The following is the first chapter from the author’s upcoming book (her fifth), published here as part of Dr Javaria Farooqui's digital curation centred on popular fiction.
I was sitting inside Ms. Aarfa Haider’s office, waiting for her to return from a meeting. She was my Head of Department (HOD), whom I had found extremely helpful and supportive in my tough days. Her office was warm, welcoming, and smelled of coffee. A steaming mug of coffee was placed on her desk and many other things. I clasped at my leather handbag, eagerly waiting for her to return. Today was the day she was expected to provide her valuable feedback on the first draft of the manuscript I had submitted to her as my thesis.
I chewed on my lip as I closely observed her office. The glow of the ancient lamp only illuminated the room kept on the side table as the windows were covered entirely by the dark brown velvet curtains, not letting the rays of sunlight enter the room. One of the office walls was entirely covered with a large wooden case, fully loaded with hundreds of spines of books. I wondered if Ms. Aarfa had actually read all of these books or only kept them for display.
I came out of the trance as soon as I heard someone turn the doorknob. When I glanced to look back, I found her stepping into the room. Her warm presence elevated my spirits.
“I’m sorry, Zaira, for keeping you so long,” she said, taking a seat in front of me.
“Um, it’s okay. Never mind,” I said with a wave of a hand, trying to stay casual about the waiting.
She skimmed through the stack of papers kept before her without looking at me. “So, how is your day coming along?”
“It’s going good…”
“And, how are you doing?”
I stammered. “I’m… I’m fine… Just a little nervous though.”
“What for?” she asked, still keeping her eyes fixated on the papers as she went through them.
“About… about my manuscript…”
“Oh-kay, here it is….” She took out my file from the pile of papers and put the rest back on the table. She cleared her throat before speaking. “I’ve had the chance of going through your manuscript and…”
I could literally feel my heartbeat going to a standstill. I didn’t move or take any breath. “And?” I managed to say with a croaky voice.
“I feel… it needs some improvisation.”
Her words caught my breath. “Um, what does that mean?”
“One of the office walls was entirely covered with a large wooden case, fully loaded with hundreds of spines of books. I wondered if Ms. Aarfa had actually read all of these books or only kept them for display”
“It means you have set out on the right path. You just need to know how to walk on it,” she said, lowering her spectacles to see me directly into my eyes.
“I really don’t know what that means…” I whispered.
She paused before she spoke again. “Zaira, I know you’ve been through a lot lately… You’ve lost your father a while back and you’re not on good terms with your elder sister either. A lot is going on in your personal life. But sweetheart, do not let that affect your work, especially your thesis. This manuscript could lead you to the path of becoming a writer. An accomplished writer indeed. Only I can understand how much you desire to become one.”
I slowly nodded at her, taking in her words.
“Putting all your concerns aside, I need you to focus on this manuscript. I want you to score the highest in your thesis and I believe you can do it. Just give this manuscript a good read and see where you think the work needs to be done. Rest, I’ve marked some changes in it that you can review later.” She handed me the file.
“Thank you,” I muttered under my breath.
“I’ll call you in next week and we will go over this once again. Okay?”
“Sure,” I agreed, standing on my feet.
“See you next week then. Have a good day,” she said before busying herself with her laptop.
“Same to you, ma’am.”
I stepped out of her cabin, taking a deep breath with my eyes closed. It was a relief coming out of that setting. The more time I spent in there, the more I felt claustrophobic. Yes, I was scared of closed spaces. That’s why I always chose to spend more time in spacious areas. For instance, I loved my university’s library. It was spacious, surrounded by books and their fragrance.
It had been my second year at the university. I was enrolled in the Master’s program and was nearing its completion. I had to write a fiction book for my thesis in my last semester. It was not just a book but a dream project I had been working on for so many years. It was a story close to my heart. Most of my classmates thought the story revolved around my own life’s story. However, I never agreed with them. It was quite similar to my own life, but I did not want to give this information to people. I knew that people liked reading books inspired by true stories, but I didn’t want them to know it was my story. I just liked the idea of keeping it anonymous.
If my book had to be published, I would never tell people that it was based on my own story. I would tell them it was fiction. Complete fiction. Since Abba died, I have been living at my Phupho’s place. We did have a house, but Abba had mortgaged it. After his death, there was no way to pay off the installments. When the bank ensured it had not received any installment for over a year, they confiscated the property and asked me to leave it. And I did. Without making any scene. I moved to my Phupho’s place and lived with her for a few months until I enrolled in the university. I was lucky to get a scholarship for my Master’s degree; otherwise, I could not have afforded the degree.
Ever since I had started the Master’s program, I have been living in the girls’ dorm within the university. Luckily, I had to pay half the rent of the dorm as I was studying on a full scholarship. After I met with Ms. Aarfa, I headed back to the dorm. On my way, I crossed paths with Azlan, one of my classmates and the only good friend at the university.
“Hey,” he said, his eyes twinkling, a smile creeping upon his face.
“Hi,” I replied in a small voice, not being able to meet his eyes.
“What’s up? Did you… did you submit your manuscript to Ms. Aarfa? What did she say?” he asked, holding the books against his chest.
“Um, yes, I met her. She said my manuscript needs some work. So I have to go through it again.”
“It’s okay, I know you can do it,” he nodded.
“Thanks,” I muttered.
“Going back to the dorm?” he asked, looking at the bag slung on my shoulders.
“Yeah,” I said, hugging myself. “It’s getting chilly outside. I need to go back before it gets darker and colder.”
“Uh, yeah, but I was wondering if we could go and grab a coffee from the café?”
“Now?” I asked, raising a brow.
“Yeah, but only if it’s okay with you?” He raised a brow as he confirmed.
“Um, okay,” I said, nodding. “I’ll come.”
We didn’t go outside the university building and chose to sit inside the university café itself. I had been friends with Azlan for over two years now, but still, we had not gone anywhere outside the university's premises. Whenever we had to talk, we’d sit in the same café on campus every time. I didn’t know why he never asked me to go out with him. Perhaps he was scared I’d turn him down, or he just wasn’t into me. Not that I was into him.
He was a good friend. A very good friend. I did not have many friends at the university except for him. He understood me in a way nobody else did. I could easily confide in him. It took me a while to trust him completely before I started opening up in front of him. He was the only person I had shared my dark past with. I had told him everything about my distorted family; the relationship between my father and me, and the relationship between me and my elder and estranged sister, Zoha.
I stopped stirring my cup of coffee as soon as I thought of Zoha. Every time her thought crossed my mind, I would stop doing what I was doing and become still. The thought of her enraged me. I couldn’t tell if Azlan had seen the rage on my face, but I tried my best to avoid it.
“What happened? You don’t like your coffee?” he asked, looking at me.
“No, it’s good,” I said.
“It’s the same you order almost every day,” he said with a smile. “I’m sure it can never go wrong.”
I smirked. “Are you trying to make fun of me?”
“No, no,” he chuckled. “I wouldn’t dare to.” He surrendered with his hands.
“Thanks,” I smiled, stirring my cup again.
Just then, my cell phone beeped. It was a notification from the Facebook Messenger app. I checked it almost immediately and was utterly stunned to find out who the sender was.
“What happened?” I heard Azlan ask me.
“It’s a message…” I said in a whisper.
“Who is it from?” he asked.
“Zoha,” I said breathlessly.
“Oh.” He put his cup back on the table. “What does the message say?”
I looked up from the mobile screen. “She said she wants to meet me.”
About the author: Sara Naveed is the author of four books: Undying Affinity, Our Story Ends Here, All Of My Heart, and The World Between Us. All of them have been published by Penguin Random House, India. She has done her primary education from Ibn Sina English High School, Sharjah and then matriculation from the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Sialkot. Later, she went on to complete her Bachelors in business and got her Masters degree in banking and finance from UMT, Lahore. Being a writer has always been her dream. She earnestly hopes people appreciate her writing—an asset she deeply covets. Apart from writing fiction novels, she is working as a content head at a leading software firm. Currently, she is editing her fifth book.
About the artist: Noormah Jamal is a Peshawar-Brooklyn based multidisciplinary artist. She graduated from the National College of Arts in 2016, majoring in Mughal miniature painting. She is currently doing her MFA from Pratt institute in Brooklyn, New York. Having grown up in many of the cities in Pakistan, her experiences of each are reflected in her practice. Her self-identity is deeply rooted in her Pukhtoon heritage. Since graduating, she has had numerous shows in Pakistan, Dubai, China, New York and Switzerland. Her work has also appeared in various magazines and publications. She was an artist-in-residence at VASL Karachi, for the Taaza Tareen 2019 cycle and was awarded the Imran Mir Art Prize for the most promising artist 2019. She had her first solo show titled Drun: The Insider, The Outsider at Sanat Initiative Karachi in 2021.