Reflections on my afternoon.

Not much.

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Daffodils.

I wish I could go down sometime, have a look at those daffodils from up close, she would often say on Sundays whilst parting the curtains in her tender, husky voice and then turn back to look at me if I were listening or not. If she found me awake, she would pass a smile and wait for me to speak something. Mostly, it was an Ahan that followed. At others, we will, my dear.

Sometimes, when I look back at those moments now, I am appalled at how often she had repeated those sentences, and how oblivious I had been to the pain that those few words spoke off. Over the years, the number of regrets that I have added to my tally, as every grown up does perhaps, or at least the ones I have met, it stands amongst the top of them.

She had taste, you could tell it. The day I brought her bought on the back of a modest Barrat, her not so modest dowry had already reached my place in the evening. And to our surprise, apart from the beds, and the sofas, and the TV, and the fridges, she had actually brought a couple of cupboards along with her, filled with books from around the around, some of the books that I had always thought of reading but never found time, some whose Authors’ names’ I couldn’t even pronounce, and some that if found within the confines of my sister’s bedroom would elicit a commotion at my house.

I had never seen Amma and Abba that happy except for during those days. Eldest child, a son that and one who has reasonably succeeded in his life will always bring pride to their parents in my family. Add to that, they now had a daughter in law that was a lady doctor. From the time, I was betrothed to Wafa, to the time we were married, their happiness bore no bounds. Wherever they went, they would tell about the sacrifices they made, the hard work I did, and how beautiful and how educated Wafa was.

Two weeks post marriage suddenly one morning, after the ceremonies, and the happiness had been sapped, partly out of routine, and partly because eventually, everything goes old, and even happiness has its tenure, Wafa asked me if I could drop her to hospital on my way to office. I squinted at her in surprise and then asked her did she not know that the women at our place do not go out unless it’s absolutely necessary? Besides, I earn. Why does she even need to do a job in the first place?

But before you go on to judge me as a male chauvinist pig, I will like to present my case. I had never seen any girl in my family to go to work. It was considered immoral for a woman to go out and find work when her male relatives could provide for her. And even if they couldn’t, the community made sure that the women stayed at home while every effort was made to assist them.

But I really didn’t dislike Wafa asking me to drop at the hospital. I thought it was fine, and if were within my means, I must have done that. Now, between what I like, and what I can do, there is a big chasm. And it was here too. Should I let Wafa work, it will be like waging war against the whole family, including the dearest Amma. Could I do that? I am sure the more principled ones amongst you will say, yes you could have. But I wish life were as simple as the guiding principles.

Eventually, it turned out to be a protracted battle. Wafa didn’t stop from going to hospital even when I had asked her to do so politely. From the random family get togethers, to the more discreet arguments with parents, I was always either mocked or told to have control over my wife. I will not claim that I am a coward, but well, I ain’t a hero either.

I dropped Wafa to her parents place a week later. I believe she was happy to see me outside the hospital waiting for her. To be frank, I was equally happy to be there. But over the years, I had realized how ephemeral happiness is, compared how persistent real life is. So before she could ask me where we headed I told her to think about what did she really want, her marriage or her job. And I will like to have her think about it at her place with her parents.

A day later, Wafa’s mom called to inform me that Wafa is pregnant. I was ecstatic. I left office at once for Wafa’s place, and brought her home that evening. Needless to say, Amma and Abba were thrilled. Everyone seemed to have forgotten everything. Amma couldn’t stop smiling, and nor could stop telling me which fruits to bring tomorrow, what diet Wafa must take, and what doctors are the best. I can safely say that I felt a little jealous of Wafa.

Dua was born after a normal delivery. Abba wanted me to choose a name for her, and so I did. It just rhymed you know. Wafa, and Dua. Dua, and Wafa. I had never been that happy in my life. Dua, the tiny little angel she was, almost felt like dissolving in my arms. And what of Amma and Abba. I guess they perhaps forgot that I and Wafa even existed. I can never forget how Amma had Dua in her arms the whole day once she was out of nursery. Her arms around Dua in the most tender embrace, while Abba looked and constantly advised how to not to hold her, to be careful, and to not to kiss her every once in a while lest she wakes up.

Wafa left medicine to take care of Dua full time, partly because she really thought it was necessary, and partly because she didn’t want to pick up a fight again because of Dua. I think it was an extraordinary sacrifice on part of her. She had left her career for us, for me and Dua. Or perhaps, I am giving myself some privilege here that I don’t really deserve. But anyway.

Three years later, the tiny little angel with dark brown hair, and white rosy cheeks was ready to go to school. I will be honest with you. For the last three years, I and Wafa had planned every single day about this day, about her uniform, about her books, and about all the random things that you will find any of the parents doing. And finally, when we had nailed down a school, and taken an appointment, and done away with all the formalities, I went over to tell Abba and Amma to tell about it, and well, they didn’t really like it. Well, not like it will be an underestimation of what happened. In any case, the result of it was that Dua was to go to seminary-like school to properly learn religion before she grows up to attend a proper school. It was part of her good upbringing.

Wafa didn’t like that, of course. But that would be too light a comment of what transpired after that episode. Wafa ended up going to her parents’ place for probably two months if I remember correctly. Abba and Amma refused to relent between all this time. As for Wafa, I didn’t expect her either. As for me, I don’t remember what I wanted. It is only now that I am writing this that I realize what I could have done to have a little less regrets, and a bit more happiness.

Dua was finally admitted to the school suggested by my parents. Or perhaps ordered by my parents. Wafa, for all her courage seemed to me a broken being now whenever I looked at her. In all these years, even before Dua came of an age to start attending school, it had become particularly difficult for her to go out even for the minutest chores because of the increased religiosity of my parents and family. And then between all of those days came, ‘I wish I could go down sometime, have a look at those daffodils from up close’, every Sunday when I was home, and kept on coming until the Sunday she left a piece of paper that read, ‘Dua will learn to love you, I promise you that’ in her immaculate handwriting.

Sixteen years since, and I have not heard a word from them two. Dua and Wafa. I can tell you one thing, whenever I think of those two names, or speak of them; a smile comes to my lips inadvertently, always. ­I don’t think I am angry with Wafa at what she did. In fact to be frank, I am a little proud at what she did. She had the glimpses of Ayesha, that wonderful wife of Prophet PBUH, who took on the mighty Ali. Wafa took on a lot of people, me, my family, her family, and did what was right, what was principled, the way she grew up, or the way we wanted Dua to grow up. I miss them, and I don’t think you will understand what is to miss the laughter of your child of only three, for sixteen years and perhaps even longer. But the daffodils still bloom, and I hope they come back, that we go out and sit back, by those daffodils, listening to those sixteen years, lost.

 

 

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Mall Road.

Tempted, I listen to her. The voice is shrill, coming from a sore throat. And then occasionally she coughs. Constrained, I wish I could hand her a glass of water. But only then, she inquires about my name. I feel a certain kind of hesitation, not of the type that springs when a stranger asks you your name. I fear her stories, and perhaps, if she knows some of mine too. Those I have firmly buried, coming alive, again. Lost, she asks. I reply back with my name, stammering, still perturbed.

Offering a hand, she asks me to take the turn. The famous turn across the Office of Post Master General besides Nasir Bagh in Lahore and there in front of me lies Zam-zama, the gun that most like me grew up staring from our bikes and cars and bicycles and walking. I only came to know of the name through Ondatjee’s The English Patient. When I tell her that, she feigns she is angry. Chides, she. And I stare at the pigeons around that left over from the Colonial era, indifferently. Go, have a look, she orders. For once in life, I want to keep a dream, a dream. I decline, politely telling her that its going to stay, some other time, perhaps.

A discontented smile appears on her lips as she prods me to walk forward. By now she has started humming something. I fail to decipher the language. This time I anticipate a hit on the knuckles so I prefer not to ask her to explain. Instead I like an excited child, in his naivety, who tries to explain an elder the already explained point toward the Oriental College and NCA. I see a glitter in her eyes. I suspect she is falling in love with me. Museum, dearest, you forgot, she speaks in earnest dashing my fears (hopes?). And then adds, with a sigh, you forget history, always.

………………………..

We don’t know when she were born. But we do know she were named twice. Today they call her the Shahrah e Quaid e Azam. And as is with names always, if they come to stay for long, they stay forever. And thus Mall Road remains the name that holds memories. For her, for us. I ask her if she felt offended when they changed her name. She passes a wry smile. I keep silence, an intimidating one. Her expressions plead me to speak. I refuse. Come up with a reply, I only whisper to myself. The pain that is hers, and I feel content. Finally, she musters an I-don’t-know.

…………………………..

As we cross the Anarkali, she invites me to have Falooda, or milk that has noodles in it. Milk and noodles, I look at her with disgust. She laughs a little and then pushes me to walk. I try not to resist, and succeed. Suddenly, for some reason, I don’t want her to end, to die, to finish, or just to get lost in another road. I think I am going to end up liking her, the way you love. Haha. Reminds me of the fairy tale where an angel falls in love with a human. A man with a road.

For some reason, she suddenly starts to walk quickly. I find it difficult to keep pace with her. Panting, I ask her to slow down. She looks at me, without emotions, doesn’t reply and continues to walk. Stuck in an uneven relationship, I despise her domination. Wait, I will strike too, the sadist in me whispers. And the moment we cross National Bank of Pakistan, her quick steps reduce to almost nothing. I take a deep sigh, a sigh of relief. The steps finally end at a another crossroad, a Chowk, a place where four roads give way to one another.

I am horrified by the traffic on this Chowk. When I tell her that, she comes up with a devilish smile. Even before she parts her lips, I am terrified of what may come next. And she doesn’t fail to disappoint. Go sit down between the chowk, and fold your legs in a chowkri, a local way to squat. Staring at her, I utter in a revolt like fashion, Bhainchod, yeh kiya mazaq hay? And in the next moment, I realize what I had done. But even before I can utter an apology, as if anticipating it, she puts to me, ‘Aesay thori naa kehtay hain.’ In that moment, I realize even a road can be incredibly cute. I suddenly feel like those characters from innumerable Urdu novels that trace ephemeral love stories born on the Mall Road. And that eventually die there.

And the next moment, she grabs me by the arm, and takes me, running, jumping, laughing amongst the honking cars and richshaws and buses and motorcycles, to the middle of the Chowk, her hair flying and untied make me wish I were an Urdu poet, or at least knew one’s lines. She sits first and then pulls me beside her. That, my dear is the Lahore High Court, she points toward an architecture made of red bricks and above which a green and white flag stands still. And then tears swell in her eyes. I scour my pockets for the tissue papers that I never forget. And I finally cling to one. When I try to hand it over, she scoffs and then asks to bring some salt instead. I stare. My jaws ajar. Coughing, she speaks. Tear gas, my dearest and memories, but more of tear gas, that brings these tears.

Adorable, she. I wonder about her, the time she has spent here, filling, tormenting herself with stories that she can’t forget, not pass, not smile at, not hold, and yet has to carry, to generations, after generations. She smells of something bitter, and dark and yet incredibly beautiful. Only when you forgive her, like the people of this land, for being what they are, and entirely not responsible for that, you can savour her. Perhaps like that ‘Khata Kinno‘ , that you can’t just put away for a sweeter one.

I walk toward her as the sun shines down on us. The skin of her, the only thing I can make up from behind, glowing in its reflection. Reaching from behind, her hands slip into my embrace. As if waiting since forever. Ice-cream, before I can explain, she points toward Chaman, . I almost laugh, and she leads me to the footsteps brimming with people. Some selling, some buying, and even more just looking on, from shoes, to wallets to belts, and then children here and there. You can even find cannabis, and a random eunuch for nocturnal entertainment.

This, dear is where I sit so often to sketch stories, and hopes, and wishes.  Small ones, big ones, and the surreal ones. Some of them choose to promise themselves a new pair of Bata boots next Eid, others from Servis, some promise themselves a couple of ice-cream scoops next month, and still others, another night to survive.  Just survive. Without Chaman, without Bata, without three piece suits, without cars, without motorcycles and without hope. Except to come again here the following night, to go back, to survive, and to come back again.

Her voice, filled with rage, chokes in the end, and she asks me to walk with her. Amazing that, she never grows old. I tell her, I am not the same as I was at the Anarkali. Or even at Nasir Bagh. I am old. I am grey-ing. I tell her in earnest. You are mortal, she speaks enraged and I have to carry the burden of history. Can’t delete, can’t relieve. Can’t die. Can’t flee. Her chorus, and her anger pushes me to drag myself. And then I ask myself, an endless journey this? The end is nigh, the end must come, I console myself. Her tales bore me. And her unending pain scares me. But every road ends, at one point or another. To another road, with another history. With other tales, with other aches.

Its interesting when you realize that the Provincial Assembly, the Alhamra, and the Governor House lie just beside each other, she speaks. On one side, they played a charade through ballot, and on another, through the strings of ‘baray abbu‘. A term she subsequently explains for the one who sits in Islamabad and appoints the Governor. Does it surprise you that the Governor House was built by a pahelwan, a wrestler, she winks, her rage vanished and replaced by a mood that borders on mischievousness. And in the middle of them lies Alhamra, the so called bastion of performing arts. Irony, she laughs to herself. And I laugh at her. Fairy tale.

The sun is now at our backs, slowly dying. And we feel a bit of it. But only once or twice. Because for the rest, the side way trees provide a luxurious comfort to talk, and to muse. Approaching the Nehar, canal, made immortal by Noor Jehan’s ‘Sanu nehar walay pul tay bula k…‘, I have a sudden craving for water-melons. Dipped into the cold running water of Nehar, one adorned with the saliva and piss and ecstasy of a jump during a burning June afternoon, they are sweetened by the ephemeral happiness of an overburdened life. Cut them through, take a bite, and with it, a taste of these lives.

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Lahore, I miss you.

She has a voice that’s husky, and she dons a dress that’s called morning. Her throat seems to be blocked, and her fabric ruffled by the unending honks of traffic, everyone in a hurry, the kids for school, the adults for offices, and then randomly a protocol for someone who is a VVIP, and everything comes to a lull in awe. And while cars pass in a hurry, those standing, waiting, are lost in a paradox, from their kids who sit on the motorcycle fuel tanks they demand the same reverence, and for those adults standing beside them, with their own kids on their motorcycles, they exchange glances that speak in equal contempt for the protocol.  At times, one of them loses his patience, and the vernaculars in Punjabi start flying around. And then the traffic police removes the blockade, and the dreams and the contempt die somewhere only to come again, some other time, at another Chowk.

That though remains insignificant, because the Mall Road, she remains the same everyday. Holding, and very proud of its immaculate carpeted road, the buildings of the colonial past, the red brick-ed, the GPO, the High Court, the NCA and the Oriental College. Between all of them, it holds that elongated nozzle, the gun Zam-zama that weighs tons, and stands on a two wooden wheels, around which pigeons gather in the morning and are unruffled by the passing traffic that is always late for work. Someone once asked her, what does she make of a gun and pigeons, holding together? And she answered, I have bigger regrets, no body never comes to look at me, neither the adults, nor the kids, who grow into adults.

But mornings in Lahore are not only about the work, the guns, the kids and schools, but about the food too, and probably the most, the juicy, the desi-ghee dripping Halwa Poori, the poori light as a balloon, halwa sweet as the honey, the fried Nihari, the Murgh Chanay and the Sri Pai. It’s about those bulging stomachs that fail even to hide in those white crisp Kurta Shalwars. If you have the will, go close, and listen to that contented burp. And even fart. After which everyone laughs, and the life goes on.

But before all of that, a ball is bowled at the outskirts of Lahore where exists a Badshahi Mosque beside a Minar e Pakistan, and beneath them the ground that holds for itself the name Minto Park, the place where it all started, or so the story books say, and between those fast balls, super heroes are born, some amongst whom rule the world, and others end up driving that same motorcycle , lost in the horde.

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But still its a car. Like PIA, still has the planes.

It’s a new day, he must console himself. And a better one. Now when getting up, this is not a bed, he whispers to himself. No, it is not. It is the same plastic molded horse that he used to ride upon when he was a kid. And these are not the hair on his chest, but the sharp yet soft fur of the blanket that his father had brought him during those killing winters. When was that? Forgotten? No. He puts a random number there to redeem himself.

Fuck you, he cries when he hits the table on his way to the washroom. And then retracts, comes back to the table, and knocks it again with his knee, and calls now, Mommy, Mommy… His arms waving, his hands fluttering, he presses his eyelids, closed, hard, and then comes the tears, may be, the artificial ones.

Cinderella, he told himself last night, were perhaps more real than the fantasies he created. But did Cinderella create one for herself, too? Do they always end up like this? Even if she had created one too?

Questions.

Middle aged, he has lived everything a man of his age can. He is bald from the front, his tummy bulging out, his car an old Suzuki IFX, that 800 CC from the 80′s, which when it comes to fitness comes only close to PIA planes. And can occasionally beat them.

But still its a car. Like PIA, still has the planes.

Like, a fantasy, still is, only a fantasy.

You can call him a next door Sheikh-chilli, a man who plans too much, and does little. Or you can call him, the next Steve Jobs. Depends on how you see the glass. As for himself, he has declared to himself that he has changed. That his biggest mistake was to put his own self in the fantasies he created. That, they always failed, that he always persisted. That they always failed. That they failed. Again and again and again.

That they were always in the future.

His is a new one today, one in the present. That it will fail again is a fait accompli. That fantasies are bubbles, wherever they are, shining, cute, beautiful, round, brilliant, but bubbles nonetheless.

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The vile woman, the submissive woman.

Since shifting back to Lahore from Karachi last September, I have been made to watch a lot of prime time drama serials, ranging from Khushbo ka Ghar to Humsafar to Maat. Not that I have followed anyone as religiously as Maat and Hamsafar. Both of them are really good serials, though I rate Maat the better of the two, only because of the acting. Their story lines are rather clichéd. Anyway.

Lets talk about the submissive woman first. Have you watched Hamsafar yet? Yes, or no, whatever be the answer, you should go through this post by the brilliant @oil_is_opium. What she essentially talks about is the underlying patriarchal tone of the drama, something which enforces the stereotypes.

But there is something that she perhaps missed. That is the submissiveness of the female lead, Khirad. With using sentences like, ‘meri khuwahish hay k mein ashar jaysi chahtay hain ban jaon, jo unki pasand usko apni pasand bana lun…’ ‘i wish i can be the way ashar wants me to be, make his choices mine’, the character reinforces the common discourse across middle class Pakistani women, that is, the girl must compromise, that the girl must be submissive, innocent, and naive. Precisely the kind of girl who is brought up around so many corners of Lahore. And perhaps that is the reason why such a large number of women are so insanely following  it. It fits into their perception of things.

Maat:

Its way better a serial as compared to Hamsafar when it comes to acting. But let me talk about the lead characters here. Saman and Aiman, the two sisters. Saman is this bitch who is on to destroy the every damned fabric of family life there can be for money’s sake. She is selfish, she is vile, she is all hatred.

Aiman, on the other hand is this girl who is super naive, who is ready to stay home, who wears a dupatta, who is very cautious, and yes, one who is very naive.

You already know that the vile bitch will be screwed in the end, and the naive sister will get a super good rishta and will settle down at a nice place.What you sow, so shall you reap.

And that takes me down the memory lane, back to the late 90′s, the first and the last character of a woman of a different kind I can remember in a  serial that is probably considered one of the best in Pakistan’s drama serial history. It is Alpha Bravo Chalie, and the character is Shehnaz.

She was smart, she was intelligent, and oh she was confident, and of course not naive. Precisely the kind of woman who must be portrayed on TV to create an alternative discourse. I don’t know if this will happen. But I sure hope for the sake of women here, it does.

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I am Aliya.

Aliya is your everyday maid, the child that you will probably find sitting next to the kids at a trendy shopping mall in Karachi or Lahore, e.g., Forum, Cafe Ayalanto, Mall of Lahore, wearing ruffled clothes of dull colors, absolutely distinct from the ones that children that are around them wear. If you have a one like that at your home, and if you consider yourself a liberal, then…


I am Aliya. I was born into many of those almost-marked villages in the northern Punjab where when the monsoon lashes in the mid July and August, our mud houses are as scary as your cement ones during an earthquake. Often when the train passes by our house, during the winters, I often wonder at the kind of stories that these people make up who stand in the doors of this fast moving machine. And that if they do think that if we are  dream within a dream, or that may be that they do agree that it is impossible to count stars, that they are so many. Just like us.

Us. We are seven. I am probably in the fourth or the fifth. I know Abba knows about it, and so does Maa, but you know, when there are so many, even the parents like to forget. After all amidst the where-is-the-food for today, the less you remember the better. Aliya thinks Abba often forgets to have food. I don’t know, well… but sometimes we all pretend that we forgot to have food.

….

This is my new home. Abba was advised by a dear friend that we should be sent to Lahore to be maids at rich houses. He said that the rich particularly prefer lil girls, oh no not because of some pedophilia tendencies, but because they submit so easily. I mean you see that they can be awed. That the career for them is now here, and the first step in that is to ‘shut the fuck up‘.

So I do, do that. Heh. But you know, when Alizeh, and Ali, Baji’s children went to this place, super sexy Cafe Ayalanto in Lahore, at the M.M.Alam Road in Lahore, I could easily make up that the meaty stuff that were having for dinner tasted a thousand times better than the saag and makai ki rooti amma would cook for us once in a … life time? But hey, everyone talks about saag and makai ki roti here, that somehow it’s directly from the heaven. What the fuck do they know of delicious and juicy that meat loaf tasted with that green sauce and vegetables, while I looked at it, pretending that I am caring for Alizeh and Ali.

Alizeh and Ali had a pizza though. I wish we were at home. They must have shared it with me. Here, though they are afraid. You know once when Baji found Ali passing a chips from Lays to me, she had scolded Ali and Alizeh both, and warned them, that I may forget my auqat. Auqat, the word, you know has no parallels in English. But Alizeh is nice. I like her bed. When Baji is not at home in the mornings, I do sneak into her bed to lie on that pink bedsheet, under the pink blanket. Pink is a beautiful color. I don’t know but I like it, really.

Did you ever think that do I ever think that if I can be like them? Like Alizeh and Ali. Oh, I love their uniforms. Especially the way Alizeh is often made to tie her dupatta across her chest. She tells me she does it when she runs so that the dupatta doesn’t interfere. Duh, I know it already. But I will like to run. Yeah. For sure.

As for the question, I don’t know, but I do think that God made us like this for a reason. After all, tell me, batao batao, if I were not here, who would have flushed that toilet everyday??

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