14 August, 2010
Today you are 63 years old, just two years older than my father. You are young, as far as countries go, while my father is getting old, as far as humans do. Despite your few years, your history is long, and I am connected, by an invisible string wedged deep in my chest through your story.
I can trace back 29 generations to a great-grandfather, who was the disciple of the Sufi saint Data Ganj Baksh in the 11th century; who is the reason my family are the caretakers of the shrine in Lahore. Together, they worked towards social justice; saw their religion as a call to service; lived their spirituality daily to help those in need. If one needs proof that their legacy lives on, they only need visit the shrine in Data Darbar any minute of any day of any month of any year, where there is a warm meal waiting for anyone who might need one, no questions asked. Their legacy changed Lahore, changed us as a people.
I can trace back to the time when my grandfather, just a schoolboy in all his limerence, chased an itinerant schoolmate into her Afghani homeland, only to be apprehended at the border and accused of being a spy. The sentence for his supposed crime: death by cannon fire. He was rescued, miraculously and mysteriously by a well-connected teach of his, much to the consolation of my great-grandmother, who by this time was beside herself with anticipatory grief. There was a great celebration in his honor when he returned to Lahore, at which he took note of a young woman. “She,” he turned to my great-grandmother, “is the woman I must marry.” She, my grandmother.
My grandmother, whose house in Darbar calls to me on late summer nights, when the smell of lingering Brooklyn barbecue flames waft into my open window, convincing me, when I close my eyes, that I am climbing up to the roof in darkness, to be received by the pigeon coops that pervade the Darbar skyline. I recall the feeling of extending my arms in the summer monsoon, the smell of dust settling back into the ground from the force of the drops, my wet footprints in the dust as I reenter the house. I can smell and feel and taste the sticky mango heart as I sit on the floor of my parents’ room with my father, eating with my bare hands. I am five years old, and I want to live in this memory forever. My mother chiding me for the juice dripping all the way down the lengths of my arms, “You just took a bath, Saadia!” she says, annoyed, but not without love. I am laughing, dismissive of my mother’s words, belonging only to the mango. Thank you, Pakistan, for your mangoes.
They are the best mangoes in all the world, and everyone knows it. How I miss them in the years that pass; me, in Brooklyn, finding myself occasionally drawn to a pile of bloated, peaked things, squeezing them gently, bringing them up to my nose, discouraged, but in my longing taking one home, only to discover it is unsweet and full of strings. I put it in my compost, thinking of how little waste there is in eating a Pakistani mango.
I think, tonight, of how you look on your birthday, how all the buildings on Mall Road will be strung up with garlands of lights, illuminated.
I remember the summer of 2004, my first trip to Lahore all alone, riding on the back of a cousin’s (or second-cousin, or third-, but all the same) motorbike. My dupatta tangling around my arms in the hot night; how I had to wrap it around myself, how scared I was it would catch in the wheel. It was the night before your birthday, and the lights were already lit; I was wearing green to celebrate and as I looked out on all the buildings I knew, in that moment, how much I would miss you when I left the following week.
I miss you every day, really, and thinking about the layers of dust settling upon everything in our house, the shape my footsteps will make when I finally return, the second floor windows that have long since been boarded up, and the glorious roof overlooking the marble of Data Pir, my heart contracts.
And then again when I think of how, if I had been on that roof on that night in July, how I would have seen the sparks, the flames, would have seen the marble stained. Would have seen the dead. Would have felt the heat and the tears and the fear. I shed my tears in Brooklyn, felt my pain in Brooklyn, said my prayers in Brooklyn, and hurt for each mile in between.
And then again when I think of the flood. The loss — the unimaginable loss. Loss of homes, loss of lives, loss of land and stability, loss of crops and of livelihood. I think of the way disease is spreading in the water, think of how little there is left to eat, think of how little is left with which to start again. And what is to be done?
These are times I cannot reconcile myself with. These are times I look to the universe, to God, and ask: why? Because it is unimaginable and I am not there. I am safe in bed in Brooklyn, and it is only a matter of luck, a matter of chance, that it is me who is here. I do not deserve this ease, I have done nothing to earn it. I simply have the privilege of two homes, the privilege of mobility, the privilege of location. I am not favored in this universe, and I accept that, humbly. I would thank the universe, but it is not a matter of thanks — I have not been chosen, simply born. Instead, I appreciate. I appreciate with every cell in my being, and try to never take any of it for granted. And I try. I try, in whatever way I can, to do good. To be not only for myself, but for others.
I thank you, Pakistan, for all you have given me, for the perspective you have offered me, for making me a conscientious being in this world, for allowing me to understanding that we — all of us — share pain, and suffering, and loss. But that we also share joy. I hold you, and this knowledge, near me at every moment.