Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Treatise on Grief

Is it like the ocean with its never-ending gray, blue waves, stretching as far as the eye can see, cresting and falling, persistent, enough to cover most of the globe?

Or does it run out, like water in a tap that’s been running for too long? Like puddles of rain drying up under the scorching summer sun?

Does one person have enough grief inside to mourn the loss of 3 people? What about the lives of 30? 3,000?  What about 5 lives every day of every month in a year? (That’s how many people died in terrorist-incidents in Pakistan in 2016 – see source at the end.)

Can grief peter out, like a stream in a drought-stricken village?

Or can we be more generous and dole it out as, when and where it’s needed? Does anyone really need your grief? Can you offer it like a tissue to wipe someone’s tears? Maybe cancel out a small part of their grief by showing them yours, like same signs in an equation?

When people point out that a tragedy somewhere is equally tragic as those occurring in other parts of the world, I wonder what that means.  How do we equate tragedy?  Is it the number of casualties?  Is it the age of the victims?  Is it the location – a market, a mosque, a festival, a bar, a concert arena, a street, a bridge?  What about frequency?  Isn’t is more tragic when one after another attack happens in the same 100 mile radius for days, weeks, months, years? 

Reality proves otherwise.  Theoretically, we might say that the latter is true, but we all live in the same world and we all know how our brains work.  It’s shameful but maybe we can blame god for creating the human brain in a way that makes us get used to anything.  It’s really like putting your foot into a tub of piping hot water – it burns for a few minutes and then you get used to the temperature.  And that’s how it is for me as a Pakistani – enough bombs and explosions, deaths and injuries, attacks and invasions and after a while, it starts to pinch a bit less each time.  It has to, of course, because otherwise we would have all died of grief long ago, bled out, hollow, unable to go on.

Is that the real tragedy? 

The phenomenon of becoming numb to pain, of seeing and hearing something so frequently that it becomes the norm, part of your everyday life, another headline you skim quickly over breakfast, sad, yes, but nothing to shatter your life, nothing that makes you give up what you’re doing, throw up your hands and sink into a pool of tears.

I remember I was in the US when the Boston marathon attack took place, and I remember watching scores of people in my university stricken with grief and horror, frozen in front of their televisions, and I remember how starkly I felt the difference.  The difference between people living in developed countries (whose governments simply attacked far-off countries or pointed accusatory fingers at their developing ‘allies’ to attack their neighbours, regardless of the ensuing mess that would wrap the latter’s region for years to come) and people like me who had to get used to grief, who had to teach themselves to devalue human life, to detach, to move away, to see casualties as numbers rather than individual persons with real lives and families that live on with broken minds and hurting hearts.

In the last few months, there have been a series of terrorist incidents in England and I remember thinking to myself, oh my god, it almost feels like things are as bad here as they were back home.  I remember looking up online to compare the tragedies in Pakistan to the ones in UK and feeling my heart shrivel up like paper burning in a fire, because in May, I had already forgotten about the attacks that killed 88 people in Sehwan at a shrine, and 14 people in Lahore at a protest in February.  I reread the articles with tears of shame and grief streaming down my face.  How could I have forgotten it?

But that is the ugly confession of a Pakistani.

When people are killed at that frequency, your mind starts to pick and choose – portioning out grief depending on the death toll – anything above 20 feels like a punch in your chest, anything above 50 chokes your throat.  And then there are cities and towns that have been showing up in the news for so long that the tragedies there have dulled for us – and the nails only dig deeper when a different target shows up – a shrine closer to the city where I grew up, a park in a city where I did my undergraduate degree, a market in the town where my family has moved to, a resort in a village where I thought things were improving.

It is such an ugly reality, but one that I have to live with.

After the attacks in the UK, I saw how communities here came together (exceptions always exist but the larger reaction was one of strength and harmony), the concert, One Love Manchester, such a beautiful show of solidarity and courage, with songs of hope and beauty being sung by thousands of people together, the memorials that sprung up in cities across the country, roses and candles and hugs and hands held together in strength and in prayer …

And I wondered if people who live here realize how lucky they are to live in a place where the value of a human life is so great, where people have enough grief to spread over all their pain and heal together.

And a part of my heart wrenches in pain, and in envy, wondering if there will ever come a time when it can be the same in my country.  A time when bombs and explosions are a thing of the past, an anomaly that shakes the entire country rather than something part of everyday reality that is swallowed like an inevitable bitter pill.  When the loss of even a single life can be felt, can be mourned, and grieved for, deeply, sincerely, by our politicians and our leaders, by our neighbours and our people, and by us.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Thank you, Pakistan!

It’s hard for other people to understand what a victory in cricket means to us.  Why there will be hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets of our cities and in the dirt lanes of our villages, dancing, celebrating, causing traffic jams and shouting their hearts out, why fans across the world glued to their 52 inch TVs or their cracked 14 inch laptops vacillated between high pitched screaming and cheering, and crying (tears of joy, of course) – I mean, great match and all, you might say, but aren’t these Pakistanis kind of going a bit overboard?

And I’ll tell you, after I’ve wiped my red sniffling nose on my sleeve, that no, we are not.  This victory (in the ICC Champions Trophy FINAL, against INDIA who we never beat in finals, INDIA a team much better and more experienced than our fledgling one ranked the lowest at the start of the tournament) is not just about cricket. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Pakistanis love cricket.  There are many things that divide our nation – religion, politics, ethnicity, language – but our love for cricket falls in silky folds like a great green flag over these differences, covering the gaps, smoothing the creases and binding us together in shiny goodwill and patriotism. 

On my travels around the country for work, I spotted it everywhere: from the slightly terrifying games being played at the edge of mountains along narrow roads in Kashmir to the matches in the smooth green fields of Islamabad, from the slightly sacrilegious one I saw in Sialkot at the edge of a small cemetery to the ones that take place in the sewer-strewn grounds in slums in Karachi – you’ll find cricket everywhere.  It brings us together, and that’s no small thing for a country like ours where our political and religious leaders try very hard to do just the opposite. 

Today’s match, though, was not just about cricket.

It was much more than that, and if you listened to the Pakistani cricketers after the match, they said it quite simply, succinctly, sincerely – ‘our nation needed it’.

For Pakistani Muslims living in this era, pride in our identity isn’t something that is being handed around freely.  We’re constantly bombarded with negative news about who we are and where we’re from – every time there is a terrorist incident, our hearts constrict as we obsessively refresh the news pages and hope that it’s not a Muslim, and then when it inevitably is (because if the media brands it as terrorism then it is always Islamic extremism and if it’s some white guy then it’s not really terrorism and the news slides out from media focus very soon), and then we hope that there are no links, no matter how tenuous or old, to Pakistan, and then if there are, then we cringe and sigh and hope nobody starts yelling at us on a bus in London or some street in Philadelphia.  Every other month a confidence-boosting article comes up, telling us that our country is the fourth-worst in the world for tourists, the second worst passport to have, poor, corrupt, performing terribly on this indicator and even worse on that one.  A decade ago people had no idea where Pakistan is on the map – “middle east, right?” “oh, yeah, near India!”, and now they have a better idea about where the country is located but a much narrower perception of how it is – unsafe, primitive, poor, tragic.

And of course, it isn’t just the media.  I’m not an ostrich with my head stuck in the sand – there are many times when my heart weeps and bleeds at things that happen in my country – hate speech being spewed through the public speakers of mosques, virulent intolerance against any perceived or real difference in thoughts and beliefs, mass blind following of coldblooded murderers, corrupt laws that are abused to persecute minorities, and the list goes on …

So no, we’re a developing country and we have our problems – illiteracy, poverty, inequality, take your pick, and yes, sometimes the positives get drowned by the negatives, special thanks to internal and external media…

And then there comes a day like today, when millions of viewers are rewarded for their resilience, their will to survive and persist, to smile and exist, rewarded for their faith in the team (because while many of us try to delude ourselves before every cricket match – especially matches against archrivals India – that we don’t care, saying out loud nonchalantly, pessimistically, oh, we’ll probably lose anyways, in vain attempts to mentally prepare ourselves for heartbreak – deep down, all of us always believe, and fervently hope for our team’s success). 

I used to be a passionate cricket fan till the World Cup of 2003, in which Pakistan performed abysmally and I took it so personally that I pretty much stopped watching the sport.  I would see matches sporadically and every now and then, get invested in a series against my better judgment, but largely, I’ve managed to stay at the outskirts of true fandom, the periphery of passion.

Today was different.

I knew about three of the 11 players in our team but by the end of the match, I was in love with about 7 of them.  I have never been so proud of how we played.  Absolute perfection – I cannot remember a performance as flawless as this (in my less than impressive decade of following cricket).  We were so professional – combining the stereotypical raw talent of Pakistani players with the less familiar discipline, patience and calmness of great teams who stand firm through storms and blast their way forward, seizing every opportunity and creating it when it doesn’t quite appear.  And we played like a TEAM.  Rather than having one or two stars supporting a sagging midline batting order or atrocious fielders or haywire bowlers, absolutely each and every player put in their 110% and carried us through to a heartwarming, throat-burning, tear-jerking incredibly impressive victory.

And to top off the brilliant performance, at the end of the match all our prayers were so humble, crediting one another and their managers and coaches, displaying great sportsmanship, and fully recognizing the impact of their success on their country and their countrymen…

So really, hats off to you, Pakistan.  You gave us a fantastic game of cricket, a superb victory, and most importantly, you gave us something that’s hard to come by these days – you made us feel proud to be Pakistani. 

Photo source: Getty Images

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Ramazan, Ramadan, but more importantly, mubarak!

Some people have excellent memories – like my younger sister who claims to remember details from family holidays when she would be 2 years old, bringing to mind the concept of fake and made-up memories, however, too often her words are corroborated by someone else, someone who wasn’t 2 back then, or maybe a photograph or something harder to ridicule than a younger sister...

My mind, on the other hand, is like a sieve, and while most slips through the small holes and disappears into the fading black of my unconscious, some memories remain, sloshing about silently till a random stimulus from the present dives in, hook, line and sinker, and slowly swivels it up into the bright light of now.  These memories exist like snapshots rather than film, like a 2-second clip you’ve accidentally trimmed and then, even worse, deleted the rest of the video, so I won’t remember what happened before or after, but I’ll remember that precise moment.

One of these Polaroids from the past is of curly-haired little me sitting half way down the staircase in my house in Karachi, probably 5 or 6 years old, looking at my family eating sehri, the pre-dawn meal which starts off our fast, and I look dramatically sad with my chin tucked into my knuckles, elbow on knee, classic philosopher/mopey damsel style. 

As a child I remember thinking of fasting as a mysterious, exciting privilege available just to adults.  It was equated with waking up in the middle of the night and eating hot, crispy parathas.  What’s not to love about that? And I remember my first roza, I remember feeling pretty special, skating in my terrace an hour before iftaar (ah those white roller skates with the bright pink laces and pink wheels and that pink front brake that I never learnt to use…), leaning over the banister to watch my mamu and his family pull up at the gate, here to join us on this special day – I got little gifts and big praise, I definitely felt very cool.

Growing up in a culture where most people around me fast, it never seemed like a particularly gasp-worthy feat, that is till I would tell my non-Muslim friends or colleagues and they would gasp, and from St Louis to Nottingham to Rome and Barcelona (the latter added just for dramatic effect), always ask the same question (it’s in their handbook; the first FAQ) – ‘but you can drink water, right?’ and when I’d shake my head and smile, bigger gasp, and I’d feel like a superhero.

Except, not really.

I mean, we kinda just grew up doing this, you know.  It’s like the children in Northern Pakistan who scamper up and down mountains in rubber flip-flops as if they were playing hopscotch on the sidewalk, or people who wake up at 5:30 am and go for a refreshing morning jog (if I’m ever be out of bed at that time, sleepily holding onto a mug of coffee, I look at these superstars and am so drowsily envious.  I mean, wow! That’s definitely more amazing to me than going without food and water for a few hours).

Of course our fasts in the UK are just a bit longer than ‘a few hours’.  The roza doesn’t really breeze by but I must say I thought it was much easier on the first day than I had anticipated, but like always, there are phases of a roza…

2:50 am: sudden realization of lingering thirst and quick drink of water

2:56 am: sudden panic about not having drunk enough water and feeling a ghost thirst tickle my throat and a little demon in my head throwing his head back and laughing ‘it’s too late!’

8:30 am: wake up with a dry throat, slightly thirsty, thinking: why am I thirsty just a few hours after I had five glasses of water? And then forgetting about water and start obsessing about caffeine – what, addicted to coffee/chai, me? No! is my happiness really tied up to consuming things … brief introspection … shaking of head and feeling stronger.  I’m glad I’m doing this!

10:00 am: opened windows, cool breeze dancing in, tidy house, the smell of vanilla from a burning candle – utter peace and solitude.  This isn’t so hard after all…

12:00 pm: soft, clean bed, feeling a bit drowsy – seriously, fasting is such a cleanse.  Really feels good to challenge our dependence on food and beverages, think about how much time we spend on cooking and buying and ingesting…

Nap break … naps during fasting are the most delicious because you’re usually really tired and you just melt into the arms of sleep, cosy, soft embrace like sinking into a bed of cottony clouds …

1:00 pm: what the … STILL EIGHT HOURS TO GO? Slight headache.  Need for tea… addicted, me, caffeine? Come on!

And so it goes on, from periods of peace and tranquility, especially when after months of hurried prayers and rushed duas, you take some time out and actually think about the verses you’re reciting during namaz, breathe deeply, realize how similar this feels to yoga, to moments of thirst and more than hunger, boredom. 

Time gets drowsy during Ramazan too and sort of drags its feet, sluggishly moving from 1 to 2pm, pausing, yawning, and then trudging forward again…

I think the busier you are (unless its manual labour or business out in the sun), the quicker time passes by, and usually the last couple of hours go by pretty quickly for me – right till the fifteen minute mark, when time suddenly comes to a sudden stop, digs its heels in and stands with its arms crossed like a sulky 4 year old in a toy store.

And then iftaar, when the best moment is drinking your first glass of water, and food is usually an anticlimax.  But that long awaited cup of chai after namaz! Oh, hot, sweet tea…!

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of what Ramazan has become in Pakistan.  I’ve heard of how it’s celebrated – yes, the key word is celebrated, not enforced or mourned or feared – in other countries and it sounds so much nicer…

Imagine this – a Ramazan in which prices of fruits and milk and yogurt don’t shoot off into space, a Ramazan in which ridiculous draconian laws banning eating in public and forcing restaurants to shut down aren’t passed and enforced, a Ramazan in which people don’t turn into devil incarnates on the roads near Iftar time (seriously, if the devil is supposed to be locked up during this month then it’s a little frightening how similar humans are to Iblees and his companions…) …

Imagine, instead, a Ramazan in which we decorate our homes with flowers and stencil in red, yellow, green letters to spell out Ramazan Mubarak and hang streamers in our windows, in which we break our fast with khajoors and family and friends at home, a month in which we spend more frugally on ourselves and more generously on the less-privileged, hosting iftaars for the poor and donating time and money in charity, a month in which we practice self-restraint and pinch out the mean little thoughts from our minds, shake out the habit of judging others and making declamations of who’s fasting and who’s not and who’s a good Muslim and who’s not, shake it out like sharp pebbles from your shoes, and instead, walk comfortably on a silky smooth path of love and acceptance.

In which we realize that fasting is not an excuse to be grumpy and miserable and shouting at other people, it’s not a pedestal that you’re supposed to look down from at other people and turn up your nose on, it’s not an excuse for bad breath and bad driving and it’s as important to restrain yourself from saying something mean to someone as it is to restrain yourself from popping a sweet grape into your mouth!

Imagine a Ramazan in which people fast because they want to, out of love for Allah, out of a desire to rid themselves of their dependencies on material things, out of an effort to realize how blessed they are and to empathize with people who cannot afford to eat and drink what they want when they want … not out of fear of being told off or judged by the auntie next door or the uncle at work, not in pretense of piety or out of habit …

Imagine a Ramazan in which restaurants and cafes don’t have to shut down during the day, imagine a Ramazan in which the elderly, the young, the non-Muslims, the sick, the women feeding babies or on their period and the people who simply choose not to fast, can eat what, when and where they want, where people in office aren’t forced to eat a packet of biscuits furtively in a corner or forgo their cups of tea and coffee just because our faith is so fragile and our resolve so weak that a whiff of a kabab roll or the sound of a tea bag dipping in hot water will drive us over the edge and destroy our fast…

Imagine a Ramazan of love and hope and charity and good thoughts and good deeds … of Eid prayers in which thousands of people pray side by side in their bright new clothes under an arch of a thousand bright balloons filled with candy and confetti (taken from my friend’s story of Eid namaz in Egypt where this actually happens!), yellow, pink, blue balloons that are released after the namaz and flutter slowly to the ground, bumping into heads and smiling faces …


… wouldn’t it be nice …

Ramazan Mubarak and Ramadan Kareem.  May it be full of love and peace and joy.\

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Go Easy On Stereotypin’

Let’s paint a picture. 

You’re sitting in a small waiting room at a train station in a global, multicultural city like, say not Charleston, South Carolina, and there are people of different ethnicity around you – an African American man reading a book, a couple of white ladies listening to something on their respective iPhones, an Asian couple wearing matching Adidas sneakers with a very cute very chubby baby sleeping in a pram in front of them, and a Pakistani (or maybe Indian – let’s say South Asianish?) woman in her late 50’s.

You’re scrolling through pretty photographs of everyone in the world who has a better life than you on Instagram when suddenly you smell a strong spicy, garlicky scent emanate from somewhere in the room.

Instant reaction – before you look up to see who has opened up the Tupperware of spicy curry- what comes to your mind?

(If you're honest you'll admit:) You think about that Pakistani lady in the corner and wonder why she had to open her lunch in a small contained waiting room where the smell is going to sneak into everyone’s hair and luggage.

Let’s wipe away this sketch and come up with another one.

You turn a corner and see that someone’s thrown their rather giant plastic cup of Coca Cola outside a perfectly usable trash can.  The white cup lies broken on its side, its transparent lid and yellow-striped straw having slipped off like an old man’s toupee, just to the side, and a small puddle of brown liquid slowly turning into a lake for mice.  You look up and see a young man with a baseball cap and very low-slung cargo pants walking a few feet ahead, you barely notice the older lady with white hair and a cane cross from this pavement onto the other side – does your mind automatically label the young man as the coke-spilling culprit?

Is that us stereotyping Pakistanis and young people?
Is it wrong to do that?
Factually wrong or morally wrong? 

Maybe it is just a harmless working of our mind based on our experiences and actual facts, such as Pakistani cuisine involves a lot of garlic, and young people tend to consume Coca Cola more than 75-year-old women?  

I studied Social Work in the US a few years ago, and there were definitely times in the program when I chose not to say anything for fear of hurting someone, or something.  We were tightly fenced in by the tall looming poles of political correctness and you had to choose your words carefully or simply not share a thought or sentiment because you weren’t up to date with a swiftly changing vocabulary, with words introduced to replace other words that had been rendered too callous by society because of the tones in which they were uttered and the circumstances and sentences they were added to.

I understand the importance of language and the role it plays in creating and perpetuating harmful beliefs and customs.  But I also believe in a bit of forgiveness, and coming from a society such as ours, I think it is important to have a sense of humor, and be able to take a joke and laugh at things about myself that ring (perhaps only partially) true.  I admit it is a fine balance and I also acknowledge that this balance is different for different people, something that annoys or angers or at times just disappoints me (such as people using the word ‘raped’ to replace the word ‘defeated’ while referring to the result of some sport; the phrase ‘make me a sandwich, bitch’ no matter how jolly the tone in which it’s uttered, the word ‘bitch’ itself – and how it pains me when other women use it … 

Maybe we just need to read more and expand our vocabulary, understand that hey, there are actually words out there to convey that exact sentiment, that precise idea).

But at the same time, not being offended by the more innocuous stereotypes.  Let's take the one about Punjabis being loud, because, I mean I can remember our large family dinners at restaurants where as kids we didn’t notice and then as teenagers we cringed because of the raucous laughter that erupted and caused everyone at all the other tables to stare at us (or so it seemed) – and now, as sophisticated mature adults (ha!), we’ve accepted, owned and even come to love.

To come back to what I was actually thinking a while ago, is it wrong to have stereotypes or is it inevitable and sometimes even useful? Because often, stereotypes don’t just arise out of nothing.  They’re based on actual experiences and facts, at least partially.

And when you think about it, really, it is just how our minds work – our past experiences, our friends and family’s stories about their experiences, social media, old-fashioned newspapers and giant billboards, everything around us shapes our thoughts and helps create ideas that we store in neat compartments in our minds, almost forgetting that these are creations, taking them as innate, super truths that have always existed.

I saw this really interesting Ted Talk (link given below) and the speaker explains how these preconceived notions help us function efficiently in society.

So let’s move away from preconceived notions about people and ethnicity and nationalities and think of things like preconceived notions about objects such as umbrellas (they help us stay somewhat dry in rain) and sneakers (they make long walks more fun), to our ideas about activities like painting (linked to creativity) and kick-boxing (strength, power).  Our preconceived notions about bosses and how to talk to them, of queuing in England compared to queuing in Pakistan, of shopping in Sunday Bazaar in Karachi as opposed to shopping in Dolmen or a shopping mall in Dubai (how much money will you take, will you bargain, what are you looking to shop for?).
How about preconceived notions of neighbourhoods? Is it stereotyping if we think it is more important to lock your car in Karachi than in Islamabad or is it simply being smart? It’s a relative example, because these days you should lock your car anywhere in Pakistan but you get the drift?

We almost always have a preconceived notion that jumps up involuntarily, ready to guide our thoughts and actions.

It is just how our minds work.

Then is it right to blame one another for stereotyping others? I mean, everyone does it.
I will put forward a cautious ‘no’ (it’s not right to blame people for stereotyping) and quickly add in a ‘not always’. 

There are situations innocuous like moths – for example, if an elderly person gets onto the bus and you get up to give them your seat (based on the stereotype that elderly people find it more difficult to stand in a wobbly bus for long periods of time).  Or buying a doll for your friend’s 4-year-old daughter even though you’ve never met her (based on the stereotype that the little girl will prefer a doll in a frilly dress more than a small plastic baseball bat). 

The trouble, of course, is when we use stereotypes to pin people down or put them where we think they belong.  So on one hand, you take the doll for your friend’s little girl but she tosses it aside and takes out her toy trains to run them up and down the coffee table, and you say, ‘but girls don’t play with trains!’.  Prejudice leads to people expecting they’re going to talk to a man when they call for an electrician or a woman when they ring up a doctor’s receptionist.  Prejudice leads to men giving more weight to their son’s opinion than their daughter’s, prejudice leads to husbands cutting off their wife’s sentence, prejudice leads to expecting less of children belonging to a certain ethnicity or race, prejudice leads to choosing a CV over others because of the name on it and the connotations the name holds – Arabic, Persian or someone nice and sweet called Jill?      

At a more insidious level, these stereotypes help support systems of patriarchy and racism (and all the other –isms).  They construct a world in which a woman will automatically be paid less than a man for the same job (stereotypes of women as inferior, weaker, less intelligent than men – which knowing all the women I know in my life and all the men I know, really does astound me. I mean. Please.),  a country where a black man committing a crime will get a more serious sentence than a white man committing the same act…  It’s the same mode of thinking that will lead a passenger on a plane to report another passenger talking in a loud voice just because the latter is brown-skinned and speaking Arabic, and the same mode of thinking that will lead the airline personnel to kick the brown-skinned person off the plane.

Stereotypes, in this case, can be quite dangerous.

The TED Talk I mentioned above is along these lines – listen to https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_bloom_can_prejudice_ever_be_a_good_thing for a conversation about when and how stereotypes can be effective and how to contain them through reason.  It’s quite fascinating to delve into our natural predisposition to prejudice.

I’m guilty of doing it like anyone else but I do try to question myself and my thoughts and that helps.

There’s also something about people who are blatant breaches to stereotypes – a woman in a hijab pulling deeply on a rolled cigarette, a man in his late 60s with a ‘Game of Thrones’ ringtone on his phone, a little boy happily picking out a pink-coloured dinosaur as his favourite toy, a husband bringing his wife a cup of tea – and I always feel happy when I see them, as if they’re doing me a secret favor, jostling others out of their hackneyed ways of thinking, grabbing the neatly-stored away prejudices in people’s minds and tossing them away, forcing them to recognize uniqueness and individuality ... 

I guess the rambling essay is just about that - rely on stereotypes when you need to, but just know you're doing it and be open to challenges to your notions and accept your mistakes, and when in doubt - instead of assuming, just ask! 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Worryless in Wales

The wind whipped cold, sneaking in through the gaps in my jacket, and the clouds hung thick, beautifully dense, textured gray, with some white castles in the back, layered, deep …

And then there was a sudden breakthrough.  Bright golden sunrays stole through, beautiful and warm and strong, they spread over my face and my booted feet, and poured like a pail of sparkles onto the sea.  A patch of the gray water turned into glitter – if a dolphin, or maybe even a mermaid, had suddenly emerged from that golden pool to dive gracefully back into the sea, it wouldn’t have surprised me at all.  It looked magical. 

People milled around the beach, a toddler toppled into a hole dug in the sand by her older siblings and the elders standing around in a circle twittered, one of them bent to help the child out; a dog ran past trailed by a huffing young girl who was two steps away from tripping.  I leant against the stone pillar, sand sticking to the back of my jacket and my elbows, my coffee cup resting next to me and the Eels playing in my ear –

– sometimes all you need to create perfection is the right song, the right track to make you feel like this is a movie and you’re the star, a lofty, lovely feeling …

(side note: you know sometimes you’re in that lofty starry moment and walking with a spring in your step and then you trip over something – a yanking that brings you down from your pedestal and reminds you, hello, not a movie, or if it is, you’re definitely not the hero! It’s like when you’re feeling happy and relaxed and you decide to take a deep, long breath in but just at that precise moment you pass by a line of garbage cans and you inhale a rotting fish scent instead of fresh roses and mint air…)

It was one of those moments I talked about, those moments of perfection that cannot be manufactured and appear of their own accord to hover like a hummingbird fluttering her wings by a flower, three, four, fifteen seconds and then gone, like the blue swirls of smoke from a cigarette in the afternoon sun –
So I stood by Cardigan Bay in Aberdovey, a sweet little village in Wales, watching families walk along the beach, children in rubber boots chasing dogs and dogs chasing sticks, couples walking hand in hand and the lean mean runners in their shiny tights and bright sneakers, sipping my coffee and basking in the few minutes of warm sun.

We spent our Easter holiday in Wales and it really was the perfect weekend getaway.   Your start with green fields giving way to golden land, mustard flowers planted so neatly and closely together it looks like god painted the land a nice bright yellow to break the rule of green, and slowly the sheep start taking over.  I think the sheep to human ratio on our trip was something like 100:1.  And the baby lambs were so adorable!  Unfortunately the closest I got to my dreams of hugging a soft fleecy lamb was on our spontaneous evening hike up a hill (led by my suddenly and surprisingly very active cousin).  As I huffed and puffed up the bumpy green hill in my not-suitable-for-trekking boots, we came within two feet of a very sweet little lamb.  Unfortunately the lamb was right next to his very stern looking mom.  She faced us head on, not breaking the death stare for even a minute and I decided not to challenge her maternal instincts, regardless of all claims about the mild sweet nature of sheep!

Aberdovey is lovely for such nature walks, with plenty of trails around the area.  When we finally reached the peak, the sun had long set but the sky was still lit enough for us to see the entire village and beyond, the sea in the distance and lights slowly starting to come on in the sky above and the ground below – angels switching on their starry bulbs and mothers and fathers turning on orange lamps in their homes.  There was a constant wind that swept through the land, making us sniffle, turning our noses red and our ear tips icy cold.
Our AirBnb was equipped with a TV, DVDs (we saw Top Gun!) and board games – Connect 4 was the popular choice with Mani and Sharik beating everyone quite consistently.

The next day we went to the Talyllyn Railway Station where we took the very slow steam engine through the beautiful countryside.  There was a consistent drizzle that only stopped every now and then throughout the ride and picked up after our adventure at Dolgoch Falls and the surreally bright green forest walk (sparkling streams, mossy green trees, waterfalls and the sweet smell of trees and rain-kissed leaves!).  However, by the time we picked up biscuits and tea from the gift shop (forced into a gift voucher when purchasing tickets!) the sky was clearing and the sun made a brief guest appearance. 

We visited the Talyllyn Lake twice – it is quite the beautiful picnic spot, a placid lake set between hills with a walk around it that we didn’t take and green boats resting like dreams in the midst, which we weren’t allowed to ride, and a very nice hotel that we did have lunch from the next day.

Our second night in Aberdovey the sky cleared up and we saw the sky glitter with stars – I tried counting them but then got tired and lost by 89…

I did love Wales.  If you’re looking to step back in time for a bit, I’d say visit Wales and hang out with mother nature.  It’s quite the soul-cleanser.  

And I can almost guarantee you a few bubbles of perfection, just floating around, waiting to land on someone’s fingertip… 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Here and Now

It’s the honey soft warmth of the sun on your face, your neck, after a week of cold gray clouds and rain, like a slow, deep breath, like climbing into a soft, clean bed after a long day and snuggling deeper into lavender scented blankets, like someone gently bringing their lips right next to your ear and blowing out all thoughts so that for one tiny moment, you close your eyes and feel at peace, that inexplicable elusive whispery feeling that never lasts for more than a few minutes at one stretch …

I find it a little amusing, as a teacher who loves all her students and finds herself annoyed but somewhat charmed by that one child who never fails to spill ink across his homework, at our human tendency to never be grateful, to always want that which is just out of sight, turning around the corner, realizing the restaurant we wanted to go to was the one we just drove by and can’t turn around for because it’s a one-way street.

And so it is that if I were back home in Karachi and I woke up to a day sleepy with clouds, a sky pale gray behind the bright green trees and red, brown houses, I would be delighted (till I would remember that I had to go to work and was no longer in college, where I could have ignored a morning class and ridden off in a rickshaw to eat some tiny qeema samosas with other similarly fair weather friends – relax, it’s a play on words, they’re actually forever friends).  Here it’s the rare sunny day that brings me out of the house still wearing long sleeves and a jacket but so excited about donning sun glasses and sitting under the open blue sky, finally free of the eternal heavy whirly whorls of clouds.  The exhaustion of always being cold replaced by the excitement of being able to take my socks off and poke the grass with my toes – indescribably joyful!  

Imagine spending an hour in the brutal melting hot sun of a June afternoon in Karachi, where it takes less than two minutes for droplets of sweat to dot your upper lips, and ten minutes later there is a stream of perspiration sneaking down your back, where when you get out of your car (let’s say it’s a Suzuki Mehran and the air-conditioning isn’t that great in the summer) you realize that your lawn kee kameez is sticking to the small of your back and in the front to your stomach, wet with sweat, – now imagine you’ve bought your grocery and deposited it in the right compartments, and as you open the door to your bedroom, the soft, beautiful cool air envelops you – the air-conditioning was turned on half an hour ago so by this time it feels like you’re walking into a square-shaped paradise with a framed photo of you and your significant other on the wall and a yellow and teal bed spread.   

Sorry, I got distracted – I’ll try a more succinct scenario – imagine walking into the shade of a leafy green tree on a warm summer day just as a cool breeze stirs awake, lifting up tendrils of hair to blow a cool breath on the back of your neck.

Or the cold hand of your mother on your forehead when you’re running a fever.

Or a sip from a plastic cup of Pakola – or coke if you’re more standard – filled ¾ with crushed ice.

A gulp of cold mint lemonade after 16 hours of fasting, beautiful liquid sloshing down a parched throat.

Thinking of all these metaphors with thoughts of Karachi in May.  Because here, I’m still wearing a cardigan.  Admittedly there are children all around me in the park in t-shirts but I’m afraid my body has not quite adjusted to finding 16 degree centigrade as summer weather.

Why didn’t you make gratitude our default state, I ask god, why do we have to remember and stop short, chide ourselves for missing the dirty, traffic-congested streets of one massive metropolitan while we wait for a nice, clean bus here in this small, clean, picturesque town of Nottingham, and tell ourselves that we need to appreciate the now for what it is, enjoy the fish and chips and not pine for bun kababs that are thousands of miles away, piled untidily in plastic boxes on bicycles and carts. 

I often find it difficult to live in the present.  I think it happens with all those list-making, time-managing, let’s-squeeze-in-grocery-shopping-in-the-extra-ten-minutes-before-the-bus kind of people.  We get too wrapped up in figuring out the next day’s tasks or excited about the vacation we’re planning, forgetting that that particular moment may deserve a bit more attention.  I mean it’s excusable to dream of quaint cottages by the sea and sand between your toes when you’re stuck at work in front of a painfully standard computer screen, but if you’re stretched out on your bed with the kettle just sixteen steps away – maybe put away those dreams for a later day, make a cup of frothy coffee and breathe in the very present scent of now, tinged with vanilla if you remembered to light your candle.

So I’ve been trying to be more mindful, cut my planning and scheming and laying out the next day’s schedule over and over again in my mind and instead, analyzing if the current moment calls for some attention, inhaling deeply, having a quick conversation with myself and agreeing, yes, this is quite pleasant, I’m at peace, this book is really good, poke Fahad’s arm, look out the window at the old people walk by our tavern-house, or send some good vibes to the rose-pot in my kitchen window – most of the flowers have withered away but there’s one bud left that I’m hoping will bloom and validate my green thumb.

I’ve realized how fleeting happiness is, real pure happiness – not a background staid realization that life is well and you’re quite content, something you acknowledge when somebody asks – so, are you happy? But that more vibrant, rainbows on my brow, gold in my eyes and an airy lightness in my heart feeling, happiness as a visceral sensation, when you feel like if you close your eyes and put your head back, stretch out your arms, you could float away.  I’ve been training myself to recognize that sensation and hold on to it, for as long as possible, and bask in it.  But it is somewhat similar to soaking in a hot tub – after a while your skin gets used to it and it peters off… which is alright.

As long as it doesn’t slip by unawares, unnoticed, as long as I can continue to catch it by the fingertips and draw it closer for a hug – the airy fresh sweetness of a Victoria sponge cake, the deliciously bitter nutty flavor of a flat white, the bright green of new leaves on a tree, the way he smiles when he sees me unexpectedly at the bus stop, the intense concentration of a 9-year old playing the trombone, the excitement of a toddler when he kicks a ball and it rolls all of three feet to his father’s proud sneakered feet  - as long as all these are snapped in a quick Polaroid and stored away, it’s quite okay. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Let’s Think About It

There are people who can make a cup of coffee or start a new episode about fifteen minutes before they should be leaving for the airport (because they have a flight to catch or something) – except these are the people who would never say ‘I’m going to leave in 15 minutes’, it’s more like, a few minutes, oh, maybe a couple more, in a bit, can I at least finish my coffee?

They’re the people who can simply walk at an even pace to catch their bus, or think about what they ate for dinner last night rather than outline the 7 things they will do first when their plane lands, and then an alternate 7 steps in case their bags take too long to arrive.

Would it surprise you greatly if I said I don’t happen to be in the above category of people?

Over-thinking and its two best friends, anxiety and guilt - picture a cheery trio holding hands and skipping towards a raging fire.  Okay, so a fire is a bit dramatic, let’s change it to a bumpy, muddy shallow hole in the ground?

I imagine normal people (if there is such a thing) walking breezily through the sweet green meadow of their life while over-thinkers wake up and step right off from their beds into an obstacle course – every day is a puzzle I have to complete in given time… I forgot to decide what I’m going to wear to work today, oh dear, I guess that’s three less minutes that I can spend on breakfast, should I catch the later bus today and for once arrive at work at 9 am instead of 8:40 like I always do but then that leaves this awkward six minute gap between being ready to leave and the bus… Meticulous planners loathe those extra few minutes (if these arrived unplanned) – we’re too restless for time that’s too less to spend doing something, usually I think I fluff the pillows on the sofa or put away the dishes.  (Minor diversion: the problem of the sofa – I always put four cushions in the same arrangement on our shabby little sofa but if I leave it like that, Fahad sits on one of these cushions and squashes it – and the peace that symmetrical cushions bring me is as profound as the distress squashed pillows cause.  So now just before leaving, I pick up one of the cushions and place it on a chair – what a creative if somewhat worryingly neurotic solution!)

I over-think pretty much everything.  Things like talking on the phone or telling my boss about taking a holiday, without realizing it my mind will start scripting the conversation. Even ordering food is a pain, which is why I love the Just Eat app so much. No awkward explaining of orders on the phone and you still get your pizza without onions. Which is why it took six months for us (Fahad is the same when it comes to conversation with strangers) to finally ask the Sainsbury's people what the 'connecta' card is and realise it's actually a 'nectar' card and it does make perfect sense for us to have it because it's free and you collect points on it and eventually get a free something from the grocery store!

As an over-thinker, I have certain expectations of myself, and if I don’t follow through, I’m going to start feeling a thin, sniveling guilt crawl up my stomach, turn a corner around my heart and sit close enough to send disappointed looks at it.  I think a lot of women experience it.  It is a gift from our parents, our teachers, our aunts and uncles and the general society – a tiny little agent created with years of patience and practice and slipped inside us.  He wears a tiny hat and taps his stick on the grey squidgy floor of our brain from time to time.  He comes out of his little room quite often, to either look at us with narrowed eyes or a sad, disappointed frown.  Empty dishes in the sink? Been on your bum sitting for the last two hours? Eat too many chocolates? Haven’t called your parents in three days? Is that … flab? Have you forgotten exercise is essential for good health and toned tummies?
Quiet little messages blinking neon inside the brain till some action is taken to remove the dirty dishes or maybe don the gym pants.

Some women are probably more susceptible to nurturing the little guilt-giving man, while others have the genes that help to pick him up by the collar and toss him out without another look.

I think I’ve somewhat accepted and made friends with the little guy. He’s helped me become a better person, I like to think.  And since I have my very personified, alive and kicking, vocal little conscience man, I take the liberty to not let other people make me feel bad.
For an introvert, I’m remarkably good at saying no.  You know the person who can actually swat off 'but have another cup of tea?' and 'it's just 9pm' and leave a relative's house at the time they actually want to leave at? Yep.  It's a great skill.

I can very seldom be guilt-tripped into anything and other people’s emotional wheedling and complaining don't bother me.  So I guess it kind of evens out.

Of course, sometimes it does get a bit tiresome.  

Let’s have it out in the open: I haven’t exercised in over a week.  Now every time I open my YouTube, there is an entire line of Kelly from Fitness Blender in various positions of working out and becoming fit, and I admit, it makes me feel quite terrible.  I try to look away and quickly look for The Verve to soothe the guilt away.

I haven’t sat down to write in over a month – that made me feel quite horrid too.  There’s a reason, of course, I’ve started working four days a week now and we were travelling on three of the weekends in April and then we had friends visiting in between, so yes, but seriously Aisha, isn’t writing your passion? Shouldn’t it be a priority? And need I bring up that you finished all of 13 Reasons Why in less than five days?

No you need not, little guilt man.

Thankfully all is not tangled wires and knotted shoulders in Over-thinking City.  Having a constantly whirling thought process makes me observe little things that maybe a lot of others might miss out on – and so I see and count things like the six trees along the same street bursting with pale pink blossoms or a lady helping another person out with directions. I usually think twice about what I say – weigh out the benefits of a statement to a person and often, deciding against its utility and thereby probably saving feelings from being heart or egos being prodded or simply nonsense being uttered. 

It has also helped me become who I am today (which is hopefully a conscious person who thinks about causes, effects, and correlations).  And making the most of life, obstacle-course and pothole-ridden as it is.

And as for balance, I think having a husband who every now and then swats away the little man inside my brain, who squashes cushions and suggests having a cup of coffee when there are only 15 minutes left till we’re supposed to leave, who toes away neatly laid plans to listen to a song or sit under the sun for longer, well, that helps.