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.

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of human play-doh, of rain, and of matchsticks

Pakistan is notorious for a lot of things. Electricity shortage continues to stand out from the gruesome front runners – security threats and economic disparity; The perfect ingredients to derail any sane mind BUT a Pakistanis’.  All hell may literally break loose in Pakistan, but pick any common person  from a crowd and there is always room for more in the snake pit; for more morsels in their hearty appetites for despair. Maybe because they have no other choice. Maybe because they are built that way. Human Play-Doh is what I’d like to call them. You can bend them, squeeze them, stretch them; they refuse to give up their original, resilient, stubborn forms.

I always knew this fact. But the intensity of this realization  came knocking on my door just a couple of days ago. Good old Toronto was visited by torrential rains. The thunderstorm apparently had some old score to settle, because the amount of rain that fell during one hour that evening was equivalent to the estimated rainfall for the entire month of July!  From my brother’s condo, the sight was breathtaking; mesmerizing grey clouds swaying right and left to the uproarious beats of the winds – rain pouring forth as if God had plucked the Niagara Falls and flipped them upside down. I was busy wasting time on the internet when I noticed the light bulbs flickering. This suddenly took me to Lahore and the endless days and nights of electricity outages. The silly comparison was brushed off as quickly as talks of India-Pakistan conciliation. Five minutes later, it did not seem as silly. Nature had taken her turn. This time the Canadians of Toronto were under the microscope. Black out. Cellphones popped out, fingers hurriedly dialed friends and family nearby to inquire about the electricity situation in their areas. Apparently many areas of Toronto, including Mississauga had been badly affected by the thunderstorm. I had family stuck in three different areas of the city. I will come to that little discrepancy later.

credits: Goher

credits: Goher

Now the problem with developed countries such as the US and Canada is their over dependence on technology. Too much of a good thing is bad, or something like that? Electricity is essentially a Goddess. She controls all. Knows all. Pull a plug and she can revert the most technologically advanced nations to the basics.  For example; without power, we had no water, no light, no internet, no traffic system, no cooking, no nothing! I was surprised but mostly amused. I kept thinking about how this would translate back in Lahore. Simply put, life would go on with a shrug of the shoulders and for some lucky folks; a switch to backup generators. Of course this supposed nonchalance or bravado in troubling times is not an over night achievement. This particular brand of Pakistani thick skin took years of practice and struggle.  The theory of Behaviorism suggests that excessive repetition can lead to desired changes in the external surroundings. Desired or not, Pakistanis have come a long way. Nothing really surprises them or falters them any more. Many would call this indifference. To me its largely a case of ‘been there done that’!

line up outside a convenient store

line up outside a convenient store

Coming back to thundery Toronto that day, panic was evident. I am sure people who experienced the massive 2003 blackouts must have shriveled at the thought of it happening again. Traffic system was in a frenzy, leading to several accidents. All stores closed down; Flights cancelled; People stranded for hours. Some convenience stores were open in candle light with long queues of people looking for bottled water. One standout of the evening was the Go Train incident that was flooded with water; with people jumping out wearing life jackets. This two-in-one transportation mode would have amused some in normal circumstances. Poor creatures had too much on their plates owing to the rarity of the situation. In Pakistan a similar incident would not have invoked such media frenzy; and would probably have ended with most of the passengers becoming self-taught swimmers. Having said that, the overall disaster was no way near what could have occurred in the absence of an efficient damage control system. Kudos to the Canadians!

Emergency elevators were thankfully operating in some of the buildings including ours, so we were saved from the fearful prospect of climbing down twenty-one floors. I returned to my place relieved that I had candles at home. One little detail however was missed. No matches. So that was pretty much the highlight of the power outage at my end. My family managed to return home safe and sound. I sat back, prepared for an all-nighter in the dark; undeterred, apart from fleeting thoughts of a horrendous bathroom show – starring two small children and no water. The drama did not last long in our part of the city and power was thankfully restored. Without exaggeration, I could hear shrieks of joy echoing from the surrounding apartment buildings! Something you’d hear in the stadium ensuing a touchdown or goal probably.

I hear there are reports of further downpours this week.  ‘Bring it on!’ I say. Oh but first, I’d better stock up on matches and lots of water.

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This post was published in The Express Tribune under the name: Yes, thunderstorms in Toronto can take you back to Lahore