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.


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


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.