Sunday, January 30, 2011

My Lover Girl!!!

The concept of a best friend becomes clichéd, trite and blurred after a while. From the girl who shared her ruler with you in grade school to the queen-bee you loathed to follow (Aliya). Even that innocent friend you loved but had nothing in common with (Shela). To the ambitious harlot who taught you the value of life in you’re A-levels (Afia) and the head-strong and sexually adventurous friend who among threesomes and clubbing during college taught you how to be a strong and independent woman (Jenny). But can we ever forget that first one? Whom we depended on for everything and confided anything in. For me that person was Alisha. A hard-knock heretic from the streets of Bronx. We met in my O-levels and right away, she began to introduce and then guide me through the charms and thrills of rebellion and recklessness. I always say that my life can be divided into two eras; pre-Alisha and post-Alisha. My pre-Alisha days were boring, mundane and strictly by the good-girl book. A quiet follower with self-esteem that hung as low as my tightly knotted braid, yet still a misfit around cousins or friends who lived by customs and traditions. The kind who read digests and saved their dance moves for Shadees and Dholkis. Later in Froebel’s, I was a misfit again in another spectrum where I could never even dream of tasting the intimidating life of wild partying and unapologetic rebellion. But it was Alisha who first recognized and then unleashed the caged lioness within me.

Why Yes!

According to folklore, Alisha and I first met as innocent babies in America. Our parents had shared an Iowa apartment building so in some dusty album, lies a photo - faded into a sepia tone - of us. I, in a hideous birthday frock and a solitary bow on my head bawling profusely at the camera, while besides me, among many other girls, stands an eager girl with two neat plaits and a gap between her toothy grin.

The next time we met was a decade later as my rudimentary life passed before my very eyes. The only exhilaration in my days was scribbling code names of crushes in Econ books or when girls like Aliya allowed me to follow them. That late Sunday afternoon, I spent my youth on the floor of our terrace; my hair soaked in oil and reading the Tete a Tete section in You magazine or the funnies in US. My father, rocked in his chair peacefully enjoying his Sunday cigar. My mother also, occupied with something utterly brainless. After answering a phone call, my father returned to the room with the cordless in his hand and announced that he had just gotten off an overseas call with a forgotten Indian friend from his Iowa days. The friend’s daughter was moving to Pakistan and we were requested to check in with her every now and then.
‘Wait…I thought he and his wife got divorced?’ My mother sneered with judgment.
‘Correct. I think she lives with her mother in New York while he lives in Florida but they have both decided to send their daughter to live with her Aunt here. She had a few play-dates with Padash when they were little. It wouldn’t hurt for us to do our small part.’
‘To hell with it’ Mama’s response, so typical ‘What do we care. I wouldn’t even call them friends, they only lived in our building. Besides, I never approved of their marriage. A Hindu married to a Muslim. Of course it was going to end in divorce.’
‘That is not our concern. The man’s teenage daughter is moving to a new country for the first time and he is reaching out to anyone he knows. We should at least make sure to take her out to dinner once. Padash can give her company and that should suffice.’

It was more or less settled so we obediently resumed our lazy Sunday rituals. Such useless banter between my parents hardly ever interested me, but my ears had only perked up at the mention of my name. Sure, the entire rebellious cross-cultural Romeo Sharma and Juliet Khan romance was mildly intriguing but otherwise I was not the least bit amused at being pawned off to an evening of small-talk with an ABCD. Someone I had only once shared a crusted, outdated photograph with but such was expected of us by our parents. At any given point we could be asked to carry on conversations in kitschy drawing rooms if strangers fell in our age range.

We picked Alisha up a few nights later from her Aunt’s apartment and took her reflexively to the Islamabad Club. Besides the usual formalities, very few words were exchanged between the two of us in the backseat. I was bowled over by her sex appeal, though. The girl had the total package; runway height and long curly hair with symmetrical ringlets. Most of all, she had a body to die for, the kind that could land moneyed jobs as sexy body doubles for Hollywood starlets. Though, the gap between her front teeth was still prominent, it added character to her captivating persona. For those of you who would like to visualize what Alisha looked like, I have posted a few pictures on my facebook of an actress who looks exactly like Alisha. Since some readers complain of a lack of visuals, for now dopplegangers should do.

Dinner was cordial and we sat across from each other exchanging meaningless niceties. Papa asked a few questions, Mama grilled her with many. I could sense Alisha’s growing discomfort around my mother’s cross-examination but she still danced around the topics of skepticism fairly tactfully, especially when asked about her sudden move to Pakistan. I decided to rescue the poor soul and offered to give her a walking tour of the club which she immediately and graciously accepted.

Although the evening wasn’t as awkward as I had expected, we were both pretty sure that nothing would become of this introduction. Incidentally, fate brought us together a second time - sans curious parents - at Sogo 2000. This time, I was having dinner with classmates and spotted Alisha dressed more scandalously sitting in the booth across. Irritated by my whiny company (Aliya) I decided to invite Alisha over and we both found solace in each other’s presence. Neither of us could stop talking that night and to my friends it appeared that we were long, lost, best friends. I could sense the girls in my booth eye her half-shirt, tight jeans, nose ring and curly wet hair disapprovingly boxing her a ‘slut’. But a girl like Alisha made it known immediately that she was not one to care about what the world thought of her! And it was exactly this unapologetic demeanor of hers, as she sat swearing like a sailor and smoking like a chimney that attracted me and intimidated my friends.

After that night, we found ourselves talking on the phone more and soon we were even hanging out. We started with lunches together and later began to spend the day at each other’s houses. Mama was dead against this burgeoning friendship between her daughter and a ‘loose-type’ , religiously confused girl but that very contention became the first of many future arguments between us. Maybe it was teenage angst or maybe it was just my surprising ease around Alisha but I did not back down and in the end as much as she resented it, Mama had to relent and accept Alisha as her daughter’s new, best friend.

One day, locked up in my room and smoking cigarettes from my window, Alisha divulged the truth behind her sudden move to this country. You see, Alisha had an inherent streak of defiance and a knack for chasing trouble. The epitome of a bad seed she had all the traits; low grades, drunken car crashes, suspension from schools, drugs, sex. You name the sin, Alisha had experimented with it. As she rapidly spiraled out of control, her parents watched helplessly. It was around those days of drug infused partying and rule breaking, that she also began a torrid relationship with a popular drug-dealer on her block. Romance turned into business when she offered to sell his goods in her school. Never one to follow rules, she also decided to pocket some of the profits for herself omitting the detail from her boyfriend. Soon, after a few bad deals, word of her scam got back to the head dealers who were infuriated. To Alisha’s luck, before her boyfriend could even confront her, he was arrested by an undercover cop which bought her the time to flee to her father’s house in Florida. So fed up were her parents with her obdurate ways by now that a decision was made there and then to send her off to Pakistan to live with her Khala.

Her past aside, she was the sincerest friend I had ever known. We not only had fun together but she never once belittled me. In fact, since she had worked at a hair salon in the Bronx, she gave me my very first make-over (even though the end look was more of a Bronx hood rat). Mama was livid when she saw my conservative braid replaced with a perm and blond streaks. My disobedience with my mother continued and I finally even convinced my parents to let me get my nose pierced. Those who once knew the conservative looking Padash would often remark ‘Padash ko dekha hay? Co-ed school ja kar tu kya patakhee ho gayee hay? Woh shareef see larkee tu lagtee hee naheen!’ My male cousins would gossip amongst each other ‘Yaar who to parties sharties sab kartee hay ab…par khul gaye hain, bilkul out ho gayee hay yaar!’ Funny thing was that I didn’t care. In fact, I liked it. No longer was I the invisible girl in the background. I had become a woman strong enough to scandalize the world and not care. As long as Alisha was besides me, we would keep on marching, smacking our chewing gums loudly and sticking a middle finger at the world.

When Alisha started school at ISI our lives became even more fun. Her school mates instantly fell in love with her gregarious ways and in no time she was getting invited to all the city’s hottest parties. Every weekend I would beg for sleep-overs at Alisha’s just so we could sneak out with strange boys or her ISI friends to dance the night away on smoky dance floors. Alisha’s best friend at ISI was a Dutch girl called Cookie. She sported a shaved head and had a penchant for liquor and weed. The 3 of us became an inseparable trio and word spread fast about our crazy, partying ways. In school, I would overhear whispers about us and I couldn’t believe that I had gone from the shy, timid girl in a braid to a wanton party-girl who now put the wildest of my school’s burgers to shame. In a matter of weeks, I had gone from being the intimidated one in the background to the intimidator in the limelight. I would relish the awestruck expressions of my school mates when they watched Alisha and a goree ganjee pick me up from school with songs like Gangsters Paradise blasting from their cars, cigarettes and swear words dangling loosely from their lips. If friends like Shela disapproved or Aliya envied, I chose to ignore them because I was having far too much fun for it to stop. We wouldn’t just sashay around on the dance floors, but would be allowed, invited and thus march straight up to the exclusively secret stoner rooms at Isloo dance parties circa 90s. An esoteric room restricted only for the hardcore stoners or for couples who scored more than second base. Only the trusted and the socially mature were allowed inside these translucent rooms, hence also the ones who enjoyed a higher level of elitism in the high school food chain. More wild, more trustworthy, more experienced and fearless than your average burger. Sure, I too would find these rooms frightening to no degree as I would watch Alisha and Cookie chug bottle after bottle or when strangers passed around joints and conversed about the greatness of Jimi Hendrix. But I hid it all pretty well and like a chameleon I blended in on those couches, cigarette in my hand and ensconced cozily between youth high on ‘really good sh!&t’ or couples making out ravenously.

Sometimes I would stop and look at myself and fail to recognize the person I had become. And other times when we smoked to the crooning melody of Cranberries, Oasis, Lil Kim or Gangster’s Paradise, I knew that youthful innocence had long departed from our lives. Lives were once the perfect paradigm of innocence and virtue but in a matter of months they had morphed into a melting pot of problems unimaginable to your average bystander. Clueless, parents and elders assumed that lives of urban youth in Pakistan were simple, privileged and straightforward. None looked close enough to notice the depravity that really lay underneath this ‘ingénue’ life. Problems no longer meant unrequited crushes on brothers or secretly despising the queen bee. Our problems were far mores serious, like the time I held Alisha’s hand in a dingy abortion clinic or when I nursed her into consciousness from her alcohol poisoning and OD in a bathtub of a house party. I remember the dauntingly thumping beats that wafted from the dance floor at sunrise fused with the carefree and inebriated giggles rising from below while I frantically tried to resuscitate my best friend. Even those random late-night phone calls from her asking me to sneak her my parent’s condoms before a date. How I would to keep a straight face while Mama and Baba sat at arm’s length watching a drama and oblivious that of ‘I will leave the Pak studies notes on my gate in 5 minutes’ was actually code for ‘Sure, I will sneak the Rough Riders in the mailbox for you.’ And somewhere along the way as I immersed myself deeper in life that consisted of wild parties, sneaking out and surrounding myself with a cloud of illicit substances and dissolute friends, I had foregone any effort to make friends at my own school. In Froebels I would count the hours while I passed time with acquaintances long enough for the day to end. Then I would dash out to Alisha’s car while the rest of the school watched.

When Alisha decided to visit another family member in Karachi, she returned a week later in love with both the city and a new boy. Determined to move there she now found Islamabad agonizingly boring in comparison.
‘Oh my God Padash, you have no idea’ she would constantly rave ‘Islamabad’s a dead graveyard compared to Karachi. That city is the closest thing to New York here. The people are more liberal, the parties are wilder, very little judgment, cuter boys, beaches, and everywhere you go you’re around celebrities and models…I wanna move there so bad!’
I brushed her infatuation aside as puerile musings of someone seduced by the glitz and glamour of the City of Lights. After all she had moved to the US equivalent of a suburb i.e Islambad. However, I should have known that once Alisha was determined to attain something, she made sure she got it. Just a few weeks of complaining about Isloo and some begged phone calls to her mother, Alisha was soon packing up for her move to Karachi. The boy she had met there was a well endowed, androgynous art student at the Indus Valley school of Art and she wanted more than a long distance relationship now. I was devastated. Maybe I had gotten so used to having her around that it was now hard to imagine a life without her. She tried to console me that she was only a domestic flight away and it would never interrupt our fun. And true to her words (and maybe because of her wealthy boyfriend) she came to Islamabad almost every other weekend. The girl was literally partying from city to city but the weekends she came to Isloo, we started exactly where we left off, partying to our hearts content.

Still, it just wasn’t the same without her in the same city. Also, now a stranger in my own school, I jumped at the opportunity to take my O-levels ‘prep’ leave early just to stay home and away from people I no longer knew. I spent my days watching Star TV, pretending to study and even began a one-sided relationship with a neighbor called Ahmed. (Happy Effing VD to you too!!!) It was on one such night when I got a call from Alisha. I could tell by her tone that it wasn’t going to be our usual cheerful conversation! After beating around the bush she finally disclosed that she was moving back to the States at the end of the summer. Her parents had now decided that it was time for her to come home for good. I burst into tears the minute I hung up, not only because I was going to miss my best friend but I couldn’t imaging living my life without her. I had never even thought of it. When she came back to Isloo the next weekend, we went for dinner at Pappasalis and smoked our cigarettes in depressed silence. Though my only concern was saying goodbye to a close friend, Alisha had other worries on her mind. She feared for her life and was unsure of what fate awaited her back in the Bronx. Her ex boyfriend and the dealers she had wronged had their own scores to settle with her and they could go to any lengths. But then all of a sudden, Alisha had another one of her crazy epiphanies.
‘Come with me!’ her eyes lit up ‘I’m serious, you have a visa for America, why don’t you run away with me! You don’t like it here anyway and we can live together. Imagine how much fun that would be!’
Just to lighten the mood or oblige my distressed friend, I decided to play along. On the back of a cocktail napkin we charted out an entire flowchart detailing my runaway plan to the States. All I had to do was grab my passport when I got home, gather up all my saved pocket money, purchase a one-way ticket to New York and I would be on my way. Once togethere, there would be no holding us back. We would get an apartment in the Bronx. Even better, we would get one in Manhattan. Then, we could spend our lives clubbing and working effortless jobs as hairstylists or waitresses. We could even run away to California and work the streets of Sunset Boulevard hoping to meet Richard Gere or Hugh Grant and then live our lives as Pretty Women. By the time our bills were paid, we decided to tame it down to a simpler and more realistic version. Turning the napkin over we scribbled a fresh and more basic plan. This summer, Alisha would move to the States. 2 years later, I would apply to colleges and meet her up there.

The summer after my O-levels, I went to live in Karachi for a whole month. Part of it was to get away from home and the other part was to spend Alisha’s last few days in Pakistan with her. The night of her flight back home, we stayed up all night at her Aunt’s place, smoking, eating Slims and Coke and listening to ‘You are not alone’ by Michael Jackson. Once at the airport we promised each other to always stay in touch and not digress from our plan. She promised to send me an aerogramme as soon as she reached New York. After I watched her catwalk away into the departure terminal, I let her driver drop me home. I wept in the backseat as the sun rose around me and the same Michael Jackson song played repeatedly in the car.

I never heard from Alisha again. The day we held each other in tears at the airport, was the last time I ever saw her. I returned home after the summer expecting a letter from her but one never came. I rushed to the phone each time it rang but it was never her. I tried to busy myself with a new life; A-levels at a new school called UCI, a fresh start, a new chapter. Even met some great new friends but there was never a day that went by without a thought of Alisha. Truthfully, I exhausted every option in the book to find her but all efforts were in vain. Almost two years later, before I headed off to college, I spotted Cookie at a dance party. She no longer sported a shaved head and for the first time I noticed her true European beauty. Standing there poised with equanimity, a cigarillo in one hand a drink in the other she looked like a blond replica of Dita Von Teese. I made my way towards her and she too seemed pleasantly surprised. Not long after Alisha had left for Karachi, Cookie’s diplomat parents had gotten posted back to the Netherlands. We reminisced about our crazy days and she she was back in town only for a few days to reconnect with old friends. When I finally brought up Alisha’s name, all she gave was a rueful shrug.
‘That girl just vanished off the face of the earth. I thought at least you would know something about her since you guys were like best friends? I never heard from her after I left Pakistan.’

Today as I finish writing this column, I listen to ‘You are not alone’ on youtube. The song I would listen to endlessly every night praying for Alisha’s safety. All that remains now are cherished memoires and two photographs. I am looking at them right now on my desk. One, faded and old. Two little girls in pink frocks, and ribbons staring at the camera with missing teeth. Innocent. Strangers to each other and oblivious to the difference each would make in their future lives. The other photograph has more color. No longer strangers, no longer innocent. Teenagers with bandanas on our heads and leather jackets on our shoulders, we lean against a wall with our thumbs tucked in our jeans. Our faces hardened and the nose rings, the black nail polish, the bright red lipstick all force us look no different than a pair of hoodrats. Still the picture brings a smile to my face and reminds me of some very happy moments in my life. Funny thing is, in a fortuitous and round-about way, I have arrived exactly where we had once planned on the back of a Pappasalis napkin. Two years later I fled to a more liberated life in the States. And though I hadn’t strictly followed the flow-chart, I still ended up four years later in not just New York City but in this exact borough of the Bronx. I would be lying if I didn’t confess that everyday that I step out of my apartment, I don’t think of running into Alisha on these streets. Sure she could be anywhere in the world but maybe she is still right here in the Bronx. What if she is living just down the block from me? Will our paths ever cross, on these sidewalks, the subways, the hip hop clubs or in crowded bars? I wonder what she would look like. Would she even recognize me? Most of all, I would get to stop asking myself the same dag questions. Is she alive? Is she locked up? Is she married? Kids? Is she working a suited job in a fancy Wall Street firm? Has she left her past behind? Or is she still running the streets like before? Maybe she would want to just hear about me. Of everything that happened after she left. And I would tell her everything. Tell her to admire the woman I have become. Because it all started one night when I was first introduced to an unassuming girl from the States called Alisha.

* The two images in this blog are dopplegangers of what Alisha looked like and not Alisha herself.

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