PHOTO CREDITS: HAMZA SANA, M.B.B.S., BATCH XX
“Dadi, I found these in the attic! Look!”
Shahreyar stood with a thick sheaf of dusty, yellow envelopes in his outstretched hand. They were tied together with twine.
His grandmother sat by the wide windows that looked upon the gardens. She gazed up at him with her deep, grey eyes and smiled.
“Oh, you’ve found them! Good, good. Right on schedule, too!”
Shahreyar smiled and put the letters in her wrinkled hands. His grandmother was given to strange pronouncements. He didn’t mind. As long as the world aided and abetted his daily attempts at adventure, he couldn’t care less how eccentric it was.
“Ah, yes. I haven’t seen these in a long, long time.” She looked out the window and was quiet for so long that Shahreyar thought she’d drifted off to sleep. And then her eyes fastened on him and he could see her, then, shipwrecked in an ancient sea of nostalgia. Her trembling fingers stroked the prickly twine and she closed her eyes and sighed and passed the papers back to him.
“Read these carefully,” she said. “Open them carefully, read them carefully and then put them back exactly where you found them, exactly how you found them and we shall never speak of them again, do you understand?”
There were so many things Shahreyar wanted to ask but all he could manage was an excited nod before he turned to run up the stairs to his room before Dadi changed her mind.
His excited footsteps created a tune of innocence, and he, in his happiness, danced to it with the freedom of a warrior returning from a war, very much alive. He made himself comfortable on the aged brown sofa and happily opened the letters.
I hope you are doing well. How is Papa? Is he taking his medicines on time?
It’s cold here. These lonely winters remind me of the ‘gajar ka hulwa’ that you so religiously made…made, yes, because I am not there anymore to tell you how much I love it, am I? I miss you, Maa. And Papa too. And it’s because I miss you that I don’t write to you..I just can’t. It makes me miss you even more. You understand, don’t you? It’s not easy living away from home, on a hill-station, healing the physical ailments of the people who try to give you a home away from home.
There’s someone I have to tell you about. No, she’s not pretty – she’s beautiful. She’s beautiful not because she has velvety skin or these big, deep, mysterious eyes or dainty hands, she’s beautiful because she talks to these homeless kids like they were her own, and she sits with the elderly and listens to their tales of youth, lost with them in their loneliness. Isn’t that something? She’s beautiful, Maa, and so is her child. Yes, her son, Shahreyar, is the cutest little three month old that I have ever seen.
I asked her about him. She said her husband had died in a tribal scuffle and her relatives had turned her out of the house while she was with child. So she came here, seeking refuge from the ghosts of her past and the demons of this world. There’s something about her, Maa, something powerful and strange and inexplicable and beautiful and melancholy and otherwordly. Sometimes, I try to avoid her because I can’t fathom the numbness that paralyses me when I am around her.
What’s happening to me, Maa?
I can’t write anymore. If I do, it will be about her and that scares the hell out of me and then I will long to be with you, to lie down with my head in your lap and forget about the complexities of this world, and that’s just not possible and that is sad. So, I’ll stop.
Take care of yourself and of Papa. Tell him I miss him and that Madam Noor Jehan’s songs on the radio never fail to remind me of him.
Love you both.
It’s crazy out here – there’s a new viral attacking and it’s taking lives by dozens. No natural remedy, no new medicine is working. I need you to pray for these people.
I have to rush now, but I’ll write again.
I hope you all are well. Please give my love to Papa.
I’m relieved to know that you and Papa are fine. Thank you for taking care of yourselves, Maa…
She’s being taken by the virus.
Oh my God! Do you see what’s happening? She’s going, Maa! Why is destiny playing with me like this? I asked you what’s happening and you told me that I’ve fallen for her. And I thought about it, and I realized that you were right. This is why I can’t bear to see Shahreyar in discomfort because he is hers and his discomfort makes her cry. This is why I can’t stop thinking about her. This is why when I sit for my evening tea in the backyard of my cottage, overlooking the green valleys, I think of her, wondering what whispers we could have shared if she were by my side. This is why I look forward to seeing her, just a glimpse, just a ‘salam’. She knows all this. She knows how I feel, and, miraculously, her leaves dance to the same tune. But she’s going away….she’s going away.
Pray for us?
She’s gone. And I am going too. Our disease has been the same, and so is our end – but then, don’t we all meet the same end? Or perhaps not.
Lying here, breathing my last, I hope to die in peace. How can I? I worry about you, about Papa, about Shahreyar. What will become of you three?
Maa, will you and Papa carry on my love for me? Will you love and care for her son because I loved and cared for her? Will you give ‘everything’ to what was ‘something’? You will, won’t you? Thank you! I knew you would honour my last wish.
Don’t tell Shahreyar the smaller truth, tell him the bigger truth. Tell him that his father loved his mother and life knifed them apart but not death. Tell him that he has to look after you. Tell him that he has greatness to achieve. Tell him about us. Tell him about destiny and the miracles that God spins through us. But don’t ever show him these elegies of mortality. Don’t ever show him the adoption papers enclosed within this envelope.
This is my last letter to you, Maa. God is slowly pulling me towards Him. I didn’t wish to leave – I wanted a home that she could never build – with you, Papa and Shahreyar – but I guess this is it.
Take care, Maa. Don’t skip your medicines, and don’t let Papa skip his. Go for long walks with Shahreyar. Love him like you love me, and let him love you like I love you.
Goodbye, Maa and Papa!
Shahreyar sat there in silence. Dadi’s words echoed through his mind.
“Read these carefully. Open them carefully, read them carefully and then put them back exactly where you found them, exactly how you found them and we shall never speak of them again, do you understand?”
The orange rays of the setting sun were entering the room, the dusty window serving as a sieve, sifting the innocence out of the happy world that he was living in.
“Love him like you love me, and let him love you like I love you.”
He got up after an eternity to return the truth of his existence to the dusty attic, forever.
“Dadi, Dadi! Can we go out for a stroll? Please?” he hang around the old lady as if his life depended upon it.
She looked at him for a moment, shook her head in grateful amazement and patted his black head.
“But first, let us wake your Dada. You don’t want him running around the house like a little child, looking for you, do you now?”
She remembered his words, “Love him like you love me, and let him love you like I love you.” And the misty eyes glistened with the philosophy of life.