Telephone calls with my Dhado (grandmother) often follow the same sequence of twists and turns. My barely there Urdu only allows for a hello, how are you? Are you taking care of yourself? I love you, I miss you. They’re the steps I learned long ago that transport me from my living room in England to her room in Pakistan. The end of the call, the final moves of this intricate dance between old and new, always ends the same way. When are you coming home?
When I was younger, the years were marked by our trips to Pakistan. A disgruntled little me, unsure why going to a place I barely knew was more important than spending the summer with my friends. In the way most things happen; just as a child longs to be an adult, I bitterly regret not appreciating those days whilst I had them.
With the imagination children thrive on, my cousins and I bridged the language gap by playing silly games, speaking so fast we would trip over words and then sit back and see what they understood – the chewy fake banana flavour bubblegum that was handed out by the boxes would taste like the juice of mangoes – and, if the season was right, we would dance on the roof under monsoon showers.
Life found a way to keep me grounded in England. First it was exams, then university, then unavoidable commitments. Before I knew it I was no longer the baby cousin, endlessly optimistic and waiting for puberty to hit. Instead, I had almost finished school, formed my own opinions on the world around me and made roots for myself in England.
“My cousins and I bridged the language gap by playing silly games, speaking so fast we would trip over words.”
Eventually, it had been five years since I’d last visited Pakistan. In truth, I had grown afraid of all it represented. I had allowed enough time to pass that the well-worn curves of a life lived apart were too apparent. Whilst I had never felt so distant from its heart, I still felt I had it all figured out. My wardrobe was full of brightly coloured skinny jeans and my mind full of notions of the future I couldn’t wait to experience.
Now 22, fully moved out of home and starting my career, the gravity of returning has sunk in. If these two versions of myself met, I would hardly recognise myself. The past five years have forced me to confront how I fit into the world, who my friends are, who I’m attracted to, what I see myself doing 9-5 for the rest of my life and how important family is to me. Having plans to return to Pakistan after half a decade is not just a holiday from reality. It is a reintroduction of a part of myself still entangled with a person that no longer exists – a chance to feel belonging.
I realise now that in order to truly feel connected to Pakistan, lingering in the past is no use. I need to show her who I am in all my shades – the writer, the soft-hearted, the sometimes snappy, the over-thinker, the optimist and the wallower. And perhaps in doing so, I’ll learn more about myself.
“Having plans to return to Pakistan after half a decade is a reintroduction of a part of myself still entangled with a person that no longer exists.”
As young people are wont to do, I find myself falling into the trap of comparison with those around me more often than I would like to admit. Yet the strangest competition I have created for myself is an alternate me. The litany of ‘what ifs’ that run through my mind every time I am reminded of my displacement from my ancestors. What if my parents had stayed in Pakistan? What if I had grown up there? Would I still have the same quirks of personality? Would I know myself the way I do now or would a woman I hardly know exist?
The strongest of these is perhaps – what if I felt less of an imposter? I imagine this alternate me, with her fluent Urdu, natural skill at making traditional dishes and impossibly perfect knowledge of navigating the complexities of Pakistani culture. She is effortless in her belonging. Whilst she exists I cringe at myself. The overly self-absorbed diaspora child, only able to connect to my heritage through lyrical essays reflecting on my sense of self.
As time went on, I became more aware of the responsibility that has settled on my shoulders. One day it will be up to me to make my own plans to visit Pakistan. The thought of finding a community and base there to return to throughout my life doesn’t sound possible until I have forged my own identity. This trip is a turning point. A chance to connect with the land and prove I have a claim to it in some way.
“The thought of finding a community and base there to return to throughout my life doesn’t sound possible until I have forged my own identity.”
I want to learn more about the generations that came before and practice gratitude in the face of their strength. To discover more about the rich literature that has sprung from here and how the beauty of Pakistan inspired such beautiful words. To shed the fear of failure and embrace my relationship no matter how it unfolds.
Slowly I am realising that I don’t need to sacrifice who I am here to fit in there. As a classicist who has studied the ancient world, learning about art and archaeology in South Asia was a fascinating experience. Some of the ancient sites are a stone’s throw away from my family home. Being able to visit and learn about this part of my motherland in a way that is unique to my interests has strengthened my resolve to her. Somehow it seems fitting to begin my reconnection in the ancient soil that forged her as I find my way to the present day.
I finally visited again. Unlike the movies, I didn’t reach a sudden epiphany about who I am over the course of ten days. But the chance to heal a rupture I caused through my own apathy was a rare chance I was determined to use. Whilst I was in Pakistan, I naturally felt like an outsider looking in but as the days progressed and I settled into routine, I found my own way of belonging.
Whether reading under the glow of the burnt auburn sun, or speaking with relatives about times gone by, there’s a small piece of me in this land. And I know now, that if I nurture it, I can only watch it grow.
Asyia is passionate about diversifying the media and uplifting underrepresented voices. @asyiaiftikhar
Aurelia Magazine is self–funded. We rely on reader support to secure our future. If you enjoyed this article, please consider becoming a member on Patreon, or donating a couple of quid to our PayPal. Thank you!