Tuesday, September 13, 2011


 Nubia was not her real name of course, it was the name she had given herself unknowingly, at the age of two when her tongue stumbled while trying to say her pious given name, Rabia. Her father,  who secretly penned romantic fantasies late at night while his wife of many banal years slept blissfully unawares, loved the exotic glow of the word.  It summoned up North Africa and his youth as an army doctor, trysts with pretty nurses  met in dusty tent hospitals  at the edges of the battlefields of the Second World War.  Nubia. The name radiated power, sensuality and a kind of virgin fierceness and so, much to Ammi’s disapproval, Nubia she stayed, fiery yet subdued, watching the world with intense pools of dense, deep black that relentlessly deflected  any attempts to penetrate their singular opacity.

Nubia saw everything and gave away nothing. Absolutely nothing. Overtly the rhythms of her world had not changed.  Like the oxen yoked to the millstone at the farming end of the grounds, she went round and round the circle of days  but inside her black eyes the bees of dissent were buzzing ‘my eyes are my only weapons’ she thought, ‘my only weapons. Without them  my dream-tongue is useless’ and so she perfected the art of quiet observation, of listening intently with a careless air so no one would ever know the many dissident words she harbored in her heart, flocks of restive swallows impatiently biding their time until the freedoms of the migrant nights when they found a refuge from unsaid domains to the relative safety of ink and paper.

The other unintentional lesson was learned shortly after bitterness had shocked  her taste buds and jolted awake her senses. The electricity had gone out again, as it did regularly  but this time instead of huddling around  odorous kerosene lanterns Abba had made them stand at one end of the immense corridor  while at the other end, cloaked in the sheath of darkness he made glowing spirals and curlicues with the tip of his lighted cigarette. It was as if the dancing patterns were burning themselves forever into her eyes. Invisibility is power, she thought at that moment and so to the art of observation she added the secret and masterful ally of concealment, of blending in so perfectly, so chameleon like, no one would ever notice her watching.

Two years later; after the eastern arm of the country had been amputated  to make another nation, and the forced separation from her father hovered like a cloud over her being, when she took long walks on Karachi Beach trailing  way behind Ammi and Anmol to be alone,  she was reminded of that earlier  night by the luminous poetry of the phosphorescent waves that crashed like millions of stars at her humbled feet. Close her eyes and she could still see the dancing cigarette buds.  Indelible lesson. The invisible veil is far more powerful armor than the visible barrier that invites to be breached.

She has taken to inventing the names of  all things mentioned in her dreamtongue even though no one has ever seen any of her nightly oeuvre, but its more than mere secrecy, its because she feels that underneath the skin of names there are other names, buried under the slow sediment of time, so  many skins, so many names, each more unvarnished, more primal, more real.

The phosphorescent waves crashed over and over again until she no longer cupped her palms in the night sea water to greet them.. Her seventh year came and went. No one noticed. Ammi drank endless bottles  of codeine cough syrup to soothe  the goblins in her throat  while she waited for Abba to return from officer’s prison camp on the other side of the border of the country that was paradoxically both homeland and enemy. She and Anmol did not dwell upon the contradictions. The were immersed in the vast playground given to them. Old Karachi.

 At seven Nubia was tall for her age, skinny and all legs. Sent to fetch yet another bottle of cough syrup she raced lightning fast to Nixon’s Chemist’s  with the older, asthmatic Anmol puffing protectively behind her.

Nixon’s Chemist’s was a venerable institution ensconced  in the suave and sweetly decadent Metropolis hotel, the domain of the ponderous and precise Nawrozeji and his alter ego Nixon. No one knew why he had chosen to name his shop after the disgraced American president, and no one cared. They did care about the delicious apple toffees and other sticky delights of the child and adult variety that Nixon’s offered in colorful profusion.

Coveted cough syrup in hand they ran back around the corner and up the steps of the Castle. This was the name they had given to the colonial era  fortress like sandstone building that the British had built for the entertainment of their officers, the Services Club where they occupied an entire south wing pending  Abba’s  return from POW officer’s camp.

Codeine delivered to the waiting Ammi, Anmol and Nubia collected their edible and readable  rewards and ascended to their real home. Adjacent to the stone lattices  of the south wing towered the ancient banyan that was the beating heart of Old Karachi.

Days spent in the green embrace of the banyan treehouse, in the crumbly haze of rusks and mango squash, and amid those aerial roots her dream-tongue took flight. She would sleep with pencil and paper tucked away in her pillow and awake in the middle of the night, sneaking out the front door to the dimly street lit banyan where she feverishly wrote  a spate of words that would come flooding in  like a raging torrent, then just as suddenly stop and like a medium possessed by a tormented spirit she would fall back exhausted into a fitful  sleep. Only in the cold green light of early morning waking with birdsong while others slept  did she see her words and know they were everything she could not possibly say out loud.

But I am getting ahead of my story  I and she and her you see we are all mixed up all confused between our many selves at many times. So I have to go back to that time to that painful time of the amputation.

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