by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
What they did not understand at the PTV station was that it's in my nature to be elsewhere, nodding attentively one minute, gone the next. I didn't understand it either, the tendency to let myself be stolen into another world, switching between here and there like flashes of moon jellies, now lit, now dim. I was six and always behind by a few moments or hours even in the sleepy town of Peshawar with its gray mountain-scape, chinar trees and flaxen afternoons; its rhythms defined less by blasting horns of public buses, or noise of plaza construction, more by the Mochi, the tap-tapping cobbler who could sew together anything from a ripped shoe buckle to a suitcase, the churning of the dyer with smoke rising from his boiling dyes and moist dupatta scarves in solids or tie-dye bellowing joyfully on a grid of ropes, or the radio playing commentary in cricket season, the sudden bursts and crescendos of the cheering crowds.
I don't recall the color or contours of the PTV building but I remember vividly my obsession with skipping across large square tiles, instead of walking normally from the make-up room to the studio. The make-up artist was a friendly lady, who, it seemed, could not do her work without chewing gum. She smelled like hairspray, lipstick and moist base; the smells I loved in this surreal, mirrored room, make-up being my favorite of all forbidden things in my regular life.
In the producer's room Marie biscuits and blue-rimmed teacups with thick chai were in constant supply. I would get mesmerized by the upside down reflection of Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah's photo on the glass top of the desk, dizzied as I'd get by the reflected motion of the ceiling fan—all the while trying to memorize lines. The props were another distraction: how could I not tinker with larger than life butterflies and flowers? I once ate all the sweet choori meant for the parrot that was to appear on my show. When I was told they had designed a door in a large apple for me to make an entry from, I couldn't keep it a secret and told everyone I knew, weeks before the actual episode. Those were the days before video games and the Internet, and emerging out of an apple was terribly newsworthy.
When I “signed” a six-month contract for “Geeto Kahay Kahani,” a show for children, I, of course, didn't really know what it entailed. It took me three weeks, with three rehearsals and what seemed like a million takes of recording each week (typically one long afternoon) to announce to my mother that I wanted to quit. I listed all the discomforts: the studio lights made me hot, my clothes were itchy, I couldn't memorize the script, snacks were not allowed in the recording studio, “kids at school know that that girl on TV is me and they talk about me in the third person…” My producer, a gentleman who spoke with a thoughtful timbre, was distraught. The show was on national hook-up, had made a successful debut. My mother salvaged the situation by agreeing to buy me chunky red Mary Janes with a massive butterfly on top in exchange for fulfilling the contract.
The show went on for a year and a half, winning me celebrity among the four to ten-year-old TV-watching demographic, an award for being the youngest compere in the country and some special privileges like exemption from homework by teachers who watched “Geeto.” I didn't much like the show myself because the vocal ticks that the public found endearing weren't something I was proud of, my artlessness not anything I personally fancied. Plus, I was convinced I had lost something in the process. I had no clue what it was.
It was only after knowing myself as a writer, years after those illiterate days of prep and class one in junior school, I understood that this TV stint was a contradictory gift; serendipitous to a child of my inclinations, who was tuned into parallel worlds, and was engaged in connecting them inwardly but was blocked from any viable outlet because her public persona was of someone else's imagining.
It was certainly lucky to be exposed to the magic of a process that combined art, technology, a team of people synthesizing an illusion that came off better than reality— all beyond my understanding but endlessly fascinating. I was able to appreciate the contrast between the seamlessness of the final product and the process with its fits and starts and inexplicable gaps which were partly due to the time it took for the camera, sound and light people to synchronize, partly because of my idiosyncrasies such as watching myself on the monitor instead of looking at the camera, or, forgetting the script, or wolfing down the bird-food I was supposed to feed the parrot (my unwitting guest on the show).
I wasn't much unlike that parrot as I confronted a public response to my TV persona without having a language of my own to differentiate myself from my persona. The parrot however never went through the anguish of desiring articulation, nor had any urgency to describe the light in the studio bouncing off and splitting, the perfect silence of a fan-less room when the “On Air” sign was on, or what it's like to close one's eyes and hold one's breath just before the make-up lady presses the can of hairspray, chewing gum on her breath.