Monday, January 30, 2012

A most certainly not mopey post (I)

January 30

I suppose sometimes my writing is reminiscent of overripe fruit, strings of hackneyed, honeyed words that I like, stale romantic litanies that hang like paper stars from black wires.

I guess I could try a more real approach, use rougher words – like barks of tree? No! Concrete. Wool. Mold. Tie-dyed colors that do not look good together.

I also suppose sometimes my writing is too melancholic, or “mopey”. “It seems like not fitting in is a common theme for your blog,” said one of my friends, words that are funny because they are just one little step away from the truth. I guess I may sound like I’m adrift every now and then, but over all I am quite happy. And to remind myself of this, I am going to turn my mopey face upside down, or at a slight tilt to the right and see the world from a different, happy angle.

There was the day of the sun. It was finally warm enough for me to sit outside on my balcony in just a sweatshirt (and pjs, socks, of course), have my tea, and feel my thoughts dissolve like ink in warm water, the comfortable state of being in which all you have to do is exist. I felt good, relaxed, happy. Like a yellow smiley face. Or a fat baby bird nestled under its mother’s feathers.

Then there was the day of fondue and gifts. There was a scavenger hunt, with clues that rhymed and hid under tables and sofas and finally led me to a gorgeous teapot. “It’s perfect!” I squealed, “I know!” squealed my cute Santa in her white shirt. There were a series of well-chosen gifts, as if they were bought with the person standing right there. Like you picked out a color and held it below their chin, nodded approval, yes, this color looks good on you.

And then there was cheese. It melted in the steel fondue pot, rich, creamy, happiness made tangible, palatable, edible! Bread, apple, snap peas, broccoli, baby carrots skewered on long sticks that danced around each other in the pot, sometimes a piece of bread would down, or a carrot would disappear beneath the waves of cheese, but then it would be found and set back on its path to our stomachs. Then there was chocolate: dark chocolate and coconut, angel cake, pretzels, oranges, apples again (I don’t care for apples except on trees and in pies). Oh so stuffed, like containers and trucks loaded high with cargo in Pakistan, barely able to move.

Games that make your mind jump out of your head and dive headfirst (ha.ha.) into a gutter, and turn you into 12-year-old boys who giggle when they say or hear the word “penetrate”; the LiEbrarian with its strangely detailed rules on exposure to socialization with real people and Liz wrote about Twinkies so everyone linked the HIV sentence to her and what a conniving liEbrarian Ellie was!

There’s more, yes, but I’m sleepy and I have to read about Game Theory, which my professor promises can lead to practical, applicable solutions to world problems, strategies that work, she had said.

But later I will talk about the explosion of cultures on Friday, a celebration of the Lunar New Year that was musical and beautiful and lit up like a bright bulb in front of me, Eureka! This is why I’m here! It winked and disappeared.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Make an igloo, light an orange

January 22

That evening the streets froze. A thin sheet of ice formed over stairs and sidewalks and banisters, people were falling all over the place in a seemingly Domino effect, feet and legs running ahead, the body and butt being too slow to follow and thus, splat, flat on the icy ground.

I was on the metro bus, on my way home from the second day of work, five thirty pm and dark as midnight. It was so warm and toasty inside the bus I wondered if I had to get off – could I not spend the entire night on the bus? Does it get to the final destination and then revert to the start, stuck in repeat? Would they kick me off once they realized I had no place to go. After all, buses are transitional places, you can’t really set camp on them. Maybe that’s why they don’t allow food or music on public transit here. They don’t want us getting too comfortable.

As much as I was missing (am still) home, I’m slowly getting back into routine. Sort of like remembering how to bike, it takes a while – except I don’t know how to bike. And whatever happened to my becoming stronger, fitter, and climbing a 5.9 wall goals? Well, they’re off visiting someone else for a while. I’m sure they’ll come back, I’ll let them in again and once they’ve unpacked and settled, I’ll take ‘em up again. Optimist, hopeful or just delusional?

It’s kind of like how when you start to cook for yourself, and your fingers burn too easily when you lift the pot off the stove – but slowly, the threshold rises and soon you get used to the heat and you can lift them pots and pans up easy. How long before my threshold for being away from my family and my fiancĂ© and paratha rolls rises and it can stop burning holes in my heart? Like an iron left on a t-shirt, or a cigarette you thought you’d extinguished but hadn’t.

The loneliness attacks like bats, encountered suddenly on an evening in a quiet park, it flaps darkly around my face and makes me want to run away, hide, or just sit down and cry.

But then I will think of the orange lights. What orange lights?

The orange lights that glow inside the square and rectangular windows of houses on streets, particularly in St Louis because that is where I am. The lights mean there is a family living inside the house, and they sit together on a table for dinner together and argue over little things, and there is a feeling of permanence. The kind of permanence that is comfortable and warm, not trite and horrifying in its infinity. The orange lights make me so wistful, and I miss home, and my mother, sisters, everyone, and of course, I miss you so much. And I know, technically, we have orange lights in our little house on Washington Blvd but it is not the same. I am grateful for our little house, of course but the ache is still there. And then I think of all the other people all over the world who don’t have – or even know of the joys of – these orange lights in windows and think: that’s why I’m here so far away from home. Learning, studying, trying to find ways to change the world, and hopefully light a few orange lamps for others.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Only City

January 10

It feels like time stopped when I left my house in Karachi. The hands of the clock finally took a break, construction on the house next door stopped, layers of dust collected slowly in the terrace, and the leaves on the dead Neem tree never sprouted again. The sights are similar, the sounds exactly the same. From the ticking of the clock in our former lounge to the azaan from the mosque followed by the less melodic, more throaty azaan from the makeshift prayer area in front of our house on our street. The one or two cocky crows that come sit on the balustrade in the terrace when I come out to walk, waiting till I’m two steps away before they finally fly off. The Omore ice cream man who cycles in to our lane around 4:20 pm, and the Walls ice cream man who visits an hour later – the guard smiles and waves and I wonder how much his family in Peshawar misses him.

The house next door seems to be perpetually under construction. It has started to look a bit like our house in Islamabad and I wonder how it would be to wake up in that white square house, look out the window and see our old home, weather-worn, and beautiful with holograms of my past hanging in silent suspension everywhere.

The beauty of transience is how easy it becomes to love. Five months since I last saw Karachi, and the four days I spent there were not enough. Everything was beautiful, the dry, warm days, the cold night breeze, the dust that hung so palpable in the air it was like I was perpetually kissing the earth.

I hear of increased car snatching, muggings, stolen phones, there’s a sit-in on one of the busiest roads in Karachi and the shopkeepers are pissed, whose rights are these bearded men shouting about at the cost of our business? Conversation starters include videos of policemen teargasing protesters made on phones from tall office buildings. But it doesn’t matter. Winter in Karachi is beautiful, the sea is calm like a glassy emerald lake, float on your back and the sun shines in your eyes, utter calm. My favorite cafes and restaurants, the 3-D cinema and I finally found khussas that don’t cut into my toes or heels! DVDs for Rs50, gol guppas, and Pakola, my friends, and of course, you are in Karachi.

Where else will you find a school called The Set School or, even better, The Only School. Where else do men inside cars get so annoyed at pesky persistent child window wipers at traffic lights? Where else do I fit in so well?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Feels like home

January 3

Happy new year, already three days old, tottering off to a fast start but that’s just how it is now. Time hops by like the pink Energizer bunny, too fast to breathe deeply and then just like that, the battery will run out and we’ll be dead.

It’s so good to be home, surrounded by family, in the same time zone as him, knowing when I message him I’ll see you soon, it can actually happen. How long does it take for six days to pass?

It pays to be an optimistic, upper-middle class woman in Pakistan, where bad news is part of your everyday reality, where heart-wrenching sights and sounds wrap themselves around your ankles and arms and drag your stunned, immobile, weak body into a never-ending pit of despair. It pays to be an optimist in a country where heaters flicker weakly and tea takes ages to make because there is low gas pressure, where five people die on a Tuesday in Peshawar in a blast, where the word blast is part of everyday lingo, where the light goes four times a day even though it is winter, where a small, skinny boy refuses to sell you a single rose for less than Rs50 and so you drive away, leaving him at the traffic light on a smooth road in cold Islamabad. It helps to be an optimist because instead of being dragged into the pit of despair you wrench yourself free of the gripping vines of misery and look at the huge marigolds around the corner, the three children clutching boxes of juice as they walk in a park, the happy boys playing cricket with a slab of wood as a bat.

It feels good to be around my people, talking in dialects that I understand, barbecuing chicken and pondering over whether lokki ka halwa can really qualify as a desert, where people call deserts ‘sweetdishes’ or even ‘swee-dish’. Here, shawls signify winter, and everyone, men, women, children drape them around themselves and their loved ones. I like that.

The comfort of being in Pakistan is strange, irreplaceable. And even though I know I can get run over or mugged, or even lose my limbs in an explosion in a marketplace, or leered and followed by greasy men, these risks melt into a hazy nothingness in front of the fact that I belong here.


December 17

I just deleted the last of the virtual post-its on my desktop – and now, the only thing on my list of things to do is survive this lonely, long journey back home. So far, so good. I sat next to a stereotypical Southern lady on the plane: blond, sweet, ignorant as a blond, sweet lady in a clichĂ©d movie. “Packistan! Cool!”

Pause. I smiled as sweetly as possible and opened my book.

“So is like Packistan like a desert?”

No, but we have some desert areas. Mountains in the north, sea in the south. It is like a memorized script that pours out now.

“Oh, cool.”


“So is it safe there?”

I love these generalized questions about a sizeable country with different cities and towns and different levels of safety.

“Not as safe as the US,” I feel is a diplomatic answer.

“Do you have to wear those face mask things there?”

“I don’t have to,” I am still tickled. So these are the people we have been talking about in our diversity classes! Good intentions, limited knowledge, plenty of assumptions and opinions.

“Good! I think those are crazy!”

How interesting. She doesn’t even know the right name for burqa/hijab/veils, calls them “face mask things” and believes Packistan is a desert but she does believe it is crazy to wear ‘em face mask things.

My social work instincts try to yawn, stir like a shoulder twitch during a nap on the couch. I should ask her to tell me why she thinks the face mask things are crazy. Tell me more about this…why do you think it makes you feel like that?

The instincts are silent and I go back to my book. I guess one semester doesn’t quite do the trick.

But of course, the cherry on the chocolate cupcake was when she suddenly said: “You’re from where the Slumdog Millionaire is, right?!”

Although “Do you celebrate Christmas?” was also quite innocently presumptuous. Happy holidays, I said, would do instead of a merry Christmas wish.

“Happy holidays then!”

Ah, sweet blond lady. I hope you have a good stay in New York.

How time helps us adjust, settle, become comfortable. It’s like sitting in sand and then wiggling your butt and making a perfect groove for yourself, warm, soft, so comfortable. The human brain is so forgetful – how easy it is for me to forget the gaping, lonely terror of being in a new country where nobody knew I dyed my hair.

And now my roommate checks my head and says, “Oh, it’s almost that time of the month again! Wanna dye your hair over the weekend?”

People to hug goodbye, and then see after a month and hug again, knowing the city enough and having friends to look forward to when it’s time to come back again. Spending enough time with someone to hear their funny/mediocrely funny stories two, three times. Remembering their siblings’ names. Putting the pieces together of complicated puzzles so that you can decipher some parts, being able to read faces, pick up physical cues. Spending hours watching Youtube videos, painting sugar cookies, bonding over the joys of car dancing, getting pissed off during a game, rolling over in fits of laughter over a dating website.

It feels good to go home. I’ve been waiting for this day for a while. But it also feels good to know that it won’t be so bad coming back.