Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Puzzle Project V: Bagels and Cream Cheese


November 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Puzzle Project IV: Rising Higher


November 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Puzzle Project III: Cultivating a Love for Birds


November 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Puzzle Project II: For the Sake of Security


November 3

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

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

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

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

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

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