It’s Saturday. I leave in the early hours of dawn on Monday. This has been one of my shortest trips back home. There was one other 2-week trip, during which I suffered from a most debilitating flu and high fever for much of the time. This visit has been uneventful health-wise. I have been careful about what I consume to the point of paranoia. People look at me funny, of course, when I decline such harmless things as a still-unwrapped charcoal-cooked corn on the cob – how I yearn for them and for the college memories that they bring – but after a few extremely unfortunate illnesses during previous visits, I am twice shy. I have refused fruit chaat, broast chicken, endless quantities of tea and coffee, and varieties of fruit juices, and I remember all of those refusals with heartache. Even that most fiercely delicious of Pakistani fruit, the mango, has upset my stomach somewhat but in this one respect, I have soldiered on, gorging myself on mangoes, combining the diarrheal qualities of mango with the costive qualities of the strange addictive purplish-black jamun.
Yesterday was the closing ceremony of my ethnographic methods workshop at Lahore College for Women. The workshop participants praised me effusively during the certificates-distribution ceremony, and this was my moment to bask in both pride and humility. In Pakistan, it is inappropriate to speak well of oneself. When I spoke of the importance of “selling yourself” through your resume or collegial networking, a participant smilingly referred to this as one of my “American” notions. You are supposed to serve in exemplary fashion until others spontaneously laud your qualities.
So on this last day of the workshop, I received the fruits of my labors when my dedication, my qualifications, my pedagogy, and my content knowledge were complimented in probably rather exaggerated terms. Uncomfortable with praise, however, I took that opportunity to express gratitude to the LCWU VC and the DFDI team which made the entire workshop possible, as well as the participants who brought keen energy and enthusiasm to the 2-week workshop. It was what the VC Dr Sabiha Mansoor described with gentle humor as our mutual appreciation society, and it was fun. I was presented with a plaque and a large bouquet of tuberoses and roses, and we hugged each other all around – I had to remind myself not to shake hands with the male faculty.
The workshop was, apparently, a watershed moment for faculty participants who rarely found opportunities to network and collaborate with fellow faculty at other institutions. The institutions represented were, moreover, a varied set – the large and old women’s university LCWU, the prestigious Presbyterian college Forman Christian College, and the venerable and bohemian National College of the Arts. The event was also an excellent opportunity for me to get a slight feel for the academic cultures at these different universities, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was, of course, sometimes challenging to advise faculty in postmodern literature, art, and music on their research writing, but the challenge was a productive one.
I saw plenty of evidence of how ethnographic methods fired the imaginations of Pakistani faculty across the disciplines, and it was delightful. I advised people on their research proposals for their PhD work, for applications to PhD programs, on fieldwork methods, and on report-writing. Now that I am a primarily-undergraduate faculty member at Millikin – and enjoying the pace of life as well as the new youthful spirit of teaching there – I am refreshed by the opportunity to advise postgraduate researchers.
It is Saturday afternoon. Now that I have had my annual grooming at Samia’s beauty salon (a lovely haircut but a hair dye several shades lighter than what I’m used to because blond is the new black over here!) I am sitting in Gloria Jeans Coffee in case any friends from my school, college, and work days are available to drop by and say salam. It would be better manners to visit friends individually or in small groups than to send out a facebook mass-message about my availability, of course. But the 2-week work trip simply didn’t allow for the time it would take to coordinate and visit people. So here I am.
The emotional climate between my parents and me is reaching a fever pitch. There are many long sighs, and much pottering around in my vicinity to clean up for me and provide any little thing I might possibly need. This can be difficult. Keep in mind, my life has revolved almost exclusively around two individuals (husband and child) for many years now. We have a fairly limited social life. The idea that anyone would tell me I should not go shopping or that I should go to visit the neighbors is hard to swallow. But I have been away for a long time. Just as I expect to see the Lahore of the 1980s and I find it excessively changed, my parents frequently turn to see their naive, bohemian, studious 20-year old daughter, and find an independent, excessively self-reliant 45-year old woman who does not take in her stride any effort to shape or restrict her activities. I react quickly and defensively to my father’s eccentric counsel regarding my financial decisions as if it were a personal affront. We are both struggling with a cumulative gap of many, many years. We have all aged immensely in each other’s absence, and now here we are, trying to understand each other.
We are different people. But our aching hearts are the same. We ache and weep for each other, but in person, we constantly squabble and misunderstand. Once we have squabbled, we mope, sulk, and cry in our separate spaces. Then we return, broken and hurt, because we do not have the time to sulk. We have only 1 day left together. And what after that? Do we have another visit next year? Who knows? I am terrified that at the next visit, I will not be able to squabble with my parents, that no one will tell me what to do and what to wear.
Mortality hangs over us, the loudest presence in the house. My father is 80, my mother is 78. These once-strong, hardy, and hard-working people are limping, napping, dozing, peering at me. Diabetes, cataracts, and a variety of other old-age ailments crowd my parents’ personalities out sometimes. My father repeatedly offers me milk, forgetting that I am lactose-intolerant –and then I realize that age has wreaked havoc with their capacity for memory. My mother tried to pair a red dupatta with a fuchsia outfit the other day; I was in a hurry to get to the workshop, and I snapped impatiently at her. A moment later, I suddenly realized that my mother did not see the difference between the colors. Utter shock.
For many years, I took in the world through my mother’s eyes. Now her eyes are failing. How will I see now?
Why do I see things so differently from her now? Why is she so frustrated when I see things differently?
At none of these moments do I reveal my shock and pain. Maybe I should. Maybe I should cry, let my weakness show, let my parents in, allow them some weakness too. I think I am crabby and stiff on purpose, because I am deeply afraid that any weakness will result in total collapse. Because deep down, when I think about my parents living their lives without me, growing old and growing sick, sighing and full of heartache when I disappear into international departures at Allama Iqbal International Airport – I want to collapse, cry, scream, and fall into hysterics. No other response seems appropriate. Everything else is a performance. So I continue, stiffly, snappishly, irritably, talking of work, packing, and the return flight, allowing no chinks to show in my armor. It is a worthless, cruel, painful strategy, and I will continue in it until I am alone in a crowd inside the airport lounge where no one who counts can see my tears. It is time to stop writing this now, because Gloria Jeans Coffee isn’t the place to be crying into your keyboard.