After we got married, I moved to Karachi. We spent two weeks with our families in the Punjab, getting married, going for some sightseeing in the mountains by ourselves and just getting to know one another in the context of our families. But then it was time to go to Karachi. And for BH to go back to work.
I remember the first evening that he returned home from work – he took off his shoes at the entrance. We came into the lounge and I returned to the hob where I was putting the finishing touches to our dinner. He stood quietly, watching me with a faint smile on his face. Then he walked the length and breadth of our apartment, smiling quietly throughout. I lay the dinner out on the table. He freshened up and sat down. He said, ‘How peaceful this is…’ He didn’t need to say more. I knew what he meant.
For one of BH’s abiding memories from his childhood is returning from school to an immaculate home with curtains drawn in the afternoon to keep the midday heat out. It is a memory I share with him from my own childhood. In the afternoon, be it winter or summer, when we returned home, my mother’s room would be a wondrous oasis of peace. The curtains would be drawn to keep out the sun. The bed would be made to perfection, sheets pulled taut against its surface. Every object in her room would be in order. She would lie exhausted in her bed for a short siesta after a hard day teaching at school. This was home.
In a way, this is the home I strive to provide for my family. When BH and the children return home, I want it to be perfectly ordered. I want the bathrooms spotless, the beds made, everything tidied away, something delicious warming itself on the hob. And alhamdulillah, most of the time, this is the way it is. When we walk in, Myna sniffs the air and declares, everyday, without fail, ‘I love the smell of our house!’ It is usually the aroma of shorba or rice for their dinner.
My mother was fanatical about the cleanliness of our house. I remember, growing up in our home, the newspapers had to be lined up on the coffee table just so, and the socks and underwear had to be folded a specific way, beds had to be made till there was not a fold to be seen, the pillows and the mattress beaten daily to send invisible specks of dust flying. Our clothes had to be tidied away as soon as they came off our bodies, whether they had to be taken to be washed or folded away. Our kitchen counters were not only spotless, they were ordered in a particular way, with this canister behind that one, the toaster in line with the kettle and the food-processor, each one covered prudishly with an embroidered coverlet hand-made by my mother in her days of maidenhood. The sponge to wash our dishes went, in those days, when most people would be content to just leave it on the counter next to the sink, into a little saucer next to the kitchen sink. We would cover our drying rack full of washed dishes with a dish-cloth before we left the kitchen. Ammi would go about the house folding the ends of carpets and then whipping them open to get all the strings on the edges to line up perfectly. She would straighten pictures on the walls, sometimes even in other people’s homes. She would move ornaments on shelves a few millimetres this way or that to line them perfectly. In the evening, after we finished our tea, she would ask one of us to put away the tea things and tidy up. It was understood that tidying up included plumping up the cushions, scouring the carpet for any crumbs from our tea-time snack and giving the coffee table a wipe.
And then there were other complications – hands soiled from touching the kitchen cleaning rag could not be touched to anything else before they had been washed. Soiled clothes had to be carried to the laundry basket well away from our person. So did garbage bags. Hands holding a dusting rag had to be washed before folding laundered clothes. Slippers were never, never to be worn onto the carpet. Leaning your whole body against the kitchen counter as you made the salad or washed the dishes was symptomatic of indolence.
I remember always being on my guard. When we had visitors, we, the children, were excessively aware of where our carpets had been trodden on with shoes. We never recovered from the sight of a cousin’s wife picking up her baby’s pacifier from the carpet, and wiping it in her own mouth before sticking it back into her baby’s. Ammi was one of the pioneering theorists on the subject of cooties and we never got over the germs that we could practically see crawling all over the pacifier going straight into this lady’s mouth.
My upbringing in the midst of my mother’s zealous house-keeping and germ-combatting left me completely unprepared for the first time that I saw BH sauntering into the bathroom barefoot. Oh the germs all over the bathroom floor! And the ‘napaaki’ of it! I managed to convince him of both through painstaking discussions on the subject. Or perhaps the poor man just gave in seeing his wife’s unshakeable conviction of it. I spent countless minutes going over, in what must be, agonising detail the concept of ‘paak’ and ‘napaak’ to each one of my children as I potty-trained them. I had no shame. I still don’t when it comes to the point I try to make with them during this most frustrating of times. Allah loves the ‘muttatahireen’. Leaving aside, for the moment, what this means for our minds and hearts, it is of the utmost importance for Muslims to be physically in a state of ‘taharah’ at all times as well.
But having made the first few years of motherhood miserable for myself and my son, I made a conscious effort to steer myself away from the manic need for neatness that had been instilled in my mind. Home must be a sanctuary. For all its inhabitants. It should be a haven for the children that live in it, the adults that live in it. It belongs not just to the woman who runs it, but to the man who provides for it and to the children who fill it with their peals of laughter. I still cringe and recoil inwardly when my daughter enters my room and instinctively flops on my bed. This was forbidden on my mother’s bed. She would go into a flurry of irritation and begin tugging at the corners to straighten it back to perfection. As a result we never did sit on her bed at a time out of the ordinary. But I have come to realise how I distance myself from my children if I choose to explode at the sight of a messy living room, or a creased bed-cover. Consider the name ‘living room’. This should be a place for my children to live. It should be a place where they can lie on a sofa to read, dream big and small dreams, play with their Lego, draw pictures. It should be a place where BH and I can crack open peanuts as we read our books or work on our laptops. It should be a place where cushions can be folded under our arms, or our heads. And when we are done doing all of this, we should emerge rejuvenated, re-energised. We should feel a deep sense of belonging and togetherness. This is home. This is what I want my children to remember. This is what I want their memory of peace to be – all of us together in the living room, each doing his own thing, without any pressure about a few crumbs on the carpet, or a jumble on the coffee table. Everything can be tidied up – and when I give a chance for happiness to pervade, I inadvertently garner their support for tidying up at the end too. Win-win!