Tun-tun Goes to Lahore

Tell me, what good is there in remembering now? It is over. It is over. And you: you might be a child of a child of that time, but why carry our griefs? You cannot—should not—understand the betrayals, neighbor turning against neighbor, ground torn from beneath unprepared feet—and really, how can you prepare for that? Are you to put your living aside to prepare for death? It will kill you regardless.

There is no need for the sunlight of your mind to reach for these dark corners, for your inquisitive little, charming little nose to sniff out and unearth what we have taken such trouble to bury. It is over now, my darling. You have your Ammi’s nose.

You would not believe the devastation if I told you. We left everything and ran after they burned down Hazrat Mian’s place. In our house, the smoke and ashes hung heavy, having slunk in the previous night, undeterred by the windows Abba had slammed shut, unimpressed by the wet rags Ammi and I had placed anywhere she thought the wind might come in, indifferent to Dadi in the corner clutching a howling Aftab and rocking and praying, rocking and praying. These are not nice things to remember.

We left before dawn, heads down, dark shawls, neither announcing nor concealing the emptiness of the house behind us. Aftab threatened to cry as we were bundled out. I still remember the dangerous quiver of his lip, and Dadi’s quick thinking. “Beta, don’t you want Tun-tun to see Lahore?” A ragged, beloved cloth lion pressed into his arms, a promise of kishmish and halwa for Tun-tun in Lahore, a small boy easily mollified, and we went.

But see, to mollify, first you must fool yourself into believing that you have made the other forget. We do not forget, especially when we try. And that is why I will not fill your head with these stories: you will have nothing to forget. I know how it is. You forget nothing at this age. Everything sinks deep into the unscarred surface of your mind. The first time you register the loathing in someone’s eyes. The first time your parents scoop you up and retreat to avoid a growing mob. The first time you see a house on fire. The first time you see your father cry. The first time you see your brother for the last time.

No need, my darling. You will collect your own impressions, your own scars; no need to start off with phantom inheritances, memories of the unsympathetic dark through which we walked so fast I could hardly keep up. Ammi holding Aftab to her chest, Aftab holding Tun-tun to his. Dadi holding my hand so tightly it hurt. Abba, holding a single large bag, now walking in front to lead us, now behind to guard. Endless walking. The sky lightening. More walking. Aftab starting to cry, then refusing to quiet. Ammi finally slapping him and bursting into tears herself. More walking. A dusty bus stop. Dusty people waiting for a rickety bus with no door. And in the press of bodies surging forward, a ragged lion falling from a small child’s small hands, a small child squirming free, a frantic mother.

You never want to remember this. You want to take a sharp-sharp chaaku and carve it from your heart.

Ammi pushing through the crowd with that impossible strength that only a mother has. Abba, trying to support Dadi and me up those metal steps, roaring soundlessly at Ammi, giving up, tugging at Dadi. Dadi confused, why are we turning back, me almost left behind on that bus because a kind stranger was trying to lift me up into its already crowded belly, Abba’s decisive hand closing over my wrist and yanking me painfully back, scrapes on my shin from where it hit the sharp edge of a step in the chaos.

A bus filling, filling, bodies leaning out of the doorway, hanging on by fingertips from the thin metal ladder on the back. And us, on the ground, clinging to each other, blood trickling down my leg, us calling desperately for Aftab, Aftab nowhere to be found. A bus pulling away, us alone by the roadside, Ammi pulling away from us and screaming, no longer his name, only a wild, wordless, inhuman sound tearing through the world until it died.

Six hours we waited there for another bus, beta. The sun grew hotter. Abba kept repeating, gruffly, that Aftab and Tun-tun must already be on their way to Lahore, see how someone was trying to help Nasreen into the bus, like that only, don’t worry, we will meet him in Lahore, you will see, people will help. Ammi’s blank silence. Dadi’s prayers. I too scared to do anything but hold Dadi’s hand and stay quiet, like a good girl. Ammi’s blank silence.

She never spoke again, not even when your Ammi was born and she stood next to me in the hospital and held your Ammi in her arms and cried and cried and cried. Even yesterday when we brought you home from the hospital, and your Ammi took you to her room, my Ammi held her fingers, shriveled and tremoring, hovering above your tiny face, she didn’t speak. And when she lowered her fingertips to your forehead, and you stopped your new-baby wailing for a moment, she had a look on her face—amazement and joy and terror and tiredness.

Le, you are tricking your Nani into telling you all these sad-sad things. No beta. No. We’ll tell you only happy things. Happy things. Tun-tun made it to Lahore, of course he did, and Aftab was holding him the whole time, and the bus made it safely across the border and no one set anything on fire and no one died. Someone took Aftab in as their own child, maybe renamed him, maybe he is here only somewhere in this city with his own grandchildren. Who can say?

You don’t think about all that. You think about your Ammi and her milk-sweet smell, and how your Abba already calls you Madam President. You think about your Nani, and how she will never let go of your hand. You think about halwa and kishmish.

In the End

In the end, God lifted us up into the sky, perhaps on arks, perhaps in fever dreams, and we remained asleep as we floated up, dreamless and still.


I had no itinerary apart from a visit to the island with the horses, a treat for my last day.

Nothing to Declare

You check the clock on the wall and see your flight boards in less than an hour. You’re cutting it closer than you like.