As published in Tufts Cannon, January 2016
He sat looking outwards through the grilled windows of the blue train car he was sitting in, watching the afternoon sun color the countryside with a golden hue. His fresh law degree sat in his briefcase by his feet, sandwiched between his tiffin boxes and nightdress — apt, he thought to himself, since it was hardly more valuable than either at the moment. He had studied British procedure and had an understanding of the Empire’s legal workings, but it was 1947; the Empire was no longer hiring. After all, it was one of its own lawyers who eventually betrayed it and gave up his suits for a simple white dhoti, his stability for the chance at independence, his food for freedom and fame.
Hyderabad did not have anything to offer a young lawyer, and there was no way that he could sit at home without supporting his family. It was decided for him, after much consideration, that perhaps he should take the train north and try his luck in Lahore. A mass migration of Muslims was taking place, and the influx of people into cities in Pakistan meant that economic opportunities would be springing up left and right. The hope was that he could find a job for himself there, and once properly settled, could send for the rest of the family to join him.
He was not excited about this move from his ancestral home, but not so much because he liked the weather or the history or even the familiarity. It was because he missed her, and knew that any chance at marriage would be indeterminably delayed, what with the hassles of moving a family through a revolution into the lap of a nascent nation. Despite their limited interactions, she was all he could think about in this moment.
He could never forget the way they had met; he had been wholly unprepared for that first tutoring session. She was tall and slender, with an aloofness about her that starkly contrasted his quiet perceptiveness. She wore big glasses and wore her hair in a pair of braids as thin as she was, looking every bit as studious as she was trying to be. He was hooked immediately.
He had been set up to tutor her, a family friend’s daughter two years his junior, in English — a subject that had always come easily to him. Unwilling at first, he accepted only out of politeness. Now he looked forward to every session, always eager to share a new word he had learned or a funny English joke he had come across.
The problem was that she was a proper girl. She knew her boundaries and didn’t seem to wonder what lay beyond them. Besides a formal hello at the beginning and a thank you at the end of their sessions, she would leave all the talking to him, piping up only when he made her make up sentences or read aloud, or on the extremely rare occasion that she had a question she couldn’t suppress or ask someone else later. She only ever giggled shyly, eyes deflected to the floor, when she liked a joke of his. She never teased him or returned his banter. She never complemented him as he started prepping his shirts before their meetings, never let on that she noticed when he started, one day, to part his hair on one side, combed slickly over with coconut oil.
And yet she came every day for just under a year, faithfully doing whatever he assigned her. One day she forgot her pencil, and her long face flushed. She looked to the floor as she accepted the pencil he gave her. She tried to give it back at the end, but he insisted that she keep it. She acquiesced, smiling, and so made his day. That was the day he knew that she liked him too.
It was also the first day he had ever made a sincere plea to God, and he remembered it clearly. “God I like her, make this work well for me, and bless us,” he had asked. He had been taught growing up to always trust that God had a plan, and to content himself with that plan. But that day he asked God to change whatever plan He had for him, to put her in his path.
His thoughts swirled in a mix of discontentment and anticipation as the train pulled into Nagpur. He made his way onto the platform to see the hustling street vendors, all hawking the city’s famed oranges.
At the same time, two postal workers ran out of the station office, one boarding the front of the train and the other running down the length of the platform, both screaming “Kareem Ahmed Sahib, Kareem Ahmed Sahib!”
Stunned to hear his name being called in an unfamiliar city, he turned away from the oranges and caught the one running down the platform and asked him what the matter was. Panting, the worker reached into his pocket and handed him a telegraph addressed to him. He unfolded the small chit to read the four life-changing, evenly typeset words:
“Kabeer dead. Return immediately.”
The world seemed like a dream gone awry all of a sudden, the reddening sun now reminding him more of a blood clot than the blood oranges in front of him. His father’s death must have happened just after his departure. As the weightless words in his hand began to weigh painfully on his mind, he stood there stunned, looking in the face of the messenger who stood in front of him, expectantly waiting for the customary tip. At a complete loss for words, he handed the note back to the messenger, who read it and at once gave it back, apologized, bowed, and left.
He had to turn back immediately, he knew, to make funeral arrangements and to comfort his mother and siblings. Lahore would have to wait, perhaps indefinitely.
It had been far easier, he often thought, to get her to marry him than it was to get her to come anywhere. All he had had to do was inform his mother that there was a girl who had caught his fancy, and after teasing him for a week and keeping an eye on the girl for another month, his mother agreed and worked her magic. They were married with fanfare before the seasons changed, amid a cacophony of colorful ceremonies and a flowing abundance of flowers. But after they got married, he realized that she simply wasn’t as interested in exploring the world as he was.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. His government job as an Inspector in the Subsidies Division of the Agriculture Department demanded lots of travel in his early days. There was hardly a corner of the state where he didn’t know people or hadn’t conducted official business, and yet she had never come with him. He had told her at first how romantic and exciting it could be: she could accompany him and roam the bazaars during the day, and on the weekend they could stay at a hill station resort, taking in the natural beauty of the countryside. But she always cited her duty to the school where she worked, and said what was the point of seeing different places when it was all just a rearrangement of the same houses and trees and people.
“Go on without me, I’m fine here. The kids will need me anyway.”
At first this meant her schoolchildren, who she didn’t want to fall behind on her account, but later this came to mean their own children as well. Before he knew it they had settled into a routine: busy mornings with both of them preparing for work, sending the kids off to school, him coming back to her and the kids at home. Kids would play, he would read the paper, everyone would eat, everyone would sleep. It had become familiar, comfortable, and warm.
So gradually he gave up trying to convince her to come, and would take solace in the knowledge that he would be back to see her at the end of each trip, with new stories to tell. Her contentment astounded him. He had assumed during their tutoring days that she refrained from asking questions out of some kind of girlish shyness, that she was bursting on the inside to ask endless questions and talk about sweet nothings for hours, but he realized when she became his wife that she was really just incredibly self-contained, that there were few things in this world that really sparked her interest, and even those could not sustain it for long. The only things to consistently consume her were her kids, her work, and God.
This was nice on the one hand, because it meant that she did not have lavish requests to make or fabulous desires for him to save up for the way other wives seemed to — she did not have an expensive jewelry habit or a costly attachment to cinema or even a strong desire to pick out her own saris at the market. He made enough for them, but not much more, and was inclined to save for a rainy day rather than spend on nonessentials anyways.
But it also bothered him that she seemed to have so little emotional need for him, that she seemed like she could get on just fine with or without him. He knew she loved and respected him; she certainly acted the part of a good wife anyhow. But that she never opened up to him in a way that made him feel like he could assuage her fears and know her vulnerabilities, that made him feel less wanted. He had thought while signing his nuptials that he was signing away his loneliness, but sometimes he wondered if it had been naïve of him to have put so much trust in a piece of parchment.
The closest he’d ever been to going on a honeymoon with his tutee-turned-wife was the family trip to Mysore, eight years after the wedding. They went with four kids in tow, and he couldn’t help thinking throughout that it would have been a much different trip if it had happened earlier.
Traveling with kids was an ordeal. It revolved around museum trips and watching street performers, making sure that this one went to the bathroom and that one got a nap and the other one stopped crying over some overpriced toy contrived to torture traveling parents.
For all of the kid-centric stops however, there was something magical about watching these tiny creatures take in the world for the first time. It was not the honeymoon he had hoped for, but it was sweet nevertheless. The look of complete awe when they saw a simple trick, the squeals of joy that even the cheapest of rides could elicit, the complete lack of filter on their tiny, truthful mouths, all of it was enchanting. It was often more fun to watch them watching the world than it was to watch what they were watching. It seemed that as their world was growing wider and wider, the world was closing in for him and his wife. This rambunctious quartet was their world now.
The moment they would remember clearest in their later years was when they thought they had lost one of their sons in Mysore’s Brindavan Gardens. They had been watching a juggler endlessly throw up an assortment of balls and glass bottles, like a dizzying center of some bizarre kaleidoscope, when she looked down to point something out to the kids. But the head count was wrong — one was missing.
He took his eldest and left his wife with the rest of the pack, telling them not to move until he returned. The exotic assortment of flowers and plants all waved colorfully as he power-walked past, face flush with worry and head swimming with all sorts of terrible possibilities. Backtracking his steps he reached the famous dancing fountains that they had seen earlier, and there was his son, standing at the edge, throwing pebbles from the path into its center. His pace quickened, he scooped up his son and hugged him hard, then scolded him for running away.
“Papa I wanted to throw rocks!”
“Shush, don’t ever run off like that! Do you know how worried we were?”
Holding a son’s hand in each of his he walked back to join the rest of the family. His wife didn’t let go of his hand the rest of the trip.
There was the slightest tinge of rage in the sharp turns he took on his way home, negotiating the narrow dirt roads of his neighborhood in his bulky black government issued Ambassador. It had been a long day of dealing with self-aggrandizing state officials who wanted him to hand out subsidies to farmers in their districts. He was not particularly opposed to greasing the democratic process if doing so was not unjust, but he absolutely did not want to be unfair in his job; it was his professional opinion that the farmers whose votes they were buying were entirely undeserving of the subsidies. If it wasn’t election season, nobody would think about them twice, but suddenly their fingers became a valuable commodity, every politician running for office wanting badly to see their digits stained a proud and telling bluish-purple come Election Day.
He had no idea in his youth that he would see days like this, putting his Legum Baccalaureus to work massaging egos. But what could he do? This was India, and he had mouths to feed. This was how government worked: it was all about rank and rupees. Sometimes he wished he had made different choices, had picked a line of work where there was a single right answer, no matter who was the boss. As the dust swirled in the car’s tracks, the sand and dirt becoming temporary testaments to his passing, he wanted nothing more than a future rid of these daily dilemmas, a future where his kids could be public servants if they wanted without being treated like servants, a future where they could win without feeling dirty. He would talk to God sometimes on his solitary drives, and the conversation these days seemed to center on work almost entirely.
“God, fix these damn people,” he’d say. “What are You making me do?”
He left the stately car in front of his house, announcing his entrance with a loud “Salaam” as he entered. But today there was no sound of kids running and jumping to greet him, just his wife peeking out from the kitchen, throwing her dupatta loosely around her head, touching her cupped hand in greeting to her forehead. He asked where the kids were, and she told him the kids were next door at the neighbor’s, watching a rerun of the Independence Day ceremonies in Delhi from the week before.
“They were tired after school, I let them go for just a little while. I can go get them, you just go freshen up.”
She said it almost apologetically, knowing the news would upset him. He had resisted buying a television partly for the cost, but mostly so that the kids would concentrate on their studies and become toppers in their classes. He had prohibited them from watching television, allowing exceptions only on the rarest of occasions, and hearing that they had gone behind his back to watch made him angry. The fact that they had disobeyed him to watch a posse of pompous statesmen make salutes and give empty speeches about values and pride and tradition only incensed him further.
Paying no mind to his wife’s pleadings, he marched over to the neighbor’s and asked them to send his kids out. He glared at them as they marched past single file, his eyes doing all the yelling he needed to.
He could hear the sui generis black Yezdi’s roar a full two minutes before his son pulled up to the front of the house. The motorcycle itself was not particularly powerful, but that was impossible to tell by the way his son tore up the streets with it, terrorizing stray dogs and impressing young boys with the loud, quaking rumble of its furious engine. He would dip and swerve as if it were a natural extension of his body, pushing the aging bike to its absolute limits, speeding along the roads nonchalantly. He had hoped that his aspiring-doctor son would have gone for something tamer — a scooter, perhaps — but his heart had been set on the adventure and image a Yezdi would bring him. And he took care of it exhaustively, detailing it and fixing it up anytime the smallest thing went wrong. Once he had found a semi-circular American flag sticker at a roadside stall — it was now plastered on the top half of his circular headlight, making the old Yezdi look like something a hotshot hero would ride in a B-grade Bollywood movie.
On this day his son entered with a little extra pep in his step. He watched as he came up to him, took the seat across, and handed a tri-folded piece of paper.
“I got in papa! They accepted me to a residency program in the US! It starts in three months! Your son is going to be a doctor now!”
He could barely believe his ears, simultaneously ecstatic at the news, but also cognizant of what it implied. He hugged his son, at a loss for words, the embrace between them feeling the slightest bit alien only because they seldom hugged when it wasn’t Eid.
“Come with me papa, come stay with us, you’ll love it in Massachusetts. There won’t be anything left for you and mama here, come with us. We’ll take care of you now.”
He knew this was true. This would be the last of his children to move to America, the rest already having left for prestigious engineering jobs in recent years. It had been tough to see them go, voices once so familiar becoming unrecognizable over the phone. They had to shout to hear each other over the weak connections. No real conversation was ever had while shouting.
As for the life he had built here, there was not much to speak of. His years of government service would be celebrated with laddu and a series of garlands, and grandiose speeches from his colleagues. But they would move on and forget him within the year. He had served well, but if he was being honest with himself, there was nothing truly remarkable about his tenure in the department. His picture would adorn the wall until the next retirement happened, and then the janitor would replace it in between cups of chai.
He knew his wife missed her kids dearly; he could often hear her praying when she thought she was alone to live with her kids again. She wanted nothing more than to be there to welcome her grandchildren into this world, to tell them stories and fables she had not repeated in two decades. Since she retired from being a schoolteacher her days had become lonely, and the visits from her children did not come as often as she wanted. There wasn’t much for the two of them to do to pass the time anyhow. Without the kids it always seemed like something was missing, their addiction to the pitter-patter of feet and the constant ruckus becoming clearer and clearer as they aged together.
It had been his dream all along for his kids to take off in their respective industries, but now that God had finally shown him this day, he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that maybe he should have framed his prayers differently — that maybe they could have done better without going so far away, that maybe he could have had a reason to continue living on this dusty road in the last chapter of his life. But there really was no reason to stay here any longer in this house, when the people that made it a home were elsewhere.
He smiled and held his son, his pride in his children winning out over everything else.
“Jeete raho, beta. Jeette raho.” Keep living, son. Keep winning.
Fall mornings in New England were something else. Watching leaves fall and grow back was nothing spectacular in and of itself, but it was the peacockish color show that the American leaves put on coupled with the cool air that always took his breath away. It was a lot like the country, or what he had seen of it so far: flamboyant and slightly cold. Everything here was talk; there were no real relationships. Neighbors smiled from a distance and waved hello, but never casually dropped in for afternoon tea. His kids, he remembered with a smile, would feel no shame in their childhood stealing his neighbor’s mangoes by climbing onto their mango tree from the boundary wall, and the neighbors in turn would feign anger only to make things interesting. Here there were no boundary walls to speak of between houses, and yet his grandkids knew nothing of what lay beyond their little patch of lawn, happy to ride their bicycles in lonely circles around the driveway.
This particular morning he was up early, donning his plaid driving cap and jeans to go to the library. This was one of the few things he could still do independently, and he cherished the mornings when it wasn’t too cold to venture out. Here he couldn’t drive, didn’t have many friends, and found things strange. But things were also quite good. There were no more bills to pay, no monotone job to wake up for, only his children and their successes to watch. The days passed playing chess and house with his grandkids, getting them to load the hour-long BBC Urdu Daily World Report on the computer and then leave him in peace to digest the day’s happenings. He would pray more often now that there were no duties to distract him, but there wasn’t a whole lot left that he felt the need to ask for.
There wasn’t much need for him anymore, he had done his job and he had done it well. All his kids were now happily settled in the States, all married and raising families that continued to make him proud. His wife was with him, and she was more content than ever in her routine. They ate breakfast together and then she spent the day reading, praying, and playing with her grandchildren, sometimes chopping vegetables and helping with the cooking when her daughters-in-law would allow it.
The solitary walks through the suburbs to the library still made him feel like his time wasn’t all up yet, that there were still things out there to do and see and feel. The simple act of making his own way there, of sitting at a wood table with his horn-rimmed reading glasses and taking in the world’s news the old fashioned way, through print newspapers, was uniquely satisfying. And for that he got up whenever he could, as often as the weather allowed, until his creaky bones could take it no more.
On this day he was looking up Abul Kalam Azad, the famous scholar and politician that no American librarian had ever heard of. He had heard through a friend of his son’s that the library had recently acquired a collection of books about the Indian revolution, and among them was a great book about Azad. It had always nagged at him that men like Azad and Gandhi were his contemporaries — had he come across them on the street he would have easily addressed them as bhaiya. History had been made while he was busy finding his way, a nation born and branded while he came of age. As he settled into a chair and immersed himself in the book, he couldn’t help but feel a splinter of regret. Someone somewhere could have been looking up a book about him this crisp fall day.
Dawn was cracking, slivers of light smoothly making their way through the drab slits of the blinds, but there were too many needles stuck in his chest to allow him the liberty of watching one last sunrise. Not that it mattered; the strength to even turn on his side had left his body days ago. Consciousness had been fleeting the last few days, but these last two hours had been the clearest — and the most aching — of them all. He could have asked for more morphine, or at least to have his bed readjusted to allow him the glory of the morning, but he decided against it. Sucking in all the air his tired lungs could take, he pressed the button, and when a nurse appeared, he asked, voice raspy and barely audible, for his kids to come in.
Their slight delay in coming told him they must have been engaged in morning prayers, otherwise they would have been in the waiting room, unable to sleep. His family gathered around, mumbling prayers and waiting for him to whisper something, without really expecting him to. He had ceased speaking for weeks now, and if he managed more than a whisper, it would have shocked them.
So he said nothing, just looked at each pair of eyes with a slight, subtle, sad smile. He prayed in his heart for the last time: “God, today I want you to do what You know to be best. Bless us.”
And with that he closed his eyes for the last time, basking in the warmth of his sons.