“Why won’t you speak to my father?” I asked my grandfather, in Urdu. “What is so unforgivable?”
My father has always thought that he would one day return to Pakistan with foreign coin in his pocket to live like a king.
A hundred feet short of the Pakistani border, my Indian rickshaw driver said, “You walk now.” He unloaded my luggage, all the while keeping an eye on the three Pakistani porters in the distance who wore bellhop vests and MC Hammer pants that flapped furiously in the wind. I offered my driver another 100 rupees to drop me at the passport office door, but he refused.
I had lost the wheels on my suitcase somewhere in Mumbai, and the grind of my luggage along the desolate dirt road alerted the porters to my presence. A tubby Pakistani man emerged from the group of three. He jogged toward me with a half-hearted hustle.
“No money,” I told him.
“I’m starving, sir. Please, let me carry your bags,” he said, struggling to keep up with me.
I remained focussed on the passport office ahead. The porter was relentless. When I finally made it to the station doors, he peeled back, and his demeanour changed from desperate to smug. He mumbled in Punjabi to the other porters that he would catch me on the way out.
The passport office had the smell of a musty, unused cottage. A highly decorated officer took me to a private room for inspection. I walked through a makeshift metal detector made entirely out of wood. It didn’t beep. The officer proceeded to scatter my personal effects on the counter. His head and hands were buried deeply into my belongings, but his eyes shifted often, sizing me up.
“Where are you from, sir?” he said.
“Oh…Canada,” he said, wobbling his head in agreement.
“My parents are Pakistani. From Lahore—Faisalabad. A little village near Faisalabad.”
“Sir, do you know Eid is coming?”
“You’re ruining my stuff, you know that?” I replied. He was unravelling my travel pillow, digging into the spaceage foam, spilling tiny little white beads of comfort all over my clothes.
“Sir. Eid is coming. Eid,” he repeated. Eid is the Islamic Christmas, except children get money instead of toys. Hesitantly I offered him a crisp 1,000-rupee note. He stared at the bill in my trembling hand and looked around before slipping it into his pocket. That concluded the security inspection and he helped me repack my things. We spent some time together wiping my clothes, trying to get the tiny bits of foam off.
He escorted me to the cashier’s desk to have my travel documents inspected and whispered something to the officer behind the glass, who looked at me with concern. The cashier leaned back in his chair and read through my passport like a book, pulling at his hearty moustache with his fingers. He finally stamped my passport and held it out to me, but when I tried to take it, he wouldn’t let go.
“It’s Eid, sir,” he said.
I was eager to leave but I could see the tubby porter waiting for me, squinting at me through the window. I sat beside the only other tourists in the office, an elderly British couple. They took interest in my quest, a two-month journey through Asia that would conclude with a stretch in Pakistan and a visit to the tiny village where my parents were raised. The couple were kind enough to offer me a ride to Lahore, as it was on their way and they had hired a driver to come get them.
“It’s good that you have a driver,” I said, glancing at the porter outside.
“Well,” said the lady in a low voice, leaning close, “you have to be extra careful to arrange things in advance. People like to take advantage here.”
As the driver began to load my bags, the Pakistani porter swore at me in Punjabi, and his friends attempted to contain their laughter.
In India, porters, rickshaw drivers and random villagers had refused my handouts, not as a humble gesture but with the genuine belief that they did not deserve anything beyond the agreed-upon price. They believed in a karmic balance: by having pretty hearts they would ultimately be rewarded in a much more profound way than some extra cash. But as soon as I had crossed that border, people felt entitled to my money.
My grandmother, Nani, has lived alone for many years, since the passing of her husband. Despite her shrivelled skin, shrinking body and orange, sundyed hair, she has an inner strength that commands respect in her village. The plan was to rendezvous with my mother at Nani’s house, but no rickshaw was willing to drive that far into the countryside. I took a public bus that partitioned men from women, something I discovered only after trying to board at the front, where I was met by the high-pitched laughter of young girls.
The sun was setting, and my fellow passengers were tired from the day’s work. There is something beautiful about a grown man sitting in a friend’s lap because he is too tired to stand and keep his balance. A young man roughly my age offered me his seat. I placed my hand on his shoulder, gently sitting him back down. He stared at my T-shirt, which was printed with the faces of several celebrities. It occurred to me that this shirt pinned me as a pure Westerner. Islamic tradition abhors visual icons, images or idols of any kind.
The bus emptied gradually as we continued deeper into the countryside. An old man with a sharp white beard grabbed my arm and sat me down beside him. I wondered if we were related. I told him I didn’t know where to get off the bus. He placed his hand on my arm and said he knew where my Nani’s village was. We got off the bus together and he instructed a horse carriage to take me the rest of the way, saying that it should not cost more than 10 rupees. I held on tightly, passing fields of corn, sugar cane and barley, and then arrived at the house named after my dead grandfather, where my mother and Nani were waiting for me with open arms.
In the village I was king. People carried creased photographs of me as a child that I had never seen before. Akbar, a lanky eleven-year-old with a peach-fuzz moustache and a continuously cracking voice, took particular interest in me. Every morning he knocked on my Nani’s door to see if I could play. We flew his white kite on the brick rooftops. Once it was high enough in the sky, he would let me control the lone cloud while he tossed pebbles into the lining of the open sewers along the village roads. When it was his turn, I looked around at the pastures for miles in every direction. Once, I spotted a lady looking at us from the road below. When I shaded my eyes with my hand, she scurried inside her house. I wondered if she was related to me.
The village operated via an intricate word-of-mouth network. One morning I asked my mother if it was possible to check email, and that afternoon Akbar took me to his house and sat me in front of his computer. He had gone to town and purchased a calling card, and now he dialled the number using the dusty machine. We smiled and wobbled our heads at each other, awaiting the connection. He took control of the mouse and immediately began to show me pictures of beautiful American celebrities.
“I am thinking I will want Jessica Alba,” he said. According to Maxim, Alba was the fifth hottest girl in the world that year.
“She’s nice,” I said.
“But Eva Longoria is the number one! That’s okay. My brother can have her,” he said.
Akbar had a big heart. In Islam, seventy-two virgins are promised to each man who makes it to heaven. Akbar was allocating girls in advance. He was willing to give his brother the topranked Eva Longoria, while he settled for Jessica Alba. There is no better trick to suppress the sexual desires of young blood in this life than promising an afterlife that offers more than you can handle. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that they weren’t virgins.
In Lahore, my cousin Zubair took me through the sweat, the dirt, the scorching sun that cooked our black hair, the motorbikes that we had to dodge, the buses that never stopped honking, the donkey carriages, the screaming fabric merchants, the veiled ladies smelling like Chanel No 5, the sewage system, the succulent street-flamed kebabs, the freshly squeezed juice of every kind, the hibachi-roasted nuts, the clusters of beautiful young women ignoring the men who gazed at them, the barefoot beggars standing on hot gravel, the workers soldering without visors, the ocean of bazaars. And the relentless eyes: gaping, squinting, penetrating, shying away, looking you up and down, staring through the back of your head.
When we stopped and pulled into an alley, away from the crowd, we saw a military supply truck unloading tents, sheets and blankets through the back of a store. A few weeks earlier, a powerful earthquake had devastated the northern part of Pakistan, and these supplies didn’t belong in that store. When the men in uniform began to point at us, Zubair put his arm around me and we walked away.
“Listen,” he said in Urdu, “don’t go back to Canada and tell everyone what you saw, otherwise they’ll stop helping us altogether.”
The people of Pakistan are resigned to their leaders. A democratic election had been held that year, and my Nani recalls it quite vividly. When she went to cast her ballot, a military officer sent her home, saying that she had, in fact, already voted.
It was Eid when I returned to the village. My Nani had many visitors and my mother and I ended up sharing a bed. The crickets were lulling me to sleep as my mother stirred me with a trivial question about my trip to Lahore. I opened my eyes. She was staring at the ceiling with her hands folded on her stomach.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Just tell me.”
“It’s so stupid,” she said in Urdu. “Your aunt has put a curse on us. Knives are going to fall out of the sky.” Then she giggled, but only because I did.
My father’s side of the family despises him. After a lifetime of arguments about selfishness and entitlement, there isn’t an ounce of trust remaining. Apparently my aunt was threatened by my presence and had naturally assumed that I had been sent back by my father to reclaim farmland from her, land that traditionally belonged to the eldest son. I kissed my mother on the forehead and told her I would go visit my father’s old man the next day.
“Don’t go over there and start a fight,” she said.
“You should go. He has nothing against you,” she said. “Make sure you clip your nails first.”
The woman that I had seen from the rooftops, my aunt, greeted me at the gate. She covered her head with a blue scarf and embraced me with just one arm. She walked me around the flat concrete home, pointing at rooms from a distance. Finally, she took me to my grandfather, who was sitting outside. She lurked in the kitchen, a few steps away, stacking dishes.
The old man sat on a flat wicker bed smoking a hookah. His skin had been beaten by the sun for nearly a century, and I felt heat emanating from his dark, bony body. He squinted at me in my shadow as I loomed over him. He asked me to identify myself, and I realized that he was nearly blind. I said my name and he repeated it to himself, as if I had just told the funniest joke.
“Have you finished your studies?” he asked in a low voice.
“Yes. I’m a professional now,” I said.
“I’m finished my studies,” I said, much louder. The racket in the kitchen stopped.
“Good. When are you getting married?”
“I don’t know.”
“The Taj Mahal is breathtaking,” I said.
“Yes. Every man should see the world. The Muslims built the Taj, my son. What did you think of Hindustan?”
“They aren’t as greedy over there.”
“India? India is a filthy country,” he said in Urdu. “They let dogs and cows roam free. It’s disgusting.”
I rubbed my sweaty palms on my jeans.
“Why won’t you speak with my father?” I asked in Urdu.
“You wouldn’t understand, my son,” he said, shaking his head.
“Tell me. What is so unforgivable? What did he do? ” I struggled to pronounce the words.
“It’s not that easy to understand.”
“He’s an honest man,” I said. “He would never take anything from you. He’s still your son, isn’t he? Don’t you want to talk to your son? Life is short.”
My grandfather lifted the lid of the hookah and pushed the orange coals around. He looked up at me but kept his eyes closed. His stubbornness had passed the point of no return, and all he could do was be thankful for my shadow. I walked away. It was the last time I saw my grandfather.
Every weekend, I visit my parents in the suburbs. My father and I spend most of that time arguing. My mother says this is in our blood. When things get hot we let silence wash over us like a clean rain. Sometimes I tell my father that I’m glad we stayed in Canada. When I say this his eyes glisten, and the roots of our arguments evaporate in the sun, on a flat wicker bed, smoking a pipe, alone.