love

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

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Black, White and Gray

Crossroads

Roads closed

Dreams of faceless people.

Darkness,

Or absence of light,

Tests that determine nothing that was mine.

Patience,

Endurance,

All that false pretense,

Of things that would be,

and people who will change.

Everything, that has been,

Is a mass of contradictions.

Love what we trust, or trust what we love?

It’s a shame it’s all come down to it all over again.

 

 

On living more existing less

I was reading Marina Keegan’s story today and how the book ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ (her collection of essays and short stories) came into being after her death, and realized how we romanticize death and the dead. They are the same people living amongst us, talking to us, hanging out with us, probably even being ignored by us right now. Hell, they are totally us, but we wait for them to die in order to appreciate their living.

In their passing, we mourn the death but not the dead. Would we be doing the same things, talking about them, thinking about them the same way, were they with us? There’s your answer.

It’s not just one story to be told, one book that needs to be published. It’s everyone’s story, everyone’s life. I think for that, we need to write more, communicate more, celebrate more—the people we love, the people who are around us and ourselves.

So maybe we could smile more, laugh more, be kinder, lend our stationery at work, compliment others (and mean them), argue less, discuss more, talk about abstract ideas, perspectives, points of view, agree to disagree openly and make others comfortable with it. And yes, maybe we could be more vocal but more tolerant of others, excited about our ideas but more willing to listen to others’ perspectives, and maybe if we judge less and appreciate more, we’d enjoy what comes across and be open to change more often.

And lastly, to constantly remind ourselves not to be too critical of ourselves. We really need to give that habit a break. Not be too buzzed about that missed job opportunity, that extra money spent on shopping when we could have saved, that conversation that could’ve gone right, that presentation that could’ve persuaded our boss, that offer that might have helped somebody but didn’t, that unreplied text, that book we couldn’t buy—things come and go and this stuff we worry about would not matter in the next year, perhaps even the next month or week. These are things we constantly need to remind ourselves; even better, that nobody is a better friend than we are to ourselves. Gosh, who would even endure us 24/7 if he/she could listen to what was going on in our minds? Even your significant others need a break.

So let’s cherish ourselves while we’re at it, and those we love. And let’s try to bear those too around us who get on our nerves all the time.

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?

Book Review–Ashes, Wine and Dust

“There are no plans, just people fooling themselves by attempting to design their fates and futures. It makes them feel invincible, even if it’s for a transient period of time.”

Ashes, Wine and Dust is the debut novel of Kanza Javed, which was shortlisted for Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2013, making her the youngest and the only Pakistani writer nominated for the prize that year.

Set in Lahore and Washington DC, Ashes, Wine and Dust is a journey of a young girl, Mariam, whose childhood experiences of loss of loved ones and memories associated with them make her feel everything a little more deeply. Thus, since her childhood, she feels more connected with the memories of her dada (paternal grandfather) and less with the rest of the family.

Memories of her childhood friends and confidants 10403138_1186536494695904_912160836046943541_nstill haunt her when she decides to leave for the US for further studies and in search for self-exploration. Thus, America awaits her with the mysterious art work of her uncle who had left her family years ago, his family who no longer cares for his work, and an unexpected incident that leaves her vulnerable in an estranged land. And while Mariam is figuring out on how to cope with her current situation, she finds out about the disappearance of her younger brother, Abdullah.

Alone in a foreign country with a brother missing, she blames herself for Abdullah’s disappearance and eventually travels back home in search of clues which might lead her to him.

As the family goes through the trauma of loss of a loved one and ultimately decides to move on albeit slowly, Mariam hangs on to the clues that Abdullah has left and vows to unite him with their family.

Javed’s Ashes, Wine and Dust is an excruciatingly beautiful read with strong characters that are often difficult to find in a debut novel. The story is gripping and engulfed in such an exuberant tone of despair and desolation of the protagonist that it keeps you in the mood even after you’ve finished the book.

The imagery of Lahore with its canals, food, colourful bazaars (markets) and backdrop of Badshahi Mosque in several scenes brings back the love of Lahore for those who have visited the beautiful city and invites those who still haven’t.

While Ashes, Wine and Dust is a powerfully gripping read till the end, it did let me down towards the end. And although the book ends with a closure, tying all its loose ends, I would have been happier had it ended on a brighter note. Nevertheless, the book is a must read of 2015.

Javed has done a wonderful job writing a novel that is unswerving, profound and painfully beautiful till the very end. Ashes, Wine and Dust would be available across Pakistan by the end of November, so get a copy of the book for a reading full of feels.

 

Average rating: 4.7/5

(This review was first published on ETribune)

Book Review: Their Language of Love by Bapsi Sidhwa

The stories in Their Language of Love are rich and languid, told in a fashion that is engulfed in an affluent and graceful historic aura. Bapsi Sidhwa’s work is not new to me but I fall in love with her writing even more every time I read her. Her short stories are as much witty and sarcastic, vivid yet baffling as her novels. She portrays her characters as people you would meet in your everyday life, and yet they are powerful and inspiring, offering an unpretentious exuberance.

The most attractive part of her work which keeps bringing me back to her is the realistic portrayal of the sub-continental history, before partition and the 60s, 70s, 80s and early 90s, and the depiction of ease with which the local diverse communities would mix. Similarly, Sidhwa’s reminiscence of the roads and streets of Lahore, its nooks and corners, old gates and shrines, with a colorful paint of historical pallor makes one want to go back to the old city and see it with the author’s keen eyes time and again—it never tires you out.

Bapsi Sidhwa’s short stories are based on the theme of reconnection to roots—of culture, background, language and the commonality that brings the sub-continent together—whether it’s Feroza the spoilt American-turned kid, Roshni, the dark Parsi bride on the American soil or Sikander and his family who are trying to adopt the American ways.

The Language of Love (Short Stories) by Bapsi Sidhwa

Rating: 4/5 

Small Places

I like small places. Places with low ceilings, faded rugs, round coffee tables, colored cushions and early morning rays of sun through open windows. Where you could sit at a corner, detached from the world and yet feel connected to everyone in the crowded room who is here to have breakfast, drink coffee, or read a book. Where you could meet your friends or the person you love and show them the secrets this world holds through that window from where the sun shines. Where you could listen to everyone’s voices and whispers and could tell the language they speak—of love, goodness and beauty—but not be able to tell what they might be thinking. Where you could marvel at the people and the life that exists outside that small coffee shop, like a silent movie, without judging their motives unlike those of big places and high ceilings.

Big places with high ceilings and glass floors and high tables make me anxious. They hold mysteries and secrets people are not sure to reveal. Big places give refuge to high pitched laughter which doesn’t reach the eye and to people who are more concerned about what purpose you bring them than whether you would like to have tea or coffee—they wouldn’t care if you like to have both. It’s difficult to gauge their feelings. So I choose small places with big hearts. Small places with memories of seeing each other the first time. Small places and dog-eared books. And paragraphs you’ve read a hundred times and still cannot get over them.

Small places and Sunday mornings and Friday nights, when you have all the time in the world to discuss with them, how time flies and why days change.

Small places where no one cares whether the wooden table is newly polished or why the rug still has coffee stains.

I choose small places because they make me realize of the connection I have with the things that are still alive, and with people who still believe in the magic of faith, truth, love and beauty.

State of Colours

Point of insolvency. Studies. Music. Movies. Farewells. Rejections. Depression. And then it comes over all over again. No, don’t assume my life is only full of miseries. There are pranks, songs, discussions, arguments, ice creams and Biriyani. But again, it’s only one part of the picture. Other side is always dark, more like the rough surface of the glass which makes mirror a mirror. If it weren’t for the rough surface, you wouldn’t be able to look at yourself in the mirror.

But I was talking about the farewells. Ever wondered why these farewells happen? Are there ever any happy farewells? What would happen if we just left one day, not being able to bid farewell to anyone? People, who we love, people who love us.

I am not really sure what I am writing about. It’s an alien, unsung, obscure feeling. Feeling of dropped ice-cream on the shirt, of a missed class, a missed deadline, an unmarked quiz, a missed family. It’s like a bottomless guilty feeling when you can’t keep a record of your younger sibling’s exams, and crack your own family jokes that no one else can ever understand. It’s even more hurting that you can’t advice what your younger siblings should go for; the way you were career counselled. It’s only more remorseful. No more detailed talking because you are simply not there. It is simply like: you are nowhere. A nut would even be more satisfied with itself.

It’s a feeling when you want to cry, but tears never come out, you want to scream but your voice hurts to make a sound, you want to break all the clutter and emerge out as plain white. But all of this looks decent when you think about it or maybe write it down, I don’t know how it would look if I say it out loud. I may be better at debating, arguing and making my point about things where you need logic and make a sensible point but this may not even look sense.

Maybe I might explain myself better if I use only words rather than sentences. Sentences make things complicated. Words make it look simple and plain. Or maybe colours will make it more beautiful and honest, so I’ll just stick to colours.

Bright, shiny nail colours that I seldom put because they make me feel a lot more like a girl.

Black and white photocopied handouts whose smell makes me go crazy but no more attracts me to read them. I have conditioned myself to the surroundings I dwell.

That big white chart labelled “timetable” that I’ve pasted on my wall above my study table to remind me of the day I get free of a never ending semester.

Those blue and black ‘crosses’ I made on her feet and kept on drawing until she swore at me and told me that it was time to get admitted in the biggest mental asylum that coincidentally is located in my city.

The Dark brown stains of chocolate on shirt which were a result of late night ice-cream licking. The phenomenon explained me that it’s not only 10 year olds who lick chocolate ice-creams but 21 year old sane friend who just ‘wanted to look cute.’

Loud dark red jamming sessions of previous seasons of Coke Studio being played as late as 3 in the morning just to explain your friends how inspired you are with the Sufi music. Providing translations along comes as an additional point altogether.

Walks under the dark blue sky only so that the sky would know you were there. No more witnesses. I want to be sure I am alone.

Light blue of Twitter and dark blue of Facebook. I only think how better or worse my life would have been if they were not there. But perhaps they wonder the same.

A plain (but not colourless) text from your mom who never uses text as a medium to communicate, makes you want to leave everything, run back home and tell her the how you love her.

A dark brown coffee, hot but tasteless just made because I demanded it from a friend. No milk in it of course.

A bright coloured smile from a teacher that just made your day for no reason.

A state of black depression.

I have more colors; colours of mischief, of colors of friendship, of joint depression, of sleepless nights, of endless laughs, of exploding anger, of heated debates, of sarcastic humor, of bhangra and party, of karaoke and cheap gaanay and Qawali, and Sufism and in-process genres of melodies that we invented ourselves; of people we talked about and knew they would be talking about us. I know of colours that even nature hasn’t even named yet. Colours that we all know of, but have second thoughts about sharing them.

 

(27 May, 2012)