The Holiday That Grew (part 3: conclusion)

At 11 p.m., fourteen hours after we set out from Shigar, we arrived at the PTDC motel in Rama. It was very prettily designed and laid out in the form of two-room cottages with a connecting porch, and the rooms were large and clean. However, the lighting was poor, so that even in the daytime it was rather gloomy. Coupled with the cold, this was a bit depressing.

Each room had 2 beds made up with sheets and blankets, with one extra blanket per bed in the cupboard. Zoe elected to sleep on the floor so a mattress was brought in, and since they omitted to provide a blanket, took one of the extras. Now these blankets were the artificial sort called, I believe, ‘Plush Mink’. The girls loved them, stroking them and exclaiming, “So soft!” I have always found them rather sleazy, and if a real mink ever had a coat like that, it would perish in the snow. This fact was brought home to me in the middle of the night when I woke up shivering and looked for the remaining extra blanket, but like Mother Hubbard, I found the cupboard bare. Then I looked over at the girls. Carol had it! For a moment I was tempted to assert my age and status of teacherhood by whipping it off her, but thought better of it, and passed the rest of the night scrunched into a foetal position. In the morning I discovered that the little beast had actually slept between the two blankets – she didn’t take off the one originally on the bed – so that she was snug above and below while I added 5 years to my arthritic bones.

Rama was beautiful in the morning light. It was also the first time on our trip that we saw pine trees (I wonder why they don’t grow elsewhere in these mountains) in fact, we felt as if we had been transported to Nathiagali.  After an excellent breakfast of parathas, omelettes and tea, Zoe set off with the boys for Rama Lake. The site is only accessible on foot, so I bowed out, and Carol stayed behind to do some editing. As soon as they were gone, I got right back into bed with 2 blankets and George R.R. Martin.

In the evening, Carol and I packed up, and went with Gulzar to meet the others at Rama Base Camp. Thank goodness I wasn’t able to watch the filming up at the Lake, because from their accounts, it was really dangerous, with gaping holes in the glacier through which they might have fallen while sliding around on its slippery surface. We set off for Gilgit at 8.30 pm and reached our destination after midnight, so I didn’t see much on the way, but it became progressively hotter until we had to switch on the car AC. The ride was also very bumpy but Zoe, who has travelled in this area before, told me we were in for a treat on the Karakoram Highway. We came to a cross-roads, and she began a countdown: 3…..2…..1…..yesss! And we hit the famous highway, which did not disappoint. It was wide and smooth as glass. Too smooth, perhaps, because at one point Gulzar stopped the vehicle and got out. When asked, he said that he was falling asleep!

I spent a lazy day at the Gilgit Serena while the others worked on the edit. Some excitement was provided by Zoe’s Facebook travelogue update. She had posted a short video of their trek to Rama Lake. What she did not realize was that the mare they had used to carry their equipment was in an interesting condition, and was pursued most faithfully by a love-struck donkey, whose interest was quite apparent. This, of course, was something completely natural, but the drama was provided by the comments following this post, which ranged from:

The crude: “Donkey has fifth leg.”

Through the politely distressed: “Zoe, please delete this post.”

To the high-minded: “Donkey has no ethics.”

We left Gilgit on the 28th at noon, arriving at Hunza 2 hours later. What I loved most about the Serena here was the ambience created by having all the rooms opening upon a common verandah, overlooking the valley. It was most conducive to socializing, and I felt no hesitation in approaching and striking up a conversation with 2 elderly ladies a few doors down. It turned out that Hunza was on their bucket list. They were a little disappointed with the place at first, but cheered up once they got out and saw some interesting sights.

I had my final bathroom adventure here. Firstly, the shower rose was either partially blocked or not twisted to the right setting, because the water came out in scattered jets. I had to work out a sort of Bollywood dance routine in order to catch the water on all parts of my body. Just as I had got into the rhythm, the shower curtain, no doubt enchanted with my performance, blew inwards and stuck lovingly to my bare wet skin. So between chasing the spurts of water and peeling the curtain off, I had a proper work-out. It was some comfort to know that the others had had a similar experience, and somebody gave me a very scientific explanation for the behavior of the curtain, involving air pressure and vacuums.

I was able to meet my B.Ed student Shoukat, who was most helpful and hospitable, bringing us delicious traditional food cooked by his mother. Unfortunately I could not visit his family as the approach to their house was too steep for me. In fact Hunza was turning out to be a sort of social hub, because I also met my colleague Ahmed Karim, and the lady from Deosai, Noreen Haider, who had been in search of bears. A journalist and seasoned traveller, she was most interesting and knowledgeable about the places she had been to, and I learned that she was here to do research for a book she is collaborating on. It is to be on the 3 rivers, the Indus, Brahmaputra and Ganges, which all rise from the same lake in Tibet. She will be writing the chapters on the Indus.

My own search, which had been for beers, was rewarded. The Chinese wheat beer I had heard about was no longer available thanks to official sanctions, but  Yassir found locally made beer in coke bottles. It was really good – made from barley, thick and black, very similar to Guinness. Unfortunately it was not only very expensive, but not reliably bottled, so after finding one or two that were flat and sour, I gave it up. There was ‘Hunza Water’ too, made from mulberries and distilled to a transparent potency, but it was a bit too strong.

Yes, we did get out and do more than drink and socialize, beginning with the Altit Fort. Like the Shigar fort and Khaplu Palace, it has not been left merely as a museum-piece for sight-seers, but is in use. People actually live inside the fort, and the whole place hums with activity. There were children playing, going to and from school, people going about their business and beautiful old wrinkled faces placidly watching everything. Most striking was watching the women carpenters at work, expertly putting together a wooden cabin that would be part of the ever-growing complex of rooms and offices in the fort. The café, too, was run by women and so was a little eating place in the bazaar that we visited later. The literacy rate here is above 90­%, with female education being given equal importance, and you can see it in the demeanour of the women. They carry themselves with confidence.

The Altit Fort gardens are like a forest glade. Lush green grass, spreading trees, many of them with slanted or curved trunks, probably sculpted by the winds, and softly undulating slopes and banks. One expects to see Robin Hood or one of his Merrie Men appear at any minute. Zoe leaped and cavorted to Kamal’s directions, and both boys leaped after her with their camera, looking very much like characters out of As You Like It.  While Zoe sang “Ho Jao Azaad!” to the camera, I took her advice, kicked off my shoes, and sank my toes into the delicious cool softness of the grass. The effect was amazing. I felt rejuvenated, and rambled about blissfully. I have since looked this up and found that it is a known phenomenon called ‘grounding’.

After lunch, we headed for Attabad Lake, where we boarded 2 boats: one for the team and cameras, and one for Zoe, who would be filmed sailing on the Lake. First came the drone shot. For this, Zoe’s boat had to be so far away from ours as to be out of shouting distance, so that all instructions to her from the director, Kamal, were done via hand and arm signals and waving of colourful life jackets. Then Yassir released the drone. It was like watching a suspense thriller. Would the drone make it there, take a successful shot, and come back again without running out of battery and plunging into the water? It did, and we all breathed again, but Yassir wasn’t satisfied with the shot. However, he was persuaded not to try again. Thank goodness. My nerves couldn’t have taken it. Next, Zoe transferred to our boat and sat at the wheel with the crew, who now became actors in the drama because they had to laugh on cue. They threw themselves into the part with gusto. I lost count of how many times I heard “one, two, three – HAHAHAHA”, but I think nobody had to actually force themselves to laugh, including the people behind the cameras! Our voyage ended on a solemn note as the captain told us of the circumstances leading to the formation of the lake. In January 2010, a massive landslide blocked the Hunza river, flooding 5 villages and completely submerging one. Sobering to think of the tragedy behind this innocent blue loveliness.

Leaving the lake, we drove on to Gulmit where we had Iftar with Kamal’s uncle’s family, who have a gorgeous house there with a view of the famous Passu Snow Cones: very slim, pointed snow-covered peaks, all clustered together. As soon as we got to the house and spotted the 5 cherry trees in the garden, laden with fruit, Carol and I went wild, plucking and eating cherries by the handful. This did not deter us from tucking in to the spread on the table, especially the yummy local ‘Phitti” bread, which is a sort of heavy, chewy, yeast bread made with whole-wheat flour spread thickly with home-made butter.

Over the next 2 days we visited the Passu glacier, Borith lake and village, Eagle’s Nest (a hotel at the highest point in Hunza, from where you can view the whole valley) and the bazaar. At 7.30 pm on the 1st of July we left Hunza and went back to Gilgit, from where we would catch our flight to Islamabad the next morning. Nobody wanted to leave. We actually hoped for bad weather so that the flight would be cancelled, but alas. On the 2nd morning we sat in the waiting lounge at Gilgit airport, which looks out onto a neat, flower-bordered garden. What looked like a largish taxi-cab pulled up at the garden gate, and lo! It was our aircraft! We walked down the garden path and up a flight of tiny steps like a ladder, and we were in the plane. We arrived at Islamabad at noon, checked into the Serena from where it had all started, and celebrated the end of a most memorable trip with a rowdy party in the boys’ room (we didn’t want to mess ours up) in the evening. The holiday that grew wasn’t long enough in the end!

part 3 pictures

 

 

The Holiday That Grew (part 2)

 My holiday grew not only in duration but also in scale. In Khaplu I had stayed cocooned in the hotel, lazily enjoying the surroundings, but now it was time to step out. On the 22nd morning we set off in a Landcruiser bound for Shigar, but took a detour to see and do some filming at the Manthoka Falls. On the way we passed again the little cabin where we had bought the delicious cherries. This time we bought two whole kilos and dived into them greedily. The young people had considerately given me the front passenger seat as it was the most comfortable, so there I was merrily eating cherries, spitting the seeds into my right hand and chucking them out through the window on the left when suddenly, whoosh! I was blind.

“MY GLASSES, MY GLASSES,” I shrieked.

Full credit to the driver: without knowing what the problem was, he stopped immediately, while the others ran back along the road to look for the glasses that I had swept off my face with the last cherry pip that I threw. Double wonder: they had not fallen down the steep drop, nor were they damaged. Thanking everyone profusely, sight restored, I was able to continue to enjoy the view and the cherries, though now I collected the seeds and dropped them outside carefully. In case you ask, yes, I do carry a spare pair when I travel, but they were in my suitcase which had gone ahead to Shigar in a luggage van the night before, so the rest of the excursion would have been a miserable blur. I would have missed the golden fields of ripe barley, the fences made of thin twisted branches, the intricacies of skillfully-made drystone walls, the groves of trees that made an avenue along the rutted track beside the rapid blue stream as we turned off the main road, the spears of purple flowers in the lush green grass, and the magnificent sight of the Mantokha Falls, spilling down from a point high up the mountain side to come crashing, roaring down. The whole area surrounding the falls, including the verandah of the rest house was filled with a fine spray, and the sharp drop in temperature made me long for my unavailable sweater (keeping the spare glasses cosy in the same suitcase).

As you can imagine, we were ravenous, and I was quite happy with the tasty club sandwiches and boiled eggs packed for us by the Khaplu Serena, but someone who shall be nameless insisted on ordering Chicken Karahi from the rest house. Well, it was chicken, and it was cooked, and there the resemblance to Chicken Karahi ended.  In fact, let me say it now – I think we have the best food in Karachi, both home-made and in restaurants.

As we drove on to Shigar in the afternoon, I noticed bales of reaped barley piled up all along both sides of the road and wondered why. I soon got my answer. Small trucks carrying motorized threshers  were making their way through, and people had put the bales there for easy access. Each time we passed one of these in action, we found ourselves in a maelstrom of flying chaff and dust. After being caught in the first, we leaped to roll up the windows when we saw one in the distance.

By late evening, we stepped through a gate into another piece of history preserved  by the Agha Khan Trust and run by Serena hotels: the Shigar Fort. Here, too, were the stone and wood, low ceilings with log rafters, gardens and stream, but I found it more enchanting than Khaplu – perhaps because I had no stairs to climb, and felt freer to roam the sprawling grounds, from the sunny garden with its beautiful pavilion and 450-year-old tree – a huge old hollow giant that one could enter through a large gap and fancy oneself on the threshold of Narnia –  to the dining area outdoors under a spreading grape arbour that created a fascinating chiaroscuro effect. In front of the hotel rushed a noisy stream that lulled one to sleep at night. Beyond the grape arbour was an open area where we enjoyed a bonfire on our second night there.

Call it my advancing years, but what I loved most about all the Serenas was the comforts offered in the midst of the historic and rustic surroundings. Room service was always available for my morning and evening cups of tea, and the bathrooms well-equipped with the signature little baskets of toilet requisites: soap that actually lathered, shower caps, and tiny stoppered bottles of blue shampoo, white lotion and honey-coloured bath gel. I particularly appreciated the lotion, because the air was very dry.

In Shigar, we had only 2 rooms, so I was sharing a bathroom with the girls. Being an early riser, I decided to make full use of the amenities before the other two awoke. After a long, leisurely, and skin-drying shower, I began to slather lotion on myself, beginning with my face. But something was wrong. No matter how much I rubbed, it refused to get absorbed. Perhaps I had been too generous. I wiped some off onto my chest and arms. Then I looked at the bottle. It was blue. It was the bloody shampoo, and having rubbed it all over, I had to re-enter the shower and scrub myself for ages before it would all come off.

When I emerged, Carol was awake and looked at me curiously. “I’m exhausted,” I said, and then told her what had happened. After she recovered her breath from laughing, she said she had wondered why I was in there so long, and why she had heard the shower going twice. She then collapsed again. You need to know that Carol was my student for 4 years in both O and A Levels. Before this trip, she had held me in some degree of awe, but with every passing day, the mystique had been wearing off, and I think this was the final blow to any kind of student-teacher barrier.

Later that day, Zoe and the boys were filming at Jerbazoo Lake, and this time they did not forget to take me along. This is when it was brought home to me that whereas for me this was an idle holiday, for them (and Carol) it was work – work requiring skill, imagination and infinite patience, not to mention willingness to endure discomfort and even danger. I had already watched with my heart in my mouth as they perched precariously on rocks above a roaring stream on our way to Shigar, and now Zoe was entering the rather weedy, slimy water of the lake, fully dressed, followed by Kamal in his boxers, holding a camera. Of course, my sympathy did not prevent me from shooting the shooters on my phone camera. After they both emerged, Zoe sprinted, drenched, to a cabin to change her clothes, but Kamal did a nightclub act of undressing and redressing beneath a towel tied around his waist, while I switched my camera to ‘video’.  It should be possible to add slinky music in the background.  Who knows? Someday I might need to blackmail him.

The next day we would embark on our longest journey, across the Deosai Plains, and the team’s main concern was running out of power on their various cameras. So they invested in a generator which they put on trial but it was not proving a success. In desperation, Zoe phoned her father for advice. Then Carol phoned her Dad for his input. Lastly, the man who had brought the generator was asked what to do. “Just a minute,” he said, “I’ll ask my Abboo.”  Sadly, despite all the paternal consultation, the generator had to be returned.

On the 25th of June we said goodbye to Shigar and took to the road again. Our first taste of the ‘wilds’ was 2 little fox cubs running madly down the road ahead of us. When we slowed and then stopped, they turned off  on either side, but when we started again, they ran beside us, so fascinated, that one of them did not look where he was going, hit a bush, and tumbled over and over! The road kept climbing;  as we turned one corner we looked down upon the surreal jade-green Satpara Lake, and some time later, were at the toll-barrier of Deosai National Park: entry fee Rs 40/- for locals, Rs 800/- for foreigners. And why not? Look at what their countries charge us for visas, and then don’t even return the fee if we are rejected! I liked it.

Now the landscape became even more exciting, for all along the way we could see patches of unmelted snow. At one point we stopped because I just had to touch it, and even eat some from inside the mass, where it was clean. Then the plains stretched out before us, gently undulating, carpeted with wildflowers. It is the second highest plateau in the world after Tibet – 13,500 ft – and there is not a tree, bush or even large rock on it, which made me begin to worry about finding a toilet. Our first stop was at the river of Bara Pani, which is a campsite with a tiny cubicle perched on a slope which the driver pointed out to me as the toilet. Well, after toiling up, I discovered that it was so surrounded by little streams as to be inaccessible, so I had to commune with Nature as best I could, praying that no one would look up.

We had our packed lunch, and then the others went off to do some filming while I relaxed in the jeep with my book. I had found it in Islamabad – The Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R R Martin, – a prequel to his Game of Thrones series. It looked so delicious, with its hard cover and delightful illustrations, that I bought it in spite of the steep price. Now I cursed myself for not buying more books, because there were these frequent stretches of time to fill when the team was shooting for the video. Anyway, there was always so much to see, so I was able, by thrifty planning, to eke out the story. Suddenly I looked up to see a lady who had been with another group nearby, looking at me as she passed. I smiled and said hello, and we struck up a conversation. Then she said, “I’m on my way to find some beers.” My ears pricked up. I hadn’t had a cold beer in ages, nor was there any prospect of one on our travels.

“Really?” I said excitedly. “Oh, please let me know if you do – I’d love some too!”

“Well,” she said, “It’s very very difficult –“  I nodded understandingly, and she went on, “in fact, there are only 60 left.”

I went hot and then cold. BEARS. She had been referring to Himalayan Brown BEARS, of which there are only 60 left in Deosai. What on earth must she have thought when I said “I’d love some!”?

The others returned, and after everyone had laughed at my faux pas and had some tea, we continued. Our aim was to cross the entire plain and get to Astore for the night. We never saw another fox, but several  golden marmots popped out and one obligingly posed on a rock so we could film it. Then we saw an entire herd of mules, roaming freely on the plain, and thought they were wild, but our driver informed us that they belonged to nomads who let them graze during the summer and then took them to the border to sell. Sure enough, a little further we saw a nomad encampment.

At the highest point of Deosai we came to Sheosar Lake, where we stopped again to shoot. By now the sun was going down, there was quite a lot of unmelted snow around, and I was beginning to think longingly of my warm clothes packed in the suitcase strapped to the roof of the landcruiser. At last they were done, and came racing back to the car, half-frozen. I demanded my sweater and a shawl which my poor daughter climbed up and retrieved for me, and took her payment by snuggling her icy feet in my lap to thaw them. She had stood in the lake for the shots!

The rest of our journey was in the dark, and pretty nerve-racking, as the roads were narrow, overlooking sharp drops, and broken in places, but we had an excellent driver, Gulzar, who  was not only skillful, but had  a calm temperament and got us safely to the PTDC motel at Rama, where we were to spend the night.

Part 2 Pictures

 

 

 

 

The Holiday That Grew (part 1)

                                                            The Holiday That Grew ( Part 1)

Every Summer, I go up to Islamabad for about 10 days. I don’t like to neglect (read: leave unsupervised) my home and my husband for longer than that. At the same time, I must have a change of scene (read get away from my responsibilities) and Islamabad provides just that: its good roads,  trees and green vistas ending in hills that disappear into a blue haze, thinner population and sense of law and order make it the antithesis of Karachi. Best of all, I stay with my good friend Rashida.  Rashida’s permanent home is in her village in Charsadda, but she has a house in Islamabad where I am made most welcome and comfortable.

There was only one hiccup, and that was my fault. The shower in the guest bathroom requires a water pressure pump to be switched on to function properly. The first time I had a shower, Rashida turned on the pump for me. Unfortunately, I did not realize that the shower rose was not attached, and was hit by a torrent from a hole in the shower pipe. Is this what water-boarding is like? Because I felt an urge to confess everything. The second time, the shower rose was in place, but Rashida was resting, so I went and turned on the pump myself – or what I thought was the pump switch. A sickly trickle emerged . Having already committed to the shower by undressing and getting partially wet, I continued, but it took a long, long time, and brought home to me how much surface area there was on my body.

No hard feelings at all – we had a good laugh about both. In fact, we are ideal holiday companions, with no demands made on either side. We go out to eat or make toast and open a can of something; we can chat or read or suddenly get up and visit Changla Gali and Nathia Gali. Together, we whizz around the city, Rashida driving, even late at night, for this is peaceful Islamabad.  Together, we have our senior moments……..

One day, a green Toyota with two white-haired ladies drove up to a petrol station. After the tank was filled and paid for, the one driving tried to move off. Nothing happened. ‘What’s the matter, Rashida?” asked the one in the passenger seat.

‘I don’t know, Lyn,” replied the driver, “the car just won’t move.”

“Is it in first gear?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, press the clutch again and this time I’ll push the gear lever into place. Ok, now accelerate.” Still nothing.  By now they were holding up the cars behind, and the attendant peered in.

“The car is not moving,” they explained apologetically.

“Switch on the engine,” he advised.

This year, the 10 days became 15 in order to accommodate a visit to another friend, Meher, who used to be my neighbor in Karachi and has now moved to Phul Garan in the Islamabad hills. I spent my birthday with her and her family in their beautiful home and garden, but on the second day of my visit, developed a stomach infection. However, Meher is a doctor, so who better to get sick with? I soon recovered under her care.

The extra days were also added so that I could join Zoe and her team in Hunza for a few days, where they would be shooting a music video. I had left Karachi on the 6th of June and my return ticket was booked for the 20th. Then I got a call from Zoe.  The Hunza Serena had no room till the 28th. Moreover, Serena Hotels had agreed to sponsor the logistics of the trip, and asked them to extend their shoot all over Gilgit-Baltistan, wherever the hotels were located. They would start on the 18th and finish on the 3rd of June! Well, it was too good a chance to miss, and so my vacation expanded yet again, to almost a month.

We were a group of 5: Zoe the producer, Yassir the DOP, Kamal the director, Carol the assistant director,  and me the passenger and mascot.  The first mishap took place before the others could join me in Islamabad.  On their way to Karachi airport on the 18th afternoon, the oil pipe of Zoe’s Prado broke.  They had to find 2 taxis to accommodate all their luggage and equipment, and actually managed to get to the airport in time, only to find that their flight had been delayed.  Much righteous anger later, we were all together in the Islamabad Serena for the night and up at 5 a.m. to catch the flight to Skardu at 8.00.That’s when the second mishap hit: Kamal couldn’t find his wallet, containing a chunk of the budget-money for the trip and his ID card. The frantic search and inquiry that ensued resulted in the boys being too late to snatch breakfast.  Anyway, we made it to the airport in good time and I kept checking my boarding card for the gate number, as I always do before realizing with a shock that Islamabad airport has only one! We settled down in the (only) waiting lounge and Zoe spread out a napkin that she had filled with boiled eggs and rolls thoughtfully filched from the Serena breakfast buffet for the boys.

Upto now, I had only been up to the foothills of the Himalayas by road – beautiful, indeed, but flying over the snow-capped Karakorams was absolutely breathtaking. Then the captain told us to look to our right to see Nanga Parbat, and it thrust above the rest of the range, in line with the aircraft! In only 45 minutes, we descended and glided over a flat plain to Skardu airport, where we emerged into the scorching sun which, instead of fading the colours, somehow intensified them. The sky was a vivid blue, the clouds immaculately white and fluffy. We had been birds; now we became ants. The mountains seemed to rise up from our feet and surround us.

After we got into the airport shuttle, the driver turned around and introduced himself to us as our captain – and he really was. They were short-staffed, so after landing the plane, he had hopped out of the cockpit and into the driving seat of the shuttle. It was a lovely homely feeling!

Along with several other hotel guests, we piled into the Serena van and set off on a 3-hour drive to Khaplu.  The landscape was bare and rocky, with only a few clumps of trees by the river, but its very austerity was beautiful, and one soon realized that brown and grey could have a myriad shades. Now, and for the rest of our tour, I regretted that Pakistani schools do not teach their students the names of all the flora and fauna to be found in our country, for I did not know the name of a single tree. I was told later that the very tall thin ones ending in a point are Poplars.  How often I had seen them painted on the backs of trucks, beside just such a river, and thought that the painter was being rather fanciful! Halfway through our journey we stopped to buy cherries from a little shop.  I had never been a fan of cherries in Karachi, finding them overpriced and overrated, but these were not only cheap, they were delicious. We only regretted not buying  more.

in Khaplu, we were surrounded by greenery and gushing streams, one of which flowed right through the hotel.  The grounds were filled with fruit trees: apricot, apple, walnut and cherries both red and black. Because of my arthritic knees, I could not manage the stairs into the Khaplu Palace, which is a 150-year-old heritage building, reclaimed and made into a hotel by the Agha Khan Trust, so stayed in the more modern residence, but that too has been most tastefully designed with stone walls, wooden stairs and low ceilings that give you the feeling of being in an old-time fort. We were greeted on our arrival with glasses of freshly squeezed apricot juice. At lunch, we were introduced to a dish that is ubiquitous in Baltistan: Burutz Berikutz. It is rolls or squares of chapatti, stuffed with cottage cheese, herbs and apricot oil. They were delicious and had a really distinctive taste. The boys fell in love with them and ordered them for every meal thereafter. I liked them the first couple of times, but then couldn’t take any more. And I never could fancy the famous ‘Tomoro’ tea, made with a local herb. The others liked, it, and I promised to make them some in Karachi as soon as I could get my hands on some mud and bits of jharoo.

The third and worst mishap struck later that afternoon. The boys took out the drone camera to try out. Kamal had carried it, kangaroo-fashion, protectively strapped to his front in its big hard black case. Released from captivity, it flew out of sight and control of Yassir, who was handling the remote. Zoe and Kamal risked life and limb running up a steep mountain, only to find it had crashed on the other side and was quite irreparable. Gloom descended on the team. They had been depending on that camera for their most spectacular shots. After frantic phone-calls, it was learned that another could be ordered in Lahore, and by a stroke of incredible luck, a friend, Omar, was travelling up to Khaplu from Lahore that very day!

More rejoicing when Kamal’s lost wallet was discovered in the depths of his suitcase.

My own stay in Khaplu was restful rather than exciting. My knees, coupled with the difficulty breathing in the rarefied air, precluded me from accompanying the others on their photographic jaunts, but I had a room with a large terrace from where I could view the snow-capped peaks in the daytime and the stars at night.  I could stroll among the fruit trees, read, and finally get to work on my next book. I did agree to go along to a lake, but my beloved daughter forgot about me, and then called, wailing, to apologise. She said it wasn’t that nice anyway – hmmmm.

I did have one little adventure, and it was with the bathroom (again). On the second day, boiling hot water gushed out of the Muslim shower, almost scalding the unmentionables. Then I got into the shower cubicle, and was enjoying a lovely warm shower when I noticed the water rising around my ankles. After that, it was a race to finish before it overflowed the threshold. After I made a complaint, both problems were swiftly attended to – a faucet in the nether regions of the hotel, that had allowed the boiling water into the Muslim shower was switched off, and a rubber plunger applied to the drain in the shower cubicle. So no harm done, and I did end up with immaculate feet and toe-nails, which had got a good soaking.

 

The Holiday That Grew (part 1)

 

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The Road Well-Travelled

They say that if you can drive in Karachi, you can drive anywhere in the world. They lie. On the few occasions that I drove in the UK, I was a nervous wreck. Nothing in Karachi prepares you for law and order. People there have this terrifying habit of believing that all they have to do is obey the rules and everyone else will, too.  Oh the blessed relief of being back in the comfortable chaos of my home city! In the midst of smoking buses, overloaded trucks that threatened to topple over, weaving motorcycles, unpredictable donkey-carts, and pedestrians who have put their faith in God alone, I relaxed, turned up the radio, and drove as I had always been used to doing  – aggressively or defensively as the situation demanded.  Traffic jam? Keep your eyes peeled for that one inch of space that opens up and dive into it. Green light? Slow down and look right and left for colour-blind speedsters. Overtaking? Either side will do, because you can have the Flash using the slow lane and a three-toed sloth using the fast lane. Just make sure to look in your side-mirrors.

To cultivate the nervelessness necessary for driving in Karachi, you have to begin early, in your formative years, when you believe that you are immortal. Luckily for me, I had these bad-ass friends who undertook my education when I was only fifteen. My first mentor was  Arthur, who did not let the minor fact that neither he nor I owned a vehicle  stand in his way. We had a mutual friend, Aziz Khan, who had what one could loosely call a car – an old, beat-up Fiat 500. The greatest virtue of this poor hack was that it was in such a bad state anyway, that Aziz did not mind what we did with it. After it had served as the means of a rite of passage for several in our circle, it was bought by a Kabari-wallah. Various apocryphal tales of this car were told and went down in the history of our youth: like the time someone stopped Aziz and told him that he had left his axle behind several yards down the road.

When I was seventeen, my mother bought our first car – a 1966 Volkswagen in perfect condition. Being neither a teenager nor under the influence of bad-ass chums, she very properly enrolled in a driving school, leaving me with unlimited access to the car and the opportunity to develop the skills learned on Aziz’s little Fiat. I acquired a learner’s license that allowed me to exercise our new acquisition in the company of licensed friends. These companions made a point of taking me through the worst traffic of Karachi to toughen me up, so that by the time I reached eighteen and got my pukka license, I was immune to such horrors as Empress Market and Bunder Road rush-hour traffic. For this expertise, I must acknowledge the tough love of Jonathan Menezes and Siddique.

Thankfully, I have never been involved in any accidents causing injury to life or limb, but I have bashed the  cars I have driven at various times.  Sometimes, the Universe dispenses justice to the wrongdoer. My mother and I were driving home in the Volksy when a fruit-seller, ignoring the red light, slammed his cart into us. After mutual cursing, we drove away, leaving him to pick up some of the fruit that had spilled out onto the road. When we got home, we anxiously examined the car for damage. There was none, as the cart had banged into the bumper and the bumper on a 1966 Beetle is virtually indestructible. Then we looked closer. Wedged across the two short horizontal bars of the cage-like structure was a short plank of wood – probably snapped off from the fruit-cart – and nestled snugly on this were two large red apples! We did feel bad for the poor fruit-seller, but I guess he got off lightly for his carelessness.

More often, the Universe doesn’t give a rat’s posterior, like the maniac who came speeding out of a side lane and disappeared without trace, leaving me to deal with not only the damage to my own car but that of two others as well. This time I was driving our old Datsun 120 Y on the way home from school with an 11-year-old Rachel in the passenger seat. Let me amend my earlier statement. The Universe did grant a very big reprieve: When I became aware, out of the corner of my eye, of the maniacal speedster, I somehow had the sense to speed up instead of trying to brake, so that instead of ramming into the passenger door and Rachel, he got the rear left of the car, which acted like an angle shot from a cue ball, sending me careering off into 2 cars parked at the side of the road. The worst hit, of course, both in front and behind, was our beloved Datsun.

When I married Adi, he had a well-preserved but aging Fiat 1100 which we pensioned off in 1985 and replaced with a beautiful turquoise-blue Datsun 120 Y. How proud we were of our new acquisition, and how faithfully it served us for 20 years! Bought in Karachi and conveyed by truck to Jhelum, it carried us around the Punjab and NWFP on innumerable jaunts for the next two years, returning by truck to Karachi in 1987. In 1988 it moved into a new garage at our Darakshan villa, where it had to bear the ravages of the sea air. The engine remained sound always, but the body suffered badly.

It is to this Datsun that I owe my realization that I had ‘arrived’.  One day my husband, who by now used the Suzuki Swift obtained from his Company, expressed sympathy (and some admiration) for the fact that I had to turn up at School every day in a rust-riddled wreck, and I assured him that it didn’t matter a bit. The car could be relied upon to get me from point A to point B, and that was all that counted. In fact, when one of my students, in all innocence, said, “And Miss, his car was in even worse condition than yours….” And then looked horrified at what she had said, I only laughed. I knew by now who I was, and didn’t need a spotless car to boost my image.

However, a time came when we had to let her go, and had the satisfaction of deciding between two buyers (taxi-drivers) who fought fiercely for her hand.

It was outside our budget, but when we saw the gleaming black Toyota Corolla 1600 XLI, we had to buy it. It was a 1996 model, immaculate both inside and out.  It was left to our mechanic, Rao Mushtaq, to articulate the change in our circumstances represented by our new purchase.  When Adi rolled into his workshop one day to have something minor fixed, he took a long look at the car, and then at the person driving it, and said, “Aap? Aur aisi gari?!”  Cheeky bugger.

I don’t remember any major crashes with the Corolla, but no car escapes without some dents and dings in Karachi, and besides, the sea-air took its usual toll, so that a time came when it had to go for some extensive cosmetic work.  Zoe was away on holiday so I had the use of her car while ours was at the garage. She had a Honda City automatic, which I had to get used to, having only ever driven a stick shift. Eventually, I stopped feeling around for the clutch and learned to relax my left foot. By this time the Corolla was ready – restored to her former beauty (almost) and I happily set out for Saddar, where I teach part-time at the Notre Dame Institute of Education. The route involves the whole stretch of Khayaban-i-Ittehad: a good smooth road and at 8.00 am, pretty clear of traffic. The sort of situation in which you begin to relax and let your mind wander……..and forget that you aren’t driving an automatic any more.  I was approaching a red light, so slowed down, and then for one mad, foggy moment, got confused between the brake and the clutch pedals, so instead of stopping, I cruised into the rear of the motionless car in front of me.  The driver got out and came towards me with a face full of anger and fear mixed in pretty even proportions, because he was just that: a driver, and not the owner of the car. He snatched my keys to prevent my driving off and I had to spend some time calming him down by saying that not only was I willing to pay for any damage, I would bear witness to his innocence to his employers, whom he had summoned. The owner turned out to be a lady, and we settled the matter amicably enough. Later I discovered that she was the sister of one of my colleagues. Small world – never know who you’ll bump into! (Sorry, bad pun).

Being the sort of family that hangs on to a car for a minimum of 20 years, we might still have had the Corolla today were it not for my increasingly troublesome arthritis. Every time I went to the doctor, he told me to stop driving, which was like telling me to stop breathing. Then I had an attack of Sciatica followed by a frozen shoulder, so we decided to go half-way and in 2013 welcomed our first automatic – a silver Toyota Altis. Definitely easier on the knees, wrists and shoulders. Only 6 months later, we went further and  welcomed our first full-time driver. And thus my life was transformed. I now sit in the back seat, listen to podcasts, talk on the phone, and coddle my aging bones. How great it is not to have to worry about parking, or coming home late at night alone. How wonderful to have someone who carries in all the shopping and parks the car in the garage.

And yet – there’s something liberating about driving yourself –  So every now and then, when he goes away to his village for a break, I get behind the wheel, turn up the radio and sing along at the top of my voice.

Ta Hayat

In June of 2015 I completed 60 years  on this earth. To be more specific, on this piece of earth called Pakistan, which has implications that are, to borrow an expression from Fayes  T  Kantawalla,  ‘deeply cool’. For one, I get to buy Behbud certificates. Actually, this is only moderately cool, because the profit rates have been slashed, but they are still higher than those of normal certificates. For another, my NIC, which expires in 3 days will have to be renewed for the last time. After that, it becomes ‘Ta Hayat’ – valid for life (or what’s left of it).

Energized by this prospect, I made a foray today to my nearest NADRA office.  Standing in line for 45 minutes at the token counter, I felt every year of my age in my knees and back, but the promise of ‘Ta Hayat’ whispered in my ear, and I finally made it to the first stage of the process, where I was relieved of Rs 1500 and grilled on all the details of my life, just stopping short of my last bowel movement. Then I sat down to wait for my name to be called. This part is not as simple or passive as it sounds. A lifetime of having my name mangled beyond recognition necessitated my staying alert to every possible variation on the theme, so although I tried to while away the tedium on my ipad, my having to also keep my ears pricked almost gave me a tension headache.

At last it came: LAN-TAIN! I leaped to my feet, looking around frantically for the source of the voice, and was directed by kindly souls to a partition behind which crouched the latest slaughterer of my name, next to a camera and computer screen. Positioning myself on the stool, I gazed directly into the lens, smoothing out my features into what I hoped was an expression of calm grace and intelligence.

Another wait, this time to be called for fingerprinting and data entry. The fingerprinting went smoothly because I kept my eye on the counter and whisked into the chair in front of it as soon as it was empty, but the data guy got me again with MRS VIKAZ! You had to pity him, really. He had to deal with entering mine, my husband’s, my father’s, and my mother’s names, none of which he had ever heard in his life. Despite my spelling them all out loudly and slowly, my mother ended up on the form as ‘Sharlotte’. I hardly noticed this aberration, however. I was too dismayed by my photograph.  The last time my NIC was made was in 2002. On that card I look like something the cat dragged in. On this form, I look like something the cat dragged in and hid for 14 years before dragging it out again. And this is how it will be Ta Hayat. Oh well…….maybe if I show people this picture, they will appreciate how good I look in the flesh by comparison.

To celebrate the attainment of senior citizenship, I decided at the beginning of 2015 to stop dyeing my hair. I figured that the worst part of the transition would be covered by the summer vacation. After spending late winter and spring looking like a skunk, I left for a short holiday in Islamabad and arrived in time for my birthday, now more closely resembling a badger needing a haircut. My friend Rashida, with whom I always stay in the capital, took me to her hairdresser, an  elderly gentleman called Saleem. He has been in the business for ages, and is particularly skilled at short haircuts, as he caters to all the foreign Embassy ladies.  Nevertheless I was nervous, as I always am when putting my head in the hands of a stranger, and when you consider that I have to remove my glasses, it adds a whole new dimension to the meaning of ‘blind faith’.

My usual hairdresser in Karachi has a scientific procedure. He wets and sections my hair. He cuts one section at a time. He keeps comparing the lengths of the hair on the two sides of my head. When all the sections are done, he lifts and checks for any stray uneven bits. He blowdries and then checks again. Saleem  Sahib plunged into my dry mane. Every cut sounded like tearing paper. His hands flew in random directions as he kept up a stream of chatter with Rashida. Rashida! My so-called friend, calmly watching this massacre. I made a few shaky cracks about hoping he wasn’t making me ‘ganja’. He replied with a sinister laugh.

At last he was done, and wiping the blood off his weapons. Trembling, I put on my glasses and squinted at a complete stranger in the mirror. All the dark shag had been removed, leaving a very short, but definitely stylish silver coif. The man has obviously gone beyond craftsmanship to true artistry.  Like Jane Austen, he was difficult to catch in the act of greatness.

The world changes for a white-haired woman in Pakistan.  I have for several years enjoyed the respect given to my obvious seniority, but now I am at a new  level.  At ‘Imtiaz’ shopping centre, I took my place in the queue at the check-out counter, resigning myself to the ache in my knees. Out of nowhere, a chair appeared and a smiling shop assistant invited me to sit! When my driver went on leave and I had to get behind the wheel again, I discovered a new courtesy afforded to me on the roads. Instead of revving up to beat me to it at an intersection, the driver of the other car would halt and wave me through. One day I had to collect my laptop from the Lenovo dealer  whose offices are in the Doctor’s Plaza at Do Talwar. Parking there is nigh impossible. Should I wait for my driver to return? But I really needed my laptop.  I decided to trust in the silver lining. Drawing up to the entrance of the building, I stuck my head out of the window, and beamed at the security guard. “Beta, idhar kahin parking mil jayegi?”  in reply, he dashed forward and removed a ladder that was laid horizontally in front of a car-sized, obviously privileged spot, and ushered me in. I thanked him profusely, both on exiting and re-entering my car, and asked how much the parking fee was. The answer: absolutely nothing!

Senior citizen, Ta Hayat!

Three Reflections on Mother’s Day

  1. Made, Not Born

For the first 26 years of my life, babies to me were uncharted territory. As an only child, I had neither little siblings nor nieces and nephews to care for.  Oh, I liked babies just as much as anyone, but from afar. I enjoyed watching them, but what did one DO with a baby? What did one SAY to it? How the hell was I going to be a mother?

I needn’t have worried, because when I had my own, I discovered that while a woman may give birth to a baby, it is the baby who makes her into a mother.  Others had more experience, knowledge and expertise, but  you know what? The baby preferred ME! It didn’t really matter what I said or did – he knew who I was, and that was all that mattered.

A wise doctor in Jhelum was obviously familiar with this phenomenon. He was at our house to visit my mother-in-law, who was sick. I was at the bazaar, and 10-month-old Cyrus was crying and irritable. Adi turned to the doctor for advice. The latter took a look at my son’s plump and rosy face, and said, “Don’t worry, he’s fine. Let the mother come – she will know what to do.” I returned soon after this. When he was leaving, the doctor spoke to the now cheerful baby: “So you are ok now? Your mother gave you a biscuit and you are happy!”

I used to be afraid of the dark, but with a child to protect, I would have faced Dracula and sent him whimpering away. Two more babies followed the first, and I became even stronger. My children turned me into Superwoman!

  1. The Madonna Myth

Here are two definitions of sentimentality that I request you to consider:

Sentimentality originally indicated the reliance on feelings as a guide to truth, but current usage defines it as an appeal to shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason.

‘Sentimentality often involves situations which evoke very intense feelings: love affairs, childbirth, death’, but where the feelings are expressed with ‘reduced intensity and duration of emotional experience…diluted to a safe strength by idealisation and simplification’.

Mother’s Day, unfortunately, is prey to sentimentality. One of the evils of Mother’s Day is that it canonises mothers. They are exalted as all-wise, all-patient, all-loving. The underlying message is, if you are a good mother, this is what you should be like. Please don’t do this to us. As it is, we carry this huge burden of guilt for being human – don’t rub it in. Don’t remind us of all the times we have been  much,  much less than perfect.

We agonise over the things we did – the harsh words, the lost temper, the resounding smack. We carry guilty secrets about the things we thought – the resentment, the disappointment, the lack of faith in our children. In the words of one of my favourite poets, Liz Lochhead:

“Nobody’s mother can’t not never do nothing right.”

Appreciate us, thank us, but also understand and forgive us.

  1. The Parent Paradox

Among the many lessons passed on to me by my mother are two pieces of parenting wisdom:

  1. Children don’t owe their parents anything. They didn’t ask to be born.
  2. Parents need to be a little selfish.

The two maxims appear contradictory, but like all paradoxes, are both true at the same time and indeed reinforce each other. Consider:

Once you accept that your children don’t owe you anything, you stop worrying about whether they will do their ‘duty’ towards you, and focus on doing your duty towards them, which is to equip them for a future that may or may not include you. Kahlil Gibran said this so much better, that I will quote the whole poem here:

Kahlil Gibran on Raising Children:

“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let our bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.”

Once you accept that your children don’t owe you anything, you realize that you have a duty towards yourself, which is to nurture your own individuality and as far as possible, your material independence.

C’mon Baby Light My Fire

Since my father died long before my kids were born they only knew my mother as a single grandparent whom they called “Gee Em”. Her marital status was a matter of some concern to Zoe…
Zoe: (Offering her grandmother a bedraggled weed pulled from her yard). Here’s a flower for you, GM.
GM: Oh, thank you, darling.
Zoe: You can use it to get married.
GM: ?!
Zoe: You know, GM, you should get a Daddy. He’ll fight the robbers, and if anything gets broken, he can fisk it.

Zoe was probably all of four years old at this time, but she had her ideas of marriage and the duties of a husband  pretty clear. Her role model for a “Daddy” was, of course, her own father. Not that he had ever been called upon to fight robbers, but judging from his insistence on all doors being securely locked at night and the fact that he owned a shotgun and knew how to use it, she felt pretty certain that he would be able to protect us.

As for the second qualification on his paternal CV – a “fisker” of broken things – that was something that he had demonstrated on innumerable occasions. From toys to car engines, electrical items to furniture , there was nothing her Daddy wouldn’t put his mind and hands to. What might have escaped her notice is that more often than not, Mummy was the slave labour utilized in these projects.

Why do men in general find it so hard to multitask? Put a broken item into a man’s hand and so much of his energy flows into his brain as he contemplates the damage, that his body  is too weak to  gather together the tools and materials needed to repair it. Thus, if Daddy was the ‘Ustaad’, then Mummy was the ‘Chota’. And it is the duty of the Chota to ‘fetch’.

After years of obeying commands beginning with “Bring me….I need……where are the……why don’t we have any……” I have learned to distinguish between nose-pliers, wire-cutters, adjustable  and pipe wrenches. Hell, I even know what an Allen Key is.   I pride myself on having every variety and size of screwdriver in my house. Insulation tape and solder wire, nails, screws and rawl plugs, Elphy, Samad Bond and wood glue, all have featured on my shopping lists along with vegetables, bread and eggs.

Being the Gofer for the repair of a portable article is comparatively painless.  The case is quite different when the job is ‘on location’ as it were, such as fixing a car engine or an electrical fault in the main box. Then the task takes on the aspect of a surgical operation, with Adi crouched , hunched or bent into a shape suitable for getting at the required part and me standing by to hand him what he needs. Invariably, the area in which the fault lies is not only almost inaccessible but also cloaked in darkness, so that a vital duty assigned to me  is holding a torch and aiming the beam where it is needed. How ironic that ‘carrying a torch’ for someone means  being passionately in love with them.  I have never come so close to murdering my husband than when I have been subjected to a constant stream of instructions on how high, how low, how near and how far to hold it, with the refrain: “ HERE, HERE, NOT THERE – WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

Anyway, despite our conjugal DIY adventures, we are still together after 34 years, and with age, the Master Repairman has surrendered most of the jobs to others. However, once in a while, we find ourselves in a situation where there is no one else to call upon:

About three weeks ago, we had a new gas boiler installed, and kept having problems with it. The plumber came and adjusted the thermostat, but every now and then the flame would go out, and we would call upon  Cyrus, Zoe  or our live-in driver, Amjad,  to relight it. After a week of uninterrupted hot water supply, we assumed the problem had gone away. What we didn’t realize was that the faithful Amjad was relighting it every morning, unasked. Then he went on leave, and we woke up one morning to no hot water. Zoe was in Australia, Rachel was spending the night at a friend’s place, and Cyrus had already left for an early-morning appointment. I had to leave for school in an hour, and I really really needed a shower. The weather was still cold, so there was no way I was going to brave the chill of water that had sat all night in the overhead tank.

In order to light a gas boiler, you have to be young, supple, and have periscopic vision. There is a little door that opens at floor-level, and right inside, beyond your view, is the orifice from which issues the gas for the pilot.  It is at this orifice that you have to hold a flame while pressing down on a knob (outside the boiler) to release the gas. You exert pressure with the thumb of one hand, reach inside with a lit match in the other, and assume a foetal position to be able to see where the hell the pilot is.

Between us, we have a total of 138 years, one good knee, two whole lungs, three working ankles and four usable arms and hands. You will notice that backs are not in the list, so bending  was out. Armed with a torch (that bloody torch!), a mirror (to reflect the inside of the boiler) and long spills made out of rolled newspaper (for lighting the unreachable pilot), we set out through the back yard , never taking our eyes off the ground because this is where the dog performs.

Our quarry stood at the end of a narrow  covered passage, half of whose width is taken up by a cupboard and a wheelbarrow. This meant that we could only approach it in single file. Since I am the one with the good knee and the better part of the two whole lungs, I had to perform the manual labour while Adi, who has the technical know-how, stood behind  giving directions without being able to see the action.

I draw a veil over the scene that ensued. Suffice it to say that the boiler got lit, I had my shower, and we are still together.

Shades of Play

Some days ago, my daughter Zoe said in a tone of perfect calm, “Oh yes,  and I’ll be going to Adelaide for the Pakistan-Ireland toss.”

Me: You  WHATWHICHWHERE?

Zoe: Adelaide. The World Cup.  Pakistan-Ireland match. Toss.

Me:  WHOWHYHOW?

Zoe: it’s part of the Lays Chips advertising campaign. They’re sending me. I really don’t know……. I wondered if I should go.

Me: (Heavy breathing)

Zoe: Yeah, they’re not paying me or anything, but people said it would be good exposure for me …….

Me: ARE YOU MAD, CHILD? You’ll be at the WORLD CUP.  You will go and shake the hand of every cricketer you can find, and then you WILL NOT WASH THAT HAND until you come home and shake mine!!!!!!!

Zoe: Ok, ok, yes, I’m going. It’s a chance to see Australia.

Me: (Muttering) Pearls before swine!

My love-affair with cricket is of fairly recent vintage. I just missed the great Javed Miandad, Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Yunis, but was in time to see the slightly less great Inzamam, Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammed Yousaf in their prime. I have watched the debacle of the Darrel Hare-ball-tampering incident and the spot fixing drama unfold on television, Best of all, I have watched the rise of Misbah-ul-Haq, Umar Gul and Saeed Ajmal. Like every other loyalist, I hope to see our team walk away with the World cup.

I used to be a heretic. In my school days, when every other girl was swooning over the cricketers, I thought they were a bunch of silly mid-ons and backward square legs, and puzzled over the fascination of hitting a ball with a stick.

My spinster aunt, who lived with us, was cricket-crazy. She would sit glued to the television during a match and scream imprecations or shout with joy and clap her hands according to how our team played. She had a large pin-up poster of Imran Khan pasted to the inside of her cupboard door. I couldn’t understand the attraction.  In 1980, I  was actually in the same room as   Imran Khan at the Horseshoe restaurant in Karachi, and felt excited only on behalf of my students at the Convent of Jesus and Mary. For their sakes, I went boldly up to his table, and asked him for an autograph for them. I must say he was very obliging, and on the only paper I could find ( a piece of gold foil pulled out of a packet of Goldleaf cigarettes) with the only pen available (my red correction pen) he wrote, “To Class 10 from Imran Khan”.

It was only after he had lifted the World cup in 1992 that I began to take an interest in the game. Like all converts, I became as passionate as before I had been indifferent. I groaned at every loss, rejoiced at every triumph, and chafed with frustration when work or other engagements prevented me from watching every ball of every match.

For some reason, now that I am an avid follower of cricket, females in general seem to have lost their former fervour. Could it be that the sexiness quotient of cricketers has gone down, and the fan base has transferred itself to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf? Whatever, the only enthusiasts I can find willing to discuss the minutiae of a match are men. At the Lyceum, where I teach, I have bonded with my male colleagues through many an excited discussion over the performance of this or that player, deplored the weakness of our batting or exulted over an unexpected win. Disciple-like, I have drunk in their superior knowledge of the technicalities of the game and humbly asked for explanations of fielding positions and bowling actions.

Another cricketing bond I have forged is with a young lad who sells vegetables with his father at the corner of the Abdullah Shah Ghazi roundabout. He came to the car window one day to deliver my order, observed me listening keenly to the commentary on the radio, and immediately we were buddies. Being a Pathan, he is naturally a die-hard Afridi fan, who loyally stood by his hero through a bad patch, and when his idol returned to form and led the team to a spectacular win, said, “Dekha? Hum jeet gaye, toh Afridi nay hi jitwaya!” I had to agree. And let me say it now: I, too, love Afridi.  His recklessness can be maddening when he gets out, but it is oh so thrilling when he doesn’t. Besides, his bowling and fielding seldom fail, and his verve and spirit are heartwarming.

Sadly, the mess created by the excavations at this same roundabout have forced me to change my route home from school every day, so my Pathan friend and I have lost touch over the past year, but his place has been filled to some extent by my driver, Amjad, who we employed about a year and a half back. Before a match, we feverishly analyse the potential of the team, and after the game, do a detailed post-mortem. I am happy to report that we are in perfect agreement on the excellence of Misbah-ul-Haq as a captain, the tendency of Hafeez to play well only when he is leading the team, the villainy of the ICC in disqualifying our best bowler and other vital matters.

Best of all, my interest is shared by my husband. I pity households in which one partner wants the TV tuned to only one channel the whole day, and is deaf, blind and dumb for the duration of the game day after day, during a tournament. Thankfully, ours is a marriage made in cricketing heaven.

Several years ago, I decided to actually attend a match at the stadium in Karachi. It was between Pakistan and England, and my lucky stars were in the ascendant, because on this, the only occasion on which I was there in person, Pakistan won. It was a tremendous experience  in mob mentality and gloriously cathartic. I was transformed from a respectable wife, mother of three and schoolteacher into a screaming, cursing, cheering maniac, who rose to her feet  waving her arm from side to side at every boundary, and kept whacking the seat in front of her with an empty water bottle when her voice gave out. I must admit that I have concluded that I am better off watching a match on TV, because of the close-ups afforded by the camera and the guidance provided by the commentators, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and thank goodness I took the opportunity when I did. Who knows when our poor, beleaguered country will see another international match on our soil?

The Cinderella Syndrome

Have you ever looked at a lone slipper lying in the middle of the road and wondered what story it had to tell? I imagine someone flying down the road to catch a moving bus (presumably before it turns into a pumpkin) and losing the slipper in that final leap onto the step. But this is too probable – much more interesting is the possibility that the person was suddenly sucked upwards by aliens. Particularly when you see two abandoned slippers lying in the road…..

Anyway, my point is that there is more than one way to lose a slipper, and mine, unfortunately, has been to have it break while I am wearing it, sufficiently far from home to make going back and putting on another pair impossible. Snapping the back strap is not such a disaster: there is enough of the article left on one’s foot to be able to shuffle along and hope nobody notices. Sadly, my slippers/sandals have always decided to give way at more vital points.

Twice this has happened in school. In both cases the slipper was the backless, Y-shaped sort, where all three points of attachment are vital. One of these said points gave way at the Convent. Luckily, the peon was able to send it to a nearby mochi for repairs while I skulked in the staffroom. The second mishap was at the Lyceum, where my Prince Charming appeared in the shape of the school cook. This enterprising man ripped a strip off a jharan, twisted it into a thin string, and used it to tie the strap in place. Truly, one of the unsung heroes of our time!

For several years, my footwear has not let me down (both figuratively and literally), but 2015 has so far, proved to be The Year of the Broken Slipper. It began, dramatically enough, on the 1st of January. Normally I manage a visit to my hairdresser before Christmas for what a friend diplomatically terms “denting-painting”, but this year the lead-up to the 25th was too packed with engagements for me to find a slot of the considerable time it takes to look less ancient than I am. Fortunately, I have wavy hair, and was able to brush it over the tell-tale gaps in colour , but a stage was reached when I began to resemble a skunk, so off I went to the Spring of Youth.

As soon as I stepped out of the car, I felt a strange imbalance in the universe. Looking down, I discovered that the entire heel of my right slipper had been left behind on the floor mat. Oh, well, that wasn’t so bad, eh? At least the straps were in tact, and I could do a sort of sailor’s rolling step to my destination. As I submitted to the ministrations of the girl in the salon, I was critically aware that the parlour had not been swept properly: there were patches of black dust here and there – in fact, they were leading from the entrance to my chair. Strange. I got up and walked over to the sink to have my hair washed, and oh horrors! The black dust was following me – no, it was being caused by me – help! It was that evil, heelless slipper. The sponge filling had rotted and was leaking out of the gap created where the heel had fallen off. I apologized profusely and crept out of the salon.

Three weeks later……..it was a Wednesday, the day I go to the Notre Dame Institute of Education, where I am a part-time lecturer. The weather had become colder, so I dug deep into my cupboard for a pair of sandals that could be worn with socks – a pair that I had not worn since the previous winter, and which I fondly imagined were waiting obediently in the same condition in which I had left them a year ago. While walking across the grounds, up the stairs and into my classroom, I did notice that the sandals were sort of softer and bouncier than I remembered, but thought nothing of it, in fact, rather enjoyed the sensation. As I proceeded with my lesson, walking up and down in front of the class, I happened to look down, and oh no! There they were again: little piles of black powder that I now found only too familiar. I lifted my foot. Yup! Not only the heel, but the whole sole was breaking up.

After the students had finished laughing, they expressed concern, but I said bravely that I’d be ok, removed the sandals and continued the lesson in my socks. Students, however, are noble creatures. One girl insisted that I take her shoes because she was more comfortable walking around in socks, really, please, I had to teach, she would be fine. How could I refuse such a magnificent offer? I took them, and the class remarked on how well they matched my clothes. (They did, actually).

Now came the problem of exchange. The girl said she would walk me to my car wearing the broken sandals, and we would switch there, but I couldn’t see how she would make it all that way. In the tea-break, a fellow teacher came to my rescue. Believe it or not, she had a spare pair of slippers in her locker! Gratefully, I put them on, returned her shoes to the student who had lent them to me, and threw the offending sandals into the dustbin. But my ordeal was not over.

On the way to the car, I found that the borrowed slippers were too loose, and that I was getting a cramp in my feet trying to keep them on while walking. I might have managed if I was going straight home, but I was not. I had some places to visit that would entail a certain amount of walking, so there was only one solution: buy another pair. Accordingly, I instructed my driver to drive along the Empress Market road and keep a sharp eye out for a thela selling slippers. We crept along, looking left and right, and you won’t believe how many thelas there are selling everything BUT bloody slippers. At last I spotted one, and screeched to the driver to stop. He managed to edge the car into a space at the side of the road, but this is a busy area, where cops are on the prowl for illegally parked vehicles. “Baji, please jaldi karain,” he pleaded, and I was off like a greyhound after a rabbit. The thela-wallah found me a rather nice pair of slippers, but with the uncanny intuition of all these hawkers, sensed my air of emergency, and quoted a steep price. I protested half-heartedly, but that son of Barabbas refused to come down, so I coughed up the cash, donned my purchase, and sprinted back to the car where my driver had the cheek to look behind and compliment me on my acquisition.

Moral of the story: when you put your best foot forward, make sure the slipper on it is in good condition.