Friday, April 21, 2006

Eat Drink Man Woman

I am sitting in the library checking my email. One of my colleagues, Jian Lin, a neurologist from China, is at the terminal next to mine. For some reason we've hit it off rather well, in spite of my curmudgeonly manner. Jian is a very friendly person and, even though I'm not sure how much English he understands, we both love to talk about food.

"Hey!" he says, sliding up to me. "We are cooking fish tonight. Come eat with us."

Jian lives with two other Chinese guys. They take turns cooking supper for each other. Jian's told me about their feasts. A few nights ago they made pigs' feet.

"Thank you," I decline politely. "My friend is coming back from New York this evening and I have to go home and clean the house." It's true.

"What?!" he says disbelievingly. "Call him and tell him."

"I can't, he'll be flying soon."

Jian looks disappointed.

"Today is the weekend," he says bringing his fingers to his lips and kissing them to indicate what a good time we could have.

"How do you cook the fish?" I ask.

"You know how to cook fish?!" he looks at me incredulously.

"No, I don't know how to cook anything," I reassure him. "How do you cook it?"

"Well, we take a, " he motions with his hands to shape a pan, "Put in some oil, some spices, some water."

"Oh, ok."

"It is delicious," he says, his eyes lighting up.

"I'm sure it is." Words are poor instruments to describe the pleasure of a good meal shared with friends. Even plain fare like daal chawal takes on the splendor of biryani when eaten with the right people. And achaar. And papad.

"It is a shame," Jian repeats graciously.

"I hope you have a good meal."

"Next time," he says.

Friday, April 07, 2006

This used to be my playground

There used to be a park where I would often go when I was growing up. It was a small place, nudged next to some grocery stores in a ghetto part of town, very different from some of the other, more spectacular parks in the city. (The place I grew up in is famously referred to as the City of Gardens.) But we would go to this small place more often than the others, simply because of its location. It was next to my mother’s favorite grocery store and every time we ran out of milk or coriander an occasion presented itself for a visit.

It was a small park, like I said, a modest plot of land thoughtfully converted into a playground. It had a slide and a seesaw, a large carousel that tipped dangerously at high speeds. There may once have been grass for kids to roll around in but by the time I got there what remained was a close green stubble, tramped down by a daily swarm of flip-flopped children whose mothers had also miraculously run out of bread or beetroots. A stream ran through the park, populated with large cobblestones, which, in the night, made it look like an alligator was lurking in the water, waiting to bite your thigh off. A dainty little bridge ran over the stream from which I used to watch vigilantly for its movements. Of course, the alligator never did move. It knew it was being watched.

A few years ago they tore the park down. The rides were dismantled and taken away, the stream dug up and an apartment block installed in its place. The ground floor is a department store selling low-priced, imported garments. Children go there now with their parents but there is no laughter any more. Only the sound of flip-flops slapping on cold tile floors.

Saturday, April 01, 2006


(Warning: long post ahead!)

Things have been busy lately and while there’s been plenty to write about, there’s just been no time to actually sit down and pen a coherent post. There’s enough writing to do anyways, including yet another essay on why I want to be a doctor. Yes, again! I mean, why do they keep extracting these confessions over and over again. What do they want to hear? Bhai, maaf karo! Ghalti ho gaee. Aainda kabhi nahin banunga. I mean seriously, go do a blood test or something. Stupids.


I had my first ever taste of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Cherry Garcia-flavored and dug into with a deep spoon. It’s creamy and has stray bits of chocolate and dessicated cherries strewn through it but not as awesome as I had imagined. (Is anything ever? Hell yeah! See entry below.) On the other hand New York Super Fudge Sundae is the bestest. Almost as good as Baskin Robbins. Almost.


The public library here is awesome. Actually it’s not just one public library but several different libraries scattered across the city so wherever you are, you’re never too far from something good to read. I like that way. It shows responsibility and a love of books. And we all know how much I love books. Anyways, so I went to the public library, the central library, the mother of them all, and in the short span of half an hour had erected a greedy barricade of books around my desk. If the librarians were surprised they didn’t show it, God bless their souls. Do librarians have souls? Anyways, so I had a small great wall going around my desk and I was flipping through pages faster than those machines at the bank, the ones with electronic fingers to count money and make sure they haven’t given you any more than you really deserve which is always too little anyways. Of course being so greedy didn’t pay off in the end because when it was time to leave, I had mere scraps of books floating around in my head and nothing golden and meaningful which is what the whole purpose of reading is in the first places. To wring from ordinary events and banalities, the erratic episodes of pain and wonder we all pass through, something golden and meaningful you can carry around with you.


As I was walking to the above said library, I got lost. Well, not really lost because I didn’t even know where I was going to in the first place. So I stopped a man in the street to ask for directions. He was African-American and carrying a large video camera. I thought he was a documentary film-maker.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, looking towards him with pleading eyes.

“What’s up, daddy!” The words snapped out of his mouth like a spring.

“Can you please tell me where the Central Library is?” I asked, trying very hard not to laugh.

“Uhm, I’m not sure. Ask in that hotel. They aught to know.” He pointed towards the lobby of a nearby Marriot.

“Thank you.”


I was invited to attend a child psychiatry clinic at a community hospital. Not sure of what to expect, I dressed up in my slick plum colored sweater, doused myself in cologne and showed up looking like an ad for demure aubergines. The first patient was a young autistic boy, in for a follow-up appointment to review his medications. For most of the interview he sat silently with his mother, looking around and sucking his thumb. Every so often he would lock his fingers around hers, feeling for reassurance. But mostly he was quiet.

Five minutes before the consultation ended, he realized I was also in the room, sitting inconspicuously in the corner on the little kiddie chair, also plum-colored. He gets up and walks towards me. I smile at him, trying to engage his attention but he looks straight through that and starts climbing on to me. I gasp. He’s a large boy and the medications confer an exceptional appetite so that when he struggles to adjust himself in my lap, I feel like my lap is going to break. Anyways, he seats himself on me, throws his arms around my neck and starts smothering me with kisses. The mother looks at us in surprise. “He’s never done that before!” she says incredulously. “You must have a good heart.”

I shrug it off. “Don’t know about that.” Her son slides his puffy little hand into mine.

“Well he’s a pretty good judge of character and he’s never done that before,” she informs me. “Are you a psychiatrist?”

“No, I’m looking to train in child psychiatry.”

“You’d be good at it,” she says encouragingly.

“Well, it seems I’ve been inducted already,” I tell her, my face wet with kiss.


One of the things that used to bother me initially when I came here was voicemail. Yes, voicemail. Back home we don’t really have voicemail, or at least nobody I know has it. You just call someone and if they pick up they’re there and if they don’t they’re not. They can call you when they come back and see your phone number on caller ID. But here, everybody and their dog has voicemail. You call someone and you hear their voice reciting pleasant consolations about how much they would love to speak to you but right now wild horses have torn them away from their cell phone and if it wouldn’t trouble you too much could you please leave your phone number so they can call you back as soon the breath rushes back into their body.

Which is fine. People can sometimes be a little preoccupied. But what do you do if you hate answering machines? When confronted by such messages, my instinctive response is just to hang up. They’ll see my number on caller ID and call me back. No problem. But as time went by, I realized that people don’t call back. So now I am forced to leave messages. “Hello, this is me. Please call me back when you’re free” Quick and clean. The old puritan instinct for stoicism. My friends however seem to find this inadequate. They don’t say so but I can hear it in their trippy little messages. It’s as if they were friends with the machine itself. Crazy people. How can you talk into a machine with such frivolous abandon?


I was out last night when I got a call from Chweety baji. (That’s pronounced just like it’s spelt, as in, hai, cho chweet? Yeah, like that.) Anyways, Chweety baji is married to Cheeky bhai and they live at the other end of the country. We’re not really related or anything. Cheeky bhai’s parents and my grandparents used to be really good friends in Bhawalpur many decades ago. Qaiser aunty and Rao sahab. My grandparents spoke of them often and with great affection. They said it was a marriage built on a love of knowledge. “Their house was overflowing with books,” I was told.

“Hi, I just called to check up on you and see how you were doing,” Chweety baji said.

“I’m good, thanks.”

“Where are you? Are you still in town?”

“No, I left yesterday.”

“What?! Why?”

“Because I was booked to fly out?”

“Why didn’t you come and stay with us!” She sounded miffed.

“Well, all my stuff is back here. This is where I’m based.”

Years ago, when they were fresh out of medical school and newly married, Cheeky bhai and Chweety baji were looking for a place to live in Karachi and my grandmother invited them to stay with her. Our house is divided in two floors, upstairs and downstairs, both of which can function as independent apartments. Cheeky bhai and Chweety baji stayed in the upstairs apartment during their internship at a local hospital. Incidentally, the same hospital where I trained at many years later.

“Oh, I guess I must have missed that part when I spoke to you last. I gave your number to one of your grandparents’ friends. She said she’d call you.”

“Who’s that?”

“Do you know Sarah?”

“Is she A uncle’s wife?”

“His daughter actually. She also trained at our hospital. But she was a few years senior to you.”

“That’s nice.”

“Yeah, she said she would call you.”


“Yeah, so, stay in touch and I hope you’re back in town soon so we can meet up. Take care.”

“You too, baji.”

It’s amazing the way these things work. A friendship sown so many years ago still connects us across our disparate lives. Though its original inhabitants may have passed away, the affection continues to grow with each passing movement, each kind gesture reaffirming its strength. It's something to be grateful for.

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