Allama Iqbal International Airport reeked of sweat and human frustration. Fighting the urge to pinch my nose and tread back to the plane that had entertained several other passengers and me from London to Lahore, I headed towards the packed passenger lounge.
Eyes skimming the sea of strangers for my Abu’s familiar coal black eyes and crooked smile, I instead came across the sight of my aged Daada jaan and Sumbul, my ten year old sister. Utterly baffled and sighing internally, I made my way towards them.
“Asalam alaikum, Daada jaan! I must say that I am surprised. I thought Abu would be here to pick me up.”
An expression of indignation dawned upon his wrinkled face and I instantly felt the need to repent with a half-smile,
“Is that how you meet your grandfather after two years of parting?” He inquired rhetorically.
“Two years and four weeks,” Sumbul corrected him.
Daada smiled down at her and patted her head.
Guilt wedged itself somewhere in my throat as I glanced at their eager faces.
Daada had not changed a bit in years. It seemed as if the curtain of time had decided not to unfurl itself in front of the passionate man in his seventies. His eyes still held the greenish blue hues of Darya-e-Neelum. The smile that he had plastered on his face was that of a believer just having risen from his favorite sujood after his dua had been accepted by the lord.
Sumbul was no longer a gape toothed child but rather carried an aura of feminine courtesy about her. It was probably Ammi jaan who had braided her hair but it was sure as hell Sumbul who had tucked a ‘gulaab’ amidst the folds of her long black hair. The once ruby red rose had changed hues into a faded brown, the exact same color as her skin. Her eyes were just as silver as I remembered them to be.
I found myself reminiscing of the heart wrenching time when she had just been a child and lost her eyesight. On evenings when my mother cried over her daughter’s misfortune, I used to offer Sumbul piggyback rides in our veranda.
When it rained, she would twirl alongside me on her tiny toes, our ‘sehann’ taking the shape of her personal ballroom.
A gentle drizzle would envelop the two of us as she hummed like a tiny bird;
“Neeli parri aana
Chupke chupke aana…”
It was days like these when I wished I could tell her that if she could see, she would get the epiphany that her eyes were the color of wild flowers. They always appeared to be like liquid mercury to me. Ripples created in Aansoo lake, the one our Daadi had once told us a myth about.
“It is filled to core with tears of the lovers who had failed to meet,” Daadi had once emphasized with the motions of her hands.
Sumbul’s eyes were the color of soft summer rain. The irony of the beauty of her eyes and the fact that she couldn’t see through them hit me every now and then.
Nevertheless, she would always be my tiny brown bird, that one.
“I apologize for my conduct earlier,” I murmured as I shook hands with Daada and wrapped Sumbul in a bear hug.
“It’s fine, beta. God bless you. You have grown so much in two years Masha Allah. Don’t the ‘gorray’ feed you well though? You look very thin.”
I smiled tightly.
“No, Daada jaan. They offered quality food at the University cafeteria. How are YOU, Sumbul?”
Sumbul smiled shyly.
“I’m alright, bhaiya. I wish I could see you though. Have you grown a beard? My friend Amina says that men grow beards when they turn twenty.”
“I have, actually. Give me your hand,” I smiled playfully as she offered me her hand and I let her skim it over my beard.
“It’s ticklish,” she giggled. “You are like a grizzly bear!”
I laughed alongside her. Her laughter was contagious, really.
“Imran the grizzly bear!” I exclaimed and she laughed harder.
Daada added, “Imran the grizzly bear, didn’t the ‘gorray’ bully you on this beard?”
I screwed my eyes.
“They aren’t as bad as you think.”
“Maybe…anyway, Sumbul and I came to to pick you because we thought you’d be eager to join us on our little mission.”
I was puzzled beyond comprehension.
“Your Daadi jaan wants us to mark our presence at a ‘darbaar’.”
“A darbaar?” I echoed.
“Yes.You know, the shrine of a Sufi where…”
I snapped, “I know what a darbaar is. I just don’t understand what we have to do there.”
“We have to make dua for my vision,” Sumbul said in that tiny voice of hers and it melted my heart right there and then. “Okay…” I hesitated.
“It would be be worth it, promise.We would walk around old Lahore and get food,” Daada said cheerily.
Desi food was the last thing on my mind but I followed their cue nevertheless.
Stepping outside the airport, the levels of humidity and pollution made my stomach queasy. Leaning onto a pillar, I reminded myself to not be a sissy.
A rickshaw buzzed through the streets like a fly and planted itself in front of our little party. To my utmost horror, I watched Daada launch into a bargain with the driver.
Three minutes later I found myself being rocked and thrown against the passenger ‘seat’ of the deformed vehicle. The driver with his yellowed teeth and weird jokes smiled at us in the rear view mirror. Finally the rickshaw came to a halt and our driver announced as if he were addressing an audience.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Walled City of Lahore!”
Even though his voice was hoarsy and inaudible, it made shivers crawl down my spine as I considered the possibility of there being an adventure waiting for me.
Still a Lahori romanticist at heart, Daada would have said if I had voiced my thoughts.
“What do you see, Daada jaan?” Sumbul inquired as we paid our fair and headed in a foreign direction.
Ever since she was a child, it was their very own tradition for Daada to describe every scene he witnessed and for her to listen keenly.
“I see University of Punjab standing tall and proud. Every dome and arch of this beautifully historic building has been carved with intricate details. Every year, thousands of students from all over Pakistan apply to it with great zeal,” Daada said.
To me, the university resembled a newspaper dipped in time itself. Herds of students walked in and out of it.
Two years back when I had to apply for good universities, my first priority had been universities abroad. Had someone told me there were institutes just as fine in Pakistan, I would have thought twice before moving abroad.
“Do you know?” Daada continued. “When Pakistan first came into existence, this was the only university in our Homeland. History resides deep in the roots of this place.”
“Ah,” said Sumbul.
“You know,” Daada smiled to himself. “This was where I studied as a student. If I close my eyes, I can actually imagine myself standing in the hallways or the libraries of the university. I can actually hear the sound of typewriter keys play inside of my head.”
For a moment, I looked at my Daada with awe. The moment passed as Sumbul exclaimed,
“Ooooh! What’s this I hear?”
“Oh, that’s just the crowd gathered around the local street book bazaar. People are attracted to it like bees to honey because of the cheap prices and wide variety of books available.”
And sure as hell, piled on the roadside were thousands and thousands of books. Having posed as a bibliophile myself, I regarded the literature around me with great fascination. I also managed to rescue a battered copy of Iqbal’s poetry at a price of Rupees thirty.
As we strode down the road, a street vendor stopped right in front of us. He jiggled his huge basket of handmade necklaces and bangles and it evoked an immediate reaction out of Sumbul who pleaded Daada to buy them for her.
“Chooriyaan!” she exclaimed. I smiled down at her and ruffled her hair.
Having got her prized possessions on her wrists, she looked giddy with joy.
“What do you see now, Daada?”
“Kites. Two dozens of kites floating in the sky,” he replied.
“How do they look like?” she asked innocently.
Tears pricked my eyes as I pondered over the fact that my little brown bird had never once witnessed a single kite loop up high in the sky, adding color to the azure blue horizon.
“Kite tournaments are held monthly in old Lahore as…”
Daada droned on but I zoned out of the conversation as a beautiful symphony greeted my ears.
I smiled to myself.
“Sohni Dharti Allah rakhay kadam kadam Abaad Tujhay…”
“You know what I see before my eyes now, Sumbul?” Daada said mischievously. “A man selling ‘golla ganda’!”
Sumbul clapped her hands in delight as Daada bought her a sherbet lathered ice lolly. She licked on it with utter happiness.
All of a sudden, an aged man with blue eyes standing before a bazaar caught my attention. He had his hands raised towards the sky and soft murmurs of prayer escaped his lips ever so often. Eyeing the beads around his neck and his henna stained beard, I gasped.
“I heard he is a pious and wealthy man. Comes here everyday to give people his blessings,” Daada whispered in my ear.
I gaped. The phrase “appearances are deceiving” echoed inside of my head.
I reached forward and asked the seemingly disoriented man to pray for my sister. He nodded his head and raised his hands towards the sky.
After a few minutes’ silence, he smiled at me, “Welcome to Lahore! They say that the one who hasn’t seen Lahore hasn’t been born yet.”
I thanked him and walking away wondered as to how he had figured that I had just arrived from abroad.
Stepping inside Food Street, my stomach rumbled with appetite as aromas of cooked food wafted in the air. Tucked in tiny nooks and corners were orange umbrellas enveloping every table and chair there.
I watched a man in a ‘kurta shilwar’ making impressively huge and rosy ‘katlamas’ (baked bread). His tiny shop was surrounded with the fragrance of coconut ‘halwa’.
Feeling my presence in his shop, he looked up and smiled a lopsided smile.
“Free samples for new guests!” he said in a singsong voice.
Feeling embarrassed, I shrugged.
“No, thank you.”
“‘Jinaab, aap humare mehmaan hein!” he chuckled as a bowl of ‘halwa’ and ‘katlamas’ was placed before me.
I beamed with gratitude and thanked him for his hospitality. Humans of the walled city were of a different breed, it seemed. They were outpouring with compassion and kindness.
Soon, I found Sumbul and Daada next to my side, devouring on a plate of ‘sirri paaye’ with fresh ‘naan’ and ‘lassi’.
Having stuffed ourselves with heavy desi food, we found ourselves roaming the streets of the walled city cobwebbed with history.
Our final destination was the darbaar.
Painted in powder blue, the darbaar was cocooned amidst Lahore.
“Welcome to the festival of lights!” Daada said as we unbuckled our shoes and stepped inside.
All around us burning lamps were blinking as they went out with utmost finality. The crowd around us was praying with commendable devotion. A blanket of serenity surrounded me as I witnessed the sight of so many humans asking the same lord for aid. Maybe there was a silver of hope for Sumbul in this sanctuary too…
Walking across the place, I came across the sight of many people lost in their rhythm. Some of them just rested their heads against the palm trees and gazed up into the sky. It was as if everyone was lost in their own secret conversation with God: some melancholic whilst some happy.
A man came our way and placed a green ‘chaddar’ around Sumbul’s shoulders and whispered a silent prayer for her. We were also each handed a copy of four quls of Quran to read.
Finally paying our attendance on the Sufi Saint’s shrine, we cried until our eyes could no longer hold any more tears. I found myself gently touching the soft fabric of the shrine and reminiscing over the time Sumbul would twirl in the autumn rain and sing her little songs.
“Neeli parri aana
Chupke Chupke aana…”
Suddenly, I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder and flipped around. A tiny man with a graying beard addressed me with a soft smile, “Never lose faith in miracles. God can make the impossible happen. You know what Jalaluddin Rumi once said?”
I was too stunned to respond so he continued, “Never lose hope, my heart, miracles dwell in the invisible. If the whole world turns against you keep your eyes on the Friend…”
The strangers’ miraculous words lingered in the air like something said but not forgotten. In a flash of a moment he was gone, leaving in his wake the perfume of hope. My eyes skimmed the crowd of faces in complete bafflement only to find no signs of him.
I felt a tug at my sleeve and glanced down to see Sumbul smiling at me childishly.
An intense love rushed to my heart.
My tiny brown bird!
“Look, bhaiya!” she said loudly. “If I were you, I would not miss on the firework display!”
Sumbul’s words made me realize just how for granted I took every blessing I had been bestowed with.
Leaning my head outside the window, I witnessed the sight of radiant fireworks exploding before my eyes. Daada jaan came and put his arms around me.
Describing the fireworks to my little sister, I felt a sudden sense of peace devouring my existence. Maybe this was it. The miracle moment. Sitting in a place you could call home, surrounded by people who loved you back and praying for something beautifully charismatic to happen.
The strangers words echoes in my head,
“Never lose hope, my heart, miracles dwell in the invisible.”
Undoubtedly, the walled city of Lahore harbored many a miracles. Surely one day God would bestow the noor of our eyes with noor in her eyes.
“I feel as if my heart has been healed,” Sumbul murmured suddenly.
That was the whole point, I thought to myself…