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

Chicken with Cilantro Pesto and Striking a Balance

All weekend I had this nagging feeling that I was forgetting something. I was relaxed, cuddling with Jahan all day, shopping with the family, cooking and cleaning the kitchen. The sudden calm was strange because I have been so wound up lately. I have had a mental list of things that are overdue, trying desperately to cross items off, and this weekend, quite surprisingly, the list disappeared, and I didn't know what to do with myself. Have you ever felt this way? You become so used to completing tasks that you forget how to live in their absence.

I have struggled for a long time to balance the different "categories" of my life. It's more than work-life balance - it's an effort to stand on a narrow platform that perches precariously between sanity and insanity. It is impossible to function entirely in the Sanity Meadow and a nightmare to imagine doing so in the Insanity Jungle. People like me, therefore, who are often zigzagging into and out of each realm prefer to strike a balance and exist in the narrow border between the two. I am not always successful at this endeavor, but it is worth striving for.

Having a temporary reprieve from the pestering task list that is bound to multiply its contents rapidly, I felt a pull towards the kitchen. I wore my mother's clothes that she had left in my closet, because I was missing her. Wearing them, I felt closer to her and told her so over Skype. I regretted the days I wasted when she was here in my house, and I was too busy crossing off items on my task list to sit down with her over hot cups of chai and talk about whatever was on her mind. There were too many "should-haves" on the tip of my tongue and dwelling over them in any detail would disintegrate my composure, so I strayed away from that topic altogether. I was talking to her after a long time. Calling my mother, I am ashamed to admit, had not been checked off on my to-do list, but mothers have superhuman abilities to forgive.

I promised myself to consciously make an effort to strike a balance. I want to never let the things that matter to me lapse again because there is too much to do. The fact is, there will always be too much to do. I don't want these days, months, and years to pass me by because I was too busy looking the other way. I want to live, really live. To me, that translates into doing things I love with the people I love. I will love more, give more, and write more. I will call my mother and tell her, you know what, Mom? You're pretty damn cool, and I am proud to be your little girl. I hope one day you can be proud of me, too. I will cook and bake and write and tell the whole world about the things that matter to me

Happily fueled by my resolutions, I was all set to get back into the kitchen and resume my collaboration with Rebecca, in which I cook and she photographs. I adapted a Bon Appetit recipe for this occasion. I used pine nuts instead of pistachio, added more garlic, used dark meat instead of chicken breast, and added red chili flakes to the chicken in addition to salt and pepper. It was fitting, then, that I chose this recipe for my inaugural day in the kitchen after a long hiatus. It was like I had created a dish to seal my promise of striking a balance in my life. The nuttiness in the pesto was perfectly complemented by the garlic. The red chili flakes gave the chicken a slight dimension in flavor while not taking away from the mildness in the sauce. Perfectly balanced, I thought. The dish turned out to be terrific. I made a small salad on the side with Ceasar dressing. For dessert, we watched Jahan devour a chocolate chip cookie.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

A Handful of Memories

I often tend to liken memory to a mosaic, small pieces of the past haphazardly joined together to create a pattern. A mosaic that I hold in my hands, which ripples over my skin, one specific incident of the past catching light, jogging some deep-rooted recognition I held of it that I have long since buried underneath the mundanities of the present. It takes me by surprise sometimes. I am jolted awake right before drifting off to sleep when an odd image makes its appearance just when consciousness is slipping away, beckoning me. Something new, or something from my childhood. Something wholly ordinary that should have no meaning and no place here, now, after a long day when all I want to do is close my eyes and be lost to the world. Just the complete peculiarity of a memory asserting its presence when I have made no effort to conjure it is enough to unnerve me and wake me up.

I was thinking about the workbook I have been meaning to start working through - Story-Starters - and the first exercise, which is to write about where you come from. Lahore, I was thinking. Ravi. Jasmines. Cliches, all of these. Kalima Chowk. Liberty Market. Convent of Jesus and Mary. The images were coming slowly now. Street food. My father's farmhouse. Earthworms after a monsoon downpour...Pigeons! What?! Pigeons? All of a sudden I felt very awake as if someone had called my name inside the darkened room to rouse me.

For many years during my childhood, my uncle raised pigeons. He built a roomy cage for them on our rooftop, filled with moss and leaves and bird feeders. I remember the birds pecking on grains that he used to scatter on the concrete floor of the roof, their funny little necks bobbing backward and forward. They would fly off in groups, in white and gray rings, swooping and rising, disappearing, but always coming back, always finding their way home. I wonder what happened to them. I distinctly remember a time when my uncle had them and a time when he didn't. Perhaps he sold them, or found them another home. I felt an odd pang of longing for those birds I had no particular feelings for during my childhood. Where did they go?

There have been memories in the past that have startled me awake from the shallows of slumber. The way my grandmother used to keep a small linen pouch pinned to the inside of her shirt holding a round cylinder of small bills. The smell of new notebooks and the brown paper we used as sleeves for them right before the school year began. A walk on the Mall Road in Murree more than two decades ago when I bought a fur hat that was too big for a 7-year-old head. The time my sister and I were sent to school on a holiday by mistake and spent the whole day with Sister Grace, having tea and scones, visiting the chapel, playing in the kindergarten play room. The sound of water rushing out of the tube-well's spigot at my family's farmhouse. The smell of a large bouquet of tube-roses my father always arranged in a crystal vase in the drawing room. Knitting a scarf that was destined to stay incomplete in front of the gas heater while my mother shelled pine nuts and handed them to me. The roasted and salted almonds served as an appetizer at Mei Kong restaurant in Barkat Market. The way the canal was dressed up like a bride to celebrate the spring festival with beautiful hand-crafted floats dotting its calm waters. Turning towards the airplane window, away from other passengers on my journey here, a weight in the pit of my stomach, sobs heaving my shoulders, rubbing my throat raw as I saw Lahore receding underneath me...

I could write a thousand or more words on each of these fragments, and I might just do that in the coming days, so strong are the recollections I encounter when my defenses are diminished. It is like I am cupping hundreds of these tiny memories in my hands, treasuring them, and if I move just the right way, one slips trough my fingers and lands on the floor. I am compelled, then, to bend down, examine, retrieve, and restore it. Back into the pile it goes just to resurface another day. Some of them tighten ther grip on my heart, give me a dull ache where once a stronger sensation used to be, like my memory of the journey away from Lahore, towards my life as it is now. Others leave me with a warm happiness; I see it spreading through me thick and golden and sweet like honey, like the memories I have of the day my sister and I spent in a deserted school building with Sister Grace. Yet more leave me wondering, or with a sense of longing and regret and confusion. 

Why was I startled awake by the image of those pigeons that appeared behind my eyes and swiftly vanished like a picture in a book whose pages I am rolling between my thumb and forefinger? I am only left with meaningless questions about some memories that are not salient in and of themselves, but lead to other strings of events, people, milestones. The pigeons got me to think of my uncle, the love he has given me unconditionally and liberally my whole life. I started to recall other details I observed about my uncle during my childhood. The brand of cigarettes he used to smoke, the small golden pack, the contents of which I used to break into tiny pieces in an effort to make him quit, for instance. Or the huge kites that he used to store in his room. For months he collected kites and rolls of string in every color and size for the annual spring festival called basant. And this is the spark that lights the fire under all the basants I remember, the tiny kites dotting the azure sky, the little girls dressed in yellow dresses symbolic of new beginnings and growth...

It's a spiral, really, and the pigeons are the place to start. Round and round and round it goes, it burrows through the handful of memories to a deeper place - the place I go to so I can write this.

Photos by Rebecca McCue