Skip to main content

Shaking Hands Suffocate

Highly Commended in the All About Women of Colour & Sweatshop Mentorship for creative writing

Lina Ali Highly Commended

he Channel 11 news segment cuts to the still image of a human shell no larger than four feet, painted with incinerated grime, rubble, and dried blood. Baba is sitting in front of our flat screen plasma television, his grey moustache bristling at the sight of the bold white words used to headline today’s update on Palestine. The news ticker bearing the words ‘Hundreds killed in airstrike’ is bright red. The human shell is transitioned out and replaced by an image composed entirely of different shades of grey – the colour of the smoke escaping through the roofs of the collapsed cement buildings like the underside of an overused frying skillet.

‘Kamineh1. Saaleh chor2.’ Baba’s jaw tightens with every statistic announced by the reporter. His knuckles resemble the off-white kurtha pajama he has changed into for the evening. Seated next to him on the navy-blue leather couch is Amma. Her black frizzy hair is tied back into a low bun and her manicured hands are folded into her lap as she stares blankly at the screen. The increasing tempo of the swish of Amma’s dupatta orchestrated by the uneven bounce of her right leg, tells me she will sigh and leave the room now. Amma stands up, exhales harshly, and begins to walk towards the main hallway which is tiled with heated wooden floorboards and leads to the open-plan kitchen and dining space. This silence, interrupted only by the voices of monotone reporters and Baba’s curses, and which ends only with Amma’s disappearance from the living room, has become routine for us. Every evening for the past month Baba, Amma and I have pulled ourselves away from Zoom meetings about promotions and salary negotiations and WhatsApp calls to family in India to sit on our plush couches and consume the collated media coverage of the day. 

‘What is so wrong that we spend time with Khushi and talk about these facts?’ Baba’s nostrils flare. Amma stops. She is a tiny dark woman and maybe that’s why her shaking hands suffocate the living room with palpable anger.

‘Facts? Facts are meant to be useful Kumar. Facts are something she should be able to use to do better. And you don’t talk! You yell. She yells.’

There is a stony silence from Baba. Amma provokes him further, ‘Woh kiya kareygee Kumar? Batao, tum kya karlogeh?’, which means ‘What can she do for them Kumar? Tell me, what can you do for them?’

The popping veins on Baba’s neck appear bruised as he stalks over to the beige loveseat I am snuggled in. ‘She can do better than us, Khadija.’

‘And how’s that Kumar? Why get her worked up about something she can do nothing about? We have Farhad’s family coming to dinner tonight. Think about Khushi’s shaadi3. But that is of no interest to you because you have done, seen, and been fixated with nothing but the news!’

I shrink as I anticipate the memory of Baba’s indifference this morning to the lustrous, colourful fabrics of Kashmiri cotton and silks Amma had shown him. Huffing with agitation, Amma had insisted we relocate to my room to try on her family’s gold heirlooms, the Kashmiri kurthas and the silk bridal sarees. She had locked the door as if to prevent Baba’s brooding and indifference from sinking into my skin. I remember how the soft touch of Amma’s hands and the crinkling of the dark loose flesh around her eyes as she smiled upon seeing me in full bridal blossom had lightened the weight of the human shells I felt breathing from the TV.

I witness Amma’s frustration shift to rage as her eyes narrow. ‘Care. She can care, Khadija, and she can do something about it.’

My parents’ words become a jumble of static noise as bile claws its way into my mouth and the three walls of the living room begin to transfigure into a circular white blur that constricts with each breath I take. The flat screen decides to reuse the still image of the four-foot human shell and the furious clinking of the gold bangles on Amma’s wrist as she shakes her fists at Baba form a rhythm with the reporter’s voice. 

‘Foreign aid.’ Clink clink. ‘Cost-effective. Refused to comment.’ Clink clink clink. ‘Are we doing our best?’ Clink clink clink clink.

1 Kamineh: Urdu word that loosely translates to ‘bastards’

2 Saaleh chor: Urdu phrase that loosely translates to ‘bloody thieves’

3 Shaadi: Urdu word for ‘wedding’ 

Find more about Talks & Ideas at the Opera House