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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Not All Muslims are Brown

What happened on Friday in Paris is horrifying. I can only imagine the fear and the anguish of the Parisians. Paris is the city we see romanticized in books and movies. It is the city of love. It is the place my daughter has marked out as her destination of choice for her first trip on her own own - translate: minus her father and me.

I have memories of France. Many memories of a place visited not once but again and again. First, as a child accompanying my parents and later with my own kids. First time I saw an automatic garage door was in Paris when I was seven. We lived in China at the time. Communist China, where everyone wore either blue or gray, and I found the garage door, magical. First time I saw a naked woman was in a park in Paris. I won't forget my father's embarrassment and my sister and my delight. The lady waved back at us two little girls being rowed down the Seine by our father. I still haven't figured out if my father's embarrassment was the result of our excitement or the lady's nudity. Probably, the former. He is a sailor, after all.

An earlier memory of wondering off on my own at age ten to a play ground in Nice and watching horrified as a group of six or seven teenage boys attacked and tore clothes off a girl their own age, while she sat on a swing and screamed hysterically. I couldn't digest what I saw. There were other people walking in the park. Old ladies walking their dogs and no one even looked in the girl's direction, let alone help her.

Another one, at the heart of which lies my mother's remarkably tiny bladder. We were driving through France and my mother had to go and my father did not want to stop. He likes making good time on the highway. When we finally did stop, my mother was desperate. She and I got off and ran into the first hotel we came upon, dashing straight through the lobby to the ladies washroom. No sooner had we entered that a large blond man who was incredibly angry dashed in with an attack dog, and manhandled both of us out of the hotel onto the street while screaming insults at us in French. My mother was wearing a shalwar kurta and had covered her hair with a duppatta to pray to Allah to help her make it to the loo in time.

A more recent memory. Just two decades or so old. I studied at a university in Tunis where some of my friends were French-Tunisian. They had a strange love- hate relationship with France. I didn't get it, until the day I did. My parents were planning a trip to Europe to pick up a car from Germany and drive it back to Tunis. They invited a few people for dinner and my father, to my dismay, insisted I come out of my room to meet them. So, we all sat around, with the various European guests weighing in with advice on the best places to visit and things to do. The French Ambassador's wife piped up:

"Be careful while driving through Marseilles. You will be driving a new Merc and you know, the North Africans in Marseilles, they like to steal."
And then she laughed, and the others joined in. Good thing that my father had not invited any Tunisians to our home that night. I was outraged. My friends were North African. We were sitting in a North African country, enjoying their hospitality, but I am a coward and kept quiet. Thankfully, my parents have more courage than their daughter and spoke up against the stereotype.
A few months later, lost in Marseilles, on the way to the port, my father pulled over to ask for directions. We were running late, tension was high in our car, we frantically searched our minds for the correct French words with which to ask for directions, and in all that we didn't notice that the three boys next to the car alongside which we had pulled up, were holding large metal tools and banging at the car while the car's alarm blared at a volume programmed to induce panic. My father quickly drove away and we stopped at a police station to report what we had seen. It's not worth our time, is what the police told us. I forgot to mention the skin colour of the boys, didn't I? White.

I wish I could say it didn't matter but it did matter to me. It mattered because of what the French Ambassador's wife had said about North Africans. It mattered because I wanted her to be wrong. I was glad that the criminals we saw were white.

Does it mean that I think all white, teenage boys are rapists or car thieves? Of course not. Only a fool would draw such a conclusion and so even though, I am an agnostic, I was born Muslim, bear a Muslim name, and most of my loved ones are Muslims, and so it hurts when I hear people talk about Muslims as terrorists. I wonder about the mental trajectory that takes them from some insane, violent people behaving like crazy, violent people do, to thinking all Muslims are violent because that's what their religion teaches them.

All KKK are white, Christian, and hold up the Bible as their source of inspiration, but I don't assume all Christians are white and demented.

P.S: Not all Muslims are brown and not all brown people are Muslim.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Learning Magic

A year ago, I read a brilliant book by Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. It tells you the two things you need to do to write.

Thing 1: Read
Thing 2: Write

And then hang in there. He talks about all the rejection slips he accumulated along the route to his first publication.

I receive at least one rejection a week and there are times when my growing folder of rejections makes me want to sulk in the bathroom, but then I remember Stephen King, his perseverance, and remind myself that there are no shortcuts in life.   

He stresses other qualities as well; such as perfecting your craft by paying attention to the language, writing honestly about things that interest you, but the one point that he always returns to, is the importance of reading.

As you must have guessed, I am not a published writer. I am not really in a position to give anyone any tips, but I do have a love for the written word and a conviction that you can’t go wrong as long as you are doing what you love to do.

I write because I am a quiet person with a loud mind and writing is the only way I know how to express myself. It’s my way of reaching out to other people. I write with the hope that somewhere, somehow, someone might read my words and share my thoughts, but writing is magic and all things magical require behind the scene work.

Writing is not a choice. People write because they are compelled to do so. Being a published author is part choice, part luck, determination, and hard work.

No one owes me anything. For anyone to take out the time to read something I have written is an honour and I am grateful to all those editors who take time to read my stories and write back to me. I am especially grateful to the ones who take care to word the rejection kindly, and even more appreciative of the ones who give me useful feedback.

All of this, the reading, the writing, and the submitting requires time, but while focused on that goal, I constantly remind myself of what is truly important in life and that’s the people in it. The people that I love are my reason for being; arriving at the destination would be pointless without someone to share the view with.

Oh, yes, just last week, I received a letter in the mail from the Writer’s Union of Canada. One of my stories made it to the second round of their 22nd Annual Short Prose Competition for Developing Writers. It might not be much, but it is enough to give me hope and hope is all you need to keep going.

This morning, I found this quote by Mary Anne Radmacher on my Facebook feed, so here’s to all of you out there who are struggling the way I am:
“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

You don't Need Words


 "Give me your tired, your poor,
  Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
 The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
 Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
 I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

               The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."
               Most people do not leave their home unless they have a good reason for doing so - barrel bombing, devastated neighbourhoods, closed schools, no food, no water, no electricity - all sound like good reasons for leaving. Good enough to keep entire families on the move, on treacherous waters and precarious roads for days, weeks, months with babies, toddlers, the aged, and the sick.
             While I was busy fretting over my kid's first day back at school, a three-year-old boy's body washed up on shore and into the view of so many of us. His father was going to return to Syria. He had no reason left for going on.
              Charlie Hebdo, made cartoons about the boy- cartoons that were meant to mock the Europeans for their complacency, their hypocrisy, but which failed to convey either, and only came across as mocking the plight of many who have been suffering for so long and continue to suffer while the rich nations of the world wring their hands and pretend to care.
            At least, the Hungarians have the honesty to admit that they don't want refugees who are Muslim. Europe is for Christians. Makes sense. That's why Turkey, who admitted 2 million Syrians, was never allowed into the EU.
          I grew up with refugees around me. Afghani refugees in Pakistan. I heard the adults at dinner parties complaining about the refugees. Pakistan's economy wasn't the strongest even back then, we couldn't afford to take on so many hungry mouths, they complained, while feasting on the multitude of dishes always set out at these social events. And at every other street corner, Afghans went through the garbage looking for food.
          Ironically, many of these adults were the offspring of refugees; refugees who crossed the arbitrary line dividing India and Pakistan in August 1947, leaving behind them their homes, their belongings, their lands, and worst of all, many loved ones.
          I am "just" a housewife. I don't bother about world affairs. Seems to me, that they are enough men out there, who bother about little else. It gives them an excuse not to think about problems closer to home. But I do care about children. And I do care about the sick. And I do care about people going hungry while millions are wasted on arms and ammunition. And I do care that while countries have money to spend on building their military arsenal, and money to spend on the bureaucracy needed to keep refugees out, they don't have money to spend on taking refugees in.
            So then, go tear down the statue of liberty and remove that beautiful inscription, and in it's place put up barbed wires, a gun, and couple of grenades. You won't need words to get the message through.
            And Mr. Harper, (though you will never read this) the elections are coming and I will vote, as always. I do read, and I do listen, and I will vote for whichever party shows the most heart. I gave up on the human mind a while back.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Scattered like Seed Pods

   I did most of my growing up in Pakistan. It was not the Pakistan that you find today in the media. It was not the land that housed Osama Bin Laden, or the country besieged by drone attacks, and suicide bombings. Handsome cricketers turned politicians did not stand on containers making speeches. Back then, Zia-ul-Haq was in power and anyone with an opinion either had the sense to keep quiet or was rendered silent. America back then, was not fighting the War on Terror on our soil, it was fighting the Russians in Afghanistan by funding our intelligence agency which funneled money to the mujahedeen. Back then, Muslim boys and men laying down their lives in the name of Allah were romanticized, not condemned. After all, it served America well at that point to have rugged Muslim guerrillas fight off the evil Russians. Never mind that every other street corner had Afghani children rifling through the trash looking for food to eat, their blue/green eyes weary, their pink complexions dust and tear stained, their dirty blond hair matted and stringy. Pakistan was America's friend and our dictator smiled benevolently at us from the screen of our one state run television channel. It was a time when TV actresses always had their heads covered and love scenes were blurred out because what could be worse than lovemaking viewed publicly. Zia's Islamic nation did not have sex. We collectively shuddered at the thought of such corruption while our birth rates soared. Yet, the sight of young children eating from trash heaps did not faze us.
    In our schools we learnt of our glorious Muslim heritage linking us to the wider Muslim Ummah. Whether it was physics, biology, or chemistry, the first chapter was always on our Muslim heritage. It never occurred to me to wonder what my Christian and Parsi friends thought about all this. We were taught so much: Ahmedis were non- Muslims and alcohol was the route to all evil - drunk people had sex. But so many of the male members of my extended family drank quietly in their homes. The women did not drink. The women, dressed in traditional clothes, discussed their children and religion, while their men lounged in trousers and polo shirts, imbibed strange smelling drinks, and discussed ways to improve Pakistan, win wars lost to India, and establish the country as an economic powerhouse.
    The country of my childhood was a strange one, but my childhood itself was happy. My father was in the Navy and we moved vagabond-like from city to city, country to country, always returning home to our family. And it was a large family on both sides, my father's and my mother's. My mother's immediate family was tiny, just a mother and a brother, and yet the extended family network was so extensive and close that we were always surrounded by relatives. My father's family consisted of his mother, a strong, spirited lady and his seven brothers, all military men. My paternal uncles scared me more than just a little. They were macho men with deep voices and deeper laughs. Their forthrightness was both comforting and intimidating. I was a mouse and snuck around, always watching. In my mother's family, the men were gentler, their voices quieter, almost muted by the loud opinions of the women. Some of these women, may have covered their heads, but Allah help any man idiot enough to try to silence their minds.
     I had many cousins from both sides. Numerous first cousins from my father's side, and uncountable numbers of first, second, and third cousins from my mother's side, but it is impossible to form a close connection with so many. My sister, brother, and I spent our time either in our maternal grandmother's and uncle's home or in the homes of two of our paternal uncles. Their homes were our home and our cousins, an extension of ourselves. The adults were there in the background but it was each other that we sought out. We had sleepovers that went on for weeks, we laughed together, and at times, we cried together. Somehow, we all grew up and grew apart. Life scattered us like seed pods in the wind, each of us setting roots in different cities, countries, continents. We all have our own little families now. We like where we live.
     I like where I live. I know my neighbours, I volunteer at the local school, I am friendly with all the local shopkeepers and these relationships mean the world to me. When I walk down my street I feel I belong. Canada is my home by choice and I am proud to call myself Canadian. It is the only home my children know. I have even come to enjoy the long winters, taking joy in fresh layers of snow and pride in my ability to shovel it (it is a good workout).
     But there are moments when my mind imagines another life; a life where we all still lived on the shores of the coastal city of Karachi, a life where our footsteps led us to each other's doors at times intentionally, and other times, simply out of habit, ingrained from years of repetition. I wish my kids had what I had; cousins, uncles and aunts who interfered in their lives, lived in their homes, laughed at their jokes, fought over trivial things, and patted them on their backs when needed.
I had a glimpse of such a life for two short weeks in Turkey. I saw my children playing with their cousins, staying up way past all bedtimes, jumping in the pool at night for a splash, watching videos and movies together, and singing songs. Just the sight of them enjoying each other's company made me wish for a different Pakistan; a land where we could have remained and brought up our kids in a safe environment, a land where our children would have known and loved each other.
    I was one grape of a bunch nestled on a vine, the stems interlacing and supporting each other, web-like. My children are trees carried far afield from the orchard by the wind. I hope their roots take hold, that the soil that they have been planted in, nourishes and sustains them, adopts them as it's own. I hope my children grow their own orchards and they never have to learn the trauma of being transplanted, uprooted from the orchard, away from the whispers of the trees that once surrounded them.
    Today was our first day back from our vacation, and so many times during the day, I thought to pick up the phone and call my cousin and my sister to tell them that I did four loads of laundry, grocery shopping, and made daal and murghi ka korma, and that tomorrow, I will make machli ka salaan, aloo baigan ki bhujia, and pizza for the kids. These are the things we talk about. We talk about nothing. Yet, this nothing is everything to me.
But I never picked up that phone; they have lives to lead, busy lives, overwrought with work and family, and I have errands to run, the home to clean, and the five pounds that I gained during the two and half weeks of vacation, to work off.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Sapadere Canyon

The water is loud and angry, streaming down rocks, spluttering at nooks, gushing down the canyon. The cicadas are just as furious, chirping, screaming. Is it the heat that set their tempers aflame? Or the sheer impossibility of the rock faces on either side of the gorge?
If I lived here, would I too, lose the ability to feel joy at the fresh beauty of this place and instead focus on the desolate nature of the cliff faces, the height of the Taurus mountains, and the frigid temperature of the stream? Would the thunder of the waterfall strike fear in my heart so that I would shudder and collapse into myself?
Is beauty two-faced, aspiring joy one day and desperation the next?


I am a early riser. Comes from being the daughter of a mother who wakes up at five every morning. She wakes up to read the Quran. I wake up early because I like being alone. I like mornings- a fresh start to each day. To me, this is a blessing. My mother thanks Allah for His blessings. I am non-religious. I believe Allah, God, Bhagwan didn't just create me. He/She is in me and therefore knows I am grateful.
This morning, I read Zaheer Kidwai's blog "Windmills of My Mind." I read his posts about Sabeen Mahmud. Sabeen was a year senior to me at Kinnaird. I didn't know her. From a distance, I saw a girl who wasn't afraid to be different. I liked that. A mutual friend brought her into my room one day and had her read one of my poems. Sabeen was kind.
Seems to me that she had enormous courage and for that she was killed in the most cowardly way. I wish some things could be undone. Bullets not fired and a life not extinguished. I love my mornings but I wonder how hard mornings must be for people who have lost someone so close to them. Another morning, just means another day without them.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Happy birthday, Ami!

It is my mother's birthday today. It is also Pakistan's Independence day,  which makes it impossible to forget the day my mother was born.
I wish I could wish her, but we are driving through the Taurus Mountains in Turkey from Alanya to Konya and then on to Cappadocia. The road snakes through the pine covered mountains, the tops of which are rocky and naked. I feel a little car sick, not enough though, to not notice the fruit stalls on the side of the road.
"Let's stop at the next one," I suggest to Nasir from the back seat of the car - my front seat spot having been commandeered by our 14 year old.
Nasir gets out to translate for me but the shop keeper speaks fluent English. I feel ashamed. I wish I could speak his language the way Nasir does. I buy half a dozen baby bananas. Alanya was full of banana plantations so I know the fruit is fresh. I splurge on green figs buying a full dozen. I am sad. I wish I could share these figs with my cousin who loves them as much as I do. We just parted company an hour back. She is heading back to San Francisco with her family. We had an amazing two weeks together but my heart is greedy and can't have enough. I miss her, and her beautiful family. I miss my sister and her crazy pack. If we were still together, I would have opened my heart and bought two dozen figs for the 14 of us. Fine. I won't lie. I would still buy just a dozen.
At the back of the stall, I spy bottles of myriad colours; olive oil, jams, honey, honey comb, and marmalades. I pick up a bottle.
"What's this?"
"Fig jam. My mother made it."
I buy it for my mother. I tell him it's my mother's birthday. I like this gift - this jam made by this polite shop keeper's mother will in five days fly across the Atlantic to find it's place on my mother's breakfast table.
And me, still slightly car sick on the Taurus Mountains and yet able to post this blog for my mom an ocean away. Happy birthday, Ami.
The Turkish word for mother is Anne. What a beautiful sound! I love you, my Anne.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Playing the Fool

We were told that we can use our phones on the plane, but though I turned my phone back on, and even WhatsApped my brother, I did so with the conviction that we will crash.
We are flying to Istanbul. This is our third trip there with our kids. The first time around, Ali was just two and Zara was growing in my belly, undiscovered by anyone, even myself. Ali has no recollection of visiting Topkapi, where a handsome Turkish man, delighted at discovering that they shared a name, picked Ali up, and carried him around the library.
The next visit was two years back, on route to my brother's wedding in Lahore, Pakistan. Both children recall this trip. They narrate to anyone who gives them a ear, that our hotel was terrible; the room tiny with no walking space, the window drafty, the blankets threadbare, the bathroom moldy, and finally, that Ali lost his footing on the slippery, winding staircase and rolled all the way to the bottom. They forget to mention the much nicer hotel, which we stayed at, on the way back or the beauty of the city.
This time, we are meeting up with my sister, my cousin, and their families in Turkey. We spend three days together in Istanbul, then the four of us, fly to Izmir from where we rent a car and drive to Ephesus, Pamukkale, Antalya and then Alanya. We have rented a villa in Alanya where we will all spend a week together.
I admire the generosity of spirit with which, both my sister's husband and my cousin's husband, agreed to this two week trip with people whom to them are little more than strangers, just so that we may reconnect and that our children might form a bond with each other.
Modern technology is fabulous. Where we live in distant lands, and have scarce opportunity to meet up, phones and computers help us stay in touch. Still the thought of seeing my loved ones in flesh after so long, makes me tear up. I am a sentimental sort, emotional and silly, but this affection makes me happy and for that, I would gladly play the fool any day.
Would be such a shame if the plane crashes now before they have even served the in-flight meal.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Ephesus, even the name evokes a place of beauty. The garden of our boutique hotel is lush; the roses in bloom, the cannas over six feet tall, clusters of grapes nod in the breeze. Gilbert, our hosts' cat is curled asleep on the chair next to me. The cicadas have finally ceased their nattering to allow the sun it's moment as it prepares to set behind the humps of the distant hills. After the hustle of Istanbul, the lazy village air of this place is soothing. I am not a city person, being happiest under the wide sky, drinking in fresh air, far from the crowds and the fumes of the big cities. The best things in life are for free, though, we will need our Visa to pay for the hotel.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

The King

The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King opens with a man trying to commit suicide, but who loses the moment, while rescuing people from the ocean.

I loved the book. I liked the sense of humour and enjoyed the ridiculousness with which King has painted the CEO of a large company and his absorption with making money and spending money. The dialogue is great, giving each character a distinct voice, and even though the book is longish, you never feel the weight of the pages. The chapters are short, the paragraphs, at times, just a sentence long and the writing whizzes along, carrying you with it.

I won't tell you what happens in the book, because I don't like those kind of reviews. If someone wants to know what happens in a book, they should read it. The book is about the environment, difficult relationships, materialism, and the disregard, with which the original inhabitants of this continent, are treated.

The Inconvenient Indian was another book of his, which I enjoyed. I don't usually read nonfiction, same way he doesn't usually write it, but his mixture of wit and fact, make it a good read for anyone interested in North American history.

"Helen was concerned that the word "property" might imply that I was suggesting that Indians were slaves. That's not accurate. We were more like
Moving Indians around the continent was like redecorating a very large house. The Cherokee can no longer stay in the living room. Put them in the second bedroom. The Mi'kmaq are taking up too much space in the kitchen. Move them to the laundry. The Seminoles can go from the master bedroom into the sunroom, and lean the Songhees against the wall in the upstairs hallway. We'll see if that works. For the time being, the Ojibway, the Seneca, the Metis, and the Inuit can be stored in the shed behind the garage. And what the hell are we going to do with the Blackfoot, the Mohawk, the Arapaho, and the Piaute?
Do we have any garbage bags left?
This idea, that Native people were waiting for Europeans to lead us to civilization, is just a variation on the old savagism versus civilization dichotomy, but it is a dichotomy that North America trusts without question. It is so powerful a toxin that it contaminates all of our major institutions. Under its influence, democracy becomes not simply a form a representative government, Christianity, and capitalism into a marketable product carrying with it the unexamined promise of wealth and prosperity. It suggests that anything else , by default, is savage and bankrupt."

And another one from the same book, which I feel is very relevant in today's world, and not just for "Indians", but also for Blacks, Hispanics, Chinese, Korean, and Muslims. Too many people view such groups as  monolithic. Here's the thing, though, that while all the others are races, Muslims belong to many different races, yet they are, far too often, lumped together as a homogeneous group. There is an excellent piece by Mohsin Hamid about this strange mind set.

"They get to make their mistakes as individuals and not as representatives of an entire race."

The Inconvenient Indian, A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King.

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared

Movies, tv shows, anything really that involves sitting down and watching a screen, sets me off into the land of nods. Yes, even in movie theaters. Yes, even through the gory violence and sex of the Game of Thrones episodes. I prefer reading because reading requires engagement on my part, which keeps me from snoozing.
For me to stay awake, the movie has to grab hold of me. It has to have a good story. It should be visually compelling, and it has to touch my heart strings. A good movie doesn't just keep me up while it's playing, it leaves me with something to think about afterwards.
We watched A Hundred Year Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared yesterday evening. And no, I did not fall asleep. The humour was dark, at times, bordering on the absurd, but it had all three of us laughing out loud again and again.
The movie begins with a hundred year old man running away from a retirement home on his hundredth birthday and the adventure that ensues as he simply rolls along from situation to situation, accumulating friends and living life as his mother prescribed without thinking too much.
 The "Don't think too much" message was a bit overworked; first the mother's words and then a character who was almost completely paralyzed by his own constant overthinking. It seemed that the writer wrote up that particular character just to drive home the point. Someone should have had a word with the author, but who am I to say, the book and the movie are both grand successes.
I preferred the present day scenes of the movie, his past memories were too Forest Gumpish for my liking. Still, it was a laugh out loud, feel good movie of the kind I can see my father enjoying. And my mother, brother, sister, and their spouses. Some of my cousins would enjoy it as well. Okay fine, my entire extended family, and my four friends.
It's a movie that will keep everyone awake.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Enjoy the View

It was a balmy 30*C yesterday and the four of us, went kayaking down the Grand River, an hour and a half's drive from Toronto. We have been canoeing a few times but yaking was a first for us. When we canoe, we always get one for the four of us, with Nasir at the back doing all the heavy lifting, the kids in the middle, and me at the front, paddling from time to time and pretending to be Super Woman.

This time, we got two kayaks; Nasir and Zara in one, and Ali and me in the other. As soon as we shoved off, we hit mini-rapids. Ali and I both paddled furiously, and went in circles. Being a good parent, I did what all good parents do, I screamed at my 13-year-old, of course, it was all his fault. "Stop leaning to the right." "Stop leaning to the left." "Sit up straight." "Row in this direction" - while sitting behind him and by the way, the person at the back is responsible for steering. Then smartening up - "Row to the left" - meaning right. "No, no, the other left." Everyone knows that there are two lefts.

Forty-five minutes into it, we got finally got it, and the rest of the two hour ride was amazing. We saw a heron fishing, a black snake snoozing on a rock, a dead cray fish, clouds floating by, their reflection rippling across the water, and two teenage girls whose canoe overturned, screaming hysterically while standing in 3 inches of water on the side of the river. Funny, how quickly you become smug once you learn a bit of control.

Learning to kayak, minus the benefit of lessons, seemed like much in life; you start something new, you struggle, and grope around feeling like a fool, and then when you are ready to give up, but can't because you are just stuck (in a boat),  you finally get the hang of it and are glad for hanging in there (even though you didn't actually have a choice) and sit back and enjoy the view.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Travelling through books - Moscow and Karachi

I got a subscription for two books a year from And Other Stories ( Even though, the subscription is just for two books, the publisher immediately sent me a digital copy of Happiness is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky. The book was a breath of fresh air; light like a conversation with a neighbour, a series of linked stories about a writer, his dog and his relationship with his ex-wife and her husband. I have never visited Moscow, except for a six hour stopover on route to London once, but reading this book I felt like I was walking through the Moscow with the protagonist. And what a lovely, meandering walk through rain, sleet, snow, and the heat of long, summer days. I have to confess that I was a bit offended at the chapter, Dance, Lelik! and the "Halfwit" but I know that different cultures have different sensibilities and I remember on a trip back to Pakistan being asked by an elderly relative, why I worked with children with special needs and her hurried, whispered warning that "these things can be contagious" and my own silent fury at this discrimination. It's not an excuse but in places where resources are scarce, generosity, at times, is even skimpier.

Just as Moscow was present throughout Happiness is Possible; Karachi is present in Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Muhammad Hanif. Perhaps, because Our Lady of Alice Bhatti is not a translation, the language is crisper, more efficient, and while both books are darkly humorous, Muhammad Hanif's humour is much darker. Perhaps, it's because the spaces they occupy are so different. Present day Karachi is a city of sharp contrasts; the rich - the poor, the clean spaces of Defence and the dirt of the rest of the city, the vastness of the desert and the sea cradling the congested metropolis, the generosity of citizens like Sattar Edhi versus the armed robberies, the cell phone snatchings, and kidnappings, which are daily part of life in the city.

The subscription is interesting. It gives me a free ebook from their backlist, I get thanked by name in the books I subscribe to, and can contribute to their choice of future books.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Stories Never Told

This is not a book review, because I hate most book reviews. Books are meant to be read and enjoyed, not analysed to death. So why bother talking about these books at all? I enjoyed them and hope that others may too and god knows, writers need all the publicity they can get.

Her Mother's Ashes is a collection of short stories by South Asian women. Perhaps, because I could relate so easily to these stories, or perhaps, because the stories are so well written, I read each story with the eagerness of a young child unwrapping a surprise gift.
The story I liked the best, however, was "Love in an Election Year" by Tahira Naqvi.
It is sad that, other than Bapsi Sidhwa, none of writers are vastly read or acknowledged.

This week, I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. The book is a harrowing tale of POW's used as slaves to build train tracks through the Burmese rain forests during the Second World War. It is a love story, a tragedy, beautifully told. It repeatedly made me think back to The Railway Man by Eric Lomax which I read last year. Same time. Same space. And the heart wrenching reality that both books touch upon, fleetingly, that only the white soldiers and officers who died serving the Allied forces have their stories told, tributes paid, and their memories kept alive. To heck with tributes, Eric Lomax speaks of how when after the war, the British searched for, dug up, and properly buried their fallen soldiers and officers, it was only white men who were dug up and buried, all the rest of darker skin tones who served the Empire were left in their unmarked graves.
My paternal grandfather served in Burma and my maternal grandfather served in North Africa during World War II, but no one knows their stories, not even their own families.
History is the telling of stories, but there so many stories that are never told, so many voices never heard, so many writers never read, and eventually, we all just turn to ash and dust underfoot. But before we go, we must make the effort to tell our stories and take the time to listen to the ones being told.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Dragons at the Great Wall

I was born in Pakistan, but my earliest memories are of China - clutching my father's trousers, hiding behind his legs from the people who had come to welcome us at the airport, a long drive in a big, black car in the dark, and our first few days there at a hotel where our parents practised what little Chinese they had spent months learning back in Islamabad - we were served 12 fried eggs for the four of us (my elder sister and I amazed, at what was to us, reckless abandon), cold water instead of black tea with milk, and my mother upon failing at all communication with the server, trying to explain that she wants lukewarm water for her daughters. And the most precious memory of all - my mother at a big public park crouching, then straightening, then crouching, and again straightening, while making rowing motions with her arms in an attempt to ask a pedestrian where we could find row boats.
I loved China, the hikes on the Great Wall where I thought dragons lived, listening to the ground in the Forbidden City, the white marble boat in the Summer Palace, the large animal statues that my sister and I would climb which I now see replicas of, at the Royal Ontario Museum, but which no one is allowed to touch, let alone sit on. Oh, yes, the rows upon rows of terracotta warriors in an underground tomb, that's where I learned that silence isn't just the absence of sound, but the presence of tranquility.
I had my first crush in China- an American boy named Edward- who I called Eggward because I thought he didn't know his own name.
It was where I learned racism, my own. Edward's elder sister and mine were friends and we were invited to their home for Christmas. They had a Christmas tree, all lit up, and a nativity scene on a table next to it, complete with a barn, farm animals, and the three kings. It was only upon being dropped to their apartment that I realized that my Egg-ward was American, until then I had thought him Nigerian because of his beautiful skin. 
Once our parents left my sister and I, in our silver Toyota station wagon, while they went to visit a shop, soon the car was surrounded by people peering at us two girls, their faces plastered to the car windows. They had never seen brown people before.
China is also where I learned that I can always trust my elder sister. Sometimes, she and I would sneak out of our apartment, and wander around Beijing, taking buses back and forth, but she would always, somehow, get us home. It's only now with the passage of time that I realize what a feat that was considering my elder sister was only eight or nine at the time, and neither of us knew more than a handful of words in Chinese - greeting, thank you, and some curses which we were rather proud of.
Many years ago, when my younger brother was just four, someone (a retired naval chief of staff who most people seemed scared of) asked him where he was born and he responded, I was born in Pakistan, but made in China. Ditto, baby brother, I was made in China too.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Facebook: A Keepsake Box

It is Father's  Day and my Facebook feed is brimming with posts for fathers - both dead and alive - touching tributes of love that I being a sentimental sort, like. It goes with my belief that love should be expressed openly, often, and with abandon, but I also can not help wondering how Facebook managed to evolve into this keepsake box for our emotions - heart wrenching posts to people lost, birthday messages to babes not old enough to read, declarations of unwavering love on anniversaries - the list is endless.

It's great, the more love expressed, the better. Sure, beats the heck out of nasty exchanges and displays of pettiness, but again, why Facebook? Why do we trust this public platform with so much that is dearest to us?

Perhaps, many of us need someone to bear witness to our emotions. Perhaps, I am one of those people too, despite my selective and jealous guarding of my private space.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Chan Kithan Guzari Aye Raat Vai

We recently adopted a cat from the Humane Society shelter and she has taken over the household. She is our queen, our pampered baby, and need less to say, we all love her. But that being said, the kids do not like being woken up in the middle of the night and so close their bedroom doors. She, therefore, spends most nights with my husband and myself, dividing her time between settled on his chest and tucked into the crook of my neck. At times she will sleep at our feet.

Last night, though, was marked by her absence and so this morning, when she jumped onto our bed and settled herself into the space between my shoulder and my neck, face in my hair (finally someone who likes the smell and feel of my hair enough to make a pillow of it!), the thought that sprang to mind was, 'Chan raat kithan guzari vai' - a line from a Punjabi folk song, in which a woman asks her love where he spent the night.

When I finally dragged myself out of bed, I saw that she had managed to wedge open both children's doors and, while that answered my question, it is hilarious to think that I have never (thankfully!) had occasion to wonder about the whereabouts of my man and fret over why he has abandoned my bed for someone else's and yet, here I am, worrying about a cat!

Friday, 20 March 2015

Let's Hear it for the Sad Songs

"Why are there so many sad songs?" my 13-year-old asked. There are happy songs too, his father responded, but I had to agree with the boy, there are far more sad songs than happy ones and it doesn't just stop there, there are far more sad books, depressing poems, and most serious movies are also tearjerkers.
Why do we capture so much sadness with our words?
Happiness is easy to share and sprinkle around like stardust but unhappiness...who wants to be touched by that?
When I am happy, I have people to share it with, but when I am sad, I feel alone. Who would want me to tell them my worries, my insecurities, and even more importantly, who would want to listen without judgement, advice, or quick fix-its? Where happiness means emotional success, sadness is failure, and who wants to be associated with a loser? And so we, each, nurse our wounds alone, when someone comes along, we smile, feign happiness, and try finding ways to crawl away into some secure corner to be alone (or maybe that's just me!) and secret away our sadness into words.

Some people capture those low moments by writing and hoping that others might read their words, share their thoughts, and in doing so, might feel less alone.

Perhaps, that's why there are so many sad songs - it's someone's sadness reaching out for a hand to hold.