Your great-grandfather had sailed to England in 1874. He had never intended to stay, and returned to India after six formative years of medical training. His mother had collapsed with relief when she saw him, having conjured up images of his life unchained – an English wife, an affected accent, the intoxicating allure of the freedom and excesses of the west. But he was an Indian through-and-through, a loyal son and later, dutiful husband and father. He spoke fondly of his time there, recounting his experience of rarefied collegiate life, his adventures in London, youthful escapades that would titillate his children and grandchildren.
In 1947, India was riven and your entire family was herded onto a train bound for Pakistan. The stories of that journey died with their heroes, but the memories of the lives and legacy of your forebears were kept alive through the tradition of postprandial storytelling. In time, you grandfather’s “Cambridge years” became mythologised in the lore of your family, and nearly one hundred years later, your own father invoked the wonder of his tales to convince his wife to cross that very ocean and embark on a westward journey of their own.
You were eleven at the time, and remember well the wrenching sadness of leaving behind everything you loved without knowing you loved it. The pain was now just a memory of a memory, but something akin, you were sure, to what you felt now, in the aftermath of your mother’s death, and your bitter, protracted divorce. Your penchant for protocol warranted action, so you busied yourself with preparations for the funeral service. Being alone, you concluded, was not just a fact of the human condition, but the essence of it. You had watched your mother suffer one heartbreak after another; the failure of her marriage to your father, the death of her second husband, your brother’s disavowal of his faith and subsequent estrangement, your own marriage to Celia, the most unsuitable of wives, and finally, her diagnosis. She bore it at first with the dignity of a royal, the picture of self-possession and fortitude. Her body raged against itself, cancerous masses became unmoored, let loose their anchors to sail through vasculature, course through lymphatics, tissue taking root in foreign spaces and begetting more tissue. But as the disease surged and spread through her, so, too, did the seed of panic take root and grow, her erstwhile stoicism giving way at first to momentary lapses, a morning spent in bed, a querulous streak, then fits of despair in the middle of the night, wailing at first, whimpering when the strength had left her, until, nearing her final weeks, in a funk of depression, she announced that she wanted to return to Karachi to see her sister once more, to smell the frangipani and the raat-ki-raani, to hear the call to prayer as dusk settled over the dust, to be in her homeland when the time came to meet her maker.
But she was too late. She died in an NHS hospital bed with tubes in her nose. Three days later you bumped into your brother leaving a Soho pub with his boyfriend, the first time in seven years you had seen him. The same glint that had once flashed in his eyes, a sign of his youthful exuberance, was now caught in the silver ring dangling from his left lobe, reflecting his shame. You informed him that your mother had died, gave him the details of the funeral service, and saw how he was crushed by the weight of your words, crushed by his grief, by the fact that it could not find a foothold, crushed by his desperation to make sense of his existence, to not be quite so adrift in the tide of his destiny. The exchange was brief, and as you walked away, he said:
“You should bury her in Pakistan.”
There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. You thought of this line from the Leonard Cohen song, and how you once found it so apt in describing the necessity of pain – to feel alive, to feel human. How in later years, you felt that such generalisations were the snake-oil of the poet, nothing more than a heady mix of turpentine and camphor. How now, even as you lowered the needle gently onto the vinyl to hear the familiar crackle of the disc followed by the rich, gravelly baritone of his voice, you could not deny that the only true panacea was the placebo, any common thread to lull us into a sense of being connected.
When you got home, you booked a flight to Karachi. Over the course of the next two weeks, you sold the cemetery plot in Southgate, made arrangements for a plot in Korangi, and sold off your wedding ring on eBay. You had not been to Pakistan in 30 years. As you stood numbly on the platform, awaiting your train to the airport, you leafed through a book of essays by Henry David Thoreau. A line from the page caught your eye: Unto a life which I call natural I would gladly follow even a will-o’-the-wisp through bogs and sloughs unimaginable, but no moon nor firefly has shown me the causeway to it. It made your wonder how much longer you would have to wait for a life you called natural. You were soon to discover that the train would be delayed because some poor soul had jumped onto the tracks in a final act of will. You did not make it in time for your flight.
(written for LitUp! Irrlicht Heimat)