Portrait Of A Troubled Marriage And Its Compromises – An Excerpt From Heart Tantrums by Aisha Sarwari



Our first meeting was online. It had to be. I was a media student in college in California, writing an article on the human-rights abuses in Kashmir. Yasser was majoring in economics, all the way across on the other side of America, in New Jersey. We met on a website called Chowk, on the cusp of the twentieth century. In Urdu, chowk means a roundabout. Prophetic, but I didn’t know then what I know now, as is often the case with stories.



Chowk’s membership comprised prominent thinkers, activists and intellectuals from South Asia, but somehow, Yasser and I connected because of the intensity of our personalities as well as our love for Pakistan. His first reaction to my article was to ask me out: ‘Ms Sarwari, are you available?’



I was raised conservatively. A vastly liberal and open college life was a culture shock that I coped with by being even more Pakistani.


I gravitated closer to those who articulated a confidence in their Pakistani identity, something that described itself other than the Muslim part carved out of Hindu India. Yasser embodied that confidence for me.



No one had called me Ms Sarwari, and no one had asked me anything of consequence, let alone permission to court me. I immediately wrapped up my sophomore homework and stalked Yasser over the next few days using painful dial-up internet connections. Who was this boy?


I found myself drawn by his clarity and his deterministic point of view. There was one right answer for Yasser, and he would go to any lengths to prove it. I found myself skipping class to read up on his realpolitik views, article after article, at the student computer lab, sometimes missing essay submission deadlines. I was moved. It was 1999 and even in modern California, I felt that there was no such thing as the American melting pot.



There were hundreds of articles and discussions to read through. Yasser had written on how Pakistan should adopt Turkey’s governance model and ‘fundocide the mullahs’, Atatürk style. He wrote on hundreds of now obsolete message boards. He wrote letters to the editor of his college newspaper, the Rutgers University’s Daily Targum, which gave compelling reasons on why Pakistanis deserve a place on the table. He may as well have spoken directly to my repressed fears.



He wrote that Jinnah had had no choice except to create Pakistan, that Partition was to be blamed on Mahatma Gandhi for dragging religion into politics in the first place. That was new. He wrote that the West Pakistan-East Pakistan split had been inevitable and that everything would be much better if we had stayed secular as Jinnah had always wanted it.



My days in San Jose were about catching buses to campus, where I would struggle through Statistics 101. Yasser showed me the world with his words. His abruptness was fresh. I was tired of propriety and of being stereotyped as a person who belonged to a rogue country. Even before 9/11, there was a nexus of Pakistan haters in the United States. I felt unsafe in the US—almost alien, and certainly temporary. The hate was unmistakably visceral—without Pakistan, it seemed, there would be no terror. These haters thought that our nuclear arsenal would soon be taken over by the Taliban. It was a lucky day if anyone knew where Pakistan was; luckier if they didn’t.



We have a name for it now, and it is Islamophobia, but then, being Pakistani was being Muslim and it was just something you felt apologetic for. I found myself over-explaining that I am indeed opposed to the felling of the twin towers in the name of a ‘just war’ in Islam called jihad.



While George W. Bush had called Iraq, Iran and North Korea the ‘axis of evil’, he may as well have replaced North Korea with Pakistan in his declaration. The front pages of the US newspapers that stared back at me from bus-stop newsstands felt like a direct condemnation of Pakistan. I felt that what I heard was hate and that it was hard for Americans to tell us immigrants apart with the with-us or against-us narrative. We were terrorists, or at least we felt that way looking at the headlines. It took several years for Newsweek to call Pakistan the most dangerous country in the world in a cover story, but the work to get there started when I was in college.



How I was made to feel, by the professors, the people on the bus, Fox News and the books at Barnes & Noble, felt personal. No wonder then, that for me, Yasser didn’t only make sense, he was the only truth-teller there was. He was unapologetic and Pakistani. He was defiant in the onslaught of the shame that I internalized, which he rejected outright.



He was so sure that not only did we have a right to belong in the US 100 per cent, but that we should also be ones that were heard first.


A few days after his very public show of interest, I realized that apart from being crazy enough to propose on a Reddit-like discussion board, Yasser was also obsessed with Pakistan like I was.



He had the same burning passion, almost to an existential level, to be Pakistani. He was often up all night arguing with strangers on the Internet, trying to right wrongs. His username on Chowk.com was Greywolf, and he excavated the big question of the subcontinent: was Jinnah right or wrong in the creation of Pakistan?



Yasser wrote like his life belonged to the truth of that question—referencing books and journals for hours in the library, resorting to Punjabi expletives if his arguments were rejected. Yasser may have proposed to me in jest, but I had already made my mind up about saying yes. He wasn’t the only crazy one here. Like the website, Yasser and I have been committed to the insanity of going round and round the Chowk for twenty years since my article on human rights abuses was first published. We met, we fell in love and we parted. Repeat. We have, since then, fallen apart. Yasser defined the coming together. Yasser defined the falling apart. I get to retell the story of how things fell apart.



The doctors later told me that Yasser’s brain tumour had begun to grow slowly, dating back to around 1999—about the same time we met on Chowk.


I found out about Yasser’s grade-one oligodendroglioma in 2017. Until then, I had only been able to second-guess the Yasser who courted me. Often, I’ve wondered which of the two really asked me out that day: Yasser, or his golf ball-sized tumour?


As we loved, married and had two kids, his tumour did the same. Located in his right temporal lobe, the very part that drives personality, charm, obsessions and tics, the tumour and I were in a love triangle with @therealYLH, his combative Twitter persona. Over the last twenty years, I have loved the tumour back. I have stayed married to it and had babies with it.



Here is a big question: does one believe in unseeable things like the idea that someone would love you if they could, or does one only believe in what someone does in practice?


It matters to me that Yasser cared for me. It is what tames me and calms my fears that I’ve never truly belonged to Pakistan. If your passport is first world, my fears will make little sense. For me, home had to be in Pakistan because my father didn’t have any other nationality and he also decided to die on me, so perhaps I felt the way to retain him was to stay grounded in his identity. Everything I lost with Abu, Yasser returned to me.



My husband is a three-piece suit addict. He can out-talk you in almost any area of history, politics and religion. He gels his hair back, Al Pacino style. In soft lighting, he can pass for a Bollywood star. He insists on putting on his shoes with a shoehorn. He loves good cars and regrets dropping out of Pakistan Air Force School. His wit is a blend: half Seinfeld, half dark British humour. He eats his vegetables as grudgingly as a spoilt, smothered Lahori boy. He whines a lot.


When he is not himself, Yasser is not Yasser in the most absolute way possible. When he is not doing things that normal people do, he’s extreme. He’s a jerk, he’s pathetic, he’s impossible. In loving him, I’ve experienced loss that is both futile and dumb, one that serves no purpose and leaves you considerably worse off. The man I chose to love wholly has a shadow man inside him who is utterly unlovable. The three of us—me, Yasser and Yasser’s shadow self—go round and round and take turns at winning. We never get to play for the same team. I’ve been ashamed of what I have had to endure.


Excerpted with permission from Heart Tantrums by Aisha Sarwari

Publishing/ Penguin Random House India (2023)

You can buy your copy here.



Aisha Sarwari is a public speaker, writer and women’s rights advocate. She is the co-founder of Women’s Advancement Hub. She has provided opinions for The Guardian, Dawn, BBC World, NPR, TRT World and The Express Tribune. Between San Jose and Islamabad, she has been working in the field of public affairs and communications for over 20 years across several industries.