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Thursday, 11 January 2018

Me too

That's eight-year-old me perched on top of my mother's head and that eight-year-old says, me too!

This is eight-year-old Zainab who was found in a rubbish dump on Tuesday, 9th of January 2018. She was raped and strangled in Kasur, Pakistan.

I have been seeing Zainab's picture all over the internet. Each time I see this picture, I think, she's so young. And so today I went through my pictures and found one of myself at that age and once again, I was amazed at how young and happy I look.

'"How young he was, how amazingly young we all look at that age!" Like one of those miniscule new leaves found at the tip of a branch, the ones that can be crushed into a watery green smear between thumb and forefinger-so unformed, so...resistanceless.'

The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam

The picture above of me was taken in Karachi, Pakistan. My sister and I usually attended tennis lessons together every afternoon, but one particular afternoon, my mother kept my sister home; she had fever. The tennis instructor instead of having me practise in the tennis courts lead me into a squash court, where he molested me.

That was the first time I was molested by a grown man. It happened again and again and again. More times than what I care to remember, but the truth is that I cannot forget.

I wrote the very first story I ever wrote to purge some of the demons that haunt me. That story is called, "This is Our Secret" and it is part of the collection recently published by Mawenzi House.

Another truth is that I am the luckiest person on the planet. Two men walked in on my tennis instructor and he had to step away. Truth also is that the other later encounters, were far more violent, more traumatizing. A cook in a rest house we spent a summer in, an elderly man with rotting teeth and wiry hands, made a game of it; accosting me each time my mother insisted I run an errand for a multitude of elderly relatives, each of whom were perfectly capable of fetching water and tea for themselves. 

Now, that's another truth about us South Asians-all young girls and women are viable domestic slaves. The worst perpetrators of this crime are, very interestingly, elderly women. If you are a young girl or woman, watch out, cause our elderly ladies will run you ragged!

Another incident, this on a hill in Abbottabad, involved a young man with a machete, who repeatedly told me that he would slice off my breasts. I still remember, even in my fear, feeling incredulous. I was nine and did not have breasts. I lied to him. I told him that my father was walking right behind me and that he was in the police. My father was in the navy and away at sea. 

There are so many others. I don't want to talk about them. I am not ready. But here's what I want you to know if you are reading this. When a person is assaulted, child or adult, I have experienced both and they come to you to share their pain, please listen, without judgement or advice. It is not helpful to get angry with the person. It is not their fault and they will be wracked by guilt anyway. They don't need you to heap more on top of it all. 

Please don't curtail your children's right to experience the world. Do not lock them in, in order to keep them safe. They will eventually have to leave your cocoon in order to live, in order to breathe.

Please do not teach them foolish nonsense about how to keep themselves safe by being assertive/aggressive,etc. That implies that if they do get molested then it is their own fault for not doing a better job of protecting themselves. The onus is on other people to behave like decent human beings. It is not the child's job to walk around, ever ready, to defend and attack. 

I am lucky. I was not raped and strangled. My body was not dumped in a garbage heap. I am alive and well and able to tell bits of my story. But Zainab is not. Her last moments were full of terror and pain. We all have a responsibility to the children around us but also to each other. Be kind. Be attentive. Be vigilant when you see someone being taken advantage of. Do not be complicit. Speak up, because children like Zainab cannot.

  إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ       We belong to Allah and to Him we shall return. 

May you rest in peace, Zainab.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

On Why I Shamelessly Promote My Book

   It's been a month since the release of my book, and I find myself constantly promoting the book by whatever means I can think of, including social media. I do this, not just for selfish reasons, though I will admit to those, but because my publishing house, Mawenzi House publishes diverse voices.  Publishing is a tough business. All those books on bookshelves at your local bookstores get shipped back to the publisher if they do not sell, at the publisher's cost. Publishers will publish what they believe will sell, which is why not enough people of colour are published. Most people don't read books, and when they do read, they read for information (non-fiction) or entertainment (The Fifty Shades Trilogy). This is why non-fiction is an easier sell than fiction. Writers of genre fiction; science fiction, fantasy, romance, erotica, etc, have an easier time getting published than writers of literary fiction.
   Hardly anyone reads literary fiction. And practically no one, reads literary fiction, which features female protagonists. Even female readers for whatever peculiar reason prefer reading stories with strong, male protagonists. Nearly all of the people who bought Fifty Shades were women. Even within literary fiction, novels are more popular than short story collections.
   There were other publishing houses who showed an interest in my stories, but when the editorial board got together, the marketing team always shot my collection down. People do not like to buy short story collections.
   Put all of this together, and you have my book; literary fiction, a short story collection in which nearly all of the protagonists are women, and all of the stories concern Pakistanis/Muslims (a minority group in this part of the world).
  Add to that, my opening story is about a suicide bomber who I have tried to humanize, because while I hate violence of any sort, I also hate - hate. A thirteen year-old boy who becomes a suicide bomber is still a kid. He is a human being, and as sorry as I am, for the result of his brainwashing, I do also feel sorry for him.
  That my book got published at all is a miracle of sorts, except in my case, I know who is responsible for my miracle. Nurjehan Aziz, my publisher, is my miracle worker, and I do hope for her sake, as much as for my own, that this book sells. I do not want those copies shipped back at a cost to her.
  If I still haven't convinced you to get your hands on my book, that's fine (not really!), but do read and not just what's in fashion, but widely, stretching your net to the unlikeliest of spots and take time to tarry there for a bit.

 If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” 

Haruki Murakami

ThingsSheCouldNeverHave-Mawenzi House




Monday, 6 November 2017

Stringent Measures

  Another day of senseless violence; twenty-six people dead in a church in Texas, just a few days after eight were mowed down in Manhattan, a month after fifty-eight were killed when a gunman opened fire during a concert in Las Vegas. The number killed varies, as do the locations, but the way most people react to the violence remains the same. There is grief as there should be. The numbers do not convey the loss of each individual or the impact on the families and friends. But there is also digging around for explanations, seeking motivations for the violence, and blame.
  A white man shooting people is a "lone gunman." A man with a Muslim sounding name is a "terrorist."
  The white man "acted alone" due to "mental illness." The Muslim man is a representative of all the Muslims on the planet, and all of us so called Muslims find ourselves hanging our heads in shame, as if we are all somehow complicit in the lunacy of the man who took it upon himself to drive a van into innocent pedestrians.
  A few years back, I read The Inconvenient Indian, A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King and much in that book stayed with me. In particular, this sentence: "They get to make their mistakes as individuals and not as representatives of an entire race." That sentence resonated back then, and still does right now, except the extend of the punishment is larger.
  Muslims are not a race. We come in all colours. Mostly, brown, sure, but not always brown. We can be black and surprise, surprise, even white.We come in different flavours too. The devout ones like my grandmothers. The atheists, like the ones dearest to me in my family because I understand their doubts, and then of course, there are the agnostics like me; happy to sit on the fence and watch the game, content to play both sides from time to time, as long as we don't have to decide on whether we believe or not.
  But I am digressing from my main complaint, which is not other people's inability to spot us correctly in a crowd, though that does hurt, (After all, if you are going to discriminate, at least do so, in a somewhat educated manner) but other people's insistence on lumping all Muslims together as if we are all the same.
  Here's some news: Gather together a hundred Muslims and you will find a hundred  different individuals with differing opinions on everything including their own religion.
  Why is it that the white man is always a "lone wolf," while the insane brownish-looking man is somehow always ascribed to belonging to a lager pack of Muslims? The deaths in Manhattan were followed by Trump openly talking about the folly of the "diversity visa lottery" and the need for more stringent checks. The implication being that peaceful Americans need to be kept safe from dangerous people, who vaguely resemble my father, my brother, my husband, and now, my 16-year-old son.
Just the other day, my sixteen-year-old decided on a bike ride with a friend all the way to downtown Toronto from our home in North York and my husband and I panicked. It was dark and he had been gone a while. He returned safe and sound and we heaved a sigh of relief, but when we were driving around looking for him and I saw a police car, my first thought was that my son is brown, has a Muslim name, and is nearly six-feet tall. In the dark, a boy his size, bearing his name, might be regarded as a threat. The police car did nothing to reassure me.
  Here's something from another favourite book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra: "The trees they passed repeated on and on into the woods. None was remarkable when compared to the next, but each was individual in some small regard: the number of limbs, the girth of the trunk, the circumference of shed leaves encircling the base. No more than minor particularities, but minor particularities were what transferred two eyes, a nose, and a mouth into a face."

My greatest fear is that some day, someone might look into my child's face, and instead of seeing him; the big, brown eyes under the high arching eye brows, the small nose, which adds to rather than detracts from, the larger beauty of his face, the stubborn chin, and the high cheekbones, all they will see is a person who kind of fits into their typecast of a Muslim man and therefore, a potential threat.

And how I wish that Trump's wish for more stringent checks comes true. The world needs more stringent checks on who gets to lead the most powerful country on the planet.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Urdu: My Grandmother Tongue

People look at me and assume that Urdu is my mother tongue. It is not. It is my grandmother tongue. It is the language I used to communicate with both my Nani and my Dadi. Both tried to improve my command of their mother tongue. Both failed. I am a dim wit.
  My Nani made me read Urdu novels and taught me how to count, but she eventually gave up after her terminal cancer diagnosis. There wasn't enough time. I was a quiet child and the "no English" rule only made me even quieter in her presence.
  Nani would often demand that I tell her stories, while she napped. A habit which I found incredibly irritating. I would start the story and she would start snoring. When woken up, she would insist that she had been listening all along.
  My first book, a collection of short stories was just released. I like to imagine that it would have pleased Nani. I picture her saying, see I knew all along what you did not: I knew you had stories in you.
  How I wish the stories were in Urdu, then my Dadi too, would have been able to rejoice and giggle over the naughty bits, with a sparkle in her eyes and the knowing look of a woman who bore ten children.
  I wish I had better command of my grandmother tongue. But too many years of wandering the planet and reading in a language that was not theirs, has made me the worst kind of fool; the kind that speaks in a tongue, not anchored securely to the place where her thoughts are born.
   When I have to express complex thoughts in Urdu, I translate from English. I think in English. I dream in English. And yet, Ghalib and Faiz, Urdu poets, produce a longing in me, which I can not express with my English words.
   I have heard of phantom limbs. An ache in place of a limb. I have a phantom tongue. An ache where a tongue should have been. A longing instead of the language.
   My children do not know this longing. They have no access to Ghalib. No comprehension of Faiz. They are complete. There is no need for Urdu. No pining for its absence. I envy them their completeness. I pity their loss.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Lessons in Grief

Three years back my daughter teamed up with a mentor and collected items for the Humane Society. She decided that we should adopt a cat. I wasn't too enthusiastic. I knew who would end up looking after this family pet. The four of us went down to the closest Humane Society, but it was Zara who chose Kit Kat. Cybelle was the name she came to us with, but the lady at the Humane Society told us that cats respond to tone. They do not recognize names as such and so we decided to rename her.
The first few days, she spent in my son's bed, hiding under his quilt. And then took to sleeping curled up in the crook of my neck, her face buried in my hair. She followed me around all day; in the washroom, lying on the bath mat while I showered, sleeping on the rug in the kitchen while I cooked, jumping into the laundry basket as I sorted the laundry, sitting in my lap while I wrote.
But what she loved most of all was being outdoors. Each time the door opened, she made a run for it. We chased after her, brought her back. Months went by like this, until I finally gave in. We live close to a ravine. We routinely see deer in our backyard. We hear the howl of coyotes at night. We were scared for her, but she seemed so content sitting on the chair on our deck, watching squirrels in the yard, that I figured that to keep her indoors, was cruelty. Her life would be richer for being able to enjoy the outdoors. I love being outside. I have to spend at least an hour or two outside everyday, no matter what the weather, just to feel alive. I could not imagine a worse life than one cooped up indoors.
She, generally, spent a few hours outside, but returned often to eat, drink, and use the facilities. Sometimes, she would return just to look at us through the screen door. She often ran off when asked to come in.
On Thursday night, she did not return. We all felt uneasy. I repeatedly went out to call her back but could not spot her in our yard. I slept in the living room, facing the deck door, so that I could let her in when she returned. Around eleven at night, my husband and son, heard the howl of coyotes close by and went outside with lights to look for her. They returned disappointed, without Kit Kat. My husband joined me on the living room couch. At three in the morning, we gave up, and went to bed. At six, he and I got up for our daily walk, and realized that she was gone. She would not be coming home.
I know it is absurd to grieve so deeply for a cat. Kit Kat, herself, hunted. Just two days back, she brought home a snake. She liked to play with her prey. She returned with birds, voles, and the snake. Yet, the thought of her falling victim to a pack of coyotes had been killing me for the past couple of days. I wish I had picked her up, that last evening, and brought her indoors. I wish I had run out at the coyotes' howling, but I fell asleep on the living room couch. I never heard the yelping. I was surprised to see my son and husband outside with the lights.
I miss the trust with which she would cuddle with me. I am home on my own for most of the day. She was my companion. My buddy. And now without her I feel bereft.
Just the week before, I read C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed. I thought I learned a few lessons on bereavement. I thought I was preparing myself for the blows life deals out. In actuality, I learned nothing. I cry hiding in the garage, in the bathroom, out on walks on my own.
I am a loner. Quiet. Loud people give me headaches. I am sensitive. Other people's words hurt me and I read displeasure into their silences. Kit Kat's independent, yet physically affectionate love was the perfect balm for me. If I took too long to serve her food, because I was busy, she vibrated her tail at me. I knew when she was annoyed at my lack lustre service and I loved her even more for it.
Love is hard. With other people, there are always words that wound. Minefields that explode in my face, mostly because of my own shortcomings. I am terrible at love. I don't know how to love properly. I oscillate between either embarrassing others with too much expression or being cold, too self-contained. I stumble. I fall. I try to be better, but with Kit Kat, there was never any faltering. She demanded my attention when she wanted it. I gave without thinking.
I am grateful for the years I had with her. For once, I wish I believed in an afterlife. It would be a comfort to imagine her frolicking in heaven with prompt food service. But magical, wishful thinking never made sense to me. Perhaps that is why there are so many tears. Kit Kat is dead. There is no reason for me to hurry in the morning to give her food, clean her litter box, let her out.
I never understood people who seemed to love animals more than humans. I thought they were silly. How could anyone compare a child to a pet? Yet, here I am. Another lesson in love. It is not reasonable.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Things She Could Never Have

In the fall of 2017, Mawenzi House will publish my short story collection. Two years back, I quit my part-time job to focus on writing full time, and have since then, received so many rejections that I have lost count. As bizarre it may sound, I, now, take heart from the improved quality of the rejections. While earlier, most publishers and editors would not even bother writing back, now some of the kinder ones, take the trouble to give advice and encouragement. A rejection letter from the likes of Granta and the New Yorker actually has me dancing around the house. The 'yes' from Mawenzi House had me soaring for days and yet, seeing my book up for pre-orders on Amazon, feels unreal.
   The intention behind writing this particular post, is to encourage anyone reading this, to persevere. It doesn't matter what you set out to do, there will be setbacks, but the point is to continue pushing that rock.

"Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow."

Mary Anne Radmacher

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Dark Days of Winter

It is winter here in Toronto, the skies are grey more often than not. And my mood is the same. I don't understand the Trump phenomena across the border. I don't understand the shooting of six men praying at a mosque in Quebec City.
What I do understand is that when times are hard, people look for scapegoats, and settle upon easy targets. I do understand that in today's world the targets are people that look like me and my kids. People with brown skin tones and Jewish and Muslim-sounding names. And I worry, not for myself, but for my children.
The world is large and I thought that my husband and I had found a safe place to raise our family. I, often, visualized my children's futures and the advantages they have growing up here. Now, I wonder if there is any safe place left on our planet and I wonder what happened.
Two years back in Turkey, I saw a Syrian couple with very young children sitting on the street and for as long as I live, I know I will never forget the despair I saw in their eyes.
I saw that look again, in Pakistan, two months back, on the faces of little kids standing on the wayside with their hands stretched out as we drove past.
When some of us have so much and some so little, there will be fear. Fear that the have-nots might arrive at our doorsteps demanding more of us. Better to build walls to keep such folk as far away as possible. I can understand this fear.
On your TV screen, one day, you see a couple of brown men do some terrible things and so now all brown people fill you with fear.
I have seen fear up close. I recognize that smell. It's fear that makes people do awful things. It's fear that turns away ships at the harbour, condemning the people on board to death. We have seen it before; Jews, Chinese, Sikhs, the Irish, all turned away because of fear. It's fear that raises walls, installs concertina fences, and hires guards. Fear that propels people to hide love in their hearts in order to protect themselves from rejection. Fear that stops you from reaching out to hold that hand. Fear that holds you back from expressing geninue emotion. Fear that keeps you from taking that leap. It's fear of the fall that keeps you from flying. And fear of the other that keeps you from making a new friend. We all know fear. We all recognize it in ourselves. But that is not enough. We must all banish our fears. We must step out on that ledge and take that leap. Instead of making the wall higher, tear it down, and try sharing your good fortune instead.