When I look at my life and the choices I made in retrospect, I am amazed at the length of time I wasted on social niceties. Making small talk, mingling with people I couldn't care less about, passing ostentatious smiles, interacting, socializing, gossiping, climbing the social ladder, some more small talk, some more mingling...
For the most part, this routine and the shenanigans surrounding it define my life. Sometimes I wonder if I ever learnt the art of prioritizing. At other times, I am baffled over whether playing this Machiavellian game of socialites was my priority. Who knows?
All I know is that no one can retrieve the time I wasted. No one can suffer for the choices I made, but myself. No one can change my past. Which leads me to the overwhelming question of, 'what led me to make the choices I made?' The answer is conspicuous enough: experience. Experience is a real dampener - it grays us from the inside. We begin to make choices on the basis of rationality and practicality, to put things in perspective, to speak when spoken to. When I was 10 I could make choices on instinct - whether it was between kicking the bucket and leading a life that meant zilch to me. Now at 19, I feel intellectual laxity has taken over me and that is far more deleterious than physical slackness.
As the trite expression goes, time and tide wait for none and the only thing that is constant is change. Life gets hold of us by the scruff of our neck and bludgeons it with conformity and docility until it begs for reprieve. With every fleeting moment, to pick and choose no longer remains our prerogative. We try and rationalize taking dictation when in fact, life is the dictator and tyrant. You probably think, I'm going off on a tangent here, but it all connects, really - like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with the precise irregularity of their edges join in a cohesive form. The irregularity of my stance lies in the paradox: experience taught me to climb the social ladder; conformity made me scurry up again when I fell down. The incongruity of it all is almost comical - I should have thought age and wisdom would have taught me otherwise; to turn a deaf ear to the retorts and criticism of others. But in turn, the years have made me immune to the superficiality and materialism I experience everyday.
*The title is an adaption from a T.S.Eliot poem that dwells on society and its pretensions: 'Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?'
My city is bleeding yet again. Like a silent spectator, I watch it from the sidelines. I watch the city that is venomously torn and battered by the wrath and carelessness of certain people. The gashed wounds, the blood stained visage, the carcass-like state of my beloved are all too vivid in front of my eyes. I feel like a mother who is listening to her child’s last incoherent words before he finally succumbs to the last stages of a fatal illness. I feel like a vulnerable and helpless child who doesn’t know where he will go after his guardian, his provider is brutally murdered. I feel like the doctor who can put her fingers on a dying, emaciated patient’s pulse and feel their heartbeats synchronize, yet cannot ignore his heart’s futile struggle to keep the blood pumping.
I remember reading a line somewhere; ‘This is Karachi. We have a good time while we can, ‘cause tomorrow we might not be so lucky.’ A viewpoint that triggered a plethora of emotions inside me and one that took the phrase, stream of consciousness, to new levels. Living in Karachi certainly hasn’t been the clichéd ‘walk in a park.’ In fact, it would be more apt to say, it has been almost, ‘a frantic scurry in a battlefield.’ We wake up in the morning and read the headlines only to be baffled over whether this city will finally implode or not; whether we will manage to make it through the day or not. The uncertainty and contingency surrounding life in Karachi can most certainly be exhaustive.
But in spite of all the ambivalence, Karachiites share an assurance of birthright. And it is perhaps this conviction of ownership that best defines the contemporary citizen of this distraught city. It is perhaps this love for its soil that will save Karachi from the ravages of circumstances and the brutality of its enemies. It is perhaps futile to be optimistic in the eye of a storm, but it is only what my city has taught me – to hope for the best when no hope remains; to give it my best shot, no matter what the odds; to come out alive and victorious when the world thinks you've breathed your last.
Emptiness and loneliness - two words that leave one in a bland madness of angst and trepidation. But life and circumstances can force one to find strength in loneliness, fulfillment in emptiness. If one tries hard enough one can discover independence lies in loneliness and fearlessness in emptiness.
After all, what fear of loss can cultivate when one's hands are empty? Who can one fear to lose in engulfing solitude? Yes, the key to contentment are loneliness and emptiness. That sliver of pure nothingness. That bizarre detour of freedom. Those evanescent moments where one can hear the staccato bursts of silence.
There is ownership in loneliness - not possession. No, the two words are not synonymous. Possession is a feeling - it stems from a plethora of emotions. Ownership is a fact. It is an affirmation. It simply is. Loneliness fears no exposure. There is no negotiation. It obeys.
Loneliness and emptiness are not as negative as we make them out to be. Really. Only the meditator who has found peace within himself, who has made reconciliation with body and soul has the luxury to enjoy solitude; to dialogue with the silence, to embrace loneliness as his friend, to claim emptiness as part of his being.
After the sun sets in a symphony of suffused pinks and golds, and laborers retire home after a long grueling day, and wives tentatively await the arrival of cantankerous, irascible husbands, and glittering blackness takes over the canvas of the sky – the world comes alive in its true essence.
This is the time when owls, night-guards and lovers reign. Under the camouflage of the brash, glittering night sky, the world of dreams and fantasies comes to life. Night, by the way, isn’t my codeword for child molesters, assassins and whores. You misunderstand me.
My allusion is to the metamorphosis the world undergoes, once it adorns its black cloak. This is the time when everything is possible – we can be whoever we want to be. We can do whatever we want to do. And after all the dreaming is over, after we wake and leave the world of madness and glory for the mundane day-lit grind, through the wreckage of our abandoned fancies, strolls the sweeper of dreams.
Just as we wake he comes to us, and sweeps up kingdoms and castles, and angels and fairies, mountains and oceans. The sweeper talks little, in his gruff monotone voice, and when he does speak it is mostly about the weather and the prospects, victories and defeats of certain people. He seems to despise everyone that is not him.
He sweeps up the lust and the love and the lovers, the ambitions and the greed, the hopes and the desires. One by one he sweeps them away; the infant that was wailing, the lover who was cheating, the friend who was drowning, the parent who was dying.
He will sweep it all – every single dream he considers superfluous. And then he will burn them all. Burn them to leave the stage fresh for our dreams tomorrow.
If ever you run into him, treat him well. Be polite to him. Ask him no questions for he never gives any answers. Applaud his victories, commiserate with him his losses, agree with him about the weather. Treat him with the respect he feels he is entitled to. For there are unfortunate souls he no longer visits, the sweeper of dreams, the arsonist of fantasies.
You must have seen them. They have mouths that twitch, and eyes that stare, and fingers that fidget, and they babble and they mewl and they whimper. Some of them walk through half deserted streets in ragged, grimy clothes, their belongings clutched tightly under their arms. Others are locked in cells, in places where they can no longer harm themselves or others. Do not mistake them to be mad. In fact, the loss of their sanity is the lesser of their problems. It is far worse than madness. They will tell you, if you ask them, they are the ones who wallow, each day in the wreckage of their dreams.
So fantasize as much as you want, until human voices wake you and force you to face the music. But don’t forget to offer thanks to the sweeper of dreams – for he gave you leave to feel liberated and unrestrained and euphoric for a few hours. Offer him thanks for if the sweeper of dreams leaves you, he will never come back.
Have you ever wondered why keyboard keys are arranged in a particular, seemingly nonsensical order, so that the first line reads 'QWERTYUIOP'? If your answer is no, then you probably belong to the sane majority of people who generally don't spend much time musing and wondering about little details that have no relevance whatsoever in their daily lives. However, if you answered yes, then it is probably very important for you to know that there is a reason for this odd arrangement. When Christopher Latham Sholes and his colleagues invented the first practical typewriter in 1873, they faced a problem with the type bars clashing together. To counter this obstacle, they re-arranged the keys so that the most used letters in English Language were positioned well apart. This design proved to be such a success that the same layout is used to this day on Keyboards, blackberrys, i-phones and other cellular devices.
I have had a strange fascination with trivia and general facts since I was a little girl. I was always asking questions that appeared irrelevant and absurd to others. For instance, I insisted on knowing how the chefs hat got its shape, which by the way, was originally designed by the great Italian Renaissance painter, Leonardo Da Vinci who was apparently, also an excellent cook! The hat was later redesigned by Alexis Soyer who starched the pleats so that the hat would stay uptight and give the chef's head some ventilation.
As a child, I would read volumes of Encyclopedia much to my grandfather's chagrin, who wanted me to spend every waking moment with my textbooks. Perhaps, he thought cramming my brain with 'useless' information would be a waste of time and precious brain cells. Little did he know that knowing that a chameleon's tongue is twice as long as its body or that butterflies cannot fly if their body temperature is less than 86 degrees, made it so much easier for me to understand Pythagoras theorems and T.S.Eliots, 'The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock.'
Such seemingly useless factoids also help in explaining some things that we would not understand otherwise. For instance, an ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain; it is probably why they bury their heads in sand so that no one will notice how disproportionate their eyes are with the rest of their heads and we humans think that they are shying away from their problems, No, they're not; its just that they are a little more aware of their eyes than the rest of the animal kingdom. Talking about animals, did you know that milk of a hippopotamus is bright pink and that cows produce more milk when they listen to music. I wonder if this stands true about all genres of music or whether the quality of music matters? If the quality of music influences milk production patterns, do cows produce finest quality milk when listening to Beethoven's symphony or go on a strike when they listen to Jawad Ahmed's songs?
Another benefit about knowing trivia is that one gets to know the true potential of seemingly innocuous things. Peanuts are considered fairly healthy food but do you know that is one of the main ingredients of dynamite? Yes, the same dynamite that is used to blow things up! Similarly, according to trivia, a portion of the water we drink has already been drunk by someone else - possibly several times over!
Needless to say, I have proven beyond doubt that I am a trivia junkie. And a proud and self professed one at that. If ever you pick up your phone to make a call and find yourself wondering, why Graham Bell chose to invent the telephone of all possible things he could have invented or befuddled at why Leonardo Da Vinci painted Mona Lisa with no eyebrows or want to know the lurid details of Nelson Mandela's divorce, you now know who to contact.
"There’s a street in Karachi that follows the moon,
It is an alley without a name
It is an alley that ceases to exist when the moon disappears
But it is an alley all the same
And one that says more about Karachi than anything you’ll find on a street map.”
--Kamila Shamsie in ‘Kartography’
To belong to Karachi is to be steeped in its mystery, to inhale with each breath an intensity of feeling that demands expression, to sense air pockets of loveliness just when your lungs can’t take anymore congestion or pollution, to be swept away by its majesty. The city’s ambience has molded my sensibility and also my emotional responses. If I toss up the word Karachi and close my eyes, the city conjures up beauty and fragrances; flowers blooming in a carnival of jewel colours, the scent from water sprinkled on parched earth.
It hits you in unexpected moments, this city’s romance, everywhere. Perhaps this is the word that best captures this thriving, chaotic metropolis: romance. Romance floats in the very air of Karachi, between the molecules of pollution and the aroma of food, cooking at every roadside dhaba. Romance peeps in through the haze and fog of a winter Karachi morning, as the sun struggles manfully to shine through. The very climate of Karachi personifies passion, whether it is the scorching heat of a summer afternoon, thunder and rain of a monsoon downpour or the angry red sky of an approaching dust storm.
Karachiites also experience this romance when they recall the haunts of their childhood. Their memories are laced with sensuality and not just of the carnal kind. They recall the feel of the warm sand when they ran barefoot on the beach, the heavy fragrance of the salty sea, the familiar echo of the Arabian Sea in the seashells and the taste of the strawberries and watermelon they bought from the thelewala. Large “packs” of friends are an idiosyncratic part of Karachi’s kaleidoscopic culture. When Karachiites look back with nostalgia, they remember huge groups of friends blind to past hostilities and fixed on a joyful present, living life like there’s no tomorrow.
When it comes to rain, every Karachiite has a story to tell, each more horrific than the last you heard. However, every year there’s a certain amount of trepidation but there is excitement too, as we wait for the leaden sky to spill its watery cargo. So why do we wait, pray and actually enjoy rain when all it brings is trouble and toil in its wake? (Read: electricity blackouts, traffic jams and blocked sewers). The simple reason being it reflects the indomitable spirit of the people of Karachi. The spirit that keeps us going in the face of each fresh disaster, the spirit that grows more resilient the more it is battered, the spirit that knows how to enjoy life even while stuck an a traffic jam or power cut.
We belong to a city invested in story telling. It runs in our veins like blood. Karachi at its worst is a Karachi unconcerned with people who exist outside the storytellers circle, a Karachi oblivious to places and people who aren’t familiar enough for nicknames. At its best, Karachi is intimate with strangers. I am truly proud to call myself a product of this city. I love this place for all its madness and complications, for the unconditional love it offers and for the enigma it is.