Prose

Melancholy Tastes the Same in Italy and Other Stories

“A sad story, don’t you think?”
Haruki Murakami, On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning

1.

I thought all the kids did it. Whenever it got too much, you’d just take it all, unspooled as it was, and pick a song. (Any song.) You’d listen to that song again and again and again, until the feeling was the song and the song the feeling. And… then you didn’t have to worry about it ever again. It worked really well — it still does. The only problem is that now I’m old enough to forget things. And sometimes I’ll play a song that’s vaguely familiar and, before I know it, all those threads that I’ve carefully stashed into it will come flying out. And high up on Mount Olympus, Ariadne can’t stop giggling.


2.

I remember the softness of her naked feet on the cold, clean tiles.


3.

At dusk, bright billboards of you across Lahore pursue me home.


4.

Even the smallest Dairy Milk is purple. Once, purple was worth its weight in gold. The Phoenicians would crack open hundreds of thousands of Mediterranean sea snails to make an ounce of Tyrian purple. Imagine that. Imagine the audacity of trying to overwhelm her with quantity, to stretch my hands out “thiiiiiiis much”, “to the moon and back”, “infinity times infinity”, but I can’t say all that, of course, so I do the best I can and save up for weeks and weeks and buy as many of the small, purple bars of Dairy Milk that I can. And when I turn the large backpack upside down before her, I can see the concern for my sanity in her eyes. Believe me, this is the best that I can do to show you how much. Forgive the quality of the chocolate. Once, purple was worth its weight in gold. I stand before you, hoping that the quantity is enough for you to extrapolate the quality. You were always good at math.


5.

The indolent Sunday afternoons of my childhood are estranged from me. Lost in time. They seemed so endless back then. Will I ever get them back? Or, if I do, will it simply lead to a relocation of those longings to another horizon, still further back. I dream of horizons of yearning, each gazing at the other, a succession of infinite funhouse mirrors in a Barnum and Bailey multiverse. “But it wouldn’t be make-believe / if you believed / in me.”


6.

A final memory. Another birthday party. She is not coming. So I talk to an old friend. An animated conversation about politics — the usual. When, suddenly. Small, soft palms cover my eyes. The heart-note of a perfume I can always pick out, no matter how crowded the school’s corridor. A voice breathes in my ear. Guess who? And I can not breathe. For I know that this moment will forever be a barometer for my happiness, the high-water mark left on the battered levees of my heart. When did the sun begin to set?


7.

And now here I am, on the last train home. And I do not know what to make of that.


we were running through the autumn leaves /
a couple kids just wearing out our jeans…

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On the sweet sounds of static on old radios

Time was a string of knots, a spiked wheel,

a seam that you could split and heal—

As a boy, reclining on horsehair

one morning on a train,

you watched the countryside,

a single light-filled frame

in which lives flickered, drawn forward

like a train along a track; you saw yourself,

suspended in a fractured, endless motion,

going, never going back.

Lauren Wilcox, The Moving-Picture Principle,The Paris Review, Summer 2004

AND then there was that band that had that song called the Loving Sounds of Static. Before then, I’d never thought of static as something that could be loving; beautiful, even.

And then I learnt the only thing I remember from high-school physics: that 2% of the static you hear on old radios as you turn the dial from station to station at sunset is primordial waves — remnants of the Big Bang destined to course forever more through the lonely spaces between the stars and I feel a bit strange knowing that, don’t you?

And the band was called Möbius Band and a Möbius strip is a band, too — not the musical kind — but kinda like the one you wear around your wrist except it has a twist in it so you can visit both sides — inside, outside — without lifting your finger.

And Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, famously, about the bittersweet songs of distant earth but he also wrote about a wall of darkness at the edge of an alien universe and I remember reading it twice in one go and wondering at the magic of it all, and wanting to be a writer, and that was about a Möbius strip, too.

And since then, that’s what I think of whenever I hear static on old radios: sci-fi and interstellar origins and whatever it is that lies just beyond the border of everything. But more and more, now, I think of those quiet evenings spent endlessly tracing a finger along the continuous surface of a band worn, once upon a time, by you.

 

 

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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 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. Great things are polarising that way. 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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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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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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The best bit of Brooklyn Bridge isn’t

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd…

What is it, then, between us?

What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

THE best bit of Brooklyn Bridge isn’t the walk across it at sunset.

It isn’t the sparkling Manhattan skyline stretched out before you.

It isn’t the endless East Coast sky; beckoning, forever beckoning.

And it isn’t the quiet ships plying the dark waters of the Atlantic beneath you.

The best bit of Brooklyn Bridge is reading the little letters to tomorrow carved into the walkway by thousands of travellers.

Like the Lascaux cave paintings, they speak to a deep and profound human need to say:

I was here.

I existed.

Remember me.

Remember me

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