What I remember most from childhood is a time when my father did not come home one day, and not the next day, nor the day after. I was twelve then and my brother was fifteen. In the first few days of his absence, I used to wake up in a state of anxiety, my body filling up with the unpleasantness of this great uncertainty my brother, my mother and I were thrust into. I felt better among the wooden, lidded desks in my classroom and the faces of my teachers, and by afternoon recess I was at the peak of my day’s happiness. In the evening, as six o’clock came nearer, the time my father usually came home, I was paralyzed with worry and could only sit in a corner of the living room, only able to move again when the hour hand came to rest on seven. After a strange meal with my shrunken family I used to sink into sleep, grateful that my father was still gone, and uncomfortable with myself for feeling this way.
I wanted to be assured of his staying away longer but didn’t know how to talk to my mother about him. Besides, my brother was already doing the asking. She gave him a different answer each time. “He is visiting relatives.” Or, “He needs to be at work.” Or, “He comes home late and goes to work before you wake up.” One evening she was humming and sorting out a pile of old books and maybe that made my brother wonder if she had killed our father. His face turned red and he shouted at her and called her selfish. She paused in her task and said, sharp as ice, “Your father is perfectly fine.” She always called him “your father” when she was angry and wanted to hold us, his sons, responsible for his presence as if our births made him a necessary evil in her life. And when she said those two words that night I felt twisted with sadness because I’d thought that with him gone she would like her sons better. My brother stomped away but I stood a while longer, watching her face anxiously. I felt light only when she started to hum again.
My father has come to the airport to pick me up. I feel jittery and uncertain, reduced from my adult height to a child’s dimensions. But I keep control of my suitcase and make sure he sees me tipping a porter even though we haven’t taken his help, and by the time we have walked to the car I am a grownup again. I have not been in Karachi for seven years; I have not sat next to my father for just as long. He is old now, and his fingers curved over the steering wheel are thin. He peers through the windshield and drives in bursts of speed, dodging motorcycles and rickshaws. His window is rolled down and he instructs me to do the same.
“Cross ventilation,” he says over the noise of a bus horn.
I say, “We should get the air conditioner fixed.”
“There’s no need to throw away good money,” he says. “You don’t understand.”
I pull out my cell phone even though there isn’t anyone I need to assure that I have arrived safely.
“Put that away,” my father says. “Put it under you. Don’t you read the news?”
I wonder why I have chosen to be here again. A lump grows in my stomach the closer we get to the house I grew up in. I struggle to stay in the future, thinking about the day I will return to the airport and fly across comforting barriers of mountains and oceans to my other continent, to my other city where problems come in neat packages no bigger than the palm of my hand. When that fails I try to ground myself in the very seconds of the present—the feel of the thin car seat cover, the roughness of my nails. And sometimes a new underpass or a flyover or a shiny new mall distracts me and that is good, until I see a piece of wall I often passed when I was little, and I am again pulled thinly, painfully, through that narrow corridor between the past and the future; between that which we can never change and that which gives us a chance to escape.
My brother blamed our mother. He watched her through narrowed eyes.
“She knows where he is. She is lying to us,” he said to me at least twice a day.
If we were in the school van and I was laughing at something a friend had said, he would pinch me and hiss those words into my ear. I would immediately turn away from the joke and remove the grin from my face.
“Do you miss him? Our father?” he would ask me in a tight voice.
I would lie and say, “Yes. Of course I do.”
We had grown up on thin air in the house, the oxygen sucked up by our father and mother’s moods. We were curved and wiry and tense like antennae, picking up signals of impending storms from the way our father snapped his newspaper or how our mother shut the fridge door. Too sharp a sound meant that soon old wounds were going to be reopened with blade-like words. Sometimes I mouthed along those words, being my father and mother by turns like an actor playing two roles. Other times I went to my brother and found him elaborately coloring in a map, or a picture of the human heart, or an eyeball, or the circulation system.
He wanted me to have a good opinion of our father. He said that a long time ago, before we were born, our father had gone without a lot of things so he could save money for his future children. He had eaten only one solid meal a day, did not have chicken except once a month, and walked to most places under the blazing sun. Then when he had enough money, he got this whole house built just for us. He put three bedrooms in it, each a different color—yellow, green, and blue. The boundary wall surrounding the house was also an example of how much he cared—it had shards of glass set on the top to stop burglars from climbing over and robbing him of his possessions.
From the other room, we heard a roar.
My brother said, “You can see why he’s like that, right? It’s because of her. He can’t help it.”
My mother has given me the firmest mattress in the house and put a brand-new bedsheet over it. There is no comforter, only a second sheet. It is too warm for anything thicker. I am in my old room, of course. In some places the yellow paint has started flaking off the wall in irregular shapes and I have the urge to peel them. I count three brown arches of water stains in corners. The bathroom mirror is speckled and my face appears gray.
“Do you need more money?” I ask my mother. I am unable to meet her eyes, guilty that I have not been here earlier, that I already want to leave.
“We are comfortable, son,” she says.
She makes me two rotis and watches me eat. She complains about my brother. I ask her to give him a call and she says, “He is happy in his own life. He has no regard for us.”
I speak to him that night. He lives in another continent, a third one. He has not visited Karachi in close to ten years. I tell him the house looks small and helpless, and that things aren’t what they used to be; they are peaceful. He tells me he is done talking and hands the phone to his wife. I tell her my brother ought to come see his old parents, and she explains to me that his doctor—his therapist—says that he is prone to melancholia and being back there will make him morose which is bad for their children, who are precious and innocent.
My brother still thinks that our father—and maybe our mother—owe us an explanation and an apology.
Whenever they fought it was my mother who looked crazy. Her hair came out of her bun, her breath expelled itself loudly through her nostrils and teeth, her fists bunched up. She also had a way of moaning and clutching her clothes. Once I watched, terrified and fascinated, as she picked up a slipper and slapped her own thighs. She liked to grab my arm and say to my father, in a tearful, triumphant way, “I have my children. I have my children.” That always made me feel happy and strong, and I glowered at my father. I promised to myself that if he offered to drive me to school I would say no.
When he wasn’t roaring, he was unremarkable in his shape and size. He was thin and walked with a slight slouch which made him appear genial. His eyes when amused were mild. He liked to tell me and my brother that we had a lot to learn, and took us with him on errands. He spoke kindly to petrol station attendants and mechanics, and if their skin was the same dark brown as his he gave them a tip and told them a joke.
“These are our brothers, hard-working immigrants from India,” he would say to us. “Look how they sweat for their bread.”
He spoke as if he were correcting a fault in us.
We would pass a plot of land where light-skinned men burned red from the sun would be carrying bricks, disappearing behind new walls of other people’s houses. Sometimes one of them would look up and his eyes would flash green or blue.
Our father would point to the men and say, “Watch out for these lazy, dirty people, come down from the north to cause us trouble, setting up shacks. You know that bomb that went off in Lyari? Them. That riot in Saddar? Them.”
I worried that these men looked like my mother even though her eyes were brown.
Once I asked her where she was from and she laughed and said, “Here. I was born right here in Karachi.”
My brother tells me that he wants to come see our parents. His voice is very robust on the phone, and he says his therapist thinks he is ready to take this step. He says he will start looking into his schedule and flights. He might even bring the wife and children.
His heartiness is like an ill-fitting coat.
I take my father to an eye doctor, to get him a pair of glasses. He goes through the tests with grim resignation.
Back in the car he says, “That was an Urdu-speaking doctor, which is why I let him check me.”
A little later he points to a string of shops. “New businesses going up everywhere. Karachi is still the City of Lights.” And he looks at me as if I have challenged him.
For many evenings my brother waited by the window for our father, sitting on a chair with his knees drawn up to his chin. He stopped playing with his friends. One day on our way home from school we saw a bus on fire. As the driver pressed hard on the brake and turned around the school van, my friends and I leaned out and saw flames leaping out of the bus’s windows like so many strange passengers. There were some men around it, yelling and laughing. One of them drew back his arm and, with the grace of a javelin thrower at the Olympics, hurled his lit-up torch at the bus. The driver shouted at us to get away from the windows and to shut them. The men might attack us next. My brother drew his head in reluctantly.
He started buying newspapers from the shop at the corner and looked through them all, reading out loud reports of kidnappings of activists, of their bodies found in trash heaps.
“Our father is one of them. He’s been taken away,” he said.
I imagined our father in the back of a black car with tinted windows, a man with a long mustache next to him with a rifle on his lap. My brother told me to help him read the papers; if I said I was bored, he pounded the floor with his fist and said I was turning into our mother. So I bent my head again, peeling skin off my heels and toes, while names rolled by in front of my eyes, a monotonous landscape sketched in black ink.
He made me search the house at night after our mother was asleep. He said he was looking for clues that might point to our father. Once, he wanted to check if our mother was one of the enemy agents so we went into the kitchen and twisted open jars of spices and sniffed the contents for suspicious substances. We discovered that entering our parents’ room was as easy as pushing their door open. We went there only one time, though. Our mother was all by herself, frowning in her sleep. My brother motioned for me to look under her bed, and I wondered what he would say if I found a gun there. But there was nothing except a pair of our father’s slippers. I gave them to my brother and he held them to his chest.
Some nights he soundlessly turned the key in the front door and we went out to the lawn. The grass felt soothing under the tender, raw bottoms of my feet. I would stand with my brother in the dark until the sky began to lighten. Then we would go in to change for school.
One afternoon he forbade me from playing with our classmates and made me stand next to him right outside our gate.
“We have to meet someone,” he said.
I thought he had made a new friend, and I felt sorry for him when the sun began to go down and still no one came. I watched other fathers arrive home, their cars pulling tiredly through the gates of their houses. I imagined the men climbing out slowly in crumpled shirts and pants, collars unstarched from the day’s work, smelling of cigarettes and exhaust fumes, like ours used to. I wondered what my father was doing, but I wondered about him as I would about people in an airplane passing overhead. We turned around and went back home, walking by our father’s dusty car in the garage. On the weekend my brother washed it and made it shine. He said it made our father feel closer to him.
My brother has curled himself up on his bed and not gone to work for three days now, his wife tells me. She has sent their two children to her mother’s until he feels better, and she has asked his therapist to come over. My sister-in-law is a competent woman, not given to hysteria. She has probably washed a set of dishes and run the washing machine while speaking to the doctor. I ask her if I ought to come and she says that will not do anyone any good.
There has been no electricity in the house all morning. My father is reading a newspaper, taking off his glasses every few minutes to rub the bridge of his nose. My mother is asleep on the sofa, her face shiny. I think about making a list of things that they both need. Hand rails in the bathrooms? A generator, a driver, a full-time maid? A new house, a different continent? Not mine or my brother’s but another of their very own, so that we all might have space and live in happiness?
I doze off and wake up a while later to the sound of my father’s voice. My stomach contracts, but he is only telling my mother to go sit by the open window because there is a good breeze coming through; he says he will sleep somewhere else.
While my father was gone, my mother turned very beautiful. She grew her thinnest and her skin became so pale it was almost transparent. When she stood under a strong light I could see little blue veins on her face. She started to wear perfume and she held our books daintily so as not to ruin her polished fingernails. After my brother poured her bottle of nail color down the sink she kept her nails bare again. One evening he slapped down a newspaper in front of her and told her to check it for our father’s name among victims of recent incidents. She ran her fingertip down the lists and articles detailing riots and mobs, but I felt she wasn’t really reading; she was thinking about getting her hair done at the salon.
Two months went by, and if she thought about our father or missed him she didn’t say so. She didn’t mention him at all. In the morning, she waited with us for the school van and told us that we were not to step outside until the last bell rang and that we were to come straight home. She shook her head and wished we didn’t have to go so far away, trouble could start anywhere in the city at any time. She moved toward my brother but he stepped away from her reach, so she busied herself with straightening my tie. She put her hands on my shoulders and said, “People are disappearing.”
I was buoyed by her concern and did well in all my tests. In the mirror, I practiced smiles of gratitude that I could give her. When she sat at the table with us now she leaned forward, her back a letter C, and this new pliancy made me unable to speak sometimes.
Before my father left, she would often come out of the kitchen with a big knife in her hand and slam it on the table. Then she would flip through our schoolwork and if one of us had gotten a sum wrong or had done untidy writing she would throw the book at the wall or run a sharpened pencil down the page. Under the table, I would pick the skin around my nails into tiny pieces, eyeing the blade, because I was sure that one day my mother would run it through us. All of us.
My mother’s friend came to visit her one evening. She brushed our hair off our foreheads and clicked her tongue and looked at us as if we had suddenly become fatherless boys, irreversibly so. She told us to take her little girl out to the lawn while the grownups talked. We sat on the grass and pulled up a few blades.
The girl asked, “Where is your father?”
My brother frowned and said, “He has gone for work.”
“I heard our cleaning woman say he’s left his wife and his children,” she said.
My brother lunged toward her and grabbed her hair in his fist and said, “Shut up.”
I want to take my parents out to eat.
Truthfully, I do not want to take them anywhere, but that is what a good son does—fix his parents’ health, improve their home, spoil them, because one spent her body in giving birth and the other worked at a job he did not like; because they stayed together for their children’s sake; because they endured enormous pain believing they were doing us good.
My mother says she wants to have Chinese food. My father wants to know why I like to waste my money. In the car, he puts a small cushion behind my mother’s back and asks her how much she wants her window rolled down. They are extremely cheerful on the way to the restaurant. They point out all the work being done in the city.
“Look at that excavator,” my father says.
“I don’t see any piles of garbage here anymore,” my mother says. “Tell me if you see any garbage.”
“You should come back and settle down here, son,” my father says. “Get married.”
The present is slipping away from me again, and I rub my fingers hard over the worn rubber on the steering wheel. Five thin scratches on the windshield, black dashboard, truck in side mirror.
Our father used to take us out sometimes on Thursdays, the last day of the work week. My mother brushed our hair until it lay flat across our heads, and we wore shirts with collars and full pants. She got dressed in soft colors and let her plait hang down her back instead of keeping it coiled viciously in a bun. In the car and during the meal she and my father parried gently-teasing words in low murmurs, his voice smooth and sure and content, hers full of secrets her children couldn’t guess. I did not know how to participate in this sort of behavior, this display of affection. Maybe I had imagined seeing them spit at each other. I felt unsettled and even a little happy, the way an unpopular, blindfolded child in a game feels.
Around nine one night, after our mother had gone to sleep, my brother sat on the edge of my bed and said that we had something important to do. He had shadows under his eyes, I remember, and his face looked small and square. I followed him through doors and over the grass and when he started undoing the bolts of the gate I felt a spasm of fear in case our father had been hiding outside every night and was going to leap back in now, full of anger that we had kept him locked out. But there was nobody there, not even a beggar. There was a curfew in the city and everything had shut at eight. I wanted to whisper, “Where are we going?” but my brother was now taking long strides and the words stayed inside me and I went with him. We reached the end of the street and I saw someone squatting on the dirt, next to the trunk of an acacia tree. The figure stood up when we stopped and I could only tell that it was a man. I still remember how he smelled—of roses.
My brother held out an envelope. “Where is my father?” he said.
“Hand over the money first,” the man said, muffled behind his scarf.
“First the information, son of a pig.”
I remember my brother’s voice, steadied by rage. I remember the man’s white hand, the color my father preferred not to shake, grabbing the envelope and my brother trying to twist it out of his grasp. I remember his small gray silhouette dwarfed by the man’s large one. I remember the man sinking a blade into my brother’s leg and then running away. My brother crumpled onto the gravel and I think I was worried that he couldn’t be comfortable there.
I do not remember the walk back home, or waking up my mother.
She said we needed to take my brother to a hospital. I sat next to him, holding a shirt over the wound on his thigh, the blood spreading up, away from gravity, onto my fingers. My mother started the engine and I had a sudden memory of me and my brother, very small and still, watching from that same place in the back as our mother sat in the driver’s seat, pale and pinched as a starved moon, gripping the steering wheel with bloodless hands, listening to our father tell her she was too dumb to learn. We watched him grab the wheel and weave the car wildly to the left and right. I don’t think she had ever tried to drive again. But that night she drove, grimly and slowly. On a side street, she stopped in front of a small house with a crescent and a star painted on its wall. Inside the poorly lit examination room there was a doctor and he checked my brother’s injured leg. The sound of my brother’s moans seemed to have brought out small children from other parts of the doctor’s house and they ran around the room barefoot, shrieking with happiness.
It took a couple of weeks for my brother’s injury to heal, and another month for the three of us to not think about that night every night, when one day we came home from school and saw our father sitting on the sofa, wearing formal clothes as if he had just come home early from work on a whim. He got up when he saw us and tried to pat our backs but couldn’t because we had our school bags on so he let his arm fall to the side. There was no mark on his face, no fracture in his leg. He looked unbroken and clean shaven. There was a small suitcase by his feet, the kind that people take with them when they deliberately choose to leave, filling it with things they want to take. “I’ll leave the black socks and keep the brown ones,” he might have said. “I’ll leave the children and keep the distance.” Perhaps my mother had helped him pack.
It seemed to me that he had said something. “Have you been good children?” he might have asked us.
He pulled out a leather jacket from the suitcase and told my brother that it was for him. I remember the smell of it—sharp and old. My brother put it on and then stood there self-consciously, the jacket hanging over his skinny frame, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down nervously, his face flushed. My father gave me a shirt wrapped in cellophane. It was blue and had a collar. I took it and didn’t say anything. Next to me I could feel my brother shaking, and I wondered, as if from far away, if he also understood that our father had never really become one of the missing ones of the city, those written about in newspapers and lauded for martyrdom. Our mother brought out cups of tea for all of us, and our father turned on the news.
“Are you having a good time there? Is mother spoiling you? Does she remember she has two sons?” asks my brother.
I think, That is the work of his medication. I have learned by now to say the right things when he is at this stage of his recovery.
“I’d forgotten how hot summer can be here,” I say, raising my eyebrows and gesturing with my free hand as if I am on a stage and my brother is in the audience.
There is a pause, maybe a minute long, maybe two.
“I can’t go there just yet,” he says. “I looked, you know, and there’s just no time, no time at all. The children’s school, all this work. You should have planned this better. I would have come along. Maybe June. Would you be there in June? Would you stay there for me?”
That evening I sit with a large calendar on my lap and a marker in my hand. My mother is next to me, her finger on December.
She says, very loudly, “What do you think about winter? We could get the house repainted, put beds for his children?” She is indirectly addressing my father but not looking at him, so she can keep herself intact if he ignores her.
He has heard her, I know, but does not respond. Old, familiar nervousness fills my stomach, when my mother turns to me and says, “Maybe April next year. Spring holidays for your brother’s family, and you. That would give me time to prepare. For the furniture.”
I draw a circle for her in the April square and she hangs it back on the wall. It is the wrong year, but that does not matter.
—winner of the Editors’ Prize in Prose for issue 27