Friday, June 29, 2012

Let’s stereotype

June 26

My almost-Dementia is one of the secrets behind my regret-free, generally grateful and optimistic outlook on life. It is this friendly forgetfulness, at least in part, that makes looking back at my past such a bittersweet and pleasurable activity. I’m not like Sonya, who wades in murky streams most of her days, her skin wrinkled and pale because of the time she spends feeling bitter. She has a picture-perfect memory and can recall the purple plastic watch her best friend was wearing on her right wrist on the fifth day of first grade. But her memory kind of works like he media – bad news sells, it sticks and draws more attention. The thorns sticking into her feet, scratching her arms and holding on to the cloaks she wears are too prickly, their sharpness stings so much that she cannot feel the softer, silky petals of happier days.

And so Sonya spends more time thinking about the time her mother got so angry at her for repeatedly asking to go to a friend’s party that she finally sent the mint green china she was cleaning flying off the table, and even now, 15 years later, she can see her six-year-old self standing barefoot with a million shards of chinaware around her while her mother stormed off… the time when her father stayed late at work and missed her 12th birthday party and really didn’t seem to care what the big deal was, when her cousins told her she was too annoying and they didn’t want to play with her, because after all, she wasn’t even their real cousin…

It was as if her mind had a little secretary sitting inside, filing away all the complaints and grievances that fell around her, dutifully picking each one and putting them in metal cabinets, alphabetized and neatly arranged. She could whip out any memory on demand, and it wasn’t just a piece of paper she would read out, it was a real, living, writhing memory that would materialize and you could see Sonya reliving it, the expression in her eyes, the tremor in her voice …

Coming back to where I started, my Dementia means I do not have a meticulous filing system in my brain. I also think I’m an optimist and I believe in thinking the best of people and their actions for purely selfish reasons: it will keep my heart at peace. So I will tell myself it wasn’t personal, or maybe the person had a bad day or a bad childhood, and so on. But then things happen and there is a distinctive rewiring of the brain. In this case, it was my social justice class in the first semester.
It was interesting to step out of my third world, and observe the problems that occur elsewhere, to experience the pain of Latina mothers who have to explain the concept of race to their four-year olds, or African-Americans who talk about being followed around in retail stores. I remember thinking to myself that even if I had been followed around in a store, I would have either not noticed it or thought that these salespersons were just that chummy.

Of course, most of the time the rewiring happens without us noticing.

And so, when Hera and I went to pick up her mail from the post office downtown and the white man behind the counter was abrupt and rude, saying her passport wasn’t enough and she needed something with her address on it, my sensors perked up. Was it because we’re South Asians? Because Hera had a Pakistani passport? And when we came back with her lease, a few hours later, there was a black lady behind the counter this time. “Hang on to your lease and give it to her if she asks,” I told Hera because I wanted to know if it was a regular policy or a white man rule. And whether it was mild racism or coincidence, the lady didn’t ask for the lease and we got Hera’s documents, simple and easy.

I’m not sure I’m happy about this rewiring. Sure it means I’m more aware of other people’s feelings and experiences, but at the cost of reinterpreting my own life. Who says social work is easy?
Everything in social work is serious though. We deconstruct to the extent of insanity, to the limit that we can barely speak a sentence without someone pointing out politely the emotional baggage behind the words we are using. And I am all for understanding where our language comes from and I would never devalue the power of words, but seriously, sometimes I just want to be politically offensive. Also, I’m going to head back to Pakistan and if I am to survive in the society, I can pick on things every now and then but I have to take a step back and adapt. Without feeling burdened by guilt.

We all abide by stereotypes, and we make fun of them. Like the funniest jokes, they make us laugh because they are – in large part – true. I always find it interesting how we can make fun of “our people” (brown, South Asian, Muslims, Punjabis, girls, etc.) but others cannot. Of course, every time we joke about finding all the Asians in the business and engineering schools, or desi families packing coolers full of food every where they go, we are playing a part in perpetuating these beliefs. Of course, many of these are harmless and they do tell a story about how we are. I guess one of the smartest lines my Dementia has allowed me to remember is how the trouble with stereotypes is not that they are untrue – it is that they are incomplete truths. And that, I suppose, is the key thing to remember.     

Stationary cities

June 17

Hera’s sitting across from me on a single bed, papers strewn beside her, a pen in her hand, nibbling her finger. The door to the room is open, and the curtains are tied together with a hairband, the fan is a whirling blur and for a minute, I feel like I’m back in the dorms. The pictures on her wall don’t help – memories from a little more than three years ago, like the pensieves from Harry Potter (, drawing me in, walking me into the central courtyard, reminding me of the Three-Leaf Thai Chicken, pressing down on my heart like a shoe crushing an ant, or how a child might press his palm to a hole in his beach ball.

We spent half of last night watching old videos, and looking at the hundreds of photographs we snapped in the four years at LUMS. It was hilarious and mildly heart breaking – I guess watching it together made is bearable. Also the fact that we didn’t look the way we looked in freshman year anymore. Ew. Seriously, those pictures have to be seen with my finger on the next arrow!

Kitchener is a sweet city, kind of a bigger town almost. We walk around Uptown almost every day, and at night it feels like we are on a set of a movie, long after the actors and cameras are gone. There are still some lights and everything looks really clean and smooth. There are really few people who smoke here, a lot of old people (and consequently a retirement home, conveniently adjacent to a funeral parlor). And apparently bus drivers here are in the highest paid job category! There are also no cigarette displays – as in you will not see grocery shops and convenience stores showcasing cigarettes. Good stuff, Canada.

Kitchener really stands out, compared to the seedy, rundown Windsor, with its gum-splattered sidewalks and lost looking people asking for a few cents, to Toronto’s confused hustle-bustle that makes your neck hurt from craning it to look at the tall buildings, and to Montreal’s European beauty. The little city feels like somebody pressed a pause button and slipped into it. It was a rather nice break but of course, people from Karachi can’t take the pale sleepy content of a stationary city for long. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Falling for Niagara

June 18

Come on, you have to admit it. The word Niagara makes you giggle because it rhymes with Viagra. Reem warned me in advance, the place has been commercialized to the extent it barely seems like one of the natural wonders of the world – what I didn’t realize was how much I would enjoy the bling ding.

We found good parking and then like good old desi girls, we walked wrong way down a road with cars turning around a blind corner. What can I say, we like living on the edge. Now that I’m reunited with my girls, we paused and took pictures at every five feet, with a slightly different background, green grounds, and the most beautiful blue-green water, swirling towards the edge, where it plummeted vertically into the white arms of the river that stretched upwards.

There is something strange about Niagara Falls, the way it stretches out so wide and uniformly, falling so neatly over the edge. Something manmade about the whole scenario. Maybe it’s the hotels that compete for height and customers, standing tall, taller, and tallest nearby. Maybe it is how controlled the environment is, with railings telling you how far you can reach out, and money determining how “natural” an experience you can get, how close to the falls you can be.

What I love about waterfalls is how hard it is to pen down the way they tumult off an edge and into the world below, reminiscent of ghosts and dreams in the way they dissolve into mist, the way you can’t tell water and air apart. How it might require hours of trekking, pausing and panting till you turn a corner and spot the waterfall, or scramble over rocks and streams and then precariously balance on a fallen log so that you can feel the mist on your face. I love the sounds, when you get close enough all you can hear is the waterfall, and it fills your head so that everything else is swept away. Waterfalls are supposed to be tucked away in forests or hills or mountains, not surrounded by streets and parking lots that charge $20 for the day, by shops that sell its mediocre miniature replicas on key chains, shirts, and mugs.

Don’t get me wrong, I had a blast at Niagara. We were finding it hard to walk straight because we were so excited, even before we saw the magnificent falls. We shrieked when we saw the omnipresent rainbow, a perfect arch with is ends disappearing into the deep aqua waves created by the falls. The rainbow travelled with us as we walked along the pathway, pausing at every other spot to shove ourselves between hundreds of other people, all wanting the falls, the trees, the rainbow in the backdrop. I loved walking past different groups of people, catching snatches of conversations in a hundred different languages, two Sikhs in bright turbans debating the merits of suntan lotion, a tiny Asian boy trying to squirm between his mother and slightly bigger brother, an Indian girl telling her counterpart: “and that’s how we will become cousins!”, Bengali, Punjabi, Russian, German, French, Hindi, word scramble.

There were a surprising number of pregnant ladies, and some couples that took photographs of one another till a kind stranger offered to take theirs together, a desi boy posing next to his slightly abashed partner, trying to look at her with the soft affection of a doting boyfriend but barely managing an inappropriately sultry expression as their friends snapped pictures. Little kids ran around with bubble guns that spewed out transparent spheres, reflecting the falls as they twirled around our heads.

The Maid of the Mist slowly bobbed along towards the fall, under the pale arch, disappearing into clouds of spray, bright blue people on board, awestruck, unable to whip out their cameras and snap away (probably a good thing) because of the sudden rain that fell on us, drenching anything that peeked out from under the plastic poncho.      
The ferry ride was short and sweet, I almost strangled myself in the blue poncho, we waved to the Americans and dutifully posed like Jack and Rose on Titanic. We saw other people doing the same thing while sleazy men (no, not desis) snapped pictures of them discreetly from afar.

For all my naturalistic rants and odes to trees, I was mesmerized by Clifton Hill. There were wax museums, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, 4D rides and moving theaters, restaurants, cafés, shops, a golf course with plastic dinosaurs standing over the holes, haunted mansions and fear factories, novelty stores where you could buy ugly dolls or get your hands immortalized in colorful wax forms. There was a Ferris wheel, an upside house, a building that looked like it was caught in a terrible earthquake, with Godzilla climbing over it and men hanging out from the windows. It was loud, big, bright, designed to woo you in and slip cash out of your pockets while you stared greedily at burgers, fancy hats, or statutes of Justin Bieber. Crass commercialization was all around and we loved it.

There was a Coca Cola store, and a Hershey’s store where we walked around, wondering who would ever buy chocolate-colored t-shirts or candles that smell like Reese’s, giant stuffed Kisses, or bright green Jolly Ranchers. Like, come on (see how I’m upset enough to revert to teenage white girl lingo?).

We did go to the Nightmare Fear Factory, and scared ourselves shitless. It was absolutely terrifying and hilarious because we were 20-something year olds shrieking in what we knew was an artificially devised environment but we were so scared at some points we couldn’t move. That is definitely one place I would recommend if you want to find out who looks the most ridiculous when they’re terrified. And also study different coping strategies: some people turn into ostriches and dig their heads into other people’s shoulders (Hera), some freeze with their eyes popping out (Reem), others grab onto ALL their friends (Kate) and others try to wrench free and flee (Aisha).

As it grew darker, lights started to flicker on and the falls started to glow, all spotlights trained on them, star attractions at a concert. The spotlights changed colors, these bright strobes of light that cut across the black sky and poured, like pink, red, blue, violet and green paint, over the falls. We could’ve been in a Willy Wonka world – ridiculously fun day, indeed. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

At Home

June 14

“You are such a brat. Your biggest stress was whether you will get your visa for Canada or go to Seattle earlier!”

If I had been a dwarf from Snow White at that time I would have been Bashful. But, I always say big is relative. So, depending on my current First World problem-mindset, I would say that as much fun as travelling is, it can be quite stressful. Especially if you’re a Muslim from Pakistan travelling in North America on your own. Also, ever since I missed my flight in Nashville (I was sweetly content in the airport lounge right in front of our gate. Except I had headphones on and my back to the gate. I don’t know how it happened but the plane took off without me and my little sister who was ecstatic that I had made such a bewildering error), I have become a nervous traveler.

I worry about reaching the airport too early, or too late, about baggage weight and excess fees, about floundering at the scanning machine because I have to take off my shoes, my laptop, my little cosmetic baggie, about not getting the window seat on the plane, about getting the window seat and having someone chubby sit next to me who will fall asleep and then how will I go to the bathroom, which I will definitely need to go to during the flight? Missing the flight, losing my bag, managing to put my bag up in the overhead compartment, will they put too much ice in my beverage again? Will the flight land on time, will the people who are supposed to pick me up be there?

To cut a whiny story short, it can be stressful when you’re travelling alone. And sleeping on couches, and living out of a suitcase, you know the deal. It gets a little tiring.
Two days in Windsor chilling out with Reem and then the Greyhound (where I did not encounter any murderers or racist drivers as Reem had warned) to Kitchener, where my twin lives. And, you know, this is what home feels like. I may be in a new city, where it gets chilly enough to wear a sweatshirt in the night, and the hallway smells of Indian food, where it seems safe to walk outside at 11 pm, and the streets are clean and neat, the shops lit up and fancy, but I have my own bed, and space in the closet. I even got a couple of hangers! There are pictures of LUMS, which make me sad and happy together, and conjure up so many memories I get lost every now and then, falling backwards into a pile of feather pillows.

My twin cooked food for me the first night, and the second night we cooked together, making creamy avocado pasta and avocado fries. We walked for more than two hours, dipping our feet in an artificial waterfall, taking pictures on timer and even finding time to finish a Sudoku puzzle, just like we did during our sub-editor training.
We spent two hours looking up things to do and scribbling them down in her notebook, just like we did during the four years at LUMS and afterwards in Karachi.

It’s fun to be with old friends, who can finish your sentences, and make fun of you constantly, and hit you, and see the light bulb go off in your brain a second before it does and burst into sporadic giggling fits, and talk about a hundred different people you both know, and share mild gossip, and find out all the things we have in common even when we’re living in different countries.

Today was a good day. We walked to Waterloo University, had cool drinks from Tim Hortons, saw cute baby ducks, slightly less cute baby ducks and a haughty baby goose. Also a baby squirrel that was either gutsy or blind, because it came right up to our sneakers and Hera got quite freaked out. And we planned out this weekend (Niagara! Woohoo!), and the next (Montreal! Double woohoo! I’m trying to convince my friends we must wear red lipstick one of them days in fashionable Montreal).

I love road trips, and these girls. We’re definitely made for travelling with one another!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


June 12

I know I’m in Canada because the building a few streets down has a sign that says “The Canada Building”. It’s quite unimpressive, plain beige and square, but then Windsor is not exactly the kind of city that blows your mind away.

I’ve always been kind to places that I visit, though, and I stand by my belief that if you’re in the right frame of mind – and more importantly, with the right people – most places in the world will have something to offer. And sure enough, the view from the 18th floor of this apartment is beautiful. There are tall buildings that glitter all through the night instead of the stars, and all the cars and roads look like they came out of a toy set. I can see the river that changes color every day. I would be crucified for comparing New York to Windsor, but the cityscape from the balcony stirs the same loneliness in my heart.

The city is sketchy, with a rundown downtown. It looks poor, with small homes and strip clubs and bars all over the place, scattered like dice, with names like Leopards’ and Bingo, and my personal favorite: Sin. They offer attractions called ‘Uncensored Fridays’. There is a small building nearby that advertises haircuts for $1, and a massage parlor that has an almost nude mannequin in the window, which makes you wonder about the kinds of massages being offered. The sidewalks are decorated with gum stains stamped black into the asphalt.

People are really friendly, everyone says hello, how are you when they step into the elevator with you, or when they walk by close enough. There was this one lady who paused to smile and wave at us when she walked by the restaurant where we were eating, like we were Mickey, Minnie and Daisy in Disneyland or something! The riverfront is really pretty, and even better is being with Reem, who keeps a picnic blanket (that conveniently folds into a striped bag) at all times in her car so we can spread it out on a grassy hill and lie down under a cloudy summer sky. A cute little café that serves normal proportions of coffee, and I would rather outlive all my loved ones at the age of 30 than be homeless and have no friends. Almost cheesecake the size of a mini-mountain, and poutine – fries with gravy (which sounds disgusting but tastes really good!).

It is also really multicultural and I haven’t seen so many women in hijabs in a while! It feels great. There is an entire street filled with restaurants and shops with signs in Arabic. Canada, I’m still in the process of getting to know you. Here’s to more travelling in this large country (which is apparently second only to Russia when it comes to size!) and meeting up with one of my best friends tomorrow! 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Dial Tone

June 11

I’m a hypocrite, I admit it. I refuse to put Kindle on the same shelf as real books, I tell myself I will ensure that my kids can hold a paintbrush and scribble with crayons before they can swipe fingers at IPads and play games on portable devices, I roll my eyes at couples who write sappy messages on Facebook and turn what should be private and sweet into what at best, bores the rest of the public (you would be surprised at how little it matters to the rest of the world that you ate dinner with your honey at the little bistro down the lane and then he bought you a long-stemmed rose).

I will reserve my thoughts on Facebook for later, but that brings me right to the dirt. I say I hate all this technology that has taken over our lives, that keeps us connected to people far away at the cost of ignoring those in our geographical proximity, but my Blackberry has become something like a third hand, or at least an addendum to one of my hands. I upload photographs on Facebook, and try as I might to appear nonchalant, I admit that I notice all the likes and comments that collect. I even sneak status updates, half-concealed attempts at appearing cool and happening and you know, living the life, travelling and seeing weird stuff around the world, so lucky. Too often I choose Hulu over my book, my Pandora is always crooning music, and I would have died of loneliness without Skype.

After so long, I slept last night without my phone next to my head. No alarm clock, no midnight half-asleep browsing the net, and worse of all, no way to send you whiny messages of love and affection. And it was kind of cool. Just feeling that I wasn’t so dependent on a smartphone for all my waking and half-waking hours.

I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong, for all the technology – well, most of it. Okay, a lot of it. It is just that I hate that Facebook is all about how many friends you have, and how many people ‘like’ your new profile picture, I hate that sometimes a status change is how you find out that one of your really good friends is engaged, that people now take pictures of what they are doing just so they can put it online and others can be dutifully envious, that you’re friends on Facebook before you’re actually friends in real life; I hate that emails and thank you cards are made redundant by tagging people in your status and telling them you love them for the benefit of the entire web. I mean, I’m all about looking at positives and I realize that there are piles of benefits to counter the negatives, but I just wish, I just really, really wish that we were more wary of all this technology.

I just want us to be conscious of every time we crush spontaneity, bypass privacy, and place our happiness and content and self-worth on public view and acclaim. Every time we take out our laptop when we are around other people, or text friends when we should be talking to friends, every time we check our emails or browse the web when we could be looking out of the window.

It is too easy to forget, which is why I have to remind myself over and over. Remind myself what matters, who matters. Sometimes it is good to shut off, disconnect and hang up. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Water babies

June 8

If I were part of Captain Planet’s crew, I’d be Gi (I always spelt it Gee but Wikipedia says otherwise). Not because she’s the Asian in the group but because her element is water. And even though I swim like a baby cow (in other words, very poorly and comically), I love water. Waterfalls, thunderstorms, lakes, rivers, even puddles make me happy. Not to mention the sea.

I miss you Arabian sea, with your gray-brown waters and warm sandy shores glinting under the bright sun. Dig your feet into the sand and just anchor yourself there, the cold, smooth sand covering your feet and then the waves rush up and over, and you feel the earth move.

We went to the lake today and walked on the trail that circles the water. There was an explosion of fitness all around us as people walked, jogged, ran and biked on the dirt path. There were the shirtless, sweaty men who breathed out in short, accurately spaced-out whoof, whoofs, and the wonder women who ran as they pushed their baby in a stroller and held on to the leash of their small dog that was barely keeping pace. My favorite walkers are old people. Not just because they don’t make me feel like a sack of potatoes on legs, but because they look so cute holding hands and walking together.

(I want to grow old with you. How cute will we be. In theory, at least.)

And then I love it when little kids run around in fountains. The fountains that like to surprise you, unpredictable like St. Louis weather, spurting out from different corners at different times. Tiny little kids love those. There was a bunch of toddlers in diapers and shirts, running around in small circles, waving their hands in the air or clapping excitedly. There was a baby crawling (I feel like he was big enough to at least walk but maybe he was just lazy) around, and two kids sitting in a blue floating tube. Which was obviously not floating because there was not enough water.
The kids running around, screaming and shouting happily make me envious. I want to do that. And then I think back to college and remember when Mony and I would do that, on campus, at night, just run really fast and yell. In front of the boys’ dorms. Yep. We were those girls.

Or when Hera and I ran into the hail rain outside our dorms, squealing and waving are hands around like we were mad chickens.

The good old days. I like Austin, with its weird frogs on the wall that ask how you are, or yellow robots that grin at you on pedestrian crossings as your step over or around them, the constant notes of music clashing in the night air, and those little cycle-rickshaws that glow with subtle decorative lighting downtown.

I hope I continue to take time out to squeal, wave and run every now and then. Its therapeutic. And walk into unpredictable fountains. Taking pleasure in little things like chasing birds, or jumping off a step that's hardly five inches off the ground with the effort and expressions more suitable on a serious sportsman's face as he takes a leap off the edge of a cliff. A ride on your dad's shoulders, which doll to take with you on this trip to the diner? 


Thursday, June 7, 2012

I Miss

June 7

Things feel incomplete today. It seems like cupcakes without frosting, a sunset lost in the clouds, a helium balloon deflating and rolling around the floor. It is like standing on top of a tower and having no one to wrap their arms around you, or walking on a beautiful night with only the wind brushing through your fingers. Its like having to tuck away loose strands of hair by yourself the entire time, playing scrabble on your own, not being able to share Chinese food with the right person.

Austin is amazing, but everything, the lake, the food, the benches, the streets with music pouring out of a hundred different places – coming to battle out in the open, clanging pianos and soft acoustic guitars – it all makes me miss you.

Just a helium-less balloon deflating without you. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Batman Forever

June 6

My father’s a pilot. My mother’s father was a station manager. Travelling is in my genes, I tell people. Every year, as May starts walking away, I get the itching in my feet. It gets harder to pay attention to what is around me and I want to pack a suitcase, board a plane or plan a road trip. And like every other summer, I get to travel around this one too while others are immersed in school work already. I mean, I know I’ll have to make it up in the last two semesters but oh well!

We walked around a lot today, enough for me to want detachable feet so I can take them off and put them to the side. Or soak them in salt water. It reminded me of our trips with my dad, who is the most determined tourist you will ever find. A baseball cap, an unwillingness to spend money and an iron will to check off as many things-to-do as he/we could. It also reminded me of our treks in the northern areas. Ah, I am dying to go on a trip to Hunza. College, I miss you.

So, I got to see more of the city today. We met an ambitious young artist in front of a huge mural near UT, it was pretty warm and he was battling the heat for his dreams, sharing his music – rap, hip hop – with people walking by, in their sunglasses and holding ice drinks. Check me out on Facebook and Twitter, he told us after we told him his song, called Miracle, was cool. Not an easy job, I admired him for pursuing his dreams… and so far, he seemed optimistic.

Juice, iced tea, frozen yogurt; sandals, shorts, hats. 

And then we walked up and down South Congress, which is full of amazing shops that do not allow photography! Why create something so amazing if people can’t share it with others! There was a shop called Uncommon Objects, which I entered and was a little stunned. My jaw fell open and my eyes widened. There was so much to see! My camera practically wanted to jump out of my hands and hop around, taking pictures of teacups hanging from a wire rack as if to dry in the wind, typewriters that warned ‘resist the urge to type’, dolls with stitches coming apart at the neck, rusty boxes that entice you with ‘keep out’ scribbled on it. An under-construction doll house, lamps and chessboards, and a broken wedding couple thing that you decorate the top of your cake with. There was old furniture, antique cameras, old yellowed books and taxidermy specimens. You could have spent hours in that place…

Then there were the bats under the bridge. And the deaf man with a bat-hat, the real batman, who makes badges and wants to keep Austin batty… scores of people had gathered at the lakeside, and on the bridge, the cameras with the big lenses and tripods were out, people out on the lake in their various means of flotation devices had pulled closer to the bridge and were sort of lazily wafting around, waiting for the famous spectacle of thousands of bats flying out from under the bridge while the sun set in a sea of orange, yellow and pink. It is supposed to be one of the coolest things to do in the city, watch the bats dot the sky like black shooting stars. So we stood on the bridge, watching the sun set and looking out at the calm water, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. The bright colors in the sky faded to pastels, and then darkened to a charcoal. Everybody stayed put, though, and in fact as it became darker, a couple more boats slowed to stops too.
‘It’s a boat show,’ a toddler corrected everyone standing there in anticipation. And the kid was right. 

We stood there for an hour and a half and finally, as we started to walk away, a few bats flew out and around back under the bridge. Then more, and more. They flew really fast, and in spinning circles right and left, flying out and then curving sharply to go back in again. It wasn’t the spectacular, breathtaking view promised but then that’s nature. You can’t control everything and I appreciated that.

Also, I did get to see a beautiful sunset, a boat show, Batman, and spinning bats. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Welcome to Austin

June 5

There are some cities that are easy to describe. All you have to do is walk down their streets, and words fly out at you, getting stuck in your hair, sticking to the soles of your flip-flops, and dancing around your head like flies till you pluck them out and slip them into your bag.

My first day in Austin, which people had already pushed up onto a pedestal with praises and odes, and I walked slowly, with my camera around my shoulder and my eyes wide open. I was scouting the city, watching closely, gathering ammunition for my day’s blog. And I wasn’t disappointed.
My friend’s apartment is close to UT, Austin, and there are little shops and cafés that sprout up on street corners no matter which direction you take. The heat, the papery bougainvillea, and brown people with black hair – there is a lot here that reminds me of home. The small almost-grocery shop located right around the corner from these apartments also feeds into nostalgia. Friendship store, anyone?

The city is bubbling with energy, the laidback mellow happiness of a summer that has just started. There are young people everywhere, talking way too loudly in the night, carrying six packs of beer and walking in shorts and flip-flops. Groups of kids peering into the turtle pond, couples holding hands, or solitary souls walking to the beat of their music; like most areas around university campuses I see very few older adults or little kids. After a week in suburban Dallas, it doesn’t bother me. I like the energy, the potential for dreams. It’s like the excitement before a trip you’ve been planning for for a very long time, and the excitement just mounts as the date creeps closer. You pour a drink into a glass and it bubbles golden, frothing eagerly and swiftly. A big house in suburbia is when the glass is full to the brim and the bubbles overflow and then they start dying. And yeah, it’s a glass full of something you like to drink but the excitement is gone. It’s just there. Like all things that are just there, you start taking it for granted.

Anyways, as usual I digress with the metaphors. There are the young people, and the cool architecture. We had Mexican food at a café on a street with works of art for homes. There was one with a square, minimalist structure and a wide balcony, with a slow moving fan in the balcony. Another with an entrance dolled up in fairy lights of all kinds, tastefully tacky. And another with its entrance slightly elevated above ground, a modern-style silver walkway angling up to it. There was a large indoor lamp placed outside next to a bright green plant by the walkway.
‘The city’s motto is to keep Austin weird,’ my friend told me.

Then there are the bugs. You can hear them in the trees. ‘Birds,’ my cousin told me, ‘crickets!’ my friend said, ‘locusts,’ her boyfriend corrected her. They buzz and hum, as loud as leaves rustling in a storm, raucous as birds at dusk. Cockroaches, and crickets, June bugs and that strange black one that hops around in the evenings by bright lights. Spiders and mosquitoes. Everybody wants to be in Austin, I guess.

Monday, June 4, 2012

In Transit

June 4

For the last thirty-five years, Jim had never needed to set an alarm to get up in the morning. The train rattling by would wake him up at six a.m. without fail. And more often than not it was the same sound he fell asleep to at night.

He still remembered how upset his wife and two daughters had been when the tracks were laid out all those years ago. “It is so loud! I’m tired of waking up in the middle of the night.”
“I can’t study because of a train zipping by every other minute,” his then teenaged daughter had exaggerated, and the younger one had obviously copied the scrunched eyebrows and scowl to the detail and said the same thing – except in a squeakier voice. And they were right. It was really loud. The vibrations were barely perceptible: windows would shiver, the handle of a tea cup on a table close to the outside wall would change direction, dreams would be disrupted, eyes would flutter awake or one would jump out of his/her skin if they were watching a thriller in the middle of the night. And then there were the images that came with the sounds, wheels whirring in a silver blur, people in hats looking out their windows, someone’s head slowly leaning towards their neighbor’s shoulder, bags shifting in the luggage compartments, the metal tracks holding steady. The rattling of the tracks and wheels would always be accompanied by the blaring of the horns, since there was a crosswalk right behind their small, pink-roofed house.

It was not the sweet choo-choo we teach our kids to make – it was an obnoxious prolonged siren that jarred your nerves.

But like other sounds associated with trains, the family grew used to the wailing too. Jim was always charmed by the idea of having a rail crossing so near their house but like he told his family when the trains first started clanking by: “we can’t afford to move!” Not that he wanted to. They had moved into this house five years into their marriage and this is where their first daughter was born. The couple had been trying for several years but this is the house that changed their lives in so many ways.

Now that his daughters had moved out, and Jim and his wife were both retired, it was the house where they wanted to die. The little house with the pale yellow walls and a pink roof that was supposed to be bright red. There was a little park across the rail crossing that he would go to every evening for a walk or just to sit on the bench. And every Monday, he would take his lunch and go sit there under a tree around noon. These were the routine things he loved doing, and he took them as seriously as he took his job (he used to be a painter. He would paint people’s houses and garages and small shops). Sometimes he would take his leftover pails and touch up the blue of a swing set, or the benches that were scattered near the trees.

“Do you want me to make you a turkey sandwich too?” Jim asked his wife that Monday.
“Yes, love,” she replied from the sitting room where she was watching TV. She wondered if she should remind him she doesn’t like mayonnaise with her turkey but decided to see if he would remember on his own. It was one those things they still kept up as a couple: Jim would forget important dates and little personal details about his wife of over forty years; his wife would remember everything from how Jim wears only plain colored socks (no stripes, no polkas) and eats his spaghetti with a spoon; Jim would not realize his wife takes extra care to buy plain colored socks and give him a spoon on pasta nights; she would remind, chastise and nag him about the dates and details he missed; Jim would not see what the big deal was but he would always apologize and then go on dutifully to forget again.
But every now and then, he would remember something that was important to her, and she liked to give him that opportunity.

“I’ll see you in about an hour!” Jim called out from the kitchen as he made his way to the back door. “Your sandwich is on the counter.”

He grabbed his hat and cane and slowly walked towards the rail crossing. It was a cloudy day, and humid. It was going to rain today, he thought to himself as came to the white crisscross and the lights that flashed when the train was near. He looked both ways and stepped onto the little platform that lay across the lines. A rumble. Jim looked up and wondered if it was thundering already, and just like that, he stubbed his toe on a rock. Caught off balance, he stumbled and fell off the platform. He was stunned for a couple of minutes and then he heard the rumble again. Louder this time and he stared up at the sky, blinking because he couldn’t see too well. Where are my glasses? he thought, and he felt the throbbing in his left leg. He had just managed to sit up halfway, leaning on his palm pressed to the railroad. When he heard the sound again he didn’t need his glasses to see the blurry shape that had turned the corner and was rushing towards him. He saw his cane lying a couple of feet away and the blaring was there, so, so loud, and Jim’s elbow gave way and he was back on the ground, seconds before the train ran over him.

Jim’s wife had just brought her sandwich into the sitting room when she heard the blaring honks of the train melt into the sirens of ambulances and police. She wondered what had happened and then was sidetracked by the first bite. She smiled and shook her head happily. No mayonnaise.

So yeah, my first trip on the train and we ran somebody over.

Amtrak is pretty cool, huge and silver, not as fast as it looks but still hefty and powerful. The seats in coach are nice, dark blue and comfy, plenty of leg room, wide windows, and erratic leg-rests. Then there is a very sunny dining area where you can sit around a table and eat bland sandwiches or yogurt, or play cards while the windows stretch further and wider, and there are also semi sky-lights that kind of curve around the corner above the regular windows but don’t stretch all the way across the roof. The outside scenery is not exactly breathtaking – no snowcapped mountains or endless fields of bright red tulips but I still like it.

Junkyards, gnarled, stunted trees, dusty roads, small houses and bungalows peeking out from behind overgrown bushes; a discarded, rusty boat sitting lost outside a one-story house that needs a paint job, but they have a huge trampoline, netted in on all sides to prevent little ones from busting their heads open because of an extra energetic jump; there are small pools that I don’t need to see too closely to imagine the leaves and butterfly droppings in the water. There are fields, faded greens and yellows in the bright summer sun; bursts of sunflowers that grow haphazard in huge families by the train tracks and in between empty parking lots.

And the gentle rocking of the train, that was sometimes like a kid’s rollercoaster, bust mostly just soothing.

Other than the part where we ran over a pedestrian near the rail crossing in Fort Worth, Texas. Apparently it was an elderly man. Nobody really noticed it or paid much attention to the train stopping and the placid announcement by the crew that there was an “emergency” which is why we stopped… and then the minutes ticked away, the power was shut off and the heat (it wasn’t warm for me but people were starting to fret and sweat). And then the rumors started spreading, from one nervous person to the other excited passenger: “I hear they found a body!” said a lady in a loud whisper, crossing herself. I found that a little hard to believe. But then straining our necks to look out the windows on one side, we could just see the blinking lights of police and ambulances grouped around the center of the tracks a few feet from where we were stopped.

Poor man.

The crew didn’t tell us much. We stood there for around two hours and the only information we would get now and then was: “there has been a fatality. We are caught up in paperwork with the authorities. We are sorry for the inconvenience”.

Yeah. Fatalities can often be inconvenient. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

What Dreams Are Made Of

June 3

I have enough blessings to make a stairway to heaven. Bright red, yellow, pink, orange and purple, blue, indigo, gold, and one of the shiniest parts of my life would be my friends. I don’t know what it is, but I dream about my school friends the most.

(Actually, I think I do know why. At least I think I know why because I spent two years studying psychology – which sounds more impressive than it actually was. So my dreams are made of wispy pale nostalgia, that smells really good, like fog, cold, dusty, and crisp, but it leaves an ache inside because it goes away too soon and you’re left wanting more. I miss my friends, or more accurately, I miss those days. Not enough to go back to the start, but maybe visit a few choice moments: the waterpark slides, chalk fights, locking one another in the school bathrooms, acting out Cinderella at Maddy’s birthday party, swinging in the evening outside Fatima’s apartments in Askari. There are strains of guilt, dark spots that camouflage into the background when you turn to look at them but which you can always tell are there because they follow you around, inches from your blind spot.

Then there is yearning. You dream of things you want. It’s called wish fulfillment, and as you grow up, your dreams and wants are disguised. One because you start wanting questionable/immoral stuff that you’d rather not to come to terms with, and two because your superego just gets to censor more. But often, I dream of things I want to get done: apologizing to someone I hurt, or yelling at someone who has hurt me, telling a roommate they need to clean up the kitchen, meeting people who are far away and hugging them.
The color of yearning: a soft cream, you want to scoop it up on your finger and lick it off. Or the burnt oranges, browns, yellows and reds of a pile of papery autumn leaves that you want to dive into. The shimmering silver lining of clouds when the moon glows full and bright behind them.
I want to see my school friends, and ask them how they are, if they’re happy. Do they remember the lost shuttlecocks, and the white PT shoes, the navy sweaters we tied around our waists and the plastic-covered chart papers outside KG classrooms? Do they ever think about calling, or writing, do they at least see me in their dreams every now and then?

The color of my dreams: watery pastels, mauve, lavender, baby pink and powder blue.)
I may not talk to my friends that frequently, and I may live thousands of miles away, and it is hard to make connections when you don’t share anything anymore. But the love I have for them is like the plaster of Paris we made a volcano out of. It’s set and firm, and you cannot undo it. I miss them, and I know I’ll see them when I go back home. Even if it is just for a couple of hours after tedious planning and scheduling…

Remember the hours we would spend in school? Go over to someone’s house on a Friday soon after 12 pm (sometime straight from school!) and the six hours would cartwheel away, and too soon our parents would be there to pick us up.
Dreams are made of memories, rearranged. And they are reminders, nudging you to write an email, or send a Facebook message, or make a promise to yourself. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Toys ‘R Scary

June 2

I could spend hours with my toys. There were all these games, always titled with the same word repeated twice, like ‘ghar ghar’, ship ship, adventure adventure. And then there were my barbies. None of my friends had as many dolls as I did – there were the princesses, the regular ones, the male versions called Kens and I was in love with the Pizza Hut set I had.

I had quite a collection of mostly blond, very well-endowed barbies. But it didn’t happen overnight. Every summer my favorite aunt in America would take me to Toys ‘R Us and without fail, I would levitate towards the pinkest section and pick out a mermaid or a princess or a kitchen set for the mermaid/princess. Every birthday she would send me a doll.

I would also spend time reading books. Or skating in the terrace and singing songs. Or sprawled on the sofa, getting really bored. My time on the computer was strictly regulated (that is once computers came into our houses and lives) as was my TV watching. I credit my creative, well-rounded, optimistic personality on this relatively tech-easy childhood.

Back then, Toys ‘R Us was my paradise. I went to the super-sized store today after several years and I have to admit, it was still pretty cool. There was the awesome Lego section, the Crayola section where you could color in books or stickers or make your own stickers or bracelets… but then there were the more disturbing – and also more popular – sections. With Hannah Montana dolls and other teen celebrities turned into plastic. The frightening Bratz: over-sexualized and Goth as usual. And other toys and games that require less creativity, more batteries. That look cuter but don’t really teach you much and can choke you way too easy (Squinkies, anyone?).
What’s worse is that none of these old or new toys can be to kids what my toys were to me. They don’t have the attention spans for long-term relations. Laptops, cell phones, portable DVD players and all other bad-for-your-eye devices with screens that come in a million sizes… these are the things that matter now. And it breaks my heart, it really does. Especially when I see a seven-year-old girl picking up a Justin Bieber doll.

Sigh. I guess it might not be such a bad thing that kids have short attention spans now. So what if your little girl doesn’t believe her toys will come to life when she falls asleep at night – I mean, look at the four-year-old boy who can purchase new games on his mom’s cell phone! Woot. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Reality TV

June 1

You know you have a problem when you spend the entire day in your PJs in front of the TV, and the only movement is the flick of your wrist to click “play next episode”. Or walk to the kitchen and get more food. But what a lovely problem to have when you have the luxury of time and empty to-do lists!

I’ve always had questionable taste in TV shows. I mean, considering I can’t stand trash novels and the only way you can get me to watch ‘rom-coms’ is a slumber party or a LOT of popcorn. The bright side (I am such an optimist) is that at least I know I’m watching really bad TV shows. Of course when the shows have names like Desperate Housewives and Cougar Town, it doesn’t take SPSS to figure that one out.

And true to my penchant for clichéd melodrama, I started watching this show called Switched at Birth. Yep, it is about two pretty, smooth-skinned 16-year-old girls who were – yes, you guessed it – switched at birth! It is filled with drama, and they definitely overdo it with fugitive fathers, star-crossed love, unrequited love, reunited love, falling in love with the same deaf boy, and so on. Every episode has at least five of the speechless “I can’t believe you said that” looks, followed by tears and shouts. It is quite fun. I’ve definitely reached the point when my actual life has slowed down to a stop and I’m living vicariously through the characters, rooting for some of them, getting really angry at others and taking sides. Shaking my head, tearing up and laughing affectionately. Even dreaming of the characters.

So yes, this is a different kind of reality TV!


He had an average moustache – it was not the thin and sharp neat look, nor was it a bushy old movie villain kind of masterpiece. It was mostly black, bristly and covered part of his upper lip. Sometimes it looked like his nose was a plant growing in a patch of moustache. He always wore vests, whether he was dressed in a shirt or a kameez, half a size smaller than his size so that he could keep note of his stomach, which was rotund but not alarmingly so – yet. His feet were strangely small for a man his size: 5’10 and 190 lbs. Like other Punjabi men, it wasn’t his height that made him seem so big. It was his loud personality. The word guffaw was invented to describe his laughter. He always slapped other people on the back, knocking wind out of their bodies when he was amused or impressed. Whispering meant speaking in a raspy voice still loud enough for people five tables away to turn and stare. And yes, he was tiptoeing the overweight category, dipping his stubby toes in every now and then but then hopping back to stay in the later areas of a normal BMI.

Jamil, with his average moustache and loud laugh, wakes up at 4:30 am every morning (has been doing so for the last six years). He spends the first hour praying and reading the Quran, and then he gets dressed for work. He pats his sleeping wife on the head and walks down into his kitchen, which opens into the restaurant he owns.

By now he doesn’t really have to start cooking at once. So he walks around, looking over the menu, the stock in the pantry and refrigerator. He mixes some sauces and tastes chutneys and achaars already prepared. Sometimes he starts working on pastry puffs and gol guppas. At 8:30 am his wife comes down and makes breakfast for both of them.

They sit down on one of the tables in the center of the restaurant and eat fried eggs with wheat toast. On Fridays and birthdays, Jamil gets to eat parathas. By the time they have finished, his staff is in the kitchen, awaiting instructions. He starts rattling off their duties and menus, the curries and rice, and meats and vegetables. His wife clears off the table and goes back up to the apartment, while Jamil stays long after. He is at the counter when the first customer walks in and that is where he stays, leaning forward and talking to the bhais, behans and baby jees that stroll in in groups. And when the last of them walk out, salam, Allah Hafiz, khayal rakheye ga! he takes out his leather journal and makes notes to himself. 9 pm he locks up and heads up, where his wife is already a few minutes into the drama.

He sits next to her and when the first ad pops up, she gets up to go and make green tea.