Thursday, August 30, 2012

People Watching


August 29

I was born to be in transit. My first international flight was when I was still a chubby baby just ten months old. One of my dad’s favorite tales is: “We used to strap you to the little table in the cockpit of the little cargo plane. Somebody once said there isn’t really an oxygen mask for this baby if something happens but we waived it off, if the plane crashes it’s, the entire family is together at least.”

I love our third world resilience and faith.

My father looks so handsome in his pilot uniform. Handsome isn’t exactly the first word that comes to mind when one looks at my dad (even though he begs to differ, bringing out pictures from the 70s when he had sideburns and wore flared pants) and now that he is past 60, he looks smaller and frailer. But in his uniform, with the smart black cap and golden epaulets, he looked taller, more dignified, in control.

He always does things a little faster than the average person, as if in his world a minute consists of 40 seconds instead of 60 – I could never keep pace with him when we went around the world, ticking off the most public monuments in any city. We always had a backup plan in case someone got lost – meet under the green cuckoo clock at 5 pm.
Planes will always be a part of my heritage. Much to my father’s disappointment, my knowledge is really limited to the difference between an Airbus 300 and Boeing 747 but travelling is a legacy. 
Tickets were cheap, hotels came free to captains and so my entire family would cram in one nice room or locate cities where family or friends live.

Followed the small kangaroos as they leaped across the park, jogging around the little poop left behind as they hopped away, and the Great Ocean Road – Australia was cold, and the children were adorable with fat, ruddy cheeks, the terrain was beautiful; South Africa was too, but in a more rudimentary, closer to nature way, the fattened Table Top mountain where a man killed himself by jumping off the cable car, and Cape Town where we tiptoed to the edge of the world, where the Indian Ocean merges with the Atlantic, and the blues and green spill into each other.

The hot, humidity of Colombo, and the dense green foliage that was so bright it seemed to bleed color onto the roads and houses it touched, the smaller, dark people who loved Zainab so much, and the elephants that played on command, akin to our monkey and goat shows on the beach. The stinky Floating Market in Bangkok, and the ducks and the fire-colored goldfish from the hotel. I remember my older sister who wore shirts that were meant for large boys because that was what mum made her wear in those days, and I remember her shooting hoops in the sprawling green grounds of the hotel.

I remember the pyramids and how anticlimactic it was to be in front of them in the hot, dusty desert, as if we were still looking at a TV screen or a postcard, but the Sphinx was cooler and it spoke to us in a deep rumbling artificial voice while strobes of yellow, green and pink light flashed around the dark sky at night. The beautiful curly-haired men of Egypt who hit on all of us, from my mom to my little sister and the beautiful, large horses that were so majestic I was scared to touch their shining necks.

I miss travelling with family and friends. The stress goes down exponentially, annoying things like taking off your jacket-shoes-laptop-liquids-pins at the scanner become less annoying and you can go to the bathroom without having to drag all your bags into a tiny cubicle, trying to convince yourself that your camera bag didn’t really touch the toilet seat.

Airports are also great places for people watching, and can almost always make you feel lonely when you see tears and smiles and hugs and kisses showered and shared all around you, amidst helium balloons and fake flowers.

I missed my sisters when I boarded the plane to New York last week. One of three sisters was sitting next to me. They all wore glasses and every now and then pulled down their jacket hoods. They looked so alike that they reminded of those Russian dolls that stand inside one another, identical save for the size.

Airplanes are also great places for people watching. The three sisters slept a lot, didn’t eat any of the plentiful food offered by PIA first class, and were apparently quite perturbed by the many crying babies in the vicinity. Every time they were simultaneously awake they complained loudly about punching babies and ‘IT’ kids (the social worker in me was screaming in protest but I remained quiet) as if they had a soundproof wall keeping their barbs in – or maybe they thought others couldn’t understand snotty words of English.

Then there was the frightening female version of Hulk who was sitting in the middle of her two fair kids, a boy of around eight and a younger girl of say 4. Unfortunately, two of their seats were not reclining as business class seats are supposed to recline and turn into semi-beds. That woman had elderly distinguished stewards on their backs, reaching into the murky, crumb-infested crevices beneath the chairs to fix them and when that didn’t work, they apologized while bowing low enough so as to not look her in the eyes and turn to stone. Every time her children did something that all annoying children so, she would SCREAM out, loud enough to make everyone nearby feel extremely uncomfortable. If shouting could leave imprints on a wall, her voice would have blown bricks into smithereens.
Man, she must hate her kids, I thought but then once, during the night when everyone had turned into little caterpillars with their blankets wrapped around them like larvae, I saw the four-year-old wake up, poke her mother who opened her eyes, smiled and opened her arms welcomingly, making room for her child to cuddle with her.

I have a bad memory so all these images I want to create into stories simply disappear, like Magic Pop on your tongue, but there are some I remember from the plane – the woman in a hijab with a cute baby, who is doing her PhD in communication design and plans to head back to Pakistan. And the young man who patiently helped his shrunken, smiley grandmother up and down the aisles, taking her to the bathroom several times on the 18 hour journey. And I will remember the wizardly old man who carried a tired infant in his arms so that the mother could get a few seconds of respite…
I hope they all had people waiting for them at their varying final destinations, with or without the balloons. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Be Positive, Be Green


August 15

Every time, without fail, when middle-aged men and women sit down together with their post-Iftaar tea, conversation dips down to the lows of being in Pakistan.

No electricity...
Business chaley bhi to kaise chaley?
Corruption, crime, injustice, deen sey kitney duur chalein gaeye hain hum… mad drivers, intolerance, illiteracy, poverty…
…the words keep falling, colliding, combusting, an ever-rising charred pile of despair and disillusionment.

The words that get me the most riled up are: there is no hope. They get me so angry that I want to forget all norms of respect and propriety and yell at everyone, moms, dads, uncles, aunts and all who sit so forlorn and pessimistic in their pretty homes at the top of Pakistani society. Don’t you dare! I want to point at them in the exact way my mom warned me against, “I’m coming back here so don’t you dare tell me I’m coming back to nothing.”

I refrain from giving my mother a heart attack so I just sit and tune out the dialogues of despair. It pains me to think that people in the upper-middle classes can’t see the silver linings that always exist.

In my case, everything I am today I owe to my country, and yes, there are power outages but we’re the class that has those ugly UPS boxes (if not the more colorful, bigger generators) which ensure we always have the light on when we need to pee, we’re the ones in the cars honking at other mad drivers and breaking traffic signals on the pretense that “it’s not safe to stand here at night!”, we’re the ones who have studied in the best colleges and found jobs that keep us comfortably afloat. We’re the ones who sit on top so if we can’t see the stars, then who will?

I’m not blind to the problems that exist but it irks me that we sit and whine so much, because honestly, the whining doesn’t help. It doesn’t lighten the weights on our shoulders, it doesn’t fix or solve or resolve so I don’t want to waste my time indulging in the activity.

I’m an optimist and I cannot wait to be done with my masters so I can come back here and fight the fight. There’s so much to be done and I want to hack away at the iceberg of hopelessness.

We owe it to the land and the people, who live on resiliently, waving green flags and pushing carts laden with brightly colored fruits. I owe it to the people in the northern areas who opened their arms to me and other researchers, knowing full well we offered them nothing but more paperwork. I owe it to the little dusty-haired boy who ran around me on Zamzama, in Karachi, reciting a rap song in his Afghan accent and waving his bunch of roses like a baton. I owe it to the countless men who help me reverse my car out of parking spots, to the women who worked in my dorms in college and laughed at my attempts to speak in Punjabi, I owe it to the land where I feel like I belong (having read and understood what social constructions are and knowing the fragility of ‘belonging’), where grumpy salespersons will always be grumpy salespersons rather than racist individuals, where people will always come out to dance in the monsoon rain, and mangoes taste sweeter than any polished-yellow fruits in America, where my family and my friends are, where I fell in love, where I became who I am today. Where the youth came out on the streets in the 60s, and again in 2007 to fight for their ideals, where there are once again stirrings of resolution and courage, and a slow, concentrated movement against the images that prevail in world media today, no, we’re not all like that, there’s more to us and our country than you can ever understand or see and you’re a dimwit for not trying.

Happy Independence Day, Pakistan. May we all live to see the day when uncles and aunties will be able to sit back and bask in the beauty and goodness of our country. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Sweetest Thing


August 6

I was never the girly girl. I chose shorts over skirts when I was 8, I related to the adventurous, reckless tomboy Georgina in the Famous Five and if I were one of the Sweet Valley twins, I’d be nerdy Elizabeth. I can’t stand sappy, clichéd rom-coms, and baby animals cuddling don’t make me cry. Roses look better in a garden than clutched together in cellophane and doves shouldn’t be trapped only to be let out as the groom slips a diamond onto his swooning wife’s finger.

And he knew all this because I told him. “I can’t stand all this hype over valentine’s day,” I had rolled my eyes in freshman year – and so he had burnt me a CD of our shared music and given it to me on 13th February in the library.

But like all non-girly girls, every now and then I’d secretly crave for a cliché to be pushed across a white-table-clothed table in a candle-lit restaurant. And so, I’d become a little nasty on those silly college society carnivals when he wouldn’t send me a rose dedication or buy me a hand-painted card, and the poor boy would be befuddled.

I don’t think we were the kind of couple that people glance at and instantly realize what makes them click. We weren’t always together, and our worlds were definitely not the only two celestial bodies in the solar system. We had different majors, we didn’t coordinate our class schedules and we had our separate friend circles (we occasionally ventured into the other’s circle but not all the time). We weren’t one for grand gestures, and really expensive gifts, we didn’t remember the exact day we started going out and I don’t quite remember when marriage came into our conversations. We were walking the same pace, hand in hand, and we came to that decision together, the obvious station stop. There was no drama over “I can’t believe you haven’t told your parents about me yet!” or “you don’t want to get married? What do you MEAN you don’t want to get married?” and just like that that, (Alhamdullilah), our parents met and again, and two years after graduation we were sitting together awkwardly in front of our families as they clicked away on their cameras, and beamed and joked about why there was an elephant-sized space between us on the couch.

I kept nagging him about a proposal. “You haven’t actually, formally asked me to marry you,” I told him, prey to the hundreds of media images in our heads about how one must be proposed to. “I’m thinking of something really special,” he would promise and I wouldn’t believe him, because, well, we just aren’t that kind of a couple. “It better not be something lame like a ring in my food.”

Truth be told, we’re a private couple, we don’t gush over one another in public and we barely ever infantilize one another in front of our friends so I wasn’t really sure what kind of a proposal I wanted. But unable to fight my nagging instincts, I’d always bring this up in any or all fights.

The first anniversary of our engagement came and went, and I’m finally home after seven months of America. And yes, family is great and I feel like a spoilt princess in Islamabad but the feeling of being in Karachi, where the humidity comes to rest above your lips and on the bridge of your nose in little drops of perspiration, where the sea breeze messes up your hair no matter how tightly you pin it up, and where little street children woo you with their learned English phrases – and even a rap song or too in a Pakhtun accent – the city of dreams and gunshots and resilience and love, and I feel like I’m finally home.

So we went to this pretty restaurant in a strangely residential location, and contrary to his lack of planning inclinations, he had made a reservation at a precise table that he knew I’d love because it was in the corner and outside on the patio. Candles cast out puppets of pale light, and the breeze played violin music on sharp green leaves, the sound of water trickling in unobtrusive fountains; there weren’t that many people in the restaurant and we had a waiter who I related to because he kept coming to fix our table, placing the water bottle in the exact spot he wanted to no matter how many times we messed it up. “I have something to say,” he closed the menu in my hands and launched into the most adorable, stiff impromptu declaration of his omniscient, eternal love and then proceeded to take out a small velveteen black box. There was a beautiful silver ring with a single zircon in the center. “Will you be my wife?” he ended and I saw the waiter hovering hesitantly nearby, and I said, “of course”.

Movies, books and songs are forever trying to kick our brains in certain directions, implanting stereotypes and clichés in our minds, ruining emotions and sentiments by their repeated renditions and crass commercialization, nothing seems original anymore or it seems to fall below the mark.

But if there could ever have been a perfect proposal, it was this one, that melted my heart into a puddle of warm chocolate, and reminded me of how amazingly lucky I am to have you. It was not so much the words but the person uttering them awkwardly, stepping out of his comfort zone for a nagging, insecure, torturous brat like me. I love you too, mister. From the economics 101 days of suppressed crushes and aloo key samosay to the day we’ll sit together in uncomfortable finery lit up beneath hundreds of wedding lights and the warmth in our hearts, I will treasure the person that you are and the way you make me feel.