And I keep coming back to you, Lahore.

credits: Farah

credits: Farah

I was in Lahore last November.

If I close my eyes now to relive some of the city’s glory, I wouldn’t know where to start. What do I remember? What do I smell? What do I taste?

What do I miss?

For me, as an immigrant, that is probably the single most difficult question. ‘What do you miss the most back home?’ How do you answer that? Do you dig up memories only you can make sense of, or do you cough up the obvious; ‘Oh, I miss friends and family.’ Of Course you miss the important human connections in your life. But what else do you miss?

I remember everything, but a part of me feels that I keep missing out on something. I smell life. I taste home. And I miss absolutely freaking everything!

Is it the scorching, sun-lit roads in June with gushes of warm air harassing anyone who crosses its paths? Or the comforting chill of a December evening as streets line up with stalls carrying roasted corn, peanuts and chicken corn soup? Or how life in Lahore is lived simply yet luxuriously. In the tired and content eyes of men sitting on the roadside, slurping chai and acing all possible realms of non-work? Or hard workers who race home in their motorcycles, bringing the day’s limited grocery (eggs and oranges) to eager wives. Their shalwars, filled up like fabric balloons with polluted air.

Or the women, with threatening and urgent looks as they enter the tight bazaars, clinging to their dupattas(scarves) and holding non-recyclable shopping bags. Or the lucky children sitting in cars, gawking at other, not-so-lucky children their age, clambering for spare change as they wipe away grime on windshields. Or Lahore’s inexplicable love for food as restaurants are born in succession like a rapid breeding experiment.

Or the dirty Lahori sky, once dressed in exuberant kites, but now hosting a sea of exhausted cries. Is it the loud Bollywood music pumping from a local CD shop in a busy supermarket? The music comes to an abrupt pause as the shop worker presses the stop button when a nearby Mosque calls Azaan (signalling prayer time).

Or how the city sings; in between blaring honks on the road, drivers shouting in their cell phones, rickshaws gurgling and choking, shopkeepers and women haggling, children screaming with laughter, and sizzling of the fried Pakoras. The city is never quiet. Be it hot or cold. Amid a local festival or a suicidal bomb blast. The city doesn’t cry for long either. Don’t be surprised when you catch its people smiling as the day ends. Or cracking up at a random joke on Politics or the economy; drowning out the day’s grind that doesn’t include electricity, gas, or Petrol.

In my head, everything is just more poetic and alive when I think of Lahore. How do I pay homage to a city that holds almost half my life’s soul. It guards my memories like a welcoming canvas; letting novice painters bleed; unjudged and unafraid. My city; where I grew up a little, laughed and loved a lot, made sense a little and messed up a lot.

So the question comes again. What comes to mind as I close my eyes? Is it my high school, where I sweated off under a ceiling fan, writing away for a good grade; in all my awkwardness, in all my naivety? Is it my college, where I only survived because of close friends. And our sporadic adventures as we skipped class to gorge down freshly made brownies, soup and samosas on faint and foggy winter mornings? Or is it my university, my home away from home; tucked between the greenest suburbs of Lahore? An overwhelming world of its own that swooned and shocked me for a whole four years. Is it the many homes I lived in? The home I stepped out of my teens in. The home where I cried for my brother when he went abroad to study.  Is it my first job, where the pay was peanuts, but I cherished every cent? Or my second job, where I met my husband. The home I said goodbye to my parents in as I got married. The home I became a mother in and grew to love my new family like my own. Or when my son walked his first steps. Or celebrated with us every time the power came back on by clapping and speaking his first few words – ‘Biji’ (Bijli as in electricity). Is it the hospital where I grew dizzy with joy when the doctor told me I was pregnant with a daughter. Or maybe it’s a combination of these past 15 years that tickle me with nostalgia.

And what about the carefree soul of the city? How has it survived so long? Before me, before my forefathers and before their’s? During the rule of the Mughals with their fortress situated in the heart of the city. During the bloody India-Pakistan partition, when thousands of people migrated from India and some fortunate ones landed in their new home, Lahore. A home where blood is always washed away and buried under lights, love, colour and life. It’s hard to see where the city stands now, when it has already seen the best and the worst. Or maybe both are still to be seen.

Lahore, until a couple of years ago, I watched your joy and struggle with choked breath. I always tried not to look away. But you know what? One day, I did. That day I did a lot of things to you. I left you on your own. I gave up a little on you. I cried for you. I hoped and prayed for you.

But I kept you in my heart. Like a crumpled message trapped in a bottle floating in an endless sea; never breaking, never escaping.

And that’s why I keep coming back to you. I owe you that. I owe myself that.

*Enjoy some pieces of Lahore. Image-credits: Sam-images

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The holes death pokes in us

Death pokes a lot of holes in us.

Making us feel in places we didn’t know existed.

But one nagging feeling never goes away. Death makes us want to hold on longer. Emotions. Thoughts. Memories. Pictures. Anything to hold on to when loved ones go away. Enhanced versions. Blurry versions. Better versions. Anything to wipe away the tears. The good ricochets with a fiery vengeance. Hammering into our heads, telling us how perfect the people who left us were. We replay their deaths in our heads like the ticking of a clock. Over and over until the colored hue of their memory is replaced by a black and white hazy picture. But the wonder and mystery of death remains. Sinking into our minds like quicksand.

We are overcome by feelings of raw surrender and troubling awe at those who pass and those who remain . People who die become glass encased specimens in a museum. Every mundane detail about the dead becomes extraordinary.

What they ate? “Oh he loved chowmein. It was the last thing he ate.”

What they wore? “Half of her wardrobe was black. I couldn’t get her to wear any other color.”

The last thing he said? “I will be back soon from work and we’ll talk. All right sweetie?”

What they didn’t say. “She was never much of a talker. Her silence was my biggest comfort. Where will I find my comfort now?”

What was their hobby? “He loved fixing things. From a leaky tap to a leaky tear duct, he could fix anything.”

The mole behind her neck. That skewed smile. The way he cracked his knuckles when he was nervous. How skin between her eyebrows twisted like a snake every time she scowled. That lone curl resting behind her ear. Warm hands.  Cold toes. Every nuance of their existence suddenly begins to matter more than it ever did before.

We know the real deal. Nothing’s new. Death always beats life to the finish. Whether in its significance or its finality. From renowned people who died natural deaths to normal people who died shocking ones. Death is always the dominant twin. Dragging life by the ears. Peeling away layer by layer.

But the question remains. Why does everything become more important when death is involved?  We ignore so much when a person is alive. We forget the good and highlight the bad. We take relationships for granted. We shun them. We forget them. By the time we give them their due credit, the expiry date is already flickering like a neon sign. Sticking its tongue out. Mocking us for being too late. A complete overhaul of perspective takes over.

Death is the most important event of our lives. Whether we like it or not. It marks the end of the line and the beginning of an immortal journey. The last known chapter.

Maybe that’s why the dead shine like clusters of stars. Flames that never die. Light that cannot be overshadowed with hate, or malice, or contempt. Maybe it’s our way of paying homage to the people we once knew – Of apologizing and making up for all the times we hurt them – Of justifying the end.

Maybe it’s the least we can do.

Remember them. Always. Every day.

 

 

The Reluctant Immigrant

When it comes to matters of loyalty, immigrants are favored as much as layers of brown scum floating on a hot cup of tea . Patriots stand united in their fight against sinister immigrants. Rest assured, no in-depth research has gone into this statement. I say this mostly out of a sense of self-imposed guilt.

As a child, I was the outdoorsy sort who developed an ulcer if anyone mentioned playing with dolls. This led to a love for playing sports and reading books and of course travelling – within and out of Pakistan. Living in America for a couple of years in the 90’s was a magical time. Disney land, Hollywood, The Rockies, Ice cream sandwiches, free breakfast at school, double dutch  meant only one thing for a 10 year old – BLISS. It was amusing when most Americans had no idea of what and where Pakistan was  (or Paskastand, as many repeated  when I gave them a short geography lesson). Yet when I returned to my home country, I never thought of moving back.

Many years down the lane, my university commenced. Prospects of education abroad soaked the air, leaving me teary-eyed with exasperation. Its not that I did not want to study abroad; the mere thought was exhilarating! However the entire process was long and dreary and ultimately in the end I decided to take the easy road by making peace and studying in Pakistan.

I graduated and eagerly jumped the corporate wagon. It did not come as a complete surprise when I saw my colleagues weighing their chances of post-grad studies, either for brighter job prospects or for an easy ticket out of the country. This was an interesting thought that I too became inclined towards. I applied to a few post-grad programs in a couple of continents. I got accepted, however by this time I had another excuse; excessive complacency.

My stressful years arrived. I had turned twenty-four and talks of marriage were haunting me like a sociopath hunting down his next kill. Now the ‘IN’ thing these days was to marry an ex-pat with a steady career, a good English accent, a six pack (exaggeration intended) and, limited family members (preferably zero). Thankfully my parents and I agreed on the fact that moving away from family was too bleak a thought to even consider. Hence the proposals tilted towards Pakistani settled families and I was rescued.

Now all the while, Pakistan was in dire straits. Ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated (December 2007). Her husband Zardari materialized from ashes and took charge like a greedy wolf waiting for a chance to attack . Pervez Musharaf fled the scene. While at one point modern theaters, malls and restaurants were being developed, many of us Pakistanis had certain other things to look forward too. For instance, whenever there was electricity, we would rejoice, enough to embarrass baboons. On the other side, absence of it for long stretches led to a fit of cursing and cribbing. Numerous other reasons ransacked our minds. Running away from home was not a bad idea anymore.

Pakistanis have always been good at migrating, enough to make birds envious.  Post  subcontinent divide in 1947, many Pakistani migrated to the UK. Then other countries like America, Australia and Canada came into picture. Specifically during the years 2008 and up, anyone who was anyone, was planning to immigrate. Reasons were plenty while their loyalty was as porous as cheese, with many who had genuine reasons too. I must admit; it was also a case of the menacing `latest trend`. Ludicrous ideas about having babies abroad for instant immigration ensued. I was the first to laugh it all off. But not for long, as I too succumbed to the pressure. My loyalty had suffered a gigantic blow. My immigration papers had been filed.
Three years since, I sit here comfortably in my new home in Canada, pinning down thoughts of Pakistan; with  heavenly weather, peaceful surroundings and intoxicating freedom. I feel grateful to be here in Canada when I see the endless stretch of opportunities that await us. Back home I hear unrelenting news of political and economic problems and I shamefully seek refuge in knowing that my family will be safe from these apparent struggles. Yet in a deep corner of my heart, guilt for abandoning my country vexes me like an ill-shapen shoe .

I find wavering solace in knowing that I have a colossal task ahead of me; molding the crucial relationship between my children and Pakistan – a country they were never given the chance to grow up in. Presumably, all the precious memories their parents and grandparents hold on to firmly, will be as difficult for them to comprehend as perhaps rap music by Mozart.

I should not expect the impossible from my children yet my heart will be glad if they grow up to love their country; if their eyes swell up in tears every time they see their country folk in distress and take steps to help them – little or big; if they cling on to this connection like a worker bee set on a mission. Siblings like Samina Baig and Mirza Ali (http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/17382/samina-baig-and-mirza-ali-pakistan-climbs-mount-everest/ ) give me comfort.

I find tranquility in knowing that every morsel of my children’s achievements will be accredited to their native land. But for all of that to happen, I will have to do something useful for Pakistan myself, as opposed to just nostalgic talk. This will be my way of giving back to a country that has given me so much more than I can ever repay.

In the meantime, I childishly hope to return to my land when I am old; to a time of carefree abandon, to a life that will once again embrace me with open arms and a warm hug.