The afternoon train to Panipat was seven hours late. I had spent just 300 rupees on the ticket, so it wasn’t a big loss. But I had only a few days of spring break in India, and I needed to make it count for a lifetime. I asked a man on a cycle rickshaw if there was any other way to get there; after all, it was only 100 kilometers away from New Delhi. He motioned for me to get on his bike, and we rode against highway traffic to another station. A bus driver yelling, “Panipat! Sonipat! Panipat!” ushered me onto a bus without answering any of my questions.
I’d always pictured Panipat to be a serene, spiritual place. But the Grand Trunk Road I saw wasn’t quite the ancient path of migration I had envisioned. Tire shops and chai shops stood along the road with roofs curving like little fingers toward a massive multilane overpass, choking the windpipe of the city. The smiling faces of Bollywood stars, eyes glinting at Pepsi logos, adorned the awnings of most stores. This was a modern, industrial city, not the tight-knit community I’d imagined based on my mother’s stories. But I still felt an overwhelming sense of returning home. My grandparents and countless generations of my family had been born here, so in some ways I was returning to them.
My aunt gave me very simple directions to reach the house: Find the shrine of Bu Ali Shah Qalandar, then ask for directions to the poet Altaf Hussein Hali’s house; across the street from that is home. But I took my time. I breathed in the air and spent an hour photographing the word "Panipat" anywhere I found it — on torn posters, at the train station. The word had a spiritual depth to it; like the Sufi concept of dhikr, I repeated it in my heart, as if remembering it would imprint it on my soul. As if it would imprint the departed on my soul.
The concierge at my hotel put me on the back of a flower seller’s bicycle, and we drove through Panipat’s curving arteries toward the shrine at the old city’s center. I had expected, as most Pakistanis assume, that there were no Muslims left in East Punjab, where Panipat is. But the shrine was attended by Hindus and Muslims alike. I gave my respect to the Saint and the Shrine.
Eventually, I knocked on the imam’s door and sat with him for a while, hoping he’d be able to guide me. I asked him if he knew of my ancestor, Qari Mohiyyul Islam Usmani (another tip from my aunt), but he just laughed. The connection I was looking for was gone, he told me. The Muslims who lived in Panipat now were not the Muslims who lived there before 1947.
I left the shrine and started asking strangers in the canopy-covered bazaar outside how to get to Hali’s house. Within 15 minutes I was in front of a house covered with posters in Hindi script, filled with what must have been historical information. So I turned to the other side of the street and took a good look at what had to be my grandfather’s house.
It didn’t take my breath away. The paint and walls were weathered, but the doors were heavy things, adorned with gorgeous carved work. There were twin Hindu swastikas on each side. I had no way to know if any of these things were there when my grandparents left the house. As I stood there, lost in thought, a young boy standing in the street noticed me gawking.
“Can I help you, brother?” he asked me.
“This was my house,” I said.
“This is not your house. This is my friend’s house,” he said.
It’s true. It was not my house. But if things had been different, it could have been.
My grandparents were born in the British Indian province of Punjab. But in 1947, the British finally left the subcontinent and the colony was partitioned into two new countries along religious lines: The states with a Hindu majority would become part of India, while those with a Muslim majority would become part of Pakistan. Like countless others cursed by history, my Muslim grandparents were on the wrong side of the border. So, amidst rioting and massacres, my families abandoned everything and traveled nearly 400 kilometers to West Punjab, Pakistan.
Nana and Nani never returned to Panipat, or India, but they also never forgot the home they lost, the family members who died on the way to their new home, or the history they were so fiercely proud of. My mother, born four years later in Rawal Pindi, was the first good thing to follow this tragedy. She was a symbol of hope for both this new country of Pakistan and for my family. When my parents married, they moved to America with the intention of coming back to Pakistan. But they never did. I was born and raised in a small town called Saginaw, in Michigan.
For my entire life, Panipat has existed as a mythical location outside of time and space.
And so, for my entire life, and perhaps for my mother’s as well, Panipat has existed as a mythical location outside of time and space. My grandparents died before I began forming memories, never having returned to the Indian side of the new border. But my mother, ever the storyteller, preserved the city and our family’s long history with it for my sisters and me — descendants, she said, of a long line of well-respected Sufi scholars and leaders. She told these stories as if I were an exiled scion with a legacy to uphold, but it had been generations since anyone in our family had spent their whole life in Panipat. I wanted to go there anyway, no matter how absurd it was to long for something so distant.
I was born in Michigan, but my first language was Urdu. After my grandparents died of cancer within months of each other, my mother returned to Pakistan with 2-year-old me in tow — and it was there where I spoke my first words. But once we went back to America and I learned to speak English, a valve in my head shut and clogged up all the Urdu I knew. We would visit Pakistan often, but I’d sit in silence, feeling like a foreigner.
Twenty years later, in a case of brutal symmetry, my mother also contracted cancer, and I realized that losing her would also mean losing everything that connected me to our family’s past. During the next two long years of her illness, I found mostly superficial ways to connect to my desi identity: I took classes on Urdu and South Asian history, became obsessed with Bollywood movies, and recorded the recipe for every family delicacy my mother could remember before her mind slipped away. In high school I had bristled at being called “white on the inside,” but by the end of college, I’d found myself in the surprising position of being almost comically Pakistani.
My mother passed in Michigan and was put to rest there, too, the second generation of our family to be buried in adopted homes. When people die, the quickest thing we lose is the imprint of our names on their tongues and in our ears. The way my mother said “Ahmed,” high-pitched and singsongy, had history in itself; she had named me after her father, against his wishes. For those of us who feel left between places in history, between homeland and diaspora, the body and mind are resilient sites of stored history. After my mother died, I became determined to find new ways to speak our legacy in my life.
After my mother died, I became determined to find new ways to speak our legacy in my life.
So, nine months later, I flew to India on a scholarship trip to learn Urdu. There seemed no better way to show that I could grow without Ammi in my life than to cross the border that two generations of my family had never been able to. The Indian government took eight months to approve my visa application, riddled as it was with references to my Pakistani heritage. As I sat on the plane to Lucknow, I felt history itself weighing on me. My life, from Panipat to Saginaw, could all be boiled down to an accident. In another life, where the British hadn’t so thoroughly separated the people of the subcontinent, I might have had family to greet me among the throngs at the airport, the way I do when I visit Pakistan. But there were no relatives awaiting me. I came alone.
Even though people in India ostensibly speak “Hindi,” my Pakistani Urdu never revealed me as a foreigner. This was a great fear of my family — that if Indians somehow knew I was Pakistani, I would somehow be placed in danger. But all that most Indians did was scrunch up their face at my halting sentences and pronunciation, then ask where I was from. I’d say America, most of the time.
“Ah,” they said, “But you look completely local. Your forefathers and their forefathers were Indian, right?” And so, I began to feel a burgeoning sense of ownership in my identity. When I walked into a store, the attendants didn’t stare at me like they do in America, skeptical that I’ll buy anything. I found myself thinking, so many times, is this what white men feel all the time? No one questioned whether I fit in. I realized I had never felt the privilege of people assuming I belonged before talking to me.
I settled into Lucknow like a new home. The guys at the kebab shop knew my order. I had a favorite rickshaw driver. I started styling myself like the locals, with a mustache and shirt tucked into pants. And I realized, after a few months, that I had an opportunity I couldn’t ignore.
I went to see if our family’s name was still inscribed in Panipat.
So there, in front of me in the street in Panipat, was a doorway into my identity. I could see it — maybe even touch it — but by the stupid bad luck of history, I couldn’t open it. And even if I were able to go in, would anything be left?
I’d stood there for barely five minutes before the boy who had talked to me retrieved his friend, who lived in the house. Most of the other times I had explained my family’s story to Indians, they welcomed me warmly, like a long-lost brother coming home. But here, for the first time, I felt like an intruder. The two boys, probably only a few years younger than me, stood in the doorway, as if I might make a mad dash inside. I asked if any of the elders who might remember some of the place’s history were at home, or if I could come inside. They shook their heads at both suggestions, but allowed me to take a picture when I asked.
So that was it. I had found the house and been denied entry. I stood in silence for a bit longer, but I knew I had no other options. I left and spent the rest of my weekend in Panipat sleeping deeply, attending qawwali performances at the shrine, and attempting to make my five daily prayers. I never went back to the house. I never met anyone who knew my family’s name.
The day before I was scheduled to leave, a young boy stopped me as I was buying a soda and some chips.
“You’re the American, aren’t you?”
He must have heard my accent. “My parents are Pakistani, but yes. I’m American. And my grandparents were born here.”
He invited me over for tea. He had heard the story about how I wasn’t allowed into Nana’s house, and said I should come visit his home. We walked through the narrow alleys, and I wondered how anyone could find their way in this rushing river of a town layout. The boy’s home had only two rooms, but four or five children playing outside were called in to join us. The father, broad-shouldered with mottled skin, like my own father, asked me to sit on a charpoy next to him. I was their guest, so they asked if I wanted anything to eat or drink. I had little to no appetite, but I said yes.
I never met anyone who knew my family's name.
I explained that I was the child of an Urdu-speaking woman and a Punjabi man. Immediately they asked me, “Are you Hindu?” and I laughed. The idea of a Punjabi Muslim seemed so foreign to them — 60 years foreign. But no, I said, I’m Muslim. And I explained how I came here to find my house. They were curious about America, too, about what exactly had brought my family there and where I was raised. I marveled at the fact that even a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to have this conversation with these strangers, entirely in Urdu.
I asked about the shrine and if they knew of my family, or anything about its history. They didn’t, but the father told a story his father had told him about the Muslim saint who was buried there, and his relationship with the Hindu gods Krishna and Hanuman. I can’t say I understood everything, but I listened and learned. Eventually, the father started asking questions about Pakistan and my parents. My mother, I said, was born in Rawal Pindi. And my father was born in Lyallpur, which is now known as Faisalabad.
The father’s eyes lit up. This Hindu man’s father, in an inversion of fates, was also born in my father’s birthplace of Lyallpur, but had to abandon it during Partition, only to end up in Panipat. He, like me, dreamed of visiting the city his parents left. Of finding the history that was lost.
We sat with the weight of that.
“So,” I said, “I guess we are brothers.”
“Yes. We are brothers,” he said. “And Panipat is your home.”
“And Lyallpur, it’s your home too, if you can ever come visit.”
He gave me his cell phone number, and we promised to call each other if I were ever able to return. But I knew that this cell phone, like the house in Panipat, like the American house my mother died in, wouldn’t last.
The forever thing, the thing I would hold onto, was the feeling of family in my heart.