Wholeness in the homeland

It is early morning in Lahore, and there is a blessed cool breeze – cool by Lahore standards of course. My mother brought in from our small yard here a small bouquet of jasmine flowers – fresh, pearly, dazzlingly white, and amazingly fragrant. I had to share this event with you. I haven’t had an early morning jasmine bouquet in years. It’s one of those things you grow up on. My mother picks them every morning, so the little layered stars of jasmine flowers are associated in my heart with her tender and wise love.
Photo on 6-9-13 at 4.59 AM

It is day two of my two-week stay. After a tolerable first night (the power outages every other hour continue), I sit in our porch with my parents. They hang onto my every word, and I tell them all about family, work, and health.

The bodily experience of a Pakistani summer punctuated by power outages is not one to be theorized away. It is in your face, powerful, shattering. I often find my thoughts disconnected and scrambled. I am in awe of Pakistanis who manage to be productive and creative amid 110 degree heat, with no power. Owning a generator is no simple matter, both for reasons of cost and for the noise that they create in crowded urban neighborhoods. Today, our neighbors are running a generator whose earsplitting racket penetrates the entire street, but this is not a luxury for them. The woman who lives across from our house has just lost a son. They brought his body back from India, where he was undergoing treatment for an advanced stage of cirrhosis. My mother spent most of the day with me, but spent a few hours with her neighbor in her time of grief. My father, who is eighty, returned from the evening funeral shuddering in horror at how the body of the man they knew had been packed for air travel. We talked about mortality and the hereafter, working out what we thought we knew of the process of death and the grave, concluding that we weren’t really sure what it truly meant. It was a very Pakistani conversation – gritty, real, spiritual without being airy, and flooded with the pain and joy of the human condition.

Normally, I travel with Raihana and Svend, and it’s beautiful to have all my loved ones around me. For a variety of reasons, I decided that this year it was best for me to do a short trip on my own. It was incredibly wrenching to head off across the ocean without my little family – my tall, strong white guy who carries all my bags and supports me when I need it, my happy, little first-grader who brings me smiles and silliness – but I feel strangely whole. For years, I haven’t been without Svend and Raihana for more than 4-5 conference days at a time. But I realize that there are advantages to me coming here on my own. I can focus my attention on my family, in one language (mostly). I’m not doing the code switching that is a feature of my family visits. With Svend, I am ironic, Western, English-accented, cerebral; with my family, I am raucous, Punjabi, and constantly treading a line between teasing and deep emotion. This is not to say that the two are watertight ventricles within me. No, but they are distinct cultural modes and I do switch from one to the other. During transit in Doha, I found myself wandering in the cultural borderlands, trying to work out how I really feel about the personal-zone infractions and about the familiar stares. I wondered how I really felt about the blue-collar Pakistani workers traveling back home from the Middle East – was it resentment that they stared at me so freely, or was it compassion and acceptance that they (most of them) didn’t mean me any harm but they couldn’t quite figure out my demeanor either?

As I said in my last post, cosmopolitanism is an exile, an alienation from self. But as my friend Lawrence points out, it is not necessarily a bad thing. It may be an essential thing. For the meta-aware, it may be unavoidable. But I feel – well, today I do – I am in a state of relative wholeness, following a singular code (mostly, of course). These codes are not watertight of course, but there is a distinct flavor and feel to each. In our new world of merging borderlands, there are still moments of home, and each home is still distinct. The ways we stare or glance at each other, the way we get tangled in arguments or skim the surface of interaction – these are still distinct. They are no Orientalist/Occidentalist contrasts but the strangeness of international travel is still strange. And I belong more and less from moment to moment. Right now, more. Except when the power goes out at 4am.

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