Dur e Aziz Amna | Longreads | November 2018 | 11 minutes (2,986 words)
The spring I turned 12, I moved to an all-girls school, and my family moved from a tiny two-bedroom in the outskirts of Pindi to a huge house in the heart of the city, 30 minutes from Pakistan’s capital. I remember walking into the vast emptiness of the new house, my shoes leaving imprints on the dusty floor. It was a January afternoon in 2004, and the sun came in through windows we would later find to be full of cracks. The garden sprouted weeds. My two brothers and I ran upstairs, knowing our parents would take the downstairs bedroom by the front door. There were two rooms on the second floor, both with their own bathroom. I told my mother, “Ammi, I’m the eldest, I want the bigger one.” She glared at me and said, “We’ll see.”
As we moved in over the next few months, I understood why Ammi had been in a foul mood. For me and my brothers, the house meant lots of space. It sat a stone’s throw away from GT Road, the historic highway that once ran from Kabul to Chittagong. It had a garden in the front and a yard in the back, large enough for us to set up a badminton net. For Ammi, the move brought months of scrubbing, washing, organizing. “Don’t think they ever cleaned this place, the old bastards,” she said under her breath as she threw a pail of water onto the grimy marble floor, the air alive with the smell of wet dust.
Built in the 1960s and given to senior employees in Pakistan’s civil service, the house was meant for officers who would hire an entourage of help to sweep the cavernous rooms, take cobwebs off the high ceilings, clean the furry grit that collected on the fans, and water the wild jasmine that bloomed every March, turning the living room fragrant. The lady of the house, the begum, often stayed at home to supervise and entertain. My mother had gotten her first teaching job months after I was born, charming the nearby school principal by telling him that Anna Karenina was her favorite book. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” she told me years later. “I never finished the book, but that was its first line.” I turned the sentence over in my head, a bit miffed by Tolstoy. I felt like we were happy in our own way.
In the years to come, Ammi continued teaching English at a school nearby. She would come home later than us most days, then take a nap during which we tiptoed around the house, knowing that even the slightest sound might disturb her. Once, when we went to wake her up, she made us lie down next to her and asked, “Do you wish you had one of those mothers who stayed at home all day and took care of you?” We gave emphatic nos, because we thought Ammi was quite all right.
Soon after we’d moved in, the house splintered into two worlds. There was the world downstairs: that of morning parathas, Quran lessons, and structured TV hours (one hour a day, from 8 to 9 p.m.). Here, we came dressed in our ironed school uniforms: a maroon tunic for me, white shirts and maroon ties for my brothers. Here, we acted like the good kids our parents knew us to be. After guests left from dinner parties, my parents sometimes said, “Did you see their kids? So ill-mannered.” We, on the other hand, sat in a tight three-headed row in the drawing room, speaking when spoken to, taking no more than two kebabs even when offered.
At 9, we were sent to bed, the staircase a portal to the other world. Despite my initial desire to bag rooms, we had all taken to sleeping in the bedroom my brothers shared, its walls a freshly painted blue. My room was sea green, my favorite color, but we were conscientious kids, and my parents said it was wasteful to keep two fans going. For several hours each night, we sprawled around on the bed, sometimes talking but often not. The room always had dozens of library books lying around. In a childhood shaped by discipline, books were one thing we were allowed to be obsessive and unruly about. The librarian at my mother’s school always let us check out 50 books at a time. “Jamila’s kids, such readers,” she’d marvel to her colleagues.
‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,’ she told me years later. ‘I never finished the book, but that was its first line.’ I turned the sentence over in my head, a bit miffed by Tolstoy. I felt like we were happy in our own way.
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It was here that I finished A Tale of Two Cities and wept to myself until dawn. Here, I discovered that Dumbledore had died, that Darcy was a nice person, that men like Mr. Rochester could redeem themselves. We had no cable, and movies were strictly forbidden; my parents mistrusted Hollywood and abhorred Bollywood, even though my father had snuck into many a cinema hall in his own day. In the blue room, we fashioned ourselves as a nascent music band called the Bholay Rolay (The Loud and The Innocent). We snuck in midnight snacks, eating leftovers with a glee we rarely felt at dinnertime. Every now and then, we would swat at resting mosquitoes, squishing their blood-filled bodies against the blue walls. If ever we heard ascending footsteps, we’d immediately kill the light and collapse into bed. Once, Ammi came up to find all of us lying on one side of the bed in a rather unconvincing tableau of slumber. “I know you’re up, you rascals,” she said, stifling a smile in her voice.
There would be a time soon when the old world order of the house would break down, when we would all splinter instead between those home and those abroad, but in these early years after moving into the house, my brothers and I were a clan, separated from Ammi and Abbu by age, outlook, and one flight of stairs. I would soon outgrow my siblings, unable to talk to them about boys, but the nights I remember in the Blue Room do not contain these details. In my memory, the three of us are lying flat on our stomachs, books in our hands. Every now and then, we look up and say something inane. One of them calls me Billo, like a cat. The other one calls me Dubz. (They still do.)
* * *
By summer 2007 I was 15 and had made close friends from my new school who called me in the evenings. We used girl names as code words for boys we liked and discussed the Urdu teacher’s latest wardrobe malfunction. Sometimes I wrote for a weekly youth magazine published around the country, turning flush every Friday when the paper was delivered and I saw, in print, my latest essay on minority rights in Pakistan or satirical writing about arranged marriages that I considered rather hilarious.
That summer, rain filled the driveway of our new house with crusty cones from the chir tree. The cracked windows let in water, forcing us to hopscotch around the darker patches on the green carpet. For days, the house smelled damp, like a towel folded away too soon after use. After the rains came the heat and the power outages that were becoming more and more frequent. These were the years before everyone used coal-fueled generators as backups, before neighborhoods started sounding like factories as soon as the lights flickered out. At night, the ceiling fan slapped humid air across our faces, as my brothers and I shuffled on mattresses that seemed to burn. All night, a mosquito coil remained lit by our sides, the smell of pyrethrum thick in the still air. The next morning, we blew on the powder left behind, amazed at how it fell down in orderly spirals.
Winter brought its own travails. That was — is — a remarkable feature of the house: Things are bad in one season, and then they get worse. Winter would sneak in despite the heavy curtains we had everywhere, despite the swiftness with which we closed the doors behind us. Once inside, it roamed freely: The quilts under which we lay at night were cold, as were our school uniforms in the morning, the water in the taps, the telephone set. For our baths, we heated pots of water on the stove. In the early evenings, all five of us got under the blanket in my parents’ room. There, we did our homework, our notebooks sprawled across the dark brown duvet. This was where we sat and talked, rocking back and forth as if our words were music.
I was halfway through my O levels and was on the shortlist for a high school exchange program in the United States, to commence the following August. Ammi had made me apply because she said it was fully paid for and prestigious, but I wonder now if my parents were also wondering about the state of the country, trying, perhaps unconsciously, to get one of us out.
* * *
In March, the military dictator Musharraf fired the chief justice of the country, leading to the Black Coat Protests. A rally of peaceful protesters marched from Lahore to Islamabad in May, passing by the main road outside our house. We had never been a political family. “Politics is the domain of the richest and the poorest: Both have nothing to lose,” my father once said to me, shaking his head in evident remorse at being left out of both classes. On the day of the rally, fired up by the loudspeakers blaring on the main road, Ammi took the three of us outside, armed with bottles of ice-cold water. We gave them away to accepting hands and waved at the protesters. My father stayed inside, fettered to the middle class.
By December, the country was on edge. For years, my parents had stuck to the three state channels on TV; they came free with the spindly antenna on our roof and offered family-friendly content. The TV sat in the living room, right by my parents’ room. Any time a “scene” came on TV (and this could mean two cartoon characters kissing), we switched channels before the watchful eyes in the bedroom could catch it. But now, as the slogans blared on GT Road and Pakistan Television continued to play military anthems from the 1971 war, my parents reevaluated. That year, we got cable television, with an array of recently liberalized channels that appeared like children let out of a playpen: loud, excited, prone to run after anything in sight. The boxy TV, earlier a peripheral part of our daily routine, suddenly became a constant background hum in the evenings. GEO News told us Musharraf had ordered the army to attack a seminary in Islamabad, known to harbor extremists. ARY Digital said Benazir Bhutto, the exiled former prime minister whose charismatic father was hanged near our house in 1979, was back in the country. We sat by the TV, on couches that sagged under the sudden weight, and listened. On December 27th, we were all there when my father let out a soft cry.
The news anchor had announced that Benazir was dead. She had been killed in a rally five minutes from where we sat, in a park that was on my father’s way to work. Twenty-four supporters, swarming the vehicle that carried her, were also dead. Benazir had been prime minister until 1996 and was notorious for corruption, running on a dynastic platform that seemed only slightly better than army rule. My first thought was: Is this bad? On my parents’ faces, in their eyes that I rarely saw wet, I saw the answer.
It started at the hospital where Benazir was pronounced dead. Party workers broke windows and threw stones. They chanted against Musharraf. I remember a slogan that was in vogue at the time: Musharraf the dog, haye haye. In the coming days, this would seem genteel behavior, as people took to the streets all over the country. Buses and trains were burned. When the dust cleared, more than 100 people had died.
As the year turned, all schools and offices remained closed. More than ever, the television became the center around which we orbited. There was Benazir’s husband, in all black, reading out her will and, as we would see in the months to come, setting the stage for his own rise to power. There she was, being lowered into the grave beside her father in Larkana. There was my country, burning.
It is hard to remember how I felt as this unfolded. It was the first year I remember paying close attention to the world thrumming outside our doors. Yet, I still had my friends, my upcoming school exams, the promise of America. Only later, when things got even worse, when idling at traffic signals and going to school began to feel risky, only then did I look back and decide that 2007 was when it changed for me, when it became impossible to think of home as simply the five of us, shielded by the house and its white metal gates.
My first thought was: Is this bad? On my parents’ faces, in their eyes that I rarely saw wet, I saw the answer.
* * *
The next year, I moved to Oregon for the exchange program. I was the only Pakistani person in town, orienting myself to represent the country at large. “This is how Pakistanis do it,” I would tell my host mother, as I chopped up lady fingers and fried them in turmeric and cayenne, when really, that was only how I had seen my mother do it. Saying goodbye to my parents at the airport, I let out a hiccupy sob, suddenly aware of all that I was losing. Ammi chastised me. “It’s just ten months, Durba,” she said, calling me by a nickname she uses only when either one of us is upset. Years later she would tell me about how, for weeks after I left, she couldn’t bear to go to my room.
Months after my departure, Ammi herself had to move to Scotland for a Phd. She had been tiring of her job for years, dissatisfied amid the petty squabbles of high school teachers. The University of Glasgow was offering a full ride, and again my parents decided that education was worth moving abroad for. There’s a saying by the Prophet Muhammad that Abbu would quote at the time. “Seek knowledge, even if it takes you as far as China.” China might have been the edge of the known universe in Muhammad’s Arabia, but 2008 took us much further than that. Ammi and my brothers left that winter, to spend several years in Glasgow’s Little Pakistan. My father stayed at home, telling us over phone lines, “I’m keeping the lights on for all of you.” It’s an image I rarely let myself think of — him alone in the skeletal mansion, all lights off except the one in his room.
Within a year, my family was living on three different continents. The next time I saw my brothers was in an apartment hallway in Glasgow. They appeared to me like strangers, tall and long-haired. It took a lot to have simple conversations, now that I had been muddled with America, now that they had become brown kids in urban Scotland.
* * *
I returned home after 10 months, but for the next two years before I left again for college, it was just me and my father, eating simple dinners on a dining table that fit six. Later, Ammi moved back to Pindi. Since then, all of us have lived back home, sometimes for days, sometimes for years. While away, we call each other constantly, my parents’ calls ringing abroad wherever the three of us go. But James Baldwin once said that home might be an “irrevocable condition,” and perhaps that’s what I am grasping at. We gained so much through these years of displacement and return: education, careers, love. But sometimes, I walk alone in the New York spring and flower petals makes me wonder — what if we had all stayed, sitting forever by the wild jasmine tree?
As for the house — my parents still live there, though I love to point out its flaws, the dust and the disorder, every time I am back. “Look at the cracking paint on that wall,” I say, and my mother wearily agrees with me and my father tells me to get over it. In the past decade, there has been a vast migration to Defence and Bahria, gated communities owned by the military, known for safe and orderly housing. There are health clubs and grocery stores where you can get imported olive oil and Norwegian salmon. I should know since I checked last time I was home. The parks have scaled down replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and the Sphinx. Many of my parents’ friends now live there, in well-insulated houses, away from the congested streets of my childhood. These houses — they’re nice. Cozy. Comfortable. No pine cones in the driveway. No unruly gardens, because most of them have cemented front yards. “So much less work, you know,” said the Aunty we visited last, as we bid her farewell outside a towering white mansion with eight rooms.
Something tells me I should get used to this suburban world. My father retires next year, and with that we lose the house after 15 years. My parents might move to Islamabad, a young city built with intention in the ’60s, where the tree-lined streets and orderly sectors appeal to everyone, it seems, but me. Or they might move to the dainty suburbs and live on a manicured street with sidewalks and street lamps, near a tidy mosque and clipped shrubbery. I hope that it will be the easy living they have earned, but it will be another home, a different life.
* * *
Dur e Aziz Amna is a writer based in Rawalpindi and New York. Her work has appeared in Roads & Kingdoms, The Offing, The London Magazine, and The News, among others. She is currently working on her first novel.
Editor: Danielle A. Jackson
Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross