The Aftermath - Part 3

It feels odd to discover at this age and this stage in my life what it is like to share the ordinary details of my domestic life with my father. There was never a need to do this when my mother was alive. We had a WhatsApp group, “Noor Ladies Only,” that documented the everyday travails of three young women navigating their lives and kitchens in different parts of the world, peppered by their beautiful mother’s selfies. When I look back through that group chat, I feel very strongly that it is a powerful time capsule, capable of taking me back to her, the Urdu script of her messages showing her hope, her resolve to fight the disease that was slowly colonizing her body, her devotion to her family. The group is silent now. We are trying to fill the silence with noise in “Noor Siblings Only,” “Noor Sisters Only,” and “The Noors – Papa & Kids.” It’s the last group that surprises me most often because of the obvious need for its existence and the fact that this need was felt most acutely only after my mother’s death.

It never occurred to us to have a space just with our father when our mother was with us. When Mama was alive, we had a whole-family WhatsApp group, too, but no one ever used it. Once a year, someone would send a message for Eid, and then we would all forget about it. Strangely, sometimes I feel that in dying, our mother propelled us towards our father. Perhaps the force of love she always held tight to her chest was set free upon her children, and we, drowning in our despair came up for air and held on to our father. Our father, in his particular way, allowed himself to be pulled by the current while holding our heads above water. He, being the father that he is, saved his children from drowning without making a sound.

I don’t know what we gave back to him – perhaps something that should have been his for years already. An openness. An acceptance. A love that does not have qualifiers, complaints, or expectations – the kind of love my mother gave to him (and us). It is strange to love my father so fiercely again at 32, like the way I used to love him at 12 – with a single-minded devotion, with unquestioning respect, with a grateful sense of pride for all he had achieved in his life, with admiration for his life-long struggle to rise above his circumstances, to give his family a secure future, to fight fate, to pour himself into his art. How fascinating this man is – I realize – something my mother always said, but I never saw. “I find him admirable,” she would say. “He fascinates me. There isn’t a man I have met in my life who is quite like him.” I shrugged off her comments. Sometimes I rolled my eyes at her. “You’re hopeless, Mama."

But I see it now – it descends upon me like an epiphany, the meaning of my mother’s words. He inspires fascination and admiration in me, too. I see why I am the way I am – hungry for more, for lofty goals, for new avenues to prove myself, to make a difference and a positive impact. I have always been his daughter, but now I see how alike we really are. It took me a long time to purposefully forget this fact, and its resurfaced knowledge crashes upon me with a blunt indifferent pain. Who is my father and why was my mother so devoted to him until her last breath? Isn’t is utterly fascinating, the story of this young orphan, who fought abject poverty and his slated fate to be completely mediocre and forgettable, and instead achieved fame, fortune, and the highest civilian honor of his nation -- all because he dared to believe that he could do something extraordinary in life and then went on to demonstrate this belief in his art. My parents are those rare people who fed their family from their art. They loved what they did for a living, and for a while, they did it together. I, like my father, have always run towards what I love, tried to find contentment in my work, but have always been riddled with this certainty that there is more I could be doing, there is a lot more work to do. And so, like him, I keep searching.

My father, now 66, rises early, does not believe in vacation, and works constantly. When he is not working on his projects, he is working around the house. He likes to work with his hands on everything from assembling furniture to cooking. In our WhatApp group, “The Noors – Papa & Kids,” he sent pictures of turnip curry he cooked one afternoon in response to the culinary creations of his three girls and the street food adventures of his son. The frame was artistically composed in his signature style: the food presented in a clear serving dish, a pomegranate, an apple, and a grapefruit in a bowl next to it, a small box of milk, two rotis. The caption reads: “Made shaljam for my Rukhsana today and said a prayer for her. I hope the aroma of this effort reaches her. Ameen.”

This is how we live every day after her – a little high, a little low. Always we find each other, these five wandering souls – the Noor Papa and his kids.

The Aftermath - Part 2

Some days, it becomes too much to bear. How can we carry this vast grief inside us and not be overcome by it? Those are brutal days. Whatever this thing is, this living, writhing, evolving thing takes over every sense and we, her children, break apart. Why did she have to go? Why did this have to happen? Why couldn't we have more time? Inconsequential, useless, ridiculous questions -- I reflect in moments of collectedness -- but in the throes of this emotional downdraft, they become our combined focus: why, why, why, why. It's endless and dark and lonely, this strange motherless realm of our lives. 

Being a child of writers, I often try to contain it in my writing. I tell my friends, "I have so much to say about this." But the truth is, I haven't yet figured out how to morph this state of mind and body into words. I am unable to describe the exact feeling of falling I experience on a routine basis when I wake up from a dream in which she was with me. A perpetual free-fall. It's like cutting through a whirlpool of air, limbs heavy and resistant to movement, the body forgetting to breathe, forgetting to think, forgetting to even look for an anchor, remembering only this: no mama, no mama, no mama.

Who was this woman, my friend, my mother, who taught me so many lessons in her life, but strangely, even more lessons in her death? It is the most surreal and unnerving experience to realize that your mother in her death has taught you the fundamentals of love. To someone who is as jaded and pragmatic as me, there is an actual movement of resistance that is planned, developed, and implemented by the brain without the slightest hesitancy. But there it is, plain for anyone who cares to see. My mother in her life and in her death imparted only love. It will take me years and perhaps my whole life to fully understand the extent of her capacity to love, and similarly, her unexpressed need to be loved in return. We used to have long, deep, meaningful conversations. I was a friend to her, and she to me. I asked her probing questions. How did you feel when such and such happened? What was your physiological response? Did you cry? What was the dominant emotion? Why do you care so much for people? What do you look for in a person? She was forthcoming in her responses. Her answers: Deeply shaken and hurt; my heart sank; yes, buckets; a sense of betrayal; because I am made this way and I believe people are fundamentally good rather than bad; honesty. And yet, today I realize that maybe I didn't know her completely after all. Maybe I was asking the wrong questions. Maybe I was just peeling away at the surface, and she like always, was letting me have my way.

Where are you now when I have so many more questions, I whisper into the still, empty air. I drive over the Dumbarton bridge to and from work in a strange communion with all the other lonely travelers around me. Who knows about the sea of grief surging within each person's shallow chest? I feel we are all sharers of each other's private heartbreak as we snake our way across the bridge over the bay that has swelled with recent rains. I cry most freely in the car over this bridge, the water steely blue and tranquil under the grey portentous sky, cyclists in their neon vests and helmets whizzing by the rush hour traffic, and all these people, isolated like me, caught in the current of their thoughts.

A Wanderer Returns

From the beginning, this is exactly how it was supposed to be. 

Without ceremony or preamble, I am returning to Pakistan after nearly 14 years of being in California. I am traveling alone -- my daughter and husband, both of whom became a part of my life when I had already planted myself firmly in the identity of an immigrant, will stay behind. I am going for 10 days including travel time. Time, I imagine, will fly, but I will also have a heightened sense of its flight. I will feel it in its most concentrated form -- sort of like seeing heavily pigmented color, touching the purest of silk, experiencing the tug of life that pulls a baby into this world. 

The anticipation frightens me. I am most afraid of finding out that the place that exists in my memory is inaccurate -- a composite of my imagination and past -- the Lahore I have been writing about is frozen only on the pages that I have filled. I feel each sense coming to attention in the days before my departure, ready to call me out as an imposter. I am perpetually at an impasse with myself. The places I remember are no longer a part of the city I was raised in. A few days ago, my sister asked me, "What do you remember?" And I said, "Kalma Chowk." Her smile held sympathy, "There is no Kalma Chowk anymore."

How does one reconcile with a loss that is not only intangible, but also indescribable? How does one begin to parse out the grief that surrounds estrangement? It didn't begin this way. In a lot of ways, this journey has been like seeing a child grow up. You know they are growing and changing, but you cannot trace the growth, hold them in your arms and realize that they have changed. But they are morphing into larger forms of themselves all the time, in front of your eyes, and you are blind to it until you see growth charts in a pediatrician's office, or see pictures of them from a few years ago or even a few months ago. It is only in retrospect, that you can see this magic -- the roundness of the face diminishing, the hair losing its curl, the child crawling, standing, walking, dancing... So fleeting, all of it, and yet it unfolds in precise detail for us without our notice. And so, when people ask me how is it that 14 years have gone by and I have not returned? How is it that I have managed to survive without the places and people I claim to love -- I only say, I don't know where the time went. 

These days, I have started to dream again. My dreams are mostly about forgetting things, or losing people. There is a profound sense of urgency that envelops me when I emerge from sleep. It is disorienting to find myself in my bed, the house humming quietly in the night, everything just as I arranged it before sleep descended -- the robe over the chair, the cup of water on the coaster, the phone blinking in the dark bearing missives from a different time zone. But if I speak frankly, I might say the messages are from a different world altogether.

"How is mama?"

"What is the chemo schedule?"

"Don't bring presents."

"I love you."

"Mama is dealing with everything like a champ."

What is this world? How did we get here, dragged to this very point in our shared existence by distance, decisions, grief, sickness, choices, independence, detachment...? How is it that a journey home comes about suddenly, without ceremony or preamble, after nearly 14 years, when what looms before me is not the thousands of miles I must cross defenselessly traversing air currents, or the people I must face who have changed and grown and lived and died, or the city I must go to that is past its monsoon prime for the year and will surely punish me in many ways for being gone too long -- no, none of this matters. What really holds me in a death grip of confrontation is a neat row of packages I created and tied with bows and pushed into the farthest recesses of my consciousness. They are what lie in wait at each step between here and there. How does one unravel and remember what's taken years to forget? How does one even begin to try? 

And despite all of this, I know with absolute conviction, it had to be this way. Like I said -- from the beginning, this is exactly how it was supposed to be. 

 

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?

The Cultivation of a Realist

"Though there was no talk of it during this particular phone conversation, my father wanted me to be a dental hygienist. Unlike my sister, I wasn't shooting the lights out in school, and he thought it was essential that I have a practical skill to fall back on. A career in writing seemed about as likely to him as the chances of my inheriting Disneyland. My father thought I should be realistic."
- Ann Patchett in How to Read a Christmas Story. The Washington Post. Sunday, December 20, 2009.

This morning on my drive to work, I started listening to a collection of essays by Ann Patchett that I have been meaning to pick up for quite some time. The book is intriguing even at the level of the title, which in my opinion, is hard to accomplish.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage begins with a charming note by the author, taking the reader by the hand and walking her through the events and circumstances that made the book possible. A window for the reader to look in. The first essay in the book titled How to Read a Christmas Story originally appeared in The Washington Post in December of 2009 and is about the author being given an unlikely Christmas gift by her father, which she has cherished for many years. The gift was a story her father read to her over the phone on Christmas Eve. Listening to the essay, however, while I was moved by the gift of the story and how it still has meaning for the author after all these years, there was a different detail that made a deeper impression.

When one reads, one cannot help but become a part of the narrative, or bring one's observations, life lessons, perspectives, experiences, values, and philosophies to the reading. Why else would a book be resonant for a reader in one decade and completely jarring in another? I have experienced this for many books, most notably, The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. Ann Patchett mentions in her essay that she intended to be a writer as early as age 6 -- remarkable -- and her family knew this, too. In the quote at the beginning of this post, Patchett reflects on her father's desire for her to be realistic and practical. Listening to this essay, I thought of my own childhood and how different it was compared to my adult life.

My father, too, was a man who liked storytelling, but he never thought that his children needed to be practical or realistic, because he never had those traits either. If anything, his lesson to us was, "Follow your heart, reality be damned." As a child, it was by turns exhilarating and confusing to be so removed from reality, to not be able to associate actions with consequences. I favored reading fiction, for instance, over studying for final exams. Our typical family bonding exercise was to watch a movie and take it apart scene by scene. My father could ask any number of odd questions. "Why do you think the camera was on a crane for this shot?" "Is this a set or a real location?" "Why do you think that telephone call was so important to be cut at that particular instant?" "Spot a continuity mistake in this shot." Finding a continuity mistake was like playing "Where's Waldo." Sometimes it was easy -- the actor had his sunglasses in the wrong hand all of a sudden. Other times, it was harder -- the ice-cubes in the glass had melted between two consecutive shots -- it took me about a quarter of an hour of rewinding and replaying the VHS to find this. When we couldn't watch a movie together, we would write. My father favored legal pads, my mother wrote on recycled newsprint sheets, I wrote in a wide ruled notebook. There was never a discussion in our house about being realistic, paying the bills, having a practical skill. It was like living in a bubble, which is why adult life, by contrast, was completely disconcerting.

I had to teach myself the practicalities of paying rent, for instance, when I first moved to California for college. For the first several months, I wrote instead of working. A weekly magazine that is no longer in publication in Pakistan, published the column I wrote: "Letter from California." Since I was not residing in Pakistan when I wrote the column, I was not paid for it. Eventually, the money my father had given me began to dry up. More would come for tuition and books, but I was beginning to discern the acute financial pressure on my parents, earning in rupees and supporting their daughter in dollars, and I wanted to pick up some of that burden. I kept waiting for something to happen, something grand and outrageous, the stuff of movies and stories. But nothing happened. I won third place in a local poetry competition, sold a couple of poems to small county magazines, and received a lot of rejections. A lot. It was a hard way to learn that I couldn't simply read and write and go to school and pay the bills. I was not a professional writer like my parents, but I never thought I had to be anything else in my life either. So, I got a job on campus. I began to pay attention. I realized I could do math! I fell in love with Biology. And for many years, I didn't write seriously. I cultivated the skills that are necessary to survive in the world. I anchored the dream-boat. I favored a lab notebook over a journal. And I became a realist.

Now, years later, my parents try to find the girl they raised together in me. My pragmatism scares them because they are not pragmatic people. They are artists and they have never known another way to be. They are those rare individuals who make a living from their art, who raise a family and tend a house all from an income generated by what they create. Their world is sustained by the world they craft on paper. I am in awe of them and in awe of the fact that I came from them. I am a writer in that I do not know how to be at peace with myself if I don't write, but that is the extent of it. Unlike Ann Patchett, I didn't give myself over to the destiny of a writer as a child. I didn't think I would be alone and poor because those are the hallmarks of being a writer. I also did not resign myself to the "Kafka model" Patchett mentions, banking on being discovered by virtue of my work after death. I wanted to do something now, in this life. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't want it badly enough, and I wanted many other things, too.

So, here we are, twenty years removed from a ten-year-old who thought bliss is to be found only in the act of writing, the doors of creativity are always open, all you need is to pick up your pen and you will create something worthwhile -- probably because if there is anything my parents sheltered me from, it was from the travail of rejection, which they no doubt faced as all writers do. Last night on the phone, I told my mother, "These are the years. This is the time for me to work hard and have a career." My mother said, "I am proud of you, but work will always be there. This is also the time to take care of yourself." I said, "But my work is important to me." She said, "You and what you have to offer are the only things that are important." I just shook my head in silence and couldn't tell if she was speaking as a mother or as an artist.

The Dead Teach Us Lessons

I have a very distinct memory of my cousin playing a metal harmonica as a boy. My cousin who died as a nearly 35-year-old father of two is forever preserved for me as that hazel-eyed child, playing an almost-melody on his harmonica. The trouble is, I cannot figure out if that memory is real or constructed. Maybe I heard from someone that he played the instrument and imagined the melody. Maybe it was someone else who played the harmonica and I conjured my dead cousin in his place. Or maybe he really did carry a small silver harmonica with a green trim in his pocket to play it from time to time. I have not asked my sisters if they remember him with the instrument, because I am afraid to shatter this image of him -- healthy, slightly brooding, slouching in a corner of the room, playing a tune.

I have another memory of him, too -- returning from an afternoon expedition across the neighborhood having collected small, unripe mangoes in a makeshift bundle created out of a t-shirt. We sliced the mangoes, a few of us kids together in the cool kitchen with the ceiling fan whirring, and sprinkled chaat masala on them. Then we ate each piece and scrunched up our faces as the tartness of the fruit hit our tongues. I am unsure about this memory also. Maybe it was another cousin who went stealing fruit from our neighbors' gardens that year -- the one who is alive and well. 

There are a few memories of him that I am sure of, most of them, I'd rather forget. We argued over something and didn't talk to each other for years. If we saw each other in our old neighborhood or in the home of a relative, I looked away, I stayed silent, I changed the course of my walk to avoid him. We didn't even fight over anything significant. It was absurd, really, and yet we kept hanging on to the silence for so many long years. I kept hanging on to it. Perhaps I would have broken the silence when I saw him last, over a dozen years ago, if I knew I would never have the chance to say another word to him. I don't even remember the last time I saw him -- it was so completely ordinary. It was probably one of those many occasions when I did my routine of seeing him and averting my eyes, not acknowledging his presence. I get so angry with myself when I think about this. How selfish. How immature. How absolutely frustrating. 

I am overcome with regret when I think of him -- and yet to this day, my solution to end complication is to walk away from it and never look back. I have learned on many occasions that this is a highly unhealthy way of dealing with unsavory emotions. It is extremely hard, however, to break this defense mechanism. 

There are certain realities that no one can argue with. Realities that afford no uncertainties, no what-ifs. He is dead. I am alive. We didn't speak for many years. I didn't get a chance to reconcile, see him as a father, meet his family in his presence. He couldn't do the same for me either. It is comforting to remind myself of the starkness of these realities, so I learn to value the people around me while they are still alive and not douse myself with regret after they are gone forever. It is humbling. 

There is one memory of him that swims to the surface without any effort at all. It is one I am certain of. For a year, I attended the girls' section of the same school that he went to. I was five years old. He was nearly ten. On two occasions while I was attending that school, he came to me to see how I was doing, concerned, brotherly, but reserved in his manner, speaking little, listening more. And one time, on this bright Spring afternoon, as I was about to sit in the car after school, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to see his grinning face. My uncle, also his uncle, who was there to pick me up wrapped him in a hug, ruffled his curly hair. I don't remember what he said, what any of us said. I just remember the three of us standing on the side of the road, smiling, just happy to see each other. What a lark! How wonderful! What a marvelous co-incidence! That's what you think when such meetings happen -- that is why you get so happy when something like this occurs unexpectedly. You feel elated. And a little awed. And I miss that moment. I miss him as a boy with that disarming grin. I miss myself encompassed by that small happiness. I miss my uncle, loving us, his nephew and niece. 

Grief and regret are so similar -- they never truly leave you alone. They dull and deepen, dull and deepen, on and on. And they are selfish. You hang on to them possessively, because they make you remember yourself as you were with the person who is no longer here. They are as much about you as the one who is absent. 


It would serve me well to remember this. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue


The Storyteller's Daughter

Isn't it strange how certain actions or habits start to mean so much to you despite the unlikeliest of origins? For instance, I started to drink coffee back in college because it made me feel grown-up. Gradually, I came to depend on it on the eve of a big test. Now, I am unabashedly addicted. How odd that something so natural to my everyday existence as daily cup(s) of joe originated from a desire to feel older, more mature, experienced. 

I wonder sometimes why I started to write. Do I honestly believe, as my parents insist, that it's in my blood, it's something I inherited? Or do I believe the other reason that I often give to myself and others: I write because it's a defense mechanism. I process everything by writing: hurts, slights, grief, joy, wonder, aches and pains even. But what if the real reason is neither of the two? What if the real reason is hidden so far into the crevasses of memory that there is no way to tell what it is? 

I have a theory. When I was a little girl, my greatest accomplishment as I saw it was being my father's daughter -- it was no accomplishment, I know that now. It was pure chance or pure fate. But that is how I saw it then. I was so infallibly proud to be his child, to be his firstborn, to belong to him that it began to feel like an achievement. I would look at the thick binders of scripts he wrote long-hand and marvel at them. My father writes stories, I would think. What a wonderful thing to be -- a writer -- whose stories will live on and on. When I am grown, these binders will still be here, neatly placed on the mahogany shelves in his study, and I will come in casually carrying a handbag and wearing makeup and breezily pick up a binder, settle in his armchair, and begin to read. And I will find my father and his words on these pages. I will forever find him here. That's what I would think as a child. For some reason, I didn't associate the act of searching with finding him. Why would I be trying to search for him? Why would I be drawn to his work? But such sophistication was beyond me at that time. 

Every year until fourth grade, I won the class prize in "Urdu Reading." Oral recitation prizes were discontinued after fourth grade, or I am sure I would have continued to win. I don't speak from arrogance -- this is the simple truth and it has its roots in my reading habits. Even at that young age, I would creep into our drawing room where my father liked to write in those early days. I would pick up stacks of pages as he finished writing on them and I would read his neat penmanship, tight loops, slanting accents. If I didn't understand a word, I would catalog it to ask my mother later. I never disturbed my father during his fertile spells of writing. It never occurred to me to do so. Even back then, I recognized the act of creating stories on paper as sacred, like a form of worship. I miss those days with the clarity of retrospection -- it is a time capsule -- that man by the window, one leg crossed over the other, a sheaf of papers in front of him, a Uniball pen flying across the page, and that little girl next to him, silent but occupied, hanging on to the rise and fall of his Urdu script. In a moment, he will look up, he will stretch, he will ask, "Do you want to go get barbecue for dinner?" She will leap from the sofa. They will gather the rest of the family and drive off. And soon after, she will grow up, there will be vast distances between them, some surmountable, some not. I want to tap that girl on the shoulder with this new insight of adulthood. I want to beg her to know how special that time really is because of its sheer simplicity. She loves her father. He loves his child. In this instant, there is nothing between them but a few pages of a much longer story. I want to whisper into the man's ear, too, who is much closer to my age now than the little girl's. It won't remain so simple forever, I want to say. Time and people will slip from your grasp, hold on tight for as long as you can. He will shirk me away. He will tell me I am mad. How is it possible, he will say, for his family to scatter. Why, that's insane. Here's his little girl. His smart little girl who will go places, and her Papa will always be with her. 

I digress as usual -- like my father, I am partial to story-telling. Back to my theory. What if I wasn't born with this strong inclination to write? What if this became a defense mechanism out of a strong wish rather than natural aptitude? My theory goes like this: Remember that little girl who would retreat into the drawing room with her father and admire his work? Maybe that girl loved her father so deeply and admired his vocation so strongly that she molded herself to be like him. She told herself, I must be like my father who is the very best father in the world. I look like him, everyone says as much. I may as well be like him. And so one day, she picked up a pen and paper and went to her father and said, Papa, I want to write something. Tell me what I should write. And the man said, my darling girl, you could write anything and you would do it marvelously. But Papa, she said, what should I write? And the man said, my darling girl, your smile is like the sun, write about the sun then. And so the little girl sat next to her father, and started to write in English instead of Urdu:


Sun
I am eating a bun
under the sun.
The sun shines brightly 
I can't sit quietly. 
After some hours
the sun is very large. 
The sun is very hot, 
I touch it not. 
-From the archives of Noorulain Noor


And how the man laughed and laughed with joy and pride when the girl read out the poem to him. He ran to his wife with the piece of paper in his hand and read it to her. She looked at her daughter with wide eyes and a huge smile. Frame the poem, the man boomed to his wife. We shall frame it and put it in the drawing room. That same afternoon, the man drove his three girls to a bookstore and bought them as many books as they wanted. He bought a special notebook for his elder daughter. For the writer, he said, as he presented it to her. The poet, his wife corrected him. And that is how she came to be known forever after. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Who are you? Where have you come from?

Who are you? Where have you come form? We spend our whole lives crafting answers to these questions. We spend day after day after day defining who we are, we try to stay true to ourselves, we attempt to be mindful of our values when we conduct ourselves in society, in polite company. Who are you, we are trying to figure out. Some of us spend years laying down roots. Others expend time and effort to distance ourselves from our roots, rise above our origins, overcome circumstances, elevate our situation in life. 


I am reading Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread these days and there is a scene in the book where we hear these questions as a character's internal musing. "Who are you? Where have you come from?" It made me think. What answer do I have for these questions. The answer I have is very different from what my father must have or what my child will have in the future. I come from a father who crafted a place for himself in the world, who rose above his origins, who fought against the status quo, who gave to his children more than he ever had. I come from writers, from dreamers, from parents who are brilliant and creative and flawed and sentimental. I, too, have risen above my own roots. I have done my fair share of challenging the norms. And there is so much work still left to do. What will my daughter say to these questions, I wonder. Will she know what it took for us to get here, her and me together? Will she know the depth of longing that had to be overcome? Will she appreciate the force with which I cleaved myself to reality and shunned sentimentalism to get here, to be me, to make her? 



In the same book, there is a scene later on in which the family's two daughters are packing up the house and their belongings, a home with two generations of history. It is one of those brilliantly written scenes that will resonate with every audience. A few months ago, my parents sold the house I grew up in. 404, we called the house, referring to the number. In my dreams, I still walk in that kitchen, I still splash water on the epoxy floor of the garage and glide a squeegee across the wet surface, I still sit at the rickety old dining table and demand lunch impatiently, with the entitlement of a first-born. In the book, the two women talk about picture frames and pieces of furniture and china and old clothes. I wonder what I would have taken from 404 if I had had the opportunity. Maybe the plaque my father installed in the drawing room that said "A daughter is love." Maybe I would have taken a chair, an end table, and maybe in the end, nothing at all, only memories of all the years we spent there. Sometimes I wonder how my mother feels about leaving that house. Does she dream of the pitter-patter of little girls' feet running up to her, does she think of the roof-top that saw so many summer monsoons lash across its concrete floor and just as many winter chills? "Why do we accumulate so much when we leave it all behind," one character muses in the book. And I nod my head in agreement with her. We accumulate so much, maybe as a protest against the very fact that we will leave it all behind, an act of defiance. 

In the end, when I come back to the original question, I think of my roots. The roots my parents laid in that small house, 404, all those years ago. The roots that traveled with them to their new house without me. I can't not think of that house and those years when I try to compose an answer to these questions. Who are you? Where have you come from? I have come from the city of dreams, I think. From a small house in the mediocre part of town. From people who defied boundaries and limitations and showed their children how to dream. But I taught myself to make them real. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

What the World Cup Unearths

Pakistanis are most tolerant of only one religion: Cricket. The International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup comes around every 4 years inciting much fervor and ardent prayers. We see cricketers endorsing the most unlikely products -- five brands of tea claim to be the official World Cup Brew, a star batsman will smile on the screen and detail the merits of a mattress, how restful sleep enables him to deliver his best performance, et cetera.

Imran Khan at the 1992 World cup Final
We are once again gripped by World Cup fever, and while I swore off cricket back in 1999 when Pakistan was crushed in the final match, I can't help but yelp with excitement whenever Pakistan is playing (and winning). My earliest memories of cricket revolve around the World Cup of 1992, when Pakistan became the unlikely champion and brought the trophy home. The charismatic captain of the team back then was Imran Khan, who is now a prominent political figure in Pakistan. If cricket is a religion in Pakistan, back in 1992, Imran Khan was on its highest pedestal. His presence was ubiquitous. His picture could be found in homes, gracing the stalls of street peddlers, on the vinyl exteriors of rickshaws, in buses, on trucks. He was the man who rallied up a faltering team and brought home the World Cup, a feat our cricketers have never again accomplished. He transformed the underdogs into heroes. That is why it is such a fantastic story. In a recent match between Pakistan and Ireland for the current World Cup, Wasim Akram, a star bowler turned commentator was recalling his experience in 1992 under the leadership of Imran Khan. "He had belief, you know. He believed we could do it," said Akram. Elaborating, he said, "70% of any win is belief." This is awe-inspiring. They believed they could, so they did. 

When the 1992 World Cup was actually taking place, I was only 7 years old and had to ask my parents every time the room erupted in cries what exactly they were celebrating? Four? Six? Out? It was a very simple time in our household. I remember those days fondly and with the clarity of longing. We all gathered as a family on match days in my father's room. Meals were served on trays. My parents and uncle would have long, protracted discussions about our chances for winning, analyzing the possibilities. It was a time full of comfort for me, our entire family crammed in one room, makeshift beds on the floor, pillows scattered everywhere, snacks piled up on an end table -- it was the ultimate slumber party and it carried on for days. I didn't understand the significance of what was unfolding on the television screen. I didn't realize the degree of inspiration Pakistan's win would bring to its citizens. To this day, every 14th of August (Independence Day), the patriotic songs on TV include clips of the 1992 World Cup -- the sharp arc of Inzimam-ul-Haq's bat, Wasim Akram's disarming grin, his fists pumping in the air, Imran Khan running with his hands raised, the entire team in a tight huddle of celebration. I have no memory of these events as I was watching the match with my parents. I only remember my family's glee. My mother jumping up and down, my father swinging my youngest sister around the room, my sisters and I catching their contagious excitement, rolling into our uncle's arms. There was so much happiness -- even at that age, I was afraid it would burst and spill. I knew not to be reckless with it, because it would pass all too quickly. 

Now, when I sit with my new family in my living room, a laptop connected to the screen watching the boys in green, all the faces I see are new. I understand the game. I steel myself for disappointment. To my husband and brother-in-law, I say in a grave voice as if delivering bad news about a relative, "I know you want Pakistan to win, but you should prepare yourselves." And yet, secretly, I hope because I want to recapture that happiness we all felt in 1992, the purity of that joy for something that didn't affect us directly at all, and yet filled us to the brim, more than one of the adults choking up, drying their eyes because they were just too happy. I hope for another unlikely win, mostly because I have this deep-rooted nostalgia for 1992, for that exact shade of yellow light in the room, the pile of porcelain plates in the corner, teacups turned cold with a thick grey film on top, for my father's hoot of victory, for my mother's surprising leap from her chair, for my uncle's fist waving in the air. We won, we won, we won. 

But like I said, I have sworn off cricket. This is just nostalgia speaking, pure nostalgia, and certainly not the love of the game. That's what I tell myself as I turn in early on match nights. Cricket? It's not for me. 

Back to Basics

It is natural, I tell myself, to not feel particularly happy about the turn of the year. Why must I muster the enthusiasm of ten years ago, the festive evenings of foggy Lahore, the midnight trip to Data Sahib's shrine, the donation of a haleem deg to the street-dwelling citizens who counted on the generosity and ardent prayers of their middle-class counterparts for a free meal; or the celebratory visits to street vendors in the underbelly of the city, slithering with activity at all hours, food, chai, other vices; or the solemn prayer I offered every year specifically on the night that traversed two years -- make me good, make me how You want me to be, make it a good year, how You see it best. Why must I treat this as though it is any different from any other day of the year? It's not as if there is anything to celebrate or commemorate, really. 2014 was, after all, a taxing year for the world.

My heart finds comfort from the world at home. I find myself impulsively reorganizing cabinets, cleaning out the kitchen, finding expired boxes of cereal and smelly mason jars of sunflower seeds at the back of the pantry shelves and throwing them away. A new beginning of sorts. Clean shelves, a do-over for the pantry and refrigerator, and perhaps one for me at home in the kitchen. I find a salve for my restive spirit in making large meals, inviting friends and their kids for holiday lunches, taking out the nice china and then methodically washing and drying it by hand. As I write this, there is chicken curry bubbling on the stove, sautéed mushrooms ready on the side, a salad chopped and prepared. It's only us tonight and a friend we haven't seen in a while. We will gather around the table, talk about jobs and houses, about things that have nothing to do with having embarked on a new year -- the real things, the good things, the things that matter rather than the transient headiness one is prone to feeling at this time of the nascent year, the resolutions shiny and full of possibilities, that unmistakable sense of being at the verge of something significant -- an improvement, a second chance, a remedy for every mistake we have yet to commit.

And so, weary from the joy that surrounds me and without begrudging anyone their celebration, I find solace in simple things -- back to basics -- in cooking: smelling the freshly grated garlic roasting in the frying pan, watching the butter sizzle as it slides between the walls of the pan, the thickly sliced portabella whistling out a sigh as I press down with my spatula, the vegetables crisp under my practiced knife, such pleasure in the smells and sounds of a home-cooked meal; in poetry: in the books and magazines that have been piling up steadily over the last few months, collections and anthologies, books on writing, honing the craft, practicing it, owning it, and some delightful fiction, too; in writing: here; in thinking: everywhere. 

Perhaps that reads too much like a list of resolutions, but to me, it is an act of reaffirmation. Life is too short -- if there's one thing we have learned from 2014, it is that this cliche is unfortunately true. Staying true to yourself, to the things that delight you, make you you, give you lasting joy, is what you should be striving for. For me, it is coming back to the basics, to ordinary comforts, to little matters that matter.

Happy new year!