Snowy says, be here now

This morning, I was contemplating the state of the world, and then as I sat down, Snowy jumped into my arms. He wiggled and wiggled until he fit just right against my body, and then, knowing that my arms would be there to support him, lay back against them with perfect trust and reliance, his little paw against my chest. And stared at me, blinking softly, challenging me to be here, right now, rubbing his soft belly, feeling a little sigh whistle through his nostrils, watching his ears wiggle as I sang to him.

And he taught me again, that this – right here – is enough.


Postcolonial liberal feminism

While teaching Brick Lane, I’ve been thinking about the iterations of feminism, and how feminism is interpreted and gate-kept.

Growing up in Pakistan, I used to see feminism as only capable of being liberal, individualistic, anti-collective, White/Western-dominant, and bound to the imperialist project.

Even now, listening in on many of the Pakistani conversations on women and feminism, I find a great need to see feminism detached from classism, elitism, Anglophile culture, and secular-Islamophobic dominance.

But the trouble with elite saviors is, everything they (we?) touch turns to crap. So the process of education (‘enlightenment!’) is one of alienation, separation, detachment from grassroots realities. The same is true for feminism when liberal secular elites ‘teach’ the postcolonial ‘masses.’ When elites demand that postcolonial masses adopt feminism, they imagine upper to middle class lives in upper-middle class homes, supported by poor and working class men and women. There is no solidarity, except a class-gendered solidarity.

Liberal individualism is in all our stuff, all our words, and all our ideas, and splits us from everything life-giving.


The magical act of teaching

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse (1886)

Teaching a class session is like preparing a staged performance, except the performance is a magical one, and includes the audience.

You have to write the play. You have to prepare the stage. The play must be rehearsed so it hits the right notes. All the players must be ready with their lines, hydrated, inspired. The orchestra must be ready. The stage hands must be alert and vigilant. Perfect tones of music must play in the background, unseen. All the props must be in place. The audience must be comfortable. They must be ready with just enough information to participate in the intellectual, emotional, auditory, visual, aesthetic experience.

And the day of the performance, all these things must come together for a crescendo of perfection.

Imagine that.

This is what weighs upon my heart and mind as a professor every semester, every day, every teaching day. I yearn for perfection in my preparation.

Yet there is always much in the play that is unpredictable chemistry, pure magic, pure audience-creator interplay, a magic spell that cannot be replicated, an epiphany never repeated, a powerful event that happens in spite of me, no matter what I imagine and no matter what I predict, far beyond my abilities, and in the world of the unseen.



Auntie Shaista died this week.

I first met Auntie Shaista when I was six years old. We had newly arrived from Britain, and I was learning Urdu.

My cousins made fun of my attempts to sing in English-accented Punjabi. Mein kerre passe javan, main manji kitthe dhawan, a song from a then newly released Punjabi movie about a homeless man who just wanted to put his charpoy down somewhere, but no one would let him live in peace in the city.

We moved into our first home in 1974, a small dumpy house in a down-home neighborhood in a humble part of Gulberg 3, Lahore, the Guru Mangat area, near the old 7-Up factory.

Then we met our new neighbors. They were, amazingly enough, also newly returned from England. Husband, wife, and two little girls, about the ages of my sister and I. We became good friends.

When auntie Shaista first heard my abbu’s voice – abbu had a loud voice – she was struck. Who is that? He sounds very familiar. He sounds just like Sakina apa’s son – our relative – a little boy I used to play with when I was a child.

Yes, indeed.

I miss living in a small country, where my people, my family, my blood, ties run criss-crossing all over the place, turning up messily in unexpected places. We have huge kinship networks, and we maintain them with care – blood relatives and relatives by marriage, close and distant relatives on all sides. So it’s not all that strange when our brand new neighbors just happen to be our distant relatives.

And they become like our very own family.

Auntie Shaista became my mother’s best friend. When her husband passed on, about twenty years ago, my parents (and then my brother and his wife and their children) adopted her as a family member, my doctor father and my doctor brother and then my doctor sister-in-law caring for her health and anything she might need. She was a proud woman, rarely asked for help, and always brought extravagantly generous gifts despite her fixed income.

Auntie Shaista got pneumonia this past week, and deteriorated suddenly. She was on a ventilator for a very short time, so there was not enough time for her daughters to travel from the US to see her. Even as they were planning travel, she died suddenly. I feel like I’m living in a dream. I am suddenly back in 1974, in our small brown house with the white scroll railings, in the busy neighborhood where people brought sweet rice on Giarhween Shareef, and greeted us in the street. Nabilah, the film actress, lived across from us. I was 6, my sister was 10. And we used to wait with a few coins – 25 paisas, 50 paisas, what a fortune back then – for the dry fruit seller to clatter by, calling about peanuts, candied dry fruits, pine-nuts, and roasted chickpeas. Or we might run over to the tandoor to grab some fresh baked rotis. And we’d wait for the bus in the morning in the dewy grass and catch sight of the ‘rich’ girl, the colonel’s daughter, with the German shepherd. And there was a graveyard on the next block.

Auntie Shaista is now buried in that graveyard, along with her husband. Her daughters hope to visit her grave one day.

Here in Evanston, I do not bump into anyone I know. Even my Chicagoland friends are in Hyde Park and Orland Park. Most are new friends, from the past 5 years or so, a few from longer, but mostly long-distance. I don’t know people in our street. Our Caribbean and Latino neighbors say hi, but we don’t know each other. Their kids attend the same schools, but we haven’t been here long enough to visit, and I think we seem like strange professorial outsiders to them.

We see people at the library and grocery store, but we don’t see the same ones again and again. There are so many people. And people don’t just talk to you in the street. Sometimes I say nice dog! or How are you doing today? and they ignore me because it’s weird.

We would talk to auntie Shaista and her daughters over the wall. We would talk from our tiny driveway and they would chat from their balcony. And it wasn’t hard or weird. It didn’t feel like living on an island. I feel like I have chosen to live in a bubble, where I get clean water and lots of watery, genetically modified cheap fruit through a prison cell door.

It is a good cell. I should be happy.