My mother married my father because her husband died, and my father married my mother because his wife passed away. Shortly after their spouses’ deaths, the elders convened in a baradari somewhere in our Punjabi village and decided they’d both be less sad together. It looked like things had worked out well for both, but it was a bit like trying to mend a big crack in a wall by putting wallpaper on it, you know? Like electrocuting a dead frog and calling its spasming body alive.
My earliest memories are of Abu arriving back from the Gujranwala sessions court and me trying to lock him up in an imaginary prison cell made of the tall trees that lined the inside of the brick wall in front of our house. I’d pretend the space between any two tree trunks was an invisible gate, and whenever he’d rush to get out, I’d get there first and lock it with one swift hand gesture. Khicheenk! I’d shout, mimicking the sound of a metallic lock clicking shut, and laugh and laugh watching Abu grow more and more miserable. All the guards, the driver and gardeners would gather round, cheering and clapping each futile attempt by Abu. Khicheenk! Khicheenk! When he was out of breath and sweating, his tie loosened and coat on one arm, Ami would come rushing out to see why we hadn’t come inside and scold me for putting Abu through all that. She’d then scold Abu, reminding him to act his age.
You’re my father’s age; what if something happens to you?
Abu was around fifty and Ami a little over twenty when they married. When Abu was a lawyer in his thirties, Ami was a small kid barely able to walk. On festive occasions, my parents’ cousins and siblings would often laugh and tell the story of how my father, a good elder cousin, used to sit my mother in his lap when she wouldn’t stop crying, rocking her on a leg, singing her a Punjabi lullaby. They’d all then break into that lullaby and sing it till they were hysterical. Ami and Abu would both be good sports and laugh along.
I always noticed how at such times Ami would look at Abu, her eyes smiling expectantly, but he would never look back to meet her waiting gaze.
Abu was a quiet, private, practical man. When he had no children from his first marriage, my paternal grandfather Dada Ji refused to give him his share of the family land. Dada said Abu didn’t have a son to continue his legacy; giving him the land would be like throwing it away in an anna khoo, a blind well. Any other landlord’s son in our village raised dreaming of his birthright would have rebelled, but Abu stopped slaving for Dada Ji’s cash crops and headed back to the city to put his law degree to use.
It was there in Lahore that he had met his first wife some years prior. She lived in a female hostel opposite his male one in Model Town and studied law herself. Abu would take her on samosa and Coca Cola dates on his blue Vespa and once even sneaked into her women’s college in a burqa to surprise her on her birthday. Abu was one of the first to marry outside his family, the Bhattis. He had to fight his brother and father and convince his mother before marrying the love of his life. The two years he was married to his first wife were his happiest, Ami said. They must have been, for Abu could be seen smiling in all those photos, whereas Ami and Abu didn’t even have a photo together. Abu’s first wife died of food poisoning from overeating the dry fruits Abu had lovingly brought her when she finally got pregnant. Everything I know about Abu’s first wife I know because Ami told me. He had such a colourful personality, she would say. What do you call those films? Technicolour, yes. It’s just that he got all black and white by the time he got to me, you know? Isn’t that so, Judge Sahab?
Ami always called him that. Judge Sahab. I never heard her call him by his name. People credited Ami for Abu’s upgrade from being a lawyer to a judge: It’s the new wife who brought with her Allah’s blessing of wealth and prosperity; the old one only ever dragged him down, people would say. And why wouldn’t it be so? The old one was a stranger, this one from our own Bhatti clan, his own cousin! I wondered if calling him Judge Sahab was Ami’s way of claiming that credit. I wondered if she realised it instead did the work of distancing him from her. Whenever Ami spoke lightly of Abu’s first wife, Abu would always try to change the topic at my expense, pointing out how my hair was coming onto my ears and needed a haircut or demanding I show him my schoolwork for that week’s test marks.
When I joined school, Abu was given the daunting task of monitoring my early academic career, and Ami would always blame Abu for any bad remarks I received at Parent Teacher Meetings. You have one job, she would say, but Abu never asserted the fact that he also spent half his day at work deciding who lived and who died. I think he loved his time with me. He bought me one of those small plastic table and chair sets with detachable blue legs, red chair backrests and a ludo board printed on the tabletop. He would set it up in the front garden and make me sit there tracing dots in a locally published, cursive handwriting exercise book he bought me, which inexplicably featured Aishwarya Rai on its front cover with ‘Barbie Joining Writing’ written below. Thoughtfully watching the gardener pick lemons from a tree in the front garden and waiting for his freshly prepared skanjbeen to arrive one evening, he told me Pakistan’s founding father Quaid-e-Azam didn’t have electricity at home many nights, so he used to study under a streetlight until dawn; that was why he was such a great man. I asked him why Quaid-e-Azam didn’t study during the day, that my class teacher said only bad students pull all-nighters. This angered Abu, so he started telling me, for the fourth time now, about the time he took off his uniform and held it high above his head to cross the river when one day he couldn’t find a boatman to take him across, on his way to his school. And how he had gotten a good scolding from one Ustad Noor when he got there because his uniform was soaking wet.
In his own way, Abu was always trying to teach me things. He took me to the village cemetery once. Holding his finger, his big blue agate ring cold in my small palm, I felt all excited, like a tourist. Why is there a tree growing out of that grave? Why are cemetery trees so twisted and weird? Why are most graves just mounds of dirt with a single brick placed on top, and only a few have cement or marble tombstones? Most of the dirt ones were subsiding, and Abu would have to warn me repeatedly not to step on this one or that. He said the dirt ones belonged to poor tenants and peasants whose families had worked for our feudal landlord family for generations. I remember thinking it made sense; after all, the village was called Bhattian, after our family name Bhatti. I asked him if we were the ‘rulers’, who was the queen or king? He said the king passed away and then stopped walking and pointed to a big, beautiful marble grave and said it was my great, great grandfather’s. He pointed to the grave next to it and said that was my great grandfather’s, and next to it my grandfather’s. He pointed to the dirt ground beyond it and said that’s where he would rest. I pointed to the patch of dusty ground just beyond it and asked if that’s where I will be buried. He smiled, picked me up and started walking away.
You don’t have to worry about all that just now.
Ami was an excited little girl trapped in a much older, overweight body. She had that energy. She was the kind of person who would laugh at her own joke before she was done telling it. She would get excited about meeting her sisters whenever we went to her hometown Sargodha and want to stay on, but Abu never liked spending a night away from home, so Ami would have to compromise. She spent most of her time watching Indian soap operas Kasauti Zindagi ki, Kumkum, Kahin Na Kahin Tau Ho Ga and was perhaps the most avid fan of the Star Parivaar. When she wasn’t watching TV, she was busy lamenting how none of the maids we brought along from our village did the work just as she preferred.
Sometimes she would pick up a two-decade-old Khwateen Digest she still had from her university days when the wildest thing she and her sisters had ever done was hide Imran Khan and Lady Diana magazine poster cutouts under their pillows when our daunting grandfather Nana Ji checked in on them unannounced. At the age of twenty- two, she had done her BA and got married to her first husband, a week after graduation. Everyone was busy with my wedding preparations. No one took me to my graduation ceremony or picked up my degree afterwards. She did her BA in English, and as a kid I would ask her what the characters in the Cartoon Network shows were saying in English, making fun of her ensuing confusion. When she did speak English, it was always to poke fun at herself, with an exaggerated Punjabi accent and intentionally bad grammar: Son, drink father some water, or he will be the die from thirst! Only once did I hear her converse in English seriously. It was with the little daughter of a family friend based in Australia who had come to visit. She thought I was on the phone, but I overheard her talking to the kid, asking her about Australia: if she had ever seen a kangaroo, if she had Muslim friends at school. Ami was surprisingly good.
Ami also grew up thinking she wasn’t good looking. She hated the dimples that appeared on her cheeks when she smiled. Like a Mehran car that needs a denting job, she would say. She hated the mole on her chin. I would play her this Noor Jahan song that glorified the beauty of a beloved’s mole, considered a symbol of beauty in Urdu poetic tradition, but she wouldn’t get it. And I noticed her sometimes trying to smile less widely, hiding her front teeth. They are big and shiny and beautiful, I’d tell her. Fit to nibble on carrots, she’d joke. I once asked Abu if he thought Ami was pretty. I wanted to prove Ami wrong, so I asked it over dinner in Ami’s presence. He swallowed a mouthful and said, She’s definitely a great cook.
When I was in sixth grade, Abu retired from the judiciary. He wanted to get me out of Gujranwala and into Aitchison College, the cool Lahori school established by the British Raj back when Pakistan was a colony. A school where they swam, raced horses, wore turbans, and the council members rode bicycles speaking self-importantly into walkie talkies. However, someone had told him most kids got rejected because of their height, being too short or tall. So, when we arrived in Lahore a day before the entrance test – staying over at a relative’s house – Abu called a taxi and took me shoe shopping. He wanted to buy me the thinnest of soles so that they would not add to my height. We went around from Bata to Servis and couldn’t find anything that fit the bill. At last, we found a canvas slipper from a roadside shoe seller, its sole paper thin. I was too embarrassed to wear it, but Abu forced me, so I did. After the test was over, we were all made to stand in a line and wait. When it was my turn to get my height measured, they asked me to take off my shoes and step onto the raised wooden platform.
I didn’t get into Aitchison, but I did my O and A levels from Lahore, still. I lived with my parents near my school, and growing up, this part of my life was about trying to break free. My mother wanted me to stay out of trouble and inside the house. My father wanted me to act like a landlord’s son and go on to join the bureaucracy or judiciary. Like most kids my age, I did not know what I wanted.
When I learned the moonwalk and showed it to Abu, he didn’t get it. You’re just walking backwards, he said with a confused smile. But doesn’t it look like I’m going forward despite walking backward? I asked, but he had returned to the news on the TV. When he saw me breakdancing, he called it exercise. Dance is what Madhubala does in that film Pakeezah; these are just…acrobatics. When I put up movie posters in my room, he wanted me to take down the one where Daniel Day-Lewis was smoking a cigarette. I never let those things anywhere near my mouth, he said. You think twice about whose son you are before you do that, ok? When I showed him my first short film as an actor, I kept watching his face for a reaction. When it ended, he nodded and told me he liked it. Then he walked out of the room, after asking me to never let anyone from our village see it. You have to care about how our people back there think of us a certain way. When I brought home the guitar, Abu called it noise. Six strings is too much, he said. You should see Chacha Rahma play the iktara sometime. It has just one string. If you’re any good, that’s enough. I laughed at this, and he said, You’ll see. When we visited our village the following Eid, he asked our land manager Chacha Rahma to play me the iktara. The old man plucked at the single taut string of the small, colourful wooden instrument and hummed a beautiful folk tune as Abu tapped a foot and nodded along, beaming at me. When the song ended, he clapped.
That was the only time I had ever seen him do that for anyone.
Ami was only now learning to trust the bigger city. I’d step outside, and she would expect me to text her my whereabouts. I’d be half an hour late and be greeted with tirades about how bad it is out there and how naive I am to be hanging out this late. I’d ask her what had she really seen of the world outside, and she’d unmute and turn up the TV volume and not respond. If she was lucky, there’d be a news bulletin on at that moment about some suicide bombing in the city, and she’d just triumphantly point towards the screen with the remote control in one hand and chai in the other and rest her case.
One day when I came back from some friend’s birthday really late, my phone battery having died on the way back, I found Ami waiting in the garage barefoot with no dupatta. She saw me enter and sank to the ground and started crying, her face in her hands. I parked the car and rushed to her, asking her what was wrong, but she wouldn’t say. When she had calmed down a bit, she took my arm and let me help her inside. In the dark drawing room, we both sat as she sobbed and told me of her life before she married Abu.
She told me she was married off to the eldest son of her father’s cousin, but his family were strange, bitter people. They wouldn’t let her visit her family in Sargodha. They would turn against her husband if he ever talked of taking her to the city. Her husband’s sisters would jokingly tell her she should forget about the world outside the four walls, that this was her whole world. That’s how a good woman should think, especially so young as to not even be a woman at all but a girl. Ami wasn’t even expecting when they would, in Ami’s presence, fight over which of them would get to marry their children to Ami’s first child. Ami’s first husband, a policeman posted in some Sindhi city, would only return home on long holidays, and they would have concocted stories against Ami for each of these visits.
One day he was angry at something, someone; Ami forgets, but he left in a great rage and hurry. His dead body, impaled on steel rods from head to waist, arrived home an hour later; he had smashed his car into a donkey cart which had these rods loaded on it, dangerously protruding beyond the edge of the cart, pointed at the windshield of whoever was driving behind.
If you have only one support in this entire world and he is brought home one day in such a condition, it weakens the heart. Believe me, I cannot bear to go through that again. My life will end there and then if something ever happens to you.
As she sat there near me, speaking softly, for the first time I realised how weak she looked, how bony her hands felt in my palm, how her hair was starting to grey.
When I got into university, which was an hour’s drive away from our place, I moved to the university hostel. I’d stay there for weekdays and return home for the weekends. When I announced I was thinking of doing this, I sensed a strange desperation in Ami and Abu’s voices as they tried coming up with alternatives. An apartment maybe, but that would mean giving this house on rent; no, we cannot do that; maybe we can hire you a driver so you don’t get tired because of all the driving; oh, it’s the travelling that’s tiring, not exactly driving? Hmm.
The day I left, Ami hugged me twice. Once when I was all packed up and leaving the kitchen after breakfast and again when I had loaded everything in the car and was about to climb in. Abu, who was in his late seventies now, almost double Ami’s age, and had developed arthritis, didn’t get up but shook my hand and returned to his newspaper after telling me to always ask him for anything I might need.
At the university, I’d always talk to Ami in the evenings. Abu never called, and I never called him, except when I needed something. Actually, even then I asked Ami for it, and she’d ask Abu. When I came home the first weekend, I sensed a strange silence about our house. Ami had switched from watching Geo and HUM soaps on TV with Abu to watching them on YouTube on her mobile, with headphones on. Abu, whose hearing had worsened, lay there watching news on mute, reading the headline strip as it went by. The week after, Ami had moved to a different room, Skyping with her sisters and sharing YouTube desi conspiracy videos in their family WhatsApp group while Abu stared at one of my friends’ abstract paintings on my room’s wall and tried to talk to me about it. I never understood paintings or poems, he said. I like biographies though, actual lives, events that matter. Rest is just stories. All such rants of his would conclude with how I was wasting my life studying theatre at university and not doing CSS or Law, something he could show off to his people back in the village.
I promised I’d bring him some autobiographies then. I brought him Shahab Nama and Kajal Kotha, and he would carry them around the house reading and reciting his favourite passages to an uninterested Ami. When, one Sunday, I showed him Mughal-e-Azam and he cried throughout the film, Ami passing through the room on her way to the bathroom said, God knows what tragedies he recalls and cries. Never saw a tear of affection for me in those eyes in all these years. He didn’t hear this; he only heard when someone spoke very loudly and directly to him; when Ami and I would talk over dinner, he couldn’t follow the conversation, but whenever our eyes met, he’d just smile kindly.
One weekend when I returned home from university, Abu had stubble growing. He asked me if I would take him to the barber for a shave. He hated beards and used to say that a true Momin is a mu-mon, that is, clean-shaven in Punjabi; he had a special hatred for moulvis. I asked if we could do it tomorrow, and he said today would be better, so I said okay. Later, over dinner, he boasted to Ami, Did you see how my son came home all the way from university and said, ‘Let’s go get you all groomed and neat, Abu’? Did you see? That’s what sons are!
After that, every weekend when I came back home, Abu would be waiting eagerly, his white stubble growing back. We’d drive to the barber, and after his shave, we would get chai at the adjacent chai dhaba, at his insistence. He would walk very slowly, descending one step at a time, his old-people skin soft and smooth, his hand bony in mine as I helped him down. It made me think of all the times I was not there to lend that hand, five days out of seven, and how he must search for support in cold steel railings, wooden furniture, smooth walls you cannot latch onto. I thought about how he had started sleeping with the light on and would express distress if I preferred the room dimly lit. I thought about how he had recently told me that he imagined sleeping in the middle of a large room, with all his siblings and parents and cousins now gone sleeping on mattresses around him, facing inward, towards him. I would ask him why he hadn’t kept in touch with his colleagues or friends, and he’d dismiss me with a simple Who’s got the time, son.
As we waited for our tea, he’d start telling me about his father and grandfather. One weekend, he told me with a chuckle about what followed when his brother contracted tetanus from riding a horse whose saddle had been repeatedly bruising and cutting his ankle. Their father kept taking him to this moulvi sahab for dum darood instead of a doctor, and, when he died, at the funeral their father started tossing his white turban, an ultimate gesture of mourning. With each toss he shouted, If only I’d known you would die of a horse saddle, I would’ve torn apart every horse’s ass in our district! He repeated this until his turban got caught in some high branch of a tree, to everyone’s amusement, and some kid was sent climbing to fetch it.
The next week over tea after the shave, he told me how his father married his mother. He was passing along a street in the village on horseback when he saw this girl he really liked washing clothes at the river. He stopped and asked her straight away if she’d marry him. Someone passing by heard, and word got out. The men in her family chased him off on horseback, armed with sticks and rods. When he got home, he got off his horse and rushed inside. The mob followed, but inside, they all stopped, confused. My Dada Ji was praying on a prayer mat. Everyone waited for the two, three, four namaaz rakaats to end so they could confront him, but he just wouldn’t end it! He kept going and going, and when an hour or so had passed, no one could take it all seriously anymore, and everyone burst out laughing and assured my grandfather they wouldn’t harm him; he could end the prayer. When he complied, he asked everyone to stay back for dinner and served them all good food. The next month, he sent the proposal again, this time with his father, and was accepted.
I told Ami these stories. She and Abu had fought recently since Ami felt he favoured his old servants, especially his land manager Chacha Rahma, prioritizing their opinion over hers in matters of how to run things at the farm back in the village. She said she had heard the stories, that when old people get sad, they remember their past a lot; I’d just have to sit through it. She was concerned about his health though. She had recently noticed a lisp in his speech and found his sugar levels to be very low. He was taking seven medicines twice a day. No matter what his age or how he is, everything we are is because of him, she said.
Next time I went to university, I had to go to two different rooms to tell them both goodbye. When I left, I couldn’t come back home for a month. I had got a lead acting role for a play and was busy in rehearsals over the weekends. Whenever Ami would call in the evening, I’d be busy, and when I got free late, she’d be asleep. She would YouTube me Qasim Ali Shah videos with titles like ‘Work Hard in Silence’, ‘How to Improve Communication and Time Management Skills’, ‘How Thankless Person Lose Love and Valuable Relations’. I’d sometimes reply with smileys but often with nothing because the videos were long, and I had to memorize this Agha Hashar play, heavy with Urdu and Persian poetry.
When the play was only a week away, I called both my parents and showed them their two tickets and told them they were invited. I told them I would have a dramatics society member drive them to and from the venue on the day. Abu was super excited, and Ami gave me tips to keep my nerves calm backstage. I was on a WhatsApp video chat, and seeing them both in one frame, on one screen, their faces close to each other, made me happy. I showed them the costume I was going to wear as the great Persian fighter Sohrab, and Ami noticed it wasn’t exactly Persian. Those look like gladiator clothes, no? I laughed and told her the play had songs from Bollywood movies like Baji Rao Mastani too, that the costumes’ historical accuracy was perhaps the least of our concerns. They both laughed. I was so happy us three would do something together and be excited about it. And I was happy it was a play I was responsible for and acting in. Abu, always trying to make me study what matters to get a job that wouldn’t embarrass him, a job that would make him proud, would finally see and maybe even like the actor and storyteller in me? Maybe he would realise all his investment in me didn’t go down that blind well after all? Maybe those plastic tables and chairs with detachable blue legs and slim sole canvas shoes were not all for nothing?
Maybe when the curtains were drawn, he would even clap?
A few days before the play, my phone rang. Abu Calling. He never called. I picked up the call and asked if everything was alright.
It wasn’t Abu on the line, and no, everything was not alright.
The day of the funeral was a cliché. It rained. There were no sombre people in black carrying dark umbrellas in a scenic green cemetery, no. It was the cemetery Abu had taken me to all those years ago when I was a kid. It was muddy and humid, and the twisted old yew trees looked sad and scary as we barely made out and avoided stepping on the almost flattened graves, shouting directions, carrying the dead body on a charpoy on our shoulders. The funeral prayers were offered outdoors in the rain by all the men. The young imam from the cemetery’s mosque had a cold and kept sneezing throughout the prayer. A few rows behind me, someone’s phone kept ringing in qawwali tunes.
I was the first to crawl into the prepared grave, its arched roof layered with bricks and cement, open only from the end the legs would rest. The body was then lowered, and I caught it by the shoulders and pulled it further along into the grave. There was a moment when it was just me and the body in there. Complete dark and quiet.
I hugged Abu and said sorry.
For not speaking up when he couldn’t follow what we were saying, what we really meant, for the fistful of beard on his face he’d be buried with because I was busy rehearsing a play and no one took him to the barber for weeks, for making him so miserable playing our little prisoner game around those tree trunks all those years ago. And for so many things besides, but it was raining hard, and the grave was flooding, so it was time to go.
I climbed out of the grave thinking about Ami and watched the last brick being put into place.
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