writing

Book Review– A PLACE FOR US

It had been some time since I cried reading a book. A Place for Us did that for me.

Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel by Hogar Publishers with Sarah Jessica Parker’s imprint (her debut as an editorial director too) is a story of an American Muslim (South Asian) family torn between finding their individual selves and their roles within the family that is headed by a strict Muslim father. In a deeply polar American society, it is a family whose characters are in a constant battle with themselves, their family and the world around them to find relevance, liberty and peace and to identify with the same.

A Place for Us begins with the wedding celebration of the eldest daughter Hadia in California. It’s special not just because Rafiq and Layla’s first child us getting married but more so because Amar, the youngest child and only son has come back home to be a part of the celebrations, after three years of having fled. The story would revolve around circumstances that led to Amar’s estrangement with the family, interwoven between memories of the parents—Rafiq and Layla—and their children, Hadia, Huda and Amar, that go back and forth in time.

What I found beautiful about the book was how the story progresses through the point of view of different characters, often repeating the same memory from how different characters saw it and how it affected them in smallest of ways—typical of familial love, limitless and unwavering, and yet envious and rival. Sometimes it might feel like a typical diaspora family, dislocated and misplaced—parents trying to raise their kids on not only strong Muslim (Shia) values but also inherently South Asian ones, i.e. extrinsically motivated, God fearing and society pleasing—and yet it’s also a family that may just be any other South Asian family: native language speaking at home, ‘kasam’ giving, sibling-secret-keeping because the parents would never understand certain stuff, and ritual following: of Ramzans, and Moharrams and Jashans and wedding rasams and walking under the shade of Quran, or tracing Ya Ali on the foreheads of your loved ones.

But that’s just the feel good part of the book. What was heart wrenching, tormenting and yet absolutely relevant for our part of the world is how families are destroyed because of the parents’ ego—of loving but not expressing their love; of having their own set expectations from their children, where kids have to be obedient children, unquestioning Muslims and top performing students who go on to become doctors and engineers and lawyers and businesspeople, nothing less; of never apologizing to their children even in the face of a grave mistake that might lose them their child; of comparing their children with others’, even with their own so that the only recipient of love is the child who is the smartest and most obedient.

So when Amar leaves, a part of Rafiq and Layla’s soul also leaves. But it’s too late to mend ways. Perhaps the saddest thing in the world is to see your child (so let down from the people who gave birth to him) leave you. But it’s dejecting for the child too, to resort to leaving them, for he could not think of a single thing that could revive his relationship with his parents. There is not a single more heart breaking thing than the feeling of not feeling at home with your family.

And so I cried when the family tore apart because of secrets, betrayals, and smallest of estrangements that accumulated and could not be contained any more.  The truly emotional part of the book that actually made me cry was the last part, from Rafiq’s perspective. The feelings of a father—not so overt in expressing his love, who is guilty and yet protective—are written so raw and bare, it’s a pleasant surprise coming from a debut author. As much as this part is emotional and poignant, it leaves a feeling of longing in you, in a way that you would want to mend how each member of the family has been wronged.

Fatima Farheen Mirza has done an amazing job penning down the story of this family spread over decades, which is so interconnected and yet so dissociated from each other in its own way—in children trying to find their own identity, in parents trying to protect their children, loving them while also not expressing it, in understanding them and yet not understanding them enough to save them from themselves.

A Place for Us is a story of perhaps every South Asian middle class family (not just American) that struggles with the idea of expressing their wholehearted love.

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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.

Portraits – His neighbor-coworker

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.

Chapter 26 – New Beginnings

I was reading a few days ago how the best writers we’ve had in history happen to be those who have chosen to open up about themselves. And it left a deep impression on me. Great artists were mostly those who struggled half of their time trying to search for their identity, failing and learning, trying on new things, and repeating the cycle. Some of these artists endured failure for years, until they were known for their greatness. And in the long run, it’s the greatness that has defined them.

Self-discovery is hard—it’s like building a wall of legos, block by block. One wrong block and some bricks fall down. You have to put the right blocks at the right places. It’s excruciatingly challenging. However, unless we acknowledge our reality, our struggles, and come in terms with who we really are, we can’t be honest in telling the stories we want to tell. The stories I’ve wanted to tell for the longest of time, a lot of them challenge my own thinking patterns. Rather than answering my questions, they further confuse me—about my reality, my sense of self, of things I believe and want to believe. And there are things, I’ve been scared of writing because they show too much of me—of my naivety and sensitivity, of things I believe in, and of the things I love.

But I’ve considered this—it’s these vulnerabilities that make us human: fear of being rejected, the fear of trying, the fear of that answer that has been stopping us for years to ask the question, those periods of darkness that make us wish for the light, the fear of loving without being loved in return. Trying to act strong would make us one, but only in short term. For long term, we need something to rely on: we need courage from within. Putting ourselves out there in spite of fear of failure is being courageous (an amazing friend told me). It would kill us (if you’re awkward like me), but if it doesn’t, it’ll surely make us stronger.

My best friend, miles away from me right now told me a few days ago that she wanted her opinionated cum passionate friend (who used to feel every single feeling in the world) back. And she was right. I hadn’t changed. I had simply chosen to hide. I was like the last drop in the faucet that wants to fall, tries really hard, but the forces from inside despite all the gravity stop it from splattering.

And so, I resolve to share. It’s a road to self-discovery and you’ll help me achieve it. There would be struggles, battles (both inward and outward), failures (for sure), love and hate, a lot of thankfulness, some whining, a lot of music related posts, some conversations with coffee and chai, some extremely deep posts (so deep you’ll roll in them), my journey of faith (that waivers sometimes but is mostly the only reason of my survival and peace), my opinions (those give me life!), but mostly, my coming back to being myself again.

Lightly

Often times, it’s not adversity that defines you, it’s rather the journey that you decide to make. The path that you take, the dwindling steps, the fear of unknown, of the darkness ahead (or the absence of it), define the strength of your existence.
So lightly, child. Don’t make adversity define you. For although you may be born to suffer for what’s written for you, yet it’s you who decides how you’re going to steer your way out of it. Everything will come into place. Slowly. Yes, painfully. But things will fall into place eventually. So lightly child. Worrying is natural, but know that there’s always those people and things that matter. Far more than the things you worry for.

And surely, it would happen that there would be too much pressure, to pretend, to act like it doesn’t matter; you wouldn’t know what’s happening to you until your eyes are wet and you haven’t realized you’re crying until someone asks if you’re alright. You don’t have to be strong all the time. Let yourself loose. It’s okay to cry child. It’s okay to not perform sometimes. It’s okay if some people are let down. Just remember, when you look yourself in the mirror, you look at yourself and not the shadow of you.
It’s okay to fall until you don’t give up attempting to stand. It’s okay child. You’ve tried too hard. You’ve prayed too hard. So lightly child. Don’t be too harsh on yourself.
Good times will come. But look for them in moments rather than in periods. You’ll find love unexpectedly–in books, in badly scribbled notes from friends, in music that reminds of slumber parties of 3 am ending with pizza deliveries, and in people who genuinely love you for how annoying you are, because it’s only them that you annoy so much–and sometimes you’ll find love from where you expect, those close cushions of support who cry when you cry but help you turn into a rock when you need them.
So lightly my child. Talk long walks along the paths that you’ve known all your life to clear your head but don’t hesitate to find newer paths every once in a while and make new memories with yourself. Know that the longest you’re ever going to be with, is yourself. So learn to love your company, and don’t ever hesitate being seen alone sitting in the cafe reading a book, drinking your coffee and nodding at people–it’s the most charming thing ever. Few people, if ever, are brave enough to be sitting alone all on their own enjoying their little solitude.

You don’t have be brave all the time my child. It’s okay to cry when you’re down. But it’s okay to smile too–in moments, in gaps between nothingness and everything; while lipsynching your favorite song and the memory that comes with it, while stumbling upon your favorite lines from a book randomly scrolling. It’s okay to smile while heading home after a long exhausting day. It’s okay to live your life my child. Lightly. Ever so lightly…

 

PS: unedited.

Inspired from Island by Auldous Huxley.

Letters to her (1)

“You are the dreams you chase, the things that keep you awake.

You are the mountains you have climbed and the waters you have dived.

You are the playlists that you listen to, always skipping some songs, while putting others on repeat.

You are the wild car rides, speeding tickets and narrow escapes, those that brought you closer to life and close to end.

You are the karaoke nights and clumsy slumber parties and singing at the top of your voices on the radio with your friends; you are ugly gifts and pranks and arguments and later amends.

You are the stars in the sky that make you think of falling in love and seas and clouds and unicorns all at the same time; you are texts and chats and phone calls after rough patches telling them you’d be fine.

You are the tears of happiness and sighs of pain, you my dear are the first dance of monsoon rains.

You are all the books, the songs, the movies you own, you are the nostalgia of your sweet childhood gone.

You are your first love, the pure glee that it brought, the nervousness, and later the courage that it taught.
You are the shine in your eyes, the curves of your lips, the crooked collarbone of yours that you secretly adore; you are all the beautiful nights chasing after the moon and so much more.
So dont you dare believe them when they tell you they want better, for you my love know what they are missing on later.”