notes

Of a thousand thoughts

Thoughts float. It’s never that no one is not thinking, but I am always thinking a thousand things at a time. My thoughts wander farther than an Albatross’s flight without landing. Before people start speaking, I make up their present and future in my head. I miss out on people’s names. Because when they’re introducing themselves, I am thinking about what they’re going to say next, even though I remember their first impressions, because that’s what they made me feel for the first time and first times are important. For instance, do you remember the first time someone texted you and you clicked right away even though you had never known them before—like trying on a long-sleeved sweater for the first time in the trial room and feeling like that wool was especially knit out for you. One of my closest friends and I had our first encounter via text. It wasn’t a coincidence because we knew we were going to the same college—which is precisely why we texted each other in the first place—but we didn’t know our fate would be so intertwined. We were set up like friends try to set you up on a date with their friends—except that it was my father and her uncle who set us up. Two young girls from the same city were going to college all on their own to another city with no prior experience of living alone—you were bound to need good company. And so contact numbers were exchanged. We were expected to like each other, although there was no pressure. But by the end of six weeks when met each other on the college campus, we recognized each other amongst hundreds of kids like we had known each other since forever—and no there had not been any exchange of pictures before; I didn’t have a Facebook account.

So when I’m looking at you, I am trying to listen to you and nod at appropriate times but I am also thinking about what you’re thinking, other than what you’re saying. Are you looking at my nose that I don’t like, or my eyes that are trying not to blink, or my mouth that constantly keeps moving for the lack of doing anything else, or just generally looking at my overall face, which rarely happens for people? (If I am not thinking about these things, then I have probably a close relation with you). I’m also thinking about what you will say next, because you will find me completing your sentences for you. But if that happens, that would only mean two things—either you’re older and I respect you, or you’re someone new that I’m trying to be really polite with. But I often wonder about what people think when they’re looking at other people and talking, because sometimes talking can be very distracting. Other times, people are just like me.

There was a time when I tried to look at people’s feet while they talked because I had read somewhere that that the direction of your toes meant that your interest lied there. So if you talked to my friend but your toes faced me, you were not interested in her. But my experience told me that was not true. People’s toes face the direction of where they have to go next, not necessarily where they want to go next; their direction also changes with their movement, there is no hidden meaning.

My thoughts when I look at people also think about their privilege or lack thereof. Of whether the haircut they had, was allowed by their parents or if they are the master of their own little decisions. If the Hilux Revo they drive is the fruit of their own earning or if it was transferred to them by their dad by virtue of his wealth.

My thoughts wander about a million things when I talk to you. I try to remain coherent but there are inner monologues that I’m always trying to respond to—nothing to do with you, just my own head trying to remember a sad song from four years ago whose lyrics I can’t remember, along with nine hundred ninety nine thousand nine hundred ninety nine other things.

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Mother tongue

You know how your mother tongue separates you?

In answering your phone, sitting between your friends

when your brother asks when to pick you up;

in the surprising tone of your colleague who tells you how

your accent is different from those whose language you call as your own.

I carry my language in surprise of people’s faces and sometimes in my own,

when I recognize a native smile,

a nod, a curse word intended as a joke

and in the folds of long forgotten songs.

Yesterday my friends and I sang Sindhi festive songs at a superstore in low voices

while we were in the spice section and giggled

at why these songs never made sense and yet we knew them all.

Sometimes languages aren’t meant to voice opinions,

they’re intended to connect dots,

of people, maps, rivers;

draw lines of love between strangers.

I carry my mother tongue both as a burden and as a privilege,

of knowing all those sounds and words that emanate feelings and emotions

that are not known in other languages.

And yet,

sometimes words are never enough,

it’s the association of language that suffices.

Author’s note: The above piece was published in New Asian Writing (NAW) recently and can be viewed here: http://www.new-asian-writing.com/mother-tongue-by-paras-abbasi/

Day 10 in Quarantine: Life in the midst of chaos

As I listen to the slightly subdued voices of our neighbors wishing one of their family members a happy birthday at the change of the date at midnight, I suddenly start with a pang of reality hitting me in the face—there is life in the midst of chaos. As they finish the ‘Happy Birthday’ song with a loud cheer at the end of it and ask the birthday person to blow the candles—blame my room at the end of the house and absence of fans whirring for listening to every word of it—I am reminded of how birthdays would continue to come, children will be born, weddings will take place, and people will continue to fall in love despite death at our doors; and thus life will go on.

A few days ago, I read about a couple who said their wedding vows on a street in NYC while one of their friends read the vows to them from the window of an apartment building, the photographers took their wedding shots and passers-by took photos of the couple from their phones to record the surreal moment, and I wondered if there’s a possibility that the world might be ending. The question seems far-fetched, but so does the absolute denial of severity of lives at risk. People seem unperturbed—Italians, Spanish, Pakistanis, the governments of first world countries, conspiracy theorists, politicians; it seems as if cultures and Capitalism has taken a better part of us. Wage earners have been made an excuse rather than the governments’ responsibility to provide for them.

There is anxiety, confusion, ignorance and poverty, furthering as each day passes by; and then there is privilege—money, boredom and plenty of time to do ‘nothing’. And that ‘nothing’ translates into anxiety, misinformation and indulgence into an abyss of emotions ominous at present.

And yet there is nature. Thriving—despite the human suffering. The nature cures itself as the number of infections increase, the death toll surges—as the air quality improves and I witness cold breeze in the month of March in Karachi; canals in Venice have cleared up they say; deers have come out on the roads in Japan from the wild; Ozone is showing a remarkable self-recovery. Is it balancing it out? The pain with healing? Or perhaps it’s just how the nature works—endearing, undaunted, daring? We would never understand. Camus resolves this dilemma for us, ‘But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.’           

The world might not end yet. Our children might grow up and have their children and grand children. We may live to tell the tale of social isolation in the time of technology that virtually connected us across the globe, when we took off the stickers of our devices’ cameras voluntarily to let people see our faces and the inside of our rooms—for work, for studies, for connecting with friends across the globe who we had not seen in years. And yet there would be a slight doubt in that memory because everything felt so unreal, movie-like—empty roads, silent streets, mass graves, lit up cities with no tourists, the sound of applause from balconies, windows, excited cheers animated at the noise of another cheer, until everything is only validated by history.

Mockery of the Pandemic

Spatter. Rub. Repeat. Spatter your sanitizer. Rub your hands. Repeat the process. Wash your hands. Soap. Foam. Rub. Rinse. Repeat.

Make sure to replenish the sanitizer. But, um, um, don’t hoard. Be a good citizen. Think about others. Don’t waste water while you rub your hands with the foam. Think about what would happen if Karachi locks down. No tankers. No water. Can you envision what I can?

Buy grocery items. For a month at least. Everyone is saying so. Even if you have everything you need at home. Everyone is saying so. No sugar in stores already? No flour? No besan (gram flour)? What are people doing? Are they hoarding for Ramzan already? Bastards. What kind of Muslims are they? No consideration for fellow Muslims? But there are other humans too besides Muslims. Don’t try to correct me. This is no time to be politically correct.           

Spatter. Rub. Repeat. Spatter your sanitizer. Rub your hands. Repeat the process. Wash your hands. Soap. Foam. Rub. Rinse. Repeat.

And socially distance yourself. To flatten the curve. But capitalism is going to kill you. If you don’t go to work, they will deduct your salary. Your boss is going to call you. Curse you. You have to make him happy. Make the bosses happy. Even when they can’t make a strategic decision. What about working from home? They have let half the employees to work from home. The other half— which is perhaps too reviled by their families—has to come to work until ‘the virus spreads on a significant level’. But don’t worry, the company is socially responsible. They give out masks, have replaced cheap handwashes in washrooms with Lifebuoy bottles and have segregated elevators into even and odd floors to control the elevator traffic.

Mind boggled with stupidity. Have you seen what happened in Italy? Iran?

“Just wear your mask. But perhaps not the gloves. Gloves don’t help.”

“Does the mask help?”

“Only hygiene helps.”

“Don’t spread panic. Your constant posting of fake news doesn’t help.”

But I’m only stating facts”.

“The offices should be closed now. It’s the center-point of spread of the epidemic.”

“Come on, don’t be too dramatic. The country will shut down eventually.

“Are you even listening to what WHO is saying?”

“No need. I already know what is going to happen. The numbers will surge. Hospitals will overflow with patients. The government will have to lockdown. I know. They can’t handle it. That is why I told you to stockpile. The world is going to end. Even though I didn’t want to die as yet. Poor, broke and dead. What an unfortunate life.”  

Spatter. Rub. Repeat. Spatter your sanitizer. Rub your hands. Repeat the process. Wash your hands. Soap. Foam. Rub. Rinse. Repeat.

You won’t die.

“But I want to save others from my exposure.”

I don’t want to go to work either.

Music in my neighbor’s backyard

I’ve been trying to write lately but my thoughts wander. It’s been about changes in life, embracing growing up, growing old and of noticing changes that makes you realize that it’s not so scary growing old after all. There will always be people who, when you meet, talk about the same reservations that you have about this trickery of growing old, and so all of a sudden, you’re not alone. There’s always nostalgia, fatigue and the sharply advancing generation around you that makes you realize that late twenties might not be the ‘sought after’ age to be–that’s only till twenty-three. I’ve been listening to this live gig from my room at this hour from our neighbor’s backyard. It’s an intimate gathering—from the noise of it, a bunch of friends, laughter, guitar and songs. It’s almost Spring—where your rooms are cold enough at night to keep the fans turned off, but windows opened, so I can listen to the chatter and every stroke of the pick on guitar. From the looks of it, the company is my age—they have played Wo Lamhay, Tum he tou ho, Wake me up when September ends, The Fray. I don’t know why but it makes me feel connected. Millennials, the depressed generation, the pioneers of social media, generation with the highest suicide rate—somehow we find the reason to connect. The boy who sings is a little rough with his voice but he plays the instrument alright. He plays Wo Lamhay while I carry out ablution, plays Tum he tou ho, while I pray and think about a thousand things unconsciously that the song reminds me of. I’ve started reading W.B Yeats today and was planning to finish a part of the book but the music from my window asks me to write—about unfinished tasks, unfulfilled promises, almost-happiness, driving at night without the music on, unresolved resolutions, lists on my phone and in my notebook and about people close to my heart; in books, in pictures and in real life.

Two of the boys sing Atif’s Ye Meri Kahani and I remember the first the time I heard the song. I still think about the little optimistic girl I used to be. It’s like a reel unraveling. I wonder how it would be moments before you’re going to die. Are there going to be flashbacks? Of good moments and the worse? Or is it going to be all blank? No memories retained, nothing lost?

It has started to rain. Boys have stopped playing. Winter is over. I do not await the summer.

August – weddings

It’s halfway through 2019. But you left your heart somewhere in late 90s, early 2000s, when you didn’t know how things worked.
Standing in the middle of a segregated wedding where women laugh a second too openly, and walk around a bit too comfortably, there are things you love and things you hate. Things that have long become contradictions. Old wedding songs that you’ve seen your cousins dance to all your life are playing again. You smile, because it has so much baggage–of cousin weddings, of accidentally plopping one of your feet in the mud in a dark street full of strangers, of little children you became friends with until they left one day and of forgotten memories that rush through when old Bollywood wedding songs play in the background.
You’re back in the city where your heart has always been, even though they don’t take care of it anymore. You hate it for the streets that have become narrower, the winds that have calmed down; but as you drive around the empty roads past midnight when even the farthest places in the city fall 5 minutes away like you’ve always known them to be, your heart comes back to its place.

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You’re back in the city with all your old friends and memories and you don’t want to admit it but it’s painful. Painful that you have to grow up, painful that you have to leave one day, painful that everything eventually comes back to leaving people and places and songs and happiness that you grew up with. So when you look at your friend, donned in red and gold, her parents both happy and sad in the midst of dancing women and fireworks and confetti and songs in your mother-tongue that make you want to dance and laugh, even though you don’t know all the lyrics; you want the time to stop ticking. Because it’s been too much; you’ve grown too old and too scared. ‘Scattered’ is the word that now scares you. Scattered homes, scattered friends, scattered places where you left pieces of your heart. So you try to collect all the memories of things you have loved about this city. It’s not the same city that you once grew up in, but it has the footprints of everything you’ve been through.
(Picture courtesy: OMG moods)

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!’ shaking your head 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 with the winds. I always thought it was silly. 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 foot 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 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 Huda when she was at school. We sat by the steps of our front door. Nina told me about her husband, who works for the government and about their seven year old son who they lost to a seasonal fever. I didn’t know it was still possible. 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 yellow 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 so 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 the 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 and smiled, 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 on the planet.

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 smiles have 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 that 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 October 31st. May be Huda can be a little witch on Halloween.

 

Love,

Hadi

Author’s note: Love Letters to the Dead has been published in 9th issue of Confluence Magazine UK, a litersry magazine funded by Arts Council England. It can be found here: https://www.confluencemagazine.co.uk/confluence-issue-9

Of Organizing

In my struggle to make sense of this otherwise unpredictable world, I had always resorted to organizing things around me. I knew I couldn’t control time, so I naturally became its treasurer.

I would organize my work bag IMG-20181103-WA0053-1once a month, save all my receipts, undo my closet twice a month and redo it, clean all the surfaces regularly that I would come in contact with, stack books over one another either by their themes or titles or size, make elaborate notes of readings so neat and organized that some of those are still being used by my younger siblings; give away clothes and shoes I wasn’t wearing anymore to clear space, and categorize pieces of cleaning cloths based on things they would clean. My workspace would always have all the things I needed and not an ounce more. I would either shred papers I didn’t need or reuse them. I wouldn’t call myself a clean freak but I had a fascination for organization–obsession if you would. My computer has layers and layers of folders organized into themes, categories, dates and time so I would never forget what happened when.

But then a point came when I started to forget—things, minute events, scheduled work, deadlines—replaced by memories that I wanted to suppress. It wasn’t all of a sudden, but I all can remember is, I slowly began procrastinating on my organization, because I was scared to admit that the disorder around me was due to chaos in my mind. What was once a source of contentment was slowly turning into mayhem. It was deeply disturbing and impeding—more like blockages in the veins but I had so much to do and had so little time. In a haste of losing, and disbelief of what I had already lost, I began setting reminders and alarms and sticking scribbled notes to things to remind me of what I needed to do.

At a point it became so overwhelming that I couldn’t trust what I had written for myself. So I decided to return to organizing. I began from scratch. Little by little. I emptied my bags. Washed them. Filled them first with things of necessity, then of leisure. Made new playlists while listening to old ones, to remind me of passage of a lifetime that once was. Transferred years of data in a hard drive should my computer decide to pull a stunt like me. Undid and redid my wardrobe on the basis of frequency of clothes I wore. Gave away some. Deposited my old receipts and cleared my workspace both at work and home. Felt my head a hundred pounds lighter.

I’m still working on remembering stuff. But it’s so much easier. Because I’ve accepted what happened was the best it could have rather than questioning why it really happened. I know some things are not in our control and time will fly but we need some reins to make sure things that are ours—our imagination and the space that elevates it—remain that way.

 

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.