The light’s different in Pakistan. And I’m not talking metaphorically; quite literally, the sun shines differently back home. Like a kindergartner’s painting, the sun’s rays are very definitely yellow. Its almost like someone reached up and smoothed a piece of yellow cellophane over the sun, giving us our very own brand of desi, brightly coloured sunshine. And in these last days of summer, as the blinding summer haze melts into still winter mornings, there’s a mellow, almost apologetic, touch to the sunlight; a certain depth that casts a nostalgic shadow on even the most mundane of activities.
Not that anything in Pakistan is mundane. Its like living in a land of magical realism; this is the country that both created and condemned Rushdie. Where else can you find a culture that stigmatizes homosexuality, reducing men with less conventional proclivities, or at least less convincing acting skills, to a joke, but also reveres the love between a male priest and his disciples so long as its cloaked in an appropriate amount of spirituality. Sufism, a lifestyle that transcends cast and creed, and lends itself to all forms of Islam, has been pioneered by poets who eulogized their love for their Sufi teachers in verse and song. The poetry is poignant enough to survive through ill-spent centuries and well-meant translations, and the love and longing in the words rings as clear today as it did then. And it rings loud too, Sufi music and poetry are the only common thread in the otherwise divided fabric of Pakistani society. Quite simply, they are the Pakistani equivalent of Shakespeare, the opera and a choir service rolled in one: reverential yet relatable, passionate yet euphemistic. And that, my friends, is magical realism. You pull up at the traffic lights on a Friday, listening to an Amir Khusro poem, the only thing the radio deems appropriate enough to play on the religious Sabbath. And as you listen to these ageless words, celebrating the beauty of the beloved, there is a tap on the window. You don’t turn around, this isn’t your first rodeo, and you know that if encouraged, the tapping will turn into a full blown street performance by the transvestite knocking at your window. You also know you don’t have to worry about being rude, this particular group has been ostracized by society so completely and for so long, they probably wouldn’t know how to respond to a kind word anyway. And so you continue to ignore them, shunning them for their blatant homosexuality, choosing to appreciate instead the words of Khusro, penned by a man, ostensibly for another. But ostensibly is not the same as blatantly. The quality of light changes. And that makes all the difference.
I wish I had noticed this years ago, when I woke up every day to this cellophane sun. But my particular brand of appreciation seems to work only in reverse; I realized how magnificent the summer days in Pakistan were by looking out at the snowfall in Manchester. The overwhelmingly white landscape glared at me, unfamiliar, shunning me with my unaccustomed eyes and requisite quilted ( read foreigner) coat. I shut my eyes, almost involuntarily, summoning up images of a more familiar land, and suddenly I saw the light. And I felt at home. Yellow sunshine, who would have thought?
I only wish I had seen the light sooner, and not just in the rear view mirror. I wish I had taken more pictures in the summer dusk. I wish I had listened to more Sufi music, really listened. And I wish, oh how I wish, I had rolled down my window at the first tap. I wish I had the courage to look at the man standing at the signal, his inexpertly applied make up running down his face, his garishly printed dress crumpled, his eyes closed, as if against the sun. Ostensibly. Instead, all I can do is close my eyes, and remember those golden days. My cellophane days. Translucent, transcendent, temporary.