Love Letters to the Dead

Dear Sarah,

September left in a jiffy. Just when I was beginning to get used to its unpredictability, it said its farewell. Remember the humid Septembers, beginning of cold winds? This was one was rainy.

Although morning walks were beautiful—our same old route via little church cottage—but a little too slippery and a little too cold for September.

October is going to be hard. As always. If you were here, you’d keep badgering me to prepare for it. ‘Plan for the rainy days Hadi!’ smirking at my procrastination. But then, if you were here, I wouldn’t need to prepare.

It’s October the 4th today. 10: 37 pm. It has started to get colder. Just the kind of cold you would love. The chilly windy October when we would go out for a stroll down the hill right after dinner. When the winds would howl and you would laugh and howl with the winds. I always thought it was hilarious. The winds have begun to howl outside the window starting tonight. I miss your funny laugh.

I’m sorry I couldn’t write. Not that I didn’t get time, but I was avoiding you, in a way. Like you had said. Trying to move on. But sometimes it gets too much.

This Saturday, I began repairing the attic, after year long procrastination. It’s probably not a good time but it had to be done. Last winter the snow came seeping through the broken planks, remember? I had to shift your old books (from your grandfather, that you were trying to treasure), to the leather couch in the study. Initially, it was a momentary decision. I thought I’d put them on the shelf in the living room in a few days. But then I let it be, although it was such a mess. We couldn’t sit on the couch all year. But it was probably an act of protest. A part of me didn’t want to shelve the books because that part of me believed that if I left the books long enough, a part of you would probably come back to push me into shelving them. It doesn’t make sense I know. But I was always a little stubborn.

But so were you.

I wasted the whole summer putting it off. I can’t say sorry, I know. I finished The Idiot from your collection, so there’s that. One book this year after more than three years. You should congratulate me for that at least.

Huda has recently learnt to write all the alphabets. The lower part of the wall by the fireplace in living room is littered with her colorful scrawls. Yesterday she asked me to help her write her name on the wall.

‘H-U-D-A’, she pronounced each syllable, carefully stretching each one of them until she wrote all the four letters with a green crayon. Then she asked me the spelling of Baba and wrote it with a blue crayon right beside Huda. She smiled looking at the two words–green and blue, squiggly and scrawny–the same dimply smile of yours that reaches the eyes and said, ‘if I had a Mama, we would write her name here,’ pointing to the left of where H-U-D-A was written.

She’s a little work of art.

The little cottage opposite ours with blue wooden door finally has owners. They moved here last month. It’s a middle aged couple, probably in their forties. You would probably argue they are still young and not ‘middle aged’. Although they might be younger. But even thirty-two looks middle aged to me now. They are lovely though. First thing they did, they changed the color of the blue wooden door to bright orange.

Huda sat by the living room window all day watching Nina and Moosa—that’s their names—paint the door. They painted the door seven times, she told me. When we went out for a walk the next day, Huda told Nina that she liked the new color of the door. ‘Just like autumn,’ she said. I saw Nina smile at her for a long time.

Few days later, she brought chocolates for her when Huda was at school. We sat by the steps of our front door. She told me about her husband, who works for the government and about their seven year old son who they lost to a seasonal fever. She told me this so conversationally, I was taken aback for a few seconds after I processed it. But then I saw her hands, shaking—just a little, so that only those in suffering could see. I couldn’t say anything to her. Those are the things only you are good at.

But then she did the strangest thing. She took my hand and said, ‘I told you only because you miss her too.’

Does it show in our eyes if we miss people too much? Or love too much? Or lose too much? I’ve been thinking about it lately. I am not ashamed of missing you. What unnerved me was how someone with a similar pain could see your loss so easily—like stripping you naked. What embarrassed me more was not recognizing the sadness in her smile when she looked at another’s child. For days I had thought they loved Huda because they didn’t have their own child. They did have a child. Only he has left. Why am I so self-centered Sarah?

Nina often comes at the library to read. Since Moosa works late till evenings, Nina brings her books here and reads till lunch. She mostly reads poetry. T. S. Eliot and e. e. cummings and Frank O’Hara. You two would have been such good friends. But now she has to tolerate me with my silly fantasy interests.

Sometimes it’s so easy to open up to certain people. It’s like I’ve known her for the longest time. Nina knows everything about you by now. When I showed her your picture, the one in the wheat fields where you’re wearing your straw hat and yellow overalls, laughing against the sun, she smiled and told me she always knew how Sarah would look like, ‘bright and sunny, like the color of a smile.’

I never thought of you in terms of that metaphor. You were so many things to me. But perhaps I’d add that to my list of metaphors for you.

Last weekend, Nina and Moosa invited us for dinner. Huda was awfully excited, since she has never been to a dinner before except at your parents’. She kept asking me what to wear for ‘Nina Aunty’s dinner’. Eventually we decided on a denim jumper that Nani Ma had gifted her last month. We made a little ponytail too. It turned out pretty fine. To be honest, I didn’t know what to wear either. Dinner mannerisms were always your forte. And it’s been such a long time since I went to a homely dinner. Perhaps the first after you. So I just ended up wearing a black Shalwar Kameez. I wasn’t thinking anything when I wore it. It was just the first thing that came to my mind.

We got them a ‘Home is where Heart is’ art piece.

It was the first time I saw Nina and Moosa together in their home. It was as if I had missed seeing a proper home for a long time. Although I could sense a constant feeling of absence, or lack of presence of something dearly missed, but I could also see so much calm. There was coherence in everything they did, like their minds and movements were aligned. It was overpowering. There was a mysterious understanding you wished you were also a part of. Does living together for long do that to you? I guess I would never know.

After dinner, we sat in the living room talking about life in general, Huda falling asleep, her head in Nina’s lap. Moosa had turned on the radio lightly in the background and was telling me about the restructuring plan of the town to be carried out this winter (taking advantage of off-season for tourists), when Bryan Adams’ Everything I Do began playing on the radio. It was in the way he looked at Nina for a second, not breaking monologue with me all the while, that said everything. As if Huda and I did not exist. It looked like they were the only breathing humans in the room.

I looked at Nina for reciprocity of his feelings. She was in the moment, smiling, and she was somewhere else with him. It was their song.

For days, their smile has remained with me. Envy is a powerful feeling. Destructive. I’ve always been wary of it. But that evening I felt a tinge of envy for which I have not been able to forgive myself.

Nina asked me that night to prepare for Huda’s birthday celebrations. ‘It’s not too far away’. I told her we don’t celebrate Huda’s birthday. ‘But this year, we will.’ Moosa said, like it resolved the matter.

Nina knows you left us the same night but she says I should not punish my own child for it. I know you think the same way. But some things are not so simple.

‘She doesn’t even know she is turning four in two weeks. Kids this age are so excited about their birthdays. Think about her.’ She came to talk about it the next morning in the library. But she doesn’t understand. And neither do you.

How is it that someone decides to take your most beloved possession from you and bestow you with something that comes to be your other most beloved possession? What if you were fine with what you had? That is not to say that I love my child any less. But what is the joy of fatherhood if I can’t share my happiness with you?

I know you’re still skeptical but at least you know how I think. Just a little. Nina didn’t. But then her grief is different here from mine. So I ended up saying yes to Nina’s invitation to Huda’s birthday party. I shall be a guest.

I wish this month would get over soon. I might start shelving the books on the couch in the living room shelf from tomorrow. Anything to distract myself.

I’ll write to you on 31st of October. May be Huda can be a little witch on Halloween.

 

Love,

Hadi

 

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Imaginary Towns

It’s self-assuring to think in terms of towns.

Towns of happiness and towns of sadness. Towns where people meet and greet and depart and retreat. Towns where summers come for a month or two and the wind blows bringing winters and snow. Towns where people communicate in terms of books they’ve read—the favorite ones, the depressing ones, the ones made that them hold on to people on the verge of losing, and those that made them find themselves. Towns where music plays as a warning in the streets, those slow numbers late in the evening into early hours of the morning.
Can’t we segregate towns for people who love the colors of fall, or early winds of December, and for people who love a sunset at five, an early cold night? Where it rains in the afternoons, trees dancing to the thundering tunes.

Like towns by the sea, and those by the lake and mountains, where people come to live in expectation of a uniform weather, can’t we have towns where grief is momentary, glee a lasting season?

Independence Eve in Lahore

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Last year this day, it was 45 degrees in Lahore. But since we couldn’t stay all day in the comforts of AC (and of course why were we here if we didn’t taste some real Lahori food?), there we were, in androon city, on the roof of Cuckoo’s Den—an old kotha, now operating as a restaurant run by a painter, son of an old prostitute—in the backdrop of Badshahi Masjid overhearing live qawaali from down below somewhere, deciding on our Lahori menu for dinner. Even though we were seated outdoors under the sky, there was not a single whiff of air that could dry out our perspiration. It was a starless sky with no air but not the kind that whispered rain. We had our dinner listening to the clear sounds of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s numbers playing in the park below, only marred by the buzz of rotating stand-fans—a low-key affair; neither too many photos nor too much drama, just the four of us enjoying the unearthly backdrop. But the moment we paid the bill, it started pouring with reckless abandon—large drops of rain, each the size of a ping pong ball—drenching our clothes in seconds while we ran for cover. IMG_20170813_212814

Not for long though. We knew our clothes had been ruined and there was no cover in the Food Street so we resorted to buying kulfi, checked out some traditional jewelry, and argued about whether we wanted to eat Paan (we decided we didn’t).

Only then my friend’s driver called to let her know that the car had broken down. Wow. Exactly how it happens in movies. Except it didn’t.

We strode towards the car, licking the melted kulfi, while it poured. People were running here and there in a frenzy—anxious for cover. The route from food street to my friend’s place—where we were staying—was no less than an hour at least. It was already past 9:30. And of course we didn’t forget it was Independence Eve tonight, with the whole city lit and ready for celebrations. And in case we didn’t know how Lahoris celebrated, we were about to find out.

My friend called home and informed that we had been stuck and called for another car while we waited in the broken car amid roaring rain that unsettled everyone around. People ran out of eateries, holding whatever they could over their heads—bags, purses, umbrellas—hailing rickshaws to get out of the narrow streets. It was a musical chaos: sounds of azaan from Badshahi masjid entwined with Qawali (which couldn’t decide whether to continue entertaining people or to stop, eventually stopping mid-azaan) from the park beside the fort, the horns of cars and bikes honking non-stop in efforts of getting everything—moving and unmoving—out of the way to get out of the broken roads and quickly expanding puddles of water amid thunder and lightning of the hammering rain that had been suppressed for too long, it seemed.

So there we were, the four of us, stranded in the middle of the old city, sitting in a broken car waiting for another one to come.While it showered non-stop—rain drops pelting continuously on the metal roof—we talked about all the things that we wanted to do, things we dreaded after the long weekend, of life in another city, of movies that we had watched and those that were on our to-watch list, Bollywood songs, and cheap dance parties that ended in us rolling on the floor with laughter, followed by pizza deliveries and coffee rush late at night. Tired of waiting in the car for more than an hour, we changed places, opened and closed doors of the car (since the windows couldn’t be rolled down) while arguing as to whether it was safe to open the car doors:

“But it’s getting really suffocating in here!”

“I’d rather die of suffocation than by a serial killer slitting my throat”. (The driver had disappeared somewhere looking for a mechanic).

The street where we were parked had suddenly fallen silent, the only sounds now of rain thrumming on surfaces. Street lights blinked, so did the lights from inside the windows of the two-three story kothas. The silence was eerie and yet daring. Bored of sitting needlessly in a closeted space of the vehicle, bickering about what we were going to eat next, I suddenly had an idea—something I had always wanted to do but had never dared to say out aloud: we could explore the red-light area.

The timing couldn’t have been perfect; us parked just outside the back gate that entered into the district, with no people around, and virtually no one to notice us, we could just get out of the car and go inside, explore the street and come back. I knew the taboo associated with the place—the infamous Heera Mundi where men from all backgrounds visited to amuse themselves; from drug-addicts to vagabonds to bureaucrats and faujis, students and tourists to cheats and liars, and everyone else who didn’t fit the list and yet wanted the sheer experience of it all. Even though the street is an enigma for the outsiders, enticing some while repulsing others, to me, it held an artistic value. I had read Fouzia Saeed’s Taboo: The Hidden Culture of Red-Light Area and since wanted to visit the place. Heera Mandi is a completely innocuous street unlike what people imagine—that the people living in the Mandi would capture any girl who entered the district and force her into prostitution. And yet the idea was thrilling due to its taboo. I knew the opportunity was too big to miss—when else would we be standing here in this place, idle, with the only worry in the world of a car repair to get home, only feet away from exploring the place I’d read about years ago; a district full of skilled musicians and artists and vocalists and dancers; people, who weren’t appreciated for their inherent art and disgraced for their clandestine services. But of course I wasn’t listened to. How crazy was I to even voice my irrational thoughts of getting out of car in that unsafe area in the first place and then going right into the lion’s mouth on a rainy night in wet clothes, four girls only, with no male to accompany? I tried to reason rationally first with facts and then with the thrill it brought, but my friends were too hard lined to give weight to my imploring requests.

And so we waited for another hour stealthily glancing in the dark street—now the center of our focus, looking for any activity (it was too dark to find out)—till the other car arrived and we left eventually after 11 pm, reaching home (Phase 6) late at 1:30 am in the morning of 14th August. The ride on the roads on the eve of independence was a treat in itself worthy of writing another long post, nonetheless, the highlight of the drive back home was the final fifteen minute drive via Ring Road amid the downpour—sodium lit deserted road, wet windows, some nostalgic Pakistani music and us singing like crazy; probably the best long drive in rain I’ve had in years!

 

Note: To my friends who were the best company ever in Lahore, in scorching heat and load shedding hours and suffocating clouds followed by rain and downpour and summerhouse/rooftop conversations late at night.  

Special thanks to Beenish, my true Lahori friend, who was the best host ever.

Portraits – His neighbor-coworker

She often comes late to work. Nobody really minds but her boss doesn’t appreciate it. Although he does ask about it once. Her excuses are fickle. She says she comes late because she has to prepare breakfast for her mother who is old. ‘But you could make her breakfast early and leave for work on time?’

‘Yes but then I have to give her medicines too.’ She drags her words a little when she doesn’t have good answers.

‘Can’t the medicines be given a little early too?’ her boss asks still pretending composure. ‘Yes sir. No sir. Actually, she’s very old so I give her the medicines myself’, she shifts from one foot to another. She has a little problem standing on her feet for too long these days. The doctor has asked her to go for physiotherapy but she’s been procrastinating because it is not covered in the company’s medical insurance. ‘Just try to reach office till 9:30’, her boss finally closes the discussion. ‘Yes sir’, she pauses, thinks, ‘okay sir’, she puts a full stop. She’s not satisfied with how it ended, but she drags her feet away and out from his office and towards her workstation.

She must be around 57. Or at least that’s what the younger employees think. She hasn’t given the company much—she’s a data operator—just her years of service. She comes late, leaves early and works around three hours in total if we count her individual contribution per day. Most of the time she forgets her due assignments and someone has to remind her politely what she has been missing. People are generally considerate of her old age.

Ms. Raima is a short stubby lady who wears long Kameez with chappals that make distinct noise of dragging feet from ten meters away. She dyes her hair a shade darker than blonde whose roots she gets renewed after every 15 days. ‘You know Papa doesn’t particularly like unkempt hair.’ She explains. Her favorite person in the world is her father—only he’s not in this world anymore. She calls him Papa. She mentions Papa at least once every day. She mentions him in the present tense. So if you were new around her, you would think Papa is alive. So Papa likes to take a nap in the afternoon, he thinks it’s good for health. Papa always thinks highly of people who wear white. It’s Papa’s favorite color. Papa’s favorite poet is Ghalib, he absolutely loves his poetry—and so she does too.

When she does not come to work one day and you ask her the next day, just out of courtesy, the reason of her absence, she tells you that it was Papa’s 11th death anniversary yesterday; it’s only then that you realize that Papa has actually been gone for more than a decade now. ‘You know Papa never likes to make a big deal out of anything, so I just took leave to recite Quran all day and make some Biryani and distribute it among my sisters and brothers and their children. No big deal. But it took all day.’ Her eyebrows shoot up while her head nods. ‘I didn’t want to come today—I was so tired, but Papa doesn’t appreciate when people take their work for granted, so I had to come.’

She has been working in the company for more than 18 years now but she still doesn’t have a decided commute to and from the office. She hails a different rickshaw every day after work and tells him the route to her house. No matter how the situation of the roads of Karachi  is—due to traffic, protests, exhibitions, presence of high government officials in the city—the rickshaw has to take the route she dictates—because, that’s the best possible route to her place.

Most of the colleagues in her department are male except three younger women—one of them sits right across her. She really likes her. Whenever the girl wears a new dress, she asks her to stand up and show her how it looks. The girl mostly feels awkward but obliges. She then nods her head and smiles, and tells her that the dress looks lovely. ‘Light colors suit you very much. I don’t wear light colors to office because I come by rickshaw and there is so much dirt in the air that the clothes get ruined on the way’, she says. ‘Most of my dresses I wear are old ones. Beta, why would someone ruin their new clothes for office?’ She asks the girl. ‘It’s a waste of money.’ She shakes her head. But then she smiles and takes the girl’s hand, her voice goes down conspiringly, ‘you know, you should rather be saving this money for your wedding.’

Nobody understands where her money goes to. She earns a handsome salary after 18 years of service and doesn’t have most obligations people her age have. She didn’t marry, in case you were wondering.

But she should really go see a physiotherapist now. The drag in her feet while walking is increasing and so are her complaints. She’s been taking off every other week and can’t stand properly for more than two minutes. She also offers her prayer on a chair and feels cold even when it’s 37 degrees outside. Her colleagues wouldn’t mind otherwise but when she asks the office boy in the middle of the noon to go and turn off their side of the air conditioning, it does get really hot and suffocating—until someone passive-aggressively starts whining about how hot it is outside today that even the ACs are not working and the other person replies that the ACs are working but theirs have been turned off because Ms. Raima was feeling cold, that Ms. Raima realizes that it’s time to restore the system to normal.

Chapter 26 – New Beginnings

I was reading a few days ago how the best writers we’ve had in history happen to be those who have chosen to open up about themselves. And it left a deep impression on me. Great artists were mostly those who struggled half of their time trying to search for their identity, failing and learning, trying on new things, and repeating the cycle. Some of these artists endured failure for years, until they were known for their greatness. And in the long run, it’s the greatness that has defined them.

Self-discovery is hard—it’s like building a wall of legos, block by block. One wrong block and some bricks fall down. You have to put the right blocks at the right places. It’s excruciatingly challenging. However, unless we acknowledge our reality, our struggles, and come in terms with who we really are, we can’t be honest in telling the stories we want to tell. The stories I’ve wanted to tell for the longest of time, a lot of them challenge my own thinking patterns. Rather than answering my questions, they further confuse me—about my reality, my sense of self, of things I believe and want to believe. And there are things, I’ve been scared of writing because they show too much of me—of my naivety and sensitivity, of things I believe in, and of the things I love.

But I’ve considered this—it’s these vulnerabilities that make us human: fear of being rejected, the fear of trying, the fear of that answer that has been stopping us for years to ask the question, those periods of darkness that make us wish for the light, the fear of loving without being loved in return. Trying to act strong would make us one, but only in short term. For long term, we need something to rely on: we need courage from within. Putting ourselves out there in spite of fear of failure is being courageous (an amazing friend told me). It would kill us (if you’re awkward like me), but if it doesn’t, it’ll surely make us stronger.

My best friend, miles away from me right now told me a few days ago that she wanted her opinionated cum passionate friend (who used to feel every single feeling in the world) back. And she was right. I hadn’t changed. I had simply chosen to hide. I was like the last drop in the faucet that wants to fall, tries really hard, but the forces from inside despite all the gravity stop it from splattering.

And so, I resolve to share. It’s a road to self-discovery and you’ll help me achieve it. There would be struggles, battles (both inward and outward), failures (for sure), love and hate, a lot of thankfulness, some whining, a lot of music related posts, some conversations with coffee and chai, some extremely deep posts (so deep you’ll roll in them), my journey of faith (that waivers sometimes but is mostly the only reason of my survival and peace), my opinions (those give me life!), but mostly, my coming back to being myself again.

Lightly

Often times, it’s not adversity that defines you, it’s rather the journey that you decide to make. The path that you take, the dwindling steps, the fear of unknown, of the darkness ahead (or the absence of it), define the strength of your existence.
So lightly, child. Don’t make adversity define you. For although you may be born to suffer for what’s written for you, yet it’s you who decides how you’re going to steer your way out of it. Everything will come into place. Slowly. Yes, painfully. But things will fall into place eventually. So lightly child. Worrying is natural, but know that there’s always those people and things that matter. Far more than the things you worry for.

And surely, it would happen that there would be too much pressure, to pretend, to act like it doesn’t matter; you wouldn’t know what’s happening to you until your eyes are wet and you haven’t realized you’re crying until someone asks if you’re alright. You don’t have to be strong all the time. Let yourself loose. It’s okay to cry child. It’s okay to not perform sometimes. It’s okay if some people are let down. Just remember, when you look yourself in the mirror, you look at yourself and not the shadow of you.
It’s okay to fall until you don’t give up attempting to stand. It’s okay child. You’ve tried too hard. You’ve prayed too hard. So lightly child. Don’t be too harsh on yourself.
Good times will come. But look for them in moments rather than in periods. You’ll find love unexpectedly–in books, in badly scribbled notes from friends, in music that reminds of slumber parties of 3 am ending with pizza deliveries, and in people who genuinely love you for how annoying you are, because it’s only them that you annoy so much–and sometimes you’ll find love from where you expect, those close cushions of support who cry when you cry but help you turn into a rock when you need them.
So lightly my child. Talk long walks along the paths that you’ve known all your life to clear your head but don’t hesitate to find newer paths every once in a while and make new memories with yourself. Know that the longest you’re ever going to be with, is yourself. So learn to love your company, and don’t ever hesitate being seen alone sitting in the cafe reading a book, drinking your coffee and nodding at people–it’s the most charming thing ever. Few people, if ever, are brave enough to be sitting alone all on their own enjoying their little solitude.

You don’t have be brave all the time my child. It’s okay to cry when you’re down. But it’s okay to smile too–in moments, in gaps between nothingness and everything; while lipsynching your favorite song and the memory that comes with it, while stumbling upon your favorite lines from a book randomly scrolling. It’s okay to smile while heading home after a long exhausting day. It’s okay to live your life my child. Lightly. Ever so lightly…

 

PS: unedited.

Inspired from Island by Auldous Huxley.

Stars

Stars. She didn’t remember when she started noticing stars in the sky. Probably when all the normal kids do—in bedtime stories, and toys and in fairy-tales; when their teachers draw those colorful little stars on their soft little hands. But she started making her universe under the stars later.

In the village they all slept under the stars. Her grandparents, her aunts and uncles, her cousins, younger and older than her. And so, when she visited her village, with her parents and brother, she would sleep in the large courtyard too—wooden charpoys spread across the yard, beneath the neem trees, everyone would fall sleep under one sky looking into the dark night and millions of stars above them.

You dream about what you think about. Or, you dream about what you want to think about. She dreamt about neem trees, and nights full of stars and waking up early and running away with cousins to the nearby stream while their aunt would prepare breakfast for them. But sometimes, she also dreamt about the large vacant three storey house whose shadow fell upon their courtyard as the day matured. She never knew why she dreamt about the house. They often talked about it—she and her cousins. Perhaps it was haunted. Sometimes they would peek into the windows. But the only room they could see through one of the windows would be dark and empty. Perhaps she dreamt about the house because it blocked her view of the blanket of stars from far East.

As the years passed, network towers came into her view of her starry nights. More things would keep adding themselves to her view of stars. The trips to village decreased slowly and then ended abruptly. But obstructions kept adding up to her view of stars wherever she went. Slowly, she began to live with them. She would adjust to smog thinning the stars, buildings blocking her view of the sky, clouds of doubt and distrust, until one day, her view to up above was completely shadowed by a man over her who claimed to take a right over her under a lawful agreement—until she could not see anything above her, could not breathe, could not envision a life beyond that darkness. She would reason with herself later that he had the right over her, but what could she do about the stars floating under her eyes that she had stenciled straight from up above?

Reminiscence: Of past and present

She stepped in quickly as the doors closed. She silently heaved a sigh of relief for making it on time. By the time the next train left from Piccadilly stop, it’d be a little too late. All the seats were taken—as expected—except one at the far end of the car. She made a beeline for it; she would squeeze her way through even if she had to. Although few people were still standing, she had succeeded in getting herself (and her over-sized bag) a seat, setting herself between the wall and a big white guy.

She looked her phone. 1:35 pm. I’ll make it in time. I’m just being overly anxious. While she was putting the phone back in her pocket clumsily, her unzipped bag on her lap fell upside down. And it was a chaos within the two square feet. Old receipts, scribbled notes, a wrist watch, her wallet, old bracelets, pens and colored markers and things and broken pieces you could never put together or let go off came out spilling on the floor. It was like your secrets suddenly being revealed to the world of what you’re not sure yourself. She hurriedly started picking up the things and stuffing them in her bag, too embarrassed to even look at what might even have fallen. The white guy beside her grunted before bowing down and helping her pick up a few things for her. ‘I’m really sorry’, she kept muttering to him, ‘so sorry, please don’t bother’, until he got embarrassed and turned the other way completely facing his back on her. The only other person who was now helping her pick her stuff up was an old man sitting right in front of her, who had left his seat slowly and come down on his knees to help pick up her things. She repeated her lines, ‘please don’t bother’ as she put her wallet and several colored pens back in the bag. He merely waved his hand and smiled like it didn’t matter anything for him. She turned red and looked down for more dropped things, not knowing what to say. Several moments passed between them silently collecting things and putting them back in her bag. ‘You are lucky this one didn’t break dear.’ The old man nodded towards an old watch—leather belted, brown dialed. ‘You should wear it, not tuck it away in that purse of yours.’ He smiled and his whole face smiled with him. ‘Flaunt it like the young lady you are.’ How can two people from two different worlds resemble each other so much? She thought.

She looked at the watch and then him, ‘it’s too precious’, she smiled and put it back in her bag. He smiled and nodded. ‘Hmmmm. Hmm.’ He almost said to himself and then struggled to get up from the floor with the help of his wooden cane.

She felt guilty.

‘May I help you getting up, erm, sir?’

‘That would be very kind of you dear.’ His head was bowed in a struggle to get up.

She quickly got up and took an arm of his while he put the rest of his weight on the cane and tried to get up. ‘There there. I got it.’ The old man sighed as he sat back on his seat. She could see how his wrinkles had doubled from this physical activity of getting up from the floor.

He reminded her of her dada so much.

————

He always had that white beard for as long as she could remember. It led her into believing that all the grandfathers of the world had long white beards—like it was a pre-requisite. So when her friend Sara took her once to her place to meet Sara’s grandfather, she told her that Sara was mistaken and that it could not be her dada. Sara was furious. ‘But how can he be your dada when he doesn’t have a white beard?’ Maryam had asked her.

Going to their village was the favorite time of the year for Maryam (and her siblings). For Maryam’s two brothers, it would mean more Cricket. For their oldest sister Aashi, it would mean cousins. For Maryam, it would mean more time with dada jaan.

Dada had been a retired school headmaster which was why he enjoyed a certain status in the bigger part of the neighborhood if not the whole village. He had a strong built, and a loud rattling voice when angry which scared all his children (even to this day) and grandchildren if he ever made use of it. Ali, Maryam’s five year old cousin used to hide, even when Dada would laugh, because ‘it vibrates my skin’, Ali would say.

Dada had a room right in the center of the house, with a full view of the square courtyard. Tall windows of his room would open in the large airy courtyard while the door would open to a corridor whose other end would steep into a set of an old wooden staircase towards the roof. Since the house was built during pre-partition days, dada feared that the roof of the house had outlived its life and needed to be renewed. And so dada was also the guardian of the roof. Any movement of any kind towards the wooden stairs by the kids and dada’s voice would rattle, ‘LARKAY!’ (always larkay never larki–he always thought only boys could disobey him) enough to explode your heart out with scare. And then he would scream ‘Nalaaik’ until he would hear the hurried footsteps running away out of the corridor, into the courtyard and out of earshot. He would also hear the laughter along with the fading footsteps but no one knew Dada would smile to himself later. Maryam’s cousins would often play this game of sneaking to the roof as a dare by making it there without warning Dada. But Dada never let them win.

For Maryam, her Dada was the best teacher ever—he had taught her something she had feared she could never learn. When Maryam was eight, all her friends knew how to read time except her; she was worried she would never learn how to tell time. Her father would buy her digital watches because she couldn’t read time from the analog ones until one fine winter morning Maryam was sitting on the windowsill of his room watching her Dada weaving an old charpoy with jute strings.

‘Maryam what time does the clock say child?’, he asked as he pulled the jute strings.

Maryam looked inside the room at the clock, ‘Dada it’s a clock with hands. I can’t tell.’

Dada smiled at her. ‘Let’s see. Tell me the position of the fat small hand and the tall thin hand.’ Maryam squinted back in the room. Determined to give Dada the most accurate positions of both hands, she told him, ‘the fat hand is between 10 and 11, and the tall hand is about to leave 6, and the other tall thin hand is now on 3. And now it’s on 4. And—‘

Dada laughed. ‘My dear, this hand keeps on moving. You won’t be able to catch it my child.’ His firm hands patted the jute strings on the charpoy, ‘it’s around half past 10 in the morning. In your digital watch, you call it 10:30 am.’

‘But it’s very difficult to read what the hands are pointing.’ Maryam looked again inside the room from the window and back at her dada. Dada laughed. ‘Then we shall make it easy for our Maryam. Run, bring my watch on the side table.’ So Maryam jumped from the window sill inside the room and brought his watch to him. It was an antique watch with a big brown dial and a brown leather belt. Dada told her the composition of twenty four hours, minutes in each hour and seconds in each minute. He showed her how each number contained five minutes in it if we looked from the point of view of minute hand and how it contained five seconds if we looked at it from the perspective of the seconds-hand. By eleven in the morning, Maryam proudly told him the time in his watch.

‘And for that you get a little gift,’ he told her and gave her his brown belted watch that she carried with her to this day.

Dada also reminded Maryam of Santa Claus sometimes from her story books, only better. All the grandchildren would gather around Dada at night in his room after Isha prayers to listen to a story—a different story each night, and candies afterwards—don’t tell your mothers, he would wink. Dada told the children stories of Adam, of Noah and Abraham, of Ismail and Ishaq, Moosa, Yousuf, Younis, Issa, Muhammad and his companions. It was these stories that built up Maryam’s interest in comparative religions later to pursue her higher studies into.

‘My grandfather gifted me this when I was a child.’ She looked at the old man now reading his newspaper. He looked up. ‘Did you say something child?’ He looked at her through his round shiny spectacles.

‘My grandfather gifted me this watch when I was a little girl,’ she said and smiled. ‘You remind me of him very much.’

‘Then it must be my lucky day, my dear girl,’ he said and folded his newspaper. The Tube stopped and a few people got out. The old lady sitting beside him moved towards the door. ‘Tell me about him.’ He smiled and patted the empty seat beside him. His wedding ring glinted in his old wrinkly left hand.

And so she told him the stories of her dada. Of their house in the village, of his laugh, of his milky white beard, and the candies he used to give to his grandchildren—their little secret—while the parents had no idea. The old man smiled and nodded.

‘I’m just going to pick him up from Heathrow today.’ She told him excitedly. ‘His flight is in two hours. He’s coming to see me on my graduation.’ Her eyes shined.

‘Well, he’s a lucky man.’ He patted her on her hand.

The train began to slow down again. ‘That would be my stop, I’m afraid.’ The old man slowly started to stand up, the cane clutched in his left hand and the newspaper in the right. She stood up, took his right arm gently and walked him towards the door. ‘Thank you for your help Sir,’ she said. ‘With the bag I mean,’ she quickly added. ‘I hope I see you again, I guess? Somewhere?’ she smiled awkwardly. ‘Around here I think?’ She didn’t know what to say. So she smiled again.

He nodded and smiled for a long time. His face pale beard shining in the station lights, his round glasses reflecting her warm embarrassed smile, ‘we all want lovely little grandchildren like you, don’t we?’

One moment

You know how people are found? In a moment. In just one moment. You either find them or you let them go. That one moment, you decide whether you want this person to stay, or let that face be the one that would be lost in the crowd.

Lately, people have been faceless. With too many faces. Too many names. Too many lists in the Excel sheets—the whole bio data. And yet there have been only few who have been in that moment, that you can’t let go.

And yet. And yet there are people who have made some moments their own. For the lifetime. Like owning a song, a word that’s always theirs, a time when you know it would be them missing you, like a typical text on a certain time, or a silly tease, to remind you how you don’t matter to them—or just owning you by complaining to you, whining to you, arguing with you for nothing and telling you they’re praying for you, even though you’re not even sure about yourself.

These are few people, but enough for you. You don’t need more. You want just them to be with you. But you want all of them. Not one less. NOT ONE LESS. You don’t expect more but you can’t take less. You want all of them. Every part of them. But your hands are tied. You can’t do anything to bring them to you. So you pray.

You pray. And you pray. And you pray.

You pray every time of every day. You may cease to exist but you pray.