Who’s your City?

 

Quite a few people have asked me this question in the last year, ‘what is your home town?’ or `which city do you come from?’. An innocent enough question, very simple and obvious when you meet a new person, but not for me, I could find no easy answer to this seemingly straightforward query. Should I say Abu Dhabi, the beautiful island city where I grew up and lived in the longest, who’s geography is still etched clearly in my mind but whom I left a long time ago. Or should I say Multan, which is my city by paternal rights, the city which I can never get tired of, the city I got married in and remains my husband’s home city, but I have never lived in it for too long. Should it be Sargodha, a city I have never really liked but still holds a year’s worth of precious memories for me one of which is it being the birth place of my firstborn. Should it be Lahore, the city in which I was born and in which I gave birth to my daughter and in which my parents currently reside, a city worth its name but unbelievably crowded, a city which is mine and who’s alleys I have walked and walked until my shoes became worn and yet once again I have never really resided in it for long. Or should I say Kamra. Kamra is not even a city, just a collection of ugly commercial plazas on the either side of the incredibly long Grand Trunk road almost half way between Rawalpindi and Peshawar, with a strange Dove shaped gate somewhere between the noise and the bazaar, from which one can take a road towards the city of Attock, formerly known as Cambellpur, and along this road now closed off from the general public are a collection of gates. Each of these gates leads into either a small town like colony of its own or an aircraft factory, several of which along with an Air Base make up an aeronautical complex. This was my home for thirteen or so years, from when I was no longer a carefree innocent girl and yet had still not been really exposed to the world at large, because Kamra was not really a city it was a world of its own. In between there is Sahiwal which was formerly known as Montgomery, my maternal grandparents lived here and it remains my most favorite city ever, home to one of the most beautiful houses ever, a house that still holds my best childhood memories and quite a few after I had grown up, it was a place for refuge for a little more than half a year after a sudden move from the UAE to Pakistan. Or should I say Ahmedabad, not strictly a city but the home of my grandfather and many generations of Majoka’s before him, the place where blood takes us every time, the once tiny village on the banks of the River Jehlum, it has kept changing its locations over the years with the flow and ebb of the river and whatever the weather brings with it. Situated  some twenty miles west of Khushab, in this village is our farmhouse and has been our home for quite a few odd months and a holiday home for the last eighteen years,  as well as my father’s retreat from where he runs his farms.  Or Toronto, where I have lived sporadically in bits and pieces and where I find myself once again, a city that holds my own youthful memories and is slowly becoming memorable for my own children.

So where does a body belong to? What actually is a hometown anyway? Is it a town, a city, a collection of houses and roads or just a place in which your heart or body resided for a while so when you move away it is carried in that heart and body forever? Do I have a single hometown or am I destined to find a new one in every phase of my life, but which one should I really refer to as my hometown, my city, the one I have lived in the longest or the one that lives in my heart the most; or all of them. So I just say the name of the city which comes up the quickest on my tongue, people around me still don’t know for sure where exactly I come from but then I myself am not sure which is my city, or rather which is not my city.

 

 

 

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A Corridor into History

“Let’s get a new engine from Peshawar” and so begin a weekend of adventure. Our faithful red Joy with whom we had traveled the length and breadth of Pakistan had finally stopped in the middle of the road. Simply given up, died. But ours is not a family, not even a nation that gives up. We sought to rejuvenate our eleven year old bride and Peshawar was chosen due its centuries old bazaars which sell every conceivable thing under the sun, its close proximity to our home and of course a couple of friends and places that awaited our presence. It was spring; the weather helped us endure the non-air conditioned, slow journey as our baby was pulled behind the bigger car. Later that night a set of friends suggested a visit to the famous Karkhano Market, a hub of duty free imported nonsense at the gates of the Khyber agency but to make the visit more meaningful another set of friends recommended to extend the visit along a road as old as time and  a journey as ancient as man.

The next morning we piled into the bigger car as our bride was getting a new life in the Kabuli market and onward it was into the Khyber agency and then the Spin Ghar or Safed Koh mountains. Crossing the gate into the agency the road is modern but the bazaar on both sides is rustic and consists mostly of very small grocery stores and very large restaurants with cut up carcasses of lambs hanging outside, their boards showing the now cut up lambs gamboling shyly in vast green fields, ready to be fed to a multitude of meat lovers  in search of authentic Khyber and Shinwari cuisine. In the midst of this haphazard bazaar we crossed the famed Bab-e-Khyber a symbolic entrance to the ancient pass which is also illustrated on the ten rupee banknote. Immediately after it towards the north of the road we were confronted by the famous outpost of the Jamrud Fort whose foundation stone had been laid by the Sikh General Hari Singh Nalwa  in roughly 1836  in commemoration of the Sikh victory and subsequent takeover of Jamrud. A largish fort is now surrounded by fortress like houses on all sides. The population of Khyber still builds high walled houses although more recently constructed and filled with modern amenities.

Through the Plains of Jamrud the road starts to climb and curve around the mountains. The giddy ride was made even more amusing by the amount of modern shops including a pizza parlor with a free home delivery option. The Khyber agency was trying to keep abreast of world too. The valley started closing in on both sides and one could now imagine how armies of invaders all the way back to Darius had traversed through these very ancient walls of the prehistoric mountains. Alexander, Ghengis Khan, Mongol and Muslim rulers had all come down this path in lust of the jewel called India. Millions of caravans had measured its dusty roads as it has been an integral part of the eventful and imperative Silk Road and remained The road into subcontinent until the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the country’s subsequent downfall. Although it currently still is an important trade route as well as a NATO supply route.

The British had built a railway line on which until about a decade ago a steam engine would trudge tourists along its historical turns. However a recent takeover of the agency by armed insurgents has resulted in their blowing up of its sturdy tracks in some places. The government it seems is still busy with other things it considers more important than preserving a potent heritage and an important trade route. The interrupted track still snakes along the road as we move in the entrails of the Spin Ghar range, several tunnels stand with their gaping mouths, each has something written on its entrance, relics of their British builders.

We also pass a large bulbous Stupa on top of a hill to the north, guardian of the pass’s Buddhist past.  Shagai Fort then looms large on to our south, an extensive fortification overlooking the road. The pass then narrows down further, to as legend has it, so slim a path that two laden camels could not have passed one another, this point is called Ali Masjid. The road has now been widened but the steep walls of the mountains still rise ominously close over the road. The road now crawls in the belly of the valley as the Ali Masjid Mosque and Fort look down upon it. The strategic placement of the fort is clear, here was where (if they could be) the conquerors would have been defeated and many were while those whose names live on made it through. Local legend that the Prophet’s (PBUH) cousin Ali led a congregation at the location of the mosque; hence its name. The valley walls are decorated by the shields and the insignia of the valiant’s who have fought here over the past two centuries. Until now a slight river had been flowing along the road but now turns south and the cliffs are dotted here and there by green shrubs and spring wildflowers.

The narrow file then suddenly opens up into a flat plateau; this plate is the ancient city of Landi Kotal. On our way to the border we bypass the city and continue up the road until we see an fort like building atop a cliff overlooking the road. East of the border this is the highest point, this structure is Michni Post. We stop for a wondrous view of the pass as it opens into a large valley.  From the viewing room of the post we enjoy peshawari kehwa and drink in on the horizon, the still snow clad mountains around Kabul while below us the truck and trailer dotted road snakes into Afghanistan. Further west of the post on the mountain side we can see Charbagh Fort and Taimur Lung’s prison, the children shrink in horror as we are told of the steep passage in the prison fitted with blades on top of which enemies were asked to confess or fall in. We also find out the origins of the Khyber Rifles the formerly paramilitary force organized by the British which still maintains law and order in the pass and the agency. The Muzail, a type of rifle was the weapon of choice in the area and when the British thought it prudent to organize the locals into a force to be used in the Afghan wars they asked everyone with the rifle to register; hence the birth of the Khyber Rifles.

It was a treat to view the valley from the calm of the well maintained post and in the care of our very generous hosts. It is a clear day which adds much charm and depth to our view. After which we took a small sojourn on Afghan soil as we crossed the border and turned around. Next stop was the famed Khyber Rifles Mess back at Landi Kotal. We had to ask quite a few people until we finally made it to the mess. Passing several restaurants with ready to barbecue tikka’s wrapped in sheets of fat. It was lunchtime to be fair, hence the drool worthy observation. On entering the Mess gates we were greeted by lush green lawns, an oasis in the center of the dusty frontier town. Peacocks strutted around as long legged cranes sheltered from the sun in green groves. By the mess entrance we saw a huge centurion tree which had been put under ‘arrest’ by a drunk British Officer one night and remains to this day ‘under arrest’.

Inside the mess had an old world charm of dark wood paneling and starched white waiters with perfect manners. Decorated with hundreds of old pictures it required quite a few hours of study which we did not have at the time. We did however view the suite that had been occupied by HRH Diana Princess of Wales on her visit here in the early nineties. Lunch was typical mess fair (our taste buds were still tingling for the fatty lamb we had viewed outside) but the silverware, the crystal ware and the service was like eating in a royal palace; a pleasant experience that added to the old world feeling.

After that it was goodbye to Landi Kotal, not able to visit its famed railway station we had once enjoyed on a former trip, leaving something for next time we turned towards Jamrud and the waiting Karkhano market then towards the vibrant city of Peshawar. Until next time when we will come to sit by the abandoned railway tracks eating barbequed lamb and Shinwari Karai; the pass will remain haunting our memories time and again.

 

 

On Writing, and Writers Block

Sometimes it comes to me as flowing wind, not too fast, gentle but forceful, naturally, fluently pouring out of my fingers on to the keypad or into a paper. And sometimes it just stalls, behind a frosted glass window; I can glimpse it but not actually see it, it leaves me entranced and at the same time frustrated. Just like the frosted glass door in my high school. My class was upstairs and one day a few months after joining I exited the principal’s office (some mischievous errand I am sure) and about to climb the stairs when suddenly my eyes beheld a strange thing in the otherwise squalid and ugly building, a thing of absolute perfect beauty enhanced by the drab surroundings. It was a silver framed door of frosted glass, and since the sun shone extremely bright in the desert island city I lived in, it was lit up bright, a glimmering silver light filtered through giving the dusty innards of the building a cool luminosity. Outlined in the bright frame was a single branch of bougainvillea, dark green and bright red, at once visible and not clear. I stood transfixed staring at this improbable beauty, it was like a beautiful dream which overshadows your mind even after awakening, but you can never quite completely figure out what it exactly was and wonder about it for days. Its sweet aftertaste lingers on but clarity is forever eluded. I stood transfixed unable to digest what this was, was it a sign from up above that there is escape yet from this dreary world or was it just a distraction, was it a door into the occult; there I stood until the jarring sound of a banging door in the corridor brought me back to the drudgery of the world coming back to life around me. But a nagging doubt often came to me sitting in class, walking to the library, back home in bed what was that, why didn’t I touch the door or try and open it, was there even a real plant there outside, why couldn’t I see what was it exactly on the other side. That is often my situation, the frosted glass intrigues me but at the same time haunts me, I cannot manage to open the door. The worst times however are when a dark shadow falls across the door, no light shines through and I feel claustrophobic, walled into grey corridors lit up by lurid white tube lights, no fresh air comes through. So it is that I pray for all my friends who write, my the door always be there, may you be able to open it at the right time and may the light always shine through.

My Heart My Fellow Traveler

It has been so that life is a travel series, many times I found myself unsettling and settling again. Whether I was ever prepared for this or not, whether I was ever asked or given a choice in this matter; it is not relevant. Hence I once told my mother that since it has always been so and will probably be this way then we should consider this our fate. That suddenly one day, on some whim we will simply pull out our roots and move to new place and be expected to or will automatically re-root. But try as I might I forget that every time one pulls up ones roots a part of them remains in the soil.
If I count the places where parts of my soul remain, even I do not remember fully. A spring breeze, the whiff of night blooming jasmine, an azure blue sky, the shape of a certain building and sometimes even a grain of sand suddenly brings back a strong lucid memory pregnant with nostalgia and brimming with a connection yet unsevered. Arabian nights, Gothic towers, grand green hills, flat dusty plains, desert evenings, lakeshore walks, seaside barbecues; how much of it can I forget and how much of it will I carry inside me forever. Sometimes it overwhelms me and at others it soothes me, if I can carry a whole mountain range in my heart along with the Caspian sea, a crusaders castle, the Bosphorus bridge, the citadel of Allepo and the entire city of Karachi then surely I can make room for a little more.
‘We are leaving the life we know’, my husband found this silly,’ there are entire lives we don’t know about, doesn’t make them unlivable?’ I agree but the more times you put in your roots, the longer you allow them to grow, the harder it is to un-root, move away while the broken and buried limbs lay severed, in utmost pain. Slowly they fossilize and like a missing arm or leg one does learn to live without them. Then one day you remember having that very limb and the fossils awaken for a while, feel stifled and then readjust and fall into slumber. So for now I know that a clean cut is the best but it will take time for the cut to scar over and the skin to re-grow and the memories to fade.

My heart, my fellow traveler
It has been decreed once again
That you and I go into exile,
call out in streets
Roam from dwelling to dwelling
In the hope to find some clue
Leading us to a harbinger
Asking complete strangers
The way to our own home
In this land of strangers
For us to live from day to night
Trying to be understood
To this person then that
What that I should complain to you
The night of separation is best not talked about
It would have been of some comfort
Had the days been numbered
It would have been a comfort to die
Were we allowed to die only once
My heart, my fellow traveler
It has been decreed once again
Faiz Ahmed Faiz (Feebly translated by yours truly)

What Women Want

6F94388E-BA02-4A28-B307-E527E38F05CBWhat Women Want
Yes that is the name of the popular Hollywood romantic comedy starring Mel Gibson, but it is also the eternal question that men, women, society as a whole needs an answer to. Each individual has a different answer (if they have one at all), as Gibson finds out by the end of the movie, there is no one thing that women want but most of all they want love and respect. Not to be treated as objects or rungs on the ladder to success. Although women are the focus of the movie it is true for everyone, even plants and animals.
Respect is a very simple yet very large word, it stands for a basic human right, it encompasses dignity and attitude and it simply means giving each living thing its due. It’s as basic as the right to live. An animal in the wild respects this balance in the world, examples of this can be found in the fact that wild animals rarely kill for fun or sport, only when the need for survival kicks in. When you respect life itself then you respect the fact that everyone has a place in this world, is connected to the world around them, and that the very niche they occupy is important and affects everyone and everything around them. If taught to respect we understand the true equality of mankind.
When we do not teach our children basic respect we are depriving them of following a law of nature, we are bringing up the creepy boys who prey on vulnerable women but feel their ‘honour’ is in line if their mothers/daughters/sisters/wives are being preyed upon. We are bringing up girls who think they can only climb the ladder of success if they use other people to stand up upon; we are bringing up individuals who do not spare a thought for those who are working for them, for animals and nature who are at their mercy.
It is true that most of us are taught to respect men only, especially those who have some power over us and then men also get the larger portion of respect when it comes to women’s rights as individuals. So let’s promise on this women’s day to respect one another, to respect humanity, to respect dignity, to respect nature, to respect life and most of all to respect those who give so much and demand so little. Let’s learn and then teach the next generation to respect women and respect life.