Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Letter to the Departed

Hi Nana Mian,

I made a cover yesterday for a book that Amma is going to get published soon. She's going to compile all the things your peers and others had written about you after you had passed away. That was 22 years ago. I was 9 that year, in Muscat where I lived far away from where you lived in Lucknow. I remember finding out about your passing by overhearing Amma when she heard about it over the phone. I had heard her crying, but I hadn't known why she had been crying. I knew somebody had died though, because that's how we used to find out about these things in those days. I used to get nervous everytime the phone would ring and it turned out to be an international call. I'd only feel better if my mother hadn't started howling in the scary choppy way she used to within one minute of the call. I knew someone had died that time also, but I had only figured out who it was when Amma called Abbu at his office and told the secretary in her chunky English that her father had died. But I had almost known that it had been you. She had cried like that when she'd found out about Kakko Ammi passing away before. That's how I used to find out if someone had died. No one would tell me these things directly; it'd be assumed that I'd heard from all the crying.

Amma was still on the phone with Abbu, and I'd gone and locked myself in the brown coloured bathroom the way I did when I needed space or quiet. I'd sat on the edge of the bathtub and thought about things. Then I'd stood on my toes and looked into the mirror above the sink and made the face my mother had made while she had been crying. I wondered about my 3-year-old cousin who used to live with you in Lucknow. I wondered about how he was feeling. He used to dangle around your neck all the time and laugh, laugh, laugh. You used to chuckle about that. He doesn't remember you very much now.

I haven't seen you in 22 years, Nana Mian, but I remember you like it had been just yesterday. You were my favourite person in the world because your eyes would glimmer when you saw me and you wouldn't mind if I knocked you down when I flung myself at you. You were the first person I wanted to see everytime we'd visit Lucknow for the summer. We'd arrive to stay at Abbu's family's house, but I'd race out of there while our luggage was still being pulled in and dash off to your house two doors down so I could see you. You were always glad to see me. You always smiled when you looked at me. I remember your strong shiny teeth and dark lips under very white beard. I thought you looked like Santa Claus, and for a long time I thought the Prophet Muhammad must've looked like you. What does a kid have to do with a man in his 60s anyway? We didn't use to talk about anything really, but I just wanted to be around you all the time because...because I don't know, you always smiled at me. It made me smile back, and it made me feel nice, like I had been seen. Most people ignore you when you're a kid, many just want you out of their way. Some people are even mean to you because you are small and vulnerable. When you looked at me, you actually saw me. Your eyes would be fixed on my face, and you would be smiling at me. Me. It was so nice. You were my favourite person in the whole world.

I don't know if you saw the book cover I made yesterday. I made 3, and I put your pictures on them. Amma liked the second one because you can see where you wrote 'Azeezaz-Jaan Farzana beti' on an aerogramme in the background. I didn't know when I was 3 or 5 or 7 or 9 and smiling at you that when I was 30 I would put you on a book cover.

Do you remember, Nana Mian, that one time you bought me a bird made of thin metal sheets whose wings I could make flap? And that one time you were crouched in the old stone washroom doing your wuzu for the namaaz? I was standing by the grey wooden doorframe and watching you wash your dentures. You'd noticed me and had smiled and popped the dentures back into your mouth with a wet click, and it had made me laugh. It's still making me laugh. Your green parrot with the red beak that every single household in India seems to have, the one that in every family is called Mithoo, was hanging upside down in his little cage nearby. You had taught him to say my name. Not Khadija, but Asma, my other name.

You were in your study a lot, the room where nobody, especially children, were allowed to disturb you. I don't know if that's a rule you'd made or just something the other grownups had made up for you. I'd peeked into your room a few times. The doors were dark brown and metallic looking, but I could peek through the keyhole. I'd seen a quiet, dark room with light streaming in through the blue, green, yellow, and red glass on the windows. The light was blue, green, yellow, and red. I'd never seen anything like it. It looked like magic. Amma had caught me once looking through the keyhole and was about to drag me away, but you'd heard her and had me let in. You'd been smiling at me. When you're little, nobody can seem bigger and more frightening than your parents, so I thought it was amazing that my mother was rendered helpless with one word from you. Nobody ever stood up for me, so you must've been someone amazing to rescue me from my parents and to let me in to the place that nobody else was allowed. I don't think I spent too long in your room, but it was incredible. I never even saw any grownups, not even my parents, enter your study, it was like some kind of sacred space that people spoke of in hushed tones. But there I was, in that dark room with the colourful shafts of light. I saw some furniture in the parts of the room where the light was dark brown - a sofa, a table, a bookshelf? The room seemed cooler than the rest of Lucknow, less noisy. I didn't know where to stand or what to do. Nobody ever entered that room, so I had established some kind of precedent. That room is someone else's living room now, and it's like you were never there and like I had never stepped in that one day long ago. Sometimes when I'm in that room with other people, I look at the spot where I had stood many years ago and where you had sat at your desk and smiled at me. You're not there anymore. A few years after you'd died, I had been given some spare fabric to help a cousin who had moved to your house with her school project. One of the pieces of cloth had been from your sofa. Narrow orange and white stripes. They always reminded me of sivain. It's like you had never been there, like coloured light had never streamed in through those coloured windows. I have never seen the light from those windows ever look that way again.

I'd seen bits of you here and there in your old house over the years since then. I once saw your old passport lying on the ground in an old room where all your manuscripts had been stuffed. Some were original works, and some were translations from Arabic and Persian, some were unfinished because you had passed away while you were working on them. It was bunches and bunches of yellow paper cruelly stuffed in the shelves that were built high up on the walls all around the room. I had heard that the room on the terrace was full of your work too. You worked like a man possessed, your mind was always ticking. I think I know something about that. I had picked up your passport and looked at your photograph. I had felt bad that your passport had been lying on the ground like that. I had been in my early 20s then.

Nana Mian, the world changed after you died, you know? No one smiled at me the way you used to. My parents were always shouting at me or fighting with each other. In Lucknow, your parrot stopped speaking. People set him out of his cage but he'd just sit around in some high-up corner and not fly away. He always looked angry and withdrawn. A cat got to him and killed him one day, and that was that.

I once had a dream when I was little that I'd rushed to your house from Abbu's house two doors away, but when I entered your house, it was dark. Like an old ruin. No one was there. It looked like no one had ever been there. I called out for Amma but no one answered my calls. Your house had felt like it was part of some other world away from this one where there are sounds and colours and people.

I don't know if you have seen me all this time, Nana Mian, and I understand if you haven't, because I sometimes wonder if God even did. I wonder if God exists even. Things have been difficult. The world isn't what it used to be in your time. When you were alive, people used to invest in people. Now people invest in things they can buy, and they are lonelier than ever. They treat objects like people and people like objects. Maybe being a Muslim back then meant being educated and passionate and driven and ethical. Top class. I don't think you would recognise the Muslims of today. Do you know that when I moved to India for one-and-a-half years that most people assumed that I was an expert in Urdu poetry? Even the young Muslims would approach me in that regard, as if that's the only thing we were. We have been caricaturised, Nana Mian. I don't know by whom, but we spend our lives trying to match those caricatures as perfectly as we can. It was scary to see how the young Muslims of India struggle to fit in into the mainstream, and nomatter the world they choose to live in, they feel guilty all the time. The young Muslims force themselves to have an interest in Urdu poetry and to speak Urdu even if it isn't their mother tongue. That's what being a Muslim has become in India. That and Sufi music. The Bollywood Muslim. What has happened to the Muslims I have seen, the ones who used to be intellectuals and used to stay aware of the world and used to have class, where have those Muslims gone? I don't know these Muslims who live in the ghettos, these young Muslims who don't know how to reconcile their heritage with the strange new Islam of veils and poor morale and self-censorship and authoritarianism. I always thought that being a Muslim meant being a paragon of ethics, integrity, justice, and equality. I still think it's about spiritual independence and breaking free from the shackles that people live in and die in. I think it's about the pursuit of rational thought and the spirit of inquiry and individual dignity. Revolution, freedom from superstition, equality for all. Defiance, if required. These silly grinning poets, this is not Islam. The poetry of Islam is fiery and inspiring, not insipid and commercial. Fine divine inspiration, not cheap libidinous couplets.

Nana Mian, I only knew you as the smiling white figure who would play with me, but over the years I learned in bits and pieces that you had been much more. You had been a journalist, a freedom fighter, a mufti, a professor, a writer, a translator, a real intellectual. I learned that you had been a man of integrity whose peers had included Gandhiji and Jawaharlal Nehru. I learned that you had believed in the power of the pen and had been disheartened when politics took over the newspapers you had worked for. You had refused to parade around the Prime Minister as a token of the progressive Indian Muslim. You had turned down a Padma Shri award because the honours of a government that didn't live up to its promises to the Muslim community didn't meant anything to you. I spent a year in Indian journalism, Nana Mian, maybe you knew that because I'd dreamt of you my first week there. I'd dreamt that I was running towards a burning pair of towers that had had planes crash into them. I was running towards those towers that the crowd I was in was running away from because my old photographs of you and that old life were in those towers. Then I'd felt someone put their hand on my head, and I'd turned up to see that it had been you. I'd woken up from that dream, still feeling your hand on my head. I'd dreamt of you my first week in India, but after a few days I realised that I couldn't feel you in the general Indian air anymore. You had really gone. Then the rest of the year I realised that the old journalists I had seen - you and your friends - those were not the kind of people in Indian journalism today. I didn't like most of these people that I saw. I thought journalists were supposed to be the intellectual elite. These were not. None of these people were even close to the classy people you and your peers were. But then, the standard of everything in the world has fallen nowadays. It's a disposable kind of world I live in, Nana Mian. Songs and books come and go without making any real sort of impact on anybody. Just about anyone can become famous if they know the right people or behave badly enough. People's speech has become harsh, it's hard to find any sort of real grace in anybody these days. Men who behave like crude cavemen are called smart, and the women who behave like these men are called success-oriented. The world has lost much of its finery, Nana Mian, I wonder what you would have thought of it all.

Nana Mian, I have often seen people trying to be like you because you are still known amongst your peers and the younger people in your professional field as a singular man. I think the correct way to be like you is to not try to be like anybody but to be driven from inside. You were a man of your time, and you did what you thought was best in the circumstances you were in. I often see people quoting you and trying to sound like you but it seems so out of context now. I think that if they really wanted to be like you, then they would not try to be like you at all. They would simply live in their own time and make their own decisions at every crossroad they ever came upon.

I am a woman of my time. It is not the same world my parents grew up in, which was similar to the world you were from. The world has changed very drastically in the past 20 years, and my parents were not able to help me adjust to it at all. I think you would've listened to me, though, at least I hope you would've. I sure could have used your help many times in the past. Maybe you would've listened to me without brushing me under the carpet like everyone else did. Or maybe you would've behaved like them too. I don't know, but I've wanted to talk to you many times over the years about the world I was seeing and the way it is acceptable to behave now. Things don't even mean the same today as they did before. I've often felt like an orphan in my own family. I never saw much of myself in my father or in my mother. I was too impetuous and too straightforward, and I felt things too intensely. I have walked away from things that other people were dying for because I just cannot compromise on my integrity. I cannot work for people who disrespect me or don't believe in the principles that I live by. I have spent my life thinking there was something wrong with me because I could never shut my eyes when people were being unethical or cruel. Everyone else seemed to always be okay with these things, but it was always me who would call things into question and feel disturbed or even torn in such situations. I can't just shut my eyes and go with things when someone's explanation just doesn't add up. Why couldn't I be like everyone else in
this rat race that the world has become? What was wrong with me that I was always having trouble blindly accepting things the way they were, why was I never satisfied with the choices that were given to me? So when I heard today that you turned down the Padma Shri or refused to become one of the Prime Minister's clingy yes-men because it conflicted with what you believed in, I felt so relieved because I realised that there had been at least one other person in this world that had rocked the boat. Like me. It's not been easy being so rigid about these things, Nana Mian, and I don't want to be this way sometimes. I never even realised that the way I was was undesirable until I realised that it put me out of step with this world. I really always wanted to be like everybody else, because society has a way of punishing you in various forms when you think too much or ask too many questions or don't discriminate between the people and the institutions you question. I don't want to be this way because I have seen that the people who aren't like this lead an easier life. I tried to fix myself over the years, but I couldn't. I can't just stop thinking, and if I stop speaking and just go along with everything, something inside me starts punishing me in ways more horrific than society could ever come up with. I thought I was doomed; nobody especially likes a girl who's like that. Someone had once told me in all seriousness that I ought to stop being intelligent because no one would want to marry me. I just didn't understand what the matter was with me. But today I heard the things you had said in your professional and personal life and the way you had behaved, and it sounded exactly like the things that had come out of me. So I don't feel guilty anymore about being the way that I am. I don't feel orphaned anymore because I finally feel like I am like somebody in my family.

I hope you liked the book covers I made, Nana Mian. Thank you for your legacy. You weren't ever very wealthy because you never sold yourself out, but your children loved you very much and still love you even now that they're all in their 50s and 60s and some have their own grandchildren. You've been gone over 20 years and people still swear by you. Someone still remembers how one cold foggy Lucknow night you gave your expensive shawl to a man shivering on the street. Your children never felt like they were poor. All they remember is how they'd all run up to you and hang on to your various limbs whenever you came home from work. And how much you loved that. I've dreamt of you so many times over the years, and it's always been with you watching me from afar and running away whenever you saw that I'd noticed you. Over time my dreams changed to my running to catch you but never actually being successful with it. Then I progressed to actually catching you. And then you came to me yourself in my dream with the two flaming towers.

Thank you for those 9 summers. And the dreams.

Your granddaughter,



Farzana Ejaz said...

beti, nana miaan ,aaesey hi they , hum unki 'shahzaadi beti' haen
tumhari ammmmmmmmmmmmmmmaaaaaaaa

Priyanka S said...

I wonder if this piece can go in your mother's book? It is as much a powerful portrait of your Nana mian as it is of yourself, your relationship with him, and India today. An incredible ode to an incredible person...

As always, Khadija, speechless, simply speechless - and god bless your Nana mian's soul.

Anonymous said...

Its wonderful. Parts of it remind me of my Dada, who died when I was 7. I'm sure your Nana mian is very, very proud of you.

Anonymous said...

This is quite close to what I went through a while back. I've never been close to my family. Always the black sheep, the one who didn't join the family business, the one who didn't not think. Or so I thought.

I never knew my grandfather. He died five years before I was born. All I knew was that he spent the last few years of his life in paralysis. That he built a business from scrap in a city that had more trees than people. I saw his portrait, a new garland of flowers everyday. I never knew him. And then I found out, he used to be a poet. I never, ever felt a bigger connect to my blood then I did at that very moment. I do not know what he wrote, from what I gather from my mother, he was good, but that is about it. His manuscripts, his poems, they lie unused, unread in the family home we left behind when moving to the big city. Someday, I'll go back. And discover my grandfather, and in that, myself.

Thank you. You have a curious way of battling through the muck and clutching truth by its collars, propping it up for all to view. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

What a powerful portrait... Reminded me of my dad who passed away over a year ago. Reminded me of my Dadi who passed away when I was 12 but whom I will always remember for looking directly at me with love and compassion and actually seeing me. Like all good writing it had the familiar and the new in am intricate beautiful dance. Congrats on writing such a beautiful piece.

Khadija Ejaz said...

OMG thank you all for the wonderful feedback. *hug* The writing process isn't ever quite complete without the feedback.