Short story: Lappitop

Rich. That’s what they are. Terribly, horribly stuffed with things they don’t need. Like my grandmother’s brother’s plastic bag suffocating with free rice every Friday outside the mosque in Malpur, my village. My dado always spoke about luscious green giants of the Marghala Hills that protected our homes from the Djinns. I remember thinking about whether they’d protect us from the humans too.

My heart runs fast, almost like it’ll die if it doesn’t escape. I don’t like to wash these deeshes that baji ji’s(madam boss) sister brought from Englaaand. I also don’t like to dust the creepy faces baji ji’s uncle collected from Afreeka. My baji ji makes it a point to remind me every day. “I will throw you to the dogs if you break anything!!!” I always smile my big smile, but in my head when she threatens me. Everything gets worse when she sees me smile. Back home, we have plenty of fur-scratching homefull dogs. They have no home, but they have me and my sister.

Then there are the children. Ali is ten, a year younger than I am. Sara is only five and she is my secret city sister. That’s what she and I whisper to each other when I braid her hair or play hide ‘n seek. I don’t know what my ‘baji ji’ will do if she ever found out. Probably throw me to the dogs. I can’t help but smile again, but inside my head.

Unhappy. That’s what they are. Terribly, horribly unhappy. Baji’s husband, the rich man who gives me money at the end of the month is stranger than our village crazy person who goes around with a half moustache and screams that the world is going to end soon. Baji ji’s husband has angry eyebrows, like they will jump right out and smack you. He rarely speaks, even to his children. When he is at home, which is not often, he sits in his room, staring at something called a lattpop…lappitop or something like that. I think it’s what they call a baby compooter.

Once I was sent by baji to give him tea. It was a rare occasion when I saw his eyebrows at peace, while crazily punching the buttons on that thing. Like his fingers were tiny fly swatters and the keys, flies. We don’t have fly killers in the village. We roll up old papers and practice our aiming skills. He has tie-dyed marble eyes and a grey-greenish shaved face that reminds me of the sticky lizards swimming on our roof back home. Our roof with all the patchy cement looks like snake skin. Snake Vs. Lizard. I’d like the front seats to that show. Wrestling is serious business in my village. You can joke about the Mosque’s Imam’s crooked eyes, or about the neighbor aunti’s monkeyish screams at night, but never about wrestling.

Baji ji mostly speaks on four occasions. First, when she is scolding me. Second, when she is scolding her children. Third, when she is fighting with her husband. And fourth, when she is talking to faces on her lappitop or the phone. Ali stays in his room after school. His fingers crawling all over gadgets like spider legs. I once woke up to a spider scurrying across my face when I was six. My sister came to the rescue and smashed it on my nose, then ran away crying. Another time she cried till she couldn’t breath was when I was leaving for Islamabad. Abba didn’t say goodbye. I blamed his gangerine-infested leg.

I can’t talk to a ‘box’ like they do. I can’t even watch TV for long. The TV at my parents’ place doesn’t have a remote control. So my sister and I run to adjust the volume or change the channels more than we actually sit down to watch. One time, we were in such a hurry to win our abba’s praise and see who turned it off first, we almost knocked it off from the stack of faded beetroot coloured bricks used as its table. My amma had spread her favourite embroidered dupatta over the bricks to make the table look pretty. Abba didn’t mind the almost-accident and just muttered something about it being a good riddance. And that, “…it creates unhappy minds and unsatisfied hearts. ” I wonder how he came up with that. Baji ji never gives away anything until her husband forces it out of her. Like he did with this TV. It’s just her bad words that she can’t keep inside her teeth-brimming mouth. I’ve never seen so much white in one mouth. It reminds me of my dado’s funeral.

A light bulb hangs in the centre of our main room that’s the size of baji ji’s kitchen. I feel sad for the bulb, alone and hanging upside down like a post-sacrificial goat.But I like electricity. It lets me see my family’s faces when the sky tucks itself into its favourite black blanket. We only have one blanket. Baji’s husband gave it to us one winter morning after I heard her scream like a cat who’s tail got caught in the door and then the whole house caught fire. Fire does’t scare me. It lets me see my family’s faces when there’s no electricity. Amma says that the fire makes her see greenish-brown fairies of Malpur dancing in my eyes. I have my abba’s skinny arms, legs and broad feet. Amma says she only gave me her best, her perky nose with a bump at the end. The sort that would break the fall when rolling down a steep hill. And her almond-coloured skin.

We like to sit and talk around the fire that abba builds for us. We all merge into each other and form a giant sunflower, huddled towards the warm light. They are the happiest flowers I know. My mother doesn’t talk much when we gather. She just smiles wide enough for her thin lips to disappear between each other. Instead, she prefers stringing together colourful beads on weak threads that she sells outside our village’s one-door girls’ school. Colourful, small, round, shiny beaded bracelets are a hit with young school girls.

“Salma!” I hear Baji ji shouting my name. I try to numb by head by thinking of abba. Nights when he’d take me out for walks after a meal of lentils and roti. Nights when Abba still had his good leg, he gathered wood with hands that had veins protruding like roots from our Malpur trees. I’d tag along and watch the stars. My abba never went to school. But he knew his specks in the sky. An old employer when abba worked as a driver in the city taught him about the faraway worlds. The stars are the same here in the city. But they don’t seem as bright as my village stars.

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My ears warn me about Baji ji stomping towards me with her noisy shoes. I don’t think I will last long here. I say this every other month. I think I will go back home. I say this every other day. But then I think about Sara. And how few years from now she’ll be sitting locked in her room, getting sucked into a star-less world, with no light except from the TV or lappitop machines. That thought makes it hard to breathe. Like someone just sneaked in and strangled my neck from the inside.

“I am done with you! I will surely throw you to the dogs today!” Baji ji digs her nails into my arms and drags me. I remember the colourful beads nudging each other to keep hanging, keep shining, keep being. I remember my mother’s lip-lost face. I smile my big smile again, but inside my head.

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A tale of one country and its biggest sin

The epitaph read,

“And she died, because they were too pretentious.”

‘She’ is the country we sing false praises of every year on 14th of August. ‘They’ are us.

Imagine long forgotten, buried nations with tombstones showing how they died. If Pakistan were ever unfortunate enough to be wiped off, it would hardly be terrorist attacks, earthquakes, corruption or poverty. We’ve had these problems for long. There is something else. Something more powerful, sneaky, and destructive for a third world country drowning in debt.  It’s my people’s knack for showing off like there’s no tomorrow.

Weddings. They have boiled down to competition, superiority, and status. Weddings are no longer about love, bonding, and hope. They are about life-choking expensive feasts, clothing, makeup, photography/videography, decor and honeymoons. Seven-day wedding celebrations to perhaps plaster their fairy tale love across the country? Or maybe just to display a lustful knack for bragging. Those who can’t afford without erasing their life savings, think twice, but go ahead anyway. Because hey what the heck, you only get married once right? So why not go all out. Now this by no means accounts for the rising divorce rate in Pakistan.

Birthdays and the likes. If you’re not chalking out the perfect Cinderella-like party for your one-year old daughter, who by now has learned the art of deciphering between mama and baba, then you are at best a nincompoop. The perfect cake, the perfect event planner and of course, the perfect venue. Whatever happened to simple, fun birthdays our children actually enjoyed? I know the argument here. It’s our money and we can do whatever we want. Sure, having too much money gives you the right to rub everyone with it. We are mindless clones. Even if we can’t afford to, we’ll always magically pull out our version of the royal event from torn, disheveled hats. C’mon now. You give a child that young a piece of chocolate cake and a wrapped present and he’ll think you’re God! But I know what you’re thinking, A child’s joy meets no match when he or she sees decked up women and men prancing around in ridiculous attempts to celebrate the ‘fun’ event.

Education. My stomach feels sick just thinking about the extent of the rat race here. The best ‘English-isspeaking school’, the highest fee package, the best-dressed teachers, the most fancy looking textbooks. Sure there are plenty of well-intentioned parents out there who want to send their children to elite schools for quality education. But the rest? The pretentious layers never peel off in time for them to realize what’s happening to their children. They understand only one rule. If the richest kid in class has that gadget, my child sure as hell is getting one! Sure, a five-year old missing out on the latest episode of Paw Patrol is the sin of sins here. You can’t possibly do that to your child. Sadly, this ‘richer-and-therefore-better-than-thou’ syndrome is our plague. We are raising a breed of self-obsessed, greedy children who will never open up their hearts.

Clothes. Sigh. It’s as if I’ll suffocate in the hundreds of yards of lawn/chiffon materials, and pret wear if I write about the clothing menace in my country. Ladies please, if you are so afraid of being caught in last season’s clothing, or you have to secretly compete with your bff for the best dressed award, please try not to infect other women. Because at the end of your selfie-dazed day, you’re tearing away at their hearts and desires, bit by bit. Sure that’s not really a valid argument because you are not responsible for another’s dissatisfaction and lack of privilege. But still. A little bit of humility and simplicity never hurts. And empathy goes a long way. Oh and next time you go out, try not to forget your child’s underage caretaker when you make her sit at another table and gawk at your fancy leftovers. Let’s just keep it at that.

Eating out. I am getting indigestion just thinking about what happens here. Gone are the days when we’d wait the entire year to get permission to eat out with friends at the fanciest restaurant we could afford, a.k.a. Copper Kettle. Also gone are the days when treating your friends and family on special occasions wasn’t so much about where you took them but about the moments you spent together. And drastically extinct and annihilated are the days when breaking or keeping fast at home was about simplicity and gratitude. Now shallowness has overcome this spiritual month. We take more time in dressing up to go out for Sehri or Iftar than we spend in prayer and self-evaluation. God forbid, if our Facebook check-ins at restaurants are less than the number of times we share Quranic Ayats. Pat on the back for maintaining the perfect balance every Ramzaan.

Here’s the catch of catches multiplied by 22 times infinity. Not all rich folk are masters of flaunting their money. Not all privileged people have wealth coming from sinister avenues. There are still some good eggs left. But by some unsaid rule, people with money, and oodles of it, are not allowed to simplify. At least most will not believe or support them. They will either be cousins of the miserly Uncle Scrooge, or not hip and happening enough. Some will limp across their crumbling cave of honour and follow everyone else. A small number will break the mould and do it differently. But that won’t matter because majority will still look up to the gold-studded and uphold disgusting standards. People who can’t indulge in luxuries will continue to swim in their pools of bitterness and skepticism. Their nightly howls of ‘Why us?!’ will haunt them permanently. The injustice forever stinging their open sores. No one is the wiser here.

Now feel free to get me wrong. Feel free to judge me for judging. But I have seen enough to choke if I don’t at least speak up. The fear of what the society will think or say is worse than it ever was. We are accustomed to a crippled thought process that never goes beyond the superficial scabby skin. Everything has an urgency attached to it. Gorge down or die. Slit the other’s throat or die. Encroach their territory or die. Compete or die. Win or die. It’s so much about the here and now that we don’t stop to think about the consequences. And there’s always a dire bunch of those we can’t escape.

In this fake, unbalanced world we’ve created, wide chasm between the rich and poor, the aware and ignorant, the humble and arrogant, the sane and insane, is increasing. Just beyond this skeletal existence we’ve become used to, is the point of no return.

And by the looks of it, we are damn proud and masters of hypocricy. You and I together will continue to throw our country to the shredder…or at least till the ink on the tombstone dries up. Pakistan Zindabad (Long Live Pakistan)!

image credits: sameen khan

On this independence day, let us not celebrate, but speak up!

There is a lot that Pakistanis are known for. Hospitality. Simplicity. Big Hearts. Narrow minds. Hearty appetites. Superfluous emotions. Vengeance. Betrayal. Loyalty. Indifference. Empathy. Naivety. Shrewdness. Let’s just say we have a touch of everything in our colorful palate of vice and virtue.

But there is something I wish we didn’t have.

Fear of evil. So much so that we can accept it in all its repugnant forms. We can curse it within our hearts, but we can’t openly talk about it. We know it’s there, right beneath our feet, in front of our eyes but it’s always simpler to feign indifference. God forbid, what if an open acknowledgement awakens a well-kept secret, our dust-laden conscience?

It took us a good stretch of decades to come out and speak on certain pressing issues like women’s rights, dowry, poverty, illiteracy, injustice, child labour. But it will take us a lot more to talk about a few other, more dark, even more rotten matters. Social evils that make our stomaches churn with disgust, and our souls twinge with abhorrence. Signs that point towards the end of the world. One of the most vile occurences of evil, rampant across the globe and our country – Child Sexual Abuse.

This is a topic that we can’t even talk about to ourselves, let alone among our families and friends. We love talking about religion. We accept corruption, terrorism and bribery; All much coveted conversations in our smug and mighty drawing rooms. We love pulling at each other’s collars and pointing our nosy fingers into everyone’s business. Why someone got married, why someone didn’t. Why someone had a baby, why someone didn’t. Why someone went abroad for a higher education, or how they got all that money. We love talking about things that don’t concern us. And when it comes to matters that are most important, we lock them all up and throw away the key. For the love of all things pure, we can’t accept evil in its raw, unadulterated form. Our legs quiver when incidents of  rape or adultery spew up. And of course sexual abuse of children is our very own Grimm’s tale. A fairy tale. Until now.

As Pakistan turns 68 in just a few days (14th of August), we are all gifted with a sickening incident involving grave physical and mental abuse of more than 200 children in a certain part of the country. An inconceivable story that surprises us to the core, maybe hoping to wake us up and smell the putrid humanity that lives within us. Begging us to see things for what they are. But did it?

No one talked to us about these things when we were children. Before us. And even before them. It was too inappropriate, too much of a taboo to grace our self-righteous tongues. We read about similar incidents happening in other countries,watched real-life horrendous depictions in the movies and uttered our much-loved word, ‘Tauba’, while grasping and releasing both ears in a criss-cross motion (an action showing our utmost shock and contempt over something).

Our habit of denial and ignorance is the result of a long, deep-rooted process, where we are lauded for burying our faeces in the ground, but slandered for pointing out the putrid smell. As a self-professed aware mother of the 21st century, even I can’t bring myself to read the details of the barbarity. Only because it is in my backyard. My own soil. It’s like reading the morbid facts might set forth a string of bad luck. I can’t even talk about it with loves ones or friends. It weighs so heavily on the heart. Thinking that it might break the superficial pact we’ve signed and sealed as citizens of Pakistan; with the opening and closing lines being – “Oh how ridiculous, these things can’t happen in our country!” But something’s got to give. Enough is enough.

I see a considerable amount of outrage in the social media. But it still only amounts to a negligible percentage of the society. Most homes, towns, and villages where such horrendous actions take place stay off the grid. It’s our responsibility, as parents, as teachers, as guardians of children to stay wary of heinous culprits. To keep an eye on suspicious activities. To make children understand the different between kind and malicious people. To give children enough support and confidence to enable them to speak out against any wrongdoing that is brought upon them, irrespective of what useless spectators might say or do.

This time it happened among us, not too far from our own, apparently infallible lives. But what if there is a next time? Can we afford to stay deaf and dumb again?

On this independence day, let’s not swim in useless rhetoric. It’s our duty to breathe life into our garden. Let us vow to bring down anyone who even dares to pluck our budding flowers. It’s our responsibility to break away from senseless taboos and realize the severity, so this never happens again.

Let’s not sing songs of a land that has never been pure, no matter what name we give it. But instead, let’s speak up for what really matters. The future. Our children.

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