house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

A Family Flutterbug

Kira goes to a friend's house, to 'study'. At 8pm, I get a nagging feeling that something's missing around the house.
8.15 - I know! It's Kira. She's not back yet. I send her a text message. Nothing.
8.30 - I call her, no answer. I call her friend's numbers - all 3 of them! - and get various levels of static.
8.45 - I'm marching up and down the house clutching a soft toy, trying to calm down.
9 pm - What's the police number, anyone?
9.15 - Stiff G&T.
9.30 - Head in a bag, deep breath.
9.45 - Dip face in a sink-full of water, dry it on Kira's tiger toy. (Tears soak it back in a blink!)

10 pm - I reach for the car key, I'm off to get her. I get in the car, the phone rings. IT'S HER - awww, my Kiwi.

Stern voice: 'Hello?'
Sweet voice: 'Micaaa! How are you?' Forced cheerfulness. She knows she's in trouble.
Steely voice: 'I'm coming to get you. Be outside the gate in five.'
Small voice: 'Oh-kaaay.'

She gets in the car, quiet and adorable. On the drive back, I can only hear my own voice, giving her a stern lecture and blah and blah until even I wish someone put a band-aid across my face to shut me up. The gist of it is that she's punished and cannot go to the friend's house tomorrow, for a party, or you know what? For Ever. With that, I shut up.

We get out of the car and I step straight into a dream all mothers have and KNOW reality can never equal.

She gives me a hug. She gives me hugs every few minutes. She wakes up at 4am and comes to give me a hug in bed.
She NEVER loses her temper. Not even when I'm at my most vile. Kira equals Angel.
She praises my hair, my food, my driving. My unsurpassed beauty. My kind heart.
At supper, she gets her own cutlery. She makes herself cranberry-and-soda. She makes ME the same. She brings the pepper. Afterwards, she clears the table.
She tidies that patch of carpet next to her bed that has become an archeological site of old shoes and library books, used tissues and hair bands. Every now and again she exclaims in delight probably having found something she'd lost last June.
She brushes her teeth.
She curls up next to me with a book and looks up with puppy eyes: 'Should we read, mama?'
She ignores computers, Ipads, her phone and her games.
She NEVER once mentions her plans for tomorrow (i.e. going back to friend's house).

WHO IS THIS CHILD? This is PURE ART, I couldn't have done it better. (In fact, I couldn't have done it at all. In her place, I'd be under the table sobbing and starving myself in protest).

Instead, the day dawns and I find the angel sleeping by my side. The entire morning is a rhapsody to perfect and pleasant childhood.

At 11.43, I get the following text message, from Papa Bear (travelling in Sindh, yet all-knowing and wise): 'Hello my one, are you good? Are you tired? Are you very lovely?' (Please notice the softening tactics before we continue:) 'Can I make a teeny weeny lobby on little Kiwi's behalf? That she go to her fwiend's house for this party... (yes she's been on to me and made her plea)'... Kisses, love hearts, smiley people, all the frills.

Her knight came galloping. I melted. She got her wish. Everyone wept and smiled and hugged. The sun shone and the day was warmer from here to Sindh and back.

Eeeh, another family flutterbug.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Glow Flow, Light Flight

There is something I haven't told you, about Thailand. I can tell you now.

On our last night on the island, we lit up and launched lanterns in the sky. I claimed the biggest, I had the most to send, with care and sorrow, to you. (Oh they did protest: I did what you used to do, put my head down and walked with determination, 'like an elephant to the watering hole', the quickest way, the surest step, the highest purpose, until they were quiet.)

The night was still but rumbling with a remote storm. Quicker now, we assembled our lanterns.

Where is it now, that big heart of yours, the smile that lit the land like new grass growing straight through snow? The lantern would find you, at that moment I imagined that the lantern would know.

I sat on dry flagstones, waiting for the paper to fill up with heat before it could fly. I summoned words from the starless night. Nothing came. A few tears brushed the side of my lantern, like the first raindrops of this storm-to-come. Choked now, underbreath and pathetic, before the light floated away: 'Come back.'

A million things unsaid. Sorry and how-is-it, and where are you now and why, and sorry, and I didn't know, and sorry, I miss you, and what-to-do-with-so-much-love, and thank you dad.

And it was off, the biggest lantern, carrying the smallest letter: 'Come back.'

We watched them fly. I narrowed my eyes until the salt inside glowed deep ladders into the sky. Our lanterns were far now, still flying. Away? Or coming back?

Yes, I believe you sent everything back. You wouldn't have kept us waiting. Did you use the light of my lantern, or comets' tails, or the countless paths of this rain? You, divided in drops and dreams, returned to the world, re-made, watching me still from fledglings' nests, from seeds and blossoms, from the eyes of lambs and newborns. Now I just need to go around and recognise you, reacquaint myself with the world, rebuild my harbour.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Trial by Traffic

This is not a story, sorry, it's a list. The gist of which may be a story about patience or lack thereof. About the possible (i.e. everything). About fate and about fun. About maddening roads and slimy toads. About zooming along in a wee silver car. About what I spy with my wise brown eye:

A guy on a motorbike. Behind him a second, scrawny guy. Strapped to his back, a bicycle. The wheels flare out, spinning a little, eerie, like they're growing out of his backbone, left and right, round and rusty. A modern-day angel. The driver seems to forget this fact and drives as if he were still one motorbike, one person, one-and-narrow.

The car in front of me stops suddenly, window-in-window with a random car driving on the other side of the road. The two drivers start talking. Traffic stops in both directions until they've finished their mid-road affairs.

A car covered completely in electoral flags, their red-and-green gauze seemingly keeping it in one piece. The windscreen is covered too, with a hole to fit the driver's head. His dark beard and feverish eyes can be glimpsed in the hole in the flag. A new national emblem. His candidate hadn't won a thing.

Another motorbike carries a family of six. From handlebars to exhaust pipe, we see: elder child, father/driver, middle child, mother riding sideways and in her lap, the baby. Behind her, holding on somehow, another small boy.

A small Mehran (cheap and ancient car) rattles by, with a huge velvet tiger on the bonnet. Double take: the tiger is glued there and rides with a fixed and fierce stare. Only the tail swishes in the slipstream.

During the school run, two chunky Land Rovers roll by. They purr, slow down, stop at the school gates, with no concern about the long queue of cars they've overtaken. NOT fair, hand flies to horn, arrgh, then a door opens and I freeze. A man in black kameez jumps out and starts scanning the street. Inside, crouched and tensing, four more like him. Guns in their laps. Arms wrapped around the dull metal in a purposeful way, fingers pressed to triggers. 'That's how important children are picked up from school' - someone says. 'It's nothing', he adds. 'A-ha', I say.

There's also this thing: you feel like driving in the lane of all oncoming traffic? Fine. You go ahead and start rolling. There will be some swerving and beeping. There is always beeping. No worries. In one day I see cars and motorbikes doing just that. I see a bike doing that, with no lights, after nightfall. And then I AM in a car doing that. But not driving. Driving is M. who learns fast, likes adventure and is taking me out to dinner. 'Trust me' he says, it'll save us more than 2 minutes...'

And there's this other thing: when you drive into some place where 'security' is taken seriously, they look under the car for bombs. They go around with mirrors-on-rollers and serious faces. Except for this one guy-at-the-gate: he went around the car with his mirror yes. And all the while he looked at me and chatted merrily about this and that. Perhaps he knew that the most dangerous thing in my car was my diary.

And then there's yesterday. I was driving behind an ancient rattling box. It had overtaken me on the inside - and I'd seen the driver: an old man, white kameez, white beard, white Topi cap and twinkly eyes. Now he was slightly in front and I saw the window roll down. A gnarled hand came out and pointed right. We kept driving in friendly tandem. The arm poked out again and the finger jerked, as if he were trying to make me aware of something big, a tsunami, a stampede, a second coming. I was fascinated, and drove slowly behind him. He started to veer right, into my path. A-HA. I started to laugh (what else?): having tried so hard to overtake me illegally, he now needed to cut across and turn right. Of course.

As he screeched across and right, his brown hand waved like a branch in a breeze. One scorching minute on the roads of Islamabad and I had learned to read the chaos, roll onto Anything-Can-Happen Avenue, and twinkle.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Servant and the Stories

The Servant asked Begum for an old notebook. In the kitchen, after his work was done, he sat down, opened the notebook, started to write. He sat down every evening, once the heat of the day had softened to a golden shimmer. He wrote and forgot to swat away the mosquitoes and they landed on his neck, on his ankles, and gorged. He wrote until the noise of the house fell to murmurs. He wrote until his candle drowned in its own plaintive blood.

When he finished one notebook, he asked for another. Begum started to keep her children's old notebooks for him. And he wrote and he wrote.

'What are you writing?', she asked.

'Stories, Begum. I have too many stories inside.'

'What kind of stories?', Begum's little boy wanted to know.

The Servant looked surprised. Perhaps he thought the world had only one story, that wound about endless and forever, with no beginning and no end - and you could only wade in and fish for fragments. Uncaptured, that tale would flow away and vanish. Perhaps the Servant felt he couldn't let that happen.

But he could not explain all this and perhaps the boy was too young to understand. Still, he was inquisitive and he wanted answers. He found one of the Servant's notebooks and opened it. It was covered in lines of small writing; unstoppable floods of ink and ants - they covered the children's previous drawings and letters; they filled every pencil loop, they stretched inside each inch of white, a breathless tale flying at the eye, rushing to be told.

The boy could read, but not this. This was no alphabet he had ever seen. He took the notebook to Begum. She turned the pages gravely, then looked up and her face looked all strange.

'There must be lots of stories here, jaan, but they are for him alone. You see it yourself. It's not any language we can know. It's just this quirk he's got. Let him be.'

They left the Servant in peace. He continued to write and the notebooks piled up in corners of the kitchen.

The young boy, now a man, still says 'I wonder what happened with those books, where they might be'... In fact he thinks 'What if' and 'I wish'. And deeper still, he needs to know if they had ever been unraveled, if there had ever been a key...

The Servant and the Salary

I'll tell you what else I know about the Servant. He had a salary, like everyone who worked in that household. Every month, the Begum would give him this money. And the next day, it would be gone.

'What did you do with your salary?' she asked, again and again.

'Ai, Begum' he'd slump and shake his head, 'the world is so full of sorrows...'

She guessed.

'Did you give it away? Did you give it to people?'

'... poor people, Begum, desperate people...'

She tried.

'But why all of it? Now you have nothing for the rest of the month.'

'But Begum, they have less. If you knew some of the stories...'

She sighed.

She stopped paying him monthly. Instead, she gave him a little money every day. This way, she reckoned, he'd feel less rich, he'd have too little to give.

Or maybe he did anyway? Maybe he shed a little scrap daily, a note, a coin, a twinkle in the corner of the eye? Maybe he needed to; like a hen, like an ant, like a travelling bard; all those days, all those eggs, those grains of earth oh, all the stories...

Friday, 24 May 2013

The Servant and the Snake

This is a story about a man who grew up poor and then served others all his life; had a family and lost a family; worked and worked and died. And so much more.

One day a young boy heard the servants of the house complain about snakes. Too many snakes in the garden. The boy wanted to see a snake. It would be arranged.

The next day at dawn the man in our story, who worked in the kitchens, took the boy to the back of the garden, where the earth was hard and dry. Behind some stones, they saw a snake. The man quickly drew a circle in the dirt around it. Just like that, with his finger.

The boy couldn't see the circle traced in the dust, but it must have been there because the snake reared and its diamond head shot out and back, out and back, out and back. And every time it stopped at the invisible line until the snake, recognising a prison, fell back inside its own bright coils and lay still.

'Kill it, kill it', shouted the boy. Not out of cruelty, that was what you did to snakes.

'No', said the servant.

'Why?' So unused was the boy to hear a servant say No, that he forgot to be angry.

'It is the only thing I have, this power. If I kill the snake I lose it. I don't want to lose it.'

I do not know the servant's name, his face, his voice. I have no idea where the story happened. That boy, now a grey-haired man, told it to me.

But imagine the snake, coiled up for all eternity inside a tower of light and air, prisoner of one mesmeric gesture.

And imagine a world where power is lost as soon as it's abused.

And imagine, imagine the magic at your fingertips.

Friday, 3 May 2013

The Game of See - Unsee

(Picture from the 'Tribune' newspaper, under the heading '100 Words'. I don't remember the '100 words' exactly, just fragments: bonded labour in a brick kiln near Peshawar. An Afghan family working there. Children turning bricks one by one, to dry in the sun.)

On the morning this photograph was taken, these children were shaken out of their beds early, and each given a small but scalding cup of tea. The tea was strong, with lots of milk and half a spoonful of sugar. (Sweeter would be nicer, but sugar is expensive, amma says.) Maybe there was breakfast too, a shred of roti sprinkled with crushed chillies.

The day was the same as every day they can remember. In their small and dusty clothes, they were ushered out the door and walked - holding their younger sister by the hand - to the brick kiln.

Then they worked all day. They crouched in the sun, turning the bricks one by one, to dry evenly in the fierce heat. They lined newly made bricks next to the others. They carried bricks to trucks. They may have cleared away some of the broken shards and dust.

There was no school. They have no idea what 'school' is - and they're unlikely to find out. They'll just work here, day after day, coughing a little from the red dust. Ahead of them, a lifetime of equal days in the brick kiln, not much else. With all those bricks they could build a road to the moon and back.

Why is this their life? They would never ask this question, but I do, and now you might too. Is it fate? Is it ignorance? Is it cruelty? Is it money, because some relative once took a loan that he couldn't repay? And in lieu of payment, generations of his family are now 'bonded'. They are all linked together by a chain of red brick dust.

They are slaves.

Your eyes have just jumped back to the picture, right? You read that last sentence and looked back. You took in their faces, the bare feet, those heart-piercing smiles. You saw how small their hands look on those bricks - how can they grasp them? Lift them? How heavy are they? How many bricks can they turn, can they carry, in one day? And the little one, standing? Is she supposed to work too? Is someone about to come and give her a slap, a push, because she took a break? All these things went through your mind, maybe more: because you've never seen, and probably never expected to see, in your lifetime, slavery, real slaves, child-slaves.

And what do we do now? Now that we've all seen something we can't unsee, now that real life is more intense than any fiction I could hide behind, now that we are changed: what do we do now?