I was restlessly knotting and unknotting the sheet. I tried to force my eyes to close, but it didn’t help. The eyes remained wide open, fixed on the ceiling fan. When all my efforts failed, I tip-toed through the hallway to the terrace, sat on the charpai and lit a cigarette.
The night was bright, but quiet. It was one of those humid nights of September when nothing seemed to work, not even the air conditioner. The wind was so non-existent that not even a single leave was moving. The full moon illuminated streets and the dark blue sky was shining with innumerable stars. I could not take my eyes off the moon and continued to puff on Dunhill, wiping the sweat from the face and forehead. I smoked one cigarette after another, felt like a chain smoker but had to stop as it was becoming unbearable to sit out there drenched in sweat.
I went downstairs and knocked on the door of my parent’s room and waited. No one opened the door. I knocked again, harder this time. I was about to knock for the third time when my mother opened the door and looked at me, her eyes widening.
‘Is something wrong? Why are you awake at 4 a.m.?’
‘I can’t sleep.’
‘What is the matter, Ali?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘There must be something bothering you,’ she said as we walked towards the lounge. I lay my head on her lap, and she started brushing my hair with her fingers.
‘Come on, tell me.’
‘I don’t know why I am feeling this way.’
‘I won’t know until you will speak up.’
‘Hmm. I was so ecstatic when I received the visa.’
‘We all were.’
‘I know it was my dream to study in the UK, and I could hardly wait to leave for the University. I didn’t care about anything else.’
‘We were happy too.’
‘But now . . . now I am not feeling the same way anymore.’
‘Don’t worry. You’re just scared. You’re going to a strange land, and it is normal for anyone to feel nervous. You’ll be fine.’ She said, holding on to her tears, but my overwhelmed tears trickled down my face. I hugged her as she tried to wipe them and patted on my back.
‘Now go to sleep. There is a lot of work to finish before your flight in two days’, she said, wiping her tears, stopping them from falling on my face and kissed my forehead.
‘Can I sleep beside you one last time before I leave for London?’ I asked mom as she walked me to my bedroom.
She lay down on the bed. I put my head on her feet and closed my eyes. I cannot tell how all my worries and anxieties vanished as if they were never there like air going out of a balloon. I had never slept like that in days. ‘If one can feel the peace of mind and calmness under the mother’s feet, said to possess heaven, then one can’t even imagine the experience in the heaven above.’
I slept until I felt the feet were no longer beneath my head. I continued to have jitters and the fear of going to an unknown land for a year and a half. I had been away from my parents but was never so far away – thousands of miles.
The day finally arrived when I hugged and said ‘goodbye’ to my parents, brothers, and sister.
‘Eat well and stay healthy. Don’t forget to call when you reach there. God be with you always.’ My mother hugged me; tears flowed from her eyes as she gave me advice and prayers.
‘Son, I hope this fresh beginning will meet a great end. Nothing should stop you from reaching your desired destination.’
‘God willing, I will make you proud, dad.’
‘Put your best efforts brother. We will pray for you.’ Osama said and smiled for the first time in the entire day. He didn’t say anything, but his quietness was his way of showing that he will miss our impulsive dine outs in the middle of the night, heart to heart time and most of all cricket. I wanted to assure him that we have the technology on our hands and he can call me anytime, but inside I knew it wouldn't be the same.
‘I will. I will.’
As I turned around to leave, I heard some people shouting my name. I looked around and saw my friends running towards me, waving and gesturing to stop. I froze there, surprised to see my friends. They had refused to come and see me off when I asked them last night at the farewell party thrown by them. It was a memorable evening; I was forced to stuff in all the sumptuous Lahori food until my stomach refused to take any more.
‘What is stopping you from eating the food tonight? You will not get this taste in the UK’ Ahsan said while stuffing my plate with barbecue ribs and lamb chops.
‘Eat the desi food, after that it will just be fast food,’ said Farhan adding chicken Karachi in my platter. Everyone laughed.
And here they were at the airport to say goodbye.
‘Don’t get overthrown by the goris’ Rafey’s words brought me back from reminiscence I was having on the last night.
‘You guys are lucky to have reached here. A few more seconds and all your efforts would have been in vain’ I reprimanded them. I was not happy, tired of waiting for them.
‘It hardly matters now. How can you even think that we will not come?’ Hamid replied.
‘He is right. But ignore his advice like you’ve never heard it. Make your friends proud. You should have a foreign affair; after all, you’ll be working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs later’ Ahsan said.
‘Ha-ha, I would rather study.’
‘It sounds boring.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘No need to get this serious Ali, but you must think of quitting smoking. The cigarettes are expensive there’ Hamid jumped in the conversation.
‘How many cartons of cigarettes have you packed, two or more?’ Ammar asked.
‘Two. I am not taking any risk, but I do have a few loose packets too. They should last a few months.’
I was talking with my friends when my father reminded me, ‘Hurry up Ali, you’re getting late now.’
‘Ok. Enough, I should leave now,’ I said while hugging Ahsan, Farhan, Hamid, Rafey, and Ammar.
I left the huge room with a view of the stationary, ready to leave airplanes from the glass windows and shops for the last-minute purchases. After waiting for one hour, I boarded the flight for the United Kingdom.
I spent the eight-hour long flight watching an old Indian movie ‘Dil to Pagal Hai,' leafing through magazines, listening to random songs and looking out the window at the scattered clouds. I looked at the clouds excitedly as they formed shapes of mountains, little islands I had seen on maps, an ostrich’s egg, a bow and abstract painting.
The plane landed at Heathrow International Airport after flying in the air space for eight long hours. I grabbed my hand luggage and queued step out of the plane. My shoulders tensed. I took a deep breath, trying to take as much air into my lungs as possible. The air was welcoming, but not as warm as it was in Lahore. I was a foreigner in the land but the air I breathed, the earth I walked, the clouds I saw and the water I just sipped all knew me. They were familiar with me. They’re same across the globe, their temperature and frequency varies but nothing more. They were one of the few things in the universe which have never differentiated between a human based on caste, creed, and religion. They’re uniform in spreading calm and relief. If I have to succeed and make my dream reality, then I had to strive hard and familiarize with this strange land and its people.
I arrived at a big hall to get the entry stamp after reeling through what looked like tunnels and alleys. The room was full of people, numbered in hundreds, queued up waiting for their turn to get a stamp from one of the dozen immigration representatives. There seemed to be no end of the line as it continued to build minute after minute at one of the world’s busiest airports. The people were least bothered about the painfully slow movement of the queue. No one quarreled, no one tried to break the line or a shortcut. Most of the people had either a book or Kindle in their hands, earphones plugged into the phones and iPods’. Everyone seemed to be busy in their world, and I was eagerly waiting for my turn tired of pushing my luggage inch by inch. Finally, after shuffling for three hours, I got the entry stamp on my passport and was ready to step out in a minute.
The midnight was only a few hours away when I got out of the airport looking for a cab. It was not as cold as I thought it would be but the gust of wind made the weather pleasant. Still, it was cooler than Lahore at this time of the year. This shift in temperature prompted me to put on the jacket over the sweatshirt. Prevention is always better than cure. I looked around for a cab and was surprised to see the never seen before, the new age adaptation of the vintage cars. I went up to the cab and asked if he is free to go. The driver asked where I wanted to go, and I gave him the address and postcode received from the landlord. I tried to open the door, but my hand slipped. There was no handle. Puzzled, I looked around thinking it might open automatically. Seeing me struggle the driver first tried to tell me with a gesture, but when it failed, he got off and opened the door for me. I sighed and smiled. After I had sat in the cab, I asked the driver, ‘Why they have so many vintage cars here?’ The cabbie laughed and told me that these are not the old cars, these are the specially made cars known as London Black Cabs.
On the way to the flat, I looked around the streets which were not shining brightly under the street lights but still illuminated. There was not much traffic on the roads, and the few shops I came across on the way were all closed. Had I been out in Lahore at this time, I would have found a few shops open and more people than they were there at the moment. The cab was moving very slowly, I peeked at the speed meter, and it showed ‘40mph’. I asked the driver to speed up as the road was all clear but was shocked to hear that this was the speed limit. The cab driver then stopped at the signal and gave me another realization that I was in London. Not many would have bothered to stop at the signal at this time in Lahore, sad but it’s true.
Most of the houses in the surroundings had two storeys, and they all looked the same. The shape, structure, and outlook were so identical to each other that it was hard to find a difference between them. For someone coming to the city for the very first time, it was all the more difficult. The houses reminded me of some of the new housing societies built in Lahore on the same principle of monotony. Apart from these few societies, each house in Lahore has a different architecture, layout, and design. While I was captivated by the surroundings, the cab driver asked me, ‘Is this the first time you have come to London?’
‘. . . Yes.’
‘Good. You’re from India?’
‘No. I’m from Pakistan.’
‘Ok. What are you here for, job or study?’
‘Well, enjoy your time in London, Sir.’
The cab stopped in front of a house after forty-five minutes. I looked around and asked, ‘Are you sure this is the one?’
‘Yes, Sir. It is the house according to the address and postcode you gave me.’
I took out a £20 and £10 note from the envelope given by the exchange company. I thought £30 was a lot but cab has a meter which kept ticking slowly and fast and left no reason for me to reason with the driver. I got off from the car with my luggage.
It was much easier to reach the house, took me some time to find and negotiate with the landlord. It was not easy to find a room in London while sitting in Lahore. I asked my dad that I will find the room after reaching London, but he was adamant that I should do it before leaving. His point made sense as he didn’t want me to spend money on the hotel bills instead wanted to me keep with me. Courtesy of his logic I had to spend hours and send emails after emails to agents and landlords. Mr. Justin was generous enough to give me a space in his house on the London Road at a reasonable price. His current tenant agreement was finished one day before my arrival, and it suited us both. I now had rented a room on London Road in London. I heart London.
I reached the door and saw two metal numbers saying ‘27’. I searched for the doorbell around the house number. It took me a while to locate the door bell. It was a small white rectangular shape embossed on the side panel of the door with a tiny red bubble on the surface. I pressed the doorbell and waited. A man came out wearing a pajama, t-shirt, and a gown and rubbing his eyes. He looked like around 45 years old, clean shaven with as much hair as was necessary to prove he was not bald.
‘What do you want?’
He was not pleased with me knocking at his door at this time, even though I had told him my arrival date and expected time. But the time I reached was far off from mine and his expectation.
‘I am here to see Mr. Justin Byers.’
‘Who are you?’
‘I am Ali Haider from Pakistan, your new tenant. We spoke on the phone a few days ago.’
‘Oh! Hello, I am Justin Byers.’
‘So you need the flat keys?’
‘What took you this long to arrive?’
‘Well, there was a long queue at the immigration counter.’
‘Is it so?’
‘Yes. The flight landed on time, but there were two or three more flights which landed around the same time.’
‘I see. It’s always like this at this time of the year, the beginning of the study year.’
‘Perhaps that was the case.’
‘Come; let me show you the flat.’
The landlord led me to the flat upstairs. He opened the main door and entered the flat and briefly showed me the room I have already seen in the pictures. To look it in real time was different for obvious reasons. It was a studio apartment with a room, bathroom, and a kitchen. The size of the whole area reminded me of my room in Lahore, and it was labelled as flat on the website.
The apartment looked as if it had not seen a fresh coat of paint in years; white coloured walls and roof had patches, and it looked dusty and dirty. The bedroom was an 8x8 cubicle with a bed, a study table, and a cabinet. I was shocked to see such a small room. Justin showed me the radiator and told me how to operate it to keep the room warm. He then showed me the kitchen. The kitchen was no surprise, but I was not bothered about that as I would not be spending much time there. Knowing my cooking abilities, I was happy with a stove, a table, two chairs, a few cupboards, sink and a fridge. Once the landlord had finished showing me around, I started to look around as if trying to find something.
‘You all right Ali?’
‘I am fine.’
‘Are you looking for something?’
‘Yes. Where is the bathroom?’
‘It is attached to the bedroom.’
‘I didn’t see it.’
‘Come, I’ll show you.’
We entered the room, and Justin opened the door and said to me, ‘this is the bathroom.’
‘What? Is this a bathroom? I mean . . .’
‘What else do think it can be with a basin and back to wall pan?’
‘I thought it was a broom cupboard.’
‘You have an excellent sense of humour, Ali.’
The size of the bathroom was similar to the one I had just seen hours ago in the plane. Even though it was slightly bigger than that as this one had a shower as well, but still it was small for my frame. I stood there wondering how I would manage myself in the bathroom as small as this one, where one could easily brush teeth and shower while sitting on the commode.
‘Good night Ali. I hope you will enjoy your stay.’
‘Good night Mr. Justin.’
Even the Nature wants me to go the other way
The sun was shining bright, and I made a silent wish for the sun to stay out longer than it has been over the past few days. I saw the students going in and coming out of the University and chatting around in the parking area shadowed by the trees on the pavement as I walked past them from the bus stop to the university. Few of them were sitting on the benches in the front of the main entrance. The big ‘Welcome’ sign, hanging just above the doors in blue ink on a white background on the red brick building with exterior white moulded windows, greeted me to the university. There was a slight slope on the top of the three-storey building. Looking at the building, I wondered what relationship the red bricks have with the educational institutions. Almost all of the institutes I have been to in Pakistan had red bricks and now this one too. I entered the building admiring the students moving around in the hallway and the café.
Zigzagging through the bodies, I went towards the John Galsworthy building to attend the orientation session. It didn’t take long to come across the quad about the size of a tennis court on the right side having small trees, benches, and liters. I could see my destination right in front, the big glass building reflecting the sunshine with a few big marble tiles. The shape of the building looked as if someone has given the ‘L’ shape a clockwise rotation. The clamour of voices in the quad was such that it was hard for me to understand a word, looked like everyone was speaking in a language alien to me. Everyone looked occupied with something: smoking, chatting and laughing. I looked at my watch; there was still some time before the start of the orientation, so I peered through the quad for some place to sit and smoke.
The whole quad looked lively with students wearing different colours of jeans, skirts, tights, trousers, shirts, tops, jumper, veil and cloaks. The hairstyles of boys and girls were diverse too from short to long hair, army cut, crew cut, shaved heads, spikes, boy cut, straight, wavy and curly, hair tucked in braids or cord braids and loose with a fringe. I had seen the head shaven picture of Britney Spears and some other celebrities, but it was the first time I saw a girl with a shaven head for real. Watching something and experiencing it are two different things, and if I laughed at seeing the pictures, I was apparently surprised by looking at a bald girl go past me. How can a girl think of looking so un-girly was beyond my perception? The hair colours varied from the natural black, blond and brunette to the artificial red, green and maroon colours. I had never seen so many colours in so little time and one single space, it would have taken me a lifetime to come across so many shades in Lahore. They were all lucky to be in London, in Lahore, I had to wear a cap to save myself from banter when I streaked my hair golden till I re-dyed to black.
I thought, puffing away the cigarette if I had given up on the demands of my mother, I would not have been sitting here looking at all those people around me. I seated in the lounge on the black leather sofa having tea with my parents. They were sitting on the couch on my right hand watching a programme. Father still dressed in the brown colour suit he wore to the office. It was his daily routine to change the clothes only after having tea. I have always seen him sitting in straight posture as he was concerned about contracting backache in this age. Mother was wearing a blue cotton suit with white lining. She was telling my father about the problem she was facing with one of the maids, I was busy thinking a premise. When after a few minutes, they got free, I measured all my words and said, ‘You both know that it has been two years since I have finished my bachelor's and doing the job. I think it is time that I do my masters.’
‘Well, that’s great. So, what are you planning to do and from where?’ Dad asked.
‘Masters in International Relations.’
‘I had that in mind. I am glad you have chosen it by yourself. And from where you want to do it, University of the Punjab?’
‘Then from where?’ Dad asked curiously.
‘I want to do this degree from a university in the UK.’
‘If you want to study abroad, I don’t see a problem with that. Have you found the university yet?’
Before I could reply my mother, who was waiting for a while started to speak.
‘What? Have you gone mad? You have studied here for the whole of your life, so why suddenly you have decided to go abroad.’
‘Because I don’t think there is any other good university offering this degree except for Punjab University. And also…’
‘What do you mean there is no other university? We have LUMS, IBA, and LSE so why don’t you apply there?’
‘They only offer MBA and computer science degrees.’
‘Then do the MBA.’
I looked at my father asking him to intervene, but he signalled ‘I can’t do anything.'
‘Maa ji I don’t want to do MBA, and the experience of studying International Relations in another country would be great. The exposure I will get there will help me in achieving the best in my own country.’
‘You’re talking about going abroad while you hardly move for a glass of water. Do you know how difficult the life is abroad and you’ll have to do all the work by yourself? How will you survive?’ Mum tried to logic my idea.
‘Don’t you think it would be good for him to go and live on his own independently and experience the highs and lows of life? That is why I think he should go abroad, and with the kind of degree he wants to do it will offer him a great exposure.’ Dad finally intervened and mom was not pleased.
‘I was only concerned about my son who is so used to the life of a prince.’
‘You should be proud of him for taking the initiative.’
‘I will be fine, mom’ I assured her to stop mom and dad from arguing and leaving me in the air. Wasn’t I one they should be talking with?
‘Ok.’ She said and shrugged her shoulders.
A burst of laughter disrupted my further recall. I followed the voice and saw a group of five-six students still laughing, but in a lower tone now perhaps realising how loud they were before. The quad has suddenly gone quiet, and I wondered how much time I have spent in the flashback. I kept looking at them before I felt something burning in my hand. I threw the cigarette and tried to go back to the point from where I got disconnected. But after one or two attempts, I gave up and looked at the group again blaming them for ruining the memories of home away from home. Then I found my eyes fixed on one of the girls in the group. Her fair coloured skin was glowing under the sun. Wearing denim jeans, grey top and a black cardigan she looked like a freshly bloomed rose with long brunette hair stroking her midriff and big dreamy eyes.
I continued to look at her as if I would look away she would be gone. She was busy talking to one of her friends and energy seemed to be flowing from her and striking me. She was busy tucking her hair back when another girl in the group noticed and gave me a glare. I looked away, guilty, like I had stolen something. Seconds later, I could not resist staring at her, and this time, I found her looking in my direction. Our eyes met, and I managed a sheepish smile. She turned her head away, making a face.
When I thought about waving a ‘Hi,' I realised that I have an orientation session to attend, and the watch told that me it was about to start. Still, the heart was battling with the mind, arguing. It’s a simple Hi, and it won’t take a long time, but the mind said no, go and do the work you have come here to do. Don’t know when she will look again. I got up and took a step towards the group and then stopped again. By the time, I stopped pondering and decided and set myself in motion, I saw the group walked towards the exit door; even Nature wanted me to go the other way. I watched them go away; there was nothing I could do after wasting all those precious moments contemplating. Perhaps I gave too much away in very little time, and she glanced, gauged and went away. Left me there standing, smiling, savouring the moment and then rushing to attend the orientation session.
The room was already filled with the students and looked like a miniature United Nations. Peering into the room, I could see a few familiar faces of Abhishek, Ismail, Lee, Paul, Taufiq, Charlotte, and Khadeeja. The orientation lasted for only one hour, but I was happy to know how the course would progress. We stayed there for a while, introducing ourselves in person after having known each other through Facebook. Meeting everyone in person was nice. They all had a plan of going to the pub, and when I was asked to go with them, it left me weighing the option and a long silence. I had never been to a pub and felt excited at the thought of experiencing what a pub was like. So, when Lee asked me again, ‘are you coming with us?’ I said ‘yes’ without wasting a second.
I was disappointed to see the ‘no smoking’ sign at the entrance of the pub in Kingston Town Centre. I entered the bar, spellbound by the interior and the lighting. I had never imagined a bar would be this stylish; made of all wood with a dark brownish shade which made the atmosphere gloomy even though there were multicoloured lights and a chandelier in place. The bar was on my right, and I could see bottles of different shapes and sizes filled with white, red and golden coloured liquids. There was a game machine opposite to the bar on which you could play games by putting in coins. The other half of the pub was adjacent to the river Thames. The sunlight on the clear blue water and the shadow of trees in it made the view beautiful. We all sat in the corner to enjoy the view of the activities on the Thames as Khadeeja, and I drank Coke while others beers and wine. We discussed the experience and expectations so far, the feeling of being away from home and the weather in our country of origin.
When I left the pub, the sun was setting. It was one of the most beautiful scenes I have even seen in my life. Watching the sun go down, leaving traces of orange, reds and yellow mixing with the bright blue sky turning it purple before the flames go out, and it gets dark. Even the water of the Thames, which looked clear blue had the shades of trees and goldenness of the sun. I stood there for a while mesmerised and melting in the scene. There were mixed feelings of tranquility, sadness, quietness, happiness and peace in the air.
I went straight to the kitchen when I reached home. I realised I haven’t eaten in a while and went to find something quick; bread, eggs, milk, all good but nothing speedy enough. I needed to eat now, so I strolled down to the nearby Kebab shop. When I got back home I dropped on my tiny bed.
Lying on the bed, still fascinated by the university and its surroundings, I recalled what the tutor had said about the course. The only thing I was apprehensive about was the teaching methodology; all depends on the student’s initiative. It would be a challenge, but I was up for it. Reading a bunch of books and analysing them would not be much of a problem. I experienced a sudden rush of adrenaline while thinking that my university was not very far away from the famous river Thames. The river I had heard about only in the movies, but I got the chance of walking along it, watching the swans and ducks float, flap their feathers and cleanse themselves with their beaks. The walking and watching the boats operating and people rowing on the river was an inexplicable experience. I never had the chance of experiencing the same feeling back in Pakistan even though my hometown Lahore is in Punjab, the land of five rivers. I had stayed all my life there, and the Ravi River was only a few miles away from home, yet I only crossed it either by road or train while going to Islamabad.
While I was graduating from oldest and biggest university of Pakistan, spreading over 1800 acres of lush green landscape with several educational departments and hostels divided by canal, the University of the Punjab I walked alongside the canal. In the summer, I used to sit at the canal with my friends and put our feet in the water to cool off in the hot simmering days eating watermelons and mangoes.
I almost fell asleep thinking about all these when she appeared before my eyes smiling and waving. I got up, switched on the lights, rubbed my eyes and looked around as if it all was for real. But it wasn’t. I held the head in my hands and kept wondering how I have missed this opportunity which I normally wouldn’t. It was one of those rarest moments when such thing had happened and the only one I remembered after a few hours and have gotten up as her face flashed in my mind. Should not have let her go like this in the first place, but there was nothing much I could do now. She was a history now. There was a slight chance of seeing her again with hundreds of students in the university, but I might also see her on the next day – coincidences though quite uncommon but these do happen.
I was smoking outside a corner shop a few yards away from the house. My father was very strict on disciplines and had timings of going and coming back from office. It helped me in scheduling my timings for smoking. The road, on which the store was situated, normally used to go to our house. I was showing my friends the skill of making circles when Hamid shouted, ‘Ali . . . oye your father.’ I laughed, knowing my father’s routine, but when he kept looking at the direction of my house, I turned around and saw his car turning right. My stomach turned, I felt as if someone has sucked out the air from my lungs and I threw the cigarette.
I drank a bottle of coke and ate a supari trying to get rid of the smell. He was sitting in the lounge and holding his head. I said ‘Assalam-o-Alaikum’ and asked is everything alright father as he looked in a bit of pain.
‘Yes. Why do you ask?’ Dad replied.
‘You don’t come home this early, and I just saw you holding your head.’
‘It’s my house, son, I can come whenever I want.’
‘I was just concerned about your health.’
‘It’s just the headache. Otherwise, I am fine.’
‘Shall I massage your head?’
‘No . . . I am fine. Where were you?’
‘. . . I was at the corner shop with my friends.’
He smiled, and I thought he said it all without even saying it. Was it just me who felt like that or he had seen me smoking? But it didn’t look like he saw me otherwise he would have been furious. I took leave and rushed to my room and started flicking through TV channels. I wondered if Hamid was just fooling around, but I did see dad’s car turning towards home. There were chances that he might have just passed through us without seeing me or was just looking in the opposite direction. He said nothing at the dinner table, probably because of my younger brother and sister. I finished my meal and went back to my room.
Later in the night, I heard a knock on my door. I stopped the movie I was watching and said, ‘Come in.’ I quickly got up on the bed seeing my father coming through the door. My bowels tensed. I knew what was coming my way, but somehow, I managed a grin on my face. He’d only ever come to my room on special occasions and tonight was no different. He sat down on the corner of the bed and without wasting a second asked, ‘Do you smoke?’ I was speechless and shocked. I finally got the confirmation that my father had seen me smoking in the afternoon. I was thinking what should I say when he asked again sternly. I said ‘yes.' I could have said no, but it would have been a great embarrassment. My father got up from the bed and moved closer to me, I was ashamed and fearful, ready for a slap or a rebuke from him. But instead he patted on my shoulders and said:
‘Ali, I saw you smoking with your friends in the afternoon, and I am glad that you didn’t lie today. I would not ask you to quit. It is bad for your health, and I am sure you know it very well. You are an adult, so think about it and make your own choice.’ I nodded my head, and he continued. ‘And remember; don’t do anything in life on which you would be ashamed later.’
My father was speaking and I continued to look at him in amazement. I had never imagined that he would react in this manner. But what I didn’t understand was the last few words he said. They looked out of place and a reaction to what could have been a random thought at the very moment. While I was repeating it in my head, it started to make sense. These might have been said in a rush, but it was a good piece of advice.
This was the only advice of my father which I remembered forever, not out of choice but it somehow got stamped in my heart and mind. So much that I could not go beyond a certain limit, even if I wanted to. It continued to haunt me. I didn’t stop smoking, but never went beyond that, fearing if my dad ever asked again, I would not be able to lie. This thought saved me, sometimes it was quite frustrating. I really hoped I could overcome and overpower this thought even if it be for a day or a few hours. It never happened. There were times when I got perilously close to breaking the unbreakable, but ended up closing the door before anything sneaked in. Was it conscious move or a subconscious or it was just the force and power of the words I never really understood? All I knew was that it had ruined what could have been the most exciting moments and left me holding and scratching my head.
When coming to another country, everyone talks about the cultural shock they must deal with but hardly speak of the other things. I was told the same about the cultural surprise, but my mother was the only person who made me aware of what the real shock will be for me. However, instead of giving me training, she ended up pampering me more and more. I wanted to learn, but every time I showed intent, I was told to enjoy the time before leaving for the UK.
The next morning I opened my luggage and saw the utensils my mother had packed – the plates, spoons, forks, butter knives, saucepan and frying pan. Then there was a packet full of biryani, korma, nihari, haleem and tikka masalas. After all the pampering, she thought that I would cook. Looking at the masalas, I kept thinking what made her pack the nihari, haleem and tikka masalas. All of these things reminded me once again that I was on my own. I will be the one doing all the chores, and there will be no maid around here to get the things done. Welcome to the independent life. I put the utensils, and the masalas in the kitchen and then quickly came out as if I stayed there any longer I would be dragged to cook.
The next few days I had my breakfast, lunch, and dinner from the café, restaurants and kebab shops. I had tasted the food of every shop offering halal food only to realise that the taste was way different from Lahore. That was expected, just like the taste of the same food cooked by various persons cannot be the same, the taste of two different countries and cities can never be the same. Even then they all proudly added Lahori as a prefix to the shop name as well as the dishes in the menu. After tasting them all, I figured out they were more Londonish than Lahori. When I ordered chicken karahi for the first time, I was expecting it to be served in a karahi in the proper Lahori style, but I was shocked to see the karahi of the size of a bowl. I asked the waiter about the size of the karahi, and he politely said, ‘Sir, this is the size of karahi in London.’
After experimenting food from all the places, I possibly could, the very few options available for halal food, and spending most of the budget for the month, I was left with no choice but to pay a red carpet visit to the kitchen. Knowing my father, I could not ask for more money after two weeks. He would never transfer money before the start of next month and would be mad at me for not planning my budget. Having all these things in mind, I went to do grocery from the Sainsbury’s. Looking around all the vegetables and frozen food (which I would have bought had it been halal), I only bought eggs, bread, milk, teabags, jam, butter, chocolate spread, cheese, some fruit, and juices. The shopping list was brief, but it took me a lot of time to purchase these items. The brands were different from the ones I knew, and there was one complete section for cheese only, the kind of variety I had never seen before. I managed to make a selection with the help of sales assistant. Moving towards the cash counter, I remembered to buy the washing powder to do the laundry. If buying cheese was difficult, buying washing powder was impossible. I only knew about the washing powder, but at the store, there were not only powder but gel and tablets. I once again got confused seeing all these varieties and the price as well. I bought the washing powder with the lowest price and came back home after a two-hour shopping marathon.
I reached home and filled the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets. Then I started pondering what I should make. I didn't know how to cook, so the choices were limited. I had bought eggs, knowing that might be simple, but I hardly knew how to cook them. I decided to try anyway. I remembered a little about shaping an omelette, or I could go simpler and scramble or just fry it. I struck the egg on the side of the pan and tossed it into the oil I had poured. It sizzled and bubbled, and I watched pretending to know what to do next. I felt the need to flip it on its other side until it seemed done enough for me. I put it on the plate, and I was very proud, so much that I forgot to season it. It didn't matter. I felt like a master chef and took a picture to post on my Facebook profile. Next, I wanted tea, and I was confident that now I can handle it. With some unskilled effort of boiling water in a kettle and putting a tea bag in the cup, I managed to make one. It was not the best cup of tea ever made, but still, I felt the sense of accomplishment. This marked the beginning of my undying love for cooking.
The next thing I wanted to score in was laundry, which I had procrastinated for some time. (I was lucky to be in London. where the weather was between tropical and cold otherwise I would not have survived this long without washing the clothes.) I took the pile of clothes and walked down the street. How can you not have a washing machine in the house and charge this much rent? I thought, but I didn’t dare ask the question from the landlord. When I asked about the washing machine, he just guided me to the laundrette and told me how much it will cost. If I was not scared of thrown away from the house, I would have deducted the money from the rent. The laundrette, as they call it, which apparently was not that far. I took a right turn and then walked for a few meters and then right again and walked till I too a left turn and saw my destination. While travelling everyone, I saw looked busy in doing something whether drinking coffee, talking on the phone, listening to music or hugging and kissing on the street (they call it freedom of expression – feeling - PDA). I found it interesting that you can kiss just about anywhere in England, but you cannot pee in public, perhaps because it is not freedom of expression but the freedom to release pressure. Based on what I have seen during my short stay in London so far, I can say, with the help of some exaggeration (for comparison only), that the number of people peeing in public in Lahore is equally proportional to the number of people kissing in public in London.
There were five machines on each side of the laundry room. There was a counter right at the entrance. The rates were displayed on the window £2 was washing and £0.50 for 7 minutes of drying. Before coming to London, I never knew the importance of the coins. I didn’t even bother keeping them. But every penny counts here. The washing machine was entirely different from the one that I had seen. On my left side were the dryers looking like a gateway to the cave. Two machines were busy, but no one was guarding them. One person was putting his clothes in the machine, and I started squashing all my clothes in the next one. I was looking for a place to put the soap when the guy with a pinched face wearing a pyjama, t-shirt, and jacket showed me the box on top of the machine. Looking at me, he must have guessed what a pro I was so he came forward to give some tips. One of them was to set the program to pre-wash with hot water and not with warm. I reluctantly did what was told. I didn’t want to ask him to show what a fool I was. As coin went in, the machine began to growl with a sound of water splashing from the box. The timer showed 60-minutes, and I stayed there watching with profound interest the rare sight of my clothes spinning anti-clockwise.
When the washing was done, I put the clothes in the tumble dryer and set the temperature to maximum. It started rolling after eating up £1 coin. The same long-limbed guy told me that if I want my clothes to be dry, then I should give them at least 30 minutes of heating. It took me more than an hour and a half to finish the laundry costing £3, and if I were to convert this in Pakistani rupees which I usually do, it comes around to roughly Rs. 450 - the amount enough to hire a maid to do this service for a whole month.
It was a Friday night and I was relaxing in the home. It was one of those nights when I didn’t feel the energy and kick to go out. I had a bad day at the office, unnecessary pushing and the argument from the manager. Sometimes they act in such an unreasonable way; they would sit on one thing for ages but want the work to be done before they finish instructions. And if you can surpass that then there is nothing better. But if you tell them that it will take more time than they expect it to be done or due to some reason it took long then it is termed as a lame excuse and you are labelled lazy and irresponsible. Reasonability just doesn’t seem to exist in their head, and the same happened with me. And this time, I had an argument and got pissed off to the extent of spoiling my day. Interestingly only yesterday he was praising my guts and work ethics, but today he decided to beat the chameleons.
It was hard for to deal with this abrupt change in the climate so much that I was still hung over it and home bound. I didn’t attend the calls of Ammar and Rafey knowing they won’t listen to my excuses ‘I don’t want to go out tonight' and would drag me out. I put my phone on silent mode and was aimlessly flicking through television channels when Ammar and Rafey entered the room fuming.
‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ asked Ammar.
‘Err . . . nothing.’
‘Don’t give us this shit. You look like as if someone is dead and you’re mourning.’ Rafey said, pointing out the dim light in the room and my dishevelled look. ‘And you’re not even answering our calls and text messages?’
‘I am having an off day.’
‘It is pretty obvious. But what has happened? Uncle and Aunty have said something or you once gain had a fight with Ayesha.’ Ammar asked again.
‘No. It is because of my smidgen nose boss who continues to be a jerk.’
‘Oh! This, is it? If he would not act like that, then people won’t think he is the boss’ Rafay told me the obvious.
‘Stop over-reacting and get ready’ It was Ammar’s turn to boss around.
‘Overreacting? This is all you guys must say. Thank you. I am not going anywhere.’
‘Stop being stupid. This is not the first and last time it has happened. This is standard for the job and if you don’t want to face it, quit.’
‘Quit. Yeah after all the painful efforts I made to get this job.’
‘Then stop being an ass and change.’
‘I know. Do I have any other option? But where are we going.’
‘Good. Well, it’s a surprise. We are waiting in the car.’
Surprise? What it could be? Were they serious or just said it to change my mood? This one word had transformed my attitude from sombre to jovial. I was no more pissed at my manager, but was busy thinking what the surprise could be. What one word could do, I never imagined. What power this one word had that it made me get up and dress up to go out which moments ago I dreaded, but this one word got me going. It was also the power of the word ‘inefficient,' ‘lazy’ and ‘irresponsible’ hearing which I got depressed.
The only possible thing came to my mind was that there must be some new restaurant which has recently opened, and we were going to try it. I left my room and told my parents who were sitting in the lounge that I was going out with Ammar and Rafey and expect me to be late. I took the keys on my way out and sat on the back seat of the car.
‘What took you this long to get ready? We are not going to some wedding or see a girl for you.’ Rafey asked.
‘You didn’t tell me; otherwise, I would have dressed better than this.’
‘Then you would have taken as much time as a bride does. Thank God we didn’t tell you anything.’
‘Shut up and start driving.’
Poking fun at each other, we reached defence housing society. I still had the restaurant in my mind while we were turning left and right before stopping in front of a big house. There were a lot of cars outside the house and a lot of plants as well. My assumption of the surprise being a restaurant proved wrong as this house looked anything but that. I asked Rafey once again where are we going and what is the surprise. But he didn’t tell me nothing and just said, ‘Shehzadey relax, why are you so anxious? You will know soon. Come let us go inside.’ Even his words were not enough to ease of the churning which continued to increase with every step I took.
As we entered the house passing through the driveway, I heard the ear-splitting noise coming from the basement we were about to enter. No one seemed to be at home as the lights were off. The basement had a room and hall good enough to accommodate 150 people comfortably. The fully carpeted room had a seat placed in the corner, and there were cushions as well if you want to sit down. There was pod lights and sequencer to give the disco effect and a DJ as well who was playing the music. It was a house party hosted by Rafey’s friend Waheed, and I was really excited to see all the settings. As I moved further, I encountered a gush of smoke carrying an entirely different smell, unlike tobacco. I thought it must be of sheesha (hookah) and settled down after shaking hands with everyone Rafey introduced me to. There was not a single girl in the room, and I thought what a surprise, a dance party without girls? When the DJ played a traditional Punjabi number, we all got up to shake our booties and flex the hands and legs left, right, up, down. We continued to dance song after song till we all plummeted on the floor panting and catching our breaths.
Snacks were served and we pounced on them after all the dancing. I was shocked to see some of the people emptying the cigarette and then refilling it by mixing the tobacco. The smell of these cigarettes was causing irritation in my nose and going straight to my head. I coughed and realized they were smoking some other substance mixed with tobacco. Rafey asked me to have a drag, but I refused remembering my promise to stay away from all other things except cigarettes. It was around midnight, and I thought we would leave for home soon as everyone was in the different zone. Just then three girls entered the room dressed in a way neither showing nor hiding their body parts. I was stunned to see this and started to wheeze. I puffed in and out in haste and just wanted to leave. It didn’t feel nice to me to just sit there doing nothing but see these girls dance. Had they not been brought for this purpose of entertaining all the boys in the room with their moves and shakes I would not have felt sorry. And then I saw people bringing bottles of cokes and some other glass bottles with different coloured liquids, cans of beers and some fruit juices. The dance party was about to turn into a drinking one, my heart started to throb so loudly that I could hear the sound even in this noise. My stomach churned, and shoulder got tensed. I asked Rafey and Ammar, ‘This was the surprise you guys wanted to give me. Well, you guys have actually given me a shock.’
‘Enjoy my dear and have some beer,’ Rafey said offering a can of beer.
I pushed his hands away.
‘Relax Ali. You are in shock, drink it later.’
I said nothing and sat down in one corner. The girls started to dance without any energy just jumping here and there, moving their heads and assets. The music was going right, and they were going left not concerned about the rhythm, and all the attention was to please the men in the room, busy in drinking, with their moves. I saw everyone was doing all sort of things which they were not doing before drinking. It was quite a revelation for me to see what happens after consuming alcohol. I had heard about intoxication, but this was the first time I was seeing people under the influence, and I failed to understand how it happens. Quite an intriguing sight it was. I had never seen Rafey and Ammar in this state before, and even after knowing them for years I had no knowledge of their drinking, maybe they have just started. It was similar yet very different from my father finding out about my smoking habit. I was crushed.
I wanted to go back home on the cab as it was getting impossible for me to see the madness, but at the same time was concerned about Rafey and Ammar. They were fondling, touching and making the girls sit on their laps and caress them. In a sober state, they would not do such a thing, especially Rafey who was could not even dare to talk with girls. I left the room. I was not expecting this at least from my friends. They all were mistreating and taking advantage of the girls possibly pressed by their circumstances. But what I really wanted to know was how people get intoxicated by alcohol and why they do things in that state which they normally would not. This condition of the people also turned out to be my saviour. Otherwise, I had made up my mind to taste. Thank God I didn’t.
I sat upstairs for some time, then went back to the basement. I cannot let my friends be a part of this injustice. It was unfair on my part to leave my friends doing what I personally don’t like and the thing they might be ashamed of later. I dragged them to the car with enormous difficulty. I started to think whether I should drop them to their houses or take them to mine. I didn’t know the situation in their homes, and how their families will respond to it and I didn’t want trouble for them, so I brought them to my house.