Also published on Friday, 20th February 2015 in US Magazine, The News International.
Under the scorching sun –The Return
Settling myself inside the humid interior of the taxi, my eyes set gaze on the flowerbeds outside. Flights from the US to Pakistan are tiring, but as soon as I set my eyes outside I was pulled back into the alleys of nostalgia and everything else was put at the backburner. All of a sudden I reminded myself where I was; Lahore. The word melted in my mouth as smoothly as milk chocolate. And then I was reminded what season it was: spring –which could only mean one thing; Basant. The festival I adored to the levels of ridiculousness.
I recalled the good old days, when as a little girl, I witnessed spring bloom in its fullness, and the people of my city gathering on their roofs in countless numbers to welcome it. Although my own parents had never been too keen on celebrating Basant and that too, by kite flying, I had an aunt who did and all the younger lot of our family used to gather at her Model Town house for the extravagant Basant Party she used to give. I still remembered the laughter, the music blaring out from speakers and the cheerful shouts yelled whenever one of our own kites cut one of the neighbors’. Being young girls, we weren’t permitted to fly kites ourselves and this feat was left for the males of our cousin platoon, but just being there, on the roof, had been enough for us. Heck, it was divine.
But what I liked most about Basant was the sky.
More than the bright marigolds or lusciously-red roses, it was the sky that heralded the beginning of a new season for us in Lahore. One day, it would be only a single kite flying across the wide expanse of the horizon – sole monarch of the blue umbrella–and by the end of week, there’d be dozens of them, each adding in their own way to the beauty of the earth’s roof. And thus the colours reigned –over us, over the earth…over everything.
With these sweet memories, I sank back into reality, only to realize that there was something missing in the air. Despite the blossoming flowers and sunlit avenues, it didn’t feel like it was spring…and that’s when I noticed the sky: it was empty. When I shared this thought with the taxi driver, he only smirked and replied, “It’s for the good. I don’t care about this goddamn useless festival, anyway.” I’d found his remark unfair but then he said something which broke my heart. “It killed my son, your Basant, it killed him.” I exhaled a sigh of grief. Cautiously weighing each word, I asked, “Chemical string?” And all I needed was to look in his eyes to get the answer.
Rest of my journey was spent in total silence, with my mind wondering who did the chemical string kill first; the driver’s son…or Basant?
Before the storm –Dilli
In all the 21 years of her life, Nafisa had never disobeyed her father, until now. Standing at the gates of a world she’d never known of, she couldn’t understand why her father didn’t approve of visiting shrines, for this may be a world different from theirs, but it was pure all the same. He would have never accompanied her there, so she took the step herself. And so it was with firm resolve that Nafisa found herself at the threshold of the famed ‘Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah’ one Basant morning.
Everywhere she looked, she saw signs of glee. It was as if she’d entered a world of disheveled ecstasy. Devotees thronged the place with offerings. Some had mustard flowers in their hands and others wore shirts with eye-popping colours. Qawali reverberated throughout the surroundings. For Nafisa, it was an atypical version of Basant but in reality, this tradition was as old as the ‘Dargah’ itself –ever since Hazrat Amir Khusro started it.
Her gaze settled on a man who whirled like a slow-paced tornado and chanted songs that belonged to another time. With hair unkempt and eyes so wild it was hard not to notice him. Next thing she knew, she was standing in front of him and with a courage she never knew she’d possessed, she asked him who he was and what he was doing …
“Somehow I’d always known that once I’d take the step, nothing would ever be the same again. But I did. I declared my love when it was least expected but she rejected me. All she wanted was to find God –Khuda as she liked to call Him”. Nafisa listened with concentration as they sat on a worn out bench. She was glad he had agreed to share his story with her and didn’t shout at her disapprovingly the way she’d expected him to.
“On Basant she gifted me a mustard flower, to remember her by. I asked if she was Muslim; she told me she was raised Hindu but her visits at the Dargah were helping her find her destiny. And it was then that her father spotted her, talking to an unknown man –it was enough to hurt his pride. He killed her right there. I still remember the scent of her blood on my kameez (shirt). I didn’t even know her name. People think Basant held at the Dargah is a festival of spring only, but that day I realized for what it truly was. It’s a celebration of love; love lost and love returned. Hazrat Nizamuddin lost his beloved nephew Khwaja Taqiuddin Nuh and he withdrew from worldly affairs –love lost. Hazrat Amir Khusro won him back by singing songs of Basant –love returned. In the same vein, she returned me a love I’d lost long ago –love for my Creator. The day she died I took her place in search of the Truth. Each Basant, I come here and whirl in the intensity of sacred Love. I try to please Him. I ask for my guidance. I pray that she has found what she was looking for.”
At this he abruptly ended and burst into tears of madness. Nafisa watched as he stood up and began whirling madly. All of a sudden she realized why her father had never allowed her to go there. Perhaps, he had always known that once she’d taken the step, nothing would ever be the same again…
Long before dusk – Attari
The day began like all days begin; with the sun rising from the East and the clucking of hens waking up 16 year old Balwinder Singh at the crack of dawn. He sat up and checked what time it was; 6 AM. Calculating the time it would take for his Abba, the village chief, to wake up and head for the panchayat he surrendered to the reality that it would take him at least another hour to do so and he slid back under the sheets to sleep.
Hours later, when he was finally woken up by his Amma he realized he was late and rushed off without wearing the chappal or washing his face, and frantically made a beeline for the roof. Gauging the wind direction, he hurriedly set up the single-line kite and flew it over the crystal clear sky, hoping Mahmud hadn’t given up on him and had seen the signal. Luckily, Mahmud had seen it. It was his turn to rush off to Balwinder’s place now.
Born in households very different from each other, both Balwinder and Mahmud’s fathers disapproved of their friendship, despite the fact that their wives were childhood friends. Over the years they had learned to dodge their fathers’ acrimony and to accept the other’s differences with aplomb. And so it was that every Basant, they communicated through kites. It had become their special ritual. One boy used to signal the other when the coast was clear, and then they both met at whomever’s house was safe from their respective fathers’ wrath. This time, it had been Balwinder’s, for his father had to leave for Lahore after the daily panchayat.
After flying kites voraciously for the next five hours, they’d spent time at the ‘Annual Fair’ set up every spring. Crossing the sarsoun (mustard) fields to get to the Fair, both lads would reach the open clearing where the fair was held and engross themselves in festivity. Warm and sweet cotton-candy satiated their taste buds and rides on swings delighted their hearts. It was the best time of their lives.
Their personal favourite Basant routine was to race each-other to the ‘Tower’; the highest building present at the outskirts of their village. Standing there, one could see rooftops of not only their own but nearby villages as well, the closest being Wagah. Balwinder would jokingly remark, “Suppose Mahmud, this ‘Pakistan fantasy’ actually turns real and that Wagah over there becomes part of Pakistan and our Attari remains in India, you’d have to move there. How would I know if you were alive and well?” “I’d signal you using my kite every Basant like I do now, and you’d come here to look for it,” used to be Mahmud’s light-hearted reply, both of them never believing it could ever come to this…
Years later, as an old man Balwinder would spend each Basant on the same spot where he had been standing on that day. Having never believed the villagers’ claim that Mahmud had perished in the Partition riots, he would spend the rest of his life looking longingly at the Wagah rooftops each Basant, waiting for the signal he’d never receive again.
Sunrise –Somewhere we’d all want to be
I spotted her sitting by the lake, tears edging the rim of her innocent eyes. I quietly sat down beside her, not knowing how to begin. “Scared?” She looked up and nodded a defensive ‘no’. “You know you can confide in me, right?” I said encouragingly. “I am the same Ali bhai you asked for directions in the school corridor. Just because now we’re here doesn’t change that,” I added. At this, she seemed to loosen up. “Those men…” was all she could muster up. “I know. They were animals, but you’re safe now.” Slightly, she tilted her head in agreement.
“I visit them sometimes, my parents, in their dreams. I’d just wanted to let them know I’m okay but they always wake up crying.” With this, she burst into tears. I consoled her in my arms like I used to do with my little sister back on Earth. She resembled her so much. “With time, they’ll get better –everything does.” I said as I watched the lilies blossoming in front of me.
“Now that we’re done with the overflow of emotions, can we head up to the field where they’ve arranged everything? Everyone’s waiting for you.” “Everyone?” She asked. I chuckled, “Yes. All of them. Principal Qazi says that festivals are started by the youngest and you, Khola, are the youngest among us!” Her eyes widened with surprise. “But…I don’t know how to fly kites. No one really celebrated spring in Peshawar,” the five year old in her spoke. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll help you!” I replied.
“So, let’s go then, shall we?” I asked while standing up. “Bhai?” I turned. She stood right in front of me, her face somewhat perplexed. “Yes?” I responded. “Do you think we’ll ever be able to defeat them –those terrorists?” I broke into a smile. “We’re here in a place far better than the world we left, celebrating Basant with wide grins and open arms. We have, finally united our countrymen against the menace that extremism and terrorism is. Khola my dear, of course we will defeat them –we already have defeated them!”
For the first time that day, Khola broke into a sunny smile. We headed to the open field where everyone awaited us, and with a little help from my side, Khola flew the first kite of spring. The rest followed suit. We were the martyrs of APS Peshawar, and we celebrated Basant in a place where no harm could ever befall us. Our kites flew across the sky; their colours transcending walls, borders and galaxies…spreading hope wherever they went.