Time Capsule

I am reminded again tonight that the small hours are really the best for writing. It is past 1 AM -- I have studied somewhat half-heartedly for an upcoming exam, first in my daughter's bed as she drifted off to sleep, and then downstairs at the dining table after putting pound cake batter in the oven. The house smells sweet now, lived-in, welcoming. I didn't intend to come here tonight and write -- mostly because I need to relearn how to sift through the detritus of too much change that occurred too suddenly. There is a lot of pull I feel towards writing, but there is also a stronger force that does not allow me to focus on one coherent thought or topic. There is too much intangible clutter in my life, and the contrived neatness of my tangible reality helps, but only a little. Or perhaps more simply, you can call it inertia.

The reason I decided to show up and write this time is not because inspiration struck while I was brushing my teeth before bed -- actually, in a way, perhaps it did. I have placed on the shelf next to the sink a small framed picture. The picture must have been taken in the year 1988 or '89 -- I look about 3 or 4 years old (in the blue and white shirt). I chose the unusual spot for this picture quite deliberately -- it is something I see every morning and evening. I don't often dwell on it or reflect on the happiness of my childhood, but it's always there, a comfort to me. I have no memory of the day this picture was taken, but I've imagined it. It must have been sunny, maybe spring of '89. A Sunday. No school, no work. The kitchen door would have been propped open by a chair. Something had to have been on the stove -- a pot of daal sputtering. My father must have told us a story, gathered us around him. He must have been taking pictures of us -- his three girls -- as he did frequently. And maybe I climbed on to his shoulders and my sister wanted to trade places. Maybe he thought it would be funny to get a picture of all of us stacked like that. Americans would say, "like pancakes;" I prefer "like books." What a lark, my parents must have thought. How wonderful to capture this moment. I could ask them how it really came about, but I am afraid of being disappointed if they don't remember that day with as much clarity as I've imagined it. What if it was actually overcast? What if it wasn't even daytime? What if the house was silent and the picture was taken only moments after the baby started to cry? What if someone hastily arranged the girls this way to entertain the baby, and oh there was a camera, so click, flash, off you go? Not nearly as romantic as my imagination. 

But that doesn't matter. What matters is the significance this picture holds for me on bleak days. There are many of those -- when I am struggling to find meaning in my mother's illness, or when I am desperately trying to be a good mother myself, when I am bleary-eyed wishing for more sleep, or worried for a big test or a presentation at work -- this picture grounds me. It tells me, look, there you were, all those years ago, and those are the people who loved and love you still. It gives me a deep sense of kinship and repose even on days that leave me drained and somewhat lonely. It calls me home, too, a call I resist over and over. Maybe tomorrow, I say. Maybe next year. 

So much love in one frame. And so much magic. 

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


Extemporaneous Writing

I have had so many days lately that made me feel like I was carrying pebbles in my chest. Reflecting in bed at night, I feel so weighed down by the day's events -- maybe I shouldn't have given Jahan that piece of chocolate, I shouldn't have yelled at her when she wasn't listening, I should have carved out some time for reading and writing, I really should have organized the garage. On days like this, I feel like I am at war with myself. My thoughts are all so critical, so negative. 

I wish I could identify an easy and sure solution to quiet the incessant critic in my head on such days. A magic shut-up spell. Something. Writing is the obvious answer, as I am doing now, because I cannot bear to spend another minute examining the minutiae of the past few days. There are also cooking and baking, something to turn back to as we settle into the routine of school/work this week. But I must acknowledge the elephant in the room -- the reason all this is happening in the first place. The anxiety of going back to real life has been mounting these past few days, and now on the eve of "back to work day," I am certain that I must have something to show for the last two weeks. Not one book have I finished (though I have read a fair bit of poetry). I have not attempted a single poem, much less written one. And now I won't have a break like this for a whole year. The year seems to stretch before me endlessly -- no wonder I cannot find any joy in this first week of 2015. 

I really don't know what the point of this post is. Better sleep now. 

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!

Being a Working Mom is TOUGH! I love it anyway.

I started working full-time when my daughter was 3 months old. I would cry during the commute each way, cursing the traffic, thinking desperately that those precious minutes could have been spent with my baby. The baby in question is 3 years old now. I am still a full-time working mother while also serving as the Associate Editor of a literary publication. I do not cry in traffic now, but I still curse. Loudly. Unabashedly. It's good for the soul. And the moment after a curse word rebounds from the car's interior and disappears into the air is so....well, zen.

When I see the little human I brought into this world, that unruly hair, the ubiquitous smile, those shining almond eyes, I feel love, sure, supposedly the purest form of it as all mothers will readily tell you, but more than that, I feel pride. I feel proud of my little human. We have come a long way, you and me, I tell her. You were a tiny thing, and now look at you. You are assertive. You are strong. You are beautiful. You know what you want and how to get it. You have such a strong belief in yourself. Such spirit. Such will. I hope it never diminishes. When I drop her off at school, she gives me a kiss and says, "Bye, Mummy," so eager to start the day with her friends and teachers, where Mummy just doesn't fit. And then, when I pick her up, she comes running to me, saying, "Mummy! Mummy! Mummy!" My well-adjusted little human. A lot of tears were shed while we got here. A lot of doubts were aired. And even today, on those rare days when we encounter tummy troubles, or a sore throat, or a waxing fever, I put everything else aside. My sole focus becomes this little wonderful person who needs no one else in the world except her Mummy. It's hard to even sign on to email on such days, to answer a simple question about a work issue. Work becomes a burden. Why am I doing this? What is the point? I should only be with my little human, this sweet girl with her curls and cuddles. And then, she gets up and goes to the kitchen. She reaches for her play-doh basket and begins to play, or goes to her drums and starts making some music.

It's tough to be a working mom. Yet I do it day after day. We wake up, we start our day together, experience rewards and setbacks during the day, and we meet again in the evening, coming together, sharing, loving, a full circle so to speak. It would be wrong for me to say that in this wholesome picture, nothing is lost. There is always an opportunity cost. Something is lost when something is gained. In this case, my daughter and I end up spending 6 meaningful hours together during the day -- hours in which we are soaking up each other's presence, playing, reading, cuddling, talking -- not counting bedtime and sleep hours. 6 hours each weekday. But they are really good hours. Happy. Rewarding. Rejuvenating.

Choosing to work is a very important decision for me. I consciously make the choice to go to work every day. It is not something that happened to me. It is something I chose to do because having a career is absolutely necessary, not only for my sanity and well-being, but also to set an example for my girl. I get positive reinforcement for my decision every day by witnessing how well-adjusted she is, and I get it from the past, too. I think of my mother who has worked long hours for most of her adult life and is still gainfully employed, and yet she always managed to remain her daughters' best friend. And I think of how I left home at 18 and made my own life, a career, another home. I would want my daughter to make her own life too, find love and independence and success on her own terms. And she undoubtedly will one day. If this time of mine, these key years of youth and energy and vitality are invested solely in the very noble and very rewarding service of my daughter and I do not craft a place for myself out there in the world in the process, not hone my skills in the workplace, not discover my true potential as an individual, as a contributor to my industry, not make an impact in the field of clinical research, which I am passionate about, where does that leave me? This is a very personal fear and will probably not resonate at all with many women who have extremely fulfilling lives without being in the workforce.

I love my daughter, but I love my career, too. And I think I would be an unhappy mother and an unhappy person if I wait for her to be off and discover love and life until I can do both of those things myself. For me, motherhood and my career do not just work in parallel, they define each other. I am very good at my job because I want to be a present, attentive, and loving mother in my hours away from the office. I am a good mother because I have a rewarding professional life. This is exactly what I would wish for my daughter with one tiny amendment -- a longer maternity leave.


Photos by Rebecca McCue

A Celebration of Growth

When I was a teenager, I was convinced that I knew everything. I had no uncertainties. I was invincible. I knew what was right and what was wrong and what was right for me. I knew wholly what I wanted and how I was going to get it. When I was a teenager, I knew everything about myself and about the world. I was practically an adult. 

I am 3 months away from turning 30. The big three-oh. The life-changing event. The age that used to sound "so old" all those years ago. The age that has a whole episode of Friends devoted to it with Rachel Green lamenting her "plan" and being very poor company for her friends. The birthday that, more often than not, invokes sadness and fear. The age that brands you: "There you have it. You are an adult now whether you like it or not." I don't feel any of those things right now. Instead, I look at my teenage self and shake my head at her, "Foolish girl." The truth is, I am on the verge of turning 30 and I am still clueless. There is so much growing up to do yet.

It is disconcerting to realize that all of the most important decisions of my life, with the exception of choosing to have a child, were made while I was a teenager -- heady, opinionated, filled to the point of bursting with this sense of being true, being right, that damned righteousness that still trickles out of my mouth in unguarded moments. Surprisingly, those decisions have been fruitful, but that is likely just dumb luck rather than a testament to my foresight or wisdom. Exactly 2.5 weeks ago, I started a new job. After 6 years, I left Stanford and took a management position with a start-up. It was time to move on, and I love my new job -- this is called growing up. Earlier this year, I took on a bigger role at Papercuts. I transitioned to the role of Associate Editor from Poetry Editor -- an experience that has been challenging and enlightening -- so this is how much work and planning and work and planning and work and planning it takes to bring out a magazine -- this is also called growing up. I am in the midst of concluding a 10-week poetry course I was co-teaching for Desi Writers' Lounge. During the last few weeks, I had the privilege of witnessing the course participants stretch their wings, take chances, push themselves to produce impressive poems. I learned as I taught -- this is also called growing up. My girl is beginning to talk to me. In the morning, I wake her up, and she says, "Lie down, please! Sleepy time, please!" A scene reminiscent of my own childhood. I get ready for work and she says, "Pretty!" She wants to change several outfits a day because her clothes are "wet" or "yucky" or something else. My daughter is turning into a real person -- this is also called growing up. Today, I joined a gym -- dare I say it -- this is also, in fact, called growing up.

And all this is just the beginning. I feel I am at the cusp of something far greater than I realize. I am not fully able to absorb or observe this, but it is a truth I am beginning to live by:  Life is so fluid. Learning is on a spectrum that is infinite. How does one ever satiate one's appetite for learning? How does one ever reach the point of satisfaction where one finally feels grown up, accomplished, done? With all the uncertainties I am thriving under, at least I know the answer to this one question is never. The recipe for a fulfilled life is in continuing to find delight in small developments, in observing and experiencing personal growth constantly. 

So, I look back at my insolent fifteen-year-old self who believes she knows everything and say just to push her buttons, "I'll ask you again 15 years!"

Photos by Rebecca McCue


Dear Lahore

Dear Lahore, 

I come to you again after all poetry has dried up. I come to you empty-handed like I often appear on the prayer mat, pleading for something,I want desperately, wanting, wanting. I come to you because memory is crippled now, drowned out by the present and the vices that afflict me -- caffeine, Splenda. I have not seen you these many years and so much of life has filled these furlongs of time. 

I come to you because I don't really want to come to you anymore, and that is a mourning in and of itself. I come to you because you still hold so much of me. Somewhere in the past, your streets still feel my tread. I am walking alongside my father. We are buying street food, seekh kebab and cucumber salad, mint chutney and watered down yogurt from a vendor in Lakshmi Chowk. Now he's perched me on the bonnet of the car. Such pleasure it gives me to say "bonnet of the car." No one would understand it here, but you do. Now he tells me about his childhood, about honesty and struggle and passion and creativity. He tells me I am a brave girl. He tells me I can be anything or anyone when I grow up. He tells me I am already smarter than him. Such a rueful smile. Such truth in his eyes. 

Somewhere on your streets, my uncle walks late at night, the sky lit up with a shock of stars. His signature black boots make clickity clack noises. He enters the house I lived in. I hear his shoes, I see his face. He calls out to me. "Let's eat! I've brought you garam garam chargha!" (hot chicken roast) I prance off my bed. We take out plates and napkins but no silverware. We eat with our hands. He talks about his plans, his future uncertain but possibility knocking at his doorstep. Back then, we thought we could each be anything or anyone we wanted to be. 

Somewhere on your streets, three girls sit in the backseat of a lurid blue van. Backstreet Boys screech on the cassette player. They sit side by side engrossed in their own thoughts. They break the silence for an observation and then fall again into the comfort of their quiet companionship. At this moment, their thoughts are enough, but the sisters don't know that truly, each of them is quite enough to sustain the others. They will not know this for a long time and not until they have learned the meaning of distances. 

Dear Lahore, you hold so much of those days I am beginning to lose, the moments that didn't seem to matter, but actually were the ones that mattered most, the time capsules that held the essence of happiness without drama or action. Life happened outside of these moments, but resided inside the simplicities of such times. This time, this happiness, that girl, she lives on inside these glimpses of a different world, she exists on your street corners, and in the kitchen of an old house, and in the back of a van that was sold many years ago. 

I suppose I do not know what I am really afraid of -- finding her there when I return, or never finding her again. 

Time passes differently for you and me

"There was seldom anything addressed to her. Only an occasional letter from Manash. She resisted reading them, given what they reminded her of. Manash and Udayan, studying together in her grandparents' flat, and Udayan and Gauri getting to know one another as a result. A time she'd crushed between her fingertips, leaving no substance, only a protective residue on the skin."
- Jhumpa Lahiri in The Lowland
I felt this way once before when I took another journey with Jhumpa Lahiri. It was a different book, The Namesake, but I remember the landscape of this author's creativity, the topography of sentences, the valleys and deltas, the mountains and forests. This is a fertile place. Lahiri takes me back to my home -- so different from the home of Ashima in The Namesake, and certainly nowhere near The Lowland of Gauri's past -- and yet, I find myself reaching back into time, recognizing moments that were lost for so long that I had forgotten I even experienced them. This is what great writing does. 


The Lowland is not for the faint-hearted reader. It is not a kind book, but it is an important one. For a novel, it packs an expansive history lesson, a history that I, being on the other side of the border from India, never learned in textbooks and lectures. But more importantly, at its core, the novel was about time, particularly the past, a slice of time crystallized and settled into the realities of individuals affected by it. Time taking hold of lives and just not letting go. My father used to say to me, "The words that leave your tongue and the time that leaves your hand will never return." And he wouldn't warn me further than that. He wouldn't instruct me to use the time I had wisely or to hold my tongue. He would simply state a fact and leave the action up to me. I thought back to this statement of my father's that fell short of the technical definition of an advice, but governed so many of my decisions as an adult -- a life lesson, I call it still -- and I thought of it often while I read The Lowland. 

How much of our lives do we forget? How much do we remember? Two people who share a moment remember it differently, the quality of the moment changes for each individual, the feel of sun on skin, the sound of a heart beating loud enough to drown out all sound for one person and the same rhythm not even audible to another, the truth and its tributaries running different courses to irrigate the two lives -- it's all relative. And sometimes one person simply forgets or knows only half of the truth or a different version of it altogether. Then what? Who do you share your reality with then? You simply guard it within you. 

The Lowland compelled me to reach into the crevasses of memory and examine some caged realities that exist only for me now because they've been forgotten by everyone else. They are not so easily crushed for me, they roll between my fingertips like cool marble, grave, unyielding, ever present.

Photos by Rebecca McCue