Something to Tell You
The plane must have touched down around three in the morning. I had to slap and shake Miriam awake. She’d been living in a squat in Brixton and was eager to get away. The area had recently been torn apart by anti-police riots. Miriam had been up for a week throwing bricks and helping out at the Law Centre. The contemporary graffiti advised: ‘Help the police—beat yourself up.’
Inevitably, Miriam had taken something to calm her nerves on the flight, cough syrup I think, one of her favourites, which had pole-axed her. I helped her throw her stuff into her various hippie bags and shoved her out into the Third World. Lucky them.
It was still dark but warming up. In the chaos outside the airport, scores of raggedy beggars pressed menacingly at us; the women fell at, and kissed, Miriam’s red Dr Martens.
Wanting to escape, we got into the first car that offered a ride. I was nervous, not knowing how we’d find our way around this place, but Miriam closed her eyes again, refusing to take responsibility for anything. I’d have dumped her if it wouldn’t have caused more problems than it solved.
We can’t have been in Pakistan, the land of our forefathers, for more than an hour when the taxi driver pulled a gun on us. He and his companion, who looked about fourteen and was wrapped in a grim blanket against the night cold, had been friendly until then, saying—as we took off from the airport to Papa’s place with Bollywood music rattling the car windows—‘Good cassette? Good seat, comfortable, eh? You try some paan? You want cushion?’
‘Groovy,’ murmured Miriam, shutting her eyes. ‘I think I’m already on a cushion.’
This was the early Eighties; I had graduated, Lennon had been murdered, and the revolution had come at last: Margaret Thatcher was its figurehead. Miriam and I were in an ancient Morris Minor with beads and bells strung across it. She must have thought we were approaching some sort of head idyll and would soon run into Mia Farrow, Donovan and George Harrison meditating in front of a murmuring Indian.
The driver had taken a sharp left off the road, through some trees and across a lot of dirt, where we came to a standstill. He dragged us out of the car and told us to follow him. We did. He was waving a gun at our faces. It was not Dad’s house; it was the end. A sudden, violent death early in the morning for me—on day one in the fatherland. I wondered whether we’d be in the newspapers back home, and if Mum would give them photographs of us.
Not that Miriam and I were alone. I could see people in the vicinity, living in tents and shacks, some of them squatting to watch us, others, skinny children and adults, just standing there. It looked like some kind of permanent pop festival: rotting ripped canvas and busted corrugated metal, fires, dogs, kids running about, the heat and light beginning to come up. No one was going to help us.
We considered the shooter. Oh, did we take it in! Sister and I were shouting, indeed jumping up and down and wildly yelling like crazies, which made the robber confused. He appeared to get the message that we didn’t have any money. Then Miriam, who was accustomed to intense situations, had the stunning idea of giving him the corned beef.
She said, ‘It’s not sacred to them, is it?’
‘Corned beef? I don’t think so.’
She became very enthusiastic about it. She seemed to believe they should want corned beef, perhaps she thought they’d had a famine recently. They did indeed want corned beef. The robber grabbed the heavy bag and kept it without looking inside. Then he and the other man drove us back to the road, and then to Papa’s place. Even robberies by taxi drivers are eccentric in Karachi.
‘Papa won’t be getting a brand-new bag then,’ I said as we hit the main road. Miriam groaned as we swerved past donkey carts, BMWs, camels, a tank with Chinese markings, and crazy coloured buses with people hanging from the roofs like beads from a curtain.
Luckily, along with the reggae records Dad had requested, I’d put an extra couple of cans of corned beef in my own bag. Papa wasn’t disappointed. Although, apparently, he had told Miriam that corned beef was the thing he missed most about Britain, I can’t believe he’d have wanted a suitcase full of it. He was partial to the stuff though, sitting at his typewriter eating it from the can, helped down with vodka obtained from a police friend.
‘It could be worse,’ he’d say. ‘The only other thing to eat is curried goat brain.’
Mother had wanted us to come here. She was sick of worrying about Miriam when she wasn’t at home, and arguing with her when she went there to crash. Mother was also, at times, bitterly angry with Father. She had found us hell to cope with, and she had no support. It would benefit all of us to spend time with him, getting to know how he lived and how he really felt about things. Even Miriam agreed.
Long before we got to Pakistan, like a lot of other ‘ethnics’, she’d been getting into the roots thing. She was a Pakistani, a minority in Britain, but there was this other place, where she had a deep connection, which was spiritual, even Sufic. To prepare for the trip, she’d joined a group of whirling dervishes in Notting Hill. When she demonstrated the ‘whirling’ to me, at Heathrow, it was pretty gentle, a tea dance version. Still, we’d see just how spiritual the place was. So far we’d had a gun at our heads.
Soon Papa’s servant was making us tea and toast. Papa, not only thin but as fragile as a Giacometti, yet dignified in his white salwar-kamiz and sandals, informed us we would not be staying with him, but with our uncle, his older brother Yasir. To be honest, it was a relief.
‘What the fuck is this, a squat?’ Miriam said, when we were alone.
It turned out that Father, an aristocrat to those he left behind, was living in a crumbling flat, the walls peeling, the wires exposed, the busted furniture seeming to have been distributed at random, as though a place would be found for it later. Dust blew in through the windows, settling among the ragged piles of newspaper rustling on the floor and the packets of unused white paper, already curling in the heat.
Later that morning, saying he had to write his column, Papa got his servant to drive us to Yasir’s. It was a broad one-storey house that looked like a mansion in movies set in Beverly Hills, an empty swimming pool full of leaves in the front, and rats rushing through them.
Miriam was annoyed we weren’t staying with Dad, but I went along with the adventure. For a suburban kid with not very much, I like my luxuries, and luxuries there were at Yasir’s.
It was a house of doe-eyed beauties. There were at least four. The Raj Quartet I called them. I was still mourning Ajita, of course, as well as assuming we could get back together when she eventually returned to London. I had never given up on her. We would be closer than before; we would marry and have children.
Meanwhile, it occurred to me that this quartet of dark-skinned, long-haired women staring at us from a doorway, Uncle Yasir’s daughters, might help me bear my pain.
I was looking at the girls, confronting the anguish of choice, not unlike a cat being offered a box of captive mice, when there was a commotion. Apparently there was a rabid dog on the roof. We rushed out to see it being chased by servants with long sticks. The servants got a few good cracks in, and the dog lay injured in the road outside, making god-awful noises. When we went out later, it was dead. ‘You like our country?’ said the house guard.
Miriam was told that she not only had to share a room with two of her cousins, but with a servant, too, a couple of children and our grandmother, who was, apparently, a princess. This old woman spoke little English and washed her hands and clothes continuously; the rest of the time she spent either praying or studying the Koran.
It was a large house, but the women kept to their side of it and they were very close with one another. So Miriam and I were separated, and each day we did different things, as we always had at home. I liked to read the books I’d brought with me, while Miriam would go to the market with the women and then cook with them. In the evenings dad and his friends would come over, or I’d go with him to their houses.
When Papa was writing his column, which he began early in the morning, I’d sit in his flat listening to the heroes of ska and bluebeat, while being shaved by his servant. Papa was working on a piece ostensibly about families called ‘The Son-in-Law Also Rises’. It was giving him difficulty because, having written it straightforwardly, he then had to obscure it, turning it into a kind of poetic code, so the reader would understand it but not the authorities.
Dad’s weekly column was on diverse subjects, all obliquely political. Why were there not more flowers bordering the main roads in Karachi? Surely the more colour there was—colour representing democracy—the more lively everything would be? His essay on the fact that people wash too often, and would have more personality if they were dirtier—thus expressing themselves more honestly—was about the water shortages. An essay ostensibly about the subtle beauty of darkness and the velvet folds of the night was about the daily electricity breakdowns. He’d hand them to me for my suggestions, and I even wrote a couple of paragraphs, my first published works.
After this was done, at lunchtime we’d tour the city, visiting Dad’s friends, mostly old men who’d lived through the history of Pakistan, ending up at my father’s club.
In the evening we’d go to parties where the men wore ties and jackets, and the women jewellery and pretty sandals. There were good manners, heavy drinking, and much competitive talk of favours, status and material possessions: cars, houses, clothes.
Far from being ‘spiritual’, as Miriam understood it, Karachi was the most materialistic place we had been. Deprivation was the spur. However, I might have considered my father’s friends to be vulgar and shallow, but it was I who was made to feel shabby, like someone who’d stupidly missed a good opportunity in Britain. I was gently mocked by these provincial bourgeois, with my father watching me carefully to see how I coped. What sort of man, half here and half there, had I turned out to be? I was an oddity again, as I had been at school.
All the same, my father was educating me, telling me about the country, talking all the time about partition, Islam, liberalism, colonialism. I may have been a feisty little British kid with Trot acquaintances and a liking for The Jam, but I began to see how much Dad needed his liberal companions who approved of Reagan and Thatcher. This was anathema to me, but represented ‘freedom’ in this increasingly Islamized land. Dad’s friends were, like him, already alienated in this relatively new country, and he believed their condition would get worse as the country became more theocratic. As Dad said, ‘There are few honest men here. In fact, I may be the only one! No wonder there are those who wish to establish a republic of virtue.’
Many of my father’s friends tried to impress on me that I, as a member of the ‘coming up’ generation, had to do my best to keep freedom alive in Pakistan. ‘We are dying out here, yaar. Please, you must help us.’ The British had gone, there’d been a vacuum, and now the barbarians were taking over. Look what had happened in Iran: the ‘spiritual’ politics of the revolution had ended in a vicious God-kissed dictatorship with widespread amputations, stonings and executions. If the people there could remove a man as powerful as the Shah, what might happen in other Muslim countries?
I learned that Father was an impressive man: articulate, amusing and much admired for his writing. He’d almost gone to jail; only his ‘connections’ had kept him out. He had been defiant but never stupid. I read his pieces, collected at last, in a book published only in Pakistan. In such a corrupt place he represented some kind of independence, authority and integrity.
If he seemed to have the measure of life, it wasn’t long before I had to put to him the question I was most afraid of. Why hadn’t he stayed with us? What made him come here? Why had we never been a proper family?
He didn’t shirk the question but went at it head on, as if he’d been expecting it for years. Apart from the ‘difficulties’ he had with mother—the usual stuff between a man and a woman, at which I nodded gravely, as though I understood—there had been an insult, he said. He had liked Mum. He still respected her, he said. It was odd to hear him speaking about her as a girlfriend he’d had years ago, but now, clearly, was indifferent to.
I learned, though, that he had had, briefly, at the same time as Mum, another girlfriend, whose parents had invited him to dinner at their house in Surrey. They were eating when the mother said, ‘Oh, you can eat with a knife and fork? I thought you people normally ate with your fingers.’
This was to a man who’d been brought up in a wealthy liberal Indian family in colonial Bombay. Among the many children, Father was the prince of the family, inheritor of the family talent. ‘Isn’t he a magnificent man?’ Yasir had said to me. ‘Your grandfather told me to look after him always.’
Dad had been educated in California, where he’d established himself on the college circuit as a champion debater and skilful seducer of women. He believed he had the talent and class to become a minister in the Indian government, ambassador to Paris or New York, a newspaper editor or a university chancellor. Dad told me he couldn’t face more of this prejudice, as it was called then. He had ‘got out’, gone home to the country he had never known, to be part of its birth, to experience the adventure of being a ‘pioneer’.
As we drove around Karachi—him tiny behind the wheel of the car—he began to weep, this clean man in his white salwar-kamiz and sandals, with an alcohol smell that I got used to, and even came to like. He regretted it, he said, the fact that we as a family weren’t together and he couldn’t do his duty as a father. Mother wouldn’t live in Pakistan and he was unable to live in England.
If he had left us in Britain, it was, he added, as much for our sake as for his. It was obvious we would have more of a chance there. What should have happened, he said, was that his family should never have left India for Pakistan. India was where his heart was, where he’d belonged, where he and Yasir and his sisters and brothers had grown up, in Bombay and Delhi.
He now realized that Bombay, rather than Karachi, was the place where his ideals could have been met, crazy though it might be there. In Pakistan they had made a mess of things. He admitted it could have been predicted by a cursory reading of history. Any state based on a religious idea—on one god—was going to be a dictatorship. ‘Voltaire could have foretold, boy. You only have to read anywhere there to realize.’
He went on, ‘Liberals like me are marginal here. We are called the ‘high and dry’ generation. We are, indeed, frequently high, but rarely dry. We wander around the city, looking for one another to talk to. The younger, bright ones all leave. Your cousins will never have a home, but will wander the world forever. Meanwhile, the mullahs will take over. That is why I’m making the library.’
Packages of books from Britain and the US arrived at Papa’s flat a couple of times a week. He didn’t unpack them all, and, when he did, I noticed that some of them were volumes he already had, in new editions. With Yasir’s money, Papa was building a library in the house of a wealthy lawyer. Such a darkness had fallen upon the country that the preservation of any kind of critical culture was crucial. A student or woman, as he put it, might want access to the little library, where he knew the books would be protected after his death.
Dad insisted I go to meet his older sister, a poet and university lecturer. She was in bed when we arrived, having had arthritis for the last ten years. ‘I’ve been expecting you,’ she said, pinching my cheek. ‘This will be difficult, but there’s something you need to see.’
We got her up and on to her walking frame and accompanied her to the university, which she was determined to show me, though it was closed due to ‘disturbances’. She, Dad and I shuffled and banged our way through the corridors and open rooms, looking at the rows of wooden benches and undecorated, crumbling walls.
She taught English literature, Shakespeare, Austen, the Romantics. However, the place had been attacked frequently by radical Islamists, and no one had returned to classes. The books she taught were considered ’haram’, forbidden. Meanwhile madrassas or ‘bomb schools’ were being established by President Zia. This was where many poor families sent their kids, the only places they would receive education, and food.
When I wondered what it meant for my aunt to teach English literature in such a place, to people who had never been to England, she said, ‘They’ve gone, the British. Colonialism restrained radical Islam, and the British at least left us their literature and then-language. A language doesn’t belong to anyone. Like the air, everyone can use it. But they left a political hole which others fill with stones. The Americans, the CIA, supported the Islamic revival to keep the Communists out of the Middle East. That is what we English teachers call an irony.’ She went on, ‘It is the women I fear for, the young women growing up here. No ideology hates women more than this one. These fanatics will undo all the good work done by women in the Sixties and Seventies.’
She would return to the university when the time was right, though she doubted that she’d live to see it. ‘A student said to me, “We will kill ten thousand people, which will destroy this country’s institutions and create a revolution. Then we could attack Afghanistan and go upwards… There will be the believers and there will be the dead. The West will defeat Communism but not Islam—because the people believe in Islam.”’
Meanwhile my aunt was content to remain in her room and write poetry. She had published five volumes, paying for the printing costs herself, the Urdu on one page, the English on the other. She adored the Trinidad poet Derek Walcott, who was her light. ‘His father, I’m sure, was a clerk in the colonial administration, like so many of our educated.’ He had taught her that she could write from her position—’cross-cultural’, she called it—and make sense. Other local poets met at her house, to read their work and talk. They wouldn’t be the first poets, nor the last, to have to work ‘underground’.
‘I envy the birds,’ she said. ‘They can sing. No one shuts their mouths or imprisons them. Only they are free here.’
Language; poetry; speaking; freedom. The country was wretched but some of the people were magnificent, forced into seriousness. Dad would have known the effect this would have on me.
Our lives had been separate. Dad had never visited our schools or even our house when he was in Britain; there’d been no everyday affection. But as he drove about Karachi he did ask me, What is it you really do? As though he needed to know the secret I’d been keeping from the anxious enquirers at the dinner parties.
I didn’t have much of a reply. I said I was going to do a PhD on the later work of Wittgenstein. I’d say this to anyone who enquired about my choice of career, and I did so to Papa. He could show me off or at least shut the questioners up; I had, after all, graduated with honours—whatever they are—in Philosophy.
This was, though, only for the benefit of others and Dad knew it. When, in private, he called me a ‘bum’, which he did from time to time, often appending other words like ‘useless’ or ‘lazy’ or, when he was particularly drunk, ‘fucking useless lazy stupid’, I tried to defend myself. I was not bringing shame on the family. I did want to do some kind of intellectual work and had even considered doing an MA. But really I only considered Philosophy as the basis of intellectual engagement, a critical tool, rather than anything that seemed worth pursing for itself. Who can name a living British philosopher of distinction? Later, psychoanalysis came to interest me more, being closer to the human.
This was all too vague for Papa, and the ‘bum’ taunts didn’t stop. He’d say, ‘Your other cousins, what are they doing? They’re training to be doctors, lawyers, engineers. They’ll be able to work anywhere in the world. Who the fuck wants a Philosophy PhD? Yasir was like you, doing nothing, sitting in pubs. Then our father, who was in Britain, kicked his arse and he opened factories and hotels. So, you can consider your arse to be kicked!’
How could I put pleasure before duty? What could be more infuriatingly enviable than that? Papa had kicked my arse. Where had he kicked it to? I felt worthless, and glad he hadn’t been around in London: one of us might have killed the other.
As I considered the serious side of Papa’s attack, I drifted around Yasir’s house, wondering what to do with myself. I’d already learned how difficult it was to find solitude in this country. The price of an extended and strong family was that everyone scrutinized and overlooked one another continuously; every word or act was discussed, usually with disapproval.
One day I discovered that my uncle also had a library. Or at least there was a room called ‘the library’, which contained a wall of books, and a long table and several chairs. The room was musty but clean. No one ever used it, like front parlours in the suburbs.
I took in the books, which were hardbacks. Poetry, literature, a lot of left-wing politics, many published by Victor Gollancz. They’d been bought in London by one of my uncles and shipped to Pakistan. The uncle, who lived in Yasir’s house but now ‘roamed around all day’, had developed schizophrenia. In his early twenties he’d been a brilliant student, but his mind had deteriorated.
I sat at the library table and opened the first book, the contents crumbling and falling on the floor, as though I had opened a packet of flour upside down. I tried other volumes. In the end my reading schedule was determined by the digestion of the local worms. As it happened, there was one book less fancied by the worms than others. It was the Hogarth edition of Civilization and Its Discontents, which I had never read before. It occurred to me, as I went at it, that it was more relevant to the society in which I was presently situated than to Britain. Whatever: I was gripped from the first sentence, which referred to ‘what is truly valuable in life…’
What was truly valuable in life? Who wouldn’t have wanted to know that? I could have ripped at those pages with my fingernails in order to get all of the material inside me. Of course, I was maddened by the fact that whole sentences had been devoured by the local wildlife. Indeed, one of the reasons I wanted to return to London was that I wanted to read it properly. In the end, the only way to satisfy my habit—if I didn’t want to ask my father for books, which I didn’t—was to read the same pages over and over.
Often, my only companion was my schizophrenic uncle, who would sit at the end of the table, babbling, often entertainingly, with a Joycean flow. The meaning, of course, was opaque to me, but I loved him, and wanted to know him. There was no way in. I was as ‘in’ as I was going to get.
While I settled into a daily routine of carefully turning the medieval parchment pages of old books, I noticed a movement at the door. I said nothing but could see Najma, at twenty-one the youngest female cousin, watching me. She waited for me to finish, smiling and then hiding her face whenever I looked at her. I had played with her in London as a kid. We had met at least once a year, and I felt we had a connection.
‘Take me to a hotel, please,’ she said. ‘This evening.’
I was mad with excitement. The bum also rises.
This advent of heterosexuality surprised me a little. I had already been made aware of the broad sensuality of Muslim societies: the women, for instance, who slept in the same room, were forever caressing and working one another’s hair and bodies; and the boys always holding hands, dancing and giggling together in someone’s bedroom, playing homoerotically. They talked of how lecherous the older men were, particularly teachers of the Koran, and how, where possible, you had to mind your arse in their presence. Of course, many of my favourite writers had gone to Muslim countries to get laid. I recalled Flaubert’s letters from Egypt. ‘Those shaved cunts make a strange effect—the flesh is hard as bronze and my girl had a splendid arse.’ ‘At Esna in one day I fired five times and sucked three.’ As for the boys, ‘We have considered it our duty to indulge in this form of ejaculation.’
I had been introduced to young men of my age, and went out with them a few times, standing around brightly decorated hamburger and kebab stalls, talking about girls. But compared to these boys, after Ajita, I had little hope; they seemed too young, I was alienated, and had no idea where I belonged, if anywhere now. I would have to make a place. Or find someone to talk to.
It took Najma three hours to get ready. I’d never waited so long for a girl before and hope to never again. I was reminded, unfortunately, once more of Ajita, who was inevitably late for classes, giving the excellent excuse that she didn’t want the lecturer to see her with bad hair.
Najma turned up, aflame with colour, in a glittering salwar-kamiz with gold embroidery. On her wrists she had silver bangles; on her hands there was some sort of brown writing; her hair resembled a swinging black carpet, and she wore more make-up than I’d seen on anyone aside from a junkie transvestite friend of Miriam’s. Najma didn’t need the slap; she was young and her skin was like the surface of a good cup of coffee.
I assumed we were going to the hotel to fuck. I didn’t realize that the Karachi hotels were the smartest places in town, where all the aspiring courting couples went. The radical Muslims were always threatening to bomb these hotels—and did occasionally—but as there were no bars and few restaurants in the city, there was nowhere else to go apart from private houses.
Sitting there in my ragged black suit—I could scratch my crack through the gash in the behind—drinking nothing stronger than a salted lassi, all I did was worry about the size of the bill and feel as out of place as I did on the street. But in the car on the way home she asked if I’d let her suck me off. It sounded like a good idea, particularly as I doubted whether I’d be able to find my way through the complicated layers of clothes she seemed to be wearing. She pulled over somewhere. As I ran my fingers through Najma’s black hair I thought it could have been Ajita—in a neighbouring country—who was satisfying me. At the end she said, ‘I love you, my husband.’
Husband? I put this down to the poetic exaggerations of passion. Najma and I had a lot of time together and after our first lovemaking she made it clear she was in love with me. I liked that about her. I fall in love too easily myself. You see a face and the fantasies start, like tapping on the magic lantern.
She liked to deride the West for its ‘corruption’ and ‘excess’. It was a dirty place, and she couldn’t wait to move there, to escape the cul-de-sac which was Pakistan, the increasing violence, the power of the mullahs, and the bent politicians. I would be her ticket.
I’d read and she’d lie with her head in my lap, talking. Other women who came to the house were training as doctors and airline pilots, but the Chekhovian women in my family only wanted to get away, to America or Britain—Inglestan it was called—except that they couldn’t do it without a sufficiently ambitious husband. The ones left behind, or waiting to leave, watched videos of Bollywood movies, visited friends and aunties, gossiped, went out for kebabs, but otherwise were forced into indolence, though their imaginations remained lush and hot.
I didn’t want the sucking to stop. I liked it a lot, along with the spanking and other stuff I hadn’t yet got round to. She liked—she was very fond of—the economics, too. Not a Merc, darling, I’d say, when she seemed to think that that was what we’d move around London in. I’d prefer a Jag. I’ve had Jags, even a Roller, a Bentley for a week, but I sent it back. I’ve had a lot of trouble with Mercs, they’re always breaking down, the big ends go, Jesus.
Then I’d tell her New York wasn’t enough for her. We would have to go out to LA, to Hollywood, where the swimming pools were top class and maybe she could become an actress, she had the looks.
‘Next week?’ she said.
‘Maybe,’ I said, hastening to add that though I might seem a bit short of money at the moment, I’d had it before and soon would again, once I started back at work. It wouldn’t take someone as smart as me long to make real money.
I have to say I didn’t begin by wanting to deceive Najma with these spidery nonsense nets. She had taken it for granted that I was already wealthy, and would become even wealthier in the near future, like her male cousins. She’d been to Britain often, but had little idea of what it was really like. Most people, in fact, seemed to think that Miriam and I were rich. If we weren’t we must have been stupid, or mentally weak. One time I saw a young servant of Yasir’s wearing my shoes, then a pair of my suit trousers. When I remonstrated with him he just grinned.
‘But you are rich,’ he said in strange English.
‘Get that stuff off,’ I said, ‘I’m going to tell Yasir.’
He acted like I’d hit him. ‘Please, I beg you, no, no,’ he pleaded. ‘He sack me.’
Off he went in my gear. What could I do? He earned almost nothing. Miriam, being generous and ingenious, found a way to fund him while benefiting us. She got him to bring us joints which we’d smoke on the roof. Not long after, I discovered from Najma that Papa was referring to us as ’les enfants terribles’. His own children!
Not that we weren’t looking into him too, eager to get the low-down. I knew little about his romantic life, whether he had anyone or not. It seemed unlikely. He had his routine, his worries and his books.
There was, though, his second wife, Miriam, and I went to her office, where she was the editor of a woman’s magazine. She was very cool, small with fine features, polite, curious and intelligent. She had an English upper-class accent with the head-wagging Indian lilt I’d liked since meeting Ajita. I could see Miriam getting a crush on her. But she wasn’t for a moment emotionally engaged with us. She didn’t talk about Papa or our lives without him. After our visit, Miriam phoned a couple of times but was told she was away.
Things began to go bad. One time I was in the library and Najma was waiting outside as she always did. I went to her, checked for prying eyes, and kissed her shiny lips a little and began to touch her, but she was cold and pushed me away. She was silent for a while, letting me take in her hurt, before beginning to abuse me in Urdu. Her father, in a rage, came in. They talked a lot in Urdu too. I got out of there. It was breaking down.
It turned out that Najma had gone to Miriam and confessed to her. We were in love, we were going to marry, we were off to London, New York, Hollywood, in a Merc, or was it a Jag?
Miriam calmly told her to forget it, Jamal was marrying no one. He’s not even a student; he’s got the degree but so does every bum and semi-fool in London Town. Forget the Jag, the fucker might be able to drive but he hasn’t taken his test, they wouldn’t let him on the road in England. If he’s intending to marry, she finished off, he hasn’t mentioned it to me, and he mentions everything to me, otherwise I slap him.
I was in a rage with Miriam. Why did she do this? She liked the girl, she said. She felt sorry for her being subjected to my lies and stupid stories. But what was she doing herself?
It was taken for granted I’d accompany Papa during the day (I was learning a lot), just as he took it for granted that Miriam would stay at the house with the other women. They would discuss ‘women’s things’. But, apparently, she had stopped doing this. Instead, she had taken to driving off in Uncle Yasir’s car, often with her head uncovered. When asked where she’d been, she’d reply, ‘Sightseeing.’ I had some idea of what these sights might be when she told me that her favourite thing in Karachi was to go to the beach and there, under a palm tree, split open a coconut and pour half a bottle of gin into it.
Most of the sightseeing she did was from within the arms of one of our cousin’s fiancés, an airline pilot, who had a beach hut. He and our cousin were to be married later that year, but the pilot was taking the opportunity to get to know the further reaches of the family. He and Miriam had also been meeting in rooms in the hotel I’d visited with Najma, where he knew the manager.
They’d been spotted. Gossip was one of the few things that moved urgently in Karachi. He’d taken it for granted that English girls were easy, and when he ran into Miriam he knew he was right. I’d been wondering how she knew so many little things about the country. Of course our cousin went crazy, and threatened to stab Miriam. Miriam was outnumbered. I refused to help her.
Miriam had thought we could live in Pakistan a while, get a job, save a bit, hang out on the beach and deal hash, and so on. But in a little less than a month the whole thing had become impossible. We were too alien; there was no way we could fit in. There were American and British wives living there, but they had gone native, wearing the clothes, doing the accent, trying to learn the language in order to speak to the servants.
Outside, if Miriam wasn’t covered, she was jeered and hissed at. They even pinched her. She picked up fruit from stalls and threw it at people. I was terrified she’d get into a fist fight or worse. I kept my head down, but Miriam, being a modern woman of the most extreme kind, fucked them all up. Our grandmother, the Princess, had already gone to her, placed her hand on her forehead and said, ‘I’m going to recite a small prayer which will drive out the devil and the evil spirits which possess you. Satan, be off! Give us victory over those who disbelieve!’ The following morning she had two sheep slaughtered. The meat was distributed among the poor, who were asked to pray for Miriam’s quick recovery.
It all blew up at Papa’s flat one morning when I heard a commotion in the sitting room. There were raised voices. Then I heard what sounded like a large object being thrown across the floor. I guessed the large object might be Papa. When I ran in, followed by the servant, Miriam was sitting on Papa, rather as she used to sit on me, screaming at him. He was trying to protect his face as well as trying to strike her. She was strong and difficult to pull off. There was something she wanted to tell him.
‘He’s been abusing me!’ she said, as we held her, trying to pin her arms behind her back.
Papa was dusting himself down. Then I saw she had spat at him, that her spittle was on his face. He took his handkerchief and cleaned himself.
She said, ‘He says I kiss the arse of whitey! He calls me “a rotten girl” and a dirty slut who can’t behave! Yet he left us there in London! He abandoned us! What could be worse than that!’
‘Get out,’ cried Papa in a weak voice. He went into another room and shut the door.
It was the last time we saw him.
Dad must have spoken to Yasir. When we got back to his house we were informed that we were leaving later, around one in the morning. We were not given any choice. The servants were already packing our bags. No one said goodbye or waved. We weren’t allowed to say goodbye to the girls.
The funny thing was, we spotted Miriam’s lover, the pilot, going through the ‘crew lane’ in the airport. Later, during the flight, he came to collect her. Apparently she ‘guided the plane’. A packed 747 with Miriam at the wheel, sitting on the pilot’s knee, with, no doubt, her hand in his fly.
Mother had wanted us to see father ‘in his own environment’. She thought it would be informative. It was. We could no longer idealize him. In most ways he was worse off than us. He couldn’t save us, nor we him. He couldn’t be the father we had wanted him to be. If I wanted a father, I’d have to find a better one.
By the time we returned to London, Miriam and I weren’t speaking. I hated her and didn’t want to see her again. I didn’t want to be the little brother any more. Usually I’m quite passive, if not evasive; I go along with things, to see what’s happening, not wanting to make things worse by tossing my chillies into the stew. But I had said to Miriam, as we left Papa’s, that she had ruined the whole trip.
‘No wonder Papa thinks you’re an idiot and a bitch,’ I explained.
‘You can’t control yourself for five minutes! These people have their own way of life and you just pissed all over it! There can be few people in this world who are more selfish than you!’
She was so sullen and freaked, traumatized, I supposed, she couldn’t even hit me. It occurred to me that she’d either damage herself in some way or go back on the smack.
We rode back into London on the Tube. The little houses and neat gardens sitting there in the cold looked staid, cute, prim. Saying nothing, hating everything, we both had furious eyes. This was our land and it was where we had to live. All we could do now was get on with our lives—or not. At Victoria Station the two us parted without speaking. I went home to Mum and Miriam went to stay with someone who had a council flat in North Kensington.
I knew that whatever happened, I needed to get a job. Luckily, I had a friend from university who was working in the British Library, and he said he could get me something there.
The one person I didn’t expect to see again was Najma, but she turned up a year later in Britain and rang Mother, asking for me. For a moment, in my confusion and with Mum’s lack of clarity—’an Indian girl phoned’—I thought it was Ajita. I began to cry with relief. She hadn’t forgotten me. She was coming back.
Najma had married a Pakistani who came here to study engineering, and the two of them were living in Watford, with twins. I went out to see them a few times.
One kid had a fever, the other was perhaps a little backward. The couple had been racially harassed, knew no one, and the husband was out all day. Najma would cook for me; she knew I loved her food, and we’d sit together, chastely, while she talked of everything she missed ‘back home’. Exiled, she continued to curse the West for its immorality, while blaming it for failing to dispense its wealth to her family with the alacrity her fantasies demanded.
I took the husband out for a drink, and had to listen to him complaining about the excessive price of prostitutes in Britain.
I could only say that Britain might turn out to be more expensive than he thought.