The Girl From Lahore

by Maniza Naqvi

421083_10150568582228551_140969401_nI search for you– you’re lost somewhere, somewhere beyond my realm. I listen to the sound of distant thunder—or is it— I wonder fireworks for a celebration? Or an explosion or gunshots targeted for yet another murder? The drum roll for a roll call—the toll to be tallied up by Dawn: Zaidi, Abbas, Raza, Jaferi, Naqvi, Abidi, Mehdi, Kazmi, Haider, Husain, Hasan, Husnain, Sadquain, Saqlain, Kazmain, Rizvi.

In this city torn by violence, where my neck hurts from stiffening in fear and anxiety when a motorbike with two riders comes abreast to my car—at traffic lights—and as I panic about what’s next, I wonder if I’ll see the bullet coming, in a country where so many are killed every day, where those with names like mine are being singled out to be targeted, shot dead.

In this city—I stand in the cool night—with the sea breeze kissing my face– mussing my hair, I look out at the half lit city across the mangroves and I spread my arms out as wide apart as I can and shout out as if to the entire city and to nobody—“I love you!”

In this city why is it that I am a stranger now, that I never see you, in this town where everyone seems to have my name. The city, which captures my imagination, the place which I think I know intricately, where I pine to be—the place where I want to be the better—good and loveable me—is the place I never wanted to stay in when you had wanted me. But was there ever a question of Shi’a and Sunni between us? Never, right? No matter now, a matter of detail, like a miniscule amount of arsenic in water, so many years ago. But in truth there were so many other excuses. Me. And you.

And all this time, I ran away, expecting that you would stay—be the one I returned to. I was the one who was supposed to return and you were the one who was supposed to have stayed for me. I remained faithful—did you stay with me?

In this city, this time as the mangroves trilled with sound in the early mornings I sat and talked about language and tales with Intezar Hussain, Kishwar Naheed, Iftikhar Arif and I.A Rahman. I chattered away. At the edge of the breakwaters of the Arabian Sea, across mangroves and the busy happy sounds of literature’s festivities, at Beach Luxury Hotel— I sat at a lunch table across from Steve Inskeep, sharing his modestly served helping of makai ki roti and a too spicy saag. Here—there, we were Steve Inskeep and me, well I’ll be damned—away from our circle, Logan, away from the early morning “traffic backed up on the inner loop to the beltway”, here we are, discussing Karachi. Back there, we share a zip code and a circle, and a loop and I am used to listening to his voice on the radio telling me of news of places including this one here, my home in that home—while I foam at the mouth with Extreme Clean, toothbrush in hand at seven a.m every weekday. And here, because I’ve written Mass Transit and that book called On Air, of Naz soliciting stories in a late night talk show, here I was the Karachi Literature Festival to talk about a book of short stories, by Karachites—Karachi-walas, here I was in conversation with Steve Inskeep.

In this city, now every structure reminds me-that it was you who showed it to me first—took me there first—and here, and here, in this city—the “no I don’t want to live here!” city. Now in this city, where one runs into practically everyone one knows in the course of a day anyway— . Where even strangers come up and say hello— Here, right here, in your city, yes– the “No I don’t want to live here” city, where I refused to live with you because I wanted to go places, in that city– this city, I never ever not once, ever see you. Not even a glimpse. Ever. Never. Why?

Decades ago—yes I must keep reminding myself–decades ago. You had charted out the lay of the land here for me, lovingly—sketched out this city —through your touch, your gaze, your kiss, your love—your laughter—Whispering in that guttural voice of yours that made me weak in the knees how we could be-and since then I’ve been coloring inside those lines you drew for me. Me, the outside the box, me. Your Lahori girl, and other terms the girl from up country, the Punjab, and North–who jets in now from Africa or Eastern Europe or Central Asia. Why is it that I never see you in this city–anymore?

In this city, will I find you if I went searching for you in Soldier bazaar at five a.m? At the Halwapuri shop which we, at the end of teenage passion always went to which was bustling at that time, just as people were returning from the fajr prayers at the nearby mosques and just before we headed to the beach? Will I find you in Saddar? At Burns road at the doodki sherbet and rabri shop that we went to every single night at about eleven thirty after you regularly joked to all the cousins that came along, “Let’s get this Lahorimaaj, fed!” Will I find you at Koel selecting a block print shalwar-kurta fabric for me—a turquoise blue—a blue like I’d never seen before kind of blue. Will I find you if I go and sit on the steps of the terrace of the old house at the other side of the town —will you arrive late in the evening just as the raathki rani explodes in perfume and heady scent—will you arrive then, freshly showered, smelling of unscented soap, so clean and shiney in a crisp white shalwar kameez –almost falling over me—enveloping me in your big generous hug—kissing me—saying “Yaar, I’m so tired—-let’s go eat!” All this hugging and loving while it seemed the whole world—upstairs—neighbors—and all those looking on because after all you’re so good and everyone knows I’m so good. And I’m the girl from Lahore. And this is a courtship at its height and will lead only to all things good. The Lahori and the bahiya from Karachi. A “Sadie Hawkins” kind of a girl, wondering what the heck was “a May Queen ball.”

In this city if I go looking for you—will I still spot you clinging on off the side of a bus—trying to make your way to an already started class at the university which you overslept for as usual? Maarvadiyayaar! Will I find you at the mechanics shop talking about getting a part made for the car you tinker with and are forever trying to restore.You knew a lot about cars—about how to tune them and fix them up and make them run again—yourself—Will I find you hitching a ride on a motorbike in Golimar, when your car breaks down—though it rarely does that. Will I find you at Gadani figuring out how ships are taken apart. You knew a lot about ships. Will I find you in Orangi staring out at the rili patchwork cityscape backing up into Casbah colony and the hills. Will I find you somewhere in the SITE area—figuring out how to keep the spindles and the rest of the machinery from breaking down during a rush order for linen to Germany. You knew a lot about spindles and stuff like that. Fingernails crusted with grease—but you always got that out—before eleven oclock at night. Will I find you playing cricket on the beach or on the streets in and around New Town—on Jigar Muradabadi road or Jamshed Road—will I find you in PIB colony? Or along the route of the Ashur procession. Will I find you in Kharadar or Machi Miani? Or playing bridge in the drawing room of your home. Will I find you smoking, bumming a light off of someone somewhere in the corridors of an office or at a paan ka kohka or a mechanic’s shop.

In this city you laughed. You laughed so much. So hard. So loud. So fully—drinking in the air—filling your lungs so you could laugh harder—louder–So heartily. Enough for all. Not a mean bone in your entire slim frame—the single pasli Karachi ka bahiya that you were. You laughed when I said I’d walk because you knew that I would and everything I gave as a reason to do so was laughable. You knew perhaps that I never would. And to this day, a deep voice— anywhere—on the radio, or the street or a meeting—-. A crease on the side of a mouth, a deep draw on a cigarette— can drive me to distraction still—a very clean smell, soap and water only—And that’s all it takes—everywhere I am—anywhere but here, that’s all it takes.

But in this city, I remain, every time I return, the way you saw me, the clean, unadorned, milk and honey girl from Lahore. Looking like the landowning Lahories…’the landed’. When the only “landed” I have ever been is when my plane touches down in, yet another place, another country. I am everywhere and anywhere but here.

Did you know I became everything that I wanted to be? Now I go places. I see the world. One adventure, after another, constantly changing, constantly transformed. I meet so many people. You wouldn’t believe it, if I told you. If I only had the chance to tell you—I’ve danced with the Masai and broken bread with the rebels in Garm. Trouble is I will never get a chance to tell you.

The wife, the children, I’ve heard that you’re happy. Are you happy?

Me? I’ve seen the world, written stories, been in and out and between sheets, been there–, done that. See, I get to meet people like Steve Inskeep. I kept my word.I was the one who returned. Your Lahori girl.

Did you curse me that night, when I left by wishing me everything I wanted? Now I am everywhere and anywhere but there. I’m the girl from nowhere who wants to belong here and everywhere—go places. Now I listen to Steve Inskeep’s creamy voice on Morning Edition to bring me news of my places. And this news of carnage today in Karachi would have been brought to me over the air waves in his voice at 7.00 am. But it came to me shortly after 7 p.m in Karachi. The toll kept rising, 3, 10, 21, 33, 45 and so on. Tell me was there ever a time when we were alright? Yes, you loved me—love is easy—but could you tolerate me and could I you? Wasn’t there just that one small detail, that miniscule problem? Now I am everywhere and nowhere and anywhere but here or even there. And all I have is the news, on air, to keep me company.