All Hail the Nails

Once upon a time, the hammers planned to put down all the nails. Some in the name of blasphemy, the other honor. Bring on the laws and legislatures, said the hammers. Terror terror, shouted the nails from every nook and corner. Those centuries; the pounds, railways and universities; and then the 90s. Eclipse, eclipse! One after the other, the nails were fixed. ‘Victory’, the hammers chanted after every nail was planted. The strongly they thrashed the nail, the lesser time it took to entrench deeper. They did it until all four walls were filled. “We are Great!” said the eight hammers, laughing on the nails and their poor fate. However, the nails knew better – they silently prayed. The days turned into decades, and the room turned into a museum. Their struggle was long, and they had a song for every moment they stood strong.

Now the paintings abound on the wall, all carved with signs of summer, winter, spring, and fall. Each nail is a face of resilience, shining in all its metallic brilliance. The nails stand there narrating a story of their own, speaking from within the walls. The walls now reek of the tales of nails. Little do hammers know silence is itself a story, excavated by the historians, and then frozen into the pages, alleys of history and racks of libraries. The walls which once got empty, no painting remaining, each and every broken, had the nails intact. And this is not a story, it is a fact. Only after the crepuscule comes the crack of dawn; nobody has seen the crimson, scarlet, and cerise yawn. The hammers may have a loud sound, but it will never resound.

The nails, forever engraved; their voices, forever sound.

On repeat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XMjetam0J4

Behind the Pigeons and Popcorn

How does one make a city livable?

This was the question Jane Jacobs, a local resident of New York City, asked in 1960s when Robert Moses, a bureaucratic city planner, decided to construct an expressway through her Greenwich Village to create access to the cars. Jacobs in “The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety” writes (1961) ‘streets and their sidewalks, the main public spaces of a city, are its most vital organs.’  She says that the ‘narrow, crowded, and multiuse streets’ makes the residents feel safe and lead them to participate in a ‘street ballet’. We know that street is a point where one experiences a city in its utmost splendor, simplicity and sophistication. I recently took to observing one of the streets of Karachi, with a friend as a part of my assignment. Only after visiting it a couple of times, we noticed the street name sign at the corner, hidden by the hotchpotch of hawkers, rickshaws, and garbage. The board said ‘Mahmud Ghaznavi Road’ (see, how the names embedded in the physical space can tell you a lot about the narratives people believe in). This is a ‘charged parking site’ approved by Karachi Metropolitan Corporation in Hyderi, but we also notice street hawkers all over the site.

In the morning, the only activity stems from uncountable wild and free pigeons fluttering, and pecking on the daana. It is sold by the poor vendors seated at the pavements to the visitors, like me, who often cross by and like to feed the pigeons. One of those days I noticed to my surprise, a female myna street hawker seated there. I started talking to her. My first question was whether she feels safe among all the men. “What can possibly happen to me?!”, she seemed indifferent. She opened up a little bit as I inquired more. She tells me about being robbed at least thrice without anyone ever tracking the muggers. She goes to purchase the Mynas from the Empress Market, but “how much can you possibly earn from it?” As we paid for one myna, she insisted we purchase another one and so we did. It’s strange how we are the slave of the very money we paid her to buy the freedom of the two little mynas. As we waved her goodbye, she told us with a smile pasted on her face to come back again.

It is when we went there on one Monday afternoon, I saw the street in its full splendor, with activity emerging from each nook and corner. I saw the cobbler on the corner, followed by the street hawkers selling books, paan, popcorn, shakarkandi, makai, and so on, lined up on one side. These are working-class men of diverse ethnic groups, from Urdu-speaking to Bihari, from Siraiki to Pushtun and more. A mosque marks the midpoint of the street. As I parked my car, I noticed wheeled vehicles, from the occasional police mobile to Rickshaws, CD-70 to Honda Accord, sprawl all over the right, left, and the center. I took the coconut juice, stood in the corner, marveling at all the activity bursting around me. I saw the crisscrossers; the locals parking their cars or catching a Rickshaw; the young men, women, old men and the families clustering around the hawkers; with the policemen, ticket collectors, beggars, transgenders, filling the landscape. It is a kaleidoscope, and you see a billion shades, but there are some that I wish weren’t there; how the beggars and khwaja serrras were being shooed away by almost all of the participants of the street, as if it’s not for them to share.

My friend and I are a part of the cluster around the book hawkers. That day, I was surprised to notice the sight of two flags waving in the air which I hadn’t noticed previously. One flag is hoisted by Mustafa Kamal on 4th September, 2016; and another flag erected with the name of Abdul Qadir Patel of Pakistan People’s Party on 11th September, 2011. It is from the book hawkers that I get to know they were asked to evacuate last month when Mustafa Kamal visited last month for this ceremony. They also tell me they have to pay the police and KMC authorities ‘bhatta’ (300 to 500 per week). However, they don’t really care about the ‘politics’ because they have no time for it; they spend the entire day here, go back, and sleep. In the conversations that followed, I got to know there used to be twenty-two book stalls, but now only three to four are left, because a lot of readers have shifted to the eBooks. It has a very low turnover, he tells me as he showed me an anthology reposing there for the last two years. It is tragic how those involved in the book trade struggle to make ends meet.

As I roamed on the streets, I also met many kids who were begging, or selling one thing or the other. At one point, I mindlessly told one of them to work and not beg but then I saw the two little chaps, right in front of me. They have been working at the mechanic shop all day long. This got me thinking whether a child laborer is better or a beggar, and if they have other options. It is not hard to tell how vulnerable they are, exposed to not just the physically rough life of sun, dirt and winds, but also under the direct attack of cruel words from all the passerby who have never really known what it is like to have blisters from walking bare feet. It also disturbs me to think of all the sexual assault they must have experienced, without even knowing about it. What should we do for these street children? Where do they come in the magnificent planning agendas and budgets? We are losing these beautiful minds. There are children on the street, but no childhood.

When I tell my friends, I was out on the street – the first question they ask me is if I felt safe with all these men around. I feel this is not even the question here. The idea of being unsafe didn’t even occur to me – it was perhaps because of the familiarity with the street, and then of course my privileged position. The important thing to ask is about the lives of the people whose livelihood are associated with this very street. I am in awe of their painful dignity – how they managed their work, spoke about their lives and conducted themselves. For instance, the old Pashtun cobbler prided at the fact he has been there since thirty five years. No history book will ever document how a life is experienced from the eyes of an ordinary citizen – how it unfolds from the eyes of a 16 year old Pushtun boy, growing up and old in Karachi. This is why we need to roam around on streets – day or night, and talk to people – children, men, women, trans; this is where we will get to know each other. As I lifted my camera to take a picture, he shied away from the scene, yet his warm curiosity to see the picture drew him back.

During this time, I bought a number of books. Once when I ran out of money, one of them gave me one book for free. I remember going there many times, and as the ticket collectors would come, I told them I have to take pictures – they let me do it ensuring they are here. It was after the evening, we hung out at the popcorn stall, listening to the stories Rashid had to tell. It was dark; the only lights emitting from the mall, yet we didn’t feel uncomfortable. Some of the words that come up in my mind when I think about these men are: welcoming, hardworking, and dignified, generous and respectful of each other. I could clearly sense plight and poverty, but they didn’t complain to me. This haunts me because did they think I come from a different world and I’d never be able to understand them? Or did they not complain because they have lost hopes about their lives?

One interesting thing that happened was the encounter with this random guy. After we got done talking to Rashid and and were about to sit in the car, this guy stopped us, and asked whether we are here to report the ‘illegal’ hawkers. I asked him why do you call them ‘illegal’ and he told me that they are against the government permission, and of the KMCs policies against ‘petharas’. I argued that this line of reasoning is only valid if they had other alternatives. He didn’t seem to care, and told me how they earn a lot, even more than the shopkeepers at Hyderi because these hawkers don’t pay the rent. In the conversation that followed, the guy told me he earns around thirty thousand a month, working all day in the firm where as the ‘popcorn wala’ earns more than him, just by coming at around 3 and being there till midnight. Are you beginning to see the problem here?

In the end, we summarize, but there is still a lot on my mind. This neighborhood is a dense, diverse, and multifunctional locus, lived as a commercial spot, street, or juncture, depending on the particular person, and the time in which it is experienced. However, diversity doesn’t ensure it’s democratic. In fact, it could mean that the unprivileged groups are at the risk of being exploited, and marginalized. For me, the balloons, a 10 rs popcorn, and a copy of original Vogue, are all cheapstake pleasures. However, the life of a balloon peddler, a hawker, a bookseller, is a sad place from the inside. I realized I only found happiness there because I was looking from my selfish eyes. As I spent some of my days there as a flaneur, I saw the dark hues unfold in front of me – only if we open our eyes, ears and heart to it.

My two cents: There is a need of concrete state-planned policies in order to, guarantee a secure livelihood to the street hawkers; integrate the beggars and khwaja serras in such a way that they are able to not just become a productive part of the street but are also able to reap the advantages of the city life; along with making it a user-friendly space with street lights, and mechanisms for the maintenance of the street hygiene. We need to reclaim the streets, and reclaiming starts from including the people who literally live there.  The state of street compels us to ask the questions Jane once asked, and also to acknowledge that we need to ask our own in addition to them, and answer in regards of our particular context, considering the complexities, contradictions and congruities.

Weather

I live in a field

where cinder cones and caldera breathe.

This summer morning

I stand bare

Over scoria and rhyolites.

Yet the heart is fully clothed

in dusk and disease.

*

I smell of fatigue –

Full and filled.

It runs from the cranium

to the peroneus brevis.

I know it is because of holding you inside;

A dead baby weighs more than alive.

*

From the open window of my shack,

the rotten pungent smell

seeps into my breath.

The gale blows me

With a rough kiss.

I am a native –

I am used to it.

I can tell from a whiff;

The magma is swelling up to the conduit.

Cruelty

I started writing when I was in 7th grade. I had a lot to say, but I did not know how to express it. I had lots of pencils, pens and papers. I had lots of colors and crayons (I can safely say I have never ran out of stationery) too but expressing the conflicts in the form of colors seemed pretty out of reach to me given the fact I was never even successful in managing my colors within the lines. So when I started knitting my thoughts, I was not surprised that all I could manage were disorderly sentences.

It was in the middle of 7th grade that I was finally able to write one complete article, and then just one random day, I pitched in to this kid’s magazine, Young Nations, and got published. Soon after, I wrote two pieces, and got published in Smash, another popular teen’s magazine some of my class fellows would read. One of the girls from other section who was from U.S.A, had a pretty good accent, and I suppose good writing skills (at least better than mine) came to me and told me I got published, but that I have too many mistakes in my writing. She pointed out I had written ‘peoples’ instead of ‘people’, and then there were a couple of other grammatical mistakes too. I don’t remember how I felt; I think I was too relieved to have vented it out.

The thing is I wrote those two pieces after the two debates going on in the school  – ‘can money buy happiness?’ and one other topic I can’t recall at the moment. I chose to write instead of speaking out because at that time, I did not feel confident enough about being able to weave my thoughts in crisp and coherent sentences, and conveying it audibly. I have a low pitched voice, and then I have always felt something distasteful about the way school debates turned out to be. It was about loud mouths and bossy students, and I wasn’t even near. I could be biased though since I think I used to envy those on stage and the way they could weave words and garner rounds of applause. I have always been inadequate and incoherent when it comes to expression, but since writing as a medium is generous enough to give one the space and time to develop, it accommodated me, and now it has become a safe haven for me, even when I have betrayed it time and again.

I don’t think those two pieces, filled with errors in a random magazine, had the potential to ever make an impact, yet for me, it was perhaps a good way to start. I remember writing a couple of pieces and getting published after that. I read a lot of stuff – articles, reader’s digest, my textbooks, random stories, articles on internet, youth magazines, but nothing too literary. Why my teachers did not introduce me to Harper Lee or Tolstoy, I often wonder. The only novel I remember reading was ‘A little Princess’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Perhaps this lack of exposure with the literary works is the reason why I still feel handicapped when it comes to writing but nevertheless, I have tried to keep on.

Yet one of the interesting thing I figured out when I took out those magazines some days back while I was cleaning the room was that I never wrote about myself, or my thoughts. I wrote regarding the debates, poems that revolved around god, animals, website reviews of sites I used to visit such as neopets and millsberry, but never really about the things that influenced me, you know those little private details that drive your life. It is interesting because I started writing precisely to let the tensions brewing beneath my calm demeanor out, and have always considered writing as an intimate matter. Now those words seems so meaningless that I won’t hesitate in burning all of those magazines.

When I see people write about their life experiences, for instance poetry, memoir or any other form, it gives me immense strength. It makes me feel that maybe just one day I can be there too. So, recently as I read two Bangladeshi women writers – Maria Chaudhuri’s ‘Beloved Strangers’ and Abeer Hoque’s “Lovers and Leavers” (even though it’s not a memoir), I got the urge to write about some of the people, places, moments that have influenced me. However, so far I have not been really successful; whenever I have picked up my pen to write about the personal experiences, I always struggle between privacy and disclosure.

So last night, I got my hands on this book (And the World Changed: Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women) and I started reading one of the stories by Fahmida Riaz –‘The Daughters of Aai’ and she had quoted Tolstoy. He had once said: “write down everything, no however shameful, however painful, because it is all worth writing about.”, and Fehmida said, “But Tolstoy was not a woman, otherwise he would have known better.” It has been years and I have not stopped resenting and feeling ugly whenever certain faces make the way back to my mind. Some people are truly cruel, I have believed this for the longest time. Yet now as I reflect, it makes me feel I have been more – what’s more cruel than feeling ashamed and trying to freeze the blood that is meant to flow from your system? Even as I write this, I have blocks after blocks. I think if you keep words cramped up for too long, they turn into ice.

The other day as I saw my mother with a pen and piece of paper, I was delighted at the thought of her writing again, but as I inquired, it turned out she was just scribbling down some groceries. Nothing kills me more than seeing the blood and hurt and tragedy cramped up in an old shoe – my eyes are allergic to the smell of grief.  When my mother started writing her first novel in the last summer, her words would gush. And I’d always make this small prayer: ‘may her words always flow’, yet in these last months, I felt them freezing. The dead of winter has hit the four walls long before November. I have prayed but I have learned no amount of prayers can thaw frozen words; perhaps the answer lies in being softer, less cruel to ourselves.

I will try to write, and I hope my mother does too!

Goodbye

For as long as I can remember,

I liked starving myself,

and taking showers so hot which left the bathroom wreathing in steam.

Yet summer twenty fifteen was different.

I forced myself to eat regularly –

Things like nut butters and cheese,

And bathe myself a little mildly,

a little gently  with things like honey

And lavender leaves.

My heart had long died,

but another one started beating inside.

I was done with my sleep,

but something inside me was fast asleep.

I decided to let little Aaron complete his dreams,

because I knew how inchoate things,

trampled on in between bleed like.

It was only November when I started to grow tired.

My back and bones hurt.

It felt as if I was carrying a Bolivar instead of the seed of an apple.

I prayed almost every day

to all the gods – Abrahamic and Dharmic

for him to leave my disintegrating temple.

They didn’t answer until one eve of April,

it started oozing –

A sad amber yolk;

Red chrysanthemums,

And fresh white lies.

Now the virgin leaves

draped with dirt and blood

after my flesh and pulp delivered.

In this year, I had come to think we had an unbreakable bond,

but all it took was Dr. Karl and a couple of nurses to prove me wrong.

They clamped the umbilical cord,

And yanked the placenta out.

How clinging together,

we would have killed each other.

How leaving was essential,

for our survival.

Unspoken

I place the bouquet on the side vase. It has my favorite red Ecuadorian roses. I prefer to breathe in the scent for only a couple of hours instead of coming home to the same plastic imitations each day. The deep strokes of color; the wet stems; and the fragrance emanating from the garden-fresh bunch instill in me a sense of life. Yet when I think about it, it is rather strange because those fleurs have been detached from their roots, and nearing their death.

This makes me wonder if I commit the sins I curse the colonizers for. I disroot the natives from their homelands, and subject them to my foreign land. Then, I lay big roads and construct a large fort for these exotic species to abide, forever in the panorama of my smell and sight. I lock them up in perpetual objectification, as I perceive the world through a ‘male gaze’, freezing the ‘others’ in a powerless position.

I look into the mirror and ask myself: Am I the Empress of Hypocrisy who counterfeits the cloak of honesty? It reminds me of how I feed their mother’s flesh and pulp to my accomplices; engrave my mark on history with the blood gushing from her veins and arteries; and hand them the remains of her body narrating how it embodies only illiteracy, illegitimacy and infertility.

Yet after all my cruelty and deceit, the poor little things continue to fill my space with redolence till the last ounce of life in them. I like it only transitory because beneath their fragile figures and mild scents, there echoes the atrocities of my dirty heart and murderous hands, and the worlds crushed between them.

The art is to listen to the words which shall never be spoken.

Ambivalence

“Pray to God, my little child. She will come back soon,” my grandma often said this to me, and I grew up with the false hopes embedded in my childhood thoughts until one day passing by a crowded cemetery intimately connected me with the rough reality. That hot summer day, I understood those who visit God stay there and never come back.

This meant the sweet smile; warm laps and tender hands I had fabricated in my head each night have been merely the phantoms of my imagination, forever out of the reach of my corporeal territory. This also meant the flesh and blood I encapsulated in my dreams had now forever been released from the unforgiving fortress that witnessed the masculine tales being stitched and engraved on her skin.

The thing is I have always had faith in the sun. As it sets in my world, it rises in another. This is why I believe she can never be reduced to an elegy, epitaph or a tombstone, because now she resides above the socially constructed ideas of realities, and therefore, beyond the empire of the physical and tangible. I like how she is now free and infinite; and this is why my desire to bring her back in my world have faded, and now shifted to being a part of the world to which she belongs.

Yet I am just a human and I often break down thinking about how the walls remained silent even after witnessing the atrocities; the doors remained shut even when she tore her heart open with the stories; and I continued to be helpless in front of the power of the pain since it was experienced in the utmost patriarchal privacy.

I miss you, mom.