Shaheen Pasha: Where memory lives

  • Columnist Shaheen Pasha

Published: 6/12/2019 4:05:07 PM

I could hardly recognize my grandparents’ old house as I stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the moist, oppressive heat so characteristic of Karachi in May. The faded blue metal gate I had swung on as a child was gone, replaced by a sleek mahogany door. The home’s once overpowering fragrance of jasmine and guava was lost, clouded in diesel fumes and congestion.

“Are you sure this is the same house?” I asked my sister, dejected as we stared at the shiny gold address plate boasting the new owners of my childhood home. “It has to be, the address is the same,” she said, squinting at two new completed levels rising to the sky. “Nothing stays the same, you know. It’s not our home anymore.”

Home. It’s a word I had never given much thought to before. The word implies setting down roots, creating a sense of belonging.

But as a child, my immigrant family lived a nomadic lifestyle. We moved from apartment to apartment, neighborhood to neighborhood, in search of stability. My parents were more concerned with keeping us safe than they were in settling in one particular area. So we went where opportunity presented itself, moving on without a look back. We only really belonged to each other.

When I became an adult, I unwittingly followed the same pattern with my own children. As a journalist, my family moved across the Middle East and Africa. It was an exciting journey for my kids in many ways. They played among the ancient stones of the pyramids in Giza, took school trips in Dubai to the tallest building in the world and chased dolphins off the coast of Oman.

But also accompanying them was a sense of rootlessness, an expectation that we would soon enough be on to the next adventure. Home, I thought, was wherever we were as a family.

But as I stood before the renovated shell of the house that once belonged to my Nanna and Papa, I realized that home is very much a place. It’s beyond just the presence of loved ones. For me, it’s bricks and mortar, the smell of night jasmine, a tiled courtyard and the sound of fruit sellers echoing up to the rooftop, where I would lay on an old charpoy and look up at the clouds. Home is ultimately a place of security, however fleeting during times of darkness.

Growing up, illness, poverty and the immigrant struggle sent my family fleeing from New York to Pakistan for respite repeatedly over the years. We were often stressed and worried when we entered that blue gate and into my Nanna’s arms. But in the walls of my grandparents’ bedroom, our communal meeting spot, my mother would sit next to her father and worry lines between her eyes faded. She was at peace. She belonged to those walls and so did we.

My Nanna and Papa’s room was our sanctuary in a foreign land where we couldn’t really speak the language and didn’t always understand the customs. I would lie for hours next to my grandmother when everyone else was napping. I’d stare nearly hypnotized by the ceiling fan and listen to her long stories in Urdu, even though I didn’t understand the words. Her voice was soothing enough. That, and the tinkle of the gold bangles on her arms I would play with – a sound that still comforts me when my own son plays with the gold bangles I wear in her honor.

Home is a memory, I realized, that children absorb and adults look back on to remind themselves of where they once felt whole and safe. It’s an intangible feeling that’s frozen in time even after the dwellings and the people are gone.

When I returned from this last trip to Pakistan, photos of my now unrecognizable childhood home saved on my iPhone, I thought to ask my kids what they considered home amid all of our travels. As children, I figured they would naturally describe our Amherst house where we’ve lived for the past six years – the longest we’ve ever stayed in one place. But they surprised me.

My daughter, the eldest, said home for her would always be the second-floor townhome we rented in New Jersey where she took her first steps and spoke her first words. Her face lit up as she described sitting with my father on the little balcony that overlooked a wooden gazebo in the yard. As for my middle son, home for him was our large villa in Dubai, just blocks away from the beach where the smell of sand mingled with the fragrance of the Arabian Sea as he drank mango juice with his ayah.

There’s no point yet asking my youngest. He’s only known our red house in the Pioneer Valley. But soon he will be on the move for the first time, as my family and I pack up again and move to Pennsylvania this summer. I wonder if he will ever come back to Amherst to seek out his childhood memories. Or maybe it will be just another stop for him in our journey as a family.

Shaheen Pasha will be joining the faculty at Penn State University in the fall, teaching journalism. She formerly taught in the journalism department at UMass Amherst.

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