My best friend is moving half a world away today. This is for her.
An ocean, some islands, a few dozen countries.
An alternate timezone; a 3 am yawn here, a 6 pm shrug there.
Unfamiliar accents and fur-coated walks on oddly-named streets
from a shared edifice to a new campus. Buildings of
scholarship and domesticity, of new habits and faces.
These are the measurements of distance,
of the differences in circumstances that occur
when one soul diverges from another.
But these poor numbers will have no impact.
We will scoff at them, and laugh at them, and devise
a system that is truly our own.
Constant connectivity of pictures and of words,
of “:)” and “:P” to describe the pictures without words.
The yen to hear a familiar giggle, satiated by sporadic
phone calls that alleviate the urge, but only just.
Loathed virtual sessions and blurry pixels, we will have to bear
because the alternative, of nothingness, is unbearable.
Fierce typing on keyboards that tire of our tirades
of life, love, loss and laughter.
Anecdotes of mornings spent on swings, see-sawing
through hazy nights spent dancing, fumbling,
looking for ways both down stairs and up.
Stairs and hallways licked with sweat and tears,
remnants of shared journeys through tunnels of ecstasy.
Morning rituals of tea but never enough milk,
always out of sugar, and varied recollections of what
had transpired before dawn.
These measures will be of our own making,
not of distance but its antonym,
of togetherness that is not hindered by time or space,
of comfort that needs no introduction,
of familiarity that need not be labeled,
and a shared history that cannot be over writ.
Till we meet again, my soul.
There is a sound to every kind of silence. This is the story of you learning how to appreciate each one.
When you were younger, silence could be daunting. It was uncomfortable and uneasy, like a dress that doesn’t sit quite right on the shoulders. You would want to fill it with gibberish, with talk of the abominable wind chill factor or how choosing ‘C’ as the default option on a multiple-choice test was the way to go. To get away from silence, you re-played the same Avril Lavigne album until the lyrics were embedded in your mental synapses. You also figured out how to study aloud. Even if the only voice you heard was your own, it was still a lot better than no voice at all. You would not even attempt to let silence drop by, let alone linger, because you had not yet grasped the fact that silence could be beautiful. Back then, you would do all you could to make sure it did not turn up unannounced. Silence was the visitor you boarded up your doors against.
As you grew older, silence began making cameo appearances. It took you by surprise, the same way Brad Pitt showed up in that one episode of Friends. In conversations, silence would creep up and you wouldn’t even realize it because you’d be too busy thinking hard about what to say next. You began to learn about virtual silences too, the one where you’re chatting on MSN and waiting for the other person to respond and wondering what is taking so long because you can ‘see’ them typing. It showed up in many a rendezvous as well, perching next to you as your mind frantically wondered, ‘Lean in? Lean back? Quick, do something!’ You soon realized you could use silence to your advantage, practicing it in the car as you looked outside at the city you were about to leave, making the person in the driver’s seat painstakingly wonder what they had done wrong to be deprived of your voice. Silence even showed up at school, sitting next to your friends on the steps, making its presence known as the five of you daydreamed about the exciting adventures college would bring. It would linger then, and you began to let it.
Silence took a bit of a backseat when you went to college. Everything was new, shiny and loud. Freedom was noisy and you savoured the clamour. There was a constant buzz the first year, sounds of meeting a new best friend and sharing love’s woes over cold coffee on a sticky table, sounds of new words that you’d only ever heard of but were at last learning about: “Orientalism”, “hegemony”, “post-modernism”, “Foucault”. You were overwhelmed but exhilarated, and you collected each sound eagerly, using it as fodder for stories you would tell your family on visits back home. Secretly, you began to crave silence. There were moments when you knew the sounds but still didn’t understand them, and you would sit on your bed as your roommate slept and you would try to decipher all the new ways you were being taught how to use sin, cos and tan. The sounds let you down and you failed a couple of courses that year. You realized then that silence was sometimes necessary.
Life happened with a death and this is when you wholeheartedly embraced silence. You learnt of new silences: the one that comes with the absence of a familiar voice, the one devoid of thudding footsteps up the stairs, the one that no longer called out “Basmah! Can you please make me some chai?” or “Come listen to my new song!” You began to seek out silences, blocking out the voices that tut-tutted and solemnly whispered “so young, so tragic.” You fought against it for a while, the silence of no longer having an older brother, and questioned it endlessly, replacing it with the anguished mental chant of ‘why, why, why’. This silence did not answer back, and you learned to fill it with distractions. You went horse-riding at 6 am and took up Zumba. You developed a love-hate relationship with silence, you both clung to it, and flung it afar. Sometimes, it was your middle-of-the-night walking companion, and at other times, you would dull your senses enough to not feel it next to you. You grew accustomed to the silence of waking up out of a nightmare, of struggling to fight away the demons that keep taking you to the same dark place in the past where he is still alive and your joie de vivre is untainted. You learned then that even if someone you love leaves, the void of silence they left would always stay.
A new year brought with it some significant nuances. You were a senior at college now, a 20-something on the cusp of adulthood. It was the end of your bildungsroman, and this stunned you into a whole new kind of silence. You sat with your friends, on rickety chairs in open fields with playful shadows, in a cult-like circle on pavements flecked with twilight, at a communal brunch table laden with not-quite-cooked pasta and pancakes, wedged in a cramped bus on a trip to the mountains, and finally decked in robes and hats on seats specified by majors. Each time brought with it a bittersweet silence, one in which you would glance at the person on your right and then on your left and pray fervently to a God you didn’t always get along with for remembrance. There were reassuring silences too, accompanied by embraces so fierce, they left bruises you hoped would not fade. Hands clasped together in the dark, in cave-like window sills you would later wish you could retreat to. There was the silence that came with a series of lasts: last walk across campus, last late summer Lahore rain, last trip to Liberty, last night philosophizing at the bleachers, last dawn spent dancing in an unfamiliar living room. Silence became omnipresent, and on the plane flying out from your home of 4 years to another you would be forced to rediscover, you realized what kind it was. It was the silence of goodbye.
You are a working professional now, with a full-time job, a bank account and a vague understanding of what ‘savings’ really mean. These accessories of adulthood come with their own variations of silences; they make you debate the ‘what ifs’ of decisions you have not yet made, they induce guilt trips when you let the on-goings of your daily life reduce the significance of the big picture you have painted for yourself in your mind, they comfort you when the realities of responsibilities overwhelm and cause hair fall. The silences are a solace now, and you realize there will always be a new one you have yet to learn about. Right now, for example, you’re figuring out the silence of allowing new people to intersect the trajectory of your life. You are experiencing the companionable silence that comes in midst of a conversation, as you look away from a screen to trace the patterns on your rug and watch the black thread merge into the grey, and away from the red. It’s a silence that revolves around dreams of sun-drenched villas on coastal lands that are oceans away from where you are and you both like and dislike the barriers. It’s a silence that comes with a certain uncertainty, a knowing that even if you may not be where you want to be in a few years, you know that at least you will not be where you were. Even though this silence is more unsettling than soothing, you are learning to live with it. It is the silence of moving on.
There are more silences left to explore, of life, loss, and love. You are now eager and somewhat equipped to experience each one.
Someday, we’ll sit across a table, you and I. One of those anonymous, unnecessary little coffee shops with fading pencil scratches on the wall and generic branding that over-achieves. Coffee World. Coffee Planet. You will saunter in – you don’t saunter now, but perhaps by then you will have learnt – and slide into the chair in front of me. The movement will distract me from the words I am reading in the book I have open in front of me – no doubt, some complex tale of intermingling lives that detach and reunite – and I will look up at you.
I will look up at you and instinctually smile. It will be a smile that comes quick and easy, devoid of the uncertainty and hesitation that seem to tag along with expectation. It will be a smile that does not wait for one in return. It will be a smile that is real simply because it is thoughtless.
Your reaction will be a small shrug, one that says ‘Here I am’. The jerk of your shoulders will move the collar of your shirt slightly off-center, and I will want to reach over and fix it. You will know this and, feigning a need to scratch the back of your neck, you will surreptitiously fix it yourself. I will nod approvingly and place my hands on the table, as if responding, “Yes, here you are.”
I will be tempted to look around the room, at the part-time cashier drumming her nails against the till to dry the sickly orange polish she just painted on, at the pensioner in the left corner staring intently at an open wallet on his table, the picture of his dead grandson as dog-eared as the edges of his oversized denim jacket hanging limply from the back of his chair. I will want to look at them, just so I do not have to look at you. This, too, you will know and you will reach out with both your hands and place them above mine.
I will look down at these hands, a flat stack of me and you. I will look down so I do not have to look up any longer. I will look down and try not to think about the weight of your palms on my knuckles, try not to think that this is somehow a symbolic gesture depicting entrapment and suppression. I will look at our hands and see them as just that. Our hands. Together. I will be distinctly aware of your gaze on me, and will feel you waiting, waiting for me to shake off these notions of mine. Because they are mine, and you will know that because I will have already told you, in a conversation in another time, of my penchant to see things as more than they really are.
You will wait and watch as I struggle with ideas of my own making in my mind, and you will keep your hands exactly where you placed them. You will stay, because you know I will look up again. You will wait while your coffee gets cold, while the cashier changes her mind about tangerine on her nails and tries on violet instead, while the pensioner finishes off his ninth refill and pulls on his jacket in slow, practices motions.
I will look up and just as I do, you will smile. Unlike mine, it will not be a rapid one. It will take its time to develop into fruition, to complete an entire semi-circle across your face. This time, it will be my turn to wait. This time, I will not look away. This time, it will be worth it. You will smile and it will be whole and complete, as all-encompassing as the depth of your smooth hands, the same ones that hold the rough mountain-ridges of mine. You will smile as if to say, ‘Finally.’
Still smiling, you will lift your hands from mine and push your chair back. Still smiling, you will get up and saunter out the same way you came in.
I will wiggle my fingers – light, weightless and free – and I will go back to the words.
P.S This bit of writing was inspired by this video.
SYNOPSIS: Marina Abromovic and Ulay started an intense love story in the 70s, performing art out of the van they lived in. When they felt the relationship had run its course, they decided to walk the Great Wall of China, each from one end, meeting for one last big hug in the middle and never seeing each other again.
At her 2010 MoMa retrospective Marina performed ‘The Artist Is Present’ as part of the show, where she shared a minute of silence with each stranger who sat in front of her. Ulay arrived without her knowing and this is what happened. – Source
My mother always told me,
if you cry for real and raise your hands,
help will come
By now I’m well-versed in real tears,
so this morning I thought I’d ask
for some mercy.
When did I become this person,
Did I press the wrong button,
Worse instead of Better?
Or is it just my face,
that makes him flinch and turn away,
Show me a sign,
If this is written, stop screwing
with the plot and give me my happy ending.
If it is not, make it stop.
I want a refund,
for my sanity.
Pretty soon, I stopped asking,
I stopped pleading.
I was silent, waiting for a blaze
to dry my wet palms.
I was listening for a beep,
‘All Systems Go’, or ‘Time to Self-Destruct.’
Then my hands felt sore, my cheeks salty,
and my eye-lids like ripe shitake mushrooms.
I closed my eyes, and saw benches near buildings,
heads camouflaged behind leaves,
proof-reading your words,
a rustle every now and then at a shake or a nod.
I’ve opened them now, my eyes
which now see nothing but your back,
moving further and further away,
I’ll close them again soon, my droopy mushroom-eyes.
My ears too will stop picking up high-pitched chirps,
from outside my window,
which my hands have now just shut.
Poor hands, so sore,
from cradling the weight of my head,
and all your words stuffed inside of it.
Rest now, my limbs.
Mercy will come.
Help will come.
Mother said so.
I love you.
You don’t own me, I let you possess me.
You complete me, but you’re also an agent of my annihilation.
You are what affirms me, and also that which denies me.
You are my anchor, my rock, my support, but you are also the edge of the cliff that I am slipping from.
You are the shore that I sail to, but also the iceberg I will inevitably crash against.
You are my greatest joy, but also my impending doom.
Your vision is my lens of the world, and also what distorts it.
You can make me feel like a million bucks one minute, and then a neglected, forgotten rag doll the next.
You are my sanctuary, but also the cave of my horrors.
You are the other half of the yin-yang, and yet you are all grey.
You are my refuge from the madness of this world, but you are also the madness in my world.
You are clear-cut and straightforward, but you are also a labyrinth with no solution.
You will meet me halfway, but you will also leave me stranded.
You are what I know so well, but you are also unfamiliar territory.
You are a crimson flame, but you may fade to blue anytime.
You tend to my wounds, but you also pour salt on them.
You are my dream-catcher, but you are also a living nightmare.
You break down my resistance, but you also help rebuild my walls of defense.
You are not my master, but your command over me is transcendental.
You are what I stop and turn around to look for, and then you keep walking away.
You form lyrics from my words, but your rhythm is out of sync.
You can make me lower the weapons, but you will never surrender.
You are mine, but I am not yours.
You are not me, but I am your mirror.
Your skin is yours. My skin is mine. But you are still under it.
Let us take a moment
to pause and stare
Pause and stare at the fresh grave.
At the immeasurable spoonfuls of dirt
that will soon fill
it to the brim.
Let us go
Let us embark on a journey
of thought, and descend
six feet under
to pause and stare some more.
Pause and stare
at the body that lies
the freshly cut nails,
the neatly trimmed hair.
One will yellow gradually,
the other will be nothing
but tufts and wisps
of dark brown.
Time has ceased.
Temporality is no longer
This body will lie forever,
Still and silent.
the glassy eyes slightly open.
They have witnessed the yellowing, falling leaves
Of only thirty Octobers.
the ears stuffed with cotton.
They have heard a crowd roaring, an audience clapping,
a baby crying.
These senses thrived for three decades
but now are dormant.
Not seeing, not hearing.
Let us go now
and ascend back into existence.
The moment to stop and stare
It is time now
to let the spoonfuls of dirt
do their duty.
This poem is inspired by one of my all-time favorite poems,T.S Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”. Of course I am nowhere near Eliot’s genius but this is a little something I wrote in my Fiction Writing class today and without even realizing it, I was writing about my brother. 3 months later, he is still very much alive in my thoughts and will always remain so. His physical existence has ended, but in my poetic memory and in whatever I write, his presence is eternal. I hope he knows that, no matter what, I’ll always do my best to use my words to carry on his legacy.
P.S: You can find Eliot’s poem here: http://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam312/prufrock.html
Line 26-34 and lines 47-54 are perhaps my favourite.