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A moment that changed me: being wrenched from my grandfather in Lahore

While I was inter-railing at the age of 18 I had a dream about my grandfather, Khawaja Kheruddin. He was sitting on a bench, on top of a hill, looking like himself with his shock of white hair and ruddy complexion and big, strong body. Slowly, as I watched him, his face turned into my father’s, and then into a crumbling stone sculpture, disintegrating to dust.

It was the perfect visual metaphor for his dementia, a condition my father would face too in the decades to come. When I returned home to London a week after that dream I was told that my grandfather had died in Pakistan, at 90-something, a few days apart from my grandmother, whom he had met and married in pre-partition Shimla, aged 16.

When I was four I lived with my grandparents at their home in Lahore. It was a large, white-washed house, frayed around the edges, with a big, unkempt garden and a curmudgeonly goat that occasionally butted heads with us kids. I spent my days climbing trees, chasing animals or playing with my siblings, cousins, and my grandfather. My aunt would show us which of the chicks had hatched overnight, and then we’d watch her pick out a hen to cook for dinner. The nights, when they became too hot, were spent on the flat roof, where we’d wrestle for sleep beneath the stars. It was a riotous life, full of colour and noise and a constant flow of family. Decades after leaving Pakistan, I remember these things as vividly as if they were Kodak prints.

Everything felt complete, the way that happiness feels to children. I didn’t understand the grown-up swirl of tension around me; my mother and father had returned to Pakistan from London, where I was born, because they badly missed home. But finding a decent job for my father was proving elusive and that was wearing thin in a household teeming with people to feed.

None of that was my concern. I was surrounded by everyone, and everything, that I loved, including the goat, the chickens, and the throb and dust of the city. My mother and father got lost in the mix of the extended family around us. In fact, it was my grandfather who did most of the childminding in the year and a half we were in Pakistan. He took us to the mosque, told us stories about Jinns, played all our games; he was in our gang.

He was in his 70s and already showing signs of Alzheimer’s back then, but we saw no division between us and him; he was just as unruly and maybe more irresponsible. He’d stick my brother, Tariq – aged two, swaddled in a nappy – on a precipitous pillar along the main gate to the house, while he took us older kids out on the street to stop the hawkers, eat whatever they were selling and then call our mother to pay the bill. She would rush to take my brother down from the pillar before he toppled off, and hand us coins for the watermelon, or roasted corn, or whatever else we’d wolfed down.

I don’t remember when we were told that we were leaving, or when I said goodbye to my grandfather – the moment that everything shifted. Instead I remember what followed that lacuna; suddenly being in London with a sense of having lost something immense.

I only ever saw my grandfather again briefly when I was around 10 or 11. He and my grandmother stopped off in London for one night, on their way back to Lahore from visiting my uncles in America. They looked like people from another world in their white shalwar kameez, speaking in an old-fashioned Urdu which we now struggled to grasp.

The sudden separation from my grandfather as a child has made me good at leaving things, and people, disconnecting myself as an adult even when I might have worked harder at a relationship or a job after a fallout or misunderstanding. I’m still trying to unlearn the damaging lessons of such a profound break.

Children get on with it and we did just that. We were told to stop speaking Urdu at home and I went from being loud and mischievous to desperately shy and scared of the new world around me. The English I was trying to learn silenced me for a time, and so did England.

My father would take us to Golders Hill park in north London, so we could climb a giant, felled tree, and see the caged animals in the sanctuary. That’s as close as we got to the joyous helter skelter of home.

We were impoverished, living in a squat in Hampstead for the first year back in London. But more than that, we were bereft. Every certainty I had felt in Lahore had been removed. There are photographs of me shortly after returning in which I look like I’ve suffered a bereavement: I am wan, unsmiling, eyes turned to the ground.

Of course, the wrench of leaving him at the age of five was also for the loss of home, and the trauma of migration. I have never felt as certain of the world, and of myself, as I was playing in that overgrown garden in Lahore. At 44, the separation still marks me, and when I look back at my gleeful, sure, supremely contented five-year-old self, I feel as if I have never since felt quite as whole.