(For additional articles written by me please visit my blog on http://www.readitlive.com )
I have met many people in my life, but I’ve met no one like Sitara.
That spring of 2001, I was one of the last passengers to get off flight PK 724. The rush had mostly cleared off the airport. Dragging the luggage behind me, I pushed my glasses up my nose and strained my eyes. I’d never actually been to my parents’ homeland before but I’d seen enough pictures of my Pakistani family to recognize her, standing by the railing, looking directly at me and smiling.
Fariha and Altaf Hamid had decided to migrate to the US back in the 1970’s, when everyone was leaving Pakistan in search of better opportunities. Starting as modest clinical psychiatrists in a community hospital in Saint Louis, Missouri, they now owned the best psychiatric hospital in town. And I was their son, their only child.
Once in the US, my parents had gotten stuck in the mechanical life, like bearings in a machine. They worked hard at their careers, built a home, had a child and opened a hospital. They just never had time, a reason or even family to come back to. My father was the only child and my mother had one sister, whose daughter was now waiting for me beyond the glass doors of the arrival hall. Even though I was born and raised in America, ‘The Promised Land’ where people have it all, I had always felt like there was something missing in my life. I’d never been able to put my finger on it, and that was exactly why I had flown 16 hours that day.
“I’m a star. You?” were Sitara’s first words as she greeted me, smiling mischievously, showing a perfect set of white teeth.
“I’m a fan,” I said, half amazed, half confused, not really sure how to answer that. That was not the kind of greeting I had expected from a Pakistani girl.
Once on the streets of Lahore, I could not believe what I saw; wide four-laned roads with a river of cars flowing from one side to the other, huge billboards displaying all kinds of consumer accessories and buildings that weren’t exactly skyscrapers, but certainly had more than two or three floors.
“I thought America had billboards, too,” Sitara said, probably noticing me gawking out of the window with a slightly opened mouth, which I closed immediately, realizing I must have been looking like a fool.
“Yeah, of course, America has billboards. I just didn’t know Pakistan did, too,” I said, momentarily taking my eyes off the road and looking at her. “Where are the donkeys?”
“The Donkeys?” she inquired, as if wanting the name of a specific one, so that she could provide me with an address and phone number.
“Yeah, mom told me there are donkeys and horses with carts strapped to their backs out on the streets. I was really looking forward to meeting them!” I explained.
Sitara chuckled childishly and said, “At this time of the night, they’re probably sleeping. Poor souls don’t have the cable or internet to keep ‘em up.”
“I have a feeling you were expecting a twenty years younger version of Pakistan,” she added after a slight pause.
“Yeah, that’s what mom told me,” I said sheepishly, slightly ashamed of my lack of knowledge of the world outside the US.
“Well boy, you’re in for some surprises!” she said and stepped on the accelerator, hitting 100 km/h on the wide, street-lit road.
The twenty minute drive from the airport to Khala Jee’s place was all the time Sitara needed to find her comfort zone with me. Shy at first, not knowing what to say to a Pakistani girl who was so different from my expectations, I soon relaxed as she told me how different I was from what she had pictured. Apparently, I had to have multi-colored hair, a tattoo on my shoulder and pants torn at the knees to qualify as an ABCD (American Born Confused Desi.)
“Hello, meet Kitty,” she said, introducing me to my first family and home in Pakistan, “She’s my cat. She’ll be in charge of cleaning your bones. No no, not your bones, the bones of the chicks and goats you eat, once you’re done with them that is, or maybe before that, too. Sometimes she tends to jump on the table and insists on eating with us. Here, meet Sara, she’s fourteen and without a doubt the proudest nerd of the world. She feels honoured to tell everyone her glasses are a centimeter thick! And here’s Saad, he’s ten and very shy. Saad, say Salam to Waqas Bhai, he has chocolates in his bag and for God’s sakes stop hiding behind me!”
In the next room, I greeted Khaloo and Khala Jee, who were extremely delighted to hear me calling them Khaloo and Khala instead of Aunty and Uncle. My mother had always taught me to call my relations by their Urdu names. Khala Jee was an exceptionally beautiful woman, sharing my mother’s sharp features, only more chiseled and refined. In comparison, I thought Khaloo Jee was like any other Pakistani man, average built, wheatish complexion and graying hair. Their kids had inherited their father’s complexion with their mother’s features, making the most harmonious balance between genes that I’d ever seen.
The one month I spent in that ‘Land of the Pure’ seems one short day now, it passed so quickly. Yet I can remember each day because it was so different from the previous one. My host family left no stone unturned to make me feel at home and an important part of their family. I, in turn, did my best to help them by trying not to have diarrhea.
Sitara and I were the same age; she was actually two months older. After having graduated from college in the summer, she was taking a year off before starting university. When Khaloo and Khala Jee went to work every day and the kids to school, Sitara and I were left at home to make plans for ourselves. And every day was an adventure with her.
Sometimes we would spend the whole day cooking, mixing Sitara’s Pakistani culinary skills with the simple American cuisines I’d learnt at college, to come up with food like Pizza-handi or Macaroni and cheese biryani. Neither of us was good at it, but we had a hell of a lot of fun passing our inventions around the table at night, sometimes stifling our laughter when Khala Jee said things like, “You two should open a restaurant!” Little did she know that the masterpiece she was appreciating had been burnt three times and started from scratch again!
After a day of all the girly work, as a joke, Sitara and I would play PlayStation in the evening. I would beat her at Tekken3 and feel like a boy again.
When we went shopping, we would park the car in the parking lot and walk around the whole area. I was very fond of walking; it gave me more time to observe the things around me. Sitara on the other hand, hated it and got tired quickly, which gave us an excuse to sit at random places with a snack and have people stare at us. I guess sitting on the sidewalk, on the stairs outside a shop or the bonnet of the car wasn’t much appreciated. Sitara once dared me to talk to a shopkeeper in Urdu and ask him if I could use the washroom. What I said roughly translated to “You should go to the washroom.” I was furious at his reaction, until Sitara dragged me out of the shop, barely audible through her fit of laughter and explained to me my horrendous misuse of ‘aap’ (you) in place of ‘mein’ (me).
On weekends, we’d visit the historic places in Lahore. We’d pack a picnic basket and dine in the huge gardens of The Lahore Fort or The Shahi Qila. Sometimes Khaloo and Khala would tell us stories, how they used to come to these places very often as kids because there was no other form of entertainment. There were stories about Khala Jee losing her way once in The Badshahi Masjid and crying for hours before my mom found her, and about Khaloo being offered a candy at The Shalimar Gardens, which he had learnt as a baby not to accept from strangers. And then there were stories that Sitara told me, that I’m pretty sure had nothing to do with reality. “See those vents there?” she said, pointing at the small, barred, window-like openings at the base of the walls of Emperor Jahangir’s Tomb. “Those are dungeons that were used for prisoners. I once came here on a school trip and they opened this small trapdoor for us students to visit underground. They say Jahangir’s wife, Noor Jehan, is buried there and the place is haunted by her spirit. It smelt so strongly of roses down there it wasn’t even funny!”
Living amongst Khala Jee’s family, I soon found out that they, like any other family, were not without problems. What I admired about them was their optimism, their effort to enjoy every single day and not let their worries show. A middle class family struggling to meet its expenses in an inflation stricken economy, Khaloo Jee had taken loans to finance Sitara’s education, which he had no means to pay back. Khala Jee had been a heart patient ever since she’d lost her two year old, Adil, six years ago. I gradually noticed that Sitara was the one who kept them all up. She’d bake a cake to cheer up Sara for getting an A minus on her Math test instead of an A plus. She’d play video games with Saad and teach him how to spell words like ‘multitudinous’ or ’synthesized.’ She’d resolve differences between her parents whenever needed. Suffice it to say, she was the lifeline of that family.
Khaloo and Khala Jee were mostly busy with their jobs but whenever we got time Khaloo Jee would explain to me the economics of Pakistan. The huge influx of money, rapid development, lower interest rates, increasing job opportunities, and right when I’d conclude that all these things were good, he’d delve into the details of how all of it was hyper-inflating the economy. It was small wonder he was a banker. Khala Jee had more to ask than tell. Not having seen her sister in over twenty years, I know she missed her a lot. All she talked about was mom, stories of herself and mom as kids and our lives in the US. Sara, really was the most ardent nerd I’d ever come across. I seldom saw her around the house as she would confine herself to her room behind a fort of books. I’m not even sure if she slept at night because I never found the light in her room switched off. Maybe she kept it on in case of a sudden wake-up-and-study nerd revelation in the middle of the night. The few times I got a chance to talk to her, we discussed Math, education systems in Pakistan and America, and places she could apply to for a PhD. No matter how much I tried, we never tread out of the realm of studies. Saad, who eventually shed his robe of shyness, turned out to be a very friendly kid. I sometimes made small talk with him but I had a feeling he was more interested in my ipod, my cell phone, my digital camera and wristwatch, than he was in me as a person.
But no matter how interesting the days were, what I would never forget about Pakistan were the nights. My second night in the country, Sitara took me to the rooftop where she had two easy chairs, a table in between with a stereo and journal on it. It looked like a place she regularly visited.
“Do you see those stars over there?” she said, pointing towards a cluster in the sky.
“Yeah,” I replied, looking in that direction.
“Can you see how they look like an arrow?” she asked.
“Errr…” I took my time trying to make out the arrow she was talking about, but I could see the stars making no shape whatsoever. “No, they just look like regular stars to me,” I replied, feeling stupid and sorry that I couldn’t see what she was trying to show me.
“Of course they are regular stars, silly!” she said and traced her hand across the sky, showing me how that regular cluster of stars looked like an arrow.
Thus began our long nights.
“I think I’m one of them,” Sitara began to explain, but seeing the confused expression on my face she added, “Sitara means ’star’ in Urdu.”
“Oh, so that’s what you meant at the airport! I thought you were this arrogant little wanna be movie star or something, trying impress her Umreeka-returned cousin,” I said, doing that Desi accent that I simply loved.
She smiled. “Yes, that’s what I meant. I’ve always believed I’m one of the stars. You know, when good people die they become stars and shed their light on the world forever. See those two bright stars over there? That one is my friend, Mohsin. He died in a car accident when we were ten. And that one beside him, that’s Hina. We were best friends for as long as I can remember. She died last year of cancer.”
Before I could interrupt her with a word of comfort, she continued. “I come up here and talk to them whenever I need to get away from everything. The stars, they’re so high up there, they can probably see every single person down here. You know, Waqas, when you’re feeling low and your problems seem to be the biggest in the world, think of yourself as a star and how very small you and your problems look to them, compared to the world as a whole. It’s like you’re this very small part of this very big world. It makes you think of other people with bigger problems than yours.”
“It’s best up in the mountains!” she said suddenly, totally changing the topic. That’s what I loved about her; she never lingered on the sad parts for too long. “I love our summer vacation up north ‘coz, 9000 feet above sea level, the sky is much clearer and closer. I don’t know why or how, but even the stars seem happier. They’re so close to each other, it’s like a tightly knit web of glitter above your head. It’s very beautiful. I sometimes sit by the window all night just looking at the sky. Ma doesn’t let me sit outside there, she says either the cold would get me or a wolf would…” She rambled on in a high squeaky voice, excited like a child when he’s showing off his new toy.
“Why didn’t you take up astrology as a major in college?” I asked. It would’ve been the best career option for her, considering the passion she had for the subject.
“I thought about it, I even took a few classes but then I realized I didn’t wanna know about the scientific figures and explanations. ‘Coz whenever science comes into something, emotion goes out of it,” she explained, “And I don’t want to think of stars as cold heavenly bodies, made out of dense particles of molecular clouds and blah.”
Trying to set her facts right, I said, “Just because you see them silver from down here, it doesn’t mean they’re cold. Temperatures of stars actually vary from 2000K—”
“See!” she said, cutting me in mid-sentence, probably irritated by this manly urge to be scientifically accurate. “Whatever Science comes in to, emotion goes out of!”
We would come up to the rooftop every night, after getting done with the day’s work, and sit there for hours, looking at the stars and talking. I was very fond of talking. Talking about everything and anything at all. More than intellectual discussions about Science and Technology, I savoured conversations about petty things, apparently meaningless, but representative of details that are often overlooked otherwise. Talking, I was told, was girlish and I was aware of my girlish tendencies so I often kept them to myself. But with Sitara, I never had to.
In that one short month, I learnt so much more about Pakistan than I could have imagined, not as much through experience than through these talks. In the little things Sitara told me about her life, from childhood to maturity, I could see intricate details of their culture, customs and lifestyle, most of which were very different from my own. Usually, we’d have contrasting points of view about things, which only gave us more food for talk.
It has been seven years since that spring of 2001. Today, Sitara is happily married and the mother of a beautiful baby girl. When I came back to the States after my first visit to Pakistan, I realized that my perception of my own life started to change, which encouraged me to think that maybe I was closer to finding answers to some of my questions, the very reason I had made the expedition to the Subcontinent anyway.
Those long nights under the starlit sky made me realize how important it was to make time for myself, to rest ever so often and actually think about where life was taking me. I looked around and found people drenched in the sweat of the day’s work, weighed down with bills that were ever increasing, children who became troublesome with each passing day, careers that needed more hard work, families and homes that screamed out for attention. Once caught in the raging storm of life, people struggled without respite, never stopping, even for a moment, to ponder where the wind was taking them. Sitara taught me how to take a break, to surround myself with just myself and nature, with myself and God, when I needed to take a break.
Through these seven years, Sitara and I have been in touch via email every now and then, but at night, when I sit on the balcony outside my bedroom window and stare at the stars, I need no email to know how she is. Now I understand. Sitara did not talk to the stars in the sky, she talked to herself, a star on earth. In the face of all the dilemmas she had ever faced, she did not, like a million other people I knew, complain about the fact that there were no answers, she actually made the sincere effort of finding them. When I made the honest effort of traveling 15,000 miles in search of what my life lacked, I found the key to the answers to my questions, lying with her. Sitara, by teaching me how to talk to stars, had not just given me the power to talk to myself but a way of talking to her, too. When I look at those shiny specks of light at night, I learn so much more about her life than she ever says in emails. Every so often, I look at the sky, asking questions, knowing that after ten hours, when the same stars shine outside Sitara’s window, I’ll have my answers.
Sitara was right; she is the star of my life.
And I’m a fan.