Creepy Questions

Would you survive a civil war? What if someone betrayed you? Fayes T Kantawala considers

Creepy Questions
I keep a list under my bed. I thought about it earlier this week when I attended a launch for a book called Young Lothar, or rather a relaunch of an older version of the same book. It was written by one of my professors from college and when I had read the original version in my early twenties – a gift from her – it had affected me deeply. She had coauthored the book with her father Larry and recounted in his words his time as a Jewish German teenager hiding from the Nazis while living on the streets of Berlin from 1941-45 during the Second World War. Given the context, you’d think the book would be depressing but it’s not. It’s a book about life, not death.

It took me a long time to figure out why that book has remained with me over the years. It was well-written, gripping and informative, yes, but there was something else about it that I only figured out when I moved back to Pakistan. What struck me was the humour. Set against the backdrop of the Nazi takeover of Germany and the spectre of concentration camps, it came as a surprise to me how funny some of these stories were, how even though the narrator lived through the darkest of times, he could still recall the laughter. I remembered that lesson often while I was living in Pakistan full-time and coming to grips with the many dark changes in the country. I found that the only way to cope with them was (and remains) through humour. It’s the best way to look at a fraught life, and sometimes in the most serious of times, it is the only way.
Despite my occasional anti-social tendencies, I like keeping in touch with people

I often wonder what I would do were I faced with a total disintegration that required survivalist instincts, like during a civil war or natural disaster. Would I survive the war? Could I live on the streets or endure being hunted by an army? Or a tsunami? I’m not sure I would. But one thing the book taught me was that relationships are key to survival. It was relationships that kept the narrator from being discovered by Nazis for a long time. Conversely, it was betrayal by someone he trusted that led to his eventual capture (although he did make it out of Germany to safety). Relationships are key!

A big part of me has always known that. Despite my occasional anti-social tendencies, I like keeping in touch with people. The truth is I’m fairly good at it. Like most important things, maintaining relationships takes energy and time, both of which I am willing to expend out of the sentimental belief that if someone is truly important to you, you have to work at keeping them connected to your life. It doesn’t just happen. Given enough time, everyone drifts apart unless you try not to.

Andrey Shwidkiy's 'Old friends meeting'

The approach has served me well, and I find I have very good friends from very different times in my life, all of whom are meaningfully connected to me today. This weekend, for instance, four such friends came back into the city for various reasons. I’ve known some for years but they don’t know each other and so I found myself flitting between dinners and lunches in a confusing time jump between all my past selves. A different part of you comes out when you meet an old friend. Your high-school self, your college self, your fat self, your thin self, your ambitious self or maybe even your party self. Whoever shows up, though, your recent self is there no matter what. Indeed, meeting people after a long time apart is the biggest confirmation of aging next to increasingly unsatisfying bowel movements. You notice the small changes: the crow’s feet are deeper, the hairlines are thinner and additions like children and spouses have weaseled their way into an equation that had, until then, been a balancing act of binge-drinking, chain-smoking and an existential obsession with rock music.

Despite my uncharacteristically maudlin attachment to maintaining relationships, I firmly believe the reverse is also true. If people in your life are toxic to you, self-serving and likely to remain so, you should cut them out like mold on a hunk of cheese. (Then eat the cheese because that’s always fun). This is true no matter how long you’ve known them.

But thankfully this has happened only six times in my life so far and it is their names that are written in red ink on the list under my bed (rest assured I have plans…). And I have far more good people in my life than bad. I hope the same is true for you, because I thought about all those people from past and present while I was listening to the stories at the book launch. I thought about them and sighed in relief that if things were to go south, I have people I can count on. Which, according to both the book and me, is really the point of life. Still, just to be safe, remember there are always Nazis in this world.

Best to sleep with one eye open. And a list under your bed!

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