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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Birthday post

December rolls around, bringing with it an end to the 39th year of my existence. Ta-da! It’s my birthday today, and I thought I should mark the occasion on my blog, considering it has been such a big part of me this year.

So what happened in the bubble?

Last year around this time, Amu was still a part of the shuttle bus system and Karachi was coping with terrorism that had begun to target schools. I wrote about it in ‘Of insecurity, kids, a school bus and responsibility’.

Who’d have thought the shuttle bus stint would come to such a disastrous end, with a falling-out between myself and my fellow coordinators coinciding with escalating trouble in the city which rendered the bus service too risky for the school to take responsibility for….

And so the beginning of Amu’s 9th school year saw us coping with the lawless traffic of Saddar in new ways…

Highlights of the year have been a renovated bathroom and our junkyard of an office/study has finally been converted into a bright and cosy sitting room.

the infamous Zahooran 🙂

I wrote about being maid-less in Karachi and living to tell the tale and getting someone to cook for me for a change, when Zahooran left. Happily, there was no need for a transition and Zahooran returned after almost three months of being away. She is a very important person in my life, as without her I would never have the time to do any of the fun things I do. Recently I have started to pay her extra to make chapatis for us for lunch, and she obliges most happily.

The cook didn’t last long, as his cooking didn’t agree with Huz’s tummy (too much oil and garam masala, despite daily admonishing)

If you started following my stories just a few months ago you’d know about my alleged cat allergies but may not be acquainted with my Fuzzy cat. He’s a big (and annoying) part of our lives so it makes sense for you to know a bit more about him — he turned four this year 🙂

As far as cell phones go, quite a few have come and gone these last two years and it made me very sad to lose my Nokia X3 in March. Thankfully, I had a new phone by the time I was forced to face my travel jitters and could be in touch with Huz while we were in Tanzania that same month, and I’m happy to report that it is the end of the year and I haven’t lost/dropped/had-it-stolen yet.

Travelling to Tanzania and going on a safari were truly the most spectacular highlights of this year, and I put together a few photo-rich blog posts in The place and the people, The streets of Dar es Salam, The road to Mikumi part-1, The road to Mikumi part-2, and Mikumi itself.

I still haven’t written much about actually ‘being’ in the wildlife reserve and spending a night there…I don’t know why. I really should!

Having had the opportunity to take lots of pictures in Africa, (some of them pretty good ones if I may take the liberty of saying so myself) prompted me to start a new blog altogether (MunZooms) one that simply showcased one or two photos per post. I have also been compiling my historical blog (Days of Yore) post by slow post, with my parents as the key figures. And the collective effect of all these various blogs has meant there hasn’t been a single day without any hits, whether I published something or not!

I do attribute that to some clever tagging, but one consequence of that has been to make me reflect very seriously on the sheer absurdity of the kind of things people google!

Nevertheless, I’d like to thank all of you who have made it a point to visit me this year, put me on your blogroll, subscribed to my blog, read what I had to say and left me your thoughtful friendly comments. I am so grateful for your appreciation and feedback. This virtual interaction has been the most glowing highlight of blogging this past year, more substantial even than being Freshly Pressed….not that I have ever been, so I wouldn’t really know. 😛

If not for the compulsion to use my blog as a sort of journal, It would seem to me that this year has passed in a blur. I know it hasn’t, but as I say in my description, my brain DOES fail me on a short term basis.

I have been very gainfully employed all year methinks, though not at all in a remunerative sense. I DID make an oil pastel sketch on canvas for a friend though (that was NOT free) and it now hangs in her newly decorated sitting room, something that makes me feel rather happy when I visit her.

I’ve read some good books. I’ve got back in touch with some very old friends, made new ones, fell out with a couple, made up again. I’ve laughed and cried and been utterly confused very often and realized a lot of things.

There have been some quiet triumphs and a few silent regrets, some disappointments as well as validations. There’s been lots of growing, many many conversations and lots and lots of music. It makes me tremendously happy to know that I got Single Malt Monkey hooked to Coke Studio!

There have been falooda quests and kebab hunts. There has been a major amount of daydreaming. There have been a few consistent spells of exercise too. I have swung from moments of being rather proud of myself, to feeling downright ashamed of myself.

So many posts written, so many blogs followed and read, so many lives glimpsed into, so much of myself shared.

It is not a very lively time of year, it being Muharram. Also I’m still recovering from the flu. But it marks the beginning of a watershed year for me, crossing over into the 40’s. Am wondering if I’ll finally feel more ‘grown up’. Am wondering if I’ll finally be approved for who I am than who I most certainly am NOT.

Perhaps it is time to focus my energies on something else. I know I have procrastinated long enough. Perhaps the bubble has finally burst. Or perhaps it is time to redefine it.

Someone recently expressed their disbelief at my being almost 39 the other day (which I took as a compliment) then remarked…..nothing keeps you younger than being loved by a lot of people.  Indeed, I have felt very loved of late 🙂

I shall leave you for now with this very awesome cool song by Coldplay, from their new album. I heard it on Jango one day and it got stuck in my head. Loved it so much, I played it first thing in the morning for a week. I don’t know why it moved me. I didn’t even know the lyrics until yesterday. Maybe I’m just being silly, but I feel as if this song has caused a shift in my very paradigm.

And a friend posted this poem on her wall yesterday.

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places,
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“hurry, you will be dead before —–”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
or the end of the poem, is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!…..
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the Sun!

[by May Sarton]

Funny thing,  poetry. I’ve never been big on it. Yet sometimes someone will say something that will just resonate in some cobwebby place, and all one can do is nod.

The ‘Yes! I like this!’ blog award goes to….

I’m tickled pink, not to mention terribly flattered and honoured to have received this today:

Yippee!! Thank you once again Alan (aka Single Malt Monkey) for deeming me a deserving recipient 🙂

The rules of this particular award were as follows:

1. Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
2. Share seven random facts about yourself.
3. Pass the award along to 15 deserving blog buddies.
4. Contact those buddies to congratulate them.

Okay, so the first one is taken care of. Now to share seven random facts about myself…*cough* This won’t be easy, but…..here goes….
1. When I was in my teens, I was struck by a strange feeling of regret as I contemplated the notion that I’ll never get to meet all the gazillions of people co-habiting planet Earth with me. It actually made my heart sink.
2. These days I’m seriously thinking about trying out each and every recipe from my new Potato  Cookbook that I bought for a bargain price of Rs 250 from a second-hand bookshop. (it’s in great shape too!) We’re talking 240 recipes, my friend. Have already made three things from it, a) spanish tortilla; b) hash browns; c) potato and mixed vegetable salad with lemon mayonnaise. They all turned out great, though I varied some of the ingredients according to availability..
3. I love that my ability and penchant for writing led me to blogging, an avenue for sharing my thoughts, rants and experiences with so many people OTHER than my immediate circle of acquaintance. I have a greater sense of community here than in my real life…
4. I think my personality encourages people to confide in me. Sometimes a tad more than they should…
5. Animals are my favourite people. Especially kittens and puppies.
6. If there is something I wish for more than anything, it is to live in a world where there is no need to have a system of beliefs…
7. I am more comfortable in the virtual world than the real world.
Phew. I think my random facts aren’t as random as I’d like them to be.
Moving on!
Goody, here comes the fun part.This is where I pass the award along to 15 deserving blog buddies. Admittedly, some of them can’t be considered ‘buddies’, so let’s just say they’re bloggers whose blogs I have subscribed to thus far in my blogging career, and/or whose sites I find myself drawn to perusing. Some of them I love because they’re just a pleasure to read. Others are great because I learn something from them…still others inject some humour into my day or provide beautiful images that inspire me to pick up my camera as well. Whatever the case, these are my besties, so by all means give them a look-see…
1. Single Malt Monkey, I mention him first as it is because of him I’m passing on the award 🙂 SMM is a multi-talented person, currently dabbling in painting, but who loves poetry and literature, photography, and believe it or not, actually makes guitars. Needless to say, he’s big on music too AND…he’s been FP’ed a few times.
2. H is for Happiness. I am so glad Harsha stumbled across my blog, and that I was led to hers as a consequence. H, as I call her, lives in Goa and has the dubious distinction of being my blogger soul sister. She loves to re-read her favourite books, plays cricket with her gorgeous son Ishaan, and laments the fact that Goa is such a darned tourist attraction! She is an amazing photographer, and loves Nature with a passion.
3. Gathering-just-a-bit-o moss is where my infinitely better half attempts not to make too little or too much sense. I have the right to reserve judgment on whether he makes ANY sense at all, nevertheless (and I’m not biased when I say) the guy is an incredibly kooky poet, loves to mock things in a seemingly intellectually subversive way (esp Sufism) and believes in keeping things short and sweet. ‘Nuff said.
4. Free Range , is Susan Orlean’s blog at The New Yorker where she muses about encounters in places with people and things. Including chickens. She’s a professional of course, and needs no publicity by me of all people, but I love her blog and want to share her with all of you.
5. Hortophile-My new garden blogs about…you guessed it…her garden. It is truly an awesome one. The woman has a seriously green thumb and believes in environmental responsibility…..and common sense. Not only do I learn a lot, I feel good just looking at her pictures and reading about the things she does. Very inspiring indeed.
6. Indigo Violet’s Blog is where you’ll find my ADHD friend Aarti. Found her through Harsha’s blog and really enjoy her rambling style, not to mention her psychological insights, her love for her multitudinous pets, and yes, her kooky sense of humour , conveyed amply by her choice of images. To know more about her, read her ‘About Indigo’…..the girl has joie de vivre!
7. The class factotum speaks, and this too as mostly staccato conversations with her husband. In her own words, she is ‘a gold digging, bon bon eating, soap opera watching housewife who lives off her wonderful used husband: Serious Honey, aka The Engineer.’
8. Open Lotus Garden wonders how much positive impact a single garden can make. A very inspiring and encouraging blog, not to mention wonderfully uplifting.
9.Not So Spanish is one of the most consistently cute blogs I have come across on WordPress. Rea writes about being a Canadian mom in Spain, her two kids and her husband and the funny things she sees around her adopted country. Amazingly dry sense of humour and wit. Love it!
10. Kristen Lamb’s Blog once again, needs no publicity, but if you’re a blogger/writer/social media fan, you seriously need to check out her blog. Great style, great advice, highly useful.
(holy crap! 5 more to go!)
11. Emjayandthem’s Blog. Ok, MJ is relatively new on my blogroll but I love her already. She is responsible for introducing me to the best pancake recipe EVER, but not only that, she missed Diana at the royal wedding as much as I did. I think I found her through Single Malt Monkey’s blog. Don’t you just love serendipity?
12. Mehreen Kasana. How could I forget her? She’s the funniest writer/doodler in the Pakistani blogosphere! The girl is rather famous already and needs no publicity, nevertheless, she  must be introduced to the uninitiated. She doesn’t post very often, but I make it a point to check what she’s been up to every once in a while.
13. Kala Kawa In his own words, he’s no expert. He just watches, reports…and bashes. Very good basher too! And a prominent member of the Pakistani twitterati. Very entertaining indeed.
14. The Karachi Walla will tell you anything you want to know and anywhere you want to go in The City by the Sea. Found him by chance while searching for pictures on the web, wondered who he was, and recently learned the world is a very small place indeed……I think he definitely deserves some publicity 🙂
15. Xeemarmar…..one of those blogs I just HAVE to visit, since it is co-written by two very lively and intelligent ladies from my hometown/community 🙂 The name is derived from Zimmarmar, a mountain in Yemen, a place held dear by both the writers for similar reasons….
Congratulations to all of you who won!! I shall now proceed to let you all know how amazingly lucky you are and bring your attention to this post unless you’re one of those intelligent few who had the good sense to subscribe to my blog.
Writing this has been such fun. It made me think about why I appreciate all of you as much as I do, and left me with a warm glowy feeling inside. I’m sure y’all feel the radiations….don’tcha? Don’tcha??
 Wokay then, time to publish this.

Me? Work? Uh…

It has now been a few months over a year since I started blogging, and as usual, I let an anniversary go by unmarked. Couldn’t be bothered to make a fuss I suppose.

I can’t really recall why I started this blog, only that Huz egged me into it. It’s not that I think of myself as a big fat writer or anything. Just big and fat perhaps. But that’s probably my body dysmorphia manifesting itself…

I guess I started writing to have something to do with my time. Not that I’m an idle person, that wouldn’t be true…

I do a lot of stuff that doesn’t exactly have anything to do with ‘making a living’. Which makes me wonder, is making a living the only thing that substantiates one’s life? What gives a ‘working’ person superiority over a ‘non-working’ person? Does the fact that I’m a ‘non-working’ person make me, in fact, a ‘non-working’ person?

‘What is it that you do?’, I’m often asked, and frankly, this question always stumps me. I usually start babbling some nonsense or other so as to baffle the questioner, when all I really want to do is punch the person in the face. The reason, I suppose, is because I hate being categorized. I don’t want to be one thing or another. Just because I’m someone’s wife and don’t go out to work doesn’t make me a ‘housewife’.

Yes, I am a wife. Yes, I am a mom. No, I don’t have a job. But a lady of leisure? Hell no.

I digress from my original train of thought, but I find I have ventured into saying something else that needs to be said. But I’ll get back to that later. First, let me make the point I was trying to make.

No, I’m not an aspiring writer. I just did well in English Language at school, and enjoyed writing essays. A lot. And I enjoyed reading. A lot.

So I’m doing now, what I used to love doing when I was way younger, and with no desire to take it any further than what and where it is. Does that make me unambitious?

I’m really glad to have a bunch of people (you guys who’re reading this!) who read what I have to say….some of you respond to me and leave a comment, or ‘like’ what I write, which gratifies me no end.

But writing this blog had nothing to do with ‘improving’ myself, or my style of writing or whatever. I just said what I felt needed to be said. Nothing earth-shattering or anything. Just, you know, stuff that I felt like articulating somewhere convenient. So, if a friend tells me, ‘Hey, I like your blog…you’ve really improved from the stuff you wrote earlier’, I’m left with mixed feelings. On the one hand I feel warm and fuzzy….on the other, I feel kinda let down.

I never wrote to be judged for my writing. Any comments like that just leave me feeling hollow, and a bit offended. I never asked for an opinion!

Then again, isn’t that what a blog is about? Aren’t my musings up for inspection?

Phew, okay now, my point has been made. See? Nothing earth-shattering at all.

So to get back to that other train of thought, no, I don’t consider myself to be a ‘housewife’. And I’m definitely not an ‘aunty’, though that’s what Amu’s friends call me, something that took a while getting used to. Does that mean I’m in denial?

I won’t bother answering that, and neither should you, if you know what’s good for you 😉

The fact is, there are a lot of things I do, which I don’t let anyone else do for me. I cook, I drive, I wash, I sew, I garden, I move heavy furniture, I paint, I write, I visit, I do groceries, and a whole bunch of things that glue our tiny little household together. And through all these things that I do (that I don’t get paid for…but I should!) I try to find time to do some fun things too. I get tired though. I love my alone time. I like to sit some place quiet and just…think. Look at my plants. Admire the sky. Think of ways to prettify the house. I don’t always appreciate being invited out, because it makes me stop doing all the things I do to pay attention to how I look, my hair, my clothes, my face, and it makes me think, life is a lot of work.

It makes me think, one works, just to stay on top of things, and in the end is known only as someone who doesn’t….you know….’work’.

The darndest things!

Here are some of the top searches on the worldwide web that led people to my blog. They’re so strange I don’t even know what to say :p

1. bean bag sofa bed in karachi.

2. maid ruins clothes.

3. tofiq pasha email address.

4. bubble shading device.

5. pani puri cause IBS

6. neighbors cat shredded his carpet so he now lets cat roam neighborhood. cat is constantly on my patio. found him on table. he might have used it for litter box. owner angry when asked to keep cat off my patio. help!

7. hopeless sad

8. munira ka ghagra

9. are there any gorgeous women in heera mandi

10. garfield cooking lasagne

11. place to live without clothes in karachi

12. how do you say my body hasn’t trained in a long time in spanish

13. abdullah shah ghazi prostitutes

14. munira aunty  ——> ( :p )

15. lady home cook in karachi

16. garfield stolen lasagne

17. surefire way to trap male cat peeing on our deck

18. song got one hand in my pocket and the other holding up a peace sign

Yeh hum nahin, log kehtey hain. Great stuff people. Keep it coming :p

The Jitters.

Huz must travel to Tanzania for work, and I figure it’s about time I tagged along. After all, I’ve never been to the Dark Continent, whereas Huz has been to Ghana, Gambia, Togo, Senegal, Malawi, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, and I forget which other African countries, and I confess….I’m finally curious enough to want to go see for myself what all the fuss is about.

Amu and I have travelled with Huz, (to places like the Maldives and Lebanon..very exotic I know!) but only because the opportunities to do so happened to coincide with school holidays. This time though, it is different. This time we’re leaving Amu behind with my mother and going off on our own, bang in the middle of the school year….a hitherto unimaginable prospect!

The nitty-gritties have been taken care of, thanks to the support and help of a friend/neighbour who has most kindly agreed to pick and drop to the school bus, and my lovely mom who has volunteered to stay with Amu and Fuzzy while we’re gone.  It’s going to be very strange and worrying, but I’ve put up lists with instructions all over the house, so hopefully they’ll manage okay. Mumtaz will come and clean, and the cook will take care of the cooking. All Mom has to do is make sure Amu gets up and goes to school in the morning, and keep the front door locked….(okay I’m simplifying A LOT!) But I still can’t believe we’re actually going to be travelling together, just Huz and I, for the first time since we honeymooned in Turkey 15 years ago. It’s going to be weird, and I know I’m going to miss Amu quite a bit, but I think it’s important to do this. Amu needs to learn to get by without us, and what better time to do so than the year she turned 13?

The passports have been renewed, yellow fever vaccinations injected into our bloodstreams, and travel clothes have been decided on, the trickiest part about travelling for me. I have yet to start packing, but I have all of today to do it.

What’s important is, I got a haircut yesterday and am glad to report it has certainly added a bounce to my tresses, not to mention my step, very important when one is struck by wanderlust…

Though it’s exciting to be travelling to faraway lands, I can’t help feeling jittery about the usual stuff. I find myself thinking about how to deal in case of a plane crash mid-ocean. Will I remember to curl up into a foetal position when/if the plane crashes into the water? Will I get the chance to pull the string on the inflatable jacket thingy before I drown? If I’m yanked out of a jagged hole in the plane’s fuselage and get injured and bleed, how soon before the sharks get me? Will I manage to grab Huz’s hand as I make my way to the surface, or….(to give chivalry it’s due)…vice-versa…?

Apart from the probability of dying of untoward plane crashes, I still hate flying and wish there was a better way of getting from point A to point B. I hate being horribly sleepy yet unable to fall asleep. Airplane seats are most discomfiting and I’m usually fidgety and edgy until we’ve landed safely, wherever it is we’re going. I hope ‘The Diaries of Jane Somers’ keeps me happy as I resign myself to my situation.

But I’m looking forward to the trip, for what I’ll get to see, and smell, and taste once I get there….fresh stuff to blog about! It’ll be a good break from the bubble. I think it might even teach me to be less of a control freak, if I manage to stop worrying about how everyone’s faring at home and if I remembered to pack everything I could possibly need…

Though Huz has been to Tanzania before and talked about it and ‘tried’ to describe the people and the place, I’m clueless about what to expect. People tell me it’s lovely and quaint and beautiful, though Huz wasn’t too impressed. I think he’s a bit jaded from over exposure 😛 In his defense though, he IS looking forward to seeing my reaction to it all and MY take on things. And he does want me to have a good time!

As for me, I can’t wait to see it with my own eyes. Can’t wait to take lots of pictures. Can’t wait to put it all into words………..only then will it become real for me. And I can’t wait to come back and share it with you guys…..unless I manage to blog from our hotel room 🙂 Fingers crossed firmly!

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 based...it 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/stable...now 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)

My very own terrorists

I have some uninvited guests in my house, but I don’t mind them staying. They have adopted the bamboo trellis in my courtyard as their home and when you look at the picture you will see why.

See the holes in the ends of the bamboo? Perfect.

Apparently, they do not approve of me encroaching on their domain, and I have no intention of disputing their claim. I actually like seeing them buzzing around busily, hovering over the pretty yellow flowers, then zooming off to chase one another in the bright sunshine. They’re unique in their fat, juicy, black plumpness.

Someone once told me a story regarding bumblebees that involved ears being dived into. Needless to say, my first instinct is to clap my hands on both sides of my head and run.

But laundry has to be strung up to dry, and plants need to be watered and tended to, so I try my best to act like I’m not scared. My nonchalance doesn’t fool them, however. They zone in on me like bombers and succeed in chasing me off, tail between my legs, ears firmly sealed (much like the effect created by bats in an earlier post)

I think they just occasionally like to have some fun with me. Usually they’re too busy flying in and out of their holes in a non-aggressive way. I quite like their company when they’re in that mood. They make things more lively 🙂

And I’m hoping they’ll have a good influence on my tomatoes (the ones that stubbornly resist fruiting 😛 )

That woman

When one lives in an apartment building, one comes across a weird mix of the human species and my building is certainly no exception. In an earlier post I mentioned some of the different types of neighbours that co-inhabit my building. One of them is a woman I shall refer to just as ‘the woman’, and in this post I am going to explore the different ways that I CAN’T STAND her.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as friendly and affable as the next Sagittarian, a trait that the woman and I strangely have in common. Then why is it that the sight of her just makes my heart beat faster in a not-so-pleasant way? Methinks it’s the ol fight-or-flight hormone kicking in…

She is in her late twenties, and she is pretty, in a petite pointy way. She has an easy laugh, and bursts out laughing quite frequently during conversations. Every time I used to see her (in the early days before I officially declared hating her guts) I found myself envying her figure, her elegance and the fact that she always looked so well-groomed. She never seemed to have a bad hair day, or to repeat an outfit. Her eyebrows were always perfectly shaped, and her makeup always impeccable. I inwardly groaned every time I ran into her. It’s a girl thing I suppose, but I always found myself failing miserably in a mental comparison between herself and I.

Enough reason to hate her? Read on.

We moved into this building before she did, and we could see that she put in a lot of effort into doing up her house. She seemed to be a perfectionist and wanted everything to be just so. Predisposed as Huz and I are to being friendly, we didn’t mind if the woman dropped in sometimes to say hello or chat about some problem regarding a mason or a carpenter or a plumber. Often, she would want to use the loo, or have a drink of water.

Am I the only one or does anyone else have a problem with strangers walking into their bedroom to use the adjoining bathroom? I may think that I don’t have issues with it, but come to think of it I do. I didn’t feel exactly comfortable with this violation of my privacy at all. For one, we’re pretty messy people. I hear people get judged by these kind of things. It didn’t help that the woman appraised EVERYthing in our house in a way that I felt was a tad nosy. We’re supposed to be a hospitable lot, but some of us have an acute sense of personal space. Point is, it made me uncomfortable.

It didn’t help when she would emerge from my room, venture into the sitting room, plonk herself onto a sofa and ask me to fetch her a glass of water. Of course I don’t mind fetching someone a glass of water, in fact I would go the extra mile and make her a cold glass of lemonade seeing as she had come in from the afternoon heat. Perhaps it was the way she would ask, perhaps it was my insecurity at being caught IN MY OWN HOUSE wearing my pajamas and a grubby t shirt, probably while I had been busy sweating in the kitchen cooking lunch, maybe because my hair was a tangled mess, but I felt a twinge of resentment. It also didn’t help to find Huz chatting agreeably with the woman in the living room, laughing at something she was saying, as I brought her her glass of whatever. I sat down diagonally across from both of them and put in my two-bit during the course of the conversation, and watched as she put down the sweating glass, ignoring the stack of coasters, right on the wood part of the wood and glass coffee table. I also realised, with a mounting sense of confusion, that I was being royally ignored! She had no interest in anything I had to say, and even though I have never witnessed my husband being flirted with, that in fact was my perception of what was happening in front of my very eyes! Was I being insecure? I think I mostly felt amused. But I didn’t quite enjoy the feeling of being invisible. And the only way I could communicate this to Huz was by rolling my eyes at him and pretending to barf when he glanced my way.

Once again, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for giving people the benefit of the doubt, and I wasn’t really miffed at the perceived flirting. Perhaps being more comfortable talking to men is another trait that the woman and I share. After all, women can be scary. Men in contrast are not quite as judgmental as we are.

But there have been many other instances that I have been forced to acknowledge the fact that there is something about this woman that gets under my skin. It’s like ‘There’s Something about Mary’ only with the opposite effect. Instead of being drawn to her, I actually feel the urge to put as much distance between us as I can, a sentiment not shared by the woman it seems.

Ever had the weird feeling that someone calls you a ‘friend’ just so that they could merrily proceed to abuse that friendship? It’s a very toxic feeling. She would often call or message with some request or other. Sometimes she would want to borrow our garden chairs for a party on her rooftop, or the barbecue grill, even before we’d had a chance to use it ourselves. Then there was the time when she was training to become a hair stylist and wanted to bring a friend over to blowdry her hair using our generator during a power cut. I was appalled at this request because I would never even think of imposing on a neighbours space like that. At one time, when most of Karachi had been without electricity for 72 hours during a massive breakdown, she requested to keep some of her things in our fridge so they wouldn’t spoil (we switched on a generator for a few hours every couple of hours) and dropped off her emergency light and her cell phone to charge for her. Often she’d drop in along with her kids to have a chat, on or around dinner time, and of course we would ask her to join us. And I don’t recall a single time being invited over for even a cup of tea. Not that I was dying to hang out with her anyway. Bleh.

Does it sound like reciprocity is important to me? Well, perhaps it is. It just seemed to me there was too much give and not enough take going on around here.

The thing with people like her is, you know you’re being used by them but there’s nothing much you can do about it. It’s like being in a bad movie where situations just aren’t in your control. Despite the fact that I found her increasingly annoying. I couldn’t bring myself to offend her, though I thought my body language and facial expressions should have effectively conveyed my reserve. She was either sublimely thick-skinned or just incapable of getting the message. But I still tried to overcome my misgivings and played the good neighbour, and even helped her out with putting up frames in her house, and continued to allow her to stash a huge sack of ice cubes in my tiny freezer for a couple of days when she was busy throwing parties and had limited space in her own fridge. And I gritted my teeth and bore it when she came over to discuss building affairs with Huz, unfailingly making me feel like a fifth wheel, and ALWAYS taking the call if her phone rang to have a long-ish chat with a friend, while Huz and I twiddled our thumbs.

Perhaps she sensed that I saw through her fakeness and recognised the artifice behind her syrupy sweet phone voice. I don’t know! I just couldn’t stand the way she would call and ask for Huz (to discuss important building issues) in this simpering, nauseatingly condescending tone of voice….like I was an imbecile child or something. Did I mention I am way older than her?

Anyway, we finally did end up having a showdown, as a culmination of a series of unfortunate events that occurred in our building. There was the matter of yet another troublesome neighbour (someone I fondly call ‘the witch’) the police were involved, Huz and I were being made into scapegoats over actions taken collectively by all the residents of the building, and at a time when we actually needed the woman’s support, she had the gall to back off. Later, she decided to change her mind, but it was too late by then. The damage had been done, and now even Huz began to have doubts (yayy!!)

Does this sound like a dramatic turn of events? Trust me, it was. Long story short, I was furious, and in no mood to be conciliatory. The woman’s husband had behaved like a jerk at the police station and I let her know this. She in turn sent an indignant message to all the residents of the building that I was a very rude person and instead of being grateful for her husband’s support I had the audacity to criticise him. That for me was the final straw because, obviously, now I ended up looking like the bad guy when in fact SHE was the bad guy all along!

I privately swore never to have anything to do with her ever again, after sending her a politely worded, perfunctorily apologetic email.

So you can imagine my astonishment when a few months after that uneasy truce, the woman was having problems with her internet,had a dinner party at her house in the evening, yet was so worried that her crops would die on Farmville that she absolutely HAD to come use my computer to harvest them.

If ever there was a jaw-drop moment, this was it. I think I felt so numb with shock that I couldn’t respond appropriately.  So I let her come over, and I allowed her to play her Farmville.

What has been the point of this whole rant, you ask? So I have an insufferable neighbour who gets my hackles up every time I see her. Big deal.

I guess it just makes me wonder if it was just me, or if most sane people would react to her the way I did.

(Oh please tell me it isn’t just me!)

Mirchi lagi!!

Isn’t it beautiful? My first green chilli, in all it’s fiery glory…sigh…

Just look at the pretty white flower it sprouted from. Still can’t believe I finally managed to grow something apart from spinach and coriander. Those were just leaves, but this? This is a product! I’m so utterly delighted!

What should I do with it? I don’t have the heart to eat it. Not yet anyway. Wondering how long I can let it hang there and continue to delight me before it must be plucked, and chopped, and sprinkled into my curry which will end up in my tummy, after which it will probably cause mild havoc with my intestinal lining.

When my aunt found out about my intention (random at first but perked itself into an interest) to grow veggies, she was delighted with me but gave me a dire warning. Do NOT grow chillis, she said. It is BAD luck.

It’ll disrupt my life and cause strife in the house and arguments amongst the family every day!

Obviously, once I was told not to grow it, I just HAD to then proceed to do the exact opposite. Happily, we aren’t fighting any more than usual (knock on wood).

I’ll be careful not to step on the leaves though, and in case someone falls sick, I’ll take a fistful of chillies and burn them and for best effect, throw the ashes over my shoulder. That should take care of all the negative vibes! 😀

Flooded!

You’d think I’d have more serious things on my mind than what to do with my hair. As if Pakistan isn’t going through a worse disaster than the 2005 tsunami and the Kashmir and Haiti earthquakes all put together. As if millions of people haven’t been displaced, rendered homeless, and left to the mercy of nature….and the government.

Muzaffargarh

The thing is, we’re staggered by the scale of this new devastation, now that the truth has hit home, and we’re at a loss and feeling puny. Disbelief has been replaced by despair, a feeling acutely compounded by the mis-actions of our president. Much has been said about his jaunt abroad, Cheshire cat grin in place. I for one, am dumbfounded by his speeches and his behaviour. His bereavement over Benazir has always seemed disingenuous, and so now does his concern for the well-being of his countrymen. He is a liar and a joker. Perhaps a clever joker. After all, he has amassed wealth that has not even been assessed. It infuriates me that he owns a chateau in Normandy. He should be made to sell it, and all his other homes, and use the money to help the people of his country.

As if that’ll happen.

Anyways, there seem to be a lot of organisations working towards getting relief supplies across to the flood affectees. Huz and I donated some money to my neighbour, who was collecting along with a bunch of friends, though I felt it wasn’t enough, we definitely need to do more, and surely enough, more independent groups are presenting themselves as trustworthy avenues for getting help across directly to the affected. The trouble is, it is the month of Ramazan, when communal dues and zakat must be given, not to mention help those of the poor in direct connection to us….like my maid Zahooran. So there’s only so much that can go around. Rising inflation has hit us all, but especially the poor, who struggle to make ends meet as it is, and I know Zahooran waits all year for this time when she can count on me being more generous than usual.

But after reading the papers today, another horrifying scenario is rearing its head. Famine.

They’re saying prices of fresh produce are going to go through the roof, as supply starts dwindling. And of course it will…..huge swathes of standing crops and farmland have been inundated.

Zahooran tells me worriedly, that even after the water recedes, the land will be waterlogged and rendered useless for a long time. It will be uncultivable and she knows this because her family back home does ‘khaiti bari’ in Riyasat Bahawalpur. And I cannot even begin to comprehend how the farmers and their families are going to deal with something like this, let alone us city people who depend on the rural people to provide us with what they grow. What the f*** are we going to do??

For now I intend to gather together another carton of rations to donate to the flood relief effort organised by KGS middle school. It seems some of the staff is going to go along with the donated goods in a big truck and distribute the food and medicines themselves, which is just great. But at the end of the day, I know I’ll be sleeping in a dry comfy bed, and my heart goes out to those millions of people for whom even the basics of human living are now an unimaginable luxury…

If prayers would work I’d pray, but I think what is called for now is extreme generosity. To hell with donor fatigue. We can’t just sit around and feel horrified and helpless. We have to help as much as we can! And we have to keep helping relentlessly.

the displaced.

Might as well curl up and dye…

If there is anything that defines me, it’s angst. I think I was pretty much born an existentialist, if indeed an existentialist is someone who is a great deal afraid and anxious. I come to this conclusion because I now realise that I am a worry wart in denial, and that it is time to embrace that knowledge.

According to existential philosophy, angst is the dread caused by man’s awareness that his future is not determined but must be freely chosen. Can there be anything scarier than that? My earliest memories of angst-filled feelings include:

1. The fear of lighting matches and stoves. This is because I observed my mom turning on the gas and lighting a match. The resultant mild explosion with which the stove lit up did not faze my mom in the least, but I was struck with horror as I contemplated the consequences of doing this myself, and I worried about growing up and having to do these kinds of things too.

2. Watching my eldest sister going to college all by herself and travelling by bus and crossing roads and stuff. Oh the anxiety at ever having to cross a road and go to college! It was enough to make me never want to grow up.

3. Getting married. Would I ever find a man who was as lovely as my dad? I didn’t think so, and it made me as anxious as the female equivalent of Oedipus.

4. Observation (movies) and ill-informed discussions with the peer group revealed a whole bunch of facts about the birds and the bees, which opened up a whole new can of worms. The biggest question was ‘how’?? And the answers delighted and shocked and horrified all at the same time.

5. Giving birth, after watching melodramatic Indian movies that depicted women screaming and crying for mercy while in the throes of labour. How was I to wilfully put myself through that kind of inhuman pain and indignity?

No one could have guessed what a worried little child was. I always appeared happy-go-lucky. But I’m 37 years old now and still muddling my way through more confusion and angst. It never ends until it all ends doesn’t it. I did my worrying about death and lying in a grave and ceasing to exist altogether and am halfway over that now. Wrinkles, and getting fat and grey hair are the new death.

The first strand of white hair in the front of my head caught me by surprise. It was very noticeable in my shock of black hair, a fact that was pointed out to me repeatedly (as if I wasn’t all too aware of it already….silly people). Slowly and surely, the number of white strands started to multiply until it reached a point where I could no longer count them. My family puzzled over this, since I am the third in a line of four daughters, and my elder sisters did not have any gray in their hair AT ALL. Am I the runt of the litter? I joke and say that I think about stuff and have multitudinous subconscious worries, and this is why my hair is turning white, but it’s too true! This should be proof that I am not the blithe spirit everyone seems to think I am!

Maybe history is cruelly repeating itself, as my mother greyed the earliest in a family of eight siblings where she was the third daughter!

But apart from getting down to the bottom of the cause, I now had to worry about what to do with the rest of my life as far as my crowning glory was concerned and here were the options:

1. Should I be the cool arty type and go the Durriya Kazi way and wear lots of kajal in my eyes and don ethnic earrings to accompany a not-so-thick white braid?

2. Should I be funky and dye my hair indigo and crop it into a trendy bob to look post-modern?

3. Should I just let it be and age gracefully and stay myself without having to adopt an identity and make some kind of a statement?

Decisions, decisions. What path to choose? It isn’t easy to face the world when your hair betrays you. People’s eyes cannot help but flick upwards while conversing and I know they’re thinking what’s up with her hair? until they come right out and blurt it. ‘Why is your hair turning white?’, they ask simple-mindedly, as if there is a subversive reason. What do I tell them? That I am crushed by the angst of the living and my hair is beginning to reflect it? ‘Why don’t you dye it?’, say the fashionable lot for whom changing colours is not about hiding something but about novelty. Don’t they realise how vigilant you have to be to make sure the roots don’t show when the hair grows, and how frequently you need touch ups? It all reeks of unsustainability if you ask me.

‘Aap ke baal tou bilkul safed ho rahe hain’, says the girl who does my hair at a salon, as if I am struck by a terrible disease.

I stoically bear my cross and develop an attitude about my silvery streaks and people say I look stylish and glam…..but only if I make the effort and straighten it and style it and spend some time on it. If I don’t, I just look and feel like a hag. I know if I start using chemicals on my head I stand to lose not just lots of money but also lots of hair.

Life is so hard 😦

Sudden death

The bird that just let out a plaintive volley of chirps in a tree somewhere breaks the peacefulness of the late afternoon. Waning sunshine filters in through the blinds.

There’s an ache behind my eyes somewhere, and a lump  at the back of my throat that refuses to go away.

And a profound sense of sadness for those 152 people who will never hear a bird again, and never again see the sunlight coming through the window in the late afternoon.

Memories.

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.

Things that go bump in the night.

I was tempted to pick up ‘The Little Stranger’ (a book by Sarah Waters that actually made the cut for the Booker in 2009) despite being warned it was a spooky ghost story. If truth be told, my fascination with spooky stories wore off a long time ago. Subjecting yourself to reading or watching something that evokes fear is just a way of setting yourself up to a host of psychological issues, and when one spends many days alone in their house, it’s just not worth the thrill. Who needs to be scared of dark rooms and shadows? But my sister Fatu (who read the book before I) said it was a good read and I allowed myself to fall into the trap, as of course, once you start reading you can’t really stop; she did warn me, however, that all her dormant fears had sprung to life.

the cover

This only served to pique my curiosity however, and now I find myself a little more than halfway through the book. Here’s the gist so far. The Ayres family -mother, son and daughter – live in a once-glorious but now decaying Georgian house in rural Warwickshire. The family struggles to keep pace with a changing society and to make ends meet by selling chunks of their estate in post-war Britain. A middle-aged doctor is called upon to treat a young maid at the house, and as the novel progresses we find him becoming more a sympathetic friend to the family than a medical man who wants to help by treating the war wounds of the son.

The general atmosphere and layout of the huge house (Hundreds Hall it is called) sets the backdrop and mood for the story that unfolds little by little.  It is dark, and imbued with a sense of tension underlying the apparent calm. We get the first taste of impending doom with a horrible incident that takes place about 97 pages into the book.

Without giving away too much of the plot and the story, it seems that the Ayres family is haunted by something. Roderick (the son) is tormented by sounds that go unheard by his sister Caroline and his mother and only Betty the maid shares his sense of foreboding. Strange marks appear on the walls and ceiling of Roderick’s room, and he is inexplicably injured in the dark by open doors that were meant to be closed, and heavy furniture that positions itself mysteriously in his path causing him to trip and fall. Various items from his wardrobe disappear, only to reappear in strange places, and his shaving mirror (as he stares in mounting horror) scrapes across a stand and launches itself at his head and shatters into pieces. Naturally, his conviction that there is a malevolent presence in the house is met with disbelief. The only logical explanation seems to be mental illness caused by a combination of post-war trauma and the stress caused by financial crisis. The poor boy is removed to a mental institution after he is suspected of setting fire to his own room, an event that smacks to the already spooked reader of something decidedly bizarre.

It’s all okay when one is reading a spooky story in daylight. I, for one, propped it up as I treadmilled at the gym, and 30 minutes passed so quickly I didn’t even notice I was done. So compelling is the book,  I’ve been going through my chores as quickly as I can so I can get back to reading; not because the book is a page-turner, but because I need to know what will happen next. I’m just taking time off to write this blog so I can share an inexplicable event that occurred late last night.

It was around 1:30 am, and all was quiet in the house. I was the only one awake. The allusion to paranormal activity in the book was playing on my mind, so naturally I was glad Huz was asleep next to me but felt a twinge of guilt about Amu who was all by herself in her room. There were a couple of things I needed to do before hitting the sack that involved me stepping out of my room, but with the irrational fear of the occasional coward, I didn’t feel like opening my room door. While I was debating what to do, there came the unmistakable sound of something heavy come crashing down in the living room. I guess this is how the heroine in a scary movie feels as her instinctive need to protect herself is overthrown by the curiosity of knowing what’s going on, and I found myself walking to the door and turning the handle to open it. My first thought was of a burglar tripping over something, and with my heart beating terribly fast, I braced myself to confront a strange face.

There was no one in the living room, but the movement of the curtains blowing lightly with the breeze from the balcony door made me flinch. I walked past the dark study (pushing out thoughts of a hand reaching out to grab me) to switch on the lights, and it was only as I glanced at the living room wall and saw the vacant space there that my blood froze and the second, more sinister thought crawled into my head.

A large framed painting that hung in the middle of the wall was now lying on the floor, surrounded by the debris of broken framing and a screw that had prised itself loose from its bearings. Surprisingly, the glass had remained intact.

My skin prickling with goosebumps, the air thick with an unnameable fear, I walked with unbearable slowness back to my room and closed the door behind me. Huz had slept through it all, but as I crept into bed he suddenly opened his eyes and said,

‘Did the phone just ring?’

A labour of…erm…love.

I found myself questioning my motivations at the end of a day spent doing something generally regarded as a relaxing pastime.

It was (relatively) early Sunday morning that I was seized by a sudden urge to beautify my courtyard. To that end, a trip to the nearby plant nursery was deemed a necessary expedition, and once again I am struck by how willingly Huz lets himself be dragged along by my whims. The day promised to be a scorcher, and I’m sure his idea of a leisurely Sunday morning did not involve browsing a plant nursery in the sun. Yet, instead of perusing the delightful new Express Tribune spread out under the fan in the living room, he was to be found driving me to Lalazar….in other words, foliage heaven.

My goals were simple: I needed to add a few plants to my as yet nascent vegetable garden. Ideally, it would have been more fun to get the seeds so I could revel in the joys of germination, but the sheer convenience of the availability of half-grown plants in this teeming nursery easily pushed over my desire to grow from scratch.

the spinach i am growing from seed
and still growing..

My courtyard had a variety of aspirations, Thai, Italian, Mexican and Greek being amongst them, but after giving it a much needed makeover, however, it seems to have assumed an unassuming identity all its own. The main feature, if it can be called that, is a trellis made of bamboo, which affords a partial, dappled shade over half the courtyard. The idea was to train a few creepers over the top, which would eventually not only add a rustic, romantic and wild charm, but also mesh over the gaps in the bamboo and create a verdant shadiness underneath.

the bamboo trellis..

Fate has thus far conspired against me though, and the yellow-flowered Allamanda I have tried to proliferate refuses to cooperate, and keeps getting infested with those vile white bugs that feed on budding leaves and cause black rot.

a glimpse of the lone surviving Allamanda

So, it was time to look for a different creeper, and browsing through Lalazar, I chanced upon the one I was looking for. I don’t know what it’s called, but I have a nostalgic connection with it, as it reminds me of sunny childhood weekends spent happily with my cousin Sheroo. This creeper blooms with delicate long-stemmed flowers in shades of pink, which you can join together on their own to form chains of flowers…these can be looped together at varying lengths to form necklaces and bracelets, and a single stem can fit into its own flower to make a ring. We used to pick clumps of these hanging flowers, make lots of chains and adorn ourselves with them, pretending to be Hawaiian or something and I was delighted to find it, despite being warned by Sheroo that it attracts bees, and immediately asked the head gardener at the nursery to fish it out from the jungle of tangled creepers it was enmeshed in.

Huz and I walked triumphantly out of the nursery, having acquired some lovely citrus-fruiting lemon and tangerine pots, a couple of fragrant mint and curry-patta pots, the nostalgic creeper, a distinctly tropical frangipani and a typically subcontinental Flame of the forest a.k.a Gulmohar, the latter having been advised by my mother (presumably to indulge her own nostalgia)

The thing about buying plants from nurseries is that you need to re-pot them, as they invariably come in rather shabby, mossy-looking ones. Transplanting them into bigger containers also gives the roots more room to spread out, and the more comfortably anchored plant can then proceed to realise its full potential and grow bigger and stronger. Therefore, after the nursery visit, it became imperative to make our way to a ‘gamlay-wala’. These pot sellers can be found dotting the landscape especially near nurseries and they are open air enterprises, presenting the buyer with a cornucopia of pottery and clay-related decorative objects.

There is something earthy about clay pots, and I am drawn to them in their purest form, unadorned and unpainted. Choosing pots for re-planting is a pleasure, and I watched with satisfaction as the shopkeeper lugged and deposited two large and two medium sized pots into the boot of the car. These we happily drove home, and I smiled in anticipation, mentally rubbing my hands in glee, as I contemplated an afternoon of peaceful gardening.

Five hours later, I am covered in sweat and dirt. My hair has been whipped frizzy by the wind. My hands are sore and calloused from lifting and pulling and pushing and digging and my aching back is a painful reminder that I am no longer in my twenties. Yet, a lot of work has been done, almost entirely by me. Plants have been re-potted, dying plants uprooted and thrown out, the entire courtyard swept and re-arranged. Later, as the labours of the day manifest themselves in their full achiness, and I am forced to take painkillers and groan pathetically enough to induce Huz to give me a much-needed back massage, I wonder why I subject myself to these bouts of insanity. Anyone would pay a ‘maali’ to do the work for them and have a beautifully tended garden with absolutely none of the effort. Or, I could just stop trying to delude myself into believing I have a green thumb, and just….stop. Who needs greenery? Who needs to grow their own veggies? Who needs to learn more about compost? Why is it so important for me to have my own lemon tree, if it means watching out for caterpillars? I broke my own heart last week when I used bad judgment and tried transferring my cucumber seedlings into multiple pots and jeopardised their wonderful growth at my own hands.

the lone surviving cucumber seedling..

Perhaps the answer is sheer doggedness, and the stubborn desire to understand what makes plants tick. The madness lies, of course, in doing it without help, and without gloves, and with a tendency towards respiratory allergies. Despite everything, it was still an afternoon well spent, and when I lean out of a window that overlooks the courtyard, I do feel a twinge of pride and happiness at my unskilled yet passionate efforts. There’s no sappy ‘being at one with Nature’ feeling. I think I just like watching things grow. And I guess messing around with dirt is my thing. 🙂

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.

Of those who ‘sell love and save dreams’

I always feel bereft when I find myself in the purgatory that exists between the finishing of a good book and the search for the next. It is a refractory period. The imagination pulls itself out of the world it was immersed in, the neurons regroup and only then can they begin to respond to a new stimulus, a different author, a different world.

I was browsing through heaps of books in an old book store, when I came across a well preserved, hard bound copy of ‘The dancing girls of Lahore.’


Dancing Girls of Lahore

It isn’t as if the topic is a new one, or that I haven’t watched documentaries about prostitutes in Pakistan. I suppose the reason I was tempted to read it was because (a) the book was in REALLY good condition (always a temptation to pick up in an old book shop), and (b) it was written by a non-native, a British academic and anthropologist called Louise Brown.

It tickled my imagination to think that this woman, this pretty, red-headed, long-maned ‘goree’ actually spent four years on and off, living with and documenting the way of life of the inhabitants of the brothels in the seediest areas of Lahore: Heera Mandi….(arguably) the source of most of the actresses in Lollywood.

I expected the book to be educational, but I never imagined it to be quite so entertaining, even hilarious at times. I loved the perspective of the author as an observer, the way she presented our culture and our people back to us, but in a carefully unskewed way. The places and the events she describes could very easily become sordid, not that they aren’t, but somehow the reader manages to transcend the sordidness and the poverty and see things clearly for what they are. Sad, funny and overall, inevitable. We’re all faced with similar survival struggles, some struggles are just more epic than others. And the homosexuals and the drug addicts, the prostitutes and their children live a marginalised existence in our society, denied the compassion and the understanding of those born in different circumstances.

Now when I see billboards with some well known faces associated with our film industry, I almost feel as if I know them, and where they’ve come from. I am struck by the awareness that these women have escaped their fate and come out winners. It’s weird, but I actually feel they deserve to be applauded; they have worked hard and suffered and survived and what’s more, they have achieved fame. They exist, and they fulfill a need, and if they can make some money out of it, why the hell not? Why the derision and the censure?

If you don’t agree with me, read the book. Then we’ll talk. 🙂

Zahooran and I

It is 1:15 pm and I feel battered, coated and deep-fried.  Zahooran, my maid, has refrained from dropping by for her daily visit for the third day in a row, and I can no longer ignore the house work. These are the times when I realise (with greater intensity) just how much work it is to keep a house clean and dust-free.

I am grateful to Zahooran for being so kind as to clean my house for a mere 3500 rupees a month, really I am, but it is only when she doesn’t show up, that I also realise her excellence at, quite literally, sweeping things under the carpet. I bubbled with a mild form of rage as I went about the house and surveyed the oodles of dust bunnies which had been merrily collecting behind various pieces of furniture for months. Arming myself with jharoos and brushes and dust cloths, I set to work with fiend-like determination.

15 minutes later, the house is hazy with the dust that has been stirred from weeks of dormancy, and my allergies have abandoned their loyalties to the cat. I sneeze and cough as my lungs fight for oxygen while Huz tuts mildly from his desk and asks why on earth I’m bent on torturing myself;  but since I am, I should do it without complaining too loudly as he gets disturbed.
So far, I have cleaned the neglected stuff (sweeping and mopping behind the fridge and tv trolley) as well as the usual stuff, and am no longer surprised at Zahooran’s negligence. I’d probably do the same if I were her. 🙂