Author Shahbano Bilgrami reads from her Novel Those Children

Author Shahbano Bilgrami reads from her Novel Those Children


Hello, I’m Shahbano Bilgrami and I’m going
to read a short passage from my book Those Children. On my very first visit to my mamus’ house,
a pale green two-storey in the congested heart of an older subdivision of Karachi famous
for its sweet sheermal as well as for the Imam Bargah at its Centre, I was immediately
captivated by a massive portrait in black-and-white on the wall directly opposite the entrance. It depicted an older man with thinning, shoulder-length
hair casually sitting on a bench surrounded by trees in a park or a garden. His kurta sleeves were rolled up to his elbows,
one pyjama leg slung across the other, his sockless feet in Oxfords. He was smiling through his eyes, not his lips,
his entire face a study in suppressed merriment. Mischievous, a friend of tricksters and frauds,
he looked as if he had just hoodwinked a pair of little boys into trading their chocolate
for a bowl of bitter gourd. I decided immediately that I liked him and
assumed that ours was a relationship not only of kindred spirits, but also of blood. This man must be my Nana, I decided, long
before we had formally been introduced. Our trip to this part of the city to visit
our mother’s side of the family was secretly arranged by Shahbaz Chacha who had proven
himself a consistent ally, notwithstanding a few incidents, which I eventually put down
to lapses in good judgement, and forgave. We set off that Sunday morning on a ‘tour’
of the old city, which Shahbaz Chacha persuaded Dada was necessary for our full integration
into Karachi life, although we had already spent six months in the city and had seen
a fair part of it. Miraculously, no one objected and Baba, when
told, briefly looked up from his newspaper (it was last week’s) to nod his head, wishing
us a safe drive but showing no desire to participate. And so, there we were, the three of us girls
in the back, the windows pulled down and our hair flying, while Shahbaz Chacha and Raza,
in front, yelled over the wind and the amplified traffic sounds, and spoke of the city, as
it was now, and how it one was when our father’s family first moved here. I listened intently, craning my neck forward
so that I was, for all intents and purposes, sitting between them, first looking up at
one, then the other, until Fatima, worried for my safety as we mounted a huge speed breaker,
pulled me back and held me down. I was intrigued. Like us, who had migrated from one large metropolis
to another, the Mahmuds had made their own migratory journey from the northern Indian
province of Uttar Pardesh to the southern sea port of Karachi, where they had settled after
the Partition. Before I could ask, Shahbaz Chacha explained
that the Partition referred to the division of India and Pakistan in 1947 by the British,
who once ruled over them. Dada, whom I had always imagined as a giant
oak, his roots buried deep and wide beneath the foundations of C44, so fixed and rigid
was he in his routine, had grown up in an entirely different place, a village no less,
with a population of a few thousand people. For a couple of minutes, I mulled over this,
paying no attention to Shahbaz Chacha’s description of a busy thoroughfare we were slowly making
our way down, the heart of the business district, its tall buildings rising above the pollution
and touching the blue cloudless sky. It was no less a surprise to me, after countless
geography classes and colouring my way through outline maps, that countries, like people,
were not stable entities, that they were made and broken, then made again.

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