‘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.

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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.

Father’s Day Cover Story for Us Magazine

“When the academic year starts,” Baba says, “I’ll get you a small car to drive to college in.”

“Really?” I ask.

“Sure,” he says.

“Over my dead body,” Mama interjects hastily. “You are not driving anywhere alone.”

I laugh at her intensity. “Don’t you trust me?”

“I trust you,” she says emphatically, “but I don’t trust the society.” It’s Baba’s turn to laugh.

“You can keep it in the driveway and polish it up,” he says, winking, “and we can take it for a spin around the neighbourhood.” I grin. I know that this scenario is as likely to turn into reality as the first one, but I appreciate his (theoretical) willingness to empower me as well as Mama’s concern for my wellbeing. Childrearing is a dual process; two different styles combine to form the whole aspect of parenting. If either element were missing, my upbringing would be incomplete. To quote Jim Plouffe, “We (men) are not part-time mothers; we’re full-time fathers, and children need both.”

Daddy may I…?

“I never dared to speak up in front of my father when I was your age.” You must have heard that at some point or other. That’s because when our parents were children, father-child relationships were defined as “me father, you child; me decide, you obey”. Period. Fathers were shown report cards; playground conquests and disappointments were for mothers’ ears—if mothers also thought that it was better to keep children at a distance, their offspring had to seek intimacy elsewhere. This style is convenient for parents because they don’t have to deal with the consequences of being flexible about where they put the full stop. If you don’t play with the baby, you don’t get puked on. If you aren’t your children’s confidante, you don’t have to listen to their problems. If you keep your child in a box, you save the mental and emotional energy needed to let it go out into the world. Your kids don’t “speak up”: no “buts”, “it’s not fair”s or endearing goo-goo eyes when they want something. Many families today still consider it the proper way of handling children, but times have changed. Schools involve parents in their child’s affairs as much as possible, putting stress on fathers’ participation; the media highlights the importance of fathers as well as mothers; factors like “child psychology”—previously unheard of—are talked about now. However, the main change is due to those fathers who decide that they want to be closer to their own children than their own fathers are to them; those men who appreciate that a child’s upbringing begins not only in the mother’s lap but also on the father’s shoulders.

Children are not the only ones who come without instruction manuals…

…fathers do, too. A father has to define himself; when he does, it combines with other factors to give the final framework of how the child is brought up. For example, the issue of getting permission for something is different in different families:

“I’ll ask my father.”

“I’ll ask my mother.”

“If my father agrees, my mother will too.”

“I have to ask my grandfather/chachoo/other important figure.”

“Have you forgotten? I never get to do anything.”

Children tend to have trouble deciphering parent-talk, and father-speak is no exception. This is compounded by the fact that male psychology is different from females’. The most common (note: common, not only) mode of male self-expression is: when they’re upset, they’re angry; when they’re depressed, they’re angry; when they’re disappointed, they’re angry; when they’re frightened, they’re angry; when they’re nervous, they’re angry; and when they’re angry, they’re angry! (Females can follow this pattern as well, though they are better known for the crying pattern than the angry one). Therefore, children are likely to misinterpret father-speak because it is essentially different from mother-speak. Fathers do express worry and concern conventionally as well, but it is more practical to sharpen your translation skills than to wait for them to talk in your language.

Being involved

Fathers who want to play an active role in their child’s life try to be involved in many ways, but it’s harder than it sounds, especially as the child gets older. It’s easy to love a small child; as John Crudele says, “Kids spell love T-I-M-E”—and they measure it by quantity, not quality. Fast forward several years, and “spending time” takes on a whole new meaning. He can arrange the most spectacular “family bonding time” in the world, but the child will resent it if it makes him miss his football match. He may or may not be open to the idea of watching it with his father. He may prefer to watch it with his friends. Or perhaps, the father decides to do something with his child that he enjoyed when he was young, thinking she will enjoy it as much as he did, but she does not have the slightest inclination towards advanced origami. The majority of children consider their parents old-fashioned and out of step with the times. That doesn’t make it any easier. To quote one parent: “When I ask my son about his day, he just says ‘fine’, but when he’s on the phone with his friends he talks for so long.” The average teen would take this comment as a criticism of his talk time, missing the point that his father just wants his child to communicate with him as well. If the child is unclear how to talk to his father, his father does not have a PhD in teen-speak either. He does, however, have a PhD in “useless comments”. They are not actually useless, but if you do not understand them, that’s what they appear to be. You know what I am talking about: those little things fathers say, most of which make sense when you think about them seriously, like Howard does in “The Kid in the Red Jacket” by Barbara Park:

My father gave me some advice. I was explaining how much I hated to eat lunch alone, and he looked right up from his dinner and said, “Horn in.”

“Er, horn in?” I repeated, confused. I guess it must be one of those old-time expressions they don’t use much anymore.

“Sure. Be a little pushy. Stand up for yourself,” he explained. “Sometimes you’ve just got to take the bull by the horns.”

“Oh geez, not more horns,” I groaned.

“Bull by the horns,” repeated Dad. “Haven’t you ever heard that before? It means you’ve got to get right in there and take charge. If you don’t want to eat alone, then just walk up there tomorrow, put your lunch on the table, and say, ‘Mind if I join you, fellas?’ That’s all there is to it.”

I didn’t say anything, but kids just don’t go around talking like that. If a kid came up to a bunch of guys eating lunch and said, “Mind if I join you, fellas?” the whole table would fall on the floor laughing.

Still, I knew what Dad was getting at. Even if you’re the shy type, you have to get a little bold if you want to make any friends. Sometimes you even have to sit down at a lunch table without being invited. You don’t have to say, “Mind if I join you, fellas?” though. I’m almost positive of that.

As for the other comments which do not make sense, they are comprehensible when you consider the sentiment behind them. For example, if my father calls the screech made by a car when it suddenly brakes “drifting”, he’s not being ridiculous, he’s just trying to sound relevant to his children, who may or may not take it as an opportunity to explain what drifting really is. Remember, one day you will be the one using some term and your kids will be the ones rolling their eyes. Give him a break. He’s only trying to reach out to your world.

Fathers appreciate attention. If yours has a mobile phone/an email account, send him a text/email (a forward message, “hey there” message, anything). It’s a compliment to someone who has the impression that you leave him out of your technological pursuits.

I have this mental image in my mind of the child jumping into a sea of friends, pastimes and academic work, with the father standing on the shore, alone, watching. We talk about finding ourselves, our soulmate, the meaning of life, and stuff like that—what about helping a man find the little child he used to bounce on his knee once upon a time? That child has transformed into something that challenges his understanding. The child just needs to realise this in order to recognise his father’s efforts, stop rebuffing them and bridge the gap, but it doesn’t stop at that; he must get a two-way traffic of talking and listening flowing. It’s easy enough when you accept that there will be foibles and fumbles on both sides, instead of expecting smooth sailing all the way and getting frustrated with every bump and jolt. When the father gets to actually know his child, he stops looking for his lost toddler because he no longer needs him; he has his grown child to enjoy.

They say “mother knows best”. I say mother knows best about some things, father knows best about others, and those things they don’t know, others know best. Grandparents, for instance. My parents are convinced that they are the only ones experiencing bumps on the road while raising their teenage son; once Baba said to Dada Abu to talk to my brother about it. Dada Abu said, “Jaisey tum sudhar gaey they, is tarhan ye bhi sudhar jae ga.” (“The way you turned out right, he’ll turn out right too.”) Whoever says expertise comes from experience sure was right.


Originally published in Us Magazine, The News.

A traditional occasion

The Abdul household did not have many distinctive customs, and if it wasn’t for Saliha Abdul, they might not have had the few they did. As it was, she was the most involved in keeping them alive, sometimes to the extent of annoyance and always to the extent of the tradition being dubbed a “Salihan” one. A few days before Eid-ul-Azha she brought her latest case to the study table, where her brother Anas was grappling with algebra.

“I’m totally uninspired,” she announced as she slipped into a seat, diary in hand. Anas momentarily stopped doodling on his textbook to shoot her a quizzical look.

“I’m trying to record the upcoming Eid in Abdulian history, but the material just kills imagination,” she explained. Anas knew she was referring to her practice of dedicating a single line to every major event of the year in her diary; she had it open at the page for 2008 already. Drawing the wheels of the unfinished car zooming across “exercise 10”, he replied, “How can you record something that hasn’t happened yet?”

“By writing it down,” Saliha grinned.

“No, I mean–“

“I know what you mean,” she interrupted. “It’s just that I already know each and every thing that’s going to happen. There’s no chance of something noteworthy occurring this time.”

“Why?”

“Don’t you know?” Saliha made a face. “We’re getting some shares in a cow this year. No animal market. No calling the butcher over. No watching the meat being prepared, even. The only way anything different can happen is if the meat flops out of the package and does the bhangra.”

Anas paused before replying. “You know, some people would like being spared all that trouble.”

“But ‘all that trouble’ — that’s the whole point!” Saliha answered impatiently. “If we didn’t have to go out of our way to do something we don’t usually do, it wouldn’t be special.There’s no fun in waiting for a packet of meat to arrive on the kitchen counter. That’s the end result of bringing an animal home, I know, but it’s the process itself that’s interesting, don’t you think?”

“Easy for you to say,” Anas remarked. “You don’t have to do the work of getting the animal and everything. You’re just the spectator.”

“Just as you don’t have to cook it to the satisfaction of the extended family,” Saliha countered. “You’re just the diner.”

“OK, OK,” Anas said hastily. “My objection is overruled.”

Saliha kept her eyes on him for a few moments to make sure he was serious before she spoke again. “Anyway, seeing an animal being sacrificed is good. Not entertainment-wise, but education-wise.”

Anas smiled. “Yeah, if it doesn’t go overboard. Remember last year?” Reaching out for Saliha’s diary, he flipped the page back. At the head of the page was written, “2007, The Year of…” followed by a list of continuations. His finger came to rest on “…The Two-day Vegetarian”. Saliha chuckled. Their six-year-old cousin had freaked out upon seeing the goat being slaughtered. He had vowed never to eat any kind of animal’s meat. He faltered in his undertaking when he discovered that this included biryani, chicken nuggets and other favourite foods. In a few days, he had reverted to his old diet, the only exception being goat. A dish of meat on the dining table would always be met with the inquiry, “Is it goat?” On being invariably (and often untruthfully) being informed that it was beef, he would happily consume it.

“Zain is a funny little thing,” Saliha said, “but people more than twice his age act even funnier. You should see the way some of my friends react.” She began an exaggerated mimicry of disgust in a high, peevish voice. “I really can’t stand the smell of all that meat of sacrifice on Eid-ul-Azha…phee-yew! I can’t eat it, either.”

“Hey, some folks are sensitive,” Anas interjected.

Saliha giggled abruptly, as if struck by a sudden thought. “Too sensitive,” she said, flipping back several pages of her diary. “2001, The Year of the Pre-Eid Goat,” she read out.

“Aw, man.” Anas grimaced. “You don’t have to remind me of that.”

“Why not?” inquired Saliha mischievously. “The heartless parting of Lala and Anas. A tragedy to rival Shakespeare.” She was talking about the time the Abduls had bought a goat two months in advance in a bout of misplaced enthusiasm. They had arranged for its food and water, even set up a goat stall to protect it from the elements, but having taken all inputs into account, failed to consider the goat’s output. The maid refused to clean up after Lala, and Mrs. Abdul did not last long as head of maintenance. Consequently, the Abdul children came home from school one day to find Lala on the menu. Anas, who had developed a strong attachment to his four-legged friend and had spent many afternoons feeding it from his own hand, not only refused to eat Lala, but spent many days in mourning in his room. Saliha, on the contrary, was quite amused by the whole business. “I’ve always said that was movie material. In the usual animal film, the protagonist ends up releasing the creature back to where it really belongs, in the wild. This film could have you releasing Lala to his true destiny…the dining table!”

“Ha-ha, very funny,” Anas said in a flat voice. Then he perked up suddenly, as if he remembered something the same way Saliha had. Turning over a few pages of the diary, he jabbed a finger at an entry and smirked. “The Year of the Rampaging Cow,” he said. “You couldn’t stop screaming.”

“I wasn’t screaming, exactly,” Saliha said defensively. “I was simply exhibiting a perfectly human reaction.”

“Known as screaming,” Anas added smugly.

“Known as alarm,” Saliha contradicted.

“An external sign of which is screaming,” Anas persisted.

“I merely yelped,” Saliha conceded, “which is a very natural thing to do when a thing that big charges past you.”

Anas put his hand up to break the swift exchange of rebuttals. “Two things,” he said. “One, whether it was natural or unnatural doesn’t matter. Two, it kicked the butcher and rushed off in the opposite direction to you. I think the shock registers better in your memory than the actual scheme of things.”

“Whatever the ‘scheme of things’ was,” Saliha bypassed the point, “it made a real mess out of the car.”

“Yeah,” Anas agreed, remembering the dented side doors and shattered windows. “But it was really funny about Sameer.” Sameer was their elder brother.

“Funny?” Saliha raised her eyebrows. “It’s a mercy he was in the right side of the car and the cow rammed into the left. What was he doing in there, anyway?”

“Um, fetching an extra coil of rope for the butcher, I think. But he came out crying.” Anas rolled his eyes. “Big, independent Sameer, too good to mingle with us small fry, bawling like a baby!”

“He didn’t have any warning,” Saliha said seriously. “Having a few hundred pounds of angry cow smash into the side door from nowhere isn’t exactly a pleasant experience.”

“I would have thought your natural emergency siren was enough warning,” Anas chortled, swinging back to the subject.

Saliha sighed in response and began flicking through her diary. “Here’s another one — The Year of the Camel Buffet.”

“When did we have a buffet of camels?” Anas frowned.

“It means that the camel had a buffet,” Saliha replied.

“Oh, that.” Anas shook his head at the memory. In their excitement over getting a camel, they quite forgot to consider the reach of its long neck, and tied it near the wall, moreover, the wall bordering the neighbour’s fruit and vegetable garden. The creature had a nice night sampling everything within range, and Mr. Abdul ended up paying for the damage from his own pocket.

“That was the time Papa perfected his money-worried look,” Saliha said thoughtfully, referring to the partly anxious, partly peeved look their father wore when financially challenged. “That’s why it doesn’t take him a second to whip it out now.”

“Like today,” Anas reflected. “Only I thought it was because Mama was hankering after the Eid sale at Rose Boutique.”

“Not this time.” Saliha opened her diary at the section for 2008 again. “Everything’s already so expensive that this year is going to be The Year of the 2/7ths of Cow…which is the flattest line I’ve ever thought of. Some help, please?”

Anas knew it was no use telling her not to give so much time and thought to the idea. Instead, he said, “Look at it this way. Focus on what we’re getting, not what we’re not. It’s still a lot compared to what many people have.”

Saliha raised her eyes to the ceiling. “The moral lecture doesn’t exactly answer my–“

“Try considering what I just said,” Anas cut across her. “This Eid may not be so predictable after all.”

“How?” Saliha was skeptical.

“Why don’t you consider this case study…Experimental little cousins. Generous adults. Put the two together, and what do you get?”

“The Year of the Car Key Stew.” Saliha rolled her eyes. “If Chachoo knew his keys would end up in the cooking pot, he would have thought differently about giving it to the kids to play with.”

“And we were dumb enough to think the poor cow had somehow eaten the keys, until someone pointed out that the dish from which we found it was brain masala.” Anas chuckled. “The fact that no digestive tube goes up there killed that theory.” He spoke more forcefully then, about to drive his point home. “Tell me, could you have foreseen that?”

“No,” Saliha replied immediately, with a half-smile.

“Are the factors that governed that particular outcome absent from the equation this time?”

“No…” Saliha drew out the word slowly, as if she was busy considering the meaning.

“Then there’s no reason to lose hope,” Anas declared confidently. “If it’s not the kids, it’ll be some grownup. If not one of them, the neighbours will do something. As long as you have the human element, you can’t be bored.” He smiled. Saliha had to smile back. “I’ll take your word for that,” she said.

“You won’t be disappointed,” Anas replied. “If nothing happens, I’ll do something.” His sister rolled her eyes at this pronouncement. “Don’t worry, Salihaa-aa.” He said her name in a goat’s voice. Saliha burst out laughing. Anas, who had expected her to be irritated, frowned slightly.

“Wow, you’ve done something already. Thanks,” she said gleefully. “It seems you’re possessed by Lala’s spirit. I’ll have to make this year The Year of the Haunting Goat.”

“Not unless you want to make it The Year of the Shredded Diary,” Anas replied silkily.

“In that case, it would be The Year of the Mangled Gameboy,” Saliha returned just as smoothly.

“At this rate, it will be The Year of the Failed Mid-terms,” Mrs. Abdul said, coming up to them. There was a touch of severity in her voice. “You’re never going to let each other study, are you? It’s talk, talk, talk the moment I turn my back. I’ll check back on you in a minute; you two should be doing something useful by then.” She turned on her heel and started to walk away.

“Sorry, Mama,” Saliha got up from the table. “I was just wishing Anas Eid Mubaa-aa-rak.” She grinned. Anas scowled. Their mother was already out of earshot. When she returned, she saw Anas alone at the study table, seemingly engrossed in simultaneous equations. She didn’t see what he was really doing: drawing torn diary pages under the wheels of the sports car sketch. Whether that actually turned out to be the fate of Saliha’s prized possession is, of course, another story.


Originally published in Us Magazine on 5. 12. 2008. Original link:

http://jang.com.pk/thenews/dec2008-weekly/us-05-12-2008/p22.htm#1

How to kidnap a child (Bollywood style)

First, go find two people who’re at daggers with each other. It isn’t hard to find such a pair. A ruined business partnership, a botched love triangle or an inherited family feud will do. If you’re lucky, you won’t even have to search for one: some lovelorn, hate-ridden scumbag will come along sooner or later and shell out cash for you to kidnap someone’s child.

 

Once you get the job, obtain the victim’s father’s phone number (usually from thin air) and give him a threat, which you cut off the moment he tries to reply. Wait until the poor father has stationed FBI agents around his house, then don your most gangster-style black leather and go to do the deed. Make sure the police are right outside the child’s door before you snatch the kid from its bed. Ensure the policemen flooding into the room see your leather jacket whipping out of sight. It adds to the drama. If you’re lucky, the victim won’t be a child at all, but a beautiful young girl who will promptly fall in love with you while you show your manly indifference. If it’s a kid, take it back to your hideout (which stands out a mile due to its gloomy, derelict, haunted look, instead of being inconspicuous). Make sure you choose the most typical, clichéd hideout you can find. If it’s not a kid…well, you still have to take it back to your hideout. And don’t forget the manly indifference.

 

Now, go out and tail the father. While he goes ahead in the crowd, you stride behind in black leather and dark glasses. Never mind that you stand out like a sore thumb. Who bothers with disguises anyway? Call him up on his mobile and mention the clothes he’s wearing and his location (preferably Marks and Spencer and next to the busiest shopping mall in the country, in that order). While he spins around on the spot wildly, looking in all directions, demand an outrageous sum from him. Remember to cut the call just as he begins to stutter back.

 

When the haggard father turns up unaccompanied and deposits the money in a paper bag into the dustbin, or (more preferably) clutches a briefcase to his chest and calls out for you, remember to make a dramatic appearance out of the shadows, with some lightning flashes in the background. Take the money and declare that you’re going to cut up his child into sheesh kababs and sell them for five rupees each, at which he will whimper and plead for his child’s life. At this point, police will pour in from all sides, even though they were not contacted by the father. This is your cue to show off physically impossible kung-fu moves and slash your way through every police officer that comes in your way. However hard you try, you will eventually die a dramatic death at the hands of the hero (to which the first two-thirds of the movie was dedicated). The kidnapped young girl will wail over your dead body and then go off to live happily ever after with her saviour, or commit suicide in your honour. Who said kidnapping was easy?


 

This was originally published in Us Magazine, The News, on May 30, 2008.

Link to original: http://jang.com.pk/thenews/may2008-weekly/us-30-05-2008/poster.htm#1

Where to begin!


“Still going through those files, Grn? I thought you weren’t interested in those.”

“Oh, but Zlt, I am fascinated.”

“I do understand that to be a fine piece of fhlp-work on the cover…”

“No, no! It’s the people, Zlt, the people! They are almost a race in themselves. I cannot stop reading about them.”

“I must record this in the annals of the Old Files. Someone actually interested in reading them! We haven’t pulled those out since that investigation into how they ended up destroying the whole planet.”

“I’m not talking about the whole race, Zlt. Just a section of them, it is called a… a country, I suppose…”

“Eh? So what’s the name of this…country?”

“Ah, we must give it to the learned ones to decipher, it is beyond me. As far as I can make it, they never managed to live up to that name themselves.”

“What’s so fascinating about them, then?”

“What isn’t fascinating about them, Zlt! They had such a unique system; it was impossible for them to survive in it on their own. Most of these — what were they again? Yeah, countries, did most of the work themselves, but this one here, it was only sustained by the High One Himself, otherwise it couldn’t have existed.”

“This is interesting. Tell me more, Grn.”

“Well, they had a highly absorptive culture. They left the absorbing up to their little ones, and you know what kidlings are like, Zlt. They went and absorbed everything that glittered in frenzied gluttony, until even the grown ones went around in the delusion that the traditions so plentifully absorbed were their own.”

“They must have had very fascinating celebrations.”

“That was what I was reading about when you came up, Zlt. It was about a certain very interesting and singular event of these people.”

“What was it like?”

“It was an event of the spring. But what makes it even more fascinating is the remarkable ingenuity of these people. It was a characteristic of theirs that they blew up anything and everything into immensely great proportions. This spring-festival did not escape that rule.


During this spring festival they flowed out of their abodes in droves and into the workshops, where they vied against each other to take away the largest and the most costly of the paper birds. This is a trait that will manifest itself throughout the proceedings, Grn; their love to outstrip each other, and for finding newer and newer ways to do so. When they bought the flying tails of these paper birds, they bought rolls and rolls of them, and what is more, they bought the very same type of flying tail that their lordlings told them not to buy. Everywhere, on their picture-pieces and in their paper-pieces, it was said not to use those flying tails, but these people, they made them, and sold them, and bought them, and what is more, Grn! The very lordlings who had forbidden the use of these flying tails made use of them. The common folk, they had only to use the name of a lordling known to them, and the tail-inspectors did not confiscate the forbidden tails from them.”

“That is certainly a most singular way of proceeding, Grn.”

“That is not all! They set up enclosures in which to hold the festival, and told the people to fly their paper birds there and not on their rooftops. But…can you tell me what they did, Zlt?”

“They flew the paper birds from their rooftops!”

“Correct, my dear Zlt.”

“But did the tail-inspectors not catch them there?”

“Ah, it is the same way as with the forbidden flying tails, Grn.”

“I see now.”

“And when they flew the paper birds from their rooftops, they came in great numbers, and sent forth much noise and clamour from their ingenious wave-systems, so the people residing nearby may not sleep, and stay up all night to bask in the reflected glory of their superb flight.”

“Even the babies, Grn?”

“Even the babies! The people were not allowed to wrap their little kidlings in slumber on the night of that festival.”

“Surely they must have a great energy system, to drive all those wave-systems?”

“Ah, their energy system! I am coming to that. First let me tell you how they flew their paper birds.”

“Was that not a very simple task, Grn?”

“Oh, no, my dear Zlt.”

“Was it not a simple mounting of the paper bird on the ebb and flow of the air, and maneuvering it with the flying tail?”

“It was not the mechanics of the flight, but the previous principle that I mentioned; the
principle of outdoing each other. From each rooftop came forth larger and larger paper birds, and louder and louder clamour, and every time two paper birds’ flying tails crossed and cut, it was accompanied by the terrible war cry, ‘bo kata!'”

“A riveting scene, indeed.”

“Indeed, Zlt. What strikes me as curious was their willingness to lay life and limb on the line in pursuit of these majestic paper birds.”

“Was it not a harmless flying festival?”

“I am afraid not, Zlt. It was a matter of life and honour. The sight of a falling paper bird compelled the watcher to catch it before it struck the ground. It was a pact much honoured. “

“What a noble people, Grn.”

“Ah, that is not all. You asked about their energy system, no? It was taboo for the paper birds to be caught in the trails of this system, and many gave their lives to free a bird from the trails’ snare. Why, the festival was marked by a shutting down of this energy system, due to the snapping of a trail here or there.”

“Were the flying tails strong enough to cut the energy trails?”

“They were unkind to those who came in the way.”

“Ack! Why would they use flying tails of such horrific description?”

“That, Zlt, is beyond me. These flying tails were forbidden by the lordlings.”

“Now I see why.”

“But the people did not see. Pity.”

“But wait, Grn. Were they not told in their picture-pieces and their paper-pieces…?”

“It is a country also blind, Zlt, but that is another story.”

“One I would love to hear. Have you read enough of the spring festival?”

“There is not much more. They squabbled and speculated much over it, as they did over everything else, but they did not change anything. Every year they raised their masts to catch the winds of change, but those winds instead served to drive their paper birds higher and higher year after year.”

“A most singular nation, indeed.”

“Indeed.”

“In fact, I am beginning to look beyond the fhlp-work of these files. I must endeavour to read more about them. The happenings which they record are fascinating. Enough to keep one busy one for all eternity.”

“And since we’re three-twelfths into that, it won’t matter spending one-twelfth of eternity studying these files, no?”

“The question is only, where to begin?”

“Where indeed.”

 
 

 

Originally published in Us Magazine, The News, on February 23, 2007.

Link to original: http://jang.com.pk/thenews/feb2007-weekly/us-23-02-2007/p22.htm#1