Written by Zoha Arif
Quotes from Allama Iqbal’s Lab Pe Aati Hai Dua
My Beloved Pluto,
A kinder sea, a plastic package of platinum bangles, a dental toothpick. Last week, they sent a landsailing rover to Venus and found wafting clouds of phosphine gas in the atmosphere, potential follicles of life, speculation that the phosphine is being pumped by alien microbes on the planet. The Venusian surface is very hot and very dry and very marred by metallic iron craters, volcanoes, basalt mountains, and molten lava plains. Humans melt on Venus. Five decades ago, the Soviet’s Venera 3 crashed onto the Venusian surface like a toddler in a swimming pool of hydrolysed gelatin. Its radio communication system failed before planetary data could be transmitted to the lab. Instead of beating the rover for invasion of privacy, however, the indigenous extraterrestrials on Venus must have idolized the Soviet rover and its high-tech refrigeration system in a natural history museum as an artifact of the unexplained. We’ve made contact with space aliens, they said in their complex craters of molten rocky mantles, another intelligent species. Meanwhile, I’m not sure how the quartz grain sand in Gobi feels on photosensitive skin, and apparently the Arctic is the largest desert in the world.
The gray aura of an Indian barber shop in Iselin. A barber with texturizing scissors prys my hair and chops too much of it off like watermelon flesh. Hair follicles sail to the ground like streamers in church banquets. I peer into the salon mirror and think that the subtle medium layers and stratified strands make me look like an egghead maquette, but I’m far too compliant to apprise the woman. Long peruvian hair, coarse, fatty, a body of vermicelli noodles that once framed my podgy face, broad handlebar shoulders, and sodden eyes, sink like brass-bronze pennies in fountains, and I think that I want to cry, but not here.
“No, you cut too much,” Mami says, tapping my short, crinkly lob, “I told you not to follow her bangs, they’re too short.”
“I didn’t cut a lot,” the barber pauses to grab a rat tail comb and metal hair pin, “And, I think she looks better this way. I like it.”
Mami shaves her tongue over her sinking gums and subtly wobbles her head. She may have realized that this haircut has gone too far for war reparations and Versailles treaties and militant knees. The other barber, a portly, brown man carved like a mylar balloon with thinning mayonnaise hair, is plopped in a hydraulic recliner on the other coast of the shop. He peers out the window at the oyster shell vending carts, scrapes white fungus flakes from his fingernails, and then peers at me with elephant pupils through the salon mirror. If I was a politician, I would stare back with eyes pumping oil wells. Instead, I turn my face to grasslands of muscat grape vines, to brigantines plumped with bearers of sunshines, to the dread of rolling home tonight and not having inches of spaghetti black hair to bend around my thumb.
“There were so many salons around here,” Mami says, plucking her dupatta behind her ears, “what happened to them?”
“There were not many,” the barber murmurs, “Only one or two.”
“What happened to the one next door? I was looking for it.”
A lot of Indian millennials talk about the sweaty uncle character at nikahs. I’ve only been to one wedding. You were supposed to go with me, but it was the week before the MCAT and medical school interviews and a convention for celebrity impersonators, so I rode the lumpy train to the Republican patios of upstate New York myself. From the wedding venue, I saw pines branching their wet fingers across parrots and was reminded of your mustache scratching your son’s pimpled forehead, diplomat hands building him a bungalow in New Jersey’s industrial suburbs. I always thought that I would be a foreign language teacher in Lahore at 23. It was an arranged marriage. The man and the woman supposedly attended high school together and were semester lab partners in biochemistry. They played Bollywood film dubs and Lollywood pop microtones and talas. Sparkler fountains erupted like koi when the woman and her bouquet of white dahlias were delivered to her neat husband. Besides the baked samosas, they served Italian pasta salad with rice vinegar, red onions, cucumber tubs, and smoked mozzarella. I hunted for the mint cilantro chutney but all they had was buttermilk. I sat next to a wife. Most importantly: there were no sweaty uncles with moist armpit circles.
In my daydreams, my brother is sultan of a Muslim empire and I am his feminist sister. But one day Constantinople’s sultanate collapses to protestant missionaries and other European fiends and the capital is barraged by militants who bomb alabaster palaces and pregnant women and balkan lynx. Looters torch barber shop lanes and civilians with shells pinned to oiled braids. They decapitate girls like lollipops and castrate the husbands of new wives who haven’t had their platinum wedding bangles cracked by the weight of their man spread on top of them. My sultan brother pulls me, his cabinet, and white-bearded viziers and aghas through subway tunnels cut underneath the city’s purbeck stone. The tunnels spit us out at the Aegean pier, where midshipmen wait with super cannons aimed at the collapsing cinder blocks. My sultan brother has decided to run away to Persia. There, he will spend the next few months with aristocratic military strategists plotting his path to Constantinople again. But I drown with my birth land, my God has promised my homeland to attain elegance through me, so I do not board the galleon with him.
“Please, for the sake of our late father, come with me,” my sultan brother says.
“I am only satisfied with dying in these lands.”
“Please. I promise we will return stronger.”
And he rolls away to the bedouins on the Persian peninsula, leaving his heroic sister in a city lit like pillar candles. In black tunnels, she will eat rye bread until one glorious sabbath, when a Jewish firing squad will stumble upon her booklets of classified intel and turrets of wool socks and decide to execute her there.
“You’re going to be 57 next week,” I tell Mami.
She doesn’t know her real birthday, so we celebrate the legal birthday she chose for immigration cards. Pakhtunkhwa’s provincial government didn’t keep birth records in the decades after partition. Every month, we trek to Newark’s brick high-rise projects to give rent invoices and tandoori in coiled plastic bags to my Dada. I wait outside the complex in our Honda Pilot with caution lights on while Mami meets Dada by the elevator lobby. I have not seen my uncle, the son of my grandfather and brother of my mother, for years, but I suddenly see him swaddle from a metropolitan bus, a black lexington briefcase caged in his ringed hands. Vaguely, I remember the afternoon he slapped me with open palms when I tried to show Mami my squash patch doodle before lunch. He has a white Van Dyke beard and presses down on a fritz cane. Mami walks back from the elevator lobby, flaps behind the steering wheel, and plops a glob of alcohol-based hand sanitizer on her palm.
“Is that your brother?” I ask.
She doesn’t look up from the hand sanitizer to see who I’m pointing to and says, “Yes.”
“Did you say hi?”
“I didn’t see him when I was in the lobby.”
She turns off the caution lights and looks up to see the tottering old man fade behind columns of squatted cars in the parking lot.
“Oof, we’ve all gotten old,” she says.
“You’re not that old,” I say, “Bebe lived to be a 100. So only about half of your life is over.”
When they opened the ice cream parlor in Union, high school boys took green bills from their babas who grew black moustaches too big for sympathy and bought themselves butter pecan caramel and green tea and strawberry ice cream. On top of the crisp waffle cones, rainbows of melting sugar and vanilla milk dripped like teardrops on hot pavement chasms. In an alternate universe, they may have plopped through the sidewalk and onto Mami’s second cousin who married underneath an umbrella decorated with sliced pool noodles, glitter cardstock, metal bells, and pastel paint. They sent videos of the ceremony and an ivory invite perfumed in valley combs and rose oil.
“I wish we could have gone,” Mami said, “It would be a lot of fun.”
A kinder sea, swapping me into valleys of octopus and body fossils. I fall behind in college classes. I live my life in school semesters. I wake up at midnight to brush my teeth without fennel toothpaste. I keep refreshing my email inbox. I do not understand the volume of cross-sections. Our son turned three last Sunday in New Jersey’s industrial suburbs while we cascaded into kinder lava seas. I have always been afraid of jinn, beings of light and a smokeless flame of fire. This is why I always sleep with my toes tucked into duvet comforters. Pluto, I’m not sure why you won’t leave her. Why do pipe organs sound scary? I haven’t forgotten the Islamic mass, the bismillahs, the kafoori dupattas, the white mosque tilted towards Medina, the funeral, the snapdragon arrangements taped onto air conditioners hanging out of gray windows. Me, melting into your mud, you melting into my mud, our family kissing the casket, our sincere condolences, I’m sorry, mai aapke sath hu. The body. A brown baby. The soil and pebbles flicked onto the tiny coffin in the name of God and in the faith of the Messenger of God, verily we belong to God, and truly to Him shall we return. The chaand raat there was a tropical storm out there or in here, mayhaps both, the chaand raat you scraped out cantaloupe flesh and said the problem is your hormones now, they make you stupidly emotional. The I can’t do it through the I can’t. The Chinese divorce lawyer, the plane back to New Jersey, the test in a pagoda bathroom, the pure teardrop, the hope was catastrophic, the birth of your son, my son alone in a semi-private pink maternity ward at Beth Israel with board-certified gynecologists and third-year residents, your kind of career-orientated intellectuals. Astronauts are saying that they don’t see the phosphine anymore.
My Baba said yesterday: there is no future for Pakistan. So let me tell you this, whenever you’re ready: I am feeling the Himalayas, Pashtun broad-peaked mountains, Kashmiri purifying masks for skin radiance, Afghan trousers with collar bells, long peruvian hair, an earth as hot and dry as Venus, fantastic monsoon floods, Bhutto regimes and mafias, a Sindh prison with an exiled prime minister, torn refrigerators, soiled water, green valleys of Sufi saints, yellow hills, all this as my future somewhere far, if only continents weren’t just large islands.
My God, my witness, may like the beauty of the candle be the life of mine. May my life be like that of the moth my Lord. Show me the path leading to the good ways.
Let me begin again: Hello. How is Colorado, Pluto? I hope that you and Pauline are well. Remember to water the cantaloupe seeds in the community garden before February. Mami says thank you for the Danish chocolate truffles. Our son is learning how to say my name. He can say mama, but he meshes anything more than two syllables into corn chowder. I will send you videos soon. He has taken a fleeting interest in basketball and I think he’s going to be a Muslim.
Please write back soon, at least after Pauline has settled and the wedding chaos is over.
—Saturday, January 17th, 2009