Notes on Pakistan

I find all travel to be profound, but my trips to Pakistan occupy a special plane. What does it mean to return to a home in which you never lived? I sip on chai and soak up the pleasant dizziness that comes from watching the axes of time and space torn from their tracks.

Growing up, my family and I used to travel to Pakistan, the country of my parents’ birth, every summer or every other summer. But after my parents divorced in high school, I’ve visited much less frequently. It has made every subsequent trip harder-hitting.

This trip I thought about Orwell’s classic aphorism, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” I’ve practiced mindfulness meditation on and off my entire adult life, but in the last year or so it has become a daily practice, and has grown intertwined with my consciousness. I anchor myself by paying attention to my breath, by listening intently to the clatter of the subway, by trying to feel a brisk wind whipping my face rather than recoil from it. This experience of untethering thoughts from physical reality through present-mindedness has been extraordinary, and I do hope to write in the future about it. But my recent trip to Karachi reminded me of the importance of being *transported*, and how there are specific kinds of distance that can bring clarity to life in a way that paying attention to what’s right before you never can.

It takes about a week for the spell that daily habits and concerns hold over me to dissipate. The gentle chaos of constant visitors to my grandmother’s house — the housekeeper, the cleaning lady, the tall man who brings bottled water for drinking, the short man who fills the water tank for the taps, the endless stream of aunts, uncles and cousins who come to say hello and goodbye — give the days a new rhythm. Life is spent running about town, gossiping and talking politics over tea and food. There’s also time for reading, chess, daydreaming.

I read Elena Ferrante and V.S. Naipul, local newspapers and history books. Ferrante and Naipul are trippy to read in these circumstances, since they’re such sharp observers of how place shapes identity. I think a great deal about how movement defines people: what it would have been like to grow up in Karachi — how different I’d be, how similar I’d be; my parents’ journey from Pakistan to England to America, and the audacity of building a life among strangers so far from home; how strange it is that Pakistan exists separately from India — the arbitrariness and the indelibility of it; how a rise in extremism and instability, fueled in part by the US-led war in Afghanistan, has made it harder for people to do as they wish in public.

I find Pakistan to be a surprising mirror into my personality, much the way that spending time with family members as I grow older tends to be. I say surprising because it entails noticing something about somebody else that I had thought of as my own trait, or at least a quality that I hadn’t considered the possible origins of. I chuckled as I remembered and recognized in myself the Pakistani farewell, which is essentially the antithesis of the Irish exit: a reluctant, lingering, comically drawn-out goodbye.

The concept of home is a complicated one for the children of immigrants, particularly those who grew up in the Global North but whose parents hail from the Global South. In popular discourse, these children have to “juggle two cultures” and feel pressure to strike a balance between the two. The term “American-born Confused Desi” explicitly frames this identity as a disorienting struggle for South Asian Americans.

The ABCD thing never resonated with me as I grew up. The fact that I didn’t fit neatly into America or Pakistan wasn’t a source of angst, but rather a gateway to liberation. One summer in Karachi when I was a teenager, my grandfather prodded me into realizing that it was not honorable to commit to values that one holds merely through the accident of birth. Islam was the first thing to slip away, but among other things there was also the collapse of international borders. I found that an identity forged around my beliefs and ideas and interests and the people I truly got on with was a natural way to find a place in the world. All this is to say that instead of feeling incomplete or homeless, I realized that it’s possible to build your own home with beams and bricks and shingles scattered around the world. I’ve found some of them in England, Colombia, Russia and elsewhere.

Before I left Karachi, I visited my grandfather’s grave. There was a mix-up when we entered the huge, disorderly graveyard, and we had trouble locating his tomb at first, having entered through the wrong gate. A custodian walked up and asked us who we were looking for. We told him and he repeated the name slowly, looking pensive. He wasn’t sure where we should go. We left that area and entered through another gate. My cousin was now sure we were on the right path, and we walked past graves polished and neglected. We found my grandfather’s tomb, which sits upon a hill overlooking the city. We stood next to it for a while; it was almost exactly five years after his passing. The sun was out, and an eagle circled overhead. Karachi, always bursting with life, felt quiet. I felt a heaviness in my chest, and then I felt the wind.

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