Forgetting

She looked out the window and tried to imagine herself in a movie. It was cold, and Lahore was supposed to be smothered in fog. Her head was spinning. She wished she had had some sleep the night before. But all this traveling, it made her anxious. And then she hadn’t been in Lahore in so long. Well, people in movies don’t have headaches like mine, she thought. She sighed out loud.

The family sitting in her compartment had been… well, entertaining for sure. Two old obese women travelling with six children, the oldest of which must’ve been an 15 year old boy (who wouldn’t stop staring at her) and the youngest just a baby, barely five months old, crying continuously. One of the women loved paan, and punctuated her chewing with periodical spits in one corner. The other tried to feed all the kids, taking out cold parathas with achar that filled the entire compartment with a weird smell.

The kids were bored, mischievous and entirely misbehaved, she thought. It hadn’t been easy, the entire journey from Karachi to Lahore. She would’ve never come if it hadn’t been her sister.

She was still anxious when she got off on the platform. She didn’t have any change so she didn’t get a quli (porter). Stumbling, she tugged her luggage as she went out of the station to look for a rickshaw. She knew this station very well. It was associated with warm memories of going away to the village to spend her holidays as a child. She thought of her grandma now: widowed and broke, she had to sell off most of her cattle and property to come live with her son in the city. The land she had left now was only a fraction of her inheritance and dowry combined. Still, it brought enough income for one old lady to shop her heart out, when her health allowed her to do so, that is.

Lost in thought, she had barely noticed the young man standing next to her. He cleared his throat to get her attention. Startled, she took a step back. It was not proper for this young man to stand so close to her, she didn’t even know him! There was something odd about him; he was young and in good health, not particularly muscular, and still appeasing to the senses. He was smiling like he knew her, but clearly she didn’t. But it was changing now, his face… a sort of rapid metamorphosis. He was still young, still a man, but different entirely.

“Would you like to come?” He asked, beckoning to a rickshaw behind him. Inside, there was a young woman, dressed in a plain shalwar kameez and wrapped in a dupatta, but still very beautiful. She seemed vaguely familiar. Unthinkingly, she started walking towards the rickshaw. The fog had covered everything else except for that one rickshaw. She climbed into it as the young man took her bags. The young man got in and rode it into the station, onto the railroad.

As the rickshaw zoomed away from the station, away from the city, all she could do was watch while the young man put on a Nur Jahan song and the girl hummed along. She looked around at the green fields, at the passing villages, at everything.

She saw a train coming right at them. Perhaps two feet away, now one feet away….


Perhaps the prologue toRemembering . Tell me what you think!

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Dentists Should Not Have Long Nails

I know you’re thinking, she’s come back after ages with promises of intellectual stuff, and throws this at us? Yes, my dear reader, exactly that. Why? Because it’s true. They should NOT.

I’ll tell you why. There’s the obvious; hygiene. But there’s another, less appreciated reason. There’s nothing more painful when your mouth is full of sharp pointy tools and you are at the mercy of the beholder of all the tools. And then at the exact moment you decide to trust in Allah and the dentist, there is this excruciating pain in your gum. Exactly at that moment, your dentist, concentrating elsewhere, subconsciously puts immense pressure on your gums through their…. nails? If you try to cry out in pain, the dentist will still be unable to see the source of pain and you will look like a yelping idiot.

Everyone says dentist appointments hurt. True; but what ACTUALLY hurts are AFTER-appointments. You know the feeling; that feeling as if all your teeth are about to fall out.  You can’t eat anything, you can only swallow. You look at food longingly, dreaming of the days you used to eat freely. And then you see something utterly despicable and entirely unacceptable: your sibling does not finish their plate of food at dinner. Those lowly peasants, so ungrateful! Finishing food being a sensitive subject with you, you unleash your ultimate weapon: The Death Stare. It is conveniently ignored.

Such acts take you back to your childhood; a space better left unvisited. Remembering dinner times reminds you of all the unresolved trauma you have deep inside you. The times when you would chew for hours on end long after everyone had left the table. You’d still be chewing when the table would be cleared and cleaned. You’d still be chewing when the dishes were being washed, dried and put away. That would be when the Punishment would be ordered: “Ab tum apna khana kitchen mein kharay ho kr finish karo gi.” (Now you will stand in the kitchen until you finish your food.)

A tear stained face (yours probably, although it’s best for you to tell others this vivid memory is rather blurred), looked up in the face of this merciless oppressor: thy mother. Whining and crying only strengthened her in her oppression. There was no other option. Chew in the uninviting, cold kitchen and hear the news in the other room as your siblings laugh and play amongst themselves happily. Your mother is probably secretly crying too about how you never seem to eat, but you don’t find that out until years later.

Years later, someone seems to make fun of the way your plate of food is polished and looks so clean it’s as if you didn’t even eat. Look thoughtfully away out of the window of the café and let that feeling of eating alone standing up in the kitchen let a shiver run down your spine. Then look towards them and smile and tell them to stop wasting their food as rudely as possible. That is the only way to not let anyone ever know of your torturous past.

Years after that, you stand in the kitchen cleaning up, and laugh about the whole thing with the merciless oppressor; thy mother. It sounds absurd (though it is still traumatizing) and you wonder what other absurd moments in life are you classifying as traumatizing at the moment? It is with this thought that you enter the dentist’s clinic, and as she begins, it clicks. You might be crying like an idiot as the pain intensifies, and the dentist scolds you for it, but deep inside, there’s only one thought: Dentists Should Not Have Long Nails.

Anxiety

It’s that time of the year again. Summer. Sweat.

And anxiety.

I went to sleep really late last night — half one, or maybe later. Seven thirty I was up again, that weird feeling in my legs back again. The feeling I call anxiety. Oh well, getting up in the mornings is quite refreshing, yes? No. I spent the entire day wasting time. Plugging in my earphones, listening to nothing, wandering from this room to that. I didn’t even clean today, which is unusual. However, I did wash my part of the dishes. But that’s pretty much it.

There’s nothing I did today which would make me proud of myself, or even satisfied. I don’t know why I’m like this. I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like to, I haven’t been exercising, but most importantly, I haven’t been writing. Two weeks I spent in heavenly bliss, each day so inspiring I could’ve written fourteen books, but I was too tired. And now, I’m back home, washing dishes to fill up time, and I’m not writing? If I don’t write then I will forget, if I forget it will be as if I never lived, and that will take me back to depression. Not as a relapse as in the mental disease, but the seasonal uninspired me that visits twice a year.

Anxiety. Of what? Perhaps it is time for me to face it, and I do need an audience, so hear me out. Anxiety of the future. Someone told me not to think of the rest of my life, but just set small goals like five year plans. This, although wise, has triggered off another train of anxiety. What if, after five years, I am as now, a nobody? What if I never accomplish anything in my life? What if I never achieve the one thing I want most in life — influence? As stupid as this might sound, I want to change the way things are. My country has been through a lot, and we are trying to improve the “international image” but let’s face it. Things are far from ideal. We have a long way to go.

As I write this, the ex-prime minister of my country is being arrested at Allama Iqbal international airport. Can you see my point? A thing you should know about Pakistanis — we’re always on the roads. If we’re celebrating, the roads are blocked. If we’re mourning, we are on the roads. If we’re protesting, you get me. The mobile networks have been switched off. The entire nation is glued to the T.V. screens, where no transmission of the arrest is being shown. But we’re still watching, hearing the anchors say the same things over and over again. My country is in chaos. Security personnel everywhere, trying to prevent trouble, trying to keep the peace. There are protestors still, I can see the roads on the tv as I write this, but at least it is contained.

Two blasts have been recorded so far. One in Peshawar, leaving 30 dead, one in Balochistan, leaving 70 dead. I’m not particularly an Imran Khan fan, but something he said has stayed with me. Something along the lines of an increase in terrorist activities every time Nawaz Shareef is in trouble. 100 people in two (or maybe three?) days? 100 is, for us, just a number. A number so meaningless nobody is talking about it. Mubashir Luqman’s saying there’s approximately 7-8 thousand people in protest. Well, I’m glad. We prayed and prayed for this man to face the consequences of his actions. And perhaps this is it? Who’s to know.

What does the future hold? A question that might just give me a nervous breakdown at some point. I could tear my hair out, and not just metaphorically.

What does the future hold? The corrupt prime minister has been flown to Rawalpindi to jail, along with his daughter. So what now? With elections so close, I really do not know. Who can say? But please, please, dear God, make it something good, my people could use a break. Perhaps you’d like an insider view of what it is being Pakistani, in real life? I could give you one.

What does the future hold? For me, I mean. What will I do? A little girl asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I couldn’t answer. All I could think of was my dream of becoming a dictator, but could I really say that to her? I’ve tried talking about this with multiple people, but so far nobody can take me seriously. Lol. Perks of being me.

But now? What does the future hold? Will I make another mistake? Will I regret my choices (provided I get round to making them) for the rest of my life? Will this blog grow? Will people read this far? Who is to know.

Dear God, the world is messed up. My country, which is all I have, is messed up. Life is messed up. So please, please, show us all a way. Give us a miracle. A Quaid-e-Azam-Allama-Iqbal-type miracle.

If I’ve bored you, I apologise. But perhaps you will be excited to know that the Rock in the River went to the River with the Rocks? Not the river that inspired this blog, but any river is love. I’ll come back soon, I hope. But for now, send  me (and my country and the world) a prayer! We must not lose our optimism for the future!

In urdu we say, “Umeed par duniya qaim hai.” The world exists on hope.

I’m off to make some tea, before my mum takes off her chappal (I joke). Who knows, if all else fails, I might just open a dhabba! (Please we all know I make the best chai)

Remembering

“What does it remind you of?”

The voice was getting irritating. What did it remind her of? It was really impossible. How could this person here… how could it be here? It was a drink, but it reminded her of a smell. Long ago, in the bliss of an ignorant childhood. The crisp air, a warm blanket, the impending sense of doom, voices: loud. How could this person know? More importantly, how could she answer the question? There was so much to it, so many details that could not be left out, yet her head was spinning.

“Here, try this one.” This person whose gender she could not fathom, pushed another small glass with a greenish-red liquid inside.

“I’m not sure I –”

“Shh, take it. Here you go!” The glass was raised to her lips and poured down her throat. She was aware that her senses were leaving her. She thought she would faint any time, but she never did. She was awake, and conscious, with dulled senses.

“What does this feel like?” A funny question, if one thought about it. It tasted like nothing, not even water. How it felt was an entirely different question.

“It’s…” her voice came out breathy, as if she was in a fever. Yet she wasn’t. But how could she tell this person?! A million thoughts circled her mind as the room began spinning. The wooden walls merged with the wooden floor, and she couldn’t remember why or how she got there. Wooden rooms like these were not common where she was from.

“What is it? What does it make you feel?” This person was getting annoying. And persistent. What could she say? Her powers were failing her and nothing, except the truth, came to her mind.

A thousand memories flooded her mind. Some welcome, others not so much. Funny, how she couldn’t remember the main event in any, but remembered all the details. The curves of the inside of that toy car, the smell of baby shampoo, her grandfather smiling, his wrinkles showing grace and a life of rewarding hard work. The taste of the underside of a shoe, the smell of the river Indus, the fear she felt when she was eight. A camera flashing in the face of her new brother, turtles in the nullah by her house. Ice cream dripping across her school uniform, the back of a girl disappearing into the distance, a black bag and a pink one, a box of celebrations on the mantelpiece in her parents’ room, the storm after the earthquake in ’05, the paleness of the face of a woman in death’s jaws. Shifting chairs, smiling, not smiling, sighing, not sighing, she realised she was actually doing this. All these memories, nothing in common except her presence.

“Here, try this.” Again. Her head was splitting. She wished she could somehow faint. The room was getting darker, but she was still there. With this person.

She remembered she had never fainted her entire life.

“What does it make you remember?”

How she wished she could forget.

A CATastrophic Meowsing on Life

I sat in the moonlight today for about five minutes. As cliched as it is, sometimes I like to just sit outside and think nothing. The absolute worst thing that can happen in a time like this is that some human decides to join me. Or calls me.

But that’s not the point. The point was today. It was rather therapeutic, as always, but five minutes is a short time. The reason I went outside was to look for a red sock. But then I saw the clear night and decided to stay a little longer.

There was nothing fresh about the outside. It is hot. The air smelled stale and horrible, perhaps because the kitchen door was a few feet away and right outside it lay a bag full of very garlicky garlic. And it was too early in the night to be peaceful. The azaans for the night prayer, isha, had ended and the men had come back from the Masjid. You could hear people talking and shouting– tv or otherwise– how delightful it was to live in these flats. And of course, that one kid who was always crying. Always.

But even all this is not the point of this writing. There came by a cat. Sniffed the old bowl, found nothing. Looked at me but probably realised my non-cat-friendly nature. I kept looking over my shoulder to see if it wasn’t getting too close. You see, there was this other one called Rani that my sister had befriended, and she was faaaar too clingy. Always trying to rub against my back as I sat on the floor. And I would always push it away.

But this cat, this was the Egyptian. We called it that once, and the name kinda stuck. This cat was different because it never even cared what we did. I could stroke its back and it wouldn’t matter to her. I could ignore her and it wouldn’t matter. It could be starving, dying but it wouldn’t matter. Eventually I stopped looking. Then I realised I couldn’t hear it anymore. I turned around and what do I see? It was sitting beside me in complete silence, careful not to touch me but still as close as possible. When it saw me looking, she started licking herself. And it felt nice.

It was nice to have her by. It felt like this unspoken bond formed by the sheer force of my overactive imagination. A quiet sitting together. Two souls, conflicted in themselves, finally resonating with another mortal and this universe. I wish all cats could be like her. And all humans too.

She comes by every now and then. Sometimes I don’t see her for months. But I rather like it — the presence of either one of us has no effect on the other. We can see each other and not be emotionally attached. It’s quite liberating to have a like minded cat stroll by every once in a while.

Oh, you thought this was an intellectual piece? I beg your forgiveness. I really must stop rambling. I say, where did my meds go again?

A world where writing is banned

This was a prompt.


“Time: half past two in the morning. As today marks the 100 year anniversary of The Writers Ban, I, Mirza, now initiate the meeting of the (banned) Writer’s Guild, Lahore Branch.” Mirza Sahib looked around. “Please, sit, everyone. I realise it is hard to meet at this hour, but today is a special occasion!”

In the corner, the Scribe took down the words with droopy eyes. They usually met on Sundays, but the hundered year anniversary just happened to fall on a Friday. After a full day of intense work, we were all tired. But it had to be done.

“As president, I now call this meeting to order. May I remind you that should a Farangi catch wind of this, we shall all be beheaded?”

An enthusiastic round of applause.

“We are the sole body of people who not only write, but read. I passed by the Qila today. The little kid I met there didn’t even know who Aurangzeb was! We are the only people who hold the key to the past. In this regard, Bano Khatoon and Ram Sahib have uncovered and saved much valuable literature.”

I beamed.

“Without them, a lot would have been lost. Therefore, I now declare them Vice Presidents of TWG!”

Another round of applause, less enthusiastic.

We walked to the front of the room.

“Mirza Sahib, this is preposterous!” All eyes turned to Chaudhary Sahib. “A woman and a Hindu as Vice Presidents!”

“Chaudhary Sahib,” I said. “This is 1870. I’m sure we have bigger problems at hand. The heritage of an entire nation is at stake.”

Chaudhary Sahib continued to glare at me as I fixed my chadar.

“In the event of a raid,” said Mirza Sahib, “These two are our only hope. The British shall never arrest a Hindu and Bano Khatoon has— err—“

“A very pro-ban influential grandfather who would never let them touch me,” I continued. “So really, Chaudhary Sahib, would YOU like to keep the Sandooq with all our writings in it?” I couldn’t help keeping the bitterness out of my voice.

“I shall not allow my own people to argue amongst themselves, Bano Khatoon.” Mirza Sahib intervened. “Times are tough. We must cooperate. Now, let us commence. Rana Sahib, would you like to read out the twelfth chapter of your book, “The Collapse?”

Rana Shaib took centre stage. Imagining myself to be in a theatre, I glided to my usual seat and begun my weekly night job: critically analysing the best of the writers’ work, to protect the only literary heritage we had so that when we would hold the rebellion against the Farangis, we would have something. Something to denote our existence in this era. Something that would save us from oblivion.

I wrapped the pages in a silk cloth and tied them. It was time for the regular TWG session, and I was to read my piece, “Behind the Red Chadar”. I hurried out the gate, careful not to wake my Abba. He would’ve killed me if he found out. Our headquarters were situated in the basement of the Masjid at the junction of the Mall Road and the Canal Bank Road. Outside, there wasn’t a single light.

“Hello, princess,” I heard the drunken voice of an English soldier. “What might a pretty lady like you be doin’ out here.”

I wrapped my chadar tighter. The manuscript was concealed underneath.

“The people of God know no time. Shall I smite you with the power vested in me by the Masjid?” It was a long shot, but the soldier was drunk. He staggered backwards and I ran into the Masjid. I saw the flickering flame of a candle on the stairs, but there was no one rushing in or out. No hushed whispers. A shiver ran down my spine.

Slowly, I went down the stairs. My foot slipped on something. I didn’t dare look down. The big oak door was slightly open. I knew what this smell was. I opened the door with the last bit of strength I had.

I couldn’t even scream.

Three perfectly symmetrical rows. Walls painted red. With blood.

The rows were heads. Mirza Sahib and Chaudhary Sahib taking centre stage. Their lifeless eyes staring at me.

But it didn’t end here. On the floor, a folded piece of paper. As I picked it up, I recognised my grandfather’s handwriting.

“This is the fate of those who rebel against the state. Whosever conseals the Sandooq shall be caught and bestowed a worse fate.

— Commissioner of Lahore,

Bakhtiar Ali.”

And then the signature.

I realised I was the only writer in the whole of the subcontinent. The heritage of an entire nation rested on my shoulders.

And Ram Sahib.


NOTE: this is historically inaccurate. The British took over in 1857, so it hadn’t been a hundered years in 1870. And there was no writing ban either (of course) however, the British did arrest anyone who wrote against the crown.

Farangi means the British in Urdu.

Aurangzeb was a Mughal Emperor. The decline of the mughals begun after his death.

I’m not sure the Masjid ever existed.

No, women were not granted this much liberty at that time. But since this is fiction — why not?

Abba means father in urdu.

Off to Work

The alarm went off. Again. He rolled over to his side and switched it off. He was still so tired. Maybe he should’ve just taken one sleeping pill instead of two, he thought. Oh well. He stretched his arms and yawned. Then slowed pulled the blanket off. He stood up. As he tried to walk, he stumbled and almost fell, but then balanced himself. He scratched his chin as he went to the door and looked through his mail. Just the usual: a few advertisements, and a faded yellow envelope with his name addressed in red, bold letters.

He washed his face and made himself breakfast. As he took a bite of his nearly- burnt toast, he opened the letter.

Another call of duty. (It ran) This time behind the post office.

Middle aged, grey hair, brown worn out coat. Confront in the rear end of the alley. Use minimal force — do not disfigure. Insert knife through the second rib on the left and then withdraw. Impose mild concussion to head. Do not leave until death has been made certain. If successful, you will find payment behind the third sack in the next alley. Use same sack to hide body.

11:45 a.m.

Just another day. How tedious it was, he thought. Working, working, working. Six days a week. Perhaps if he saved enough money, he could take a week off. Go up north perhaps? Somewhere people didn’t display their vulnerabilities out in the open. Somewhere real people existed, not just sacks of blood and muscle and tissue.

If only he could meet his contractor again. But he didn’t know where to find him. Just another day. It was really hot today. Nevertheless, he took his coat. It was supposed to rain. At least that’s what the weather forecast said. Off to work, he thought, as he locked his front door. Off to work as he walked down the road with cherry trees. It was already half past eleven.

And people called him a murderer.