Back Again in That Place

Lahore, New Year's Eve, 2002. A few of us piled into my mother's minivan and went to Food Street. It staggers me to realize that this was 11 years ago. I don't remember the evening, but I can feel those 3o minutes we spent in the heart of the city. I wore a thick polyester blend shalwar kameez, navy blue. The fashion was drastically different at the time. The slim-fitting shirt reached my knees and the pants were bell-bottoms. I can still feel the cold metal chairs, the unsteady table, my breath coming out in warm puffs, the heat of the barbecue pit, the smoke from the grill, the easy laughter between us. Was it really over a decade ago? Two drunk men on the table next to ours. Their argument. My best friend's panic-stricken murmur: "They've got a gun." All of us backing away, breaking into a run, reaching the van and laughing in a mixture of fear and exhilaration from cutting through the winter air, the cold slapping our faces, our noses beginning to run, our eyes watering. Deciding itt was probably just a prank, but wanting to get out of there anyway. Did we actually eat something, I wonder now...

It was a bare street back then compared to the beautiful gazebo-lined haven it has become now. The palm trees dotting the sophisticated roadside eatery stalls shocked me today when I saw this picture. I remember the bitter cold, the asphalt underneath my chappals, uneven and cracked in places, a gutter running along some parts of the street, uncovered cooking stations, crude grills, plastic outdoor furniture, delicious food. My memory has become insufficient, I realize, and unreliable.

My city, if I can still call it that, has changed in the last decade - like me. Every morning I see the two gray hairs I have acquired, one on each side of my forehead. The makeup I have been wearing for years is beginning to settle into the finest of laugh lines around my mouth, noticeable only to me for now. Two fingers of my left hand are arthritic. I cannot bend them comfortably until early afternoon every day. My wrists crackle like corn popping on an open flame. The inflection in my voice changes, depending on who I am talking to. "Do you realize your accent transforms when you talk to someone from home," my American friends ask me, which is a sharp contrast to my family's playful taunts, "'Nor' is just soooooo American." I don't try to speak one way or another. It just happens because I have lived here for 11 years. And there are certain words I accentuate differently that illuminate this fact for both Americans and Pakistanis, but the focus of this reality changes based on who is observing it. To Americans, my shifting accent confirms that I have only lived here for 11 years rather than my whole life; to Pakistanis, the variance in intonation is a testament to the 11 whole years I have been away from home. It is the same fact, but the interpretations are vastly different, though equally significant. The fact is simple. In a space of a decade, change simply happens. It's not something you do consciously, "Today, I am going to work on pronouncing 'schedule' the American way." You just wake up one day and stop saying it the British/Pakistani way. You've been saying it for months before you realize you've made the switch, and when you do, you observe a private moment of both triumph (for acculturation) and mourning (for leaving the past behind). Change just cocoons you in such a space of years.

Then why is it such a visceral shock for me when I see pictures of Lahore and its streets look nothing like I remember them? It feels scandalous, this change, improper, like a wine stain spreading on a starched white lace doily - the result of over-indulgence or incapacity. It also unsettles me that even after so many years of living in California, I cannot write about its sounds and smells and sights with the familiarity and ease I experience upon describing Lahore. I have made this place my home, but what is home, really? Is it the 25 miles of scenic freeway between the door of my house and that of my office? What about the vastness beyond - the breathtaking landscape that stretches before me in every direction, which I recognize only from a distance. 

I wonder then, will I always dream of the narrow alleys of Old Lahore, always write about a certain river drying up in the heat and swelling with the monsoons, always return in my thoughts to the places that no longer look like I left them? 

Photo by Rebecca McCue