Packing Up Some Memories

I am reminded today, while packing up my books for an impending move, of an evening during my senior year of college when Haena, my roommate and close friend, drove us down I-80 to a theater in Sacramento that was playing The Namesake

My memory of the afternoon is that it was overcast and breezy. I had been away from Lahore for four very long years by this time. Those first four years were longer than the eight years that have followed. I ached for the city. In Davis, on my home from classes every evening, I walked by a house on 5th street that had a planter of gardenias outside, which reminded me of jasmines, a poor substitute, but so pleasant. Back then, I was still talking about graduating and going home. Every time I bought a book, I thought about my options -- how would I take all my books back? There was no FaceTime back then, and I was lucky if I could catch pixelated glimpses of my family on Skype from time to time. They were still using dial-up.

And here I was -- seated to watch the movie adaptation of a book, which had so beautifully captured the immigrant experience that I had been moved to tears while reading it. The movie opens with a view of a busy street in India, the buzz of conversation, the makeshift marketplace, people, faces, activity, color. It could be any street. It could be streets I had seen and passed each day of the first 18 years of my life. Nostalgia crashed into me and I was caught in its ripples and the surf. I was pinned under its weight. For the first several minutes of the movie, and at many moments after, I cried and shredded a packet of Kleenex to pieces. 

I close my eyes now trying to conjure the emotion that rattled me so on that long ago day. The yearning to go home is gone. The idea of home is gone. My home, physically, is gone. My parents have sold my childhood home and are now located in a completely different part of Lahore. My home, moreover, is here  -- I remind myself, shake myself out of the reverie, stretch my shoulders and brace my back against the chair that knows me so well. It is interesting how malleable the idea of home becomes over time, how the sense of belonging inches away from one reality and towards another so imperceptibly, like land sinking. 

Ashima Ganguli in The Namesake, lives most of her adult life in America, looking forward to the brief trips she makes with her family to her hometown in India. She is a different person there, not the quiet volunteer at the library, not a scared woman driving a car, not a mother trying to understand her very American children, but alive in a different way, vivacious, happy. Which is her true self, I wonder now. The self she embraces only in the company of her relatives and in the comfort of her country where everyone speaks the language she thinks in, where native faces from long ago days surround her, where her favorite street-snack is available on every hawker's cart, or in her clean picket-fence home in America, in the silence so crisp that the hum of the air conditioner can be heard, in the waves crashing against rocks on the beach where she goes clad in her sari and hand-knitted cardigan? 

And obviously, the real question here is not where Ashima feels at home, but where I do. Is the city where you grew up still your home if you can truly only remember broken memories pieced together in a mosaic? Is it still your home if the streets you remember have different names now? Is it still your home if the river you romanticized in your poems is all but dried up? And more importantly, are you brave enough to find out?

Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn

My middle sister, who lives in Tokyo, sent me a curious message yesterday on g-chat. Before I tell you what the message was and why I am writing this post, I must tell you something about how my sister and I have become friends as adults - we were not grandfathered into friendship because we played house together as children. Our friendship came about because we actually chose to make a very targeted effort towards understanding and listening and becoming friends. There was no compulsion involved. We had decided that we would always be sisters, but we could choose, without crticism, whether or not we wanted to become friends.

My sister, Qurat, is a much kinder person than I am. I am not an unkind person, but I have a very low threshold for bullshit. Consequently, I am much more impatient (and fast) at weeding out negative people and influences from my life. I have no patience for forgiveness, and definitely none for politely keeping up appearances for people. These are not virtues - simply a set of values I have come to live by. My life is too busy, too short, too full to accommodate, to put it quite bluntly, other people's bullshit. Simple philosophy: Love fiercely those who deserve your love, weed out everyone else from the perimeter of everyday thought - they will exist in the fringes, of course, but they are not important enough or interesting enough for active screen time. It took me years to get to this place of contentment, and a lot of my strength behind consistently implementing this life-lesson comes from having a very cohesive and protective circle of family and friends, my insulation from all the aforementioned bullshit. My sister is a more open person than I am. She lets people in. People, in general, are really fond of her, because she is just a genuinely pure and nice person, someone who makes you feel important when she talks to you. She has this way - it's hard to explain, but it's like having Miss Honey from Matilda by your side all the time when you're with her.

So, I think I have very well established that we are quite, quite different. Even as less as two years ago, we would invariably end our conversations with arguments and judgments (more from me than her), because we would each say something (most of the time, inadvertently) to tick the other off. Then we had a series of conversations. We decided to really give each other a few minutes of listening without question or judgment when we talked. And I think we both helped each other - she made me more compassionate, and I would like to think that I contributed something, too, although what it is exactly, I don't know.

In light of all this, Qurat's message yesterday surprised me. "I think today's blog post was too personal, something not meant for public view." I was partly taken aback because Qurat never offers any kind of criticism (so this comment was good, she is not loving her sister's writing blindly), and partly because I have written other posts that are much more personal, intensely so. What was different about this one? Aha! It was the "I met a boy, left Pakistan for him, married him" story. The admission of leaving home for love is definitely still more than a little scandalous back home. I can imagine people asking questions like, "How did her parents let her leave?" "How shameless of her to write about this as if it's something to be praised." "What kind of message is this?" "Would she be OK if her own daughter decided to follow someone in the name of love?" My little sister was feeling protective of me. I am so full of love for her right now, which is why I do have to address this here, in this space where the original story appeared. Chin up, little sister.

The fact is, I have so systematically removed myself from the mouths that spew such nuggets of wisdom - err, excuse me, I meant nuggets of bullshit - that I don't even take such things into account. It wasn't until I had thought a fair bit about what Qurat said and talked to her on Skype afterwards that I truly realized the implications of such an admission. Pervasive judgment. So, let's get something straight. All due respect to people who still care about this mentality, but frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. And that makes me abrasively honest. That may not be a universally good thing, but it works for me. There are things I haven't written about here, because like any other person, I have matters I struggle with in the privacy of my own thoughts, but I am actively working towards conquering them and maybe penning them one day.


A few weeks ago, I was driving a new co-worker to an off-site meeting. During the drive, we started to talk about families and where we grew up. I told her that I was born and raised in Lahore and moved to the United States for college. "You're so brave," she said, clearly awestruck. I was simultaneously touched and incensed by the comment that was intended to be a compliment. After a few moments of silence, I smiled and said, "I don't know if I am, really."

This post has been in "Drafts" since that day, and I just couldn't work up the nerve to explore the emotional baggage that comes with the admission of not really being brave. It took me years to exercise the courage needed to distill my immigration story down to the absolute facts and accept them. I met a boy. We fell in love. He moved to California. He asked me to follow him. I did. Five years later, we got married. Three years after that, we had a baby. Obviously, there were some additional layers to the story. There were doubts and disagreements and other developments, too. I excelled academically and attended a great university, got an amazing job, became a very different person than the girl who left Lahore over ten years ago. He became a different person, too. But the story still has the same skeleton. We grew up together in profound ways as lonely immigrants, ambitious students, competitive H1-B workers, having the classic first-generation conflict. (Exhibit A: "Yes, I know we occasionally eat non-zabiha meat, but our daughter won't.")

I left home for love. When I grew up, I realized love really doesn't matter unless you're watching Love, Actually or Dan in Real Life every Christmas. Love waxes and wanes, you see. I don't always love my husband, but I do always (begrudgingly) attempt to understand him, and he, me. We do not meet on the same plane of understanding either - our ideas and philosophies have diverged more over the years than they have come together, but each of us knows where the other is coming from. I am braver now in admitting this than I was when I left home. At the time, I was only thinking headily of the love that awaited me, not of all the love I left behind.

So, even though there is a conventionally happy end to the story of my "journey," when I look back to the initial decision of traveling so far away from home for love, and only secondarily, for education, it was not a brave one. In fact, I have never recognized it as brave, even when I lift the veils guarding that part of my past to see more clearly. It was headstrong. It was stubborn. It was stupid. But it wasn't brave. I have been brave since then, in other things, but that day under the cloud-laden sky of Lahore, I was just a willful teenager, and nothing more. (And to everyone who forewarned me of having this epiphany all those years ago, yes, I agree, an eighteen-year-old really doesn't know everything.)

I was not brave on that day when I left the city I loved, the people I loved, but carried some part of them with me all the way to California, as well. Bravery awaits me in the months ahead when I go back home to juxtapose the reality of the faces I remember with what they have become. Bravery is a two days of travel. Bravery is breathing in the scent of Lahore - what was it like? Bravery is going back home, not leaving it.