Poetry

The Moor’s Last Sigh 

When I cock my ear

I hear tunes that come from far away,

from the past,

from other times,

from hours that are no longer

and from lives that are no longer. 

Perhaps our lives

are made of music. 

On the day of resurrection,

my eyes will open again in Seville. 

Boabdil, the last king of Muslim Spain 

The Moors ruled Spain for seven hundred years 

and you ruled my heart for seven. On moonless 

nights, ghosts alight, and dream of Andalusia, 

Andalusia…

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Prose

Why I Write

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

I REMEMBER the day I decided to become a writer.

It was one of those endless summer Sundays in Karachi and I was bored, bored, bored. The grown-ups were in the den, going on and on about politics and, restless as usual, I headed up the cold marble stairs to my Nani’s library.

The afternoon sun blazed in through the open window and I began to pick and prod at the vast, dusty shelves, looking for something — anything — to pass the never-ending Sunday.

And then I saw it. It was a thin, black volume, and it caught my eye because of how incongruous it looked among a big pile of medical textbooks. I pulled it free and wiped it clean and coughed from the dust.

An alien sun gleamed on an alien beach and that was how I met Arthur C. Clarke and his ‘Songs of Distant Earth’. The name of the book isn’t important. Every writer has their own such book.

What’s important is this: how I didn’t notice the sun sinking below the horizon until it was too dark to read; how I didn’t hear my mother calling to me from downstairs; and how, for weeks, I had dreams about Thalassa and the loneliness of space and the immensity of time. I could never look at the stars the same way again. And I just couldn’t figure out how those static little black words on yellowing paper could do that to a person.

So I decided that there was only one thing to do: become a writer and work that dark magic myself. After all, I figured, how hard could it be? Suffice it to say that my first ‘masterpiece’ was a story called Bus 13 and it was, you guessed it, about a poor old bus that had the distinct misfortune to be haunted. To their credit, my parents never let on how bad it was; they didn’t even laugh at the yellow clip art bus I had pasted at the very top of the page.

But I knew. It was a story, sure, but it wasn’t… that. And I realised then that this wasn’t going to be easy. It wasn’t the words on the page. It was the emotions — the ideas, the heart — behind them. And that needed something more: a sincere curiosity about the world and the people in it; an awareness of your own emotions and the strength to interrogate those emotions at length to figure out why exactly, that particular sunset or song made you feel all weird inside. So this, then, is why I write. To capture those moments before they’re lost forever. And to one day leave behind a thin, black book that, decades from now, some boy or girl will find on a dusty bookshelf one sunny summer afternoon and then, well, nothing will ever be the same again.

About the author: Shahzéb hopes to do his residency under the great Dr. Ernesto Guevara de la Serna. 

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Prose

They have not lit the lamp at the other farm yet / and all at once I feel lonely 

If there is only enough time in the final

minutes of the 20th century for one last dance

I would like to be dancing it slowly with you,

say, in the ballroom of a seaside hotel.

My palm would press into the small of your back

as the past hundred years collapsed into a pile

of mirrors or buttons or frivolous shoes,

just as the floor of the 19th century gave way

and disappeared in a red cloud of brick dust.

There will be no time to order another drink

or worry about what was never said,

not with the orchestra sliding into the sea

and all our attention devoted to humming

whatever it was they were playing.

Billy Collins, Dancing Towards Bethlehem

I WENT to my grandfather’s grave today. It’s high up on the side of a hill and to reach it you drive up through secluded streets shaded by large trees and there, between two houses, is a tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it lane. It’s so narrow that even if you’re small, you can reach out really, really far and touch the dusty whitewashed walls on either side. 

As you emerge from the lane you find yourself at the top of a hill, all of Karachi spread out before you; below you grave after grave until your gaze rests at the foot of the hill. That’s a hell of a view, you think, this is a good a place as any to be buried. And imagine what it must look like at night with all those city-lights sparkling under the stars. 

You pass headstones and shaded tombs and carefully step over mounds — some so heartbreakingly small that you don’t want to think. All of them carry a story. 

PROF SURGEON H. M. SIDDIQUI says one. 

EAT WELL, DIE YOUNG, AND HAVE A GOOD LOOKING CORPSE says another. 

One of the smaller ones has a red bicycle with black handlebars carved carefully into the marble. Underneath, in small, neat letters it says LOVING SON RASHID YOUR GIFT CYCLE. 2000-2009. 

There’s a small staircase that leads down to my Nana’s grave. And there’s a small, white marble bench at the foot of it for visitors. The caretaker comes and washes the grave and then I lay the rose petals on it and say a small prayer. As the caretaker leaves, he tells me how my grandmother came just yesterday. She’s here most days, he says. Sits just there, on the bench, till sunset. He walks away up the staircase. 

And now I have to sit because my vision is blurry and my legs feel strange and I can smell the rose petals on the sea breeze. And I think of her, sitting here all alone, day in day out, even though it’s been three years, sitting on that bench that looks over Karachi and the grave of the man who spent his whole life with her and I wonder at a loneliness I can not begin to imagine. 

At the end of his book Contact, astronomer Carl Sagan writes that for small creatures such as we the infinities of the cosmos are made bearable only through love. We need the enveloping arms of those we love, ready to catch us when we grow dizzy from contemplating eternity. 

And as I lie here on the roof watching Sirius twinkle across the vastness of space and the immensity of time, I realise he knows what the hell he’s talking about. 
  

“The flowers did show us spring for a while / yet I long for the flowers that never bloomed at all.”

— Translation by my old friend, Yousuf Mehmood.

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Prose

The Quiet Saudade of Video Games

A city child, down for the summer.

When suddenly he walked into

the twelve-foot wall of corn.

Leaving the dogs. Firelight

on the barn. The smell of Carolina.

The stars making me lurch.

Thirty years ago…

Jack Gilbert, Another Grandfather

SO THERE’S this game. Firewatch. The game is you by your lonesome in a lookout tower, deep in the woods of some heartland American state. Now just imagine that. The woods stretch away on every side, far as the eye can see. You have your little tower and you watch the sun set and rise and if you listen close you can hear the sound of a stream a little way away and the crickets and birds chirping in the forest. Your walkie-talkie buzzes every once in a while and you can talk or not talk and it just adds to the solitude like hearing a piano note hesitant in the dark, late into the night. I don’t know. The idea of that. There’s something to it. To these games that speak of solitude and the quiet exploration of weathered lighthouses on windswept islands (The Sailor’s Dream) or haunting backcountry woods (Firewatch) or even a vast, lonely universe and you in your little spaceship, alone amidst the stars (No Man’s Sky). It’s like they’re a Sufi journey into one of Attar’s seven valleys.

A while back there was this movie about a guy who’s a 9/11 survivor and he’s got PTSD and to cope he plays Shadow of the Colossus, a game where there’s just you and your faithful horse and the deserted ruins of an ancient Babylon.

Then there was Far Cry 4 and, don’t get me wrong, it was nice and all hearing Urdu gaalis in a video game but the best bit is making your way up the Himalayas and pushing through the snow covered trees until you spy the little stone path cut into the the mountain that leads up, higher, higher, and you follow it and it opens onto a little terrace on the side of the great mountains and a small sign by the path says it’s your ancestral homestead and there’s a little wooden house and a well and some goats and a small garden that ends at the edge of a steep drop and you stand there, all of Kyrat spread out before you. It’s home, you know?

Even No Man’s Sky is an aspirin for when you’re star-drunk from staring at the night sky too long and can’t breathe because there’s not much time left and there’s a universe to explore and you don’t have a starship by your side and you never will and you realise, then, that it’s taken so long for the light to reach you from those stars that they’re probably dead and buried on those alien, alien worlds and all you can do now is watch them and realise that that’s why they say ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’…

I’ll probably never play all these games anyway and I guess that’s for the best. This way I’m free to project my own saudade onto them. Truth is, they’d never be as good as my dreams.

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Prose

A Light Between Oceans

Also published on the Ziauddin University Atlas Blog.

MANY years ago my grandfather gave my father a watch and my father gave it to me. It’s an old Omega De Ville — soft, brushed gold that catches the light just so on those long summer Sundays in Karachi. 

Watches are strange beasts: precious metals forged in the fiery cores of supernovae, held in place by delicate strips of perishable leather; keeping time to the warmth of other suns. 

If built true and kept well, the metal soul of a watch will outlast the wearer and be passed on with a bit of history and a patina of character. But the leather will not last. Sweat and rain and time will break it down, eventually.

A word on time —

I’ll tell thee everything I can:

There’s little to relate.

I saw an aged aged man,

A-sitting on a gate.

The aged, aged man is Kronos, God of Time. Chronology and chronographs are Chinese whispers of his name. But his kingdom can not lay claim to all of time. Quantitative time is his province, the one that my old Omega ticks off the seconds to. And while it’s a vast, powerful state, its smaller neighbour is just as essential to temporality. 

One of the disadvantages of living in this city by the sea is the havoc wrought by humidity. Leather straps rarely last more than a few years. The last one was a rich, dark brown with a word embossed on the reverse in small, block letters: K A I R O S. Kairos, the God of qualitative time. 

So while Kronos charts out the maps which underlie our lives — from the alarm-clock that wakes us from the wistful nostalgia of our dreams, to the calendars that lay out our days of work and leisure, leisure and work — Kairos marks out our lives themselves — the sunset conversations with old friends that end far too soon; the endless years spent in a half-hour noon nap’s dreamworlds.

Kronos with his time and Kairos with his timing. And in between these two oceans stand the lighthouses of our lives, lights aimed first at one, then the other, forever afraid of committing fully to either. 

And perhaps that’s best. For without the strap or without the metal, the watch is incomplete. But put them together and you have a marvel of ingenuity and engineering that proclaims the passage of Time — and also the subtler passing of the times

And as one generation passes on its wisdom to the next, we are, before we know it, adrift between the gods.
  

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Poetry

Florentino Ariza in the Age of Silicon

She said you’re silly she said you don’t make 

enough to be spending that much on novels.

But the titles I said. Wait till you hear the titles. 

Show me she said. I don’t see it she said. You 

and your titles she said. Yes, I said. But, I said. But

I have fallen in love for far less. She was checking 

her phone then and I did not want to say it again 

so I didn’t.

  Giorgio De Chirico, ‘The Enigma of the Oracle’ 

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Poetry

There Was Something There, In That

There was something there, in that, 

he said. In that night on the roof 

with the meat glistening golden as 

it turned above the great fires. And 

how we tore into the soft meat and 

sat back from the carnage; satisfied, 

spent. There was something there, in 

that, he said. In that walk, too, 

through the dusty park to the dhaba 

and the warm cups of milky tea. And 

how we took the long way home. 

Afterwards, I started up the car and 

we drove back there again. There were 

no stars that night and the dhaba was 

closed. But in the alley between, a 

man quietly fried parathas by the light 

of a little flame. And though it wasn’t 

that, there was something there, in that, 

too.

  

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Thalassa 

For Prof. Dr. M. N. Shabbir, F.R.C.S.(Ed.)

A small clinic by the sea. Fans whir

lazily against the hot Karachi summer.

Most of the fishermen are here out of

curiosity. One day, yes, they will build

me a model ship with the lights and the

little toy soldiers holding their little

green flags just as they once did for

my father. The sun sets, then, and we

close up for the day and lay down our

two red steths. We sit on the roof, yes,

with our warm cups of doodh-patti and

talk of Attar and his thirty birds. And

it is like being alive twice. Meanwhile,

yes, the old, old stars rise over the old,

old seas.

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Poetry

Magellan

They sat in silence, watching night fall over the brambles. A flock of distant animals could be heard on the horizon, and a woman’s inconsolable voice calling them by name, one by one, until it was dark.

Gabriel García MárquezOf Love and Other Demons

They say Magellan once dreamt of Maccu Picchu,

burning in the moonlight and an orphan-king who

roamed the forsaken streets with a broken crown

as his tears mingled with the lashing rain. They say

Magellan never awoke from that dream and spent

the rest of his life searching for the ruined city. On

the night before his death, they say he scribbled a

last entry into his journal. Somewhere in South

America, he wrote, an orphan-king wed an orphan-queen

and they were orphans no more. They lived in great

happiness and their rule was just and wise. But the

conquistadors came one day and took gold and took

slaves and left him with a broken crown and a broken

heart and not much else. He wandered the desolate

ruins under the strange stars until one rainy night his

sanity tripped over the edge of an endless abyss. He

ventured into the jungle, then, and the great beasts

all ran from the madness of the orphan-king. On moonless

nights, Magellan wrote, even now I can hear his footsteps

echo in that strange dream-city and my soul shall find

no rest until I wander its lonely streets. In my search for

this city I have spent the riches of a thousand kingdoms

and I would spend the riches of a thousand more. I can

not breathe, I can not eat, I am neither here nor there. I

am the yearning in your tired, tired soul on sleepless nights,

he wrote, when all your desires melt away save

one.

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