There’s a point on the journey between Islamabad and Abbottabad when the ground, more dust than earth and stained with engine oil, gives way to orange groves and mustard fields. You begin to see fewer Bedford trucks de-wheeled with their giant hoods propped open or being bathed like elephants by their wiry drivers, fewer plastic bags clinging ethereally to the brush. The dense, shrubby hills of Islamabad become mountains, and then the mountains themselves change, from cement-colored mounds, flattened and denuded by dynamite mining, to the brown and khaki beginnings of the Karakoram Range.
My family and I made this trip to visit our family in Abbottabad several times every year. We packed ourselves into our white government-issued Suzuki Swift hatchback and drove north out of the city. It was a route I knew down to every last truck stop and buffalo farm, so often did we travel it: via the two thousand-year-old Grand Trunk Road, then switching to the Karakoram Highway, the world’s highest-altitude motorway, which ends in China.
The Swift is a small car, even by small-car standards. The kind of car that necessitates distributing passengers’ weight evenly. Bearing a family of five, careening through a gauntlet of surprise detours and hard-to-miss craters, meant a lot of sharp intakes of breath. The roads were always being built and rebuilt, widened and filled in and carpeted. Occasionally a river fattened with rain would overrun a low-lying bridge, and the car would get quiet as whoever was driving tried not to think about the Suzuki’s low carriage and balding tires. That person was for a long time my older brother, my father having put off learning how to drive until he was nearly fifty. Then, when my younger brother was fourteen or so, he assumed the duty.
There was always a visceral sensation of inexorability to this drive, particularly during the final mountain ascent, made of equal parts resignation and petulance. It grew with the slowing of the traffic, and with each landmark: the billboards stuck in time, the anarchic roundabouts, the sidewalk hawkers with rows of nylon socks and baby sweaters and plastic sandals arranged on bed sheets. It grew with every slow-moving cattle truck we got stuck behind. Altogether how many hours, I wonder, have I spent with my eyes resting on bony bovine asses, swaying and shitting placidly? How many grassy turds have I seen materialize and fall while I conjure a life in which I am not the youngest daughter in a very large extended family?
By the time we reached the city limits, the car would be silent, my face flattened against the window. There was a grim exhaustion in arriving after that short but always harrowing drive. The stomach-dropping descent toward my uncle’s street signaled the last I would know of stillness until we were back in the car, heading home again.
Abbottabad, made charming in spots by pretty views, early morning army bagpipes, and picturesque colonial buildings, was named after old India hand Sir James Abbott in the mid-nineteenth century. In the time of the Raj, it was a piney, bucolic “hill station” to which the British overlords and their fainting-prone wives would retreat, seeking respite from the sweltering summers further south. In 1967, twenty years after Partition, my parents flew from New York to Frankfurt and, eschewing both map and plan, hitchhiked from there to Pakistan, stopping along the way in Heidelberg, Vienna, Ljubljana, Trieste, Istanbul, Esfahan, Shiraz, and Balochistan’s barren Nok Kundi. When they arrived in Abbottabad three weeks later, my 23-year-old mother, a civil-rights-marching, poodle-skirt-wearing Catholic kid from Philly, thought it was the most beautiful place she had ever seen. My father, solicitous with his big-hearted bride and glad for his homecoming, was twenty-four.
By the time Abbottabad impressed itself upon my earliest memories, much of the town’s physical charm had been paved over and choked out by population growth.
A year later, my elder brother was born there, at Rehmat Manzil, the house where my father grew up, well before the army obstetrician in her starched khaki sari turned up, twitching with annoyance. The Dutch missionaries at Burn Hall School gave my mother two and a half weeks of maternity leave and then she had to return to teaching. She was earning three hundred rupees a month, less than sixty-five dollars at the time. Even in Abbottabad, where you could buy a whole chicken for five rupees, this was not much to live on. My father had less success (or perhaps interest) in finding work, though he did make a good-faith attempt at farming poultry—an effort abruptly terminated when all the chickens perished from some mysterious avian affliction. My parents moved back to Philadelphia soon after, where, after several years of putting it off, they had me.
By the time Abbottabad impressed itself upon my earliest memories, much of the town’s physical charm had been paved over and choked out by population growth. Its once-pristine air was befouled by an unbroken column of overweight trucks disgorging oily blackness onto the main road that bisects the city. At some point, Rehman Manzil found itself surrounded by sooty, litter-infested storefronts that no one ever thought to beautify. Finally it was razed to make way for something more befitting the spirit of the changes that had come to the area, a motorcycle repair shop. Even in town, where the commercial squalor of the outskirts gave way to a modest assortment of residential neighborhoods, restaurants, fabric stores, and bridal salons, Abbottabad had little to recommend it to a kid like me, besides the occasional alpine drive up to Shimla Pahari and the diminishing allure of another Fanta.
Years later, after I’d left home, my parents built a small cottage in a corner of the walled-in acre of land that had belonged to my grandfather, adjacent to the plots where his brothers had built their homes. My father used to say that it took five years for a garden to bloom fully. He chose his hobbies judiciously and did nothing halfway: within three his was a busy and frankly delightful array of waterfalls, meandering creeks outfitted with tiny arched bridges, weeping willows and plum trees, gazebos, cobblestone walkways, and even a working miniature water wheel. The grass, which apparently originated in some enchanted Korean woodland, was a succulent thick-bladed species able to stand up to the unforgiving sun, a far cry from the clumps of scorched hay in other people’s lawns. At the gate, a sign read Badr un Nisa’s Place, after my grandmother.
Among my twenty-three still-living cousins, I am the only one who never felt completely at ease when all the families would descend like homing pigeons on my eldest uncle’s, or chacha ji’s, place in Abbottabad. There, we were everyone’s children, and there were many fathers and mothers to go around. As the family grew, chacha ji built an annex to house us all. Three of my father’s five siblings never settled anywhere else. The rest, who had at various times made homes with their families in Peshawar, Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, still returned to Abbottabad at frequent intervals: Big Eid and Little Eid, weddings, births, birthdays, illnesses, funerals, the construction of a new house, or the acquisition of a fish tank. My father, being the youngest, was even more deferential than Pakistani mores require. It never stopped being strange to see him, a colossus of patriarchal authority to his children, kissed atop the head and called beta (son) by his elders. And he, in turn, made no secret of the fact that we, his wife and three children, were his second—and secondary—family, his real family being the people to whom he was bound by loss.
He spent every minute of our visits to Abbottabad with his brothers. The five of them convened closed-door summits in my uncle’s study, so thoroughly paneled with wood as to feel like the inside of a cigar box, where (I imagined) they would commiserate about their unserious, unremarkable children. Often, I wouldn’t see him again until morning, when we’d wake to the sounds of roosters crowing and my father snoring as only a man who smokes fifty cigarettes a day can. I’d eat a paratha and fried egg for breakfast and begin my vigil.
Usually the person to get things started was Z, the leader of our subgroup—the family’s juniormost children. Today Z is a hardworking, affectionate, Peabody Award-winning father of two. But back then, he was the avatar of my anxieties, and I was the whetstone upon which his formidable sadism achieved its keen edge. He dreamt up such plots as to keep me from ever feeling safe in Abbottabad when my mother wasn’t within screeching distance. Once, he and his usual associates, smart enough never to show any weakness or dissent, led me outside the walls of our uncle’s house to a ditch near the road. I did as I was told and climbed down into it. I watched as Z and the others went back inside, bolting the gate behind them, their barely audible titters lacking all conviction, as if I had proven my abject lack of backbone so many times that it had ceased to be amusing.
I can’t remember how I got out, or whether I reported them to my mother. Odds are I did, because my persecution was predicated, quite understandably, on the fact that I was an inveterate informant who preferred the company of my mother to all others. I have paid dearly for this childhood peccadillo, having lived well into my thirties before my relatives stopped prefacing any sensitive disclosures with, “You can’t tell Arlene chachi, okay?”
To be fair, it wasn’t the relentless humiliation at the hands of my peers but the verdant glades of South Jersey that spoiled me for Abbottabad, or Abbottabad for me. My mother saved with a fanatical diligence, recording every paisa of expenditure in her tiny leatherette budget books, so that we could travel, every three years or so, to the suburbs of Philadelphia and spend ten weeks at my aunt and uncle’s or grandparents’ homes. Ten-week intervals of friendless solitude, though it didn’t occur to me to feel lonely because I was too busy assiduously putting on my Breyers weight. My father never came to the US with us. He saw us off at the airport and aimed a few random admonishments at me between hugs, like, “Help your mother, steer clear of bad novels, and keep your butt covered.” But I was already gone, already smelling the fragrant suburban American air, two parts mown grass, one part hot blacktop.
I would laugh with my American school friends at how people imagined Pakistan—assuming anyone had even heard of it back then.
Aside from one or two gastronomic day trips to Philadelphia and a long weekend in my cousin’s yellow stilt house down the shore, I spent most of my days kicking stones around a prescribed radius of residential streets, admiring the tidy window decor of each house—alabaster Marys, electric candles, a preponderance of Wedgwood—and trying to look native to the area. I gave knowing looks to cars parked in driveways, as if examining heads of cattle for purchase: Bonnevilles, Caprices, and Continentals in twos and threes, unbelievably enormous up close. While in motion, their drivers seemed to obey the twenty-five mph speed limit more out of inertia than civic-mindedness, their sofa-like front seats reclined to forty-five degrees, turning street corners (all gently rounded) with a barely registered tilt of the wrist. There was none of the hunched urgency of driving in Pakistan, where the cars, most of them minuscule, crumpled like accordions upon contact.
Occasionally, a neighborhood kid would wander unwittingly into my perimeter, and after a quick appraisal (Chubbier/hairier/younger than me? Check. Proceed!), I’d start a conversation. No one ever seemed the least impressed that I’d traveled seven thousand miles to get to the pristine patch of sod I was standing on. In fact, if my memory is to be trusted, most kids narrowed their eyes when I asked where they were from, an overture calculated to give me a chance to show off. Perhaps they, taught to be wary of strangers (and what could be more patently strange than a lightly mustachioed girl ambling in the heat in impeccably ironed corduroy trousers?), were dismayed when I said I wasn’t from around there. Or perhaps where a person came from was boring or immaterial, in a way it never was for me. But with little else to recommend me, my being from Pakistan was my calling card, and I offered it up wantonly.
Back again in Islamabad, I would laugh with my American school friends at how people imagined Pakistan—assuming anyone had even heard of it back then, before it started topping lists with “dangerous” in their titles: that we had camels roaming the streets the way India has its traffic-stopping cows; that there was no TV or indoor plumbing; that it was all heroin and Kalashnikovs and women dressed like black haystacks, ululating.
But my part in the conversation was all an act, a fraudulent attempt to claim some of the glamor of my classmates’ lives as my own. Arlington, Falls Church, Springfield—these were the dreamy-sounding towns in Virginia where so many of the American expat kids were putatively from, being the children of State Department employees. Many of them had spent marginally more time in the US during their lives than I had, but they’d return from the summer holidays and regale the rest of us with tales of having spent the day together, ten of them, at some mall in Fairfax (another enchanting name), and I ached in my marrow to hear it. It was a familiar ache: they were the worldly children of dignitaries; I was a teacher’s kid, getting a free ride. Their families spent every school vacation in places like Phuket and London and Singapore, while the Qazis holidayed time after time in North-West Frontier Province.
There is another Abbottabad, as familiar to me as the one where I spent interminable hours and days. It is the small, sylvan paradise in my father’s cache of stories. Stories about climbing the hillside behind Rehmat Manzil, which was covered with fruit that he would eat on his way back down, arriving home with a full belly. About the alcoholic priests at Burn Hall, and pledging allegiance to Her Royal Highness, and learning English from Thomas Hardy novels. About seeing Christopher Lee as Dracula and his friends squatting on their cinema seats in fear. About the dreadlocked nudist who walked the streets blowing a whistle, tailed by an invisible marching band. Stories about area beggars who knew his mother to be a soft touch. His Hindu playmates who vanished seemingly overnight in 1947. Having his head dusted with DDT to kill lice. The family’s Opel, the first car in the neighborhood. Visiting his mother at the hospice where she lived until she died of tuberculosis, when he was six. Losing his father four years later. And stories about being raised by his brothers, and debts that can never be repaid, no matter how hard you try.
In 2010, I traveled from Islamabad with my parents and my elder brother to the US, where my ailing father reluctantly sought treatment. It was the first time that my father and I had been on an airplane together since my infancy, when in 1977 he moved his growing family once again to Pakistan. Sixty-seven years old now, he was weak, angry about the pain that never seemed to abate, and angry about being weaker than the pain. Five years before, he’d changed everything, first giving up his four-decade smoking habit (he’d been known to keep a lit cigarette on the lip of the soap dish while he brushed his teeth, pausing to take puffs), then liquor. He began walking on a treadmill and making trips for the first time to visit his children in the US. He started doing all the grocery shopping.
In a letter he’d written to me while I was at college, my father advised me to resist the “Western tendency toward the atomization of families.”
In New Jersey the doctor said my father might live another year. Six weeks later, we held the first of two funerals at the Masjid Bilal in Toms River, where the congregation, mostly South Asians, prayed for my father’s soul and for us to be able to bear losing him. The second was in Abbottabad, where he was buried alongside his parents and the brother who had preceded him. On the flight back, the airline told us, there were three other Pakistanis going home for burial. Repatriation, they called it.
The six weeks we spent at my brother’s house were the first time we’d all been together since my Abbottabad wedding in 2002. In a letter he’d written to me while I was at college, my father (who seemed to be yelling through the thin blue aerogramme paper) advised me to resist the “Western tendency toward the atomization of families.” He wanted me to come back home after graduating, a war he never stopped fighting with any of his children, even as we started jobs and families and bought houses in American suburbs.
The week of my father’s funeral, the monsoon fell in calamitous, unending sheets. The entire country flooded. Roads became impassible within minutes. My mother, on her way back to Islamabad, was a few kilometers outside Abbottabad when the traffic stopped moving. She was stuck for fifteen hours. Young men from homes nearby brought water and dal and naan for the drivers stranded on the road, hundreds of cars filled with people waiting for the waters to recede.