“Step aside, sir,” the screening officer says as she begins to unzip and thumb through his trolley bag, which is now stuffed with things he moved from his overweight suitcase at the check in.
“Where are you flying to?”
“Pakistan.” He smiles wide enough to reveal his set of chipped teeth.
He heads straight to the gate where he is first in line to board the plane that will inevitably take off late because a number of families will have missed the tanoy announcement and the airline will have to unload their luggage from the plane: last call for flight PK788 to Karachi.
Shortly after Imtiaz moved to England, his parents died in a motorbike accident. his sisters, unable to obtain visas, married cousins in Canada. Afraid of being entirely alone, he too decided to find a wife and was lucky that he met his bride-to-be at work. Afiya was also a cashier at the grocery store and later joined him when he began managing the petrol station. Although they were far from wealthy, they both enjoyed travelling and set aside a small amount from each pay cheque. With their two children, they took long haul flights to Canada and short trips to Turkey, Spain, Egypt and Morocco when they could. Afiya was born just outside of London and her entire family lived in Slough. In all the years they were married, they returned to Pakistan only once to sell off his father’s plot of land that was constantly at risk of being taken over by gangsters who would extort him to get it back.
Now that his wife had passed after a year-long battle with cancer, he knew it was time to go back to the place he was born.
As he disembarks the plane, he sees the familiar haze that swamps the city, leaving everything a dusty yellow, and prepares himself for a gush of July heat that will initially feel oppressive. He smiles to himself.
Everything about his arrival is predictably Pakistani. Passport control is slow and he reaches baggage claim only to realise his brand new suitcase is missing. Knowing he had come from London, the airport staff expect him to slip extra rupees to locate it. Eventually, it is found on another conveyor belt and although the suitcase itself is now battered, its handle broken, he is glad he hasn’t lost all the gifts he had carefully chosen.
And then his cousin doesn’t quite recognise him. he hasn’t been one of those people who keeps up with Facebook and it turns out that the last year has aged him quite considerably – now almost entirely bald with the exception of a few grey strands that he sweeps over the middle, and his protruding belly that makes it look like he drinks a lot of beer.
“Bhaiya, England has made you very fat. All those burgers!” his cousin remarks.
In the car he realises he no longer knows the route from the airport. there are new roads and flyovers, the traffic which even then was chaotic is now more tumultuous. At every traffic light there are beggars, dark-skinned children tapping on his window trying to sell a rose or useless toy.
“We can’t give them any money,” his cousin’s wife tries to explain to him as if he is now a tourist. “The gangsters send them out, take the money and give them drugs. It’s a very sad state of affairs.”
He double-checks his door is locked.
By the time they get to his cousin’s house, the scheduled power cut is underway. They all sit in the living room under the one fan that keeps going. His cousin’s wife serves them cups of chai with heaps of sugar he is no longer used to drinking because his own wife had taken the threat of diabetes so seriously for some years now. He tries not to wince at the sweetness.
Before bed, he unpacks some of the presents he’d brought with him, only to find his niece’s children are dissatisfied with the chocolates and biscuits he had believed were luxury items.
“You don’t have any toys?” one of the five-year olds stomps a little after midnight.
The next day is a new day and despite Karachi being recently ranked the sixth worst city to live in, in the world, Imtiaz is keen to explore it. he decides it’s best to first visit his parents’ graves before the heaving midday sun.
His cousin doesn’t knock on his bedroom door but simply walks in.
“Arey yaar, why do you want to take a rickshaw? the driver is here. You’re a foreigner too. You know it’s dangerous.”
When had he become a foreigner?
In London he had been the most Pakistani person he knew. In addition to the pin he wore out of nationalist pride everywhere he went, including work, especially work. and then there were the cricket matches and the fights he’d intentionally get in with Indians. How he read Dawn newspaper every morning before he put on BBC news and promoted the army, especially the air force, to anyone who would listen, proud of any step the country took towards displaying some pride like the Chinese investing in infrastructure, stabilising some regions (but not others), or more recently a six-hundred-foot flag for Jashni Azadi. he never let anyone speak badly about Pakistan or Karachi, for that matter.
He hailed a rickshaw from the roadside and hopped in, trying to remember the street names and memories attached to them along the way.
The entrance to the graveyard littered with rubbish. so much so, the air was unbreathable and he had to pinch his nose just to swallow. A few women with babies wrapped on their backs stood there picking through it. Suddenly Southall seemed clinically sterile in comparison.
“Nobody comes to collect it anymore, not for almost a year now. the mayor has stopped it because of no money,” the rickshaw driver explained as he handed him the cash. “Shall i come to collect you?”
“Yes, in an hour please.”
Imtiaz had been unable to attend his parent’s funeral but remembered clearly where their graves were from the one and only time he had visited. Back then, it had been beautiful and well cared for. There were a few trees that offered shade and in the wetter months, Jasmine flowers that bloomed along the walls that fenced the space.
Every year he had paid someone to come and tend to their stones in his absence but it had looked as if no one had been in some time, not least any of his family members.
He sinks into the dry earth that covers it, staining the knees of his off-white shalwaar. Clearing the grave, collecting the litter, trying to remember them, trying to remember who he was back then as the child his parents knew him as.
As he gets ready to leave, he takes out his wife’s ring, a diamond so small it barely catches the sun, and shoves it back deep into his pocket before anyone sees it. He makes a mental note to call his children to remind them to tend to her grave in his absence.
Imtiaz had been looking forward to eating biryani and nihari at his khala’s house for weeks. Sitting down at the table, the aroma made his stomach rumble.
When he first moved to the UK, this was the thing he had missed the most. and whilst his wife was many things, her biryani was not. He’d in fact asked her to avoid cooking it all together. He much preferred the Punjabi dishes that came more naturally to her, butter chicken or sarson ka saag. His mother’s eldest sister, however, was a master of all cuisines, reflective of the cultural hotchpotch nature of Karachi’s people.
Growing up, he and his sisters had spent most of their evenings and weekends with cousins who they would play with regardless of age difference. Sometimes, after Jumaa, they would sneak a few rupees to buy hot jalebi and share it, the boys often breaking off unequal fractions of what felt like the heavenliest dessert on Earth for the girls. They spent hours in the streets, rounding up the neighbours’ kids to play cricket until their skin became ashen with dust or they’d lost a tennis ball, too afraid to knock on the widowed uncle’s door, the one with a thick black toupee that they could never look directly at for fear it really was an animal, to get it back. Typically, they would go back home and all sit on the floor quietly, cross legged, their grandfather listening to BBC World Service on the radio as they ate, their parents laughing late into the night in the small lounge.
Once inseparable, it now felt strange how little he had seen of them since he had left home. Only two cousins had followed him to England some years after but had settled in different cities – Birmingham and Manchester – where there was promise of jobs. But life had been so busy, and they saw each other only during festive occasions like Eid. the rest of them he had largely only seen in photographs or wedding videos.
His khala, his mother’s only living sibling, despite her age had still managed to part-prepare, part-order the cook to make a feast for his anticipated visit.
Over dinner he finds it difficult to pay attention to all the chatter. What initially starts as a round of updates quickly turns into gossip: whose child had studied what, had married whom, had bought a house where, had committed some scandalous act like divorce. He realised now how much he and his wife had kept to themselves, busying themselves with other things in their free time like taking their son, Malik, for cricket or their daughter, Maryam, to the local library when new books and tapes were too expensive to regularly buy. Even then, they had always scraped cash to send via Western Union each month to Pakistan – usually to pay for some family member or another’s education or health or wedding.
Instead he politely umms and ahhhs until it is time for dessert, which on this occasion is kheer and a cream cake. His khala summons him on to the couch next to her, as if he is still that teenager that left – tall, skinny and skittish – and not the sombre fifty-year-old he now is.
“Beta, beta, beta. it is very sad about Afiya, I made duaa for her every day when we first found out about the cancer. But when Allah decides it is time, there’s not much we can do. She is no longer suffering now, at least. She was a good woman.”
Imitiaz, takes a spoonful of the cake, his mouth full of mostly cream and very little sponge.
Before he swallows, his khala continues, “but what will you do now without a wife? I always say that your own mother and father passing together was a blessing in disguise. I tell you there is nothing more difficult than growing old alone. I should know because of your uncle, how I was a widow at only forty. Anyway, I think you should get married. We can find you another wife easily. At least she will be there to look after you.”
In the months before his wife had passed, he had learnt to manage everything in the house including her care. Bathing her, feeding her, taking her to the bathroom and then when she was too weak, emptying her bed pan but he says none of this.
“Khala, you know I’m ok. Maryam and Malik keep an eye on me and Afiya and I had always split the household duties because of work. We didn’t have any servants. don’t forget, I also lived alone for a few years when I first moved.”
He tries not to sound dismissive and starts on the kheer, eating all the pistachios in the middle of the bowl first.
Luckily, he had made plans to meet his oldest and closest childhood friend after dinner. Although it is now late for him, the city of lights has only just come to life. He knows the seaside will offer the relief he needs from a day that was beginning to suffocate him.
Against his family’s advice, he hails a rickshaw from the side of the road and heads to Sea View. The driver weaves through the traffic as if the roads are an intimate extension of his body, singing all the while in a rich and surprisingly refined tone.
As they enter Defence, they begin to pass rows of large gated houses, ‘Mashallah’ adorning the tops of the houses in large gold lettering. Imtiaz laughs to himself, the air still smelling heavy with garbage.
Growing up he had known some of these people but only from afar. His parents were not poor but the they were not rich either and, in many ways, he had preferred it. His brother’s wife, however, had worked as a teacher in a school where some of Karachi’s wealthiest families attended. Besides, it was always in the papers – the corruption, the funnelling of money abroad, the black market, the son of so-and-so running over a poor person walking in the street and bribing a police officer. Unlike them, he had worked hard for his money and small, clean life that he was now proud of.
“These people, on the other hand, would rather live with mounds of trash and shit outside the doors of their godly mansions than pay taxes,” he thinks to himself.
As they near the beach promenade, the driver asks him where he wants to be dropped off. Unsure where exactly he is meant to meet his friend, the driver offers takes him to a cafe a little further down.
“First class eating,” the driver says.
Imtiaz takes out a wad of rupees from his wallet and feeling generous he gives the driver a hefty tip from the pavement. Afiya would have given more if she had been here.
“Shukran, bhai,” the driver calls as he sets off, his eyes widening into grey-blue marbles in the street light.
For a moment, Imtiaz finds himself lost. this part of the promenade quieter; a few couples and groups of friends wander the beach. He tries to read the name of the café from a distance, the writing on its sign worn out, and begins walking towards it.
Taking his phone out to call his friend, a motorcycle pulls up behind him. and before he has time to turn around, two men have jumped off, faces covered with balaclavas, guns in hand.
In that split second, he tries to think back to that article he’d read about what to do when you’re held at gunpoint. But he can’t remember and silently faints the exact moment the cold metal of a gun is placed against his temple.
Imtiaz wakes up to a young couple towering over him.
“Uncle, uncle. can you hear me? What is your name? Who can we call to come and get you?”
He can smell urine and realises that his shalwaar is wet and soaking into his kameez. As he tries to slowly move into a seated position, the red dupatta the woman had used to cover him slides off. He begins to pat down his own body. His wallet is gone. As is his watch, chain, phone, the bheinchods had even taken the pin.
Just then, he feels his wife’s wedding ring deep in his pocket and holds on to it tightly.
“Ghar…I want to go home.”
About the Contributor
Half Gods - Akil Kumarasamy
More from Issue Ten:
- Tracks of Life and Death by Liz Kohn
- A short course of treatment by Tim Love
- Heating disorder by Myriam Frey
- Heirlooms by Rosie Garland
- Mourning by Katherine McMahon
- The Ghost of my Mother is waiting for me in Arrivals by Claire Collison
- Pakistan Zindabad, from Abroad by Hana Riaz
- Adopt a vortex by Han Smith
- Sea Sickness by Eloise Unerman
- British Street Music by Tamim Sadikali
- Pomegranate by Caroline Gonda