Prose

How I Discovered the Conference of the Birds

This post was first published here, on the Ziauddin University Atlas Blog.

When I was a boy and still believed in magic, I would frequent book fairs searching for the first poem I fell in love with. Some books, with their glossy covers, promised so much… but they never could live up to those glistening promises. Others were dingy paperbacks, coming apart at the seams and, while they were alright for a slow Sunday, they weren’t much good for much else. And so it was that I found myself at yet another book fair, picking my way through the endless shelves, careful to avoid the stacks of solemn textbooks, hoping to find it – whatever it was.

And there it was.

There was just one copy, standing upright on a small, empty table. And the cover was purple. Why the hell is it purple? I thought. I picked it up. It was a hardcover; a slim little volume printed in a timeless san-serif typeface. It seemed to be divided into short anecdotes, punctuated with gorgeous brush drawings. “A gift for distinguished men and a boon for the common”, it claimed. Cool. I hoped it wasn’t too expensive: I had just a bit of pocket money left. I took it to the counter. One hundred and thirty rupees, please. I fished around in my pockets. A red note – yes! That’s a hundred rupees! And… a bunch of tens, too! One, two, three. Perfect! I had the exact amount. Poor but happy, I returned home to see if this purple thing was worth the last of my lucre.

In the coming years, after I had read and re-read and folded and scribbled and underlined my copy of the Conference into tatters, I would look back on those one hundred and thirty rupees as the best one hundred and thirty rupees I had ever spent.

Ostensibly, the Conference of the Birds is about a epic quest by a group of birds to find their king. They journey across mountains and valleys and seas. They journey through the many gilded cities and rural backwaters of love. It’s about love. And the yearning in your tired, aching heart, late into the night, when all your desires melt away, save one.

Look, either the Conference of the Birds is the best book you’ll ever read, or it’s not. Anything else I say beyond this point will just ruin it for you. There’s only one way to find out and there always has been. Read the damn book.

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Politics

SHINE Humanity

SHINE Humanity is a registered NGO dedicated to providing high-quality healthcare and clean drinking water to underserved populations.

As President of SHINE Humanity’s Youth Board, I gave a presentation on SHINE’s charitable activities to the students and faculty of Karachi Grammar School.

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Poetry

Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy

A rough sea!

Stretched out over Sado

The Milky Way.

Matsuo Bashō (1644–94)

The classical masters of old say it is bad 

luck to play the wrong tune at the wrong 

time. Every raga echoes a certain mood, 

they say, in tune with the colours of the 

hours and the watches of the night. The 

old haiku masters of Japan agree. Every 

haiku only belongs to a certain season, 

crafted with the words particular to that 

season. So they spoke of summer rains, 

autumn loves, winter dreams; and — 

beneath it all — the call of the deep, deep 

north. And here we are, ragas out of time, 

haikus out of space, trying to find our way 

home while in our tired hearts beats the 

call of the deep, deep north.

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Poetry

Ad Astra (II)

in a hinterland galaxy 

by a mid-sized star 

on a strange blue world 

a hairless ape stands up and 

gains sentience and 

looks up at the stars and 

is never the same again. 

and somewhere 

far out at sea 

it is raining. 

it has been raining for 

many, many days 

and there is no one to see 

the Homecoming. 

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Prose

Sohni

This post was also published here, on the Ziauddin University Atlas Blog.

Man’s heart a river be

deeper in depth than the unfathomable oceans,

Ah! Who knows the wailing of the heart

in search of its Lord?

Sultan Bahu, d. 1691, (translated from the Punjabi by Sayed Akhlaque Husain Tauhidi)

THERE is a stubborn Sohni in my soul who longs to cross the Chenab of two worlds to reach her beloved, Mahiwal. I refuse. She persists. I patiently explain how fragile my ghaṛiya; how vast—how turbulent—the waters. It is but a simple thing fashioned of simple, unbaked clay: how dare it aspire—ad astra—to the stars? She smiles at me and slowly shakes her lovely head. 

A marvellous thing: as we watch the shoreline recede behind us—and the waters swirl higher, ever higher—my turbid heart settles for the first time since I was a boy of twelve and found that battered old copy of the Conference of the Birds and learnt of love and Love. 

And together, my Sohni and I watch as our Mahiwal appears on the distant bank and dives into the waves and strikes out for our simple, fragile, star-seeking, little ghaṛiya.

(Still from the music video of Coke Studio’s “Paar Chanaan De(Across the Chenab) by Noori ft. Shilpa Rao.)

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Prose

Dear Baba

Dear Baba,

A million years ago — as they sat by their little campfire — a father pointed out the constellations to his son. And the infinite night sky didn’t seem as intimidating anymore.

It’s the stories we grow up with that whisper the loudest within our hearts; they are the framework for our dreams; they pulse with the rhythm of our short, bright lives.

Thank you for giving me the stories that have made me who I am today. (Here is one of them.) Stories of social justice and dignity and equality. Stories of a divine love that is greater than the stars. And stories of who I was, who I am, and who I will be.

They are stories that will last a lifetime and I shall never tire of telling them.

Love you, forever and always.

Your son,

Shahzéb

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