By Yahya Khalil Khan
This memory begins in the evening for one of two reasons. Firstly, that I can’t remember the events leading up to this sequence, or Secondly, I took an afternoon nap and woke up to all the commotion.
This is September 10th 2011, Ajman, UAE. My sleep schedule is a little messy. I sleep late enough that it is never restful. We wake up at 5:30 because our school was pretty far, and traffic is ridiculous.
Mama shakes me awake, I snap my eyes open and jolt upright. I always wake up with a headache. Baji on the other bed snores in defiance. I scorned her for how she would be so difficult. Mama calls out to her, shakes her, and she rolls her eyelids open and registers Mama’s calls in the slippery half-asleep way. She affirms her consciousness and dozes off the second mama turns her back. Mama would return after waking each of the rest of us, halfway through preparing our lunch, just to actually wake her up. It was always the threat of her wrath that finally did it for Baji. She’d always be the last to trudge to the washroom to brush her teeth. This was every day, like clockwork.
I hated her for how she would infuriate mama.
That is of course, a lie. I hated her because I was the star child, and she was not. I was the one that prayed on time. That meticulously cut dhaniya and piyaz, coriander and onion, for Dado while she labored in the kitchen to prepare meals for her son and grandchildren. The one that ran to her when she called. I got the best grades; I was undoubtedly the smartest and never let anyone forget it. I was the prince of the household. My subjects should bow before me, as they did. Dado ka laadla pota, jo unki harr baat manta hai. Dado’s precious grandson, who always obeys her.
But most importantly, I woke up on time.
Anyway, evening. I was told at some point that Baba was sick. I imagined him with a flu. When kids in school were sick, they stayed at home and came back the next day with stuffy nasal voices and an impunity against harsh treatment.
There’s a humming in the direction of Dado’s room. I investigate. It's a congregation of unfamiliar women with scarved heads littered across the room. They are hunched over Qurans, Siparay, those little booklets of compiled Dua’en, or their hands cupped in prayer. Some I imagine look over to me, before resuming. It was an unfamiliar gathering, but one that I would become too accustomed to. I exit perhaps after a brief exchange with Dado, or Bua, or Phuppo, or Mama. The details escape me.
I imagine he might die and force myself to cry in the washroom.
I didn’t believe it though. It was like watching chai slowly simmer to a boil. Bubbles become denser and denser. With one hand on the dial I stare at the foam mesmerized. Rising carefully at first, then in an instant it rushes up the sides and right before it spills over the edge, I turn the heat down sharply.
The kids hide out in the room, as we did Jab baron ki baatein ho rahi hoti thin. When the adults were speaking.
I woke up the next morning wondering why mama didn’t wake us up for the second day of school. I didn’t dislike school, but I rejoiced as you did when school was cancelled.
I wobble to my feet, rubbing the haziness out of my eyes, already having forgotten the night before.
I turn at the door and hear activity in the direction of Dados' room. It doesn’t sound too busy. As I approach the humming grows into a soft uncoordinated wailing spaced out by sniffling and indecipherable adult speak.
I get to the door and the room’s contents reveal themselves. Dada is standing over Mama, holding her. Her back is hunched, and her hands cupped in prayer up against her face. As you’d do before wiping them over your forehead and cheeks, then saying Ameen and moving on to other things. Like rushing to the TV to watch an anime that you always missed the opening of because Dado told you that namaz couldn’t wait but TV could.
My presence is registered, and they separate creating room for me. She looks up in horror for a moment that lasts too long. How is she going to tell her son that Baba is dead. She skips her Ameen, to open her arms and a second later I’m in them. Her grip is firm and unfamiliar.
She holds me out and picks the words: ‘Baba is no longer with us’. Her choice of words confuses me. But I now know that if she said it in her native Urdu, she would have to believe it, own it. She hands it to me instead and I place it in the silence between us.
I inquire with genuine confusion ‘Do you mean that he’s in South Africa or…’ I trail off not knowing where the sentence would have stumbled to. He hadn’t been with us for three months now since he got a job abroad. It was a blessing in retrospect, taught us to live without him just in time. She cuts me off and says ‘No, I mean he’s not with us’. I cry in her arms still confused
Choti Phuppo offers to make me some breakfast and I say I want sausages. Three sausages. I get away with three despite being only allowed two under ordinary circumstances. She makes me some the way I like them. Boiled, then deep fried and served with pan toasted toast. Tai Amma had told me at some point, to slice them lengthwise instead of into discs because that way it was easier to keep them from falling out of the sandwich.
I slice a sausage lengthwise, remembering Tai Amma’s wisdom, lay it on the toast and fold it into a sandwich. The sandwich maintains its structure. It tastes reliably great.
I didn’t question why we were flying to Pakistan. I would later find out that we didn’t want the body buried in South Africa, and we weren’t allowed to bring it to the UAE, so we settled for the homeland.
I'm sitting on a metal bench with dado to my right while the other grown-ups collect our boarding passes for the flight.
The tears sneak up on me unprovoked. My lip curls and my vision blurs, and my throat lumps as I try to hold them back. But I fail and the tears come anyway. I almost succeed at being silent, but Dado sees me after the first few sniffles. She wipes my tears but they’re quickly replaced as she lifts her hands to wipe her own. She consoles me 'If you cry, I'll cry too'.
The last time we travelled was by car to Makkah for umrah. Even then we were a caravan of nomads, pilgrims in Abayahs and Ihrams. I led them in the chant after entering Haram en route to the Ka’bah. Labaik Allahummah Labaik. And now we were nomads again.
We boarded the plane, there were so many of us. This was the first flight I’d been on and I was utterly unprepared. I nearly drowned in the flood of people, hand-carry luggage, and economy ticket seats. The muffled noise of the plane scraping against the atmosphere accented by a beep and the attendant’s voice over the speaker contained in the dystopian airplane air.
Khala receiving us at the airport, the trip to her house, and the preliminary greetings are all absent from my memory.
We’re sitting in what used to be Sara Baji’s Room. The orange bed faces the window that peers through metal grates at the gate and the road that leads up to it. This is before the tree that now blocks its view had overgrown. We’re making ordinary conversation. Ammar Bhai and Mahnoor Baji have always been warm and easy to get comfortable around. There must have been some laughter and stories of Before we escaped to the UAE.
The stories go on until someone notices a rising silence from one side of the room. We turn to Baji and she sniffles looking out through the window. We follow her gaze to the ambulance approaching the gate. Someone mentions that Baba’s corpse was due to arrive today. I launch myself at the door and rush down the spiral stairs in a princely duty-bound crab run. It was a carefully crafted technique to efficiently rush up and down stairs. Schoolmates laughed at me for it once (it truly did look ridiculous) but I stood by the technique for its stability since I have a long history of tripping on stairs. Esa rushes right behind me in the way little brothers mimic older ones.
I imagine the double doors of the main entrance to the house opening in sync with those of the ambulance. The coffin held up by soldiers on either side, marching towards me. It’s bathed in sunlight briefly, giving it an ethereal climactic aura as it’s laid to rest before me.
This isn’t how my memory replays it though.
The memory begins after it's placed inside. Asif Khalu is prying it open while Dada and Maryam stand in line before me, Esa right behind. I marvel at the size of this massive shoe box, I don’t remember him being so tall. The crowbar wedged between the raw plywood edges fighting the nails that clamp it shut. Its top comes loose and barest of cracks releases the most putrid stench into the air. It's clinical like a hospital, sharp and sour like vinegar, and meaty like Eid mornings. The poison cloud floods the house and hangs there but my nose acclimates.
They push the lid open and slide it to the floor. Thick Matte Green Garbage Bags wrap its contents. Someone pulls them loose from the side and unfolds them. The next few moments may have been a split second or a whole minute. I stare at a Bruised Purple Black clump of a substance I don’t recognize. I stare at it in confusion. I remember it only as bizarre, not disgusting, or sad, or offensive. Only bizarre.
Dada lets out a cracked wail and I hear his face crumple. What have they done to his son. It breaks my heart a little when I imagine what Dada and Dado must have been through. Children are supposed to be your legacy, they’re supposed to outlive you and hold you tenderly in their memories once you’ve left. Sometimes that legacy is passed onto grandchildren. Sometimes your children lay in Bruised Purple Black clumps before you, and you can’t imagine living with yourself.
He turns four-year-old Maryam’s face the other way and wedges his crowbar body between me and the corpse. I’m pulled away by unknown hands. The Purple Black substance hangs in mind undeciphered. My memory of the corpse feels overwritten and corrupted. I cannot clearly decide if the clump was his plump stubbled chin, or his big toe. I think I remember the covering being unfolded from about a foot away from one of the edges of the coffin and have deduced it to be his chin (rather than his big toe which should be closer to the edges).
I am moved without walking, through the crowd that has appeared behind me. Dado pops up and holds me out with her fingers digging into my shoulders. Tears streaming down her face. ‘Beta mere liye ab sirf aap hi ho’ I only have you now, she sobs before Mama interjects and matches her volume in saying ‘Is tarha ki baatein na karein in ke saamne’ Don’t speak like that in front of the kids.
The rest of the dialogue is drowned out in the mob’s commotion. I’m slid further away from the coffin and almost into Bujjo Khala’s room, the closest source of refuge when I hear Mama’s voice clap back louder, slicing through the already deafening noise ‘Wapis lao inhe, inko apna baap dikhna chahiye’ Get them back here, they need to see their father. I imagined her struggling against relatives barely able to restrain her from dragging her children back to stare at the corpse, their children-ly heads pressed against the Bruised Purple Black clumps by her motherly claws.
I’m shoved in the room and the door is closed behind me. It is air conditioned, and quiet as the riot dissolves. Maryam and Esa had been brought here too, and Baji will follow shortly. My eyes are wet.
I’m not certain if it was this afternoon or another, but I once sat on the far side of Bujjo Khala’s bed and poked at a decoration on the bedside table. A small acrylic globe. Sara Baji watched nervously and eventually told me that it would break if I kept that up. I didn’t catch on to the implication that I should stop messing with it. For her second attempt, she distracted me with conversation. She was the first person to ask me what kind of music I listen to. What did she mean? I listened to the music that played on the radio on the way to school and back. The idea that music could be selected puzzled me. That you would have preferences? Absurd.
She offered to play me a song. The internet connection was slow, she explained, due to the harsh rays of the sun disrupting its signals. She played Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera. I watched wide eyed and scandalized by how sexually explicit it was, and how casually she offered it to me. I would later return to the room to fiddle with the globe some more before finally breaking it.
The nights sleeping in our room in the basement were cold, but not unbearable like the showers. It’s glass door had a wide matted stripe horizontally across. In the shower was old, mildly stained and rusted, unfashionable sanitary ware.
Its ice-cold water sucked the air from my lungs. There was no way to prepare for it. Usually, you’d first wet your toes and gradually your feet, then your hands and gradually your arms, then your hair and head and finally jump in chest first. The standard method of acclimatizing to cold showers was useless here.
The exhaust fan vent breathed a punishing draught stripping my bones of any residual warmth. Even when the cold would force me to wince, I could never close my eyes. Baba’s swollen purple-black toes waited for me patiently across the clear section of the door. They haunted me all the way home and so I’ve always kept my showers short.
The graveyard was newly made so the road leading to it wasn’t paved yet. The car struggled to climb the sludgy mud slope leading to where the graves started. As I stepped out, mud squelched under my favourite Desert Flyer shoes. I really loved those shoes; I thought I finally found the brand I’d feel comfortable in without second guessing how I looked.
The graves were arranged in a neat row. There was a lot of talk about how it was all very organized. I guessed people didn’t have much content for funeral small talk. I remember Azfar Phuppas earlier remark that they had treated the body poorly in South Africa. That they hadn’t preserved it right. He tutted and shook his head earning reciprocal nods from the men around him. I didn’t really have a standard for graveyards and how meticulously they should be planned.
I walked down graves 1 through 7, scanning the ground for dry spots to step on. My Desert Flyers weren’t a lost cause yet, I could still brush the dirt off the sides and wipe some off the top.
The monsoon had only just ended, clouds teased a drizzle, before sweeping away. The predatory sun waited behind for its opportunity. Its rays scorched my neck as I approached a piece of rebar poked into the ground with a thin circular plate welded at the top labelled 8. I stared at the quickly drying mound of dirt next to the freshly dug grave.
Graveyard tears always came easy and uninvited. My lip curls, and my vision blurs, and my throat lumps. My eyelids are quick at work to blink them away and my head droops to hide my face. An unknown hand appears on my shoulders once I fail in my efforts to remain inconspicuous.
With the sun-dried tears now caked on my face, I stared into the grave after the coffin was lowered and the ritual chants had been completed. Everyone took their turns scooping dirt onto the coffin with their hands as a final goodbye. I took one last look at the coffin before it was no longer visible under the dirt and rolled a mound onto it with my Desert Flyers. I had some promise of Baba's legacy on my mind.
Either before or after Baba’s death, I can’t remember which, I noticed that if I touched my hand to the space between my lips and my nose right after waking up in the morning, it would feel like Baba’s hand. Rough from his callouses and weighted as his hands were. They felt bigger and familiar and sincere and loving. I wondered why that was the case.
It’s technically because I slept with my hand under my head which cut off blood circulation and sensation left my hand so the ridges in my fingerprints felt foreign to my lips. They were heavy from morning grogginess. Regardless, the sensation isn’t demystified with this knowledge.
I remember how his behemoth hands felt, to hold onto with both of mine. One hand grabbing on to his pinkie, the other to his thumb. My whole body straining to prop it up playfully while he went on about his conversation with uncles in the lounge.
About the Author
Yahya Khalil Khan is a 22 year old business graduate in Karachi. He moved back to Pakistan five years ago, after fifteen years in the UAE. Yahya’s interests have ranged from woodworking, to sketching, to sculpting, and now writing. His writing usually begins in a notes app, or an online journal. Only when passingly shared with a close friend, does it become tell-able. Yahya’s has inherited these interests from his family and friends, and he’s grateful to be able to possess them, and revisit when he needs them again.