The Good Breath Of Air

by Nida Khattak

‘Why are you so quiet?’ I had zoned out completely. My mind is blank. Nothing’s really going on up there–or maybe everything. In such circumstances, you yourself are the most worthy of an answer to ‘Why am I so quiet?’ Words danced, one after the other, each one wants to come out. ‘Shut up! Silence. Let me put them in order.’ I thought, why can’t I just stand here by the railings? Observe. Listen. And not talk at all. Does that make me melancholic, or reflective, or reminiscing over something nostalgic, or tragic? I only wish I knew. But, then here is this person standing right next to me, I’m planning to spend my whole life with. Staring at my face. Waiting for an answer. ‘Naah I am just observing the beautiful day that it is.’ ‘Or you having second thoughts about me?’ Second thoughts. Second thoughts. Second thoughts. But that didn’t run over my mind even once. Was I really thinking about that? ‘You are probably thinking that I am boring. You are thinking what have you gotten yourself into?’ He smirked. ‘You are not even here.’

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, John Gray has a few of his lines stuck in my mind. “When she says “I feel like you are not even here,” he says, “What do you mean I’m not here? Of course, I am here. Don’t you see my body?”  So, I am calculating the chances on how not to become John’s, exemplary stupid man. ‘That’s not a good thing to say. It’s nothing like that. Silly!’ Oh. not even close. ‘Tell me. What are you thinking about then, Bakhmal?’ ‘A little stressed. Studies. Tests. You see.’ He looked away, ‘Hmm.’ Vexation etched on his face. ‘Hmm.Hmm.Hmm.’ It kept on echoing. Now, I became a little sure of what’s going up there at least.

For the past two months, my mind never slept for once. It shows all over my face. The tiredness of unknown origin mixed with newly gained euphoria of love! My room’s mirror is big enough to reflect the person from head to toe. So, I started working on my facial expressions first. ‘You should smile more. You should smile more.’ Smiling. Forced smiling. Tiring. ‘Don’t be sloppy when you stand. Makes you look sad and tired.’ Check. Check. ‘Do it for him.’ Check. The cultural romance has it. You fall in love with the ecstasy of it. You fall out for the dreariness of it. ‘Stay in and don’t fall out. Smile more.’

November rain is mostly awaited in the South Asian part of the world, for it is meant to bring all of the cures to influenza, or simply cold fever. In cultural romance, it is highly underrated. It is the November rain, which paves the way for everything that has to do with the human heart. A chilly breeze touches the skin but doesn’t really seep into the skin to the bones. ‘The autumn leaves are beautiful. Aren’t they Jamil?’ ‘Umm. Looks okay to me though.’ ‘Urghh. Come on, let’s hop on them.’ Colors excite me. The beautiful redlining of the clouds on the autumn sky, and dry leaves with shades of yellow, red, and purple on the grass beneath the Okra tree. ‘Don’t be stupid, Bakhmal.’ But I keep on insisting. ‘Come on, give me your hand.’ The leaves crunch under over feet. Living hopping over dead.  I am successfully becoming a happy person to stay in love. Or in the breeding love. The breath of good air.

This time the mirror is reflecting me as an eligible person to stay in love. ‘Posture?’ Check. ‘Smile?’ Check. ‘Perfect.’ The book is awaiting laying there on the bedside. I have two more days to get done with it. ‘Get done with it’. Flipping through the pages. ‘If only Hedda Gabler could smile more and talk nicely.’ The longer you read, the louder the ticking of the clock becomes. Here comes the first yawn. Here the second.

November mornings in Lahore are misty. Not the kind of mist, one would romanticize, but the kind filled with controversial pollution. Smog is comparatively a new thing­­-we can say. But if you are traveling on a local bus, with new burned flames inside. The mist looks appealing. As if it knows about you. It has partaken in your share of joyous escapades. We all bleakly remember the mist from our childhood. It is something which has stayed constant throughout our lives, just like the night sky and the rain. Humans are known to prefer stagnancy over change. They resist change. That is where nostalgia plays its role. Nostalgia is a beautiful thing but can be a dangerous thing. But it’s a human thing-so of course.

‘You look great today.’ He passed a gentle smile. ‘Ahh, thank you.’ ‘Hey, quick question. If you were not studying literature, what would you be studying?’ That was a trick question. Again. ‘Well.. let me see. Um.’ ‘Think fast!’ I went through all of the options but obviously wanted to come up with the best option. ‘I think I would be into Physics.’ ‘Physics? What! I mean why?’ ‘Nothing much, it’s just that I believe that to understand intricacies of life through the spectacles that knowledge has to offer. Physics appeals to me the most-in a way.’ ‘What are you doing in literature then?’ ‘It is also one of my favorite spectacles.’ The sun has now risen, rays falling upon the trees, so that the twigs sparkles like diamonds in the campus. ‘What about you?’ ‘I think I will be exactly where I am right now. I live for the social sciences.’ ‘Umm. Great.’ ‘Yes, I don’t like the complexities of intangible things. Keep it the way it is. Explain it logically. Diplomacy. Economy. Policies. Facts. Figures. As simple as that.’

‘Umm, well don’t you think all of the disciplines are actually parts of one whole knowledge? And that prioritizing one over the other is one thing, but hegemonozing one over others is negating the whole for a part?’ He looks away heedlessly. ‘Urghh, Bakhmal in the disguise of the mythical personages in the suite of Dionysus!’ Cracks up with laughter.  ‘God, this line doesn’t fit everywhere. Silly.’ ‘Well, you use it, Bakhmal. Do I have to get a license for the usage?’ ‘No, a brain.’ I am laughing, but before I realize it he has stops laughing. ‘It was just a joke.’ ‘Yeah, it was. Bakhmal.’ This time, he stressed the ‘Kh’ in my name. Which was enough for me to realize I should be going to the class now.

‘Where were you? I have been looking around for you,’ Shajar inquired with a vexed face. ‘You know today is the deadline, and you were supposed to take the printouts? Right? Bakhmal! Don’t give me that look.’ Before I say anything, Shajar has already deciphered my blank face, and so she takes the answer for a ‘no’. ‘Oh…Bakhmal! What has become of you? Where are you lost nowadays? God.’ ‘Calm down, I will figure out something. I always have. Right? I…I um I will do something about it.’ As I am taking out my laptop, I have already confessed to myself that there is nothing to be done, and Mrs. Naaz is surely going to give us a minus. ‘Tell me where were you?’ ‘As if you don’t it Shajar! Our Bakhmal was in the other campus with our Lahori Mr. Darcy.’ Naimal cracked up laughing. Shajar tried hard to veil her smile. ‘Well, tell her Lahori Elizabeth..’ She is laughing continuously. ‘Come to the class girls.’ Mrs. Naaz called upon us as she made her way into the corridor.

‘What if Shajar is right, and that I really am lost somewhere. And I need to reflect upon it seriously. Is there something that is really bothering me?’ ‘I will add Eliot and I.A Richards along with the others for your mid-term. Mind it class..’ I can barely hear Mrs. Naaz explaining the reason she will fail a good chunk of class this year. I try to focus but my mind takes me to this one question that Shajar asked me. In all of human history, people have compartmentalized human thoughts. Some are given the origins of the heart, while others of the brain. A person’s whole life actually becomes a constant struggle to disentangle them apart. I recalled what Saad told me once, ‘ It’s actually the amygdala, the part of our brain, which is responsible for all of our emotional behaviors. Everything has to do with the brain, Bakhmal.’ ‘It is strange how one single unit feels differently about the same thing at the same time.’ ‘Yes, that is what makes a human brain complex. Isn’t it?’ Saad’s voice was agile.

New year’s eve always falls in winters, and according to popular beliefs, you stay with the person you have entered with into the new year. But we take the cold with us also. Dead plants. Frozen lakes. Dark skies. Sometimes, we are to carry these things for the rest of the year. Other times, probably not. ‘Today is a blood moon, looks beautiful! No?’ Keeping a tab on my smile and posture. The moon is roaring over the huge building of the campus in all of its might. ‘It does. What’s a blood moon associated with?’ Jamil inquired. ‘Well, scientifically, the credit goes to the total lunar eclipse. Spiritually, it means the end of times. The sun will turn into darkness and the moon into blood. Book of Joel. And mythologically, some evil entity is trying to devour the sun. So yeah, believe in whatever pleases you.’ ‘And yet you find it beautiful!’ Jamil looks at me as his face is reflecting the full moon’s shafts. ‘It is the twinkle of our love.’ Before I know it, I had spewed out. ‘Surely, it is.’ There is a passing glint in Jamil’s eyes as he smirked.

On some rare winter days, when the sun is showering its rays upon the cold concrete paths making them warm enough, and the shadows of trees are an invitation of bone-chilling breeze. Life seems to be moving towards something good. You turn the page of a gloomy poem to find an unexpected gay poem on the very next page. The birds chirp, but now a little more with a melody. Cold fingertips yet warm heart. There stands a water tank right in front of my window. A big one. The circular stairs end at a certain height, and the rest of the ascent can only be made through straight railings ending at the topmost ceiling of the tank. On such days, the tank stands cheerfully in its place. On other days, it incites cynicism. ‘When will you be leaving? We can leave together.’ My brother peeked into my room. I sneak a look at the clock. I am already late. ‘God. I am late. Give me ten minutes. I will be outside.’ ‘I am in a hurry. You just do an uber.’ He shut the door close. ‘Don’t go, I’ll be out in a minute!’ I shouted. I put on my regular hood and sneakers. A little touch up here and there. Came out to see him already leaving. Looks at my watch and I realize it has already been thirty minutes.

‘What are you looking at?’ I inquired as Shajar is observing the sky. ‘Ah, nothing. The eagles have descended so low. Aren’t they supposed to be flying in the higher winds?’ ‘Those are hawks, I suppose.’ ‘Any difference?’ ‘I guess so.’ ‘Hey, ladies! what have you two been talking about?’ Jamil approaches with that usual smirk on his face. ‘Hawks.’ ‘Eagles.’ Shajar and I responded simultaneously. ‘I see,’ Jamil leans in and whispers into my ear, ‘thought it would be me.’ I look down coyly. ‘I heard that Jamil, but now it wasn’t you, unfortunately.’ Shajar laughs as she stares into the sky. ‘Well, only Bakhmal can tell. Isn’t it Bakhmal?’ Jamil lashed out. ‘Yeah right. I may be lying as if I have any reason to,’ Shajar is now looking at us, ‘Not everything has a good reason to be. Right. You both know it better!’ ‘Alright Shajar, let’s go have some tea.’ I try to cool down the air. For some reason, their tempers are always at odds.

The cafeteria has different doors leading towards the same main hall. The coffee and tea stall is always actively engaged. ‘Jamil, tell us about your new ideas regarding that motorcycle..rally..stuff?’ I asked and Shajar also shifted her eyes on him. She is always intrigued by automobiles and anything related to them. She has a habit of pointing out new vehicles, and explaining each and every part, from its name to its engine. Something, which I always hear when traveling with her, but never really listen to. ‘I see. Yes. the motorcycle rally. This year I am planning to travel to the South. Enough with the North. I am getting the route finalized. I and the peloton. Spring is approaching. Hopefully, everything will be finalized soon.’ ‘Woah, only if I could ride a motorcycle!’ I took a sigh. ‘I can ride one. Want to go?’ Shajar inquires. I can not stop my laughter so I burst out. But she is still staring at me with an inquisitive look. That makes it obvious that she is serious about it. ‘Yes, you both can come. Always welcome.’ Jamil gives an assuring look. ‘Great. What do you say Bakhmal?’ ‘I say we both stay here and prepare for S2.’ ‘Urgh. Bakhmal the epitome of boredom!’ Shajar rolls her eyes. ‘Better boring than getting flunked.’ ‘Alright. Let’s go now.’

‘Bakhmal. Wait. Wait’ Jamil calls me out. I slowed my pace and turns around. ‘What is it Jamil?’ I turned towards Shajjar, ‘You should go. I will be there.’ I turn towards Jamil. Waiting for him to say something. ‘We should take a walk back together. No?’ ‘Oh. Yes. Perfectly fine.’ We are taking a stroll along the parterre which leads straight to my destination. Jamil plucks an apricot rose. With no words said, gives it to me. ‘Thank you.’ I smile and trying to veil the overwhelming sea of joy within. Words are just one way of expressing, and silence another way.

I tend to secure all precious possessions between the leaflets of my favorite books. ‘Old fashioned.’ They call me. Still, books aren’t just a compilation of inked pages, they are much more than that. Not only does a person take something from a book, but in return he/she/they leave a portion of spirit in every single page. ‘This one will go on the middle shelf.’ I stare at it for a while in my little reading nook. ‘Beginning of years determine one’s fate for the rest of the year. They say. Do I have enough shelves for that?’ My lips curve into a beaming smile. ‘Staying happy pays off.’ My mirror is reflecting a happy person who is all smiles. ‘Posture.’ Check. ‘Broader smiles.’ Check. Check.

My phone rings at some distance. One bell. Two bells. Three bells. It went off as I grabbed it. ‘One missed call, Jamil.’ My heart sinks. I am contemplating the chances for a second ring as I am holding my thumb over the callback tab. My phone rings again. I pick it up. ‘Hey.’ ‘Hi, hope I’m not disturbing you.’ ‘No, not at all.’ Before I realize it, it has already been 20 minutes. ‘So, see you tomorrow, then?’ Jamil’s voice has a tinge of tenderness to it. ‘Yes. Sure.’ Here am I plunging into this state of bittersweet exaltation. ‘What should I wear? Should I do  my hair?’ I am going through the wardrobe. Finding nothing which can actually match the luster of prevailing sensuality. There is madness. But must there be a reason in such madness?

The sky is filled with dense clouds to let any sunshine touch the surface of the earth. Days in winters are grayly short yet beautiful. I am walking at a fast pace towards the corridor, and my pace is brought to a halt as Jamil stands right in front of me. I am shocked by the abruptness of the situation, however, I managed to retain my smile. ‘How are you, Miss.’ Same old gorgeous smirk. ‘Ah, I wasn’t expecting you.’ I said as I cloak the colossal flurry behind my broad smile. ‘Hold your horses. Where are you heading?’ ‘Umm..’ ‘Oh, wait let me show you something.’ ‘What?’ ‘Come with me.’ There is a small dhaba at the backside of the campus famous for its samosas. ‘These are my favorite. Have you tried some, Bakhmal?’ ‘No, it is actually my first time.’ ‘we, then you will fall in love with them.’ As a matter of fact, they are worth falling for. ‘Yes. Well. I have a taste for street food. Love sweets though.’ ‘Um. Sweets. they can be dangerous.’ Jamil is talking while he is busy with his samosas. ‘Dangerous? How?’ ‘They act as fat-storing packets or something. But yes they do have a great role there.’ ‘Umm. Well. Yes. But..I have a tooth for them.’ ‘That shows.’ Jamil responded unmindful of what he said said. ‘Shows. Right. Is it a bad thing?’ I inquire. Meanwhile, my heart is pounding. ‘Not a good thing also.’ I try to respond with something, but my words are stuck somewhere in my throat. So, I remain silent in the hope of some kind of redemption in words from him.

‘You should meet my friend. She can give you some amazing tips,’ Jamil continues as he is still occupied with his samosas. ‘You will look beautiful.’ Beautiful. ‘Beau..ti..full. Umm.’ ‘Yes, beautiful. Healthy is beautiful. My mother always says that.’ ‘Umm…You mean skinny beautiful..?’ ‘Yes, they are the same.’ ‘Right.’ Prolonged silence, and I am trying to take a bite of my samosa. My throat is simply not having it. Everything’s stuck there. Voice. Shrieks. And now the bite of samosa. I clear my throat,’ We should be going now.’ ‘Right. Let’s go.’ I get up as I leave that very twinkle at the plate of samosa.

The tiny smoke-filled compound is echoing with young mouths chatters. This beanery is a small space upstairs somewhere in the middle of the old food street.  Although, barely covering space of some ten feet, feels exclusively distant from the normalcy of life. Young students often come here to take a glimpse of their hopes-more like a meditative chamber. ‘What do you think is behind this big painting?’ Aizaz inquired looking at Shajar.’A wall? Dumb.’ ‘Well, I have heard they keep something extra behind these paintings. Don’t take people and place at face value. I must tell you,’ Aizaz further added. ‘I have heard lots of things about this place.’ ‘Prove it. Go and check for yourself.’ Naimal responded. ‘I would have but I feel too tired to walk up to that painting.’ ‘Too tired to take a step or two? Garfield.’ ‘You forgot to add Lahori, Naimal.’ I interrupt. The three of us stare at me now. ‘Your eyes are misty. Are you crying?’ Shajar leaned in. ‘Crying? No, it’s just the smoke.’ ‘Is something bothering you, Bakhmal?’ Naimal keeps her right hand over my shoulder. ‘Come on, stop embarrassing me. I said IT IS JUST THE SMOKE.’ ‘Alright. Alright.’ ‘Let’s have one more cup of tea guys and then we shall go.’ Shajar proposes and we all confirm.

‘It is just the smoke.’ The words are staring back at me throughout my commute. I can see the misty reflections of passengers in the big glass window in front of me. As I stare more into it, the reflections start becoming more clearer. My mind is now separating the reflections based on sizes. ‘The thin reflections. The big reflections. Suitable to be in love. Not suitable to be in love.’ Suddenly, my eyes meet this strange reflection, who is completely unknown to me yet sits right in front of me. I am getting this bizarre feeling. Hundred knots in my throat. The reflection keeps on getting bigger, the more I look into it. ‘Is it me? Is it me?’ As I  lift my arm to touch my right shoulder, the reflection in the window does exactly the same. I twitch my arm away the other second. My eyelids flutters and my heart sinks. If thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

’65! No, I should take the reading again.’ I am removing my hairband, and as I stand on the weight scale. ‘It’s 65. Again. Oh, Bakhmal–that’s bad.’ For the most part of my life, I was not weight conscious. As long as I could run like a gazel, it didn’t matter. ‘Have you ever seen a chubby heroin alongside the hero?’ My mother is giving me quizzical look as I ask her. ‘Well, in our times, most of the actresses were slightly chubby. A little fat here and there. But why you ask?’ ‘Just wondering. I never really noticed it.’ I keep on checking the scale over and over again. ‘How much time does it take to be skinny, Ammo?’ ‘Just keep a balanced diet and exercise a little. Be consistent. And it shouldn’t matter how much time. As long as you are on a healthy path.’ ‘No Ammo, it matters. Being on the right track isn’t enough. Is there any way to get skinny..say..within two months?’ My mother gives me an inquisitive scan from the bottom up. ‘Why such haste? And all of a sudden?’ ‘No, I just want to look beautiful.’ ‘You are not beautiful?’ I paused as my mother asks. ‘Umm.. I just want to be.’ Before she could say anything, her phone rings.

It’s the middle of the night, and my belly rumbles. Stands in the kitchen. Nothing appeals to my appetite anymore. The longer I stand there, the more I feel full. So, I come back to my bed. Winters are tricky. Winter inculcates the fear of loneliness. That drives a heart to open up to anyone offering something. Something good. Something warm. As spring arrives, the heart opens up again. But this time to realities. What are realities anyway? If you happen to travel on an express highway leading towards those three buildings in the Capital. Throughout the way, you think you have almost reached your destination. But it keeps on deceiving you. As if you will stretch your arms, and get hold of it. Yet you don’t stretch your arm often in the fear of being deceived again. And that is how we go on throughout our lives.

Days pass like a gust of wind when you are engaged with the flames within. ‘Potato sticks!’ My brother entered my room with a platter of potato sticks. They have always been my favorite. ‘Let’s watch a movie today. Or I have this awesome collection of web series, we can watch them too. I will compromise. For your sake. What say? You have not been acting yourself lately? What’s up, dude?’ My brother bombarded me with so many questions at the same time. ‘What do you want me to answer first?’ ‘That..what has happened to you?’ ‘Did I grow a tail? Oh. Horns? What are you even talking about?’ ‘Alright. What should we watch now?’ And in no time, we both selected an old Hindi movie like we always do despite the new collection. The potato sticks taste nothing to me. If anything…guilt. I am staring at the platter, and calories are dancing right there. I place my half-eaten stick back on the plate.

What does spring bring? Pollen allergies! That would be an answer of people prone to it. Others will come up with blooming flowers, new beginnings, and everything gay. The world inside decides the description of the world outside. It is possible that one may fall in love with gloomy winters. It is also possible to despise spring. The world within determines. My garden consists of two rows of flower beds. Red Poppies, Marigolds, Dandelion, Lantana, Thistles,  Roses and the Night Blooming Jasmines. ‘Jasmine. They are visited by fairies at night. The fairies like them to be their spot for tea parties.’ When we were little, my brother used to say that. He actually took that idea from a cartoon, we used to watch together. Our world was little back then. Him and I, and our wondrous imaginations. ‘It’s good to see all these flowers blooming again. Finally, we get to meet them all once again.’ My mother exclaimed with such joy as she approaches me. ‘Umm.’ ‘Ah, and the sunny day, and the fragrance of it!’ ‘It’s a good day.’ ‘Which one of the flowers do you like the most, Bakhmal?’ My mother gives me an inquisitive look. ‘Um. Let me see. I used to like Jasmines the most. Poppies appeal more to me now. Um, the orange Roses too. And the details of Marigold petals..’ ‘So you don’t prefer one over the others?’ ‘Prefer? No. I mean I think each one is beautiful in its own way.’

My mother is now taking a thoughtful look at the whole garden. ‘See. Bakhmal. Let me tell you one thing today. These flowers..each one of them ..they look beautiful in their own ways. I asked you which one of the flowers do you like the most. you could’ve answered me today with one flower. A few years ago, you might have been liking some different flowers the most. And even a few years from now, you will be appreciating a completely different flower’s beauty. All of these flowers remain the way they are. But it’s the way you look at them differs.’ I am trying to make the sense of where she is really aiming to take me. ‘So, now I ask you if you do not have a fixed standard of beauty for these flowers. Then why do you have one for people? Beta, you will be always beautiful to the eyes which look at you the right way. The eyes empty of love can never find real beauty in anything. It’s all our own perceptions’ I am finally able to make sense out of her words. ‘Just like what John Keats says, ‘beauty is truth, and truth beauty’ ?’ I responded eagerly. ‘That you know better. Appreciate this garden the way it is. In its diversity of beauty. And this garden is a miniature of the world itself. Try not to narrow down your vision and mind. Always expand it. As I have always said. The sky is the..’ ‘The sky is the limit for eyes which don’t want to see beyond.’ I interrupt and complete her sentence delightedly. She puts her hand around my shoulder. It took an epiphany to untie the knots in my brain one by one, leaving a much broader smile on my face. As I stand there in the arms of my mother. It took one crack in the prison of my mind for me to feel alive, and take a good breath of air.

About the Author:

Nida Khattak is a graduate in English Literature from Government College University, Lahore and is currently pursuing her Masters in Political Science from the same institution. She writes fiction, non-fiction and doesn’t discriminate.

One Comment

  1. Naba Fatima

    Loved it!

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