Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mahrose Place!!

I know for a fact, that we have all found ourselves in moments when we wonder how our lives became dramatic TV thrillers all of a sudden. Complete with twists, turns and climaxes, we wonder (and sometimes pray) for commercial breaks! You know the moments I’m talking about, right? When we are forced to step back from whatever jangled mess we find ourselves in to witness our life as it unravels before us like a bad episode of a Star Plus drama. Sometimes with a smile and at other times with a wince, we then wonder why and how our lives morphed into a juicy, dramatic and unbelievable episode fit for Melrose Place or Eastenders. The reason I know that many of you are nodding along to my words at this very moment is because after every column that I publish, I get several emails from readers who confess that their lives are far more interesting than a Blockbuster hit as well. Many of you have even shared an interest in someday penning your own memoirs. And why not? I have often said: who needs fiction when our own lives are far more interesting (not to mention juicy). So while you take a minute to think of a moment in your life when you found yourself trapped in a soap opera of your own, I’ll go ahead and share my debut as the lead, or maybe it was a cameo or was I the heinous villain in an episode of my life’s version of…Mahrose Place?

Why Yes!

After the first year of A-levels, I spent the summer traveling with my family to visit Khala 1 in the States. Waking up in luxury hotels in Philadelphia, I was oblivious that a few years later I would find myself homeless on these same very streets. Staring out from ferry rides around Manhattan, I couldn’t have ever imagined back then that this scary and intimidating City would actually become my home. How quickly my fear and trepidation of this strange metropolis would be replaced by stumbling journeys on subways and strip club alleys at 4am without as much as a bat of an eyelid. And California; the golden Coast, where I would later spend a winter break as a drifter in Compton; partying in Hollywood and having threesomes in Orange County with my college best friend Jenny.

After an amazing trip around the States, I returned to Pakistan, refreshed and excited for the upcoming school year. A chance to reunite with the friends I had missed all summer. It was also around that time, when I had begun dating my very first boyfriend; an overweight, cheapster called Akbar. Surprise, surprise, he was the only person I hadn’t missed much the entire summer. In fact the only man I had missed was my gay best friend Peanut who had spent his summer in London. Maybe that’s why I’ll be eternally single. Straight men and I connect only on a sexual level. All the soul-mates that I have ever met have come in rainbow packages. And as much as I detest admitting this, I am quickly falling into that stereotype of a quintessential, late twenties, female New Yorker. An eternal fag-hag! Speaking of New York, in my naiveté during my trip to the Big Apple, I kept my eyes glued out of backseat windows – hoping, wishing – to maybe catch a glimpse of Alisha walking down Fashion Avenue smiling radiantly in her signature tight clothes, dark makeup and long curly locks. I saw many who resembled her but never her. And although Alisha had painted a very seductive picture of her New York; for a sheltered suburban girl from Isloo, the City gave me the creeps. Definitely not a place I wanted to move to. So much for that eh?

The first day of school as A-level second year students, we showed up, semi-jetlagged yet attired in our proudest shopping. Outfits wrestled obstinately out of suitcases and ironed hurriedly for the most critical runway in the world: a high school corridor. The following few days as seniors were as picture perfect as we had hoped. Hanging out in the common room huddled around the token hippie/aspiring rock star who had succeeded in growing out his hair despite his father’s protests. As he would strum a U2 or Bryan Adams ballad, the rest of us would sing along because we were free, the world was our oyster, the school our haven and our friends were lifelong (lets just ignore the fact that we all lost touch the minute we left high school).

It was also on one of those perfect, Kodak afternoons in school when Peanut and I decided to grab lunch at Arizona Grill and then stop by his place for a quick dip in the pool. Walking into his house, bags slung over our shoulders with carefree abandon (highly indicative of our entire existence back then) we chatted away indifferent to the world around us. It was only after we stepped inside the pristine marble floors that we sensed a strange tension enveloping the atmosphere. That and the fact that tiny pieces of an expensive and mammoth vase were scattered all over the floor. Accompanying them were tinier pieces of smashed china and other bric a bracs. We barely even had time to register the damage in our minds when we were greeted by his stepmother. Perched lifeless on the foot of the spiral staircase; cigarette in hand, hair disheveled and quite possibly the first time I ever saw her without makeup.
‘Tina….who did this?’ Peanut asked!
‘I did!’ she replied with bloodshot eyes.
I remember smirking a little because I honestly thought she was joking but when she scowled at me with a deathly glare, I pursed my lips shut immediately.
‘Are you serious?’ Peanut raised his eyebrows sarcastically.
‘You should know what a disgusting whore your father is’ Tina broke into loud sobs ‘The bastard has been screwing every tramp in the city. Thinks he can take me for a fool!’
Oh Houdini, Copperfiedl, Ainak Wala Jin: if disappearing was at all possible this was the time for me to vanish into thin air. Why did I have to walk into one of the most awkward moments of my life and now there was no subtle way to retreat.
‘I think I’m just going to head home!’ I nervously whimpered as I began to step back.
‘Yes Padash, I think its best that you do. This isn’t a good time…’ Tina instructed.
‘You don’t tell my friends what to do’ Peanut interjected as if the moment needed to be any more uncomfortable and then turned to me ‘I’ll meet you at the Flat.’

I spent the next hour in Peanut’s room, skimming anxiously through a large stack of Sugar magazines. A part of me couldn’t wait for my driver to get there but another part of me wanted to make sure that Peanut was ok before I left. When the guard buzzed me on the intercom, I quickly sprang off the bed and grabbed my bag. But that very moment, Peanut walked through the doors, amazingly calm and composed. I sat back down on the bed to make sure he was ok.
‘Of course I am, why wouldn’t I be!’ he shrugged as he plopped down in front of me.
Truth be told, I was quite shocked at how unperturbed he seemed. The strange debacle had even left me a little more than disturbed. But Peanut was as cavalier, as one could be, humming a tune as he lay in front. Then with his eyes up at the ceiling he reached for a cigarette and remarked ‘Spice Girls? Garbage? What you in the mood for?’
‘Peanut, are you sure, you’re ok?’ I pressed.
‘Absolutely!’ he replied handing me the lit cigarette for a puff ‘I just don’t know why she’s making such a big deal about it! He did the same to my mother with her, why wouldn’t he do the same to her when he got bored. What an effing drama queen!’
I was forced to conclude that Peanut’s nonchalance was all an act. Any boy had to be upset to discover through enraged rants of a despised step-mother that his father was sleeping around with multiple women. All in front of a school friend he had brought home. But then again, this boy had been through a lot for his age already. He had probably become resilient by now. After all he dealt with the same discovery when his dying mother found out about his father’s affair with Tina. In fact, I wondered if he secretly savored this as a sweet victory. A few more cigarettes and a joint later, we hugged our goodbyes and promised to call each other later. As I left, Peanut continued to hum with equanimity as he rummaged through his CDs with a carefree cigarette dangling from his lips.

School life resumed back to normal immediately. The next day, Peanut pretended like nothing had happened while I couldn’t help but wonder if it was all a façade to mask a deepened hatred for his father. When we finally found ourselves alone in the Common Room, I decided to cautiously broach the subject one last time.
‘Oh that!’ He shrugged unflappably ‘She has moved out. But I’m sure the gold-digger will be back.’
‘I don’t care about her.’ I dismissed his response ‘I’m asking about you? How do you feel?’
‘I really don’t have an opinion on the matter! I could seriously care less! This concerns two people that are as insignificant in my life as a zit on my butt. Remember babe, just a few more months and then we move abroad.’
‘And live life on our own terms.’ I had no choice but to appease his hint to drop the subject.

Life goes on and so did ours. The entire incident was soon reduced to jokes by Peanut about inviting the whole school over for happy hour pool parties. The house was always empty now because the Wicked Witch had moved out and the ogre was too busy poking other tramps in hotels. I would spend almost every afternoon in Peanut’s Flat and we would waltz around the entire bungalow like we owned it. Secretly, even I began to wish that Tina would never return.

A few weeks rolled by and one night, I found myself attending a wedding at a garish shaadi hall at the Marriot Hotel. It was a painful evening to say the least as I suffered through judgmental stares from Auntys and brain-dead small-talk with their daughters. Usually I would be able to save myself the misery by staying home but for some reason my parents insisted I attend this wedding. So I sat silently squirming at the stage-play cum shadee that was so common in Pakistan back in those days. Segregated seating, coke bottles being served like top-shelf liquor and food being piled into plates like the Last Supper. Trapped and sandwiched between corpulent women in rows of plastic chairs all facing the stage. Like noveau riche audience at a Broadway play. Ensconced between several decked-up women staring at a stage where the female lead was a lifeless woman who barely looked up at her spectators and a dumb-looking man who beamed at the world with a possible erection that mimicked the strange looking origami ‘kulla’ perched on his head. The man delivered the same lines ‘Thank you’ to every Faberge egg wrapped in a sari that bestowed him his ‘salaami’. The male audience in the men’s section sat silently side-by-side with their legs crossed, staring straight ahead at the same stage. I imagine they too were attempting to make small-talk with the stranger next to them but topics were probably limited to whether each knew the bride or the groom and then wonder when dinner was going to be served.

So, I too sat in a chair more painful than a dentist’s chair during a root-canal. The annoyingly boisterous girl next to me would just not shut up. A daughter of some friend of my mother’s and we were both expected to become best friends on cue.
‘Tu aap kee college may kya routine hotee hay’ were the type of questions the chick expected me to answer and when I would politely inform her that I really didn’t have much of a ‘routine’ she would follow up with.
‘Matlab kay, kuch tu ho gee na…matlab kay best-friend koee aap kee…saath course study waghaira?’
Matlab kay, I had a mind to tell her that my best friend in school was a gay boy called Peanut and our routine consisted of getting stoned and drunk, doing magazine sex quizzes in his room or skinny dipping in his pool. How was that for the ‘waghaira’ she kept asking about? Instead, I controlled myself and just responded with a forced smile and a robotic nod. Desperately looking around the hall for an escape route.

The first chance I got, I made a run for it. When she disclosed ‘Mujhay lagta hay woh meree college may head prefect hotee hain…may sara un ko Salaam kar aaon’ I couldn’t have been more elated. At that point, I didn’t really care what head she was talking about, I just gave her a thumbs up and dashed straight out of the hotel and into the parking lot to sneak in a quick cigarette. I had to bum the cig off the security guard who may have been a pervert but was also very resourceful. He told me where to find ‘scent’ to sprinkle on myself to mask the smell of smoke. I guess, he was used to girls like myself escaping the torture of shadee halls.

As I savored my seclusion to smoke a ‘sutta’ in peace while ignoring my chaffing tang-pajamas, my eyes fell on the flashy red car that belonged to Peanut’s father. Parked inconspicuously in the dark parking lot, I knew this was too good to ignore. I immediately stubbed my cigarette and ran towards the lobby to call Peanut from the front desk. If Peanut could manage to make it down here fast enough, we could catch his father and his mistress in flagrante delicto. We would knock on every door till we found them red-handed in some uncompromising position. So after paying the 5 rupees for the call (remember those days), I had barely dialed Peanut’s number when I spotted his father stepping out of the elevator and making his way across the hotel lobby. His hair still wet from a fresh shower and an impish, almost boyish grin carved on his face. The kind that stretches across faces of adolescent boy’s who loose their virginity for the very first time. As I tried to hide behind the pillar, my jaw dropped open when I finally saw the girl smiling flirtatiously back at him in her tight, fitted kurta and wet and showered hair parted right in the middle. It was Afia (Afia from Karachi Company). One of my closest female friends outside of the school who lived in Karachi Company and spent her days devising ways to socially climb her way to the top for a better life. I immediately placed the phone back on its cradle and hid behind the thick pillar. Luckily they were so engrossed in their amorous moment that they barely noticed the world around them. With shock and disgust, my gaze followed them all the way out of the hotel. By the time I returned to my seat, I was so dizzy with what I had just discovered that for the rest of the night, I let the girl’s useless banter fall on deaf ears. Even on the way home, I sat in the backseat staring at the darkness of my city, furious at the situation I had once again gotten myself tangled in. What was I even going to do? Utterly ironic that this would happen between the two friends I would often find myself torn between. Peanut was my only school friend who had met Afia and for some reason they had never set off on the right foot. Not only had they written each other off within the first few seconds of lunch but had then spent the entire time making extremely rude digs at each other. Afia had never met anyone as effeminate as Peanut and could not understand why a man would choose to act that way. Her curiosity and mocked amusement irked Peanut who retaliated with rude jibs about her mediocrity and broken English; both sore spots for Afia. Now I had just caught her having an affair with his father! Great!

In school the next day, I didn’t know how to act around Peanut because I was still unsure of how tactfully I was going to reveal this information to him. To make matters worse, I would get stabbed by guilt each time he would make some acrimonious joke about his ‘disgusting father and his nasty tramps’. At home, I did not answer any of Afia’s calls for the entire week. That decision was fueled partly because I was upset at her but mostly because I was just not sure how to bring it up with her either. After two weeks of the same charade of lying to Peanut and avoiding Afia, I knew I had to face the situation and couldn’t avoid it any longer. To my surprise Afia decided to show up at my house herself one night. When my servant came to my room to inform me that she was here, it was also on a night that my parents were out at dinner. I knew that there would be no better time than now to confront her. If it was inevitable to make a scene, this would be the perfect time to get it over and done with. When I stepped out, Afia was seated peacefully on the cane chairs in the middle of our front lawn. Still as beautiful as ever she sat smiling out at the distance while sipping her lemonade; clueless about the turmoil I had been suffering through for the past few weeks. With a wide smile she greeted me when I sat down. I responded only with cold and succinct replies. Immediately she fired off her complaints of why I had not responded to any of her calls. My eyes daggered through her as my temper flared up.
‘Yaar Padash, yeh sun, may nay aik aisee zabardast machlee phaasee hay’ she instantly began detailing her latest conquests which in the past would always intrigue me ‘Paisa hay, ghar may swimming pool hay…uff bara elite type hay yaar.’
‘I know’ I replied and then uttered his name.
‘Aray, how do you know him?’
‘Because he is Peanut’s father!’ I snapped back.
Speechless, Afia stared back while I continued my vitriol. ‘You’re destroying peoples lives you know! I had to witness a woman bawl and smash vases around the house because her husband was screwing YOU! Peanut is my closest friend in the world and I have never had to hide anything from him. How do you think I feel when I know that you’re destroying his home?’
‘Padash, I swear I had no idea…’ she pleaded.
‘That’s just it Afia! You never have an idea about anything but yourself. You are a selfish bitch who doesn’t think of anyone. All you do is hustle people for your own gain and you don’t care how many people you hurt in the process. I know you and Peanut can’t stand each other but he would never do such a thing to you. Is this really your idea of getting back at him for being rude to you? Is that how low you can stoop? You ‘re a coldhearted witch who will fall flat on her face one day.’
I said a lot more than that. She just listened quietly with her eyes wide with disbelief. Once I had gotten it all out of my system, I told her she was free to finish her lemonade and leave when she wanted. Before she could even reply, I spun around and headed back inside the house.

Now I realize that my outburst may have been unfair and even somewhat ‘filmy’ but surprisingly it was also cathartic. Any hints of guilt that later crossed my mind, I immediately pushed away by justifying to myself that Afia had crossed a line this time. Once my outburst with Afia was out of the way, I now had to figure out how and when to disclose it all to Peanut. In school, I would nervously dance around the subject but never have the heart to say anything. The more days passed the guiltier I felt! A couple of weeks later, I was lying in the common room all alone listening to ‘Life in Mono’ ( my favorite song during those days) and when I looked down from the ceiling and saw Peanut standing at the door. He had just returned from Jinnah Super with some of our friends and now stood staring down at me before uttering the words ‘I know who my dad’s been screwing!’

I literally jumped up with guilty remorse. Searching for accusation and betrayal in his eyes, I even contemplated making up a lie. He just walked over and sat down next to me before pulling out a glossy magazine from a brown paper bag. Still overwhelmed with nervousness, I watched him flip through the pages before landing on one.
‘This biotch right here!’ he remarked pushing the magazine towards me.
It was a picture of his father snuggled up next to a middle-aged woman with short-hair and heavy makeup. The two were beaming proudly at the cameras while sharing a shawl at some Ghazal evening.
‘Are you sure?’ I asked him.
‘Oh yeah’ Peanut smirked ‘Muzna just told me she’s some upstart divorcee who is a well-known slut in the Aunty crowd.’
‘Are you upset?’ I pressed further.
He simply shrugged ‘Honey the only thing I’m upset about is that he’s banging a woman who wears purple nail-polish with pink lipstick. If he’s gonna cheat on Tina, he might as well do it with someone younger and with more class.’
‘You know she may not be the only one?’
‘Oh trust me, I know. Word has it that he has been dipping his fingers in a lot of pots these days so who can we blame! Come on lets go hang out with the crew downstairs!’

Sure I was relieved that the conversation hadn’t taken the turn I was expecting it to. But I was also a bit shocked with Peanut’s apathy. Of course, his dislike for Afia would probably deepen if he ever found out about her fling with his dad but at the end of the day, he really didn’t care who his father slept with especially since there were so many women. The entire time I had wondered how Tina had found out about Afia when in fact it could have been the older woman from the magazine, some hooker from Heera Mandi or any paramour for that matter.

A few days later I received an email from Afia.
Subject: ‘I ended it.’
I immediately clicked on it.

‘Dear Padash,
You would be happy to know that I have ended things with Peanut’s father. You made it clear to me when you insult me in your house that you never want to see me and I am alright with that. But since I am a loyal friend and I know you were angry, I ended it on the spot. But let me tell you one thing, if you think he will go back to being good husband just forget about it because he has a lot of woman. I also want you to know that I did this not because of Peanut. I damn care about him. I did it for you. He is not my friend but you are. Also, I did not email to tell you that I ended it with his father. Actually I emailed you to ask you a few questions….’

I sat there reading through her entire email, speechless. I even stared blankly at the screen trying figure out the right words for a reply. There were none. Her first paragraph had been the easy part to read but everything she wrote after that left me ashamed and embarrassed. Made me truly question myself as a person. Of course I didn’t email her back then. In fact, I spent the entire day moping over the questions in her email. Before I went to bed that night, I logged on to that lousy dialup internet and sent her my best reply.

Subject: ‘Sorry’
‘…Not because of what happened but because I have no answers to your questions. Lunch sometime?’

I wasn’t expecting it but the next day Peanut of all people walked into the Common Room to inform me with an eye roll that Afia was at the gate. I grabbed my stuff and dashed out eagerly. We drove to Yummy 36 and then sat in a booth awkwardly for what seemed like eons. She remained cold and distant while I was quiet with awkward remorse.
Finally I decided to break the silence ‘I didn’t tell Peanut anything.’
‘You can if you want to, I damn care.’ She shrugged with her arms folded across her chest. Even with her fake sunglasses perched on the top of her head and the bright makeup on her face, Afia always seemed endearingly innocent to me.
‘You were right about everything in your email.’ I continued ‘It wasn’t until I read all your questions that I realized how wrong I was.’
‘Not but you also had a right to get upset! I play with fire and sometimes I face the consequences.’
‘But its not just you. We all play with fire.’
‘So I guess I’m sorry….’ Afia finally smiled.
‘I’m sorry too!’ I smiled back.

As we scooped our ice-cream, watching the flavors melt onto our plastic spoons we knew that slowly the same was happening to the awkward wall which had built itself around us. At one point Afia stared out of the window at a group of young girls walking by in white uniforms and innocent giggles.
‘Do you think their lives are anything like ours?” she asked.
‘I highly doubt it!’ I replied.
‘When DID are our lives become so complicated? Or did we complicate them ourselves?’
‘We probably did. I don’t know. But that’s probably why found each other. It’s what we have in common; our tendency to choose a complicated life over a seedhee saadhee one.’
‘Yeah, you’re right, we’re definitely not your normal teenagers!’
‘Not at all…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.’
Afia laughed ‘Those girls probably worry about school crushes and prank callers while we sit and argue about affairs with married men.’
‘Crazy huh?’
‘So I guess it is a good thing we met each other. We are so alike.’
‘Exactly, that’s why we all met. You, me, hell even Peanut.’
‘Birds of a feather...’

Of course I can’t remember the verbatim conversation between us that afternoon, but it was pretty close to what I have just recounted. Afia dropped me back at school and things quickly resumed back to normal. To this day, Peanut has never found out about what I saw at Marriott that night. And you know what; I am at peace with that. After all, he really didn’t care who his father canoodled around town with. Even now that he enjoys a good relationship with his father he often jokes that he sleeps around so much himself because it’s a trait he gets from his father. As for Tina? She moved back in to the house a few days later but after a mere few months they were separated again…and then divorced. Peanut couldn’t have been happier and would then joke that he was grateful to all the sluts in Islamabad for banging his father and helping him get rid of Tina!

Dear readers, there are plenty of things in my past that I am not proud of. But I share all of them with you without euphemisms. My hypocrisy in this situation is one of them. It was only after I read Afia’s email that I was made to face my bigotry like a bad reflection in the mirror. The infamous questions in her email that I had no answers to.

‘So tell me Padash, why are you really so upset? Are you angry because you are a pious girl who not approves of my lifestyle? Why did you not disapprove it when we first met? Why you encouraged it and enjoyed all the stories? Why you would spend hours with me in your room or in restaurants asking me to tell you details of my affairs? Why you would giggle and laugh with me? Why then you did not say I was doing something wrong? Then why is it that when one of those men happened to be your best friend’s father, suddenly you accuse me of being wrong and evil. Don’t you think all the other men had wives and children also? Why you never discourage me from that? In fact tell me honestly, if it was not your best friend’s father would you still think I was destroying lives? Are you really too pious to have an affair yourself?’

They say actions speak louder than words. Although I was never able to respond to any of her questions in written or spoken words, Afia got all her answers in due time. It turned out that I was not too pious to do the same after all. A few months later, I also got involved with a married politician whose son went to my high school. Funny thing is, even Peanut became involved with married men he would meet online. One of them was actually his father’s friend and hunting buddy.

I guess if this was truly an episode of a soap opera called Mahrose Place, Afia would not be the villain. I would be. But if our lives really worked like soap operas, I wouldn’t be here to admit my mistakes and acknowledge that no matter how perfect we may all think we are, at the end of the day, we will always be just a little bit hypocritical. Every character in this show from myself to Afia, Peanut, Tina and even the father has a bigoted side. Our lives and our personalities are never one-dimensional carved out meticulously for scripts and ratings. And maybe that’s what distinguishes soap operas from real life then. Sometimes we are heroes and sometimes we are villains. Sometimes we are just supporting characters and sometimes even extras. Sometimes we enjoy happy endings and at other times we accept tragedy. And through it all, we remain to be our own worst critics!

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