Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Dear 20 year old me,

When someone told me to write a letter to you, I decided I wouldn’t because I hardly know you. I barely recognize you. This, I later realized, is a good thing. If you resembled the current you, you would probably be doing very little learning right now, so get ready for the bumps and bruises that self-help books prescribe for toughening up.

Your college experience is still brand spanking new in many ways. You’re still flushed with gratitude for the financial aid you’re getting, the opportunities to take amazing classes, your meetings with exciting new people. Hold on to that. There will be a day when you sit on a parking lot curb and cry your eyes out because you think you are dropping out of school, you’re exhausted trying to juggle work and classes, you can’t believe the unfairness of a system that would give you hope one year and crush it the next and above all, you feel stupid for not being more prepared and wiser about managing finances. You’re going to realize it’s okay to ask for (and accept) help. Your gratitude will come back when you learn how beautifully people and even institutions can come through for you. You will work even harder next year to make sure you deserve the wonderful things the universe keeps giving you and you will never make the mistake of mixing up your debit and credit cards, or miscalculating your phone bill, or leaving your paycheck in the laundry room, or signing off on unsubsidized loans, or agreeing to work for less than 8 dollars an hour again. You will spend every six months after graduation converting rupees to dollars to figure out how much you can afford to donate to the financial aid fund as a marker of your gratitude. Sometimes, you will have to say no thank you to friends who want to go to bars and restaurants and Mexico and save money to pay back your One Card debt at the bookstore and feel shitty about it. Don’t feel shitty about it. When you buy yourself a winter jacket, a new laundry hamper, groceries for spring break and the books you really just want to own and not rent, you will feel really, really good. By the time you’re done, you’ll have saved up a few hundred dollars; enough to get a ticket to New York to pick up your parents from the airport when they come for graduation, enough to treat your siblings to pizza and ice cream for a few days, even enough to buy a pretty dress and heels and lipstick for commencement. You’ll feel like a millionaire and don’t worry, you won’t realize how delusional you are until you get your first loan repayment notice, which is far away yet.

You will learn that heartbreak happens when people are right about the world being as broken and cruel as it really is. You know who you want to marry and you think you’re over heartache, but you haven’t considered the possibility of being hurt by random things you learn about the world rather than by another person. Consider that possibility. Consider that right now, you are filled with a sense of anythingcanhappen, a sense of wanting to change the world (In a year! In a month! IN A DAY!) and snottily feel sorry for those who claim they are “realists.” In two years time, you will passionately defend your choices in life and angrily explain to people that what you are doing is, in fact, changing the world, a little a time. In three years time, you will be disillusioned by the people who the world applauds for making a difference and start questioning everything about why you chose your field at all. You’ll spend at least a year trying to figure out if it’s worth making a difference, occasionally admitting the realists were right and then making plans to leave (later you’ll call it running away) so you can start over in a shiny new place where you can make a different difference. At some point, you will look around and be inspired by people who don’t set out to win the Nobel Prize, people who transform everything around them by doing what they love and you will want to be one of them. 

You will almost go to graduate school and then struggle when you realize that the things you want to accomplish require Being Here, getting your hands dirty and dealing with many more years of dirty bureaucracy and irritating hurdles. You will decide you’re not brave enough to stick around for a vague plan you haven’t shared with anyone but your partner and then you will decide you are. I don’t know how it goes from there, but it will be hard and you will hope it is worth it.

You will fight with your parents a lot. Don’t. In a couple of years you’ll be embarrassed to admit to yourself that they, especially your mother, are Always Right. You will find yourself calling your parents to ask how to make the perfect salad and whether to renew your employment contract because after four years of independence, suddenly you can’t function without their advice. You will eventually quit being such a baby, but you’ll never get rid of the tiny mom-voice in your head that shouts “Bismillah!” whenever somebody drives too fast and reproachfully tells you that if you had bothered trying on that churidar pyjama when it was first stitched you wouldn’t be sitting here with polythene bags on your feet, grunting to pull it on.  

You will go from being unsure of yourself to bouncing with confidence. You will be commencement speaker. You will be proud of yourself. When you are handed your degree, you will sit back down in your seat and laugh and cry at the same time because you worked so hard to get it. Other people will look at you like so what, we all eventually graduate, but you won’t care. You’ll feel wounded in a couple of years when people ask why you don’t get “more education” and why you’re satisfied with “just a BA” because you’ll never forget how far you came to get the first degree.

You will be obsessed with your thesis. You will take classes which blow your mind. Four years later, you will write to professors about how you are using those classes to plan your own classes and they’ll say you made their day. Don’t skip class.

Your thesis defense will be canceled the day before it is supposed to happen due to a series of unfortunate events that the department will apologize for one month after you graduate. You will curl up on your rug and cry like a baby and feel as if you have lost everything you have thrown your entire self into for two years. You will pick yourself off the rug and go to work because you need the $20 and one of the kids there will give you a flower and a goodbye card and they will all hug you and make you promise to be a teacher again in Pakistan. You’ll cry for the second time, but this time in a good way and tell your friend over dinner that you see the bigger picture. You don’t really see it, but it helps to say it. Later, you’ll see the bigger picture and realize you can’t unlearn your thesis and not defending it doesn’t make it any less important to you.

You will be disgusted by people and disappointed by people and driven mad by people. You will beat yourself up about being a bad person when you decide to distance people who haven’t deliberately hurt you, but who you don’t want to be around for reasons you won’t want to articulate. You will make and lose friends and make friends again and when something terrible happens and you find yourself dialing one number and not another, suddenly realize who it is you can really count on. You’ll waste a lot of tears and a perfectly good Nokia 1100 which you hurl at the wall, but it’ll get better.

In five years, you’ll realize you are at your happiest ever. You will be sitting in Pigeon or Mermaid pose on your yoga mat and it will hit you that you absolutely love where you are and what you are doing and who you are with. You should give credit to your husband and family in that moment, but you won’t. You’ll think it’s a product of your disciplined asana practice and be cocky for a few days, but the happiness won’t fade.

Soon, you will be unrecognizable in many ways. You will be 20 pounds heavier and people will be cruel about it. You’ll briefly consider being anorexic or something and then choose a more sensible option and lose some (but not all) of it. You’ll wish you had joined the positive body image club in college just for practice. You’ll come home from random gatherings with a cryingish feeling in your throat because three people were rude enough to ask if your thyroid condition is to blame for making your heavier and how their friend’s sister’s daughter was also on thyroxine and she dropped her excess weight like a hot potato and when do you plan on doing the same? For a while, you will tie your worth to a number on a scale, the way you promise yourself now you never will. You’ll wonder why you care so much and then you will stop caring. Don’t freak out too much. In five years you will be able to run faster, train harder, lift heavier and stretch further than you ever imagined possible and feel smug in front of skinny minnies struggling at the gym.

You will be bored by regular employment and think all employers are insane until you find the right job (and you will) and then you will actively look forward to Mondays. That day will come. Meanwhile, gear up for some of the world’s most psychotic bosses. They will make some funny stories later on, so deal with them as they come and use them to learn about what you don’t want to become.

Gear up for a lot of things. In five years you’ll go from anxiously awaiting your first flight to college, to supporting yourself, changing your entire belief system about three times, reading hundreds of books, meeting fascinating people, graduating, getting married, making all your important decisions about career and grad school and having kids and working your way through four jobs. And you will feel stupider at the end of it for having been cocky at 20, but don’t worry. Your cockiness is about to be destroyed. Enjoy the ride.


Friday, February 8, 2013


I’m a yogini. Technically, anyway. I have two and a half students and don’t own, or work at, a studio. I have a 200 hour teacher training certification, but not from the prestigious Yoga Alliance, because my teacher believes their membership fees would make his training program unaffordable. I don’t have beautiful photographs of myself doing Wild Thing or Lord Dancer Pose against the setting sun on a beach and nobody ever asks me to perform asanas in meadows while they click their DSLR. I don’t eat meat, but I do eat fish (and no, I don’t “feel bad for them as sentient beings,” before you ask). I don’t remind everybody that sugar is poison because I have a crazy sweet tooth. I have no desire to ever do a wheatgrass shot, because it has the word “grass” and I’m sure it tastes awful. I can do splits, handstands and dropbacks to Wheel pose, but I usually don’t unless I’m in my room, sometimes with the cat watching. I know the Sanskrit words for poses, but never use them in class because English works just as well. I don’t own a single item of clothing from Lululemon; I wear my husband’s t shirts and track pants from my college days. I am not skinny and never will be, no matter how much I focus on healthy eating and vinyasa yoga. When yoga teachers talk about feeling the light of the universe in your hamstrings and gently awakening your heart chakra to absorb the wisdom of Pattanjali, I feel pretentious just hearing it. I love my hamstrings and heart chakra and even Pattanjali, but sometimes I worry my low threshold for hearing about all these things in the same sentence makes me a bit of a fraud.

This is bad marketing. I should tell you about waking every day with a sunbeam on my face and a prayer in my heart. I should talk about the joys of clean living and how energetic I feel because I don’t eat meat. I should do 108 Sun Salutations in a row, in a public park or beside the sea, preferably at dawn. I should not tell you that every time I balance in Scorpion against the wall, or manage a backbend while I’m in a split, I shout to my husband “Woohoo, are you APPRECIATING THIS YET?”

You don’t need to know that I have cotton pants four sizes too big for me in colours which happen to be flattering because I think it makes me look like I’m naturally thin, cool and unconcerned, the way a yogini should be. Nobody wants to know that pranayama was the last thing I chose to focus on when developing my own practice (I do it now, I promise!), or that I won’t use a neti pot to clear my perennially clogged respiratory system just because that episode on House where the guy dies from brain-eating bacteria freaked me out. I love Ayurvedic remedies, herbal tea and eating right for my dosha, but I won’t try any ancient remedies that sound like they taste bad (like chewing on six black peppers to cure an allergy attack). I’m immature. I have no patience, except with children, because I think they are cute. I’m the prototype for a 20 something urban-dweller and you are welcome to disparage me for not being a real yogini.

But as Dr Suess says…UNLESS…

Unless you know how many things yoga can be, don’t knock it till you try it. I am not a jet-setting instructor with a book deal and advertisements for Nike yoga shoes (which are as ridiculous as they sound), but I will never judge you. I won’t judge you for thinking yoga is boring, “nothing but stretching,” not intense enough, but I might challenge you to see otherwise. I won’t live up to your expectations of what a yoga teacher should be like, but I will practice for an hour every day on my mat and if you really want me to, even teach you what “breathing into your psoas” actually means. I promise never to write blogs about finding the goddess within me and I will never lecture you on what yoga is REALLY about-because, you know, that's kind of what yoga's all about.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


My relationship with history is a messy one. Born more than forty years after Partition, surrounded by those who remembered it, the event trickled into the deepest shadows of my imagination, populated by mind-elves in saris and kurta pajamas, squabbling about the Muslim League, Unionists and Congress in muddled, half-understood Urdu and Punjabi. When I was asked to summon my thoughts about it as a college student, archivist or interviewer, the elves clambered out, noisily, to the background sound of yellowing pages rustling against a thumb with paper cuts.

My first awakening, the first time these ghosts with their UP accents and starched cotton saris were asked to organize themselves and explain to my post-everything self what 1947 stood for, was in college. Until then, Partition was a badly understood idea at best, confused by school-sanctioned patriotism and tacky “Love the soil of Pakistan” bumper stickers. Then came Ayesha Jalal, with her dry prose cutting through the nonsense of national idiom and setting my mind on fire. She was followed by historians, political scientists and dozens of interviewees who exhausted my capacity to comprehend Partition. I fantasized about crawling into my grandmother’s closet, scented with mothballs, and not coming out until my thesis wrote itself. I alternated between frenzied bouts of reading and writing and running from all things Partition-related. The process was so all-consuming that my idealistic motivations about educating children fell by the wayside. How, how, how would I transmit my half-baked ideas to anybody? The weight of August 1947, its sticky heat and oppressive ennui, made my mind sag like plants in an Amritsar home that a young woman and her mother had expected to return to, but didn’t.

There was the Jinnah movie in fifth grade, of which I remembered only a pregnant woman’s belly being pierced with a spear while an angry Junoon tune played in the background and the Stanley Wolpert quote about Jinnah which has been reproduced so many times in so many school assemblies and 14th August demonstrations. There were vague ideas about Muslim rights and the image of sadness-tinged, upright forefathers refusing to sing Vande Mataram and something to do with Hindu supremacy. There was the story of my grandmother and the death trains-the image seared into our ten year old brains was the one of her beautiful hair being chopped off after being exposed to filth and fleas on the two-month journey to Pakistan. There were the stories of my other grandmother and her home with its important visits by important people who we studied about in history books and the sense that we must live up to their expectations (don’t decry nationalism or their ghosts will look down on you reproachfully, don’t joke about them or Allah Mian will hear you). There was all this, no doubt, along with a heaviness, a pregnant-but-not-ready encyclopedia of images and ideas, in the minds of my students. They were me. I was twenty-two. Where does one even begin to commit to this moment in history, to this colossal undertaking of simultaneously understanding and explaining Partition? So I organized the things I could not and would not teach and how I could not and would not teach them. I went to class and fiddled with pedestal fans, dusted chalk off my kameez, passed around photocopies about inoffensive things like the geography of Pakistan (the borders already drawn for me by 1947). I talked about refugees and the Muslim League and the Congress and overthrowing colonialism, making all the political characters sound Equally Good and On The Same Side. I expended huge amounts of energy on not noticing that it was forty seven degrees Celsius and there was no electricity and how it just didn’t matter what I taught anybody in that context. In return, they taught me about their colonies and picnics at Benazir Bhutto park and playtime and loss. We became friends and I grew increasingly bitter with the idea of an objective history.

I started hating the questionnaire we used to interview oral history candidates, with its quiet assumptions about class and nationalism. Do you remember seeing the Pakistan flag unfurled for the first time? Were you proud to fly PIA the first time? I’m so sorry to steer you back to our topic, but can you describe Karachi’s nightlife in the 1950s? It made me sick. Meanwhile, Pakistan moved on, never allowing us a moment to catch our collective breath, not caring that I was scanning decaying newspaper articles about Mujib-ur-Rehman’s Six Points and vintage advertisements for Kashmiri Beauty long-lasting matchsticks. I would transcribe interviews, my heart breaking over and over for the man whose wife called him a coward and burned him with her disappointment when he ran for his life during a Dhaka riot in 1971; applauding the lady whose excellent matchmaking services and record of finding Very Suitable Boys saw her through bombing raids in 1965 after she was widowed. In between, I would check Facebook and Twitter for updates on the situation outside our window. Zulfikar Mirza drunkenly poked fun of Muhajirs. Rehman Malik came into power and a joke about calling apples bananas made the rounds. We lost students’ family members at summer camp to communal violence and missed a few days of school. Osama was killed. Drone strikes escalated. Polio vaccine campaigns came under threat. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t, we said. Pakistan was reappropriated as “Af-Pak.” All that history we were digging up that made us part of India, we joked, was becoming obsolete, as if such a thing were possible. We saw ourselves morph into a Taliban state, a Global Threat, citizens of the world’s Most Dangerous City. People told us we were brave and we felt uncomfortable. On most days, Partition and its stories made no sense.

The following year, as a teacher, I quietly struck “South Asia; the partition of the subcontinent and the subsequent history of the Indian and Pakistani states” off the world history syllabus for my O level students. It’s because I didn’t want to confuse them by offering them “real” history the same year they learned the mutilated Partition history of Pakistan Studies, I said to school administration. It’s because I would much rather teach China, a topic that is so relevant today, I told students. It’s because our syllabus is so lengthy, I told colleagues. I couldn’t decide which answer was best. It could be because Mrs. J left her home in Amritsar unlatched because she was going to return soon, but she, like her neighbor Sadat Hasan Manto, never did. It could be because Mr. I was an Urdu-speaking man from Calcutta who migrated to Punjab, didn’t fit in, migrated to Dhaka, didn’t fit in, migrated to Karachi and still doesn’t fit in. It could be because a million silent rapes have been replaced by louder ones. It could be that I am exhausted, and twenty five, and no smarter than three years ago, and there is noise in my head, a rustlerustlerustle of pages of books and interviews which leap out and eat me alive. It could be that the thought of going to graduate school for history lost its charm when the idea of writing papers about Objective History appeared to be a monstrous irrelevancy before the fifteen year olds I have not yet taught. It could be, that in another forty years, a granddaughter may beat her head against the boulders left to her by my generation…and by then, I will have grown to understand, by then I will have something to teach.