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     Volume 4 Issue 12 | September 10, 2004 |

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A Roman Column


Neeman Sobhan

I have been away. And I don't mean simply that I have been away to another place, which I have, for I have been away to Egypt. No, I have been away to another time. And again, I don't mean it in the sense of visiting an ancient land where time has clipped wings.

I will, of course, write about such a place and such a state of timelessness in my forthcoming articles about my revisiting Egypt, a country where time goes further back than the hieroglyphics of recorded memory, digs deeper than the pillars in the hot sands, and stands stiller than the air inside Tutankhamun's tomb. But there is yet another place and another dimension, more ancient and timeless than any earthly place a tourist can visit, and I was sucked into such a black hole these last few weeks, which has kept me away from my present.

The place is childhood and the dimension is a period of the past that I had thought was lost forever and which was suddenly restored to me the other day as if an amnesiac had recovered a numbed portion of her memory. I have been inside a personal time warp, which has temporarily distorted my sense of reality, put my present writer-self into remission. For a while, I am lost in the late 60's and am just a schoolgirl.

Many people undergo this when they suddenly come upon some forgotten aspect of their past life: a book, a diary, a photograph, an old acquaintance, an old place, a snatch of forgotten melody. In my case it was a voice from my childhood.

The story itself is not remarkable, but what is relevant to this article are the effect and resonance the distant past has triggered on my present, making me reassess what my journey of life so far may have been about. I'm asking myself if this was a voyage through time or space or both or neither? Does the mere passage of time and the events of our personal history transform us or is transformation caused by emotional experiences? Are physical or circumstantial change real or merely an illusion? Can we see inner change? Does time make of us totally new individuals distinct from the one who started out or are we layered around an old core? Is the present truer because it seems more 'real', being more immediate and palpable than the past? And therefore, is the past, because it rests on the shifting sands of faulty memories backed with faded photos, illegible letters and evidence of unreliable witnesses, a pack of lies, a story we tell ourselves, and which changes at each telling?

Who are those people that we were years ago, peeking at us from photo albums or through other people's memories of us? Are we still those familiar looking strangers or are we wholly new people? Is this writer she who now sits confidently at the keyboard or is she also the unsure but precocious girl whose poems printed regularly in the Young Observer's League of The Pakistan Observer now make me squirm. I can't remember being her but I know I grew out of her. And this girl arrived the other day along with that voice from the past. What do I do with her? It's like an illegitimate child seeking admittance into my cosy present day family. But in her luggage she has brought along my long-lost friend.

In my last years of school in Pakistan I had a 'best friend' in those youthful times when such terms were an important part of school life. Zahra and I were each other's 'till death-do-us-part' soul mates. The verandahs of the Quetta Public School surrounded by the snow-topped Chiltan Mountains must ring even today with our footsteps as we strolled arm in arm chatting and giggling the recess hours away. The conversations continued on the phone after school; what on earth did we talk about?

Her father was in the army and mine was in the Military Lands and Cantonment Services. My family came away to East Pakistan in 1970. By the time Bangladesh was born, I had lost touch with my best friend, and could not reconnect. By 1973, I was swept into another life and another world by the man who became my 'best friend' for life. For years I longed for Zahra who represented for me a lost world of innocence, a personal one and a political one when we didn't know that what we naively thought was the same country would tear apart at the seams. She belonged to the pristine world of girls dreaming of entering life. Now that I had entered mine I yearned to share my new world with her and find out where destiny had taken her life.

Soon the present overshadowed the past and I put away her memories like an unfinished book, and soon the book was forgotten on some shelf of memory. Three decades passed. A few weeks ago, the phone rang. "Hullo?" I said distractedly, quite sure it was for one of my visiting sons. "Neeman?"

Unfamiliar…familiar…unfamiliar. "Yes?" I was wary, my brows knitted. "Pehchana mujhey? Can you guess who this is?" "No." I was abrupt; I hate guessing games on the phone. The voice revealed simply: "Zahra." I sat down, I stood up; I started to laugh, I started to cry, all the while screaming "Zahra? Zahra! Is that you? You!" The clock spun from 2004 back to 1968 and then came to a standstill. Two schoolgirls, one Bengali speaking in Italy, the other Urdu speaking in Canada embraced each other with their voices. We clung the next hour in hysterical non-conversation, asking each other variations of the basic question: "Where the hell were you ALL my life?"

That night I wrote her an email, funny and sad, about two little Rip Van Winkles who had fallen asleep and woken to find that they had become middle aged women! We had gone eagerly to the film show of our lives and just as the credits were rolling we had dozed off to wake up and find that half the film was over! Now how to rewind the reel and update each other? What happened to me while you slept? Oh! Nothing much, just my whole life passed---- from a teenager I blossomed into a woman and now I am retired from being a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a full time mother, and even if the script of being a mother-in-law and grandmother (in the distant future) is in the offing, I am back to the start of the journey, dreaming again of life, but this time as MYSELF not as roles. Aur tum sunao? What's new with you?

Oh! The banality of re-acquaintanceship and reducing ones entire life into an email had me in laughter and tears! How to compress your whole life with all its joys and sorrows for a quick re-cap for your best friend? Inadvertently, she caused me to cast an editorial eye on my life's manuscript, judge the irrelevant from the relevant and attempt to sum up my life in a few words. The exercise proved a valuable learning and humbling experience: my first draft was two paragraphs!

Now, by regular question and answer sessions on the email, supplemented with weekly phone calls, we may be able to catch up on the irrelevancies of a lifetime! And till we finally see each other, we will buffer the visual shock with photographs, chronologically supplied!

I know we have changed, and I don't mean physically. But I believe in a still, timeless core, and we are presently feeding our friendship from this essential source till we rehabilitate each other into our present lives and new selves. And not just each other; we are also bringing home our own lost selves.

NEXT WEEK: Moon Over Luxor



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