by Haider Shahbaz
“To be exiled is not to disappear but to shrink, to slowly or quickly get smaller and smaller until we reach our real height, the true height of the self.” – Roberto Bolano, Exiles.
“You must remember that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.
I packed my bags, and came to Paris. I am trying to write. What better place to write, I thought? After all: Hemingway, Stein, Cowley, Joyce, Fitzgerald. Also, my introduction to American fiction: James Baldwin. He came to Paris so as not to commit suicide, and to write. Preparing for my writing, I read ‘A Moveable Feast’ and reread ‘The Sun Also Rises’. I got drunk. I went to the graves of Abelard and Heloise and Sartre and Beauvoir. I accepted Baudelaire as a prophet and became a flaneur. I visited the Latin Quarter and tried to sniff out the ghost of a young Danny the Red. I read about Malte Laurids Brigge and I read the essays of Benjamin. I got high while I read Baudelaire and Benjamin. I even saw Midnight in Paris: It was cute.
But I didn’t write. I couldn’t write – no words, no stories, came to my mind. Unfortunately dear reader, the history of my travel and my failure to write neither begins nor ends at Paris. It begins, in fact, with my first love.
It was a hot Islamabad summer. I was sixteen and eager and romantic. I wanted to be a writer. In order to be a writer, Ghalib had taught me that one must see the inside of a jail, taste wine, gamble and fall in love. So, I went to jail, somebody took me out in a few hours. I drank and gambled. Now, I had to fall in love. So I did: I fell hard. It was passionate and pleasant as it happened. But nobody knows what something is when it happens: you only find that out later, and even then, sometimes.
In short, it was a sad love story and within a year, I was miserable. Escape presented itself and I pounced. Love was, of course, not the only thing I was running from. There was my father, the womb, the hospital bed I was born on, and the prayer a mullah recited in my ear before I opened my eyes.
I came to Wales; I came to a small boarding school and many loves. I forgot the past: I was free to be someone not my father. I had done what Ghalib had said, still I had no idea how to write. And I didn’t learn it there either. But after some years, I had to forget Wales too. I couldn’t stay, I needed to move, to forget and reinvent. All this was very foolish. Somebody should have told me that everybody, eventually, ends up like their father and mother.
I came to America, to crowds and isolation, to weed. I had weed and a haze and in it was time and space and god and family – in it was I. Smoke was warmth; it was comfort and oblivion. I still tried to write, but nothing more than sensations remained in my head.
So I packed my bags and travelled more. I went everywhere to escape my head, and to find new stories. Everywhere I went, I met brown people. They stopped me and talked to me. And sometimes, they didn’t. Everywhere I went, I also saw people who were not brown people who saw brown people as brown people. The brown people everywhere were busy. In New York, they worked in finance, in positions I did not try to understand. In Paris, they were tourists. They also sold water bottles for a euro a piece around the Notre Dame area. In Barcelona, they sold samosas and beer. And if, after midnight, you drunkenly stumbled into the right one on Place del Angels, they sold hash. They even spoke Punjabi and were from Gujranwala and lived in the neighbourhood your father was from. In London, they ran corner shops and corrupted the moral fabric of the empire. In all these places, secretly, hidden from everyone, they also did other things, like working other jobs, studying, smoking, talking, eating and fucking. But none of that was quite exciting, sometimes not even fucking. In all these places, people were surprised if I didn’t do what brown people do. But I was not one of them. I was not them. Funnily, they, themselves, were not them.
I was disappointed: I found no good stories in the places I saw. So after years of wiping out the past, I sat down and wandered around in my head, not in Paris, not in my room, not amongst brown people, but in my head. I found the only persistent memory that survived: a father waiting for the dead body of his mother; his son; yellow chairs outside Karachi Airport; the dead of night.
Finally, I wrote a story. I wrote down a smile and a tear, not meaningful or meaningless.
I knew now that the past was the only present; I was trapped in my head like time in a clock, ticking over memories. Love and geography and god and grammar do not make sense – to my human mind. My religion, my family, my country, my language: they are my memory. I am nothing but those memories. And my struggle to correct them, to reach back and hold them. How far will my memory go? First love? The womb? The Garden of Eden? After everything, all exiles must return, even as they stay exiled.