Belonging

by Ali Shan Artani

Reflections of a third generation Pakistani emigrant

Know thyself! This famous precept was carved into the shrine of Apollo at Delphi approximately 2,600 years ago. Philosophers and religious leaders, sages and mystics, Toronto rappers and New York taxi drivers have preached the same wisdom over time. Like any young pupil trying to get smart, I recently incorporated this task into my errand list. The two-word commandment – followed by an ellipsis in place of any suggestive instruction – tucks itself tightly at the top of my phone’s memo pad, preceding “learn to cook from mom”. I am staying at the family home for a few weeks in between work gigs. My father is annoyed that I have been using the home as storage space, and has demanded that I sort through two decades of my belongings. His orders are almost as rigid as ancient scriptures, but do not require deciphering, so I oblige. Clean up becomes priority numero uno on the memo pad, self-knowledge be damned.

I start with the basement. One at a time, clothes, books, widgets and gizmos come up to the stand. Two options: stay or go. Often, impulse finds them innocent – they can stay. If the subject I am inclined to keep is without a doubt useless, I interrogate the impulse. Two options: attachment to the past, or fear of the future. This interrogation technique cracks most subjects, redirecting them to disposal row. Two hours into the intense cleansing tribunal, my grandma interrupts. “What are you doing? What are these boxes for?” she asks for the second day in a row. Her short-term memory is fading. She recalls, however, with precise dates, a more defining history. She shrugs as she tells the story, but not to infer uncertainty – to express helplessness. It is for understandable reasons that Grandma has difficulty throwing things away. In the aftershocks of the India-Pakistan partition, her and my grandpa fled Gujarat to avoid religious persecution. They left the farm and all belongings, got on the safe rail route heading East to Chittagong, and then boarded a cargo ship heading West to Karachi, where a new life awaited. My most relatable memory, meanwhile, is the last time my laptop suddenly restarted. I can only imagine this is why she is the way she is. She wears her shawls in a perfectly predictable daily rotation. Old clothes become rags. Plastic bags are reused a dozen times over. She does not interrogate her belongings – they are only given one option: stay.

If my possessions had feelings, I would owe my textbooks closure. They would plead with me to reconsider, and tell me that the pain they inflicted was just tough love. I would tell them they would only be homeless until someone bought them from Value Village. My father notices the textbook stack, and then looks at me with a familiar facial expression – one that suggests I am an idiot. “Don’t you want to keep these?” he asks. If my grandma’s life is epitomized by a twelve day cargo ship ride, my father’s is a roller coaster. He was fated to become a grain farmer like his father, but instead chose child labor at a factory: a means to pay for school. Then he was fated for a steady career as an accountant in Karachi, but instead chose to drive taxicabs in America: this time to give my sister and me a better education. He is a proud ambassador of Struggle and Sacrifice, preaching the virtues and wearing its badges ever since I was a child, while mocking my worldview as “idealistic” and “typical of millennials”. He has had to dust off his old accounting textbooks in the past. He suggests I may have to do the same, but I assure him I will not. He nods, and I try to reconcile a newly settled feeling of guilt.

Listen:
my father speaks Urdu,
language of dancing peacocks,
rosewater fountains-
even its curses are beautiful.
He speaks Hindi,
suave and melodic,
earthy Punjabi,
salty-rich as saag paneer,
coastal Swahili laced with Arabic.
He speaks Gujarati,
solid ancestral pride.
Five languages,
five different worlds.
Yet English
shrinks
him
down.
–Shailja Patel, Migritude

My father came to America with bright eyes, badges of Struggle and Sacrifice on one shoulder, and like any immigrant, a chip on the other shoulder. A desire to belong quickly became a requirement to assimilate. He now carries a chip on his shoulder for every instance of prejudice he experienced over the years. His ginans now sound like ballads. A single chip on the shoulder can serve as fuel, but it is not healthy. A growing pile of chips can slowly bury identity. Its weight can fuel cynicism instead of drive. My idealistic worldview wants to interrogate the chips until they fall off his shoulder, but I do not know where to start. Unlike grandma, my privileges allow me to interrogate and sort. Grandma’s subconscious remarks support fair-skinned ideals of beauty affected by British rulers during colonial times – ideals that are still prevalent in the Indus Valley today. I have begun to refute. She has begun to let me.

Grandma’s shawl is Kashmiri, not cashmere.
Its patterns are not paisley. They are ambi – inspired by the footprints of goddess Parvati.
More people know the Mahabarat and Ramayan then they do the Iliad and Odyssey.
Rumi, the best-selling poet in America, is not white (sorry Leo DiCapro)
Nor is chai a Starbucks invention.
There is too much culture to celebrate.
We should drink some chai while we watch a Bollywood film.
We should not let another Eid pass uncelebrated.
We should not let grandma pass uncelebrated.
We should not let Struggle and Sacrifice go uncelebrated.
We should organize our belongings, take the chips off the shoulders, and throw them out with the trash.

Very little, as a function of time, is permanent. Environments and dispositions, my own thoughts and feelings are all subject to change. I am wary of making overzealous leaps of faith, because I am afraid of the unknown unknowns – what I do not know that I do not know. I am wary of preaching. Words can serve as an avenue of expression, but they cannot achieve catharsis on their own. In my opinion, catharsis should culminate in a staying enlightenment – a permanent stone carving, of sorts. My kin and culture are the only constant in all the fluidity around me, and this identity is a tattoo I have waited too long to get. What to make of how the world has chosen to be governed? People have become emboldened to use perverse biases and irrational fears to put others into boxes, and then sort using flawed statistical practices. I want to sort through my own belongings before someone else does. For better or for worse, this two-word commandment – know thyself – is not coming off my memo pad any time soon.

Eastlit February 2017: Artwork for Belonging by Ali Shan Artani. Reproduced with Permission

Belonging

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