A Comedy of Errors: The Baku Edition – 3

Did I ever mention that time I had to attend a literature forum in Azerbaijan during my exams and there were no direct flights to Baku?

April 25, 2013:

In the previous post I talked about the preparing for the exam which I gave in the evening, that ended by nightfall and wearily made my way back home. After passing a cursory glance at my packed up suitcase, courtesy Mother Dear, I collapsed on my bed from sheer exhaustion after four consecutive days of cramming and giving exams while trying to get the travel arrangements done with due approvals for the event I mentioned in the very first post.

I barely heard my father talk about back-to-back flights and the need to be quick on my feet. My last thought before dozing off was that “tomorrow is going to be a long, long day.” For the first time in my life I was dead-on correct…on an unrelated note, perhaps more sleep leads to such epiphanies. *scribbles furiously on random piece of tissue*

April 26, 2013:

Here is where the fun begins…all incidents in local times.

11:00hrs:

Got up, put on the first T-shirt and jeans I could find, had breakfast and was driven to the airport where my dad handed me the tickets and all travel documents with another packet of the same travel documents and their 4 copies. Fathers, they just don’t trust you with the originals, do they? As a final precaution, he put a tiny padlock on my suitcase because he also doesn’t trust anybody else.

13:30hrs:

I had gone through the airport security checks, cleared the immigration line and had finally checked-in, sitting in the airport lounge answering my parents’ various queries about how I had fared so far. Yes, I am a mature adult. No, I cannot stop the parents from worrying. My Emirates flight was at 14:15 and I figured I had plenty of time to reach Baku.

Until I checked my ticket. Approximately 11hrs+ travel time. Why you ask?

BECAUSE THERE WERE NO GODDAMNED DIRECT FLIGHTS TO BAKU. BECAUSE I HAD TWO STOPOVERS AND THREE FLIGHTS TO BAKU. THAT’S WHY.

15:15hrs:

My first stop was Dubai, where I cried over my empty bank account for 4 hours or so at the luxurious and completely out-of-my-budget duty free airport.

dubai2

 

18:45hrs:

Then hopped on a plane to…guess where?

Tehran. Yes because there were no bloody direct flights to Baku, that’s why. And guess what happened when my plane landed at Tehran airport?

21:25hrs:

They didn’t let me off the plane because my head wasn’t covered. I couldn’t step on Iranian soil because my head wasn’t covered. This was their law and because I had no clue what was going on with my life I obviously also had no clue that foreigners had to cover their heads even at the airport as well.

So the embarrassed Emirates flight crew comforted an even more embarrassed me and held me back till everyone left so they could sort out the problem. Then they asked if I had a scarf. No. A jacket? No. Could I take off my shirt maybe and put it on my head? No biraather no. So they took out a blanket and the flight attendant taught me how to wear a it over my head like I was a retard who hadn’t worn a chaadar before in my life. They joked if I would pay for it. DO I LOOK LIKE I’D PAY TO PUT A BLANKET ON MY HEAD? I would’ve if I had the cash, but I didn’t. Eternally grateful to the crew though. Respect.

22:00hrs:

My next flight was at 23:10hrs but at the Tehran airport I couldn’t find a transfers queue, there were just two long immigration lines and I ended up one of them, when my turn came about twenty minutes later I told the guy I wasn’t really going to Tehran, I needed to go to Baku. he looked at me funny then called an airport security person who took me to a military guy, I mean he looked it, can’t think of him being anything else. So a soldier took my passport and told me to wait on a metal chair in this sad little corner where everyone could see the weird zombie wearing the blanket turban. While my flight was in an hour. Apparently I had to wait for the soldier to get me my boarding pass. Like I don’t even…a soldier. I can’t get my own boarding pass, the soldier will get it for me. I can’t move from the chair they put me on.

22:35hrs:

Hallelujah the soldier came back…and yelled NOREEN QAYAM! fml x 2.He handed me my ticket and passport and escorted me to the departure lounge. ESCORTED, because of course I would have the sudden urge to roam around the single corridor and get lost somehow, right? I was actually more worried that my plane had packed up and gone.

But flight delayed. By about an hour.

April 27, 2013:

00:30hrs:

So on Azerbaijan Airlines I went and came close to my destination.

01:30hrs:

The plane landed at the Heydar Aliyev airport in Baku and being so late already, at the immigration counter they stopped me. Asked me numerous questions which I could not really connect. They couldn’t understand why I came from Tehran.

They called the head of security who asked me the same questions. They couldn’t understand why I, a Pakistani, would come to Baku via Tehran. Honestly bro, if I had a choice I wouldn’t go to Tehran either, blanket or not.

But then suddenly he smiled and let me through. The person waiting for me outside holding a very nice banner with my name on it drove me to the lovely Radisson hotel and deposited me in my room with my luggage. I had a roommate. A Bengali girl. She was asleep.

It was 2am on Saturday morning now. THE Saturday morning. The event was in 6 hours. The Bengali girl woke up, said hi, told me to put on an alarm then fell asleep. In my haste to answer the luring call of the soft and comfy bed I tried to unlock my suitcase and yank out my pyjamas. I broke the lock. At 2am in alien territory I watched the springs and pins and tumblers of the tiny lock fly over my head and spread all over the floor. The lock was beyond repair. I collected the tiny parts and dumped it in the dresser drawer, changed into my pjs and drifted off to sleep.

6:00hrs:

I woke up, got dressed in my smart formals, had breakfast in the swanky hotel lounge, introduced myself to everyone who I found had already been introduced to each other at the dinner the previous night. Which I had missed. Because there were no direct flights to Baku. So then we climbed the bus and reached the convention center.

9:30hrs:

As soon as we were seated in the concert hall, a bombshell was promptly dropped on me that since I was representing Pakistan, I had to recite a piece of my poetry in Urdu to an audience of over 500. On stage. On national TV. And since I had missed the welcome dinner for the participants the previous night, I also missed the rehearsal that everyone else got to do right then. How bloody golden enh?

So I was handed a printout of my poem that I had emailed them back when I expressed my interest in participation, and I noticed something funky the minute I started reading my own poem’s Urdu translation. To those who do not know, written Urdu’s orientation is from right to left, similar to Arabic, even in the script. The version on the paper printed in front of me was left to right. Apparently my translation was reversed due to a glitch in the Microsoft Word version and now I was looking at my poem that sounded quite retarded to my own ears as I read ‘moment a takes only it’ in Urdu which sounds even worse. So what does one do? One reads backwards. So I tried and waited for an opportunity to rehearse on stage before the guests arrived.

Not to be so. Pakistan starts with the 16th letter in the alphabet, and it was probably by the time Miss Moldova stepped down that guests started filling in. I was so going to be so royally screwed. While I was silently rocking in my seat like a condemned prisoner, guess who shows up to meet me? THE DEPUTY AMBASSADOR OF PAKISTAN. He wished me well, said he was proud of me and completely ignored the silent calls for salvation I was trying to send him by blinking rapidly. Suddenly I realized I couldn’t go ahead with my plan to recite gibberish because obviously he knows Urdu.

12:45hrs ~

So I sat waiting for my turn and then climbed up on stage and “Salam from Pakistan”. For some very odd reason the crowd loved that. I then proceeded to recite my own poem’s Urdu translation to foreign dignitaries, Azeri government officials and famous poets. Once that was done I tottered back unsteadily on my heels to my seat and pretended I hadn’t just done the bravest thing ever in my life.

Nobody told me they were recording it on camera, as I later found when they emailed the link to my shaky, trembling performance. NOBODY is watching that I guarantee you. That’s me, third from left.

baku2

14:00hrs onwards:

Once that was done we were taken for lunch which was awesome possum. Then back to hotel to change for dinner which was also awesome possum. And then I mingled with the girls from 19 other countries and somehow they thought socially awkward was acceptable. I do love them for that. Here I would like to mention that my numerous flights to Baku had resulted in my ears popping so many times that I had become nearly deaf. Some ppl probably still think the poor girl from Pakistan is deaf. And that is how I spent my weekend in Baku. Feeling like I’m underwater. I think a blog post is due on what we did in Baku itself. I’ll think about.

April 28, 2013:

18:00hrs:

So  the event wrapped up, I had to pack up my suitcase and suddenly I remembered I had no lock. My delicates could be easily be seen by anybody who bothered to open my suitcase on a whim because people like to do that sometimes no? So began a quest to find a lock. Asked the hotel reception, they said this was the Hotel District, no such markets around, will have to walk far. So Miss Bangladesh and I set off to find it a lock whose Azeri name we did not know, ignorance on my part as I realized when I made some apparently indecent gestures at shopkeepers while asking for a lock. Someone realized I wasn’t actually asking for strange favors and exclaimed “Achaar!” so we started running around asking for an achaar and the shopkeepers still thought we were stupid.

At one newsstand the guy handed me a bunch of keys and I looked at stupidly for a while till Miss Bangladesh said asked for the lock which the keys go into. The guy exclaimed “Kiffel!” so basically we had been asking people for keys and not locks which are called kiffel and obviously that was terribly stupid of us. Long story short, nobody had a kiffel anywhere nearby, but people had lots of achaars which were completely useless for me of course.

April 29, 2013:

00:00hrs:

I was dropped off at the airport for my three flights back to Pakistan, beginning with the one to Tehran in half an hour. I got my suitcase plastic-wrapped and because I’m smart, I kept a scarf this time.

01:10hrs:

I was prepared for Tehran, I even smiled at the soldier like he was my chacha ka beta. He obviously didn’t believe we could be related. But this time I had a stayover in Tehran for four hours, so I found my way into the Emirates lounge and failing to connect to the wi-fi, went and drowned my sorrows in free orange juice till my 5am flight to Dubai, occasionally dozing off and waking up to different people sitting on my table every time I opened my eyes.

06:35hrs:

The flight to Dubai was a breeze. It also landed half an hour away from the main airport where I had to go for my next flight in an hour and a half. I believe I found a hidden talent of biting my nails while maintaining my balance in that flat bus-shuttle thing that takes you from the plane to the terminal.

7:00hrs:

My flight to Karachi was at 8am. Obviously I’m no Rehman Malik for whom the plane could wait, so like Anjali in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, I ran to my bullet-riddled Shahrukh Khan, i.e. the plane.

anjali

I was the last passenger. I was also late. And I was also too embarrassed to travel with Emirates ever again in my life.

11:00hrs:

I was completely deaf when I landed in Karachi. I was high on orange juice and air pressure.

Happily ever afterwards:

 

I didn’t have to give the exam I missed. The teacher said he didn’t have time to make another paper so he would give me the class average score coupled with my overall marks in quizzes and assignments. I would’ve declared my undying love for him but the thought of his wife and daughter stopped me. Yes I’ve stalked him on Facebook.

So then people asked me if two days in Baku were worth it. I say hell yes and I would do it again because once in a lifetime bro.

So who wants to go to Baku with me?

*the end*

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A Comedy of Errors: The Baku Edition – 2

Did I ever mention that time I had to attend a literature forum in Azerbaijan during my exams and there were no direct flights to Baku?

April 9, 2013:

GSW emailed me with the finalized dates that I had to be in Baku and guess what? It was going to be an ALL-EXPENSES-PAID trip. Get that? Everything paid for. EVERYTHING. They needed confirmation of my participation, how could I say no? Actually I could because remember how I said in the the previous post that my exams were in three weeks? My exam schedule was right in front of me as I slowly marked the days of the event on the calendar on the days I had my exams, there was an overlap with two of the papers. I might have felt like I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, but I wouldn’t say that because:

A. a rock can be a hard place too, why discriminate against it?

B. It just sounded wrong tbh.

C. I wasn’t really stuck anywhere.

So I had a choice: I could either fly out, miss my exams and retake them when I return, or, I could forego this event, give my exams and just keep swimming like this particular individual here:

dory-486x326

 

The only problem was that IBA wasn’t letting me go ahead and skip an exam, even when I promised to give it when I get back, cuz dat aint how we roll homie. Excuse me, that was not deliberate. Basically the only way I could make it happen was by getting the official documents from GSW to show to the administration that I was not exactly going on a two-day vacation to ex-Russian territory. Simple? No. Why? Because I did not have the documents. Because you cannot start a sentence with because.

April 10, 2013:

GSW emailed me the official document, sent a letter to the Azerbaijan embassy and told me to get in touch with them for visa processing. I sent the documents to the IBA program director, who sent it to the associate dean, who sent it to the MBA office, who forgot about it.

April 14, 2013:

I emailed them again so they sent it to the associate dean who sent it back to me saying I needed the teachers’ approval. I emailed both the teachers who had the papers on Saturday, 27th April. They agreed to make separate papers for me to give when I returned, so I forwarded their blessings to the administration. Meanwhile GSW was pushing me to contact the embassy and also asked me for a hi-res photograph of yours truly, which I later found out was going to be a part of a catalogue. I would’ve hired a professional photographer and not cropped a random smiling picture from a vacation in Dubai if I had known the bit about the catalogue.

April 16, 2013:

My call finally got through to the Azerbaijan embassy based in Islamabad and where the operator promptly informed me that all visa applications are to be done in person. Also, the process would take two weeks apparently. Two weeks. Too much LOLs in my face.

I spoke to the GSW representative who told me that a letter had been sent to the embassy so I need not worry and just apply.

April 17, 2013:

I skipped classes that day and flew to Islamabad by the 7am flight to apply for the visa to Azerbaijan. My best friend sent her driver who I had no idea about but thankfully he saw the sign on my face saying ‘Blundering Idiot’ and brought me to her home safely. From there is took me an hour to reach the Diplomatic Enclave where I had to hop on a shuttle that would take another hour to drop off applicants to their respective embassies. The driver dropped a family of 9 at the US embassy, followed by a family of 5 at the British embassy, followed by a family of 3 at the Afghanistan embassy. He was happily on his way back to the shuttle port when I meekly asked him how far the Azerbaijan embassy was. Perhaps he thought I was part of the pathan or baloch families that had been dropped off earlier, although I highly doubt I have any resemblance to either of the ethnicities, but he did not understand how I came to be on his cruiser. Shaking his head in disbelief, he dropped me off at the imposing Azerbaijan embassy building where I entered, spoke to the Counsel General who could not believe I had been told to fly to Islamabad for this, promised me that the lousy operator would be dealt with and then took my documents and sent me on my way. Basically I was in and out in 5 minutes. Not more, not less.

A two-hour flight to another city, then a two-hour road trip to an embassy, to get done in 5 minutes. A trip that apparently was not even required. NOT REQUIRED. I did not have to skip my classes, I did not have to fly to the capital and get mistaken as the child of someone I do not even know, I did not even have to meet the embassy dude. I just had to send the passport and papers and chill out. BUT I DID NOT BECAUSE I WAS TOLD OTHERWISE BY THAT LOUSY OPERATOR WHO HAD BEEN DEALT WITH. I hope. I think. Maybe not. Ok no I don’t want him to lose the job.

So I flew back to Karachi at midnight and resumed classes, waiting for my visa that takes five days apparently. The event was in ten days.

April 18, 2013:

I still hadn’t booked my tickets in case the visa didn’t arrive in time, or if the exam schedule changed, meaning more trips to administration. Luckily one of the exams was moved earlier so now I just had one paper to take care of. The administration still had not given me a go-ahead that it would allow me to retake the examination, so the situation was still dicey, I suppose it is part of their agenda to train us in the art of dealing with difficult people. How else would my MBA degree be complete eh?

April 19, 2013:

I got the call that the visa had been issued, but since this was Friday, the earliest I could pick it up was on Monday, the 22nd of April. The event was starting on the evening of the 26th. *bites nails*

April 20, 2013:

I received an ominous email from the Head of Examinations at IBA summoning me to his office, with an eerily calm “re-takes are arranged by the Examination Office, if approved”, notice how the last two words are practically screaming at me in horror at my gall asking them to retake my exam?

scream

April 22, 2013:

Exams had started by then and I called in a favor to get my passport with the visa back to Karachi because the couriers would take two days.

I met with the Head of Examinations and can someone say Lucifer, because I totally felt like I was making a deal with the devil when I told him how lucky IBA was that it had me as a student, like, could it claim it had any other student going all the way to this tiny country for an event completely irrelevant to a business school? I think he was in a good mood because he said ok. Not that his face ever tells you a thing, it doesn’t, one might speculate that the lines in his face hint at digestive troubles but you would not hear it from him.

April 24, 2013:

By this time GSW was sufficiently panicked about my possible cancellation and a suggestion to laugh it off as a national characteristic was shot down because that is not how we portray our country. Nevertheless I called the travel agent in the middle of exams with instructions to book the fastest ticket to Baku without asking me too many questions. Also sent in my confirmation to the event organizers and let my mother pack my suitcase while I prepared for exams. Should’ve packed it myself.

The agent emailed me the e-ticket which I blindly handed to my dad as I aggressively crammed marketing strategies for dishwashing soap for my exam the next day. The exam was on Thursday evening. My flight was on Friday morning. The event started at 8am on Saturday. Cutting it close, yes we were.

You would suppose this was the end of my troubles.

The fun was only beginning.

*continued here*

Across My Universe – III

On my quest to reach my destination I race forward on the jugular vein of Karachi’s roadmap, Shahrah-e-Faisal, a road if blocked, could bring the whole city to a standstill and flood every street to the west with cars trying to make their way across town. I smile at the irony of the warning signs on the boundary walls of military force’s protected areas on either side of the road saying “trespassers will be shot on sight”, wondering about those trespassers who shoot on sight instead. But as a civilian the armed force’s business is none of my concern so I shall go on with my life as I always have, with their presence always on the periphery of our existence, often encroaching, never retreating.
I have reached the famous Metropole Hotel roundabout, a place once a jewel in the crown of Karachi, the hub of social activities now considered immoral by the confused conservative masses fed the doctrine of hate for liberalism and social advancement. Could I actually believe the stories my parents tell me of foreigners, celebrities and socialites drinking and dancing, gaming and gambling in this dilapidated building? Some of its hollow, half-boarded windows like melancholy eyes hiding memories of its glory days in their dark depths, now home to pigeons and their nests, their droppings like salty tears dripping down the broken facade, making it look like the sad face of an elder bruised and beaten by changing times and replaceable rulers, an elder who has much to tell but none who would listen. The offices inhabiting it and posters of foreign airlines adorning its walls are a cruel reminder of the days non-stop flights brought westerners to its welcoming doors. No, I find it too hard to believe such days existed, or maybe I cannot accept that my unfortunate generation never has and never will experience the golden days of the place I call home with no happy stories to tell my children.
With these sad thoughts I pass by the Frere Hall, a hauntingly beautiful and surprisingly intact reminder of the British rule. A library I always wanted to visit, a place I feel my unread self unworthy of stepping into, telling myself that one day I would have read enough books to not feel intimidated when I enter through its doors, another fear stopping me from going because I might never want to leave its high ceilinged rooms and lush green lawns. Perhaps tomorrow I will go, perhaps this weekend, perhaps never.
I keep going straight, past more sandstone buildings whose architecture hints at the British influence, now old and crumbling as weary passengers of time carried away by the elements, making way for steel and glass behemoths that overwhelm the subtle beauty of the old structures that none now have the time or patience to pause, observe and appreciate anymore. What we can observe is the graffiti on the walls near this bridge beyond which the new world awaits; walls that peek out from behind yellowed posters loudly announcing political rallies done and gone, and where there are no posters along the side one could see spray painted advertisements for witch doctors who have cures for all ailments, physical or spiritual, ranging from “mardana kamzori” as a euphemism for male impotency, to finding your soul mate, just a call away. Beneath this bridge there is a juxtaposition of the rich majority and poor minority, a church that hints at the presence of this local community given airtime on national TV only on Christmas or when the fundamentalists burn their houses down.
I descend the bridge into the utopia where suddenly you see big shiny cars driven by drivers whose salaries are a fraction of what the kids they drive around get as pocket money from parents who search for happiness in money and an elevated social status. Here, the more traffic rules you break, the more it hints at you being above the law. Everyone is headed towards their own illusion of an oasis that shimmers and beckons towards supposedly greener pastures. Maybe my vision is bleak, limited and weak, but this slow and steady spiral into decay, this rat race that leads to a moldy piece of cheese at the centre of this maze is one from which we cannot escape.
I stop at the red light at the crossing of Teen Talwar, literally Three Swords; three tall marble columns each representing Unity, Faith and Discipline as the qualities the founder of this nation wished to see in his people. This once proud remembrance of our country’s formation is thronged annually on our independence day and forgotten on the rest, or when some political leader requires a landmark where he could gather his followers. I feel the faint stirrings of that spirit of patriotism that drove me to salute every passing policeman as a child, only to have it crushed as I realize this abused structure now means nothing more to this generation than a phallic symbol to form the punchline of some political joke.
It makes me wonder if I’m an idealist, with an undying faith in the goodness of my people, one who would not, could not, accept that every man here is evil, but is a victim of his circumstances. It makes me wonder if I would accept the measly bribe handed to the traffic warden by the sahib in his car if I was in that warden’s old and cracked dusty black boots. Would I have broken the rules and appeased the warden with that money if I was sitting in that car instead? The truly scary part of being in this place is that there is no easy answer to this question. Maybe I am a cynic after all.
I bypass the high street of the city where designer stores line the cramped streets jammed with big, expensive cars and jeeps. The irony is not lost on me. I feel claustrophobic, not sure if it is the pollution from depleting fossil fuel these vehicles are burning, or an existential crisis on some metaphysical level that I’m suffering from. I race to get out and find open space, unintentionally challenging a youth in his souped up sports car who races past me, momentarily ecstatic at having “smoked me”. This race with a random stranger is a battle not of cars but of egos, occasionally there might even be the show of the middle finger to the loser, who would subsequently look for another stranger to beat and show the finger to. It is a vicious cycle, making us all adrenaline junkies living in fleeting moments. The sheer lack of any progressive, healthy activity makes us anxious to become the bystander of any event, incident or accident. We like to stop and watch as two men fight each other over a bump on the fender, we like to squeeze into the view of the cameraman in hopes of coming on TV while the reporter struggles to remain relevant covering bombings, we like to ransack the city along with namaloom afraad who may have a different agenda behind their violence but all we want is an outlet for our frustration, we like to beat up a robber caught red handed because this criminal represents every other criminal that we encountered at least once in our lives.
I now pass between mansions through a small diversion courtesy some real estate magnate who rips the thoroughfare to build a golden city smack in the middle of a heritage site. A fifteen second blur of slums on either side and I break free into little America where the “burgers” live, where cars number more and clothes cover less, where nannies raise children and the mothers attending charity events for other underprivileged children would not be caught dead speaking their mothertongue because Urrdew is like…so ugh. School kids here wear their uniforms to elite(!) fast food restaurants where everyone should kiss the ground they walk on because nobody else could possibly afford to go to such a premium institute. Their younger siblings do not understand what a playground is because they are too absorbed in Angry Birds and the gadgets it runs on.
As I pass the tomb of a famous holy man I see those who have nowhere else to go for their prayers, I see malangs dancing in a trance, and I see those climbing the stairs for whom being religious is fashionable. Hypocrisy and pretence are necessary weapons if we wish to be respectable, making me painfully aware of how I self-righteously mock the citizens. I see the sea and the homes facing the sea. I see the peeling paint and exposed bricks, I see the patterns on the walls where sewerage pipes leaked, I see rust and decay of men and materials.
I step onto the sandy beach of the Indian ocean that claims lives on special occasions; I am suddenly calmed by the noise of waves breaking on the shore, distanced from the cold reality, a cliche as old as any. So many identities in this city, so many faces, so many stories that would never be told because no one would stop to ask if the frowns on the faces hide pain beyond the ordinary, if they have gained what they lost or lost what they gained. We all are fighting our own demons, we all are cogs in this machine that grinds us down in the guise of daily life. We live the extraordinary everyday; it is a blessing that we get to live everyday. We look half a man but carry the burden of more. We seem apathetic but feel to the core. We curse this place and embrace it every second. We are my city and this journey across my universe has come to an end.

Across My Universe – II

As my journey continues, I overtake Qingqi trikes carrying ten passengers in the space for five and am roused from my deep thoughts by its puttering predecessor, the small but readily available rickshaw. I think about the times I’ve travelled in this three-wheeler with no doors, hiding my purse from passing motorcyclists/possible looters and trying to tame my hair that my fluttering dupatta is never able to contain. Bedhead has nothing on Rickshawhead. But I actually like the longer rides I’ve taken where its engine’s tinny whine drowns out all sounds and its violently trembling chassis numbs my senses enough for my mind to push all thoughts about trivial everyday activities aside and blank out in peace; a peace shattered by either aggressive honking by those angered by the rickshaw proudly going the wrong way, or the arrival of my destination where, an amateur at haggling, I surrender the twenty rupees I couldn’t lie about not being part of the usual fare to this point.
That’s another talent a person is either born with or not, the art of skillful bargaining, a talent I sadly do not possess, neither am I proud of it because it points to a future where I won’t be able to eventually buy a car from the saving that I could do by haggling for every ten rupee note at every fruit/vegetable vendor’s cart during the regular grocery shopping, every free yard I may persuade a cloth seller to include in my unstitched suit purchase, or every extra mile ahead of the stop I mention as my drop off point that I push public transport to take me to save on my fare. In my city this skill is key to economic survival, a skill I see my mother use so efficiently when she announces with unquestionable certainty that tomatoes are priced 20% less at every other vendor’s shop in the city but she won’t go there because this location is more convenient. This is a confidence born of experience and knowledge. I see my sister-in-law use it in another highly effective manner when she takes the item in question and proclaims it hers for a price she deems worthy of it and suddenly the seller finds himself unable to argue with one as sure of herself as my bhabi. And then there is me, whose belief in the general goodness of humanity, faith in justice and overall exasperation with the idea of an argument leads me to hand over the money for the first price quoted by the lucky guy who gets to sell anything to me. It’s a strange flaw in my character where instead of considering it my right to ask for the remaining amount back I feel too embarrassed to take back what’s actually mine and pacify myself with the thought that it is a charity that might just grant me sainthood.
I’m pulled out of my reverie by the traffic jam caused by the long line of cars idling on the main road outside a filling station, hoping to fill up on CNG before it’s too late and the CNG stations close down for the next day owing to shortage of gas supply in the country. Everything here is erratic, from fuel supply to electricity to the stock market to the temperaments of the people who need all these things. It shows in how they live, also in how they behave on the roads; mullahs driving fast straight ahead because that is the path of the righteous, motorcyclists swerving in out of tiny gaps as if they spent their childhoods winning at Tetris, some small hatchback drivers who graduated from motorbikes yet still believe a car operates in the same way, buses which have the accelerator built into the seat because once the driver sits the bus doesn’t stop till its lack of wings is the only thing preventing it from flying, also that particular class of car owners we label “nayi corolla waley” who retain plastic seat covers and AFR number plates in the delusion that theirs is the very latest brand new car on the road and they are the true Dominic that the Fast and Furious franchise needs, these drivers are usually the ones who think every stretch of road is a quarter mile drag but end up hauling the totalled remains of their precious vehicle because they were and always will be Mr. M. Bashir etc. And then there are the VVIPs; the ones who can’t yet afford Prados so they let the national exchequer pay for a few, who have haari toiling on their fields but they choose to live in the cities where they can actually spend their inheritance with a flourish, trying to one up their neighbour in defence who’s doing the exact same thing. But the one entity that instills fear in every man, woman, child and dog on the road is the female car driver; an individual who remains the butt of every driving joke yet retains the power to get any man beaten up by “ghairatmand mard hazrat for actually pointing out her mistake. As long as the misogynists criticise women drivers, the feminists will support women’s right to wreak havoc on the main roads, but the female driver will always remain a mysterious object that everyone wants to look at, maybe even touch and tease, but never get hit by.
Not to forget the pedestrians who are every driver’s worst nightmare, and come in a wide variety ranging from handholding supposedly straight men walking on the sides, kids playing cricket or football on the roads because their playground is a victim of landgrabbing, whole families with mothers carrying-slash-dragging their offspring across while always forgetting the one child who stops in the middle of the road thinking it best to go back to heaven. And then the shadowy burka-clad ladies who suddenly imagine themselves invisible AND invincible once the burka is on. One can only watch them in incredulous wonder as they float across the roads as if granted the power to walk on water and be immaterial. None of which is true of course because all they are, are a demonic version of Harry Potter’s dementors. Funny thing about these pedestrians is they would curse the same once they’re behind the wheel for doing the exact same thing they themselves must have done numerous times.
Self-serving selective amnesia is a national characteristic I suppose, just as I am presently choosing to ignore my own contributions to this culture by blaming everyone else. I am no better than the passenger in the car next to mine, nor is he better than me, yet we would each like to think that only we are privy to some secrets of this universe, the chosen few awarded certain privileges that we have no clue of but would still like to boast about.
Such are my thoughts as I finally break free from the jam after inching forward long enough to mentally compile this blog post. And the journey is still only half-done. I must continue.

Across My Universe – I

This is a journey across my city, the fifth, or perhaps the sixth most populous city in the world. The statistics don’t matter, it’s what I see and what I live with. The people I brush shoulders with unwittingly, unwanted touches with a wrinkle of my nose, squeezing my existence to pass thru a shred in the fabric of humanity that is bursting at the seams. This is my city of crime and punishment by the criminals, of war and peace not found by the warriors, of pride and prejudice of the all classes of society, this is Karachi the lifeblood of my country and of me.
I am sitting in an air conditioned car, setting off from one corner of this concrete jungle to the very edge where sand meets sea and towering corporate headquarters of multinationals jut out from the ground, standing guard over the restless waves crashing against the walls of reclaimed land.
I certainly am one of the lucky ones protected from the blinding sun in my shiny black car, an elite in one neighbourhood, a pauper in the next. Middle class has its own pros and cons, that of easy negligence by the policy makers and constricting restrictions by everyone else. It certainly has its benefits when I find I could blend in with the jet setting crowd holding designer bags buying more designer bags in shopping malls, as easily as I could with the masses in a flea market, wearing rip-offs of designer lawn suits and a chaadar over my head. I am lucky because I get to choose what class I could represent whenever I wish. That is more than what seventy percent of the population could hope for. Someone with a different perspective might consider me unfortunate in this respect; I suppose the twenty million or so perspectives residing here are what make this city survive the brutal reality of daily life anyway.
I cross the amusement park that opened for elites ages ago but with it’s decay it came alive as a playground for the masses. The typical route every new source of entertainment over here takes, be it a restaurant, a mall or a cinema. What once would be frequented by the latte-sipping, capris-clad crowd would become the haunt for those who come here as an upgrade from sea view, while those upscale eateries make way for cheap fast food stalls whose menu lists items like “franch frice” and “brost chikan”.
I ponder these changes as I pass by shops that used the ampersand as if they had an Epiphany that calling their shop Milk & Milk or Cool & Tasty would bring in more sales, three separate small stores called Bismillah Superstore, a questionable Good Luck Men’s Salon, a few pathan hotels where the taste makes one forego their doubts about the dubious ingredients, and those shady small nooks with tinted windows, nestled between bigger shops, that could either be shisha-offering hangouts for college drop-outs playing snooker or offices for estate agents.
I realize I have only come a few kilometers away from the start. There is much to see yet in this city, much more I must put into words as I continue my journey.