Saturday, 11 August 2012

On Venice and Khyber- A Short Story

“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
― E.B. White

All those years something so deep yet so little kept them together despite all those cultural differences. She would call those the sweetest oddities of life. She came from Venice. Like her city she revealed herself in different array of characters- bold, intelligent, loving and yet a caring soul. Like her name she was an attractive, romantic and artistic individual- a sight of attraction for wayward eyes. Khyber came from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.  Creative, forward looking, artistic, sensitive, caring, good natured individual, yet secretive and strong like his mountains. Handsome? Yes, he surely was.

It was frosty December in London. She went to bed early in the evening hence woke up in the early hours of the morning. She wanted to spend the whole night talking with him. She always felt this process as therapeutic and healing, if that’s the right word. Visiting him meant visiting herself or meeting herself. In a busy London life when everyone is at run, it was a blessing. She would make some nice pasta. He would make some traditional food as well. He was good at cooking Chapli kabab or Qabuli Pulao.
 As she opened her eyes, she instantly brought her wrist watch near her eyes, checked her time with the clock  hanging on the front wall as you enter the room, above The Times World Atlas. She couldn’t believe she missed a valuable portion of the night sleeping.
Khyber is engrossed in reading Kafka’s novel- called The Trial. He loved reading Kafka. To him talking to Venice was more meaningful and enchanting than  reading Kafka but he let her rest well as she appeared tired the previous evening. While fast asleep he touched her face a few times- it felt like touching an untouched dream.
 “Venice- are you OK?”
“Yes, I am”- she looks again at her wrist watch, to the wall clock and fixes her gaze at him. She makes an effort to get a glass of water.
“Yes please, my throat is dry. I am thirsty”
He extends his hand to the bottle on the table on his right and pours into the glass fresh water and gives her. She looks at him with love and adoration. He stares at her with a level of care. She places her head against the pillow. She gazes up at Khyber’s face, touches his long curly hair and takes a long deep breath. She couldn’t cease thinking of him. She makes a conscious effort to avoid thinking of million aspects of the present and future- all those “ifs and buts” too. She never thought of that when they first met in Covent Gardens one fine evening in September. She was a newly arrived student of English literature, deeply impressed with the writings of Dante. She loved painting too. To her it was the highest form of expressive art- art of liberation.

“You went to sleep early – you were all tired. I thought you need a good rest. Though I wanted to wake you up” he winks.
“Sounds unfair- spending time with Kafka, leaving me alone, very unfair. Shows how caring you are”.
“Caring? Na, na - more than that - I know how to treat Venice- the jewel of Italy”-  “ Venice- the jewel of Italy” he whispers with a smile on his face. “I had been to Venice, before I met you. It is a beautiful city- romantic like her name. You resemble your city- beautiful, serene, full of life” Sometimes, when I think of Italy, I think of Venice and with that you too- Venice”.

“Ah, only sometimes”?  She quizzically asks. She hates that word- “sometimes”. “The rest of the time, you stay with me”- hearing him saying that elates her souls.
“So you still are reading this book- The Trial?”  To her all this seemed a boring literary exercise that night.
“As you can see I am nearly there Venice- in fact, will take me an hour to finish it. If you are tired, you better go to sleep. Tomorrow is Monday- remember, back to work? “
“Tired? I am getting bored while you are reading that old dead man. Why don’t you stop reading and sleep? Tomorrow is Monday for you too. I thought days don’t discriminate individuals”. She moans.
“Ah- then listen to some music. Make sure- you don’t play that heavy crap music. I don’t understand why people listen to all that noise?” his voice becomes instructive but tender.

“Is he worth reading, tonight; I mean at this very hour, Khyber?” she grumbles staring through the window. Khyber knew now she desperately wanted attention from him.
“Hmm- I find Kafka- always interesting, Venice” says Khyber.
 She lowers her gaze down and unconsciously inspects lines on her palms, rarely visible in dim light. She tries to study it by closing it near the table lamp. Khyber switches on the light for her. “I don’t know which two lines bring us together on my palm- you can read palms, can’t you?”  “You are an old soul, born in a time that doesn’t belong to you. Perhaps, you belong to 7-8 Century BC- perhaps you are as ancient as time itself” she laughs.

“Aah, so you want me to live in the time of Homer, then. Isn’t this weird. Go on; say more, I’m all ears, Venice. ”
“Yes- in the time of one of the greatest story tellers ever lived on planet earth”- she jokes while touching the tip of his nose.

“Greatest ever story-teller …………. who taught all other poets the art of telling lies skilfully”. He murmurs.
“Did you say something- I could barely hear you saying that?”
“ I didn’t – it was Aristotle. In fact, he is admiring Homer, here”.

“Ah- the fates have given mankind a patient soul. How true tonight!” she speaks with some level of pain in her voice. Her voice getting deep and down.
 “Homer’s Odyssey?”  He asks
“No, Homer’s Iliad.” she giggles, places her head on the pillow, and then on his chest to remind him that he should re-visit Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey with care.

“So tell me, why you stopped writing.  Writers love writing, story tellers like telling stories. You are a romantic poet, a lovely story teller; I could hear you all night” she looks into his eyes for an answer.
“And poor listeners?  I suppose writers and story tellers become a burden on the society, particularly in a time when people spend more time on social media than reading a good book, Venice“-  he argues
“ Hmmmmmm……. Love listening to the stories- they find themselves in those stories, with somehow seemingly similar characters, with different names” she elaborates

 She always amazed him with her wit, wisdom and eloquence and with a refined taste of literature. She was at the end of the day an ardent student of literature. All this made her growing on him gradually. The more he would try not seeing or meeting her, the more the urge to see her. It was strange chemistry between two souls. Two different souls, from two different continents. Yet so similar. They shared love and respect- very deep and profound to fathom. In her mind she always thought him as a man she could spend all her life with. To him, she was a lovely young girl who deserved someone who would care for her. He knew he was the man but to him he never thought of living the rest of his life in London detached from his own people. He wanted to do something for his people living in extreme circumstances. She understood him well with all his imitations. She knew they wouldn’t live together. At times she would stop thinking of him, but she wasn’t good at repressing her thought and with that her desires. Next day she would call up to meet him for a quick chat that would extend to a night long never ending chat.

“Venice- I write not because I am a writer, or tell stories because I am a story teller like Homer, but write as I have a story to tell and I have stopped writings because I have nothing to tell now.  My stories are no more inspiring. How can I write of flowers, fresh breeze, peace and love, hope when death, violence and ignorance dances on my land and hatred and bigotry only celebrate its success? “
She was touched by his reply. She lifts her left arm and puts her hand on his forehead as she would always do in sombre moments to give him comfort. Her tender fingers touched his eyes and his whole face. He could smell the fragrance on her hand. It was Coco Chanel.
 “You love Channel, don’t”? He seizes her hand and tries to absorb the perfume.
“Yes- remember, first time we met in Covent Garden, I wore Coco Channel? You recognised the scent , instantly . I don’t wear it normally, but I do, every time I visit you. It reminds me of our first meeting”. He wanted to say something like, “Venice, don’t you ever wear a perfume. The fragrance of your body invigorates my soul. I don’t take a shower for a good day after you leave me” but kept his words to himself. He was good at that.

He puts  The Trials on the table- takes a glass of water and whispers- The Trial. “ We are in a state of trial- always, Venice”.
“Yes- always”.
So what’s this book about?
“I better give you the book to read than to tell you the story, Venice”
“Why not?”

“ Look , it took me two days to finish the book- will take you two minutes to know the story, straight from my mouth and that is not fair. Anyway- the story is about Joseph K who is arrested for a crime he didn't commit and is deceived by authoritarian power. I read it as I can relate it to my country"- he explains.
Venice lifts her head and looks at the clock on the wall and realises that it is 03:40 a.m.
“Time, is so stupid.  Sometimes, it goes like a turtle, and sometimes…… sometimes, …..” she takes a pause searching for an appropriate word.
“……. runs like Usain Bolt. Is this what you wanted to say, Venice?-“

“Ah- I like your metaphors; you always make me smile with your selection of words for different occasions.  Sometime, I feel as if you have sown seeds of words in a field and that you know when to reap and how to reap to make a lovely garland of poetry and prose. This is why I believe you were born in a wrong time”.

“Hmmmmm……….”  He waits to hear her say something different. He didn’t like being appreciated.
“I am serious Khyber. Not kidding. I mean it. You are born at the wrong time“
“Born at the wrong time? “
“Yes Yes….. May be, should I say you were born not at the right time. Look, this time doesn’t belong to you, or should I say you don’t belong to this time ?”
“Hmmmmmm- born at the wrong time, or in other words not the right time - in a wrong country,  in a wrong race with a wrong geography?
“Yes, yes”- she nods
“Yes” ? he asks with some mean smile on his face
 “Maybe not, I don’t know……” she is confused
 “With a wrong gender? He asks with a big laughter
“Come on-I didn’t say that Khyber , did I ?  I want you to be a man- a man that I adore and love, a man that I know of him so much, yet so little that I wanted to know more. Why can’t you abandon your plans of going back home, Khyber? You have a bright future here. You can do so much here. You are respectful and bright and handsome. If I beg you, would you stay here in London with me, forever?”
“if I ……….”  She takes a pause then continues “ ah , nothing….” She stops, knowing it is hard to change his mind now.

She wants him to read her one of his poems that she too had remembered by heart- called Young Girl. She loves the poem as she finds herself in the poem.  During recital if he would hamper, she would join in too.
She opens her mouth to say, to please start reciting the poem. He feels the intensity of the night.
“Young girl…….”- he whispers.

Young girl hush!
Hush in the stillness of the night! And
Don’t even whisper a word!
Rest your gentle hands
On my tired shoulders.
Your hands that feels softer than cotton.

Place you ears next to my beating heart!
Can you hear the music of my heart?
If not, then listen!
Listen to the melody of my heart
Craving for my land
You and me
And the people in it!

Now young girl:
Stay calm
Don’t get nervous
And look into my eyes:
What can you see?
The colour of our dark blood
Lost in my lost villages, towns and cities
Or the eyes of an insomniac?

Young girl: You seem frantic now!
You better not!
You better hug me, as we need it badly
And let me place my head
On your shoulders
And let me breathe the divine scent of your body
And inhale
the sublime fragrance of your love!

(He fumbles forgetting next few lines. She joins in to read the rest in her lovely voice )
Now young girl:
Make sure
You balance not only your trembling frame
Shaky shoulders
Or your elegant neck, but also
My delicate emotions!
And then
Let the silence of our passion produce a heavenly music
One last time
That may hold us tight
On a wintry night!

“That’s it. You remembered all that, well done”- compliments Khyber while taking a long breath.
He gazes into her dreamy eyes to observe drops of tears so vivid - like pearls. He devours those tears.
“That’s it Khyber? Ah… know what Homer says- I detest that man who hides one thing in the depths of his heart, and speaks for another”. She gasps to make a point.
He dries up her tears with his fingers. He hugs her, kisses her on her forehead and tender lips. He points towards the window. It is 4:30 a.m. They both realise that dawn has just emerged and that they need to take a little nap before they get ready for a busy Monday morning – the day they both despised the most. Khyber picks up his mobile phone and matches the time on the mobile with the clock on the wall.  He pulls the blanket over their faces and says-
“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep” Khyber narrates Homer with a degree of urgency to sleep for a little while.
“Lines from Iliad? “ Asks Venice
“No from Odyssey, my Penelope”- says Khyber with a taste of revenge and a divine kiss of love and reassurance for Venice, to bid her goodnight.

(n.b:  Dear friends- in its essence -this is a work of fiction, not an account of the writer’s life or experiences.  Hence, names, characters, places and incidents mentioned in the short story are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to persons, places and events is entirely coincidental)

Farid Gul, Peshawar, 11th August 2012

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