Pain takes time to soften. People recover differently. Some change cities, some fall in love and some begin writing. Daddi transitioned hastily. She took off her all her jewellery and gifted it to my mother, who was taken aback by this warm gesture. Mother put a thin gold necklace, a ruby ring and antique bangles in a box away from everyone’s sight.
“I will gift this to Anika at her wedding,” she declared.
No matter how distorted the sketch of my grandparents’ relationship was in our heads, a part of me realised only after his death that my daddi forgave her husband’s supposed infidelity a long time ago. But it was something else he had done that she couldn’t forgive him for, the fact that he had died before her.
How dare he die before her? How could he leave her alone? What was she to do alone? After she gave away her possessions, she stood with her back towards me, looking out of the window at the rose garden. Her eyes absorbed, her face glowing from the many colours of sunlight, her hair thin and frailer than I remembered, falling down her back like a silver river.
“This is what I feared,” she said, “Being alone at the end. He was not a bad man, your dadda. I had grown quite used to his presence.”
The couple displayed their love in the oddest of ways.
They never uttered a kind or affectionate word to each other, but Grandfather always brought sweet sugarcane for her when he returned in the evening from his adventures in the golden fields.
After his death, daddi’s love also finally came out from under the ragged quilts. Though he was no longer there, she made sure that his bed was always made, his old fawn safari hat hung on the rusty hinges, greeting spiders, and his sunburnt hookah sat peacefully next to her charpoy. Even his brown leather chappals sat on the doormat, greeting every new pair of feet that entered or left the house. She felt less alone, I believe, knowing that some part of him was still around. His things gave her comfort, made life feel more normal, made the void he had left within her less visible.
When he had lived, she barely noticed me. Maybe because she felt that dadda gave me enough attention already. The twins had always been her favourite. They were taller for their age, slender and fair – in short, every South Asian boy’s fantasy. Anika and I, on the other hand, possessed ordinary looks and a “wheatish” complexion – a term coined by our mother for our beige skin colour.
After the funeral though, a lot changed.
She said my “wheatish” complexion and raven black hair were beautiful. She said my eyes and the arch of my eyebrows reminded her of someone. She said she loved how, unlike the twins, I was neither conceited nor pretentious. She saw him through me, I could tell.
“You are silent like your grandfather, Mariam. The silent ones are the most dangerous, they say. They are the fiercest from the inside.”
When winter came, daddi announced that she was ready to go back home to the village. We flocked around her luggage, discouraging her, asking her to stay for a little more time but she said, “I can’t trust anyone with my house. Besides, I’ve to leave before the cold weather creeps in. Preparations need to be done.”
Father, sentimental and saddened, asked Anika to accompany his feeble mother on the train ride back as he was going away for business.
“But Papa, my school?” Anika asked softly.
The winter holidays had just started and he assured her that it would only be a week or two until she settled back into her routine in the village. The night before the journey, Anika used all her strength to convince me that I should be the one accompanying her.
We sat with the Ludo board spread in front of us. She curled her lips and glanced at me.
“Mariam, what were you saying about the ghosts the other day?”
I rolled the dice.
“I said, daddi is going back home because Gulshan is petrified that the ghosts will eat her up.”
“Do you think there are really ghosts there?"
“You said the women were old and lonely, that’s why they invented such details, for amusement and attention.”
“Yes, that’s true, but I’ve started to think that Grandfather’s spirit must be still hovering around.”
My face turned serious. I leaned forward and whispered, “If you see it, will you promise to tell me about it?”
“Nah,” she stretched her hands, “I’m not curious like you. I will probably ignore it and sleep.”
“Don’t you want to see him?” I gasped, “Didn’t you love dadda?”
“Yes, of course, but Mariam, can you go with daddi instead of me...?”
She stopped and then sighed, “Look, I can’t stay there, not even for a week. Besides, she won’t enjoy my company at all. But you get along so well with her. Would you be a good little sister and go?”
My sister knew exactly what chords to play. I couldn’t say no to her and the curiosity that she had cleverly aroused in my mind. “Two weeks will pass before you even know it!” she said, smiling wide.
So, before the sunshine laughed and struck every plant, wall and person, daddi and I were on our way to the railway station. She was ecstatic about the change of company and hugged me thrice to reveal her pleasure. But this excitement didn’t last long. Her whining began as soon as we reached the station. Despite the change in seasons, the days were still a little hot. She fanned herself with a corner of her brown dupatta. I barely held onto the four suitcases that contained everything but her sewing machine.
Our porter, who was now drenched in dust and sweat, made a face and brushed some particles off with his red shirt. His face clearly read, “A cantankerous old lady and an ignorant child, what a day!”
“Water? Did you bring a water bottle?” drawing her eyebrows closer, she asked. I handed her a flask.
“When does the train come?” “Train, bhai?” “It’s late, that’s the government’s fault, as usual. Money-sucking automatons. Pack of wolves feeding on people’s blood!”
“Thank God, the angraiz were kind enough to lay down the tracks or else we all would’ve been riding carts.”
At a distance, smoke rose, staining the blue sky followed by the much-awaited screeching sound; people stood up instantly with desperation and joy. The train was here and it was time.
“Chalo, chalo, chalo! Aye bhai train aye!” porters cried, suddenly becoming alive with the rhythm. It was time to make some extra money.
My grandmother held my arm, smiled and pointed at the emerging green monster. I smiled back. Arshad, our loyal coolie, pushed some men aside and presented to my daddi three iron stairs. Complicating the matters, she took one step and stopped midway, her bulky body hanging in thin air, “Oh, please, son, give me three seconds to decompress!”
The coolie now pictured the train moving with a woman hanging onto the steel handle and a young crying girl stranded on the platform with mountains of luggage and decided he wasn’t comfortable with conceiving that thought. Panting, as if she had just climbed a snow-capped steep mountain, daddi shook her right hand dismissively.
“No time to relax! People are waiting! This train waits for none!” he said aloud and literally pushed her through the little doorway.
“The elephant’s in!” someone joked from behind, followed by some “shhhhhh!”
Relieved that she didn’t hear the offensive statement, I waited for her to turn and throw her arm out for me but, much to my surprise, she walked right inside, hunting for our compartment, oblivious, not worried, that she abandoned an eight-year-old, boxed between snake-like men. Meanwhile, I struggled with four suitcases.
“Daddi!” I wailed out, frightened.
“Oho, beti!” the porter sighed, handling the cases and assuring me that trusting a man I just met an hour ago would be perfectly normal. He would deliver them to our seats.
I found daddi already seated with her legs on the bench. She barely noticed me as I sat down beside her. She was no longer sweaty or frantic; her face was calm and serene, lost in thought. She looked out of the barred window at the platform and the people trotting with their bags.
“Goodbye, Lahore,” she whispered as if telling a secret, “You’ve been a kind friend.”
Excerpted with permission from Ashes, Wine and Dust, Kanza Javed, Tara.
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