Poetry

El Dorado

There are days like these

she says,

and there are days like that.

Days where the ink-and-paper lighthouses you’ve built

sing songs of El Dorado

and all you can do is

listen and learn

hurt and yearn.

Late into the night

our legs dangle over city-streets

watching city-lights

and the aeroplanes

always the aeroplanes.

We hear the sweet sad songs of anonymous traffic

travelling – forever travelling –

on roads that do not stop

by the little, dusty towns

but speed on – forever on –

toward tomorrow.

They put up new floodlights at Hill Park over the weekend

and there are new stars in the sky

winter’s over

they say,

while I shiver from the cold.

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Prose

Iskandar’s Stars

Days I have held,

Days I have lost…

Derek Walcott, Midsummer, Tobago

ISKANDAR sipped at the warm coffee. The dim lights of the bridge bathed his blue uniform in a soft glow. He sat before the vast view screen and contemplated the sprawl of stars spread out before him. He listened to the quiet hum of the ship’s engines and took another sip of the coffee and closed his weary eyes.

Sir?”

“Hmm?”

“Sir, shouldn’t you be asleep?” Iskandar half turned and raised an eyebrow at the silhouette that framed the doorway. He watched as she walked past the sleek consoles with their darkened screens and took a seat beside him. She reached for his coffee, plucked it out of his grip and took a long, long gulp.

“There isn’t any sugar,” she said. Iskandar grunted and turned back to the view screen.

“Iskandar,” she said. “It’s October.”

“I know.”

“No,” she said. “You don’t know. It’s October and the crisp wind from the desert is just beginning to blow across Karachi and the nights are cold and crisp and dusty but the dust doesn’t block out the stars and you can see Rigel and Arcturus and Capella from the roof of your parents’ house and we could huddle up in a blanket just like we used to and watch the lights on the Ferris wheel at Hill Park fade into the night and we’d have warm cups of coffee with lots and lots of sugar and — ”

Enough, Zara!” His fist hit the top of the desk beside them and the thud ricocheted through the empty bridge. She met his stare coolly and he found that he could not hold her gaze. They sat like that for a while and then Zara stood up and made for the door.

“Wait. Please.” She stopped but didn’t turn around. He moved towards her and touched her shoulder and she trembled and turned away. He reached for her hand and their fingers intertwined. She turned, then, and looked up at him and he saw tears glittering in her dark eyes and cursed himself. He whispered apologies in her curly locks and she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him down and he kissed her soft and deep just like the first time in that lonely football field behind the old school as Sol set on another day in the city by the sea.

“I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry.”

He held her close and they walked like that, arms intertwined, back to the view screen and they sat like that, arms intertwined, before the infinite array of constellations.

“You don’t have to do this. You’ve done enough. You’ve done more than any of them.”

“I have done nothing.” He was quiet, but firm. “A universe lies before me, Zara. Destiny lies before me. How can you not understand? How can you not understand?”

Zara pursed her lips.

“Iskandar, do you know how the ancient Greeks saw time?”

“How?”

“They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind as they stood watching the past recede before them.”

“I do not understand.”

Think, Iskandar. One day you and I will die. You will lie there, watching your past recede before you. Is this what you want? Is this the past you wish to look upon?”

“Zara, there is nothing for me there. They are dogs who tear at each other for scraps and whether we return or not, they shall always be dogs.”

She pulled away and said nothing and his voice softened and he reached for her hand.

“Listen. Listen to me. Don’t you remember when we were kids? Don’t you remember how we’d sit on the dusty roof of your apartment and watch the rockets from Port Qasim lift off at dusk. They were leaving behind the grime and the grit of Karachi for new vistas. They were leaving it behind for adventure, Zara. For glory.”

“And can’t you remember college? Can’t you remember how we fought for freedom against that bitch of a government? You’re the one who led the fight, Iskandar. And when they locked you up — ” She bit back a sob and he moved to close the distance between them but she held out a hand.

“No, listen. I’m fine. Listen. You led the fight and they locked you up but we did it. We broke them. Together.”

“I remember,” he said. “I could hear the crowds from my cell.”

“You’re a hero, Iskandar. And now they need us at home.”

“But Zara what shall we do, then? We go back and we fight and we win — it’s just a matter of time until they do it again. It’s a cycle. It’s history. But there,” he pointed to the stars, “there is hope for a new world.”

“And what sort of world shall that be if it’s built on this — on us running from our colleagues, our friends, our families? On us running from home?”

“So you will not come with me?”

She smiled at him sadly.

“You idiot,” she pointed at the badge that glinted on her uniform. “I’m your lieutenant. And your wife. I’ll go wherever you go. I just don’t want you to make a decision you’ll regret. I’ll be waiting for your announcement, sir.” She mock saluted him and he shook his head and smiled as she left the bridge.

Iskandar closed his eyes. He fell into a fitful sleep and dreamt that he stood in a shallow river on the dark plains of the Punjab at the dawn of civilization and in the dark before him stood mighty war elephants and in the dark behind him stood the fractious tribes of his motherland. And, as he watched, the rains of time poured forth and the river began to swell until it reached his knee and then his waist and then his chest and mighty Iskandar, lord of the known world, closed his eyes and dived into the water and firmly struck out towards one of the banks.

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Prose

Moonshine

I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on

A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.

I have wasted my life.

James Wright, Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota

“FULL moon tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Ozzy, you didn’t even look up!”

“I did!”

“No, you didn’t!”

Aurangzeb put down the cigarette and lay back with his hands behind his neck.

“It’s a fucking moon,” he laughed. “It’s a fucking moon! It’s fucking stars! It’s a fucking bee-u-tiful night! And here I am,” he said, passing the paper bag to Shahreyar. “Here I am, stuck with fucking you!”

Shahreyar shook his head and smiled as he opened the paper bag. Inside were three glass bottles. They clinked as he took them out and placed them on the cold concrete floor of the roof. Carefully, he opened one, sniffed it and took a long, long swig. The warmth did much to fortify him against the cold.

“Hey, Sherry?”

“Yeah?”

“We’re gonna be kings, right?”

“We’re gonna be kings, jaani.”

A plane flew past, sleepy lights blinking into the night. They watched it until they couldn’t.

“And if we aren’t?”

“We will be.”

“How do you know? I mean, school was—”

Fuck school! This is college, Ozzy! It’s gonna be different.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah! It’s gonna be what we make it. It’s gonna be whatever we make it.”

Aurangzeb sat up with a start. He stood and mouthed the words to himself as he paced back and forth in a tight pattern.

“You’re right.”

“I’m always right.”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck you!”

They laughed and wrestled for a bit until someone kicked a bottle over and spilt the whiskey onto the roof.

“Aw, shit!”

“Damn it!”

“We better clean that shit up before someone comes up here!”

“No one comes up here,” said Shahreyar. But he went down to fetch some water.

Aurangzeb stood up and walked to the stone railing and leaned against it. He lit another cigarette. He heard Shahreyar come up the old stairs, push open the rusted door and pour a pitcher of water over the spilt whiskey.

Shahreyar put down the pitcher, picked up another bottle and walked towards Aurangzeb.

Bismillah,” he said, opening the seal.

“You bastard! You’re going to hell for that!”

“A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou—”

“What’s that? Ghalib?”

“It’s Khayyám, dumbass!”

“Well whoever it is, he ain’t gonna save you from eternal hellfire. You better enjoy this winter while you can, beta.”

“We’ll see,” Shahreyar winked.

Aurangzeb shook his head and suppressed a smile.

They leaned against the railing and took long swigs from the bottles and watched the lights of the old amusement park flicker in the distance. The Ferris wheel stood out against the star-washed sky.

Chai ka mood hai? Wanna grab some tea?”

“As long as it’s on you, jaani.”

They picked up the bottles and wrapped them in the paper bag and carefully shut the roof’s door.

Behind them, the lights of the Ferris wheel blinked out for the night.

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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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