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Volume 7

Outside: Looking In - January 2011


Talia Shahbaz

Written by
Talia Shahbaz

Talia Shahbaz lives in Lahore. She has studied film making, and currently teaches O-level English. Talia has written for different magazines and newspapers such as The News, The Post and The Green Kaleidoscope (e-magazine). Her other interests apart from writing: Having A lot of Money, Very Handsome Men, Reading.


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Chocolate Cake



In a real story…

The train station is dusty. Flakes of dust are dancing in the sunlight, and everything - the people, the stopped train – has a preternatural halo of dust and light, like whirlwinds dancing around each object.  

It seems to be a day like any other, yet somehow the light is brighter; if his hopes are dashed again, he will describe it as a hateful glare. But if, only if… if what?

Something else… any other possibility exists, he will say the light that day was a holy glow around everything…

So much hanging in the balance as he steps off the train, feeling dirty, old, his heart in his throat. His eyes search the few people at the station – and then…

A woman, different from the rest, walks across his view. He forgets the small details for a second or two, so convinced is he that this must be her. He wants it to be her. But she keeps walking away.

Cursing himself for being this foolish, foolish enough to expect anything, he takes a few steps forward. That’s when he sees Her, standing still, waiting for him just a few paces away. A heavy, lumpy figure of a woman in a scruffy black coat, a papery face lined with wrinkles. There’s a rose in her lapel, like they decided. His heart sinks.

Of course, this is what would have happened anyway, he consoles himself. The world never does make sense. He is someone who has just returned from a war, not from a different world – why does he expect anything else? The man feels weary of life, the light is the hateful glare of a circus show, and the figure in front of him is clownish. Good God, you’ve done it again, haven’t you? He keeps his bearing strong and proper, shoulders erect, though they threaten to slump – though now, when the war is over, he is crumbling inside. They may have won the war, but he has been tricked by the real enemy: Hope. Maybe that is what they all were, instruments of Fate – the Nation – God; like ants scurrying across large distances, all for the collective purpose. What he, one man alone, may have wished – why should it matter? He knows he’ll chuckle over this later, but right now he is absurdly close to tears.

He wanted to put a beautiful face to the beautiful words. That is all.

Chapter 1

Why is there an inherent tragedy in a doll’s face? The wide plastic eyes, the lashes, the perfect nose and mouth – is it the sadness of being unable to control one’s life? Why also, is this same inherent look of tragedy so irresistibly attractive in a woman?

The modern ideal of Beauty: models walking down the runway, like merchandise, like dolls, each a different variation of the other. Some of them more like robots than dolls.

I feel stumped. It seems as if pleasing others is a basic survival tactic but one I was born without. In my mother’s womb, the fairy godmothers must have waved quite a few wands – I’m intelligent, I have an appealing symmetry to my face, I have a strong and brave spirit – but then that last fairy, and I think she must really have meant ill, arrived in the delivery room and said with an evil laugh, “I give her the gift of Honesty: no matter how much it may please anyone, this girl will not be able to lie.”

The other fairies must have been bored and puzzled but turns out the evil one really knew what she was doing; here I am, all grown up and utterly bereft of the knack of wanting to please others. It sheds a negative light on all my other good qualities.

For example, fashion. Or fitting in. I suck at both. I don’t even want to be good at them. That’s how much I suck. It’s a complete lack of motivation.

Sometimes I feel that the world we live in is a masque parade, and here we all have to wear beautiful dresses and decorated masks. Anything to cover, beguile, deceive. And then I walk in, in my undies. I might look better than all the rest, sure – (thank you, one of the good fairy godmothers) but it causes a problem blending in. Or getting what you want. I’m never quite seen as Us, always an alien – in a good way or a bad way.

Sometimes I feel as if I was born without a face. Any face at all. And no one knows me, because I don’t remind them of anything they know – the real me is unrecognizable, utterly. I wish someday someone comes along who does see me – but more than that, someone who recognizes who I am. Not as a projection of something they like or dislike, not as a comparison to some doll’s face, or model’s, or a robot’s – but me.

Maybe that was what Hollace Emanual was thinking.

Chapter 2 

She saw him descend from the train, and he was everything she had hoped for. He looked like just the man who would write those letters…

She knew she was crazy. She knew she shouldn’t, but she just had to see. So she forced herself to turn and walk away from him, barely glancing at his face. And it was as if every nerve in her body was pulling her towards where he stood.

She did not turn around to see what happened next. She knew, if this world made any sense, any sense at all – then she would see him again, in the restaurant where she had told the old lady to send him. But only if he approached her and introduced himself.

She quickened her steps without realizing, because she couldn’t bear to slow down. If she slowed down, she might change direction – the temptation was too strong.

She sat at the table in a haze, feeling as if she had walked away from everything she wanted. That was the kind of thing she did, a lot. Crazy Hollace, her friends called her. She never wants what other people want.

But she did! And how sorely. She did.

She just—and this was the part that was hard to explain, even to herself – she just wanted it differently. How could she explain herself?

How different would it be, if she had simply walked up to him, and introduced herself: “Yes, it’s me, Hollace Emanuel, the girl who’s been writing to you all along. Nice to meet you, finally.”

There were two things that were wrong about that scenario. Firstly, it was too simple; it went against her nature. Secondly, it reduced her to being just another girl, a face and a name – Hollace, Holly, Molly, Jane – and it would take precedence over all the things that had been shared between them, suddenly. Her face would matter more than the words she had written, the words that had arisen somewhere inside her being. She needed to know that it was the words, not the face – or whatever expectation of it he held in his mind – that drew him to her. She needed it to be just the words.

Crazy Hollace, isn’t that right. I’ll sit here for fifteen more minutes to be sure… but already her heart was sinking.

What man in his right mind would walk up to that old lady?

She let out an involuntary giggle at the thought. But inside her heart was breaking.

Because it was too good to be true. He would never come.

Chapter 3

I find it hard to recognize myself in dreams.

Later, after I wake up and stand at the mirror, I am forced to accept the figure in the dream as a reflection of myself. But when I’m dreaming, I see myself as another girl somewhere, doing this or that. Sometimes I observe the sweet smile on her face, or the fear in her eyes, or something else, but it’s me looking at her – from the outside.

I’ve always been fascinated by heights. I’ll sit on the roof, looking out at all the tops of the houses before me, and behind me and around, and then I’ll think: in each house there are different rooms where different human beings go to sleep every night, just like me. In our sleep, in our dreams, we are no longer a contented housewife, nor a resentful one, nor a maid who cleans the bathrooms every day, nor a child who goes to school in the morning, nor a husband or a grandmother or a…

When we sleep, when we dream – somehow we forget our waking roles. The waking roles get blurred, lose importance – and we’re all equal. And no matter how different that male chauvinistic husband across the street might be from me, or the beggar on the sidewalk, in our sleep, he is the same – same as me. A human, asleep, entering the land of dreams.

We breathe, we sleep, we dream, we shit.

And this is what convinces me that equality is a truth. All the treasures that lie behind the veil of consciousness – somewhere in that subterranean terrain of dreams – God made them available to all. He did not exclude even one person. No thief, murderer, rapist, Britney Spears, disabled person, beggar, or the Queen of England – no one is bereft of it. We all escape to a place where we are free of earthly cares.

We all sleep. We all die.

Chapter 4

There are many possibilities for what could have happened, and they’d all make entertaining stories. The Major, descending the train and noting the ugly old woman, could have run in the other direction. He could have assumed that the rose was a coincidence, refusing to believe that THIS was Hollace Emanuel, waiting for the real Hollace to show up.

Maybe he would’ve wanted to forget his foolishness.

But one possibility. The one in which it struck him – it’s not the form that matters, but the substance; not the vessel, but the quality of what it contains. In this possibility, he looked at the woman, and realized her face didn’t matter- it was the consciousness behind the face. He gave one passing thought to the beautiful woman who had walked past him a few minutes before, and realized her beauty, too, could fade. Is the earth really so much worse than the rose? The rose too withers, and disintegrates, blending into the earth one day.

He walked up to the the ugly old woman in the black coat, and introduced himself. She gave him directions to where Hollace sat, waiting for him.

In the café, Hollace felt a twinge of hope. The young man framed the doorway, and in that moment the sun’s harsh glare turned into a sacred glow. Everything changed.

Chapter 5

I don’t know who I am. Today, I was sitting in the middle of a room full of wives and fiancés, all one half of an important coupling, and I felt… such an imposter. I felt empty.

I don’t usually feel this way. But today, noticing the clichéd yet genuine, radiant smile on my pregnant friend’s face, I felt hollow. Watching another woman fuss with her toddler, I felt hollower still – she might be fat, her figure might be ruined, her face may hold no attraction to the objective eye; but it was the face of someone who belonged to someone else. Someone who knew where she belonged, and with whom; someone who, in other words, knows who she is.

Or so it felt to me, at that moment. For a while, I too wanted to belong. To be valued rather than window shopped – you know what I mean?

I’m the kind of girl men are always window-shopping. The fantasy fuck; the girl you hit on because good taste implies one should, etiquette even. According to this guy I know, I’m everybody’s taste. Like the yummy looking chocolate cake that everyone likes. One may dabble in the chocolate cake but of course, one’s real favourite food is something else; at the end of the day, one buys what is necessary to sustain oneself, and the chocolate cake is simply a good dessert. An after thought. A side meal. Something one has on weekends. Not real food.

That’s how I am. Everybody’s side meal. Everyone’s dessert – that is, when they’re not watching their weight or something.

Amidst all the wives and a few children, I was struck with some realizations. Yes, I may get attention from more men in a day than any woman here…


None of them really wanted me for keeps, to put it bluntly. If the chocolate cake even entertains the thought of being the main meal, you’d probably just laugh at it, right?

Maybe this is why I always eat my dessert first. An old habit. In fact, I mostly just eat dessert, and forego the main course. But for most people, gorging themselves only on chocolate would just make them feel sick. And fat (not everyone has amazing metabolism).

We sat in a V formation. I was the single point at the farthest end; on both sides were women that formed half a part of a couple, and nearest to me sat a girl who was part of a couple, but not married, not truly blessed but not damned either. We attempted conversation, during which some vague urge made me enquire if she knew of a certain person.

She did. Both had attended the same university.

And then she said something like, “Oh, so, when’s he getting married?”

It might have been, “So, is he married?” but I’m not sure because my ears were ringing a little and I was feeling a little sick.

This man had used a word to describe me. It was ‘random’. Usually, I appreciate honesty. That night, I actually cried. You see, something had happened; something, of some sort, had happened. Unexpectedly. Between us.

And. This. Is. What. He. Had. To. Say. About. It.

That it was random.

For once, I had actually wanted not to be chocolate cake. And let me tell you, being chocolate cake is fun. But for once I didn’t want it anymore… I just couldn’t go back to being that flippant. Truth is, no one wants to be chocolate cake all the time. I wanted to be meat and veggies… with chocolate sauce on top.

A time comes when you want all the things everybody else wants. Just like Crazy Hollace. But there are people like the man mentioned above, who never forget to remind you that you are just some silly dessert. When you try to avoid them, they come back again and again, in different forms, with the same words, “you are random… temporary…”. That’s it.

This may be a pointless rant to some. But to all the chocolate cakes out there I want to say,I feel your emptiness. All those extra yummy calories that people salivate for, that haunt men’s consciousness, yet they’re scared of taking more than three bites for fear of weight gain or something. Chocolate cake, the tempting yet fearsome burden of humanity.

I feel your hollowness. At the moment that I smoked my cigarette, thinking this, some guys were hungering for chocolate, but forcing down veggies.

Poor jerks. Hypocrites. They are pathetic, the ones that can’t see beyond surfaces; to whom the taste of something sweet isn’t sacred.

Chapter 6

Why is it that so many people will only consider those things nutritious that taste bad?

Why is it that people are afraid of what’s delicious… afraid of pleasure, of being alive?

Why is it so hard to trust the power pleasure has over one?

The man who told me the story of Hollace Emmanuel was old and alone, but not lonely. He was a man who had lived his life honoring the sacredness of all that’s sweet.

He felt his own story was finished, and it almost convinced me. Then he told me this story. It was his way of telling me that my story hadn’t even begun yet.

So I prefer to rub out the minuscule details of my history, and focus instead on what I’ve imagined must be Hollace Emmanuel’s version.

And… I feel a twinge of hope. In this moment the sun’s harsh glare turns into a sacred glow, and everything changes.



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