Prose

Why I Write

First published 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

Iskandar’s Stars

Days I have held,

Days I have lost…

Derek Walcott, Midsummer, Tobago

ISKANDAR sipped at the warm coffee. The dim lights of the bridge bathed his blue uniform in a soft glow. He sat before the vast view screen and contemplated the sprawl of stars spread out before him. He listened to the quiet hum of the ship’s engines and took another sip of the coffee and closed his weary eyes.

Sir?”

“Hmm?”

“Sir, shouldn’t you be asleep?” Iskandar half turned and raised an eyebrow at the silhouette that framed the doorway. He watched as she walked past the sleek consoles with their darkened screens and took a seat beside him. She reached for his coffee, plucked it out of his grip and took a long, long gulp.

“There isn’t any sugar,” she said. Iskandar grunted and turned back to the view screen.

“Iskandar,” she said. “It’s October.”

“I know.”

“No,” she said. “You don’t know. It’s October and the crisp wind from the desert is just beginning to blow across Karachi and the nights are cold and crisp and dusty but the dust doesn’t block out the stars and you can see Rigel and Arcturus and Capella from the roof of your parents’ house and we could huddle up in a blanket just like we used to and watch the lights on the Ferris wheel at Hill Park fade into the night and we’d have warm cups of coffee with lots and lots of sugar and — ”

Enough, Zara!” His fist hit the top of the desk beside them and the thud ricocheted through the empty bridge. She met his stare coolly and he found that he could not hold her gaze. They sat like that for a while and then Zara stood up and made for the door.

“Wait. Please.” She stopped but didn’t turn around. He moved towards her and touched her shoulder and she trembled and turned away. He reached for her hand and their fingers intertwined. She turned, then, and looked up at him and he saw tears glittering in her dark eyes and cursed himself. He whispered apologies in her curly locks and she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him down and he kissed her soft and deep just like the first time in that lonely football field behind the old school as Sol set on another day in the city by the sea.

“I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry.”

He held her close and they walked like that, arms intertwined, back to the view screen and they sat like that, arms intertwined, before the infinite array of constellations.

“You don’t have to do this. You’ve done enough. You’ve done more than any of them.”

“I have done nothing.” He was quiet, but firm. “A universe lies before me, Zara. Destiny lies before me. How can you not understand? How can you not understand?”

Zara pursed her lips.

“Iskandar, do you know how the ancient Greeks saw time?”

“How?”

“They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind as they stood watching the past recede before them.”

“I do not understand.”

Think, Iskandar. One day you and I will die. You will lie there, watching your past recede before you. Is this what you want? Is this the past you wish to look upon?”

“Zara, there is nothing for me there. They are dogs who tear at each other for scraps and whether we return or not, they shall always be dogs.”

She pulled away and said nothing and his voice softened and he reached for her hand.

“Listen. Listen to me. Don’t you remember when we were kids? Don’t you remember how we’d sit on the dusty roof of your apartment and watch the rockets from Port Qasim lift off at dusk. They were leaving behind the grime and the grit of Karachi for new vistas. They were leaving it behind for adventure, Zara. For glory.”

“And can’t you remember college? Can’t you remember how we fought for freedom against that bitch of a government? You’re the one who led the fight, Iskandar. And when they locked you up — ” She bit back a sob and he moved to close the distance between them but she held out a hand.

“No, listen. I’m fine. Listen. You led the fight and they locked you up but we did it. We broke them. Together.”

“I remember,” he said. “I could hear the crowds from my cell.”

“You’re a hero, Iskandar. And now they need us at home.”

“But Zara what shall we do, then? We go back and we fight and we win — it’s just a matter of time until they do it again. It’s a cycle. It’s history. But there,” he pointed to the stars, “there is hope for a new world.”

“And what sort of world shall that be if it’s built on this — on us running from our colleagues, our friends, our families? On us running from home?”

“So you will not come with me?”

She smiled at him sadly.

“You idiot,” she pointed at the badge that glinted on her uniform. “I’m your lieutenant. And your wife. I’ll go wherever you go. I just don’t want you to make a decision you’ll regret. I’ll be waiting for your announcement, sir.” She mock saluted him and he shook his head and smiled as she left the bridge.

Iskandar closed his eyes. He fell into a fitful sleep and dreamt that he stood in a shallow river on the dark plains of the Punjab at the dawn of civilization and in the dark before him stood mighty war elephants and in the dark behind him stood the fractious tribes of his motherland. And, as he watched, the rains of time poured forth and the river began to swell until it reached his knee and then his waist and then his chest and mighty Iskandar, lord of the known world, closed his eyes and dived into the water and firmly struck out towards one of the banks.

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