After the ground breaking international success of Pindi boy, comes Brown Aunty Syndrome- found in a white male at Heathrow Airport[1]

I hate queues. They are simply a waste of time, whether they are in a grocery store, passport office or the immigration counter at an airport. I always carry a book or have music with me to make the time pass faster. And quite predictable for a human brain, I am usually pre-occupied upon my turn at the counter. This is a disservice I do to myself since I carry the magnanimous green Pakistani passport. Yes, us Pakistani are given exclusive treatment at almost all airports but more so in western countries. And here I am, the intelligent me, in the queue for the flight to the United States of America to attend a friend’s wedding (such suspicious activity). I am immersed in my book, when the signal to move beyond the fated yellow line is given to me by an oldie at the immigration desk. This ma, probably in his late fifties eyes me to toe as I wipe my sweaty palms on t-shirt before I hand him my passport.

“Are you hiding something from me, young lady?” he says

I look up, perplexed at the comment and still in my absentminded state. He beckons me forward and point to my hands. I do a ‘jazz’ hands and show him they are empty.

“Why are your hands sweaty? Are you hiding something from me?” he repeats.

You know that animation they have in cartoons where the light bulb lights above the head when someone gets an idea? Yeah, so that happened.

This little old man, was trying to intimidate me by rubbing a stereotype accorded to green passport holders and was somewhat enjoying that. The jester in me was shaken out of its dumb reverie and could not help herself, and so responded,

“I am not gonna tell you what I am hiding. That will destroy my entire plan”.

He stares at me for a good 10 seconds before he finally got that I too was deriving amusement out of this situation. He probably was not expecting someone to be in a humorous mood after he had glared the hell out of them a minute ago.  Obviously the fun part of his job did not work, so he decided to ask a few more questions.

“Where are you going?”

“To the USA”

“Do you live in the UK?”

“Yes”

“Why”

“I work here. With TearFund”, *I point to my residence card lying alongside my passport with a look on my face that clearly said, pay a little attention here brother!

“Is your family here too?”

“No they are back home in Pakistan”

“Are you living here alone?”

“Yes”

“How old are you?”

“26”

“How come you are not married? How do you parents even allow that? Pakistani parents don’t do that”

*Blank stare on both sides*

This man is asking me why I am not married at 26 because I am a Pakistani, at the immigration desk in Heathrow Airport on way to the US. And I thought, I had left such questions behind when I boarded my flight to London for a master’s degree and especially when I got a job here in the UK. And I pretty much did. I thought I got away from the ‘Chungal’ (trap) of ‘brown aunty questions’ and here I am, standing in an immigration queue realizing that this phenomena does not discriminate between genders, races, nationalities or social status.

“You should get settled in the UK now. Marry someone here”

“OK” *flat stare*

“You should go to Church to meet people”

“I go to Church”

“You should go to church XYZ, you are bound to meet someone you like and someone who likes you”

Are you kidding me? This guy is some brit version of Shaadi Online.

“Umm. Okay”

“I am serious. You should get married really”

“Okay Officer, maybe first I should go attend my friend’s wedding to get some ideas?”

“Yeah. Okay”

Stamps passport and finally lets me go. The queue has grown in the meantime and people are staring at me and giving me odd stares. I am going to petition this Brown Aunty Syndrome to be included in a list of psychological disorders. It is a real problem.

 

[1] True story. Not my own but of someone I know. Would never happen to me because my comic timing is rather haywire

From Trastevere to Testaccio in The Moonlight: Haunted by History and a Haywire Entorhinal Cortex

“Say Si guarda bene to any boy you find handsome, on the streets, in the bar, in the club, anywhere. I promise you, you will not be disappointed”, Max, my brutally honest and handsome friend hailing from the heart of Turin, said to me on skype, helping me plan my trip to Italy. This was obviously not the only advice he gave. He saved me a great deal on metro tickets and spared me from spreading my resources thinly over many Italian cities and told me to focus on Rome and Rome alone. I take advice from reliable resources seriously, and I intended to take Max (short for Massimiliano, which is like Mohammad or Abdullah in Pakistan) very seriously until I got this sample of his pick-up techniques.

“Max, I cannot just go around telling Roman men how hot they are! That is ridiculous. In fact, that is a very pindi thing to do”, I implored.

Some context though…

Pindi is short for Islamabad’s twin city, called Rawalpindi. Before Ayub Khan decreed that a new capital for the country is to be built on Potohar Plateau, the area was known by its old settlement. It embodies the old spirit and culture of the small town that grew into a city. Over the years, the shorter name was adopted for vernacular use. As Islamabad grew into a city of Bureaucrats and government officials with people hailing from all over Pakistan, moving to the capital and making up a culture of its own, Pindi’s culture began to evolve a certain distinctness. As Islamabad began to house diplomats and foreigners alongside the intellectual elite of the country, it developed an international flavour in the lifestyles of the inhabitants. Rawalpindi on the other hand retained its old culture reflecting the norms and practices of rural Punjab and Potohar.  

Thoroughly enjoying the silly confusion on his face, I went on to explain the phenomena of being Pindi. “Max, being Pindi is a state of being. It is a school of thought that I have discovered in many cultures of the world. It involves following ubiquitous fashion trends including the likes of pink trousers, parrot green t-shirts, paired with white rimmed sunglasses and yellow shoes.” I said so with a serious, matter- of-fact like expression, and the perplexity evident on my friend’s face was highly entertaining. I continued to enlighten him. “Max, Pindi is also a specie. It has male and female of course. But the male of this specie is worth special attention. The locals use a term Pindi Bwoy to explain this massively important cultural phenomena. A typical pindi bwoy will possess a few dazzling trinkets including obtrusive rings for the fingers, shiny golden chains (sometimes real gold) adorning the neck, some bracelets to match and if not those, some digital watch that one usually sees on a 10-year-old American boy/girl. This bwoy will ogle shamelessly at women, regardless of age, complexion, body type (must be praised for egalitarian values) and feel that it is their national duty to cat call women walking on the streets, sing songs for them, whistle and sometimes even touch inappropriately. Moreover, this specie travels in pairs or groups, so that they always have an accomplice for their social misdemeanours.” I could see Max shifting uneasily in his seat and smile even more uneasily before remarking, “Well in that case, enjoy the food?”

Food, I did enjoy of course. The ‘free dessert for the pretty ladies’ as a follow up to a hearty meal of beef lasagne, in a restaurant at Trastevere’s inner most streets, did a few good things for my self-esteem. It would not be an overstatement, if I say that the evening spent in Trastevere was one of the most satisfyingly enjoyable experiences of my entire existence. Trastevere: beyond the Tevere or the River.

All the nuts and bolts of my imagination were already running wild after a night time stroll around the Trevi fountain, a sculpture that made me feel time had stopped under water and Triton with his Trishul was rampaging the mighty waters of the Mediterranean. The rage on his face, the flair in his beard and moustache, the alacrity in the chariot riders’ faces alongside him, the adrenaline in the faces of the horses pulling the chariots, set against the backdrop of an architectural wonder, turquoise mosaic tiles lining the floor of the pool in which this sculpture was oozing out water- the sculptor had breathed pulsating life into a piece of stone. Already in a lulled trepidation from the awe that only a magnificent yet simple piece of art can invoke, we chanced upon Trastevere. A kingdom of fantastic and mundane, meshed intricately together, like that crevice between dreams and waking life. If you are the one to enjoy the simpler things in life and the finer threads of human vibrancy and energy, Trastevere can be the fountain of life for the seeker.

Street shows are common all over the world. Mime artists, musicians, ventriloquists, singers and varied assortment of talented people showcase their craft and get direct feedback from the public. The heart of Trastevere is just like any other happening place within a European capital, however, the spirit of the city is un-matched. A strange humility in the warmth of hospitality, a sagacity in the smiles and laughter of the chefs and shopkeepers, an awareness of the heavy past lurking in the air and yet refusal to let go of life itself. Trastevere gives you hope. Hope in the strength of the human spirit, its resilience, its ability to find reasons to smile, despite atrocities and desolation. Basically, jostle you out of your existential boredom

In the moonlight, the centuries of spectres hovered over the fairy lights and candle flames dotting the smallish tables lining the narrow streets sprawling forth from the Piazza Di Santa Maria, the central square of the district. The two of us loitered in the square, one calling out to the other in French and the other responding in Mandarin, not even English or Urdu, that came naturally at all other times. Such was the allure of the jhankar in the air (jhankar is an Urdu/Sanskrit word for the playful tender beats of delicate instruments). A captivating trio of street performers, draped in all black from head to toe, sporting bowler hats of the same dark blackness, flaunted their craft with the tools for an awestruck crowd, for it was not simply a juggling show, but a form of some dark arts where the juggled items were on fire and black cats prowled around the well-built, lean acrobats.  Us two, stood alongside the crowd, gaping at the muscular but agile men swiftly moving across the small but sufficient space they occupied. The unearthly music that filled the night air as the show came to an end left the whole lot present, silent. Slowly, the witnesses to this seemingly random act, began to come out of their reverie and the pitter patter of gentle claps turned into a thunderous applause.

Silently, we took each other’s hands and agreed upon the next destination, communicating only with the eyes, unwillingly to cast off the spell that bound us both with the soul that inhabited Trastevere. No words were needed.

There was so much in the air around us: laughter and giggles of the throng of teens, the spring in the step of the young women accompanied by their lovers, the slurping of the ice-cream cones by the toddlers as they held their fathers’ hands and sat on their shoulders, the swish of the elegant dresses worn by slightly older women, accompanied by friends and partners, the deep gurgling of gentlemen’s voice who had their chess boards sprawled before them and their wine glasses and beer mugs sprouting midst the chequered tables lining the edges of the streets, outside the restaurants that filled the market place, the flickering of the candle flames, ensconced in the different coloured glass holders, taking their royal place in the centre of the tiny tables.

The merriment and the glistening sadness in the goddess’s eyes as she sipped her wine and looked askance at the man sitting next to him, engaged in hearty conversation with the man sitting across him, warmth resonating from the edges of his angled chin, but cold steeliness in his eyes when he looked at her. Embers of coals from a raging fire earlier were glowing and dying inside her.

The ghosts of the slaves that laboured in lining the streets with pebbles and stones, characteristic of European towns and grounded in the Roman tradition. The wispy wails, so faint, audible only to the grieving heart.

The crunchy sound made by the slightly yellow leaves, on the ivy plants blanketing the ancient walls with life, when the cool breeze slithered through them in the night: echoing sounds of gentle kisses of amorous couples in the nooks and cranies of the old roman town.

The helpless agitation in the step of that cello player, who stood under the towering clock in the Piazza, smack in the middle of all the commotion and bustle, with not even a wandering dog paying attention to his craft. His foot tapping restlessly all the while his slender fingers touched all the sweet spots on the assortment of strings in his arms, for all the heavenly sounds that followed were a testament to his agility.

The tapping stopped as the gong in the clock tower began to resound loud and clear, drowning all the chatter and the heartbeats. The spell remained unbroken. The teens and the toddlers were now nowhere to be seen. Elegant dresses still flowed. There were no Cinderellas in the 21st century. The chortling and the clinking of forks and knifes had dimmed down. The only lurking ones in the square were couples and trios, nibbling in cheese, sipping wine and hurtling rings of smoke from the slender pipes in their hands.

The blood in our beings decided to settle in our feet and the two of us took our place on the steps of the Piazza’s basilica. The night sky was clear, tiny twinkling entities, confidently taking their usual place in the constellation. Phone batteries dying and a drowsiness taking over the mind and body were all signals that Testaccio must soon be sought out, but an unwillingness in the legs was overpowering.

Partly it was Trastevere’s captivating energy, and partly it was the hesitation to face one’s own skeletons in the closet, that chained our feet to the steps of the Piazza. For as soon as we would step out of the square’s boundary where the moonlight and the music had cast the spell of silence between us, but had impregnated the air with other potent frequencies, the façade will be gone. We would return to that grinding repulsion that comes with the un-proclaimed passion. The spectres of cruel words and weary soul would return to haunt the silence between us. Perfunctory conversation on the sorting the route towards our bed for the night in Testaccio, remaining data allowance on cell phones to enable Google maps, a brief cost benefit analysis on taking a cab to the destination; failed to remove the cobwebs from the connection that never needed words before. Some quick negotiations were done in the interest of keeping the lid in the kettle, lest the steam turns into a geyser that blows off the top. No cab, no google map and a walk along the Tiber were agreed upon.

For a good twenty minutes the Tiber and its Island, in the middle of the old town, kept some remnant of Trastevere’s magic. But soon the lul began to wear off and only exhaustion remained. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) its retirement for the day, soon after dinner had reached the belly. Upon some pleading from the amygdala, a flexible arrangement was made. A temporary sabbatical was permitted, for a complete retirement at this hour, in a stranger’s cradle was not the best of strategies. PFC is a reasonable guy and so while the Tiber soothed rocked it to a light slumber, the entorhinal cortex was out to work. The plan was to head towards the south of Tiber, while walking along its sides, and then cross over to the residential districts upon sight of the Piramides palm tree haven. And like all plans made with an exhausted PFC, this plan was doomed from its conception. Tiber’s sides had run out of walking space, but there was no sign of palm trees. There were some gloriously haunting trees surrounding some old church. Numerous nameless monuments after monuments lined our path. Another kind of trance came upon me, being one with the spirits of those before us, who walked the same paths, whose flesh was part of the ground beneath our feet, whose wails and cries were lost in the silence of the night sky that seems tranquil today but was rapturous in the days before our times. A heaviness overtook my heart, a sorrow came over. Mr. amygdala had decided to go cart-wheeling. However, I could sense the exhaustion in my companion’s voice, an indication of the near collapse state of the body. The unique mind in that exhausted body could talk to the PFC in the system and keep it awake while mine recuperated snuggly in her powernap, while the amygdala steered the course. The tension between a PFC and amygdala is always intense, but between those residing in two different bodies is paramount to biological warfare. I learnt it the hard way.

My entorhinal cortex (EHC)had decreed a cross over at a point on Tiber’s side, a bit too early. Walking westwards in search of the landmark pyramids near our BnB in Testaccio, we came across the museum of Cestius instead. Visibly distressed and running sort of patience, my companion was on the verge of a breakdown. However, careful not to disrupt the arrangement of our cohabiting skeletons, restraint was exercised. While the barometer for patience was going down, there was no remarkable different in the measurement of my EHC. It was certain that we were moving in the right direction and that slight detour was a necessary distraction. Demonstrations of restraint were generously dished out, as vocalization of my amygdala’s engagement with the heavy history soaking each and every brick in the city managed to engage my companion’s PFC. But an hour of walking and dallying with each other’s PFC began to dampen the resolve to maintain amicability. Just as the last bit of restraint was dissolving, my confident EC announced sight of familiar territory. As we strolled along the streets of the Testaccio district, walked past the bistro that had served us lunch earlier in the day, smiled past the large families taking their place in the long tables lining by the roadside, toasting and cheering, clinking their wine glasses and rolling the dice on the board games, the patience reservoir was replenished slightly. Alas, that damned wrong turn, just one street away from the BnB brought the house down. All the skeletons came crashing down. Stern voices, pierced the silent streets of Rome that night. Tears flowed, and walls sprung up. Higher than the walls of the Colosseum. Hopes sank, pulled down by the heavy specters of history haunting Rome’s corridors. All had gone haywire, before the moon could shine out all its milky brightness.

Islamabad: The Capital and its Q- Block ( From Dreams to Postcards- Chapter: Gruel and Growth)

Back in the day when opinion based polls became the fad – I say this like I was born a century ago but given the speed at which technological advancements in the means of communication is burgeoning, it is fair to say so- Islamabad was known as second most ‘unfriendly’ city in the world.

Islamabad: the administrative capital of Pakistan, a country infamous for its ‘terrorizing role’ in the comity of nations (obviously bombing countries for oil is less frightening than being Afghanistan’s neighbour).

The poll’s results were not too far from the truth. ‘A city of the working class’ is further away from the truth than this. Conjured up one day from Ayub Khan’s sleeve after he said the magic words, “let there be a capitol in the hills”, Islamabad took its place as the country’s capital city. The first sacrificial goats who had to move to the city- under- construction in the Margalla Hills, simply because they worked for the Government and Abraham had to prove his love for the Higher Being, now rejoice as the modern-day Isaacs. They not only inherited all the best of the boom, but also hold a prestigious place in the society as the pioneers of a new Pakistan. They have the enviable premium memberships in the city’s exclusive Islamabad Club. They have prime properties in the heart of the city, where in this day and age, it is inconceivable to buy a square foot of mud, unless of course you have made it to the exclusive Panama Papers.

But first, Mathew chapter four, verse eight: “Again, the devil took Him to a high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.”

Even the devil had the courtesy to show Jesus what he was talking about before he made his offer to worship him and all that. It is, therefore, only fitting that some description of the city I am in love with, is revealed.

Let me take you to a high vantage point in Islamabad, Daman- e- Koh, literally translated as “heart of the mountain”. If you drive up about 10 kilometers up the Margalla Hills, on your right you will see a turn for something akin to an observatory, where people can just walk around and enjoy an aerial view of the city. It is a place rampant with the tiny monkeys and adorned with ever green trees, pines and firs, with patchy green grass all over and the only shade above your head, being the droopy branches of these lush trees that line the walking path up to the high point. A ten minutes’ walk up the steep path and a few flights of stairs, one can walk into a clearing, guarded with rusty iron bars and some stone re-enforcements, but not tall enough to block the breath-taking aura of the country’s Capital, the house of the seat of the Government, Islamabad.

Among the few planned cities of the world, Islamabad can surely flaunt its orderliness and serenity that comes with being organized. Looking down from the high point of Daman-e-Koh, one can see why those who acquire a taste for this city find it hard to appreciate other cities in the world. The entire stretch is visible to the beholder without having to turn their neck. On the extreme left one can see the Rawal dam, the city’s only water reservoir, silently existing within the landscape. Staying on the left but moving closer inwardly to where one is standing, it is possible to notice the brocade of the oldest high rise buildings in the city, whitewashed in paint, attempting to hide the garbles of age, lined at 45 degrees of each other, equally well arranged as the network of roads and service roads in the city. These are the buildings that have housed the offices of the highest order in the country since 1960’s when President, General Ayub Khan decided to move the Capital of the country from the scuttling Karachi to the heart of the Potohar plateau. They are nestled in neatly arranged compounds within what was named “The Pakistan Secretariat”, starting from blocks A, B,C,D on the left on the parabola that the compound is and ending with blocks P, Q, R, S on the right end of the ‘U’ the Secretariat makes. Each block houses a Ministry. From the Food Security, Climate Change to Economic Affairs, Planning and Development, and the Finance Ministry. But more on this later.

As the roving eye moves from left to right, one can see the pines and firs down below lining the highways and the smaller roads that connect to it. Smack, in the centre of it all is the Islamabad Highway that starts from the foot of the Margalla Hills at the end where the city’s iconic landmark, the Faisal Mosque rests, and runs all the way to its twin city, Rawalpindi. Perpendicular to this road, and parallel to the Margalla hills, is the Margalla Road, that connects the sturdy white buildings of the Pakistan Secretariat to the furthest end of the city where the newest, shiniest sectors of Islamabad, have now sprung up. The city is neatly divided in sectors, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H and I. For the purpose of navigating the life of a public servant or any other citizen, the relevant sectors are, E, F, G, H and I. There is no justice like justice, if I don’t share the tritest most banal joke on the alphabets these sectors are jested for. ‘E’ is for the elite, ‘F’ stands for the filthy rich, ‘G’ for government servants, ‘H’ for higher education and ‘I’ for idiots. With this, I am aware I am giving away a snooty insider jest that the born and bred in Islamabad might hate me for, but it gives a fair idea of ‘town square’ jabber.

Each sector has its own ‘Markaz’ of sector centre, usually the market place for groceries and daily amenities. These market places are not visible from the highpoint and I am aware that I must not over sell the appeal of the city, lest I become unpopular among the locals who like their peace and quiet and have great distaste for rowdy southerners who are rampantly choosing to locate to the city in recent years. However, a famed ‘Deer Park’ is visible from Daman-e-Koh. Right at the beginning of the road to this sight-seeing spot, there is a Zoo and an old park where wooden swings and jumping castles and all sorts of basic entertainment for children is available. But the place is smallish and not challenging or attractive to children above the age of 6. I digress. Let us rove the eye back to the left.

Perpendicular to the Pakistan secretariat is the most serene drive of the city: the drive along the Constitution Avenue. Across the road from the Secretariat is where the government guest houses, named after each of the provinces are located. The Constitution Road is probably the country’s most important road as well. Apart from the Pakistan Secretariat, you will also see the magnificent Parliament house on your left, as you drive from the foothills of the Margallas, towards Rawal Dam. A few more minutes and the architectural delight of the sophisticatedly angled Supreme Court of Pakistan’s grand structure is before you. Cruising at the speed of 20 km/h is absolutely essential to be able to appreciate the opulence before you (it is ironic because Pakistan has only now moved to lower- middle income status and yet we obviously did not skimp on state offices).

Right next to it is the Prime Minister house with its light pink marbled domes and pillars. An expanse of about a kilometre long or so, it is one of the largest structures on the block. Across the road there are more state offices including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which interestingly enough is not housed within the secretariat along with other ministries. The Federal Board of Revenue is also housed in a building across the road from the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. Right on the middle of the road is a roundabout. On one side are these state offices, and the other opens to a smallish stadium of sorts, that is popularly known as D-Chowk (yes this is where all the recently famous sit- ins/ Dharnas were staged). The view is nothing short of grand no matter which direction in the Constitution Avenue you are driving on.

No matter how many times you drive towards the Margallas from one end of the Constitution Avenue to the other, it won’t tire you. For each time, the sky above the hills will be different, and the lushness of the green carpet over the hill tops will be a different hue; emerald, viridian, juniper and pine. The breeze is a different story each day, a varied concoction of humidity and heat, cold and cloud. I have yet to meet a person who has lived in Islamabad, dispute this claim.

Now let me describe the security routine briefly, for my dear readers, for it is important to understand the current in the air. The Constitution Avenue and the surrounding buildings and areas are also known as the “Red Zone” among the law enforcement agencies and the security protocols at the highest offices. In recent days, the media has also picked up this word and now the entire world knows this area as the Red Zone. It is not literally red of course, neither is it infamous for any informal economy transactions that becomes active during the wee hours of the night. It is primarily because this area has the country’s most important offices including the Diplomatic Enclave where all the embassies have their offices. The security in this area is therefore, the most notorious for their detail orientation and gruff behaviour with anyone within the parameters of the place. Anyone who has no business being there is discouraged from entering with these barriers to entry. And I don’t mean the intangible ones’ economists talk about.

On each entry point to the area, there are heavily armoured check posts, with at least three to four armed policemen and army personnel. Apart from these, there are individual check points at the entrance of each official building and compounds in which they are house. The security team at the entrance of the Secretariat is just the start of a rigorous security check points mania. The compound where Ministry of Finance is housed has their own dainty little check post, with not so dainty looking men blocking one’s way. However, a car with a green number plate opens many doors, simply because extra scrutiny is not required for a government owned car, carrying a public servant.

The Q- Block. The house of the country’s treasury; the Ministry of Finance. The treasury of questions and quests. An old, elegant but simple structure with six floors, painted white from top to bottom, angled at 45 degrees to the P-Block just next door. A fair square tuft of grassy land faces the building, surrounded by char-coaled concrete paths, and a parking lot for officers just opposite the building. The bright yellow lines at the edge of the paths look rather striking especially on hot summer days, like that of 7th September 2015, the day I first stepped in to the office I’d be frequenting quite often in the coming years.

The Diabetic and the Dog versus Diarrhoea (From Dreams to Postcards- Chapter: Rapturous Reality)

Twenty-four hours have passed. The usually rousing thunderstorms seem like a cantankerous inconvenience tonight. On any other night, the electrifying lightning splashing across the horizon, visible from the panoramic vantage afforded by the terrace of our beloved habitat, would have resurrected the poet in me, quivering to burst forth a couplet; all lethargy would turn into a jumble of electrons pretending they are Super Sonic. Tonight, I want to invent a rewind button, an undo option, for the first time ever in the twenty-seven years of unnecessary existence.

Twenty-four hours ago, the midnight arrived stealthily, just like any other Friday night. The city’s intimate and sparse networks were hosting another of their fraternizing foibles, like always a bit of work, a bit of play. The fortified ‘High Commissions’ occupying space right in the heart of the capital, making you feel like an intruder in your own damn country, were hosting another of the ‘evenings’ and I begrudgingly did find my way to it, pathetically trying to google map a location, I knew a bit too well, but modestly trying to err on the safe side. The irony about these privileged social interactions in the capital of the land is, that time does seem to fly, even when you are having the conversation about Pakistan’s geo-strategic importance in the global economy for the seven thousand, three hundred and eighty seventh time.

Twenty-four hours ago, I too stealthily arrived in my habitat’s garage, failing at my attempt to minimize the noise to an acceptable level. But it was eerily quiet this weekend. My predictable midnight entry was not met by a predictable, ‘oh you are late again, you’. The usual frenetic leap into my lap and the lascivious licking my feet by the miniature Husky, who enjoys the title of my father’s 4th daughter: was missing. My usual annoyance with her over enthusiastic displays of affection was replaced by a raised eye-brow and then a rapid abatement of the heart-beat. Each hair on my body had suddenly lost all its sleep and all the pores of my skin, from the gazillion holding the hair on my head to the ones on the tips of my fingers and toes, were instantaneously radiating alacrity. Something was dreadfully wrong. I gently shut my car’s door, locked it noiselessly, propped my handbag and laptop against the front door and plopped down on the steps. Oreo lazily inched into my lap. Her food and water remained untouched, and did I mention it was midnight already? My usual star of acrobats did not have it in her to even wag her tail or even lick my hands. The balance in the universe was off. And yet, this was not it. With Oreo still in my lap, I turned around at the sound of the key turning in the door. I find Mata Jee standing in the door way, with zero of her characteristic annoyance upon my arrival at the ‘ungodly hour’ but a look of eagerness and even anticipation (if I read that right). The goofy smirk I reserve for such encounters, which automatically surfaces from my reservoir of ‘obnoxious expressions’ was wiped clean and my carefully combed eyebrows were arching oppressively; half reluctant to indicate the question forming in my brain, half betraying the panic that had begun to galvanize in my bowels.

Hurriedly gathering my things from near the door, I entered the house silently with my mother. The living room was devoid of its usual population and the dining table looked deserted. No remnants of the usual treats from dinner time remained, almost as if there was no dinner time today. I walked straight into the master bedroom on the ground floor. My father’s 3rd daughter lay there as un-animated as his 4th.  She also did not greet me with her usual vigour. No comment upon my deviation from a ‘normal’ weird sibling, no judgmental looks on my lack of ‘womanly ways’ and misinformation about the use of highlighters and concealers. The universe was obviously way off- balance.

She kissed me with her parched lips (they are almost always well moisturized with a gloss or coloured with a lipstick), clutching her stomach underneath her rag-like t-shirt (almost always dressed in her well-cut blouses), hugged me in a meaningful pleading way. Every inch of my body was now on red alert. “What happened?”, I implored. “What happened to these two?”  I first pointed my head at the teenager almost collapsing in my arms and then at the door that led outside. A part of me really did not want to hear the truth, imagining it could be worse than I thought, while a part of me wanted to learn of it as soon as possible, hoping that it is not as worse as I thought. “They both got diarrhoea!”, mom answered.

The teen in my arms, a slender tall body of an eighteen-year-old girl, delicate features but a ferocious soul, is my own flesh and blood, my kin, my baby. A decade apart, we have shared a complex relationship over the years. At the age of ten, when I held her in my arms for the first time, I was oddly repulsed and acutely aware of my jealousy for the new born. I had not needed another sibling, but my already existent sibling had insisted that she did, for she was getting tired of our role plays, where she was always the student, and I was always the teacher. Her, the assistant and I, the boss. She needed a play thing for herself and I had no desire for my position to be challenged. But seeds of dissent had been sown, the voice of the revolutionary had arrived. The voice was first audible to us in the incessant crying, indiscriminate of the time of the day. The first-hand independent experience involved sleepless nights and then missing school for the entire month, accompanied by a meticulous note, sent diligently to the class teacher, through the minion sibling (who now enjoyed the Dictator experience odd emotions resulting in kissing the baby at times). There was no compulsion as such of staying awake with the baby while the parents were away for the month, for a set of grandparents and an aunt were present. Nonetheless, the tendencies to control and micromanage had resulted in a complete lack of faith in the ability of the adults who resided in the same place but did not hold the certification of the baby’s parenthood. It was therefore, deemed appropriate that those of a certain mental ability (a diligent ten-year-old was the best candidate of course) was designated to fulfil the task of caring for the baby. No one else really knew how mom would care for the baby so everyone else was disqualified. Next time the revolutionary was vocal was before she even learnt to speak. Her cackles came before her sentences or her first word. Rooms would boom with her hearty laughter and strangers would approach us with beaming faces in search of the owner of the reverberating chortles. At eight months, before she even took her first steps, she’d shake her booty to upbeat music holding the side of a centre table for propping herself up- the first hint at her love for dancing she would grow up to identify with. Her first steps were more like a sprint into my arms. The only one of kin who witnessed those tiny feet hold their ground and the beaming one-toothed smile. I feel like someone pours warm chocolate all over my being, every time I reminisce her first steps.

The next twelve years were nothing less of a battlefield where punches were rampant, screams common, knives drawn occasionally. Then there was the exile to other lands for “higher education”. I had left behind an adolescent and came back to a teenager, complete with her share of tantrums and irritability, a full spectrum of relationships with complex interaction rules that were beyond the ambit of my limited adult mind. In our initial few years of co-existence, we discovered she looked exactly the same as I did at her age. In her teenage years, the resemblance became evident in even in the same frame in photos. The similarity in the brain frequency and emotional wavelength, however, was even more startling than the obvious facial features. Each day I was surprised at how much more of her I could understand now, but the real shocker was how much she understood me. In the twenty plus years of existence, the set of parents could not decipher or predict emotional responses as much as this nifty teenager around me could.

In all fairness though, she is a finer, better version of the same genetic combination I possess. More emotionally aware, more clarity and wit and more resilience than I could ever muster. It takes a very resilient teenager to take all those pins piercing her body many times a day to check blood sugar levels. It takes iron nerves to watch out for meal times and injecting insulin three times a day, when all your classmates would wake up, sleep and eat at will, with no danger to their mortality. But it takes a super teenager to battle weak kidneys which don’t clean the system in time and renders the effect of insulin useless, while preparing for board exams. I am at a loss for adjectives to describe a 45kg teenage girl, with diabetes, who falls prey to a bad case of diarrhoea, is forced to throw up incessantly along with the exhausting trips to the loo, has no more energy to breathe midst all the vomiting, stomach cramps and soaring blood sugar levels, and yet manages to put up a brave smiling face in the emergency room with a long pin attached to a cannula, thrust into her veins to administer a saline solution entering her body. She lies down on a hospital bed that has faint blood stains on it, without complaint. She sits patiently while the doctor checks her blood pressure. Even in her half unconscious state, she has it in her heart to tell her mother to not worry for she is fine. She stays all night in the emergency room, medicines for stopping the vomiting don’t work, blood sugar keeps soaring more and more, body is not absorbing insulin fast enough. And yet this beautiful soul trapped painfully in a flimsy teen body has the strength to acknowledge the pain around her and tend to it. Her dog has also lost all appetite and squirms with pain, and scoots off to a corner, patiently enduring it, for she really does not have a language to communicate. But the girl too is silent and the only words that come out of her mouth apart from timid requests for water, are her coos to her mother and demands to talk to the sibling that is away.

These last twenty-four hours have drained her off life. She lies in my parent’s bedroom, pale and stationary. Not a single morsel of food has stayed in her body. What diabetes could not accomplish, diarrhoea did. Both the Husky and the Girl versus the damned diarrhoea. This helpless heartbeat. Another sleepless night awaits. Another critical twenty-four hours. If only Rowling’s time turner was real, I’d go back just these past twenty- four hours, ditch that useless, frivolous fraternizing and take that filthy PIZZA HUT pasta from her hand and chuck it down the drain.

My girls are fighting though. Them versus the Diarrhoea. I am rooting for the diabetic and the dog. You?

Dulhan Bus and Quarantines and sleepy anterior cingulate cortex ( From Dreams to Post Cards: Chapter Dreams, Emotions and Decisions)

Dulhan Bus and Quarantines and sleepy anterior cingulate cortex

It’s a rickety bus, seats covered with cheap faux leather, splinters of twisted metal frame, prodding the buttocks from underneath the worn-out leather, clutching the foam like there is no tomorrow. The four-wheeled liability is headed towards heritage site in the country. It is called the Dulhan Bus (the bride bus) because it is decorated like a bride, with all its frills and fillies. Bright paint and intricate glass work also commonly found on fabrics and cultural outfits, hide the weariness of the bus chassis. The many years of coughing out diesel are apparent on the pipes protruding from beneath the bus, like an old maiden, who knew many lovers and yet adorned like a virgin. There are seats in the front row for women only- typical of any public transport in the Islami Jamhuria of Pakistan.

She chose to sit in a corner in the front row for all she wanted to do was, get to the destination. The smell of diesel caustically making her nauseous. The leather seats making her sit up straight on the edge, mindful not to let the metal bits dig in too deep on the hind. Arms crossed, looking straight into her book without any acknowledgement of human being around her, everything in her posture, reeked of the sense that she wanted to speak to no one. She crouched on the edge of her seat, hoping that no one sat next to her so she can wallow and roll over the messy mud in her mind and soak in the earthiness of being lowly in thoughts. Her aversion to human company was not because of any disgust with human beings but with herself, for existing below the normal decency of human existence. The convoluted thoughts she was capable of, of wronging all that is good and of redeeming all that is evil, baseness her mind can conjure, repel her. She wants to not be touched or seen or felt lest she infects someone with the restlessness of the mind and soul. She wants to quarantine her being so she can keep those who are enjoying the bliss that comes with less convoluted thoughts clear from the curse. She is even more careful since the last time she had found another infected being. She felt she can be around him for he is already affected. She could let him inside the quarantine she had built around her. But he did not want to come out of his quarantine. He felt his was more toxic than hers. The same disgust not from people or her but from his own mind and its charcoal gray darkness. Through a glass door they saw each other, waved and smiled, but a dark look came upon both when they saw that between the glass doors there is a chasm, an endless pit of earth and mud. Crossing over to the other’s glass door is impossible, for there will be wallowing and rolling over in the mud and there will be no end to it. They remained behind their glass doors until she turned away from hers, walked in the opposite direction, where she could move cautiously among those that had no glass doors or muddy floors beneath. And yet once one a while she wanted a recluse to indulge herself the company of her thoughts away from the untouched people. A price had to be paid. The vertigo that comes with the meandering roads to the hermitage of silence of worldly sounds. Bracing herself for the ride, like Sita’s walking on fire towards a greater reward, she had just made herself in the container of self.

And there he was, entering the bus from the back door and spotting her, beamed full throttle, his joy half hidden in his controlled demeanour. She felt her body tighten and dread filled her, for her walls had just been able to dry in the heat of hatred. She could not allow that wetness of the soil emerge again and dampen the resolve she had so carefully reconstructed. And yet all her will and force of mind could not stop him from taking the seat right next to her. His face still lit up from the amusement his mind offered upon seeing her recoil as he put his arm in the back of her seat. The more he smiled, the more she felt the heat scorch the walls she had wrapped around her now. She smiled inwardly, congratulating herself for not melting away at the lack of distance between them.

She returned to her book, after glaring at him long enough to convey that she no longer wants to look through the glass door and smile, from near or far. No glare could wipe away that smirk and it made her blood boil but she took a deep breath and continued to go deeper into her own little muddy pool. He tapped her should her with two fingers. Another deep breath before she slowly but menacingly looked up at the tapper. Still the full beam and a pleading look in the eyes. Rolling her eyes, she returned to her book. Another tap. This time she chose to ignore. The bus began to cough and roar, a cringeworthy crackle resounding loud within, scratching the layers of its passengers’ sanity. Midst this commotion, she did not realize his arm slip from the back of her seat to her shoulders. Once the rock- a- bye bus had settled into a stable sputter, she became conscious of the arm gently clutching her to the side of the man she had been glaring at to keep him from extending any bodily contact. Slowly, a furious heat began to rise from her core, something she could not immediately decipher as anger. Her walls began to crack under the heat so she regulated the thermostat to a cooler degree. The regulator in her, her anterior cingulate cortex, must be top of the range, for the subsequent glare in his direction was full of ice and shivers. His arm quickly returned to the back of the seat. The glare continued and the arm moved from the back to the front; the front of his big, muscular chest. He folded his arms, but the circumference of his existence was too big for the smallish seats of the bus. His arm sat snuggly next to hers. This was more torturous than the ‘back-of-the-seat’ position. The only thing that kept up the quarantine was the fabric of her muslin white blouse and his chocolate brown Khaddar (thick cotton fabric from south of Punjab worn in summers) Kamiz (long shirt worn by men and women over trousers). She knew it won’t last but like a mighty warrior she will put up a fight as long as she could.

Her chief of army, her anterior cingulate cortex was slowly beginning to tire, as minutes turned into hours and hours extended into late afternoon, with the sun peaking at its hottest. The mud wallowing had to give way to the magnificence of the universe that came to life as some parts of the brain factory shut down, spurred on by the giving away of the body. Careful to not to give away her exhausted warriors, she leaned against the window of the Dulhan bus as she put herself in the safest quarantined position to sleep.

As the bus chortled onwards, her prefrontal cortex in all its entirety shut down. And in those moments of unguardedness, the tiny thief behind her walls let the trap door open. Her head bobbed up and down as the bus made its way to the solace of silent mountains. In its bobbing, it landed on his sturdy shoulder. His tired beam returned. His weary eyes struggling to keep away slumber were finally rewarded. His quarantine was porous. He did not want her to mix the black dead earth with her red, fertile mud. And yet there was very little of his roots that were alive in the thickened, charred ground of his core, that he could possibly offer. But the moisture of her being had made tiny roots sprout somewhere in the hardened ground he had stopped nurturing. He could not let her see the charred roots just yet. Her rich redness was just so pure and raw. He did not have it in him to infect her just yet. He put his arm around her so her head did not bob up and down so much, not for her sake r to secure her slumber so her mind and body could rest, but for his sake. For in her prefrontal cortex’s unguarded moments, he could bask in the richness of her soil without contaminating it. He gently kissed her forehead, careful to not wake her up. Sliding down a bit in his own seat for head to find a place to rest without having to bend, he settled into a position where the two could rest in peace.

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