Prose

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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Poetry

The Fifth Season

Slaves in the realm of love are the only truly free men.

Ibn Ammar, Seville, Arab Andalusia 

And I’ll love you like the sun loves California.

Beth Hart, My California

it demands a new vocabulary for

it is the fifth season

it is deciduous

it is like those flowers in the desert

that bloom once in a blue moon after long

nights of rain and fade away in the face of

solar slaughter leaving behind

the singing sand dunes

to tell of them

to tell of us

 

i

read book

after book

after book

and yet

i

can not find the words

to tell of you

to tell of me

to tell of us.

 

what us?

(she said)

what words?

there are only

twelve keys

seven seas

and

four seasons

yes

(i said)

yes

and yet…

and yet.

 

like an addict Gilbert begged the gods

“let me fall in love one last time”

he said and

i get it.

it can be hard to live so long

in the grey to live so long

that you yearn for the colours

because you’ve — almost, almost —

forgotten what blue looks like

what you look like

 

these are words on paper

these are pixels on a screen

one of these days they’ll upload you

to the web and stream you to the stars

you’ll materialise on the other side

a little tired, a little bewildered

but pretty much the same except for

what was it?

it’s right on the tip of your tongue

it’s all that they couldn’t put into

ones and zeroes because

there’s no language

there’s no lexicon

(yet)

to tell of you

to tell of me

to tell of us

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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 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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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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Poetry

Searching for it

Ye masāil-e-tasavvuf

These matters of mysticism

Ye tirā bayān ‘ġhālib’

These discourses of yours, Ghalib

Tujhe ham valī samajhte

We’d judge you a saint

Jo na bāda-ḳhvār hotā 

If you weren’t an alcoholic

Ghalib, Ye na thi hamari qismat ki visal-e-yar hota (It just wasn’t my kismet to meet my lover)

searching for it at night

searching for it in brothels

searching for it in bottles of Murree’s finest on cold winter evenings

searching for it on walks through the city

walking.

walking through the humid streets of your childhood

by the park where you first kissed her

behind the queen-of-the-nights;

you will ask for them on your deathbed

to your tired, ravaged mind they will only be

a memory 

of something you knew, once,

so well

almost 

got it

almost there

almost.

 

walking.

walking through the graveyard

where your grandfather lies

and his father

and his father before him

and you, too, someday

(if you like)

under the big banyan tree

that your grandmother told you was haunted

by a family of djinn

and you’d search for them during the hot afternoons

for three whole summers;

they say every love story is a ghost story

and if that’s true

then

who will you love?

who will you haunt?

 

walking,

forever walking.

to the mosque by the sea

where you found God one day

found him on the sea breeze

that came in through the broken windowpane

of that poor fishermen’s mosque

and kissed you on the forehead as you knelt 

and you kneel again

please, you say,

please, please.

but there is no breeze tonight

so you sit there

cross-legged on the dusty woven mat

and look through another broken windowpane

at the rising sun

and the fishermen as they row in

from nights spent

searching, searching

on the dark waters

and you see the morning star

and you see the Ursids flash by

and something flutters in your heart, then

and you are alright, then;

what a strange thing you are,

Man’s heart

what a strange, strange thing you are.

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