Saturday, September 24, 2005

Cats and Dogs

Jammie says it so well

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Aapa Jaan

I was sitting around messing about on the computer this evening when one of my grandmother’s friends came over. Not bothering with formalities, she walked straight into our bedroom and sat herself on the bed. I greeted her, smiling awkwardly, the way you do when strangers look you up and down, trying to figure out if you’ve grown up into anything worthwhile.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked me.

I admitted sheepishly that I did not.

“Lo! Ye tau mujhe pehchaanta hi nahin!” she complained laughingly to my grandmother.

“You really don’t know who she is?” my grandmother asked me.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said, looking for some cleft in the earth to swallow me up.

“This is Aapa jaan, Shamim’s sister,” Nani explained.

“Oh right . . .” Shamim’s sister. Who was Shamim?

Apparently, Aapa jaan was one of Nani’s friends from Delhi. When my grandparents immigrated from India, they came over in a cluster of families, all distantly related. Aapa Jaan’s father and Nana were cousins and they relocated to Lahore, buying land next to each other, building homes side by side. Her younger brothers and sisters still live next door, now with families of their own. She, of course, moved out many years ago when she got married.

You could tell she was a Dilli-waali. Round, wobbly and with a mouth permanently brown and eroded from a lifetime of paan. And the language she spoke, a pristine Urdu, embroidered with all the delicate phrases, the soft nuances of a literate heritage erupting gently through the erosions.

“Ye bohat chota tha jab aakhri baar milay thay. Isko kahan yaad hoga,” she told me grandmother. “Idhar aao, beta.”

I went over and she bent me down, kissing me on the forehead.

Maine tumhari maa ko apni goad main khilaya hai,” she said, looking into my eyes with what was unmistakably love.

“Ji . . .” I fumbled, trying to find something to say.

“Sharmaa raha hai!” she said, laughing at my ridiculous discomfort. “Jao, computer karo! Ek tau aaj kal kay bachchay, jab dekho computer par baithay hotay hain.”

“Ji, Aapa. Jaanay kya milta hai unko. Saara din baithay rehtay hain. Aankhon pe jo zor parta hai wo tau hai hi, kamar main bhi takleef ho jati hai.”

Aapa jaan and Nani had launched into a diatribe on computers and the scourge that is the internet. It was a health hazard, a corrupting influence on the souls of young men and women. It promoted vice and indecency. People got married on the internet, families split up, children ruined.

I smiled inwardly at their observations and went back to my reading.

A short while later, I saw Aapa jaan get up to leave and I stood up to see her off.

She looked at me and smiled. “Meray saath chalo. Meray ghar. Khaana khila ke bhej doongi.”

I thanked her. Some other time, aunty.

Maine mirchain qeema banaya hai. Bohat mazay ka hai,” she said, holding my hand and pulling me towards the door.

And I was unwittingly taken to her home. Nani and I sat down while she went into the kitchen to get things ready. She lived with her sons and a daughter-in-law but everyone was out. The only other person in the house was the servant. We were soon joined, however, by Aapa jaan's baby brother and his wife, who'd dropped by to say hello. It had been many years since I'd seen Najju uncle and he looked completely different from the young bachelor I remembered. We used to play table tennis in his garage, setting up nightly tournaments, much to the chagrin of our parents. He was married now with two young children and even a generous shalwaar kameez couldn't hide the evident pleasures of Uzma aunty's good cooking.

While we talked, Aapa jaan was busy setting the table, amiably wobbling back and forth between kitchen and dining room. And it turned out to be a wonderful meal. Apart from the mirchain qeema and the ubiquitous daal chawal (aka food of champions), there was also a cannister of the famous Hyderabadi achaar and crispy, melt-in-your-mouth parathas that dissolved in a fiery burst as soon as they touched the tongue. But more than the meal, it was the easy informality of the occasion that was so delightful. We were all seated around her table, chatting, laughing, eating, caught up in each other’s company and Aapa jaan presiding over us with hot parathas and eager invocations to eat more.

I don’t know how long I sat there but it was very difficult to get up when I finally had to.

“Shukriya, aunty,” I said as we were leaving “Bohat maza aaya.” It had been a memorable meal.

“Nahin, betay. Aap ka shukriya, aap meray ghar aaye,” she said warmly, pressing a packet of halwa into my hands.

Sometimes there are no words.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Oh, The Places You'll Go!

Sujatha's wonderful post reminded me of this poem.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Where have all the daddus gone?

It occurred to me yesterday that there weren't any daddus this year. Come the rains and the lawn is usually teeming with them as they hop about in a short-splendored frenzy. A daddu, for those who don't know, is a small frog that used to emerge from its underground habitat during the rains. But this year we haven't seen any. I wonder where they've gone. Nana says the jugnus (fireflies) have also disappeared. He remembers the hedges used to tremble at night with their flickering lights. Not any more though.

I went to the local video store the other night and came away with a copy of Parineeta and a CD of Noorie's latest album, Peeli Patti aur Raja Jani ki Gol Duniya. I'm not exactly sure what the title means, apart from being a slick advertising gimmick to lure suckers like myself into buying the album. The music is loud and plain and completely devoid of any excitement, unless of course you like music that is loud and plain and can be used to work up a mad rage. Otherwise, please save your hundred rupees. Give them to me.

And in case you were wondering, the best ringtone in the world belongs to one of Nana's friends; a short and simple message that drones "Abbu, phone uthain!"

That's it for now.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


I've started running again. There's a beautiful park down the road from our house and I go there in the evenings for a quick workout. I hadn't realised how out of shape I was. Just about collapsed on the first day. Anyways, things have improved since and I'm pacing myself a little better now with a more judicious walk/run/walk regimen. It's a great feeling, exercise. You feel so refreshed. The downside, though, is that I've developed an incorrigible appetite. All I want to do afterwards is eat. And not just healthy stuff like fruit and fibre but decadent food like eclairs and shwarmas. So right now I'm trying to look for foods that you can eat a lot of and not be affected by, food that tastes good but is low on sugar and carbs. Any ideas?

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Good Life

I think The Good Life has got to be one of the classiest, most warm-hearted comedies ever made. Even though it was made thirty years ago it's still wonderful. The humor is rich and sparkling and the camaraderie between the actors is impeccable. Vintage British sitcom. It reminded me of those old PTV dramas, Ankahi and Aangan Tairha. I don't think anything that has been made in Pakistan since has surpassed Ankahi in its comedy and the depth of its humor. It's so intelligently written and performed.

Anyways, watch The Good Life if you get a chance. It airs on BBC Prime on Mondays, 4 pm, Pakistan time.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The US Open

It's two am and I was up watching the men's final of the US Open when the electricity went out. Roger Federer's won the first set and is giving Agassi a difficult time. It's not very difficult to predict the outcome. Federer's got the more powerful shots and his court coverage is far more aggressive than Agassi's. But, then again, he's much younger than Agassi, who I've got to admit, has done really well to come this far in the tournament. I've never been an Agassi fan but hats off to his athleticism and his determination. He's a winner as far as I'm concerned, regardless of the outcome of this game.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Fred's Magical Friends

It wasn't far off now. Fred could tell by the way the shadows fell on the ground. Maybe another hour and they would get there. They had too. The animals wouldn't last much longer. He looked in his suitcase to check on them.

Six pairs of eyes looked back at him. Three tongues wagged in anticipation. "Are we there yet?" the eyes seemed to be saying. He tried to give a sympathetic smile. "Just a little longer," he said, realising the animals spoke no English. Or any other language for that matter. They weren't that smart.

"Ouch!" he yelped as he felt a pair of canines dig into his hand. One of the heads had bit him.

"We're not stupid you know!" it barked at him. "Of course we can speak!"

"What?!" he said both shocked and furious. "Then why haven't you bloody said anything all this time!"

"We thought you were stupid. No point wasting time on a silly little boy."

"Why you?!" Fred roared, slamming the suitcase shut. He could hear snickering inside.

It was almost evening. Fred had been walking the whole day, suitcase in hand, through the cruel Australian outback. The sun had beat on his back throughout, turning his skin a flush pomegranate red. Pommy, he could hear the children say. How they used to tease him, snipping and biting away at his dignity in the schoolyard. He would show them now. He would open the suitcase and they would all clamour around him, awestruck at the sight of the strange little animals. They'd probably never seen a flobjobbering dingledoo before.

Actually, nobody had. It was only by the strangest sliver of a chance that he'd met the man at the gas station. Absalom Balaclavius, the notorious eugenicist, on the run from the law. "Running away from home, are you, little man?" he had said, peering with his beady little eyes into Fred's face. "You'll need a better set of tricks than that if you're to make it alive through the outback."

Fred had looked into his little rucksack and suddenly realised how insufficient a cheese sandwich and a bottle of skimmed milk were going to prove in the desert.

"I have twelve dollars," he said putting on a brave face. "What do you have?"

The man had looked at him and a smile had crossed his face. Had Fred been just a little older than his ten years he would have realised that this was the sort of smile that flickered on the faces of reptiles and other predatory creatures. But he was not and he had confused the stranger's malice for an act of kindness.

"I have a magical animal that I have trained to guide people through the bush. I could let you have him."

"I want to see it first," Fred had insisted very smartly.

"No, it is a very shy animal, a magical animal. It does not take kindly to strangers. It only responds to the voice of its owner."

"Well then how will it know I am its owner?"

"I will put a spell on it and put it to sleep. If you are the first person it sees when it opens its eyes then it will know you as its owner."

Fred had agreed. And Absalom Balaclavius, the evil eugenicist, had passed on a mutant to the little boy.

"This, my boy, is a flobjobbering dingledoo," he had announced. "Three-headed, six-eyed fully functional magical animal. It's asleep now but when it wakes up be sure to look into its eyes and it will yours for life. Yes, all six of them and without blinking. Dingledoos are very loyal animals and, if you take good care of it, this one will stay with you until the end of your days, or next week, whichever comes first." Of course the last part was said under his breath but it wouldn't have mattered as Fred was too excited to understand anyways.

"Erm, what does it eat?"

"Cheese sandwiches."

"Oh . . . "

"And milk, make sure to give it lots of skimmed milk," Absalom had said, cackling as he drove off into a cloud of dust, like villains usually do.

That had been two days ago.

For two long days, Fred had walked through the bush with the suitcase, trying to get as far away from home as possible. He hated school. The kids made fun of him. The teachers were rude to him. And every time he tried to tell his Mum and Dad about it they wouldn't believe him. "You're just a lazy fibber, my lad," his dad would say. "No pocket money for you this week." And both his mum and his dad would shake their heads with sadness at the thought of the failure they had raised.

Well now he would show them. He would just run away from home and then what would they do? Go to school and shout at the stupid teachers probably. "You've lost our son! Our clever little angel, we sent him to you this morning. Where is he now!" his mom would scream furiously, grabbing the nasty little headmaster by the tie and whirling him around in the air. His dad would cheer her on. "Faster, Suzy, faster! Keep spinning him until he tells us what they've done to our boy! Oh I miss him so much!" And his dad would collapse into the scabby armchair the headmaster used to bend boys over so he could smack them properly and break down into tears. "My poor little boy! I wish I hadn't been so mean to him!"

Fred could hardly keep himself from turning around and walking straight back home as he thought these thoughts. For two days he had nourished himself on such imaginary victories, noticing neither the cruel summer sun nor the steady depletion of his food supply. Every few hours he had sat down and opened up the suitcase to release the little three-headed, six-eyed animal and dutifully feed it his sandwiches and his milk. He had never seen anything like it before. No one had. It had made him feel magical inside, a keeper of the world's biggest secret.

Not any more though. Not after the animal had bit him. He wished he'd never seen it, never ran into the man at the gas station, never ran away from home. He wished he was in his own room right now, full of dinner and ready to sleep, cuddled up in his favorite Wrestlemania blanket. His mum would peek in around the door and wish him good night, smiling in the dark. Fred could see her face in his mind. He felt like crying.

And before he knew it he was crying. A steady stream of soft, penitent tears was running down his face and he had to sit down.

Suddenly he felt a small tongue lick his hand. One of the heads had come out.

"Get off me, you stupid animal!" Fred had howled, snatching his hand away.

"Fine have it your way," the head had said. "I was only trying to be friendly. Never mind, boys, the eejit doesn't care for our company. I told you it was useless to try."

Another head poked itself out of the suitcase. "Well what did you expect?" it said, sneering at its predecessor. "Stupid boy exchanged his life's savings for a mutant dog. They don't get much worse than that."

"Who you calling a dog?" a third voice squeaked. "I'm a Dingledoo!"

"Yes of course you are," the second voice mocked. "And I'm the Queen of Transylvania."

"Look, Flob, he's making fun of me again!" the third head complained.

"Stop it, Jobber," the first one snapped. "Can't you see we're lost?"

"Another genius! Of course we're lost! Why do you think we're stuck in the middle of the bush with nothing to eat but a stupid fat boy who doesn't know better than not talking to strangers when he's run away from home?!"

He started to eye Fred up and down. "I wonder how you would taste . . ."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A Seraph for the Sanitarium

I went to see a play this evening. A Seraph For The Sanatarium at the Al-Hamra. Someone had recommended its prequel to me, Call Me Ishmael, which had played last week and so, after a few lucky phone calls, I managed to wrangle myself a pass and go see the performance.

The play is about a man with dissociative identity disorder, or split personality, and is related mainly through his interactions with his psychiatrist. The basic premise is that of the conflict between good evil and the main character assumes a Jeckyll and Hyde persona with Hyde (or Ishmael) dominating and manipulating those around him. It's well-written and while I have my reservations about the dramatization of psychiatric illness, I was nonetheless drawn into Ishmael’s conflict. The problem is that there is a trend both in literature and cinema to exaggerate the manifestations of psychiatric illness and create characters who, through their delusions and disability, are strangely empowered with exclusive access to secret, salvational truths. As John Dryden wrote, “There is a pleasure, sure, In being mad, which none but madmen know!”

Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Anyone who has known a friend or a loved one diagnosed with psychiatric illness knows how much they suffer and how excruciating are the private tortures they go through. There is nothing romantic about mental illness. It does not lend itself to lucid revelations. Only to sorrow and suffering. And if we think the mentally ill are privy to secrets denied to us because we are sane it is only a perversion of our own reality and our inability to understand it.

Thankfully, though, the play doesn’t extend itself too far into such distortions. The rhetoric is occasionally reductive but mostly the dialogue is sharp and well-performed. I haven’t seen very many plays but I think, unlike cinema, where subtle nuances and small gestures lend depth to a performance, in a theatrical performance a lot of the emphasis is on the voice and the actor’s ability to handle the language and make it come alive. In this both the lead actors did well. Mehreen Haq, who played the psychiatrist, did a competent job and, in spite of a few minor glitches (like lapsing into a Spanish nada even though she’s a Briton from Chester) gave a relevant performance. The star, however, was Omair Rana. He roared and chased all over the stage in a gripping portrayal, spectacularly creating both the malice and the angst that tormented his character. It was a mesmerizing act.

So, long story short, if you’re in Lahore and have a few hours to spare, try and see the play. As far as I know it’s by invite only but these are available at a number of venues. I personally would like to thank Punk Dervish who, even though he didn’t know me, very graciously extended me an invite. Also, if you do go to the play, be sure to visit the Depilex stall outside and donate generously. The organisation's set up a charity for women who've been assaulted by kerosene and acid burns. (The website's not much but the cause is too important to be ignored.)


The highlight of the evening for me, however, was the discovery that the lead actor was actually an old school-friend of mine. Omair and I used to be in the same class up until the third or fourth grade in the UAE and it was with a strange mixture of disbelief and delight with which I greeted the realization (“abay, yeh tau Omair hai!”) Of course it’s confirmed what I long suspected to be true, that my little hometown is actually a centre of excellence in disguise. Omair and I were in the same class as Yukta Mookhey, former Miss World, and look at us now. She’s a celebrity, he’s a thespian and I can rub my head and pat my tummy, sometimes both at the same time. What more proof could anyone want?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

For Whom The Bell Tolls

I was in my room getting dressed for a friend's engagement this evening when I heard the local muezzins start their call for Isha prayer. It was around eight o'clock and we were all busy, wrestling with starched collars and tight trousers, the happy complications of a carefree existence. I was tied up trying to negotiate with a particularly tricky necktie and it wasn't until halfway through the adhaan that I caught a small voice, announcing the demise of one of our neighbours. I didn't catch their name but the announcement came from a nearby mosque and informed listeners that the funeral would be the next morning. And the contrast struck me so forcefully. Here I was getting ready to go to my friend's engagement party, to a house full of flowers and laughter and the delightful pranks of happy relatives and yet a few metres away stood a house of grief and mourning. There would be no laughter there tonight. Only tears and sadness and the slow, painful process of involution that follows a loved one's departure from this world.

It was a sobering moment. May God have mercy on the deceased and may He make it easy for the family to endure this difficult period.

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