Nothing happens to me. Gods have forgotten me. People don’t notice me. My name is Baarish which means rain in Urdu. I am twenty-seven years old. People say I am passing through my golden years. But since my older brother’s death, life has been as dry as truth.
I want manipulation. I want kneading, reflexology, some hoodwink. I don’t like it when my therapist tells me I need to get out more. I don’t like it. Or when my mother calls and asks what’s new and I say, same old, Ma. Dupe me, mislead me, bamboozle me. Please, I pray and not entirely in vain:
I am not a sadist but another man’s tragedy is something to talk about. Finally, I have a story to tell: I just met a man whose wife died three days ago. I hardly know him but he is more than a stranger. Many times I’ve seen him in his blue guard’s uniform outside my mother’s jeweler’s shop. Call it coincidence or just my good luck that I witnessed a brutal accident just three days ago (all because I took my therapist’s advice and took an aimless walk around my neighborhood) that killed a woman. She was hit by a black SUV that sent her flying. She flopped down like a wet ball of flour. She smashed her face on the ground and her head cracked open like a coconut does in English cartoons.
She died in her puddle of blood. It was sad to watch though I’ve seen sadder things.
And I am convinced that it was the man’s wife. She was hard to recognize in all that goo, but my instinct is very sharp. What does it matter anyway? There was a dead woman three days ago somewhere in this city, and here is a man without a wife.
Us Punjabis, we like to swing our legs in everyone’s business. So we rushed at her, the bleeding woman, called the ambulance, lifted her head, and wrapped it in a piece of cloth. We sprinkled water on her face. We couldn’t help but pretend we were doctors. We were fueled by emotions, sentimentality, and sensitivity. I liked it. I was involved in something. I was pretending to save a life.
“Don’t let the bastard driver get away!” I screamed.
“He will pay for this,” someone shouted. “In prison, God willing!”
The driver of the black SUV was a woman whose skinny face hid behind a pair of oversized Dior sunglasses while she texted frantically on her cell phone. She watched us, the mob of people, and shook her head. I saw the look on her face. It said, what a group of illiterate, overly excited human beings. We did nothing when she hopped back in her SUV and drove away. Her servant or gardener would do her time in jail and that would suffice. For this was Lahore, a city where money had a big mouth, bigger than the housewives’ mouths which spilled gossip endlessly. Who, what, when, where. It all started and ended with paisa.
I told my therapist about the woman’s dying eyes and how they seemed to examine the earth one last time, not completely heartbroken at leaving. “Don’t overanalyze,” he said.
When I met the dead woman’s husband on the bus, I felt saddened. Wounded. Like the time I watched my mother hunched over the kitchen sink washing dishes six hours after my brother’s funeral.
The man with the dead wife entered the bus with two boys. The tall one wore a pair of grey shalwar kameez. The younger one wore the same outfit in green. It was late evening and the boys created a racket: they screamed at each other, banged the windows, even slapped at people’s newspapers and then apologized through uncontrollable laughter. They shook the bus with their uproar.
I hugged my purse. The kids’ father sat next to me. With every sound his sons made, passengers shifted in their seats and eyed him: a man unflustered. His body was stiff. His eyes were fixed on an oily stain on his knee.
An old man frowned at him and then at me. He muttered under his breath. His face was like a bulldog’s and his frame that of a chihuahua. We watched the kids clap their hands together when a plastic bag landed on a woman’s slippers, tipping out two banana peels.
“Oye! Scoundrels!” the woman screamed.
The bulldog-faced man bent forward towards the father.
“What rubbish! Are you watching your sons, sahib?”
“Ask your kids to behave. This is a bus, not a zoo.”
“What? Oh. Sorry. They are just kids, Baba Jee.”
“Yes, but there’s a time and place for everything, sahib. Even kids must know that. I mean…every day is not a Sunday.” The bulldog-faced man raised his eyebrows and I guessed that he was an ex-army officer. Instantly, I liked him, all of him: his neatly folded handkerchief in his breast pocket, his vintage cufflinks, his shiny shoes.
The father sighed. He was shabby and his stubble was dark and unkempt.
“Their mother died three days ago and they don’t know where she is. So, they’re reacting. Please forgive them.” He slapped his hands together dramatically and brought them to his face.
“Oh.” Pause. “May she rest in peace.”
“But why don’t they know? You should tell them.”
“I can’t tell them. Look at them. Look at their faces. It’s not easy.”
“Yes.” Pause. “When my wife died, my children were already thirty-five and thirty-eight. It’s never easy.”
“Baba Jee, please just stop talking to me. I don’t want my kids to hear anything. Please.”
“As you wish.” The bulldog-faced man readjusted himself in his seat and grumbled. He was offended and I was embarrassed for him. So, I gave him an awkward smile which he ignored. I got instantly turned off by him.
I lack social skills. But ninety percent of the time, I am only being kind and this type of rude behavior hurts me.
The younger one screamed, ”No, I am not an idiot, you’re an idiot,” and his brother said. ”Call me an idiot one more time and I’ll punch you in the face.”
Sometimes adults lie to kids.
The younger one said, “I’m going to tell Ama if you do that.” The older brother leapt on him.
Sometimes, adults lie to their friends too.
He pushed his head down, forcing him to lie flat on the ground.
You will know this when you’re older.
He put his right foot on his younger brother’s neck. A young girl shouted at the kids, worrying for their safety.
You will learn to forgive your father for keeping this from you when you’re much, much older.
He looked up at his father, but the man was lost in another type of battle.
He is very sad about your mother dying.
“Say sorry,” the older brother yelled kicking the younger one. “Fine! Sorry!” he said.
He’s trying to protect you. I know it’s not right. I know.
The bullying brother pulled away, rearranged his kameez and rubbed imaginary dust off his chest. He looked around the bus and smiled victoriously but did not make eye contact with anyone. How could he? He had issues just like me. He needed attention just like me. Sometimes I drop things in my mother’s kitchen just to hear her ask me if I am okay. He is sad and ashamed, baby.
The bruised child got up and cried, “I’m going to tell Ama” and ran to his father.
“When you are older, there will be days when you will be very angry with him. But then you will realize that sometimes adults do stupid things.”
My brother went missing when he was eight and I was five. My mother told me that he was with my grandparents. When my grandparents visited us, she said, “just pray and he’ll be home in a few days, Godwilling.” If I pestered her about him, she slapped me and shoved boiled lentils towards me and told me that if I didn’t shut up and eat, she would lock me up in the storage room. After nine weeks, the police found his body stuffed in a garbage can. My mother stopped paying attention to me then.
Policemen came to our home with the photographs. They called it Evidence. My mother turned her head away. My grandmother said a prayer aloud and midway, my grandfather joined her. I closed my eyes and bowed my head too, but no one saw. The policemen were sorry in a fake way. More than anything, they were proud they had completed their job. Or that’s what my mother said after they left.
Nobody showed me the pictures. But I hid behind the living room curtains and heard everything. My mother said, “This is not my son, what proof do you have this is my son, it could be any boy.” She said,” I have been praying five times a day since my sixteenth birthday. I should have started earlier.” Then she looked at my grandmother with half-shut eyes that said, I blame you for not teaching me better. My grandmother covered her mouth and nodded at the policemen, the investigators. They responded with a plastic bag carrying my brother’s white undershirt with his full name sewn inside of it –my mother’s doing.
I shrieked and revealed myself from behind the curtains. The adults ignored me.
When I became a grown-up and thought about how the police, my parents, all of them could have been wrong, I had the undershirt in my drawer to remind me that it wasn’t so.
I was fifteen and the time seemed right so I entered a poem about my brother in a writing competition. My teachers took pity on me and I came in third place. In college, I started seeing my therapist who blamed the adults for using words like “sleeping” to explain my brother’s whereabouts. It was no wonder that I had nightmares. Things had been left unsaid. It turned out it wasn’t my fault.
I asked my therapist to help me find ways to forgive my mother. He said close your eyes and picture her. So every now and then, I think of her wrinkled face and try and try. I do love her, my small-town-with-bad-kismet mother.
Sometimes, we discuss ifs in my therapist’s pink office:
If my mother had let me grieve, I would have still ended up seeing a therapist but it wouldn’t have been for this. It would have been for something else, for stuff like closing that chapter or just putting an end to it by talking about it one final time with someone. In my case, time would have healed me.
If my mother had let me grieve, I would have had a best friend. And some other good friends. And many acquaintances whom I could call in time of need. I wouldn’t be so alone. I would be a normal person with friends.
If my mother had let me grieve, I’d be fine by now, by twenty-seven I should have been just fine. By twenty-seven, I should have found some confidence. I should have found someone to love; I should have been heartbroken once or twice. I should have felt something for someone out there, be he short and stout or tall and handsome.
My therapist tells me that it’s as if I haven’t been able to close my eyes since I was five.
The man buried his nose in his younger son’s hair. The boy giggled and told his father he was tickling him. Then:
“We’ll be home soon.”
“How much longer?”
“Not long. Go see how your brother is doing.”
“I hate him.”
“Don’t say that.” The man raised his eyebrows at his son.
“But he hurt my neck.”
“I don’t want you using that word.”
“I hate him.”
“Stop, I said! He’s your brother, your brother. When I’m gone, he’s going to be all you have.”
“Where are you going?”
“What? Nowhere. I’m here.”
The man sighed loudly and said he didn’t have anything to eat.
“Sahib, I have chocolate. Can I?”
The man smiled at me. I took out a Kit Kat from the side pocket of my bag. I held the chocolate bar back from the kid.
Your mom’s body stopped working because she had a very sad accident.
The kid clapped his hands together.
That’s what dying is. Your mother isn’t coming back. She wasn’t taken by a ghost. It’s just that her body stopped working.
“I love Kit Kat.” The kid stretched out his hand.
When people die, their bodies are put into the earth at a ceremony called a funeral. The kid leaned over. I could smell his hair.
“Are you going to give it to me already?” The kid snatched the chocolate bar from my hand. I grabbed his wrist.
Some people cry at funerals. If you see your father crying, it’s only because he’s sad that your mother has died. He misses her very much.
“Let me unwrap it for you.”
“No, Baba, I’ll do it!”
You are such a good boy. This isn’t your fault. Remember what I told you about people’s bodies not working anymore?
I quoted my mother in the last verse of the poem:
My first-born, my sugar love
Is no more.
She had heard “sugar love” in an American song on the only English radio station that aired at midnight on Saturdays. She tossed the word around for weeks. Then one day she explained that it was a perfect word for a mother to describe her child. “You’ll know when you’re a mother,” she said. It became something special, that word. Her friends thought it was fancy, catchy. The nanny said it was a nickname like no other, all the way from America or some place even farther away. My grandmother said “sugar love” was made for my brother, the boy who was as sweet as sugar himself.
Once my mother called me “sugar love” too. It was when I broke the frame on my brother’s drawing. She ran into the bedroom with a spatula in her hands and only then, while picking up the frame and looking at me, and then looking at the frame again, had she said, “Oh my sugar love.”
Another time, I’d just come home from college and we were sitting outside in the garden drinking tea. My mother was in an unusually good mood and she said, “Pass me the sugar, Sugar,” and I froze just for a second. Then she winked at me and said, “Get it, pass me the sugar, Sugar.” And to keep her in that foreign happy mood, I passed her the sugar, remembering my brother for whom the word sugar love was all encompassing.
The bus halted and the conductor screamed Kheer Chowk through the static.
“Is this our stop, Father?”
Did you understand what I told you about people dying, sugar?
“Yes, our stop.“
My therapist says I should consider taking a break from public transportation as it gives me too much time to wonder. Sometimes I want to fire him, but he is my only listener.