Short-story: Guardians of the valley (part-1)

 

Fall was bleeding all around me. Maple leaves were strewn across the path like crumpled paper, waiting to sink back into the Earth. I dug out the coins from my right jean pocket at the coffee shop stacked below my apartment and walked back home with a scorching hazelnut latte and a blushed-tongue.

My head was dizzy. My mind was resignedly weightless like it had chosen to exile itself into numbing eternity. Too long. I’d stayed away too long. I had to go back. These thoughts dug into me like shards of glass in an open wound. I wailed like a feline having her skin peeled off. I tore at my hair. CN tower glistened through my apartment as if mocking me for the darkness in my life. My shoulders quaked as the back of my fingers flew up unwittingly, wiping away tears and dried lipstick in one go.

That was a week ago. Today I walk in the tortuous valley of Swat, my beige backpack in tow, a tired army of maple trees greeting me on this palpitating flesh of the planet. Being the owner of a magazine has its perks. No one asks me why I just took a month off from work. Most will think I’m having an early forty’s crisis. I certainly look the part. Shriveled pony-tail, under-eye circles like a post-drone attack site, and inconceivable disdain at every breathing entity around me. So I am here again after ten years. After the floods swallowed this land like a hungry python several months ago. And before that Swat’s hostile and furious guests were apocalyptic Earthquakes and barbaric Talibans. It’s strange that I am trying to find pieces of myself in a city that has still to find itself.

Swat in 2005, the first time I stepped foot here, was like a story-book fairly land. The details are eerily trapped in my mind. A mind that usually can’t remember what I wore to work the day before. But my mind knows Swat. It can’t forget anything.  Thick, green blankets covered the sleeping giants; too high and mighty to bother with surrounding life.  The roads like flying dragons raced along the wondrous Swat river to an endless finish line. Ancient trees that had the world’s secrets safely etched in their wooden creases, lined the valley, joined together in solemn prayer. Lively shops and restaurants, stacked sideways, like friends exchanging silly secrets. There was unsaid joy, bursting innocence and a humbling acceptance to the entire place. Abstract signboards claiming they had the best ‘Kahva’ were sprawled across the road. I had heard many good things about the honeyed golden elixir.

I parked my rickety jeep nearby a tea shop and went inside with my camera intact. Nat Geo wanted a special feature on this hidden Switzerland in Pakistan. I had buoyantly agreed. A break from a recent breakup and Toronto’s chill was calling. Even if Swat was not exactly a part of Pakistan I was too familiar with, it had seemed like a good challenge at the time.   A thin bearded fellow with a white cap was bent over a line of chipped and stained flowery cups. While pouring tea from a burnt pot he gave me a forced smile that revealed his few, but straight teeth. Behind him, blue painted walls with torn posters of political candidates stared at me.

The noisy river outside almost drowned out the music on a resuscitating tape recorder placed on a charpoy near the stove. I asked what the girl was singing in Pushto. “My beauty has killed half of the village and the other half will be killed soon,” translated the man in Urdu with a shy embarrassed smile. A girl entered the shop and walked towards the old man. She was dressed in a shalwar kameez from which faded pink played hide and seek. Almost like her striking green eyes that gave off shades of brown in the sunlight peaking through the shop’s window . “Salam little girl. What’s your name?”. I was never much for small talk but today I felt different. The girl wasn’t as surprised to see a woman wearing jeans as she was at being spoken to. She didn’t respond and continued to stare.

 

Ameera was her name. Her uncle, the tea shop owner had told me after she left.  The second time I noticed her was a few days later when she sneaked into my jeep and took out some camera equipment. She was busy turning it upside down when I snuck up on her. She dropped everything and just stood there, with a well of tears. I asked her if she meant to steal. She just moved her head from side to side. I shooed her away, a characteristic trait that always engulfed me during work hours.  From that day on, she followed me around by foot. Everywhere I went, she was there. One time she even hid inside one of my colleagues trucks and popped up at our photography site, far out in the Mahodand lake, with stretches of water encased possessively by hovering mountains. The lake was like a sea of melted crystals of potion, made for the fairies to swim in. The sky admiring its kingdom in the lake’s reflection.

That had been an extraordinary day. Ameera had smiled for the first time. Her mole on her the cheek that slid into her dimple every time she smiled. We didn’t talk and mostly she listened while I bossed around my crew or sneaked out to smoke a cigarette. That ecstatic crater made me forget what I was doing. I’d almost felt a motherly instinct but then I scared it away with my shrill voice: “Don’t you have anything better to do Amina? Go home!” She’d never go home. Not until I was done for the day. In those three months, I got terribly used to having her around.

And then the Earthquakes in the Northern areas came. Mother Earth spit up, cracked and slapped angrily at the serene beauty of the country. We were told to head to safer areas before the magnitude. of destruction swam its way to Swat. We could already feel the quakes and tremors Ameera’s uncle came running to me. His thin hands with protruded veins shook like dry branched on a windy day. “Have you seen Ameera?!” His frightful eyes pierced through my face. “I told her to stay home so I could find a safe place to escape”, he continued. I could have strangled him. The next few days were spent searching the voracious waters of Kalaam or cringing at the thought of an innocent hand peaking through fallen pieces of concrete and wood. The waters raged on. And so did our search. I kept in touch with her family over the years, clinging on, dreaming of a miracle, but nothing turned up. I couldn’t make myself go back. Her memory, the magic of the valley, it all haunted me.

This time it was my eyes that were flooding. I tried hiding behind my cup, as I poured the tea in my mouth. I stared outside, at the sunlit dusty road. Shadows of people and creaky buildings cast strange shapes on the road. The snow-peaked mountains stood behind tall and strong, like guardians of the valley. Why didn’t they take care of her? Why didn’t I keep her safe? A small hand touched my cheek. It was the angry girl. She smiled and revealed a dimple. That tiny bump was enough to keep my hope alive. I had to try one more time.

To be continued…

Read Part-2: https://inkriched.com/tag/kalaam/

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footnote: I combined the prompts of writing 101; day 2 and day 4 for this short story.  I went to Kalaam many years back with my college friends, before the disastrous floods of 2010. Its beauty and magic is unreal, even with years of destruction.  So I tried to show some of it in this short-fiction story.

writing 101: Day 2 – We’re all drawn to certain places. If you had the power to get somewhere — anywhere — where would you go right now? For your twist, focus on building a setting description.

writing 101 day 4 prompt: Write about a loss: something (or someone) that was part of your life, and isn’t any more. Today’s twist: Make today’s post the first in a three-post series.

Connecting the dots…

mynotebooks

I believe in destiny. I believe in the magic of moments. How they merge into one another like sliding droplets of rain collecting at the bottom of a windshield.  Forming a little ocean, only you were meant to drink from.

Children love to collect things. Most children my age would collect stamps, coins and sea shells. I tried collecting stamps just once because it was cool. Then I also tried sea shells, but then I didn’t have any beaches nearby and flying to Karachi (the city of beaches) just for my collection was a bit too farfetched even for my taste. Now coins, I assumed would be easy since we traveled a lot, especially my father. But that didn’t go as planned either.Barbies. Now what girl wouldn’t like them? I thought it was weird that I had no barbies. So on my tenth birthday I asked my parents to get me a barbie doll. I got one of those barbies with long hair and hair styling products. Makes perfect sense because I hated brushing my hair (still do!). So after my birthday, I sat and combed her hair. Sprayed it with pink hairspray and brushed it some more. Now what? I needed more time to figure out the barbies in my life. I got hold of some more. At the end of each play time, I was bored to death. Lets just say a new version of “Toy Story – the barbie hater” was a possibility. Thank God Toy Story was just a cartoon.

So what made my heart skip a beat? Stationery. I remember my pink, furry pencil-case that no one was allowed to touch, especially my young brother. Patterned pencils, erasers, animal shaped sharpeners, scented paper, pink stapler, post-its. It was my own little bliss. My eyes almost jumped from their sockets every time I went to a book store. I would gladly trade my ice cream for a glitter pen. And God knows how much I loved ice cream.

All throughout my early years, I devoured books.The Baby Sitters Club, R.L. Stine’s Fear Street, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie The famous five, Classics…anything I could get my hands on. My pink pencil box was still safe and loved. But another love bloomed. Journal writing. Notebooks. The fresh smell of scented paper, crinkly pages waiting for my words. Diaries with my personal lock and key! How cool was that! So I wrote. Daily ramblings. Gibberish only I was meant to read. My cursive script looked like squiggly stick men strangling each other. But who cared. My writing was for me.

Fast forward almost a decade, and there I was, beating myself over programming language and cursing the bits and bytes of computer logic. Computers were never my thing. My younger brother taught me how to run a computer. The only thing I did on it was play wheel of fortune on a CD and chat with my friends. With such obvious love for technology, I went into computer science. Hard to believe, but it was an important dot that I would connect years later.

I got a corporate job in IT. I had no interest, a 9 to 5 drudgery, but the pay was good and I had friends there. So life was complacent. And the most wonderful and unexpected outcome was the love of my life. I met my husband at work. I doubt meeting him at the library or a book store was ever a likelihood. I had to be where I had to be. We got married a couple of years later and last year we moved to Canada, because of our  technology background. Another dot. Followed by another. Making perfect sense.

After so many years, moving on a path as crooked and as wondrous as a starry constellation, I am finally here and I am writing. My heart still flutters at the sight of book stores and beautiful notebooks. And I continue to dislike barbie dolls. I love computers and the Internet because they are a necessity and make my life interesting, and that’s as deep as I am willing to go with technology. Many people after reading this would ask why I didn’t get into literature, or writing before? It was all in plain sight! I say it wasn’t. My bus was supposed to take the longer route.

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Daily Prompt: Futures Past – As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? How close or far are you from that vision?

 

 

What I saw this morning….

photo 1(5)maple tree

Daily Prompt challenge: List Lesson: Create a list of [Heartbreaking; beautiful; insert adjective here] things you saw on your way to work today.

In my case, this list is of the things I saw when I dropped off my son to school this morning

  1. The red maple tree in front of my home. Forever indebted to sunshine’s warm hands for bathing it each day. Such breathtaking shimmer bouncing off the leaves, as if a thousand fireflies exploded under the sun’s lustrous bomb, leaving behind a glittery debris tap-dancing to nature’s beats.
  2. A paved pathway for the movers and the shakers. The bigger tiles made for human feet, while the seemingly invisible, deep-set crevices acting as a safe abode for tiny insects running in crisscross; dodging unintentionally murderous feet.
  3. An army of dandelions invading a nearby garden; callously planning and manipulating the naive grass to surrender.
  4. An old lady seeking refuge in God’s silent creations – plants, that give everything and in return, ask for nothing except a tiny piece of her heart. The rhythmic clicking and hissing of her garden sprinkler like a whistling rattle snake, is all that she needs to drown out the outside world
  5. Elbows peeking shyly from passenger windows, like a bear trying to face the world after a deadly winter. The soothing breeze of a warm May morning salutes the people racing by in their cars.
  6. Small legs moving in tandem with large legs, bouncing backpacks strapped on little backs. Big people are trying to hide their worries behind hurried smiles as their little ones wave goodbye.

 

photo 2(5)

 

 

 

 

 

A visit from my Pathan ancestor…

Daily Prompt: Modern Families

If one of your late ancestors were to come back from the dead and join you for dinner, what things about your family would this person find the most shocking?

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My ancestral knowledge is sadly pathetic. I recently commented on a post by a fellow blogger innate James at The Relative Cartographer saying how I wish I had more knowledge of my rich ancestral background. That’s what a Pathan culture is all about. A deep set heritage that boasts of pride, love, passion, independence and a lot of heart! The only fact I knew until I turned sixteen was that I was essentially a Pathan, from my father’s side. Then my family was visited by a long-lost uncle who told us we were specifically ‘Ghilzai‘ Pathans. Whooppeee deee! Identification cards were changed. Names were updated. So what follows next is a large part of my assumptions, a lot of exaggeration and some parts truth. But this conversation at dinner would evoke more than just a raised eyebrow from my dearly departed ancestor.

  1. You don’t speak Pushto“!!!  Yes, that is as unbecoming as a bird purring like a cat. Not that this is a huge issue now. I know many birds who purr, I mean Pathans who don’t speak Pushto. We take pride in that. Mostly because if you are a Pathan, you will take pride in just about everything you or your family does. So seriously, I know so many Pathan folk who have successfully assimilated into other cultures etc. My father,his parents all spoke Punjabi, Urdu and English. Pushto never really fit into the equation. Though I admit, it is a soft and poetic language, fit for Kings! This almost makes me want to take some Pushto lessons.
  2. “Wait, are your eyes brown?!” Pathans are known for their gorgeous looks which encompass the stereotype assets like fair skin, colored eyes, great height, striking features etc. Ever heard of genetics and the inherited traits my dear, departed Ancestor? Maybe,my children’s children will have green eyes! *Note to self: next time wear colored contacts.
  3. You married a non-Pathan?! Just to make things clear, my immediate family and their families have all married within different races and cultures. That is no longer a big deal. In fact this is an age of diversity and acceptance. Besides my husband’s grandmother and her side of the family were all Pathans. Does that count?
  4. “Ah! So you love food! That’s my child!” Finally some acceptance. Somebody hand me a handkerchief please. Sniff.
  5. “When was the last time you had a sword fight?” Wooo hold it right there! What century did you say you came back from? We ditched swords long ago great-great-great-great-great-great…….great (stopping for a water break) great great…..grand daddy!!!

Or so the conversation would have gone (or not).  I love being a Pathan mostly because along with it comes a long, unbelievable and colorful history. A history that sadly, I may never know about. But hey, I am a Pathan…and a  proud, mixed Pathan at that!

*** I was lucky enough to get some precious information about my ancestors from my aunt…Ayesha Khan over at http://aishakhan0208.wordpress.com/. LOVE IT 🙂

My dearest niece, I wrote a detailed answer to your query, and lost it somewhere! Typical of a Khan Sahib or Khanum Sahiba…Well let’s pick up the famous Shahrukh Khan line:
My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist!
The story goes like our ancestors were invaders in Mahmood Ghaznavi’s army, during his umpteen attempts to conquer the great infidel temple of Somnaat.Thence they eventually settled in the present day India, in the vicinity of a town called Jallandur.They were granted lands and there was a village which was established by the name of Qillay Afghana.They gradually adopted the language and culture of Punjab. After 1947 they migrated to the Land of Pure.Now the only vestiges of Pathanship (a new word coined just now) are seen; firstly ,our innate pride,then our quarrelsome nature and of course our good looks!
(Yes, modesty is not of much use to us!).
I relish to tell the world, at every possible opportunity, that our Pathan Afghani brethren have put the fear of God in every Super power, be it the British Raj, the Mighty Soviet Union or the United States of America. They are unbeatable at the war games since their male infants play with pistols instead of toys.Their forthrightness and integrity make them totally trustworthy. That’s why in every major city of Pakistan they are the desired-for guards.Our transport system would fall apart without them. Right from rickshaws to the long distance truck drivers , who carry containers from the Karachi port right up to Kabul, transport is manned by pathans.
They have the undesirable trait of being ultraconservative in today’s world. But also they have been scapegoats for the mercenaries and the drug mafia forever, maybe a bit of truth is present in few accusations….
My greatest grand dad was probably a literary giant from Qandahar.Maybe this explains the reading and writing penchant in our family…..