Alif Laial Tavern, Virginia: Our grandmothers warned us to keep our doors and windows shut tight on hot summer days. The ghouls and jinn run loose in the oppressive heat. They may have been right. Maybe it was on one of those days when the ghouls snuck into our homes, making us restless for the remainder of our lives.
But there is a certain charm in gazing out the window on a very hot day. For miles, you see nothing except mirages shimmering in the sun. Layers of heat rise from the ground, swirling into mysterious shapes like those of ghosts and spirits long forgotten. They dance with a serious silence as if performing a sacred ritual.
I often felt that if I stretched my hand it would grow and grow until it reached the lonely banyan tree standing guard in the middle among the mirages. I wanted to catch its hanging roots without leaving my room and give them a violent shake, waking the bats hiding in its branches and watching them flit around.
They hung upside down in the heat, waiting for the night when they would assume a thousand new shapes and fly on mysterious missions doing chores for some invisible power.
The tree was big and old. Although it offered plenty of shade, children never played under it. They were afraid of the bats. And of course of the spirits that lived under it but could not be seen. The tree was so old that even the oldest grandmother in the neighborhood said it was big and old when she was a child.
I imagined people reclining in its shade, like the old shepherd we sometimes saw sleeping under the spreading branches of a nearby tree.
All I had to do was close my eyes and I could see princes of old legends meeting village damsels under that tree. Our storytellers and poets never tire of talking about these lovers.
But their stories always have sad endings. They end with the king finding out about his son's romantic pursuits and calling him back, banishing the poor girl to a strange land.
Sometimes she is buried in the sand while chasing mirages, and sometimes she is put to sword on the king's order. More courageous girls drown while trying to cross the river to meet their lovers. Such stories never have happy endings.
But people still fall in love, even if few ever succeed in fulfilling their dreams. Our society still frowns at lovers. It is the forever tale of star-crossed lovers — Romeo and Juliet, Sharks and Jets — as in West Side Story, caste-bound yet defiant in their love of love that spills over to the romance of idealism.
In a society where people are always watching, it is difficult to meet a complete stranger, so most of the affairs start and end in the neighborhood. The lucky few who go away to colleges and universities can meet there. At least that’s how it was when we were growing up.
Since the chances are few and the time spent together is limited, in most cases it is love at first sight. Once the arrow has struck, the next question that confronts all lovers is where to meet. If the girl is a neighbor, such meetings always take place on the rooftop, the boy's or the girl's. Sometimes a cooperative neighbor, usually one of the girl's close friends, helps the lovers.
Summer afternoons are ideal for such meetings. When everybody is tired and hiding from the sun, the lovers climb their roofs and seek comfort in each other.
In love poems, the sun burns the beloved's feet, referred to as soft rose petals. The lover then kisses each and every blister to soothe the pain.
Such meetings are short. A kiss and an embrace, a few soothing words and the girl has to go. Her relatives are wary, particularly during long summer afternoons when it is easy to slip out while everybody else is sleeping. But lovers always find a way.
But these rooftop meetings are usually inconclusive and leave a hunger for more.
And that's where love letters help. These are no brief notes. These are long love letters full of passions. They speak of the pain of loneliness, the sweet and sour desires of the youth, longing for the next meeting and the fear of separation, which many lovers already know could be their fate. A small mistake and everything could be doomed. As soon as the girl's parents find out, they start looking for a suitable match. The man she loves is seldom considered suitable.
But in a repressive society, love is also an act of defiance. We were in our teens when Gen. Zia ul Huq imposed martial law in 1978.
One of the most absurd things his government did was to ban young couples, except those married, from meeting in public. Policemen would chase young couples, demanding to see their marriage contracts. They would threaten to haul an unmarried couple to their parents, knowing that most girls would balk at the idea. Thus they blackmailed them, demanding money and jewelry for releasing them. Some policemen even raped the girls found sitting a bit too close to their boyfriends.
We were young and romantic. We deserved better. We wanted to do so much. We wanted to explore the world. Read literature. Write poetry and have fun. We were growing up.
We still are.
We looked at these restrictions as a personal challenge. We often visited such places and tried to help young couples fight the police.
Some of us who worked for newspapers wrote passionate stories, urging the government to stop this madness.
Some of us joined groups working to topple the government. Love was an act of defiance for us, so defiance became an act of love. We loved to defy the restrictions we thought were crazy.
When not protesting the government's madness, we would visit our friends in jail. One had a girlfriend, so we had to smuggle their love letters back and forth.
Most of us were involved in romance in those days. Some of these relationships ended in marriages. Many did not. But they all seemed to be the most important thing in the world. We made pledges to be with each other and struggle together. We wanted to change the world. But the world was changing us, even if we did not realise it.
We loved romantic, revolutionary poems. They gave us the strength to dream of a society with no repression. We were like children running after butterflies. We wanted to catch them; not realising that the moment we catch up with our dreams, their color and glow will be lost.
But for us the color and the glow never faded, not for what seemed a very long time. The wind spoke to us, the sun rose for us and the spring came for us. All this gave us an emotional high. We had full confidence we could shape our future. We were in love with romance, and we were defiant.
Since the Zia government had banned alcohol — flogging those found drinking — some of us took to drinking, also as an act of defiance.
Many drank to annoy the authorities. Police arrested drinkers, imprisoned and even flogged them, but the people never relented.
One senior journalist I knew drank alcohol only at diplomatic functions where Zia would be. As soon as he saw the general, he would put alcohol in a glass and walk up to him, showing off his drink. He was arrested twice but never changed his habit. A famous cartoonist, when drunk, would go up to the first policeman he came across and would tell him he was drunk and would dare the cop to arrest him.
It was difficult to be young and passionate in those days, just as it must be now for youth bursting at the seams with new-found love, romance and idealism.
Back then it was fun to be defiant. We loved it.