I didn’t cry when I first left Islamabad for the United States. In between naps on the plane, I kept thinking of the thick bamboos that ran beside our lawn at home. I’d like to see them from our living room. On a windy day, they had grown tall enough to rub up to the building’s windows. I was thinking of Jahangir, our gardener, calmly strolling from one pot to the next while watering the plants beneath the kindly glare of the early evening sun.
My mother had the bamboos chopped down shortly after I left, and my father fired Jahangir for reasons I don’t quite understand and don’t completely forgive. Since I was ten years old, Jahangir had visited our home. His everyday presence had become entwined with my recollections of home, as had the gentle hum of our garden, which he had built over the course of fifteen years.
It’s funny how the strangest scenes linger with us when we reflect on our travels.
My mother kept asking if I was having a nice time when I was getting ready to leave Pakistan after two months. She was concerned because I was departing irritated and frustrated, owing to work but also to the fact that I was leaving undone tasks.
I had a large list of things I wanted to “achieve” in Pakistan, given that I had only been there for two months (see last post). Views to be had. Collaborations that should be pursued. People with whom to reconnect. Of course, if you’re from Pakistan, you’re well aware that the country and its people are notoriously tough to anticipate. Except when it isn’t, time is flexible. People are often adaptable, except when they aren’t. Weeks passed, I walked in circles, and I eventually became frustrated and restless.
As a result, I offered my poor mother a conflicted response: “It’s been good, but I’m ready to return.”
As I’ve reintegrated into my life in Juarez, a new crop of memories has slowly surfaced. Outside my parents’ house, I can hear the shouts of the “radee wala” (recycling guy) bike while I type. In the late morning, there was a continuous conversation in our house. I remember putting away the heaters, opening the windows, and allowing the air and sound of my father’s chirping parakeets in as the seasons changed.
I now understand what the trip did, what it “achieved.” In my mind’s eye, it coloured the fading backdrop of Islamabad. I can now situate the time I spent with my aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and parents against this richer backdrop. I remember burying my nails into luscious oranges in the winter light. Alongside centuries-old Buddha caves, drinking doodh patti while listening to qawwali. Finally noticing and noting the incremental shifts to retirement, parenting, and early adulthood.
Fortunately, Saptarshi came to visit in February, and I had the pleasure of playing tourist with him. We dragged my mother along with us to show us about historic Pindi. We went to the bustling but decaying Jamia Masjid after passing through moti bazar, the old spice bazaar. My father brought us to Taxila and then to Hassan Abdal’s Gurdwara Panjab Sahib, where we watched small turbaned schoolchildren play in the dusk against the constant hum of Sikh prayer. We ate some fish on the way, sitting in a neon-colored booth at one of the numerous restaurants lined up along GT road, squirting small wedges of orange-lime on deep-fried fish that we then tore up with naan.
We went to my hometown of Lahore, where Saptarshi had his first taste of “genuine Punjab” due to our rental car driver, Imran, a fast-talking hustler who also served as our de facto tour guide. We started our tour with a quick visit to Data Sahib, thanks to Imran. We then went to the spectacular Badshahi Mosque, got lost in the old walled city, wandered inside the quiet but beautiful Wazir Khan mosque, grabbed a Qingchi, and headed to Anar Kali for some fatty mutton karhai slathered in oil and black pepper.
We ate more meals at home in Islamabad than we did out, which was exactly what we intended. My Qaiser Mamoon’s famed mutton karhai was delicious. We reached over to compete for the intensely flavoured masala at the bottom of the pan, which was always served immediately in the wok it was produced in. Nirgasi koftay – hard-boiled eggs nestled inside sliced, richly flavoured koftay (meatballs) – and aloo paratha (flatbread with potato stuffing), which our home cook, Shehnaz, painstakingly prepares by gently pressing spiced potatoes between flattened dough before oiling and heating it on the tawa – were among my special requests at home.
I ate a lot of goat as well. My mother was overjoyed to have a partner in crime because my father doesn’t eat red meat. We’d have a different goat curry every week: aloo gosht (goat with potatoes), shaljam gosht (goat with turnips), gobi gosht (goat with cauliflower), and palak gosht (goat with spinach) (goat with spinach).
Shehnaz taught me how to make an old favourite during my last week. She claimed that I lived too far away, else she would pack it in Tupperware and send it with me so that I would never miss it or have to prepare it. This was the best option, I assured her.
- 1 lb. mutton with bone chopped in small pieces
- 1 ½ teaspoon salt or to taste
- 4 tablespoon oil (canola/sunflower/vegetable)
- 1 medium-sized yellow onion sliced in half rings
- 1 teaspoon crushed ginger
- 1 teaspoon crushed garlic
- 1 bird’s eye chili diced (optional)
- 1 ½ teaspoon cayenne red powder
- 2 teaspoon coriander powder
- ½ teaspoon turmeric powder
- 4 roma tomatoes roughly chopped
- 1 lb. leafy spinach roughly diced
- Rub 1 teaspoon salt on to the mutton pieces. Set aside.
- Heat oil in a stockpot. When hot, add chopped onions, and fry on medium heat until soft and translucent, about 7-10 minutes.
- Add crushed ginger and garlic, and fry for roughly 30 seconds.
- Add green chili (if using) and ground spices, and fry for roughly 1 minute until fragrant. Deglaze the pot with a splash of water if needed.
- Add diced tomatoes, and the remainder of the salt. Fry tomatoes on high heat until soft, about 5-7 minutes.
- Add chopped mutton, and continue to fry on high heat for 15-20 minutes.
- Add roughly 3 cups water (just enough for the meat to be completely submerged) and cover with a tight fitting lid. Bring to simmer, and let the curry cook on medium-low heat for 1 ½ hour.
- Lift cover and fold in diced spinach. Partially cover the stockpot, and let it simmer for another 30 minutes.
- Check for salt, and adjust as needed. If there is still excess liquid, remove lid and increase heat to high to boil out some of the water.
- Serve with roti, plain basmati rice or a vegetarian pulao of your choice.