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.

The Dead Teach Us Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It would serve me well to remember this. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue


The Storyteller's Daughter

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Who are you? Where have you come from?

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


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



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

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

Photos by Rebecca McCue

What the World Cup Unearths

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Basics

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

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

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

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

Happy new year!

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.