Walking backwards, we moved away from the fire that warmed the room but lit only half of it. The other half was dark. We entered the dark side and paused.
“If you are in love, you have already earned what you wanted. And if you want more, you do not belong here. Go out and fulfill your desires,” said a booming voice coming out of the wall.
“Only if we had freedom of thought and action when we were in our 20s, life would have been more fun,” wrote Fauzia.
“At college, we watched every move: Whose bosom is not covered properly with the fourth layer of clothing, who looked at men, who talked to them, and who took the ultimate step of actually going out with one.”
“Wearing see-through shirts, we all enjoyed and condemned. A wholehearted laughter was frowned upon and admired. Our talks revolved around good and bad, right and wrong, hip and old-fashioned.”
Yet, we all learned to enjoy within these constraints or did we?
Joyce looked at the man she was paid to sleep with. He had fainted after handing over his wallet to her. She looked inside and noticed some hundred-dollar bills. It’s four times more than what she was to get at the end of the night.
But she only took two bills and went to a chemist.
Jamal, who had hired her for the night, suddenly had an acute back pain. He told her before he fainted that he had experienced this pain in the past as well. He immediately needed some painkillers and some sleeping pills. “I will die of pain, if I do not,” he said.
Joyce said she could try to get the medicines for him if he gave her some money. He was not willing to trust her. “How can you get those medicines? I do not have my prescription with me,” he asked.
“Remember, I am a call girl?” she said. “I can get things others cannot.”
Jamal still hesitated, fearing that she will take the money and go home.
“Sands on the beach, so close to water and yet so thirsty,” wrote the poet. “Desert trees, shelter so many. But they have no shelter. The sun burns them and they die.
“Look at the flower, how they spread fragrance even while withering away. Hear the drum, so loud and yet so empty. This is my story. I am like the sand, the flower, the desert tree and the empty drum.”
“Dad, hold my hand,” said the child. “Hold your uncle’s,” said dad.
“No, he can let it go and I will fall,” said the child. “What if I do the same?” said dad. “No, you cannot. You are my dad.”
“There were few, very few, among us who actually had a boyfriend and occasionally spent a night or two with them. They were considered big time sinners. We were sure they will go to hell and yet we never tired of discussing their adventures.”
“What is love? What is sin? What is forgiveness?” we asked.
“Move close to the fire,” a voice said. We did. “Now stretch your hands and touch the flame.” We did not. So a force pushed us back to the dark side. This was another corner where the warmth of the fire had little impact. We were cold. We complained but our voices hit the wall and returned. “Echo,” said one of us. “But why only this time? Why not before?” asked another.
“Can I touch the fire first, dad? Can I?” asked the eager child. “It will burn you,” said dad. “But you are going to touch it,” said the child. “I will not. I am just warming my hands,” said dad. “Can I? Can I?”
“Ishq kita su jag da mool mian. We earned love; we earned all.”
Joyce took Jamal’s money but did not go home. Instead, she went to the chemist she knew. Then she went to an all-night restaurant, bought some food for herself and some soup for Jamal.
Jamal was half awake, when she returned to the hotel. “I thought you will not return,” he said and tried to smile but an excruciating pain snatched the smile away from his face. He moaned.
“I cannot be that bad. I am only a prostitute,” Joyce said. “Here, I brought some soup for you.”
Jamal tried but could not hold the spoon straight. So she spoon fed him, wiped his face and showed him the medicines.
“Take what you need,” she said.
“They are the right type,” he said.
“Yes, I got them from a chemist,” she said.
“But how?” he asked.
“Told you, I am a prostitute,” she said.
He took the medicines. Then she showed him a water-bottle and some ointment she bought at the chemist. “Let me give you a massage. It will help,” she said.
She took off his shirt and asked him to lie flat on his belly. He did. She spread some ointment. And then massaged his aching back, very gently. It felt good. Soon, Jamal fell asleep.
Joyce got up, warmed some water in the microwave oven, poured it into the bottle and placed the bottle where it hurt Jamal the most and covered him with a blanket.
Then she pulled up a chair, took another blanket and went to sleep, holding his hand.
“I will never forget my first date,” said Fauzia.
“You actually had a date while you were in college?” asked her friend.
“Well, we stayed together in a room for two hours, lots of very passionate hugs but nothing more,” Fauzia said.
“That’s not a date,” said her friend.
“He could not take his eyes off me while we were having tea at a restaurant. So you can imagine how passionate those hugs were.”
“We are cold,” we said, “it’s very cold here, in this corner.”
“Let your passions warm you up,” said the same booming voice that we heard before.
“But how?” we asked.
“Focus on the fire and it will come to you,” the voice said.
We tried but it did not. So we moved to the fire. No force pushed us back.
We stretched our hands, this time touching the flames.
Somebody laughed. We only heard it, did not see who was laughing. Actually, we saw no faces that night, not even each other’s. There was not enough light in the room to see anything but the fire.
“This time, you did not immediately withdraw your hands from the flames, did you?” the booming voice asked. “See, how a little cold ignited your passion for the fire.”
We were too occupied with the fire to respond.
When Joyce woke up in the morning, Jamal was still sleeping. She toasted some bread, put some jam on it and ate it with a cup of tea.
She took Jamal’s wallet from under the pillow where he hid it last night and pulled a 20-dollar bill. Then sat down and wrote a note:
“I am taking $20 from your wallet. I need it to return home. I am not charging you for my services as I was not hired for them.” And left.
The next morning, dad took his son out for a walk. They ended up in an area where they were not supposed to be. It’s not clear what made them different from those who lived in that neighbourhood. Religion? Skin? Language? Nobody knows. Nobody wants to know.
But they knew they were different so they were attacked. The son died. And when they were putting him in the grave, the son asked his dad for the last time: “Dad, how did you let this happen? I trusted you.”
Nobody else heard him except his dad.
The next night we returned to the room of divine love, the fire was still there but there was no light. We did not hear the booming voice either. But someone was crying behind the wall.
“Ishq kita su jag da mool mian”.