When I was twelve, my parents decided to leave Pakistan and move our family to Abu Dhabi. My heart, I thought, would never recover. But I needn’t have worried. The country came with me: it moved in, set up home, breathing inside me a stream of remembrances that, for twenty-eight years, have inflected the most minute details of my present life. No matter where I’ve lived since – Dubai, Dallas, Minneapolis, Jeddah or New York – fragments from those years merge and dissolve into the now so that walking down a street, or waiting underground for the subway to screech to a halt, I often feel as if I’ve accidentally slipped inside a video installation layered with disjunctive sound and imagery. The sounds are family lore, stories I’ve heard so many times that I can’t free my memory from their telling, nor can I simply live in a present that isn’t sieved through their mythology.
Pakistan is a nation of memory keepers. We feed our memories as if they are guests at tea, pay homage to them. Past and present skim close, brushing arms like almost-lovers strolling in a desert park. There is one memory that shoots through the aperture, into the present, with particular ferocity.
1971: Mother, Father, Ayah and I are driving to the Kohat Military Hospital. I have an ear infection, am burning up with a fever. From high above, somewhere in the darkening sky, East Pakistan is about to bomb us – the country is at war with itself. We live in Lahore but have driven north across the plains, through arid tribal terrain, to my father’s ancestral village, Babri Banda, in the Northwest Frontier. My great-aunt has died. Because my grandfather is in London, where he is serving as High Commissioner, and my uncles and aunts are visiting him and my grandmother there, as the eldest son, and the only one present in Pakistan, it falls on my father to represent his family at the funeral. Despite the danger of air raids, ritual demands that we make the journey from Lahore. Over the few days we spend in Babri Banda, amidst the wailing, keening, chest-thumping sorrow of the village relatives, I provide delightful distraction to the mourners who pull me out of Mother’s or Ayah’s arms to pet, kiss and rock me. My mother, squeamish about germs, is convinced I’ve been infected by a villager who kissed me on the ear.
In the Frontier, it is customary to remain indoors after sunset – kidnappers and robbers are everywhere – as it is lawless country, outside the government’s jurisprudence. But I am listless and dehydrated and when my fever spikes, we have no choice but to drive out of the high mud-walled family compound at dusk to the hospital. Fifteen minutes into our drive, a somber wailing dissects the stark landscape. Warning gunshots follow. My father pulls up along a dirt path, flings open the passenger doors and drags Mother and Ayah into the adjacent field. My mother is carrying me in her arms. She hesitates, looking this way and that way into the empty distance, before jumping into the dugout.
We crouch in the dark. There is sticky blood on my cheek, my ear is oozing. The inside of my mouth, my throat, are choked with sand. The dizzying wails of the siren hem us tighter into the trench. The sound is high and deep all at the same time. There are leaves in my mother’s hair, twigs caught in her chador, the end of which she’s balled and stuffed into her sobbing mouth. My father is distracted and stoic, chanting shush, shush, shush through the warning. I can hardly breathe. The alarm pierces the humming in my ear, drives the fever so that it soars, vulture-like and wild.
All I want is to look into my mother’s eyes. At rest they are luminous-green, startling in their stillness. Sometimes, her eyes bloom with purple flowers or glaze to rock-gray flecked with molten specks of bronze, taking their cue from shadows and surrounding hues – from the colour of her sari, from the clanking metal gate at home, the foliage of the almond tree in our garden. I want to look into her changeable eyes and understand. But my face is pressed into her clavicle. There is only darkness. The siren’s wailing is as inconsolable.
My father plucks me from my mother, fumbles me into Ayah’s arms, folds my mother into his chest. I recall the sensation of heat, despite the fact that it was winter, possibly from nearby bushes that caught fire, or piles of burning refuse, or the fever – the source is unclear. There is a precise moment when heat and pain crescendo and even the familiar haven of Ayah’s bosom is a menace. Lit by a flame, I melt out of my skin, and fly away in the dust-speckled sky, first along with the siren and then high above the wailing, circling and circling until it fades. It’s the first time I discover a way out of my body and become conscious on two planes. Borne aloft on invisible wings, I slip out of the trench into the smoke-filled air and peer down at our crouching bodies. The sensation lingers until a tiny aperture opens into the silence. A flautist’s notes trickle in. Like faint oxygen they float down into the mud-filled dark. With my whole body I absorb the melody until fear, bitter as loam, dissipates. The reed swarms the trench with sweetness, lures me back into my skin, tunnels us into light and air.
This memory plays constantly, a frangent layer of film that dissolves and disperses into daily life. Fuelled by a will of its own it streams internally. Anywhere. Everywhere. Times when everything has felt new and unfamiliar – the pain of birthing, a beloved’s betrayal – my mind returns to that moment when the world stopped underground. In that trench, in 1971, my eardrum burst. Pakistan lost its eastern wing and new borders defined the nation. A new country – Bangladesh – came into being. It was an unwitting birth – an accidental, even if inevitable, creation – just as it is unclear whether ‘divine intervention’ played a role in rescuing me.
I suspect that incident, its retelling over the years, and my own subconscious recreation of it, have had something to do with making me who I am. I walk into rooms and my eyes dart to the corners where shadows pool. I seek out their concealed exits, a dark trapdoor or window, out of which to fling my head for mouthfuls of fresh air. A part of me is always rooted in that elsewhere below ground, simultaneously hovering above, looking down. Rare is the person or circumstance in whose presence stillness comes. Most times I skip between land/trench, here/there, past/present.
There’s nothing singular about this restlessness, the sense of needing to map out escape routes, real and metaphorical. It’s a shared Pakistani phenomenon, so deeply ingrained that we are hardly cognizant of it. Only by living away from Pakistan for many years, while still remaining oriented towards it, have I become aware of it. We are a nation that has foiled, even if just barely, one calamity after another, contorting our way out of military dictatorships and bungled democracies, warding off tidal waves with prayers to a Sufi saint. We manage to uphold the dream of a nation state that seems increasingly fragile. At any given moment, this is what it feels to be Pakistani: split, always seeking, a missing thing; often trapped in the gesture of looking back; of brushing against a past whose paint hasn’t quite dried on the canvas for the present is perpetually being recreated.
That moment in the trench when my father extricated me from my mother’s arms is visceral. I was too young to remember it but in the retelling and mythologizing, the memory has become muscular. In the act of being plucked from my mother, I lost a language I hadn’t learned yet and gained a sensibility that is Pakistani.
This singular memory is the core around which I’ve come to orient myself, circumambulating it still, despite the passage of time and regardless of place. It thrusts into my days, dappling and splicing them, in a macabre ceremony of remembrance, of a place that is always elsewhere, whose heart is that excruciating space below ground where the most exquisite music trickles in, informing virtually every moment of my present.
Photograph by manalahmadkhan