Alizah Pervaiz Hashmi
Excerpted from a short story published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 5 (2021).
For two months I was confined to our ancestral home in Bahawalpur. Except that it was anything but home: you could get from one end of the city to another in ten minutes, there was only one KFC, there were no exorbitantly priced cafés to lounge in for hours, no small self-congratulating tea parties where one woman spoke with the clout of an oligarch and everyone else just agreed. It was too organic to be comfortable.
I saw this caricature of a city and its clean, noiseless roads with distaste from the terrace of our house. We were here to help my great-grandmother recuperate from her open-heart surgery—a procedure she had been pointedly against, but not loudly, and not forcefully enough, since voice and force had left her long ago, her body punctured by the tens of comorbid wires that pricked it like pins. But she was still central, despotic in her defiance, and constantly sought control over her children’s lives, loth to give up the never-ending labour of maternity.
She was also bed-ridden, and I maintained an assiduous distance from her bed, unsure of what I could do to help, unwilling to find out. Until the house help took pregnancy leave and I was consigned two hours of daily bedside duty. I was told she despised any and all mechanization, including cell phones, so it would do me good to turn mine off.
From the get-go our relationship was tense, but the dynamic was clear—she was dependent on me but still in charge. I buried myself in my phone from the moment I anchored into the chair next to her bed, somewhat to spite her for being the reason we had had to put our lives in Karachi at a standstill and land here. But the truth was that I was almost afraid to look at Roshanara, the ninety-seven year old matriarch that I had only ever seen sick and immobile. She made no sound; nothing at all happened in the stillness of this room that had already begun to smell like a morgue.
She made her disdain of technology patent. Her face scrunched up in disgust when the grinder’s racket would sound from downstairs—even when it was her own food in it, now that she was unable to chew. She refused to eat until my phone had been turned off; her daughter, my Nani, said that up until her body had collapsed, she had even detested the electric heater we had installed in her room, preferring to sit by the fire that she would set up herself outside.
As I sat by her, the blanket, puffed up, seemed to swallow any contours she might have had and gave away nothing that would suggest it held her dying body. But her face was a mask of intensity, resting on some epicentre of power in the room; her inertia did not mean weakness. Her eyes, almost bulging out of their orbits now that the skin around them sagged with gravity, were constantly looking at me.
I noticed how she said nothing at all; instead, her conduit of communication were her eyes, that would tell me when she had had enough of her soup, when she wanted the lamp closed, when she wanted her sheets changed. Her eyeballs darted around in some uniquely organised, purposeful deployment of what was clinically nystagmus.
At night she would ask me to open the windows to her room. I hated it—having to cocoon myself in a fetal position against the cold. I would plug in my earphones to barricade myself against all the noise that streamed in: the grasshoppers, the long blades of grass gliding against each other, the screech that the hawk let out as she came home to her nest. I didn’t understand how all this could be healthy for her, but didn’t argue the point.
Roshanara had eight children, but only one of them still lived in the city: my Nani. The rest had spread far and wide across the globe, and despite continual reminders of her deteriorating condition, had not been able to make it back. Her death was imminent, written in stone, fact. We had almost come to identify her with the transience of her present. Everything she did—the food bowls she knocked off, the squealing protests against medicines—we endured with the faith that they were going to end. It was as if everyone was trapped in this condition to allow her some rite of passage from the living to the dead, willing it to end quicker.
Distraught by the abysmal reality of Bahwalpur, I sought to explore what is the un-reality of every city: its social media presence. I put in my location and looked for events nearby—cultural, culinary, confidential. The first search result was tagged with the most polarizing C of all (the one which is sometimes referenced in local colloquy with an entirely different C): cause.
It was an event by a page called Reclaim, Reform, Rebuild. The description was a verbose disquisition describing the need to regain access to the city—to take control of the city’s cultural landscape. They were looking for a space to set up an open air café.
Alizah Pervaiz Hashmi is based in Karachi. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Litbreak Magazine, Young Adult Review Network (YARN), Five on the Fifth, RIC Journal, The Aleph Review, Reclamation Magazine and Academia magazine, and was longlisted for the 2019 Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize. Her interests include epidemiology, statistics, and writing not-so-fictional stories.
About the featured artist: Moeen Faruqi is an artist and poet born in Karachi. He graduated in physics from California State University and obtained an MEd from the University of Wales. His poems have been published in Poetry from Pakistan: An Anthology(Oxford University Press), Dragonfly in the Sun: An Anthology of Pakistani Literature (also by OUP), and in international journals.