Baat se baat banti hai: Conversations, just!

 Originally published in US Magazine, The News International. November 18, 2016. 

Because the eye only sees…

“She loved crimson. Not scarlet, not burgundy. Crimson. It was always there; whether it was something as diminutive as that muffler or as chirpy as that Emily van Camp inspired dress. Do you remember how her hands were always covered in henna? I always thought that was maudlin. I miss it now.”

“She was naïve.”

“Her love was so tangible. I’d always thought she was blessed to have that talent. Now I think of it as nothing but a curse.”

“A curse?”

“Yes, it’s a curse. To feel everything so wholly; completely.”

“When was the last time you saw her?”

“I’d met her just last week.Before it happened.”

“I don’t think what he did was wrong.”

“He threw acid at her.”

“Isn’t that what sinners deserve?”

“Have you no honour? It is right to hate sin, but it is not always right to hate the sinner. Especially when the only sin involved is to believe. And believe unconditionally.”

“She was too opinionated. To have opinions is a man’s right –not ours. And that’s what makes her a sinner.”

“Does it permit a person to destroy someone’s existence?”

“Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it does. How can one ever be sure?”

“By asking our hearts. There’s a reason God didn’t send us to the world with brains alone.”

“Tragedies are always cognizant with putting trust in the heart, aren’t they?”

“I was unaware you were capable of harbouringsuch cruel thoughts.”

“I don’t sympathise with the perpetrator. I don’t side with someone who wasn’t practical enough to weigh her options before taking up a fight, either. But it is sad indeed. She was one of those candles meant to shine forever, but her stupidity shrouded her brilliance.”

“It is unfair.How you talk ofbelief, faith and love so simply.When in reality, it is far from being that. How can it be simple, when it isn’t even something that can be calculated on the basis of the peripheries we set? How do legends come into existence, had everything been rational? How would’ve stories transcended the constraints of languages and borders? Howcan everything be so simple –when it simply can’t be?”

***

While the heart questions…

“I know why it’s her.”

“You do?”

“Yes, I do.”

“It’s a funny thing then. I don’t.”

“Maybe you do, you’re just too afraid to deal with it.”

“I don–”

“I’ve known you ever since you opened your eyes for the first time.Youthink you can hide secrets from me, but you can’t.”

“Okay then. Why do you think I fear confronting the reason behind this love you think I have for someone I don’t even know that much?”

“You just named it.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You’ve always been awestruck by things you couldn’t understand. Riddles enamour you. She’s one of them. She makes you wonder. Her smile wears more secrets than you can count.The way her honey coloured skin glistens so perfectly, so serenely under the sun, that melodyin her gait, those luscious curls of her hair and that airy laugh–all leave you in a daze.She is a poem and you find poems intriguing; like a puzzle. And that is what you find extraordinary about her.”

“What is so wrong if I feel that way?”

“There’s nothing wrong.”

“But?”

“But what happens after you learn to read poetry, my child?”

***

…and the smile knows.

“Is this chair vacant?”

“Oh yeah, totally! Have a seat.”

“Thank-you!Loved your performance by the way!”

“I’m glad you liked it, thanks! Champagne?”

“I don’t drink.”

“Cigarette?”

“Not a smoker either. I’ll just have coffee.”

“Alright.So, what brings you to this underground Karachi cabaret gig, love?”

“A friend invited me over.”

“It’s really hard not to notice that you’ve been alone here ever since the start.”

“He pulled out. Last minute.”

“And yet you stayed.”

“I was about to go actually, but then I got assigned to cover this ‘gig’ for a local newspaper.”

“You a journalist?”

“Yeah. I work mostly on the rough side of business. Gang wars, rape etc. This pleasure I rarely get to cover.”

“You look soft for someone who’s a female journo on the rough side of biz.”

“A woman’s gotta play her cards safe in this world, doesn’t she?”

“You are so strikingly similar to someone I knew a few years back.”

“I do?”

“Ahan. Those long tar-black tresses tightly packed in a neat knot and that judgmental eye you all non-drinkers give us Hell bound pagans. All very reminiscent.Especially the last part!”

“I remind you of your mother?”

“Even worse. You mirror my bestfriend who backstabbed me andmarried the man I loved.”

“If you want me to go I’ll just leave.”

“No. Stay. I’m just messin’ around. No one can backstab this little nightmare!”

“You never know; sometimes we do get betrayed without our ever knowing it.”

“Ah, so the tight-lipped, non-drinking badass journo has had her fair share of heartbreaks!”

“I never claimed I was the perfect Eastern woman, did I?”

“You never said you were the worst either.”

“Fair enough.”

“So, what happened?”

“Sorry?”

“No girl in our part of the world envisions she’d be a 30-something in corduroy pants sitting beside a disgraced cabaret singer one day. So, what happened?”

“That’s plain conjecture. You’ve just had too much Champagne.”

“Doesn’t change the fact that I’m right.Besides, conjecture is good for inquisition. How do you think the Homo sapiens made it till here?”

“No girl in our part of the world dreams she’d be a disgraced cabaret singer sitting next to a 30-something woman in corduroy pants one day either. So, what happened to you?”

“I like you, woman! I had a strong faith system. Of the bigot variety. I fell in love with the wrong guy. All went downhill from there. Now I am someone who smokes, drinks and destroys herself –and enjoys it!”

“My father loved the ocean.He always spent his weekends at his summerhouse near the beach. He’d play his favourite Edith Piaf cassette, take me in his arms, and dance all day in the patio. I’d giggle and laugh and crackle with joy. This was how life was supposed to be; sublime. Without a single care in this world. He’d taught me it was alright to be free and I believed it. He had faith in this land and so did I. Then the hounds he’d never told me about came for him–and all my illusions came crashing down.”

“What did you do next?”

“I bought a gun, some anti-depressants –and enrolled myself in journalism class!”

 

***

It’s the touch that feels…

“They named the women of my country birangona.”

“I hear they’ve cut up Berlin in pieces.Those vile men.”

“There was an old wood cabin nearour lake house.I left it in excellent shape, in Chittagong.”

“I’d met someone from Chittagong a long time back. Told me he was Indian. Lad didn’t stand a chance against those Nazis.”

“My grandfather used to be Indian as well. My father was Pakistani.”

“What about you?”

“My family is Bengali now. I am just another person no land wants to own.”

“Like myself. I suppose we get to choose who we are.”

“If choice is a prerogative we’re entitled to have, I’m surprised we ended up in the backyard of a decrepit US mentalfacility.”

“We’re entitled to it alright, son. We just find out a little too late to do anything about it.”

“Besides, truth is subjective.”

“Subjectivity is why mankind is still trotting this globe. Objectivity helped no one.”

“You’ve been thinking again. Dr. Humphrey specifically asked you not to.”

“Dr. Humphrey loves to concoct stories. He wanted to join Broadway you know, but then his mother beat the life out of him. Now he concocts stories here. Where he thinks people believe him.”

“How do you know for sure?”

“That’s the thing about faith. You can never be sure.”

“Asiya used to say that a lot.”

“So did Rachel.”

“Does the pain ever end?”

“You learn to live with it.”

“Do we, really?”

“You’re young Mahmud, you should have the privilege of belief.”

“I do have it, Aaron. My concept of belief is just a little different.”

“How exactly?”

“I plan on ending this nightmare.”

“How do you plan on doing it?”

“I hear trazodone overdose helps.”

“How did you get this?”

“Tricked Mrs. Jacobson into getting it for me. Do you want some?”

“If it cures all the pain; oh lord yes!”

“It’ll work much better than the ones Humphrey gives us. Here, take some.”

“Thanks! So, it is goodbye then?”

“Of course it isn’t. We’re not falling in sleep –we’re waking up from one!”

“But when we do wake up, I wake up in Hell according to your faith. And you in Hell according to mine. How do we get to see eachother again?”

“Hell and Heaven are for commoners. You and I are beyond that. We’re beyond the ties of space and time. We’re the afflicted. We get to see each other somewhere reserved only for us. Where there’s Asiya and Rachel. Someplace where there’s music and children’s laughter.The kind of laughter which enables you to feel again. Where the sun kisses the clouds and raindrops shine like diamonds.Someplacewhere milk, honey and the holiest of wine are served in pristine, golden cups. And where the only shade of red we see is the one at crack of dawn.MaulanaRoomi often tells us; out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.A field for the broken-hearted and healers alike. It waits for the likes of us. We just have to ask ourselves one simple question.”

“And what is that?”

“Are we ready to close our eyes, take a leap of faith and dive into the unknown?”

***

…and the soul? It connects.

“Have you tried inhaling the air when it rains? Or detecting the taste of clay in a cool spring breeze?”

“Everybody tries, but not everyone succeeds.”

“I figured by now you would have learnt a thing or two.”

“Life has a bad habit of becoming the giant wall that comes between you and the things you’d want to love.”

“Look at you Haris, as suave as ever.”

“When I’d told you I will be a charming 53 year old in the college canteen, you should’ve taken me seriously.”

“I suppose I made a mistake.”

“Sometimes triflesgo on to cost us heavily.”

“And more often than sometimes, we tend to remember them all through our lives.”

“Until we meet their source one fine morning, just by chance and everything falls into place?”

“Until we implode from within. Or explode from without.”

“You talk of our story as if it’s a neatly scrunched lollipop.”

“But there is no such thing as a neatly scrunched lollipop.”

“My point exactly.”

“I am talking of paradoxes –and paradoxes exist.”

“Someone’s turned into a philosopher!”

“Of all the people in the world, you shouldn’t be the one pointing that out!”

“I know, but I’d like to dibble with time as long as it’s on my side.”

“All that chic verbosity!Reem must’ve been proud.”

“Till the very end. I made sure her ride was fun while it lasted.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought up that subject.”

“Its fine–been three years since she’s gone. I’ve moved on.”

“Is it that simple?”

“It’s not like she was ever you, Farah.”

“You make it all sound so easy.”

“Maybe everything looks easy 27 years down the road.”

“Perhaps.”

“It’s strange how after all these years, we had to meet at Reem’smemorialceremony.”

“Frankly, I wasn’t expecting you here at all. Heard you’d left after they –after they’d shot her. She was so brave. Not everyone has the courage to stand against tyranny and face the consequences.”

“I had been away; visiting this year to sell my ancestral place.Dublin is a good city –helps me forget things.”

“NYC is brilliant as well. Until it’s autumn. Autumn reminds me of things I’d rather forget.”

“It reminds me of the same things. Turns out autumn’s the same all around the globe!”

“Even after all this time?”

“Plato doesn’t say love is a serious mental disease for nothing, does he?”

“Why did we have to come to this, Haris?”

“I wish I knew, Farah.”

“I try to trick myself into believing we couldn’t have done anything about it. We were young. I was ambitious. You were laid-back. It wasn’t possible.”

“Does itwork?”

“Everybody tries, but not everyone succeeds.”

“Where do you think we go from here?”

“Forward. Our moment’s now lost to the past.”

“It’d have been better had we left both our souls there, too.”

“Therein lays the irony, my friend. Therein lays the irony.”

***

 

 

Homecoming

Originally published in US Magazine, The News International on August 19, 2016.

 

 

“It’s been a long time.”

Sometimes, it is the most unlikely of places from where inspiration stirs us; leaving ourselves with an invaluable opportunity of self-reflection. Life is like that; it likes to surprise. It likes to give us the benefit of doubt. It likes to give us moments of redemption; a chance of moving on. It was one such unlikely conversation on monsoon that took place which made me realise that I was infatuated by a season which wasn’t a favourite of many.I had no concrete excuse for this incredulous fascination and this, along with a few other events occurring simultaneously in life, paved way for a long overdue epiphany, on subjects both related to the precursor of said epiphany –and beyond.
***

“Tau tum kiayounhihawa se giriho?”

An idea, a spoken word or a passing remark can leave imprints on your mind long after it is first said. The speaker may hold no significance for you any longer, but the cacophony he leaves you in still weighs you down. Unknowingly it hooks you to its womb; refusing to let go. My first real encounter with the concept of roots took place when an annoying classmate had directed this jibe towards me when I’d confessed I didn’t have any ancestral village like most of my other friends –I was a city girl. Plain and simple.Parts of the city were my village and parts were home. My past and present.Now, I’d been suddenly endowed with a newer, stranger manifestation: that you don’t come from cities. You can’t come from cities.For the first time in life I wasintroduced to the notion that genealogy isn’t always that simple. And this knowledge unknowingly became the hook to which I was to remain attached with for a long arduous time.

Of courseback then, I had conveniently overlooked a paralleltruth:genealogy may not be simple, but it isn’t as convoluted as we make it up to be either. It just is.

***

“Harmulaqaatpemehsoosyahihotahai,

Mujh se kuchterinazar pooch rahihojaisay.”

Time stands still in Lakshmi Chowk, Lahore. Mariam knows this because Mariam the third grader and Mariam the college freshman all feelthe same when she visits it. Someonelost. Someone found.Standing in the balcony of her dada’s house, she often wonders if she is happy or sad when she comes there. Was she welcomed or shunned? She hopes the winds of the Old City might confer upon her the answer to this riddle, but all she ever gets in response is a silent brush againsther cheek from the wind’s part. She doesn’t know how to read the wind’s touch. Is it an invitation to stay, or a warning to leave?

***

“Hum konhain, kyunhain?”

Lucky are people who look for closure and find it. As if closure was there all along, like a child hiding in a corner waiting for you to come search for it and take it back home with you.Men of wisdom often talk about it in fancy epicurean words. They’ve written long passages on the pains of suffering in verses that have for long stunned the human race. They’ve all been raved as giants of the world of the academia. And they all have contrasting opinions and predispositions on many serious matters that plague the world except for but one.

When it comes to the Partition, they all converge on a single focal point: there is no closure.

***

“Kuchhainbhi, yakuchbhinahinhain?”

For most third generation immigrants, the question of identity is pushed to the back of the subconscious as other unresolved issues take precedence over the pinning for an invisible home.Unless an unusual occurrence becomes the catalyst which brings it to surface.The discussion on ancestral villages became that trigger for her. Suddenly, she was conscious of the fact that roots were important. This was a new feeling; she’d never felt like an outsider before. Like an encroacher. When calling herself Lahori, she’d always been at peace. Now, she felt as if she’d hijacked someone else’s identity while her own lay hidden somewhere in a cavern so deep it would take her years and years to extricate it.What was she supposed to do? The fallacy of living in the fantasies of Amritsar had begun to claw her;a city with which the only real connection she had was that her grandparents migrated from there in ’47. She couldn’t call Amritsar home –but was the present where she truly belonged?

***

“Carpe Diem”

When baba returns from Istanbul, he cannot stop gushing about it for a long time.           He remembers the cityin awe and speaks of its mosques in golden words. He brings us souvenirs of all shapes and sizes, but my favourite souvenir isn’t anything material. It is the stories he tells us. Of incidents big and small, encounters short and long, and magnanimity far and wide.But what Iprize even more is the glimmer in his eyes when he tells me something else, something personal; more delicate than any other sentence he’d ever uttered about the city by the Bosphorus. “It reminded me of home you know; Istanbul reminded me of Lahore in so many beautiful ways.”

In that moment, I finally know.

***

“Home is where the heart is.”

As Mariam’s car turns to the Mall Road inthe early hours of dawn, she marvels at the cauldron of secrets that is her hometown.Not every city can make love to the past and stay true to the future at the same time, but hers can. It romances the future, courts the present and can stay in unconditional love with the past all at once. It never ceases to amaze her how layered the place is; like a rose. Even the wind here works differently; absorbing stories in its impenetrable vacuum. It’s a palace built on the foundation of layers.She smiles when she passes by the Alhamra Arts Complex; it was here where her parents had first met. They’d gotten married soon afterwards. As she turns to Lakshmi Chowk, she parks her car in front of a dying concrete relic –her dada’s home is now just a few footsteps away. No one lives there anymore, but she often visits it by herself. For a solitary person like her, it’s easier that way to pay homage. To relive a legacy she was too late in realising she had always been a part of. To remind herself of where she came from.Standing in the balcony of her dada’s place, she often inhales the Old City wind.

She was now an expert on the wind’s language.

***

“We were terrible lovers, but we were excellent friends.”

Sometimes we find ourselves in a place we never thought we’d ever be in.A crossroads of sorts. We aren’t entirely sure how we got there or if we’re ever getting out of it. In that moment we’re just there. And as much as we like to deny it, the truth is we like being there. For an outsider our obsession seems nothing short of absurd and unhealthy. For how can someonelove something so suffocating, so inconvenient? Little do they know that we’re all hooked to something; an idea, a spoken word or a passing remark. Us humans have an inane tendency to create self-made Horcruxes. Most of the times, we never really know about them ourselves until someone comes along and shows us the mirror.

These thoughts ran across my mind as I’d looked down the street from my window one rainy afternoon in my apartment. The downpour was my first in the city. It was also what reminded me of the conversation I’d had with my friend over the phone yesterday.I’d told her of all the things I’d miss whilst my two year stay abroad. One of them was monsoon. “Why would you miss something as suffocating as that?” She’d amusinglyasked. “I…I don’t know,” had been my response. I still wouldn’t have found the answer until my roommate had asked me an innocuous question. “Mariam, where’s your home in Pakistan?”It was then that I figured it all out.

My love for monsoon began long before I was born and it lastseven longer; even after I’ve become dust. It exists in my grandparents’ lives, who’d migrated to Pakistan in the season of monsoon, and it exists in my own life. It grounds me to my roots and pegs me to my ultimate present. It reminds me of who I am.Monsoon brings me home.“Lahore,” I had replied to my roommate in the calm brazen confidence of someone who’d just been found after being lost for a long, long time.

Sillage

A little upset can go a long way

Star-lights and night skies

Begin sketching themselves

And fences are conjured up

Imprints can defy expiration

To remain or to dissolve;

The mind rambles for options

To undo the damage that an

Untouched fragrance leaves behind

For, a little upset can go a long way

 

*The word sillage has roots in the French language. It is the degree to which a perfume’s fragrance lingers in the air when worn.

 

 

Aks aur Haqeeqat

Insaan apnay aap ko bohat kuch samjhta hai. Waqt ke saath saath, shayad ussay yeh ghalat fehmi honay lagti hai ke uss se bartar aur aala shay kabhi thee, aur na kabhi ho gi. Insaan ki haqeeqat tau yeh hai, k uss ne kabhi apnay aap ko bhee nahin dekha. Bus ek aks hai…jis ke peechay wo bhaagta rehta hai, bhaagta rehta hai. Aur iss hee asna mai wo apnay aap se bohat door pohanch jata hai, Ek aisay dorahay pe pohanch jata hai, jis k aagay bhi andhera hota hai, aur peechay janay ka koi rasta maujood hee nahi hota. Insaan ek aks ke peechay apni haqeeqat se door hojata hai; aur yahi uss ka zawal hai.

We were created in His image, and yet we were each created different and unique. No two people are alike. No two hearts beat to the same rhythm. If God had wanted everyone to be the same, He would have made it so. Therefore, disrespecting differences and imposing your thoughts on others is tantamount to disrespecting God’s holy scheme.

– Hazrat Shams of Tabriz, in ‘The Forty Rules of Love’