“The things I’m more deeply disturbed by, I can only get out in fiction”: in conversation with Fatima Bhutto

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Dawn: October 7, 2018

An edited version of this interview ran in Dawn last weekend. Fatima’s new book is out in South Asia on October 24 and available for pre-order now.

You can check out my review of The Runaways, and if you’d like more from Fatima, you can see this interview I did with her in 2015 – I loved this one. 

 

After a spell of five years, Fatima Bhutto is back with her second work of fiction, The Runaways. Set largely in Karachi and Portsmouth, it is the story of three young people, Anita Rose, Monty and Sunny. On the surface, their lives couldn’t be more different – Anita is the daughter of a maalish waali from a Karachi slum while Monty’s family owns most of the city, and Sunny is the coddled child of Indian immigrants – but ultimately, they are all trapped in the blueprint of a future dreamed up by their parents.

It is difficult to talk about this book and what makes it so timely – so terrifying – without giving away too much, but there comes a moment in their lives when Anita, Monty and Sunny are given the chance to step outside of that neatly defined future, to feed their yearning to be more, do more, to be known, and they encounter each other in a place they could have never imagined creating a new life in: Mosul, Iraq.

If you’ve heard or read anything about this book, it might have been easy to pigeonhole it as yet another book about radicalized young men and women. Bhutto describes The Runaways as a story about young people and millennial confusions, about trying to form a sense of self in opposition to the world, and yes, about radicalization. How it festers, like a wound inflicted by the humiliations, the anger and frustration, and most dangerously, the isolation, that young people may feel within their societies. What does it mean to be radicalized – beyond the headlines and past the violence – and what would we see if we swallowed our fear of it? I spoke to Bhutto about The Runaways, why she was cautioned against writing it in the first place, and how she might have ruined her search history forever while researching this book.

 

The Runaways grapples with issues that play out in the news almost every day, such as migration, sexual identity, religious extremism, and faith. What sparked the idea for the book?

I started thinking about this story in 2014. It was that summer when ISIS had really captured the news, and anywhere you went and anything you read you had these horrific stories, this new face of terror. These were stories we’d been watching for 10 years or so, but it was so much worse, so much scarier, because this time, it was young people, it was global, it was slickly produced. It didn’t come with old grainy videos but these Hollywood-style visuals. I started thinking about what it takes for young people to be radicalized and what radicalization means. There seems to be this idea about radicalization, especially in the West, where it is almost like a fever. You wake up one morning with it and you’re sick. But it’s really a series of many humiliations and many isolations that does that to a person. Its not one thing. So I had started to think about that, but I was largely dissuaded from writing about it by my literary agents.

 

Why were they hesitant about this book?

They weren’t hesitant, they just said, “Don’t do this.” It was a flat out ‘no’.

 

I wonder why, since there’s definitely an audience wanting to understand extremist thought or the violence it inspires.

That’s what I would have assumed too, but I think there’s a general terror about not wanting to understand these things. Its really just enough to be afraid of them. There’s no real effort to understand or observe or investigate. Its just this cyclical repetition of horror story, panic, fear, horror story, panic, fear. And novels are essentially compassionate forms. They are small, intimate examinations, and to do that you’d have to ask questions about the person you’re meant to be afraid of. And I think that was the fear. Nobody really wants to know that the radicalized are just as pained as their victims; those at the forefront of violence are just as brutalized by it as the people they inflict it upon, I think.

 

I think a lot of the stories about this are also very redemptive. There are stories of being radicalized and then coming to your senses and changing your mind, and there seems to be a real market for that kind of fiction or non-fiction when it comes to radicalization. Your book doesn’t really offer that.

I think it’s a very Western idea – that sort of narrative. The structure is – I was good, then I was bad, now I’m good again. But life isn’t like that, people aren’t like that. This sort of thing builds cancerously in a way. At first its imperceptible and you don’t feel anything, and then it grows and it grows and by the time its become dangerous its often too late. I hadn’t seen anything that reflects that at least in popular culture and things I was reading.

I work quietly, and when I was finished with the first draft I gave it to my agents who said, “No way. No thank you. You can’t do this.” I remember being told, “Nobody wants to read about people like this.” And I thought, well, I do. This is exactly the kind of people I want to read about. I’m really tired of reading these novels coming out of the West which are all about women and sad marriages set in suburban comfortable settings. I don’t want to read any of those novels. I want to read about violence. I want to read stories that take place in multiple confusing places that move beyond the three or four locations we’re given. So I ignored them and kept working.

 

How did you change their mind?

It becomes like a mania when you’re working on a novel. Your mind is always circling these places and these people you’ve started to form. So I kept working for another four years and by the time I showed it to them again, the book was in a different state. I don’t know if they’re convinced about it even now! But I remain more convinced and curious and interested in those worlds and those people.

 

Do you worry about the reaction from readers?

If you start worrying about reactions, you start writing for reactions. For me, the act of writing is always private. It’s a very quiet solitary act. And by the time I’m finished with it, its too late. By the time it goes out and is published, too much time has passed for me to go back and worry. I’m curious, but not worried.

 

How did your three main characters, Anita Rose, Sunny and Monty, come to be?

The Runaways was initially just 30,000 words. It was really only about Monty and Sunny. My first readers said it was too small, and you didn’t really know where these characters came from. And so I went back and rewrote it and rewrote it… I’ve lost track of how many drafts I did, but at one point it was a satire, then it was almost too funny and we had to take out all the funny bits; at another point it was too tied to current events, so I had to scrap all the real life references. I mean, I don’t even know if I’m a writer, I’m a rewriter at this point.

But for me, the heart of the book is two people: Sunny and Anita. I’m sure Sunny is probably the hardest for other people to sympathise with, but I did, and I was most curious about him, most worried for him, and most attached to him. I felt a real solidarity with him, with his loneliness and how painful it feels not to belong in a place, especially because you may feel that’s the only place you have or feel you deserve to belong and you don’t.

Anita was the last character, born in the last year of the work. I loved her because of Karachi. What I loved about her is what I love about home: how it builds you and makes you even in all the upsets and turbulence. It creates a certain defiance in the people it throws around. Anita had my heart for that reason, whatever else she does.

 

This is an area that’s so heavily researched and reported on – people who think their faith ties them to something that has greater meaning, and who then often act on that in terrible ways. Tell me about your research.

I did a deep dive into websites like LiveLeak, which is like an alternative YouTube, so its got all the panda sneezing videos but its also got the war in Syria and constantly updated videos that the rebels put out. In 2014, they also hadn’t shut down all the Tumblrs, Reddits and Twitter accounts that had that kind of stuff. What amazed me in the research was not the violence. If you look up videos of American soldiers walking through Fallujah, if you listen to the audio of the American bombers when they’re targeting people, the things they are saying are not very different to the things ISIS is saying. So the violence was not surprising, but what shocked me was how similar they were.

We always view this turmoil as a religious thing, but to me its not. The guys who are out in Syria have a lot of the same millennial confusion and anger that young people have anywhere else. Its just set against the backdrop of extreme inequality and extreme disorder. But a lot of it comes from the same wanting: to be famous, to be special, to be significant, to have a following. They are obsessed with likes, with viral videos, with the sharing, and that was really surprising to me. It used to be that those groups depended on or survived on secrecy but today nobody wants to be secret, everyone wants to be famous. You don’t have to be famous for anything good either. You want to be watched, it doesn’t matter doing what. That for me was the real education of the research. I spent a lot of time looking at certain kinds of social media accounts, and I thought, oh its just research and I’ll stop looking at this whenever I want. I cant.

 

In the last five years, between The Shadow of the Crescent Moon and this book, do you feel like you’ve changed as a writer?

I’m one of those people who believes you’re always striving to be better and you should never be done with that. I look at it as a constant trying.

This is a very different book than Crescent and much, much harder to write and took me much, much more time. I worked on this more than any other book I’ve written. If they didn’t stop me I would still be working on this. At some point during the copyediting I was told this is no longer the time to add sentences and rework things. Who said this? “A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned.”

I was always suspicious of the kind of writers who have a new book out every year or two years, because you cant be thinking very deeply about something or polishing and working and correcting and bettering your prose if every 12 months you’re handing it in. So I have grown from the early writer I was, who could churn out work and was happy with short deadlines. I value time and the hard slog of rewriting more now than I used to.

 

The book explores what it means to be a man today, how a man might think or move through the world. Did you find that difficult to do? Why are you interested in this?

It wasn’t difficult. Once I have the idea for a character, I get very swept up in them. Watching the way in which masculinity is in crisis today, what does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to someone like Monty or Sunny, who have a very particular idea of what it means to be a man, and they suddenly wake up and the world has changed and that meaning is transformed not just immediately but constantly and aggressively? How does that person catch up? Is that required?

And why is your identity of interest to everyone? I couldn’t care less but I have to keep up with the changing rules of it? Think about selfie culture, which requires your idea of yourself to be built for public consumption. I belong to the old school way of thinking that nothing is for public consumption other than your work. Your daily life, your thinking, your misery, your joy – why does that have to be part of it?

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But I feel like you have this love-hate relationship with selfie culture and especially social media. On your Twitter or Instagram you do sometimes have a mix of your thoughts or feelings or reactions or photographs of your father or stories about him, and this is something people would not have been able to access a couple of years ago unless you were giving an interview. How do you navigate your public/private identity online?

I think I fail at Instagram because I don’t want to do the personal stuff. My father’s birthday, death anniversary – I will share that, and I’m happy to. Its not that I feel I have to. If I did, I wouldn’t share things. My father I share because of what happened to him. I don’t really share anyone else. My father was a public figure because he was killed so publically, because the people involved in his killing are public figures, he is a part of that public space. That’s okay for me to do then. My favourite thing to share is books I’ve read – I think that’s one big reason I fail at Instagram. But what I had for lunch or what fun thing I did with a friend or what colour I like – I’m pretty happy to keep that to myself.

 

But why are you okay with seeing other people put those things out there? Why are you on Instagram looking at what other people are doing?

It’s a fascinating place to watch how other people perform their lives. Because its just a performance. I don’t have the impression that I’m watching real life. Its an interesting way to observe how obsessed culture is with the self. How obsessed people are with being famous. It used to be that you had to have a skill or be somewhere interesting – like a witness to something at a moment that might propel you to a level of public notoriety or being known. Now its just meaningless. Now the pressure is so enormous because you can be famous for wearing nail polish. Or that couple that holds each others hands? What is that? How are two people famous for that? For me its fascinating how people monetize their lives, publicize their successes and failures. I find it depressing. I watch it a bit like a car crash, with my hands over my eyes.

 

Okay we must get back to the book now. There’s a bit in it where a young South Asian man in the UK talks about how he doesn’t ever expect to see himself represented in the culture he lives in – he’s not going to be starring in a movie or on the cover of a magazine. ‘Diversity’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘representation’ are buzzwords now, but it seems you’re suggesting that these are also possible remedies for those who feel isolated in or abandoned by their societies and who then act out against those societies.

When you look at young people who get involved in or caught up in certain actions, the thing you see in their stories is that they weren’t included in their society. Forget being on the cover of a magazine. They live on the outskirts of their societies and are cut off from opportunities – health, education, employment, and so on. That’s really more the issue than being represented on TV or in films.

 

But we often speak about diversity in those terms – we celebrate a hijab-wearing model on the cover of Vogue or a British-Pakistani actor starring in a major Hollywood movie.

Oh absolutely, and that’s the violence that they do to us all the time. They make us tokens. So they say, “Don’t ask for a political voice, don’t ask for inclusion. We gave you a magazine cover.” Or, “Look, we gave you a character named Apu in our show, there you go, you’re part of the fabric now.” That’s the danger of it. That we get stuck discussing tokenistic inclusion rather than the radical work of physical, political, and social inclusion.

 

Do your books do well in Pakistan compared with international markets?

Each book is different, so Songs of Blood and Sword did the best in India and Pakistan, while The Shadow of the Crescent Moon did better in France and England. People want a certain thing from me in Pakistan.

 

That’s what I wanted to ask about. When I mention to people here that I’ve read your new book, they’re often disappointed that it isn’t another non-fiction book.

I understand. Because non-fiction is perceived as being more personal, so people would want that more from me, but fiction is quite personal and reflective of ones thoughts and moods. If its any consolation I can say that the next book will be non-fiction.

 

Does this frustrate you? The curiosity about your personal life or your family versus an interest in the fiction, especially with this book, as its been one you’ve worked so hard on?

I don’t take it personally. I take it in the sense of wanting a conversation. Somebody wants to talk to you and you’re not there to talk to them. But the way I read fiction and write it is reflective of what I feel at that moment. Maybe we have a perception that fiction is just made up, but you have to inhabit a world for so long when you’re working on fiction, that world is so completely you in certain ways.

 

I think people will look for clues about your world or life in this book, particularly the sections that deal with Karachi American School or the life of the rich in Karachi.

When people read fiction as a guide to your life, they’re often sorely disappointed. For instance, one of my father’s friends once introduced me to a gentleman from Peshawar. A couple of months later, I asked about the man and how he was, because there had been a string of bombings in Peshawar. And my father’s friend mentioned that the man and his sons would now each go to a separate mosque to pray on Fridays. And that idea bothered me – disturbed me – so much. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it and it eventually turned into The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. So the parts of my life that are in my fiction are things like that, which nobody can really sleuth their way to. The things I’m immediately upset or enraged about, I will then turn to non-fiction. But the things I’m more deeply disturbed by I can only get out in fiction.

 

Did you have a moment like that with this book?

It wasn’t the same “a-ha!” moment as my last fiction book, but in the summer of 2014, we saw those boats filled with refugees turning up on the coast in Italy and Greece. I was travelling at the time, and people who are otherwise fairly welcoming to me were saying things like, “Oh, these people who turn up with their culture…”, and so on. I remember feeling so wounded. I felt hurt, and a lot of that sat there and settled and that was a personal impetus for writing. I’m also tired of ‘whitesplaining’, of having everything explained through one lens and that lens is always reductive and narrow and not that informed at all. The degree to which the West feels that it is superior, and they don’t see that as having a consequence, and it has a profound consequence – more far-reaching than they can imagine.

 

One consequence seems to be that people are turning to leaders who soothe the frustration or humiliation, or who promise to ‘talk back’ or to make you “great again”.

People feel humiliated everywhere. And they are turning to worse and worse leaders. Because of their humiliation, they feel they want strong men. And of course, strong men are not known to be the brightest thinkers. To get out of a crisis of humiliation, you need to radically reimagine your history.

 

But that reimagining often manifests as nostalgia for some idyllic better time.

I think that’s dangerous because all this nostalgia is xenophobic and jingoistic. What time are they imagining? 1947?

 

No, I think its when you had bars in Karachi and women in Afghanistan wearing skirts and so on…

Well, look at Brexit – its basically built on the back of that sort of imperial nostalgia of the time they were great. That time in Afghanistan when women wore skirts – Trump also loves that idea. So the people who like those ideas are not the people you want on your side.

 

Absolutely, and I think there’s a real nostalgia here in Pakistan for ‘Jinnah’s Pakistan’ or getting back to ‘Iqbal’s vision’. They’re ideas that are being churned out and reimagined for a generation that doesn’t necessarily know its history and cannot challenge it.

I would just make one correction. They are not reimagining it. They are mis-imagining it.

 

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Review: Imaginary homelands

The Runaways

Dawn: October 7, 2018

When I was 16, I moved from Karachi to London and was enrolled in a school on Baker Street. I mention where the school was located because I lived in Mile End — a world and a long train ride away. Today, Mile End is hipster central but, then, we lived on a council estate, near a park that, if you had any sense, you would not venture into once the sun set, and one night the windows of our flat lit up in blue and red because the police found a body in a garbage bin.

I was the only Pakistani transplant at my school and the girls there did not live on estates — at least, I never met a single one who did. When they asked me where I lived, I said, “Mile End”, and I later found out they liked to ask me this because there was a joke about how I sounded like I was saying “my land.” I figured that they weren’t big on geography or other cultures at this school because I was persistently asked if I was really from Africa, if I had a camel, how I managed to get anywhere in my country without a car, and the only answer that seemed to make sense was that I came from “near India.” Very quickly, I developed a mongrel accent. I didn’t want to try and fail at sounding British, so I did the next best thing: I tried to sound American. If I was going to be different anyway, if I wasn’t going to be one of them, perhaps I didn’t have to sound like I was from “near India.” One day at a traffic light, a British woman asked me for directions and, as I answered, she stared at me and asked admiringly, “But how do you speak English so well?” Tired, I said, “I learned it from the TV.” She nodded like, of course.

I thought of those days, 16 years ago, when I read Fatima Bhutto’s latest novel The Runaways. There’s a character named Sulaiman Jamil in it, a man who watches every Bond film he can find in Lucknow. In dark cinema halls, he takes in every shaken-not-stirred martini and car chase, every secretary in an MI6 office, every sharp suit and each seduction, and emerges bleary eyed into the world and exclaims, “Bhai, those offices… they were so neat and clean!” When Sulaiman books a one-way ticket from India to the United Kingdom to make his fortune there, he doesn’t dream of being Bond, doesn’t hope for the suits and martinis — no, it is enough that he is near them. Near the possibility of offices filled with secretaries with beautifully manicured nails tapping away at their typewriters, near all the order and neatness and promise of that world.

Full review here

Selfie esteem

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Elle India: August 2018

For a female reporter, her make-up, personal style and social media persona are often weaponised to undermine her work and roadblock her opportunities. Pakistan-based journalist Sanam Maher reveals how she balances these conflicting worlds.

A police thana isn’t the best place for a selfie. Not when you’re the only woman you can see around, not when your selfie isn’t even on your phone, but on a man’s phone, which is turned towards you and every other man waiting in that thana. “Is this you?” the clerk asked me. Two thoughts: one, I needed this man to take me seriously, as he stood between me and an interview with his boss. Secondly—‘is this you?’ Was he implying that I didn’t look like that in real life? Rude.

At that point, I’d been a reporter for over a decade. But for the first time, I was finding myself in interviews where someone would Google me, and try and find anything about me online. Sometimes, in the middle of an interview, someone would show me or my fixer their phone, and there I was: my last story or my Twitter feed or Facebook profile. Twitter didn’t give them much to look at and Facebook had privacy settings they couldn’t get past. A public account, my Instagram offered up the most information about my life.

I take pictures of myself as frequently as the next person. However, I rarely post these pictures—even when they please me. It takes a marriage (my own) or my first book’s publication to merit a selfie’s appearance on my social media feed. Why do I not feel free to let you know I #wokeuplikethis or that I’m #blessed?

Full story here

Expatriate Americans in Pakistan on Donald Trump’s win

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Al Jazeera: November 13, 2016

Karachi, Pakistan – As darkness fell across America on the night of November 8, halfway across the world in Pakistan, dozens gathered outside the United States consul general’s home in Karachi to watch the election results as they trickled in.

It was a sunny day and a public holiday in honour of a poet and political leader who was one of the nation’s founding fathers.

Inside the residence, cardboard cut-outs of the two presidential candidates greeted members of civil society, journalists and development workers.

Even as many consular officials had a pre-dawn start to the day, they were in high spirits as they posed for selfies, donned Uncle Sam hats, and took part in a straw poll of the most beloved past US president (Abraham Lincoln won by a clear majority).

Officials are not allowed to disclose for whom they voted, but as the electoral map steadily turned red, the hosts got unusually quiet.

They turned their backs to their guests as they stood in tight knots around television screens broadcasting the latest figures.

“Look at their faces,” one journalist said. “They look as though they might cry.”

As guests jostled for a photo with Consul General Grace Shelton, Donald Trump’s cut-out was accidentally elbowed to the ground. “It’s too late to knock him down now,” an elderly gentleman said grimly.

 

Full story here

More photos on Instagram

The Inimitable Edhi

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Newsweek Pakistan: July 18, 2016

Can anyone in Pakistan fully understand the country’s greatest humanitarian? 

The other night, my father’s friend had a terribly vivid dream about my sister. “I saw your youngest daughter badly hurt,” he told us. The next day, hoping to ward off any ill omens, my father prayed for my sister’s safety and deposited a small donation in her name at the Edhi Center near our home in Karachi. I never met Abdul Sattar Edhi, and with these offerings of sadqa [alms] to his organization, I hoped I would never have to. Like most people I know, I have been fortunate enough to never require the Edhi Foundation’s services.

Over the years, I have visited the local Edhi Center many times. I didn’t realize it at the time, but each visit taught me to count my blessings: my three nephews came into the world in perfect health, my father celebrated his 65th birthday, my brother-in-law escaped a factory fire unhurt, my sister pulled through a major surgery, I got married, and later, my husband was pulled out of the mangled remains of his car after an accident, wounded but alive.

When Edhi died late on July 8, I spent hours scrolling through hundreds of personal anecdotes about the humanitarian and his Edhi Foundation on social media and felt a twinge of envy. Why hadn’t I ever tried to meet him? The man was a cipher. How could anyone be that good? In his autobiography, A Mirror to the Blind, Edhi tells narrator Tehmina Durrani that he had received complaints about his foundation’s refusal to distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims. “Why must you pick up Christians and Hindus in your ambulances?” he was asked. “Because the ambulance is more Muslim than you,” he replied. That tart response is fast becoming the stuff of legend, as it encapsulates Edhi’s humanity in a country that appears to be rapidly losing its own. “We would call on Edhi sahib automatically whenever something happened,” a member of the minority Ahmadi community in Karachi told Newsweek when I recounted this story. “Other ambulance services would not help us if one of us was injured or targeted in a shooting. They would either make excuses and say that no ambulances were available, or they would promise us that they were dispatching someone and then just wouldn’t show up.”

This man, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of his own safety, says a recent example of the Edhi Foundation’s impartial benevolence was the targeted killing of Dr. Khaliq Bashir outside his clinic in Sikandar Goth last month. After several rescue services refused to transport Bashir’s body to hospital, the deceased doctor’s friends turned to Edhi. “There was a ticker running on the news that an Ahmadi doctor had been shot, and I suppose they figured out that’s why we were calling,” he explains, adding that many Ahmadi families in the urban metropolis are often refused funeral transport for themselves or the bodies of their loved ones. “But Edhi never refused us.” The more I learn of him, the less I understand how a place like Pakistan can simultaneously produce a man like Edhi and those who made his work necessary.

Full story here

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Reeled In

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The Caravan: July 1, 2016

A rash of film bans portends rising censorship in Pakistan

On the evening of 5 May, I joined about two-dozen people at a small private venue in Karachi, to watch a film we were not supposed to watch. Security was tight. The attendees—mostly journalists, activists and filmmakers—had all been told of the event only a day earlier, and we were asked to show our national identity cards while entering the building, through a rear exit. Before the screening, one of the film’s directors laid down two strict rules: no photographs, no social media.

The film being shown was Among the Believers, a documentary that profiles Maulana Abdul Aziz, the leader of an extremist network with links across the country. The film shows how the government’s failure to provide basic services for its people enables radical clerics to gain thousands of followers by offering free food, education and healthcare.

On 25 April, ten days before the secret screening, Pakistan’s Central Board of Film Censors, or CBFC, had banned the film. The directors, Mohammed Ali Naqvi and Hemal Trivedi, asked the CBFC to review the ban, but the body rejected their appeal, saying Among the Believers contained dialogue that projected a “negative image of Pakistan in the context of ongoing fighting against extremism and terrorism.”

The Pakistani government has sporadically banned films over the last few years, but until now the targets of such censorship have mostly been Bollywood movies (last year, for example, Neerja and Phantom were banned). But when it comes to local cinema, censors have tended to be more permissive, recommending excisions instead of outright bans. Recently, however, this has changed. Among the Believers is one of three Pakistani films banned over a two-week period this spring. These bans, which targeted content deemed anti-Pakistani, point to a growing censorship of the country’s film industry, and the state’s tightening grip on freedom of expression.

Full story here

Photo: Still from Besieged in Quetta

My mother’s battle with drug addiction in Pakistan

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Al Jazeera: July 4, 2016

She was Pakistan’s first female maxillofacial surgeon. After decades of substance abuse, is she on the road to recovery?

Karachi, Pakistan –  Before I saw my mother in May, I had been dreading the meeting. I had no idea what to expect.

She was angry and resentful the last time I saw her. She had been cloistered inside a rehabilitation facility in Karachi since late 2015 and was fiercely resisting treatment. Soon after she arrived, her team of carers – a psychiatrist, the founders of the rehabilitation centre and her “psychological rehabilitation person” – had wanted to change tack and cut off all contact with the family.

She has to feel that there is no way out of here except through us, they said.

She was furious at the bind she found herself in – admitted to the facility by her family, and unable to voluntarily opt out of the programme. She wanted to leave and couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t allow it. It isn’t her first stint in rehab, but it is the first place where she cannot bully, argue or sweet-talk her way out. There are guards at the gate here.

I am told to wait in a conference room on the ground floor. A woman walks down the stairs. There’s a shaft of afternoon sunlight at her back and I can’t make out her face. But she has the shuffling, slow gait that I know well – her feet drag with each step, her head droops.

I brace myself. But then the woman moves out of the light and I see that it’s not her.

When my mother does appear, the first thing I notice are her high, full cheekbones. Last time, they were anchored by puffiness. I’m surprised by the significant amount of weight she has lost.

“How are you?” she asks, as she reaches out for a hug. It’s a simple question, but not one that she has asked in a very long time. Her hair is combed. She wears berry-coloured lipstick. Her clothes are clean and ironed.

She sits beside me at the table and leans forward.

“You’re looking very nice,” she says. “Your hair has grown so much!”

Has it? I am embarrassed by the attention. You look nice too, I tell her bashfully.

“How is your work at the magazine?” she prompts.

“I stopped working at the magazine in 2011,” I remind her. She pauses. The hair, the job – she remembers me as I was five years ago.

Full story here