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.

The Homecoming….

The air hostess led the two children to their seats and after ensuring the seat belts were in place, went off to assist other passengers. As the doors of the plane shut, Sana’s heart sank and her eyes started to water. She turned to hold her brother’s hand knowing that the feeling of loneliness and despair was also coursing through his blood. It was the end of another summer vacation; a vacation spent with their beloved grandparents in London. This moment in time also signaled the start of another long and interminable wait till the next vacations neared and the exercise of crossing dates off the calendar began. To make his sister feel better, Raza magnanimously allowed Sana to take the coveted window seat. The plane was noisy and teeming with people searching for their seats and trying to find place for their hand luggage in the over head compartments. Eventually a lull settled in the cabin as people buckled up their belts and the plane picked up speed while taxiing. In a flash, the child in Sana resurfaced and she stuck her nose to the cold window waiting for the aircraft to lift and carry her back home to Karachi,  her home, her friends, and most importantly, her father.

Sana and her brother Raza were the products of a deep love marriage between their parents which took off in the right direction, but somewhere along the way the fabric of life began to unwind when their mother’s illness was diagnosed: leaving in its wake two children bound by nature to their parents, but torn physically apart from the womb which had nurtured them and endured the pain of procreation. Their father, Riaz had moved back to Karachi after the death of his wife taking the two children with him. The separation from their beloved grandparents after the demise of their mother was naturally painful as it signified another snip in their close family, but all vacations were spent in London where the children would feel the presence of their mother in the arms of their grandparents.

The journey was interminable with the bouts of boredom only broken by the food and drinks which excited the children. Sana struggled in vain to watch a movie on the small television monitor placed at the back of the front seat, with air phones which were bulky and kept slipping off her small and childlike ears. Raza, on the other hand, kept his nose in his Hardy Boys book which had temporarily transported him into a world of mystery and simple crime. His deep sense of responsibility made him look up occasionally to check on Sana and her fidgety self to ensure that she was okay. After a tiring flight over parts of Europe and Asia, the plane began to descend towards a much awaited landing as the children were tired out by the cramped seats and the weight of their drained emotions.

With impatience, which is characteristic of spirited children, the brother and sister duo headed towards the exit doors to be greeted by a blast of hot air, a cacophony of loud sounds, and a smell which is distinctively local. “Welcome to Karachi” screamed the billboard as the children ran down the shaky staircase, eager to get away from their confined home of the last eight hours. The queues at the baggage claim were endless and porters were jostling the tired passengers to earn a few rupees. Raza signaled a reed thin, dark skinned man who ran eagerly towards them with his creaking trolley, while Sana shouted with joy upon seeing the familiar red suitcase on the moving carousel and urged the porter to lift it and place it on the trolley. It was a sight to behold as the two young children with tired faces and crumpled clothes, the dark skinned porter, and the red suitcase moved towards the arrival area. The children eagerly scanned the sea of people looking for a familiar face. After a few long, anxious minutes, Sana spotted her father and sprinted towards him. Her beloved Baba smiled broadly and bent down to take his daughter in his arms after an absence of a long month, whispering gently in her ear, “Welcome home, my dear”.

I am innocent….

With blood streaming in my eyes, I struggle to cover my head in order to ward off the blows coming from all directions. I tried to shout out to ask them to stop, but I could only croak and no sound came out. The mob drew closer and closer to me till I felt my world darkening and closing in on me. The last I remember hearing is the sound of my skull cracking with the impact of a harsh blow, and while entering the dark vortex of unconsciousness, my mind drifted to the events of the morning.

I was a University student at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan; conscientious, hard working and well liked by my teachers. Living in the hostel, I missed the warmth and love of my home, but I also valued the importance of education. Other than participating in discussions in the classroom, I also enjoyed reading about the world on the internet as I was pursuing a degree in Journalism. At the end of each day, I would enter my hostel room, and after washing up, would open my books to study hard and achieve my dreams of becoming a journalist. My room was my haven and I felt a sense of inner peace each time I read the posters I had put up on the walls with cheap tape, ‘Allah is the greatest  and Prophet Muhammad is the messenger of God’. This love for my religion and Prophet gave me strength, and made my life away from my beloved family easier to bear.

Today the day started in a strange way; my hostel room is ransacked and my things thrown around to my sheer disbelief. As I start walking towards the University building, some students surround me and accuse me of blasphemy. ‘Blasphemy, me!’, I wonder as I remember the posters adorning the walls of my room. The crowd around me swells and the voices become louder and louder; the shouting sounds are making a reference to my Facebook account where anti Islam sentiments have been expressed. My mind flashed to the Facebook status I had recently updated “I don’t have another Facebook account and if someone sends you a request with my ID and display picture, please report to me”. I try to shout above the din that that was not me on Facebook, and that it was a fake account, but my voice gets lost in the shouts of the mob. “Fake account, someone is trying to show a negative image of me’ I repeat again and again and again, but no one is listening to me. As the first blow hits me, I reel backwards and fall on the ground; I’m petrified, hurt, bleeding and I want to go home. As another blow hits me, I miss the loving arms of my mother who was always there to protect me. As the third blow bends me over, I think of my father and his desire that I should become a successful journalist.

As the blood gushes out of my head with unbearable pain, I am convinced I don’t want an education anymore; I’m convinced I don’t want a University degree if this is what humans can become in a sacred place of learning. As the lynching continues, I feel myself losing consciousness for the last and final time. I take a deep, last breath and utter the prayer, “God is the greatest” before fading into nothingness.

My name is Mashal Khan and I am innocent.




Karachi, my first love

As I dash from one weekend errand to the next, running across town over the vast expanse of Karachi, I can’t help thinking of my city as my first love. Though I have fallen in love with other cities since: Milan, Como and London, my heart still lusts after my first love….a love which consumed me leaving me exhausted, yet who’s company I enjoyed in my growing up days. My first love Karachi, who holds the secrets of my memories: the long clandestine drives to the beach, the first puff of a cigarette, the late night tambaku walla pan!

The last two decades have seen my city harden and become more cynical. She has lost some of her looks, becoming dirtier and decrepit with the passing of time. Bursting at its seams with a multitude of people from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds all thrown together in this hot and angry melting pot. This social, religious and economic chasm is ever widening with her inhabitants welding their arms at the smallest possible reason. There are times the  smell of burning dreams suffocate me and I wish to turn away from this, rather than see my love disintegrate into smoke, yet I hold on; to memories of better days, to the ever lasting friendships this city has given me, and to the salty air which is ever so familiar.

Karachi is no longer the same person I knew when I was growing up, and neither am I the same girl anymore; yet despite her scars and deep, frown lines she has acquired under the weight of her changing constitution, I keep wondering what would happen if we decided to break up and I moved far away from her. With those thoughts in mind, I drive back home taking the ever familiar Seaview road. As I wait at the traffic light, I open the window and smell the familiar sea air, and hear the hawkers trying to peddle their ware amidst the sound of the sea water crashing against the rocks; at that very moment, my heart soars renewing my love for this aching city. As the light turns green, I shift the gear and drive on thinking ‘ Its good to be home’.

The colour yellow…

“Vincent Van Gogh used to eat yellow paint because he thought it would get the happiness inside him. Many people thought he was mad and stupid for doing so because the paint was toxic, never mind that it was obvious that eating paint couldn’t possible have any direct correlation to one’s happiness. If you were so unhappy that even the maddest ideas could possibly work, like painting the walls of your internal organs yellow, then you are going to do it. It’s really no different than falling in love or taking drugs. There is a greater risk of getting your heart broken or overdosing, but people still do it everyday because there was always that chance it could make things better. Everyone has their yellow paint.”

We all live with different shades of colour within us; bright and cheery when the day is going well, and grey and black when the heart is feeling heavy. Life is like a kaleidoscope which keeps us in a perpetual search for mornings when we look outside the window, hoping for a colourful rainbow to make us smile!

Reading the other side….

Sadly, anti Muslim sentiment is very high these days with Trump setting up travel bans, and members of the “So Called Islamic State” spreading chaos all over the world: religious tensions are on the increase and friendships are forced to change.  Stereotyping is prevalent and Muslims are being persecuted only for their faith, and not for their personal actions.  

I watched a TV show on Australian TV where the debate escalated becoming bitter and unpalatable. In the end, the Muslim lady invited the audience to read up about Islam with a very unbiased and open mind in order to understand that the religion itself is all about peace and love, and that the ISIS and terrorists are only harbingers of bad news.  

Feeling that I should increase my knowledge and learn more about Islam through the writings of other authors, I researched and found the following books :

– Muhammad by Martin Lings 

– After the Prophet and The First Muslim, both by Lezlie Hazleton. 

All three books are very well researched and detailed.  The interesting thing to ponder is that all these books are written by non Muslims who must have approached this sensitive topic with a critical eye and preconceived ideas. Yet they have emerged triumphant and presented their learnings which speak for all the misunderstood creed!!

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk 

Can love be this strong, lasting and undying? Is it a myth or a reality that man can live only on love? 

The Museum of Innocence is the realisation of Orhan’s book from words to real existence. It is based in Istanbul and showcases all the items collected by the lover which belonged to the object of his desire.  The cigarette butt’s thrown by Fusun, the pieces of scrap discarded by her are all collected and saved by Kemal.  The reader is taken through their tumultuous relationship shared on paper,

until they land in the Museum which Kemal creates for his loved one.  

The Museum actually exists in Istanbul and if you take your copy of the book along, entry is free of charge.

Florence and the Di Medici family

My interest in the history of Florence was further piqued when I visited the beautiful city during Christmas holidays. Art and Culture is part of the meandering streets and lanes, and every turn has something new to offer from the statue of David, the famous Uffizi Gallery, the tall bell tower.  The dome of the Duomo is the highlight of the trip, which stands tall and majestic over the city.  

During the pinnacle of the Di Medici family success, the incomplete dome  of the church was thought to be too  difficult to build.  That’s when Lorenzo Di Medici commissioned Filippo Brunellesci who was considered a magician by his peers as no one had dared to complete the seemingly impossible mission.  Brunellesci used an oval egg to show how he would construct the dome using mathematics and physics highly advanced for the fifteenth century. 

My next read is the life of Catherine Di Medici who was a powerful matriarch of this illustrious family.  

Pamuk….Silent House

Orhan Pamuk has taken over my heart with his poignant descriptions of man sucked in the vortex of pain, desire and helplessness. All of his books are centered in a Turkey straddling between East and West, Rich and poor, strong and weak.  

The Silent House takes the reader into the house of an old grandmother lying in bed and waiting for death to take her away from her unsettled world full of despair. The book gravitates between past and present, hidden and obvious, and sorrow and joy. The grandchildren along with the house servant are all characters linked with the debilitated owner of the house. 

Pamuk is not to be missed at all!!!

House of Stone 

House of Stone by Christina Lamb is the true story of a family divided in war torn Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s plan to evict the white farmers turns ugly when the trusted house servants turn into enemies: white turns into black, and good turns into evil.  

The book is a look into how race and colour transcend boundaries of friendship, trust and humanity.  Aqui, the trusted children’s maid gets fogged up in the brain when the nation turns violent….she forgets the good done to her by the Hough family, and joins the thousands who rebel against the love and support they received from their caretakers.  

A poignant look at relationships which become soiled by the fumes of race, caste and creed.