Epiphany

I looked at him and realized that I really needed to start thinking about people in terms of how they treat knowledge and so, understanding how they perceive the world and what that perception does to them.

‘I think you should marry me’ He said and in that same moment I accepted that I could never have said yes. That really, if we were going to be dramatic about it, if he was a Raskolnikov then I was not a Sonya and certainly not his. The meekness of the earth never did appeal to me. He needed someone to guide him through to redemption, someone to allow him to forgive himself for being less than superhuman. I was simply not selfless enough.

So and therefore my mind’s eye travelled to the east, to somewhere four hours ahead of my existence and to a potential Razumikhin who actually turned out not to be selfless either (how selfless was Razumikhin anyway? Compared to Raskolnikov anyone would look like a saint) Not quite a Raskolnikov but with the superhuman tendency to not require redemption just yet and with a Sonya to come home to and that is exactly why he felt like he didn’t deserve her at this moment in time.

The only noble thing to do, it seemed to me, was to talk to him in a series of broken, jarring text messages that never ever did our conversation justice.

‘This is such a difficult conversation to have, the conversation of you and I. But if I had to write about it I’d say we met on a delusional trip, our relationship was the aftermath of that delusion and that all delusions eventually fade to sobriety and a quiet room.’

And so it wasn’t that girl you genuinely liked that forced me to stamp an expiry date on our relationship. It was the fact that after the colours dimmed, the lights shattered and the music mellowed, when it was just you and me, left alone in a dark, silent room we found that we had nothing real left to say to each other after all.

Running

They’re telling me to come back now. But how can I? It’s peaceful here. Sometimes it rains, the hot air melts away and I walk outside to stare at raindrops. My breath is always calm.

Someone unscrewed a grill and broke in. It was seven am. My mother told them to take everything but to leave the children alone. My father said nothing, they tied his hands. They took everything. Left them staring at the broken window. They called me first. I didn’t know what to say to them so I called everyone else.

I called them ten times a day for a week just to hear their voices.

They were upset. The kids were okay after a day or two and went about their business. But the other two weren’t so much. They couldn’t sleep. My father kept talking about it. About how he couldn’t sleep or eat. How depressed he was. I tried to remind him that everyone was fine. That was what was important. He would repeat after me soullessly. My mother busied herself with other things. I was grateful. People swarmed in to comfort them and for a good retelling.

I popped e that Saturday and spent a night and a day in a happy blur, spinning into the arms of a boy. Lights and music blended into conversation. We only talked, thought, laughed about the good life. That was the only night I didn’t call them. I told them I’d fallen asleep early the next day.

The house started to fall apart. The chowkidar vanished, the guard went with him. The generator stopped working. The house was giving up on them but I’d already been gone a year and couldn’t have cared less.

I told them to sleep properly, eat regularly and everything would be fine. My father said he kept having flashbacks. Kept seeing them with the steel in their eyes, kept hearing gunshots. He said the house was too big for four people.

I told him to sell it and move somewhere else.

The boy asked for my number a few days later and I was seeing him every day after class. We’d smoke up and drive around for a while, talking.

‘Should I come?’ I asked my sister hesitantly. She told me no, not yet.

The blame games started. Fingers pointed, voices took on a cruel edge. Who forgot to turn the alarm on? Who left the window open? Why didn’t anybody else care?

He spun me around and the world was okay. I didn’t even hear my phone ring.

Relatives came to stay. The ones that didn’t offer to were considered dead for a whole week. They came and sat; cups of tea in hand, ready to hear the story again and again. Ready to tell similar stories. My sister stayed in her room. My mother would excuse herself every hour.

My brother got caught smoking again.

It rained. The streets turned muddy, the city stopped working. It rained here too, Lahore breathed for a little while. I took a walk, went to class and listened to an over excited professor talk about Tolstoy. My contribution to phone calls now consisted of hmm’s. I asked my father to sleep on time.

My sister told me that she felt invisible now, that they were all so buried, so occupied by grief. I stayed with her on the phone for hours feeling like a traitor.

Last week in the middle of philosophy class I realized that I actually know nothing and the idea of knowing that I know nothing was so liberating, so scary that I finally burst into tears.

I avoided their calls for a few days after that.

The police  let the guard go. He was bruised all over when they let him out.

People walked in and out. Lights were being checked, distracted conversation buzzed in the air. I scoped out the crowd, stopped outside for a cigarette, waited for the music to start and smiled to myself.

Boarding

It started as a whisper floating through circles at the rowing club. Something about a man, something about a woman. Routine gossip. What did people expect really? Rowing is a strenuous hobby; the hours long, the ambitions high. You’d spend whole days with your team.

But they weren’t team mates. She wasn’t a rower at all. She was a rower’s sister. I think she was an artist or an architect. Or maybe she was just good with oils, can’t fully recall. So the whisper raised it’s voice slightly, older members began to pluck up their ears. The coach began to get odd looks at Sunday brunch and he found that he actually preferred the fake smiles people used to wear after all.

And then one morning a couple of rowers showed up early to the club and found the two of them sitting on the bench, laughing and watching the sunrise over the dingy, dusty Karachi harbour. So the whisper finally exploded into a thousand loud voices and the odd looks began to turn into uncomfortable conversations. The club buzzed and for once, not just at Sunday brunch but at during dinners, practices and summer parties. The coach stopped mingling altogether.

The wife heard and kept her composure magnificently. She was a magnificent sort of woman according to the now pitying members of the club; so regal, so gracious. Her best friend and old college room mate, Farieha, told everyone that she didn’t believe a word of it. The couple had been together ten years and married, five. They still spent time together, laughed together and sometimes even made dinner together. They still read the same books and dressed with the same expensive taste. In short, nothing had changed and she had nothing to worry about.

Despite the best friend’s efforts the whispers even made it to the annual regatta thanks to a girl, an ex rower, who had almost made it to the Olympics a couple of years ago. General agreement indicates that she was bitter and had been trying to get the coach to notice her for years now. Everyone swore that she’d cried at his wedding. I thought she had a really nice ass but that is another story.

I was there during the regatta that summer for media work. The annual regatta was a fancy affair. Rich kids from rich schools always participated. Their parents (mostly members) came to cheer them on, pearls and all. I was probably the only person there who was unaware of the rumours which is ironic because it was my job to gather enough information to make the regatta sound mildly interesting. Generally a difficult task especially when one knows nothing about regattas or rowing politics. To be honest though, I have no idea how I missed out on the rumours. There I was, desperate for a slightly amusing nugget of information, resigning myself to writing about races and scores while everyone around me was talking about how the champion rower’s 22 year old sister was sleeping with the coach who was, let’s face it, nowhere near 22 anymore.

I did see them together though. She was doing art work for the regatta, working in the coach’s office where I was typing up the scores. He would come in sometimes to borrow a pen or gum or to ask if she needed anything. I remained completely oblivious to the way she would look at him when he would walk into the room. I realize now that this is probably the only place where they could have talked freely.

I did press releases for the regatta for three days, got paid on time and didn’t think about rowing or regattas for a long time. About two months later I bumped into one of the younger rowers and asked how the coach was doing.

‘Oh him.’ She said. ‘He left. Everyone was talking about how he was sleeping with Rania’s sister.’

‘What?!’ My eyes widened, I imagined her sitting in his office just a few feet away from me, him peeking in every now and then to ask if she wanted anything.

‘Yeah but it’s not true man, he married his college sweetheart, they still do everything together. It’s just a stupid rumour Minelle spread around. He probably just won’t coach for a while.’

 

Last week I got on a plane early for once in my life. Everyone else struggled along with hand luggage, briefcases and babies. I saw her before she saw me. Four years older now, not stick thin but prettier than when I saw her last. She caught my eye and tried to figure out where she’d seen me before. I nodded at her when she sat down and went back to my book. Ten minutes later he boarded the plane, handed her his coffee and sat down next to her. She tried to nonchalantly flip through a magazine, he scanned the crowd

I hope they’re happy.

 

Look at him sitting in the front, pouting at the professor. Sometimes he sickens me. His helplessness before anyone knowledgeable, anyone well read is enough to make me want to shake him, tell him to grow up. How he wishes to suck it all in greedily but still remains impeccably, impossibly shallow. How do you do that? Know where Greek drama came from, who Shakespeare was influenced by, write page upon page about Anna Karenina but still be so utterly repulsive. So completely grasping.

And to think that it was just a little or a long while ago when I thought he knew everything.

Piece

There was a man in my backyard when I got home from work. For a minute, I stood watching him walk around the lawn wondering if this was someone’s idea of a joke. Not because he looked like one of those washed up hippies but because he was sporting a pair of bright, plastic wings.

For a moment I thought he might be armed but he looked so obviously harmless in his flowery t-shirt and gold medallion, strolling around and drinking my iced tea that I stepped out onto the lawn.

‘Excuse me.’ I said, ‘Can I help you?’

He turned around and smiled, his eyes lighting up instantly. ‘Sweet Jesus. I haven’t seen you since you were about this high! Give me a hug, kid.’ Before I knew it his arms were around my neck, a wing brushed against my shoulder. It didn’t feel like plastic.

He let go of me. ‘This is excellent iced tea, by the way.’ Taking another sip, he grinned broadly at me. I nodded, my mind blank.

‘Why don’t you…sit down?’ I asked, forcing a smile. ‘I’ll be right back.’

‘Well sure, kid. You okay there? You look a little pale.’

I hurried inside, dug around in my pockets for my cell phone and called my mother. She picked up the third time.

‘Darling! Make this quick, I’m in Hawaii.’

‘You’re what?’

‘Yes, I took a weekend off. Now hurry up and tell me what it is, I’m on roaming.’

‘There’s a man standing on my lawn who claims to have known me since I was this high!’ My voice hit a higher pitch with every word.

‘Oh yes. I completely forgot about Uncle Terry. Well darling he was coming to visit me but I called last minute and said you were probably free this weekend and that he should stay with you.’

‘But…’

‘I know you’ll have a wonderful time. You used to love Uncle Terry when you were a kid.’

‘Okay but he has..’

‘Just don’t mind his little idiosyncracies okay? He’s just slightly radical, I suppose. Anything else? No? Okay, kisses. See you soon.’ She hung up.

I stared at the phone, my mouth half open.

The man who was supposed to be my Uncle Terry had now come into the living room. He sat, perched on the sofa playing with the remote. Hs wings flapped lazily every minute or so.

‘Take a load off, kid. You wanna go someplace nice for dinner?’

I sat down. ‘Err sure Uncle Terry.’ I tried to picture him in a fancy downtown restaurant, wings and all.

‘Do you want lunch? It’s past noon.’

He nodded so I made us sandwiches. He took his apart, putting all the meat to one side and tearing off chunks of the bread. He seemed oblivious to the fact that I was watching him. His wings softly hit the floor in a broad sweep while he ate while I sat in stunned silence. It seemed polite to say something after about fifteen minutes.

‘Did you get here okay?’

‘Sure I did, kid. Flew right in this morning.’

I paused. ‘On a plane, right?’

He winked, his left wing curling around his shoulder. ‘Yeah, something like that.’

Piece

Basheer realized, about halfway to the store, that his shirt was creased the wrong way. This irritated him for some reason. He felt a mad urge to go back home and iron it out the right way but then remembered instantly that his mother was home and that she would scold him once again for ‘primping.’

It was his favourite shirt too, a smart black button down with purple detail. He forced the thought out of his mind and strolled on. Farhan walked by in his usual old t shirt and jeans a size too big. They nodded at each other and Basheer managed a small smile before Farhan hurried along. If he had been with the other boys, Farhan would have jeered at him without a doubt. But alone it was understood that he wouldn’t say a word to Basheer.

Lucky Superstore opened slightly earlier on Mondays, right before eleven. Someone’s idea of a joke had been to black out the ‘2’ in the ‘Open 24 hours’ sign but at least it was accurate this way. He stared at the sign, hesitating before entering and running his fingers through his hair.

The cashier was reading the newspaper, a cigarette in his left hand as always. For a minute, Basheer just stood at the door wondering what to do. Then a customer’s cell phone interrupted the silence, the cashier looked up and saw Basheer. He smiled at him and put his cigarette out.

‘Basheer! How are you?’
Basheer gave him a small smiled and brushed a lock of hair away from his eyes.
‘What do you need today?’

His mind froze. What could he possibly need today? Mumbling some excuse, he stumbled towards the nearest aisle. Lucky Superstore boasted four aisles and a freezer for ice cream. He bought mint toothpaste, Dairy Milk Fruit and Nut, hair gel and a comb. The cashier was on the phone so he waited, loitering near the freezer. After five minutes, he approached the counter.

‘This all you need?’ The cashier asked good naturedly, taking out a calculator. ‘You bachelors have a good life, no need to worry about grocery shopping.’

He nodded along, looking at the cashier’s tobacco stained fingers and trying to picture him with a wife and what she looked like. She was fat in his head. And slightly older than him.

‘Can I..get a pack of cigarettes too?’ He asked, hating the slight tremor in his own voice.

The cashier looked surprised ‘Don’t tell me you’ve started smoking Basheer! You’ll be coughing like me before you turn thirty.’

He looked down and nodded, cursing the heat that spread from the pit of his stomach up to his ears.

The cashier didn’t seem to notice and charged him 300 rupees. His cell phone rang again just as Basheer handed him the money. ‘That’s my wife’ He said, adopting a tender tone that Basheer had never heard before ‘She’s worried about the accounts. SIlly woman, always worried about something.’ He answered the phone, waved goodbye and walked off towards the first aisle to check something.

Basheer stood for a moment as if half stunned. Then he leaned over the counter, snatched a pack of cigarettes and walked out of the store without looking back.

If You See Her Say Hello

There were coffee table books and antiques strategically positioned on tiny tables. You could never take a book out or touch an antique though because they cost money and we were probably careless or dirty or too stupid to appreciate coffee table books and antiques. So they stayed right where they were supposed to be, inside teak bookshelves right next to supposedly impressive paintings of flowers and oil lamps that were never lit.

Extended family and random acquaintances would always come to sit here and come away thinking we had such good taste, that we must read such brilliant books and appreciate oil lamps. Because of course very few people appreciate oil lamps in this bold, drastically fast day and age. Truth be told, the only person to come into contact with the books, paintings or anything else in the room was the maid. I wondered if she stole a quick brush against the paint or wondered about the strange antiques at all. They must have been a bitch to dust.

In the far right corner there was a gorgeous old record player that was the only thing our grandfather could afford to leave my father. It was still in mint condition. But there were no records to play on it. It was dusted as regularly as everything else in the room and also made for a great conversation piece which is why we kept it, I suppose.

The rest of the house was like the living room but less interesting. Shiny staircases, minimalist furniture and a couple of kitchens too many. There were photographs of us growing up, all painfully posed. We look like the happiest family in the world. Successful doctor father, beautiful mother, three kids all two years apart. Dad eventually stopped taking pictures when we all hit puberty because I think he became tired of asking us to sit still and smile for the camera.

The living room was not out of bounds but it may as well have been. We eventually stopped sitting there altogether. Time went by and suddenly we were at that age where we started buying posters. Warily, at first to stick inside cupboards but then my brother stuck a huge Bob Marley poster right above his bed and there was no looking back after that. I bought an oil lamp for aromatherapy but primarily because it needed one of those fabulous roman candles. And books, plenty of books that weren’t coffee table material at all. My sister called us pretentious but one time we caught her chalking out the lyrics to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ on her bedside table and never let her forget it. Eventually I took a few of these ‘new age’ books and other strange things our parents never quite understood off to college. Which left my two siblings to shock the parents with ripped jeans and wild hair and everything else considered uncultured and thus uncouth.

I didn’t come home for a year but when I did I realized that both my parents had taken to waiting in the living room for my brother to come home. That they would yell at him for being too Western, too hippie in that condescending Pakistani tone which makes anything remotely unPakistani sound terrible. They would yell at him while he would stand there, stoned out of his mind, surrounded by Proust, Freud, expensive paintings of fucking daffodils and antiques from Holland. There always seemed to be quite a twisted irony to this. And after they were done screaming my parents would always leave and it would be the only time we’d stick around in the living room to look at books we hadn’t ever been allowed to read as kids and even now, if we dared take out of the shelves our father would complain about how much they’d cost or how rare these editions were and so we’d put them back straight away. But mostly we stared at that gorgeous record player because if it had been ours, really ours, we all knew that we’d never let it rest. We would have hunted for records in Saddar, pestered others to bring them from abroad and made a collection. And talking about these things, what we would do if we had bought these books and paintings and strange antiques always made us feel better somehow.

And then one day, a couple of years later my brother disappeared for a whole day. The whole house was thrown into a panic. The police was informed, calls were made and floors were paced. We all ate dinner in silence, my father stolidly munching through the meal and my mother in tears. My brother burst in through the door around eleven. He was still halfway through the living room when my father got up, walked right up to him and slapped him. At this point in time, my brother was three inches taller than him which made the slap almost comical. He bowed his head anyway and looked straight down as he was supposed to while the tirade began. He tried to explain how his phone had been stolen so he couldn’t have gotten in touch but my father interrupted him every single time so eventually he just gave in and stood there, trying not to put his hands in his pockets. My sister and I stood on the side, waiting for him to extend his lecture to include us; our Western habits, dressing and accents. ‘Get with the times.’ He said, mockingly mimicking us. My sister flinched.

An hour into it he got tired and marched off, possibly to think about how much of a disappointment his life had been. My mother also excused herself with a final glare. We were left in the living room once again. It was then my brother reached into the bag that he’d thrown to one side as soon as he’d entered and pulled out a record.

I don’t remember much of that summer anymore but I do remember that night. I remember sitting in the living room listening to that record till six am. Trying to figure out how to work the record player, bringing in drinks from the kitchen and laying against cushions that we took off the sofas. We would pause the record player and wind it back just to listen to a song or a part of a song all over again. That night we stayed there, in the dark, listening to songs about people that actually made art come alive, surrounded by Proust, Freud, expensive paintings of fucking daffodils and antiques from Holland.