Through a boombox on a frigid night in the mountains of northern Pakistan, in a subdivision of Rawalpindi District called Murree, John and George and Ringo tell a boy he’s gonna carry that weight for a long time.
A group of young men, dressed in faded leather jackets and multiple pairs of socks mount 1978 Kawasakis. They are all about 19 years old. The engines roar, they zoom along in the snow, and they never give a voice to the urgency they feel. A thick night wraps around the snow-capped peaks as the group tackles dirt roads that veer left and right without warning. If they make a wrong turn, there’s nowhere to go but off the side of the mountain, a floating pathway without a guardrail. They’re riding without brakes.
Somewhere amidst the wreckage of all this natural wonder, there’s a campsite that is a refuge from responsibility and the passage of time. On this night trip, as six men on four motorcycles journey towards it, they pass by a shepherd minding a herd of goats and decide to steal one to eat for dinner. As the goat bleats loudly, one of the boys wraps the animal’s legs around his shoulders. Then they’re off into the night again.
One of these men is my father. He is the eldest son in a culture that both unabashedly adores and heavily burdens their eldest sons. He excels at math and science — a man of numbers and logic. He is the most educated of his siblings. During his childhood, his family lived in a small village with mango trees’ and cows and tongas. His father is often away in foreign countries and sends back money to support his family. While he’s away, it was my father’s responsibility to look after things. From a young age he is known as a man of few words.
Whether negotiating the twists of a mountain road or riding to the extreme northern limit of Pakistan just outside the border of China, my father and his friends operate as a pack. They attend the same colleges and same parties. They are as comfortable with one another’s families as they are with their own, and while they’ve garnered various reputations, inciting both admiration and admonishment, depending on who you ask, their recklessness is complemented by an ardent devotion to those families. On the city streets of Pindi, as it’s called, young men in leather and denim (“Jimmy Dean jeans,” as my mother describes them) are often seen giving rides to their mothers and sisters; beautiful women with almond eyes and dark waterfalls of hair side-saddling Yamahas in salwar-kameez.
Pictures of my father from these times supposedly exist, but I’ve never seen them. If they do, there are very few. Photographic documentation was not high on the list of priorities at the time. So my father exists in a hiccup of reality, the product of the tales spun by those around him.
Ten years after that night journey, my mother will visit Pakistan. They will meet, my father will marry her, and he’ll board a plane that will fly him to her home in Toronto. My mother says during those early days in Canada, my father was fond of dining out and of expensive department-store sweaters. My grandma tells me that my father would accompany her to the butcher on Bathurst and the two of them would make dinner for the whole family — these times with her beloved son-in-law seem etched in the old woman’s memory. My grandfather tells me that he was fascinated when my father got his Canadian driver’s license and immediately conquered the Don Valley without a second thought, even though he had never ever seen a roadway that wide or fast-moving before.
And though I don’t have any proof, my mother says that when I was born, my father frantically called everyone he could remember a number for and shouted, “I have a daughter!! Do you hear me?! A daughter!!” I don’t believe I’ve ever witnessed him in such a state of excitement.
Everyone has a story about my dad. As a kid I genuinely thought he was a spy, for all the dazzling estimations and assumptions that clung to him like the smoke from his cigarettes. But as the years progress, like all men of his age with families and bills and memories, he has been contained within a cocoon. He relishes in stability and takes pride in endurance. It is now enough for him to have a home to return to every night, the same destination to set out for every morning.
Unlike many new immigrants, my dad was able to secure a job in his field almost immediately after arriving in the country. Finance and numbers have always come naturally to him, and he ebbed and flowed his way upwards with ease. He always maintained an untouchable sense of self-assurance; I had never seen him break a sweat, much less treat something as effortless as a successful career as anything more than a side note.
Like every family, mine has survived countless threats to its existence. In 2009 when the economy tanked, my dad faced professional uncertainty together with unprecedented personal anguish. His sense of higher purpose seemed compromised by his dismissal. I watched him combat the rigors of applications and interviews and theorized, on my own, that the entire process must have been incredibly demeaning for him; he had to prove he was worthy of contributing to the country he had loved for the better part of his life, but he never spoke of it in any detail at all.
My father does not maliciously withhold his thoughts and feelings: he believes that what has occurred in the past escapes definition by the very fact of being over. And though I understand this, I can’t accept it. Because it’s terrifying to love someone that you don’t really know.
But the silences of fathers and daughters who exist on separate planes are well-documented. In this grey space we negotiate daily, the absence of knowledge becomes knowledge itself. So in the wake of yet another outsider’s tale of a man to whom I owe my life’s blood, I’m always left wondering what scenes are lodged inside my father’s brain; the exact nature of the multitudes he contains. Which mountain meant the most, Dad? What were you drinking? Were you scared? Did you think you’d have kids? Were you hoping to fall in love?
Fathers are weird. They are paradoxical, near-mythical creatures wading through the currents of mundane reality. With one toe dipped in the fantastic, they occupy a space just outside of what’s familiar. They seem to be part of some larger narrative; the ordinary person’s claim to a kind of literary magnificence.
But in order to be a good father, you have to be a bad character. A father has to emerge out of the cyclone of his own fears and desires and flaws, he has to forgo the romance of being his own person. Families often depend on it and anything less is inadequate. Anything less is painful.
As it goes, my father is neither a bad nor a boring character. Entrenched in mystery, infused with legend, he’s a brick wall that repels both deconstruction and demolition. It seems that everything I know about him is a story about best friends on motorcycles in the mountains, whispers of what half of me might be.
But sometimes he will laugh so hard that tears well up in his eyes and a flash of that vital recklessness will burn just behind them. At times he’ll yell and it seems that the cocoon is temporarily shattered. On the best occasions, he’ll crane his neck while driving in order to admire a motorcycle passing by and tell me he used to ride those. In these half-moments, a lifetime’s worth of murky confusion is punctuated by a gasp of perception. Incredibly, succinctly; imagination supersedes reality. I see him for not only what he was, but what he must be now. These are moments when time is blocked and it’s just motorcycles, mountains, cosmic murmurs. The stories are enough.
The landscape sprawls and juts skyward, an assault on the senses in a country famed for its suffocating cityscapes and punishing summers. Just up ahead there’s a camp where young people from all over the Rawalpindi District gather, for food and drink and sometimes love. Here, on a cruelly cold night in 1978, you may find a man with a dark, thick mustache. He smiles without reservation and wears the same brown leather bomber that now hangs in my closet. As if perceived through a frosted window, he will look fragile. Without warning, he’s likely to ride downhill through narrow passageways. The man is my father, and the mountains of Murree belong to him.