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Authors: Adib Khan

Tags: #Fiction, #General

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BOOK: Spiral Road
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FOUR
Family Matters

My mind spirals back to Richmond. To my modest home. The evenings spent in the quietness of my own company. Reading or watching television. Randomly passing through the early hours of night. If there are shadows from a distant life casting their darkness in the corners, then they’ve become unobtrusive enough to be ignored.

This here might as well be a landscape conjured up by an overworked imagination.

The euphoria over my homecoming is dissipated by my mother’s sudden fit of panic. Her voice becomes shrill. There are innuendoes and a barrage of criticism on filial negligence. Zia is targeted for special attention and castigated for his forgetfulness.

It’s not his fault, he protests feebly. Is it reasonable that he should be expected to remember every superstition that afflicts the family? Zia’s choice of words is injudicious. It’s like pouring ghee over a flickering flame.


Che
!
Che
!’ Ma shrieks. ‘Superstititon? How can you be so irreverent?’ With a regal swish of her hand, she draws the
aachol
of her sari around her shoulders and over her head. She’s appalled by her oldest son’s casualness. Is she too demanding in asking us to observe venerated practices without contaminating them with our imported brand of cynicism? Is this what education has done to us? Why are her children such
nastiks
?

Ma turns to Nasreen. ‘My copy. It’s on my bedside table.’

My sister rushes inside to fetch the Koran.

‘Disbeliever!’ I hiss in my brother’s ear.

‘Infidel from the land of Iblis!’ he retorts.

‘Fuck off,’ I whisper.

I don’t realise that my niece, Yasmin, is hovering behind me. Her hand flies to her mouth. She stifles a giggle. ‘Nanu!’ she complains, clinging to her grandmother. ‘Uncle said a naughty word!’

‘That’s what happens when people live in Christian countries where they speak English,’ Zia explains loudly. He shakes with silent laughter.

Ma scowls at him and ignores me.

With her vitriol subsiding, Zia resorts to reassuring platitudes about the sincerity of his religious beliefs.

It’s imperative that I be zapped—de-Christianised, de-Westernised and redefined. But the issue is sensitive
enough for Ma to refrain from stating her intention directly, in case I’m offended. My flaws, accumulated in an unfamiliar environment, have to be eradicated with a rarely enacted ritual.

I visualise being stripped bare and processed through a decontamination chamber to emerge as a cleansed entity.

I’m obliged to go out and re-enter the house; otherwise my return may bring misfortune to me and the rest of the family. I stand outside the entrance, barely controlling my impatience in the heat. Relatives gather at the door, curious about the furore.

This is huge entertainment for Zia. He winks his approval. ‘Patience! Welcome back from the wilderness to the true faith.’

With utmost solemnity, Ma holds up the Koran in both hands, muttering
surahs
. When she beckons, I walk under the Holy Book and step inside.

Instant purgation. My true identity is restored in the air-conditioned coolness of the foyer.

E
AGERLY
I
SEEK
my father, but he looks at me with vacant eyes.

Abba has lost weight and his entire body seems to have shrunk into a sack of loose bones. His shoulders are hunched and his face is creased and emaciated.

I bend down to touch his feet.

‘Do you remember Masud?’ Zia is gentle with him.

‘Masud?’

‘He’s your son.’

Abba looks stunned and turns to Zia. ‘You…my son?’

‘Yes, I am. But Masud is also your son.’

Abba’s face twitches with a nervous smile. Confusion makes him wring his hands. I’m another loose end in the wiring of his mind.

I feel inadequate and ill-equipped for this meeting. I didn’t know what might confront me, but I hadn’t expected such despair. In desperation I resort to the most mundane and predictable of questions. ‘How are you?’

He reaches out with his right hand and touches my face. His fingers tremble against my cheek. ‘Masud?’

‘He’s come to see you, all the way from Australia,’ Zia explains, patting his back.

‘Australia,’ Abba mumbles, his eyes fixed on my face. ‘My son! Australia?’

Before I can hug him, he turns around and shuffles away as though the confusion is too much to bear.

‘He’s a different person each day,’ Zia says. ‘We live in a perpetual state of adjustment.’

I
N THE
L-
SHAPED
lounge room are two large chandeliers and imported furniture. The walls are lined with handcrafted units crowded with bric-a-brac and family memorabilia.

There are sixteen of us for lunch. Fifteen family
members—aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces—and a friend of Nasreen’s.

But before I can strike up any conversation, my mother calls us into the dining room. Ma stands at the head of the table and directs us to our chairs. She looks displeased when I swap places with my Aunt Salma so that I can be next to Nasreen. That must have upset Ma’s plans for the afternoon because she hastily rearranges other positions so that my sister’s friend is seated opposite us.

It’s like the days in our old home in suburban Dhanmondi, when celebratory lunches and dinners were ostentatious and timeless affairs. Pieces of antique French sterling-silver flatware gleam on a white damask tablecloth. Presumably they’ll remain untouched. We’ll be using our fingers, provided I take the initiative. Some time later in the afternoon, Ma will wipe the knives, spoons and forks with a piece of muslin before they’re returned to their velvet-lined oak cases and stored under her bed.

We’re to eat off plates which my grandfather bought at an auction in Kolkata, just before partition. ‘These graced Lord Curzon’s dining table,’ he had boasted, as though such distinguished ownership justified the price he paid for them. Originally, there were thirty-six plates. During the confusion of the Bangladesh War, fifteen disappeared.

The Bohemian crystal epergne, which once dominated the centre of our dining table, is missing here. I remember how it was always laden with seasonal fruits. Every morning, Ma would examine each piece for
texture and colouring. Even the slightest hint of staleness or bruising meant the disposal of the offending item. We weren’t allowed to touch or eat the fruits displayed on the table. They were waxed and periodically sprinkled with cold water. Mangoes, lychees, guavas, papayas, custard apples and bananas—they were meant to be looked at and admired like art. By way of compensation, we had access to a large fruit-filled basket on a sideboard in the kitchen.

There are fewer servants now—Mirza, the cook, and Latif, a teenaged orphan from Manikpur. The food is rich and plentiful. Parathas,
shami
kebabs, pea pulau, mutton and chicken curries. A choice of sweetmeats and chilled sweet yoghurt. We eat with relish, in crosscurrents of noisy conversation and laughter.

But I want to talk privately to Nasreen. How is her new life—living in Zia’s house and working as a liaison officer in a bank? How well has she recovered from the traumas of divorce? It was a violent marriage. Our family did its best to smooth things over and pretend that her relationship with her husband, Hanif Akram, was improving. Then, late one night, Nasreen and her two children turned up at the front door of Zia’s house. Later Zia wrote to tell me that there were bruises on her face, and the children were clinging silently to their mother. Zia put the children to bed and then sat with Nasreen, administering an ice pack to the bruises. The next morning he told Ma that Nasreen would be seeking a divorce from Hanif.

I’ve had to imagine Ma’s reaction.

Now Nasreen smiles warmly and squeezes my arm. ‘I’m so glad you’re here.’

I’ve let my sister down. The guilt nags at me. I should have been here when she needed help. Instead, I wrote long letters. Secretly I was relieved to avoid a tense and embarrassing situation, one that must have been further aggravated by Ma’s histrionics. The inevitable gossip and the blow to our honour would have devastated our mother.

When we were children, Nasreen and I did things together, exchanged secrets and plotted moves to negate Zia’s privileges as the oldest of the siblings. I waded in on her quarrels with him and took her side, as we grew up to disagreements about fashion or entertainment. Zia didn’t approve of Nasreen’s independence then, and after her wedding he made no effort to be discreet in his criticism of Hanif.

‘There’s something not right about the man,’ Zia said to me one day on the beach at Lorne. ‘He can be full of fun one moment and then brooding and dark soon after.’

Back then I had ignored the remark as just part of his ongoing feud with Nasreen.

N
ASREEN IS TALKING
to Alya now. In her late thirties, Alya is stirringly attractive. She has short black hair, high cheekbones, sensuously thick lips and penetrating eyes. She gives the instant impression of being astute, determined to succeed.

Nasreen turns from her friend to tell me about Alya’s business, her chain of cottage-industry shops, in the newer suburbs of the city. ‘Alya’s bought land from Uncle Musa to set up a factory in Manikpur,’ Nasreen explains. ‘She employs a large number of women—’

It’s the moment I’ve been dreading. Ma calls everyone to attention. I’ve barely exchanged greetings with anyone yet. But Ma’s older brother is on his feet with a welcome speech. My dislike for Uncle Rafiq seems to have withered away to mere indifference. He speaks in Bangla and what he has to say is exaggerated, sentimental and studded with clichés. His is a daunting, energetic presence—a big man with a flourishing white beard, thick eyebrows and piercing eyes. Yet he’s the same age as my father.

A Koranic scholar and well read, Uncle Rafiq never forgave my parents for their children’s secular education. I remember hiding behind a papaya tree in our backyard, listening to a fierce quarrel between him and Abba about our secondary schooling. Abba had decided to enrol us at St Joseph’s, reputed for its academic standard—a Christian school where we’d be taught in English. Abba had been educated in Kolkata’s exclusive St Xavier’s College and he had few qualms about exposing us to the influence of Catholic priests.

‘They have to broaden their minds and accommodate ideas from other cultures. They must know about people from different races,’ Abba argued. ‘I want my children to be fluent in the language of the world. I want them to be at home wherever they are.’

Uncle Rafiq was specially outraged by the fact that Nasreen was to be sent to Loreto and deprived of the benefits of a private tutor at home. ‘We’re Muslims first, Ibrahim!’ Uncle Rafiq thundered. ‘I hope you haven’t forgotten that!’

‘If I ever do, I’m sure you’ll remind us,’ Abba retorted. ‘But I’m not sending my boys to a madrassa! Neither will I limit Nasreen’s opportunities by employing someone to teach her how to be a model housewife. She will learn about domestic life from her mother.’

They reached an uneasy compromise, adopting Ma’s suggestion that Uncle Rafiq be responsible for our Koranic learning. We didn’t know what awaited us.

At first Zia and I were excited by the prospect of stories—Creation, Heaven and Hell, Angels and Devils, Allah’s designs for the human race, the Day of Judgement and the pleasures of Paradise. But the twice-weekly evening lessons passed agonisingly. We learned to read the Koran in Arabic without any understanding of the language. We sat stonily through lengthy monologues about the pious life, the unimaginable terrors of eternal punishment for becoming deviants, and the endless rewards for being true believers. And we were constantly told to contemplate both Allah’s grand design for mankind and our search for ways to earn places in Paradise.

The Omnipotent’s blueprint for an eternity in Hell seemed far more comprehensive than any vision of a subliminal state in the company of angels and the elusive
houris. And given the criteria that would qualify me for the joys of
Behaesht
, I felt doomed and destined for Iblis’s domain.

What we experienced was the curse of eternal boredom.

How could we ever forgive Uncle Rafiq for terrorising and manipulating our imaginations? We had nightmares about ghoulish creatures traversing burning wastelands in the hunt for young boys to be speared, dipped in cauldrons of blood and pus, and then eaten alive.

T
HE WELCOME SPEECH
has been mercifully brief. It turns out, though, to have been a prologue. We move swiftly into the politics of religion and the malaise of the world. Uncle Rafiq drags us through a soporific account of colonialism and the causes of the attack on New York. My generation of Muslims has been enervated by materialism and we’ve sold our souls to Western interests. He talks passionately about Palestine and the despair in the refugee camps. We sit through diatribes on Afghanistan and Iraq. He catches my eyes and smiles condescendingly. ‘The purity of the Islamic way of life needs resistance to fleshly temptations. Muslims everywhere have lost the meaning of self-discipline…’

He drones on.

I stifle a yawn. Zia shifts uneasily, his eyes focussed on the tablecloth, mindlessly tracing a circular pattern with his index finger. Nasreen examines her fingernails.

‘Vermicelli?’ Abba interjects suddenly and loudly. ‘Eid!’ He’s thought of the traditional festive sweet.

‘Abba, it’s not Eid,’ Zia says softly.

Abba glares at him. ‘Eid!’ He bangs his plate on the table. ‘Eid!’

‘Yes, of course. The cook is preparing it.’ Zia gives in, perhaps thinking that within minutes Abba will have forgotten.

‘Nana doesn’t know when it’s Eid!’ little Yasmin chimes, eyeing her grandfather.

‘Ssh!’ Ma admonishes.

‘That’s because Nana is crazy. He’s mad!’ Zafar, Nasreen’s son, says tactlessly.

Nasreen whispers urgently to her son.

The adults suffer an uncomfortable silence.

Uncle Rafiq watches me intently, as if his words are personal, a challenge to what he understands to be my adopted values. He doesn’t allow the interruption to faze him. ‘And what does our family member from Australia think about what is happening in the world? As a Muslim how does he feel about the threat to Islam?’

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