I found an old black and white photo of my mother so young and beautiful- holding me in her arms with a beatific smile on her face suffused with a new mother’s love. She is wearing a sari with an elbow-length-sleeved blouse and sitting in what seems to be the front lawn of my maternal grandpa’s house in FCC Colony, Lahore. I must be 8/9 months old I think. She must be on a day off from Islamia College for Women, where her career spanned 4 decades as professor of English and later the Principal of the college- a post she held till she retired.
The photo fell out of the photo album that I brought with me to keep me company in my year of introspective adventure away from a home far far away from my mother land, when a backward glance seems apposite to mark my entry into my 60s.
Picking up the photo, I found scribbled on the back of it, in her handwriting, some verses of Urdu poetry. Written in pencil, I’m surprised they are still legible after almost 60 years. What is even more surprising to me is that the very first lines, from a poem by our famous Marxist poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, are from a ghazal that has been a staple of my singing repertoire since I was in my twenties.
I don’t ever recall having been asked by mother to learn to sing this particular poem, nor, sadly, do I remember whether she ever heard me singing it.
Part of the reason for my year-long sojourn in Abu Dhabi is to be nearer to the motherland I had to travel away from to become a mother myself, to recognise the roots and sources of my feminist anger that acknowledges motherhood as complicated terrain; a land where she resides in a state of mental limbo now- occasionally remembering her own name and that she has a daughter who she often calls by my daughter’s name. My own halfway home here in NYUAD links my journey to hers in a state of empathy where belonging is suspended…. where one must find other ways to know oneself, perhaps to soar in some space of freedom difficult to imagine until one is in it, and in her case, impossible to articulate.
I will sing this ghazal that connects the poet, the mother and her daughter to the heart’s ineffable yearning that cannot speak its name, when I see her, soon, soon, just never soon enough.