Tuesday, November 13, 2012


The “having it all” debate seems to surround me lately by that strange phenomenon when you consider something once and then see it explode all around you. Professors and commencement speakers in college addressed the idea, but at twenty one “having it all” seemed to be a debate inconveniently dragged into our time by those who came and fought before us. Now, it bombards me repeatedly. A well-known journalist and feminist, speaking at our graduation, talked of all the victories our grandmothers had earned us, leaving us to answer the relatively new question of how to have it all.

Women can have it all! Women can’t have it all! Women can’t ignore biology! Women should ignore biology! Women should practice attachment parenting! Women should avoid helicoptering their children! Women, women, women. Where are the men in this debate? Surely, leaving them out of the battle and in the living room watching TV defeats the entire purpose, doesn’t it?

The neat dichotomy between love and success and family and career is a presupposition that these elements are mutually exclusive. I’m not referring to baby-wearing to work or flexible working hours, I mean the very idea that having it “all” means hanging on to many things you hold dear all by yourself. Men may not birth babies, or breastfeed or race against as strict a reproductive clock, but they do, in strictly biological terms, form half the equation in creating babies. If it is assumed that the debate about whether it is possible to juggle job and family doesn’t concern them, the position is inherently sexist. It may not concern all men, but no woman in a committed relationship should be questioning whether she can achieve feminist utopia alone. Whatever your expectations are from life, whether it  is to have twelve children and stay at home with them, earn three advanced degrees, start your own company, simply make ends meet or all the above, you should be able to know that havingitall is not a lonely enterprise. It is not the straightforward one discussed so often in the media, with its images of snappily-dressed career women arriving home at 5pm to feed the children (alone), or the one of Supermom preparing breakfast for ten (alone) before scheduling the day for her kids (alone) and having a June Cleaveresque relationship with her husband, who is a well-intentioned but bumbling, clueless mutt.

And if it is a lonely enterprise, or a single one, or a same-sex one, you will notice there are not many voices decrying the desire to be perfect, traditional wives and mothers while also being perfect and high-powered everythingelse. Perhaps they already realize the individual-ness of major life decisions, perhaps they watch less television, perhaps they expect less of men, perhaps they expect more of men-as we should. Whether men decide to be stay-at-home dads or whether they choose to be the sole breadwinners, the choice cannot be left to be made by women alone and forever.

The world is a mess of choices six years after my first induction into the cheerful belief that havingitall is something the modern woman does and messes are not meant to be swept by women alone. Time to stop asking if women can do it all and pass the broom around for a much tidier state of mind.


Saturday, September 15, 2012


Will you be applying for graduate financial aid?

Um. No? Never again.

Indicate yes if you wish to be considered for scholarships, fellowships, student employment or any other form of university sponsored financial assistance.

Ok. Yes.

My financial services ostrich pulls its head out of the sand for a moment. Ostrich suggests I get in touch with the Department of Education and check the status of my student loans before my bad decisions of 2007 take a bite out of my rear end, seeing as how it’s aimed at the sky anyway.

The new Federal Direct Loan website is meant to look cheerful. Friendly. Accessible. It asks me to name the person I first kissed to access my forgotten password. The combination of baby blue and teal sans serif font and memories of the first romantically exciting moment of my adolescence mollify me for a moment. Who knew Direct Loan people were so soppy? I silently salute the underpaid, fresh out of college web designer who created the new forms. Well done, comrade. Were you in debt too? Did you think this would help?

Loading, loading, loading.

My failure to make payments over the unpaid summer, provide additional paperwork about my income and various other stupid decisions have put me, I think, in a pretty bad place. My ostrich desperately contemplates the head-in-ground position again, but distant hopes of further education prevent it from acting on the impulse. I take down the phone number on the website and dial, trying not to think about my phone bill for international calls.

A recorded message asks me to enter my account details. It plays and replays a sentence about how anything I say can and will be used against me in the collection of my debt. I feel like a criminal. My palms get clammy as I imagine begging and pleading, desperately explaining my work at nonprofit, effort to educate the underprivileged, troubles with the exchange rate and so on, when someone finally answers the phone and puts me out of my misery. He doesn’t care about my story. I answer ten minutes of questions. I don’t own a car. I do not own a home. My husband does not earn in dollars. He asks if I would like to pay all my student loans in full to be out of default status. I panic. I thought I had ten years to pay the full amount! He gives a reassuring laugh. I like his voice.

No, Ma’am, I understand that. It’s just that it’s illegal for me not to give you this option.

Damn this obsession with the law. Sometimes it’s so counterproductive.

I’m connected to another representative, who informs me I am eligible for a reasonable monthly payment plan. I almost laugh with relief. Thank you so much, I say. The woman on the other end is surprised by my gratitude. No problem, she says. You have to hand it to Americans for being polite. Two minutes later, my happiness evaporates when I am informed that my debit card isn’t working because the bank in Pakistan won’t authorize it. I apologize, hoping against hope they don’t think I’m one of those sad people who simply have no money in their bank account and don’t even know it, simultaneously wondering why I care about their opinion. I call the local bank, determined to give them a piece of my mind.

The irritable representative from my own city doesn’t win any points for good manners, but he is-like all Pakistanis-determined to give me “good advices” about how I should go about my private business.

Phone banking very risky. Better you not do it, ma’am. Anyway, not my business how your card doesn’t work. Un ki apni business hai jin ka system cheques allow nahin karta. Un say jaa kar behess karain.

Five minutes of fruitless shouting about wasted international call minutes, demands to leave the Stone Age behind and other exhortations later, I give up. 

Larry or Harry or someone from somewhere in the midwestern United States calls me back, asking for an update on my situation. I spend approximately one hundred rupees on phone minutes, setting up alternate payment arrangements. I pray for the god of student loans-William D. Ford, namesake of the Direct Loan system, I’m thinking of you-to grant me extra points for making this month’s payment without ripping anyone’s head off. Until next month, Department of Education, my ostrich awaits.

Friday, August 17, 2012


For as long as I can remember, Nano’s place has been around to serve as my happy place. Every summer and every winter for the past seventeen years (and for eight years before that, in another place), I have returned here. It is a predictable, unchanging, comforting fact of life that Nano’s apartment seems to hold the key to healing every hurt, childish, adolescent or adult, and reminding us, year after year, that the best things in life tend to stick around. Decades of photographs in family albums document the same five rooms, reflecting occasional changes in upholstery, haircuts, height and the addition of family members, but the background remains the same. When we were twelve, my cousins and I realized and discussed at length how our family and 29-A Askari Flats are not magical, but simply normal-and the thought repulsed us. The framed photographs of smiling, braces-wearing grandchildren, the ayat-ul-kursi above the sideboard, even the faithful green swingset were suddenly things that everybody had in their homes. We were not special. For a few days, we were depressed, feeling as if we had lost some of the magic of our childhood. The following summer, however, we had forgotten and the joy of being reunited trumped any realizations we had made about the ordinariness of our existence.

Twelve years since that discussion, I find myself back at 29-A, after being separated from it for an entire year-a first for me. There are many firsts this year, not all of them welcome. For the first time, I haven’t spent the summer at Nano’s. For the first time, Zoya and I are both married and spending our first summers with our husbands and not seeing each other at all. For the first time, I have bought my own airline ticket, for the first time, my trip is unplanned, for the first time, I have willingly booked only a four-day stay and for the first time, I am not here for myself. I am irrationally anxious on the flight to Lahore (another first, I suppose), although I have always considered Lahore my real home (a secret I try my best to keep around my Karachiite family and friends). I also sleep through the first glimpse of the greenery of the city before landing and take it as a sign. This time is supposed to be different.

I’m not sure how I feel about trying to care for the people who grew me up. I’m not sure if I entirely agree with this life plan in which the people and places I have always needed might just need me (a narcissistic thought, but one that floated in regardless). I’m not sure what to say when the cook admires my wedding photographs and says look at how fast you grew up. I’m not sure I can view 29-A through my newly critical eyes, searching for imperfections or discomforts my husband might notice on our trip next winter. I’m not sure I can deal with being 24 at all this week. My anxiety rests on the premise that being here as a grownup, full and proper, is going to be too different to bear.

But when I walk in, faithfully, Nano’s place has not changed for me after all. After throwing my bags on a dining chair, I walk around making sure everything is exactly the same. I take unexpected amounts of pleasure in opening the door of the store room (without entering the password for our secret hiding place, but there is nobody here to ask for it) and smelling the musty mothball smell of the linen piled up on the shelf. I notice the upholstery hasn’t changed on the princess sofa in the dining room and appreciate the predictably well-stocked medicine cabinet with the extra toothbrush I am counting on. The books in the shelves have increased in number, but all the old favorites, including the ones I passed on to cousins ten or fifteen years ago, are wedged into the same place as before. All is well with the world. The view outside has changed a bit. The lawn has shrunk over the years, or perhaps I and my expectations have grown. The swings seem lower. Past it, I can see all of us outside, with Chloe the dog and the champa tree which is in bloom again and the shadow of the man in black, an apparition of many years ago. The emptiness I expect from the absence of Nano watching TV in her room and Ashi masi singing in hers is here, but it seems to be sitting inside me rather than in 29-A.

I stay awake all night, as per custom at Nano’s place, but I am alone. I make myself buttered toast in the kitchen, a job I usually leave to Zoya and flick through TV channels with no Nana or Nano or cousins to sing along to Bollywood songs or offer commentary on the news. I stick to my rituals anyway. At sunrise, when the perfect “blue morning” dawns, I slip out the kitchen door into the rain-washed lawn and onto the street behind the building. There is nobody with me, but it’s okay. The muddy grass squelches into my flip flops the way it always has and there are pieces of blue tile lying on the ground as usual (neighbors with years-long renovations? Who knows?) These things used to excite me and I try to remember the feeling of collecting tiles and stones because they are interesting, wading through puddles because it’s fun and sitting on the swing even though it’s so low my legs fold neatly under me and my head grazes the clothes line when I go up. 

Ordinary is perfect again, just like it was before I decided it wasn’t.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


The shopping bags I'm carrying are weighing down my wrists and I'm shifting my weight impatiently from one foot to another, waiting for the car to pull up. The girl next to me rolls her eyes. She says her driver is so slow, but that part would be fine if he wasn't so obviously obsessed with his fiance back home whom he talks to on the phone at night. It's disgusting, she says, the way he obviously thinks about this woman. 
Some combination of heat and nausea course through me like a wave and I have an urge to smack her with my groceries. Instead, I open my mouth, always ready with an unsolicited opinion-"You do realise the lower classes also have sex, don't you? They don't make babies by wishing for them-" but shut my mouth in time to catch the horrified expressions around me. I'm not sure if it's because I said the word "sex" out loud or flouted an unwanted hippie opinion, but I'm sufficiently irritated not to want to continue. The car pulls up and we pile inside. My friend continues, giving a fluttery laugh as if her airy lightheartedness could dispel everyone's discomfort. She continues, saying it would be perfectly all right if they didn't go around believing they can be like us now, just because they own cell phones and speak a bit of English. She briefly digresses to say it's kind of sweet and funny, though. I firmly press my head against the windowpane and ignore the conversation around me until the disgust begins to quell. I can't wait to be home.
Later, as the maid emerges from the bathroom at my house, a guest turns to me, wide-eyed. "I didn't know that was the servant bathroom," she says. I tell her it's not, it's the bathroom, where else is someone supposed to go pee? Again, my tongue is running away with its propensity to mention toilet and bedroom activities with no concern for the alarm produced in my audience. I shrug and shake my head to signal the conversation is over. Someone tells me my mother must be very progressive to allow these things, or perhaps our servants are extraordinarily clean. Most people are clean, I say, when they have access to nice bathroom facilities. I can sense the disapproval and am vaguely embarrassed, but not sure why. I seem to be ensconced in an environment of gentle, well-bred condescension. It is enveloping me, rocking me in its air conditioned, fragrant embrace, willing me to give up friendly conversations with drivers ("overfamiliar behaviour") and take my proper place in society, amidst servant-free toilets and a haze of patronizing beliefs. We give them homes, we give them sanitation, we give them three meals a day--the old echo that never echoed around my mother--fading into nausea and disgust again. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I'm stretching myself out on a lazy summer afternoon, willing myself to stick to my daily asana practice in spite of the heat and ferocious sunlight my drawn blinds can't keep out. The instructional online yoga video (labeled Not For Newbies, which is both gratifying and strange) is telling me to focus on my breath and relax the root of my tongue, connecting my feet to the earth.
This irks me. My feet, I think, will be connected to the earth whether or not I think about my alignment, because gravity will keep them there. I move up into a standing split, ruminating on gravity and the earth and the smallness of things, wobble on my standing foot and press my palms into my mat to steady myself. My ego pricked by the earlier imbalance, I kick up into a handstand, letting my heels thud dully against the door while I consider the world from a topsy turvy perspective. For a while, I thoughtlessly move through inversions and twists, deliberately staying longer in the deepest stretches, frustrated with not reaching new places. For someone who is supposed to be teaching yoga in a few months, I find myself remarkably uninspiring sometimes. Remarkably eager to go places. Remarkably ready to try something else.
There is something about this place, I tell my friends, which makes you desperate to escape. I know I'm talking nonsense and it has less to do with the place than my sense of something burning out, something burning up, which I blame on the heat outside. I stare at myself in the mirror, standing on my mat, half-expecting my hair to come alive and crackle and close my eyelids. I can't help but open them now and then, watching the lines of my body with eyes that look out train windows-curious, exploratory. I think about train windows. I think about how many times a week people comment on or look at my body as though I was a view from a train, reminding me about roundness and fullness that wasn't always there. I try to care, but my frustration melts away as I bend backward into wheel pose, lift one leg towards the sky and fail to give a damn. All of my heart is open and pointing upward and feeling like I am going somewhere, going to go somewhere.
Later, I can't decide if it was the video voiceover, the rush of blood to my head or my attempt at quieting the crackle in my brain that leaves me feeling like this is where I need to be, right now. I am hopelessly aware that I am not in that place where inspiring experiences follow me everywhere I go. I also promised myself that before I turn 25, I will achieve milestones which will be terrifying and beautiful. When I made the promise, I think I saw myself literally leaving, going to geographical locations that blow my mind. Now, I anticipate staying right here, experimenting with the thousands of ways I can terrify and conquer myself-physically yes, on my mat, but also going places in my head I never knew how to go to before. Milestone one achieved, I think.

Friday, May 11, 2012


Karachi, for a year I wrote you love letters, swearing my undying love with the devotion of a spaniel, determined not to be the lone resident of this city who lacks the instinct to defend you. Love and defensiveness are one and the same here, you have made it so. Sometimes I think all we learn living here is how to seek out beauty in the saddest places, or how to look away. Do you see then, like all fickle lovers, how your people watch life through poetry, camera lenses and lies? How every part of their anatomy is obediently, subserviently, trained to appreciate you in all your cruelty and ugliness? From the eyes that anxiously seek out the sunsets made wild and unique with smog and dust and the sea below, to the noses that anticipate salt and petrol and garbage and dying fish in an attempt to soothe nostalgia, to the feet that hurry up in crowded bazaars and the hips that deftly avoid strangers' hands in public places. All the time repeating to themselves mantras and tributes and metaphors about melting pots and stepmothers, without daring to leave the parameters of their safe spaces.
And daring to leave, the feeling of daring to leave, is what unites your many lovers who see each other feel but how can we leave everything we know and where would we go? Because to leave would be to let our eyes and mouths seek out more straightforward things and we are used to not understanding so easily. The path to loving this city is never a straight line, it is winding roads and broken homes, fear and comfort, familiarity and strangeness, the joy and panic at the first drop of rain, a love-hate relationship with water. How, then, could we go someplace where beauty is right there, carefully cultivated, cherished and protected, not sought out or understood over years? How would we belong? 
You have really only enslaved us all, like the most manipulative of lovers and we can never be free because to choose freedom would be to belong nowhere. The children who shrugged off dead siblings in conversations with me last summer, the doe-eyed girl in purdah to whom you gave such big dreams, the seventeen year old teacher who lived by the railway tracks, the chain-smoking social worker who stubbed her cigarette in a dirty chai mug and said it's best to leave this fucked up place but never left herself, the delicate-skinned lady at the museum whose eyes widened when she learned what kind of children I taught, the free-thinking driver who told me he didn't believe in god, the flag-waving students who loved Salman Khan and boy scout lessons, the eunuch who was more graceful than all her patrons, the butcher whose skull was broken for opening his shop the day of a strike, what do they care for romantic notions of home? In conversations with Lahoris they will all sigh longingly at descriptions of smooth roads and traffic control, scheduled power cuts and homogenous neighborhoods with fewer guns, but they will all say we come from the big city and we have the sea and they will memorise the way the gray foam of that sea carries away slippers and long days and its stench will become part of who they are. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


I can see the way your eyes widen and you pull away from me. I can feel the panic rising. Both of us can sense fear and defeat. Eleven years ago. A thirsty stray dog in a park and me, swinging halfheartedly and watching the canine collapse resignedly under a tree that provided one branch of shade. Fifteen minutes later, I found a disposable bowl and bottle of cold water, the dog was drinking in grateful surprise-grateful the way only a dog can be, really-and I was back on the swing. Eleven years. I can sense fear and thirst and longing far more often now-in more than just the canine species, but I don't think I have bothered with disposable bowls in a long time.

How often does anyone see adults actively cultivating tenderness? Towards their own, always, but beyond that, it is difficult, so difficult, to make room for both concern and action. Beyond the realm of animal welfare or human rights, ideals which we were passionately prepared to defend at twelve seem to lose shape and eventually meaning. The world fascinates me, because to be alive is to care-about the things you loved, the things you wanted and the person you think you can become.

How do I explain this at the dinner table when I am asked why I have become a vegetarian? I can't give a straightforward defense of animal rights. I'm not a vegan and I don't even believe eating meat is wrong in itself. I'm not particularly health conscious and I haven't given up on anything else. I can say it's better for the environment, but beyond recycling and trying to conserve water, I'm not especially kind to Mother Earth myself. Then what?

I eat more plants because every time I do, I make a conscious decision to be the person I thought I was. I remind myself that the things I care about can mean more than the things I want. I remember what it was like to feel despair on behalf of something else and try to bring it back, because to hang on to care is to stay alive.

I'm just trying to be me again, I promise.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


The tyranny of the in between is at its most oppressive at 24. So far, anyway. Not young enough to judge people for being born in the 80s, not old enough to relate to the people who judge the people born in the 90s, you're really nowhere at all. In a school, sandwiched between seventeen and seventy year olds, you feel like a student who forgot to come in uniform, or like you're forever chaperoning a younger sibling's party when your parents are still in the house. It's quite maddening, really.

"I really don't care if you bunk General class," I say to advisees, because I really don't. I know they will whether or not I threaten them with Student Handbooks and study hall. And then, remembering my conversations with teachers and in particular the terrible college essays I have read, I add "You're the ones who are screwed if you don't though, because your writing skills are awful, so do yourselves a favour and go, you'll thank us for it later, I promise." And then, remembering I am supposed to be a goddamned authority figure, I say, "You signed the Student Handbook! You have to attend all your classes! If you don't you'll get study hall!"

Defeat. Where do I belong again, the classroom or the staff room or some mythical place somewhere in the middle?

I say good morning to the principal. I call her Mrs Lastname, not by her first name, not ever. She's a teacher! Teachers don't have first names unless prefixed by a Miss or something. She tells me she is most distressed by students' use of inappropriate language. They say "awesome" when they mean "very good" and "yaar" to refer to friends and they mix their English and Urdu and they use slang and it's all quite terrible, really. Yaar, iss age pay aap retire hi kar jayen, I think. Kaafi awesome ho ga. "Yes, they should really pay more attention in General class," I pander to my audience.

One of the students wanted to know why her friend hangs out with my department, because we're so old. My ego is stung. Old, I think, is for people who have coherent memories of the time you were born! I was in kindergarten! Quite cheeky of her to say that to me, considering I'm five years...older.

24. Tyranny.


The students cheered and hollered loudly today when their friends campaigned for student council. Some of the kids rode waves of popularity all the way to the ballot box, scarcely bothering to make speeches, others tried harder, but they all got cheers. Once again, on the other side of the fence, I'm sitting and checking signatures against a list of student names and thinking how much easier it was to matter back in school. The lines that make you Someone start to run into one another like colors in a magic paint-with-water book when you are removed from the context of sixteen years of formal education.
I asked someone two weeks ago if growing up means adjusting expectations when your whole life you've been fed on a diet of dreams you must chase. Why didn't that diet include gentler words of wisdom, such as defining to yourself why you have a dream at all? Why were we told to reach for the moon to land among the stars, etcetera, when we should have been reminded our brightness may or may not lie in astronomic pursuits? And why, why, didn't anyone tell us inspiration lies in the people we meet and as long as we stay human we will automatically matter? It is inspiration, not achievement, that is found in mean quantities in the supposed real world. Someone should hold seminars for 21 year olds telling them that their three-years-later selves won't care how many things are checked off a to-do-list every day. Telling them to hear and tell stories and meet people, because that is the only thing that ever changed the world for the better.
I asked a current student council member if it's a bitter feeling to see the next group come in and take their place, remembering that's how we felt six years ago, remembering that's how I feel now when my friends are still in college. That slight envy of good times still to come, coupled with I-wish-you-knew-what-was-coming. Really, I wish you knew what was coming, because life never stops being fascinating if mattering matters less.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


There are so many useless wars being fought. While the world fails to debate the necessity of drones and dams, burqas and birth control are once again dominating public discourse. It seems that women's bodies are the oldest battle territory, being trampled on endlessly by men who believe boots on the ground are best way to fight the war against feminism.

Rush Limbaugh thinks all women who buy birth control are whores.
The Komen Foundation thinks it can support one part of female anatomy while neglecting the rest.
Lawmakers think a fetus I grow inside me has more "personhood" than the rest of me.
Slow-moving drivers on the road want me to know the skinny jeans under my kurti are whatever filth they utter as they pass.
Judges in courts want me to know I was probably asking for it.
The technician in the X ray lab wants to know if I am married, not pregnant.
Internet trolls everywhere say that if I protest, I must protest within the boundaries of male-defined modesty. Like a lady, not a slut.

So you have taken my health, my breasts, my not-pregnant period, the way I walk, the way I talk, how I move and what I say and I will regulate my behaviour so as not to shock your tiny mind, so as to safeguard your virtue. I will. I will because I can walk down the street wearing the tightest jeans or a shapeless bag and you will never understand it is all relative and you will never look away (or even smile). But you will curl your lip and smirk when I demand to know why I am different, because one should have balance in life yaar, one shouldn't be a feminist. I will let you believe you are inherently more reasonable, more practical, less flooded with hormones, more entitled to success and respect and the streets and justice and even God. I know this is your war, not mine, because mine is fought in my head and that-that is something you will never control.

And every day, I will thank god for every man who put down his arms (or who never took them up to begin with), for every woman who holds onto her thoughts and for every undefined binary-rejecting friend who ignores it altogether. Old conservative men are welcome to be an authority on menstruation, pregnancy, modesty and women's delicate emotions, they are welcome to their war, they are welcome to have us laugh at them, but their battlegrounds know this is another great game that will never be won.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


The upside down card reader outside my dorm, its magnetic stripe unexpectedly running down the right and not left side. The beep-beep of my door when I hurriedly swiped backward when returning from the shower. My glittery turquoise flip flops, squelching and wet, kicked off into my closet to dry with my yellow bathrobe. The yellow bathrobe I lost when an inebriated girl stumbled into my room nude and needed to be covered up. The Swiffer, wet wipes, dusters, laundry freshener and disinfectant neatly lined in my closet so I could clean my life back into order every time I had a paper to write. Three thousand pages of readings, printed, colour-coordinated and labeled in my transparent plastic drawers. I dropped them in the recycling bin when I finished my thesis. They fell inside with a thud I felt in my stomach and I missed them immediately. The soft pile of my rug which I felt against my face when I laughed so hard I cried and cried so hard I laughed, when there was nothing to do but lie on the floor with my face against the blue. My friend’s obnoxious black boots, which I nudged away with my toe while lazing on the floor eating pizza with her, telling her to leave her shoes outside like a good Asian and laughing about how we weren’t the clean kind of Asians. The PVTA schedule in my drawer, memorized backwards and forwards (except for the weekend B43 route, with too many stops to keep track of). People on the PVTA. Judging people on the PVTA. That one definitely goes to Hampshire. She is barefoot, not dirty but kind of dusty looking, wearing a shapeless knee length cotton dress and a nose ring. I marvel at how tiny her bones are, how pretty her cheeks and how filthy the soles of her feet from cultivating calluses in preparation for winter. The Amherst guy looks like a stereotype. Popped collar and everything. My red Mount Holyoke sweatshirt, with its Pegasus and class pride that means nothing to anyone but us. My lack of class pride. I am yellow and red, I am orange, I would say, because I am a fake senior, but on convocation I wore only red, unwilling to explain. Feeling fake at J show on senior night and feeling like a double senior while I wrote my thesis and worked three jobs. Walking into my Tuesday job at Ortega House on a Monday night and getting a bright smile from the Latina who thought I was there because I felt at home and not because my body clock was off by 24 hours. Taking naps between classes and forgoing sleep at night because there were too many amazing conversations to be had right outside my door. Amazing conversations, amazing conversations. Saying hey, let’s Do Something and registering it as a whole organization over a pizza dinner. Conversations always meant something, except when they didn’t. Saying hi, how are you, what can I get you today, would you like that with soy milk, cream cheese on your bagel, should I slice that for you, can I get the little one an orange juice, do you want that in a bag, should I leave space for half and half, no we don’t take debit, we’re out of Oolong tea and sometimes meeting great people and sometimes not. Cutting my hair and coming in for my shift and having my coworker come very close and look me in the eye and say, you cut your hair, did you? And trying to explain I am actually straight, but I like short hair. Pulling the belt on my black sweater tight around my waist and my gay friend told me I was almost attractive that day, but not usually because I look like the kind of girl a guy would be into and feeling oddly let down. My boyfriend, I would say, my boyfriend is waiting for me to call and thinking about all the girls whose boyfriends weren’t a million miles away and wondering what it would be like, what heady freedom would actually mean if I could really use it with a boy I loved. Not really thinking about boys much and realizing how little I missed them, but eventually not realizing at all. The smell of winter-coming, the smell of winter here, the beautiful silence of snowfall. The cookies and kindergarten smell of Kendade-Cleveland-Carr-who knew the difference anyway-the preparing lunch sandwiches for grab and go smell in my 11am class. The boy in my history class-it took me all semester to realize he was a boy, I have never seen a boy so thin-he had a British accent, but he didn’t speak much. The professor who always said “Good morning Miss Elahi,” enunciating it correctly even though he had seventy two students and he never forgot a name. He said it was okay the day I fell asleep in my seat and actually slid off my chair, because everyone is exhausted sometimes and I clearly was. I excused myself to wash my face and dry it with woody-smelling paper towels and came back and wished I was awake enough to be as inspired as usual. Inspiration, inspiration. I don’t remember when it left exactly, but it wasn’t long ago. The Stimson room in the library had tea and cookies on Wednesdays at 4pm, but I always remembered too late. The room was full of poetry books and the fireplace was perfect. The feeling of my heart bursting the first time I saw spring, of my jaw dropping when the cherry tree blossomed and scattered pink flowers across the path to where I lived and thinking how ungrateful are these girls who are laughing at my incredulity. YouTube videos on the big screen in Cleveland L2 at night, when we were supposed to be studying biology. I still can’t explain how mitosis happens, but the girl I spent the night with was a third culture kid from a dozen different countries and that was altogether more informative. The biology professor had a nice butt and the kind of face you had to imagine with straw hanging out of his mouth-a nice face, but an Anglo-Saxon farm face which asked me too many stupid questions about my culture. All the girls watched his behind and sometimes they noticed Fifi’s legs, because she only wore shorts and she had the longest legs of any girl I had seen. She didn’t like the professor because he made fun of her town. Towns, outside train windows and wondering what it was like to grow up in a town and be proud of it and caring about it more than other towns. If there was ever a DHA versus Saddar cricket match, I would not care who won, but these kids went nuts at the mention of sporting victories for their suburban homes. Nationalism, my professor scoffed. Ha. Nationalism. Imagined communities. Using those words and taking it for granted everyone would have read the book, or at least the recommended extracts. Coming home and realizing nobody had, but there was so much I had missed learning too. The past is a different country. My two year reunion invitation is in the mail. How far away. How long ago.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


In my second year of college, I took a history class on Muslim politics in modern South Asia. It was the first step to what would become my major and independent research. There were nine or ten of us in class, of which seven (including myself) were South Asian Muslim, one was West Indian Muslim and two were white Americans. This is important. I later took history classes on China, ancient Greece and Latin America and I was conscious of the way I engaged with the material differently because of my race and religion and nationality.
This interested me when I studied the philosophy of history (a class with concerns that are supposedly universal), in a room full of people a great deal more colourful than the classrooms teaching regional histories. "Positivism," I scrawled in the margin of my notes, thinking but not really thinking about how there can be no such thing. I tried to take my Pakistani-Muslim-Woman-Sufi parents-Urdu speaking-Punjabi speaking-pro Partition-anti Partition-upper class-American citizen-Pakistan resident goggles off for class, but I never could entirely. I could only sink into the consciousness of the way my person seeped into my readings and interpretations.
One of the girls in my South Asian history class was specialising in ancient Rome. She was from Alaska and needed the class to fulfill her "multicultural" requirement. On my way out of a different class one day, I overheard her telling her friend about our class. "So NOW I can totally talk about how Bangladesh was a product of the oppression of West Packistan's economic exploitation, who knew?" Earlier in class, she had remarked "Whoa! Interesting little country." I disliked her generally. Briefly, our eyes met. She lowered hers in the embarrassment that I had overheard her, neither of us sure why she was embarrassed. I realised I was feeling hurt. My major, my research, my home and my country had suddenly, in my own eyes, appeared as a multicultural requirement. My own history was obscure.
I forced myself to go beyond my comfort zone a lot through Intergroup Dialogues and classes about things I knew nothing about because I was determined not to tokenize any experience or see my own as the norm. I am what I am and you are what you are, you know?
Someone I knew in college boycotted Snapple because of its exoticisation of mangosteen (and therefore Asia). That was beyond my understanding. Mangosteen had nothing to do with my otherness.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


My wedding present to myself arrived today.

The new bookshelf we ordered is wide enough to hold it for sure. I think the little cubbyholes in the wall unit are meant for decoration, so I bought decor I can read and dream on and sleep with.

For three thousand one hundred and sixty eight rupees, I have twelve new volumes which I will one day stamp with a custom-made stamp saying "From the library of Sarah and Emaad." One day, I will donate one or more of these treasures and someone will flip to the first stamped page and say here is someone who loved very much and the beauty will multiply like caterpillars building cocoons in a bicycle basket. Twelve to add to a few dozen more which I will take with me, twelve to subtract from the few dozen I leave behind. On hot, brooding afternoons in July, I will take them out of the growing-older shelf, dust off the less-loved ones and arrange them by author, by subject, by title.

And when the first rush of newness-of the books, of my life, of everything-has passed, I will have old friends and new ideas waiting to be held. I will dream with Marquez, imagine with Roy and pontificate on politics with Said and Ahmed. On a rainy afternoon, I will cry about war, celebrate humanity and perfect my Urdu with Faiz and Manto. Perhaps on a bad tutoring day I will fall back on the Elements of Grammar and after a long one, retire with Pattanjali and his yoga sutras.

I am not getting married because I don't want to be alone. I have too much to read to worry about that.

I am getting married because I am excited to share my books and my love and my life with my best friend in the world.

Until then, my new present is waiting to be opened.

Monday, January 9, 2012


I wish I had some aptitude for physics. I think an understanding of the physical universe outside of the stupidities and banalities of human existence would be both fascinating and therapeutic.

I don't really mean to call all of human existence stupid and banal, but much of it is. Or at least its interpretation is. It drives me crazy thinking about how many people don't think at all. Because one of my goals is to channel yoga practice into daily life, I try and remind myself that wise people are the ones who know they know nothing and that I don't know anything about anybody until I've walked a mile in their shoes, but I confess that I don't practice what I preach to myself.

I watch women a lot and wonder what they are really like and what they think about when they are alone or making tea or in the shower or in bed. Always women. I tend to gloss over the men I see in daily life, but women interest me. I will wait for them, impatiently, as I stand in line at the tailor's shop and wonder if they love their husbands or if they are unhappy with their lives. Sometimes I eavesdrop on conversations in public places and sometimes-too many times-wonder if people think at all. About anything. Or whether they just float from one thing to another, making stupid comments and loving their children and being normal citizens and being hypocrites and sipping chai. Again and again, I cruelly think, you don't think at all, and I remind myself they are mothers and sisters and friends and human beings and must think about something, but I fall short of that yogi-like love for humanity. All in all, Pakistani society drives me mad. Not just my own social class, but all of them. I've been lucky to have worked with people from all walks of life and although wonderful people are to be found everywhere, so are the stupid and ignorant.

People are cruel that way. They fascinate you and then stomp on your interest in derision and laugh in your face at the expectation that they will be as beautiful as you want them to be. I want to see them and their stories of love and passion and disappointment and hurt and sins and redemption, but so often all you get is what seems like emptiness and slumped out giving upness. I'm left to my own self-centered disillusionment, thinking I wish I understood physics better to take me away from the world of people and into something bigger and forever expanding.