It sits on a hill—a fact that does not, in most places, distinguish a house as anything beyond ordinary. But it does in Karachi, which is in large part a flat city, squat and sprawling and a bit surly on the edge of the Indian Ocean. There are so few hills here that a house on a hill can only been found in two or three locales. But this is a special house for more than just the gradient of its setting—it is the home of my grandparents, the site of more laughter and the cause of more tears than any other my life. When the house was built, two similar but not identical others were built on either side, the homes of two of my grandfather’s brothers. Three out of seven sons of my great grandparents, all living on the same street, the same hill.
To get to the house, one has to ascend a steep driveway, a feat as odd for drivers in this flat city as encountering a snowstorm in the desert. When my mother drove, she relished the moment and our gasping delight. Would we make it? Would the car slip back, the blunder of a lower gear? We always got to the top, and from the head of the driveway we raced through the back entrance and past the large wooden cage of parakeets and up the kitchen stairs and into the arms of an aunt and then another aunt and then my grandmother. Up we climbed, to lunch, which we ate early and they ate late, or to tea, which my grandmother sweetened with generous teaspoons of condensed milk. If we were good, and sometimes even if we weren’t, we got to lick the spoons.
The house was midcentury modern with three floors and wraparound decks. It was very nearly palatial, an adjective that was apt for unusual reasons. My grandmother had, quite literally, grown up in a palace. It was a palace in exile, but still . . . a palace. Her parents had been part of the retinue of the Aga Khan, the last of the Iranian Qajar dynasty, which had to flee Iran for Bombay in the 1920s when she was a child. In a story that was top-secret, and which I only pieced together many years later, she had eloped to marry my grandfather, an ordinary man from an equally ordinary straitlaced and middle-class Indian Muslim family. Before this house, my grandparents had lived in many others, all of them cramped or in distant suburbs, or old and crumbling, or all of the above. This house was the fulfillment of a young bridegroom’s promise, the return to his bride of the life she had left for him. On either side lived her brothers-in-law, men who had for a very long time refused to accept her into the family, now unable to turn their faces away from the woman they had blamed for “stealing” their brother.
The bond between my grandparents, their love marriage, would set the course for the marriages of all their daughters and at least one of their granddaughters, me. Because my mother had run off, the shadow of moral laxity—of headstrong independence, of an errant nature—hung over the house. My own story would be a bit different, but its opening scenes would also play out in the house on the hill.
Behind and to the side of the house was a terraced garden, which began with a plush lawn bordered by rose and jasmine bushes. The blooms, whose heady scent punctuates my earliest memories, were resplendent, two or even three shades in a single flower’s petals, pink and yellow and cream and burgundy. If you climbed up the stone steps hewn in the hillside you came to a vegetable garden: rows of the hottest peppers, okra, and the curry leaves whose fronds we picked and whose strong and spicy smells emanated from nearly everything my grandmother cooked. The higher terraces beyond were off-limits to us, unless an adult accompanied us. If we were allowed to dig in the yard, we found tiny shells, which we collected with wonder. The sea, in the limited mental geography of our childhood, was very far away, though in reality only a distance of ten or twelve kilometers.
Behind us, farther up and on the other side of the hill, was a Sufi shrine. As children, we never knew about the shrine; we did know of the mysterious black-clad men who would sometimes clamber down in the craggy path beyond the house. If we weren’t good, if we didn’t eat our food or drink our milk or were naughty, we were told that they would come for us.
My grandparents had four children, all of them daughters, a predicament that had defined much already and would define so much more. By the time I was born, three of the four sisters were married, my mother’s older sister and her twin sister, both to brothers. My brother and I were still the first grandchildren, though, because my mom’s older sister had no children. She was often the first to greet us when we got to the house. After running through the kitchen and up a short flight of stairs, eight exactly—we counted them often when we were learning to count—you came to what was then called the TV. lounge, the room from which all the bedrooms branched out.
It was in this room that my mother was sitting when her water broke. Pregnant with twins, she had come to stay with her parents through the last trimester. Bed rest in her husband’s house was hard; she had not been married very long and she missed her sisters and parents, even though they lived only ten minutes away. My childless aunt had not been able to tolerate the chaotic and cramped apartment her husband’s family lived in. Thus, flouting all conventions, she and her husband moved in to the palatial house and installed themselves in the second-largest bedroom. That evening all of them, my mother, her oldest sister, and her brother-in-law, who had recently returned from London, sat laughing and joking on the armchairs.
It was eight in the evening when her water broke, and nearly everyone was home, and nearly everyone accompanied my mother to the hospital. She had to be helped down the eight steps to the main floor and then down another ten to a walkout basement that abutted the garage. She was scared and moved slowly, step after step on the metal and wood staircase. Her brother-in-law, whom I would grow up calling Uncle J, drove the car. Someone, I assume, called my father. Everyone was eager for the babies to be born and even more eager for them to be boys.
They were not boys, not at least both of them, but that wouldn’t be known for a while. The two grandfathers who had now joined the crowd in the waiting room paced and made polite conversation. When my arrival was announced, only one of them celebrated. My maternal grandfather was crestfallen. He had always hoped for a son, but the twins my grandmother had borne were my mother and her sister. Now he felt the familiar force of fate, bent on denying him a grandson.
My brother, born a long fourteen minutes after me, saved the day. Suddenly, the mood in the waiting room, only hesitantly joyous, erupted with celebration and congratulation and prayer. Sweets were ordered and distributed excitedly among friends and neighbors and relatives, charitable gifts among the city’s poor, beaming smiles among strangers.
Over a week later, when my mother was discharged from the hospital, she returned not to her husband’s house but, as was the custom then, to her own parents’ house. There she would remain for the first forty days after giving birth, to get accustomed to being a mother without the scrutiny of her in-laws. The house on the hill was the very first house we knew. Our cradles, specially ordered, had been set up in one of the bedrooms off the lounge with the cream couches. It was the third largest bedroom, a pink room with two walls of half-windows that looked into the garden. The smell of jasmine wafted in at night and the incessant cawing of crows at all other times. Against one wall stood a low-slung bureau full of my grandmother’s romance novels. This was the room of my best childhood naps, awakenings made euphoric by the realization that I was in my grandmother’s house, that mansion of delights, where all rules could be suspended.
After forty days my mother returned home, but in those early years she returned often to the house on the hill, spending entire days sleeping, the only time she felt she could do so with abandon. My aunts, ecstatic every time we visited, pampered the two of us. The eldest, Aunt J, would take care of me, and my mother’s twin, back from London and pregnant herself, would look after my brother.
A few years after we were born, there was a wedding in the house. My mother’s youngest sister, my Aunt N, was to marry her cousin, a not-uncommon practice among Indian and now Pakistani Muslims. This was not any cousin, however; it was a first cousin and a neighbor. My mother’s new brother-in-law, whom I still call Uncle N, lived there and had long wished to marry the youngest sister; they had played together as children, laughed together as teenagers. My Aunt N was less keen on the match, on marrying this boyish-looking man whom she had always thought of as a brother. She put it off and put it off, and then she gave in. At least she would only be moving next door.
Except she never really moved. If garrulous laughter and wit and repartee filled the meals and moments at my grandparents’ house, courtesy in no small part of my grandmother’s familial lineage as a courtier (and the vast gaggle of relations that had followed her to Pakistan from Bombay), the house to the right was austere and severe. Aunt N’s mother-in-law was frail and frugal, a gossip whose nosiness we were warned of even as small children. She and my grandmother had a polite nodding relationship, and it was the men, older brother and middle brother, setting up the match and informing everyone else. Aunt N never took to her new home or to the mother-in-law who measured the rice down to the grains and added no spice at all to the curries in her kitchen. Within days of being married, she began to spend all day, every day at her mother’s place, returning only to sleep. For years and years, I believed she still lived there.
My grandfather was a rich man without sons. To compensate or perhaps to project the sort of strength he felt a man with sons would have, he auditioned sons-in-law for the role; or perhaps it was some of the sons-in-law who insisted on trying out for the part. My uncles not only lived in or next to his home, they worked alongside him as well. Every morning at nine, he presided over breakfast in the informal dining room on the bottom floor of the house, and both came to offer their morning greetings as he sat at the head of the table. Then, with one or both stand-in sons in tow, he got into his chauffeur-driven luxury car, a Chevy Impala, and drove to the executive office of the industrial parts company that he ran, leaving a house full of daughters behind him.
And then, suddenly, he died. It happened after a short illness, the entire length of which was spent abroad in London, where my grandparents had gone for a vacation. Nine years old at the time, my brother and I had noticed our mother red-nosed and crying and praying for several days. There were hushed and anxious conversations, worried glances, muffled tears. The house was full of people. Neighbors and relatives and friends, all women in the upper lounge off the bedrooms, all men in the formal sitting room off the garden. My mother and her youngest sister were hosts to the mourners; my oldest aunt had left for London, to bring my grandmother and her father’s coffin back home. It took five days. So it was that my grandfather’s funeral was held, nearly a week after he had passed away, a long time in a culture where most people who passed were buried before sundown on the same day.
The smell of camphor hung in the air, mingling with our shock and the prayers being chanted by the men standing around the coffin.
On the day of the burial, my grandfather’s body was laid out downstairs, just steps from the door through which he’d left for work every day. There he was, our tall and majestic grandfather, lying in a box, his face wooden and unmoving, his skin leathery, his eyes closed. The smell of camphor hung in the air, mingling with our shock and the prayers being chanted by the men standing around the coffin. Later, when the time came for his coffin to be carried out, we scurried to the windows that looked down over the driveway that led to the bottom of the hill. He was borne aloft, his body covered with a green cloth amid a sea of male mourners, all chanting “God is Great” and “Muhammad is his Prophet.” It was a scene and a sound we would never forget, a crowd walking down the driveway we loved driving up, carrying the dead body of our grandfather.
But we recovered fast. We were kids, and staying at the house on the hill, as we would be for the next few weeks, was a treat even under the circumstances. We loved waking to lazy breakfasts with all our aunts and sleeping every night with our cousins on mattresses rolled out on the floor. The adults were distracted so our escapades expanded throughout the vast house. We hid in the bushes and spied on visitors, who continued to appear in an unrelenting stream.
Until they left for London, my grandparents had occupied the largest and highest bedroom in the house. It stood on its own floor at the very top of everything and was reached by its own flight of stairs. A wide, breezy deck opened out from it, sporting spectacular views of the sprawling city all around it. As children, we had spent many hours at those windows, insisting that we could see the sea. The room and adjoining bathroom were modern for their time, an overhead shower and a custom-made bed ordered to fit my grandfather’s six-foot-two frame. One closet was filled with my grandfather’s suits, brown and black and gray, tweed and wool, hanging next to his starched and ironed white shirts, his boxes of cufflinks standing in a row on the shelf just below. Next to it, my grandmother’s closet was full of elegant saris in every hue and fabric, chiffons and silks, embroidered with sequins or embellished with lace. It smelt of Jean Patou’s Joy, her perfume, of which my grandfather made sure she had an ample supply.
My grandmother would live for decades more but she would never again climb up the stairs to that room she had shared with her husband. Her grief, unlike the grief of many Pakistani women resigned to marriages of compromise, was as passionate as her love for him. She had lost the man for whom she had left everything. At night, pretending to sleep, we heard her cry and we saw her smoke. She had not smoked for decades because he had hated cigarettes; now, she smoked for hours.
A few days after the burial, my grandmother decided she wanted to visit my grandfather’s grave. She gathered her daughters and the grandchildren who belonged to them and said she would go on Friday, the first since he had been interred. We went in two cars, because we could not, all of us, fit into only one, even with the creative squashing that is so ordinary in a country of big families and lax traffic rules. Other than my grandfather’s chauffeur, no men came with us. We stared out the window as we went through neighborhoods we didn’t know, farther and farther away from the house on the hill, to the cemetery at the edge of the city. We made a stop for a blanket of roses, sold on the outskirts of all cemeteries in the subcontinent and laid over the newly filled graves. With our fragrant blanket in a plastic bag, we walked through rows and rows of graves, marble coffins raised above the ground.
My grandfather’s grave was at the very back of the cemetery, in a plot reserved for his family. When the caretaker led my grandmother to it and she found this out, it made her cry even more. His brothers had buried him there without asking her. Always considered an interloper by his family, she would likely never be buried with her husband, with the love of her life. When she settled down, we sat around the grave, its earth still wet and fresh, and we prayed from the small prayer books that we had brought with us. We children pretended to pray, chastened by the unfamiliar surroundings, the oddity of being surrounded by the dead. We would be back here on many more Fridays, almost until a year after my grandfather’s death, and the place would become a little more familiar, a little less macabre.
The location of the grave was perhaps the smallest, least consequential of exclusions that my grandmother would face. Others would sting much more. For a man who had been so fastidious in protecting his wife and daughter in life, my grandfather had left them utterly unprotected in death. There was no will, no written document that would protect the inheritance of his wife and daughters against the claims of his brothers, who, noting the absence of a male heir, would clamor for their part of his sizeable estate.
The Islamic rules of inheritance provided a greater share for male relatives than for female ones, a greater share for his six living brothers than for a living wife and four married and living daughters. My grandmother was told all of this by one of the brothers. She had been flouting other Islamic rules as well in her grief, which had not, despite the circumstances, endeared her to her husband’s brothers. They relished their power and prepared an indictment of sorts. Per Sharia law, they told her, she was required to observe the customary waiting period, or iddat, imposed on widows, a duration of three months and ten days spent inside the home and outside the presence of unrelated men. But she had chosen to visit the cemetery, again and again. In fact, the Sunni and Shafii school of Islamic law that they followed dictated that women were not permitted to visit cemeteries at all. Women, because they menstruate, were viewed as sources of impurity, impermissible in the realm of the dead as they were in mosques, the pure spaces of the living.
All the sisters were furious. The house belonged to their mother, they said, as they fumed over their uncles’ treachery and thinly veiled threats. How convenient for them to hide their own greed in the jargon of Sharia and Islam, they remonstrated to each other deep into the night as their mother blew plumes of cigarette smoke. Were they lesser Muslims? Did they need these men to show and teach them about Sharia? All contact with the uncles and their families was cut off, but it could only be an incomplete severance. The youngest of them, after all, was married to the cousin next door, the son of the eldest of my grandfather’s brothers.
Our banishment and exile from the house on the hill did not happen suddenly. There were small steps, a delicate architecture of exclusion that was built bit by bit until we looked back and it was a fortifying wall, us standing outside. It began with a truce. To ensure that her brothers-in-law did not usurp her share of her husband’s inheritance, wrest from her the grand house, the lifestyle fueled by the company that her husband had partially owned, my grandmother brokered a deal, propped up by the marriages of her daughters—or at least three of them.
All the sisters except my mother were connected in a web of marriages that had taken place after my eldest aunt was married. Her younger sister, my mother’s twin, was married to her husband’s younger brother, two sisters married off to two brothers. My youngest aunt had married her cousin. This meant that my mother was the only one who was not, by virtue of marriage or blood, within the fold. Yes, all connected, all tangled, save for the one. After my grandfather’s death, this difference became momentous, the basis of a collusion that determined who got a share of my grandfather’s inheritance.
My mother seemed always like she was guessing at some drama, her sisters like they were avoiding some crucial truth.
No one ever explained this to my mother. But the consequences of the new order were visible in the rearrangement of who occupied which room in the house on the hill. We arrived one Thursday afternoon to find Aunt J’s husband descending the stairs from the highest bedroom, my grandparent’s former room, the room my grandmother now refused to enter. “Mummy wanted us to move up there,” my eldest aunt offered by way of explanation. Even as almost–ten year olds, my brother and I could not miss the shock on our mother’s face. Her father’s room now belonged to a man who was not even related to her. She asked questions—where are his things, his clothes—but her inquiries were tremulous, quaking and unsure. It had all been moved downstairs, my aunt told her. She had tired of walking up and down the stairs again and again to fetch this and that for her mother. Like all the arrangements that would be made regarding the things my grandfather had left behind, she made it seem unimportant, as if questioning her was making a big deal out of nothing, an impudence borne of malice.
Our visits to the house on the hill reflected the seeds of mistrust germinating between my mother and her sisters in the space left by their father’s absence. The intimacy that had once been natural began to strain and wane—my mother seemed always like she was guessing at some drama, her sisters like they were avoiding some crucial truth.
On another day, it began as a silly argument among us children. We had been playing on the driveway when a shoving match began. “Go back to your own house,” one of our cousins yelled. “This is our house too,” we yelled back. “No, this is OUR house. Nani loves us and that is why we live here and not you,” they yelled. This shut us up. We had not considered that such a thing was possible. Still in doubt that it could be, we took it up with our mother on the short drive home. We got nothing in response, but later that evening, after I was supposed to be asleep, I heard her sobbing as she spoke to my father. “Does she love me less?” she asked him through her tears. My father said nothing, but I felt my throat contract and my eyes well up. I had not known until then that love could be so closely related to pain.
After weeks and some months of these slow changes, one day the world of the house on the hill and our connection to it crumbled completely. It was a Friday morning, a holiday when the men as well as the women were all at home. On that day, my mother and father were summoned to the house for a meeting with my grandmother, with all of the sisters, with all of their husbands, and they fought. The two whose husbands worked at the company banded together. The shares of the company that had belonged to my grandfather secured their jobs, and they did not see why they should share them. My mother’s twin vacillated, trying at first to stand by her twin, then falling in step with her husband, who was allied to his older brother. My mother, the only sister left out of the arrangement—the tacit distribution of my grandfather’s inheritance, the occupation of his home—became the bad sister, an outsider. The uncles insisted they were guarding my grandmother against her own daughter, the shyest and quietest of the four.
The poisonous words that were said that Friday at the house on the hill would reverberate through our lives for days and months and years. In the immediate aftermath, there were many tears. I had never seen my mother so bereft, so lost in grief, so betrayed. If she had lost her father to death, she seemed to have lost everyone else to a worse sort of devastation. Their accusations echoed in her ears as she tried to resume the rhythm of her days, cooking and shopping, ironing our uniforms and helping with our homework, the minutiae from which there was no reprieve. When it was time to pray, she would lay out the prayer mat and sob, hiding her face with her hands and crying out for her mother and her father.
I don’t know who uttered the words exactly, whether it was my mother who had vowed she would never enter the house on the hill again or my eldest aunt who, in her effort to protect my grandmother, ordered my mother to never come again. The result was the same: we did not go. The long afternoons and evenings we had spent laughing and drinking tea and cracking jokes with our aunts and cousins were no more. They stretched before us—at the end of the week, on days we did not have homework, on our birthday, on our cousins’ birthdays, at the Persian New Year we had celebrated with our grandmother, and on so many other days.
As days became months, though, others intervened. It happened the first time at the wedding of my mother’s maternal cousin, the daughter of her own beloved aunt. My mother had wanted to avoid the occasion, the week of pre- and post-wedding feasts and revelry that were sure to include her sisters and mother. But her aunt had come to our house herself, to press her to attend. They had huddled and cried together. “You can fight with your sisters but you have to honor your mother,” she had whispered. “You have to do this, my child, you have to come, you have to see your mother at my house.”
My mother did. Even as her sisters turned their faces from her, pretending to look through her and through us, she sat down next to my grandmother and talked to her. It was not an intimate conversation—reserve restraining either side, a mother and daughter unsure of each other, conscious of an audience of relatives milling about them, watching, listening. “How are you, my love?” my grandmother said to my mother, holding her face in her hands. Both began to cry, quickly rubbing their noses with the dainty cotton handkerchiefs they carried. “Don’t punish your mother, don’t punish your mother who is a widow,” my grandmother wept. “How am I punishing you, mummy? I love you,” my mother whispered. I am not sure my grandmother heard her, but she had said what she wanted to. My grandmother believed she was the victim, not her daughter, not us. It was my mother who had misinterpreted everything, my mother who should apologize to her, to her sisters. She began to ask about my mother’s health, complain about her own health. She kissed each of us, once on our cheeks.
The meeting resumed some traffic between the house on the hill and our home. Once or twice a year, on the two Eids, the big festivals on the Muslim calendar, we returned to pay our strained respects to our grandmother. On the short drive from our house to theirs, we were given strict instructions. We were not to laugh too much, to not go off somewhere out of earshot to play with our cousins, forcing our parents to stay longer than they wished. We were not to act as if things were just as they had used to be. It was hard—we were twelve by then, but we had spent more of our lives playing in the terraced garden with our cousins than we had not. And sometimes, even on those short visits, we did forgot. Sometimes, for a minute or two, our mother also seemed to forget.
My father never forgot. He accompanied us on all of the visits now, his face tight-lipped, a man present to protect his wife and children against people who might hurt them. We never went upstairs into the informal lounge where we had spent so many afternoons. We sat downstairs, in the formal sitting room where my grandmother received all her guests on special occasions. She tempted us with treats still, but we looked to our father to see if we could take them. On one of these visits, I said I needed to go bathroom and ventured upstairs. As I walked through the lounge, my eyes fell on the low shelf on which my grandmother had always kept photographs of her grandchildren. A huge double portrait of my brother and me as babies had always stood front and center. Now pictures of all my other cousins had been propped up in front of it.
Our ultimate return to the house on the hill required a sacrifice. I learned what it would be on an ordinary afternoon in March. After picking me up from school, my mother told us we would be going over to our grandmother’s. I was fifteen. Six long years had passed since my grandfather’s death, and a strained four since the big fight between the sisters. We had, to some degree, all settled into the new and awkward status quo, where we depended only on my father’s income. Those who lived in the house on the hill, now all three of the four sisters, lived on the proceeds of the estate they had divided between them. It was a weekday afternoon during the month of Ramzan, a time everyone passed indoors resting. My mother was religious about her naps and our schoolwork, so it made no sense for her to suggest such an outing. Even odder was the fact that my father, who always worked long hours, was home from work. My mother never left to go places without him when he was home.
In retrospect I could have noticed my mother’s hushed telephone conversations, or the suddenly imposed silence when I walked into the room. But I was not particularly observant, and had little precedent to work from. So, oblivious, I showered and dressed and followed my mother and brother to the car.
More surprises awaited us when we got to the house on the hill. Despite the fact that it was Ramzan, a table for lunch had been laid out. Uncle J presided. He was a diabetic and did not fast, but that too was not the point. Next to him sat a man whose presence explained the meal. It was his nephew, visiting from the United States, in Karachi to complete a medical internship, and not fasting owing to a cold.
This was how I was introduced to the man I would marry. I had been shielded from young boys my own age, and certainly men, with a devotion that was shared by all my relations, who made sure to prevent even accidental exposures. Now, to be suddenly introduced to a male stranger from America could not, I knew, be a heedless mistake. I tried to swallow this knowledge, while keeping up the pretense, as I knew I was expected to, of not knowing. He asked me what I was studying and I answered, although what exactly I said I cannot remember. I remember wanting very much to prove that I was fluent in English, that we in Pakistan were not as provincial and backward as so many Westerners assumed. To that end, there was some talk about the weather in Karachi (already hot) and his impressions of Pakistan (so warm and hospitable). The sum was seven or eight sentences, more than the total I had exchanged with a man my whole life.
I did not see him again before he returned to the United States. I did, however, return to the house on the hill, with my mother and brother, more times in a month than we had in the previous four years. If there was something askew now, it was not my mother guessing at some secret, but a collective secret that all the sisters and my grandmother held together, tossed about in knowing looks. It felt wonderful to be together again with my cousins, to laugh and drink tea upstairs in the lounge off the bedrooms. The poison of veiled insults and opportunistic jabs, of alliances and betrayals, seemed suddenly to have sifted from between us. Ensconced once again between her mother and sisters, my mother seemed to bloom and beam, as if regaining a wholeness that had been denied her during the long years of conflict.
She was not the only one who rejoiced at the reunion. My childless aunt now called me her daughter; my husband to be, her son. Her niece and her husband’s nephew would be united in marriage. My mother had felt that her sisters owed her an inheritance, and they felt they had repaid her by arranging my marriage to a wealthy man—an odd sort of quid pro quo, but one that makes a lot of sense in Pakistan, where girls’ marriages are hard to arrange, and a good match represents a relief and a success.
In the late summer of that year, my eldest aunt and her husband traveled to the United States. Uncle J’s older brother was a physician who lived in Connecticut, and they were going to visit him, see the sights. It was in the talk around the coming trip that I realized that their hosts were the parents of the man I had been introduced to in Ramzan. References to him were now peppered into all sorts of conversations, provoking laughter from my grandmother, who made the least effort of all of them to pretend that nothing at all was going on.
My aunt returned with many pictures of the nephew and of his parents and of their beautiful house. They had traveled all over America together; they had spent time with him where he lived and where he went to school. He had been to Harvard, I was told again and again, and was at medical school at Duke. He was the best in the richest country in the world, boasted Uncle J. He was such a caring boy, added my aunt. Their picture albums were left in places where I could easily find them, in case I was interested in looking.
There was no pregnant pause, no dramatic interlude. I simply looked at her, just as I did when she asked me if I wanted jam on my toast or a cookie with my tea, and said, freely, “Yes, I do.”
Then that winter his parents arrived. If our visits to the house on the hill had become frequent in the months before, they became even more so now. My father, who usually goaded my mother to refuse invitations, now embraced them on our behalf, regardless of whether he could attend himself. Marrying a daughter off is a duty, a burden. The match, to an ivy league–educated doctor in the United States, would be a good one, he likely thought. We went to all the weddings that took place that winter (also odd for us) and my mother ensured I had beautiful outfits for each occasion. Garnet-colored velvet and gold for one, and rust-colored raw silk for another. I was allowed makeup, the subject of much wrangling before, and as much of my mother’s jewelry as I wished to borrow. At each of these occasions, the visiting parents were there, eager to say hello, ask questions, sit at our table and be at our side.
The question came one unassuming evening. Sixteen now, I was in my bedroom wrapping up my homework for the next day. We had once again spent the afternoon at the house on the hill, and it had been, like the days before the fighting, a wonderful time. My mother sat next to me on my bed and said it plainly. There had been a proposal for my hand in marriage. “Do you want to marry him?” she asked. There was no pregnant pause, no dramatic interlude. I simply looked at her, just as I did when she asked me if I wanted jam on my toast or a cookie with my tea, and said, freely, “Yes, I do.” With that, it was done. The man I had met at the house on the hill earlier in the year, the son of Uncle J’s older brother and his wife, was to be my husband.
There was a lot that I did not say but understood. I did not know him, but I also knew that it was unlikely, given our family’s conservative beliefs, that I would know the person I married. I knew that my father felt the burden of marrying me off acutely; it was something he agonized over, and I wanted him to be unburdened. I knew how happy my mother was at being reunited with her sisters. With my marriage into the family that included my two aunts, my mother would be less of an outsider. I had considered my gamble: a man who was highly educated, raised abroad, I decided, would be an open-minded man. Married to him, I would have to face fewer constrictions, fewer restrictions than the average Pakistani wife. I would, I convinced myself, be free.
Within an hour of my saying yes, we were all at the house on the hill. The mood there was jubilant, every room was lit up, every face full of delight. Garlands of flowers were put around my neck, and a box of sweets was passed around, everyone putting some in my mouth too instead of just their own. My grandmother sang wedding songs, and my cousins were full of glee. My parents were the center of the celebration even more than I was, the parents of the bride-to-be, the very first in the family to welcome a son-in-law. With this wedding, our family would be united in a new generation, cementing bonds for many more years. My mother would be part of the family circle that included her sisters and their husbands, no longer the odd one out. In arranging my marriage, my aunts and uncles had made amends, repaid all debts, made up for whatever had been usurped.
We stayed at the house on the hill deep into the night. We returned for more revelry and rejoicing over the following days and weeks and months, for wedding planning and for selecting the clothes I would wear on that day and for so many other reasons and for no reasons at all. The wedding, my wedding, had enabled our return.
But more important than our return to the house, I was restoring trust between our warring families. The same trust that had been extracted from our midst after my grandfather’s death, and without whose tempering presence our anger, our recriminations, and our many, many qualms had bubbled over, tainted everything, separated everyone. In trusting this proposal, in entrusting my life and future to it, I told myself, there could be healing. That I would have to leave Pakistan as a consequence of it seemed incidental. When I visited the country in the years to come, I told myself, there would be laughter and good times with all of us together at the house on the hill.
It has been over twenty years since I left the house on the hill. For many years after I did, it remained full of cousins and aunts and laughter. For many years, when I returned to Karachi, it felt like the old times. But then my cousins, as I had, began to leave. The girls were married, the boys left to study and then work abroad. My oldest aunt’s husband, Uncle J, died. Then, years later, my grandmother died. Finally, my mother, although she was young, also died. My marriage ended as well, after some of the deaths and before the last ones, but that is a story of its own, connected to the house but not of it.
Only one person lives in the house on the hill now—my oldest aunt, who has no children, and whose bad knees make it hard for her to navigate all of its stairs. My mother’s twin sister moved abroad to be with her children. My younger aunt has settled into the house next door, the one she refused to live in when she first married. Her son lives with her. All the other children of all the four sisters are gone, to England and America and elsewhere.
The neighborhood around the house has also changed. Climbing up the terraced garden, one can see the apartment complexes sprouting up everywhere. The devotees of the Sufi shrine on top of the hill do not come around as much—too many people and too little peace, too little space for the spirit, they may think. The terraced garden has dried up, the roses gone; there is not enough water for it in a city of many wants and many millions. Only the jasmine vine still blooms, hardy and determined, insistent on scenting the silent evenings of a mostly empty house.
I think all the time of returning to the house on the hill. I dream of it awake and asleep; I write about it and talk about it. But a whole life lies between us now: the life I made in a faraway land, the life I began because I wished to return. Or maybe it is fear, the ghostly wafting realization that it was never, perhaps, the house, but the people in it. They are gone, scattered or lost, and without them, there are only walls.