Defamiliarisation—Pehlay Se Marasam Na Sahi, Phir bhi Kabhi Tou
You present your back to a hot jet of water; it sears your skin, but you need this. Your curls beg for conditioning but you’re not worried about you hair tonight. You wear your exfoliating gloves, and pour as much Dove as the stretch of your clothed palm permits. Apple-flavoured scent fills the glass cubicle. You make a show to yourself about this being just another shower, about doing customary justice to all parts of your body. You start at your feet, lather at your legs. Under the firm upward strokes of your hands, you imagine your blood travelling in the right direction, towards your heart.
You pause a moment before you swing your arms behind; your back arches, pulls away from your embrace.
You know your back, its narrow breadth, know the protrusions and hollows your skin rests upon. You will your hands to claim the familiar territory of your body, will for their flight up to be without event. It isn’t.
Nylon skeins get stuck into something that wasn’t there last week, or the weeks before.
You stand under the hot gush of water and claw at whatever it is that’s growing on you. A sharp metallic whiff slices through the cocoon of synthetic aroma.
You put your hands down, let them dangle behind your back.
You’re afraid of bringing your hands forward, afraid of seeing shreds of evidence you know they will fetch for you.
Displacement—Sitaron se Agay Jahan Aur Bhi Hain
Once when you were young, you wore a red organza skirt to a family wedding. Halfway through saying your salaams to Chachis and Massis and Nanis, you heard fireworks crackle outside the shamiana where the female guests were seated.
You were young enough to forget your gender.
You unhinged your hand from your grandmother’s and ran outside into the open field. Your feet carried you over a thicket of wild grass. For all you knew you were flying, your eyes glued to the riot of red, green, yellow jets on a fire-spewing sky.
You stood there, unable to pry your eyes away, unable to remember where you came from.
Star-hell bombed above your head, glowed in your eyes, lingered.
By the time sparks spluttered off the sky and the smoky plumes had lost their shape, you turned and saw a figure in the distance, at once obscured and illuminated by the light emanating from the tent behind.
You knew that figure, its stiff posture identifiable, even from a distance; you walked slowly to it, taking your time to make up lies for running away. The lies, falling in place on your tongue as you approached the figure, weren’t required. Your return was all the answer your grandmother ever needed.
But the brush with the outside now showed on your person; grass splinters latched onto the transparent tissue of your skirt, their heads poking out like wild fish caught in a net.
All through the wedding you tried to slip under tables, went looking for corners in a circular tent. You were aware of women’s eyes looking down at you, at the hem of your skirt, at the evidence of you wandering away too far.
Acculturation—Lut Ki Bewi
You bring your gloves back around and look down at them. It’s there, all that evidence. Soggy baby feathers fleck your gloves, their sharp ends entangled in the nylon mesh on your hands.
You want to howl but think of your roommate tinkering with the dishes outside, in the kitchenette that you share with five other people. There are, after all, things you can’t blame on cultural difference between you and them. You turn off the shower, dump the gloves in the bin. The mirror is high on the wall so you step up on the floor stool. You turn your back to the mirror, crane your neck behind, and look.
You’re sprouting feathers, that’s right.
You reach for tweezers in your toothbrush cup, stand in a steamy haze, and carefully start to pluck each feather-head out.
Your right hand, adept by now in the art of handling Western paraphernalia—forks and spoons and knives and tweezers—loses its precision, working behind you, at an awkward angle.
Tiny bulbs of blood pockmark your skin between your shoulders when you’re done.
Square One—Dhobi Ka Kutta
You know what it’s like to go without dinner for a whole month so you can save up enough money to buy a Gucci T-shirt from a shady online store, only to receive it three weeks later and realise you didn’t work in the demand your D-sized breasts make on sizes of T-shirts from obscure origins. You stand in your mirror, wearing a 300-dollar-ticket-into-the-cool-crowd-shirt too small to go all the way down to where your jeans begin.
You stare at the angry trail of hair travelling down your navel.
You stuff the T-shirt in your closet till you’ve made enough money to afford laser hair removal, till years later after you’ve assaulted your body with enough arsenal, till you think you can wear that stuff out in the open without imagining some fair-headed boy, any fair-headed boy not accustomed to the wild behavioural whims of Eastern skin, belch at the sight of your body.
Zap marks brand the soft skin of your midsection, your inner thighs, but this you can handle, this doesn’t remind you of your grandmother’s moustachioed face.
But when you think you’ve finally played your demons, your body starts throwing feathers at you. Were they always there, lying dormant like hidden genitalia in a hermaphrodite body, or did a change in climate bring you to the altar? This is after you’ve landed a job as a creative writing tutor at a not-for-profit organisation in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, teaching immigrant kids how to write short stories, a make-them-assimilate-in-the-society kind of thing. This is after you’ve banished your glass bangles and your paisley-patterned khussas—trinkets from home in Pakistan—to the suitcase at the bottom of your bed. This is after you’ve put years between yourself and home, after you’ve learnt to beat the stubborn T and the obscene R in your name Tara, till it emits soft and civilised from your lips. This is after you’ve left Bankstown Mall behind—the place you called home when you first arrived in Australia, only a ten-minute bus ride from your university in western Sydney, with all its false eyelashes and filler-lip rages—after you’ve shed the prettiness of cheap things, after you’ve learnt that oversized designer bags and conspicuous logos are those cheap things that lack class for the taste you’ve acquired in your brush with the eastern suburbs.
This is after you’ve learnt to shop at vintage shops for cat-patterned skirts and jade-coloured cloth-bags. This is after you’ve let your hair grow in kinks around your shoulders, have done away with your ferocious hair-straightening iron, and the Gucci T-shirt on Gumtree for peanuts. This is after you’ve started wearing dresses that gently swivel around your curves; after you’ve busted the non-implication myth of Implanon, after your fat genes have kicked in. You’ve already embarked on a no-end-in-sight journey of paying a horrendous 70 dollars a month to Fitness First so you can labour against the protrusion of your belly at six in the morning, every single day, like the steps on the treadmill spin a gossamer charm over your body, and a day’s break could snip at its delicate seams, and whisk you back to square one. Square ones you fear.
You’ve battled against your body your whole life; it continues to betray you.
Liminality—Teri Chaukhat ki Qasam
It’s another hot afternoon. You’re lying next to your grandmother on her divan, one leg resting across her hers.
‘Nano, what does neem taste like?’ you ask for the hundredth time.
An old ceiling fan rotates above your head. The air it beats is thick. Your grandmother is jolted awake by your words; she snaps, ‘Khay tay Mitti.’
As you muse over the possibility of tree leaves tasting like soot and earth, Nano turns her face away. She doesn’t tell you she still tastes the medicinal tang on her tongue. She doesn’t tell you that when she was sent away by her parents at the first signs of trouble, far from her home in a valley in Kashmir, her body found its own means of protest. Rashes broke out on her skin, like itchy constellations, when she first arrived at her Massi’s one-storey house amid a clutter of one-storey houses in the heart of the sunburnt plains of Punjab. Her Massi boiled neem leaves for days, and made her drink the bitter concoction to ward off the rashes that came and went of their own accord.
‘So when did the lion come to you? Tell me from the beginning.’ You often work your way to this story.
‘The lion didn’t come in the beginning. He came at the end.’
‘I know, Nano, but tell me the whole story. How many days did you not go to school for? Tell me na!’
‘Oh! I don’t remember how many days exactly. But less than 40 days. Maulvi Saab from the mosque said the dream will come well within 40 days.’
‘Then what happened?’ You keep pressing, even though you see her eyes shutter again. You stick your finger in her ear when she doesn’t respond. You roll over onto your belly and pull the soft skin on one of her eyelids; it stands like a hill on top her eye before softly sinking in again. She finally opens her eyes and looks at you, grey-green eyes you never see on anyone else’s face.
‘Nothing happened. I kept lying in bed, kept repeating the verse.’
‘I can read verses too,’ you declare, eager to compete with this girl of many, many years ago.
‘Yes, but I was a little older than you. And the Maulvi Saab from the mosque gave me a special verse to read. Over and over, the same thing.’
‘Why did you have to stay in bed? Why couldn’t you get up and play?’
‘Because we didn’t know when the curtain would be lifted. I needed to sleep a lot to see the dream. In the dream, I would know if my Maa Baap crossing the border were safe or not.’
‘How can someone cut up a whole country, Nano? Can someone cut up our country and kick us out of our home too? Did the bad Hindus do it?’
‘Not the Hindus. They only turned bad after the cut-up. It was the Goras, the white men. The Goras took an axe and dropped it on the map. Thaa!’ Two gold bangles clink on her bony wrist, in synch with the Thaa.
‘This one here. This one there. This for us. This for them. Us here. You there.’
‘Then when did the lion come?’ You want to race to the fun bit.
‘I was lying on the charpai reading like I did every day, was about to slip into sleep when I felt something breathing in the room. Slow and heavy.’
You clutch her shirt in your hand, making a fist around the cloth.
‘On the chaukhat of the door, a lion sat. This big lion. Ru’b Daar. Half body in the room, half outside. Its face looking right at me.’
‘Were you scared? Did you scream?’
‘I fainted. And when I woke up the lion wasn’t there. But the rest of the family was. The Maulvi Saab from the mosque was called. He said my Maa Baap were protected by the lions.’
‘But Nano, your parents should’ve made it to you if they were protected, no?’
This isn’t an original question, it’s one you’ve heard other relatives whisper to each other when your Nano isn’t around. Your grandmother has learnt to ignore it; she moves on to the neat conclusion of her story.
‘The last we heard of them was that when India was cut up, they hid in a shrine for many days. And when the enemies came to take them away, there were men standing outside the gates of the shrine, men who protected them with guns. They said men brave like lions. That’s when everyone said Shamshad already saw the lions.’
‘Shamshad,’ you giggle. Nano’s name fills your mouth; it implicates itself in the English ‘shame’ in the first half, but swiftly escapes it into the Urdu ‘happiness’ in the second.
‘Can you still read the words and see the lion, Nano?’ You hold your breath for this one.
Nano whispers before slipping off into sleep again, ‘Hai! Gone are those springs.’
On long, sticky school days, your half-closed eyelids a gradient of gold and rose-water sharbat, when all you want to do is jump the school wall and run home, you can hear her lion breathe at the chaukhat of the classroom door, slow and heavy, as you doze in and out of sleep.
Transliteration—Laut kay Budhu Ghar ko Ae
‘Improvise.’ You deliver the command to a group of fifth graders gathered at your feet in a public school in western Sydney. ‘As you write your stories, improvise.’
‘Okay, who knows what improvisation is?’ You ask when the faces throw nothing at you in return.
One hand shoots up, ‘Yes, Khalil.’
‘You know, when you make up things, like, on the spot.’
‘Yes, Khalil, great answer.’
Here’s when the tutor in you kicks in. You want to push beyond the standardised text, go past what the kids have already been taught by the public school teachers. You adjust the oversized shawl draped strategically around your shoulders. ‘Yes, but when you improvise, you’re not making up stuff at all. You are actually behaving just like you would in the world that you live in, just as you live in it.’
There is a poster of a girl’s hand-drawn face on the wall opposite you. It reads, ‘As I See Me’. Blonde hair, a heart-shaped face, the upturned nose a perfect Taylor Swift template, but the eyes that look back at you are slanted, shaded cleverly on top for a hint of epicanthic folds.
You trudge ahead. ‘You see, your lives aren’t ordinary at all. The way you behave with each other, in the break, during home period, when you go back to your homes, the way you eat lunch, and what you eat for lunch in your kitchens, the games you play with your grandparents or younger siblings, the language you speak with your parents and how you speak it, all that, in itself, is the stuff of stories.’
You’re speaking well-oiled English, but your mind is sliding towards a halt. The skin between your shoulders is electric, the throbbing pain in your freshly plucked pores replaced by something fiercer, searing. Your wounds have cracked and broken open. You want to bare your back there and then, rip off the thin layer of bandage, sticky with blood by now, and scratch your skin off. But you don’t. You’re aware of volunteers gathered that morning to help out with this creative writing class, waiting for you to deliver the punch line.
‘Creating stories is about using bits and pieces of your life, the pieces that you consider ordinary but make you, you. The pieces that make you stand apart. Like that delicious Biryani that you eat at home, that none of your friends at school have eaten before, or that Arabic dialect your grandfather speaks that you can’t fully understand, but certain words in it make you see things you haven’t seen before.’
A face gazing up at a mote-ocean in the air cracks into a smile, a pair of eyes go wide imagining things you’ve designed this class to imagine.
‘You take these ordinary pieces of your life, and place them together in unexpected ways.’ You attempt to hold your hands up in the air and bring them together, to demonstrate. You fail.
Your audience remembers their own hands. They look down at their hands, at the blank sheets of papers their hands are resting upon. Their eyes meet the unwelcoming blankness that gapes back at them. Their thoughts zoom out of the comfort the word home just suggested—few other words in the English language name and claim a feeling simultaneously—and focus on the tricky task of finding the right words to translate their mind’s offerings. They search for words in the air around them, their eyes grope for syllables in the whorls of pencil shavings, in the stubborn dirt stuck in their nails, in friends’ faces.
‘It is when you place the ordinary pieces of your life together in unexpected ways that magic begins to happen.’
The kids, wiser than you, spot the hollowness in your words. They fall to paper, one after another; they are moulting old words to acquire new ones.
In the silence that overtakes the room, you pick out a sound; a slow and heavy breathing at the chaukhat of the classroom door. It’s been a while.
‘Kind of like creating a colourful quilt from patching together different materials.’ You slip into cliché.
Your descent into clichés is predictable, inevitable.
It’s another hot day in a long stretch of summer holidays, and you’re being driven in your car by the driver, your Nano at your side in the back seat. It’s a slow drive, this part of Lahore thick with traffic, its old roads long abandoned by the Ministry of Transport, busy mapping flyovers somewhere else.
You rest your face in the open window, let air fan your hair, sticky with sweat. You look out at the crush of bodies on the footpaths but your eyes rest only on other children’s faces, sooty with dust that seems to reign over the older side of the city.
On a footpath a man stands next to his cycle, a proprietary hand on the handlebar, a small bird cage perched on the seat behind. Your car comes to a halt; there’s an explosion of honks behind you, but your driver turns deaf for the task. He jumps out of the car and runs to the bird-cage man. The cycle is brought to you. There’s a flurry of brown feathers inside the cage, a flock of small, unremarkable Lahori sparrows stuffed behind wire mesh walls.
Your Nano, for once, doesn’t haggle over price, takes out a crisp hundred rupee note from her bag, and hands it over to the man through the car window. He slips it in a pocket stitched in the pleats of his shalwar and plunges his hand deep inside the cage. The cage shimmies. The man retrieves two birds in each hand. You know the routine. You let your fingers pass over his hands; you’re careful not to touch his skin, but your fingers graze over velvety fuzz, over the pulsing bird-heads jutting out of his giant fists. He unclenches his hands, the birds rocket off into the sky. Your eyes chase their flight; the sky above is criss-crossed with bare wires dangling between electricity poles.
Some birds will roast on the wires above, some will be recaptured by your friendly bird-cage man.
But for now your Nano has paid for the birds’ freedom, passed the blessings it affords under the tips of her granddaughter’s fingers.
A pistachio-sized boy, whose age you can’t approximate by the way his crocheted cap sits on his head, like that of an old man’s, has been eyeing your bird-show. He rushes over to your car and starts to dust its windscreen.
Your grandmother snaps at you to get your face in, orders the driver to roll up your window. The boy slides over to your rolled-up window and starts to draw circles on the glass with the tattered cloth he’s holding.
The pista’s hands slow down; his eyes hook on to your face. You have deep-set eyes, you already know that. Your mouth is too wide, hai bechari, you’re sure you’ve heard your older sisters commiserate among each other behind your back; your Baba sometimes asks you, a sly smile lurking around his eyes, ‘Uff Tara baby, what’s happening to your nose? It looks like a samosa now. Don’t touch it too much, or it’ll grow even bigger.’ You make eye-contact with this boy now, intrigued by his attention towards your face. His eyes grow dim. He’s mouthing words at you; words you can’t hear but have heard of, big words not meant for a child’s ears, big words not meant for a child’s tongue.
Nano hisses without looking towards the boy, ‘Keep your eyes on the road.’
He’s still staring at you when the car pulls away. You crane your neck to see if he’s upset about not getting his rupee for cleaning your window.
You’re surprised to see him standing in a group of little boys, all dressed in shalwar qameez made khaki by dust, his dust-cloth draped over his shoulder, laughing, like he’s just taken a wicket in a cricket match.
You see his glee, see his friends laughing, and realise the joke’s on you. You quickly divert your eyes to the snack stalls and the smoke clouds hovering above them, to the dense clutter of shops that line the road on each side.
Your car inches ahead.
A gutter lies open, its contents bubbling out, spilling onto the road. You spread the creases on your white-starched frock, tug at its hem, force it down over your knees.
Your Nano has a white handkerchief in her purse, a red rose hand-embroidered in a corner; she takes it out now, and dabs it on your brow. Your eyes return to the shit on the road.
Years later, driven by instinct, you will migrate back to these filthy streets. Gutter-lid theft will have become an established business for the government-sponsored goondas who will run this part of the city, but you will not bother walking down the sewage-swamped streets.
You will fly first-class, from rooftop to rooftop.
You will perch on top of the highest building on the street, dangle legs down the edge of a lattice-work shed, its design so intricate you’ll muse between puffs of Gold-Leaf that it should adorn a king’s court. It did, once.
On a street corner, down below, you’ll spot a consort of prostitutes come out of the gates of the inner city—once a play-yard for Mughal emperors—huddled together, waiting, in vain, for customers of the night. Some of them will have royal blood running through their veins.
Here you will see, with stars above your head and hand-carved minarets still crowning an old Mughal mosque in clear view, this world for what it is: a palimpsest, its rich past peeking out at you from behind the margins of the shocking debilitation you once cruised by.
When the first black dog sniffs at your feet, you know beasts can smell blood on you.
Relatives tell you your mother raised her face to the sky, and called out to the angels when her mother, your Nano, took her leave. Did she call out for me? you want to ask, phone call after phone call, but don’t. She died in a city you no longer shared with her.
By the time the second dog has jerked its head in your direction, made the wrestler of a security guard skid after him, his latch-taut fingers threatening to snap any moment, the word quarantine is flashing through your head, like a disco version of the police warning—Our Eyes Are on You—posted on highways you no longer take.
Sirens are ringing all through the international airport in Sydney when the third dog finds you, ears pulled back in combat style, leather lips puckered-up, ready for a taste of you. You find yourself wondering what power restrains a beast after its eyes have zeroed in on its target. Strong hands whisk you away just in time.
You remind yourself to remain calm; you’ve made your way through sky-high piles of paperwork to get here. You hand over your papers, you hand over your luggage; as always, you’re travelling light.
When you make it to your seat, the sky has gone dark. A single low star sits in your window, a tandem journeyer until your plane gathers speed.
Homecoming—Ya Aar, Ya Paar
In the small, overused airplane toilet cubicle, you hunch over in pain. Invisible scribes stand with your books of deeds, one behind each shoulder, watching on in habitual silence.
What ordinary pieces of your life have you placed together for this magic to happen in your story?
You finally hear it, on this flight home, the frantic flap of a winged creature so close it must be inside. •
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