I tripped over the laced hem of my white and green kameez the third time that day. This disastrous venture of khala’s then newly-launched fashion designing career, with the mud now splattered across it and eyes red with humiliation meant that I was, as I was later told, the consummate fashion sin that evening.
I was lucky, though; I was 12 and that sort of thing didn’t matter very much. Instead, Shujaan and I wrestled our way to the front of the audience, flopping inelegantly down and clapping our way through the performance, unheeding of the shaking heads behind us.
That was the first time I heard it - a great voice, intense but not really heavy. I hadn’t ever been to a concert before - wouldn’t have come to this one if I didn’t have dexterous alliances throughout my household’s servant circuit and if my dad’s car didn’t have such a commodious trunk. I didn’t know what the words meant then, only that they meant something proud and exhilarating and wonderful. We were oblivious, unconnected - letting the music beat within us like a second heart.
Dil Dil Pakistan.
It was a difficult time to be independent in any way really - I was a girl with loud and unpopular opinions on wholly distasteful subjects. Like politics, for example. And music. A lot of us abhorred music when it was brought up at other places - which was why the lot us flocked like misguided cattle to private musical concerts like these, places to commit small hypocrisies and tell gallant stories of the travails of our ancestors.
I didn’t know what a “band” was then, when I overheard people in the audience refer to them as such. “When three or four boys are friends and one likes singing, one likes playing the guitar, one the piano and like that, okay?” Shujaan, my cousin, filled in, amateur patriarchy dripping off his voice.
“Could we make a band?” I said suddenly, niftily. “I could write your songs, if I can’t go up on stage.” I offered, as soon as his attractive features scrunched up in an unattractive way; incredulous. “What?” I protested, raising my chin in the self-supporting way that I had now mastered with my cohort of male cousins. “Sometimes I come up with intelligent things!”
This was met by a bark of laughter that unsettled the performers on the stage a few feet away; Shujaan collapsed all the way to the ground and even the man with the guitar smiled a little - as if the very notion of an intelligent woman was so utterly outrageous that it could not be met without nervous breakdown.
I still don’t know where those four boys came from in those drab, downtrodden days of the late ‘80s. But by the end of the next day, our adroit ally Basheer Chacha, who did the dishes and the gardening when he wasn’t running discreet errands for me and Shujaan, had smuggled a Vital Signs tape to go into Ami’s recorder and a Junaid Jamshed poster for my bedroom wall (one that was duly confiscated upon discovery the following morning and transmuted into handy table cloth.)
By the end of the week I had learnt the song, sprouting the lyrics every time the opportunity presented itself. Two months later, when my uncle announced he was resettling abroad, I reproached him, “Aisi zameen aur aasmaan, in kay siwa jaana kahaan?”
14th August of the following year, I insisted that we go again.
Ammi sighed in a particularly helpless way, “They’re not having that event again, Alizah,” she told me lightly.
“How are we celebrating Independence Day then, Ammi?” I asked, green beads strung through my heavy, braided hair and a badge pinned like an accolade to my collar. Shujaan and I had only finished the painstaking, unenvious task of putting up flags all along the fence.
“In our hearts?” Ammi offered, brushing my enthusiasm aside.
My protests silenced with a finger drawn like a dagger against her lips, I rebelled by singing Dil Dil Pakistan in a mutinous frenzy, until there was a scratch in my throat, louder and louder until my voice was gone altogether, until Ammi thrust me out of the house into the backyard and the neighbors smiled coyly from their roof; on and on until Shujaan politely inquired where the choking frog noises were coming from.
But they never had something like that again on Independence Day, even when we shifted houses and then cities - they never had a community celebration again.
I think no one will ever know why they call it the gentleman’s game. Chennai, May 21, 1997; when Pakistan and India met for an ODI match to see Saeed Anwar score the 194 that was to become cricketing folklore - also the day I gathered a rich, innovative plethora of entirely ungentlemanly expletives, directed very indiscriminately at both our team and the opposition.
We watched it on the big screen the city authorities had put up in the southern end of Karachi. People had filed in like insects, clammed together, eyes swerving in unison with every ball, a unanimous, angst-ridden wail echoing at every dropped catch, and rattling their own bones with the celebration following Inzamam’s catch in the slip to oust Tendulkar.
Prior to the match and in every intermission, they put on the songs. I was here again out of collusion: I was young and betrothed and female.
I glanced sideways at Shujaan, standing next to me in our small clearing in the crowd, fleetingly envious of how our youth had whittled him far better than me - with sleek black hair, high cheekbones and fair skin. And his eyes were alight - as he clapped his hands with the music in that same, now very popular voice pouring through us like many golden urns pouring out the sun.
Har maidan mein her toofan mein har mushkil mein jeetain gay!
And then, there - with the sea-side humidity clinging to us - the music set my soul on fire. I was a 12 year-old again, riding some intangible crest of euphoria, higher and higher. We won the match, but I was soon to drown in my waves of passion. Dada had stopped just short of registering my absence with the police when we returned; I was grounded, but at least I had had the most wonderful experience to share with my fawning nieces and nephews.
If youth was unfair with me, middle age was pitiless. I lost use of my legs when I was 27. I was shot in the lower end of my spine by armed men while walking back home from a political procession a few blocks away. My husband died as soon as a bullet punctured his skull. My daughter, then seven years old, still thinks it was my fault - I had insisted we go.
Vital Signs disbanded in the late 90s and my interest in music, and my infatuation with their vocalist faded away too.
When we lost to India at Mohali in the semi-final of the ICC Cricket World Cup, I watched it at home. Kashaf, studying abroad, had come to visit and didn’t go to watch it on the big screens even when I insisted.
“They’ve put them up after an age,” I told her. “Take some of your friends and go.”
“Maa, you know how bad things are these days, don’t you? Don’t be ridiculous.” Half way through the second innings, Kashaf went to sleep, announcing with remarkable prescience that we couldn’t win this one now.
That night I dreamt of a crowd, quaking with excitement, unconcerned with the world outside the screen in front of them. Another crowd of 45,000 and a standing ovation for the highest ODI score to date. A risk taken. A consequence borne. Not regretted.
What nice thoughts, and what pretty lyrics I remembered to go with them:
Dard ka suraj dhal jayega woh din bhi hum dekhain gay!
I have spent most of my life humming these songs from years past, like some palpable relic of something glorious and ephemeral. I think some of this glory, dubiously, comes from the fact that it is mine alone. My children, Kashaf and Humayun, aren’t really interested in my recollections or my songs. So I keep them like a fortress, insulating myself from the insouciance of those I love towards what I love, the incongruity of our ideals.
Apnay watan se pyaar nibhatay; saaray din beetain gay humaray!
I fear Humayun is going to bring down the house in his search for his red shirt, even though I know he packed it away last night. I open my mouth to tell him that when a car honks outside.
“Time to leave, Humayun,” I call, wheeling myself towards the end of the staircase. He appears at the top, exhausted, excited, flying down the steps. “Call me as soon as you land,” I remind him and he nods, kissing my forehead.
“I will, Maa. Just remind Kashaf Baji to pick me up at the airport there.” I watch him disappear in the same way that Kashaf did. This time I don’t expect, however, that he will choose to come back to Pakistan. No opportunities here, they tell me.
Absurdly, this is one of the times when the watchtower in my fortress sounds most loudly, melodiously, like in some old, scratchy music recording.
Dil Dil Pakistan.
It is August of the following year. A week ago I fainted because of a sharp pain in the left side of my abdomen. Localised tumour, the doctors said.
Humayun and Kashaf are both here, upstairs in their rooms. The TV blares dimly as Shujaan reaches to turn it up a little. “It’s going to be okay,” he says again. “It’s just a surgery.”
I smile. He married a few years after I did, divorced and joined a political party after. There are now marked streaks of grey in his hair and a hoodedness over his eyes, even if they are still bright and piercingly black. I see his lips move again, but another very familiar voice sounds in the room.
Barhti rahay yeh roshni, chalta rahay yeh karwaan!
We both snap our heads towards the LCD screen, a reporter clad in green blithering away a report on the significance of the date and the voice playing in the background.
It is so strange that we both think of the same thing at the same time, choose to relive the same moment in that instant without having it mentioned between us. Instinctively, I reach for the drawer at my side and pull out a string of small green and white beads and use it to tie my hair back.
“You haven’t got too many left,” Shujaan says drolly as he sees me do it; I feel his silent laughter reverberate through the air.
“Beads, you mean?”
To his credit, he remains silent. I then tell him to take me out for a walk down our street. The city has never been more unsafe, but he does not argue the point. He buys me a huge flag from a vendor once we are outside and wheels me slowly down the pavement.
The air is thick and the evening sea breeze is only beginning to pick up, blowing about the light mass of my hair. It’s been some time since I went out but it doesn’t feel particularly odd. I don’t know if it is ill-advised to wheel down such a rutted road three days before surgery.
In fact, it feels oddly wise - calming, thinking of the Pakistan I once existed in, where stadiums coursed with emotion and Junaid Jamshed told us hum jeetain gay, where we decorated each other’s houses with tiny flags and quoted patriotic scripture to displeased relatives.
It is almost peculiar to imagine it. And if the people watching from the balconies or walking down the lane find it peculiar to see an old man wheeling a crippled woman with green beads in her hair and clapping to her warbling Dil Dil Pakistan, they effortlessly pretend it is not at all. Because when the time comes, as it does - as it always will, hum jeetain gay.