A version of this is published on Public Books on Jan 9, 2015.
She moved to NYC in 1990 or 1991, according to her son. According to her own melodious Punjabi, she has been in exile for “vi ya panji saal” (twenty or twenty five years). For some hours, she has been speaking of her time in NY, but her first few sentences are stuck in loop inside my brain – an animated GIF of exile. kithay lay aye dane paney de khed? Where have these games for grain and water landed us?
She looks to be in her late 60s or early 70s but I did not inquire. I said very little as she spoke, sitting quietly, my mind half-a-second after her speech, deciphering the cadences of her language and disentangling the similes, metaphors, landscapes.
For a while I have been writing about cities – Lahore, Berlin, Uch Sharif – and I have been reading those who write about. The men especially because it is a very masculine form of writing: one that posits itself either as insular or as vulnerable to the charms and dangers of the city. The City as inhabited by a woman does not have the same place in the marketplace of narratives. Panels on the City in this city, feature men who have written Big Books on The City with apt quotes from Benjamin or Sebald, Simmel or other clever French cities-writers like Augoyard or Perec. They are keen to show me “inequality” which exists, or perhaps the “immigrant” or perhaps the “wanderer”. No matter, friends, I always want to say, those Germans and Frenchs you cite have already said it.
What do they know of the city when they know only themselves?
For a while I have been interested in thinking about exile – working through Said, Agha Shahid Ali, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I came to this country almost 20 or 25 years ago as a very young man, and I spent a lot of my early time, reading Faiz as if he held the key to unlock the reality that was around me. My relationship to exile was shaped by my reading of Faiz. My relationship to Faiz was shaped by my exile. I gave up thinking about exile, when I moved to Berlin. Rather, I gave up thinking about it in the terms I had become accustomed to. What do I know of exile when I only know myself?
The Matriarch, in her deft, funny, sentences, dismantled my city and my exile. She came, following her children, to Queens, NY. She took care of their household. Her City was inside of a shared household filled with children she was raising. She raised the daughters of her brothers and cousins. She raised the daughter’s daughters. Each daughter, she called Niki – the little one. Her stories of these little ones – who took her finger and walked with her, who spoke Punjabi until they were 6 or 7 but stopped when they began school and when they were in College would shake their heads and say: what are you even saying maan ji? These girls told her their dreams and what color to paint their walls and how the fathers were never at home, and they dressed up in Punjabi kurtas and they had their weddings and they had daughters of their own who came back to live with the Matriarch. She spoke about her simple recipe to put crushed garlic, a slice of pepper, and half an onion on the side of the plate, and have a meal with one roti. That is all I can eat; not these platters of Meat and market food with which they stuff their faces. They being the men, the husbands, the fathers, the obese, the overworked, the taxi and limo drivers, the bodega owners, the employees of the city whose job is to sit and sit and sit and who dreamed of Qilla Rohtas and the fields of Jhelum perhaps but they were not going to go back to those fields. These farmer sons.
The Matriarch said, with defiance, but perhaps with genuine pleasure that she never learned English, she never memorized her street address, she never knew a phone number. She learned the city by remembering only where she was going. I would walk, every day, she said – lamenting her failing ability to walk more than a few miles – and I would sometimes tie a piece of cloth to the outside door of our house to recognize it when I came back. What would you do on your walks? I wanted to see the fields and the trees and the streams so I would sweep the areas until I found them.
She has lived in Jackson Heights. Punjabi is her only language.
The Matriarch spoke about her exile. Her thoughts are always with her brothers and sisters she left back in Jhelum some twenty or twenty five years ago. She thinks of what they are doing, to their marriages, their deaths, their daily struggles. She is the eldest of her family, and those were her keeps too. Her sons and daughters and grand daughters are here, but her family is in Jhelum. How to live here, and how to die here, she asked. She never once uttered the word exile for what she had. But she spoke of the fields, the fruits, the vegetables, the colors, the smells, of her village near Dina as if she had left it a few weeks ago. I had never even seen the city of Jhelum, before I came to Queens, and I still have not seen it. Where do I turn to find her life in this literature on Exile? Which Poet or Theorist should I read?
After our conversation, I was left holding my impoverished immigrant city – one in which there are no generations of daughters raised in languages of exile. My immigrant city does not have a fabric tied to a house while home is 10,000 miles away. Even before meeting her, I had grown weary of the machismo of writings on the City – the Maximum Gaze – but now I am simply done.