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.)


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 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


got it

almost there




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


who will you love?

who will you haunt?



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.


8-bit Philosophy 

Yousuf: “Kya fascination hai 8-bit sé?” (What’s your fascination with 8-bit?)

Shahzéb: “I like 8-bit because 8-bit is to us what we are to God. It’s the closest we can get to touching the mind of the divine. You plug in a game into a beat-up old Nintendo and the little screen lights up with a brand new world of life and light and adventure. And you see a little hero and you watch his little life play out and he evolves over time and, before you know it, you care about the little sprite more than you want to admit. You love him and you root for him and you guide him and you watch him do all the things you can not because you have responsibilities… 8-bit is a distilled essence of our world. It’s forced by the limitations of bits and bytes to build a universe out of a few, small pixels. Like our world — of quantum pixels — built with care and with love and programmed with destiny. But the best part is the feeling you get when you realise how small the 8-bit world is. It has walls. It’s a sandbox that’s too small for all you’ll ever want. And you realise that you feel that here, too. And the 8-bit world is too small because it’s been made by us; us, who’ve seen bigger things. That lingers on in the subconscious of the little sprite-heroes. And it’s the same with us. That’s why we feel a twinge in our hearts every time we look up at the stars. This is why I love 8-bit. Because it reminds me that there is more than… this.”

Yousuf: “Consider teaching philosophy. At least once in your life. And fill it with this stuff. Then write a book. Title it The film of my life.”

Shahzéb: If I do, I’ll call it One Last Sunset.



I kneel in the nights
Before tigers that will not let me be;

What you were
Will not happen again.

The tigers have found me:
And I do not care.

Charles Bukowski, For Jane

WHEN I was younger and religion was more than a word, I would take long walks while they slept, hoping to find something they’d never see. Night after night, I’d stalk the streets in search of something more—past dingy alleys with rabid dogs; past old men whispering sun-kissed songs; past small, warm houses with doors shut tight, a wisp of smoke curling into the darkling sky. And as dawn would break and the world awaken, I would trudge home tired and sleepy and a little broken.

This went on for a while until it seemed that there was nothing left to break and that final night even the dogs gave up their growling out of pity, for what is more pathetic than the one who has lost his beloved? Cold, hungry and a little soul sick, I vowed that that night would be the last and that my journey would finally end, one way or another. I slid a hand into my pocket until it touched steel and, thus resolved, set off towards the bay.

The night was bitterly cold and the desolate stretch of beach held no redemption. The fishermen’s favela was silent and the only lights were at the whorehouse in the distance. I looked out at the taunting waves. The dark waters had no metaphors to offer. A drunk stumbled out of the brothel and collapsed on the sand. I stared at him for a long, long while. Then, without looking back, I ran.


THE old city. I doubled over to catch my breath and coughed twice, sweat dripping onto the cobblestone streets. The revolver dug into my side. This is a good a place as any.

“Are you lost, my son?”

I looked up. Something moved in one of the dark recesses. An old man shuffled out, wearing the garb of a Sufi.

“I am not lost. I am tired.”



“Ah, I see.”

“I don’t think you do, baba.”

“I see that there is much sadness in your eyes.”

“You are a man of God. I do not wish to blasphemy before you.”

“Have you heard of Hallaj?”

“Of course.”

“Then speak your mind with ease, and do not use that word ‘blasphemy’ again. It is a word of the ignorant.”


And so it was that a Sinner found God in the dust of an ancient city by the sea.

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