"Good Morning", I said as I entered the kitchen cum dining room.
It was small for our flat of eighteen bedrooms. Two at one end of the flat were for a couple, and their small children, if any. Society was changing. Religion had already gone out of fashion. Lasting attachments, marriage and children, were following suit. Without a generation of young ones to follow, society would collapse. Selfishness of youth and consumerism for the young meant this message could not be delivered directly. All over the Campus, one could see stickers displaying the message "Two can live as cheaply as one". Someone had written under one such sticker. "Problem is that two become three and then four". A few years ago, government social engineers had hit upon the idea of mixed-gender flats so as to encourage couple and then family formation. Maybe the smallness of our kitchen was also a deliberate design. It would encourage some intimacy. After making something to eat for two, one would feel like going to the bedroom for eating it, as the dining area would be crowded.
Anyway, there I was, fresh from sleep and rest. So as I entered, I announced a "Good Morning" to all - assorted fellow students in the kitchenette. We were neither in the same department, nor would leave the University in the same year, but we were flat mates, and a "Good Morning" greeting was in order.
I did not receive a single reply.
"Hmmm ...", I thought. "This needs rectification. I mean postgraduate students are self-occupied and selfish, but a greeting is a greeting, it must be returned. These students must be taught some basic manners."
"Good Morning Christine, Good Morning Angela, Good Morning Pete, Good Morning Ibraheem, Good Morning Mike, Good Morning George", I said, taking each one's name separately.
Back came the replies, subdued, a little sheepish, but they came.
Satisfied, I looked around. My favorite table by the window was not taken. I took the seat in the corner, facing the crowd, and put my p-cap on the table. I always had a cap. You never know when a cold breeze would come and clog my sinuses. Precaution is the name of the game. When I get up to make my breakfast, this p-cap would ensure that my seat remains reserved. I too am selfish. A good morning is all right, but to give up my favorite spot from where I can look out the window and enjoy the scenery, that is not on.
I saw that I would have to wait for the cooking area to be free before I prepare my breakfast.
What should it be? I started thinking: Cereals - Wheatabix or cornflakes? Eggs or Cheese or baked beans? - Heinz, for Beanz meanz Heinz. Goes without saying that these would be accompanied by toast and butter and milk and coffee - instant, of course.
A breakfast has to be filling and hearty to face the challenges of the day ahead.
As I was silently debating with myself, Sheida entered.
"Good Morning, Sheida", I said in my confident, chirpy voice.
"What is so good about it?" came the gruff reply, almost cross.
"My", thought I, "why is she like that today? This calls for extraordinary measures."
"Good question, Sheida. I will answer it, but first you should have your breakfast. Sit down here," I pointed to the chair opposite me, then continued, "while I prepare our breakfast. Today's is on me."
Sheida looked just a little surprised, but came over and sat down opposite me. I looked at her. She was crushed. Obviously she had been studying all night. That is what happens if you go for a Masters. If you are like me, and get accepted for a straight doctorate, you have a free ride for three years. Your time is your own, and you give headache to your supervisor, for he seldom sees you do anything productive, or even read anything, or even say that you need help.
Or at least I had this fortune. I have always had such fortune. Whenever I needed time off over extended periods, I found myself in a position where no one questioned what I was doing. Sure, I did not get any perks, but that was a secondary consideration.
Sorry, I was talking about Sheida and was sidetracked into talking about myself. That is another problem of old age - well, not so old. I shouldn't think of myself as old until I cross 80, but the wife never lets me off the hook, "You are old, so behave you age".. Wonder what that means. What is acceptable behavior at my age?
Oh no, let us get back to Sheida. She had accepted the invitation without a word. I set the table - bowls for the cereals, quarter-plates for toasts, salt and pepper dispensers, a bottle of half-cream milk. I liked full cream, but had learnt that most people, especially girls, preferred skimmed milk. They probably needed to shed fat. I had no such problems. Although I had never made breakfast for anyone before this, I had often invited people for coffee or tea, and as a compromise I kept half-cream milk. I arranged the eatables which I thought were common to all breakfasts: orange juice, bread, butter, marmalade, sugar, and honey. Then I straightened myself, stood a little to Sheida's left, and bending just a little, as only seasoned butlers or waiters do, asked her:
"What will ma`mselle have for breakfast? Wheatabix or cornflakes, eggs, cheese, corned beef, or baked beans?", I said. Then added hopefully, "or maybe all of these?"
"Wheatabix and eggs", she said with just a hint of a smile.
"Good, ma`moiselle has made a healthy choice", I said. Then I thought: there is hope yet of turning her back into a human, "and how will ma`mselle like her eggs? Boiled, poached, sunny side up, or an omlette", I continued with my mock act.
"Sunny side up", she said.
"Good choice again, ma`mselle", I said approvingly. I placed the box of Wheatabix on the table. Then I looked for an opening at the cooking range. When I saw one, I moved to prepare the breakfast. I put my own frying pan on the electric stove. I never used the communal pans. They were often contaminated with lard or bacon or other pork material. Rather than spend precious time cleaning the pans over and over again, we Muslim residents had bought our own pans. I took out the eggs and expertly breaking the shells, I fried two eggs for each of us. Then brought these over to the table.
As I placed the eggs before her, I saw she hadn't even taken orange juice, so I commented in a complaining sort of way: "Ma`mselle hasn't started her breakfast yet? The eggs will get cold."
"I am waiting for you", she said.
"I am honored", I said, and sat down opposite her.
We started the breakfast, and after some food had gotten into Sheida, I said: "Did ma`mselle notice that the menu here does not include bacon, the usual English breakfast."
"I don't eat pork, any more".
"Really, ma`mselle has made me really happy."
When she had moved in with some of her college mates into our flat, she had initiated the conversation with us old-timers, so that we all had a preliminary introduction. Then at the weekend she had asked me: "Come, timbuktu, we are all going out to this fabulous Chinese takeaway, real cheap", and I had decided there was no harm in humoring her. We had gone out and it really was good food and what is more for us students, it was cheap.
She was from Iran, a Shia Muslim. Her father, a lecturer at Tehran University, had placed her in an English boarding school, from where she had taken admission in a polytechnic, and now she was at my University. I would have looked down at her being from a polytechnic, for I used to be a snob. But she must have been good in Maths to have gained admission to our Production Engineering Department, and that meant she commanded my respect. This was in those days. I am not a snob anymore. I have learnt my lessons, in very very hard ways, let me add.
Those were the days of the Shah, and employees at Tehran University, like other Iran's officially patronized institutions, had to be liberal. Her father was no exception. And she supported the Shah. I did not. I referred to the Shah as "Shahe Khaen" - the embezzler king. She would wince at that, but she knew most students, Iranian or not, hated the Shah and used that term.
So I too called him an embezzler. I wasn't Iranian, but I did not like kings or queens, on principle.
I am wiser now - Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses, Daughters of the East, Presidents, Chairmen, Chief Executive Officers, are all the same.
We were similar in some respects. Both of us were non-practicing Muslims. None of us offered prayers. None of us fasted. We were tolerant, although my tolerance was probably more on the surface that a deep one. She was a little more far gone than me in liberalism. We both drank and danced occasionally. But she went to the pubs with friends, and ate pork. I did not. I hated pubs. They reek of smoke and alcohol, and something else besides. I preferred clubs or less than noisy restaurants with plenty of space. She probably did not have access to these, as she was a poor student. She had no boyfriend in "that" sense of the term, and I too avoided having a girlfriend. There was nothing attractive in her physical appearance. Now that I try to recall her face, I think she was so plain, a little makeup would have done wonders for her, but she never put on a makeup.
I had friends who were earning well, and had expense accounts, so when they came visiting, they needed company and we went out to dinner, and other things.
Then I had seen her eat pork, been dismayed, and uncharacteristically asked her:
"You eat pork?" This wasn't a question. The hidden question was why.
She went on the defensive. "It is my father's fault. He sent me here when I was young."
"Correction, Sheida. It WAS your father's fault. You are an adult now, and responsible for your own actions. It is your fault now."
Silence had reigned for a while, then conversation had moved to another topic.
However, that was another time, in the past. She had now given up pork, and that made me happy. The more people give up on haram, the happier I was.
I asked her, "shall I tell you now what is good about this morning, Sheida?"
"Sure", she said.
"Right", I said then started listing.
"For one, we are alive. We have a chance to make amends for the harm we may have done, and to do good.
Second, look outside, and see that this is a bright sunny morning. It is going to be a pleasant day.
Third, looking outside, we can see the grass on the lawns that surround us. We are lucky to be living here, if only for a while. Have you been to the University of Aston in Birmingham?" Same city, but that one is right in the city center. The noise, and the pollution, and nothing but concrete towers. We are indeed lucky to be in this pleasant University, to which the Cadbury's have donated vast acres of land - hills and fields and lakes, even. And that Messrs. Lucas of Lucas Batteries have donated money to build this cozy hall of residence for us.
Fourth, none of us here are is handicapped. We are instead the privileged. We have sports facilities, a state of the art gymnasium, and sports center, an excellent library, large lawns everywhere in the University, not just outside this window.
Fifth, we are having a full, healthy, loaded with vitamins, breakfast. Even in this country, there are people who do not have the means to eat so well.
Sixth, we are postgraduate students. Again, how many have this privilege? And what is more, the state is paying for our keep, at least it is for mine.
Now tell me, isn't this a good morning?"
She smiled, a weak smile, but a genuine one: "It wasn't, but now it is. Thanks. I am sorry I was in a nasty mood. I had to study all night."
"My pleasure". said I, and she started to eat her breakfast hurriedly. "I have an exam today, and have to go", she said.
"Good luck", I said. I did not have any exams. I would have just one final viva, to defend my thesis.
Three years of freedom, scholarship guaranteed, working on a problem, designing, setting up the apparatus, experimenting, making sense of results, writing a thesis and defending it. That was a good deal. But alas, it would soon change. The universities would have to generate their own funds, and would become commercialized. Students would not get such generous scholarships. These would be tied to performance. They would have to study on student loans. I would be out of it, though.
Life was good.
And I had made some people feel brighter that day.
As for Pakistan, many a times strangers have stopped and helped me change a tyre, or run errands for me. I have seen people help (and myself helped) those less priveleged than them, like women, old men. I am old and have a white beard, and people are kind and helpful.
I do think people in Pakistan were very friendly. As living has become difficult, as every institution has failed, as individuals have been exposed to be corrupt or unprincipled, there is however a dog-eats-dog attitude.
But people are still helpful, although maybe not in the everyday city life. Despite increasing poverty and escalating differences in lifestyles, people give. Edhi testifies to that. His is the largest individual private charity being run from private donations. He even has helicopters now.
Monday, November 24, 2008
"Good Morning", I said as I entered the kitchen cum dining room.