The Aftermath - Part 4

I forget sometimes. I am always thinking of her, of course, but sometimes realization hits me like a wall of bricks at the most inopportune moments. I am cooking, or sitting in a very important meeting, or playing with my daughter, and I am reminded very suddenly — jarringly — that she is not here anymore. It's a momentary disorientation, an inadvertent pause in the swiftness of the day. And then I begrudge this knowledge, this rediscovered truth of my mother's gaping absence in my life. How long did the forgetfulness last, I wonder. How long was I able to trick myself into believing that her voice is waiting for me at the other end of the phone? Was it seconds, minutes, hours? It couldn't be hours. And so I think back to the time I had hit this wall of bricks the last time. In the morning while making coffee, last night, the week before, and so on. 


I feel forever trapped in the vortex of that night, and I remember most clearly only the warmth of clothes just out of the dryer, the smell of the fabric softener, the softness of each fabric and the neat piles I made while my daughter slept. I remember being suspended in a state of numb acceptance and impending action: she’s gone, now what? I often feel this way now — the time to come stretches vastly and uncertainly, while the time past remains unmoving, unforgiving. I still don’t talk about it — there is not much to say and yet there is so much to experience, to feel, to go through. Two years elapsed between the first and second paragraphs of this post, but I am still right there, in the eye of the storm, teetering.

The Aftermath - Part 3

It feels odd to discover at this age and this stage in my life what it is like to share the ordinary details of my domestic life with my father. There was never a need to do this when my mother was alive. We had a WhatsApp group, “Noor Ladies Only,” that documented the everyday travails of three young women navigating their lives and kitchens in different parts of the world, peppered by their beautiful mother’s selfies. When I look back through that group chat, I feel very strongly that it is a powerful time capsule, capable of taking me back to her, the Urdu script of her messages showing her hope, her resolve to fight the disease that was slowly colonizing her body, her devotion to her family. The group is silent now. We are trying to fill the silence with noise in “Noor Siblings Only,” “Noor Sisters Only,” and “The Noors – Papa & Kids.” It’s the last group that surprises me most often because of the obvious need for its existence and the fact that this need was felt most acutely only after my mother’s death.

It never occurred to us to have a space just with our father when our mother was with us. When Mama was alive, we had a whole-family WhatsApp group, too, but no one ever used it. Once a year, someone would send a message for Eid, and then we would all forget about it. Strangely, sometimes I feel that in dying, our mother propelled us towards our father. Perhaps the force of love she always held tight to her chest was set free upon her children, and we, drowning in our despair came up for air and held on to our father. Our father, in his particular way, allowed himself to be pulled by the current while holding our heads above water. He, being the father that he is, saved his children from drowning without making a sound.

I don’t know what we gave back to him – perhaps something that should have been his for years already. An openness. An acceptance. A love that does not have qualifiers, complaints, or expectations – the kind of love my mother gave to him (and us). It is strange to love my father so fiercely again at 32, like the way I used to love him at 12 – with a single-minded devotion, with unquestioning respect, with a grateful sense of pride for all he had achieved in his life, with admiration for his life-long struggle to rise above his circumstances, to give his family a secure future, to fight fate, to pour himself into his art. How fascinating this man is – I realize – something my mother always said, but I never saw. “I find him admirable,” she would say. “He fascinates me. There isn’t a man I have met in my life who is quite like him.” I shrugged off her comments. Sometimes I rolled my eyes at her. “You’re hopeless, Mama."

But I see it now – it descends upon me like an epiphany, the meaning of my mother’s words. He inspires fascination and admiration in me, too. I see why I am the way I am – hungry for more, for lofty goals, for new avenues to prove myself, to make a difference and a positive impact. I have always been his daughter, but now I see how alike we really are. It took me a long time to purposefully forget this fact, and its resurfaced knowledge crashes upon me with a blunt indifferent pain. Who is my father and why was my mother so devoted to him until her last breath? Isn’t is utterly fascinating, the story of this young orphan, who fought abject poverty and his slated fate to be completely mediocre and forgettable, and instead achieved fame, fortune, and the highest civilian honor of his nation -- all because he dared to believe that he could do something extraordinary in life and then went on to demonstrate this belief in his art. My parents are those rare people who fed their family from their art. They loved what they did for a living, and for a while, they did it together. I, like my father, have always run towards what I love, tried to find contentment in my work, but have always been riddled with this certainty that there is more I could be doing, there is a lot more work to do. And so, like him, I keep searching.

My father, now 66, rises early, does not believe in vacation, and works constantly. When he is not working on his projects, he is working around the house. He likes to work with his hands on everything from assembling furniture to cooking. In our WhatApp group, “The Noors – Papa & Kids,” he sent pictures of turnip curry he cooked one afternoon in response to the culinary creations of his three girls and the street food adventures of his son. The frame was artistically composed in his signature style: the food presented in a clear serving dish, a pomegranate, an apple, and a grapefruit in a bowl next to it, a small box of milk, two rotis. The caption reads: “Made shaljam for my Rukhsana today and said a prayer for her. I hope the aroma of this effort reaches her. Ameen.”

This is how we live every day after her – a little high, a little low. Always we find each other, these five wandering souls – the Noor Papa and his kids.

The Aftermath - Part 2

Some days, it becomes too much to bear. How can we carry this vast grief inside us and not be overcome by it? Those are brutal days. Whatever this thing is, this living, writhing, evolving thing takes over every sense and we, her children, break apart. Why did she have to go? Why did this have to happen? Why couldn't we have more time? Inconsequential, useless, ridiculous questions -- I reflect in moments of collectedness -- but in the throes of this emotional downdraft, they become our combined focus: why, why, why, why. It's endless and dark and lonely, this strange motherless realm of our lives. 

Being a child of writers, I often try to contain it in my writing. I tell my friends, "I have so much to say about this." But the truth is, I haven't yet figured out how to morph this state of mind and body into words. I am unable to describe the exact feeling of falling I experience on a routine basis when I wake up from a dream in which she was with me. A perpetual free-fall. It's like cutting through a whirlpool of air, limbs heavy and resistant to movement, the body forgetting to breathe, forgetting to think, forgetting to even look for an anchor, remembering only this: no mama, no mama, no mama.

Who was this woman, my friend, my mother, who taught me so many lessons in her life, but strangely, even more lessons in her death? It is the most surreal and unnerving experience to realize that your mother in her death has taught you the fundamentals of love. To someone who is as jaded and pragmatic as me, there is an actual movement of resistance that is planned, developed, and implemented by the brain without the slightest hesitancy. But there it is, plain for anyone who cares to see. My mother in her life and in her death imparted only love. It will take me years and perhaps my whole life to fully understand the extent of her capacity to love, and similarly, her unexpressed need to be loved in return. We used to have long, deep, meaningful conversations. I was a friend to her, and she to me. I asked her probing questions. How did you feel when such and such happened? What was your physiological response? Did you cry? What was the dominant emotion? Why do you care so much for people? What do you look for in a person? She was forthcoming in her responses. Her answers: Deeply shaken and hurt; my heart sank; yes, buckets; a sense of betrayal; because I am made this way and I believe people are fundamentally good rather than bad; honesty. And yet, today I realize that maybe I didn't know her completely after all. Maybe I was asking the wrong questions. Maybe I was just peeling away at the surface, and she like always, was letting me have my way.

Where are you now when I have so many more questions, I whisper into the still, empty air. I drive over the Dumbarton bridge to and from work in a strange communion with all the other lonely travelers around me. Who knows about the sea of grief surging within each person's shallow chest? I feel we are all sharers of each other's private heartbreak as we snake our way across the bridge over the bay that has swelled with recent rains. I cry most freely in the car over this bridge, the water steely blue and tranquil under the grey portentous sky, cyclists in their neon vests and helmets whizzing by the rush hour traffic, and all these people, isolated like me, caught in the current of their thoughts.

The Aftermath

On January 12, when I found out my mother had died, before she was declared dead by the emergency room doctors, before even the paramedics said there was no pulse, my immediate inclination was to deny it -- vehemently, violently. “Shut up and stop being an idiot!” I told my sister who had called from just a few towns north of me in California to tell me that our mother had collapsed suddenly in her home in Lahore, Pakistan. “I just spoke to her 15 minutes ago. She’s fine. You’re being dramatic,” I said coldly, intending to hurt her for her stupidity as big sisters are wont to do. My sister, God bless her, was surprisingly calm in a moment that can only be described as surreal. “I am not being dramatic. I am clam. Mama has collapsed. They are calling the paramedics. Ainee, are you there? Are you listening? Ainee, she’s gone, right? She’s gone.” It was the oddest sensation. I felt shut in, closed off. I went back to folding laundry, painstakingly, precisely, making neat piles as I eventually heard from the paramedics, then the emergency room doctor, and finally in the guttural, unbelieving voice of my brother that my mother was indeed no more. “Just get here, Ainee,” said my brother. “Just get here now!” As he was hanging up the phone, I heard him yelling at someone, “I am her son! I am her son!”

I didn’t break down until I sat at Dubai International Airport, waiting for my husband to sort out our 11-hour stay at the airport hotel. I was exhausted from our 16-hour flight from San Francisco, Jahan was dozing in my lap, and I was scrolling through Facebook, which had erupted with various notes, messages, and official and unofficial obituaries. And yet, it was a simple post that broke through the wave of detachment I was riding. My brother had posted an update to his friends, “My mother passed away. Will give you updates ASAP. Please pray.” Here was my 19-year-old brother living through an event that will certainly be one of the most harrowing of his lifetime, but to go through such a heartbreak so early, to bear this burden at such a young age -- how cruel, how unfair! And it was then that I thought of the unfairness of my mother’s death as it pertained to me -- how I had been cheated out of more time with her. Who, in this big vicious world, will love me now as she loved me? How lonesome and isolated I felt at that teeming airport with my own daughter safe in her mother’s lap still having the luxury to dream.

I wrote a lot about grief when I was writing regularly. Having read some of my older posts, I can tell that my anecdotal observations were not far from the truth. It hits you in waves, that part is true. It is harsh, unforgiving, brutal. What I didn’t appreciate was the power it imparts, like a vessel you harness to gain enough strength to kiss your mother’s cold, cold face, her soft eyelids, her shining forehead, her lips spread in a smile. You break and build yourself up again with every touch, you break and come together, break and come together until you are forever marked by your loss, marked by this gaping absence. There is a nakedness in this grief, the sense of being flayed open, laid bare for the world to see.

I am deeply uncomfortable with the lack of privacy that surrounds bereavement -- the way the family surrounds their departed loved one, gazing at their still faces, everyone around them wanting to offer comfort, to condole, to let them know how sorry they are, when all a daughter or a son would ever want at a time like this is to keep looking on at their parent’s face, to give them one more, just one more kiss, to touch their cheek, to say sorry, to say “I love you” over and over, and to finally, painfully, forcibly say good bye. When I reached the open verandah of Adil Hospital, Lahore, where some of the last rites were to be performed for my mother, I asked the other mourners, mostly other family members, to give me and my siblings a few moments alone with my mother. I wanted to be allowed the dignity to mourn in an enclosure of love and loss that is only shared by the four of us, her bereaved children. In these private moments, I allowed myself to be her baby, her first-born thirty-two year old daughter who is a mother herself, but still at the very core of my identity and existence, her baby. The four of us will remember these precious minutes as our deeply private and shared experience of heartbreak. And there is nothing more to be said about that.

It will take us the rest of our lives to make sense of this cruelty. Why, in the midst of such hope with her cancer shrinking and her health improving, did she have to be yanked away from us so suddenly; how could she simply cease to breathe when fifteen minutes before she was dozing and sleepily talking to her daughter and granddaughter; what could have caused such an absolute separation in a matter of minutes, seconds? But we remind ourselves that the deterioration of body and mind that is inevitable with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis was not something our mother withstood -- and for that, we are grateful. She, in a sleepy haze of routine post-chemo weakness, asked for her son, and then with her last breath uttered the name of the man she had loved fiercely and definitively since she was 24 years old. “Shah Gee,” she whispered to my aunt who was with her. “Shah Gee,” she said again before closing her eyes for the last time. And Shah Gee, my father, a man still seeking his magnum opus, a man who has loved his family thoroughly in his own way, but who has also worshipped his work, was on his way to Karachi airport after packing up his shoot for the day to fly to Lahore, planning to surprise his ill wife by appearing on her doorstep with his disarming smile, which is all she ever wanted. And this one time, fate betrayed my otherwise fortunate father as he rushed to the terminal and received my aunt’s call. My aunt placed the phone next to my mother’s ear, but she was already soaring to her final journey, her eyes quietly closed, not a sound emerging from her lips.

Later, I saw my father and it struck me how I have never seen him this way before -- sort of unformed, raw around the edges, crumpled, sagging like a balloon slowly losing air through an invisible leak. Perhaps I never fully appreciated before the depth of friendship and love that existed between my parents despite their many, many differences. When my mother chided me in life, “You do not understand,” she was right. I didn’t. I still don’t. An inexplicable bond held them to each other, holds them to each other still -- the constituents of it I still haven’t been able to parse out completely -- love, trust, honesty, children -- these are superficial and common details. Seeing my father now, I realize what I never realized in my mother’s life, what I never saw in her pain and heartbreak when she faced the biggest betrayal of her life from my father and yet continued to love him with the untamed devotion of a dervish. Seeing in my father’s face his aberrant heart sinking and rising, his breath catching in his throat, his words deteriorating as they emerge from his mouth, I see not mere love, but almost a spiritual awakening. He may have been just as devoted to my mother all her life (although popular Pakistani press and anyone who has a mouth will disagree), but his face now holds a grave pall of the responsibility to carry all that she left behind. Her love, her pain, her loyalty, her fidelity, her existence -- seem to have concentrated in her last utterance of his name and sublimated to reach him, take hold of him, possess him. I know he will never stop mourning her just as I know I am their daughter. It is a fact of life.

She would smile now, if she could see us weary and wretched here without her. “I told you so,” she’d say. “I told you so.”


A Wanderer Returns

From the beginning, this is exactly how it was supposed to be. 

Without ceremony or preamble, I am returning to Pakistan after nearly 14 years of being in California. I am traveling alone -- my daughter and husband, both of whom became a part of my life when I had already planted myself firmly in the identity of an immigrant, will stay behind. I am going for 10 days including travel time. Time, I imagine, will fly, but I will also have a heightened sense of its flight. I will feel it in its most concentrated form -- sort of like seeing heavily pigmented color, touching the purest of silk, experiencing the tug of life that pulls a baby into this world. 

The anticipation frightens me. I am most afraid of finding out that the place that exists in my memory is inaccurate -- a composite of my imagination and past -- the Lahore I have been writing about is frozen only on the pages that I have filled. I feel each sense coming to attention in the days before my departure, ready to call me out as an imposter. I am perpetually at an impasse with myself. The places I remember are no longer a part of the city I was raised in. A few days ago, my sister asked me, "What do you remember?" And I said, "Kalma Chowk." Her smile held sympathy, "There is no Kalma Chowk anymore."

How does one reconcile with a loss that is not only intangible, but also indescribable? How does one begin to parse out the grief that surrounds estrangement? It didn't begin this way. In a lot of ways, this journey has been like seeing a child grow up. You know they are growing and changing, but you cannot trace the growth, hold them in your arms and realize that they have changed. But they are morphing into larger forms of themselves all the time, in front of your eyes, and you are blind to it until you see growth charts in a pediatrician's office, or see pictures of them from a few years ago or even a few months ago. It is only in retrospect, that you can see this magic -- the roundness of the face diminishing, the hair losing its curl, the child crawling, standing, walking, dancing... So fleeting, all of it, and yet it unfolds in precise detail for us without our notice. And so, when people ask me how is it that 14 years have gone by and I have not returned? How is it that I have managed to survive without the places and people I claim to love -- I only say, I don't know where the time went. 

These days, I have started to dream again. My dreams are mostly about forgetting things, or losing people. There is a profound sense of urgency that envelops me when I emerge from sleep. It is disorienting to find myself in my bed, the house humming quietly in the night, everything just as I arranged it before sleep descended -- the robe over the chair, the cup of water on the coaster, the phone blinking in the dark bearing missives from a different time zone. But if I speak frankly, I might say the messages are from a different world altogether.

"How is mama?"

"What is the chemo schedule?"

"Don't bring presents."

"I love you."

"Mama is dealing with everything like a champ."

What is this world? How did we get here, dragged to this very point in our shared existence by distance, decisions, grief, sickness, choices, independence, detachment...? How is it that a journey home comes about suddenly, without ceremony or preamble, after nearly 14 years, when what looms before me is not the thousands of miles I must cross defenselessly traversing air currents, or the people I must face who have changed and grown and lived and died, or the city I must go to that is past its monsoon prime for the year and will surely punish me in many ways for being gone too long -- no, none of this matters. What really holds me in a death grip of confrontation is a neat row of packages I created and tied with bows and pushed into the farthest recesses of my consciousness. They are what lie in wait at each step between here and there. How does one unravel and remember what's taken years to forget? How does one even begin to try? 

And despite all of this, I know with absolute conviction, it had to be this way. Like I said -- from the beginning, this is exactly how it was supposed to be. 


Time Capsule

I am reminded again tonight that the small hours are really the best for writing. It is past 1 AM -- I have studied somewhat half-heartedly for an upcoming exam, first in my daughter's bed as she drifted off to sleep, and then downstairs at the dining table after putting pound cake batter in the oven. The house smells sweet now, lived-in, welcoming. I didn't intend to come here tonight and write -- mostly because I need to relearn how to sift through the detritus of too much change that occurred too suddenly. There is a lot of pull I feel towards writing, but there is also a stronger force that does not allow me to focus on one coherent thought or topic. There is too much intangible clutter in my life, and the contrived neatness of my tangible reality helps, but only a little. Or perhaps more simply, you can call it inertia.

The reason I decided to show up and write this time is not because inspiration struck while I was brushing my teeth before bed -- actually, in a way, perhaps it did. I have placed on the shelf next to the sink a small framed picture. The picture must have been taken in the year 1988 or '89 -- I look about 3 or 4 years old (in the blue and white shirt). I chose the unusual spot for this picture quite deliberately -- it is something I see every morning and evening. I don't often dwell on it or reflect on the happiness of my childhood, but it's always there, a comfort to me. I have no memory of the day this picture was taken, but I've imagined it. It must have been sunny, maybe spring of '89. A Sunday. No school, no work. The kitchen door would have been propped open by a chair. Something had to have been on the stove -- a pot of daal sputtering. My father must have told us a story, gathered us around him. He must have been taking pictures of us -- his three girls -- as he did frequently. And maybe I climbed on to his shoulders and my sister wanted to trade places. Maybe he thought it would be funny to get a picture of all of us stacked like that. Americans would say, "like pancakes;" I prefer "like books." What a lark, my parents must have thought. How wonderful to capture this moment. I could ask them how it really came about, but I am afraid of being disappointed if they don't remember that day with as much clarity as I've imagined it. What if it was actually overcast? What if it wasn't even daytime? What if the house was silent and the picture was taken only moments after the baby started to cry? What if someone hastily arranged the girls this way to entertain the baby, and oh there was a camera, so click, flash, off you go? Not nearly as romantic as my imagination. 

But that doesn't matter. What matters is the significance this picture holds for me on bleak days. There are many of those -- when I am struggling to find meaning in my mother's illness, or when I am desperately trying to be a good mother myself, when I am bleary-eyed wishing for more sleep, or worried for a big test or a presentation at work -- this picture grounds me. It tells me, look, there you were, all those years ago, and those are the people who loved and love you still. It gives me a deep sense of kinship and repose even on days that leave me drained and somewhat lonely. It calls me home, too, a call I resist over and over. Maybe tomorrow, I say. Maybe next year. 

So much love in one frame. And so much magic. 

Adjustment of Expectations

How malleable our expectations become in adversity. We may have a secure idea of the future, and it could crumble in an instant by factors that are completely out of our control -- and what happens to our expectations? They plummet, re-calibrate, and find a new baseline.  When we are not in the whorl that untethers us from reality, we can look back and be utterly fascinated by the evolution of our expectations. They start at denial and free-fall to reality, a disorienting journey. I am just coming back to my life from a parallel existence that had me pacing in fluorescent hallways of a hospital. My mother is sick with cancer again. One day she was a happy tourist, the next she was a patient whose lungs were being pushed by more than 2 liters of fluid that had accumulated around them. She has gone home now and is getting the treatment that she needs. She is also in excellent spirits and doctors are hopeful about her recovery, which is why I am here, writing this.

Now, looking back, what strikes me as impossible is not that my mother's body could somehow have hidden and nourished this cancer for many months despite fighting it once before in 2006, but the expectations we all had when our well-constructed reality began to unspool and slip through our fingers. Expectation management in a hospital is not difficult. You are already primed for disaster. It's a controlled environment to the point of seeming surreal -- machines beep, nurses cruise the hallways, their cushioned shoes making dull sounds against the polished linoleum floors, the lights are so bright even the healthy begin to look sallow, a patient three doors down cries out in pain, you have the sense of being privy to the orchestration of some grand secret -- the stark business of life and the fight to live -- over and over and over. Something fundamental changes when you are in this environment for a long time. The hope and optimism of the outside world begin to shed from your skin, ooze out of your pores, fall thickly with each strand of hair that remains on your pillow when you wake up in the morning. The landscape of your expectations becomes fluid and cascades like a waterfall. For us as a family, our expectations were in free-fall pretty much from the moment we arrived at the hospital. I expected to be out of there in two hours, convinced this was an infection that had gone untreated, but I was soon hoping -- even wishing -- for the better, more treatable type of cancer. We went from infection to cancer to metastasis very, very quickly. In the end, we were left a little shell-shocked and in a state of manufactured gratitude (thank god it's breast cancer and not lung cancer).

Strangely, as time passes, I am not haunted by the nightmare of my mother's health condition, but overcome by the kindness that was shown to us from friends and family. I have also identified the errors in my own philosophy of life. I retreat often. I let time expand like a chasm between loved ones and myself. I often consider most relationships dispensable. Folly. And arrogance. And for the last few weeks, I have only wondered over and over how I will ever repay the kindness of everyone around me and marveled at the support structure that exists for us -- not because of me, but in spite of me. I have witnessed humility, grace, and love, the empathy that is inherent in careful attention, the act of giving without expecting anything in return, the purity of intention and action, and I have learned a lesson I hope to remember from this experience -- a simple lesson, something we talk about often and without much thought -- to never take a moment or a person for granted. There have been small miracles (and big ones) for me and my family over the last few weeks, and they were not because of divine intervention, but because of the selflessness of people around me. For this, I may never muster enough gratitude, but I can continue to offer thanks and return the same selfless love and attention as often as I possibly can. 

I will end with a story to illustrate that even if our expectations fall and shatter, they somehow reconstitute. I do not believe in signs or omens, but I can't ignore metaphors. One week into my mother's hospital stay, I couldn't help but be heartbroken to find the mint leaves she had so lovingly planted in our small garden shriveled and dead. I thought of her in her hospital bed, pallid and weak, and the uncertainty of the future brought me to my knees. But a little over a week later, we all came home from the hospital. My mother walked around the house, stepped into the backyard for fresh air. She was feeling stronger, happier. And healthier. We sipped our tea, made plans for her return to Pakistan, and I noticed her staring at the brown, sun-baked bunch of leaves that used to be her mint plant. I wondered if she noticed the metaphor, too -- but before I could say anything, I saw what she was looking at -- not the dead leaves, but a bright green shoot and two tiny leaves rising from the ruin. Like my expectations, the mint thrives in the garden still. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue


Last night, roughly 120 MBA students --  including me -- stood outside a hotel near UC Berkeley where the Haas School of Business had put us up for the orientation weekend. We were waiting for a shuttle that would drop us off at Memorial Stadium where we would be welcomed into the VIP Lounge that provides a stunning view of the bay. We stood on the curb chatting in small groups, the same conversational loop, what do you do, where are you from, why do you want to get an MBA -- meeting fascinating people, making new friends. But before I go too far, let's establish some facts. I have to say, we looked like a fine group, arguably some of the most driven individuals I know. All of us, in one way or another, demonstrated intellect, resilience, discipline, and potential in order to end up in this program -- all of us also demonstrated that we are gainfully employed and able to afford (or secure a loan/grant for) this education. 

As we waited for the shuttle to arrive, some of us huddled around cars parked on the street when a homeless guy walked up to us. Just as we represented some degree of privilege, he very starkly embodied tragedy -- I use that word with perfect cognizance. His faculties were very clearly impaired, probably attributable to substance abuse. He carried a small jute sack of his belongings, his clothes were filthy, I could smell alcohol, and even from several feet away, the stench of unwashed human flesh. He almost walked past us, but then he paused and looked like he was about to stumble. He sidled up to a man in my class whose name I don't remember now (I have met too many people this weekend). My classmate said, "I'm sorry," respectfully and firmly. The homeless man came close to him, too close, whispered something in his ear. My classmate cocked his head forward, listened, showed compassion. I could tell the homeless man's speech was garbled, indistinct words, a sigh really. My classmate raised both palms up like one does in surrender, and moved away from the curb. The few of us who were close enough to witness this incident followed without a comment. We gave the homeless man a wide berth. We did not make eye contact. When he was gone, someone commented on how close the homeless man had come to the man in our class. To which our classmate said something in assent and with perfect composure, something I could never have demonstrated had I been in his place. I don't think I could have mustered the kindness that my classmate portrayed. As for the rest of us, there was no disrespect shown to the homeless man in discourse. We simply turned away, refused to acknowledge him, even when he thrust his existence in front of us, even when he shattered the walls that always stand between us and them, between the visible and the invisible. And I want to emphasize this point by taking ownership -- I turned away, I took an instinctive step backwards, walked resolutely towards the safety of the hotel awning leaving the treacherous curb behind. Whereas my classmate showed the homeless man compassion and respect, as much as one can in a situation when one's personal space is suddenly invaded, I did neither. I didn't even acknowledge that this incident had taken place. At the very least I could have silently reflected on it -- thought about how, in the grand scheme of things, my big problem of the evening (not having read an assigned case study) really was quite insignificant. At the very least, I could have recognized my own capacity for apathy, or to make it more palatable, for self-service. 

The homeless man shuffled away with his small jute bag mumbling to himself, the MBA students huddled on the curb with their arms crossed across their chests making small talk, mingling, networking, doing what we were there for. And for the rest of the evening, I did not think about the homeless man. I looked at the bay from the balcony of the VIP Lounge of Memorial Stadium for a long time. Fog licked along the tops of buildings, water glittered at a distance, the sun gave us all a subdued glow, a light breeze nipped at our hair, and soon it became cold. The world looked very small from that height, and anything seemed possible.

The Old, The New

The first thing I noticed when I moved into my new home was the foreignness. The unfamiliar floor under my feet, my utter ineptitude in the kitchen because the counters are taller than what I am used to and I don't know my way around the place yet, most remarkably whilst the pressure cooker is whistling away on the stove, and the way my voice echoes across the house. First I thought it was only because the place is bigger, the ceilings higher, but then I noticed the same echo when I cleaned out my old house, a place I had loved for over 5 years. Suddenly, my voice began to bounce back against the walls and magnify. When I went to clean the house out, my daughter who ordinarily never falls asleep in the car, was snoring comfortably in her car seat. I didn't wake her, so while I was able to silently bid farewell to the staircase that welcomed us when I first brought her home from the hospital, she soundly slept much like she had done in those early days. 

Physical places hold a lot of meaning for me. It must have something to do with my vigilant practice of nurturing memories of Lahore. I try so hard to remember not only landmarks, but the feel of the epoxy floor beneath my feet, and the slatted bars in my grandmother's house through which I saw schoolchildren chanting their lessons in the room below, and the cold rush of water erupting from the spigot of the tube-well accompanied by the momentary shortness of breath -- the impact knocking all air out of me, and especially perhaps the unsteadiness of rickety old benches and metal chairs all over the city next to hawkers selling the best street food I have ever tasted.

It has become a challenge now after 12 years of being away to hold on to these sensations, to re-imagine them, to live a few transient moments of the past over and over just to keep them alive. I am not sure anymore if I really remember Lahore, or just some diluted version of Lahore. I also don't feel quite the same pull I used to for the city. When I think about going home now, I make a mental checklist -- surprisingly, it includes mostly dead people -- paying my respects to my grandparents and a cousin who will always be a little boy in my memory even though he passed away in his thirties. The places that still have a hold over my senses are ones I didn't associate very fondly with as a child. The neighborhood of Old Lahore where my father's ancestral home stands with its peeling paint and creaking wooden shutters -- I never liked going there as a child. Our extended family members pulled my cheeks (with affection) and commented on how tall I had grown (lies) and generally were quite loud and overbearing. And now, I feel the pull of the place. The old world charm, the narrow alleys, the scent of roses heavy in the air around the florist's stand, a row of curbside businesses, the paan-walla with betel juice staining his hands, the healer who might put a palm over a patient's abdomen and diagnose him with anything from appendicitis to black magic and have a potion or powder ready to cure the ailment, a makeshift bookshop that stapled and assembled loose papers, manuscripts, or fixed the fragile spines of old books, a cobbler who repaired heels and boots... I am almost certain they are no longer there. Even back then, that old neighborhood felt like a time capsule, a different world. That's what calls me home now. I am compelled to see what's become of the place. Do people still fly kites there and raise white pigeons with indelible pride? If I were to mention this to my parents, they would nod their heads with a look of complete comprehension and understanding on their faces and make a remark like, "It's the weight of family, you see. It's your ancestors calling to you. It's the pull of blood," which is precisely why I don't say anything about what I feel -- I would laugh at their reaction, and they'd refuse to see the humor in our exchange. 

I push myself into the mire of intricate memories, none of them having weight or significance, simply because I am trying to reconstruct a solid picture of what I left behind from this mosaic. I hear from friends, "You have to go back at least once. Can you imagine the writing that will come out of it?" More than anything else however, I am possessed by a sense of foreboding when I imagine the 30-plus-hour trip back, and more than that, the unfamiliarity I will feel once I am there. What if I don't go back at all and continue to write vignettes about the Lahore of my memory, and as my memory becomes unreliable, which it will if it hasn't already, how will the city change for me? Maybe I will imagine a raging Ravi instead of a receding one, or something more outlandish. It might be an interesting experiment. But truth be told, I have started to feel like a fraud. Some readers have mentioned that my work resonates with them because of my strong connection with Lahore -- and here's the thing -- I don't know if that connection is strong anymore. A more accurate description would be that I am extending a spindly thread back in time and tugging at the past constantly, fraying it in the process. With each pull, Lahore goes farther away from me rather than coming closer -- and I don't even regret that anymore. And so, writing over and over about my childhood in that city of love and food and magic feels like a lie, a grand illusion, an escape fantasy. The hold my city used to have on me is slowly (but surely) dissolving away...

Maybe that's because there are so many other memories crowding the snapshots of Lahore now. I try hard to conserve some other feelings too, you see -- the house on the hill in San Jose, the house that was good, and for the most part, happy. The tiny kitchen  with marble floors, a nick in one tile, the cold welcome it provided in the dawn hours as I walked those ten paces over and over with a newborn in the crook of one arm, bleary-eyed, exhausted, sometimes crying. That same kitchen cocooned many a poem as a teabag leaked its contents into a cup of hot water and the city came alive. Already I have trouble moving from room to room -- my senses trap me in that kitchen, which I loved with all my heart, where I learned how to overcome my fear of baking and eventually love it, where I gathered every Thanksgiving with people I love, where I gave some of the best dinner and birthday parties (and I still have the planning spreadsheets to prove it). I am so committed to remembering certain details about that house -- what the winding drive felt like as I came up the hill every day, the way the trees blossomed every spring, the rosemary hedges all around the community -- that something else, the distant past perhaps, must be pushed out, overshadowed.

How can one person remember so much after all? Old memories must make room for new ones, and so Lahore diminishes each year, the Lahore I love, the Lahore of my childhood is slipping away from me, because even if I go back now, I will arrive in a strange city, not the one I have held on to for so long. And as time passes, there will be still more that is lost (and gained). In this new house where my voice still carries and smashes against the walls, and a breeze wafts in from the northeast every evening, I have much to learn. As I memorize the ridges in the hardwood floorboards and start to acquaint myself with the sounds of the housing settling each night, I will forget more details about the past. Perhaps I will not be able to conjure the exact glow of golden light in the school chapel anymore, or the bitterness of cold winter mornings as we stood outside the great hall for morning assembly. Maybe the exact feel of heavy monsoon rain as it hit my palms and splattered on the cement roof will be forgotten, or the cloying scent of ripe mangoes being unwrapped from their newspaper packaging in a wooden crate will be erased. And as I write this, I can't help but wonder if there is so much still left to forget, so much that still might be salvaged. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Still Writing

From time to time, I ask myself, why do I have a Twitter account? I am not good at tweeting. I seldom have anything cool or clever to say that can fit in 140 characters. I examine the meaning of life, more specifically, the meaning of my life, in long-winded sentences strung together to form essays (blog posts) that may or may not be considered relatable by the half dozen or so readers I have. What is the point, I find myself wondering. And more often than not, I reach the conclusion that this is entirely self-serving. I am a writer, so I must write, and because I have written something, I must force it down somebody's throat. Yep, that's how it goes. If I am to be completely truthful, I don't write for myself. I write to be read. And so in the midst of these crises, I am overtaken by an unkind urge to write something like this: Are you out there? Are you listening?

When I don't write -- and I can speak to this honestly and accurately today because I have not written much for the past few weeks -- I  start asking myself these questions (and more). Why do I write at all? Et cetera, et cetera. Many years ago, I attended an all-day publishing workshop at Stanford. Joyce Maynard was the keynote speaker and her book Labor Day had just come out. She said during her speech, "If you are indoors attending this workshop on this beautiful day, you're a writer." Her conviction and the resulting happiness in the crowd have stayed with me these many years. When I start to question myself, I think back to that day, how I raced past the oval to the small registration desk, the talks I attended, the things I learned. And yet, even today, my own belief wavers. What does it mean to be a real writer? Over and over we hear from celebrated authors, "Show up. Write. Do the work." And what if you don't show up, don't write, don't do the work -- are you then relegated to being the hobbyist writer? 

Even if I side-step this question of whether I am a writer, a real writer or not (or more accurately, a poet), there is another layer that must be excavated before tranquility is achieved. Why do I write? Why do I feel so strongly about this part of my identity? While I am passionate about my career, do I bring this level of intense devotion to it? I don't know. Does it give me the same level of distress, and conversely, the same degree of relief? Absolutely not. And coming back to the reason for writing -- is it simply to be read? To create something? To share? Catharsis? Is the way I look at the world so important or so unique that it must be documented and posted on the world wide web? Who even cares? And over and over, I come to this: I wake up every day wanting to be bigger than myself. I don't mean that in a self-pitying way, and moreover, it has nothing to do with my 5-foot-1.5-inch frame. I want to conquer fear and hesitation and regret, and I feel like I accomplish some of that by sitting down to write. But this still doesn't explain why I feel compelled to share what I write, why I meticulously detail the number of poems I send out to magazines, the number of rejections, the number of acceptances. Why I whisper into the empty space around my desk: Are you out there? Are you listening?

Photos by Rebecca McCue