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.