The rebel in me…

Growing up straddled between two cultures and two religions can be a tough nut to crack, and I went through my fair share of tribulations and adjustments in my younger days. What I remember the most was my paternal family’s perpetual desire to gravitate me towards the culture of the East, while the rebellious soul in me compassed towards the West like a flower desperate for the bright sun. There are many stories and flashbacks of my growing up years and I have penned down one which comes to mind.

I remember the day me and my best friend dashed towards the school gate as soon as the bell sounded. It was the last day of the school year and we were all celebrating by going to a Chinese restaurant for lunch; a rare treat for the girls under the dictatorship of Zia ul Haq which made over-cautious citizens like my paternal grandmother more nervous about allowing me any freedom. We urged the driver to drive fast and take us home, squeezed together on the back seat where we had carelessly thrown our overloaded school bags. I was most excited as my friend was coming home with me where we would get ready together for the much awaited end-of-the-school-year lunch.

Once in my room, I took out a pair of new jeans I had got from Milan that summer on one of the shopping sprees with my mother.  It had been so much fun going to high streets and looking at the latest fashion and big stores. How I loved the life on the streets of Milan!! Sighing nostalgically, I started to dress up and once I was ready, I swirled in front of the mirror admiring my reflection in the new figure hugging outfit. Turning to my friend with a mischievous grin, I said “Just you wait and see my grandmothers expression when we go out”.

The past few years had seen an upsurge in the arguments taking place in my household which revolved around my unconventional preference of dressing and social life. The European blood in me rose to a challenge every time this topic came up, and each argument left me bitter and surer that I wanted to move to my second home which was Italy. As I was grew up and became a confident ‘young lady’, my father handed the reins of my upbringing to his mother not realizing that the generation gap between us was too much to bridge; hence not foreseeing the repercussions of this change in command. My grandmother belonged to era where a woman’s primary purpose in life was to get married, have a dozen children and spend the entire day with one arm stirring a spoon in the cooking pot, whilst clutching a wailing baby in the other! Her daughters, my aunts, had followed the expected path and their entire beings were focused on being good wives, gourmet cooks and obedient daughter in laws.  Me being a byproduct of two opposite cultures had grown up absorbing a bit of both these polarities. The East was apparent in my preference for spicy food, fetish for colourful glass bangles, and love for loud and music filled weddings. But it was my fiercely independent mind, rebellion of cultural norms and dislike of shalwar suits which loudly reflected my penchant for the West! I had appealed to my  father many times in the hope of getting some relaxation in the stringent rules, but found him to be at a loss of how to manage a rebellious teenager on the one hand, and a dominating mother on the other.

I gave one final look in the mirror before opening the door to the room and leading the way forward. Full of excitement, we skipped down the stairs looking like an antithesis of each other; friends of the soul yet so different in our physical outlook. My friend fulfilled all cultural and conventional norms attired in a yellow and white shalwar suit with a matching dupatta spread wide to cover her ample bosom. On the other hand, I was wearing a pair of fitted jeans with a red and white Snoopy tee-shirt which barely covered my rounded hips.

“Look how nice your friend is looking Sarah! Why don’t you wear the new shalwar suit I got stitched for you? Said my grandmother in a well controlled tone.

“Dadi, these are new trousers I got this summer and I want to show them off to my friends’, I replied, hoping that my grandmother would not create too much of a scene in front of my friend. As I opened the main door and headed for the car waiting near the entrance, I looked over my shoulder and trying to placate her, I said, “Dadi, I shall wear the new shalwar suit tomorrow, I promise”.

My shrewd grandmother was intelligent and smart enough to know when not to make an issue, and giving last minute instructions to the driver to drive carefully, she shut the main door and slowly hobbled back in. The last few years had taken a toll on her health with osteoporosis taking over her life and joint pains with painful knees becoming the primary focus of her days. It saddeded me to see how she was now an unrecognizable, mere shadow of her previous formidable self. Reaching the nearest sofa, she lowered herself in it and sighed with relief, mentally preparing herself for yet another discussion with my father when he came home in the evening.

This tug of war between grandmother and granddaughter had reached its zenith since I had started talking of going abroad to University in the next couple of years. She could not conceive such a situation, and reiterated at every possible occasion that I was fast approaching the average marriageable age of Pakistani girls and should incline myself in that direction. Though my father also was not a cheerleader when it came to the thought of sending me abroad to study in the West, he found himself not agreeing to the proposition of an early marriage. He tried to convince me to do my Undergraduate degree in Pakistan and then look towards the West for a Masters Programme: a time when he felt I would be older and more mature.

The lunch was a roaring success with 35 chatty teenagers talking non stop and nonsensically: I would like to remind everyone that in those times, going out with friends without adult supervision was a rare occurrence, so we were all excited beyond words. The day was full of sunshine, the future full of promise; we were happy our O’levels had ended, the summer vacations had started, and we were all together. Filling my bowl with yummy hot and sour soup, I absorbed the positive energy around me and putting my troubles on the back bench for the time being, I filled my mouth with the delicious treat!

 

The seventh child….

The contractions in my lower abdomen became very sharp and I doubled over with pain. Yet again, I willed my seventh about-to-be-born child to be a boy this time; “Please God please”, I prayed fervently looking up at the whirring fan on the ceiling which was peeling in many places.  At the end of the next jolt of pain, I felt the baby slide out onto the bloody sheet and enter this patriarchal world. The room filled with the sound of a wailing baby who seemed unhappy to be let out of a comforting and safe haven into this cold and alien world. The fear of it being another girl paralyzed me and I shut my eyes tightly, too afraid to look at the baby or ask about the gender. My mind wandered back to the last two times which had been the worst of the six deliveries; my husband had ignored me for weeks, while my mother in law had found every opportunity to berate me for failing to produce a male child for her only son.

Very early in my marriage I had understood that I would earn respect and a place in my husband’s heart only if I produced a son! But each subsequent pregnancy culminated in the birth of yet another girl, leading to an exponential increase in resentment and alienation. My husband ignored the girls, forgot their names and cursed the day he married me, while my mother in law threatened me with a second marriage for her beloved son. Why didn’t they understand that I was not to blame? How could he be oblivious to the fact that girls vied desperately for his attention? I could sense that our male dominated society had boxed me amongst the ‘unfortunates’ and looked at me with eyes filled with pity and tinged with derision.

My only ally was my mother who counselled me on various herbs and talisman’s which she willed would result in the procreation of a male child. Many visits were made to far off darbars to offer alms and prayers, and repeated visits made to doctors who claimed to have a cure for ‘son-less’ women; but post each birth, the doctors and holy men were quickly labelled as quacks and charlatans. On the birth of my fourth daughter, my mother prepared me for the inevitable outcome of the arrival a second wife and urged me to accept my fate if that were to happen. Luck was probably on my side as despite six daughters, my husband had not gone in search of another woman  to share his marital bed. At least not yet!

I tried to shower extra love and affection on my innocent daughters in the hope of reducing their present pain at their fathers alienation, and their future pain of always being the less important person in all spheres of their lives. Even as a young girl I had understood that the birth of a boy was celebrated with fanfare, sweetmeats and gifts, while the birth of a girl was not announced in the hope that family and neighbors would soon forget this shameful occurrence! Whilst I was growing up in my parents house, the jarring difference in the way me and my brothers were treated would always remain imprinted in my personality; better schooling, extra treats, and new clothes and shoes! I was smart enough to know that the males in the house were to be given preferential treatment, but vulnerable enough to feel the pain of unfairness in my innocent heart. I felt sad knowing that patriarchal societies leeched on infanticide and infant mortality of young girls, and much as I may have tried, there was nothing I could have done in my limited influence and capacity.

The loud wailing of the baby jolted me back to the present, and I looked up to see the midwife holding the newborn who was all swaddled in a warm blanket. Looking around, I saw a room full of women: my anxious mother and concerned sisters, my ever judging mother in law, and a babble of curious neighbours. Tired and exhausted after a long delivery, not ready to deal with people and too afraid to know the inevitable, I closed my eyes, shut my ears and prayed for oblivion.

A Day out with the camera…

Traveling is a passion for me and photography a hobby: the result is different cultures steeped in a kaleidoscope of colours captured on camera.  My recent exploration led me to a land of beauty, warmth, peace and culture: Sri Lanka. The intense greenery in this small island is a welcome sight, the food a gastronomic pleasure, and the shopping irresistible. This was my second visit to the country, but my first armed with my new Nikon. I happily clicked away, adamant to capture all the beauty and culture of the island, but more importantly, store joyous memories of time well spent with loved ones!

“Twenty years from now you will look back more regretfully upon the things you didn’t do than those you did. So set free the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor. Dream. Explore. Discover.” – American author and humorist Mark Twain

 

The weight in the womb…

The wind blew with a gust making the black veil slip from Saira’s head; she grabbed it tightly and covered her face, trying to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. Finally she reached the preset meeting point and quickly turned the corner hoping no one from her family or neighbourhood had seen her leave. As promised, Adil was waiting for her under the tree with his motorcycling revving, ready to drive off as soon as she sat behind him. She heaved a sigh of relief sure that no one had seen her, and finally relaxed enough to start enjoying the illicit ride with this man she hardly knew.

Saira belonged to a poor family who had seen struggle, deprivation and hunger for as long as she could remember. She had gone to a local state owned school for her primary education but it ended as soon as she was old enough to earn and contribute to the meager earnings of the family. In all these years she had worked as a sweepress, a house maid, a baby sitter, and now a cook, slowly climbing up the hierarchy of domestic help and earning a reasonable salary. Though she enjoyed the freedom of being able to move around on her own and spend a bit of her money on small treats, there were days when she felt burdened by the weight of her parents expectations and the drudgery of a long and  hard day. Like all girls of her age, she spent many hours daydreaming of meeting a handsome man and getting married to him.

Her daily walk to work required her to cross a mechanics shop where each day she craned her neck to look for the handsome and burly mechanic who was always shouting orders at his team. Once in a while their eyes met and though she quickly averted her eyes, it always made her blush and wanting more. After many weeks of trying to catch each others eyes, one day she found the young man standing on the road almost blocking her way. It took only a few encounters for Saira to lose her shyness and for the conversation to become more comfortable leading to an arrangement to meet alone. Though she knew that her family would not approve of her talking and meeting a strange man, but the drudgery of her days and the lack on any better prospect propelled her and she agreed to meet Adil and go on a drive with him.

She kept her face covered while Adil drove through the familiar streets of her neighbourhood, and only once they had entered unknown zones did she relax and let her veil down. They rode around town for hours holding on tightly to each other, till he stopped in a remote and vacant plot. Promising to never leave her and send his parents to her house to ask for her hand in marriage, he convinced her that their physical closeness was only a way of expressing his ardent love. One thing led to another, and Saira found herself caught in the physical love of two people, exciting and powerful,yet darkened by the shadows of social and cultural norms.

It took a few months for Saira to realize that she was pregnant; this realization was followed by disbelief, fear and shock. She tried to contact Adil to remind him of his ‘true love’ and his long overdue marriage proposal, but he was not to be found at his place of work nor was he responding to her desperate phone calls. The fear of being an unwed mother in a society who viewed this as a crime almost stopped her heart on many occasions, only to be revived back to reality by a study kick in her womb.  Her womb became heavy and her stomach swelled more and more each day till the sinful reality became a loud scream for all to hear. Her parents beat her black and blue out of anger and shame, the neighbours shunned her and her younger sisters blamed her for their lack of future prospects.

The months passed and Saira stayed indoors away from prying eyes, till one cold, winter morning her water broke. The pain became unbearable and she screamed and screamed till she was hoarse, hoping her voice would carry far and reach her unfaithful lover. Though her heart ached at the thought that Adil had deserted her in such a condition, the impending arrival of her child gave her strength and she pushed and pushed till her little boy slid out onto a dirty sheet. The midwife quickly wrapped the baby in a blanket and handed him over to Saira’s mother who was watching from the corner of the room. Saira could see her mother take the baby and leave the small room; she wanted to call out for him but the sedative given to her by the midwife kicked in and she fell in a deep slumber.

She must have slept for long because when she woke up, night had fallen and a small light was burning in the corner of the room. She called out to her mother asking to see her son, eager to see the prospect of a better future in his tiny eyes.  She wanted to hold him close and suckle him to her breast in the hope that the emptiness and shame in her life would now be filled by this child borne from her womb. She called and called for her baby but no one responded. And as she screamed louder for him, she knew that she would never, ever hold him close to her breast: that he had been taken far away from her to wipe clean the shame and dishonour brought upon her family, and that she would spend the rest of her life with a large gaping hole in her womb, her heart and her soul. As she imagined her baby lying in a crib far away with his little mouth puckered and wanting her breast, she felt a flash of physical pain in her empty womb,: her world collapsed around her and she began to howl and scream like a wounded animal till all her inside became empty and she could scream no more!

 

Abandonment…

The sound of my pitiful crying grew fainter and fainter as I lost all energy to go on. The wetness of the sheet underneath me, the gnawing in my little stomach, and the feeling of abandonment all reached a zenith and I started howling once again; pitiful sounds which must have attracted some attention as I felt myself being lifted up into warm arms and carried away from my wet, cold and confined space. The  room I found myself in was warm and bright, and  I could hear the voices of many people talking all at once; who, what, when, why. While I tried to adjust to this new environment, I felt someone remove my wet clothes and wrap me in a warm, thick blanket. The warmth of the dry clothes and the comfort of being in secure arms lulled me and I drifted off to sleep despite the deep, dark feeling of hunger in my stomach.

I remember the day I was conceived; oh what a joyous day that was! My mother, only 17 years old then,  had quickly dabbed on some lipstick and left her work early, telling her mistress that she had to go somewhere. My father rode up on a borrowed motorcycle and picked her up from the corner of the street, where she had been standing all veiled up to ensure that no one recognized her.

My mother belonged to a poor family who worked in people’s homes and earned just enough to keep the kitchen stove lit in their worn down home. Her father was a laborer who worked at construction sites all day, and had consequently become dark, thin and emaciated over the course of the tough years.  My father instead belonged to a relatively more affluent family, and he was the lead mechanic in a large car workshop. He would see my mother walk to work each day and pass in front of his shop; after many months of intent pursuit and cajoling, they started talking till he finally convinced her to go on a ride around the city on his motorcycle. They rode around town for hours, holding on tightly to each other, till he stopped in a remote and vacant plot. Promising to never leave her and send his parents to her house to ask for her hand in marriage, he convinced her that their physical closeness was only a way of expressing his ardent love. One thing led to another, and I was conceived in a flash; created by the physical love of two people, yet darkened by the shadows of social and cultural norms.

It took a few months for my mother to realize that I was growing inside of her; this realization was followed by disbelief, fear and shock. She tried to contact my father to remind him of his ‘true love’ and his long overdue marriage proposal, but he was not to be found at his place of work nor was he responding to her desperate phone calls. The fear of being an unwed mother in a society who viewed this as a crime almost stopped her heart on many occasions, only to be revived back to reality by a study kick in her womb.  Her stomach swelled more and more each day till the sinful reality became a loud scream for all to hear. Her parents beat her black and blue out of anger and shame, the neighbours shunned her and her younger sisters blamed her for their lack of future prospects.

The months passed with my mother staying indoors away from prying eyes, till one cold, winter morning I decided enough was enough, and I needed to get out of my confined space. My mother screamed and screamed till she was hoarse, yet I gave her no respite and pushed my way out till I slid onto a dirty sheet. I waited for the warmth of my mother’s arms and the comfort of her breast, but instead I felt someone carry me out of the warm room into the cold night. I tried to call out to my mother to ask her to save me from this stranger who was taking me way from her while the umbilical cord was still wet and oozing, but no one heard me. Very shortly, I felt myself being put in a cold, empty crib. I waited and waited and waited till I could wait no longer. The wetness of my clothes and the hunger in my stomach gave me the strength to start howling again.

As I mentioned at the start, I was picked up and taken in a warm room and changed into dry clothes. I felt the teat of a bottle touch my lips, and I clamped hard and sucked with all my little might till I felt full and satiated. Feeling more energetic now, I looked around the room and saw a row of small cribs all filled with babies like me. Young though I was , I understood that this was going to be my new home where all of us little abandoned souls would share mothers, blankets and bottles and pass through life never knowing where the other part of the umbilical cord had dried.

The Strangeness of love…

When French voters are asked to describe the centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, age appears to be a defining characteristic in several ways. The 39-year-old Macron could become the youngest contemporary French president. He would also be accompanied into the Élysée Palace by his wife, Brigitte, who is 24 years older than he is.

 Born as Brigitte Marie-Claude Trogneux, the now 64-year-old first met Macron when he was 15 years old at the high school in Amiens where she taught French and Theatre.

“Whatever you do, I’ll marry you!” her student Macron reportedly told her there.

Against all likelihood, the romance continued and Brigitte Trogneux eventually separated from her husband with whom she has three children. In the following decades, as Macron rose from being an investment banker to economics minister, their relationship continued, though under wraps. In 2007, the two married but kept it a secret from most people. It took eight more years until the two made their first public appearance during a dinner with King Felipe of Spain and his wife.

This unusual relationship between Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron has plenty to offer to the public in general: it attracts those who believe in the idea of ‘true love’, it charms lovers who want to take the ‘road less travelled’ in love and rise to the occasion, and it appeals to the many who need to know that its all right to follow your heart!

The mystery of love becomes more fascinating when the stakes are high and the differences many; Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, lovers in history who rose above social, religious and class barriers to love one another during sunset days of the biggest Empire in the world. Edward of Wales, the heir to the English throne who changed the course of his privileged life when he met Wallis Simpson, the twice divorced American. The madness of love compelled King Edward to abdicate his throne to his brother, marry the love of his life against immense family and public resistance, and lead a common man’s life.  The immortal love story of Anthony and Cleopatra who fell in love at first sight; but their love affair outraged the Romans who were wary of the growing powers of the Egyptians. Despite all the threats, Anthony and Cleopatra got married. It is said that while fighting a battle against Romans, Antony got false news of Cleopatra’s death. Shattered, he fell on his sword. When Cleopatra learned about Antony ‘s death, she was shocked and took her own life.

Sadly, in today’s world, the barometer for measuring the intensity of love has changed; the vastness of wealth, the height of social standing in society, the size of the house and the number of cars are all used as a litmus test while deciding who to ‘love’. In olden and more conservative times, there are stories of men falling in love with a girl just by looking in her eyes once or hearing her voice coming from another room. Such stories are now probably only to be found in story books, and much as we may search for cases of pure and simple love, it would be like finding a needle in a haystack.

In the meanwhile, we can look at Marcon and Brigette holding hands in front of the French public and believe that somewhere, somehow, somewhat….. true love still exists!

 

 

 

 

 

The Viewing….

‘Aisha, come down the serve tea to the guests’, her mother called. Taking a deep breath and fixing her veil over her head, Aisha slowly went down the winding staircase. The guests were sitting in the small room which served as a TV lounge and a room where visitors were entertained. Greeting the people sitting on the faded, blue sofa, she rolled in the trolley laden with tea, samosas and sweetmeats and started serving the guests. When she reached the man with the yellow shirt, she raised her eyes to catch a quick glance and was presented with a dark, fat man with oily hair who was looking at her with leery eyes. Aisha quickly averted her eyes and finished serving the guests before sitting down next to her mother. The question asked by the man’s mother were the same as always! How old she was, what had she studied and what was she currently doing. Aisha answered all queries politely and upon reaching the last, she looked up while answering, hesitant and nervous of the reaction.

‘I’m an air hostess with a private airline’, she volunteered.

As she expected, the mother glanced at her son to see his reaction. The man in the yellow shirt flinched a little but continued to sip his tea. The conversation tapered off and as soon as the teacup was empty, the man stood up and taking their leave, the family left.

This must have been the umpteenth viewing arranged by the marriage bureau lady over the course of the last two years, thought Aisha as she collected all the utensils and rolled the trolley back to the kitchen. Each time she was perplexed at how the family never contacted them again. Was it her dark looks and plump constitution, her easy-to-forget house in the back alleys of Old City of Lahore, or her job being an air hostess. Muddling over the inevitable answer, she started washing the dishes while hearing the hum of worried conversation in the drawing room between her mother and invalid father.

Her mind flashed back to the day of the car accident, when her dreams of becoming a well sought out fashion designer were all shattered. It seemed like yesterday that on her way back from a College event, the truck driver in front lost control causing the truck to crash on the passenger side of her father’s car, crushing his legs and rendering him paralysed for all times to come. Life for her family spiralled out of control as expenses escalated through the roof and her brother Samee slowly bent under the weight of unpaid bills, until he became a shadow of his old self. One night at the hospital, Aisha saw an advertisement for young girls to apply for the position of air hostesses in a newly launched private airline. In normal circumstances, her parents would have never permitted this line of work as it was considered adverse to cultural and social expectations, but seeing the condition of her father, the stack of unpaid bills, and the worry in Samee’s eyes, her mother agreed to let her apply.

The selection came through and Aisha started her training at the airline’s Head Office in Karachi. The two months spent at the Training Academy were long, rigorous and tiring, but the possibility of a permanent job with benefits kept her going. Upon completion of the training, Aisha went on her first flight and their financial worries eased a bit. Travelling to different cities was exciting and Aisha enjoyed the travelling, sightseeing and socializing with her new friends. But despite the enjoyment of these exciting days, she looked forward to her off duty time at home when she could help her mother look after her invalid father and do chores around the house. Though she was contributing financially to the household and bearing more than her fair share of responsibility, she was still riddled with guilt knowing that her father had not wanted her to go for that evening event in College the day the accident took place.

In this cycle of on-duty and off-duty, the months passed and slowly turned into years. Though the worry for her marriage was hanging suspended like a dark cloud in her house, and Aisha could sense her parent’s eyes following her with unsaid words, but her fate had not changed. The viewings had reduced substantially since she had joined the airline, and deep in her heart, she knew that these would further taper off in the near future seeing that she had crossed her thirties, an age where the death of marriage proposals is unavoidable.

This morning Aisha woke up feeling confident, and ready to face the world where a financially independent woman could cross over to the other side where being married was not the final destination. As long as she was earning, her family could be assured of a comfortable living without financial worry. The loud honking outside the gate snapped her out of her reverie, and rolling her travel case behind her she went out and sat in the airline coaster. After a long and circuitous route, the coaster turned the curve to the airport smoothly and came to a quick stop near the curb. The crew all stumbled out and convened near the boot of the car to collect their travel cases. Putting on a brave face, Aisha collected her case and wheeled it towards the entrance of the airport, ready to undertake yet another journey, this time flying  to her favourite city Karachi, the city of lights!

The shiny bracelet…

One of the items I brought back from my recent visit to the Duomo in Florence was a bracelet which was adorned with little crosses and a small disc engraved with a picture of Mary and baby Jesus. Upon my return back to regular and uneventful days, my pretty bracelet got lost somewhere in the confusion of my cupboard and its presence faded to some remote part of my memory.

This morning while searching for a document of need, I emptied my cupboard and found the bracelet still packed in its box at the far end of the storage drawer. With excitement characteristic of a new buy and in remembrance of my wonderful trip, I wore the bracelet and left for office. During lunch I sat next to a colleague who happened to notice the shiny jewelery on my wrist and questioned me on the relevance of the small crosses and what the etching on the disk signified. His eyes opened wide with disbelief when I replied that the bracelet signified Mother Mary and Jesus; he could not believe that a Muslim could condescend to wear the sign of any other religion. The silence in the room became heavy and uncomfortable when I realized that all were looking at me with their own versions of interpretation; anger, disbelief, concern and questioning.

My mind drifted back to my history classes in College and a famous quote came to mind; “You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed”, Presidential address to the first Constituent Assembly in August 2017 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan. Looking at our current state of religious intolerance, we could not be further away from this utopian wish Jinnah had nurtured in his heart when he fought tooth and nail for an Independent State of Pakistan. The reality on the ground is so polar and the examples so many that I’m glad he did not live long enough to see all his dreams of religious unity crumble into the sandy shores of Clifton beach. The terrible lynching of a University student in Mardan over a fake facebook account, or the burning down of Christian homes in Lahore by a crazy mob over alleged blasphemous remarks, or the murder of an accomplished Ahmadi professor in her University residence, or the fearful Jews living in hiding in Pakistan scared of declaring their true faith, or the Shia community of Pakistan who are being gunned down whilst driving back home to their families! Religious intolerance in Pakistan and across the Muslim world is on the rise and there seems to be no respite in view.

I snapped out of my reverie when I realized that lunch hour had ended, and I wondered what I could say to ease the tension in the room: that I believed in religious freedom of thought and action, or that my mothers family was Roman Catholic and I had a part of that in my blood, or that I was convinced that only God knows what deeds and actions of us mortals would win his heart, or that simply I bought the bracelet because it was colourful and pretty! Burying my  personal views deep in my heart, I rose from my chair and pretending to make a phone call, I walked out of the cafeteria and shut the door behind me.

The bright shades of sunset….

Omar mopped the sweat on his brow with his dark and stained handkerchief as he furiously pedalled towards his university. His sister had lazed over his breakfast again which had led to an unpleasant tiff between them as getting in late to class was becoming a common occurrence.

“If only we could afford some hired help”, he thought moving his legs laboriously up and down on the pedals, willing the effort to get him to University faster.

As the road curved , the sprawling campus buildings loomed ahead; warm and inviting red brick architecture still reminiscent of the Mughal kings who had reigned over the city of Lahore for close to two hundred years. Omar braked sharply to avoid a motorbike coming from the other direction and weaved into his customary bicycle parking spot. Skipping over the verdant hedge, he cut through the vast expanse of green running up the stairs towards the hall where his class on “Anatomy” was taking place. The door creaked when he pushed it to enter the hall, and making himself as inconspicuous as possible, he made his way to where his friend Ali was sitting. He opened his notebook, and the rest of the lecture continued with the boys focusing all their attention on Dr. Khan’s drooping moustache, shiny head and droning voice.

Omar was the eldest son of a family plagued with incessant struggle and misfortune. His father had never risen above the ranks of a clerk in the post office, compelling his mother to supplement the meagre family income by stitching clothes for the more affluent ladies of the locality. Being the eldest of four siblings including three sisters, Omar felt the unsaid pressure of a better future weighing down on his lean shoulders. His younger and most beautiful sister Saba had recently been divorced by her husband owing to her inability to bear a child. Though his parents did not voice their emotions, their eyes followed her with a look of hopelessness which was a mirror to how they felt inside. The burden of two more unmarried daughters was now more apparent in the stoop of their shoulders. Omar’s mother, once a strong and formidable woman, had become an almost unrecognizable shadow of her former self. Fiercely protective of her, he hoped someday he would be able to smooth the lines on her brow, now etched deep with a sense of permanence in them. A higher education seemed to be the only light at the end of this dark tunnel, hence he put in all his energy and focus in studying for his Medical degree.

After the lecture, Omar and Ali made their way in the rising heat towards the University canteen to have their usual cup of tea amongst a horde of students all fighting for a place under the slowly whirring fan.

“Chotu, do chai” yelled Ali in his booming voice whilst sitting on the corner table.

The two friends were like chalk and cheese! Omar was dark skinned, lanky with a medium height and a quiet presence. Years of hard work and struggle had given him the countenance of an old man trapped inside a young body. On the other hand, Ali who was from the Northern region of Pakistan, was tall and broad built with a fair complexion and a loud voice which compelled people to notice his presence when he entered a room. He came from a well-to-do land owning family and had traveled to Lahore with a dream to improve the medical conditions in his antiquated village with the help of his Medical Degree.

“We have to meet this Saturday to complete the Final Year Project” said Omar. “The exams and the Project submission are very close to each other and I don’t wish one to affect the performance of the other”.

Ali raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “Omar, the exams are six months away. Take it easy and enjoy the last few days of freedom before reality hits us”, he smiled.

The steaming tea arrived along with a plate of samosas perched precariously on Chotu’s hand. The hungry young men forgot all about exams and Projects and turned their attention to gratifying their gastronomic need. The canteen was a cacophony of loud sounds exaggerated in Lahore’s boiling heat, but was nevertheless, a welcome break for the students who had devoted five years of their prime life in this campus! A close look at each student’s face would have revealed a vigorous energy, propelled with the need to survive, but which would eventually take them towards hope and a better future. A few more months and this campus full of verdant fields, burnt brick buildings and airless halls would be left behind, and only the memories of tea drank with friends in the hot canteen, sleepless nights before exams and rushed bicycle rides would be left behind. But the treasure each student would take with him would be a certificate which would open doors to a more prosperous future. Omar looked forward to this more than ever; much as he loved his father, he envisioned a life beyond the stairs of the Post Office on which his father had stepped for twenty five years. His knees and legs had permanent scars collected after years of riding his bicycle in narrow and bumpy lanes, and he aspired for more and better.

By the time Omar found himself pedaling back home, the sun was rapidly descending and the shadows were growing longer. Hunger was gnawing in the pit of his stomach and the anticipation of a hot meal cooked by his sister boosted his energy, making the effort of cycling a trifle easier. The street near his home was teeming with people in white skull caps heading towards the mosque for the evening prayer. Omar valiantly fought the urge to answer his gastronomic need before his religious duty and headed towards the mosque after securing his bicycle to a pole outside his small house with the peeling paint.

As he left the mosque, the sun was setting and leaving in its wake a red and orange hue in the horizon.  Seeing this creation of the Almighty, his heart surged with hope and at that moment he knew this his present days filled with anxiety, stress and worry would soon be replaced with bounty and a change in his destiny. Upon entering the house, he carelessly flung his satchel in the corner and before heading towards the kitchen in the hope of a hot meal, he gently swung his arm and shut the door on yet another day!

The little hand…

The car behind me honked loudly and I skipped to the side of the road in order to avoid a collision. Weaving in between fast moving motorcycles, cars and trucks, I headed towards the sidewalk to sit and rest in the shade. The dusty road divider had a sole tree with its few branches providing a semblance of shade, and a host of children with snotty noses were all clamoring to find a spot underneath. I hopped and skipped while avoiding cars as my feet were burning on the hot metallic road: I was barefoot as today was my sister’s turn to wear the slippers we shared. Finally upon reaching the sidewalk, I lifted my sore feet and blew on them to try and reduce the pain. I could see my ‘mother-of-the-day’ waving to me to get back on the road and approach stopping cars, but I pretended not to see her as the heat was unbearable.

For as long as I can remember, my days started with a bunch of ‘mothers’ and ‘children’ leaving the shanty town where we lived and spending a large part of the day in an allocated begging spot. Hot or cold weather, wet or dry days, the leader of the ring ensured that the lot of us was swarming around the traffic light and cajoling passersby to hand us alms. Some days a yellow substance on a filthy bandage was applied to my forehead, while on others, my arm was put in a dirty sling; though I must say I was lucky not to have my arm or leg broken like some of the children in our group, but the sling was most uncomfortable and I sneakily removed it when no one was watching.  According to the leaders of our group, people were more sympathetic when children were badly maimed, hurt or blind. In fact, in order to appeal to the sensitivities of the passersby, under nourished and starving children were scattered at all traffic crossings and made to thrust their little hands inside the open car windows. The one meal a day strategy ensured that we were underweight and sick looking with dark circles under our eyes; unbelievably skinny yet highly prized, little people like me were in great demand in the dark world of human trafficking!

Today I had no desire to go knocking incessantly on car windows, so I turned my back to the watchful eyes of our guards and tried to rest under the sparse tree. The sweltering heat coupled with the lack of nutrition made me listless and my eyelids closed inadvertently. As I drifted further and further away from my painful reality, I imagined the lives of people who passed by; children in spotlessly clean school uniforms heading to school: an anxious mother wiping away an invisible crumb on her child’s mouth: friends singing together to loud music blaring from the car stereo speakers; families piled together heading for a day out: and the smiles, oh the happy smiles of children secure in their comfort!

How different their lives were from mine! How I wish I was the smiling baby sitting in the shiny car on her mothers lap, or the chubby girl with pigtails wearing the white school uniform, or how about the tall, fair girl with the blue hairband and glittering bangles! Many a nights I had lain awake wondering who my real family was, where I came from, and why my fate had tied me to these roads; but young though I was, I understood that no matter which way the sun rose, the drudgery, pain and humiliation surrounding me would never change. Sadness weighed on me like a punishment, and my heart sank deeper and deeper till there was no more place left for it to go.

Suddenly I heard my name being called out; my eyes flew open and I snapped out of my reverie when I saw the beggar mafia ‘guard’ in charge of the area menacingly signaling for me to go back and start my work. Wiping the tears rolling down my cheeks, I collected my impossible dreams and unattainable desires, and locked them tightly in my little heart. Covering my head with a tattered veil in the hope of protecting myself from the blazing sun, I hobbled back to the large freeway and waited for the traffic light to turn red.