The last boxes I packed were full of memorabilia intended for display: framed photos from disposable cameras, valentines and anniversary cards adorned with hearts and rainbows, and souvenir matchbooks from bars—ones I’d visited on trips and local ones that have since closed. My mother stood in the doorway of my room in our North York condo as I packed my stuffed friend since childhood, a pastel pink plush bear, long and ursine like the one on the California flag.
“You’re taking Bearry with you?”
“Yes, she’s family.”
My girlfriend and her parents would be here any minute to help transport my stuff to our new apartment. “Mut jaao.” Don’t go. My mother said it sadly but lightly, like a suggestion from a child. We had already hugged four times that day and it wasn’t even 9 am.
“Jaana hai.” I have to go.
When my mother left home, she was symbolically given away to my father in a cultural wedding practice called a Rukhsati. A portrait of my mom on her wedding day was displayed in each of the homes we rented over the course of my childhood. No matter which wall, there hung the same immaculately made-up eyes downcast and scarlet lips pursed, just like her mother’s portrait before her.
I used to wonder why our brides looked so somber in photos, but it’s custom for the bittersweet occasion, as are tearful goodbyes amongst the bride’s family as she begins her new life. I didn’t have a ceremonial goodbye—no marriage, no Rukhsati, just a lesbian picking me up in a U-Haul.
I didn’t have a ceremonial goodbye—no marriage, no Rukhsati, just a lesbian picking me up in a U-Haul.
We moved to Toronto from Pakistan in the late ’90s, but our immigration narrative isn’t one that’s often told. We were minority Muslims in an increasingly violent city. Like many others, my parents moved here for a better life, one free from religious or political persecution. Their status back home however, was one of privilege. They chose to move to separate themselves from that world and its moral ambiguities. My parents left in part for our safety, but also because they didn’t want the life that came with status: the obligations, the performance of power, the sense that your life isn’t your own.
My father wanted to do his work honestly and raise his family quietly. I’ve been grappling with the fact that our familial wealth and history is tied to land ownership and feudalism. The implications of this weren’t readily apparent throughout my childhood as we eventually lost access to the resources and the leverage that came with wealth. Still, it’s not lost on me that our class allowed us to make this move in the first place. So many families flee home because they have no choice, not knowing if they’ll find a soft place to land. Privilege is a cushion—even though my family’s status back home did not guarantee our security, it did give us options.
Living in Toronto has been a blessing, but it has not been without its difficulties. Not long after moving here my parents encountered hardships that forced them to renegotiate their expectations for our future and the opportunities available to us. Despite having limited resources, they gave me everything they could: public education in affluent districts, enrollment in paid arts programs, and most importantly the freedom to decide what I wanted to develop and pursue for myself. What they couldn’t fully provide me was stability. We went from having a rooted legacy to being a rootless trio, starting fresh in new neighbourhoods every few years until a North York condo serving as a short-term crash pad became the home we’ve been in the longest.
I often wonder what could have been different if we had stayed in Karachi. If my mother was home to teach me the Quran instead of having to work evenings, would I be more pious today? If I grew up around more family and friends from the community, would I feel less lonely? I remember how much I would cry when my parents dropped me off at school, like I’d already been separated from so much I couldn’t bear to be separated from them too.
I recently asked my parents if they ever regret uprooting our life in Pakistan, knowing all the struggles they’ve encountered since. In response, my mom told me about the moment she knew they had made the right decision. When we first arrived in Toronto, when the buildings were shorter and the streets less congested, my parents loved to drive around the city and listen to music. Just driving with no destination was a luxury they weren’t afforded in Karachi. The act felt like freedom.
The city now is different than the one we used to explore. Living here feels like a constant exercise in accepting impermanence and movement, like the city’s being forced into growth it barely is capable of. When we first arrived we didn’t know what life here was going to be like, all my parents knew was it would be different and it would be theirs. My mother recounted turning onto the highway on a clear sunny day as the Holly Cole version of “I Can See Clearly Now” began to play. As precarious as the future may have been, it was full of possibility and in that moment she felt calm and at peace. She played that song over and over in their first year here as a reminder that they could go where they wanted, when they wanted. Nothing but blue sky.
The ability to leave a place that no longer sustains you is a privilege to be sure, but being able to return is a different one altogether, one that many of us don’t have. Whenever I’m asked if I’ve visited Pakistan since moving here, I’m almost embarrassed to say no. In truth, I don’t feel a connection to Pakistan; I feel the absence of what my relationship to it could have been. Even if we were to go back now, the home that we left is an idea that no longer exists.
In truth, I don’t feel a connection to Pakistan; I feel the absence of what my relationship to it could have been. Even if we were to go back now, the home that we left is an idea that no longer exists.
My Abboo, my grandfather, spoke of Lucknow as home, a city in India that his family left when he was ten-years-old. They moved from Lucknow to Karachi during the partition of British-ruled India that led to the creation of Pakistan—a mass migration that resulted in catastrophic bloodshed and intergenerational trauma, the legacy of which continues to invoke high levels of violence and animosity to this day. His family benefited from their status as civil servants and were granted a safe passage to their new home, a privilege that millions of displaced Muslims and Hindus on both sides were not granted. Some of the family chose to stay in India and Abboo missed them his whole life. He spoke fondly of Lucknow and longed to return, though the Lucknow he called home didn’t exist anymore. Did he miss the city or did he miss his experience of growing up in the 1940s in an idealized centre of rich culture, religious harmony, and genteel colonialism? Home isn’t a place as much as it is a context. It’s why nostalgia is so powerful. Even if you could physically go back, it could never really be the same. Even if we are able to return in space, we can’t go back in time.
Home isn’t a place as much as it is a context. It’s why nostalgia is so powerful. Even if you could physically go back, it could never really be the same. Even if we are able to return in space, we can’t go back in time.
My Abboo passed away in late 2019, and with him I lost an integral part of my myth of home, my reason to return. What is home if the people you love are no longer there? In the weeks since his passing pictures I’d never seen have surfaced in family group chats. In them are stately buildings with lush tropical plants that look like they are out of a dream, photos of massive gatherings of family I don’t recognize. My mother speaks wistfully of those summers at the homestead when everyone would reunite, and I think of my young mother laughing with her cousins and feel mournful for this childhood that she had that was never meant for me.
I’ve felt alienated from my extended family due to geographical distance. As much as I want to bridge those gaps, that alienation has been compounded with the fear that they wouldn’t accept me if they knew I was queer and investing in a future with my partner. Even more than outrage or rejection, I have feared the delegitimization of my milestones and my happiness by those who can’t appreciate or understand them.
This fear has kept me at a distance for so long: what if who I am makes me unwelcome? Not everyone is like my parents, whose love has made me feel at home no matter our circumstances. Our path here has by no means been straightforward, but I’m leaving my parental home feeling such gratitude for the generosity my parents have exemplified—from all the sacrifices they’ve made to the openness with which they have received my partner and her place in our lives.
I’m aware that the new home I’m building with my love may result in the dissolution of certain ties to my old home, that not everyone in my family may be as accepting of my decisions as my parents have been. There’s a reason a Rukhsati is such a bittersweet occasion; it marks the transition into a new phase of life. In order to make room for what’s to come, something must be let go.
The first time my partner and I saw the apartment that would become ours, it didn’t feel like home. We viewed many properties barely within our price range. We vied for them desperately despite feeling ambivalent about them, and were outbid each time. I felt anxious that we wouldn’t find the right place for us, that I was leaving home and committing to an impossibly difficult future. If I’ve learned anything from the road that’s brought me here, it’s that stability is never guaranteed. Even though this apartment didn’t feel welcoming at first, we felt that we should still try and that if it accepted us, we would make it our home. When we did get it and returned with our parents and our furniture, it felt different. We knew the space was here to hold us.
We spent our first night running around our place and setting it up; it all came so easily.