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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 species. 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.

Making up is hard to do

Me: Solom, I'm sorry I shouted at you. I shouldn't have lost my temper, betay.
Solom (helpfully): Where did you put your telper, Mama?

Games teachers play

Me: This whole Show and Tell thing at Solom's school is driving me crazy.

Al-Husband: Why?

Me: Because many times they can't remember if he actually did his Show and Tell and when I ask him he'll tell me he did it and then they'll say no he didn't and we'll get him to do it next time and last time they postponed it and then forgot that they rescheduled and wouldn't give me a straight answer as to whether it was happening again on the normal day in that week and I had no idea whether to send the same item again or a new one and... argh.

Al-Husband: Maybe they're saying Show and Tell but they're playing Hide and Seek.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Better than the rest

Text conversation with Al-Husband.

Me: I'm on my way home. I've spent too much money.

Husband: :-) About time... you are by far the least spending wife.

Me: Why, how much do your other wives spend?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


you're meeting your mother's friend after decades and she exclaims, "Look at youuuuu!! So, so married and so with children!"

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Innocence of Blackberry

Azfar: My phone has committed blasphemy. I wrote "Allah hafiz" and it changed it to "Allah havoc". Should I break it?

Me: Umm, no. You should go outside, shout a lot and break someone else's phone.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

DIY Epic Fail - Angry Birds goody bag message

Me: I need a good message to put on the goody bags. Something in keeping with the Angry Birds theme.

Azfar: "So long, pigs!"

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Recipe for baked pasta in cheese sauce

If you're into cooking (or, like me, wish you were into cooking) and you're on Facebook, be sure to join this amazing community called Foodilicious "Cooks @ Work". Started by some angel called Sharmeen from Abu Dhabi, the community has amassed over 105,000 members since 2007 and today boasts the most incredible resource of home cooked recipes (primarily from South Asia but also other parts of the world) that I've ever come across. You could plan a menu for the next six months and never have to buy tea items from the bakery again just by picking up recipes from this forum.

I'm trying to cook regularly these days and wanted to make an easy recipe for pasta today. Picked up one from Foodilicious and adapted it slightly, and it turned out pretty well! This is not something you'd want to cook up for dinner guests, but it's perfect for a quiet, no-fuss lunch at home with your kids. (Original recipe posted by Nitu Chugani, who apparently got it from Ree Khan from Pakistan.)

2.5 to 3 mugs of pasta boiled in salted water (I used farfalle or bow-tie pasta)
3 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of white flour (maida)
3 cups of milk
2 cups of grated cheese of your choice
a teaspoon of salt and a good sprinkle of black pepper, dried parsley and dried basil
Two fistfuls of chopped green coriander leaves (cilantro, if you're from the US) (leave some chopped stems in for the crunch)


Melt the butter on low heat, stir in the flour and sautee for a minute or until the mixture is fragrant. Remove from heat and stir in the milk, making sure no lumps are formed. Mix well and return to heat, stirring constantly. Cook until thickened (the quantity of milk will have reduced by about half). Add half of the grated cheese and the salt, pepper, parsley and basil.

Add the coriander leaves and the pasta. Mix well. If the mixture is too thick, you can add some more milk. Put into an oven-proof dish, sprinkle the rest of the grated cheese on top and then sprinkle lightly with breadcrumbs. Bake at 350 degrees in a pre-heated oven for about twenty minutes, then turn off the oven and bake it under the broiler (on low) until the cheese browns. Eat fresh out of the oven (but please blow on the pasta before forking it into your mouth).

The original recipe called for baking it all the way through but I preferred doing it this way. I feel that layering a pasta dish always helps rather than having the same thing from top to bottom. In this case, the variation came with the textures: gooey at the bottom and crunchy on the top.

Let me know if you've tried this and if you can think of a way to improve on it!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

DIY - Solom's Angry Birds birthday invites

This is my first crafty post (only literally speaking). My little boy is turning four! FOUR. You know what I'm thinking: if the past four years seemed like a lifetime, the next four years are going to be an eternity!

Anyway, to make passing this time more bearable (and also because I'm super excited about the theme for Solom's birthday this year) I decided to make the invitation cards for his party by hand. With a little cheating, of course.

There are tonnes and tonnes of ideas for Angry Birds birthday parties all over the net. This invite became the inspiration for the one I wound up doing for Solom (link here).

It seemed easy to do, got the point across and HAD MOVING, 3-D EYES FOR GOD'S SAKE. Loved it! It really got my creative cells jumping, so I decided to adapt this concept for Solom's cards. Here's how.

First, I dug up an image of the King Pig from the net and got it printed on card paper with a regular laser printer. Then I folded the paper and cut it, leaving the fold at the ears so that it became a two-layer, opening card.

Next, pasted a message on the inside and a small magnet at the back of the card. The purpose of the magnet, other than to make the card super-cool, was to enable invitees to put the card up on their fridges so that they wouldn't miss the date (we gave the cards out a little early).

Once that was done, I pasted a reduced size, photocopied map of directions over the magnet. This ensured optimal use of the space on the card and also secured the magnet (although it did leave a mysterious-looking bump in the middle that some people thought was a chocolate coin). Then I just trimmed the edges of the map along the outline of the card.

And finally, my favourite part: the eyes! Got them at Rs. 6 apiece from the same art shop that stocked the magnets. They really made the image pop!

To make the card brighter, I used permanent marker to outline some of the features (you'll see the difference in the final product below). The cards were labour intensive but for a closet craft-freak like me they were totally worth the effort. The end result was a richly layered card that was small in size but high on impact and functionality.

Dontcha love 'em? Say you do!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The DIY attitude


Azfar: Ee eff gee!

Zain *annoyed*: BABA. Zainoo doinga.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Alternative medicine

Solom to my sister-in-law: Chachi, you feeling sick? *picks up cricket bat* I will make you feel better.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


I'm breaking a rule here. I'm posting just for the heck of it, and I'm putting down an unedited rant.

Why is motherhood so scary? I am scared so often... almost all the time, in fact. Sometimes explicitly so, sometimes latently. There are so many moments when I wonder why the heck I got into this. What possessed me to court this fear, to open my arms and welcome this perpetual terror onto my doorstep? Why the heck didn't I see even a little bit of what was coming? It was such a massive decision - to have a child. How could we have made it on the basis of factors like tradition and my biological clock? I remember a conversation with Azfar in which I asked him what he thought I may bring to his family by way of contribution to the home life (in other words, how I may play a role in making his parents' lives richer and happier). He replied, "Give them a grandchild?" It was only a half serious answer (yes, equal emphasis on 'serious' as on 'half') but that was a factor too, in our decision to have a child. How could I think that it was a good idea to give birth so that other people would be happy? Sometimes you gotta wonder at yourself.

I cannot enumerate the number of times that I want to run. Growing up is beautiful but this part right here? The part where I'm somehow wholly responsible for another human being's success and well-being? This is not beautiful. Not for me, at least. I'm just too worn down by the constant fear.

I'm afraid that my sons will lose a parent early. This is an entirely real fear, if not a rational one. I'm worried all the time that Suleiman will turn out badly and it'll obviously be because of me. I'm worried that I don't want to spend as much time with my child as I should, as his mother. I'm worried that I don't do enough... that I will never do enough for him. I'm terrified of myself and of my propensity for anger at him. The very thought that he might be bullied by others makes me sick to my stomach. I wish I'd given birth to a less opaque child. Instead there is this fragile creature sitting in that playpen - an unfathomable personality: painfully shy and yet wonderfully social, very bright but unfocused, sensitive as hell but intent on doing whatever the hell he wants. This is a child who responds to praise by immediately and deliberately turning whatever he's doing on its head: by turning right into wrong. He'll seem not to understand the simplest thing until I'm shouting it out to him - whatever rotten, ridiculous principle it is - and he'll just smile at me, his eyes growing larger with each harsh word, and he still won't get it. And then two, three days later he'll bring up the same thing, which I don't even remember anymore, and he'll tell me the right answer. He knew it all along, see? He understood all along, but for some strange, unknown reason he didn't want me to see that.

I am afraid of never being able to understand my child; never being able to pin down his personality and say, "That's him, and therefore this is what I must do to be a successful parent." There are too many contradictions in him and in me. And if his own mother can't understand him, how the heck will anyone else? He will be bullied, I'm sure of it, and I will not be there to protect him. I'm afraid of loss of control. I wish I could run. Every day, these days, I wish I could run.

Why is motherhood supposed to be natural? If we are inherently selfish beings, then how can it be natural to live for someone else? How is it natural to be scared all the time? My friend told me that our bodies are biologically geared towards reproduction, and that nature has not catered for what will happen to the woman's body after it has given birth. In a way, we start dying the day we produce a child. And I can feel that - that closing in of the walls, the panic of having signed up for something that cannot be backed out of, the sinking feeling of knowing that actually I don't really matter anymore. He's the future. And the future is in my hands. Most days I just don't feel up to being a hero. So, what am I, then? What am I? What is the price that must be paid for seeing this through? What is the cost if I don't?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Honesty is the worst policy

Conversation with ultrasound specialist while she was scanning my throat.

Her: Your thyroid is fine. See? Left chamber - no abnormalities. Right chamber - nothing.

Me: But doctor, I've noticed that the size of my neck has suddenly increased over the last few years. If it's not the thyroid, what could it be?

Her: Obesity?

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Great Escape

Conversation with a very awake toddler, very late at night.

Solom: Where's DADA?

Me: Betay he's run away.

Solom: Where's BABA?

Me: He's run away too.

Solom: I think everyone's run away.

Me: Yes.

Solom: I think everyone's run away from MAMA!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On being fruity

Solom: Zainoo is STRAWberry, Mehreem is baNANA, Aun Bhai is WATERmelon.

Me: Wow! And Baba?

Solom: Baba is CHOCOLATE.

Me: Yum!!! And Mama?

Solom: Guava.

You only hear what you wanna hear

Watching 'Tangled' with Solom. Evil witch falls out of tower window.


Me: She, not he.


Me: Noooo!!!!!


Me: I give up.

Solom: He is very naughty witch, Mama. He is very dirty and dusty. Bad witch.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


you're unsuccessfully trying to pull a shirt on and you discover that it's still on a hanger.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Love, actually

Sitting with Solom and Zain on the sofa; Zain's head in Solom's lap.

Solom: MmmmUAH *kisses Zain*

Me: Zainoo loves you, Solom.

Solom: And Mama also loves Solom.

Me: Yes.

Solom: It's so beautiful.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


you're singing your 1.5 yr old to sleep and he takes his pacifier out of his mouth and starts shouting, "CHUP! CHUP! CHUP!"

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Lost in Translation

Me: Solom, I love you. Do you love Mama?

Solom: Yes.

Me: What do you love about Mama?

Solom: A tiger.

Me: Okay, let me explain. What do I love about you? I love your nose. I love your sweet personality. Now tell me, what do you love about me?

Solom: A globe.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Someone kill me now

Solom and my cousin Omar were scrolling through pictures in his iPad when they came across a horrific, distorted picture I'd taken of myself just for fun.

Omar: Suleiman, is this Mama or is this a monster?

Solom: This is MAMA. (Pointing at me) That is MONSTER.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Mother of the nation

Solom (waving a thousand Rupee note at me): Look, Mama, whose picture is this?

Me: Now, Solom, don't tear that jaani...!!

S: Is Quaid-e Azam Mama Ali Jinnah.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Dastan-e Musharraf Ali Farooqi

If you haven't seen this yet and are so inclined, check out the interview I did with Musharraf Ali Farooqi for Vol. 9 of Papercuts. He had some interesting views on Urdu and the creation of Pakistan. You also get to see his cat, Mano. After meeting a literary critic recently who said, "Everyone's in conversation with someone or the other" though, I'm seriously questioning the title of this piece! Anyway, enjoy.

A Writer's Passion: A Conversation with Musharraf Ali Farooqi

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Picture of You

Me: Jaani, do you have a passport photo of me?

Azfar: Let me check.

*leaves room; comes back after a few minutes*

Azfar (singing): I-I-I... have a picture of you in my drawer...

*looks at picture proudly; seeks speck of dust; blows on picture*

*picture falls face-down into bowl of ice cream*

Me: *staring*

Azfar (looking a little scared): I-I-I... had a picture of you in my drawer...

Click here for a trip down memory lane: Boyzone - Picture of You (1997)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Music, Lights, Action

It's been an emotional week. There was some bad news from home, followed by some more bad news from home. Then I more or less missed my child's performance as a builder in the school professions parade. His father had lovingly stitched together a tool belt for his costume the night before, while his mother turned up late. The same afternoon he was diagnosed with conjunctivitis and put on antibiotic eye drops, which have been a nightmare to administer. And because he was infectious, I had to skip all the marvellous things we'd been looking forward to for the 23rd March weekend.

At 3.32 am on Monday morning, however, I'm ready to face the week with a great deal of enthusiasm. And it's because of the following people.

My husband's best friend was visiting from the UK this last week and he joined us for lunch one day. This friend has only recently been through a harrowing experience: his two-year old daughter has a rare condition because of which she's been having seizures since birth and her physical development has been slowed down. With every seizure, the chances of brain damage go up and so when no other intervention seemed to be working, her parents opted for brain surgery. It was, as you can imagine, a decision the likes of which no parent should have to take. There are no guarantees in brain surgery. And she is two years old. (Please allow that to sink in for a bit before reading on.) But they did what they had to do and what I'd like to tell you today is the aplomb with which they did it. When I told them that Solom said his first namaz to pray for their daughter, they took the time to thank us and said: 'They just started her surgery. We have left her in Allah's protection.' I remember being taken aback by the strength in that simple declaration of faith. As I told someone later over Twitter, I can't imagine having the courage to let my child go into the operation theatre. I don't think I could actually let either of my sons go, physically, into someone else's arms knowing that someone's about to cut open some part of their body. Even writing it makes me cringe.

And yet, a week ago when this little girl's father was sitting at our dining table, recounting the experience, he was not beating his chest over the horror of it all. He was searching for meaning in what had happened. And he was grateful. "There must be a reason for all this," he said twice. "She was getting the seizures, we didn't know what to do. My transfer to the UK came unexpectedly at that same time, so we could now get good healthcare for her. And think about it, Afia, my daughter was operated on in one of the best hospitals in the world, and I didn't have to pay a penny for it. And she hasn't had a single seizure since the surgery. There must be a reason. Somewhere, there is something I have to do to make up for the way things have worked out for us. I just haven't figured out yet what that thing is."

I very nearly forgot to eat while he was saying this. Because I'll whine and whinge at practically anything you can throw my way and here is this man talking about how he has to repay a cosmic debt because his daughter's been through brain surgery. I was humbled and it gave me some perspective. In the pathetically minor case of Solom not performing at his school parade as I was hoping, I had to remind myself to let go and be grateful that I was lucky enough to even have him, dammit. When looking at the trials others have been through with their children, who the hell cares whether their child says, "I'm a builder" the first, second or third time they're asked? Who cares whether they ought to have been a builder, a pilot or a butcher? Who cares how their school test or interview went? Every other consideration sounds like nonsense when one considers the fragility of this exquisite equilibrium, in which one can carelessly throw around words like 'family', 'children' and 'tomorrow'.

This doesn't mean that I suddenly went from being Mrs. Bates to Mother Theresa. But I spent time with Solom this last week, you know? I read to him more, talked to him more, played with him more. I didn't allow myself to obsess endlessly over his manners, his attire, his speech, his food, his TV time, his posture, his confidence, his performance, his safety, his social life, his feelings... God, the perpetual guilt of having to discipline and then worry about the child's feelings! And so, Solom and I hung out. And we loved being with each other.

It didn't end there. One of the things we'd been really looking forward to for this Saturday was a concert that our friend Azfar Ashary, owner of the Gloria Jean's franchise in Karachi, had helped to put together. Not only was Strings playing, there were also performances by Todd Shea and Lanny Cordola under the banner of Sonic Peacemakers, a movement to forge peace through musical collaboration between countries. I couldn't go, of course, but pushed Azfar-the-husband to make the effort (which he agreed to immediately... surprising, huh?). Anyway, he came back that night full of praise for the concert, the music, the things Shea said and above all, the production. Azfar-the-friend had apparently pulled all the stops out to make this a gorgeous event: comfortable seating, coffee and mineral water for the attendees, excellent music system, beautiful stage - you name it. There was also a four-CD set available (which is now for sale in all Gloria Jean's outlets in Karachi; proceeds all for this good cause) showcasing a mind boggling number of singers and musicians from Pakistan, all of whom had donated songs to this amazing 'musical movement for change'.

I couldn't help but marvel at the passion with which Azfar-the-friend had approached this project. He worked like a maniac to make it happen and showed the kind of attention to detail that only people who know the meaning of the word 'quality' show. As I was listening to the music today, I kept thinking, "Good for you. Good for you, Azfar-the-friend and Sonic Peacemakers, and the 50+ musicians who got involved with this." This was something to be proud of, something that - once again - gave some perspective. If you have to do something for the greater good, make sure it's great, not just good.

It's 5.28 am now and my attention span's wearing thin, as I'm sure yours must be. But I have to mention the two remaining people who made this week as inspirational as it was: my husband's colleague and his wife who've started designing and selling handmade lamps - just because, you know, they want to. Isn't that beautiful? A husband-wife team embarking on an entrepreneurial adventure in pursuit of a shared interest. We went to their company's (christened Tints & Flints) first little foray into the world of commerce tonight at Port Grand's basant mela and found them with their table, their shelf, their panaflex banner that kept falling off the table, and the loveliest lamps you ever saw on display. These two have a bottle fetish when it comes to their lamps, so they go hunting in Karachi's botal gali (bottle street) every week for pieces that grab their fancy and inspire them to create art. Hence there was an Absolut lamp with a gorgeous berry-twig accent, and there was a decanter lamp with a wrought iron accent. All the lamps were lit from within, creating an unreal ambience around their stall. And there they were in the middle of it all, hungry as hell and tired out of their minds but still excited about taking orders and working with customers to create beautiful lamps and, above all, radiating this warmth and love that comes with pursuing what you are inspired to do, with the person who inspires you.

So here's my announcement, in light of all the above. From here on, I am going to work hard to make every day count with my children and my husband. I do not know where fate will take me or them, and while we are here in this particular place in our lives, I'd like to make the most of it. I am going to aim for quality and beauty in everything I do, whether it's setting up our house or writing a short story. And I'm going to do something with Azfar-the-husband... something that we both love to do and that does NOT involve our children. We already have a project going but I want to make a public commitment so that we make sure we see it through. We are writing a book together - a collection of non-fiction 'stories' on a wonderful theme. I can't reveal any more here but some day in the medium-term you will see something out there with both our names on it, inshallah. Consider this a promise.

And on that note, I bid you a happy Monday morning.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Tooth is Out There

Conversation between me and Al Husband earlier this evening.

Me: My tooth is giving me trouble. You see this tooth? It's growing out this way, so it's cutting into my tongue. I need to go to the dentist and get it taken out. Or I could just stop talking for a while.

Azfar: Haan, for about 4 to 5 years.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


you're floating down the corridor, smiling at your 1.5 yr old, and he points at you and starts shouting, "COW! COW! COW!"

Sunday, March 11, 2012

On Gender Confusion

Me: What is Solom?

Solom: A BOY!

Me: And what is Zoey?

Solom: A GIRL!

Me: And what is Baba?

Solom: BOY!

Me: And what is Mama?