In December 1980, at the age of nine, I moved back to Pakistan for the first time.
We touched down at Lahore, in those less security-conscious days when it was still a place where families strolled to the tarmac to greet deplaning passengers. Ronald Reagan had just beaten Jimmy Carter in the election for president of the United States, the Soviet Union was about to mark the first anniversary of its invasion of Afghanistan, racoon-eyed General Zia-ul-Haq was ensconced in Islamabad as Pakistan's dictator, and I'd lost my Urdu.
It's a funny thing to lose your first language. I was an early talker, chirping along in full sentences and paragraphs well before I turned two, and I have a scar to prove it. In the summer of 1973, ZA Bhutto was campaigning to become prime minister of Pakistan, and I picked up the habit of climbing on to the dining table and holding forth in the manner of the speeches I'd heard him make on PTV: "When I become prime minister..."
One day someone tried to get hold of me and lower me to the ground. I made a run for it, dashed into thin air, fell, split open my head and wound up with blood in my eye and stitches across my brow. (ZA Bhutto's fate would, sadly, be similar.)
The following year I left Lahore, winging via Hong Kong and over the Pacific to San Francisco with my parents. In California we moved into one of many identical graduate student townhouses on the Stanford University campus. Bands of kids ran around and chased butterflies and dashed through the tish-tish-tishing rotating water sprinklers, all barefoot, unsupervised. I slipped out to join them.
My mother heard crying and went to investigate. She saw me in tears at the door next to ours, gazing up at a perplexed neighbour, surrounded by jeering children. My mother took my hand and led me back home.
"Is he retarded?" one of my new playmates asked her.
"No," she answered.
"Then why can't he talk properly?"
"He can. He just doesn't know English."
After that I didn't speak for a month. My parents worried, but they decided I probably just needed time to adjust. So they let me sit in front of our TV, do my drawings and build precariously tall towers with my wooden blocks. And when I next spoke, much to their surprise, it was in English, in complete sentences, and with an American accent.
Over the next six years I didn't speak a word of Urdu. I made friends, went for sleepovers, brought home tadpoles and frogs in jam jars, ran like the wind, played soccer, crashed out on unused beds at grad student parties; camped in tents in national parks, asked what that funny smell was at a spliff-heavy open-air Bob Marley concert, swam in the frigid Pacific, dressed in moccasins and beaded vests, and wrote my first stories intergalactic space operas inspired by a slew of sci-fi movies and TV shows of the time: Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Space Ghost, Star Blazers, Battle of the Planets.
Meanwhile, my dad did his PhD, my mum worked at the accounting department of an early Silicon Valley electronics firm, my little sister was born, and our battered second-hand Datsun clocked up tens of thousands of miles.
I'd been so fluent in Urdu, and such a talker, that my parents never realised just how completely I'd forgotten the language until we arrived back in Pakistan.
I was thrown into a strange new (old) world of extended families, aunts and uncles, two dozen cousins, cricket, odd-tasting bread, odder-still-tasting milk, only one television channel and even that only on for part of the day and an almost complete absence of familiar consumer brands. Here in Lahore there were no Frosted Flakes, Twinkies, Nestlé Quik, Trapper Keepers, Nerf balls, Bactine and No More Tears shampoo.
On my first day in Pakistan, I asked a cousin, "Are these people slaves?"
"No," he explained. "They're servants."
I kept wanting to write to my friends in California but never managed to. What would I even say? Months passed and then it seemed too late. One night I looked up at the stars and thought these were the same stars people over there looked up at, and I cried. It was the only time. Pretty melodramatic stuff. But it passed.
Or maybe it didn't, but it did subside. Besides, I made new friends, learnt new sports, biked around town, found a place that sold model aeroplane kits, another that sold aquariums and tropical fish, and understood after the first few bruises that my cousins were actually like brothers and sisters, a classroom-sized clan always ready to chat and play and come unquestioningly to my defence against the outside world.
I liked my new existence, but I'd liked my old one too, and I imagined places where the two could come together. I was a map buff, and for my tenth birthday my parents bought me an exquisite atlas. Pencil in hand, I would create new countries: non-existent Pacific islands with snow-topped volcanoes and tightly packed contour lines, the French department of Alpes-Maritimes as an independent republic (I admired its shape), the Kathiawar peninsula separated from the mainland by a deep canal, a confederacy of midsized city- states scattered across a variety of continents.
I would write the almanac entries for these places, their histories and natural resources and climates and militaries and flora and fauna. And, importantly, their demographics: always mixed, with no clear majority, and significant immigrant groups of Lahori and San Franciscan descent.
This was the creative writing initially inspired by my return to Pakistan. (There was also some poetry, modelled on verses in Tolkien and in Bulfinch's Mythology. "Do you know what a virgin actually is?" my dad asked me upon reading it. "Like a maiden?" I ventured.)
Most of my family and classmates in Lahore spoke English, so I didn't need to fall silent this time. I just started picking up Urdu on the go. Eventually I could tell a joke and sing a song in it, flirt and fight, read a story and take an exam. I could speak without a foreign accent. But my first language would be a second language for me from then on.
English fractured for me too, coming in distinct Californian and Pakistani varieties. (Later, in adulthood, Mid-Atlantic and British English would be added to my mix.)
Sometimes, as a nine-year-old twice transported, the words I heard moved me in unexpected ways, like impressions of half-forgotten sunny afternoons, less than memories and therefore impossible to share.
I wonder now if that is partly why I write, to try.
Originally published by the Observer, 2011.
His official website: http://www.mohsinhamid.com/
This work is available to read from here with the approval of the author, Mohsin Hamid until 15th April 2014. (from 15th April 2012)
Once Upon a Life
Copyright © 2011 by Mohsin Hamid
Originally published by The Observer
Reprinted by permission of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, LLC on behalf of the Author through Tuttle-Mori Agency, Inc., Tokyo