Growing up, every June as the summer break started, we would take a train up to Faisalabad leaving Karachi behind. I would cry saying goodbye to my dad, but also to Karachi as the train picked up speed. “Goodbye Karachiwalon, I said in my mind, as I saw Shahrah-e-Faisal from window of the bogie. We always got on the train from Karachi Cantt, a station downtown and the train would pass by Malir 15 as we started our long 16-hour journey. Malir 15 is where we lived, and we would soon pass by our school in the distance. You could always see the empty playground, and I would wonder if the kids from the hostel have gone home yet.
We would always spend a few weeks in Faisalabad, spending time with my grandparents and other family, seeing our cousins and eating all the good food. Spending most of our summer vacations in Faisalabad, and the very different Punjabi cuisine that we ate there, was pivotal in helping me understand how different can the same dishes taste from place to place. Summer was a good time of the year to be in Punjab for many reasons, but best of all, because of the fresh seasonal fruit that was always available and always plenty.
Baba Jaan, my maternal grandfather, never bought watermelons by the kilo. Always by the dozen. Only by the dozen.
My grandparents, their 4 sons and their families all lived together in a house that was maybe 3 times the size of our house in Karachi. Nani Ammi or one of my aunts, or Ammi for that matter, would sit on the floor on a chatai, a plastic rug of sorts, a knife in hand and big metal trays on the side. The cousins and I would gather around and sit on the floor as we were handed slices of watermelon. Big, juicy, cold- with tough ring around the edges and watery, sweet crimson crunchy goodness in the middle. Baba Jaan wouldn’t say much, besides telling us to eat more, and not to eat the seeds. “Be careful, otherwise a tree would grow in your stomach,” he would joke. I want to tell you that an 11 year old me knew that it was a joke, but I think it genuinely scared me.
Summers in Faisalabad were always warm, and except for the few times it rained during our entire break that we spent there, temperatures rarely dropped below high 30s. One of my uncles, who worked as an officer at WAPDA during the day and as a homeopathic doctor at night, was the family nutritionist / health advisor / pharmacist. He always had all the answers, and frequently reminded everyone that watermelon was good for you, but the best if eaten at breakfast. Something about it upsetting your stomach if you ate it too late during the day.
The fruit would usually be served cold, and we were often told to take our shirts off before we bit into the slices which are basically all water: a passing effort to save the clothes from getting stains so early on in the day. We lightly seasoned them with salt and pepper sometimes right before taking big bites as the juice dripped off of our mouths to our chins to the chatai on the ground. The fruit was always fragrant, and usually sweet as honey. The sugar in the juice would make my fingers and my face sticky, but in fear of being made of by my cousins, I’d usually keep my mouth shut about the ickiness.
Baba Jaan, during the days that he had a corner store in the chowk, would sometimes buy watermelon from a street vendor while we were hanging out with him at the shop. He always knew the kind which were ripe- sometimes he would knock on them and listen, sometimes he would pick them up to check the weight. And then he would pay the fruit guy to drop a dozen or two at the house three streets down.
It was a warm summer morning two years ago when I woke up to my sister’s call that Baba Jaan was no more. I don’t even know how far Faisalabad is from DC, but that day it felt really close. He was on my mind all day, and for many more to come.
Sometime later that week, I went to the store and bought pre-cut watermelon, and this time: seedless.