fiction

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?’

Guard

He is asking for too much money but she gives in. It’s past six on a Friday. If she says no and decides to wait for another one, it’ll probably be too late and she’ll be stuck in traffic for another hour and a half at least. So she gets in the rickshaw.

But she holds her bag a little too tighter from its strap.

The rickshaw-wala starts the rickshaw and adjusts his rear-view mirror so that he has a clear view of her. She curses without moving her lips.

By now she has witnessed this thousands of times probably but she can never used to it. So she does her daily exercise of lifting her dupatta from her shoulders and puts it over her head, brings both ends of it in front and holds them together with one hand, the other hand gripping her bag-strap. This cloth over her head works as her protector right now, from ruining her hair in the polluted, humid Karachi weather and of course from those stares, or at least that’s how she thinks.

The traffic is slow, vehicles too close. The rickshaw crawls along with the rest of the transport. A bike comes twining and comes to a halt right beside the rickshaw. It’s so close she can smell the stink of cigarettes off the clothes of these boys. They peer inside the rickshaw one by one. She pretends she does not notice but can observe their piercing gaze through her peripheral view. One of them smiles.

The traffic moves. The bike manages to zigzag its way through.

The city is changing its color. From blue to yellow to orange.  She sees an old man, stick thin on his crutches standing in the middle of the road, hands stretched out, unfazed by the horrors of the road. She shudders.

Saddar. Burns Road. Narrower streets. Smells of food, of rotten meat, of paan spits, of boiling gutters at sides, the stench is overwhelming. She covers her nose with her scarf. Maybe someday she will get used to it. Some day she won’t care. But today is not the day. The sheer presence of life on these streets is suffocating. Food, men, children, crows hovering above their heads, broken roads, bikers breaking signals rendering traffic officers powerless—this city frightens her. It claws at her. Imagine if there is a bomb blast at a place like this. Where is the security? Who protects these people except God? Imagine if the bomber is right here, lurking among these people, watching, planning his move. Imagine the havoc. The destruction. The lifelessness amongst life. She shakes her head trying to push away the thought of it.

She comes back to reality when the rickshaw-wala takes a turn she doesn’t recognize.Where is he taking her? Her grip tightens on the strap of her bag.  She voices her concern.

“baji ye short-cut hai, fikar na karo aap ko ghar pohuncha dun ga” (it’s a shortcut baji, don’t worry I’ll get you home), he mocks looking at her from the mirror. He does not like to be dictated.

She weighs her options. She can’t jump from this rickshaw on a comparatively empty narrow road, he can catch her easily, she can’t take that risk. She can see some people walking but she doesn’t know if they can help her. Her mind wanders towards her phone. It’s in the bag along with hundred other things. The sky has turned reddish brown by now. It would be fruitless to try searching it. So she resorts to the only help. She starts reciting Ayat-ul-kursi. Soon she is reciting all small surahs she had learnt as a child and promises God that she’ll offer prayer tonight if she’s not raped, killed and thrown in some gutter.

The rickshaw takes a turn towards left and they’re out on a road she can recognize.

She breathes. Her grip loosens a little.

The sky has turned the darker shade of blue.

Another signal. Another set of billboards. Another set of beggars.

A transgender comes towards the rickshaw. He is wearing green clothes, glitter and golden earrings. He has his back on her while he talks on the phone. She quickly zips open her bag and rummages her wallet. He has seen her by now. While still talking on the phone he comes to stand by the side of the rickshaw. The rickshaw-wala watches as a keen spectator from his mirror while she looks for a twenty rupee note.

Koi baat nahin baji das de den” (it’s alright baji, give me ten), the transgender smiles. He has read her mind and peeked into her wallet.

The signal turns green. The rickshaw starts moving slowly. She quickly takes out ten rupees and hands it over to him. The fair colored transgender holds both his hands together in the gesture of gratitude, mouths a ‘thenk-you’ and walks away.

The sky is a shade of gray clouds. It might drizzle if not rain tonight. The moon hides completely behind the thick clouds today. No play today. No pretense.

More green signals. More billboards. More beggars. More streets. She might reach home safe today.

 

 

Author’s Note: My short story ‘Guard’ was featured in November 2016’s East Lit (a journal focused on creative writing, English literature and art specifically from East and South East Asia) issue. Here’s the link to it:

https://www.eastlit.com/eastlit-november-2016/eastlit-content-november-2016/southlit-supplement-november-2016/guard/

Myth

 The sky was cloudless today and he wondered why. Although he was here to explore, but he knew the moods of weather. Not only was the sky cloudless, it was blazing blue. But this was neither shocking nor disappointing for him. This meant more daylight, more time to explore. Sitting outside a small dhaba in Paras, owned by two Balti brothers, he took the first sip of chai and swallowed his buttered paratha. The chai was too strong for his taste but he drank on. The weather too was a little too cold for his Karachiite standards on an October morning. He felt he still needed one more layer of clothing over his shawl and windbreaker. But oh well.

So why did he come to Paras—a small town to the north of Balakot which served as nothing but a route towards further more beautiful north? Why did he come on his own when all he wanted was to forget himself and focus on what lay ahead? Perhaps this was a road to ahead. Perhaps this was the destination. Perhaps this was just the first milestone of accepting things, admitting reality.

This place was neither surreal nor magnificent. There were mountains covered with green moss, a stream of water sprouting here and there eventually flowing into the river. But it was pure—no pretentions. The road outside the small chai shop where he was sitting was broken, but you wouldn’t see the smoke of dust after a vehicle would pass. He could see a rope and wood bridge parallel to the road joining the two sides of a green narrow gushing river which would later join the Indus. But where would this river stream flow after it touched the edge of the road? Did it flow beneath the old metallic road? Did it flow along the road from there on? He didn’t know. He would later take a peek and find out.

But the place did create some stir when he first found out about it. The legend said that Philosopher’s stone was last seen here. That the man who found out about the stone’s reality went a little mad with happiness but then thought about the violence and manslaughter it would cause. The stone made him fear for his life first and then for humanity. By that time he had lost his mind, turned all his metal utensils into gold. That is when he threw the stone in water–nobody knew if it was his madness or himself. That was thousands of years ago.

He did not know which ‘water’ it made reference to. Was it the same river which flowed in front of his eyes right now or had it changed its course, dried up or been long forgotten in the sands of time? Maybe Paras was right there in the same water that flew beneath the road. Maybe if he just tried his luck, the golden-red gleaming stone might find a master after all. Did he know how it looked like? Did he know how big it was— marble sized, pebble sized, fist sized or even bigger?

He didn’t want it for riches or turning into an immortal. No those were vanities. His greed was different. He wanted purpose when everything had failed him. Feelings had just become nouns, people had just become names he once knew, success had become a profanity. This was his first attempt towards a purpose after his perspectives had changed.

He swallowed the last piece of his paratha with a sip of burnt chai and walked towards the edge of the unfenced road. The river did not flow beneath the road from here but flowed along.

This is where it starts. He raised the cup of tea high in his hand and threw it in the flowing river. The white dot of cup touched the surface of water and disappeared.

Amid mountains that surrounded the village and sun that brought the rainbow, Paras looked Beautiful that day.        

Oh Chicago

Oh Chicago, do you see?
You hold my heart
And it kills me.
For when birds fly, you give them the sanctuary
For the ones who’ve lost love, you give them the heart to flee.
But for me, there’s a special grudge,
For how much I await you, you turn away,
you shelter your breed.
The more I miss my love
The more you attract them to thee.
You call them, you kiss them, you engulf them in glee.
And and I, a person of shattered spirits, have nothing to offer, nowhere to retreat.
Oh Chicago, do you see?
How my love is lost in your city?

Redundant

Dang.
It happened yet again.
How many times
after you really understand?
Manipulated, exploited–excruciating pain,
for you they all turned out to be games.
In a land with no beaches,
Mountains I heard and yes, trees with leeches.
‘It’s just a statement’–but times changed.
And so did the seasons.
When temperatures dropped below
I only had cold dry winds that blew,
taking me away from us, from me and you.
The city no longer existed – the memories, laughs or the trees,
Nor did the bling that connected it with you.
And then the chains, the winters came-
the new year that brought you.

You blame me for knowing.
But how would I know?
Oh yes, the hints. The cues,
that shit.
The needles kept pricking,
and the time kept ticking
Until one day
I lost my friend–I lost you.
Only the climax was,
I was this close to changing you.

Bond

Wax work, floral prints

and white sheets in light,

it doesnt make sense

but they entered suddenly

–and deliberately.

And when I tried to

destroy the base,

they made a comeback

from a coffin–or so it seemed.

It got close, closer than far away

closer than I could imagine

but the bubble had to burst.

There was a time when I was excited

but I knew the long run was

trouble and misery.

I heard what they said

but now I know

they had no idea.

The distances mattered,

and so did the days.

So in the end when

we did not remain,

the idea of intellect

bonded us together.

Rain

Rain, it made her alive. There were no excuses. The thunder, the lightening, the dark clouds and the pour, it made everything else feel so mediocre. Like nothing else mattered.

She would rise with the smell of the early rain—of dust and water. Her feet would carry her out, until she could see the sky, feel the first drop of rain. It was an addiction. Really.

She would close her eyes and feel every drop of water upon her body, until she would be soaked in rain. It was a ritual that purified her. It connected her with the heavens above.

You would think it was trance that carried her. But soon she would sit, somewhere in the balcony with a clear view, still drenched, still smiling.

No, she was not brave. Every thunder would make her start; every streak of lightening would close her eyes. But the glitter of eyes would remain and you would see a little girl with renewed dreams looking up at the sky wishing for a shower of confetti and stars and water drops and everything that comes in between.   

 

Never talked

’cause it didn’t matter.

When the sun

set low

and the clouds

sailed slow,

the winds that carried 

with them–old leaves and

twigs away,

brown, stiff and cackling.

They spoke the language

that I never could.

So it didn’t matter

whether you could hear me

or the weather.

We were,

as it reflected

trying to speak the same 

language.

You knew

and understood

and it didn’t matter.

 

She wondered

On an empty, cloudless summer night

Why was it happening now

Just when she had

Decided to forget.

The children’s book read

A silly old story

Which had neither been silly

Nor old

When it was her.

The movie she last watched

When it rained

They grew up together

until it faded away

And now this book

That she had fallen in love with.

A Sigh.

Pause.

Were they signs?

She tried to waiver

Saying, the timing was horrible

But when truth 

Keeps hitting you

in face, she had heard

You needed to listen.

 

False hope

False pretenses

Of moving away

When you existed right here,

long distances

Or the time, does it matter?

Old photographs when we were a team

It didn’t matter whether lost or won

I don’t even remember.

Yes, though I remember candies and school uniforms

And sunny days and dry nights

Windy and dusty,

Always the same, that they made me forget the how the time flew.

Remember peeking from windows?

Or running after children in the evenings

While birds would chirp and trees would swing,

Until they lost their home, their only safe haven?

But then it was only chaos and abyss

Until I tried to figure out what missed

Winters and rain

Would come as they did

You were forgotten and not yet

‘Cause you had your part

to play years later

when we were to be

fresh and new with perspective.

Hurt gone, injuries healed, wounds filled,

But you had to come

to melt a heart and dig the wounds anew.