By Anis Shivani
The stuffed parrot from Alexandria. Any moment I expect it to erupt into song, or ecstasy, or whatever parrots do. The Tibetan mandala, woven on a red rug. It hangs from the back of the door. The brick that is supposed to be from the wall of China. I think of China as a place one goes to without being able to fully return. The spittoon Hitler used in prison. He was there for a brief time. The broken set of antlers used by a Chippewa tribe as talisman. It didn’t save them from genocide.
It’s an alternative education, once you get grandfather talking about the context in which he acquired each of the objects. More often though, he’ll forget the history lessons and let me feel the texture of the piece in question, as if I can tune into the spiritual vibes of a certain era by holding on to things.
His study is usually dark, even at noon. I used to like to sit in his lap, even after I was too old. He asks me how my A-level preparations are going, and I complain about how difficult I find math. “Don’t worry, Abid,” he’ll say, “not having an aptitude for math didn’t hold anyone back.” He’s right. He also attempts from time to time to offer impromptu (but they’re really deliberate) lectures on Kinsey, Ellis, Freud, Reich, Jung, and Mead—that is to say, sex—but I change the subject to the mating habits of turtles or gorillas, the kind of thing he can be passionate about.
I already know all about sex. I don’t need instruction in that department. Besides, in less than a year, I’ll be in England. I hear they’re pretty cold-blooded there.
One of the servant girls is pregnant, that’s why we have to let her go.
“Everyone gets corrupted in the big city,” my mother addresses me.
“Hunh. Look at grandfather. He’s uncorrupted.”
“He’s also inexperienced,” my mother says. “If you’re not really engaged with the world, there are no temptations.”
“How was Zainab engaged with the world?”
“She was…she was…” my mother sputters, not knowing where to take this question.
She’s aware that I despise the idea of rich people employing servants, especially females, exploiting the best years of their lives, and doing it as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“The price of sugar is going up again,” my father mutters. The price of sugar is supposed to affect the well-being of servants. As is that of atta and ghee and chawal, though none of our servants have to buy their own provisions. But this is how my father expresses his compassion.
Grandfather is agitated when I return from school today. He’s wearing his favorite red pajamas, nineteenthirties vintage. The hem for the drawstring is unraveling, but he refuses to have it sewn. His beige slippers come from a vintage shoemaker in Delhi, who recently passed away.
I like to eat watermelon on the patio, as I think the plantation owners of the American South used to do in the nineteenth century, before the civil war put an end to their lassitude.
There seems to be a gathering storm. Time for a proper monsoon bath, which would be the first this June. In the garden, Meimoona, the fifteen-year-old who’s set to take Zainab’s place—Zainab’s understudy, you might call her— talks to some of the older servants’ grandchildren. She’s telling them how Moses flung down his stick, turning it into the largest of the serpents, scaring off the competing magicians in the Pharaoh’s employ. The children sit in front of a basket of jamuns, the purple juice of the fruit dripping down their chins and necks.
Grandfather walks up to me in short, shuffling steps. “You heard the news?”
I assume he’s talking about Zainab’s impending departure. He has a soft spot for her. I know because whenever she doesn’t bring him breakfast to his study, he spends the whole day being cross. And I’ve had occasion to pick up other, more obvious signals.
“The news these days is all predictable, unexciting,” I say with a worldly air. It’s the kind of attitude that drives my friends and family nuts, except for grandfather, who accepts it on level terms.
“She must take care of it, of course. We must help her take care of it.”
What he’s saying sinks in. “You mean, an…an abortion? Is that what you mean?”
Frail and blue-veined, the sparse frizzy hair on his head standing up, his bifocals hanging on a string reaching his midsection, outside the sacred precincts of his study grandfather is just another old man, waiting for death.
The aura is missing. But his words still have the power to stun.
“We also have to find the bastard who did it. And put him out of business.”
“The bastard who did it is probably one of the servants next door,” I reply. “Some stud who can’t keep it under control.”
“What are these children doing here?” grandfather says, noticing the kids congregated around the jamun basket.
“And who’s this girl?” He stares at Meimoona.
“Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.” Mishal rests her head on my shoulder.
“Oh, Abid, doesn’t she have a way with words? I wish I could write poetry like that.”
I put away the bottle of domestic beer that tastes like stale piss. “But you do write poetry.”
“I don’t know how to write poetry,” says Mishal.
I’m beginning to feel drowsy. The news from England isn’t good. My aunt Riffat—a spinster of forty-five, rumored to have a bevy of admirers—has written from Oxford, where she is a lecturer in sociology, that admissions are tougher than ever. I can’t understand her demeaning attitude. I resent anyone who implies anything is too difficult for me.
“To write great poetry, you need great material,” Mishal continues. “Like Wordsworth in the woods, Byron at war, Hardy with his country girls.”
I try to placate her. “Being in love is usually enough.”
She talks about the aforementioned three poets, giving far too much credibility to their idiosyncratic perceptions.
But I remain quiet.
At the end of the harangue, she starts saying, “Before you go to England—”
I know what’s coming next. “I can’t, I really can’t. It wouldn’t be fair to you.”
I’m being a cold-hearted monster, but I think it’s best for her. She’s been carrying around a secret engagement ring from me. Until now, she’s wanted no one else to know.
“I knew you’d say that.” She moves her head from my shoulder, then turns her face away. I know she’s crying, but I can’t bring myself to put a comforting hand on her back.
“I think you should go now,” I say wearily.
Tomorrow evening, she’ll be back, and we’ll perform the same routine. We’ll start off by talking about something intellectual, the way we began two years ago, then it’ll turn into reproach and weeping. I hate this melodrama.
I’m surprised when she doesn’t depart in a huff, leaving no trace of her behind, as she normally does at the end of one of our disputes. Today, she breaks into a weird laugh. Then she talks about how she’d like to travel the world and become a peacemaker, directly contradicting her usual conviction that she’d like nothing better than to stay at home and read novels and poetry until she loses eyesight, like Milton and Joyce.
“You must get engaged before you leave,” my mother announces at breakfast one morning in July. I’ve decided to skip school today, but haven’t told my parents.
My father nods in agreement. “Plenty of good girls, where your mother came from.”
“Daanish!” my mother silences him.
A new feeling of dejection has come over me. Zainab’s departure is only a few weeks away. She’s been collecting her things from her quarters and assembling them outside her door, as though putting together the remains of a deceased relative she barely knew. But she doesn’t complain. Her condition is now more obvious for everyone to note.
“I’m not just talking about anyone, Abid,” my mother goes on. “Mishal is a good girl. You seem to like her. I think she has a promising future. Her mother has dropped hints the family might be interested. After all, we have a reputation too. What is it we can’t offer?”
I switch strategies. Until now, I’ve always resisted. “Okay, go ahead then. I like her too.”
My mother is shocked. She never expected me to bend so easily. “But…but…what will I say your long-term plans are? What will I say—”
I smile triumphantly. “You wanted a match, you got it.” I leave my toast unfinished. When I look back from the dining room door, her face has turned blue. It’s all bravado and bluff. They never expect sons to be easy.
Several times this summer—it’s August now—the monsoons have threatened but not yet come. There have been years in the past when there has been no rain. I’ve spent summers in London with cousins, and when it rains there, it doesn’t mean so much. Life goes on. I can’t imagine how Arthur Conan Doyle conveyed such menace with description of fog. Londoners have internalized the deepest, brownest, sickliest fog in their psyches. But when it rains here, the skies splatter open, as if Mr. Hyde had taken a knife to a beautiful woman, ripping her apart, smiling thunderously over her remains. It’s a brutal rain here, like everything else. Still, it’s nice to go to the roof, and lie naked in the stream of water, afloat in the roaring flood that makes it look as if the roof will go under, the house will crumble. The rain here is destructive.
I hope this doesn’t sound like my father trying to be poetic. I resent his being an engineer only a little less than my being an only child.
He looks like a young T. S. Eliot, without the missionary zeal. He’s invariably dressed in black sherwani. I had Zainab steal a key of this room for me, from my mother’s treasure trove.
I fall asleep on the velvet bedspread covering the grand four-poster bed that must have needed a miracle to be carried inside. The teak doors in the house spread wide, to try to accommodate just such furniture. Once it’s there, it’s never meant to be moved. Not even Zainab is delegated the job of cleaning this room. It’s the job of an older male servant, who never had any family.
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.