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2 May 2023

The Salt in the Air by Haniya Habib

Wasafiri is pleased to publish the pieces shortlisted for the 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. The poems, essays and short stories in this series showcase the best new writing from the best new writers across the globe — in all their diversity and complexity. In Haniya Habib's evocative piece of life writing, she examines the passing of time both within a person's life, and within relationships. The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. You can read the full terms and conditions and submit here.

The sea is rough today. I can taste the salt in the air. It is what slaps me awake when I return to Pakistan. I made palak gosht for dinner. The flavour turned out great, but I couldn’t get the meat as soft as you do. It made me very frustrated and then very sad. Don’t worry, I still ate it. I know you wouldn’t have wanted it to go to waste. And then, I came down to the beach for a walk and it made me feel less sad.  

The coastline has that effect on me, especially when the sea is rough. Today, it was crashing and raging against the beach huts along the shore. I find them amusing, the beach huts that is. Some of them are quite grand with large glass doors and open balconies. But as you walk along the shifting wet sand, you can see large boulders and hunks of concrete scattered along the shore. They are carcasses of man’s buildings, the grand beach huts of yesterday, swallowed by the sea and spat out mercilessly. The salt in the air foams as life decays.  

When I return to Pakistan, Dadi returns to the sea. I walk on the beach with her. It is the first time she has been by the sea since 1962. I hold her small hand in mine as the water laps our feet. I feel like the adult in the scenario, holding her steady as she marvels at the horses and camels. But I am ill-prepared for adulthood, ill-prepared for what she says next, that the last time she came here it was with her husband who died while I was away, and a tiffin full of sandwiches. The sea is warm and gentle as it welcomes her back. Dadi stands still in the water and I have an urge to take a picture of our feet, side by side — hers wrinkled and purple with varicose veins, mine smoother but flecked with dry patches. I brought sandwiches, I say instead. It is the wrong thing to say and I know it as soon as the words leave my mouth. I can’t take them back, so I let them hang in the air, mixing with the salt. The water recedes around our feet, skimming over the grooves they have created. When we leave, it will smooth over those grooves as well, leaving no trace of our presence.  

I’m always amazed by how easy it is to take things from the sea. I can see children gathering shells in the distance. They are collecting whatever shell-like fragment they can unearth. They don’t think twice about it. Of course, I can only tell you this. Anyone else would accuse me of romanticising. But you, of all people, should know how intrigued I am by the process of taking. When I left the apartment, I left everything behind — my clothes in the closet, my dishes in the sink. I meant no disrespect to you and I do apologise, but you have to understand, I could not take those things with me. If I had, how would you know a part of me had lived there once?  


A part of me lives here now, and I hear you from miles away telling me to live. Arms resting on the dining table, you tell me I must. At that moment, you remind me of Dadi who greets me every morning with a simple, ‘Jeete raho’. Keep living. For Dadi, this isn’t just a greeting, but a commandment, a commitment. To live is to love, to love is to live. For years, she loved us by keeping us alive. Each morning, Dadi would conduct a thorough audit of the kitchen. She meticulously counted the eggs, vegetables and rotis brought into the house. In the morning, you could find her small frame hunched over the fridge keeping a running inventory of its contents which she relayed to the rest of us in a daily report. ‘Beta, there were at least a dozen tomatoes here yesterday. I used four to make lunch, but there are only five left’, she would say, clutching the remaining tomatoes to her chest. On other days, it was the yogurt that had mysteriously disappeared or the milk that was being used up too fast. Each report was always laced with urgency, a warning that one day there might be no tomatoes, no milk, no yogurt. Her cooking was urgent too, each dish a product of creating something out of nothing. With each recipe, Dadi took on the task of making more. She diluted yogurt with milk, milk with water, preserving the illusion of plenty. And it worked. We gobbled Dadi’s creations, never fully aware of her sleight of hand. I spent my childhood never having to face a day with no tomatoes, no milk, no yogurt because Dadi knew how much effort it took to keep living.  

But when I left, Dadi forgot. She forgot the number of tomatoes in the fridge. She forgot to buy more yogurt, forgot to warn us each day of our precarity. I think she forgot me too which is why whenever she sees me now she tells me to keep living. It is as if my presence has taken her by surprise and she is reminded of a task she left incomplete. The only effort she can muster now is her humble request couched in two simple words. Jeete raho. 

I wonder whether you have forgotten me too. A part of me thinks you’ve kept me alive, kept my clothes in the closet, kept my dishes in the sink. The wiser part of me knows you packaged my remains into neat boxes, staged a funeral, buried me long ago. After all, how can I expect you to hold on to me, when Dadi isn’t there to warn you of no more?  


When I return to Pakistan, I buy a pair of green jhumkay and a grater. The jhumkay I leave in a box, but the grater I use every single day to grate fresh nutmeg into each dish just like you.  I remember when you decided that you would only use fresh nutmeg in your cooking. It was a few months into the pandemic. You had been watching cooking videos on repeat and they all agreed that freshly grated nutmeg is superior to the powdered version sold at the supermarket. So, you took two trains to your nearest Asian grocery store, piled a basket full of the fresh stuff and bought a microplane to grate it with. The grater brought you joy and you found a way to use it each time you cooked. A pinch of fresh nutmeg, a tablespoon of ginger, the zest of a whole lemon, grated into whatever was stirring in your pot. It made your cooking less urgent, less ordinary — something you were desperate to be at the time.  

Two years later, I am still grating nutmeg into my food. I even sneak some into Dadi’s cooking. I’m not sure if she notices, but if she does she forgets to point it out. It is Amma who takes note of my new obsession. I tell her it’s nothing, just a quirk I picked up in New York, something to grow out of. And I did try, you know, to grow out of you. But what could I do? You’ve changed the way my tongue tastes. It balks at the bitterness of urgency, craves the tingle of the extraordinary. When Amma starts buying fresh nutmeg regularly, I can only feel disappointed.   

I can’t blame Amma, of course. She is only doing what she believes is best for me. As Dadi has forgotten, Amma has become exceedingly vigilant. She is afraid that Dadi’s condition is contagious, and so, she wakes us up each morning  and makes us remember who we were the night before. On one such morning, I tell her that I was someone who loved the colour green. This is why she makes me buy a pair of green jhumkay, even though I can’t bring myself to wear them because I can’t remember why I loved green. This is also why she buys me fresh nutmeg, why she makes me drink water that she has blown prayers over, and why she sends me messages about the virtues of marriage. The day after I tell Amma I was someone who didn’t care much for marriage, she walks around the house convinced that there is a bad smell festering in the corners. She opens all the windows in my bedroom to air it out. I can’t smell it, but Amma assures me it’s there. ‘You haven’t left your bed all day. Your nose has become numb to it’, she says. Strange, isn’t it? You can steep your body in something until it refuses to recognise, to accept what’s surrounding it. Amma burns incense, lights candles, repeats the ritual for three days, until she is satisfied that she has revived the air from the rot that clung to it.  

Sometimes, the air by the sea smells rotten too. Sometimes, when the wind blows from a particular direction, it carries with it something offensive. Except there are no windows to open, no way to air out the air on the seashore. The only thing you can do is steep your body in it until it refuses to recognise, to accept what’s surrounding it. Strange, isn’t it, how numbness becomes our only deliverance.  

I am convinced that this is what Amma has done as well. She has not banished the smell that lurks around her. She has simply convinced her body that it no longer exists — her own sleight of hand, her own moment of amnesia. When she found me making palak gosht earlier today, she told me I would make a sweet wife someday.  


Your apartment never smelled bad. You made sure it didn’t. Each time you went to the grocery store, you came back with fresh flowers wrapped in clear plastic. “They only cost five dollars,” you said each time, marvelling at how cheap good smells could be. You arranged the flowers in an emptied olive oil bottle where they stayed until they drooped and moulded. ‘They only cost five dollars’, you said each time you threw them away. In those days, you never thought about things passing, because you were always walking to the grocery store and you had all the time in the world.  

Once, you brought home a potted spring cactus and placed it in the windowsill next to your grocery store flowers. The cactus flowered soon after, producing small red petals with a faint grassy scent. You spent the next two weeks admiring the way the sun bounced off its leaves during golden hour. You sent Amma a picture taken at the perfect angle. You joked about how you finally had another living thing in your apartment during lockdown. For two weeks, you felt triumphant because you had found a way to make the good smells stay. And then, the flowers withered and so did the plant.  

Amma’s sense of smell withered too, victim to a prolonged Covid-19 infection. At first, I thought she was glad to be rid of it and all the festering smells that she despised. But when her nose remained unresponsive for months, Amma grew desperate for it to return. She told me she was worried about turning into Dadi who had forgotten how to smell long ago and now never knew when her food was burning. So, Amma woke up each morning and sniffed bottles of essential oils. She used scented lotions and nasal sprays that promised to revive her olfactory nerves. Each night, before bed, she inhaled through a steamer infused with medicated vapours. It all cost more than five dollars.  

When it’s clear that Amma has banished her sense of smell altogether, she decides to borrow mine instead. Each day, I am summoned to the kitchen and asked to identify spices by sticking my nose into the plastic spice jars. At six o’clock every evening, Amma asks me to taste what she is making for dinner and tell her if the seasoning needs to be adjusted. And I must, at all times, keep a vigilant nose out for any bad smells. My nose is not Amma’s nose, however. My nose is your nose, used to grocery store flowers and fresh nutmeg. My nose does not flinch from the rotten smell by the sea, or register the bad air that Amma insists is going to descend around us any second. So, I have to train it to smell the way Amma’s does. It is a violent disciplining that my body resists at each step. Eventually, it learns how to feign Amma’s vigilance. I take long deep breaths as I sniff spice jars, and taste giant pots of pulao. I burn incense and light candles each day. I air out the rooms each evening, until my sleight of hand convinces Amma that my nose is now hers. When Amma wakes me up the next morning, I tell her that the night before I was someone who loved the colour green because it reminded me of the leafy green smell of palak gosht.  

When I return to Pakistan, I return to the hospital ward. The last time I was there, I was holding Dadi’s husband’s hand as he breathed his last. This time I am mixing Isocal powder into a glass of water and holding it up to Dadi’s lips as she slowly sips.  

Dadi has forgotten how to eat and drink. It was only inevitable, is what her doctors tell us, given everything else that has fallen through the cracks. We must now monitor her water intake and meticulously count her calories. Her meals are supplemented with precise doses of medications, sorted into a pill box by day and time. I heat and reheat her food until it is burning, piping hot, almost impossible to handle, in the hope that she will accept it. But, in between the seconds counting down on the microwave, and the morning, noon and night punctuated by her pill box, time slips through Dadi’s grasp. She is untethered, and it is only then that she remembers. ‘Dostoevsky’, she begins. ‘I read Crime and Punishment when I was young. I read Aldous Huxley too. At night, after my husband had gone to sleep, I switched on a single lamp and read the Reader’s Digest until he woke up and snatched it away from me.’ Dadi says all this propped up against a cushion with an IV drip attached to her wrist. She has a smug smile on her face as if to say, I told you how much effort it took to keep living.  

You forgot how to stay alive once. It happened on a crisp, fall evening in New York, the kind you spend walking over fallen leaves. You walked into a grocery store to buy fresh flowers, found out there were none left, and burst into tears. You walked until you could walk no more, until you reached the riverside, where the air thickens into water and meets the salt streaming down your face. You walked until your legs refused to move and your tears kept you confined to the window in Apartment 3 with a decaying spring cactus. You walked until the extraordinary you were chasing disappeared around the corner and bitter urgency caught up with you. And once you stopped walking, you stopped.  

On a crisp, fall evening in New York, you sliced your hand open as you made palak gosht. The blood pooled in the lines of your palm, a sharp red for the sharp green of the spinach you were meant to cook. It was an accident. It was an accident, but several seconds passed before you wrapped a clean scarf around your wound. The doctor at the urgent care stared at you disapprovingly. He was suspicious. The slice of exposed skin was dangerously close to the purple veins on your inner wrist. You were dangerously close to being another kind of problem. In a somber tone, he asked you how you injured yourself a second time and you told him about your grater and palak gosht and fresh nutmeg until he tacked on five stitches and sent you home.  

Dadi strokes the scar on my palm as she falls into a fitful, drug-induced sleep. ‘P.G. Wodehouse’, she murmurs. ‘I read P.G. Wodehouse too.’


One night, I have a dream. In my dream, we are all by the sea, Dadi and Amma and I. The sea is rough. You can taste the salt in the air. I am wearing my green jhumkay and watching Dadi and Amma from a distance. They are eating sandwiches and reminiscing about how they did their siblings’ homework when they were young. I cannot hear them but I know what they are talking about. I know the way Amma’s mouth curves when the memory of someone she loves smooths over the vigilant lines on her forehead. I know the exact tooth that sticks out of Dadi’s mouth when she smiles, smugly or otherwise. I know exactly what temperature Dadi wants her sandwich to be and exactly how Amma wants the filling to smell and taste. I know the exact steps they have taken – their footprints are still imprinted in the sand – and if I walk faster than the rough sea, I can retrace those footsteps myself. I can wake up the next day, and tell Amma that the night before, I was her. 

But then, the wind blows from a particular direction, carrying with it an offensive smell that Dadi has forgotten, Amma can no longer detect, and I have grown numb to.  

Amma and Dadi persist in the distance. And you and I — we keep living.

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. Submit here.  

Photo by Sebastien Gabriel on Unsplash    

Haniya Habib was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. Her work has appeared previously in Litro and Behenchara Magazine. She currently teaches comparative literature at Habib University in Karachi.
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