had been given a good scrubbing by the catharsis of tears and I felt a bit better. I cupped my palms in front of me and prayed to Allah.
“Ya Allah…give me the strength to bear my parents. Help my mother not to be so angry. Ya Allah…help me lead a good life. Help me be a good daughter. Give me a great ambition and help me achieve it. Help me have better skin. Help me get good marks in my Math weekly test. Ya Allah help me.”
When I was done praying I sat down at my table. I looked around my room. Stuck to the walls were my drawings. They were all abstract coloured geometrical figures and flowery patterns. Not worthwhile. I was afraid as yet to try something that would be so technically challenging as portraits or landscapes or anything with fixed dimensions outside of my mind.
I decided I would cover a whole sheet with designs and then cut that sheet to cover the book. I could use the remaining bits for something else.
But what designs? Something calligraphic. I looked inside the Dua book. I read one of the Hadeeth that I had dog eared.
“Allah is beautiful and loves beauty…”
I absently wrote the words out in large loopy handwriting on the paper. I wrote
Allah is beautiful and so am I.
Now, I can’t remember the exact reason why I did that. I doubt I knew even then. It was, as is always the case, several tiny little things I guess. I was feeling bad about how I looked, I wanted to write poetry but felt too sorry for myself. I wanted someone to comfort me.
I looked at the words on the paper for a few moments as an idea, amorphous and reserved at first, slowly became clear in my mind.
Then I worked feverishly. I pulled out a spare notebook from my school bag which was lying on my bed. I tore a page out of it and started scribbling on it. I then Googled fonts on the internet. Finally I needed sketches, pastels, glitter and scissors which I got from the drawers under my table.
After an hour’s work I was done. Lying on my table pretty in glitter and in pastel green and blue (calming colours) was my prayer. It was cute and small; pocketsize.
I picked up the prayer and read it:
“Dua of a daughter
Give me the strength to bear my parents.
Give my parents the strength to bear me when I am weak.
Help my mother understand when she hurts me.
Help my father understand me and help us become closer.
Help us all come closer to you Allah and to become better people.”
The line about my father I had put in mostly to fill up space. I didn’t show it to my mother just then, but as I went to bed that night I felt to my surprise like I’d done something worthwhile.
I made other prayers after that. I even gave a few to my friends, made on request. Dua for exams, Dua for fear (after watching Paranormal Activity), Dua for Beauty. A lot of my friends wanted that last Dua. I would use my own words along with quotes from the Quran, the Hadeeth, the Bible, books I had read, U2 (I love Bono! I don’t care what anyone else says I love him.) and a whole hodgepodge of other material.
It was nearly three years later when I found one of my prayers tucked inside my then boyfriend’s wallet. By the time I met him which is around a year and a half ago now, I wasn’t making prayers so much anymore. I had persuaded my parents to let me go for art classes and I had begun sketching. But for him, for us, I made a prayer.
We were at a Chilli’s on our first anniversary as a couple and Amir had gone to the washroom. I looked around out of habit to see if any relatives were in there. The coast was clear. Most of the tables were empty actually. The lighting was dim and the walls marine green and dull red. The whole restaurant seemed quite and lonely as I sat there sipping on my coke. I decided to rifle through Amir’s wallet for his driver’s license. His picture on it made me laugh. I pulled out the prayer instead. It was smudged and the sides had slight tears where it had been folded. The prayer was red and black and yellow and white:
Help me, help her, help us
Help us become one though not the same.
Help us carry each other.
Help us care for love.
Ya Allah let us not forget the rose for the thorns.
We are in love
And in love let us live.”
My insides curdled in embarrassment as I read the plaintive words and I felt sorry for any God that had to take them seriously. I smiled ruefully and put the prayer back in the wallet.
By this time my mother had eased up on me a bit. Whether because of my age or hers I do not know. Of course if she found out about Amir all hell would break loose.
“I only have one daughter, I want her to look beautiful.” She had said while spraying me with body mist in front of a mirror. This was the day I met Amir.
“All the boys will be looking at you. Be careful. Stick with your friends. Your father doesn’t know there will be boys at the party. Just be careful, okay!”
She had stood over me as I looked in the mirror. My acne hadn’t gone entirely but had diminished to a few minor blemishes on my forehead. And thank God the red spot hadn’t appeared on my nose! I had tweezed my upper lip and my hair fell down in these lovely waves to my shoulder. I still didn’t look like my mom but I didn’t look bad.
At the party, which was at one of my friends’ houses for another friend’s birthday, a boy had looked at me: Amir. It was the first time a boy had flirted with me and it was quiet flattering. Especially when the boy in question was tall and athletic with gorgeously untidy black hair, an infectious grin and the ability to play guitar.
I had stared out at the sky. Cloudless, plain and dark like my sin. The moon was in the horizon behind us. Underneath the sky, the sea slowly rocked and swayed. A gentle dance; it had cooled my nerves.
“Look at that sky, isn’t that beautiful?” He had said.
“Can you even see the beauty you soulless atheist.” I had teased. And then there was an awkward silence in which I realised that he had been building himself up and I had just ruined it.
Eventually he had said “I dunno when I look up there. I feel like something stirs within me. Something emerges maybe? I don’t know. I can’t explain.”
“I know, I think that’s God speaking.” I shudder now thinking of what I had just said.
But then he had taken my hand. I’d turned around and he took my other hand too. He then got down on his knees, right there on the pavement.
“And it’s the same feeling I get when I look at you.”
Well, how many boy hungry sixteen-year-olds can resist something as grandiose and silly as that?
When Amir came back from the washroom I said. “Well Atheist McGodless, you still have a prayer in your heart eh?
He shook his head. “What?”
I told him about the prayer. He frowned.
“You were looking through my wallet?”
“Relax I just wanted to see your driver’s license again.”
“Loser.” He kicked me under the table.
“Well, so what about it?” He said “I still keep the beautiful prayer that my girl wrote for me.”
I laughed “It’s so silly.” Honestly, I was disappointed that he still thought it was beautiful.
“How are your classes going?” I asked him changing the subject before he could insist further on the prayer’s beauty.
‘Meh…” he said. “They’re okay. Gotta get a degree for my bread and butter no?”
He was in the final year of his B.B.A Degree (the same one I was going to be a sophomore in) and he hated it. I didn’t care one way or another. I was stuck here.
“Once we get enough money, babe. It’s only you, me and the whole world. Nothing can stop us.”
I nodded pensively sipping on my coke.
I felt irritated all of a sudden at the ease with which life presented itself to him, a man. I was cooped up at home in Dubai and any day my mom might start looking for suitors. This was something Amir and I never discussed. No, it was just grand pipe dreams we fed on.
I had talked to my mom a few days before. I wanted her to ask my dad whether he would allow me to go abroad for studies. She had told me firmly that I wasn’t going anywhere until I was married. After which she gave me the concession of studying what I liked wherever my older, salaried, sensible husband resided.
I clenched my fist and bit down on the straw as I sucked the coke.
I broke up with him a few weeks later. I did it via text message. He called me on my mobile immediately after. He wanted to hear me say it. I told him through a dry mouth and with a shaky voice. I could hear him crying. I ended the call.
He harassed me for several days over the phone, until I finally blocked him. When I saw him again, it was a few months later at a mutual friend’s place. He was unshaven and spent the whole time giving me mournful looks and making things awkward for everybody.
I have heard in confidence that he has begun cutting himself. And now I am sure I have made the right decision in leaving him. At first I thought he was a romantic but now I realise that he is not sure whether he lives in real life or is a character from a movie.
I pray more often nowadays. In the quietness of my unlit room, while sitting on the Musallah I feel the vastness of the universe that Amir talked about that night. I feel so lonely. My life is all my own to live and I don’t know if I can. All alone I, Sisyphus, have to roll a terrible boulder up the hill in inane, ruthless repetition. And all for what? So I am praying. Do I believe that prayer will cause the dark waters before me to part? I don’t know. I am scared. Sometimes I just go through the motions. Most times actually. It’s become just a comforting habit.
But tonight is one of the times I realise that a prayer isn’t a favour to be granted. A prayer is a lonely call I make in the dark caverns of my heart: worn by emotion, broken and put together. Floundering and living, a blind, pulsating thing.
Now for a while I will walk the earth. Till tiredness comes upon me once more: My parents hurt me again, I fall in love again, I do something stupid or selfish or my future, dark and stormy overwhelms my vision of life. And the call will tremble upon my lips once more. And in this way till the grave.
Faisal Pakkali is a twenty-year-old residing in Dubai, where he studies accountancy. He comes from a Tamil Muslim household. He reads and writes in his spare time. He loves Flannery O’ Connor and Alice Munro.