Sunday, January 27, 2013

Puzzle Project VIII: The Peaceful Mullah

January 19

 Haji Sahab appeared to be in his early 40s. He had the perfect Muslim man beard, trim and neat, long with grayish streaks, no moustache. His shalwar was an inch or so above his ankles. He was sitting at the Islamabad airport with a fairly young wife, I think she must have been in her late 20s. There were two young boys running around them, barely a year apart I would say. A third child was no more than 4 and he did not want to wear his shoes.

“We’ve been here for four hours,” the pretty young mother told me in a Punjabi accent. “We came from outside of Islamabad for our flight to Karachi. And the flight keeps getting delayed!” I nodded sympathetically – kind eyes, slight pout, slow shaking of the head that is common to most South Asians and confusing for Americans because it is an in-between nod and shake of the head so the latter population has trouble understanding what it indicates. She pointed at her youngest and explained he was tired of wearing his sneakers. By now the toddler was running around the seats, his tiny feet bare.

“Do you want to look at the planes?” Haji Sahab asked the other two boys who had just come back from their exploration of the waiting area and thrown themselves in the plastic chairs. They had only started complaining when their father convinced them to go stand by the large windows that looked out at the runway.
“Shukar Allah!” the mother beamed, knowing that if the distraction hadn’t occurred she would be surrounded by persistent whining.

The couple was from Attock. Haji Sahab worked in a telecommunications office in the city and had long hours. He had married his young wife around 10 years ago (their oldest son was nine), when he was 33 and she had just turned 18. “He married late because his father died at an early age and he was the oldest male in the house,” Haji Sahab’s wife told me in the candid way that Pakistani women in waiting areas talk to other Pakistani women, no reservations, a high level of comfort and trust in the listener who they met 15 minutes ago. “He has 7 sisters and he made sure that all of them were married off before he thought about himself!”

Haji Sahab came back with his boys and settled down. He was so calm looking, a soft smile on his face even as his children galloped around him, the youngest falling over his feet and then getting up and continuing on his shaky run, unfazed.

I was struck by the chemistry between the couple. When our conversation was cut short because of the youngest son’s tears, the wife went up to Haji Sahab, standing very close to him and poking his jacketed shoulder for money. He smiled and gave her some notes, but she poked him again, pointing at the other two sons and he laughed. He gave her more money and as she walked to the little tuck shop in the room, she gave him a smile that melted my heart. They looked like they were in love. 
And it was cool, because when I first looked at the couple, it was a pile of stereotypes that rose up from my lap and created a scenario in front of me – arranged marriage, young female coerced to marry older male and a series of children who she had to look after on her own while her husband remained aloof and authoritative. I left the waiting room with a much better, probably more accurate story: arranged marriage, young female married to a caring, well-established older man, three lovely boys who exhaust their parents with their abundant energy, a sweet marital relationship that exudes affection and compatibility. Well done Haji Sahab. 

Monday, January 21, 2013


January 12

“Puppi chaheye?” my two-year-old nephew asks in his tiny voice. (He sounds just like Nibbles, Jerry’s tiny grey nephew from Tom and Jerry). I was saying bye to him and pretending to cry, which he usually can’t stand – his small face wrinkles into this sweet look of anxiety, he wrings his hands and emits little squeaks of concern mixed with comfort. He might offer a hug or he might smack your knee – not quite in control of his emotional expressions. I was lucky this time because he offered me a kiss.

I love tiny toddlers who look just like miniature real people in their real-people jeans, scarfs and sneakers. But they are so small I am always amazed and amused when they speak in almost full sentences and run around. Arhu is the only grandchild in the city so he is always in the limelight. And boy does he know it!

I will miss his parroting of every word he overhears (coffeechai chaheye? Awaz arahi hai? AWAZ ARAHI HAI? as he holds a cellphone to his ear; and everyone’s favorite: yar do na yar!). There are some things that sound absolutely adorable only if a two-foot-tall toddler is saying them, and “chacha yar darwaza kholo yar” is one such sentence.

Leaving home is always hard. My shoulders tense up like someone practiced making knots with my muscles and then forgot to unknot them, sleep becomes erratic, and my stomach whirls slowly like a fan on UPS. It is a murky gray color, the melancholy blues of missing everyone I love, the darker shades of guilt that streak through the mixture, and the wriggly pale yellow of anxiety that comes with travelling on my own.

I’m going to miss hugging my mom. There is no person on earth who I can hug like my mom. The feeling of belonging, love and comfort is irreplaceable – no Snuggy on earth can compete. Breakfast in the guest room because that is where it is the sunniest in the mornings, eating homemade halwa, having tea in the evenings, cuddling in bed on cold Islamabad evenings. The summery winter in Karachi, the beach with its calm, psychedelic waves, warm sand and a good supply of friends. Music from a small car-shaped speaker thing. Biryani, Pakola. Lahore was cold, foggy and misty, rained twice and got even colder. Beautiful wedding, the scent of fog. Give me more.

No homework, no alarm clocks, no job, lots of family and friends – perfect combination for a month long hiatus. Who can blame me for the sinking in my stomach and heart? I’m going to miss home. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Wait, I’m Not There Yet

December 15

New York is expensive. I just bought a 15 oz. bottled smoothie for $4.69! That’s how much Steak ‘n’ Shake in St Louis charges for a full meal – grilled cheese and fries, that is. Probably a gigantic soda too.

Airports can be lonely. Especially when one is bogged down with too many bags and every step – with backpack, big trolley, small trolley, camera bag and jacket because for one it is actually too warm inside – belongs to the geeky, awkward boy in a chick flick before he transitions into a geeky-but-now-in-an-endearing-way boy. There are too many families, siblings arguing (I just straightened my bangs in the airport bathroom and two Hispanic ladies followed suit, chattering amicably to one another. I bet they were sisters. There was that affectionately argumentative tone to their Spanish that is prone to ordinary sister-talk), couples holding hands, babies running amok with harried parents in tow – it makes one feel sad to be bogged down alone. Buying that smoothie, by the way, was like the last Lego you add to an already teetering tower – I had to find a place to sit quick before I collapsed in a pile of luggage and blueberry.

After 9/11 though, airports have also become stressful places. I guess I am not the most laid back traveler, but I like to think I have a pretty calm head. But I am always nervous about getting into trouble at airports. Am I allowed to go to the restaurants before I have my boarding card? Can I leave this enormous bag outside the bathroom cubicle? Will I be able to sit here for a couple hours before check-in opens? Comes with the South Asian color and the Arabic name I guess. Oh well.    

I am glad to be heading home, but after one plane ride, I still have two more to go. Not to mention the 14 hour one above the Atlantic. Till I have my boarding card, my shoulders are going to be a little tense.

St Louis is an erratic city. It was raining at 3 am, light but persistent, as if it would never stop, which is why I decided to call a cab rather than walk in the rain to the metro and then to the airport. But when I left my house, it had stopped. The asphalt was shiny and lakes for fairies to waft by in little leaf boats had appeared. The myriad Christmas lights were mirrored on the puddles, their colors a little smeared.

I think back to my panic attacks more than a year ago, as I was headed to this strange city. Don’t get me wrong, I still find the city absurd, but in a more this belongs to me and I like it kind of way.
I don’t think there are many other places where a random man outside a restaurant has called out to me “Hey! You’re gorgeous!”. Or where I have a tree outside my window that is home to seven different kinds of birds. Where cab drivers talk of how their friend’s girlfriend shot the friend – twice, or where the bus driver stops the entire bus at a gas station so she can buy soda, where a stranger will hold the train door open for you so you don’t miss it, where a young man walks tiny kittens on leashes, or where the neighbors chase after a lost dog and hold him for half an hour before they find out who the owner is.

When I’m flying back to you, St Louis, I won’t be fighting hysteria again, instead, I’ll be thinking of making the most of the last few months I will have to overhear ridiculous conversations and discover the hidden and not-so-hidden jewels in the city.