That Magical Time of the Year

Its Eid today; that wonderful celebration where we round off a month of fasting by a day (or three) of feasting. It might just be my favorite day of the year: you fast every day for a month, from sun up to sunset, getting as close to God as humanly possible. More to the point, you get as close to humanity as humanly possible in this age of borders and divides. Those magnificent citadels we build, of wealth and possessions, are torn down with every passing hour, and by the time the sun sets, your walls have fallen down. And despite the racial and financial inequality that defines our world, and the sense of entitlement that defines our generation, in those precious moments of changing light, we are one of many. One with many.

If like many, you fail to understand the majesty and importance of organized religion, come to Pakistan in Ramazan. Never is it more beautiful than in the scorching days of summer Ramazan, and never will you get a truer idea of my people. Sure, there’s the stench of morning breath all the livelong day, the ferocious road rage of hungry fathers, and the righteous indignation of old women staring you down as you eat in public. But there is plenty of magic to make up for the misery. There’s being woken up at the crack of dawn by your brother flicking your nose, asking solicitously, ‘Did you want me to wake you up?’ There’s being told off by the cook as you try to get away with eating just a piece of toast for breakfast. There’s your father, waking up at 4 purely to force feed you parathas even though he isn’t going to fast himself. Mine is a staunch believer in self indulgence, who feels that God surely loves him far too much to expect him to go hungry. His sizeable body is his personal temple, through which he glorifies God and His many blessings (such as the aforementioned parathas).

As the sun sets, the final spell is cast. There are people standing out on the traffic lights, offering food to faster’s stuck in the evening traffic. There is the promise of meeting family and friends every evening as they gather around the table to break fasts with you. There are tables groaning with food, and my mother’s brilliant smile as her twenty somethings tuck into childhood classics like icecream sodas and fritters with childlike abandon. And, last but by no means the least, there are dinners outdoors, maybe at a rooftop restaurant in the walled city of Lahore, looking over the magnificent Badshaahi Masjid.

Then there’s my personal little brand of magic. Ever since I started fasting, I also started appreciating how excessive my lifestyle was. Not because Pakistani food is particularly expensive to make, its probably the single cuisine that gives the most flavor and indulgence for the cheapest of ingredients. It was more a slow realization that even if we could easily afford them, having twelve dishes on the dinner table every night was not necessary. So every time its just me and my mom for Iftar, we skip the sunset feast and just have dinner instead. Or at least we intend to. But every single time we try to go without, food appears, almost magically, on our table. There’s a longstanding tradition you see, of sending delicacies over to your neighbors just before sunset, so they too can sample some of your feast while breaking their fast. And regardless of how stingy our neighbors may be on normal days (every time we go over with lemons that have fallen off their tree into our yard, they always accept them, instead of turning them away solicitously and telling us to keep them), they always send over food on the days we don’t cook ourselves. Now whether God showers them with bitter lemons to inspire this sudden outpouring of neighbourly feeling I will never know, and I don’t want to know either. Its my personal little brand of magic.

I used to have quite a lot of personal magic. I’ve gone through life feeling it was happening for me, not to me. And I’m not even talking about the big things, like winning the mom lottery, or being born in Lahore, or getting into Cambridge, or being 5 foot 8. Its the little things that made me feel noticed. Loved by the big man upstairs. Case in point: as a child, everytime I would say out loud that I did not want an aunt to visit, they would always call and cancel. Sure, my father believes that’s more of me having a black tongue as opposed to being God’s favorite, but anyone who’s met his sisters will agree it was truly a blessing to be spared another heart-to-heart. Everytime I hummed a song, it would come on the radio. Everytime I wanted to eat something particular, my mom would end up maing it for dinner before I even asked. I wanted an incredible education, and Cambridge advertised a scholarship. I wanted a PhD, and three appeared. Everytime I went shopping, I would always find something I loved. Now that last one is another instance of where my blessings are my father’s misfortune, but hey. Life’s not fair.

A year ago, the balance started shifting. My wishes started getting denied, in the most spectacular of fashions. If I wanted to eat somewhere, the restaurant would close. I looked forward to a concert, and it rained the day of. I accepted a PhD, and the visa regulations changed. Life became decidedly less rosy. Less magical. And I wasn’t worried about the music or the takeout, I was worried because I felt the big guy upstairs was angry at me. There’s a couplet in the scripture which, loosely translated, reads, ‘We have put a wall in front of them, and a wall behind them, and a veil over their eyes. And we have left them.’ That’s what I felt like. Abandoned, alone, running into walls. Not just blind, but also invisible. I had been left.

That thought scared me more than any thwarted dream. Luckily though, I had a plan to deal with this. A plan to remember how very blessed I was even on my worst days. And here is my advice for dealing with life: Count. Literally count your blessings. And thats what I have done this last year. I count. On my fingers. Parents, family, eyesight, speech, legs, hands, a brain that hasn’t failed me yet. On most days, by the time you get to six blessings, all your problems feel pretty meaningless. On the worst days, count all the way upto ten. As long as you have two handfuls of blessings, you can deal with whatever shit hits the fan.

The last year has involved more counting than I care for, far too many days when I had to remind myself of the good stuff to deal with the bad. But still, I had more than enough blessings to count. Two handfuls of magic. And this last week, I have been getting some of the old, lost magic back. It started off with my songs playing on the radio again. We went to Tatton Park for the garden show, and as if the ridiculously beautiful displays weren’t enough, the Brazilian band playing the closing ceremony asked the young lady with the long hair to stand and wave to the crowd. That was me, fyi. Apparently I look exactly like their manager, and so I got a song dedicated to me, and fifteen seconds of fame, no matter how fleeting and undeserved. Last night, we went to Manchester for dinner, thinking that my first Eid away from home would be on a Tuesday when we couldn’t go out of the city, so we might as well celebrate two days early. When we got to Manchester though, the Eid moon was sighted, so we ended up being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time as Eid festivities broke out around us.
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Finally, today we were in Morrisons, torturing ourselves by looking at all the microwave Indian meals we couldn’t buy. ‘Mumtaz’s chicken curry. Why couldn’t Mumtaz use halal chicken?’ I joked, pulling a long face as I turned over the packet in my hands. And would you believe it, there was a small sign on the front of the box. ‘Made from Halal chicken.’ Now, its not as blantantly magical as the doorbell ringing at sunset in Ramazan, but I’ll take it!

It’s my favorite month of the year, when the whole world seems as magical as life is. Its my favorite day of the year, where I feel like God sees me. And if you feel like no one sees you, might I suggest making a list? Count to ten. Six will do on most days, but ten on the worst. And given some time, a year in my case, you might get your mojo back! And on this most magical of days, here’s that most magical of phrases: Eid Mubarak!

 

Cookies and kooks

Do you bake? Sorry, couldn’t catch that. Oh well, I’ll just assume you said yes.

I bake. Avidly. Not because I’m particularly fond of sweets; ironically enough,the most effective way of giving up frosting is actually making a batch yourself. Once you measure out 200 grams of butter, there is no going back.

I bake because it is as close as I can get to experimental science these days. There is a protocol and parameters, there are reactions and results, there are even control batches! And turns out science is pretty good training for following a recipe; maybe that’s why Cambridge undergraduates tend to bond over the Great British Bakeoff, and not Attenborough documentaries. But I digress. I was talking about baking.

Lately I have realized my favorite part of baking actually comes after the science; once the instructions have been read and the recipe has been followed. The madness after the method if you will. Those last fifteen minutes, when even the most reliable of recipe writers bows down to the inevitable uncertainty of life, and asks you to use your discretion. ‘Bake for about 25 minutes’. ‘Bake until the centre of the cookie remains soft, but firm to the touch’. Or, my personal favorite, ‘Bake until the base of the cookies just starts to turn golden.’ About 25? How firm is firm if it is also soft? And how on earth am I supposed to see the base of the cookie while its still baking????

And yet that is what I love the most about baking. The stressful, nail biting, last fifteen minutes of madness. When I am hankered down on the kitchen floor, peering into the oven through the glass, swatting at everyone with my tea towel as I try to spot the exact moment between done and over done. Because nothing, and I repeat, nothing, is worse than a burnt cookie. Its not just that its bitter and awful, its disappointing. Here is something that had all the possibility in the world, the potential to be the very essence of edible happiness, but instead its just a mess. A waste. A burnt cookie. I mean, a burnt casserole is acceptable. It wouldn’t achieve much by being perfect anyway. A burnt cookie, however, is just plain tragic.

I must confess though, there is an ulterior motive in my obsessive cookie-watch-dogging. I don’t want to be a burnt cookie either. And in that tiny part of my soul that still bleeds lavender, and urges me to wish on eyelashes and pick up pennies for good luck, I believe that if I watch out for the cookies, someone out there will watch out for me. Someone who will take me out of this fire before my center is hard as stone. When I am firm, but still gooey in the middle.

I don’t resent being in this oven. Far from it. I was hopelessly naive a year ago; I believed in people far too much. More importantly, I believed in reciprocal relationships, a concept I now know is immortalized in print so much because it does not exist outside books anymore. A year ago, I had two job offers, one for the summer and one for the fall. I turned down the summer job, because I would leave in fall anyway and I did not want to inconvenience them. I knew how hard it was to find a job, and I wasn’t going to try and grab an unfair opportunity when I could pass it on to someone else. It felt like the only right thing to do.

Turns out, there could not have been a worse decision. I let go of one job opportunity, got completely screwed over by the other company, who literally forgot about the undergrad whose visa papers they were supposed to file. A year later, and still jobless, I have taken that truckload of optimism I had and left it on the high road. Because when everyone else is on the highway to hell, there is no point in travelling on alone.

If I had the chance, I would do things differently now, because I am different. I am harder around the edges, firm to the touch. My soul isn’t lavender anymore, I threw away my lucky pencil, I don’t sing in the shower. But I am still, just about, gooey in the middle. I still love Wilde, and tuck fallen flowers in my braid, and I still make wishes on eyelashes. And I think that’s acceptable. I think I’m just about done. I hope someone’s watching through the glass. I hope someone turns off this infernal heat. And soon. Nothing worse than a burnt cookie.

 

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/07/14/now-later/Be+Soft+Quote