And I keep coming back to you, Lahore.

credits: Farah

credits: Farah

I was in Lahore last November.

If I close my eyes now to relive some of the city’s glory, I wouldn’t know where to start. What do I remember? What do I smell? What do I taste?

What do I miss?

For me, as an immigrant, that is probably the single most difficult question. ‘What do you miss the most back home?’ How do you answer that? Do you dig up memories only you can make sense of, or do you cough up the obvious; ‘Oh, I miss friends and family.’ Of Course you miss the important human connections in your life. But what else do you miss?

I remember everything, but a part of me feels that I keep missing out on something. I smell life. I taste home. And I miss absolutely freaking everything!

Is it the scorching, sun-lit roads in June with gushes of warm air harassing anyone who crosses its paths? Or the comforting chill of a December evening as streets line up with stalls carrying roasted corn, peanuts and chicken corn soup? Or how life in Lahore is lived simply yet luxuriously. In the tired and content eyes of men sitting on the roadside, slurping chai and acing all possible realms of non-work? Or hard workers who race home in their motorcycles, bringing the day’s limited grocery (eggs and oranges) to eager wives. Their shalwars, filled up like fabric balloons with polluted air.

Or the women, with threatening and urgent looks as they enter the tight bazaars, clinging to their dupattas(scarves) and holding non-recyclable shopping bags. Or the lucky children sitting in cars, gawking at other, not-so-lucky children their age, clambering for spare change as they wipe away grime on windshields. Or Lahore’s inexplicable love for food as restaurants are born in succession like a rapid breeding experiment.

Or the dirty Lahori sky, once dressed in exuberant kites, but now hosting a sea of exhausted cries. Is it the loud Bollywood music pumping from a local CD shop in a busy supermarket? The music comes to an abrupt pause as the shop worker presses the stop button when a nearby Mosque calls Azaan (signalling prayer time).

Or how the city sings; in between blaring honks on the road, drivers shouting in their cell phones, rickshaws gurgling and choking, shopkeepers and women haggling, children screaming with laughter, and sizzling of the fried Pakoras. The city is never quiet. Be it hot or cold. Amid a local festival or a suicidal bomb blast. The city doesn’t cry for long either. Don’t be surprised when you catch its people smiling as the day ends. Or cracking up at a random joke on Politics or the economy; drowning out the day’s grind that doesn’t include electricity, gas, or Petrol.

In my head, everything is just more poetic and alive when I think of Lahore. How do I pay homage to a city that holds almost half my life’s soul. It guards my memories like a welcoming canvas; letting novice painters bleed; unjudged and unafraid. My city; where I grew up a little, laughed and loved a lot, made sense a little and messed up a lot.

So the question comes again. What comes to mind as I close my eyes? Is it my high school, where I sweated off under a ceiling fan, writing away for a good grade; in all my awkwardness, in all my naivety? Is it my college, where I only survived because of close friends. And our sporadic adventures as we skipped class to gorge down freshly made brownies, soup and samosas on faint and foggy winter mornings? Or is it my university, my home away from home; tucked between the greenest suburbs of Lahore? An overwhelming world of its own that swooned and shocked me for a whole four years. Is it the many homes I lived in? The home I stepped out of my teens in. The home where I cried for my brother when he went abroad to study.  Is it my first job, where the pay was peanuts, but I cherished every cent? Or my second job, where I met my husband. The home I said goodbye to my parents in as I got married. The home I became a mother in and grew to love my new family like my own. Or when my son walked his first steps. Or celebrated with us every time the power came back on by clapping and speaking his first few words – ‘Biji’ (Bijli as in electricity). Is it the hospital where I grew dizzy with joy when the doctor told me I was pregnant with a daughter. Or maybe it’s a combination of these past 15 years that tickle me with nostalgia.

And what about the carefree soul of the city? How has it survived so long? Before me, before my forefathers and before their’s? During the rule of the Mughals with their fortress situated in the heart of the city. During the bloody India-Pakistan partition, when thousands of people migrated from India and some fortunate ones landed in their new home, Lahore. A home where blood is always washed away and buried under lights, love, colour and life. It’s hard to see where the city stands now, when it has already seen the best and the worst. Or maybe both are still to be seen.

Lahore, until a couple of years ago, I watched your joy and struggle with choked breath. I always tried not to look away. But you know what? One day, I did. That day I did a lot of things to you. I left you on your own. I gave up a little on you. I cried for you. I hoped and prayed for you.

But I kept you in my heart. Like a crumpled message trapped in a bottle floating in an endless sea; never breaking, never escaping.

And that’s why I keep coming back to you. I owe you that. I owe myself that.

*Enjoy some pieces of Lahore. Image-credits: Sam-images

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Green is my color, but today I bathed in red

Green is my color but today I bathed in red. Again. I thought I could get used to the blood, but can life live with death?

Green gives me hope, but today you stole it. Again. I drowned as innocent blood filled my veins.

Green gives me courage, but today you brought me to my knees. Not because I feared you, but because of my helplessness.

Green gives me peace, but today it shattered like glass, as little pieces of chaos cut through my flesh.

Green gives me faith, and even today I hold on tight.

I look ahead, beyond the lifeless bodies and the tormented cries.

I look above, through the burdening puffs of misery darkening my skies.

I have faith. And you can never steal it from me. Never.


This is dedicated to my beloved country Pakistan and to the people who died today at the Wahga Border suicide attack in Lahore. I couldn’t come up with much except desperate tears and an emotional rant.

Green and  White are the colors of my flag. Green is for Hope and White is for perseverance. Even though she bleeds now, green will bring back hope. It always does. That is something the attackers will never understand. Kill us again and again, but we will come back stronger. No matter how bloody a canvas your vicious ploys may paint, we will rise. Again and always.

 

National Blog Posting Month - November 2014

I am participating in the National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo) – November 2014. This is an awesome venture of Blogher.com. In their own words:

“Every November, thousands of bloggers commit to posting daily. But it’s about much more than getting that post up—it’s about community and connection. It’s also about honing your craft, challenging yourself, and taking your blog to the next level.”

I will write every day of November. This is my second post.

#NaBloPoMo – Day 2

 

 

When I cooked my first Sheer Khorma (vermicelli pudding) on Eid …

Vermicelli. Milk. Sugar. Dates. Cardamoms. Almonds. Pistachios. I have it all laid out in front of me. My trembling hands reach for the cooking pot. My first attempt at making the most special dessert on Eid. Sheer Khorma – vermicelli pudding.

I pour in some clarified butter. A bunch of cardamoms. I wait to hear the popping sound of cardamoms that tells me I can move on to the next step. I grab a cup of vermicelli and fry it in the pot. “Wait for the color to change”, said mother, mother-in-law and Google. So I stir and I stir. I feel like a novice baseball player, striking the thin vermicelli strands back and forth.  The light caramel color of the vermicelli soon transforms into a glistening light brown. The sweet aroma of the butter and cardamoms make my senses tingle.

After frying, I add a liter of milk. Some newer versions call for condensed milk. But I lean towards simple ingredients. The original recipe passed down from decades outshines all other. I wait for the milk to boil and then I turn down the flame. Now the wait begins. Sheer Khorma needs time and patience. The more time, the creamier it becomes – like a mouthful of clouds. Edible white clouds.

I remember peering down at a similar cooking pot, a couple of years ago in Lahore (Pakistan) at my in-laws’ place. Every year on Eid, the entire house would be on its toes. Family members readying clothes for the morning prayer. Talks of henna prints on our hands. Matching bangles. And of course food. The last day of fasting opens doors to unlimited ways of overeating. Ramzaan(Ramadan) is essentially about spiritual reflection, abstaining from sins and a means of improving oneself (physically and mentally). But refraining from food and water is a basic principle. Post-Ramzaan, show us food and we forget everything else. The queen of all foods on Eid is essentially Sheer Khorma. I remember my mum-in-law, stirring the delectable pot of sugary vermicelli. I remember her worried expression as she repeated the long list of things still left for the next day’s celebration. I remember telling her not to worry because everything will turn out perfect. And it always did. Guests poured in the next day, gorging down delicious food, greeting each other with warm hugs and thankful smiles. Laughter, food and gratitude all day long. A perfect celebration is all I remember.

My mind wanders further back. Eid at my parents’ home before I got married. Like many too-busy-for-no-reason children and teenagers, I rarely entered the kitchen. But I knew that my mama would have everything ready in the morning; sheer khorma and other delights laid out for Eid guests. The morning ritual involved greeting parents with “Eid Mubarak!” and collecting hefty amounts of Eidi (money) that eventually made its way into convenient stores carrying junk food. Early morning Army gatherings were the biggest highlight.  Families visited each others’ homes carrying sweets. Spending the entire day in glittery made-up clothes was exciting. Even if it meant playing cricket or softball and tripping over uncomfortable sandals.  A different lifetime. Another perfect Eid.

Eid is celebrated all over the world, but with varying traditions and cultural intricacies. Its variations are marked by beautiful little nuances within each home, each family. I’ve lived through two different Eids in my life. I’ve tasted two different types of sheer khormas. I cherish each celebration, each bite that is much more than a simple dessert. A sweet dish that symbolizes a lifelong tradition. It represents perfection. It portrays joy.  And now, I am in a new country, celebrating Eid in my home for the first time. On the eve of Eid, for a minute there I almost felt lost; Not knowing where to start or what to do. But then all those memories came rolling in. The aroma of sheer khorma gave me comfort. Valuable family traditions gave me a gentle nudge in the right direction. Coaxing me to find my way.

After hours of tasting and wondering if the dish is complete or needs more time to cook, I finally pour out the sheer khorma in the serving dish. I top it with blanched and crushed almonds and pistachios. I take another quick bite. As the slippery vermicelli slides into my mouth, I realize that the taste and texture is close to what I’ve eaten in my homes, but I still have a long way to go.

I miss all those years of celebrating Eid with my family in my homeland. But then as I look at my freshly cooked pot of sheer khorma, I feel blessed and thankful. I feel as if everything is just as it were all those years ago.

My first Eid in my new home with my family. That sounds to me like another perfect Eid.

But one thing is for sure. I have big shoes to fill.

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.

***

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