This has been our ritual ever since I can remember – I am twelve – but still these visits to the dark bungalow where Big Bapa lives fill me with dread, infused as they are with the scent of old age, dead flies and moth wings scattered on the kitchen table and a feeling of vanquished time. But I don’t say so to Nani. It’s awkward enough that my grandfather rarely joins us. He hasn’t forgiven his father for ruining the family. Big Bapa lives with his French wife Odette, whom he met decades ago at the horse races in Bombay, and her sister Simone. So, it’s always just Nani and me and sometimes Mummy and Papa, except on Eid, after the month of fasting, when Bapa comes along, sitting surly and quiet while the rest of us do the talking.
Before leaving I lean forward to kiss the back of his limp palm, touching first my right eye, then left, then lips, to his musty, shriveled skin, in the traditional Kutchi Memon greeting reserved for elders, relieved that I won’t have to come back until Eid.
The car windows are rolled all the way down but here, in the city’s interior, the air is so still and thick it feels as though we are pushing through an invisible wall. Nani is wearing a silk sari despite the heat, and when I ask her about it she says that she likes to inject some pomp and ceremony into Big Bapa’s special day. He’s as blind as a newborn pup, I almost blurt but hold my tongue. I recall how, back in Big Bapa’s bungalow, Odette had pushed herself up from the sunken, moth-eaten sofa, and shuffled over with her metal walker to Nani. I’d perched at the edge of my chair, wondering whether I should stand and help her cross the room but decided to keep sitting and gaze at the floor. Odette and Simone wear loose frocks high up to their knees that expose their pale legs. With a start, I noticed how swollen and bruised Odette’s ankles and feet were, stuffed into soft black leather sandals stretched to bursting.
‘Careful, Odette!’ Simone had admonished in her thin voice. ‘Curiosity will be the death of you yet!’
Odette and Simone lilt and swallow their words, and sometimes it takes me a few seconds to understand what they’ve said. Big Bapa had tilted his head in the direction of the movement, gazing blankly at the ceiling with his grey cataract eyes, looking like a forlorn exotic bird.
‘Ooh Mammy! This silk is just exquisite,’ Odette had sighed, taking a handful of the saree’s paloo into her dry, wax-paper fingers. A beam of late morning sun was streaming into the dank room, in the shape of a funnel, and it caught the rust filigree of the silk in a way that made it shimmer gloriously amid all the dust motes.
‘Beg pardon, Maimoona, did you say something?’ Big Bapa’s voice was strained, buried deep within his throat, from having lost the habit of speaking.
Simone and Odette clucked their tongues. ‘Old man, we’re admiring Mammy’s silk and floating down memory lane!’ Odette said with a silvery laugh.
As we veer past St Joseph’s Convent in the Fiat, I stretch my neck to catch a glimpse of the tall white statue that looks so strangely serene amid the bus fumes and chaos of Saddar. Nani glances up at the rear-view mirror. With a jerk she flicks her half-finished cigarette into the street, quickly rolls up her window. She orders me to do the same.
‘Trouble!’ she snaps in a voice that is charged and sharp. ‘Lock your door!’
I turn and see a gang of enraged men striding out of an alley wielding lathis. I roll up the window so swiftly that my hand cramps. There is a storm of clanging horns and a hurl of activity on either side of the road. A bent woman in a dishevelled, yellow kurta stumbles through the traffic, raising her hand in a saintly manner at the swearing drivers; vendors lean into their wooden carts and push with all their might; a boy, on the back of a Vespa, clutching two live hens, upside down, raining blows onto cyclists and donkeys and cars with a dull sickening sound. An explosion of broken windscreen glass two cars away from us. in each hand, digs his chin into the driver’s back to steady his balance; a rickshaw veers dangerously close to a donkey cart transporting metal rods. I glance back again and there are so many more sweating bodies now, pushing up against one another, the mass of them coiling forward like the oily length of a snake. The men’s faces are distorted with anger and some have their mouths open in what resembles a strange laughter. Cries of Juloos! Juloos! spill amid the thunder and screech of metal shutters coming down on storefronts. Thwack! Thwack! go the indiscriminate lathis, raining blows onto cyclists and donkeys and cars with a dull sickening sound. An explosion of broken windscreen glass two cars away from us. Guavas roll into the street and a monkey-wallah tugs the leash on his monkey so that it shimmies up the side of his body and perches atop his head as he runs. Then someone slaps the dikki of our car and I scream.
With mere inches to spare, Nani presses down on the accelerator and swerves into the adjacent lane, overtaking a green water lorry, decorated with a winged-horse and dangling silver ornaments. I lean back into the seat and bite down on the knuckles of my clenched fist as the Fiat leaps forward with a jerk. In my mind’s eye, I envision a jaguar bounding on grassy savannas and wish desperately that we had the same freedom. After long minutes of driving with both hands clutched tightly to the wheel and squinting with concentration, Nani breathes a long sigh of relief.
‘No regrets!’ she declares matter-of-factly. ‘Big Bapa-and-co would have been so disappointed to have not seen you.’
I don’t say anything. Five minutes more and we’d have been swallowed whole by the raging mass. No one knows we’ve ventured out to this part of the city. The story is that Nani and I are going to the outdoor Sunday bazaar, then stopping by Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine before meeting our extended clan of aunts, uncles and cousins at Uncle K’s house for an auspicious high tea as Aunty Bano described it on the phone to Mummy. Uncle K has planned a special treat for our family gathering. But he won’t reveal anything more, not even to Aunty Bano, except that it has something to do with their new colour TV and VCR. So, don’t be late! She’d insisted.
Trouble. There’s always trouble of some kind or other bringing the city to a standstill. The military keeps things under control but today’s trouble is special. Last night, the President hanged the old prime minister in prison. According to state television news reports, this is meant to be an occasion for rejoicing, not mourning, so shops are obliged to stay open. But our family is glum. The prime minister came to Mummy and Papa’s wedding and gave them an engraved silver bowl that sits in the centre of our dining table. Nani says that in the early days he organized socialist meetings in the family house on First East Street before I was born. She swears it was there that he coined his famous slogan: roti, kapra, makan, promising food, clothing and shelter to the masses. And this is why Mummy, Papa and I have to leave Karachi for Abu Dhabi.
‘And who knows when next you’ll be seeing Odette and Big Bapa again, who knows when you’ll return to this country?’ Nani says and I suddenly realize that I may be spared the Eid visit and a strange feeling comes over me, a shiver of glee mixed with remorse.
We have sped our way out of the spiderweb of snarled traffic, tire shops, bakeries and dilapidated apartment buildings that crouch in the shadows of hand-painted hoardings. I think about how Odette and Simone fawn over me in a way I find unsettling. But to squirm out of their reach might break their hearts, so I let them stroke my hair and hold my hand between their damp palms.
Nani tosses me a sidelong glance. ‘Farah, we just got a glimpse of history, you and I!’ She has a wide-open smile unlike any other grown-up I know. ‘You mustn’t forget. You mustn’t hide from things just because they make you uncomfortable, or even frighten you. Be brave, my darling!’ she says, patting her hand on my knee. ‘And, especially, be brave in love.’
My palms prickle and my cheeks go hot. I think of Kamal who sits behind me in class and tugs on my ponytails and chases me into the field just as the eagles with their dagger eyes swoop down to pick up the remnants of our jam sandwiches from break-time and we screech and run from the muscular flapping of their grey blanket wings descending, and their terrible, terrible talons. And then I think of Mummy and Papa and the fighting, frenzied love they share and if that’s what it is to be brave in love, I don’t want a part of it.
‘Birth and bloodletting go hand in hand, Farah. This country is still being born. Do you know, one early morning, only days before we left Bombay for Karachi, I was standing in the balcony of our house, savouring the breeze and the coconut palms and the purple sky, when I heard a commotion on the street, and then a piercing scream. I peered over and there in front of me was Abdul, the milkman, his white kurta turning maroon, those goondas going at him with their knives. They just left him there, slumped on the road with his bicycle twisted over him. I ran down into the street but the gardener dragged me back in through the gates, brought me to my senses. We had no choice but to board the ships leaving Bombay. No matter how bad things seem here, Farah, they were getting incomparably worse there for us. . .’
When Nani falls silent I say, ‘Can we put the music on now?’ She doesn’t answer and I take that as a yes, push Blondie’s Heart of Glass into the tape recorder. Immediately, the city springs to life. The lingering, hot stink of dried fish from a passing truck fades into the background as the disco beat and Blondie’s stretchy, nasally, voice transports me to a Karachi that feels safe, familiar. I think of the upcoming swimming gala at the Sind Club and the band that will play and I wonder if all of us friends will just dance in a group as we always do or whether Kamal will ask me to dance alone with him. I decide I will wear my new feather hair band Aunty Bano got me from London. Meanwhile, we continue driving along tree-lined Sunset Boulevard, towards the sea, towards Uncle K and Aunty Bano’s house.
In my mind, Uncle K and Aunty Bano’s house is the closest thing to the glorious heyday of Bapa’s storied life in Bombay – before Big Bapa gambled the family’s entire fortune and creditors came to the house and took the cars, the crystal and silver right in front of Bapa, his mother, and his six siblings. Bapa was sixteen, the eldest, when the intruders entered, grabbing and boxing up the living mementos of their home. The house was eventually converted into a hospital, Nani says. Big Bapa moved in with Odette, wealthy in her own right. Bapa left school to look after his mother and help support his siblings. ‘But,’ Nani, says shaking her head in wonder, as she always does at this point in the story, ‘for years and years Big Bapa would keep coming back to Nani Ma for conjugal visits, despite Odette.’
Aunty Bano is Bapa’s sister and when she married Uncle K in Pakistan, she was the first in the family to marry out of the Kutchi Memon community. Mummy followed in her footsteps by marrying Papa who is a Pathan from the North West Frontier Province. Papa doesn’t care for Uncle K and vice versa. Uncle K has business dealings with the new government that have suddenly made him rich. He is close with the general. Ever since they moved into the new house, Uncle K’s voice has become loud and brash, and he gesticulates widely with his whole body when he talks about the benefits of martial law. Nani says new money doesn’t buy you good manners and grooming. Each time she says this, her eyebrows slide up into triangles of disdain. Papa and Uncle K are the only outsiders in the family, though the Kutchi Memons themselves are considered outsiders in this country. Mohajirs, they’re called. Emigrants from India.
Uncle K and Aunty Bano make frequent trips to London and without fail return with bulging suitcases. But this last trip, they were barely gone a week before a telegram arrived at our place, announcing their urgent return in two days and to please notify the servants to prepare their house. Still, their suitcases were filled to bursting with sumptuous loot for us cousins: Cadbury’s Whole Nut chocolate, panties from Marks and Spencer, bubble bath, Hello Kitty and Superman pencil boxes with magnetic compartments, skateboards; potions and lotions and lipsticks for the aunties.
On their first mornings back from London, if it isn’t a school day, I make it a point to visit. I inhale deeply in Aunty Bano’s air-conditioned TV lounge, sucking in that special smell of abroad: a textured fragrance that is cool and slick and floaty and emanates from the open suitcases, signalling to me that foreign means clean and invincible. It’s the closest I’ve been to another country. I try to picture the shiny streets of London while Aunty Bano unpacks. She tells me all about her misadventure: how she was crossing a square while a man was scattering seeds, how her silk handbag became splattered with pigeon poo except she didn’t notice until she was seated at a table at a fancy restaurant.
If anyone says they are going abroad, it is understood they mean London or Berlin, or Paris. Not Abu Dhabi. It doesn’t count. It only has two seasons, that’s where taxi drivers and construction workers go, leaving their families behind, not seeing them for years on end. A desert with Bedouins; no one goes there for holidays. It’s all because of the new president who is acting like a big bully in a playground, Nani explains. Papa has had enough of his threats. It’s better, safer, just to move away, she says. It doesn’t entirely make sense to me but there is a half-concealed urgency in her tone that matches the ominous silence from Mummy and Papa each time I beg them to change their minds about moving.
As we circle the roundabout by the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the saint who guards the city from tidal waves and cataclysms, I feel as if fear – from our narrow escape in Saddar – deposited itself at the foot of the Clifton Bridge before we crossed over to the safe side of the city, freeing me from its talons. Now, a surge of excitement shoots through me. I feel certain the special surprise that Uncle K has promised the family is Carry on Up the Khyber, a movie we have all been eagerly waiting for. They must have brought a tape of it back from London, I think.
Nani pulls up to the large, orchid-coloured house with a stucco facade and beeps three times. The chowkidaar swings open the tall iron gates, salutes a salaam. Parked on the left side of the circular drive is Uncle K’s prized collection: a black Austin Healey, a powder-blue Jaguar, a cream Porsche and his shiny new silver Mercedes. The gardener is charged with polishing the cars to a sheen and he is at it now, his kameez, so drenched with sweat, it is black and looks as though he has mismatched his grey shalwar.
The bearer ushers Nani and me into the TV lounge and just as we are about to step through the carved wooden sliding doors Nani winks at me and places her finger on her lips conspiratorially: ‘What happened to us was history!’ she whispers and squeezes my arm. ‘Our secret!’
The house smells like new leather and paint. On the coffee table is a spread of home-made guava jelly, lemon tarts from the Sind Club, cucumber sandwiches, alloo channa and a lead-crystal jug of lemon-barley for the children. On a separate trolley, there are cut-glass decanters filled with drinks for the grown-ups. Everyone’s in the adjoining courtyard, admiring the recently completed Mughal fountain and the pond filled with lotus flowers.
‘Ah, the stragglers are finally here!’ booms Uncle K leading aunts, cousins and uncles inside as if he were the Pied Piper. ‘Come, come, let’s not waste any more time. Make yourselves comfortable,’ he says with a sweep of his arm.
Us cousins are all dressed alike, the girls in smocked polka-dot maxis with lace trim and flouncy bows that tie in the back and satin slippers with diamantes, the boys in khaki safari shorts, white collared shirts with striped ties and round-toed leather shoes brushed to a sheen with Kiwi Polish – Aunty Bano has requested we all dress for the mysteriously auspicious occasion.
The colour TV and VCR have recently arrived from Hong Kong by special order. The television set sits like a fat Buddha in a Louis XIV armoire bought especially to house it. Uncle K fidgets with the settings and the khalas and khaloos take up positions on the antique Chinese sofas whose carved wood backs are so pointy and bumpy that it makes me think of how it would feel to rub against a mountain range if I were a giant cat. Uncle K swears under his breath, unable to get the VCR to work. The grown-ups exchange stories about what happened last night, speaking over each other but lowering their voices each time one of us children approach. Aunty Bano gasps and clamps her hand to her head as if one of her famous migraines is creeping in. We scamper out to the courtyard, taking with us crumbs of the grown-ups’ furious chatter: auspicious, noose, cigar ashes, Magistrate First Class, burnt papers. . .
We joke with each other:
‘I declare you an auspicious noose!’
‘Oh Tara, let me auspiciously splash you with auspicious water.’
‘At attention! Magistrate First Class, you auspicious fool!’
We range in age from five to thirteen and don’t have to worry about offending Aunty Bano, as we delight in mocking her new favourite word. None of us are her children, so it won’t get back to her. And that’s why Uncle K and Aunty Bano have started spending more time in London than just the summers, I heard Mummy and Roxana Khala muttering on the phone, something about injections and babies, but when I asked her about it she shooed me away and said I had an overactive imagination.
Aunty Bano stands by the glass door now, waving for us to come in. ‘Your Uncle K has a special surprise, she says, her eyes shining. He won’t even tell me what it is. Shall we try to guess?’
‘Carry On Up the Khyber!’ I yell as we traipse inside.
‘Punch and Judy!’ says Tara.
‘Star Wars!’ says Ali.
We slouch on poufs or lean against velvet bolster pillows and sit cross-legged on the floor. Uncle K strides up to the television, shakes his head dramatically.
‘No, no and no! All of you are wrong! What you’re about to see is something highly momentous! Homegrown. Rooted in your own soil.’ He turns the knob on the television.
A vista of colour blooms to life, so bright and sharp and unlike the grainy black-and-white screen at home. We are mesmerized into silence. Uncle K continues to stand in front of the TV, reluctant to give up the spotlight. Behind his square figure, the PTV anchor is wearing a magenta shalwar kameez with a green border running along the neckline and cuffs of her raglan sleeves. She has dark, wavy hair and red lipstick. As she speaks, her white muslin dupatta slips off her head. She announces there is a slight delay in the programming schedule.
‘So sloppy these dupattas look on TV!’ Lubna Khala remarks. ‘What modesty is there in a fidgety announcer, drawing attention to herself?’
‘Hah! Please be patient in typical Paki fashion!’ Tariq Khaloo slaps his thigh.
‘Brace yourselves, ladies and gentlemen! I am going to switch on the VCR! You will thank me afterwards.’ Uncle K punches the air with his fist. We giggle.
‘Thank you for what, King?’
‘Arrey, you’ll see. . . For educating your bachas, giving these kiddos a glimpse of history. History! Truth! That’s the name of the game!’
‘Khalid?’ Aunty Bano says and her voice trembles.
But Uncle K has switched on the VCR and the TV announcer is abruptly replaced by night, all the colour from seconds ago, drained from the screen. There is only a dark grainy field and a shuffling sound.
‘What kind of joke is this, Khalid?’ says Zaffar Khaloo.
‘Sshhh! Patience, patience! A gift from my friend Lieutenant Colonel Rafi.’
Nani’s face is pale and she is chewing her bottom lip. Aunty Bano excuses herself to go to the bathroom.
Astaghfarullah! someone mutters.
‘Children, out into the courtyard, at once!’ commands Tariq Khaloo.
But no one moves. The room stills into silence. I snap my head back to the screen. There is a thin man being pushed along by three others who can barely keep him upright so that his white kurta drags on the ground and quickly gains a soiled border. There is a tearing sound. The edge of the man’s kurta is caught in the heel of another man’s boot.
‘Wretched! To think he would come to this, he who was always so fastidious about his appearance. . .’ Lubna Khala mutters.
‘Oh yes, that I’ll give him! They say he insisted on shaving before being brought out,’ Uncle K booms. ‘But, you see, eventually pride comes before a fall!’ He looks pleased, as if he’s been plotting with the gods for pride’s fall.
A hand nudges its way into mine. It’s Tara’s. I hold it tight and soon our palms are sweaty. There is a steady sequence of the men walking, unspeaking. No sound except for the shuffle of footsteps. Uncle K stands to the side of the television, stroking the ends of his moustache.
The men enter a big lawn with trees – almond trees, they look like. The thin man is placed in a stretcher, his hands folded on his stomach and handcuffed. A bearer in a white starched uniform comes forward with a cup of tea.
‘Amma, this is so boring,’ Laila suddenly wails, rupturing the silence in the room. ‘I want to watch something else.’
‘SShhhh!’ the room hisses.
‘On the other side of the wall there,’ Uncle K points, ‘is the prime minister’s house. Imagine, the banquets he was used to and now he can’t even hold his own cup of tea!’
When I look at Uncle K, I am shocked to see him grinning so energetically that the chubby pouches of his cheeks tremble.
‘How on earth did you procure this footage, K?’ Tariq Khaloo asks.
The face and body of the handcuffed man come into close view. His feet and ankles are yellow. I think back to a few months ago when I had jaundice and the whites of my eyes turned yellow, how sick I felt. A wave of nausea comes over me and then with a shudder I realize that this man with the hollow eyes and loose cheeks, does indeed resemble the prime minister, a skeletal version of him.
‘Ah, Tariq, when you have friends in high places, the world is your oyster,’ guffaws Uncle K.
Four men in tawny overalls gather around the stretcher, each lifting a corner. The man who looks like the prime minister lies motionless.
‘This is the prime minister?’ I say uncertainly.
No one answers. The stretcher is carried up to a tall wooden frame with a rope.
‘A gallows,’ Tariq Khaloo whispers.
‘You’ve outdone yourself, Khalid,’ Nani’s voice quivers. Her eyes are narrow and I haven’t seen her this angry since the time she told the tale of how she rescued Gigi from a backstreet in Clifton, getting out of the car to investigate the tortured cries of a puppy.
‘Oh come on, Maimoon!’ Uncle K says impatiently.
Excuse me, ji? Excuse me? A man in a suit leans into the motionless man, trying to decipher his words.
I am riveted. Two of the men lift the prime minister briskly from under his arms, off the stretcher, and on to the plank of the gallows. His body is wobbly from his extended hunger strike and the uniformed men grip him firmly to prevent him from collapsing. The handcuffs are removed, his arms yanked behind his back, the handcuffs replaced.
The force of the movement jolts the prime minister’s body. I think of how I know him best: haughty face, round cheeks, khaki jacket. It is hard to think of this skinny man who is caving into himself as the leader who, when he addressed the nation, puffed his broad chest out with arrogance, the flap of hair across his almost bald scalp awry at the end of his speech.
Suddenly, I want the morning to begin again. I want to go back far into the interior of the city, to PECHS, to Big Bapa, to Odette and Simone and the soft world of their little musty bungalow. I wonder what it feels like to be stuck in your own darkness, I wonder if I’ll go blind like Big Bapa when I’m old and hold my head like a lost bird the way he does. In Abu Dhabi, Papa says the light is bright and piercing, the purest gold, like nothing he’s seen before. In Abu Dhabi, everything is clean. Everything works: electricity; water; schools close only for the holidays; protests are not permitted. I think of the silver bowl, polished fastidiously, sitting quietly in the middle of our dining table where it’s sat for as long as I can remember.
Aunty Bano is sobbing, her breath catching in wheezy spasms. Rivulets of mascara course down her face and onto her fuschia collar like black rain drops. Lubna Khala clutches Aunty Bano’s knee with one hand, eyes fixed to the screen, nose and mouth buried into the crook of her right elbow. Some of the younger cousins have tripped out into the garden.
A man in a beige shalwar kameez strides over and without any fanfare slips a black sack over the prime minister’s sunken face. The man in the suit places his ear close to the bagged head and, like a clown in a play, says again, Excuse me, ji? Excuse me? and shrugs.
‘Haraamzada! He had it coming! Exactly what he deserves!’ Uncle K slams his fist into his palm. His face twists into a grotesque mask, remains frozen like that for several terrifying seconds.
I lift my dress up from under my feet, careful not to trip on its length. Nudging Tara, I point my chin in the direction of the courtyard. We inch our way out from behind the coffee table, past the grown-ups who are chattering furiously now. We push open the double glass doors, throw our faces into the breeze. Blossoms drift off the Frangipani tree. Giggling, we try to catch the petals on our tongues before they land on the flagstones. There is this: the just-filled pond inviting us to splash, the gardener’s hose still trickling water into the bed of carnations and roses.
Image by Damiandude