A Gentle Heart by Aquila Ismail

"The butterfly counts not months but moments and has time enough" Tagore

Apu! You’re here! Great--my little sister Perween, would greet me every time I arrived at her door from Abu Dhabi at 3:00 in the morning followed by hugs and kisses. The fragrance of her embrace would right every little grievance that I had with the world. She had a habit of doing this smile with a tilt of her head that renewed life and plunged me into a world of twinkling eyes, melodious chimes of her bangles, peals of laughter and high fives.

The sentence that invariably followed was,
“Apu I have to meet someone from the KWSB/Goth/Union council/etc. in the morning so I will leave early and come back early."
Knowing fully well the answer I would ask, “How early?"
“By six for sure!"

“Oh, Perween can’t you take half a day off?

Just once. Asking her to take a whole day off was a non-starter. So the negotiation would begin with half a day.

“I can Apu, not today, but I promise on Friday!!"

Friday was already half a day at work, “Okay on Friday when will you be back?" I had to take whatever crumbs she offered.

“I will start from the office at 6 and be home by 5 and then we can go out. Let’s go out and have chaat and paani puri. We can give Ammi her ice cream."

Half a day was coming home at five when every day it was six. Okay Perween Friday it is. I hope you will take Sunday off at least.

“Of course Apu. You know I never work on Sundays. Can we watch a film Saturday night?"

“Which one?" This was asked not so much out of a need to obtain the DVD but the trepidation that it would be a silly film full of song and dance, knowing Perween’s love for MTV, “I don’t want to see these tragic tearÂÁjerking films. They are so unreal. I don’t think there is so much desperation in the world," she would say.

“But life is like that is it not." The cynic in me would reply.

“Not at all. Everyone tries to make the best of their lives."

So we would end up watching a rollicking masala Indian film with the stammering don et al or films like I Bought a Zoo, about animals and hope.

I would lie in bed watching her morning ritual with a statuette of Buddha looking on as well. This would begin with greetings by birds chirping in her garden on bushes of red and yellow exora, hibiscus flowers, graceful palms, butterflies, and clay figurines of ducks and elephants. Her bed was right alongside a window to the garden and the curtains were never drawn. The cats who slept on her bed, one at her feet, the other by her head would begin their call for food and she would tell them to be patient until she had washed her face and brushed her teeth. They never ever listened, so with hair flowing admonishing the cats she would head to the kitchen to dole out their food. Added to the two permanent feline members of the family were the disabled, sick or injured kittens she would pick up on her way to and from her OPP office in Qasba Colony, Orangi. The mornings then would also be time to check their health status and given Calpol when she thought they were feverish. The washerman’s donkey got hooked on the medicine and would not leave until given a dose each Friday and Perween despaired that she had created an addict.

Ammi would then be asked to get up and commence her day. The sun did not rise for her until Perween said it did. They would sit for breakfast with Perween in direct visual line with the dining room window which was abound with red, pink and white fragrant jhumka flowers, yellow flowers of the radhachura and trailing vines with heartÂÁshaped leaves. The table was surrounded by blue, rust and yellow pottery, vases, pitchers and plates on the floor, sideboard and shelf, interspersed with plants growing in bottles. She had brought these from the numerous trips to towns and cities of Sindh, Khyber

Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab to meet the partners who shared the OPP methodology. Her best friend and colleague Anwar Rashid would always accompany her.

I had gone along on several trips to attend the Community Development Network meetings: to Khairpur where we paid homage at the tomb of Sachal Sarmast, felt the injustice in the dismal rooms of Faiz Mahal and marveled at the majesty of the quarry of Aror; to a village near Hala where we were told, without being asked, by the man in Ray Ban glasses who drove us there, that there was no kari kari in 'his’ goth. The women we met did not meet our eyes when we asked them if this was true; to the banks of the Indus in Sakkur where we sat by the boats of the Mohannas. We saw and bought the most exquisite rallis made by women in Sinjhoro; in Uch the meeting was held in the shadow of the striking tomb of Bibi Jawandi. We ate street food in Lahore, and walked in the dappled sunlight with the peacocks in Tharparker.

In 2004 my daughters, Saima and Sahar, were to go to the United States to pursue their studies, and Perween’s goodbye present to them was a trip to Bhitshah. She wanted them to remember the sufi tradition of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, whose songs to

the seven queens of Sindh, Moomal, Sassui, Heer, Lila, Soroth, Marvi, and Sohni, spoke of their beauty and purity of heart through the ragas that bore their name. Anwar Rashid joked that if Perween had lived in the days of Bhitai Shah there would surely have been a raga for her probably called sur muskkurahat or the song of smiles!

In Bhitsah while climbing the steps to the main building of the blue and white floral embellished mausoleum Perween stopped by all vendors, and discovered their wares as if for the first time, although this was, perhaps, her tenth trip. With accompanying trills of laughter she bought arjak chadars, amber and turquoise embedded rings, sets of green glass bangles, small painted clay pots, all to be given to her team members in the OPP. Since 2010 the recipients of her gifts were also members of the Women’s Savings Groups that she organized and supported. Several members were taken to meetings in Nepal, Bangkok and Sri Lanka to present their projects. They came from Orangi, Baldia, SITE, Korangi, Malir, Neelum Colony and groups in Dera Ghazi Kahn, Jampur, Badin, Ghotki, Naushero Feroze, Jafferbad, Matiari and Battagram.

Usually on each of my trips we would spend a weekend at my house in Seaview by Clifton beach. On our way back Sunday night, when the car reached the foot of the Baloch Colony Bridge, Perween would excitedly point to the left, “Look Apu, look at how covering the Manzoor Colony Nala has changed this place. Can you see the children playing there."

“I know Perween, I know …" I would try not to roll my eyes at the umpteenth mention of this.

“Remember how we explained this to the minister and saved the people of the area from being evicted? You were with Guru and me in that meeting, you do remember right Apu?"

Guru was her name for Arif Hassan, her friend and mentor whose house had been the setting for many a discussion on the meaning of life and other T Secure Housing such very serious topics. Invariably Perween would be sitting with Arif Hassan’s friend, known to all who loved him as Galla, and Perween’s melodious merry laughter would punctuate our discussions as she responded to every irreverent joke that Galla cracked. Needless to say she was his favorite person and according to him one who was the meaning of life.

At the wedding of a team member in Orangi, Perween decked in a sari and wearing lipstick was persuaded, not that much persuasion was needed, to come on to the dance floor. She danced and thumka’ed much to my embarrassment and when she came and sat with us for a breather, her 'boss’ Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan, said to her, “today you have been transformed from a 'jungle ka sher’ to a 'circus ka sher’.' It was meant as a mild rebuke, for dancing was anathema to Doctor Saheb, but Perween threw back her head, laughed and exclaimed, “wow I did not know that the circus lions had so much fun." That is the way she was!

As to our conversation on the drive back home, invariably after the Manzoor Colony mention, the conversation would veer to,
“And remember the Orangi Nala that we fixed."

“You fixed you mean."

“No no it was all of us!"

As the car rolled on to Shahrah--Faisal and than two thousand villages, or Goths as they were called, that lay on the periphery of Karachi city. Using Google Earth to identify the location, her team would physically verify its existence and then with the permission of the goth elders map out the village. With these maps the elder could demand that the authorities acknowledge their existence and their right to land that they had lived on for many many years.

All along the way she would point to illegal water filling stations, the soÂÁ called hydrants, from which water earmarked for the city was siphoned off and sold. The enterprise was worth millions. Perween’s quantification of this trade, subsequently made public, was fraught with danger and I had cautioned her many, many times, that she was stepping on powerful toes.

Nursery she would say, “We worked in Chanesar Goth." To Perween’s chagrin the work was stopped after a few lanes were done. Lanes or 'gallis’ were the units of measurement in her work in sanitation and housing. Success and failure was measured by how many lanes were organized and worked in.

When we went past the Awami Markaz, she would invariably remind me of the time that the railway people tried to evict the settlements along the train tracks behind this public building. They had lived there for years and the contention was that 100 feet of land was needed on either side. This was a blatant attempt at eviction of the poor because in fact only 30 feet on either side were needed.
“Do you remember the map I gave you showing some buildings like this Awami Markas, and those factories and apartment blocks built just ten feet away from the tracks and not marked for demolition? Can you imagine the unfairness of it all? But we saved the settlements by giving the residents that map." The map was made by the Urban Resource Center, which she and some architect friends from Dawood Engineering College, her alma mater, had set up. She had been the recipient of gold medals in eight out of ten semesters of the Bachelor’s in Architecture course.
Of late Perween discussed, with immense joy, being able to help get land tenure for residents of more

“Whatever, Apu. You know how the poor suffer for lack of water and the rich buy what rightfully belongs to everyone. I cannot know this and not do something about it."

“I’m not asking you to stop documenting it but don’t go overtly publics with it."

“No, no, you know I never do things publicly like go on television. That is for others to do. I just want to put my head down and do my work…"

“I know that, but this time be careful with who you give the information to…"

After breakfast her beauty ritual or 'sola singaar’ as she called it would commence. Massaging her neck and her forehead with Oil of Ulay, combing and tucking her hair with a clip at the back, putting on her stone-encrusted silver rings and bangles, her looped earrings, her small bead pendants she would carry on a running set of instructions for Ammi’s caretaker Mussarat: this medicine at this time, this for lunch, take her for a walk even if she protests, massage her knees, etc.

Mussurat would also each morning make her some vegetables for lunch, carried in a small steel tiffin box. Saleem, Anwar Rachid and she would eat lunch in the small canteen every day around three. If Mussarat asked Perween what she would like for lunch Ammi would answer, -- 'Why are you asking her, you know if she has her way she would eat only daal. Make her some bhindi bhaaji.'

“Baji, why don’t you eat some chicken or kababs. I can quickly fry you some kababs."

“No, no, don’t do that. You know I don’t eat meat. So stop trying!"

Tiffin box in hand, bottle of water tucked under the arm, her colorful cloth bag filled with papers, she would give Ammi a kiss on the forehead, promising to come home early, and head off to Orangi, and on March 13, 2013 never to come back. That day her throat was pierced by a hired assassin’s bullet at 7:15p.m. It took just a few moments for her gentle heart to stop beating.


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