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

Short Story: Room No. 2

“Though destiny a hundred times waylays you, in the end it pitches a tent for you in Heaven. It is God’s loving kindness to terrify you, in order to lead you to His Kingdom of safety.” – Rumi

Helping people relive their dreams must be something incredible. Not many possess such magical traits. But I do.  Now now, don’t throw your unwanted skepticism at me. I’m sticking to my wand. Go see for yourself.

Opposite the glorious Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, there is a ghastly hotel made as if only to magnify the mosque’s beauty with its own hideousness.  Its decaying interior and loathsome hotel staff might put you off at first glance.  Don’t take it to heart. Make your way inside and specifically ask for Room No. 2.  Normally, a person of your decent demeanor would never visit the likes of this place. Its usual clientele ranges from people with hardly any money to those with unwarranted amounts of it; from self-righteous hypocrites to honest muggers; the variety is astounding.  You however, are here on a mission to prove me wrong, so you need not worry. Proceed further. Oh, just make sure you spend the night. It will not take long to convince you of my sorcery.

A slim silhouette cast a hesitant shadow on the corner wall across the hotel. He awkwardly crossed the road clad in a blue polo shirt with faded black pants and shoes destined to rest in peace in a shoe graveyard. A cheap imitation of a shiny Rolex glistened on his wrist as he abruptly came to a stop next to a dimming lamp post. Wiping off beads of sweat, he heaved a desperate sigh and continued to walk. His reluctance and  fear betrayed naivety and inexperience. He stopped midway and hurriedly took out his wallet. While frantically searching for something, he dropped a small picture of a boy with a toothless grin emanating like a rainbow after a rainstorm. Beside him, sat another little girl on the lap of a plump, pretty woman wearing a yellow cotton shalwar kameez and a content shimmer in her eyes. He found what he was looking for and tucked the picture safely back where it belonged. The next few steps led him to his undesired location.

A wrinkled old hand handed him keys to his room. The number ‘2’ had a missing tale and looked like the right half of a heart. The young man shook his head at the absurdity of such a random thought and hurriedly grabbed the keys.

The putrid odour in the room was overwhelming. He was however too preoccupied to even notice. He raced towards the bedside table and shakily took out a small brown package from it.  He paced the floor whilst sneaking fearful glances at his watch and the package; his pupils oscillating back and forth like a rabid rocking horse. The clock struck twelve and out came the cookoo. Knock knock knock! To his disgust the opened door revealed the man who had handed him the keys earlier on. The old man’s abrupt act of hospitality implied some not-so subtle means of entertainment at such an ungodly hour of the night. The young man slammed the door without another word.

The fruits of a hard day’s work of lying and deceit eventually bore fruit. The wait was excruciating. His overtired brain cells ran out of power and within minutes he was asleep. He dreamt of his wife and children laughing and talking over a delicious dinner of lentils and roti (bread). His pleasant dream was rudely interrupted by a deafening sound outside the door. Sounds of gunfire reverberated as intensely as a corpse’s stare. He realized his awful mistake.  He had been caught. He walked over to the corner of the room and stood with trembling legs, waiting for the door to be kicked down.

The door opened and all he saw was his youngest child covered in blood.

He woke up gasping for air like a dying fish on land. Where was he? A dream within a dream? Was he going insane? As he frantically sprang from bed, his hand brushed past the cursed package leading to a stretch of detestable memories! It all came flooding back like a deluge of ants. An insatiable urge to omit his middle class status; a dangerous attempt to make some quick money; a petrified man haunted by a dutiful conscience.

Suddenly out of nowhere, a strange smile appeared on his lips. He was alive. His family was waiting back home and that meant more to him than all the money in the world! He realized the only thing that truly mattered was what he already had. He was living his dream. The key chain with the demented number ‘2’ stubbornly danced the waltz as he slammed the door shut and ran all the way back to his home.

So, are you convinced now? I told you I can make people relive their dreams. Tell anyone who still doubts, to visit Room No. 2 at this hotel. Oh, just make sure they spend the night.