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.