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.

For Half a Year or More

Half a year I couldn’t talk to you…
To anyone.
I dread a conversation now that I can.
I got no answer for how I am
Or have been all this while.

I am reduced to be a memory
No one knows I still exist

I have no words anymore
I falter at your questions
Grope around to find words
But all is dark and I find none

I run away!

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

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?

Being a Girl

I talked of chains
How I felt my wings bound
How it was suffocating
Smothered, numb
They asked, ” Where are the chains
You talk about;
Who binds you, you seem free
The cage is just metamorphic”
I think the words over
Were they right?
Why was it that I felt caged?
What denied my wings flight?
No, the chains couldn’t be seen
They were just words, lingering
A collection of random events
The burden of ‘Izat’
Stereotypes bound me
The rules- how, what, right, wrong
The piercing eyes- disapproving, shaming
The label of being a girl!

Call to Freedom!

FotorCreated-9I have seen dreams die
Youth crying, panicked
“I cannot see a thing
What happened to my eye”

I have seen sleep stab
Flashes, nightmares
Face in palms, crying
“Where did my peace go”

I have seen mournful weddings
No songs of joy being sung
Groom was shot on the way
“Where did his promise go”

I have heard kids wonder
“Everyone comes with parents
I go alone, with my mother
Where did my father go”

I have seen women
Half widows
Not even a grave to cry
“Where did my husband go”

I hear a mother lament
“He was all I had
Peace to my heart, light to my eyes
Where did my son go!”

I see a procession, a funeral
children mourning
I hear people sloganeering
“Azaadi, Azaadi, Azaadi, Azaadi!”

 

Blunder and Pain

They talked freedom
how they had had enough
Tyranny, Monarchy
sought an end

They start out, seeking
fighting their way through
somewhere religion creeps in
Blunder?

A line drawn on religion
supressing minority
threatening, depressing
Inhumanity?

Fleeing home,
protecting
bleak faith
Kashmiriyat stabbed?

Fear in eyes
Tears
Years going in vain
Exodus!

Along, people in procession
slogans booming
“Asi Gasi Pakistan,
Batav Ros Ti Batnev Saan!”

He is a Human Too!

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Talking of home, peace
the beauty of my place
the calm,
Paradise

We somehow reach conflict
the tug-of-war
nobody ready to give in
the dilemma of rope!

I narrate how, every year
we lose sons to bullets
how, abruptly
our streets are painted red

How, out of blues
a pellet hits your eye
How, in an instant
the world turns black!

I explain the mass graves
AFSPA, PSA
Tufail, Zahid, Wamiq Farooq
their graves asking for crimes

Fake encounters, promotions
disappearances
Half-widows, orphans, posthumous
Machil!

Crackdowns, rapes, torture
Papa II, Mama II
Bullets, pellets
Teargas shells!

He asks, “Why are you silent
how can you bear someone
barging doors
killing beloved

Why don’t you retaliate
fight back
serve them as deserved
An eye for an eye!

How could talks help
why yearn for justice
why empty handed
missing rifle…

How could you just sit around
mumb over blood bath
does your blood not boil
Are you so weak at heart?”

How could I explain
I have closely seen pain, death
and when I kill
does his family not die like mine?

Everything is Fair in War!

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“Everything is fair in love and war”

Everyone is well aware of this statement. About how there is nothing defining right and wrong when you have an enemy and a goal to achieve. How no one cares about right when there is a war.

But is victory that important? Is it some epitome of forgiveness that once we achieve victory everything else would fade out? Would our atrocities clean out? Would the blood on our hands turn transparent?

And if so, then are our everyday struggles not war for us? A new battle, a new challenge everyday? Should this philosophy of everything being fair not be applicable there as well? If for being declared a university topper I need to cheat, why should that be deemed morally incorrect? Is this goal not a war for me? And does the society not itself justify the means used in a war?

War or peace does not matter. What matters is whether what we do is justified. Going out killing someone just for its sake is not fair. Having impunity and shooting people around to abuse the power is not fair. Whether it be a war or a conflict, nothing can be beyond a human. Nothing, no victory is more important than a human life. And yet it is the human life we value the least.

It might take a lifetime to put this thought into our politicians’ minds. What is the value of a piece of land without its inhabitants, its culture? And when occupation of land does not matter, why have borders? Why divide ourselves? What high does this wall of separation give us?

Why could we all not co-exist. Peace. Imagine the amount of money this would save us. The amount of work that could be done when the military finances are redirected. Why should there be any need for military and nuclear weapons. Why should we stand against each other?

Sometimes it seems easier being an animal. No set boundaries. No visas. No weapons. No gunshots or blasts. But we were created humans. Superior to every other species that ever existed. And yet we are the only species that stands against each other.

Is the pain of a lost son not same for mothers of warring nations?

 

Come Over

 

Look at the war, the turmoil
The way it affects you
A future awaits
Come over

What are you holding onto
Fear? Trauma
A bullet with your name on it?
Come over!

Tranquility awaits you
The grass is greener
Paradise,
Come over

I wondered if it was true
Far away, in exile
And yet paradise
The insistence, come over

Why quit for peace
And justice?
who would ensure that?
Bring back the golden days, come over

I stay back
Work, where others quit
Ensuring justice, brick by brick
I act rather than being a spectator
I won’t come over!