By Iqra Asad – Medical student, Lahore
Life is a bridge spanning two eternities—voyaging from one to another; we cannot turn back. We are merely nomads, trudging a treacherous path, taking our homes with us, for no earthly place is our eternal abode. From joy to sorrow, from youth to adulthood, from thoughtlessness to wisdom, from life to death; each migration is a world in its entirety. Each migration is steeped in its own uncertainty. The heart longs to go back, the feet go on, for no force can swim against the current of time. We must go wherever it takes us. From one migration to another, on and on, until we are swept into the boundless ocean of the eternity to come, where our weary souls find rest.
I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew:
Of wind I sang, a wind there came and in the branches blew.
…But if of ships I now should sing, what ship would come to me,
What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?
There was a time I, too, believed that there was a way back. That going onward was a matter of choice. That one could flee from the mists of the unknown into the soothing world of all things familiar. Ah, what a fool I was. Life is a strict teacher; it gives the test first and the lesson afterward. And so I learned that at every new port, there is no ship to take you back. You must travel on to seas uncharted. The sea of your passing becomes a sea once known, enshrined in the hallowed halls of memory, one you can recall but not relive. The path onward is steeped in doubt and imbued with excitement. Fear is coupled with anticipation. Remorse blends with wonder. It is a tumultuous ride; once you are on it, there is no telling where it will go. It is taxing but rewarding, daunting but impelling. Weak hearts perceive nothing but the hardship and misery; the strong sense the challenge and the adventure. It took many migrations to strengthen this flimsy heart of mine.
I was still gullible, still swayed by fear and doubt, still susceptible to the winds of change, when she came to me. God breathed the soul of a lily into her rosy cheeks and set the spine of a soldier in her unbending back. Small, sheltered and vulnerable, a tiny bundle of life, I never dreamed that my little bead would grow into a luminous pearl. You know how they say that so-and-so was born with a silver spoon in his mouth? She was born with the feather of intellect in her hair, my lovely little daughter.
Having migrated into motherhood, I assumed all my major travels lay behind me. Little did I know the paths I would tread with my Saria. The paths of experience that intertwined her migrations with mine, until they seemed almost my own.
She did not know migrations were the stuff of life until she experienced her first physical one.
“Mommy, will there be McDonald’s in Pakistan?”
“And Pizza Hut?”
“Of course, dear.”
“And school? And TV? And chocolate?” The list went on and on.
“Saria, it’s just like America. You were born there.”
“When we’ll come back I’ll tell all my friends!” The little face glowed with childish certainty. She had not the faintest idea that there would be no going back.
“Mommy, it’s all dirty. I don’t like this country.”
“It’s not that bad, even though it’s not as developed as America, you know.”
“They should tidy it up more.” Settling into the new house, meeting the whole family for the first time, studying in a new school, training her palate to an entirely new cuisine; there was a multitude of new experiences for Saria.
“Mommy, it’s Red Colour Day at school.”
“They didn’t send a note, darling.”
“Not this one. My real school. The one in America.”
“Saria.” I took her hands in mine, pulled her close. “This is your real school.” She stared at me uncomprehendingly for a moment, then drew back roughly and shrieked, “No, it’s not! It’s not, it’s not, it’s not!”
“We’re not staying here! I can’t live here! I can’t!”
Can’t. Won’t. Isn’t. Not. Bitter words of revolt punctuated her speech in the days to come. It took a long time for acceptance to sink in, and that, too, riddled with grief. It was her first brush with reality. It readied her for all the journeys life would lay at her feet in the years to come.
“Mama.” Saria had shed her American skin and slithered quietly into a native one over the years. “Look at this.” Her fingers caressed the material of a pair of shorts she had unearthed from the depths of her closet. “I can’t believe I used to wear shorts. Mama, can you believe, I used to wander around the house in a vest sometimes.”
“That was a sleeveless shirt.”
“It was almost a vest. Mama, I used to have arm-wrestling matches with the boys in my class. Imagine!”
“You were in primary school.”
She sighed. “Water fights. I can’t have those anymore. I can’t run. I can’t shout. I can’t…Mama, I can’t do anything now.”
“I’m suffocating.” She clutched her head. “I’m trapped in this ridiculously huge cage. I want to be free again.”
I sat down on the bed next to her and ran my fingers through her hair. “Saria, I can’t run either.”
“Only because you’d trip over your own feet!”
“Really?” I tugged at her sleeve. “Let’s see it then, my girl.” Saria sat up straight. “Last one to the gate is a rotten egg!”
We rushed through the house in one blur of motion. Saria beat me to it. She clutched her side, panting. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes were shining.
“You still have to take me to buy a new dress!”
“Oh, I thought there was nothing you could do now?”
She was a born philosopher, she of the feather of intellect. With the years her theories evolved from childish prattle to actual sense. Sometimes she surprised me with her thoughts.
“Mama,” she would say, in tones suggesting she was talking of the market rates of celery, “You know what I think about suicide?”
“No,” I would reply.
“I think people take their own lives because they don’t want to move on, and they keep trying to go back.”
“Into the past.”
“I thought it was because they couldn’t see a way out.”
“That too. There’s always a way, though it isn’t necessarily out. There’s no such thing as ‘having no choice’. There’s always a choice. Even if it’s between braving it out and killing yourself.” She lapsed into silence.
“What are you thinking?”
“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
“Letting go.” She moved her head away. “It’s hard. Letting go of the past. Accepting that you can’t get it back again.”
“That’s it, isn’t it?” Her eyes were filled with tears now. “We had to let go of Ami.”
“Saria.” It was a sigh. “She is in a much better place than we are now.”
“I know.” She looked straight at me. “But that doesn’t make it any easier, does it? She’s not coming back. We’re not getting her back again. She was my only living grandmother.” Her voice broke.
I had to speak evenly so my voice didn’t follow suit. “Saria…one day…”
“I know, I know, we’ll see her again. That’s nice and all, but that doesn’t make it stop hurting.”
I did not say anything. It is hard for the one who migrates, and it is hard for those who are left behind.
“Mama,” Saria went on. “I used to think moving here from America was hard. But Mama…Ami told me, when Pakistan was made, and she migrated to it with her family, they had to leave all their things behind. Everything they knew. Their house. Their furniture. Their belongings. Their relatives. They had to let go of so much. When they reached Pakistan, they didn’t go straight into a new house like we did when we came here. They had to wait while everything was sorted out. It wasn’t easy. It couldn’t have been…” I did not interrupt her. “Mama, just think, if they hadn’t migrated here, we wouldn’t be here. We could be anywhere. Mama, if they had been killed on the way, you and I wouldn’t even exist!”
“Don’t say that.”
“Just think about it. It’s enough to give you the shivers.”
“It would. My little girl can’t even bear to part with her Barbie dolls.”
“Mama, that was ages ago.”
Was it ages? Even ages seem to pass by in the blink of an eye. Time is a torrent, and it carries you along so fast you hardly get time to latch onto anything before it has slipped out of your hands. Saria, my Saria, is leaving me now. She will leave me and enter a new life, a new home, a new family, a new existence. She is borne away from me on the tides of matrimony. The house will ring with her laughter no more. No more will she pinch my cheeks and tease me in that characteristic way of hers. It is…yet another migration. A migration to top all migrations, a migration that seeds so many more. And so on the cycle will continue, every new path leading on to so many more, paths upon paths, twisting and turning out of sight. This is the road that has been, is, and will be, trodden by humanity into the mists of infinity, until all the drops coalesce and flow into the eternal destination, beyond which there are no more migrations.
This short story was one of the finalists in A Life-Changing Experience, a story-writing competition organized by Hiba Magazine