Friday, January 21, 2011

Still Alive and Kicking Folks

Life is crazy at the moment. 'When was it not?' I hear you all collectively say. Yes, but only a mom with 2 small kids will know what I'm talking about. Correction. Only a mom who has a child remotely like the fussy, cranky, moody, bossy, accident-prone, hurricane Z has turned out to be, will have an inkling of my whirlwind days.

For those of you who don’t know, I had a darling little baby boy on the 28th of October, 2010. Incidentally, his name starts with Z too so I have to figure out what to call each of them on this blog. Creative suggestions are welcome.

So while I scrounge around for time to collect my thoughts and put my efforts at being supermom up for display through this blog, I’ll leave you all to read a story I attempted a few months ago. Be kind with your comments... I'm a novice, for God's sake! :)Happy reading...



Everything around was perfect and beautiful. The sky was a luminous shade of blue, expanding spotlessly as far as she could see. There was no sun in sight, yet sunlight seemed to touch everything. A gentle breeze caressed her skin, offering a hint of coolness to the pleasant warmth. She walked barefoot on a carpet of moist grass. Huge comforting trees sheltered her as she walked, urging her on with the gentle sway of their leaves. A clear stream gurgled a few feet away and delicate lavender flowers peppered her path. She could hear melodious sounds filter down through the lush foliage of the trees. She saw tiny bird-like creatures singing to her from the branches above. They chirped and sang their songs to her earnestly from every tree. The melodies reached her ears and formed clear meanings in her head. She understood them but wanted to plug her ears with her fingers and shut out the sounds. She didn’t want to hear… or to know.

The beauty around her did nothing to make her feel better. She was petrified. She wanted to stop, to turn around, to wake up. In a small corner of her conscious mind she was aware that this was just a dream. But a familiar feeling of helplessness gripped her, weakening her belief that this was unreal. As she walked she realised she was silently resisting something... what? She couldn’t see what she was fighting. There was an unmistakable force that made her keep walking. From a distance she saw a tree that appeared to be slightly illuminated. She knew she had to walk towards it, even though she didn’t want to. She could feel a scream threatening to escape her lips. An invisible fist tightened around her heart, intensifying her panic. But her legs continued to carry her forward...

Sarah woke up abruptly. She had an odd feeling of being between two places, between sleep and consciousness. She roused herself slowly, deliberately shaking off the images of her unconscious mind. She was in her bed, fully awake now, lying between her sleeping husband and their baby daughter.

The dream had recurred on and off for about a month. Persistent dreams disturbed her. But this time the dream did more than that. It terrified her. Sarah’s hands were cold with fear. She felt a tremor run through her body at the memory of what she had felt in the dream. It seemed to be revealing something to her slowly - bit by bit. Each time she felt she had walked a little further; seen the surroundings a little more clearly; felt a little more helpless.

Today, yet again, the dream had left Sarah emotionally drained, tired and numb with fear. Instinctively, she checked Nida. She was asleep and probably dreaming of angels, for she had an angelic hint of a smile on her tiny lips. There is a popular belief among Muslims that when babies smile or laugh in their sleep, they are in conversation with angels. Sarah softly kissed Nida’s forehead, reciting a quick prayer for her safety and happiness.

Nida used to wake up several times each night and Sarah struggled through those nights, rocking, singing and nursing her back to sleep. But thankfully, her 10-month-old had recently started sleeping well throughout the night.

Right around the time the dreams had begun, Sarah thought absently.

Sarah turned towards Yousif. He was fast asleep, evident by his snores. She snuggled close to her husband, trying to go back to sleep. But her thoughts kept wandering back to the dream.

Sarah was no stranger to the world of dreams. Thinking back, she believed she had spent half her life in this parallel world. She was both mesmerised and repelled by them. She was fascinated by them from a purely academic standpoint, being a student of psychology. But she hated the fact that they stole her peaceful sleep and replaced it with a cryptic maze of hidden messages that she had no choice but to psychoanalyse. She hated that, more often than not, the dreams tormented her with clear hints of the near future.

She shuddered involuntarily.

She didn’t get any sleep till well after 4 a.m.

“I had that dream again,” Sarah told Yousif over breakfast in the morning. He looked up from his parantha and cauliflower sabzi and raised an eyebrow.

Yousif was a man of few words. He didn’t really air his views unless he was compelled to. But after hearing the intensity of the dream, he was a little concerned.

“Isn’t this the fourth time? Sarah, you should speak to someone about it. At least talk to Ammi. You know how good she is at interpreting dreams.”

“Fifth. And yes, I thought about talking to her but I don’t want her to get worried. Not that there is anything to worry about...” she trailed off, suddenly remembering the feeling of helplessness. Steadying her voice, she looked at him pointedly. “I’ll go see her this afternoon.”

Sarah and Yousif owned an apartment in one of Bangalore’s most upmarket locations, and Yousif’s mother lived across the street from them with her eldest son Qasim, his wife Zeba and their 5-year-old son Ayaan.

Sarah was extremely fond of Ammi and vice versa, a fact that surprised both of them and everyone who knew them. Sarah had lost her own mother when she was five. Though her father took good care of them during their growing years, Sarah and her sister were often saddened by the absence of a mother’s love. This gaping maternal void that Sarah grew up with was easily filled by Ammi’s presence. They shared a relationship akin to that of a mother and daughter who had been close all their lives. They struck a chord from the very first day, when they met at a wedding six years ago. Sarah’s sensitivity and grace had floored Ammi, which led to her playing match maker and getting Yousif and Sarah to tie the knot soon after. Almost immediately they became inseparable friends, confiding in each other. Sarah knew at last what it felt like to have a mother.

It was only a year later that they realised that their camaraderie had more to do with things that did not meet the eye. They both shared a gift. They both saw dreams that told the future.

Yousif’s father had died three years ago. Ammi knew about it a month before that fateful day when he had a massive heart attack. Since she had been warned by her vision, she didn’t go into shock. But it changed her. Once a cheerful, witty and energetic woman, Ammi now preferred to spend most of her time on her prayer mat. After Abba’s death she tried to be happy but it was obvious that she couldn’t get over her loss. Her eyes always had a far-away look and Sarah wondered how often she thought about her own death. It pained Sarah to look into Ammi’s eyes.

That afternoon Sarah made some gajar ka halwa for Ammi, dressed Nida and carried her and the halwa to the building society across the street. Zeba greeted her at the door with strained enthusiasm.

“Sarah! What a pleasant surprise!

Zeba and Sarah never knew what to say to each other. Initially they had tried to be friends, but some things were just not meant to be. Misunderstandings had put a crack in the possibility of a friendship and the undercurrents of tension remained long after the rift was forgotten. What remained was a deliberate formality and an effort to stay out of each other’s way.

“How are you, bhabhi? How is my darling Ayaan? It’s been a week since we saw Ammi. I hope she is fine.”

“Her knees have been troubling her a lot nowadays, especially since these unexpected chilly winds began.”

Just then Ammi walked into the living room with Ayaan pulling at the end of her dupatta. Sarah let her sister-in-law take Nida from her arms, while she hurried to embrace Ammi. Their embrace was warm and lingering.

She laughed as she picked her cheeky nephew up, noticing his Spiderman T-shirt.

“How have you been, hero?”

“I’m fine, chachi. Can Nida play football with me now?” he pleaded.

“Well, she’s trying to take a few steps herself now. Why don’t you help her learn to walk? Then she will soon be set to play football with you.”

She put Ayaan back down and they all watched, carefully controlling their chuckles as Ayaan held Nida’s tiny hands in his own and urged her to walk, counting “One, two, three....” while he walked backwards.

“Ayyyaaaa. Tu tu tu,” babbled Nida, humouring her cousin.

She tottered after the third step and fell forward squealing with laughter, toppling Ayaan along with her onto the floor. The kids grinned up at the adults and everyone laughed. Ammi held Sarah’s hand then and led her to her room. Sarah glanced at Zeba and noticed a slight frown appear on her face before she turned her attention back to the children and started talking animatedly. It was obvious to everyone that Sarah was Ammi’s favourite daughter-in-law; a fact that Zeba never could come to terms with.

“Yousif told me you wanted to talk to me about something,” enquired Ammi once they were seated in her room. “He didn’t say much so I got a little worried. I hope everything is alright.”

“Oh, it’s nothing Ammi.” She was perturbed that Yousif had made Ammi anxious unnecessarily. “I’ve been having a disturbing dream, that’s all. I didn’t think much of it initially but last night was the fifth time. I can’t see anything of importance in it. But it’s frightening.”

Ammi listened intently as Sarah narrated what she saw in the dream. Sarah told her what she saw, the place that felt like it was God’s paradise, how she felt she was being urged on, and how the dream had ended before she reached her destination. She also told her how frightened the dream had left her, how she didn’t want to reach the destination, but was being forced to, and how each time the dream seemed to take her a little further, closer to the climax.

Ammi looked at Sarah with a puzzled expression on her face. She then asked her to narrate it again, this time slowly, trying to recall any minute details and bits she could have forgotten. Sarah closed her eyes and tried to visualise the dream again. Strangely, she didn’t have to try very hard. She remembered things in startling clarity as she put her vision into words. She began retelling the tale of her dream. She described the beautiful place and what she saw and felt, the sounds, the smells, all in explicit detail. And then…

She was walking on the moist grass once more, among the lush trees, with the pleasant breeze tingling her skin and the sparkling water flowing beside her. She heard the bird-like-creatures and looked up as they urged her on. She wanted to tell them that she was scared, that she didn’t want to go any further. She wanted to turn and run. But she kept walking towards the radiant tree, beckoned by an unseen force. Fear grew with each step, from the pit of her belly, till it suffocated her, clogging her senses and restricting her breathing. She knew reaching that tree would bring her face to face with a certainty she did not wish to realise; an end she was too scared to face. A flash of light blinded her eyes and a single word took its place, forming clearly in her mind. She felt a chill run down her spine.

“Chai, chai.”

Sarah’s eyes flew open and she stared at Zeba with an expression of fear and astonishment. Zeba stood there with a tray of tea, biscuits and cakes. Ayaan followed her into the room, leading Nida by her hand. She looked like she had already gotten better at walking. But Sarah didn’t notice.

She felt she had just woken up from her dream. Her eyes couldn’t see clearly for a few seconds and her limbs felt numb. Her hands were clammy from fear. She felt a little faint. Without thinking, she bent down to touch the soles of her feet. They were moist.

What just happened here? She tried to recall. She had been describing her dream to Ammi and had suddenly slipped into the dream in the middle of her narration. How was that possible? And how much had she told Ammi? She hoped she hadn’t said the word aloud, the word that had appeared in front of her. Ammi didn’t need to know about that.

She saw both Ammi and Zeba peering at her wondering what had happened to her. She blushed scarlet, realising how odd her expression would have looked to them. Ayaan saved her from any further discomfort.

“Look at her walk, chachi. I taught her.”

“Yes, you did, sweetheart.”

She gave the children quick hugs and excused herself to go to the kitchen so that she could warm a bottle of milk to feed Nida. She had to give herself a minute to get composed and stop her hands from shivering. With painstaking care she completed the task without spilling anything. When she returned, Ammi and Zeba were discussing the menu for dinner, but broke off when she entered. They looked at her, Zeba inquisitively and Ammi expectantly. She ignored their looks and told them about a delicious and recently discovered brinjal curry recipe. She did her best to ignore Ammi’s questioning eyes. She didn’t want to think about the dream. Not now at least.

After half an hour of light conversation, Ammi decided not to remain patient anymore.

“Sarah has been seeing a strange dream repeatedly,” she told Zeba. “She was just telling me about it.”

“Oh, really? Do tell me more.”

Sarah noticed the sarcasm. Zeba never took Sarah’s dreams seriously. She laughed at her behind her back, wondering how people could be so superstitious in this day and age.

She had often expressed her thoughts about Sarah’s childish beliefs to Qasim. “I can understand someone like Ammi believing this mumbo jumbo, but Sarah? I thought she had better sense,” Zeba had said incredulously to him one night, after hearing about a particular dream which seemed to hold everyone’s interest.

In the dream Sarah had seen her own sister Mizba browsing through jewellery in a store, but instead of purchasing jewellery, she bought a pair of shiny knives. Mizba was eight months pregnant at that time and Sarah understood what the dream had implied, after discussing it with Ammi of course. Mizba soon delivered a healthy baby girl... through an emergency caesarean section.

Zeba had laughed off the explanation that jewellery meant a girl and knives a C-section. “You certainly have a wild imagination,” she had remarked rudely to Sarah.

“It’s nothing important.” Sarah now brushed the sarcasm aside and got up to leave. “I really must be getting home. I haven’t worked on my thesis this whole week,” she said before Ammi could protest. A few months after Nida was born Sarah had decided to pursue her long standing desire to get a PhD in Psychology.

Once she was home and Nida napped, Sarah busied herself with dinner preparations and then sat down to work on her thesis. The topic of her study was ‘Precognitive Dreams’, something that she felt she needed to study in order to understand herself and how her mind worked.

But she couldn’t concentrate. She kept thinking about what she had experienced in Ammi’s room this afternoon. It had been a first. But what was it? I wasn’t asleep, she told herself. I was narrating the dream to Ammi. And suddenly I was in the dream, going a little bit further....

She shivered remembering the word that had materialised clearly in her mind.


Sarah wanted to talk to Yousif about it when he got home at 8 p.m. But what would she tell him? She felt she just needed to give herself a break and not think about the dream for some time. I might soon lose my mind otherwise. Or am I already on the road to losing it? she thought wryly.

She decided not to say anything to Yousif at all. Ammi enquired about the incident the next morning over the phone but Sarah vaguely said that describing it had frightened her again, that’s all.

Two nights later, she was in the dream again.

Everything was the same as before. But Sarah sensed subtle changes. The air was thick with a peculiar scent. It hung heavily around her. It was a smell that she seemed to remember... it had hung around the house when her mother died and again when her grandmother died a few years later. It conjured up images of clean white shrouds, aromatic incense and the recitation of the Qur’an. She could hear the clear recitation now, the song of the birds fading into the background as she proceeded to the tree. It was a young man’s voice; he was barely 20. She knew this even before she saw him. His voice rang clear as crystal in the heavy air, strong and resonant as he recited the holy verses. She followed the sweetness of those verses, of that voice, in a trance. She was engulfed in its melody and wondered why she had been afraid. The heaviness seemed to lift gradually as she approached him. The fear evaporated. A peaceful calmness set in. Sarah knew she had to keep walking and see this through.

He sat on a rock below the luminous tree, the Qur’an in his hands, rocking gently to the rhythm of his own recital. He was about twenty feet away from her. She tread gently, not wanting to disturb him with her footsteps. But he seemed to be unaware of her. He sat elegantly in a white kurta-pyjama with a skull cap on his head. She noticed something else now. He recited a few lines and then turned to his right to speak to someone. He then recited the next two lines and again turned to speak to the person sitting next to him. He seemed to be explaining the verses he recited, smiling and gesturing with his hands. She approached cautiously now, noting that a young girl sat beside the boy. She couldn’t have been over 16. She was wearing a powder blue salwar-kameez with the dupatta loosely draped around her head and over her shoulders. She was listening to her companion in rapt attention, unable to take her eyes off him. Sarah inched closer, not wanting to bother the couple, but she had to know.

She was standing in front of them now, looking down at them as they sat in their cosy nook. They slowly turned their faces up to look at her; smiling, radiant, joyous faces that seemed to expect her and welcome her. Sarah did not flinch in recognition. She began to cry, silent tears falling down her cheeks.

“You’ll be alright, Sarah,” Ammi said. Abba nodded and took his wife’s hand in his.

“Sarah? Sarah, wake up. You’re having a dream again. What happened? Calm down, sweetheart.” Yousif held his wife in his arms as she sobbed softly into his shoulder.

“I don’t want to lose her. I don’t want Ammi to die.”

Yousif continued to hold Sarah as the words sank in.

Facing the next morning was difficult for Sarah. She knew it was just a matter of time. She had no control over the inevitable. How was she was going to live without Ammi? She didn’t know the answer to that question.

Ammi was strangely cheerful when Sarah met her. She went about her tasks with a sudden vigour and swiftness, like she was in a hurry. She laughed often and whole-heartedly, something she hadn’t done in a long time. It was a complete change and it startled everyone. She visited close relatives, spent time with her family and hugged Sarah at the slightest pretext. Once, during an embrace, she whispered, “You’ll be alright, Sarah.”

Ammi died peacefully in her sleep the following week. Sarah never told her the dream. She didn’t have to.