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Sunday, 18 December 2016

Super Savari

A few months back, I read an article about a bus tour that takes you around Karachi with an armed escort, and I immediately wrinkled my nose at the elitism. I prefer walking on the streets minus any type of escort. But, just a fortnight ago, a cousin insisted that we should take our kids on this tour, and so we decided to give it a try. I am glad that we listened to her advice.
   The tour started on a back street close to the Metropole, took us to the Masonic Lodge, the Kabotar roundabout in front of the Sind High Courts, Zoroastrian Dar-e-Mehr, and Empress Market. We disturbed the pigeons at their feast, waved at the Fire Temple priest who blew a kiss in response, and drank fresh coconut juice standing in the square used in 1857 by the British to literally blow sepoys, who dared revolt against the Raj, to smithereens.
    I found myself fighting tears and not just for the sepoys, but for Karachi. I have never seen any place dirtier. Piles of garbage lined the roadside. Electric wires hung in ugly bunches and ran like cobwebs creating a mesh that hung over the streets. The British left behind pavements, but these were now broken and filthy. Sewage ran along the sides. Emaciated cats prowled along hoping to surprise a bird. The few old colonial buildings of Saddar were caked in layers of dirt, green shutters hung limply, and despite the delicately carved woodwork and chiselled sandstone facades, it required concentrated imagination to picture the buildings as they once were. The entire scene was a study in neglect and as we all know, neglect is abuse.
    Instead of crying, I focused on the youthful enthusiasm of the other bus passengers. Everyone on board seemed friendly and the tour guides were exceptionally courteous and charming.
     We stopped for parathas and omelettes and my son and I indulged our book addiction at the bookstore next to the eatery.
      Fed and energy levels restored, we visited Pakistan Chowk, a public space carefully renovated and furnished with benches boasting the names of famous Karachiites. Next, Jinnah House, Merewether Clock Tower, and finally the most impressive restoration of all, Karachi Port Trust. Our guides filled us in on the relevant history throughout and were always on hand to answer questions.
     The second half of the tour rekindled hope. Because while so much has been already lost, and so much continues to decay, the citizens of this city have taken upon themselves to clean, restore, and maintain much of its history.
       Super Savari helps by bringing people to see landmarks that they, in many cases, otherwise would not even be aware of. Thank you, Super Savari. Perhaps, there is hope for a better future.
      Best of all, you get to ride for part of the journey perched on top of the brightly decorated bus and are rewarded with PIDC paans. Things may get you down, but with the wind in your face and a paan to chew on, the only place to go from here, is up. And they were no armed guns accompanying the bus!

Thursday, 15 December 2016

The Best Things in life are Free

It is three in the morning and I am wide awake. I woke up at two to the sound of firing that went on for what seemed like ten minutes, but was probably five.
    I have returned to this city by the sea after four years, the longest stretch that I have ever been away from it.
    We arrived at five in the morning. I stepped off the plane, and took deep gulps of "Karachi air," - that lovely mix of smell and scent.
   In the queue for passport control, there were nasty words exchanged in the line next to us. An elderly gentleman dressed like an Arab, shouted obscenities at a woman my age, because she objected to him butting in the line.
   While waiting in line, our kids asked how we managed the heat in the summer, when we were younger and still lived in Karachi, considering that it was so suffocatingly hot in the winter. According to Google, it was 18 degrees centigrade, and because Canada is home, let me clarify that is a positive 18.
    My father and mom-in-law came, at this ungodly hour, to fetch us from the airport. Both wore thick sweaters and smiles full of love. My father on seeing my thirteen-year-old daughter informed her that she has become even prettier. I acted as if the compliment was for me and thanked him, causing both grand parents and grandchildren to laugh. I joined in, but did wonder at all the laughter.
    At home, there was homemade channay ki daal ka halwa, parathas of the kind that are crispy and layered, aloo ki bhujia, omelet, and karahi murghi. Listening to my mom-in-law, my parents, my children, and my husband converse was my favourite part of the meal. "The best things in life are free."
    Later, we walked to the graveyard to visit my father-in-law. I don't believe in visiting graves, in principle, but in practice, I derive some comfort from this: That old friend may have been laid to rest, but he is not forgotten.
   Later still, we dropped off my son's cell phone for repair and then spent the rest of the day, under the blanket of jet lag, drifting in and out of sleep, resurfacing only to fill up on food: Brain masala, chicken tikka, seekh kabaab with Afghani naan, and fruit chaat. The phone was ready for pick up at eight at night. Ahmed, the storeowner, works twelve hour shifts, and yet, was courteous and dignified.
   Tomorrow morning, we are invited for halwa puri to my parent's home. At this rate, I will have to be rolled back onto the return flight.
   While walking down the street outside my mother-in-law's home in the evening, stepping over garbage and plastic bags and dodging pot holes and random construction materials, my fifteen year old said of my country of birth, "I thought it was a country on the brink of collapse. Now, I know that it is past that point."
   He may be right, though, it hurts me to acknowledge the truth in his statement. The government of the country seems to barely function. It provides little security, hardly any health care or education, no protection of the rights of minorities, scant water, electricity, or gas, and everywhere you go, you see the heartbreaking disparity between the lifestyles of the rich and the existence of the poor. It is a country where nothing is free. You need money to purchase private security, water, paid for in cash, is delivered in tankers in this city, good schooling is private, and the same goes for health care. And yet, collapsed or not, it is still my country of birth, and walking the dirty streets feels like homecoming.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Big brother, what were you thinking?

I am not even American but I am upset at this Trump victory. Why am I so upset about election results for an election that I did not and could not participate in?
I care because America is our big brother. Scratch that, America is everyone's big brother. It is undoubtedly the Superpower, and now it will be led by an orange monster.
Watching the results come in, was like watching your big brother take a leak in public, and not discreetly behind a bush, but in the town square with a manic grin on his face, while streaming live.
I am upset because this monster came to power, democratically. And who stood against him, a candidate more qualified than any before. But a woman, and so people hemmed and hawed: She is corrupt. She is in with the big banks. Her husband sleeps around.
On the other side, a man who proudly abuses women, does not pay taxes, and incites hatred to get votes, but hell, let's go with the man. Of course, he's going to make America great, again.
I sincerely hope for all our sakes that he does indeed. But somehow I doubt it. And now the sad realization seeing these election results that perhaps America was never that great to begin with, that perhaps the raised arm on the statue of liberty, that symbol of refuge and hope for the poor masses the world over, is just a cover for what lies underneath, people who do not, in fact, embrace diversity. People who rather build walls than take them down and open their arms in welcome. People who would rather have the poorest amongst them go without proper health care than fork out money on premiums. People who rather scratch the system than work on ironing out the defects.
I was so hopeful yesterday that my daughter would get to see a woman lead the most powerful country in the world, but obviously not. Obvious now, that when you are a woman hard work doesn't count, neither do all the years you spent putting up with that cheating husband, just to position yourself in the race in the first place.
Oh, big brother, what were you thinking?

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Almost Day

I like waking up early morning to walk. The world seems new, yet undiscovered. A virgin scene. No other people. No sounds. With winter around the corner, at six, the stars are still the only light in the ravine. Two mornings in a row, we saw a coyote behind our home sneaking off as we approached. Baby rabbits bob off, white tails in the air. And then slowly, slowly, with the deliberation of a bride unveiling, the dark lifts, moves off, the colours of fall emerge. Red, gold, green, and brown. In Urdu, we have a word for the fiery light that glows in the sky at sunrise and sunset: Shafaq.
By the time we return home to wake the kids, it is almost day. 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Dead are not Dead

It is the irrevocability of death that makes it so difficult to accept. I cannot through the force of my will bring back the people lost to me. I cannot breathe life into their bodies and make them smile again.

And yet, I do. I recall shared moments, I replay conversations, I recreate facial expressions, the gestures, the peculiar manners of speech, the gait, the posture; in sum everything that specified that person to me.

Death, perhaps, is not as final as it appears. In living, in loving, we each pass something of our interiority into those we are closest to; those moments of shared joy, grief, common experiences, a comment, an anecdote, those are the myriad ways by which, we breathe particals of ourselves, into the people dearest to us. It is how we live, well beyond our own physical lives.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

My Father

When I was a little girl, my father scared me. Everything about him seemed big. His voice, his muscles, his ability to take charge, navigate us around the globe, scale ropes, arm over arm, leg over leg at an incredible speed, do push ups with me perched on his back. Around him, I shrank. It was my mother's dupatta that I knotted around my finger. But with time, my relationship with both parents has evolved.
I no longer fear my father or cling to my mother. I hope. :)
Last week was a big week for me. On Tuesday, I met my publisher for the first time and being the neurotic idiot that I am, spent an hour making an ass of myself, but for the first time in forever, I felt someone understood me. I told her of the book I am working on and instead of just nodding her head the way everyone does, she actually got it and verbalized my thoughts on what I am trying to achieve with my present writing. My heart sang all day and all night, and then the next morning, my mother called to say that my father was in hospital.
I don't how the next couple days passed. It is all a whirl. All I know is that seeing him laying in that hospital bed, my big father seemed not so scary. I loved tucking him in with warm blankets after his angiography. I loved that he held my hand when walking the hospital corridors. I loved that he asked me for water when thirsty. I know that it is selfish but I loved that he allowed me to do these small things for him. It made me happy to be useful to him in however small a fashion.
The time at the hospital felt like incarceration. I knew he was not happy being there and therefore, I was not happy being there. Hospitals are not designed with happiness in mind. It was harrowing, exhausting, but despite it all, it also gave me something. It gave me the opportunity to interact with my father in a manner that normal life does not allow for. I got to spend time with him. Time alone and without distractions. The worry, his health caused, stripped away the guards he and I both wear. And now, I have beautiful memories of holding his hand and tying bows on his hospital gown.
When I was a little girl, he would carry me up seven flights of stairs to our seventh floor apartment in Beijing, China (the building management turned off the elevators after ten at night), knowing fully well that I was faking sleep. I loved him then and I love him now, just in different and better ways.
People say that love is an impermanent thing. This is true. It does change. It grows and evolves, changing constantly to become a different version of itself. As a child I admired my father's strength. It was a childish love. As an adult, I admire his tenderness, his strength in sharing his weakness, and it makes me love him even more.

Friday, 1 July 2016

You may not Marry

The Tanzeem Ittehad-i-Ummat Pakistan passed a fatwa which states that "any action intended to humiliate, insult or tease" transgender people should be considered a crime against Islam. Finally, an acknowledgement of a marginalized group. A step in the right direction, though it is shameful that we need to be told that we should not humiliate, insult or tease other people.
   But the fatwa continues on to say that only those transgender people with "visible signs" of being male or female may marry someone of the opposite sex. However, persons born with "visible signs of both genders" may not marry. You have to scratch your head and wonder why not?
    What is a marriage? Is it only about procreation or is it about companionship and caring for another human being? If it is just the former then this part of the fatwa makes sense, but if we are more then just procreating animals, if we have even an ounce of finer emotion in us then this part of the fatwa is nonsensical.
    What crime are we punishing persons with both parts for? Why should we deny them the legal rights afforded to the rest of us by marriage? Will we examine the private parts of all individuals wanting to marry to ensure that they have the  "correct" anatomy? Which committee of religious leaders will take on this onerous task of examining that entire nation's private parts?
     And then stupid me realized why the fatwa had imposed this perverse condition:greater focus is on denying gay rights than establishing transgender rights. Only if you are visibly male and visibly female do you have the right to live and love freely with legal protections, but if Allah sent you to this world with both parts then you must live and die alone and if you happen to care for someone of your own gender than we will deny you the right to live in matrimonial harmony. We will insist that we are just following Allah's commands, even though the religion talks of progressing with the times and above all else, being kind; we will fling our arms in the air and shout that our Allah is more interested in who does what with whom in their bedrooms than in equality and love.
    Peace on all. Oh, no, sorry. We meant peace on all, save the ones we feel we must decriminate against by withholding basic rights.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

A Tragedy is a Tragedy

I have lost track of all the terrorist attacks around the world. I have lost track of all the lives lost.
It is not that I don't care, but that it hurts to see the pictures, to read the numbers, and know that those numbers are loved ones who will be missed.
I cannot understand premeditated violence. I understand anger. I am guilty of it. I only fight with the people I love the most. I remember physical fights with my sibling when we were all much younger. I recall the adrenaline. But how does one sustain anger long enough to premeditate violence? Terrorists are also human. What motivates them to do these things? I doubt that it is easy to go against the society you live in, to intentionally become a pariah, and a figure of everyone's hatred, so why do it? How much anger, resentment, and brainwashing would it take?
And then, as if all this ugliness was not enough, I see articles and posts by people annoyed by each other; turning tragedy into a pissing contest. Look, here, I lost more people than you, but you did not pay enough attention to my tragedy.
 We all care most about ourselves, then our circle of family and friends, and then acquaintances, and then people we sort of know or have heard of, and so on. The intensity of our emotion decreases as the distance from the centre increases. The centre being - me, myself, and I. I will not shed tears over a stranger's death in some place I have not heard of, but will be devastated at losing a family member.
  You cannot blame western media for caring more about Paris than Lahore. Same way, you should not find it strange that Pakistani media is full of news stories covering the recent attack in Lahore. How much news coverage is given to an event is determined by who is doing the reporting and how close they themselves are to the event, and because media is also a business, the interest of the readers/viewers.
    If the purpose of terrorism is to cause terror and fear, then my personal counter terrorism measure is to fight terror with calm, fear with trust, hatred with love. And please stop, the pissing contest. A tragedy is a tragedy. Don't turn it into a competition.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Because it is 2016

A few months back, Justin Trudeau when asked why his cabinet is gender balanced, responded with: "Because its 2015."

Mean while in Punjab, Pakistan, the assembly just passed a Women Protection Bill which "declares physical violence, abusive language, stalking, cyber crimes, etc, against women a crime in Punjab."

Part of me, celebrates these steps. Finally, we seem to be heading in the right direction, but part of me despairs. It is 2016 now. And we still find ourselves thinking about these issues. Trudeau's decision raised eye brows and questions. 

The Punjab assembly bill has the mullahs up in arms. They are concerned about male rights, after all men in Punjab will lose the right to abuse their women. Poor men. There are other provinces within Pakistan though, perhaps Punjabi men could take their women sight seeing, each time they feel the need to abuse them.

It is 2016 and still I see gender disparity all around me. I can not understand why. What is it that gives men that sense of entitlement? Too many times in social setting, men dominate the conversation and I feel like nudging the other women: Please speak up. I want to hear what you have to say. 

Even the body language is different. Us, women, make ourselves small, to occupy the least amount of space, and our male peers lounge, taking up all extra room. Do they even consider these things while sitting with legs wide open, arms extended, elbows cocked - as if ready to pounce? 

Everything male is somehow more worthy. Their opinions carry more weight. Fathers are treated with deference. Mothers are generally more approachable, but also easier to dismiss. Why? 

Traditional male roles have higher prestige value. The valuable "bread winner" versus the undervalued, almost invisible "care giver." Why?

Also, men are often allowed the privilege of speaking their minds, saying things us women would consider too rude, but no one seems to mind when men speak up and even over each other. The alpha male; revered and idolized. A man's man. Applause for the heart breaking honesty. But aha, don't you, woman dear, try such impertinence. No, unless you are happy being labelled the "bitch." No, legs closed, ankles crossed, hands folded in lap, and a smile on your face - now that's more like it, woman. Also, why pale faced? Wouldn't hurt you to put on some lipstick, add a little colour to your cheeks, and yes, could you also stick out your boobs a bit? After all, a man needs something worth looking at. Wink, wink.

After all, it is 2016.

On a personal note, My husband and I want to renovate our kitchen, and so every weekend is spent either with a contractor or a designer. These men when talking only address my husband. I have to insert myself into the conversation repeatedly and am left feeling like an interloper in my own home. Day before yesterday though, we had a designer visit us: a young man, well-travelled, who seemed to see more than just the floor plan of our home - when talking, he addressed us both. What joy! He saw me. 

Just the evening before, my husband wanted to know why did I look so worried while a contractor, standing in our kitchen, that place where I spend a large portion of my day, every day, talked all around me. Yes, I too, wonder about myself.

And then yesterday evening, while reading Kim Thuy's Man, I came upon this:
"I had read in a book a client left behind that that regarder, to look, means esgarder, to be considered, to have egards for someone.  During the Middle Ages, to describe a state of war or conflict, it was said of the enemies: 'Neither one has regard for the other.'

This is not just true of male contractors, it happens each time we visit the bank to renew our mortgage. Female bankers address both of us; male bankers, just talk to my spouse. 

Am I invisible? Do you not see me? Regardez moi!  I am here. I exist. I breathe. I think. I feel. I live. Look at me. See me. Listen to me. Hear my thoughts. I am more than just a pretty thing, easy to replace with other prettier things. I am.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Never Again

Last September, a young, good looking man set to get married in a few months made a decision. A decision too many of us make; to drink and drive. The logic: I am fine. I can drive. I got this. How dare you suggest otherwise?
     As a result of that decision a family lost three children, aged nine, five, and two, and their maternal grand father. This morning I heard part of the mother's victim impact statement and could not much imagine the intensity of her pain.
     “I don’t have anyone left to call me mom …. You killed all my babies.” 
       The horror and the grief. Unimaginable.
       And what is worse, the knowledge that I know people who have in my presence had a few drinks and slid in behind the wheel of a car, while I have maintained silence for fear of offending, or made a few pathetic objections, only to back down. I hate conflict and alcohol seems to bring out belligerence in everyone. I am not the only one though who hides behind silence in the face of bad judgement. Lots of us keep quiet and allow that foolhardy drunk to drive. But what of the consequences? What if that idiot destroys more then just his/her own life? Isn't some portion of the blame ours as well? To keep quiet means to condone and to condone makes you, complicit. 
     Well, never again. If people are offended at not being allowed to drive away from my home with alcohol in their bloodstream, too bad. Be offended, but be safe.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

On 41 and Freaking Out

A CBC Doc Project Documentary by Tara Henley ( about turning 40 got me thinking about my friends and myself.
   I have friends who are stay home moms like me - women who worked before they had kids and then opted to stay home. I have friends who are single and have careers the rest of us envy, and then I have a few friends who have it all - the wonder women who have careers, kids, and are happily married. What do all my friends have in common? The constant need to remind ourselves to be grateful for what we have, endless notes to self to be happy. Makes a person pause and wonder why we have to constantly remind ourselves and each other to be happy? And, of course, there are those moments of vulnerablity when we admit to feeling like failures. Those moments when we admit our own unhappiness and immediately feel so guilty about it that we follow it up with a list of all the things that we are , oh, so grateful for.
   The stay home friends wish they had careers. The single ones wish they had partners and children. The wonder women oscillate between exhaustion at juggling so much all the time, and smugness at managing to do it. While cynical me wonders how they would manage if someone took away from them the women who take care of their kids and in some cases, their homes for minimum wage while they pursue their careers. Isn't that exactly what men of the earlier generations did - leave the house work and child care to the women while they chased larger dreams - power and money? A man was the head of the household -why? Because he earned. Now us women feel we have to do the same in order to earn a seat at the table. But what does this imply? That house care and child care are tasks best assigned to less privileged women because these jobs are less worthy of people with higher skills. Isn't this just more chauvinism? Tasks traditionally assigned to women have less worth than man's work. What I find odd is that no one even questions this. Why? I guess power and money is shiny. It sparkles in ways that a well- cleaned bathroom and an hour spent with your child doing nothing, just hanging out - does not.
   But then I also remember working full time and returning home tired to cook and clean. I remember the pride my pay cheque gave me, but also dragging myself to work every morning and dragging myself back seven hours later. I was lucky I worked with amazing children who made my day by smiling at me but still all work becomes monotonous after a while. That sparkle dims and turns rusty. The bread-earner does not always head to work with a skip in her/his step. That job, too like unending housework becomes an obligation and like all obligations, it weighs you down.
   What am I saying? Are most of us just miserable no matter what we do? That very few actually have a song in their hearts every day of the week, week after week whether we work unpaid hours at home or paid hours else where? Yes, you heard me right. But I also think that there is joy to be found in each and every day. Joy in a child's smiling face, joy in a surface you scrubbed clean, joy in a project well managed, joy in code written efficiently, joy in a paragraph that is effective, and so what if we are all a little sad, a little disappointed at times, that's a part of life as well.
  I wish we could change the perimeters of success so that all work deserved respect -  paid or unpaid- as long as you worked hard at it. I wish all my friends felt successful whether with or without partners, with or with out children, and with and with out careers. I wish.
    Six short paragraphs and I have arrived back at where I started from - sad yet happy, happy yet sad.

Friday, 8 January 2016


"Fate. There it was, it hung in the air for fraction of a second, before the diviner's stones scattered in the dust. My father lost his mother. Missionaries turned up at the village and chiefs ordered each household to send one male child to their new school. My uncles stayed at home and were taught by the Imam. There was the fork in the road. There had been twists and turns along the way, but that was the deciding moment when their futures, and mine, divided. One to the west, the others to Africa."

The Devil that Danced on the Water by Aminatta Forna

I collect words, the way others collect art, toys, crystal, and coins. Every once in a while, I have the breath knocked out of me by a sentence in a book and I have to save it, so that I may return to savour it later.

This paragraph probably hit where it hurts because I have since yesterday been thinking about fate and regrets. That fork in the road that she mentions, has been playing on my mind. What if I hadn't quit working after the kids? What if I had started writing earlier in my life? What if I was a better writer? What if I had the gift like Aminatta Forna? What if... Two powerful words; they carry within them the world of possibilities and yet, these two words are also completely useless. Life is not about what ifs, but about the what is. My what is comprises of a beautiful family, a few good friends, a home I love, and a cat who melts my heart. Yes, I wish I was a better writer but writing is a craft and I will continue to work at it.  If I had not quit work to stay home with my children, I would not have taken up writing. I know that. There simply aren't enough hours in the day while juggling home and work.

So while fate presents us with that fork in the road, and at times the direction we take is determined for us, and at other times, we find ourselves behind the wheel; it is pointless to spend hours toying with the what-ifs. As unromantic as it sounds, best to keep your mind focused on where you are at the moment and enjoy what is.