Some of the ugliest things took the longest time to make
And some of the easiest habits are the hardest one’s to break
And I’m not asking for value nor the pain but I am asking
For a way out of this lie
Because I can’t wait for you to catch up with me
And I can’t live in the past and drown myself in memories
Welcome to nowhere and finding out where it is
And fixing your problems and starting over again
Your feeding your ego with what you can see outside
And your killing yourself for not speaking your mind
I wonder why you make believe you live your life straight through me
I cannot understand why you question me and then you lie
I will not justify your way’s I cannot show you an escape
I do not know you any more, I never knew you anyway
– Shinedown, “In Memory”
It was a land of circles. There were only circular seats to sit and circular places to pass through. The rooms were circular, the doors were circular. The people loved each other for the fact that all of their parts were equidistant from a cent re point. Squares in this land would not be tolerated.
They couldn’t fit in the seats and the corridors anyways. And the doors! To think of it! How will a square even pass into the place where the doors were made to accommodate circles with nice smooth sides and no pinching, rough edges?
The poor people of circle-land would have to trim off the edges. Yes, the edges had to go.
Anyhow, what would the young and impressionable circles think?? No, this must not be allowed or they would want to be squares too. In fact, now that they thought of it, some circles had started to get a distinctly ‘squarish’ look to them.
No. This must not be tolerated.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Welcome to the new school. I hope you bring us laurels as you have to your old school.”
My insides were quivering as i was led down the deserted school corridor to grade 7. Every door showed students working away with their heads bent over their books.
“Here is your new class,” the Principal pushed me towards the door, “Class, this is Specs and she’s going to be your class mate. Please be sure that you make her feel welcome.”
Twenty seven pairs of eyes turned to take me in.
Legs trembling, I walked to the front of the class room where the teacher handed me my house badge.
“Sit with Miss S,” she told me. I did.
The bell rang for break. As i turned to survey the huge classroom, my seat mate turned to me.
“Listen, please don’t mind but i don’t want to sit with you. Its just that today my friend’s absent today and she’ll be here tomorrow so could you please change your seat and tell the teacher you did it?”
I picked up my stuff to go sit with someone else.
“Listen, please find somewhere else to sit. I like to sit alone.”
“Look, we all have our groups so why don’t you go and sit with another group? Its just that we already have six members and we don’t like anymore. Plus, we were together in school in England so we like to sit together. Don’t mind it, okay?”
“Okay,” i said. And i found an empty table to sit.
And there i stayed all through grades 7 to 10.
The studies were impossible. I was a grade 5 student when i was given a ‘double promotion’ because of my academic ‘brilliance’ into grade 7. There i was, all of 10 going on 11 sitting with girls all of whom were 12 going on 13 or already 13. A new comer in a girls’ boarding school, at that age is, to put it mildly, unacceptable.
“Hey, we heard you were some sorta genius freak…that true?” said S, who six years later when i was running for President, told me i was her ‘best friend’.
“Then how come you’re so unresponsive in class?”
“Say, you wanna smoke?”
“Er, no thanks.”
“So,” she said with half the class as an audience, “You gotten your period yet?”
“What’s that?” i asked having no idea i was venturing into dangerous waters.
She rolled her eyes as the class started laughing “You know what fuck means?”
“No,” i said, now pushed near tears.
“Gawd, what’s your problem, weirdo. Why don’t you go and sit in fifth grade like you’re supposed to?”
“I don’t know. The Principal sent me here.”
They laughed liked creatures possessed. “Really? Well then, good luck surviving.”
The girl had no idea that she couldn’t have worded it better. At a stage when i needed some emotional and moral support, the whole world, or so it seemed, had left me alone. I found refuge in the library buckling down to work even harder. A ten year old in the world of 13 year olds? A lost cause indeed. Make-up? Boys? What was the fuss?
Its not that i didn’t have friends and all things were horrible there. From Miss Popular to a newbie, i took the hit very hard. Most children would have concentrated on the friends that they had. I chose to concentrate on what i had lost. Not going to any Council Bashes and Farewells, Welcomes was an easy way out. I tried not to show up at school half the days. It was easier to skip school and stay and pine about all that i didn’t have. The lingering hurt and anger led to another emotion which, as i was to realize later, was the most destructive of all: self pity.
It was easier to stay back and fade into the wood-work. Easier to claim that the world was not giving me my due. Easy to blame the disappointments on people. And yes. I was wrong. That was not the first time, and certainly not the last but i had at least realized that life does not come to you. You snatch your due, you take it away. You make your own ‘luck’. The World is nobody’s maid. It doesn’t come to you, you go to it. You plan our own plans, you pick the places you want to be in. It all boils down to a decision I made: from lack of spine, or simply to please me parents, I was the one who had elected to go to that school.
Now, I had face the consequences.
‘Hey there, beautiful,’ she cooed, leaning against the wall tossing a coin into the air as she always did, ‘you wanna show me some love.’
That was the last I heard. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the Doctor’s office.
She was bandaging the cut I had gotten.
‘Are you okay?’ She was concerned.
‘Is there something you want to tell me?’
‘Why’d you hit her?’
‘That’s not like you, child. Your teachers tell me you have a very sweet personality. What
made you harm another human being?’
I felt the anger flare again. It rose from the pit of my stomach and I couldn’t stop my self.
‘She’s a lesbian,’ I spat out. My hands were shaking with anger and the aftershock of adrenaline. She noticed. I tried to push my hands under the table but Dr.Tayyiba caught them in her own.
‘Okay. Let’s just leave that.’
‘Whatever happened was not your fault.’
I was puzzled. ‘I know that, Doctor.’
‘I didn’t mean now. I meant, in the past.’
My mouth was a curved O of surprise.
‘Do you know about sexual abuse?’ she said straight out. I guess she saw i wasn’t someone you dance around issues with..
I had not foreseen these curve balls coming in from the left.
‘How..?’ escaped me before I realized, too late, that she had been shooting in the dark and I had let slip.
‘Poor child,’ she stroked my cheek. ‘Look, whatever happened…’
‘NOTHING happened, Dr.Tayyiba. NOTHING. It’s not like you think. I just got mad at that
girl because she’s always hitting on me.’
‘You know she doesn’t really mean anything’
I snorted. ‘Yeah, right.’
‘Look, child, you should not put all people in the same category. Not everyone is out to hurt others.’
‘Doctor, its not me. It wasn’t me, I mean. I really don’t care. I’m not stupid enough to blame things on myself when i’m not responsible…but she could’ve hurt other girls so she has to be taught a lesson… you know…’
I stopped ranting and fell silent, deeply uncomfortable.
‘I think we should talk about whatever it is you are worrying about. I think you’re mature for your age so I will level with you. Your teachers have been telling me you’re not comfortable being friends with girls. And that you try to be at the back where no girls notice you. Now that I’ve told you the problem like I would to an adult, I trust that you’ll try and sort out whatever happened so you don’t end up ruining your life like someone obviously hoped you will. Do you understand me?’
I looked at the floor and came up with a half truth ‘Dr. It isn’t me. It’s my siblings. You know, I’ve always been protecting them from stupid servants, you know how that is… and now that I’m not there…I worry.’
‘Well, I would’ve liked to talk about this with you because I think you, being a person mature for your age, could tell me how to sort out some other girls who have some huge problems because of this issue. But you’re heading out to the holidays in a week. Am I right?’ Without waiting for an affirmative, she forged ahead, ‘So, I want you to think about how Allah has blessed you in so many ways and how you’ve nothing lacking in you but the attitude. Not every one is so blessed, child. Think about it. Its only silly children who resort to fists. You’re a gifted child who should not let anything stop you. I’m so glad you don’t think something is your fault when obviously it isn’t.’
A mature 13 year old or not, I had no idea that this woman had done the best for me that she could within the day or two I had remaining at boarding school. (I shifted home to continue 9th and 10th grades). She had cast me into the role of a savior, a person who doesn’t need help but helps others and a ‘mature’ ‘grown-up’ person; images which every 13 year old aspires to live up to. She had told me that the picture she had of me was one ‘who did not blame themselves’ and ‘helped others’ and unknowingly, I fit myself into that role.
Then came the ninth grade, the Senior Section. And all of a sudden, I was thrust into yet another test.
‘Which one of you is Specs?’ asked the Physics teacher.
I raised my hand, puzzled.
‘Well, take out your Physics book and start reading from page.1’
‘Ma’am I don’t have it yet. We’re to get our books today from the school shop.’
‘Well, that’s such a pity. You can move to the back of the class room and remain standing till the end of the period.’
If you’re thinking big question marks, so was I. I thought I was feeling as miserable as I
could be. I was just about to get corrected.
‘Specs?’ asked the Chemistry teacher.
I raised my hand.
‘Ah, hello. Welcome to my class. J I knew your mother, dear.’
‘Pleased to be your student, ma’am.’
‘Right then, take out your work books and pens. Oh wait. Why is your pen yellow?’
‘Er. Well, I’ll buy my stationery today and…’
‘That’s a clear violation of the rules, dear. I’m afraid this is not allowed in my class. Please stand-up and remain standing till the end of the period.’
What the hell???
So it went on. In those two years, four teachers did the best they could to make my life hell. Misplaced completed work-books near the end of the exams. Forced failings in every subject. Punishments for no justifiable reason.
It was here that when I was in the tenth grade, my parents got really angry at me for ‘not trying’. The child who had never gotten a B in her life was now failing every subject except English, Urdu and French…well, languages don’t require that mush hard study for me anyways.
The teachers told my dad at the parent teacher meeting that I was ‘dumb’ and they couldn’t do anything about it. I would be lucky if I cleared Matric with a D grade. I was clearly not someone with brains and I would have to work ‘very very hard’ to score a passing grade. I was unresponsive and rude and didn’t turn in my homework (because YOU ‘lost’ my completed homework copy, Mrs.A!! Oh yes, that was unfortunate, but you never turned in the new one with all the old work completed, did you. Now that is YOUR fault, child)
“What the hell are you doing??” my mom yelled, throwing the report card in my face. “I’m giving you three months to get your act together. You’re going to appear for the O’Levels exam privately if the school wants you to go to the Matric section.”
(The schools usually sent the losers into the tiny Matriculation exam section.)
“What will people think when I tell them my daughter is doing Matric?? O’Levels is a must”
O well, like I care what people think. I’m miserable enough in the Matric section.
That was all I got to say in the matter. My mother hired an army of top private tutors.
At a time people were out having fun, I was studying sixteen different subjects and trying to stay on top of things. Eight subjects at school. Eight different subjects at home. I had tutors for everything except O’Level Economics and Commerce. My mother was frustrated. The top economics teacher was not willing to take on a student four months from the exam. And so we went through another month. Until my mom got a brain storm. ‘I know an excellent teacher…but she retired 15 years ago. I wonder…’
The ‘excellent’ teacher turned out willing to ‘take her good friend S’s kid’ into her tutelage even though she didn’t teach now. But she’d taught Junior Cambridge for forty years. She knew her stuff.
I wondered what old bat I was to be stuck with. The retiring age was 60 so she must be…60+15=Holy Crap 75 years old! Oh my God. As if life wasn’t rosy enough already, I now had to endure the three hours that I had left in my day after tutors with a nearly extinct creature.
The day my mum dropped me off at her place, I rang the bell. No, Mrs.S was not home from the market yet but she left a message that I was to be let in and led to the kitchen (!!) So, her husband, who was 10 years older than her (85, in case you hadn’t calculated yet) led, or rather, shuffled in front of me to the kitchen. He wore glasses as thick as coke bottle bottoms and wore a dressing robe and fluffy slippers (can you get more geriatric?)
As I entered the kitchen, my breath hitched in my chest because of the smell.
I never wanted to let this breath out.
I didn’t want to stop savoring this even for a split second.
I knew the second breath would smell even better but I never wanted to let this out.
I was in Heaven.
I opened my eyes which I had shut automatically to savour the smell and took the room in.
The kitchen was GIGANTIC. And had the whitest marble floor I had ever seen. And the most pristine marble counters.
And then I saw the source of the smell.
There were flowers. And potpourri. And three pots on the stove all of which had something cooking. And I could SEE bread in the oven going golden. And there were biscuits baking.
These are memories so vivid, so sharp, that I have to screw my eyes up to stop the tears when I smell something baking, remembering that first day in Mrs.S’s kitchen.
‘Sit down,’ Mr.S wheezed. ‘She’s coming.’
And then someone said my childhood name that most of my parent’s friends knew me as.
I stood up and turned… and set my eyes on the lady who was about to change my life and turn me into something so different that a year later, even I wouldn’t recognize the girl who had sat at the kitchen table scared to meet anyone’s eyes lest they perceive the secrets.
To be continued