By Sonya Rehman
“Life is so unexpected and spontaneous here” I wrote to my mother in an email the other day, “In Lahore, there was a comfort in planning/dreaming ahead…but by the same token, there is a comfort in knowing that the days, weeks and months ahead will lack uniformity.”
Pry yourself out of that bubble, that comfort zone, and you will fast gain perspective on what you’d like your little sphere of life to represent till the end of your days.
In the present, in New York, on quieter days as it rains gently, memories of Lahore roll out like a filmstrip of sepia-toned visuals. Choppy clips, without sound. The other day, I heard the sound of an ice cream van playing a soft jingle in the distance. It took me back to my babyhood and how my heart would race at the sound of the ice cream-wallah cycling down the street near my house. How quickly the years flee by. It was only then that I’d realized how short life is. How intensely short. The realization hit me deeply and it made me think that my unborn children will, one day like me, race towards the gate for an ice lolly on a warm, sunny day – without a care in the world. And then years down the line the realization will hit them too…thus, the cycle will continue. Spinning in continuous motion, without suspension.
Apart from gaining an education here, I see myself gaining life experience too. On a daily basis. In the beginning the subways terrified me – and that was just one of many things mind you. New York, to me, represented a futuristic hodgepodge of shallowness and depth – much like Lahore.
I’m taking it all in: the loud roar of the trains, and the way they come screeching to a halt at the subway stations, the wizened, old people – how they hobble down the street with walking sticks…fragile, like paper dolls. Couples, holding hands. Stripped of inhibitions. A little poodle in a sweater sniffs a frothy puddle as her owner tugs the leash gently to move the puffball away from the muck. A woman with beautiful hips sways, her fingers lightly tapping her headphones, she is smiling, making her way to work. The orderliness of life; the subway passes, the credit cards, the debit cards, swiping cards, shopping, clothes, food, swipe your card some more, the immigrants and the rings under their eyes, the way they hold onto their culture fiercely, their wild-eyedness…The way of life here represents a mechanical orderliness which, on pensive days, makes me miss the loop-holes of the system back home. The rustic disorderliness. My Eastern heart, I oft realize is usually in over-drive; romanticizing her soil, her people. But, absence always makes the heart grow fonder.
In New York, there is music and spontaneity everywhere; turn the corner and you will find yourself in the midst of a street fair, walk down the stairs into a subway station and you’ll wind up hearing the most moving notes of music being played by a saxophonist in the corner somewhere.
I recently went with a friend to watch the live screening of ‘Madam Butterfly’ at the Lincoln Center. I’d always had an aversion to Opera, but watching ‘Madam Butterfly’ on a massive projector in the outdoors with scores of New Yorkers – I was touched. It was a magnificent, gripping production.
It’s true – when you’re living in another country on your own, your likes and dislikes continuously change because everything is new, foreign, and different.
Over Eid this year, I thought I’d be stuck in my room studying but wonderfully enough, I found myself tucking into home-cooked Pakistani food (such bliss!) with a bunch of engaging, young people. Afterwards, we walked down to Central Park and played kho-kho – running about in the sun, all of us twenty-somethings. I felt rather silly initially as I’d worn a traditional shalwar kameez and khussas, but off they came (only the khussas!) and I ran about on the grass like a self-confessed nutter, bare-footed in merriment.
In September, I found myself at the UN General Assembly at a ‘Concert for Pakistan’ which was held to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan. It was put together by well-known musician, Salman Ahmad – who continues to give performances under the banner of ‘Junoon’. Why, I do not know – considering the fact that it has been yonks ever since Junoon disbanded and each musician went his separate way.
Still, the concert was pretty good – with performances by Gavin Rossdale, the band ‘Outlandish’ along with others. Nobel Laureate, Dr.R.K.Pichauri, Jeff Skoll, Bobby Sager and a host of other personalities and advocates gave speeches as well. The General Assembly was packed with Pakistanis. At one point the friend I was with sardonically stated: “This is what’s wrong with Pakistan.” Asking him what he meant he went on to explain that most Pakistanis make lives for themselves here, in the West, rather than go back to their homeland and contribute to the society. This, he’d elaborated, owed to the major brain drain back home. Whether he was right or not, his comments left a rather bitter taste in my mouth.
But onto happier things, I got to see U2 in the flesh this October at the Giant’s Stadium in New Jersey. Shelling out a hundred dollars for the ticket, I’d decided I could go hungry for a few days rather than miss seeing Bono sing ‘One’ live. What fantastic performers the band members of U2 are, they truly had the stadium – jam-packed with people – riveted. The highlight of the evening was not only Bono singing ‘One’, but ‘Stuck in a moment’ being performed as it drizzled. At one point, my eyes welled up. It made the traumatic experience of having a tipsy beefcake (who was belching and yelling in my ear) in the crammed train all the way to the stadium worth it.
Every morning, the smell of fresh pizza wafts out of a popular pizza joint as I make my way to class hurriedly. On a 113th and Broadway, I have just a few more blocks to go before the gates of my university are within view.
Winter is elbowing her way in speedily. My hands are cold. I need woolly gloves. The months are condensing. I must make the most of this, I tell myself often.
I feel like a different person. I am too, stripped of my old identity…but I hold onto my core and what defines me fiercely. Can’t wait to be home.
The Friday Times