My sister and I were window-shopping in Chinatown the other day when an oddly familiar sight met our eyes – a gaggle of googly-eyed brown faces with oil-drenched hair and electric white grins poking out of a car window. “Oye, desi ho?!” they yelled in chorus, the words bouncing back and forth through the depths of the 10-seater vehicle.
My sister and I turned away pretending not to hear, but we couldn’t control an involuntary chuckle from spreading across our faces. It was the 7th of August, exactly one week before the birthday of the country that we, and that vanful of lafantars, called home.
Growing up in Lahore, Independence Day or Jashn-e-Azadi meant three essential things: the perfect flag, forest-green and Mickey Mouse-free, to be hauled up a day before on the rooftop; the night drive down Mall Road, to see the city bedecked like a bride in mirchi lights and the accompanying car-top bhangra; and the annual military parades in Islamabad, aired on PTV at 8 in the morning, which my dad would drag us out of bed to watch. I’m sure he intended it to inculcate a serious sense of patriotism in us, though at the time I was quite content with my homework-less monsoon day, nan haleem and biryani for lunch, and the mix tape of pop-national anthems that I bought every year from Off-Beat to play in the house till bedtime.
This year – this year was different. Instead of the usual itinerary of flags, floats, songs and speeches – which was readily available in New York City – my first Independence Day in America consisted of Macy’s, a Starbucks Frappuccino, Tere Bin Laden in a half-empty theatre, and a Punjabi cab driver’s pithy piece of advice: accent-learning classes.
“Beta,” he told me very sincerely. “Agar aap nein yahan rehna hai, you need an American accent. Otherwise, you a second-class citizen.” He grimaced. “Yeh log baray ghatia hotay hain.”
Mr. Chaudhry – that was his name – went on to suggest some instructional CDs that he had availed of himself.
“Did it help you, uncle?” I asked innocently.
“Well, beta, I don’t know,” Mr. Chaudhry laughed, a little sheepish. “In my jaab you don’t have to taak much!”
Of course, I had no intention of surrendering my beloved South Asian-British accent – unlike Ali Hassan, the ambitious but flaky TV reporter played by Ali Zafar in Tere Bin Laden, whose wannabe wide-mouthed drawling is so convincing – “Moz-lems”, “baams”, “Pack-is-TAN” – he’s thrown off the plane to New York and denied a U.S. visa 6 years in a row.
It was one of many satirically funny moments in the movie, produced in Bollywood but set in Karachi, about a chicken-raising Osama look-alike whom Ali Hassan wheedles into “starring” in a fake OBL video: a desperate wager for passage to America, the land of Hassan’s dreams.
But there was something deeper to it than the seemingly superficial need to adopt an accent. There was a finality to it, the knowing that you are never going back, that you can’t go back, even if you wanted. And the thought that crossed my mind this 14th August was – was there even a Pakistan to go back to anymore?
My home would still be there, yes, my house in D.H.A., Lahore, my island. But the country, the nation, crippled by corruption and somebody else’s war, with a fifth of its territory under water and 20 million people in need… What of that? Was such devastation fathomable? Was recovery possible?
“The total cost of reconstruction and rehabilitation is not even countable,” said Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi , at a Pakistan Flood Response event hosted by the Asia Society’s New York headquarters on August 19th. The other speakers, including U.S. Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, the presidents of Oxfam America and the International Rescue Committee, and representatives from Save the Children and the Asian Development Bank, acknowledged that global response had initially been slow. They went on to pledge their long-term support, and appealed to all Americans for assistance. Many numbers were quoted, figures thrown around, comparisons made; bigger than Katrina, bigger than the Tsunami, bigger than Haiti, 17 million acres of agricultural land destroyed, 3.5 million children at risk of fatal diseases…
There was talk of climate change, of the economy, of extremism, that “thrives in anarchy and chaos”…
It was a calamity of unparalleled proportions. Everybody knew it. But what brought tears to my eyes was this 3-minute video, which was screened before the Foreign Minister’s speech. “The world cannot forget about this in a matter of days or weeks, like a passing news item,” I thought. “This needs to stay in people’s minds, because it’s far from over.”
And so, it was bittersweet, and cruel, this month of August, this feted month of freedom, when people thronged the streets and danced in the rain, when the monsoons were celebrated with prayers, a burst of heaven for the parched land…This August, over 20 million people – more than the population of New York State – had lost everything, while we, the thousands of Pakistanis in America, watched from afar with growing despair, living in the country that was, yes, our favourite enemy, the source of so many of our troubles, but also, in some way or other, the land of our dreams, our friend in need?
“Pakistan matters,” Holbrooke had stressed, “not just because of its neighbours. We want to be the first, to give the most.”
“Thank you, America,” the Foreign Minister had intoned, “for taking the lead.”
Perhaps it was a little too fervent, a little too soon to say; and though this was a tragedy to eclipse all tragedies in the pages of our young history, I thought, maybe, just maybe, it would be, it could be, a new beginning, a better beginning, a new page?…
Please donate generously to the relief efforts at UNICEF, UNHCR, The Rural Support Network, The Citizens Foundation, or any of the organizations listed on this website.
I listen to a lot of music – Dire Straits, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, U2, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Def Leppard, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Santana, Counting Crows, Lifehouse, Jason Mraz, Shakira…everything from classic rock to salsa, Celtic, Middle Eastern, West African, Native American…I have 26 Putumayo albums on my iTunes (thanks to you Urvi!), plus an illimitable collection of BBC World Music Award Winners from my days at FM91 in Lahore. I can sing along to almost all of them, in somewhat mangled Spanish, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, French, Wolof, a smattering of Mandarin.
It feels cool. It feels like you’re “a citizen of the world”.
Yet every so often, you feel a pang in your heart; a yearning, a hunger almost, to hear the sounds of your childhood, the rippling rhythm of the tongue your mother used to sing you to sleep, the hearty banter of shopkeepers and radio on the streets, the spirited voice of your jokes, your laughter, the stories you told each other during recess, no matter how much English they tried to hammer into you in class…
Wasn’t Dil Dil Pakistan the first song you ever knew the words to, in all its smooth-shaven, skinny-limbed, cableless-electric-guitar glory? The first crush you had Shehzad Roy – holay holay, mera dil ye dolay! – and the first concert you went to Strings or Awaz (ideally at Gaddafi Stadium, open-air!), armed with a cushion, waterbottle and a box of egg sandwiches, watching thousands of yellow flames bobbing in the darkness as you sung your heart out to Sar Kiye Ye Pahar or Ae Jawan?
Or the first time you danced at a mehndi, awkward pre-teen feet struggling to keep sync with hands, vowing there could be no song on the planet faster than Hawa Hawa!
How about that first time you heard qawwali, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan at Gymkhana, sitting on the carpets infront with your arms wrapped around two gow-takkias – precious booty at Gymkhana concerts – the uncles and aunties swaying in ecstacy, little black-kneed kids bouncing about on the stage, and your mouth agape at this great man’s phenomenal voice and size?
And, no matter who you were or where you lived, in the city, slum, village or mansion, or even in a 30-storey apartment building oceans away, didn’t your heart always beat a little faster, your eyes flash with an inner joy, at the chorus of Jazba Junoon?
Then, you grew older, tapes turned to CDs, and there was Noori, Atif Aslam, Fuzon, Strings reborn, strumming guitars under the bamboo shade at college, crooning Manwe Re and Aadat to pieces, “reporter” visits to Ali Noor’s house, ice cream with EP, peace concerts and an unfortettable birthday invite, setting eyes on the person you were going to marry in the backrows of a Junoon concert…
And, now? Now there’s Coke Studio.
Brainchild of ex-Vital Sign’s bandman Rohail Hyatt, the Coke Studio TV series started three years ago as a platform to bring together musicians of various genres from all over Pakistan, creating “a musical fusion of exciting elements and diverse influences, ranging from traditional eastern, modern western and regionally-inspired music.“
The result? Some absolutely incredible pieces of music, the kind of which I’ve never heard before (I’ve compiled some of my favourite performances from the past two seasons, plus the current season, on a YouTube Playlist). Most of the songs are very spiritual; in fact, Pakistani music, especially folk and classical, is inherently Sufi-istic, inspired by love and devotion and inspiring devotion in turn. For instance, Alif Allah, a collaboration between Arif Lohar, renowned Punjabi folk artist and perhaps the only person in the world who plays the chimta – tongs! – and Meesha Shafi, model-actress turned lead singer of goth-rock band Overload. Below is the original in Punjabi, with an English translation of the lyrics here.
Mera dil nahin avail-lable koi aur khat-khat-khataa!
Published in Pakistan’s “Women’s Own” Magazine, October 2010
I’m sitting cross-legged on the dark brown laminate floor of our 3rd storey brownstone apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. To my right is a mound of tools – staple gun, drill, screwdrivers, pliers, nails, measuring tape, paintbrushes, and a number of pointy objects I can’t identify – and to my left, a mountain of half-opened boxes, bags and suitcases. Infront of me is the ustad – my husband – wearing paint-splattered khaki shorts and a white t-shirt, mounted on a step-ladder and swiping the bedroom wall with strong strokes of a roller brush soaked in “Kabuki Clay” – a rich, creamy white paint that looks so MilkPak delicious I’ve been tempted more than once to dip my finger in for a taste. “No, you can’t eat it,” my better half repeats with inexhaustible patience. He looks pretty good, I think. The rugged workman look, stubble, smeared forearms and all.
I on the other hand look like a complete bum. Not the cool dreadlocked guitar-toting kind of Berkeley and Ithaca – my two former domiciles – but the true urban homeless, the kind who sleep on subways, scour through trash cans, trundle around with empty shopping carts, and invariably miss a few teeth. OK, maybe not exactly, but I think my dirt-streaked face, faded blue jeans ripped quite naturally at the knees, musty red rag-of-a-t-shirt with a mournful-looking Batman printed at the front (the kind they call “vintage”), spots of dry paint on my calves, toes, fingers, fingernails, forehead, hair – which currently sits in a chaotic jumble on the top of my head – are enough to earn me a kindly quarter from a passerby, or even a Central Park bench spot.
“Four days ago, I would’ve died before I let you see me like this,” I joke with my husband-of-nine-months. But appearances stop mattering pretty quickly when you’re moving house, living out of a single duffel bag, subsisting on bread and cereal, sleeping on the floor surrounded by paint cans, scrubbing bathroom tiles, carrying a 70 pound flatscreen TV up three flights of stairs, and whatever kajal you’re wearing melts away like candlewax in the fanless stillness of a New York June afternoon, leaving unflattering gray streaks in its wake…
But, here we are – our new home! Or at least the four walls, slowly colouring up and being adopted as our own. Bed, dressing table, sofa, kitchen cabinets….all afterthoughts. They’ll follow in due time. Meanwhile, I’m already in love with the leafy elm tree outside the living room window, the peeping spires of a nearby Greek cathedral, and the rows and rows of slender redbrick buildings, framed with terraces and ivy and windows, rows and rows of windows, like a beehive, a kaleidoscope of lives. I’m beginning to discover for the first time the guilty city-pleasure of observing neighbors through my window – what they’re watching on TV, the colour of their walls and curtains, who they have over for tea, coffee or lemonade, whatever their cultural preference. I also love our landlady, a sweet old Palestinian grandma as white and delicate as a cream puff. She sweeps the backyard every morning in her black embroidered thob, spends the afternoons with her “cousins” around the block, and sits on the porch in the evening sipping mint shai with the Moroccan neighbours. She knows maybe 10 words of English (including “crook”), and breaks into a melodious stream of Arabic the moment she sees our faces. To date, she has six grown-up American-accented children, who all seem to live nearby but keep appearing at the building every other day. I suspect she has more, because I’ve seen letters in the mailbox addressed to other people with the same last name (nosy, I know, but I can’t help it!). I think I’ll just ask her one of these days – when I go to call on her, officially, carrying a pot of biryani or gajar ka halwa, some deliciously impressive Pakistani dish (cooked over the phone with my mom’s instructions), my 30 words of Arabic, and my own first name – from experience, the surest way into an Arab’s heart!
How we found this apartment is another story altogether. Let’s just say that after ten days of Craigslisting, emailing, subway-hopping, borough-crossing, handshaking, trickster agents and sore feet, from Gramercy to East Harlem to Clinton Hill, Bushwick, Jersey City and Jackson Heights, from hoods to dens to beaver hats, the one question that we asked ourselves was: “Could we bring our parents to this place?” I mean, if you’re going to live 6,000 miles away from home, family and every imaginable comfort, it better not be underneath a phaatak or graffitied expressway, above a Liberty Market-esque kids’ clothing store with sugar-pink jumpers in the display, or a scene that inspired George Orwell’s Victory Mansions.
So, Cobble Hill won, with its Thai and Mexican restaurants, Chinese laundromats, 24-hour Arab-owned delis, Cuban musicians, Indian policemen, British bankers, thrift stores, designer boutiques and fresh fruit markets, moms, nannies and stroller-babies, yuppies, hippies and hipsters, English on the street in twenty different accents – all the things that make New York special. There’s a lot to be done of course – painting’s just the start! – and I’m reminded of my mother and father, at the time we were building our own house in Defence, Lahore. The interminable haggling with the contractor, the spectrum of paint samples on the wall, endless trips to Casa Bella and Barry’s for upholstery fabric, Bajwa’s for lights, Ferozepur Road for tiles and bathroom fixtures, my sister and I grumpily trailing behind after school in our dusty blue-and-white checked uniforms. My mother was a natural at it; colours, textures and the arrangement of things came effortlessly to her. I don’t know if my design sense is as instinctive, though I’d like to think that I’ve imbibed at least a little. You can decide next month, once we get to the Architectural Digest Before & After stage!
Uh-oh. I was just in the kitchen putting together some sandwiches for dinner, and I opened the oven, where I had stored some extra plates, and a scream escaped from my throat as a pair of beady black eyes met mine…it seems, to quote Agent Mulder, “We are not alone”!
Or, as any veteran New Yorker would say, “Welcome to New York!”
Yay! One of my photos made it as a finalist in the the Photographer’s Forum Annual College Photography Contest! It’ll be published in the hardcover coffee-table book Best of College Photography 2010!
It’s an itsy step-up from last year, when the photo below (one of my personal favourites) made it to the semi-finals of the same contest.
Unfortunately, I’m no longer eligible for Student Photography contests (who knows what could’ve happened next year?), nor can I afford those beautiful glossy coffee-table books! For the moment, though, I’m happy with the growing stack of gold-embossed congratulatory letters :)
I woke up this morning with the smell of damp earth and wild flowers tickling my nose. I imagined I was in my room in Lahore, lying on that beautiful Sindhi-tiled rosewood bed my dad had unearthed from some curio shop in Karachi, the plum-coloured curtains flapping in the breeze and the jaamun tree outside my window bristling with dew. There would be halwa puri and aaloo cholay for breakfast downstairs, and Ammi Abbu would be sitting eating sliced oranges with chaat masala in the front lawn reading the Sunday paper, with our two Alaskan huskies Sabre and Tara gracefully curled at their feet…
I rubbed my eyes. No, I wasn’t in Lahore. I was in our apartment in Ithaca. But outside, it could’ve been Lahore, on a rain-fresh, life-affirming November day. “I’m going for a run,” I announced, a newfound interest since my high school track champ husband Z bought me a pair of purple Nike running shoes for my birthday.
As we jogged along on the clean wet pavements, wind rustling in the oaks and maples overhead, purple tulips and yellow daffodils nodding in their beds below, past the shingled cottages, blue, pink, red and white, and in the distance, the rolling hills of Cornell, silhouetted dark green against a steel blue sky, I breathed in the cool, redolent air and thought, “Ithaca really is beautiful. I’m going to miss this place”.
I wouldn’t have said that nine months ago. Soon after we moved to Ithaca last Fall, and Z settled into his school routine, leaving for class every morning at 8 and returning at 6 in the evening, I found myself a prisoner in our apartment: tinkering around in the kitchen, vacuuming and re-vacuuming the bedroom, re-arranging the cushions on the sofa, trying to decide what to make for dinner…Days, sometimes weeks went by when he was the only person I talked to face-to-face.
I felt frustrated – and I was annoyed at myself for being frustrated. But it couldn’t be helped. How many books could you read, how many BBC miniseries could you watch, how excited could you possibly be about cooking when you had to do it everyday? The fact was, I had never been the “domestic” or ghareiloo kind – though I had imagined I would be if given the opportunity – and never in my life had I been so unoccupied, so uncomfortably free. Till now, every moment had been replete with people, parents, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, teachers, classmates – something to do, somewhere to be, something due, something planned, someone to talk to. I had even complained about it sometimes – Oh, I wish I had more time to myself! – and now that I had that time, I didn’t know what to do with it.
I blamed Ithaca. Dull, boring place. No jobs to be had, no friends to be found, no sign of life after 7 p.m., sub-zero temperatures 3/4ths of the year, nearest grocery store a 40 minute bus ride away on a bus that came every hour… How was one to live in such a place? Weeks of job-hunting and CV-submitting turned up nothing – even the local Barnes & Noble never got back to me. I was so mad I vowed to defect to Borders. “They probably thought you were over-qualified,” said Z to comfort me.
But I wasn’t comforted. Innumerable possibilities crowded my mind as I sat daydreaming in my red arm chair, of New York City, of the Bay Area, of Lahore, of what I might have achieved had I been there, of what I might have made of myself. Oh, what if?…
That was nine months ago. Z is about to graduate now, and our move to the big city is just weeks away – the start of our new life, on our own feet, the excitement, the rush of people on the street, the plays and the concerts, that dream job, glowing above in the neversleeping neon ether…
I’m excited. But more than that, I am at peace, because I understand now what I achieved in Ithaca, what I found – something more precious and infinitely more satisfying than any job could have been.
I found two friends, Elsa and Silvano. The moment we met, at the door of our apartment, where the landlord and local godfather Carl Carpenter had brought them in his cherry-red pickup, the “nice Mexican couple” who had just got into town and were looking for a place to live, I knew we were kindred spirits. It was the kind, laughing eyes, the ready smile, the same room at the Hillside Inn. We could talk about books and movies, music, religion, ideas and dreams for hours on end, till we’d look up and see the empty restaurant tables and anxious faces of the waiters, and cry out, “What, it’s been four hours already?” We laughed at the same jokes, took immense pleasure in “Big Brother”-bashing, reveling in our non-Americanness, whispering animatedly of conspiracies and capitalism lest the identical blond-beefy-biker family sitting next to us at the food court overheard. The Beatles, Dracula, Scorcese, 1984, Pictionary, Canon cameras and 5K runs, achari chicken and tostadas, Tampico and Lahore, Urdu and Spanish…it all seemed one. Urdu and Turkish, too, and aromatic tea from a petite hand-painted glass cup, cranberry muffins and Turkish delight, bangles and Rekha and two adorable two-years olds in shalwar kameez with cake on their face. Alev, Demir and the twins, my Ithaca family. It began with an email, a response to a Craigslist ad, my first freelance video-editing gig; turned into Urdu lessons and babysitting, playing with puzzles and building blocks, cushiony footballs and cars, singing “Lakri ki Kathi” and “Chanda Sooraj Laakhon Taare”; ended with sisterhood. They threw me a party on my birthday, a beautiful picnic in the park, gifted me their comfylicious Papasan, just because I had once said in passing that I liked it. I was overwhelmed by their affection; I felt I had left some mark on their lives, as they had on mine, found a relationship that would last. Could I have said the same about proof-reading papers for the Cornell Astronomical Society, cashiering at Barnes & Noble? When one of the Taiwanese students I tutor got an A on a final paper I edited, or the Chinese visiting scholar’s request for an interview with a D.C. official was finally accepted, with the help I’d given him in his letter, and they said to me with endearing directness, “We are so lucky to have you” – how could I have underrated that feeling, that sentiment, that satisfaction?
We came back from the run, and I made spicy baked eggs for breakfast, one of beautiful Shayma’s wonderful recipes. My husband did the dishes while I read aloud a chapter from “Brave New World”, Elsa and Silvano’s birthday gift to me and sequel to our recent Orwell craze. Afterwards we sat listening to George Harrison on Pandora while Z worked on a presentation and I wrote this post, with the doors wide open and the smells of spring enveloping our little one-bedroom house, evoking memories of different times and places, mingling past with present.
One of the perks of being a “Cornell spouse” is uninhibited access to the university library. So, once every month, I descend into the stacks at Olin with an empty Jansport backpack, the bars on my cell phone dwindling with every step into that delicious musty labyrinth, to emerge a few hours later with books piled up to my chin, like the fat little mouse Gus in Disney’s Cinderalla and his teetering armload of cheese. Setting down my own bits of cheese on the circulation desk, I proudly flourish the shiny blue-and-white Cornell ID Card, and walk out with an immensely satisfied look on my face , 20 pounds worth of books pulling happily on my shoulders and many weeks of apple-pie reading ahead.
The book I just finished is Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”, a collection of short stories about Pakistan. I had heard about Mueenuddin – praise for the most part, from friends, and a cousin who knew him personally – but for some reason I hadn’t been particularly motivated to read his book, until prompted by a certain Bangladeshi friend from Berkeley. I had been in the middle of a book of short stories by Rabindranath Tagore when I messaged him: “Have you read these? They’re incredible! So witty, wise, sad, ironic..” I raved, and to my surprise he replied: “No, actually I haven’t read any of his stories. But have you read Daniyal Mueenuddin?”
One cannot compare the two at any rate – Tagore is a giant, a saint, a genius – but it suddenly struck me that all this time I had unconsciously been avoiding Pakistan writers. I think the last Pakistani novel I’d read was Kartography, or Moth Smoke – years and years ago. I don’t know why I’d been ignoring them, especially considering that there were just a handful. Perhaps it was my conception of books as windows to other worlds – other times, histories, cultures, people, different and fascinating – and Pakistan was all too familiar.
But Mueenuddin’s stories left me puzzled, stunned – I knew as little about the world he described as I knew about Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo or Tagore’s rural Bengal. Nawabdin electrician, Saleema, Zainab, Rezak – all these people were alien to me, foreigners, their private lives detached from mine by an invisible wall. Of course I knew people like them – we kept servants at home, like any well-off Pakistani family, and most of them came from the villages surrounding Lahore. But I really knew nothing about them, the cook, the maid, the chowkidaar, the sweepress, the driver, all the people who worked in my house; I knew nothing beyond the rudiments, the apparent facts. I liked to think that I was friends with the maidservants, those pretty, smiling young girls who washed and pressed my clothes and dusted my room everyday; at least I had every intention to be friendy. But would I ever know what they really thought about me, or any of us, what they said to each other in the confidence of the kitchen, the one space in the entire two-storey house that belonged to them? Could one of them be a Saleema, could my cook be a Hassan, could the driver be having an affair with the sweepress half his age? In our house?
It was unimaginable. These ideas had never occured to me, till very recently, when my mother – obviously privy to all the servants’ politics – started to discuss them with me and my sister, suddenly deciding that we were “old” enough. I think it happened when that new maid was hired, the 21- year old widow (so she told us) whom my sister and I nicknamed “Pocahontas” at first sight, so tall, golden and raven-haired she was. After the first few days of feverish excitement among the male servants – all married – the burly cook huffingly announced to my mother that the girl had to be dismissed, she “wasn’t right”. Sahi nahin hai baji. That was all he said. My mother, with her calm, instinctive wisdom, understood everything. She later told us that the young widow apparently had a habit of parading topless on the terrace of the servants’ quarters, causing quite a commotion, and not one slip-up – including the grumpy cook and even one of the neighbor’s kitchen boys. I will never forget my initial shock and disbelief. “These things happen, Minu,” my mother had said in her soothing way, half-amused at my incredulity.
Of course these things happen. Mueenuddin’s stories revealed that secret world for me. And when he wrote of K.K. Harouni in his attitude towards his servants’ personal lives, “He didn’t particularly care one way or the other, except that it touched on his comfort”, I realized that it was, more or less, painfully true.
But I understand even less about the “other” world – K.K. Harouni’s, Sohail’s or Lily’s, or any of the wealthy people in Mueenuddin’s book. I’m not like them. We’re not like them. My family doesn’t own apartments in London or Paris, my father has never touched alcohol, my mother doesn’t wear saris or grape-sized emeralds in her ears everyday, we don’t socialize with people called “Mino” or “Bumpy”, neither have we ever hosted Tsunami-themed parties with artificial beaches in the lawn, or been invited to one – thank God for that. We know who these people are – in our family we call them the “filthy rich”. Perhaps my father is acquainted with some of them through work, we see them at weddings and other big events, and in the social pages of the Sunday magazines. But there’s is a separate universe. Reading about them in Mueenuddin’s book, I found myself shocked once more. Ecstacy? Getting drunk on bootlegged alcohol, sleeping around? In Pakistan?? How little I knew! How naive I was! Were there only three kinds of Pakistanis then, the struggling, servile poor, the opportunisitic middle-class like Husna and Jaglani, and the hedonistic elites? Where did my family fit in?
I grew up in inviolable purity. In retrospect, I think it almost hilarious, how little I knew of anything – I can just hear my best friend Zohra laughing delightedly at my scandalized face at some story or other – but I treasure that. I value that, I wouldn’t call it ignorance, but security, that preservation of my inner child. Little things, tiny things, inconsequential for some people maybe; not knowing the smell of alcohol, for instance, till I was a 23-year old graduate student at Berkeley, passing through the dorm to my room on a Saturday night; never having been on a “date” with anyone but my fiance (now husband); still shy of wearing a sleeveless kameez infront of the family elders. The possibility of premarital sex did not exist – the idea of sex itself was, for the longest time, something mysterious, slightly embarrasing, and not particularly fascinating. Outside of marriage, it was an impossibility. It was not only because of our Muslim upbringing, but my personal beliefs, as they evolved with age; grounded in Islam, nourished by the various volumes of Sufi poetry scattered about the house, shaped into an intimate, spiritual, almost mystical view of life that I carry with me everywhere.
I remember how upset I was when some of my friends started smoking in high school – a habit I still dislike but have grown to tolerate, with a roll of my eyes and half- laughing censure. I’ve accepted many other things since then – have “grown up”, though somewhat unwillingly. I am not one to judge anybody, not people from other societies and cultures nor fellow Pakistanis. And yet, my heart is still floating in that prism – sepia-tinted, “old-fashioned”, you might call it – where there is nothing sordid, no taint or speck to marr its clear beauty. Loyalty, fidelity and honesty are things you take for absolute granted; there is no other way to speak to a servant but with the utmost respect, even more than you give your parents; and there is was no other way to look upon your parents but with love, understanding and forbearance, even if you feel angry or wronged. You can go bury your face in the pillow or brood for an hour in your bedroom, but to raise your voice, to actually “fight” or quarrel with them? It never crossed our minds. I tremble at the thought.
As I finished reading “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”, with a strangely sad feeling in my stomach, and tears for the “Spoiled Man” Rezak welling up in my eyes – my favourite story in the book – I thought, “This is a depressing country, this country of ours.” These were tragic stories, with no real faith, comfort or redemption for any of the characters, the peasant woman or the feudal lord. Their lives seemed empty, hollow, unfulfilled.
But that is not the Pakistan I know. It is not my Pakistan.
One day I’ll write a story about the Pakistani life I knew – a beautiful life, with its share of ordinary family problems, but beautiful, and wholesome, spirited, and simple. One day I’ll write a story about my family, the poets, lawyers, doctors, artists and engineers, never poor, never too rich, and in my memory never anything but upright, dignified in everything they did. That is the only way I saw them, and that is all I knew.
I wrote this piece for a class on Immigration Reporting at Journalism School last March, right before I left for Spain to film a short documentary about Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona.
Identity is such a fluid thing – parts of it change every time you move, make new friends, do something different in life – and parts of it are simply unalterable. I can’t say I feel exactly the same now as I did when I wrote this, but it was a very strange and interesting part of my life, shared I think by many Pakistanis studying or living abroad.
Published in The Express Tribune Blog, August 25th 2010
Rediscovering nationality in the melting pot
MANAL AHMAD, PAKISTAN: I was spring-cleaning my laptop a few days ago when I came across these two pictures. Normally, I wouldn’t have even noticed them, buried in virtual stack-loads on my hard drive, the blessing and bane of digital photography. But, my general sense of awareness about “culture” and “identity” somewhat heightened of late, I paused to look, and was struck by the utter incongruity of it all. Not just the photographs, but of myself – in Pakistan, an English-sprouting, skinny-jean-wearing junk-food-eating, American Idol-watching “Westerner”, and in America, a jingly, jangly, Urdu-priding, chai-chugging, public transport-taking “Pakistani”.
I moved to California from Pakistan in 2007 to start graduate school at UC Berkeley. Though I had come as a student, I experienced much of what a new immigrant experiences – curiosity, bewilderment, loneliness, discrimination, independence, and – unexpectedly enough – a conscious need to re-affirm my “identity”. During the 22 years I lived in Pakistan, this had only occurred to me on a handful of occasions – cricket matches against India, for example, or when the enormous green-and-white flags appeared on 14th August, Independence Day, only to disappear a day later.
At the upper-class, English-medium, private university in Lahore I attended for my Bachelor’s, there was a course called “Pakistan Studies: Culture & Heritage” that we were required to take before graduating. Ironically, it is in this class that we were thoroughly “de-nationalized”. In this class, taught by a radical Marxist Yale-educated professor, we learnt there was no such thing as a “Pakistani”.
Then what was Pakistan? Little more than a project of India’s Muslim intellectuals, feudal elite and the British colonial government. The very concept of “nation-state” was foreign to the Indian subcontinent; it was forced upon us by the British, and Pakistan was the direct result. At independence in 1947, less than 10% of the people in Pakistan actually spoke Urdu, the national language; most spoke regional languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, or – Bengali! Yes, because Bangladesh used to be a part of Pakistan, until it seceded in 1971, which of course didn’t do much for consolidating our national identity.
Add to that the fact of the vast economic disparity in the country, 6th most populous in the world, where 1/4th of the people live below the poverty line and 54% have no basic education – I, who started learning English at age 4 and grew up watching Disney cartoons, had a computer at home ever since I can remember, ate out with friends every weekend at American Pizza Huts dressed in jeans and cute tops because that’s what was cool and shalwar kameez was something only our mothers wore or we kept for formal occasions – I was obviously the exception.
That is not to say I didn’t enjoy my culture, as I knew it. I loved it, yes; I loved my traditional embroidery, the block-print and mirror-work, the silver jewelry. I loved my home-cooked food, the grand weddings, the Mughal architecture, Ramadan and Eid, sufi-rock; but I loved it, like a visitor, like a curious traveler, collecting souvenirs, taking pictures. Pakistan was a colorful, exotic TV series, which I could switch on whenever I wanted, and switch off whenever the beggars and child laborers and hungry people came on.
My world was very different. Did I really know anything beyond it? No.
Then, I came to America, the place where what little “nationality” I had might have melted away completely. But quite the opposite happened.
I remember the funny warm feeling I got when I saw the first restaurant sign that said “Pakistani cuisine” in Berkeley (later to discover that desi or South Asian food was a local favorite and that there were hundreds of such restaurants all over the Bay Area). “Hey, that’s my place!” I would think with pride, and proudly order in Urdu, and tell him to make it extra spicy, because of course that’s what I was used to. I would stare at the food, my food, that all these foreigners, these Americans seemed to enjoy so much, mystified at the sight of them eating with their hands, tearing the naan into morsels and scooping up the bhindi or aaloo gobi – food so utterly commonplace that you couldn’t find it at even a roadside stall back in Lahore.
I felt a surge of joy at taxi rides, when I would invariably get a Pakistani or Indian driver (yes, Indian counted too, but that’s another complex affinity, another story). I would invariably smile at any man or woman I passed who looked desi to me – maybe I would talk to them at the bus stop or in a store – and how thrilled I was if they understood Urdu!
Perhaps the most bizarre thing was paying $20 to dance bhangra at a San Francisco club called “Rickshaw Stop”. A bhangra club? That didn’t make any sense! Bhangra was what guys did. They did it at weddings to live drummers, or in Punjabi music videos, or in the villages. You didn’t dance bhangra for any other reason. And how would a girl dance bhangra in the first place? Why would you ever even need a lesson in bhangra? It was all too confusing.
But when I saw what it was all about, I realized with a start: this was as much foreign to me as to everyone else in that room. This was bhangra? This incredible complicated sweaty aerobic choreographed performance that all these goras (literally, “white people”, but meaning any Westerner) seemed to be enjoying out of their minds?
Well, I decided I wanted in – I decided that this was mine, it was mine to own, it was Pakistani, and I could do it better than any of these goras because this is what we did back in Pakistan, didn’t we? And everyone believed me.
Why did I need to re-affirm my difference, my uniqueness, my identity in the melting pot? Why did I feel more Pakistani in America? I don’t really know. Is it because in this country, “ethnicness” is generally prized, coveted, glorified? Or, as a human being, you struggle to identify with a group because you find strength in groups, so you meet, talk to and befriend people you may never even have acknowledged back home – just for the color of their passport? Is that hypocrisy?
In Pakistan, I would never talk to my cab driver. I’ve never dream of taking a cab in Pakistan by myself. But here – it is a bonding experience. Here, I trust a desi cab driver over all others. He might have been a criminal back home, for all I know. But in America, it doesn’t matter. We are the same.
And sometimes I find myself thinking – if all Pakistanis moved to the U.S., we might actually be a nation – a much better nation! We would work hard, we wouldn’t have to bribe or take bribes to make our way in life, and we could communicate with each other, without suspicion or pretense or awkward social barriers.
But the question is, is it even real? Or do we find this strange affinity only because we stereotype ourselves to fit American expectations and tastes, shaking hands and serving them chicken tikka masala while pretending its “authentic”?
The last vestige of nationality probably lies in the accent. The moment people stop asking you what part of the world you’re from when you talk to them – you’re lost. You’ve become American. You drop your T’s. You’ve successfully “assimilated”. And for this confused “Westernized” desi, for whatever illogical irrational reason, that’s not a compliment.
As this is my first post, it seems fitting to dedicate it to Lahore, my beautiful hometown. I haven’t lived there for 3 years now, so I’m aware that much of my nostalgia is tinted. But what does it matter? Lahore will hold endless fascination and mystery for me, if only in my imagination. This is a “brief” history of Lahore’s inner city, the “Androon Shehr” in Urdu, that I wrote as part of my thesis at college, with my cousin and constant companion Sana. Here is an excerpt, minus the footnotes! Any additional lore, fact or fiction about Lahore is welcome :) You may also want to read Chowk: Musings at a Crossroads.
“Lahore of blissful waters, be praised
The goal of old and young, Lahore
I do not think that in the seven climes
A place so lustrous exists, as Lahore.”
– Talib-i Amuli, Ghaznavid poet
Hindu legend has it that, nearly three millennia ago, Loh, one of the sons of the god Rama, hero-king of the epic “Ramayana”, founded a city on the banks of the river Ravi. He called the city Loh-Awar – “The Fort of Loh” in Sanskrit. Situated on a naturally elevated alluvial plain at the gateway between the mountains of Kashmir and waters of the Indus, Loh could not have chosen a more scenic or strategic location for his city. Today, we know Loh-Awar by one of the numerous variants of its name that survived: Lahore.
The original site of Lahore, believed to have existed somewhere in the foundations of the Lahore Fort, is now found only in myth and imagination. However, historical evidence suggests that the “core” of the city, what is known colloquially as the Androon Shehr, assumed its present shape and form in the aftermath of the Ghaznavid invasion in the 11th century. Hitherto a mysteriously abandoned Hindu principality, the city underwent a veritable transformation at the able hands of Malik Ayaz, governor of Lahore under Mahmud of Ghazna. It is said that Malik Ayaz built up the walls and gates of the city in one miraculous night; whether or not that is true, Lahore, the capital of Mahmud’s Indian provinces, soon grew to rival the city of Ghazna itself as a centre of wealth, learning and culture.
Lahore suffered many reversals of fortune in the ensuing centuries, the inevitable target of countless invaders, plunderers and would-be kings – from the Ghauris to the Mongols, Taimur the Lame to Bahlul Lodhi – owing this fate both to its geographical location and to the stories of its splendour. However, it was not until 1526, when a certain Taimurid prince from Ferghana decided too to try his luck in the plains of the Punjab, that Lahore regained the status and security it had enjoyed in Ghaznavid times. That young prince was Babar, the first Mughal emperor, and his dynasty, firmly anchored in its North Indian strongholds, had come to sta y.
Thus the city of Lahore, together with Delhi and Agra, witnessed the apogee of its career under Mughal patronage. Merchants, scholars, musicians, lovers, travellers from both ends of Eurasia, thronged its narrow streets; Eastern and Western poets alike eulogized the city for its “palaces, domes and gilded minarets”, for the “enchantment” locked within the burnt-bricks of its miraculous walls. In 1584, the Emperor Akbar shifted his royal residence to Lahore, renovating the Fort, constructing nine guzars (residential quarters) within the city, and rebuilding its walls and gates. His son Jahangir, likewise, continued the legacy of the sponsorship of arts and architecture in the city of his birth; English visitors to Lahore, especially frequent since Jahangir granted trading rights to the East India Company in the early 17th century, described it as “a goodly great city, one of the fairest and most ancient of India, exceeding Constantinople itself in greatness”. But it is Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan, who earned for himself the repute of greatest of Mughal emperors, at least in terms of wealth and architectural opulence. Under Shah Jahan, Lahore glittered and flourished like never before: “a handsome and well-ordered city”, “crammed with foreigners and rich merchants” and “abundant in provisions”, in the words of Niccolo Manucci, an Italian physician serving at the Lahore court in Shah Jahan’s reign. The Wazir Khan Mosque, Shish Mahal (“Palace of Mirrors”, within the Lahore Fort) and Shahi Hamam (“Royal Bath”) in the Walled City, as well as the Shalimar Gardens in the suburbs, are but a few remaining testaments of the prosperity of the age, while the Taj Mahal in Agra has acquired iconic status.
Yet, already in Shah Jahan’s lifetime, Mughal coffers had begun to shrink, and the reign of his younger son Aurangzeb, last of the great Mughal emperors and builder of the Badshahi Mosque, was plagued with all the uncertainty and instability of a dynasty running the final pages of its history. With the death of Aurangzeb, Lahore, like the remaining parts of the Indian subcontinent still outside the control of British traders and self-styled governors, fell victim to the cruel vicissitudes of politics. The relentless raiding of the Afghan Ahmad Shah Durrani, and later Shah Zaman, and their furious battles with the Sikhs over the sovereignty of Lahore left the city permanently scarred. When the Sikh forces, led by Ranjit Singh, ultimately took power in 1797, they inherited a desolate township with crumbling walls, which they proceeded to loot and destroy, so that in 1809, an English officer described Lahore as “a melancholy picture of fallen splendour, of which now only the ruins are visible.”
But Lahore saw the beginning of the most damaging phase of its history in 1849, when the British purchased the province of Punjab from the incumbent Sikh Maharaja. The colonial authorities did not loot or plunder the Inner City as previous invaders had; they Orientalised it. While they did engage in major renovation projects in the Inner City, repairing portions of the Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque and other buildings destroyed by the Sikhs, their efforts were centred upon the development of the Civil Lines and Cantonments, which lay beyond the perimeter of the Walls. Suddenly, the Inner City became synonymous with the “Old City”. Invisible barriers were erected between “native” space, symbolized by the crowded, “quaint” streets of the Androon Shehr, and the manicured, tree-lined “colonially produced” space without– the origins of dualism, the modern-traditional dichotomy that prevails in postcolonial cities to this day.
Numerous crafts and trades, associated with and sustained by the demands of a royal court (Ghaznavid, Mughal and Sikh), met their inevitable demise with the British interlude – for example, the manufacture of elaborately wrought weaponry. Other court-related skills, such as miniature painting and fresco-work, were stripped of their former utility and relegated to the status of antiquated “arts”, fit to be practiced in Art Schools alone. Yet others, such as gold embroidery, silk-weaving and brass- and copper-smithing, continued to persist, though they catered to a diminishing “inside” population, relative to the rapid settlement of “outside” areas by colonials and indigenous nouveau riche. At the same time, the British initiated an irreversible process of change within the Androon Shehr, especially through the act of removing much of the old walls of the city as a precautionary measure against urban revolt, which became a genuine threat in the years following the Mutiny, or War of Independence, in 1857.
On the eve of decolonization, the Androon Shehr was still considered a prestigious, if not an affluent area, the cosmopolitan home of Lahore’s old, well-established families, of upper-class literati, bourgeois merchants and vagabonds alike. But Partition violence, concentrated in the border cities of the Radcliffe Award, devastated the fabric of the Androon Shehr’s society on an unparalleled scale; “The Walled City was shaken to its foundations”. The inhabitants of the Shehr, riled by communal hatred, wreaked havoc upon their own city – the gates were vandalized, bazaars were burnt, and entire neighbourhoods razed to the ground. Depopulation of the religious enclaves, coupled with the waves of migrants from across the border, turned Lahore into a rootless city of ruffians and refugees. From this massive convulsion, the Androon Shehr never truly recovered. It was the point of no return.
It was also the point of new beginnings. In the freshly conceived country of Pakistan, Lahore retained its age-old position as capital of the Punjab, yet the intensive redevelopment work that followed, under the auspices of the Lahore Improvement Trust (LIT), did not aim to “preserve” what was left behind. It aimed to remake. The debris was levelled clean by bulldozers, the narrow streets giving way to large thoroughfares and new markets, with little or no consideration to the surrounding architecture. Yet, in what seems an ironic or perhaps expected sequel to colonial activities, Lahore resumed to expand outwards, with the LIT concentrating its construction efforts upon areas such as the Civil Lines, and the new suburban communities of Model Town, Gulberg, G.O.R., Mayo Gardens and so on.
Meanwhile, the Androon Shehr was left to its own devices, and change was inevitable, though difficult to define. The Shehr was not impervious to the contemporary forms of modernization enveloping the surrounding city, yet, up till 1979, more than 80% of its built stock still comprised of Mughal structures, and most of the Lahore Development Authority’s public and municipal development programs continued to focus on the newer parts of the city.
Today, the Androon Shehr, as a physical space, is a mass of old, beautiful, rotting buildings and dusty, twisting streets, with choked gutters, unreliable water supply and precarious housing – home to “over a quarter of a million people, the largest concentration of urban poor in the country”. The government as well as academia profess to take keen interest in “arresting the decay of the city to preserve the nation’s heritage”, but the superficiality of their claims is borne out by observing the ground reality in the Shehr itself. The prominent monuments within the Shehr, mainly the Fort, tombs and older mosques, are repeatedly made the targets of much-advertised “historical conservation” and tourism campaigns, while the inhabitants of the City themselves, their lives and grievances, are conveniently overlooked in the media and other popular discourse.
It seems, in another ironic sequel to colonial Orientalism, that, for the people living “outside”, the Walled City exists solely for its historical value, a “suspended” site where only “traditional” time and place must be celebrated; the inexorable transformations taking place within the Shehr are altogether ignored. As it happens, however, the reality of the Androon Shehr differs sharply from the intentions to propel it as “a museum and relic of past glory”.