On Saving Nuance

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Germanpancake-servingWe are at the Original Pancake House. Walking through these double doors, a life-size mirror is always the first to meet me, but I am never shocked by the reflection as I am now. Does the wallpaper seem more ivory than before? Are the white tablecloths casting a glare? Am I more brown? I catch several glances in the mirror, of breakfast-eaters looking up to see who has entered. Complexion is the new currency. The Election season of 2016 has ended with rising fear and fading nuance. Shades of skin are suddenly coining new dialects of silence. Language, as we know it, is shedding gradations— those gray areas where subtlety of thought resides; nuance is becoming obsolete like discarded snakeskin, but unlike snakeskin, it will not regenerate on its own.

My husband and I discuss the menu in our usual English mixed with Urdu; he orders a German pancake and a vegetarian omelet. Years ago, when we came here for the first time, he declared that the German pancakes at this restaurant were authentic and reminded him of his mother. His mother is originally from Berlin where she met and married his father (a student from Pakistan) after she converted to Islam in the ‘60s. They moved to Karachi a few years later and have lived there ever since.

Throughout my married life, I have associated Karachi more with my German mother in law than anyone or anything else because she is the one who not only gave me the most meaningful and magical orientation of the city I had been a stranger to, but also a practical example of devotion and life-affirming warmth. Names of Karachi’s avenues are now fixed in my memory as her German-accented Urdu and I can only recall that city in the sound of her voice— the voice that accompanied the cityscape on our drives together, as she related family stories from Berlin, Karlsruhe and Karachi.

As we wait for our brunch, we are sharing responses to the recent election. I mention the video clip of a neo-Nazi speech I saw on Facebook this morning, how I could not believe the pathetic extent and shape of the hunger for supremacy in the words I heard, and how closely they attempted to resemble the German original. I am still reeling from incredulity and unpleasantness.

We share an appetizer of small potato pancakes while I am processing the conversation, too preoccupied to really taste the food. I’m trying to calm myself between passionate outbursts, opting for cold water instead of coffee. Our emotional register changes from confusion and anger to reflection and then sudden nostalgia, as the awaited pancake arrives: it is golden and curled like a large, loving hand. At the sight of warm apple puree and powdered sugar, I understand how precisely food is like home, how it retrieves the most intimate, honest, nuanced, lost language, how it returns to mend our innocence and make us whole again— the way our mothers would like us to be.