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

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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