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. 

Standard
Prose

Eternal Summer (or HOPC)

One who has lived many years in a city, so soon as he goes to sleep,

Beholds another city full of good and evil, and his own city vanishes from his mind.

He does not say to himself, “This is a new city: I am a stranger here” ;

Nay, he thinks he has always lived in this city and was born and bred in it.

What wonder, then, if the soul does not remember her ancient abode and birth-place,

Since she is wrapt in the slumber of this world, like a star covered by clouds?—

Especially as she has trodden so many cities and the dust that darkens her vision is not yet swept away.

Rūmī 

SOMETHING’S broke, doc. Something’s broke. You gotta help me. It’s broke inside and I — I just can’t fix it. I had this dream, see? Well, it wasn’t a dream dream. Like I was asleep, sure, but it was real too, you know?

I seen this place, doc. This big ol’ school field. Biggest field you ever seen. And me? I’m standing by the edge of it watching these kids play in the field. They’re kicking around this old football and one of ’em, he sees me, and he’s waving across that big ol’ field.

“Come on!” he’s saying, “whatcha waiting for?”

And I look closer and it’s the guys, doc! It’s the guys! I ain’t seen them in years! So I run over to ’em and we play and we play and we play. We play until the sun’s low in the sky and it hurts my eyes just to look at it.

And then? Then we just sit there in that big ol’ field, catching our breaths, watching the sun set on another summer’s day. Summer ends way too soon, huh doc?

Now in the dream I start to feel thirsty, see? So I tell the guys I’ll be right back. The school’s right there — just up ahead — and I walk to the courtyard, all the way to the water fountain. The water tastes a little funny, yeah, but it’s alright. It’s pretty cold.

It’s all a bit spooky though, you know? School’s are always spooky at that hour. I mean, just think about it, doc! Think about all those empty classrooms, all those empty desks and chairs facing empty blackboards all night long. It’s spooky!

So I wanna get the heck out of there as fast as I can. I drink that water, doc, eyes closed, trying not to think of what’s in them empty classrooms. And then I feel cold, doc. All of a sudden, I feel cold. I look up and the sun’s setting and it’s almost set so I turn and I run back towards the field. But when I make it out of there, the field’s empty and the sun’s set and it’s all grey, doc. It’s all grey.

I wake up, then, and I’m covered in a cold sweat but it’s just a dream, right? So I turn over and I go back to sleep. In the morning I wake up and I remember and it’s spooky and all but it’s just a dream, right? So I head to the shower. But I can’t tell the hot water tap from the cold water tap. They’re both grey!

It’s been a week and it’s all grey now, doc. You and your desk and the light from that window and the city outside that window. It’s all grey now. It’s all grey. I don’t wanna live in the grey, doc. You gotta help me! You got a pill or something? I never been on any pills, doc, but I’d take ’em just to see the colours again.

Colour’s grand, doc, ain’t it? It’s like summer, doc. And this grey? Well, I been shivering in it for too long now.

You gotta help me, doc. You can fix it, can’t you? Fix what’s broke inside? I sure hope you can, doc, cause by god I’m sick—’n—tired of it. I ain’t crazy, doc. I ain’t. I been going to work and I been going to church and I been eating my vegetables. I even laid off the smokes, honest doc!

But it’s just so grey. I can’t take it anymore. I miss the colours, you know?

I miss not being broke inside.

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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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Prose

Moonshine

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

James Wright, Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

“FULL moon tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Ozzy, you didn’t even look up!”

“I did!”

“No, you didn’t!”

Aurangzeb put down the cigarette and lay back with his hands behind his neck.

“It’s a fucking moon,” he laughed. “It’s a fucking moon! It’s fucking stars! It’s a fucking bee-u-tiful night! And here I am,” he said, passing the paper bag to Shahreyar. “Here I am, stuck with fucking you!”

Shahreyar shook his head and smiled as he opened the paper bag. Inside were three glass bottles. They clinked as he took them out and placed them on the cold concrete floor of the roof. Carefully, he opened one, sniffed it and took a long, long swig. The warmth did much to fortify him against the cold.

“Hey, Sherry?”

“Yeah?”

“We’re gonna be kings, right?”

“We’re gonna be kings, jaani.”

A plane flew past, sleepy lights blinking into the night. They watched it until they couldn’t.

“And if we aren’t?”

“We will be.”

“How do you know? I mean, school was—”

Fuck school! This is college, Ozzy! It’s gonna be different.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah! It’s gonna be what we make it. It’s gonna be whatever we make it.”

Aurangzeb sat up with a start. He stood and mouthed the words to himself as he paced back and forth in a tight pattern.

“You’re right.”

“I’m always right.”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck you!”

They laughed and wrestled for a bit until someone kicked a bottle over and spilt the whiskey onto the roof.

“Aw, shit!”

“Damn it!”

“We better clean that shit up before someone comes up here!”

“No one comes up here,” said Shahreyar. But he went down to fetch some water.

Aurangzeb stood up and walked to the stone railing and leaned against it. He lit another cigarette. He heard Shahreyar come up the old stairs, push open the rusted door and pour a pitcher of water over the spilt whiskey.

Shahreyar put down the pitcher, picked up another bottle and walked towards Aurangzeb.

Bismillah,” he said, opening the seal.

“You bastard! You’re going to hell for that!”

“A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou—”

“What’s that? Ghalib?”

“It’s Khayyám, dumbass!”

“Well whoever it is, he ain’t gonna save you from eternal hellfire. You better enjoy this winter while you can, beta.”

“We’ll see,” Shahreyar winked.

Aurangzeb shook his head and suppressed a smile.

They leaned against the railing and took long swigs from the bottles and watched the lights of the old amusement park flicker in the distance. The Ferris wheel stood out against the star-washed sky.

Chai ka mood hai? Wanna grab some tea?”

“As long as it’s on you, jaani.”

They picked up the bottles and wrapped them in the paper bag and carefully shut the roof’s door.

Behind them, the lights of the Ferris wheel blinked out for the night.

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Standard
Prose

Djinn

The Lord sits with me out in front watching

a sweet darkness begin in the fields.

We try to decide whether I am lonely.

I tell about waking at four a.m. and thinking

of what the man did to the daughter of Louise.

And there being no moon when I went outside.

He says maybe I am getting old.

That being poor is taking too much out of me.

I say I am fine. He asks for the Brahms.

We watch the sea fade. The tape finishes again

and we sit on. Unable to find words.

Jack GilbertThe Lord Sits With Me Out In Front

I COULD see djinn. I’d see them, shadows falling off the houses in the old city. I’d see them, covens huddled under the banyans in the dark parks whispering strange songs in forgotten tongues. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I’d see them in the mosques and there I’d pause and watch as they prayed in the moonlit courtyards to the lonely gods of the night.

They burnt little fires that winter. There must have been hundreds of them; dirty pools of warm, smoky light in the back-allies and grimy roofs. And by each one — by the sleepy night watchmen and the boys who sold flowers and the silent, bundled up men who walked with determination to their empty homes — I saw them. I saw the djinn. And they saw me.

***

They began to point on the night of the winter solstice. Shadowy arms would be raised as I walked past, gesturing to the hills. And when I realised what they were doing, I turned and ran back to the house and turned the key in the lock.

I must have stared at that ceiling for hours, watching the lights from the street play across the peeling paint. It began to rain. A light drizzle that sounded like her pitter-pattering about the house and my heart twinged and I sighed and pulled on something warm and headed out.

They stood along the sides of the road, a thin file of smoke. I looked at them for a long while and they stared back, shadows drifting in and out of darkness. I shook my head, pulled the jacket tighter about me and, bent low against the north wind, made my way towards the silhouette on the horizon.

***

The path wound upwards. Gravel crunched under my feet and a sickly moon lit my way. The djinn were closer now, close enough to touch and I felt the damp from their shadows bridging the gap between us and hurried onwards. A cloud smothered the moon and I stopped and stood still and felt the gloom closing about me. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, they picked out a faint glow in the distance. I turned to the djinn to ask but they stared at me with their shadowy eyes and said not a word and the wind blew harder and — heart pounding, pulse racing — I began to run towards the light.

The path ended at the door of a small, alabaster mazaar. A solitary light bulb illuminated the wooden door and, desperate for a fellow man, I banged the brass knocker and hollered for someone to open up. Sure footsteps paced towards the door and I heard the sound of ancient locks being unfastened. The door creaked open with a sigh so familiar that I scarcely noticed the old man who stood at the threshold.

“Well, don’t just stand there! Come in, come in! We’ve been expecting you.”

Expecting me? I didn’t know what to make of him, but my heart slowed once he’d closed the stout door against the terrors of the night. Inside, a dim, carpeted corridor stretched onwards and we walked along it until we reached a sparse, white-washed room with a charpoy in the corner and a shelf lined with thick, leather-bound books.

“Sit down, sit down!” The old man gestured towards the charpoy. “Would you like some tea?”

I managed a nod and collapsed in the corner. He looked at me and smiled before walking out. I heard a stove being lit and the rattle of cups and water boiling and soon the little room was filled with the fortifying scent of milky tea. Outside, the wind blew harder and harder and knocked against the wooden shutters and I began to shiver and my forehead burned and I reached for the gray mantle that lay on the charpoy and wrapped myself in its warmth. It had a strange, familiar fragrance and I felt my shivering lessen as it touched my skin.

The old man entered bearing a cup and nodded approvingly. “Good, good. Here, drink this. It will help.”

I reached for the cup with trembling hands and, at the first sip, recoiled. The old man laughed.

“It will help with the shivering, I promise. Now drink! Go on.”

It was an odd brew and yet, like so much else, tainted with a strange familiarity. I felt the fever subside and the shivering cease.

“Thank you, baba.”

“Call me Khizr,” he smiled. “And don’t thank me yet, Shahreyar!”

“How—? How do you know my name?”

He looked at me kindly. “They told me, of course!”

“They?”

“Yes, they! I’m not a magician, young man, who else would have told me?”

He watched my confusion with amusement. Outside, it began to rain and the wind scratched at the door and lashed the downpour in wave upon wave against the shutters.

“Khizr, who are you? Why were you expecting me?”

He didn’t reply. Instead, he arose and shuffled towards the book case. A heavy tome was put into my hands.

“Open it,” he said. I did. Inside was faded ink and yellow pages and the smell of old books. Across the front was printed The Conference of the Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar and, lower down the page, a philosophical religious poem in prose.

“What is this?”

The old man looked worried. “Oh no, oh no! You can read, can’t you?”

“Of course I can read!”

“Good, good! Then please do so. And, if you don’t mind, please read aloud.”

“But — Where do I read from?”

“What a silly question to ask! Wherever you feel like!” He sat back and closed his eyes. Thunder rolled in the hills and the wind and the rain continued to batter the little mazaar. I flipped through the book, cleared my throat and began to read.

“‘A man humbly asked permission’ — Is this fine? Should I start from here?”

“Yes, yes! Don’t interrupt! Go on!”

“Alright. ‘A man humbly asked permission to say a prayer on the carpet of the Prophet, who refused, and said: ‘The earth and the sand are burning. Put your face on the burning sands and on the earth of the road, since all those who are wounded by love must have the imprint on their face, and the scar must be seen. Let the scar of the heart be seen, for by their scars are known the men who are in the way of love.'”

Khizr’s eyes snapped open.

“Wonderful, wonderful! ‘For by their scars are known the men who are in the way of love…’ And yet I sense you do not appreciate it? Why, Shahreyar? Why? I can see the scars of love on your heart. What good does this self-pity do you? She is gone! She is gone and soon… soon so shall you. There isn’t much time. There is much you must learn. Come.”

I stared at him, open mouthed.

“Come with me.”

He plucked the book from my hand and marched down the corridor and began unbolting the locks.

“Are you mad?” I yelled. “There are… things outside! They’ll come in! They’ll kill us!”

He looked at me steadily and in one swift gesture threw open the door. The full fury of the storm burst in upon us. Thunder boomed overhead and biblical torrents lashed our faces. Lightning lit the sky and the hills and there, just at the edge of the pool of light from the solitary bulb, stood a company of djinn.

“No!”

He gripped my arm and pulled me out towards the shadows. Rain soaked us to the bone and my feet sunk into the sludge and yet the old man pulled me onwards with a strength I could hardly resist.

“They are you, Shahreyar!” he shouted. “They are you! Nothing more, nothing less!” And as I touched the djinn, my fingers closed upon smoke and they dissipated up into the darkling heavens. The rains trickled to a stop and the winds quieted and we stood there, the two of us, breathing heavily as the clouds parted and the moon once more bathed the night with its radiance.

I do not remember much of what happened next. I recall bits and pieces — staggering in to the mazaar; collapsing on to the charpoy; drifting in and out of delirious dreams filled with the most hideous creatures hunting me through dark labyrinths until the morning azaan revived me and its melody lulled me to my first proper sleep since her death…

***

When I awoke, the sun blazed high in the sky and the breeze from the window held the scent of the sea. Khizr ambled in with a smile on his face and the ubiquitous cup of hot, milky tea in his hands.

“Oh, good! You’re awake! I was starting to worry.”

“What — ?” I gingerly shook my aching head. “What happened?”

“I suspect, my young friend,” he said. “That the answer to that, like so much else, lies in the book.”

I stood tentatively and walked to the bookshelf. The Conference of the Birds was easy to spot: it was the only one that was soaked; proof that the previous night wasn’t just a nightmare. I opened it and began to read:

“When the Simurgh, king of the birds, manifested himself outside the veil, radiant as the sun, he produced thousands of shadows on the earth. When he cast his glance on the shadows there appeared birds in great numbers. The different types of birds that are seen in the world are thus only the shadow of the Simurgh. Know then, O ignorant ones, that when you understand this you will understand exactly your relation to the Simurgh. Ponder over this mystery but do not reveal it.”

Ponder over this mystery but do not reveal it? Something broke within me and a torrent of old memories drowned my heart with a unfathomable sob.

“But Layla! What of Layla?”

Khizr said nothing, only motioned me to read on. I wiped the tears and drank the tea and did as he bade.

“A man came to a Sufi one day, weeping. The Sufi asked him why he wept. ‘O Shaikh, he said, ‘I have a friend whose beauty made my soul as verdant as branches in spring. Yesterday, he died, and I too shall die of sorrow.’ The Sufi said: ‘Why do you grieve? For a long time you have had his friendship. Go now and choose another friend, one who will not die.”

I looked at Khizr and he smiled eagerly at me. “Would you like to meet him now? He’s been waiting for you.”

The words caught in my throat. “Wh—? Who?”

Khizr turned at the door and shook his head, “Who? Your friend, of course! He’s been waiting a long, long time. Come.”

With a new lightness in my heart, I followed Khizr out the door into the bright sunlight. Behind me, the old book lay quietly on the charpoy, waiting.

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Prose

Heart Note

Again and again we put our

sweet ghosts on small paper boats and sailed

them back into their death, each moving slowly

into the dark, disappearing as our hearts

visited and savored, hurt and yearned.

Jack Gilbert, Kunstkammer

WE PARKED the Civic up where the road curved towards the hills. It was a black Civic and in the shadow of the hills, with the city lights spread out beneath us, it melted into the dark.

Amir bhai turned off the headlights and took out a cigarette and lit it.

“You want one?”

“No thanks, Amir bhai. I’m good.”

I rolled down the window and we shivered as the wind from the hills hit our sweat-stained shirts.

“Crazy workout today, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s good stuff.”

Bus lagé raho! Keep at it!” He said. “High reps, low weights; you’ll be buff in no time!”

“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks, Amir bhai.”

I’d met Amir bhai at a rusty basement gym a couple of months ago. He’d offered to drop me home and parked the car up here and given me clichéd advice about women for half an hour. I didn’t mind. He was twenty-nine and arranged-married and needed a young friend. I didn’t particularly relish walking home after workouts. It was a win-win.

“Ali aaj kal gym nahi aa raha? Haven’t seen Ali at the gym these days?

“Yeah,” I nodded. “He said something about exams.”

“Fuck yaar, that’s the life!”

“Exams?”

“No yaar! University life! All those girls…” He took a deep drag on the cigarette and leaned back into the seat and closed his eyes. “But what am I telling you for? Handsome chap like you; I’m sure you’ve got more than a few girls, right?” He winked.

I smiled and shook my head and turned to look out the window.  Some guys are born good at girls. I just wasn’t one of them. That’s why I’d joined the gym. A few more inches on the biceps and they wouldn’t be able to resist, right?

Exactly,” said Amir bhai, reading my thoughts. “Just a few more months at the gym and you’ll get any girl you want. That’s how I became such a player. You know I almost got a number the other day?”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah! I was at Dolmen and this hot thing kept staring at me so I used this crazy line on her…”

All of Amir bhai’s stories began this way.

“…and I was just about to get her number when I saw my wife’s second cousin shopping for razors a few aisles down…”

And all of Amir bhai’s stories ended this way. His wife must have a lot of cousins.

He finished his cigarette and flicked it out the window. The headlights cut a broad swath through the night as the Civic powered down the gravel road. He was telling me a particularly animated story about a PIA stewardess when I realised we weren’t headed home.

“Uh, Amir bhai?”

“Yeah?”

“You missed the turn!”

Chill, bro! Have to get the missus an anniversary present. It’ll only take a minute.”

We drove past Sadabahar and Alamgir and the little old man who sells greasy fries by the side of the road. He waved to me. I waved back. Amir bhai broke a red light, swore at a rickshaw driver and parked outside the department store.

“These bloody rickshaws!” he said. I nodded. We walked into the store.

Fat women hogged the aisles, their carts overflowing with enough supplies to last till Rapture. They gave us looks and I didn’t blame them. We were two sweaty, stubbled young men who reeked of smoke. Just the sort detested by police officers, school principals and mothers with young daughters.

We pushed past them and headed for the perfume section. Amir bhai was on a roll.

“Oh, hey, just look at that one! The packaging is so third-class! Haha! It says ‘Made in the USA’! Yeah, if they mean USA, Lyari! Saalé kis ko chutiya bana rahé hain? Who the fuck are they trying to fool?

Occasionally, he’d hold one up to my nose and I’d smile and nod and hold my breath from the onslaught of fruity fumes.

And then it happened.

“Haha! Oh, fuck me! Look at this one! It smells just like that shit schoolgirls wear, right?”

I shouldn’t have smelt it. I should have said, “Amir bhai, just get her some chocolates and flowers and let’s head the fuck home.” But I was never very good at confrontation and all I could do was smile and nod and take a whiff.

Every perfume has three notes.

Head note: Morning. Summer break’s over. You hate being the new kid. Again. Your footsteps echo down an empty corridor. You are minding your own business, searching for Chemistry 101 when effervescent citrus sticks out a foot and you fall and you fall and you fall.

Heart note: Evening. A school concert. Music so loud you can’t think. You take a walk. Footsteps echo behind you. You turn. The answer to whispered prayers. A mischievous smile. “Have you been to the roof?” You haven’t. Adventure. Adrenaline. Stairs. Shh! Look, stars. Butterflies flutter to heady jasmine.

Base note: Afternoon. Detention ends. You’re thirsty. The canteen’s closed. The water cooler’s on the third floor. It’s okay, you like to take walks. Footsteps echo. Stairs. You pause. A familiar giggle flutters from a distant classroom. Adrenaline. Shh! One-step-at-a-time. You push open the door. Comforting sandalwood breaks your heart.

I opened my eyes.

I heard Amir bhai debating the merits of discreet motels. Across the aisle, I could see one of the fat women holding a crying baby as she searched for the perfect fairness cream. And, in my trembling hand, I held the little glass bottle that had changed everything. I looked at it. I looked at Amir bhai. I looked at the fairness cream mom and the baby who’d stopped crying and was now eyeing me warily. I slid off the cap and sprayed a hint of it onto the back of my hand and carefully put the bottle back on the shelf. The baby began to cry.

The rest of that night is a blur. I can only remember scraps of it. Of Amir bhai’s plans to meet a girlfriend at Day’s Inn. Of the smell of seekh-kababs from Sadabahar. Of the moon that night as it followed the car, a waning crescent on a flag waved by a smiling girl one rainy August morning… And as the car drove on and on through familiar streets, I’d raise the back of my hand and close my eyes and inhale my own cigarette of sweat and sweet heartache.

Amir bhai was right. It was a perfume worn by schoolgirls. One girl in particular. One girl with a hazel lock that still haunted my dreams and gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach every weekday as the bus took me home past the lonely Sea-View apartments at sunset.

But now here she was, on the back of my hand, and I ran up the stairs two at a time and locked my door and shut off the lights and fell asleep with a smile on my lips and a pain in my heart, drifting in and out of sepia smeared dreams as they played late night love songs for me on CityFM89…

The next morning was a Sunday and the store was closed.

On Monday I had uni and Dad wanted to discuss politics and Mom needed help getting the groceries and there was lunch and there was dinner and there was gym and by the time I reached the store someone had already found and opened and smelt and bought and wrapped and taken far, far away that nondescript little vial that held my first love, my first heartbreak.

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Ad Astra

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,

Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,

Thee fully formed emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,

Night, sleep, death and the stars.

Walt Whitman, A Clear Midnight

DAWN.

They lower the white shroud into the earth. You watch them. Your hand grasps a fistful of sand and throws it onto the white marble slab. Half-remembered words from a half-remembered religion form on your lips. You throw another handful and step back; then remember the admonitions of your grandmother – odd numbers and monotheism – and reach for some more to make it an even three.
Farewell, old friend.

***

DUSK.

“Where are you going?”

“Up.”

“Why? Don’t go. Come back to bed. Where are you going?”

“Up.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.”

“Aw, poor baby. Do you miss him? You must miss him so.”

“Don’t. I don’t know. Don’t let’s not talk about it.”

“Come back to bed. I’ll get your mind off it. Promise.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t. I have to go.”

***

NIGHT.

The roof’s concrete floor is cool beneath your feet. It is dusty. You do not care. In the distance, you see the Friday night lights of a rusty amusement park. You lean against the stone banister and take a swig from the flask. The warmth does much to fortify you against the cold. You watch them until they are switched off. The layers of dust leave a long, white mark on your jeans as you clamber up to the top of the old water tank. You do not care. You lie down and dust off your hands and cross them behind your head. Above you — far, far away — ancient lights from ancient stars twinkle across the inky sky. You watch them. When you were young, your grandmother sung you old Sufi songs. You remember one now:

If the stars in the sky
Should ever burn out

And the nights be left
Cold and distant;

How — pray tell —
Yes, how — do tell —

Should a man discover
His Belov’d?

***

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