Wednesday, February 23, 2011


There was a woman who worked in the kitchen at the campus center in college. Her name was Denise, and she was old, with white hair under the navy blue Dining Services cap we both wore. She was assigned to train me for the 10pm-1am shift washing dishes. On my first day, she let me wear a real apron, instead of the plastic bag with cut-out armholes that I later adopted. I always associate those days of dining services with repetitive Christmas music, even though it was only October when I began.
The regular workers, the ones who weren't students, the ones like Denise, who laboured there from morning till late night, spent that last shift looking forward to going home. I spent it dreading the part where I would have to clean out "the grease trap"-a piece of machinery as charming as its name. I sang songs under my breath while I waited for the last few dishes and pots to come in and picked some kind of beans out of the drain with my yellow gloves. "You can sing out loud here, honey, I like music," was what Denise had told me, but I've never had a good singing-out-loud voice. Occasionally, someone I knew would return a dish at the window and wave to me before they recycled their glass and plastic. I thought it wasn't a bad place to work, for seven dollars an hour.
Towards the end of the night, the cooking surfaces were dismantled and sent to me to be scrubbed down and run through the dishwasher. I hated this bit from the start. The longest board was taller than me and I thought it ridiculously cumbersome to stand on my tiptoes and stagger backwards to get it vertically into the sink to be scrubbed down. I felt even more ridiculous when I realised there was no way to avoid getting sloshed with water when I tried pushing it through the sanitising machine (that was when the wisdom behind the plastic aprons became apparent). Three boards later, I was in a foul mood, that first time. Then the last one came. We called it the baby white surface. It was mercifully shorter than me, lighter than the rest and still smooth enough to be wiped down easily. I didn't notice any of these things, if truth be told. It was Denise who looked delighted to introduce me to the piece of equipment and say, "This is my favourite part of the night! Isn't this one all nice and clean? I just look forward to it all day," as she hoisted it into the dishwasher with me.
Denise must have been at least sixty five and that was a generous estimate, for someone so small and wrinkled. She told me she lived alone. I read her name in an article three years after that night, commemorating college staff who had served for decades. I wondered what she had done before she became the cheerful trainer of disgruntled work-study students in a dining hall kitchen. I wondered a lot of things.
I suppose nobody expects to be sixty five and looking forward to washing a five-foot long cutting board at midnight. No child will ever dream of growing up-or growing old- to know about all the secrets of getting a drain unclogged, or the fastest way to scrape burnt cheese off a pizza pan. At the time, it broke my heart a little to know that somebody who had so tenderly advised me on how to get through my daily shift as easily as possible saw dishwashing as the best part of her day. I'm wiser now, because I know that if a time ever comes when life throws soggy beans floating in sink foam at you, there will always be things to celebrate.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Every day, I meet people. People who are intriguing, inspiring, strange, ordinary, humble, pompous, awe-inspiring, beautiful, revolting. People who make me wish I was a better storyteller, if only to preserve them somewhere safer than memory. So many people, so many stories I don't know and can't tell.
There's a twelve year old girl in a class I teach. I don't know her name, because in my class of fifty she is not one of the few who speaks up or lingers after class to make conversation. She has enormous green eyes, like a cat. She told me her father works in China. She doesn't know what he does or what part of China he does it in, but she knew he was going to come home after three years, two hours after I dismiss class. She didn't know where China was. She wasn't sure what Asia was, either. None of my girls know about continents yet; as much as I try to stretch their geographic imaginations to encompass the entire subcontinent, we rarely make it beyond Sultanabad.
There's a woman who sweeps floors in my old school. She always remembers my name and asks after my mother. Every now and then, she asks me if my mother has an old sari for her. She's Hindu. I never thought about it when I was in school, but I wonder now. I wonder if she lives in Lyari or Ranchore Lines or somewhere else entirely and how she makes it to Phase 8 every morning. By bus? In a sari? Under a burqa? I wonder if she takes off for Diwali.
There's a eunuch by the railway lines in Clifton. I hadn't realised Clifton even had railway lines. He was sitting, with his scarlet mouth, with three decidedly unfeminine men, perched next to a container of diesel, smoking and talking and gesticulating. They looked like they might be friends. I realised I've never seen a eunuch sitting in the company of men, the way someone would with old acquaintances. He didn't clap or beg or promise me twin sons. He was engrossed in his conversation, his cigarette.
There's a teacher who works at a school run by a nonprofit. The school is in a squatter colony bang in the center of one of the richest parts of the city. I could have lived there my whole life and never turned the corner and known it exists. I suppose it was an accident that we met. She's never turned the corner, either. She proudly told me she's finished twelve years of school. Her father doesn't believe in girls leaving the neighborhood, but he's very open-minded about education, she asserted repeatedly. She knew a great deal about things beyond the colony. She told me she reads whatever she can find in the library and is on the third Harry Potter book. We talked about minority rights. I said there aren't any in this country, she disagreed. Then she deferred to my opinion, saying I must know better, because I've been outside the neighborhood, all the way to America, and she's never known a Pakistani Hindu. I feel small and silly. We change the subject and talk about our mutual passion for education.
There's a boy who I run into in the bazaar at least once a week. He does different things on different days. Sometimes he sells tissues or pencils, other times he might wash windows or fetch cigarettes and mobile credit for people waiting in their cars. I bought him bread, milk and juice at a grocery store once and since then, he's managed to recognize my car every time I'm in the area. He has a younger brother who he talks of sometimes. On days when I'm in a hurry, I guiltily avoid him. There are days when I don't want to buy useless things from him just to be friendly, but I wouldn't want to offend him with money. I have a growing collection of pencils topped with Dora the Explorer erasers, cheap yoyos and scented Chinese tissues in my purse.
There's a group of girls in another one of my classes. They sit in the same corner of the classroom every time, where they chatter throughout my lesson. It amazes me when they regurgitate information I present to them, because I have no idea when they listen to me. Inevitably, one of them pokes the other with a pencil every time we have a writing activity. They call each other Nehru, Gandhi, Quaid-e-Azam and Allama Iqbal. As a joke, they tell me. I feel proud to have taught them material they are using in inside jokes. Later, I tell them off for misbehaving in class when one hisses at the other "You just wear a stupid loincloth, because that's what Gandhiji wore," but it's difficult not to laugh. They offer me various kinds of biscuits and dubious looking packets of Balle Balle paan masala. They are offended if I refuse, so I line my stomach with their snacks in breaktime.
There's a man who works at a government library. His clothes are nearly always stained, one bare foot on his chair, the other leg lazily sprawling across the dirty floor. He slurps his tea noisily and always asks me if he can fix my problem. I always tell him I have no problem, I'm just here to work, followed by whatever request I have for archival information. He looks bored and tells me that is a problem, that's what he meant. I'm told I'm free to look through the trash in the attic for my "archives," but they really can't guarantee I'll find anything. This is nearly always followed by a talk extolling the many virtues of his extensive library records. He has reminded me the last six times I met him that one time when our organisation came with their 'problem,' he was very accommodating. He reminds me that there are even women in my organisation and he even offered them chairs once. I generally avoid him, as I have learned to do most government employees.
To borrow from Vonnegut, so it goes. So it goes.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Exhausted. Exhausted so my teeth and tongue ache as badly as my legs and arms. Exhausted so that my brain hurts with the effort of defending what I believe in and my mind is alternately on fire and numb. Exhaustion like a fever, fatigue like a toothache that won't let you sleep. Like thoughts that won't switch off and a forehead which is conscious of furrows. Like toes that move with nervous energy and joints that must be cracked. Like talking to cover up the feeling of impending collapse. Sounds like working at an NGO, sounds like Pakistan. Sounds like a hundred and seventy million souls screaming themselves hoarse and feeling like victims and conquerors.
Listen to me, I'm yelling out for God's sake. Listen, listen, wait I have something to say but don't interrupt me, interrupt, interrupt. Feels like work, feels like home.
At some point the debates, the rationale, the idealism starts fading into an automatic stream of thought, a never switched off conversation of justifying, qualifying, quantifying to prove yourself. Screaming, screaming, screaming to be heard-literally. Switching on the mic, fiddling with the controls, absorbing yourself in lectures and handing out erasers. Write down the answer for me, should we love or should we hate? Was Jinnah right or wrong? Can we protest without killing? Just tell me what you think, there is no right or wrong, there's no correct answer in this abyss, just express, express, express yourself and no copying please.
Folded into a car with seven other tired souls, coming back and logging entries into archives and wondering when they'll be used, dreaming of a day when happy researchers say a prayer for your soul every time they find exactly what you have painstakingly spent an hour typing up. Wondering if the kids forgot what you taught. Telling the reporters no, we are not from the CIA. Telling people not to speak to reporters. Pleasing and thank youing and salaaming to get around roadblocks so that angry parents and principals don't suspect you're from the wrong side of some warped ideology they believe exists. Trying not to be a caricature of your own social class, trying not to fall into the neat little categories the press loves to use. Signing in and out. Twelve hours today, nine tomorrow.
Tomorrow, tomorrow. Tomorrow we'll try again. Tomorrow we'll wait for someone to say hey, maybe you are just trying to do the right thing, maybe you're doing it because you love your country, maybe you're doing it for the kids, maybe you just need to clock a 9-5, maybe you do what you're told, maybe you want to educate, maybe you want to stop shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting shouting
Please, please, be quiet, I'm exhausted.