She often comes late to work. Nobody really minds but her boss doesn’t appreciate it. Although he does ask about it once. Her excuses are fickle. She says she comes late because she has to prepare breakfast for her mother who is old. ‘But you could make her breakfast early and leave for work on time?’
‘Yes but then I have to give her medicines too.’ She drags her words a little when she doesn’t have good answers.
‘Can’t the medicines be given a little early too?’ her boss asks still pretending composure. ‘Yes sir. No sir. Actually, she’s very old so I give her the medicines myself’, she shifts from one foot to another. She has a little problem standing on her feet for too long these days. The doctor has asked her to go for physiotherapy but she’s been procrastinating because it is not covered in the company’s medical insurance. ‘Just try to reach office till 9:30’, her boss finally closes the discussion. ‘Yes sir’, she pauses, thinks, ‘okay sir’, she puts a full stop. She’s not satisfied with how it ended, but she drags her feet away and out from his office and towards her workstation.
She must be around 57. Or at least that’s what the younger employees think. She hasn’t given the company much—she’s a data operator—just her years of service. She comes late, leaves early and works around three hours in total if we count her individual contribution per day. Most of the time she forgets her due assignments and someone has to remind her politely what she has been missing. People are generally considerate of her old age.
Ms. Raima is a short stubby lady who wears long Kameez with chappals that make distinct noise of dragging feet from ten meters away. She dyes her hair a shade darker than blonde whose roots she gets renewed after every 15 days. ‘You know Papa doesn’t particularly like unkempt hair.’ She explains. Her favorite person in the world is her father—only he’s not in this world anymore. She calls him Papa. She mentions Papa at least once every day. She mentions him in the present tense. So if you were new around her, you would think Papa is alive. So Papa likes to take a nap in the afternoon, he thinks it’s good for health. Papa always thinks highly of people who wear white. It’s Papa’s favorite color. Papa’s favorite poet is Ghalib, he absolutely loves his poetry—and so she does too.
When she does not come to work one day and you ask her the next day, just out of courtesy, the reason of her absence, she tells you that it was Papa’s 11th death anniversary yesterday; it’s only then that you realize that Papa has actually been gone for more than a decade now. ‘You know Papa never likes to make a big deal out of anything, so I just took leave to recite Quran all day and make some Biryani and distribute it among my sisters and brothers and their children. No big deal. But it took all day.’ Her eyebrows shoot up while her head nods. ‘I didn’t want to come today—I was so tired, but Papa doesn’t appreciate when people take their work for granted, so I had to come.’
She has been working in the company for more than 18 years now but she still doesn’t have a decided commute to and from the office. She hails a different rickshaw every day after work and tells him the route to her house. No matter how the situation of the roads of Karachi is—due to traffic, protests, exhibitions, presence of high government officials in the city—the rickshaw has to take the route she dictates—because, that’s the best possible route to her place.
Most of the colleagues in her department are male except three younger women—one of them sits right across her. She really likes her. Whenever the girl wears a new dress, she asks her to stand up and show her how it looks. The girl mostly feels awkward but obliges. She then nods her head and smiles, and tells her that the dress looks lovely. ‘Light colors suit you very much. I don’t wear light colors to office because I come by rickshaw and there is so much dirt in the air that the clothes get ruined on the way’, she says. ‘Most of my dresses I wear are old ones. Beta, why would someone ruin their new clothes for office?’ She asks the girl. ‘It’s a waste of money.’ She shakes her head. But then she smiles and takes the girl’s hand, her voice goes down conspiringly, ‘you know, you should rather be saving this money for your wedding.’
Nobody understands where her money goes to. She earns a handsome salary after 18 years of service and doesn’t have most obligations people her age have. She didn’t marry, in case you were wondering.
But she should really go see a physiotherapist now. The drag in her feet while walking is increasing and so are her complaints. She’s been taking off every other week and can’t stand properly for more than two minutes. She also offers her prayer on a chair and feels cold even when it’s 37 degrees outside. Her colleagues wouldn’t mind otherwise but when she asks the office boy in the middle of the noon to go and turn off their side of the air conditioning, it does get really hot and suffocating—until someone passive-aggressively starts whining about how hot it is outside today that even the ACs are not working and the other person replies that the ACs are working but theirs have been turned off because Ms. Raima was feeling cold, that Ms. Raima realizes that it’s time to restore the system to normal.
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?’
You know how people are found? In a moment. In just one moment. You either find them or you let them go. That one moment, you decide whether you want this person to stay, or let that face be the one that would be lost in the crowd.
Lately, people have been faceless. With too many faces. Too many names. Too many lists in the Excel sheets—the whole bio data. And yet there have been only few who have been in that moment, that you can’t let go.
And yet. And yet there are people who have made some moments their own. For the lifetime. Like owning a song, a word that’s always theirs, a time when you know it would be them missing you, like a typical text on a certain time, or a silly tease, to remind you how you don’t matter to them—or just owning you by complaining to you, whining to you, arguing with you for nothing and telling you they’re praying for you, even though you’re not even sure about yourself.
These are few people, but enough for you. You don’t need more. You want just them to be with you. But you want all of them. Not one less. NOT ONE LESS. You don’t expect more but you can’t take less. You want all of them. Every part of them. But your hands are tied. You can’t do anything to bring them to you. So you pray.
You pray. And you pray. And you pray.
You pray every time of every day. You may cease to exist but you pray.
When past makes a detour, it’s almost as if we’re not ready. We’ve tried to let go of things—no matter how pretty, how beautiful–and it’s been excruciating. They sting—reminding us of what are made of: shy smiles, coconut flavored candies, board games, anxiety attacks, pure glee.
For some it wanders—the past. For others, it comes back, like it’s written to connect the dots that we didn’t understand as kids. Things we had to let go but weren’t ready to do so. So past makes a comeback. For closure. Only, past is not as we’ve always imagined, not as we have lived. Is it playing with us? Are we hallucinating? It’s an old trick. Only Past would know.
Past has gotten old, just like we have. Twelve years older. But past is happy. Proud. Past is proud that we had to go through him, and just when we were getting used to his presence, he had to leave. But Past is back now. To commend, to applaud, to tell us that he would not desert us again. Past now has wrinkles, instead of worries, all at their perfect places. Past has learnt to smile more, to tell more and is more eager to listen to what we have to say. It’s been more than a decade since we lost contact—or since he decided to flee—but he is not here to stay either. Past promises to visit again, with more surprises—but this time with future. Soon past would become our future.
Things would change. No more chasing little girls playing, no more nursery rhymes or hide and seek in the shades of trees, no more peeking from windows too tall for our height. When past decides to bring in future, all the leaves would have shed, October gone, welcoming the onslaught of early snow and December. Future-past would bring campfire and melted snow, grown up kids, their eyes filled with amber and glow.
Past has promised that things would change, because once again we’ve opened the Pandora box that we had buried under heaps of sand.
But this time, things would change. We would keep our hopes but we won’t let past dictate our show. Past has the choice to come but we won’t mind if it decides to change its home.
Some people remind us of seasons—of the changing time and everything that changes with it.
Monsoon rains that would come in June some time ago when they were with you, have now disappeared, just like they did.
When leaves dry up, turn into yellowish green, and orange and then blow in the streets with howling wind in the fall, that’s when you get a glimpse of them. It’s a depressing scene but when were they ever cheerful? The voice of the winds is harsh but why is it that you always found them considerate and thoughtful even after they left?
Some people remind us of seasons.
A lonely walk on a snowy path in December and they accompany you with their warm hands in yours. They don’t say much so that you can listen to the silence of the snow and the beat of your steps on the ground, but their smile is as warm as a blanket. They might have left the place but have made their mark on your heart.
Some people remind us of seasons.
Of rain and rainbows and then the long awaited sunshine. They are those who dance with you in rain, look for rainbows during the pour, get bored and take them with you. They are those who await sunshine just like they had waited for rain and you.
And when the sun comes out, they would come out and follow its route, but never leave you behind. They would get tanned, burn in the sun until they’ve lost themselves but they would take a part of you with them.
Some people remind us of seasons. When they change, the world changes with them so that nothing remains the same.