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'Roughly equal parts of my life have been spent in East and West. Do midpoints make one more reflective?'

“Midway upon the journey of my life. I found myself within a dark forest, For the straightforward path had been lost.”
Updated Jan 13, 2018 03:20am

I have always marvelled how the existence of two life forms that are polar opposites, the tree and the bird, are inextricably tied together.

I fell in love with the house I live in because it reminded me of my childhood tree house.

Perhaps tree house is too grandiose a name for the simple plank my brother had jammed between two branches of an enormous banyan that occupied the corner of Elphinstone and Mereweather streets in Saddar, Karachi.

The English name of banyan always struck me as very odd as a little girl. In Urdu, 'banyan' is the sleeveless underwear worn by men and boys. The word for the tree is bargad.

Later, I found out that it was the British who had named it the banyan tree after the merchants commonly known as banias who used to gather under it to conduct their daily business.

In retrospect, I imagined that this bargad, my banyan that I had nicknamed Bari Ammi - Big Mother - must have once been at the very heart of the old settlement that eventually spread its own horizontal roots into the mega city of 20 million plus that it is today.

The English also built the Services Club, whose manicured lawns were a stark contrast to the unruly magnificence of the front corner that Bari Ammi presided over.

The Club had been constructed out of Sindhi sandstone somewhat in the manner of a castle, complete with a crenellated roof.

The soft sandstone had been carved, undoubtedly by local artisans, in a jali or filigree pattern, found throughout mosques and tombs in South Asia.

As a young girl, I played my own version of solo hopscotch with the tiny islands of light on the polished grey concrete sea of the morning veranda.

The veranda ran in an L shape along the entire length of the upper floor corner apartment where the three of us, my mother, older brother and I, lived.

Looking straight down from of the side windows facing Mereweather Street, I could see the Club mali tending my absent father's collection of two hundred rare crotons and cacti.

Even as his own fate as a prisoner of war in the 1971 war was imminent, he made certain that his beloved plants somehow shipped out to Karachi before the fall of Dhaka.

In his early postcards from Bareilly, Uttar Pardesh the filigree of light was reversed into a patchwork of dark rectangles.

Who and what and where and when were missing black keys in a palm-sized, well-thumbed piano arriving every month from the country of my father's birth and incarceration.

Every month, we would cramp our handwriting into the tiniest possible alphabet (this is when I realised how much more compact Urdu is as a script compared to English) and fill the room of the rectangle with our triple reply.

This too was undoubtedly censored and eventually led Abba to stop writing altogether; instead, every month, a delicately painted flower postcard would arrive; sometimes a rose, sometimes an orchid or a croton leaf.

He must have painted them from memory.

I was 21 when I left Karachi, back in 1986, and 26 when I arrived in the United States. Roughly equal parts of my life have been spent in the East and West. Home is now a split screen. Do midpoints make one more reflective?

My first apartment in New York was above Cafe Danté on MacDougal Street. Danté of course wrote what are arguably the most famous lines that begin at a midpoint:

“Midway upon the journey of my life. I found myself within a dark forest, For the straightforward path had been lost.”

It seemed to me that art, literature, poetry, music, anything beyond the utilitarian in life was contained in the losing of “the straightforward path” and discovering the joys of circuitous meandering.

After 12 years and many, many wanderings when I returned to Karachi for a visit in 1998, Bari Ammi had been cut down.

In her place was a carpet shop. Kurdistan Carpets. Completely obliterating such a huge tree with such prolific muscled roots must have taken at least a few days.

In Bari Ammi's heyday, the concrete of the pavement and the parking lot surrounding her was constantly crumbling like a wafer.

Weekly, the malis would trim her aerial roots in an attempt to limit her lateral expansion. In another, less circumscribed milieu, her aerial feelers would have penetrated the earth and made a delightful maze.

The most perfect part about being ensconced in her branches was the instantaneous leafy twilight, the coolness and concealment she offered.

I was a girl-bird with a sweeping view of the city: from left to right, Shezan Ampis, opposite that, the Village Barbecue, right in front of me, the Metropole Hotel, which ran the length of the road and then curved, across from that a nondescript establishment eclipsed by the constantly flashing sign of the Three Aces nightclub.

I remember the jagged way its yellow neon light broke on the cobblestone street that led to the back door of the Karachi Gymkhana.

At the other right hand corner, there was a travel agent and next to that Aruqa Furriers with windows of mink and silver fox coats and karakuli caps. A steady stream of tourists came in and out of there, laden with coats destined for colder climes.

Today several decades later, it is I who live in those colder climes, albeit climes that are rapidly warming, with undesirable side effects.

I am sitting outside on our deck this September evening because yet another day where the temperature is over a hundred has made the inside unbearably stuffy.

Directly in my line of sight are three Douglas firs. They are evergreen trees but one of them is charred by a burnt sienna, an ominous and unsettling omen.

In late September, the sun is perfectly positioned in between the twin supine thighs of hills that make up one wing known as The Valley of The Moon.

At harsh noon light, all the peaks are flattened out into one streak of steel grey blue.

The evening light is another matter. A most patient artist, this light plays a symphony of favourites, one by one. The sinuous-limbed Madrones, Isadora Duncans of the tree world, with their arcing branches and showy sumi é foliage, seem to be most lingered over.

Of course human painters are afforded no such luxury; Monet painted some of his greatest masterpieces at a furious speed, lamenting that the light changed every three minutes.

At the moment, the light seems to favour the enormous ancient oaks that form a sort of arboreal crown behind me. Turning my eyes back to face the hills, the sly light has indeed moved on.

The tallest peak of this range that scales the height needed to acquire the moniker Sonoma Mountain, is bathed in a late evening glow that makes it appear ghostly, insubstantial, as if it could disappear at any moment and be replaced by the limitless horizon that was the sea when I was a girl.

I suppose it is a remnant of those early years flowing in my veins that pulls me to bodies of water. There is a lake nearby where I often go walking.

A full circle of its perimeter takes about an hour but I often linger in the shady edges, mesmerised by the occasional great grey heron that sometimes graces the water.

Herons mate for life, so I often wonder what became of this beautiful bird's partner, or has it deliberately chosen this solitude, an anomaly in the sociable bird-world?

Birds of course are as much tied to the light as to the trees. The late summer nights are alive with the eerie calls of owls.

The trees here are all about height and the birds about valour, the mighty American bald eagle, a symbol of power. I am partial to those tiniest of avians, the hummingbirds.

Their flying skills are still something that human engineers are studying and have not replicated. Oftentimes, I will see one up high in the branches of the oak trees, no doubt sucking at their sweet seasonal sap.

The house has a wrap around the deck with sliding glass doors opening in all directions. If I am careless and leave a door open, a hummingbird will often get trapped and spend many exhausting and futile hours trying to fly to freedom through the unforgiving illusion of glass with its clear view of the trees and the sky beyond, so near and yet so unattainable.

I am torn between my desire to rescue the battered bird and the fear that her instinct to escape from me will be a final, fatal stress.

On my last visit to Karachi, to my friend Nayyar's home, also with generous glass surrounded by gardens, a different sort of bird wandered in, one that I had grown up hearing but had never seen.

Her wings were softly mottled like the dabs of veranda light, or pockmarked with the stab of the censor's peckish pen, bitter or sweet, depending on which way you turned the magic postcard of Mona Lisa that Bia had brought back from the Louvre in 1957.

She was a koel and in that trapped state could no longer sing. We opened all the glass doors and left the living room.

After a while we returned. The koel had gone.

After a while I heard its familiar plaintive cry, although I am still not sure if it was coming from the tamarind tree or the recesses of my remembrance.

Sophia Naz,
Glen Ellen, California
24 September, 2017


Two weeks after the writing of this article, the author lost her home to the most devastating wildfires in the history of California. The cause of the fires have been attributed to climate change.