by Nida Khattak
“How does it feel being deft at formulating your thoughts fluently into words?” It has been three autumns since we last talked—with that twinkle in the eye. The October’s shafts of sunlight dashed familiar glint off of Ajmal’s noirette hair. He takes a sip of his white tea—low in caffeine—we both are not fond of. He recollects his voice, “Well, it all comes from practice. You have to test your brain’s limits now and then. Push it, widen its boundaries. Indulge your mind into challenging arguments in solitude.” “Umhmm.” I try to recall if I have been performing this ritual the wrong way. These days, thoughts have been barking at each other, and before one comes out, the other tries hard to interrupt it. It is like having questions, the answers to which one already knows but one still has them.
“You talk just fine.” Ajmal shrugs his shoulders a little— inadvertently accentuating his collarbones. “No, I lack that coherence. I have not been thinking or speaking clearly for a while.” “You are… Just now. Don’t you see?” Yes, I do see. I see something else too. When I think of it, it is only him that I have been eloquent with and no one else. Ajmal is easy to talk to. I tell myself. He is a good listener and anyone can be at ease with him. “Right.” I take a sip of the white tea. We have things in common. . “Okay, do as I said. That would help. If not then I believe we can find other ways to bring back the harmony!” He smiles while his face glows with a bleary joy.
Octobers in Lahore are hot. Not peak season hot, but enough that one would break a noticeable sweat if asked to disclose the details of long-held secrets. Yet some secrets are dormant beneath layers of advertency. They await an epiphany to be known. Until then, there is always a cacophony of thoughts—bleating and chomping. Three years is a long time. There is something different about Ajmal. Sitting at the other side of the table, his face is raddled yet still noble. Something has put years on him—more than just three. It is today that I am observing the dusk under his eyes. Today when it feels like surviving many storms in all those years. I sit on this side of the table. I had been sitting here before. The count around the table varied from two to four. It was not just any ‘count’. Now, I see it. The dusk. It was not there on his face the last time I remember when the count was just two.
Ajmal has been in love. The kind of which is beyond someone’s comprehension. At least beyond reason. But then again, the reason may not be the only route to the cognizance of something like this. He is smart, but his romantic leanings may tell otherwise. Yet, what is love if not lunacy? The kind which is glamorized and authenticated by profit makers. Despite that, we fall for it. We all do at some point in our life. Or points. It is addictive when you are lost. When you search for something far bigger than yourself. You can not reach it. So, you stick to this kind of love. It challenges you and makes you suffer and that is how you punish yourself for being lost and forsaken. Or maybe that is the whole point.
The sun has been setting. Although the density of this city has obstructed its visibility, its fainting shafts fall on everything announcing its departure. “Are you still afraid to stay outside after dusk?” Ajmal inquired still holding his cup of white tea. “Umm, well I think it is far better now. Unlike last winter, I am feeling more comfortable right now.” “That’s great. I remember you would leave before dusk even in the presence of many people.” Ajmal recalls with a concerned gaze. “So, how did you deal with it?” “I did nothing. I woke up one day and it was gone. Just like that.” “Just like that?” He takes a pause and answers his query. “Yes. Yes. That does happen. You wake up one day and your mind has decided that it is time for you to move on from something that has held you back for so long. The mind has its ways. It divulges its resolves unannounced.” “Yes, just like that. And…” I set a suitable tone to pose my question, “When are you planning to wake up?” There I said it.
His lips curve into a faint smile under his weary twinkle eyes. “You mean what?” The smile stays there but gradually it evolves into a genuine smile. “That thing that has been holding you back for so long.” I ask him out of concern. Real concern. Over the years, I have developed a strange kind of endearment for him. The one that profit-makers can not sell. It is neither romantic nor platonic. It has no name. Maybe it has a name, but then naming it would not do justice to what it is. “One day, I will wake up to it. That will be the day. Just like that.” Ajmal chuckles.
“The soon, the better. No?” My voice is a little cagey. It does not feel right. I do not have any right over him. Yet I feel obliged. More than anything, I feel guilty. For various reasons. First, because my words could wreck his relationship. Second…umm. Again, I could wreck it. Is the relationship toxic? Yes, but I do not want to own that much power. Power is a responsibility. Fatal when the subject matter involves a heart —not just any heart. “Yes, soon.” He steals a glance at me before staring into the void. There is a tinge of musing in his eyes. Brief yet deep in rapt silence.
When silence prolongs, it is time to part ways. People say silence is a language but not when it needs its own cozy space. Otherwise, it will not find letters and it may open a way for complete mayhem. We do not want that. Do we? “It’s time. I got to bounce.” I sneak a look at my empty cup of tea and prepare to hang my pochette over my shoulder. He nods and springs up. We find ourselves at the margin of the boulevard. Once having passed it. It is now time to cross the main road. Traffic always haunts me of all the things. He is standing beside me, and his arm brushes my shoulder. I am not thinking—at least consciously. My right-hand moves and my finger touches his fingers and before I am consciously aware, I have my fingers locked in his. He wraps his fingers around mine, takes a step, and makes his way through the dense traffic. I follow. Is this what we call following one’s heart? Oh, wait. No. We do not hold hands. I have my hand in my pocket reminiscing about the times when it was in his hand. That was three autumns ago. And I follow.
Then how did we get here? On the other side of the road. We were holding hands. Different hands. I have been in love too. Different kinds of love. Different than his yet just the same. Still, we walk together. “Alright Arwa, when can I see you next time?” Ajmal inquired holding my gaze. “Soon. I guess. Until then I hope you have woken up. Haha.” He maintains his gaze with a hearty smile and the noise around us absorbs his words, “I want the same.” I start walking in the other direction, and there is a warmness radiating from my chest and trying to ripple through my whole body. I am not giving it a conscious thought. But I feel it. It feels like eating a cheesecake on a Spring evening.
The needles on the clock in my room are still. I do not like the sound of its lethargic ticking. So, I decided to take the batteries out one day. Since then, the time has started making sense. Time is not the ticking of the clock but a string of various sensations and vehemence. You pass through them, and they do not pass through you. I am finding myself in one and it feels familiar. It is not novel entirely yet it feels fresh. October’s nights are warm. The window of the rooms brings in a smell of freshly cut grass. The autumn night smells like a typical summer night. An air of tranquility infuses into my ruminations, and I fixate more on retaining the state I am in. Not every feeling must be probed. I am aware of the lurking fear surrounding the possibility of its escape. I do not want that. Not after all these turbulent years. I have learned to embrace the feelings and acknowledge them in their presence, when they make sound, and not after they bid me a farewell.
I pick up my phone and type my feeling before it escapes. I want to see him more. Something is crawling back into my heart and before my brain tries to thwart it again. I will put to silence even its faintest murmurs. I feel fear, and this fear has been living in the corner of my mind. It is not the fear of loss but the fear of escape. Where these feelings are consigned to oblivion by the work of mind’s own design. You wake one day to find yourself in a different frame of reference and all the people around you have been shifted to different spots in your head. You can not displace them back to their original spots by picking them up with your intent because you have no power. You are helpless. So, you flow like a river and the river never stops flowing until it drains into the sea. I will type now. ‘Thinking about you…’ ‘No, that sounds corny…I think it should be…I love seeing you.’ As I send those words, I am overwhelmed by warm joy. The phone beeps within a minute, ‘So do I.’ Followed by a heart of an exclamation mark. It melts my heart and I finally let love make me warm all over.
The mornings of November feel cold and they might deceive you into thinking that winter has come at last. The past few days have been a transition from what seemed old and tasted to something so pristine. There is always a crowd of two at our table these days. Not three. Not four. His smiles are rejuvenating and his eyes more radiant. The two of us have been together only three inches apart for the past few days. With fewer words and more smiles after three autumns. “Here to wish you luck!”, Ajmal passes me some chocolates. It has been these small gestures that have kept me enchanted. “Thank you,” I took an affectionate look into his eyes, “These will surely bring me some luck in the assessment. Are you accompanying me to the hall?” “Yes, I will go where you go.” He smiles and his eyes twinkle with no trace of dust underneath. We start walking towards the main hall as I am caging my wandering thoughts in an opaque casket. It has been my way to feel the joy that I once felt when I was an unwary child. I have been making these three inches my abode.
I have known Ajmal for years and he has been there for me all along. It started with my intrigue. I saw him from a distance and it was not just a spatial one. I remember the night I first met him and the days following that. Once I had catered to my intrigue, it turned into something else. Something serene and simple. We found friends in each other—sometimes a little more. It had been a journey of more and less yet it retained its candor. Until one day when we met at the coffee shop, and he walked me through the crowded road. That was three autumns ago. It felt the way it does now. Love itself is not new to me, but love in his twinkle eyes is new. It has changed everything about him. He looks like one of my own now. With every passing day, my love for him grows. It is not difficult because this kind of love is calm and pleasant. It is like honey-colored nectar spreading out of my chest and consuming us both.
The room in which both of us sit in front of each other has a few rows of tables and benches. It is a tea stall painted deep blue. Winter air is dense and it brings to us the aroma of tea. This time not white but dark, strong, and the kind he loves. He is chatty and so am I. We always are. Until there comes a moment when he is staring into oblivion as he takes a sip of his tea. Ruminating on something. “What is going on in your mind?” I ask and he adjusts his eyes on me. He smiles pursing his lips as if the words are the tip of his tongue but he fears the choice of them. “I better not say because this feeling hits me and when I ponder over it. It always turns out to be wrong and meaningless.” Ajmal responds with lips still pressed. “What exactly is the feeling? I won’t judge.” I say it because I do not want this newly found love to outshine our friendship. “It is just that I feel something is missing. Something that can make me obsessive about whatever we have between us.” The words are not familiar to me but I understand these words. I understand everything that he has to say. Maybe I know him so well and that is what’s missing.
When you are in a love that does not challenge you. The one that does not fit into the idea of the love created by profit makers, then there is something always missing. “You do what you feel is best.” “It is something that I feel for a moment and then I don’t because I want exactly what is in front of me and I am sure of that,” Ajmal emphasizes the verity of love between us amidst the presence of his convoluted feelings. I nod and affirm my agreement. That is what I can do meanwhile the warmth starts rushing back to my chest. Where I might lock them up again. The shadows are still lurking and the summer is yet to come. For him. Not me.
Nothing that he says baffles me. Once you acknowledge your fears, you are unbreakable. I might wake up with a change in the frame of reference in my head tomorrow. We might know each other in different spots than we are in today. I no longer count days in years, or a lifetime rather I live my life every day, and this is the moment when I have to accept his uncertainty in its true nature. I can not colour it with orange shades like the twinkle in his eyes when they reflect the setting sun. And that is okay for I have learned that we are helpless. We flow like a river, and when our rivers will meet the sea, he will still be there.
About the Author:
Nida Khattak is a writer from Lahore. She has previously published in Kitaab.