Prose

Melancholy Tastes the Same in Italy and Other Stories

“A sad story, don’t you think?”
Haruki Murakami, On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning

1.

I thought all the kids did it. Whenever it got too much, you’d just take it all, unspooled as it was, and pick a song. (Any song.) You’d listen to that song again and again and again, until the feeling was the song and the song the feeling. And… then you didn’t have to worry about it ever again. It worked really well — it still does. The only problem is that now I’m old enough to forget things. And sometimes I’ll play a song that’s vaguely familiar and, before I know it, all those threads that I’ve carefully stashed into it will come flying out. And high up on Mount Olympus, Ariadne can’t stop giggling. 


2.

I remember the softness of her naked feet on the cold, clean tiles. 


3.

At dusk, bright billboards of you across Lahore pursue me home.


4.

Even the smallest Dairy Milk is purple. Once, purple was worth its weight in gold. The Phoenicians would crack open hundreds of thousands of Mediterranean sea snails to make an ounce of Tyrian purple. Imagine that. Imagine the audacity of trying to overwhelm her with quantity, to stretch my hands out “thiiiiiiis much”, “to the moon and back”, “infinity times infinity”, but I can’t say all that, of course, so I do the best I can and save up for weeks and weeks and buy as many of the small, purple bars of Dairy Milk that I can. And when I turn the large backpack upside down before her, I can see the concern for my sanity in her eyes. Believe me, this is the best that I can do to show you how much. Forgive the quality of the chocolate. Once, purple was worth its weight in gold. I stand before you, hoping that the quantity is enough for you to extrapolate the quality. You were always good at math. 


5.

The indolent Sunday afternoons of my childhood are estranged from me. Lost in time. They seemed so endless back then. Will I ever get them back? Or, if I do, will it simply lead to a relocation of those longings to another horizon, still further back. I dream of horizons of yearning, each gazing at the other, a succession of infinite funhouse mirrors in a Barnum and Bailey multiverse. “But it wouldn’t be make-believe / if you believed / in me.” 


6.

A final memory. Another birthday party. She is not coming. So I talk to an old friend. An animated conversation about politics — the usual. When, suddenly. Small, soft palms cover my eyes. The heart-note of a perfume I can always pick out, no matter how crowded the school’s corridor. A voice breathes in my ear. Guess who? And I can not breathe. For I know that this moment will forever be a barometer for my happiness, a high-water mark left on the levees of my heart.


7.

And now here I am, on the last train home. And I do not know what to make of that.


we were running through the autumn leaves /
a couple kids just wearing out our jeans…

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Poetry

Celestial Mechanics

What potions have I drunk of Siren tears?

Shakespeare, Sonnet CXIX

Two thousand years ago, Ptolemy

traced the vagaries of the stars

and was left immortal for that

and I, too, yearn for the taste

of ambrosia. So here I lie, on

moonless nights, writing my

own Almagest, as I trace the

constellations formed by the

stardust of your nevi.

Howard Pyle, “The Mermaid” (1910)

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Poetry

Summer Begins in Whitestone, New York

(a haiku)

summer rains, stars rise —
taking the long way home I
am mugged by fireflies

Image result for primitive radio gods

and if I die before I learn to speak / can money pay for all the days I lived awake / but half asleep?

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Poetry

Camelot

Every love story is a ghost story.

David Foster Wallace

in a flyover state where

the trains do not stop

but chug on toward the

hills, a quiet chord drifts

out over the darkling

plains and is lost for ever

to the wind and rain and

perhaps we are only

this: ghosts before our

time burning through

books burning through

women burning through

ourselves hoping to find

Camelot.

oceans away — a place

where nobody speaks the

language of the heartland

— you wait for the Q44 to

take you home. lights

alight. church bells toll

the hour. tonight the

street is empty and the

night is empty and the

moon will not rise and

there will be no stars to

guide you home. only the

dumpster fires rage on,

filled with the debris of

yesterday.

I got this window that looks out to Orion / I paid extra for

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Prose

On the sweet sounds of static on old radios

Time was a string of knots, a spiked wheel,

a seam that you could split and heal—

As a boy, reclining on horsehair

one morning on a train,

you watched the countryside,

a single light-filled frame

in which lives flickered, drawn forward

like a train along a track; you saw yourself,

suspended in a fractured, endless motion,

going, never going back.

Lauren Wilcox, The Moving-Picture Principle,The Paris Review, Summer 2004

AND then there was that band that had that song called the Loving Sounds of Static. Before then, I’d never thought of static as something that could be loving; beautiful, even.

And then I learnt the only thing I remember from high-school physics: that 2% of the static you hear on old radios as you turn the dial from station to station at sunset is primordial waves — remnants of the Big Bang destined to course forever more through the lonely spaces between the stars and I feel a bit strange knowing that, don’t you?

And the band was called Möbius Band and a Möbius strip is a band, too — not the musical kind — but kinda like the one you wear around your wrist except it has a twist in it so you can visit both sides — inside, outside — without lifting your finger.

And Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, famously, about the bittersweet songs of distant earth but he also wrote about a wall of darkness at the edge of an alien universe and I remember reading it twice in one go and wondering at the magic of it all, and wanting to be a writer, and that was about a Möbius strip, too.

And since then, that’s what I think of whenever I hear static on old radios: sci-fi and interstellar origins and whatever it is that lies just beyond the border of everything. But more and more, now, I think of those quiet evenings spent endlessly tracing a finger along the continuous surface of a band worn, once upon a time, by you.

 

 

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Poetry

Ad Astra (II)

in a hinterland galaxy 

by a mid-sized star 

on a strange blue world 

a hairless ape stands up and 

gains sentience and 

looks up at the stars and 

is never the same again. 

and somewhere 

far out at sea 

it is raining. 

it has been raining for 

many, many days 

and there is no one to see 

the Homecoming. 

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Prose

Sohni

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.)

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Prose

Dear Baba

Dear Baba,

A million years ago — as they sat by their little campfire — a father pointed out the constellations to his son. And the infinite night sky didn’t seem as intimidating anymore.

It’s the stories we grow up with that whisper the loudest within our hearts; they are the framework for our dreams; they pulse with the rhythm of our short, bright lives.

Thank you for giving me the stories that have made me who I am today. (Here is one of them.) Stories of social justice and dignity and equality. Stories of a divine love that is greater than the stars. And stories of who I was, who I am, and who I will be.

They are stories that will last a lifetime and I shall never tire of telling them.

Love you, forever and always.

Your son,

Shahzéb

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Prose

Amor / Addiction

a photograph is all that lasts long

with glory years and quiet fears gone

when summer days are far away

you can dream of skies and lover’s eyes

blue

Shoecraft, Eyes, Blue 

OF all the addictions that may plague a man, an addiction to love is the trickiest addiction to have. This is due to the singular fact that one can not buy love in the marketplace. If one could, that would be another matter entirely and we would not be having this conversation for I would be in the marketplace but we are, and I’m not, for it is — truly, insufferably — priceless.

Its effects are astounding. It can take a boy of fifteen — a promising young lad with a first-rate mind and sound disposition — and render him anaesthetised to worldly pursuits. The worlds of commerce and politics and sport are forever more left grey and drab to him. The gold stars of society no longer mean anything to him. He has glimpsed a world drenched in colour and he can not thrive without it. Over the years, he secretly feeds his addiction with scraps of poetry and ancient Persian treatises on Sufism. He devours literature with an unslakable thirst, searching, ever searching. He sees something he can not articulate in the way the sun sets behind lonely apartment complexes. Something beckons to him on the sea breeze as it blows through banyans in the hot afternoons. And something tightens in his chest every night as he watches the rising of the stars from the roof of his ancestral home. Everything he writes ends the same way: smeared with the half-remembered colours of forgotten love. Like waking from a dream and scrambling to put it all down before it’s lost to the aether; knowing it’s going, knowing it’s gone, knowing even as you begin to write that it’s useless and yet still grasping for another fix, you addict, happy in your addiction, wouldn’t trade it for the world because you’d rather your half-remembered colour than the grey, grey, grey of everyone and everything else…

There is a boy or a girl a thousand years hence on another planet who is reading all this, feeling all this. Here, Earth is merely a byword for an unspeakable nostalgia. I write to you — future-boy, future-girl — from your ancestral home. The colours are real. They exist. There is only one way to find them and there always has been. Good luck. Godspeed.

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Keenjhar Lake

The Ziauddin University Atlas Blog

Hasham Masood, M.B.B.S., Batch XVIII.jpgGharo, Sindh, Pakistan. PHOTO CREDITS: HASHAM MASOOD, M.B.B.S., BATCH XVIII

BY: SHAHZEB NAJAM, M.B.B.S., BATCH XVIII

If you sail far enough into the blue waters of Keenjhar Lake, you’ll see a small, stone structure rising up out of the waves. You disembark onto weather-beaten steps and climb up to a white, circular platform and in the centre, in eternal solitude, lie the graves of an ancient king and an ancient queen. You say a small prayer for the royal lovers — for all lovers, in all epochs, and for those who loved too much. Before you leave, your gaze lingers a moment longer on the setting sun and the wind-ruffled waters and you wonder why it feels like you’ve left something of yourself behind there with Noori and with Jam Tamachi and their thousand sunsets. Soon, the stars will rise. And I shall think of you.

About the author: Shahzeb…

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