Grandfather has a stroke. The rains never come. I connect the two facts in my mind, over and over. Mishal reassures me, as we sit watching over him, late one afternoon. “It’s a mild stroke. He’ll be good as new in a few months.”
“A stroke is a stroke is a stroke,” I protest.
Grandfather returns home quicker than we expect. Indeed, since he’s been out of the hospital, his recovery seems to be proceeding faster. I haven’t visited his study while he’s on his back. From time to time, he opens his eyes and asks for old friends of his, friends who died years, even decades ago. “Where’s Sikander?” he says. “Tell him not to marry that woman. She’ll drain his energy.” Sikander had ended up playing for the Indian national cricket team in the years after partition, scoring a double-century at Edgbaston one gray, foggy week. The match ended in a draw.
“You shouldn’t think the Brits have the monopoly on truth,” he says in one of his lucid moments during the convalescence. “They lie, as often as we do. Their lies are just sugarcoated.”
“But they’re such great poets,” says Mishal.
“Precisely my point,” grandfather says. “Poetry is lying.”
My father hasn’t shown much emotion at grandfather’s decline. My mother has acted acceptingly, as if nothing else could be expected at his age.
One afternoon he tells us it’s not true that he ever visited Burma. It was his best friend in high school who did, and who bargained for some of the treasures that now adorn grandfather’s study. Grandfather was flirting with a second cousin of his that summer. “So don’t take everything I say seriously,” he admonishes.
The last evening of summer, not only my mother and father, but aunts and uncles we’re on speaking terms with, are gathered around his bed because he’s been in a particularly ebullient mood.
Grandfather says, “You must take special care of Zainab. She is—part of the family—if you know what I mean.”
The insinuation hangs in the air. But no one dares come close to it.
My mother adopts a tone of blasé indifference. “Of course, we treat our servants as family. We always have. She’s only going away for a few months. Then she’ll be back, no question she’ll be back. The country air will do her good. She might come back married, who knows, with one of her cousins.”
“Be quiet!” grandfather roars. Mishal acts afraid, squeezing my arm. “She’ll do no such thing. Zainab will stay here and have the child. The child will be named Jauhar.” Jauhar is my grandfather’s name.
My mother gasps in disbelief.
“I think we’ll leave now,” one of my aunts says, and the other aunts and uncles also rise soon and follow her out.
“What’s the meaning of this?” my mother challenges. I’ve never seen her talk so confrontationally with grandfather.
“The meaning of all things is clear.” Grandfather falls asleep, or pretends to. He snores.
Long after my mother and father and Mishal have left, I sit by the bed, pondering the implications of what he’s been saying. A great burden has been lifted off my shoulders. He didn’t have to do this. It’s the noble, selfsacrificing part of his character again. Perhaps illness has prompted him to assume the role of fall guy. Still, it’s praiseworthy.
“Abid.” He opens his eyes, scaring me, and putting his gnarly hand on mine. “I really mean it. She’s to be treated as family. She is family.”
For an awful moment, the strength of his grip makes me think he’s sincere. Then I put aside the unimaginable thought.
Anis Shivani is the author of ‘My Tranquil War and Other Poems’ (2012), ‘The Fifth Lash and Other Stories’ (2012), ‘Against the Workshop’ (2011), ‘Anatolia and Other Stories’ (2009), and the forthcoming novel ‘Karachi Raj’ (2013). Other books recently finished or in progress include two books of poetry; a novel; and two books of criticism, ‘Literature at the Global Crossroads and Plastic Realism: Neoliberal Discourse in the New American Novel’. Anis’s work appears in the ‘Boston Review’, ‘Threepenny Review’, ‘Iowa Review’, ‘London Magazine’, ‘Cambridge Quarterly’, ‘Times Literary Supplement’, and many other journals.
Editor’s Note: ‘The House on Bahadur Shah Zafar Road’ is reprinted from Anis Shivani’s collection ‘The Fifth Lash and Other Stories’ (C&R Press, 2012), with the kind permission of the author.