Barri Ammi

By Palvashay Sethi

Artwork by Seyhr Qayum   Note: For best results, read on a desktop.

Artwork by Seyhr Qayum

Note: For best results, read on a desktop.

You know her. Have heard of her through cautionary tales with the caution being

dispensed dubious at best and unnecessary at worst. She visited you during

childhood. She seeks the pleasures of night, and on occasion the pleasures of the

day. She appears in different garbs: white cotton saris stained with blood; in kiran-

lined dupattas and nauratans that prove futile in fortressing young brides; and

sometimes in fitted black t-shirts, blue jeans, and a violent shade of red lipstick.

Tales proliferate about her like webs weaved by wires that electrify the city. They

form grids and circuits of meaning that are ubiquitous because of their presence in

every street and every neighborhood and every boulevard. The thicket of cables

that form her corpus is knotty, dense, and electric and while you think of her as a

trope she illuminates. The trope—from the Greek trépein, which means to turn,

turns an image into language. And the feet of a churel turn backward and allow her

to chase the feckless and hapless while she watches ahead: her vision steadfast.

Men who cast their eyes upon the imprint of her feet bolt in the opposite direction

only to be accosted by her unwavering gaze. Churels die with unfulfilled desires—a

miscarriage, a life without joy, an incomplete journey—but are resurrected with

their desires intact, vengeful,

and unceasing.

I know my grandmother through photographs and my family’s unremitting silence. The

scant words and phrases that form her biography consist of “quiet”, “devoted mother

and wife”, “tuberculosis” or the more archaic, “consumption.” She died after The Divide;

suspended in time as youthful, consumed by a disease that consumed a century, and

marked by a sense of the unspoken. In most photographs, she appears demure but

curious: gaze directed at the camera, posture ramrod straight, and on days I was lucky I

thought I caught the imperceptible rustle of her colorless ghararas. There was one

photograph: the only photograph that colored Barri Ammi’s unyielding silhouette. My

Phupo kept various boxes and suitcases in her possession, which were meticulously

organized by decade. Barri Ammi, however, was a category unto herself. The photograph

was at Phupo’s house in a pock-marked attaché containing photographs and letters

written and received by Barri Ammi. The attaché was brought out with great ceremony,

dusted carefully, and washed clean with an aging muslin cloth. We’d go through

photographs—all 27 committed to memory—and the narration that accompanied them.

The good thing about Phupo was that she was a masterful, if thoroughly unreliable, storyteller,

and the changing iterations or motivations behind each photograph made up for the

repetition of the exercise. The picture of my father—all six feet and four inches of him—

standing sideways and wearing a three-piece suit as he stared at the sea with Paradise

Point in the background—a rocky structure eroded by the salt of years—prompted many

stories. It was his first time wearing a suit and he was embarrassed; my Phupo and him

fought because he refused to look at the camera; he orchestrated the photograph and

wanted to look thoughtful but ultimately the subject was caught unaware with sand in his

pants, and, Phupo would surreptitiously add, in his drawers!

But the photograph of Bari Ammi always prompted the same story. A photo of 7

children—5 girls and 2 boys—standing in front of a shrubbery that disappeared

into the clouds because of overexposure. Characteristic of photos from that

time, one can never ascertain if the flat expressions were prompted by duty,

petulance, the solemnity of the occasion, or a combination of all three. Barri

Ammi, however, flashes like a bolt of lightning. Her posture at odds with the

rest as she leans forward, hands on her waist, grinning with the cheeky

exuberance of an errant child. The story goes the children were given stern

instructions to stand side by side, hands clasped, expression solemn, and

smiling was simply out of the question, because the photograph was to be

framed. The photograph was never framed—Barri Ammi was slapped, schooled

on the evil of unasked laughter, and banished to her room. The photo traveled

from drawers and attics, disappearing entirely for 25 years, before resurfacing

in the attaché.  Everyone questioned about its reappearance feigned ignorance

and we accepted this with uneasy equanimity. The photo still makes me uneasy.

Where did it disappear and why did it come back? In pictures where she’s

older, Barri Ammi seems orderly: hair

parted in the middle, slick over her I was wandering the streets a week after the murder

skull with the aid of oil, always of a B grade actress called Malka. Malka had been involved in

dangling neatly by her side in a thick a protracted divorce case with her husband who shot her

braid extending beyond her waist. In outside the courtroom and then shot himself. Rumor

the photograph in front of the had it that his viscera splattered onlookers who sought the

shrubbery, Barri Ammi’s hair is wavy, counsel of holy men to preemptively rid themselves from

barely contained by a rubber band, the peril(s) of his malignant spirit. In the days that followed,

thick locks framing her laughing face. all manner of women took to the streets in protest and

She’s consumed with joy. they marched and cried Malka’s name and

danced and laughed and yelled, and yelled,

and yelled, till their chants formed a luminous vortex of words and fury across

the city.  But as the chants of freedom began to subside, some manner of people

—mostly men—took exception and moved their ire to the streets and burned

effigies of Malka, hurled abuse at women, and tore apart old movie posters of

Malka; defacing her face with markers and leaving crude slogans. They replaced

her trademark crown with horns of the devil. The streets were restless as women

walked faster while clutching their bags and the proportions of men became

monstrous with menace. I was thinking about this in the state of delirium and

vigilance that characterizes walking in Karachi. A hurtling motorbike would pull

me out of my lull as the ambient noise of traffic faded in and out of unrelenting

din in my head. Walking the city is a comfort and I was animated by three

decades of clock-work exhaustion caused by chasing stories that’ve been whittled

down to gestures in bleak light. I wondered about Malka’s last moments and if

she’d seen her gun-wielding husband or if she died without noticing him,

oblivious, and momentarily buoyed by prospect of justice. I stumbled on

pavements propelled by an intangible but powerful chain of grief—like a deep,

broken sob that’s heard but not seen through closed doors. And that’s when I

saw her in front of the electricity pole, laughing silently, her laughter forming an

aura that turned the loops of wires hanging above a bright shade of blue. She

was familiar and unfamiliar; known and unknown, ultimately uncanny.

She wears a plain cotton gharara, unlike formal ones for special occasions, and

her hair while braided has strands astray. She looks out of place and stares

straight at me while twirling her braid in circles that cause the breeze to rise. The

faster she twirls her braid, which goes round and round like a fan, garbage from

the street begins to dance in the air. All this time, she doesn’t break eye-contact

and continues laughing, as the wires cast a blue light over her body, and

everything seems imbued with uncanny motion. The wind lifts her gharara and I

see her feet: she’s wearing khussas that are backwards. She finally stops laughing

and the street descends into silence. People stop in their tracks, disoriented, with

garbage on their heads, unable to parse what happened. She

puts her hand forward, as if asking me The Divide was a great equalizer in that it

to hold it, and says: produced equal amounts of division and unity. The

آؤ میرے ساتھ چلو Division of India into two countries caused negation and creation,

doppelgangers, dualities, nationalisms, one singular enmity

and a profound sense of estrangement—and all that without

touching upon three wars, multiple skirmishes, and the incalculable loss of

life that marked The Divide and everything that succeeded it. Depending

on whom I’d speak to, it’d prompt histrionics or silence. From the little

I was able to siphon from various family members, it seemed like one hell of

a trip. Those who spoke, spoke less in sentences and more in fragments,

images, lone words, and the occasional expletive from someone’s irate

Dadi.  The words that formed my corpus of The Divide were قربانی

بٹوارہ، بربادی، نُقصان، خاندان، اُجڑا شہر، غم، دھرتی، لاشيں

نقل مکانی، خوشی، غدار، تعصب،لَٹ،خوف، نسنا ، قوم، ہجرت، رولا

کلام کالا ، ریل گاڑی، ریل گاڑی، ریل گاڑی The train as a trope has been

exhausted in literature about The Divide. The train is not just a physical

object animated by locomotion but a signifier for colonial modernity

that culminated in a graveyard. The train becomes a lament, an elegy, a

technology propelled by discipline, utility, and sabotage. The image of the

train is one that’s exhaustive and has been exhausted. The Literature of

exhaustion: the “L” uppercase to denote the verticality of prestige, the “e”

lowercase to demonstrate how little is left over. Exhaustion doesn’t merit

pomp and circumstance because exhaustion is the image worn threadbare.

Yet the train recurs with ruthless spite and tenacity, it persists and exists,

replicating itself because the violence of the journey cannot be undone.

What is it? Movement, animation, progress, but progression for whom and

one that leads to what?! Isn’t the train ride during and after The Divide just

an unending journey, adventure, tragedy, death in motion, incomplete, an

archive? The destination flimsy; the journey a gamble.

It’s difficult to see. They hurtle aimlessly leaving clouds of smoke that hang

heavy before surrendering.  I wait for them to halt and stand near the bare

bones of one of many stations that collapse, cascade, and drift away when a gust

of wind takes fancy. Stations in motion. A vestigial impulse makes them stop as

they wait for travelers to board but most families that journeyed during The

Divide are dead. They clutter the floor, and while it seems disrespectful to walk

among corpses, she pulls me from train to train with urgency. Sometimes we

stop and watch from the windows of trains that’ve stopped: voyeurs peering

into the annals of history; other times we board trains animated by the bustle of

specters bound on an interminable journey. I see a freight train bursting from

the seams and hear the screams of men gasping to breathe. “Are these the ones

that survived the Great Divide?” She looks at me and says, “Nahin—1921.”

Around a 100 men asphyxiated in this train as punishment because they rebelled

against the British. She holds my hand and points to one of the trains: “Dekho”.

We wait for it to stop and get on board. As we walk through the aisles, I see

scenes of devastation that don’t merit the

injustice of words. Barri Ammi walks with

purpose and leads me to the seat where she’s You don’t know me. They mention

sitting. I see her in her final moments: young, my name with caution but hushed tones

determined, full of vitality of the righteous, barely contain my volume. I am everywhere

consumed by nothing but hope as she was and nowhere, an image, a mirror, a double,

leaving. She looks at me as I look at her and she a triple, infinite, zero, no-thing, thing,

says, object, subject. I am seduction, illusion, scapegoat,

بیٹا میں صرف گھر جانا چاہتی ہوں martyr, vixen, villain, sidekick, bystander,

background, back off, I

stand my ground. I am reams, I am texts, I am circulation, I am

motion, I am electricity, I am light, I am noise, I am silence. I am

words. I am words. I am words. I find my story in fragments, I

find my story in silence, I find my story in echoes, I do, I undo, I

am undone, I am done. I am done. I am done.

Sarah Thankam Mathews talks to Palvashay Sethi about “Barri Ammi.”

Palvashay Sethi is a writer and a teacher currently based in Karachi. Her work has appeared in minorliterature[s], The Aleph Review, Severine, Queen Mob’s Tea House, FishFood Magazine, and DAWN. You can find her on Twitter with the ignominious handle @Palvashits.

Seyhr Qayum is an American-Pakistani visual artist, who currently lives and works in Islamabad, Pakistan. She holds a BFA in Painting from Boston University, and has a diverse studio practice, ranging from making largescale oil paintings – a combination of representational and abstract visuals – to creating mixed media installations. Her work centers on female identity and empowerment in South Asia. Seyhr has exhibited her art internationally, including in the U.S., the U.K., and Japan. Along with her studio practice, she is a freelance graphic designer, who with a keen interest in filmmaking, has also worked as a production designer for short, independent films in Pakistan. She frequently writes and contributes articles to various publications exploring select aspects of the art world. You can find her work at, and on Instagram @seyhr.qayum.


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