Riffat’s Diary

“Five Conversations,” by Lubaina Himid @highlinenyc project. Photo: © Olga Breydo. All Rights Reserved.


In January 1962, a sixteen-year old girl named Riffat began writing a diary in Karachi, Pakistan. She wrote in a frenzy of blue ink, filling page after page, and she clipped extra pages to each day until her diary burst at the seams. She wrote about books and movies, about her life in a country that was only fifteen years old, and about her friends. A year later, she wrote that she was bored with herself. Her language faltered and she began to write less, choosing instead to fill her diary with quotes from Simone de Beauvoir. She felt the loss of language intensely: “I cannot make my hands obey my feelings,” she wrote on June 26, 1963. “Right from the beginning, there have always been too many feelings, but too few words to express them. I cannot tell you what broke the link, but it is broken…[and] the inside simmers and simmers.”

That summer, she began ripping pages out of her diary, left entries incomplete, and her handwriting grew shaky. In 1964, she dated her entries only by month and left entire months unwritten. In 1965, she stopped marking the months: “I exist nowhere!” she wrote. “The self is almost like water that slips through the fingers.” Outside, a war raged between Pakistan and India: “Thousands of lives, gone just like that [and] the anonymous tattered bodies of soldiers.” By 1967, Riffat stopped writing completely. When Pakistan fought its next war with India in 1971, she was in Brooklyn, doing an internship as part of her training for her PhD in Clinical Psychology, and she jotted down notes about her patients in a spiral-bound American notebook. She wrote in the notebook again in 1981 to say it was ten years later and she had a two-year old daughter with a keen memory, a stubborn disposition, and the vivid imagination of a writer. I am Riffat’s daughter.

In 2015, during a hot summer in Karachi my mother told me she was cleaning the clutter out of her life and burning her diary. But I am a historian, committed to preserving the past, so I took my mother’s diary away from her and began transcribing her words with the same frenzy with which she must have once written them. A mother is the first archive, the most primary of sources. But unlike the archives I go to, my mother is an archive that talks back, argues, and insists her words do not belong to me and are not mine to interpret.

A mother is the first archive, the most primary of sources.

That summer, I offered my mother many arguments: I had spent years poring over handwritten manuscripts and I had written academic articles about autobiography. How could I allow my mother’s life to disappear? She countered by saying I only cared because she was my mother and by virtue of being mine, she must be important. She was not important, she said. She was not Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. She was in fact, an ordinary person. And so we argued back and forth, and I asked her for stories about her life, about Pakistan, and about her own mother, all of which—despite no one being as important as Jinnah—she gave me.

Riffat’s father was a doctor who had migrated to Pakistan from Bombay, leaving behind his parents. Her mother, my nani, who Riffat’s father married against his family’s wishes was—in the words of the men of the family—a wise matriarch, an excellent cook, and a dutiful wife. But in the words of her two daughters, my nani was an intelligent woman denied an education, and like many women, her revolution was her daughters, who she raised to be educated. “Pakistan was made for me,” Nani would say, because it meant she had escaped her in-laws in Bombay, and she would then say she wished for a son who could be a great man like Jinnah.

Riffat’s country, like her, was in its adolescence, the memory of its enigmatic founder still close enough for women to wish for a son like him, to wish for proximity to a man’s greatness as a measure of their share in it. Jinnah’s mother too, I read in Fatima Jinnah’s account of her brother, insisted her son would be a great man, and so he was. I am interested in the filaments in which all of us—the Jinnahs and the not-Jinnahs—are held. Some of our names disappear and others live on, associated as they are with achievements like a country, but a historian can hold the weave up to a different slant of light, which falls on mothers who sustain the lives around them, all the while insisting upon their own irrelevance to history. Where we attribute causality—did Pakistan begin with Jinnah’s mother or with ideas of nationalism ushered into the world after the French Revolution?—is just a trick of light and shadow, a choice about what makes for a better story.


My mother is full of stories, as was her mother. All I have to do is read her a name from her diary, and she will say, “Oh! I had forgotten her. She was a beautiful girl. What happened with her family was tragic…” Or I will ask if she knows an old song, and she will say, “Oh! This is from that movie Tarana. That’s when Dilip Kumar and Madhubala were young and madly in love but it ended badly. Your nani used to think romantic love always meant disaster, you know.” These stories are connected by associations known only to her. I now know I can steer her towards the past by asking about an old song instead of saying “Tell me about your mother,” and when her silences will not give way.

The Madhubala and Dilip Kumar trajectory often leads back to Nani. Nani’s diary, written in Urdu, is full of quiet observations about the world. She writes with a hurried hand accustomed to the interruptions that come with attending to others before herself. In five short vignettes she published in Urdu magazines, Nani writes about women wronged by men with whom they had fallen in love or wronged by society. My mother tells me that every summer, my grandfather’s parents would come to Karachi from Bombay. Nani would exhaust herself trying to please them, and she would keep failing because the food she cooked wasn’t good enough and the gifts she got them were met with scorn. So she wrote about other women, other lives disguised as fiction, and she longed for a son.

Nani’s dreams of having a son ended on March 23, 1962. Riffat wrote that her mother was taken to the hospital for a hysterectomy and she could not comprehend the red, wounded mass that had been cut out of her mother, the same cluster of muscle and tissue that had once given her life. She wrote: “Mum is sitting up in bed and…crying because she can’t have any more babies…I don’t want to share my parents with another brother or sister. Are we not enough for her? I don’t wish for new parents.” I ask her about this, Riffat in her seventies, and she tells me her mother’s desire for a son latched itself onto her elder daughter Farhat, who was raised to pursue tangible achievements of the kind that mark the lives of men.

Riffat compares herself to a small, unremarkable flower and her sister to the rose that enhances the beauty of the entire garden. She reports that unlike her, Faro wrote articles that won prizes, she was interviewed by a magazine called The Mirror for a piece on talented teenagers, and she could draw beautifully. On December 14, 1962, Riffat writes: “There is something in Faro which makes her well-known wherever she goes.” My nana’s father, Abaji, also adored Farhat. Riffat writes: “To him, she is an inspired specimen of creation on whom many gifts have been bestowed by God… and as time passes, she will make a name in whatever she does. She will never marry. She will be just like that great Lady Basri.”

The old dichotomy—which transcends cultures—between pretty girls and studious ones influenced the world in which both sisters lived, as did the regard in which other girls held them. Riffat writes about the all-girls school they attended and about the intricate world of friendship—played out in gifts, confessions, and conversations on the phone—that shaped the sisters’ lives. The map of friends is dizzying. Riffat yearned for attention from Sara, but Sara longed for Farhat’s affection and pronounced Farhat distant and inscrutable. Atiya was several years older than both girls and explained each to the other while being coy with both. A circle of girls surrounded Farhat and competed for her attention and she regarded the lot of them with cool amusement, which increased their ardor.

Riffat spent most of her afternoons reading or waiting for Sara or Atiya to call her; her moods often depended on where she stood in the affections of these two. She was attuned also to changes in her friends. When Sara asked Riffat for the first time about how she looked, Riffat wrote that she knew immediately that her friend had fallen for a boy because this is the time “a girl becomes conscious of her looks.” At many points in her diary, Riffat notes that girls change in response to male attention. They “become self-conscious…[and] appearance-conscious and put on airs,” she writes on September 19, 1962 and notes that a woman in her family is “like wax, molded by her husband.”

Getting a marriage proposal shifted the alignment of affections; girls on their way to marriage carried an aura that increased the interest of some but led Riffat to view these girls as compromised. On September 17, 1962, Riffat wrote: “When I was young I used to be enthusiastic to see brides but now I hate it. I really pity them, they are treated like animals in a zoo, everyone coming up and staring at them.” On March 14, 1963, Riffat was annoyed when Atiya called her and prattled about how her sister Nazia had just given birth. Riffat writes that she has no patience with women who go on and on about babies: “I am glad Faro is not that sort or I would dislike her each time she would fall into raptures over a child.” When Sara gets married Riffat says, “There goes another one,” and then moves on to write about other things.

A woman Riffat admired was her teacher, Miss Arshia whose apartment she went to for tuition. Miss Arshia was independent, single, and a chain-smoker with a colorful past. One afternoon in October 1962, Riffat arrived at her teacher’s apartment to find her disheveled and sheepish because she had forgotten she was to meet Riffat and had spent the afternoon with her lover, a man who had left her, married another woman, gotten divorced, and now paid her visits. Riffat knew that were she to breathe a word about her teacher’s indiscretions to her mother, it would mean her visits would be over. She never told a soul. Another time, Miss Arshia pronounced that all men were skunks because another romance had ended badly when one man found out she was getting letters from someone else.

“Your diary is the story of a feminist girlhood,” I tell my mother.

“That’s ridiculous,” she says. “Why can’t you think about anything other than gender?

I am caught between two archives, Riffat’s diary, and the living woman who disagrees with how I read her text. To her, the diary is a fragment of the past she would have thrown away. To me, texts are often all we have of the past, and I have been trained to view the written word, laws, and signed agreements as more trustworthy than human beings. Each time I disagree with my mother, I do so with the ferocity of a lawyer. I pounce at inconsistencies and brandish the text at her by saying her writing is evidence of early feminism, of awareness that an all-female world is threatened by men and marriage. She resists by saying I cannot change her past just because I’ve mastered her diary and know its pages better than she does.

Where do her claims on this story end and where do mine begin? I wish to order the fragments in which she tells her stories into a singular narrative, but she pushes back like water, sometimes with the force of a wave, and other times with the slow persistence that allows flowing water to alter the shape of rock. And like water she slips through my fingers.


There are dark undercurrents in Riffat’s diary. She is aware of the impermanence of the world and she is aware of death. These undercurrents appear at the beginning of her diary as small fissures in the cadences of the everyday. Eventually they gather intensity, overwhelm the text, and an insurmountable sense of futility leads her to write less and less.

In an entry dated February 21, 1962, Riffat writes: “What is the use of studying, dressing up, reading all these huge classics when the end is going back to the dust?” Later that summer, on a visit to Nathiagali, in northern Pakistan, Riffat sees an old resthouse that has been burnt in a fire. She thinks of the people who must have lived in it, who are now dead. “Someday it will be the same with me,” she writes.  When she returns to Karachi, the joy she feels when her father takes her in his arms is flecked with pain: she writes, “Moments of utter bliss are so short, they run away in a second, but sorrow always lasts.”

Riffat’s sorrows often stem from the pain of others. In the winter of 1962, she writes: “When I lie in my warm bed, I visualize the poor, who sleep on the cold, hard footpath with just a sheet to protect them from the merciless cold. Do we deserve what we’ve got? Do they deserve what they’ve got?” On a drive with her family at night that same winter, she sees a car accident. “They were taking out a body from the car,” she writes. “It was covered with blood…I turned away, couldn’t bear to see more. Strange! God brings us together…and then one by one, takes us away from our loved ones, leaving the others with tears…Why are we built in such a way, that we love only to be sad in the end?”

More and more, Riffat writes about loneliness. She says that when she is sitting for an exam, there is always a sickening moment before the paper is handed out when she feels completely alone. “I feel like giving up on everything,” she writes in the summer of 1963. “This is life, sitting at a desk and giving your exam all separately…you know no one can help you [and] all depends on your own mental and physical capabilities…you are alone.” As the distance between each entry grows, I want Riffat not to slip away.

By 1964, her entries are filled with foreboding. “The dreadful future holds nothing but a dagger in its hand,” she writes. Then, on a page that is dated 1965 she writes that she has shed her body and is observing it on a dissection table. She wonders if the dream is trying to resolve the disharmony she feels inside. A year later, after leaving the time in between nearly empty, she writes: “Why does the feeling of reaching an impasse seem so intense at night? Perhaps the surrounding darkness appears similar to the terror and anxiety within.”

Riffat’s disjointed entries from 1971, following a four-year silence, consist of notes about her patients in Brooklyn. She is now twenty-six years old and notes bits of dialogue between her and the patients she sees. The characters in her notebook include a woman who is convinced her hair is full of parasites and a man who thinks Riffat is a mermaid because she has long, dark hair and he has seen her swimming. Riffat writes that the male ward she visits smells like sweat and sometimes writes about herself in the third person as “the psychologist.”

Riffat’s daughter Taymiya appears as a diary entry in 1981, ten years later, when Riffat is living in Washington D.C. with her husband. The two-year old girl likes watching sunlight shimmer on water because “it looks like fireflies.” She puts powder on her hand, notices the white lines on her palm, and then tells her mother that her hand looks like a leaf. When the trees outside her window interlock, she says they are holding hands. She is afraid of cobwebs, unexpected sounds, and new places. “She is extremely loving and affectionate, has a remarkable memory and power of observation—nothing escapes her notice, [and] she knows exactly where things are kept,” writes her mother.

Even now, nothing escapes my notice. Once, when my mother was visiting me in San Francisco, we went to buy her face powder. At the makeup counter, she realized she had forgotten her compact and didn’t know what shade she needed. But in the infinite variations of beige in front of me, I immediately knew hers. I would know the exact shade of my mother’s skin in my sleep. And even now, my mother feels the way her younger self did about language and its relation to pain and beauty. She says she stopped writing because there was too much to write. She says likes silence more than words.

But I am tired of women’s silences. Riffat’s mother couldn’t be a writer because she was a wife and mother. And Riffat gave up writing because words felt futile. Am I trying to prove her wrong, trying to pick up a thread of language I see wavering in both her and her mother? I am writing Riffat, but she has written me too; before I knew what words were, I was her words on paper.


My parents returned to Pakistan in 1982, when I was three and my sister Jawziya was an infant. My khala Farhat—a surgeon then in the U.S—came back shortly afterward. My mother’s return to her country was darkened by her mother’s death a year later. “You come back to Pakistan to raise the young and bury the dead,” she says. I ask her what I am supposed to do when the same rite of passage—the loss of a mother—visits me. She says you feel as though your heart has been ripped out of your chest, but time passes, and the world manages to bring you joy again. This does not answer the question that haunted her as a young girl, nor can the question be answered: Why do we love one another, only to be faced with the inevitability of death?

After Nani’s death my nana continued to live in his crumbling house for sixteen years; he had spent his life’s best years there, he said, and he would spend his last days there too. After his death, we found among his things verses of Urdu poetry he had composed and a lock of Nani’s hair, which had the same texture as mine. Other than hair that is difficult to tame, what I have of Nani are a pair of gold meenakari bangles and a love for cooking; when I wear Nanee’s bangles in the kitchen, I imagine my thoughts align with hers. I fret when I notice they’ve chipped, wonder if I should take the bangles off before washing the dishes, and fiddle with them while waiting for water for tea to boil. My mother says Nani wore these bangles all the time; she only took them off when she was taken to the hospital a few days before she died. In that small, final gesture of renunciation, I imagine Nani heard the soft sound of gold touching gold, the bangles ordinary metal objects again, no longer warmed by her pulse.

Both my mother and khala are older than their mother was when she died. The country in which they grew up is older too, and Karachi has swallowed up the quiet, tree-lined street on which they grew up and replaced it with high-rises. But they have returned to the company of women.  For the last decade, a circle of women has gathered at my khala’s house on Sundays to read the Quran and argue about God. The women are closer to the end of their lives than the beginning, and some are devout and others questioning. On my visits home, I curl up on Khal’s sofa and follow the rhythm of conversation. No one is sure why I show up or why my sister Jawziya does, but they envelop us in hugs that smell like parchment and perfume, offer us tea, and then forget we are there. Among them, we are children again, surrounded by women who make us feel they can take care of us and all will be well, even as they go about their business and forget we exist.

When I watch my mother and khala in the Quran circle, I think of the circles of women in which they moved when they were young. When I hear them speak, I recognize the Riffat I came to know from her diary; she still questions why the world is full of suffering but she is no longer overwhelmed by despair. She feels moved by verses in the Quran that speak of mercy. I recognize her older sister Farhat, who is still possessed of the rare confidence she had as a teenager. I imagine Jawziya and myself at their age and wonder if we will stop being carefree heathens and decide it’s time to gather our own circle of women and talk about God. And I think of how Riffat has not always been my mother but I have always been her daughter.

Khal asks me why I am writing about my mother and her during their lifetimes. Wouldn’t it make more sense to write about them after they die? No, I say, historians do enough violence to the dead by claiming their texts and inventing their lives. I want to have arguments with the living. I want to write from embeddedness rather than autonomy. I want to hold my mother’s hand as I write about her. Should her breath cease and mine continue, I would have sole authorship, but then I would be writing my grief rather than her life.

My mother tells me she now dreams of her parents. In one dream, they tell her they are waiting for her and she and her sister drive to meet them. There’s a vacation picture of my khala and my mother being lifted off into the air, paragliding, two grey-haired sisters getting smaller and laughing as they head into the sky. It speaks of goodbye, of the people you love vanishing over a threshold impossible to understand until you cross it yourself. It makes me think of how one person’s reunion with those who beckon them in dreams plunges those they leave behind into the dark.

I am a writer. I know what it is to write in the dark, to dive into myself in search of something that remains lit and willing to enter language. This is not that hour. This hour is sunset, there is still light outside despite the lengthening shadows, and the sky is shot through with color. My mother is not yet her belongings or her diary or my memories. She is instead the moving pulse that runs through my words, its hum both inseparable and distinct from my own, and we are together on the same side of the threshold, held in a love still unclouded by loss.

Taymiya R. Zaman is a writer and historian at the University of San Francisco. She has published a number of scholarly articles on autobiography and historical memory in the Muslim world and her short story “Thirst” won the Pushcart Prize in 2014.

From the Author

I want to acknowledge the students in my Spring 2019 seminar, “Living Muslim History” at the University of San Francisco. Thank you for all those conversations with my mother and about mothers, and for your thoughtful engagement with this piece.

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