There’s a scene in Marnie, a classic Hitchcock flick I used to stream back home, snuggled in my bed, wallowing in self pity at being born in the wrong decade, feeling cheated out of the life I best identified with. Not much has changed. Anywho, Sean Connery brings a girl home to see his house and horses, and his father is quick to insist he’s actually brought her over to show off his father, not the estate. ‘I’m quite a presentable old party, you know,’ he smiles, swilling his Earl Gray around in a fine china cup, pinky appropriately sticking out.

My own father is far less likely to be found at home, sipping milk-less tea, but I confess to using him for the exact same purpose: showing off. My parents are, quite simply, my most magnificent possession, and rather like an Hermes bag, I flaunt them whenever I can. Every time a friend would come drop me home, I would insist they step in for a minute or two to meet my parents. I would make my mother come pick me up from school, twirling sunglasses in her hand as she waited. (She’s not a twirl-er or a wait-er by nature, so I guess its a testament to how good a bully I was at four.) I even made my father come and pick me up from my O Levels exams just so everyone could see him in his work suit. I imagine its how art collectors behave; you arrange a seemingly innocuous run in with your Renoir (Let’s just take this staircase, shall we?’), and then having positioned your prey perfectly, you join them in basking in the glory of your masterpiece.

I know this sort of behavior is normally expected from the parents, not the children, but you haven’t met my parents. My mother is one of those quintessential fifties housewives; she picked me up at school everyday, she had a five course dinner on the table at eight, perfect hair at every hour of the day, and a wardrobe that puts, well, me to shame. Almost the quintessential fifties housewife. The only caveat is she has an incredibly demanding job, which she is incredibly good at. Everyone I meet who has worked with her, or near her, is overwhelmed by her. She is, I hear, the most professional and cool-headed creature at work. She ain’t at home, but I guess that’s what makes it even more commendable. She’s had to raise four children when she herself was never brought up around any children. She had cousins, and school mates, but the whole concept of brothers and sisters living in the same house, all the time, was completely alien to her. So every time we fought, and swore to never, ever, ever talk to each other, she took our Taylor Swift-ness seriously. We are single handedly (or eight handedly), the reason she pops blood pressure pills. Which clearly work, because she is the most level-headed mother and colleague.

My father has the same rating on WorkAdvisor. He’s just as well-kept, if not more, than my mother, slightly more, if not more well, read, and always at the table at eight. Except when he’s away for work. He too had an incredibly demanding job as a bureaucrat, and was often transferred to different cities. We never budged from Lahore, our education apparently was far too important, but he would manage to be there more than most fathers are. Every weekend, he would travel 4 hours by car to get home after work. Every Monday at 5am, he would be back on the road and be in work at 9am. And if that was not enough, he would also make the same trip on Wednesday night and Thursday morning, to spend a few hours with his children. Hours I don’t remember, and didn’t realize the importance of except in retrospect, but he clearly valued them enough to brave the roads. This for a man who now refuses to even get in the car for an hour to get to dinner. That being said, he did get in the car,and then a plane, for eight hours to come see my sister this year, so I guess he’s always been that way. Will travel for offspring.

Those aren’t things you can ever show off to your friends. Those aren’t things you can really show off to anyone. Its like trying to explain a piece of art you love to anyone who doesn’t; it’s never quite enough of an explanation, or ever enough of a reaction. So you just stand quietly, let them admire what you have, and take what they will from it. Maybe its the fact that my parents are distressingly good looking, maybe its that my mother makes biryani while quoting Byron, and that my father is a better source of history than Google. Maybe its my mother’s perfect skin, or my father’s yellow trousers and waistcoat. Maybe its the fact that we are all completely besotted with each other.

They’re my Monet and Renoir and Rembrandt. And every so often, when I feel like I am not even a Manet to them, I remind myself of all the times they have shown me how much they loved me. And I hope to God one day they’ll have a non-genetic reason for that impulse.


The Headless Chicken Conundrum

When you ask newly uprooted people what they miss the most about their native soil, the answer is invariably food and family. And in that order. Well, at least for me.

For something that’s given so much flak for complicating relationships, distance actually simplies feelings.  I love the theatre. I hate mochas. I cannot understand why Louis Vuitton handbags are a thing. I abhor the snow. Everything is better in purple. Waiting for a bus makes me question why I’m alive. Agatha Christie is beyond overrated. Jazz is the music of the gods. Moist is the ugliest word in the English language, except when applied to sponge cakes. Crocs are God’s way of punishing us. The thing I miss most about home is my mom and her cooking.

Distance did that. It removed me from the everyday mundane realities, the endless cups of tea and power outages, the traffic jams and grocery shopping, and focused my memories on the things that really counted.  The moments that anchored the driftwood that is childhood. Its seems surreal now, remembering that every day for the last 15 years, I bounded home from school, tossing down my bag as I scampered up onto the old dining table, pushing myself up on my elbows to look at the spread. Cooking is to my mother what handbags are to me; our Achilles heel, and the reason we get out of bed. We would sit down to the feast, talking about nothing and everything at length, nibbling our way through the day, some old TV show droning on in the background. I have lived my life twice; I tried each day out once on my own, and then I relived it with my mother.

Its sad how I never realised just how precious that time was until the day I was sitting in PRET, scoffing down a sandwich, trying to look all busy and important and rushed. That way, people assume its time you’re short on, not companionship. And now, when I’m sitting in the tea room, having lunch with friends from the office, I relish every moment of it. A little more than I should probably, the boss lives right next to the tea room and I’m sure the one hour lunch break is something he can’t swallow very easily. But who cares! I only have the one life now, I may as well live it as much as I can.

The other thing I miss, not the only other but one of many, is my language. People don’t say that. It would not be one of the top six options in family feud, but you would be surprised at how much you can miss the sound of people speaking your tongue.  My family was fairly promiscuous in terms of our upbringing, English was our childhood sweetheart, we flirted with varying degrees of success with Punjabi, had  short lived dalliances with Persian, and saved Urdu for our one big romance. Its not the language we speak best or most often, but what a lady. As Shakepeare would put it, had he been familiar with Eastern languages, it is beautiful,and therefore it is to be won.

If you had told me years ago that Cambridge would bring me closer to Faiz, and not Byron, I would have laughed. As it turns out, I am one of those people who drink black coffees in Lahore, and order Chai tea lattes in London. The last page of my university notebooks are covered in poems of Faiz and Faraz, scribbled down in moments of frenzy and quiet desperation as reminders of what beauty I belong to. My very clinical lab book is peppered with Urdu couplets, an oddly appropriate representation of its owner. Mostly capable, sometimes kookie.

Speaking of kookie, my very kookie dad is a’visiting, and in typical dad fashion, bought a suitcase full of sweets to warm our hearts and rot our teeths. And since it was a Thursday, which never really bodes well for my mood, I decided my office people may as well share my  father’s affections(calorie load). Anywho, when I went over on the weekend to visit him (a five floor walk up in London apparently outweighs his affections for me), we were walking along the road talking about the sweets and the office, when a girl walking in front of us stopped. She turned around, then back again, hesitating, before she finally looked at us and said, with a heart stopping smile, ‘It’s so good to hear Hindi again.’  Then ofcourse, my father engaged her in a long discussion about how he was actually speaking Urdu, but Hindi and Urdu are pretty much the same, except for the Sanskrit words, and…… Lets just say, fifteen minutes later, she was probably wishing she had never heard our voices. But that smile. That smile was pretty special.

Three decades ago, my mother had a very similar encounter. Her first week in America, someone hailed her from across a college football field. A typical Pakistani greeting, ‘Baji.’ ‘Elder sister.’ Respectful enough to establish the caller as a non-stalker, but warm enough to suggest familiarity. She stopped, spotting a lanky boy, newly uprooted and clearly in transition, racing across the field. He stopped just short of running into her, bending over, clutching his knees as he panted, ‘I saw your dupatta. Are you from Pakistan?’ He was from Kashmir, a young boy far away from anything familiar, alone enough to be moved by the sight of a wisp of chiffon blowing in the wind.

There’s this saying in Urdu, that magical language of my childhood. ‘Ghar ki murghi daal barabar.’ Roughly translated, it means even if your mom makes roast chicken at home, it will feel like beans on toast. The reverse is also true.  All baked beans need is a bit of distance to make them feel like a Sunday roast.

Heinz should get onto that.

don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.

when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.


Lessons Learnt

The last year and a half has been useless. Well, its been useful in that I realize calling any period of time ‘useless’ is a contradiction.

Life is not  a checklist of acquisitions and achievements, there’s no one keeping score but yourself.

Time is not useful or useless, it is either enjoyed or endured. And all that stuff I didn’t get to do…….I had so much fun not doing it!

There! It wasn’t useless at all, was it? I’ve learnt to quit keeping score!

If I was keeping score, I would mention I got offered two PhDs.  I gave those up for a third PhD. Then the day after my visa came, and I had literally and metaphorically burnt all my ships, the HR people called and said they couldn’t afford me. So no PhD. Not a one.

That little shard of my heart that harbored the scientist wishes, I think it slipped through my fingers at some point when I was piecing my heart back together. Its not there anymore. I don’t want it now. I just want a career, any career, and I want to be happy. I learnt that. I learnt wanting specific things can turn into an obsession, and you end up giving someone the power to destroy you. I won’t make that mistake again. I’m the only one who gets to determine my happiness. Not a scholarship committee, not an HR lady, not the visa office. Me. And just so that I don’t forget this year and a half, and end up making the same mistakes again, here they are in writing.

Lesson 1. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Or, if Cardiff offers you a PhD, and you get the visa, don’t give it up for another PhD that doesn’t have the paperwork yet. Even if its Imperial. Specially if its Imperial.

Lesson 2. No one cares. The neighbours, your aunts, the bitches in high school with their peroxide blonde hair using daddy’s money to launch a clothing line. They don’t give a shit about your life. They’re not the one’s who lie awake at night trying to come up with a career plan, they’re not the one’s negotiating work hours, they won’t hold your hand when the world falls apart on a Thursday afternoon. They don’t get a say. Block them out. Don’t live your life to impress people. Live your life so that you are at peace. Which would automatically stop you from caring about people who are nothing more than an item on your newsfeed.

Lesson 3. Even people who do care, don’t get a say. No one gets a say except you. Not your sisters, not your parents, not your brother. They love you, and they want to see you happy, but they can not make your decisions. Don’t listen to them. Ask them for advice, hear them out, but don’t really listen. You’re going to make mistakes. You could get a first from Cambridge, and three PhD offers, and still wind up being unemployed and hopeless in a year. Life will disappoint you. Make sure you have no one to blame.Make sure every mistake is your own. And make every decision from your gut. Not your heart, it’s too involved, not your brain, its too distant. Go with your gut. Those mistakes are the easiest to live with.

Lesson 4. Interim rocks. Be happy. If you can’t sleep at night, go check out the sunrise. If you don’t have an office to go to, go hang out at your mom’s. You don’t have a party invite, putter around the house in high heels. God’s giving you a break. Take it.

Lesson 5. Sorrow doesn’t justify inflicting sorrow on others. Don’t shout at your dad. It’ll hurt you more than any job rejection ever would.

Lesson 6. The broken, twisted people are often the most interesting ones. Develop a healthy taste for irony. Be amused by what life has up its sleeves. Smirk. Be supercilious. Its good for the soul.

Lesson 7. Don’t take sleeping pills. Or muscle relaxants. Or blood pressure medicine. No one, no thing, should hold such sway over you as to reduce you to a pill popper.

Lesson 8. Effort does not equal result. You could work yourself silly and not get what you want. But work nonetheless. You won’t have any regrets that way. Best case scenario, you eventually get what you want. Worst case scenario, you’ll have a lot of bargaining chips come time to choose your hell fire.

Lesson 9. Buy things. Things are good. Things are great. Things can make you happy. Never regret anything that makes you happy.

Lesson 10. Don’t be nasty to employers, no matter what stunt they pull. Don’t be servile either. Keep your dignity, and give them theirs. Don’t take bullets for them, but don’t aim at them either. You will need references. Preferably not blood stained ones.

Lesson 11. Listen to a really sad song and cry it out. But just one. Then switch to Beyonce and Disney. Its amazing how potent cheap music can be.

Lesson 12. Bend a little. Just a little. So that you don’t break.

Lesson 13. If you have people who sit next to you when you’re sniveling, you’re blessed. Don’t take them for granted. And return the favour. More than anything, I have realized over the last year just how much I am loved. I would never have stuck with me if I had a choice. I was a mess.

Lesson 14. Be honest with people, no matter how tricky the situation is. If someone else wants you, it only makes you that much more desirable as an investment. Don’t try to juggle job offers silently, it will only end badly.

Lesson 15. Don’t volunteer information. When it comes to money and jobs and careers, live on a strictly need to know basis. There’s so much more fun stuff to talk about.

Lesson 16. Laugh. Sing. Dress up. Don’t think about the future. Think in the short term—not further than your next cup of tea.

Lesson 17. ‘There is no such thing is happiness or misery. There is only the comparison of one thing with another.’ Don’t compare.

Lesson 18. Breathe. As long as there’s life, there’s capacity for happiness. Breathe. You’ll be fine, poppet.

Lesson 19. Keep moving.

The Kick the Carer Hypothesis

I have a little nephew. Well, a little nephew thrice removed. Or maybe like five times, since his mom is my cousin, not my sister, and was actually adopted by my aunt from another aunt, who adopted her from strangers. Anywho, the ‘questionable’ nephew in question is little, and that’s all that matters for now. Because like all little people, he loves bright, shiny things. And, also like all little people, he wants what he wants, and he hurtles towards it at godspeed before you can so much as stick a foot out to trip him. The problem is, he doesn’t know what it is he wants. I mean diamonds are bright and shiny, run towards them by all means and hold on for dear life. But fire? Also bright and shiny. Not necessarily something you want to hold onto.

So you end up watching this tiny creature, who has no clue what this bright shiny thing is, run towards it with single minded determination. Then, you run up behind him, grab him by his tummy, and swing him away from the flames. He howls, and shouts, and kicks away at you, hating you bitterly. Until the next shiny thing presents itself.  Ad infitum. 

Turns out, I’m a little person too. The littlest of them all maybe. Which would explain why at 5 foot 7, and 22 years of age, I am still a knee-high three year old when it comes to bright shiny things. Job offers, tall guys, PhDs, I run towards them with complete abandon. And then, just as I am close enough to reach out and grab it, someone grabs me by the waist and jerks me back. And I howl, and shout, and kick. But I’m growing up a little now. This time, when my hand was slapped away from the cookie jar, I didn’t cry. I believe God man loves me, at least as much ,and hopefully a little more, than I love my nephew. He was an active participant in my creation, and therefore has some vested interests in my survival. I really, really, really wanted the bright shiny thing. But I am not going to kick back now. Maybe by being denied, I just got saved big time.

But, if He is just doing this for fun, there will be words.

How Khalil Jibran Ruined My Childhood

I suffer from an overactive imagination. And I say suffer because my brand of whimsy is less rainbows and butterflies and children’s dresses made out of curtains, and more midnight panic attacks that my parents are trapped inside a painting. That nightmare was a particularly persistent one, revisiting every fortnight or so for three odd years. There was also the one where my parents were trapped by an evil witch on the top storey of our oldest house (we’ve had four so far). I was standing at the bottom of the staircase, trying to get upto them, but the witch wouldn’t let me! I was essentially trying to climb up an escalator the wrong way, and I kept falling down. And with every minute that I tarried, my parents grew younger and younger, and very convincingly so, might I add. My virtual, visual side effects would put Peter Jackson to shame. So the clock ticked backwards in high definition,  my parents shed their years before my eyes, and I tried in vain to get the them before they got to 38. Why 38, you ask? Well, because if my mother become younger than 38 years, it would mean she wouldn’t have been around long enough to give birth to me. There’s a horror story clincher for you. If you have no baby, you have no kid waiting to rescue you.

That’s the sort of suffering I’m talking about. If I didn’t dream in multiple time dimensions, with metaphysical impossibilities colouring my nightmares, I would probably have gotten a lot more sleep from ages 5 through to 17. Oh actually, scratch that, my last late night REM movie was actually a few weeks ago. I was woken up, at an ungodly hour, by my sister who was off to work, at said ungodly hour. Shaking my shoulder, she snuggled into the bed, trying to hide away from her work. More than half asleep, and more than half grumpy, I mumbled into my pillow, ‘Kingster, I just dreamt I was outside Teacher N’s house (our college counselor, who was supercilious and unhelpful throughout our final year, and then promptly took credit for our admissions). And she was in the garden, waiting to begin class, but we couldn’t get in. There was no gate, and no door, only a six foot brick wall surrounding the garden. So we looked and looked, and finally we found a small hole in the wall. All my classfellows climbed in, one by one, effortlessly. I was the last one left. And I got stuck. A plague on all their tiny asses. Anywho, there I was, literally stuck in Teacher N’s wall, while everybody else was already in, laughing at me. I was embarrassed, and disappointed, and confused. But I squeezed myself back out, and I started to climb over the wall. It took forever, I fell more than I rose, the class started without me right in front of me, but I didn’t give up. And then I did it. I climbed over the wall, and into the garden.’

I raised my head up a few inches, pried open my eyelids, and staring blearily in her general direction, declared, ‘You just have to climb over the wall, Kingo. Climb over that wall.’

She laughed. Raucously. Then she patted me on the head, and went off to work.

I like how God Man makes sure I’m never bored. I even have stories to tell from times I was literally asleep. No wasted minute. Experience wise that is. Achievement wise, I have wasted most of my existence.

If you were to think that my imagination works only at night, for a few hours, you would be severely underestimating the workings of my mind. I am capable of working myself up into a state about a completely imaginary problem when I am wide awake, surrounded by fact and reason. And I am capable of staying in that state for years. Queue the Khalil Jibran incident of 2003.

Back in 2003, I was 11 years old, and apparently had no recognition of my mother’s handwriting, or of the existence of a writer called Khalil Jibran. What I did have, was an old copy of The Love Story, which had belonged to my mother in college. On the very first page of this family heirloom, in an old world cursive, was an inscription.

‘Love possesses not, nor would it be possessed; for love is sufficient unto love.’

And underneath this beautiful, hand written message was a name. Khalil Jibran.

Now, I don’t know whether it was the suggestive name of the book, or the fact that the message was written in deep blue ink (the kind one associates with Mont Blanc pens and moonstone cufflinks), or the fact that Khalil Jibran sounds like the name of a Pakistani man. One of these things, all of the these things, kicked my imagination into overdrive. I was convinced that my mother had had a passionate, and completely non-physical, romance with Khalil Jibran in college. They had gazed wistfully at each other across the classroom, he had composed sonnets about her beauty, she had looked down at the floor and smiled softly when she passed him in the corridor. He had cradled a copy of The Love Story close to his chest, hoping she would look over and see it as a declaration of his intentions. She had. And then, on that fateful day, when he heard of her wedding, he had gathered the shattered pieces of his heart, pulled out his Mont Blanc pen, and signed over his book and his heart to her. He had slipped her the book in their last class together, whispering his Congratulations. She had looked down at the floor and smiled softly.

At 11, realizing your father isn’t the only love of your mother’s life is pretty devastating. What was even more worrying though, was the idea of Khalil Jibran resurfacing. I know he didn’t seek to possess her, but he could also mean that he would love her even if she belonged to someone else. Well, she belonged to me! And I would be damned before some two-bit college Lothario, shuffling along with his paperback novels and old fashioned ink pens would take away my mommy! So I prayed, and prayed, and prayed that Khalil Jibran would loose his way, that his ship would sink before he got back to Lahore (Oh, yes, he went away on a ship to make his fortune as a writer). I was extra nice to my mother, and just in case she didn’t notice my behaviour, I made sure to tell her, frequently, how good her life was. Great house, nice husband, precious daughter. Who would ever want to leave this little heaven?

It sounds amusing in retrospect, but at the time I was constantly living in fear of being ripped apart from my mother. And that time lasted for a good 3 years. I was 14 when I came across The Messenger. Thankfully, instead of being paralyzed by the fear that Khalil Jibran had now made it, big time, and would be returning for my mother, I opened the book. And realized Khalil Jibran was not Pakistani, and most certainly was not my mother’s contemporary.

This life I live in my head. It exhausts me.

In Memoriam

I went to a nun school. And while it definitely contributed to my obsession with toeing all lines, real, imaginary, or merely suggested,  I often feel it contributed little in terms of a classical education. The Sisters, focused on cultivating poverty of spirit and inculcating a desire to serve, had clearly decided to forgo a hard core education. If the meek are to inherit the earth, its best to set children up right from the start. No education, no success. No pride, no fall.

So I spent my childhood blissfully uninformed, gazing vacantly out of the classroom windows onto the huge flame of the forest dominating the school courtyard. Lessons didn’t revolve around content, the teaching seemed merely a well placed diversion between the actual highlights of the class: the greeting ceremonies. You see, every time a teacher entered the room, we all stood up, and intoned ‘Good Morning Ms. *Insert Name Here.*’ And every time the teacher left, we leapt up to our collective feet for a repeat performance, only this time we also expressed our gratitude for the enlightenment received. ‘Good Morning and Thank You Ms. *Whatsername*.’ The whole bow, kneel, greet routine was of such importance, the only time the  principal swept into our class, she came to chastise our motley crew of fifteen year olds for singing it instead of saying it. ‘Crisply!’ she roared, and we roared right back, our ‘Good Morning’s ringing out until we had got it down to under five seconds.

The nun-sicles may have skimped on the information, but they ended up giving us a childhood. I can’t remember ever wanting to skip school; to me it was like home, but with more people to play with. Sure, I spent my life in mortal terror of not finding a partner to stand with in the morning assembly, and often woke up in the middle of the night to polish my shoes, but those are little fears. No matter how little you are yourself, those fears are never big enough to swallow you. You’ll get scolded for dirty shoes, so you learn to polish them the night before. Problem solved. 

I didn’t grow up speaking French, or quoting Chaucer, or knowing where Ukraine is. But I grew up believing every obstacle was surmountable, every problem had a solution, and everything could be fixed. I grew up believing that we all get our just desserts in life. Even as a grown up, when life is anything but reciprocal and fears can swallow you whole, that’s a lesson I can’t forget. That’s one lesson I can’t thank them enough for.

I still wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about everything that went wrong, everything that could still go wrong tomorrow. And, purely by reflex, I reach for the shoe polish. Grown up shoe polish. Which, like grown ups themselves, is more elusive and less reliable than its childhood counterpart. But no matter how unreliable and ineffective it may be, I look for it. I polish my shoes. I try it, because that’s what I was taught. Its also all I can ever do. Try.

Another thing the nuns achieved, this one quite by accident, was to instill an unbearable thirst for knowledge in me. Its like that thing from New Girl, where Nick decides he’s  going to make his children beg for school, so they’ll appreciate it more. I appreciate school. I appreciate information. I appreciate it hard. One of the happiest moments of my life, I kid you not, was when our Physics teacher told us that weight is relative, and what we commonly refer to as weight is actually mass. I believe her exact words were somewhere along the line of, ‘Every time the shopkeeper says the weight is 500g, he’s making a mistake. The mass is 500g.’ This. Blew. My. Mind. My toes curled, my pupils dilated, my hair stood on its end. I had been initiated. I knew something that most people (I’m looking at you, candy shop guy) did not know. The universe, in the guise of my disinterested Physics teacher, had let me in on a secret. I was hooked. 

I haven’t felt like that in a long time. Its not because I know everything now. Its because knowledge went from being doled out like candy when you least expected it, a pleasant surprise on a Thursday afternoon, to a commodity that was grudgingly paid for and viciously fought over. Instead of being slipped into my hand, a well deserved tip from the gods, I was now supposed to fight over it, like a horde of cackling hyenas fight over a bleeding carcass. And fight I do, because I’m hooked. But I don’t enjoy it one bit. The gains, for all the work it takes, are ill gotten in my book. There is no rush anymore.

The closest I get to that rush today is when I pick up an old copy of Byron or Faiz, and read a verse that speaks to me. When I make a visceral connection over time and space with people who shared their wisdom and talent without any prejudice. When I am slipped a note across the centuries, proof that someone, somewhere, felt what I do, and dealt with it in the most magnificent way possible. When I see thirst turned into art, rather than pain.

Oh, and also when I get a free biscuit with my tea. That, is pretty fabulous. 

یہ جو سرگشتہ سے پھرتے ہین کتابوں والے
ان سے مت مل کے انھیں روگ ہین خوابوں والے

Stay away from these lost souls, clutching books to their hearts

They live in a land of dreams.