Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Sound of Music

It's not often you come across a tune that just punches you in the gut and makes you add it to the soundtrack of your life that they'll use when they make a movie about you. Sometimes a song just feels like what your eternal soul would sound like if it could sing.

I was in the car waiting for my mother when 'When Love Takes Over' (David Guetta featuring Kelly Rowland) came on the radio. I hadn't really been paying attention to the music until then, it was just something to fill the silence as I waited for my wet hair to dry in the oven-like desert afternoon. Simply put, I was struck, like when something resonates with your soul. OMG I can't stop listening to this song, it makes me want to jump up and yell out loud for the joy of being alive. Have you ever felt like that?

A Difficult Conversation

"Amma, I don't like it when Abbu talks to you like that."

The older woman shrugged. She shook her head and shrugged because she didn't want to talk about it. "Leave it", she said. She didn't stop rolling the ball of dough in her hands. She suddenly didn't want to look at anyone's face, least of all, her daughter's.

"No, Amma, it's not fair."

The woman rolled out the dough into a thin sheet. "It's okay."

"No it isn't!"

The woman flipped the sheet of dough onto a hot pan. "It's okay, at least he's always been faithful."

The young girl watched her mother spin the cooking dough on the pan until the roti began to puff like a paper bag filled with hot air.

"Amma, it isn't normal. It is wrong to make a habit of taking out one's frustration on someone else."

"He'll change when we go to America. They have laws there."

"No, Amma, you think the laws there stop their men from behaving like that?"

The woman tossed the hot roti into the breadbasket like the thousands of rotis she'd made over the years that her husband had taken for granted. The girl had just wanted to let her mother know that, like the other criticisms, it hadn't been her fault.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Gossip Girl

Eve-teasing is not anything new in India. I was eighteen and propped up on the back of my uncle's scooter in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, on a quiet street after sunset when some guys on two bicycles started hovering around us. They all looked like they were in their late teens and early twenties. They were hooting at me. I couldn't believe the nerve. My six feet tall uncle was right there, I was covered from head to toe in unattractive bag-like clothing, and it didn't even matter to them. My uncle tried to yell at them but one of the bicycles veered too close to us, and my uncle lost control of the scooter. Nothing major but the scooter teetered off to the side of the road and fell to the ground. My uncle and I got a couple of scratches but that's it. We didn't actually even fall because the bicyclists had really slowed us down.

That summer I was in India after finishing 12th standard in Oman. When an old classmate called me from way down in South India, I happened to tell her the scandalous story. Then I forgot about it.

A month later I was back in Oman making salad with my father when the phone rang. It was a friend of my mother's. She sounded a bit confused when she asked me how I was doing. I told her I was fine and was just about to have lunch. Then she told me that her daughter, who was a year behind me at my old school, had told her that I had been terribly injured in a car accident in India. She said her daughter had heard the news at school.

I laughed and told her that I was fine. I thanked her for a hilarious story I could tell my grandchildren (or blog about, but this was 1999 and there were no blogs then), and hung up. I told my dad who wasn't thrilled about the nature of the gossip.

But I knew what must've happened. Have you ever played Chinese Whisper? My friend must've told her mother who was a teacher in Oman. She must've told some friends of hers, most probably teachers, and the word must've spread in the Keralite Christian community (there was only one church in Muscat then) about the terrible fate of the impish student from Indian School Muscat who had just graduated from childhood. Most of my teachers were South Indian, and my Biology teacher for four years was a Keralite Christian. It must've been pandemonium when the news hit my school. I was a well-known student.

The imp in me chuckled naughtily. I decided to pay a surprise visit to my alma mater. This was too good an opportunity to pass. That day I landed straight into the senior science supervisors' room. As I burst into the office with a smile on my evil face, the three teachers who wielded the fate of the senior Physics, Chemistry, and Biology departments leapt to their feet, shouting and waving their hands about all at once. Pandemonium further ensued as I happily walked about the campus and ran into students who had heard that the accident had left me bed-ridden for life. Someone even said that they had heard that I had died. The whole school was buzzing about the girl who had come back from the dead...sort of. I felt popular in a sick way.

It's kinda cool to know how the world will react when I die for real. It's like I saw the future or something.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The skinny little girl had finished her drawing. She got up from the bedroom floor and scrambled to where her parents were taking their afternoon nap on the bed behind her. She excitedly shook her father so she could hear him tell her how proud he was of her.

Her smile fell away as her father shoved her halfway across the room with his strong arm. He growled at her with a face frighteningly bloated with rage, what a horrible child she was to have woken him up.

Her insides rattled as she tried to balance herself from the force of the sudden shove, staring in dumb shock at her father's bulbous eyes, her drawing tightly clutched in her hand. She saw her mother wake up beside her father to glance at the humiliated child in the middle of the room. The child stood there, paralysed by shame, and watched her mother go back to sleep. Her father angrily turned on his side, away from the embarassed child. She stood there with her startled eyes and slightly-open mouth, too stupid to move. A few moments passed before she began to gather her drawing things in guilty silence.


Her father had been humiliating the high school student in front of the Eid guests all day, shouting at her in the kitchen the way he usually did to make sure she hurried up with the right order of food and drinks. Tea with sugar, tea with fake sugar, tea with no sugar, water, juice but mango, Mountain Dew not Pepsi. Guests were constantly streaming in and out of the house, and she was having a hard time keeping up. Her mother was taking a shower. Her father had been ready since the morning prayer. He always picked at her loudly whenever guests were over, but things got worse during the Eid rush. The guests, all well-known family friends, looked at her awkwardly as her father expressed his disbelief at her incompetence as she brought tea with sugar instead of without. One person tried to intervene but was quickly silenced by her father's insistence that his daughter know how to do things right.

She was crouched on the floor, playing with her young cousins that night in the house they shared with another family. That family's little daughter was also with them. The young ones were like her little brothers and sisters, and they all looked up to her in admiration. She loved the way they wanted to be like her. She was still sore from the daylong humiliation at the hands of her father, so when he suddenly entered the room to lovingly pat her head, she ignored him and stubbornly shrugged his hand from her head.

What felt like a thick piece of board hit the right side of her face. It was her father's hand. She fell to the ground and heard her father roaring between kicks and shoves about what a hateful inconsiderate creature she was. He took off his new Eid sandals and began to beat her as she lay curled on the floor with her arms around her face. The sandals made a sharp slapping sound, unlike the hard opaque sound his hand had made on her face. She decided to not cry out because she knew he wouldn't stop. It would only make him angrier, and there was no point anyway. He was shouting louder than any scream she could ever muster up.

In a few minutes her uncle and aunt came rushing into the room and made him stop. Her head was still covered by her arms. She could hear him heaving as he angrily explained to her aunt, his favourite, that his daughter had asked for it when she disrespected his show of affection. Her aunt was repeating over and over again that no one ever hits their grown children, especially their daughters. The young girl decided it was safe to open her eyes. She peeked through her arms and saw that the children had run away.

At home that night her mother tried to calm down her distraught daughter. She also lashed out at her husband, demanding an explanation to his behaviour that would push away all his children. He apologised but his daughter wouldn't stop crying. She hated him for humiliating her all day long in front of adults and then treating her like an animal in front of children who looked up to her. She became delirious, promising her mother that she'd never come back once she'd left home for college. Her father had calmed down and began madly apologising to her that he'd never hit her again, never criticise her again. The young girl didn't believe him and she cried herself to sleep.

Her friend visited her for Eid the next day. She noticed the father hovering about them with a sickly apologetic smile, bringing them Pepsi, offering to take their picture. She noticed the girl not looking at her father and asked her what was going on. The girl did not respond. The friend panicked and insisted that she tell her what was wrong. The girl brushed it away. It was too humiliating. It was so embarassing. What would her friend think? She just wanted to forget.


She heard the front door bang shut and knew her father was home. He sped to her room and pushed her off the bed onto the floor. She didn't see his face, she'd already shut her eyes. He shoved her head towards the ground and beat her with his shoe like a man possessed. He hit her in quick blows, on her back, on her arms, on her legs. It made a dusty flat sound every time. He screamed his throat raw, how dare she have a boyfriend that too a Hindu, if they were in India, he'd have dragged her like a dirty animal through the streets for all to see. Her mother entered the room and closed the door. She didn't want the cleaning man to hear.

The young woman on the floor didn't made a sound. It'd be over, it'd be over. He picked her up and threw her against the wall. He picked up a wooden hanger from the bed and hit her with it until it broke. He screamed at her that she was cursed, that she was the cause of all his problems, and that she would make him lose his job. Something inside her hurt, and she inhaled sharply as her heart broke. She shut her eyes more tightly and pretended like she was far away. Pretty soon the blows stopped hurting. She felt nothing. He kicked her repeatedly like a punching bag and beat her with his shoes again. She waited for him to stop. He cursed the day she was born. He just knew that this ungrateful woman-in-heat would be the cause of her parents' death. They had weak hearts already. She stole a look at him as he brought down yet another blow. She would remember the look on his face long after she had forgotten his words.

Her mother then pleaded with him to stop. He sat down on the floor, his head in his hands, thinking he was going mad, why was she doing this to the family, why was she making life so hard for everyone? Are you chemically unbalanced, he asked the crumpled girl who had always over-achieved. She grabbed her stuffed toy, the lamb her mother had given her when she was little, and hugged it. She began to cry into it, rocking back and forth, laughing and wailing by turns. Her mother tried to hold her but she wouldn't let anyone touch her. She kept laughing and crying and talking to herself. Her mother ran to the bathroom and threw up in the toilet.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cosmic reinforcements

I had had it! No more volunteer work for me. I was always taking the initiative to get people involved in something or the other, but at the end, I'd wind up having to see things through myself. My latest episode had been requesting book donations from my coworkers for the Prison Book Program. After waiting for a few months for a less than spectacular turnout, I'd accumulated two large cartons of books that I'd have to mail to the PBP's headquarters.

I'd had someone help me carry the cartons from the office to my car after I got off work, but I had no idea how I was going to grapple with them by myself at the post office. The post office always had a huge line that moved very slowly, and I had no one to help me carry those heavy cartons. I didn't know how I was going to manage things as I pulled up to the post office. I was grumbling to myself and promising God that I'd never go out of my way to do something good again. Nobody cared. I don't know why I even bothered when I never made a difference.

I popped open my trunk outside the post office. As I lifted the trunk top, a large gentle-looking young white man walked around the back of the truck parked next to me. I had seen him exiting the post office as I'd pulled in but hadn't paid him any real attention. He startled me by happily offering to carry the cartons inside for me. Just like that, without my even asking. I hadn't even had the time to sigh and shake my head at the cartons.

"Ohmygod, yes, thank you, thank you!" I squealed, and he scooped up both cartons into his arms like wriggly toddlers. I couldn't help the skip in my step as I thanked him all the way inside the post office.

I almost fell down out of shock when I saw that there were no customers inside the post office. That was a miracle. I had been to that post office many, many times at that specific time of the day, and there were always at least five people, if not more, in front of me. On a good day I could spend twenty minutes before my turn came up. Once I'd even waited for a whole hour in a sluggish line.

My benefactor marched up to a counter and deposited the cartons in front of the official there. I thanked him again, but he simply smiled and walked away. The official, strangely enthusiastic because of the unusually slow day he'd been having, had me taken care of and walk out of there in two minutes flat, a personal record at that particular post office. I couldn't believe how insane the whole experience had been as I slid into the driver's seat of my car and drove home. I guess I mattered enough for the universe to realign itself to help me do good.

That was the first time I'd seen no customers at that post office. It never happened again.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Black and white and dead all over

My twenty-one-year-old cousin was driving us back to where she lived with her parents and younger sister. I was visiting them in Chicago over the Labour Day long weekend and had been hanging about the city until the bright sun had worn the both of us out. It was a hot late summer afternoon. The narrow lanes of the residential area on the edge of downtown was jam-packed with parked cars and residents. Old people fanned themselves in plastic chairs. Children were riding their bikes and wading about in inflatable pools.

My cousin was in the habit of respectfully turning off the car stereo while passing cemeteries. That is exactly what she did as we started driving alongside the one near her home. The huge cemetery was on our right now. She was driving slowly to avoid hitting any of the people out on the street.

She braked quite suddenly as a pregnant black woman in a bright sundress, her hair wrapped up in cloth, walked along the zebra crossing in front of us. The car jerked unexpectedly. My hands protectively went up, creating a barrier between myself and the dashboard. My left hand hovered in front of the stereo. The thin young woman gave us a dark look before walking away. My cousin drove on, the adrenaline still swirling about in our blood.

Not even a minute had passed when my cousin noticed that the stereo had been turned back up. "Did you turn it on?" she asked me.

I hadn't noticed. I was still thinking about the woman and the look she had given us. But I hadn't turned on the stereo. I hadn't even touched it or the dashboard when I had raised my hands. We still don't know how the stereo turned on when the car jerked to a halt at the crossing near the cemetery.


I said hi to the cute little fellow sitting next to me in the plane. I can't remember his name, was it Steve? He was nine years old.

"Are you travelling by yourself?"

He startled me with his confident eyes. "Yes, I am."

"Wow, you're a grown-up. The first time I travelled by myself was when I was fourteen. Do you live in Denver?"

"My mother's family does. I live in Oklahoma City with my father's family."

I suddenly noticed how grown up he looked in his seriously cut blonde hair and dark blue blazer. He looked like a miniature Gap man in his khakhis and sweater vest. His unwavering gaze definitely didn't belong on a child's face, but they fit perfectly on his controlled features. A Peter Pan who didn't believe in fairies.

I began to stammer but quickly collected myself.

"Oh, so you're visiting your mother for the long weekend?"

"Yes, I travel between Denver and Oklahoma City often to spend time with both my parents. They divorced when I was young, you see."

"That must be tough." I didn't know what else to say.

"It's hard but you know, these things happen." He shrugged and sat back in his seat. He stared directly at the tray table in front of him. "What can you do."

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Kyme and my match had come to an end. It was the last time we would hang out together. It had been a year since we had been paired up through Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and as I drove her back home from our last activity, I felt like a failure.

I had first heard about the organisation in an Archie's comic book. I was probably ten years old then and had no idea what was outside the world my parents had built for me between Oman and India. A lifetime later when I became independent in Tulsa, USA, I remembered BBBS and looked them up. I wanted to make a difference in someone's life while my own was in utter chaos. Soon I found myself in their office sorting through a bunch of children's profiles for The One.

Her name was Kymnesha Edwards. She was 14, black, and two years behind in school. She lived with her parents and younger sister in a neighbourhood where trees were never trimmed and the grass grew between the bricks on the pavement. Her mother used to work in a hospital. Her father had been to jail but now worked odd-jobs.

My primary contact as her Big was her mother. I wanted to do it right, not make any mistakes. I asked her mother all the right questions - what did she think were Kyme's strengths and weaknesses, what did she want me to do for Kyme? Mrs. Edwards had had a hard life but was a strong woman who held her family together. She told me that Kyme was a creative child who loved books but didn't feel confident about her reading skills. She got intimidated by too many words, so would check out books on tape from the public library. Her spelling was below average for children her age, yet she still couldn't stop writing stories in her wobbly handwriting. Mrs. Edwards wanted me to nudge Kyme towards actual reading and expose her to the shiny world everyone else lived in.

I was ready to groom genius. In the couple of hours I would spend with Kyme every week, I tried to pass down all the knowledge I had ever acquired about world religions, philosophy, politics, ethics, and culture. I gave her weekly creative writing assignments and tried teaching her new words. I tried to come up with activities that nobody had ever come up with. A new one every week, something that would blow her mind. I took her to a workshop about food shortage. I even took her to see 'Swan Lake'. She nodded off to sleep. I was crushed even though I was forcing myself to stay awake.

Kyme would listen to everything I said, but I felt like the relationship was becoming one-way. And pretty soon, I was burned out. I couldn't think of any more earth-shattering activities. Our outings dwindled to fooling around at the mall and chit-chats over ice cream. She started telling me about her complicated social circle in school. She told me about this one guy who thought he was all that. I remembered that I too had once been 14, and I gave her my 26-year-old advice. Then I told her about who had given me an attitude at work that day.

I began to forget about being the best Big in history. I took Kyme to my workplace and introduced her to everyone as my Little. We took photos of her in my high-tech cube. We went to the Scottish festival where we both watched the stepdancers with our mouths hanging open in awe. I showed her my fake British accent and even convinced other people by ordering an entire sandwich at a Subway like an Englishwoman.

She liked my Queen CD so I burned her a copy. I caught her humming 'The Show Must Go On' for many days. After checking with her mother, I gave her an authentic Queen CD set for her birthday, the same one we used to listen to in my car while driving all over Tulsa. We made a scrapbook. I listened to the stories she wrote and told her she could become a writer just like, well, me. We hung out at the mall, sipped milkshakes, and tried the cheap massage chairs there. It was my first time.

Our last activity was watching Barnyard at the dollar theater. I couldn't remember the last time I had pried myself away from my foreign films and disastrous true-life dramas to enjoy a simple children's movie. We laughed a lot. We knew it was the last time we were going to be hanging out together but we didn't bring it up much. I was planning on leaving Tulsa for good.

That ride back was the last time I would get to tell Kyme to believe in herself when others didn't. I did tell her but I wished I could say something bigger that would stick in her mind long after I had gone. I hadn't made her a genius the way I had thought I would. She was still Kyme from the same neighbourhood, only a year older. I hadn't made any difference in her life. For someone who can talk a lot, I sometimes end up saying everything except what needs to be said.

Kyme had something to say too. She struggled with it, maybe she was like me. After dutifully listening to everything I had to say, she told me that she had checked out a book from the library. A book with words to be read, not to be heard on tape. A grown-up book, not for little children. A book with lots of big words and no pictures. She said that she one day just felt like trying it out. Then she read it and loved it. Then she checked out more books and couldn't stop reading. She loved reading books now. She didn't check out books on tape anymore.

The look on her face as she told me this was one of a new belief in herself. The kind that you get by conquering an obstacle that you thought you were just too stupid to overcome. Sometime between boring ballets and fake accents, I had made a difference when I wasn't even trying.

Is this the real life?

I was driving a coworker back from lunch one early autumn afternoon. The chill was crisp enough to kiss your cheeks to that happy blush. The sun even was relieved to not have to melt the tarmac off of the roads after the long Oklahoma summer. The traffic seemed to have avoided our end of the road in the shadow of the highway, and with our bellies full from a pleasant lunch, things felt...nice.

My coworker and I were the same age and got along well enough to always have something to talk about. I can't remember what we were exchanging thoughts on that drive back to work, but it was something smart-alecy as usual. I stopped my car when the light turned red at the intersection near the office. My Queen CD had been softly playing the whole time, like dew that silently shows up on your window without anyone noticing.

Things got quiet as my coworker and I comfortably reached the natural end of a bit of conversation. The defeat in Freddie Mercury's voice tinged the air with the last lines of 'Bohemian Rhapsody':

Nothing really matters, Anyone can see,
Nothing really matters,
Nothing really matters to me
Any way the wind blows

Out there, in front of my car, a sad little plastic bag fluttered about to the whims of the cruel autumn wind. It went up and down and sideways, with no will of its own, with a name that had long since been forgotten. Just a lonely thing that had learned to keep its eyes closed.

The music faded, the light turned green, and I drove on.

Friday, May 22, 2009

If those walls could talk

I lived at the apartment at 8305 S. Lakewood Place in Tulsa for three-and-a-half years. It was a beautiful second-floor unit with windows that made me feel like I was living in a beach house. That was one of the reasons I had picked that apartment. That and the vaulted ceilings that made the cream-walled apartment feel so spacious and full of light. The windows overlooked the parking lot of the suburban apartment complex that was located next to the green Hope Hill. The words I'm looking for are serene and heavenly.

Maybe that is why I never felt frightened when the light in my bedroom began to flicker and randomly turn itself on and off. The light was attached to the ceiling fan. I would wonder sometimes why the light would be on when I woke up in the morning, or why the room was dark after I had turned the light on in the evening. I complained to the apartment maintenance folks several times, and they only changed the light bulb at first. Then they tried fixing the light attachment a couple of times. Then they finally replaced the entire fan/light unit. I felt jubilant until the problem started in the new equipment they had installed. They still couldn't figure it out, so I bought a reliable lamp for my room. This problem lasted until I moved out.

I had previously lived in a dorm room for 6 years, and was uncomfortable with the idea of sleeping in one room while the rest of the apartment loomed dark and empty. So I'd developed the habit of locking my bedroom door after turning in for the night. My thermostat was located on the wall outside my bedroom door, and I'd always check its settings before going to sleep. I'd also check it in the morning after waking up.

The first time something struck me as odd was when I noticed one morning that the thermostat had been turned off when I distinctly remembered turning it on the night before. I shrugged it off to absent-mindedness until it happened a few more times. The thermostat would be on a setting different from what I'd set it to the previous night. The thermostat wasn't digital; it had a stiff knob that you had to click to 'On' or 'Off' with considerable pressure. There was no way for it to change on its own.

I was going through a lot of stress in those days, so I thought that maybe I'd woken up at night and changed the settings and gone back to sleep without remembering anything. Maybe I was sleepwalking. My parents had once noticed my walking to the front door in my sleep when I was very young. I have no memory of that event, except that I know I had had a fever then. But I was worried this time because my sleepwalking would have had to involve my going to the bedroom door, unlocking it, changing the thermostat setting, locking the door again, and going back to bed. It didn't feel right and still doesn't.

My mother was visiting me once, and she used to sleep in the living room where the TV was. She would stay up after I'd gone to sleep (I had to wake up early to go to work). Every night she was there, I'd lie in bed with my door slightly ajar. I could see the light from the living room and hear the TV.

One night, as I lay in bed perfectly awake and waiting to drop off to sleep, I heard my mother shuffling outside my door for a few seconds before making her way, I assumed, to the bathroom a couple of feet from my door. Nothing much crossed my mind except the awareness of that fact.
The next day I forgot all about it until I happened to mention it to my mother in relation to some other topic. She startled and said that she had not gone to the bathroom the previous night. I insisted that I had heard her footsteps come up to my door, pause there for a bit before going away. I was sure of it. My floorboards used to creak whenever someone moved about my apartment, and I could tell exactly when and where someone was walking and even pausing by the sound. My mother still insisted that she hadn't been anywhere near my door.

I'm sure there are good explanations for these things. If my apartment was haunted, I would've felt scared at some point, but I never did. The ambience was always cosy and protective. Maybe the vaulted ceilings and beach-house windows had something to do with it.

The Guests

I was twenty-three and visiting family in Connecticut over Spring Break. My uncle, aunt, and two cousins live in an old two-storey home by the side of the woods. Their New England home is easily a hundred years old if not older. The weather that week was snowy and grey, and it would get dark early.

The room I was set up in was a fair-sized guest room on the top floor. It was a rectangular room which you entered from one long end where the closet was. The bed was located on the other far end. The window was near the bed and overlooked the yard. Every night, when the house would become quiet, I'd lie curled up in thick red sheets with a book I'd brought along for the trip, grateful that I wasn't out with the frostbitten trees and icy wind. It was a well-decorated room, and I was glad to be away from my congested dorm back at the university.

I never got past the first couple of chapters of that book. Everytime I tried to read lying on that one side of the room, I'd feel my attention drifting to the rest of the room. Before long, I'd have to put the book down and stare at the empty space. I'd look at the room for a few seconds from where I lay on the bed and then return to my book. But I couldn't focus on the words, and oftentimes would end up staring at a sentence without understanding its meaning. I couldn't shake off the feeling that someone was there in the room looking directly at me, and pretty soon, I'd have to put the book down and stare at the room again, with its closed closet, walls, closed door, and beautiful black metal dressing table with a mirror.

By the end of the week, I'd shifted to sleeping on the edge of the bed with my back touching the wall and keeping my eyes on the rest of the room. I would hear someone constantly walking outside in the snow at night under the window. I mentioned it to my aunt and she thought it was probably the old man they'd hired to clean their yard. But why he'd choose to be out working as late as 2am every night in the freezing dark was beyond even her.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Khadija X

When I was born, I was declared a girl. That meant for sure that I was what the boys were not.

When I was growing up in a safe North Indian Lucknawi environment, I was a Sunni Muslim. That meant for sure that I was what the Shias were not.

When we prayed a certain way, I was a Sunni Hanafi Muslim. That meant for sure that I was what the Shafai Sunni Muslims were not.

When I stepped out of my house in Oman, I was an Indian Muslim. That meant for sure that I was what the Arab Muslims were not.

When I socialised within the Indian community, I was a North Indian. That meant for sure that I was what the South Indians were not.

When I went to America, I was an Indian who most people assumed was a Hindu. That meant for sure that I was what the Americans were not.

When I met Muslims from all over the world, I was not good enough because I didn't speak Arabic or blend in with the crowd. That meant for sure that I was what those Muslims were not.

When the planes crashed into the twin towers, I was suddenly a Muslim, a terrorist secretly conspiring with all the Muslims of the world. That meant for sure that I was what the non-Muslim world was not.

I ran away.

When I discovered the courage to look inside myself again, I found the 5-year-old that used to make flower garlands for the lambs and old goats that she would befriend in the alleys of her home in the old city. That meant for sure that I was what I had always been and didn't need another to relatively define myself anymore.

Horror in Daylight

I was off work that late summer day in 2006 and had decided to drive up highway 169 out of Tulsa and see where it took me. In those days I was ruminating over the idea of buying a house and wanted to check out Owasso to the north of Tulsa which I had heard good things about. I had only been in Tulsa and driving in the US a little over a year. I hadn't yet explored the region outside of the city so I thought, hey, what the heck, today's as good a day as any. So in true American spirit, I turned on the ignition of my car and set out on a highway unknown to me. The sun was still in the sky and it would be a few hours before it retired for the day.

Highway 169 took me farther than the farthest I'd ever been on it until that day, that is, beyond 15 minutes from my apartment to the airport. I drove away from my cozy suburban apartment complex with its WalMarts and family restaurants. I drove over the deserted part of town with its dilapidated auto shops and industrial stores. I passed the eastbound highway that would take me to the Tulsa International Airport. I drove past highway 244 that would take me to my office in the west. Then the city fell away as the highway took me through the rolling Oklahoma plains that sometimes dawdle into hills. Tulsa is located in a county that's been nicknamed Green County for good reason. The land here is almost virginal. You can drive for a hundred miles someplaces and not see a soul in the windswept farms you pass. My windows were up but I knew that the ancient prairie breeze was happy to see me.

The strange feelings started after I had left Tulsa. I didn't notice it as first because I was enjoying driving with no particular aim in mind. That is how I had discovered the various regions of Tulsa when I'd first moved there. As I drove further north towards Owasso, however, I began to feel like the highway was gradually taking me higher up towards the sky. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that for miles all I saw was empty flat land around me and an endless sky on top. But I've taken various roadtrips since then and I've never felt that sense of levitation or even any sort of panic, even when I was driving long-distance by myself. There really was no reason for me to feel that sense of horror that day. I was having a great hair day, I wasn't feeling bloated, the sun was out, the breeze was just right, and I had my favourite music rocking my car like the perfect dance club. I was hardly alone on the highway; it was the middle of the workday.

The strange feelings steadily grew to full-blown panic. Twenty-odd minutes after I'd left Tulsa, I hadn't even made it to Owasso but I knew I had to stop. I pulled over at the next exit which happened to be a giant intersection of highways in the middle of the plains. The rest stop at the exit was huge; it had a few shiny gas stations and a bunch of fast food joints. The atmosphere was lively. Young people, families, and truckdrivers were pulling in and out the place giving the intersection a feeling of renewal and life. The sixties still seemed to be in full swing there.

That didn't change how I felt.

I parked my car by a Dairy Queen. It could've very well been a Burger King, I can't really remember that detail. I got out of my car and stretched my legs, trying to breathe out the feeling of sick dread that had blackened my lungs. I was almost in tears. I went into the restaurant and bought myself some food. I still didn't feel better after the chicken sandwich, fries, and drink, and I sat in the restaurant by the window for a while, looking out at the expanse of land and the beautiful looping highways outside. It should've taken my breath away but it just made it hard to breathe. I felt separate from everything and everyone. All I knew was that something felt wrong about this place. Something menacing lurked beneath the surface of the harmony in the ambience. I felt like something was close to spinning out of control. I kept seeing a savage tornado roaring through this place, madly swallowing everything in its path like something out of hell.

A current ran through my body. My back shot up straight and I immediately made my way out to the parking lot where my car was waiting for me. I paused in the middle of this great region of the Earth to fully absorb what was happening to me. I had seen this place before. But it had been dark and it had been in a dream.

Almost a year ago I had had a dream where I saw myself driving north on a highway that involved the numbers six and nine. I had dreamt that I was driving in the dark in the middle of nowhere and had got off an exit at a coffee shop. I was carrying the manuscript of a book I was supposed to have written. I remember sitting in the coffee shop and looking out at the huge highway running north and south. It was dark and I had felt afraid, so I decided to take the highway south back to wherever I had come from. I remember feeling terrified and small at the vastness of the land and confused already about where I had come from.

Out there in the parking lot, I took one look around at the great expanse of land all around me and the looping highways in front of me. I felt like a great weight from the heavens was descending upon me, pushing my shoulders into the ground. I slipped into my car before the sky got any heavier and sped off towards home on 169 South faster than you can say deja vu. A few-month-old book manuscript, my first, awaited me at home.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Lester the Molester

I wasn't sure why the tailor had felt it necessary to grab my knee while figuring out the length of my qameez. I've had shalwar qameezes tailored all my life, and not once has anyone had to hold my knee, like using his entire palm to hotly grip the knee part of my leg, while I explained to him that I wanted my qameez knee-length. It only lasted a couple of seconds, and I brushed it off. It's probably because it's the first time we've come to him, I reasoned. My mother and aunt stood next to me chatting while the youngish bearded Pakistani tailor took my measurements.

The next day we brought him some more clothes. My mother stood next to me, admiring the apparel displayed on the shop's wall, while the tailor took some more measurements. Apparently he hadn't got the length right the day before because he needed to measure it again. His measuring tape dangled from my shoulder to the floor when he put his left hand on my right breast to keep the tape steady. I froze because his entire palm was holding the whole breast. Time came to a standstill for me as I noticed that at first his hand had been trembling as it had hesitantly approached my chest, but when I froze, his confidence increased as did his grip on my whole right breast. He was avoiding my eyes while busying himself with reading the measuring tape, but I noticed him trying to supress an excited sly smile. It felt like a lifetime but he probably let go of my breast after 10 seconds like as if nothing had happened.

My mother and I left the shop without incident after five minutes. My mind was in a blur and I just wanted to get away. My mother - heck, no one in my family - ever talks about such things, and the best alternative is always to look away and pretend nothing ever happened. Over various times in my life, this had translated to my being left in the lurch for the sake of keeping appearances while everyone else conveniently brushed things under the carpet at my expense.

My body was heating up out of rage as we walked towards my dad waiting in the car, and I turned to my mother and told her that we were not coming back to this tailor again. She looked at me delicately and asked me why. I snarled with the effort it took me to bring up the topic to a family member and told her that he had groped me twice while she had been standing next to me, oblivious to the world. She didn't understand what I meant by "groped", so I spun around with one hand out towards her and pretended to grab her chest the way he had mine. My mother immediately angled herself away from me, and looked at me with an innocent girlish expression of, "no! do these things really happen?"

I've always hated it when she does that. It practically means that no one's got my back and I have to fend for myself. I've had to learn about a lot of ugliness in the world on my own with no one to turn to for advice, just because to my family, it's all taboo.

I turned away from her out of disgust at her and how the tailor had made me feel. We sat in the car and, as usual, that was the end of that.

Except it wasn't. I was disturbed about it as usual and feeling defiled. The little girl inside of me was crying and wishing somebody'd support her in this not-the-first-groping-situation-by-a-long-shot just once. My numerous groping incidents had started when I was probably seven and they all happened everytime my mother took me shopping with her. Most of the time they were shopkeepers. Once it was at our video store, and then there were random men who'd grope me on the street as I walked past them accompanied by an adult even. And this is before I hit puberty. I never told anyone except some close friends at eighteen.

All those ashamed little girl feelings welled up inside of this highly ferocious (gee, how'd I get to be that way?) 27-year-old. That night, I found a willing audience in a good friend online who, in turn, got angry and demanded that I go tell my father at once. Now this is the first time in my life that I had had someone to vent to after such an incident, and it felt good. I did take it up with my mother first but her response was, "why do you want to go around giving yourself a bad name?". That made mad because I don't think I had done anything to give myself a bad name. But that's just how I'd been raised until sometime in my adult life I'd rebelled against this self-deprecating attitude because, because it just wasn't fair. I snuck up to my dad's bed as he lay there with the lights turned off, turned in for the day. I didn't know what to say to him out of all the shame, disgust, embarassment, self-consciousness, awkwardness that was floating about inside of me. But I stammered my way through it. I think the darkness helped.

My father was silent for a second after I'd finished, long enough for me to wonder when he'd start blaming me for causing the incident somehow. He's always had an unpredictable temper and that's pretty much why I'd never been buddy-buddy with him ever. But I guess people can surprise you. My father actually lost all his drowsiness and sprung up upright on his bed in anger. He called for my mother and demanded how such a thing could have happened twice with her being there, and why, after I had told her about it outside the shop, did she not do anything when in fact she should have marched right back to the tailor and brought the roof down.

I had wanted to go back to the tailor and scream at him myself, but my father decided that he'd take the matter into his own hands soon and take it up, along with my mother, with the shop owner. You can't just be a pervert as a foreigner in Oman, your Omani sponsor will throw you out of the country. I never followed up but I believe they did go complain to the shop owner. We started going back to our old tailor who'd been making my clothes since before I had breasts.

They never brought the topic back up with me, but a week later, my aunt hovered up to me when she found a minute. She asked me why I hadn't told her the first day the tailor had groped me. He had been her recommendation after all.

I am not stalking Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor WON!! YAYYYY! So I emailled his assistant a congratulatory note, and OMG, the man himself replied to me!

Date: Mon, 18 May 2009 10:46:57 -0400
Subject: Re: Congratulations!

Dear Ms. Ejaz,

Dr. Tharoor has asked me to forward to you the following note.

-Mrinalini Menon

Dear Khadija,

Thanks so much! I am truly humbled by the extraordinary level of trust the voters of Thiruvananthapuram have placed in me, and I am conscious that now is when the real work begins...

With gratitude for your good wishes and support, and hoping it will continue to sustain me over the next five years!

Shashi Tharoor

My greatest sorrow

I have never spoken words that came more directly from deep within the place in my soul that I keep hidden from the world.

I am a victim of cyber bullying.

I was tormented by a group of people as a sophomore in college. Their hateful actions derailed my life in ways that destroyed my relations with my family and obliterated my self-confidence. The nightmare that my life has been because of the lingering effects of the cyber bullying is something people only imagine happens in books and movies. I was always a happy trusting sunny child, but the events that unfurled in the early part of 2001 on the Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, campus reduced me to a walking corpse that feared every shadow, every whisper, every glance. I fought to recover from the horror and the shame, winning the battle somedays and plummeting to failure the next, until yesterday when a friend made me realise that what had happened to me now has a name because it is an alarmingly common crime today.
The memories of those events have never left my consciousness. I have dragged them with me like an invisible rotting carcass on my back with its rigor mortis grip caressing my heart for almost a decade now. The toxicity of it seeped through into every human relationship I ever formed, every desperate thought that ever crossed my mind, every nightmare that made me revisit old ghosts. I feel like it happened just last month, it never leaves no matter how much time passes by or what achievements I make. I never thought I would talk about it openly because I had been convinced by people I trusted that I must've done something to attract such vile attention to myself in the first place, that I am a chemically unbalanced creature that must spend my life atoning for my sins. But after I started reading about cyberbullying, I saw that the patterns are always the same, and they always involve the victim becoming a recluse and inching towards suicide. I have been down those putrid alleys many times myself, but God held me back each time.

The people who did this to me have moved on in life, and everytime I hear about them, it feels like a knife slicing through wounds that have never been allowed to completely heal. I forgave them with great difficulty two nights ago, in the dark at night with only God and myself in the room, so I could move on. Then in twenty-four hours God used an old friend of mine as a tool to set me free by showing me that it wasn't my fault, so I could forgive myself.

Everyone had jumped on the bandwagon to judge me through vicious lies and half-truths. Everyone had a chance to talk and be believed. Now it is my turn. My story will be told, if not for me, then for the countless other faceless victims that have no voice.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


India was born on August 15, 1947. She spent her first couple of decades like a happy child, under the watchful eye of those who had struggled to give birth to it. Innocent and clean, India glowed like a bright new star born here on Earth, with all the promise of a newborn. She was delicate and was raised in a protective environment, safe from the dirt and hypocrisy of the world outside. Her days were spent diving into the invisible silent depths of the Saraswati where she first discovered her ancient foundations, and by night she listened to stories about herself, who she was, where she came from, why she was beautiful...and different.

Then one by one her guides and protectors, those who had fought for her existence, grew old and and went to God. She was too young to realise what that really meant for her. All she knew was that she was suddenly on her own, an impressionable teenager in a bewildering world of men and clever words. In this glittering new world that her parents had shielded her from, she tried everything - Coca Cola, Hollywood, fast cars, cigarettes, and shiny skin. She wore make-up not suited to her brown skin, and sometimes, when she was hanging out with her cool new friends, she felt ugly.

She entered her twenties in a haze of confusion. Nothing felt right. She felt angry, she felt abandoned, she felt lost. She could barely remember her early years when she used to feel safe, when people had handled her with care and affection. Everyone since then had lied to her. She was afraid of the people who were in her life now. They had pulled her into a helpless pattern of destruction, but they claimed to be her friends, her leaders. She wanted to run away where? Why was no one thinking about her benefit? What had happened to all the promises? All the good people had left her, and all she was left with was war, death, hatred - she didn't know who she was anymore. All this internal fighting, she couldn't take it. She fled.

She fled to the last place she had been happy. She scattered herself and hid in the Sunderbans, in the Brahmaputra, in the Himalayas, in the echoes of the Deccan. Her true friends came looking for her. They called out her name but she didn't return their calls. The sky was silent and still. The birds and the beasts chose not to speak to man anymore. Her true friends wept, they thought they had lost her for good. India was nowhere to be found.

The years went by.

Then some people thought they heard an anklet tinkling in the monsoon wind. Some farmers said a strange new flavour had seeped into their crops. Old women thought they'd seen an unknown girl's face reflecting back at them from the rivers. There were reported sightings of an unknown woman running with the tigers and deer in the jungles, but no one could ever talk to her because she seemed to become one with the trees the instant you looked at her long enough. All anyone ever heard was a laugh that sounded like rustling Gulmohar leaves and lazy cowbells at night. All the elements seemed to conspire together to blow dust into the senses of men so that no one was ever sure of what they saw or heard.

In the meanwhile, young people took to telling each other stories they'd heard about the child-woman called India. Children in the city heard about her on their television sets, while their rural cousins learned the legend crouched around their elders late at night. "Bring her back", they'd weep. A sandstorm overheard their laments, and whispered their dreams to India when she was asleep. When she awoke, she realised that she was not a child anymore, and that the time had come to reclaim her kingdom. With the air of the crop fields in her lungs and the cries of her children in her ears, at the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world slept, India awoke to light and freedom.

Where The Mind is Without Fear
Rabindranath Tagore

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thoughta nd action--
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Earth to Khadija

I left Tulsa far behind, but a certain pothole there will never leave my mind. My thoughts often go to that spot on the ground on the south-east corner of 71st and Sheridan. If you're going North on Sheridan and turn right before the intersection, you'll pull in to a Bank of Oklahoma drive-up teller. Just as you're pulling in, you'll see the pothole that changed my life.

I was having a terrible time that morning. I had to run a couple of errands before going to work, and I was in such a rush. The weather was that irritating median where it's too cold to not cover up but you're still feeling claustrophobic in your jacket. It had rained the night before and the humidity was killing my hair, I was having desperate visions of shaving it all off. I had stepped into a puddle before getting into the car, and had trudged in some mud onto my car's interior. The autumn sun was blinding my eyes and making me dizzy. I felt like repeatedly slamming my car into the slowpoke in the traffic in front of me. Just thinking about the workday ahead of me made me want to start randomly punching the insides of my car. My skin was already greasing up, my foundation felt overdone, my eyeliner crooked. I felt like I was bursting out of my clothes, getting slower and fatter by the second. I wanted to scream and cry at the same time. Just thinking about the hundred other things I had to do after work was making me squeeze the life out of my steering wheel.

I turned right to get to the BOK drive-up teller. I had to make a deposit. I was already getting mad thinking about getting back on the road from there; it was one of my least favourite turns, always crowded, taking forever to get back out from there. I was slumped in my car seat, my eyebrows knotted up, an ugly cross expression firmly planted on my face.

As I drove in, I saw the pothole. I had seen it many times before and had always avoided driving my carwheel into it. I hated the bumping motion. I leaned out of the driver's window to make sure I was avoiding it yet again.

I saw that the pothole had filled up with water from the rain the night before. A bunch of tiny little birds were hopping around it, splashing their little round selves into it like bouncy little balls. They busied themselves around their little pool, flapping their wings as they leapt into the water, ecstatic about their clever new find.

My world dissolved into nothingness, all except for the birds and their pool. Silly happiness kissed my heart, my eyes glazed over, and a gigantic smile effortlessly hijacked my face. A voice inside me, but not really, told me, "you think you're so busy with all the important things you have to do in your grown-up life? Look at those birds, you sad sad person." It was true, those birds didn't care about anything besides the joy of splashing about the pool nature had given them. To me it was just an annoying hole in the ground, but they saw it as a gift, and they loved it so much. That was their whole world, and nothing else. I felt like such a pompous idiot.

For the next couple of years until I left Tulsa for good, I drove past that pothole many times. Everytime I drove by it, I'd look at it extra hard and practically see the birds naughtily chirping in the water, having the time of their lives, knowing and needing nothing else at that exact moment. But I never saw the birds there again. And nomatter how hard it rained, I never saw water in that pothole again. So anytime I feel like I'm losing perspective, I just remember those birds and that pothole, and it's like we never parted.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

First day at elementary school

(originally written March 2006)

A couple of weeks ago, I had received an email someone from the office had forwarded to everyone about this volunteer program called Junior Achievement which basically sends its volunteers to classrooms to make presentations and talk about the economics of the real world. I thought it'd be cool so I said, sure, I'll go. I volunteered, thought to start small so chose the 4th grade, went for a half hour orientation two weeks ago where they gave me a bag with all the materials I'd need. I then contacted the teacher I was assigned to (Ms. Kimberly McMahon), went to the school where I'd be volunteering, decided on the days I'd be coming in to class (5 times according to the colunteer program, around 45 minutes each). Today at 2, I showed up at the classroom for the first time. I was a little nervous because I've never taught anybody before, especially not 4th graders. But I do remember what it was like being 9 years old, so that was the limb I went out on. Whatever the volunteers are supposed to talk about is highly scripted in the manual we get, so I'd practiced the lesson plan beforehand. Today I'd be talking about myself, Junior Achievement, volunteering, and then move on to definitions and examples of regions, resources (natural, human, capital), talk a little about our region called Oklahoma, make the kids do a little Q&A in the workbooks I handed out to them, and then finish off by talking about businesses, products (goods, services). A lot of it was prompting the kids for what they thought these things were (and they were smart!) and asking them for examples. I was there for an hour, and it was awesome. I gave them JA postcards for their families and fridge magnets for them in which they could put their picture.

I got to write on the chalkboard! I used to play teacher, sometimes just by myself, when I was little. I also automatically had everyone's attention in the classroom. I think being 24 and taller than the rest of the 9 year olds had something to do with it. They were all very receptive and responsive. There were 20 children there. I was amazed at how quickly they learned my name and how open they were to learning new ideas. The best was recognizing the different personalities each one of them exhibited. It was fun because I had those same characters in my own classes while growing up. There was the independent prim 'n' proper perfectionist that liked all her stuff to be glittery and sparkley and wasn't afraid to take initiative, and then there was the highly active boy who knew all the answers and wanted to be a NASA scientist when he grows up. There was the shy little girl who didn't speak much but took her own time to observe you and become friendly eventually after she'd evaluated everything. There was the girl whose personality had so much serious gravity and she told me later that she had 5 sisters and she was the 2nd eldest. And then there was the the scruffy troublemaker boy who looked like he needed to comb his hair and would grow up to be the sensitive rebel, like a combination of James Dean and Marlon Brando. I was only there for an hour but it was amazing how comfortable I felt with them. Each kid had his/her own personality, and each was different. I saw some of my old classmates in them, some that I have not come across in years and don't even know where they are anymore, waving back at me from each kid, saying, 'Hey! I'm this kid!'. I even saw my old self in one of the kids.

I talked a lot about myself. I started off by showing them on a world map where I was born (India), where I grew up (Oman), and how far that is from Oklahoma. They were all aghast, and one of them let 'dang' slip out. :D I later showed them a picture of my 12th grade class, and they thought it was cool that I had to wear the same kind of uniform from 1st grade to 12th grade. At the end, I told them that I would write their names in Hindi and Urdu for them if they wanted me to, and they were so excited about it. They rushed to me with the table nametags I had given them earlier on, and I wrote their names for them. Eventually, they wanted me to write their last names too. The prim and proper girl wanted me to write her name in the new glittery markers she had bought. One kid asked me to write his last name because he was going to get adopted next week and wanted me to write his new last name. The girl with the 5 sisters, she came up to me quietly later with her notebook. She had made 5 squares with the name of each sister in it, and she wanted me to write her sisters' names in Hindi and Urdu as well, the way I had done for her and the rest of the class. She said I didn't need to do all of them today, I could just write for one each time I visited (I will make 5 visits, and I had told the class that when I first started talking).

I was sitting at a student desk and writing names for all the kids surrounding me - I felt like a movie star giving autographs, really. The kids would ask me questions about myself while they were having their names written. Goodness, I thought the kids had more sense than a lot of the adults I have met in my life. I can't believe all the simplicity I was surrounded with today. They laughed at all my jokes and were bounding around me, trying to help, completely dying to answer questions, and falling out of their chair each time I mentioned some new fact about the world outside of their city. They already knew almost everything I was teaching them today, but the stuff I told them about from my personal experiences was what they enjoyed the most.

I totally felt like I was doing something innate today. It was no effort at all. I felt like how I feel like when I hang out with younger cousins.

Billie took me to her ranch

(originally written March 2005)

Billie had told me to wear old jeans, a tshirt, and sports shoes. So I did, and I had a straw hat so I wore that too. It was going to be warm and nice that day for a change. Billie's house is 20 minutes away from Stillwater near another town called Cushing. She picked me up at 1130am at my dorm and we drove to a deli and had lunch on the way. I had catfish and fries and ice cream. We were there until 1230pm and then we went on to her house. Her family owns a lot of acres (I forget how many), but she lives in a little house with her husband who just had knee surgery two weeks ago. Darrell runs the ranch. He's in his mid-60s and he was out most of the time with the animals, although I met him for a total of 15 minutes at various times of the day. Billie's house is made of wood (around 100 years old), and they bought it 35 years ago when it was broken down and redid it. Her three daughters are married and live in different places in OK with their husbands and two children each. Her house was very warm and cozy. It had a light brown carpet and lots of photographs on the walls alongwith candles and cute things like that. I had bought a present for her because it was the first time I was going to her house. I had bought her a candle holder that holds three small candles and had a mirror attached to it so you can hang it on the wall or something (the grills built around it are black and shaped like vines). She liked that very much and she put candles in it and lit them and everything. Anyway, it was like the little house on the prairie business. She had a yard running all around her house and then she had fenced-off areas for the animals at various distances although it all amalgamated into one gigantic piece of land with everything in it. Anyway, once we got out of the car, I met her husband who was working in the area with the fowls (around 15 of them!). Of course, Billie's two little dogs came running. One's a tiny rat terrier called Sally and the other's a small dog (I don't know the breed) and he's called Lucky. (I kept calling him khushqismat ha ha ha ha). They were very nice dogs and very friendly, and I made friends with them fast. Billie doesn't let her animals into her house so they sat out on the porch. She showed me around the house and everything too. Then we went out for a walk which probably came upto 5 miles. We left the house and stepped into the barn first. I met one donkey who was called Lucius and he was very nice. And then I met the two goats Tippy and Nani. Billie let those two out of their pens and they followed us on our walk the whole time alongwith the dogs. It was all open land with trees and grass and I saw anthills and molehills and badger holes on the way. We first went to the huge pond behind a hill, and there I saw turtles bobbing their heads in and out of the water while they were underwater. I also saw mallards and other ducks flying and swimming. Billie and her family (children, grandchildren and all) like to swim, boat, etc. at the pond in the summers. Then we walked on to another smaller pond area and then started walking into this old avenue like road which had trees all along it on both sides. This long road used to be a railroad track but it got removed over a 100 years ago. This road led to Billie's house, and the whole time the dogs and the goats were walking with us, the dogs especially running around us and sometimes sitting between my feet when we stopped for a second. We were at another barn near her house where the fenced-off area has cows (the unhorned variety) and she even has 2 llamas (their names are Tuxedo and Stapleton). I had to hold out my hands to the llamas because they like to sniff at it for some reason.

Billie has an electric wire running around all her fences. I was sitting on the ground next to the fence there, and Lucky was trying to lick my left hand so I would pat his head, and I absentmindedly moved my left hand out to my left side trying to stop Lucky from licking it, and I got zapped by the electric fence and of course, Lucky did too. We both yowled and I fell off onto a dirt mound. It was funny! Apparently the animals and humans get zapped by the fence quite a bit. It was more startling really than painful. In fact it wasn't painful at all. On a scale from 1-10 where 10 is a major shock, I'd say that the zap was around 1. Anyway, we then walked the goats back to their pen but only after Billie shovelled their pens clean and put fresh food in there. Then we locked the goats in. She even had peacocks! Three peahens and one peacock really. Someone had given Darrell the eggs and he'd hatched them (they used to hatch poultry and so they have a mechanical hatcher). Wow - they were the biggest surprise of all. Billie and I then walked to her home where I splashed water on my face and then she had me have ice cream as we talked in her 'yoga room' (Billie does Yoga, and she used to do kickboxing and taek won do before). They had hired someone to till the garden patch beside their house where Billie is going to grow veggies (she used to grow all their own veggies until she started working full-time recently after her children grew up and got married and everything). Another cowboy was tilling the patch with a tractor and it really looked so nice, you know? That area was beside the area with the horses and the mules, too. I sat on some square bales of hay with the dogs and was surprised how heavy they really were (the bales not the dogs). After a while, Billie drove me home back to my dorm, but before we left, I saw some of her cats running around in the pasture. It was a great day!

First of all, it felt wonderful getting so close to normal things. I felt so healthy. I was freshly scrubbed and showered that day (all I had done was take a shower in he morning before leaving), but my skin felt so clean with the wind and the nice sun and everything. I was feeling so healthy and nice, especially with all the hills and river and animals and actual physical work of walking so much over ups and downs in the ground. I got mud randomly all over my jeans because the dogs would put their paws on me after they'd splashed in water (and I'd even dripped some ice cream on myself earlier that day), but for a change, I didn't really care which is a big surprise. I felt like I was in a Mark Twain book when Billie would say things like 'Darrell's sister lives across the creek on the other side of that hill' or 'The river runs through our land' or '150 years ago they used to have dances and singing at the pond in the summer evenings'. Goodness, I was so tired by the time I got back, but it was a good tired. It might sound stupid but I felt I got my body functioning properly after spending just a few hours at the farm, like I started feeling tired after walking so much but just in time for dinner and things like that, you know? I had the best sleep ever last night. I just plopped right to sleep with my lungs and brain all clear and nice. I even felt my cells functioning happily. And it was SO nice hanging around animals after so long. I'd forgotten that you can actually talk to them and stuff. I mean, really! The llamas especially. I'd never seen a llama before in real life and they looked like a cross between an ostrich and a camel. It was such an experience to actually interact with so many different things, all of which are just as alive as you are, and to look at each other and actually communicate mostly through sounds and speech tones. It was so much fun and so surprising to have the goats and dogs actually walk with us all over the place. I kept feeling like Tan-sen when he would sing and the animals would come to hang around him. Wow, wow, wow. Spring has barely started so the trees had no leaves and a lot of the grass was yellow and crunchy, but it is starting to get green and a lot of the flowers were starting to grow again. There were oaks and pine trees too, and grapevines, just growing on their own. I loved the feel of the ground under my shoes and it made me so happy to be able to hear the crunch of the dry grass, rocks, twigs, as I walked around. I told Billie how Abbu likes to know the names of plants and flowers and stuff, and she said that my family and friends are welcome to come to her place whenever they're here, and she knows that Amma especially like to write and likes gardens and land and cottages and stuff. My friends Vlasta and Diviya were invited too, but Diviya has friends over for Spring Break and Vlasta was working that day splat in the middle of the day and couldn't make it. But Billie's said she will have them come over again.

Billie and her husband bought this land years ago, and they raised their children on it. At various points in time before, they used to do dairy, poulty, grow veggies like corn, etc., but that was mostly when their children were growing and Billie used to not work but run the ranch. After her children grew up and bought their own homes (in OK), Billie started working full-time at Career Services at our school here, so she doesn't have time to really work at the ranch as much, but she still works on it when she gets home from her job in Stillwater. She told me that she used to grow and bottle her own food before, like veggies and fruits, eggs, milk, jams, pickles, whatever. She grew up on a farm in North (or South?) Carolina where her father used to be a pilot, and she's lived in cities too after she got married.

Phew! That was a long email. I had fun and was very happy yesterday, and was wishing that Abbu, Amma and the bhais could be there too. I took pictures but I hope I they came out okay because I suspect that the film might not have loaded perfectly. But once I develop them, I will scan them and email them too. :D

But now I'm back, it's back to my IT homework...

Update: One week after my visit, Lucky died.

Divine Intervention

(originally written in March 2006)

So I was driving home after work and stopped on the way at the Blockbuster near my home to return two DVDs I had rented. I noticed that there was a Girl Scouts table outside the store and it looked like they were selling cookies. I wasn't going to buy any in particular so I walked over to the movie drop flap, but I couldn't help giving a preoccupied adult I've-got-big-things-on-my-mind smile to one of the girl scouts that was selling the cookies because she had actually seen me first and was looking at me. I was thinking, 'Great, now she's gonna come and ask me to buy some cookies and I really don't want to buy any'. Then suddenly, the girl rushes over to me, and all 4 feet of her smiling and beaming with delight goes, 'Do you teach with Junior Achievement?'. For a second, I was confused and all I could do was just be surprised with this very innocent looking kid I didn't know. People don't just go around talking to people, you know, especially little kids. They don't go running to strangers and smiling at them nomatter how badly they want to sell cookies. I caught myself and said, 'Um, yeah'. And after another second of looking at this girl's super-thrilled-to-see-me face, I went, 'Oh, wait, you're in that class, aren't you!'. The minute I audibly placed her in my memory, the girl gave me such a gigantic look of happiness. I was like, 'Wait, you're Mackensie? No, no, she has 5 sisters. You're....Emily....' at this point, she started nodding her head like crazy and her big smile got happier. There were two Emilies in that class - Emily T. and Emily G. I couldn't remember which one was which, so I said, 'You're....Emily.....T?' and then she started to shake her head, and I went, "G? T? G?". She nodded her head and it was established. She was Emily G. When she knew I recognised her, she was delighted. I'm not bragging, she was totally pumped. I have never seen someone I've barely met so visibly excited to see me and looking so twinkly-eyed because I recognised them. And I felt such a wonderful feeling of silly importance. I flung my DVDs into the drop-in flap and said, 'OF COURSE I'll buy cookies from you!'. She had barely said anything about cookies until this point, but I felt so touched by the whole thing. I looked and saw that the cookie boxes were 4 dollars each, and wouldn't you know, I had JUST made change at the office that day for a 5 dollar bill and so I had exactly 4 dollars bills in my wallet. In a flash, I was in and out of my car with the money and I had bought my favourite cookie box. What a strange high that was. I then gave her the money and almost shook her hand off as I said bye, and then I said that I hope she made a lot of money. What a dumb thing to say, but I was all over the place.

It was not a sales-pitch, her recognising me. I could tell that from her face. She reminded me of when I was little and would chance to see a teacher I liked somewhere outside of school, and I would abandon everything and go running to her just to say hello and then stand there and blush.

And look at me today, so over-stuffed and bothered about being grown-up that I was almost going to say no to someone who was just excited to meet me. For shame. I used to sell raffle tickets and stuff all the time when I was little. How could I ever forget how crestfallen I would be when no adult would buy anything from me. Moments like these I think the cosmos or God or whatever is giving me a whack on the head - 'quit whining and enjoy a cookie'.

These cookies aren't worth 4 dollars, they're priceless. :D

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In The Pickle Aisle

The old woman shuffled down the dusty aisle, looking for ancient jars of pickle. Her back was bent, her hair was sparse, her clothes were cotton. She slightly held the shelves with her swollen arthritic hands for support as she dragged her feet one careful step at a time into the dark corner of the shop. Sweat gathered in layers between the saggy lumps of flesh on her body. Swish, her sleepy heart pumped weak blood to the rest of her body in slow motion. Swish, the stale blood groaned and made its way back to the heart. The old woman rubbed the yellowed lens of her glasses with the thick skin on her fingertips and strained to read the labels on the pickle jars through the fingerprints on the lens.

A young woman entered the shop, the sun ecstatic at seeing its warmth bounce off of her damp hair. It winced in searing pleasure as it tried to hold on to her with the last of its sunbeams. The wind chased her through the open door, half-blind with the intoxication of her skin. The young woman laughed, and the wind forgot itself for a moment. It crashed into the dusty bags of rice and wheat. Then it swirled through the pepper and the chillies and almost drowned in the rose water. The young woman laughed some more, and the wind sighed and floated into the forgotten pickle corner, as if in a dream.

The wind drifted into the old woman's throat and agonisingly made its way down to her belly, leaving a desperate inferno in its trail. Her ears burned with the sudden flavour, and her chest squeezed with the surprise of a hundred sharp needles madly being sunk into her heart all at once. Her long-dry white tongue erupted into a million juicy fountains that remembered the dust, the sun, his golden skin. His cinnamon sweat tantalisingly trickling down from his sticky caramel curls past the shimmer of his eyes and down the vein on his neck. A frightened gasp forced its way out of her mouth. An explosion of light shook the galaxy within her, and the faith of a wild innocent love of handholding and smiles left a ringing feeling throughout her hollow bones that would last long after she had left the shop. An unwilling tear broke free from her weak eyes. A saga of untamed passion, relived all in one moment. Swish swish swish, her heart had been new once.


June 24, 1999
Westbury, England

Dear Diary,

Just another day. I think I'm finally settling in to this idea of a country boarding school, I didn't realise how much I actually needed to get away from things. Six hours away from the starkness of London, you feel like you've escaped to someplace innocent, forgiving. I swear, somedays the endless meadows surrounding this campus make me feel like I'll run into Julie Andrews twirling about the place, trilling away with the wind and the dancing grass, throwing whirling dervishes out of whirl.

The students are getting used to me, and I to them. It's actually a whole lot of fun running into them here and there outside of the school hours. I feel the students really get to see you as a real person and not as an official schoolmarm. Each time a bunch of students walk by and greet you with a sincere hi (or 'Ola', 'Bonjour' or whatever else because we really only have foreign students over for the summer), you realise that they actually see you as an older friend that can help them sort through their problems, the bigger ones that plague them outside of the classroom. It's like I'm suddenly their elder sister, and all these younger people are my little cousins. It's startling at first, and I have to confess that it suddenly makes you feel like you're worth something, like despite whatever mistakes you have made in your life, you have the answers that they will come to you for someday. It's a very maternal feeling. Imagine that, me, maternal - does that surprise you? Ha, ha!

Like for instance, they had the dance at the hall tonight, the way they do every weekend. All the kids were having a ball but I had to leave early, so I left around 9pm. I was walking across the campus. The sky was really clear, and I was enjoying the beautiful stars on my way back to my dorm. You know, the sky is so much clearer in the country. When it's nighttime and the moon is out, all you can see are the stars and the moonlight bouncing off of the distant cottages in the quiet countryside. Anyway, the campus was deserted; most of the kids were at the dance as were the teachers. As I crossed the fountain, I saw someone sitting on one of the benches outside the gym. I thought I'd keep on walking but the person sitting there - it looked like a student - was looking kind of melancholy out there alone, so I changed my mind and gently walked up to the bench. It was one of the students that visits the studio often; you'll see her hunched over in the corner, diligently working on a tie-die shirt or a ceramic tile. She especially loves working with pastels. She didn't notice my presence until I said hi and asked her if I could sit with her; she was simply sitting on the bench by herself, looking out at nothing but the shadowy meadows beyond the low campus walls. She looked so vulnerable. I started off by making smalltalk. I asked her why she wasn't at the dance, and she said, with a quivering little chin, that the slowdances made her miss a guy she liked back in her country. I felt so awful for her, this little child all by herself. I patted her head and told her to tell me more about this fellow, and she did. I inched up a little closer to her and put my arms around her when, in the middle of a narrative on how cute he was, she started crying like something much younger than the 17-year-old she was. I listened to everything she had to say. We must've made a funny sight, a tiny weepy teenager But she felt better after a while, and I walked her back to her room. She reminded me a lot of Lizzie.

I don't think I really said much to this little girl, but I sat there listening to everything that was in her little heart. I think that's what she wanted.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Sphinx

Today she died
Her plans no more
But just in time
For she was done
But you can't tell
From how she looks
The dreams she hid
The hurt she bore
Each shrug a bruise
Each love a scab
She never told
No one will know
Under old skin
A five year old
A maiden pure
A woman soft
With cuts galore
The things she felt
The tears she bled
They gave her blame
Easy it was
For them to do
Fingers to aim
At this woman
We'll never know
The things they said
That weren't fair
Secrets she kept
Things left unsaid
Never revealed
Out of some fear
Or love too great
Or words too small
Or shame or guilt
That weren't hers
We'll never know
We'll never know
This woman's heart
This woman's life
Her world within
The way it was
When no one looked

Her time is done
God kissed her eyes
And freed her breath

Bid her farewell


I don't know when I got old
But I just didn't want to run
Instead I wanted to paint
But I'd always liked to paint
But then I'd started the race
And there were things to be done
On time
And when I realised it wasn't a race
That it never really ends
I stopped running
And I looked back
And I saw every person I had been
The strong opinions
I remember how it felt
The outrage
The loyalty
I don't remember why it was important
Because the world changed
While I was running
Things I swore by faded away
Now it's just me
And some other fools
Who used to be stubborn too
But now our muscles are gel
Thin skin on cold bones
Bones that used to grow and tumble
But one day we got old
And we stopped running
And the world stopped asking
So we sat down
Like you will too
When you realise you've seen it all before
That nothing's new
Not even you

Monday, May 4, 2009


Hey baby
Now on your own
Smiling and fresh
Smelling of mint dreams
A bag and a ticket
Welcome to the world

You have band-aid, don't you
It bleeds when you cut
Buy a pillow to bite into
Didn't your momma tell you

Baby they don't know your name
They won't notice when the twinkle dies
The clothes will shrink
Your lips will crack
You will forget to condition your hair
One day
Bit by bit
You will forget to exfoliate
You will be ashamed
But you won't stop smiling
Baby you won't remember your face

So baby
Take a picture
To remember
What you looked like
What it felt like
On your last day

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Family Portrait

Her father has started wearing socks in the desert summer nights. He's always felt cold but has started feeling almost frigid since his surgery. He's wasted away since his son's accident years ago. He walks with a tiring stoop, his mouth in a slight scowl as if he is being forced to take every step. These days he's reduced his life to an uncompromising schedule starting with waking up from an unsavoured sleep to his evening walk to the post-dinner TV hour where he begins to nod off into bedtime. The disciplined life he's always led, especially since his heart attack, has now become a crutch, all he knows, all that is familiar, all that has been faithful. She doesn't recognise this shrinking old man whose commands have now withered to pleas. Where is her handsome father who used to make perfumed socialites swoon at the Embassy parties?

Her mother rushes about the house, panicking from room to room as she obsessively reorganises household items. Her day begins with a feeling of impending doom and steadily degenerates into a claustrophobic mirage of panic attacks and irate shrieks. The artery in her head throbs, her cramps give her nightmares, she fears another heart attack. She doesn't know how to drive so she is imprisoned within the walls of the new house that is too small and crammed with relics from the house they left. When she does make it to a drive outside, her heart hammers against her ribcage for fear of the road. She's become this way since her son's accident. Now she always clutches the grip on top of the door and is exhausted from being hyperaware of every single object around the car. She can't go a minute without pleading the driver to slow down, just please watch the other cars even if they are far away. She used to navigate a complicated social circle, but this panicky old woman now freezes and bursts into tears at the possibility of a problem, sputtering for help in front of strangers in broken English because not everyone understands Urdu.

Her brother is a surgeon who hasn't healed anyone since his accident. Each day he battles complications, not all of them physical, from being paralysed below his chest. He doesn't go out anymore unless he has to - he feels so ashamed of the chore of simply shifting from the wheelchair to the car, he keeps to himself, hating himself for being in everyone's way. Before his accident, he was in the process of moving to America to study wonderful new things about the human body so he could do what he loves best, helping people. Now he's self-conscious of himself, his paralysis, and his inability to control his body. He's left the depression behind, and oscillates between fierce optimism and the everyday awkwardness. There is not a moment when he's not in pain. During the first few days after his accident, she remembers thinking how strange it was to see her lively brother lying down all of a sudden, unable to even raise his head without screaming in pain. That was the first time she had heard him use bad words. All it took was a second and everything changed.

The house is now quiet and has few visitors. The world has moved on and doesn't remember those who couldn't renew. We were young once, we were brave. We are dust, we are ruins, I am forgotten.