After the Party

First published in The Ham Free Press

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The lips of the bald man, as he speaks of the “Indians and Pakistanis” he sees at the tennis court, curves into a sly smile. My racism detector picks up the snigger that sneaks through his lament on the status of those work-visa immigrants whose kids get Canadian citizenship by virtue of their birth. After the party, I recall how he tried to herd folks from the subcontinent into “all those IT workers.”

As he keeps probing my husband on his career track, the soft September evening makes me gravitate towards the late-arriving “immigrant.” The Muslim lady from Delhi. We relay hometown bonhomie with hugs and she tells me about her Bengali family — the one from Noakhali she married into. Her geologist husband had shifted base to teach at Aligarh Muslim University. She followed his trail from Delhi to Dubai, where he worked. Later she would migrate to Ontario as a widow with her two children. After the party, I think how, like her husband, she, too learned to measure the worth of soil as she brought up her son and the daughter–now an engineer and a doctor–by cleaning and decorating the finger and toe nails of customers at a salon.

The evening lulls us with its whispers, broken only by the whistle of the kettle the hostess is boiling tea in. Most of the guests have left after ingesting the aromatic lamb curry and saffron rice. We are left, along with the mildly immigrant-allergic man and his wife–beekeepers outside their corporate lives. The over-milked, boiled-to-death tea arrives. The host talks about how the British left behind a legacy of high-tea in the Indian subcontinent. The beekeeper woman shares her knowledge of the same, gleaned off a British historical novel. Her husband asks me and my husband about the type of English we were taught in schools in India. I talk about how it was much different from the American English the internet would later expose me to. After the party, the incredulous, near horrified look on the woman’s face as I told her about a generation of Pakistani writers using the English language with a subcontinental flourish, flashes before me.

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Cottage Trip

It always starts with the kitchen.
Adventure is about burning your finger
on an alien stove. Pulling out
the cabinet doors, prying open
the drawers of catalogued cutlery —
cookmarks of successive lodgers.

Your excitement at the corelle set,
the one identical to yours at home
quickly dissipates. Home away from home
is never home. Pieces of ginger float
in your cottage tea. The view of the lake
Must compensate for the missing strainer.

You carry sacks of rice, vegetables
in brown bags, a half-eaten burrito from
lunch. Tandoori sauce for barbecuing meat.
Salt. Sugar. Oil for cooking.

The lake makes a pilgrim out
of you. Its tranquility
A placid mask for exacting love.

The Bulldozer (short story)

First published in Warscapes

I was sleeping when suddenly it started banging inside my ears, and I jumped up on the bed. As I looked out of the window, I could see the egg-yolk sun in the sky. Just then, Ab came running up to me, grabbed my arm and took me outside. Everything was broken all around us—big chunks of stones and concrete. As I walked out with Ab, I saw Umm standing outside the door. She was crying. Then I saw the fat blue bulldozer walking away—the monster machine that always smashed the walls of our homes.

When I came inside, I couldn’t find Husna on the bed. I dug under the pillow and bed sheet to look for her, but she wasn’t there. When I looked around, I saw everything mixed up on the floor. The calendar, the wall clock, which was broken, my favourite flower vase with Umm’s beautiful flower painting, Ab’s books, his glasses—everything was on the floor. I looked for my doll, but couldn’t see Husna in the mess. The walls were cracked and pieces of them were lying in the mix too.

*          *        *

I ran to Umm in the kitchen. She was boiling water for tea and making toast. I asked her, “Where is Husna? She’s not on the bed.”

“We’ll find her, sweetheart. Where could she go? She must be hiding somewhere in the mess.” Umm said with a smile, but I knew she was sad. The smile didn’t light her whole face like when she was really happy.

“Are we going to a new camp again?” I asked her.

“I guess so.”

“And my birthday? You said we will have a special celebration this time…” My voice cracked a bit as I said this, but Umm came closer to me, held my chin up and said, “That’s not like my Rasha. Of course, we’ll celebrate! We still have a week. Things will be fine, my angel.”

“Why do the bulldozer people break our homes all the time?”

“I wish I knew, Rasha. And I wish they knew themselves.”

I feel scared when Umm talks like that, when she doesn’t give me a straight answer and looks all so glum. So I asked her an easier question.

“When are we going to the camp?”

“Let’s see. Marouf uncle will come with some of his friends and tell us. Come, let’s eat something now. Would you go and call your Ab?”

So I ran back, then crossed the messy room on tip toes and walked out. There, Ab sat over some piled up concrete. He was holding his head in his hands. I went over to him, but his face was down, so he couldn’t see me.

“Ab,” I say, not too loud, “Come, Umm is calling you for breakfast.”

Ab looked up and held my hand. He squeezed them real tight. I found it funny that his palms were wet. I told him about Husna. He didn’t say anything, but hugged me to his chest. Then he got up, still holding my hand, and we walked back toward our home. Just before entering, I saw Husna’s head near the broken door. I quickly picked it up and started to look for her body, but couldn’t find it anywhere. I felt so terrible that I wanted to cry, but looking at Ab, I didn’t. He let out a big, deep breath.

At breakfast, all three of us were quiet. Just like we are every time the bulldozer people come and blow up our homes. Umm and Ab looked at each other a few times, then Ab turned his face away and looked out of the door.

Soon, Marouf uncle and his friends came over. Ab went out with them, and they all sat down on small stools Umm placed for them. I looked from the door—the faces of all the uncles were so sad, even though they never lost a doll like I did.

*          *        *

The new camp is so crowded. We now have just one small room in which we eat, sleep, do school work, and it’s the same room in which Umm has to cook too. And the stink from the open drains makes me feel sick in the stomach. There are no olive trees around either, and I miss those too.

It’s a new day, and Ab walks me to school. On our way, he stops before another crumbled building. That’s the hospital where he works. All the doctor uncles are his friends and give him medicines for free. I would be happier if they gave him ghraybehs instead, although I know nobody can make better ghraybehs than Umm.

Ab studied math at school and says he does counting work at the hospital, so they call him the accountant there. I count pretty well too, but the hospital won’t have kids as staff.

He looks at the broken hospital building quietly for some time and then turns away and slaps his forehead. I hold his hand, and when he turns around to look at me, I see tears falling on his blue shirt. The first time ever I see my Ab crying—I am so very scared.

I came back from school early—they let us leave because there were so few children today. Teacher Nabeeha dropped me and a few other girls back home. She is my favourite teacher, and I am happy she is also living in the new camp with us.

Just when I reach the door, I can hear Umm and Ab talking. Umm’s hand is over Ab’s shoulder and she says, “Don’t worry, Raed. It’s all God’s will. Insha’Allah, you will find work soon.”

“I guess God would want to employ us in his heaven only now. I don’t see any hope in this dark land.”

“Don’t say that, Raed. Look at our Rasha. Just a child. Is ten even an age to see all this? Yet she smiles, plays with her broken doll.”

I can tell Umm is going to cry any time now. Just then I think of my birthday and feel real sad. I guess we won’t have a party this year too. Last year I had fever so we couldn’t call my friends to play and sing songs. Umm had baked a yummy cake, though, and she also made such fantastic chicken fatteh and cream pudding that Ab and I were licking our fingers like we had never eaten food before.

I feel bad thinking about my birthday when Umm and Ab are so worried…

At dinner, Umm smiles and tells me, “You know what? Daddy has decided to come with a grand surprise on your birthday. And the best dress you’ve ever seen–a shawal at that. With embroidery as heavy as my lady has never seen. How is that?”

Shawal! I flash what Ab calls my “million candles smile” and hug him. He smiles and pats me on the back. He doesn’t say anything though.

I think of the new shawal as long as I am awake that night.

*          *        *

Ab has been gone for two days now—to get my new dress. I feel worried he’s taking so long to come back. It’s only to the next town he has gone. I ask Umm about him, she says, he would be back soon. But I know she’s just trying to make me feel good. Her eyes tell me she is searching for something real hard. She doesn’t tell me this, but I know it’s Ab she is looking for.

It’s my birthday today. Umm wakes me up with a kiss on my forehead. I smile to her, rub my eyes, yawn a bit, then stretch myself and get up. Umm asks me to close my eyes. Then she places something soft in my hands. When I open my eyes, I see a new doll! It’s a cloth one; she wears a pink frock with blue satin laces. So beautiful!

When did Umm make that? I never got to know even. I name her Falak and ask Umm if I can carry my new baby to school. Umm smiles and nods her head.

I walk back from school with my friend Diab and her Umm. On our way back, I only think of Ab and my new shawal. All my friends would come to our room for dinner tonight. Oh, can I wait that long?

But when I reach home, Ab still hasn’t come back. Umm is really worried and is crying. Hana aunty, our neighbor, holds her and says everything will be fine, Insha’Allah. She then gives food to Umm and me, but Umm only nibbles at the bread and keeps looking out of the door. I don’t feel like eating.

Just as we are about to finish lunch, I see Marouf uncle on the door. He has a few more people with him. I can see a big box. Marouf uncle has big strong hands–he is a porter and hauls heavy things every day. But I never thought one day he would carry a box with my Ab sleeping inside it.

Marouf uncle looks at Umm and asks her to come out. Umm scurries out, and I leave my plate to wash my hands. Then I run outside. I see Umm sitting on the ground, her head on the box. It’s a coffin, I now see. Umm is crying so loud and hard, it scares me, and I start sobbing too. I sit down next to her and ask her, “What happened? Why are you crying? Where is Ab?”

Umm holds me tight, and says, “He’s gone to God’s house, sweetheart…”

I know what that means. It means now Ab will never come back…ever. I never thought this was the surprise Ab was planning for me.

Marouf uncle tells Umm that Ab was returning with my shawal, when the police held him at the checkpoint. They asked for his ID card, and while he was still searching it in his pocket, one of them just took out a gun and…

Marrying the Road

First published in DNA

One of my favourite Salil Chowdhury songs opens with the idea of submitting oneself to the call of the road. “Straight paths have riddled me long enough,” it says, as the singer pledges to embark on a journey only so he can lose his way. This isn’t a drifter’s falling off course or a wanderer’s aimless straying; this is a conscious commitment – to be led by the road, pregnant as it is with possibilities, stories and intuitive wisdom. Often, the outcome of such journeys is transformative, and the evolution of the itinerant as continuous as the curves on the road.

One person’s journey is always his own – it can never be transposed to another’s experience or interpretation even if the path travelled on is the same. What is the point of recording such trips then? In reading The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara and On the Road by Jack Kerouac – two quintessential road trip books – I found the answer to that question to be more quizzical than evident. These are two very different journeys taken across different geographical locations in America, with different motives and sensibilities. As a reader, while I vicariously ventured on the trips outlined by the protagonists of these books, the real affection happened not with the travels themselves but with what they revealed. These were not acts of heroism (as Guevara would make clear at the very outset of his account) but almost the opposite – of allowing oneself to be vulnerable even when logic dictated otherwise.

In The Motorcycle Diaries, two friends in their early twenties take up an ambitious voyage across South America, an endeavour that would take them nine months to complete. Guevara, 23 years old at the start of the journey, wasn’t yet the firebrand revolutionary he would later become. He was, rather, an asthmatic medical student, who along with his friend, Alberto Granado, set out to explore the Latin American universe aboard a rickety Norton 500 motorcycle. It would be a difficult journey for the body and the soul; one that would test the narrator’s ability to maintain his poise when the going became treacherous.

In nine months of a man’s life he can think a lot of things, from the loftiest meditations on philosophy to the most desperate longing for a bowl of soup — in total accord with the state of his stomach. And if, at the same time, he’s somewhat of an adventurer, he might live through episodes. [The Motorcycle Diaries, Ernesto Che Guevara]

Sal Paradise, the protagonist of On the Road is also on a coast-to-coast road trip – across the United States of America. At different points during this epic journey he is joined by varying sets of people – friends and strangers and strangers who turn into friends, even if ephemerally. As I read through the pages of Paradise’s peregrine undertakings, based on Kerouac’s own adventures with Neal Cassady, a prominent Beat figure, I was struck by restlessness of spirit that the prose remarkably renders. True, Sal Paradise is on the road a lot of the time. Yet his journey begins not on the road; nor would it end once he had “arrived.” It starts and continues inside him.

If anything, both these testaments of passage are a rebellion against arriving. The exploration is as much within oneself as it is external. The idea is to find oneself by becoming one of the “many.” In The Motorcycle Diaries, as Guevara and Granado travel farther and deeper, they have a close brush with the lives of the poor and exploited. This becomes possible because of the tramp-like nature of their journey as their bike breathes its last in Chile. As they hitchhike their way through the Latin American landscape, a lot of times aboard trucks laden with indigenous people, Guevara realises the tremendous humiliation meted out to poor people across the continent—whether it be the persecution of a mining couple in Chile for the man’s “communist” leanings, or the abject conditions to which Peru’s native mountain tribes are subjected, or the sordid state of leprosy patients they visit at the San Pablo leper colony in Peru.

And because these are not sanitised, package-deal, calendar-carved travels, they record details with an impressionistic astuteness a tourist will most likely miss or decide to forget.

The floors of bus stations are the same all over the country, always covered with butts and spit and they give a feeling of sadness that only bus stations have. [On the Road, Jack Kerouac]

Even as I write this essay, I see the evening deepening, drawing dusk closer to its bosom. The summer, which came after an excruciatingly long winter, seems eager to move on already, making way for the fall. Both Guevara and Paradise are this summer – mercurial and anxious, hungry for tasting life in every possible way. For Sal Paradise, this search extends to testing his limits with drugs, sex, and psychedelic experiences. The goal is to taste and live freedom in its truest sense and the path to that goal is nonconformity and free-flowing.

“Dean and I are embarked on a tremendous season together. We’re trying to communicate with absolute honesty and absolute completeness everything on our minds. We’ve had to take benzedrine. We sit on the bed, crosslegged, facing each other.” [On the Road, Jack Kerouac]

Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries and Paradise in On the Road are deliberate anti-heroes, choosing to be in situations that will force them to share their time and space with other ordinary folks – farmers and hobos, labourers and slum dwellers. The tragicomedy of this is sometimes of Chaplinesque proportions. And like the indefatigable tramp himself, these two road rovers don’t care two hoots about that. Quite remarkably, in fact, they seem to take pride in landing themselves in situations most people would take care to avoid. And it is in these comical scenarios that the ordinary is elevated to extraordinary, the hobo to a hero, the hapless motorcycle rider to a weather-beaten survivor.

Alberto, unmovable, was resisting the morning sun’s attempt to disturb his deep sleep, while I dressed slowly, a task we didn’t find particularly difficult because the difference between our night wear and day wear was made up, generally, of shoes. [The Motorcycle Diaries, Ernesto Che Guevara]

If the life-is-a-search metaphor sparks off Guevara’s and Paradise’s motivation, the road must surely be their pilgrimage and destination rolled into one. In investigating the road’s possibilities and by digging into its stories, they impregnate her with yet more prospects and their own tales. Tales of not being deceived by the straight path.

Rain

When wetness changes form,
it becomes Bhairavi; its
fragility relative.

Rain is a distraction,
sly but welcome. It hoards
sadnesses and spits out promises.

Distance reduces vision.
Water is its
own biggest burden.

Bhairavi keeps us
afloat — its illusion
slicker than crystal rain.

Book review: The Historian’s Daughter by Rashida Murphy

First published in Cafe Dissensus

Title: The Historian’s Daughter
Author: Rashida Murphy
Publisher: UWA Publishing, 2016

The Historian’s Daughter could well have been titled The House of Secrets. Isn’t that what a “house with too many windows and women” is likely to be? The historian in question is the father of Hannah, the novel’s secret-digging young protagonist. Throughout the first-person narrative, she refers to her father as the Historian because of his real-life profession and her mother as the Magician due to her spell-inducing sweetness. Why then isn’t the book called The Magician’s Daughter? That’s a secret Hannah must accidentally come upon, and one that her creator Rashida Murphy guards with skilled control as she takes the reader on a voyage spanning familial and political upheavals and migrations across continents and personal mind maps.

Hannah’s fetish for secret busting is a natural function of her environment. History is the kernel wrapped in its homonym cousin – mystery. Both mystery and history flow freely in Hannah’s house in the hills, which she shares with her parents, older sister Gloria, brothers, Warren and Clive and her numerous aunts who come visiting and stay put for extended periods of time. Her historian father’s library – one he has inherited from his “despicable” British father – is the first depository that would trigger, and in time train, her sleuthing skills. A series of books on the English “conquistadors” of India sets her off on her quest to understating and even confronting the past, however unsettling.

The dramas and dark corners of family life dominate the early part of Hannah’s – and the book’s – world. While she’s happy to be under Gloria’s elder-sisterly wings and bask in the Magician’s affection, what makes her recoil at the sight of her father is a muddied phantasm the reader must, like Hannah, uncover in layers. This is also the part of the novel that brims with Persian fragrances – black tea with mint and carrot halwa; and with fables – of heroes Rustom and Sohrab, which the Magician reads to her daughters and of Rani, a less-than-heroic aunt dubbed crazy and living practically under house arrest.

The dynamics of this universe of chaotic delight changes forever when Sohrab, an Iranian young man – enters the scene. An acquaintance of Farah, the Magician, Sohrab bears about him an uneasy wind – that of the turmoil sweeping through Iran during the period of the country’s revolution in the late 1970s.

As with seeds that winds disperse all over the place, the lives of Hannah and her family get scattered, and Hannah finds herself in Australia as an immigrant. Transplanted without the nourishing support of her mother or sister, it is in Perth that Hannah has to find her own bearings. This is also where she finds love as well as a reason to return to the continent she came from – first in Iran in search of her sister, then in India to look for the Magician. Through it all, she must not only witness but also endure – hardship and the excesses of revolutions; cruel family secrets and the maturing of love, loveless hearts and an infant’s unbridled affection. The story in this part oscillates between physical and mental spaces as Hannah negotiates the distance between her present and her memories. The narrative feels somewhat jerky at times, perhaps not too different from the rugged emotional terrain Hannah herself treads through.

Through it all, Hannah also finds her own voice as a woman – one that’s not shaped or seasoned by the stronger women of her childhood. She’s funny and sharp, confident, and vulnerable – a mass of real flesh and blood. She is bold but her courage isn’t about an absence of fear. It is about running with – not away from – fear. She’s impulsive and a passionate lover, but most of all, she’s a baton-bearer of the two women who she first learned to love from – her mother and sister. This is what makes The Historian’s Daughter a remarkably feminist novel in the garb of a family saga. Rashida Murphy is clear about fashioning it so, whether it is by making Gloria prevent Hannah’s genital mutilation by their aunt; the girls’ mother staging her own silent rebellion; or Hannah’s firmness in chasing her convictions, regardless of self-doubt and social pressure. These are strong women who aren’t afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses. 

The Historian’s Daughter engages as much with its plot twists as with its honesty and narrative sweep. The language is crisp, the imagery vibrant, and the plotlines stable trellises for the vines they support. This is Murphy’s first book and, for me, a wellspring of promise and anticipation. The malleability with which her love of history, research, politics, and storytelling meld into a whole makes her a writer to look forward to.

Patch of sky for hopes to fly

First published in DNA.

While in middle school, my brother and I would often press our grandmother to tell us a story. Not any story, but a particular one from One Thousand and One Nights. I don’t remember the details, except it was about a clever royal minister. But it wasn’t really the content that pulled us back to this tale; it was the way our grandma narrated it — modulating her voice, colouring the details with her facial expressions. This is the essence of oral storytelling — the capturing and relaying of characters, places, scenes through the unique lens and voice of each individual storyteller. Given how difficult it is to transfer the drama and verve of the spoken tradition to print, the authors of Speak Bird, Speak Again— a collection of Palestinian folktales — have done a worthy job of conveying that flavour.

In the late 1970s, two Palestinian scholars, Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana, set out to collect Arab folktales from Galilee, Gaza and the West Bank. Their search resulted in the book comprising 45 such tales. The storytellers were mostly women. “The most common setting for taletelling was the small family gathering, consisting of two or three mothers from a single extended family and their children…” The stories were usually told after supper during long winter evenings when field work was at its minimum and folks liked to huddle indoors. To make the story — usually fantastical — more accessible, the teller would often compare characters from a story to someone in the neigbhourhood.

The community, then, is the natural pivot around which these entertaining stories turn, and sometimes twist. Of course, imaginary flourish abounds in the tales, but never without the context of one’s immediate bearings. And cultural parallels with our own South Asian community life are striking. There are wedding processions in which the couple’s relatives and friends dress in finery and sing and dance in the street. There is even the practice of a girl choosing her mate by throwing an apple or handkerchief over his head that is derived from the Indian tradition of swayamvara.

Neighbours know each other for generations and come together to celebrate and grieve as well as to borrow and lend items of utility for hosting guests. “Because they were inviting the vizier, they borrowed a mattress from one neighbour, a cushion from another, and plates and cutlery from others.” Sounds similar to our neighbour lady knocking on our door when she ran out of sugar or me knocking on hers to borrow some ice, for we had no fridge.

Food, of course, is at the centre of this hospitality. Cabbage rolls stuffed with minced lamb, ghee, rice and spices; the simple fare of leavened bread, yogurt, olives and fresh vegetables; Palestine’s national dish, za’tar — a condiment made by grinding together herbs, roasted wheat and garbanzo beans; or the poor farmer’s lentil soup add as much zest to the region’s folktales as they did to its primarily agrarian society. In the story, Sahin — a vizier’s clever daughter — steals food — roasted rabbits, partridges, gazelles — prepared by a young man from right under his nose to share with her girlfriends day after day, leaving his hardworking brothers to manage their supper cooked with leftover ingredients.

That the creators of these tales weren’t shy of introducing atypical female characters have made the stories lively and real. Despite the region’s deeply-entrenched patriarchal system, we meet the clever daughter of the vizier in Sahin and in Soqak Boqak, a king’s wife who mounts a horse as she goes in search of a bride who fits her son’s choice and description. There are angelic women — indulgent mothers and motherly sisters, loving wives and affectionate daughters — and there are regular, everyday women — possessive mothers and jealous sisters, selfish wives and cunning daughters.

“Now, the daughter of the minister was something of a devil. She asked her father, if anyone should come asking for her hand, not to give his consent before letting her know.” [Sahin]

In these stories from Palestine, the clever and the beautiful, the devilish and the pitiable merrily join the supernatural — jinns, ghouls, and residents of the netherworld. The resulting whirl sweeps the listener/reader to a realm suspended between what is and what-you-wish-could or would-not, be. Seemingly magical, which by implication is unreal, this dimension subtly shines a light on the underdog and even breaks stereotypes. Half-a-halfling, the crippled son of a king, despite being ridiculed and humiliated all his life, comes out a winner in the end because of his intelligence and compassion. And ghouls and ghoules, who appear (and disappear) constantly, aren’t always ghoulish in their deportment — depending on how one treats them, they can be benevolent or beastly.

In The Green Bird, my favourite story of the collection and the one from which the book derives its title, the love of a sister for her brother is amplified by the poignancy of the brother’s death at the hands of their stepmother and the sister burying his bones, which help him turn into a bird who reveals to the world the stepmother’s atrocities and delivers justice in the end.

Everyday occurrences in the world we inhabit are sometimes more bizarre than what a fabulist can ever spin into a story, and the implicit allegory of these Palestinian folktales can’t be overlooked. In a recent episode of container politics, the leader of a political party in Pakistan and his followers protested against the current regime from a “container” — a luxury bomb and bullet-proof truck furnished with beds, washrooms and air-conditioners.

When I read a report about the container being fired upon, I recalled a scene from Half-a-Halfling. In the scene, the crippled young hero is on a mission to defeat a ghoule. Given how greedy the latter is, he approaches her with a huge box filled with halvah. She asks him the price of the dessert and keeps buying and eating it, unable to satiate her appetite. That’s when Half-a-Halfling suggests she get inside the box so she could have the whole container to herself. The ghoule’s greed precludes her from understanding the risk associated with this, and she jumps inside the box. As she busies herself with devouring the rest of the halvah, Half-a-Halfling brings her to his village and tells the villagers to alight the box. Greed, thus, costs the ghoule her life.

Screens and gizmos of varied shapes and colours have now replaced the playground in many developed and developing countries. Folktales and their telling might appear obsolete. Or maybe not. A friend told me how, on a recent trip to Latin America, her five-year-old daughter was shocked to discover that a girl younger than her had no playroom with toys stacked up to the ceiling. “That’s all they have,” my friend told her when they visited the other girl’s jammed-but-toy-less two-room house, packing eight family members.

For many Palestinian children, a proper house — even a crammed two-room one — could be a luxury. Listening to stories — with fantastical twists and happy culminations — might be the only sky on which their hopes can fly.

Image source: Wiki