Destiny

Centre N, Sector 12, Satellite Reina. Extraterrestrial addresses differed from earthly ones like House 6, Wenn Street, Merrittown, Svalbard. The same address in space terms: Earth, Svalbard, Merrittown, Wenn Street, House 6—the order reversed to specify the largest scale first because Earth was no longer the only home. Now just the First Home, it was the launching pad for the first colonists as rival entrepreneurs set off in opposite directions to establish civilisations that orbited stars other than the sun. Man-made empires with man-made foundations and man-made conditions; materials from the planets they stripped bare of resources and light energy from the stars (or “centres”) around which their cities revolved. The enterprisers vied with each other, hoarding their knowledge and technology behind walls of jealousy. They called those few who chose to remain behind on Firsthome foolish followers of the old planet-dependent order, saying that they would never get anywhere. Yet an emissary from Firsthome was going further than any Groundling had ever gone before. Centre Nagavi had only two residents. One was the two-person team of Shumneya and his daughter Reina, making machine parts for everything from spacecraft engines to scent sprayers. Their unique technique set them apart. The other was the scout squad of the star-city Koryak, headed by Commander Kronotski, nosing around in the wake of every noteworthy activity, scavenging for spoils. He was determined to sniff out a windfall somewhere, but Shumneya and Reina were as unyielding as Kronotski was resolute.

 

“Reina,” Shumneya called from the observation bay. “We have a visitor. Let him land.”

 

Silence from the control deck. He could see her eyebrows arching with surprise. “He’s giving the correct admittance signal,” he prompted. “Open the dock.”

 

As she obeyed, he saw her shaking her head at his willingness to let a complete stranger enter the ship. He smiled.

 

That was how the Groundling found the two: Shumneya smiling serenely, Reina with her features set in an uncompromising expression.

 

“Mr.?”  Shumneya asked. “Zibell,” the man replied.

 

“What brings you here, Mr. Zibell?” Shumneya inquired pleasantly. “I assume that you’re not the latest gimmick from Kronotski. You don’t look like you come from Koryak.”

 

“No, I come from Earth.” A silent mixture of surprise and disbelief was his only answer. “I used a dark tunnel in the vicinity. It opens near here. A journey of many years over in a few seconds. I came quite deliberately, with a message…for Reina.”

 

“You must be mistaken,” Reina said. “I have never been there; my father left it when he was a young man. We have no ties there.” Her father appeared startled at her finishing words.

 

“You are not right there, my dear,” he said quietly. Turning to Zibell, he said, “You come from Ragnar?”

 

“No, Advendalen.”

 

“What—?” Reina began to ask, but Shumneya silenced her, indicating that Zibell should talk.

 

Zibell spoke, addressing Reina. “Before Shumneya left Firsthome, he worked with a man called Hijau. Due to some differences in opinion, they separated and went their own ways. Shumneya got the rights to the blueprints they were working on; with them he made an advanced design for long-distance spacecraft. Hijau founded a rival organisation, Ragnar, determined to use what knowledge he had to cause Shumneya’s downfall.” Reina stiffened. Shumneya asked, “But Hijau’s fight is with me. What does this have to do with Reina?”

 

“Everything,” Zibell answered. “When your partnership with Hijau broke up, you sealed your work against him with your brand of DNA coding technology so that he could not operate it. Even now, only you two can access your experimental, cutting-edge work.” His listeners were thunderstruck to hear that he knew about that. “He can’t use you to break your code because you blocked his DNA using your own, but Reina is your daughter. She has half your DNA, therefore she could access whatever you could once you enabled her to do so, but she is not directly protected against Hijau like you are.”  

 

“How do you know all this?” Reina exclaimed suddenly. “And why are you telling us?”

 

Zibell smiled. “I know it because I am the Vitrazh. We made our way and swore to safeguard it long ago; delivering this message was a crucial part of my responsibility. As for why I am telling you—Kronotski is Hijau’s man. He follows you more deliberately and precisely than you know. You cannot stay here. You must return to Firsthome, where we can protect you.”

 

“This—is—ridiculous!” Reina exclaimed. “Father, why didn’t you tell me before?”

 

“I did not want to worry you,” Shumneya replied. “Our techniques are too precious to hide, but they would be dangerous in the hands of someone like Hijau; he is disturbingly ambitious. We can only—”

 

Zwing. The sound of one of their one-man shuttles being powered up interrupted him. They both wheeled around in shock; Zibell was operating the switchboard. The controls were accessible by DNA coding only to Shumneya and Reina; it was technically impossible for anyone else to use them.

 

Reina leapt forward, but by the time she reached the switchboard, Zibell was in the cockpit.

 

“The coordinates to the dark tunnel are 89-V 40-C,” he called. “I’m going to distract Kronotski. You don’t have time to waste.” Without further ado, he shot off towards Kronotski’s headquarters, leaving two very astounded people behind him.

 

After a few moments, Shumneya turned to his daughter. “You must go in the other shuttle,” he said. “Don’t let his sacrifice go to waste.”

 

“Sacrifice?”

 

“Yes. When Kronotski discovers that you managed to get away because of Zibell, he won’t be happy.”  

 

“But…” Reina stared incredulously at her father. “What about you?”

 

“I have done my part in preserving this knowledge. Now you are destined to do the same.”

 

“You mean that I have no choice in the matter?”

 

“If our objective was destined to fail, we would never have gotten any chance to save it. This opportunity, however, lets us choose to strive for a possible outcome by acting, or resign ourselves to an inevitable outcome by not acting. The choice is there. The choice is yours.”

 

Reina stood gazing at Shumneya in silence for what seemed like a long while. Finally, she tore her eyes away from that beloved countenance and moved towards the shuttle. She knew that no matter how much she prolonged her last time with her father, it would never be enough.

 

***

 

“How can you say she isn’t from Tilago? They’ve tried to sneak in before.”

 

“A high-speed craft blasting right into the warehouses? Quite the opposite of sneaky. Besides, that shuttle isn’t of Tilago design.”

 

“Why did she go straight for the supplements storage, then? I spent months wagering that deal to get our hands on those. All gone! And you say it’s an accident!”

 

“You’re paranoid, Pervenets.”

 

“And you’re foolish, Uzon.”

 

“Are you two done arguing?” A third voice interrupted.

 

Two pairs of eyes, one alight with curiosity, the other tainted with suspicion, swivelled in the direction of the voice. Reina stood on the threshold, studying them guardedly.

 

“You must be quite disorientated,” Uzon said, “after a crash like that. You’ve been unconscious for awhile. How did you leave your room? It was locked.”

 

Animated by derision, Reina forgot her reserve. “You call that a lock?” Pervenets scowled.  

 

“You must be quite nifty with mechanisms to break out like that.” The interest in Uzon’s face sharpened. “Where did you come from?”

 

“Nagavi.”

 

“Where on Earth is that?”

 

“It’s not on…it’s in the Ustinova quadrant.”

 

“Oh.” Uzon’s eyes widened; Pervenets went pale. “You’re extraterrestrial! No wonder our locks seem feeble to you. Well, Starling, how come you’re anywhere near here?”

 

“Advendalen sent someone to fetch me,” Reina said.

 

“But…” Nonplussed, Uzon looked at Pervenets, who looked equally confused. “We’re Advendalen.”

 

“You?” It was Reina’s turn to be perplexed.

 

“Pardon me,” said Uzon; “we should introduce ourselves. I am Uzon Cronon, and this is my brother Pervenets. Together we run Advendalen, which doesn’t make as spectacular spacecraft as yours, but it’s good enough for Earth. We never called any Starling here.”

 

“Do you know about an Earth-based spacecraft company called Ragnar?”

 

“No; there isn’t any such company on Earth. If it existed, we would know,” Uzon assured her.

 

Reina was silent before venturing, “May I see my shuttle?”

 

“Why not,” Uzon said easily. “Come along.”

 

Even though it was mangled beyond repair, the shuttle still showed signs of its remarkable craftsmanship. Reina swept her gaze over the Earth-machine parts scattered among the debris of the warehouse. They were distorted, but her experienced eye could still make out their design and function. She turned one of them over with her foot.

 

“Look at that,” she said critically. “The shape! The joins! What a horrible contraption!”

 

Pervenets was in danger of bursting with indignation but Uzon was tingling with excitement. “Exactly,” he said.

 

“Excuse me?” She was surprised.

 

He indicated the shuttle. “Flawless technique.”

 

“So…?”

 

“You don’t realise the implications of wrecking a commercial warehouse, do you? Investigations, explanations—in this case, cover-up stories. It takes a lot of work.”

 

“So…?”

 

“That” (Uzon indicated the shuttle) “can compensate for this” (he indicated the destroyed warehouse).

 

“My shuttle?”

 

“Your knowledge.”

 

Reina raised her eyebrows.

 

“I’m not forcing you,” Uzon said steadily. “It’s your choice. I’m the manpower and Pervenets is the infrastructure. If you joined us, we’d have skill. The output would be colossal.” Seeing Reina glance at Pervenets, he added, “He won’t die. He’s just overly cautious.” Pervenets grimaced.

 

I’ll have somewhere to stay while I sort this out, Reina thought. “Advendalen,” she said aloud, “welcome Reina Shumneya. I’m not going to be easy on you.”

 

“That’s exactly what I want,” Uzon said.

 

Later on, when they were alone, Pervenets said to Uzon, “This is insane. The Groundling-Starling difference alone can’t account for the difference between our technology and hers. It’s unsettling.”

 

“In a good way,” Uzon countered. “Just think of where she will take Advendalen.”

 

“You were always mad,” Pervenets replied, “so it was natural for you to just start talking to her like that, but why she was crazy enough to reply so comfortably, I don’t understand.”

 

“Like responds to like,” Uzon remarked. “I fancy I see a kindred spirit in her.”

 

Pervenets just shook his head. A week later, he had more concerns to spill.

 

“All the products DNA-encoded to her!” he stormed. “No control left in our hands! All this time I’ve been watching you two gushing over this spindle and that joint, but enough is enough! This isn’t improvement, this is taking over! She’ll kick us out!”

 

Uzon smiled. “She’s committing herself to the work. Besides, her techniques don’t work any other way.”

 

Reina’s roommate, Dolina, had her own way of looking at things. When Reina came back from work at 5am one day, Dolina was waiting to ambush her.

 

“Where were you?” she squealed.

 

“Working,” Reina replied.

 

“With Uzon?” Dolina demanded. “Till 5am? Alone?”

 

Reina smiled, prolonging the suspense, watching Dolina squirm. “And Pervenets,” she added, “and Fram and Nansen.”

 

“WHAT?!” Dolina howled. “Reina, you—are—pathetic!”

 

Six months later, with many designs successfully implemented, Uzon asked Reina to be his wife and she agreed. This satisfied Dolina’s matchmaking instincts (though she had had no influence on the match) and quelled Pervenets’ anxiety (he no longer feared that Reina would take over Advendalen).

 

“Do you know what you have done?” Dolina asked Reina one day.

 

“What?” Reina asked.

 

“You have created a special bloodline. You can enable access to your kids because they have your father’s DNA, right? They’ll run Advendalen after you, and their kids after them, and so on until this pattern is disrupted. It’ll take a lot to disrupt it, though; the Vitrazh is always tough.”

 

“The…what?” Reina’s voice quavered, but Dolina did not notice it.

 

“Vitrazh. Protector related by blood; usually a sibling. Never wondered why Pervenets went berserk when you first came? He’s the Vitrazh for this generation, protecting Uzon with his own life. It’s an ancient system for large organisations like these.”

 

Reina recalled Zibell’s words: “We made our way and swore to safeguard it long ago.” Our way…the way of exclusive control in the hands of Shumneya’s descendants. Long ago…When? In the future of the present, but the past of the future. Pervenets would put the baton in one of her children’s hands, where it would ultimately pass on to Zibell, who, by discharging his duty, would ensure that it passed back to Pervenets again…a chain of choices, united because every link made the right one. That is destiny.

***

Originally published in Us Magazine, The News International.

Note: Forgive me for being so verbose in this story. As one of my English teachers used to say, “Avoid pomposity and verbosity”, and nobody pointed out to my face exactly how pompous and verbose my writing was at the time of writing this story, so here it is, in all its immaturely worded glory. Forgive a teen for being a teen, eh? I get embarrassed reading stuff from my teenage now that I know better.

Oh, and the names are mostly from a National Geographic article about volcanoes and geology. Go figure! I took a leaf out of J.K. Rowling’s book; she used maps for names, I used a single Nat Geo article. *grins*

This story is set in the universe of my novel, so consider it a backstory that sets the stage for the rest of it. Wish me luck. Rather, pray that I get to write down my novel successfully one day. I have a physical ache from carrying it around, unwritten, all these years. For those non-writers among you who don’t get what it means, think of it as an unborn baby in the third trimester. You’re tired of carrying it around everywhere and you just wanna get that sucker out! Only, there is no automatic natural process to birth it; you have to extract that novel from your self with tweezers and tongs, changing yourself irreversibly in the process.

Writing is hard. Never assume otherwise.

–Iqra Asad.

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Young Adult Syndrome

You know you have Young Adult Syndrome when you’re expected by your elders to run on the infinite batteries of youth because, well, you have the elixir of youth instead of orange juice for breakfast, don’t you? When your middle-aged or older relatives start getting aches and pains, they look at you lounging in your easy chair and go, “Look at you, get me this, that and the other, and then go around and pick that up, and don’t make that face, you’re still young!” I know immediately getting up and obeying is what is proper, but I confess it does get tiring when you can’t sit still for any amount of time because the elders have you get up every few minutes to do something or – icing on the cake – don’t even let you sit down between one task and the other. OK, yeah, I’m complaining, but hear me out: I’m trying to make a point here.

The point is this: we youngsters don’t run on electricity. More importantly, youth – as the previous generation remembers it – is not at all the same as the youth this generation has received. We’re getting aches and pains and blood pressure and what not way before they did. We don’t have the same diet, the same routine; therefore, we don’t have the same energy. You can knock down all the energy drinks you want, but you still can’t beat the natural high that your parents and grandparents got when they were young. Now that I’ve touched upon grandparents, let me appreciate that since they have observed the youth of their children, they are not so hard on their grandchildren. They have seen their children succumb to “old age diseases” twenty years before they did; they have seen them lose sleep and age quickly, and therefore they don’t expect a higher quality of youth two generations down the road. They are realistic, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Why? That is because as far as parents are concerned, they have yet to realise that generation Y, or alpha omega Cornetto (whatever one we’re on now), is not as rough, tough and ready to rumble as they were. We’ve had the juice sucked out of us by our erratic sleep patterns, wonky food intake, and you know all the rest. I can’t help but suspect that there is some underlying factor beyond all this that affects the vitality of youngsters. Perhaps it’s just being above the poverty line that makes us so feeble. The youth working away in the fields and furnaces seems to be as lively as ever, or maybe that is just how I see it.

Don’t get me wrong, the youth is engaged in as many productive and constructive efforts as ever before. Whether it be the skill of churning out perfectly crafted fondant rosette after rosette on a handmade made-to-order cake, or raising money for a good cause, the youth has it and knows how to rock it. However, you have to talk to teachers, or other people who observe year after year to know how depression cases are increasing and emotional disturbances are spreading. All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but an entertainment-focused lifestyle is sure to get to your nerves in the end. It’s like Sean Covey says in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers: family, friends, entertainment, school and all the rest are part of your life. Any one of them should not be the centre of your life. Your life should be principle-centred (honesty, hard work, faith, and so on are principles) because principles never fail you.

Still, I think even if become principle-centred, we cannot live as voraciously and energetically as our grandparents or even parents did. We have to find our own niche in the world and live as healthful and balanced a life as possible, with our own level of highs and lows. Also, we have to grow a thick skin against carefree remarks made about youth, because in the end, we are still going to hear the same old, “You’re young! You should be full of life!” comments from our good old parents.


Originally published in Us Magazine, The News: 

http://magazine.thenews.com.pk/mag/detail_article.asp?id=10588

The Artist’s Meow (a story)

The moment was frozen in suspended animation. The inkpot hovered in the air above the map, spread out below it in all its handmade glory. Then Myu’s tail snapped forwards and the illusion dissipated; the inkpot smashed onto the table and the ink spilled all over.

Myu disappeared as quickly as the details of the map did underneath the indelible ink.

Now it was Lielle’s turn to be frozen. She was frozen with horror as she took in the damage to her beloved map. Drawn in painstaking detail over the course of half a year, under the instruction of her tutor, it was her masterpiece and her joy. She had dedicated the main table of her study to it; pinning the paper carefully to the edges of the table and making sure nobody and nothing remotely harmful came close to it.

Until now.

Now Myu, her cat, had infiltrated the study and flung a pot of black ink over it with a swish of his tail. What made it worse was that the event unfolded right in front of Lielle’s eyes. Had she come upon the disaster later, after it had already happened in her absence, she would not be eaten away by the thought that she could have prevented it. However, right there, in front of her eyes, Myu had carried out his mischief. Sinking into the beanbag in the corner of her study, Lielle dissolved into tears as she contemplated the almost deliberate malice with which Myu regarded her work of six months. He didn’t like being barred from the study, which used to be his domain before the map project started. In fact, the whole house was his domain ever since the fateful day he had appeared on her doorstep.

It was the morning of her assignment to her tutor, the revered Huoyhnhm, who did not take on any but the cream of the crop. Basking in the glory of her first lesson in the presence of this celebrated mind, she had opened the door to find a gold-flecked tan cat, sitting comfortably on the doorstep as if he owned the place. The cat looked up at her without the slightest bit of hesitation, and, taken in by his confidence, Lielle took him in. She had in her mind’s eye the perfect picture of the art student who blossomed under the watchful eye of her tutor and the inspirational company of her pet cat. How ideal, she had thought.

How disastrous, she thought now.

She finally brought herself to look at what remained of her handiwork. The intricate details lay blotted out beneath a sea of black. She wiped away her tears, unpinned the paper and folded it up. Now, instead of washing away in helpless tears, she burned with firm resolve. She clattered up the stairs into the attic, where she took out a huge roll of special paper, and, shouldering it, came back down more quietly. She unrolled the paper and pinned it to the table. Then she took out her map-making materials and arranged them on the work space.

The energy that had churned within her stilled as she considered the blank paper. She had gotten so used to continuing work already started that she had not faced the challenge of the empty page for months.

Taking out her charcoal, she began to sketch the border from memory. Golden-tan flicked past in the corner of her vision. She did not raise her head and continued working. Myu came near. He did not seem the least guilty or disturbed. On the contrary, he was alive with curiosity and watched her as she worked diligently into the wee hours of the night.

******

“What is this?” Huoyhnhm said next morning, upon seeing the new map, which was blank except for a border.

“A clean slate, sir,” Lielle answered.

“Hmm,” was Huoyhnhm’s response. He viewed the expanse of white for a minute before sitting down in his customary working position, motioning for Lielle to begin.

“But, sir,” Lielle said, slipping into her work pose and picking up her instrument, “where do I begin?”

“You have already begun,” he said, motioning towards the borders of the map. “Now you may continue.”

Lielle looked back at him inquiringly before turning back to face the blank map. She paused, put her instrument down, and said, “I must bring Myu in, sir. I want him to see me work.”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Huoyhnhm.

“But—” said Lielle.

“I said,” Huoyhnhm replied firmly, “continue your work.”

And she did.

*****

The next morning before her tutor was expected to arrive, Lielle searched far and wide for Myu in order to bring him into the study before Huoyhnhm came, but he was nowhere to be found. She usually left Myu to his own pursuits while she worked with her tutor, and had no idea what he did during those times, so she did not know where he might be. Sighing, she ambled back to her study, only to find Huoyhnhm already seated. She glanced at the clock.

“You’re late,” said Huoyhnhm.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said Lielle. “I was looking for Myu.”

Huoyhnhm looked back at her as if he were studying the page of a textbook. He cocked his head to the side in the way Myu did when he looked at her. Then he straightened up and motioned towards the map.

Gathering her materials, Lielle settled down to work.

******

A few map-making sessions later, Huoyhnhm said that he had something important to relate. Lielle perked up to listen.

“You have shown prowess in the face of adversity,” he said. “I have watched you grow under my tutelage. You have grown to the point where further instruction on my part is not required. I release you.”

Lielle stared uncomprehendingly back at him without replying.

“I will write a letter of recommendation to the university,” Huoyhnhm continued. “You may sit the exam and receive your qualification. After that, the world is yours. You may do with it as you wish.”

Lielle looked at the unfinished map, then back at Huoyhnhm.

“Ah,” he said. “That is something you may complete on your own. You no longer need my assistance. I have observed your response to a great setback, overcoming something like that is more important than advancing seamlessly from one achievement to another. You have what it takes to be an artist. I release you.”

Lielle finally spoke up. “You honour me,” she said. “You will always be my teacher.”

Huoyhnhm smiled.

“Before you go,” Lielle said, “I would like you to give me…I would…that is…will you give me an autograph?”

Huoyhnhm stared at her for a moment. Then he chuckled. “Of course.” Taking the pen from her hand, he signed the proffered piece of paper with a flourish. After he left, Lielle pinned the paper to her work table along with the map.

*****

Try as much as she could, she could not find Myu after that. She alternated between searching for him and sitting and wondering about him. In a way, Myu had been as supportive as Huoyhnhm, only Huoyhnhm had watched directly over her art, and Myu had been the overseer of the rest of her life. However, an artist’s art is not separate from the rest of his or her existence; so it seemed that between Myu and Huoyhnhm, she had been very well guided in her training.

Finally, she went back to the study, only to stop at the threshold, arrested by the sight within. There lay Myu, curled up on the map, apparently sleeping. She walked quietly over to him so as not to disturb him, tears of joy welling up in her eyes.

Myu’s eyes popped open, and he fixed her with an unwavering gaze. Lielle gulped at the intensity of his eyes. Moving slowly but deliberately, he slipped off the table and went to the door, where he looked back at her as if to ask her to follow him. She followed, and he led her to the front door. She opened the front door, and Myu went onto the doorstep, where he looked up at her, then down at the street, and meowed.

Lielle sighed. Would conquering one disaster mean that she would have to part with all her instructors, and find new ones? That was how it seemed. She looked out into the street, then down at Myu, and finally said, “I release you.”

As if he understood, Myu rubbed against her legs, purred, and then set off into the street, weaving in and out of the patches of sunlight that streamed through the dense trees.

When Lielle went back to the study, she observed something different about the autograph pinned to her table. There, in black ink, was a cat’s paw print, next to Huoyhnhm’s signature. It had not been there before.

She gazed at the piece of paper for a long time. Then she spoke into the silence of the room, “You were a humane cat, and a feline human. In my entire journey as an artist, I will never again find a teacher like you.” She closed the door of the study and left. Behind her, the human-cat instructor’s signature blended into the darkness of the room.


Published in Us Magazine, The News (Pakistan): http://magazine.thenews.com.pk/mag/detail_article.asp?id=9716#sthash.64vwqC1B.dpuf

A burger bachi’s guide to eating out in Lahore

Those days when you can’t come up with a killer hashtag for your latest dine-out meal’s photo are the worst. The worst, I tell you. Everyone’s Instagram updates (puh-lease, Facebook check-ins are so yesterday) are overflowing with snazzy snaps of yummylicious food but the real foodies are those who tag their photos effectively. Of course, my Instagram is public. Want to show up in the “explore” pages of all the happening folks, yo.

Which brings me to the word “foodie”. Every Tahir, Danial and Harris calls himself a foodie nowadays. Huh. They think hanging around MM Alam, drinking designer coffee, and ordering customized cupcakes to go counts as foodie material. Time to wake up, dreamers. Real foodies only go out to the most exclusive restaurants, discovered ethnic cuisine before you even heard the word “Thai”, and only drink hipster chai tea. Yes, it’s “chai tea”. Not chai, not tea; chai tea. If the gora calls it chai tea the desi foodie shall call it chai tea also. Don’t worry if you can’t grasp it yet. You probably still drink Nescafe sachet coffee.

Frozen yogurt is for people who can’t afford Movenpick. Piling up toppings onto huge dollops of frozen yogurt like there’s no tomorrow, is not classy. Going to high-end restaurant and paying top dollar for a microscopic scoop of pure heaven is the real deal. Taking a cool photo with your DSLR macro lens makes it all worth it. What, you’re still using the “food” mode on your point-and-shoot? Gosh, I don’t even know why I waste my time with you.

Let me walk you through the basic dine-out, you poor uninformed thing. First, there’s the pre-dine-out meet-up at someone’s place, where we take selfies and group photos. This is a good point to upload a photo to Instagram and announce how much fun we’re having. Then, it’s time to pile up into the car and tell the driver where to go. On the way, it’s perfectly legit to touch up makeup, rearrange hair, or even do a full makeover on the guinea-pig tagalong of the group. (Don’t tell me you don’t know what that is. That’s the socially bankrupt, wannabe coolster classmate we let come along with us because we’re just that generous.) Then, upon arrival at the destination, we all make a graceful exit from the car and take a photo next to the name of the restaurant. We wait until we get inside and use the restaurant’s wifi to upload that photo. This is the critical time where hashtags must, must, must be up to the standard. We stake out the area – you must keep tabs on what the aunties at the next table are discussing, and which waiter seems overly pleased at the arrival of a group of dolled-up teenagers, and then we establish ourselves at the best table. It’s perfectly fine to refuse the table the maitre d’ picks for us. We can wangle our way to the table we choose. We take as much time giggling and fussing over the menu as we want. After placing the order, it’s time to hit the ladies’ room for—you guessed it—more selfies! Polishing off the meal is no issue. Taking the perfect shot of it is. This is the part where we upload the photographic masterpiece to Instagram. Rounding up the meal with a dainty dessert, it’s time to pile into the car again and go home for a good old fashioned gossip session. There you have it, your basic dine-out, “the matchless experience” that is the best entertainment Lahore has to offer.


Originally published in Us Magazine, The News (Pakistan):

http://magazine.thenews.com.pk/mag/detail_article.asp?id=9915

– See more at: http://magazine.thenews.com.pk/mag/detail_article.asp?id=9915#sthash.8xBw7fxY.dpuf

‘Tis the season to be sneezing

Summer’s in the air. It’s in the chirping of the birds, the swaying of the trees and the trundling of the ice cream truck, but most of all, it’s in my nose.

Atchoo!

My nose forecasts the weather better than the eight o’ clock news. It’s hardly done with the last flu of the winter season before it lets loose with the first sign of the season of love. You know, the season when flowers get all romantic and spew pollen into the air. If one of those love letters happens to enter my respiratory system, my nose is convinced that the envelope contains anthrax.

Pollen: Yoo-hoo! I’m here, where’s the reception party?

Nose: Code red, code red! Fire in the hole!

Pollen: Wait a second, there must be a mistake, I’m only—

Nose: GET BACK, YOU! You pose a major threat to the wellbeing of this organism! Open the floodgates!

The nose never learns that freaking out about the allergen is pointless, maybe because it doesn’t pause to look before it goes into freak mode. The non-allergic nose is a calmer and more observant entity than the allergic nose. It lets all sorts of things pass by without comment. This is the basis for a major divide in the population of the world: people who are allergic, and those who are not.

Allergic people communicate in a wordless language. They see the signs and respond without having to be told what is going

on. Those who are prepared always keep tissue paper on hand in case their nose starts ringing alarm bells in the middle of nowhere. In my case, it’s a tissue roll, others prefer carrying around an entire tissue box. (The ladylike “single piece of tissue” is only found in the pocket or purse of non-allergic females, kept there for greasy fingers or stray lipstick. It probably thinks it’s a very serviceable little piece of tissue, and indeed it is, but if it were in the employ of an allergic nose, it wouldn’t last beyond a sneeze or two.) I did try switching to handkerchiefs somewhere along the way, but I kept leaving them behind in other people’s houses, so I switched back to my trademark tissue-roll-with-a-plastic-bag-to-put-the-used-ones-in. It sounds hilarious, and it probably looks so too, but it eventually becomes something you are known for. In any case, whether people know I am allergic or not, they definitely know that I always have a roll of tissue paper with me. Hence I, along with the rest of the allergic population, function as a “tissue paper dispenser”. Spilled ink? Go to the tissue person! Ketchupy fingers? Tissue, please! I like being able to help with little everyday emergencies, but it’s funny when some people only talk to/know you with regard to that one thing.

Then there’s the type of anti-allergic medicine that works for you. Put two snifflers together and they will ultimately begin talking about which one works best for them. Some antihistamines, along with being effective, also turn you into a “jahaaz”—and I don’t mean the kind that flies. The world keeps moving at the same pace, but you slow down. You function almost in a state of suspended animation. You register the fact that someone is talking to you, but you may not get what they’re saying. The only way to avoid this is either to find a brand that doesn’t turn you into a

zombie or to not take any anti-allergic altogether, in which case you will be a zombie anyway. It’s not just the sneezing that reduces you to that state. It’s the constant drip-drip-drip, either at the tip of your nose or at the back of your throat. The sensation that your head is stuffed with cotton wool. 70% of your attention is unavailable for normal use. Which is why people prefer to take the medicine anyway; it’ll turn the sneezing switch off even if it keeps the zombie mode on.

While allergic people are usually in tune with each other, non allergic ones are on a different wavelength. Not only is it difficult for them to understand what it’s like, they take a surprising amount of time to grasp the fact that you are allergic. The first time you have an allergy attack in front of them, they’re convinced you have the flu and are going to pass it on to them. The second time they see your nose and eyes flooding, they wonder why your immunity is so low. The third time, they finally understand that you aren’t kidding. Some of them still persist in saying, “Flu again?” even though they have been seeing you having attacks for years. I still remember the time when my father, tired of the amount of tissue I used in one attack, handed me two pieces and told me to survive on them for a two-hour car trip. Thankfully, my mother (from whom I have inherited the fussy nose) had a backup supply on hand. That was a long time ago, though. I have become more economical in my use of tissues, and have developed different strategies for emergency and special situations, which every allergic person comes up with independently and then discovers that the rest of the world does the same thing—the allergic ones, I mean. Stuff like plugging your nostrils with wads of tissue so that they keep soaking up the steady flow (like when you need to study for an

exam and can’t devote so much time to handling your nose). Or, in dire circumstances, reusing used pieces of tissue when they become dry. No points for guessing which readers are going “ewww” and which ones aren’t.

Summer isn’t the only thing I’m allergic to. My nose is also very suspicious about dust mites. People who aren’t allergic to them nearly always respond with, “Well, keep the house clean, then!” This is because they are unaware of the great distinction between dust and dust mites. The little bits of sparkle floating in that ray of sunshine coming through the window—that’s dust motes for you. Dust mites, on the other hand, are tiny eight-legged cousins of the spider. They like to hang around us humans because they eat the particles of skin we shed every day—not on us, I should add, but in carpets, sofas, bedding and the like. (A fussy nose really drives you towards research!) There are no carpets in my house, and when the season changes and the blankets come out of the storeroom, they get put out in the sun before being used. Still, those little buggers find some way to torment me now and then, like when an absentminded relative kindly puts a straight-from-the-storeroom blanket over me while I’m sleeping. Of course, to my nose, that is just plain sacrilege.

Some people are allergic to allergies (I don’t think humanity has produced a specimen that isn’t irritated by the sound of someone sniffling) and expect sufferers to hate it as much as they do, but I don’t. I could have had something much more serious; comparing allergies with other things makes me feel that I got off easy, even if I sometimes don’t know exactly what caused an allergic episode. To quote James Thurber, “I used to get up at 4am and start sneezing, sometimes for five hours. I tried to find out

what kind of allergy I had but came to the conclusion that I was allergic to consciousness.”

’Tis the season to be sneezing

Aa, aa, aa, aa, aa, aa, aa, aa-tchoo!

With red nose and eyes full streaming

Aa, aa, aa, aa, aa, aa, aa, aa-tchoo!

Bring some Kleenex, or Rose Petal,

Aa, aa, aa, aa, aa, aa, aa, aa-tchoo!

Whatever gets your nose to settle

Aa, aa, aa, aa, aa, aa, aa, aa-tchoo!


Originally published in Us Magazine, The News.

Score brownie points, the brownie way

By no means did I make the cupcakes in this picture, but as long as we’re talking baking, why not post an indulgent photo?

I have a sweet tooth, a chocolate tooth and a filled tooth. The latter is a result of the former. In order to keep the filling in its proper place and not yank it out mid-chew, I avoid chewing sticky foods on that side. That means taking a bite of the chocolate, transferring it all to the side which is yet unmolested by the siege of sweetness, and chomping it one-sidedly to slush. My jaw does not like this arrangement. It protests. I insist that I’ve received the “overload” memo. It puts up banners and waves flags. It sends a whole “too much strain on this end” message through flag-waving signals. Finally, I give in. I cut back on the chocolate input through chocolate bars and look for substitutes instead. Chocolate mousse. Chocolate cake. Chocolate ice cream. Chocolate choco latte. You get the idea.

It is every chocoholic’s dream to find something that is rich but not overwhelmingly so. I discovered my something the day I started experimenting with the chocolate input in my homemade brownies. I found out that doubling the amount of less-rich cooking chocolate does not have the same effect as using half the amount of a substantially richer brand, and that the less-rich variety will never last long enough to become part of anything baked anyway; it won’t survive the “just one bite every time I walk past the fridge” attacks. Cocoa powder is convenient because you don’t have to melt it before using it. You also get a lot of mileage out of a good-sized cocoa box because you can’t possibly eat the powder by the spoonful as long as your bitter-detecting taste buds work.

When I finally came up with my ideal form of brownies, I went through a brownie-making whirl before finally putting a mental lock on the cocoa box. My denial meter could only take so much of knowing exactly—how—much—sugar—and—oil—I—was—eating. Store-bought brownies do not have any numbers attached to them apart from the greatly bloated price tag.

Anything homemade, however, serves up a plateful of numbers along with the taste. The number of cups (or ounces, if you prefer) dances in front of your eyes. The sooner you fire up the oven after your previous round of baking, the clearer the numbers are. If you leave a decent interval between consecutive baking times, the numbers disappear—and no, buying a brownie in the interval doesn’t help. Not me, at least. Call me cheap, but I have lost the ability to pay in excess of sixty rupees for a single brownie and enjoy it, especially when I was only paying thirty-five for the same thing last year. The knowledge that I can make just my style of brownie on my own, with butter if I’m feeling indulgent and with olive oil if I’m not, with every step of the procedure in my hands, whereas the ingredients for the store-bought version are goodness-knows-what and it’s been sitting on that shelf for don’t-know-how-long—all this spoils its taste. Add to all that the fact that the bakery brownie is only one and the homemade batch can be made to last for days if you want it to, and you have one seriously turned off baker girl.

Now that I wait a while before bringing out the measuring cups, every step of the process is a delight. When the idea slips into my head and makes me put aside whatever I’m doing, I jump with joy on the way to the kitchen. (My brother’s remark when he once caught his otherwise lost-in-books sister in the act of making an excited hop all alone in her room: “I think I wasn’t supposed to see that.”) I actually like using the measuring cups (there, I admitted it, no matter how many “baking nerd” points that gets me.) I enjoy combining the dry ingredients with the runny ones and seeing them wrestle with each other before blending into one harmoniously gooey mixture (and I get a nice “stirred-up cocoa powder” whiff into the bargain.) The smell of brownies in the oven has a warm homey quality to it that would make a really good air freshener.

Then it’s time to stand and wait for the brownies to cool. Or sit and wait. Or just spear a little bit on a fork to test while waiting. Hmm, that was too hot for me to taste anything, let’s try again after a minute. Ah, much better. I wonder how it’ll taste after another minute. Consequently, one-

quarter of it has disappeared by the time the rest of the household comes up to do justice to whatever remains. In the world of cooking and consuming, there is nothing quite as wonderful as something going from just-ready to just-crumbs in half an hour. Even the most amazing gastronomic wonder pales in attraction if it takes two days of pulling it out of the fridge to chip it down to half the original amount, and even then you have to freeze the remaining half to defrost at a later date (and let’s face it, there’s nothing like stuff that’s freshly made). Putting chocolate love aside, I am able to wait until it has cooled down and then cut it into neat pieces and store them in a lunch box (no cookie jars in a house full of dieters) to snack on when the urge hits or share with others. Sharing cuts the number of calories that end up in your system and spreads brownie love to friends who can’t or don’t work themselves up into the baking zone.

OK, now when I said I enjoyed every step of the process, I wasn’t exactly truthful. I didn’t count the cleaning up that comes after the brownie-consuming frenzy. (What, clean up in the time it takes to cool? Whoever heard of such a thing?) The hands and back must pay for the pleasure of the palate. (If you’re wondering how the back comes in, you’ve never washed dishes standing in front of the sink.) Truth be told, I hardly ever pay this price. I usually add the baking utensils to the rest of the dirty dishes waiting to be attended to by the house help. But I always wash the stuff that comes in contact with eggs. You seriously do not want to leave anything coated with egg standing around for any length of time.

Everyone has something like this—something they can discuss in elaborate detail, something for which they can give way to temporary madness, something that gives them a high. If someone does not, that just means that they haven’t found their thing yet. It’s in them somewhere, it can be more than one, and it can be on any scale. You can make the list as long as you like; there are no limits. The key is that it has to require active effort. Something passive like channel surfing or Internet browsing is a peak for some, but that is because they don’t know what making a video or a webpage feels like. For me, the most thrilling part of the entire process is

not that I get to eat something I love, it’s that I’m able to make something I love, whenever I want, and do whatever I like with it. That is a feeling of empowerment that can’t be matched by anything else.


Originally published in Us Magazine, The News.

Unsuccessful shopping

And I wonder what goes on in a man’s head during shopping trips. Do you think I nailed it?


I do not know how they talked me into it. Let me think. Oh, yeah. It was dear old mom, proclaiming her wish to visit the mall before being put to eternal slumber. It was Zoha, too, claiming proof of my undying love. Does filial duty and holy matrimony depend on becoming the family driver? That’s what it seems nowadays. Life is not fair.

I’d regret it, I knew. But I did it. If driving four miles in the rush hour to the nearest shopping centre with incessant female chatter boring into one’s ears is not proof of filial and marital loyalty, I don’t know what is.

To begin with, they wanted shoes. I steered them to the nearest outlet and spent half an hour watching them pull every footwear within reach off the shelves. It was Cinderella redone, minus the prince. The prince was off-duty, observing from a safe distance. After thirty minutes’ worth of bargain-hunting, they decided that that store was not for them. Enough to satisfy the common populace, but not for thrift-queens. They evacuated the store at full speed. I trailed after them.

The next shop housed miracles of every description, enough to entertain the two for twenty minutes, but not sufficient to entice them to a purchase. Then it suddenly struck Zoha that a newly-opened and very popular shoe store was just across the mall. She proceeded to lead us on a wild goose chase after this elusive establishment. Every person we asked pointed to a different point of the compass, until we had trudged through every part of the mall, but the white stag of our hunt was not to be found.

At that point mom announced that she was not leaving until she had procured an instrument to adorn her feet, so she and Zoha set off with renewed vigour to scour all the houses of footwear the mall had to offer. We went to shoe-palaces, we went to shoe-huts; we haggled over sandals, we bargained over high-heels; we combed every shelf of every store, but could not bring ourselves to buy anything. I say “we” because a man’s quest to protect his women from weird shopkeepers while those women strive to empty their man’s wallet is a noble and chivalrous mission, worthy of notice.

Finally, I refused to go on any further. I told them, quite seriously, that I loved them dearly, and had sacrificed three and a half hours to the cause, but was not going to endure much more. Upon this, they conferred among themselves, and came to the conclusion that the object of their desire lay in the very first shop we had entered. We set out towards this shop, but we couldn’t find it! After ten minutes or so, Zoha shrieked at the sight of our destination, and we hurried in. The friendly shopkeeper informed us, in tones of calculated tactfulness, that he had sold that very pair only five minutes before, but if we were interested, he could show us some new designs…

I shepherded the protesting ladies out of the shop, out of the mall and into the car, and drove in a smouldering silence calculated to quell the strongest soul. Mom didn’t even dare suggest a visit to the tailor’s.