Do you remember Fatima, our last days at the house? Or rather mine, I should say. I know you outlived me. I always knew you would. You had certain strengths about you that I envied but it was exactly these strengths you possessed that kept me going.I swear I would have succumbed to my anxieties if it were not for you and yet, I always remained so oblivious to your qualities. I first noticed them somewhere in the nineteen-twenties. You remember the summer when I came to Bombay? How terribly I had missed you and I went straight to the house as soon as my train arrived, and you weren’t there, and Shareef told me you were at the clinic. I drove straight to the other side of the city.
I saw your face, no longer paper-fine, skin no longer translucent, like it had been when we had last met in Calcutta. How young you had looked back then, a fresh graduate from the university. I then imagined you, working on and off from morning to afternoon, and back again. I imagined your solitary figure huddled in the emptiness of your clinic.The knowledge you so tried to hide but failed, that your young age was simply slipping away like sand slips through ones fingers.
You, who were in that moment all these things, looked right into my eyes and saw a shivering, intimidated man. A man whose soul hovered between two worlds. That of responsibility and that of his own happiness. You, in me, saw the image of a breaking man who needed a shoulder. You looked right into my eyes, and declared,“Tum jahan jaoge, Ali, main saath aaongi.” You kept your promise till our last breath. You never left my side, Fatima. And I am sorry to have led your life in peril. See how all my efforts have been wasted away into uncertainty? What came of your sacrifices?
I think I have drifted too far from what I want to say. So do you remember, my last days at the house? It was fascinating, wasn’t it, the house? Do you remember how much it had rained the first July we occupied it? An old house on a hill, it was. It wore its steep roof like a crooked hat, and all around it, the walls, streaked with moss, had already gone wet. The wild garden, embellished with juniper, was full of sounds of small lives and the pond alive with yellow frogs which inhibited it, and the driveway around it, where I parked our Cadillac?
I cannot say when it exactly was that my terrible illness came. I should say it was around a fortnight after we had moved in. Of course, there had been symptoms before, and I had almost known it. Do you remember, Fatima, how the rattling sound of my cough haunted that cold night? I tried resisting it so no one would know, and yet it swelled into the nightly hour and woke you up. Which was also, because your room was next to mine. How I had tried to convince you to occupy the upper floor and let Shareef occupy the one beside me but you had refused, you who had known all my tricks. As you woke up, you came into my room and lay beside me and said “Ali, main hoon.”
Deena came too that week, do you remember? She came with young Nusli. I sat in the bare Veranda and he came running to me all the way through the steps. “Nana!” he yelled. He jumped into my lap, and I caressed his hair. He said he liked my cap and wanted it. I removed it from my head and placed it on his. “Nusli prizes the cap, Deena”I almost caught her off guard, Fatima. She turned a face on me that reminded me of her mother.
“Mrs. Wadia.” She corrected me. I grieved that moment too, Fatima. I grieved the distances between us. I wish I had never created them. I still remember that morning at our Bombay Residency. I had sat, all night working on a new resolution; I had to meet with the Viceroy that evening, a meeting that would decide so much. The library was filled with traces of smoke from last night, as Deena appeared. Her well-composed face was in clear effort, trying to disguise her nervousness. She had exclaimed,“I have something to tell you, father.”The talk had soon taken the shape of an argument that I resent to this date, later I drove in the Cadillac to the Viceroy’s residence. That evening when I returned, I learned from Shareef that she had packed her bags and left.
She first called after Nusli was born. And I had picked, and said.“Hello, Mrs. Wadia?” Fatima, she had sobbed and hung up. How could I have been so indifferent? Deena became for me Mrs. Wadia, without me realizing it. I was responsible. For people. For nations. How could I have walked amongst my fellow men, knowing that my own daughter had no faith in the the ideology upon which I had, all my life, clamored for their freedom? These were the questions, Fatima, which I carried to my grave and they constantly pained me until I got to it.
You knew Fatima, didn’t you? It was one entire year after we had occupied the house, and when you had walked into my room that morning, you knew I had died. But you had called for Shareef anyway and you had said, “Call the Ambulance. We are taking him to Karachi.” You carried me all the way beyond borders. You might as well have buried me in the courtyard of our house. You pretended, all the way to Karachi, that I was alive. You had the stretcher placed within an army ambulance and as it had broken down, you had watched, for over an hour, the driver fiddling hopelessly with the engine. Fatima, you and your pretensions. How you found a piece of cardboard and fanned my face, to keep the flies away but there was something in the way I lay, the particular angle of my limbs, something to do with the terrible authority of death, which broke apart your hysteria and then you sobbed, and told the driver to take us back. Deena, and you, and Nusli, the three of you cried at my funeral. Oh Fatima, you cry for me because you love me. And I know you have forgiven me.
Now, Fatima, will you do me one last favor, if you are still down there? I am sure you have heard, by now, what remains of the house where we spent our last days. They say it were the militants. I saw what they did to it this morning. I saw the pillars coming down, the front veranda and its windows smashed to smithereens. I saw the driveway where we parked our Cadillac sinking into the cold earth. I saw them tearing my pictures and stomping on them in rage. Our fine things, the bed on which you had comforted me, Ruttie’s trunk containing her clothes, the steps which you made and on which Nusli had ran up to me; all of it, blown up to bits, smothered to ashes. They say that it took 3 hours for the fire-brigade to come from Quetta, to extinguish the fire. Until then, the house was a wasteland in sight.
So do this one last thing for me, Fatima? I want you to get out and tell that man. Yes, that man who walks down the street to his work. Or that man, that bearded old chai-wala, who runs that shanty roadside tea-business of his near our Wazir Mansion, down in Karachi. Or any common man, oblivious to the destruction around him, anyone you can see as quickly as you can. And ask him, “What remains of the memories of a man who gave his all for your freedom?” This is not about our fine things. This is not about the grandeur and majesty of the house itself. This is about the memories it constituted. This garden surrounding this house saw Ruttie’s letters, and Kanji’s kindness. Your care, and Deena’s forgiveness, and Nusli’s love, and Shareef’s faithfulness. Its walls were privy to all our musings. This house had all my absolution contained in it, wrapped up into the air of its rooms.
Never in my time up here, in sixty five years, has my faith in the cause of this pure soil wavered. Tell them, were I to live a second life, would die again for this cause. Tell them that I would once again, take countless questions to my grave and grief in my wake, and spend eternity seeing our house and that would be the beginning and end of me. I would do so much for their sake and in return, Fatima, only ask them to let me keep my memories. Show them this, a memory keeper’s letter.
Written by Asad Alvi who is a student of Literature and Arts. A young soul aspiring to become a writer. He writes regularly at rantdoms.wordpress.com