A weird turn of events

Of course Mini had to go. That was a foregone conclusion for Huz.

But for Amu and I, the story was far more complex and fraught with emotion to have such a neat ending.

With great half-heartedness, we started a campaign to find adopters for little Mini. But I was becoming more and more certain that Fuzzy’s presence in the house was no longer something I wanted to tolerate. I felt like I was done with him. Even Amu was indifferent by now. He was just a badly-behaved, spoilt-rotten cat, hell-bent on making sure I couldn’t have a pretty house. I found myself looking at him with a mixture of sadness, frustration, anger and despair. I began to neglect him and stopped brushing him, esp since he had begun to flinch and back away even from the thing he loved the most. I didn’t care that this was only a manifestation of his anxiety at Mini’s presence in the house and began to look for a shelter to give Fuzzy up to. I just didn’t want to handle his spraying and marking anymore. I even thought of abandoning him somewhere, immediately dismissing the idea even though urged by well-meaning but ultimately misguided parents and siblings to do just that.

The dissonance in my head over the cat conundrum was causing a great deal of just-under-the-surface stress, the kind that makes you broody and think dark existential thoughts. I was really tired of cleaning up cat pee on a daily basis, failing at administering antidepressant, failing at finding another home for Mini, failing at not loving her so it wouldn’t be difficult to give her away.

So it certainly didn’t help that Nazish had begun to come in later and later for work. Her expected time of arrival had gone from 12 to 2, and I was getting increasingly irritated by what had really begun to seem like her taking advantage of my good nature. I decided I would let her go too.

I told Huz and he looked at me like I was hysterical, sternly telling me to calm down. Nazish was a good maid, trustworthy and quiet to boot, so what if she always looked depressed and we barely communicated with each other? Firing her at a time when we needed help keeping the house pee-free and dust-free was the stupidest thing I could possibly do.

So of course, I proceeded to do two stupid things.

I wrote to the only animal shelter in Karachi to ask that if they would take Fuzzy, we would not only donate money on a regular basis, we would even provide a cage to keep him in.

And when I opened the door for Nazish to enter on Monday, (the day after Fuzzy and Mini’s poopy battle) I waited till she had begun to wash dishes before breaking the silence between us by saying she should start looking for other work as her schedule was no longer acceptable to me.

She took the news stoically, only asking if she should leave immediately or stay on till the end of the month. I was immediately regretful, as I felt I had somehow failed her by not understanding her problems and her reasons for coming late, failed her by making her feel so disposable. But all I said was there was no need to hurry, she could take her time finding another job. Then I left the kitchen and left her to mull over her immediate future as she continued washing dishes. Huz just shook his head and warned me that my imminent housework-related stress would only mean he would have two stressed creatures to contend with in the house, one human, one feline.

I avoided Nazish for an hour, but then she struck up a conversation as I chopped veggies, confessing sheepishly that she knew my anger was justified and that she really had troubled me greatly with her erratic timings and that she was willing to ask around and get me a replacement.

It was as if she had only to speak for me to soften. Of course I didn’t really want to fire her, I said. I liked her work and I trusted her and had no desire to go through the hassle of employing, training and getting used to the presence of another person in the house at all. Come to think of it, did it really even matter what time she came as long as the work got done? I told her how stressed I was about Fuzzy and Mini and how I was thinking of giving Fuzzy away as a solution to my problems.

Nazish looked at me and asked, “Kitne mein deingi? Main le jaoon usse?”

She had mentioned once or twice before how much her little daughter adored cats and how she loved playing with one that lived at her mother’s place, where she left both her daughters each day before coming to work at my place, as she couldn’t possibly leave them alone at home in an environment like the Colony where she lived, a dense settlement of mostly Pashtuns.

I looked back at her, incredulous. She actually thought I was selling Fuzzy! But my incredulity turned into hope…giving Fuzzy over to Nazish and her little daughters seemed so much better than giving him up to a shelter….

We started talking nitty gritties. All talk of firing Nazish had been banished, and I figured her sudden talkativeness and animation stemmed from nervousness at having come very close to losing a job she really depended on./

She reassured me that Fuzzy would be safe in her ‘store room’ and could romp in her courtyard if he liked, and that as long as I provided his kibbles, they would take care of him for us.

I bounced off to tell Huz what had just transpired. He looked at me and shook his head again, laughing at how rapidly the situation in our house managed to swing with such mercurial changeability, but completely approving of Nazish’s acquisition of the errant Fuzzy.

I set about packing his things, his bath towel, shampoo, food and water bowls, his brush…not allowing myself to feel the slightest tinge of wtf-am-I-doing.

It was decided that she would fetch her daughters from her mothers house and bring them back to my place, after which I would pack Fuzzy into his basket and drop them all home. I had never seen where she lived, in a year and a half of her working with us, and it seemed this was the day I would finally make the leap across the class barrier that divided me from Nazish’s world.

She sat down on the floor in my room, where I was brushing Fuzzy for the last time, feeling the first glimmers of sadness at what I was doing. It was late afternoon and the sun’s presence was waning as Nazish began to talk to me in a manner she had hitherto never done. I listened as she started telling me detailed stories about her life and her childhood and her complicated family dynamics, her husband, her marriage, her parents and siblings, her uncles and aunts and cousins, all caught up in traditions full of patriarchy and misogyny. I listened to her talk stoically about the difficulties she faced, the bad choices she had made or that had been made on her behalf and which she was now trapped in. She talked about her daughters birthday and how she danced with her uncle, the weddings that she loved to dress up for, the intrigues and scandals that were the fuel of their family get-togethers. She told me about all the places she had ever worked at, the kinships she had formed with men who never disrespected her, the employers who helped pay for her elder daughters schooling and rebuked her for getting back together with an uncaring, sometimes abusive husband. She had been engaged to him when she was little, but he had defied his betrothal to her by eloping with her erstwhile school friend, then divorcing her out of remorse at being ostracized by the family and marrying Nazish eventually. It was as if she had been propelled into self-disclosure by the faith I was displaying in her, by entrusting my pet to her.

We talked till it grew dark, me asking curious questions that she had no qualms about answering, and I confess I found myself fascinated, witnessing and undergoing a complete transformation in my perception of who Nazish was, not a mournful, depressed girl, but a thoughtful yet feisty individual with strong convictions and aspirations despite the challenges life was constantly throwing at her. But more of this in another post.

For now we finally got to meet her daughters, 9-yr old pretty Ailya, who shared her birthday with Amu, one of the reasons I felt Nazish was destined to work for me, and 3 yr-old pixie-faced Sidra, the future mistress of a fallen-from-grace Fuzzy. Little humans and cat were introduced to each other and I spent some time explaining the do’s and don’t’s of dealing with him.

Nazish and her daughters slid into the backseat while Amu cradled Fuzzy’s basket in front. I smiled uncertainly at her, she smiled uncertainly back, and then we were off to Nazish’s house in the heart of a slum we had never set foot in before.

(to be continued…)

Demon kitty and the depressed cat

Fuzzy, our charcoal gray semi-Persian has been the resident cat for eight years, which seems a long time indeed when one ponders the trouble and anxiety he brought to our lives.  It was because of him that we had to construct partitioning doors so he couldn’t get to our good furniture and pee on it. No way could we have artsy floor rugs to prettify our place, as he would promptly pee on them too. A LOT would be the number of things we have had to throw away because of this. But he has a cute face, so we dealt with it instead of throwing him out too.

I realized early on that he was the proverbial scaredy cat, frightened by sudden noises, shy around visitors. You could forget that he even existed, given that he spent long hours sleeping/hiding under the bed, only to emerge for food and his precious water.

When he began to display an unusual interest in a certain ugly tomcat that taunted him from the balcony door , I began to think (twisted logic, I know) perhaps Fuzzy would like some feline company in the house.

Cue little lost rescued kitten, whom we called little billi at first. She looked sweet and tiny and pathetic, but was actually the devil in disguise. We kept the two physically apart initially, though little billi was still visible through the glass separating door and I could see that her presence was making Fuzzy edgy. When they played ‘pawsie’, the Fuzzster was curious and wary but the little one was feisty and playful. She’d stick her skinny paws way out to swat at him, while Fuzzy stayed just beyond reach, watchful.IMG_0258IMG_0092 Eventually I let them spend time together. If she didn’t appreciate her tiny butt being sniffed by the persistent Fuzzy (she is quite a smelly kitten) she’d turn around and jump on him or swat and nip at his paws to make him back off. He would beat a hasty retreat then, clueless about how to deal with this aggressive little creature who had taken over not only his space but his family’s time and attention. So we were amazed and delighted to find her sleeping snuggled next to him one day on his wicker bench…and that he had allowed it! I decided Fuzzy was ambivalent about this newcomer, quite sure he only pretended to get annoyed by her presence, though I did have to yank her away from him when the attacks got too annoying. My Instagram bears evidence of quite a few of her antics. (do check them out!)

When little billi joined him once too often on his bed, Fuzzy stopped sleeping there altogether. IMG_0369 I should have known better than to give them food at the same time too. Little billi was a voracious eater and ate hungrily and greedily, even taking over Fuzzy’s bowl forcing him to back away slowly and be patient until she was done. It was hilarious to hear her grrs as she attacked her food bowl. She was tiny, but she already had the large personality and attitude of a street cat. IMG_0360IMG_0361 Little billi morphed into demon-kitty for the way she ambushed and attacked, biting and swatting anything that moved. Her appetite for play was insatiable, and for the first few weeks all we did was watch her and play with her and delight in her presence. Her favourite game was scrunched-up-newspaper-football. It seemed what we had on our hands was the most playful kitten in the world, lighting up our lives with her craziness. What was most amazing and joyous however was the fastidiousness with which she took to her litter box. She knew exactly where to go from day one. I was in love. IMG_0270IMG_0304 She liked sleeping snuggled with Amu, and Amu loved her snuggliness too. She was going through a rough time in school and it was comforting to have such a kitten-like kitten to come home to. She kept her company while she worked on assignments at her desk, either curled on her lap or shoulder, or just hanging around watching her write, swatting her hand occasionally or trying to chomp on her pen.

But as Amu’s cloud of school-related gloom lifted, an altogether different cloud seemed to have descended elsewhere. Fuzzy’s behavioural issues were beginning to enter new territory. If we had been dogged by his peeing and marking before, we now suddenly had to add spraying to his repertoire of activities, something he had never done before. Now, he started to back up against a variety of vertical surfaces, quiver his furry tail, and let loose a jet of particularly foul-smelling piss. Up till now, we could handle his daily misdemeanours near the windows and doors. What was horrifying was when I realized he had begun to mark us. I found a patch of piss on my side of the bed one day. The very same day he peed on the bathroom mat as well. He also peed on my favourite chappals. Also Huz’s. He sprayed my bedroom door. He peed under my dresser. He sprayed my chest of drawers. He sprayed the bass speaker on my table. He wandered into my room one day and sprayed the curtains, all things he had never done before. Little billi/demon-kitty became my official pee detector, sniffing out places when I couldn’t figure out where the odour was wafting from. AlI these things led to Huz becoming firmer in his resolve to convince me that two cats in one house cannot possibly stay. As for me, I was mostly to be found with a bottle of pet deodoriser in one hand and a bucket of water and a mop in the other.

IMG_0354 Demon kitty was unabashed in her exploration of furniture and bounded onto tables and counters with a casualness, agility and will which had never manifested in Fuzzy. But seeing her boldness, Fuzzy seemed to gain heart. He probably began to think that if she could do it, so could he. The final straw for me was when we realized Fuzzy had perched on the back of a chair and proceeded to empty his bladder. I didn’t really understand what I was dealing with were the signs of a very stressed cat. All he was doing of course was responding to perceived threats. His entire body language had changed and why wouldn’t it? He was being ambushed every day by demon kitty, his food was being gobbled by her, she was drinking from HIS WATER BOWL, his bed had been taken over, she was using HIS litter to do some extremely smelly poop in. I was guilty of ignoring all these things, expecting him to take it in stride while I was busy catering to the kitten’s needs.. His world had suddenly become unpredictable and chaotic. He was forced into persistent contact with another feline against his will. Of course this couldn’t go on! Fuzzy took to staying awake all night, keeping up an unbearably mournful dirge which woke me up from my sleep every couple of hours during the night. I was getting dark circles under my eyes and I couldn’t function like a normal human being anymore. You could safely say I was pretty stressed out myself.

I asked around for advice and all I heard was to keep the two cats apart….I had no idea how to accomplish this. But we had been dealing with Fuzzy’s peeing problems since way before the new kitty ever came along to exacerbate it. He was already neutered…what more could we do?? PAWS advised me to go to Dr Isma, the more upmarket vet in Karachi, for a consultation. I packed a very smelly Fuzzy into a basket and off we went.

Dr Isma was lovely. Just seeing the sympathetic expression on her face as she listened to my cat story was balm for my frazzled nerves. She pronounced Fuzzy to be an extremely stressed out cat indeed and there were only three options she could think of to deal with this unfortunate event: 1. To inject Fuzzy with female hormones. 2. To get a calming spray, like Feliway. 3. To administer an anti-depressant on a daily basis.

The first two options being overlooked perhaps due to unavailability or being expensive, Dr Isma recommended a quarter pill of an antidepressant called Clomfranil. We bought a few strips of these from a pharmacy on our way home, 20 rupees ($0.2) for a strip. Maybe I’d pop one or two myself.

That evening, I cut one pill into four uneven pieces and stuck the largest one into a piece of cat food. Fuzzy ate it. From a worried-looking anxious cat that paced relentlessly around the living room, I found him a little while later, stretched out languorously near the balcony door. There was no distressed yowling outside my bedroom door that night, and all the sheets of newspaper that we spread in all his usual spots were piss-free the next morning. The house didn’t smell foul, and Fuzzy was fast asleep peacefully on his wicker bench. My brain did a whoop of joy! My problems were solved!

Or were they?

(to be continued..)

p.s. All beautiful images taken by Amu 🙂

Friend or foe?

Ever wondered what a ‘bete-noire’ is? Let me enlighten you if you haven’t. It is a person or thing that one particularly dislikes or dreads. It is another word for enemy, who is, of course, someone who hates, attacks or harms another. An adversary, something that threatens someone or something. Literally, it means ‘black beast’.

Fuzzy, our pet, who for the last seven years has mostly just slept, keeps us as his slaves and wants for absolutely nothing (apart from the occasional bits of raw chicken as I cook and a slice of watermelon or two, or so I naively suppose)

But is the most wonderful thing about being Fuzzy ‘really’ that it seems you’re The Only One? If you have never seen another cat ever since you were separated from your sibling when you were a wee kitten (unless you count the weirdo in the mirror who got startled every time he saw you) do you recognize the yowling beyond your existence as the sound of others like you? And what is that potent aroma wafting towards you from  the balcony and courtyard doors? Smells like cat-pee but not your own…

Fuzzy lost no opportunity making sure that if what he suspected was true, there should be no doubt in anyone or anything as to exactly WHO was Master of this Domain.

Every morning to our dismay, we began to find puddles near every entry or exit point in our house. We dealt with it by putting our daily newspaper to good use. Yes, he had been neutered…or at least the vet did the best he could (since Fuzzy is monorchid)

One of Fuzzy’s favourite hangout spots is also one of mine, the breezy top step of the stairs that lead down to our courtyard. A swing door separates the stairs from the rest of the house, so in the evenings when someone opens that door, Fuzzy steps out for some fresh air. He prowls around downstairs, sniffing pots, inspecting different areas, marking his presence discreetly. Guilty as we feel keeping a living thing in such seclusion, the least we could do is allow him this little bit of freedom to experience the outdoors. This little freedom expanded to such an extent that we even let him spend the night outside since he loved it so much. It’s not like he would ever be able to scale the boundary walls and actually go out to explore the Outside World. He’s just not built that way. He’s the kind of cat that ponders and dilly-dallies before jumping on or off chairs and coffee tables.

Many years thus passed and a routine established itself. Fuzzy snored under my bed in the morning and all afternoon, emerging in the late afternoon, stretching out his back legs, yawning humungously. He’ll sit outside my bedroom door, disoriented and a tad cross-eyed. Then he’ll wander over to the netted balcony door, tucking his legs comfortably under him and sit there basking in the last golden rays of the sun, ears twitching now and then at sounds of passing cars, human voices and chirping birds, eyes half-closed.

Soon,  he will unfurl and walk lazily but purposefully over to his water bowl, positioning his body around it, enveloping the bowl in an embrace. He loves his water bowl.

No one could ever describe Fuzzy as a fierce cat. He is the very essence of docility, unless he’s in a playful mood. His mouth is so small that he can’t manage food that is larger than the tip of your finger. He will patiently chase a piece of kibble that drops from the bowl to the floor until he can latch on enough to be able to chew. He’s not the kind of enthusiastic cat who’ll run to his food bowl when he hears the rattle of kibbles. If he wants food, he’ll go sit by his bowl and wait with equanimity. But if he wants water, he’ll come into my room and get my attention by meowing softly till I get up. Then he’ll lead me to his water bowl , trotting ahead and looking back again and again to make sure I’m following. Sometimes he’ll swat at my ankles with his paw to hurry me along.

The only time he’ll betray any excitement is if he hears the rattle of ice cubes. An ice cube in his water bowl is like Eid for him. He’ll hover over it like he does on hot days in front of an open fridge. Such sweet small happinesses. And then of course, there is the anticipation of being allowed to go down to the courtyard.

We realized why Fuzzy had been acting extra territorial and so very eager to dash out of the house when we found him sitting on the stairs one day with a cat sitting across from him. They were staring at each other emitting low guttural sounds, not fighting but just facing each other. We shooed the other cat away and it ambled off lithely, scaling the wall and disappearing while Fuzzy looked on, unable to fathom how.

Another time we heard some fierce howling only to find Fuzzy having a face-off with the same trespassing cat, but this time, heartened by my presence perhaps, he began to chase the other cat round and round the stairs until the cat managed to jump onto the trellis from the balcony, scale the wall and get away, Fuzzy breathing in huffy bursts,  fuming with prickly antagonism. This was the first time I had ever seen Fuzzy so intensely worked up.

Late one evening a few months ago, we returned after several hours spent away from home, me worrying about Fuzzy being alone and hungry. As we climbed the unlit staircase, my worry turned into a strange sense of foreboding when I noticed clumps strewn about the landing halfway up…I was almost afraid to inspect closely, but then I discerned something dark smeared on the floor and my fears turned to panic as I turned to Huz to ask if Fuzzy was inside or out. Huz fumbled with the keys (why does it seem to take forever when you’re panicking?) we all ran in and called for Fuzzy but he was nowhere to be seen. We usually find him waiting for us by the door alerted by the sound of the keys turning in the lock. Heart hammering, I stood in the balcony and called his name…it is usual for him to come dashing up like lightning. After a few seconds I saw some movement and Fuzzy came out slowly from under the stairs and started climbing with some effort. Turning on the lights, I realized the dark blobs on the stairs were bunches of Fuzzy’s hair and the smear was blood.

Horrified and shaking, and too scared to touch him in case he was badly hurt, I let Fuzzy walk into the house unaided, limping visibly and looking rather subdued. I stroked his head and checked him tentatively for wounds, but couldn’t see anything through all his fur. Huz joked that the blood might belong to the other cat and the thought made me feel a little better, but I was sad for Fuzzy and outraged at the other cat for violating Fuzzy’s territory and consistently looking for a chance to attack him. I took Fuzzy to the vet next day and was told he had a sprained shoulder which was causing him to limp, but there were no wounds anywhere. I looked at Fuzzy with a degree of skepticism. How could a spoilt, evolutionarily challenged semi-Persian defend itself against a ruthless street cat and draw blood?

Nevertheless, Fuzzy had to be protected from the wily building cat and stay withiin the house at all times from now on. As a result, he became ever more vigilant at the balcony doors. The anticipation of more confrontations was palpable…Fuzzy was alert and tense on the lookout for further trespassing, eagerly waiting for the building cat to show up and he wasn’t disappointed. The other cat kept coming back and there were further face-offs through the netting (which occur with regularity around the same time every day.) I’ll be sitting in another room and I will hear Fuzzy yowling angrily or I’ll hear the door rattle loudly and I know he has flung himself at the door with force.

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I don’t know how he gets his paws so muddy but there are fresh paw prints on the balcony walls and the floor every day. I began to regard the building cat as a friendly foe since he added so much spice to Fuzzy’s life and suggested leaving a bowl of food for him in the balcony, which Huz and Amu vehemently vetoed. But I had cause to rethink my soft spot for him as a worthy adversary.

I was sitting at my kitchen table one night when I heard rummaging sounds. Fuzzy followed me as I went to turn on the overhead balcony light and open the door. On the landing were two cats this time, apparently the black and white building cat had brought along a ginger friend and they were going through our recycling heap like vandals. Ginger saw me and ran off but Black&white stayed and stared back as he squatted on a brown paper bag and proceeded to pee on it. My jaw dropped at his insolent audacity but I couldn’t help laughing a little too.

Didn’t laugh too much when a few days later he left a little pile of poop on a cushion on the bench as a little gift for us. Or this morning when Huz went to fetch the newspaper from under our front door only to find that not only did it have a yellow patch of pee on it but had been torn up as well.

Seems we have a bete-noire on our hands indeed, albeit with a touch of blanc.

 

 

 

Me and my Help Issues

It’s been two months now since I’ve had a new person coming in to clean everyday. Her name is Nazish.

She is tall and thin and her default expression is gloomy, if not dour. She has long hair that she ties in a bun and droopy, hangdog eyes.

She wears a black burqa with shiny floral embroidery down the front, which she takes off when she enters the house and gets to work, spending a minute buttoning it on and wrapping her head carefully before leaving to walk back home.  She doesn’t live very far from our place. Since she is new, and young, and perhaps because Huz works at home, she moves about discreetly, with her dupatta perched on her head and wrapped around her shoulders.

There is something very collected and composed about her, very unlike Zahooran, our previous maid.  If you have been following my blog, you’ll know a lot about Zahooran and her talkative, annoying, yet endearing personality, and all my other colourful help-related issues.

Nazish doesn’t talk very much, despite my efforts at trying to draw her out. Her speech is soft to the point of being almost inaudible, and I must strain to catch the gist of what she says.

She had one or two talkative days when her story spilled out as she mopped the floor and I folded laundry, and I learned that she is married, her husband repairs old TV’s but is lazy about work, they have two daughters (who she wants to try and send to school scraping together as much as she can save) and they live in the downstairs portion of a two storey house, the total indoor space of which is about as big as one of our bedrooms. Her husband also parks his motorbike next to the double mattress on which they all sleep. There is a reason for this, but I’m afraid I can’t remember it.

Her husband is the youngest amongst his siblings so he gets the short end of the stick. Nazish thinks he is often taken advantage of and is forced to be the family gofer. He resents this, so has developed a devil-may-care attitude towards his family, which only has the effect of reducing his influence further. This affects Nazish, since she ends up not receiving monetary gifts from in-laws on special occasions, and various other slights.

I employed Nazish with the understanding that she would come to work by 9 or 10 in the morning so she could wrap up by 12 or 1 and leave. By the end of a week, I realized that Nazish was fairly good at her work, but she was not very disciplined when it came to timings. When questioned, she’d mumble something sheepishly about sleeping late at night, or the kids being unwell, or her husband waking up late and needing breakfast before she could leave her house.

I decided it didn’t matter if she came a little late, though I did always ask for reasons when she started coming in at 11, and then 12. Her excuses seemed legitimate, so I didn’t really mind. Anyways, I’m just grateful to have help at all, and that she is good and trustwothy.

All is well. But I find myself feeling a bit put off lately. I find myself increasingly missing Zahooran, despite my relief at finding a good replacement after she left.

I miss the warmth of Zahooran’s greetings as she came into the house at 8:30 every day, a simple cotton dupatta covering her head that she’d drape on a chair before getting down to work. She had adopted Huz as her brother and had grown to be unabashed in his presence, yakking with him as easily as she would with me, sharing anecdotes from her past or little everyday troubles. Most of her work wardrobe consisted of hand-me-downs.

I miss her system of working, annoyingly disorganized though it sometimes was, but she made the floors shine, and the taps and windows gleam, so it was easy to forgive her. I would tell her to do something a certain way and she would oblige with enthusiasm, breaking into embarrassed laughter if she felt that she was not doing something right.

I miss the implicit kinship with which she cleaned the house like she owned it. After five years, I sensed that she valued me as an employer and that she liked working at our place.

I feel Zahooran’s absence more keenly as I open the door for Nazish and greet her, only to receive a stiff, awkward half-smile in return. I am beginning to get the feeling that if I don’t acknowledge her first, she will not acknowledge me at all. All she wants are instructions, not small talk. She is perhaps too awkward to understand that a little banter goes a long way…but my cheerful attempted overtures fall flat. I get the feeling that she is too miserable to be endearing.

This makes me uneasy in her presence. She came to work at 1:30 day before yesterday, and when I asked her why she came so very late, she didn’t reply, she just continued washing dishes sheepishly. I asked her if she was alright, if her daughters were well, if there was a problem at home, but she just muttered that she’d come early from now on. Her behaviour caused me some irritation. But then I had my irritated moments with Zahooran too.

Zahooran had a lot more things going wrong in her life that had the potential to break her spirit. Her husband refused to work, and she was pretty much on her own, raising an adopted son as best as she could. She brought him with her as she came over for the last time, walking over to the dining table chair slowly and sitting down with an air of a person carrying a terrible weight on her petite shoulders. She looked so upset that it took her some time to speak, as if she was suppressing tears.

Uncertainty shrouded her ill face as she broke the news that she was forced to leave Karachi and go back to her own town. All I could think as I listened to her was, how would I ever get by without her?

She finished talking, I hugged her thin frame, controlled my own tears and gave her some money to see her through the next month or so. She would leave the next day with no idea if she would come back. She left work quite a few times over the last 5 years, but she always assured me that she’d return. And she always did. And I never replaced her, because I didn’t want a replacement. I think I was loyal to her too.

It’s been a little over two months since then, and my world didn’t fall apart as I had imagined. I spoke to Zahooran on the phone a month ago. She wondered if I had found a new maid and I told her I had but of course, she wasn’t as good at her job as Zahooran had been, and she sounded relieved, and a tad smug to hear it. She sends me prayers and the good wishes of her whole family. Apparently they are all very fond of Huz and Amu and I, though we have never met, but Zahooran often talks about us to them, as people who looked after her well.

So I miss Zahooran as I wonder if Nazish will let down her hair. Maybe she just needs a little time. But what if this is how she will always be? Will I be able to exorcize Zahooran’s loud, jarring but lovable spirit and adapt to Nazish’s quiet, creepy yet dignified one?

Only time will tell I suppose. Let’s see.

Ducks, revisited

Once upon an earlier time, on another occasion when my better judgment had abandoned me for a few minutes, I  fell prey to colourful little dyed chicks. They were being sold ridiculously cheap and I thought Amu would get a kick out of them. At the time, I didn’t think that the chicks would eventually grow normal feathers, would stop being cute, and that we would eventually have to think about getting rid of them. I mean, chickens in a small 6th floor apartment? Really Mun?

Mazzy was shocking pink and Zally was bright green. We kept them in a little cage and allowed them to run around the house a couple of times a day, pooping wherever they went. They pecked frenziedly at their ‘bajra’ at feeding times and had the cutest way of dipping into their water and glugging it, raising their beaks to the ceiling.

To cut a not-very-long story shorter, I gave them away to eldest Sis+nephew, who in turn gave them away to their neighbour, where they were attacked by cats. Alas…the ways of the food chain.

Did I learn a lesson? Apparently not, since fast forward a year or two and I now had two ducklings on my hands.

Hill Park with its duck pond could have been perfect, but ultimately I couldn’t just leave them there. I suppose we were more concerned about their well being since they had stuck around longer and raised more hell than the chicks. I had no desire to inflict them on any of my family or friends knowing how much trouble they were. But no matter what, I couldn’t let Apple and Cherry become cat food. Even though I’m more a cat person than a duck person.

A not-too-distant memory crept into my head. The preschool Amu went to a couple of years ago (when she was 3) had a big cage in the corner of its garden. Had there been ducks in there? It was only a vague recollection, but it was worth a shot. 

Mrs G was the principal, the dragon lady of the montessori circuit, known for her stern disposition and no-nonsense demeanour, since her preschool was one of the most-sought-after. This was where Amu cried inconsolably on her first day, spent a year learning her phonetics, colours, patterns and shapes. This was where she learnt to share a sandbox with other children, and where she learnt to pour water from a jug and how to colour within the line. Parents queued up to have their babies registered here while they were in the last weeks of pregnancy. This way they could at least make the waiting list. It was alleged that babies from Mrs G’s school had a greater chance of getting into The Most Sought After School in Karachi. (Amu did.)

I mustered up the bravado that propels a lot of my actions (I am intimidated by people in positions of authority) and called Mrs G to meekly ask if her bird cage would accommodate two adorable ducklings, and wouldn’t the preschoolers be fascinated by the new additions? I wasn’t sure how I expected her to respond but I am predisposed to pessimism, so when she said I could drop by and talk to the gatekeeper (who was in charge of the birds) and see what he said, I could scarcely believe my ears. I thanked her most profusely and hung up, grinning as I looked towards the balcony where Apple and Cherry cheeped nonstop.

The chowkidar was friendly and helpful and led us over to the bird cage in the corner of the garden. It was actually more of a fenced in spot with wire mesh, a roof and a door rather than a cage. It housed two ducks and a magnificent rooster. One of the ducks seemed to have laid eggs and was busy nesting. We let Apple and Cherry out of their basket to have a look-see. The rooster was long of leg and fleet of foot, and at least five times the size of Apple (the bigger of the duo.) He seemed a little edgy. I didn’t trust him one bit and kept a close watch, alert for any untoward action. Where the other ducks were least bothered, Rooster paced up and down and all around, his coxcombed head cocked dangerously towards the newcomers, his beady eye flashing. All of a sudden he darted straight at them and Apple and Cherry ran for their lives! It was most melodramatic.

In the end however, the chowkidar reassured us that our duckies would be fine and the rooster wouldn’t hurt them, apparently it just had a bit of an attitude problem. We decided to trust his experience and left them there, but all of the rest of the evening my mind kept going back to Apple and Cherry, wondering if they were alright.

We went back to visit them early the next day, and indeed, not only were they safe and sound, they had taken to their new home quite blithely, with plenty of food and space and even a little pond to mess around in. They didn’t come running to say hello though. Hmph.

Did I mention that Apple was the prettier, more extroverted of the two? Cherry always looked pale in comparison and I had read somewhere that the male of the species was always more striking, so I figured Apple must be male and Cherry female.

A few months went by, during which we were regularly given news of Apple and Cherry’s welfare through my brother in law, who went to drop his little one there every day. When I went to see them again a few months later it was startling to see how much they had grown. But what came as a beautiful surprise was Cherry, who had grown the most iridescent blue and green and sleek dark brown tail and wing feathers. No longer was she a mousy yellow. Apple still had a black patch on his head and looked more or less the same, just bigger feathers. So maybe I got their genders mixed up 🙂

When the bird flu scare hit Karachi, I heard Mrs G sent all the birds away for a while. I lost track of Apple and Cherry after that and never saw them again.

This and the last blog post are dedicated to Graham and Heather. I thought I should write about them (Apple and Cherry, not Graham and Heather!) because Graham commented on Heather’s blog mentioning a duck that tossed a proffered salad leaf back at him. Because of my alacrity, I have been gifted a cyber duck—-> (*)>  for luck! Hope it makes me blog more often 😉

Ducks in the city

Once upon a time, my common sense left the house for a walk around the block and returned bearing two tiny ducklings bought from a woman in Sunday bazaar, Karachi’s bustling weekend market.

It wasn’t as if we lived on a farm, or even an independent little bungalow with a sweet little back garden and a pond. Not as if aforementioned common sense gave even a passing thought to where the ducklings would bloom and grow. No. It just saw two fuzzy yellow, beady-eyed, flappy-footed creatures and thought, ‘Must have!’

We kept them in a basket lined with newspaper and gave them crumbs of bread and water. The very same night, common sense had a heart attack when it realized that the ducklings were VERY demanding and made a LOT of noise.

But as with all disasters, one quickly learns to cope, and the brain shuts down in self defense. One even urges one’s daughter to think of suitable names for the new pets. And so it came to be that 5-yr old Amu decisively pronounced the bigger one to be Apple and the smaller one to be Cherry, her two favourite fruits at the time.

Apple was the better looking of the two ducklings. Cherry always looked duller, more woebegone. Who knew how to figure out their respective genders.

The idea was for little Amu to learn how to take care of little animals, and she did, dutifully chopping up slices of bread into bite-size pieces for baby duck beaks to tackle. It was a delight to watch them gobble and drink so feistily! But Amu had school and homework and had to go to bed early, and the ducklings grew louder and chirped incessantly if they lost sight of any of us. So I ended up spending more time with them than Amu. They grew pretty fast too, and within days, the basket could no longer contain their curious souls. They quickly learnt to jump out of there and run around our tiny apartment, Apple the venturesome one and Cherry following trepidatiously in his footsteps. If we wanted to fool them into thinking it was bedtime, we’d cover the basket with a cloth and turn off the lights and if we were lucky they’d settle down and go to sleep, cuddled against each other. But the slightest sound would wake them, and so we all learned to be really quiet at night lest we woke the little imps.

ducks

A month or so went by this way, during which we filled tubs of water and let them swim as long as they liked. I made them a bigger home under a wicker bench in our tiny 6th floor balcony. After experimenting with different types of food, it had been determined they loved chopped ribbons of green lettuce, so we always kept a supply in the house and Apple and Cherry devoured every last scrap of their treat with frequent sips from their water bowl.

I could never have known just how much of a bane those two cuties would become to my existence. All they did was eat, drink, poop (they even ate their own poop!) and generally make a huge mess of their balcony habitat. All I did was feed them, hang out with them, worry about their food if I had to go out for too many hours, and clean up after them twice a day. I began to dread coming home, and lingered too long in bed in the morning so I wouldn’t have to get up and chop more lettuce. The newspapers I used to line the floor of their makeshift cage would be sodden with water and green poop and it stank to high heaven. I’d have to don my gloves and wrap a scarf around my face before Operation Cleanup.

I had two T-rexes in my balcony!

A couple more months went by this way, Apple and Cherry were now 5 times their original size and our house smelt fowl. I thought wistfully of the days when the house smelt of fresh laundry. Huz and I had had a few guilt-ridden conversations about how to find a more natural environment for them. I finally understood why Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother could do what she did. The only place I could think of taking them to (and leaving them there) was Hill Park.

One of the oldest parks in Karachi, Hill Park has, at the centre of its undulating landscape, a large man-made pond. Full of geese. And…..ducks. People visiting the park would buy popcorn and feed the ducks and that would be the highlight of their excursion.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make perfect sense. I imagined a kindly grown up duck taking Apple and Cherry under her generous wing and teaching them the ways of life in a ducky community. I pictured them finally working out the meaning of their lives as they took to the pond like…er…ducks to……hmm.

So it was that early one cool Sunday morning, we packed the ducklings into a wicker basket and set off for Hill Park, just to scope out the territory. We let Apple and Cherry out and they walked in wonder and bafflement in this strange new grassy environment. That was when I saw how scrawny and small and vulnerable they looked compared to those magnificent fully grown specimens of their own kind, who were all mostly sitting around the edge of the pond, preening in the morning sun. My hopes of finding an adoptive mommy-duck began to seem ludicrous.

The cross-specie maternal instinct kicked in when Huz pointed out a mean-looking tomcat gazing steadily at our fledgling duckies. No way could we leave them behind unprotected over here.

Amu scurried to grab the two and bundle them back into the picnic basket, and as we walked back to the car, my mind had already started thinking about Option #2.

Where does history end?

It is 8:15 am, and Zahooran just gave me a ‘missed call’. This can only mean that she doesn’t intend to come to work today. I don’t usually call back, just let her take a day off,….knowing that she probably has a valid reason for doing so. Either she is under the weather herself, or her son Tayyab is, and she either needs to rest at home, or visit a doctor to get some advice on how to get well quick….the poor in the city don’t have the luxury of recovering at a leisurely pace.

I called her back today however, and the first thing she did was inquire after my health since she has been witnessing the effects of a full blown cold on my well-being.

Then she went on to inform me politely but with an air of resolution that she would not be coming to work today because she intended to make ‘Niaz’ to commemorate Imam Hasan and Imam Hussain.

There was no way I could mess around with Zahooran’s pious intentions and I acquiesced gracefully, wondering as I hung up what she intended to cook and who she would feed.

To my knowledge, Zahooran is not a Shia Muslim, nevertheless she harbours a deep respect for anyone belonging to the family of the Prophet.

It is the month of Muharram, the first of the lunar Islamic calendar, a month that is dedicated to the mourning of Imam Hussain and his small band of loyal followers who were brutally massacred at the hands of the Umayyad army on those fateful days in Karbala.

Shias all over the world (and many Sunnis) still grieve those martyrs, keeping the memory alive, as if it all happened last week instead of fourteen hundred years ago, it being one of the most terrible events to happen in the history of Islam,  never to be forgotten as long as there are Shias in the world.

I belong to a devoutly Shia community.

Soon I will be getting dressed to go to my communal mosque to attend a majlis, one of many that lead up to Ashura, where every sermon ends with a prayer….that we never face any grief other than the grief we feel for Imam Hussain.

I’m not sure about exact figures, but the Sunni population of Pakistan easily overwhelms the Shia.

There are some Sunni sects that harbour great animosity towards mainstream Shi’ism and believe that killing Shias is encumbent upon their faith. It doesn’t matter that Shias are Muslims too.

For years now, there has been systematic genocide happening all around us. I have lost track of the countless news reports about target killings in this city.

Karachi is a hotbed for sectarian violence and killing, as well as being the most ethnically diverse. You will literally find every type of Pakistani in this city, who would all get along perfectly amicably were it  not for political rivalries and religious bigotry. Hardliner Sunni groups claim responsibility for all the Shia doctors that have been shot dead, and the latest to join the ranks of ethnic cleansers is no other than the Taliban themselves. Drones and bombings in the tribal areas forced them to flee their original hiding place and now they have infiltrated Karachi.

For months now we have been hearing news about the Hazaras of Quetta, that have been systematically gunned down, execution-style. These people are originally from Afghanistan, and have distinctly Mongol features which easily set them apart and make them instantly recognizable. About half of the Hazaras belong to Shia clans, but the killers make no distinction, and Hazara graveyards are filling up fast with dead men and boys, each gravestone marked with a picture of the deceased, an inscription saying how and where he was killed, and a verse from the Quran.

Desperate families are sending their loved ones away, or they are leaving their homeland voluntarily just to escape being targeted. The ones left behind are cloistered, like the Palestinians in Gaza….except they are not being bombed, but picked off, one by one.

My community is well known for its peacefulness. We love food and we love to socialise and we are useful members of society. We have our mosques and our religious gatherings. We pray, we fast, we pay our dues. We go for Haj and we go on pilgrimages to sites considered holy in the Middle East, most of which are shrines built for the family of the Prophet and the martyrs of Karbala. We disturb no one. We have our own dress code though and ways of being. Most of the men sport beards (in keeping with traditions of the Prophet) and a white ‘topi’ with gold trim. Most of the women wear distinctly colourful ‘ridas’, or burqas that set them apart from everyone else. We have a strong ethnic identity….and we are instantly recognizable too. None of us believe in strife, all we do is live our lives the way our faith tells us to and not harm anyone while doing so.

We have been under the radar because we don’t wear black like mainstream Shias in Muharram, but apparently we can no longer be complacent about our safety.

Bombs are going off in the major cities in the buildup to Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram when Iman Hussain was slain by Shimar, one of the most hated and reviled men in Islamic history.

Huz just told me that the Tehreek-i-Taliban have claimed responsibility for the blasts that collectively killed around 34 people yesterday in Lahore and Karachi.

Security is tight around our mosque and the community is abuzz with a sense of dread…but no one stays at home. We are still gathering, despite the horrible headlines in the papers.

A couple of weeks ago, while driving home with Amu, my sister Fatu, 10 year old nephew and 8 year old niece, we started talking about what was going on. The kids stopped their chattering and their interest was piqued with all the talk of killing and intrigue. Why is it okay to kill Shias….? they wanted to know, and that’s all the impetus I needed to start off with one of my ‘talks’. You could have cut the silence with a knife. When I was done rambling and the car fell silent, Amu looked subdued and scared…..but I sensed something more than that in the three kids.

There was almost a sense of excitement at being in the middle of something large….something that spans almost a millenium and a half of belief and faith. There was almost a sense of…..pride (I can’t think of a better word), at being different, mingled with this new sense of fear….

It was a beautiful morning, it was, it was….but….

It was the Eid holidays and the only exciting thing I had done was host a breakfast for my in-laws on the first day.

For some reason or other, my side of the family (meaning my parents and sisters and their families) had not had a chance to get together and feast and make merry, and it seemed the holidays would be over before we had a chance to do so.

But then nephew saved the day. He convinced his three aunts to come over and spend the night so we could have a pre-dawn adventure.

So we gathered our broods and went over to my eldest sisters place, sans husbands.

The plan was for all of us to go to the beach together very early in the morning, as we had never done that before. There was no way this could happen if we all went to sleep, so with the exception of Eldest Sis (who is very cat-like when it comes to sleep) we stayed up all night.

The best place to do this was the open, breezy balcony which is such an integral part of her house. At night, all you can see are silhouettes of trees with nothing much to disturb the peace and quiet except the whirring of the overhead fan.

Fatu and I dragged a rug from my niece’s bedroom into the balcony, and proceeded to hang out there till around 4 am. I did some half-a**ed exercises (as I felt fat after Ramazan) while Fatu tried in vain to get me to Bodyrock, and Sax decided it was a good time to catch up on her religious reading. I even gave my nails a makeover, inspired by niece. There was some excitement when it drizzled, and we listened to the sound of rain falling on leaves..

We lay around and chatted and giggled and took pictures of ourselves in lamplight until it was time to go in the kitchen and continue chatting over there while I made a thermos of black tea to take with us and asked niece to get together some mugs and containers for sugar and tea-whitener. Turned out they were out of whitener, so I made a mental note to buy some on the way, crossing mental fingers for finding a shop open at such an unearthly hour.

We changed quickly, got our stuff together and into our cars. Muf (eldest nephew) got behind the wheel of the jeep and the kids piled in with him, while I and my three sisters set off in my car. It was decided that we couldn’t possibly go without Nani, so off we went to pick her up.

My mother is always game for some fun, my father not so much. And he hates going to the beach. Nothing about it appeals to him, so while we were growing up, such expeditions were rare. A phone call was all Mum needed to stop trying to sleep, insomniac that she is, get ready and get downstairs, so happy to see all her daughters together.

I was feeling decidedly grumpy, not in the mood to drive so far anymore, feeling a bit anxious about our safety, sleep-deprived and looking forward to a hot mug of tea. Sand spit seemed so far away……my heart thumped at the thought of being robbed at gunpoint on the way.

Nephew drove at 100 mph, while I lagged behind at 80. The sky was dark, the way it is just before dawn…

The idea was to get to the beach in time for morning prayers. It would be too late if the sun showed itself, and we didn’t have much time….

But tea whitener was important, and it was with great happiness that we found a shop open in Mauripur.

Finally, we got to Sandspit, parked along the side of the road, and scrambled over the dunes helping Mummy along. The sky was overcast, but there was now a beautiful blue-gray light…

Eldest sis and Sax happy to be praying 🙂

While Eldest sis and Sax (the second to the eldest) spread out their prayer mats, Mum found a rock to sit on and didn’t budge from there the whole time. The rest of us changed and brought our picnic stuff to spread out on a blanket in the sand. Which is when I had The Awful Realization.

We forgot the thermos of tea at home. 😐

What? No tea?!
Testing the temperature…

Mood effectively ruined, I wandered around taking pictures silently, so grumpy I couldn’t even speak. Forgive me if the following pictures seem bleak and morose….

Littered dunes..
The beach bungalow next to which we camped.
the family frolics..
My french manicure by daylight.
Niece is funkier than I.
Beach flora.
View to the right of our campsite
View from next to the net in previous photo.
View from the ruined remains of a beach bungalow.
More beach flora.
An artistic angle of previous view. Alan, this puts me in mind of your header pic.
Pebbles, pebbles, pebbles….
The view to the left…
And a more uninterrupted view of the right…
I head grumpily back towards the family…
Grumpily ate a doughnut, listlessly sipped some Pakola….couldn’t fathom why everyone else was so happy…
And continued taking pictures with a dying phone battery….
There were crows, Anna.
And pebbles with designs, Lisa.
this one made me think of skulls. 😐
The kids made tunnels that interconnected and looked like a humungus flower.

While the kids frolicked in the cold water, four sisters and a Mom chilled on the beach. It was a bit cold, so it was nice when the sun finally peeked through the clouds, and Fatu and Eldest Sis promptly dozed off. I was still sulking about the tea, as Sax and Mom gossiped over my head.

I stared upwards as I lay flat on my back on the sand and watched the clouds disperse and form changing, moving patterns across the vast sky.