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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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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Prose

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.

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Prose

A Light Between Oceans

Also published on the Ziauddin University Atlas Blog.

MANY years ago my grandfather gave my father a watch and my father gave it to me. It’s an old Omega De Ville — soft, brushed gold that catches the light just so on those long summer Sundays in Karachi. 

Watches are strange beasts: precious metals forged in the fiery cores of supernovae, held in place by delicate strips of perishable leather; keeping time to the warmth of other suns. 

If built true and kept well, the metal soul of a watch will outlast the wearer and be passed on with a bit of history and a patina of character. But the leather will not last. Sweat and rain and time will break it down, eventually.

A word on time —

I’ll tell thee everything I can:

There’s little to relate.

I saw an aged aged man,

A-sitting on a gate.

The aged, aged man is Kronos, God of Time. Chronology and chronographs are Chinese whispers of his name. But his kingdom can not lay claim to all of time. Quantitative time is his province, the one that my old Omega ticks off the seconds to. And while it’s a vast, powerful state, its smaller neighbour is just as essential to temporality. 

One of the disadvantages of living in this city by the sea is the havoc wrought by humidity. Leather straps rarely last more than a few years. The last one was a rich, dark brown with a word embossed on the reverse in small, block letters: K A I R O S. Kairos, the God of qualitative time. 

So while Kronos charts out the maps which underlie our lives — from the alarm-clock that wakes us from the wistful nostalgia of our dreams, to the calendars that lay out our days of work and leisure, leisure and work — Kairos marks out our lives themselves — the sunset conversations with old friends that end far too soon; the endless years spent in a half-hour noon nap’s dreamworlds.

Kronos with his time and Kairos with his timing. And in between these two oceans stand the lighthouses of our lives, lights aimed first at one, then the other, forever afraid of committing fully to either. 

And perhaps that’s best. For without the strap or without the metal, the watch is incomplete. But put them together and you have a marvel of ingenuity and engineering that proclaims the passage of Time — and also the subtler passing of the times

And as one generation passes on its wisdom to the next, we are, before we know it, adrift between the gods.
  

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Poetry

Haunted

As darkness falls 

the heart yearns for something known

once

now gone forever. 

Old memories of 

old, old friends 

and 

old, old loves

now gone forever. 

And something else, too — 

they’d meet every night

the whole gang

at the haunted house at the end of lane.

They did that for five summers straight

drunk on summer wine

and the summer night

and being fifteen in that city by the sea

until one day 

someone bought the haunted house at the end of the lane.

They all just sort of stood there for a while 

watching the stars shine above the new wall and the new gate. 

He was the last one to leave.

When the others asked him

later

he did not tell them of seeing Chronos 

a-sitting on the gate

or of Thanos

wheeling in the star-studded sky. 

He only smiled and

shook his head and

put his arms about them.

They walked off towards Alamgir

and the man who sold French fries by the side of the road. 

Behind them, the lane grew dim  

and lost its magic — 

until the next time. 

  

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Prose

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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