Friday, May 9, 2014

Karachi Made Me Cry

I had no idea it's been this long since I posted. Okay, I had an inkling. Truth is, my seven weeks in Karachi left me with not so much writer's block as stimulation overload. I came home so saturated, I had no idea where to begin. So maybe I'll write a blog entry that is like my hometown: a congested, haphazardly laid out, not-easy-to-follow ode to Karachi that is nevertheless intriguing, charged with an energy unmatched, unmatchable by any city in the west.

Uncle and cuz and beer, a Sunday afternoon tradition
I stayed with my Mama and Mami, my mum's brother and his wife. They had the house painted in honor of my arrival, my cousin cleared out of his bedroom for me, set it up with a desk he thought I might like to write at overlooking the garden. I almost cried. They'd worked till 11 pm or 1 am to set it all up, then awoken at 5 to welcome me to Karachi with hot tea and all my favorites, bhakras, batasas, nankhatai. Later in my stay, I was the one to be up all night, fretting about how to ask them if I could extend my already long-by-western-standards stay by another couple of weeks. Finding the perfect words, I approached them, heart in hands, and they laughed: "Why would you ask? This is your house."

This was my house indeed. They live where I grew up, not my official home, but the one where I spent most of my time. Being there this time was a double mind-bender: first, I could still see my seven year old self playing teacher in this hall, burning rotlis in this kitchen, playing kho-kho here, house-house there, hide-and-seek, hop scotch, cricket, that game with the elastic bands that exercised your gymnastic skills- what was it called? Where was it from? The photo above is taken in a room where we acted out pivotal scenes from Hindi movies we'd seen the night before, me in my Nani's sari, my cousin stumbling around with a bottle of Johnny Walker (filled with water of course), pretending to be a sharabi (because those 80s heroes always were).

Second, so much of this house and this city has worked its way into my writing that being back there was like visiting the set of my novel- Mohatta Palace? You mean chapter 10, scene 4. Saddar? Oh boy does my character get in trouble there. And then, in that same musty dusty bazaar, I heard the vendors, "Madam, madam, come, come, t-shirts,  branded, Gucci, Polo, come come." They said the words, my words, which were in fact their words, scratched into my notebook on my last visit. Art imitating life imitating art in an unbroken, mind-bending loop.

I attended the Karachi Literature Festival and the Lahore Literature Festival. They changed my life- my writing life, so yes, my life. Seeing Pakistani writers onstage day after day, discussing issues I myself had faced or was facing or would face one day, I felt myself tearing up at every panel. Because even though I am as yet unpublished, I am a writer. I am relating to writers. Not buddy-buddying with them, that will come later, but when they spoke at the panels, they spoke to me.

Sadly, this photo, part of the KLF's official FB collection, captures me not
 intellectually considering whatever's being discussed or even shedding a graceful tear but puckered up and bawling.
I've blown it up extra large for your enjoyment.

 My favorite writers were there, writers I had discovered on the impersonal Amazon recommendations page, now before me in the flesh. Writers who had nudged me, unknowingly, to write my own novel, sure you can set it in Karachi, yes, pepper it with Urdu and Gujarati, it's what we speak here. Of course it can just be a story, not a Story With A Political Message That Must At Least Twice Mention Drones/Taliban/BinLadin.

 I shopped till I dropped- from the weight of the books I bought. So many that the security guard stared at his X-ray machine gave me a suspicious look- all he could see was two rectangles, the tops of the two stacks of books in my carry-on.
You can't find books on Pakistan here. And being there, among academics and authors, I developed a thirst to know more, more about this county I left at 11 that continues to haunt my imagination and my writing. I also wanted not to sound like an idiot when I one day was on a panel at the KLF about my own country. So I came home with 110 pounds worth of books that will take me who knows how long to get through.

I tried my utmost to be Pakistani. To speak Urdu. Not gape at things. Undo my accent. I went places alone, places they'd never let me go alone before. I felt a certain thrill. Like I belonged. Then I'd come home and hear about a bomb blast or attack and feel just so naive, so out of my league, an outsider after all.

Not only did I speak Urdu, I was spoken to in Urdu. They thought I was one of them. Then, on the plane from Dubai to SFO, the Indian air hostess greeted passengers, mostly in Hindi, row after row until she reached me. "Is everything okay, ma'am?" The wall clanked down. I was back to being racially ambiguous. It pinched my insides.

The gorgeous Mira Nair
At the Lahore Lit Fest, I heard Mira Nair talk about Salaam Bombay as it is the film's 25th anniversary. My tears nearly short-circuited the iPhone in my lap. She had been a documentary film maker and then, for SB, she used that format that came so naturally to her and lived among the slum kids she would portray, lived like them, learned the nuances of their lives which then made this movie that is still acclaimed a quarter century later. I cried because that's what I am doing in going to Karachi. I live the life that my characters will one day live. I always thought writers should hole up in a room and make shit up, what's this go-here go-there thing I keep doing? But she showed me there is no right and wrong way to do this, this creating business, you just do what you are driven to do.

In my next entry, we will talk about the man I love:
Bonus marks if you can tell who he is from this bad picture of a picture