have been away. And I don't mean simply that I have been
away to another place, which I have, for I have been away
to Egypt. No, I have been away to another time. And again,
I don't mean it in the sense of visiting an ancient land
where time has clipped wings.
will, of course, write about such a place and such a state
of timelessness in my forthcoming articles about my revisiting
Egypt, a country where time goes further back than the hieroglyphics
of recorded memory, digs deeper than the pillars in the
hot sands, and stands stiller than the air inside Tutankhamun's
tomb. But there is yet another place and another dimension,
more ancient and timeless than any earthly place a tourist
can visit, and I was sucked into such a black hole these
last few weeks, which has kept me away from my present.
place is childhood and the dimension is a period of the
past that I had thought was lost forever and which was suddenly
restored to me the other day as if an amnesiac had recovered
a numbed portion of her memory. I have been inside a personal
time warp, which has temporarily distorted my sense of reality,
put my present writer-self into remission. For a while,
I am lost in the late 60's and am just a schoolgirl.
people undergo this when they suddenly come upon some forgotten
aspect of their past life: a book, a diary, a photograph,
an old acquaintance, an old place, a snatch of forgotten
melody. In my case it was a voice from my childhood.
story itself is not remarkable, but what is relevant to
this article are the effect and resonance the distant past
has triggered on my present, making me reassess what my
journey of life so far may have been about. I'm asking myself
if this was a voyage through time or space or both or neither?
Does the mere passage of time and the events of our personal
history transform us or is transformation caused by emotional
experiences? Are physical or circumstantial change real
or merely an illusion? Can we see inner change? Does time
make of us totally new individuals distinct from the one
who started out or are we layered around an old core? Is
the present truer because it seems more 'real', being more
immediate and palpable than the past? And therefore, is
the past, because it rests on the shifting sands of faulty
memories backed with faded photos, illegible letters and
evidence of unreliable witnesses, a pack of lies, a story
we tell ourselves, and which changes at each telling?
are those people that we were years ago, peeking at us from
photo albums or through other people's memories of us? Are
we still those familiar looking strangers or are we wholly
new people? Is this writer she who now sits confidently
at the keyboard or is she also the unsure but precocious
girl whose poems printed regularly in the Young Observer's
League of The Pakistan Observer now make me squirm. I can't
remember being her but I know I grew out of her. And this
girl arrived the other day along with that voice from the
past. What do I do with her? It's like an illegitimate child
seeking admittance into my cosy present day family. But
in her luggage she has brought along my long-lost friend.
my last years of school in Pakistan I had a 'best friend'
in those youthful times when such terms were an important
part of school life. Zahra and I were each other's 'till
death-do-us-part' soul mates. The verandahs of the Quetta
Public School surrounded by the snow-topped Chiltan Mountains
must ring even today with our footsteps as we strolled arm
in arm chatting and giggling the recess hours away. The
conversations continued on the phone after school; what
on earth did we talk about?
father was in the army and mine was in the Military Lands
and Cantonment Services. My family came away to East Pakistan
in 1970. By the time Bangladesh was born, I had lost touch
with my best friend, and could not reconnect. By 1973, I
was swept into another life and another world by the man
who became my 'best friend' for life. For years I longed
for Zahra who represented for me a lost world of innocence,
a personal one and a political one when we didn't know that
what we naively thought was the same country would tear
apart at the seams. She belonged to the pristine world of
girls dreaming of entering life. Now that I had entered
mine I yearned to share my new world with her and find out
where destiny had taken her life.
the present overshadowed the past and I put away her memories
like an unfinished book, and soon the book was forgotten
on some shelf of memory. Three decades passed. A few weeks
ago, the phone rang. "Hullo?" I said distractedly,
quite sure it was for one of my visiting sons. "Neeman?"
"Yes?" I was wary, my brows knitted. "Pehchana
mujhey? Can you guess who this is?" "No."
I was abrupt; I hate guessing games on the phone. The voice
revealed simply: "Zahra." I sat down, I stood
up; I started to laugh, I started to cry, all the while
screaming "Zahra? Zahra! Is that you? You!" The
clock spun from 2004 back to 1968 and then came to a standstill.
Two schoolgirls, one Bengali speaking in Italy, the other
Urdu speaking in Canada embraced each other with their voices.
We clung the next hour in hysterical non-conversation, asking
each other variations of the basic question: "Where
the hell were you ALL my life?"
night I wrote her an email, funny and sad, about two little
Rip Van Winkles who had fallen asleep and woken to find
that they had become middle aged women! We had gone eagerly
to the film show of our lives and just as the credits were
rolling we had dozed off to wake up and find that half the
film was over! Now how to rewind the reel and update each
other? What happened to me while you slept? Oh! Nothing
much, just my whole life passed---- from a teenager I blossomed
into a woman and now I am retired from being a daughter,
a daughter-in-law, a full time mother, and even if the script
of being a mother-in-law and grandmother (in the distant
future) is in the offing, I am back to the start of the
journey, dreaming again of life, but this time as MYSELF
not as roles. Aur tum sunao? What's new with you?
The banality of re-acquaintanceship and reducing ones entire
life into an email had me in laughter and tears! How to
compress your whole life with all its joys and sorrows for
a quick re-cap for your best friend? Inadvertently, she
caused me to cast an editorial eye on my life's manuscript,
judge the irrelevant from the relevant and attempt to sum
up my life in a few words. The exercise proved a valuable
learning and humbling experience: my first draft was two
by regular question and answer sessions on the email, supplemented
with weekly phone calls, we may be able to catch up on the
irrelevancies of a lifetime! And till we finally see each
other, we will buffer the visual shock with photographs,
know we have changed, and I don't mean physically. But I
believe in a still, timeless core, and we are presently
feeding our friendship from this essential source till we
rehabilitate each other into our present lives and new selves.
And not just each other; we are also bringing home our own
WEEK: Moon Over Luxor
(R) thedailystar.net 2004