Tag Archives: Pakistan

The snake and Nano’s Alzheimer’s

“I had Hindu friends.” My Nano (grandma) who has Alzheimer’s says, wiping away a tear that rolls down her cheek. She looks at me and smiles. “A few of them we’re Sikh and Christian too, and we would sit on the roof, on wooden cots and talk until the sun sunk behind the horizon, or until my father came home and shooed us all away. After the partition, we all just separated.”

I hold onto Nano’s hand and sit by her knees. She doesn’t remember me, but she knows I look like someone she’s supposed to know. She gets frustrated when she doesn’t remember so I play around with her, telling her I’m the cleaning lady or a neighbor or someone who is here to steal the metal plates that Abu (grandpa) bought for her.

It’s her glassy eyes that make me feel guilty. Her lips wobble and her eyebrows knit together so I spit out the truth. And as soon as I do that she smiles and kisses me on the cheek. She tells me how much she missed me, and I want to say the same thing to her, but I’ll end up crying. So, instead, I ask her to tell me about her time when the British were here.

“They were nice. Very just…” she says, and I see pride forming in her eyes. She remembers certain things like they happened yesterday, but she’s forgotten everything else including me.

“This one time, after the British left and when your mother was a child…” Nano giggles. She tells me her tales, again and again, each one having the same people, but new plots. “It was late at night and I had to use the bathroom. During those days we didn’t have toilets, so we had to go out in the fields to relieve ourselves. At night all of us women would gather together at a meeting point, and we would walk towards the fields. Now the fields were empty, and they were scary. The fields were far away from the village, so it was usually a long walk. The wind would make these weird noises that would make our hearts crawl. So like any other day, holding our oil lanterns, we walked to the fields. The grass was as long as my knees, and it was hard to walk, but we managed to get deep where no one would see us. We separated and took our spots. Now as soon as we all settled down, this girl, my friend started screaming, and we all jumped in fear grabbing our trousers with one hand and the oil lanterns with the other. ‘Snake’ I heard someone shout. We were all so scared that we… we… we.” Nano pauses and looks at me with confusion contouring her features. The wrinkles forming on her forehead deepen and she asks, “Who are you?”

“Nano!” I try not to sound frustrated, but anger coats the softness in my voice.

“I’m your granddaughter,” I tell her for the umpteenth time. Nano’s not paying attention to me anymore, she’s too focused on my cousin who’s slamming the door because my youngest aunt refused to give him money.

I slowly slip away and go to Mama. I tell her Nano’s story and she laughs confirming that it’s true. “I have my own story to tell, but yes… all the women ran away, and a man came and hunted the snake and killed it.”

“No….” My aunt says frowning. “That’s not what happened. The snake was a female who had taken the form of a snake. Her husband was killed by Chacha Akhtar, so she came back, and she bit him while he was sleeping. Remember…” She says to mama as she holds back her laugh.

“Yeah and Abu (father) used that stone to suck out the poison” Mama is wheezing so hard that water leaks through her lashes.

“The stone is probably in the old house. Remind me to go get it later.” Auntie’s still laughing.

I blankly stare at them, not knowing what childhood story they’re talking about, but it makes me smile knowing that I’ve reminded them of a memory they both had forgotten.

“Alchemy… Herbs…” Mama says trying to explain the whole concept of the snake-stone-story to me. “Chemistry” she finally breathes in disappointment, as if Alchemy is something we’re taught in school. I ask her about the stone but that requires a story of its own.

Nano has Alzheimer’s, Mama’s story seems too boring, so I go with auntie’s version.

Photo by Burak K from Pexels

Understanding circumstances

When I was young, and we lived in Pakistan, Mama would have to drive us everywhere because my dad was living here in the US.

Women driving in Pakistan isn’t common, especially not in the villages. Mama would wrap her head and bury her face beneath a scarf whenever she drove to our village. People would stare and question, but it never bothered her or me or any of my siblings. I always felt a sense of pride, knowing that out of all the women in our village, Mama was the only woman who knew how to drive. Many others learned after her.

She was scared at first, and things haven’t always gone the way we wanted them to. There was a lot of crying. A lot of confusion. A lot of breaking down. But things always worked out at the end because we made them work out.

One of the worst incidents we faced was when we had a flat tire. It was Friday and like every other weekend, we were going to our village. While driving on the eroded road with potholes, Mama lost balance, and the car swirled to the side almost hitting a tree, but she managed to press the brakes on time. Everything was okay, but we had a flat tire. Mama parked the car on the side of the road, and we waited for my dad’s cousin to come get us.

We sat inside the car with the AC on full blast. The sun was at its zenith, and the temperature was scorching to a hundred degrees. It was like an oven out there. The whole time we waited I cursed out everyone I could. Blaming God, Mama, Dad, everyone I could for every unfortunate event that was happening around us. Why did things have to happen the way they did? Did God not like me? Was I that unimportant for Him?

My dad’s cousin showed up an hour later and took us to a garage, which was nothing more than a shed with a few car parts scattered around.

One of the mechanics made us come out of the car. We had to sit on plastic chairs that were broken. The dust from the oncoming cars was flaring up my nostrils, and I hated the fumes coming out of the cars. The sun above our heads was striking us with its intense heat. My clothes were soaked in sweat. I felt the drops form in my scalp and slowly slither down my cheeks onto my clothes. Every inch of me was sticky like I had bathed in honey mixed with salt water.

We had been through much worse, but in that instance, every other memory seemed like a blessing.

Dad’s cousin bought us juice to drink, maybe he didn’t want us to pass out. Mama felt uncomfortable knowing that she’d have to drive the car, and she hated driving when people were watching. Especially men.

While I sat in the plastic chair with a broken arm, wondering why things just couldn’t work out, I saw a little kid, who was probably ten or eleven rush forward with a smile as bright as the sun on his face. He walked to the car with a metal toolbox clenched in his hand. Kneeling next to the tire, he started unscrewing it. The other mechanic slowly lifted the car with a floor jack. Within minutes the kid pulled the tire and replaced it with a new one.

For a moment his eyes met mine, and I saw a different kind of innocence that was filled with happiness. We were both the same age, yet everything about us was different. His shalwar kameez was greasy and it had different colored patches covering the holes in all the odd places. His hair was filled with oil, and I could smell the fumes five feet away. His face was layered in mud, but the smile tugging at his lips was beyond my understanding. His life was much worse than mine, yet he was happy. There was no greed in him. No envy. No hatred. Just simplicity.

Why?

Why was it that even with nothing in his hands, beside the smell of grease, he was satisfied with everything? Did he not know how miserable his life was, or was I the one who saw it that way? Maybe in order for me to understand his happiness, I needed his heart. The heat, the sun, the smell, the grease, nothing seemed to bother him. There was a glint in his eyes. It was the same one I lost years ago.

But that day I learned something. I learned that you won’t stop suffering just because you’ve suffered. Life won’t all of a sudden be grateful to you because it put you through trials. I never got to know that kids name, or his story, but every time life gets me down I think of him and his smile, and I don’t know why but relief floods my entire body.

Everything happens for a reason, and I guess the puncturing of the tire, us going to the worn-out-garage, was so I could understand that life isn’t fair to everyone. We just have to make the best out of the worst. We can’t dodge the bricks life throws at us, but we can use them to create a shield. Maybe build a castle.

That kid is probably in his twenties now. Maybe things got better for him, or maybe they got worse. I don’t know, and I guess I won’t ever find out. But he sketched his mark on me, in the form of a five-second smile that I won’t ever forget.

Image from Pixel

How many people will you save? (Pakistan trip-2016)

I’m standing on the balcony of my uncle’s house in our village, staring at the mountains far into the distance. Over there, close to the horizon are the lush valleys of Kashmir. The white clouds, above me, seem to be colliding with one another as if playing a failing game of tag.

“Salina, take the cots inside.” I hear the old woman next door scream in Panjabi to her daughter. Salina, a beautiful girl with long shiny hair comes running out into the Veranda and drags all the cots inside. I watch her in amusement.  She’s my age, and she lives in the village but she’s more active than I could ever be. Her strength probably comes from working in the fields all day. Surviving here, in the village is a workout on its own.

People here rarely have phones and apps, but they know what the weather would be like just by looking at the sky. It’s a talent that’s been passed down from generation to generation and unfortunately, it’s a skill I haven’t acquired.

Wifi here isn’t common either. But those that do have wifi don’t know how to use it and because of that, they don’t have passwords on it. Sometimes my phone catches signals and I find myself on Instagram scrolling through pictures of people who are pretending to be happy just like me.

Somewhere in the distance, someone has a cassette player on- that’s playing those Hindi and Pakistani songs people played when they lived in black and white. The same few songs are playing on repeat. I’ve memorized the lyrics by now.

Our village is pretty old. It probably has a story of its own.  From the balcony, the view is breathtaking. On one side of it, the mountains are visible and on the other side, the little village houses create a mosaic. The wind tickles you on your skin as it passes by. The fresh scent of jasmine is lingering in the air.

The houses in the village, except for ours, are all joined. The roofs and some of the balconies connect. All you have to do is jump over the railing and you’ll be in the next house. People here don’t mind because everyone knows everyone. To the villagers, I’m the granddaughter of Droga-the girl who came from America for her summer break.

Not all the houses are made of bricks and cement, a few, deep in the belly of our village are still made of clay. They don’t have bathrooms and like people in the olden days, they have to go out into the fields.

To my right I see a young boy milking a cow. He takes the cows otter and squeezes milk into his mouth. That seems like something I would like to do. Probably something, I will do.

On my left side, I see a woman gathering cow dung. She mixes it with hay and later on when it’s hardened she’ll use it as fuel to cook outside on the clay stove.

“Maybe we should help them,” I talked to my mom once. “The money I saved for camping-we can give it to Nilya and her family, and they can make a toilet.”

Even though I lived seven seas away, these people where what shaped me. They mended me into what I was and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get them off my mind. Most of my years in Pakistan were spent in the city, but the village was always like an empty home that my heart ached to know more of.

“How many people will you help?” my mom said frowning. She wanted to help them too, but we weren’t of the elite class. We barely fed ourselves in a capitalist society. We were all from the lower class, the only difference was that these people were from the lower class of Pakistan and we were from the lower class of America, but compared to them we were well-off.

“Everyone mama,” I tried to get her attention. Thick drops of sweat trickled down her cheeks and disappeared into her clothes. The heat was getting to her. Load shedding was so common that I lost track of when we had electricity and when we didn’t. We would often sit outside on the veranda, with hand fans cursing the government for their failure. At times it would get so hot that we would sit under the shower with our clothes on and when we had no water, we would use the hand pump.

“Your dads a taxi driver in New York City, we’re six people living in a two-apartment bedroom, with a tiny kitchen and a small bathroom. This is why I want you to graduate from College, become a doctor and help these people…” she didn’t stop talking. She gave me an entire lecture on how I needed to keep my GPA high and get into med-school to fill her dreams. To become what she wanted me to be.

A few rain-drops gracefully cascade down my cheeks. It feels good. When I was younger the rain was the only thing that bought me comfort. Maybe because I made myself believe, that in it was purity.

I look down at the veranda. My grandma is sitting on the cot drinking tea from a bowl. She has Alzheimer’s and she thinks I’m here to kick her out of her house. She’s been paranoid since we came here last week.

My cousins who live in the city also came to meet us. They’re playing cricket in the veranda. The youngest one calls me beautiful girl. He’s seven and he thinks I’m a doctor and I work in a big medical clinic in NYC. I never lied to him, but I didn’t correct him either. At least someone has a positive image of me.

The villagers are doing their daily duties. They know I’m watching, and they’re annoyed. A young girl nearby is making food outside on the clay stove. She’s making chicken curry. I know this because I can smell the spices she used. Another woman is warming the tandoor to make roti. My aunt knows her, and she’ll make roti for us too.

I gaze down at the rocky narrow pavement outside our house. Young kids are playing cricket on the road and among them, I see a woman slowly walking to our house. She’s wearing a blue shalwar kameez and she looks very pale. Her bones are showing as if she has no flesh on them. For a moment I stare at her, trying to remember who she is, and then it hits me. She’s Nazia, my mom’s second cousin.

I smile at her from above and run down the stairs, but I don’t greet her. Instead, I stand on the side and wait for her to recognize me. She was the one who would do my henna and design my hair. Every time we would come to the village from the city we would go to her house. She was like an aunt.

The door opens and Nazia walks in. She goes and hugs my mom and sobs into her shoulder. I stare at them, trying to make sense of the situation.

“Phophoo,” she calls my mother with love, ” I’m dying,” she chokes almost laughing. I cringe at her words, wondering why someone would joke about death.

Nazia looks over my mother’s shoulder and her gaze lands on me.

“Aashee,” she squeaks my nickname with love. I awkwardly smile at her, but she doesn’t smile back, instead, she walks over to me and embraces me into one of the warmest hugs I’ve ever felt. Her seven-year-old son straddles beside her. He awkwardly glances at me and I do the same.

Mama leads Nazia into one of the rooms with the AC- thankfully the electricity is back on. I trail behind them. My Aunt, who came from France to look after my grandmother, walks into the room with five cups of tea and biscuits. Tea in Pakistan is a symbol of affection and kinship.

“What do the doctors say?” Mama asks Nazia as she squeezes her hand.

My eyes flip up and all I see is Nazia shaking her head in disapproval. “I only have one kidney, which isn’t even working properly. The doctors say that in another month or so I wouldn’t be able to use it and I’ll have to go on dialysis. But tell me phophoo, how can someone like me afford that. How am I going to live?”

“Have faith,” Mama comforts her. Mama’s lips are moving but I can’t make sense of her words.

The only thing I could see is Nazia’s son playing with my little cousin.

What would happen to him if something happened to her? I lean back on the sofa and close my eyes, but the only thing I can hear is mama saying the same words over and over again.

“How many people will you help?”

Update- Nazia’s sister, donated her kidney to her; both are doing well (2018).
Nilya and her family finally have a toilet in their house (2018).

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