There were exquisite museums with high ceilings and glass cases full of ancient artifacts in the brazenly ochre colour of angry earths. Old canvases with glory painted in oils and waters, which refused to fade. Furniture displayed in rooms to look like famous peoples’ houses. Expensive boutiques dedicated to decadent tear-drop pearls and the sight of them against the posh black velvet. The cafés had crystal panels with cherry pies and Danish pastries baked to look like oysters and taste like heaven.
But there were no mangoes.
There were no mangoes like home. And so, no mango-milkshakes like home. And that would make Ameena very angry. I hadn’t cared for mangoes much, back home. Too sweet and too yellow to be true, I’d tell anyone who questioned my sanity. Here in Washington, D.C., how they so unfortunately ceased to exist; the sadness of it didn’t hurt me a lot. And that, of course, would infuriate Ameena even more.
We were two women who had been suddenly rendered housewives, courtesy our husbands’ careers in the United States and the ordeals called childbearing and childrearing. I was flustered that I had to uproot myself from grad-school and move down to live with my husband who snored and didn’t put the toilet-seat cover down where it belonged. Ameena’s husband had bought a halal fried chicken joint in D.C., opposite the historical Ontario Theatre and they moved from a cozy, homey suburb into the sanitised, mathematical citadel of power that navigated the free world. Away from our homeland, we were like birds that had flown away and lost their way back to the nests. We were groping in the dark and found each other.
After we had sent the kids and husbands to school and work, she would come over. We’d draw the curtains together and make a nest of blankets and pillows and face each other in the dim sunlight that sneaked its way through the creases and crevices. We would speak in low tones of all the things we missed from back home. The tin-drum-thumper who woke the souls out of everyone before sehri.The matchless cousin camaraderie that came out to play on family gatherings. The way PTV announcers would say “Aaiyay, nashriyaat ka raabta waheen se barqaraar rakhtay hain, jahan se munqata hua tha.” How once you had spoilt your taste buds on desi spices, there was little hope you would settle for anything less tantalising. The unapologetically kitsch, but beautifully kaleidoscopic, motifs of pink peacocks and kohl-laden eyes on trucks. The way newspaper-wala scensored Pushto film posters with black marker scrawls. And how, just how gorgeously aromatic and sweet the mangoes used to be. She’d close her eyes and let her insides recreate the charm of the chaunsas and the spell of the sindrhis.
Oh, I’ve missed her all these years. Really missed her. The conversations at the kitchen table, our elbows on the embroidered tablecloth, the steam from our coffee cups shifting shapes and forming illusions of home and all things home.
My very patient husband let me go back to New York to finish my PhD. He then completed his tenure and we moved back home. To Pakistan.
Ameena and I exchanged letters and postcards, but not with the frequency we had at first. Sometimes I saved them. Sometimes I did not. We eventually fell out of touch.
Ontario Theatre at 17th Street, Columbia Road was recently torn down, I heard.
As for me, the tin-drum-thumper wakes me up before sehri. I recently re-watched Dhoop Kinaray on PTV. Again. I often throw pillows and blankets in my bath tub and form a nest where I can take a nap in the middle of the day. I switch on the radio and listen to the young kids on FM89 having fun. Sometimes I take a mug full of mango-milkshake with me. It stopped tasting too sweet a long time ago.
It tastes good now. Tastes like home.
And we all know. There’s no place like that.