A long time ago, when our world wasn’t as obsessed as it is now with global warming, UFOs and ugly upskirt shots of every Munni, Sheila and Veena caterwauling around the block, my family and I spent our summer nights sleeping on scratchy, uncomfortable charpais on the roof of our house. Every night, before he dozed off, Abu used to review Ayat ul Kursi and the two to nine times tables with me. So what if my Math teacher hadn’t even started us on multiplication at school? My parents were just plain precocious when it came to their daughter’s education. It was a matter of life and death. And of the blithering pointlessness of second grade mathematics.
It was the summer of 1996 and I was seven years old. Far, far away from my childhood purgatory of midnight study sessions, our politicians were busy laundering truckloads of money into their Swiss egg-nests. I didn’t know it then, but in a few months’ time, Murtaza Bhutto was going to be shot in the face and left to bleed on the streets of Karachi. And in a few years, Pakistan was going to officially enter the nuclear arms race and tomatoes were going to be sold for 200 rupees/kilo. But, of course, all this was happening - or was bound to happen - miles and miles away from me. As far as I was concerned, Math sucked, charpais itched and the big, yellow doughy-looking moon quite curiously had a chunk bitten off by the Cookie Monster at the start of each month. It might very well have been a big, bad world out there full of demons and death, but my own little self-absorbed universe never ceased to be lit up by the stars that came down like rain every night.
“But then everything changed,” a part of me wants to add with dramatic flourish. It won’t be true, though. We still go sleep on the roof sometimes, even as gazillions of cash is being spent on satellites which are so advanced they can count the exact number of caries in our teeth while we lie snoring. The green shirts have failed to shine-yet again- in the Olympics. Angry people have found in Twitter and Facebook, newer, more creative ways of spilling out their frustration (it’s so easy to tell when people are missing love in their lives).
Sigh. Fate is such a sloppy story teller. I have a news link opened in front of me right now about a man and a woman in Khairpur accused of adultery, who were paraded naked by the police in front of a jeering crowd. And here I was trying to write an article about Eid. Should I not do so? Should I be sorry about so much as daring to think about bangles, mehndi and gaajar ka halwa (with almonds, raisins and a glossy veneer of desi ghee)? Every Eid morning, as far as I can remember, is started off by ammi ladling out bowlfuls of gaajar ka halwa for us. Even though half the house is diabetic and the other half voluntarily starves its way to size zero. “Stuff it. It’s Eid!” She tells us ever so sweetly, as if that explains everything - even if just for a day.
And then in an amusing twist of irony, my folks trundle along to the jogging track near our house, where the neighbourhood offers its Eid prayers. Should I be apologetic when I write, in these desperate times, about the arty-party housewives who turn up for the prayers in their best Eid chiffons and bob-cut hair? And the hair-transplanted uncles who’ve been making pilgrimages to the jogging track the whole year round, desperately trying to make the blubber evaporate, and yet shine on Eid Day in stiff, starched kurtas, the ‘mutka-tidd’ very much in place? Perhaps I should rather leave out the mention of our Eid visit to my nani ammi’s, dismal as our national circumstances are. Maybe her home-cooked lunch of chicken karahi, qeema kareley, plum chutney and fresh salad doesn’t quite sit well with the cosmic tide of events we all seem to be so taken with. It’s always the big things in life that truly matter to us after all. It’s always the big, sophisticated, uber-philosophical lessons we’re always so keen for life to teach us. Anything small and earthy just doesn’t figure. Size matters after all. Always has!
But what about the ordinary life lessons of honour, integrity and courage that all those stories have always taught us? What about the lone boat that waded through forty days’ and forty nights’ worth of flood waters and ended up being humanity’s last hope? What of the lonely fellow, humbled and repentant inside a whale’s belly, who persevered and emerged sated and free? And of the three friends who stuck together through thick and thin and eventually brought down the Dark Lord? (“Of course it is happening inside your head. But why on earth should that mean that it’s not real?”) And lastly, what of our Lady of Carrie Bradshaw who said these golden words: “When I first moved to New York and I was totally broke, sometimes I would buy Vogue instead of dinner. I felt it fed me more.” Maybe this, more than anything else, is what faith and all its rites of passage are about. To retain the hope of finding love among the ruins. To love life for what it is and to believe in the timelessness of courage and the agelessness of humour. And to trust that even after the most harrowing of days, the stars do come down like rain every night to defeat the gloom and to light up our small universes.