The interview – Sugar in a Plum – will be published in two parts. This is the first of the two episodes.
I was looking at this woman for about last half an hour sitting in a corner of the café. It was early in the afternoon on a fine spring Saturday. Gloria Jeans’ outlet in the lush green vicinity of Model Town, Lahore, is my favorite coffee bar. The outlet has a small sitting area in the balcony for smokers, my usual place to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee. She sat there at the other end staring beyond the balcony.
I was there to finish an essay I was working on but her presence on the other table rendered me unable to work. We were the only customers in the café then, something she probably didn’t realize or didn’t care about. She had ordered a cup of latte which was lying cold on the table untouched for over 20 minutes. It was her appearance, her frozen stare in the air, and the untouched cup of coffee that drew my attention and got my thoughts fixed on her.
She was in her early thirties, and although she was sitting I could make out that she was of average height with straight black hair which went just past her shoulders. She was brown-skinned and wore a pale shade of plum on her full lips. She had dark circles around her big and beautiful black eyes. She looked quite distressed and devastated as though she had been sick or had not properly slept in a long time.
She was wearing a long skin colored shirt which had purple sprinkled over it, and plain yoga pants down below of the same color. The outfit was fairly loose, but with a little effort, I could see that she was very well endowed. Even with her distressed look and casual dressing, I couldn’t resist noticing the intense attraction she had for the opposite gender. And the way she was sitting there staring in the oblivion made her look all the more intriguing.
She reminded me of a line from a famous 80s song by Boney M; “She looks like a sugar in a plum” from the song “Brown girl in the ring”, although there was no happy look about her, unlike the popular song. She was making me fairly uncomfortable. I was wondering why an exotic looking woman like her sat there alone like a statue, oblivious to her surrounding and the latte she might have wanted to drink. I could no longer resist her; I told myself that I needed to talk to her.
I realized there was a risk in talking to an unknown woman sitting alone in a public place, it was against social norms. But there was something about her devastated yet attractive looks that I decided to take the risk. I needed to know about her. I slowly got up from my chair and went downstairs to the counter and ordered two cups of cappuccino. I returned with the coffee in my hands and approached her slowly, my pulse galloping with every step. As I came to her table, I turned my politest sound on, and said, “Excuse me!”
“Yes?” She turned her head and said in a voice that sounded half surprised, half asleep.
“Your coffee is cold now, here is a replacement” I replied with a smile putting down one cup of coffee on the table in front of her.
“Oh! Thanks” She responded in a flat voice and turned her head back again. She probably took me as a waiter.
“Do you mind if I sit here with you?” I asked reluctantly.
“Why?” She replied only this time with anger rising in her voice, “there are other tables available here”. She probably realized that I wasn’t a waiter after all.
“Yes, there are, but I have been sitting there watching you, and you look obviously distressed, possibly unwell, so I wanted to ask if everything was okay?” I spoke quickly, this time, my heart pounding in my chest, still smiling stupidly.
“What does it matter to you, and who are you to ask anyway?” She inquired still looking at me angrily.
“A concerned citizen!” I replied politely again.
“Please! Leave me alone, I don’t need anyone’s concerns, least of all any man’s” she replied snubbing a pale smile appearing on her lips, but not before I caught it.
Encouraged by her quickly fading smile, I pulled a chair and sat across her table throwing a double-barreled question at her, intending to confound her before she could say anything on my dare, “Ah, so you hate men, are you a feminist, do you work for some NGO?”
“If you mean all men are rascals by that, yes I hate men” obviously she took it personally, the trick failed. Realizing she is difficult to beat, I tried another one, only this time I intended to co-opt her, “Yeah, I am a man…I have to confess…we are…mostly…rascals”.
“Yes, men are! And that is why I don’t need your company, so do you mind now? Or I should leave?” she was successfully deflecting my attempts to make her talk.
“Temper! Temper! Relax, I am not trying to flirt with you, I was genuinely concerned as I have been watching you sitting here alone for over half an hour” I responded this time with the truth.
“And why exactly do you think I should have company?” she inquired in response, lifting her eyebrows.
I wanted to tell her that she was hot, but I said to her instead, “because…err…you are sad? Some shit happened, like real shit?”
“Worse! You can’t imagine, you are a man!” she responded venomously, apparently she had accepted I was sitting on her table.
“What happened? Try me! Tell me about it” I asked again.
“Hey! Who are you? And why should I tell you about anything?” she started on again.
“Well…err…let me show you something…wait a sec!” I got up from the chair and brought my laptop from the previous table. I opened up my blog and turned the screen towards her and said, “because of this, I am a writer, this is my blog, and I get published in newspapers or magazines sometimes, I write on social issues, sometimes political too.”
She scrolled through the site, looked at some posts and asked, “Do you really own this?”
“Of course, I do, why would I lie…you can read the about page too” I replied.
She took another couple of minutes to go through the about section of The Cognitive Backyard, and responded, “Hmmm! Bilal Khan? Okay, so you want to know what happened to me so you can write about it, huh? Is that so?”
“Yeah, maybe if there is something there to write about, but only if you allow me, and I will protect your identity too if you want…so you can just relax, and tell me what happened” I tried to reassure her.
“It’s hard to trust men with anything, and I just had a very bad morning,” she said apprehensively.
“Why? The Women Protection Bill is not coming along well?” I inquired still thinking she was with some NGO.
“I don’t know what’s in that Bill, and you are wrong, I am a woman but I am not some funded NGO feminist” she responded looking the other way.
“Then why do you hate men?” I asked half in doubt.
“Because men deserve to be hated, I have firsthand experience. They are an abomination of the religion, and women do need protection regardless of that Bill you are talking about” she replied, this time, looking at me angrily.
“And why exactly men are an abomination of the religion?” I asked again prompting her to open up further.
“Because Islam does not teach anywhere that women are some commodity, it doesn’t give any man any right to torment and destroy them” she responded exasperated.
“Maybe you met the wrong kind of men, all women are not the same as well” I intentionally irritated her trying to bring her to her personal experience that shaped her venomous opinion.
“I didn’t want to meet a lot of men, I just wanted one man,” she said as tears simmered in her eyes, her nose turning red, “all I wanted was a peaceful life and some respect.”
“Okay! I am sorry, I was just trying to make you talk, no offense was meant” her simmering tears made me nervous, “just tell me what happened, why are you so pissed about everything, and…err…do you mind if I smoke?”
“Yeah, it’s alright, you can smoke” she replied as she gulped a glass of water, and cleaned her eyes.
“Thanks, now please tell me about you,” I said as I lighted a cigarette.
“I just got my divorce certificate” she replied looking at me.
“Oh! I am sorry to hear about that” I tried to console her.
“No! It’s alright, I will be perfectly alright now” she responded with a deep sigh.
“If you don’t mind me asking, how did it happen?” I probed her to give me some background to her divorce.
“It happened because I was a woman” she replied, “and a dumb woman at that”.
“You don’t look dumb, why do you think so?” I asked her to find out the reason behind her belief.
“I was dumb because I was the first-born in a conservative family. They didn’t want a girl, they wanted boys” she went on with rage, “I was snubbed, I was always told that I needed to be a good daughter – and that meant not wanting anything.”
“Hmmm, that still doesn’t tell you are dumb, neglected maybe, but definitely not dumb” I replied.
“I was a very shy and nervous girl, not very demanding, they expected me to do as I was told, and I did” she gasped, “they mostly didn’t listen to me, I was low in self-esteem and high on complexes till I reached university.”
“What sort of complexes?” I wondered.
“Everyone always told me that I was not very pretty, and because I was snubbed I had this idea fixed in my mind as I grew up that my family didn’t care about me” she replied with a sad look on her face, looking outside again.
“You were told you were not ‘very’ pretty? I can’t see any reason why they would tell you that” I told her referring to her ample attractive looks.
“I was brown-skinned unlike my fairer female cousins, there was always a comparison, so it was just a polite way of telling me I was ugly” she replied clearly not paying attention to my compliment.
“Hmmm, so how did this all affect you?” I asked her to expose the link between her past and present.
“I grew up, I wanted to be different. I didn’t want to be a dumb girl anymore but my father never wanted me to study beyond the undergrad degree. He wanted me to marry, but I begged my mother to let me continue” she replied, “So they gave me permission to get admission in Punjab University for my Masters’ degree”.
“That was nice, how did it turn out for you?” I asked her.
“I wanted to have a career, to actually use my education” she responded, “My father didn’t like the idea as he wished me to get married, but I joined a telecom company anyway.”
“And then..?” I encouraged her to go on.
“My parents were looking forward to marriage proposals” she replied, “and they finally started to arrive when I was about 27 when my parents had started to lose hope”.
“Why did they start to lose hope?” I wondered.
“They used to tell me no one was going to marry me, probably because I wasn’t very beautiful or fair” she replied looking distressed again.
“Then when did you get married?” I asked trying to bring her to the point that shaped her opinion about men.
“Not before many years passed” she replied with spite, “It became a routine for me for years to wake up every other weekend to know that I was to be displayed in front of a visiting family and that I needed to dress up and try to look like pretty little good girl”.
“And how did you feel about that?” I asked although I thought I knew what was coming.
“Disgusted, I was sick of it!” she replied haughtily, “my own father displayed me like a commodity on sale, but I kept quiet as girls would; acting like good daughters.”
To be Continued…