I barely noticed the boys being marched into the principal’s office for bumming cigarettes from construction workers. It was hard to think about anything but Hanif. Over the last few months, I’d passed him in the driveway, in the garden, in the kitchen, all the while barely speaking because I didn’t know much Urdu. Had we ever exchanged more than casual greetings? I’d given him Amir’s soccer ball, and had intended to let him play with my basketball, but I didn’t really want Hanif to touch it because my father had bought the premium leather ball in some faraway place especially for me.

Sitting in math class, going through the motions of calculating angles and copying from my neighbour who was much smarter than me, I could feel the shame set in.

It starts at the tips of your ears and takes an eternity to curl around your earlobes, but after it does, it breaks loose and drowns you. It’s like blushing, except it’s not red so no one can see it. Not sharing the basketball with Hanif was different from other things that made me feel shame – lifting coins from the pile on my father’s dresser, stealing the precious European chocolate he brought back from his travels and giving it to my friends, the smell of caramelized onions in my house which bothered my American friends, and the reality I rarely thought about but which was true, that sometimes I wanted to be white or, at least, American.

I wished I had given Hanif my basketball.

Like the days when there had been three of us returning from school, today my mother was waiting for me at the kitchen table. She’d baked my favourite apple cake, but I wasn’t hungry.

‘How was school?’

I shrugged my shoulders. ‘Same.’

‘Are you alright?’

‘Why wouldn’t I be?’ I said, daring her to bring up Hanif.

‘I mean, are you really alright?’ she persisted. ‘A terrible thing happened yesterday. Hanif... it might be a good idea to talk about it. If you’d like... ’

‘They started work on the school walls today,’ I said in a quick turnabout, changing the subject and momentarily declining to talk about Hanif with my mother.

‘Not now, but when you’re ready.’

‘When will Sadiq be back?’ I relented.

‘Your father has given him leave for as long as he needs. A few weeks, I would guess.’

‘That long?’

‘After all, his son died yesterday, and...’

‘Was killed,’ I corrected her. ‘His son was killed yesterday.’

My mother, who hadn’t moved since we sat down together, studied me. ‘It’s good to talk about things when we are sad,’ she began, but I’d already tuned her out. There was nothing worse than being told how or what to feel when you recognized that grownups were hiding the truth.

‘Did Daddy tell you why the driver left the scene?’ I eventually asked.

‘He doesn’t know, my darling. He wasn’t there.’

It was true. He wasn’t there, but I sensed he knew more than he was admitting.

It was odd how not having spoken much to Hanif bothered me more than being unable to communicate in Urdu with my own cousins, my father’s sister’s children in Karachi, whom I rarely saw. My father had tried. Before Amir and Lehla left for college, he’d insisted on Urdu lessons for all of us. But after Lehla went to America, he resigned himself to my disinterest and terminated Master sahib’s lessons.

Remembering Master sahib, I considered for the first time what learning Urdu might mean, what it would feel like to walk into London Book Co. or A. M. Grocers in Kohsar Market and understand animated conversations or eavesdrop on hushed whispers.

I wouldn’t need to ask my father to translate the news, and I would read Urdu newspapers on my own. I would speak to our chowkidar or the motorcycle spy without hesitation. I would make my grandfather, who’d just been visiting, proud by reciting his favourite Urdu poetry. I would have cousins in the true sense of the word, rather than merely people who were related to me by blood.

Was this the time for me to learn Urdu? Wholly and perfectly, like I’d learned to knit cables on sweaters and stitch flowers in the corners of linen napkins or swish basketballs in our driveway hoop? The fact that my world had two universes would never change. But knowing the language would let me decide which universe I wanted to be in and when. Urdu would be the pole catapulting me to the other side if I ever needed to be there.

Just then, my mother knocked on the door to tell me Lizzy was on the telephone.

‘Liya?’ Lizzy said, sounding as if she’d caught a cold. ‘I’m sorry. You can’t come for dinner tonight. I have the flu.’

‘Oh,’ I said, trying to hide my disappointment. ‘Feel better, okay? I missed you at school today.’

‘I’ll call when I’m better.’ I was surprised when she hung up without asking me for the homework she’d missed and almost called her back.

Trying not to be too disappointed, I occupied myself with sorting through a pile of books on the bottom of my shelf. Some of them were mine, while others belonged to Lehla. I found my Urdu notebook and the first and second grade readers my father once selected for me in Lahore’s famous Ferozsons bookstore. I couldn’t help feeling there was something perverse about my sudden need to learn Urdu.

After all, it had taken the death of Hanif, a boy I hardly knew and whose body I imagined still in the back of a rented minivan, to make me want to learn the language. I sharpened a pencil and slowly sketched shapes in the margins of graph paper in my math notebook. I would learn, I decided, without anyone’s help. It would be my secret.

I wasn’t entirely sure why I wanted to keep it a secret except that I suspected revealing it would somehow change how I was perceived. For example, would I still be half-and-half? I would tell my parents when I was ready. Maybe I’d wait until I could read an entire newspaper page, because that would really impress my father. After years in which my father had hoped we would learn, I would present the language to him fluently, as a gift, but only when I was ready.

Hours after my parents had gone to bed, I practised words I already knew. Pani was water, darvaza was door, bistar was bed. But I couldn’t conceive of stringing together those few simple words into a sentence to address Hanif. Water near the door got on the bed? What was near in Urdu? And got? What did they use for on? Before I fell asleep with my head on my desk, the letters began to dance in front of me. I tried to keep my eyes focused on them, determined not to let them slip away.

Excerpted with permission from City of Spies, Sorayya Khan, Aleph Book Company.