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.


Thoughts manifest into reality
the feeling you give out
comes back to thee

Numb, lost, immature
unable to comprehend
what world, emotions
This emptiness!

I sought answers; road to my destination
the burden of questions heaving onto me
attempts to shake off everything
friends with solitude; company!

What would reflect back, I wonder!
Emptiness? Numbness? The answers I seek?
A detailed map to my destiny?
Some moonbeams as company?

The dark veil of moonless nights
Untreatable sleeplessness
Shroud for all the misery


For How Long

I had someday, against nature
taken that one step; dreaded
I knew all that could go wrong
impacts, outcome

Nevertheless, I found the courage
for once to risk it all
the reward too lucrative
for once, vulnerability ceased

A surge of courage, strength
a step towards the dreaded journey
Fear, excitement, adrenaline
How does it sound?

Ever witnessed flight of a bird
a broken wing, nearing death?
It breaks into flight, not merely for its sake,
to escape… Alas!

Why didn’t it know its fate?
the flight of a broken wing
How far could courage take
or service of a fake smile?

I repeatedly ask myself
“For how long?”


I had yearned someday
Away from crowd
The noise, blasting horns

Away from the sweltering heat
The makeshift hell
The stillness hanging in the air

I had yearned a starry night
An open air

And here I land
In a cold vale
Pouring, cleansing me!

Final Step

Many times our dreams, our goals are just one step away from us. We just have to extend our hand and grab it. But more often than not, we are afraid of thatfinal step. That last brick in the wall.

Though we say we desire so and so but we never really yearn for it. Because if we did, we would grab it even if it were miles afar.

It is this last step that discloses whether that dream, that goal is really sought. Whether we really crave for it, yearn it.

All excuses, delays, time, blah blah come forth when we do it half hearted, as a compulsion. Else nothing would or could stop us.

On another level, maybe we are afraid to complete the journey. Once this dream, this goal is achieved, what would life be like. There won’t be this goal to work for. Would life lose its meaning? Would there be nothing else to look forward to? Would it be the end of everything? Would it invoke the feelings of lost?

A Mirage


It was blurred
my eyes too damp
it looked like a mirage,
a dream!

Ahead, lay a road
The heat, sun too harsh
another mirage

I reached a crossroad
a desert, an oasis
peeking, I ask
is this water, mirage?

I go with the charm, bewitched
as if something pulls
even the dream, mirage!

I seek the lush gardens
an epitome of peace
the sky is ablaze
another mirage!

I could see my dream
at the end of my extended hand
unable to grab, I ask
Is this real, mirage?


Walking down the road,
in pursuit of that goal
the  cherished longing,
the golden dream

Along the way you try too hard
with a sun shining too bright
And then suddenly you feel tired
all energy, zeal sapped.

You wish the destination were nearer
that you reach before too late
with fatigue creeping in
the distance seeming even longer.

And somewhere you suddenly get sight
There! you found it right in front
Running wild, with all your heart
to find a mirage, mocking.

Broken hearts could not be seen
but they ache even more
They pain of losing out on dreams
the tests of time and tiredness.




Goodbye? … Nah!


No, I don’t wanna say goodbye
we meet again, before I die

We do not snap contact at this
neither give another a moment to miss

We do not forget the lovely time
we spent together youth’s prime

We do not fall apart…
will always cherish the company we had

No one can take the place you have
the way enchant and captivate!

The chat we had at four in wee
the way with you time would flee

Life with you was always glee
and I could always be me 😉

Hence there be no adieu
no farewell, no turning blue

And we would soon meet too
I can’t be far apart from you!


Stuck. Where? No idea. It was road till eyes could see. No civilization as far as eyes could catch a view. All that gave company were other vehicles. All queued up to move forward on a road where all wheels had ceased motion. Cold as the night was and dark as the hopes, the probability of moving out of the situation seemed zero. Maybe, they would remain stuck for days together. After all it was NH1.

NH1. It does not signify a national highway, but uncertainty. Where before leaving you think a thousand times. Call up helplines to know the status. Verify there are no landslides, no encounters. This may sound like an exaggeration but is this not reality? Are people not stuck due to bad condition of the road that pops up suddenly? Or due to a security beef up? Or because someone tried to take a turn and could not. And with him, every other being gets to suffer. Is this not the narrowest highway? Congested?

They had been early to start. So that any delay may not cause an impact on their schedule. It had been a smooth journey till a few kilometres. And then, they got stuck in a traffic jam. Roads were congested like never before. Vehicles stood still. It seemed to be an eternity. No way out of it. And the biting cold. Perfect conditions for being depressed. The chilly winter winds were piercing their skin, rendering them cold. What if hypothermia set in? There would be no way to avert such a condition or even treat it. Fear.

With nothing else to do, they all started sharing their stories with others. Along with the driver, there were six other people. They all hailed from different professions. Different lives. Different stories.

Person 1. Age: 19-21

Puffing a cigarette he mentioned his passion. Interiors. He loved doing interiors. He would have loved to pursue it further and develop a career out of it. It would have been the best thing for him. After all he had natural instincts in this. Revealing his desire to parents was a big task. He did not know how they would react. What they would say. Would they permit him or not. And yes, the worst fears turned true. His decision was rebuked. “You are a kid, what do you know about life? Do you even have slightest idea about what you are saying? Interiors? You must be kidding us. There is no profession like this. People would call you a painter at most. A casual labourer. Do you want to bring shame to the family by doing this? Painting peoples’ homes makes no living!”

It was not what they assumed it to be. And what had he got to do with peoples’ perception of his job? He could do anything with his life. Choose any profession. But no. He forgot that society does not give anyone such liberties. Professions are chosen by the society not concerned person. He tried all possible ways to convince his parents. In vain! Giving up, he chose to graduate in engineering. Civil Engineering. After all, there are job openings almost every year. And has good marriage market too. Away from home. Because he could not bear the voices in the house. How they repeatedly called him a loser. He had given up his love for society. Shame on him. Pain. Tears. Cigarettes.

Person 2. Age: 22-27

He did not have a story anymore. He was one who would pursue things on intuition. Help strangers. Go with whatever his heart told him. He never gave things a second thought. More often than not he would be criticized. “Why do you go for everything your heart wants you to?” He knew he was doing right. Helping those who needed them. Sometimes even going over the board for them. But why? Compassion.

This was what made him feel alive. This was what his life was. But this turned his life hell. Whenever something went wrong he was blamed for it. Society had been up in arms against him.

“Why did he save that dog?” “Why did he keep that bird?” His ears would ring with whys and blames. He was culprit for anything and everything. But why? Because society’s nature is sadistic. They could not see a suffering person smile and recover. They could not see a person prosper more than them. They could not bear a person of low social status to earn more than them; or hold an office. Society took pleasure in people’s tears and painful cries. Sadists. He did not belong there. Fled away.

Person 3. Age: 28-30

Sighing heavily. He did not know where to start from. Childhood had given him a close friend. A girl in neighbourhood. They grew up together. Nobody objected. And they grew closer everyday. Closer than siblings. What was it that she did not know about him? Nothing. She was aware of every secret, every mischief, everything. They had been in love ever since.

They did not even need to confess this. They could read it in each other’s eyes. The guy’s family was keen to marry him early. He had a job, a satisfactory salary. What else did he need to settle down? Hearing this he was tempted to reveal his love to them.

As he did, he assumed everyone would be happy with this. They knew the family and the girl very well. Everyone would adjust easily. But does life fulfill every desire?

Yeah! They denied. The reason? Her family was not at par with theirs. They belonged to higher hierarchy of the society. And the girl’s family occupied lower strata. This was no match. He pleaded but to no avail. They were firm on their stand. And if he married anyone else would he not be betraying her? Not able to decide what to do, he applied to job far away from his place. If he could not marry her, he would not marry anyone else. Ever.

Person 4. Age: 30-35

He was silent. No words could do justice to his story. It was more about emotions than about words. Empathy. He had a baby few years ago. Greatest joy anyone could experience. It brought the whole family together. Everyone was glad. Overjoyed. Being the first child he was highly pampered. The apple of everyone’s eyes. Beloved. He could get permission for anything and everything. Freedom. They did not want to put limits. “Let him do whatever he wants and learn his own lessons.”

Maybe this was where his parenting went wrong. He was betrayed by his own decision. His kid, some 3-4 years old, was roaming in the by-lanes of his locality. Going over to play with other friends.

This turned out to be his last stroll in those lanes. Some gunned people beat him for no mistake of his. And when they were done with breaking his bones, they shot him right in the head. Point blank range. Cold-blooded murder. He saw his son in that pool of blood. The wounds on his body. His tattered clothes. He did not even know how to react. Should he wail loud? Should he shout? Blank. Shattered. “Smallest coffins are the heaviest.”

Person 5. Age: 20-25. Female

Her face revealed her pain. Distress. She had dreams of being a travel writer. She had loved both travelling and writing. What other profession would suit her better? Determined. She knew from her very childhood what she desired of this life. Her career would be fun. Her dream.

She described it to her parents. Their reaction was bizarre. They did not want her to do this. Not till she was with them. So they asked her to get married and do whatever she desires after that. It would be difficult to find a groom according to your career choices otherwise.

She did not want to get married this early. But an understanding husband was her only chance. Before agreeing to get married she talked to the guy about her dreams. All he did was smile back. She took it for a yes and went ahead with the proposal. When she mentioned her dream after marriage he laughed it over. “Were you serious? I thought you were kidding!”

She was not kidding. Trapped. Her parents had not mentioned this thing to the groom. And now he won’t let her go after it. He had a family and she had to take care of everyone there. Responsibility. She was shocked out of her wits. Her giggles and happiness died that day.

Person 6. Age >50

Being eldest amongst this small group, his story was expected to be full of wisdom. What he revealed was naked truth. An eyesore. He had fathered two kids. Did everything he could. Belonging to a poor family he could not do much. But he definitely did more than he could bear the expenses for.

He worked many hours at a stretch to fetch his children the things they demanded. But all they saw was unsatisfied demands. Not the efforts their father had to put in. Greedy. They would be easily tempted by anything and everything. And they expected their poor father to provide them all that the rich kids had. He did all he could.

But it never satisfied them. As they grew up to be better off than their parents, he expected them to be thankful. Instead they treated their parents as burden. Never spoke to them in a pleasing manner. Probably they awaited their death. The setback of kids not talking caused heartbreak.

His wife died of a broken heart. Stress cardiomyopathy. Her death was a blow. She took care of his needs. Who would be concerned about him now? He took up a new job and shifted out of his kids’ place. Alone. Rejected.

It was late now. The traffic jam was cleared. Empty roads. The cab moved on fast. Trying to compensate for the lost time. Soon enough they reached their destination. Bade each other farewell. Parted. Leaving their stories with the driver. Caretaker of secrets. A vault for strangers.