Ten Minutes Thirty-Eight Seconds into This Strange World – Elif Shafaq

The title of the book hints at someone being born and then leaving back for heavens in 10 minutes and 38 seconds. Yet, instead of birth, the book starts at death and contrary to the idea of someone dying within 10 minutes; the dead person is 40 years old!

This book is one of those which give a vivid idea of the society and yet, are extremely personal in nature. It does not comment on anything, nevertheless, it speaks volumes about everything going on in society. Like a background track in a café. One is essentially there for coffee but one can hear things too.

The story revolves around Leila, Tequila Leila, who happens to be a prostitute and is dead when the book opens. Dead and dumped in a trash can, because she was a prostitute. The first part of the book is in flashbacks, as Leila sees them before her brain activity ceases. The second part revolves around the events that happen afterward, with her and with the characters related to her.

The book speaks volumes about friendship and relations that we build over time, referred by Elif as ‘Water Family’. Even though we look after our blood relations, the ones tied by fate, as the ones who would always stay loyal, Elif beautifully says that sometimes water runs thicker than blood. This cannot be truer than in current times and situations. In times when family belittles and disappoints us while one is looking for support, it is mostly the water family, the friends accumulated over a period of time who understand more than the blood. Sometimes the concern of blood is washed away by the support and enthusiasm of these friends.

The story has multiple facets to it and each feels like a cut in diamond, making it sparkle in a splendid brilliance.

The first flashback of Leila takes her to her birth. Her mother was her father’s second wife and she (Leila) was conceived after a lot of difficulty and miscarriages. Somehow the first wife convinces Leila’s father to let her raise the child, instead of its biological mother. Her father agrees and convinces the mother that she will have another child, but does not realize how deep the wound was. Or how this moment, this decision became the cause of her unwinding, making her mentally unstable. Somehow we find this so common in our own society too. Forced decisions of parents, husbands and in-laws without any consideration for the concerned. Maybe that explains the huge number of depressed people in our society.

It also talks about sexual abuse of Leila by her own paternal uncle, and her conceiving because of it. Instead of punishing the culprit or taking some action against him, her family asked her to marry that very uncle’s son. She was first molested by him when she was 6 and had made her shut up my making her feel that she had done something wrong, instead of him. This particular memory speaks volumes about patriarchal societies and the fault in putting the respect of a family onto a lady’s virginity. Even though Leila was not at fault, she was blamed, asked to compromise and made feel dirty. She wanted her family to understand, take her side, do something and instead they were the ones to humiliate her.

Leila runs away to Istanbul and finds herself trapped into prostitution. A society that claims religion and stuff, duped a young lady into selling her body. On top of that, the very society would look at these prostitutes and brothels, and condemn the act, without acknowledging the fact that it was their personal greed that turned an innocent young girl into all of this. They could have guided her better but chose not to, standing at the banks and pointing fingers.

The book also talks about her five friends, who stayed by her when her family had abandoned her and severed all ties. The group was composed of a transgender, Nalan; a helper, Zainab; another prostitute who was trafficked into the city, Jameela; a bar singer, Humera and her childhood friend, Sinan. The book identifies their stories and struggles and how this strange group of people fell together.

The book also emphasizes how someone’s words can change everything for a person, like Leila did the night she was murdered. The client she was hired for was gay but could not stand his ground against his father. It was Leila, and the news of her death next day, that gave the client strength to leave everything behind and pursue a life with his lover. It was also in her death that she gave Sinan the strength to do what he felt was right, without trying to rationalize anything or wonder what the society would think. This act of defiance cost him his job and his marriage.

The book also talks about leftist revolution in Istanbul and how a procession was fired upon, in which Leila lost her husband and hence was forced to take up prostitution again. The protest was a peaceful one, where people held placards and shouted a few slogans. Yet, they were ambushed and fired upon by snipers hiding on top of a hotel building. Some were killed by the bullets and others in the stampede that occurred.

The book is filled with loss and grief. The fact that we are most often misunderstood by our own and supported by strangers; that we deny being wrong yet push people where they have no option but to live dishonestly; the inhumane and inconsiderate behavior of authorities on someone’s death and how friends, if one is blessed to have them, can turn mountains upside down for a friend.

The book is highly relatable and in a society like ours, where we deny even knowing what prostitution is or never tell our kids what sexual harassment is, with sex word being a taboo, it is a must-read. Not only does it make one realize how many vices we are simply neglecting for the fear of rocking the boat but also emphasizes on the impact of our small actions. It is a book that forces a person to introspect into his own behaviors, if he has a conscience that is, and the results thereof.

What Do I Do?

Did you hear that sound? Like something fell off from somewhere? That drop of water falling onto an uncleaned dish in the sink? Hear those steps? Is somebody coming over?

This flutter in the heart! Oh, God!… What is happening! Don’t we say gut feelings are never wrong? Then what calamity is about to befall me? What is it that could go wrong? I should probably do nothing today, nothing at all, and stay here. Staying indoors would make sure nothing can befall me. And nobody can know where I am if I just stay in bed the whole day.

But even when I am in bed I just can’t sleep. Sleep could have helped. I just could be without any reality, without any realization of reality.  But then, this damn sleep, I dunno where it went. I am just so sleepless. As if I have been sleeping for years!

What happened to my tired body? Did it not yearn so earnestly for sleep? For some rest? Some respite for the heavy schedule and the constant busyness? Where did all that tiredness-induced sleep go? Why just could I not sleep and get respite from my talkative brain for some time? Why can’t my brain just leave me alone?

Oh, some dog is barking somewhere! Did it see a satan or an angel? Or is it a mere stranger that is making them bark like this? What if an army of satans is coming to take us over? Would we all sin? All indulging in stuff they have been resisting for a while now? Things that they have been denying themselves?

Why is there this sudden thunder? Where did clouds come from? Is it raining? Would it rain? The dogs must have left to find shelter. There is no mourning, no barking anymore. Did God intervene? I can hear the rain now. Slight pitter-patter. Rahmah as it is seen. Did He ward off all the satans? Did he protect humanity?

But my heart is still fluttering. If the satan has been warded off, then why this fluttering? This anxiety?

Why can’t I just fall asleep?

And this fluttering, why won’t it end. Just why? Now it is even escalating. I suddenly find my heart sinking. As if something just went wrong. As if I felt some devastating loss. As if I am the only mourner and all of the grief is meant for me. And I am sinking deeper in this every minute. Every passing second. I can feel the blood drain out of my hands, my limbs. As if my core needed all the resources around. Yet I have no idea of what is causing me this agony, this pain. Why am I being tormented like this? What sin had I done to call upon myself such strange feelings?

The feeling of being trapped. Of being isolated.

Sylvia Plath. Wasn’t it she who wrote about a glass container that stood over her head, constantly, and separated her from everyone else. Maybe from her own self too. Bell Jar. She called it bell jar. Is it this jar hanging over my head too? Is it this glass that is segregating me from everyone? Preventing me from communicating, from connecting, from forming relationships, friendships? From anything human?

This sinking just won’t stop. I want to scream. Scream all this pain out. This strange feeling. This helplessness. This urge to have someone and the desire to be alone. This need of talking to someone, having someone to listen to me and yet having nobody. Hating all those people who keep asking what happened? What do I tell them what happened? Nothing happened, did it? It is just me, and my brain talking to me. Driving me crazy every passing second. Getting onto my nerves. Making me anxious. What do I do?

I just want to run away from all of this. All of this pain. People keep asking what it is and I have nothing to tell them. I just want to run away to some isolated, some uninhabited place. And scream. Scream till my lungs are numb. Till no voice can come out anymore. And with those screams, scream out all this helplessness too. This helplessness of not having any words. Of not being able to express what happened to me or what is it that I am going through.

Would those screams, that loss of energy help me? And even if it does, where should I go? I even don’t know a place that is isolated enough. What do I do?

I have no place to be myself.

Maybe I should get over this urge of finding a place well-suited for me. Maybe I can never fit in.

Maybe I should just stop thinking and sleep!

 

I Think Back to You…

Some nights, when I feel alone
I think back to you…
The feeling of you by my side
My solace

Some nights, when it is too dark
I think back to you…
The feeling of having you by my side
Fights all my fears

Some nights, when everything is too cold
I think back to you…
The warmth of your presence
The smile afterward

Some nights, when everything is falling apart
I think back to you…
The strength you pass on to me…
The words!

Some night, when I think of your departure,
separation seems inevitable
I think back, to the time we spent
I think back to you…

And I embrace you,
for an eternity

Sometimes

Sometimes when you utterly desire something and it is expected to come easily, it comes with great difficulty or not at all!