Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Magic of Edinburgh

Fields of green spotted with fluffy white sheep, the clouds hang low, teasingly low, if you go half way up a ladder, you can touch the soft cool underbelly.

Eyelashes feel heavy, drop low, flutter open, close for a few minutes and open again.

Now the windows are wet, small rivers streaming across, cutting the pane into diagonals, blurring the green outside, turning a quaint old-fashioned painting into abstract art.

And my eyes close again, lulled by the even rocking motion of the bus, legs pulled up, knees pushed against the back of the seat in front of me, and a few minutes later, the sky has changed again, the sun breaks through like heaven’s trying to say hello to the world below, misty streaks of gold cutting across the gray in four, five, many rays.  The colors are suddenly vibrant, the rolling hills a bright sunny green, and the trees lit up, even the sheep seem more alive.

The sky kept changing on our ride to Edinburgh, with sudden swift and short-lived bursts of sun, glimpses of blue but mostly different shades of gray, a clouds’ party that kept dwindling down to a small get-together and then gathering momentum to turn into a churning heavy metal bash.
It was almost dark when we reached the city, but I could tell immediately that it was beautiful – the architecture was majestic, ancient, beautifully historic.  Our hotel was right in the city center, our room looked out at the twinkling lights of cafés, restaurants, and a theater.  And we had a TV! After months of watching Netflix on our laptops, the 36 inch screen felt really luxurious and although Fahad kept tuning into the Christmas songs, there were all those other channels to watch live TV! (We saw Home Alone, obviously, and a show that is about British people watching TV shows. You heard me. We were watching people watching TV.)

Edinburgh has a certain magic about it – you feel it as you walk along Waverly Bridge, with old pubs and little shops selling kilts and plaid scarves along the road, and the city stretching out on both sides, church spires and domes of museums, majestic columns, dark statues, angels and gargoyles, thoughts of philosophers suspended in the frozen air above their stately sculptures and words that have strayed off stories huddled in alley corners or shining foggily under orange street lights.

It was beautiful to walk the city on our first night there.  December is a cold, cold month to be visiting Scotland but there were thousands like us milling the streets.  In fact, I think I heard more Hindi/Urdu than English (though to be fair, Scottish English is not very easily understood by my ears!).  The air was chilly, a frequent wind impishly sneaking in between the layers of our scarves and down our neck, curving behind our ears, and sliding across our cheeks, making our skin feel like ice, frozen, smooth.  Across Waverly Bridge and then onto the Royal Mile, cobbled streets and curved street lights that have been throwing down orange halos for hundreds of years.  Every now and then there were dark alleys winding away from the shops or leading down stairs to different neighborhoods of the city.
Edinburgh is a city of philosophy, science and literature and if our feet hadn’t frozen every night of our short stay, we would have done the city tours.  From ghosts and stories of murder and gore, to literary tours and history walks, the city really has something for everyone.

The Christmas market was laid out on a terraced hill – you walked along the top lane browsing wooden toys painted bright and postcards printed with red birds, then down to the candy stalls and little booths selling drinks and hot chocolate, and down further to where a children's train curved around a short track, a carousel with grinning toddlers and grinning grandpas going round and round to merry tunes, and a maze made of stubby Christmas trees, lit up in twinkles of blue and yellow.

There was a Ferris Wheel and the giant swinging ride that rises up to maybe 80 feet and whirls around – on a night as cold as that one with a fine drizzle that started and let off every now and then, I think I was happy to walk with both feet grounded.

Christmas day dawned with some clouds giving way to show that the sky in Scotland can be blue too.  We walked past Calton Hill and down to the Scottish Parliament House and Holyrood National Park.  All the buildings and offices were closed but you can’t close down a hill.  The thing with Arthur’s Seat is it’s bigger than what comes to mind when you say ‘hill’ but smaller than a mountain so I’m not sure how to describe it.

It is beautiful though and there are several peaks that you can go up and down, around and around on.  There are no posts or signs once you start on the trails so you kind of go with the flow provided your legs agree with where you set your eyes on.

It was windy, seemed like the gods had turned on their fans at full speed.  Instead of giving you measurements in mph, let’s just say the wind was strong enough to topple a 3/4th -filled coffee cup off a table and if you were going against it, you had to bend forward (in the shape of an ‘f’).

We decided to take the trail closest to us and I think my thighs started to hurt by the fourth step – it was steep and it was embarrassing how quickly I got tired! But we powered through, mainly because Fahad always strides on ahead without looking back (he told me it is because he believes in my strength and ability but I think it is because he wants to keep enough of a distance so that I don’t grab on to his arm and let him kind of pull me along like a wooden cart).  

The views are absolutely spectacular, and you can pause to admire the city stretched out below with its churches and houses and parks and lakes laid out in miniature perfection, and at the same time regulate your breathing so that people just think you’re a romantic rather than a romantic-who-is-very-out-of-shape.

We went up and then down, only to see more trails going up, including the part that I think gives the hill its name, and so at a crossroads where one path went up to a shorter peak, another down towards the side facing the Leith (which looks like the sea but is apparently a river),  we chose the really steep one to the top.  Roughly hewn steps that were muddy because, who are we kidding, we were in Scotland, and the wind here was enough to throw my balance off, especially because of my giant winter jacket which isn’t very conducive to suave delicate movements anyways.  Every now and then, the sun would throw off its gray blankets to beam at the world, and the craggy hills, the park, the entire city would shine in its golden glow.  It was stunning.

As we made our way up the now-narrow path with a sharp drop to one side (fortunately the wind was blowing me in the direction of the hill rather than off the edge…), a young boy was coming down with his father, saying, and I quote, “aaj to hum marein ge, aaj to marney ka din hai!” and I think he was referring to the sharp windy descent.  As they passed us by, the father said, “Go for it, it’s definitely worth it!”
“Really,” I said, “But I thought aaj marnay ka din hai?” and he laughed, telling us to keep going.
And here Fahad did grab my arm and propel me forward.

And when we reached the peak, which is kind of a wide platform, relatively flat with grass and windblown moss carpeting it, it was inexplicably wonderful.  The wind whipped our jackets and hair and camera bags and caps, and the sun was bright and warm, the sky blue with white clouds and Edinburgh stretched far below, glinting placidly.

You could choose your spot and sit down on the tufty ground, gazing out at the squared neighbourhoods or the lake or the Leith and beyond.  Christmas in Edinburgh was definitely magical. 

Epilogue: We found a much softer way down – the grassy slopes on the other side of Arthur’s Seat (that led down to the pond/loch) was child’s play.  You could have rolled down if there weren’t patches of mud scattered around! And then as we walked along the road that curved around the peak in an attempt to reach civilization, it started to rain. And it was the kind of rain that laughs when people open up their umbrellas and after its done laughing, it turns all umbrellas upside down and then laughs some more. We were completely drenched in minutes! Let me tell you, windswept rain in winter in Scotland is not a particularly uplifting experience.  But there was some comedy to trudging along the road half bent over in the face of the wind with water dripping down your hair and into your earlobes.  About 30 minutes of rain-walking, some kind strangers who offered us the number for a taxi service and a Pakistani taxi driver finally led us to the dry warmth of our room. Wily Edinburgh! 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

All the Little Things

Little things can really get you down sometimes.

Invisible motes of dust sticking together to create spoofy balls of dust (bacteria and infinitesimal specks of dry, dead skin. Ew.) – it’s like you spot a tiny brown ant scurrying on the kitchen counter and then the next time you turn and reach for the sugar tin, there’s a whole army of them marching in a line better than any you’d find in the immigration area at Karachi airport (but that is a pretty low bar).

It’s like you see a bug on the grass where you’re sitting and immediately feel itchy all over and it doesn’t even matter that you most probably do not have four beetles having a relay race up your leg, because, if you think about it, in some ways ghost bugs are worse than real ones.

Once you see that spot of ketchup drying on the kitchen floor, or a handful of different-sized crumbs lying at the base of the couch you just cannot un-see it and your eyes keep flitting back to it just like your mind keeps flipping back to the chocolate ice cream you bought just two hours ago for a rainy day.

Or at night when you can’t fall asleep and then suddenly the clock on the window sill just out of your reach starts to tick really loudly.  I mean Mr. Clock has definitely been there all day, mumbling quietly, nonstop, but just now, it decides to throw itself into your consciousness and once the tick-tick-tick-tick  starts to run around in your head, there is no way out.  The trick, of course, is to start thinking about something else, but trying not to obsess is almost as hard as doing a plank for 50 seconds.  Something about the way we’re wired, you know, one of God’s little jokes I guess.

So, anyways, I let little things get me down, sometimes.  Waking up with a cramp in my leg, or putting on my shirt inside out, or pouring too much milk into my tea …  and one tiny thing almost always leads to another tiny thing, like a yawn-reaction. 

On the flip side, little things can make me really happy too.

Like the sun colouring the clouds pink and gold, or a perfect cup of coffee or a bunch of purple tulips in a glass jar.  Or the £2 wire hanger I got that fits perfectly over my door and has helped me organize my pjs.

This Thursday I went to Birmingham.  I actually had a friend to meet! Gasp! And a female friend at that.  I was feeling quite positive about it and the misty weather didn’t dampen my spirits (seriously, what is up with the spray in the air? It’s not rain, it’s not even a drizzle – it’s more like a spritz from a perfume.  Or when someone accidentally spits at you during a passionate debate).

Whether it’s a series of little annoying things or a series of cute things … the more you start to notice something, the more of it you find.  Like someone in college who you go on a trip with and realize you’ve never seen him before – and then after the trip you run into him everywhere Or like Mr. Clock’s monologue at night.

Buses here are right on schedule – give or take a few minutes sometimes, and even that is updated in real time on the stops.  So if you’re not at the stop with your arm extended to flag the bus down, the bus isn’t going to stop.
And sometimes we see people racing alongside the bus in a hope to get to the stop in time – and usually, if you’re not in London, and the driver has seen you running, they’re likely to stop for a few extra seconds and let you huff and puff on aboard.

You know the debates about good and bad people and how most of us are constantly sliding from the bright end to the darker one or somewhere in between – well, I think you can tell if you’re mostly a good or bad person depending on your reaction to a person running towards the stop as your bus gently rolls by them – are you rooting for the person to make it? Are you silently cheering them on, hoping the light turns red at the next signal to give them some more time?  If you are, then I think you probably have a good heart.

Last Thursday on my way to the coach station, we saw this lady with white hair and a furry Russian hat jog out of her gate and turn right – oh man, you’re not gonna make it, I thought, feeling bad for her.  And then the bus driver suddenly slowed down, “where are you running to lady?” he asked and opened the doors, stopping a few yards short of the actual stop.  The drivers are actually not supposed to do that, but who was gonna complain about a bus driver that stopped a little too soon so that an old lady doesn’t miss her bus? I thought that was pretty sweet.

Later at the coach station, I was waiting to board the National Express and I saw this young mother with a baby about 6 months I guess.  She was a petite woman and I was really impressed by her strength – she held the baby in one arm and picked up a car seat, balanced it on the sidewalk, proceeded to take out a bunch of bags from the pram (why do babies need so much stuff? I mean, they’re tiny!) and then expertly folded the pram.  What impressed me more was the smile on her face.  I would be penduluming between frazzled and grumpy if I were travelling with just a baby.  People let her board first, which was also very nice.  And throughout the journey to Birmingham, I heard the lady talk with her baby (in baby talk, which is always cute when its emanating from a baby but definitely a bit weird when adults indulge in it…) and when the baby cried, she continued to croon calmly.  Finally the baby’s whining turned merry again and I saw her grinning as her mother bounced her up and down – every time her cheeky little face appeared over the top of the seat, the lady sitting behind her pretended to grab at her, which I know sounds super creepy but babies love that – this one was no exception.  She giggled every time.

Birmingham was cloudy and misty too.  The Bull Ring mall (or shopping center, as the Brits say.  How did Pakistanis get so Americanized in their language when we were colonized by the former?) is huge – I kept exiting from one door and entering a whole new side, and it took fifteen minutes to find my friend.  We decided to walk to the art gallery and tell our other colleague friend to just meet us there, but then we literally walked into her on our way there.

I love that the museums in England are free! The art gallery was huge.  I also love how there is always a Pakistani artist to be found in all these galleries and museums, and there is nothing like living abroad to make you sigh fondly over mentions of Lahore…
We also saw the library, which was nine floors high, with twinkling blue fairy lights draped over the circular banisters and rows and rows of thickly bound beautiful books, a secret garden that was admittedly a bit winter-worn but still had amazing views, and you could definitely imagine sitting on a bench amidst the leafy green plants with a book and a cup of frothy coffee…

Some Halal Subway, window-shopping, coffee, TCF-praising and much-needed human conversation later, it was time to head home.

Back at the coach station in Birmingham, there was a small child who stood by the automatic doors which opened obligingly for him – there were several adults nearby but nobody paying him enough attention to comfort me that they were his family, and then with a glance behind him, the boy toddled out of the door.  Two seconds and still no adult, and then just like that, the little critter turned and ran back inside. 

Point one for grandma standing close to the door, whose smile showed that she had had an eye on him the entire time.

Later the same toddler was in his father’s arms, pulling at his daddy’s hair.  I gave him a smile and after that we became friends.  Every 45 seconds he would wave at me, a short, quick wave that was more like tracing the shape of a hill in the air, and I would wave back. 
Once again, these are some things that only people shorter than 2 feet can do and make it seem really cute.

As I settled into my seat, I found a pack of peanut M&Ms in my bag.  Unexpected victories. 

I had two and then decided to save the rest for my studious other half back at home.  

Because you know, sometimes, the little things can really make you smile.

Friday, January 13, 2017

What’s Pakistan like?

The old man had the most startling blue eyes, the kind that glittered in a wizard-like way.  He was a contractual worker fixing some room in the building where I work, and I met him in the kitchen over my morning coffee.  He asked where I’m from and widened his eyes, commented not on how good my English is but how American my accent is (which I take no offense or pride in – it’s not the two years of Master’s in St. Louis but all those American movies and TV shows I watch).

And then he asked me that question – “so, what is Pakistan like?”

The question always bounces off me like a gummy ball against the wall.  It’s a loaded question, even if it’s not really meant to be and I usually respond in two ways:

1. “Oh, it’s really nice,” which means absolutely nothing and really, when you think about Pakistan, nice is really not the most appropriate adjective … how about – incredible, wild, crazy, tragic, beautiful, turbulent, difficult to describe…?

2. Or I say something completely inane like, “well yeah, the traffic is horrible.” Which is true, of course, but when someone asks about what your birthplace/homeland is like, do you really want to start, and in most cases end, with that?

For some reason the question makes me antsy.  I feel the need to invite the inquirer to a presentation where I can have at least 30 minutes to go through a stack of 15 slides, highlighting some aspects of what my country is like.  There is an insistent need to not say anything negative because there is already so much negativity out there, but if I don’t mention any of it and say it’s beautiful and lovely and the crispy tandoori parathas make everything worthwhile, then I’d feel dishonest because how can you not mention the poverty and the overpopulation and the widespread intolerance?

See my dilemma?

What’s it like?

I wish I could say –

It’s horrifically dirty and there are slums like Macchar Colony in Karachi where children about the size of Bonsai trees run around barefoot in 5 inches of sewerage, poking at tired dogs with patches of skin visible on their skeletal bodies.

There are so many people – it’s like when you shake a can of Pepsi and open it, and there’s an explosion of foam, people pouring out, milling about in streets, squatting on their haunches, sipping tea from small glass cups, standing behind stalls selling bright purple eggplant and pale coloured cabbage, spread out on dry grass in parks sharing sandwiches and samosas, buying plastic jewelry and plastic slippers in markets, perched precariously, three, four, five and a baby on motorbikes, playing Ludo late at night under streetlights…

It’s haphazard and unruly, nobody follows the traffic rules and there are too many cars, the bus drivers are psychotic and pedestrians more thrill-seeking than the young men who throw themselves off cliffs – they’ll dart in front of speeding cars or pause in the middle of crossing the road to glance back at a straggling child.  There are no bus lanes, no bike lanes and the 1,000 ton-containers are never bolted down on their barreling wagons.  Sometimes there are cows and camels.

We have too many stray dogs and cats and street children and beggars with amputated limbs.

And then there is the sea that surges on and on, despite everything that has happened, and there is joy at the dirty, polluted smudgy Sea View beach where thousands of people wade in, fully clothed, holding hands, as the gray sea sweeps over them, toppling them like an unruly friend, backing away just so they can get back on their feet again and then coming back again, cresting, jumping over, drenching, and if you want, there is popcorn and French fries, and charred cobs to munch on. 

And sometimes there are fiery sunsets that whip across the sky like the orange gold yellow streaks of paint by a madly talented artist and your mind is wiped clean of all thoughts as you watch the burning ball of sun slipping slowly down and into the misty gray sea.

It is scattered with large pockets of intolerance that breeds in small madrassahs and small minds, fanned by poverty and frustration and evil, it is fed into young minds and shared in fancy living rooms and offices too.

It is peppered with smaller pockets of beautiful, brave people who speak out against injustice and preach love and peace, it’s scribbled in moldy notebooks and discussed on the grey seats of classrooms and in cozy cafés with art on the walls and warm orange lamps, and every now and then at larger gatherings under palm trees and wind-blown canopies next to stalls of books and children browsing through the books.

It is populated with passionate, persistent people who have left lofty jobs and neat queues to come back to their unruly messy country and work there despite its maddening ways.

It has sunny blue skies

And when it rains in Pakistan, people don’t put up their umbrellas or pull on their Wellingtons, they rush out and get drenched, kids hop around in puddles and mothers fry pakoras and friends share cups of steaming tea.

It has people who are nosy and judgmental and you call all strangers aunties and uncles and bhai and behan, and old women you meet for the first time on a bus will ask you if you’re married and why you don’t have kids and what you earn, and many men will stare at you as you walk down a crowded street.

It has people who have hearts as big as the sky and if you visit their house, with a survey or a question, they’ll offer you anything from fried bhindi to roasted peanuts, and chai, they’ll always offer you chai.  And they’ll help you reverse out of a tight spot and they’ll help you change your tire, and they’ll give you directions even if they don’t actually know the way, and you can always ask to hold their cherubic baby, they won’t think that’s creepy at all.

It has hundreds and thousands of people who march for things they don’t fully understand.

It has artists and film directors and writers and festivals celebrating culture, literature, food, music, and these are slowly growing.

It has mouthwatering delicious food – Karachi’s bun kababs to Lahore’s fresh water fish and tikkas to Peshawar’s chapli kababs and have you ever tried the cottage-cheese rotis in Hunza served with apricot chutney? Fruits and vegetables and nuts and don’t ever forget the chai, the spherical dense doughy parathas crispy on the outside and soft and buttery on the inside…

And it has the world’s most majestic mountains that will take your breath away and when you stand in front of a snowcapped jagged brute of a mountain with the sky for a crown and the sun for a mirror, it will be like a zap from a wand, you’ll be turned into a tiny speck of dirt and you’ll never feel so insignificant and you’ll never love that feeling of insignificance anywhere else.

So you see.  What Pakistan’s like isn’t an easy question to answer.

Because, you see, Pakistan is complicated and rich and diverse and beautiful and horrible all at the same time.

And then.

Pakistan is home. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Mad in Manchester

I enjoy penning my thoughts down (what, really, what a shocker!) especially when planning a trip, and yes I’m slightly abashed to say that I like details – so if our bus is supposed to reach Manchester at 2:30 pm I’m going to be optimistic and hope that it ends up getting there earlier and since our budget inn with its sweet purple moon is just a 16-minute walk away, we should be all checked in by 3…

Listen, time is short and there’s a lot to see in Manchester! So ideally I’d like us to be sharp about it and march on straight to one museum, then maybe sneak in the art gallery before the city shuts down all museums and galleries and churches and switches on its orange streetlights to guide the way to nightlife (except, what nightlife starts at 5pm?).

Of course, sometimes, alright, often, the best-(detai)laid plans go awry.

So the bus we were on left at exactly the right time but then sort of just slowed down and instead of the motorway/highway we seemed to be on a sightseeing tour bus that was languidly lolling down town roads and outside the clouds hung low, like sulky teenagers, silent and gloomy, threatening but not saying anything, kind of just following us, giving dark looks.  And we arrived in industrial Manchester half an hour late.  By the time we picked through the luggage pile and found our bag (which reminds me, can someone tell Fahad how lucky he is to have a wife who can pack all our two-adults-surviving-British/Scottish-winter luggage for five days in one small trolley bag?) it had started to drizzle.  We weren’t too bummed out because it has been three months in this country and a gloomy persistent drizzle is to the UK what cloudy windy evenings are to Karachi.

“Should we take the bus or walk? It’s a short walk but it is raining and we have our bags,” I asked Fahad who chose walking. 
So I punched in the address on my phone, and with my backpack clinging around my fat-winter-jacket arms and shoulders, and a furry hood providing a tunnel vision, we set off.  Just as we rounded the first corner, it started to rain. And I mean, really rain, the kind of rain that is being chased by the wind and it comes hurrying scurrying at you with a whiplash wind on its tail, sweeping over you like the many folds of a wet curtain. 

The beautiful architecture of old hotels and offices interspersed with cheap eateries and quirky cafes was completely lost on me as I struggled to navigate the way while being whipped by the cold rain.  I could actually see the rain because the wind was creating mini-waves in the pools of water that had already accumulated in the middle of the sidewalks – so I’d see the wave just before it would smack into me.  I was drenched and not amused.
Fahad, on the other, was sheepishly grinning – “you should’ve seen your face,” he told me later on and I guess it might’ve been comical because I was quite pissed off, and really, you can’t justifiably get angry at the weather, can you?

And so by the time we got to our motel, it was almost 4 pm, but man did it feel good to be dry and warm.  When we came down to reception the lady told us we should get a cab because there was a forecast for a crazy storm.  Outside the rain had become more like a forgetful drip of a tap rather than a full-pressure shower and the taxi would take 10 minutes to get here, which was almost the same time it would take us to walk to the Science & Industry museum.  So we decided to walk it.
The city was glittering wet, its street lights and shop lights reflected in puddles and on shiny windscreens, the sky was clearing out, with a beautiful gray-blue visible through the heavy suffused rainclouds finally on their way home.  Twilight in Manchester was beautiful when the sky wasn’t at war with us.

We settled for a casual stroll through the museum (4:15 pm – 45 minutes before it closed!) which was quiet save for a few small children toddling through the exhibits, and we got to know that Manchester was the first industrial city in the UK and had a thriving textile industry (also how they got lots of ideas – paisleys and block prints –  for textiles from India & Africa, then incorporated the ideas and designs into material here and sold it back to the same people from whom they got the actual ideas…).  The city has also made tremendous contributions to science (discovered how to split an atom! And something about the first computer program … and the computer was called Baby. Ha!) and engineering, and hey, don’t forget music (Oasis is from Manchester!).

Later we walked around the city center, which had just the right amount of people walking around to make it seem lively but not enough that you’re bumping into one shoulder after another and would cause a 10-person traffic accident if you paused on the pavement to take a picture of the clock tower that glowed purple and green and pink.  We stopped at a makeshift café bar right in the middle of a square near the John Rylands library (which is ranked number 1 on the list of things to see in Manchester – imagine! A library! How cool and nerdy.).  The German inspired bar had giant barrels as tables with stools around them, large gas-fire heaters to warm you up if you wanted to sit outside, cute little cabins in which drunken people drunkenly sang karaoke songs and twinkling warm yellow fairylights strung up above us.  And I finally got to drink hot chocolate.  It’s rare for me to be sitting outside in the cold yet feel happy and warm, and it was definitely a point in Manchester’s favour.

Just as we stepped out of the open-air mini-square, it started to rain again, with short bursts of wind that are excellent at upturning small umbrellas (which you then struggle to fix and proceed to get quite wet in the process).

At least I had finished my hot chocolate.

And it was just about time to head to the theater to watch a musical – thank god for indoor entertainment.

I had envisioned going back to dress up for the play but that had not quite happened – and so it was with frizzy hair, almost-smeared kohl, definitely no lipstick and my damp jacket and wet boots, we went to the very cool theater.  Oh and we actually followed one of the ‘explore nearby restaurants’ options with Google maps and ended up having some scrumptious Vietnamese food.

The theater was very cool, dim, and lit up as it was a perpetual twilight zone, with a photograph exhibition, open-design café and restaurant, and the actual auditorium was a spaceship/beehive in the middle with a 360° stage and two floors of seats all around it. 
It was an excellent musical and when we finally came out of the theater, the sky was clear with some twinkling stars, all shiny and shimmery, beautifully serene and quiet.  We walked back to our motel (Fahad was sure he saw Russell Peters but his exclamation came way too late for me to verify), having passed the demented Santa wishing Manchester a Merry Christmas while city hall glowed red (why red, I mean I know it’s a Christmas colour but it’s also quite familiar to horror films) behind it. 

It wasn’t according to plan but it was definitely a fun evening in mad Manchester.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

You've Got Mail

The start of a new year is like moving into a new apartment.  You think of all the things you could do with the new space … two, three, no – FOUR potted plants by the window, framed art on the walls, an off-white sofa because all of Pinterest and Instagram shows that black, white, gray and maybe a gentle splash of pastel pink or powder blue is what’s rocking the world of likes and hearts.  And then you get overwhelmed with all the ideas and then you realize you don’t have the money for that world of likes and hearts (stick to the cream-colored coffee cups and artistically arranged books, lady).

The start of a new year, then, maybe, is like the start of a long class.  You walk into it all bright and fresh and determined, tossing away a finished cup of strong tea and settle down onto a gray seat.  You whip out your striped notebook, open a new page, write a neat title in the center and start taking notes.  In the beginning your writing is tidy and you continue scribbling everything, sectioning the important parts, maybe even highlighting (if not then definitely underlining) and then as the session drones on, your writing wavers, becomes really untidy, more like you dipped an ant in ink, blindfolded it (with a teeny tiny blindfold) and set it off on your page, it slopes off, trailing away, and eventually, instead of the different theories on why individuals engage in deviant behavior, you end up drawing fluffy clouds with big smiles or big-headed stick figures.

But right now, it’s the neat handwriting part.  I think.

I’ve spent four days prepping myself to take the 22-minute bus ride to the nearest decent gym, and today the sun came out and I didn’t even have my office job and I found my gym pants.  So really, I have no excuse except utter laziness and whininess.

Also, I think today was a good day because I ate a pain au chocolat (I don’t know why they write the name in French in all the coffee shops.  I never know how to pronounce it so sometimes I go with ‘chocolate croissant’ and at others, ‘the chocolate thing’ while pointing in the right direction) AND I got mail!

Not to brag or anything, but I get a lot of mail here.  Probably more in three months than the almost three years spent in Karachi, even if you take out all the bills and the lady in apartment 5’s mail that gets put in our box (she has an Indian-sounding name so maybe someone just stuffs the envelopes in our mailbox thinking those neighbours also look brown).  Part of it is probably our lack of faith in Pakistan’s postal system, and the distance too … Europe kinda puts you in the middle, so easier to reach from all sides…

And getting a card with your name on it, scribbled in handwriting you recognize, stamped and slipped in like magic right outside your door – it sure makes you smile, like rainbows and dark chocolate and an old man making a funny face at a baby on the bus to make the baby laugh. 

I guess anything that happens rarely, or at best occasionally, tends to be treasured all the bit more.  Like rain in Karachi and sunny days in Nottingham; weekends when you work a 9-5 job; ordering cheese pizza and eating it in bed; winning a raffle or getting free samples in a new bakery; walking outside on a bright day when you’ve been driving in bad traffic in sweaty Karachi or slouching in a car seat that warms up after a minute and takes you right outside the grocery store and even holds your grocery bags for you when you’ve been taking the bus everywhere.  You want to boost anything’s worth, just cut down its frequency in your life.  See how a cup of tea tastes at the end of a long day rather than the beginning… Of course this doesn’t apply to everything … like math … or measles.  Doesn’t matter how little of it you get, it makes you feel awful.

But cards! Now that’s a pleasant thing to get, buy, write and send.  It’s actually pretty easy for me, I mean, I practically live next door to the post office.  So I guess I’ll do that.  Buy some nice postcards, stuff ‘em in envelopes and mail them to people I love who are scattered all over the world like pebbles tossed into the sea.  And do it before the new year becomes old, like a half-filled journal that you forget in your drawer for months.

Try it.  Send a little happiness in an envelope and maybe you’ll get some back in your mailbox too!

On another note, should we order in pizza today? 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Good Afternoon, 2017

From where I’m standing
Right now,
It’s not really clear;
I see some clouds
And a grey fog

Perhaps I can lean over
And draw
Some silver linings
The dark

A box of crayons
Always by your side
Reds and blues and greens
And the brightest yellow

And while it may be
Too easy
To let the box drop
And drown
In the gray

It might be better
To lean over
And draw silver
The dark.

Hello, new year, another year.

I think at some point I stopped owning the years – you know, how when we were younger and in school, we’d start off the new year by always writing down last year in the blue and red margins of our notebooks – but then eventually, we’d grow used to the actual date and our margins would stop being all smudgy. 

For some reason, now when another year steamrolls into me, there are two thoughts that come one after the other (like a race between two close runners, with one leading and then the other overtaking and you don’t know who will win till the very end) – what happened this year? why does 2017 sound so foreign, as if it’s not the year that’s just started but something that is from the future, four, five years away?

Sounds absurd, I know but as I grow older, my comprehension of time seems to get more warped and confusing.  If I didn’t have a score of low-quality camera photos (taken and shared through our new best friend WhatApp) collated helpfully with dates for names, I wouldn’t really be able to remember what happened all throughout the year.  It’s too easy to mix up 2016 with 2015, or the year before…

I don’t think it is wise to romanticize the past (at least not too frequently) and remain drenched in nostalgia, and I don’t want to be a pessimist but sometimes the direction we seem to be collectively headed towards does appear dim.  And when I think of last year being difficult, I don’t just think of David Bowie or Mohammad Ali, Junaid Jamshed or even Edhi’s death – I think of how this is indicative of the years to come… when old age, poor lifestyle choices, and misfortune combine together in different measures to result in the inevitable exit from this world, not just of celebrities who impacted our childhood or teenage years, or simply formed the backdrop of life as we grew from chubby toddlers to gangly teens to slightly rotund adults, but of people closer to our hearts and our lives.  It’s a thought that grows heavier each year and clings to our neck and shoulders, tightening muscles and creating knots that ache throughout the day, it’s a thought that weakens the soul and terrifies the heart.

It was a year that struck blows to our beliefs about what we’ve already accomplished and where we are in life, a reality check that we kept averting our faces from, like ostriches with their heads stuck deep in sand, till our necks were pulled out and blatant racism, fierce nationalism, and cruel extremism raged around us like a firewall that we seem to be unable to extinguish or jump out of.

I don’t want to start the year with such thoughts pulling me down, but neither do I want to stay with my head stuck in the sand just because the winds are too fierce and burning to face.

Maybe I’ll spend some time digging through 2016 and pull out the snapshots of happiness and hope and pride– TCF opening its first college in Karachi and starting an ambitious partnership with provincial governments to revamp the education system, traveling to Hunza after nine years and basking in its therapeutic miraculous breathtaking beauty, meeting some awesome new people and strengthening old friendships over countless cups of tea and coffee and old books, speaking of tea – the first tea festival in Karachi under canopies of fairy lights and dunking naan khatai  in cardamom chai to the sound of music, and speaking of music, attending small, low-key concerts outdoors at the Arts Council and the Alliance de Française, Fahad getting a scholarship and us moving to the UK, and hey, apparently tigers are increasing in number after several years, and people seem to be taking climate change more seriously, and Pakistan passed legislation against honour killing, and sometimes the sun comes out and paints the sky in Nottingham a beautiful blue.

So here’s hoping this year will make us stronger, happier, braver, wiser, more patient and open to the beauty that sometimes needs us to turn our heads a bit, or maybe lift the curtains higher. Here’s hoping we do go to the gym and write in our diary about all the things we’re grateful for – at least for the first five months of the year! And that we reunite with family and friends and make some new ones too, that we try good food and read a lot of books and admire some art, go to a concert and watch plays and finish scores of emotional TV shows.  And that we travel and meet great people and be great people that others remember and write about at the end of 2017…

Happy new year.