by Ayesha Siddiqui
House number fifty-eight on the thirteenth street of a neighbourhood in a suburb of the city of Karachi: a place I have been running from for a very long time.
It was not always like this.
I was born in the summer of 2003 in Karachi, Pakistan in a hospital that no longer exists. My childhood, amongst other things, was largely defined by moving around, although most of it was contained within the parameters of the city. I was a city child through and through, but in the years to come, I would learn that to be of the city meant something very different outside the borders of Pakistan. But we’ll get to that. The city by the sea in which I grew up was its own wonder. It was a place where the balmy scent of the ocean seamlessly melted into the cacophony of scents that inhabited the rest of it. There were aromas wafting from the delicacies being prepared by street vendors—food I was strictly forbidden from indulging in. I often daydreamed about biting into roasted corn on the cob, slightly charred to crisp perfection and lathered in butter and spices. It is often strange to describe these sights with terms that do not fit them. The words spices and vendors exhibit a certain colonial worldview of exoticism, of one who is far removed from the richness of their own language. But then maybe perhaps I now am.
Not all scents were as fragrant. Karachi is a city that never sleeps, but perhaps that is to its detriment. It was not equipped for the exhaustive existence of over ten million people when I was growing up, and it certainly isn’t now. The clusters of litter that adorn its streets reek of age and neglect. One must be cautious traversing the main roads for fear of vanishing into the murky depths of an open gutter, although the unmistakable stench of sewage is a foolproof deterrent. The air is palpably thick with pollution, whose origins are unidentifiable, yet all of these descriptions feel like little more than a preamble to its truth. Above all, Karachi smells like life. It smells of deprivation and fatigue, of labour that knows no end. The acrid stench of a city that is alive but in ruins is inescapable, even in the pockets of luxury that are sparsely interlaced with the tangles of chaos and commotion that embody the rest of it. The stench of humanity is sometimes stifling, but it is a reminder of our endurance. Karachi smelt like many things, but growing up, I was unable to separate these smells into their constituent parts. To me, it just smelt like home. It was home in its sincerest form because it was the only home I’d ever known. Without the luxury of choice, and, in my case, knowledge, perhaps one is left with a certain ferocity of acceptance. Often, for a child, satisfaction becomes obligation.
My childhood was happy. It is a blessing to be able to say that I was raised in a home that was abuzz with love. My memories are coloured less by the deplorable conditions of the city and more by the blue and green walls of the room I shared with my siblings, where we’d leap from bed to bed like we were scaling high-rise apartments in a land far, far away. I think of the car rides piled with more friends than the car could hold, the babble of animated shrieks and giggles emerging from our bundle of haphazard limbs. I think of our delight at getting takeout pizza on Friday nights, oblivious to my parents’ reservations from joining in. The math my mother taught me (in addition to painstakingly dragging us to swimming lessons and art classes and everything in between) will always be the only math that ever made sense to me: on a whiteboard to which we’d occasionally wake up and gleefully find it covered in outlandish caricatures drawn by my father. I think of middle school, of trudging through the front door sullen and irritable after another scorching journey in a packed vehicle stuck in traffic and finding my grandmother waiting at the dining table with a covered plate of lunch. I think of my grandfather and how my siblings would peer through the gaps in the stairs, stifling our giggles at the sight of him asleep on the couch in the living room, book in hand and lips slightly parted. I think of him often.
At the age of fourteen, my father’s job required us to move to the island of Bahrain. My devastation was so deeply inconsolable that describing it requires more than the constraints of this piece of writing; my volumes of diaries from that period speak for themselves. I vowed that I would never call it home. The city was where I belonged and it was there that I would return. Of this, I was sure. But that was before I set foot in the paradise we were sent to.
Bahrain was Karachi’s polar opposite in more ways than one. It was the stuff of storybooks. The realization that for the first time, I did not have to even partially rely on my imagination to create a world in which I felt infinite was startling. This was a world where children rode their bicycles and frolicked freely on the streets until sundown—where the schools were air-conditioned, and the raw salad leaves at restaurants were washed until free of contaminants.
Karachi was a city that was tired and worn. It hardens you. It is how you survive in a place that knows nothing but chaos. I had not realized that until then, yet I assured myself that it was part of its charm. It was part of what made it home.
But there is a difference between contentedly loving a flawed entity and loving with a growing insatiable desire for more. I guess the luxury of choice allows your mind to wander to places you are ashamed to admit.
Time may be relative, but it had only been a measly four months before I visited Karachi again and decided that it was no longer enough.
It’s a strange feeling to return home and see things starkly and objectively as they are. I found myself picking at details that had once blended into my subconscious notion of life. Suddenly, the gated houses with their mighty walled-enclosures were dystopian. My room felt smaller than I’d remembered. The corner store was too dusty and the air stale. I pityingly observed malls that lacked the lustre with which I previously envisioned them. The summer heat that was once simply annoying was now intolerable. For the first time, Karachi felt like a city slowing down—like it was crawling through molasses. Summer after summer we’d visit, and my first night back was routinely filled with a kind of inexplicable malaise that left me in an existential puddle of my own tears.
In time, my experience of the everyday grew increasingly foreign. It was almost kitschy in that I’d begun to find whimsical joy in the particularities of the culture: a culture I had grown up in but would now label as quaint or interesting or adorable. Perhaps it was my way of shifting my scornfully detached distaste at the country to something less shameful. And so I waded deep into the consumerist fallacy of nostalgia by stocking up on boxes of candy and snacks from my childhood (bonus points if they were discovered in a Pakistani store outside of Pakistan). Perhaps for no other reason than to at least have a display of the shell of my Pakistani identity that still remained, and for no one else but myself. Welcome to Karachi Lite, with none of the hardship but all of the charm!
Perhaps my performance of my cultural identity when I was safely on an island far away could hide the gnawing guilt over what had quickly become the concrete feeling that I did not want to be there in the summers. The circle of old friends I would meet up with grew smaller each year, and the chasm I felt between myself and my grandparents grew larger. My months spent in Pakistan came to represent all the months of my absence. You left them, my mind screamed. I’d escaped and left them behind, and all the time spent in that one month of summer couldn’t make up for that.
And so I willed away the weeks of summer because the sooner this summer was over, the sooner it would be the next one. And maybe like that, the months could add up and bridge the distance. The months could buy us time.
Something told me that mundanity prolonged time. If I continued to pretend as though we had endless summers ahead of us through my careless frivolity with an active aversion to meaningful encounters, the years would drag on and halt time. It is why I would hastily crack jokes on the car ride to the airport at the end of the summer so I wouldn’t have to wonder what my mother was thinking behind her tear-stained face. I did not want to know if it was the same thing I was thinking. I did not want to think about how my grandfather was a man of few words, but his wordless, lingering gaze at my mother as he held her tight was like he could transmit the love he could not put in words.
Instead, I thought of his library in which he knew the placement of each and every book. In that last summer, he’d called us into his room and encouraged us to take some of his books back with us, directing each of us to sections he believed would appeal most to our interests. Following his directions, I’d found myself face to face with a shelf consisting of volumes of poetry. I was taken aback, although it wasn’t the first time he’d proven that he observed us more than he let on.
The books were too many to take back home. But I was secretly rejoicing. It meant we would return. It was a sign. I knew it. Summer after summer. I knew it.
Nostalgia can sometimes trick you into believing that if things do not remain as they have always been, they are inevitably made worse. Perhaps that is why we run, both from the longing for days that have since passed but equally from the guilt of not turning back…as if there exists a possibility of turning back even if we wanted to. After March of this year, I used to think that I would never be able to return to that house. I thought that if I were ever to find myself in its vicinity again, I would have to keep running. If I didn’t, perhaps the memories would swallow me whole. Or the guilt. Whichever came first. But it is not a house that is haunted by the ghosts of a life that could have been. It is a house with a life well-lived.
Perhaps a yearly visit from his daughter and grandchildren with whom he would like to lie with in silence—in a room that was too hot with hands that were too cold that would hold onto yours a second too long so you would know it wasn’t accidental—was enough. My grandfather frequently asked about the life we were making for ourselves. He’d ask me if I was still writing, in a way that almost implored that I was. Life looks different now. It changes faster and in more ways than I can completely comprehend. But I will always be the girl from the city by the sea who lived in a house in which her grandfather told her that she would be a storyteller someday. He said this with such certainty that she believed him. She believes still because as she reads his old newspaper columns, she knows that she acquired this passion from him. Perhaps the passage of time doesn’t quite obscure the past into oblivion as we may think.
That house was made alive by a family of seven. It was the home in which we lived.
And we were made better for it.