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.
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.