A writer tells the story of her father’s arrest and imprisonment in Pakistan.
By Soniah Kamal
The history I was tucked in with at bedtime always left me cozy. Tales of family vacations,weddings, and birthday parties. The seamy underbelly, the unpleasant anecdotes, why one relative wouldn’t look in another one’s eyes, these never qualified as bedtime tales, or as I grew older, any-time tales. But I’m a nuisance, and the older I got the less I allowed what’s past to rest.
“I need to know the bad and ugly too,” I tell my father, “in order to know you, yes, but also in order to know me.”
I’ve just asked my Pakistani father, an immigrant from India, about his leaving Bangladesh, where he happened to be working up until the 1971 war, which divided East and West Pakistan into two sovereign countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh. He sits back in his armchair in front of the TV, which some unspoken law has decreed his space. His long fingers drum on the glass ashtray always by his side. He lights a Dunhill and takes a small puff. His jaw automatically adjusts his dentures. Then he mumbles about terrible times, very bad, everyone gone quite mad and, picking up the Urdu newspaper Jang-War, seeks refuge behind sheets of black and white.
So he doesn’t want to talk, as usual. He’s taciturn by nature, a reserved accountant in his early sixties who stands at the back in photos, though he always looks straight into the lens; no worries, I’ll try again later. My mother, however, can’t be quieted, a regular chatterbox even when you don’t really want to know, so I ask her, instead, about the time in Kashmir, was it, when my Uncle, then a child, was arrested for his father’s involvement in politics. She says she wasn’t even born then. Fine. But what has she heard about that time? Was he tortured? And when he returned home, how long did he cry? Did he cry? And were they the sort of cries that the promise of candy and toys can end?
“I don’t know,” my mother says, and frowning, adds, “I never asked what I wasn’t told.”
Forty odd years later, my Uncle is a doctor in England, with a nice big house with jade creeping up and shrouding the brick, gravel driveway, and, at the back, a sprawling lawn with a red seesaw set under a weeping willow, and a barbecue grill cemented in stone pavement. He’s flipping a hot dog when I ask him.
“I don’t really recall,” he says, the tightness in his voice belying his claim.
So what do you do when history won’t talk to you? In my case you eat your hot dog, scratch your head, and go on to read books. That’s what I was doing one morning in 1999, when my mother telephones from Pakistan to the United States, where I now reside. She starts crying at “hello.”
My father has been taken away. For questioning, they say. By the new government of Pakistan which has toppled the old through a bloodless coup and now wants to hold the old fiscally accountable and therefore has arrested the top finance guys that worked for the overthrown prime minister’s industries and had nothing to do with his governance. She’s telling me details I suddenly don’t want to know: even though the doorbell worked, the police banged on the gate with batons, how my Dad thrust his dentures in, how they were oh so kind enough to allow him to slip on his shoes.
I think of my father who hugs me close during thunderstorms because he knows I’m scared the sky might break. The father who kisses my forehead when my novel isn’t going right, imprinting me with his forbearance, honesty and belief in hard work. The father who lights up because I light up when he calls me Soniah Rani, Princess Soniah, his teeth flashing between his ruddy, bee stung lips.
From the apartment building window, I can see it’s a really nice Virginia day. Winter sunshine trickles down from an ice blue sky. Tree trunks rise from anklets of unblemished snow, their bare branches alert in the December air. A black crow sits on the baby blue bonnet of the Honda Accord owned by the Afghan couple who live a floor above. The woman is the fashionable type, moss green woolen scarf with matching gloves, coiffed, bleached hair, suede boots with just the right length heels, and she clip-clops towards the car at precisely that moment.
The silver day before me has gone gray.
“I’m coming home,” I say.
Absolutely not. It would jam my green card process. “Your future is a priority,” Mummy says, “your father would not want any trouble in your life for his sake.” She tells me to pray. And I do, of course, but in my own way. I’m a spiritual person — humanist and all that — but not big into rituals. The only time I actually pray is when someone close to me passes away, and my Dad is alive, will live through it all.
I am guilty of caring about my father’s instructions to stay put instead of giving into my desire to be there. I am guilty of not returning when my family needs me. As I need them. I am guilty of being an obedient daughter. I would turn disobedient except I’m terrified my actions will cause further grief to my father at this vulnerable time. So I stay put as per my father’s wishes. I stay put for a green card. I stay put for the right to live in the US. While my younger sister and brother are there, I, the eldest, instead of taking care of all of them, am here staying put.
I call home every day. I call when I wake up. I call before I sleep, if I sleep. Sometimes I call right after I’ve already called. Lame phone calls — “Are you okay?” I ask, “Are you okay?” They ask — because the phones might be tapped. And I learn that it is I, sitting far away, who is needy for consolation. It makes me feel guilty. I am not like my mother, who is waking up to an empty other side of the bed. Or like my brother, who returns to Pakistan for the summer from college in DC, decides it is his task to make my mother laugh, though he finds it impossible to laugh himself. Or like my sister, who accompanies my mother on visits to the detention centre/jail where my father is growing thinner and thinner and quieter and quieter (how much quieter can my quiet father get?) and covering the bruise on his cheek with his palm, only to betray the one on the back of his hand.
Days turn into weeks turn into months. I wonder if is it easier to have seen a bruise and know its shape than imagine sometimes a mere ochre dot, sometimes a plum blot, over and over and over again.
I learn that I’d rather be the one to call. A Marlboro Red already lit in case of bad news. When they call, I scramble to find my pack. A ringing phone portends dread and only dread, although my husband reminds me that good news travels over the phone line too.
One afternoon, I return home to a blinking red eye on the answering machine.
“Call me back please.”
It’s the entirety of the message my Uncle from England leaves. He’s never called me before. Not on a birthday, a graduation, an anniversary, not even when the pressure cooker went off in my face. My father is dead. What else? Eight long months in jail cell have come to an end in his end. My father had done nothing, nothing, but nothing means nothing in Pakistan where law and order and accountability and justice are more often than not Orwellian terms. An impossibly hard whoosh of air punches me in the solar plexus. I taste terror on my tongue, stale, metallic, poison. I black out.
When I come too, it’s a false alarm. Uncle just wanted to know how I’m holding up. My father is okay. In fact, soon eight long months in a jail cell will come to an end. It’ll be confirmed that my father was never party to any fraud or hanky-panky, and he’ll be back home, forever a quieter and increasingly godly man, back home and back in front of the TV in his armchair, the one no one sat in while he was gone.
When I talk to my father, his voice seems unsure of how to speak; his soft voice is taking baby steps. He says, “As long as your children are safe, unscathed….”
And I look out at window, at the cloudy August sky, and think, like a traitor, I live in America, thank god.
I am a default immigrant. I entered college in the United States, already eager to return home and begin real life, only to meet the man I was going to marry here. I remember walking across a campus quad one evening complaining to a friend that I’m going to miss home so much. She nods sympathetically. She can’t quite grasp “overseas,” for she’d never left Maryland’s shores. Stars nest in the night sky like sparkling eggs which will hatch with a bright dazzle.
“Well,” I say bravely, “at least it’s safe here. No threat of civil war or coups or sectarian strife or interfaith shoot-outs, bombs, the sky falling on top of us in a dazzling spectacle of death.”
It’s been about a year since my father came home. A blinking answering machine is slowly reverting to being just that, phone calls to home have reverted to just once a week, and my parent’s voices are a little stronger, a little less bewildered and lost.
I’ve been busy. We’ve moved to Colorado: new place, new people, new shopping, new writing ambitions and a new born baby. So, when the phone rings early Tuesday morning and my husband says hello, I merely pull the pillow over my head. It’s probably one of those sales calls that always manage to come at the wrong time, but no, he’s not hanging up, and his voice is getting louder. I hear him say my brother’s name even as he tells my mom not to worry.
“We’ll try calling him,” he says, “then we’ll call you back.”
I sit up. What has my fun-loving brother done now — run off with a girl of his choice? For all my bravado, though, I’m not brave anymore. A siege of days, weeks, months spent on the phone in a tag line of ‘are you okay-are you okay’ has left a mark.
I hoist my infant up and get out of bed to find my husband in front of the TV. He’s flipping from BBC, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, CBS and back to CNN again. I yawn. A shawl of early morning sunshine sprawls in from the bay windows and drapes itself over our electric blue micro-suede loveseat.
“Apparently,” my husband looks at our baby, “there are planes falling out of the sky.”
And that’s how Pakistan informs us of what’s happening in America on 9/11. The role reversal is unnerving because this is America and phone calls should not be flooding in to ask if we’re all right, but America is, it seems, part of the of the world after all.
We finally get through to my brother’s college in Washington D.C. He can see, he says, a smoky cloud over the Pentagon. We get through to a cousin. She’s in New York. Safe, though the smell of smoke, the woolen black of it in the air and on faces, almost contradicts her assurance. I call the same friend I’d walked across the campus quad with five years ago. She lives in Pennsylvania now and not far from Shanksville, where the only plane that did not reach its destination made the most difference.
“Are you okay?” I say
“Are you okay?” She says.
We’re as okay as anyone can be while thinking about people in planes and people in towers and people in places where they can get in trouble for the misdeeds of others and people who will talk nonstop about this day and others who will try to forget it by going mum. A safety net has fallen and we’re all tangled up.
“Take care,” she says.
“Take care,” I say.
Soniah Kamal‘s debut novel An Isolated Incident was a finalist for the Townsend Award for Fiction, the KLF French Fiction Prize, and is an Amazon Rising Star pick. Her essays, short stories, poetry and literary work have been published in The Guardian, Buzzfeed, Catapult, Huffington Post, Lit Hub, The Normal School, The Missing Slate, The Atlanta Review, and more.