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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Short Story: Layla’s Magic Powder

 

credits: shutterstock

“Don’t disrespect my taste buds with this!”, the eighty-five year old Layla shoved her blue rimmed dinner plate. The mole on the right corner of her lips danced as she grimaced at her customised menu. Layla’s personal cook/maid cooked for her. He previously worked at a prison and never relinquished the chance to squeeze in an anecdote or two. Layla was convinced this food was her son’s revenge for making him eat aubergine and potatoes every Thursday till he turned seventeen.

Every morning Layla soaked in the warm star in the sky as she pulled aside the curtains. Every morning her creased eyelids closed while she made a solemn prayer cursing the doctor, nurses, pharmaceutical companies, and the hospital. That memory was a mountain pressing down on her. She wanted to scrub that moment, wipe it, thrash it out like a horrid blood stain on white. Like a trespassing intruder who stole everything, Esophageal Cancer had sealed her fate.

As far back as her temporal lobe would take her, her pathan-blooded senses saw and smelled the world of crimson chillies, sunlit turmeric, roasted cumin, crushed coriander and earthly spice concoctions. While little rosy-cheeked girls from the Hunza valley collected wild alpine flowers to stick on homemade dolls with yarn hair. Little rosy-cheeked Layla collected spices and herbs. She discovered her obsession with cooking when she turned ten, almost like a revelation from God.  Her mother’s cramped kitchen became her playground where she ran, tumbled and swirled with recipes her conservative household devoured but never understood. A kitchen where many mornings were spent by her family of eight, in anticipation of the fresh aroma of flat bread made in desi ghee (clarified butter), and the eager crackling of fried eggs that her mother cooked.

Teenage years were spent listening to mother lecture her sisters and Layla on the virtues of modesty and speaking low. A slipping chador from the sisters’ curly brown heads was the cause of shaking heads. Layla realised early on, if she were to get anywhere in life, she just had to ‘nod and smile’.

She nodded, smiled, cursed, spit and bared in the name of her passion. “For what?,” she often said to herself. Her son took over the restaurant she had spent decades creating. Now her story was just about gnawing cells. The day she turned eighty-five, Layla had been in remission for six months. She didn’t want to silently beat her chest that day. She tucked her newborn locks into a flimsy ponytail and promised herself a treat. Months of chemo had left her feeling and looking like a jellyfish. But just the thought of her planned adventure made her cheeks bleed pink. On her way back from the doctor, Layla called her son.

“Where are you Jazib?”.

“At the restaurant, where else could I be? Is something wrong?”

“I am all right, I thought we would have dinner tonight, at home. Since this old hag is still alive at eighty five!”  Layla asked the driver to take her to her sinful destination.

She spotted the mango-yellow carved door of the bistro from far. It was safely tucked within the womb of the two hundred year old Bazar, Anarkali, named after the infamous slave girl buried nearby. The tale of Anarkali and Prince Saleem’s love affair never left Layla’s heart. It didn’t take long for her imagination to kick in as scenes of their morbid story played in her head. Most of it was processed heresy passed down from generations of voracious lovers. But something about Anarkali’s inhuman cries when she was damned behind a brick wall choked Layla. The defeat, the gurgling breath, and the tears that refused to fall from Anarkali’s shocked eyes; Layla could see it all.

Her driver parked behind the restaurant, in an alley with maroon paan-stains, dogs lapping up brown water from potholes, and a consistent buzz of onlookers with unashamed gaping eyes. Layla tightened her chador and refused her walking stick , as she limped towards ‘Gul-e-Layla’. For a minute she thought she saw Jamal standing there with his endearing secret-spilling smile. The same smile that dressed his face when his fingers traced on diagonally-lined freckles across nineteen year old Layla’s right cheek. Sometimes Layla’s fingers glided across her face the same way when she peered into the engraved, chipped mirror her mother gave as dowry.

Her friend was long gone. But he left behind its and bits of himself all over the place just for her. ‘Gul-e-Layla’ was untouched, like she had left it, almost four decades ago. A beehive of hungry people swarmed in and out. Red paint peeled off like a chrysalis, and brown tables rocked with every bite, as feet moved on the crooked grey floor. Jasmine was placed in small pots in every corner.

She walked towards the end of the room, and found an empty table. The bewitching voice of Reshma played in the background. Happy, simple times budded in her head as the crooner sang on.  Someone lowered the sound of the radio and Layla was pushed back into reality. She didn’t ask for the menu.  A young boy with hair like a bear, jogged over to the table to take her order.  The ten-minute wait made her emaciated stomach a breeding ground for hungry Pathan warriors. She savoured every bite, like lovers caressing each other for the last time. The flavourful chicken karahi, savoury tangy chickpeas curry and roasted buttery naans with sesame seeds, were Layla’s deadly sins.

“Stop smiling you old hag! You have to stop, or they’ll know what you’ve been up to!”, she chided herself as she made her way home.Her son would catch on to her quicker than a suspicious wife smelling an unfamiliar scent on her husband’s neck. She changed into fresh clothes and sprayed on her jasmine scent.

Later that night, she almost puked her innards out. But first she made sure to turn up the volume. Melody queen Noor Jehan was best heard on a blaring tape recorder.

“Mujh se pehli si muhabbat mere mehboob na maang

Oh my lover, don’t ask me for the love I once gave you…”.

She grabbed two antacids from her bedside table that was cramped with medicine like the local pharmacy . “Pop away these death pills all you want”, she muttered, “You’re still not going to die.”

The dinner table was full. The son, the grandchildren, the food, and chatter of the passing day.

Boiled pumpkin and lentil broth mocked at Layla from her plate.

********************

Today’s ZerotoHero assignment: publish a post based on your own, personalized take on today’s Daily Prompt.

Daily Prompt for the day: Rings of fire – Do you love hot and spicy foods or do you avoid them for fear of what tomorrow might bring? 

 

 

when it was oh-so perfect…

 

“Oh, in our times, life was so wonderfully simple, without any stress…”,  or so exclaim many of our parents, their grandparents and well, keep going back as long as you feel like – this statement will only show minute nuances of variation! At the other end of the spectrum the situation is no different when the younger generation wants nothing more than to permanently block out such self righteous comments.

Is this endless tussle between ‘back then’ and ‘now’ ever going to cease? Is the continuous tug of war between the virtuous past and the satanic present ever going to leave our minds? I am no Aristotle, but every inch of common sense dangling inside adamantly screams the two letter word, NO! The proverbial ‘generation gap’ is just that. A GAP that was never meant to be filled.

Most of this has got to do with issues of belonging and quintessentially, the basic human need for comprehension. We need to understand what goes on around us, otherwise we end up creating cocoons for ourselves that inevitably give birth to a lot of Alices trapped in their perfect little wonderlands; ranting on about a utopia that once was. It is human nature to want to fit in like the wheels of a machine, to feel part of a rhythmic tic-toc. But then one fine day you are given a rude awakening when you are openly ridiculed because of your archaic school of thought; or you realize that your technical abilities are stuck in the typewriter age when you decide to redo your resume for a post-retirement job; all in turn making you a staunch believer of the great life you once led. All credit goes to the hi-fi world of technology that has no place for these thingamajigs begging us for mercy through those big white eyes. Times change. And if you get left behind, learn to deal with it!

I always thought this was a problem that ensued as a consequence of white hair (that has not been bleached under the sun, as our elders proclaim). I could not have been more wrong. I just turned 30 with white strands egressing as quickly as the number of anti-aging serums attacking the planet , yet I find myself disgusted every time I come across an ill-mannered child, or when I can’t comprehend the latest fashion, or a mind-numbing movie or song the young generation seems to be raving and dancing to (Kolaveridi {indian song} might have been a perfect name for an infectious disease, but a famous song…who would’ve thought.?!). It is not easy living in a time when the media and consequently our minds thrive on conspiracies that could be anything ranging from a madman’s plan to take over the world to a  deliberate plot to kill your best friend’s pet cat. No wonder we are all so stressed and frustrated. Our brains are just not trained for such strong dosages of contradiction, one after another. This is an age of oxymorons (dont worry, plain old morons prevail in each generation). Its about time someone put an end to this confusion about whether or not to eat egg-yolk or if butter is healthier than margarine! And unfortunately as cancer still has no cure, everything we eat or drink at one point or another will probably be marked as a lethal cause for cancer. This age is about knowing the trick to complicate the most simplest of things in life and then making money out of the whole mumbo jumbo. Its actually quite laughable once you get past the superficiality of it all.

Some time back, I came across a clever write-up on the great things you might have experienced because you were lucky to be born in the 70’s or 80’s. When I notice children these days clinging to their cell phones, laptops and ps3’s with as much love as we did with simple variations of games like ‘hide ‘n’ seek and Tag ( Teelo express, ‘baraf paani’, tip top), hopscotch, and the ever famous ‘pitthu garam’ (a game involving two teams and a pile of 7 stones that have to be hit by a ball), I have no choice but to shake my head in disappointment and feel sorry for these children who will never know the beauty of such fun games. I sheepishly admit that I too have become the newest member of ‘those who wonder of times lost’ like a lost lover boohooing over someone who was never really theirs.

There are just so many reasons for each generation to ping pong back and forth grasping for refuge because this whirlpool of advancement (or not) and change is permanent. It’s not even humanly possible to understand everything in one lifetime, and if you realize that, its not all too bad. Still, if nothing else helps, try a high dose of Nostalgia (works better than any anti-depressant I am sure). Hence, if all else fails, there’s always that long stretch of happy memories we have stashed away in some idle corner of the mind. At least that way, we can all go back to a time when it was oh-so-perfect!