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.