The Passing by Ali Haider Jafry, 4th Year MBBS

Monday, April 18, 2016 KELS 0 Comments Category : ,

They had started whispering around him now; he could hear them speak about him in hushed voices. He knew the mutterings and musings would continue and spread like a fire would through the driest hay. But he did not care. Standing there, on the foot of the bed that he’d come to fear all his life, he felt strangely comforted. It brought an approving thought to his head: they are right in what they think of me. Prying his eyes away from the bed, he gazed briefly at all those who had come to give false sympathies and deceitful respects. The women could barely look through the tears that came streaming from their eyes. So swollen and crimson were they that it seemed as if the angel of death had taken away from them their very own husbands or sons. They wept and they cried, doing what they usually did for a couple of hours before heading back to their homes and speaking highly of those who had wept the most over a hot cup of tea. He would certainly draw the ire of every woman who was in the room today; at least he’d given them someone other than their usual victims to speak of with a frustrated shake of the head. And yet he stood there with a face completely devoid of all expression, paying no attention to the disapproving eyes that looked at him in disgust, expecting some sliver of gloom from a face that seemed to be set in stone.
“You’ve had a long journey, sir”, a voice spoke calmly in his ear. “Please let me take your luggage.”
He turned around to see the welcome face of Amir, the trusted family servant, nearly the same as he was when he’d last seen him. His hair was a little grayer and though his dark eyes had lost none of the keenness about them, a certain red currently streaked across their whites. Only now did Bilal notice that he had a briefcase in one hand and a backpack in the other. This was no time for pleasantries; without a word, he handed them over to Amir and retired to his room. It was exactly how he had left it; the walls were empty and there was nothing in the room save a study table and a bed. A stranger here would have felt as if it had been emptied but it wasn’t much different when he’d lived here. The journey had been long and tiring while it lasted but now that he was home, the exhaustion had been lifted from him and the bed that used to be so enticing to him years ago had suddenly lost its charm. Nonetheless he sat down upon it, thinking about how long it had been since last he’d been here.
Eight years? Has it really been that long? I left as a boy and now return a man grown. They’ll say the prodigal son has returned, though not quite at an opportune moment.
There was a knock on the door and Amir entered. “I’ve had some of your old clothes ironed for you so you can slip into something more suitable and comfortable, sir. The food is ready, for whenever you feel like eating.”
“Thank you Amir, and I’ve told you before not to call me that”, Bilal answered softly.
“Force of habit, sir. Sorry I can’t do much about it now that I’m on the wrong side of 50.” He continued after a brief pause, “I do hope that you know how sorry I am about your loss. Words do not do justice to how great a man he was. He will be very dearly missed.”
The sentiment from Amir brought to Bilal’s mind the face of the man on the bed. Covered otherwise from head to toe in white, it shared his features: the brown eyes and wide sloping forehead, the Greek nose, the high cheekbones and the strong jaw. The face seemed to be at peace albeit devoid of all emotion as his had been while he stood over it. Even in death his father was as dignified as he’d been in life.
“Yes I know, Amir. Thank you for being there for him when no one else was.”
“It was my duty and pleasure, sir. Nothing I’ve ever done has honored me more than serving him and now you. You’ve been gone for so long that I’ve barely had anything to do around here. I wish you’d stay around now that you’re here, though I know you must shortly answer the call of duty. Speaking of which, how has life been treating you?”
“The States are different from here in some ways and cruelly similar in others, Amir. My practice is coming along nicely, but I’ve not found much else to my liking over there.”
“All the more reason for you to come back, sir”, insisted Amir.
“I’ll think over it but now is not the time Amir. When is father’s funeral?”
“Tomorrow, sir. 10 in the morning.”
“That will be all, Amir. Thank you.”
Bilal spent the rest of the day meeting all the cousins, aunts and uncles who had come to offer their condolences and every time someone embraced him a solemn thought would cross his mind: he was a stranger to every single one of them; his father had seen to it. Ever since he could remember, he had been in a boarding school of some sort. His mother had opposed the idea of sending him off to one so early but his father had been adamant about it. The experience left him with not much contact with close relatives other than his parents and being an only child merely exacerbated the situation.
The lamenting continued in the house but he was alone in failing to shed a single tear or to utter a single sob. Night eventually came and he returned to his room for some time, trying to doze off but sleep had distanced itself from him. He stayed wide awake, watching the stars fade away through his bedroom window as the sun came up.
He wore an old shalwar kameez and prepared himself for the burial. Making his way through the howling women with a cot on his shoulder, he headed for the cemetery. It was beautiful outside. The warm February sun shone down on him as a cool breeze blew across his face to signal the premature arrival of spring. The men beside him continued to recite for his father’s forgiveness but he was quiet. An old memory had gotten ahold of him.
He remembered a little boy sitting on a table as a man told him to write some words in Urdu and every time he was wrong a wooden stick would swiftly come down upon his hands and punish him for something he was too young to fully comprehend. He remembered looking through the boy’s teary eyes and trying to solve the dilemma that faced him: try to write and be whipped for it, or instinctively cry for his mother and be struck for that as well.
“Crying is weakness”, the man said firmly. “Don’t ever let me see you cry, son.”
The boy slowly said, “Yes”, to which the man said, “Yes, what?”
“Yes, sir.”
The memory dissolved before his eyes as they reached the gate of the graveyard. After the funeral prayers had been said, the body was lowered into the grave and slabs of concrete placed over it. Bilal stood by, assisting the others in performing the burial rights and after a while took a handful of wet dirt in his hands and threw it over the slabs in a ritualistic consignment of his father to the ground below. Still as stone-faced as he’d been the previous day, he shed not a single tear nor betrayed any sign of the ‘weakness’ that his father had so much disdain for. Presently a crop of questions had begun springing up around him.
He wouldn’t have wanted me to weep over him. Would he? Deep down in his heart he knew that the consolation was but a glorified façade. Was he always like that? Deliberately ignorant of what a child might think or feel? Or did he just not care about me at all? He remembered the passing of his mother and how it had left his father broken. It was more difficult for me than it was for him. I was only a child for God’s sake.
The torrent of questions soon began to drown him in his own doubts and misgivings and it wasn’t long before he was trying to swim ashore in an ocean of long-forgotten memories. They were unpleasant to say the least, almost every single one of them. His parents leaving him at a boarding school for second grade was the oldest. His mother had wept, though his father had stood beside her, stone-faced and stern as always. Then followed the passing of his mother when he was only 12 and after that came memories of a broken man who would try to be a father to him but not realize that the boy needed a mother as well. He remembered the time when he broke the car’s headlights trying to skateboard and was put in his place by dint of a watering hose. He recalled playing with a couple of friends when his father intruded, sent off his companions and warned him of the consequences about doing anything but studying in his room. That was when he was only a boy. As he had grown older, his memories of home had become more and more hostile, until the last memory he’d made exactly eight years ago came back to him.
The beatings and the insults had built up inside of him, pushing him to the point where he was ready to erupt at the slightest of offences from his father. When Bilal told him he would be leaving the country soon he was met with another disapproving shake of the head and a scathing assessment of this decision. But Bilal had had enough; in his rage he blurted out everything that came to his mind: he spoke of the countless whippings, abuses, condescending glances and the persistent lack of support from his own flesh and blood. His father fought back and what had started out as an argument morphed into a conflict between the two men that threatened to break the fiber of the only bond that still held the two together: family. And break it did, sending the two of them on their separate ways, never to hear from each other again.
As he came to, Bilal realized that he stood all alone over the grave with a branch in his hand. He offered a prayer for his father, poured more water over the dirt and planted the branch in it. He turned to leave but had a change of mind. Turning back, he knelt over the grave, put his hand on the wet earth and quietly muttered, “I am sorry, father. I forgive you.” Walking out of the cemetery, he felt that his heart was lighter than it was when he’d walked in.
Back home he performed his duties of meeting with more people who had come for the funeral and arranging for their food and drink. After a couple of hours he was by himself in the house. He returned to his room, lay down on the bed and began to wonder what his father would have said to him if he’d been alive, seeing him back in the house he’d been banished from. I guess it’s too late now. There was a knock on the door and Amir returned. He held an envelope in his hand.
“This is for you, sir. Your father wrote it a few days before his passing. He instructed me to give it to you after the funeral was over.” He held out the envelope for Bilal.
Bilal took it in his hand and nodded to him. As Amir closed the door after himself, Bilal looked over the envelope. It was blank on the outside. Tearing it open he pulled out a letter from within, turned on his lamp and flattened the letter on his study table. It had been written with a familiar stable hand, with the words beautifully crafted on the thick, dry paper. It read thus:
Dearest son,
I write this letter to you while I still have some strength left in my body, though I lack the courage to face you while I am still alive. My health has progressively waned ever since that fateful night eight years ago and I fear I may not live long enough to see you come home of your own accord. I’m also afraid that I may not be able to convince you to come back except in death but know that I do not blame you for that. I’ve done much for the people of our city and through them gained everything that holds significance for young men: wealth, power and respect. But in the twilight of my life, I’ve come to realize that along the way I lost the one thing that should have been my most treasured possession: your love and respect. The loss of your mother drowned me in an abyss of grief and sorrow but I should have known that you were only a child and that the loss was at least as cruel, if not more agonizing, for you. Her loss blinded me to your needs and as such I was often too harsh on you. I will not say that I only had the best intentions for you in mind; that I believe is too clichéd. But I will say that I should have been a far better father to someone as tolerant and gifted as you. The eight years that you have been gone have been particularly distressing for me and during this time alone I have come to regret all the wrongs I’ve done to you. I write this only to say that I am proud of the man you are and that I regret and apologize for not giving you my love in life. I shall await your forgiveness in the life to come and I know you will not cause me much delay. I remember I used to belt you when you came into my bedroom without permission. You can go in there; no one is going to belt you now.
With love,
Your father.

Bilal finished reading the letter, turned off the lamp and left his bedroom. He held it in his hand as his feet instinctively led him into the room that he’d come to fear when he was a child. Father was right about the belting, he thought as he crossed the threshold and stood by the side of the bed.
The face that had divulged no emotions began to quiver now; the slightest hints that perhaps it was not all set in stone began to show. The rocks began to crumble, the lips curled upside down and the frowns began to set in. The eyes that had resisted a catharsis for so long shuddered and gave way, forcing Bilal to kneel on the floor by the side of the bed.
A single teardrop fell on the floor.