Words have failed me

The worst kind of affliction a writer can suffer from is being left incoherent, speechless, incapable of putting into words the thoughts and feelings that flow so effortlessly on any other day. It is not writer’s block, it is not even the lack of ideas, it is so much worse than that: It is the murder of 131 schoolchildren and 10 of their teachers, as it happened on the 16th of December, 2014, in Peshawar, Pakistan.

I want to not think about it, but this number is bouncing around inside my skull, lighting up the darkest corners of my mind like a murderous pinball machine, racking up the score on the level of psychological pain it can induce. It has crossed the red into the blinding white where your existence becomes splintered like dried wood cracking, losing its identity. You feel yourself imploding, collapsing in on yourself and just ceasing to exist. Pain is just a word here, feeling is undefined.

I am not angry, I am not upset, I don’t feel patriotism bubbling up at the call for the national green in my blood to rise. I don’t feel anything. I’m not thinking who did it, or why they did it, I am not thinking about what should be done to those who did this and what must now be done to prevent it from ever happening again.

I am merely stunned at the fact that it has happened. My sense of self has dissipated, I simply feel broken. Like there is no point to anything. Like I cannot even continue typing these words out because they will stop making sense by the time this sentence ends. There is just no point to life when it is taken so easily, regardless of the number. You take one, you take all.

Everyone is praying, everyone is telling everyone else to pray. But for whom? Those who have left us are surely martyrs gone to heaven, the purest of souls untouched by vice. Isn’t that what a child really is? An angel without a halo or wings. They say we should pray for the families, but what could you really ask of God? The strength to bear this loss? Only a mother would know how it feels to lose a part of herself, only a father would know how it feels to bury his own child. You and I? No, we do not know, so all we do is pray for them.

But what could I pray for besides that? I suddenly feel so lost; rudderless in an ocean, vast and deep, and I do not even have the will to flail my limbs about, I do not even have the will to survive. And for what should I live? To feel this kind of sadness that is beyond sad? Despair beyond despair? Hopelessness beyond being hopeless? This is not a ripple in the fabric of humanity, it is shredding it, ripping it, tearing it apart at the seams. This is the kind of thing that makes a woman fight against her natural instinct of wanting to become a mother. Do I want to bring children into this world when I have to protect them from more than just bruised knees? I am perhaps being completely selfish in wanting to save myself from the idea of losing my child, from having to cry myself to sleep next to their empty beds, holding their bloody uniform, keeping their memory alive. I want to be selfish this way.

I thought I only needed to vent to feel better, but I felt exhausted even before I wrote a single word here, even before I began thinking about writing. So very exhausted, deep down in my soul, completely and utterly spent. No, I did not personally know any of the victims, I am not so arrogant as to claim that I can feel their pain. I don’t, I can’t, and I pray no one ever has to feel it ever again. I am just simply so shocked that I cannot wrap my head around it. I feel beyond helpless, I don’t even know what kind of help I could give that could make an iota of a difference to those whose lives have been changed forever.

I feel no rage, no anger, nothing. I am broken and shrivelled like something has died inside me. It is probably my soul, most likely my soul. I thought I could rationalize my emotions about it, like I do for everything else, but even after all this time I realize that work was just a distraction. The idea that this has happened is just too strange for my mind to understand, like how can something so unimaginable happen? But it HAS happened. And I keep telling myself that so I can keep my mind from becoming disjointed from my body. I already feel so disconnected from everything around me, as if I am living my life in third person.

It is such a different kind of sadness from anything one feels through the course of their life. I always have a reaction or response to sad occurrences, but right now I am incapable of giving a response, providing a reaction. People are yelling, screaming, raging, crying, sobbing, beating themselves up. I think I just skipped all these stages of grief and entered the zone of numbness, possibly denial. I am not special and neither have I attained some mystical nirvana to feel emotions beyond an average human, I have merely failed to cope with this, and how CAN one cope with this? I doubt there is any emotion on the spectrum of human feelings to effectively cope with this.

I am not asking what sort of God allows this kind of thing to happen, I’m not thinking that there is some grand scheme of things where this fits in; my own mind is scaring me because I just keep going back to the point where I think ‘IT’ happened. Not how, why, when, where or what. Just that it happened is a thought I am having difficulty formulating. The mind is not comparing it with other atrocities or wars or killings anywhere else on the planet; the mind is not rationalizing and neatly categorizing it as an act of terrorism that we need to fight back against.

People are angry, consoling themselves with the fact that the perpetrators will go to hell. And then the mind starts questioning if even hell is enough. Even liars and petty thieves go to hell, we are hell-bound for comparatively smaller offences, but this, this is something else entirely. And these people are going to hell too? So maybe the deepest, darkest, hottest level, the very pits of hell, but is that enough? No, the mind truly does not have the capacity to process these thoughts running through my head. I know that the natural human response to this is the need for revenge, almost an animal instinct to avenge our loss, but I have failed to feel the hate and the rage, I am suddenly thinking on an existential level about where humanity stands. Or if it even exists any more in the human race. I am consciously suppressing such thoughts because I know my mind might collapse from the sheer magnitude of pondering the unknown. I cannot think of heaven or hell or even justice.

I. Cannot. Think.

Even after this whole tirade trying to rearrange and direct my thoughts and feelings, I am left with nothing coherent, substantial, understandable. Words, oh they have failed me so completely today.

(Details of the incident: http://www.dawn.com/news/1151361)

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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.

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.

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.