A Wanderer Returns

From the beginning, this is exactly how it was supposed to be. 

Without ceremony or preamble, I am returning to Pakistan after nearly 14 years of being in California. I am traveling alone -- my daughter and husband, both of whom became a part of my life when I had already planted myself firmly in the identity of an immigrant, will stay behind. I am going for 10 days including travel time. Time, I imagine, will fly, but I will also have a heightened sense of its flight. I will feel it in its most concentrated form -- sort of like seeing heavily pigmented color, touching the purest of silk, experiencing the tug of life that pulls a baby into this world. 

The anticipation frightens me. I am most afraid of finding out that the place that exists in my memory is inaccurate -- a composite of my imagination and past -- the Lahore I have been writing about is frozen only on the pages that I have filled. I feel each sense coming to attention in the days before my departure, ready to call me out as an imposter. I am perpetually at an impasse with myself. The places I remember are no longer a part of the city I was raised in. A few days ago, my sister asked me, "What do you remember?" And I said, "Kalma Chowk." Her smile held sympathy, "There is no Kalma Chowk anymore."

How does one reconcile with a loss that is not only intangible, but also indescribable? How does one begin to parse out the grief that surrounds estrangement? It didn't begin this way. In a lot of ways, this journey has been like seeing a child grow up. You know they are growing and changing, but you cannot trace the growth, hold them in your arms and realize that they have changed. But they are morphing into larger forms of themselves all the time, in front of your eyes, and you are blind to it until you see growth charts in a pediatrician's office, or see pictures of them from a few years ago or even a few months ago. It is only in retrospect, that you can see this magic -- the roundness of the face diminishing, the hair losing its curl, the child crawling, standing, walking, dancing... So fleeting, all of it, and yet it unfolds in precise detail for us without our notice. And so, when people ask me how is it that 14 years have gone by and I have not returned? How is it that I have managed to survive without the places and people I claim to love -- I only say, I don't know where the time went. 

These days, I have started to dream again. My dreams are mostly about forgetting things, or losing people. There is a profound sense of urgency that envelops me when I emerge from sleep. It is disorienting to find myself in my bed, the house humming quietly in the night, everything just as I arranged it before sleep descended -- the robe over the chair, the cup of water on the coaster, the phone blinking in the dark bearing missives from a different time zone. But if I speak frankly, I might say the messages are from a different world altogether.

"How is mama?"

"What is the chemo schedule?"

"Don't bring presents."

"I love you."

"Mama is dealing with everything like a champ."

What is this world? How did we get here, dragged to this very point in our shared existence by distance, decisions, grief, sickness, choices, independence, detachment...? How is it that a journey home comes about suddenly, without ceremony or preamble, after nearly 14 years, when what looms before me is not the thousands of miles I must cross defenselessly traversing air currents, or the people I must face who have changed and grown and lived and died, or the city I must go to that is past its monsoon prime for the year and will surely punish me in many ways for being gone too long -- no, none of this matters. What really holds me in a death grip of confrontation is a neat row of packages I created and tied with bows and pushed into the farthest recesses of my consciousness. They are what lie in wait at each step between here and there. How does one unravel and remember what's taken years to forget? How does one even begin to try? 

And despite all of this, I know with absolute conviction, it had to be this way. Like I said -- from the beginning, this is exactly how it was supposed to be. 


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. 

Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop - Days 6 & 7

I am home now. It's a regular Monday evening. Dinner is on the stove - chicken karahi, Jahan went to Montessori today and I went to work. The Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop is over, and I can't wait to go back. This was a healing sort of trip. Mountains and writing and cuddles with a cute baby at night. The last two days of the workshop were the busiest, which is why I was not able to update the blog while I was there.

On Thursday, I had my workshop with Don Mee Choi, whose book The Morning News is Exciting is what I am currently reading. Her poems are chilling in their matter-of-fact-ness. I wrote a poem called Dissonance for the workshop session that she led. It was a poem I had been struggling to write for a very long time encompassing the Peshawar suicide bombing attacks of 2013, but sending a broader message, a sort of reclamation of my identity, my country, my history, but I was afraid that the message would sound contrived. I was surprised at the feedback I received - heartfelt praise and encouragement. Workshop participants told me that this poem was important, this message was important and timely. Later, Don Mee Choi told me, "Keep writing! I like what you're doing." After the workshop, when I was talking to two new poet friends, I almost started to cry while telling them what this poem, this story meant to me, and I could see that they were genuinely interested and moved.

On Thursday night, Haryette Mullen gave a craft talk circling around her book Urban Tumbleweed - A Tanka Diary. She talked about her process, how she decided to start writing a tanka a day to get into the habit of writing, then decided to see if she could do it for a year, and eventually ended up writing for over a year and condensing to create the book. Later in the evening, the staff poets gave a reading, which was open to the general public. They read from their published and unpublished works. Of note, Matthew Zapruder's work evoked both laughter and reflection. It was a long and rewarding evening, but I still had to get a poem ready for the next day's workshop when I got to the lodge. 

For Friday, my workshop with C.D. Wright, I wrote a poem called Chronology of the Evil Eye, another idea I had been toying with for a while, all the tips and tricks and old wives' tales I grew up with. As usual, I got great feedback from the workshop participants and am ready to work on another draft of  the poem keeping their suggestions in mind. Later on Friday, Bob Hass gave his craft talk, which was based on the questions that poets submitted all week. Wonderful things were said in Bob Hass' signature style, many different tangents were explored, and we came back to the statement he made on the first day, "Out in the world, no one wants you to write poetry. They don't mind if you write poetry, but they don't want you to." This time he didn't have to tell us that the Community of Writers wants us to write poetry - we knew. In the evening, we went to the Hall House - the house of Barbara and Oakley Hall, the ones who started the Squaw Valley Community of Writers 44 years ago. SVCW is now managed by Brett Hall Jones, Mr. and Mrs. Hall's daughter along with her sisters, Tracy Hall and Sands Hall. The house was beautiful, and the view from the deck was spectacular. Curry was served from Mexican ceramic pots that were about 3 feet tall. The house was full of tables covered with cheerful tablecloths and candles. Real, not disposable plates were used. The food was divine! For dessert, cookies were passed around and there was also coffee. Bob made a speech after dinner thanking Barbara Hall and the SVCW staff. Then there was a long session of poetry recitation and singing. Poets recited Yeats and Dickinson and Issa and Plath and Tu Fu from memory. Joni Mitchell graced the occasion in the voice of Sands Hall and others sang along. I had a long conversation with Brett Hall Jones in the company of two fellow poets and learned a lot about the history of SVCW. When it was time to say goodbye, we walked outside and were dazzled by all the stars we could see in the sky. Expletives were uttered by one and all upon seeing the breathtaking night sky. I should have spent more time under the stars...

The next day, our last, workshop was held an hour earlier than usual. It was casual - no copies were passed around and we simply read our poems aloud to the group. I read a translation of my mother's poem, originally written in Urdu, titled Mai Har Soorat Maa Hoon translated very clumsily to Regardless, I am Mother. It was a short session and afterwards, we said our goodbyes.

This was one of the most delightful experiences of my life. The poet in me found sustenance and reassurance. I didn't have to use qualifiers and justifications when I talked with my fellow poets about the importance of poetry, what it means to me, why I write. We could all joke about the difficulty of getting published, our writing process, our tastes in poetry. There is no way for me to describe the satisfaction I felt while I was there. The change was profound and meaningful enough that Usman asked me to sign up for the workshop again and promised to take me back to Squaw Valley soon. Jahan, too, flourished in the mountains. She loved going outside and running around in the Village, she loved playing in the lake. I can't wait to go back, but until then, more poems and more reading. Also, I am changing my "Introduction" to something other than "dried-up poet," because if there is one thing I have learned, it is that a dried-up poet, I am not.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Until We Meet Again, Mrs. Khan!

Something happened before I reached Mrs. Khan's 7C class on the "senior side" of the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore, with classrooms situated on the third floor of the school overlooking the front facing hallways and parking areas, one set of doors opening into the vast porticos and verandas. All I remember is that by the time I reached Mrs. Khan's class, I had mastered a dichotomous personality. In school, I was shy - some may have gone to the extent of calling me diffident. At home, I was a boisterous older sister - belligerent even.

I missed the first day of seventh grade. When I arrived on the second day, a dark Fall morning of 1995 with ominous gray clouds completely hiding the sun and dense droplets of rain battering my small umbrella, the classroom was swathed in sepia, a combination of the white overhead lights, the pale yellow walls, the polished wooden desks and the dusky sky outside. I took a seat quietly towards the front of the room. I was one of the shortest girls in the class, and by the time I reached seventh grade, I knew how seating charts worked at the Convent, how line formations were arranged during morning assembly and after lunch break, how we were supposed to file out of and into the classroom - shortest girl in the front, tallest in the back. I was usually in the first or second row.

On this day, I was anxious. There were some new faces in the class. Some of my closest friends had been shuffled to a different section. My thoughts had a singular focus: How strict was this new teacher going to be? I remember giving myself a pep talk, "Just raise your hand. Answer questions. Speak up." Over the last two years, as I had become progressively quiet in classes to the point of being laconic, I had also noticed a change in how I was perceived. The widespread impression used to be  that if a student didn't participate in class, she was not studious or intelligent. This opinion flowed freely among teachers and distilled down to students. There was no place for introspection at the Convent in those years. Cliques formed based on popularity. Little girls were ruthless in the playground and in school activities. Comparison and competition were handy tools in every parent's conversational toolkit. 

Sitting among my classmates in those few minutes before meeting my new teacher, I thought about the project I worked on in the previous school year. The class was divided into 6 groups. Each student group leader was supposed to select five or six members from the class. I was among the last few to be selected. With each leader calling out a name and the girl bounding happily towards her group, I felt anxiety and humiliation rising inside me. "Just because I am quiet," I scolded myself. "They don't want me in their group because they think I am stupid." What other reason could there be? If they had seen my report cards, they would  have known how good my marks were. Finally, mercifully, one of the group leaders called my name. She looked at me doubtfully, one perfect eyebrow arched, her smooth forehead furrowed in a frown. After the selection was over, three girls from my group cornered me and said, "We have chosen you, but you better work hard."

Rain continued to splatter all over the concrete hallways outside Mrs. Khan's classroom as I waited for her to arrive and pleaded with myself to come out of my cocoon. Mrs. Khan walked in the door, smoothing her curly shoulder length hair behind her ears, wearing maroon lipstick, belting out a cheerful "Good morning," in her soothing contralto voice. We shot up from our seats and sang out "Good morning, Miss." She proceeded to call out the names of her students to record attendance. When she got to my name, I said in my shy school voice, "Present, Miss." "There you are," she said looking at me and smiling. "You're finally here. Noor-ul-Ain Noor," she read from her register (that's how I spelled my name back then). "Noor-ul-Ain Noor," she repeated. "N, A, N. NAN! You're NAN! I love naan!" From that day forward, to Mrs. Khan, I was NAN, and to me, she was the woman who changed the way I saw myself and made me realize that I should probably care less about how others perceived me. This doesn't mean that I didn't continue to encounter negative experiences that most schoolgirls do, but I knew how to recover from the really bad ones. You just keep moving on, because you know that there are people like Mrs. Khan who believe in you.

It was a remarkable school year for me. Mrs. Khan taught us English language and literature. I poured myself into the texts we were studying. I read Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess in the first two weeks of school. I raised my hand whenever Mrs. Khan asked a question in class. Most weekends, I accompanied my family to our farmhouse. I remember lounging in a makeshift hammock under an ancient banyan tree, and working on an assignment for Mrs. Khan. It was to summarize a few chapters of A Little Princess. When I got my notebook back, I opened it to find compliments from her in the margins, "Excellent! Good! What an improvement!" I worked harder than ever before, and under her praise and guidance, I blossomed.

In the middle of the school year, Mrs. Khan announced an English language test. The test would include an essay and some grammar exercises. By this time, I had received plenty of praise for my writing from Mrs. Khan. She had given me meaningful comments on the work I had submitted. She had noticed my sentence structure, my story-telling. She had told me it was "very good." For the first time, I began to feel that what I had to say was important, what I had to say may resonate with someone. This was not like other subjects. This was not like an A in Biology, for which I had studied for hours and memorized the process of photosynthesis just as it was written in the textbook. This was something I was creating. I was putting myself into those essays, formulating a voice, an opinion, a style - and it was being read and appreciated.

That year, Mrs. Khan was single-handedly responsible for altering my perception of myself. I was still quiet in my classes, but I was learning to hold my pen confidently and tell a story with it. When I started working on the English language test, I was a different person - I was the character in the story I was writing. The topic was "A Fire." Those days, we were hearing about violence in Karachi, just as we hear about it now. Fires breaking out, bombs in marketplaces, scores dead in sectarian violence, or in poorly contained battles between warring political parties. In my story, I was not NAN. I was a girl in Karachi who went shopping before Eid festivities with her cousin and best friend, Saliha. In the marketplace, there was a blast followed by a fire, and Saliha perished in the flames. The conclusion of the story portrayed the grief of this child, the scorched clothes that would never be worn on Eid day, broken bangles littering the street - rather morbid for an 11-year-old to write, but it was the reality I saw every day in the news.

When Mrs. Khan passed the test papers back to us, I saw something that heartened me. "28/30 EXCELLENT!" She told us how well we had all done in the test, and followed this with an account of the story that had touched her deeply, made her cry. It was the best submission in the class, written by NAN. By me. I was best in class. I felt rather than saw curious and shocked faces of my classmates staring at me. I remember not knowing what to do with my own face. Should I smile? Should I remain serious? I settled for looking right at my teacher, the teacher who had inspired me to actually write that story to begin with. She beamed at me. "Well done!" Immediately, girls started asking me to pass my story to them so they could read it. I obliged - stunned, humbled, excited, happy, but most of all, grateful to this miracle of a woman, who probably never knew what a monumental positive force she had been in my life during that year.

Today, 18 years later, I still have that essay in my book of memories. Next to it I have a certificate recognizing my excellence in English Literature awarded to me by Mrs. Khan. These items have traveled with me from Lahore all the way to California. I have looked at them before every major academic event in my life. In my senior year of college, after pulling an all-nighter to study for the upcoming final of Eukaryotic Genetics, I opened up my book of memories and found that the story, written in fountain pen, had washed away, but Mrs. Khan's writing in red ball-point ink was still present. I breathed in looking at the essay, remembering that difficult time, the girl I was. I can take this final, no problem, I thought. Back then, my scornful classmates used to roll their eyes and warn me that I "better work hard." Now, my college friends playfully called me "the bitch who kills the curve with a 100% every time." I had come a long way from that lonely place, but my journey had begun with Mrs. Khan, with her kindness and her warmth, her compassionate eyes, her wide easy grin, her perfectly clipped nails, her fingers poised over notebooks with a red pen, and her comments on my work that elevated me in my own eyes.

Mrs. Khan passed away suddenly a few hours ago. I found out through the Facebook page for the Association of Ex Convent Students. From the shock and sorrow expressed by many young women on Facebook, I can tell that I was just one girl, one insignificant link in Mrs. Khan's epic story. There are hundreds of girls like me. There are more of us who don't fit inside a traditional mold than ones that do. We carry within us a plethora of stories. We may be shy or introverted. We may have witnessed our parents worrying about money. We may be the way we are because of other, more serious or sinister reasons. Abuse. Low self-esteem. Learning disabilities. Broken families. Mrs. Khan was among those rare educators who implicitly and readily recognize that there is diversity among their students. One size does not fit all. She knew it, and it came naturally to her. She listened to what her girls were saying to her. I could see it in the way she cocked her head to one side upon hearing a question, in the way she smoothed her hand over her hair, tucked a stray lock behind her ear, and said in that deep honey-dipped voice, "Now...", carefully weighing each word, looking right at the small face with the small voice, letting her know that her question was important, valuable, meaningful. Mrs. Khan will live on in the countless lives she touched and changed for the better.

My last meeting with Mrs. Khan was in August 2000, on the day I received my O-level result, which was absolutely average. My studying habits had lapsed considerably in my last year of school, and that was reflected in my meager 3 As. I don't know what came over me, but I went straight from school to Mrs. Khan's house and turned up unannounced at her doorstep. She opened the door and looked at me with concern in her eyes. "I have it," I said. "I have the result. It's not good. Only 3 As." She paused and took this in. "An A in English?" she asked me. "Yes," I said incredulously like she had insulted me. "Yes, of course I have an A in English." Her face broke into a grin. "Come here, NAN!" And she wrapped me into her arms.

Mrs. Khan's photograph copied from the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore blog.

Photos of the school campus copied from the CJM ACES Facebook Group.

What I forget, what I remember

Sometimes I am astounded by the depth of time that stretches between now and the morning I boarded a plane from Lahore International Airport. Eleven years. I sound it out to myself. I enjoy the music in the three syllables that make up the number 11. I roll it around in my mind, I roll it off my tongue. I pretend to cup time in my hands, like bringing them together in prayer, in supplication. I bring my palm to my heart - how many times has it beaten since I left home? Home - because there is no other word for it. It is not really home. I have made my home here in California. I have built it painstakingly, carefully, each piece of furniture, each book, each light-bulb represents an intention, a preference. But there is something I left behind, too. Not home - something deeper and intangible, something that can be felt but not heard or seen. What was it that I left behind - people obviously, but something undefinable and unquantifiable, too. I don't know what it is, but it has the power to take me back one day, and it will. 

There is a certain richness in being an immigrant, in having your origins rooted in a place that is geographically distant from you, in the bravery of the decision to pluck yourself from your land and your people and travel in search of knowledge and success, in the cowardice of the decision to not go back unless you have to, in the fear encompassed by the fluidity of belonging or not belonging, in the taxing change dictated by years when you pass through them in a new place, in learning new ways and giving in to the natural transition of accenting your English differently so that you are caught off-guard when you hear yourself saying something in the old way without intending to, suddenly, without a warning - your tongue having a memory of its own, but your voice sounding strange because of this inadvertent regression to the past. Yes, there is metaphorical wealth in the immigrant experience, something that my American daughter born in California will be lacking, who in all likelihood will be raised in the United States exclusively with annual visits to her parents' home country. In some ways, I feel a little sad about that. I will probably never be able to make her understand how magical it was to lounge in a makeshift hammock constructed with long bolts of cotton fabric by my father and erected between two trees on a hot May afternoon, small beads of sweat forming all over my face so that when I licked my lips I tasted salt and earth, while I read A Little Princess and watched the sun go down on the other side of the sugarcane fields at our farmhouse, and then became enchanted by fireflies lighting up the night all around us. The farmhouse came alive in a different way at night. The cicadas started their sonorous hum, a soft breeze began to sway the grasses that tickled our feet, the tube-well was turned off and it groaned until it stopped, a fire lit up in the hearth, someone put an age-blackened wok on it, the smell of caramelized onion and roasted garlic permeated the garden so that our stomachs began to grumble and we stopped noticing how fragrant the jasmines were. That was our perfect vacation. I would never be able to make my daughter understand the simple perfection of such a time because even the farmhouse doesn't exist anymore. It has been replaced by a brick house with a proper kitchen, running water, and wooden four-poster beds with imported mattresses. Or so I've been told. The call of the cicadas is drowned out by the drone of a power generator, and I don't expect one can see fireflies when the house has plenty of artificial light. I don't think I can wrap my memories in shiny paper and tie them with a ribbon. I don't think I can take them to my daughter and say, "This is the past, this is your mother's history. It's important. Keep it safe so it is not forgotten."

All the same, I find myself aching for the past - for the places that don't exist anymore, for people who have aged and changed and in some cases, died. The "back home" I wish to go to sometimes, in moments of extreme awareness, or conversely, those of weakness, is only present in pictures. When I go back to that house in the pictures I keep in a box under my bed, it won't be the home I grew up in. My sisters whose voices and footsteps I can trace on each wall of that house in my imagination will be gone - one to her new home in Tokyo, the other to hers in London. The baby brother I held on to is 6 feet tall now and can lift me up and twirl me in circles just to make me scream, "Put me down right now!" My mother's perfume, still the same one she used to wear years ago, will still linger in some of the rooms of the house. I will walk through them, touching the familiar and unfamiliar things. "When did you get this?" I will hold something and ask her. Her answer will surprise me. "Years ago," she'll probably say. And I will feel betrayed - unrealistically and unfairly. Maybe, my mother will feel betrayed, too, because of my brooding silences, my lack of participation in the routine she is so used to and one that I used to be a part of, and my divided attention among my daughter, in-laws, and the family I left behind. 

The past is the past is the past, I tell myself, but it's a slippery understanding, it escapes my fingers before I can examine it fully and memorize it, its grooves, its character, its lack of pliability. And as I am telling myself this, absorbed in my thoughts, I see someone coming towards me from the corner of my eye. I perceive this person to be someone I love - a family member or friend I have not seen for 11 years, and I experience a lurch in my heartbeat, a moment that has no rational thinking associated with it. I look up and it's a stranger. They smile at me, and I smile back. That could be such-and-such ten years ago, I think to myself. Something about the stranger's gait, or their arm swinging by their side, or their hair waving in the wind, reminds me of another person, a dearer person, changed now. The eleven years have happened to all of us, or more aptly, we have all lived through these last eleven years. The past is the past is the past, I tell myself, and the fickle thing, it slips away.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

The In-Betweens

I wake up every morning, unnaturally, with the sound of the alarm or the touch of my daughter climbing into the bed next to me, usually not rested and with a feeling of heaviness in my limbs - another day, satisfyingly predictable, but too full, always, always too full like a cloth sack stretched taut across its seams, bulging and swelling in places, oddly angular in others. It is those first few moments in the morning when I am still wrapped in my fleece blanket with one arm circling my daughter that I am filled with penetrating sadness and self-pity. There is no good reason for this. It is the idea of getting out of my bed that fills me with such dread. Those minutes with the world utterly quiet around us, the drone of the heating system starting and halting, the muted light of dawn filtering in patches through the window, all the worries of real life still so far away from my consciousness that they seem non-existent - it is these first few minutes of wakefulness that make me want to cry over the predicament I am in, namely that of being gainfully employed, because this singular fact dictates the interruption of my serenity. I know this must sound a bit ungrateful. I do love my job, but in the haze of broken sleep, I am simply not yet aware of this fact. By the by, however, strength returns to me. I rise. I move sluggishly around the house. Get ready. Get on the road. For an hour on the freeway with a good book playing in the car, I share the loss and elation of each protagonist while day breaks around me and mountains loom on the horizon. That's when I realize this will be another good day. 

I used to measure life in units of months and years. I used to think it was evident in accomplishments and failures, in daunting times, dark days, in celebrations, and milestones. I thought of life in discrete units of time pivoted on one or another focal point - the years before I came to America and the years after; the years before I had Jahan and the years after; the years before someone died and the years after; the years before I got married and the years after; the years of Davis; the years of Stanford; the years of Lahore; the years before my brother was born and the years after. I thought somehow life existed only in these focal points, these events, harbingers of significant change, and it radiated outwards from these nuclei, weakening in strength until its concentric orbit collided with another life event. Hopefully this picture will help in illustrating what I am trying to say.

The years are beginning to feel short now. If you asked me to name one major milestone of 2013, I would probably pause for a long time. A lot happened this year, certainly, but what of real significance? When you reach a certain age, late twenties, early thirties, I think you begin to get somewhat suspicious of significant events. By this time, you've witnessed death - someone close to you has died - grandparents, friends, family members. You begin to turn your ringtone off at night, partly because you want to sleep undisturbed, and partly because if it's bad news, you don't want to hear it. Then, if you don't answer the phone, it didn't happen. When one of my sisters gets the time difference wrong and I see her name blinking on my phone at an odd hour, I immediately ask, "Is everything OK?" By this age, one or both of your parents have probably had a brush with a serious illness. If your parents are living far away from you, the serious illness sounds even more sinister than it would if you could oversee their medical care yourself. You know, for instance, that dengue fever could kill your mother because her blood group is AB negative and the blood bank in Lahore never has it on site. You know that your father has had a TIA and if he doesn't take care of himself, another could follow. You know you mother has battled with cancer and won, and you know that the sneaky bastard could come back and there's nothing you can do about it. You also know that it could be waiting patiently inside you to proliferate at age 47 - when your mother was diagnosed - or sooner. It is at this age then, your third decade or thereabouts, that you start looking at cuts and bruises more carefully. What is this new ache in the small of your back? Was it there last week? Why does your daughter have a bruise on her leg? Did it appear for no reason, or did she take a fall? You observe her in school. She runs too fast and collides with things. You breathe a sigh of relief, but you don't stop worrying. You never stop worrying. Your perfect picture of the definition of life, that it ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, peaks and troughs, is disintegrating. Life could never be so clean, so predictable, so measurable. 

Life is not present in the major events your memory draws you to when you ruminate in quiet moments. Life, instead, is in the in-betweens. It is in the lull. It is in the time that stretches from one nucleus of an event in picture above to another. It is maybe not in the picture I have drawn at all. It is mostly absent from any recollections and stories you are able to create about the way you have lived. It really exists in the moments before the fateful phone call or after it, because inside that particular time capsule, the seconds or minutes or days or weeks it takes for you to fall into and rise out of a tragedy or triumph, there is a sense of time having stopped, and therefore life having stopped. Life exists in the unremarkable observation of exhaustion I make every morning. It is in the curve of my baby's small body as she presses her little head underneath my chin. It is in the long drive to work, the long drive back from work, when I smile upon hearing a good line or gasp at a turn in the plot. It is in the long phone calls with family during which we irritably ask each other, "Aur sunao" ("Tell me something else...") because we've told each other everything, and there is nothing else of note to discuss. Life is in the satisfaction of each other's company, just knowing that we are listening to each other, we are still here, everything is good. It is in all the days, back to back to back, that begin and end the same way. Life is in the sameness rather than the difference of things, and I am living it all the time. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Defining Principles

noun: principle; plural noun: principles
a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.

It is a hard truth to stomach when you are made to realize that no matter how loudly you toot the horn of “your principles,” you are not in fact living by them. If in fact, you were living by the principles you hold so dear, maybe you wouldn’t be in the house you are in, maybe you wouldn’t be married to the person you’re married to, maybe you wouldn’t even hold dear the possessions you presently prize. No matter how hard I try to reason with other people, vehemently and often quite belligerently, in order to elucidate my principles and beliefs and all the things that are wrong with “the system” in terms of discrimination on the bases of religion, caste, color, wealth, gender, and other such constructs, I am in fact living in “the system,” and haven’t done anything to discourage these discriminatory behaviors around me other than speaking against them, which in itself is a little hypocritical, isn’t it, for I am talking against something, but still living by it. Am I even allowed to call these ideas my principles then, if a significant portion of the above definition is absent, that is, while I use these grand ideas as a belief system, they don’t often translate into my behavior by virtue of the limitations I have in my present situation and my actual origin. 

Let’s state facts. Who am I? I am a 28-year-old woman, born and raised in Pakistan until the age of 18. I moved to America for a college education ten years ago. I left behind my parents, two sisters, and a brother. I am married to a Pakistani man, whom I fell in love with while we were both living in Lahore, Pakistan. He also moved to the United States to go to college and left behind his parents and two sisters. We have a daughter, a child of Pakistani immigrants born in America – by definition, a Pakistani-American. What are my principles? It is hard to define what these are succinctly and comprehensively. I believe in the basics – you know, like all good people, don’t lie, cheat, or steal. Don’t screw someone over for your personal gain, give charity, et cetera, et cetera. 

But let’s face it. I didn’t start this post to go on and on about the basics, did I? Something sparked me into action here and it wasn’t the one white lie I told yesterday, so it couldn’t be the discrepancy between my belief of not lying and the actual practice of doing precisely that. No, it’s something bigger than this. While speaking with someone about how unhappy I become when I have to defend my principles of fairness and gender equality among primarily Pakistanis, the response given to me intimated that if I really wanted to live by my principles, then I shouldn’t even be married to my husband, should I, because in fact we disagree on some fundamental issues. Essentially, my life as I am living it does not show that I am living by the principles I claim to hold so dear. Let me take a step back here. Gender inequality exists everywhere, including America. I was talking about specific things that I have witnessed in the Pakistani culture, like the expectation from a woman to sever all but the most formal and superficial of ties with her family after marriage, because her allegiance now should rightfully be with her married family. I’m sorry, I call bullshit. And this particular act of calling bullshit is under question here. If I am so concerned about a particular expectation that is ever present in my culture, then why am I married to a Pakistani man, who may actually support this very ideology (he doesn’t and neither does his family)? Why am I not living by my principles rather than simply talking very loudly and very ineffectually of possessing them?

Let me tell you why. This has been an uphill climb for me, even to reach a point where I can very openly and without worrying about consequences, voice my opinion about the gender inequality issue – you could perhaps call me an accidental feminist. One fine day, I suddenly started to voice my counter-arguments about this very issue in polite company and I haven’t looked back since. I have faced a few things in my life. I have witnessed injustices that women very close to me withstood only because they were too afraid of the alternative. Loneliness. Divorce. Stigma. “A woman alone has no respect in society,” I have heard reasonable, educated, modern  women utter this. “If a girl is not married, she has no future.” “There is no man that does not push around his wife. It’s completely normal.” We are made to realize that our men do us favors by accommodating us in their lives. “You are so lucky.” No, let me tell you why the vast majority of us are the exact opposite of lucky. In Pakistan, a male-child is a coveted blessing of God. A girl-child is a burden. Yes, even now in the 21st century. I have been so conditioned by this very idea that when the ultrasound technician told me that I was pregnant with a baby girl, I told him to “check again.” This single, almost inadvertent act of ignorance is the most shameful moment of my life. I do not believe that my daughter is lesser in any way than a boy. Yet, I uttered those two words in that small office. If this is not social conditioning, I don’t know what is. It was not a temporary lapse in the practice of my principles. That weak moment in the hospital was a lapse in conscious thinking. 

It’s like scaling a mountain, you see. It’s treacherous and back-breaking. Sometimes I stumble backwards, and I have to reevaluate my approach, but I am working towards a goal to reach the apex. I want to one day be able to say without reservation exactly what I think of the unrealistic expectations society has of women. I want to tell self-important looking Pakistani aunties with their opinionated first-born sons in tow to wait and think about what they are saying. Do they really mean to say that their son is better than someone else’s daughter or even their own daughter? Do they really believe that a woman is successful only if she is able to secure a well-suited groom? Do they really think that a battered woman should continue living with her husband because “he doesn’t mean it” or “she drove him to do it” or “he was just rough-housing?” Are we ever going to be free of the traditional gender roles that require us to cook and clean and keep house and change diapers and raise sons so that they think they are invincible and raise daughters with a sense of submission? I didn’t lie when I said that it is like scaling a mountain. I don’t always vocalize my discontent, and conversely, sometimes I yell and scream about it. I am an amateur at this. I am learning along the way. All I know is that I cannot support these ridiculous notions. I simply cannot – being a woman, being the mother of a girl – I cannot overlook these ideas that have penetrated into the very fabric of society like a systemic infection.

I also know that sometimes I do not live by the principles I claim to have – I stay silent, I give in to something, I overlook or shy away.  There are many ways in which we do not live by our principles. Does that mean we should stop having a belief system? If I am married to a Pakistani man, for instance, am I not allowed to criticize the expectations and ideas surrounding marriage in Pakistan? Do I have to sit down with my husband and parse out every last detail of what we disagree on before I can voice my opinions about subjugation, misogyny, and gender inequality? I don’t think so. I am going to continue to talk about the principles I believe in, the principles I would one day like to live by even if they are not reflected in my current way of life. Or maybe I won’t talk about them and continue to write about them here in this space, because this, at least, virtual as it may be, is my own.  

A Handful of Memories

I often tend to liken memory to a mosaic, small pieces of the past haphazardly joined together to create a pattern. A mosaic that I hold in my hands, which ripples over my skin, one specific incident of the past catching light, jogging some deep-rooted recognition I held of it that I have long since buried underneath the mundanities of the present. It takes me by surprise sometimes. I am jolted awake right before drifting off to sleep when an odd image makes its appearance just when consciousness is slipping away, beckoning me. Something new, or something from my childhood. Something wholly ordinary that should have no meaning and no place here, now, after a long day when all I want to do is close my eyes and be lost to the world. Just the complete peculiarity of a memory asserting its presence when I have made no effort to conjure it is enough to unnerve me and wake me up.

I was thinking about the workbook I have been meaning to start working through - Story-Starters - and the first exercise, which is to write about where you come from. Lahore, I was thinking. Ravi. Jasmines. Cliches, all of these. Kalima Chowk. Liberty Market. Convent of Jesus and Mary. The images were coming slowly now. Street food. My father's farmhouse. Earthworms after a monsoon downpour...Pigeons! What?! Pigeons? All of a sudden I felt very awake as if someone had called my name inside the darkened room to rouse me.

For many years during my childhood, my uncle raised pigeons. He built a roomy cage for them on our rooftop, filled with moss and leaves and bird feeders. I remember the birds pecking on grains that he used to scatter on the concrete floor of the roof, their funny little necks bobbing backward and forward. They would fly off in groups, in white and gray rings, swooping and rising, disappearing, but always coming back, always finding their way home. I wonder what happened to them. I distinctly remember a time when my uncle had them and a time when he didn't. Perhaps he sold them, or found them another home. I felt an odd pang of longing for those birds I had no particular feelings for during my childhood. Where did they go?

There have been memories in the past that have startled me awake from the shallows of slumber. The way my grandmother used to keep a small linen pouch pinned to the inside of her shirt holding a round cylinder of small bills. The smell of new notebooks and the brown paper we used as sleeves for them right before the school year began. A walk on the Mall Road in Murree more than two decades ago when I bought a fur hat that was too big for a 7-year-old head. The time my sister and I were sent to school on a holiday by mistake and spent the whole day with Sister Grace, having tea and scones, visiting the chapel, playing in the kindergarten play room. The sound of water rushing out of the tube-well's spigot at my family's farmhouse. The smell of a large bouquet of tube-roses my father always arranged in a crystal vase in the drawing room. Knitting a scarf that was destined to stay incomplete in front of the gas heater while my mother shelled pine nuts and handed them to me. The roasted and salted almonds served as an appetizer at Mei Kong restaurant in Barkat Market. The way the canal was dressed up like a bride to celebrate the spring festival with beautiful hand-crafted floats dotting its calm waters. Turning towards the airplane window, away from other passengers on my journey here, a weight in the pit of my stomach, sobs heaving my shoulders, rubbing my throat raw as I saw Lahore receding underneath me...

I could write a thousand or more words on each of these fragments, and I might just do that in the coming days, so strong are the recollections I encounter when my defenses are diminished. It is like I am cupping hundreds of these tiny memories in my hands, treasuring them, and if I move just the right way, one slips trough my fingers and lands on the floor. I am compelled, then, to bend down, examine, retrieve, and restore it. Back into the pile it goes just to resurface another day. Some of them tighten ther grip on my heart, give me a dull ache where once a stronger sensation used to be, like my memory of the journey away from Lahore, towards my life as it is now. Others leave me with a warm happiness; I see it spreading through me thick and golden and sweet like honey, like the memories I have of the day my sister and I spent in a deserted school building with Sister Grace. Yet more leave me wondering, or with a sense of longing and regret and confusion. 

Why was I startled awake by the image of those pigeons that appeared behind my eyes and swiftly vanished like a picture in a book whose pages I am rolling between my thumb and forefinger? I am only left with meaningless questions about some memories that are not salient in and of themselves, but lead to other strings of events, people, milestones. The pigeons got me to think of my uncle, the love he has given me unconditionally and liberally my whole life. I started to recall other details I observed about my uncle during my childhood. The brand of cigarettes he used to smoke, the small golden pack, the contents of which I used to break into tiny pieces in an effort to make him quit, for instance. Or the huge kites that he used to store in his room. For months he collected kites and rolls of string in every color and size for the annual spring festival called basant. And this is the spark that lights the fire under all the basants I remember, the tiny kites dotting the azure sky, the little girls dressed in yellow dresses symbolic of new beginnings and growth...

It's a spiral, really, and the pigeons are the place to start. Round and round and round it goes, it burrows through the handful of memories to a deeper place - the place I go to so I can write this.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Holiday House

Holiday House

She traced circles on her palm as she told
us the stories of her youth and the fold
in the fabric of history that broke
a nation, birthed two, and many a folk-
tale of love and triumph, battle and loss,
and back to the time she walked across
an intangible border in the land,
the signature of a powerful hand.
The gas heater blazed on those winter eves,
in its labored warmth we watched her weave
long narratives of happiness and grief,
with a side of peanuts and hunter beef.
Her heavy velvet quilt smelled of mothballs
and rosewater. Her plush pashmina shawls
rested thickly folded on her oak bureau -
she tapped it with her nails, a staccato
rhythm, rising and waning with her stories.
The room with its oily glow, and the breeze
stealing through the bamboo shutters, hissing,
running through our cold fingers, carrying
the rich scent of jasmines and wood polish,
gliding over us, and the wainscoting
that creaked in chorus when she stopped speaking,
told us that she had left something unsaid -
was it about life? Was it about death?


“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn't turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents--were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was about: Love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God.”
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending  
My grandmother did not leave trunks full of banarasi clothes, copper pots and pans, books, ledgers, deeds, wills, jewelry. She owned all of those things, but gave them away several years before she died. She sold the house she birthed 11 children in, the house from which two of her daughters' and her husband's funeral biers departed, the house that held memories of the 9 other children who lived and are now grandparents themselves. My grandmother kept limited belongings in her old age, a number that continued to dwindle as dementia took hold of her and made her a different person, not a lesser person, just different...and a little helpless. My grandmother's legacy, therefore, is not tangible. It is in the life-story she shared with her grandchildren on winter evenings with the gas heater blazing, peanut shells crackling between our fingers, candles lit up around us,  the power having failed as usual. We would sit around her in a tight circle, tucked underneath heavy velvet quilts and listen to her story of crossing the border from Amritsar to Lahore with her husband and two little boys. Sometimes, she would sing us a song, a song I can't remember now, one that her own mother had sung to her. She told us about her father who died young, about her widowed mother's efforts to raise the family, about getting a scholarship to earn teaching credentials, financing her brother's foreign education, getting married, having kids, not quite understanding her husband. "I used to pray at night, you see," she'd say. "And your grandfather would call out to me over and over 'Zohra Begum! Come listen to me!' And I would just ignore him and wish for him to stop bothering me. I wonder all the time now, what it was he wanted to tell me."

Our life-stories are our legacies, but they are in essence, our stories. For example, had my grandfather ever told us his life-story, he might never have remembered the fact that his wife didn't listen to him during her prayers. It may not have been a salient event for him at all. When we tell our life-story, we often alter and exaggerate, or at the very least dramatize, in order to engender interest, of course, but also to make the image projected by the story and the image we have of ourselves congruent. 
I am thinking about life-stories in the context of my own, of course. I identify as a poet, mother, and researcher, so in terms of my life-story, I will obviously focus on significant events associated with these aspects of my life. Those who know me best have often heard the dramatic telling of "How I Ended Up At Stanford" story, or "How I Edit Poetry" story, or "How I Have Raised Jahan" story. Since I no longer identify very strongly as a daughter by virtue of being an adult and having left the nest, I censor the formative years, which are rife with tragic and dramatic elements that would make for excellent narrative exposition. I do this very consciously. I have done it so often and so well that I have beguiled myself into thinking that those years simply don't matter in my life-story. Obviously, they do. The version of the story I tell myself, while being somewhat accurate, is most certainly not complete. 

 Thinking about all of this analytically, I have reached some uneasy realizations. I am a dishonest story-teller. I tell myself what I like to hear. This is all well and good until I start to think about my legacy. I can't just erase the first 18 years of my life in Pakistan. And, quite frankly, I don't want to. No one has a linearly ascending journey from point A to point B. Some people stay at point A all their lives. Others, most commonly, climb and swoop and plateau and rise and fall, all the way from Point A to B. The trouble with my journey, and therefore, my story is that I have left point A far behind and am so bewildered by the pitfalls and advances in no-man's-land on the way to Point B, that everything is a little hazy - the past and the future.

I need to start re-telling my story to myself, without self-pity and self-doubt. Before I can do that, though, I need to remember the story as accurately as possible. The more I think about the past, the more I am convinced that I need to re-examine it. I need to look at events from several different perspectives. Did he really mean it when he said XYZ, or was he trying to hurt me as I was trying to hurt him? You do hurt each other when you're angry, it's what you do to everyone you love, because you know they will forgive you. I need to reach out to the characters in my story, the characters that matter, and start a dialogue. Can we start from the beginning, please? Let's forgive each other, but let's not forget. I need you to remember. Remember with me. Let's write down our life-stories. This is how I remember it. Is this how you remember it, as well?

Your life-story is not just about you. And it certainly didn't happen the way you've been telling it to yourself. Think about it - what did you leave out and why? It's not an easy conversation to have with yourself, but it's an important one. 

(And, by the way, I highly recommend the book quoted in this blog entry, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.)

Photos 2 and 3 by Rebecca McCue