You are very quiet today!

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One of them went near the sofa and sat on it with a free fall motion. The contact between the sofa leather and his slightly bulky bottoms produced a sound- ‘thhump!’- trumpeting the presence of authority which cares little for consequence. Another one pulled a chair near the table and in the simple act of getting seated you could see a perfect display of good manners one learns growing up in middle class families. His calm confidence, which is all over the place, is that of a ‘self-made person’- a title that most people from his social tribe proclaim, making each of them feel uniquely valuable- and perhaps rightly so.

The topics of discussion are ‘low-risk’ as usual. Mostly politics, which basically means that it’s all just a fancy, well-read gossip. National politics, international politics, local institutional politics and on some rare occasions a few bold people might dare so much as give their opinions on real life, hard-core gossip. I think of these discussions as low-risk because they are widely understood and popular and one could engage in such discussions for hours, voicing and hearing opinions without revealing much about one self or bothering to know much about others. Such an arrangement, by default, makes it difficult for most people to leave the table making fool of themselves, unless they are really trying to.

It is before you even begin to speak that you find your audience alert, taking mental notes and preparing a solid come back as a reply to whatever is yet to come out of your mouth. They are not lacking in manners at all but something about their body language gives away their ploy. Their body language and their eyes. The intently glistening eyes.

The discussion having put forth different ideas inevitably becomes an argument. However, out of sheer politeness not many will admit to that. To put weight to their point of view, people exhibit different behaviors. It is hard to decide if these behavioral patterns come to surface because these people are so absorbed and enthusiastic about the discussion (argument) or because it is the secret weapon to emphasize their point, making others psychologically submit- if not logically. If you are anyhow still immune to the fervor in the air, you are most likely to make these observations…. some of them constantly shift their body weight, some do not hesitate in flinging their hands rigorously and some move them just around the wrist, slightly, letting their half dangling fingers deliver the impact. There is ever increasing animation in their tones, facial expressions and the use of difficult but suave words becomes more and more frequent.

The ideas though seemingly contradicting, are each honorable in their own light, with their own undeniable justifications. As with every argument ever, there is an unspoken competition.  The competition to have the last word….hopefully with a valid argument, but if necessary, with a ‘juggat’. The arrogant sentiment that hangs thick in the air broadcasting ‘you may be right, but not more than me’ strips their attempt of pseudo-intellectual discussion of any intellect. What is left is nothing but noise. Meaningless. Aimless. You shall in these deafening moments, find your regard and appreciation renewed for those who practice silence. You are suddenly very respectful to the idea of such people’s existence.

Like a considerate host, he has been watchful of his guests. You are aware of him eyeing you more than once from the corners. Finally he remarks, “ You have been  very quiet today”. You take roughly a second and a half to halt your train of thoughts and come up with something that is both tasteful and tactful but you took too long. Someone jokingly chimes in that women are not much into politics anyway as God has made them to think about other things. Another, coming quick to save you from such harsh generalization, puts the blame on your constant stressful thinking which may lead you to depression someday. You can not in all honesty disagree with this suggestion. So you force a smile, hoping to conceal behind it your disdain towards the lack of originality in the show you witnessed today. You are also aware that others are struggling to do the same at this point- for one reason or another. Each convinced that as social decency demands, there is a need to hide their contempt and each feeling entitled to hold it anyway. Each satisfied with the day’s little reunion, each genuinely looking forward to another.

 

1974

anarkali-lahore

The sky was beautiful that day. It was orange- but with a tinge of rust announcing the arrival of inevitable autumn. It was the time of the year that compels most good people to think of themselves as romantics, especially in the evenings. Hassan was a romantic too however in a way only he could be. It wasn’t always possible but that particular evening you could see it in his eyes the way he looked at the sky. Oblivious of all that surrounded him. As if amidst the waiter’s shouting, unabashed laughter frequently rising from the table behind and calls of fruit-seller across the road did not exist in the world he lived in and the only thing that really mattered was the question whether that little chunk of fluttering cloud would finally give in to its freedom and become a part of that larger cloud which had monopolized the far edge of the horizon in the north or not? Perhaps what mattered even more to him was that how long will that little piece who had declared rebellion will remain true to its conviction? But of course, no one in that busy and somewhat claustrophobic cafeteria had acknowledged that. No one could be blamed for such ignorance too for his pale skin, neatly cut dark hair that curled, thin lips, high cheek bones and frameless spectacles not just concealed the sentiments he secretly carried but also managed to make his impression devilishly shrewd which was also not entirely false. Something about his demeanor and squared shoulders made him look like a person who means business and nothing more but fact is much credit for such an appearance went to those frameless spectacles he wore which made it very hard for people to look in his eyes. For better or worse Hassan was too proud to make a display of his romantic inclinations in presence of another being. Or maybe he was too shy. Like so many other things about him this too could not be said with certainty.

Everyone looked at Gaiti as if expecting something. Gaiti was a young woman who was still struggling to understand the part that she was now a woman. She was the careless sort or that’s what most people said about her. Her short hair on which she wore a hair band, her long and loose trousers and the dupatta hanging most casually around her neck gave her a somewhat childish look. However, right now she could not quite comprehend why everyone was so cheerful and expected her to be so. She had her reasons to be cheerful of course but that she had not yet disclosed to anyone at home. She had just arrived home from her aunt’s house which was in another city. Ever since her exams had finished she had been anxiously waiting for the results which was due a week ago. She could hardly sleep at night and would wake up quite early in the morning. She would spring to her feet and run to the gate with her loudly beating heart every time the bell rang. Sometimes it would be the milk-man and sometimes it would be the maid. The paper-boy was never punctual. Gaiti suspected that he did it intentionally to add flair of suspense in this already cruel situation. For the past one week in her aunt’s house she never let anyone open the gate when the bell rang in the morning. She could hardly keep her frustration when she would finally be sure that the paper-boy had come only to find it’s the woman from the next door who had come to complete her usual round of all the houses in the lane and naturally to spread and collect the routine gossips.

He sat long enough at the only table by the window that day. The letter he had finished reading hours ago still lay on the table, reminding him of the constraints that came in the way of all he stood for. He hailed from the northern rural Punjab and had after graduating from the very notable university given the exams of civil services. He had done well and was only waiting for the interviews now. He had rented a place with an old friend in Anarkali, Lahore and this cafeteria which was conveniently near and cheap was where he was often joined by his friends. This was the third letter from home this month asking him to come home. He had not replied to the last two. Few years ago his sister was married to a first cousin as was considered the only appropriate match. Hassan was called home to marry his cousin who was also his brother-in-law’s sister as this too was considered the only appropriate match. Later on, his and his sister’s children will be hurled to marry each other. This has been the norm in his family for so many generations that people had started taking pride in it and to defy it was throwing away family honor. Hassan wondered how many more generations will continue this practice till this will be certified as an act of incest.

The sky was clear that day and it was unusually hot for the autumn was just around the corner. Six days of agitation had completely worn her out. She was sure she had flunked Islamic Studies. She was always weak in that. Her brothers used to make quite a joke out of that but it was her mother’s disappointed looks she dreaded the most. She could barely come to think of the consequence if she fails Islamic Studies yet again and that the result too should come at her aunt’s place. Her aunt and uncle would say encouraging things but with every letter written to anywhere in the family the news will travel. She was a very bright student in other subjects. She was exceptionally good at history. Where others found it infinitely boring she was fascinated to read the tales of people who had literally conquered the world and reached the heights of earthly ambition but in the end left nothing more than the dust and ruins. It made her feel somehow superior to them all to be reading their stories and of their generations and knowing how it all ended for every one of them.

The matter at hand wasn’t that hard to handle for a person like him. That’s what he had thought initially at least. He wanted to change the world. Make something extraordinary of his very ordinary life. He thought of those heated debates in his student life and some even after that where he discussed politics and the flaws in the legal system and then again mainly politics. How he had always been so logical and so hard to beat. He had dreamt of changing the system not just because he was naïve and vain but also because he was much applauded for having a remarkable ability and intelligence to do just anything and Hassan had never hesitated in believing that. But to realize it all he needed time. He was just not ready for a marriage especially the one without love. Beneath his cold and austere exterior he was a passionate man. That evening he did not know who deserved to have more sympathy: he or his intended cousin. He would marry her after all and come back to the city alone and pursue his dreams. The dreams of a glorious career in bureaucracy. He had other dreams too. Of a wonderfully married life. Of life with a woman who would really understand him but the presence of those dreams he had never confessed to even himself before. He had stood for courage. He had stood for not giving in. He had believed in himself so much and now somehow that was beginning to change. He knew that there will be a child each year for the first five years of his marriage and that will be enough to keep his future wife busy and eventually everyone will forget the idea of love. With a resigned look he saw the sky and that little piece of cloud had finally merged in with the larger part and was now travelling with the rest of its kind to rain somewhere.

Gaiti had hardly entered her room when her mother came in. Her mother was radiant which for some reason startled her a bit. She sat her down and not able to keep to herself anymore gave her in a very content and satisfied manner the good news that she had been engaged to be married to her cousin Hassan and the marriage was due in few months. Gaiti didn’t even get a chance to tell her parents that her result had come out and she had topped in her university. All her plans to persuade her father who was more lenient to her than her mother, to let her get admission for masters in history now seemed futile. She couldn’t say if she was really sad but yes she was disheartened. For many minutes after her mother had left her to unpack, she instead sat on a window sill. It had begun to rain.

(Alt+F4)

There was a soft knock on the door even though I had left it open. I only know one person who has the courtesy to knock even if the doors are open and he was standing just there- smiling. Knowing it’s him, I didn’t look up and so he came noiselessly in and sat by my side on the carpeted floor. It had just gotten dark outside and I had not turned on the lights. I love dark. The general notion about the dark is that it signifies sadness and horror but somehow, I have always found it to be soulful and liberating. It had just been five minutes when I came in the drawing room and sat in one corner on the cold floor. The wall opposite was dimly lit by the light coming from outside through the windows. I had come here hoping that no one will find me or come looking for me- but he always does.

His smile faded a little, but he kept looking at me still- now with an inquisitive look.

“What exactly are you doing here?”- not able to hold any longer he asked rather cheerfully. I can never fully comprehend why he becomes so cheerful around me. Sometimes I suspect he’s mocking me.

“Nothing”- I said. Still staring blankly at the wall.

“Nothing?”

“Precisely”.

 I don’t know exactly for how long I have known him. Maybe, forever but there’s always something new to be discovered about him and with that about me too. What I can tell you is that he asks many questions and besides that, it can be said that he is a man of very few words. However, no one is really sure of him being a man yet.

I turned to look at him for the first time now. “I’m trying not to think” I told him. “I have been doing too much listening, talking and especially thinking. It’s very exhausting”.

“Yes. It is”- he sighed. He wasn’t smiling anymore but I knew he understood. We didn’t say anymore. The silence felt soft and gentle. Like a warm cup of tea in winter evenings. In this silence we were comfortable. We sat there for around twenty minutes. After that he got up and left as quietly as he had come in. I followed. Everyone was sitting in the lounge and I was glad nobody asked me ‘where have you been?’

In that silence though, everything seemed static and unreal. Reality- I have found, is very dull and over-rated. People should practice being imaginative without thinking too much. It’s always so pacifying. I discovered that sometimes doing nothing means everything and also I had found peace with him that day. He- a figment of my imagination.

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We go down the road, into the ditch. My suit is soiled and poorly stitched

It just doesn’t happen every day that you realize you are nineteen. That’s almost two confused decades on earth. You come from a happy family and generally surrounded by good friends and then it’s just some random moment while you are fretting over some test that you have to take, sipping tea, oscillating a pencil between your fingers and trying to concentrate on some complex mechanism which needs a lot of memorizing that your friend is trying to explain to you….and in that moment you are struck by the gravity of the idea that you are nineteen. Poor timing. Always.

Well, I want us to be together forever

But to wander wherever I may

I want you to be easy and casual

But still demand I stay

I want for you to know me completely

But still remain mysterious

Consider everything deeply

But still remain fearless

 

Fast forward 2 years……

You are smart, active and very charming which inevitably means you have had many opportunities to fool around. Your heightened sense of ego however prevents you from making a fool of yourself and so you are saved from any real trouble. The thought of future fills you with doubtless optimism. You marvel at the fact that you are alive and let the moments seize you unguarded. When you walk you do not look on the ground to watch your steps. You pay little attention to what you look like or how loud you sneeze and what you sound like when you laugh.  You find socializing and especially meeting new people very exhilarating mainly because everyone has a story. You like stories. You listen to them. You begin to listen to not just what they are saying but also what they are not saying. That makes you a good listener but a poor talker. You don’t know how to tell your stories. You are always at loss of right words to do justice to your stories and even more importantly there is hardly anyone who really wants to listen to you so you wonder ‘why even bother?’. Over time you have become quieter, calmer, a bit more patient and a lot more insecure.

 Climb to the top, look over the ledge

Dance barefoot on a razor’s edge

Reach for the stars, grab tiger by the tail

If I don’t try, I’ll never fail

If you go home, you’re rolling the dice

Can’t step in the same river twice

 

Fast forward 20 years……

It’s dinner time. You have been calling your daughter to come out of room and help you with the dinner but she’s a 15 year old smart girl who gets straight A’s and has a raging obsession with some no-sense-making, contemporary rock band which sometimes makes you wonder how smart she really is after all. You console yourself with the idea that it’s just the teenage hormones kicking in and she’ll turn out just fine. Meanwhile your daughter doesn’t like getting out of the bed and turning off her i-pod. She doesn’t particularly mind helping you out with the dinner or other house chores but it’s you she dreads these days. Your concerned and motherly sermons which you give doing these chores together, on how you have always looked up at her as an ideal daughter and how she must be cautious and very-very-sensible is what drives her away from you. You believe you are the mother so basically you know all about your kids is the arrogant assumption and you incredibly fail to realize the evil in it. Your husband comes home. He’s tall, bald and fat. He likes to have a decent dinner so you try to be very careful about that even though you had a bone-breaking day at work today. You are so much tired that you quit the idea of yelling at your daughter when she refused to come down for dinner saying she’s not hungry and almost slammed the door of her room on your face. You sit across your husband and your 10 year old son and start with the dinner quietly. You can hear the sound of your husband munching his food. It never ceases to irritate you. You try to ignore it and continue eating anyway when your son who has been playing with the peas on his plate starts to pick his nose. You give your son a quick sharp look while your husband looks disapprovingly at you. He doesn’t say it but it’s obvious that he blames you for whatever shortcomings he sees in the kids. He blames it on your career-oriented attitude because supposedly you didn’t invest in your family as much as you were obligated. You are a short, plum woman of 41 whose career is not extraordinary but still quite satisfactory, wife of a very successful man and a mother of two kids. The woman that you have become is worried about the dishes she has to wash afterwards and all she really wants right now is a bed so she can peacefully snore…..and she snores very loud too.

You love too much it’ll turn to hate

You never leave home, you’ll never be late

You eat too much, you’re gonna get fat

You buy a dog you’ll piss off your cat

 

Sometime afterwards……

You are dead. You have had an episode of angina before and the second time was the lucky time. In your last days you refused to go living with your son and his family as you didn’t want to leave the house where you had spent almost your entire life with your husband who had passed away some years ago. But your health had considerably deteriorated and you had to finally give up and move in with your son. Your grand kids don’t mind your presence and your daughter-in-law is also civil to say the least. They are considerate and polite to cancel on family trips and birthday parties for your sake but when they look at the clock and then look at you, you know what they are waiting for. You can’t complain mainly because there is nothing you can officially complain about and also because even if you tried, you never could since you don’t have the right words plus no one is really intent on listening so you wonder ‘why even bother?’. On your funeral there is a lot of gathering. Too many people who thought they knew you, have come up to pay their respects. They all have their excuses to come. Some are your relatives, some your colleagues and others just some old friends.In this crowd one of your grand-son who had some time back developed a crush on his far-off cousin has finally got a good chance to talk to her when she had come to give her condolence. He doesn’t get to see her very often so he takes the opportunity and somewhere in the conversation while they are ‘catching-up’ she just gave him her facebook ID. Today is the best day of his nineteen year old life.

So take a deep breath and enjoy the ride

‘Cause arrivals and departures run side by side

(Boyhood)

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Hello there!

   It’s middle of March and I have still not finished reading the books I had bought for the holiday break around New Year. Only yesterday I found a small paperback of Jane Austen’s which I got from an old book store. It’s a thin book with yellowed pages whose rusty ends speak of the length of time it has survived. I have always been keen on getting new books, their thick white glistening pages, heavy covers and the characteristic scent. But recently, I made my way in to the old book stores and every time it has made me nostalgic. Rusty books, torn out pages, underlined sentences. Piles of under-appreciated outcasts. Who must have read them first? What must the reader have thought when he underlined those words. At what time and in what settings must he have shuffled these pages?

   My train of thoughts was again on the same track when I found something between the pages of Jane Austen’s book. It was a greetings card-being used as a book mark apparently. The book was published in 1984 so the greetings card must be nearly that much old.  How oddly intimate that it should wish a happy new year.

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      (I could not completely figure out whats written on the back but here is what I think it is:

My dear Elaine and Peter so sorry we didn’t get time to send any Xmax (Christmas) greetings this year, we were upto our eyes finishing the tour of ‘When we are married and moving at the same time it was hell. However we are settling down now and at last have the phone on. A very happy new year to you both and of course to ……. ……. love ……. and ….. .)

To My Dear Terrible Fellow Humans!

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This is a hate speech; an incredible non-sense

The ugly fat man’s mustache curls on ends 

Sun got blinded by the dancing stars

How I would love to scratch your scars

The lamp with hanging moon burns hot

May I suggest you pick your snot?

The snails go climbing on flowers’ stems

I don’t like people with falling pants

My first blasphemy

Selimiye_Mosque,_Dome

It wasn’t a very large room but it was airy. Flower patterned walls with too many holes- or maybe those were not walls but just huge windows- from floor to the roof. The ten year old me was standing in the shrine of Daata Ganj Bakhsh. It was my first visit and has been the last so far. I had heard my parents talking about taking us kids there as we were visiting a family in Lahore. I had imagined it to be somewhat huge- something straight out of the stories of Alif Laila. You can imagine my disappointment at finding that after passing through frighteningly dense crowds outside, it was afterall just a grave. The grave however, was a big one. Whoever was inside must be fairly tall. There were many heavy looking shawls on it and many more were still being laid on. Strangely the shawls were mostly either green or black in color.

Only pious men have shrines. If the pious men are awake in their graves- as has often been told to me, then I wondered how burdened and suffocated Daata Ganj Bakhsh must be inside his grave- under the continuous weight of embroidered velvet.

I was busy looking around at the walls and windows, lots of people coming in and going out but very few were talking. Most of them were silently praying and they all would come to the grave and bow on its marble edges.  I nudged my mother and asked her why were people bowing on a dead man’s grave? Don’t they know that we only bow before Allah? Or are they not Muslims like us? She shushed me with a look of warning and then almost whispered that they are all Muslims, like us and they are only paying their respects. She asked me if I had any special prayer. I told her I had many but if we pray to Allah and believe that He is everywhere then why do people come here for their ‘special prayers’?  I can’t recall what my mother said to me or maybe she didn’t hear me.

My mother had once told me that she had come here before and prayed for a daughter, and so I was born. There might be some truth to the greatness of this saint which I did not and still do not fully understand. So I decided to keep my vanity and ignorance in check and pay my respects.

I went near the grave and put my stretched hand on the marble edge- wondering that if he were alive, this would have been my handshake with him. I prayed to Allah to give this man most generous rewards in heavens and then went on about my petty issues and selfish wishes. I wasn’t finished when someone behind me- a woman perhaps, put her hand on the back of my head and made me bow. She released me few seconds after my forehead had touched the grave.

I let myself do something I absolutely did not approve of and I did nothing to resist it because a forceful hand, much bigger than mine had grabbed my head.