The gaps in between

There’s a silence

Between this clatter

Perturbing yet inviting

It corrodes me; silently

As I drown willingly

In its unending laughter

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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.

Their paralysed freedom

I’m appalled but unhurt
It is their loss after all
And not mine to dwell upon
They forgot who they were
Whilst I knew all along
My past intact, I move on
Safe from falling into
The pits of oblivion

A sip of ecstasy they crave for
As I revel in the marvels
Of the present
My laugh echoes in ample waves
While they search for a way out
With their heads turned
In a direction that is lost

Where the colours reign…

Also published on Friday, 20th February 2015 in US Magazine, The News International.

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Under the scorching sun –The Return

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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

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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.

10209_2_20_2015_3.gifHer 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

10209_2_20_2015_4.gifThe 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.

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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.

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***

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.

10209_2_20_2015_8.gif“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!”

10209_2_20_2015_7.gifFor 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.

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’

On Wagah…and beyond

Also published in US Magazine, The News International on Dec 05, 2014. Link: http://magazine.thenews.com.pk/mag/detail_article.asp?id=9653&magId=9

I’d like to believe that I’m standing by the window, a cup of warm coffee in my hands and seeping into a sea of deep contemplation about the event that has been on my mind ever since its occurrence…or that I am somewhere near the beach, my bare feet touching the water as it slowly rocks back and forth against the coast, bringing along with it, waves of stories untold and promises forgotten…but I am not really there. It is amazing how escapism works; you can be anyone you want, anywhere you please to be. Sometimes however even escapism doesn’t conceal the wound you’ve been so laboriously, attempting to hide.

Dan Harmon said that there’s a fine line between a stream of consciousness and a babbling brook to nowhere; intelligent stuff but…I am not found on any side of the fine line he has mulled over. Rather, I am dangling in the middle; pensive and somewhat delirious yet aware of my consciousness, like someone sick, who does know he is alive but is amiss when it comes to matters of his whereabouts.

Whenever human lives are lost, you feel as if humanity is something along the lines of a lost cause, gradually disintegrating into dirt, but when something like this happens, something so personal, something so disrespectful to a place where a part of you still lives… you feel as if it is not humanity that has failed you, that it isn’t humanity which is chipping away…but your own soul. You find yourself sucked into a vortex of shock, disbelief and emotions too intense to be true. The guilt weighs on your shoulders like a heavy brick when places like the Wagah border are targeted. What surmounts even the guilt is the admission that you are helpless in the face of adversity. And that is when we all try to find peace in escapism.

The trouble arises when it doesn’t work.

***

The little girl sits atop the barn roof, her ruminant eyes gazing ahead as the muezzin calls the faithful to wake up from slumber. It is incredibly cold for a November morning in the dilapidated outskirts of the Punjabi village, but the child resolutely keeps sitting. As soon as the first rays of sun appear at the horizon, she takes out a slate and a chalk from under the covers of her white shawl and marks the previous day’s date; the wait is over.

”Sumaira! Come down here, there’s dishes to be cleaned and eggs to be brought. Stop wasting time over there!” Her mother’s shrill voice breaks the wall of calm silence around her and she obligingly returns to her world of milking cows, feeding the hens and collecting eggs. The typical life on a village farm. This all doesn’t hurt Sumaira though, for as long as she is allowed to sit atop the barn roof every night, she is content with what life has offered her, because judging by many others around her, things could be worse. She’d seen young girls her age dealing with issues far graver than shutting cows back in the paddock. The only thing she could ask more was for her father to be near her, who worked in the city like many others. There is something peculiar about the dynamics a girl shares with her father; too hard to put into words and more intricate than the cuts on a diamond. A girl’s father is her first love; her first knight in the shining armour. Simply put, girls adore their fathers. But today isn’t the day to fuss over petty issues like these, she reminds herself; today is the day of her father’s arrival-and along with him, the pink woolen doll she’d asked for. That day however, turns out so differently from her wildest thoughts.

No one could have foreseen that the day when Aziz was supposed to come home, only a letter sealed in a white envelope would arrive instead. It was not on anyone’s mind that on the day Aziz was supposed to come back home, he’d send a letter explaining his elopement. Explaining that he’d never come back, and that he still loved Sumaira with all his heart, but sometimes fate intervenes and things change. For the next many years which Sumaira spends in this unforgiving cruel world, no one hears her utter a single word. She never learns to trust men. Or to love. Leading a bitter and solitary life as a spinster, she carried a burden on her shoulders which wasn’t hers to carry.

If only someone had told her the truth.

The flag lowering ceremony was still very much in progress when Aziz suddenly started feeling claustrophobic and decided it was time to go back. It wasn’t how he had planned the evening but his sudden change in health left him no choice. Coming outside of the stadium, he saw a vendor selling pink woolen dolls, and he stopped over to buy a pair for her ten year old daughter; he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. A few moments later, the doll still clenched tightly in his fist, Aziz lied on a hospital bed awaiting death at any moment. The doctors suggested that he call his loved ones. It is incredible how love works…Aziz could bear the pain his body felt but couldn’t see his family in pain. Instead of sending a letter which could allow him a one final glimpse of his loved ones, he chose to send a message which would forever sever the knot he’d ever had with his daughter. ‘It will better that way’, he’d hoped while breathing his last on one freezing morning.

The villagers recall that Aziz had sent a pink woolen doll along the letter as well, as for what happened to it, no one knows for sure…

***

Numbness has become the sole sensation I feel anymore; nothingness the routine I’ve become habitual of. It is a remarkable transition-and one that I am probably not going to let go of for a long time. Not until I let it all out and ease my conscience, at the very least. My first response when I hear about the blast is of denial. I know it is true but I so badly want it to be the other way around. It isn’t that I haven’t been through this before, but it feels exactly the same as the first time. It feels as if someone has punched me right in the gut; that someone is secretly keeping an eye on my each and every move, jotting down all my greatest fears and most gleeful of times in their notebooks, so that they know when and where to strike when I am at my most vulnerable.

The Wagah border is one place which has always been a part of the most joyous of my memories. Memories which are etched on my heart, memories I have always cherished…memories which I’d always hoped would never be abused with. Time and again, my hopes have been trampled with; how innocent I was in thinking this would be an exception. The attacker chose to warp my heart. And he succeeded.

***

Sigh.

It’s begun.

The start to an unfruitful, wasted day; I can sense it.

For the past seven months, I haven’t been able to type down a single word. It doesn’t help when you have to submit a manuscript by the end of this week to an unforgiving, merciless editor.

My editor says that it’s all in my head. According to her, I am avoiding the huge task to sit in front of the desktop and type just to mess with myself. That my wife’s death has left me emotionally unstable and I don’t think there’s a reason to live anymore. Of course she conveniently ignores the fact that I am sick. A lack of inspiration is not a good excuse to satisfy my too-hard-to-please boss. Trust me; you’re lucky you don’t have to deal with these strong-headed feminist types on a daily basis.

I login my WordPress account to look for some inspiration and come across a poem on writer’s block which further pushes me aside from my original plan. After two bottles of RedBull, three hours of inanity (some vampire flick I don’t remember the name of) and four cigarettes, I decide it’s time I seriously put in an effort to save my job. I also try to evaluate if I’ve actually been avoiding responsibility, as per my Ed’s view. And I do not like what my heart is telling me, so I do what I do best-ignore its message. I waste another three hours on the internet, watching how my friends’ lives are going smoothly whilst I have a pile of bills yet to pay.

I am a miserable wreck-and I blame it on the block and get away with it.

I look at my watch-my Rolex watch (the only thing which proves that I am in all honesty, the same author whose books topped the bestselling list once) – and I settle that it’s time for my hourly entertainment i.e. to watch those ridiculously amusing talk shows.

I switch on the television. And find that tragedy has struck; the Wagah border has been attacked.

My heart thumps like never before. My eye sockets are nearing the rim of their edge. And for the first time in seven months, I cry. I don’t know why and I don’t know how but tears roll down my cheeks in gushes. I am wailing like a five year old. I cry for myself. I cry for others. I cry in solidarity. And I have absolutely no idea when it’ll stop.

All these seven months, I’d been evading doing something that I loved blaming it on a ‘lack of inspiration’ when my wife had especially made me promise that I wouldn’t drown in misery once she’d be gone. Pangs of guilt resonate across my heart. For seven months, I’d been mourning for someone whose imminent death I’d known of since the beginning of my marriage; she’d been diagnosed with end-stage leukemia before I even met her. For seven months, I had let myself rot in the pits of self-imposed apathy.

On the eve of the attack I realize how ungrateful I’ve become. I’d forgotten that at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that my wife’s going to be alright. I had the time to be ready for what was about to happen. I had the amenity of seeing my wife’s beautiful face for one last time; of saying goodbye. The victims at Wagah didn’t.

I am drenched in guilt and a sinister thought flashes across my eyes like neon signs. I wonder if God has finally given me something what I wanted-I realize this at the very instant I decide I want to write something regarding this incident…because I have found inspiration. The same thing I’d been searching for.

I question if I am to be blamed for this carnage, and the answer lying in front of me is too ugly to look at.

***

In the coming weeks the scars this attack has left me with will start to heal. In time, I’ll go back to my world of smiles and laughter and the only thing reminiscent of the pain I once felt will be the void which resides inside me. Every time a bomb goes off, it grows deeper and wider. Like an abscess. I’ll learn to avoid the emptiness I feel and ignore the pleas of my conscience. Until the next bomb goes off, and the cycle repeats itself.

In retrospect, I realize that I’ve been hurt so much by the attack at Wagah because of my own exalted hopes for my homeland. My greatest mistake has been in praying for something that is forbidden. I’d hoped for peace in a country where peace is a rare commodity. I beg God to show mercy for a land whose inhabitants don’t even know the existence of the word mercy; I request love for a place where love is not welcomed.

But what’s even more ridiculous is the fact that despite everything, I’ll still pray.

Despite every heinous crime against humanity committed in this land, there’s something which so stubbornly will keep the lamp of hope inside of me aflame. Love is an incurable disease; an invincible entity. It sweeps away everything which comes in its way and I realize it now that I’ve become too entrenched in its web to get freed. I am its slave. And since slaves have no choice, I’ll keep praying for my country, to hope that love will finally pour over its fields in multitudes.

And I’ll never stop.

If those who murder innocent souls and find it immensely gratifying have an issue with this reality, so be it.