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.

An Endless Wait

A moonless night
A curfew
A fresh fear

All is still and my room is lit
By the light across the street
Everything else, dark

No sound penetrates the silence tonight
No soundtracks in a groom’s caravan
No dogs howling…

The city is locked down
Again.

I look at the dark sky, wondering over my plans
And now, silently,
Awaiting my destiny to unfold.

Ready to Die

Every day I see people worked up
Looking for something, searching
Cursing, complaining, swearing…

I look at nature,
the clouds moving, the sun hiding
The birds happily chirping away

I look in the mirror, standing, staring
Looking happy and content
Maybe I should die

Condolence

So many times we come across situations, across people to sympathize with. What happened was bad. Destructive! should not have happened. The person may be shattered, maybe in need. Of hope. Of words. Sympathy.

But whatever the events, whatever it was that created havoc, an emotional turmoil, is there anything that can be said to ease the pain? Can we tell a person who lost his guardian that it happened for good? Can we tell a person in pain that it shall be beneficial? Can we tell a person that God is teaching him something and hence the hunger, starvation and the lack of food?

What do we say to people suffering?

Are the condolences, the words all hollow? Devoid of any meaning? Any depth? Mere misused words. Rather, used words…

And some useless condolences. Sympathies!

Tormentor

I sit with him, Ah! the pleasure
His eyes, the way he smiles
chiseled biceps!

He asks, I speak
The trauma at my heart
What is it that keeps poking me

I speak of red,
The spilled colour
The bundle of joy dead on a street

I speak of a bed
Devoid of rest
Haunted by nightmares

I speak of rooms;
Painful, brutal sounds
Electrocution

I speak, unaware
the words incoherent
the ache, constant….

My tormentor, moved to tears
I, unphased, numb
unaffected

Difference

Remember the last time you said mother? Parent? Care? Oh! So much of concern. How you should be aware of their feelings, and how our lives should revolve around them? Remeber saying they should be the centre of our world? The very thing that we should be constantly aware of? Careful of? Mindful of?

Remember saying that our lives should be dedicated to their care, paying them back for what they did for us as children? Remaining indebted and trying to make things even. More out of the intent to repay their favours rather than out of gratitude…

Why could they not understand that gratitude is not always shown by doing as the other asks. Gratitude is not giving someone control over your life. Gratitude is doing something for that other person out of your own personal will. The way you want to.

But when it comes to giving up control and freedom; when they ask to specifically take instructions and do whatever they say, this is not paying back or showing gratitude. This is enslavement. Under the worst pretext available.

There is a great difference between gratitude and slavery.

Boundaries

We all come across posts trying to make us realise how blessed we are. How we should not whine because someone is deprived. How we should be content and satisfied and how the presence of such deprived souls should make us live humble.

But sometimes I wonder why do we want to stop our growth because someone is not so well to do? Why can’t we grow and instead of being upset and pitiful, help these people up too? Why can’t we work so as to benefit them as well?

Giving them a share of our earning doesn’t help. They remain dependent. Showing sympathy and being pitiful does not help either. Our getting content with whatever we have doesn’t matter. because in all this, the question of their betterment remains unanswered.

What is it that we should do, as a collective society, to improve the condition humanity is in? What way leads us to a blissful garden?

But before we find answer to such questions we have an obstacle to tackle.

When do we erase the boundaries and consider all humans one?