Today I Learned #4

So we were at a wedding where everyone was in a suit and the men were handed flowers to put in the buttonholes. The notch in my husband’s jacket was sewed closed and he got to wondering why the buttonhole existed in the first place.
Dad goes “have you ever wondered why the lapels are shaped the way they are on a suit jacket?”, the boys replied no. Dad flipped the collar up and overlapped the buttonhole on the other lapel.
Voila! It became a winter coat! The top part of the collar became what we call a sherwani collar, and the V-shaped notch in the lapel design ended up covering the other lapel and that is where a button used to go so the buttonhole could be fastened and closed.
Mind = blown.

The very first bakeries

I’m a lover of all things sweet, something I inherited from my father who would sweetly ask mom after dinner every night “what’s for dessert?”. But of all things sweet my least preferred are your regular cream cakes found in every bakery on every commercial street in town. I chalked it down to the fact that there are so many bakeries and not enough actual bakers to make cakes to my taste.
Talk to my dad though, and he will tell you about the time when Karachi had but one baker, a certain P. F. Pereira, who was the only one who made cakes.
Circa 1960, my father recollects memories of going to P. F. Pereira, on Tram Pattay road opposite the Fire Temple, for birthday cakes. An old style bakery, like the famous Bombay Bakery of Hyderabad, with chips floors and glossy oil painted walls. Dad calls them the original bakers.
Then there was United Bakery, the ones who introduced square bread of today unlike the regular long ones with the curved top half that rises up above the tin while baking. Dad remembers how the loaves were sold whole but if you asked, they had a machine at the shop that sliced the loaf into slices. Something that fascinated my dad everyday.
In those days, you got BP Bread as the only brand distributed at all the milk shops. And to complement the bread, there was only one brand that made butter: New Town.
This bakery was named after the area New Town near the Quaid’s mausoleum and they had only two types of butters: the yellow salted and white unsalted. Wrapped in butter paper with a hand-drawn image in blue ink of a young girl with short hair. Surprisingly my husband can recall having had/seen the butter from New Town Bakery. I’m curious now to find out if they are still making them these days.
The next and final major contender in the initial bakeries was in the Nazimabad area, called Fancy Bakery. Dad recalls them as the ones who introduced milk bread. Not the milk breads of today that are just sweeter than the regular breads. Those milk breads were yellow and flavored with vanilla essence and were almost exactly like the pound cake of today. Perhaps this was the predecessor or the sponge cake.
And this was my father’s memory of the first bakeries in Karachi that he remembered.

The Watch

In 1970 Dad cleared his matriculation exams with flying colors, something not a lot of students could claim in those days. As a reward, an old uncle of Dad’s, a cousin of my grandma decided to gift him with a brand new watch.
The automatic Reiko, an original Japanese brand, cost Rs. 1000, worth more than the monthly salaries people made at that time. My grandma told off the uncle for handing a young boy such a valuable gift but the well-to-do uncle patted his back and told him to enjoy his gift.
And that was my dad’s first expensive watch.

Terrifying Tales of Tall Towers

The other day we were discussing how tall a certain skyscraper near my parents’ house was going to be built. From the promotions we heard above a 100 stories; my husband loved going up the Petronas tower when we went to Kuala Lumpur and was pretty excited about this new building in our city. He asked if they would make a viewing deck if it’s going to be so tall, I thought of course, what better way to use the height to advantage.
My father though did not share in the excitement, “When you’ve taken so many flights, the top of the building doesn’t seem like an exciting prospect”. He had worked at the Kingdom Towers in Riyadh for a few years and talked about going up to the observation bridge at the top. Having taken monthly flights to and from Riyadh, the view from that bridge had nothing new to offer. The landscape was the same, his office on the 20th floor had the same view but from a lower angle. The thrill of the height had died with those frequent flights.
I teased my husband about his glee at having the window seat on all the flights during our honeymoon, yet despite those flights he still felt that thrill at the top of Petronas Towers and wondered if any place could make my dad feel the same.
Dad went into flashback mode and remembered the 70s-80s when he went travelling through Europe. He talked about the Eiffel tower, how it used to be open to the public for free regardless of what level you went to. An elevator first went up the slanted legs to the first platform, there he found restaurants, an amusement park, a huge area for people to hang out. Take the next elevator from the center of that platform and you reached another platform where you could start feeling your feet shifting because of the wind and then an elevator in the center of that platform shot you up to the top level.
Right there at the top in the center was a large room with wax status like Alexander Graham Bell on a telephone and such. Around the room there was a balcony-like space for you to walk around and look at Paris. Perhaps that could have been all, but on top of that room was another small platform. Since in those days there was no heightened security protocol or anyone stopping people from being crazy, my dad also climbed his way to the platform on top of the room with the statues.
The force of the wind, the complete bird eye view of the beautiful city, the openness of his position. That is where he felt that he was truly exposed to the elements.
From that small platform a caged ladder went vertically up to the communication towers and although Dad speculated over trying to go higher up, he decided not to pump his adrenaline that high.
But in his memories, was the place he felt the thrill of being among the clouds.

Today I realized #3

Living in a third world country you don’t really expect anything to work the way it is supposed to. Of course developmental work is at a basic level, necessities are barely met, the population as a whole is still crawling about on the lowest level of Maslow’s Hierarchy, completely unaware that there is a life beyond scrambling for one’s basic needs. Meanwhile, a tiny fraction of the citizens have more money than they know how to spend, throwing lavish tea parties and soirees on a daily basis because how else could they spend their time since they don’t have to do anything.
Such disparity used to bother me when I initially found myself hovering on the fringes of the high society. I couldn’t fathom how some people could have so much and most could have nothing. The internal debate eventually led me to look at the country as a whole, dissecting the qualities and characteristics that create the huge divide. Doing a root cause analysis of why people are rich and why the riches can’t be shared, and why people are poor and can’t get any better, I finally felt a light bulb go off in my head. It is nothing but greed and envy at the most basic level that breeds corruption. Be it corruption at the level of giant conglomerates or governments, or your average general store that hands you a candy worth 1 rupee because they don’t have change to return your 5 rupees.
What is the end game? It all starts with a tiny seed of greed in their hearts. Either for wealth or power or both. It is envy of someone who is better off than you in status or money.
Such a simple thing that drives the world mad. A child sees another child with a better toy and wants it, his mother gets a cheap copy and tells him say it’s the real deal, the mother nags the husband for a nice dress, he maxes out his credit card, the husband requests for a raise, his boss fakes an appraisal with the subordinate writing a few reports for him. The boss wants a new car, he cuts a deal with his contact at the car dealership. The car manufacturer is making a loss, it lies about the safety tests conducted. To cover for the lies, the company gifts a few cars to the politician so he could lobby against other companies. The politician wants to move higher up in the food chain so he gets enforcers to get people to vote in his favor. We ask for deliverance from evil, but tell God we will get on the righteous path when evil is vanquished, otherwise our faith weakens.
Everything that is wrong with our world is because people cannot get over their greed, lust, envy and lies. If one stops wanting more, he will end up doing things the way he’s supposed to do.
Just think about it.

A patchwork of memories

Whenever we go to meet my parents, my husband spends hours listening to my father telling stories, explaining how things work, sharing anecdotes about his career and remembering the good old days of his youth.
Twenty seven years having lived with my parents and there are still some new things I find out about them and their lives that I had never heard before. Yes there is that occasional event or time that either of them keeps repeating on and off, thinking that it’s the first time they’re telling me and my brothers about it, forgetting the last time we nodded our heads in unison when they told us the punchline of that joke.
Yet, I am always surprised by how easily I had condensed the sixty or so years of their respective lifetimes into the patchwork of memories they had shared with us over the years, always assuming that those were the only experiences they had lived and that there is nothing new that they could tell me that I don’t already know. Every now and then I find myself astonished at something my husband thinks he’s hearing for the first time, not knowing that I had never been an audience to this adventure before either.
Only yesterday when my dad told us another tale about going fishing into the countryside, I thought about how he should have a memoir, something that my brothers and I can pass on to our kids and grandkids. Just as quickly I realized that writing a memoir will never replace the magic of storytelling we experience when such and such incident is recalled over a hasty dinner with the appropriate gestures and expressions that show exactly how excited my dad had been when he got his first watch or when he saw his grandfather hunting.
So I decided to write these memories down here, a sort of live and continuous memoir so to speak, as and when our parents share some story. I may or may not get down to compiling it in a book, but at least they’ll be here for me to keep coming back to when I forget my dad’s explanation of how a Polaroid works.

Today I realized #2

Most of your life is made up of insignificant days, when nothing remarkable happens that is out of the ordinary that you would remember even half a day later. The rest of the days are divided into those that had some amount of activity, and those that took you on an emotional roller coaster. We wake up each day hoping that it will turn out to be good, but more often than not we keep our expectations in check. This might not apply to the people who perhaps have their lives figured out well enough to know how their days are going to pass. But I, an average Jane, am nowhere near having figured out an iota of my life, even after the day has passed. I don’t believe there is any job that can be so exciting/happening that no day is same as the previous one. Even for movie stars a new set, a new movie, a new cast becomes a job once the camera starts rolling.
So what is it that keeps us going? It just hit me a few years ago during a moment of introspection that we are quite possibly all living by the phrase “hope for the best, prepare for the worst”. I know there aren’t many people who would actually agree with me, but my life seems much easier having accepted this fact and applying it pretty much on a daily basis, without even knowing that I was just following this simple rule to contentment as drilled into us back in elementary school.
To me this line signifies the best possible amalgamation of all the optimism, pessimism and realism that an individual could operate on in their life. The optimist in you would wake up each day “hoping” that it’ll turn out great, better than the best day in your career, that you’ll be praised and rewarded for all your hard work. The pessimist will become Murphy’s advocate in letting your mind devise each and every possibility for things to go wrong that day. And then there will be the realist bringing in a healthy balance of keeping the excitement and the misery in check.
This is the key to that calm my friends and family praise me for, the quality of remaining unflappable in the eye of the storm. I’m pretty damn proud of keeping this balance of the isms and I owe it to whoever coined the phrase that I live by now.

The Crash

It just feels so unreal, that initial moment of disbelief when you scroll through the news and see the headlines: BREAKING NEWS! PLANE CRASH NEAR ISLAMABAD. And you just scroll ahead trying to tell yourself this must be some old news that someone shared, this can’t have happened right now. And slowly tiny bits of info make their way to you about how it took off from Chitral, how it was a small plane, an ATR, how there were 47 people on board.
Then just like that someone exclaims that Junaid Jamshed was also a passenger. The same JJ who defined our 80s and 90s. The same JJ who sang the unofficial national anthem Dil Dil Pakistan. The same JJ who went from our aunts’ teenage crush to our first infatuation. The very same JJ who found God after a painful public struggle with his rockstar image to become a scholar. The same JJ who started a successful clothing business and proved you could be successful at anything if you worked hard enough.
He had his haters, he had his opponents, he made mistakes and more than once I too felt he might have gone too far with this or that speech. But all of those people had grown up and grown old listening to his voice, first as the voice of the nation in Vital Signs, then as the soothing naat khwaan praising the Lord.
In the recollection of all the years of our lives he had been a major part of, his very sudden death eclipsed every other detail of the crash itself. The shock left none capable of thinking beyond him to the other 46 people who were his co-passengers. With slow acceptance people started asking questions, about the others, about the crew, about the origins and the destination.
And the moment I closed the browser window on the news and turned back to work, a short message came from my baby brother:

“Ahmed Janjua was the pilot”

A few disoriented seconds later it hit me, not like a freight train or a bullet or a slap on the face, no, it hit me slowly like honey crawling slowly towards cognition. Ahmed, that tall lanky kid who lived 2 houses down my lane in my old neighbourhood? I’d always known him as Ahmed, the only “Ahmed” in the neighbourhood; other Ahmeds were called by their full names to differentiate from this first Ahmed. In those few slow seconds a voice came from a memory, a voice of a young boy telling me proudly

“My name is Ahmed Mansoor Janjua Rajput!”

An old forgotten conversation with him when we compared whose name was longer, whose lineage was more royal. One of my few and rare interactions with this child who had “bad boy” written all over him, from his broody face, to his swagger, to his voice.
I barely even remembered the voice but I never forgot the words. The same words that identified him as one who was no longer alive.
Just like that the illusion that I could remain distant and unaffected from this tragedy was shattered. The mind divided into two realities, unable to process two personas disappearing instantly from the world of the living. Perhaps it is a coping mechanism because how could I prioritize the grieving for one of the other? One part of my mind listened to the tributes to the star, heard his songs being replayed by his fans, saw his face happily reciting a naat. But there was no closure here. The other half of my mind played the scene over an over again from memory, of a tired, sweaty Ahmed, trudging home from his football match, passing me by quietly, no longer the cheeky kid after the death of his father, sometimes glancing at me, acknowledging my presence as an old neighbour, sometimes lost in thought about the goal that could’ve taken his team to victory. But always the same scene of him walking by the hedge of the house on the corner, in the dark after sunset, the sweat on his face shining under the streetlight, passing into darkness as he walked by me.
No I didn’t know him very well, but he was my brother’s buddy, sharing love for planes and flying, playing football together. Just like I felt a crack widen and break my heart in two. For my brother who is too young to have to bury his young friend, for his mother still grieving for her late husband, for the neighbourhood because after all every kid here was like a kid for everyone else, this tight knit community raising their children together. For myself because I wish I could remember the last words we spoke to each other, wondering if it was me teasing him about growing taller every day or him saying salaam politely at a wedding. I honestly cannot remember and it breaks my heart.
How does one grieve for someone you knew as an acquaintance, but was a part of your childhood? One of those personalities in the background who moulded and shaped you and enriched your life in some way. How does one grieve for a celebrity who you met once as a 5years old for an autograph and couldn’t lift your jaw off the floor because he seemed so larger than life to you at that time, the one whose songs you played only a few days ago, wrestling with your husband over the radio controls so either of you could listen to your favorite from his albums.
Does one mourn with a family or with a nation? How do you come to terms with a reality that pricks your private bubble right after it underwent ripples of despair?
I could keep talking about it but it would make no difference. It would not bring back the bearded icon to wipe the tears off his fellow musicians’ faces. It would not bring back that young boy smartly dressed in his uniform so that he could take my baby brother on a flyby just once to give him the closure that he needs more than me.
It is a tsunami of misery, and I have locked myself in the room right in the corner where everything is so familiar, in a house not so much. But regardless of whether there are millions teary-eyed in this house, or whether it’s just me sobbing as I am holding my baby brother close, this tsunami of despair will crash into us all.

(Please recite Surah-e-Fatiha for Ahmed Janjua, Junaid Jamshed and the 45 other dearly departed who perished in the flight PK-661.)

Today I Learned#1

Polaroids are actually polarized crystals that are long and cylindrical, and through a chemical reaction are forced to align themselves in straight lines at a tilted angle.
Basically they are like venetian blinds and a thin film is coated onto surfaces, e.g. sunglasses, possibly diagonally and in a way that it allows for a clear viewing angle but no direct sunlight.

None of this is taken from the Internet and is just an explanation given by my well of knowledge aka Dad.

Today I begin…

I’ve always been the sort of laid back person who could have been a hippie but would choose not to because it sounds like too much work. I wouldn’t want to live my life at a snail’s pace, but would love to be able to do things at my own pace. But of course that cannot and does not happen since one remains on the clock at all times. So I learned to take out pockets of time from each day to allow myself the luxury of enjoying small moments.
It is only recently that I realized how every day I learn something new, or figure out a tiny part of the universe, or wonder at something that is yet to unravel it’s mystery to me. Only a few days ago I decided that I will document the memory of these moments that suddenly stop me in my tracks and make me yank myself out of whatever thought bubble I am immersed in and fully experience that particular phenomenon as best as I could.
And so it begins…