The Skates

My 3year old niece just started learning how to skate. We saw a video of her zooming around the skating rink in her brand new pink and purple inline skates, slightly wobbly but getting there.
Dad smiled a little thinking about his own childhood days when he used to skate around town. “These days you have these in-line skates which need that smooth surface, back in the old days I had iron skates which I could even take out on the roads”, he said.
I remember those skates: heavy, made of iron and with tan leather traps. They had a screw in the base to fix the length of the skate to your foot size. You placed your shoe on the skate, adjusted the front and back placeholders and screwed the bolt tight, then you buckled the leather straps on top to hold your foot in place. The wheels were narrow and also made of iron. These were the types used by acrobats in those days.
I remember when Dad took them out when I must’ve been around 5, I took to them instantly and have faint memories of circling the 12 seater dining table so fast that the room was a blur. Can’t remember where those skates went but I know I put them to good use and only graduated to the modern inlines in my teenage years.
Dad recalled how he used to cycle all the way from his home in the north of the city to Hill Park in the center. The skates hung by their straps at his back. This was in the 60s when in Karachi there was only one skating rink in the city found at the top of Hill Park. Those were the days a ten or twelve year would safely cycle across the city, no worries of traffic or speeding cars as there were so few automobiles around.
Dad talked about how there was even a boy who came all the way from Lahore Karachi on skates. Only difference that his wheels were made of thick and wide rubber made for speed in straight line, unlike Dad’s skates which were made for sharp twists and turns.
As we rewound the video of my niece I wondered about my own childhood skating accomplishments which I could one day tell my niece all about.

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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 kind of people you encounter in Sunday Bazaar

For those of you not from Karachi, Pakistan and who do not know what Sunday Bazaar is, it is a huge open thrift market in the posh locality of Defence where you find anything and everything, from bolts of luxurious fabrics to original oil paintings to fruits and vegetables to wicker baskets to leather jackets to second-hand books of all genres to used shoes and bags to disposed off toys and electronics among many other things my brain refuses to do an inventory for. Essentially a wholesale-cum-flea market which opens on, you guessed it, Sundays only. And for those of you living in Karachi who don’t know what Sunday Bazaar is, what rock are you living under?

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So considering that Sunday Bazaar is a one-stop shop, it is obvious that it would be frequented by all and sundry, but keeping in mind the strange dynamics of this city, ‘all and sundry’ becomes a lot more entertaining than you would expect, especially the interaction, or lack thereof between those visiting the bazaar. Here is a glimpse into the wide variety of our species I have encountered there.

The Tribal Clan

Karachi is a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities, the proverbial ‘greener pasture’ that people from all over the country come to settle in, hence it should come as no surprise when you see flocks of shuttlecock-burka-clad pakhtoon females descend like a blue cloud upon the stalls and begin conversing in rapid-fire Pushto with the mostly Pathan vendors. On the very next stall you might find a small family of fifteen from Hub, Balochistan, who have hired a Bedford truck for their trip to this shoppers’ paradise. They provide a colorful backdrop for the Sindhi clan in their mirrored frocks and scores of children, as they peruse the shiny, gawldun jewellery for the next wedding in the tribe. There is absolutely no shortage of our tribal brethren in this vast space where all of Pakistan seems united for once.

The Celebrities

For the entertainment-starved people here, there might be days when a ray of hope shines upon them in the form of a grimy person covered in the Phase 8 dust, who happens to be famous for some reason or another; well mostly their pretty face since intellectuals don’t really have any mass popularity over here. You might see your favourite TV actor strutting about in Designer sunglasses (which you could find two streets away at a corner stall) and pausing in front of you expectantly waiting for you to ask for their autograph, or you might catch a glimpse of a famous singer haggling with the fruit-wala in a not-so-melodic voice, or you might even see an actress who dared to step outside her house with NO MAKE UP AT ALL! Imagine the horror of seeing her as a NORMAL HUMAN BEING!

The Bookworms

There is a special breed of homo sapiens who have a strange affinity for the written word, and you can easily find them bent over rows upon rows of books at the bookstalls in Sunday Bazaar, studiously ignoring the cacophony of human voices that surrounds them as they withdraw into their book-bound bubble. These people come in all shapes and sizes, belonging to all ages, and chances are that if you saw them in the morning as you entered the bazaar, you will find them in the same shop when you are leaving three hours later, with the only difference now being the presence of a plastic bag full of treasures they unearthed during their long and exhaustive search.

Jbtw I also belong to this category…

The Babyboomers

It is not hard to find this haggard family as the fathers portray Jason Statham-like driving skills, manoeuvring baby strollers through narrow alleys carrying sweaty toddlers dripping ice cream in their wake, while the mothers pacify cranky babies with every form of rattling bling-bling they can gather at the junk corner. More often than not, the babyboomers seem to be on a mission to come, conquer and go as soon as possible, before the baby poops and they have no way to change the diaper in this desert wasteland, so to speak. It is very rare that you see a quiet family of this kind and when you do, you wonder if the zombie apocalypse has arrived because it just seems so unreal.

The Football Fanatics

As you near the footwear area, you find yourself surrounded by complete teams of kitted out teenagers in heated discussions over Nike vs. Adidas, Studs vs. No Studs, Green vs. Black and so on and so forth, extolling the virtues of their favorite player wearing so and so shoes. Sometimes you will find a lone adolescent boy stubbornly pointing at his favorite pair of Nikes while his mother continues to lecture him on the vice of overspending while at the same unsuccessfully tries to convince him to buy a cheap China-made copy which the vendor swears comes from the same Nike factory.

The Scavengers

The early bird gets the worm, and the first to arrive at the bazaar are those who look to sweep the arena clear of the bounties it has to offer. You might not even find the Scavengers after noon because they were the ones who probably helped the sellers unpack their wares during the early hours, while simultaneously setting aside everything they find worth a dime. If you have been wondering why you never find the good stuff, chances are that the good stuff is now the property of these hawks and it will never see the light of the sun again. Ever.

The Misfit Aunties

These are the stereotypical Burger aunties who seemed to have somehow teleported from their drawing rooms straight into the midst of this “Durrty Old Peasant Village” in their expensive lawn suits, sleeveless tops, capris and perfect manicures and blowdries. These ladies also happen to be very active at those stalls that sell *cough* fake *cough* Designer handbags, which they would flaunt at the next kitty party when they explain how difficult it was to obtain this last item from Louis Vitton’s Fall/Winter collection on their recent trip to Italy. They would be conversing in English with the shopkeeper who would answer right back in Urdu and somehow a transaction would take place while you remain lost in translation. If you ask them though, they will most likely look very confused as to how they came to be in this place, telling you in their most earnest voice that it is their very first time coming to Sunday Bazaar only because it is so close to their palace on 26th street and they suddenly found themselves free this unfortunate Sunday.

The Farangi

These are typically the children of the above mentioned aunties, who went abroad for higher studies after A-levels. They turn up at the bazaar in tanktops and shorts and flip-flops and bandanas, and stroll about the bazaar likening it to the flea-markets they visited on their road trip across the States, looking over at the mass of humanity they would hold a social dialogue about among themselves in their most native American accents, on issues plaguing the Third World which the American President’s latest reforms will most definitely solve of course. You might even find them clicking away on their DSLRs capturing the ‘true face of Pakistan’ while they go about telling each other not to touch anything cuz germs bro.

The Foreigners

The ACTUAL farangis who are ACTUALLY seeing this place for the first time perhaps would belong to all races and nationalities, the tanned Americans/Europeans still carrying their backpacks around, the Russians and Ukrainians who sometimes are mistaken for our Pathan brothers, the Africans often wrongly accused of participating in the Lyari warfare and the Orientals who seem to be always in such a hurry to get to the next stall. If they are smart, they will escape the claws of the vendors who heap bags upon bags of “Vairry Chheep” things ‘Made in Pakistan’, turning their stalls into souvenir shops making the foreigners wonder how anybody thought things are affordable here.

The k3wL BwØ!z and Gµ®Lz

If during your journey through the maze of Sunday Bazaar, you come across young men whistling, humming, singing latest Bollywood songs, swaggering in tight jeans in unthinkable eye-popping colors, wearing sunglasses with the stickers still on, and hair gelled back very very carefully, then you behold what we call the ‘kewlbwoiz’. They truly believe they are the perfect substitute of Zayn Malik or Fawad Khan, with the right amount of star quality. Their female counterparts are the heavily made-up, high heeled, blinged-out, fancy dressed ‘kewlgurlz’ who treat the potholed streets as their modelling ramp, throwing Kareena Kapoor inspired hair flips left, right and center. They fully believe they have the filmi husn and hoshruba ada that will score the kewlbwoizez affections and they will promptly break their shiny, little man-child hearts by shifting their attentions to the used spiked and long leather boots which they will pair with their denim-patterned tights and diamante-studded ruffled tops; because really who has a better fashion sense than them, hain jaanu?

The Mazdoors and The Vendors

Last but not the least, the natives of the bazaar itself; the shopkeepers who make their livelihoods based on the whims of the buyers, the vendors whose disposition varies as much as the dwarves that Snow White lived with. Then there are the mazdoors, from toddlers to adults, running after you with their woven baskets, asking if you want a porter to carry all your shopping for you; sometimes you’ll have three boys fighting over who gets to carry your onions and tomatoes. Not quite how you daydreamed eligible bachelors competing for your affections but you snap out of your reverie when you realize they are fighting for a right to the measly wage of perhaps 20 rupees, a small denomination note whose absence you never noticed till it started resembling the 5000 rupee note. They add another depth to the characters you meet in this giant labyrinth you navigate through.

This is of course my own experience in the Sunday Bazaar and I have only listed the most memorable types of people I have seen there, obviously not covering ALL those who visit. Well then, Sunday is upon us and I am off to get myself another stack of novels at a bargain now.

Only A Moment

It only takes a moment

to stop a beating heart

for happiness to leave us

for lovers to part

 

and it only takes a moment

for good times to pass

when memories are erased

and the end comes atlast

 

and it only takes a moment

for joys to turn away

when doom walks in

and life walks away

 

and it only takes a moment

for the men to fall

as the women grieve

for they’ve lost it all

 

and it only takes a moment

for the walls to collapse

as the roof caves in

dust fills in the gaps

 

and it only takes a moment

as blood runs like water

the mother mourns her son

the father, his daughter

 

and it only takes a moment

for a child to pick a gun

when his toys have been destroyed

his heart burns like the sun

 

and it only takes a moment

of sheer insanity

for you to lose control

and your humanity

 

and it only takes a moment

for brothers to be divided

as the protectors face

all enemies united

 

and it only takes a moment

for the first arrow to fly

and so it begins

when innocents die

 

and it only takes a moment

for your city to burn

the roads become deserted

and ghosts haunt every turn

 

and it only takes a moment

when all you knew was gone

all you had, you lost

nothing has been won

 

and it only takes a moment

for evil to reign supreme

when the good has fallen

your soul you can’t redeem

 

and it only takes a moment

for darkness to descend

the spark of life extinguished

we meet the fated end…

 …but it only takes a moment

for a young heart to start beating

the spark of life is ignited

witness a new beginning

(Note: This poem and its Urdu translation were presented at the International Forum of Youth Poetesses, 2013, held in Baku, Azerbaijan by the Great SilkWay International Youth Union.)

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*

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.