Tuesday, 1 January 2019

goodbye twenty-eighteen

brunch at home on the first of january
i often found myself wishing that twenty eighteen would hurry itself up and end, despite knowing that a new year does not mean a neat and definitive resolution of the one past. how is it, that an even numbered year can have so odd a character? (see shake to remember if you need a reminder about the absurdity and the seriousness). the political flavour of the year was toxicity, at least as determined by the oxford dictionary which picks its word of the year as a reflection of the ‘ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance’. frankie boyle’s satirical stock-taking of the year reflected the very same sentiments, so i thought of recommending a ‘year in stuff’ as an anti-dote. but even in its materiality, it is inherently pointing fingers at the unevenness and peculiarity of the world we live in. 

i have increasingly found myself shying away from the news, not because i want to turn a blind eye but because all too often it reminds me of being in my seventh-grade mathematics class. we had a particularly incompetent if well-groomed teacher who we had nicknamed black cat on account of his clothing. it took me years to realise that one of the reasons why we never took to him was because he thought that girls were naturally bad at mathematics. it did not help that i was terrified of numbers. reading reportage this year made me feel terrified, resigned and worried in the way that i had felt in that classroom. but it also reminded me of how to find my way through the problem. needless to say, i have been preoccupied by facts and fortunately, even in this cacophony of alternative ones, there are plenty to be found. i love full facts, the uk’s fact checkers for ‘parsing claims from british politicians and media, cross-referencing them with reliable data and labelling them as inaccurate or correct.’ the new york times usefully pulled together sixty of their very favourites facts. the new yorker remains a steadfast favourite for its rigorous and unflinching journalism, with its core of internationalism in an increasingly exceptionalist world. 

what interested me most this year though, was the ordinary. because this was a year of love, loss and change, i was drawn to essays, memoir and forms of writing that sit on the boundary of personal fiction. didion’s ‘the year of magical thinking’ and ‘blue nights’ were a lens on the anatomy of grief. i lost my grandfather somewhat suddenly months after my grandmother died and didion’s experience was a way to make sense of this loss. nelson’s ‘bluets’ and manguso’s ‘300 arguments’ were interesting not only in content but form as well, straddling both poetry and prose. longreads published a slew of longform writing exploring and celebrating daily lives. but what captures the real spirit of the everydayness is the school of life chapter of ‘the wonders of an ordinary life’. it references the dutch artist vermeer’s painting titled ‘the little street’ that depicts a streetscape in delft. by depicting the quotidian, vermeer “was insisting that ordinary life is heroic in its own way, because ordinary-sounding things are very far from easy to manage. there is immense skill and true nobility involved in bringing up a child to be reasonably independent and balanced; maintaining a good-enough relationship with a partner over many years despite areas of extreme difficulty; keeping a home in reasonable order; getting an early night; doing a not very exciting or well-paid job responsibly and cheerfully; listening properly to another person and, in general, not succumbing to madness or rage at the paradox and compromises involved in being alive.” 

this quiet celebration of everydayness came during a year when i needed it the most. after years of saving and careful planning, omair and i bought our first ever flat. the large windows in our front room mean that nature is as resident as we are. on sunny days, the sun streams in cheerfully, as does the variously toned moonlight. because we have nature reserve near us, we often see flights of birds and now that it is winter, we can see the water reservoir that had been hidden from sight by foliage earlier in the year. a scorcher of a summer meant we made good use of our balcony where omair has been at work growing chillies and nurturing evergreens and bamboo plants. omair gained a sister-in-law as his brother adeel tied the knot in august. a satirist by nature, he welcomed arfa in his best man’s speech as ‘with this wonderful union, i have gained a sister. because clearly i had a shortage of sisters.’ buying, moving and setting up a new home was not without its stresses and for omair it coincided with immense pressure in the workplace. the tumult and turbulence in global markets along with workplace politics stretched his personal capacity. he realised that he is stronger than he gives himself credit for, but that true resilience means asking for help and accepting the support of family, mentors and friends.  

the closing weeks of this year found me in islamabad for the first family christmas without babcia and daddy. it was time to craft a new ritual for an old custom. baba and i decorated the christmas tree – a modern and minimalist affair that resembled a pair of antlers. i wound fairy lights around it, baba hung silver baubles and bells and then we perched little birds on the tips of the branches. yar mohammed (my grandparents cook) travelled from lahore to spend christmas with us. he is short, thin and with a need for efficiency and occupation. on christmas eve, he cooked the menu that has been on our table since as far back as i can remember; barszcz(beetroot soup) dolloped with cream, baked fish, roast chicken with mashed potatoes, steamed carrots, red cabbage and mizeria(cucumbers dressed with sour-cream and dill). dinner ended with slim slices of a very aged christmas pudding and home-made custard. we listened to christmas carols and on some evenings, baba would read aloud ghalib and bulleh shah’ poetry after dinner. we had friendsmas too, that brought together old and new. as a family who loves to cook, we all made something to put on the table. baba and murad smoked fish and chicken, mama made seared tenderloin and a baby potato salad, alia made her famous flourless chocolate cake and i made a herby cheese ball and czech sugar biscuits that babcia used to bake at christmas. as i penned this annual letter on the flight back to london, i realised that this was exactly the kind of ending that twenty-eighteen needed. 

twenty-eighteen had as many highs as it did lows. the old year will certainly drift into the new. i will continue borrowing perspective from family, friends and writers. the one that resonates the most right now is zadie smith’s essay ‘on optimism and despair’– “if novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioural possibilities. they are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting. at this moment, all over the world — and most recently in america — the conductors standing in front of this human orchestra have only the meanest and most banal melodies in mind. here in germany you will remember these martial songs; they are not a very distant memory. but there is no place on earth where they have not been played at one time or another. those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.”

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