rocks erupted from,
or whose feet dragged stars
and stripes through muddy streets.
I know not if the throat
that birthed yells of “Death!” was mine.
I know nothing save for hunger
and the mouths I need to feed.
I know nothing save for my pockets
ringing dully with defeat.
Perched on the edge,
it is hard to not drink
deeply from the red
that burns too hot to be my own,
and watch the world
slowly turn to ash.
There are days when the people around me here terrify me with their drive and with their focus. I wonder if it is just the way of life in this country to set a goal, fix your eyes on it and just plod on come what may - and that is perhaps why this country is where it is today - or if there is something inherently lacking in me. I wonder if their days are somehow longer than mine, if they can simply force time to flow more slowly around them so they can get more done. I wonder if they ever have time to wonder.
A herd of ponderous grey elephants arrives,
not there one moment,
and then the next, a swarm of skin
ushered onwards across the blue sky
like a blanket over Karachi
by the salty sea breeze.
The beasts do not stop here often,
for this hot and dusty land
offers them not
the watering hole they seek.
But it is September
and the moist wind gestures
the final flourish
of a conductor’s routine.
It waits with bated breath
for the earth to gather itself
and marvel at the magic
it was witness to.
Silence sits expectantly,
stale air between two hands
inclined to applause.
A leaf fidgets in the quiet
until rain and rocks reunite
like the palms of an audience breaking
into thunderous appreciation of
the music of the monsoon.
and a half pointy teeth
bite into my skin
as my fingers, blind and questing,
explore the denim darkness
of my fading Levi’s jeans.
It clinks coldly at my touch,
a jaw that reminisces
its past life as a bell.
Unsheathed, it gleams.
“Wheatish” my mother would have
The key is golden
like fields of wheat.
But my mother calls everything “wheatish”
like my skin
when I asked what colour I was
and the sea of tents that August
that still floods her dreams.
Silently my key slinks
into the door that awaits its
whisperings and secrets.
Home greets me once more
as it did my mother once
in fields of wheat
between four and a half pointy teeth.
I fumbled with my camera in the near-darkness. The cold had numbed my fingers to the point that they could not quite tell if they were truly gripping something. Hastily, I changed the settings on the camera and pointed it towards the heavens once again as I tried to brand the spectacle before me in something more permanent than memory.
Sometimes you can feel the universe stirring, all of its whirring cogs, all its rhythmically pulsating, oscillating, revolving machinations aligning purposefully. It is not uncommon for the sun, the moon, and the earth to align, but that cold night, on that mountaintop, they aligned with not only my eyes, but with the lens of my camera, and as the magic was burned onto digital memory and retina alike, I knew that I, too, was part of that elegant machinery.
It would be the epitome of ungratefulness to say that I had a rough childhood, because it was anything but that. I was well-fed, well-clothed and went to a great school. I was surrounded affectionate family members and teachers.
One does not have to live long, however, to realize that nothing really is ever perfect.
As a child, I had a phase where I was convinced that I was all but invisible, convinced that while people could see and hear me, I could not affect them in any way. Perhaps that was why, even from my an early age, I began putting a lot of my energy into academics as a I burnt myself to show the world that I was around.
As with all phases, this one was shrugged off as I grew.
Old fears tend to creep up now and then, though, reminders reaching out from the past. Some nights I find myself staring at the ceiling of my dorm room wondering if I am still a human-shaped void, a holograph that cavorts into people's lives but lacks the mass to affect change in them. Here, especially, so far from home, among people so different from mine, it is much easier to fall prey to such feelings.
I do end up falling asleep every such night, though, for it only takes a little observation to see the footprints I am leaving behind in the lives of my new friends. They are subtle yet not insignificant. I see them in how my devout Christian roommate asked me to I teach him how to pray; in how, at one point, many on my floor were obsessed with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; in the looks of effort they would assume as they'd try to utter the guttural "kh" sound in order to correctly pronounce the name of said artist; in how, after a screening of Khuda Kay Liye, I could tell that some preconceived notions had been shattered; and in how someone said to me, "Knowing you has single-handedly given me an appreciation for Pakistan."
The college campus and everything I know in this strange land is quickly left behind. I sit in the back seat of the car next to one of my favourite relatives.
When I saw her on this continent for the first time, she seemed... different. Perhaps it was that I had never seen her in jeans before, or perhaps it was because the image of her sitting in the back seat of the her daughter's car contrasted so sharply with her social butterfly persona back in Karachi. But then she demanded a tour of my campus, asked lots of questions and delighted in everything I showed her and everything felt normal again.
She peers at me from over her glasses. "So," she says, "tell me about who you'll be rooming with next year. Did you pick him yourself?"
I nod and give her his name. She nods thoughtfully at his Muslim name.
"And why did you pick him?"
"Well because he's a practising -"
"Practising Muslim? Hmm, what do you mean by that?"
It takes me a split second to come up with an answer. Unfortunately, I start speaking before that has happened. "Well he prays and -"
The trap, however, has been sprung.
"Does he lie? Cheat? Does he say bad things about people? Does he steal? Fight? Is he a good person?"
Flustered, I nod slowly. "Yes, of course."
Satisfied, she turns away. I, too, turn to face the trees zipping by, silently grateful that such conversations and ideas do not exist solely in late-night conversations on the campus of a fancy, private liberal arts college, grateful that I have people like her in my family. Not everyone is so fortunate.
"How about these?" he says, handing me a pair of glasses. I replace them with my own and peer into a small mirror. Without the proper lenses, the whole world is blurry. For a proper inspection, I bring my face so close enough to the mirror that my breath fogs its surface. I make a noncommittal sound, take the glasses off, and place them in the small pile I've made for frames that have passed the first round of inspection.
"I like these, but they're a little too rectangular," I say. "I'm looking for something a little rounder."
He strokes his large, black beard, nods, and begins picking out glasses from a rack. While I wait, I look around the shop. The man's father, similarly bearded, sits in a corner reading something.
The sound of the front door opening - or rather, the intensification of the sound of Karachi outside - makes my head turn in the direction of the newcomer. Probably in his sixties, he walks in with a gait that may have been rolling and fluid in his youth. His hair is as white as his dark glasses are black, and his moustache is stubbornly in the middle of the two colours. He sends a loud greeting in our general direction.
We all reply appropriately.
He then walks up to the counter and positions himself next to me and my pile of glasses. Taking of his dark glasses, he gives the man - who is still picking out frames with the right amount of roundness - a hard look. "Oho! Iss ko bhi maulvi bana diya hai?"
At this, the father walks to his son and thumps him on the back. "Haan ji, he is a haafiz now."
"That's very nice! Aik baat yaad rakhna. Aik dafa toh Quran tarjumay kay saath toh parhna chahiyay."
Somehow we always pick the very cold days to go out into the city. It was freezing that day. But it had to be done. I had run out of detergent and she needed eggs; we were planning to bake brownies for a friend's birthday that evening. The same friend had once told us that there was a Trader Joe's not too far away that was more well-stocked and significantly cheaper than the department stores closer to campus.
It was on the first bus that we realized that neither of us had remembered to bring gloves. The unusually mild Minnesotan winter that year had spoilt us, making us complacent in a land where every warm layer counted.
We waited at the bus stop where we'd switch buses for a while, rubbing hands and stamping feet. I pulled my phone out and checked the time. The bus wouldn't be arriving for another twenty minutes. It was too cold to sit around and the shop was only a few blocks away so we decided to get there on foot.
After getting slightly lost and then getting back on track (but nowhere near Trader Joe's yet) we were cold and miserable. Giving up, we rushed to the first, tiny grocery store we saw.
The walk back, however, was much worse. Since we were carrying plastic bags, there was no was we could keep our gloveless hands in our pockets to provide them some semblance of warmth.
A few minutes of walking later, she stopped in her tracks, asked me to hold her bags for a minute and looked at her hands.
"I can't feel them," she said. I looked at them.
They were red and clawed.
"Try moving them." We still had half the walk and a whole bus ride left.
"I can't." She looked worried.
We glanced around and decided to go to a small coffee shop a few feet away.
We put our bags down and took seats and waited. After a few minutes, her hands didn't seem to be getting better. I could see panic in her eyes. We walked up to the counter and and she told a concerned bearded barrista what had happened. Without a pause, he filled a large paper cup to the brim with hot water and told her to hold it.
All this while a man had been standing behind us. He cleared his throat and I turned around. He was wearing black, had spiky hair, and a wide smile. There was a hands-free phone headset plugged into his left ear.
"You're at the right place at the right time," he beamed. He grinned at our nonplussed faces and gestured at the table behind him. A motley of about fifteen people was sitting, squished at a table that would have been hard-pressed to seat eight. "Today, we're having a conference for alternative healers," he said. "And we're here to help."
Fast-forward five minutes into the future and my friend was standing at the counter, clutching her cup of warm water while everyone at the table sat expressionless with their palms facing her, channeling their positive energy into warming her hands and I was trying my best not to grin.
Soon the mixture of heat from the cup and the collective positive energy in the coffee shop worked its magic. We picked up our bags, thanked everyone and left, waving away invitations for tea.