Friday, December 23, 2011

"If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans."

I've had this quote up on my wall for a while now because it's cheeky and applies to other people. Only the other day, at my last Bollywood Cardio class of the year, someone said, 2011 has been an amazing year for me, and I realized I couldn't quite say the same. I did have... not plans so much as notions. And I don't know who's in charge of it all, but they're sure getting a laugh out of me.

My plan was simple: it fit neatly in the little space below my name on this very blog: quit job, write book, the end. At first, things seemed to be on track. Exactly a year ago, on my last working day before Christmas holidays, I "finished" the "final" draft of my novel, saved in a folder called September 2010, and jetted off to the Cayman Islands to hang out with family. I reeled off my plans to all who asked: January I would research, February through May would be editing and by August, I'd be ready for the Squaw Valley Writing Conference where I would wow agents and editors with my complete novel, then sit  back while they clawed each other's eyes and hair out to get their hands on exclusive rights.

A month of researching Pakistan from a coffee shop in Mountain View and I was the one tearing my hair out. Seeing Wikipedia would only take me so far, I decided to go to Karachi myself, not as the foreign return I'd been the first time around (which had led to much of the inspiration for this novel) but as a writer. I spent three weeks eating, shopping, laughing, oh and researching. The only night I didn't have my notepad in my back pocket was at a wedding I crashed because my cousin begged me to leave it behind (and because there were no pockets in my sari). Upon returning to California, I knew my novel had to change based on what I'd experienced in Karachi. So I tweaked and rewrote, starting a folder called April 2011.

Suddenly it was August. I had no novel; what I had was eight chapters of mediocre lukewarm porridge. But it was time for Squaw Valley Writing Conference. As preparation, I wrote an elevator pitch, boiling my novel down to 60 seconds of succinct intrigue that would induce the clawing of eyes, etc. I harangued countless friends, wrote 29 drafts of this thing and spent the four hour drive up to Lake Tahoe reciting my pitch in an engaging, natural fashion (side bar: also not part of the plan was the $360 speeding ticket I earned but that's another story). The first agent I approached listened to the first line before walking away to talk to someone higher on the food chain. The next two people to hear it -the last two- were other wannabe writers. And then I came home.

I couldn't get over it, the dashed hopes, all the hair and eyes that remained in tact, not a claw drawn the whole week I'd been gone, and on my desk, the folder stuffed with the 29 drafts of my pitch, mocking me and my well-laid plans. Plus,  I was now on my second year of unemployment and funds were dwindling.

So I did the one thing I know how to do, the very thing that had got me into this mess in the first place: I read. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It healed me. It rubbed  balm on my tattered ego, reminded me why I was doing this exercise in sadomasochism in the first place and gently propped me up at my laptop once more.

September 2011 is the folder I'm on now. Chapter Nine was printed this morning and added to the shoebox I began a few months ago. Yes, I'm single-handedly killing several forests, but printing out complete chapters and putting them in my orange shoebox is all I have in the world so I do it (on 99 % recycled paper, I promise).

It's been a year and a half, it's been four drafts and counting, and I have no idea what the plan is anymore. I do know the honeymoon is over; I am no longer the happy sparkly kid I was last year, Ms. Look at Me On My Writing Adventure. I know I am an unemployed vagrant who skulks around coffee shops no longer sure of what the hell she's doing while all around her people work, pop out babies, cook dinner every night and get regular haircuts.

One of the irritating side effects of being a writer is this hyper-self-awareness, so I also recognize I'm in the thick of it right now. I'm in this deep, dark mineshaft and I'm too far in not to keep going till I hit gold. Or till my hands fall off from frostbite, my blue fingers still clamped around the shovel.

I have no idea what 2012 will bring. This is not said to fish for compliments but as a fact. I could be picked up by a small independent press and earn $ 500 for my efforts. I could be drowning my sorrows in cheap whiskey while warming my hands at a bonfire made out of a heap of rejection letters.

None of that matters. From where I am, inside this tunnel, I can't see above or below. And that's probably for the best.

I no longer have a plan, I just have a goal.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Foray into the Normal

The morning of my 30th birthday, I arose and announced that I was buying myself a guitar. That afternoon, after five rounds of "Time of Your Life", which my sister had taught me a few months before, I decided to teach myself a new song. I settled on "American Pie". Of the ten or so chords it involved, I was familiar with three. I did not balk at this calculation. Not normal. But really, it was a simple matter of check chord chart, arrange fingers, strum and sing, check chord chart, arrange fingers, strum and sing and bada-bing-bada-boom, twenty minutes later, I had sung my way through the first verse. I felt like a rock star. A folk rock star. A geriatric folk rock star, but a rock star nonetheless. But see, then I put the guitar away and went back to my day job.

Not so with another whim I once had, one that has turned my life upside down, inside out, and half-way right side up again.

One day, while looking for a painting class in the Adult Ed catalog I came upon Intro to Fiction. I need to take a moment to ponder what would have happened if the catalog hadn't been arranged alphabetically. Meh. So, three weeks into the class, we did a timed writing exercise: ten minutes on X subject, go. A scene came to me that I couldn't stop thinking about, or writing about. Nine months later, I had a novel. Three years later, I quit my job to write the novel full time. Not normal.

The problem is, that's all I have. This one novel.

Recently, I've been freaking out because other writers seem to have short stories, poems, essays to their names. The other problem, the real one, is I don't care. I really really wanted to learn "American Pie", and I did. I can now play verse one in twelve minutes, eight if I forsake exact chords for a good foot-stomping beat. And I really want to write this novel.

My new plan for it, one that I think may help me reach the end (not The End- that's been reached several times with varying degrees of Bollywood Kitsch/Melodrama/Passable but not Perfect- but completion). It's what Anne Lamott says in her book, Bird by Bird: when you're feeling overwhelmed, look through a one inch frame. Write what you see there. It's been working like a dream. Well, a nightmarish dream, since it means working brilliantly but sloooowly, section by painstaking section, completion pushed somewhere beyond 2020. Still don't care.

In a further attempt at normalcy, I've decided to apply this plan to this blog. Because like everything else in my life, I was complicating it. Yes, Phiroozeh Romer can complicate blogging, which by definition is quick and easy, a mind spill, really. So no more two hour entries, no more faux poetic blurbs, from now on, I'm going to be normal. I'm going to write, in a few lines, something about my writing. Like my (newly published) friend, Annam Manthiram.

Here's to being normal like everyone else.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Brazen Self Promotion (Part 3 of So What Do You Do?)

Chaat guy.
It's not like I've never embarrassed myself before. I have no problems blaring Bollywood in un-Indian neighbourhoods while my passengers slouch low in their seats, and you all ready the entry about me standing in the crowded Karachi bazaar till I got the perfect picture of the chaat guy. It's that sometimes (most times), I don't particularly care if I do embarrassing things. Besides, lately, I've begun to explain much of my behaviour under the general umbrella of "I am an Artiste". Like promoting my blog, for example. When I began it, things were easy enough. I just posted it on Facebook, invaded people's email boxes with updates under the pretense of "oh, in case you don't check FB, here's a reminder", you know, basic stuff. But then things went steadily downhill.

The first noticeably obnoxious self-promoting I ever did was on one of my favorite grocery clerks at the local Trader Joe's. Fans know that contrary to advertising, TJs is in fact the happiest place on earth. Everyone there is just happy and chatty, negating the tedium of doing groceries. So this poor guy, being a good employee, asked if I'd enjoyed St. Patty's day and I said I had been working and had only watched from the coffee shop window as people headed to the pub next door. What work do you do, he asked. I explained. I read a  lot, he said. Oh, then you should check out my blog. And I stood there as he was forced to rip off a piece of receipt paper and accept my scrawled blog address with a scared sort of smile.

Was that a cheap move? Had I exploited the poor TJ's cashier and the entire company's friendly staff model to serve my own purposes? Had I breached some sort of cashier-customer code of conduct, like a shrink asking her patient out? A resounding yes to all of the above, yet once the floodgates had opened, there was no stopping me.

A couple of weeks ago, I accompanied a friend as she gave a ride to a few people. The thirteen year old girl we were driving mentioned she liked writing too. Yes, folks, indeed I did. I found a paper CD protector and plastered my blog address on it, passing it to her in the back seat as she thanked me with the same stunned-scared expression the TJ cashier had worn.

Did I do it so she could draw inspiration from my artistic journey? Or was it simply so she would one day buy my book? Again, yes.

As I said, this was a downhill journey and we now arrive to the bottom of the chasm. The most shameless (shameful?) self-advertising happened last weekend. It was my sister's wedding and as I welcomed my new brother-in-law into the family, I said, "[Husband's name here], we may not have much in common in terms of hobbies or eating habits, but we both share a love of my blog". At this point, I put one hand to the side of my mouth and fake-whispered the blog address to the whole gathering.

Over the top? Way over. Exploitative? Criminally so.

So the question is, is all this self-promotion going to get me anywhere? Shouldn't I just shut up and finish the book already, let my art speak for itself? Or is the world of creative arts so cut-throat, so difficult to break into let alone survive in that a starving artist must do what she has to to get her name out there? In fact, now that I think about it, is this a good place to sneak in a plea to all of you to help me promote the bejeezus out of my blog, scrawl on receipts, napkins, the backs of people's arms, bathroom stalls?

Yes. Definitely, yes.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Just a Bit of Bollywood-Part 2: A Sneak Peek

 I spent the weekend in Vancouver, as part of round one of my sister's wedding celebrations. Several friends told me they've been reading the blog, which was so nice to hear. Some complained they're too long, which is too bad for you because I've decided to embrace my verbosity. If you did read the entirety of last week's Bollywood blog, here's your reward. As promised, an excerpt from the novel.


After the news, the uncles went to the backyard with their drinks and the aunts sat on the sofas planning Cyrus’s sixth birthday party. Laila and Rashna, I noticed, kept glancing at Grandmother, whose eyes had begun to droop. As soon as her head fell to one side, Laila was at the TV, changing channels and lowering the volume while the boys slithered out of the parlor to go play chor-police in the large foyer, whose marbled floors were perfect for sliding around catching bad guys on. As the angst ridden faces of American teens fill the screen, the girls smiled contentedly. Every emotion of the characters played out on Laila’s face and even Rashna sat up straight, leaning slightly forward. Back home this show had been our guilty pleasure; Roop, Sara and I watched it every Wednesday night. Tonight, though, watching my cousins watch the show, I was suddenly hyper aware of little nuances; the clothes the characters wore, the things they said and did. It was all exaggerated, I knew that. But did these girls? I grimaced, recognizing this episode. The father was having an affair, the mother was hitting the bottle, and one of the emaciated teens was going to OD on prescription drugs by the end of the episode. A teenaged couple stared at the bed they were being forced to share for the night.
Laila glanced at me and looked quickly away. Oh God, were they thinking this was what my life was like? I laughed under my breath at the irony. Mum had made it plenty clear that dating wasn’t an option. Once, Dad stopped at a traffic light right beside a teenaged couple making out at a bus stop.
“Chee,” Mum had said, “No sharam these ghoras have. That girl will be pregnant by dinnertime.” She turned to me. “Katayoon, remember, you must marry a Nice Parsi Boy.”
I shuddered at the sound of my full name. “Those two are dating, not getting married.”
            “We don’t date. We marry. And when you marry, it’ll be to a Nice Parsi Boy.”
            “If I marry, it’ll be to someone I love. We’re not some backward villagers, Mum. This isn’t the sixteenth century that you can barter me off to whoever offers you the most goats.”
            “Goats? Who’s talking about goats? See, Freddy, didn’t I tell you? Bring them here and they lose all respect for our ways.”
The show cut to commercial and Laila whipped around. “Do you have a boyfriend, Katya?”
My cheeks burned as I thought of Phil – could I even call him my ex after only three months? “No.”
Dilshad Aunty’s ears had perked up. “Chalo chalo, Katya, time to get serious soon, haan? What are you, 22, 23?”
“25 in a few months.”
She bit her tongue between her front teeth, a worried look on her face.
“Knowing her mother, Dilshad, I’m sure she’s had an eye out for years.” We hadn’t realized Grandmother had awoken and Laila glanced nervously at the TV. “That woman knows how to marry well.”
“Oh, this is a great movie,” Coomie Aunty said loudly, preventing Grandmother from dropping the next bombshell. She had already changed the channel, and Laila breathed a sigh of relief.
Toned, tanned bodies filled the screen, wearing even less clothing than the American teens we’d just seen traipsing around Southern California. As a child, I had watched Hindi movies most afternoons, my head in my favorite ayah's lap. But those had looked nothing like this. Two guys broke into a song, the actress between them pretending at first to be irritated but soon breaking into a perfectly synchronized dance with them.
“Wait, what’s going on?” I whispered to Laila. Instead of the two men hitting on the girl, they seemed to be dancing with each other.
“These two are pretending to be,” she paused, leaned on my leg and whispered, “Gays.” Giggling she continued, “They have to pretend so that that girl that they both like would stay with them in their apartment.”
 “Why is she wearing a bikini top under her sari?” I asked.
Laila laughed, “It’s the style, silly. Isn’t she gorgeous. I wish I had her body.”
Rashna said, “Well, you have to work at it, you know.”
Laila’s face fell. Her yellow t-shirt was snug across her waist, and her hair was in a side ponytail, a look she couldn’t pull off with her short hair. Her mouth tugged downwards, and I couldn’t stand it.
 Putting an arm around her shoulder, I asked, “Tell me, why are there so many white people behind her?”
“They’re in Miami.”
“Why? I thought this was an Indian movie.”
Her eyes sparkled. “Bollywood has gone Hollywood. They film in UK, US, Australia. Don’t you remember Salaam Namaste from a few years ago? It was shot completely in Australia. Kal Ho Na Ho was set in New York. DDLJ was shot partly in UK and Switzerland. K3G was shot partly in UK.” She counted the titles on her fingers, oblivious to my oblivion of all the acronyms she stated. She trailed off and was soon glued back to the movie, her arm remaining on my leg.
“Coomie, Dilshad, this is really inappropriate for the children,” Grandmother said as the two guys sandwiched the bikini-sari girl and air-humped her.
Her daughters didn’t hear her. “God, Dil, isn’t John Abraham yummy?” Coomie Aunty was saying.
“Nayee, yaar, Coomie, I like Abhishek. Tall like his father he is.”
Grandmother grunted. “His father had class, this boy is soiling the Bachchan family name with this behavior. What…what is he doing with his hips? How vulgar.”
“It’s called gyrating,” Laila said.
“Filthy,” the OC said. “I did not approve it on that Elvis Presley and I do not approve it on our men.”
No one heard her; they all stared at the TV. The uncles came in from the balcony as the song ended and Rohinton Uncle bounced his shoulders and swiveled his hips. Even Grandmother cracked the tiniest of smiles.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Just a Bit of Bollywood-Part 1

No matter how hard I try, Bollywood seeps into my novel. Sure I read a lot. When I was seven, I used to hide my favorite Read-It-Yourself book on the top shelf at the Gymkhana library (yes, I could reach it at seven) so it would always be available for me when I visited. Yes, the greatest day of my life was when we first moved to Canada and  I found out we could check out not three books like in Karachi, but TWENTY-FIVE. And fine, I've been known to cancel plans if a book is too good to put down. But Hindi movies flow in my veins.
Remember these?

I grew up watching them in the air-conditioned comfort of Nani and Nana's sitting room on those hot Karachi summer nights. The flash of the Hindi Film Board certificate, the title in Hindi, Urdu, English, and we were off.
Nani dozed off at exactly 11 and Nana, the best husband ever, turned it off soon after so she wouldn't miss the ending that we had all predicted at the start.My grandparents' neighbour, in fact, rented out these movies, and Cuz One was in charge of crossing the hall and getting a beautiful black VHS every night; I, being female, was forbidden to do so. I used to stand in the doorway and hiss at him not to get one with too much maar-faar, no blood and guts, please. He, of course, smiled mischeiviously back at me, knowing the power of his gender even then.

I grew up with the classics, Dil, Kyamat Se Kyamat Tak, and of course, my all time favourite, Mr. India, which, after my 18th rental, the movie man refused to lend to us anymore, insisting others must have a go. My mother used to have a heart attack whenever she came into the air-conditioned den and saw her little girl glued to the screen where one blood-drenched good guy took on ten gun and/or dagger-wielding bad guys who appeared on cue out of the shadows, all of whom cursed each other's mothers and sisters while throwing punches with exaggerated dishoom-dishoom sounds.

                I especially recommend minute 1:41, the epitomizing moment

In Canada, it all ended abruptly, mainly because I didn't know where to get the goods. It wasn't until I went to Korea and met Monica, a Korean teacher at my ESL school, that it all came back. Monica had majored in Hindi, spoke it fluently, and loved the films. She befriended me because my middle name was Shahrukh like Shah Rukh Khan, and it was through her that I discovered the underground world of Desis in Korea. My first Divali happened in the outskirts of Seoul and spared no details: we began with with a pooja, followed by a recital of Om Jai Jagdish- which of course I knew, not because I was Hindu but because of the fil-lums I'd seen- and continued into the wee hours with a rousing game of Antakshari. When I got pneumonia and spent weeks in the hospital, Monica brought me the soundtrack to Mujse Dosti Karoge (Will You Be My Friend), along with a touching letter about why our friendship meant so much to her.

After she left, I loaded my Walkman and immediately, a high-pitched female voice filled my ears, its familiarity sending goosebumps down my spine. But it was the last song that did me in. A medley of old classics and recent hits, it sent me on a roller-coaster of memories, and I cried and cried and cried. Mind you, at that point, I'd been hospitalized for well over a week, but that wasn't what made me cry. It was that reminder of the air-conditioned room, the brown sofas, Nani Nana by my side, that made me cry so much for so long that the Korean woman taking care of her ailing mother in the next bed over left her mum to come stroke my shoulder and hand me her extra large Kleenex box.
  Minute 10:07 was what got me (ignore the subtitles, learn Hindi instead)

And that's how this Desi Girl came back with a vengeance. I made CD mixes, took dance classes all over town, had Hindi movie dates with whoever wished to come, or with myself, it didn't matter. Living in London, I tried every Indian dance company in central London, feasted regularly at hole-in-the-wall curry joints, and bought pirated DVDs, four movies in one, on the pavements of South Hall and East Ham. For my birthday, I dragged all the friends I'd made to Bollywood Night. They say you know who your true friends are when you drag them to a Bollywood Night and they feign enthusiasm for shoulder shaking and  light bulb screwing and that night was definitely one for the record books.

Now I live in the Bay Area, the India of the West. With my ICC membership, plethora of Indian restaurants and fast food joints to keep me full all weekend, and Bollywood movies in regular cinemas, I'm  home.

You can see, then, why Bollywood has seeped into my novel in various forms and proportions over the many drafts. Most of it had to be deleted, though not without saving a draft for a future Hindi movie somewhere down the line. But the manuscript is not void of Bollywood. In fact, I think I've struck a good (healthy) balance.

And if you are still reading this, next blog entry, you will be rewarded with a sneak peek at the novel itself.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

I Get High ( Part 2 of So What Do You Do?)

I get high all the time with this new job. The feeling, for those of you who haven't experienced it, makes you hyper, energized,  like you could run a marathon even though you usually can't make it to the end of your block without your calf cramping up. It can be embarrassing when it happens in public, because when I'm high, you can totally tell; my hands shake, I sweat, and I can't get the goofy smile off my face. And today, I want to tell you about my source- well, sources, because I'm hard core.

It's happened more than once that someone will say something in passing that is one of the underlying themes in my novel. This gets me so high because I strive to be real, relatable, and here is the universe telling me I am because it happened to this person. Now this is a tricky area, because sometimes, it's something unpleasant or even traumatizing that happened to this person. Yet there I am mentally going, YES, I KNEW it, I knew that was how that scenario would have gone down. Then I feel bad because this is a friend's pain we're talking about. 
But recently, I met a new friend, also Parsi, who said something about his relationship with a particular aspect of our culture which is a theme my novel dabbles with. I leaned forward and asked why he felt that way. And the answer he gave matched the exact scene in my novel almost verbatim. I literally jumped up and down in my chair with joy (not easy or dignified to do while wearing a sari). I was high all night.

Legion of Honor
Last week, I got to the end of my to-do list and the thing I'd been putting off stared me in the face: find a curator to interview (my main character wants to be a curator but who the heck knows what a curator does off the top of their heads?). Why the procrastination? Because I've called more than one person who has told me with exasperation to go look at their website instead of bothering them. Well, sometimes the universe is on your side, sometimes it rewards you for previous hardships by arranging it so that the first museum you call has a friendly receptionist who puts you in touch with a friendly curator who invites you to the museum the very next week. What a high.
Over coffee (which was so strong and gave me a whole different kind of high), the curator answered all my questions, each response getting me higher and higher because it was so relevant to the core of my story. And also because in procrastinating, I'd made up a lot of stuff. And here the curator was confirming that what I'd invented was not far from the truth, was actually quite spot on. The high I experienced (at lethal levels combined with that coffee) made it hard to connect my fingers to the keyboard as I tried to make notes, and I'm pretty sure my wild hand gestures as I related my own stories to her had the sedate museum going crowd clutching their purses a little tighter. But I was under the influence, what could I do?

Who doesn't have a crush on Al Young?
I may not have a writer's fame and fortune yet, but one thing that's already well established is the writer's ego. Having it stroked is the ultimate high. Being complimented by really legit people (no offense Mum) is just out of this world. At last year's writing workshop,when my group was nit-picking trivialities in my piece, the facilitator, Al Young, novelist, poet, professor, and one mean jazz musician, turned to me and said in his voice that is like warm caramel sauce, "I want to keep reading". This poet/musician, succinct by trade, gave me a five-word gift that sent me flying that morning and still keeps me going in my darkest hours.

Over the last few months, I tweaked my novel, attacking persisting problems and finally ridding myself of them. The bigger the problem, the more intense the resulting high. I felt like I was playing Tetris, you know that video game where different shaped pieces fall from the sky and you have to arrange them into lines before they pile on top of each other and you're out? That was my novel, with bits and pieces that had fallen out of my mind over the years, laying in a wasteland of Word docs, refusing to fit together in a way I was happy with. But over the past few months, I've been making them fit and like in the game, each problem I solved was like a row of puzzle pieces that went poof, and I went to the next level. On those days, I was as high as a kite.

Finally, my greatest and most consistent high comes from checking my blog to see how many hits I've had in the past few days (or past few hours if I'm having a particularly distracted writing day). And I need my fix, man, so read, read now.

Monday, April 11, 2011

So What Do You Do? Part One

My "Office"

It's been nine months since I quit my job, converted my dining table into a writing desk, the wall in front of it a personal floor to ceiling white board, and began writing my novel. Continued writing, I should say, since I began writing it five years ago. But I began writing "full time" last July. Since then, my second least favorite question in the world has been "So, what do you do?", which ranks smack in the middle of "So when are you having kids?" (number three) and "So what's the book about?" (number one).

Question three is none of anyone's business (though if my parents or grandparents ask, it's right after this book) and question one just gets me tongue tied (I still haven't mastered the 30 second elevator pitch that should make a potential agent/publisher swoon and beg me for exclusive publishing rights). Question two is most manageable, in a least-of-the-evils kind of way. Interestingly, I've gone, in the last nine months, from saying "I'm uh...writing a book?" to "I'm a writer" with a bit more confidence- though I still brace myself for the inevitable follow up question (you know what it is) and babble a convoluted answer that makes the asker back away slowly.

When I first said I was quitting my job to write, many people heard "I'm married now so I don't have to work for a living". They imagined me sipping poolside margaritas, wearing a wide brimmed hat and ogling my pool boy's six pack from behind my Jackie O sunglasses (our complex does have a pool but the old man who cleans it keeps his shirt on). I was asked slyly if this writing thing was an excuse to stay in bed till noon. I smiled and let them think what they wanted.

This sign  hangs front and center in my "office". It has become my mantra and the key to being self-employed.

Granted my workday, which began at 9 back in July now starts closer to ten, depending on who posted what on Facebook, but begin it does. I've only taken two days "off", one for a cold and one because of a Gray's Anatomy marathon, which my boss forced me to conduct so I could get them out of the way and get back to work. My boss is a slave driver, but I trust her (also, she's a bit scary).

Now that I'm an expert on being a self-employed writer (self-employed, unemployed, whatever), let me share my wisdom with all of you.

1. Find the Perfect Work Space

The dining table-cum-office didn't last long, and after months of careful experimentation with coffee shops up and down the Bay, I have settled on the Red Rock Cafe in downtown Mountain View. This magical haven allows you to stay all day, for as much or as little as a half-caf extra-hot non-fat latte, and it's a Godsend.
On the second floor, the literal heart of Silicon Valley resides, and in the eye of the storm, surrounded by flip-flop-clad men and women discussing their start ups and smartly suited business people tapping their iPads for their clients, I waltz in  promptly between nine and ten, with my clunky HP laptop (it is the only one without the little glowy apple, gasp), adorned in a t-shirt from Target or a kurti from Karachi, depending on my mood, and take my place at the second to last table, facing the wall, close to an outlet, with plenty of natural light.

In the cradle of time between the end of my play list  (the group, Ba Cissoko, sing in an African language I don't understand, providing perfect drown-out music) and my finger hitting the replay button-I have yet to figure out how to set my iPod to repeat- I overhear techy-type conversations that I don't understand, though they are conducted in English. I'm often struck with the realization that I'm a complete outsider on the second floor in terms of what I'm doing there. But writing this, I also see that in another way, I fit right in with this crowd. I, too have a dream, a start up of sorts, and I too am here to develop it.

That got long. Now you know the answer to Irritating Question Number Four: Why don't you write short stories, Phi?

My Oasis: The Red Rock Cafe (that's my spot: second floor, second window!)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

ICC at the ICC: Research Run Amuck

I'm not competitive, I hardly play sports, and I never watch them. If something big is happening and it's right in my path, then I may jump on the bandwagon, but only temporarily, and only because it's in my path. This happened during the Canada/US Olympic hockey game last year (it was blasted in my living room), and for the World Cup last summer (I kept tripping over crowds huddling outside bars while trying to enjoy my trip to Montreal). Last night, Pakistan played India in the ICC, which is like the World Cup but for cricket, which I gathered was big because the India/Pak rivalry is like the Canada/US rivalry.

It was great timing for me because as part of my research for my novel, I needed to watch people watching cricket (because God knows I don't). I've seen crazy hockey/soccer/football fans, but cricket had to be different. I wanted to capture the cricket-y things the fans said, how they acted, who the players were, etc. And I had access to a banquet hall full of cricket fans and the biggest tournament of the cricket world at my service. Perfect.

It seemed less perfect when I dragged myself out of bed to be at the ICC (India Community Center) by 8 am this morning. I really wanted to just sleep, but I knew this was too good a chance to pass up and it was for the novel, Phi, show your dedication, etc. Plus a quick Facebook check, with all my Indian/Paki friends all over the world adding their input, put me in a festive mood.

Upon walking into the darkened ICC banquet room that boasted two large screens, I realized two big problems:

1. I was not Indian.
2. I did not know the first thing about cricket.

A friend from my Bollywood workout class saw me and gave me a crash course on ...something I don't remember. As he did, a man overhearing us gave me the strangest look (I think my friend had been explaining what an over was).

I had my good old notepad (you Karachiites remember it), and was in full research mode. Grabbing a cup of the complimentary chai, I found a seat.

As I sat down (at the back of the room, behind all the people with India flags draped on their shoulders and the India flag colours glued to their hats/coats), something came over me. I was engrossed.

Basically, the last two out of the total eight hours the game lasted were riveting. They would play one over and then have these awesome ads for . ("Living abroad? You can have your very own Gujju/Punjabi/Tamil bride only on Gujju/Punjabi/, followed by a fawning newlywed couple, the bride still donning her wedding mehndi, saying, "' I can't believe I found you here in this country!'").

In the two hours I watched (the last two of the eight, EIGHT, that the game lasted), here's all I learned about cricket:

1. If the wicket gets knocked down by the Indian bowler, the Indian fans will scream and run around but it doesn't mean the game's over and you can go home. There are more overs to come.

2. If a Pakistani batter hits the ball really well, that's not necessarily a good thing because like in baseball, the sailing ball can be caught and that batter is out. If that batter is a guy named Afridi that means he's the captain, the one everyone was pinning their hopes on and that's extra bad.

3. There's a thing called a power play (like in hockey), and the Pakistanis could have used it today but didn't. The commentators did NOT approve of this move. Nor did I. I don't know what a power play is, but I was with the commentators.

4. At the end of the match, "Chak De India" was blared at the ICC, and people danced, waved their flags, took pictures with their friends. I stood eventually, and even as my foot tapped to the catchy beat of "Chak De India", and visions of Shah Rukh Khan, star of the movie by the same name, in his clean front chinos and modern-shodern new haircut leading the underdog girls hockey team flashed through my mind, I was really sad.

I looked at my notepad. I hadn't made many notes. I had been so caught up in the game, I hadn't been a good novel researcher.

Today, I was simply a Pakistani, rooting for my home and native land.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Balcony Now

Only pic I got from the balcony of church; corner of gate on left, corner of school building up on right. Students saw me from their classroom, actually, and got too excited. The teacher in me felt guilty for being distracting.

Morning light in the passage. Shadow of the jaali through which I was called for dinner.

On this visit to Karachi (which, for the record, ended several weeks ago now, despite the Karachi-themed blogs that continue here), Nani Nana weren't there and I wasn't eight. Yet the balcony provided unending entertainment.

On my first morning, awoken by the crows and jet lag, I sat on the balcony at 6:30 am. The crows that woke me from my sleep were even louder out here, and they competed with the equally loud eagles for the highest tree branches. Mama Two came out soon after. He was an early riser (though I never again joined him at this particular time after the jet lag ended).

Mama Two had a voice like a Parsi James Earl Jones and he always spoke slowly, unhurriedly, the way he lived his life. He surveyed the garden below, the church compound in front of us. He pointed out the mango trees, the coconut palms, the "sing fali" trees (whose translation of sing peanuts trees I still don't get). In the summers, he said, parrots sat on its branches.

At around seven, a sweeper cleaned the church compound with what was essentially a bunch of twigs wrapped together, making sharp grating sounds that mingled with the crows' cries in the trees above.

Around seven-fifteen, the first school children entered the compound in their neatly pressed uniforms and their perfectly parted hair and their freshly shined shoes, and they nodded to the diligent chawkidar who guarded the heavy black metal gate. These were the kids who, when the school bell rang, would take their seats in the front rows of the classrooms, pulling out their supplies and tapping the perfectly pointy nibs of the pencils they had sharpened the previous night all before the teacher had finished her morning Nescafe. Trickles of little children holding their parents' hands came in soon after, heading behind the church where I assumed the primary classes were located.

The building right in front of me, half blocking the church itself, was the school building, its ground floor the canteen. The canteenwala rolled up the metal grate of the small shop, revealing row upon row of neatly stacked goodies on the walls beyond. He pulled out a newspaper. This was the one place, the one moment in his day, that allowed him solace away from it all: his wife, perhaps his mother who lived with them, his own children and the students he catered to all day from his little cave of a shop. Spreading his newspaper on the counter, he leaned over in anticipation. And just like that, the first of the students lined up in front of him, pointing to candy, chips, water. Resignedly, he served them, trying to get back to his paper between customer but never succeeding.

A rowdy game of cricket was now in full swing. Peering through the trees, I saw that the bat was a clipboard, and the ball looked like a pair of rolled up socks, though Mama Two told me later it was a large rubber (eraser, people, it means eraser).

Calls of "O-o-o-ut" and "I-i-i-n" erupted across the compound and boys flocked to the wall behind the batter, shouting, "Here's the wicket, here, no, here", their hands whacking the wall violently at various contesting heights. The smallest boys stood back, tentative fielders for now, envisioning the day they themselves would be the cursing-spitting batsmen and bowlers.

On Tuesday evening, the church held an English service, which from my perch  on the balcony, allowed me front row seats into Karachi's non-Parsi world. Between services, young women in brightly coloured shalwar kameezes that sparkled like disco balls walked nonchalantly (actually, very chalantly, but that was the game they played) between the church and the grotto. A group of young men walked in the other direction, sporting brightly coloured t-shirts with upturned collars complimented by large wraparound sunglasses, hair spiked to the skies with industrial strength gel. And subtly, ever so subtly, the men's  heads turned to follow the passing by ladies, whose heads turned away just in time. Neither group made it to their intended destination of church or grotto.

Aunties hugged aunties, grandmas hugged grandmas, and children ran circles among the adults. Suited men shook hands and shalwar-kameezed men put their arms around each other with solid back pats.

When church was in session, and this was the only downside to living beside St. Anthony's, the Singing Pastor took the mic. This man spoke passionately and sang even more passionately. He fancied himself a very good singer, one imagined, for why else would his mic be turned up so high that one of him was louder than a hundred members of his congregation? Unless he was trying to emulate (or compete with) the Muslim imams, whose prayers echoed across entire city blocks.

At night, the balcony was cool, cooler than it had been all day, and I leaned over the railing to look at the stars. The  church compound was quiet again, save for the creaking gate through which the diligent chawkidar let in stragglers who had missed the afternoon's festivities but still wanted to make it into God's good books.

I stood where Nana used to sit with his glass of Scotch, dressed ever-immaculately in a cream short-sleeved collared shirt and khaki slacks, his ubiquitous post-work evening-on-the-balcony wear. I imagined him leaning forward offering an eight-year-old me his drink. I looked to where my uncles would have walked onto the balcony, surrounding their father to discuss the day's events or the upcoming cricket match, and in the rooms behind me Nani, my mum, my aunts would be supervising the dinner Chatra prepared in the kitchen, bringing it out to the large dining table where we would all gather to eat. Eight-year-old me was off playing Hide-and-Seek with the other kids by now, soon to be called in for dinner through the jaali in the passage that faced the rest of our compound.

Thirty-two year old me blinked hard. I thought of Nani and Nana in Canada, where they now lived with Mum and Aunt One, of Uncle One in the US, where I myself am now, of Uncles Two and Three here in Karachi. So many years, so many miles and yet standing on this balcony, I could see us all gathering here, enjoying the cooling air before going in to eat together.

Aunt Two called me for dinner, and I went in, wiping the corners of my eyes, and closing the balcony door behind me.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Balcony Then

On Nani Nana's balcony, the minutia of my life occurred. In the afternoons during summer holidays, when I was left to run rampant in my grandparents' house, I sat with Sarla, Nani's servant, teaching her English. Sometimes I donned a paper thin dupatta draped chastely over my head like I saw Benazir do on TV, clasped my hands together, and gave impassioned political speeches to the mango trees that lined the wall between Mehrabad and the church next door.

In the evenings, Nana and my mamas often congregated on the balcony with scotch and soda/water/ice in hand. I was expected to skedaddle, this now being an official no-children zone, and I did, right after I stuck my index finger into Nana's proffered glass of the gleaming amber liquid that made my mouth curdle. But doing this age-old ritual allowed for that fleeting, private look that passed between  Nana and I, the twinkle in his brown eyes that was meant just for me, just for that second, before his attention turned back to his sons/wife/daughters/ayah, whoever was next in the constant procession that the balcony hosted each evening.

Right before bed, when the stars pierced the luminescent sky, the night air seeping through our thin nighties, cooling our arms for the only time all day in those stifling summer months, Nani and I sat on the balcony. Sometimes she told me stories about my mother when she was young, sometimes stories that had morals, about the vain crow or the persistent tortoise, sometimes stories that were plain silly, like the one about Gangli, the not-so-bright girl who, when asked to help her mother, just couldn't figure out the logistics of transportation (no, Gangli, you mustn't juggle those eggs all the way home, silly; no, Gangli, though eggs are best transported in your pocket, the same rule does not apply when bringing home a rabbit, etc).

This was the very spot, she often said, that I used to sit with you when you were a baby and couldn't sleep, rocking you till you fell asleep. Can you imagine, she would ask in awe, that you were just this big, and she would rest her palms, facing each other, in the middle of her knees. Under ten, I was already over five feet tall and we would both look at the space between her hands with wonder.

Sometimes she insisted on removing najar (evil eye) by circling an egg over my head seven times and throwing it over the balcony railing (I spent the entire summer of 1988 removing najar rom myself, not out of vanity but out of awe that I could throw an egg over the railing with such abandon and then be rewarded with an approving look from Nani). Sometimes we just sat together in the silence. On Christmas Eve, we listened to Midnight Mass that was blared on a loud speaker next door.

A few times, I visited the church with Mum. The cool marbled interior of St Anthony's along with its high ceilings provided two things Karachi did not impart easily: cool air and space. Mum didn't like me mucking with other religions' rituals; why she put me in a convent school where every Sunday, I watched with jealousy as all my classmates had the little round cracker placed gingerly on their tongues by the man in gleaming white robes (which, for the record, I never did because gods-and mothers-are omnipresent), I'll never know. So after she was a safe distance ahead, I dipped my finger into the marble bowl and touched it to my forehead. After all, when Zoroastrians visit the agyari, they touch the ashes of the sacred fire left out by priests to their foreheads so really, I wasn't totally breaking the rules. In fact, I was covering my bases, making Zarathushtra and Jesus proud, I told myself as I scurried over to Mum.

Afterwards, we went to the shrine across the compound. This was my favourite part of the church because the air around the shrine smelled so sweet. Not like food, not like perfume or incense, just its own particular sweetness. Mother Mary stood in the center, in her traditional white and blue outfit, her hand pointing upwards, her face looking down. She was always freshly garlanded and several objects encircled the rocky grotto in which she stood. What made the air smell so sweet I never found out, the air didn't smell that way anywhere else in Karachi. I sniffed heavily, filling my lungs desperately, memorizing the scent that I knew within seconds would dissipate, till Mum put a gentle hand on my shoulder, a silent plea to stop breathing like a fighting bull. The smell was gone anyhow.

Back on the balcony later that day, munching sev gathia or sipping too-sweet rose-flavoured surbut, feet clanging against the metal chair, I looked out at the church, imagining its spacious interior, recalling the sweet shrine air. I couldn't see the shrine from the balcony, but I knew it was there on the other side of the wall. When Nana and the mamas came out to claim their space, I skedaddled. My turn on the balcony was over. For now.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

By George, I Think I've Got It

I fancied myself quite the little Pakistani in Karachi, wearing the right clothes, speaking the language so well (my own personal opinion, not necessarily shared by others), going to the happening places (once again, my own opinion, definitely not shared by others, especially the ones suckered into taking me to places they never in their worst nightmares imagined going). But the one thing I just couldn't wrap my head around was the money. Not the physical money, the rupee, whose pretty colours made me feel like I was once again in my other home, Canada, instead of the confusing US where I peer into my purse like a granny at all that green. No, it was the spending of the money, or the lack thereof, that just killed me.

It began the very day I arrived. I had been fighting the jeg lag fiercely and had almost made it through the day without crashing, and to help me on the last leg, Cuz #1's wife, who we are calling Bhabi if I recall my own writing correctly, took me to the mall. This was not one of the fascinating, bustling bazaars I got addicted to but a westernized, quiet, clean place with elevators and elevator music. So in about 40 minutes, right on schedule, I got my usual mall-induced headache. Bhabi could see me waning and suggested a drink. At the Mickey D's, she cut ahead of me in line and asked what I wanted. Don't worry, we'll share, she said. Liar. She bought me the drink, wouldn't let me pay and it turned out, she wasn't even thirsty.

A couple of days later, at KPI, Bhabi told me there were bhakras and batasas for sale, did I want some? Since I dream of bhakras and batasas back home, I readily agreed to buy some. Only I didn't. She did. We literally had a fist fight at the canteen, with all the staff watching us. And Bhabi is strong (probably due to the fortifying powers of bhakras and batasas). She won, and as she plonked packets of goodies into my hands, she cackled triumphantly.

These shenanigans continued all over town. I was following my taste buds down memory lane those first few days, buying all the yummy treats from my childhood, suterfeni/budhi na baal (Old Lady's Hair is the translation on that one, sweet strings of white sugar coated flour that melt in your mouth and make you marvel at how good life is), badam ka halwa, corn on the cob, corn off the cob coated with chili, pears coated with chili, sev, puris. Bhabi and Aunt 1 wouldn't let me touch my wallet. These things for the most part were relatively cheap, so I tried to be okay with it, but there were some very expensive dinners involved, even by western standards. I fought with Cuz and Bhabi all the way home but they just said, shut up. Literally, that's what they said to me, their guest. Shut up, Phi.

Aunt 1 asked me everyday what I wanted for lunch, dinner, breakfast the next day.Anything's fine, whatever's easy, I'd say. But everyday for three weeks, it was all about me and I gave my approval before anything was cooked. The food was delicious, hot off the stove, and most importantly, not too spicy (which I knew was a sacrifice for the rest of the family).

Getting ready for a birthday party, I asked Uncle 1 how much I should give the birthday girl. He opened his wallet and gave me the right amount. No, no, I said, I was asking, I have money. He looked at me blankly.

At the Itwar Bazaar, Cuz 2 was looking at fountain pens and as we all know, every writer needs a good fountain pen. I chose one (okay, two) and same thing: Cuz 2 said, I'll get it, put your money away, I'll get us a better deal. When we got home and I asked what awesome deal he'd struck with the pen guy, Cuz 2 said, pens? What pens? Oh, those. I don't remember. And he smiled the very one Bhabi had smiled.

I met my hubby's extended family, who were also my interview subjects, and they served me fresh from the bakery cake (two different mouth-watering types), sandwiches, and drinks. So I was harassing them with my questions and they were serving me fresh baked goods. Go figure. As I was leaving, and I'm not making this up, I was presented with a gold bracelet. It was beautiful with an Art Deco like pattern and it fit perfectly. What the heck was this for? Because you're family and you're visiting us for the first time. I was floored.

I met a new friend who was actually an old childhood friend of my hubby's. She took me out for coffee twice and I thought, great, second time, I can treat. Apparently I hadn't read the rule book: thou shalt be treated to things as long as thou art in Pakistan. But I'm Pakistani too, I said. She just laughed.

I sat Cuz and Bhabi down and told them how horrible I was feeling. It did not go well:

Them: This is how it is here, Phi. Don't worry.
Me: It can't be. Why should you pay for my dinner?
Them: Because you're our guest.
Me: a) I'm your cousin, b) I invited myself here, and c) I'm here for three weeks. You can't pay for my dinners for three weeks. I'm keeping an itemized list here and eventually you'll have to-
Them: Shut up, Phi.

Tonight, weeks after my return to California, as I watched George ka Pakistan, a reality show (Pakistan's first according to Wikipedia) where a 6 foot tall Brit goes to Karachi and tries to become a Pakistani within three months (committing many of the same errors that this almost-6-foot Canadian made there), I finally got proof. Proof that I was wrong.

On this episode, George had to take the bus to Saddar. After walking for about forty minutes and figuring out that there are in fact no bus stops in Karachi, that four people standing together on the road makes a bus stop (he's quick, that George, quicker than me), he asked a local for help (at least my Urdu is better than his, so there). It turned out they were both going to Saddar and the local agreed to let George tag along.

Once on the bus, after being told that no, the conductor didn't have Turret's, he was merely announcing the bus route to the outside world (See, he's saying Saddarsaddarsaddar, the local said very patiently), it came time to pay. And the local pulled out his wallet, waving, no, swatting, at George's hand, which also held a wallet. I said, what? George said, what? The local said nothing as he pulled out his colourful money. 

On George's red, sweaty face, I recognized the same feeling of utter discomfort my own must have had time and time again. That feeling of "But you're already doing so much for me, how can you pay for me? And my bus fare? That's so random and just not done". But the local would have none of it. He just waved his hand like all my family had at me.

Because there, it is done. It just is.

By George, I think I get it.

Friday, March 11, 2011


Bhoomi was my childhood ayah's daughter. She held up one hand with all her fingers extended when you asked her how old she was. She was tall for her age, though the red velvet dress she always wore hung loose on her tiny frame. A thin gold necklace and matching studs stood out on her dark skin. Everyday, I asked, kem che, and her head jerked to the side, just once, responding that she was fine, thank you. Her lips pursed, but didn't form a smile. Every morning for about three hours, while her mother, Chatra, cleaned the house, Bhoomi sat on the balcony and looked out towards St. Anthony's School next door. She watched the children hustle into classes, swarm the canteen at recess, and make their way slowly home at mid-day. In the quiet hours in between, she sat thinking, I felt, about the world and how she would one day take her place in it.

I asked her if she went to school and it lit up her face, though she still did not smile. Any day now, she said, as soon as her mother went to talk to them, and she jerked her head once towards the school.

Returning from some errands one afternoon, I saw through the window Bhoomi's head above the plants that lined my aunt's balcony. I went out and after the requisite head jerk that she was fine, thank you, I remained squatting beside the plastic garden chair. Students' voices floated out of the white school building as they chanted after their teachers. A handful of girls walked across the school yard. I asked Bhoomi if her sister, who attended that school, was among them. She jerked her head, no.

I sat on the ground, slipping off my sandals and enjoying the feel of the cool cement. We watched the girls make a lazy circle of the yard and I asked why they weren't in class. Head jerk; Bhoomi did not approve. Did she have friends who went to this school? She sat forward. She had two friends at this school and they also lived in her compound. She lived behind this building, just over there. Her hand snaked through the air mapping out the way. Dia was her best friend. They played chhum-chhum together. Like this, she said,  slapping her palms against mine, this way and that, up and down. I showed her my variation of the game. She nodded her head sagely. Yes, there were many ways of playing chhum-chhum.

Her voice was soft, raspy. She had a hint of a lisp that made her upper lip curl and her tongue flash out to meet it. Her Gujarati was different than mine and I had to strain to keep up. Her older sister, she continued, had a friend too, in their building only. Her brother and his friends all played cricket all the time. Her mother always shouted at him to do his homework first. Her dad used to shout at her mother a lot. Gaali after gaali he shouted at her, swearing at the top of his lungs.

He used to shout at us all, she said. One day, he burned my foot,the bottom of it, here. He used a fire. After that my mother left him. Her voice remained the same as when she described chhum-chhum. Now, she said, it's just the four of us and life is good again. Her head jerked once and as she slid back into the plastic chair, she smiled.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Bollywood Blues: Sheila Ki Jawani

Everyone may not love Bollywood but everyone knows of it. Even those of you who are rolling your eyes at the mention of the B-word know, at the very least, the painful rendition of Jai Ho by the Pussy Cat Dolls that you can name drop at parties when BTown comes up.

I listen to Bollywood music occassionally (only when I'm breathing, as King Khan said to Aish in Devdas) but, like with my BTown movie selection, I am selective with the music. The latest hit song, Sheila ki Jawani, is everything I hate about Hindi film music: the insertion of cheesy English lyrics among the Hindi, the gratuitous chest thrusts to make up for the lead actress's inability to dance, the  the lack of Shah Rukh Khan, the presence of Akshay Kumar. Yet this song is persistent. It pervaded my entire Karachi trip and continues to infest my California life.

Instance One: Every morning at breakfast, Uncle 2 blasted Bollywood videos as he passed me a steaming cup of lemongrass tea. Sheila was always played.

Instance Two: At the beach picnic, two Dad-aged men sang the song's chorus while dealing out cards in the hut. They got as far as the first line: "Sheila, Sheila ki Jawani"...then one asked the other, "What's the next line?" but neither knew. I wish I'd had the guts to tell them what it was, "I'm too sexy for you". They probably would have sung it.

Instances Three: Cuz 1's bro-in-law held Nephew in his arms and sang him this song in a perfect falsetto.

Instance Four: Nephew began singing the song, his two-year-old version sounding more like "Shee-a, Shee-a...wa-wee..."

Instance Five: I dreamed I was Sheila ki Jawani and was doing the dance that, in my waking hours, throws out my back.

Instance Six: Back in California for less than 48 hours, I found myself doing lunges and squats to the song during my ICC Bollywood workout. Everyone smiled and sang along as they squatted lower and lower.

Even me. I guess there really ain't nobody like Sheila.

But that's another quality of Bollywood (and all overplayed pop music worldwide): eventually, it wins.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How to use a GPS in Karachi

"Phi, see that Ice Berg sign?" Cuz no 1's wife (let's call her Bhabi, since she called me that to all the vendors she bartered with on my behalf). "That's where you need to tell the driver to take you tomorrow to pick up your sari blouses. Say, Ice Berg ke saamne (across from Ice Berg). She pointed at the blue billboard. "The tailor is across the street, see? We're all back at work, you're on your own tomorrow. Got it?"

"Ice Berg," I scrawled into my trusty notebook.

"And see that sign saying Pak Jewelers? Turn into the next gulley after that sign and after the first intersection, that's where you pick up your saris, okay?"

"Pak Jewelers, next gulley," I wrote, glancing at the gulley lined with fabric, hair accessories, chaatwalas, shoewallas and teawalas. "Got it."

At dinner that night, Bhabi even showed me where the agyari (where Zoroastrians pray) was, and I added it to my list, just like via points on my Garmin GPS back home.

The next day, I ventured into Saddar/Bori Bazaar with my notebook-cum-GPS. Uncle no 3's driver, a good friend of mine by this point as he'd been driving me around for three weeks, was told to go to the petticoat shop, but pulled up in front of the agyari. "Reroute, reroute". I only knew how to navigate to the agyari from via point number two, the  Pak Jewelers gulley. I stared at gulley before me: fabric, hair accessories, looked exactly the same as all the others.

While rerouting, I decided to go ahead and pray (and make notes on the agyari for the book, but also pray...). I lit a diva in the showcase beside the water well in the back. As a child, standing on my tiptoes and peering into its depths was a highlight of the agyari visit, till Mum or Dad shooed us away for being sacreligious. Inside the building, I put in some rupees into the donation box, pushing the money down with a ruler, another childhood thrill. I sat in the cool of main hall and watched the Atash Behram crackle in its chamber. And who should be sitting beside me at the agyari but uncle no 3's mother in law.

Back outside, Uncle's M-I-L's driver, who recalled me from my childhood, was rerouting Uncle's own driver on how to get to the Pak Jewelers sign. Just like that,  I was "arriving at destination, on right". Backtracked from the Pak Jeweler's sign  and found "Perfect Match" sari petticoat wallas shop, situated perfectly after the intersection. Piece of cake.

We set off to the next via point, the blouse tailor, and again, 'wrong turn, rerouting' was needed. Driver didn't know where Ice Berg was.

He rolled down the window and asked, "Hello, A-is Buh-rugh kidhar hai?" to several passers by but no one knew.

I tried helping out by pronouncing the name correctly, but, as I was later told with that amused 'you're such a foreigner' headshake, this only confused the locals even more. A quick call to Bhabi didn't solve the problem like it usually did, since she had decided to focus on her job that day.

Think, think, think...

"Hi, Cuz 1? Can you get Aunty's number for me, the one who knows the sari blouse tailor? I can't find the Ice Berg sign...wait."

Like a, well, Ice Berg out of the blue, the sign appeared which meant, yes, there was the tailor across the street.

"When possible, make U-turn", said my inner GPS. Aray bhai, in Karachi, when is a u-turn not possible?

The driver was jubilant. "I knew it was in this direction, I just knew it." His eyes danced in the rear-view mirror.

As I "arrived at final destination, on right", my head bobbed side to side along with his in sweet victory.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Stalking Sadequain

Covered in dust and sweating in my all-black, full-sleeved shalwar kameez, having already spent a busy morning in the wholesale market that no Karachiite in her right mind visits at mid-day, Cuz and I approached the State Bank of Pakistan-it was on the way home, it'd only take a minute- to see Sadequain's (famous Pakistani artist, remember?) really big mural, Treasures of Time, that I'd read about.

Stop 1: Back gate
Cuz: Bhai, can we see the mural in the bank museum?
Security Guard: Not possible.
Cuz: Bhai, this is my sister from America, she's writing a book and wants to see the Sadequain mural inside. [Phi smiles winningly from passenger seat].
Guard: Go to the next gate.

Stop 2: Second back gate
Cuz, wiping guard's spit from his eye (he was a sprayer, not just sayer), approaches next gate.
Cuz: sister, book, America.
Guard: Not possible.
Phi [smile] and in bad Urdu: please
Guard: fine, but you can't park in here.

Stop 3: Elbow Room Restaurant
We ended up parking at a restaurant across the street where, when the doorman opened the door, Cuz, without hesitation, marched right in.
Smoth as butter, he said, "Sir, this is my sister from America and she's writing a book. Can she see your fine establishment?"
Eyes lit up and we were given free rein, I made some token notes on God knows what, and we shared a Sprite for good measure. Four waiters bid us goodbye as we left.

Stop 4: Security checkpoint inside main campus
Cuz: This is my sister, etc.
Guard: Not possible.
Cuz: She's writing a book, etc.
Phi: Please sir, book, came from far...
Guard: Go to the next gate.

Stop 5: Security checkpoint between bank and museum
Cuz: This is my sister, etc.
Guard: Not possible.
Cuz: She's writing a book, etc.
Phi: Please,
Guard: Follow me.

Stop 6: Official looking man's desk.
Cousin: This is my sister...
Desk Man: Not possible.
Cousin: Book...
Phi: Sir, please, America, book...
Desk Man: Take her in.

Guard from Stop 4 marched us over to the beautiful sandstone building in a Roman Pantheon-esque style. Cuz and I flashed each other secret smiles. I recalled all I'd read about over the years and my heart raced in anticipation.

Stop 7:
Guard: It's the guard's lunch time. No one's there.
Phi and Cuz: speechless.

Standing in the hot hot sun, drenched with sweat, tummies growling, we stared at the large lock on the double doors. Not wanting to wait for 1.5 hours, we left, still in shock to have been so close yet...

This morning at 9, we were back. Authorotatively giving Guard 4's name, we breezed through the previous day's stops and marched up the [open] museum steps. We were duly rewarded, though Cuz may consider it punishment, with not one but four murals. The official guard showed me the info panels, the paintings, the plans for the future. And then the very enthusiastic helper man, a calligrapher himself, opened up another room with more facts about the artist and more prints and paintings by him.

Cuz was made to take pics of the info pannels while I looked and asked questions.

Now I've been to the Loeuvre, the Met, the Gugenheim, the VAG, Sistine Chapel, Uffizi, Academia... But standing before the 60 foot mural of a fellow Pakistani, I was never more moved by a work of art. All the murals were larger than life, painted in a style so unique, with subject matters so purely Pakistani, that if I hadn't been surrounded by Cuz, Helpful Calligraphy Man, Guard 4 and Official Guide Man, I would have totally shed a tear.

Stalking Sadequain

Covered in dust and sweating in my all-black, full-sleeved shalwar kameez, having already spent a busy morning in the wholesale market that no Karachiite in her right mind visits at mid-day, Cuz and I approached the State Bank of Pakistan-it was on the way home, it'd only take a minute- to see Sadequain's (famous Pakistani artist, remember?) really big mural, Treasures of Time, that I'd read about.

Stop 1: Back gate
Cuz: Bhai, can we see the mural in the bank museum?
Security Guard: Not possible.
Cuz: Bhai, this is my sister from America, she's writing a book and wants to see the Sadequain mural inside. [Phi smiles winningly from passenger seat].
Guard: Go to the next gate.

Stop 2: Next gate
Cuz, wiping guard's spit from his eye (he was a sprayer, not just sayer), approaches next gate.
Cuz: sister, book, America.
Guard: Not possible.
Phi [smile] and in bad Urdu: please
Guard: fine, but you can't park in here.

Stop 3: Elbow Room Restaurant
We ended up parking at a restaurant across the street where, when the doorman opened the door, Cuz, without hesitation, marched right in.
Smoth as butter, he said, "Sir, this is my sister from America and she's writing a book. Can she see your fine establishment?"
Eyes lit up and we were given free rein, I made some token notes on God knows what, and we shared a Sprite for good measure. Four waiters bid us goodbye as we left.

Stop 4: Security checkpoint inside main campus
Cuz: This is my sister, etc.
Guard: Not possible.
Cuz: She's writing a book, etc.
Phi: Please sir, book, came from far...
Guard: Go to the next gate.

Stop 5: Security checkpoint between bank and museum
Cuz: This is my sister, etc.
Guard: Not possible.
Cuz: She's writing a book, etc.
Phi: Please,
Guard: Follow me.

Stop 6: Official looking man's desk.
Cousin: This is my sister...
Desk Man: Not possible.
Cousin: Book...
Phi: Sir, please, America, book...
Desk Man: Take her in.

Guard from Stop 4 marched us over to the beautiful sandstone building in a Roman Pantheon-esque style. Cuz and I flashed each other secret smiles. I recalled all I'd read about over the years and my heart raced in anticipation.

Stop 7:
Guard: It's the guard's lunch time. No one's there.
Phi and Cuz: speechless.

Standing in the hot hot sun, drenched with sweat, tummies growling, we stared at the large lock on the double doors. Not wanting to wait for 1.5 hours, we left, still in shock to have been so close yet...

This morning at 9, we were back. Authorotatively giving Guard 4's name, we breezed through the previous day's stops and marched up the [open] museum steps. We were duly rewarded, though Cuz may consider it punishment, with not one but four murals. The official guard showed me the info panels, the paintings, the plans for the future. And then the very enthusiastic helper man, a calligrapher himself, opened up another room with more facts about the artist and more prints and paintings by him.

Cuz was made to take pics of the info pannels while I looked and asked questions.

Now I've been to the Loeuvre, the Met, the Gugenheim, the VAG, Sistine Chapel, Uffizi, Academia... But standing before the 60 foot mural of a fellow Pakistani, I was never more moved by a work of art. All the murals were larger than life, painted in a style so unique, with subject matters so purely Pakistani, that if I hadn't been surrounded by Cuz, Helpful Calligraphy Man, Guard 4 and Official Guide Man, I would have totally shed a tear.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I'd like to thank...

You know how when you open the first few pages of a novel, the author has dedicated it neatly and tidily to one person, maybe two? Well, my list of dedicatees is fast growing, almost into its own novel.

I used to joke that I'd dedicate the book to myself for all my hard work. But my sisters and a couple of close girlfriends read my (shitty) first draft and loved it, alluding to scenes and characters over the years, which was so encouraging. So they were on the list. Then my husband went and acted supportive when I said I was quitting my job and writing for a year, never complaining about the loss of his dining room, which got plastered with my notes, outlines, and pictures, nor about having to eat Subway or Chipotle's for dinner, even though technically I'd been home all day. So he made it onto the list too. Since I arrived in Karachi for my reserach, half of Pakistan is involved in the effort.

An elderly man who is convinced I'm writing a history of the Parsis (I'm not, but who isn't confused about what I'm doing?), emailed me an article that was gave me great background info. My seventeen year old, very distant cousin was forced to explain the dating rituals of his generation to me, blushing like mad, since:
a) as I was later told, I'm an "auntie" in his eyes
b) his mum and aunt were in the kitchen putting away the lunch stuff
c) his two great-aunts were dozing on the sofa beside him.

Last weekend we went to the beach for a picnic, and when someone noticed I was writing down the very colourful language that was being emitted, everyone jumped in and helped me fill a whole page full of profanity so strong I was too embarrassed to write down the English translations.

But here's the best example of how this really is a collaborative effort, a group novel: back in September, my uncle came to Vancouver thinking he was visiting his parents and sisters. I, too, was visiting from California and when I found a real live Pakistani at my disposal, I consistently kidnapped him and took him to Starbucks, begging him to explain all things Karachi to me because back then I hadn't planned on visiting myself. He had been helping me over email for months, keeping careful track of the commission I would soon owe him, and he was familiar with the gist of the novel. It was at the Starbucks on 3rd and Lonsdale that he suggested I base my character's family business in Bolton Market.

When I arrived in Karachi, BM was on the top of my list of places to see, since my main character goes to work there everyday. But when I arrived, what to do, Uncle worked all day at another end of town. One weekend at a wedding, my uncle approached me, with a familiar face in tow (said familiar face will, upon special request, be called Pesi). Phi, said Uncle, I'd like you to meet Pesi, his father's is the office at Bolton Market I'd mentioned to you. I'd met Pesi the weekend before, at one of my cousin's parties, and we had instantly bonded over our mutual Canadian-ness and our mutual tendancy towards BS-ing. Just like that, poor Pesi was now trapped, lured into my web of using-people-for-my-own-selfish-gains.

Last night, while I dined (a business dinner, I like to call it, since I was furiously making notes the whole while), I texted my cousin to arrange a visit to BM wtih Pesi. Which he promptly did as I chowed down on mutton zafrani and gulabjamun (all in the name of research).

This morning, my poor cousin, who had been on the phone till 10:30 the night before on my behalf, drove me at 9 am to one of the most congested parts of Karach, an area he himself had never been, nor had most Karachiites who weren't traders or wholsalers of some sort. After some initial Parsi-pana (my father had visited this very office long ago, and our grandmothers, Pesi's and mine, had been great friends) Pesi and his dad were gracious, going about their business in their tiny office as I made notes and took pictures of things like the tiling on the floor and the old leather bound record books high up on the shelves and the arrangement of their desks. Pesi had told me in the office about the surrounding areas and when my eyes lit up, he accompanied us on an impromptu walk: we explored Bottle (pronounced Bot-uhl) Gully and Paper Gully, where I juggled note taking with stepping over pools of freshly spat paan and ogling empty bottles of Marmite, Absolut Vodka, perfume, and, my favourite sight of all, bottles filled with bottle caps

Finally, my poor cousin took me to Frere Hall, my favourite building in all of Karachi, where I'd been trying all of the week before to see the Sadequain (famous Pakistani painter) mural that was on the ceiling of its main hall. Now my cousin is not the arty type, but he took me nonetheless. He even got into it, saying, wow Phi, I didn't know this was here. He lasted a whole four minutes before pulling out his Blackberry. On the ground floor, we visited the Frere Hall library, which wasn't exactly open to the public, but I got us in with my stellar Urdu...or maybe because they wanted me to stop speaking Urdu. My cuz made a video for me of the history of the hall, which was hand written on three pieces of chart paper (it took all my willpower not to pull out my red pen and correct the horrific grammar), while I looked around at the musty old books wondering if this room would make it into my novel.

Back at home, my aunt had lunch waiting for me, which was great, because we all know writers are too lost in their own world to bother with such plebeian things like cooking.

Since this is my blog and not the sophisticated novel-to-be, I can say: I love you all, you wonderful Karachiites.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Quick catch up for those of you whose ears I haven't chewed off about this: for the past 4.5 years, I've been writing a novel set in Karachi, where I myself grew up. This month, I'm visiting the city of my childhood to do research for said novel, which has been completed in a very rudimentary draft. My reesarch entails two things: 1. Going around the city armed with a notepad and camera, looking at the places my characters have visited and 2. Interviewing people about life in Karachi to get insight into the Parsi/Pakistani culture.
Amid working my way through my checklist of venues used in the novel, eating my way through the city, and general party-sharty-ing, my research is getting done in the most unexpected ways. It happens in snatched conversations on the Boat Club balcony, it happens over family meals, it happens as I am driven around this chaotic city, passing barber shops built into walls, child hawkers, and groups of hijrahs (eunuchs). All that I've imagined in my mind's eye over the last 4.5 years is here, all around me.

I'll end (I feel I must end since blogs are supposed to be short) with some highlights from week one:

1. An old man, his white beard hanging down to his chest, seated primly with one leg crossed over the other, one arm folded over the other, atop a donkey cart as the animal cut leisurely across six lanes of oncoming traffic from opposite directions.

2.Huddling in a small chaat shop in Bohri Bazaar, its blue walls plastered with large Urdu writing, the shop itself big enough for only two other pairs of patrons: two shalwar-kameezed girlfriends out for lunch, and an adorable couple, she in complete burqua, only her eyes visible, he in modern shodern jeans and a t-shirt, collar up, Elvis style. Only their ankles touched under the table.

At this point, the foreigner within, the one I've been trying to clamp down on desperately since I arrived, emerged with a vengeance. I really wanted a picture of the puris that were stacked outside the shop. The chaat maker, who sat high up on a pedestal, a stage really, surrounded by the puris and mounds of potatoes, with little boxes of pastes and sauces, who I had been trying not to include in my picture thanks to my North American sense of privacy, insisted on being in my picture. So I took one. He asked to see it, found it too dark, his face too much in the shadows, and asked me to take it from the other side, in the sun. This, too, he asked to see and finally approved with a nod. I returned to my aunt and cousin who was trying hard to pretend not to know me because apparently locals don't take pictures of chaatwalas.