Where They Dream in Blue
Blue is the color of Karachi, the city of lights, the rich and poor, the joyful and the desperate. It's the color of the oceans that surround the city, the shrines that hide the dreaming Sufi saints. Twenty-two year old Pakistani American Karim Asfar decides to jump on a plane and discover this city, in the country where his parents were born, yet a place to which he has no emotional ties. With the help of his rock-Sufi cousin Akbar, beautiful but conflicted colleague Nazli, and a beggar boy called Abdullah who haunts the shrines of the saints, Karim discovers there's much more to Karachi than political turmoil, religious extremism, and spicy food. Eager to make a difference, save Pakistan's endangered environment, and rescue Abdullah from his life of begging, Karim embarks on a search to discover his past and his future, while the Sufi saints deliver blessings and warnings to guide him on his way.
Encompassing religion, culture, identity, the immigrant's journey to the new world and back again to the old, this witty, moving novel comments on the influences that shape Pakistan and its people today. Modern-day Pakistan, a country struggling to find itself in the new century, provides the scenario for Karim to make choices about what - and who - he really wants to be in both the worlds he belongs to.
BINA SHAH was born in Karachi but spent her early years in Virginia and completed her later education in Massachusetts. She studied at Wellesley College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her first book, a volume of short stories called Animal Medicine, was published in 2000. This is her first novel.
The metallic chime pinged through the cabin, announcing an imminent landing. Karim blinked, startled back into the here-and-now. Rubbing his eyes, he leaned forward for another glimpse of those lights, pressing his forehead and nose against the cool plastic window. It was a childhood habit, flying with his parents on trips to Disneyworld, California, the Grand Canyon. In his excitement to reach the Magic Kingdom, or Knotts Berry Farm, he thought he could move the plane faster by physical exertion. Though he had outgrown those childish trips, he still liked to imagine that his exertions would bring the plane down just that little bit faster.
He hoped that his cousin would be waiting at the airport on time. Akbar had always had problems with punctuality, ever since they first met as freshmen at college in Boston. To most students, nine a.m. was the time they were meant to be in class, sleepy-eyed, yawning, slumped in the desks over steaming cups of coffee. To Akbar, nine a.m. was a time to wake up, consider getting out of bed, and then fall asleep for another two hours.
Karim often wondered how Akbar had ever graduated from college. "You know, you're going to have to study at some point," he told Akbar once.
laughed. He was hunched over the controls of his Playstation, concentrating
on the racing game flashing across the television screen. "Laura's
lending me her notes. She's smart. It'll rub off on me."
Karim sighed. It was a good thing Akbar wasn't majoring in biology. Karim was two years younger than Akbar. They were in the same class because Akbar had failed his O-level exams back in Pakistan - not once, but twice. But Akbar had an intelligence that shone, more important than a donkey-headed devotion to academics. When he finally made up his mind to pass, he presented a stunning collection of A's and B's to the admissions office of several American colleges, all of who accepted him without any qualms.
It was here in Boston that they met, not for the first time, as Akbar had visited with his parents several summers before. But this was the first time that Karim got a chance to spend an extended period of time in his company, and he found himself fascinated by Akbar in a way that he found hard to explain to any of his friends. Perhaps it was because he had never met anyone like Akbar, so unrelentingly proud to be Pakistani.
Karim himself had been born and raised in a suburb of Washington, D.C., where the few brown families in the neighborhood changed their names from Bilal and Saira to Bill and Sara for the convenience of their white neighbors. Karim's parents had moved from Pakistan to America soon after their arranged marriage, and his father had amassed a small fortune as a well-respected doctor. But in order to adjust to American life, Karim's parents retreated into science and rationality when confronted with issues of culture and religion. Out of fear that their children might not fit in, they had put raising their children in pure Pakistani style on the backburner. Learning to read Quran and appreciate a good salan received lesser priority, while instead Karim's father made him memorize the Declaration of Independence and taught him how to balance scientific equations.
Raised in the days before multiculturalism became cool, Karim had no knowledge or understanding of the country his parents called home. Because of his father's busy work schedule, trips to Pakistan were few and far between, and Karim conveniently needed no excuse to avoid going there. Pakistan was a name, a memory, a dimension with little, if any, meaning for him. Karim saw other Pakistan-American kids return from trips to Pakistan, only more confused than they had been before they left. Were they Americans, or Pakistanis? Where did they belong? Who owned their loyalties? When the Gulf War erupted, should they have supported the Iraqis, because they were Muslim, or Americans, because they were born in America?
Akbar carried none of that baggage. He was unashamedly, unabashedly, unerringly Pakistani. He made no apologies for who he was or what he came from. When people criticized Islam, he defended his religion energetically, although he could barely remember the last time he had read the Quran. Once, coming back from a late-night party on Beacon Street, he and Karim had run into a man with vicious tattoos and sharp, broken teeth, walking in the opposite direction. The man pushed drunkenly into them as he passed by. "Excuse me," Karim said, as politely as he possibly could. The drunk turned around and shouted back at Karim, through spittle-shining lips, "Fucking Paki!" In that moment, shaken, Karim turned to Akbar for support. Akbar put a calm hand on Karim's shoulder, laughed and flung back Urdu street obscenities at the man.
Akbar took to Boston like a fish returned to its birthwaters, even though he had never lived in America before college. He gamely experienced everything American - food, girls, clubs, bowling. Together they ate endless meals in unhealthy pizza places in Cambridge, sprawled drunkenly on the banks of the Charles during the big crew races between the Ivy League colleges. Karim watched helplessly as Akbar scrambled in his empty pockets for T tokens, then had to explain to a sour-faced MBTA official why he had tried to jump the turnstile. Karim helped Akbar buy his first ski jacket and snowboots, and in return, Akbar taught Karim enough Urdu curse words to shame a Chicago cab driver.
But Akbar always returned back to the markers of his own culture, like a compass whose needlepoint always stutters back to true north. Within a month of his arrival, Akbar ferreted out everything that was Pakistani in the city - the best restaurants for payas and naan at three in the morning; the clubs and parties where cool Indian girls in cropped tops with pierced bellybuttons slinked across the dancefloor; the mosque in Quincy where they could say their Eid and occasional Friday prayers, surrounded by Bosnian, Tanzanian, and Chinese Muslims who would not comment on their jeans and sweatshirts.
Secretly, Karim always longed for that kind of belonging, that kind of confidence. He turned to Akbar with the blind instinct of flowers that sought out the sunlight. And Akbar generously adopted him. His unspoken motto was that they were cousins, and therefore brothers, and in this country, no matter what, brothers had to stick together.
According to the college records, Karim majored in political science, but unofficially he felt that Akbar was his real focus of study. From him, Karim learned things about Pakistan that would never have been taught in any class. To hear Akbar tell it, Pakistan was the worst and best land in the world. He talked so much to Karim about that strange, faraway, fairy-tale land that Karim began to find resonance and life in something that had always been flat and unreal before. Full of people of the vilest nature and yet the highest consciences, capable of committing the worst crimes but filled with natural generosity and goodness, Pakistan began to take on both shape and form in Karim's mind.
He began to pay more attention to the newspaper. He logged onto the Internet to read the Dawn every morning before class, listened carefully when people debated which party was better, the PPP or the Muslim League, and who was the greater cricketer, Imran Khan or Javed Mianadad. He slowly grew more and more familiar with the buzzwords, the catchphrases. It was like learning another language, and yet the more he learned, the hungrier he became. The questions that filled his mind kept him up at night, wondering, confused, excited. He felt as though his spirit floated out the window and traveled to a country that lived only in his subconscious, but threatened to break through whenever his guard was down.
What kind of country was it where people willingly maimed their own children and sent them out to beg on the streets? Where politicians dipped their hands into treasuries and exchequers with no fear of being caught? Where young boys were urged to take up guns and go fight religious wars in far-off countries in order to earn a place in heaven?
Yet Akbar's eyes grew bright with spirit when he talked about what he loved of Pakistan. Its wide, undeveloped beaches dotted with wild, desolate rocks, where local fishermen sold fresh fish and shrimps in the early morning. The myriad connections of family that would never let him down, the dozens of relatives that kept him company throughout exams, hospital stays, weddings or funerals. Night cricket, the joyful thwack of ball on bat and scrabbling up and down the road for runs between the wickets. And the girls, slim like reeds, hair long and thick with the kind of heavy promise that long hair inspires only in a Pakistani man. Akbar even celebrated the day of the nuclear tests by becoming hopelessly drunk in the local bar. "We've funnally dunnit," he hiccuped to anyone who would listen, while Karim sat groaning and hiding his face. "No more shamed of ourselves. Can blowup entire world. Start with my history professor tomorrow."
These images, snippets of a country that was close and far at the same time, took up residence in Karim's head. He wanted to know more; he wanted to make the jumbled-up jigsaw into a coherent whole.
"Yaar, the only way to really know about Pakistan," Akbar told Karim over and over again, "is to come and stay. Think about it."
And after graduation, Karim decided that that was exactly what he was going to do. It was how he found himself on a PIA flight, trapped between rows of snoozing businessmen and weeping children. He was nearly paralyzed by fifteen hours of flying, and yet the excitement moved within him like a living animal. He wasn't quite sure what to expect, but he knew that whatever awaited him would teach him everything he wanted to know about where he came from, who he was. The plane nosed in the sky from Dubai down to Karachi, and he was looking down, for any sign of himself, in between the lights and the darkness.
© Bina Shah