Whispers of a Rose

Two whole weeks of staying at my in-laws’ new residence in Bahria Town passed and not one sound from the kuraywali or the sabziwala to disturb my sleep. Before the trip, I had prepared to awaken to repetitive chants of “Come come bring your garbage” and “Tomato hundred rupees per kilogram.” Instead, it was quiet. I seldom saw anyone in the streets. Departure day arrived and my ears missed the echo of voices permeating the landscape. 

Drawing the curtains open, I was greeted with dark clouds looming and subduing the morning light. The hazy, muggy day suited my cloudy memories. Driving around Bahria, I had seen a replica Statue of Liberty in the center of a ring road junction against a verdant backdrop of hills so quintessentially Islamabad. The two places I called home colliding before me, I wondered if the hills were Margalla. Knock! Knock! At my door was Farzana, my in-laws’ housekeeper, smiling as she handed me a steaming cup of chai. 

“Shukriya, Farzana,” I replied. 

“Need anything else, Baji?” Farzana asked, adjusting her dupatta. 

“No, Farzana,” I smiled, then asked if the hills I saw driving around Bahria were the Margalla hills. 

Farzana squinted her eyes and tilted her head, “Baji, Margalla’s in Islamabad. The closest hills here are Lohi Bhair.” 

I replied, “Oh, of course,” concealing my mouth behind a quick sip of chai as if my lack of geography would be hidden. When Farzana left the room, I googled Lohi Bhair and learned that ten years ago, a Bhoja Airline flight had crashed near it, killing all passengers. The weather changed drastically that day as dark clouds engulfed the sky making way for torrential rainfall ending in a crash and grave loss of lives. 

Just my luck to have this knowledge the day of my flight back to New York. Cursing my curiosity and whispering a quick prayer to Allah for a safe flight later, I checked the state of the bedroom. Despite my penchant for worry, I’d left packing to the last day. Walter Benjamin said, “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” That’s exactly what the room exuded. Taking advantage of our five plane tickets, I filled our suitcases with as much memorabilia as possible: a blue kashi teaset, ajrak dupattas, and chooriyan bangles. With Shakil gone to meet his friends and the kids gone to the Giga Mall play area with their cousins and Phuphos, I had ample distraction-free time to pack and take bits of Pakistan back with me. 

In the evening, after our last family meal, I took photos to capture moments of togetherness. As we huddled together squeezing three generations of family into a tiny iPhone screen, I thought about travel documents and COVID test papers in our travel bag. Do I have the kids’ toothbrushes? What about snacks? I hope they sleep on the flight. 

As I toured the house one final time, making sure the last few belongings were packed, I found Rihab’s chuppal underneath the bed. A year shy of ten, Rihab’s chuppal was about to catch up to my size. The last time we had been in Pakistan, she barely knew how to walk. 

As I chucked the chuppal in the outer pocket of a suitcase and struggled to close the zipper, I heard loud sobbing. Recognizing the familiar tone, I dragged my feet to the source emanating from the veranda. Rihab was surrounded by her Phuphos, each one trying to console her. With my hands on my knees to close the distance between us, I asked, “What’s wrong?” 

“I don’t want to go back. I want to stay here with my family.” Rihab clutched her teddy bear, tears streaming down her face. 

Looking at the sky with a deep inhale, I took in the impending storm with the swift ushering of clouds. With an exhale, I patted Rihab’s back and assured her we would talk every single day with all of her relatives. 

Rihab continued to cry. “We’ll come back soon,” I offered. 

“No, we won’t!” Rihab snapped. 

“Let’s go! We are already late!” Shakil yelled from outside. The men were the time-keepers of the family and the women made sure it was followed. As I gathered my children, I sighed wondering why fathers got the easy job. The younger two, ages six and four, hopped in the car with their teddy bears eager to go back in the airplane. After getting them situated, I went back for Rihab, who remained a rock anchored in one place. 

“Look, this is not goodbye. Your oldest Phupo is coming along with us!” I gestured towards Sadaf. 

Rihab wailed, unwilling to move. 

“Rihab, come on! We don’t have time for this. Your sisters are already in the car.” I nudged Rihab towards the gate.  

Sadaf cocooned Rihab in an embrace wiping her tears. “Rihab, I’m going with you.” 

Saying my goodbyes, I hopped inside the SUV Shakil was going to drive. The other two cars held the rest of our luggage and the trail of people, who wanted to escort us to the airport. Rihab got in the backseat, her eyes swollen red. Wanting to take away her pain, I turned towards her and said, “Rihab, we could get your favorite: McDonald’s!” 

“Great. My last kid meal. I can’t even eat McDonald’s in America!” Rihab pouted as she folded her arms and looked out the window. Rania and Haya tugged on Sadaf’s handbag persuading her to give them some gum. 

I turned forward to look at Shakil. 

“She’s so sensitive,” he whispered and I nodded in agreement. “…But it’s not a bad thing,” I wanted to say. 

As we drove out from Phase III, the manicured green walking trail with palm trees lined expertly equidistant from one another served as a foreground for the rugged wild Lohi Bhair hills in the distance. The wind picked up its pace gathering the clouds and pitting them against each other in a collective release of raindrops. To divert my thoughts from Bhoja Airlines, I thought about happy rain memories. My cousins and I would match the pitter patter of the raindrops with our feet dancing half naked when I was Rihab’s age. 

“I’m gonna be sick. I feel like throwing up.” Rihab retched, and Sadaf opened the window to allay her motion sickness. 

“Rihab, breathe in. Take your hand out and feel the raindrops on your skin.” I took out a polythene bag and handed it to my sister-in-law just in case. 

“Rain helps car sickness?” Shakil asked. 

“I don’t know. Maybe it will distract her,” I whispered.  

“I don’t think we are going to make it. We should have left earlier.” Shakil sucked his teeth. 

I reached for my phone to distract myself. Please, Allah, let us reach in time without Rihab’s throw up all over the car! Ameen.

There was a text message from Ami, who was on her way to Lahore to catch her flight back to New York the next day. As luck would have it, my parents and I planned our trips to Pakistan in the same time period by coincidence. “Airport pohnch gaye?” Ami wrote.  

Nahi. On our way.” I replied. 

Three dots flashed on the corner of the screen for what seemed like forever. 

“Late, no?” 

Of course, we are late. My heart continued to beat faster. 

“What are you and Papa doing?” I typed back. 

Three dots flashed again. It was going to take some time, so I started looking at the photos I had taken the past few days. A picture of my kids standing beneath the massive rainbow balloon arch at the entrance of my in-laws’ house to welcome us. Pictures of chai and high tea parties. My kids making a kite by hand with their cousins and flying it. Rihab with a smile so wide and bright that I didn’t need to say “cheese”.

Rihab doesn’t have any cousins back in New York. These past days, she had connected with her own flesh and blood and felt she belonged exactly as she was. Looking back at Rihab, I smiled as she looked out the window, deep in thought.

Ami finally replied back, “Your Chachu is driving us to Lahore…Telling us lots of old stories of you as kid.” 

Chachu, the archivist of the family, had a love for gathering meaningful moments to reminisce about later. I sent a heart emoji to Ami and looked back at the photos. There were some repeats and photos that looked almost the same but I didn’t delete any. I wanted to capture it all, so Rihab could look back and remember the good times of this trip. I didn’t have many pictures of myself as a child. Although it wasn’t as easy then to capture photos as it is today, I wondered where all those photos of me as a child had gone. 

Fragments of memories were all I had. The older I grew, the more difficult it became to hold onto them. As immigrants, we were nomads always on the move. Traveling light was an important skill for survival. We had to let go of parts of our old identity to embrace new parts that would help us survive in a new land. It made sense why holding onto photos and past memories wasn’t feasible. Even then, a pang of jealousy would emerge when I saw my friends referring back to photos of themselves as children. They had a strong sense of identity and a sense of their past…their roots. My sense of rootedness was in my flashes of memories. 

“I’m going to take a short-cut according to Google maps,” Shakil declared. 

“Are you sure?” Sadaf asked from the backseat. 

“Yes, otherwise we won’t make it with all this rain and traffic, but if I can get there and at least get our boarding passes…” Shakil stopped talking to pay attention to the map. 

Rain poured with thunder lighting up the sky as accompaniment in flashes. Even with such a heavy downpour, it was business as usual in Pindi. Fruit and vegetable vendors lined the street huddled under makeshift rain cover tents with light bulbs strewn in between. Families of five careened through the traffic sitting atop their motorbikes. There were those exposed to the elements of nature and some like us who were safe from it. 

“How are you feeling, Rihab?” I looked back. 

“Better, Mom. I’ll keep the window open. I think it helps,” she said. 

Traffic came to a standstill. Shakil tapped the steering wheel and looked to his sister for some relief. “Do you know any shortcuts from here?” 

“I don’t know this part of the city. I told you when you decided to take this new way. You are in some really old funky part of town. What if some roads are closed because of the rain?” 

Shakil let out a deep sigh and put his hand on his head. “Thanks for the help, Baji. I’m shocked you don’t know the city you live in.” 

While bantering ensued between Shakil and Sadaf, a man with fresh rose gajras went from car to car to sell his merchandise. The man in the wet white shalwar kameez tapped at Shakil’s window. Shakil let down his window and asked the man for two. Without looking at the amount of money, Shakil handed him some rupees. The man looked back at Shakil and said, “Shukriya, Sir.” He gave Shakil the gajras and ran away in excitement, not proceeding to other cars. 

“How much did you give him?” Sadaf asked. 

“The left hand knows not what the right hand gives,” Shakil responded in his self-assured way. “One for my Begum and one for my Baji.” 

Taking the chunky rose gajra and wearing it on my wrist, I smelled its sweet fragrance, then brought it closer to my nose and the smell intensified. This was the same scent that permeated the front bagheecha of my grandparent’s house. Before my family and I immigrated from Pakistan, I picked a red rose and pressed it in the Urdu translation of the Quran gifted to me by my Dada Abu. The copy of the Quran and rose took me back to my relatives and Pakistan when I was thousands of miles away from them. As I grew older, opening up the translated Quran and holding the preserved rose became less common, but I knew it was there. Until one day, I couldn’t find it and asked Ami where it was. She donated the Quran to a masjid because there were many copies taking up space inside our tiny apartment that were left unread. When I told her it was special to me, she said that now someone else will get to read it. I didn’t know what to say about the rose, so I stayed quiet.

Just as the traffic started flowing, rain pounded the cars and Rihab had to close the window. Her tear-stained face was less swollen as she leaned in and breathed on the glass forming a film of condensation. She made various temporary marks forming her name and some hearts with her fingers. For a brief moment she smiled until the artwork she created disappeared into thin air. 

“We are about to pull into the airport. I’ll park and bring the luggage.” Shakil directed. 

“I’ll bring the kids in. You take care of your hand-carry,” Sadaf said. I nodded my head in gratitude. 

As I ran in the airport rolling along my bag, it dawned on me that living in more than one land made one a collector of memories and some were as temporary as the drawings on a foggy window. 

The new Islamabad airport had no doors and I walked right in brushing the water off my clothes as best I could. Spotting Sadaf with my kids at the kiosk, I walked over to them smiling as I witnessed my kids being showered by her love in the form of Cocomo, jelly candies, and Kit Kat. The girls stashed away their candies in their book bags, and I braced myself for sugar-ladened kids. Shakil ran in with his hoodie up, followed by the rest of our entourage. We took some more photos of the kids with their cousins. Rihab held back her tears, yet when it came time for the final goodbye, she couldn’t help but let the waterworks run. Each family member tried to console her. 

“My parents brought me back after seven years. Next time, I’ll see you when I’m sixteen.” Rihab sobbed. It was the pandemic. You kids were so young. I was pregnant. We were trying to create a safe haven for you. All the reasons for why we hadn’t come back sooner were at the tip of my tongue but I stood in silence. That’s not what she needed. I remembered being Rihab’s age during our immigration journey. At the airport, tears were lodged in my throat and would only come out in the safety of a four-walled public bathroom cubicle or when my parents weren’t looking. I’d flick the tear away and try harder to hold it in and keep it together, even though I was grateful for my parents’ sacrifice to immigrate. 

This time, I let the tears flow as I gently guided Rihab, holding onto her shoulders and walking toward the departure lounge. With our last wave to our relatives, we walked beyond the glass doors and got in line to check our luggage and receive our boarding passes. 

Flicking Rihab’s side bang behind her ear, I squatted to her eye-level. “I know it’s hard. You had such a great time. You were with your flesh and blood…in your own country.” I embraced Rihab letting her and my inner child sob. “It hurts. It hurts because you created beautiful memories.” 

The gajra in my wrist brushed against Rihab’s hair and a few petals fell to the ground. Taking it off my wrist, I put it on Rihab’s. “Did you know that Pakistani roses have the strongest fragrance?” Rihab smelled it and agreed. “If you want, we could press it in a book and keep it forever,” I suggested. 

“Or we could make some rose water and smell it and think of Pakistan,” Rihab said with excitement. 

“Yeah!” I said, smiling. 

Rihab placed her head on my shoulder. As I patted her head, I looked over at Shakil who was waving the boarding passes in triumph. “Ready?” I asked as I got up, kissing the top of her head. Rihab nodded and we walked towards our terminal holding hands. 

Surprisingly, we had thirty minutes till boarding, so Shakil and I decided to stop at the business lounge. As I got the kids settled around a table, Shakil bought a plate filled with sandwiches. A memory of my last meal at the airport played in my mind when my parents left Pakistan to settle in New York. 

“Did you guys know when I was about your age, your Nana Nani would get us chicken club sandwiches whenever we traveled? It was the last sandwich I had before we left for America,” I told my kids. 

“Wow! Does it taste the same, Mom?” Rihab asked. 

I nodded, eating my sandwich. My phone rang and I smiled when I saw it was Ami. Answering the phone, I told her how we were having chicken club sandwiches, and Ami laughed.

“Beta. I have something to tell you. Chachu has a bunch of photos that your Papa took of you as a child. I’m bringing them along with me. We can see them together once we are back home.” Ami choked up. 

“I’d love that, Ami.” I hung up the phone and allowed myself to feel the paradox of an aching grateful heart. 

Rihab and I walked hand in hand as we entered the plane exchanging a smile. I etched this rosey memory on the window of my heart.