Sunday, October 27, 2013

Day 2: Shame is of Zero Yuan

October 19

I’m not much of a shopper, most definitely a weak bargainer.  And that put me at a severe disadvantage for today’s mission: to shop.  Since uncle was gracious enough to spend his Saturday taking us to a few choice malls and markets, we started the day with some mild hustling at the Chinese sabzi mandi.  Once again the sad, cute strays, trudging amidst heaps of beautiful looking vegetables: bright purple eggplant, perfectly crafted Chinese cabbage (which looks like fancy lettuce) and gigantic squash type green vegetables that weighed as much as a baby whale.  Or at least a baby human.

We bought enough vegetables to set up a small mandi of our own and as we drove off, I saw a lady holding her adorable baby in her lap, his butt exposed to the world, and almost as disturbingly, to the vegetables all around her.  I hoped she was just airing his baby behind and not mistaking the middle of her cabbage stall for a bathroom cubicle.  

We passed more crumbling walls, dusty, potholed roads and bare shops on our way downtown but then the landscape changed.  It was as sudden as erasing an untidy drawing on an Etch-a-Sketch and replacing it with a lovely, completely different picture.  Beautiful architecture, shimmering skyscrapers we couldn’t see the tops of without craning our necks, clean highways, brighter colors everywhere.  Even the sun came out from behind clouds and we finally saw that the sky in Beijing too could be blue.  ‘If only Pakistan could be this developed too,’ my dad said wistfully.  I countered with my definition of development, reminded him of the neighborhood we walked into just yesterday, the pollution, the gap between the rich and the poor, and the overworked labor class.  I’d rather have a better education system than a skyline of shiny buildings, I told him.  Not that we have that either but we have to get our priorities right.  China’s bullet train we do not need; Kerala’s literacy rate, a much better goal to aspire towards.

I heard my first English words from the Chinese in the four-storey shopping center we went to.  From pearls to sneakers to more iPhone covers than the mind can comprehend – and the only words the salespeople can speak are to goad you into buying their wares. 

There is insane bargaining here, we had been forewarned in Pakistan and reminded by uncle.  You can get whatever you want, just let me negotiate the price, my dad said and I reluctantly agreed. 
But then we walked into the bag section and Abu went somewhere else …

If you so much as looked at something for longer than two seconds, the overzealous shopkeepers would wave it in your face, ‘you like?’ and if God forbid you asked how much, they would whip out their calculators, write down an arbitrary figure and then when I dutifully made the incredulous face of a diehard bargainer, they would slash it by 20% and if the incredulity increased, cut it down further.  The trouble with me is I start to feel bad.  At one of the stalls in the bag section, I asked the price of an impeccable Gucci copy.  ‘RNB1,230 but for you, RNB640!” the sweet looking salesgirl told me, automatically cutting the price down because she felt an instant, hard-to-deny kindred connection with me.  Follow the incredulous face and two reductions, then like everyone else, she handed me the calculator and asked me to name a price.  I consulted with mom who told me I should write down RNB50 but I was horrified.  The asking price had been like 13 times more than that (I had to use a calculator to figure this out and even now I’m not sure I did the math right)!  “I can’t mom, that’s just shameful,” and I typed 80 and showed it to mom and then the lady.  Her eyes nearly fell out in theatrical amazement.  Since we didn’t actually have any money with us and had to wait for dad to dish out the dough, we walked off.  But the lady actually followed us with the bag in her hand, shouted louder when we tried to ignore her and then took us by the arm and back to the shop.  ‘You take it, 80!’ she said.

I was incredibly proud of my feat till mom showed the bag to uncle and he confirmed her suspicions. ‘I would have gotten it for you for 40,’ he said and my joy deflated, but only a little bit, because I knew I was incapable of this high level skill.  My dad made it up on the second bag purchase which I happily told him to handle.  This was just too difficult. The salespeople were almost violent in their zeal to sell your something for an unethical profit and I could see too many amazing knockoffs to put my wallet in.
‘I can’t do this, I’m really stressed out,’ I told my parents, my mom agreed and my dad did too – at least then.  We went to two more shopping centers and by the end of it, my dad felt he had perfected the skill of striking the right deal.

‘You just have to write down the lowest number possible and start from there,’ he told us and I patted him on the back because I was extremely pleased with the black teapot I got.
We have decided, however, to not go shopping tomorrow.  Maybe some other day this week – I do want to get more deliciously cheap, great-looking, fake-branded bags.    

Helpful fact: One Yuan is roughly equal to 18.5 rupees.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Day 1: Laughing in Chinese

October 18

Who goes to China?
I suppose 26-year-old women about to lose their free PIA tickets (to the joys of marriage).  It was really my parents’ idea and I acquiesced to it (the most aptly I have ever used the word ‘acquiesced’!).  It is a seven-day affair and we are staying at my dad’s friend’s house.  He lives here alone while his family lives in Pakistan and therefore has plenty of space to spare.

According to my dad who is visiting after at least 20 years – and general knowledge around the world – Beijing has transformed drastically.  The airport was impeccable, systematic, quiet, neat.  The sweet immigration officer barely looked at our faces as he stamped us through.  Is it because he doesn’t know English or because he assumes we don’t? I wondered but gave him a ‘greatly satisfied’ rating.  There were Likert-scale rating buttons outside each cubicle! 

Stepping out into Beijing, even at the airport, it felt like I had suddenly lost the ability to read.  There was hardly any English anywhere and the Chinese script felt a bit like the strange symbols word documents sometimes inexplicably transform themselves into.  So this is how illiteracy feels, I mused, thinking about how prevalent English is on billboards and signs in Pakistan.  Since I can read both English and Urdu, I can’t be too sure, but I definitely recognized the blessings of having an education.  There is a deep confusion, a feeling of being lost and unsure when you can’t understand what is written around you (directions, menus, billboards, traffic signs).  How easily we forget daily benefits.

The tall snazzy buildings, highways crisscrossing more highways, and expensive cars yelled out modernization.  On an environmental note, the sky was weighed down with dense smog.  Drained of all color, a haze hung outside, isolating the sun and making it look lonely.  I saw people wearing masks and thought I would hate to live in a city where I had to wear a mask every time I stepped out of my house.  ‘When I came here (perhaps around 35 years ago) there were only bikes and bikes,’ my mom said, looking at the congested traffic.  There were still a lot of bikes – a variety of them, revamped to carry your groceries, a friend, a pet or a family of three, but definitely more four-wheel vehicles now. 

There are also a surprising number of stray dogs and cats here, which is also common in Pakistan but less so in other countries I have visited.  Strangely though, the stray dogs here are adorable and fluffy.  I am dubious of the breed but these are not the strays from Pakistani alleys.  They belong more to nice old ladies in apartments. 

Speaking of houses, the one where we are living in is in a secure, lovely complex. But just outside a different world trudges long.  Our first walk out was a bit of a disappointment.  Dust followed us like the smoke running after cars, the sidewalks were broken and often disappeared suddenly.  The traffic is rude and you are as likely to get run over here as you are in Karachi.  Except here the chances of being run over by a Benz or a BMW are much higher.  A general air of rundown poverty dulled all colors and made the air heavy.  We were in search of a grocery store but found none within a two kilometer radius.  We did, however, walk into a surreal neighborhood with street food vendors cooking all sorts of meat and vegetables on sticks.  There were strange shops selling clothes, beer, shoes, a dim and dank warehouse-turned-store where an old man sat on a child’s plastic car and a dog strolled comfortably down the aisles. 

Men played cards on squat chairs and I saw an adorable Chinese child on discarded sofas in a dusty lane.  I snapped a picture and he looked at me so I waved and smiled.  He got down from the chairs and took a menacing (as menacing as a three-year-old can be) step forward.  He uttered a Chinese word which I obviously did not understand but had a strong suspicion was a curse.  I tried smiling even wider and he scowled even deeper and said the same word again.  I gulped, looked around to make sure there weren’t any angry adults around and quickly walked off.

Which kid doesn’t like being photographed!? I have never met a child in Pakistan who did not love posing in front of a camera.  But lesson learned I guess.  No regrets though because I think it made for a good picture anyways!

My mom and I wandered past some more food carts and saw a bag of buns.  “Bread?” my adorable mother asked, pointing at the bag.  The woman behind said something in Chinese and we smiled the smile of incomprehension.  There was an exchange of amused Chinese words and then raucous laughter.  When you don’t know the language and people around you laugh, you always feel insecure and think you’re being made fun of.  And usually you are being made fun of.
Inwardly indignant we walked away and decided to head home.  Not coming this route again, we resolved.  Mean laughter in Chinese sounds the same as mean laughter in Urdu.

Another cute fact about this house is that there is no wireless internet.  Actually, so far there is no internet at all.  I don’t have a phone service here either so I am quite out of touch, digitally speaking.  Mostly I am enjoying the peace disconnection brings, but every now and then it feels like I am missing a body part.  Not something essential but something that is still integral to my existence … maybe like my left pinkie.  Or a toenail.


I do of course have time to play cards with my parents.  And cook aaloo gobi.  And write.  But I don’t know if I can continue to cook aaloo gobi for the next six days. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Rejected

October 4

I saw a fake nail in the gym today.  It was lying all alone by a yoga mat and two 4kg weights and although I am no expert, I am positive that the pink, plasticky-fingernail shaped object was a fake fingernail (at least I hope it was fake).  And it just really bummed me out.  And then it reminded me of how Myra and I didn’t get our Greece visa.  I’m not sure how my brain made the association between the fallen nail and our dashed hopes of bare feet burrowing in white sands and sneakered-treks to the Acropolis… maybe cause the nail bummed me out and not getting the visa bummed me out and all bummy thoughts are shoved together on the same shelf inside my mind? (Of course it is organized inside there.  I alphabetized my books for crying out loud.)

Or maybe the forlorn nail reminded of the word ‘rejection’.  Nobody likes that word.  In fact, we are terrified of it – it makes our stomach plunge, gives us nightmares, aims for our confidence and self-esteem like Mohammad Ali aiming for a knock-out.  There are so many ideas, so many paths we want to traverse but the fear of meeting the intimidating, demeaning, ego-shattering Rejection at the end – or midway – makes us baulk, shake our heads, quickly look over our shoulders to see if anybody noticed we were going to do something potentially crazy and awesome, no, safe to drop it all and turn away.  And so, there are dreams and ideas that we put away, fold into tiny, tiny squares and slip beneath our mattresses, pretending to forget till we eventually do.
Submit a story to a competition, float the idea for a quirky café to a potential investor? Apply to the best university, to the fine arts program we salivated over months ago but now that the deadline approaches… nah, let’s do something doable and mundane, something that is expected, something that is less likely to push you into Rejection, which stands like a stony, silent wall, not even noticing when you collide into it and break into tiny pieces.

Relationships, jobs, schools – there are too many places where the word looms. 

And then there are things we rush into, cartwheeling and skipping merrily because the odds are stacked so high in our favor that we can’t even see the small pile of warnings meekly trying to attract our attention.

“You will get the visa, I am 99.9% sure!” my father and my uncle were both certain likely only men in our family can be certain.  And honestly, it made sense to me too; Myra and I are unthreatening females, have studied in the US and have successfully gotten visas to multiple countries – including Schengen which we were applying for to visit Greece; we had all the required documents, two cousins who wanted to chill out on a balcony in Athens and sip some juice, lay on the beach at Santorini and thank God for it all.  Our success rate with visas had been 100% and we were rationally arrogant, nonchalantly cocky.

Our plan started as a whim, dreamed up simultaneously by Myra and I, and then slowly pieced together logically: an eight-day getaway first in Athens and then Santorini, an island a few hours away by ferry.  I spent too many afternoons meticulously drawing up a day-by-day plan, browsing Tripadvisor, reading comments and sifting through photographs, typing up notes for the Best Trip Ever 2013.  It had headings. And subheadings. And hyperlinks to visual depictions of stated idea.   

Looking back, if there was a clue about the eventual disappointment this non-trip was going to be, it was the morning we went to the embassy to submit required documents.  Located on a main road in F6 with limited to no parking, the embassy is a hidden bungalow behind trees and gates.  The guards outside have the (legitimate or not) authority to send people away without ever letting them in past the gate.  And nobody gets to go inside the bungalow it seemed.  After being gruffly told to sit here, not there, stand further, not this, go there, breathe slower, wait – a lady pokes her head outside to take our documents.  She returns and asks us to separate the documents.  We separate the documents that we can – our travel bookings, tickets, hotels and sponsor letter can only be separated if we tear them into two pieces.  We are after all travelling together.  We explain the situation to her and she nods.
She returns. “They’re saying separate your documents.”  The first hints of frustration dot our skins and prick at our patience.  I repeat how we have already separated things we could.  “I explained but they said separate…” we haggle for a minute or so and then she finally goes in for another try. Why are there incompetent go-betweens, I wondered, why is the lady who checks our purses also performing the duty of an unnecessary messenger for the embassy officials? It was like we were forced into a game of Chinese Whispers, wondering if our messages were relayed properly.

When we finally got called in for the interview – one by one – I was told to walk up to a black screen and speak into a microphone.  I couldn’t see who I was talking to but she could see me as I answered her ridiculously long and winded questions (she also asked me how I knew Mr. Koltek, mispronouncing the name of my uncle’s company and mistaking it for his name.  Definitely a star employee, this lady behind the screen here).  Myra’s was shorter but she was asked to submit another unnecessary document and as we left we talked about the ridiculous setup. We’d both gone through some annoying embassies but this topped the list of inconveniences.

There were a few people standing outside who had travelled from outside of Islamabad to come here, probably not really dying to see Athena the goddess but having more imperative reasons like family and employment waiting for them in Greece.  It was frustrating even to watch the treatment meted out to them.  I can only imagine how they must have felt.  The forms are in English, complicated, and they require you to book your tickets in advance, have hotel reservations and traveler insurance.  Is there really nobody designated to help people less-versed in English with the application process?   
“But I don’t know what is wrong with my paperwork…” a man says in bewilderment, his smile turned upside down by his short excursion into the embassy, the guard looks at the documents and together they guess at what the issue could be.    

After Myra submitted the extra paperwork, our wait began.  After two weeks ended we started to panic because our travel date was coming up fast, and we realized we might not get our visas in time.  Myra called, I called, she visited the embassy and faced the same frustration with the less-than-literate messengers that scurry back and forth between the black screen lady to people outside in what seemed to be a mind bogglingly inefficient system.

And then finally the Thursday before our flight (embassy closes early on Friday and stays shut till Monday. Flight is on Monday night) we visited again and were told the Greek embassy officials had forwarded our request about urgent travel dates but they hadn’t heard anything and frankly, they couldn’t give a damn.  Okay, so they didn’t really use those words but it didn’t take a genius to figure out nobody really cares whether you’re losing thousands of rupees over mismanagement and lack of support in a needlessly complicated procedure.  Doesn’t Greece need our touristy money?  I thought their economy wasn’t doing so well!

After Friday we both decided to come to terms with the fact that we couldn’t go.  Of course a little tendril of hope remained suspended in our hearts, like an annoying child who keeps tugging at your shirt for more candy even though you yelled at him a minute ago, incorrigibly silly.  And then Monday played out like a Bollywood/Lollywood depiction of a cricket match.  When Myra called the embassy they told her we could pick up our passports on Tuesday, 9:30 am.  Our flight was four hours earlier! The thought of missing our dream vacation by a thread was too painful and Myra started making some phone calls.  Our two-pronged strategy was to try and get the passports that same day or push our tickets back a little without incurring too much additional cost.  Finally Myra told me she was going to go pick up our passports.  I was – to use a North American white girl expression – super excited.  I did a little bhangra for mum (who of course was not super excited that I was going to Greece with just my cousin) and started laying out my outfits for the eight days, checking the weather in Athens and Santorini.  And then as I walked into my room with my pink pants, my phone rang again. 

“Our visas were rejected.”  Oh that awful word.  “We didn’t get them!”

It was like I had been unexpectedly tossed on to cloud nine and then a few minutes later the cloud evaporated.  Not only was it terribly disappointing, it was also kind of embarrassing.  Who was going to put away all these colorful jeans and shirts!

I eventually got over it, just like we get over our other First World/Third World Elite problems – sitcoms and McDonalds.  But other than the disappointment, we were also really angry.  It didn’t seem fair.  If complete paperwork like we had submitted received a rejection, what of all the people waiting outside, barely able to understand the idiosyncrasies of visa forms, accidentally ticking the wrong answer?  And the guard who kept sending people away, the safety-check lady who lost messages in translation like water in a sieve, the embassy official who couldn’t differentiate between the name of a man and his company?  The people who spent thousands of rupees to visit the embassy only to be told to ‘come later’ for no conclusive reason?  “I took a day off from work, I live a 100 kilometers away from here,” one man had argued.   

It makes me sad.  This world has so much to offer –craggy cliffs, sprawling glaciers, whales in the deep blue ocean arching gracefully like silky black rainbows in the water, deserts, forests, cable cars that carry you to the top of the mountain where lounge chairs sit at the edge, looking out at the tops of beautiful mountains… amazing feats of architecture, incredible natural treasures, so much diversity, so much that can help expand our minds, create peace and love and surround us with the fleeting gift of happiness.  Whenever I see something amazing a part of me is always sad at this person or that friend not sharing it with me, and I would think of the kids in small city schools, in Pakistan and in America, that I worked with, and I would wish they could see this.  They would be bowled over with excitement and awe…

If only there was a train that anyone who wanted could board and then travel anywhere in the world.  A universal express that cost nothing and went up mountains, through hills, over bridges and in ferries, creating connections, writing cheesy, cheery messages in the blue sky with its old world locomotive smoke…

Instead we have borders and restrictions and stupid visa regulations that separate families and reject spontaneous happy plans.  Sigh.  

Rejection.  Such an ugly word.

Friday, September 27, 2013

In the Company of Insomnia

September 28

Tara sat in the armchair by her bedroom window, unable to fall asleep.  The evening had slipped into night, exchanging her lavender gown for a black velvet cloak, switching on tiny lamps in the sky because she is afraid of the dark, nudging the moon with her toe, slowly rolling it to the top, from where it shone whitely onto Tara’s window, where she sat with her insomnia in her lap.

The silence stands just behind her, softly breathing melancholy thoughts into her ears, like a selfish lover whose love has atrophied into jealousy and insanity, no longer warm and comforting, instead distant, foreign, painful because of the memory of their closeness that now taunts.

It is when her house falls quiet and the neighborhood too crawls into bed, when the eagles are swaying in their sleep on tall coconut trees, when the crickets have exhausted all conversation, it is in the blaring quiet of the deep night that Tara’s insomnia sidles out from under her bed and comes to lie down with her, heavy, invisible, eventually coming to sit on her forehead, her shoulders, her chest till finally she gets up and comes to sit on the armchair.

She watches patiently, resignedly, as her insomnia conjures up her past, waving a wand in the air, reconstructing images of her life gone by, Remember your brother who left when you were 12?  it asks, and you wonder if you were 12 or younger, remember when you and your friends were chased by your music teacher all around the school?  and your smile is faint because the pain of it all being over is stronger, because the pain of so much more being over – your children grown up, impatient at best, distant at worst, your husband who lives in the same house in a separate room in a different cloud of dreams and memories. When did you become too old for dreams, for idealism, too old to change the world and make it a better place?

Remember when you used to put your head in your mother’s lap while she was sitting on the jaeye-namaz? Remember when your children did the same to you?  Too tired to fight with the bully sitting on her, she just nods.

They say insomnia increases with age, and I wonder as we grow old, do we start to dream just of our past? The fears of our childhood carrying into our adult life, exams we never studied for, remembering we had to catch a flight ten minutes before the departure, driving a car without brakes, all our teeth falling out, the things we boil over but can never say in real life because we are too prudent, too scared, too nice, too ashamed but in the security of our dreams we shout them out, loud, violent, tearful…

Do the lines between our thoughts, memories and dreams start to blur because the nerve cells in our brain too are aging, associations and connections frail like frayed wires, will insomnia slowly darken into paranoia?


Poor Tara, sitting in the midst of her memories, suffocating in the dusty breath of the past, waiting for the sun to walk up and kick the moon away, sounding the alarms for the birds and the trees, pushing the silence away, sweeping light and noise into her room so she can finally lie down, exhausted, as her insomnia follows close behind, slipping beneath her bed, claws drawn for the time being.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Red Light, Red Light

September 23

I think the first and last time I have heard my father curse (and by curse I mean a whopper of an expletive) was in our car.  I remember being more stunned by the fact that he cursed out loud than the mad bus driver who had almost run us over like we were in a cartoon movie (in which when you’re run over you simply stretch thin and then shake yourself back to normal size). 
Driving in Pakistan is an incredible phenomenon.  It defies all rationality and once again, if we were cartoons, just a couple of minutes out on the road would make our heads explode in a burst of disbelief.  But of course, since our heads stay intact – physically, usually, - the disbelief gives way to frustration, anger, temporary insanity.  Especially in Karachi, a mad city bursting with machismo that erupts out on the roads.

In Karachi, we don’t believe in traffic rules.  We like to think of them as suggestions, something to follow occasionally, almost accidentally.  Just like the city itself, how people end up making it to their destinations everyday is a beautiful mystery, a middle finger to all the forces that want to crush the city’s boundless, reckless spirit. 

We have the brazen bikers who visualize all bigger vehicles as insignificant beetles to zoom past or edge in front of, delusional about issues of mortality; the bulky buses, metal carcasses painted brightly and cheekily, barreling down narrow streets like the Devil’s personal transport, stopping without warning to pick up passengers in the middle of the road, defying all limits of space, these big bad bullies are second only to the city’s black Prados that move like lions in a jungle, who needs roars and claws when you have big guns and bigger egos?

Magic realism abounds in Pakistan, most obviously on the roads.  There are things people in other countries only do in their nightmares – like finding themselves going the wrong way on a road, headlong into oncoming traffic.  Seriously, drivers and pedestrians often test the limits of reality, making me blink in amazement, scrawling incredulity in thought bubbles above my head.
Too many times I have toyed with the idea of smashing my car into vehicles driven by rude idiots who turn without indicators, honk when I’m actually going the right speed in the right lane, obnoxiously close behind like dogs nosing dumb sheep.  I talk constantly when I’m in the car, addressing other drivers and pedestrians, half believing they can hear me.  The commentary worries my mother who is a calm slow driver very rarely pushed to honk.  I think she rightly wonders if I am not-so-slowly losing my mind when I’m in the car.

And honestly, after Karachi, driving in Islamabad is almost like meditation.  It is also like a two-year-old who knows how to run being placed in a pen full of mild babies who crawl with their seatbelts on.  People in Islamabad wear their seatbelts! They get fined for talking on the phone while driving (whereas in Karachi you are more likely to get mugged than ticketed – also an effective way to get people to stop talking on the phone while in the driving seat?) and the most shocking thing of all, vehicles actually stop when the light turns red.  Not only that, even after the light turns green you have a couple of seconds to change gears, release the handbrake, take a sip of your Coke, without having cars honk at you (the language of horns and honks, from the short bleep of ‘heads up I’m passing you by, wavering car’ to the obnoxious repetitive ‘get the hell out of my way’ and the worst hand-on-the-horn-for-several-seconds that is akin to a string of expletives polluting your auditory environment).

Every time this happens I first resist the urge to honk at the slow drivers of Islamabad who don’t zoom ahead as soon as the light turns green and then quickly remember that this is a good thing and then I nod in admiration.  I had been wondering for a while how traffic became so regulated here and whether Karachi can learn anything from their counterparts in the capital city. 

And then I almost got my first ticket when I made a U-turn a split-second after the light had turned red and was politely ushered to the side of the road by a young cop.  Maybe it was my totally bullshit argument about the motorbike on my side who 'confused' me or the fact that my license told him I’m from Karachi and thus new to a traffic system that is actually imposed (most likely it was my mother’s respectful apology and assurance that we never break the rules, which is 89% accurate). 

Regardless, the almost-ticket was/is a warning good enough to keep me in line (pun intended) for a while.  It also makes me realize that we don’t really need a new moral conscience or a social revolution to improve Karachi’s road experience.  We just need an efficient traffic police department that is paid well and provided incentives to do their job.

I educated myself by browsing the Islamabad Traffic Police (ITP) website.  Apparently the department was revamped and inaugurated in 2006, and there is actually a mission, vision and set of goals! My favorite is ‘to achieve the target of zero tolerance with firmness but politeness’.  According to the department, many of their goals have been achieved, including the ideal of fining even politicians (former prime minister Gilani’s son being one of them powerful people chosen as an example of equality).  Cooperating with other city government departments, using media tools and awareness campaigns, introducing a complaint/helpline and digitalizing the driving license system appear to be some easy-to-replicate ideas.
 

Maybe one day we can revert to the fabled days of the past when law enforcement was a practical reality and not just a slogan scrawled as graffiti on the walls of our city.  

Monday, September 16, 2013

Wicked Forces

September 16

They are insidious creatures that hide in my pillowcase, crouch behind my ears, hang on to me with their nails digging into my scalp, tiny deep blue imps, conjured in times of idleness, times of distance, powered by the insecurity that courses through my veins. They carve messages into the walls of my brain, paint my emotions a heavy gray that overwhelms, drowns, dives from my heart to the bottom of my stomach, billowing further down my legs, disappearing and leaving a deep vacuum, an absence like a whirling vortex, a black hole that drains me of energy, rationality, thought, that drains me of me.

It is like being kidnapped, overpowered, blindfolded and thrown into the back of a moving car, like being shoved into the corner with a vise around my head so that I can’t turn away, can’t see the light filtering in through the curtains behind me writing messages of love in the dusty script of sunrays, so that I can’t see the signs of love that float around quietly, waiting for me to notice them so they can shine, glitter in the acknowledgement of my heart. It is like being at the mercy of invisible forces that wear the guise of my own mind, my own thoughts, fooling me into believing that this is how I am, how you are, how they are, this is what we are. Throwing me off a cliff and I drag you with me, falling, flailing, dying in a simulation created by the tiny deep blue imps, so terrifying in its fabricated reality, so real in its effects on me, on you, on us, blurring all lines between reality and fears, seeping into our world, our love.

It is like being in a dream, watching myself in a car without brakes, cruising off towards a broken bridge, it is like trying to wake up, in vain.

And the worst is when I don’t even realize it is a dream, when I’m not even trying, when I’m so far down that I can’t even tell I am kidnapped, cornered, at fault. The worst is when the window of realization is so small it snaps shut before I can climb out, when the lines are so blurry that I can’t tell which way is right, when I am so tired because it keeps happening that I give up, that I fall still, motionless, quiet, resigned to the evil that stirs awake at the slightest provocation, accident, the tiny deep blue imps that hop into my mind, clawing, heavy, swift and wicked.
***
I wonder what it is to be diagnosed with a personality disorder, if insanity can always be caught with the help of a DSM-IV/V.

I wonder at the power of our minds and our unconscious, the unconscious that friendly psychologists claim forms the larger base of our thoughts, actions, beliefs, behaviors, that remains untapped, slyly making us think, do, dream, see, nonchalantly, casually pervasive, omnipotent.

I always used to roll my eyes at the helpless heroes and heroines of mediocre novels who hurt people they loved, or who wallowed in the misery of their own weaknesses, scoffing at their inability to change, their failure to become master of their own emotions; a firm believer in the phrase ‘master of one’s destiny’ and other such trite, semi-motivational idioms. If you want to do it, do it, I would say impatient at the fictional characters. But even though I still believe in self-determination and will power,  I understand the difficulty of blowing life into them. It is one thing to hang a bright-colored sign above your desk and a completely different story to dive into the truth of words. Wise words can only be true for you if you dive into them, it doesn’t matter how many times other people tell you to ‘man up’ or ‘follow your dreams’ or ‘make the right friends’, it doesn’t even matter how many times you tell yourself. Or I guess it does matter, I just have to set myself up for inevitable failure before I can succeed.

It is like someone tells you ‘don’t look to your right but there’s a couple--’ and it doesn’t even matter what the couple is doing, you have already turned your head in their direction. Or when a disgusting image gets stuck in your mind (I have this mental picture of a face covered with dry alligator scales or crusty patches of snakeskin that keep peeling away and falling, to be replaced by more scales, and this image comes suddenly, passing on the insides of my eyelids when I am trying to fall asleep, unbidden, a cruel gift of the unconscious and try as I might, it persists, a one-image video-clip on repeat…).

It is like you tell yourself you will be constructive this weekend, you will get things done, but you don’t, you just watch bad shows or documentaries, playing some video game (or worse, Candy Crush), and honestly, there is no reason for being lazy, you’re simply fooling yourself into believing you’re not doing it because you don’t feel like it, and we shouldn’t do things just because there is pressure to do them? That, I fear, is bullshit.  

I wonder at our minds and the nature of the human brain to ignore facts of life, to forget realities like death, destruction, poverty and hunger and instead fixate on stupid grudges, petty complaints and unhealthy obsessions, to make the same mistakes over and over again, at its ability to go off on a tangent.

The important thing, of course, is to hold oneself accountable. For one’s own happiness (unhappiness) and for others, for trying to overpower the imps that will run haywire if given free rein. For writing, over and over again, I will be … (insert whatever adjective you wish to be). To not let your mood overpower you and make you forget – even for that instant – that life is seldom one shade of color, life is seldom all horrible, that a person is very rarely as cruel as you think.


I remember a line from a book I read once, something about ‘no longer being a rubber duck bobbing on the waves of my emotions’ and how true that is, how important that is. Don’t underestimate the power of the unconscious, but at the same time don’t underestimate your own perseverance and ability, and never stop giving yourself second (million) chances. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Let’s Get Gymin’

September 12

Since we never have enough time in today’s world, we always put insignificant things like physical health, social obligations and childhood dreams at the backburner, promising ourselves that one day we will join the gym, start swimming, incorporate sports into our lives, one day we will call that old aunt who sits in a dusty corner by the window, lost in the past because the present is the same day after day, colorless, melting into an unending strip of melancholy, one day we will give ourselves the time and energy to pursue dreams of writing a book, painting murals in dilapidated government hospitals, opening a café that specializes in cheesecakes and good conversation…

Right now we have more important things to do, office work, house work, repetitive weekend plans with friends/co-workers, and of course, Candy Crush. (or if you think you’re cooler, then FIFA).  

And then I came back to Pakistan, to this sweet sterile valley of Islamabad, my friends in Karachi, my fiancé in Karachi, my siblings back in North America, and of course, the biggest freedom of all – not having a job. The gift of time, thrust into my lap, and even though I kicked it away initially, eventually I exhausted all my excuses (jet lag, Ramazan, trip to Karachi…).

So now that I have all this time I have… started drinking milk. Eating fruit. Volunteering at the orphanage/school near my house and, and even more amazingly, going to the gym!

It’s called ‘Fit ‘n’ Flex’ and is near my house. It’s small, faded carpeting, congested with equipment, and has pictures of fit white women flexing their muscles pasted as wallpaper. If you didn’t know, in Pakistan, photographs of white people always make a place feel like it’s legit.
The office smells of food around the time I go (between 1 to 3 pm), unsurprisingly because of the food that the administrators are eating. And the other day I saw a Persian cat sleeping majestically on a fluffy green pillow in the office; it was such a surreal sight I had to look twice.

I guess I can venture to say the gymming experience is different here compared to St Louis. I can still remember filling out the registration form, pen poised over the question ‘when was the last time you went to a gym?’, and again at ‘how many times a week do you exercise?’, so embarrassed at my answers I almost wanted to run away but the personnel there were too dauntingly in shape, smiling their perfect white smiles.

Despite the portraits of its muscular white women, Fit ‘n’ Flex (FNF) has a more …um, relaxed atmosphere.  

One of the biggest differences is the gym attire. At FNF, people are so good they can work out in jeans, or shalwar kameez (my personal favorite to date was this auntie wearing a sweater vest over shalwar kameez and puffing away slowly on a treadmill). Then there are the multipurpose PJs you can sleep and workout in!

And for some reason, most people in the gym here are on the heavier side. You know. Like fat women working out. Which, I don’t know about you, inspire me more than the skinny, toned crowd at Club Fitness who I feel should have their separate gym.  

We also don’t have intimidating staff like I did at Club Fitness (the gym I went to in St Louis) who are either making other people sweat or chiseling their own perfect bodies further. The ladies who work at FNF don’t want you to feel bad so they either sit behind the counter or paint each other’s nails. Sometimes they get a sudden bout of energy and come sit on a treadmill, checking Facebook updates on their phones.

And sometimes, just to show you they know how to operate the machines, they hop on to the elliptical or the treadmill. If I was impressed by the women who work out in jeans, Sumbul the lead staffer lady, bowled me over with her stylish top, slim fit pants and flip-flops. Yes. She was that good.

I think the most popular machine there is this strange platform with a vibrating belt that you put around your waist/hip and then just… stand. While it vibrates, making your booty move like Rihana. Apparently you can get thin just standing there. Technology these days!

I also love the musical element at FNF. They play Bollywood songs all day and not only can I jog to the upbeat tunes of Punjabi love songs, I can be on the lookout for the perfect wedding entry/exit songs (yes, that’s a thing. The ‘entrance’ of a bride/groom requires thought and effort). Also, seriously, if I could dance with that much gusto, I wouldn’t need to go to the gym.
Which reminds me of another difference, in America, skinny people go to the gym all the time (in fact, more so than their stockier counterparts) but in Pakistan, if a thin woman mentions joining the gym, she will most certainly get the astounded ‘but why?!’, which I think, is a pretty interesting look into our thoughts about physical fitness and health.

I don’t need to harp on about the benefits of daily/weekly exercise (at least 30 minutes every day or alternately, thrice a day for an hour).

Another embarrassing question I filled out in the States, and which I would slyly encourage you to answer is, how many hours a day do you sit? Do you want to know how many hours is too much sitting? (you don’t but I’m going to tell you anyways). According to a study, people who sit more than six hours a day are at a 40% greater risk of DEATH (!) than those who sit for less than three. For more scary things that are associated with too much sitting, check out this article.

So I guess I’m glad I’m finally bored enough to start looking after myself. Not to mention entertain myself every time I frequent FNF (which btw is more expensive than the much bigger and better equipped Club Fitness; I paid $10 per month for that while the monthly fee here is almost $35. Another insight into how common exercise is here).


And a small suggestion? Don’t wait for time to slow down and come sit in your lap. Do the important things now, or at the very least, pause for long enough to remember what these things are. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Fine Balance

September 10

Words may have clear, neat meanings in dictionaries, but in real life the finite explanations tend to lose their distinctions, they move away from their specified, alphabetized places, and float smugly coyly, changing in front of our eyes, elusive, vague. And the most elusive of all are adjectives that we use to understand and color our worlds.

Humans are selfish (I want to say ‘by nature’ but my social work training is preventing me from doing so). We are silly, shortsighted; tickled by how other languages sound, that’s a funny word, it rhymes with something dirty in my language, shocked at ways of living that are different from ours, you mean getting married to someone you have never dated, you mean adopting a child as a single woman, you mean sending your grandparent to an institution, you mean to say seven billion people living all over the world don’t see, hear, breathe and act like me? Confused, disgusted, even angered and indignant, female genital mutilation? married to your cousin? 12 years old and pregnant?

I have been slowly training myself to at least hide my surprise at how different others can be, to understand that if two siblings raised in the same home and environment can stand next to each other to demonstrate opposites, then yes, all people are not the same. To not get overly embarrassed when I reach out to hug someone I am meeting for the first time and they extend their hand, yeah it’s awkward (less so than accidentally kissing an old aunt on the lips, but wait, that’s actually quite ordinary to do so in some cultures!) but so what? This is the beauty of life, it keeps things interesting, making us raise our eyebrows, poking holes in the plastic bubbles we unconsciously and persistently keep constructing around ourselves.

Everything is relative, warns the annoying righteous little Aisha inside my head when I widen my eyes at a co-worker’s choice in clothes, men, food or any other thing that I have already formed opinions about, good, bad, pretty, wasteful, selfish, eew! The objects stay the same but the words describing them change, sweet girl, boring girl, handsome man, too-skinny man… sunny days are lovely in Seattle, we Karachiites call thunderstorms ‘good weather’.
Words like big, small, tall, beautiful, they all depend on an individual’s perception – at that point in time. You know that distant uncle who seemed so BIG when we were 8, but years later when we finally meet him again at some obscure event, we wonder, did he shrink or do we just remember it all wrong? Childhood favorite movies seem, well, childish when we are 26 – unless of course we’re watching Mulan. Or The Lion King. Or Aladdin.

I went shopping for shaadi clothes (definition: fancy clothes to wear on other’s weddings or post your own wedding because it is cultural norm to pretend to be a bride even after the main events are over, for an undetermined period of time) and was bowled over by the prices. Rs30,000 for clothes? Something that I’ll wear like, three times, maybe, if I’m really determined? I can remember my first paycheck and it would’ve helped pay just for kaam walay palazzos. “That’s not expensive these days,” females will state matter-of-factly while I would gawk at them, struggle with myself, think of the Afghan street kids I scold for sticking to my car window, and finally yield. (Expensive, cheap, important, I can’t live without air, food, Gucci?)

There has to be a balance, is my mantra, my life’s more boring but useful and essential motto. I can’t give up all material things and forgo ‘expensive’ clothes, but I can’t be so flippant about a shirt that costs a family’s monthly grocery. So I try to tread a fine line, feeling uncomfortable with the money, time and energy I spend on things my more noble side deems frivolous, evanescent (but everything is evanescent!) and using that discomfort to limit it, keep me on my toes, remind me of the larger world that exists, at the fringes of society, smack in the middle of our markets and even our homes (ever wonder what our domestic help thinks of our consumer choices?).


And if I used to think that striking the right balance would feel better, I guess I was wrong. Walking a tightrope is less than comfortable – it requires constant thought and effort, and as many times as I fall, I know the line is there. All I need to do is haul myself up and keep going.         

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Looking for Rainbows

September 3

If the sun is out and bright, and you can feel a drizzle, it is your job to position yourself such and look for the rainbow that fifth-grade science books will tell you, is somewhere up in the sky.

I remember being on the mumti once, it was a bright early morning and Annie and I had not slept the entire night. (Those nights when sleep was like a secretary we didn’t have any need for, so we would always send it packing on a vacation, those summers and winters of unbridled youth, that were too petulant, too bored for slumber). We had seen the sun rise imperceptibly and stretch its yellow arms all over the eastern sky and it seemed like a clear day till I felt a cold drop on my arm. “I felt a drop! Did a bird just pee on me?” (Do birds pee while soaring in the blue heavens? I know they poo while flying; quite gracelessly too, I feel). But then Annie and I both felt more scattered drops and we looked above in surprise, rainclouds camouflaged in the morning blueness above.

And I told Annie, we had to look for a rainbow and sure enough, within a few minutes we saw an arch spreading from one end of Islamabad to the other, a band of pastel colors, God’s magic.  It might have been the largest rainbow I have ever seen, documented in a photograph of mediocre quality, before the digital era, in some flimsy Kodak album. 

More often than not, I find rainbows when I look for them. Whether I have to cajole a driver into stopping by the road and craning my neck out from the car window, or climbing up the staircase/fire escape in my dorms and standing on a two-foot square space, you need faith, and some degree of childish stubbornness. And when I spot it, a pale blue, yellow, pink fluttering like a mirage, I always feel a flutter of pride, a comforting feeling that I am special, that the rainbow is there just for me.

My trip to Karachi was quite perfect; after spending almost two months in the boring, lovely Islamabad, where people follow traffic rules (if you disagree, take your car out on the roads of Karachi and rediscover the meaning of natural selection), the roads stretch black and clean, the mountains loom impassively gorgeous in the background and all men stare as if there is no other expression worth forming, Karachi hit me like a wave, drenching me in its overpowering, salt-scented energy.  The breeze was lovely, tireless like the city, dancing carelessly, unstoppable, through the lofty coconut trees, ruffling the orange, pink and white of papery bougainvilleas, and flirting with girls, tugging at their hair, pulling their long kameezs.

There were the customary stories of new robberies, brazen bandits who don’t care to hide their faces, young boys toting guns at traffic signals, calmly taking your watches, jewelry, expensive phones, and there was the panic of parents calling intermittently, trying to convince their grown-up kids to come home on time, the cordoned roads and lanes, the rude black pajeros and prados and the oily-mustachioed security guards of invisible politicians, the rise in extortion, the daily killings that we take with our breakfast and evening tea, as normal as butter cookies in a bakery. There was the barely suppressed panic when driving at night and a motorcycle with two men showed up in the rearview mirror, there was the regular depression that engulfed us when we thought of who is ruling our city, what is being broadcasted in the mosques… but all the time, I was on the lookout for rainbows. Because would you believe it, even in the darkest, rainiest, murkiest cities and villages, when the sun comes out during a shower, there is a band of colors waiting patiently to be seen.

Every time I was maneuvering a tight corner and a passerby would pause and motion for me to turn, back up or keep moving, I would see the seven colors of a rainbow at the back of my mind; anytime a car stopped for me and gestured that I could go first, after the initial amazement I would nod internally, understanding that this was one of those moments we stop looking for when living our everyday lives, lost in the confusion of what to have for dinner or wear to work. And just like that, the entire stay in the city I counted the stars I saw shining on the ground and pocketed them for future musing (and this blog). Late night couples at Seaview, sharing secrets and mundane stories brightened up by the love they shared while the waves came and went, endless, beautiful, dark, their loud murmurs blending with the music of the wind; the man who stopped in midstride to catch a boy about to fall off his bicycle, righted the bike and slapped his back in the camaraderie of a stranger in Pakistan; the journalists who continue to work despite all odds, who innovate, think, crib, love; the new Chinese restaurant with yummy beef and chili; a tea place with a motto I want to steal – live life, love tea – and the yummy disco chai they served; the story of a policeman who shared a cigarette with a young man on his way home from work who he had initially stopped to ‘investigate’; the Sitar night at my favorite café; the glow-in-the-dark rickshaws I saw in Defence…

The shopping! Even though I fall at the bottom of the girly scale of shopaholics, I had a great time looking at all the colors and textures, all the price ranges for a bustling city like Karachi. The chocolate fountain at Park Towers, the sunlight that lights up the entire ground floor of Dolmen Mall, the plays I couldn’t see, the new movie theater I will try on my next visit, the stories I see in old buildings, retired sufis sleeping on the roads, dusty corners, bright streets, everything makes me want to go back and live in this scary, lovely mess.


And then, there are the people, the fabric of Karachi, its trouble, its beauty, its hope, and my friends. I count myself as fabulously, guiltily fortunate when it comes to knowing awesome people, who can support me, my thoughts and dreams, back to back, providing the strength and connection we all need to survive in this world, to make us feel like we are not alone, to challenge me, give me new ideas, egg me on so I can be bold, and most importantly, to make fun of me so I don’t take myself too seriously, laughing right next to me, shoulders shaking, breathing in the content that wafts from true friends. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Lahore, my madeleine

July 30

You know those bright plasticky toys with lots of colorful buttons, big enough for little kid hands? Every button you press, something cute or creepy pops out, and too often there is a loud obnoxious nursery rhyme that follows? Some are educational, a cat jumps out from a square and meows, while others make no sense at all, mooing sounds from stars that change into a poem about roses or chirpy sentences in a voice so squeaky and shrill it doesn’t sound like any language I know.

This time around I went to Lahore, I felt like I had walked into a gigantic toy keyboard, everywhere I looked, a hologram, a memory, a sound, conjured itself and followed me for a few seconds, and then popped, like a soap bubble only I could see. 

I think the reason I loved Proust was because of the madeleine-induced prose that painted his past in pastels all around him in such a way that he had no choice but to pen it down, calm the writhing images and sounds and guide them into the pages of a novel, so that he could regain his vision for the present…

I am fascinated by how as time passes we become more like puppets, with the strings in hands of inanimate objects and unassuming locations, the sight of a restaurant in a particular light stuns us with the thoughts of a person we have not seen in years, a song on the radio that we have heard so many times suddenly brings back the emotions of 11 years past, reminding us of who we used to be and who we thought we’d turn into, memories of happiness that are tinged with the melancholy of time, events that never seemed important then, like fresh juice on a terribly humid afternoon in H block, that stay in the burrows of our mind for some reason. 

My trip to Lahore this past weekend was more like perusing through a memory book without meaning to, each page turning threw up an invisible cloud of fairy dust, shimmering, caught in the accidental light of the moon, too full to go down.  The Daewoo ride to Islamabad, I believe it was freshman year, I remember Hala, Sehar, Irfan, Ambreen, and of course you were there.  Nothing significant about that motorway ride but for some reason it stuck, and the passage of 7 years has turned the memory into something sweet, fermented wine, caramelized candy.

We zoom past the high court and I remember when I asked Abu if I could go to the protest against the emergency rule imposed by ex-president Musharraf, students from LUMS were joining hundreds of others to march for a cause they believed in, and Abu said no, but a long restless night of deliberation ended with a decision that led me to go ahead and join a peaceful procession, I can remember the tree in the court, and the old dusty buildings that were beautiful in all their decrepit, faded glory of past decades.

Squeezed into rickshaws that weave like drunken needles through a hodgepodge of traffic, a mismatched puzzle with its clashing pieces jutting out, I see the wall hidden behind trees, and remember when we drove through Aitchison, the gigantic, ancient tree and the squat buildings and the stories of youth.

Through Y block and remember when we drove to McDonalds in the rain and ate ice cream cones and went back to attend classes, remember when Bilawal backed into a tree outside Dunkin Donuts, remember when we talked to the ducks in HH block park and played football and took pictures by the artificial waterfall? Remember when we never let a cloudy day with a breeze go to waste, remember when we would wake up at 7 am if it had rained and get coffee in plaid pajamas? Remember when walking down the orange-lit campus streets was the most satisfying, blissful thing to do? Remember when getting bread-butter and tea was an activity that could lead to hours in a khopcha, remember when we didn’t have to plan for four days a two-hour activity with friends? Remember when we all had the time to sit and do nothing?

It was a bittersweet trip that reminded me of too many people, too many commonplace events that warm my heart now just because they happened, from going to the tailor to get black armbands for the group to stand with the lawyers of our country, to the ten minute walk to a café for its uncomfortable straight backed sofas and delicious masala fries.


Lahore, my madeleine, I do miss you. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Pandora’s Box

July 3

No matter how much your mother loves you, if you go away for school your room will be used as storage.
Now that I’m finally back in Islamabad for long enough to care, I thought I should use my unemployment for the best.  Movies and sleep? Not quite.  More like cleaning and sorting.  And ever since, I have been finding old post-it notes, photographs, cards, random memorabilia whose significance I can’t seem to remember so I make something up (a movie stub for when we shared nachos and you ate more than your share? The night of the broken pinball machine or one of those evenings that I wanted to remember it in its ordinary yet lovely perfection?), faded writing, travel logs that make me laugh at first and then crush my heart like an iron fist, nostalgia bleeds a pale gray.

I’ve always liked collecting stubs and cards and paper napkins with everyone’s signatures, scraps of notebook paper with jokes from a trip that were repeated from start to finish and then remembered forever – reminds me to be grateful and remember the good times.  Of course, life has a way of writhing and turning and going in a completely different direction from what you had thought of.  Friends forever who become acquaintances, the strongest bond the memory of 12 years spent wearing the same uniform and white tennis shoes; siblings who move away, the penchant for fights and sharing parents becomes a daily ache, as common and familiar as the color of one’s eyes; and all the colors and sounds we hear as six year olds replaced by the alarm clocks of adult life and responsibilities of other people – do we ever get over the shock of becoming an a ‘grown-up’?

As if these little explosions from the past weren’t enough to drill into my heart like a woodpecker on Ecstasy, mom handed me an entire stack of nameless CDs that hold surprise videos from as far back as 1992 (maybe even further than that, I haven’t gotten through all of them yet).  Not only was my dad foresighted and determined enough to make all these videos throughout our childhoods, he even got them burned on CDs for the sake of further preservation!
I love the thrill of not knowing what the next CD has in store for me.  It is a palette of emotions and I feel like a canvas, with no control over the pictures that are being painted on me.  There are so many moments of horrified laughter at what I used to look like: the six-year-old shy Aisha that Annie aptly called ‘a Pathan boy’ who would smile with tightly closed lips, refusing older people’s cajoling to talk… the dreaded eye-roll on the swing when my chachu asks me ‘Aap kahan aayee ho?’.  I did roll my eyes when I was that old.  I blame it on the Sweet Valley kids I used to read.  Jessica Wakefield and her friends would roll their blue eyes all the time! The preteen stage in which my face was still as round as if carefully traced with a compass, the accursed fringe of light hair outlining my forehead, and my braid thick enough to be a warrior princess’s weapon.  The most painful (and funny) part of all our ugly duckling days were our voices, the LOUD, barely suppressed Punjabi accent and oh the things we said!

Imagine a 13-year-old Aisha in a baggy white school uniform, sitting with equally baggy-uniformed teenaged friends, eating Super Crisps and gulping Coke and Fanta, conversation punctured with ‘Nai yar’ and weird laughter. Three of those friends now have babies of their own!
My baby sister with her chubby, chubby cheeks, dancing with her other tiny, chubby friends (all of who had names starting with S for some reason) to Bollywood hits, who now lives in Montreal with her passion for animals and Forever 21.

All our older aunts and uncles who look so young with all that hair and unmade up faces, beautiful smiles, laughter, bright clothes, the grandparents who are no more, the friends who grew apart, the relationships that withered and died, the babies who have lost their wide-eyed stare for the bittersweet knowledge of life, the fat little legs that have stretched out to carry the weight of adults and the responsibilities that come with it…

There is a lot of material for blackmailing.  School farewells where Maina was dressed as a boy, Arshia looking like a boy in a yellow dress dancing to Dholna, Zainab following the camera and jumping in front every five minutes, shouting HELLOooO!
My dad’s constant ‘beta camera mein dekhain na!’, perpetual admonishments to look in the camera, the refusal to treat a video camera differently from the still camera, with all the men straightening their shoulders and standing side by side, still, looking into the camera with proper smiles, all the young girls shrieking or tucking their faces to the side, putting up a hand in the lens as they walk away, like superstars do when caught on camera doing something less than glamorous; the ‘abu, movie nahi banain na!’ in different locations of the world, in varying levels of whining.  The inevitable forgetting to shut the camera off and either putting the lens cap on and converting the video into disjointed audio, or even better, hanging it around your neck and shooting a montage of feet, legs, shoes and ground!  

My mom’s ability to look beautiful in every shot, no matter whose birthday dinner or which beach party, Naveed bhai’s casual stud-like silence, broken very rarely to say something practical, except for the run he breaks into on a beach in England, chased by Maina and Faiza baji, clutching wet sand in their fists.  And all that hair my dad had!     

Bad hair, sun hats, baggy shirts, bushy eyebrows, happy smiles, arm-in-arm walks, peals of laughter, high-fives, winks.  Footage to be shared with fiancés, new husbands, work friends, or even each other. 

Beware family and friends.  If you knew me in 1992, you may be in for some shocking proof of what used to be.