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.


Anonymous said...

This has to be, by far, the most well written and poignant piece I've read in a while. It makes me look forward to coming home.

Anonymous said...

All power to the story teller so that we may see and hear more.

Reema said...

can essays 47-50 be a continuation of this one? purty please

Tara apa said...

I don't get to read much these days. I pick up a book and fall asleep before the end of the first page because the kids kept me up the previous night. Your essays keep me refreshed and continue to remind me of my plans of writing/teaching/ meeting new people.
This one I will take as my birthday gift :)

Anonymous said...

love it! keep up the good work!

RH said...

Give me your job! please!

Nadir Ali said...

It is enough material for a novel . And story telling is nothing but , well to give it authority , what James Joyce said , "You cannot write good stories about people unless you love people , the characters in your stories .

Anonymous said...

You should take the advice and compile a book
amazing writing!!!!

Ayesha N Ali said...

I hope you are taking my advice of saving hard copies of your writing ? must do Sarah

Hamza Bangash said...