While editing older writings, I came across this narrative exercise from my MA coursework. For this assignment we had to take a scenario/vignette and write it in three ways, altering tense and POV in each.
I found that changing focalisations significantly altered the narrative for me, in an invigorating way. The next time you’ve stubbed your head against a writing block, consider switching your POV to one you wouldn’t ordinarily use.
Aunty Usha tells my granny she has seen Parvez kiss Marufah over the fence.
“Ja Haunty, you know, I see them. I see Marufah and that boy. I see her go upstairs to the flat too. It is not good Haunty, it is not good.”
Aunty Usha lives in the garden cottage in the house behind us. She speaks fluent Tamil, wears her false teeth only when eating and swaps most of her A’s for H’s.
Each of her visits to my grandmother is a showcase of arthritis, blood pressure and sugar; they put on their best aches while they swap hospital records and recipes for eucalyptus balms. Until this revelation, with flames licking at its seams, that our 15-year-old-next-door neighbour Marufah, and our twenty-something Pakistani tenant Parvez, are scandalising, by way of Parvez kissing Marufah’s hand, after she’s given him some sort of parcel over the pre-cast fence separating our properties.
And there is also the matter of Marufah gaining entrance to our backyard and going upstairs to the flat Parvez rents from my uncle.
My granny nods, shakes her head, and says, “You know young blood, Aunty, they can do anything.” It is shameful, they all agree, but who will tell Apa Fatima, Marufah’s mother; that formidable force, all hard voice and iron hand? Apa Fatima, who wears her practice of Islam like armour against all that is Western to her mind, whose family eats all their meals seated on the floor, who hosts weekly religious gatherings at her home and who commands the reverence of our community.
For a holy-moly like Marufah, the weight of black-cloaked modesty laid upon her well before she hit puberty, to be getting more action than I could ever write about in my diary, is incredible. And it is unimaginable that she would risk her mother’s wrath by carrying on with a Pakistani man.
But Aunty Usha has seen it, and she has no reason to lie.
After the visit, my granny tells my uncle to have a word with Parvez. No one sees Marufah in our backyard or close to our fence again.
Parvez moves out of the flat a few months after. He tells my uncle he needs a bigger place for when his wife and children arrive from Pakistan.
The man next door
Your mother gives you a Tupperware filled with some of the curry she cooked for supper.
She’s dressed to go out; a long black cloak obliterating her silhouette, her veil perched just above her forehead, ready to drop over her eyes as soon as she’s out the door. She clutches her car keys in one black-gloved hand and holds a thick file in the other. Every Thursday afternoon, she teaches ladies how to wash and prepare bodies for Muslim burial. Your mother tells you to give the curry to Aunty Mabel and to tell her that it is for that Pakistani man next door.
It’s not unusual for your mother to prepare extra meals for others. Beggars who come to your door leave with more than just bread and butter. Your heart is full of love for her and you feel guilty about the the anger you hold just below it. Your mother lives for Allah, and you are still finding your way to Him. You have questions for her but you can’t ask them.
You go out to find Aunty Mabel. She’s worked for your family since before you were born, and is more mother than your own sometimes. You can’t find her and you decide you will give the food to the Pakistani man yourself. You know your mother will be upset if she finds out. She doesn’t approve of you speaking to strange men, even when you are wearing your veil.
You wait just outside your kitchen door. It’s the closest to the gate he uses as an entrance. The wait is not long, you hear his keys. Your veil is in your room and if you go and fetch it, you will miss him. You stand on the flower pot and call out to him with your face exposed. He smiles up at you, a smile that stays in his green eyes. You are suddenly shuffling for words and you tell him that your mother cooked a little extra for him.
His English is just ever so slightly broken. It’s utterly charming. You are charmed. He asks you what your name is. His name is Parvez.
As you pass him the plastic container, your hands brush for a second. The contact is so minimal and yet you flush red. He is still smiling as he walks away.
You hear Aunty Mabel in the kitchen. You rush to tell her that you’ve given the food to Parvez and that she mustn’t tell your mother. Aunty Mabel is so used to indulging you and your siblings, she will lie for you again.
Usha’s sunflowers grew taller than the fence; their faces drooping slightly forward, full and magnificent. She liked to look at them. They reminded her of a time when she and her husband were tall, when they too were something to behold, long before osteoarthritis shrunk her and diabetes claimed his foot. It was during this meditation that she noticed Aunty Hawa’s tenant and the other neighbour’s daughter, Marufah , speaking over the fence.
She knew that those neighbours were very, very strict Muslims. The ones where the women only left their houses covered in those long black dresses and face veils. Not like Aunty Hawa, who was also Muslim but dressed in different colours. Usha knew that Marufah’s mother would not want her speaking to a man she wasn’t related to, especially Aunty Hawa’s handsome young Pakistani tenant. Marufah was laughing and Usha recognised the light in her eyes. The Pakistani had bewitched her.
She saw Marufah extend her hand to the man, who brought it up to his lips. “This is not good,” Usha thought. “Not good at all.” She picked up a broom and knocked it against the fence. She hoped the noise would be loud enough to alert the couple of her presence. It worked. They parted quickly and Usha went back to tending her sunflowers.
It was the next Thursday afternoon and Usha took her crocheting out into the garden. Their cottage didn’t get much natural light and she didn’t want to disturb her napping husband with the fluorescent casting over his bed and her busy needle. Her concentration was broken by the sound of someone climbing the stairs to Aunty Hawa’s tenant’s flat. She looked up, expecting to wave at the Pakistani who always greeted back. She saw Marufah instead, looking like she was concentrating on being invisible.
Usha’s gaze followed Marufah into the flat. “This is bad,” Usha thought. “I must tell Aunty Hawa about this, she won’t want this kind of thing to be carrying on right under her roof.” While the Pakistani was always kind and polite to Usha, she knew they had something of a bad reputation when it came to women. Her own grand-daughter got involved with a foreigner and was now expecting a child. They’d married but Usha was not happy with the union.
With her mind unsettled, Usha looked to her sunflowers.