I’m cutting mangoes in the kitchen. Chaunsa and Sindhri. My first mangoes of the season. I hear you all the time. The same crisp, soft voice. That’s not the knife you’re supposed to use, Manizeh. I peel off the mango skin and start cutting cubes. The juice trickles onto my fingers and puddles in my palm. I lick it off. Why did you come into the kitchen bare foot? Jootay nahi hain kya? Hain? I slice through each cube slowly. Next, I’m sucking on the gutli. I slide the cubes into your blue clay bowl and pick out a clean fork. Turn off all the lights before you leave. I pause at the door frame, reach towards the switch board and flip them down.
In the bathroom, I find myself looking at the arch my forehead is growing into. My hairline stretching upwards. A balding oval melding into my scalp. An arched forehead, making my face look longer and my eyes smaller. Raking through my hair leads to a palm-full of curls. I recoil.
We are stuffed in an ambulance but it is a silent one. No emergencies. No injuries. Just three grown children with their mother’s body. It is a goodbye vehicle. It is your last ride, but that is not what I am thinking about in the moment. It is a short ride. Approximately 5 and a half minutes from the hospital’s ICU wing to Primrose Lane. I am still. My brother is on my right and my sister is on my left. Or is she sitting opposite from me? I don’t even remember. I just remember the three of us cramped inside, with a coffin at our feet. The ambulance hiccups at a speed breaker and my head grazes the roof. I don’t feel a thing. My fists are clenched and I am looking at you. My forehead is clear, my lips calm. Not a muscle out of place. The windows have brown curtains with tassels. They move right and left every time the ambulance jerks forward. Depressing, you would have called them. I can see jagged shapes at the back of my head. Are we really doing this? Are we really going back home like this? You had to see our new bathroom. The tiles and the mirror and the bench. All your ideas. Months and months of Pinterest screenshots sent to me in the middle of the night on WhatsApp. Meezo, look at this, isn’t this such a cool idea? I must have replied to three out of the 45 pictures you sent on a weekly basis. I keep calling out to you, in my head. Mama. But no you hated that word. Amma. Amma. Amma. Amma. Amma.
I am in my lounge next and there is some faint conversation about women and graveyards and how it doesn’t look nice. I am going to the graveyard with my mother in the morning, no matter what happens. And that is the end of it. I get up and leave.
You are in the drawing room. In the coffin and the white cloth. There’s a feathery lightness in my limbs and I’m floating towards you. The room has to be kept cold. I’m wearing a half sleeved T shirt. Your face is covered, but I want to see you. I have to see you, Amma. I’m calling out loud to you now. Ayub is hugging me. Manizeh, don’t sit here, wear something, it’s very cold. I am crouched on the sofa and calling out to you. Louder and louder. Amma. I can’t stop crying. I’ll never stop crying. She’s hugging me even tighter now. I want to see you. I lean forward and open the knot at the top of the white cloth. I watch your face for a while, pale and small. I stretch my fingers and start stroking your forehead. It has exactly three lines on it. Your skin feels like steel. Your nose looks so thin. Was it always like that? Amma. I will never be okay again. Amma. Are you listening? Say something. Can you hear me? Come back.
I am in my bedroom now. The dresser is under the bookshelf. I am lying listlessly on the bed, thinking about how ugly it looks. We need to figure out what we will wear to the funeral. Ayub, Aamir and Aisha pick out and iron the clothes. I am being force fed by them simultaneously. But I just can’t seem to swallow anything. What is in my mouth? KFC? I keep thinking about you in the drawing room. Alone, in the cold. Why have I left you there? I get up and start walking. This time I’m forced into a lilac hoodie before I go in.
Later at night, I buckle down the staircase into Kamran’s room. Him and Aleezeh are sitting on the bed. I can’t breathe all of a sudden. Guys, it’s not okay. Nothing is okay. They surge towards me. I’m crying into their shoulders. They are holding me. I don’t feel okay. I will never feel okay. I can feel the wetness on their cheeks. I’m holding my head, my fingers sunken deep into my hair. We are choking on each other’s tears. There is a hoard of people upstairs but the three of us are stashed away in the basement. They just keep holding me till the crying stops.
I didn’t expect that the first time I would see a morgue it would be for you. Actually, I never thought I’d see a morgue. Aleezeh, Saimi, Jeeya and I are standing inside. My head already hurts. There are huge silver chambers on the right side of the room. The goose bumps on my arms are constantly prickling. We’re supposed to bathe you. I don’t know what to do, Jeeya. Listen Saimi, I don’t know how to do it. But I stay silent. I keep thinking about looking at your bare body. The thought of watching you just doesn’t feel right. I’ll close my eyes and won’t look. I’ll look away. How can I look? The most private person ever. My mother. It feels wrong.
We remove the white cloth slowly. The head first, then the arms and we keep going lower. We’re all collectively rubbing the bone dry soap onto her body. Hand me the mug, fill it with water. I’m rubbing and pouring. After a few washes, I feel like I’m getting the hang of it. By the time we remove the whole cloth, I keep my eyes open. I don’t even squint, the tears stay glued to the back of my head. My throat is parched. You’re beautiful. You’re so beautiful. I keep rubbing and pouring.
Soon we’re done, I didn’t even notice.
I’m running down the staircase, my flip flops slapping against the steps. Your room is in the soggy basement. The door is closed. I can hear you on the phone, conducting an animated conversation with a friend. I tilt open the handle and dangle my foot inside. I do these things to make you laugh. I love making you laugh.
You laugh and tell me to come in.
You’re sitting on the edge of the bed. Smiling. Legs outstretched. Mouthing some greeting to me and pointing to the phone. A tray sits in front of you. A blue clay bowl with a boiled egg, another one with cubes of cucumbers and tomatoes, seasoned with the right amount of salt and pepper. The TV is on at the back.
I go and plop myself on the red sofa and outstretch my legs on your sea shell table. Whenever we moved homes, the first thing we used to pack in a large bag was the sand and the shells from this table. Of course the sand wasn’t real. But I always imagined it had been retrieved from some beach in Germany, with perfect blue waves and white sand. I felt that if we packed just that, the sand and the shells, it would be enough. We would be ready to leave.
The glass topped drawer of the table is filled with the sand and shells. The lower part is a storage space, outlined with wooden bars, and large enough to host a spooned up human. Currently stuffed with a few SAT books and Elif Shafak series, it is usually empty and has facilitated the best hide & seek games with our cousins.
I hadn’t noticed, it is raining outside. The phone call is continuing. Your room’s window covers the whole wall. It has five sections with three layers each. The net grill, the main steel grill and a glass door. I open the door and walk out onto the patio, which is enclosed in four walls. It almost looks like an open pool but, instead of water, it is filled with baby motia and chameli bushes. I look up at your bougainvillea, its vines cascading down the railing. There is a spiral staircase which leads up to the porch and garage. This house can be a maze at times.
The drizzle has gained some momentum now. I’m wearing my saggy blue night suit. Slowly, it’s getting stuck to my body as the water soaks in. I stick my tongue out, feeling the raindrops on my taste buds. Tasteless and fresh. I’m singing lemons and oranges and I call out to you for the next lyric. Mamaaaa, do you remember that nursery rhyme about rain and fruits and dancing? Mujhay yaad nahi aa rahi. I’m jumping in a tiny puddle now, my back towards you, waiting for your answer. My flip flops belch each time I jump. I can hear your muffled voice over the rain. It’s getting faster now, falling heavier on my body. Amma?
I am soaked to the bone. I turn around, wring out the edges of my clothes and take my slippers off at the entrance. As I emerge through the door, you are seated in the same position, lips stretched into a smile. You’re holding up your phone, filming me. Are you making a video? I gasp, knowing fully well you are making a video. I feel the softest gush of love for you. Stopppppp, I whine.
After drying myself, I almost crawl to you. I place my head in your lap. You’re stroking my hair with your long fingers. We’re both facing the TV. The light flickers onto our faces, comforting me. I kiss your knee. You bundle up your fingers and pull at my cheek. You ask me what present I want for my birthday. All our conversations circle back to my birthday these days. You’re so excited. I don’t want anything, I swear, while pulling down the skin around my Adam’s apple. You laugh in frustration and pretend to let it go.
March, 2022 & 2005
Aleezeh and I are lying in our bed, it’s late. I’m staring at the ceiling. I stretch out my arm and hold her hand, squeezing my eyes shut. I’m inhaling deeply. Exhaling with a lightness. Slowly, I feel a weight climbing onto my chest. I’m breathing heavier. A slight pressure hovering over my whole body. I feel like I’m being pressed into the bed.
I can see the Wireless Compound terrace from the huge, grilled window. An unobtrusive silence settling in the street. It’s bedtime. If I stand on the edge of the bed, I can see the top of the new mall being built across the road from the signal. Mall of Lahore, the first mall in Lahore. I close my eyes as soon as I hear you walking from the corridor to our bedroom, the brush of your footsteps against the long, white carpet. There had to be carpets in corridors, otherwise children always needed up slipping and falling. Aleezeh and I shuffle in our beds, covering our tiny bodies with the blanket. I keep my eyes shut and hold my breath. The door opens and you peer in. You squint at us through the darkness. We’re both lying stone still. Yes, you’ve fallen for it. I’m trying so hard to keep my laughter in. As soon as you’re about to step back out, I let out a little yelp. Oye. Aleezeh starts giggling as well. You start walking towards us, I’m ready to be scolded by you. Next, I am begging you for a bedtime story. You seat yourself on the edge of my bed and start narrating. Your voice is so clear. The frames on the wall so bright. Our happiness so palpable. Right before leaving, you lean in and kiss me on the cheek, whispering Shabbakhair and reciting a string of Duas; Ayatal Kursi and your favourite Chaar Qul. You leave the bathroom door slightly open, a sliver of white light cutting through the floor. I look up, our ceiling is glowing with tiny moons and stars. They look so real.
I squeeze Aleezeh’s hand and I’m back in my bed. I’m crying profusely now, a tingling sensation crawling over my limbs. My body feels heavier and I am still sinking into the mattress. I can almost see the tiny moons and stars on our ceiling. Twinkling. I can smell you. I can hear baba in the lounge, watching the Sunday recap of F1. Again. The chimes tinkling outside our main door, seven silver cylindrical rods, moving with the wind.
I keep our chat archived on WhatsApp. But even nine months later, I message you every day. Sometimes I tell you about all the good things that happened in my day, sometimes I tell you how much it hurts. That day I told you about how I was in love. I felt you smiling down on us. But most often I leave a little I miss you Khola. Once you told me that Samina Khala overheard me calling you Khola over the phone and it really made her laugh. I loved calling you by your name. Khola. Kholi. I recently spent a few days in Murree and silently cried in the car on the way back. For just a minute. I hadn’t said your name out loud in six days. My tongue felt barren. I remembered that time when I told you I didn’t like your name and how I wouldn’t name my child that. You looked so hurt. Then I said I was only joking, but I wasn’t. You proceeded to tell me that you were named after a female warrior who, during the advent of Islam, went into battle dressed as a man, riding a horse and holding a sword. She killed mercilessly and came back alive. Bruised and battered but alive. It surpassed all the bedtime stories you had ever told us.
Photography by: Matt Hoffman on Unsplash