Humera Afridi and A Gentle Madness
Afridi recalls memories of the Pakistan she left behind @ Granta.
When I was twelve, my parents decided to leave Pakistan and move our family to Abu Dhabi. My heart, I thought, would never recover. But I needn’t have worried. The country came with me: it moved in, set up home, breathing inside me a stream of remembrances that, for twenty-eight years, have inflected the most minute details of my present life. No matter where I’ve lived since – Dubai, Dallas, Minneapolis, Jeddah or New York – fragments from those years merge and dissolve into the now so that walking down a street, or waiting underground for the subway to screech to a halt, I often feel as if I’ve accidentally slipped inside a video installation layered with disjunctive sound and imagery. The sounds are family lore, stories I’ve heard so many times that I can’t free my memory from their telling, nor can I simply live in a present that isn’t sieved through their mythology.
Pakistan is a nation of memory keepers. We feed our memories as if they are guests at tea, pay homage to them. Past and present skim close, brushing arms like almost-lovers strolling in a desert park. There is one memory that shoots through the aperture, into the present, with particular ferocity.
1971: Mother, Father, Ayah and I are driving to the Kohat Military Hospital. I have an ear infection, am burning up with a fever. From high above, somewhere in the darkening sky, East Pakistan is about to bomb us – the country is at war with itself. We live in Lahore but have driven north across the plains, through arid tribal terrain, to my father’s ancestral village, Babri Banda, in the Northwest Frontier. My great-aunt has died. Pakistan is a nation of memory keepers. Because my grandfather is in London, where he is serving as High Commissioner, and my uncles and aunts are visiting him and my grandmother there, as the eldest son, and the only one present in Pakistan, it falls on my father to represent his family at the funeral. Despite the danger of air raids, ritual demands that we make the journey from Lahore. Over the few days we spend in Babri Banda, amidst the wailing, keening, chest-thumping sorrow of the village relatives, I provide delightful distraction to the mourners who pull me out of Mother’s or Ayah’s arms to pet, kiss and rock me. My mother, squeamish about germs, is convinced I’ve been infected by a villager who kissed me on the ear.
In the Frontier, it is customary to remain indoors after sunset – kidnappers and robbers are everywhere – as it is lawless country, outside the government’s jurisprudence. But I am listless and dehydrated and when my fever spikes, we have no choice but to drive out of the high mud-walled family compound at dusk to the hospital. Fifteen minutes into our drive, a somber wailing dissects the stark landscape. Warning gunshots follow. My father pulls up along a dirt path, flings open the passenger doors and drags Mother and Ayah into the adjacent field. My mother is carrying me in her arms. She hesitates, looking this way and that way into the empty distance, before jumping into the dugout.
We crouch in the dark. There is sticky blood on my cheek, my ear is oozing. The inside of my mouth, my throat, are choked with sand. The dizzying wails of the siren hem us tighter into the trench. The sound is high and deep all at the same time. There are leaves in my mother’s hair, twigs caught in her chador, the end of which she’s balled and stuffed into her sobbing mouth. My father is distracted and stoic, chanting shush, shush, shush through the warning. I can hardly breathe. The alarm pierces the humming in my ear, drives the fever so that it soars, vulture-like and wild.
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