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. 

 

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

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 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

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