Shahbano Bilgrami is a reportage editor at Papercuts. A published poet, writer and freelance editor, her debut novel, Without Dreams, was long listed for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize (2007). Shahbano's second novel, Those Children (HarperCollins) was published in January 2017 and shortlisted for the DSC South Asia Prize in Literature.
Flight Paths: ‘Je me souviens’ – Of Journeys and Endings
‘Nostalgia is a dangerous trap that bends the shape of memory.’ And yet it is this trap that constructs the meaning of home.
In this series, titled Flight Paths, three women writers of South Asian origin invoke ‘home’ as the immigrant experience, sharing the real and metaphorical journeys they have made, in the shift from Asia to America.
Devi Laskar faces disruption in her quest for the yellow brick road in Homesick. In Je me Souviens, a road trip to Montreal urges Shahbano Bilgrami to remember – rather, to never forget. Even as Himali Kapil realizes that the true meaning of being uprooted is reflected in a new-born baby’s eyes, in a cup of ginger cardamom chai, in Homecoming.
It wasn’t as if I had spent all these years consciously avoiding the journey back.
As journeys go, it wasn’t strenuous, a couple of hundred miles by car across the border into Canada. Laughable, really. I had travelled the New York-Dubai-Karachi route, crossed oceans and continents like an old veteran flier. Like millions, I had surveyed the greys, blues, and greens of distant places through the telescoping lens of an airplane window thousands of feet above the ground. Entry and exit stamps, visas, passport renewals, the agonizing wait at immigration counters were nothing new to me, just the typical inconveniences of modern travel. Why, then, the resistance to a simple road trip?
It had always been my intention to return to the place where I had grown up, not least because it was where my mother, forty-three when she died, was buried. But it had never had the same sense of urgency as it did that summer. I kept thinking about those lost years, from the early ‘80s to 1991. Maybe it was because as the mother of three girls, like she once was, I felt it was time to ‘introduce’ my children to her. Yes, there was a palpable connection, even through layers of grass and soil, a genetic commonality in the materials of my dead mother’s bones and my daughters’ warm, joyously animated limbs. I wanted them to feel that. A sweeter delusion: I wanted my mother to feel it, too.
So, the journey to Montreal was as much a pilgrimage to the shrine I had built to my mother over the twenty-two years I had lived and grown without her as it was a weird anthropological journey into the past. I wasn’t a typical tourist marveling at the architecture of a beautiful North American city, or the quaintness of its French heritage in a predominantly English-speaking Canada. The buildings I sought out were not in the historic district of Old Montreal or lofty, like the Basilica Notre Dame. I wasn’t interested in nocturnal visits to the dark underbelly of Centre-ville’s St Catherine’s Street, with its cheerful polka-dotted yogurt bars fighting off the sleaze of dubious backdoor massage parlors and wet sidewalks, slick in the unnerving light of X-rated billboards. The buildings I looked for were in the far less exciting extensions of this beautiful city, in the sprawling suburban sameness of Dollard des Ormeaux and Brossard, in the overgrown back lanes of cookie cutter houses where the shouts of children at play could still be heard, then as now.
As we entered the city from the north-west, familiar place names rose in front of me white-and-green, road signs triggering memories of a faded childhood geography. I knew these place names once, but that was all. Like the smooth, uncluttered maps of a primary atlas, my knowledge didn’t extend beyond the large-print labeling, the details of location, the actual places themselves, and their terrain all blank to me. I wasn’t a tourist, yet I was no longer a Montrealer. It felt strange, this in-between state, like being suspended mid-flight over two continents, past and present. The vestigial remains of the Quebecois French I once (barely) knew came back to me as we negotiated the streets with their French-only signs. Words I hadn’t used for decades suddenly had meaning and provided direction as we faltered our way towards the first stop in our journey, the cemetery.
The Rideau Memorial Gardens in Dollard des Ormeaux is the resting place of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists. At the time my mother passed away, it was the only Muslim cemetery in Montreal. Because it was on the other side of town, my memories are of an uncomfortably long and, frankly, terrifying journey down country roads that led, in the end, to a wide-open space with a few graves. It is quite likely that the bleakness of this memory was the result of my grieving. The area was definitely less developed in the 1990s. Now, the cemetery seems strangely out of place, a tucked-away reminder of death amidst the teeming life of a large suburban commercial strip.
As we drove in, I realized that the cemetery was nothing like my memory of it. Instead of a vast open space it looked like someone’s manicured backyard, its grassy surface overpopulated with gravestones. I felt a little suffocated by the closeness of it, the feeling of fences caving in, neighboring buildings bearing down from all sides. Slowly, we made our way towards the back, near the Crematorium, where the euphemistically-named ‘Muslim Garden’ housed the remains of several decades of first, second and, in some cases, third generation Muslim immigrants. I emphasize the word ‘immigrant’ because, even in death, my mother seemed strangely out of place there. She was alone in a city where no one knew her or even of her anymore. Her roots were elsewhere, as were her people. Scattered, like seeds.
As we walked around scanning tombstones, a part of me feared that her grave had been destroyed. Did things like that happen here, too? As a Karachiite (for Montreal was only one of the ‘homes’ I now had) I had heard of body snatchers selling peoples’ remains, of torrential downpours washing away grave sites. In Karachi, the living and dead were equally vulnerable. A little desperate, therefore, I began walking faster still, peering at the simple, deeply-embedded headstones nearby in the hopes of discovering that one, familiar name. Some of the family names took me back to a time when the distant relatives of these deceased slumberers – or the slumberers themselves – ran the affairs of the local community. I fought against the willful amnesia of years as I tried to remember names and faces, what it was like to be a Pakistani child growing up in the suburbs of Montreal in the ‘80s.
What I remembered most were shoulder-high snowbanks and walking to the public bus stop on icy winter mornings with my younger sister Mariam, our navy blue school tunics tucked inside our snow pants as we made the hour-long journey from our house in the suburbs to our high school downtown. I remembered, too, the eternal summer afternoons that stretched way past the dinner hour, my best friend and I spending it in the quiet companionship of reading, playing Monopoly, and eating bowls of ice cream with crushed Oreos. I recalled Saturday lunch excursions with Abboo and a Sweet Sixteen party arranged for me by Amma. And then there was the memory of my three-year-old sister hurtling across the lawn, the crush of her ribs against my chest as she flung herself into my arms.
Just when I thought we would never find it, there it was: the headstone, a little worse for wear but the name still visible, along with the years of birth and death. Amma. My mother. The thought crossed my mind that in a few years I would be older than her. As we went through the rituals — the supermarket bouquet, the intonation of prayer, my children dutifully placing their hands on the headstone — I felt it was not enough. I lay on the grass above her and spread my arms out as if I were embracing her through the soil. My family looked on, embarrassed. I knew it was ridiculous, this gesture of love, but it felt good, good to lie there on the grass with the sunlight and the trees. The thought of her lying there, too, several feet below me, even if only in outline, was comforting. I imagined her as bare bones, a skeleton without flesh or form, the skull that once gave shape to her face not an empty mold but a delicate tracing of her loving features. It didn’t frighten me to think of her as fleshless. She was my mother.
Later, as we drove home, I couldn’t help but appreciate the irony of the Quebec license plate motto in the context of my visit. On all sides, a sea of “Je me souviens” greeted me as we entered rush-hour traffic. I will remember. In 1895, the historian Thomas Chapais elaborated: ‘…the province of Quebec has a motto of which she is proud and which she likes enough to carve it on her monuments and palaces. This motto has only three words: “Je me souviens”; but these three words, in their simple economy of expression, are worth more than the most eloquent speeches. Yes, we remember. We remember the past and its lessons, the past and its misfortunes, the past and its glories.’ It was a phrase that kept coming back to me again and again throughout our stay in Montreal, at the restaurants we revisited, the suburban homes, the schools – all so much smaller than in memory, their landscapes altered as the saplings of the past had become, over the years, mature trees.
I had grown too, of course, but still felt like a hesitant child as I explored this now-foreign city. I had traveled on two planes, through geography and time. I fought variously between a desire to remember and an equally powerful need to forget — forget that Amma’s illness and death meant that in one year we lost both a mother and a home. Reclaiming that home was not the work of just one visit. It would take more. But as I heard the childish chatter of my three girls on our journey home, I realized that the process had begun; the twenty-year gap was being bridged.
I will remember. I will forget. And there will be days when I won’t want to think about it at all. But that trip to Montreal made me realize that home is where my mother is.