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