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 once 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.
August 8, 2016. Bomb blast in Quetta outside a hospital killing more than 70 people, injuring several others. Did anyone ever think of the possibility of a bomb blast in a hospital? Well, now we do. How many other places like that? How many more innocent civilians? How many more soldiers, police officers, in the line of fire protecting these civilians? How many more innocent human beings? How many more of such incidents to completely desensitize us? Do we still mourn? Do we even feel the loss we are going through constantly, persistently—or have we lost it completely?
Have we become braver or just indifferent? Because ‘bravery’ is a quality and indifference is the absence of humanity. Every day I leave for work, I observe people heading to their offices, children for their schools—everyone in a hurry, breaking signals, beeping horns despite knowing there’s traffic ahead—that no one’s blocking their way on purpose, rendering traffic police powerless and frustrated. Nobody is bothered about the fact that they are heading towards the same destination eventually. That they all want to get to work. That they all have the same purpose. That no one is wasting their time intentionally. It’s a daily ritual. A car hits another. Both drivers come out, cars abandoned in the middle of the road, engage in verbal abuse—traffic blocked behind, none of them caring. Few others join them as spectators. Hardly anyone comes up to disengage them. Everyone is afraid. Weapons might come out, shots might be fired. Nobody wants to get involved. Everyone wants to witness, break some news later. I look at the sheer irony of it.
Workplace is a blessing. Friendly people, empowering work, friends to hang out with, coworkers to have a good time with, it’s almost a different world. Until reality kicks in. I log on to a local news website. There are honor killings, security threats, mourning letters from the families of those killed in the latest acts of terror. I overhear a coworker saying, ‘there have been security threats after the Quetta blast. There’s always calm before the storm.’ The hair at the back of my neck rise as I take it in. it’s always been true for Karachi.
The city has already been on high security alert because of the Independence month. People have been seen happier than most days because of the pleasant weather and a relative peace. But everyone secretly knows that schemes have been brewing—some people can never tolerate peace in this city. Quetta just might have been a reminder. So what do people do? Do they need to be brave? Or do they have to be indifferent? Brave has to endure pain willingly. Indifference makes you numb. Brave shows signs of life. Indifference is the death of the soul before demise.
I don’t believe we’re just dead. Perhaps we’ve been killed. Once, twice, thrice, and then all over again. It had been excruciating the first time it happened, but with time it became easier. We still feel when our soul is ripped apart. But every time, the pain is less. Every time the soul feels less violated. Perhaps we are getting stronger at this. And that perhaps is the paradox.
I realize I don’t have solutions; I am part of the problem myself. But I want to feel more, to feel alive. To make myself feel human. And so, while I can’t stop the bloodshed, I pray. I pray for the lack of indifference, for strength, for being part of a solution—I pray for life.
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:
We all try to live beyond our boundaries sometimes, do weird things just to please the inner child of ours—things that are neither too adventurous nor too scary but they give us a sense of exhilaration anyway.
It had been some time since I’d done something that made me feel like a I was still in my early twenties and not an old mid-thirties hag that had nothing to do in life but follow the same old job routine and read a book every week or watch movie or meet a few old friends and discuss how boring life could be and well, you get the idea.
So this one cold night of January (as cold as it could get in Karachi) on the deserted roads of DHA Phase VIII, around mid-night, while we were riding back home in my friend’s Vigo, she suggested we go sit at the open back of the vehicle to get the feel of winter. We did. Now since the driver had to do some chores from here and there (in Defence), the total ride duration was about half an hour to forty minutes. I had no idea it could get that long. The problem was, I was not wearing anything over my thin chiffon shirt (considering the Karachi weather) and as soon as my friend suggested to sit at the back of the vehicle, I had the fleeting imagine of Emma Watson from Perks of Being a Wallflower—where she stands up at the back of her pickup in flying posture with blaring music in their ears and Charlie looks at her and everything around him and says those infamous lines, ‘and in that moment, I swear we were infinite’—and I thought maybe this could be my chance of being infinite in those empty roads and sodium lights and good company and pleasant music that blared in our ears, but well, this was real life and nothing turns out right in real life, does it? I realized I had more pressing problems at the moment, for instance that the driver had suddenly started speeding up (probably just to give us a feel of what it feels like to have hitting the bloody sea winds in your face when you’re driving parallel to the sea) and was crossing 100 conveniently; my hands were suddenly too numb to hold on the fat iron pipes and my phone at the same time while my friend was shrieking with cold; my delicate glasses which had come loose these days and would fall on the tip of my nose before me realizing they were slipping down on dangerous levels would fly miles away had I even dared to move my face teeny bit here or there rendering me almost blind on the lovely night like that. But most importantly, what spared me from standing up and doing the Emma Watson stunt was the situation of my bowels which had filled me with the pressing need to use the washroom (which I’d been delaying for hours now), what with the cold wind bellowing at me from all directions and the driver’s insistence on continuing with the current speed. Needless to say, I thought I’d pass out of all the stress of gripping the fat cylindrical iron pipe with one hand while clutching my cell phone with the other (I swear at one point I thought I might get thrown away by the wind itself), at the same time focusing on not moving my head or my glasses would fly away and resisting my bowels not to give away at this crucial time or my friend would hate me forever for ruining her brand new Vigo.
Thank God, I didn’t pass out at least. But I didn’t enjoy the cold Karachi night by the sea either. It was such a bloody relief when I saw us entering the gate of our plaza and ran all the way towards the elevator up till the 13th floor straight towards the washroom.
The lesson of the story is that kids, it does not end like the movies. It never ends like the movies.
Author’s note: However, gladly, in between everything that was going on with me, I succeeded in making a small of video of us enjoying the little ride. So at least that’s a pro.
There are moments when time stops and you cannot think beyond that moment. It’s very Paulo Coelhoic, unreal, and philosophic to imagine, but there are times when you stop and ask, why so much pain and suffering?
Death looks so much easier. But then when is it that you live for yourself? It’s always about other people.
(March 4, 2013)