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Letter To My Late Mother

Taha Kehar

The first piece for Taha Kehar's curation of our website (September, 2022) focused on the them of creative memoirs.

Dear Naz,

I write this letter with the assurance that it won't have just a single recipient, but an audience that is unknown to me. Had this note been addressed to you alone, I could have disclosed secrets without the fear of revealing too much. Now that I know it has other readers, I'll have to rein myself in, preserve our parent-child relationship from the harsh scrutiny of busybodies.

At first, I was self-conscious of making this letter public. Who wants to witness an emotional outburst play itself out through the written word? After working on several drafts, I've managed to curb the musings of a grief-addled mind, albeit imperfectly. I now type this note with some degree of objectivity, a stoicism that I didn’t possess when we buried you last November.

Naz, I don't wish to dwell too much on the final year of your life, but I can't deny how deeply the dark period after your diagnosis has been etched in my mind. We'd turned your bedroom into a makeshift hospital. The drawers of your dressing table and desk bore mute testimony to the gravity of your illness. A few contained medicines and your doctors' prescriptions; others were stacked with medical contraptions you'd require as the disease progressed. We were equipped for every stage of your illness, but unprepared for the final goodbye. (I still don't think I've bid farewell to you. Grief, I'm told, is a shape-shifter that leaves its remnants in the unlikeliest places as it changes form.)

But, as I said, I don't want to fixate on those chaotic final days. (Fortunately, we can sift through memories, suppressing those that are painful, resurrecting others we want to cherish.) Instead, I want to tell you that your demise has made me fall in love. Not with a person, but a creative form.

As a novelist, I've always found fiction to be a shield. Fictional disguises, however scant or deceptive, have given me the freedom to write about real people. After you left us, I tried to use a fictional avatar as a coping tactic.

Naz, you always thought that Mummy in Typically Tanya was an exaggerated (I'd prefer the term 'watered down') version of you. In the spirit of this declaration, I was tempted to pen a sequel to the novel as a way of giving your fictional alter-ego a dignified send-off. Somehow it didn't seem like the right thing to do. Fiction seemed like a weak medium to memorialise you.

Since you've been gone, I've sought comfort in Sara Suleri Goodyear's two memoirs about her parents. I've realised that the creative memoir is far more liberating than an autobiographical account. An autobiography shackles the writer to chronology and hard facts. Through a creative memoir, s/he can withhold information, guard secrets from prurient gossip-mongers and even preserve the past in a palatable form. Even if the creative memoir tends to meander, jumping from one incident to the next, it takes on the shape of our drifting thoughts and seems oddly realistic.

You were always a private person, Naz. And a stickler for factual accuracy. I still remember how horrified you were when you discovered that the creators of Ertugrul Ghazi, a historical drama, had a tendency to slip in the occasional fictional character. I tried to explain to you that such shows cater to an audience and have little to do with the business of truth-telling. As usual, you weren't convinced by my explanation.

Grief, I'm told, is a shape-shifter that leaves its remnants in the unlikeliest places as it changes form

Over the last few months, I've written several drafts of this letter, hoping to strike a fine balance between revealing and withholding. I'm still struggling to find the perfect equilibrium between these extremes.

Each of the letters, though, mention Zeeba Sadiq's 38 Bahadurabad—the last book you and I read together. Fittingly, 38 Bahadurabad is a creative memoir about the author's childhood home in Karachi. The book, which merges fictional techniques with the rigour of an autobiography, presents a moving portrait of the author's father as well as the motley crew of people she encountered as a child.

I remember lending you the book on a balmy Ramazan evening in 2020 as we waited for the Maghrib azan.

“Read this,” I'd told you. “It'll remind you of your childhood.”

You'd kept the book on your nightstand and smiled feebly. (I didn't think much of your feebleness in those days, Naz. Your disease didn't announce its presence to us in subtle ways.)

I don't know why I lent you Zeeba's book. Maybe it's because it reminded me of your relationship with your father. Or, perhaps, it was a conscious effort to help you reconnect with your carefree childhood after your retirement. Like you, Zeeba attended St Lawrence's Convent and was probably in the class below you. I often imagine if the two of you had ever met. After you died, Naz, I spoke to one of your cousins about Zeeba. She knew her well and supplied a vividly personal account of her life to me—something I could have done without. She borrowed my copy of 38 Bahadurabad and never returned it. I doubt she ever read it.

You were different, Naz. You devoured the book in a single night. You'd probably read it during one of those sleepless nights when it became difficult for you to breathe. But that's not the impression you gave me when you returned the book to me with a smile—feeble yet cheerful.

“This book took me back to my childhood,” you'd said.

I'd suggested that you should write a memoir under the title of 56 Muslimabad—the address of your childhood home. I even suggested a few anecdotes you'd told me over the years that could go into the book. You'd simply nodded and smiled. Days after the doctor pronounced his verdict, we took you for a drive in the old neighbourhood you'd left behind in the 1990s.

“I didn't feel connected to it anymore,” you'd told me later that day, without even a hint of emotion.

56 Muslimabad remained unwritten, but whenever I've worked on drafts of this letter I've thought about what you would have included in that book of memories. Why? Memoirs require discernment, a subtle awareness of where to draw the line between telling and withholding. How can I write about you responsibly without respecting your boundaries?

Much like Ertugrul Ghazi, the drafts of these letters cater to an audience and are performances of sorts. Each draft contains a different set of memories. This one is for public consumption. The recipient of the other letters is, of course, you—just as you would have wanted it.




For Taha's bio, click here.

Photo courtesy the author.


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