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. 

 

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. 

The Old, The New

The first thing I noticed when I moved into my new home was the foreignness. The unfamiliar floor under my feet, my utter ineptitude in the kitchen because the counters are taller than what I am used to and I don't know my way around the place yet, most remarkably whilst the pressure cooker is whistling away on the stove, and the way my voice echoes across the house. First I thought it was only because the place is bigger, the ceilings higher, but then I noticed the same echo when I cleaned out my old house, a place I had loved for over 5 years. Suddenly, my voice began to bounce back against the walls and magnify. When I went to clean the house out, my daughter who ordinarily never falls asleep in the car, was snoring comfortably in her car seat. I didn't wake her, so while I was able to silently bid farewell to the staircase that welcomed us when I first brought her home from the hospital, she soundly slept much like she had done in those early days. 

Physical places hold a lot of meaning for me. It must have something to do with my vigilant practice of nurturing memories of Lahore. I try so hard to remember not only landmarks, but the feel of the epoxy floor beneath my feet, and the slatted bars in my grandmother's house through which I saw schoolchildren chanting their lessons in the room below, and the cold rush of water erupting from the spigot of the tube-well accompanied by the momentary shortness of breath -- the impact knocking all air out of me, and especially perhaps the unsteadiness of rickety old benches and metal chairs all over the city next to hawkers selling the best street food I have ever tasted.

It has become a challenge now after 12 years of being away to hold on to these sensations, to re-imagine them, to live a few transient moments of the past over and over just to keep them alive. I am not sure anymore if I really remember Lahore, or just some diluted version of Lahore. I also don't feel quite the same pull I used to for the city. When I think about going home now, I make a mental checklist -- surprisingly, it includes mostly dead people -- paying my respects to my grandparents and a cousin who will always be a little boy in my memory even though he passed away in his thirties. The places that still have a hold over my senses are ones I didn't associate very fondly with as a child. The neighborhood of Old Lahore where my father's ancestral home stands with its peeling paint and creaking wooden shutters -- I never liked going there as a child. Our extended family members pulled my cheeks (with affection) and commented on how tall I had grown (lies) and generally were quite loud and overbearing. And now, I feel the pull of the place. The old world charm, the narrow alleys, the scent of roses heavy in the air around the florist's stand, a row of curbside businesses, the paan-walla with betel juice staining his hands, the healer who might put a palm over a patient's abdomen and diagnose him with anything from appendicitis to black magic and have a potion or powder ready to cure the ailment, a makeshift bookshop that stapled and assembled loose papers, manuscripts, or fixed the fragile spines of old books, a cobbler who repaired heels and boots... I am almost certain they are no longer there. Even back then, that old neighborhood felt like a time capsule, a different world. That's what calls me home now. I am compelled to see what's become of the place. Do people still fly kites there and raise white pigeons with indelible pride? If I were to mention this to my parents, they would nod their heads with a look of complete comprehension and understanding on their faces and make a remark like, "It's the weight of family, you see. It's your ancestors calling to you. It's the pull of blood," which is precisely why I don't say anything about what I feel -- I would laugh at their reaction, and they'd refuse to see the humor in our exchange. 

I push myself into the mire of intricate memories, none of them having weight or significance, simply because I am trying to reconstruct a solid picture of what I left behind from this mosaic. I hear from friends, "You have to go back at least once. Can you imagine the writing that will come out of it?" More than anything else however, I am possessed by a sense of foreboding when I imagine the 30-plus-hour trip back, and more than that, the unfamiliarity I will feel once I am there. What if I don't go back at all and continue to write vignettes about the Lahore of my memory, and as my memory becomes unreliable, which it will if it hasn't already, how will the city change for me? Maybe I will imagine a raging Ravi instead of a receding one, or something more outlandish. It might be an interesting experiment. But truth be told, I have started to feel like a fraud. Some readers have mentioned that my work resonates with them because of my strong connection with Lahore -- and here's the thing -- I don't know if that connection is strong anymore. A more accurate description would be that I am extending a spindly thread back in time and tugging at the past constantly, fraying it in the process. With each pull, Lahore goes farther away from me rather than coming closer -- and I don't even regret that anymore. And so, writing over and over about my childhood in that city of love and food and magic feels like a lie, a grand illusion, an escape fantasy. The hold my city used to have on me is slowly (but surely) dissolving away...

Maybe that's because there are so many other memories crowding the snapshots of Lahore now. I try hard to conserve some other feelings too, you see -- the house on the hill in San Jose, the house that was good, and for the most part, happy. The tiny kitchen  with marble floors, a nick in one tile, the cold welcome it provided in the dawn hours as I walked those ten paces over and over with a newborn in the crook of one arm, bleary-eyed, exhausted, sometimes crying. That same kitchen cocooned many a poem as a teabag leaked its contents into a cup of hot water and the city came alive. Already I have trouble moving from room to room -- my senses trap me in that kitchen, which I loved with all my heart, where I learned how to overcome my fear of baking and eventually love it, where I gathered every Thanksgiving with people I love, where I gave some of the best dinner and birthday parties (and I still have the planning spreadsheets to prove it). I am so committed to remembering certain details about that house -- what the winding drive felt like as I came up the hill every day, the way the trees blossomed every spring, the rosemary hedges all around the community -- that something else, the distant past perhaps, must be pushed out, overshadowed.

How can one person remember so much after all? Old memories must make room for new ones, and so Lahore diminishes each year, the Lahore I love, the Lahore of my childhood is slipping away from me, because even if I go back now, I will arrive in a strange city, not the one I have held on to for so long. And as time passes, there will be still more that is lost (and gained). In this new house where my voice still carries and smashes against the walls, and a breeze wafts in from the northeast every evening, I have much to learn. As I memorize the ridges in the hardwood floorboards and start to acquaint myself with the sounds of the housing settling each night, I will forget more details about the past. Perhaps I will not be able to conjure the exact glow of golden light in the school chapel anymore, or the bitterness of cold winter mornings as we stood outside the great hall for morning assembly. Maybe the exact feel of heavy monsoon rain as it hit my palms and splattered on the cement roof will be forgotten, or the cloying scent of ripe mangoes being unwrapped from their newspaper packaging in a wooden crate will be erased. And as I write this, I can't help but wonder if there is so much still left to forget, so much that still might be salvaged. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

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.

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

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

In Love We Trust

For a long time, I was drifting. I had everything that traditionally gives people a sense of being rooted and whole. I had a beautiful home, a great career, a pretty good husband who was a decidedly better friend, but I had this unwavering sense of being removed from the world, from reality, and a feeling of being dispersed, scattered, and sometimes, invisible. Flowers arrived every year on my birthday from my mother, and at the stroke of midnight, my parents-in-law called. My sisters (both of blood and marriage) filled my Facebook with displays of grand affection. And then we all went on with our lives, which were decidedly and categorically separate, not entirely because we couldn't talk about how full the moon was at the same time of the day.

And then something changed. I think it was the birth of my daughter that was the harbinger of this change. I found a singular focus - Jahan and her upbringing. I thought about my own childhood in a small house in a typical middle-class neighborhood in Lahore, always bustling with activity: Neighbors coming by to borrow sugar or eggs, or to drop off a plate of biryani, relatives dropping in unannounced, because there was no expectation to call first, my aunt and her children staying with us every summer, my mother waking me up every Saturday morning by announcing, "There's halwa poori for breakfast," going to Sunday bazaar or a sabzi mandi with my father to buy fresh produce. There was so much to do. Here, now, rooted as I was finally, thanks to motherhood, I didn't know how to provide a sense of family for my daughter. It is not right for everyone - this sense of being surrounded by people who love you, which also means that you are surrounded by many individuals who want things their way. It was certainly not something I was used to after living alone for almost a decade. And still, I found myself wondering. Will Jahan ever have what I had as a child - the absolute certainty that I was loved and treasured, not just by my parents, but by a close circle of relatives, too? Was it important? To what extent did all that love and attention in my formative years make me the person I am today?

For the last 11 months, I didn't have to wonder because my sister-in-law and her husband were staying with us. We were among family - the longest stretch in the past 11 years. This meant that I didn't have to plan my shower around Jahan's nap-time or wait for my husband to get home from work before I could do something around the house. It meant also that most days I came home to vacuumed carpets and a hot meal. Most nights, Jahan was delivered to me, bathed, dressed in her pajamas, ready for bed. If something came up at work, all I had to do was text my sister-in-law, "Can you please give Jahan dinner - I will be late." But these are superficial details. The most meaningful thing was that if there was bad news, any kind of bad news, we all carried a bit of it inside us and eased each other's burden of that knowledge. And if there was good news, any kind of good news, we all carried that inside us, too, and made it bigger, happier, better.

Two days ago, this period of having family with us ended when my sister-in-law and brother-in-law moved to a gorgeous new apartment just a few miles from our house. Emotional things were said. Gratitude was given. Love was shared. Promises were made. Traditions were initiated. "You are more than my sister," wrote my sister-in-law in a farewell card (even though we were going to see each other again that same evening). "Don't forget me now," said my brother-in-law. The mood was bittersweet all around, leaning heavily toward the "sweet." The couple was excited about setting up house. I was excited about relearning the long-forgotten dynamic of having my house to the three of us.

Then came the matter of the last meal in our house, which was a challenge for me to prepare, because I had run out of meat and this is a family of carnivores. The move was hectic and hard on the young couple. They were frazzled and extremely busy. And what did I decide to do as their good sister? Well, to trick them, of course. I bought two packets of extra firm tofu and prepared tofu tikka masala. I marketed this as paneer tikka masala to the family. While my husband was immediately able to tell it was tofu, he agreed to keep my secret. My gullible sister and brother not only ate the meal, but called me the next day from their new apartment to tell me how good it was. Then, I revealed my secret. "NO WAY!" They both cried simultaneously. "That was very sneaky! I HATE tofu!" "Apparently not," I said. But they were willing to forgive me and conceded that they had thought it was a strange kind of paneer, but it still tasted good. They trusted in me and my love for them so completely that they never even imagined I would subject them to the atrocity of eating tofu!

That's what love is in the end. The trust that someone is there, watching out for us. What I felt in my childhood home surrounded by aunts and uncles was not a brimming love, but a placid sense of trust that nothing bad could happen to me as long as they were all there. What is 11 months in the grand scheme of a lifetime? Nothing. What happens in that time-frame, however, is everything. The things you learn about each other and respect, the things you love to hate about each other, the things you hate to love, the small things, and the big things - it all matters. When they left, they took a part of our home with them, not in material things, but in memories, in habits, in thoughts, and left a bit of themselves behind. Now, this family, with its strengths and its weaknesses, exists in both homes.

Photos by Rebecca McCue - Rebecca took these photos on the eve of the move and inspired this blog post!

A Matter Between Our Hearts

We have a saying in Urdu, "Dil ko dil say raah hoti hai." People say this to each other when coincidentally or serendipitously they do what the other was thinking. Grandmothers say it to their grandchildren on the phone. "I was just cooking your favorite dish and was thinking of you, and you called! Dil ko dil say raah hoti hai." Such a simple, wonderful, poetic thing to say. "There is a road that links our hearts," is the rough translation, the implication being, "Our hearts know each other's desires" or "There is an invisible force that connects my heart's desire to yours."

My mother says this to me if I call her while I am driving to work, a rare occurrence, because I guard my commute hours with a jealous diligence as I listen to my audiobooks. "I was just talking to such-and-such about you, was just saying your name, in fact, when the phone rang. Dil ko dil say raah hoti hai." And I respond with an underwhelming, "Hmm," not convinced that there is an invisible string that links my heart beating in America as the dawn breaks over the sky to my mother's heart in Pakistan as her sky turns gray with the approach of dusk. I don't tell her what I am thinking. Our hearts are separated by the sky, mother. The sun from yours dissolves into liquid rays in the last few breaths of the day and appears just as languidly on mine. When my heart beats on the morning of a Saturday, your heart lived through that moment on your Saturday morning a full twelve hours before me. For twelve out of twenty-four hours, we exist on different days of the week.

Yet, I have an almost supernatural tendency to do things that make my loved ones say this to me. Sometimes I make a family member's favorite meal when they are secretly craving it. I randomly text my sister telling her I love her just when she has had a bad dream and wants consolation. And these things happen to me, too. Someone suddenly calls, or I get an email, and last night when I was about to block my Gmail and social media websites so I could get some work done, my best friend suddenly sent me a message on Google chat. "Hi!" I responded. "I was about to block my Gmail and you sent a message! We have a saying in Urdu that roughly translates to 'there is a road that links our hearts.' Looks like our hearts are connected!" "That's beautiful," she said. "You have to write about that."

And here I am, writing about it, because I can't stop thinking about this beautiful and implausible idea.  

Photo by Rebecca McCue