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.