Sehba Sarwar’s first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004. She is currently based in Houston and is working on a second manuscript
July 2011, San Antonio, Texas, USA:
I drive three hours from Houston to San Antonio, located at the cusp of demographic shifts in the US, to attend Macondo — an annual retreat that is the vision of writer Sandra Cisneros who resides here in the seventh largest city of the US. I enter Twig Bookstore just as Esmeralda Santiago begins reading from her new historical novel, Conquistadora, set during the 1800s in Puerto Rico, from where she hails.
The bookstore is packed, and almost every seat is taken. I move deeper into the store, where I find my friends, Macondonistas, who have converged from around the US and Mexico. Afterwards, ten of us camp out at an outdoors table at Gloria’s where we sweat beneath the hot sun and eat tacos.
As I’m about to leave, I sight Esmeralda sitting with Sandra. She signs my copy of Conquistadora: “The history will flow through you — you are the vessel.”
April 2010, Houston, Texas, USA:
I race to Houston’s Intercontinental airport with my six-year-old daughter Minal in the back seat. We are on our way to pick up rock star/writer/artist Patti Smith, who I met at a New York airport in 2003. With her memoir Just Kids recently published, Patti is following through on her promise to visit Houston.
On the way to the city, Minal and Patti play games with Minal’s toes. The next day, at a near sold out performance hosted by Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), the arts organisation that I co-founded 10 years ago, Patti performs her song “People Have the Power” as a poem without music. She dedicates the lyrics to me, and a thousand pair of eyes watch as I join Patti on stage to receive her gift.
June 1994, Shandur Pass, Pakistan:
René and I clamber out of the open jeep in which we’ve been riding over the northern mountains for eight straight hours. We are celebrating our honeymoon in the north of Pakistan: Chitral where we spent a week; Shandur Pass, where we will spend a night; and onward to Hunza for another few days. My knuckles hurt because I have been gripping the steering wheel — the driver let me take the wheel for a few hours once we hit the roadless plains. In the rest house, there is no running water or electricity. When night falls, René and I step outside. Temperatures have dropped, and we are dwarfed by ice-capped mountains.
High above, stars light up the sky. In the mountains, René is Rehan Ali, and as each day goes by, he looks more Pathan in his shalwar kurta, rather than the Chicano that he is.
February 1987, Lahore, Pakistan:
At midnight, Tina Sani, six new friends from Lahore’s National College of Arts, and I converge at the Hashmi house. We pile into an open truck and head toward the River Ravi — the excursion to find wild boars is part of my assignment to collect stories for the Star where I’ve been working since graduating from college; I have already submitted interviews with Iqbal Bano and Heera Mandi dancers, as well as a story about basant in the Old City.
Thin rays from the crescent moon create shadows on the mustard fields. The back of the truck has no seats, and we stay warm by standing close together, keeping our balance by gripping the open rail. After several hours of roaming we give up on our quest, and instead, are happy to beckon dawn by singing along with Tina. Finally we head toward the heart of Lahore, Mall Road, to consume spicy lumps of murgh-chola in an open-air street restaurant.
January 1979, Allahabad, India:
I grip Bari Chacha’s back as he weaves his motorcycle through the thronged streets of Allahabad, our father’s second home, where 15 million people gather for the Kumbh Mela. My siblings and I take turns with Bari Chacha to head to the shores of the converging Ganga-Yumna.
I remember pushing bodies, the smell of tea and rippling conversations in multiple languages. A week later, we see the water of the Ganga River again, this time in Kanpur, where Ammi’s Khala lives. There, we take a ride on a slow-moving boat. When the boat’s side brushes against something hard and round, we are not sure if the object is the head of a floating corpse or just a log. Later on, we encounter the Yamna River, this time in Delhi. On a cold night, we huddle close together to experience the Red Fort’s son et lumiere show.
Sixties and seventies, Jamshed Road, Karachi, Pakistan:
Standing on the rooftop, holding kite string, watching our paper kites float away after being cut by a neighbor. Listening to the chatter of children lined up on the school balcony across the street from us. Smelling fallen mangoes on baked concrete.
Admiring flaming red gulmohr flowers. Watching a mother-turtle kick sand and then settle into the enclave she creates to lay her eggs on a moonless night at Sandspit. Taking dance classes with the Ghanshyams. Late night poetry in our living room with the furniture pushed out, so our parents’ friends can sit on white chandi and listen to words. Tiptoeing around the house as Ammi records music from LPs to spools. Watching movies at Friendship House off Drigh Road. Riding down Bunder Road on a tonga to Pakistan Radio to accompany Ammi at her radio show. Chanting in chorus with my siblings, cousins and elders to “We shall overcome…” off an LP in the darkened balcony-room at Mushtaq Uncle and Choti Phophi’s house.
How can we encapsulate our experiences “as a Pakistani” when our lives are more than the political borders that define us? When do we choose to say we are from Karachi? From India? That we are Pakistani-American-Chicana? Or just citizens of a borderless world, in which there is a free-flow of ideas? Or perhaps we remain local, so local that our first street, our first neighborhood (for me, Jamshed Road near Guru Mandir in Karachi, Sindh), is the lens through which we view the world.
Minal and I spend most of the summer of 2011 in Karachi. She is almost seven and is speaking and reading English and Spanish. This year, her tenth time in my first home, I am conducting preliminary research on a production for VBB through which we will be exploring the history of Sindh — the stories I was never taught in school or at home. Minal is taking dance and music classes at Neem Tree, and is speaking the Urdu that I have been reading and speaking to her since she was born in Houston.
One day, she will decide what label she will wear, what she will shed, and when she will embrace all, as she moves through her worlds. Today, she focuses on mangoes: she has decided her favorite are anwar-ratol. She devours each slice with gusto and then asks for more.