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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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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Prose

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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Prose

(Why I Love) the Nostalgia of the Infinite

Strangers leave us poems to tell of those

they loved, how the heart broke, to whisper

of the religion upstairs in the dark,

sometimes in the parlor amid blazing sunlight,

and under trees with rain coming down

in August on the bare, unaccustomed bodies.

Jack Gilbert, Relative Pitch

THE Nostalgia of the Infinite has been my favourite piece of art for as long as I can remember. 

I don’t know when I first saw it — perhaps it had something to do with the indie game, Ico — but none of that truly matters. What matters is this:

That there is a deep and yearning nostalgia within Man’s heart. He feels it flutter when he looks upon the endless sea. He feels it tighten when he gazes up at the beckoning stars. He feels it even when he is with the one he loves most in the world. 

The heart yearns to mingle itself with the object of its desire and it can not and so it yearns to be whole. It has yearned since the dawn of consciousness and it yearns still with each (lub dub) and every (lub dub) beat. 

For there was once a time when it was not so — the heart was whole and it knew no sorrow. But that time has long since passed and is but a half-remembered dream from a childhood siesta for ever ago. But men will do strange things to appease their half-remembered dreams. Alexander led his armies to the very edge of the world. Thousands died in the impenetrable rainforests of the Amazon searching for El Dorado. And in a town called Babylon, a man built the greatest tower ever built to look upon the Face of God. It has always been so. 

But look closer. 

There they are, in plain sight. 

(two)

And, as they lean closer in the empty piazza, for a moment, their shadows become…

(one)

Giorgio de Chirico, The Nostalgia of the Infinite (Paris, 1911)

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Amor / Addiction

a photograph is all that lasts long

with glory years and quiet fears gone

when summer days are far away

you can dream of skies and lover’s eyes

blue

Shoecraft, Eyes, Blue 

OF all the addictions that may plague a man, an addiction to love is the trickiest addiction to have. This is due to the singular fact that one can not buy love in the marketplace. If one could, that would be another matter entirely and we would not be having this conversation for I would be in the marketplace but we are, and I’m not, for it is — truly, insufferably — priceless.

Its effects are astounding. It can take a boy of fifteen — a promising young lad with a first-rate mind and sound disposition — and render him anaesthetised to worldly pursuits. The worlds of commerce and politics and sport are forever more left grey and drab to him. The gold stars of society no longer mean anything to him. He has glimpsed a world drenched in colour and he can not thrive without it. Over the years, he secretly feeds his addiction with scraps of poetry and ancient Persian treatises on Sufism. He devours literature with an unslakable thirst, searching, ever searching. He sees something he can not articulate in the way the sun sets behind lonely apartment complexes. Something beckons to him on the sea breeze as it blows through banyans in the hot afternoons. And something tightens in his chest every night as he watches the rising of the stars from the roof of his ancestral home. Everything he writes ends the same way: smeared with the half-remembered colours of forgotten love. Like waking from a dream and scrambling to put it all down before it’s lost to the aether; knowing it’s going, knowing it’s gone, knowing even as you begin to write that it’s useless and yet still grasping for another fix, you addict, happy in your addiction, wouldn’t trade it for the world because you’d rather your half-remembered colour than the grey, grey, grey of everyone and everything else…

There is a boy or a girl a thousand years hence on another planet who is reading all this, feeling all this. Here, Earth is merely a byword for an unspeakable nostalgia. I write to you — future-boy, future-girl — from your ancestral home. The colours are real. They exist. There is only one way to find them and there always has been. Good luck. Godspeed.

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Prose

Keenjhar Lake

The Ziauddin University Atlas Blog

Hasham Masood, M.B.B.S., Batch XVIII.jpgGharo, Sindh, Pakistan. PHOTO CREDITS: HASHAM MASOOD, M.B.B.S., BATCH XVIII

BY: SHAHZEB NAJAM, M.B.B.S., BATCH XVIII

If you sail far enough into the blue waters of Keenjhar Lake, you’ll see a small, stone structure rising up out of the waves. You disembark onto weather-beaten steps and climb up to a white, circular platform and in the centre, in eternal solitude, lie the graves of an ancient king and an ancient queen. You say a small prayer for the royal lovers — for all lovers, in all epochs, and for those who loved too much. Before you leave, your gaze lingers a moment longer on the setting sun and the wind-ruffled waters and you wonder why it feels like you’ve left something of yourself behind there with Noori and with Jam Tamachi and their thousand sunsets. Soon, the stars will rise. And I shall think of you.

About the author: Shahzeb…

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