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).