Poetry

Byronic heroes are people, too

For the sword outwears its sheath,

And the soul wears out the breast,

And the heart must pause to breathe,

And love itself have rest.

Lord Byron, So, we’ll go no more a roving

All these books in my library — lives lived

out, words spent, atria emptied of their 

blood. I see them and realise that I do not

have much time. But, like all the rest, I am

bound in webs of responsibility and class

and aspiration. A small cottage by the beach

with a well-stocked library and a fire in the

hearth where we could spend our evenings 

before the dark descends. And, perhaps, 

there is where I’ll have the time to ponder over

the mysteries of the Sufis. Why do the stars

call me so? Why does the sea, why do old

houses, and old books, and saudade call me so?

The dreams of another life… almost

forgotten… breaking on the shores of my

heart, and I… I frantic, searching among the 

ruins and the driftwood for a compass to guide 

me home. Home? The place I yearn for when I 

hear someone playing A minor softly, clear as 

a bell, through the sweet, sad sounds of static 

on old radios. In a short time, this will be a 

long, long time ago…

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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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Heartbreak, You Know, Drives A Big Black Car

 I would sell

all I own and have and built

for more time

with you.

— Tyler Knott Gregson

“FALLING slowly / Eyes that know me,” he stopped. They all stared at him. The café was full and now they all stared at him and even the waitresses who would bustle about and pay him no heed stood in the silence, staring. He tried to clear his throat. It didn’t work. He looked at the mike and felt the weight of the guitar on his knee and all the patrons and waitresses staring at him and felt the sweat collect on his brow. A group of rowdy teenagers walked into the café. Everyone turned to stare at them. They stopped. But that was all he needed and by the time they had turned back, the stage was empty and only the angled mike stood in the spotlight — a little off-centre — alone.


He sat on the bench outside, waiting. He didn’t have to wait long. He smelt her perfume on the breeze before she’d said a word and he wondered how a smell could do that to you.

“That was quite a performance!”

The cadence of her voice hadn’t changed. The lilt he remembered so well that he often caught himself thinking in it; it hadn’t changed.

“It was embarrassing.”

“I don’t think it was embarrassing.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Liar.” He smiled at her.

“Hi.” She smiled back.

“Hi.”

They looked at each other like that for a while, each watching the other watch them, drinking in the ravages of time — a line here, a wrinkle there.

“So,” he asked. “Where’ve you been?”

She considered this for moment.

“Tangier,” she said, narrowing her eyes. He could hear the teasing in her voice.

“That was one time, okay? The one time I play a Dylan song for you and —”

She laughed just then and he wondered how a laugh could do that to you.

“I was just kidding!” she said.

“Sure you were.”

“I was! I was! It’s just the way you sang it. So … poignant!” And she began to laugh all over again and this time he couldn’t help but join her.

“Hey, we both did some stupid things back then, okay?”

I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did!”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

They watched together as a car drove by, the afterglow of its tail lights fading into the darkling twilight.

“Do you remember all those promises we made?” She asked.

“I do,” he said. “I do.”

“Me, too.”

“Seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said. “But sometimes it seems like it was yesterday and now its morning and I’m awake now — I’m finally awake — and I’m brushing my teeth and going to college and walking up to the quad and there you are with that stupid grin, waiting for class to begin.”

“I wasn’t waiting for class to begin.”

“No?”

“No,” he said. “I was waiting for you.”

“You’re sweet, but I’m not buying it.”

“Well, it was worth a shot,” he grinned.

She reached for the guitar lying between them and plucked at the strings.

“You used to say something to me when we were kids.”

“I said a lot of things,” he smiled. “Most of them to impress you.”

“I know,” she said. “And it worked!”

“Until it didn’t.”

“Yes,” she sighed.

“Hey, listen. Don’t, okay? Tell me something else. Tell me something — okay, what pseudo-intellectual bullshit did I say to you?”

He could tell she wasn’t convinced but she relented and he saw the hurt as it cleared from her bright eyes.

“You told me,” she said with care, as if each word meant something different to her. “You told me: Listen! One day we’ll graduate and we’ll be old and we’ll never see each other again and never feel this way again and it’s weird, isn’t it, how life is learning to say goodbye?”

She looked at him looking at her, remembering.

“You also said how much you hated Mondays.”

“Fuck Mondays!”

“You said that, too!”

“You know, I had this dream last night.” He looked off at the lights on the buildings.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I was late for this stupid party. I didn’t want to go. I was sleeping in the dream and I didn’t want to go and then my Dad came into my room and woke me up. “Aren’t you late for that party?” he said. And I could tell he wanted me to stay — I could just tell — and I didn’t want to go but I got up just the same and I got dressed and I left and I didn’t say goodbye.”

She gazed at me for a moment with her hazel eyes.

“Why didn’t you say goodbye?”

“I don’t know. I woke up then and I ran downstairs and then I remembered. So I walked up again and sat on the roof till dawn.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s funny though, isn’t it? How we never do the things we want to do? We never do those things.”

“I’m so sorry.” She reached for his hand. He felt her skin touch his and the hurt and the pain and the years melted away and he was fifteen and in love for the first time.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. “I’m fine! I’ll be fine.”

“Liar.”

“Hey, that’s my line!”

“Too bad!”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“God, I missed you.”

“Liar.”

“No, seriously. I always miss you. Even when I’m with you, I miss you.”

“Well, maybe it’s not me you’re missing.”

“No, I’m pretty sure it’s you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Good boy.” She intertwined her fingers with his.

“What are the chances, though?” he asked.

“Of what?”

“Of this. Of you. Of us meeting again.”

“It’s crazy,” she smiled.

“You’re crazy.” He smiled and he knew, just then, that he’d never let her go. Not ever. Not again.

“What are you smiling about?”

“Nothing! C’mon, let’s get some coffee.”

“I hate coffee!”

“I know, I remember,” he winked.

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

“Ice-cream?” she asked.

“Only if you’re paying,” he said.

“What happened to chivalry?”

“Feminism happened!”

“You’re horrible!” she said. And, laughing, they walked back towards the café.


He woke with a start and his hand reached out to touch the sheets beside him. They were cold and he remembered and it took him a few minutes to compose himself.

When he could breathe again, he sat up, pushed the sheets to one side and went to the sink. The water was cold and fresh and when he saw his weathered reflection staring back at him, he smiled.

“Who’s the best?” he said, aiming a punch at the mirror. It was something he did in the mornings when she’d walk in behind him, hair messy from just waking up, cascading to one side like a waterfall that you’d chanced upon in a clearing in the woods and it was all yours, the curtains waiting to be parted.

“Who’s the best?” And she’d loved it and told him it was adorable — that he was adorable — but now she was gone and it wasn’t morning it was night and he felt silly and old and so he stopped.

He stared at himself for a while and then switched off the light and walked up the stairs to the roof. The old acoustic lay against the door and he picked it up, took it outside and tuned it under the stars.

He played a chord and it was hesitant and unsure and the sound died out soon under the vast night sky. He tried again.

“Spent all night / Tryin’ to remember your face,” he stopped. He tried clearing his throat. It didn’t work. His hands shook as he took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt. He laid the guitar down on the dusty floor and lay back in the dusty chair and closed his eyes, trying to remember her face.

They wouldn’t find him till Monday.

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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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Goodbye Milky Way

Published in the first edition of the Ziauddin University Atlas, 2016. 

So much depends
On the condensation in the eyes of a lover
The trembling fault
In the silent breath before a kiss

Unintentional ends
Laced in songs of forever
A hesitant thought
Flickering before a superficial wish

Sahr Jalil

“TELL me a story,” she said, snuggling up to him as they watched Rigel and Betelgeuse twinkle overhead.

“Alright,” he agreed. “But just one, okay?”

She said nothing but he felt her smile in the dark beside him and he was glad.

“Once upon a time,” he began, “there was a beautiful girl who – ”

“Why do all your stories have beautiful girls in them?”

“Maybe because I haven’t found one yet,” he teased.

She elbowed him feebly and he laughed.

“Fine,” she said. But he knew she wasn’t angry. “Go on.”

“Okay, so once upon a time there was a beautiful girl,” he paused, meaningfully, “who danced.”

“She danced so well that all who watched her were mesmerised into silence. And it was not uncommon to see tears glistening on the cheeks of her audience, for in her graceful movement they saw the fragility of life and the transience of existence.

“Now there was a benevolent prince who lived in a castle not too far away and when he heard about this extraordinary dancing girl, he was exceedingly anxious to see her for himself. So he dressed up in the garb of a wandering mystic and set off to satisfy his curiosity. He travelled for many days – he was a benevolent prince after all, not a benevolent navigator – but eventually succeeded in finding the little tavern where the dancing girl was.

“Making his way to the front of the crowd, the prince waited anxiously to see the girl and – when the curtains finally parted – he couldn’t breathe, for she was indeed lovelier than the moon. The girl danced with her eyes closed, losing herself in the music and when she finished, she stepped forwards to curtsy, looked into the prince’s lovelorn gaze and promptly froze, blushing fiercely. That was all the prince needed to see. He jumped onto the stage, tore of his disguise and got down on one knee. The crowd burst into grudging applause and soon the two were married and would have lived happily ever after except – ”

“Except what?” she asked.

“Except that this was a time of change. The era of kings and queens was at an end and the time of this-ism and that-ism was about to begin. The fires of revolution were spreading and, though the prince was benevolent, he was also a prince and he realised that it was only a matter of time until his people realised that, too. He had not forgotten how grudgingly they had applauded. He had not forgotten at all.

“So one night – a night just like this one in fact – he took his princess by the hand and led her up the stairs to the highest tower of the castle. And as they stood under the stars, watching the fires of a new epoch burn in the distance, he asked her to dance one last dance for him. And when she finished, he took her in his arms and whispered something in her ear that made her laugh and cry and cry and laugh. And then they stood quietly at the weathered battlements, watching the familiar night fade away into an uncertain dawn.”

“Wow,” she whispered. “What did he tell her?”

“No one knows. But if I had to guess – if you were that girl and and I was that prince – this is what I would have said to you:

“One day, the Milky Way will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy. And the Earth will be no more. And in that blaze of light, all that we’ve loved – the places where we lived and we met and we kissed and we cried – will be lost into the coldness of space. But I’d like to imagine that as the debris of what we once were journeys out past the suns and the supernovas and the comets’ icy tails, our stardust will fall on a young planet. And millennia hence, two young lovers on that young planet will look into each other’s eyes and draw back, amazed. For in those eyes they’ll see something of you. And in those eyes they’ll see something of me. And across the eons and across the light years, for a moment, you and I will be together again.”

She said nothing but he felt her sleep in the dark beside him. And as he watched Orion wheel across the heavens – as Hypnos weaved his ancient spells – he felt her warmth beside him, holding back tomorrow, and he was glad.

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Puerta del Sol

Can angels lie spine to spine?
If not, how they must envy us humans.

Kamila Shamsie, Kartography

“FOLLOW me,” she whispered. And he did.

She pulled him by his rough, honest hands up the winding stairs, higher and higher and higher.

“Faster, faster,” she laughed. So he did.

They reached the top of the old lighthouse and sat in the old place, legs dangling over the edge. The sun was bright and he had to blink twice in homage.

“Hi,” she smiled. And, after a moment, so did he.

Although he was a simple man, of simple tastes, the view from the top of the old lighthouse never failed to arouse thoughts of art and poetry. But though he was a simple man, he was wise too and he realised how foolish it would be to attempt to capture this in any form. No, he thought, one must live it, savour it, then let it slip away; for is that not life?

“Remember when we were young?” she asked, slipping her hand into his. And he did. He did.

He remembered the day they’d gone up to the hills and she’d danced between the trees and fallen asleep on his lap and the smell of her hair and the cloud that looked like a boat to him and a house to her and the evening as it fell and the little bobbing light they saw in the distance that was an old man who wandered the hills in the dark and invited them to his small, warm cabin for hot chocolate and told them stories about his wife who left one day and never came back and how glad they’d been, just then, to have each other.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, brushing the hair from his eyes. And he pointed out towards the sea at a boat on the horizon.

The sun was setting into the darkling waters and he was afraid for the little boat. Did it not know that the lighthouse had been abandoned for many years? Its cold, stone walls held no guiding beacon. Would it float adrift, or would it crash into the jagged rocks of the coast?

“Mi amor,” she smiled, turning his eyes towards hers. And, for a moment, he couldn’t breathe. “Mi amor, I promise you. It will find its way home. It is not so little or so helpless as you think.”

And as the sun slipped beneath the horizon, he watched her vanish into the aether, a memory once more. And he stared after the little boat until he could see it no more.

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One Last Sunset

A BOY. A girl. The flaming passions of the setting sun reflected in their young faces.

He turns. Sweet salt air. A hint of vanilla. Her dark eyes meet his.

Eternity wraps herself in a moment.

In that tangible instant, he sees another face from another time. A strikingly similar face from an incredibly, indescribably distant time.

And he is filled with the anguish of the ages and the regrets of humanity clutch at his heart.

Just as his forefathers had before him and just as his sons will after he is dust, the boy sees — in the depths of his love and in the wells of human emotion — that fatal flaw, that transience which is the curse of humanity.

The boy shivers, imperceptibly, as a warm hand slips into his. And he watches quietly as the dying sun slowly slips beneath the dark, dark horizon.

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