Song triggers

Stories of my annual October allergies have become old hat now, so I won’t say much about it except that it’s been a miserable week…or two. Flu rendered me more or less useless, so I wallowed in listlessness while it lasted. On top of all that, Zahooran decided to celebrate Eid back in her hometown and has been gone for…you guessed it…two weeks.

I have been mostly ‘sensible’ about the layers of dust and cat hair piling up, and only tackled the housework when things got too bad. Today was one of those days. Happily, I felt more energetic today, so it must mean I’m better now. A few puffs of my inhalers (I have two different kinds) before my morning mug of tea, and I’m good to go.

My days start late, since I am an owl, and today was no exception, but come hometime, I must drop whatever it is I have belatedly embarked upon and dash off to pick Amu from school.  Sometimes it gets a little crazy. Like today, I had been cleaning out my front balcony in a grubby tshirt and shorts, sweaty and a bit out of breath from all that dust, just 5 minutes before Amu had to be collected.

Jumping out of work clothes and into respectable outdoor attire is a challenge I rise to most admirably, I feel.

Huz had warned me about the main road next to the Mazaar being cordoned off for a couple of days for the Urs of Abdullah Shah Ghazi. Every time this happens, all the traffic gets diverted to a parallel street, which in our case happens to be the one that passes right next to our main gate. Craziness.

I cranked up the volume as Prince wafted out of the radio and sang along to ‘When doves cry’ as a couple of pigeons flew up and out of my way, over the windshield.

…..’maybe I’m just like my mother….’

The song ended and the RJ mentioned that the song was from ‘Purple Rain’, which was released in ’84.

What was I doing in 1984….?

Well, I was 12 years old then and that time of my life can only be defined by where we lived.

It was a rented apartment in a complex meant for retired army officers, but for me and my sisters it was a bubble. We were completely self-contained there.

I would go to school in the morning in a van with a bunch of other kids and return in the afternoon, tired and hot and hungry. After the noise and the traffic on the roads and a commute interrupted by multiple stops, our huge compound felt quiet and peaceful, though I still had to climb three flights of stairs lugging a heavy bag.

My mother would have lunch ready and we would all eat together, except my father who would be at work. My eldest two sisters shared a room, while I shared with my younger sister/arch nemesis, Fatu. It was not easy. Those were the days when I simply hated her, and I’d fly into rages if she bugged me, which was pretty often. She was 7 years old then, and the boys in the compound had nicknamed her ‘aunty’. I have no idea why.

Eldest Sis was 19, and was engaged/romantically involved. On top of that, she was busy with her studies and I thought she was very brave and independent as she used public transport to get to and from college. She even knew how to drive and had been doing so for a couple of years, since my father firmly believed that his daughters should be bold and confident, like boys, and furthermore, not depend on him to go anywhere.

This was also the time when Eldest Sis began to beat her stammer.

Since she led such a full, busy life, Eldest Sis had the remarkable ability to fall asleep anywhere, even in seemingly uncomfortable places. She would cajole one of us to scratch her back as we watched tv in the family room while she sprawled on the floor on her tummy, or curled up with a cushion. She had long straight hair then, a figure to die for, and beautifully manicured hands. Pedicures were her particular hobby, and the rest of us watched her, fascinated, as she groomed herself.

She also paid me to iron her clothes sometimes, a few rupees perhaps, but in those days it would be enough to buy me an ice lolly or a packet of chips from the corner store.

Eldest Sis and Sax, the second after the Eldest, had always been thick as thieves since they were little. They share the most history, and remember the most about our collective past.

Sax was 16 then, had just begun college, and seemed to manage to have lots of fun.

Now that Eldest Sis was in a relationship, it also seemed that she was preoccupied, or on the phone, or out a lot. So even though they shared a room, Sax could not always count on Eldest Sis for company.

So it was that she began to notice my existence, and my status went up a notch. I was now old enough to have the honour of ‘hanging out’ with her, be a companion for a walk around the block, could be told secrets in confidence as well as be a worthy opponent for evening badminton matches under the streetlight.

It was also around this time that I began to have problems with my breathing as the winter months approached, and my father started to worry about my health…

(to be continued…)

Fluttering a summer away…an art project and some memories.

The year was 2002, and Huz had some work in the Maldives. Yes, you heard me right. The Maldives. He had to be there for a month, and luckily the time coincided with summer holidays for Amu, so after working out the feasibility of the two of us going along and staying at a nearby resort island while Huz ferried back and forth to work in Male, it was decided that we would accompany him 🙂

In retrospect, it was probably the most idyllic month of our lives, and I would give an arm and a leg to be there now, when I have so many more digital cameras, but really, at the time I couldn’t help wondering what Amu and I would DO all day to keep us entertained. How much snorkelling and swimming can one possibly do? How much can you read in a hammock? How do you keep a four year old occupied all day for weeks on an island without any forms of recreation besides the obvious ones? How many sand castles can you make? (we made one every day 😛 )

These are questions (among many more) that I may answer in some future blog post, with pictorial illustrations. For now, I will have you, my dear readers, know that I took along with me my paintbrushes, watercolours, and some good Cansen paper. And a Nature book on butterflies.

I love butterflies. They are the most mesmerising creatures (in my opinion) and I am blown away by the sheer variety of them. If one happens to flutter by, I will drop everything and watch it till it flutters away. It’s just one of those things you have to do. Watch butterflies, yeah.

I never liked the idea of real, dead butterflies framed and put on walls (no offense to anyone who does so, it just doesn’t appeal to me.) But I had an idea when I came across that book on butterflies in an old book store. Why not replicate them in watercolours?

So I decided to make that my summer project, and what better way to put your nose to the grindstone than to maroon yourself on a tiny Maldivian island?

Every day (after my post-breakfast nap) I sat down by the window in my beach bungalow, with all my paraphernalia laid out neatly. I would first sketch the butterfly, a painstaking process (when you’re feeling lazy in the summery torpor) because one half of the butterfly had to be an exact mirror image of the other half. Crazy concentration. Once the sketch was complete, I’d start mixing colours and painting.

When I look at my framed butterfly panels now, I associate them with that idyllic Maldivian summer of 2002. It brings back (slightly blurred) memories of white sand, dappled sunlight filtering in through the trees, turquoise waters and countless afternoons spent going for walks around Paradise island, sand castles, and yoga on the beach.

So I hope you enjoy looking at these today. I inscribed the scientific names of the butterflies underneath the watercolors because I love saying the names out loud and would have forgotten them otherwise…

To give you an idea of the size, these were all done on 5”x5” squares of white paper.

bottle green

Can you guess which one I love the most? What would you do for fun/recreation on a month-long getaway in Paradise? 🙂

Au revoir Sheroo

Well the year is coming to an end, once again, just like it did last year, and I’m thinking about stuff. Y’know, introspecting. And I’m thinking the December of 2010 has been a decidedly bittersweet month.

We just got back home from saying our farewells to Sheroo and her kids Sal and Zee. They’re the ones we went with on our trip up north last year.

Sheroo and I are first cousins, i.e her mom and my mom are sisters. We’ve literally grown up together, since I was born a mere twenty-four days after she was 🙂 We hung out together a LOT when we were kids, teaming up during our huge family get-togethers, sometimes being dressed up in identical outfits (thanks to some cunning planning on our mothers’ part), and coming up with idiotic games of our own, things we could only laugh about when we grew up. 🙂

She went away to college in the US, and I went off to Lahore to study art, but we kept in touch with postcards and hand-written letters and birthday cards delivered by snail-mail, some of which has been kept by both of us, exchanges full of all our new experiences in our separate spheres.

Eventually we regrouped in Karachi, and we both got married within a year of each other. I was tickled that she chose me to be her best friend in her wedding, out of all those girls she knew, and we ended up having a ball as she requested me to do her wedding makeup and we put our heads together to devise a pattern of mehndi for her hands that would match her ghagra. Yes, those were the days when it wasn’t completely unheard of to choose NOT to spend thousands of rupees on something that would be washed off in a few hours. 😛 Plus Sheroo was never one to indulge in anything but the barest minimum of lipstick, if any.

Fortunately, our respective husbands found kindred spirits in each other, resulting in us meeting more often than we would have had our husbands not hit it off as much as they did! 🙂 They’re both a little quirky, more than a little irreverent, and they can both talk for hours and hours about philosophy and politics and evolution.

Sheroo's pre-wedding, 1996 (?)

Thanks to this camaraderie, we’ve shared good times and innumerable debates and arguments over countless kababs from Meerath, and multitudinous plates of nihari and many many cups of tea. It helped that our kids had an affinity for each other, so when the time came to test our friendship by travelling together, we ended up having an awesome time! 😀

It was on this trip though, that Sheroo’s hubby first hinted at an idea that took shape over the course of the ensuing months. It wasn’t so much about running away from this country as it was about experiencing a different way of earning a livelihood.

So when a job was handed to him on a plate, he decided to go for it. And so it happens that they are now on the verge of a new chapter in their lives, an adventure that will take them halfway across the globe, to set up home in a different world. It came as a shock for Sheroo at first, the idea of uprooting herself and her family from a very comfortable existence bang in the middle of a communal neighbourhood, with the kids going to a great school, and no shortage of friends or family. But the idea grew on her….

Even after all these years, Sheroo is still a bit of an enigma for me. Perhaps it’s the Scorpio in her that lends an air of mystery to her persona, as I STILL haven’t been able to figure out what makes her tick 🙂 She is a woman of few words, but that doesn’t stop her from having a ready smile and an ever-present tendency to burst into giggles….even while delivering bad news! There’s a stoicness about her though. And a decisiveness in her manner. So don’t you be fooled by her sweet disposition 😉 This woman, my dear friends, is a PILLAR of strength, as is most lately evidenced by the way she managed to pack essentials and wrap up everything here, in the absence of hubby.

So this post is for my cousin Sheroo, people. I’m probably going to miss her more than I realise. I’ll miss sharing the common experience of being fellow Karachiites, beset by the same problems, besieged by the same environment. I’ll miss her at our annual Eid get-togethers and I’ll miss her at family weddings. I’ll miss witnessing Sal and Zee grow.

But I’m thrilled for her, and judging by the mysteriously new gleam in her eye………I’m convinced she’s thrilled too. 🙂

The Visit.

She stood outside the door, waiting, knowing they would recognize her customary thrice-rung bell. It struck her vaguely, that she was actually coming home. This used to be home once, fifteen years in the surreal past.

It was taking longer than usual, so she wondered if they were there, until she heard a muffled but distinctly exasperated voice from within.

‘Open the door, my hands aren’t clean!!’

A striding sound, accompanied by the thump of a walking stick, and the door was flung open. She still isn’t used to the long white beard that greets her now and ushers her in.

‘Come sit, she’s trying out a new recipe.’  Thump, stride, thump. He was in the middle of his daily ritual of getting some exercise by walking through all the rooms of the house, for half an hour. She tells her it actually takes him about an hour to do this, the walk is peppered with intervals of rest.

She was sitting at the table in her nightie, and it is 7:30 in the evening. There is a sedentary energy in the way she’s busy mixing dough and explaining excitedly how she’s been meaning to try out a recipe for savoury flat crisp ‘puris’ to go with the potato curry. Deja vu?

She wandered off into an empty room to change into a t-shirt and tie up her hair, and get down to the real purpose of her visit. Be the cleaning lady.

They had a maid for many many years, who came in every day to clean the house, and cook wonderful food before leaving in the afternoon, to return to her own home somewhere near the old harbour. She had seen two girls grow up in this house, get married…and leave. She didn’t speak much, just went about her work quietly, and the years went by and her bones grew weary and her heart grew weak. She could no longer climb onto a bus, get off, and walk the short distance to the house. It was time to retire, but they didn’t forget her, and sent a bit of money her way for a few years until they heard the news that she had passed, that her heart had peacefully stopped beating one day.

There had never been another maid in that house, and they decided there never would be, despite many protestations by the girls. How would they manage, this aging couple, without anyone to help with the housework? But there never had been a more stubborn set of Capricorns, and they dug in their heels and swore to protect their privacy till push came to shove.

A push might not be such a good idea, she thought, as she surveyed the surroundings, and thought of the day before when she had just dropped in for a long overdue visit to find a big broken frame in the hall, lying in the debris of broken glass. They looked on helplessly, as she got to work clearing up the mess, disposing of the jagged shards of glass and taking apart the frame.

‘God sent you to us today because he knew we were at a loss,’ she said, as her man sat down on a chair to help with the dismantling. She smiles and rolls her eyes, but is painfully aware they’re both over seventy, and it isn’t so easy to bend anymore. Every job has to be thought about twice, and either abandoned for a future date, or delegated to the Man Friday.

And when Man Friday is not around, like now, then the girls descend, like angels of mercy.

The broken frame led to vacuuming the whole room, emptying the contents of the vacuum cleaners innards, unblocking the obstruction that caused poor suction power, and a general assessment of what more needs to be cleaned. So here she was then, surveying the disrepair, feeling a bit overwhelmed but deciding to take it one thing at a time.

She opened a cabinet and saw the old cookers, once used prolifically for making delicious stews and curries, and the big pots that brought back memories of many a hearty biryani. All lying unused now, for who needs to cook large quantities anymore when there’s only two people left in the house?

She cleared the old dining table and dusted the sideboard, catching a glimpse of her, with her back to the doorway, sitting at the ancient desk….once a piece to be proud of, now a battered relic, decades of use under its folding hood, crammed with files and records and letters and certificates. An oil painting hung askew on the wall above the desk, something she had painted…when…? Thirty years? Forty years ago?

The house is full of them. It is full of the things that have made up the backdrop of such a huge chunk of their lives, and it is hard to see it all get old, and dusty, and worn-out. They kept it all together, didn’t they. They don’t believe in replacing anything…just keep fixing what you have, that’s the way to go.

So she’s here now… helping to do just that.

And she cleaned all the surfaces. and she helped warm up the food, the puris were fried, and they set the table with some old and some new crockery, and the three of them sat down for a delicious meal, an all-too-rare occasion nowadays.

Then she washed all the dishes and put them away, kissed the two goodbye…. and drove off, with a promise in her heart, into the world that she made for herself. A world at the corner of which she made a minor transgression by breaking a traffic signal in her haste, only to be let go by the most unlikely-looking candidate for a kindly cop with just a good-natured warning. No fine.

Good karma, you think?

A trip to the North (part-2)

I didn’t divulge too many details in my previous post about the Shigar Fort Residence, where we stayed for the three memorable days we spent in Shigar, because I was saving them for this piece that I’m setting out to write/showcase. The photos should speak for themselves as far as the guesthouse is concerned, but the picture wouldn’t be complete without a historical perspective. So here goes…

”The original Shigar Fort Palace was known as Fong-Khar, which in the local Balti language means, ‘Palace on the Rock’. Raised on a rocky pinnacle at the foot of the Karakoram Mountains, a part of the Himalaya, it was built in the early 17th century by Raja Hassan Khan, the 20th ruler of the Amacha Dynasty. It remained the home for 33 generations of the Amacha Dynasty until the latter day Rajas lost their wealth and grandeur and the Palace started to fall into disrepair.

pictures on a wall of restorative work in progress…

It was not until the mid 20th century that the Amacha family finally abandoned their ancient home, electing to build a modern palace in a more accessible position. In 1999, the reigning Raja of Shigar, Sahib Mohammad Ali Shah Saba, bequeathed the Fort to the people of Baltistan, while the Aga Khan Trust for Culture undertook the daunting task of restoring it. After five years of painstakingly researched traditional construction and embellishment, and at a cost of $1.4 million USD, the Fort was finally restored to its former glory; every detail of its architecture and decoration having been reconstructed as an exact copy of the original.


the main building


Thanks to the AKTC, the local community only stands to gain from the promotion of tourism. Using local labour and skills generates income within the people of Shigar and facilitates their training and education in the tourism industry.

But the best thing that could happen is that the reincarnated hotel has set an example for a novel form of tourism (in Pakistan at least) where the appreciation for a living culture has been beautifully juxtaposed with the preservation of an ancient heritage, since it doubles as both a museum AND a luxury hotel. Past meets present amid the creature comforts of a modern world.


the entrance area with the souvenir shop



the facade



The rock on which Fong Khar is goes down 50 feet into the ground. Massive.



Huz and Shabbir, the Karachi-educated, Balti Sufi tour guide (on the right)


We were given a grand tour by a polite and friendly guide by the name of Shabbir. He was a local Balti, but we were surprised to learn that we had something in common with him as he had lived in Karachi for some time when he went to college there. His job here was to show us around the main heritage building and talk to us about history, religion, the architecture of Fong-Khar and the art and craft that embellished it. Huz was fascinated to learn that Shabbir was a practising Sufi, and that most of the local people upheld a Naqshbandi Sufic belief system.


the outdoor barbecue area, with seating under grapevines



inside the heritage building



the museum part of the heritage building




detail of some fine wood carving on a beam



a room fit for a Raja



a royal view...from the palace balcony.



Amu reported a significant drop in temperature after entering the massive trunk of this 400-yr old maple tree, one of the main features of the garden. there are 4 people standing inside!



the kids (and the grownups) had a BRILLIANT time picking cherries in the palace cherry orchard!



Poplars....they were everywhere!



clover shelves...



Amu and the...lilies..?..irises..? Anyways, they matched beautifully 🙂



the converted barn/ a quaint restaurant



we explored every inch of the place, and as you can probably tell, we THRIVED in this idyll 🙂



...and welcomed the surprise evening drizzle and accompanying chill with the joy experienced only by those who have escaped the brutal summer of Karachi....:)


(All the pictures have been taken by me, the author of this blog)

A trip to the North (part-1)

Last summer(May-June ’09) we took a trip up north with my cousin Sheroo+hubby and kids. First stop was Islamabad, and from there onwards to the Shigar valley in Baltistan (Land of Mountains)

But first we had to cross the ruggedly majestic mountain ranges, in the little PIA plane….

eye level with the Karakoram Range, an arm extension of the Himalayan mountains
the roof of the world!


finally some green amidst the gray and brown-ness...


can you see the runway?

..until we arrived at the valley of Skardu.

We got off the plane awe-struck. Coming from the flat coastal plain of Sindh, mountainous landscape such as we had just witnessed made Sheroo and I a tad weepy at the sheer glory of it all. The Karakoram was, after all, just a stone’s throw away, and we DID happen to be in the neighbourhood of some of the highest peaks of the world.

From the airport we were driven in a small coaster past Skardu, which is the capital of Baltistan, and a major hub for mountaineers on their way to climb K-2 or the Gasherbrums. The road was long, but the landscape was breathtaking and the air was fragrant with the scent of trees. We absorbed everything, while chatting with a Canadian couple and an Austrian man who travelled to Shigar with us.

ta-da! landed safely at Skardu airport.

Huz, just outside the gate of the Shigar fort Hotel.


the reception area is a quaint balcony that overlooks some spectacular scenery. we were served a refreshing red sherbet upon arrival.


the facade of the main palace building, that houses the heritage rooms (the king, the queen, the princes and the princesses) and the museum of artefacts

the view from our rooms; a 'bara-dari' with marble bases dating back to a long time ago. so peaceful.


The Shigar Fort Hotel turned out to be as beautiful as we had expected, but eager to start exploring the surroundings, we walked down to the village to see for ourselves the girls school set up by Greg Mortensen (of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ fame). We were followed by little local kids. They were beautiful and rosy-cheeked, an endearing combination of friendly yet shy.

cute lil Balti girl, who was jogging downhill with her brother on her back 🙂 i asked if i could take her picture and she smiled shyly and agreed, but then asked for some money! "paisa de do" she said. so i gave her 5 rupees.


marching down to the village...
some of the village girls, giggling at us, wondering what we were doing in their school
in the wheatfields of the valley of Shigar..


When we returned, it was too dark to really explore the hotel, so we freshened up, had a nice dinner in the quaint hotel restaurant (a converted horse stable), absorbed the refreshing chill of our first night in Shigar, and went to bed soon after.

The next day we walked down to the river. It was a good long walk, but the kids were sporty about it. Over the bridge….

Gulabpur bridge. (yes! it had a name!)
Amu and Sal walking carefully down to the water's edge.


….and under the bridge ran the silt-laden river, glacial water straight off the surrounding mountains. Painfully cold.

The expedition was followed up by lunch in a village restaurant that was largely non-operational due to the fact that it wasn’t tourist season yet. But they managed to conjure up some chicken curry and daal and mixed vegetables for us. We munched cookies while we waited, and didn’t forget to share some with the little village kids who seemed to have adopted us for the day.


Skinny jeans, trendy tops, layered haircuts, lipgloss. Waxing, threading, shaving, plucking. Puberty, adolescence, hormones.

Cell phones, Facebook, texting, MSN, girlfriends. Boys? Maybe.

I think I have freaked out at the idea of Amu growing up since she was born. It has been only 12 years since then, but it’s staggering to think of the sheer GROWTH that has taken place. My baby transformed slowly but inexorably in front of my very eyes, and there was nothing I could do to hold on to her precious childhood, except take hordes of photos and videos, and save almost every drawing she ever made.

When I think of myself at the age of 12, what comes to mind is an embarrassingly awkward phase. Puberty would hit 2 years later, so I was still rather ‘ungroomed’, and the few photos of myself in the family albums are glaringly testament to that hairy fact. Reminding myself that it WAS the 80’s is small consolation for having hated most of the clothes in my wardrobe, which I admit consisted of a lot of hand-me-downs. It also didn’t help my self esteem much that I was rather low on the ladder of, ahem.. physical development, as compared to others in my peer group.

I feel a twinge of astonishment that it has been 25 years since I was 12. Some of my memories from those days are appallingly fresh, and yes, it does sometimes feel startlingly like yesterday…

I can’t help drawing parallels between my daughter and I, even though it is apparent to me that she is a product of a completely different environment and a completely different set of rules from the ones that I was brought up with. My parents were an odd combination of liberal-thinking and deep-rooted conservatism with a touch more of the latter than the former. It was enough to make me a somewhat rebellious teenager (compared to my older sisters), a trait that has had a hard time reconciling itself to cultural and societal norms as I grew up, married, and became a parent myself.

Someone said, giving birth to your daughter is like giving birth to your own best friend.

Friend or alter ego, I’m not quite sure. But these days as I watch my awkward little daughter blossom into this pretty young lady, I am vicariously pleased by how very different she is from myself. I’m secretly thrilled when she tells me people think she looks like me, though I myself fail to see the resemblance, especially when I recall how I looked and behaved at her age. She has poise and perfect teeth, at least five pairs of jeans in different shades of denim, and a professional haircut, all the things I never had.

When I was 12, I went to an all-girl school. There were no cell phones nor internet, and computer studies had just been introduced as a subject. It was the age of Enid Blyton and Archie comics, playing badminton and pitthoo and riding bicycles in the enclosed armed forces apartment complex where we lived. Orange ice lollies cost two rupees, and so did a packet of chilli chips. I made friends with boys my own age, who raced their bikes with me and hung out at the communal ‘hangout’ till 11 o clock in the night on weekends. I also heard the f word for the first time, didn’t quite grasp what it meant and didn’t much care. I was too busy imagining myself being married to the utterly handsome but oblivious ‘Chuckie’, my 16 yr old crush, or being jealous of the beautiful and rather ‘developed’ K, who had a lot of people falling madly in love and recording mixed tapes for her. My sister Fatu was my arch-enemy in those days, and Sax, my closest confidante. Angst was not knowing exactly how well-liked I was in school within my group, which in retrospect I think made me try too hard.

Yesterday after picking up Amu from a farewell party for a friend whose parents had decided to go away from the madness that our country has become, she seemed troubled about something. She wouldn’t tell me what was bothering her at first, but as she talked about the party, it made me aware of the dynamics in her peer group. I found myself spiralling back into my own past and my own issues with friends from school, fitting in, and being popular. It dawned on me that Amu might be genetically programmed to be as averse to affiliating herself with any ‘groups’ as I was.

I don’t want to draw parallels. I want things to be different for her, easier. I want her to be all the things I wasn’t, do all the things I couldn’t. Then again, I wish she could have some of the things I had, the lack of gadgets, the simple pleasure of not having so much choice, a country without terrorists and fewer cars on the roads. Mostly though, I hope she remembers being 12 as vividly as I do when she is my age.

A chronicle of neighbourly times

I was roused from a dreamless, fidgety, power-cut-induced-sweaty nap in the late afternoon, by the throb of an idling diesel engine under my first floor bedroom window. Unknown voices were shouting instructions in Sindhi, accompanied by the sound of heavy objects being dragged and dropped onto the metallic platform of the back of a pickup truck. It was the unmistakable commotion of someone moving out, and I peeked from behind the blinds to get a clue to who it might be…and felt that weird stomach-lurching sensation of something resembling sadness as I realised who it was.

We were the first ones to inhabit the new ground-plus 2 apartment building, with a beige exterior and white painted balconies, on a hill in old Clifton.  More people moved in a month or two later, a 30-something bachelor-type with six cats and great taste in music in the apartment directly above ours, a couple with two boys on the ground floor, an Iranian family (who didn’t speak a word of Urdu or English) on the second floor, a pretty, friendly yet annoying woman, with husband and two kids in tow, into one of the penthouses on the top floor; the apartment diagonally across from ours was first taken up by a family with lots of kids under the age of 8. They moved out a year later, and after a few months a new family moved in. We’d see them sometimes getting in or out of their car in the parking lot downstairs, and got to know them as a friendly young couple with a very adorable little son.

They were both originally from Lahore and Islamabad and had come to Karachi soon after getting married as Osman (the husband) got a job in a multinational based here. Leena (the wife) was a stay-at-home mom, who had her hands pretty much full with their almost 3 yr old toddler, Abdullah. The trio made up a rosy-cheeked, happy little family and I was glad and relieved to have such nice neighbours. They had quaint manners, and always spoke with a good-natured politeness whenever I ran into them on the staircase.

The politeness blended into a neighbourly friendship as Leena came over bearing a plate of  homemade ‘zarda’. I’m not a big fan of this dish of sweet, nutty yellow rice, and the one made by Leena was frankly pretty bad as zardas go; but I invited her and a very shyly smiling Abdullah in, and over the next half hour or so, as we got to know each other a bit better, I felt an instant kinship with her. She was a lot like me in many ways, very do-it-yourself, completely unglamorous, chatty and prone to punctuating self-disclosures with fits of giggles. I think she felt a bit lonely sometimes, as she didn’t know a lot of people here and she worried about her sister and father in Lahore who were alone after her mother passed away.

Abdullah had apparently just learned to talk, so it was only a matter of time before he opened up. At first he was happy to cling to his mom’s kameez and stand close by or sit on her lap. He got bolder with every successive visit though, and soon enough he had explored each room in the house in search of my elusive cat, examined every DVD on the shelf (and torn some covers off in his enthusiasm), flung some books around with the joy of familiarity in ‘Muinyya Aunty’s’ house….and he was fascinated by Amu, whom he inexplicably called ‘Bhai’. After that first visit, Leena claimed Abdullah was a huge fan of Muinyya Aunty and Bhai, and always pointed to our door on his way home and told his mom he wanted to go ‘there’; sometimes he would wake up in the morning and say he had dreamt of Muinyya Aunty and so it was very important for his mom to bring him over. I was immensely flattered, as I had never had the adoration of a 3-yr old before…..apart from Amu, though I’m not too sure about that (maybe little boys are more affectionate than little girls).

All buildings need a formal or informal committee to run it, and this includes regular maintenance and upkeep, paying and keeping an eye on the chowkidars and the sweepers, making sure that we all had a regular water supply, and resolving any other issues that arose. A lot of  friendships sprung up and were torn down within our committee, largely due to a couple of unpleasant incidents that led to an atmosphere of resentment and suspicion in the microcosm that is our building, and I would need to write a whole other blog about those. More than a year had gone by but Osman and Leena kept a low profile through it all, until it was time for them to pitch in too when things just fell apart, and Leena agreed to look after the accounts. It was then that I realised she had a good head for calculations and a sharp eye for irregularities that was in complete contrast to her roly-polyness.

Things seemed to stabilise again, and it seemed the worst was behind us until one day Leena turned up at our doorstep and let us know that she and Abdullah were leaving for Lahore for a month or two and that she wouldn’t be able to handle the accounts anymore. She was vague about reasons and attempted to laugh away our concerns, but my sixth sense told me something was amiss. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more to her abrupt departure, and that too without Osman. After a few weeks she let us know by email that she probably wouldn’t be coming back, and she would greatly appreciate our discretion in not asking why. We understood immediately.

It wasn’t as if we met all that often, but I missed Leena’s unobtrusive presence. We didn’t see much of Osman either anymore, but we knew he’d lost a dramatic amount of weight after a tryst with hepatitis-A. His status updates on Facebook were forlorn verses of Sufi poetry, full of loneliness and loss, and the money plant outside their door wilted and eventually died.

Discretion is inhibiting, and several months went by… and I never wrote to Leena. Osman moved out today, and I’m left wondering if I’ll ever see them again.