Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lost souls on the Subway trains

Subway trains in Toronto are a unique experience, especially for someone who has never seen one in their life before (me). They dip in and out of the ground, they screech when travelling past dark bends, and you can never feel how fast they are moving (until they abruptly stop and you get the inertia jerk). Subway trains are also a very interesting place to observe society. As any sociologist will tell you, each cabin on the train carries people from all walks of life (well, not All...almost all), and in a diverse city like Toronto, it also means people from all around the world. Sitting shoulder to shoulder in such a small place, bumping into each other at the slightest brake at rush hour, holding the same steel bars as a person from a totally different continent, and hearing all types of languages, it is indeed a rich treasure of sociological knowledge.

Although I could keep writing an essay about how amazing it is to travel in one of these, and discuss all the cultures, sub-cultures and fashion cliches I've encountered and so on, so forth...I want to share the story of two very interesting characters I met on the subway.

First I must explain this: As part of being acclimatized to the normal urban Canadian life, I have learned to adhere to the following acceptable codes of behaviour when traveling by public transport:

1- Limit interaction with any fellow passengers, no friendly smiles, no greetings, no friendly everyday talk (what's the time? it's getting late...bad weather, etc.).
WARNING: At all costs, avoid acknowledging the existence of anybody who looks even slightly unusual (homeless people, too-much-tattoo people, yo-man type of people, gangsta people, loud people, and people of different races/ethnicities, and add-your-favourite-weirdos etc.).

2- Best to keep your eyes safely focused on the floor/stupid Pantene shampoo ad/ceiling/book, or pretend to sleep. Better still - wear dark glasses (bonus: you can stare at that old lady trying to fix her lipstick on a bumpy ride, without any trouble).

3- Putting in earphones with a blast of music is a great idea to accompany point No.2 (be careful though, you might miss your station).

4- Avoid getting up and offering your seat to another, more deserving passenger (look here and there to assure yourself that others are equally guilty - best way to learn how to put your conscience to sleep).

5- Do nothing to help anyone on your own initiative, even if they look like they really need it. Unless they look at you directly and ask. (kind of hard for them to do as you pretend to sleep while nodding your head to deafening drums).

Hmm, so I'm glad I cleared the above points... they are critical for understanding how I met the characters I want to talk about.

One day, while going home after a particularly tiring day at school, I was aboard a subway train that was repeatedly getting delayed. Finally, at one station notorious for providing the most shady-looking passengers (haha!) an old man boarded our cabin. He was short and stout, with white hair and gray eyes, wore a shabby jacket with a cap, and probably hadn't washed in days. What set him apart from most other shady homeless men, was his genuine friendly smile and a huge armload of LCBO plastic bags. He had maybe around a dozen or so bags on each arm, and they looked almost empty, but they were full of thin sheets of paper. His friendly smile and the way he walked to the seat on my side, immediately gave me the red alert. As I had learned, I quickly moved myself to the other edge of the seat (as far as I could go without bumping into the person beside me), and ignored him. In fact, I tried to pretend to sleep.
I was busy pretending to sleep when I heard a rustle of paper, and I looked up to see the old man holding up a folded piece of paper and snipping away at it with a small paper scissor in various angles and directions. I knew what he was doing, I loved to do it often too... making cut-out paper mats! I was amazed by his skill and talent, so much so that I forgot to avert my eyes and pretend to sleep again.

The man acknowledged my curiosity, and opened the folded paper flat for me to admire the design on the mat. None of us spoke, but I was completely in awe. He quickly pulled out another sheet of paper, folded it in various ways, and began snipping way...another design. Very carefully, he would put the folded and cut paper back into his LCBO plastic bag, without even bothering to open it and check how it turned out to be. I guessed he already knew what his designs looked like. My station was now fast approaching, when another lady leaned over and told him, "they are beautiful!". She was the only other human, in that cabin-full of people, who had seen and admired this. The rest were busy following the socially "acceptable" behaviour as outlined above.

The man smiled and thanked the lady, who asked why he was making so many of them. He replied he made them all to give to the sick children at the hospital. Finally, his station arrived. He held out his last snipped paper mat towards me, and I took it with a thank you smile. He also gave one to the lady, and walked out. I still have that paper-mat somewhere in my desk drawers. It made me very sad that day, that I had initially behaved like the ordinary "robots" I like to call the other passengers, I felt I had lost 'myself' trying to adhere to the acceptable laws. But I did not, and it makes a world of a difference.

Another morning, I was going to school, in the usual busy rush hours, when I met a second character. This person looked ill, (and a bit mentally deranged - so I tried to put the most distance between him and me) and he carried a big journal in his hands. He would occasionally flip it open with a smile, but then quickly close it. Finally, he took out a pen and started writing on a fresh page in the journal. Unable to overcome my curiosity (and nosiness) I side glanced to see what he was upto. He was writing a letter?

I remember it went something like "Dear XYZ, It has been long since I wrote to you, tomorrow I am going to the doctor .....". He kept on writing, until he turned the page over and I saw he had switched from writing prose to poetry: he wrote down a couple of verses, reaching around half the page, before he wrote something like " I really miss you, I wrote this poem for you, and I wish you could read it." and he ended his letter. When he was finished, a girl sitting on the other side asked him something (I couldn't hear), and he started to read aloud that poem. I don't recall the words, but it was mostly about spring, and I was deeply touched by the beauty of his words, they were very simple, but had deep meaning. I admired his poetry, and he was very visibly happy to have us both as his audience.

He told us further that he wrote these letters to his sister who had died some years ago, and she had been the only caretaker for him. He flipped his journal open to the first page, and pointing to the date he said his sister was severely ill then but she had encouraged him to start writing to her when she was still alive. He said something about I'm a bit sick in the head you know, it gets hard sometimes. He spoke so simply, so matter-of-factly, and most probably he didn't notice the effect this interaction had had on both of us. My station came so I rose to leave, and I remember saying something like Keep it up, I loved your poem. And I walked out, ofcourse...onto a busy platform where emotion-less people rush to conquer another day in this materialistic world, and where people like the poet I'd met are lost in this mad crowd.

I don't know why I remembered these two incidents so vividly among others. Maybe because they are proof that humanity isn't lost - not yet. And when I complain about how this place is a sad robotic utopia of sorts, I remember such lost souls, and I have hope that it isn't so. Perhaps, one day I'll meet another 'human' among the crowd of robots, and this time I'll be more welcoming.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Listeners

(One of my most favourite poems by Walter De La Mare. Best to read it in silence and contemplate.)

“Is anybody there?” said the Traveler,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in silence chomped the grasses,
Of the forest’s ferny floor.

And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the traveler’s head:
And he smote upon the door a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.

But no one descended to the Traveler;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his gray eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.

But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To the voice from the world of men:

Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveler’s call.

And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;

For he suddenly smote the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:-
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.

Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:

Aye, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.
~Sir Walter De La Mare

So what exactly is this feeling of the existence of 'listeners' inside a surely empty place? I have felt it many times, as if they sit and wait, and hear and reply... with their silence.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Sick leave and coke studio

I have been away these past few days because a) I was very very busy, and b) following the business, (as expected) I was very very sick. For people wondering how that can ever be 'as expected', relax... you don't know me/you don't live life in my shoes. Whenever I get supremely busy, I also tend to de-stress later by falling sick (unwillingly and totally unplanned), and I tend to lose all my creativity/sanity/insanity in the process. I become quite boringly normal on high doses of Benadryl...not a good idea at all.
Anyways...back to my normal. I've been doing absolutely nothing, except watching a lot of random videos on youtube (God, I wish I knew how to put youtube videos on this blog... I need to learn that), and waiting for new episodes of "Coke Studio". This program is honestly amazing. It's basically a live recording session of various famous/unknown singers which come together and record a totally different version of their songs. It's amazing because it brings together a modern western orchestra, traditional classical instruments (Indo-Pak subcontinental) and frequently a single instrument as the focus (e.g. dhol (traditional drum), bansuri (flute), rubab (string instrument) etc) to create great music. Finally, it aims to bring Sufistic influences into modern music and introduce it to the masses.
It makes me very happy when I see our younger generation paying special attention to the wisdom of the Sufi saints' words, as they come alive on the lips of today's popular artists, and the music adds another dimension to the overall atmosphere. This program is sponsored generously by Coca Cola, live studio recordings take place in Karachi (so proud of you, my city), and it is directed by the genius Rohail Hyatt. Rohail Hyatt...I always thought he was a 'gora' (foreigner) in the nineties pop band (Vital Signs, how I miss them!) but turns out he was not. So far, my best episodes have been Aik Alif (by Noori - that bubblegum rock band totally wowed me!), Paimona (Zeb and Haniya were introduced for the first time), and Khamaj (I thought the song was perfect as it was, and no one could top it... but Coke Studio did). I was completely moved by the amount of sufi-poetic treasures hidden in our local history, and how people have chosen to ignore that part of history.
Our land of wandering dervishes who settled in the desert sands and lush farms, or at the edge of the ocean, their words, their love, their God - forgotten. Hundreds of years ago, Sufi's from all across the Central Asia and the Middle East, and all of the Sub-continent, found peace on this land. Here people didn't judge them as crazy, didn't call their words or actions heresy, and just let them be. Here people didn't understand the Sufi's language (persian or arabic dialects), yet understood the look of pure wisdom or pure love upon their faces, and respected them for it. They didn't understand which God these people were searching for, which Khuda they danced in madness to reach, yet they were touched by their purity and their insanity in some way. When these poor wanderers, beggars, Faqeers, from far-away lands passed away, leaving this mortal world of sadness and danger behind, the people of this piece of land buried their remains and remembered them. Some built stone graves with green flags in honour, some carved their names in crude childish Farsi/Arbi script, some remembered their poetry and sung it often. Some, forgetting their own rites and rituals- their own religions, got lost upon the path of these wandering Sufis. These people believed in the all accepting, all encompassing... absolute pure love for the Divine.
Years have passed, and the people of this land have sadly lost the way of the Sufis. We are no longer the all inclusive, all encompassing, loving people... we cherish the cracks on this land, on our person and our heart and soul. These cracks have become who we are: ethnic cracks, religious, language. "You pray in that mosque, I pray in this one." "You say Khuda-Hafiz... you are a heretic." "You wear this, you are not one of us."
I wonder, if any lost wandering Sufi from the pages of ancient history, if ever such a poor soul happens to re-trace his steps and enters this land... who here will call him 'Baba', and let him stay under the shade of a tree? Who here, will listen in amazement at his wisdom, sung out in a beautifully exotic foreign language, and still understand the essence of his words? Who here, will give the poor faqeer, a proper burial, and put a green flag to mark his resting place? Who here, when in difficult times, will recall from his memory the words and the ecstatic dance to the Divine,- for comfort? No one. The poor wandering Baba will no longer find peace in this land. His love, his Khuda, his poetry, is not welcome here. People here follow the Petro-Islam now.
Ending on a happier note: Coke Studio, well done for bringing some of the beloved poetry back to our days.
The great Bulleh Shah once said in Punjabi:
"Parh Parh ilm teh fazil hoya,
teh kadey apney aap nu parhiya nai...
bhaj bhaj warna ey mandir maseeti,
teh kadey man apney wich barhiya nai...
larna ey roz Shaitaan de naal...
teh kadey nafs apney naal lariya nai...
Bulleh Shah, asmaani ud-diyan pharo nai-
te jera ghar baitha unhoon pharya nai...
Bas kareen o yaar, ilm-oun bas kareen o yaar!"

"you read to become all knowledge-able,
yet you never read yourself....
you run to enter your temples and mosque,
yet you never entered your own heart....
every day you fight Satan,
yet you never fight your own ego...
Bulleh Shah, you try grabbing that which is in the sky-
yet you never get hold of what sits inside yourself...
Stop it all my friend, then stop seeking all this knowledge, my friend!"

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Whenever I feel nervous, I remember my mom telling me her famous phrase:
ھو رھے گا کچھ نہ کچھ، گھبرائیں کیا؟

What will happen will happen, so why be anxious?
I have been repeating this phrase since morning. For calmness, I read this lovely little piece by a Zen poet, and I'd like to share with you. Ofcourse, all thanks to Poetry Chaikhana.

The water and my mind have both settled down
Into perfect stillness.
Sun and moon shine bright in it.
At night I see in the surface
The enormous face of my old familiar moon.
I don't think you've ever met the source of this reflection.
All shrillness fades into the sound of silence.
But now and then a puff of mist floats across the mirror.
It confuses me a little
But not enough to make me forget to forget my cares.
- By Hsu Yun.

Saturday night madness

I've had tiring days... and didn't have time/energy to sit and write. One, I had promised to assemble a chest of drawers from Ikea for my aunt, and I had been putting it off for ages... and now it's done and my hands are too sore to type. Even though I am happy to say that I'm quite good at assembling wooden furniture like chests of drawers, bookshelves and tables (which come packed as separate planks, screwdrivers, nuts and bolts etc etc..), my aunt insists on reminding me every other hour that I can't do it since I'm a girl. Unfortunately for her, I have proved her wrong on a number of occasions. Pointing to my previous success (book-case) only lead her to observe that I had screwed it loosely, and any heavy book or touch will make it collapse. I wonder if that is the case at all? That book-case has been standing, by the Grace of God, on its apparently 'loosely screwed' base for the past 4 years, under tons of rubbish, 2 thick dictionaries, the entire Harry Potter series, 22 novels I needed for my English course, and 3 biology textbooks, not to mention my jewelry box and other items that have no reason to be there but well...
As far as I can tell, that good old book-case (may all the evil forces stay away) has stood the test of time and 4 years of university education. Good job, I say!
So while I was applying all my energies on screwing (actually 'super' screwing) each nail in this chest of drawers, my aunt's repetitive remarks about "not a girl's job" were my only words of encouragement. Now... (again, may all you dirty evil forces stay away) the chest of drawers is standing on its "superscrewed" feet, tall and handsome in all its wooden glory. I don't understand why people still have such obviously misogynistic tendencies. The worst part is, it's actually women who are the most against women. I've felt more aware of my "lack due to being a girl" by another lady's words/gestures than by any gentlemen! I mean, I don't claim that I can lift 150lbs without trouble, or I can work with a tractor, or I can become a roofer/builder, etc. But I believe there are somethings girls actually CAN screwing screws nicely and putting planks together to make a bookcase. That's called following instructions correctly, using sound judgement, and having a bit of know-how with basic tools (hammer, screwdrivers, etc etc). Also, girls CAN check the oil range in a car, they CAN take the car to a mechanic to get the carburettor checked, girls can use hammers and nails, and they can paint walls as well. I feel, even though the world has 'supposedly' changed so much, we still hold the same backward expectations that were prevalent in the mid-1900s.
Next, I was also trying to read this book by a Canadian author Yann Martel, "Life of Pi", and although it's got rave reviews from many reviewers, and has been highly popular on the subway stations/trains (being the book of choice to read when stuck in yet another 'currently experiencing delays at eastbound' subway train) I've actually put down this book 2 times. By that, I don't mean I was so hooked that I only ate/drank/slept/watched tv/facebooked/sneezed 2 times since I've been reading it. It means I've kept this book down for good twice. Which is disappointing for an avid reader like me. I began to read this book right after I'd finished "A Thousand Splendid Suns" (spectacular book-that one!) in order to 'lighten' my mood. After 5 hours of Life of Pi, I shut it for good... and went on with my life for another 2 years. But it's title kept mocking me from the bookshelf all this while, so I decided to conquer it once and for all. So far, it seems I'll be defeated yet again. The writing style is nice, the story is bizarre and interesting, but the problem with the book is, I just don't care. I don't care about Pi Patel and Richard Parker sailing to nowhere, I don't care Pi Patel ends up in Canada, or where he learnt to swim. That is a sad lack of the writer, that the character isn't very connected with the reader, at least not with me. The worst part is the book's notorious cover (seen so many times on subways during 'currently experiencing delays eastbound' that I mentally connect the two scenarios and feel like I'm stuck on the train whenever I lay my eyes on it). At first, I could only make out an incorrect (retarded) representation of a mitochondrion swimming in a blue cytoplasm. With a name like "Life of Pi" I could only imagine a recently discovered sub-cellular organism documenting its boring scientific existence somewhere inside the animal cell. Imagine my shock, therefore, when I saw a tiger inside the mitochondrion! Anyways, I guess to some readers, this book has been a great read.... To me... I think I should eat/drink/sleep/watch tv/go facebook stalk people/ and sneeze now. Thank you.
Oh...I also attended a party tonight. What? Write about that? No way...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

That which can not be defined

Today, I stumbled on a website claiming to define my religious beliefs if I took their online quiz. Initially, I took it as a joke... but after answering a couple of questions I began to wonder what exactly I feel about the topic. To my amusement, I ended up being labelled a 'universal unitarian' and later a 'new age' follower. I agree my beliefs fall in some rather complicated and scattered categories, but even I don't know what those two 'religions' are about. As I was enjoying a heated debate on the said website's comments forum (in which people threw dirt on each other's perceived 'beliefs' in a quest to earn the most karma for insults against another religion) I began feeling upset about it all. Then I remembered this beautiful poem that I got in my mail today:

"You went away, but remained in me"
-By Mansur Hallaj, translated by Mahmud Jamal

You went away, but remained in me,
and thus became my peace and happiness.

In separation, separation left me-
and I witnessed the Unknown.

You were the hidden secret of my longing,
Hidden deep within my conscience...deeper than a dream.

You were my true friend in the day,
and in darkness-- my companion.

(Sent today from the Poetry Chaikhana.)

This absolutely delightful little piece addresses our most Beloved creator, our True friend in the shade-less heat of the day, and our only Companion through the darkest of nights. There can be no separation from the Divine, because He is the Ultimate reality, He is everywhere, and everything is His reflection. Then what causes some to think that insulting another is somehow going to earn them a reward? When has negativity ever produced positivity? Upsetting, indeed. One day I hope to discuss the nuisance on Youtube comments as well (they are my most distinguished pet peeve).

About the brilliant poet: Mansur Hallaj was a Sufi mystic, well-known for his rather controversial teachings. While traditional scholars (most famously Al-Ghazali) believed that mysticism was best kept among a select few, Mansur Hallaj would openly spread his message. His famous declaration of "I am the Truth" (ana-al-haq) cost him his life. Mansur Hallaj's life is an example for many others who want to share the eternal blissful truth with all humanity, but unfortunately, either suffer in silence due to fear of persecution, or risk being misunderstood and labelled as heretics.
Simple words, dear readers, can be taken out of context, mis-attributed, misunderstood, and twisted in various forms to help further evil and chaos in the world. Then how can one communicate in such a place?
Poetry uses simple words but communicates a whole emotion. And pure emotions can not be misunderstood or twisted into evil forms. Poetry can say to the audience, whatever the audience wants to hear. Poetry becomes, in fact, almost an echo of the words of its reader.
Music is, in my opinion, meaning beyond words. It too, communicates emotions... and they can not be labelled or taken out of context. Music resonates with the listener's soul, it is outside the boundaries set by language and what is proper and improper in a linguistic sense.
Only through poetry and music, I believe, can there ever be a chance of communicating that which can not be defined.

Btw, here's the entertaining website with the online quiz:

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Monsoons in Karachi

Been stormy since the past few days... and people back home were waiting for rain (and now finally Karachi's got its share), I was too busy listening to the beat of the rain against my window to actually find time to write anything. It's amazing how different things/events are perceived differently depending on where they occur.

In Toronto, people shake their heads sadly when they hear of any rainy forecast, they give dull smiles as the clouds gather, and run inside as the rain comes. The umbrellas are no match for the windy streets (extremely unpleasant to see your umbrella bend over itself and turn inside out and break)... and one can see several broken umbrellas lying close to garbage bins, their joints sticking out at awkward angles, resembling dead bats. It smells terrible when it rains here, and people panic at the slightest of moist drops that fall on their person. It is gloomy and dark, an ugly shade of grey.

In Karachi, people pray for rain. The sun beats down for months on end, and clouds lining the horizon are a welcome sight. As the dark clouds gather, people run up onto their rooftops and watch in anticipation. Every glance is fixed in the direction of the clouds, the city is silent, waiting. People go about their necessary business, but keep pausing to look at the sky. The humidity gets unbearable, the temperatures hit above 40C, and the people are as thirsty as the land. A stir of cool wind, and the clouds cover the sky, the glare of the sun is gone. A happy shout echoes all over the city as the first few cool drops fall, and the people rush out into the streets to celebrate. Women rush to the balconies and on rooftops, smiling with relief. The rain falls with tremendous noise and force, a fierce storm to cool the hot, dry land. People forget everything, work, school, homework, cooking.... for the first few hours of rain (yes... in Karachi Monsoon lasts for days). There is often no electricity in such a storm, but no one cares. People drench themselves in rain (no need for an umbrella) and sing and dance. Cars go by blasting happy songs, as people go out and buy Samosa's to have with a cup of Chai (tea). Nothing is more pleasant than the soft clap of thunder, and the steady tap of rain outside, as we sit inside our terrace having Chai with biscuits/samosas, all drenched in the rain. There is absolute satisfaction, absolute relief.

The smell of rain in Karachi is like heaven. Our lawn becomes lush green, and the birds chirp in our mango trees, and even though the rain has slowed, the "parnalas" (rooftop drainpipes) keep running steadily. Electricity comes back on, and people have a permanent smile on their faces, they often hum unconsciously...Happy songs.

When it rains in Toronto, and its ugly and dull outside, I close my eyes and for a moment- I'm back in Karachi. With the earthy rainy smell, standing in my wet clothes in our lush garden... I can almost hear my mother sing.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Broken Frames

Didn't feel like writing anything yesterday. Don't feel like writing anything today, either. But I'd give it a go anyways! I was searching for something in my old file, and that's where I came across all the things I have stuffed in my drawer. Old receipts, letters, empty envelopes with the addresses on them, pens that don't work, safety pins, my old poems, some unfinished stories...
I wonder what makes me want to keep these things. It is this idea of the future, that maybe...some time later I will need these things, or maybe that they are important. Or sometimes, it's just a hasty action to clear up my desk when I believe some one is coming over to visit us and my room looks like a dump.
These items which have no use... (or do they?) remind me of many days of life. Days that are not lived, but just stuffed into these hypothetical drawers for some other time. Days that are spent doing absolutely nothing, as if sometime later I could revisit and do things I always wanted to do. It is indeed a slightly sad feeling that I get from looking at these forgotten items in my desk drawer. I think, for people who (at the end of their lives) turn back and open those hypothetical drawers of life, and see many such use-less and hastily spent days, also have that deep pang of regret. Can these two feelings be compared?

I wrote a poem in April, 2007, which seems be-fitting to this idea:

Broken Frames

Like an old torn page

stuffed into the back of a drawer,

or an Unused box saved

and thrown atop a shelf,

I have stacked some memories

and let myself forget them.

One day when I open that drawer,

my hand shall find that page;

that box may fall in my sight,

my touch will lift the dust of age

and I shall see the cracks and yellow

line those many names...

like lost and faded faces,

that smile through broken Frames.