Illustrative image Image Credit: Unsplash/Blaz Photo

I watched the car packed with women and children drive away. My face pressed against the mesh window, my sister next to me, I stared at the neem tree in the driveway I often climbed hoping to find a sturdy branch to lay my head on. There was an event, something with food and a magic show, at the ladies’ club, with a ticket worth 10 rupees. None of our aunties bought tickets for my sister and me. The little me and my sister were left behind in the big cold house humming with the sounds of domestic staff and bougainvillea vines.

In that house full of people, I always felt invisible.

It was the mid-70’s, I was seven years old, hyper-active, loquacious, and loved school. I played with the nine children in the house, watched cartoons on PTV, Pakistan’s sole channel, and fell asleep tired, next to my sister, a year younger. On the twin bed next to ours was our paternal grandmother who snored loudly and forced us to wake up for fajr prayer. Snug in our uncomfortable bed, we hated waking up in the silent dark house.

In sleep that was always troubled, I cried soundlessly in my dreams.

Back in 1972, our family of six splintered as easily as a plastic doll in a naughty child’s hands. My brother was born, four years younger, during my parents’ initial separation. My mother in her village, my older brother shipped to an elite boarding school in Lahore, my sister and I were the two question marks in the complex landscape of a broken family in a traditional, feudal set-up that believed in the till-death-do-us-part-ness of unhappy marriages. Without remembering a day of togetherness of my parents, one day I was living in a small town in a staid bungalow with two long driveways, a front lawn, and many rooms lined with corridors with thick columns. My sister never stopped crying, I became her guardian at the age of five. Holding her hand, I would wipe my tears, turning my face away from her.

I didn’t know how to console my sister that things would get better, that we would be with our mother soon, that no one would scold us, that we wouldn’t ever be left behind in the big cold house, the one with silence that hissed. I don’t know when it was and how it happened, but one day, I found happy books about children who were loved.

No one read in that house inhabited by my grandfather, two grandmothers, three uncles, their wives, eight children, and a large domestic staff. In a world without cable TV and the internet, long days were filled with school and playing with cousins. Parents-and-brother-less, I created my quiet little corner amidst the indifference of that big loud Punjabi family.

Outside the rooms noisy with families that weren’t broken, the little girl with a loud giggle and sad eyes found a nook in the main corridor. A much-read book in my thin hands with a paper bag full of candies that lasted a long time if not chewed, I read. When in the village with my mother and maternal grandmother, I also read, a constant punctuation between climbing trees, eating non-stop, and going giddy with my maternal cousins. The village was our happy place.

Asthmatic at a young age, in an enforced stillness, I found secret companions in the characters in the books of Enid Blyton. The Famous Five and the girls of Malory Towers and St Clare were the young people I knew better than the families I lived with.

One cheerless afternoon, gathered on a makeshift dining table in the house courtyard, bougainvillea dotting its three sides, the grown-ups who mocked our clothes and tut-tut-ed everything we did, opened a letter written by our mother, who lived in her village in the gaping childless loneliness that occasionally played games with her mind. Nervous or mental breakdowns were labelled madness. Their laughter was cruel as they read pages of disjointed pain and darkness of a mother missing her children as she described her simple activities. My sister and I swallowed our food in silence.

There was my mother-shaped hole everywhere in that house. It was visible only to me. I don’t know how it appeared to my sister who missed her all the time. I was scared to ask. It startled me in bright places, it lurked in cobwebby corners, it hung from the leafless branches of trees, it peeped from underneath the big dining table with unappetizing food and surly grown-ups, it jumped at me from the noisy bedrooms of children who lived with their parents, it chased me down the long dark corridor when we went inside our grandmother’s room to sleep, it hugged us tight in our small bed.

Curled up in my dizzying solitude, the world of the happy chatty British children was the wonderland far far away from the dreariness of my orphaned-without-being-orphaned childhood.

Within the seemingly open, warm, and confident me, there lived a quiet, terrified, reticent little girl who folded her pain tightly in her clumsy body, finding solace in the words of strangers whose stories ended on a happily-ever-after of loving families and devoted parents. I argued when children were supposed to be obedient. I questioned everything. There was no one in that house I could talk to, not even my beloved sister, and the little me made up answers for questions that haunted me so much I started to sleepwalk. The sleepwalking ended at some point, but some of those questions hung in a forever limbo.

Wordlessly, my loneliness blended into my aloneness. I read.

Reading taught me how to write. I wrote essays and stories in school. I used to write essays for my cousins. Unable to name grammar rules, I started to write how I felt. Living in a house where nobody ever hugged me, I noticed the transparency of faces. At a very young age, people’s eyes became a mirror to their layered selves. Books taught me how to read people. My solitude and my pain gifted me my biggest strength: empathy. To me, no other human trait is greater. The empathetic are my heroes.

I read everything—Enid Blyton; Archie’s comics; Urdu novels for children; India’s Stardust and Cine Blitz; Cosmopolitan and Vogue; my mother’s Urdu novels of Razia Butt and Bushra Rehman; Sidney Sheldon, Jeffery Archer, Harold Robbins, Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz and John Grisham; Graham Greene, Marquez, Kundera, twentieth century masterpieces—in my childhood, preteen, high school, and college years. Unable to travel beyond Lahore and my village, the entire universe embraced me in its glorious warmth. Life started to make sense.

For my undergrad and postgraduate, I studied English literature, and fell in love, heels over head this time. Chaucer, Milton, Pope, Shakespeare, Hardy, Austen, Eliot, both T S and George, Donne, Keats, Conrad, Hemmingway, Golding, Ibsen, Beckett, Fielding, Sophocles, Marlowe, O’Neil, Miller, an infinite splendour stretched, enveloping me in light that enhanced little-seen things, and humanised the unknown. The little girl smiled as she winked at the adult me. The eternalness of the classics made the world much more comprehensible, live-able. Book by book, the written word became the expression of what I was, what I wished to be, what I knew I could never be.

My mother never read anything I wrote. She left us on November 6, 1999. I was seven months pregnant. I miss her every day.

My writing began much later. After postgraduation, the only writing I did was pen, literally, a few love letters to the man who later became my husband, now ex. Fiction was my best friend, my confidant, my secret lover, but I was unable to write stories. I wrote a bit of non-fiction in mid-90s, and in 2000. That was the year my only son Musa, my heart, was born. Finally, life was what it was meant to be.

Ten years passed. I still read but didn’t write. Motherhood sutured all the holes in my heart, in my soul.

On a visit with a national daily’s editor to see if I could do a series of interviews with young politicians, he asked me what I did. My answer: “I’m a mom. I watch movies and TV shows. And I read.” In my handbag was Tim O’ Brien’s “The Things They Carried”. He said: “Review it!” I laughed. I read books, not reviewed them. But I decided to write because I had loved the book. The editor and his deputy loved the review, and thus began the unexciting saga of my column writing.

Eleven years later, I’ve authored two books, “Do We Not Bleed?” and “Leaves from Lahore”, written hundreds of articles, worked as an op-ed editor, and finished my first 13,000-word story in January 2021. It is titled “The Little Girl”. My only work of fiction so far. Since 2018, I write a weekly article for Gulf News, UAE.

Everything I write is non-fiction, the story of anyone, everyone, no one. I write about the voiceless, faceless Pakistani—the nondescript victims of violence, abuse, rape, and murder most foul; religious persecution; misuse of the colonial blasphemy law of Pakistan and why it must be repealed; Me Too; and social and political realities of Pakistan. I write to immortalise the forgotten-in-a-week Pakistani.

I don’t ever write about me. Until today.

As a little girl the written word shrank the world into a microcosm of the universality of humanity. As a middle-aged woman writing connected me to the most personal part of me, lighting up the sameness of humanity in a startling clarity—pain that is without an identity card. Suffering that does not ask for a passport. Illness that travels without a visa. Loss that unites across borders. Bonds that survive time and distance. Love that makes it all worth it. Empathy that makes us all human. And visible.