| You scored as Paganism. Your beliefs are most closely aligned with those of paganism, Wicca, or a similar earth-based religion. You may also follow a Native American religion.|
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Wednesday, July 20, 2005
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
That, according to the piece of paper I held in my hand, was the house. It was one of those two or three bedroom affairs, from the looks of it, with the tiny garden by the entrance, just to give you that sense of luxury. As the evening drew in it looked almost intimate, and I rang the bell.
Mrs.Ahmed came out to greet me, dressed in a neat plain green shalwar kameez, her hair tied tightly in a modest bun behind her head. Her nails were painted a particularly haunting shade of crimson, and her lips a deeper, fuller red. They were curled upwards, now, in an earnest smile as she showed me inside her house.
We sat in the veranda, a smallish room, decorated in that style of so many houses you'll find in the subcontinent: full to the brim with knick-knacks, with every available surface covered by a decorative object of some kind. The walls were a tasteful subdued off white, and the fluorescent tube light flickered incessantly for microseconds at a time. I was so involved in memorizing the little details of the room, a habit I picked up when I was a boy, that I almost missed that she was talking to me - inviting me to sit down, as it would happen.
Presently she left the room for a moment, and re-entered followed by two young children, the real reason I was there on this balmy, sweltering July evening. She introduced me to them. Adil could not have been more than thirteen, but his eyes shone with that particular light that only the young possess. You lose it earlier and earlier in this age, it would seem, but I could tell the boy was not the kind to waste too much of his childhood sitting in one place. He had straight, jet black hair, which fell on eyes in a way which forced him to constantly flick it with an airy, almost confident wave of his right hand. He wore corduroy pants and a plain, blue shirt which made him look older than he really was. His sister Aaliyah was younger, eight or nine perhaps, and was dressed in the kind of frilly white dress mothers seem to dress their children in solely for the sake of taking photographs and blackmailing them with at some later date.
When she introduced me as a friend of their fathers, the boy's eyes almost visibly lit up. Aaliyah, for some reason, had not stopped staring at me since she entered the room, and she continued to do so now, though there was now almost a quizical look to her features. It's not surprising. She hardly knew her father.
After exchanging the usual 'And how old are you?', 'Which class are you in?', 'What do you enjoy doing?' question-answer pairs that have almost become a part of our cultural subconscious, we entered the dining room for dinner.
Over karahi and bhujia we discussed the politics of the day, the weather, the need we felt for social change, the price of tomatoes, and, of course, the cricket team's current form. Conversation stretched well past the end of the meal, and Adil showed every sign that he was capable of coming up with at least twelve different better ways he could be spending his time. His sister, too, appeared to be nodding off every now and then. That was when Mrs. Ahmed, "Sharmeen...call me Sharmeen.", she kept saying, suggested we move back to the veranda and have some tea.
The children sat down together on an old weatherbeaten brown couch, while I was given the seat of honour: a white sofa chair, covered in plastic to preserve it's colour. I heard the kettle begin to shriek, and a few moments later Mrs.Ahmed returned to join us with the tea and some biscuits on a plain wooden tray, with engraved handles. After serving me, she sat down with her children, and we lapsed into the silence which follows any good meal.
"Would you children like to hear a story?" I asked. Adil nodded noncommittally, but Aaliyah's face seemed to brighten at the prospect. "It's about your father," I added, hoping to get engage Adil's enthusiasm. It seemed to work, for he immediately flicked the hair out of his eyes, and looked at me with those bright shining eyes.
"Did you know Abu well?" he asked, his voice eager.
"Oh, very well. We served in the same company in the war. Actually," and here I raised my hand to shield my lips from Mrs.Ahmed's view, as if telling the boy a secret, "that's the reason your mother called me here this evening. To help you children to better get to know your father."
He nodded, knowingly.
"Alright, then. Are you kids ready for a story, then?"
They both nodded eagerly, leaning forward. Even Mrs.Ahmed seemed taken in the moment, smiling a quiet little smile to herself.
"I first met him when he joined our company, it must have been two years ago. He had short, straight brown hair. Alot like yours, actually, Adil. Back then he perpetually had this innocent look on his face, as if he'd just gotten out of school. Come to think of it, he never really lost it, even after all the things we had seen.
"Anyhow, he joined us just before we were due to move out of another temporary HQ, on the front. At the time I didn't give him a second look, for we were all busy getting ready to go into battle and, understandably, had other things on our mind. He made it a point to introduce himself to everyone, though. He just smiled and went up to each one of us, thrust forward his hand and said 'Hello, my name is Ahmed Talal.', as if he was going to try and sell them something. You just couldn't say no to that smile. He was so serene, even with all the destruction around us.
"That was the first time I saw him, and I remember thinking that that smile wouldn't last. That it couldn't, not with everything that I had already seen, and was sure that he would see. I was wrong though. Your father - he was an amazing man. No matter where we were, no matter how bad things got, you always knew you could turn to Ahmed, and he'd flash you a smile and tell you a joke, he'd give you faith. There were times when I was sure I was going to die. I had certainty, and I had lost hope. But every time that happened, Ahmed would notice that particular look in my eye, and he'd crawl up to me (we were in foxholes most of the time) and tell me that everything was going to be alright. He'd tell me about you children, alot. He'd tell me how he had to get back, just to see your faces again. And he told me that he wasn't going to go back without me, so I'd
just have stay alive. Then he'd crack a joke about our C/O, a swarthy drunken old colonel from the cavalary days, who insisted we march into battle in single file, rifles raised vertically. He kept saying it was the way war was supposed to be conducted. Conducted! As if this was some sort of chess game.
"Come to think of it, it was. To the generals, anyway. Your father and I would spend long nights awake in the trenches, cursing the names of every general we knew. We'd swear that we'd go back to HQ and slaughter them all: Tanvir, Khalil, Arbab - the whole lot. We came up with amazing plans to do it, too. He was always one for the complicated plan. Tanvir, we knew, never missed his nightly drink. He'd get his orderly to mix it in the kitchen of the Mess hall, after everyone else had left, and bring it to his tent. We decided that one day we'd grab the orderly, stuff a sock in his mouth and tie him up. Then he'd wear his uniform (I was too big), and go straight into General Tanvir's tent and hold a gun to his head until he signed our discharge papers.
"He never did it, though. His sense of duty to his country was too great. Fighting the war, to him, was a trust. It was a trust given to him by the people of his country, and by his children. Often he'd say 'If I don't fight to protect them, then who will?'. And that was that, really. It was simple enough: he wasn't fighting to save his own life.
"He kept a picture of the two of you with him all the time. He had it in his front left pocket, and he'd stare at you kids for hours when we were supposed to be sleeping, recharging for our next assualt. I caught him crying while he stared, one day. I asked him why.
" 'Who'll take care of them if I don't make it, Ali? I'm too scared to fight, but I'm too scared not to. I have to protect them, but I have to be there for them when they call.' I put my arm around him, then, and consoled him, telling him that he would make it. And I believed it, I really did. He was a fine soldier, but more than that, I had faith that God wouldn't let a man as good as that die in vain."
Here I paused, and took a sip of my tea. I dipped a biscuit in, and then continued.
"He was a fine man. You may not believe it, but I grieve for him everyday. People like him are few, and far between. I lost count of the number of times he saved my life. In trenches you entrust your life to man beside you, and there was no-one I would rather have with me in those muddy, wet, bug-infested trenches than Ahmed."
I had to pause there, and take another sip of my tea. Going over the war was never my cup of tea (pun unintended), and this was taking alot out of me. To tell you the truth the only reason I agreed to meet with Mrs.Ahmed was when she told me that her children knew too little of their father. This was as much a duty as reporting to the base the next morning at 0630.
"I remember one time, we had been in a particular trench, up near the front line, for a week straight. Our orders were to hold the line until the tank division which was supposed to back us up arrived. We were running low on food, supplies, and more importantly ammo. The enemy had us more or less surrounded, and the only way any of us thought we were getting out alive was to retreat. Our orders stood, though. So we sat there, sitting ducks, waiting for the enemy's patience to run out and to storm us.
"It was awful. I'm not going to get into the details about how we had no place to goto the bathroom, how the trenches began to stink, and the dead began to smell.
"In the midst of all of that, I can still see your father's face, sitting there smiling his little smile. One day my patience ran out, and I snapped at him to wipe that smirk off his face, before I wiped it off for him. He didn't reply. I went right up to his face and yelled at him 'Why in the hell are you smiling like that?!'. He just looked at me, and said 'What else is there to do?' And it was true...it was perfectly true. Your father saw life like no other man I know: to him there was never any conceivable reason to allow it to get to you, because he never saw the point of getting himself down."
"I can still see his mud-spattered face, calmly telling me that there really was not point getting myself down, no matter how bad things were, so why didn't I just lighten up and play some cards with him.
"Later that same day, one of our friends got shot in the chest trying to make his way across a stretch of no-mans-land getting from one trench to another. He lay there, in the mud, bleeding all over himself. We daren't go retrieve his body, for we knew we'd get shot to pieces before we ever got to him.
"Ahmed, though - Ahmed was different. He got that look in his eyes, smiled, said 'Oh what the hell, you only live once,' and bounded off to go get him. To this day I have no idea how he got out alive. God must have been watching over him that day, because he came back with not a scratch on him, scrambling like a madman with a body on his back. And do you know what he said when he got back to the safety of the trench?"
Adil and Aaliyah both nodded their heads from side to side, as one.
"He just shrugged, and said 'Piece of cake.'"
They all laughed, all three of them. It was worth it, that whole story, just to see that family laugh as one. I got the feeling they hadn't done that for a long, long time.
"And now, my dears, I believe it's time to sleep. Your mother knows how to find me if you ever want any more stories about your father."
They each looked to their mother, who nodded her agreement, and got up off the couch. Slowly, hesitantly, they came up to me. I bent down, and they both gave me a hug, patted their heads and turned to Mrs. Ahmed. Thanking her for a wonderful evening, I made my way to the door.
The door clanging shut echoed down the street, as night drew in. They looked happy, I was glad I was able to do that for them. The truth was that their father was a gambler, an alcoholic and an incurable womanizer. He hadn't had many friends in the company, and he'd died when he disobeyed orders and broke the line to flee from a particularly hairy firefight. His story was mine.
Monday, July 11, 2005
it's a city of light, but not the kind you'd think. it's the sun setting on the beach, seen over the rim of a steaming cup of chai. its the baking heat, inside of your car, parked out in the sun all day. you want to melt into the synthetic leather, to just boil away until you're free, finally, from the banality of concrete form.
sunday bazaar, halwa puri, driving to nowhere in particular, in a car no-one else would love, with people who'd think they're incapable.
remove yourself, if you will, from your clock-in-clock-out routine, from your eight in the morning stare at a dishevelled stranger in the mirror, from your last few seconds of breath drawn while standing on a trapdoor you're so sure is going to be pulled out from beneath you, from your lonely silent stare across the rooftops, from your alone-in-a-crowded-room selfcondemned sentence, from your breathless run to the end of escape, and see the light.