I have trouble remembering things, I forget to pick things up, I don’t remember what I had for lunch last week, I even forget to match socks in the mornings sometimes. But there are some moments that you don’t forget. The event as a whole may not be exact, but certain moments you just can’t forget.

I remember a clear night sky, void of any clouds. I don’t remember with any clarity whether the moon and stars were out. But I’m sure they were, I’m sure they were witnesses.

We had just finished dinner at a restaurant, one you couldn’t classify as a road-side dhaba, but not a high class joint either. It was past 10pm and we were in Rawalpindi. Rawalpindi was just one stop on our tour around Pakistan, but I don’t remember what the other spots were. I remember mountains and rivers and single lane roads (mountain-side single-lane for two way traffic, yes, both ways on the same single lane). I was either 9 or 10 years old, I don’t remember which.

We decided to go for a walk, I remember us stopping at a roadside shack. One that sold packs of biscuits and bubble gum, some also sold soap and toothbrushes. Not exactly your corner convenience store, but I’m sure it was convenient for many. I remember a cigarette lighter hanging off a cord from the roof of the shack. It was for those who purchased a single cigarette to light up immediately. You can do this in Pakistan (and India), you can purchase singles: a single cigarette, a single biscuit from a pack of 12, a single pain killer pill (sometimes even half a pill).

I was asked if I wanted anything. “Spout!” (at least I think it was called that), a type of gum with a liquidy centre filling. Maybe the flavour was mint or maybe spearmint, I remember that the colour was green. Green wrapper and green gum. I popped a couple into my mouth, then I held the packet in my fist, not bothering to pocket it.

We were walking in a group, mummy and baba, brother and sister, aunt and uncle. All of us in one group, not groups of two apart. A newly married couple, the uncle and aunt. I don’t remember if they accompanied us on the trip or if we accompanied them. I don’t even remember attending their wedding, maybe I didn’t. I remember getting along well with the aunt. “Bas theek hi hai (it’s just about alright)”, that became our response to many questions, we laughed every time either of us said it. And we made sure to bring one eyebrow down a little, or maybe blink, as we said the words.

I don’t think we were walking too slow, nor too fast. A gentle pace, if anything. Then, I fell.

This is a moment in which you no longer exist. One second you are present, the other second you disappear. If no one is looking too carefully, no one would notice that you were gone. Before anyone could say, “Look out for that open man-hole” (and nobody ever did), I was gone. I was covered head to toe, entirely submerged in shit and piss. I was lucky, however, people were looking and they did notice.

I’m not too sure what was going on above the ground, but below I was trying to rise up through the substances. I didn’t have much success, trying to move my hands and legs as a swimmer would, it just wasn’t working. My father jumped in. Moving my hands around I was able to find his leg, I held on to it. I remember somehow hearing him call out my name, “ADNAN!!”. At that point I thought he wanted me to let go of his leg, maybe I was causing him to lose his balance? I let go. Of course, he was just calling out my name hoping that I would respond. He couldn’t actually see me.

He found me and proceeded to lift me up. Folk above ground held my hands and pulled me up through the same hole. Later my uncle and brother would tell me that as my head became visible it looked like a monster scene out of some horror movie. I was dripping wet, my hair a nest of sorts, my glasses fully covered and thus my vision blurred. The globs on my glasses were too heavy and fell on their own, my vision still blurry but slightly better.

I quickly located my mother. This wasn’t very difficult, she was shouting and screaming. “Mera baccha!!”, “Mera beta kahaan hai??!!!”, “Mera baccha kahaan gaya??!!!” (“My child!!”, “Where is my son??!!!”, “Where did my child go??!!!”). There were a few people trying to calm mummy down. Nearly everyone else stood still, they were all silent witnesses, not too different from the moon and the stars above.

I went up to mummy and tried to calm her down. “Mein yahaan hoon.”, “Sab theek hai mummy, mein aagaya” (“I’m right here.”, “It’s okay mummy, I’ve come”). That wasn’t enough. Her screams didn’t stop. I remember raising my hands half way, wanting to take a hold of her hands. I looked at my hands and wondered if I should. I noticed that I was still holding on to the Spout packet. Nowhere in between the falling, the swimming, the lifting and the walking did I let go of the Spout. I dropped the packet. Covered in shit, right out of the gutter, you’re not exactly in a state where someone would embrace you. I don’t remember if I held mummy’s hands to calm her down. I’d like to think I did.

tea drops.

What should I tell you about them? I could tell you how exactly they met, or maybe the first time they went bowling? I could tell you about their high school days or I could tell you about all the skipped college lectures. Hell, I could read to you from their yearbooks. But what would you to with that? Would you write this story instead?

His walking stick contacts the station’s platform allowing him to balance coming right off the train steps. The train is silent now, no longer hissing or puffing as it was when it first stopped a few minutes ago. The train is on time, but he had prepared for a 1 hour delay. He takes in a deep breath and realizes that he is early. This is not a bad thing, he’s never had a chance to look around before. All the prior visits have been strictly “business”, if you could call it that.

It’s been 6 months since the last time, he starts to wonder how different she will look today. He wonders if she’ll even show up. They haven’t really communicated since the last time, and because there was no communication, today should still be a go. Surely she would have said something if there was a change of plans. As he wanders around everyone else notices how his walking stick doesn’t really slow him down. It does make walking easier for him, but if you didn’t know that it would just seem like it was for show. Time flies when you’re wondering or wandering, it flies faster when you’re doing both.

He recognizes her by the cross she’s wearing. Her head down and her hair out, last time the hair was tied up. She’s reading a book. So that’s what she does, he thinks, she shows up early and reads. His mind wanders back to the cross that hangs off her necklace. This is the only piece of jewelry she wears now. Through out the years she’s had rings on all fingers (at different times), earrings of all sorts, shiny watches, and even fancy hair-clips. And through the years they’ve all somehow managed to dissolve or disappear, leaving her with just the cross.

He walks towards her and she notices the walking stick approaching. She raises her head to make sure and then she stands up. Neither of them have changed much since the last time. He smiles, his lips part slightly as if he was going to say something, but then they join again. She smiles back. This is them saying hello.

Without skipping a beat they start walking. It’s unclear to either of them what their next stop will be, so they walk in a certain way that shows this condition. Shop and stand owners catch onto this very quickly, after all they make a living from people who’re just walking by. “Bhai sahaab, bhel puri?”, shouts one of them. “Chai paani, chai paani,” says another. She gives him a disapproving look, she remembers that they visited that stand last time. She wants to try and visit a different stand each time, adding a unique flavour to each meeting.

They settle on a stand. “Ji behenji?” asks the man behind the counter, waiting for an answer. She lifts her hand to say something, and feels raindrops on her fingers. She starts to lift her head up to take a look and notices from the corner of her eye a smile forming on his face. She searches for clouds, but the sky seems as if it has none. It’s all one big cloud, she thinks, covering the entire sky. Tilting her head back down she notices that he has his tongue sticking out and flat. Catching raindrops as they fall. She gives him a little nudge with her elbow, the tongue goes back in. “Bhai saab?” the man behind the counter tries to appeal to his sensibilities instead.

She points to the kettle, indicating that they want tea. “Okay, do cup chai,” says the man, pulling out two empty cups. She makes repeated tsk sounds, raises her hand with her index finger pointing up and in that same rising motion she opens and spreads all five fingers. “Acha, ek hi cup,” the man corrects himself. “Dood?” the man asks, and they both nod their heads from side to side. No milk. “Shakkar?” the man now wishing that they had made their own tea. She holds up two fingers. Two spoons. He holds up another, making it three. The sweeter the better, he thinks. She doesn’t object. He grabs the other empty cup, putting down the money to cover it (and a little extra) before the man behind the counter could raise concern, and starts to pour half the tea into the empty cup. He hands the second cup to her. They start to walk again, each a cup in hand with half a cup of tea.

They approach the big cross atop the large gates. The cross not too different from the one she’s wearing on her necklace. They all look the same, he thinks, as he sees dozens of crosses marking dozens of graves. This graveyard is decidedly a Christian graveyard. If the crosses didn’t give it away, the cleanliness would have. This one is far better kept than any of the Muslim or Hindu graveyards in this city. Still slowly taking sips from their cups, they slowly approach their intended spot. This grave isn’t marked like the others. Not marked by a cross, and not exactly a tombstone either. It’s somewhere between a tombstone and a rock. There’s nothing engraved on it. So empty and barren, he thinks, if only someone wrote a word. At the same time she ponders upon how strong and free it stands, just the way it is.

Their cups now hold half of what they originally held. They give each other a quick look, observe a quick moment of silence, then start to pour the remaining contents of the cup onto the grave. The symmetry is not exact, but it’s close enough. I wouldn’t ask them to do it again. They pour the tea till the last drops drop, then leave the cups on the rock. People do all sorts of things near a grave. Some shed tears, dropping tear drops. They, he and she, drop tea drops. Pouring a quarter cup each, but somehow making a whole. The math seems to make perfect sense in their minds. This is how some friends say hello, and this is how some friends say goodbye.

Time does fly when you’re wondering and wandering. He looks at her watch (those can’t be the original straps) and it’s almost time for the next train. She understands from the pattern of his eyes, that it’s time for him to go. They start heading back to the train station. On the way back, they pass by the man behind the counter, who smiles and waves at them. They respond in kind. He had already purchased the return ticket on the way here. There was nothing left, but to get on the train.

The train has already warmed up, he’s just in time to jump on. He forgets that he’s walking with her and starts to hurry towards the train. The limp in his step becomes evident, some of those who saw him earlier in the day now feel content. He doesn’t get too far from her, nor does he get too close to the train. She jogs up ahead of him, turns back and starts to encourage him by waving him in, like she was holding a flag near the finish line. Realizing the silliness of his speed and her air-flag waving they both burst into laughter. It really is time to go. He gets on the train, and the train starts to move. She smiles at him. He smiles back, his lips part slightly as if he was going to say something, then they join back. As the distance between them widens, they both wave to each other. This is them saying goodbye.

paani ki baarish

dor se jo dikti hai, woh choti si khwahish hai
mujh pe jo barasti hai, woh paani ki baarish hai

boondoon ke tapakne mei, yaadoon ka barasna hai
khoye hai khayaaloon mei, ab khudko sambhalna hai

intezaar mei baithain hai, kuch mushkil se guzarna hai
dum se khadum lete hai, apni manzil se milna hai

dheere se jo aati hai, woh choti si khwahish hai
chuke jo guzarjati hai, woh paani ki baarish hai

a fine balance

This must be the fifth novel I’ve read in as many years. I’m no judge of what a good novel is, I don’t read much into the themes, the imagery, the character flaws, I just mainly read the story and I also write a lot of run on sentences. So it’s mainly about the story and how I relate to the characters.

After having seen Pinjar, which is a fabulous film that you should watch, I’ve wanted to write a story/screenplay that was similar in nature. The movie starts off all happy, gets depressing, and then gets more depressing, and then when you think it couldn’t get more depressing, it gets more depressing. Generally stories or movies that do this are done very poorly, with poorly concocted and forced situations that don’t really fit into the plot. Pinjar did it all extremely well. I wanted to write something that was more in “our time”. Clearly I haven’t done this, I must have seen the movie back in 2004 sometime.

So then I start reading ‘A Fine Balance’, Oprah book club sticker and all. I wonder why that bothers people so much. Is Oprah not allowed to like a good book?

‘A Fine Balance’, between hope and despair, it said. Although I’m a bit lost here, it seems the main characters experience hope in bursts and despair in continuity. Even the cursory characters go through similar despair: Monkey-man, the rent collecter, Avinash, etc. Maybe the balancing factor is that Rajaram finally figured his true-calling as Bal Baba, Vishram becomes a large restaurant. And that Ruby finally gets to use her club membership, can’t let that money go to waste.

I got to about page 610 and thought to myself, “Yeah, I could write a more depressing story than this”. Then around page 650 I conceded, “Mistry, you win. I can’t write a story more depressing than this”. This was around the time Ashraf Chacha dies, Om gets castrated and Ishvar loses his legs.

I loved the book, it’s the type of story I like to read. There are moments in the book where your eyes want to turn the pages faster than your fingers can. I had similar moments when reading The Kite Runner. But in the Kite Runner certain portions had too much detail or what I like to call “paper real estate”. While similar situations in A Fine Balance took up less real state, leaving your imagination to fill the gaps. For instance, the fight between Assef and Amir lasts forever (the Kite Runner), while the execution of Narayan happens fairly swiftly (A Fine Balance).

But in The Kite Runner you have instances like Amir meeting a beggar in Afghanistan that happened to have worked with his mother (what a coincidence), and then shortly thereafter discovers that the Taliban person who has Hassan’s son is Assef (what a coincidence!). While the coincidences in A Fine Balance seem more natural; Dina running into Vasantrao Valmik at the court house and then later Maneck running into him again while he’s Bal Baba’s assistance. I liked the Kite Runner too, I enjoyed reading it, all the coincidences aside, the way the book was written was something else.

At some point through the story (A Fine Balance) I thought this was Om’s story. Because so much happens around his character and the stories of Dukhi, Narayan and Ishvar all lead up to Om. But he doesn’t get too much ‘real estate’ toward the end of the book. Dina’s character goes through massive transformations all through out the book, and I’m not sure what to make of Maneck yet. There is a balance in real estate amongst the main characters. Some die and the others find no particular reason to, so they live.

In the Kite Runner I had a particular favourite moment, where Hassan’s son (during the fight mentioned earlier) holds up his sling shot aimed at Assef’s eye. As if the whole thing was written and setup for that one moment. I don’t know if I have any such moments in A Fine Balance. What I connect with in A Fine Balance other than moments are the items. Like the name plate, the violin, the umbrella, the Singers, the chess set, Shankar’s ghaadi, the lawyer’s pens, etc (note that I purposely left out the patched quilt). But if I had to pick a moment, it would be when Ashraf Chacha’s board is modified to “Krishna Tailors” and the mob comes to effectively burn the place and Ishvar and Narayan are made to pull down their pants to prove they’re not Muslim.

I really liked how the story is woven together (like the quilt!). The items mentioned before and how their stories are revealed along with the characters. We see the name plate early on in the book, and then learn about how it came to be later on in a flash back type section in the book. The story keeps on weaving itself in this manner as past and present come together to make some sort of sense. Kind of like when you pull up a zipper and the parts lock themselves making a whole.

I would like to end by talking about the size of this book. This book is huge! Over 700 pages. I think my wrist is stronger now.

In either case, what this book needs is an “Adnan’s Book Club” sticker.

phir se maghrib

This is the third time a rendition of this (written or spoken) has been posted here. Initially it was just [two lines]. Mystic commented saying “puri ghazal karo”, and added lines of his own. Then at some point I added [more lines]. And now it continues to morph, yet the words the same.

[direct audio link]

And now the next one, I post hesitantly and with slight caution, because this is not something I do. All I will say is, yes I know it’s scary, but please be kind.

[direct audio link]

Though, I would like to hear it from someone who can do it better.