Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Wheels on the Bus

I wonder if they’re taught the rules in school or is it one of those talks that your parents (and by ‘your’ I mean the parents in movies because face it, Pakistani parents never have ‘talks’ with you...) have with you when you’re 10 years old – is there a book that is handed out for free in shopping malls and grocery store, and if so, how come I didn’t get it?

Maybe the Brits are just born with an instinct for proper bus behavior, just something that runs in their blood so that they don’t even have to think twice about falling into their place in the queues at bus stops and giving up their seats to the elderly, making their way down the moving bus so that when it finally pulls to their stop they don’t make the rest of the passengers wait and just hop out – a polite ‘thank you’ to the bus driver who bats it right back, ‘cheers!’.

I’ve read those Facebook posts about racist people on the bus or at the underground/subway but so far the most kindness I’ve seen is on the bus (and of course it has to do with the fact that we’re in Nottingham; I mean in London this driver barreled right past us at 11 pm in the night even though there was not one but two Pakistani guys trying to wave it down!). 

People just naturally fall into lines at bus stops here, which is actually kind of weird because that means nobody really sits down on the helpful benches under the helpful shades and at rush hours these lines can snake down and around the curbs (also people don’t really crush into each other here, the concept of personal space is quite prevalent). 

The bus driver welcomes everyone with a hello love or at least a nod when they step on.  Almost everyone acknowledges the bus driver with a thanks as they step off and the bus driver acknowledges everyone, even if this means that he or she has to say ‘thank you, bye, cheers, have a good one love, see you later, bye, thanks’ ten times in a row.  And I always wonder, don’t you get bored of saying it so many times all day long?

I see a lot of old people on the bus.  And I admit that I had a preconceived notion that the wrinkly white-haired elderly were going to be more inclined to say something racist or just give off negative vibes but funnily enough, it’s always been the older people who have struck up conversation with me on the bus – ‘I reckon it’s a bad accident if it’s causing so much traffic’ or something similarly sweet and nondescript.  Or just smiling at me or maybe popping open the seat because I’m weighed down by my penguin-parka and four bags of groceries. 

You also hear all sorts of stories on the bus and life plays out in cute moments like the four-year-old who kept jumping up and down the back seats and then after his mum asked him nicely to settle down, he waited a few seconds before asking for attention: “Mau-mee?”
“I love you.”
I mean, that’s pretty cute. Especially in that sweet accent.  Little kids talking in British accents is the best because it just seems so funny that people that tiny are speaking so properly.

Then there were these two other toddlers sitting on the seats at the bus stop (finally! Someone uses the benches!) and they demonstrated what persistence is – arguing about something with just two phrases, “Oh no it isn’t!” and “Oh yes it is!” and they said that for about seven minutes with varying degrees of emphasis and cuteness till finally their bus came and they toddled off with their mum.

People here often give up their seats for someone else and I spot random acts of kindness frequently. 

It can be quite busy in the mornings with all seats taken and then an inside bus-queue which is quite uncomfortable actually because now there is no personal space and every little shift means you’re nudging someone’s shoulder or poking their legs with your bags. 
One morning I walked all the way to the back of the bus – the two guys in front of me in the queue outside had found seats and I had spotted one but this other guy wearing headphones was sitting next to it with his bag on the empty seat.  I thought if I stood suggestively near enough he would pick up his bag but that didn’t happen for the first 15 seconds.  Of course if I was back in Pakistan I would’ve just asked him to but here… yeah, no, haven’t you heard of all those racists shouting ‘bloody Paki!’ on the bus stories?

A disadvantage of being a brown person visiting the Western world is the uncertainty and lack of confidence, the persistent effort to simply stay in the background so as not to ruffle any white feathers.

And then, one of the men who had gotten on with me leaned forward with a loud: “Excuse me mate, can you move your bag?” and the headphone guy was startled into politeness, “oh yeah, sorry!” and I settled down into the seat with a blushing thank you.  I did get a bit damsely in my heart. My knight in a shining winter coat, if you may.  

When it comes to kindness to strangers, the biggest barrier for me isn’t that I’m not a kind person and I simply don’t notice when someone else might need help – it’s more the awkwardness or mild fear of being rejected or met with an icy ‘no thank you’.  The truly kind people, I guess, are the ones who don’t care about that.  In which case I am not a truly kind person because I spend too much time seesawing between “I should help” and “I can’t I’m too shy and I don’t like saying things to new people even if its small talk or I like your headband kind” (seriously, I went to the salon here and spent so much time feeling uncomfortable about the fact that all the ladies were chatting to their respective hairdresser and I wasn’t, debating whether I was coming across as rude, and then agonizing over the right thing to say so that she would A. understand my accent and B. be able to respond easily following the laws of small talk.  It took about fifteen minutes but I think I finally settled on “Have you had a long day then?” and it did lead to some minutes of very satisfying insignificant but nice conversation).

And so if I see a lady weighed down with six bags, I’ll first think: “Oh I should ask if she needs help” and then immediately be besot with the thought that what if she doesn’t trust me and thinks I’ll run away with her bags and so forth.  I go through the same thing in Pakistan but there I’m more likely to go up and strike conversation, offer help with a bag or a baby.  It’s the same idea, I guess, here in England any rejection or ‘no thank you’ would always be underlined with a ‘is it because you don’t trust a South-Asian looking female’?

Sometimes I wish I was either a truly kind person or a total douche bag, because then I 
wouldn’t be slipping into this pool of uncertainty (that you don’t need to analyze to realize is idiotic and unnecessary) every time I see a young parent struggling to get their pram down the stairs or over a curb!

I’d be like the man in a scruffy hat who saw a small toy on the floor of the bus and the lady with a small kid exiting the bus right in front of him and simply picked it up and followed her to give it to the kid – not the female who looks at the toy then at the parent and child, and thinks, but what if it doesn’t belong to that kid? What if she thinks I’m creepy? What if she thinks it’s disgusting that I gave a toy that was on the floor of a bus to her precious toddler (and if you think about it, that is kind of unhygienic…)?

Maybe when I’ve spent some more time on the bus I’ll get comfortable with the notion of kindness to strangers (in particular, British strangers), and hopefully not let a stray drunken comment or two about Indian food and foreign bastards bruise my slowly emerging belief that most people here are pretty nice…

Saturday, December 10, 2016


It could be a song or perhaps a photograph, or maybe someone else’s story. 

But it’s usually out of the blue and it grabs at me like a strong hard tug on my arm.  Kind of cool how a thought can have such a physical impact.  And so it may be that my eyes glaze over during a Zumba class because that song reminds me of a friend who deleted all Avril Lavigne tracks from my laptop and had a playlist titled ‘Aisha’s playlist’ on her computer, which she would put on for me while I lay on her bed and she sat by her desk, letting me angst out my blues.

Or it could be a random photograph of the university library that some random stranger has posted on Facebook, and it pulls me like a rolling whirling black hole into memories of blue sneakers (that I would sneak out of Mariam’s cupboard and probably wore more than she did – and the gray t-shirt which she just ended up giving to me), and the feel of the concrete sidewalk against the soles of my feet, the sidewalk that I walked 200,563 times at all times of the day and night, in all moods ranging from happy to sad to raving mad.

Sometimes I shake my head and snap out of it, or if I’m honest, I shrug off the reverie most of the time because it’s almost too painful to think of how life was from 2005 to 2009 – friends, love, laughter, adventure, learning and a litany of other things that made me who I am today.  I guess it’s painful because it’s so definitely over and it’s never coming back.  And so I kind of smack the nostalgia out before it can overwhelm me with its bittersweet mist.

Today, for some reason, I want to just throw caution to the gloomy clouds outside and go for it.  A dip in the past.  I already spent around 9 to 10 hours watching Netflix yesterday, in bed, of course, is there any other way to watch endless episodes of a TV show?

The first two years our dorm rooms were tiny.  But it may have been one half of a small box, it was more mine than any room back in my house in Karachi had ever been.  And so, from the bed sheets neatly stretched out to the frames and the way the books were piled on my desk, and the creative freedom I exercised on my wall (it was so definitely mine, even if I paid fines for it at the end of each year), it was liberating.

Starting anew is never easy but when you’re 17, 18, you still have the energy and the optimism and well, mostly the energy, to power through the awkward small talk and so you use the same flashcards of questions which you take out of your pocket every time there’s five minutes with a stranger and read them off one by one.  And everyone else is kind of doing the same thing so it makes it easier I guess.

And then of course, there were always the wacky ones.  The ones who would tell you a story about how they juggled their goldfish from the sink to a bottle to the floor in the first ten minutes of your meeting, or offer to grab breakfast after Psychology class, or tell you that your eyebrows need a bit of a trim.  And I guess those are the ones you remember the most – those and the really ordinary tales of hey do you want a cup of tea so you don’t die studying for your exam? or I really don’t like onions in my paratha roll and of course, do you think there is going to be a quiz in class today? And I guess you remember these because these are the ones you’ll stick to for the rest of your life (hopefully).

What I miss the most? I’m not sure.

Waking up to a quiet Sunday morning in winter when the campus is still asleep, slightly shivering under a blanket of fog and walking around with a cup of tea before settling down on a bench under a sturdy tree.  Just sitting on the grass, starting a reading and then stopping every ten minutes because someone walks by and sits down to talk, leaning back with your arms behind you, palms digging into the ground, grass imprints on your hands, legs stretched out, just lounging for hours. 

Cryptic messages, too lazy to type the vowels and spell it all out, to meet up for bland Chinese chicken and rice at PDC, sharing the excitement and alerting all your better mates about the crispy potato wedges (what were they called … argh my memory!) that would show up like a special treat every month or so.

Just lounging for hours.

Polishing the morning breakfast routine down to the way we placed butter wedged behind the paper cup of hot tea to melt it so, and taking our trays out to the khopchas, our window ledges of comfort and camaraderie, and yes, sitting there for hours.
The gift of time, the gift of no bills, no job, no grown-up conscience, no constant reminder of mortality, no idea of permanence, no fear of permanence, no wish or anxiety about stability, the gift of invincibility, the gift of loving being in a fast car with the windows down and your hair whipping the person sitting next to you’s face.

Just sitting around on the curbside for hours, making lists and itineraries and plans, or remember the games of Rapid Recall (why did the boys always win when the girls were obviously smarter and better at drawing and remembering things?) or Pictionary (why did Urooj’s lizard look like a leaf? Or was it a leaf that looked like a lizard? And the firework people that Essam made and I think I still have fading away on some piece of paper in some memorabilia box) or when we would lock ourselves up in our rooms singing songs in the dark or watching episodes of FRIENDS or YouTube videos of funny babies?

Just kidding around for hours.  Remember the prank calls to the US? 

Remember attending guest lectures and crushing on professors and judging others for crushing on professors because obviously, ours was an intellectual love, why else would you pine after a tall bald guy in wrinkled shalwar kameez? Remember idealism and hope and love and passion?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t believe or hope anymore but oh it was just a different kind, just edged in a different kind of glow and intensity.

What do I miss the most?

Remember when it would rain and we would lose our shit? Remember badminton matches in the sports complex and outside on the curb and that one friend who would always show off with dives to the ground and skids on his knees?

Or the one time when we got up from PDC after dinner and decided to explore the under-construction building near the faculty apartments, stumbling in the pitch darkness and almost making it inside when a ghost with a blue light flashed it in our faces and we all kind of just yelled and ran away? Did we leave someone in the front to explain to the guard what we were doing there?

Remember exploring a new city and falling in love with its old mosques and gardens and cute cafes and restaurants and its beautiful range of weather?

Remember eating cold cereal for sehri in a dim dorm room, remember lounging in the common room, remember sitting in the balcony overlooking the faculty apartments? Remember iftaaris where we combined our powers to marry samosas with rolls and Tang? Remember instant noodles and owning three pieces of cutlery?

See, four years is a long time.  The ‘remember when’ would go on and on for pages and it would be dark outside and then light again by the time my memory comes up blank about life in LUMS.

And I guess that’s a good thing, because sometimes I get scared that I will forget about all the amazing times I had there, and the thought of forgetting those days is definitely more terrifying than remembering them.

And yeah, we didn’t know back then that some years later we would be sitting on opposite ends of the world and surviving through something called Whatsapp, but then I wonder if we knew that we would be closer and even better friends (maybe even married!)?
So of course.  I don’t have hours and hours, weeks and months of hanging out and sitting on gravel sipping tea from paper cups, and yes, the bills will keep coming and I had better continue employment, and figuring out what to cook tomorrow, and yeah, people are growing up and old and sick and there used to be a time when you had a whole generation to look after you and reprimand you and tell you what you should do but now, well. Not quite, and you’re on your own, which is good I guess but sometimes it makes you want to hide under the blankets in the far corner of your bed.

Okay, wait, I lost my train of thought – the string of grays became too long.  I guess what I’m saying is I wouldn’t change it for anything.  Because if you think about it, those four years of life were full to the brim – there wasn’t space for anything else, anything more.  Ad what more can you ask for? It was the transience of that time that made it so special.

So.  It’s okay.  We’ll be alright, I’m pretty sure.

And I’m going to continue hoping that the sun comes out soon, if not today, then tomorrow for sure.