Proms, sigh! Seem like such an American concept, don’t they? From freshmen in dorm rooms to execs in corner offices. From Manhattanite yuppies drowning their stress with expensive cocktails to even Brooklyn hipsters gulping down cheap beer; everyone always has a prom memory to share. The same is true for us Pakistanis, we just referred to our proms as ‘Farewells’. We too had a King, a Queen, a dance floor, dates and I’m sure, like several American teens, many lost their virginities on that sacred night too. I remember my A-level Farewells distinctly. Both of them. But my O-levels Farewell is the one I will always hope to forget. A truly unforgettable evening complete with drama, angst, scandal and injustice. The night that finally attested to the world what was once believed to be nothing more than an urban legend. The exaggerated myth that behind the pristine and elitist walls of Islambad’s burger schools, lay extremes of depravity and decrepitude disguised flawlessly under kitschy costumes of privilege. So…without further a due…dear readers, you are cordially invited to Padash’s O-levels Farewell. Held on that unforgettable night in 1997. Venue: a meticulously perfect school in the meticulously perfect city of Islamabad.
By the end of my O-levels, I was as miserable as misery could define. In the past year, I had not only managed to completely alienate myself from the entire school but had made absolutely no efforts to make friends either. Instead, I had chosen to spend my nights partying with foreigners from another school. A heretic bunch of drunks and stoners like Alisha, Cookie and the usual eclectic assortment of diplomat’s kids. It should be of no surprise then, that it all came back to haunt me the minute Alisha moved to Karachi on a spontaneous whim. As if on cue, Cookie too moved back to the Netherlands a few weeks later. Now, my only close friend was the innocent Shela. A genuinely pious and winsome little thing, who had never showed any interest in Islamabad’s wild nightlife. As different as we were now, she still remained a loyal friend who never left my side. She had often warned me in the past about the perils of this wanton lifestyle I was diving deep into but as I spiraled out of control in a world where nice Pakistani girls didn’t belong, Shela still never renounced her loyalty to me as a friend. When I was no longer being picked up from school for drug and liquor infused afternoon soirees by tube-top wearing and skinhead friends; Shela stayed by my side. Unfortunately, that too came to an end when I was greeted one morning with a bottle of coke and the infamously acerbic words ‘Padash, we need to talk!’ I bunked my class only to be informed that my only friend in the entire city was now also moving to Canada. One day I went over to help her pack, the next day she too was gone.
All alone, yet again. Even more painful to walk through school now. Everyone’s bigoted eyes daggering into my back with whatever rumors (true or false) that were plucked from the grapevine. With Alisha around, I never cared but without her, I no longer felt as invincible. Though some were impressed and intrigued by tales of my untamed partying, others showed veritable disapproval if not derision. Rumors followed me everywhere; of overdosing on GHB, throwing my legs up in backseats, binge drinking into stupors, piercings and tattoos on unspoken body parts and stories of blood gushing out my nose after a night of heavy snorting. All false, yet the list went on. I learned quickly that in Pakistan you are often proven guilty by association. And while some obsequiously circled around me hoping for invites to these exclusive parties others referred to me as a “slut” and a “whore” under their breaths. Sometimes I would turn around and confront but most often I would just ignore. True, I hadn’t committed any of the above sins …yet. But the important point was that I easily could have. Why? Because to me, they hardly seemed like sins in the first place. Why get offended when your reputation – real or imagined - proceeds you. Your best bet then? To stop caring. After all, I had made my bed, now I had to lie in it.
To be honest, I wasn’t completely alone or friendless. Not like the ostracized Aliya at least. That one had become a true pariah, reaching the bottom end of the school’s outcast barrel. For the most part, classmates like Annie, Nida and even Qadir liked me. A lot of it was due to my status of being a jaunty rebel and a partying rule-breaker. The few high schoolers who boasted undeniable access to Muddys Café; Islambad’s only discotheque back in the 90s. Where among strobe lights and artificial fog, one only found notoriously rich yuppies and their trophy wives, foreign diplomats who didn’t need bootleggers for alcohol, effeminate males who loved disco music and then just a select few high school socialites. Maybe because of Alsiha’s revealing clothing and Cookie’s gora skin, somehow we had made it on that list.
Still, so tired was I of the constant glares from schoolmates that I jumped at the opportunity to take my prep leave early under the guise of studying for my O-levels. I could now stay home cooped up on the couch all day, away from the hypocritical world. I could sleep in and demand breakfast in bed. The rest of the day, I would spend watching Chicago Hope, Antaakshari and Crystal Maze. The house, I left, only for a few hours at the tuition center. At nights I doodled on my notes while Alisha raved endlessly on the phone of her exciting and glamorous new life in Karachi.
Somewhere along the way, I began to study. After all, procrastination can become quite prosaic after a while. Besides, if I had to follow the escape plan that Alisha and I had concocted on a Pappsallis napkin, I had to make sure that I scored grades that would guarantee my acceptance into a good American college. One afternoon, when I returned home from the tuition center I was perfunctorily rummaging through the mail. Then my eyes fell on a gaudy envelope caked with unkempt glitter around my name. Ladies and gentleman, lo and behold, an invitation to my O-levels farewell! Before that moment, I hadn’t really given much thought to it. As far as I knew, I was never going to return to that loathed school. But now as it ‘cordially’ invited me back to rub shoulders with people I never knew, I was torn. I tossed the envelope away and tried not to think about it for the rest of the day.
Later that night, I sat in my room, balancing the invite on my knee with a vacillating predicament. In my favorite corner, with the door locked and the window open, I smoked a cigarette right by the sill. A few days ago, the choice would have been simple. I despised that school so why bother going to the Farewell. But now, with the tacky invite, in front, a part of me was suddenly piqued with curious longing. It was my O-levels Farewell, after all. A night I would never again get to experience. Would I miss out if I didn’t go? Why did I hate the school so much in the first place? Just then my eyes fell on the mirror across and staring back at me was a reflection I had never before noticed. I leapt up immediately to take a closer look only to confirm that the stranger was in fact me. I had changed so much in the past two years. That timid and innocent girl in a long braid who hid behind the shadows of queen-bees had departed a long time ago. In her place now, was an apathetic rebel. No longer intimidated I had become the intimidator. The dull braid replaced by a gutsy perm and blond streaks. Baggy men’s shirts with the tips of my fingers barely peeping from the cuffs. What was once innocence had now become the hardened look of a girl who had seen far too much in the past two years. From abortions to ODs. Dark lipstick on a mouth that no longer winced when swear words escaped and a nose ring which was a first of many rebellious arguments with my mother. When had all this happened? How had it happened? I knew the answers; I had just never stopped to ask them before. Never really took a minute to look at myself in the mirror. And that’s when I realized that if my O-levels had transformed me into this new person, then if nothing else, it made sense for me to celebrate that fact at my Farewell. I was ending an eventful and life-changing journey, so why not do it with a middle finger as my goodbye wave!
Mama was annoyingly more excited than I about my Farewell. I guess after having lost her daughter to dark makeup and teenage rebellion (she blamed Alisha) attending the school Farewell was a sign of my return to conformed normalcy. O-level Farewells also caused mothers to flock to their dusty wardrobes and pull out forgotten saris which no longer fit. An opportunity for them to play-dress up with their daughters and then gush over their dolled up genes. Fathers stood teary eyed with a camera wondering how their little girl in frocks had blossomed into a woman in a sari. Mama had picked a beautiful black sari for me and pulled my hair back in a meticulous bun with a solitary curl hanging loosely down my right cheek. And when both my parents rushed to take pictures of their grownup daughter, I hid my discomfort with forced smiles. I have the picture in front of me right now as I type this and I realize that my mother had actually done a great job. Unfortunately, all I had to offer in return was the nervous smile of an obviously unhappy girl not yet comfortable in her own skin. Stifling her fear with an angry frown.
It was also that time when I had embarked on a superficial phone-and-rooftop love-affair with a loser called Ahmed (Happy Effing VD to you). So before I headed to my Farewell, I promised to go on a date with him later that night. He was excited to see me dressed up while I dreaded the thought of being alone with him. He was merely the result of a bored and adventurous initiative on my part. Since it was customary for girls to sneak off with boyfriends and fiancées after the Farewell, I too decided to follow the unwritten ritual.
When I arrived at school, my classmates greeted me with genuine excitement. I guess for them I would always be the tabloid princess soaked in veracious and fictitious tales of scandal and gossip. And just like that, within minutes we were huddling close together for group pictures near memorable landmarks. For a second my eyes caught Aliya’s standing by herself and staring at us from a corner. The envious longing in her eyes; both endearing and pitiable. Later, when I walked to the refreshment table, we indulged in an equally awkward exchange.
‘Can you believe it? Seems just like yesterday when we both walked in here so nervous and full of expectations.’
‘Yeah… it has been a while, hasn’t it?’
‘Well…you sure did well for yourself. I’m truly happy for you.’
‘Are you kidding me? I hate this school.’ I smiled and replied ‘These past two years have been a nightmare. I cant wait to leave and start afresh.’
A wide smile stretched across her face ‘Exactly how I feel!’
Then we parted ways.
An hour later, while we were still busy mingling with friends and foes, the school became abuzz with the latest gossip. A quiet and shy junior called Saima who was not only dating the second year (though she had denied it) but had also snuck out on a date with him earlier that evening. The only problem in this equation? Saima had always been engaged to a cousin. The plot of infidelity thickened further because not only had the fiancé gotten wind of her unfaithful plans but he had arrived looking for her at the school twice already only to be refused entrance by the chowkidars.
Sure, the gossip was only mildly amusing but it caught my attention because I happened to know this shy and somewhat unremarkable Saima from back in my ICG days. A diffident yet pretty little number whose only claim to fame was that she had been engaged to a handsome cousin since birth. You hardly ever noticed the poor thing, save for the few stories of her getting caught jumping school walls for dates with her fiancée. And sometimes she would be the lucky few in an all-girls school to flaunt a bouquet of red on Valentines Day. Just like Aliya, Shela and I, she too had arrived at Froebells a year later looking exactly the same as us when we first walked through those gates; nervous, intimidated lost but most of all excited. Though she hadn’t really gotten as out of control as Aliya and I, she did go from being the dull female who huddled under trees with other ordinary girls to winning the attention and admiration of a love-starved misfit at Froebels. Though they were always seen together walking around school, the two swore they were nothing more than platonic friends. Tonight, rumor mill churned out what many had suspected. Details also solidified that she had arrived to school early to ‘help set up for the Farewell.’ Minutes later she was nowhere to be found.
Inevitably, the charm of such a trite story wore off. The school’s attention moved to the evening’s program. Instead of titles that year the first years dedicated songs to us (How original.) I got the song ‘Crazy’ by Aerosmith (no clue, don’t ask) while Aliya had to walk across the stage to “No Rain” by Blind Melon. Ouch! Annie was crowned Queen while her ex, Qadir (my third crush) was crowned King (still dreamy as ever). Later, we all boogied to 90s hits in a large classroom turned dance floor with disco lights and a rented music system. I danced away with classmates I vaguely knew but their company I was learning to appreciate. Even tonight, I can still hear the song “Smack my b!tch Up” by Prodigy ringing loudly in my ears. My perfect hairdo no longer in place as I head-banged with the boys. The long curls damp with sweat, swinging wildly from side to side like a Qawal swaying to Prodigy. Numbed by the deafening beats pulsating loudly in our ears, we heard nothing on the dance floor but the beats…not the screams outside…not the chaos and definitely not the gunshots.
When the song ended, I exited the dance floor to grab a quick smoke on the roof. Everyone seemed a little tense. Though scared and worried faces scampered frantically in different directions, I assumed it was probably just the usual ‘phudda’ among boys and their ‘backs’. By the time I made it to the roof I was shocked to find the smoker’s secret spot, swarming with people.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked as I lit my cigarette.
‘Saima got back from her date…her fiancé was waiting for her outside…He just shot her.’
The words rang through my ears like an ethereal prick of a thousand needles. As the world talked around me I looked down and saw a teenage girl lying on the street sprawled in her own blood. Her date had fled in his car by now while the fiancée stared idiotically at his mistake. Within minutes his bodyguards piled him inside the Pajero and absconded from the scene as well. It was the chowkidars, the boys from our school and some compassionate bystanders who poured out onto the street to whisk poor Saima off to the emergency room. A few brave souls even chased after the Pajero.
Immediately after this unexpected calamity, the school broke into a frenzied panic. Teachers who had earlier arrived to unwillingly chaperone spoilt rich kids for a few hours of overtime were now efficiently devising a plan for damage control. Decimated too were any plans of going out for coffee or dessert with friends to Sogo 2000, Pappsallis, City Park or even the secluded and dark make-out spots of Damaneh Koh. Though girls begged teachers to let them leave with the strange boys that had come to pick them up pleading ‘I swear Madam thats my brother’ the teachers did not budge. School buses were immediately summoned and it was decided that not only was the Farewell going to end early but each kid was going to be escorted home on a bus by a teacher. Quiet an improbable task when raging hormones argued relentlessly that going straight home after the Farewell was not a part of tonight’s plans. I just stood in shock at the sight of Saima lying sprawled in a vermillion pool of her own blood.
Sitting in the back of the bus with my fist pressing into my lips, I stared at the passing city before me. Our teacher had permitted a boy’s request to play his cassette tape on the bus so at least we could purge the aggravating silence. But at that dark moment even the most upbeat pop songs sounded like heartrending elegies. The song Gangsta’s Paradise kept playing over and over again and for some odd reason, no one on the bus complained. The song actually seemed apt for such a night, heck it seemed apt for our past two years at this school.
Luckily, my parents were not home because I wanted to be alone. From the window, I could see Ahmed waiting anxiously for me on his roof dressed in his finest denim. But with no desire to see him tonight… or ever, I decided to once and for all, end this charade of a relationship. It was wrong to lead a poor guy on and I knew now that harmless actions sometime don’t end up being as harmless as we think. When I called and cancelled, he was understandably upset. And as he spewed some angry diatribe about how long he had waited for tonight and how inconsiderate I was, I let him vent. Eventually he hung up on me. A few months later, he moved away. The first heart I had broken but definitely not the last.
With the awkward breakup out of the way, I peeled off my sari for a long, hot shower in a desperate attempt to wash off this haunting revulsion that crawled over me. Unsuccessful, because mental images of Saima kept flashing before my eyes. Her youthful giggles during our ICG days when I would discount her as just another cheapstress drumming her fingers on a canteen table crooning shadee songs. Her smiles when our paths would sometimes cross on the grounds of Froebels. How we would recognize the familiarity in each other’s journeys from ICG to Froebels. And then, I would recall my last image of her trembling in a pool of her own blood.
The phone rang incessantly that night. Details were being frenetically shared as they unraveled. By the time, I finally gave in and answered, the news I had been dreading was immediately broken to me; Saima had died. I sat in shock for the next half hour numbed to the frequent ringing of the phone in the back. And as I continued to ignore the ringing, I retired to my room, crawled under my covers and prayed for a sleep without nightmares.
A few weeks later, even though I tried to busy myself with books and upcoming mocks, Saima’s murder remained the topic of discussion all over the city. Even Alisha heard about it in Karachi. But every new update that arrived was just as disconcerting as the first. Saima’s date had been shipped off to the States overnight. He was to live in hiding with his brother and who knew when he would ever return. His parents felt that it was their only option for his safety. As for the fiancé, no charges were ever pressed. In fact, it is believed that Saima’s parents firmly stated to the police that the matter was going to be handled within the family. Don’t know how it was exactly handled but I doubt the fiancée spent even a single night behind bars. In fact, you would often see him screeching his Pajero around the city at teenage girls of Jinnah Super.
Today, when my friends talk about their proms, I try my best to only reminisce of my A-level Farewells. The dancing, the camaraderie, the gowns, the pictures, the entrance, the songs and the after-party. But every now and then, I will be forced to think of my O-levels Farewell. A night which doesn’t bring back any of the above-mentioned memories. Instead, I think of misery, I think of angst. I hear Coolio’s melodious sermon in Gansta’s Paradise and the haunting beats of Prodigy. I think of that awful picture of me in a sari standing nervously in my parent’s bedroom. And then, I think of Saima. A girl who probably never realized as she got dressed up that night that it would be her last night in the world. Oblivious that she had just decked herself up for a completely different type of Farewell.