We go to a banquet, the whole family. A gathering of blustering uncles, and aunties luminous in all their finery. They are not relatives, but that is how family friends are referred to: my child, my uncle, auntie, brother, sister.
After the usual salaams, the polite inquires ("college, then, is it?"), comfortable pleasantries, the chitchat grows to a crescendo of real conversation. As usual, the genders are divided in their selection of topics. If I close my eyes, it is even more discernable. The ladies discuss people, travel, books...exchanging compliments, recipes, and anecdotes; the men discuss sports, economy, books (we are a very bookish culture), exchanging amiable insults and lines of poetry. Occasionally the conversations merge--an auntie, perhaps, is particularly interested in cricket, or an uncle enthusiastically relates the finer points of Indonesian cuisine. And then--inevitably--we turn to Current Events. Suddenly the room is tense. Everyone stiffens. Voices rise. Now the room is divided once again, but by politics.
Bombings back home--somebody's maid has died, somebody's best friend has lost his sight. Remember that bright icecream shop at the corner of such-and-such street? The one run by the handsome Pathan? It's been torn down by bandits. That political group has declared vengeance on that politician. Somebody's cousin has been imprisoned on wrongful charges. The nation has been reduced to confusion and rage. Fog and fire.
(I try to block it out, I try to distract my heart. The Polish girl on my bus, the middle-school romances she constantly relates to me with serious grey eyes. Cosmos, a book by Carl Sagan my dad is forcing upon me, which has me fascinated, although I must never let him know. The magic colouring book that fills up with colours once you throw them inside. My heroes: the way his eyes crinkle into a smile before it reaches his mouth. The way she takes in strangers, battered and broken, without questions. As long as there are such people, not everything is lost. And I remember this:
A Native American grandfather was talking to his grandson about how he felt about a tragedy. He said, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is the vengeful, angry, violent one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one.”
His grandson asked him, “Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?”
“The one I feed,” the grandfather answered.
I think about what those people suffered and what we are suffering now. I want to speak up, but how to convey my timid little beliefs? Besides, my voice doesn't count for anything here. It is severely lacking in experience, age, intelligence. I am small, insignificant as a pebble in the vastness of the ocean)
And then...Islam--now people are shouting. Everyone is united in the opinion that this is not it, this is not it. Someone tries to contain her sobs. Our heads are bowed, we are lost, lost. "What has the world come to?" sighs a man. "It has come to nothing; it was always this way," replies his wife.
The Afghans, the refugees, what about them, especially their children? What about others, the earthquake victims, the Kashmirs? A woman's green kashmiri eyes flash as she describes the torture of her family members. The men are on their feet now, they wish they had power to crush someone, fix the world--revenge, justice, frustration, throbbing veins. Musharraf, Musharraf, it all boils down to him! What has he done about the insane radicals? What has he done for peace? It goes on and on...
Then she speaks, and everyone is silent, in respect for the eldest among us, my grandmother. She doesn't know much about politics, she explains, but she is quite sure that Musharraf is a good boy. Always was, always has been. "He does enjoy dancing at weddings, it's true," she chuckles, "But then it is in his blood, you see...his mother was the same. And the dances! They are so funny, poor thing!" She attempts to imitate a lopsided bhangra movement. We laugh. The tension trickles out of the room quietly.
Our hostess comes out of her kitchen with good news. "The maid is done; dinner's ready!" Saris rustle, couches creak, as everybody rises and walks towards a candlelit dining room. Over good food and Saudi champagne, the talk turns to blessed little things once more: the possibility of rain tomorrow, the baby's first word. Outside, the wind blows, palm trees rustle, and nothing changes.