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Authors: N. H. Senzai

Ticket to India

BOOK: Ticket to India
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—formidable grandmothers who withstood the tide of Partition with iron wills, intelligence, and grace.

And to all
—émigrés who travel great distances to create new lives in an adopted homeland.

—N. H. S.

There is a little bit of Indian in every Pakistani

and a little bit of Pakistani in every Indian.



Wednesday, September 14

30,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean

When I was born, my parents had an epic argument at the hospital over my name. My mom wanted to name me after her father's mother. My dad wanted a name that would match my personality, which is bizarre considering he'd only known me for two days. But he swore that the moment he'd stared into my eyes, he'd remembered an old saying: “Still waters run deep.” I had to look that up later, and found out that it's something
you say about people who speak little but have interesting and complicated personalities. I don't know if that's a compliment or an insult, but my father insists it's a compliment.

The nurse finally made my parents fill out the birth certificate, so they had to compromise: My name is Maya Quddusiyyah Agha. I'm seriously glad that my dad got his choice in first. Don't get me wrong; both names have cool meanings.
means “glorious,” while
, also an old Arabic word, means “princess.”
also translates into “eternal spring” in Hebrew, and “love” in Nepali. But can you imagine starting kindergarten and having to spell a name with eleven letters?

Later, it was my mom's youngest sister, who teaches English at the University of Arkansas, who told me about all the other Mayas who've come before me. I found out that most of them are pretty legendary: A Maya was the mother of the Greek god Hermes, and another gave birth to the founder of Buddhism. Maya is also another name for the Hindu goddess Durga, who is believed to be invincible as the power behind the creation, protection, and destruction of the world.

Maya stared down at the first entry of the journal she'd been assigned by Mrs. Hackworth and realized that she'd veered off course.
Too much personal information,
she thought, and sighed. But she couldn't help it—writing helped soothe her nerves and brought order to the chaotic thoughts jumbled inside her head. Her eraser hovered over the lines. But she
supposed to introduce herself, then write about
aspects of her trip, so she continued.

I'm on my way to Karachi, Pakistan, for the tenth time. I've gone every year since I was born, minus the two years when my dad changed jobs and when my older sister, Zara, broke her leg—she's always been a bit of a klutz. But here I am again, somewhere over the island of Fiji. Honestly, I would give anything not to be here. Because unlike with the other visits,
, my mother's father, won't be waiting at the airport to pick us up.

Maya's fingers stilled, clenching the pencil as a memory flooded her mind. At first it was a muddle of pastels, like staring at an unfocused impressionist
painting. Soon angles and distinct forms came into focus in bold primary colors. It was nine months ago, a cool December day, and she was shimmying down the scratchy purple trunk of the peepal tree to join her grandfather in the rose garden. He handed her a set of pruning shears, and as the comfortable weight rested in her palm, he bent back a thorny branch.

“Did you know,” he said, warm eyes twinkling, “when Alexander the Great invaded India over fifteen hundred years ago, he was amazed at the wealth of plants he encountered—roses in particular. So he sent clippings to his mentor, the great philosopher Aristotle.”

Maya nodded, trying not to prick her finger as her mind wandered toward lunch, which the cook was preparing in the kitchen. Savory smells invaded the garden, which was surrounded by the high white walls that encircled villas in well-to-do neighborhoods.

The memory faded and Maya slumped in her airplane seat, eyes flooding with tears. She would never talk with her beloved
again; he was dead, soon to be buried within the soil from which his beloved roses sprang.


A Rose Is a Rose

after an exhausting twenty-hour flight, they found the house, usually an oasis of calm, in chaos. Zara stumbled through the carved wooden doors first, while Maya entered last, sweaty from the soaring temperatures outside, a sharp contrast to cool, temperate San Francisco. She closed her eyes for a moment, watching a kaleidoscope of colors flash behind her eyelids—vibrant images that assaulted her senses each time she arrived. The sun seemed brighter here, more gold than yellow, raining heat down over the dusty city of Karachi. She opened her eyes and her pupils adjusted to the shadowy foyer,
decorated in calming white, cream, and powder blue.

While her sister pushed past teary relatives to launch herself into her grandmother's arms with a dramatic sob, Maya stood back. She was stunned to see how her grandmother appeared to have aged a decade since she last saw her. Her usually meticulously wrapped sari was askew, and her silver hair, always pulled back in an elegant chignon, was wild around her shoulders.
had always been the strong, solid partner in her grandparents' marriage and Maya had never seen her cry, let alone fall apart like this. But as soon as
set eyes on Maya, she beckoned her for an enveloping hug. Before Maya could loosen her tongue and come up with something comforting to say, her mother gently pulled

Dalia whispered, “I just can't believe
is gone.”

They clung to one another for a long minute, until a tight-lipped great-aunt guided them to the living room, with its ornate wooden sofas and embroidered cushions. As the adults and Zara huddled together, passing around a box of tissues, Maya stood, forgotten. Fighting the urge to hide under the dining room table as she had when she was a child, she spotted one of her grandfather's paintings hanging across from
her, an abstract swirl of cool blues and beiges. She remembered the day he'd painted it, while on a picnic on Hawksbay beach. When he had been alive and healthy. Heart heavy, she slunk off with her backpack, up the stairs to the empty television lounge.

Longing to hear a comforting voice, she picked up the phone and dialed her home number in California. She wanted to tell her father that they'd reached Karachi safely. When the rings rolled over into voice mail, she realized he was probably out, dealing with burial plots, headstones, and other preparations for
's funeral, which was to take place in San Francisco in a week. Restless, she went to the towering bookshelves that lined the room. She passed business, mathematics, poetry, and old novels, until she reached the section on history and politics. She pulled out a history book, titled
The Struggle for Pakistan
. On the way to the sofa, she switched on the television to a soap opera in Urdu. While her brain tried to adjust to a language she understood but didn't speak much, she glumly opened her backpack.

Sixth grade had started two weeks before, and Maya had been thrilled that her best friends, Olivia and Kavita, had been assigned to the same homeroom. But even before she could get used to a new
class schedule, the news of her grandfather had come. And now, being away for more than a week meant completing take-home assignments: a stack of math sheets, a book report on Sacagawea, and a detailed journal describing her trip. With a sigh, she grabbed the journal like a lifeline, along with the new box of colored pencils she'd gotten for her art class. They'd just begun analyzing the works of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo when she'd left for Pakistan. Frida's paintings were instantly recognizable by their bold, earthy colors—rainforest yellows, blood reds, vibrant blues, and neon pinks.

She flipped open the history book and froze. On the first page was a date, along with a signature:
Malik Humayun Ahmed
. Her grandfather. She stared at the blue ink, thinking back to a summer day, five years ago, when she'd gotten into a particularly nasty fight with Zara—over what, she couldn't remember. But it had ended how their fights usually did, with her sister throwing verbal daggers at her while she stood there mute, unable to formulate a good jab in response.

Later, it was
who'd coaxed Maya out of a tree and set up an easel for her in his office. Painting, for him, he'd explained, was like meditation. He'd shown her how to use a brush, demonstrating how the
strokes could disentangle her thoughts. Each color, he told her, meant something different as it formed an image on the canvas. Red was danger, pink meant love, yellow hinted at cowardice, blue resonated calmness, green was renewal, and brown symbolized the earth. Maya fell in love with the process and later found that writing served the same purpose.

“And he was right.” Maya sighed, writing a title on the front of her journal: “My Journey to Pakistan.” On the next page she sketched a rectangular stretch of land, bordered by Afghanistan, India, China, and the Arabian Sea along the bottom. Then she began to write, soothed by the rush of words spreading across the page.

Thursday, September 15

Karachi, Pakistan

Here are some facts about Pakistan:

1. The name Pakistan—
(“pure”) and
(“land”) means “land of the pure” in the Persian and Urdu languages.

2. Islamabad is the capital, though Karachi is the biggest city.

3. The population is 193 million people, making
Pakistan the sixth most populous country in the world.

4. The national language is Urdu, the official language is English, and Saraiki, Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, and Baluchi are also spoken.

5. The official currency is the Pakistani rupee.

6. Cricket is the most popular sport.

My mom's family is from Karachi, Pakistan, but my dad was born in Chicago. His parents came to the United States from Pakistan in the 1970s so his father could get a PhD in engineering. As soon as he graduated, they moved to the West Coast and settled in Berkeley, California. My parents met when my dad went to Karachi to visit his grandparents. They liked each other instantly and decided to get married.

Maya paused. There was no avoiding it, she realized. Her grandfather was the reason they were here, and she had to say something about him.

The day before yesterday, my grandfather went to weed his garden in the cool part of the afternoon, as he usually did. A few hours later,
that's where they found him, lying peacefully in a patch of tulips. He'd had a heart attack.

He was the eldest of three boys, and his greatest wish growing up was to fly. And so, even though his dad was totally against it, he became an air force pilot for the Pakistani military. But he didn't stay in the sky long. He came tumbling down to earth when he crashed during a training drill, and broke his back. His flying career over, he joined his father's accounting firm. When my grandfather told me this story, he wasn't sad. He just accepted what had happened as the will of God. He told me that as he buried his dream of flying, he uncovered something else—the joy of gardening.

My last memory is of him sitting on the porch, holding his pipe. I can still smell the smoke rising in the warm night air, mixed with the scent of musk and cedar wood—his Old Spice cologne. He'd been telling me one of my favorite stories about his childhood—about the time he and his best friend climbed up a mango tree and hung their schoolmaster's bicycle from its branches.

Maya exhaled a pent-up breath, the air rushing out of her lungs as her eyes filled with tears. She had been his favorite, she knew. He had never said it, but in his quiet, gentle way, he'd hinted at it as they both worked together on some shared interest or another—painting, gardening, collecting old coins, eating unripe mangoes sprinkled with chili pepper and salt. She clutched the journal to her chest and leaned back against the sofa, comforted by the words that were bringing her grandfather back to life, even if just for a moment.

•  •  •

Hot. It's really hot
. Eyes flickering open, Maya found herself in a large four-poster bed with her ­sister sprawled beside her, a rumbling snore whistling through her nose. The window stood like a velvety black square, facing the garden. Jet-lagged, she must have conked out on the sofa and been moved here. She kicked off the too-warm blanket and sat up.
I should record her,
Maya thought gleefully, momen­tarily forgetting where she was. Her sister would have a conniption if she heard herself snoring. Maya sighed, staring at Zara's tranquil, pretty features, usually animated and full of life. But the momentary thought of embarrassing her popular, perfect sister filled her with
quiet satisfaction—it hadn't been easy growing up as her younger sibling.

A junior at Berkeley High, Zara came home with straight As and had just been elected captain of the debate team. At Sunday school at the local mosque, the teachers were always perplexed that Maya was Zara's younger sister, since she couldn't memorize the passages from the Quran as fast as her older sister could. She'd wanted to reply that she took her time to analyze what she was memorizing to understand it better, but as usual, she couldn't muster the courage to do so. Maya's hands twisted the blanket. It wasn't as if Zara went out of her way to be mean to her—it was just so hard growing up in her shadow. Maya felt like she was forever trying to reach her, figuratively and literally, since Zara also towered a good foot above her.

Maya glanced at the clock on the side table, which glowed 5:23. A grumble below her belly button reminded her that she hadn't eaten any dinner. A particular eater—or “picky,” as her sister would describe her—she stuck to the few things she liked. Right now, toast with jam sounded perfect.
It's nearly noon back home,
she thought. If only none of this had happened and she could be in school with her friends, huddled over a lunch of her usual cheddar and tomato
sandwich. Slipping from bed, she headed downstairs, through the dark hall leading to the kitchen. She felt for the door, twisted the knob, and stepped inside—and was enveloped in a rush of icy air redolent with the scent of roses . . .
definitely not the kitchen

Illuminated by the small coffee table lamp lay
, wrapped in crisp white sheets, covered by garlands of his favorite flower,
Rosa bourboniana
. They'd been cut from his garden, where they were in full bloom, after a good soaking from the monsoon rains. The glorious pink roses filled every nook and cranny of the small sitting room. In the morning he'd be taken to the morgue, then fly back with them to San Francisco to be buried. Her gaze fixed on the body, she crossed the threshold, pulling the door closed behind her.

As she listened to the hum of the air conditioner, cranked open on full blast to keep her grandfather's body cold, Maya stood in the shadow of a bookshelf, staring at the long, ghostly shape. Her toes curled against the marble floor. She just couldn't walk over to look at her
's face, which had been left exposed.

She turned her gaze toward the shelf, laden with pictures: a shot of her first birthday party, her face covered with cake; Zara's
celebration when she'd finished reading the Quran in Arabic; her twin cousins
after they were born; her aunt's graduation from Boston University; and a family picnic at the beach a few winters ago. Nestled in the center sat a small, faded color photo set in a silver frame. A giddy young couple stood in their wedding finery, eyes glowing. Instead of a traditional blood-red bridal dress,
had chosen a turquoise gown, setting tongues wagging and adding fuel to the gossip.
loved talking about the tumultuous events that had led up to the happy occasion; the story of their relationship had caused quite a scandal in the old days, as was usually the case when a young man from a wealthy family married a penniless orphan.

As Maya stared at the picture, taken nearly half a century before, she heard the door swing open. She shrank into the shadows, spotting a tiny shape float inside the room. It was
. At first, her grandmother paused; then she hurried over to her husband. Head bowed, she collapsed beside his body and clutched the corner of a sheet. As she cried, Maya averted her gaze, embarrassed to be spying. Although Maya and her grandmother were carbon copies of each other on the outside, sharing the same small frame, thick, wavy hair, and large gray-brown eyes, on the inside it was
and Zara who were two peas in a pod: outgoing,
opinionated, and extremely stubborn when backed into a corner. As Maya huddled beside the bookshelf, she was torn by indecision; should she rush over and hug her or just give her some privacy? Zara would have rushed over. . . .

It was the clang at the front gate that made the decision for her. Not wanting to bother her grandmother, she slipped out the door and ran upstairs. The
, or guard, was letting in her aunt, Syeda
, who'd arrived from Chicago.

•  •  •

“Hey, Maya!” chorused the twins, Zaki and Ali, as they barreled through the dining room later.

“Hey,” said Maya, putting down the butter knife to receive their exuberant hugs.

The boys had turned four a week before and were full of energy, since they'd slept most of the journey from Chicago.

, on the other hand, looked like she hadn't slept in days. “Maya
,” she said, giving her a kiss on her head. “How are you?”

“I'm fine,” said Maya, watching her pour a cup of steaming tea.

“Where's Zara?” asked her aunt.

“Sleeping,” replied Maya. “She always has a hard
time with the jet lag. It takes her a day to adjust.”

BOOK: Ticket to India
8.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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