Friday, November 05, 2004

That Julia Child Way of Dying (And Living)

A.H. Cemendtaur

Life's best lessons are often learned in the worst of times. Anytime I
am removed from books is a bad time for me and that summer, when I found myself in New York, was definitely one of the worst episodes of my life. Renting a room in Jersey City, I was working at a factory in Secaucus during the day and putting in evening hours at a Roy Rogers, as I tried to save money for school. My landlord had removed the bed from my room because, at the time of the rental agreement, I refused to pay the additional $25 a month for it. I slept on the floor. Late at night when I had turned off the light and lay on my sleeping bag, mice would come out of the various holes in the wall and scurry about around me. I remember my first night in that room, when the mysterious whisking sounds had me baffled. I couldn't figure out what it was. When I turned on the light, I caught a glimpse of a tail quickly disappearing in a hole. Rats! I debated with myself whether to pay the extra $25 a month for the bed, but then decided to test out the mice and see how brave they were. So I switched off the light and went to sleep. It turned out that the mice were pretty timid; they kept themselves at a distance from me. We set up our boundaries. The sleeping bag was my domain; every other place in the room belonged to the mice.

But it was not living with the rats that bothered me; it was the loneliness that was tormenting. I was surrounded by people whose language I didn't speak. They would talk for hours and their conversations wouldn't go beyond their immediate materialistic needs: their cars, their clothes, their shoes. You could scour the whole neighborhood and you wouldn't find a book in any of the houses.

So there I was living in a city that I couldn't develop a friendship with, longing to go back where I had come from. But I could not escape. I had to put in my time.

One day I was on a train that was passing through the Bronx. A man got up from his seat and stood by the door to get off at the next station. The train pulled into the station, the door opened, and the man disappeared. I noticed that the departing passenger had left his New York Times at his seat. I got up, walked to his seat, and picked up the newspaper. I cursorily turned the pages until my eyes stopped, fixed at a column by Ann Landers. That day Ann Landers had quoted "The Station" by Bob Hastings. "Yesterday is a memory, tomorrow is a dream." Cherish today. The message was so simple and yet so profound that it moved me. It set me free like nothing else has, over the course of my life. Tears started rolling down my cheeks. Conveying Hastings' message to me, Landers had taken me from the abyssal pit of misery to the zenith of fulfillment where I could kiss God's forehead.

I felt emancipated. And in that moment of lightness, I constructed my own philosophy about life. I understood my incapacity to control the ticking of time--I am always taken to the next moment whether I plan for it or not. I realized the importance of setting goals; that milestones far off in the future that you want to reach, that shimmering pillars on the distant mountain give a purpose to the journey, your life. But I decided that the long-term goals shouldn't be the only places where, once you get there, you unwind and celebrate; that there should be short-term goals and that there should be daily celebration of the little joys of life. That living today to its fullest doesn't mean living foolishly. That rejoicing in the present means doing today what you wish to do when you'd retire one elusive day. That I need to pursue my heart's desire everyday and then one day just quietly die in my sleep. That's the Julia Child way of dying (and living).

Here is "The Station" by Bob Hastings that Ann Landers had copied in her column; savor its timeless wisdom and apply it in your life—just don’t eat too much ice cream.

Tucked away in our subconscious minds is an idyllic vision in which we see ourselves on a long journey that spans an entire continent. We're traveling by train and from the windows, we drink in the passing scenes of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at crossings, of cattle grazing in distant pastures, of smoke pouring from power plants, of row upon row of cotton and corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of city skylines and village halls.

But uppermost in our minds is our final destination--for at a certain hour and on a given day our train will finally pull into the station with bells ringing, flags waving, and bands playing. And once that day comes, so many wonderful dreams will come true. So restlessly we pace the aisles and count the miles, peering ahead,
waiting, waiting, waiting for the station.

"Yes, when we reach the station, that will be it!" we promise ourselves. "When we're that promotion...put the last kid through that 450 SL Mercedes off the mortgage...have a nest egg for retirement."

From that day on we will all live happily ever after.

Sooner or later, however, we must realize there is no station in this life, no one earthly place to arrive at once and for all. The journey is the joy. The station is an illusion--it constantly outdistances us. Yesterday is a memory, tomorrow is a dream. Yesterday belongs to history, tomorrow belongs to God. Yesterday's a fading sunset. Only today is there light enough to love and live.

So, gently close the door on yesterday and then throw the key away. It isn't the burdens of today that drive men mad, but rather the regret over yesterday and the fear of tomorrow.

So stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead swim more rivers, climb more mountains, kiss more babies, count more stars. Laugh more and cry less. Go barefoot oftener. Eat more ice cream. Ride more merry-go-rounds. Watch more sunsets. Life must be lived as we go along.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Readymade identities, prepackaged burdens

A.H. Cemendtaur

One day when she was old enough to ask deeper questions, she came up with that ultimate inquiry. Who am I? She asked her father. And that question perturbed the father. What should he tell her who she was? What made him qualified to answer her question, he asked himself. She was born in New York of Pakistani parents who, at that time, were on student visas in the US. Both parents had Sunni backgrounds; husband spoke Urdu, his parents migrated to Pakistan from UP, India; wife spoke Urdu with a heavy Punjabi accent because her Punjabi speaking parents, originally from Amratsar, India, only spoke Urdu with their children. The little girl, a US citizen, was now living in Jeddah. Considering her young age should she be given a short, quick answer that she was a Pakistani American living in Saudi Arabia? Or, should she be told the whole story, that monikers like American, Pakistani, Saudi, Sunni, Urdu, Punjabi, etc. not only lack sharp definitions, but are also entrapping and she would be better off avoiding them; that she needed to go and figure out for herself who she really was?

Or, should the little girl be first asked what her question really meant? What kind of classification, above that of being a human being, was she interested in? Who got her thinking in that direction--that she needed to fit neatly in a religious, ethnic, racial, linguistic, or national pigeonhole?

Or, should she be assured that it did not quite matter what particular group she was born in? It mattered more who she was then and what she wanted to become. That she needed to come to terms with herself knowing that she was truly unique, that no one like her was ever born, nor would anyone like her ever come into being. That this uniqueness may give her a feeling of loneliness but it must also giver her confidence that she truly didn’t need to carry any burden of past that she was not part of--the kind of historical baggage that comes with belonging to a group.

Would she understand if she were told that brave people don’t put on the pre-tailored, readymade labels that are handed to them? These enticing prepackaged identities come complete with notions of proper ways of thinking: what should you revere, who is your enemy, and all. These garbs are meant to hide your true self from others. The world is eager to shove these garments to insecure people. Here, put on this shirt, this is your nationality, and you need to put it on because you were born in this land. Or, here, you really need to put on this trouser called so-and-so religion because you were born in a family that practices this religion. That confident people reject such offers of pre-tailored definitions; there is no identity crisis simmering in them propelling them to seek somebody else’s answers about who they are. They know that whereas imbeciles around them would try to squeeze them in some cubbyhole, in the end it is their choice to refuse to go in that narrow slot. These stalwarts define themselves in their own ways, not necessarily always rejecting everything burdened on them by history and by their special association to a certain group, but by taking a mental note of their historical baggage and then going beyond it. They understand that all these prepackaged definitions that appear divine at this time were coined by someone sometimes back in history—that they have the power to do the same.

By the time he was ready to give a detailed answer the child had already left.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The Modern Life

A.H. Cemendtaur

A fast-moving boat lost control and started shooting up into the air, a balloon glided down in a gentle wind, an old man stopped to pick up the newspaper that had fallen from his hands. Then words started appearing randomly on a big white screen: Life;meaning;evaluation;confusion;destiny.

Slowly I got cognizant of my surroundings. The day had grown and matured. The sun was trying to pierce through the curtain. I lolled in the bed for a while still thinking of last night’s conversation. She had said she wanted to escape ‘all that.’ Escape all what, I had asked. “Escape all this,” she had repeated herself; this time fluttering her hands in the air. I watched her quivering fingers looking for a clue. I did not find one. What did she mean? Why was it so hard for her to put her finger on ‘that?’ Then, in the tradition of our times, I tried to pigeonhole her. I told her she was a nihilist; that she was trying to escape from modern life; I told her that a lot of people were trying to do that. They wanted to escape “all this.” But before you plan your escape you must understand what you are talking about.

The whole experience of settling down in communities and then gradually using technology to make our life easier, and then continuous improvement in the ways we do things thereby increasing our efficiency, has thrust us into this new lifestyle that to many appears a quagmire. Ostensibly we have been trying to make our life easier; it seems we end up making it more and more complicated. Every scientific breakthrough brings more consumer goods, more comfort in our lives, but still ends up complicating things.

The modern system we have spun around ourselves has acquired a life of its own. At times it looks as if we have become slaves of our own system. This beast pulsates when people are stuck in their places, when they work everyday: people pay taxes, highways get built, system gets renovated, more material things get invented and come in public use, more complexity ensues. And in the middle of all this you find yourself standing fixed, working like a machine. You toil, you make money and then you write checks to all these people maintaining the infrastructure that hosts your existence.

The powerful wave of time takes you along. The scheme of things baffles you, and sometimes you wish to run away from the genie that has been created by people like you. You ask about the meaning of life. Why are you here? What is the purpose of your existence?

It is not only the religion that has answers to this philosophical question about life. Atheists and agnostics have their own ideas. When Bertrand Russell was asked such a question, he quipped, “What is the meaning of meaning of life?” In essence, Russell was saying that the concept of “meaning of life” is our own creation. That thousands of years ago when we were roaming the land, collecting wild fruits, hunting, and often going hungry for days, the concept of “meaning of life” never occurred to us; survival was the only goal at that time, and that was all there was. No grand philosophical queries presented themselves. The quest for finding the ‘meaning of life’ came when we invented agriculture and animal husbandry, and living a long natural life became a certainty. We then got bored by the predictability and the monotony of life. The “meaning of life” trap stems from that boredom.

But aside from the philosophical argument, what many find depressing about modern life is its mechanical aspect--when things become routine and everyday is similar to every other day, for years after years. It is this life of working fixed hours every workday, doing the same thing over and over again that annoys you. Many fall into the trap; they run the race to gather the most toys, collect consumer goods. The victims constantly compare themselves with others, and believe that whoever lives in a bigger house and drives a bigger car than them is “better off” than them. These rat-race runners are most likely to stop in their tracks one day and question the basic premise of their living. They long to find meaning in their lives. Drugs, religions, alternate lifestyles, all prescribe their own medicine.

And the idea of escape from the drudgery appears very romantic. Fed up with modern life some plan a big escape, something like what Alaska hiker Chris McCandless did (beautifully described by Jon Krakauer in “Into the Wild”). Others find nirvana in short periods of solitude. It is what made Henry David Thoreau live a solitary, contemplative life at the Walden Pond for two years.

I believe escape is a mental exercise and can be achieved while staying in the system. There is no need to go anywhere. Nirvana can be found right here in the midst of the cacophony. Inner peace can be found by understanding the game, recognizing its hollowness, and refusing to be compliant; by stopping to compare yourself with others; by wanting to live the life by your own rules.

And the emancipated modern life starts with the moment when you truly understand the economic system you live in. To relieve yourself from bondage to the system you need to get out of the paycheck-to-paycheck rut. Evaluate yourself. What skills you have that can be used to make money? How can you market those skills in the most efficient way? It is almost certain that you will have to make compromises; there will be situations when you will be working for money all the while wanting to do something else. Your triumph lies in making these episodes fewer and the duration of such compromises short. It helps to decide about a date when your compromise would end, expire. No matter how busy you get in life, every few days stop yourself and take time to see which way you are headed. Do you really want to go that way? Ask yourself if that is the shortest path to your long-term goals.

It also helps to have a very good handle on the concepts of cash flow, burn rate, and an estimation of time period you can survive if the source of your primary income is cut off today. By being financially secured you find room in your life to manipulate things in your favor. The sooner it happens the better, because financial stability marks the beginning of your real life. And financial stability doesn’t mean a very big balance in your bank account; you reach stability when you find a balance. The adage, ‘Happiness is positive cash flow’ comes to mind.

But what do you do when you have mastered the survival techniques? When you have understood the game, when you can clearly see the diapers in the beginning and diapers in the end, and the whole drama of life in between, from childhood to death? What do you do to not be bored? How not to be inwardly consumed by the frivolous reality of life?

The meaning of life is in living it. The base of your existence is like quicksand. You are better off keeping walking. Keep moving lest you start sinking under the weight of your own pondering.

You can relieve ennui by doing new things all the time, by refusing to be predictable, by taking risks, by finding causes to fight for, by lending a helping hand. If two consecutive days of your life are alike and if this happens over a long period of time then a change is badly needed.

Look at the safety network the modern society has laid out for you. There is no reason to dread the fall. The network is there to catch you. It is not like yonder years when taking risks could prove perilous; if you failed there was a good chance that you’d die of hunger. That fear is not there anymore. Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen when you take a risk. You may lose a few things. On the other hand, think of the diversity of life that you enjoy by taking the risks.

And how do you know if you are being daring enough? It is said that if your life is free of failures, then you are not taking enough risks. In taking risks listen to Admiral Grace Hopper’s prophetic advice: "A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Sail out to sea and do new things."

And you can enjoy life by learning new things. There is so much to experience and learn. Look at the vast universe. It is begging to be explored. And this is probably what human beings will be doing far in the future. Having total mastery on all mundane activities of life, they will perpetually be involved in the exploration of the cosmos.

Monday, November 01, 2004

The Bomb
Ali Hasan Cemendtaur
Translated from Urdu by
Shahab Riazi

This story was first read at a gathering in Karachi that was organized as a part of the series of events arranged for the “Remembering Hiroshima” day in 1998. It is important to note that this was the same year marred by events in both India and Pakistan that lead both countries to perform their nuclear tests just weeks before the day.

I feel rather strange right now. Reverberant dark shadows leap back and forth in my head from time to time. It feels like I am wandering in the chasm between reality and meaningless horrors all the while blindfolded. But my pen keeps moving, spewing words of a story on a piece of paper torn off of a bag of cement. I want to tell this story to the world.

I am a journalist and I work for a newspaper in Karachi, “Waqt Ki Awaaz” (Call of Time). In fact, it would be more accurate to say that I was a journalist and worked for the above named newspaper in Karachi.

After finishing my Bachelor’s in Journalism from Karachi University, I worked in a major newspaper, “Jung” (War), for a while. I left that newspaper due to some personal reasons only to join “Waqt Ki Awaz.” I remember everyday being a grind. Living was expensive, especially for working class folks like us but I had certain advantages. I was an only child and my father had left me the house that I lived in with my wife, Maha, and two beautiful kids, Sadia and Asad. We had rented out the lower portion of the house, the rent from which alongwith my modest salary helped Maha in not only the running of the house but also to save some money at the end of each month. It was a credit to Maha’s discipline with expenses, more than anything else, that allowed us to buy a car, after she put her personal savings together with some money from a mutual savings scheme she participated in from time to time. Since I could not afford to bear the expenses of using the car for my daily commute to the office, the use of the car was relegated to occasions such as weddings or weekend outings. This was our life. It was not a terribly exciting life but we had no complaints.

Maha was my best friend in the entire world. We met at Karachi University where we took part in the activities of an organization called, “Peace Tribe.” My father had passed away only months after I joined the University. This proved to be a terrible blow for my mother who remained sick off and on and while I was in my senior year insisted that I should get married before the inevitable, her death, takes her away from me. I decided to propose to Maha and we got married shortly. Tragically, yet not so unexpectedly my mother succumbed to her age and died just a few months later.
Casting aside the occasional disagreements or arguments that are a part of any marriage, I was very happy with my overall connubial. After a little while, my daughter Sadia joined us and later on we completed our family with Asad who was born in the eleventh year of our matrimony. We wanted to raise our kids providing them with ample time and attention and opted to stop having kids after that.
If someone were to ask me what three things I enjoyed in Maha the most, I would have admit that I found a solace of sorts in her maturity and the wisdom she possessed that was clearly beyond her years. The fact that she always had a smile on her face may appear second in the list but it was by no means any less important than the first quality I mentioned. Her smile was infectious and it surpassed in beauty only slightly when compared to my third favorite thing about her, the tiny mole, that she had on the tip of her nose. I positively adored it.
We had both graduated from Karachi University years ago but we were still in touch with the people who were part of the “Peace Tribe” at Karachi University with us. As it is evident from the name, the members of the “Peace Tribe,” are peaceniks. We hated organized and random violence equally and whenever we could vociferously. The people in the group aspired to see the populations of different countries striving to improve their general living conditions instead of worrying about how to best exterminate each other.

Late at nights, Maha and I used to talk about different aspects of Pak-India relations. We were always surprised at the intensity of the war hysteria on both sides of the border. Who are these people who decide on the designation of another country as their enemy. How do they conclude that they must kill and maim the people who are their perceived rivals and to what end? How can anyone be heartless and insensitive enough to make decisions about annihilating women, children, the young and old, whom they have never met, seen or known? Do these decision-makers not feel any love for their own brothers, sisters, children and relatives, or are they mentally handicapped to an extent where they do not realize that others must have loved ones like they do.

We used to talk about the time when both India and Pakistan flaunted each other’s nuclear manhood, one deciding to outdo the other in an internationally watched pissing contest. For weeks, the contents of the newspapers in both the countries were as harrowingly depraved as that act itself. Leaders of both Pakistan and India threatened to erase each other and its people from the face of the planet. Both of us agreed that we despised this game of brinkmanship between the two nations. The storm seemed to die down after a little while yet the tensions remained and in fact they kept increasing as time passed.

For the past two weeks, five to ten Hindu farmers were being killed on a daily basis in the Indian controlled Kashmir. India alleged that this was a manifestation of cross border terrorism exported into India via Pakistan. Pakistan contended that this was an uprising based entirely in the disputed region of Kashmir and that the people killed were being punished by the freedom fighters for spying on behalf of the Indian government.

Among others, the Indian Defense Minister took pains to point out that the terrorists killing innocent Kashmiris were rogue fighters from around the world whose purpose in life is reduced to killing and pillaging. He remarked that after terrorizing the populace in Afghanistan and spreading devastation there, these groups and individuals were now directing their attention to Kashmir. The Indian government made it a point to assemble the Islamic scholars based in India and after extracting an edict (fatwa) from them against killing innocent people during Jihad, publicized it heavily in the far and wide regions of the country. This act was countered by the groups fighting the Indian government, with claims that the people targeted by them are not innocent. India also exhorted the world opinion against Pakistan by claiming that Pakistan was not only harboring these terrorists but was also providing them with training in camps specially built for that purpose in Pakistan controlled Kashmir. India had threatened to take action against these camps across the line of control. The Indian Government, on several occasions had also tried to seal their border with Pakistan but due to a battery of reasons, this was never successfully accomplished. In Pakistan, there were groups and political parties that openly expressed their despair with any process of negotiations with India and prophesized “Jihad” to be the only way in which Kashmir could be liberated from the clutches of the Government of India. These groups openly recruited impressionable youth from all areas of Pakistan for the purpose of Jihad. No one knew where these young men were headed and what became of them, once they joined these radical groups and parties. We were watching all of this unfold, with bewilderment.

Maha and I agreed that the logical end to any spark of war between Pakistan and India would be a nuclear exchange. We would argue hours on in about the details of what death would be like in the event of a nuclear holocaust. People had told us that like other sudden accidental deaths, an atomic explosion would also be a stunning and quick death. I disagreed with the analogy of an accident because in an accident such as a car accident, for instance, there is some level of personal control that exists and that can be attributed to the people involved in that accident. Death as a result of a nuclear explosion did not have that emblematic hook on which any part of the responsibility for the “accident” could be hanged. The people in this case, in my opinion, bearing the consequences, had no control over the circumstances leading up to the “accident.” Maha would vehemently disagree with the basis of my dispute concerning the original argument and most of the time immediately argued that we have chosen to live among the people who do not have any sense of proportion when it comes to their ignorance and hatred for each other. She would pointedly inquire about why we don’t pack up and leave to look for a life elsewhere. I argued that a nuclear war between Pakistan and India would be a result of a few hateful and narrow-minded people taking the vast populations of both countries hostage, and a billion people cannot be blamed for that. We always remained entangled in these discussions and could never find a way out of these confabulations.

I am 43 years old. After much contemplation, I had decided to accept death in the heart of my hearts. Yes, A day will come when I will cease to exist. My thoughts, my vision, my senses, would be switched off. However, having accepted that reality, I also wished to avoid death in a war that wasn’t mine. Someone, from thousands of miles away somewhere pushes a button deciding effectively to end my life was not how I wanted to go. I love Maha, Sadia and Asad. I loved life. I wanted to keep this love alive for as long as I could.

Maha and I had decided that if a war in fact was launched by either of the countries, we would leave Karachi and head north since the big cities in both India and Pakistan were at higher risk of being targeted in the event of a nuclear exchange. We had informed some of our relatives of our decision who chose to do or say no more than scoff at our plans.

There were some questions that went begging for answers though, such as when should one leave the city? What should be the specific occurrence for us to initiate that sequence? We were sure of a singular thing: If either of the armies crossed the border, then that would signal the beginning of a major conflict which could inadvertently reach the only logical end, a nuclear conflagration, and that is when we decided we would leave the city. There was the possibility of us ending up looking like fools running away due to what may turn out to be a false alarm. There was always going to be a chance, however minute, of any conflict involving the breach of borders from either sides ending without the involvement of nuclear arms, but being safe than dead seemed more appealing than any possibility of loss of face.
Maha and I had felt a sense of contentment after hammering out the details of our great escape. Nobody knows what the future may hold yet some sense of preparation for that unknown, uncharted tomorrow does allow some breathing room to life today. Wait, is that not the idea running the engines behind one of the biggest industries of the world. Insurance, it does not save lives yet saves life! right.
Just yesterday, before my usual breakfast I stepped I stepped out onto the terrace of my house where I noticed a few new flowers among the white lilly flowerpots. I bent over to smell them and their beautiful musk met me half way. It was almost like they, in their generosity, were eager to give away everything they had to eventually loose themselves in their surroundings through the dissipation of their aroma. It was a beautiful cloudy day and the skies seemed ready to shower their love onto all creation in sight. All of these seemed like good omens. I headed to the office only to find a tense newsroom slowly being fed on news of rising tensions at the control line. I think I arrived at the office around 9 AM, yet, the news about the situation at the border was being relayed over wires at such a quick pace that I entirely lost my sense of time for that part of the day. Before I knew it the clock had struck one and that is when I had some lunch followed by a customary cup of tea. Around 1:30 PM we learnt that the Indian forces had crossed the control line and were now engaged directly with their Pakistani counterparts in the Neelum Valley. This was verified shortly by another news source. It was evident that this was the beginning of the scenario Maha and I had discussed several times. I found myself debating my options that were not very diverse. Whether I should leave the office and do what we had agreed to do earlier in a case such as this? Or should I stick around here as apparently many others had decided to do. At exactly 2 ‘o’ clock, I made my decision and informed my boss that I would like to go home since I was not feeling well. He offered me his help in the form of a doctor’s visit at the office but I insisted that I would feel better having gone home. After taking leave from him, I arrived at home to find Maha busy with her daily chores and kids back from school. Upon my explanation of returning home early and the declaration of my intent to follow through with our decision of leaving the city in case of war, Maha gave me the most incredulous of looks. It is one thing to make plans in response to hypothetical scenarios and quite another, upon coming across any of the set of possibilities for which such contingency plans are made, to execute them in real life. After quelling Maha’s fears and questions we picked up the kids and some other things that we thought were important. Maha picked up her jewelry box and I gathered all of my paper work, which included my unfinished novels and stories that trumpeted the ideals of peace, brotherhood and love. At that moment, those ideals and everything about them seemed conceptually out of reach and meaningless, yet this was my all. After locking the house behind us we made our way through the city towards the National Highway. Sadia and Asad, in keeping with the reputation their peers had gained of being very perceptive were quiet and had probably deduced from the earlier conversations between Maha and myself about such an event, that we were running away from something terrible. I was heading towards Thatta, which is at a good distance from both Hyderabad and Karachi, the two big urban centers of Sind. I was convinced that I would be able to find accommodation in Thatta even though I did not know anyone there. I had started noticing an increase in traffic. It seemed that there were a lot of people who wanted to leave the city thinking about the same fears that I had thought about. After one of the outlying suburbs of the city, traffic on the highway came to a virtual stand still. People waited for a few minutes but then decided to throw caution to the wind, driving their cars ahead off the road. Suddenly, there was a flash of light. It felt like thousands of flashguns going off at the same time. A horrendous explosion followed it immediately. Panic was now setting its claws deep into us but keeping myself together I sheepishly looked in the rear view mirror to see a mushroom cloud rising above eager to meet the heavens. Maha and I did not exchange a single word. I don’t think we knew what to say or how to react. Were we supposed to be happy at saving our own lives or should we lament the loss of life and the destruction of the city, which until recently was brimming with people, their dreams and aspirations. It was no more than smoke and dust now.

I heard a shriek. Maha started crying as did the kids who did not know any better than to imitate their mother. She turned around and pulled Sadia and Asad to her chest. People had started to step out of their cars wanting to know what had happened. I could tell that nobody had any answers. I did not have a radio in my car. It took every bit of my strength left in me to drive us to Thatta after that. Upon reaching our destination we saw people in the streets looking for cars and people coming from the general direction of Karachi. I had wanted to stop and ask someone about what was being reported on TV and radio if anything. But then decided to look for a place to stay before doing that. Unfortunately I could not find a place for us to stay there and after some thought decided to keep travelling farther towards Tundo Allah Yaar. Night was setting in fast when I put my car on the road towards our new destination where I also knew an old friend from my school days. Highway beyond the city limits of Thatta seemed deserted. Darkness and the scarcity of cars on the road was not a very comforting combination. After driving for a while I noticed that the road ahead was not clear. There were a couple of cars parked awkwardly on the road almost blocking it. My first assumption was that there might have been an accident, however, as we neared the spot, I realized that this was a roadblock probably set up by dacoits. I weighted my options that were terribly limited to begin with and eventually had to stop the car. As soon as the car stopped two men with Klashinkovs in their hands accosted us and demanded that we step out of the vehicle immediately. I tried to keep my calm all the while trying to talk to them in a soft tone, attempting to reason my way out of the situation. One of them stepped forward and slapped me across my face. I gathered myself and stepped out of the car. They pulled Asad out of the car too and at that moment Maha started wailing and crying. The other man aimed his gun at her bidding her to stop. I was praying for somebody to show up and rescue us. Evidently, God had other very important things to attend to hundreds of Kilometers south of where we were standing at that moment. The two men pulled me and Asad to a side, searched us, grabbed our valuables and proceeded to tie us up. I kept imploring them in whatever little of the local language I knew, to let us go and to have mercy. I realized that they had left us and were heading back to the cars. They had blindfolded us so I could not tell what they had intended to do until I heard the roar of my car starting and heading in the other direction. It was then that I realized what was being done to me. They were kidnapping my wife and daughter. I ran towards the fading sound of my car only to take a nasty fall at the side of the road. I had lost all sensation by then except the warmth of my tears on my face. I remember crying for a long time until I heard Asad calling out my name. I quickly got up and headed in his direction. Upon finding him on the grounds close by I untied his hands by pulling on the ropes with my teeth. He pulled his blindfold off immediately freeing me from my bonds. I pulled him in my arms like I was possessed. We did not know what to say to each other. Life! How intricately connected we are to our loved ones and how paralyzed life can be without them. We stood at the roadside under the roof of a sky filled with hundreds of nuclear explosions everywhere among the stars. All we were able to see of those explosions was a ray of light and a miniscule glittering of the star itself. I had no idea of how I can reasonably explain away the entire sequence of events that had occurred since this morning. We were just there, standing, barely clinging to life, disconnected from our past and with nothing more than a void to peer into as our future. I heard a distant sound of an approaching car on the road and stepped onto the road gesturing with both my arms for it to stop.

Apparently, the driver decided to speed up and he would have ran me over had I not jumped out of his way at the last minute. After a while, a truck appeared and I threw myself at its mercy the same way. Eventually, the truck stopped and when I told the driver of that truck the whole story, he generously offered us a ride to his next stop. We arrived there at 2 AM. I found out from some people upon arriving in Tundo Muhammad Khan that an atom bomb had also been dropped at Hyderabad. I was certain that with Hyderabad as close as it was we could not have escaped the radiation from that bomb. My head was spinning with whirlwinds of words from all sorts of statements from political and military leaders. I remembered how there were celebrations on the street after Pakistan’s successful nuclear test. And how the leaders had predicted that we would win a nuclear war within a day and a half. How we would not hesitate from using our nuclear strength to free Kashmir. Can someone now make a gift of Kashmir to the millions who are dead? Perhaps, the life giving, life reviving valley and waters of beautiful Kashmir can resurrect all these dead people.

I was not hungry but hunger was not very selective when it came to choosing its victims. Asad was desperate to eat. Nobody had anything to offer. Nothing was available anywhere. I found a garbage can sitting at a corner of a street. There were some old decaying loaves of bread sitting at the side. I washed them with water and gave them to Asad. He ate a full loaf without any complaints.

Sun was now making its way through the horizon. I looked at it with eyes full of hopeful tears. Millions of miles away, nuclear explosions on the sun provide us with life giving light and warmth, yet if these same explosions come closer and are manifestations of our hatred for each other then they kill everyone and everything in their path. I heard a radio crackling nearby. It was beaming the voice of All India Radio. There were details of what had conspired the day before. According to the news, the Indian Army had crossed the control line to destroy the terrorist training camps that they had cited as schools established by the Pakistan government for the recruitment and training of young zealots who were consequently being sent into Indian controlled Kashmir for terrorist operations. The whole operation was supposed to take four hours. However, before the Indian Army could finish their mission, the Indian government learnt that Pakistan was readying itself for a nuclear attack. As a preemptive measure India tried to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear installations. They were unsuccessful in taking them out fully and Pakistan in retaliation launched nuclear attacks against Delhi and Bombay. All India Radio was reporting the death toll on the Indian side to be more than 8 million with hundreds of thousands injured and missing. I found out later that Pakistan’s central Radio station was now working from Quetta. The story over there was entirely different. Pakistan Radio contended that India crossed the control line and launched a nuclear attack in tandem and not one after the other. India had targeted Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar, and Hyderabad. The Security Council had passed an immediate resolution calling for a cease-fire. Both the stories may appear to have differences but I was sure that the results and consequences were the same on both sides of the border. I was standing next to a major road with Asad thinking about my next step when a Jeep pulled up next to me with some Army personnel in it.

“Are you Salim,” One of them asked.
“Yes,” I replied, making an effort to recognize the officer who had addressed me.
“I am Captain Faraz. We met at a recent wedding,” he said.
I recognized him as soon as he got done saying that. I had long discussions with him, during that and subsequent other gatherings, about what was going on in the military and how nuclearization of South Asia factored into the paradigm of Indo-Pak relations. He had attempted to suppress my fears or atleast tried to allay them by emphasizing how seriously the upper cache of the military officers took this situation. How they have made sure that a situation resembling a nuclear holocaust never comes to pass between the two countries. He informed me that they have planned out all details of all possible scenarios that can occur. I did not have the energy to remind him of those exchanges between us and taking his offered hand I shook it vigorously. I started to tell him about what had happened and before I could realize it I had started sobbing with tears hurrying down my face.
“Can you help me find them, please?” I asked.
He thought for a minute and glanced at his watch.
“How do you think we should start looking for them?” he asked.
“Take me to the place where they stopped us,” I offered, “We will figure out which police station to go to for help from there.”

He took us to the spot. I looked around and could not find any sign of either Maha or Sadia. Faraz offered to take us to the nearest police station and we got back in the Jeep after which it took a side road off the highway on its way to the police station. I was looking out with my arm around Asad. Suddenly I saw something that looked familiar. What I had seen a glimpse of turned out to be a piece of clothing. I jumped out of the Jeep after it had stopped close to the bushes and ran towards them. Yes! A sudden descending milieu filled equally with calm and panic took me over at the time for a brief, very brief moment. I had found them, but where were they? I ran in circles trying to see if any one of the two were close by. A few hundred yards ahead, I saw pieces of coal and what appeared to be charred wood that was still smoldering. I walked up to them, fell on my knees and hung my head with the seeming weight of the entire world of grief upon me. The robbers had burnt their bodies beyond recognition for anyone but me.

The nuclear bomb had not only destroyed the place it struck. It had in fact managed to strew the dead bodies hundreds of miles away from that point. I have nothing left now. Maha and Sadia were my all, my life,… my Kashmir.