There is a recurring joke among expat Pakistanis that when you come back home, you never return as an adult. You are still the teenager that left the country 10, 20 years ago.
It’s how I felt when I came to Islamabad in January to spend time with family. While I travel to Pakistan frequently for work, the trips are short, stressful and insular. This time I wanted to take a break, and give myself space to think, write and hopefully reconcile my mixed feelings for my hometown, Islamabad.
I always feel guilty for saying it but I hate it. I have thought a lot about the reasons why, and I considered listing them all here. But I won’t. Right now I’m more interested in reflecting on the emerging role of my generation (“Millennials”), how we are positioning ourselves vis-à-vis our elders and the institutions they control, and negotiating for space and power in the world.
The reason I bring this in relation to my feelings about Islamabad is that one of the primary reasons I resent it is because I never felt like it was mine. I have an incredibly rich ecosystem in the city (which I'm very grateful for), but in so many ways, my relationship with the city has largely been defined, and therefore, limited by it.
Both my grandfathers were bureaucrats. So my parents grew up here, went to college here, met here, married here. So did the majority of my extensive network of aunts and uncles. Together they became leading activists, lawyers, development professionals, architects, educators, journalists. In the process, they shaped the world around their children, around me. Their successes became our successes. Their failures became our failures. Their prejudices became our prejudices. And soon enough, it seemed like that their choices would become our choices.
It was one of the main reasons I was keen to leave, and did at the first opportunity I got. However, whenever I do return, I always experience a sudden but familiar dip in confidence. Outside the tight confines of my job, I suddenly lose the ability to speak authoritatively, scout locations, talk to strangers, drive, write and even, cook.
This hints at how easy it can be for an environment to quietly wrest agency away from you if you are not paying attention.
While I would shrug this feeling off as a temporary side effect of being in the homeland, it’s a serious problem when you realize you too are one of the grown-ups in the room. Do I give up simply because I "left"?
I have been thinking a lot about the last part since the death of Pakistan’s leading human rights activist, Asma Jahangir. Her death has left a giant void in Pakistan - there is nobody of her stature, her fearlessness that can take her place. Who from my generation can and will follow in her footsteps?
Doing so requires us to be brave, take risks, and make a conscious choice to step outside the parameters set by elders, class and institutions. And contrary to what a lot of people have told me, I do think the young Pakistani diaspora has a role to play, within our families and our larger communities.
So as feeble as it sounds, I began to take small steps to find my feet inside Pakistan. I began to drive again. I attended a political event after ten years. I began to work on my first food story from here (which is actually really hard. Props to Pakistani female reporters here, they don’t have it easy). And I stepped inside my mother’s kitchen for the first time, refusing to be discouraged by the daunting standards Pakistani home cooks set for themselves.
During my first week, I decided to start small and baked Smitten Kitchen’s chocolate olive oil cake for my aunt’s birthday. It’s a simple cake that I have made at least half a dozen times. It’s impossible to botch up and of course, it was a disaster. The pan I chose was too small. The oven was not hot enough. The flour was temperamental. And so, the cake oozed out of the pan; and crumbled at the first touch.
But I didn’t give up.
I grew bolder, and made cholay, my own recipe, the week after (side note: got some good feedback from my mom and have updated the recipe accordingly). While the chickpeas bubbled in a thick, spicy blend of tomatoes, onions and spices, I whipped up gujarati aloo, an old favorite, to serve on the side. To complete the meal, my cooks fried some Dawn parathas; and my mother showed me how to make sujji ka halwa, semolina flour browned on low heat and infused with sugar syrup.
While the spread was heavy on the calories, it was delicious from start to finish. But more importantly, it felt like that it was mine and my mother's in equal measure.
Here’s to taking small steps to make way for big ones.
Sujji Ka Halwa
5 tbsp of canola/vegetable oil or ghee
6 pods of cardamom, cracked
1 cup sujji ka halwa/semolina flour, available at specialty Indian/Pakistani grocery stores
2 tbsp of almonds, skin peeled and thinly sliced
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup thinly sliced coconut. Packets of sliced coconut are available at specialty Indian/Pakistani grocery stores (optional)
Place sugar in a saucepan and add 1/2 cup of water. Bring to a simmer and let the sugar dissolve on low heat for roughly 5-6 minutes.
In a heavy bottomed saucepan, heat oil/ghee and add cracked cardamom. Swirl till it's fragrant, for about a minute.
Add sujji and brown it on low heat. Make sure you keep stirring it so it does not burn. After 5 minutes, add sugar syrup.
Stir vigorously on low heat for about 5 minutes till the flour absorbs the sugar syrup and thickens.
Add sliced coconut and almonds and stir till well blended.
Remove from heat. Top with sliced almonds.
Serve by itself as dessert or with channa and poori for a classic Punjabi breakfast.