The Aftermath

On January 12, when I found out my mother had died, before she was declared dead by the emergency room doctors, before even the paramedics said there was no pulse, my immediate inclination was to deny it -- vehemently, violently. “Shut up and stop being an idiot!” I told my sister who had called from just a few towns north of me in California to tell me that our mother had collapsed suddenly in her home in Lahore, Pakistan. “I just spoke to her 15 minutes ago. She’s fine. You’re being dramatic,” I said coldly, intending to hurt her for her stupidity as big sisters are wont to do. My sister, God bless her, was surprisingly calm in a moment that can only be described as surreal. “I am not being dramatic. I am clam. Mama has collapsed. They are calling the paramedics. Ainee, are you there? Are you listening? Ainee, she’s gone, right? She’s gone.” It was the oddest sensation. I felt shut in, closed off. I went back to folding laundry, painstakingly, precisely, making neat piles as I eventually heard from the paramedics, then the emergency room doctor, and finally in the guttural, unbelieving voice of my brother that my mother was indeed no more. “Just get here, Ainee,” said my brother. “Just get here now!” As he was hanging up the phone, I heard him yelling at someone, “I am her son! I am her son!”

I didn’t break down until I sat at Dubai International Airport, waiting for my husband to sort out our 11-hour stay at the airport hotel. I was exhausted from our 16-hour flight from San Francisco, Jahan was dozing in my lap, and I was scrolling through Facebook, which had erupted with various notes, messages, and official and unofficial obituaries. And yet, it was a simple post that broke through the wave of detachment I was riding. My brother had posted an update to his friends, “My mother passed away. Will give you updates ASAP. Please pray.” Here was my 19-year-old brother living through an event that will certainly be one of the most harrowing of his lifetime, but to go through such a heartbreak so early, to bear this burden at such a young age -- how cruel, how unfair! And it was then that I thought of the unfairness of my mother’s death as it pertained to me -- how I had been cheated out of more time with her. Who, in this big vicious world, will love me now as she loved me? How lonesome and isolated I felt at that teeming airport with my own daughter safe in her mother’s lap still having the luxury to dream.

I wrote a lot about grief when I was writing regularly. Having read some of my older posts, I can tell that my anecdotal observations were not far from the truth. It hits you in waves, that part is true. It is harsh, unforgiving, brutal. What I didn’t appreciate was the power it imparts, like a vessel you harness to gain enough strength to kiss your mother’s cold, cold face, her soft eyelids, her shining forehead, her lips spread in a smile. You break and build yourself up again with every touch, you break and come together, break and come together until you are forever marked by your loss, marked by this gaping absence. There is a nakedness in this grief, the sense of being flayed open, laid bare for the world to see.

I am deeply uncomfortable with the lack of privacy that surrounds bereavement -- the way the family surrounds their departed loved one, gazing at their still faces, everyone around them wanting to offer comfort, to condole, to let them know how sorry they are, when all a daughter or a son would ever want at a time like this is to keep looking on at their parent’s face, to give them one more, just one more kiss, to touch their cheek, to say sorry, to say “I love you” over and over, and to finally, painfully, forcibly say good bye. When I reached the open verandah of Adil Hospital, Lahore, where some of the last rites were to be performed for my mother, I asked the other mourners, mostly other family members, to give me and my siblings a few moments alone with my mother. I wanted to be allowed the dignity to mourn in an enclosure of love and loss that is only shared by the four of us, her bereaved children. In these private moments, I allowed myself to be her baby, her first-born thirty-two year old daughter who is a mother herself, but still at the very core of my identity and existence, her baby. The four of us will remember these precious minutes as our deeply private and shared experience of heartbreak. And there is nothing more to be said about that.

It will take us the rest of our lives to make sense of this cruelty. Why, in the midst of such hope with her cancer shrinking and her health improving, did she have to be yanked away from us so suddenly; how could she simply cease to breathe when fifteen minutes before she was dozing and sleepily talking to her daughter and granddaughter; what could have caused such an absolute separation in a matter of minutes, seconds? But we remind ourselves that the deterioration of body and mind that is inevitable with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis was not something our mother withstood -- and for that, we are grateful. She, in a sleepy haze of routine post-chemo weakness, asked for her son, and then with her last breath uttered the name of the man she had loved fiercely and definitively since she was 24 years old. “Shah Gee,” she whispered to my aunt who was with her. “Shah Gee,” she said again before closing her eyes for the last time. And Shah Gee, my father, a man still seeking his magnum opus, a man who has loved his family thoroughly in his own way, but who has also worshipped his work, was on his way to Karachi airport after packing up his shoot for the day to fly to Lahore, planning to surprise his ill wife by appearing on her doorstep with his disarming smile, which is all she ever wanted. And this one time, fate betrayed my otherwise fortunate father as he rushed to the terminal and received my aunt’s call. My aunt placed the phone next to my mother’s ear, but she was already soaring to her final journey, her eyes quietly closed, not a sound emerging from her lips.

Later, I saw my father and it struck me how I have never seen him this way before -- sort of unformed, raw around the edges, crumpled, sagging like a balloon slowly losing air through an invisible leak. Perhaps I never fully appreciated before the depth of friendship and love that existed between my parents despite their many, many differences. When my mother chided me in life, “You do not understand,” she was right. I didn’t. I still don’t. An inexplicable bond held them to each other, holds them to each other still -- the constituents of it I still haven’t been able to parse out completely -- love, trust, honesty, children -- these are superficial and common details. Seeing my father now, I realize what I never realized in my mother’s life, what I never saw in her pain and heartbreak when she faced the biggest betrayal of her life from my father and yet continued to love him with the untamed devotion of a dervish. Seeing in my father’s face his aberrant heart sinking and rising, his breath catching in his throat, his words deteriorating as they emerge from his mouth, I see not mere love, but almost a spiritual awakening. He may have been just as devoted to my mother all her life (although popular Pakistani press and anyone who has a mouth will disagree), but his face now holds a grave pall of the responsibility to carry all that she left behind. Her love, her pain, her loyalty, her fidelity, her existence -- seem to have concentrated in her last utterance of his name and sublimated to reach him, take hold of him, possess him. I know he will never stop mourning her just as I know I am their daughter. It is a fact of life.

She would smile now, if she could see us weary and wretched here without her. “I told you so,” she’d say. “I told you so.”


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

Examining Motherhood

Part of the reason I have almost stopped writing Goll Gappay is that the things I have to say don't seem to matter much anymore. I was told by wise individuals that the blog will plateau one day, but like a happy child, I was in too big of a hurry to grow up, and naively I thought, "This will never happen to me or to my blog."

I am back here again today because despite a lot of changes in my professional life (all good), I have been gravitating more and more in my thoughts towards the part of my identity I treasure most and am often at odds with -- that of a mother. Motherhood is hard. It is isolating. It doesn't get easier as the children grow up. If you are a high-anxiety parent (like me) with an over-active imagination (like me), you can keep yourself up for hours at night thinking about potential hazards that lie in wait for your baby. For an experience so ubiquitous, motherhood is atypically hard to understand. Mothers may agree on the broad strokes of parenting -- they want the best for their children, et cetera, et cetera, but the more granular you get, the more distinct you find each experience to be. I will say again: Motherhood is isolating, both literally and figuratively. For me, it is also the most rewarding experience of my life. Most times, the reward and isolation go hand-in-hand, at least in my household. For instance, we go into potty-training lockdown for a week; we emerge triumphant, both mama and baby are happy. 

It's hard work. No matter who you are, where you are, what your resources might be, whether you're working outside the home or not, this is hard work. Yet, in our isolation, we often question and criticize other mothers who are canoeing on this journey alongside us, parallel but apart. I am not raising my daughter as my mother raised me. And my mother didn't raise me the way her mother raised her. Mothers have always had the heartache, burden, and joy of motherhood. I am certain it was hard work a thousand years ago, or twenty years ago, or even five years ago. But that does not mean that somehow I have vicariously gleaned knowledge through the experience of generations of mothers before me. For me, this is still hard work. I figure out how to do this every single day. I worry when my baby cries. I am the parent who gives in easily, who is easy to break, not because I lack will, but because this is just the kind of parent I am. I can try to change my fears or overcome them. I can try to be more firm. A friend has pointed out that I can just say "no." I don't have to distract my daughter with something shiny when I am taking another shiny object away (play-doh in exchange for turning the TV off, chocolate instead of my purse, etc.). True, I could do that -- just say no. I don't necessarily want to. And that is my prerogative as a mother. The truth is, my daughter is just 3 years old. I am 10 times as old as her. I know what loss feels like. I know I will never get chocolate in return for something I love that's taken away from me or something I've had to give up. Real life is hard. It's brutal. It's...well, it's real. And everyone gets a taste of it in good time. My 3-year-old will one day realize that she cannot simply be distracted from her loss. She must bear it, go through it, embrace it -- I dread that day, but I know it will come. She must learn all the hard lessons one day. But that day doesn't have to be today. Today, she can shed fewer tears.

These little choices I make, choices my daughter and I make together, because I do give her a choice on most occasions if I can, make the experience of motherhood easier, less isolating. Because the truth is, she is my only companion on this journey. It is our journey. Mine and hers. I am trying my best to teach her how to be good. She is doing something greater -- she is teaching me how to be a good mother. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

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

Things My Parents Don't Say

“How awful it was, thought Tessa, remembering Fats the toddler, the way tiny ghosts of your living children haunted your heart; they could never know, and would hate it if they did, how their growing was a constant bereavement.”
J.K. Rowling, The Casual Vacancy
Vintage Noor circa 1987
A few weeks ago, my mother called me to say that she had found 6 photo albums of my toddler years in my father's closet. They were cleaning out the clothes and shoes, packing them up, because a big move is imminent. They found the albums tucked away on a shelf and spent hours poring over the pictures. "In those pictures, you look exactly like Jahan looks now," said my mother wistfully. I welled up at this thought -- that once, long ago, my parents must have showered the same attention on me that I now devote to Jahan. I imagined Jahan growing up and moving away from me. I imagined telling her this over the phone -- I saw your photos again, baby girl, you were such a cute toddler -- and felt a visceral ache. How hard had it been really for my parents to let me go, to say goodbye so I could pave my own path toward self-actualization and self-discovery? What is the extent of my parents' grief, really? 

Children are ubiquitously such selfish creatures, even after they become parents themselves. I have never paused before this particular instance to think how much my parents probably miss me -- and not so much me, but that little girl in the photos with those chubby cheeks and thick curls. They probably feel as though no time has passed and their girl has grown and taken flight. Do they find it to be an unfair decision? What does my mother think and does not say to me when I receive her frustrated chat on WhatsApp, "Really, Noorulain, what is happening? You never call." And what must she feel when I respond, "Sorry, Mom. Been really busy. Call you tomorrow. Kisses." "OK," she writes back. Then she sends me 3 pink hearts, and a bald smiley face blowing me a kiss. She is a funny lady. I love her dearly, and yet I haven't called her -- does she wonder if I have forgotten her or deprioritized her? Because how can I explain this -- Mom, life got in the way, I am a working mother, you know, and there's the time difference to contend with, you are 12 hours ahead after all, we don't live in the same day of the week half of the time, when the sun turns up outside my window, it's already dipped out of your sight, the skies above us are so different, you are so far away from me, I miss you, I love you, I think of you, I just haven't had the time to call...

It's hard to think about these things. It's heartbreaking to realize with absolute certainty that one day, I will look back and wonder where my sweet girl went and why my grown daughter doesn't call me back. I have never appreciated  this constant bereavement my parents must experience. It's a sweet kind of mourning, though, isn't it? Hopefully, they think they have raised strong, independent, responsible women -- who have all three left the nest now, made their own abodes with twigs and moss and the values their parents taught them.

And yet, I cannot shake this burden off my shoulders. I look back at Jahan's photos -- a few days old, swaddled in a blanket; a few months old wearing a white woolen dress, a red headband, a ready smile, her chubby cheeks rosy; her tiny teeth, her short hair, her inquisitive look at 12 months, 18 months, 2 years... How time flies, and how strange nature is. Parents are blind observers to their child's growth, each phase so different from the last, the present always solidifying in our memory and the past fluid and free, sometimes flowing into the river of consciousness, making a tiny ripple, and then merging with our current reality, fading away. This parting is such sweet sorrow.

I miss my mother now (as I always do). Must sign off to call her. 

Life Lessons for Jahanara

A few months ago, I started a notebook with random things I wanted to tell my daughter. I was consumed with this need to write lessons and instructions down for her in case something happens to me. I suppose this need also arose from the knowledge that I was privy to my mother's journals when I was living at home. Years ago, I read the entries she wrote just before my birth in which she detailed her anxieties and fears. She had learned she was going to have a C-section. It was her first pregnancy and my father had gone to England for work. I had heard the stories of what happened after my birth. My father came home with suitcases full of toys and clothes and little baby booties in every color. But my mother had never told me about the days preceding my birth, during which she felt utterly alone and paranoid. What astounded me was how much she loved her child before she even came into this world, and that's how she referred to me - my child - because there was no way for her to know back then in Lahore, Pakistan, whether her baby was a girl or boy.

I felt no such affection towards my unborn child. We bonded after she was born, after a long, hard labor, after I saw both harshness and gentleness in nurses, after I went several days without sleep, crying quietly in the bathroom for my own mother. And so, I was not impelled to write love notes to my child before she came into this world. When I wrote this particular letter to my daughter, the only one so far in this notebook, I probably didn't intend it to be a list of lessons and instructions. In retrospect, it reads like a litany of entreaties, do this, do that, things I have and haven't done in my own life that I would like my daughter to do. I am posting it here now, because I have distanced myself from it enough. It can go out in the world. She will find it eventually - but first she will hear all of this from me directly (I hope). Plus, the letter begins with a cliche that makes me cringe, but there is no other way of encompassing this feeling.

My dearest Jahanara,

I love you so much that it hurts. Since you have come into my life, my heart has grown so big. You are such a beautiful child with your fluffy ringlets and your chubby cheeks.

You will always be beautiful. Believe that.

Be honest even if it scares you. If you are honest, you have nothing to hide. Hiding from the world is very difficult, so stay honest.

Read a lot. Books will teach you many things about the world, but they will also teach you a lot about yourself.

Be kind. It is very easy to be cruel, but resist the temptation. Be kind to people and be generous with money, compliments, and possessions.

Be respectful of your elders.

Study hard even if you don't feel like it. I know learning can be boring, but do it anyway. You will be at a huge advantage if you do and a much bigger disadvantage if you don't.

Drink milk!

Take your vitamins!

Do what YOU want to do, do what will make you happy.

Fall in love. It is the most wonderful and the most ephemeral feeling you will experience. Do it whole-heartedly.

Your best colors are pink, yellow, and white, but wear what you love.

Eat healthy foods and pick up an activity: running, hiking, yoga, dance, anything.

Listen to music.

Be wise with money.

Read Harry Potter.

Learn how to swim.

If someone hurts you, try to distance yourself from them without wishing them ill.

Go to college!

Don't ever smoke.

Never do something because others are doing it. You are smart, confident, beautiful, and beloved. You don't need anyone's approval but your own.
Know that your Baba and I love you and you can share anything you want with us - our family is your safe space. 
You will make mistakes. We all do. Own them. Apologize sincerely. Learn from them.
Think a lot. Generate ideas. Execute them to perfection - perfection as you see it, not some prescribed idea of it.

Bake. It's good for the soul.

Think about Mummy from time to time and when you do, believe that you are the dearest thing to me.

Make your marriage a platform of partnership, not one of control or competition.

If possible, go to Lahore in the summer and the winter. I remember it as a beautiful city.


Learn another language.

Love fiercely and without reservation or expectation.

Be firm about your beliefs, needs, and demands.

Always stand your ground and stand up for your truth and for what you believe in.
 Photo by Rebecca McCue

Two Old Poems on Mother's Day

A poem written 6 or 7 years ago. Posting it here to celebrate my mother on Mother's Day.

My Mother's Voice
My mother's voice
is like her belly,
four times pregnant,
loose now and soft,
injured, healed, scarred.

My mother's voice
is aged with cancer,
the quiet, tricksy beast
that ate her breast,
cracked, guarded, uncertain.

She says
she is half the woman
she used to be
with one breast gone.
I say
to this warrior who birthed me,
your scars are proud battle wounds,

the one across your belly
and the one that is left of your breast

make you twice the woman,
and to me,
twice the mother.

My mother's voice
is like jasmine scent in my dreams.
she speaks and sings to heal my hurts,
because her voice can travel
farther than her body.

Her voice can embrace me
when she cannot.


A poem written roughly two years ago in the depths of guilt and writer's block. 


My daughter looks at me
as though I am a wonderful thing.
I come home from work,
exhausted from physical aches
and those that can't be isolated and named.
I hold her, she coos in my arms,
everything else melts into a myriad of colors,
dissolving into insignificance.

My mother sits on the sofa,
and looks at me: I am her wonderful thing, too.
She has shed clandestine tears
these past many days.
We say little to each other -
she takes care of the baby, cooks, cleans,
I bury my face in my daughter's neck,
breathe in her clean baby smell.

It's been a hard summer for two mothers:
one new and one old.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

In Love We Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chocolate Bread, and Starting Traditions

I never say that I am a remarkable parent (I do, sometimes), but I also never highlight the mistakes I have made as a mother. For example, I could have tried harder to introduce more vegetables into Jahan's diet early on. With family members who don't feel full if they don't eat meat, it isn't often that I cook vegetables. It is a rare day in our household when the dinner menu is entirely vegetarian. Moreover, I was a working mother. Yes, yes, I read all the books that said "give your baby everything," but I discovered that she liked rice and chicken, so I got into a rut. I am frequently in a food rut myself. And to be honest, I didn't discover vegetables until I started going to college here in America. As a child, I remember my youngest sister complained one day upon finding lentils for dinner, "It seems I have forgotten what chicken even looks like." Drama, I am afraid, runs in the family. 

It is time to confess something - when I say that my baby eats everything, what I really mean is that she eats everything as long as it consists of meat and/or grains and/or select fruits and/or desserts. Yep, no vegetables (unless you count potato). We have made progress - a few days ago, she smelled a piece of broccoli before throwing it away. That is an improvement from holding it and tossing it straight away. 

In an attempt to get her more interested in different foods, her auntie and I are inducting her into the kitchen. Jahan's aunt programs her cooking excursions in a more controlled manner, namely she chops vegetables for an omelet every weekend, and Jahan adds them to the egg. She then adds spices that her aunt measures out for her and mixes everything together. Tadah! Omelet! I have a slightly different method. It's no secret that I love to bake. My best friend and Goll Gappay's official photographer, Rebecca, gave me this amazing cookbook on my birthday that I had been wanting for a very, very long time, The Cake Bible. I have only tried two recipes from it, and they are both divine! The second recipe, chocolate bread, has become a household favorite. Jahan particularly loves it. So, what I do is this: I bake, and I give Jahan some steel mixing bowls with a cup of lentils or beans in them. She takes either a steel spoon or a wooden spatula and pretends to cook while I get all the ingredients ready for the bread. It's a quiet time of concentration and bonding, each of us absorbed in our tasks, mine more real than hers. It almost always gets more noisy in the end. Jahan scatters the contents of her bowls on the floor and then pretends to clean the mess with her toy broom (which is surprisingly effective, I often sweep the floor with it). 

At the very least, I hope that Jahan will acquire a love for cooking as we do more together in the kitchen. Gradually, maybe she will start to measure out ingredients for me. Perhaps we will bake cupcakes together one day, or bake a cake. At best, we will transition into making salads and grilling vegetables and she will expand the boundaries of her palette. At least I hope so. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

A Celebration of the Weather

Perhaps I should wish in writing more often - it has been raining all day. It started as a drizzle in the small hours, I imagine. When I left for work, it was falling at a steady, gentle pace, like one's speed when one is taking a stroll. Coming back from work, it had become more like a brisk walk. Right now, the rain is how I love it most - I just heard the distant rumble of thunder and the vent pipes clanging loudly in the chimney because of the wind. It finally feels like winter now. 

I know a lot of people don't like this weather - it confines you. But that's what I love about it. I have always associated it with happiness. It feels like a celebration. I take it as explicit permission to do my favorite things. Today, I read some poetry, wrote a poem, watched The Lion King and a chick-flick that will remain unnamed, spent a lot of quality (cuddle) time with the baby, and did some cleaning and organizing. I know this spurt of activity was not because of the rain, but I also know that I am happier because of it, which is in fact conducive to productivity - at least for me. 

I probably shouldn't admit this, but just because I am thinking I shouldn't makes me feel like this story is worth telling, so here goes - I also associate rain with romance. I know, I know, Bollywood left a deep hypnotic mark on me when I was a child, all those musicals with women in beautiful sarees dancing in the rain like there's nothing in the world better than that while their brooding beaus stood awkwardly beside them, seemed to my impressionable mind the epitome of romance. But it's more than that. In Pakistan, when the summer monsoons came, my sisters and I would play on the rooftop, get soaked to the bone, and hurry downstairs to be toweled off and admonished by our mother. We often had relatives staying with us and someone would invariably suggest we go to the market to buy samosas. But the roads would be flooded with water reaching up to our knees or even higher. So, we would resort to scavenging ingredients from the pantry and the fridge and somehow manage to make a helping of breaded fries or potato fritters or chana chaat or  even goll gappay. Sometimes, if my father had an outdoor assignment, it would get postponed because of the weather and we would sit together in his room watching movies all day as he wrote, or he would decide to cook something for us and two hours later, the kitchen would be in disarray, spice jars scattered, pots and pans lining the floor, my mother just standing back, enjoying herself, enjoying him at the helm of the stove. How did it not drive her crazy, I wonder. How could she stand him poking around in her kitchen like that? That says something about me, doesn't it - the way I say her kitchen. The rain used to give us an excuse to bond as a family. And I didn't realize this back then. I didn't know that those were some rare opportunities for us to spend quality time together as a family - it happened naturally, organically, much like the rain. We all came together in the kitchen. Or we huddled on sofas and cushions and my father played vintage Bollywood films for us. It was a happy time for us kids, but I think it was romantic in its way for my parents. They each had their own career to worry about, so a surprise break from work and a relaxed day at home must have been such a welcome delight for them. 

Now, here in Northern California, there is no question of playing in the rain. It's February and still the middle of winter. But the rain still has its way of making me happy. There is no water flooding our streets, but I have these old habits that mandate a day at home when the weather takes a surprise turn like today. I sit on my sofa underneath my fleece blanket and hear the raindrops hitting the kitchen window. We chose to stay in tonight and play with the baby. My husband offered to put the baby to sleep so I would have a few moments to myself. When you have had a busy week at work with a particularly irritable disposition, and you've spent a lot of effort masking this sour mood because you would hate to admit that it's because of the lack of rain, and then you're rewarded by not just the first real winter storm of the year, but also your husband offering to take over bedtime, well, that's pretty damn romantic if you ask me.

And perfect segue into....February - yes, it's February, the official month of love and romance. Goll Gappay will once again honor this month with posts about love and loved ones, so stay tuned.

I'm off to admire the rain while it graces my balcony so I can bottle up some inspiration for the proverbial rainy days (although, I have already demonstrated that as far as I am concerned, any kind of stocking up is required for dry weather only). Good night. 

Photo by Rebecca McCue