“It was a cold evening in the late 80s,” my father’s stories often begin. Or then; “I had joined the service, I was merely a lowly officer when …” Or then; “Maan hurein vi yaad ay, jadon mein Pindi aya on.” (I still remember, when I came to Pindi …) My father is narrative, neatly tied together. My mother is not.
Sometimes, this bifurcation, between those who self-mythologise and those who do not, seems gendered. Women’s lives do not lend well to mythology, because much of what we do is aggressively quotidian. Sewing the dangling button on a school uniform. Correcting homework. The vigil over the crib. It is all maintenance, and maintenance is not the stuff of myths.
And yet, scratch that. I know a lot of women who have wrought myth around themselves. As mothers, or writers or travellers. As chefs, as leaders. So perhaps it is simpler than that. Some people self-mythologise, and some people don’t. Then, there is also the distinction that James Baldwin made, pronouncing the world divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Being a madman who remembers is what writing is about, and so, here goes. My mother refuses to make a myth of herself. Let me try.
What my mother did instead was work for 15 years at the same place, an army-run high school in Rawalpindi where she taught English Literature to girls in Mary Janes and tidy braids. Year after year, she assigned Goodbye Mr Chips, the British novel that captured America during the Depression years. In her breaks, she shared tea and biscuits with her friends, homey, large-hearted women with raucous laughs.
It is impossible to get the texture of a parent’s life right. With siblings, it is easier. Despite evidence that we remember events quite differently, that blood is not thicker than subjectivity, I feel at ease corralling both my younger brothers into the collective pronoun, describing what happened to us, what our daily routines were, how our parents were towards us. But the chasm between the adult and the child is so hard to traverse that a parent’s day-to-day life remains a mystery to memory.
For example, I cannot recount the minutiae of Ammi’s days, outside of how it affected us. I know we had to be quiet in the afternoons because she would nap with her door closed after she returned from work. I know she frequently called her mother and siblings, because those long-distance calls were our chance to eavesdrop on family gossip. I know she spent her weekends mixing, shaping, frying and freezing kebabs by the dozens because that is what we had for school lunches most days. But of her life outside of the role of mother, daughter and wife, the tangles of her interiority, I know nothing.
What is clear to me now is that it wasn’t enough. The house, the job, that life didn’t cut it, and she wanted out. She applied wherever she could, scoured the classifieds every morning. In 2008, she got an email from the University of Glasgow, giving her a full ride to their PhD programme.
Before I can tell you what happened next, I have to tell you what happened before. It is 1988, and my mother has aced her Master’s exams to get the highest marks across the province. A local reporter comes knocking, hoping to interview the high achiever. My great-grandfather raises hell, enraged that one of his women would speak to a stranger and be photographed for a public paper. There are some negotiations, and the interview is allowed to proceed. The next day, it is published alongside a photograph of my mother, although it could have been anyone. The paper is black and white, so even the green of her eyes doesn’t show through the slits in the veil.
My mother’s grandfather was a product of his time. The ‘80s saw Pakistan undergo a period of ruthless Islamisation, with the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq at its helm. It didn’t help that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the man Zia sent to the gallows, had nationalised industry, leaving my great-grandfather’s business in a shambles. Religion and economy mingled in his allegiance to Zia, as they frequently do. I tell you this so you have no doubt that when, 20 years later, Ammi got that email from Glasgow, she would go. Mother of three, on the brink of middle age, she would go.
In 1975, the US president, Gerald Ford, refused a federal bailout to New York City, an act immortalised in The New York Daily News headline that said, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” In a recent interview, Martin Scorsese brought this up with zealous New Yorker, Fran Lebowitz. “Apparently, there was that headline, you know,” he said. Fran responded, one leg resting atop the other, “Meanwhile, who’s dead?” So, anyway, Zia’s plane went down in 1988, and he’s dead; meanwhile, in 2008, my mother went to Glasgow.
There is a long history of Pakistani immigration to Scotland, starting in the 60s when post-war Britain’s hunger for cheap labour welcomed many to the weaving trade in Paisley, a few miles west of Glasgow. I haven’t pored over the data, but I’d wager that married women showing up alone for a PhD candidacy were not a big subgroup. Ammi arrived and set up residence in Govanhill. A few months later, both my brothers joined her. I was midway through my A-Levels and so I stayed with my father in Pakistan, visiting Glasgow only in the summers. If it seems odd to me now – how did my parents casually decide to cleave the family into two, something I can’t comprehend doing myself – at the time it felt like a corroboration of the central myth of our family. We were not like others. And our mother was certainly not like the others.
I write about Glasgow with caution. Recently, while on the phone with my brothers, I told them it was raining in Michigan, where I study. I said the weather was reminding me of Glaswegian skies, and they burst out laughing. “What do you know about Glasgow?” they asked. Fixoo, they called me – someone who tries to insert themselves in a story that is not theirs. And that is fair because I wasn’t there, those years that the three of them lived on Allison, a stone’s throw away from corner stores selling Lyca sims and calling cards and £1 samosas. My brothers guard Glasgow with the jealousy of the native, while I’m the outsider who showed up at shore for a few weeks each summer and needed them as translators at grocery stores. Private school Pakistani English and Allison Street English might as well be different languages.
No matter, because being a fixoo is also what writing is about. What I remember most about Glasgow is Ammi’s apartment, perhaps because as a mapless adolescent, unarmed by a smartphone or any knowledge of the city, I spent most of my time indoors.
The apartment was always a confluence of smells, compounded by its modest square footage – one real bedroom with a deep blue comforter, the TV room doubling as a room for one of my brothers. It had sizeable windows that looked out at the perpetual cheer of British Isle skies. The kitchen had a small TV that Ammi liked to watch while cooking. In those years, Ramadan always fell during the summer holidays, and so I remember dawns thick with the redolence of burnt fat, Ammi making chunky parathas slathered in Flora margarine. Ammi washing dishes, the smell of Fairy dishwashing liquid coating each morning. Ammi making biryani on a quasi-industrial scale, sticking individual portions in the fridge for two adolescent boys looking to devour anything that came their way. Ammi hauling bags upon bags of groceries from the Asda in Toryglen, refusing to take the bus back home. Ammi making calculated allowance for indulgences – the fig, date and grain yoghurt from Morrison’s, frozen fudge cakes from the Farmfoods on Victoria, the occasional cappuccino.
What is striking to me is how leaving home made Ammi the homemaker she had never been. The girl who had to be photographed in a veil became the woman who escaped her husband’s house as soon as she could, even if it was to teach dusty British fiction for 15 years. The four walls of the house can easily become the trellis of a prison, Zia’s women know this too well. But in Glasgow, Ammi appeared to like, or at least not mind, the cooking and cleaning and hosting, even as she studied full-time, failed her driving test twice, worked odd jobs, and mothered two boys tumbling into sullen adolescence.
A note about narrative, which is its own prison. You can see that I’m creating one now. It is muddier than this, because of course Ammi cooked and cleaned and hosted in Pindi as well. I suppose that Glasgow was the home of her own Ammi had always desired. It was the place where she called the shots and decided what would be put on the table. Her books piled around the bedroom. Her name was on the bills. In my mind, the Pindi house is where we all lived under the aegis of the father. The Glasgow home is Ammi’s alone.
After five years and the completion of Ammi’s PhD, my family relocated to Pakistan, only for her to leave again for Washington, DC, through a five-month fellowship at a think-tank. They put her up in a studio apartment in Foggy Bottom, a lofty upgrade from Allison Street – instead of the dog waste-dappled pavements of Bennan Square, around which inebriated Scots hollered late into weekend nights, she got pastel townhouses and L’Enfant’s diagonal avenues.
At the time, I was living in New York, working my first real job. Many weekends, I took the five-hour-long Megabus journey that left me at Dupont Circle, from where I walked on a clean, quiet stretch of New Hampshire Avenue to Foggy Bottom. There was a Trader Joe’s nearby, the pita bread from which she quickly rebranded as roti. A 10-minute walk took us to the Persian restaurant, Moby Dick, where we often went for grilled meat and rice. A digression I can’t quite resist is the provenance of the restaurant’s name – allegedly, it was named after an old Tehrani restaurant owned by a Herman Melville fan. The apartment complex Ammi lived in had a doorman and a lobby with bright lights and abstract art. The studio itself was tiny but that winter, four of us spent a comfortable week there. If I know one thing, it is that the world expands in my mother’s homes.
There is a neat untidiness to my mother’s homes. Receipts from a week ago, a month ago, a decade ago, are stowed away into each coat pocket. Various little rags, all hand-washed with stubborn stains of turmeric and oil still on them, hang near the stove. In the bathroom, the litany of toiletries she helps herself to in every hotel room. In one corner, always, the suitcases, a reminder that this home, in this foreign land, is temporary.
My father once told me that none of we three has inherited Ammi’s fire, the urge to make everything new, the ability to burn boats like Tariq bin Ziyad and call a new continent home. And it is true – my mother is her own universe. She sets up and dismantles homes with nonchalance. She goes to the Gambia for a work trip and sends us photos of a solitary cup at a seaside café. She goes to Beirut and walks the Corniche. She is the flaneur Baudelaire could never have imagined.
And yet, she is still a mother, or perhaps I am still a child, unable to look at her outside of who she is to me. When fathers leave, they send money home. When mothers leave, they send for the children. Glasgow became home to my brothers, shaping and colouring them for the rest of their lives. DC became the first place in America I could go home to for the holidays.
My last international trip was to another one of my mother’s homes. Five years had passed since she left DC, time during which I lived first in New York and then in Ann Arbor. Two weeks before lockdown began, I travelled from Michigan to Hamburg, Germany. Ammi was there on a year-long contract with UNESCO, and my brother – who lives in Hamburg – had moved in with her. The neighbourhood was even more glamorous than the one in DC – the streets smelled of fresh bread and coffee and the sidewalks were crammed with bikes. The apartment was two minutes from a farmer’s market and five minutes from a few embassies.
I got in from a red-eye and slept until noon. Ammi was at work when I woke up, but a bowl of oatmeal awaited me on the countertop, chunks of dates and chia seeds sprinkled on top. Her bike stood on the balcony – yes, that indomitable woman learned to ride a bike at 50 and spent much of lockdown zooming past shuttered storefronts. Yoghurt tubs full of leftover shorba and teenday decked the shelves in the fridge. I finished my breakfast and went to wash the bowl. The smell of Fairy dishwashing liquid rose in the air. I opened the window a crack and took in the briskness of early spring in northern Europe, the leftover whiff of soggy tea leaves, the scent of a woman at home in the world.