by Samia Altaf
I could not believe my luck when I woke up this morning. It had rained last night, but this morning the sky was blue the breeze gentle,and the wild grass along the smelly sluggish, open sewer that meanders through the swanky Defense Housing Authority—home to lush golf courses and palatial villas—past the gates of the elite Lahore University of Management Sciences, was audaciously green. The mango tree in the front yard of my mother’s house—quiet after a fertile summer of exuberant fruiting—balances the crow’s nest full of chattering chicks in its gently swaying branches. All God’s creations bask in the mellow sunshine. No more the snow and ice and cold of Eastern US. For these weeks, it’s going to be this bliss in Lahore. I was glad to be me, and to be alive. I say to myself “Thank God I am on this side of the earth, rather than under it.” What a beautiful world. So much to see and so much to do. I could live like this for a hundred years like William Hazlitt, who claimed to have spent his life “reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best.” I’ll add eating to that list, at the top of it, fried eggs and buttered toast.
In addition to the sunshine and the crows, and trees waving gently in the breeze, there are books to read, newspapers to follow, old trunks to sort through and the joy of restoring broken things. And now, thanks to the miracle of YouTube, music to listen to, movies to watch, many enlightening videos to engage with. This is no time to die! Although it seems unlikely, I have been hooked onto Gayatri Spivak since I heard her speak here in Lahore some years ago. That formidable woman and her harangue about the subalterns, a word I associated with the military, which I was quite intrigued to learn that evening applies to me as well. Not a word of what she says about subalterns makes sense to me but I love to hear her speak. She really is something. She said things that evening, to a crowded hall of Pakistani college students, activists and others, about Derrida and Gramsci —names I heard for the first time.
We the women of colonized countries were there too somewhere in her talk, in the dust of that 17 year old woman who, though a subaltern, spoke in a way, almost a hundred years ago. She hung herself for her political beliefs but only after she had menstruated—to prove she died for her beliefs, and not for an illicit pregnancy. That we understood, for menstruation is a serious marker for us. We understand that a lot, at times life depends on its appearance or disappearance. We did not understand what Gayatri said that evening, but her ferocious buzz cut and clear direct gaze was enough. You felt what she said and it was uplifting, whatever it meant. “What does she mean?” I asked a professor of political science sitting beside me. He looked indignant. “She is awesome,” he said “and courageous”.
It is to Arundhati I go when I need to look for reassurance that there is still courage left in the world. She, gentle,wide eyed, with fuzzy hair now tinged with delicate grey, from which emerge her incongruously oversized ears, clad in an elegant sari or trendy western clothes tastefully color- blocked — once a spectacular grey with tomato red, can be counted on to explain patiently and painfully in broken lilting Hindi and fluent English why it is important for intelligent and thinking people, be they writers or brick layers (I count myself somewhere in between), to look critically at what the democratic governments are doing, to ask questions. And to have the courage to disagree. This, after all is the essence of democracy. She spoke in June of this year at the Apollo theater in Harlem—that grand old hall witness to many momentous events. After her talk I stood in line with one hundred other folks for over two hours to have her sign her book The God of Small Things and could not say a single word except “Thank you!” This inarticulate mumble, after rehearsing an adulatory monologue all day.
Another joy of being alive is to rummage through old trunks accumulated in my mother’s house over the decades. Trunks full of stuff from the past. I have inherited this detritus of the lives of the previous two generations of men and women—and what a treasure trove. Fading photographs of people long dead, when they were young and vibrant, in weird clothes and weirder hairdos; letters—long detailed ones in beautiful cursive about children’s illnesses, holiday trips or instructions to some offspring to do some critical errand, or words of parting wisdom from a hospital bed in some remote hill station. Children’s school reports, magazines from ages past, always a couple of Reader’s Digests among the lot. Hand carved silver ashtrays, funky cigarette cases, soap dishes made from ivory, mother –of-pearl photo frames and assorted do-dahs– and clothes. Piles and piles of them in all sizes. Shirts, trousers, blouses, a hand-embroidered table -cloth that some aunt made for her dowry, neatly folded unused and musty. All outmoded and out dated—but of exquisite fabrics. Satin, silk, chiffon, brocade, linen. Cotton saris, their colors still vivid, so light they could pass through my wedding ring.
Not many Pakistani women wear saris now, a dress associated with India and Hinduism— we ignore the fact that staunchly Muslim Bangladeshi women wear it. I suppose we don’t take Bangladesh seriously, given our mutual history. I like saris—a free flowing garment that changes little in style over time, unlike the shalwar-kameez ensemble popular in Pakistan which changes in style almost every year. Since now the shirts are longer—or shorter—the hem has to be opened up or cut higher and re-stitched. I come to these changes a bit tentatively, not being one of the early adopters. But a sari, an unstitched fabric of fixed length and breadth, makes life a breeze. As a young woman, I was drawn to it, but was self- conscious. I was too fat for it and did not have a “waist.” A slim waist being a prerequisite to sari wearing, according to Baiji, my grandmother who set the sartorial standards for young women. “Ah, you poor child!” she’d say, placing a gentle hand lovingly on my head. “How can you wear it? You need a waist to wear a sari, and look at you.” She pointed at me addressing the other women around. They nodded their covered heads in agreement and looked at me. I believed her and them, and could not bear to look at myself. It was my dear father, the kind gentle and perceptive soul that he was, who got me over that hurdle. “Ah but you do” he said when he learnt why I, though wanting to, was reluctant to wear a sari. “You do have a waist. One that is twice as much as any other young woman’s”. For some reason, in a paradoxical fashion, that remark made me feel empowered. There is no telling how the minds of teenagers interpret random remarks made by parents. More waist was better than less is what I understood, and have never looked back since. Later my mom in law, a sari wearing elegant woman, reassured me that, not having a waist was no problem, for the sari-pallo draped over the shoulder in such a fashion that it covered the waist so forget about the waist. She was kind and encouraging, when I a new bride had just moved into my in-laws’ house and felt vulnerable—and it worked. I felt encouraged and more empowered. That was long before this time of many generously funded “women’s empowerment” programs exported to Pakistan where women are taught empowerment using curricula prepared by experts in New York and London. Empowerment training curricula for women who are uneducated, underfed, unappreciated and do not have an identity as a person in their own right. Even the national identity card of Pakistani women is based on one of their fathers’ or husband’s or some other male relative’s identity card. What use are academic training curricula for empowerment in such circumstances?
There is another delightful thing to do while alive—restore old shoes. I carry my old favorite shoes with me back and forth across the Atlantic. Fancy leather boots, my red Doc Martens, many flats and heels, the soles worn down at an angle for I walk with my weight on the outer edge of the heel. There is the story of a princess who wore out her shoes, a new pair every night, till the King tired of buying her new ones and announced that whoever found out how she did it could marry her and have half the kingdom as well. Why did he not just get the old ones resoled? I scratch my head. Did they not have cobblers in that kingdom? In the royal palace? If ever I become a queen I will at once appoint a royal cobbler, even before appointing a foreign minister.
I would love to repair old shoes just as I enjoy repairing old clothes. I believe it can be therapeutic. Remember the old man in the Bastille in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities? Though I have a small shoe repair set with a leather-stitching needle, I am not good at it. So I take my shoes to the road- side cobbler in the local market. He sits in his makeshift shed, surrounded by shoes, sandals, boots, flats, new and old in need of repair, always with the special sewing needle poised.
Young and slight with luminous honey colored skin that could be the advertisement for a $200 skin cream. He has soft, light colored hair and a trim beard,hazel eyes with flecks of gold. He looks at me—a begum sahib, with tinkling bracelets and starched dupatta, enveloped in a cloud of expensive perfume stepping out of a big car—it is old and nattered but he cant tell the difference—with a basket full of old shoes. We discuss what needs to be done. He looks admiringly at the lot –these are from “outside”? He asks. He can tell these are not locally made. Yes he can repair the heels, and most would require a half-sole. He has just the thing for that. From a corner, he pulls out a 12-inch-long piece of automobile tire. “This piece is real tough, it can last out even in freezing weather of foreign countries. It has been fired.” He says. Fired? Fire in a rubber tire. I find myself thinking of the “necklace,” that terrible practice of killing made famous during the later stages of South Africa’s apartheid regime—the terrible things human beings do to each other. Suddenly the day, this sunny bright day of blue skies turns grey.
This young man, 28 years old, who has never gone to school—there was not one in his district when he was growing up– is from Bannu, KPK. Not able to earn a living in his hometown—there are no jobs—he meandered around to Peshawar and Islamabad and finally landed in Lahore. After trying various tricks he bought cobblers needles and tried his luck. Are things any different for his children now under this “New” Pakistan—the slogan of the current Prime Minister? Not much he says for though there is a school—of sorts, if you can call a crumbling room a school—there are no teachers, and no books. And what would be the point of education? There are no jobs. Even the ones who have gone to school are starving. His six year old son minds the one goat that is the source of supplemental income, and nourishment for the family, in addition to what he can save and take home every three months. He makes about ten to fifteen thousand rupees ($80) per month, saves about half, and has two children, a wife, old parents, and two younger sisters to care for. I give him three times the amount he asks for, which is still nothing, three hundred rupees ($2) to repair six pair of shoes. He looks bewildered. Just fleetingly, I catch a shadow cross his face as he looks at three red bills in his hand but it passes quickly. He looks up, a pleasant professional expression on his face and “your shoes will be ready in two hours” he says .If I were him, what would I think? I look at him again. Have I subaltern-ed him? Was he one already? Spivak in an LARB interview says subalterns are those outside the structure of citizenship. But he is a citizen and has been one all his life, he votes. The day turns greyer in-spite of the sunshine, the trees look somber and quiet—no more waving in the gentle breeze, that now carries an oppressive stench from the open sewer.