Sunday, May 22, 2011

Going Home…to memories!!!

“We’ll fast forward to a few years later…
No one knows except the both of us…
And I have honored your request for silence…
And you’ve washed your hands clean of this…

Just make sure you don’t tell on me… especially to members of your family
We best keep this to ourselves and not tell any members of our inner posse…”
(Alanis – Hands Clean)

Why Yes!

The song plays on a loop in my laptop. Five in the morning. The house is silent. Everyone is asleep. I sit in my childhood room, as the glistening streak of daylight strokes across my Islamabad sky. Painting into vision, broad strokes of memories, both good and bad. A mug of doodh patti placed next to the computer; carefully prepared by me (a common activity back in NY, but an idea which will now amuse Jajee Baba). Jajee Baba is the cook who watched me grow; inept, sheltered and incapable of lifting a finger on my own. He, now witnesses my independence, uncertain of whether to smile with pride or smirk with ironic bafflement. Alanis’s lyrics continue to croon me back towards memories. The same way I am reminded of my past when I sip that distinct taste of Tapal’s homegrown patti vs Jackson-Heights-purchased teabags. The same rush of memories, redolent with the teenage aroma of my room. Four walls with posters of Boyzone still tacked on carefully. Teenage secrets buried in its walls, its pillows and plastered in its crevices. Transporting me back to the past. A room, once and still my own. A peaceful haven for the rebel I thought I was. Time for a cigarette break!

And now I’m back. I sat and ashed my cigarette out of the same windowsill where I spent years guiltily seated with Alisha, Afia and even Peanut surreptitiously sharing cigarettes and joints. Now I no longer hide the evidence. The gray of smoke conspicuously wriggles its way across the same room…and even escapes from beneath the door. My bad habits are no longer a secret. Memories, memories and more memories. Why? Why so sudden, why already? I’m jet-lagged and I want to sleep. But the minute I rest my head on the pillow, recollections of a forgotten past replay in my head. Over, over and over. Some good, some bad…yet both stimulate too much to allow slumber.

With memories, my head spins. All because of that damn dinner I was subjected to last night. I knew it was a bad idea, the minute it was suggested. And I never should have relented. Usually I need a few days on my own before I can face all the people from my past. But Ma, she never listens. Dragged to a stupid family dinner where memories greeted me right at the door like the forceful rush of a waterfall. Splashing me in the face, soaking me with guilt. Too late now, this Pandora’s box will close back on its own sweet time. So this month, as much as I would love to write about an interesting and juicy escapade from a bad one-night stand, this column will serve more of a catharsis for myself than entertainment for you. Feel free to skip until next month!

Readers when you email me this time, tell me about your cousins! Interesting concept, don’t you think? Those of you who have enjoyed a good relationship with your cousins are truly blessed. The perfect balance between friends and family. Unfortunately, I never had such a relationship. Though I always wanted to. For me cousins have always stood for three names; Shabana, Shumaila and Sakina. The cousins who once rejected me! Regrette rien! But the funny thing is that as a very young girl I neither imagined nor aspired to be an iconoclastic harlot living in the Bronx on my own. In fact, when I was very young, I wanted nothing more but to be a nice little girl who would have a nice arranged marriage, lots of kids and then spend her life discussing baby diapers with the likes of cousins such as Shabana, Shumaila and Sakina. Good thing it never happened, of course. But it’s the crowd I thought I belonged in. And the harder I tried to fit in, the more I was alienated from the seedha saadha click. Queen bees exist not just in the pristine walls of English medium high schools. A woman’s worst enemy, will always be…another woman.

Because I was never accepted by this ‘shareef’ crowd…I decided to cross over to the taboo crowd that my cousins had only read about in books and watched in movies. A crowd with intimidating infamies yet the rebels and prodigals accepted me and gave me the self-esteem that I have today. It was my sweetest revenge against what I deliberately referred to as the ‘middle class’ in front of Shabana only because that word, I soon discovered was my cousins jugular and eventual defeat. Not one to sound like an ignorant elitist but in this instance I retaliated by reminding those same cousins who once mocked me of the chains of mediocrity they were bound to and what I now could mock and make fun of. But the truth is, that though I may have given off airs of a girl who pitied their boring lives, only you know …that it was a life I had once tried hard to have.

When Ma told me last night that a distant relative was having a dinner party at their house, I tried my best to flake. Not only was I jet lagged but it was just too early in my trip to meet people I would much rather avoid or strategically encounter in slow doses. But as my mothers pleas grew more and more desperate, I soon knew I was cornered.
‘Everyone will be there, Shabana and Sakina are visitng with their husbands…they will be so happy to see you.’
‘Ma…you act like we’re friends. Those girls and I have never had anything to say to each other.’
‘You can be such a snob sometimes, Padash. They’re such nice girls. Sakina always asks about you. She has always wanted to be your friend.’
‘Well they had their chance…its too late now!’

Sigh! If only Ma knew the whole story. I’m not even sure if Sakina knows the whole story. But pretty much, that’s the way the world works. Be nice to them and they treat you like dirt. Make them feel like dirt…they want to be your friend. Why do we all suffer from Stockholm Syndrome? By 9pm, I was seated in the backseat of my parents car like a kid. Dressed in a sleeves white lace kurta, red bull in hand and dreading the superficial niceties I would have to summon just to stomach some of these people.

No sooner had I walked in that I was checked out hard-core, visually undressed and made love to by a 70 year old…woman. Yes my friends…here in Pakistan, you’re hit on more by mothers of eligible bachelors than the bachelors themselves. Not too different than the looks we often get by construction workers that whistle at our legs or fat wall street losers who haven’t made love to their wives or had an affair in years. I see her scrutinize me and beam at me warmly. I smile back and look forward to the change in her more than cordial disposition when she find outs that I’m not really as young as she thinks. As she makes her way to a mutual acquaintance who will then oblige her investigation of me, I am immediately greeted just as flirtatiously by a slightly balding male specimen who I aptly deduce as ‘Taroo Aunty’s’ son. We exchange smiles and I have barely sipped the ‘cole drink’ offered to me when he makes his way and begins to converse in a rehearsed American accent complete with forced rolls of his tongue and pronouncing his t’s with an added ‘th’. I patronize!

Biodata: He works in San Diego doing IT. How avant garde of him! We discuss the difference between the East and the West Coast. I tell him, I’m not one of those die hard New Yorkers who swear by the City only because the world expects me to. Yet the West has a very strawberry shortcake feel to it, which would also drive me insane. San Francisco excluded of course! He seems impressed by my career and independence. Of course he brings up Broadway when I mention the Big Apple and seems enthused that I have seen a few plays, read a book or two and seen the bare minimum of Indy movies at the Paris to deem myself a pseudo intellectual trophy wife. He proudly shares that he has seen the Lion King musical, Read DaVinci Code or Outliers and watched Slumdog Millionaire. Homeboy is really breaking ground here!

I have barely finished my drink – hoping it was spiked by now – when his mother begins to hover around us like a moth to a flame. The worry and concern in her eyes is as axiomatic as her son’s bulge through his pants. Noticeable yes, wondrous nah! She has probably just discovered that I am 30 years old. Now she desperately tries hard to distract her own 30 year old offspring away from this old cougar. All quite amusing, yet I smile as I excuse myself to go mingle.
‘My local number is on the back’ he pulls out a business card and I puke just a little ‘Let’s get together in the States but I’m here for a few weeks also just like yourself. Maybe we can see what Islamabad has to offer.’
I grew up here you duffer, it has a lot to offer me. How quickly they seem to forget the day they boarded the plane out of this country in tight stonewashed jeans, white sneakers, a fanny pack with their green passport, a mullet and moustache. Your accent doesn’t fool me baldie, once a FOB, always a FOB! Applies to the best of us!

An hour after I have arrived at the dinner, in walks Shabana with her husband and three kids in tow. She is three times the size of when I last saw her yet interestingly she looks exactly how she had imagined her future to unravel. I purse my lips when she slowly makes her way towards me.
MUST REMEMBER TO BE FAKE! I repeat over and over to myself.
‘Hello Padash’ She greets me ‘Sakina told me you were in town. How long are you here for?’
‘Just a few weeks.’
‘Aur, how’s America?’
‘Job kar rahee ho?
‘Buhat mazay kar rahee ho gee, hamay tu bhool hee gayee.’
And then, silence. Sure she has made an effort. I just cant find the motivation to do the same. My eyes are probably glazing over at this point because I’m sleepy…or just not interested.
‘Excuse me, I’m gonna go look for some caffeine.’
‘Haan…you must be jet-lagged. Baad may gup shup kartay hain.’
Yeah right!

Begin Memory: When I was young, I wanted nothing more than to be friends with Shabana and Shumaila. During the holidays when we would go to my father’s side of the family, everyone assumed that since all the girls were the same age…we would instantly become best friends. Much to my dismay it never happened. The harder I tried to befriend my prettier cousins the more they mocked me, avoided me and often ridiculed me for my braces, my glasses and my weight. I would still follow them around trying to understand their conversations…not completely oblivious to the fact that they had code names for me and would often make fun of me while I sat right next to them. I remember when my father once found me crying in a corner because of them. He told me to be strong.
‘Remember there is always something you can have that they cant…just find it and then you wont need them anymore. They will come running after you then.’
Golden words of advice. Advice I followed. Just in a roundabout way.

After I befriended Alisha and found my own niche of burger infidels, I discovered that I had become part of a crowd that these cousins could only be intimidated by. My reputation in the family quickly spread like wildfire of how I had become a ‘Patakhee’…a disparaged ‘Ameer larkee’. I preferred that much more than being thought of as a fat loser. The few times I would then meet my cousins, they found me completely changed. No longer shy, I would then be rude and snooty. I would remind them that I found their lives to be boring and mundane in comparison to what I was now experiencing. If they ever came over, I would smirk at their attempts at conversation and then leave them to go off in a car with Alisha or Peanut, never inviting them along as they sat in my drawing room. Even when I spent the summer in Karachi with my brother, I spent my nights partying with friends and if they were ever over, I treated them like insignificant bystanders because truly by then…that was what they had become to me. End Memory.

Dinner was served at 11. Yes….my eyes were bloodshot by then. As I nibbled through the entrees and Shabana watched me being wooed by baldie, I hoped for sleep instead. Then Sakina walked in with her husband; Shabana’s younger sister.


My relationship with Saks is very different than Shabana. She was never really mean to me but by the time we really got to our teens, I had already become the notorious patakhee. Saks in fact admired my wild lifestyle and was almost tantalized by it. Though she was two years older than me, I heard she often tried to emulate me. Yet because of Shabana, I never ever gave that poor girl the time of day.

At dinner last night she looked absolutely beautiful. As always. Stunning in a peach sari she sauntered in with her husband in tow. He was pleasant-looking in a ‘shareef’ and chubby sort of way but no where near as handsome as the man she once loved. The same man I once loved. I watch the sisters talk for a few minutes and then Sakina’s face lights up when she sees me.
‘Padash’ she exclaims excitedly and I am always shocked by her enthusiasm towards me ‘I heard you were in town! Such a nice surprise.’
‘Yeah I just got here a day ago…still a little jet-lagged.’
‘Yes, we got in a few days ago ourselves, you must have heard I moved to Qatar after I got married.’
‘Yeah Ma mentioned. Do you guys ever make it to the States?’
‘No but I would love to’ she smiles back ‘I keep telling Hassan I really want to see New York. It seems so amazing in movies.’
‘It has its moments.’
‘What about you…why don’t you ever stop in Qatar on your way home. You must.’
‘Maybe next year.’
Another awkward silence. But this one is different. Much more loaded. I always detest the guilt I feel when I meet Sakina now. The feeling of defeat yet being made to feel like a victor through her gaze. We stare at each other raising only safe and euphemistic questions yet hoping for answers to secrets only we share…and one other. Memories we have both tried hard to forget.
From her eyes she wants to ask me if I am still in touch with Mustafa. Yet her new husband and her new life stands just a few feet away from us.
Funny thing is, that I want to ask her the same question.
We stand and stare wondering which one of us is more victorious after all. Who ended up being luckier? The single one or the married one? Neither of us would ever really know. If anything we both feel defeated. She may wish to see the world on her own as a progressive woman of today. But then I wonder if she is luckier; finally married and settled. We will never know and as people around us begin to get curious (i.e Shabana,) we curve our lips into another smile, a gentle kiss planted on each other’s cheeks, plans made for coffee which will never be kept and then go our separate ways.

‘Hey, do you still have that song I gave you?’ I ask.
‘Hands Clean by Alanis! Absolutely.’
‘Do you still listen to it?’
‘Nah…haven’t heard it in years.’ she lies and I know it from her face.
‘What about you?’
‘Well I don’t have the CD anymore, I gave it to you remember…’
‘No, I’m talking about the Nazia Hassan song I gave you that day?’
‘Oh that song? I remember. I don’t even know where that CD is anymore.’ I lie also. I know exactly where it is.
Its still carefully placed on a special rack of memories in my apartment in the Bronx. Right next to the CD with ‘Hands Clean’ by Alanis.

In code words we speak, and unearth answers and some form of closure at such awkward and rare meetings. Alas, we will forever have this awkward bond amongst each other. A bond called Mustafa. A bond we try to forget and then try to remember.

Dinner was barely finished when I informed my mother that I couldn’t stay up any longer. Luckily Ma obliged my request immediately and after long, drawn-out goodbyes where we declined the host’s request to taste her ‘Swedish’ we exited the dinner party. Baldie reminded me to call him because he will be very bored the next few days. His mother scorns at his plea. I have half a mind to wink at her. On the way home, I fall asleep in the backseat and wake up in my room just an hour ago. Memories from last night still very fresh now all of a sudden.

It is almost 6am now. Jajee Baba will walk through the kitchen. The song by Alanis is no longer playing. Its time for another. So I youtube ‘Dil Ki Lagi’ by Nazia Hassan. A song Sakina once told me about. It reminded her of her one true love…Mustaffa. She wanted to never listen to it again. So I told her about a ‘cool, new song’ called ‘Hands Clean’ by Alanis. I just never told her it was a song that reminded me of the same man.

And yes we both probably still listen to our songs. I wonder if she is listening to them right now as well. Her husband fast asleep next to her. We may have both lost, we may have both won. As Nazia Hassan croons mellifluously in the background.

‘Dil ki lagee…kuch aur bhi…dil ko deewana karay…
Jisay ham say milna…gawara naheen…
Woh ham say mila na karay…’
(Late Nazia Hassan)

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