Loving Lahore/Loving California

The cover of my chapbook.
When I moved to California from Lahore and settled in the arid Central Valley with its flat landscape and hot summers, I was filled with such a strong yearning for my home city that I produced some of my best poetry. Desi WritersLounge is displaying a chapbook of my 10 best poems written for my home city at the Lahore Literary Festival tonight (Saturday, Feb 23rd and Sunday, Feb 24th in Pakistan). 

After graduating from Davis (another city that I came to love, but that's another blog post!), I moved to the Bay Area. Suddenly I was able to see hills from my balcony, I was able to reach the Golden Gate Bridge in under an hour, and I could drive to Monterey to eat the best clam chowder.

There has been a more salient change in me in the last 5 years. I have started to belong to this place. When I close my eyes now, I have to will myself to conjure up images of Lahore. The almost tangible memories I had of the city are disappearing. The smells, the textures, the voices, are all slowly fading away, burrowing themselves deeper under the onslaught of sensations that this beautiful new place brings. 

Sometimes when I am sitting on the balcony with a mug of chai, I look at the city stretching in front of me and the hills at a distance. It still feels so new. I close my eyes then to remember what it felt like to wake up in my parents’ tiny house in Lahore. On weekends, I would wake up because the sabzi-walla – a man who sold fresh produce on a donkey-driven cart – yelled out the prices of onions and tomatoes at the top of his lungs. I am told he still comes around. My old neighborhood is yet to succumb to chain grocery stores. I try to remember what the crisp cotton sheets felt like on my skin, what I used to do when I woke up, how many steps it took to reach the bathroom from my match-box sized bedroom. I try to smell the breakfast my mother ordered from the street-side halwa-poori stand for me. Freshly fried golden pooris, steaming sweet halwa, and a generous helping of chick-pea and potato curry. I try to remember the conversations we used to have over the breakfast table. What did we talk about? I come up with nothing. 

Along with the voice of the sabzi-walla, there is another thing I recall with clarity. Every night a neighborhood watchman would make his rounds on the street. He would ride his bicycle from one corner of the block to the other blowing a whistle at intervals of a minute or so, letting the residents know that he was keeping his eye out for robbers, thieves, maybe even lovers meeting in the covert of the night. It was such a shrill sound, but we all slept through it, peacefully. 

Those are the things I remember about my childhood in that house. Eighteen years and all I can hold on to are the sounds strangers made on the street. Pity. 

The Golden Gate Bridge
But it’s strange, isn’t it, that I can think of the clouds that hang over the Golden Gate Bridge without any effort at all. The music played on the streets of Sausalito on weekends rings as clear as a bell in my ears. The feeling of wet sand under my feet at Half Moon Bay, the smell of seals lying lazily under the sun at Pier 39, the taste of clam chowder in a bread-bowl in Monterey, each curve on I-280 from San Jose to Palo Alto and back, it’s all so familiar to me. If you visit California and ask me where to go, I would be the perfect tour guide. I do think I belong here, yes, but somehow I feel like it does not belong to me. I cannot call these streets and landmarks my own. I simply did not grow up with them. 

I grew up in a city rich with literature, littered with waste, fractured with a class divide holding a strong semblance to Victorian England; a city of summer monsoons, a long muddy canal, a spring festival of kites, and the best street food you can possibly imagine. But I will feel utterly displaced in Lahore now. Even the money has changed back home, they tell me. I will land at the airport and wrinkle my nose at the flood of people around me, yelling, grabbing for their bags, no queue to speak of. I will look at the paper money in my hands, unable to tell which note is which. I will be full of distress, thinking I have made a mistake. I must go back. I must not exit the airport. But I will breathe deeply, I will gather my wits, I will hold my baby girl’s hand, and we will walk out. In the space of time that lies between the moment I see my family smiling in the crowd and the moment I come out of the arrival lounge at Allama Iqbal International Airport, maybe I will see the clear blue sky of Lahore, maybe it will ground me, maybe it will hold me steady, and say, “Welcome home.”
The city I left, the city I love

Read about LOVE on Goll Gappay this month and relate incidents where you have witnessed or experienced it.