Showing posts from 2012

Puzzle Project VII: Fast and Furious

December 12
Jibran would always finish the math assignments really fast, toss it our way and then proceed to dance around the room, poking and prodding the other children who were still trying to finish their work. He was five years old when I first started volunteering at the SOS Village, and over the next couple of years I learned that he was the sort of little boy I needed to give two math worksheets while most other kids got one, he was the one I had to get on my side to help hand out sweets so that he wouldn’t wreak havoc running around, grabbing as much candy as would fit in his tiny palms.
I started volunteering at the SOS Village in Lahore in my freshman year, which also happened to be the year the terrible earthquake struck across Pakistan, devastating individual lives and entire communities. A few families sought help with the SOS Village – children who had lost either both or one parent were sent through a series of SOS locations, till finally they came to rest in Lahore. No…

Puzzle Project VI: A Pick-Up

December 2
When I saw Mai Sakina’s face peering down at me from behind green bushes, I thought she was an angel. A wrinkly, kind-faced angel with few teeth but a lot of white wispy hair, streaked with the orange of henna. “Where did you come from?” she was surprised and amused to see me standing there on a wide edge of the mountain, sharing the space with a couple of sturdy goats. “I’m doing a survey,” I explained lamely. “And I kind of got lost. I’m not sure how to get up to where you are!”
I was in a beautiful, isolated village on the side of a mountain in Balakot, in northern Pakistan. We were conducting surveys to assess earthquake relief efforts, around three years after the devastation that occurred in 2005. Houses – or huts or shelters – sprouted out of the ground like they were a natural part of the environment, there were around 5 to 10 homes in one cluster and these clusters went all over and around the mountain. My trekking partner had conveniently parted ways when he came a…

Puzzle Project V: Bagels and Cream Cheese

November 20
Karim is the quietest server/cook I have ever seen. He works at one of my favorite cafés in Karachi. It is a small, quiet place on the second floor, brightly lit because of all the yellow lights and the kaleidoscopic mural on one wall. It is the only place in the city (that I have frequented), which has that casual ‘anyone can come to this place and hang out’ appeal to it. I know a lot of places strive for the ambience that attracts readers, writers, students that need a place to study, or students that need to get away from studying and watch an episode of House on their laptop, but not many achieve it.
I love the place because it has books to pick up and browse, the most battered Scrabbles board ever, a guitar that almost every new comer will pick up and dream for two seconds about how cool they would be if they could actually play, and bagels and cream cheese. And iced tea. And a tiny balcony that has a fan so even on the hottest day you can sit out and stare at the nico…

Puzzle Project IV: Rising Higher

November 13
Azhar was one of those boys in college who I never remembered seeing till I went on a college ice climbing trip with him. After that I saw him around campus all the time. One of the first conversations I had with him was in a large tent full of several college students who were sitting huddled close together for survival.
Okay, so that is stretching it, but within acceptable means of stretching. It was terribly cold and we were not able to make a bonfire that night. The temperature was below freezing. It was cold enough to sit back to back with a stranger just for body warmth and then make awkward small talk.
So, I don’t remember exactly what we talked about…cities and ethnicities, music and pop culture… Azhar was not quite in tune with the music I remember growing up to (Junaid Jamhed, Junoon, really? Vital Signs? Nothing?). He was always the one – him and that very smiley Austrian exchange student – several yards ahead of the rest of the group on all the treks and walks. I…

Puzzle Project III: Cultivating a Love for Birds

November 7
Mrs. K came back for her country. She spent more than 20 years in England, studying English Literature at Oxford, but she came back, back to a city of imperfection. I never really asked her why, but I bet it was because she missed it.
The curriculum was less than challenging but she was brilliant, smart, and knowledgeable, and very encouraging. She would stand in the drafty room with its wooden chairs, colorless walls and write sparsely in eloquent cursive. Her writing matched her mellow voice perfectly, and she would talk about the greatest novels in the world, the flawed characters in stories and ask us to think and capture our thoughts in words. No wonder I liked her. I like most of my English Lit. teachers, and not to brag and all, but they all loved me.
Mrs. K was tall, thin, and birdlike, and of course she wore glasses. What self-respecting English professor doesn’t wear glasses? If she had ever met J.K. Rowling, she would have made it into the Harry Potter series. Defi…

Puzzle Project II: For the Sake of Security

November 3
Atta Muhammad was always a sight for sore eyes. If Santa Claus was a Pakthun man, he would look just like Atta Muhammad, big, somewhat round, friendly, with a bushy beard and twinkly eyes, and a face that I have to describe as jovial. There aren’t many times I use that word, but this is one of those moments.
He was (probably still is) a private guard, employed by around six houses on my street for the sake of security. I wonder how secure we really are, considering guards like Atta Muhammad are hired by private companies, underpaid, and seldom given any training. In fact, in many cases they are not even allowed to use the guns they carry, casually slung over their shoulders, or when sitting down, laid across their laps. Families like mine pay about Rs12,000 to the company and the guard gets barely Rs4,000. He sends more than half to his family who still lives in their small village in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Atta Muhammad has a wife, and two teenage sons he will talk about if pr…

Cracks and Cement

October 24
When I sit on the door step of my little balcony, I sometimes feel like a baby giraffe because my legs seem too long and gangly, my knees too knobby. The step is like my meditation spot. It is not particularly comfortable but usually when I am perched there it is quiet, and peaceful. It overlooks the alley and yes, there are the dark green dumpsters but there are also a lot of trees, tall, short, round, full.
As Fall slowly packs up to leave, the bright yellows and reds are darkening to a rustier orange, more moldy brownish, and the wind has been flying around crazily, shaking the boughs and branches, making the leaves fall. There are two trees that I am likely to notice when I first look up from my knobby knees – one is sturdy with many branches and these days alive with tiny bright yellow leaves, the other is really tall and all his leaves are gone, its branches are skinny and bare. Today was the kind of day my eyes settled on the sad tall tree.
The other day I was sittin…

Puzzle Project 1: The Coffee Lady

October 22
It was a really small office, and as befits a research nonprofit organization, it was located in a residential area in Karachi, had ugly, beige walls, old computers and unflattering white tube-light. I usually sat by myself in a room away from the other staff, entering data about important social issues. I have to admit, I wouldn’t have scored very high on a job satisfaction survey.
I must have seen the chotta (who often is not a small boy as the nickname indicates but in fact a grown-up individual) bringing in a tray of cups that had something very creamy and frothy – not tea. What’s that? I asked him as he passed me by and he told me it was coffee for “sahib jee”. Interesting. Could I have some too? Sure, and some minutes later I had my own cup of sweet but strong milky coffee with enough froth to make a mustache.
One day I decided to go up to the kitchen to ask for coffee myself, probably because chotta was too busy or on leave. The kitchen was on the second floor, in the …

Parts of the Puzzle Project

October 21
I like where I am right now. St Louis is an explosion of bright colors, its streets are easels and god is spilling red, yellow, orange and green all over the place. Some parts of the city are so beautiful it really takes my breath away. Sidewalks are permanently covered in dry, crunchy leaves, a child’s paradise, better than any trampoline I think! The weather doesn’t really remember if it is summer or winter and every now and then we get a day warm enough to wear t-shirts.
And as much as I hate dreary days now, sometimes a cloudy, overcast sky just makes the fall colors stand out even more, it’s kind of like the trees are playing Holi!
Anyways, so its mid-semester and I seem to have gotten the hang of homework, work-work and house-work. I still stress out about crumbs, but less so about group projects that loom around the corner, despite all telltale signs suggesting people are not going to be quite the go-getter types that one would want to have in one’s group. I’ve gone …

Snapshots I

October 6
I remember the exact moment when I became an addict. I was sitting by a wide window overlooking trees newly painted by the season. It was Fall because leaves had taken up new disguises, bright orange like pumpkins that sat on doorsteps of overzealous families weeks before Halloween, and dark red like the color of bricks that burn in kilns on the outskirts of Lahore, and new yellow, like the crayon little kids use to color in their suns. The sharp gray outline of the house next door cut off the scene abruptly. The smell of spiced caramel hung in the air – candles burnt low in their glass houses.
The wind was too cold for a day in early Fall and I couldn’t tell the smoke from my breath. It was deathly quiet save for the faint strains of a piano. My mind was at peace, and my heart beat slowly, serene and regular in its rhythm. My hands were cold because I had the window open, and when I inhaled, the end of the cigarette lit up like a firefly had come to rest on it, I inhaled and…


September 18
Songs can be like pale helium balloons, that float by silently and if want, you can reach out, grab a hold and then float into the past. Float into a memory like walking through a curtain of shimmery air, where my past exists in holograms, images projected onto white surfaces.
If I traded it all, if I gave it all away For one thing, just for one thing…
I close my eyes, and the less-than-literary Game of Thrones, and lean back on the plaid sofa. The song reminds me of a walk around campus, with headphones plugged in my ears and nostalgia tearing up my eyes even then – the last few weeks of college and something about the wistfulness of that song that made me think of how much I was going to miss it. I remember feeling the weight of an end, how heavy a book feels when it ends and each chapter meant so much to you, and I remember thinking to myself, I’m going to miss this so much, and I open my eyes to a dim evening three years later. And I do, I miss it so much.
The smell of t…

The Struggle for/of Humanity

September 20
When people ask me why I want to be a social worker I never know how to reply without sounding like a righteous Mother Teresa wanna-be. I want to make a difference, I think, I wantto serve humanity, alleviate poverty, eradicate illiteracy, make a few people happier by making their living conditions better. “I just enjoy it, I guess I’ve always wanted to work in the nonprofit area,” I usually mumble and smile dumbly.
And then things happen that crush my faith and shove me off the cliff of self-confidence and determination. When I look at the pictures of burning flags and buildings, fists in the air, mindless fury erasing all boundaries, all virtues and values of tolerance and patience and peace and love, when I look at how cities shut down and people destroy in the name of justice, in the name of love… when I look at how a government fails to stand up for rationality and bows down to mob behavior by announcing a holiday to signify something that shouldn’t need a special da…

Almost OCD

September 11
‘Almost’ is one of the most disappointing words in the English language. Very few sentences that carry ‘almost’ can be uplifting. Almost all of them call for a sympathetic ‘oohhhhh’ (haha, I am so clever.). You’re almost beautiful. You almost made my day. We almost wanted to wait for you before we finished the chocolate cake, we almost did wait… I almost married you – though in that case it might be a positive.
I have almost OCD, which means that it isn’t so cool that I could write a book about the intricacies of my mental order. I’m not so meticulous that I would fascinate people or make their eyes go wide because I need my toothbrush to face a certain way in its blue plastic home. I don’t measure the distance between my spoon and fork with a measuring tape every time I sit down to dinner, nor do I really mind crooked photographs in scrapbooks – as long as they’re artfully and mostly purposefully crooked.
I’m more of the housewife OCD variety – I have to puff up cushions…

Holding My Own Strings

September 8
Sometimes the universe seems to be a giant puzzle in the making and you stand above an empty, gaping space for hours, quite positive that you will never find the missing piece because the vacuum cleaner ate it up and it is now slowly disintegrating at a large dumpsite with sad, discarded heaps of stuff. And then, one day, suddenly, it appears and falls in smoothly, like it was meant to.
The other day we were waiting for one of my roommates to come back from work so we could go to the Hispanic Festival, and when she finally came back, she told us she needed to cook… and just then we heard metal trays clanging in the heavens, a giant hand moved curtains of leaves aside, sweeping them across the sky, and soon the sound of rain surrounded us, gaining momentum, joined by the sharp, hard knocks of hail. “I’m glad we had to wait for you,” I told my roommate as we all rushed to the backdoor in the kitchen and peeked out, venturing into the covered patio, feeling the cold rush of ai…