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At a dinner party surrounded by the family we love and the family we tolerate, my parents, once again, narrate the story – the story of how they didn’t end, and we subsequently with them.
It’s their honeymoon; they – newlyweds in Singapore, shadowed by a strange world of glass and concrete perforating the sky – bask in that lively splendour.
It was the time before time began for me or my sisters, when we were abstractions in a world outside this world; slumbering, quickening. My parents, however, were in their golden years, which is not to say they were merely youthful, but that they hadn’t yet resorted to pragmaticism as the only way to lead a life.
They enter an amusement park.
This is hard for me to imagine. Them, not in the company of their kids, only the kids they themselves were, entering an amusement park, supposedly for recreational purposes, thousands of miles from the motherland. Young and childless and antithetical to the man and woman I know, the faces of whom are animated under the harsh yellow light as they orate this chronicle, decades after it unfolds.
I was a girl, my mother says, in an amused, satirical tone. I feel like she sometimes feels the best of her years have evaded her, that her life is bifurcated into only two distinct categories: youth, then agedness.
I want to tell her that life isn’t a two-story monolith, that she has retained her luminosity all throughout this time – years upon years strung taut like a tightrope between the past and present, a tightrope she has crossed unchanged, at least in the ways it matters. I want to tell her this but I don’t. I want to tell her beauty is a unique, arbitrary form of social capital for women, a standard levied on them with much more fervour than on men, and that that’s unfair, but she knows that, of course. I suppose that knowing is where the satirical tone – that high inflection in her voice – takes root. Or maybe not, maybe this is the 20th time I’m hearing this story and I need to believe in a struggle larger than it, to keep me interested.
They’re held up in the queue for a ride.
My father fails to even describe the ride; he doesn’t have much of an affinity for stories. He prefers The Lord’s book, though he missed his prayers liberally in the timeline this incident takes place in. My mother takes over.
It’s a ride for couples, a kind of open carriage attached to a metal pole on the top. To someone hearing this story for the first time, the detail of the metal pole might seem forgettable, redundant even.
Just as my parents reach the front of the line, a couple overtakes them to get into the ride first. My father is vocal about his displeasure, happy to fight them if need be.
This is a surprise to no one. Besides, everyone senses a shift at this point, like the volta in a sonnet. We’re inching toward a resolution – the pure bliss of being on vacation with the person you’ve just taken as your own needs to juxtapose with something morbid, to keep things balanced. No one holds up a dinner table of people to tell a happy story.
My father is furious, but my mother doesn’t mind. They wait for merely 30 seconds and mount the carriage behind the rude couple’s.
The tension is thick like a canopy above the room; my mother talks in a hushed tone. The room thinks it’s a subconscious act. I know it’s a performance.
The ride starts to move, and so do the carriages, in unison. A minute goes by.
My parents are startled by the overbearing, thunderous sound. Shortly after, they get off the ride to a mass panic.
The man and woman who overtook them are…
Audible gasps litter the room. I hear a flurry of Astagfirullah ’s.
Fried by a rogue electric bolt. The other carriages; unaffected, and my parents; so fateful. They had evaded such an awful death.
I’m unimpressed. It takes me a while to figure out what I find so bothersome, and then it strikes me. Fate, in this story, is a tool. Since the tool worked toward a means to an end that suited my parents, the general consensus is that it was wielded by a righteous, holy being. I think of that adage: History is written by the victors.
And then I think of the real victims in the story – the couple dead and ashen in an artificially-lit night, in a strange town, in a strange decade already veering off into the strata of time – though my mother and father’s comically elongated sighs nearly convince me they got the worst of it.
What scares me is the thought that fate has no moral compass. That I have so little that could protect me from the thousand innovative ways this world could ruin my body-cage.
Several conversations resume. I hear plates being assaulted by utensils. And the story dies in the rattle of those quaking, silver things.
No matter what I say or with how much vehemence, it is the great amoral fallacy, fate, that brought me to this page. Countless things had to happen – and did happen – in order for me to inhabit this body.
Often, I find I’m not well-equipped to exist. I can see my veins through this thin veil of skin, draped over me with surprising accuracy. If I can see my veins, so can a needle. So can any of the thousands of manifestations of sharpness that are so abundant in this world.
I’m encumbered by a machine made of steel hurling up the steep streets of Istanbul at a hazardous pace. The taxicab is being assailed from all sides by the most violent storm of my life. Hail pummels the windows with a viciousness that scares, no, terrifies me. The doors serve as narrow barriers, dividing me from what feels like my end.
Earlier, we, my family and I, were on our way to the hotel as planned, when the storm intensified. It was no longer a simple movement of the elements of nature. It felt as if we had been forsaken. My father sat in the passenger seat, the driver twice his size. We had a resounding belief that everything would be alright. Just then, a stray piece of hail cracked the window-screen, as if challenging us. The driver cried out, like the car was an extension of his body, and, along with it, he was a battered and wounded thing. He announced he would charge extra for repairs, asking for a relatively meagre sum of money.
(At this point in the story, again, my father exercises his belief in “the principle” of things). He lashed out at the driver, fuming. He would pay only what had been agreed upon. Something about my father’s words triggered an ugliness in the driver I can only hope not to encounter elsewhere in life.
Suddenly, his body was animated with the piquant anger of a minor deity. The transformation was striking, especially in contrast with the friendly man we had greeted earlier, near the sea framing the edge of the city.
His muscular form no longer felt ornamental. It felt like a weapon.
The car veers off the familiar path to the hotel; we begin travelling at high speed into an unfamiliar part of an unfamiliar town.
Two thoughts enter the mind’s foreground. (i) Our bodies are instruments to be played at the whim of the driver – he is unconcerned with our lives, sure, but also with his own. Which makes it all the more terrifying. (ii) What is it with this family and the knack for getting into deep shit in strange cities!
In the background of my mind: my mother’s quiet prayers, my sisters’ panicked breathing, an old man at the distant end of the street cradling his head – scarlet with blood, cracked open by hail. Large volumes of water cascading down the steep street.
And the car halts.
The driver growls at us to exit the car with an unkindness so impersonal it surprises me.
The car drives off.
And there we are in the middle of the street, angry. But, more importantly, drenched.
And, more importantly, alive.
The same thesis statement exists at the end of each of these stories… and all the others (my father getting kidnapped in Bangkok, my grandfather nearly falling off the edge of a cliff, and so on, and so forth).
Every time, the protagonist(s) end up alive. And every time, looking at my body, I think: how could any of this ever protect me? And I’m right. Depending on what you believe, it’s God, or the universe, or fate, or all of the above, that really ever protect you.
Me being here at all is, perhaps, a miracle. But maybe it’s wrong to assume everything that has happened in my lineage led to me. There is the possibility I’m not even in the narrative. That my life is branching out from the main timeline and speeding towards a dead end, like that car from so many moons ago.
And in that knowing, I find two paths. I can either despair, and let the grief travel through me like paint through water. Or, I can make something for myself in this unfathomably stupid, violent little place called The World.
I lay in the semi-darkness. I wait patiently for dreamless sleep.
And by the time I wake up next morning, I’ve already chosen a path.
About Ali Nasir
Ali Nasir is a writer from Lahore, Pakistan. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Handwritten & Co., a print literary arts journal.
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