You have lost far too many children, Karachi.
Somewhere along the way, I have stopped counting. Children of all kinds, their laughter echoing in the valves of my heart, appear before me like a dream from back when the world was simpler. Are they yours, Karachi? Do you remember their names?
When I reached fifteen, it was you who taught me that each person is a story. A melody. Karachi, do you know these stories? Is it you that sings me to sleep every night? I thought I heard your voice. It was late and I could not fall asleep. It was you who helped me in that darkness. Even when you could not see me, you embraced me with the sound of distant traffic, your loyal fireflies and the occasional airplane lulled me to sleep. It was your fajr azaan that stirred me from slumber. I thank you, Karachi. You have been far too kind.
Your brothers and sisters call you every day, Karachi, telling you it will be okay someday. Look now, there is Quetta clearing out pain from her backyard, raking away the fallen leaves. She tries to tell you, with her silence and little gestures, that she is with you. That she has always been.
Peshawar stopped by this morning for a cup of tea. He hides himself in the walls he has created all these years in hopes of defending that which he loves, but don’t you forget now that you were his first love.
Lahore flew in the other day, Karachi. She left a box of mithai for you. In the silence between us, I could almost hear you when you wept quietly: What’s the point? Lahore was kind. She understood. Few manage to do that in a time such as ours. There was a knock at the door and Hyderabad walked in with a smile. He wanted to have a taste of the mithai so he arrived that very night with a platter of rabri. They did not speak of the children. They were quiet. I think they were remembering their own.
There was laughter. Islamabad had been up to her antics again. But she worries for you. You know that. You have always known. The children age faster in Islamabad, you tell me. I see your point especially when I wander out towards the Margalla Hills but there are times when I know you are partially wrong. There are no children in Islamabad anymore. She sent them away from us. For their own good, that’s what I remember her saying with that sensible but worried voice of hers.
In other news, Ayubia wrote for you today. Her letter is hardly decipherable – it has been snowing again – but as a concerned aunt and your youngest sister, she writes from somewhere deeper and rawer. She said that when this will all be over, you could take the kids up north to meet their extended family. They would love Pakistan in the rain, she promised.
It is almost Maghrib and the sun is reluctant in saying its goodbyes today. Is it because Rawalpindi’s flight has not arrived yet? She packed her bags this morning and said she was moving out. Pindi has been so troubled lately. It is understandable. She fears for the kids. She stopped them from going to school for one whole week. It was the kids who convinced her that shutting down anyone’s education was merely another name for being a coward. But Pindi will see the light one day. I hope that day is near.
The sun has set now and were the children here, they would have been home by now. I know you miss them, Karachi. You used to ask me why they grew up so fast, where there innocence vanished only to be replaced by excess independence. I see you standing there in that aasmaani shalwar kameez and I know you still look out for them. You do not latch the doors unless the night guard arrives with his whistle telling everyone it is safe outside and that he is there. He told me, the other day, that he would be retiring soon. The State does not pay me enough, he grumbled. It was only when I caught up with him near the masjid that he told me he had had enough. He had seen too much. You will find him selling fruits outside the masjid now.
You are tired. I have written too much. I end my letter here, Karachi. But just before this sunset plants a kiss on your forehead, I have one last thing to say to you about the children.
We will find them. I promise you. We will return them to their homes; they will run or walk silently towards the welcoming arms of those who love them, who have always loved them. We will not ask them how they have been. They will tell us, in their own time. We will simply let them enter our homes, ask them if they would like lassi and the fruits their aunts and uncles have sent them from all over Pakistan. When it is dark enough you can sing them to sleep, just like you always have.