A weird turn of events

Of course Mini had to go. That was a foregone conclusion for Huz.

But for Amu and I, the story was far more complex and fraught with emotion to have such a neat ending.

With great half-heartedness, we started a campaign to find adopters for little Mini. But I was becoming more and more certain that Fuzzy’s presence in the house was no longer something I wanted to tolerate. I felt like I was done with him. Even Amu was indifferent by now. He was just a badly-behaved, spoilt-rotten cat, hell-bent on making sure I couldn’t have a pretty house. I found myself looking at him with a mixture of sadness, frustration, anger and despair. I began to neglect him and stopped brushing him, esp since he had begun to flinch and back away even from the thing he loved the most. I didn’t care that this was only a manifestation of his anxiety at Mini’s presence in the house and began to look for a shelter to give Fuzzy up to. I just didn’t want to handle his spraying and marking anymore. I even thought of abandoning him somewhere, immediately dismissing the idea even though urged by well-meaning but ultimately misguided parents and siblings to do just that.

The dissonance in my head over the cat conundrum was causing a great deal of just-under-the-surface stress, the kind that makes you broody and think dark existential thoughts. I was really tired of cleaning up cat pee on a daily basis, failing at administering antidepressant, failing at finding another home for Mini, failing at not loving her so it wouldn’t be difficult to give her away.

So it certainly didn’t help that Nazish had begun to come in later and later for work. Her expected time of arrival had gone from 12 to 2, and I was getting increasingly irritated by what had really begun to seem like her taking advantage of my good nature. I decided I would let her go too.

I told Huz and he looked at me like I was hysterical, sternly telling me to calm down. Nazish was a good maid, trustworthy and quiet to boot, so what if she always looked depressed and we barely communicated with each other? Firing her at a time when we needed help keeping the house pee-free and dust-free was the stupidest thing I could possibly do.

So of course, I proceeded to do two stupid things.

I wrote to the only animal shelter in Karachi to ask that if they would take Fuzzy, we would not only donate money on a regular basis, we would even provide a cage to keep him in.

And when I opened the door for Nazish to enter on Monday, (the day after Fuzzy and Mini’s poopy battle) I waited till she had begun to wash dishes before breaking the silence between us by saying she should start looking for other work as her schedule was no longer acceptable to me.

She took the news stoically, only asking if she should leave immediately or stay on till the end of the month. I was immediately regretful, as I felt I had somehow failed her by not understanding her problems and her reasons for coming late, failed her by making her feel so disposable. But all I said was there was no need to hurry, she could take her time finding another job. Then I left the kitchen and left her to mull over her immediate future as she continued washing dishes. Huz just shook his head and warned me that my imminent housework-related stress would only mean he would have two stressed creatures to contend with in the house, one human, one feline.

I avoided Nazish for an hour, but then she struck up a conversation as I chopped veggies, confessing sheepishly that she knew my anger was justified and that she really had troubled me greatly with her erratic timings and that she was willing to ask around and get me a replacement.

It was as if she had only to speak for me to soften. Of course I didn’t really want to fire her, I said. I liked her work and I trusted her and had no desire to go through the hassle of employing, training and getting used to the presence of another person in the house at all. Come to think of it, did it really even matter what time she came as long as the work got done? I told her how stressed I was about Fuzzy and Mini and how I was thinking of giving Fuzzy away as a solution to my problems.

Nazish looked at me and asked, “Kitne mein deingi? Main le jaoon usse?”

She had mentioned once or twice before how much her little daughter adored cats and how she loved playing with one that lived at her mother’s place, where she left both her daughters each day before coming to work at my place, as she couldn’t possibly leave them alone at home in an environment like the Colony where she lived, a dense settlement of mostly Pashtuns.

I looked back at her, incredulous. She actually thought I was selling Fuzzy! But my incredulity turned into hope…giving Fuzzy over to Nazish and her little daughters seemed so much better than giving him up to a shelter….

We started talking nitty gritties. All talk of firing Nazish had been banished, and I figured her sudden talkativeness and animation stemmed from nervousness at having come very close to losing a job she really depended on./

She reassured me that Fuzzy would be safe in her ‘store room’ and could romp in her courtyard if he liked, and that as long as I provided his kibbles, they would take care of him for us.

I bounced off to tell Huz what had just transpired. He looked at me and shook his head again, laughing at how rapidly the situation in our house managed to swing with such mercurial changeability, but completely approving of Nazish’s acquisition of the errant Fuzzy.

I set about packing his things, his bath towel, shampoo, food and water bowls, his brush…not allowing myself to feel the slightest tinge of wtf-am-I-doing.

It was decided that she would fetch her daughters from her mothers house and bring them back to my place, after which I would pack Fuzzy into his basket and drop them all home. I had never seen where she lived, in a year and a half of her working with us, and it seemed this was the day I would finally make the leap across the class barrier that divided me from Nazish’s world.

She sat down on the floor in my room, where I was brushing Fuzzy for the last time, feeling the first glimmers of sadness at what I was doing. It was late afternoon and the sun’s presence was waning as Nazish began to talk to me in a manner she had hitherto never done. I listened as she started telling me detailed stories about her life and her childhood and her complicated family dynamics, her husband, her marriage, her parents and siblings, her uncles and aunts and cousins, all caught up in traditions full of patriarchy and misogyny. I listened to her talk stoically about the difficulties she faced, the bad choices she had made or that had been made on her behalf and which she was now trapped in. She talked about her daughters birthday and how she danced with her uncle, the weddings that she loved to dress up for, the intrigues and scandals that were the fuel of their family get-togethers. She told me about all the places she had ever worked at, the kinships she had formed with men who never disrespected her, the employers who helped pay for her elder daughters schooling and rebuked her for getting back together with an uncaring, sometimes abusive husband. She had been engaged to him when she was little, but he had defied his betrothal to her by eloping with her erstwhile school friend, then divorcing her out of remorse at being ostracized by the family and marrying Nazish eventually. It was as if she had been propelled into self-disclosure by the faith I was displaying in her, by entrusting my pet to her.

We talked till it grew dark, me asking curious questions that she had no qualms about answering, and I confess I found myself fascinated, witnessing and undergoing a complete transformation in my perception of who Nazish was, not a mournful, depressed girl, but a thoughtful yet feisty individual with strong convictions and aspirations despite the challenges life was constantly throwing at her. But more of this in another post.

For now we finally got to meet her daughters, 9-yr old pretty Ailya, who shared her birthday with Amu, one of the reasons I felt Nazish was destined to work for me, and 3 yr-old pixie-faced Sidra, the future mistress of a fallen-from-grace Fuzzy. Little humans and cat were introduced to each other and I spent some time explaining the do’s and don’t’s of dealing with him.

Nazish and her daughters slid into the backseat while Amu cradled Fuzzy’s basket in front. I smiled uncertainly at her, she smiled uncertainly back, and then we were off to Nazish’s house in the heart of a slum we had never set foot in before.

(to be continued…)

Fuzzy vs Mini (part 1)

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Fuzzy after a bath does not look quite as voluminous, in fact he looks downright weird. Was that why Mini did a double take when he trotted into the kitchen to find his food bowl? Was it because she couldn’t place the new smell of wet rug and a hint of shampoo?

Mini was near the food bowls when she caught sight of Fuzzy approaching. I had my eye on her and was about to pick her up and whisk her away to another room, but hell broke loose so fast my reflexes stood no chance.

There was a low, menacing, animal sound and I couldn’t tell which cat it was coming from. It seemed to be a part of the atmosphere of the kitchen. Mini looked like she had just caught her own reflection in the mirror, hair standing on end, back arched, ears rolled back. Fuzzy’s body language was that of a lion about to jump on his prey.

They attacked each other simultaneously it seemed. Mini should have run and hid under something, but she stayed her ground and fought.

Flashback to 1980. Nine year old me, trying to intervene in a cat fight on behalf of Noni, my first cat. Noni was so worked up he sank his teeth into my hand to get me to let go of him so he could chase the other cat before it got away. I still remember how the shock of that bite made me nauseous; I threw up in my mother’s aunt’s sink and when I looked up into the mirror, my chocolate-brown face looked gray.

‘O shit o shit o shit o shit’ was all I could say as Fuzzy and Mini grappled, flesh memory from 1980 preventing me from putting my hands in the line of fire. Below is not a video of Mini and Fuzzy’s epic battle, but it will create a suitable ambience as you read on.

I could not believe this terrifying scene was unfolding right in front of my eyes in my own house. Mini soon realized she could not defend herself against Fuzzy’s strength and I suppose her anxiety made her lose control of her bowels. She couldn’t help pooping as the fight continued. I shouted to Huz to come help while helplessly pleading with the cats to stop it stop it stop it! There was poop and pee everywhere and the freshly bathed Fuzzy and Mini were both rolling around in it. Huz finally managed to get Fuzzy to withdraw a bit, using a towel to swat at them and a long-handled broom to nudge Fuzzy into an enclosed corridor. Meanwhile, a dazed and frightened-out-of-her-wits, poop-covered Mini dashed off to hide behind the curtains

It had been a long day full of chores, I was exhausted, palpitating, and my hands were shaking. But the house was a disaster and it took an hour to clean up not just the area where the fight took place but the entire trail of Mini’s trajectory as she shot to safety. The poor little thing had to be bathed as well, and that too with cold water as there was no hot water and no time to heat it on the stove. But I dried her off fast and she hid under Amu’s bed thereafter.

Then it was Fuzzy’s turn to be cleaned up again, and I couldn’t help cursing myself for being in such a stupid situation. Stressed and full of despair, with no clue how to deal, my brain filled with conflicted thoughts. On the one hand there was Fuzzy, who couldn’t be sent away or abandoned despite the problems he created. On the other there was little Mini, whose future was clouded in uncertainty whether she stayed or not.

Huz, being the clear-headed problem-solver, saw only one path of action. Mini must go.

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Things that happen

A simple thing like waking up unusually early one day can change your life forever, or at least for the life span of a cat. Here’s what happened one beautifully crisp morning in December.

Decided to take Amu driving at 7am as the stretch of road where I teach her is relatively car-free and less intimidating then.

In the parking area of our apartment building rang out the forlornly incessant mewing of a decidedly small cat. The mysterious mewing kitty was hiding in the space between the top of the wheel and the chassis of our car, rendering us incapable of driving away without getting it out first.

Seeing us standing around helpless, the chowkidar fetched a stick to get the invisible noisemaker to jump off and run out. What emerged was a tiny grease-covered creature of indeterminate colour and scared blue eyes. I picked her up to stop her from running under the car again, and after ten minutes of confused debate decided to put her in our courtyard for the time being to keep her safe.

When we returned from our driving session, the tiny kitten was quietly curled up behind one of the potted plants, but ran out and started mewing again when she saw us. She was obviously hungry and cold and infested with fleas, and there was no choice but to clean her up and feed her and keep her warm….

(to be continued…)

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Friend or foe?

Ever wondered what a ‘bete-noire’ is? Let me enlighten you if you haven’t. It is a person or thing that one particularly dislikes or dreads. It is another word for enemy, who is, of course, someone who hates, attacks or harms another. An adversary, something that threatens someone or something. Literally, it means ‘black beast’.

Fuzzy, our pet, who for the last seven years has mostly just slept, keeps us as his slaves and wants for absolutely nothing (apart from the occasional bits of raw chicken as I cook and a slice of watermelon or two, or so I naively suppose)

But is the most wonderful thing about being Fuzzy ‘really’ that it seems you’re The Only One? If you have never seen another cat ever since you were separated from your sibling when you were a wee kitten (unless you count the weirdo in the mirror who got startled every time he saw you) do you recognize the yowling beyond your existence as the sound of others like you? And what is that potent aroma wafting towards you from  the balcony and courtyard doors? Smells like cat-pee but not your own…

Fuzzy lost no opportunity making sure that if what he suspected was true, there should be no doubt in anyone or anything as to exactly WHO was Master of this Domain.

Every morning to our dismay, we began to find puddles near every entry or exit point in our house. We dealt with it by putting our daily newspaper to good use. Yes, he had been neutered…or at least the vet did the best he could (since Fuzzy is monorchid)

One of Fuzzy’s favourite hangout spots is also one of mine, the breezy top step of the stairs that lead down to our courtyard. A swing door separates the stairs from the rest of the house, so in the evenings when someone opens that door, Fuzzy steps out for some fresh air. He prowls around downstairs, sniffing pots, inspecting different areas, marking his presence discreetly. Guilty as we feel keeping a living thing in such seclusion, the least we could do is allow him this little bit of freedom to experience the outdoors. This little freedom expanded to such an extent that we even let him spend the night outside since he loved it so much. It’s not like he would ever be able to scale the boundary walls and actually go out to explore the Outside World. He’s just not built that way. He’s the kind of cat that ponders and dilly-dallies before jumping on or off chairs and coffee tables.

Many years thus passed and a routine established itself. Fuzzy snored under my bed in the morning and all afternoon, emerging in the late afternoon, stretching out his back legs, yawning humungously. He’ll sit outside my bedroom door, disoriented and a tad cross-eyed. Then he’ll wander over to the netted balcony door, tucking his legs comfortably under him and sit there basking in the last golden rays of the sun, ears twitching now and then at sounds of passing cars, human voices and chirping birds, eyes half-closed.

Soon,  he will unfurl and walk lazily but purposefully over to his water bowl, positioning his body around it, enveloping the bowl in an embrace. He loves his water bowl.

No one could ever describe Fuzzy as a fierce cat. He is the very essence of docility, unless he’s in a playful mood. His mouth is so small that he can’t manage food that is larger than the tip of your finger. He will patiently chase a piece of kibble that drops from the bowl to the floor until he can latch on enough to be able to chew. He’s not the kind of enthusiastic cat who’ll run to his food bowl when he hears the rattle of kibbles. If he wants food, he’ll go sit by his bowl and wait with equanimity. But if he wants water, he’ll come into my room and get my attention by meowing softly till I get up. Then he’ll lead me to his water bowl , trotting ahead and looking back again and again to make sure I’m following. Sometimes he’ll swat at my ankles with his paw to hurry me along.

The only time he’ll betray any excitement is if he hears the rattle of ice cubes. An ice cube in his water bowl is like Eid for him. He’ll hover over it like he does on hot days in front of an open fridge. Such sweet small happinesses. And then of course, there is the anticipation of being allowed to go down to the courtyard.

We realized why Fuzzy had been acting extra territorial and so very eager to dash out of the house when we found him sitting on the stairs one day with a cat sitting across from him. They were staring at each other emitting low guttural sounds, not fighting but just facing each other. We shooed the other cat away and it ambled off lithely, scaling the wall and disappearing while Fuzzy looked on, unable to fathom how.

Another time we heard some fierce howling only to find Fuzzy having a face-off with the same trespassing cat, but this time, heartened by my presence perhaps, he began to chase the other cat round and round the stairs until the cat managed to jump onto the trellis from the balcony, scale the wall and get away, Fuzzy breathing in huffy bursts,  fuming with prickly antagonism. This was the first time I had ever seen Fuzzy so intensely worked up.

Late one evening a few months ago, we returned after several hours spent away from home, me worrying about Fuzzy being alone and hungry. As we climbed the unlit staircase, my worry turned into a strange sense of foreboding when I noticed clumps strewn about the landing halfway up…I was almost afraid to inspect closely, but then I discerned something dark smeared on the floor and my fears turned to panic as I turned to Huz to ask if Fuzzy was inside or out. Huz fumbled with the keys (why does it seem to take forever when you’re panicking?) we all ran in and called for Fuzzy but he was nowhere to be seen. We usually find him waiting for us by the door alerted by the sound of the keys turning in the lock. Heart hammering, I stood in the balcony and called his name…it is usual for him to come dashing up like lightning. After a few seconds I saw some movement and Fuzzy came out slowly from under the stairs and started climbing with some effort. Turning on the lights, I realized the dark blobs on the stairs were bunches of Fuzzy’s hair and the smear was blood.

Horrified and shaking, and too scared to touch him in case he was badly hurt, I let Fuzzy walk into the house unaided, limping visibly and looking rather subdued. I stroked his head and checked him tentatively for wounds, but couldn’t see anything through all his fur. Huz joked that the blood might belong to the other cat and the thought made me feel a little better, but I was sad for Fuzzy and outraged at the other cat for violating Fuzzy’s territory and consistently looking for a chance to attack him. I took Fuzzy to the vet next day and was told he had a sprained shoulder which was causing him to limp, but there were no wounds anywhere. I looked at Fuzzy with a degree of skepticism. How could a spoilt, evolutionarily challenged semi-Persian defend itself against a ruthless street cat and draw blood?

Nevertheless, Fuzzy had to be protected from the wily building cat and stay withiin the house at all times from now on. As a result, he became ever more vigilant at the balcony doors. The anticipation of more confrontations was palpable…Fuzzy was alert and tense on the lookout for further trespassing, eagerly waiting for the building cat to show up and he wasn’t disappointed. The other cat kept coming back and there were further face-offs through the netting (which occur with regularity around the same time every day.) I’ll be sitting in another room and I will hear Fuzzy yowling angrily or I’ll hear the door rattle loudly and I know he has flung himself at the door with force.

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I don’t know how he gets his paws so muddy but there are fresh paw prints on the balcony walls and the floor every day. I began to regard the building cat as a friendly foe since he added so much spice to Fuzzy’s life and suggested leaving a bowl of food for him in the balcony, which Huz and Amu vehemently vetoed. But I had cause to rethink my soft spot for him as a worthy adversary.

I was sitting at my kitchen table one night when I heard rummaging sounds. Fuzzy followed me as I went to turn on the overhead balcony light and open the door. On the landing were two cats this time, apparently the black and white building cat had brought along a ginger friend and they were going through our recycling heap like vandals. Ginger saw me and ran off but Black&white stayed and stared back as he squatted on a brown paper bag and proceeded to pee on it. My jaw dropped at his insolent audacity but I couldn’t help laughing a little too.

Didn’t laugh too much when a few days later he left a little pile of poop on a cushion on the bench as a little gift for us. Or this morning when Huz went to fetch the newspaper from under our front door only to find that not only did it have a yellow patch of pee on it but had been torn up as well.

Seems we have a bete-noire on our hands indeed, albeit with a touch of blanc.

 

 

 

Me and my Help Issues

It’s been two months now since I’ve had a new person coming in to clean everyday. Her name is Nazish.

She is tall and thin and her default expression is gloomy, if not dour. She has long hair that she ties in a bun and droopy, hangdog eyes.

She wears a black burqa with shiny floral embroidery down the front, which she takes off when she enters the house and gets to work, spending a minute buttoning it on and wrapping her head carefully before leaving to walk back home.  She doesn’t live very far from our place. Since she is new, and young, and perhaps because Huz works at home, she moves about discreetly, with her dupatta perched on her head and wrapped around her shoulders.

There is something very collected and composed about her, very unlike Zahooran, our previous maid.  If you have been following my blog, you’ll know a lot about Zahooran and her talkative, annoying, yet endearing personality, and all my other colourful help-related issues.

Nazish doesn’t talk very much, despite my efforts at trying to draw her out. Her speech is soft to the point of being almost inaudible, and I must strain to catch the gist of what she says.

She had one or two talkative days when her story spilled out as she mopped the floor and I folded laundry, and I learned that she is married, her husband repairs old TV’s but is lazy about work, they have two daughters (who she wants to try and send to school scraping together as much as she can save) and they live in the downstairs portion of a two storey house, the total indoor space of which is about as big as one of our bedrooms. Her husband also parks his motorbike next to the double mattress on which they all sleep. There is a reason for this, but I’m afraid I can’t remember it.

Her husband is the youngest amongst his siblings so he gets the short end of the stick. Nazish thinks he is often taken advantage of and is forced to be the family gofer. He resents this, so has developed a devil-may-care attitude towards his family, which only has the effect of reducing his influence further. This affects Nazish, since she ends up not receiving monetary gifts from in-laws on special occasions, and various other slights.

I employed Nazish with the understanding that she would come to work by 9 or 10 in the morning so she could wrap up by 12 or 1 and leave. By the end of a week, I realized that Nazish was fairly good at her work, but she was not very disciplined when it came to timings. When questioned, she’d mumble something sheepishly about sleeping late at night, or the kids being unwell, or her husband waking up late and needing breakfast before she could leave her house.

I decided it didn’t matter if she came a little late, though I did always ask for reasons when she started coming in at 11, and then 12. Her excuses seemed legitimate, so I didn’t really mind. Anyways, I’m just grateful to have help at all, and that she is good and trustwothy.

All is well. But I find myself feeling a bit put off lately. I find myself increasingly missing Zahooran, despite my relief at finding a good replacement after she left.

I miss the warmth of Zahooran’s greetings as she came into the house at 8:30 every day, a simple cotton dupatta covering her head that she’d drape on a chair before getting down to work. She had adopted Huz as her brother and had grown to be unabashed in his presence, yakking with him as easily as she would with me, sharing anecdotes from her past or little everyday troubles. Most of her work wardrobe consisted of hand-me-downs.

I miss her system of working, annoyingly disorganized though it sometimes was, but she made the floors shine, and the taps and windows gleam, so it was easy to forgive her. I would tell her to do something a certain way and she would oblige with enthusiasm, breaking into embarrassed laughter if she felt that she was not doing something right.

I miss the implicit kinship with which she cleaned the house like she owned it. After five years, I sensed that she valued me as an employer and that she liked working at our place.

I feel Zahooran’s absence more keenly as I open the door for Nazish and greet her, only to receive a stiff, awkward half-smile in return. I am beginning to get the feeling that if I don’t acknowledge her first, she will not acknowledge me at all. All she wants are instructions, not small talk. She is perhaps too awkward to understand that a little banter goes a long way…but my cheerful attempted overtures fall flat. I get the feeling that she is too miserable to be endearing.

This makes me uneasy in her presence. She came to work at 1:30 day before yesterday, and when I asked her why she came so very late, she didn’t reply, she just continued washing dishes sheepishly. I asked her if she was alright, if her daughters were well, if there was a problem at home, but she just muttered that she’d come early from now on. Her behaviour caused me some irritation. But then I had my irritated moments with Zahooran too.

Zahooran had a lot more things going wrong in her life that had the potential to break her spirit. Her husband refused to work, and she was pretty much on her own, raising an adopted son as best as she could. She brought him with her as she came over for the last time, walking over to the dining table chair slowly and sitting down with an air of a person carrying a terrible weight on her petite shoulders. She looked so upset that it took her some time to speak, as if she was suppressing tears.

Uncertainty shrouded her ill face as she broke the news that she was forced to leave Karachi and go back to her own town. All I could think as I listened to her was, how would I ever get by without her?

She finished talking, I hugged her thin frame, controlled my own tears and gave her some money to see her through the next month or so. She would leave the next day with no idea if she would come back. She left work quite a few times over the last 5 years, but she always assured me that she’d return. And she always did. And I never replaced her, because I didn’t want a replacement. I think I was loyal to her too.

It’s been a little over two months since then, and my world didn’t fall apart as I had imagined. I spoke to Zahooran on the phone a month ago. She wondered if I had found a new maid and I told her I had but of course, she wasn’t as good at her job as Zahooran had been, and she sounded relieved, and a tad smug to hear it. She sends me prayers and the good wishes of her whole family. Apparently they are all very fond of Huz and Amu and I, though we have never met, but Zahooran often talks about us to them, as people who looked after her well.

So I miss Zahooran as I wonder if Nazish will let down her hair. Maybe she just needs a little time. But what if this is how she will always be? Will I be able to exorcize Zahooran’s loud, jarring but lovable spirit and adapt to Nazish’s quiet, creepy yet dignified one?

Only time will tell I suppose. Let’s see.

Post-election ramblings

Everything is busy falling apart.

I love the concept of Wabi-sabi, according to which nothing is permanent, nothing is complete, nothing is perfect, and what’s more, there is beauty in this. But this has limited ability to give solace when it comes to teeth. Or the electoral system.

Also when there are two spots on your kitchen ceiling that drip every few seconds due to a leak in someone’s bathroom upstairs, forcing you to place tubs underneath which you must skirt to avoid drips on your head as you try to make coffee or reach for an onion, turning your little kitchen into an obstacle course.

Seepage. The scourge of apartment living.

Amu wanders up to me to complain about being hungry and needing breakfast before setting off to take her last examination for the year. I immediately put down my book (Pakistan: A Hard Country), take off my glasses and relinquish my breezy spot on the sofa to ask her what she would like, so as to deflect that what-kind-of-mommy-are-you-who-doesn’t-feed-her-only-child gaze. I open the fridge door as I suggest scrambled eggs and sausages which she rejects with a twitch of her little nose and a ‘I’m not THAT hungry’…..so I offered her tea and buttered toast…much simpler and met with an immediate ‘yes!’.

Huz wanders into the kitchen as I settle down with my book again, this time at the kitchen table, determined to finish at least one chapter today. His expression says ‘I could do with some breakfast too’, but as I glower at him and ask what he’d like, he quickly says he’ll have the leftover chulao kabab and afghani tikka we ordered last night…..no one can say he doesn’t encourage me to read.

He contemplates the spots as they drip.

Falling asleep while studying..
Falling asleep while studying..

Amu abandons her second toast and half her tea, so I finish them both, even though I don’t really feel like chewing anything, for which I hold the chulao kabab responsible. There was a tiny hard object, perhaps a bit of bone, who really knows, and the weakest filling in the array in my mouth was unfortunate enough to have encountered it. This resulted in a rather jarring jolt, the effects of which are intensely felt but hardly visible to anyone around me save for the appearance of a sudden frown on my face. And it’s good that no one heard the string of expletives in my head.

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Yes I know I must visit the dentist. I will put it off as long as I can, and suffer the consequences miserably and silently in the meantime, because yes, I’m pigheaded.

There is ink on my thumb from when I went to vote on 11th May, proof that I have a say in who I want to botch things for the next five years. Carried away by a skewed, misrepresentative media, most of us urban educated lot voted for PTI. It hasn’t been easy deciding on the lesser evil this time around, nevertheless I figured Imran would be easier on the eye as PM than Nawaz. So much for that.

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Things may be far from perfect, but the ECP proved to be unusually ineffective, and the laxness of security in some constituencies, the most hyped being NA-250 (the one we voted for), meant that the biggest thugs in Karachi managed to get away with massive rigging attempts…..not.

The ECP has called for re-election in 43 polling stations in this constituency on the 19th, but I don’t think Huz and I will bother to vote again. I doubt anyone will be as enthusiastic as they were on the 11th, now that the ground reality has been driven home. PML-N is in, PPP is marginalised everywhere except Sindh, and PTI may or may not form a coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the most Taliban-ridden province of Pakistan.

Well, at least Mr Khan succeeded in galvanizing those most lethargic of all voters, the urban elite, as a result of which the Election 2013 can boast of the highest turnout since 1970. I really, really enjoyed Mohammad Hanif’s take on the whole debacle in The Guardian…..it was absolutely brilliant, true to his singular style.

Huz left the house at quarter to nine in the morning in his zeal to vote and came back four hours later, sunburnt but triumphant, as if he’d achieved a huge accomplishment, which I think he did, considering what he went through.

First he stood in line at a government boys school near a katchi abadi (low income locality) next to a garbage dump and a couple of cows (with their accompanying smells and poop) tied up behind one wall of the school.

After an hour and a half when he finally reached the desk he was informed that he was at the wrong polling station and he needed to go to the neighbouring girls school. So he did, after verifying his information at a nearby help tent, and got in yet another long line under the scorching sun.

Meanwhile back at the ranch…..I was in my pj’s, busily cutting up images from magazines in a frenzy of post-social-media-unplug-excessive-energy. There was absolutely no desire in me to wake up early and go stand in line in the sun just to cast my vote for a government I really had no hopes from, despite all the clamour for ‘A New Pakistan’.….especially after Huz came home and told me his stories of heat and smells and mismanagement. Also, even though my Facebook stood deactivated (in an effort to reduce the noise) I still had an eye on Twitter….so I was aware of all the s*** going on.

The polling timings were from 8 am to 5 pm, and at 3 pm I was still putting together a collage from some of the images I had cut out, when the phone rang. It was my mother. She had just come back home from the polling station close to their place and insisted I go and vote too.

I felt more loser-ish than ever, but not enough to make me want to go off on my own and subject myself to dubious voting conditions, but I promised her I’d go, and got back to my cutting and gluing.

Then my sister Fatu whatsapped me to ask if I voted…..she had just come back after FIVE hours of standing in a queue and was full of stories about how social and fun the whole experience was. When I told her (without much conviction) my reasons for boycotting the elections, she was genuinely aghast.

”You can’t not vote Mun! The Goons will steal it! You can’t let them do that! Go vote!”

She even offered to come with me, tireless in her patriotism and righteous anger, but I began to ignore her messages after that. Never said I wasn’t pigheaded.

So I finished my collage, re-assembled a frame I had taken apart to showcase my new handiwork and wandered over to watch a bit of news on some of the hundreds of news channels on TV. Turned out that there were so many reports of delays in many polling stations (mostly caused by the handiwork of the Goons) that the ECP announced a time extension of 3 hours.

Something in me switched gears and I texted Fatu to come over. I couldn’t not be a part of this historic event.

So I quickly showered, wore a nice shalwar qamiz, spritzed on a nice perfume, and marched out to vote at 6 pm. At the polling station, I was greeted by a bunch of female polling agents one of whom commented with good-humored sarcasm that it was about time I showed up. Another one noticed that I was all fresh as a daisy, while she had been cloistered in a stuffy room in her black burqa since 6 am. I was duly chastised, handed two sheets of paper covered in symbols, located the one I wanted to stamp on and folded it up to stick into the ballot box. I was outta there in all of five minutes, home by 6:30.

Huz hates me. 😀

Birdy

Of late I have been more prone to pick up my camera than my pen and have clicked a few pictures I’m going to start posting one by one on Mun-Zooms, my photo blog. 

I have also been busy OCDing, organizing and cleaning and dejunking cabinets, cupboards and drawers systematically.

As I dashed around the house, full of beans due to the Kundalini yoga my sister Fats made me do with her yesterday, I glimpsed a pigeon sitting on a ledge outside Amu’s window. It was trying to peer into the room with its beady orange eye, bobbing and tilting its head side to side. I couldn’t help stopping in my tracks and laughing a little, then scooted off to grab the camera from my room.

Just as I trained the lens on it and fiddled with the focus, wouldn’t you know it, it flapped its wings noisily and took off, so that particular pigeon lost its chance at being gawked at on my blog 🙂

Then I remembered noticing a pigeon through the side of an open window on our landing, nesting in the building duct and since I had a camera in my hand, I stepped out to see if it was still there.

Thankfully it was, so my need to capture a pigeon today was fulfilled. Here’s one of the pics I took.

Dear readers of Munira’s bubble, do subscribe to Mun-Zooms if you haven’t already. There’s not much to read there, just photos, so go ahead, don’t be afraid 😛 Plus, you’ll get to see the humungus version of this photo. FTW!

Rambling a watershed year away..

If memory serves me right, winter arrived very late last year, when I was beginning to lose hope of getting to pull out my warm clothes at all.

I recall feeling increasingly impatient, longing to feel that nip in the air, that makes sitting on the steps in my back balcony that much more wonderful. The nip finally manifested itself a week before New Years Eve, when a few friends came over and we did a barbecue (chicken in two different marinades), warmed by the embers till the wee hours, cradling hot mugs of tea in our hands.

We stood on the top steps that lead down to the courtyard and watched the fireworks explode in the sky, whooping at particularly spectacular ones. I felt grateful to have friends to celebrate with, happy to hear Amu and her bunch of friends talking and laughing in another balcony, hoping a good time was being had by all…

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This year the air turned cooler much earlier, much to my surprise. I felt the crispness in the air as I was letting Fuzzy in one fine morning when I was awake for some godforsaken reason. It was only November and Amu reported that her friend Hannah’s perennially curly hair had already begun to stay straight instead of frizzing up right after ironing. This is a sure sign. It indicates a drop in humidity in the air, which means women in Karachi (including yours truly) start tweeting happily about the increase in good hair days.

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Hannah and Amu

Amu began talking about getting a new school sweater as her old one was looking a bit worn out. The child turns up her nose, however, at the standby standard gray pullover provided by Ghani Sons, (the store that sells the most school uniforms in Karachi) as being completely uncool.

A couple of rounds of all the hip stores at the mall revealed nothing of any use. One store, however, had the most lovely  gray cashmere…..beautifully soft, perfect shade of gray…..the kind of sweater that just fits you beautifully and you feel classy wearing it.

It cost almost twice Zahooran’s monthly salary though, and even Amu (who is good at persuading her forever-balking-at-prices Mom) thought she couldn’t, (just couldn’t!) spend that much on a sweater for school. The attendant at the shop then divulged that we should drop by in ten days or so to check out their stock of lambs’ wool sweaters and Huz left his number and email so they could let us know. But they never called or emailed, and when we dropped in after two weeks to see if the new stock had arrived, there was no trace of it and the shop attendant looked puzzled as if he had never said such a thing.

So after consulting her fellow fashionistas, (most of whom do their shopping on yearly holidays in London or the US) it was revealed that there is a Marks and Spencer outlet somewhere in Khadda market from where her friend Nabs thought we could find a reasonably priced, yet ‘cool’ gray sweater.

If I was reluctant to go shopping again, it was only because I had by now lost my faith and couldn’t face another disappointment. (Or maybe I was subconsciously trying to compel Amu into forgoing her notions of cool/uncool and making use of the oversized pullover I had bought her last year which was lying unworn in her cupboard)

We drove along the narrow, congested street, keeping our eyes peeled for the alleged shop, not once, but twice, on two separate days, as Amu fired frantic texts at Nabs to get more specfic directions…but the search proved as futile as I had feared.

There was no such M & S store….unless of course, they had relocated since Nabs had gone shopping. But how were we to know where it was now?

The sweater story has a happy ending though.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon yesterday, as we drove out to the far reaches of phase 8, taking the scenic route along the Arabian Sea. The sun shone, and the water sparkled, people and camels dotting the beachy landscape. The road near the Cineplex was lined with hundreds of cars…..it seemed a lot of people had turned out to watch Skyfall or Life of Pi.

Orange butterflies fluttered away from my windshield as we swung into the parking lot of the weekly bazar, a magical place where you can find anything and everything that the city has to offer. It is also a great place to spend a few hours browsing stalls along with a whole sea of other human beings. Here’s a bunch of pics I took there sometime last year, when we had gone early and it wasn’t crowded.

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Amu and I stopped in our tracks as we encountered a bunch of very small Afghan/Pashtun boys in our path, one of whom was in the process of sharing his bottle of Pepsi with one extremely flattened straw sticking out of it. They were so engrossed in the fizzy pleasure of their drink, chattering amongst themselves in Darri/Pushto they didn’t notice us watching them, grinning from ear to ear. Later, we regretted not having secretly filmed them.

Then we proceeded to rummage through the flea market stalls, which were inundated with sweaters of all shapes, colours and sizes, and after an extensive and thorough search and encountering two old but very seasoned sweater-sellers who seemed to know immediately what school Amu went to, and who cannily tried to sell us a used sweater at twice the market rate (a ploy we managed to maneouvre out of) we walked away with a lovely gray pullover from the very next stall, once again grinning from ear to ear.

We left the market with bags of fruit, new turquoise-blue bathroom mats, wooden wind chimes for the courtyard and a gray sweater, carried for us by a little Afghan boy to our car.

He silently walked all the way for us, carrying our load, and silently transferred it all into the backseat after which I handed him a 50-rupee note. He took it without saying a word and as Amu got in and I walked over to the drivers side, I watched him walk quickly with his basket back to the bazar to look for the next customer. I kept watching as he climbed up the hilly mound to the main road, to see if he would turn around and acknowledge the fact that he had been connected to us for a brief moment in time, helping us walk easier as we traversed the crowds.

Just as I began to think that our contribution towards his earnings of the day meant nothing to him, he turned around to look in my direction and I saw a tiny smile on his face.

I grinned back and gave him a little wave, and then he was gone.

At the beginning of this year, December seemed so far away, and now it’s here. Didn’t Farroo just get married? Wasn’t the Karachi Literature Festival just a few months ago?

(It was a lovely wintry day then too and I had fun attending various sessions…..had meant to write about it but then got lazy…..here’s a few of the hundreds of pics I took that day)

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Listening to Anatol Lieven talking about 'Pakistan-A Hard Country' in a regional politics session
Listening to Anatol Lieven talking about ‘Pakistan-A Hard Country’ in a regional politics session

Today is the very last day that I will ever be in my 30’s. I have already bought myself a silver bracelet with coloured square stones which is going to see me through to the other side.

Tomorrow, I cross over.

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Two takes on Karachi

Steve Inskeep,  born June 16, 1968 (age 44)) is one of the current hosts of Morning Edition on National Public Radio. He, along with co-host Renée Montagne, were assigned as interim hosts to succeed Bob Edwards after NPR reassigned Edwards to Senior Correspondent after April 30, 2004. Inskeep and Montagne were officially named hosts of Morning Edition in December 2004. Prior to being host of Morning Edition, he was NPR’s transportation correspondent and the host of Weekend All Things Considered.

Inskeep is the author of Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi published in October 2011. The book looks at changes in Karachi, Pakistan as it grew dramatically in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Inskeep has made several trips to Pakistan in his role at NPR.[1]

Inskeep was raised in CarmelIndiana, and graduated from Morehead State University in MoreheadKentucky, in 1990. His first professional experience in radio was a stint as a sportscaster at WMKY-FM in Morehead.

(from Wikipedia)

What follows is a transcript of ‘Two takes on Karachi from Leading Citizens’, originally published on June 3, 2008. I came across this on Twitter today and thought it was in keeping with the current bunch of posts I’ve been putting up here.

To give you a clue, Fatima Bhutto is the daughter of (late) Murtaza Bhutto and Afghan-Pashtun Fauzia Fasihuddin Bhutto, who divorced when she was three. Later, Murtaza Bhutto married Ghinwa, a Lebanese ballet teacher, whom Fatima considers to be her real mother and political mentor. She made a name for herself over the years, but shot to fame after penning ‘Songs of Sword and Blood’. Belonging to the Bhutto clan, being extremely pretty and dating George Clooney didn’t hurt either.

(photo credit Amean J.)

Ardeshir Cowasjee passed away a few days ago, if you happened to glance at my previous post. Fellow Pakistanis need no further introduction. He was a fun guy and his death feels like a real loss somehow. Sadly, there may not be many patrons of the city who were as devoted as Cowasjee. “He was a man of means and he wasn’t greedy. Most people don’t have the time for public interest – becoming richer than they already are.”

(photo from Dawn.com)

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I’m Renee Montagne at NPR West.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I’m Steve Inskeep in one of the largest cities in the world. We’re reporting this week from Karachi, Pakistan. It’s part of the Urban Frontier, the name we’ve given our series on changing cities, and we’re about to see that change at it looks to two of Karachi’s leading citizens.

Both have found ways to speak out, even in times of military rule and political violence. One of them bears Pakistan’s most famous last name. She’s Fatima Bhutto.

Ms. FATIMA BHUTTO (Writer, Columnist): Karachi is a city unlike any other I’ve ever visited. This is a city of immense importance, but it’s also a very sad city because of what’s happened here, because of what continues to happen here.

INSKEEP: Fatima Bhutto met us in the home office that her late Aunt Benazir once used. Her grandfather, another prime minister, used the same office until he was hanged. Her grandfather appears in a huge painting on the wall, shouting to a crowd. His granddaughter does her shouting in print. She’s a writer. Read some of her newspaper columns, and it becomes clear that she was a vocal opponent of her own aunt’s government. She says the reason was a series of killings here in Karachi.

The other column that struck me may be difficult to talk about, but it was the one that you wrote after your aunt Benazir Bhutto was killed, in which you attempted to remember her fondly but made it clear, as I recall, from the first line, you never agreed, or you did not agree with her policies.

Ms. BHUTTO: No. Benazir Bhutto’s interior minister, a man named Nassir Lababer(ph), who most notably heralded the Taliban in Afghanistan as my boys, launched, really, I mean, an operation of ethnic cleansing against this city, against a city that through troubles, through violence and through danger, has always managed to survive, has always coexisted with its differences.

INSKEEP: Because you wrote about your unhappiness while she was alive, I wonder, did you ever talk with her about that?

Ms. BHUTTO: Well my father, my father Mir Murtaza Bhutto, was killed during her last government. On his way home from a public meeting, his car was stopped. There were 70 to 100 policemen outside out house. Some were in trees in sniper positions. They fired. They fired at the men. Seven men died that night – two, including my father, from point-blank injuries. My father was shot on the side of his face besides receiving other injuries.

By the time my mother and I left the house to go look for him in the hospital -we left about 45 minutes later because the police didn’t let us leave earlier -the streets were clean. You know, we didn’t see any glass on the roads. We didn’t see any blood because they’d washed it up. You know, the police were not arrested. The police were, they were cleared, honorably cleared in an internal review and restored to their posts, whereas the witnesses were all arrested and spent several months in jail.

And I did – I mean, I last spoke to my aunt about that. I called her when I found out that the witnesses had been arrested and the police reinstated, and I asked her why that was. And she told me – I was 14 at the time. She told me that I was very young and I didn’t understand the intricacies of the law, and it’s not like the movies. We do things differently here.

So I don’t feel really that she answered my questions in any way that was meaningful. I wish she had, because they are questions – these are questions that resurfaced after she was killed.

INSKEEP: That’s Fatima Bhutto, one of the leading citizens of Karachi, Pakistan. She is often asked if she’ll follow her famous relatives into public office. She’s dismissed the idea so often that when we visited, we didn’t even bother to ask. And then we got to wondering if that was a mistake. The local newspaper showed her working a rope line of admirers as her mother talked about placing her in the National Assembly. It was Fatima Bhutto’s birthday party. She’s 26.

That same day, we listened to a very different independent voice in Karachi. He’s a man who’s been involved in Pakistan’s politics for decades. In fact, he was briefly imprisoned in the 1970s by Fatima Bhutto’s grandfather. You reach him by crossing a brilliant green lawn. It’s surrounded by trees and a stone wall. Then you step into a cool, stone house where you meet a white-bearded man.

Without so much as a hello, he leads you directly to the bar.

Mr. ARDESHIR COWASJEE (Columnist, Dawn Newspaper): (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: The man pours himself a glass of orange juice and quinine. His name is Ardeshir Cowasjee. He’s a columnist for the newspaper Dawn. He recently referred to Pakistan’s founder as that man of great perception, and then added there were no others to follow him.

When you were born? Where you born? And say your name.

Mr. COWASJEE: Karachi, 1926. I was born here, I lived here, I grew up here.

INSKEEP: You must remember a very different, much smaller city.

Mr. COWASJEE: Oh, yes, a very nice city. There was discipline. There was law and order. Nobody would kill. I mean, a chap got killed once in two years.

INSKEEP: Cowasjee is 82. He grew up in this port city. His family owned cargo ships. He still keeps paintings of two ships on his wall.

Unlike other non-Muslims, Cowasjee stayed in Pakistan after it was formed as an Islamic state. He stayed even after the government nationalized his family’s shipping firm.

Why did you decide that?

Mr. COWASJEE: Where you want – why should I leave my home? Who the hell are you?

INSKEEP: Is there something that you love about this city?

Mr. COWASJEE: I’m 82. Where do you want me to end up, in an old people’s home in America?

INSKEEP: I would like to tell you that Cowasjee is as elegant in person as he is in print. It’s better to say that he’s the keeper of his own style. He greeted us at the door wearing shorts and a bathrobe. He invited our producer to remove her scarf – and also, if she wanted, her shirt.

People in Karachi know that he acts as he wants, but they take his columns seriously. He’s the kind of writer who’s willing to compare some provincial official to an out-of-touch French king. He’s also become involved in one of Karachi’s central issues: the use of land. He joins lawsuits to stop developers from misusing land. He fights to preserve open space, though he says he wins no more than one time in 10.

In spite of losing nine out of 10 cases in your view, is there something essential about this city that is left to save, that is worthwhile?

Mr. COWASJEE: You see the trees in my garden? You see the little plot outside my garden? It’s constant war all the time for the last 50 years.

INSKEEP: Constant war over his garden. He is gesturing toward a strip of land just outside his wall. It was marked off years ago for development, but Cowasjee planted trees there and has managed to keep it green ever since.

Is there a way, then, that all this time that you’ve been writing about this city and its development and its government or mis-government, that you’ve been basically defending your own yard?

Mr. COWASJEE: My own bottom. What sort people don’t understand about that? I’m looking after my own backside.

INSKEEP: Well, thank you very much for taking the time to speak.

Mr. COWASJEE: Have lunch and get out.

INSKEEP: Ardeshir Cowasjee stands up, he gestures into the next room and says that’s my library. He’s looking at a floor-to-ceiling window that shows his lawn and those trees. His dining-room chair is positioned so that he can look out of that window whenever he takes his meals alone.

Our stories from the urban frontier are collected at npr.org, and you can find some of Cowasjee’s columns there, as well. We are reporting all week from Karachi, one of the world’s largest cities, on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.