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Friday, 21 August 2015

Scattered like Seed Pods

   I did most of my growing up in Pakistan. It was not the Pakistan that you find today in the media. It was not the land that housed Osama Bin Laden, or the country besieged by drone attacks, and suicide bombings. Handsome cricketers turned politicians did not stand on containers making speeches. Back then, Zia-ul-Haq was in power and anyone with an opinion either had the sense to keep quiet or was rendered silent. America back then, was not fighting the War on Terror on our soil, it was fighting the Russians in Afghanistan by funding our intelligence agency which funneled money to the mujahedeen. Back then, Muslim boys and men laying down their lives in the name of Allah were romanticized, not condemned. After all, it served America well at that point to have rugged Muslim guerrillas fight off the evil Russians. Never mind that every other street corner had Afghani children rifling through the trash looking for food to eat, their blue/green eyes weary, their pink complexions dust and tear stained, their dirty blond hair matted and stringy. Pakistan was America's friend and our dictator smiled benevolently at us from the screen of our one state run television channel. It was a time when TV actresses always had their heads covered and love scenes were blurred out because what could be worse than lovemaking viewed publicly. Zia's Islamic nation did not have sex. We collectively shuddered at the thought of such corruption while our birth rates soared. Yet, the sight of young children eating from trash heaps did not faze us.
    In our schools we learnt of our glorious Muslim heritage linking us to the wider Muslim Ummah. Whether it was physics, biology, or chemistry, the first chapter was always on our Muslim heritage. It never occurred to me to wonder what my Christian and Parsi friends thought about all this. We were taught so much: Ahmedis were non- Muslims and alcohol was the route to all evil - drunk people had sex. But so many of the male members of my extended family drank quietly in their homes. The women did not drink. The women, dressed in traditional clothes, discussed their children and religion, while their men lounged in trousers and polo shirts, imbibed strange smelling drinks, and discussed ways to improve Pakistan, win wars lost to India, and establish the country as an economic powerhouse.
    The country of my childhood was a strange one, but my childhood itself was happy. My father was in the Navy and we moved vagabond-like from city to city, country to country, always returning home to our family. And it was a large family on both sides, my father's and my mother's. My mother's immediate family was tiny, just a mother and a brother, and yet the extended family network was so extensive and close that we were always surrounded by relatives. My father's family consisted of his mother, a strong, spirited lady and his seven brothers, all military men. My paternal uncles scared me more than just a little. They were macho men with deep voices and deeper laughs. Their forthrightness was both comforting and intimidating. I was a mouse and snuck around, always watching. In my mother's family, the men were gentler, their voices quieter, almost muted by the loud opinions of the women. Some of these women, may have covered their heads, but Allah help any man idiot enough to try to silence their minds.
     I had many cousins from both sides. Numerous first cousins from my father's side, and uncountable numbers of first, second, and third cousins from my mother's side, but it is impossible to form a close connection with so many. My sister, brother, and I spent our time either in our maternal grandmother's and uncle's home or in the homes of two of our paternal uncles. Their homes were our home and our cousins, an extension of ourselves. The adults were there in the background but it was each other that we sought out. We had sleepovers that went on for weeks, we laughed together, and at times, we cried together. Somehow, we all grew up and grew apart. Life scattered us like seed pods in the wind, each of us setting roots in different cities, countries, continents. We all have our own little families now. We like where we live.
     I like where I live. I know my neighbours, I volunteer at the local school, I am friendly with all the local shopkeepers and these relationships mean the world to me. When I walk down my street I feel I belong. Canada is my home by choice and I am proud to call myself Canadian. It is the only home my children know. I have even come to enjoy the long winters, taking joy in fresh layers of snow and pride in my ability to shovel it (it is a good workout).
     But there are moments when my mind imagines another life; a life where we all still lived on the shores of the coastal city of Karachi, a life where our footsteps led us to each other's doors at times intentionally, and other times, simply out of habit, ingrained from years of repetition. I wish my kids had what I had; cousins, uncles and aunts who interfered in their lives, lived in their homes, laughed at their jokes, fought over trivial things, and patted them on their backs when needed.
I had a glimpse of such a life for two short weeks in Turkey. I saw my children playing with their cousins, staying up way past all bedtimes, jumping in the pool at night for a splash, watching videos and movies together, and singing songs. Just the sight of them enjoying each other's company made me wish for a different Pakistan; a land where we could have remained and brought up our kids in a safe environment, a land where our children would have known and loved each other.
    I was one grape of a bunch nestled on a vine, the stems interlacing and supporting each other, web-like. My children are trees carried far afield from the orchard by the wind. I hope their roots take hold, that the soil that they have been planted in, nourishes and sustains them, adopts them as it's own. I hope my children grow their own orchards and they never have to learn the trauma of being transplanted, uprooted from the orchard, away from the whispers of the trees that once surrounded them.
    Today was our first day back from our vacation, and so many times during the day, I thought to pick up the phone and call my cousin and my sister to tell them that I did four loads of laundry, grocery shopping, and made daal and murghi ka korma, and that tomorrow, I will make machli ka salaan, aloo baigan ki bhujia, and pizza for the kids. These are the things we talk about. We talk about nothing. Yet, this nothing is everything to me.
But I never picked up that phone; they have lives to lead, busy lives, overwrought with work and family, and I have errands to run, the home to clean, and the five pounds that I gained during the two and half weeks of vacation, to work off.

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