Iman Fahim Hameed
Behind Closed Doors
Listen, you can’t sleep forever. It’s bound to pounce upon you whether you do it now or later. It’s honestly not so bad.
Don’t whine, hear me out --
There will be no din in the dining room this morning. No feet pitter-pattering on the hardwood floor to the tunes of K-pop; no complaints, no spills, no loud clinking or the grating sound of Akira's cereal bowl as she lazily drags it closer to her. You won’t be annoyed that the blender’s whizzing twice as long as when you’d do breakfast, nor will you be distracted from that dream by the sound of water from our bamboo rain shower caressing my back. After all, lately, your fingers have forgotten the sound of skin on skin - or, wait, perhaps just on mine. We won’t have to compel ourselves to listen to the smack of your lips against the nape of my neck or pretend to not hear the scream from within: "Cut it!"
Yes, I know. I know you’ll miss the everyday sound of your ring and mine clinking against two sides of the same glass, a symbol of our independence and unity, of our togetherness and separateness. I, too, will sometimes miss the innocence in your voice, that voice you reserve for moments when your eyes stop distancing themselves, and your heart opens, as I embrace your quivering body, moments that used to be ours alone.
You won’t have to contend with all the chink-chink of chunky metal, as I don one necklace or the other. No perfume misting the air or hairspray frosting up the glass door. No crinkles on the sheets, no corners out of place. There’ll be none of the loose powder traces that drive you mad, no mascara-stained tissues in the basket beside the dresser.
Imagine! I’ll finally get to throw my novels on the table, leave my canvas where I want, my paintbrushes unwashed, and do the laundry all in one go. No swishing to sort, no need for spinning, just washing and wearing.
Anyhow, I digress. Those were not the causes.
My dear, there’s nothing lost, when there’s nothing left. Come now, smile that smile for me. One last time, I’ll cup your face in my hands, the way I did when we squealed in delight, as your fingers slipped this ring - yes this, the original, not the expensive replacement - on mine, that salty-aired eve so long ago. I’d like to remember you, us, like this. If we remain as we are in the present, I fear, this boy will vanish, and this woman may grow old and tired. So let’s save them both, shall we?
You turn your face away. A tear rolls silently down your left cheek. I hear a knife slice through my heart. My lips reach down to yours. I’ll never know your warmth this way again. But even in this moment, you refuse to bare your soul. You regain composure, rearrange your expression, save the clenching of your jaw, to choke back any renegade droplets from escaping the reservoir that's steadily welling up.
“Must you do this?” you manage. Your voice huskier than usual, heavy with restrained emotion.
“We must, my love. Not I,” I say. How cruel I sound.
“I understand the need, but must it be this way? I’m hardly ever at home, you have your time and space, and I’ll have mine. Why make this hard for them?” He nods towards the door.
The girls can see us. Their foreheads are creased with worry, their eyes brimming with uncertainty. My conscience pulls out a club, it thrashes me hard. I’m running out of breath. Must finish this, finish this fast…
“I doubt these walls can keep out the lies, nor hold the truth indoors. Our children have their own paths. Some days you’ll walk with them, and some days will I. But if we force ourselves to keep to a road that leads nowhere, they may be lost to us both. I’m quite exhausted. I’ll see myself out.”
You watch all this; listen in stoicism. I know it’s all a farce. You can barely manage it, so I’ll be quick. I play my part: throw my head back a degree or two, straighten my back. My throat clears, hands flick, the bags roll smooth, door-handle creaks a last goodbye. The pitter-patter of little feet as they hurriedly hold you firm. Your body shudders, your breathing is ragged, I must be quick, I don’t want to see it.
“Let’s go, girls, you’ll be back with papa tomorrow, don’t worry.” I call out.
My voice betrays nothing.
They follow me with sniffles. The bamboo chimes tinkle a waving farewell. I close the door behind me. I turn to pick up my last bag. It sits on the verandah, against the alcove with the big glass door. I can see you through the glass, through the thin white curtains. No sound, no sound at all. No yells, no gut-wrenching cry, but I see it. I see you double in two. I see you’re on the floor. Your fist rolled up in a tight ball. Punch. Punch. The pillow takes it all. You lift up your face. I’ve never seen you this way. Your eyes are blood-shot, tears raining down your beard, your T-shirt soaked in sweat. You’re clawing the floor now, but I don’t hear the nails-on-chalkboard sound. You’re curled up like a child. No one else will see it. No one will know.
I blow you a silent kiss. I know you won’t receive it. I turn, get in and drive off.
The world in an hour from now will buzz with this news. You’ll be downing Chivas - god knows you'll need it. I’ll have my Slims. A month from now, we’ll meet again. I’ll still be your confidante, and you'll always my best friend.
A year or two from now, we’ll even hug and hold, minus the fizz and pop, the sizzle and steam; only the warmth of knowing, the shoulder of support and the heartiness of our conversations. A void that began a few years ago, that envelops us in a dismal abyss, will diminish into an infinite point, and out of it will grow, a new space, where you and I will be a different Us.
Better for us both.
“You’re back finally! I’ll try to make this fast. Can you look after him? He’s asleep.”
Sameera switched places with Ihsan and hurriedly got out of the Nano. The driver had pushed his seat further back to doze to some music blaring on the radio.
Shit. How could she forget her shawl! Too bad. The one and only shawl she’d had was lying somewhere in Umama’s house, trapped in a time warp, four hours away from here.
She strode into the house. Men she’d never seen before were sitting with solemn expressions. She fought hard to keep her expression from betraying her thoughts. Like the backing vocals to a singer, or a dance troupe to a performance, they talked in hushed whispers behind the grand charlatan himself. Sameera felt bile rush up her throat. He saw her, but chose not to acknowledge her presence. He had once sat with her, a child, in this very house. Now, he had wrapped himself so deep in deception, she could no longer tell the real person from the fraud.
The pond still welcomed her, greener, carp-less and reeking of neglect. The walls had yellowed, the air was musty. The house had not been aired for years, it seemed. She walked past the Egyptian wall hangings. The central courtyard doors had been thrown open, curtains drawn. A few men were arranging something there. She didn’t want to linger too long. Not without her shawl. She felt like a blasphemer. No use. She stuck out like a sore thumb. She quickly crossed over to the back rooms. Her familiar spot had been infiltrated by old aunties and a few familiar faces. No one looked particularly grief-stricken, just solemn. Everyone that is, except for one lady who looked like a frail Barbie with cotton wool for hair. What was a forgotten British memento doing in this room? Either way, she didn’t have a shawl and Sameera felt she’d found an ally.
Sameera manoeuvred her way into the crowded space. The frail old British memento smiled sadly at her and they exchanged knowing looks. The old lady hoarsely whispered, “Margaret”. Sameera offered her name in return. Margaret made space. Seated beside one another, they seemed less awkward: Sameera’s darkness offset Margaret’s paleness; Margaret’s calm and ease masked Sameera’s discomposure. Together, in silence, they watched their veiled counterparts perform their individual acts, each one attempting to outperform the other. A veiled crone in Lincoln-green satin complained about the heat, waving a crumpled handkerchief in her wrinkled, gout-ridden hand. Her glittering gold wedding ring that may have once embraced lithe fingers now screamed divorce. To the far left stood a skinny, nervous woman. Her mauve viscose shawl kept falling off her right shoulder. Bangles clinked as she pulled the veil hurriedly, lest anyone saw the bruise-like marks over her starved clavicles, bruises a familiar lover would understand to have been inflicted by passion, pressure and desire. Beside her, on a stool, sat a very old woman, white haired, toothless. Her block-printed Ajrak saree pallu was pulled over her head, tucked behind the ears. She reached for her snuff box from a secret place inside her white beeralu lace blouse. Sameera was always awed at how the ancients could store so many items upon and within their bosom: snuff, money, suckling infants, tearful children and broken men. Sameera watched the snuff-box carrier look at the mauve-veiled young woman with distaste and rudely order her to get some water. The young woman ran towards the kitchen. Sameera’s throat felt dry. She stood up and left calm Margaret behind, in search of water.
A loud shrill voice startled Sameera. "Oh, hello dear! You look so lovely. Black suits you!" gushed a grotesque old female at Sameera's young cousin. Even this young one had managed a tasteful translucent black voile shawl, although it hid nothing and revealed everything. The shawl was there, so the cousin was accepted into the folds of the crones.
The old crone herself had a very intricate, colourful patterned suit, a pashmina to match the deep embroidered floral motifs that ran across her all-too-full bosom. All around her, colour filled the house. Beautiful happy hues, nothing out of the ordinary, except for Sameera without a veil.
Reminded of her thirst, Sameera continued on her way, past the servant carrying chilled drinks, into the small, stuffy kitchen. Uncle's fish curry was not on the stove. The dungeon grille, peeking out from under the dining table, still sent chills down her spine. Here too, the stage was set. Whether shock or exhaustion had drawn them so pale, whether indifference had a plastic face, whether they were happy to end this or sad to let go, Sameera could not tell. Like a movie in slow motion, she watched as the Aunt and her daughter floated past, prim as ever. Neat, fresh, hair in place. Their lips were pressed so tight, as if they were afraid if they relaxed, too many words would fall out, ill-timed.
Sameera searched for pain in their eyes. She searched for memories flashing across their faces, but saw only a distant glazed expression, as if they were in the safety of heather and moss, instead of deceptive tropical vines. The Charlatan approached the kitchen. He bowed slightly, cautiously whispering to the Aunt. Her eyes flickered with hidden malice, the face breaking into a practised smile of gratitude. The dance of two warring scorpions. Sameera saw their stings raised high above each other, even though their claws were held in an embrace. Sameera didn't want to watch anymore. She walked back into the room full of crones, hopeful for the little booklets that ought to have been available, a rosary or a veil, or both. Alas, she found none. No volunteers with their shawls, no prayers to be read. The drone of bored gossip filled the space, instead of a familiar baritone, so earthy and jolly: a voice that held the smoke-filled air in a tight embrace as it danced to the melody of a baila song. She wanted to touch the piano again, gingerly, but now was not the time for music.
Margaret had vanished. Had she ever been there? Her space had been occupied by another sinister crone bundled in expensive red silk.
A sizeable crowd had now gathered. The crones began to stand up. Sameera quickly made her way to the living room. She saw her father standing on the opposite end of the room. An elder walked importantly into the courtyard, then nodded to the Grand Charlatan. The time was right. Sameera looked ready to protest. The performance crew stepped in. They solemnly began a droning chant. The Grand Charlatan and the elder men piped in. Sameera’s father stood tight-lipped, his own silent protest. A few of these men, garbed in white, walked into the courtyard. They bent down in unison and picked up a white-shrouded mass. Struggling beneath the weight, they hurriedly placed the corpse upon the readied bed frame in the hall.
A wave hit Sameera then. A quiet wave. No one saw it happen, yet she swayed from its impact. A whisky glass, coke on ice, sat on that coffee table, a rim of water growing as she knelt on the floor, her elbows on the white rim of the glass table. She was transfixed by the scorpion that watched from within the glass walls of a paperweight on the table. It was so real. Would it move? Could it see her? She was five. Beyond the scorpion and her, she could hear and feel in the distance, out of focus, the buzz of her parent’s voices laughing to uncle’s jokes, his voice booming over everyone else’s, his floral shirts and easy shorts, a hairy leg resting over a plump ottoman. The scene was always the same: coke on ice, in a whisky glass, Sameera by the table, staring transfixed at the glass-walled scorpion, out-of-focus happiness, like a warm blanket around her. Everything remained, save time.
The bored drone of last rites sounded like an annoying mosquito buzzing in her ears. Sameera found pain, as she tuned out the distractions. Desperately, she tried to hold on to an ebbing connection. She felt the severing of a string that had held his last remnants. He slipped away. She had not been in the present. She had not even seen his face. She had spent over an hour watching veiled women and scorpions in their deceitful dances. She had been deprived of a parting goodbye. Perhaps this was better.
The mass beside the table was not Uncle. He was not here. He had finally freed himself, from his glass-walled life, free of his own deceitful dances, never looking back at the scorpion on his table. Yet, the scorpion was a constant reminder of how fate would catch up with him. Sameera stood bare. No veils. No dance. In silence, she waited for the final rituals of deceit to end. It was time to leave.
She looked around her one last time. As she moved out, her eyes bid farewell to Egyptian pictures, framed papyrus, stacks of recital programmes and baila. As she approached her beloved coffee table, she slowed down, hoping to see her scorpion paperweight. But it was gone. Sameera shrugged and walked on, past the tsk-tsking old men, the veiled women rushing out to get back to their usual lives, past the youngsters sizing up one another as they nodded goodbye with restraint. There was no scent of rose water to purify the air, no family to continue mourning after the rest of them had moved on. The door swung wide and fresh air welcomed her back into the open. She paused as she reached the street. Cars zoomed past as she waited to cross. She gazed at the car, her driver starting up the engine.
Just then, she saw him. He was standing in front of the large Nuga tree, in his bright batik shirt and sarong. Sameera ran towards him. Uncle’s hand stretched out, and there in his palm was her scorpion Lucite, stained carmine. His fist closed in on the paperweight, and with a smile he turned away from her, towards a white frail form behind him. Margaret! She held out her hand to him, and together they walked right into the heart of the Nuga tree.
Do you know how it feels? That exact moment when the night sky breaks open like a coconut, and the wonderful morning light trickles into my cart; when the agents of God call him away from me, from all four corners.
Every night, I curl up in the warmth of black print on white. Appa sleeps in the open. He is afraid to let me sleep in the open; he says bad men walk in the night. I envy him. If only I were a boy! Then I could sleep like him, free on the grass at Devi Park.
Just before dawn, I hear the familiar “chasssss!” of mustard crackling in oil: Appa boiling chickpeas. The smell of chillies tell me it is time to rise. But I’m too lazy. So, I curl up again. Two minutes more.
I can dream of the pond. The pond where Amma went to heaven from. Appa says it’s a beautiful place. Big lotus leaves float above, with long tendrils of water hyacinths trailing below, like a mermaid-world. Appa says Amma went to bathe one morning, when something bad happened to her. He says the mermaid took her to safety. I know Amma is very happy but misses me. I am glad Amma is in a nice place, but I wish she had come back for Appa and me.
Why doesn’t she talk to me? Appa says if I catch dawn in time, I will hear Amma’s voice. But I never hear her. How can I, with Appa’s din in the background? My thoughts are interrupted by another familiar sound: “shshq, shshq, shshq” - the sound of an old rag oiled, wiping away the grime. The kerosene smell is strong, from the lamp he uses to work in the dark, but I like it, it reminds me of Amma’s warmth. Now I know what he’ll do next. The “tttrrwiing tttrwiing” of knife on stone, followed by the crack of coconut and the glug-glug of its water which now drip, drip, drips into my orange, plastic cup.
Appa wipes the sweat from his brow and sighs. I know his eyes are turned towards the horizon: searching for the memory of his head against Amma’s chest, when he was tired and hopeless. The memory that helps him through each day.
Suddenly, I feel a jolt. The cart is being pushed. Appa’s started out from Devi Park, onto the road. A bounce off the soft grass, followed by a smooth cycle of crunching gravel under the metal-rimmed tyres of my home: thadak, karak-karak, thadak. A pothole, gravel crunching, another pothole. Then - pachak! - the sound of the wheel entering and exiting a mud puddle.
One...two... We reach the roundabout. The Devatagaha mosque loudspeaker breaks the night’s silence. A voice - clear as the sound of the silver kolumbhu-karandi against the sambar dabba at the Kovil feasts - calls out in a language I do not understand. Why do all gods listen to old languages? The Iyer at the Kovil, the temple on the lake, this mosque.
Five, six... The fluttering starts. Hundreds of pigeons, alarmed by the sudden sound, sleep-disturbed, take flight from their perch on the minarets of the mosque. I hear a whoosh: wings drawing circles in the air; pata-pata-pata, they flutter, like the sound of Appa’s fingers sifting through the sheaf of disposed school exercise book pages. Books whose pages will bleed their Reynolds, Oryx or Atlas inks when oil, from the kadala, assaults the defence of old, tired, paper.
Seven...eight… “Vidya, elumbu! Kalai ahitudhu!” Appa’s voice breaks the flutter. Appa’s voice was once like Krishna’s flute: like a river, gurgling and smooth; soothing. But years of “Kadala! Thambapu kadala, avicha kadalai...”, competing with revving engines during traffic, screaming school children, police whistles and horns, has dried up Appa’s voice. It is cracked and parched, like the earth in drought.
Nine... I open my eyes a little. Behind a curtain of lashes, between the wooden slats, I see Ishvara. I see the sky split in two, by a single golden thread. My eyes open wider.
Ten. Time. I sit upright. Now, while the mosque continues to call out from a minaret, my heart tugs a little. That voice makes me float, reminds me of dawn as I lay on our boat. The bells from the temple on the lake peal loud, then soft: if sound were water, then it would be like the ripples from Appa’s oars, rhythmic movements, in and out. The tinkle of pooja bells remind me of my anklets as I jumped up and down in glee when Appa stopped to show me a turtle peeking through the lotus leaves. Now, I pretend I am still on our boat. I feel the world through these slats.
One eye opened wide, the other squinting: I see Ishvar - he plunges his arrow of golden light through the heart of night. Darkness begins to bleed slowly, golden-pink like a kambili narangai. My heart becomes a mirror. As the darkness bleeds light, I too, begin to feel bright.
As the light spreads silently in the sky, the earth comes to life. I hear footsteps: Men making their way to prayers, beggars running after them, hoping that God’s presence will frighten Man into being more charitable. Slippers sliding, hands tugging, children crying. The first cars begin to hum quietly on the roads. A cat complains at a missed pigeon meal.
A woman approaches my father - a beggar with an infant in her arms. “Mang heta dennang. Bada-gini,” she pleaded, with outstretched hands. I hear him grunt. Saraaas! A leaf of maths torn away. Reynolds ready to bleed. Oil drips. Fried karapincha crumbles into green dust, as the woman hungrily crunches a mouthful of boiled chickpeas coated in spices and oil. Her stomach must burn, chillies on an empty stomach. But she doesn't care. As she finishes, her skin turns warmer, the sky seeped into her cheeks. She sighs. That sigh, when rain water tastes like fresh thambili; someone’s leftovers taste like a feast. A smile plays across her face. I hear the suckling: gums on skin, tiny lips on teat.
I have nearly forgotten! Frantically, I search the remaining sky - Amma! Amma. Amma. Where are you? Will you smile down at me this once? I am too late again! Appa and that beggar, distracted me! I hold my breath. Dawn is peaking. She looks radiant. Dawn is Ishvar clad in a veil of pomelo pink. Suddenly, just when I have decided to give up, I think I hear her. Sssh… So many sounds. Wheezing, coughing old men, spitting red betel juice against an old wall. Policeman warns him. Stop. Tune out now. You’ll miss her. As dawn flows out, its sweet coconut-like rejuvenation turns the air sweet. Jasmines and coconut oil. Amma. “Anna, ondru thengai oda,” her voice was like a veena, melodious and heart-wrenchingly beautiful.
I jump out of the cart, but she has turned away. I look fiercely at Appa. He let her go! He smiles sadly as he realises what just happened. As the memory of her voice slides away, Appa rasps: “I know. She sounded like her. Perhaps it is Amma reborn in her. At least we heard her again ena?”
He pats my head and grins. A first in years. So long that I had forgotten his broken tooth. I look up at the sky. The pomelo veil shows its final traces in the sky that now shines boldly blue.
Thank you, Ishvara, for Amma.
We are like dawn, often missed by the folks who sleep comfortably in their walled homes, owning only a negligible slice of time in this world; more radiant in its fleeting existence than the eventual brilliance of day and the fearsome night. Without dawn, there’d be no daybreak, no solace from darkness, no meaning to light.
Born in Kuwait to Moor parents, in 1986, Iman Fahim Hameed spent most of her childhood in Sri Lanka. Through the years, her father fed her tales as they drove through their city of Colombo. Burhani Serendib School was her second home, almost a refuge, where she developed a fondness for writing stories. After her 'A'-Levels, she moved to Singapore to pursue a degree in biomedical sciences at the National University of Singapore and has worked at the university since and become a citizen. Her husband Imran and their three-year old son ‘Isa remind her to dream and to keep telling stories.