The Pain of Imagination


"You are a storyteller, so tell me a story."

"I will."

She looked across the table at the big man. His grey hair. His brown eyes. She watched him get older as time passed and wondered if he had thought her beautiful, and that if he did, think that now she got uglier by the half hour. Justice of the Ugandan Supreme Court, Sitteer Ibrahim, drank his beer looked at the slight girl in front of him and speculated if he had got himself into a situation. But the girl began to speak and he soon became transfixed.

"When I was eight years old I thought I was a saint. I did not pray because I did not know how to and did not need to. I wore a long dragon scarf on my head and wore a skullcap on top of that. I must have looked odd but I didn't know that for I had imagination. I imagined I was normal."

The girl paused. She looked at Judge Ibrahim. She took a sip of beer. He took a gulp. He looked at her Shiva third eye bindi and said, "It must be the bindi but you look beautiful. I wish I had met you earlier; we could have had many pleasant evenings." She smiled and said "But I was around, you just had no imagination to see me."

She continued her story. "So when I was eight and thought I was a saint I came upon a nest of red ants in the ground. I crouched down and watched them - fascinated. I followed their trail, I absorbed their concentration. Then after a while I went into the kitchen got a kettle of boiling water and poured it over them. And then I stopped being a saint and became just a very strange child."

Judge Sitteer Ibrahim made a face. He didn't quite know what to make of all this. He admitted to himself, that initially he had designs on the girl. He hadn't seen her at the conference for judges, but suddenly when it was all over she materialized. She claimed to be one of the organizers. Now, without the herd of people around, he concentrated on her. What Judge Ibrahim didn't know was that the girl had designs on him.

"Tell me your story," she commanded.

And he told. A sketch at first.

"When I was 18 years old, I met this beautiful woman from Zimbabwe. We met at a party and she told me that she had no family. She had no money, she had no home. She asked me to marry her and so one of the guests at the party married us till choice do us apart. I was 18 years old and took the marriage seriously. We lived together in my house and she looked after me well. After five years of marriage, I heard her telling a man I have no money, no family and no home, will you marry me? So I married them until choice do them apart." That is my story, he said and shrugged his shoulders and placed his hands apart.

"More," she said staring at him with her blue-green eyes that were set in a tamarind face.

"Then," he continued hurriedly, eager to obey his young and beautiful despot, "as I lived alone in a beautiful villa that overlooked the Virunga Mountains I received a telegram. An Indian playwright wanted to interview me. She was writing about the forced immigration of the Indians from Africa. The morning she was due I woke up early, had a banana for breakfast and walked about my gardens. I bathed in scented water and combed my hair carefully. I wore my favourite kameez and seemed to lounge about while a frenzy seethed in my stomach until she came."

The young girl in front of him seemed distracted, and while he spoke, she spoke too.

"These eyes," she said, "are not mine. They are the inheritance of an Australian woman who got sidetracked."

Sitteer Ibrahim did not know what he was to do. Was he to continue his story, which he had begun to enjoy telling, or listen to the girl? He decided to do both. He spoke, he listened and while his story followed a certain pattern, a logic, an order of sense, hers raged back and forth and covered a multitude of years and generations.

"She was travelling with her mother," continued the girl. "On her way back to Australia from the compulsory European trip that all well brought up young women must undertake in their youth. The ship, The Amsterdam had docked in Galle and while they had tea on the veranda of the New Oriental Hotel, a young man happened by. He wore a fez at a jaunty angle and his crisp cream linen suit and shiny brown and cream shoes found their way to the women's table. Abdul Kareem Siddiq at your service, he said. He was invited to join them for tea and soon Abdul Kareem Siddiq was deep in conversation with Mrs Peters while her daughter Alice looked on. Mrs Peters was greatly impressed by Abdul Kareem and as the days passed by, over numerous cups of tea and dramatically beautiful sunsets, they conversed on many subjects. They even spoke about religion. Abdul Kareem had a simple philosophy. He believed in the goodness of mankind. He didn't spend much time thinking of the ills and evils of the world. He had never encountered any. This privileged young man who had the best of everything - lived a comfortable life, and who was determined to enjoy life to the fullest - radiated the belief in the goodness of mankind from every pore. Mrs Peters who had been nursing a most private and secret hope at the beginning of their meeting began to be even more convinced of her plan. When Abdul Kareem who now met them every morning for tea and every afternoon for coffee suggested that they prolong their visit to Galle, Mrs Peters asked him if he could be so kind as to cancel their booking on The Amsterdam which was to leave in two days time. When Abdul Kareem suggested that perhaps they might benefit from a drive around the Fort, Mrs Peters declined kindly and said that maybe he could describe it to them when he came to visit the next day. And so it was that Mrs Peters and Alice never left the New Oriental Hotel to see Galle, in their minds Galle came to them in the form of Abdul Kareem. He spoke to them of the narrow streets and the interiors of the houses. Of the long dark passages that cooled a visitor instantly and led them to wonderful light filled courtyard that let in the monsoon rain with the rhythm of Kandyan drums. He spoke of walks on the ramparts of the Fort where one could sit and watch the sky turn from aquamarine to night in a single moment.

After three weeks Mrs Peters decided that Alice and she should book their passage to Australia. She broached the subject with Abdul Kareem over their evening coffee and made him distraught. He didn’t know why and while he wept silently between sips of coffee watched placidly by Alice, Mrs Peters gently suggested to him that of course they would be able to stay if he would marry Alice. Alice, who obeyed her mother unquestioningly, seemed amenable and so it was arranged that Mrs Peters and Alice would be introduced to Abdul Kareem's family the next day. The meeting was to take place at Abdul Kareem's house, which Mrs Peters was keen to see.

The next morning sharp at ten o'clock Mrs Peters wearing her pearl choker and Alice in her crisp rose pink linen dress that set off her pale complexion drove by horse carriage to Abdul Kareem's house. They stopped at an imposing gate, which was opened by a thottah; they drove up to a magnificent house located on top of a small hill that looked over the sea. When they had seen the gate, Mrs Peters began to release a small breath of relief but now when they saw the house both Mrs Peters and Alice gave a little squeal of delight.

They were ushered in by Abdul Kareem himself and immediately saw a small cluster of people in the middle of the room. There was a middle-aged woman surrounded by a number of children and a few older young men and women who stood about the room. There was a young woman standing by the window holding an infant to her breast. She did not turn around to greet Mrs Peters and Alice and at that first meeting they never saw her face. Abdul Kareem was beside himself with joy even if the others in the room seemed to be doubtful and have reservations. He turned to the middle-aged woman and then to Mrs Peters and Alice and said here is my wife and then turning to all the others said and these are my children. Mrs Peters and Alice were speechless. They could not say even one word, not even goodbye.

While the girl had been relating her tale to Sitteer Ibrahim, he had been relating his tale to her.

"She came on a cloud of orange", he said. "A wisp of a shalwar kameez tossed about her and in the Ugandan heat she looked like a rare hibiscus. I want to know, she demanded, and I in my eagerness to please told her everything. She was married, it's almost over, she assured me, in a day or two I will be divorced. It took her 13 years to get her divorce and during all that time we were so happy. We lived in the beautiful villa that overlooked the Virunga Mountains and she wrote and I judged and we were so very happy."

"What happened then?" asked the young girl, who had not it seemed lost track of Sitteer Ibrahim's story.

"She got her divorce and then left me. She now lives in New York; she became a film director and makes Indian exotica film for the American market. It's a pity! He sighed; she could have been so good. Poor, but so good."

"So did Abdul Kareem recover from Mrs Peters and Alice's departure?" Asked Sitteer Ibrahim, who thought it only polite that he show an interest in the young girl's yarn.

"Oh! They didn't go," said the girl looking at him with startled eyes as if Sitteer Ibrahim was a dimwit for not understanding. Sitteer Ibrahim did feel like a dimwit because he could not fathom what had happened.

"They got married," the girl continued, as if it was the most normal thing to have occurred. "And I," she said pointing to her eyes, "inherited my grandmother's eyes."

Sitteer Ibrahim preferred his stories. He thought the girl who had seemed cutely odd at first was now scarily weird and he scolded himself mentally for getting into this mess.

"But how did it happen?" He asked, not without a little incredulity in his tone.

"Oh!" Said the girl now bored with having to spell out little details to her audience of one.

"Well after some thought Mrs Peters realized it would be better for Alice to be the second wife of a rich Ceylonese businessman than the only wife of a crude thick-fingered Australian farmer. Alice and the first wife got on famously and between them they produced thirty children for Abdul Kareem."

Sitteer Ibrahim thought if he must spend time with this kook of a girl he might as well try to get her into his bed. He was lonely and feeling lost in this third-world town he would never have chosen to visit of his own volition. His life seemed shaky and shapeless and lately he had been thinking often of his lost orange hibiscus. So he began the seduction process.

"You are so beautiful," he said.

The girl fixed him with her aquamarine eyes.

His voice was not as steady as he wanted it to be, he cleared his throat and continued, "...and there is an air of magic that surrounds you."

Her mouth twitched.

"Your face reflects the serenity of your soul."

She scowled.

Judge Sitteer Ibrahim stopped. He knew it wasn't working and so he drummed his fingers on the coffee table and wondered what to do next.

Suddenly the girl stood up.

"Come," she commanded imperiously and Judge Sitteer Ibrahim meekly followed. They drove at a wild pace through the crowded streets of Colombo. For much of the journey he closed his eyes and when he did open them his immediate reaction was to gasp and close them tight.

The roads of Colombo possessed of people, cars, belching buses, bullock carts, cyclists, trishaws, lorries, dogs and greedy crows, all intent on making their presence felt, seethed with a symphonic hum which crescendoed and diminuendoed all around him. The girl seemed oblivious and added to the cacophony by insanely sounding her horn at regular intervals. Eventually they arrived at a tall narrow white building that looked like a wedding cake. Without saying a word she took him inside and instantly he was transported to another world. It was a shop, it was a museum, it was Xanadu.

While he wandered through layers of art in every form the girl followed him reciting her story, picking a bowl here, fingering a book there and all the while continuing her litany of legend.

"Abdul Kareem's family wasn't always rich. About two generations before, the family lived in a Muslim village located a few miles north of Galle. They were farmers and tradesmen and the whole village belonged to one family. Five years after Abdul Tariq was born, there was a girl shortage in his village and by the time Abdul Tariq came of age to be married there was no one left and so the village/family began to look elsewhere. Where normally a relative of no quality would do, in the case of strangers the family/village began to be extremely fussy and soon Abdul Tariq was a mature thirty five years of age with no suitable bride in sight. He began to get worried. He took to taking long solitary walks along the hills and the riverbank. While he walked, he talked to God and soon he gained a reputation of being either a madman or a man of God."

"God," he would say, "you revealed a religion that said enjoy marriage, go unto your wives and till the soil, delight in the world I have made for thee, but I have none of these enjoyments. I have not even one wife, let alone four. The village is full of couples with their children and it makes me sad that I am unable to take pleasure in the beauty of your creation - so despondent have I become. What do I do Lord? I cannot even become a religious man of solitude because the concept of long-term seclusion does not exist in mainstream Islam. So what am I supposed to do?"

Thus, Abdul Tariq lived his lonely life, doing his work, taking his walks and talking to God.

One day while walking at the edge of the river and reciting his thasbih he saw an old man crossing the river towards him in an old boat full of goods. The river was rough and soon the old man was in great difficulty and unable to steer the boat towards either bank. Abdul Tariq ran down towards the embankment and began to shout out instructions to the man to avoid the treacherous waterfall that was two miles down.

"Jump! Jump!" He instructed.

"Swim! Swim!" He screamed in a panic.

The old man jumped into the river and soon it became obvious he couldn't swim. And while Abdul Tariq unwilling to enter the precarious waters watched him drown, the boat quietly swirled round and round with its cargo of goods and came to rest by his side. Abdul Tariq was distraught by his action and yet had the presence of mind to inspect the boat. Upon examination Abdul Tariq discovered that the cargo of goods was in fact a beautiful woman who was the old man's daughter. Her name was Imagination and seeing her position she agreed to marry him.

Abdul Tariq was ecstatic. "See!" He triumphantly announced to the villagers. "God says ask and you shall receive."

The girl took a deep breath, she stood in front of the old porcelain bowls that had hand painted emblems of crescent moons and stars. She ran her fingers round the circumference of the large sahans and lifted the post koppus to her eye.

Judge Sitteer Ibrahim exploited the pause in the story to bring her attention to his tale.

"I too met my wife at a time of death," he rushed out. "I was on my way to Malaysia when I heard that my best friend had died in a car crash in Dubai. I decided to change route and go to Dubai and in transit at Charles de Gaulle airport, wandering through the circles of passage, I stepped upon a middle-aged woman doing yoga. She opened her left eye and asked me to sit beside her. At first I was embarrassed and tried to continue on but she kept on reappearing in her yoga posture wherever I happened to wander to. So I decided to humour her and sit down. There we sat the middle-aged woman and myself in the middle of the passenger lounge. I must have sat there for about an hour. She did her yoga and I just sat there and after some time I realized that a sense of deep peace had come over me. I didn't want to leave I wanted to stay on with this yoga practitioner. And so I did. We got married and lived in Paris and she still lives there you know. She is a marvellous woman. An odd wife but a marvellous woman."

Judge Sitteer Ibrahim had a foolish smile on his face as he thumbed through a handmade notebook. He opened and shut it in a continuous motion until the girl reached over and took it from him.

"Now Abdul Tariq too had an odd wife," she said. "For he soon realized that his wife Imagination was no ordinary woman. To others she appeared to be a middle-aged woman who was rather plain and ordinary but to him right from the beginning she looked like a young nubile nymph who gave him sideways glances crowded with meaning. While she looked slovenly and unkempt to the rest of the family/village, Abdul Tariq saw her dressed in tussar silk and tanjoy golds. And every night as they reclined on the floor of their simple house, Abdul Tariq delighted in the world that God made and tilled his soil.

One day Imagination went walking far out to the distant hills and yet there were some who swear they saw her by the riverbank as well. There were some who said they saw her swimming in the river and others who saw her sleeping on the One Tree Rock west of the hills. Abdul Tariq did not worry. He knew he had a special wife and he gave her the unheard of freedom of being herself. Imagination returned late evening weary and tired and moved with a heaviness that spoke of fatigue.

Abdul Tariq who had come to love his wife very much did not question her on her movements and waited for her to tell him what happened. But Imagination ceased to speak and soon it became apparent to family/village that she was with child. While her belly grew and swelled with life, Imagination wasted away until at 6 months she gave birth to a large distended lump who shrieked and cried, while Imagination quietly died. The child was called Pain and Abdul Tariq developed a distaste for his daughter who was born of mourning."

"Her name," said Sitteer Ibrahim, fingering a delicate black and white dumbara cushion, “was Jacqueline and she had been brought up in Pondicherry, India. After the airport we went to her little apartment in the 9th arrondissement right next to the Opera. It was a one-room attic in a beautiful old building that had chandeliers and high elaborate ceilings. The attic window had the most marvellous view of rooftops and the Madeleine and on good days you could even see as far away as the Tour d’Eiffel. But winter was not a good time. It got cold in winter and the whole of Paris turned a blunted grey. The sun never shone and the clouds lay thickly piled like blankets in the sky. It rained incessantly and even the soulful songs of Edith Piaf couldn't block out the monotonous drip of water outside. She tried to cheer me up. Poor Jacqueline, she lit scented candles and threw brightly coloured wraps over the sofa. There was always tea brewing and sometimes she would make curry. But it was no use. I just couldn't hack it in miserable Paris; even the trees of the Champs-Elysées Boulevard are not lit up all days in winter. And so one dreary late winter day I left. Just slipped out of her life like a gentle wind that speaks of spring."

Sitteer Ibrahim had a wistful expression on his face; he draped a hand-woven shawl over his shoulders and looked sadly at his reflection in the huge 18th Century mirror that hung alone on a wall. The girl too draped a shawl over herself and linking her arms companionably with his continued her tale. She hoped it would bring some lightness to the sombre mood that had descended upon them.

''Pain, despite her name, brought joy and happiness to the village. She had none of her mother's mysteries or her father's oddities and grew up to be a beautiful young woman. She was clever but learnt to hide it from others. She was strong but encouraged the idea that she was weak and delicate. She was fickle in heart but claimed she was as faithful as a little mouse. She was rich but they all called her poor Pain. She was efficient but was seen as helpless. And soon it came about that Pain was the most desired girl by both men and their mothers for the prize of wifehood. Abdul Tariq was glad to give his daughter in marriage; he was partially healed from his wife’s death and no longer held his daughter responsible but he never could bring himself to be a father to her. And so Pain had never been held by him or kissed or cuddled, she had never sat on his shoulders and walked about the village or had him put her to bed. But what you never have you don't miss and so Pain grew up with the love and care of the family/village but not of her father and she didn't know the difference."

Night had fallen and Sitteer Ibrahim looked around the bedroom he was now in. The girl lay on the bed she had no clothes on but her socks. Her eyes were closed and her little chest rose and fell with a calm rhythm. He began to undress slowly and took his time to lay his clothes on the Chinese chest at the bottom of the bed.

"I saw Jacqueline again," he said. "A few years later I was passing through Paris and thought I will visit her. I went to the attic apartment the 9th arrondissement right next to the Opera House. It was summer and the whole building had thrown open their windows as if to embrace the season. Jacqueline was there; she was holding a cup of tea seated on the tiny balcony that overlooked the inner courtyard at the back. She opened her left eye and said 'OM' and a wave of peace came over me once again. I slipped into her life like a summer zephyr. I stayed for six months.

Sitteer Ibrahim lay himself carefully next to the girl; he looked up at the high ceiling and the extraordinary shadows the candle threw upon it.

"What happened to Pain?" He asked the girl. "What became of her?”

The girl turned towards him on her side, her body was moulded into a question mark and her hair covered her eyes.

''Pain got married," she said.

There was a long pause and Sitteer Ibrahim thought she had fallen asleep. He stretched his hand out to touch her cheek when he was startled into withdrawal by the sound of her voice. She had been watching him, he thought. Watching and waiting. Sitteer Ibrahim felt slightly ridiculous by now. He was naked and so was she but while her nakedness seemed to clothe her, his only made him feel witless. He had lost interest in making love to her and if it came to it he knew he would not be able to perform.

"While all the village boys and their mothers had their eyes on Pain she had other plans for herself. Pain loved the family/village but she knew there existed a world out there. A world that held undreamt of treasures. A world of fantasy and adventure and imagination. Pain made her decision; she had to leave and there was only one way."

The girl turned her back on Judge Sitteer Ibrahim and continued her tale still sleeping on her side. He marvelled at the smoothness of her skin and appreciated the blemishless spectacle that was offered. He almost touched her but didn't, instead he did something better, he listened.

“Salim, which means peace, was not his real name. When he was born his parents held grandiose visions for his future and called him Dhakwan al Din, which meant Intelligence of the Faith. But Alas! Dhakwan was born with kindness of heart and goodness of spirit but he had no intelligence and so the family/village unable to keep up the charade of calling him Dhakwan al Din quietly changed his name to Salim for he was the most peaceful being the village held. Salim the simpleton had no ambition or vision for himself. He was most content staring up at the blue sky and dreaming or sleeping in the fields hidden by the tall stalks of paddy, so when Pain made her decision to marry Salim, it was he who was surprised most of all. But he wisely kept his astonishment to himself and agreed to marry the beautiful and most desired Pain.”

“One year after the marriage the family/village was thrown into consternation when Pain, her husband Salim and their three-month-old son, Abdul Kareem, left the village without a word. The family/village never heard of them again.”

The girl stood up and went to the window. It was dusk and the dove grey sky tinged with pink was disarranged with crows that had begun their ritual flight home. She closed the windows and the silence that surrounded them was like a refuge. He looked at her full slightly asymmetrical breasts, her delicately protruding belly, her abundant hips and her rounded buttocks; he felt desire arouse him.

“Come,” he invited her, towards the circle of his arms and enfolded her within himself. She lay her cheek against his grey haired chest and allowed her hands to run up and down his pleated flesh on the sides.

“Pain,” he whispered to her, his mouth against her hair, “had found her life partner in Salim. She taught and moulded him and he learnt desperate to please her. And soon the important city of Galle saw a new and successful personage in their midst. He was a gem merchant, a banker, an importer and exporter, a philanthropist, an educationalist, a religious leader, and a husband and father.”

The girl looked up at Judge Sitteer Ibrahim and smiled, she folded her legs around him and whispered in his ear, “After six months you heard the call of your heart. You left Jacqueline in her attic apartment in the 9th arrondissment next to the Opera and you went to live in Africa. Where the heat sears you and the smells defeat you and yet you feel alive.”

“What is your name?” Judge Sitteer Ibrahim asked the girl, while enveloping her in a crush of passion.

“It is,” she panted out, seriously, “Alam al Takhaiyul.”

“Ah!” He said as he realized what it meant. He was beginning to understand.