Here I am, sitting in Gloria Jeans Coffee, not far from Liberty Market, in the Gulberg area, where I spent much of my life in Lahore, Pakistan.
On the neighboring table sits Svend, the tall white American, working on his Dell. We are surrounded by Pakistanis, both hip and not. When I glance up, I see sights so familiar they don’t even require thought. The old houses with their white metal gates and boundary walls, the big red-brick water tower rising behind it all. A great deal has changed. There are a lot of billboards, a lot more elite hotspots, a whole lot more traffic.
But the mango leaves are still dusty in the late afternoon sun, and there is still a lot of idling on the street. There is still all that color, all that unpredictable humor, all those lively spontaneous smiles – all that loud living.
Hanging out is a major pastime, and Svend and Raihana both struggle with it more than I do. Both want to go somewhere, do something, see some sights. “Why?” my parents ask. “Why leave the comfort of home?” Let’s just hang out, they seem to say. Hang out non-stop for a month. I understand. I was raised on a lifetime of hanging out. Svend and Raihana are Americans.
Not that I haven’t lost a lot of Pakistani along the way. I see it in the gaze of locals when they glance – no, stare – at me. I didn’t have enough clothes when I traveled this time. 2 pairs of black pants, 2 pairs of black tops, a black cardigan and a gray hoodie – a very Washington, DC outfit. It’s gotten really cold, and local shalwar kameezes don’t help protect me against the cold. Exposed to the wind in a rickshaw ride from Lahore Gymkhana Club, I caught a cold the other day. So I wear knit pants often. It isn’t that unusual in Lahore anymore.
The family house is colder than the outdoors. We tried the gas heater in our room the other day: I ended up sick from leaked gas. We’re still playing indigestion musical chairs. Last time Raihana brought home an unidentifiable bug that stayed with her for a month after her return. We’re eating almost nothing outside the home – which is torture because the food here is amazing.
And after all this, you say, so I won’t be visiting again soon, will I?
It will be hard. We had a nightmarish travel agent, and ended up paying almost double the price of a return ticket. Fares are worse than ever. A terrible itinerary (blame our travel agent again) meant a 48 hour trip to Lahore – with a toddler.
But of course I will return. I’m in the arms of the motherland. No matter how much it might get on my nerves, I know its every vein and fiber. It knows me. Its streets know me. It’s etched in my mind and heart. Hours – whether of happiness or boredom, it doesn’t matter – still live in my soul. I relive them when I return to the US.
The geography of Liberty, the chaos of the Mall, the promise of Ferozesons – they are all childhood dreams that I still seek out hungrily, like air and water. In the afternoon, when we walk along the tree-lined residential streets my parents’ neighborhood, the smell of rice cooked in chicken stock wafts over us. The sound of rickshaws deafens and yet comforts me.
I know you so well. I love you so well. I can’t stand you. Your sun blinds me. Your dirt and poverty horrifies me. Your food alone can send me into transports of delight, as no cheesecake can. Your qawwali music can drive me out of my rational mind. Your passionate embrace suffocates and brings me back to life. You, my country, my home, are like a troubled beloved. Can’t live with you, can’t live without you. I have been so many different people here. Along this same Main Boulevard I’ve been a naive child of 7, a careless adolescent, an intensely spiritual teenager, a thoughtful young woman struggling to figure out where she belonged. I’ve drank in with my eyes the sight of the weeping willows along the Canal as many different individuals. I’ve lived a number of lives here. How can I forget them all?
And I don’t expect others to understand. I wonder even if my child will get it. As of now, she is a bit upset with this place that doesn’t have her beloved public library with its children’s corner. There is no bookstore with a train table for children to play at. Even the nearby playground we walked over to had a broken slide and unsafe swings – no bucket swings or safety belts here. She enjoys her cousins, but what she loves most is catching up with Dora the Explorer. But we have so many power outages that it’s hard to entertain her with TV too often. So she mopes a great deal, especially now that she has diarrhea (again).
These days we have a huge fuel shortage. Long queues of cars snaked out on the road, waiting for CNG or petrol. Yesterday my father drove for a while before he found petrol. One weekend, we found ourselves wondering if we should take Raihana out for a spin or not – because we might run out of gas.
Life is difficult, and living in the US makes it harder to get used to difficulties. I’m from here, so I can make do for a while. Raihana doesn’t seem to see why she should.
It looks like it’s going to get harder to raise a child in my culture. Will the diasporic centers of culture in the US have to do what trips back home may not?
May you all have a blessed new year.