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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Love in the Time of Heat Stroke

Ah, summer. Think summer, think holidays. Think barbecues, travel, monsoons. Think cousins, love songs, roof-top smokes. Ice lollies, air conditioning, movies, mosquitoes. Long afternoons, burning car seats, badminton in the garden. Everyone’s got an association with summer.

For me, the thought of summer brings back memories of nights spent in Islamabad as a teenager, living in my mother’s house. It was universally known that my room was the hottest in that house. It was a Southwest-facing room on the upper storey, which meant that it got the full beating of the post-noon sun in those never-ending days. To aid the baking process, my grandparents had put in massive ceiling-to-floor windows that put to rest any thoughts of insulation. And my mother, not to be left behind, had installed the oldest, loudest, most inefficient air conditioner on Earth, which threw out lukewarm air and made the giant windows rattle like there was a shuttle launch in progress. Mosquitoes were right in their element in those temperatures and I remember perfecting a macchar-killing technique that employed the concept of the sonic boom (you wait ‘till the mosquito gets close enough to your ear and then you clap your hand on your ear. The pressure kills it. Worked every time for me. No really, it did. IT DID. Just TRY IT.)

Minor inconveniences aside, the view from that room was great (as my grandmother never tired of reminding me from the confines of her cool, lower storey, Northeast-facing room) and in my teen years I was ready to brave practically anything for the privilege and complete joy of having My Own Space and My Own Bed. It’s something great to have your privacy at that age, especially if it comes with a phone. It was here that hours were spent talking to one’s best friend about nothing and everything, and the Nothings that seemed like Everything at that time in one's life.

Occasionally there were unforeseen challenges, but they were dealt with.

Best friend: “And then what did he say?”

Me: “Why are you breathing so hard?”

Best friend: “Who me? I thought that was you.”

Me: “Oh crap! Sssshhhh…”

*heavy breathing on line*



Me: “Oh my Goddddd… NANI!!!! Put – the – phone – down!!!!”


*extension receiver slams*

Me: “Where were we.”

*best friend snorting with laughter*

Yes, those nights in that oven of a room saw many heart-to-hearts against a backdrop of ballads groaned out by a National tape recorder (‘stereo’ would not be an appropriate word to use for that contraption, which would suddenly start playing the tape really fast or really slow and had to be kicked back on speed). For years, these soundtracked conversations were presided over by my friend Michael Jackson, whose image graced the bathroom door, my boyfriend Tom Cruise, whose face filled up the walls, and the perfunctory plump house lizard, frozen in some corner of the ceiling.

Summer was Richard Marx in those days. It was also Def Leppard, Bon Jovi and Madonna. It was perfect.


The biggest casualty of growing older isn’t your knees – it’s your sense of wonder. There was an intense romance to those days that cannot be recreated now – a feeling that the world existed only for you. A lightning storm lashing around outside used to be exciting and inspiring – now it could wake up the kids. And Def Leppard sort of doesn’t make the cut anymore (in fact, one has to wonder why guys their age were singing those songs even then). And I think if I were to call my best friend in the middle of the night to say, “Wassuuuup” she may... um... not want to be friends anymore.

I was thinking about all this incessantly over the past few weeks. Call it an early-30s crisis. I even gave my husband an unsolicited lecture on the topic while we were sitting on the roof, having our evening tea. “I miss those years,” I said finally. “Me too,” he said, “Things were so much simpler; the economy was better, conditions were safer, people had hope.” “Huh? That’s not what I mean,” I said, “I mean… my outlook on life was different. Everything meant something. Like, if I were to look up at these clouds moving across the sky when I was fifteen, they would signify something deeper. Now they’re just clouds. Do you know what I mean?” “Uh… hmm,” said my husband, burying his nose in his mug.

And then my grandmother’s sister called. They’d had a sudden crop of mangoes from the tree in their lawn and they were distributing them to the whole family. She was sending ten mangoes over.

I hadn’t had a Pakistani aam for over two years. When the fruit arrived from Nanni Nani’s place, I had it washed and refrigerated. The next afternoon, with the kids miraculously asleep and the maid busy in her room, I thought it would be nice to have a chilled mango while relaxing in the TV room. Didn't happen that way. The dense aroma of the mango and the unbearable heat of the kitchen went straight to my head. Suddenly, I remembered with enormous clarity being back at the dining table in Islamabad in the middle of June, waiting expectantly for the plate of mangoes to magically appear after every meal… not a care in the world, no diapers to change, no toddler salivating over my shoulder or infant trying to bite my knee, no plans other than to enjoy a mango (or two) and then retreat to my beautiful, hot-as-hell room – the room that was Just Mine.

I breathed in deep, sliced the mango and, without bothering to leave the kitchen or even pull up a chair, literally wolfed it down. Every bite was heaven, just as it used to be in a previous chapter of my life – a chapter in which responsibility was optional and I could more or less choose my burdens. Life had moved on but this, right here, was exactly the same. The sweet pulp; the runny, sticky juice; the joyful abandon of consuming a mango; the feeling of being free. This would never change.

And so, summer was perfect again.


  1. This is exactly what I needed today. :) :( That's my bittersweet smiley(s).

  2. Do you remember what I told you about tasting a Pakistani mango after 4 years?

    Also, as I read this, my father shoved a piece of mango in my mouth. It's good to be home :)

  3. Oh yes, I often tell people that story!

  4. Thank you for this Aaf. This is mostly what I feel but am not articulate enough to say quite like this.

  5. Aww thanks, Speedster! There is a perverse pleasure to knowing that there are others out there who know what I'm talking about. Sigh.

  6. Awww....

    It's kind of interesting; I really don't miss my teens. I'm pretty happy where I am right now.

    I do miss aam though. God, do I ever.

  7. You're quite right. This post neatly skips over the fact that I was miserable during my teens and that life has only gotten better since then! But there's something to be said for being able to live for oneself. Those days ain't never comin' back. Sigh.

  8. life's just one crisis after the other, isn't it. early teens, early twenties...

  9. (Early thirties...)

    Maybe it's just the start of each decade. By the time you get the hang of the darn thing, it's over.

  10. I feel that way about falsas. They are now reminders that I can sneak in a bucket of falsas only when Jibran is asleep and I can get someone to watch him while I hog on them and watch HIMYM.

    Until I'm in Pak anyway. After that, no falsas, no farigh time.

    Sigh. I do miss being single. :(

  11. Loved this. The intense romance to those days...the sense of wonder. On a tense work afternoon with the city killing and being killed outside, this made my day.

  12. Where I come from castle's are surrounded by moats and we don't have central heating we light wood; in the fire place. Further the British are so reserved I would describe writers here in two words pragmatic and or eloquent. Across 'The Pond', the contributors of the WSJ and the INYT they fit the latter. Whatever.

    Dear Afster, I read your memoir/blog in the spirit and taste of reading an oldies blog; someone I knew maybe twenty years ago; reading the humorous parts that made me smile and the others with dismay especially a water cooler come air conditioner 'pumping out warm air;' and a lucrative stereo system that chewed up the tapes. "Now we call them digital radio and or home entertainment systems." (Editor)

    Irrespective of any dogma I would; and do fully endorse this page. I would recommend this blog spot to any of Afster's old mates at FIS; and for that I would put you my facebook page.

    How do you describe the works of an unequivocal Cambridge Post Graduate? "You don't; you simply say what comes to mind!" And hence therefore your work is a masterpiece and a galactic accomplishment especially since you made my evening. "Actually I might read this again there are so many 'yummy' adjectives I could add them to some milk in a bowl and eat them up." (Editor)

    Now since I have been so nice to you Afster please publish my work (:D