Javeria Hasnain is a Pakistani poet and writer, a Fulbright scholar, and an MFA student at The New School, NY. Her prose and poetry have appeared/is forthcoming in Poet Lore, The Margins, Isele, and elsewhere. She was a runner-up for the 2022 The Bird in Your Hands prize and an honorable mention in the 2022 Penrose Poetry Prize. She currently works at Cave Canem and reads poetry for Alice James Books. She has received support from Tin House Workshops, The Kenyon Review, Sundress, and International Writing Program.
Every evening in Ramzan, alone in my Bed-Stuy apartment kitchen, I pick three bananas, an apple, a peach, and an orange. I slice the bananas, dice the apple and peach, mix them in a small tupperware that belonged to the previous tenant. I punch a hole in the orange and squeeze its juice directly into the fruit mix. I let loose in the melodic tunes of Sabri brothers’ Tajdar-e-haram—grip the orange harder as it creates more holes, filling my palms with pulp that drips, drop by drop, into the mix. I don’t care for the seeds or the grime that infiltrates my otherwise purified delicacy.
Every evening during this small ritual, I think of Mama, my aunt, the eldest of all seven siblings who cooked the best food. No one could return from her home hungry or underwhelmed. Every Ramzan, she called everyone at least once for iftar. I have the most vivid memory of her making fruit chaat, squeezing the orange into the fruit mix with naked hands, grime mixing with pulp. She didn’t care for the seeds either.
I was an unhappy child and only I knew that. I was embarrassed by my father’s hiroof van and preferred going and coming back with other friends in their regular-roofed cars. I was embarrassed by my small home and never invited any of my friends over. So whenever I saw Mama, I fixated on things she lacked, which were (to my defense) abundant. What was more surprising to me was that she never did.
She had a love-marriage at 25 to a Navy Captain. She recalled with an arrogance peculiar to her how all the neighborhood girls and her cousins, even her aunts, were extremely jealous of her. Owing to the long stretches of work in the Navy, her husband used to be away for weeks, sometimes, even months. He left for work one day, and never returned. She never married again.
After my nana passed away, she kept shifting to various apartments, never living in any one for more than a year, tagging her brother that she cared for along as well. At one point during this five-year-long cruise, maybe in the third year, she stopped unpacking most of the stuff. Cupboards were replaced by cartons and beds by air mattresses. Whatever little room for furniture the apartment provided remained empty. Her dark circles had deepened further and light-spots occurred unevenly on her face, probably because of smearing very old, often expired, make-up products that she bought from the local Sunday bazaar.
She was keen about appearing pretty. She always dressed nicely and scolded my mother and khala when they didn’t. Several times she handed me or my sister, whoever was nearer, a hair plucker (a staple of her make-up bag) to clean out her chin or upper lip or the middle part of the eyebrow, just above her nose. Oh, she absolutely loved her nose! She wore a little pea-sized gold nose ring shaped like a flower. It was a joy to watch her put on make-up before leaving for the office. Dressed in a lilac & pink Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) uniform, hair tied in a tight bun secured with a black net, black pumps with heels—she looked exquisite. After she left, the smell of her make-up and perfume lingered around the apartment for hours.
Mama—that’s how every kid in my family addressed my aunt—worked at PIA as a Boarding Officer at Jinnah International airport in Karachi. She received a discount coupon book for the airport McDonald’s and the breakfast lounge at the start of every month, which she spent all on her siblings and their children. Almost every weekend, we gathered at her place and went to the bus-stop to wait for the 4K bus. It was a thrilling adventure. I always felt anxious that somebody would be left behind in the bus because they were not vigilant and the bus only paused for three seconds at a stop before it sped up again. The drivers do not care about anyone. Karachi bus-riding is a high-stakes game, everyone is looking out for only themselves. If you are not fast enough, you will end up at Saddar even though you journeyed out for Nazimabad. Although, when she had money, we took a taxi. Amma usually offered to pay the taxi fare, “bachhon ko taxi mein le jao,” a gesture we all anticipated, and welcomed when it came, including Mama. After all, the taxi took us all the way to McDonald’s, whereas, the nearest bus-stop to the airport was a good 15 minute walk away.
My cousins and I spent many weekends at her apartment, nights sleeping like sardines on separate mattresses joined together. She woke up early in the morning to pray fajr, and immediately afterwards, switched on the TV to 9XM, the Bollywood music channel, still sitting, cross-legged on her prayer mat, her fingers rolling one bead after the other of the tasbih. We woke up, one by one, irritated at the noise getting louder, the sun shining directly on our skin, piercing the eyes. When we protested she closed the curtains and turned off the TV so we could sleep in peace, she laughed. Then she said, “if you go back to sleep, no parathas for you.” And none of us were stupid enough to say no to her parathas.
Mama was the only one interested in our teenage love lives, and the only one we weren’t scared to tell them to. On weekends with her, we stayed up through the night talking about the people we had a crush on and stalking them on Facebook. In return, Mama told us about hers. She was so nonchalant about the men—like those heroines you see in Bollywood films. Too cool for the boys. Casual and unbothered, and secretly playing hard to get. I could still sense some sadness in how she talked, so dissociated from herself, as if recounting a story from a past life, or of another person. She never told us about her husband or her marriage. And we knew better than to ask.
As I was growing up, my relatives, including distant cousins, started saying I resembled Mama. One of my aunts used to say I looked more like Mama than my own amma. The same round face, a delicate nose piercing, the penchant to appear beautiful. I got offended at such comments, even though I knew they were true.
In the summer of 2015, she announced she could no longer live in Karachi. She told my mother and khala that she was bored. We had also grown older and busier with studies taking priority, and didn’t visit her as often. Her friends had also moved to other cities and countries. “Moreover,” she said, “there are financial issues. And I am tired of having to move houses every year.”
A month later, she took my mamu, the brother she cared for, and moved to Rawalpindi. Her office relocated to the Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad. She said the pay was better and she had two friends living with their families in the same apartment building. Her other brothers weren’t happy with her decision and persuaded her to come back. When she remained firm on her decision, they distanced themselves from her.
Mama often called my mother to tell her about the weather in Islamabad or its tasteless food and ask what she had made for lunch. She occasionally messaged me to ask about the meaning of a difficult English word or phrase, to which I always responded only hours later, with an irritation peculiar to teenagers. She often said she missed us, but she was building a life for herself. She missed us but she did not want to come back.
Early in 2016, Mama called to tell amma about a man she recently reconnected with. They had been friends for a long time who lost contact with each other due to adulthood and distance, both physical and otherwise. He was a veterinarian, divorced, and had two kids; a boy who was seven and a girl who was 15. Mama had developed a good relationship with her son, who now also called her “Mama.” Mama said he reminded her of me: the boy also loved reading and writing stories and topped his classes.
On December 29 2016, I woke up to a loud scream. In the dining room, baba was holding amma’s one hand, while she cried holding a phone to her ear with the other. He asked me to switch on the TV in the next room. The little red ticker in the bottom of the news channel read one after another: “a hotel in Islamabad burned down,” “one casualty known,” “the body identified to be of a PIA employee.”
We were later told the fire erupted around 4am and that Mama died of suffocation from the resulting smoke. All the other guests had fled the building. A man who was staying in the next room told us they knocked at her door repeatedly to wake her up and help her escape. When they finally reached the room, they found her on the bathroom floor passed out.
On New Year’s Eve, one of Mama’s brothers and his wife flew to Islamabad to bring back Mama’s body. She was brought back to Karachi, to one of her brothers’ homes. It was time to look at her and say goodbye. She looked so beautiful. Draped in the simplest white. She would have never liked it. I imagined her saying, “White is so boring! Bury me in red.” But of course she never said it. We never talked about death. We actually didn’t talk much at all. She never even told us about her navy husband. She never told us why she didn’t marry all these years. I never asked. I always thought I would have enough time to talk to her once I’m older.
The day she was leaving for Islamabad, amma, I, and my sister had gone to drop her at the airport. There was still some time left in her flight, so she took us to McDonald’s to spend the last few coupons she still had. My sister and I bought Oreo McFlurries and amma and Mama bought soft serve vanilla. She looked at me while slurping her cone, her eyes glassy as if brewing tears, and kept looking for what seemed like a long time, her lips quaking steadily. She cried all the way walking to her terminal.
Now, when she lay so still, all I wanted was to hear her laugh. I gawked at her as if drawing her inside my mind. I thought if I gazed at her long enough, I may always remember her face—round, high cheekbones, a protruding chin. Her lips, small and pink, like a baby’s. Her petite nose that she was extremely proud of, “Hum Nagpur waalon ki naak sabse achi hoti hai.” Every inch of her crystalline—no spots, no burns.
All of us who have left homes, families, countries—willingly or reluctantly—know it is devastating. Also liberating. I could not understand why I began thinking so much about Mama’s life as I was starting my own, in a new country, two oceans away from that of my birth. I understand now. We had more in common than we cared for. We both wanted to make something of our lives.
On phone calls with amma, I hold back telling her how much I miss her. It’s true that I miss her. It is also true I do not want to go back. Now whenever I am flaneuring in the streets of Manhattan, kissing men I do not intend to kiss a second time, dancing to cheap Bollywood songs in bars, I feel her in myself and it makes me happy. This feeling comes after years of feeling myself in her, and being angry and sad because of it.
Throughout Mama’s funeral processions, my amma and khala were told of how Mama was a shaheed. And martyrs never die.
I continue to bear witness to her life. In my dreams, she is always dressed as a bride.