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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Babylon

next door
the lovemaking
subsides
stars fall
from other worlds

Micheal Windsor McClintock

THERE was the time I found that old laptop in the attic and I asked and I asked but no one knew where it came from. It was dusty and slow — Windows 95 and all that — and inside were stories written by a sixteen-year-old girl called Elizabeth.

The stories were about heartache.
The stories were about young love.
The stories were about moving to New York and being an artist and living in a small apartment that looks over Central Park, watching the sun set on another day and you; you that much closer to the truth.

It was the sort of stuff young girls called Elizabeth write about.

They were not particularly well written.
They weren’t Hemingway.
They weren’t Márquez.
They certainly weren’t Jack Gilbert.
But they were unfinished.

I spent long summer nights dreaming about those stories. And I searched and I searched but I never could find her — there are a lot of Elizabeths in the world.

So I did what anyone else would do: I began to write.

I wrote to fill the emptiness left by those long forgotten stories written by a young girl in a small town called Babylon; waiting to grow up, waiting to find home.

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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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Winter Begins in Karachi, PK

And here the paths, made or yet unmade, that told of the need of boys travelling, always travelling, to be men.

Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

THERE were four of us that night. There were usually two and there were sometimes three but that night there were four of us so we all pitched in for a Murree whiskey and a rickshaw to get the Murree whiskey and a hundred rupees more to pay the police, but the police didn’t stop us that night so we got some crisps and some plastic cups and two cold cans of Coke instead. It was a cold, crisp night. Winter drowned autumn in the Indus early that year and by then autumn had crossed the delta and was far out in the waters of the Arabian Sea before anyone could buy a jacket or a scarf or a pair of those thick, woollen socks that itch like hell.

It was Shayan’s idea to break into school.

“Guys, let’s break into school,” he said.

“Okay,” I said, turning to the rickshaw driver, “turn that way.”

“Okay,” said the rickshaw driver. He turned that way.

“Are you both mad?” asked Yasir.

“Shut up, Yasir,” said Shams.

“Shut up, Yasir,” said Shayan.

“Now turn there,” I told the rickshaw driver.

“Okay,” said the rickshaw driver. He turned there.

“You’re all mad,” said Yasir.

Shams punched him once, hard, on the shoulder.

Ouch!” said Yasir.

Stop!” I said to the rickshaw driver. He stopped.

We clambered out and I fished a grubby note from the back pocket of my bluejeans and gave it him.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said. The rickshaw sputtered off down the darkened alley and we stood there with our paper bags and plastic cups and our two cold cans of Coke and considered the dark gate that loomed before us.

“I know a way in,” said Shams and he marched off, knowingly. We followed him. He had a big brother who knew things and he led us all the way around the school to the back. He pointed at a section where the barbed wire had fallen off but he needn’t have; Shayan and I were already making for it.

“Guys, this is a bad idea!” said Yasir.

“Shut up, Yasir,” said Shayan.

“Shut up, Yasir,” I said.

“Would you like another punch?” offered Shams. Yasir declined.

Shams went first and we passed the paper bag to him and he jumped down the other side and whistled the old all-clear and we followed — first Shayan, then me, then Yasir who sat right at the edge of the wall and stared down at us until Shams pulled at the cuff of his pants and he tumbled onto the dirt floor below.

We were at the edge of the overgrown soccer field that stretched behind the school and we walked to the black-and-white striped goalpost and sat by it. The school was shrouded in darkness but we could see a lonely light in a room at the top of the east wing.

“Maqbool bhai’s room,” I pointed.

“He’s probably asleep,” said Shayan.

“What if he isn’t?” asked Yasir.

“Then we’ll have to share the whiskey with him,” said Shams.

The whiskey was good. We talked about the old days. Shayan talked about the time we’d tricked a mugger into sharing a cigarette with us so he wouldn’t mug us. I talked about the time that pack of feral dogs chased us out of the haunted house. Yasir talked about the summer we finally climbed Kidney Hill. Shams talked about the summer we finally climbed Kidney Hill and then stole Yasir’s left shoe and only gave it back once we were half way down. It was very good whiskey.

“Guys,” I said. “I read something today. It’s a poem by this guy called James Arlington Wright — ”

Arlington?” said Yasir.

“Shut up, Yasir,” said Shayan.

“Shut up, Yasir,” said Shams.

“Yes,” I said. “Arlington. Do you guys want to hear it?” They did. I pulled out a crumbled piece of paper and smoothed it down on my thigh and cleared my throat.

“In the Shreve High football stadium,” I began, squinting in the faint glow from the street light, “In the Shreve High football stadium, / I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville, / And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood, / And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel, / Dreaming of heroes.”

I sneaked a glance at them, then, and they all sat with their hands wrapped round their knees so I went on.

“All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home, / Their women cluck like starved pullets, / Dying for love. / Therefore, / Their sons grow suicidally beautiful / At the beginning of October, / And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.”

No one said a word. After a while, I scrunched the scrap of paper back into my bluejeans and lay back with my head on Shayan’s shin and the others lay back too and we lay there like that, the four of us, and watched the stars shine above the school that night as another winter began in Karachi.

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Sempiternal

Let me fall

in love one last time, I beg them.

Teach me mortality, frighten me

into the present.

Help me to find

the heft of these days.

That the nights

will be full enough and my heart feral.

Jack Gilbert, I Imagine The Gods

SOME days the sun was too hot and the breeze that blew in from the ocean would pause for the siesta and on days like that the heat rose off the streets and the heart yearned for a home it had never seen.

On days like that I’d fire up the old clunker with the faithful ’70s radio and shift her into first then second, up and up, smooth as I could manage, until fifth and we were roaring down the causeway and the little kids who splash the summer away in the sewers would laugh and jump and wave and I’d honk twice and wave back.

Most days I’d park her up at that lane under the big old banyan and crank down the windows about three inches each side. I’d push the seat way back and sip at the milky coffee that was always too hot to gulp down but sweet enough that you tried anyway.

It’s hard to say why I chose to park there. I guess it was the perpetual autumn more than anything. Even in the doldrums of summer the lane was fresh and clean and quiet — the air a little crisper, the sun a little softer, the entirety of it drenched in magic.

I’d sit there for hours drifting in and out of sleep. As the sun set into the sea, dark figures would pass me by heading for the kabristan. Sometimes they’d pause outside my window and I’d hear them whisper to me and it grew cold and I’d wish just then that I had brought her along because she was warm and alive and then I remembered and was quiet.

There were big trees all along the sides of the lane and the pools of light from the lamp posts would end up dappled across the dark asphalt after making their way through the leaves. It was then that I’d carefully crank up the windows, lock the car and make my way up the lane towards the kabristan.

He was waiting for me by the entrance.

“You are well?”

“I am.”

“You do not look it. You are well?”

“I am.”

“You do not look it. Your eyes betray you. But come. See what a good job I have done. Rosewater every day, just as sahib ordered.”

“Thank you.”

“I am sorry.”

“Thank you.”

“Shall I leave?”

“Yes. No, wait. Here. Thank you.”

“Thank you. You are too kind. Are you sure you are well?”

“I am.”

“Alright. I should be on my way. The rains will come soon. They are forever flooding the graves downhill. It is madness. You are lucky, sahib, to have a spot up here. The rains will come soon. But they will cause no trouble to a spot up here. Alright. Allahafiz.”

“Khudahafiz.”

I watched as the caretaker walked off down the narrow path. Soon he was only a dark blur weaving between the graves. He was a good man. He’d built the little bench next to her and there I sat. The scent of rosewater carried each time the wind blew from the sea. And I remembered.

I clambered up the rough face of the outcrop and reached the top where the wind never stops and looked for the sunset and dusted my hands off – once, twice – on the faded blue of the jeans. And the sunset was beautiful and warm and the air was cold and fresh and I saw the city’s skyline, silhouettes softened by the fog and the distance. And, as the city lights flickered, my thoughts turned to a girl who lived in a castle by the sea. And whether, if ever, she thought of me.

The breeze blew another gust my way. And I could have sworn I heard a familiar voice mingled in the scent of rosewater.

“Hi,” it said. “I missed you.”

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