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.

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.

   WP_20150309_22_26_13_Pro             WP_20150309_22_40_46_Pro

      (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 ….. .)

There was Something in that Place to which the Mind could not be Indifferent!

The summer of 2014, I  happened to visit this place, I never knew existed, a few months back. In the heart of a street crowded with workshops and greasy mechanics, was the gate of this quiet place, whose inhabitants were absorbed in their own pace and visibly oblivious to the life outside. The building was said to be about a century old but I personally always doubted this information for a century old building could not be in such a good shape…..not when it is located where it was located.

Luckily I had a chance to meet a lot of new people and though it does not happen very often but, I wish not to forget the people I met.  

That sturdy, old woman with big blue eyes behind those big round glasses was a class of her own. A woman from a foreign land but her apprehension of the locals was remarkably astute.

The old man, short stature, bald and the kind of man who kept his half moon spectacles at the tip of his nose. Someone with not a very good sense of humor. His company I never fancied. A man of principles and discipline. But he valued his principles more than the people around. I won’t say his preference was wrong but it certainly did not match my taste. 

A man in his early thirties. Over- weight, curly black hair. He looked much like some afro-american except his thick mustaches that curled upwards from the edges. He was always good at making jokes and especially parodies. But otherwise, a shy person. 

I knew that ‘R’ was christian. She was a happy person who loved to talk. She seemed very animated when she told me about her experiences in Malaysia. I bet she regrets not marrying those Hindus and Sikhs who had proposed her but much as I can tell, she has a happy home. She was the kind of person who make the whole place come alive. 

The best one was ‘I’. That young skilled man who knew what he was doing and why he was doing. I must above all appreciate his patience as a teacher.

‘S’ was a good kid. I know I intimidated her because she never stopped smiling when I was around. I believe that was a good thing.

I always found it strange the way ‘S.B’ always fought and resisted taking her medicine and injections, but she never said a word to me and always did what I asked her to do. Although I was glad that she showed me some respect but her silence with me always left me uneasy.

It was hard to swallow that ‘R’ died. He was in a terrible condition. His leg looked awful. What still haunts me is the time his every breath had become visibly painful yet, when asked, he did not as much as complained. Not able to reply, he sufficed to smile. In the world where we strive to be heard. Trying in vain to make our insignificant selves sound significant. Crying at every little thing. There was this man, wise enough to keep his dignity when disease and poverty had taken the rest away from him.

‘N.Z’ , the pushtuun, also had incredible patience. That gangrene and daily dressing must hurt a great deal. I’m certainly not proud of it, but I could never look at his foot without getting nauseated every time. I once forced myself not to look at his foot. On the face of that old man was always this child like innocence. He always looked the way a child looks with curiosity and bewilderment at people, trying to figure out whats going on with all these  serious looking people.

I wonder who was the lady with the camera. I never got to know her. With her incomprehensible German, she sounded as if she is cursing someone while she was smiling as she talked. I imagined Hitler speaking like that, all the time she was there.

And I feel obligated to give honorary mention to the beastly german shepherd with whom my encounter was most unusual and thrilling but certainly not pleasant. I once happened to go to the administration block when I passed by an office whose door was open. Walking at my leisure, I was just passing by when I noticed a bull size dog staring at me from inside the office. The dog apparently did not like me much and started barking. As he stood up, he was as tall as me. For a second or two I just stood there trying to figure the magnitude of severity of the situation when I finally realized that someone was angry and someone was coming towards me and might actually bite me. I practically ran and did not look back till I was safe. I was terrified then but I must admit that I loved the adrenaline it gave me. And now to think of it, anyone watching the whole thing must have found it pretty hilarious.

For that place where I may not go again, I can borrow Metcalfe’s words that he had said about the Indian subcontinent in 1800’s, “There is something in this place to which the mind can not be indifferent”.

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