Abtabad

by Maniza Naqvi Garden_in_bloom_arles-400

Last night I dreamt I went back to Manderley.” I muttered.

Sadaf seemed smaller, diminished, no longer the huge imposing mansion within a sprawling compound of the splendid gardens of my childhood. The scales of time, experience and perspective had taken their toll. We had driven around the neighborhood several times looking at various houses before we found it—still distinct in its double storied dark stone walls. The area around it was no longer a space of vast open fields of maize and wild flowers though the neighboring training fields which belonged to the Pakistan Military Academy were still there now in an unfamiliar golden orange of autumn and a bit further the Academy itself. For memory’s sake though reluctantly we took a photograph of ourselves in front of the house –the owners had even changed its name: For more years than I had been a part of it, a “mashallah” sign was emblazoned on the gate, its original name on a marble plaque no longer there.

“It’s Abtabad! Chill!” I said later in the evening standing in front of another steel gate as I wrapped my enormous winter coat and shawl closer around me in what felt like a bitterly cold night in 2005.

As I waited for the large black steel gate of the high walled compound to be opened I turned exasperated to look at her in the car, “What? Don’t look so worried. I’ll call you! Go.”

I waved the three thousand rupee cell phone which she had to buy for me in the bazaar because I didn’t have a single rupee on me. I had thousands of dollars stuffed in my coat pockets—given to me by friends and colleagues in DC which in the weeks to come would be used for buying relief supplies — blankets—bags of rice–medicine—renting of trucks for sending the supplies to the affected villages—-none of it as easy as it seemed. Wanting to help and delivering on it are two very different things. Yet, without doing anything at all—by simply arriving here with pockets full of dollars—in the earthquake zone, I had become a hero for my friends—suffering in their imaginations untold hardships—though I wasn’t suffering anything at all. I was living in a house–hot and cold running water, warm bed, hot cups of tea and omelet for breakfast. I made daily trips to the earthquake affected areas and a make shift health clinic. I was there for myself, for a foolish sentiment that I could be counted on to be there to care and protect in the hour of need.

“It’s the middle of the night and I’m leaving you at a strange house—even no lights on here—I’m literally leaving you with a chowkidar!” My cousin whined. “How can I leave you alone here? What if something happens?”

“It’s 8.00 pm for heaven’s sake! It’s Abatabad. Do you have any idea of the places I go to?”

“Yes but I’m not the one who drops you off in those places in the middle of the night alone!”

“Oh! For god’s sake! I’m being left at a guest house in Abtabad that belongs to an NGO! There are lots of people inside. There are hundreds and thousands of people out in the cold tonight in tents—there are thousands of volunteers out there as well. I’m safe, I’m warm—nothing will happen.”

There was a rumbling sound—the ground seemed to shake and we both yelped in alarm –“Unless of course,” I said nervously, “There is another earthquake and the roof falls on me! Now go! You need to get back to Islamabad that’s at least three hours away and you have to catch your flight to Karachi. I’m jetlagged like hell and need to sleep if I’m going to be of any use to anyone tomorrow morning. Do you remember it being so cold ever?” The gate opened and I stepped inside, “I’ll call you in an hour! Go!”

Somewhere in the dark a woman called out to a child, a dog barked, the air carried across the smell of burning charcoal. And in that cold autumn night a shudder of summer memories rushed through me in whispers of fireflies flitting in the darkness outside, of the fairy lights, the chirping of crickets and croaking of frogs; and of grasshoppers, and dragon flies, praying mantis and toad stools, and strawberries hidden in the grass. A yearning for that soil, for moving my fingers through blades of grass-and pulling up whole clumps of earth with tendrils, new shoots and young fragile roots clinging to the moist soil caught and tangled between my fingers as I crushed it in the palm of my hand—for the feel of it– the love of it.

Earlier as we drove around in search of the house—the landscape now draped in golden hues at sunset, I had murmured “How can we explain to anyone here that we knew a beautiful house here which we are unable to find now—so beautiful a place, so young so green and fresh that it has no comparison. That though we cannot find our way to it now, we too are from here from a long time ago.”

“No point” she said, “No point in talking about things that don’t exist any longer. To talk to other people about these things, is only to cause oneself more pain.”

But we did find it. The house in Kakul.

I was back in Abbottabad—where I had spent my childhood summers. At a family house so beautiful that it lived on in memory more resplendent perhaps than it may even have been. But family history had gotten in the way and those idyllic summers, having ended abruptly, now in memory have become ever more magical.

All the summers of my childhood had been spent in Abbottabad in a beautiful family house with sprawling gardens of prize winning roses and a small orchard of apples. And there were tiny wild strawberries hidden in the grass, along with toad stools, and there were praying mantis and grass hoppers sitting in for the invisible fairies. A small bridge over one of the Japanese style ornamental ponds teeming with tadpoles was also the home of frogs, gold fish and ducks. Dragon flies, flitting across the lily pads, their pistachio colored wings shimmering with sunlight. Our excitement over our own bravery of catching a bumble bee unaware by its wings whilst it burrowed deep within a rose. And even more screeches and laughter if the entrapment were to be of a praying mantis or a grasshopper. The wonder of a caterpillar or a lady bug crawling across our arms as we sat sunning ourselves on the large boulders arranged around the ponds.

Then there were all the other marvels, at least seven Russian Pomeranian dogs, a huge cage filled with a flurry of color of at least a hundred chirping parakeet or love birds —a talking parrot which lived in a cage, rocking back and forth on its bar and climbing around using its red beak and claws, it called out our names and repeated insults and cackled loudly with laughter and sometimes softly as though sharing a private joke. Soft yellow baby chicks, baby rabbits and a baby goat for us to cuddle and play with which were destined eventually for the cooking pots in the kitchen.

Blue hydrangeas outside the pantry window and gardenia, honey suckle and morning glory outside our bedroom windows. A Frangipani tree blossomed on the front lawn. Humming birds whirred as they built their nests in close proximity to such sweetness while giant black butterflies with orange and white spots flapped amongst the prize winning flowers.

Inside the house beautiful rooms, some forbidden to children such as the formal drawing room and dining room from which children were banished. Memories of those summers and the house are of endless spaces for hide and seek; long days spent reading books, the parrot creating a ruckus calling out my sister’s name incessantly a steady stream of visitors—a swashbuckling, debonair, sword of honor awarded Risalpur Air Force Academy trained fighter pilot and much beloved uncle at logger heads with his step mother: a formidable woman, glamorous, glittering, made up, imperious—and overbearing. She could only be drowned out by the spectacle and fury of sudden thunderstorms rolling in over the hills, lightening and hail the size of quail eggs and golf balls. I remember running out in one of these to surreptitiously collect strawberries. In the aftermath of the storms the air was even sweeter with the scent of wet earth, Eucalyptus, pine needles, grass and honey suckle.

The house reverberated with my great aunt’s commanding arrogant tones—ordering everyone around bending them to her will in that creamy nasal languid drawl of hers that sent the fear of God into everyone. She was determined to rule over them, knit her inherited Urdu speaking immigrant brood into the new country, ensure prosperity an idea they both coveted and resented. I remember the pageant of the spectacular society wedding of a beloved aunt to a handsome army officer from a “Shia-Saiyid on steroids clan” from Chakwal where every male member seemed to be in the military, handsome, and decorated or dead due to valor. There they were sons of the soil turned out in impossibly impeccable uniforms with their impossibly shining swords of honor amongst a bemused family of immigrant civilians. I remember the wardrobe stitched for me for the occasion and all the events—the Mehndi and the Shaadi–the aubergine silk gharara and the one in russ-berry gold.

The house and the pavilions in the rose garden were draped in fairy lights, and in the neighboring fields owned by the Military Academy, there were shaminas set up for the wedding banquets. White linen covered tables laden with biryani, saag ghost, seekh kebabas and lamb roasts, mint chutney—and trifle puddings and halwas. And bearers in white uniforms wearing white gloves; who with their tall starched white turbans—rivaled in their head gear the proud clan from Chakwal. The thought of this—-the image of it–in hindsight amuses and provides pause for reflection.

Spiderman and Superman zooming in flying all over and out of nowhere and landing where ever they pleased to fight the bad guys single handedly: KABOOM! KAZOOM! POW! BAM! RATATATATAT!- and Archie comic books in the book store in the bazaar a treasure trove occupied my imagination and which I bought with my ten rupees of pocket money and saved up Eid money. Those childhood afternoons of summer were also spent reading Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton and my great aunt’s complete collection of “bodice rippers: Barbara Cartland and Daphne De Maurier novels. A silver dish in my great aunt’s boudoir—held white sugary sweets—eat these she would say to the girls—and you will marry a prince. And I knew that I was destined for princes—as handsome as the ones that I had seen here and whom I met in comic books and novels all summer long.

All of these memories now in hindsight in the Spring of 2011 seem to have merged together into one long and complicated and impossible narrative. Now in hindsight, that feast seems to be an indigestible hash resting upon the dangerous fault-lines created by the trajectory of British colonial history and it’s much mimicking upper echelons of Pakistan's ruling society of civil servants and the Pakistan Military.

That beauty of Abtabad—of evening dew and morning mist—-sacred still: Of childhood summer evenings, scented with the cool moist aroma of eucalyptus, pine and honey suckle, spent gazing at the night sky, the chirping of crickets and croaking of frogs, in the distance the sound of barking dogs, the stars so close that they seemed to wink their intent to shower down upon us, appearing instead as the hundreds of fireflies in the darkness of the garden around us or on the hillsides where they were the intermittent twinkling lights all about us.

Even then when we sat in the lovely cool summer breeze at a home encircled in rose gardens, surrounded by a military academy, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, a stone throw away from India, China, the Soviet Union, Iran and Afghanistan, even then many decades ago as children we listened to the grown-ups arguing about the impending civil war with East Pakistan—India being the culprit for fanning the flames and the rumors of CIA and Soviet spies having infiltrated the country and spread out all over to cause mischief.

Beneath a winking milky way and the moon playing hide and seek amongst the scattered clouds overhead, over many cups of steaming tea and no doubt whiskey the adults carried on their passionate laments about the love lost, lies and deceit of Pakistan’s strategic importance to the United States and the consequences of its geography and the cold war—oft repeated was the incident of the American spy plane the U2 flying from the US base near Peshawar and being shot down over Kazakastan with the immediate consequence for Pakistan of a tabled catastrophe as Alexi Kosygin placing his arm around General Ayub’s shoulders at a conference in Tashkent—walked him over to a map of the world and resolutely drew a big red circle around Pakistan saying: “Now we know where Pakistan is located.”

Even then many decades ago as children we listened to the grown-ups' resentment of their country being held in the vice like grip of US interests–with Pakistan constantly being cast in the role of the beneficiary while the US was cast as the benevolent patron. This definition, of who was the beneficiary with every successive fiasco in adventurism, such as the U2 incident, was considered not only a flight of imagination but a disingenuous and dishonest reinvention of reality of who was benefiting from whom and who was losing and for what. Pakistan's location made it impossible for it to escape the super power patronage which chose to cast Pakistan in its own image of a profitable military complex.

“Soiling our soil” was a perennial refrain, about the Americans using Pakistan and their short sighted foreign policy along with the lament “The situation is very bad.” It all sounded very much like the drama of resentment played out between my great aunt and her inherited progeny of step children. The preposterously yet true, view of our importance: Pakistan opening the door to China for the US and Kissenger’s secret visit to China on Pakistan airlines. Every American President it seemed Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon—Carter had used Pakistan as a tool to bolster their cold war tactics and election numbers. With every election in the US it seemed came another military coup in Pakistan. “The situation is very bad” said the adults pursing their lips and shaking their heads in every conversation. In the years to come we would all continue to repeat this lament—“the situation is very bad” as the situation got steadily worse for soon there would be the era of Zia-ul-Haq and other US Presidents and those they had made.

Not much later from then—this family house –would be lost as the family would come apart over the marriage of an uncle to an American woman who was a diplomat stationed at the US embassy in Islamabad. My great aunt's many powerful friends in the capital would insist “that woman” was more than her position made her out to be. And this piece of rumor amongst other confusions would force everyone to choose sides. My great aunt insisted on it—either you were with her or against her—standby the matriarch or standby the marrying couple. My parents refused to choose. But everyone else did. It would be the end of a family already torn by internal fissures and contradictions—already torn and unbalanced by the trauma of Partition. No pause for introspection—we were all simply victims everyone else and global events were to be blamed. Frightened, sad and desperately trying to keep it all together. Fiercely and passionately trying to express it as love for Pakistan—building its dams, teaching its children, writing poetry, planting its gardens, painting its murals, protecting its borders—the skies, the boundaries, the waters.

Now here I was back again, middle aged and decades later. It was a place crammed with earthquake refugees in tents in its vicinities out in the open. Amongst them were thousands of Pakistani volunteers from all over the country, thousands of volunteers from all over the world and hundreds of journalists. And above our heads, the American marines in low flying Chinook helicopters were ferrying supplies to isolated earthquake affected hamlets in the mountains.

I had literally come straight from the airport to the earthquake zone to volunteer with an NGO to help out in setting up a rehabilitation and nursing home. This would take me from village to village talking to people; and taking assistance up to remote places. Then later I would turn around and go back to the role I was used to of preparing such projects for others to carry out. I came down from the hills to Islamabad and joined my colleagues to design the social protection component of an Earthquake Recovery program.

The atmosphere in the earthquake zone was of a war zone. The people were full of deep gratitude and praise for the thousands of young foreigners, doctors and relief workers for their humanity, kindness and stamina (“more than our own families would have done for us!” was a constant refrain); particularly for the 1200 Cuban doctors who worked tirelessly and lived amongst the victims. Chinook helicopters like giant steel dragon flies glinted against the skies. And people talked about the arrival of the US marines in the name of earthquake relief. And their gratitude as always was mixed with resentment and anxiety about the American marines. Rumor had it that 2400 marines had set up camp alternatively in Shinkiyari or Muzaffarabad depending on who you talked to.

“Now they’ve got themselves a foothold in Kashmir, they’ll never leave!”

My Abbottabad—Abtabad –was a place of sweet cool summer air perfumed by flowers, green grass, pine, maple, chinar and cedar trees and had a geography that was made up of the house called Sadaf in Kakul and other homes nearby such as Rahe Sakoon. The boys boarding school Burnhall, St Luke’s church built during the British times, and homes surrounding it that looked as though they belonged on postcards from the English country-side. A Chinar and Cedar tree lined avenue—fields of maize, surrounded by hills of Pine—and day trips to other hill stations for picnics—Balakot—Nathia Gali, Murree, Kalaam. And a shrine in the surrounding hills of Abbottabad—where there was a large pond full of carp.

In the days to follow I was relieved to see one sight unchanged: the nomadic Pavindas were still there coming down from the highlands single file herding their livestock around them. They had always been for me the symbol of freedom and of adventure. They personified freedom of movement and a way of life that evidenced that the world is borderless and full of color. Their appearance in the lowlands was always the first sign that snow had settled in the mountains. The bundles they carried on their backs and on the backs of mules were evidence of where they had been and that behind the Iron Curtain were products that my aunts and my mother coveted, for amongst the embroidered Kashmiri shawls depicting spring and autumn were folds upon folds of Chinese and Russian silks in the infinite shades I''m sure of snow, grass, maple, rubies, emeralds, gold, aubergine, russberries, apples, lychees, keenos, tamarind, onion skins, pistachios, melons, strawberries, pomegranates, pines and plums.

Another essential piece of that Abbotabad was Monalisa restaurant, owned by my great aunt where we went every day and which had a park across from it full of Pine trees, swings and picnic tables and benches under wooden pavilions. Monalisa catered mainly to the cadets at the Kakul Military Academy.

Monalisa was renowned for its Chicken Kiev and vanilla ice cream. In the little free time that I had before I left, I went in search of it and I was told at a street corner completely unfamiliar, that it had stood at this spot and had been razed to the ground years ago. A new structure would come up soon. Perhaps even with the same name.

Abbottabad now was a different place but I consoled myself that some things were still the same: the chapli kebabs in the bazaar and the halwa from Bafa were still as delicious as ever. One bite of the chapali kebab sizzling and straight off of a giant skillet and equal parts goat meat and fat spiced with chillies and dried pomegranate seed was enough to make me ecstatic and tearful with joy as I was transported to sensations and moments from long ago. The inner city bazaar still sold blankets—the colorful flower patterned razaiees filled with cotton–as well as imported synthetic blankets from China–and cooking ware—and cardigans. It was still there. If anything had changed, I told myself, loyally clinging stubbornly to memory, it must have been me.

The soil was soiled. There was no avoiding it: the air no longer smelled of grass and pine cones–the hills were no longer covered in coniferous trees and were, instead, denuded from the relentless deforestation that had taken place over decades of wonton money making through the pillaging of every public asset by the ruling class. The burglary of Pakistan was so complete. In the areas most affected by the quake the schools that had collapsed, killing thousands of children, were government built and Aid financed. Colluding corrupt contractors and officials had not followed specifications. In those areas the hills, their trees stolen—trees which would have grasped and held the soil in place, had literally come crashing down in avalanches of dirt and boulders the size of houses.

The pretty lanes and picturesque streets were pockmarked with giant bill boards advertising various brands of frozen chicken and cell phones. The quiet serene town of the past now reverberated with the horns of trucks and buses, the air at times thick with the fumes of diesel. And overhead the ever present rumbling of the Chinook helicopters created a vibration so strong that it shook houses and rattled windows as though it were an aftershock.

Also by Maniza Naqvi :

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