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.