1947: A War StoryJuly 28, 2020
Part One: Slaughter
There was one willful hope I held that day. A double-lensed T-1400 telescope with a retractable handle, the kind that Tombaugh was supposed to have used when he was a kid. Daddy had promised it to me when we left the house. He said he would buy me one when we reached New Delhi. This is what he said:
“A true man willingly gives away everything he owns in the hope for a greater future.”
What I had given away was all my space books and my homemade viewfinder that could see the craters on the moon that Ranjan Uncle had helped me make for my tenth birthday. I gave this against my will to the new resident of my room, Anwar Ahmed. Wily and sneaky Anwar Ahmed. Wipes his nose with his shirtsleeve and shows me the crust, Anwar Ahmed. Good for nothing room thief, Anwar Ahmed.
He was not grateful like a good host when I handed the viewfinder over. Anwar with a crooked smile on his face grabbed the thing out of my hands even before I let go and he ran outside. It was the first time he ever used it; I was extremely strict and nobody but Ranjan Uncle had ever even touched the viewfinder before that moment. And now it was spoiled, forever lost into the grip of Anwar Ahmed, enemy of all.
Anwar’s father was the caretaker of our house for years, just as his father was, and, as I always reminded Anwar, as he would be when he was older. And now he was indeed the caretaker, and live-in resident, of our house. Anwar’s father never said a word about it when we left; he only touched Daddy’s feet and kissed the ground. Later Daddy would say the father was a louse and had threatened Daddy’s life, that his show was a ruse and if we hadn’t handed over the house we would be handing over our lives. But in that moment, Daddy’s movements were respectable and trained and he acted as if he had rehearsed this transaction for days.
But none of us willingly gave anything away. Daddy traded our house for five tickets on the last train to India. The only things we were allowed to keep were one change of clothes each and the 50 rupees that were hidden in Mummy’s sari fold. Dhiya lost her doll collection, Mummy, her expensive clothes, and Amit had to give away every last soldier army figure he owned. And, even though we all believed Daddy’s invocations that across the border all dreams would be laced with gold, we knew inside the hollowness and desperation of his words. We knew he held back tears from us that were only exposed to Mummy late at night behind the closed door of their bedroom.
We knew this because we were spies. Amit, Dhiya and me. Secret Asian Men, we called ourselves, even though Dhiya was a girl and we were only boys. Naught were the arguments, we were the greatest secret agents ever, Hindu warriors that would return the Raj to its rightful owner.
The night before we left, when the homemade viewfinder was still in the hands of its true master, we three Secret Asian Men crouched outside the door of Mummy and Daddy’s bedroom. I was lying flat on the floor, using the viewfinder to peek through the crack at the bottom of the door. Amit had a glass to the door.
“I can see their feet,” I whispered.
“And I hear them talking. He is crying again,” Amit said. “Is she holding him?”
“Let me see.” Dhiya poked her finger against my leg.
“Shhh. Don’t let them hear you.”
“I want to see. Is Mummy holding him?”
“Be quiet. I can’t see, I only see their feet. Is he still crying?”
“No, I don’t hear anything,” Amit said.
“Wait,” I said. “The feet are moving, they’re getting bigger.”
“Let me see. I want to look.”
“Dhiya, be quiet. Shut up.”
And then the door opened and cracked me on the head and the viewfinder rolled to the side. Amit hid the glass behind his back. Dhiya smiled and said, “It was them, Daddy. I tried to stop them.”
We weren’t the greatest of secret agents, I admit. But Daddy was a noble foe and to be found out from him was, in its own way, a sign of our greatness. Daddy brought us into the room and sat us at the foot of the bed. Mummy slid her hands through Dhiya’s hair. The air was stiff with cigarette smoke, so adult and grown up. We were in the lair of greatness.
I said, “Secret Asian Men, salute,” and we all stood up and saluted our great leader.
Daddy smiled, saluted back, and then said, “ I say this for your ears also. You do not have to hide behind a door and listen with a glass. You knock and ask to come in. Do you understand?”
“Yes Daddy,” we said.
“Now, we are leaving early tomorrow and the ride will be long. You need your rest, God knows when you will get a chance to sleep again. So go to bed. Now.”
Dhiya, who never knew when to shut up, said, “Are you nervous, Daddy?”
Amit punched her in the arm. “Shut up, Dhiya.”
“No, Amit. It is all right. It is good for you to ask questions when you want to know the answer. What you hold in will decay unless it is allowed to breathe freely. Yes, I am nervous. When we reach Delhi, things will be fine. I will find a job and you will go back to school and Mummy will shop and buy all of us new clothes. But tomorrow makes me nervous. The train ride is long, very long. And there are bad people out there. But don’t worry. I will never, ever let anyone get near you.”
“What about Mummy?” I asked. “Will anyone get near her?”
“Baita,” she said, “Daddy will protect us. Don’t worry. Go to sleep. You’ll see, in no time we will be at Suman Bhoua’s house and you can see Rohit and Rahul baiyaas and you will have so much fun.”
“Do you promise?”
“Yes. I promise. Now go to bed, all of you.”
Amit turned around as we walked out. His eyes were teary. “Daddy,” he said. “This question wants to breathe. Can I ask you?”
“Will you bring your gun, Daddy?”
The train car normally holds only twenty passengers. Today there are over fifty of us, pushed together like animals, the men holding the luggage closely to their sides and their wives and children even closer. There are still blood stains on the walls, from previous attempts to India. Smoke from cigarettes fill the already claustrophobic train car. This must be some kind of punishment. I just don’t know what we did. I want to ask Daddy if there is any way we can change what we did, if they’d forgive us and let us go back home, but he is busy passing a liquor bottle from mouth to friend to mouth again.
“This is bullshit,” I hear a man scream. “Nehru and Jinnha share their cocktails and tear our lives apart. Where are they now? Safe I tell you.”
Amit and Dhiya are running through the crowd of people, squeezing their ways from corner to corner. Even in this prison, they still play the roles of Secret Asian Men. Dhiya comes back to me. She hides behind Mummy’s sari and whispers my name.
“Raja,” she says, “Look Raja. See what I have found.”
I turn around and there, in her hand, is a bone.
“Strange, isn’t it,” she says. “Whose do you think it was?”
“Maybe a murderer,” I say. “Or a demon.”
“Maybe it was lunch,” she says. “Maybe someone got so hungry, he ate his wife.”
“Or his little daughter,” I say.
“Stop, Raja. That’s not funny.”
Dhiya disappears again and I don’t see her for another ten minutes. I don’t follow her and Amit. I stay close to Mummy. I hold Mummy’s hand, which is sweaty and shaking. She doesn’t look down at me. She stares blankly at the dried red wall of the car.
And then I hear Daddy screaming. Holding the bottle of scotch above his head in one hand and a pistol in the other. Loud enough for everyone in the car to become completely quiet. Not a sound but his epithets.
“If they come,” he screams. “If they break the door down, I swear to all of you. I will do it myself. I will put a bullet in the heads of my wife and my children. I will not let them touch my family. They will not get their filthy hands near them.”
Amit and Dhiya are pushed against Mummy and me now.
Amit says quietly, “I wish you had your telescope.”
“Why,” I ask.
“So we could crawl into it. And get far away from here.”
The men are playing cards. Standing up. The bottle has long been dry and their drunkenness is slowly fading into a frustrated tiredness. Women argue with each other to move to the side, to give more space. But there is none to give. We are all trapped here together. Fourteen more hours of this and we will all assuredly be crazy. I want to join Dhiya, who is pulled inside her tears, those feathers of cries that bounce off the walls like echoes. I want to steal Daddy’s pistol and break it in half. I want to buy one million bullets and kill every Muslim I see. I want to know why we are here.
If I were a space traveler, I would jump in my flying space ship and go straight up. To Neptune. Or the rings of Saturn. I’d bring everyone on the train with me and build the largest castle in the universe. Mummy could grow a garden and Daddy could start a business. And Amit and Dhiya and I could become Secret Alien Men. We’d slide across the rings like rocks on water and find out all the aliens secrets. We’d learn where they hid their zapper pistols and we’d break them in half.
And if they tried to kick us out, we’d beat them. We’d tear their antennae off and they wouldn’t be able to do anything to stop us.
Dhiya reaches under her kurta and pulls out a doll. Amit grabs it quick and shows it to me.
“She brought it with her,” he says.
“Don’t let anyone see it,” Dhiya says. “Someone will try to take it from me.”
“Put it back under your kurta,” I say. “Hold on tight to it. When we get to Delhi, Daddy will buy you so many more. But don’t lose that one. That’s all we have left from home.”
Dhiya smiles. She kisses the doll, then hides it again.
Everyone has headaches now. People lean against each other, trying to get comfortable enough to sleep. Mummy holds Dhiya in her lap and Daddy has his arm around Amit and me. He is our protector, he says. He will not let anyone hurt us.
I want to say, Where’s your pistol Daddy, but I don’t. Instead I let him hold us in his strong grasp and I pretend that everything is completely fine. That we are simply going on vacation. To see some fantabulous waterfalls, or maybe we’re going on pilgrimage to Ayodhya. We’ll pray to Lord Ganesh for our new beginnings but there will be none because we will only stay there three days then go back home. And Dhiya will have her dolls and Amit will have his soldier army figures and I will stare at the Sun and not care that it hurts my eyes because I am home. I will beat up Anwar every day and make sure he knows that he is nothing but a servant. I will make him polish my shoes and carry my schoolbooks behind me as I skip to school. And Amit and Dhiya and I will become the most amazing detectives in the world. The king of the Earth will invite us to a private luncheon where he will serve the best chicken biriyani money can buy. He will show us to our room and there will be one thousand dolls waiting for us. Dhiya will laugh and jump in the air. She will not be crying. She will not be crouched in Mummy’s lap, trying to forget the human bone she held earlier. There will not be this constant reminder of death and fear. Nobody will be listening to see if the Muslims have caught up to us with knives and guns, ready to tear us limb from limb. None of this will exist. Nobody will want to hurt us. And Daddy will not threaten to shoot us in the head. He will love us and not get drunk and scare us like we’ve never been scared before. That is the truth, I tell you. The king of the Earth is writing a letter to us right now. Telling us this was just a test to see if we are worthy. I am not lying. It’s happening right now. It’s the truth.
None of this is really happening.
When the train car finally stops, Amit and Dhiya get excited. “We’re there,” they say together. But their voices are the only ones we hear. Everyone else is dead silent. And then we hear the sound. A banging on the door to the car. Dhiya starts crying and Mummy puts her hand on her mouth, whispers to Dhiya to try to be as quiet as she can. But Dhiya’s whimpers can still be heard. Daddy stands up, holds his hand up to the crowd. The banging gets louder. The door starts to give way. Daddy pulls his gun out and aims at the door.
When it gives, when the door breaks down from the weight outside, when the ten men with shotguns and curved gurka knives push through. When every woman and child in the train car begins screaming and crying, that’s when Daddy loses grip of his gun. That’s when I hear it fall to the ground, make a weak clink and break into a thousand useless pieces.
The man at the head of the group screams: “Quiet. All of you. Be silent. Or we’ll kill every last one of you.” The emptiness that follows next is so thick, so filled with our shared fear that I can almost imagine these men slicing it with their knives and guns. Chopping it up and letting it scatter across the blistered floor.
“You Hindus took my child,” the man says. “You slaughtered her. You cut her into tiny pieces. She did nothing to you, but you bastards took her from me. But now who has power? Now who holds the guns?”
I hide behind Daddy, peek at the man through Daddy’s shivering legs. Dhiya and Amit crouch behind me.
“This I promise you,” he says. “If one of you does not give your daughter to me, I will kill every last one of these children. They will all die just like my Mala did.”
The gang of men spread through the train car and begin taking all of us children away. A man with a thick and sandy beard comes to me, grabs hold of my neck. Daddy tries to force him away, but he whips Daddy with his gun and Daddy falls to the ground. Blood collects on his forehead. Mummy is holding onto Dhiya and Amit’s arms, but the men are too strong, too powerful and they take all three of us away. Throughout the train car, men and women push and fight, trying to save their children, but they all lose the battle and soon there are fifteen of us outside the train, with guns pointed at our heads.
The men line us up in a row and we stare at the silent train car, waiting to be saved. A boy tries to run back to the car, but is grabbed by the neck and thrown to the ground. The man with the beard kicks him in the ribs and the boy screams and cries, begs for help. But there is none. There are only these ten men with knives and guns and the silent train car in front of us.
I feel my pants get warm as a stream of urine goes down my legs and puddles below me. Amit screams, “Daddy, Daddy, save us. Help us.” Dhiya holds her doll as tight as she can.
And then there he is. Standing at the entrance of the train car. In front of all the other men and women. Daddy is coming to save us. To destroy all these men.
“Stop,” Daddy says. “I’ll give you what you want.” Daddy hops out of the train car and walks to Dhiya. He kneels down and kisses her on her forehead.
“Please,” he says. “Don’t harm her. Please don’t harm my daughter.”
“Daddy,” Dhiya says. “What are you doing? No, Daddy. Don’t do this. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to die, Daddy. No Daddy, I don’t.”
The men let the rest of us go. The other children run back to the train and to their mothers and fathers. Amit and I stand still. We stand right next to our sister.
“Baiyaa,” Dhiya says to me. “Take this.” She hands me her doll. “Keep this for me,” she says. And then she turns around. Her hands are dropped to her sides. Her torn kurta is covered in dirt and Dhiya, my sister, walks alone into the arms of monsters.
Part Two: The Afterlife of Monsters
Amit’s face looks as if it has aged twenty years since I last saw him. The wrinkles that last time were youthful invigorations of wisdom now sag with the pain and pressure of years compounded upon themselves. He leans nonchalantly against the baggage claim carousel, affecting a 1970s version of Amitabh Bhachan. His long black overcoat, I’m sure, one of the many signs of his American success. His hair has started to gray, frayed lines of white cover what used to be a mound of pure black silk. This is my younger brother, old now, sophisticated, taking on the world.
He touches my feet and I lift him up.
“Please, there’s no need,” I say.
“It’s so good to see you. How was the flight?”
“Long. Peaceful. They showed three Pakistani plays.”
We grab my two bags, overstuffed with gifts for the children. Tightly rolled up paan for Rajita, Amit’s wife, and as many clothes as I could fit. Everything else was given away, something we’ve done before.
Amit has a Saab, silver and spotless. Everything a sign of his status. He speeds up and down the ridiculously open-spaced streets of this small southern town he lives in until we reach his subdivision, Peak’s Point.
Amit’s four-bedroom condominium is in the northwest outpost of Greensboro proper. Only a few minutes from the airport, as if he were prepared to leave for home at a moment’s notice. But he never did. Twenty-three years here in America with only random and seldom visits home. A wife and two children and all roots as concrete as possible. He is hiding out in America, scared to return to a life that at times was both harder and more emotional than this American pie could ever pose to be.
The condominium is an affront to economy; a spacious living room that could sleep four comfortably and a master bedroom larger than an entire home in Delhi. Amit calls it his palace and laughs in what I perceive as the laugh of a foreign language. I join him for the briefest of moments and the tension is a barrier higher than the hill his condo so proudly rests on.
I did not want to come, originally. “I can take care of myself,” I said. “Why should I leave my home? I would be a burden on you,” I said.
“I am practically a millionaire,” he said. “Why should you feel bad? You are my brother.” This was our phone call, one month ago.
This is what he did not say on the phone: I owe you this, which he and I were both thinking but would never verse in such a crude language as English. In Hindi, the words would be Mai aapka abhari hoon and neither of us would ever lose face. Amit said neither and the emotion was hidden. Instead, he spoke in the language of currency. Five hundred dollars spending money and a coach ticket with stopovers in Dubai and Atlanta.
And now here I am, at the border of a new land that is mysterious and cold. Completely and irrevocably with no choice but to willingly give away everything in the hope for a continuance to the future. My sweet ruin.
I’d come before. To New York in the late 80’s. Ayya and I were so happy then. We had a small one-bedroom apartment and a little photo development shop. Ayya found an Indian grocery near our apartment and I put in twelve hour days at the shop and it was a worthy life. But the business never worked out. The bottom fell out so quick we could barely hold on and within six months we were down to two thousand dollars. Translatable only to two tickets back to Delhi.
Ayya, sweet Ayya. If I could have read the future then, I would have crawled begging to my brother. I would have relished the embarrassing status of beggar expatriate. My mind was not working and my dear wife was torn viciously from me like the wings of a pigeon. And here I am now, full circle, the beggar expatriate again, but with nothing but these dried tears that are just laughable, a joke now, this pathetic tragedy of mine.
What am I supposed to do here? This is my brother. We should never feel this far apart. Every breath we take is a shared affluence. Why then do I feel as if I should run as far as I can away from this man and this place? Why then am I lonelier now, steps away from my flesh, than I was alone in the house in Delhi, quietly counting the boxes of our property, everything we had accumulated since 1947?
What makes this bearable is a shared bottle of scotch, a return to the habits of former times. The shared solitude of his balcony view of the rolling hills of the Piedmont, the emptiness a subtle application of this picture postcard of America. The shared confusion of this crossroad situation and the rules that neither of us seem to know.
Rajita and the children are visiting her parents and brother in San Francisco. They will be back in two days. Until then it is just me and Amit, counting the seconds of silence. Amit shows me to my bedroom and I sleep in rocky comfort, encasing myself in a hardened exterior. Hoping that the people of this country will believe that I am strong and vital and worthy of the visa that lies underneath my pillow.
Amit is a good brother and a good man. While I may not completely understand who he is now, I know exactly who the man is beneath all his disguises. I know that Amit as well as I know myself. He tries to hide that child but each look at me, I know, reminds him of all his insecurities. But this is all right. This is what makes a man, the strength to look deep into former selves and to cooperate with history, to accept that everything you have done in your life has made you who you are.
Today is Saturday and Amit takes me to an Indian restaurant near the university. Gaylord’s is famous for its Tandoori chefs, all wayward immigrants who work here nine months out of the year and return to Punjab the other three. They are kings in their villages; their wives and children have everything they could ever ask for. Except their fathers undivided time. I’ve seen men like this in Delhi, the proud smiles on their faces as they walked into my liquor shop, buying only Johnnie Walker Black Label and making sure everyone knew this. I wanted to kidnap their children and raise them as my own; to give them none of their material splendors, only the swift strength of a resident father.
But today I eat these men’s food, cooked as their wives and mothers would at home. I savor the delicate chicken and the pristine surroundings, as clean as a five star hotel. I smile at my brother, who is happy to be able to take me out to lunch. We are drinking gin and tonics.
“Do you remember,” Amit says. “Madhur’s corner restaurant?”
“How can I forget the best greasy french fries in Shimla.” I pause, then say, “The old man died five years ago. His daughter runs the restaurant now.”
“You remember her, I hope.”
“Is she married?”
“Three kids. The restaurant does all right. Her husband doesn’t work, though. He is lazy, a lotus eater. But she still asks about you.”
“Yes,” Amit says. “Amna.”
“You couldn’t stay,” I say. “Never feel bad for leaving. That is what you had to do.”
“It is what Daddy wanted me to do.”
“But look at your life now. You are wealthy, you have a wife and children. We eat in fancy restaurants. Amna was just a passing girlfriend. But all this,” I say, “is what the sacrifice was for.”
“Sacrifices,” Amit says, “are sometimes disguises for insecurity.”
Amit had one hundred U.S. dollars in his pocket when he came to America. It was 1965 and the immigration laws had just opened up. America was calling for all engineers and doctors from the East. He had just finished a BA in electrical engineering as had been planned and was sponsored by Western Electric.
The day before he left, Amit was hiding in his bedroom. I walked in. “Amit,” I said. “This is a festive day. The family wants to see you.”
“If Daddy wants a professional in the family so much, why doesn’t he go?”
I sat down next to him on the corner of his bed. “You know there is nothing here,” I said. “What will you do? Work for Bhata? Or Modhi? Neither of them will pay you close to what the Americans will. Now come join us. Trust me, you will regret this later if you don’t.”
Amit came out of his room a few minutes later. He smiled and toasted his fortune with the uncles and aunties and friends who came from all over Shimla to see Kishore Kumar’s second son before he left for great fortune. He danced with the daughters of the town. He ate from the banquet set up in the living room. He pretended, for the sake of the family.
And the next day he left. I rode with him to the airport. Mummy cried and Daddy was a model of stoicism. Amna pretended he did not exist.
Back at the condominium, Amit shows me something. It is hidden in the back of a file cabinet in his bedroom. A ratty doll, packaged tightly in a plastic bag.
“I held this so tight on the plane that day,” he says.
He hands me the package. I unwrap the doll and hold it close to me. I breathe in its aroma. Sweet and tender still, even after fifty years. Even after fifty years, I can still smell her on the thready doll.
“There’s so much to tell you,” Amit says. He lightly touches the doll with the back of his hand, then says, “You keep it now.”
Amit walks into the living room. He says nothing else, just turns on the television and fades emptily into a football game.
In my bedroom, I prop the doll on the dresser, next to my picture of Ayya. Two remnants of the dead. These are my symbolic eulogies, these are the sacrifices men should never have to make between the dead and the living.
When Rajita and the children return, she is the sweet sister-in-law. I call her dhidhi and she touches my feet.
“Such ritual,” I say. “No need for this.”
“Let me do this once, Raja baba. Don’t worry, it’ll never happen again.”
We laugh together, a good sign. But then again, Rajita has always cared for me. Especially since Ayya’s cancer. She is a good sister.
The children, however, are strange. Mostly the younger one, Seva. He seems too shy for his own good. Hiding behind his mother. He does not get near me.
“That’s only because you scared him when we were in Delhi,” the older one, Rahul, says.
This was years ago, when they were barely walking and talking. I had scared them indeed. Running through the house saying if I caught them, I would strip them naked and make them walk down the street for all of the neighborhood to see. Both got away though, tricky little children. Seva must be an emotional child to still let this joke affect him. I rustle his hair, try to show him that I am not the boogeyman, but he still hides. Okay. Let him hide. We have nothing but time together.
And then we sit for dinner. I cook. “I must play some role here,” I say.
“Yes, but who said the role had to be to poison us,” Rahul says.
Sharp tongue. Amit smiles and I guess it is acceptable for his children to speak their mind. Amit is so different from Daddy and that is good. These children do not need the hard force of authority. They need displays of love and emotion instead. Okay, dinner tonight. Ayya’s specialty, Fish curry in a coconut sauce. Basmati rice and raita. I serve the food to my brother’s family at the kitchen table.
“I don’t want fish,” Seva says, and his mother quickly responds, “Fine, I’ll make you spaghetti.”
“Do you remember before your wedding,” Amit says. “When Ayya made fish curry for us.”
I laugh. “Torture was the only word for that night. When she left the dish on the table and returned to the kitchen.”
Amit says, “We doused it, ruined the sauce.”
“You men are horrible,” Rajita says. “She must have cried all night.”
“Yes,” I say. “She did. And the next day also. And then she took it out on me.”
“I never let you get away with that,” Rajita says.
“What do you mean?” Amit says. “We completely destroyed your lamb pullao.”
“Yes, but I didn’t care. Let you ruin your own dinner. What does it affect me?”
Lamb, raita, fish curry. All the tastes of my wife. All ashes and all apologies now. Let her rest, then. Let us praise her, but let her rest. Those last years of her life were filled with too much sorrow. But what to do now but let her rest. Just let her rest.
This is how life progresses in my new home in the States. The family wakes up in the morning. I cook a breakfast of eggs, toast and waffles. Amit quickly drinks a cup of coffee then rushes to his office downtown. Rajita leaves soon after to her job at the hospital to counsel underage mothers. The kids get on their buses and go to school.
And then it’s just me, alone in the kitchen in a house that is still so utterly strange and distant. There are dishes to be washed, Hindi movies to watch and hours and hours of time to disappear into. The truth is that I’ve wondered if wouldn’t just be easier to have a heart attack and fall to my knees and disappear from this Earth like Daddy did; to skip the lonesome time of the widower, to give in to a thickened and weakened heart that pumps so slowly. But then I look at the picture of Ayya by my bedside, that tiny smile at the corner of her mouth. I had taken that picture three years ago in Jaipur. Our last vacation before the cancer started eating away at her stomach like a hungry ghost. I had just bought her a bright red scarf at the market and she had it wrapped tight around her neck. We were so happy then, even though we only had a little money, even though there were no children or grandchildren. We were so perfectly singular.
I have to stop thinking this way. These morbid thoughts are an insult to my dead wife. I know she would be heartbroken if she knew I even catered such thoughts. And so I put them out of my head. I make my bed and take a shower and sit on the couch with a gin and tonic and watch the television screen as young and beautiful women dance in the flowering fields of a long forgotten Kashmir, their red scarves fluid in the wind, bright blue petals surrounding their pubescent bare feet.
Seva gets home from school at 2:30. He throws his knapsack on the floor then sits next to me on the living room couch.
“How was your day?” I ask.
“Fine. Can we watch one of my shows?”
“Yes, of course,” I say. I turn off the Hindi film and change the channel to one of his cartoons. I take my empty tumbler to the kitchen and when I return he’s lying on the couch, disappearing fast into the images of cats chasing mice, of jackhammers and safes flying from the sky. Seva doesn’t talk much and I wonder if somehow the sadnesses of his father and I, of our father, have genetically passed to him. This world is not fair; bad things happen and someone has to pay for all sins.
Rahul will be home in an hour and then the house will shine again, will liven up. The elder child is filled with energy and talks nonstop about what he’s done and seen and thought. I will listen to his words, while Seva remains on the couch, transfixed by a narrative in technicolor. I will make the children snacks and will then linger behind the couch, watching Rahul and Seva eat and drink. Watching them push each other and argue about who gets the last masala fry. Slowly, and I can already feel this happening, these children will become my own. They will become wholly my flesh and blood, my responsibility and my only future.
It is the weekend and Amit and Rajita are forcing me to go to a dinner party. I’ve told them that I have no interest in going out, that I’d rather stay home and watch a film, but they insist and I can’t seem to escape this responsibility.
A ten minute drive from home and then we arrive at palatial estate: a 5,000 square foot house on one acre just outside of the city limits. Amit tells me that his friends, Faisul and Ameena, are not wealthy, they are upper middle class just like he and Rajita, but I can’t comprehend how people who live in such a large house could not be devastatingly rich.
There are a dozen families at the Shahs’ house; the children commingle in the large basement below: watching television, playing board games, eating pizza and drinking soda. Aboveground, there are scotches and daiquiris, domestic beer and bottles of Limca that Faisul Shah’s sister brought down from Toronto. These are the Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs of Greensboro, all together in one house. Pakistanis and Indians and those who want to be Khalistanis, all breaking bread together. Rajita dances with Faisul in the middle of the living room; they reenact a scene from Sholay. She raises her hands in the air, snaps her fingers and twirls. Then looks at me and smiles, walks over, attempts to pull me to the center of the room. I fight back, but then Amit leans in behind me and whispers in my ear: “Live, man. Enjoy yourself. It’s all right to enjoy yourself.”
Okay, then. I will dance with my sister-in-law. I will drink with Pakistanis. In America then, all the rules of home will be broken. Rajita grabs my hand, lifts it above us, and I twirl her. She spins in circles, her salwar khamiz rising and dropping as the wind catches below. I close my eyes and this could be Ayya. We could have come here together before the cancer spread too far. She could have received chemotherapy at Rajita’s hospital. We could have destroyed that horrible cancer, fought it together, my wife and I, my brother and his wife. We could have won that battle, at least.
What Daddy had with Amit was a goal to focus on. He put all his energy into creating in Amit what he believed a man should be. But when Amit came back to Shimla after his first year of college, when he told Daddy that he wanted to be an English professor, all of Daddy’s dreams shattered. He raised his hand to my brother, slapped him across the face, then walked toward his bedroom. But turned around once. Looked Amit straight in the eyes.
“You will transfer to the engineering school,” he said. “I will call the dean tomorrow.”
After Amit left for the U.S., after he stopped writing letters to us, something broke in Daddy. He stopped coming home for dinner. He would go straight from his office to the social club and would not return home until late at night, long after Mummy and I were fast asleep. I would only see him in the morning, when he woke up with a hangover. Most days he wouldn’t say a word to me, wouldn’t even look at me. He would only call to Bhadur, our servant. Tell him to bring a cup of tea.
Once, though, a little over a year after Amit left, Daddy stopped me before I left for my job at the liquor distributor. Told me to sit next to him.
“It is time you marry,” he said. “I have arranged for a meeting with Ram Chandra. His family will arrive tomorrow evening.”
Daddy handed me forty rupees and told me to buy a new outfit. A Western-style suit.
Ram Chandra had served in the military for nearly a decade before becoming the police chief of Shimla. When we first moved here, after leaving the refugee camp, he took care of us. He found us our house, loaned Daddy the money to buy it. Arranged for Daddy’s job at the Brewery. Ram Chandra and Daddy had served in World War II together. They were both stationed in Iraq.
“Your father is a great man,” Ram Chandra said the next evening over a plate of lamb curry. “This man saved my life, I tell you.”
“Please,” Daddy said. “There was no fighting in Basra. All we did was drink and play cards.”
“Yes, of course. But I knew nothing of playing cards before you taught me.”
Ram Chandra turned to me. “I grew up in a small village in Bihar,” he said. “What did I know of war and gambling? I was only seventeen years old then; I had spent my whole life farming one plot of land. If it weren’t for your father promoting me, making me a sergeant, I would have returned to that same simple plot of land. What kind of a life would I have had then?”
Next to her father and hiding her face was Ayya. I was looking directly at Ram Chandra, but out of the corner of my eyes, I snuck looks at his daughter. Her long, black hair was pulled up and her face was half covered by a shawl, but even those stolen, haphazard glimpses revealed her beauty. The slow curve of her neck, the bangles resting on her wrists. The bhindi on her forehead as bright as her red, full lips.
Ram Chandra and Daddy were reminiscing loudly about their experiences trying to train Iraqi camels, but beneath their clamor were Ayya’s words, our first shared dialogue.
“My father tells me you work for Mohan Meaken,” she said.
“Yes, I do. I manage the distribution center. It is a good job. It pays well.”
“You would do well,” she said, “taking care of a wife?”
“I would do everything I could to take care of you.”
Words can be so empty. So devoid of truth. There are times when promises become nothing more than commodities, used to buy and sell those things in this world with real worth. There is so much I could have done and should have done. I should have known that everything that defines your life can be taken away from you in the briefest of violent moments.
It is the middle of the week and Rahul and Seva are asleep in their beds. Rajita is reading a book at the kitchen table.
“Let’s go out and get a drink,” Amit says to me. “I want to tell you something.”
Amit goes to his bedroom and brings back his briefcase, then tells Rajita we’ll be back in an hour or two.
We are sitting at the bar at an Australian-themed steakhouse. Cracked peanut shells cover the floor. Amit orders us two bourbons.
“I have something to show you,” he says. He opens his briefcase and pulls out a file folder. Inside of it is a picture of a young Indian woman, maybe in her mid-twenties. He hands the photo to me.
“Who is she?” I ask.
“Drink your whiskey. Drink it all and then I’ll tell you.”
“Two years ago I hired a private investigator,” Amit says. “I had to find out; I had to try at least. Every part of me told me that she was dead, that she had been killed long ago, but I had to know for sure. For the longest time, the detective couldn’t find anything out. It was a dead case, he said. He told me I was wasting my money, that I should give up. But I make too much money. What’s a few thousand more?
“And then a few months ago, a Muslim cleric in Ohio contacted the detective. The priest had seen an advertisement we were running in the back of the India Tribune.”
The bartender comes up to us and Amit orders us another round of drinks, then waves her off.
Amit continues: “This man’s father was one of them. He was one of the men. He had told his son about that day so many times; the father said he could never forgive himself for taking part in it. The cleric called his father. The old man didn’t know what had happened to Dhiya, but he knew the name of the man that took her. And that was all that the detective needed to find Dhiya’s daughter.”
When everything you ever knew or believed falls apart, shatters in front of you like the thin glass that reality can sometimes be, what do you do? How do you comprehend it? Dhiya’s death has always been a fact of my life. It has shaped every part of me. And now, now that I know she didn’t die in Pakistan, that she lived and had a child, now I know what I need to do. Amit says that he couldn’t tell me in a letter or on the phone, that he had to bring me here to the U.S. first. He tells me that he needs me, he’s scared and confused.
“We must go see her,” I say.
“You will go with me?” Amit asks.
“We are brothers,” I say. “Mai aapka abhari hoon.”
Dhiya’s daughter, Fariza, lives in Edison, New Jersey. Her address is scribbled on the back of the photograph. The next morning Amit tells Rajita that he wants to show his brother how New York City has changed and two days later, our bags are packed and we’re flying to Newark International Airport.
After our plane lands, we get a hotel room next to the airport. We order in turkey sandwiches and eat in silence. A few hours later and we both fall asleep to the droning sound of late night news.
The next morning, over coffee, Amit asks me, “What are we supposed to say to her?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I have no idea.”
We rent a sedan at the rental car booth, then drive to 4233 Millbrook Lane.
Outside of Fariza’s house are two big wheels and a rusty swing set. These are good signs. They mean that life continues, that new generations are growing. In the driveway is a minivan and the front door to the house is wide open. I look in, see a living room couch and the glare of a television screen. Amit rings the doorbell and then we wait to see our sister’s child.
A little boy, maybe four years old, comes to the door.
“Hello,” he says. “Are you the Chinese delivery men?”
“No,” Amit says. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Rashid. Do you like my swing set?”
“Yes,” Amit say. “It’s very nice. Is your mother home?”
Little Rashid runs off and we hear him scream, “Nani. Nani. The Chinese delivery men are here.”
A few seconds later and there she is. I lose my breath for a second, feel my heart skip a beat. Pins are pushing against my chest and I can’t feel my arms. I try to grab the railing, but slip and fall to the ground. I look up and see Amit, my brother. He’s asking me if I am all right. Can I breathe? And next to him, there’s Dhiya, looking down at me. There is my sister. She says: “Should I call an ambulance? Is he okay?”
We are the Secret Asian Men, Amit, Dhiya and I. It is fifty years later, but we are still the greatest secret agents ever. We never give up; we follow each other across the seven great oceans.
It is two weeks later. I’ve been flown to the hospital in Greensboro and I’m scheduled for a quadruple bypass tomorrow morning. Amit and Rajita sit in chairs next to me. Seva stands by the window. “Rahul went to get you some water,” he says.
Before we left Edison, Dhiya told us what happened that day. She told us that the man, whose name was Mushtaq Aziz, had taken her home with him, threw her to the ground and pulled out a knife. She said that she was cowering on the floor of his kitchen, shaking, shivering. More scared than she had ever thought imaginable. That he must have seen her fear, must have recognized it as the same fear his daughter had experienced. That he put his knife down, picked her up and held her tight. Said he would raise her as his own. That she would be his daughter now.
“I know this must be hard for you to understand,” Dhiya said, “but Papa was a wonderful father. The most loving man. He adored me. Even through those first few years, when I wouldn’t talk to him, wouldn’t look at him, all he did was devote everything to me. Everything he did was an apology. And, eventually, when I came around, when I learned to love him, I saw what a wonderful man he was. I would have done anything for him.”
Dhiya tells us that she never tried to find us because to her, we were part of Daddy’s world. “I couldn’t separate your lives from what he did to me,” she said. “How he let me go so easily. I had a new life. There was nothing for me to go back to.”
I am half-awake. My eyes are closed but I can feel a distant tugging at my chest. The hushed murmurs of surgeons. And then the voices get silent, remote. There is only a deep and piercing emptiness. No body to inhabit, no mind and no memories. There is no tunnel, no distant light to try to go to. I don’t hear Ayya calling me to her. Or Mummy or Daddy. Instead, what I hear is the voice of my sister. What I feel is her hand tightly grabbing mine. I open my eyes and there she is. My sweet Dhiya. One of her hands in mine and the other grasping her doll. “It’s been so long,” she says. “Such a painful life.” I’m crying, I feel cold tears trail down my cheek and she’s wiping those tears away, she’s kissing my forehead. I try to speak, there is so much I want to say to her, but I can’t seem to form any words.
“Quiet,” Dhiya says. “Baiyaa, you don’t need to say anything. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. No monster will ever take me away again.”
When Daddy’s words are spoken, we all shiver. We all wonder if we are next to be sent to die by the hands of monsters. We all wonder if we too will be sent to the land where we are never seen again. Kathaam shaat.