From the time that life is breathed into us, till the time that our soul departs, there rises an ocean of possibilities, to journey across, seeking what makes sense, avoiding all that is harmful, traversing miles and miles of open expanse, sometimes without a compass, sometimes guided by those who mean well. There are storms on the horizon, and threats of illness and injury and of course, the reality of death itself. Then there are peaceful days when the waters are calm, the sun is merciful, and the skies are a perfect blend of amber and gold. Overhead one sees the seagulls and hears their cries piercing the celestial sphere. It is then that one gathers the courage to set sail again, taking that journey, for despite the uncertainty and the fear, there is always hope, and one’s perennial friend, faith.
These pages are from my diary. I share these in the hope that my journey will not be a lonely one, and with the faith that you too will believe in the madness of my many missions, some less delirious than others, and some perhaps just lost causes even before I set sail into the turbulent waters of the blue abyss.
February 17, 2019
A late night call from a friend I had not seen for many years woke me up. Married to the youngest son of a Sindhi politician from Larkana, my friend — the only daughter of a prominent politician from Multan — grew up in Lahore. Both her father and her father-in-law had served as Chief Ministers of Sindh and Punjab and both the families owned vast tracts of agricultural land. But none of that power, or the wealth could bring solace to my friend who now grieved inconsolably for her husband — a graduate from Cambridge University and a lawyer who had won many cases but lost his own life.
I must go to Karachi to be with my friend. It will be hard for her to come to terms with the loss of her beloved for almost half a century. It is time for me to travel again.
March 7, 2019
Grieving has several phases. Disbelief is the first one. My friend is still wondering if she will see her late husband walking down the staircase and waiting for her at the dinner table. It will take a while for his absence to sink in. We go on talking to each other forever but never about him. It feels as if he lives in the silent spaces between our words. It is too soon to remember him, for his scent still lingers in the house, empty now of his presence.
It is staggering when you realize how resilient the human spirit is, how life just goes on, how conversation turns to the mundane. Perhaps, because in our hearts we know that dwelling on the inevitable will not make it easier, or maybe because once the tears are shed our hearts become lighter and despite the absences we move on.
March 15, 2019
It is early; I am awakened by the rays of the sun slanting obliquely through the ancient latticed roshandaan set above the graceful wooden arches, carved a hundred years ago in the Swat Valley and affixed in my bedroom alongside the patio where the cats sun themselves in the winter and shelter beneath the many plants in summer. I hear the mellifluous singing of many birds perched on the tall, stately trees of my neighborhood, and my heart freezes, for it was on a morning like this, 49 years ago, that I was woken up by the sound of an ambulance approaching the driveway of our old colonial bungalow in Lahore’s Cantonment. I was ten at the time; I recall that I was wearing a lemon yellow flannel nightie, gifted by our mother’s elder sister in Cape Town. It was chilly that early in the morning, but I neglected to put on my slippers or a warm cover, and I ran out onto the veranda where I saw the ambulance backing into the porch. Our old Kashmiri cook, Chacha Sultan, sat inside the ambulance, one hand folded over his face. When he looked up, my heart sank. His face was wet with tears. He shook his head from side to side when he saw me, and I knew then that the ambulance was bringing my father home. It was his last journey before he was interred, before we lost him forever.
That was in 1970. My beloved father, Syed Ali Gauhar, died of kidney failure several years before he was fifty. My mother, Khadijah Marsina, was only 39 at that time. Raising three children on her own, her family thousands of miles away in South Africa, my mother did a remarkable job, providing us with opportunities that few from our socio-economic background could afford. We traveled to remote places, trekked on narrow mountain paths, fished in glacial streams, sang and danced, I learnt to play the piano, my brother and I played sports and held school records in track and field. My sister, Madeeha, played out her passion for theatre till the day cancer claimed her, almost a year ago as I write this. A full life, that is what she lived, and that is what our mother enabled us to live, within the means our father left behind.
There is no time to mull over the past. There is work to be done, now that the final draft of the management plan I have been writing for the protection of cultural heritage impacted upon by the Dasu Hydropower Project has been submitted to WAPDA and the World Bank for approval. I have promised the Cancer Care Hospital that I shall help to raise funds for the radiation machine that costs Rs. 50 million. I have planned an auction of artwork and I need to solicit the cooperation of painters in Lahore to contribute their work towards this cause. There is work to be done!
March 20, 2019
The process of collecting paintings for the art auction in Karachi has begun. I am being assisted by my childhood friend who has managed to get four paintings executed by Pakistani master painters: a beautiful landscape by Khalid Iqbal, an enchanting medley of colors by Ahmed Pervez, two striking faces by Bashir Mirza, and a pen and ink drawing of a woman by Sadequain. These have to be cleaned, framed, packed, crated, and freighted, along with more than twenty-five other paintings by contemporary artists. I will be busy for the next week collecting these paintings, having them photographed, then having a catalogue designed and printed before leaving for Karachi in early April. Invitations have to be sent out by the Cancer Care Hospital, and hotels and airline tickets booked. Bags have to be packed, catalogues shipped, last minute details worked out, and then the day dawns when another journey has to be taken, back to the City by the Sea, Roshnion ka Sheher, Megacity: Karachi.
April 6, 2019
The auction was a success; we managed to sell over half of the paintings, and the rest are being exhibited at one of the best galleries in Karachi. A friend requests me to do a reading of selected extracts from my first two novels. I oblige, although I am exhausted from the hectic weeks leading up to the auction. I barely have time to prepare, and the novels were written so long ago that I have to re-read them to get a sense of what the audience would like to hear. I have to address a press conference earlier in the day for the Softball Federation, announcing two national events and an international tournament in the United States, then I rush back to the hotel to change and pick up the novels. In the car, on the way to the venue I nod off, and am reluctant to get off once I get there for I am totally drained of all energy, and am afraid the guests will be deeply disappointed.
But, mercifully, I am surprised at how the energy of the guests and of my generous host infects me, and I am all smiles and gladness by the time I begin the reading. I launch into the first novel with gusto, speaking in the feigned accents of the characters who leap out of the pages and address the audience. I explain that the first novel actually followed the second feature film I wrote, produced, and directed — something quite unusual as films are usually based on books, and not the other way around. The audience is most amused at the extract I choose to read about the handsome Maulvi Muzaffar flirting with the aging chanteuse Shamshad Begum — one of the three primary characters who live in Lahore’s Shahi Mohallah, raising an adopted daughter who is unable to speak after an acid attack which burnt her larynx.
Once I get into the second novel, based on the American presence in Afghanistan, there is a hush in the room as I read in the voice of the American medical technician who is incarcerated in a tiny cell by militant extremists who have taken over an abandoned mental asylum just outside the city of Kabul. I had seen this place many years ago when I used to visit Kabul with my school soccer team, and I have never forgotten how haunting it was. The audience listens intently, and I am gratified, for who has the patience to hear an author read, or to read itself? Memories of Kabul come flooding back, and I wonder if that desolate old building is still standing on the hillside of Marastun, overlooking a city which has suffered forty years of war and still shelters a population constantly living in fear.
April 7, 2019
It is time to return to Lahore and start preparation for my presentation to the World Bank and WAPDA. I have written the detailed management plan for cultural heritage that shall be impacted directly by the Dasu Hydropower Dam. I am proud of my work, and present with the confidence that comes when one knows that a lot of hard work has gone into the research. Stakeholders from Indus Kohistan endorse the plan, as does the proponent. There is an atmosphere of camaraderie and cooperation instead of conflict and confrontation. The hall is full; people of diverse backgrounds have come to attend and offer their opinions. There is a unanimous agreement that my management plan has addressed the issues adequately and that the proponent will be able to implement it when the time comes.
I breathe a sigh of relief and look forward to the next assignment that will allow me a glimpse into a world of communities buried in unknown valleys in remote areas, waiting to be discovered by someone who is still looking for a path to salvation. I am already planning to visit one such community near the Hispar Glacier in Gilgit Baltistan, and look forward to the flight which shall take me away from the city and into the as yet untouched district of Nagar, a veritable haven of nature and yet so terribly neglected, left out of development plans, teetering on the edge of disaster as climate change brings the threat of a massive avalanche closer every day.
I must pack again, for yet another journey, another bit of learning, another foray into the remotest corners of my beloved country, waiting to welcome an intrepid traveller just finding her way.HH
The writer is a lead consultant, Cultural Heritage Management Plan, Dasu Hydropower Project.
E-mail: [email protected]
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