VISITING MY NANI’S BIRTHPLACE: IF HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS…

this week i had the special and blessed privilege to visit the town in which my nani was born. on the way back i found myself turning the phrase, “home is where the heart is”, over in my mind… what happens if your heart is able to break into little pieces that plant themselves in many places at once? what happens if you love so largely that you make dwellings of other people’s hearts?

i always thought that Pakistan wouldn’t feel like home. i used to believe words i’d heard from others that, “here they think we’re outsiders, and there they think we’re outsiders”… but it’s not like that. it’s not. it does feel like home – at least this small corner of it… this is a home of mine, i feel confident about that now. the hands i held, tea i shared and memories i foraged into this week were signifiers to me that here, too, in the middle of the Punjab, is a place i could call home if i wished. my heart was warmed by the realisation that in this town i could understand everyone’s punjabi with so much more clarity than ever before – this was my punjabi, from my Bradford back garden, from my childhood memories and my grandparents. in some ways, that was the warmest welcome i could have wished to receive.

i cannot explain what a privilege and blessing it was to be in my nani’s birthplace with her fifty-five years after her original leaving. we wandered streets where she showed me ghosts of the home she was born in, her grandparents’ house, her park, the shops she used to buy clothes from, the fruit bazaar, her haunts. sometimes we got lost – more buildings have been built, buildings have been torn down, the fields are full of shops now – but eventually my nani would pull through with a wonderful find like, “this is where my nana lived”, or “here is where my sister moved to after i left”. we traced those streets like a private life tour and in our wanderings i came to appreciate all that my nani left behind more concretely than ever before.

i think i realised for the first time, too, how lonely a sacrifice her migration was. in one street a man greeted my nani and said he recognised her, “was she the one who went to England?” over the course of meeting dozens of new faces which turned out to all be related to me, i realised that really, my nani and a few of her siblings were the only ones who ever left and therefore, more surprisingly, their leaving didn’t break the town in two. i think that startled me because as a descendent of migrants there can be a feeling that the world was split at the moment of migration, that time stopped and started again, that space broke in some collossal way and all would never be the same… but from the other side of migration, that’s not true… life carries on, and it carries on without you which i think is the hardest and strangest part. or maybe its not hard, but to me, at least, for whom Pakistan has always been a place that froze in 1962 when my grandparents came to the UK, it is strange.

many different people who were too young to have known my nani before told me she looked just like her sister who never managed to come to england. i marvelled at that since i had never seen my nani’s sister, and yet, here was a way to semi-see… an old cousin of my nani’s enthusiastically told me that those of her generation can attest that my nani and her two sisters were “the most beautiful girls in all the town”… a legacy that nani squirmed at but which was shared with such love that i felt tears prick my eyes.

wandering these streets with no names and no house numbers i felt a weight of kinds but also a relief. i felt the urge to remember every detail, to drink it in, to close my eyes and sense the memories of my nani as a teen girl. i felt a joy at this blessing, this rarity to see this place with her, the reason this little space in the Punjab has any meaning for me…

i drank endless cups of tea in different sitting rooms with similar wall-hangings and listened to people talk… about death mainly. my nani hasn’t seen most people in her town for fifteen years and i suppose, when that time is compressed, all that really matters is who has left and who remains. they talked of change and aging and what had stayed the same. we even had tea at a woman’s house who it turns out my nani did not, in fact, know, and yet she was just as easily able to discuss the people, places and changes my nani mentioned.

during those caffeine and sugar heavy sittings i found myself watching people a lot and seeing different lives flash before me… who might i have been by now if my nani had been the sister left behind? what might i care about? who might i be invested in? what sorrows and joys might have come and gone so far? i can’t say – and perhaps it isn’t worth the speculation… but it is one to make you think… may Allah guide and protect me in the life I have.

may the life you have be the blessed one
even if it is not the life you chose.
may the life you choose be a blessed one

even if the choice was not made freely.
“home is where the heart is”, maybe
but may you love so freely
that you make everywhere a home.
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