Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Puzzle Project VII: Fast and Furious


December 12

Jibran would always finish the math assignments really fast, toss it our way and then proceed to dance around the room, poking and prodding the other children who were still trying to finish their work. He was five years old when I first started volunteering at the SOS Village, and over the next couple of years I learned that he was the sort of little boy I needed to give two math worksheets while most other kids got one, he was the one I had to get on my side to help hand out sweets so that he wouldn’t wreak havoc running around, grabbing as much candy as would fit in his tiny palms.

I started volunteering at the SOS Village in Lahore in my freshman year, which also happened to be the year the terrible earthquake struck across Pakistan, devastating individual lives and entire communities. A few families sought help with the SOS Village – children who had lost either both or one parent were sent through a series of SOS locations, till finally they came to rest in Lahore. Not quite the beautiful mountainous area these kids were used to…

I think of the literature and research I have been immersed in for the past year, what the academia knows about children who have been through traumatic events like natural disasters, losing their loved ones, and then the added trauma of being removed from everything you know to a foreign environment. I think of the “behavior problems” that this trauma manifests in and I wonder how those beautiful children at the orphanage survived. The almost complete lack of mental health facilities, or even recognition of what they had been through and the long term impacts of it – and yet. Yet Jibran was the most wiry little resilient creature ever. He was at the center along with his elder sister and two elder brothers. He was small but man, he had a big temper.

He would get really angry and his eyebrows would furrow and he would run away, or mess things up, or he would shout and say he didn’t want to do anything with us. But he was also the sweetest little boy who would help out with the activities, and every now and then, say something that would just melt my heart. And I have to admit, when the grumpiness was the result of a missed visit, I would always feel a guilty happiness. “Why didn’t you guys come last Sunday?” and a stalk out or refusal to partake in that day’s activity would ensue till amends were made.

Jibran loved to run, and play cricket but you should really let him bat first. Like most of the kids, he wanted to be the “captain” when we played kho-kho and then choose the first teammate. He would of course choose his buddies Talal and Ikhlaq first, even though I always wanted to split the three up because together they were quite the terrible trio. Jibran was the obvious leader in the group and if I wanted the other two little ones to listen, I really only had to concentrate on Jibran.
Jibran was really smart, he loved math and his coloring would always stay in the lines. He did well in school and he was good with the other kids. And in so many ways, he was just another adorable kid. He loved paints, he loved it when anyone got a camera out and there would ensue a battle to be in front of everyone else even if that meant a face mushed right into the lens, he loved Shahid Afridi, he liked cartoons and it was not always easy to convince him to play kho-kho. When we brought in hardboiled eggs to paint over, he was one of the little boys to peel the egg and eat it.

Jibran lost both his parents in the earthquake and he lived with several of his peers in that center. He was still young enough to sleep in the rooms with the elder girls, and if he wanted, he could put up some of the artwork he made on the room walls.

I wonder how the kids are. It has been a while since I saw them. The last time my friends and I visited, about a year after graduation, the kids seemed so mature and mellow, so happy to see us.  
I miss them, and especially Jibran, in all his fast and furious energy. I hope he grows up to be a dynamic young man who dreams big and makes those dreams come true. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Puzzle Project VI: A Pick-Up


December 2

When I saw Mai Sakina’s face peering down at me from behind green bushes, I thought she was an angel. A wrinkly, kind-faced angel with few teeth but a lot of white wispy hair, streaked with the orange of henna. “Where did you come from?” she was surprised and amused to see me standing there on a wide edge of the mountain, sharing the space with a couple of sturdy goats.
“I’m doing a survey,” I explained lamely. “And I kind of got lost. I’m not sure how to get up to where you are!”

I was in a beautiful, isolated village on the side of a mountain in Balakot, in northern Pakistan. We were conducting surveys to assess earthquake relief efforts, around three years after the devastation that occurred in 2005. Houses – or huts or shelters – sprouted out of the ground like they were a natural part of the environment, there were around 5 to 10 homes in one cluster and these clusters went all over and around the mountain. My trekking partner had conveniently parted ways when he came across a villager who wanted to show him some houses, and he waved me on in the general north direction. “Just go on up and find a different cluster!”

I had gone on, and found myself stuck on a narrow path that led to the goat feeding patch. I could see the houses a couple feet above but I wasn’t sure how to get there because there were a lot of thorny bushes in my way. When the angel lady appeared, I was quite relieved. She grabbed my hands and pulled me up through a small partition in the bushes. “Come, sit, you must be tired!”

She led me to the rest of the family on a charpoy under a thatched shade, near the edge. The wind blew lightly and there was soon a crowd of six to seven, mostly women, some children and one young man, around me.

I had nothing to offer Mai Sakina and her family. I was, in fact, asking for their time to participate in a long conversation that they had probably already had with other personnel in shalwar kameez, joggers and baseball caps. But she answered everything in detail, with her daughters, daughter-in-law and son chipping in frequently. She was in her late 50s, maybe early 60s and the household head since her husband had died before the earthquake.

“I lost two of my grandchildren, and one of my sons injured his leg,” she told me. Her voice was calm, but the wrinkles around her eyes deepened. They had also lost friends, other relatives, and most of their belongings.

Mai Sakina used to have two homes, the winter home was located further down the mountain while the temporary shelter they were currently living in was made out of the remains of their summer home. The temporary shelter had been home for more than three years now.

There was a light breeze as the family talked about all they had lost, without much bitterness. They had accepted their fate calmly, not in a fatalistic way but in a realistic, brave manner that realizes natural disasters are beyond our control. They blamed the government for its lack of empathy and help (they had received some money, but around 1/3rd of what was promised and the house the government was helping them build was behind schedule) but they were not angry.

Mai Sakina had three daughters and three sons. Two of the daughters were there with us, both married, while the third lived in the city of Gilgit. Her injured son had gone to Gilgit as well, in hope for better treatment. She had 15 grandchildren, several of them sat or ran around us. One of the chubbiest, cutest baby was plopped against two cushions near me, her green-grey eyes twinkling as one or the other aunt poked her tummy or kissed her head. The two grandchildren who had been buried between the debris of their school were nine and eight years old.
“There is no pain greater than that of seeing your children die,” Mai Sakina told me.

I spent almost two hours with the family, finding out about the lack of economic opportunities and the abundance of hospitality, resilience and love that existed on that mountain. I was offered water and then one of the younger boys was told to run and fetch plain cake from a neighbor.
“I’m sorry we don’t have too much to offer,” Mai Sakina had apologized when the cake was served on a small plate.

When I had to leave, a few children accompanied me so that I would not get lost. As I walked down the dirt path I turned and waved – a complete survey in my bag and a heart replete with gratitude.

If I could choose one reason to stay in Pakistan and work to make the country a better place, it would be Mai Sakina and millions of others like her who teach us how to be resilient, strong and thankful. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Puzzle Project V: Bagels and Cream Cheese


November 20

Karim is the quietest server/cook I have ever seen. He works at one of my favorite cafés in Karachi. It is a small, quiet place on the second floor, brightly lit because of all the yellow lights and the kaleidoscopic mural on one wall. It is the only place in the city (that I have frequented), which has that casual ‘anyone can come to this place and hang out’ appeal to it. I know a lot of places strive for the ambience that attracts readers, writers, students that need a place to study, or students that need to get away from studying and watch an episode of House on their laptop, but not many achieve it.

I love the place because it has books to pick up and browse, the most battered Scrabbles board ever, a guitar that almost every new comer will pick up and dream for two seconds about how cool they would be if they could actually play, and bagels and cream cheese. And iced tea. And a tiny balcony that has a fan so even on the hottest day you can sit out and stare at the nicotine slowly swirl above the earthen ashtrays.

Karim fits in so well with that café. He has a thin moustache, and neatly parted hair. He always has a quiet, polite smile on his face – and despite the moustache he does not look creepy when he smiles hello at you when you go up to order your bagel. He looks like a poet, like he scribbles verses inspired by Ghalib and Mir, inspired by his unrequited love and his love for smoking a cigarette in the monsoon rain. In actuality though, he studies engineering at KU. He lives close to the café and far from the university and spends a great deal of time in transit. Sometimes he takes the KU buses, sometimes he takes other public transport. More often than not he gets shoved around as people pile onto the bus, ridding one’s notions about personal space, mixing different scents as arms brush against shoulders and stomachs and backs.  

Karim was recently engaged to a lovely young girl of his parents’ choosing, but the young couple had instant chemistry. They would write letters to one another, and more often than not, use their siblings as mailmen. They were not typical love letters, no avowals of eternal passion and declarations of deprivation, but short character sketches, information on what they liked doing, what they wanted in life, and so forth, general important stuff that we should know about the person we are going to spend the rest of our lives with.

Karim is set to finish his bachelors this coming June. He hopes to find a good job but I think he will miss this cafe. Maybe he can work here part-time. He likes the orange lights, and the little balcony.

He does make the best iced tea and he toasts the bagels perfectly. He doesn’t like bagels, generally, but he does love the brownies they bake at the café. He would pick peanut butter over cream cheese, and the girl he is arranged to marry over any other lady,  I am quite positive. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Puzzle Project IV: Rising Higher


November 13

Azhar was one of those boys in college who I never remembered seeing till I went on a college ice climbing trip with him. After that I saw him around campus all the time. One of the first conversations I had with him was in a large tent full of several college students who were sitting huddled close together for survival.

Okay, so that is stretching it, but within acceptable means of stretching. It was terribly cold and we were not able to make a bonfire that night. The temperature was below freezing. It was cold enough to sit back to back with a stranger just for body warmth and then make awkward small talk.

So, I don’t remember exactly what we talked about…cities and ethnicities, music and pop culture… Azhar was not quite in tune with the music I remember growing up to (Junaid Jamhed, Junoon, really? Vital Signs? Nothing?). He was always the one – him and that very smiley Austrian exchange student – several yards ahead of the rest of the group on all the treks and walks. If the group paused to take a break, lean back against a tree and exchange water bottles, Azhar and the Austrian would use that time to climb a mountain. Seriously.

He lives in Lahore with his family. He has a younger brother and a younger sister and owns a cat who he likes to call his beti even though it is a male cat. He eats a breakfast fit for kings and enough for all of Snow White’s dwarves, but he is still a pretty skinny guy.  

Azhar is obnoxiously fit. You know those pictures of guys who stand on their hands on a hill top with blue skies behind them, and scurry up a tree as if it was walking in a straight line on the ground, or bike some 300 plus kilometers from Islamabad to Lahore? Well, yeah, Azhar’s that guy.
I suppose I could call him quiet, but he is also full of energy, and unlike many young people in Pakistan, he still gets angry and indignant at corruption, injustice and excessive materialism (unless of course the material is expensive climbing equipment). He went on the Fulbright Scholarship to Duke for his masters in environmental management (right? It almost sounds too good to be true! Especially since he really does NOT spend much time over books or in class-like environments!).  
He spent two years travelling, baking apple pies, introducing Americans to classical music and chai, and he cultivated an impressive love and skill for climbing.

But I guess for me, the most impressive thing is that he came back to Pakistan. He is back and looking at ways to enrich the small but existing climbing culture in the country, and I hope he stays. For the sake of all those little boys and girls who have exceptionally strong fingers and can climb a 5.9 on their third try.

Oh, Azhar also loves Celine Dion and Taylor Swift. Which kind of takes the edge off his boxer-climber-biker persona and makes me laugh. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Puzzle Project III: Cultivating a Love for Birds


November 7

Mrs. K came back for her country. She spent more than 20 years in England, studying English Literature at Oxford, but she came back, back to a city of imperfection. I never really asked her why, but I bet it was because she missed it.

The curriculum was less than challenging but she was brilliant, smart, and knowledgeable, and very encouraging. She would stand in the drafty room with its wooden chairs, colorless walls and write sparsely in eloquent cursive. Her writing matched her mellow voice perfectly, and she would talk about the greatest novels in the world, the flawed characters in stories and ask us to think and capture our thoughts in words. No wonder I liked her. I like most of my English Lit. teachers, and not to brag and all, but they all loved me.

Mrs. K was tall, thin, and birdlike, and of course she wore glasses. What self-respecting English professor doesn’t wear glasses? If she had ever met J.K. Rowling, she would have made it into the Harry Potter series. Definitely a good witch, probably one of those seemingly frail characters who show great strength and courage unexpectedly. I can see her clearly with a flowing deep red cape, a slim wand.

Mrs. K loved reading, and writing, and she loved gardening. She and her husband lived in a small house with a small garden where she would grow tomatoes and basil, because her husband loved cooking and those were his favorite ingredients. They did not have any children. She spent her evenings grading mediocre assignments, commenting on character sketches, and preparing her lesson plans. She would drink chamomile tea and read at least thirty pages of a good novel before sleeping. On the weekends, she and her husband would listen to Irish rock music and eat Italian food. What a cultured lady!

I imagine the beautiful green fields, the magnificent architecture, the domes, the stained glass and the colors of trees she left behind. I remember my college, the white square buildings and the black shoes we all had to wear. I remember the huge wasteland I would pass on my way to college, strewn with wrappers and those plastic bags. Where do all those plastic, polythene bags come from?

Mrs. K and I liked to talk, I would tell her my word of the day. I was going through a phase in which I would peruse the Oxford English dictionary, open a page randomly and learn a new word. We both loved mountains and trees and Crime and Punishment. I guess our biggest disagreement was over the topic of birds.

“I don’t like birds,” I had said in class one day. The expression of shock on her face was so genuine and distressful it was amusing.
“How can you not like birds?” Mrs. K wasn’t one to have extra exclamation points in her conversation but if she was, there would have been at least two extra ones in that sentence.
“I don’t know. They’re kind of creepy with their beady eyes and sharp beaks, and their ugly feet. Especially pigeons. I cannot stand the sound they make!”
Mrs. K tried to dissuade me gently but I guess I felt strongly on the subject. We agreed to disagree, but she urged me to try and see the other side.

Eight years later, I was sitting in my balcony missing home when I looked up and saw the silhouettes of birds, sharp and black against the blue sky. They were flying high, small and, I have to admit, beautiful. Free but purposeful, and powerful.

I thought of Mrs. K, who had come back to her country and I was thankful. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Puzzle Project II: For the Sake of Security


November 3

Atta Muhammad was always a sight for sore eyes. If Santa Claus was a Pakthun man, he would look just like Atta Muhammad, big, somewhat round, friendly, with a bushy beard and twinkly eyes, and a face that I have to describe as jovial. There aren’t many times I use that word, but this is one of those moments.

He was (probably still is) a private guard, employed by around six houses on my street for the sake of security. I wonder how secure we really are, considering guards like Atta Muhammad are hired by private companies, underpaid, and seldom given any training. In fact, in many cases they are not even allowed to use the guns they carry, casually slung over their shoulders, or when sitting down, laid across their laps. Families like mine pay about Rs12,000 to the company and the guard gets barely Rs4,000. He sends more than half to his family who still lives in their small village in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Atta Muhammad has a wife, and two teenage sons he will talk about if probed. His parents and uncles and aunts also live in the same village. He came to Karachi in 2001, sharing the same aspirations as the hundreds and thousands who migrate to the mad city of lights, hoping to get by and send some money home.

He works 12 hour shifts, every two weeks he is on night duty and I wonder what he does to stay awake once all noises settle down: the traffic, the children, stray dogs, families coming and going, reversing cars, whistling trees, conversations of other guards or chowkidars or servants who come out to sit down together on small patches of grass outside houses they help run.  What does he do? I bet he strolls up and down the streets, and prays, and reads the Quran. Can he read novels? Does he prefer mystery to romance? Does he write letters to his wife and his boys? Does he write the letters on paper or just in his mind?

Whenever I see him, he smiles at me, raising his hand in the sweetest salam possible. When he sees me push open the gate to my house, he comes forward, pushing back the gun that slides forward along his arm, and tells me to let him do it. He sticks around to help me reverse my car, grinning, a mixture of amusement and reassurance as I slowly inch back, get too close to the edge and try again.

How are you, I always ask, and he always nods his head in stoic content: just fine.
Just fine.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Cracks and Cement


October 24

When I sit on the door step of my little balcony, I sometimes feel like a baby giraffe because my legs seem too long and gangly, my knees too knobby. The step is like my meditation spot. It is not particularly comfortable but usually when I am perched there it is quiet, and peaceful. It overlooks the alley and yes, there are the dark green dumpsters but there are also a lot of trees, tall, short, round, full.

As Fall slowly packs up to leave, the bright yellows and reds are darkening to a rustier orange, more moldy brownish, and the wind has been flying around crazily, shaking the boughs and branches, making the leaves fall. There are two trees that I am likely to notice when I first look up from my knobby knees – one is sturdy with many branches and these days alive with tiny bright yellow leaves, the other is really tall and all his leaves are gone, its branches are skinny and bare. Today was the kind of day my eyes settled on the sad tall tree.

The other day I was sitting outside while every now and then a gust of wind would make the leaves flutter down, slowly, serenely. It was so beautiful it was almost surreal, and I told myself that the leaves were like dreams. The kaleidoscopic leaves in the trees were dreams in the making and every time a dream came true, a leaf would break away from the branch and slowly flutter away.

Today I thought to myself that every time the wind blew, it tore away more dreams, and as they flew away, they disappeared into a dark abyss, another broken heart, another crippled soul.   

Yeah, I was kind of pessimistic and grumpy. I’m not sure if it is the constant micromanaging that I feel is necessary to do practicum, school and housework successfully, the early mornings, not being able to sleep well at night, missing home and eating chicken, the clogged toilets, cleanliness at home, or just everything together. But I came home from class and became to my bed what an Eskimo is to an igloo in a stereotypical world. It was quite drastic. I watched episodes of Girls (which is quite a good show contrary to my earlier perception) for around five hours straight; got up to pop frozen pizza in the oven, and then proceeded to eat the entire thing and chug down diet coke straight from the bottle (the coke is about a month old, by the way). I skipped my evening class and listened to mopey music while my episodes would load. And then I watched more episodes.
I finished the season, lay in bed in the dark and tried to fall asleep. But I couldn't. So I decided to put the dirty dishes in the washer, make my bed, take a shower, make some tea and finish a stupid budgeting assignment.

It’s called finding the cement and filling in the cracks.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Puzzle Project 1: The Coffee Lady


October 22

It was a really small office, and as befits a research nonprofit organization, it was located in a residential area in Karachi, had ugly, beige walls, old computers and unflattering white tube-light. I usually sat by myself in a room away from the other staff, entering data about important social issues. I have to admit, I wouldn’t have scored very high on a job satisfaction survey.

I must have seen the chotta (who often is not a small boy as the nickname indicates but in fact a grown-up individual) bringing in a tray of cups that had something very creamy and frothy – not tea. What’s that? I asked him as he passed me by and he told me it was coffee for “sahib jee”. Interesting. Could I have some too? Sure, and some minutes later I had my own cup of sweet but strong milky coffee with enough froth to make a mustache.

One day I decided to go up to the kitchen to ask for coffee myself, probably because chotta was too busy or on leave. The kitchen was on the second floor, in the corner of a narrow aisle. It was small with a cabinet holding cutlery enough for the entire 12-person office to sit down together and have lunch (as we did almost every day), a stove with a blackened saucepan that is the sign of a healthy coffee/tea drinking society and sink. It was very clean, all the glasses and plates were stacked according to size, the spice containers neatly labeled and the sink empty with washed utensils sitting in the drying rack.

“Salamalikum,” I told the lady in the kitchen. Her name was Arifa. She was petite, probably in her mid 5os and had henna-dyed orange hair. She asked me how I was and if I wanted something. I told her I loved the coffee she made and she was so pleased. “Well today you can see how I make it!” she told me and I leaned against the sink to watch the process: she put the milk to boil in the saucepan, and then picked out a cup, added a teaspoon heaped with instant coffee, sugar and a few drops of milk. Then she proceeded to whisk it with more gusto than an unattended four-year-old smears her mother’s makeup on her face. A few minutes and the milk was boiling while the mixture in the cup was a creamy milk-chocolate color. When she added the milk it frothed prettily, better than any coffee machine encountered.
“You have to beat it hard enough so that it becomes creamy,” she told me as she handed me the cup. I nodded, thanked her and went downstairs, all the richer in my coffee-making abilities.

Arifa cooked daal or sabzi or chicken curry every day for lunch, and we would have it with fresh chappatis from a nearby tandoor. I suppose after Arifa, that was my favorite part about my office. I kind of made a habit of going up to see her first thing in the morning and talking to her while she made my coffee. She taught me how to do it myself but I was nowhere as good a whisker as she was, which says something about my fitness level and about hers as well.

Arifa told me she had been working as a cook and sometimes maid for the office for six years. She cleaned houses on the weekends and spent her evenings with her grandchildren. She lives in a small house with her elder son, his wife and their four children. Her daughter often comes to stay with them because her husband often lapses into alcohol abuse and becomes physically abusive. She brings her two teenage daughters with her when that happens. Arifa cares for her daughter and her family, and she contributes to the household expenditures along with her son. But when she told me about her life, she didn’t sound depressed or downtrodden. She acknowledged she had difficult times and how sometimes it was hard to make ends meet, but she also talked about how much she loved her grandchildren and how they played with her and spent more time with her than their own parents!

Arifa was a good cook, she made delicious coffee and she cared enough to ask about my day. She was a resilient, amazing, ordinary lady who kept the kitchen really clean, enquired about the guard and his health even though he often forgot to wash his dishes after himself (her words not mine!) and she persevered with a subtle optimism that I hope to emulate. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Parts of the Puzzle Project


October 21

I like where I am right now. St Louis is an explosion of bright colors, its streets are easels and god is spilling red, yellow, orange and green all over the place. Some parts of the city are so beautiful it really takes my breath away. Sidewalks are permanently covered in dry, crunchy leaves, a child’s paradise, better than any trampoline I think! The weather doesn’t really remember if it is summer or winter and every now and then we get a day warm enough to wear t-shirts.

And as much as I hate dreary days now, sometimes a cloudy, overcast sky just makes the fall colors stand out even more, it’s kind of like the trees are playing Holi!

Anyways, so its mid-semester and I seem to have gotten the hang of homework, work-work and house-work. I still stress out about crumbs, but less so about group projects that loom around the corner, despite all telltale signs suggesting people are not going to be quite the go-getter types that one would want to have in one’s group. I’ve gone to the gym three times in the past week, which I feel is commendable, my legs would beg to differ right now but hey, it was almost fun working up a sweat. Almost. And I’m going to Boston this coming week so I’m kind of excited.

I think my class on spirituality is really helping me keep a clear head and constantly prioritize. I’ve also been practicing deep, slow breathing from the stomach and learning about different religions. It amazes me to read about so many different religions and find so many similarities!

Did you know Hinduism is henotheistic? It basically acknowledges that other religions exist and other people can have a different means of connecting with God. Many of their prayers are for all of humanity. I was quite impressed. I also loved learning about Native American spirituality; they too believe in one supreme power and they have a deep love and respect for nature. Many tribes have a practice of giving something to the earth, a small but meaningful gesture, when they dig up something from the ground. Giving back. Reciprocity.
If only people knew more about their religions (like Muslims), we would be a better world.

Speaking of better worlds, I am once again compelled to pull my blinds down to the storm of negativity wreaking havoc outside. Newspapers, people – everyone has a story of extremism, or crime, or illiteracy or broken dreams to share. And you know what, I don’t want it. If people are going to turn their backs on the positives, I’m going to ignore the negatives.

So, I am moving to the back of my house and throwing open the windows and doors, heck I’m knocking down the walls so I can look out at the beauty that always exists.

I haven’t had a very good track record with blog goals but I have a tentative one: writing about the positive pieces of the puzzle that is my country. The greener grass, the people who make it worthwhile and urge me to keep looking in that direction. So, every week I will write about a person who makes Pakistan a beautiful place to be.  I can crib and rave about the amount of work I have or the pretty leaves on the pretty trees but I have to include a narrative about an individual who has touched my life in some way in some part of my country.

Ha!

Challenge accepted.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Snapshots I


October 6

I remember the exact moment when I became an addict. I was sitting by a wide window overlooking trees newly painted by the season. It was Fall because leaves had taken up new disguises, bright orange like pumpkins that sat on doorsteps of overzealous families weeks before Halloween, and dark red like the color of bricks that burn in kilns on the outskirts of Lahore, and new yellow, like the crayon little kids use to color in their suns. The sharp gray outline of the house next door cut off the scene abruptly. The smell of spiced caramel hung in the air – candles burnt low in their glass houses.

The wind was too cold for a day in early Fall and I couldn’t tell the smoke from my breath. It was deathly quiet save for the faint strains of a piano. My mind was at peace, and my heart beat slowly, serene and regular in its rhythm. My hands were cold because I had the window open, and when I inhaled, the end of the cigarette lit up like a firefly had come to rest on it, I inhaled and the cold, clean air mixed with the nicotine and rushed down my lungs, filling my veins, stilling the flow of thoughts and blood inside. The week before dissolved like salt on a bird’s wing, soap bubbles popping at the touch of the wind. It was a moment of perfection that hung suspended while the cigarette continued to burn, the smoke settling in my hair, in the wrinkles on my dress shirt.

The minute hand clicked into place with the hour hand – 6:30 pm, and the timer went off. The chicken was ready. I looked at my cigarette and it was almost gone. I remember the exact moment I became an addict. It was a day in early Fall, somebody was playing a piano and dinner was ready. It was 6:30 pm.

***

I remember the exact moment I realized I was not in love with you anymore. I stepped out from the warmth of your dimly-lit house into the sharp cold of a winter night. The sky was beautiful, black, a few stars glittered, bright and lonely like tears. Most of the stars had made the trip to my town and settled all over, across the branches of trees and sturdy bushes, along the eaves of roofs, and curled around balustrades, draped, taped, scattered and twinkling. It was deathly quiet, almost as if I was enclosed in a glass bell-jar. The air was still and cold like ice. My breath formed a small cloud in front of my face, I breathed out slowly, and the cloud promised life and then dissolved into the night air like a magician’s dove. My cheeks were starting to feel as if they were sculpted out of ice, smooth, so cold they almost felt wet.

I dug my hands into the pockets of my jacket, looked both sides and crossed the street. You live on a street of quiet, humble homes that house raving intellectuals like you. Mostly PhD students who have chosen books over people, and like infatuated teenagers or new mothers or new dog-owners, all they can talk about is their books, refusing to read the lack of interest in other people’s eyes, lost in the delight of their own love.

My love for you is not like that, my love for you is painfully, beautifully private. Nobody knows, except for the tree beneath which I bury the letters I write to you. I feel the stiff paper in my left pocket, a poem you have written and I have stolen from your desk.

You are a poet, a Persian scholar, with soft brown eyes and you do not know that I love you.

I stand next to the bus stop, beneath an orange street light that creates a small halo at my feet, a private performance on a private stage; I am the only audience to your poetry. This is not the first time I have stolen your work. I suppose I cannot help it, as I sweep your floors and caress your furniture with a duster, slow and purposeful in the holograms I create of you sitting at your desk late at night, head drooping over a thick, leather-bound book, putting your feet up on the chair next to the sofa, resting your head back to gaze at the wooden ceiling fan that is not attached to any switch in the house…

I love reading the words you write, always in black ink, in the neat cursive of a boy who has just learnt to write like that. I always thought you write so well, your words flow over my skin like the river over a bed of rocks, like the warm breeze that plays with umbrellas and blankets on a beach, like the leaves that try to grasp the wind, rustling longingly.

I remember the exact moment I fell out of love with you. I took out the piece of paper and read the words you wrote in your black ink pen, and waited for a few moments, realizing that they had no effect on me, that they sounded hollow, and even stupid, your handwriting appeared limpid, contrived, and your words so hackneyed, impersonal. I folded the paper into a small square and lifted my eyes, surprised, feeling lighter. I heard the silent snowflakes tumbling down from the sky before I saw them, as if the gods were naughty little children running along the heavens, kicking over pails full of soft cotton. I looked up and one fell on my lip, a whisper, a kiss, melting at the lightest touch, dissolving into me. The snow came down quietly, beautiful and breathtaking in its magnificent silence, and then I heard the bus. The glass dome was lifted. I knew the exact moment as the bus pulled to a stop in front of me, exactly three minutes late and the minute hand had already left nine behind.     

Monday, October 1, 2012

Wiring


September 18

Songs can be like pale helium balloons, that float by silently and if want, you can reach out, grab a hold and then float into the past. Float into a memory like walking through a curtain of shimmery air, where my past exists in holograms, images projected onto white surfaces.

If I traded it all, if I gave it all away
For one thing, just for one thing…

I close my eyes, and the less-than-literary Game of Thrones, and lean back on the plaid sofa. The song reminds me of a walk around campus, with headphones plugged in my ears and nostalgia tearing up my eyes even then – the last few weeks of college and something about the wistfulness of that song that made me think of how much I was going to miss it.
I remember feeling the weight of an end, how heavy a book feels when it ends and each chapter meant so much to you, and I remember thinking to myself, I’m going to miss this so much, and I open my eyes to a dim evening three years later. And I do, I miss it so much.

The smell of tea when you get the proportion of water and Everyday just right, the density of butter that needs to be pushed against the teacup so that it can melt enough to spread easily. I think that is why I liked Proust so much, when he takes that bite of the creamy madeleine and is transported back to his childhood. I could relate to the intangible memories that rise up like leaves in a windstorm from a very tangible sound, scent, scene or touch. 

I wonder when one gets so old that there are so many stimuli around already carrying associations from the past that you continuously live in this windstorm of memories, and the whirling motions of Fall-colored leaves make it hard to see the present. Maybe that is why older people talk about the same things over and over again, in a constant state of reminiscence. Like the man with poetic eyes who can always hear a slow, steady patter of rainfall, a constant sound that sometimes calms, sometimes drives him insane and often drowns out the sounds of everyday life.

To change tracks a little bit, we were talking about brain development in adolescents, and also children. As can be expected, the first couple of years our brain develops at a very swift speed, absorbing, and learning. We are born with infinite possibilities within our brains, and depending on the environment we live in, these possibilities are narrowed down till they become a few actualities and personalities are tentatively designed. If during these important months and years, children are exposed to stressful situations that cause their stress hormones to kick in, the neurons and nerves involved in this entire process are sharpened, to the extent that they become oversensitive.

This means that children growing up in abusive households who have to constantly hide under the bed or lock their doors to keep out drunken fathers, or toddlers who wake up in the middle of the night to the sounds of an explosion caused by yet another US government drone attack, they are going to spend their lives in a high stress mode. It is very likely that they are going to have problematic behaviors later on, whether it is bursting into tears because of a sound they hear on TV or jumping up to punch a boy in the next seat because of a word overheard.  

Think of it like making certain patterns in wood with a set of nails, once hammered in really well it is going to take a lot of skill and work to pull them all out. And even when that is done and you are ready to nail in a healthier, prettier pattern, the scars of the work before will still exist…

We talk about poverty and violence and how this impacts children growing up in such a harmful environment, and how these factors play a significant role in the behavior problems kids here show in school, and I think of the little barefooted children back home, with their plank-of-wood bats and their dusty hair, and I wonder if we put them in schools, will they act out like so many students in the American city public schools…

I need more experience but when I think back to the orphaned boys I met in a school in Islamabad, boys from areas affected by the American government’s atrocities in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, I don’t see too many parallels. We have our own set of problems, don’t get me wrong, but I am wildly fascinated by these differences in how brains are wired. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Struggle for/of Humanity


September 20

When people ask me why I want to be a social worker I never know how to reply without sounding like a righteous Mother Teresa wanna-be. I want to make a difference, I think, I want to serve humanity, alleviate poverty, eradicate illiteracy, make a few people happier by making their living conditions better. “I just enjoy it, I guess I’ve always wanted to work in the nonprofit area,” I usually mumble and smile dumbly.

And then things happen that crush my faith and shove me off the cliff of self-confidence and determination. When I look at the pictures of burning flags and buildings, fists in the air, mindless fury erasing all boundaries, all virtues and values of tolerance and patience and peace and love, when I look at how cities shut down and people destroy in the name of justice, in the name of love… when I look at how a government fails to stand up for rationality and bows down to mob behavior by announcing a holiday to signify something that shouldn’t need a special day marked on the calendar but should be part of who we are as people…

…then my heart crumbles, and my spirits plummet, and my brain yells at me, why, why, why bother? Optimism seems like stupidity. Definitions change, and all rose-colored glasses in a hundred-mile radius disappear.

Who would have thought an idiot’s twisted sense of humor and unforgiving irreverence could spread like wildfire across countries?
Something makes me think the idiot might have seen this coming, something makes me feel like he is pretty happy with the results. A person outside of Islam making a film against our Prophet Muhammad (SAW) can never touch our reverence, love and respect for our messenger (SAW).
People who claim to be valiant defenders of Islam and devout followers of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) rampaging through their own cities, damaging their own property and hurting their fellow men, women, and children and setting fire not just to tires and American flags but all the beautiful values that Prophet Muhammd (SAW) taught us… I’m afraid, these people can, and do, damage the image of Islam.

I would go on about the rationality of such mob behavior targeting embassies and the idiocy of creating a public holiday (we do not need to sign a petition, or run mad through streets to demonstrate our love for Prophet Muhammad (SAW); we need to follow all that he taught us, honesty, love, peace, tolerance, modesty, respect, duty to our fellow mankind, and so on) when the US government condemned the film in clear terms. But I don’t think my few sentences would change anything.

Why bother anything at all?

Because there are underlying reasons for such behavior. It isn’t our religion that teaches us to act like this, neither is it the essence of Pakistanis. It is the environment of deprivation, disparity, illiteracy, and lack of good, strong religious leaders. And these are conditions that require a lot of effort… but, slowly, eventually, they may change.

So I’m going to walk the extra hundred miles and go find my rose-colored glasses, because I think I need them.   

P.S. To follow soon is a rant against Jamaat-e-Islami. The party maddens me so much I rave against it in my dreams. Religious party? HA! So much hatred, intolerance and lack of understanding about our own religion… what does that say about the “religious leaders” the party claims as its own?  

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Almost OCD


September 11

‘Almost’ is one of the most disappointing words in the English language. Very few sentences that carry ‘almost’ can be uplifting. Almost all of them call for a sympathetic ‘oohhhhh’ (haha, I am so clever.). You’re almost beautiful. You almost made my day. We almost wanted to wait for you before we finished the chocolate cake, we almost did wait… I almost married you – though in that case it might be a positive.

I have almost OCD, which means that it isn’t so cool that I could write a book about the intricacies of my mental order. I’m not so meticulous that I would fascinate people or make their eyes go wide because I need my toothbrush to face a certain way in its blue plastic home. I don’t measure the distance between my spoon and fork with a measuring tape every time I sit down to dinner, nor do I really mind crooked photographs in scrapbooks – as long as they’re artfully and mostly purposefully crooked.

I’m more of the housewife OCD variety – I have to puff up cushions on the sofa in the exact manner my mind sees it fit, always the same way, and I will start a battle of wills as soon as I spot crumbs on the coffee table or dirty dishes in the sink. I will make my bed even if it means I’ll miss my bus and be late for class. In fact, I will make my bed every time I sit on it and then get up, just pulling at the edges to get the creases out. My friends used to love making a point of falling on my dorm bed with all their body weight and my younger sister still looks at me as if I had asked her to shave her head and dye it neon green when I ask her to sit on the sofa rather than my beautiful, sweet, neat bed…

People cutting their nails without putting something under their feet will give me an actual physical ache, and wet sponges lying in the skin make my skin crawl. I will organize the grocery in my cart, and your grocery in your cart. When I set the table I will always make sure the flowers on the plates are facing in the right direction, and the glasses are on the right hand side (as a social worker I realize that that might be discriminating against lefties but as a Pakistani social worker I realize that I don’t give a fuck about this particular detail) and the fork is to the left of the spoon. I don’t really know the actual art of laying a table and these are made-up rules but I abide by them dutifully. Shoes must always sit side by side, and never lie upside down.

I believe I creeped my first college roommate out because in a cleaning frenzy I hung up her PJs on a hanger and stuck it in on her closet handle. I love hotel rooms because they are so perfect and I secretly enjoy unpacking because it gives me a sense of accomplishment as I put everything neatly in its place.

I love sitting on the sofa with a cup of tea after mopping and dusting, turning on a candle or the fairy lights taped around the doorway to the living room. It is like meditation because it brings me peace and happiness, just breathing in the quiet cleanness.
When I pull up my laptop lid, the few seconds before the screen lights up, I can see all the dust on it and it makes me cringe, I want to jump off my bed and go get a duster or a Q-tip to slide it through the keys on the keyboard. But then the screen comes to life and the whitish blue glow makes the dust disappear. And so I keep sitting, and after a minute or two, I even forget. Which is why I know I don’t really have OCD, it is just almost OCD. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Holding My Own Strings


September 8

Sometimes the universe seems to be a giant puzzle in the making and you stand above an empty, gaping space for hours, quite positive that you will never find the missing piece because the vacuum cleaner ate it up and it is now slowly disintegrating at a large dumpsite with sad, discarded heaps of stuff. And then, one day, suddenly, it appears and falls in smoothly, like it was meant to.

The other day we were waiting for one of my roommates to come back from work so we could go to the Hispanic Festival, and when she finally came back, she told us she needed to cook… and just then we heard metal trays clanging in the heavens, a giant hand moved curtains of leaves aside, sweeping them across the sky, and soon the sound of rain surrounded us, gaining momentum, joined by the sharp, hard knocks of hail.
“I’m glad we had to wait for you,” I told my roommate as we all rushed to the backdoor in the kitchen and peeked out, venturing into the covered patio, feeling the cold rush of air lift our dresses and our spirits in tandem. “Otherwise at this precise moment we would be caught outside with little frozen rocks bouncing off our heads.”

I love looking back at the millions of little coincidences that set our pathways in life, like big cogs and little wheels turning, a strange, perchance way of inevitability that determines huge decisions in our life – the precise moment in life when your shoelaces come undone so you pause to retie them, miss your bus, walk an extra mile to a different grocery store and meet a random person who helps you with your bags and becomes your friend for life. The split second it takes for you to hesitate, wonder if you should sit next to that guy in class but then somebody else takes the seat and you turn away from a potential soul mate.  A tiny, good deed that reaps immense benefits in your own life, or a glance in the wrong direction that ends in a terrible accident.

What a contradiction life can be, in the way opposites come to sit next to each other, fitting in snugly like different pieces of the same giant puzzle.

So I turned 25. It was a beautiful day to turn 25, the sky was brighter than any blue crayon you could find in any stationery shop, and there was a slight, cool breeze that required a full-sleeved shirt and pants but you didn’t need socks. The sun shone gold so you could wear your sunglasses and instantly look fashionable (or like a blind person or Mighty Mouse or a combination of the three).  Friends, deep dish pizza, a pecan brownie cake, a water yoyo battle and a cozy little bowling place – yellow flowers to put in a vase and a persistent chorus of happy birthdays.
I overcame my mild OCD tremors to force myself to sleep in late, eat in bed, and do nothing constructive other than Skype and watch The Wire. And then ended the evening with ginger ale, pieces of cheese drizzled with honey and grapes with my roommates in our living room.

The joys of having my birthday earlier in the semester!

I think I’ve lost some of the baby fat on my face – just a few years shy of wrinkle town. Am I slightly different? I’m slightly more troubled. Instead of the teenage angst and loneliness I go through bouts of useless anxiety and ingratitude that I used to chide fictional heroines about. Stop whining and just do something about it! The crippling blues that I know I can get out of, just like trying to unzip something when there’s a piece of cloth stuck between the zipper, it is a little difficult to achieve but definitely not impossible. Or one of those tightly-shut jars that you bruise your fingers trying to twist open… sometimes you just don’t have the strength.

I sometimes wonder if I’m as vulnerable to my mood swings as I was when I was chubby and 13… maybe slightly less. I suppose that’s definitely a resolution to tackle this year. Despite the coincidences that nudge us into the directions we end up walking for miles, we have so much control over how we see things. And I want to see things positively, because the silver linings always exist. There might be a crack in the window from one angle, but if you squint your eyes so on a sunny day, you can always see tiny golden rainbows dance on your eyelashes. A constant resolve to try and be more positive, make the most of what I have here and not constantly look to the future in hopes of getting something different. Not to the extent that I stop living for the present.