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.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Bright Side of Load-shedding

June 24

Bijli aagaee?” chirps two-year-old Arhu.
Every job has its own vocabulary, terms and phrases that are tossed around like balls between jugglers, foreign to those outside of the office space.  Banking, telecom, journalism – I can of course only recall ones related to journalism because it is obviously the most interesting of these fields! Annoying pomp aside, eras have lingos too.  Who can forget the infuriating but convenient acronymization and abbreviation of already colloquial words! LOL, WTF, and the dreaded one I seem to blurt out too often – O-M-G.  

All the words that come with changing fashions and technology.  And so we have our era of electricity issues.  Load-shedding, UPS, generator, battery – these are part of everyone’s everyday language.  My short week in Karachi with its erratic but still not-too-frequent power outages did not prepare me for this resigned ritual of one hour of electricity followed by one hour of load-shedding.  People in Punjab have been dealt a short hand.  Who made this terrible deal with the government? 

I know I have no reason to complain because honestly, we do have UPSs and generators (even upper middle class families are relying more on UPSs because honestly, fueling generators to run entire households for 12 hours every day of the week and month is taxing), so at the very least, I do have the fan blades chasing after each other in a mad whirl at all times.  Of course every time the AC switches off at night, you wake up because of the shift in the temperature, you push off the blankets and toss and turn for a couple of minutes.  And then again, wake up from deep sleep to grope for the covers blindly. 

I haven’t really gotten straight eight hours of sleep yet but I think I’ll get used to this. 

Everyone has had to reorganize their lives around the schedule of electricity outages, cooking more regularly and storing lesser food in the fridge, water bottles go in the deep freezer if you want really cold water, getting up earlier for work, ironing clothes at a certain time, restricting TV watching to one-hour shows or leaving movie time to the occasional two hours of continuous electricity we get after 8 pm.  I guess in a way we as a nation have been disciplined and taught time-management. 

I wasn’t really ready to look at this in a positive light till last night, when my cousins and I were sprawled in the warm lethargy of summer nights, on the couch in the living room.  The split was trying its level best to cool things down but it was just a degree warmer than the comfortable coolness that makes us doze off.  All three of my cousins were engrossed in the world of their phones – from Nokia’s old-fashioned Snake to the accursed Facebook and the Angry Birds replacement for adults: Candy Crush (this is part of our era’s linguistic heritage too I believe).  Conversation consisted of appeals of attention from me and general comments on the absurdity and sadness of TV shows that we kept flipping through.

“What will we do when the light goes again,” I whined, swatting away at the nearest IPhone.
“Talk to each other,” and although it sounded funny it was a realistic suggestion.  However, when the TV and AC shut off automatically, we instead huddled around my cousin’s laptop.  Facebook stalking if done strategically can make you feel better about your life.  Because the fact is, really, everyone on social media is not beautiful and halfway across Europe on a backpacking tour.  There are the fat husbands, the ugly children, the poor souls who dress as if it is still 2000, and so forth (everyone uses Facebook for terrible, terrible reasons and therefore judgment should be suspended).  But then as fate would have it, the laptop hadn’t been charged and it died on us too.

And I guess that is what it took for us to start talking, about old friends and funny workplace stories, the inevitable journey into our past where we reminisced about the good old days and burst into fits of laughter that we use the phrase ‘rolling on the floor’ for because we were quite literally collapsed on the sofa, shaking from side to side and falling over each other.
“I am Aunt,” one would say and the rest would choke on giggles again. We even went outside in the porch and looked at the stars!

The light did come back on though, and so did the TV, and the laptop.  And my cousin let me play Candy Crush on her phone.  But thanks to the Pakistani government, I can rest assured that there will be many hours of dying technology that will make us turn to humans for company, comfort and entertainment.