What I Never Miss

My blog posts are often thematically linked. Nostalgia reigns supreme. I painstakingly detail the many things I miss, both the tangible and the emotional. I miss my place of birth, I miss the landmarks, and the people. But it's more than just that. I miss the feel of that city, its jaw clenched around its citizens, I miss the peeling pistachio colored paint on the south wall of my neighborhood mosque and the sound of pigeons roosting in its dome, I miss the way the faces of the people I love used to look, the way they no longer look now. Twelve years is a long time. 

But I am not here to talk about nostalgia today. I am not going to trace the edges of my grief for having lost time and people and places and my memory of all of the above. I would very much like to hack into the carcass of things I do not miss, and things I never wish to see or feel again. This is not going to be a lofty post about the misery and misfortune of other people. Instead, it will be completely and most adamantly selfish.

I do not miss the beginning of love. You are the most foolhardy, and also unimaginably sensitive, when you are just beginning to fall in love. There was a study conducted at the Stanford Pain Research Lab where I worked for 6 years titled "Love and Pain." For the study, researchers recruited couples who self-identified as having been in love (in a relationship) for less than 1 year. The subject enrolled in the study was to present the research team with a picture of his/her loved one and that of a platonic friend of the same sex as the loved one. Over the course of the study, researchers recorded the pain response of the subject (on a scale of 0 to 10, 0 = no pain, 10 = worst pain imaginable) to a heat stimulus applied to the forearm. The result of the study showed that the pain scores of subjects were significantly lower for the same temperature when they were presented with a picture of their loved one as opposed to that of the platonic friend. New love, I tell ya. Ask anyone who has been in a relationship for more than the blissful initial period of love, and they will hold your hand and vehemently explain to you, picture or no picture, pain is pain is pain is pain. And don't even ask the women who have had a child with their partner. Suffice to say, again, pain is pain is pain is pain.

There are so many things I don't miss about that early period of love, so many wasteful aspects. Endless hours of rumination. This is true. In the beginning, your thoughts converge on this one person, and maybe more particularly, some inane detail that does not even matter, the stuff of old ghazals and Bollywood love songs. I am afraid to even give examples of said inane details for fear of being judged! It's a waste of time and mental energy. Another thing is attributing significance to the actions or reactions of the subject of your affection (subject rather than object, because this particular brand of affection can be suffocating). In most cases, there could be a perfectly good reason why she passed you by in the hallway without saying hello (maybe she was late for a class, maybe her father was waiting to pick her up in the parking lot, maybe she really needed to rush to an appointment at her dentist's office and was so stressed out about said appointment that saying hello to you was the least of her worries). There is also no sinister reason behind the fact that he didn't hold the door open for you (essentially identical reasons as detailed above).

There is no need to be livid about perceiving you're ignored, and certainly no reason to feel slighted. People are different. Sometimes they feel what you feel and sometimes you feel what you feel alone. And that brings me to the last reason for waging this textual war against the beginning of love (or, let's face it, infatuation, ladies and gentlemen -- that's what we are really talking about here). You are going through it alone. No one in the world understands how you feel. It is impossible and unimaginable to detail all the ways in which you have an emotional and a physiological response to a person who, in the grand scheme of your life, really should not matter. It is devastatingly embarrassing to be so acutely aware of your pulse doing jumping jacks for no apparent reason other than being in the general vicinity of an individual who, again, should not matter at all. It is such a lonely place to be in, such a lonely journey to make. There are so many hurdles, every day is littered with landmines that could be triggered at the slightest provocation. So much pointless, unacknowledged hurt. And there is absolutely no one in the world who can understand or appreciate the sheer depth of your misery. All the while, life must go on as usual, you must put on a brave face and brave the current of each day as it continues to enfold and stretch before your eyes like an ocean. What can you say to your closest friends after all? All manner of speaking about this questionable emotional state is simply out of the question. You realize over and over that you are alone in this limbo until you are recovered...or reciprocated. 

But what do I know? It was all so long ago, I can barely remember any of it. Be that as it may, I never want to be alone in that dark place again. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Packing Up Some Memories

I am reminded today, while packing up my books for an impending move, of an evening during my senior year of college when Haena, my roommate and close friend, drove us down I-80 to a theater in Sacramento that was playing The Namesake

My memory of the afternoon is that it was overcast and breezy. I had been away from Lahore for four very long years by this time. Those first four years were longer than the eight years that have followed. I ached for the city. In Davis, on my home from classes every evening, I walked by a house on 5th street that had a planter of gardenias outside, which reminded me of jasmines, a poor substitute, but so pleasant. Back then, I was still talking about graduating and going home. Every time I bought a book, I thought about my options -- how would I take all my books back? There was no FaceTime back then, and I was lucky if I could catch pixelated glimpses of my family on Skype from time to time. They were still using dial-up.

And here I was -- seated to watch the movie adaptation of a book, which had so beautifully captured the immigrant experience that I had been moved to tears while reading it. The movie opens with a view of a busy street in India, the buzz of conversation, the makeshift marketplace, people, faces, activity, color. It could be any street. It could be streets I had seen and passed each day of the first 18 years of my life. Nostalgia crashed into me and I was caught in its ripples and the surf. I was pinned under its weight. For the first several minutes of the movie, and at many moments after, I cried and shredded a packet of Kleenex to pieces. 

I close my eyes now trying to conjure the emotion that rattled me so on that long ago day. The yearning to go home is gone. The idea of home is gone. My home, physically, is gone. My parents have sold my childhood home and are now located in a completely different part of Lahore. My home, moreover, is here  -- I remind myself, shake myself out of the reverie, stretch my shoulders and brace my back against the chair that knows me so well. It is interesting how malleable the idea of home becomes over time, how the sense of belonging inches away from one reality and towards another so imperceptibly, like land sinking. 

Ashima Ganguli in The Namesake, lives most of her adult life in America, looking forward to the brief trips she makes with her family to her hometown in India. She is a different person there, not the quiet volunteer at the library, not a scared woman driving a car, not a mother trying to understand her very American children, but alive in a different way, vivacious, happy. Which is her true self, I wonder now. The self she embraces only in the company of her relatives and in the comfort of her country where everyone speaks the language she thinks in, where native faces from long ago days surround her, where her favorite street-snack is available on every hawker's cart, or in her clean picket-fence home in America, in the silence so crisp that the hum of the air conditioner can be heard, in the waves crashing against rocks on the beach where she goes clad in her sari and hand-knitted cardigan? 

And obviously, the real question here is not where Ashima feels at home, but where I do. Is the city where you grew up still your home if you can truly only remember broken memories pieced together in a mosaic? Is it still your home if the streets you remember have different names now? Is it still your home if the river you romanticized in your poems is all but dried up? And more importantly, are you brave enough to find out?

The Cultivation of a Realist

"Though there was no talk of it during this particular phone conversation, my father wanted me to be a dental hygienist. Unlike my sister, I wasn't shooting the lights out in school, and he thought it was essential that I have a practical skill to fall back on. A career in writing seemed about as likely to him as the chances of my inheriting Disneyland. My father thought I should be realistic."
- Ann Patchett in How to Read a Christmas Story. The Washington Post. Sunday, December 20, 2009.

This morning on my drive to work, I started listening to a collection of essays by Ann Patchett that I have been meaning to pick up for quite some time. The book is intriguing even at the level of the title, which in my opinion, is hard to accomplish.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage begins with a charming note by the author, taking the reader by the hand and walking her through the events and circumstances that made the book possible. A window for the reader to look in. The first essay in the book titled How to Read a Christmas Story originally appeared in The Washington Post in December of 2009 and is about the author being given an unlikely Christmas gift by her father, which she has cherished for many years. The gift was a story her father read to her over the phone on Christmas Eve. Listening to the essay, however, while I was moved by the gift of the story and how it still has meaning for the author after all these years, there was a different detail that made a deeper impression.

When one reads, one cannot help but become a part of the narrative, or bring one's observations, life lessons, perspectives, experiences, values, and philosophies to the reading. Why else would a book be resonant for a reader in one decade and completely jarring in another? I have experienced this for many books, most notably, The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. Ann Patchett mentions in her essay that she intended to be a writer as early as age 6 -- remarkable -- and her family knew this, too. In the quote at the beginning of this post, Patchett reflects on her father's desire for her to be realistic and practical. Listening to this essay, I thought of my own childhood and how different it was compared to my adult life.

My father, too, was a man who liked storytelling, but he never thought that his children needed to be practical or realistic, because he never had those traits either. If anything, his lesson to us was, "Follow your heart, reality be damned." As a child, it was by turns exhilarating and confusing to be so removed from reality, to not be able to associate actions with consequences. I favored reading fiction, for instance, over studying for final exams. Our typical family bonding exercise was to watch a movie and take it apart scene by scene. My father could ask any number of odd questions. "Why do you think the camera was on a crane for this shot?" "Is this a set or a real location?" "Why do you think that telephone call was so important to be cut at that particular instant?" "Spot a continuity mistake in this shot." Finding a continuity mistake was like playing "Where's Waldo." Sometimes it was easy -- the actor had his sunglasses in the wrong hand all of a sudden. Other times, it was harder -- the ice-cubes in the glass had melted between two consecutive shots -- it took me about a quarter of an hour of rewinding and replaying the VHS to find this. When we couldn't watch a movie together, we would write. My father favored legal pads, my mother wrote on recycled newsprint sheets, I wrote in a wide ruled notebook. There was never a discussion in our house about being realistic, paying the bills, having a practical skill. It was like living in a bubble, which is why adult life, by contrast, was completely disconcerting.

I had to teach myself the practicalities of paying rent, for instance, when I first moved to California for college. For the first several months, I wrote instead of working. A weekly magazine that is no longer in publication in Pakistan, published the column I wrote: "Letter from California." Since I was not residing in Pakistan when I wrote the column, I was not paid for it. Eventually, the money my father had given me began to dry up. More would come for tuition and books, but I was beginning to discern the acute financial pressure on my parents, earning in rupees and supporting their daughter in dollars, and I wanted to pick up some of that burden. I kept waiting for something to happen, something grand and outrageous, the stuff of movies and stories. But nothing happened. I won third place in a local poetry competition, sold a couple of poems to small county magazines, and received a lot of rejections. A lot. It was a hard way to learn that I couldn't simply read and write and go to school and pay the bills. I was not a professional writer like my parents, but I never thought I had to be anything else in my life either. So, I got a job on campus. I began to pay attention. I realized I could do math! I fell in love with Biology. And for many years, I didn't write seriously. I cultivated the skills that are necessary to survive in the world. I anchored the dream-boat. I favored a lab notebook over a journal. And I became a realist.

Now, years later, my parents try to find the girl they raised together in me. My pragmatism scares them because they are not pragmatic people. They are artists and they have never known another way to be. They are those rare individuals who make a living from their art, who raise a family and tend a house all from an income generated by what they create. Their world is sustained by the world they craft on paper. I am in awe of them and in awe of the fact that I came from them. I am a writer in that I do not know how to be at peace with myself if I don't write, but that is the extent of it. Unlike Ann Patchett, I didn't give myself over to the destiny of a writer as a child. I didn't think I would be alone and poor because those are the hallmarks of being a writer. I also did not resign myself to the "Kafka model" Patchett mentions, banking on being discovered by virtue of my work after death. I wanted to do something now, in this life. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn't want it badly enough, and I wanted many other things, too.

So, here we are, twenty years removed from a ten-year-old who thought bliss is to be found only in the act of writing, the doors of creativity are always open, all you need is to pick up your pen and you will create something worthwhile -- probably because if there is anything my parents sheltered me from, it was from the travail of rejection, which they no doubt faced as all writers do. Last night on the phone, I told my mother, "These are the years. This is the time for me to work hard and have a career." My mother said, "I am proud of you, but work will always be there. This is also the time to take care of yourself." I said, "But my work is important to me." She said, "You and what you have to offer are the only things that are important." I just shook my head in silence and couldn't tell if she was speaking as a mother or as an artist.

The Dissection of Grief - II

I have lately become very interested in our capacity and ability to cope with grief. There is an expression in Urdu that very aptly describes the feeling one has -- repetitively -- when one experiences loss. It literally translates into, “My heart is drowning. Mera dil doob raha hai. This is so accurate when one is dealing with grief. The chest feels laden, air is inhaled in large gulps, and there is this acute sensation of not having one’s bearing in the world, sinking.

Even immediately after experiencing a tragic loss, after drowning over and over, your body achieves homeostasis. You gravitate towards liquids at the very least to satiate your thirst even if your stomach will not accept solid food just yet. That, too, may be a physical manifestation of the psychology of grief. How can I eat to sustain my life when my loved one can no longer do so? It feels like a betrayal. And yet, food monopolizes the healing process. The bereaved family’s fridge fills up. Their counter-top is never clear. Someone is always bustling in the kitchen. “You must keep your strength up,” one hears. “You need to eat.” And despite the grief, despite the absence of appetite, one relents. One swallows a morsel after another until one’s heart leaps and sinks again, drowns again, survives again.

Beyond the immediate aftermath of a loss, however, grief evolves differently for individuals. We all deal with loss uniquely, we process tragedy in our own way, we heal on different timelines. Some people may like to talk about their loss. Others retreat into silence and introspection. Writers might experience a sudden burst of cathartic expression, or a deep freeze of it instead. Gradually, though, the bereaved begin to plateau and mirror each others’ level of grief peppered with some particular peaks and valleys. What happens then? What happens during this plateau stage, because we hear over and over that grief doesn’t truly go away. It lurks. It blossoms and withers, but never disappears.

A case study for such a plateau period of grief is a happy occasion. How do the bereaved prepare themselves to feel happiness fully while also acknowledging their deep loss? Perhaps my view is biased because I am leveraging my own experience of having grieved and subsequently compartmentalized it to experience joy, but this is what’s true for me. The absence of the dead becomes a real, palpable entity. The void left by your loved one is there alongside you in that happiness. It is as though the person is gone, but this empty space is a living thing, a proxy, just as real as one’s hands clapping, as real as the palms slapping against each other, as real as the sound that results from this action. And this post-grief happiness is a fragile thing. One needs to nurture it like a fledgling bird, take it under one’s wings, give it the room and security to grow, or it will never thrive. But one also has this sense of the absence -- the very real absence -- encouraging the post-grief happiness, permitting it, and dare I say, blessing it.

And yet, the heart drowns at unexpected moments, maybe even in the infinitesimal silence between the clapping of one’s hands. It drowns and emerges again. And one braces oneself for the sinking, which will inevitably come when one least expects it.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Rainswept Reflection

On mornings such as the one I am living right now, everything seems possible. The quiet hum of the laptop, a steaming mug of coffee, and an unlikely rain pelting the west window of the house -- a false sense of being completely at peace, of having the ability to accomplish even the most difficult tasks that might cross my path over the next 3 years as I navigate my journey as a graduate student in addition to all the other roles I have. The house is asleep, the rain is drowning out the sound of my typing. I was working in my customary spot in the kitchen this morning even before the sky was faint enough for me to discern the delightful cloud cover and muse, "It sure doesn't look like a desert." Closing my eyes in front of the window, I could smell rain in the air, and sure enough, two hours into my work, it started pouring without fanfare or preamble, and I was brimming with such fulfillment, a realization with flavors of premonition that it will be alright, no matter what "it" is, it will just be fine, accompanied by this inexplicable motivation to write, create. The words came without effort or design and led to wholesome satisfaction. What more can one poet ask of an ordinary Thursday morning?

It is gone now, a few minutes of waning rainfall and the sky is silent again as if exhausted, though still shadowed. There might be more where that came from -- a heartening prospect and enough to keep me going through the rest of the day with unexpected buoyancy. Sometimes there is unparalleled perspective gained in the simplest of moments: at work in your home with good coffee on your desk and a temperamental sky over your head and you just know it: It will all be alright.   

Photo by Rebecca McCue

The Dead Teach Us Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


It would serve me well to remember this. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue


The Storyteller's Daughter

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Photos by Rebecca McCue

Who are you? Where have you come from?

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


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



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

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

Photos by Rebecca McCue

What the World Cup Unearths

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

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

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

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

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

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