A sojourn in the hills of Murree and snow-bound Nathiagali to exorcise the demons of the mind
Himalaya mountain, Murree, Nathiagali, Pakistan
On January 17th, I went on a three-day journey.
In my twenties, thirties, and even forties, a journey meant to me a long holiday abroad that involved a variation of similar activities: eating out, watching movies, visiting fun or historical places, and shopping. All my travelling was either with my husband, now ex, or vacations with my son arranged by my ex-husband, his father. Travelling and having a good amount of money had an inextricable connection in my mind; having been financially dependent on my spouse had done severe damage to my ability to plan anything on my own. The disappearance of ‘fancy holidays’ engendered in me a reluctance of realignment of reality. I stopped thinking of travelling.
It was my son, Musa, who changed the way I looked at life. Again. Circa January 2020. Being a single mother despite being married—the encapsulation of the whys and hows of that requires the length of a book that I may write someday—my life, quite literally, revolved around Musa. That would be physically, emotionally, and metaphorically, in random order. Being the product of a broken home, having known no real stability in my own life and that of my siblings, there was an unverbalised longing within me to have a structured familial system for my child.
January became my special month; Musa was born on January 26th, 2000. The blending of various roles into one of mother made me strong, highlighting in my mind and heart one specific area of focus: the present and long-term wellbeing of Musa. It also made me very vulnerable. And paranoid. Motherhood gave me the raison d’être of my existence. It also condensed my world into a singular point: Musa.
Time passed, Musa, then 17, finished school, and left for college in New York in August 2017. The day he left I felt an emptiness I didn’t even know existed in the world that seemed to have frozen in the moment he turned to wave to me before he went inside the airport. Suddenly, I had nothing to do. Taking care of my son was the one and everything that took all of my time, and even when he was old enough to not need me for many things, I was there for him mentally. Other than the Daily Times op-ed editing job that I had in 2012-2013 and in 2016, all I ever did was freelance writing. Motherhood was what meant more to me than anything else.
In the process of raising a child, with the financial help of my long-distance, obscenely rich husband, I lost the idea of me as anything else. When I was a child and a teenager, and in my early twenties, I thought of my future in terms of a career and having a child. Being a lifelong cynic about the longevity of a good marriage and the unnaturalness of institutionalised monogamy, I saw myself heading a big company and raising a child as a single woman.
Then life happened. And its myriad twists, backhands, bad decisions, crossroads, betrayals, cul-de-sacs, heartbreak, wrong choices and breakdowns, and here I was. I had no career. But I was where I was supposed to be. A very satisfied, happy, proud mother of a teenager who was the kind of child I would want everyone to have. Musa—kind, positive, pragmatic, funny, intelligent—was what, sadly, most single parent-raised children are not: happy and self-assured. The sacrifice of an imaginary career and normalcy of a regular marriage never became a question mark in my mind.
Since 2017, Musa has been in college, and he visits twice a year. We have an almost daily communication via phone calls and texting, and it is as if he is in another city, not another continent with oceans between us. In most of our conversations, we discuss our day, our minor and major, and our imaginary and real issues. Musa is my go-to person for advice. It is not that he is unaware of the negative elements of his world, but all his responses and actions stem from a place that is empathetic, open-minded and non-judgemental. Without raising his voice, without ever being condescending, he nudges my occasional rashness of reaction and bad judgement towards the best possible option. I listen. And I try to do better. Musa makes me want to be a better person every day of my life. That is more than what I could have asked from my life ever.
What happened after Musa’s departure was my open-eyed descent into a reclusiveness that was the antithesis of who I was: a loud, Punjabi, chatterbox of an extrovert. Since my first awareness of my life, a huge part of me always sought refuge in a self-constructed solitude in a crowd. My pain remained private most of my childhood and teens, I learnt to find places within me that had the sign scrawled in big, uneven letters: NO TRESPASSERS. In 2017, after the Musa-shaped hole in my existence, I felt alone like never before.
My 60-year-old-mother’s untimely demise during the seventh month of my pregnancy in November 1999 created a forever void. I thought I had come to terms with her eternal absence until Musa’s transient one. Musa was a phone call away, but that didn’t help for a long time. That was when I decided to pay attention to the other issues in my life, mainly the financial one. To date, that one gives me sleepless nights and chaotic days.
Today, as I started to write about my three-day trip, I realised many things wouldn’t make sense if I didn’t take a verbose peep into the backdrop of the drama that my life constantly is. Musa insisted during all his holidays that we should take a trip somewhere in Pakistan, and I always had an excuse. Money, my old car, choice of good places to visit, laziness. I had become so used to not socialising that even the idea of spending time with the person I loved the most in the world, and my niece and nephews, whom I love like my own children, made me groan at the very prospect of leaving the city.
In March 2019, my younger brother, Babar, passed away. We lived in the same house, and I didn’t realise how essential he was to the substance of my life until he left us. The sheer enormity of the demise of my 47-year-old sibling shattered me. I don’t think I’ll ever truly be happy in a world that doesn’t have Babar, my baby brother.
My days and nights became even more cloistered. I stopped going out completely. Other than for a few months that I worked as a co-host of a talk show, my interaction with the world was via WhatsApp and Twitter. My family was my strength, and my long-distance son was my oxygen. I needed money to survive, and my writing kept me afloat. The rest of the world ceased to exist.
Once a week, since the day of Babar’s funeral, I visit the graveyard in G-Block, Gulberg. My mother and brother are buried side by side. I pray for a while. I sit on the side of my brother’s grave. I have a wordless monologue with my mother and brother. Looking at their tombstones, I feel something that is indescribable. Visiting their graves is the most painful thing in the world. Visiting their graves is also solace that nothing else could ever be.
Back to the three-day trip, and what it taught me.
When Musa asked me to make a plan to go to Nathiagali, where he wanted to hike, I asked a couple of trusted friends to find me a good, affordable place. My nephews, Zain, 16, and Taimur, 17, were happy to go on the trip, but they didn’t really think the old procrastinator me would actually travel. Once the booking was done, we found out that due to heavy snowfall and weekend traffic, the single road from Murree to Nathiagali was snow-covered and had miles of jammed vehicles.
Going on weekdays was not an option as my nephews had school; I was told that travelling to Nathiagali was a nightmare even on weekdays because of the heavy number of snow lovers. Nathiagali was cancelled, and Musa was furious! For a few minutes. That is when he thought of going somewhere else. “Find another place, Mama. Pakistan is not just Murree and Nathiagali.”
Suddenly, I thought of Abbottabad. A city that was the favourite holiday destination of my paternal family when I was little—I had never visited the place though—and the place that our children knew as the last hiding place of that global terrorist, Osama bin Laden. Through a kind friend, the booking was made at a very nice place. And since my 2007 Civic is old and cranky like me, I decided to rent a car through my son-in-law—my niece Areeba’s husband. Areeba is my favourite female in the world, and my rock.
Musa’s calmness became my guide, and I planned the trip.
We were planning to drive at 3 am, and the first lecture came from my sister, who lives downstairs, and is Areeba and Zain’s mother. “How can you think of going without a driver?” she asked, conveniently forgetting that I had been to many places in Punjab, including Murree, without a driver many times. If I had been a man, the question of my unsuitability as a driver wouldn’t have arisen. Men can’t fix a car without a mechanic coming to aid, and on motorway to Abbottabad, gender wouldn’t have mattered if the car had broken down.
Then came the call from my father. “You’ve never listened to anyone in your life, and you’ll do what you want to, but I’ve to say that you mustn’t go on this journey with three children.” The three children were three males, two almost six-feet tall, and one who travelled to New York on his own at the age of 17 and has been to various countries on his school trips. The sexism stung. A father or an uncle wouldn’t haven’t been questioned. A mother and an aunt, even one who has been on her own for more than three decades, is an unsuitable chaperone for three ‘children’.
At the onset of our journey at 3:30 am on Friday in fog-free darkness, a few minutes on the motorway, without any warning, the road vanished into a slithery cloud of smoke. I panicked and took the car to the side of the road after stopping in the middle as my first reaction. While Taimur—long live his ability to sleep through any storm—was sleeping, Zain and Musa helped me drive. Despite their nervousness about the dark motorway enveloped in something-that-wasn’t-fog, Zain advised me to follow the vehicle ahead of ours. The smoky invisibility was a short-lived ordeal, and my young companions kept me going.
Driving on the motorway, we reached Abbottabad after almost seven hours of driving and stops for food and coffee.
After our first fun day in the quiet, very pretty Abbottabad where the air was pure and people incredibly gracious and simple, the next day we decided to visit Nathiagali, which was an hour’s drive from Abbottabad. Life takes you where you are supposed to go, give or take a couple of hundred kilometres!
The next morning, when the whole of Abbottabad seemed asleep, we started our journey to Nathiagali only to realise a few seconds later that our car had a flat tyre. We knew nobody was coming to our rescue. Musa and Zain had seen Haroon, my brother-in-law, Zain’s father, change a tyre a few times. After the initial clockwise wrong unscrewing of the lug nuts, they changed the tyre in about half-an-hour. We opened Google Maps. Nathiagali was still on. We followed the compass.
The route from Abbottabad to Nathiagali was stunning. The narrow road, nestled between a green mountain, blending into whiteness as it got higher, and a deep leafy valley, seemed to be lost in its lazy twist of dangerous turns and nerve-shattering proximity of reckless Bolan drivers. The blue, white and grey of the sky, invisible in big cities, formed a perfect canopy on the majestic mountains.
It was amusing to see people stare at me. Passing by our car, in their cars of various sizes, all types of people stared. The world has reached Mars, but seeing a woman drive a car on a mountain road in 2020 is a thing out of the ordinary. Women drive their children to school and take their children to Disneyland, but they can’t drive to Nathiagali.
On one of the countless sharp turns, our car decided it had had enough. It was the almost undetectable snowy sludge. The rented car dug its tyres in and refused to move. The boys disembarked; Zain and Taimur panicked, and Musa remained calm. Zain gasped: “Our car is going to slide, we’ll have an accident, we’re going to die, let’s return to Abbottabad.” Musa gave a lecture. The other two calmed down. Half-an-hour later, the tyres were fitted with chains, and Nathiagali was a few kilometres away.
My three-day trip made me aware of many things that I had forgotten in my self-protecting isolation. That there is always an option. There is always somewhere else. One road leads to another. Snowfall and traffic divert you to a better location.
The first part of the six-hour-plus journey to Abbottabad taught me something else. When temporary darkness envelopes your life or the road you are travelling on, and putting the car into neutral is not an option, there is nothing to do but to calm down and keep going having agreed on the best possible way.
Being with my three travelling ‘children’, I re-learnt on our first day in Abbottabad: losing your cool doesn’t help a tyre to be replaced or an issue to be solved in a rational manner. Commonplace concerns, even the ones you feel clueless about, have easy resolutions. Smile, take a deep breath, roll up your sleeves, and change the tyre, fix the problem, find a new route, go to a new place.
The tyre-chain thing was a realignment of another response: to be afraid is human, to submit to fear despite options is also human. Your character is tested when faced with a crisis, major or minor. The triumphant part of your humanness strengthens your character. Composure and rationality are your biggest aids in adversity. Of any type.
The children became my emotional compass.
I travelled to Abbottabad and Nathiagali because of Musa. The three-day vacation with Musa, Zain and Taimur was just what I needed at this time in my life. The gorgeousness of Abbottabad’s nights, Nathiagali’s snow, the pure air, the pristine sky, the stunning snow-covered track of Ayubia Park that Musa and Zain chose for walking, the talks, the endless food, the occasional bickering, and the constant laughter shifted something within me.
Musa will leave for his next semester in Paris on January 27th, one day after his birthday. I know I won’t be room-bound any more. I will start to live the rest of my life.
Starting with this essay.