“Three spoons of sugar… that’s excessive”, I thought as I let the prayer beads slip from my palm. My Nana had asked me to make him a very sweet cup of tea. I wondered whether he usually took this much sugar, he was hypoglycemic after all. Sat amongst mostly women in monochrome, the room felt like the reel from an old film’s negatives. Everyone was dressed in black or white.
They prayed -whispered- or pretended to pray on handfuls of prayer beads that were actually plum seeds. It was customary to pray on each pip, and then place it in a separate pile so that one could differentiate the touched seeds from the untouched. The brown, little pips were scattered over a large white cloth, touching one another softly, in small gatherings around the source: a big pool of dark beads- already prayed upon.
Seated beside me was Aunty Fran, who asked for an explanation about the ceremonial rites at soyems. I couldn’t think of one –in fact, I couldn’t think at all- so I just pretended I couldn’t hear her. On most days, I would investigate unanswered curiosities immediately -like Aunty Fran’s question- but on this day I was disinterested. I let it turn to vagrancy. Lucky for me, she did not ask again. I got up quickly and made my way to the kitchen. Teatime, I thought.
Aunty Fran was one of Dado’s relatives, all of whom were part of Pakistan’s perishing Parsi community. They were very small in number- in height and generosity too- but immense in most other respects. Apart from contributions to academic and architectural fields, the Parsis did more social work than the federal government had done in 30 years. Their tolerant and enterprising spirit was also a breath of fresh air in Karachi’s sanctimonious and high society.
As the time in between Monday’s afternoon and evening prayers crawled on, I occasionally wondered off, through the badly lit hallway and into Dado’s room. Hers was the only room in the house with a skylight. From there, I wondered off elsewhere, into other rooms and spaces, until summoned back to serve tea to someone else or gracefully accept another condolence. Once done, I’d go back to shuffling the beads and wondering why our rituals had not evolved beyond the cultural melancholies of death. There must be better ways to celebrate life.
A year and some weeks ago my Dada had passed on, and on this day, Dado had taken her leave too. She was laid to rest by his feet; an orientation she had resisted fiercely in her life. The placement however, was unintentional. She had been born a Parsi but converted to Islam when she married my grandfather. In truth, she desired to be scattered in the saline breeze of the Arabian Sea, or any sea or that matter, but we had no crematoriums in Karachi and since she was no longer allowed in the Tower of Silence, our options were limited.
We did respect one of her dying wishes though, we donated the only part of her body untouched by cancer: her eyes. The rest of her was carried to the graveyard, where men preceded over the janaza since women weren’t supposed to partake in the burial rites.
Later that evening, the Imam said, “Your family is lucky to have found space at the foot of Mr. Sultan’s grave… the city isn’t just overcrowded for the living.” Apparently there is a market for the dead too. In Karachi, a city of 24 million living people, most graveyards were overpopulated and their prices had been run up by inflation. Then I heard someone else say, “It is also a blessing for Mrs. Sultan. She is lucky to have been placed next to her beloved in death too.” Considering they slept in separate rooms for as long as I could remember, I found humor in this bizarre talk of luck.
On the other side of my family, my hypoglycemic grandfather or my Nana lives with half of his other half. I say ‘half’ because sweet Nano had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s twenty years ago and all that remains is a body half the size of her former self. By the logic of lucky graves, overpopulation and scarce land, she is also fortunate to have her grave marked out, and the land is even watered every so often. Functioning above the market, her resting place was chosen upon her birth. It had been assigned by heritage, next to her mother on a piece of desert land in Punjab.
Nana was in the toilet when I returned with his tea. I set it down and then remembered that I had forgotten the sugar! While Karachi’s market for graves- and most other things- seems to run on luck, my day was certainly running low on it. I was forgetting everything.
“That’s too much sugar darling, you’re begging diabetes!” Ra would say, but Usman never listened. He regularly succumbed to his sweet tooth and she usually dropped the topic without prodding. She picked her domestic fights very carefully, since she spent most of her life fighting court cases for the rights to her homeland. Insouciance was her general disposition but she couldn’t stand to see her father’s architectural work crumble with the rest of the country’s heritage.
Ra was a princess, but a very gentle one. She grew up running through Ottoman-inspired drawing rooms and manicured gardens. She had lots of friends in her nannies and many sisters and brothers, and it was enough for her. I don’t remember her complaining much, so life must have been more than enough for her too. A crystal cluster in the desert, she was full of life and song. Either that, or she was very good at pretending.
Eventually, the time came for Ra to leave her palatial home and expand her circle of friends. She did this without complaining because she would do anything to please her Daddy, even though Daddy had multiple wives and nineteen other children. As nawab, this was his birthright. He also played favorites often, but Ra’s special affinity to Daddy was a mix of admiration and love. And she was one of Daddy’s favourites, so it didn’t matter.
Ra and her four sisters were born to an Irish lady, Grace, who the nawab married before Partition. She was the daughter of an Irish-American electrician. While pregnant with her sixth child, Grace apparently had a miscarriage that caused her to lose too much blood. Ra was only three years old then and Daddy’s new English wife, Olive, would watch over Ra and her sisters. It didn’t really matter that Olive and Daddy were always away on state affairs, because their nanny was very kind and her sisters were playful.
In her early twenties, a timely agreement took place between the Prime Minister of a nearby state and Ra’s father. As in all state affairs, there were casualties; Ra was to be wed to this man’s son. Today, the two states have amalgamated into two larger nation states. One is India, and the other Pakistan- not that either man lived to see the difference.
So, the prospect of a young Cambridge-read barrister was promising to Ra. He had nice symmetrical features, spoke in a funny colonial accent, and did not seem boring. She didn’t mind the arrangement even though the lawyer was initially betrothed to her younger sister, Timmy. They say Timmy was one hell of a looker, but if Ra was electric, Timmy was explosive, and as one would expect, a lawyer knows where to make his home.
Ra accepted the proposal gracefully but with a question that vexed her relentlessly. She couldn’t fathom why the man took so much sugar in his tea!
Mechanically, I set the sugar down on the table besides Nana’s cup of tea, picked up my cell phone and went to sit in the sea of seeds and faces. I had daydreamed my way down the hall again, drifting in between temporal memories, when I was pulled back to the room by something that demanded my presence.
Looking up, I noticed several glances with similar expressions. To think that people can look the same with starkly different faces is odd; especially when human effort to be noticed individually is so enormous, that it could probably achieve anything it wants if channeled into a collective consciousness. I suppose that even though we exercise many different muscular movements, our faces contort to form a restricted range of expressions. So sometimes, we all look the same. Some times.
The faces around me held mixed looks of disapproval and sympathy. I never had dealt well with either emotion. In such moments I wouldn’t think, I’d simply react and then I’d conflagrate; like a flame that has been lit too close to an oxygen machine.
Two days ago, my grandmother tried smoking while connected to an oxygen concentrator. My father’s older brother stopped her and gave her an e-cigarette instead. Otherwise she would have killed us all before the cancer killed her.
Before returning the looks of disdain with one single stare down that I mastered back in school, I realized that the theme song from Game of Thrones was ringing from under my leg. Shit! I had mistaken Nana’s phone for my own, and its ringtone had sliced through the hushed, heavy atmosphere surrounding the room. My resentment turned red hot, and wilted into embarrassment. I fumbled to silence the damned thing before it disrupted the prayers any further.
Once it stopped, I noticed a text message saying something like “I love you. You are the sweetest thing in life.”
On this Monday, sleep seemed far away, my movements were mechanic, head was full of hay, and emotions as dull as a dishwasher. Yet, I caught myself smiling at the message. I’d like to think my reaction was because I was tired and not because I have the perverse sense of humor that my sister routinely accuses me of this. The message seemed sweet but so uncharacteristic of my grandmother (of both my grandmothers, really), and then I remembered that Nano hadn’t formed a sentence in years. I really was off the wall today.
Stupefied, I switched off the screen and left the phone on a table in the other room where Nana could find it. Who is Akbar, I said to myself in half a voice. I think I already knew.
Between the age of two and six, my best friends were my grandparents. They were growing old then, but not too old to play. As the only grandchild on either side at the time, I received their undivided attention. Nano and Nana were steadfast in their commitments to Saturday night rituals. Cassette rentals and ice cream drives were sacred to us -or at least to me- and they made sure they safeguarded my faith.
I usually alternated between the pairs’ homes, interrupted their checker games, and didn’t let them watch the Bold and the Beautiful. Sunday mornings with Dado meant eating French toast and watching Top Cat. By Sunday evening, my grandparents must have been sapped, battered and knackered, but they never let it show and they rarely ever got angry.
There was this one time that I got yelled at because I was spying on Nana and his friend having a serious discussion in the drawing room. In turn, Nano got upset at him, and tried to console me. Ego bruised, the brat in me sulked through the evening and until I fell asleep on the spoon-back divan in her bedroom. Delicately, she tried to move me to her bed but I awoke.
I pretended to fall back asleep, but I just couldn’t. Something about the noise from the fan bothered me though I could usually shut it out. It was the way the fan’s blades cut through air and made a strange sound, almost like it was talking to me. So, I stayed awake but kept my eyes closed, until all I could hear was the fan.
That night I opened my eyes to find a lamp lit in the sitting area, outside the bedroom. Nano was sitting in the dim light, her shadow cast on the wallpaper of blue and purple butterflies. She looked sad and lonely, though I had never seen her cry. I thought of going into Nana’s room and waking him, he could probably console her. He would hug her like my parents hugged me when I was upset, and she would be all right.
But then I remembered something else I had never seen or noticed before; I had never seen them hug.
On the evening before Dado’s funeral, I fell asleep in the blue glow of her bedroom. I could smell her in the sheets from the night before.
On nights when my parents were out, I spent many sleeping by Dado’s side where I’d slip into other worlds under the soft blue light that came in through the curtains. I believed it was moonlight until I was older and had to face the fact that the moon wasn’t always luminous. Eventually, I also learnt that there was no rabbit living there, and it certainly wasn’t made of paneer cheese. In truth, there was a dim blue bulb further down the alleyway outside her room. It didn’t matter though. I would still fall asleep bouncing in and out off moon craters, and making cheese balls to throw into the diamond studded ocean we call space.
That night, however, the place I went to was dreamless.
A few hours later, condolences started pouring in. People praised my grandmother for her social work, her kindness, her devotion to helping the sick, for setting up a school for disabled children, and a final wave of goodwill that came through restoring the site of two blind men. I remember her for different reasons. For the fact that she spoilt her daughter tremendously, for the irritating noises that came from the way she sipped her morning tea, for the strange open relationship she had with my grandfather, and for the fact that she would always ask for things to bring back or a letter to send to some friend. But these things faded like my moonwalking dreams.
All that really remained was the fact that my grandmother had touched people, and the only reason I could think of, was that she was accepting of everyone. In a society teeming with intolerance towards all things secular, towards gender, social equity, alcohol, unconventional professions, homosexuality, and towards most kinds of heterogeneities that poke at the cocoon surrounding privileged lives, she was tolerant.
As the evening prayer sounded, lots of people paid their respects to my father and his siblings. By the night prayer’s call, most people had gone. Nana was still there though. He sat in the corner, tasbih in hand, looking frail and forlorn.
I came and sat beside him, and asked him what’s wrong. I knew the answer and expected a little bit of drama from him too. Nana loved drama of all kinds; the kind you watch, the kind you read, the kind you perform. Hell, he was the one had who kindled my crude little appreciation for literature. But he was a skilled manipulator and an artful liar too. Most often, one could not draw the line between his emotions and his intentions, but as I got older, I learned to discern the difference; he was mostly acting. My mother loved him, but she called him a sociopath.
As his face contorted and his eyes swelled up with tears, I thought of how carefree Nana was in the company of Dado. They would spend afternoons playing Bridge at the Sind Club and sometimes she’d insist on accompanying him to doctor visits while his children were working. I realized there was no drama today. He meant it when he said he had lost a great friend in Dado, someone he could confide in. I could understand this; she was the easiest woman in the world to talk to.
On some evenings during the week, Mama sent me to do my literature homework at Nana’s. It worked out well because I would sit on the dining table, and write answers about Midsummer Night’s Dream while Nana gave extra lessons to law students. If I finished my work in time, I would sit with Nano and listen to the 6’ o clock News too.
She’d be in one of her long kaftans, smelling of Roses and Oudh. Her tastes were Middle Eastern, and she said she lived in Egypt before she was born. Her favorite place to visit was Tunisia. Sometimes, we would snack on toast, cheese, honey and dates -always at 6’ o clock. After the News, she would bring out her radio and put on Nazia Hasan, but then she started forgetting to do bring it out. She would forget her phone, and where she kept her money, and starting mixing up names, but she never forgot Nana’s name. His name was Usman but she’d call him Ushi.
He got older too. I noticed that it took him longer to respond, and he wasn’t teaching as much, though I found it peculiar that the tuition boys kept coming.
Before I was sixteen, Nano’s Alzheimer’s had progressed so far that she moved from spending most of her time at home to spending most of her time in her room at home. By this point, Nana had his own room. The house had fewer visitors, less food, and a little less noise.
My visits grew less frequent, too. I would have to sift through her old kaftans and smell the Oudh that had migrated from her dresser to the dust in the back of her old cupboard, in order to remember her. The difficulty that came with trying to remember her upset me, and I didn’t know why until I realized that she was around much less than I thought even while I grew up. She spent most of her time fighting for a lost legacy, the heritage that had given itself to Pakistan in 1955. She seemed happiest when she was travelling to Punjab.
I continued singing what I thought was her favorite nursery rhyme, Frerè Jacques. She taught it to me when I was four, and up until my twenty-second birthday she still chimed in at the end of the song, “Sonnez le matines, sonnez le matines, Ding Dang Dong, Ding Dang Dong!”
Morning bells are ringing, morning bells are ringing, Ding Dang Dong, Ding Dang Dong!
God, I must have fallen asleep to the song, because I woke up with it floating in the space between my ears and behind my eyes. It’s a strange place to be, full of echoes. Two sleepless nights followed by an evening nap had turned my eyelids heavy. Frantically, I stumbled to the toilet feeling like I was late for something, until I realized there was nowhere to be. Today marked the last day of all the mixed up Muslim-Parsi customs that surrounded my grandmother’s death.
She was born Zoroastrian but excommunicated when she married a Muslim man, my grandfather. They eloped to marry in London- the closest place to Pakistan outside Pakistan- and returned home soon after sealing the deal. Soon after being disowned by her father and the community, she had a son, and was acknowledged again by her father’s affection but not the community. It didn’t really matter though, judging by the populous in her home on this day, she never really left their folds.
That night marked the end of this grieving period in both religions, and also marked the end of a no-meat spell. My grandmother refused to serve meat after my grandfather’s funeral the year before, so my father and his siblings decided to honor her by honoring the tradition. They say the body is decomposing during this period, and in order to prevent someone from eating the recycled remains of their loved ones, one must refrain from love. Love of meat.
After dinner, I went to ask my mother if she was ready to leave, but was met with rancor in the toilet. She was up in arms, on the phone, arguing about some credit cards that should have been cancelled long ago. A few minutes later, my mother came out, grave-faced. Her brother had called to tell her that Nana had racked up a ridiculous credit card bill, and was running his wife’s inheritance dry.
He said he spent the money on household repairs and medicines, which was believable since he had been hospitalized two or three times that year. Then my uncle looked at my grandparents’ joint accounts over the last few months, and realized that standard sums of money had been withdrawn regularly. Even the old Armstrong Sidley that Nano inherited from her father had been sold at price well below selling price.
Soon after Nano was bed-ridden, Nana stopped teaching and so the house ran on old investments and my grandmother’s inheritance. He had not intended to give up his profession; it was because he had fallen unexpectedly ill and his energies were wavering. The irony was that my grandparents were now spending much more time in the same house than they had since before I knew them. They were together but apart.
My cousins lived next door and came over to the house on evenings when the weather wasn’t too hot. They rode their bicycles around the outer perimeter of the long driveway, through the cement back alleys and across the unkempt garden, since the streets weren’t safe for children. When they weren’t riding the circuit, they were reliving the youth of the two generations that had frequented the house on Sunset Boulevard. I remember my mother telling me about how she and her brothers would climb the Tamarind tree in Nana’s garden, and throw the fruit into their neighbor’s home. I also recall how my sister and I played Pittu Garam or Seven Tiles with the cook’s sons until we were no longer allowed to play together. When I was twelve, I protested and said I wanted to play but Nana was unfaltering. “You can’t play with servant boys; you’re becoming a woman now, darling; you must learn to behave like one,” he said.
Years later, my little cousins were reliving those evenings on Sunset Boulevard while the cook’s son took his place in the sweaty kitchen. Now I get little more than a shy “Asalam-walaikum” out of him.
Nana’s favourite was 12 year-old Samir, probably because he was amusing, mischievous and most like him in many a-ways. Samir was the product of a first-cousin marriage. When he was two, he would wear t-shirts on his head and pretend he had long hair. According to Samir’s grandmother, who was also my grandfather’s cousin, Nana would sneak into his sister’s closet and dress in her jewelry and clothes whenever his father was away on business. He never really spoke about his father. At 6, his parents sent him off to boarding school in Kashmir, and soon after, a bloody Independence War broke out, which separated Pakistan from India. Nana had recounted how the trains carrying uniformed schoolboys back to Sindh carried a mix of uniformed soldiers, dead people and people pretending to be dead instead. He mentioned how a member of his father’s staff had been sent to bring him and his brothers to their new home in Pakistan, where their mother waited for them. He always spoke highly of his mother, a dominant and foreboding woman as I remember her. She lived with him and my grandmother until she died at ripe age of 98.
One evening, Nana had been admitted to the hospital for a bad bout of pneumonia and low insulin levels. On the way to visit him, I stopped at his house to see Nano, when Samir came into the room with a strained look on his face, like was he had heavy rocks tied around his waist. I asked him whether he was worried about Nana and he said he was, but he was confused too. He said,
“Appy, I thought Nana was a Muslim like us but he lied to us. That’s why he got sick”.
“What is he then?” I asked, taken aback by the boy’s remark.
“He’s a gay man,” Samir whispered the last three words.
Before I could wrap my head around what the 12-year-old had said, he knit his eyebrows and dropped his voice dropped to a whisper.
He told me about how he had snuck up under Nana’s window a few days ago and overheard him speaking to someone in the room. He said that their voices were too low to listen but that they were speaking in Urdu. Then he described the scene, though he couldn’t get a glimpse of the person’s face because Nana’s back was facing the window. The person was visibly smaller than Nana because he had been completely covered until Samir saw a man’s hands stroke Nana’s back. There were dark hands with wiry black hair and an amber stone set in a silver ring on his right hand’s little finger. I was impressed by the intricacy of his observation. He said the hands moved softly down his spine and made a home around his waist, where they stayed. Then the two men embraced.
By this point, Samir’s face had contorted into a mix of curiosity and constipation, like he needed to release a painful knot of gas. He said the hands migrated away from Nana’s waist and into the front of his trousers. Before Samir could tell me how he ran from the window like a man on fire, my uncle came into Nana’s study.
In a frenzy, he told Samir to go home and rummaged through the desk. I asked him if I could help and he mumbled a string of different words in disjointed sentences. I picked up on “paperwork for the hospital… need his credit card… can’t diagnose Papa’s illness… sodium levels not rising… not responding”. I helped him find Nana’s credit card and we left for the Aga Khan Hospital immediately. On the way there, panic set in. Nana had always been there. He used to take me to Urdu renditions of English plays at the Karachi Arts Council and now, I took him to watch Bollywood movies at the new Multiplex Cinema. I grew up on midnight drives to eat Peshawari ice cream with him and now I’d take him on midday drives for tea at Sind Club. At eleven, I’d sit with him on Saturday afternoons and read his favorite parts of Malgudi Days or watch Faulty Towers. Sometimes we watch Koffee with Karan. Sure, he was difficult but I couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been around.
Back at home on the third day after Dado had passed on, I felt like I had been jolted awake by a rude alarm. The kind that my ayah used to get me up on school days before throwing water one me. I thought about how Dado was sitting by his hospital bed when I went into see him the night that I thought he had died. When he regained his consciousness and saw me, I recollected how he smiled but more than that, I remember how relieved he was to see Dado there. I couldn’t help but wonder how they shared a closeness that I had never seen between Nano and him.
At once, everything came reeling back to me. Akbar, Islamabad, the money trail, Dado and Nana’s close friendship, Nano and Nana’s distant relationship, Samir’s spying adventures. Most of these incidents were things I knew but avoided, because that’s how most things work in Karachi… they’re brushed under Persian carpets so that you don’t have to confront them.
I couldn’t avoid the questions anymore though, there were too many. The following morning, I decided to go over and see Nana. When I got there, the chowkidar said he had gone out. “Alone?” I asked. “No, he goes every day with the cook’s son, Kabir. They are usually back within the hour” he said.
I waited in Nano’s room until I heard a honk at the gate. When I went to see Nana, he looked drowsy and said he wanted to lie down. I had so many questions dancing in the pit of my stomach, but when I tried to raise them, they merely itched the edge of my throat and fell back into gravity before leaving my mouth. Defeated, I let him rest and made my way out.
On the way to the car, I saw Kabir. “Salam Kabir,” I said. “Where do you go with Nana?”
“Walaikum-Asalam, ma’am… to the hospital for his injection,” he answered meekly. “Which ones?” I pressed. “I don’t know; the name is written on this paper that Mrs. Sultan gave me a few months ago. She told me not to let your grandfather go alone and to make sure it is Nurse Asma who gives the injection. Until she could, Mrs. Sultan was a great friend of your grandfather, she would him every day after he got sick. Even Nurse Asma said Mr. Sultan was a very good friend to her. May her soul rest in peace, God willing.”
In five sentences, I heard Kabir say more than I had heard since I was twelve. Without thinking, Kabir handed me a paper with Emtricitabine + Tenofovir administered by Dr. Asma at the Indus Hospital.
Wondering about what medication Nana needed receive continuously and under supervision, I handed the paper back to Kabir. “I hope you’re still hitting those chakkas, Kabir,” I smiled and made my way out. I wondered why nobody else had mentioned Nana’s medicinal routines and whether anybody else knew about it. How did he pay for it? Is this where the money had gone? If so, then what does Akbar Khan have to do with this?
At home, I succumbed to an overwhelming feeling of mental fatigue as I realized that I sat on an even larger mountain of questions. The first thing I did was make myself a strong cup of tea. As I added a teaspoon of sugar to my tea, I googled Emtricitabine. The first search results yielded:
Somehow the mountain I sat on metamorphosed into cotton and floated away. Deliberately, I added two more spoons of sugar to my tea and stirred the cup until the whole body of liquid whirled in four seconds of uniform motion. One spoon for Nano and one for Dado, I thought as an overwhelming feeling of love for my grandparents washed over me. For the first time in days I cried and cried and cried, until my tears fell and became part of a very sweet cup of tea.
Chakkas: an urdu term referring to the six hit by a batsman during a cricket match.
Chowkidar: an urdu term for security guard
Janaza: the burial of a person
Nawab; the term reserved for rulers, particularly of the Princely States in India and Pakistan prior to Independence from the British.
Paneer: a kind of cottage cheese found in Southeast Asia
Parsi: those whose name means “Persians”, are descended from Persian Zoroastrians who emigrated to India to avoid religious persecution by the Muslims.
Pittu Garam: an urdu term for the game Seven Tiles
Soyem: part of Islamic burial customs, referring to the third day of grief during which friends and loved ones pray for the departed
Tasbih: Beads that are used to keep track of counting during the recitation of an Islamic prayer or dhikr.