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.

 

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As the youngest in a family of six imaginative people with no creative outlets, there has been no dearth of nicknames in my life. And while most are much too embarrassing to be committed even to virtual paper, my favorite by far is the communal nickname my mother has for all her children (don’t judge, the woman deserves a shortcut or two, and I would rather she saved time on nicknames than on dinner). She calls us all ‘chooza,’ literally a little chick. It seems adorable, but here is where Freud comes in: my mother is terrified of all animals. Tigers, cats, puppies, sparrows, you name it, she’s shrieked at it. She is even afraid of chicks; I should know, I have witnessed the pandemonium when my brother snuck into the kitchen cradling a tiny, fluffy creature in his hands. To her credit, she didn’t toss it into the saucepan as a reflex, she actually let us keep it as a pet, but that might just be because she was too terrified to handle it. Which turns out to be a pretty accurate representation of our relationship with our mother: we all seem cute and harmless and adorable, and she keeps us in her house and feeds us and looks after us, but we scare the living daylights out of her. And no one will ever know that. She can’t talk about it to her friends, it sounds irrational and unreasonable, a mother terrified of her offspring, but then again who ever said there is any reason and rationale to a mother’s feelings for her chickadees?

The best thing about being the littlest of the crazy chicklets is feeling perpetually young. And while that constant-child phenomenon tends to be irritating when you’re shepherded out of the lounge in the middle of Titanic,, it is far more welcome once you move past the era of frequent milestones (16,18,21) and into the decade of no celebrations. Well, its not exactly a decade, but the fact remains that the Hallmark elves will not waste any more of their time on making an age-specific card for me until I hit 30, at which point the said card will be more a gentle reminder of incumbent middle age as opposed to a rambunctious celebration of youth.

And so, on my 22nd birthday, I decided I needed one last night of feeling young and alive before I was firmly entrenched in my afterglow years. It was in keeping with tradition: all my birthday celebrations so far have been impossibly sophisticated and elegant for a teenager. It was only fitting that this year too should be kicked off in a spectacular fashion, by not acting my own age yet again. Only this time, instead of being the youngest at the opera, I was nearly the oldest at my very first Katy Perry concert!

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Now I could try and be caustic and cynical, and pretend like the psychedelic lights, candy floss colors and pink wigs were too childish and uncultured for me. Or I could just suck it up and confess that it was the best birthday ever! I mean, its not every year you get to spend your birthday in the Echo arena, surrounded by screaming six year olds and hyperventilating sixteen year olds, watching Katy Perry bring a horse to its knees on stage, or swat a giant lipstick balloon as it hovers above your seat, or be serenaded by a stadium full of people singing Happy Birthday at the end of the night. Ok, maybe they weren’t serenading me. Maybe. But its still pretty awesome that the last song of the night was Happy Birthday. Did I mention this was happening on my birthday? Best birthday ever!

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Here’s the new year resolution (yes, my birthday is my new year, I’m terribly narcissistic like that), I am going to act my age. As the wonderful apt opening act Iconapops sang, ‘I’m a nineties bitch!.’ And if that means embracing glittery nailpolish, or Crocs, or unplanned gap years, or any other similar horrors I have studiously avoided my entire life, so be it. There’s no point in missing out on today in practicing for tomorrow. Be a Katy Perry when you can, pink wigs can only be pulled off for so long. You can be Audrey later, a little black dress will always work. Be 20 while you can. Act 33 when you are. Unless God intervenes, of course. But more on that later.

Unless God intervenes with that too.

Of Queens and Knights

As you may know, I started off writing another blog In Search of Lost Muchness (Alice in Wonderland, ultimate inspiration). But as the blog did achieve its purpose, which was essentially free therapy for me and less whining to endure for my parents, I started this blog as well in keeping with the slightly less suicidal moods. So as of now, I will be taking both forward simultaneously. Expect a lot of repetition. And if, like me, you enjoy angst, go over and give the other one a gander too.

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It sounds anti-climactic to say my ‘Aha’ moment in life (the desi equivalent of a Eureka moment) came while watching a chick flick. Except to the chick flick producers though, who probably were hoping for precisely this! Anywho, a few weeks ago I saw an amazing Indian movie called Queen. Now I may have walked in just to gape at the lead actress, one of the most effortlessly stylish women I have ever come across, portraying a young girl who is so awkward it makes you cringe. Imagine brown wool cardigans over traditional cotton clothes on the streets of Paris and you get an idea of what we are dealing with here. But once I actually got into the cinema, I was completely lost in her world. A sheltered Indian girl, who has lived her life exactly according to the plan, got a simple college degree and an immediate marriage proposal engineered and approved by her parents. She should be living happily ever after, she has certainly taken no risks to jeopardize that, but her life is thrown off course when the groom calls off the shindig the night before the wedding. And here is where the magic starts: there is no dashing childhood friend who emerges as her protector and true love, no obnoxious boss who finally shows he has a heart and it belongs to her, no knight in shining armor. Instead, she rescues herself. Rather than staying home to become the object of pity and ridicule, she decides to go on her honeymoon. Alone. She doesn’t speak English, let alone French, and yet she is never lost in translation. She has her fair share of troubles: she doesn’t know how to order food, or book a hotel room, she is devastatingly alone even on a crowded dance floor. She seems to wander aimlessly, but it is on the streets of Paris that she finally finds herself.

I remember watching that movie and recognizing myself in her, the girl who laughs so soon after a tragedy that her laughter is always tinged with tears. The hopeless romantic, the girl who is constantly striving to find some common ground between her two lives (the one I live in my head, which is infinitely fabulous, and the one I live in reality, which is full of problems, and love, and warmth). She Skypes with her parents at home, and then heads off to a rock concert with men she met three days ago, knowing it may well never be possible to reconcile these two halves of her soul. The nomad who longs for a hearth to rest her feet on. The homebody who yearns to be a gypsy. This ordinary girl, with an extraordinary capacity for joy.

And then I realized that my reflection was fading away. As Queen discovered her true self, I was losing mine. I had stayed still for too long, and was becoming dangerously close to being a ‘sadness’. An ‘inconvenience’. One of those people who always talk about what had been, and what could have been, and have nothing to say about what is or what will be. At 22, my life was starting to feel like an epilogue. And before this status could become permanent, I decided I needed to get moving. There is nothing worse than being a sadness, particularly to yourself. 

So, very much like Queen, who’s life was also shattered by one man’s whims and not her own inadequacies, I decided to pack my bags and set off. Staying still and turning bitter would definitely be my own inadequacy, and would leave me with no one to blame later! And while I do enjoy guilt, its more fun for me when I am subjecting other people to it, rather than myself. Luckily, I have still not acquired the level of bitterness that ruins relationships, and therefore managed to escape to England to live with, and off, my sister. And it is here, in the land where I gained so much and lost so little by comparison, that I hope to fix myself. No knight in shining armor please. This lady is quite enough on her own. 

 

 

 

Get Happy!

This time last year, I was weeks from graduating from the University of Cambridge, with two PhD offers under my belt, a thigh gap starting to appear just below it, and that inner radiance that comes when your dreams are on the brink of realization. A year later, those PhD offers have fallen through, that incredibly difficult degree has also proved to be incredibly unemployable, and I have lost all of my patience, and most of my hair. The last straw was today, when, just five minutes to my birthday, I got an email telling me I had been turned down for the one programme that had not rejected me yet. Now, I would like to believe as much as the next person that the Universe has no personal vendetta against me, but when HR sends you a rejection email at 11.55 pm, it is hard to believe there aren’t greater forces at work.

Mostly due to my amazing mother, I have never treated life as a checklist of acquisitions and achievements. Instead, she cultivated my innate capacity for happiness, to the point where I am that girl in romantic comedies who stops to caress a flower, and bounces on her toes when she sees babies. My favorite feature about myself is that extraordinary capacity for joy; I don’t enjoy being unhappy, unlike most people my age who seem to fluctuate between feelings of entitlement and deep disappointment . That being said, after a year of standing still in the middle of no where, with my perfect CV and perfect hair (both of which required an equal amount of work), I’m losing my happy.

That’s where the email comes in. Or comes back in. Stream of consciousness people, get with it! I realized today that even the most precious moments of your life, which are set aside for contemplation and gratitude, can be marred. And so, in the face of HR officials who stay in their offices till midnight to dole out their bad news, all we can do is grow some thick skin and blast some loud music. While the first is taking its sweet course, the second hopefully will be a bit more forthcoming. In order to feel young and happy and alive, at a time when my life has started to feel like a epilogue, I am off to a Katy Perry concert tomorrow. I’m trying to reclaim my story. I’m going to get my happy back. And I don’t need a career, or a future, or even a full head of hair to do that! As my three year old self would say, a balloon and a yellow dress is quite sufficient. After all, there is a difference between growing up and growing old. Here’s to a new year, and old priorities: happiness, kindness. yellow dresses, and balloons!IMG-20130122-WA004

 

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