stories

Reminiscence: Of past and present

She stepped in quickly as the doors closed. She silently heaved a sigh of relief for making it on time. By the time the next train left from Piccadilly stop, it’d be a little too late. All the seats were taken—as expected—except one at the far end of the car. She made a beeline for it; she would squeeze her way through even if she had to. Although few people were still standing, she had succeeded in getting herself (and her over-sized bag) a seat, setting herself between the wall and a big white guy.

She looked her phone. 1:35 pm. I’ll make it in time. I’m just being overly anxious. While she was putting the phone back in her pocket clumsily, her unzipped bag on her lap fell upside down. And it was a chaos within the two square feet. Old receipts, scribbled notes, a wrist watch, her wallet, old bracelets, pens and colored markers and things and broken pieces you could never put together or let go off came out spilling on the floor. It was like your secrets suddenly being revealed to the world of what you’re not sure yourself. She hurriedly started picking up the things and stuffing them in her bag, too embarrassed to even look at what might even have fallen. The white guy beside her grunted before bowing down and helping her pick up a few things for her. ‘I’m really sorry’, she kept muttering to him, ‘so sorry, please don’t bother’, until he got embarrassed and turned the other way completely facing his back on her. The only other person who was now helping her pick her stuff up was an old man sitting right in front of her, who had left his seat slowly and come down on his knees to help pick up her things. She repeated her lines, ‘please don’t bother’ as she put her wallet and several colored pens back in the bag. He merely waved his hand and smiled like it didn’t matter anything for him. She turned red and looked down for more dropped things, not knowing what to say. Several moments passed between them silently collecting things and putting them back in her bag. ‘You are lucky this one didn’t break dear.’ The old man nodded towards an old watch—leather belted, brown dialed. ‘You should wear it, not tuck it away in that purse of yours.’ He smiled and his whole face smiled with him. ‘Flaunt it like the young lady you are.’ How can two people from two different worlds resemble each other so much? She thought.

She looked at the watch and then him, ‘it’s too precious’, she smiled and put it back in her bag. He smiled and nodded. ‘Hmmmm. Hmm.’ He almost said to himself and then struggled to get up from the floor with the help of his wooden cane.

She felt guilty.

‘May I help you getting up, erm, sir?’

‘That would be very kind of you dear.’ His head was bowed in a struggle to get up.

She quickly got up and took an arm of his while he put the rest of his weight on the cane and tried to get up. ‘There there. I got it.’ The old man sighed as he sat back on his seat. She could see how his wrinkles had doubled from this physical activity of getting up from the floor.

He reminded her of her dada so much.

————

He always had that white beard for as long as she could remember. It led her into believing that all the grandfathers of the world had long white beards—like it was a pre-requisite. So when her friend Sara took her once to her place to meet Sara’s grandfather, she told her that Sara was mistaken and that it could not be her dada. Sara was furious. ‘But how can he be your dada when he doesn’t have a white beard?’ Maryam had asked her.

Going to their village was the favorite time of the year for Maryam (and her siblings). For Maryam’s two brothers, it would mean more Cricket. For their oldest sister Aashi, it would mean cousins. For Maryam, it would mean more time with dada jaan.

Dada had been a retired school headmaster which was why he enjoyed a certain status in the bigger part of the neighborhood if not the whole village. He had a strong built, and a loud rattling voice when angry which scared all his children (even to this day) and grandchildren if he ever made use of it. Ali, Maryam’s five year old cousin used to hide, even when Dada would laugh, because ‘it vibrates my skin’, Ali would say.

Dada had a room right in the center of the house, with a full view of the square courtyard. Tall windows of his room would open in the large airy courtyard while the door would open to a corridor whose other end would steep into a set of an old wooden staircase towards the roof. Since the house was built during pre-partition days, dada feared that the roof of the house had outlived its life and needed to be renewed. And so dada was also the guardian of the roof. Any movement of any kind towards the wooden stairs by the kids and dada’s voice would rattle, ‘LARKAY!’ (always larkay never larki–he always thought only boys could disobey him) enough to explode your heart out with scare. And then he would scream ‘Nalaaik’ until he would hear the hurried footsteps running away out of the corridor, into the courtyard and out of earshot. He would also hear the laughter along with the fading footsteps but no one knew Dada would smile to himself later. Maryam’s cousins would often play this game of sneaking to the roof as a dare by making it there without warning Dada. But Dada never let them win.

For Maryam, her Dada was the best teacher ever—he had taught her something she had feared she could never learn. When Maryam was eight, all her friends knew how to read time except her; she was worried she would never learn how to tell time. Her father would buy her digital watches because she couldn’t read time from the analog ones until one fine winter morning Maryam was sitting on the windowsill of his room watching her Dada weaving an old charpoy with jute strings.

‘Maryam what time does the clock say child?’, he asked as he pulled the jute strings.

Maryam looked inside the room at the clock, ‘Dada it’s a clock with hands. I can’t tell.’

Dada smiled at her. ‘Let’s see. Tell me the position of the fat small hand and the tall thin hand.’ Maryam squinted back in the room. Determined to give Dada the most accurate positions of both hands, she told him, ‘the fat hand is between 10 and 11, and the tall hand is about to leave 6, and the other tall thin hand is now on 3. And now it’s on 4. And—‘

Dada laughed. ‘My dear, this hand keeps on moving. You won’t be able to catch it my child.’ His firm hands patted the jute strings on the charpoy, ‘it’s around half past 10 in the morning. In your digital watch, you call it 10:30 am.’

‘But it’s very difficult to read what the hands are pointing.’ Maryam looked again inside the room from the window and back at her dada. Dada laughed. ‘Then we shall make it easy for our Maryam. Run, bring my watch on the side table.’ So Maryam jumped from the window sill inside the room and brought his watch to him. It was an antique watch with a big brown dial and a brown leather belt. Dada told her the composition of twenty four hours, minutes in each hour and seconds in each minute. He showed her how each number contained five minutes in it if we looked from the point of view of minute hand and how it contained five seconds if we looked at it from the perspective of the seconds-hand. By eleven in the morning, Maryam proudly told him the time in his watch.

‘And for that you get a little gift,’ he told her and gave her his brown belted watch that she carried with her to this day.

Dada also reminded Maryam of Santa Claus sometimes from her story books, only better. All the grandchildren would gather around Dada at night in his room after Isha prayers to listen to a story—a different story each night, and candies afterwards—don’t tell your mothers, he would wink. Dada told the children stories of Adam, of Noah and Abraham, of Ismail and Ishaq, Moosa, Yousuf, Younis, Issa, Muhammad and his companions. It was these stories that built up Maryam’s interest in comparative religions later to pursue her higher studies into.

‘My grandfather gifted me this when I was a child.’ She looked at the old man now reading his newspaper. He looked up. ‘Did you say something child?’ He looked at her through his round shiny spectacles.

‘My grandfather gifted me this watch when I was a little girl,’ she said and smiled. ‘You remind me of him very much.’

‘Then it must be my lucky day, my dear girl,’ he said and folded his newspaper. The Tube stopped and a few people got out. The old lady sitting beside him moved towards the door. ‘Tell me about him.’ He smiled and patted the empty seat beside him. His wedding ring glinted in his old wrinkly left hand.

And so she told him the stories of her dada. Of their house in the village, of his laugh, of his milky white beard, and the candies he used to give to his grandchildren—their little secret—while the parents had no idea. The old man smiled and nodded.

‘I’m just going to pick him up from Heathrow today.’ She told him excitedly. ‘His flight is in two hours. He’s coming to see me on my graduation.’ Her eyes shined.

‘Well, he’s a lucky man.’ He patted her on her hand.

The train began to slow down again. ‘That would be my stop, I’m afraid.’ The old man slowly started to stand up, the cane clutched in his left hand and the newspaper in the right. She stood up, took his right arm gently and walked him towards the door. ‘Thank you for your help Sir,’ she said. ‘With the bag I mean,’ she quickly added. ‘I hope I see you again, I guess? Somewhere?’ she smiled awkwardly. ‘Around here I think?’ She didn’t know what to say. So she smiled again.

He nodded and smiled for a long time. His face pale beard shining in the station lights, his round glasses reflecting her warm embarrassed smile, ‘we all want lovely little grandchildren like you, don’t we?’

Myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting

I step down the stairs. Slowly at first but then quickly because it is 8:30 pm, way past the working hours and building seems almost deserted. It’s a four storey landing for me—the lifts have been closed too—and by the time I reach the ground floor I am almost panting. I walk from inside the building towards the dark marble floored foyer outside.

I need to sign out from my account and then wait for my car at the entrance office of the campus. I am carrying a brown envelope containing exam papers of my students who—I just notice—are in the foyer waiting to go home too—in groups, some them sitting on the wide black marbled stairs, others lying down on the cold floor listening to their friends while remaining, just standing in groups, accompanying their friends. As I walk towards the entrance office I look at them, nod and smile. While a few kids stop saying whatever they’ve been discussing, others keep on going. Suddenly I don’t want to go and sit inside the office anymore.

Only a year ago, I was one of them, a college student coming out of an exam in the evening, laughing with my friends and discussing how I screwed up my paper. I want to be with these kids, laugh the nervous laugh and forget about it a while later, discuss my questions and get excited if my answer matches others’—simple joys of life—but I move on, and walk into the office.

I am reading a book to pass time, a Neil Gaiman book. But it doesn’t help me turn off the excited voices coming from outside. I am neither an introvert nor someone who likes to sit inside. I’m an outdoor person and so I stand up again and walk out under the clear night full of stars while the cool breeze of fall hits my face. Few kids eye the envelope in my hands and whisper. Few others smile when they see me. I ask them about the paper. They smile and say it was alright. Their smile does not reach their eyes. I have to admit the paper was a little tricky. I already feel bad for them. I make a mental note of being easy on them while marking.

It’s never easy teaching kids who are few years younger than you so you have to be careful. Always. Kids are always one step immature than you (even the brilliant ones).  Kids idealize good teachers (of all ages). I hope one day I could proudly call myself a good teacher but until then I can only try to be one. Being an extrovert doesn’t help. You talk to a kid one day randomly before or after class and they could think they are your favorite. The news spreads like fire. Other kids start looking at you from the perspective of liking that one kid (or those few that you’ve been seen talking to) and as soon as you applaud them in class for their performance (again, it’s routine), you are labeled biased. I have witnessed this phenomenon being a student where teachers are called biased because they are seen smiling and talking to kids outside the classroom, whereas they are only being polite. Which is why I always take caution while talking to my students.

I want to sit on one of the wide stairs (which is empty) and enjoy the loud voices of kids, the cool breeze of autumn and the evening in general—it has been more than a year since I have come out of an evening exam, my favorite shift of taking a paper. But I just stroll for a while and decide to go back to the office and wait. I wouldn’t feel easy being there and not talking to kids, and the kids would be too awkward talking to each other in my presence and deciding that they should move to the far end.

By the time my car comes and I walk towards the gate at the far end of the foyer, I notice a couple of kids walking beside me careful not to walk past me. I look at them and smile again. I cannot help it. They smile back and look at each other. Perhaps communicating silently. I am recalling a familiar scene from not long ago.