Fiction excerpt: The Pilot’s Daughter


She climbs up the hill, firmly etching her footprints into the ground with each step, the steeply sloping earth opposing her with all its might and losing. Her spirit races ahead of her and she bounds to catch up, pulling her big sister along by the hand with a shout of “Ajo, baji!” The sweltering Pakistani sun beats down but they take no notice of the heat even under their hijabs, they are carefree; it is approaching summer in Murree and they are running home from the girls’ elementary school where they spent their day studying Qur’an in Arabic, practicing writing sentences in English, and talking and joking in Urdu. She is 11 and she is Hana. Hana’s hair is dark brown, a coffee roast that would jolt you awake without so much as touching your tongue, so dark that it is almost indistinguishable from black, but with the same hint of cranberry red that her mother’s hair once had. Hana has skin the color of a peeled almond and her new friends adore her for her paleness, because she looks like a real gori, though her veins carry the blood of generations of Pakistani mothers. Her sister Rahma is 13, the cautious voice of reason to Hana’s boundless energy and excitement, all legs and flowing hair and fast approaching womanhood; a few nights ago, the two had overheard their parents talk about Rahma’s growing hips and chest and how fortunate they were to have moved to this bucolic town, far from the cities where young women were always in danger.

Here, the summers are hot but not unbearably so, and the winters are cool, as winters ought to be. Karachi was humid and noisy and Lahore was hot all the time, but here life is always as surprising as the weather. Cities were nice, Hana thinks as she plants her buckled brown shoe in a tuft of grass, until you had to walk next to the gutter on the way to the cinema and your carefully chosen clothes began to adopt the smell of raw sewage; or until the men on motorbikes, snug in their leather jackets and sporting the most stylishly shaped mustaches of the day, kicked up dust and exhaust in your face as you walked home from school. But here the grass grows verdantly green and lush at the top of the hill where their house sits, a handsome house built on missiles, fighter jet fuel, and Indian prisoners of war.

She doesn’t know any of that. She knows that her abbu flies planes for his work and that her 42-year-old ammi has had grey hairs for as long as she can remember. She knows that her older brother talks about the war with India with his friends, but her mind works like those of most children her age, so she doesn’t connect the subcontinental history she learns in school with the history she learns firsthand from her parents. Besides, she never could focus on school ever since she moved to Murree, where she was constantly putting her head down on her desk to gaze out the window at the changing skies. She pays more attention to the funny outfits that her schoolteachers wear, with their gowns and hoods that vaguely resemble her hijab, than she ever does to her studies. She remembers moving to Murree the previous year, a strange sequence of events that culminated, somehow, in her joining a classroom full of other little Muslim girls being taught by Catholic nuns.

She remembers the rickshaw dust and tandoori smoke of Lahore all too well, the shouts and hubbub of the bazaars of Karachi even better. Those cities scared her with their crowds and busy streets, so easy to get lost and lose the safety of her compound where her ammi and abbu would be waiting to welcome her home from school with open arms and a jelabi soaked in sugary syrup. But when abbu told the family that he would be stationed in Murree next, they packed up all their clothes and belongings, salwar kameez spilling out of suitcases in the bedrooms. She wondered to herself what this new city would be like. It quickly became her favorite place to live and the site of many of her most beloved memories of Pakistan for years to come. If only they could spend every Eid here in Murree, and her cousins and aunts and uncles would come and everybody would sit by the hearth and drink ammi’s chai together. Already–here was the gate to the house, and her sister was opening it and they leaped up the path toward the door.

And here was the window at whose sill she sat the first time she saw snow. Just last year they had moved to Murree and throughout the fall she impatiently waited for the heavens to yield to her desires. When she expressed her frustration at the weather’s lack of cooperation with her ferocious hunger to experience what she had never experienced, to bring her the snow she so desperately craved, the imam always told her it ought to be the other way around, but she never quite understood what he meant by that. When the first snowfall of the year came, he told her to be grateful. At the very least, she understood that.

But nobody thought Hana would understand the scene that awaited her and Rahma on the other side of the door. No jelabi and warm hugs were waiting in the kitchen today; but the imposing Air Force vehicles in the driveway should have warned her that her life would be changing yet again.