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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Essay on Intizar Husain in Herald magazine

Honoured to have an essay on Intizar Sahib in the October 2016 issue of Herald. In no way the most qualified person to write on him, but Faiza Shah at Herald was so supportive and encouraging that I was able to cobble something together, and the editing team at the magazine did a great job of whipping it into shape. The issue is out on news stands now - do check it out, if based in Pakistan. Thanks, guys.

The long view

Solom: Mama, I will now ask you a GENIUS QUESTION. You can only TRY to answer it.

Me: Bolo.

Solom: WHICH ONE OF THESE *pause for dramatic effect* IS A CRYSTAL? a) a raindrop b) a snowflake c) a hailstone

Me: Snowflake.

Solom stares at me in a displeased fashion, which means it's the correct answer.

Me: What does this make your Mama?

Solom: A genius. BUT YOU KNOW, MAMA, you SHOULD know this... it's only for CLASS THREE students. And you've passed CLASS SIX.

Friday, October 14, 2016

To Blog or Not to Blog

A few weeks ago, someone sent me a very kind email praising one of the popular posts on this blog. He said it inspired him to sit down and write a story, which is really the best compliment one could ever get for one's writing.

Reading his email made me go back and read through some of the old posts again. And I found myself thinking that this used to be quite a fun blog in its hey day. That style of writing, the flow, seem almost alien to me now. I don't think I can gather my thoughts the same way anymore, nor present them in as entertaining a manner.

Of course, one must question why that is the case. Is it that I'm simply out of practice now? Have I lost that particular sense of humour... have I become *gasp* boring? Or is it something deeper? Are my children becoming harder to sum up in blogbytes as they grow older? Did I become too overly conscious of what I was publishing as this space became more popular? 

I suspect self-consciousness did play a role in the lapsing of this blog. I started thinking about what people would like to read, rather than what I would like to write. And so much happened in the last couple of years that was not about what Solom, Zain or Al-Husband had said. I had more to say. About politics. About justice. About global peace. I just wasn't sure if anyone wanted to hear about it on a motherhood blog.

(Before you say it, no, it's not so easy to just throw caution to the wind and write about what one wants. It's never easy to do that.)

Other thoughts crossed my mind as well. My own dwindling patience with the lengthy sentence (should I move into podcasting instead, or vlogs?). The dwindling popularity of the blog format (there's so much to read out there anyway... honestly, who cares anymore?).

Decisions, decisions. Suffice to say, Aafster had absolutely no idea what was the right course of action. Aafster still has no idea what the right course of action is.

So, until she figures it out, Aafster is blogging.

Son Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Solom and Zain handed me this lovely envelope today.

Instant love. Opened it, to find this beauty inside. Apparently written by Solom but DICTATED BY ZAIN, WHO IS CLEARLY FEELING GUILTY FOR THE OTHER DAY HAHA.

Here's the text, for the optically challenged:

Dear Mama,

I love you Mama very much. And have a nice birthday, which is next year. It is okay if you fall sick, I will be there to help you.


Bring it on, BAHU! Saasu Ma's ready, yo!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Good training has backfired.

Conversation between me and Zain.

Me: Zaaaaiiiin.

Zain: I love you, Mamaaaa.

Me: Zain, when Mama gets old and sick, will you take care of herrrr?

Zain: Yes, Mama, I will *kiss*

Me: And what if your wife says no, you can't take care of your mother? Will you listen to herrrr?

Zain: Ummm... maybe! Yes, I will!

Me: Why.

Zain: BECAAAUSE, I'm not ONLY the bossk of the home! I'm not the only bossk!

(A faint voice calls along the breeze, "Karmaisabiiiiiitch...")

Monday, July 18, 2016

Art Education FTW

Conversation between me, Suleiman and Zain, while examining a lego construction by Zain.

Me: What is it?

Zain: It's for SULEIMAN.

Solom: But Zain, what are you going to call it?

Zain: It's a BUILDING.

Solom (contemplatively): Hmm. It... looks like a chicken with one wing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What's in a name?

Conversation about our niece - my children's only first cousin.

Solom: I can't wait for Sophia to come home so I can make her smile.

Me: Awww. Solom, if Sophie has a baby sister, will you love her as much as you love Sophie?

Solom: Yes!

Me: Okay, boys let's pretend, if Sophie had a baby sister, what would you name her?


Cloudy, with a chance of epiphanies

This happened while I was trying to feed Zainoo spicy meatballs.

Zain (turning his head away): I'm done.

Me: Zainooo!

Solom (from under the dining table): ZAIN, do you KNOW people are CRYING because they don't have enough FOOD??


Saturday, May 30, 2015

On digging a hole for oneself

Conversation while feeding the boys lunch.

Me: Zainoo's my baby. And Solom's my FIRST baby! Mama's two..?

Solom: Fat.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Early boyhood education

Solom (beaming): Today Raina sat next to me.

Me: Oh, good! Does she like you now?

Solom: I don't know. She told me to move my chair a little to the left, and I did as I was told.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ciiiiircle of life

At the mall today. Conversation between my mother and my son.

Amma (looking proudly at Solom and Zain): My little sweethearts! What will I do when you grow older?

Solom (blinking earnestly): When we grow older, you'll be lying flat on the ground and then they'll bury you.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Political over-education

You know you've overdone it when...

Solom: Come ON, Zain, we're leaving!

Zain: Are we going to the PAAARK?

Solom: No, we're going to the GYMKHANA.

Zain: Nooo, we're going to the GYMRAN KHAN.

Monday, September 22, 2014

On effective communication

Got Al-Husband to reluctantly bring a Kit Kat for me last night. Eighteen hours later...

Me: Jaani, could you get me a Mars bar, please?

Al-Husband (eyes popping, blowing his cheeks out, gesturing at my waist, raising his arms like wings): FLAMBOOGAN!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Manners: a generation role reversal

Me to Zain: Nahin karo, takiya gir jaey ga... nahin karo, NAHIN KARO!

Zain to me: Actually you should say, "Could you please not do that?"

*appropriately chastised*

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Political education win

Solom: We will go to the PRO-test because the rulers of Pakistan cheated. We will say GO NAWAZ GO and Nawaz will go. Because he helped the rulers to cheat. And Imran Khan will be there to help us. He is the man.

Zain: Noooo. We will go to the PRO-test and we'll say JAMERAZGO and the BUZZY BEE will buzz off to Emerald Tower!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Political education fail

Two days ago, we took our boys to a protest against election rigging. We explained to them on the way that a group of people were getting together to show their anger because the people ruling Pakistan cheated to become the rulers. And as the boys know, cheating is not a nice thing to do.

Fast forward to today. Solom and Al-Husband are playing Snakes and Ladders.

Al-Husband: SULEIMAN. You are constantly cheating!!!

Solom: But Baba, I want to become the ruler of Pakistan.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Hunger pangs

2.30 am.

Zain: Mama, I think I'm hungryyyy.

Me: Of course you're hungry. Did you eat when Shazia was trying to feed you at Ammoni's house? No, you didn't. She told you, I told you, but did you listen? No! You ran up and down, screaming, and in the meantime your brother sat with Shazia and ate his dinner. Did you? No. Where is your brother now? He's asleep! Is he hungry? No. And what are you doing? You've obviously woken up at 2.30 am, expecting that food should be arranged for you in the middle of the night! All of this has happened because you don't listen!!

*Zain stares contemplatively at the ceiling, then stands up*

Zain: Mama, this is the correct answer: I'm going to have lunch!

Friday, July 18, 2014

It's a kind of magic

Zain (swishing an imaginary wand at my mother): "Abracadabra! You've become a mouse!"

*turns to me*

"Abracadabra! You've become a woman!"

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Badtameez birthday

Conversation between me and our friend Kerry from Islamabad.

Kerry: So how old are you now? 25?

Me: 17! Always 17!

Kerry: 17?! Wow, looks can really be deceiving.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

No life with wife


Zain: Naaaaah.

Solom: But he IS!

Zain: Baba is not a husband. He's a MAN.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Oh, man!

Conversation over lunch.

Me: Could you please come closer; I cannot feed you from so far away. This is the last time in my LIFE that I'm telling you this!!

Solom: But MAMA, your life is your HUSBAND.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Games people play

Zain, directing a flashlight at me and hopping around: Shoo! Shoo! Shoo shoo shoo shoo!

Me: What are you doing?

Zain: I'm shooting you, bad guy.

Me: You're saying, "SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT"??

Zain: Yeees! Shoo! Shoo! Shoo!

Me: Stop that and leave the room right now!

Zain, exiting room with satisfied expression: SHOOTEN!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Midnight on a Sunday

Wow. What a day. About to go in for a shower, but I just have to say, I honestly feel like my legs are semi-detached at the knees and about to fall off. This mothering thing is tough, man. IT'S TOUGH.


Thursday, May 15, 2014

On advertising

Conversation with Al-Husband while eating dinner.

Me: "BLEAGH. The laundry detergent's seeped through the roti cloth into the rotis. They're tasting of Surf!"

Al-Husband: "Ab safaee na sirif bahar se ho gi, balkay andar se bhi! ARIEL - mukammal safaee!"

Monday, March 31, 2014

On Instant Gratification

Zainoo: HEYYY. Where's BABAAA?

Me: He's gone to the bathroom.

Zain: Then we better get ANOTHER ONE.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On procr-ass-tination

Email conversation with my Managing Ed.

Me *digging up an old email thread*: Did I not send you this info?!

Omer: Nope.

Me: Wow. I have been sitting on this since the 19th of February.

Omer: It must have asphyxiated to death.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Fairy tale/Scary tale

Conversation after coming back from an evening at the theatre.

Zain: Mama, I LOVE your SHIRT!!

Me: Thank you, baby!

Solom: You know MAMA, you look like SNOW WHITE.

Me (twirling in front of mirror): Wow, thank you, jaani!

Solom: Please take the shirt off so I can give it to my teacher. I love her.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

On school admissions

Me: So Zainoo, we're going to the big school for an interview tomorrow!

Zainoo: Yes.

Me: So if they ask you what your favourite song is, what will you say?

Zainoo: The Dora Goes to Office song.

Me: Dora goes where?? Can you sing it for me?

Zainoo *breaking into song*:

Dora goes to office
And she's not afraid
The car goes dhuzhh!
We have to be careful
Or it will RUN OVER US
It will CRUSH US
And... she dies!

Needless to say, I'm pinning my hopes on our alternative-choice school now.

Friday, November 15, 2013

On analogies

Conversation over dinner.

Al-Husband: Ow. Chili's gone and struck really badly inside.

Me: You should be a pro at handling chilies. You married one :)

Al-Husband: More like a bell pepper.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Freaky Friday

Conversation with sons on a particularly bad afternoon.

Me: Would you keep quiet already?! You people are driving me NUTS!!!

Zain (fixing me with a stare): Mama. DON'T. CALL. US. PEOPLE.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Upon returning from Islamabad

Solom has had an imaginary friend for several months now. His name is Enter.

Solom: Baba, I think Enter is still in Islamabad.
Al-Husband: Won't he get lonely there, without you or Zainoo?
Solom: No. You know, Baba, Enter has two friends in Islamabad.
Al-Husband: Really? Who?
*pause for thought*
Solom: Entry and Exit.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Just the seven of us

Solom demonstrating his knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence:

Me: Solom, I love you. You're my FIRST baby!

Solom: Yes, Mama, and you're our first mother.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Eat, Pray, Love

Al-Husband: Did you like the sandwich I made you this morning?

Me: I never had it.

Al-Husband: Why?!

Me: It was too heavy. It had meat in it! Who eats meat for breakfast?!

Al-Husband *after considering the matter briefly*: Muslims?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

For Mandy

I’m sitting by the ocean as I write this. Sometimes when I think of South Africa, this is all that comes to mind – a vast stretch of blue. Ocean, sky, the jagged outline of Table Mountain. Us in Mandy’s car, the road rolling out before us mottled with blue cloud-shadows; rolling, rolling, rolling all the way to the distant horizon.

Zain is fast asleep beside me on the beach chair on a blue and white, striped towel. Mandy never saw my children. The last time we met was in South Africa, where Azfar and I went for our honeymoon in 2007, but I knew her from two years earlier – December 2005, to be precise, when she and her friend Waldimar Pelser visited Pakistan on my cousin’s invitation. My cousin lived in Lahore but had a propensity to invite people to my mother’s house in Islamabad, usually at a few hours’ notice, and so it happened that we were told that two journalists from South Africa were going to be staying at our place. They’d put Islamabad on the itinerary because they wanted to attend a traditional Pakistani wedding. This happened to be my cousin’s ex’s wedding. Needless to say, it was going to be a complicated few days.

I only remember snatches of that trip. There were conversations over tea. Waldimar and Mandy loved their tea. Maybe it was a journalist thing, or maybe it was a South Africa thing – whatever it was, it created moments for bonding. Mandy was soft spoken and kind, and would then surprise you with a delightfully wicked streak. She liked to reach out to people, to establish a connection. One of my lasting memories is of her standing in front of my mother in a blouse and petticoat, ooh-ing and aah-ing as a sari was tied around her for the wedding. She had rocked up a storm on the dance floor at the mehndi the previous night, dressed in a shalwar qamees. Another memory is of Mandy and Waldimar in my room, frozen mid-conversation with terrified excitement as the windows rattled and the ceiling fan swung to the rhythm of a small earthquake – one of the hundreds of aftershocks post October 2005. Pakistan was meant to be an adventure for those two, I think. Perhaps, like so many other people who visit my country, they wanted to be able to say that they’d made the trip and survived.


Two years later, I walked into Mandy’s Johannesburg apartment with my new husband.  She’d kept cardamom and clove flavoured chocolates for us in the guestroom. We bonded over drinks again – she nursing her glass of wine and we our mugs of herbal tea. I asked her the direction of the sunrise so I could figure out which direction to pray in. A couple of days later, we were heading out at the crack of dawn on a road trip and I realized the sun rose from the exact opposite direction that she’d said. I called her.

“Mandy. Thanks to you, I’ve spent the last three days praying with my ass towards the Kaaba!”

“Oooooh I’m so sorry! I didn’t want to admit that I had no idea what the direction of the sunrise was! I mean, who expects you to know that?!”

Sadly, she’d been called away to Cape Town for work, but she left the keys to her car and apartment with us. When it was time for us to travel there, she arranged a bed and breakfast for us within hours because our hotel booking had fallen through. The B&B was run by an Israeli Jewish couple called Eliaf and Petunia. It was the first time they were hosting a Muslim couple from Pakistan, and they were pleasantly surprised to find that we were normal human beings. “Come, sit here,” Eliaf would say, “and I will show you that our faiths are not so different. What?! You do not believe in reincarnation?! So what if it is not in your Book, it was not in ours either! Ah but you see, that means you do not let your faith evolve! You are STUCK!”

“Eliaaaaf,” Petunia would call from the kitchen, “I tell you and I tell you again: let it BE! Is no use! Hey Ali, why you not eat your second egg? You only have one fried egg in morning?? Here, have sausage. No sausage even?! Tut, tut. How you live??”

The new South Africa had no place for people like them, Eliaf told us. “My son has already left,” he said, waving his hand at a portrait on the wall of a solemn Jewish priest with a long beard and the customary tendrils down the side of his face. Eliaf and his wife were holding out because South Africa was their home and they were loyal to it, but many other people were leaving in droves, unhappy with the system of government and the rising instances of State corruption and mismanagement. “They are doing reverse apartheid now,” he said gloomily, “if you are white, you know.  All the educated people are leaving. There is no future here.”

It was only partly true, of course. Mandy believed in the new South Africa, and in many ways represented the best of the new South Africa. She accompanied us to the Constitution Court, which we were allowed into because it was not in session at the time and because she flashed her press card at the guard. She was clearly in awe of her surroundings, having only seen the room on television before when the justices had been presiding over a public case.

“Put on the mic, Mandy,” I urged her. “Say something.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t!”

“Tell them how it should be.”

She put on the mic but didn’t speak.

“Sing the national anthem, then.”

“I can do that. Yes.”

And she did. It is my last and my best memory of her.


Three weeks ago, my cousin sent me a link over email, with no message attached. Media24 Reporter Mandy Rossouw Dies. She’d been complaining of chest pains and had been admitted into hospital over the weekend, but was discharged with a clean bill of health. She was found dead in her apartment on Monday after she missed a dinner appointment with a friend.

There was an official statement of condolence from the government. South African newspapers ran eulogies. Mandy had come a long way. And, for some reason, this was as far as she was meant to go. I read through her resume in one of the obituaries and realized that it didn’t capture some of the beautiful things she had done – like her expedition to Pakistan, or the time she sang the national anthem in the Constitution Court. And so, this is my small contribution to the curriculum vitae of her life. It is not a goodbye post, because I am not ready to say goodbye. Perhaps someday, when we go back to the country where we honeymooned, I will finally say, “Yes, it happened.”

Mandy II by dm_51613f0352082

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Prevention is better than cure

Me: Betay, put on your slippers. Your nose is running.

Solom (grabbing nose): It's okay MAMA. I've CAUGHT it.

Monday, February 18, 2013

On reproduction

Conversation between Solom and me this morning.

Me (pointing at my pregnancy picture): Look, Solom, you were here in Mama's stomach, see?

Solom: *staring*

Me: See how big Mama's stomach is? You were in it, see?

Solom (looking devastated, practically wringing hands): MAMA I THINK that you did not chew me, you only SWALLOWED me.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

True dat

Overheard while climbing the stairs:

Solom: WHO'S THAT.

Zain: BABA! BABA! It's BABA!

Solom: NO Zainoo, it's the WASHING MACHINE.

Saturday, January 5, 2013


you're singing and your 2-yr-old says, "Mama is crying! Are you okay, Mama? BABAAAA Mama ko chot lagi!!!"

Friday, December 21, 2012

Wishful thinking

SMS conversation with Al-Husband.

Me: Sometimes I think I could kiss the person who invented the cell phone.

Al-Husband: That would be me. :-D

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sorry aunty, wrong number

SMS conversation.

Friend: I ordered a chocolate cake from Nando's out of sheer depression. While I was devouring it, a colleague mentioned your blog and a great blogpost on it - 'woh Afia wali blog'. Guess which Afia I thought she was talking about.

Me: Siddiqui?

Friend: Yeah. 

Me: :-/

Friend: I didn't know she reads your blog.

And there you have it, folks! On my 100th post, please know that the chances of Aafia Siddiqui writing a blogpost out of captivity about Nando's cake are apparently higher than those of your colleagues in Karachi reading my blog. *bang*

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Proverb, shoverb

While shortlisting poems for the next issue of Papercuts, our poetry ed, Noor, noted that she wouldn't vote on her own poems. The following conversation ensued in comments on that note.

Omer: Is not voting on your own poem the same as having your cake and eating it too? I have no idea what this proverb means and I have spent the last 15 years of my life trying to figure it out. It never works in any context.

Afia: Or one could say it always works in any context. You have your cake, ergo you eat it.

Omer: Of course, you can ALWAYS have your cake and eat it. But the proverb is you CAN'T have your cake and eat it too. Why the hell not? That's what I don't get. It's your cake. You can do whatever you want with it. If you have it, you can definitely eat it too.

Afia: Oh yes, of course. You're right, I'd turned the proverb around on its head. I think what it means is that you can't get everything you want exactly as you want it. For instance, I'd put the cutlets on to fry and then come to check my mail in the meantime. Ideally, I would've checked my mail and gone back, flipped over the cutlets and found them a perfect golden brown. INSTEAD I spent a few extra minutes reading your comment and by the time I went back, the cutlets were BURNT. So I got to check my mail, as I wanted, but I couldn't check it fast enough to get the cutlets to turn out right. Does this apply?

Omer: No, I think the proverb, "A poor workman always blames his tools" is more apt in this scenario.

Friday, November 30, 2012

From riches to rags

I just came back from a fundraiser for an organisation that's doing excellent work for girls' education in Pakistan. The event was a theatre play by a reputable French playwright, and although I'd already seen the fantastic movie based on that play, I picked up two tickets for the benefit. This organisation has a soft spot in my heart because I worked as Programme Coordinator for its nationwide programme for three years (2001 to 2004) and was intimately aware with programme details, right down to individual students and their families.

The play was good and I and the friend accompanying me were in near hysterics throughout. But certain things happened that I want to share because they took over the experience of the play, and in the ultimate analysis left me dejected rather than elated after a fun night at the theatre.

I don't know how best to put this, but you see, the elite exposed themselves rather badly tonight. At Rs. 2,000 per head the ticket was steep, so you knew that whoever was there could Afford It. That usually puts you in another category (that loosely defined but incredibly definite thing called 'class') in which different things are expected from you vs. those who, say, can't afford the ticket. You're supposed to be able to afford an education, for instance. And because of that, you're supposed to carry yourself differently. You're supposed to be civilised (isn't that why you're supporting girls' education?). After all, if you're willing to dish out for a night at the theatre, you must be a cut above the philistines who can't be there. 


I wish I could describe to you adequately the intellectual poverty I saw in that hall tonight. It was not clear whether more people were there to see the play or to be seen at the play. As the actors took the stage and acted their hearts out (sometimes well, sometimes not) to a script with biting wit and political criticism, most of the audience sat in a sort of bored and uncomprehending stupor. Laughs were few and far between, except for a scene where one of the characters went through a protracted vomiting session - that really got people LOLing. About twenty minutes into the play, members of the audience started getting up and leaving the hall in a slow trickle that continued throughout the performance. I'm not sure how many more would've left if the ticket had been less pricey. When the actors stepped up for curtain call, they were subjected to a meagre smattering of applause completely disproportionate to the energy and heart they had put into their performance. As my friend and I walked out slowly with the crowd, she said, "I don't think they understood it." I'm pretty sure she was right.

While we were standing outside on the pavement, a large-ish contingent of women began to collect on the asphalt driveway running through the compound, presumably to keep a better eye out for their cars than they could've done from the pavement two feet behind them. As the event had just ended, there was a long line of cars leaving the compound. Then a car, manned by somebody's driver, came in through the gate and began inching its way down the drive in the opposite direction. It was in the correct lane and moving at a perfectly appropriate speed. People slowly dispersed from in front of the car until it reached a group of women who decided not to move. The eldest out of them, a woman in pants and a smart shirt, gestured emphatically at the driver and called out, "Go back!" When he did not, she completely lost it.

"SHUT UP! SHUT UP!" she started shouting. "GET OUT OF HERE! GET OUT!"

'Horrified' doesn't even begin to cover how I felt. The women standing around this human loudspeaker, instead of calming her down, were nodding and murmuring encouragingly to her. None of them said, "Let's move to the pavement and make way for the cars." And of course they'd rather have been run over than to have said, "You were wrong to shout at that man; it was his right of way and he was doing his job. You were wrong."

This woman reminded me of another woman we had the misfortune of meeting on the first day I moved to Karachi with the kids (January 28th, 2011). We were in line to go to Butler's Chocolate Cafe when traffic was held up by a car whose driver (a young woman) was in deep conversation with the woman who'd just gotten out of the car (an older woman). Traffic started backing up until cars couldn't come out of the subsidiary street onto the main road. People started honking. The guy behind us, in particular, really leaned on his horn - and the lady standing at her car thought it was us. First she shouted, "Just wait!" at us and then, when her car finally moved out of the way and we were able to drive into the drop lane, she started yelling at my husband. She called him a bloody bastard and when he said, "We never did anything!" she shouted, "Shut up! You don't know who you're talking to." "You keep quiet!" Azfar replied hotly. So this woman who was old enough to be his mother told him to fuck off and said that he didn't know how to talk to elders.

Isn't that interesting, though? You don't know who you're talking to. You don't know how to talk to elders. Who are we talking to? What makes you better than us? What is the source of this status that you're throwing in our faces? Because you see, you're the one swearing like a sailor on a public street. You may have all the money and contacts in the world but you don't have manners. My husband, on the other hand, comes from a family that would rather be swallowed up into the ground than to be heard talking like that. And the people who lead the way on this - who show us by example how to behave respectably - are our elders.

You know what's sad? The woman outside the play reminded me of someone. She reminded me of any number of people who'd be in and out of my grandparents' drawing room when they were in the service. These were the well dressed, the cultured, the suave, the charming - those who proudly counted themselves as the civilised and well-bred cadre and then spoke to their domestic help as if it were a lower specie. But it's they who are poor. They are immeasurably poor because they cannot see the riches in those around them. They are alone because they do not count themselves among normal human beings. And no amount of money spent on charities and benefits will change that sad, sorry reality.

The play was for a good cause, sure, but the people really in need of an education were in that auditorium tonight.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

All still in the same boat

My friend was lamenting today how her husband is a little lacking in the romance department.

Friend: "I told him, like, 'We don't even have A SONG that we can listen to together and feel romantic!' A few days later we're dancing in this club, and he shouts, 'Hey THIS could be our song!'"

Me: "Which one was it?"

Friend: "Boom boom let's go back to my room."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

All in the same boat

Email received from a friend today about her three-year old.

"For the past three days we have been putting our son to sleep at 8 so the father and me can be " friends" again.

Saala baap bhi 8 bajey so jaata hai.

Son 1. Parents 0."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Band baja

Overheard while preparing lunch:

Solom (brandishing a microphone): "ZAINOO. You want to hear BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP or ITSY BITSY SPIDER?"


"Zainooooo take hands down from ears!"

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Friday, October 19, 2012

Burn baby, burn

Me: I love you.

Solom: I love you too.

Me: Do you really? Do you love Mama?

Solom (nodding emphatically): YES... I love everybody.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Little Mr. Manners

In the bid to raise polite children, it seems I've unfortunately made them into serial thankers. I was putting together a small botanical experiment for Solom when this exchange happened:

Solom: Thank you for putting the rubber band on the bottle, Mama.

Me: Solom, you're thanking me for all the wrong things!

Solom: Thank you for all the wrong things, Mama.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Running in full circles

I was in Karachi then too - on this very day, seven years ago. On my way back after completing a degree, I'd made a brief stopover of a few days to spend some time with a friend whose wedding I'd been unable to attend while at university. The flight home to Islamabad was scheduled on the morning of October 8th, 2005, but I changed my booking as an afterthought so I could spend the weekend in Karachi with my khala and cousin. We were at a family lunch when talk began of an earthquake in Islamabad. It had taken place early that morning, around 8 or 9 o'clock. My ears pricked up but not a whole lot - we were used to bad earthquakes in my home city and I remember many occasions on which we had to rush out of the house (sometimes in the middle of the night) and wait for it to pass. Earthquakes were normal in Islamabad.

But now they'd started talking about a building that had fallen. A block of flats. Where? I asked, expecting to hear of an overcrowded, dilapidated construction in an industrial area in Pindi. They didn't know. What was the name? they asked each other. Margalla? Margalla Towers?

"Margalla Towers??" I exclaimed. "You've got it wrong. That can't fall... that's a new building." What I meant was, That can't fall... rich people live there. We don't live in buildings that fall in earthquakes.

I rushed to call my mother but by that time all the lines were down because of the load. We knew a lot of people who lived in Margalla Towers. My friend Ambreen Mirza, my mother's friend Shahnaz Kapadia, my college junior Imran Moonis, and many other people. The first person I got through to was Azfar, who assured me that Ambreen and her family had gotten out safely. Their apartment wasn't in the tower that had fallen... it was adjacent to it. They'd rushed out in their nightclothes and then watched in horror as an entire building, home to hundreds of neighbours, had come down like a house of cards. Then I got through to Amma. "The Moonises were in that building," she said, her voice totally devoid of hope. I'd gone to Imran's apartment for a reunion a few years earlier. It was the penthouse and in my mind I kept thinking, "Then maybe they've survived. It's the top floor. Maybe they made it." They hadn't. Imran and his sister had already left their home for the day when the earthquake struck, but their parents were still there, getting an easy start to a weekend morning. Aunty's gold bangles were found a few days later, and some time after that their bodies were finally recovered.

My mother's friend Shahnaz lost her teenage son. They managed to exit the apartment in time but there were so many people stampeding down the main stairwell that he quickly directed his mother and younger brother to the fire escape. The stairs fell away under him as he led the way. The only reason why Shahnaz Aunty and her other son survived was because a big concrete block fell simultaneously on them, crushing her younger boy's legs and crippling him, but effectively holding them back from the stairs. To this day when I drive by the empty shell of the Margalla Towers complex in Islamabad, I can't drag my eyes away from the fire escape crawling its way down the side of the building and then disappearing into nothing.

For the rest of the weekend, I sat glued to the TV in my khala's house, following the news like a zombie. Repeat footage, again and again, of those familiar roads, that well-known and much-visited apartment complex, faces of friends and acquaintances floating by on the television screen. I saw Imran during the live transmission, explaining to rescuers where their apartment was and possible points of entry into it. He was calm and in control. He still believed that his parents might be alive. I remember being proud of him for being so brave, and wanting to step through the screen to stand with him.

The initial numbers were staggering. Azad Kashmir had seen the worst of the devastation. Over 70,000 people were believed to have died, scores of them children. And this was the most awful part: not just that they were children but the way they had died. Azad Kashmir has a very high literacy rate. Thousands of children were in school that Saturday morning (a weekday in government schools) so when the earthquake struck at 8.50 am, they were sitting ducks in their classrooms. But why did so many schools fall? I kept agonising. The answer wasn't that hard to figure out: poor construction. I still believe that every contractor who was assigned to build those government schools and who scrimped and saved and pilfered to make his extra bucks and who knowingly put up an unsafe structure has blood on his hands as of that day. God, I hope they pay some day. The same thing happened in Margalla Towers: the only tower that fell was the one that had been constructed the last, not because it was on the original plan but because the apartment scheme had become so wildly popular that the owners got greedy and made a construction over an unstable portion of the land that had a stream running through it. What price your extra wealth, you murderers?

                                                                  The fire within - Jalal Hameed

I flew back into Islamabad the following Monday. The injured were being flown in in the thousands from Kashmir. Everyone was volunteering for something. Offices didn't care if people didn't come in to work. Roads to Azad Kashmir were jammed because of the number of private vehicles going up to deliver relief goods. It was crazy, it was amazing, it was the only thing we could do. In the middle of all this, I volunteered in the children's surgical ward at Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS). Not being a medical professional, my job was to spend time with the children and help keep them cheerful. In the morning I'd be at an injured child's bedside, talking to her or reading to her, and the next morning I'd find her unconscious, recovering from an amputation surgery. It was horrible to see a child in pain but there was nothing quite like a child who'd be maimed for life. 

It's impossible to describe the atmosphere in that ward. It was a mix of extreme suffering and unimaginable mundanity, and in the middle of it all - these children. Everything seemed so much more fragile because of the children. I'd rolled a girl down to surgery one day when a man in hospital gear stopped me and enthusiastically asked how I was. Not quite able to place him, I played along and we talked while I was waiting for my charge's turn to be wheeled into OT. He was mid-sentence when someone came rushing in with a boy on a gurney... another volunteer like me who probably had no idea what he was doing or where he ought to be going. "I've been told that someone needs to see this boy!" he half screamed, half panted. The man I was talking to turned and took one look at the patient (a boy of about 8 or 9) and called out matter of factly, "You better hurry up. That one isn't going to make it." I still remember the boy's face: the eyes rolling up and that particular expression that tells you that the body's now giving up, it's letting go. I remember being shocked that my companion turned around and continued talking as if nothing had happened, and in that second of shock I suddenly placed him. He was my dentist's office assistant. Today when I recall that moment, these are the two things that stand out: the boy's eyes rolling up and the relief at finally connecting that this was Dr. Abid's assistant.

When I would go home in those days there would be a fixed routine. I'd lock my door, put on a song and start pacing the room. The song was a new one by Strings that had become popular because it made it to the soundtrack for the new Spiderman film, but it took on a completely different significance for me during those harrowing afternoons. I'd listen to it on repeat and I'd keep walking up and down, up and down, up and down... 

75,000 people dead, 75,000. Seventy-five thousand. Why? Why? There was no answer to that. So I'd keep walking and then go through the motions of meals and sleep and be back at the hospital the next day to find another child without an arm or a leg. I tried to make up for it by telling them jokes. And because they were children, they laughed.

If only I could explain adequately the greatness of heart in these children. I remember walking a girl through the corridors one day for a change of scene. She'd lost a limb a short while earlier. Limping along, leaning on me, she kept giving me duas for the entire duration of the walk. "Baaji, Allah aap ko bohat khushiyan de. Allah aap ko lambi zindagi de. Baaji, Allah aap ko MERI zindagi de de!" At that point we crossed a doctor who heard her. He smiled at her and said, "Agar aap ne apni zindagi in ko de di to phir aap kya karo gi, haan? Aap ne theek hona hai, okay?" And then back to the same, all along the corridor: May Allah take care of you. May Allah keep you happy. May you live long.

The next day when I went to see her, she was gone. They weren't keeping patients for too long in the days after the earthquake. There weren't enough beds. Some months later, I came home to get a message from my mother. She said a man had called, asking for me. He'd sounded unsure and awkward. When she enquired who he was, he said his daughter had been admitted in PIMS and that they were back in Azad Kashmir now but the girl kept insisting on talking to Baaji again. I knew who it was immediately; there was only one girl I'd given my number to. "Did you take down their number?" I asked my mother. She hadn't. I knew I wouldn't hear from them again. It had already taken a lot for her father to have made that call. Amma said that he kept apologising for having disturbed her and for having been so forward as to have called. But the important thing was, life was already moving on.

Some days ago Solom and I were on our way to his school when he asked the driver to put on song # 3. It was a new CD that Azfar had put in (mainly to end the unbearable tedium of listening to the previous one repeatedly). The melancholic notes of the same song by Strings came drifting out of the speakers. "Mama? I think this song is so beauuutiful," Solom sighed. "This is my faaavourite song." I couldn't believe it. Not that he liked the song, but how far my own life had come in so short a period. Just seven years ago Azfar and I had gone around the children's ward on Eid with a hospital trolley laden with rubrri doodh from Nirala Sweets and seen the kids' eyes open so wide with excitement that everyone seemed to forget momentarily the hell they'd been through, were going through and the hell that lay ahead. And now we were married with two children of our own - may God never, never show them that kind of suffering - and our own son was listening to the song that had come to represent the greatest tragedy I'd ever witnessed in my 34 years. And so it comes around.

I wish I knew where that girl was... how things turned out for her. She may have liked to know that Baaji has two sons of her own now, that Baaji married a tall, nice guy, that Allah took care of Baaji after all. Even while rebuilding her life and her fate brick by brick, memory by memory, she may have liked to know.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Guest post: "Knowing Jahanara" by Noorulain Noor

Knowing Jahanara - or how I fell in love with sunrises, learned the meanings of priority and compromise, redefined happiness, and came to be known as a hermit - and how I came to know myself in the process

Jahanara means “happiness of the world.” She certainly is the happiness of my world, tottering on her chubby, unsteady legs around the living room of our small townhouse, turning around with her fountain-like ponytail and smiling at me with all of five teeth over the mess of scattered DVDs that she’s made - again! At 11 months, she understands the meaning of “no” and smiles in rebellion every time her parents utter that word across the room. She also has a killer stink-eye! If I take something away from her, a favorite toy for instance, which just happens to be the remote control, she narrows her cat-like upturned eyes, scrunches her forehead, commands her full lips to create a smile-scowl and grunts deeply in her throat. “How dare you, Mama?” she seems to be saying.

I am not a naturally affectionate person. I feel uncomfortable with showing too much love - unnecessary hugs, kisses, or words of love, which is why my emails to close friends and family often overcompensate. “Lots of love,” “xox,” “hugs and kisses” are my frequent sign-offs. It all changes when I am with Jahan, of course. It is a strange switch in personality and demeanor - I suddenly become more vulnerable, both willing to give and able to receive love and its representations. It was a rapid change for me, too. When I was pregnant with her, I made tall claims, which I am embarrassed about now. “I will continue my life as I want. Just because I am having a baby, doesn’t mean I must be completely and solely devoted to her.” Unlike many other women, I did not feel a kinship with the baby in-utero. I felt uncomfortable and tired and resentful. I remember when I saw her for the first time. I wanted to feel a rush of emotion and cry or laugh or scream or something. Instead, I just felt a sense of semi-relief - the ordeal was over. I did it! Elation. And foreboding - what comes next?

It was odd to feel responsible for this little person at first. Within a day or two, something so monumental changed in me that I cannot contain it in words. It was as if I existed solely for the purpose of nurturing and protecting Jahan. Everything I did was because of her - I ate because the baby needed nourishment, I slept because the baby needed her mother to be rested and attentive, and that was the extent of my existence. It was as though I didn’t want anything or anyone else. I was fully content in providing for this little being with a small wrinkle between her eyes. 

As Jahan grew, I learned more about my parenting style. I would call it rule and result oriented. I wanted certain results and so I set up appropriate rules. No one was to engage Jahanara in play or activity after 9PM. Her room was only lit enough to change diapers and feed her during the night so she would learn it was night time, not play time. Her feeding patterns, number of wet/dirty diapers, and sleep periods were diligently recorded in a journal for the first month. By the second month of Jahan’s life, I had created a somewhat predictable routine for her. By month 6, she was sleeping through the night (6 hours at a stretch) and 12 hours total at night, waking up only for a feeding and diaper change.

It wasn’t as easy and smooth as I have made it sound. I raised more than a few pair of eyebrows with my methods. If some family or social gathering interfered with Jahan’s bedtime or naptime, I begged off and didn’t attend. My social activities were limited to an infrequent run to the grocery store and work every day. All of my household supplies were delivered by the box with a smile - Amazon. Between work and Jahan (I started work when Jahan was 3 months old), my social life vanished. This was my personal choice because I wanted to have a rewarding career. I didn’t want to walk into work exhausted from a night with a sleepless baby. I also have a 1.5 hour commute to work each way so I could not risk getting tired to the point of falling asleep at the wheel. The slightest interruption to Jahan’s sleep schedule set me off like a rocket. “Pocket-rocket” my husband began to call me, referring to my small frame and extra-large temper.

Friendships suffered. Relationships, too. At one point, my husband accused me of making the baby “anti-social,” because I refused to go out during those early months. Relatives and friends criticized me “Make the baby stay up an extra hour or two - it’s not the end of the world.” “Who’s the one suffering? You - because you are missing out on everything.” “You are such an obsessive, by-the-book mom. If the baby book says to put her down at 8PM, god forbid we make you stay anywhere a minute past that!”

The philosophy was simple - Jahan was my priority, everything else, a compromise. It was difficult for me to implement this to say the least. I felt alone, questioned and criticized by people, especially other women, who did not agree with the way I was raising my baby, but who were not living my life. They were not leaving at the butt crack of dawn for a full day of work in a different city just so they could come back at a decent hour of the afternoon to spend quality time with their newborn. They were not trying to manage the demands of a career and family that had just acquired another very demanding member. This led me to become defensive and actively and loudly voice my choices as a mother and justify them. To say that it caused strain in relationships would be an understatement. I was looking for support and respect in a time that was most difficult for me, but somehow I had to listen to other people’s offended complaints about how I was being unreasonable and insensitive with no regard to the hormonal, physical, and emotional changes I was going through. 

In retrospect, I am proud of myself for sticking to my principles and plans during those early months. I am happy that despite everything, my periodic episodes of despair and depression, my restlessness and anxiety, I was still able to maintain a rather wholesome home environment by giving my baby the love and attention she needed, giving her a predictable routine she could rely on so she would eat, sleep, play, thrive, and having a hot tasty meal ready for my family at least a few times a week if not every day.

I learned to draw support from people who gave it much more readily than others. Strangers, strangely, were so appreciative of my life when they saw it from a distance. Store clerks, people in the park, work acquaintances marveled at the way my days began and ended smooth as a machine. There were challenges of course, teething, aches and pains, and bad nights in general, but the establishment of a routine helped us fall back into a pattern readily. My best friends, Rebecca and Rachel, gave me the most love and support in addition to my immediate family. “If someone thinks you are not a good mother,” Rebecca said one day when I was particularly distressed, “they don’t know you - and you shouldn’t care about them.” They took me out for walks, massages, food and were satisfied to stay in and watch movies at home when I said I didn’t feel like leaving the baby. In addition, my sisters stood up for me like a wall “Mama knows best,” and fended all the criticism away from me. In the last 11 months, I could not have remained myself if it weren’t for these amazing women.

We are in a happy place now, Jahan and I. I need to be happy and satisfied to give the most positive upbringing to my child. Absolutely nothing and no one else matters in this equation. Secondary to this, I have to be a good partner to my husband whose support has given me the confidence to create and implement the rules of parenting I want. And together we have created a home that we want to come back to every night. I am focusing on little things that make me happy these days. I try to hug my husband more to make up for the cold anger that he is sometimes subjected to - spillover effects, nothing more. Jahan loves to go shopping, loves to play with other babies, and absolutely adores Elmo! She has mastered her social smile and gives it indiscriminately - in the process she wins the heart of everyone she comes across. She wakes up well-rested every morning with the most cheerful cackle you can imagine after 12 hours of sleep. We have a lovely bedtime routine for her. We go to the park as a family after dinner, Jahan gets her bath at 7:30, watches Elmo while drinking her bottle, gets her tiny teeth brushed with Daddy’s help, hears her favorite lullaby and I put her down at 8PM. She is asleep on her own by 8:15 on most nights. My favorite part of the day is between 6 and 6:30 in the morning while Jahan nurses still asleep and I look outside my bedroom window as the sky becomes lighter. She is a warm comforting weight in my arms, nestling close to me, happily asleep. We cuddle this way after she nurses for some time. With the sun rising steadily, I put her down in her crib and get ready for work. My days are usually beautiful because of this blissful beginning.

Noorulain Noor is a medical researcher and a writer. To read more by her, visit her blog.