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.
“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.
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.
***N.B. ‘Heart Note’ was longlisted by The Missing Slate, a not-for-profit, international literary journal, for a creative writing contest. “We received 275 entries for this competition, of which only 14 have been longlisted … we felt you should know that your work made an impact on us, and we look forward to reading more of it in the future.”***
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!”
“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! 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 swathe 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?”
“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, please just get her some chocolates and flowers and let’s head 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.
Coffee and cigarettes,
Sufis and saudade:
A moment — or two —
Just one moment — just two —
Snatched greedily from
Winter and whiskey,
Andromeda and Orion:
There are ghosts that haunt
My old, old house;
And there are ghosts that haunt
Watch the stars and sunsets.
Watch the hourglass recede.
‘May you live and love’,
‘May you live’,
‘May you love’,
And I did.
Your hair is winter fire
My heart burns there, too.
― Stephen King, It
AS the night deepened on a chilly October’s end, a tired labourer walked by the old school and heard music sweeter than sound. But he dared not stop, nor look back, for he remembered well his grandmother’s voice and he remembered well the stories it held of the djinn that haunt desolate wastes and desolate hearts. But if he had pushed open the rusty, wrought-iron gate and walked through the tall grass of the schoolyard – and if he had made his way up the creaking stairs, all the while following that strange, sweet sound – he would have found himself before a wood-and-glass door, caked with grime. And if he had wiped away the dust and looked in, he’d have seen something remarkable. For within that old classroom, at the top of that old school, someone had broken the monotonous pattern of desk and chair and fashioned them into a circle. And within that strange circle, if you look close enough, you’ll see two moonbeams flickering forever in a dance to the music of memory.
Inspired, in part, by Stephen King’s short story, ‘Willa’.
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.