Houses

I

I am sitting at the table with the adults. My brother has been put to sleep but he is one and I am almost four so I get to stay up late. But then again, I have always been a bit of a night-owl. My mother sometimes tells me how, even as a little baby, I would often stay up late, occasionally until everyone else in the house had gone to bed.

I do not quite remember which house this memory is from. It doesn’t really feel like it belongs to the two-storey house we had in Southampton which initially came with the glaring red wallpaper with huge, spiky black, palm tree silhouettes along a wall in the drawing room that had scared me so much that I refused to enter the house until something was done about it. We spent our first day in that house dressed in old clothes, painting over the horrid wall with big buckets of white paint and rollers. Even I had helped with that.

No, this memory certainly does not belong in that house.

It is probably from the house we had on Nether Street, which was the last house we lived in before leaving England, and the largest, and the most inhabited. I hardly ever remember there being a time where there were just the four of us in that house; there were always guests and relatives and family friends visiting us and staying over.

Wherever I am, the adults are deep in conversation. I have always been an inquisitive child but I have not yet learnt when it is and isn’t appropriate to interrupt a conversation to ask what it is about. Something about the expressions on the faces of my parents and grandparents, however, keeps me from bothering them with my usual volley of questions.

“It feels like there is a cherry pit right here,” I hear my grandmother say. She places a hand on her side.

My father leaves his chair and kneels beside his mother. Then, with his doctor’s hands, the way he does when someone tells him they’re hurting somewhere, he probes her side.

“I feel it,” he says.

There is a collective intake of breath from the adults.

Soon, my grandfather will go back to Karachi but my grandmother will live with us for a while. My parents will tell me that she is sick but she will walk all the way to my preschool sometimes to pick me up because my parents are at work. She will be sick but she will push my stroller down the streets. Sometimes we will stop underneath the tree that little, round, red things grow from and she will reach up and pick some for me and I’ll toss them on the road one by one, just in time to be squished by a passing car.

II

It is hot and sticky and there are mosquitoes everywhere. They’re huge but smaller than the ones we had the misfortune of being bitten by in Istanbul, where we spent a week exploring en route to here – to Karachi. Those mosquitoes gave me bites that had swollen so much I could circle my thumb and forefinger around them.

My parents, my brother and I are all living in what had once been my father’s old room in my grandparents’ house. The room isn’t very big but we’re managing. My parents sleep on the double bed with the polished, white headboard. My brother sleeps in his cot which is positioned strategically right next to the side of the big bed on which my mother sleeps. I have my own bed because I am almost five. It’s one of the folding beds we found in the storage room with a foam mattress placed on top of it to make it more comfortable.

I like this arrangement. I like this house; it is the house I have spent my summers in, playing with the cousins who have not yet decided they are too old to play. Although I know recall my childhood in England fondly, I have been told I was never as happy there as I was surrounded by family in my grandparents’ house.

The room next to my father’s old room is the room that belongs to my grandparents. It is almost square but with a separate dressing area attached to the side, just before the bathroom. My grandmother’s large dressing table sits here. Sometimes I sneak into the room and open the caps of the many bottles of perfume that line dressing table and smell the fragrances. A white, plastic head also sits on this table, wearing my grandmother’s hair. When my grandmother’s shiny, black, ankle-length hair started falling out, she had it spun into a wig with an elaborate bun. The white head usually wears the hair but for special occasions and fancy parties, the hair goes back to my grandmother.

My mother tells me that we will not be living in my grandparents’ house forever. It is gradually becoming less fun to have the four of us living in one room, especially because my brother is still a baby and still cries at night.

My grandfather once bought two plots of land next to his house and had an identical house built in each, one for each of his two daughters. Since, at this point, neither of my aunts is living in Karachi, we will move into one of the two houses as soon the finishing touches have been made.

The marble floor of our new house will be so shiny, so smooth, and so new that I will be able to propel myself forwards by pushing myself with one foot and balancing myself on the other, gliding across the room like a jerky skater.  Everything will smell like polish and varnish.

We will move into the house closer to my grandparents’ house in early 1998, almost six months after leaving England.

III

It is September ’98 and we have been living in this house for almost six months now. The bedrooms have been carpeted and my brother and I have our own beds now with Disney characters painted on them. All my toys that had been travelling to Karachi from England along with a lot of our other things on a huge ship finally arrived some time after we had moved. The house was littered with cartons and cardboard boxes for a while.

It is September and I come home from school one day to find that my mother’s brother is visiting from Abu Dhabi. Among the gifts he brings for me is a green and red compass with a sharp metal nib. He is showing me how to properly use it to make sure it doesn’t slip off the paper while drawing circles when my mother walks into the room and says that we have to quickly go over to my grandparents’ house next door.

There are a lot of people in my grandparents’ room, sitting around the large bed my grandmother is lying on. She is asleep. My mother tells me that my grandmother has passed away. She tells me this is a good thing because my grandmother was in a lot of pain and now she isn’t in any pain anymore. I can only vaguely understand but I clearly remember how my  my brother and I had had to press cold, wet cloths to my grandmother’s forehead and arms and legs only a few nights before.

My elder aunt, who is living in Islamabad at that time, arrives with my cousins within hours. My younger aunt calls from Dubai and informs my father that she cannot get a flight for that day but will be flying to Karachi first thing next day and can the burial wait until she gets there?

All the furniture is taken out of the third bedroom of my grandparents’ house with the pink decorations and ceiling fan that barely does anything. Huge slabs of ice arrive from somewhere and are stacked all around the room and the air conditioner is turned on. My family places my grandmother on a bed amid the blocks of ice. The doors and windows of the room are sealed shut. Someone tells me this is the only way my aunt will get to see her mother one last time before the burial.

My aunt arrives in a flurry of sobs and tears. People, who seem to be everywhere, gather around her but she makes her way to the cold room and shuts herself in for a while. When she is done, the cold room is opened up. Someone helps wrap my grandmother in a shroud of pure, white cloth. Then she is carried away by the men, who will be going to the graveyard. My mother says I’m too young to go. I cling to one of my older cousins who is crying softly as the last of the men take my grandmother away.

A few days later my elder aunt returns to Islamabad. Not very long afterwards, she will return with her family and move into the other house next door. My younger aunt returns to Dubai and, aside from visiting every now and then, will not move back for another nine years. We continue to live in the house meant for her until 2005.

IV

It is 2004 and we are standing on what used to be the roof of my grandparents’ house and what will soon become the floor for the second storey we are having built. Right now it is a skeleton of brick and stone and metal and concrete.

“And here, in these windows, we’ll have stained glass. And over there we should get terracotta tiles for the patio,” says my father, pointing in the appropriate directions.

My grandfather is aging. He is still the most active old man I have ever seen, always hurrying about doing chores and refusing to let anyone do anything for him. Although we live right next door, he has been alone ever since my grandmother passed away. Right next door is still too far away to come rushing if he has a fall again – he has fallen a couple of times already – so we are moving into his house. Plus, my younger aunt has been hinting at wanting to renovate the house we spent a decade in and maybe move back to Karachi.

Like all men, my grandfather is not particularly keen about big, sudden changes. It is for this reason that my parents have decided that a separate semi-independent level must be added to my grandparents’ house so that my grandfather can still have the space he has now become used to.

It will take a few more months for the new storey to be ready. The move will be a slow, relaxed one. We will only move the large, essential furniture initially and then spend almost two weeks walking back to my aunt’s house and returning with clothes hangers and glass ornaments. I will get my very own room and the opportunity to pick out floor tiles for my very own bathroom. My bed with the Disney characters painted on it will finally get a new paint-job although I will be able to see the faint outline of Aladdin’s Carpet showing through the silvery-grey. I will have my have my thirteenth birthday in this house, and my eighteenth. When I finally get a close-knit group of friends I’d like to have over for more than just birthday parties and group projects, my house will become a place where we hang out frequently. My grandfather had always intended to leave this house to my father. One day he will decide that the transfer will probably be easier while he is alive and so he will make some arrangements and the house will suddenly become my father’s. It is in the study of this house that I will spend hours looking at the websites of various colleges all over the world, and even more hours typing out flowery essays for them. It is this house that I will leave when I leave the country and, when I return one winter, I will forget to come downstairs for dinner one day and my mother – who is very particular about everyone being present at the table for meals – will softly warn me, “You need to be careful about these things. You don’t live here anymore.”

Senioritis

3:00 AM. Again.
Bed warm, world cold
Laptop too far away
Blank doc. Cursor.
Blinkblinkblink
You had weeks
To work on
Another hastily written paper
At the bottom of the box
By the professor’s door
Sort through ones with better grades
To get to it
“I know you’re capable of much better than this,
if only you applied yourself more”
Applyapplyapply
Did you know
She applies to a job a day?
How much money did you say
He was being offered?
“I’m sorry but we do not sponsor
visas, thank you for your interest”
“At least three years of work experience required”
Who will hire you anyway?
Worthless piece of shit
Nononono
Be kind to yourself
Work-ethic, ha!
Grad-school; money doesn’t grow on trees
Have you seen your GPA?
“You still have no idea
what you want to do?”
World-saving delusions of grandeur
“Will you go home?”
Home, what is home
Where is home
Internationalism, multiculturalism
Third culture kid who
should have done laundry last week
No groceries in the fridge
Rent due soon; is there money in the bank?
How do people do this?
Friends make it better
but they are asleep
or also cracking
New friends! So many
cool people to meet but
leaving so soon
“Are you excited to leave?”
Yes, no, maybe
School is all I’ve ever known
The eye-rolls from seniors
make sense now
from back when we were first-years
Too happy – do they know?
One day
Paper, sleep, graduation
Lab report, job apps, graduation
Don’t even know
where I’m going to be
next year
Time is running out
Time. 3:25 AM. Again.
Fitful sleep.
Alarm.
Time for class.

You Do Not Matter

We’ve started calling it the Friday Night Feeling. It’s the feeling you get when you go to a party, have a nice enough time, and then go to bed wondering if you being there had mattered at all to the people there, if the inane conversations you had would have been any different had you been swapped with someone else, if someone would have had less of a good time had you not been there. You go to bed wondering if you matter.

*

It’s been a month since high school started and you have not really spoken a word. You’ve found a group of people who let you hang around them and are grateful that they don’t pressure you into saying anything. We are standing in a circle and you are listening to the others having a deep conversation about something inconsequential. In a lull in the talk, you mumble a relevant personal anecdote but stop short of finishing it when is obvious that nobody is listening. The girl standing next to you looks at you and asks, “What happened next?” You are startled and find your tongue cemented to the roof of your mouth for a moment. You had not expected anyone to be paying attention to you. You do not matter. You are wholly unprepared for this. You finally find your words and finish your story. She does not know that she has saved you.

*

You are ten – maybe eleven – when you come across the word ‘suicide’. As you are trained to do, you rush over to the dictionary to find out what it means. You find the concept fascinating. Death has always fascinated you. And funerals. You shut the giant dictionary and conclude that suicide would be an impractical means to find the answer you want. You won’t be able to count how many people attend your funeral, how many people you mattered to enough to take a few hours out of their evenings for your sake, if you are dead.

*

College parties are the first time you experience loneliness in a room full of people. Everyone else seems to be in a world that you are not part of. Sometimes you break through for a while, and maybe even have some fun, until someone staggers up to you and asks you if you are judging them. No matter what you say, the barriers return and you go back to your corner of the room. You are invisible again. You do not matter.

*

You are weeks away from flying back home. You wake up to some messages in your inbox. You smile. It is going to be a good day. Your smile falters when you read the messages. Each is from someone you haven’t had a proper conversation with since the last time you were home. You do not hold this against them. Each message, however, is asking for your shipping address and asking whether or not I can bring things home. These are the first words your friends have exchanged with you in months. Things matter. Your suitcase matters. You, however, do not.

*

Over the years you have discovered what gives you a high. Helping people out and listening to their troubles makes you feel great. Most people only confide in you once or twice. Some keep coming back to you. They need you. You matter. Soon, however, things turn sour. They do not exchange pleasantries with you, ask you if you’re okay. Instead, they show up, unload their baggage – emotional or otherwise – on your shoulders and leave. You are a polite trash can, or maybe just a giant ear. You do not matter. 

*

You click on one of the Facebook friends you feel closer to and scroll through past chats you have had with them. You keep a tally of who initiated each conversation and find that it was you the previous ten times. You conclude that you are desperate to talk to them and that they do not care. You cut off contact for a week and wonder if they’ll notice. 

*

You care too much about everyone, the girl sitting under the tree, the guy with the great hair. One good conversation with someone and you are ready to cut out pieces of yourself and hand them over if they would be more useful to them than they are to you. These people, however, obviously do not feel the same way. You are, at most, an extra in their stories.   

*

You fight back tears when someone quotes you word for word from a conversation you had with them long ago. You did not realise they were actually listening. You had not expected them to be listening. Maybe, just maybe, you do matter. 

 

December

The sputtering of the old motorcycle with the broken silencer became louder, stagnated and then died abruptly. Everyone waiting in the dimly lit, dusty room gathered themselves, their eyes darting to the door as the rusted latch squeaked open.

The door opened and cold December sunlight streamed into the room. Akbar entered with a bundle in his arms and an unreadable expression on his face. Jamila stood and walked up to her husband, taking the swaddled baby from him. She looked up at him but he did not meet her gaze. He simply gave his head a small shake and looked away. Jamila’s lip quivered but she moved closer to him.

Akbar reached into the front pocket of his kurta, took out a folded piece of paper and handed it to his wife. With her free hand, Jamila shook it open and held it to the light. Words had been scribbled on it in a hasty, haphazard scrawl she could not make out. She knew that even if she had been able to read the angular left-to-right script, the long words would not have made any sense to her. She wasn’t interested in the words. Her eyes scanned the paper, quickly locating the number printed near the bottom of the prescription. She stared at it for a while and then looked at her child and then at Akbar who shook his head again.

The room became dimmer still as a large cloud slid in front of the sun. Jamila and Akbar continued to gaze wordlessly at each other, communicating solely through their blank eyes, until finally Jamila nodded – once – and then hung her head. Akbar wrapped an arm around her, firmly gripping her shoulder, and steered her into the only other room in the house.

A hush fell on the other children in the room. Even those too young to understand had stopped fidgeting and rolling on the concrete floor.

Remembering Dadi

I remember watching her pray when I was a little girl. I can still picture the scene perfectly, my grandmother unfolding and spreading on the floor the ja’namaz my uncle had brought for her from Saudi Arabia, its blue velvety cloth worn to a thin grey in the places where she planted her feet when she stood and where she rested her knees and palms and forehead when she prostrated. She would surface from her last, long prostration and turn instinctively to look at me with brown peaceful eyes, her smile accentuating the spidery traces the decades had left on her face. Sometimes she would laugh her rich, songbird laugh and reach over to help disentangle me from a dupatta I had attempted to wrap around my head in impersonation of her.

I was ten when my grandfather died. It hadn’t been a surprise to anyone; he had been battling a growing number of illnesses during his last few years. My grandfather died with his family gathered around his bed and his right hand held in the hand of the woman he had spent nearly half a century with. When his fingers finally went limp, my grandmother gave them one last squeeze, straightened and, with a back as erect as it had ever been, went to make arrangements for the funeral. Nothing had betrayed her grief that day except that when I had crept into her bed that night, her pillow had been damp against my cheek and she had held me tighter than ever before.

When I was seventeen, it was my grandmother who encouraged me to apply to an American college. The other family elders had not been too keen about sending a teenaged Pakistani girl across distances only measurable in time zones and long-distance phone calls. My grandmother, however, had stuck by my side throughout. She would softly relate the story of her own youth, when her father had insisted that she go to university at a time when it was quite unheard of for a Muslim woman to be educated beyond tenth grade. “Progress is only made when risks are taken and new things are tried,” she would quote her father. But not everyone would be swayed by her logic. When that happened she would use religion to attack her opponents. She would stare them down and subject them to a lecture on the importance our Prophet had placed on seeking knowledge.

She would write me letters and I would read them at my desk in the dorm room that overlooked the New England countryside. In autumn, I would press crimson leaves and fold them into the letters I sent her. In the summer, her letters would give off the smell of mangoes that permeates into everything in Karachi. She would write to me in her beautifully penned Urdu and I would write back in mine, misshapen, hesitant and underused. She wrote to me her stories, her secrets, until I was sure she had shared more about herself with me than she had with anyone else in the family. The last letter I ever got from her arrived a week before the day of my graduation. Her last letter – and I will never forget this – ended with, “My dear child, if only you had any idea of how often I see glimpses of myself in everything you do.”

Bugsplat

The room was bathed in dirty, yellow light. The dim light bulb directly above him flickered and emitted a buzz that could be heard over the hums and beeps of the many grey, boxy machines that stood around him. The room had no windows and lacked a proper ventilation system. The only door stood a few feet behind him but, despite the stuffiness, he was not authorised to open it until his shift was over.

Brandon glanced at his watch. There was a little over an hour left. He also stole a glance at the bouquet of lilies that lay on his desk. He had made a reservation at Eastern Flame for later than night where he and his girlfriend would finally get to try the Peking duck everyone had been raving about lately.

No, he told himself, stopping his train of thought in its tracks. He readjusted his headphones. The senior sensor operator had warned his subordinates of the dangers of letting one’s work mix with their daily life. A barrier had to be maintained between the two at all times and any breaches could have dire consequences. Everyone had heard about Roger Gray and how distant and aloof he had become to his children, unable to make the daily transition between being a soccer dad and a drone pilot.

Brandon took a deep breath and returned his attention to the screen in front of him. He was hovering thousands of feet above a rocky valley nestled between the jagged, barren peaks of Western Waziristan. The colours on his screen were the feverish hues of infrared. An hour ago he had positioned the crosshairs on his screen towards the centre of a mud hut that throbbed a bright orange. Now all he had to do was watch. And wait.

The waiting was the worst part for him. With no other orders, he was always left to wonder what he was supposed to be watching out for. He focused on the mud hut, trying not to imagine the look on Julia’s face when he surprised her with the flowers and told her to dress fancy because they were going out, trying not to think about the sweet, crispy duck wraps that were waiting for him. No.

His headphones crackled to life. “Operator Bryant,” a gruff voice said to him. “This strike has been authorised. You have orders to fire at will.” And then there was silence again – and the humming.

Brandon flicked open the safety latch on the red button and pressed it in one fluid motion. The console screen started displaying a sixteen second countdown sequence.

Eleven. He wondered if those he was going to vaporise that evening would be leaving any family behind.

Seven. What would he do if a loved one was blown to bits?

Three. There was an orange-green blob moving towards the mud hut. It looked like –

The screen went yellow.

The other man in the room got off his console and thumped him on the shoulder.

Brandon drove to Julia’s apartment in a daze. He was glassy-eyed when he gave her the lilies and barely heard anything she said to him during the drive to the restaurant. He had been staring at the wontons floating like pickled foetuses in his soup when Julia asked him if something was wrong. He shook his head. No. He didn’t understand. He’d taken lives before, more lives than he could count, especially because he was doing so from so far away. Why, then, did he feel so sick?

“Brandon?” Julia asked, concern in her voice.

Brandon looked up but could only see the infrared screen that showed the hut reduced to rubble. A smudge, now green, was smeared on the ground nearby. The bugsplat, as it was called, was too small to belong to a grown man.

Domes

2014

His red-eyed mother did not make to stop him. “Be back before nine,” she said to him as he walked past the three bloated suitcases and two trolley-bags lining the corridor to the door. “Your uncle will pick us up at ten.” He nodded without looking at her, unbolted the door and headed out into the evening.

The overcast sky glowed orange from the thousands of streetlights burning under it. The pre-monsoon air stirred with sluggish humidity, buzzed with honks and horns and sirens and the chitter-chatter of rickshaws, and broiled in the September smells of exhaust fumes and steaming rubbish and chicken tikkas and shit that made their way to him through the a/c vent of his Civic. He drove past brightly lit shops selling motorbike silencers and paan, chai and fruit, cigarettes, samosas and wicker furniture, past large billboards advertising Lux soap, GulAhmed linens, Italian kitchen interiors and McDonald’s, past crippled beggars leaning on canes, heroin addicts in piles of rags and sauntering hijras. The street suddenly plunged into darkness, all illumination punctuated by load-shedding.

The Badshahi masjid remained unaffected by the sudden change, its tombstone white domes lit by tastefully-placed spotlights. His father had gone to those domes one day and returned riddled with bullets.

1914

His red-eyed mother did not make to stop him. She sat folding her elaborate embroidered saris, tucking jewellery away into the silken folds, and placing them into a large wooden box. When the box was full it would join the others waiting by the door. His wife sat close by, fingering the khaddar loom that would have to be left behind. “Don’t venture too far,” said his mother. “Your uncle should be here soon with the carriage.” He nodded and headed out.

The broad metalled street half a kilometre away from his house lacked its usual midday hustle-bustle; there were no fruitwallas pushing carts laden with apples and grapes, no hawkers shouting lists of items they bought or sold, no bright-eyed children weaving their way between the adults, laughing and occasionally picking pockets. The few stragglers went about their business, not inclined towards conversation. Sullen grey clouds pressed an unsettling silence onto the city. The crescented green flags of the Muslim League hung here and there, interspersed by a smattering of white-green-saffron Congress flags, both united in their limp listlessness. He made eye-contact with a man walking towards him. Vermillion marked the stranger’s forehead. They exchanged small, silent nods as they passed each other.

The marble domes of the Badshahi masjid to the North gleamed white against the pregnant sky. He stopped and stared at the domes under which men would be offering funeral prayers for those who the firangis had sent to other lands to fight, who had not returned and would not return, who had fathered and left behind sons like him.

1814

His red-eyed mother did not make to stop him. “Do not stay away too late,” she said as he headed to the door. “Your uncle said we should leave after sunset.” Their belongings stood by the door, bundled in blankets or stowed away in his mother’s large teak dowry chest. He nodded once and turned back just in time to see his wife pause her task of pressing his mother’s legs, look up and watch him leave.

The donkey fidgeted outside their house, keeping flies at bay with its ears and tail. It nosed the earth, struggling against its bolted creaking cart as it strained to reach a patch of brown grass. It paid him no heed as he walked past it, turning into a narrow dust-caked street.

The beard, bushy and reminiscent of his own, was the first thing he noticed about the stranger walking towards him on the opposite side of the street. He opened his mouth to wish the man peace before he noticed the stranger’s turban and averted his gaze. The men crossed without a word.

A breeze blew in from the North, where the Badshahi masjid stood. It was warm and heavy with the stench of horseshit and the Sikhs who had butchered his father.