In an interview with the Paris Review in 1990, American poet Maya Angelou said: “The truth is, you can never leave home. You take it with you — it’s under your fingernails; it’s in the hair follicles; it’s in the way you smile; it’s all there, no matter where you go. You can take on the affectations and the postures of other places and even learn to speak their ways. But the truth is, home is between your teeth. One is always trying to go home.”
Like so many writers — Jhumpa Lahiri and Nora Ephron especially come to my mind — I’ve long been obsessed with the notion of home. Places which cling to us, existing in language, memories, smells, aches and nostalgia — and eventually becoming fodder for our literary endeavours, appearing as symbols in prose or hidden verses in poetry.
For me, the notion of home has always been devotedly tied to Pakistan. I have spent my impressionable years growing up in Karachi, a metropolis that endlessly throbs with possibility. I saw how young people — aspiring actors, activists, students and entrepreneurs — would arrive in Karachi in droves, hoping to change the trajectory of their lives for the better.
When I was 18, I set out with the same hope for my future — but far from Karachi. It was my first time leaving my home, to study at a university in England. It was also the first time when I realized how strongly connected and utterly dependent I was on Pakistan — how deeply attached I was to the notion of home and belonging.
In England, I longed for Pakistan. I ached for the gentle nurturing of my family, the vibrant culture, conversing in Urdu and celebrating religious occasions like Eid. During particularly dreary days, I found myself reminiscing over the intense heat which hit Karachi in the mid-afternoons. In England, I felt like I was performing, donning additional layers of protection to securely acclimatise to this new environment. Only when I returned to Karachi would I peel back those layers until I attained some semblance of normalcy.
A young Pakistani unpacks her ambivalent experience of studying abroad in the West, the markers of her cultural identity and her fractious relationship to her homeland
Away from home, I became an anxious person who felt deeply adrift from her True North. Initially, I had pegged this problem as the average 18-year-old being afflicted with homesickness but, over time, I realised that what had settled within me was more of a permanent grievance. I had gone through something more traumatic — the loss of a homeland.
The protracted three years of college were made tolerable through friendships I sustained with my fellow international students, who symbolised similar notions of tradition, culture and language in a very white-dominated space. These were people who empathised with the anguish of homesickness but, more importantly, who tacitly accepted why my heart lay in my homeland.
To love one’s homeland despite its tainted history is a complicated notion.
I’ve always remained ambivalent about living away from home. Whenever I’ve shared with friends and family my refusal to settle down in a Western country, I have been met with mystified looks. They see me as someone foolishly snubbing the prospect of a cushy lifestyle in the West to live instead in a corrupt, developing nation. They see someone foregoing opportunities in the West in favour of the emotional resonance of home.
They’re not entirely wrong.
Pakistan is not a country without flaws. It is stratified, disorderly, led by opportunistic politicians, it offers limited mobility for women in public spaces, unjustly deals with heinous crimes and struggles with a broken educational system. It is a place where patriarchal norms have prevented even privileged women like me from self-actualising and maturing in ways which women from other more liberal countries can. Yet, despite its blatant failings, I’ve failed at reducing my devotion to this country. I find completely disavowing home to be too cynical and too difficult a task.
My father certainly never understood my logic. He was a staunch believer in the American Dream. Throughout my school years, he would incessantly urge me to settle in the United States once I graduated from university. He believed that Western countries were superior in regards to the system of meritocracy and the uniform opportunities they offered. Whenever he stumbled upon Third World problems, such as load-shedding or the lack of infrastructural development, he’d remark, “Yeh mulk rehne ke qaabil nahin hai! [This country is not worth living in!]”
There are certain privileges, particularly as a woman, which come with living in the West. There are certain things I can do without thinking twice: I can enjoy a cup of coffee under the sun or aimlessly loiter without trepidation. But regardless of all the First World benefits which the West undeniably offers, there I will always be considered an ‘other’.
In England, I found myself an unwarranted recipient of an unwarranted marker of identity —“minority status.” On and off campus, I was the victim of multiple micro-aggressions and racist assaults — from old, white men proclaiming that I was a member of Al-Qaeda, to professors repeatedly and unconsciously entrusting white peers over me to lead presentations and seminars.
My name, heritage and nationality were perpetual reminders of my otherness. I would observe the ways my white peers moved, how they shifted and occupied spaces so nonchalantly, while people of colour, including myself, seemed to orbit around them. As a brown Muslim woman, I couldn’t take up space as easily as my white peers, and there always existed the looming threat that came with practising Islam.
England seemed to centre itself, its offerings and its institutions, around the rich and the white. I had to work twice as hard in order to be considered worthy of these invisible privileges.
Alongside the otherness, I also felt like a hindrance. In London, people were always on the move and had a general air of being ‘too busy’. As a dawdler, I would find myself getting in the way of others all the time.
Though a similar hustle and bustle existed in Karachi, it was far more languid in comparison. There were multiple moments in the day which were designed to facilitate communal interactions, including haggling with fruit vendors, hailing a rickshaw and making small talk with the aunty standing next to you in a queue. In London, modernity had wiped out the need for communication; it was infantilising interacting mainly with robots for self-service checkouts and contactless payments, for instance.
In his memoir, Travels in India, author Awais Hussain wrote, “In London it sometimes seems that people have nothing to lose — at least nothing to lose except status — maybe that’s why they take themselves so seriously.” In Pakistan, I was reminded of my privilege every second of every day — be it when a beggar knocked at my car door hoping for money, or when I drove by a bridge and saw a family of five, huddled under a tarp trying to catch some sleep.
Although poverty and homelessness were prevalent across certain areas in London, there was no denying that London, the financial capital of the world, was host to citizens whose average priorities seemed otherworldly. In a city teeming with people donning Burberry coats and Kate Spade handbags, I longed to wear my worn-out but comfortable shalwar qameez. I ached to be disorderly, dirty and messy in a city which was so sterile and rich.
My educational experience in London seemed monotonous. Every moment felt dull, and it seemed as if I were watching myself follow a system which I had never questioned. I would wake up, commute to work and college in a metal box crammed with uncommunicative passengers staring at their phones, be delivered to an air-conditioned high-rise, grab an expensive meal-deal and return home in the dull subway carriages, only to repeat the same routine the next day.
In the three years I spent in England, I tried my hardest to create something soft for myself within the dark, sanitary greyness of it all. When I was alone in my dorm, I would try to reassure myself that the life I had led in Pakistan was real and that it didn’t simply exist in my mind. But ultimately, London got the best of me.
I was terrified of it in a way I never was of Karachi — the pace, the scale, the crowds. I found that, while London was the epicentre of arts and culture, it was also the centre of a rapidly growing finance culture, of rampant consumerism, toxic power and fast fashion. I felt increasingly out of touch with my own humanity and spirituality. And so, at 21 years old, I scuttled back home swiftly after graduation.
It’s been two years since I’ve returned to Pakistan. Though home was what I wanted and needed, perhaps home didn’t want me exactly the same way. Pakistan is, after all, a difficult nation to please. But my writing, my work, is my way of giving myself back to a country which has offered itself to me consistently.
I no longer try to anglicise my Pakistani accent, nor vehemently deny my South Asian identity as I did as a teenager. Even now, whenever I travel abroad, I always carry Pakistan with me. Ultimately the purpose of my life, my family, my culture, my mother tongue, all remain in Karachi.
As the youngest in my family and still figuring out my purpose in life, I know that, once my parents depart this world and my siblings have their own families, Pakistan will be the only place for me to hold on to. It will remain my home, a place I can say I belong to and can return to always.
The writer is a graduate from the Imperial College of London. You can find her work at nehamaqsood.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 3rd, 2021