By Aneela Z Babar
First published on Aug 19, 2015
At the sabziwala vegetable vendor earlier today:
“Ji, yeh kya hain?”I ask. What is this?
“Parora. Ye karela ka cousin brother hain!”
“Ji do bhai the. Ek Pakistan chala gaya, ek yah rah gaya. Hehehhehheh!”
Hamein jo bhi mila Manmohan Desai mila. Sabziwala nahin mila. And it falls to my filmy lot to encounter the Manmohan Desais of the greens world.
In a couple of hours the clock will strike the midnight hour and August 14 will slip into August 15 in the city where I am tonight. And I realize this year there has to be the ubiquitous jashn-e-azadi blog post, if for nothing else but to acknowledge that sometimes the very fantastic does not come with fireworks and Mountbatten getting into a carriage.
Some of you may have figured out that I am one-third of a Pakistani-Indian-Australian family living in Delhi. And it is a sign of our times that the first question I am asked is What Happens During World Cup.
I know midnight tonight should be a celebration of being who we are and where we have been over the past five years. Rawalpindi. Dhaka. Delhi. But sadly this year, like many other August evenings before, I cannot rustle up any excitement. Not even to recycle my standard joke about Churchill questioning giving independence to these rascals, rogues, freebooters (and this without meeting Messrs. Zardari and Lalit Modi!) for a brand new audience. I balk at summoning up the energy to stick the star and crescent and tricolour tattoo on the child and have him trussed up for photographs in salwar kamiz like the aman ki asha project people might want him to be. I know, I know, we constantly disappoint people for living our lives in Times New Roman when we could be such an interesting new font.
Since we have known each other, the only project my husband and I have been serious about is getting fat and middle-aged – with the years briefly interspersed with my getting angsty when days like this roll around and I pester him with so we should be having the conversation around big questions like borders, and statehood, and Jinnah ka Pakistan, and Nehru’s tryst, and was the world sleeping just then, but that only reminds us that we have to sleep as the toddler will be up in a couple of hours and yara suna hai Sri Lanka me match tha? Phir miss ho gaya.
One August we were in Bangladesh, the 40th year of Bangladesh to be precise, which made me the more anxious for not composing a theme song that night. Damn, what if the eyes of all of South Asia were on us just now? Pulling at my sleeve: So? So? Do You Have Some Panchi Nadiya Ke Jhonke Lyrics Yet? AR Rahman ko call karein? Chalo, let’s reuse the Bombay theme I say, one cues in.
And there is my mother-in-law in Assam who cannot sleep, the ignominy, the ignominy of her son being in Bangladesh. When have you heard of someone going THAT side of the river to work! These are all signs! Mark my words, signs, she mutters.
It could be that I stopped engaging with words after realising that there was little I understood of the semantics Pakistan engages in lately. They bandy about terms like death penalties for terrorists but end up hanging teenagers and the mentally infirm and shower rose petals on smiling assassins, and I stare bewildered. Even though growing up we had Gen Zia-ul-Haq teaching us the alphabet. And I look down and realize that somewhere over the years I have also lost the Look East security blanket from my Wonder (of all things Indian) Years. They tell me the past is another country and send me post cards from where they are, and I read the cards and tell myself “No, I do not think they wish I was there”.
Dhaka stayed quiet for most of that August in 2011, but then one day our driver grew a bit pensive and asked me, “So this Obama he is not Amreekan right?”
And I speak up, “No, no he is,” but clearly Driverji had been working on his piece for a while. So he continues, “Jo bhi, he was not theirs but even then they were so eager to have him as president. But we, we were yours, why didn’t you accept us?”
And I ask you: Dear Reader, why, why, why?
For you may know something I do not.
And I cannot answer such difficult questions as I am only a poor Pashtun mother running after a toddler who will only speak to her in Bangla one year, English the next (for you know South Delhi. Hindi thoda thoda bolega).
For that is how most stories end.
We fight, we squabble, we kill, we argue, and at the end of the day there is a man who brings back a pot of pulao from work and a black ribbon which he has to wear all week and his wife asks him why and he says Because It is Mourning Day. (It was the National Mourning Month to be exact – the Awami League had decided that in August 2011 – which I can completely understand, for there was that one time when stores in Peshawar Hayatabad Bara market closed down for a day as a shopkeeper stocking smuggled goods had passed away, “Woh jo Marks & Spencer nahi tha bibi,” explains the guard “wo mar gaya maskeen”. (Marks & Spencer, that poor guy, just died.)
And my husband has to add, “Woh jo Sheikh Mujib ko tum logo ne maar diya tha” and I tell him No, just because a man dies it does not mean there was a Pakistani involved (secretly telling myself to Google just in case I have it wrong) and I eat the rice and say a prayer.
August 14, 2011
Pakistan, India: 0
And Kashmir never made it to the table.
When I was in the third grade our Urdu teacher looked up from her book one afternoon and announced that Waqt ka ghoda tezi se apni manzil ki jaanib bhaag raha hai (The horse of time is galloping speedily towards the end of your sojourn in this world). Such cheerful stuff to a six-year-old, God bless her! But her words and the transient nature of our lives in this world stay on with me. I don’t want my love affair with this world to end; and therefore I attempt to pack our many, many South Asian lives into this current stint I have of motherhood.
Would you like a glimpse?
The blue-black of the child’s Australian passport has arrived in the post and is lying next to the green of mine. I burst into tears and cry for the better part of the afternoon. I realize then that it was just the first of the many changes and political differences to arrive upon us, he is of me but not me. And then counsel myself to save some tears for the day he tells us he cannot stand Shah Rukh Khan. The issues of nationalism and identity can turn very complicated, such a long journey awaits us, and who knows how the goody bag of ethnicity, religion and community plays out for us. I recall the words of a Punjabi Sikh in Thailand who had guffawed over his New York cousins and their over-the-top Americanism in the post 9/11 world: “They try to dress and talk like them but shakal toh unkee nahee la sakte na – will they ever look like them?” So baby, end of the day, even if the green in you might not out, I will continue to love you and be proud of all that you choose or don’t choose to be.
But oh God please let him learn to love SRK.
The drive from Rawalpindi to Peshawar has been very difficult. I know that what awaits me in Peshawar is a new chapter in the life of my loved ones, their personal has met Pakistan’s terrible political – a cousin has been assassinated – and we are still trying to make sense of it and find closure. It doesn’t help that my drive to the city takes me through a very tragical tapestry, as the mighty rivers that cross at Attock rise each day. The skies rain on us and I look out at the greys and browns of a river in flood and a motorway that is now housing a tent village of people displaced from their homes, now trying to make a semblance of a home under bedraggled tarpaulin. Already they have the expression of so this is what our life will be from now on, as a steady flow of cars passes them by, some looking at them with obvious pity, some trying not to make eye contact out of respect, and some in-betweens like me who are still trying to find answers. But in the midst of all this, they are tending to their animals and children who try to make a run for the traffic; there are visitors popping in and out of each tent, as all the while their hosts keep one eye on their villages across the road. And then after witnessing all this misery one drives into Peshawar and it’s inevitable that you will make comparisons with other times in your life. So I fret and I fume about why it has to be so and how will people make sense of their city, and will the city’s young ever have a childhood. And our car turns into a lane and I see little kids jumping into a fountain, splashing their friends, squealing with mischief. And one of them turns around and looks me in the eye and mocks me out of my pity fest. I realize my social and cultural capital will always be Bollywood, so it will not be remiss to make a Hindi film reference here. Remember that scene out of Dil Chahta Hai when Akash/Aamir Khan is brooding his way down Bombay’s streets and passing his old college, an apparition of a younger him – so Ghost of College Lives Past – turns to him as if to say, What Gives? Aisi kya Tension? I think, right then, that moment, that was I. That little child in the fountain just shrugging to himself thinking, Madam, while you in the car there indulge in your self-pity worrying over our lives, here we are, actually living life to the fullest.
And I think this is my life now. This is the moment when I stopped worrying and started living in Pakistan. Well at least for a month or two until the next crisis hit us.
Dhaka days allow me to experience sights and sounds I would never have been privy to. Where else can your morning walk include a man carrying a whole menagerie of parrots and parakeets on his shoulders? Hens roosting in a basket who draw tighter into each other make roses in a row, and one afternoon we walked next to a man carrying a dozen geese by their feet. They reach out with their long necks, staring the child in his face, and he looks back at them from his stroller in fascination as they hang upside down.
Early evenings we are bored, waiting for visitors, and the father stuck perennially in traffic, so we go to the roof and while the toddler putters about in a corner I walk up and down trying to entertain him, amuse myself by telling him tales of working in Islamabad and escaping to the roof top to enjoy the winter sun, the cups of chai and stolen smokes. We would look down (both literally and figuratively) at the suited booted lipstick jungle of the corporate world next door. I am sure they amused themselves making fun of us becharis who wore sneakers and behenji clothes to work. There are no corporate types here in the neighbourhood, just a lot of construction workers bringing down buildings. They are miffed at the begum sahibas who now cut into their adda time.
“Taaq-e-Nissian”, translated as a niche, is a shelf in the wall to place what you need to and give yourself permission to forget about it. I am sure there are families, families like ours, whom we continue to question with a how do you go through this? – families who have trained themselves to place their memories, each day of December, in a Taaq-e-Nissian of their own.
So considering I am still trying to string my words – words that keep slipping off their spool into rooms I should have long closed the door to; I choose to walk away from them for the day.
But even then it’s December 17. A moment when the calendar reminds you once more about the This Day in History and your feet itch so, to dance at their revolution. Could we go to the Flag Day at Dhaka University, you ask, and the man turns around to look at you and asks Really? Serious ho? Allow them to enjoy their party. Ab wahan bhi… and shakes his head in dismay. Memories of Kurigram earlier that year. March 26 to be precise. The child and I spy on school kids preparing for the March 26 parade, I want to push the Physical Training Master out of the way and teach the kids to salute properly (we are OCD this way), but then have a think about the politics of a Pakistani butting her head in and the kids looking at me all Baji ji tussi rehn hi do “Etau shikte hobe ki? Aapni ek kaaj korun [Didi, let it be. “Do you want to learn this? Then do one thing”] … thank you for the memories and independence, now okay tata thankyou bye.”
So perhaps I should just sit back and listen as they clear their throats to sing. My ballad about you and me and them and us and how we all fit in can keep for another day. But I cannot keep on floundering around in transit, where our past is forever placed in the Taak-e-Nissian of old.
We walk around Dhaka University one day with our individual histories.
No Liberators today no Oppressors – and we try to sneak in as Tejoy Haldar’s installation huddles in for A Serious Discussion. The Toddler is curious enough to pry, to call out. We will let some conversations be, though words of apology are forming at my lips.
And we walk past Ramna Park and the Ramna Temple. No bricks, mortar and stones now, for the deities have taken to living under a shamiana. And I think of the years I have wandered the streets of another Ramna in a city – Islamabad – which was built on our crushed hopes for this Dhaka. And yes we all wonder at how it is that it’s Ramna that interlinks Operation Searchlight and Operation Sunrise. You know when men in khakhi think they should have been in the Public Works Department with all their fondness for sitting on bulldozers. Not that the dawn of democracy was easy on these spaces.
Ab Dilli Dur Nahin Ast
William Dalrymple in City of Djinns writes about meeting a Begum Hamida Sultan who lives in Shahjahanabad. Mourning a city and a language long dead, she tells us, “Partition was a total catastrophe for Delhi. Those who were left behind are in misery. Those who were uprooted are in misery. The peace of Delhi is gone. Now it is all gone.” At the end of their meeting Dalrymple’s wife Olivia asks Sultan whether they could see her again, and if they do, whether she wanted something brought over from Delhi.
The Begum replies (and quite haughtily, Dalrymple writes), “I do not need anything. Do not come back,” adding (and this is the part that resonates best with me), “I just want to be forgotten”.
But as ever children break your reverie, piping, “Why Mama angry?” We may move to Delhi, India. Why am I apprehensive? And I try to bat away all these with a “Ab yeh udhda sa marsia toh main ne sameyta nahi aur tum ek naya tarana chedhney ko kehtey ho? (I am yet to pen my requiem and you tease me with a ballad).”
While we prepare for the move to India, I take up learning Hindi for a lark. Teacher ji bends over my notebook: “Aur yeh joh Hindi Farsi se foreign akshar aaye hain na, unko bindi laga dete hain“ Bilkul theek kaha. Sheer brilliant stuff! Let us be decorating the foreheads of all foreign alphabets now in a grand ghar wapsi.
I decide to give up on the whole thing this Day, on which divas catching a child pummelling his father outside class “Daddy Daddy, kal Gandhi ji ka budday hai batayye na batayye na, how do we celebrate?” between punching the hapless father some more. “Chocolate nahin khaate beta,” he says patting the definitely sugar-high child on his cheeks. And then after thinking for a minute, “And we also don’t tell lies.”
In Delhi, there are 8am panic attacks, had by the then 3 ½ year old: WHERE IS SITA DO-PATTA, MAMA? WHERE IS SITA DO-PATTA? – words that my Pindi ears had never imagined they would hear. He has grown all self-righteous, my boy, pulling Sita’s ghoonghat to her knees as he parades the paper puppet – a triumphant banner now, while I push him in his stroller to school. “Let her breathe yara,” perhaps his words have awakened dormant memories for me; memories of visiting the village, a chador covering my face rise to the surface. But his little heart does not relent, apparently my boy has signed up for the Moral Police.
It has made for far more interesting revelations. “Ravan is so naughty, so naughty, Mama. He doesnt look at the green man crossing the road. Doesn’t look left right.” He is also indignant that Ravan is not returning Sita, but mostly it is the bad traffic sense, folks, bad traffic sense.
I go to sleep giggling at the image of a ten-headed Ravan at the traffic lights looking left right left right left right left right left right left right left right left right left right left right while a Sita squawks at his side trying to wriggle her wrist away.
I hide the paper puppet Sita one day, so there is one week of a paper Lakhan calling out Sita is Lost. Sita is Lost Againnn. Though when the boy’s Lakhan calls out, walking stealthily around the house, in a hoarse whisper, I will find you Sita, it sounds like a threat.
And so I live now in a city where I discover there are three other Pakistanis in my yoga class … perhaps the Aman Ki Asha is mostly asanas. Some days I am the Grinch that stole the Google Reunion spirit, and write angrily about the Fair and Lovely-isation of Partition memories. The same naive approach to what vexes us … Aneela ko gussa kyun aata hai. You know, when one is coaxed into ignoring a gender, class, and colour inquiry into why Preeto from next door didn’t cut it for that high flying job – please slap on some fairness lotion and it will all be OK.
Har ek baat pe rona aaya
I wish I knew why I was so angry then. Was it because, like everything else, an angst that has plagued our parents’ and my generation and hangs as a sword over my child’s, is now up for “commodification” too? Forget problematic ideas of nationalism, bureaucracy, foreign policy, visa regimes, a military industrial complex – all that India-Pakistan reunion needed was a better search engine.
And the subtext of It only gets fixed when YOU, yes YOU come over and make up. That the “happily ever afters” can only happen after recreating a bit of Lahore in Delhi. For you know who watches cricket, flies kites, fumbles with biryani in a Lahore kitchen. Civilization, culture, humour toh hum is paar le aaye. For across Wagah is Where The Wild Things Are.
Perhaps it was because I could not take any more of this “baat nikli toh har ek baat pe rona aaya” approach towards our lives here, memories of there. No more sighing in a corner for loves and lives lost. Get angry. Stay angry.
Or retreat to Hindi cinema. This is how this story began.
About Rocky and a Yaum-e-Azaadi Mubarak in the 1960s, no one said, Hain? Yeh kya kaha? Is it Persian? Iski Hindi Google Karo
How quickly you forgot.
In a Mantoesque short story, one August finds me driving towards Attari to pick up a niece who is visiting us for the month. My sister in Islamabad and I, leaving Delhi, have already squabbled over WhatsApp. Having breakfast at the hotel, I watch Sur Kshetra on TV. Ghulam Ali and Asha Bhosle are singing duets over the sullen state of unrest that is Runa Laila squeaking Bangladesh Ko Na Bhuliye!
Stuff plain writes itself.
I walk around the Golden Temple and realize that ek tum hi nahi tanha ulfat me mere ruswa is sheher me/ Pindi Mardan se mastane hazaron hain. (You are not the only one losing name languishing for me, So many from Pindi Mardan grow intoxicated here each day.)
For a certain amount, your pledge becomes a part of living history at the Golden Temple. Amidst the ubiquitous grants from martyrs and military units posted to the city, there were also interesting stories. Who were they? There are pledges from Pindi! Then one mentioning a thousand rupees from Sangat Peshoriya! Also 51 rupees from Bibi Sant Kaur and Kaka Jaswant Singh from Mardan.
I ask the driver, “Next time please take me to the galli where Manto lived.”
Driver ji: “Aap next time aayengi aapko woh kuan (well) dikhaunga jahan Luv Kush ke kapde dhule the.”
At Attari it starts raining. They take down the Indian tiranga. The rain stops. Someone runs out to fly it again. Sister WhatsApps me niece’s brilliant A results. I shout them out to her over the customs. The guards congratulate me: Arey Wah!
The Indian customs guard tries to channel his best Urdu: “Aap ke adaab bahut ache hain [You have such lovely manners]”. Niece: Thanks. My niece, naya Pakistan, newer private school girl, is clueless. (And then WhatsApps me: “Pssstt what’s adaab?”)
We all returned happily ever after.
So time is passing by, even as it all just begins for our children. May it be an easier journey for them. There are times when I stare at the expanse of green in Delhi’s parks and the child pipes up, “Such a nice country this is, Mama?”
Oh, let them live in these “countries of their mind” for as long as they can. Such a nice country it is to be some days.
Aneela Z Babar divides her time working on gender, religion, militarism, popular culture and doing baron ki izzat, hum umro ae apnapan, choton se pyaar.