A mother travels from Karachi, Pakistan, to visit her adult daughter living in Houston. Laila has made this difficult journey to the U.S., in the months following 9/11, because her estranged daughter, Yasmeen, is divorcing her American husband and she has yet to meet her two grandchildren. So begins writer Sehba Sarwar’s novelBlack Wings.
Yasmeen watches her mother emerge from the airport terminal wearing her traditional sari and speaking Urdu at a time when dark-skinned foreigners entering the United States are treated with suspicion and anger. But Yasmeen has other reasons for her nervous apprehension at the arrival of her mother and Laila, likewise, moves with unease through her daughter’s suburban household. There’s an elephant in the room and we soon learn it’s the ghost of Yasmeen’s beloved twin brother, Yasir, who tragically died at seventeen. Laila’s whereabouts on that fateful night remain shrouded in mystery, but Yasmeen is ready for some answers, and finally, for closure.
Sarwar uses a shifting point of view between the two female protagonists to explore the issues at the center of this fraught mother-daughter relationship. While Laila voices dismay at her daughter and grandchildren’s Americanized ways, Yasmeen resents her mother’s intrusion into their lives, even though she had issued the invitation.
The novel’s strength lies in Sarwar’s use of lush visual language to convey intimate feelings and her skill in merging the day-to-day with political on-goings to drop the reader into a point in history. Laila remembers a time with her husband: “At his insistence, we continue going out at night, reveling in Karachi’s party atmosphere under Ayub Khan, at a time when nightclubs and bars abound. The seventies have not started yet: the genocide in East Pakistan, the banning of alcohol, the closing of clubs, or the military coup and repression under General Zia’s martial law.”
As the reader moves between Laila and Yasmeen’s thoughts, feelings and memories, we are pulled deeper into a well of dark family secrets that unspool in a Pakistan that Sarwar knows and describes well. Sarwar also makes great use of storytelling as a means for both, Yasmeen and Laila, to share narratives of happier times with the children. We understand through a complex backstory that memories are subjective and stories can be rewritten at will.
Sarwar, also a poet and performance artist, has an ability to convey heartfelt emotion through descriptive and strong visual language. The story’s pacing quickens when Yasmeen returns to Karachi with her children to find answers and confront the pain that initially drove her away. In the end, as secrets are revealed and final plot twist unfolds new drama. Black Wings is determinedly a story about mothers and daughters and what happens when a woman’s need to follow her heart into new love may be judged by her family as betrayal.
Yasmeen is a divorced Pakistani woman living in Houston with her children, Sam and Saira. It’s been years since she’s visited Pakistan, but when her mother arrives with stories of Hawagali and her childhood haunts, Yasmeen finds herself reliving memories, and these take on the form of stories to her children. In the following excerpt from Black Wings by Sehba Sarwar, Yasmeen remembers the 1971 war as a young girl in Karachi. She and her brother Yasir find shelter in the home of Doodwala, the milkman, and learn about wars, class and geopolitics.
* * *
“The semester was so hectic with soccer and baseball practice, playdates, and after-school activities. We never had time to relax. I expelled a deep breath. “You need to go to bed. School’s tomorrow, remember? I’ll give you five minutes… Tell you what, you two get ready for bed. I’ll come up and tell you a story—from when I was little. Like your Nani does…”
“Mom, we’re in bed,” Saira called. In their dark room, I tucked the children’s comforters close to their faces and sat on the rocking chair…
I expelled a breath.
* * *
In 1971 when my twin and I were a little younger than you and Sam are today, your Nani and my father had flown to London for some business. So my twin and I moved upstairs to stay with our grandparents, Dadi and Dada. We didn’t know that our army had begun violence in East Pakistan to clamp down on the Bengali independence movement that had escalated.
But one December morning, West Pakistan was directly impacted by the war when the Indian government got involved and began maneuvering airstrikes. We were at our breakfast table when the Mullah—the priest from our street mosque—cleared his throat over the loudspeakers that were fastened on the mosque minarets.
“Attention! Attention!” he rasped over loudspeakers that he used to announce prayer times. “Government orders! All people must cover house windows!”
“Why do they want our windows covered?” Yasir asked Dada. Dada lowered the volume of his radio and frowned. “For blackout,” he said. “So the Indian army will not know where to bomb.”
Outside, the Mullah’s voice, like a prerecorded announcement, droned on showing little sign of stopping. Once the din from the mosque ended, we sat in the car as Dada and our driver headed to the market to purchase supplies. Our street bustled as people stuffed straw baskets with ropes, candles, tinned food, batteries, and torches. By mid-afternoon, our electrician Aftab Chacha had plugged in the hot plate and the radio. Our windows were covered with newspaper, and our house was war-ready. Dada emerged from his room to give his verdict on the windows. When the telephone jangled, everyone froze to stare at the black instrument as if soldiers were about to charge out of the receiver. Dada strode over and picked up the handle. Our family friend Dr. Javed was on the phone, inviting us to join him on the other side of town at the ‘bomb shelter’ that he had devised in his basement. “No sir,” Dada responded. “We will have a top class view of airplanes from our own balcony. The children will be fine here with us, indeed.” He hung up laughing, but I could tell he was nervous by the way he chewed his lip.
After sunset, we heard a new sound, this time from a van that circled our neighborhood, sounding the blackout signal. The eerie noise devoured the stillness, giving us the signal to turn off all lights. The siren also meant that curfew had begun and that people could no longer leave their houses.
Yasir and I wandered to the kitchen to chat with Aftab Chacha and our driver, Jamshed. Both men, unlike other grownups, were not interested in monitoring war events: Aftab Chacha didn’t like to talk about events that made him sad—his entire family had died of small- pox and he still had pock-marks on his face, while twenty-three year-old Jamshed played cricket with us as if he were a ten-year-old.
Aftab Chacha, one of the few members of hired help who could read, squatted on a floor stool and pulled out an Urdu newspaper. Pointing his torch on a blurry picture of upside-down acrobats in sequined costumes, he said. “See here, it says a circus will be in Karachi next week. That’s three days away.” He switched off the torch.
Jamshed spoke first. “Can we go, Aftab Bhai?” Aftab Chacha nodded. “If we don’t get killed by a bomb before…” A thought occurred to me. “How’s there a circus if we’re at war?” Aftab Chacha puffed his cigarette. “They were planning the circus before the war was declared. I’m sure they’ll end the acts early, so people can get to their houses before blackout time.” His belly wobbled between the waistband of his pants and his shirt. “These are dangerous times.”
“Can we go?” my twin asked. “Your Dadi won’t permit you to go with us,” Aftab Chacha replied. Yasir and I grumbled under our breaths. Our life in Karachi was different from your experience in Houston. There, we could not wander outside the walls that protected our home. We drove everywhere—to homes, school, and the club where we learned to swim and play tennis.
Late that night, we heard bombs exploding. From afar, we watched as oil refineries lit up in flames, burning holes in the dark horizon while shells exploded in the sky like fireworks. The roar of airplanes kept us up that night. We stayed awake holding each other’s hands. Even when I finally fell asleep, I had dreams about maps burning at the borders where mothers held their dying children. But when morning came, no one talked to us and told us what was happening. Even the newspaper did not have real news.
“Everything will be fine,” my Dada said without meeting my eyes. Yasir and I had forgotten about the circus until Aftab Chacha and Jamshed had already gone. They sat in the kitchen and couldn’t stop talking about the sights they had seen. Yasir and I came up with our own plan when we overheard them talking about how they would see the circus’s last Karachi show, which was ending a week early because of the war.
The following afternoon, Aftab Chacha entered through our back gate and disappeared into Jamshed’s quarter. Yasir and I were on the lookout. As they stepped out, we jumped up from behind the courtyard’s low wall.
“Surprise!” we shouted. Aftab Chacha and Jamshed were ready to drop their plans, but we promised to buy their tickets from money in our piggy bank. They agreed to take us, knowing that Dadi and Dada were napping and that we wouldn’t be missed since we would return by teatime, well before blackout.
* * *
I stopped. The children squealed in unison for the first time that evening: “Mom—what happened next?”
I was amazed at the unraveling of the story from a place so deep within me that I had forgotten that the narrative even existed. The final ten days of war on our side of the border were deeply embedded in me: Our war-ready house, the air-raid siren plummeting the city in a blackout; the swishing of curfew vans followed by a dead calm that was ripped apart when airplanes roared in the sky. These were sights and sounds that had lived inside me for more than three decades.
Much later, we learned about the atrocities that the Pakistani army had committed in Bangladesh.
Now, living at a time of violence, I was not surprised that the first story that I told my children was about war. I pondered whether I should even be sharing such tales with Saira and Sam. But on the other hand, I had to show them—and perhaps even myself—that one had to push past darkness to find magic when the world around us spun like a spindle without a thread.
* * *
The four of us slipped out of the back gate, hopped on a bus, and reached the corner where the circus was being held. But the sight that greeted us was not the distraction that we expected. The tent was a rectangular enclosure made of shamiyanas—colorful cloth partitions that people used for weddings—and not the big-top circle we expected. We saw a few monkeys in a cage, a horse tied to a pole, and a mule chewing on brown grass, while performers strolled, sucking on cigarettes. Men sat on benches, smoking cigarettes, and there were no caravans or wild animals. Jamshed and Aftab Chacha pulled us to the man who sold the tickets at half-price.
The circus began late, but the afternoon light revealed dingy costumes, dirty seats, and seedy men laughing at card tricks and dagger shots that even I knew were not magical. At our birthday parties, we had better snake and puppet shows.
After the circus ended, we headed home. Yasir and I had little to say, but Aftab Chacha and Jamshed couldn’t stop raving about the magician’s skills. Yasir and I walked fast, hoping that we could get a taxi and be home before we were missed. To get found out and be punished for the anticlimactic escapade would be terrible.
Aftab Chacha and Jamshed fell silent as they tried to flag a rickshaw, a taxi, a horse carriage—anything to take us home—but the streets had cleared and the sun was dropping low. We stumbled over cracks in the sidewalk, and our sandals soon filled with dirt. Darkness fell like a blanket covering not only buildings, but also all the people and cars in our world.
We finally reached the intersection where our street met the main road. All we had to do was walk down the narrow street and we would be home. Just then, a hollow trumpet sound arose as if it were swelling from beneath the earth, making my lungs feel like an inflated mattress. The black-out siren was earlier than usual, signaling an air-raid. Vans sending the signal crisscrossed the streets, and the siren faded and grew, faded and grew. When silence fell, I felt my breath ebb away.
A new sound erupted: approaching enemy airplanes. A blast echoed. With our hands clasped over our heads as if that would protect us from shells, we ran through the potholed street. The sky exploded in a burst of flames. I stopped running to crouch next to a small shack’s tin door. Another bomb exploded above us. I pushed against the door, and I fell inside a room with dirt floors.
In front of me stood a red-bearded man, the milkman whom we called Doodwallah. His expression mirrored my surprise. He motioned the rest of us inside the lantern-lit room where a petite woman bent over a stove, her back towards us, making tea. Two children sat on a charpoy-bed, their mouths agape. Shelves hammered into the walls held plates, spices, and other kitchenware.
I remembered Dadi scolding Doodwallah about his loud voice. She might not approve of us being in his room. “So loud!” I could see her saying with a sniff of her nose.
Through all those years of Doodwallah delivering milk, Yasir and I had never realized that he lived close-by and that his living space would be so different from ours. We had an upstairs and downstairs with bedrooms, living rooms, windows, hallways, and separate kitchens. Here, the Doodwallah, his wife, and their children seemed to cook, eat, and sleep in the same space.
Doodwallah shook his head and invited us to make ourselves comfortable. “Things are very bad in this world,” he said, shaking his head.
Even though we were in as much danger inside as we were outside, we found comfort to be off the streets where shells exploded and fires flared. Doodwallah and his wife offered us milk and naan. In the lantern light, Doodwallah reached over to Yasir and drew out a 25-paisa coin from behind Yasir’s ear. “Why do you hide money, Baba?” he asked.
Our eyes widened. “You like magic? I can make coins appear and disappear.” He replaced the coin behind Yasir’s ear, but when Yasir reached for the coin, it was no longer there. Doodwallah waved his hands, reached behind Yasir’s other ear and pulled out the coin. We clapped our hands.
Doodwallah asked his wife for an egg, which he broke into a bowl. Waving his hands, he lifted the egg from beneath a cloth, and drew it out intact, no crack showing. From outside, we could hear the rattle of airplanes and explosions, but in Doodwallah’s room, we forgot about bombings. Even Jamshed and Aftab Chacha agreed that Doodwallah was better than the circus magician.
At around eight in the evening, there was a lull in the bombings. We used the opportunity to bid our hosts goodnight and slip into the street.
“Give my respects to your Dadi,” Doodwallah’s voice boomed. We felt as if we were emerging from a dream in which the Doodwallah’s magic protected us from fire in a distant corner of our city.
* * *
“And that’s how we saw magic during wartime,” I ended. Sam sat up. “You never got in trouble for going out without permission?”
I shook my head. “We told our grandparents that we were in a shop when the bombing started and had to take shelter. They were relieved that we were safe—they had been worried about us.”
Saira spoke up. “What about the war?” I stood up. “The war with India ended two days later. Pakistan was defeated and Bangladesh gained independence. Doodwallah was a wise man. Till today, I remember his words. I was only six or seven at the time, but I can’t forget what he said. ‘These are the wars of big men. The voices of milkmen, electricians, drivers don’t matter. These men will fight and kill our brothers no matter what…”
This excerpt was published with permission from the author and publisher.
About Black Wings:
Spanning two continents, Black Wings is the story of Laila and Yasmeen, a mother and daughter, who struggle to meet across the generations, cultures, and secrets that separate them. Yasmeen’s reappraisal of and newfound compassion for her mother leads her to return, along with her two children, to Pakistan to reconnect with family and places from her past. The trip yields answers about her family, leaving Yasmeen with a new understanding of herself and her divided worlds.
About Sehba Sarwar:
Sehba Sarwar creates essays, stories, poems, and art that tackle displacement, migration, and women’s issues. Her writings have appeared in publications including New York Times Sunday Magazine, Creative Time Reports, Asia: Magazine of Asian Literature and elsewhere. Her short stories have been anthologized by Feminist Press, Akashic Books, and Harper Collins India, while the second edition of her novel, Black Wings, was released in 2019. Her papers are archived at the University of Houston’s library where she was artist-in-residence for several years. In 2000, while based in Houston,Texas, Sarwar founded and ran an arts organization that tackled social justice issues and was the recipient of many NEA awards. Born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, in a home filled with artists and activists, Sarwar is currently based in Los Angeles, California. For more information, please visit her website: http://sehbasarwar.com You can purchase Black Wings through her publisher or through Amazon.
This excerpt was edited for brevity by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.
“Did Alia Bhatt meet the real Raazi?” asked an audience member at the Delhi Gymkhana’s book club event where author Harinder Sikka was sharing the story of the Kashmiri Muslim spy, Sehmat, whom Alia Bhatt plays in the movie Raazi. It could have been an easy question to answer but as we were soon going to learn, nothing in Sehmat’s world was black and white. Sikka went on to paint an image of his muse, a beautiful, 53-year-old, taciturn lady who floated on this earth as a saint. He met her at the turn of the century in the town of Maler Kotla in Punjab and named her Sehmat in the story.
The movie Raazi, based on Harinder Sikka’s novel, “Calling Sehmat”, tells the story of an Indian Kashmiri undercover agent operating in Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pak war.
It took Sikka eight years to piece her story together, bit by bit. At each step, he would take the manuscript to her for a “dekho.” He would search her eyes for truths hidden behind sealed lips. She would cross out the facts only she knew were false. Did she really kill her brother-in-law? Her lips would quiver as her eyes betrayed her inner turmoil. Silence is a hard habit to break. In this way, painstakingly, over eight years, he wrote a book on her brief life as a spy. A promise to keep her real identity secret was made. The book was published in 2008. Ten years later, in April 2018, and a month before the movie based on the book was released, Sehmat died.
Daughter of a Muslim father, she was recalled from Delhi University by him to take his place in service to their motherland, India. It was easy for her to cross the Line of Control (LOC). Kashmiri families from Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and Kashmir continue to live as one. It was still common for families to visit each other and for their children to inter-marry, said Sikka. For his protagonist Sehmat to marry across the border was therefore not unusual. What was unusual was that she married a Pakistani Army officer to provide India with classified information during the 1971 war.
Young and bold, she entered the home of her husband, who came from a high profile military family, snooped on documents and discussions, and relayed them back to her Indian compatriots. At great risk to her life, she went on to single-handedly save India’s pride, the largest aircraft carrier, I.N.S Vikrant, by revealing Pakistan’s plans to destroy it. No other source could provide this crucial piece of espionage, so close to the chest was this secret held by the senior-most Pakistan army officials. All is fair in war. Love did not fare well when it clashed with patriotism. Love for her country drove her.
Sikka wants to give Sehmat her place in the history of patriots. A list, he feels, that is greatly in need of her. He had promised to keep her identity secret but now that she is no more, he is fighting to share the pictures of the real Sehmat with the world. India needs her daughter from Kashmir to be acknowledged.
The family of Sehmat’s son is loath to reveal her identity. Sehmat’s Delhi University classmate, her first love, is fighting hard to keep her identity secret. They feel it would out her son and put him in danger. Her son is with the Indian Army and was the first person Sikka met in a chance meeting in Kargil.
A son who was in her womb when she returned to India. A son she did not abort. A son she gave up as soon as he was born.
A whoosh of breath and “Achaa” escaped the lips of the audience member seated next to me as Sikka reveals this shocking truth. Another audience member expresses her agreement with the idea that the identity of the son must be kept secret, as outing him would put his life in danger.
Sikka, however, is sure he will be able to share her with the world. His face softens and eyes mist over when he thinks of her. “No she did not look like Alia. She was petite. Even at that age there was not a wrinkle on her face. If you see her picture, you won’t believe people as beautiful as her existed.”
Alia, who was going to play Sehmat in the film, wanted to meet her, he tells the audience member. She begged to at least see her picture. “No,” said Sikka. He did not have Sehmat’s permission to show the pictures to anyone. He did, however, ask Sehmat for a meeting with Alia. She came on the set of the film one day but with the express request for it to be a chance meeting.
It had rained that day. Alia was in her makeup van. Sikka sent her a message to come meet him. Alia, unaware it was Sehmat whom she was going to meet, could not come. Sikka saw the headlights of the car light up and the car drive away. With that went Alia’s last chance of seeing the true hero she was playing in the film.
Alia cried when she learned about her loss. “You could have told me it was her,” beseeched an extremely disappointed Alia.
Sikka is hopeful that soon he will be able to show Alia and the world Sehmat’s photographs.