A duck lazily lifted its white feathered head and looked around. It seemed to close its eyes partially to the sunlight. It lowered its beak to the water. Then it ducked under its own wing and settled into the nap that it had been momentarily disturbed from.
Subhan envied the bird as it drifted in the pool of blue. The perfect spot for an afternoon nap. He wished he could do the same. Join the bird in the water and magically stay afloat as he closed his eyes and fell asleep.
His head felt heavy, his eyelids drooping from a grave sleep deficit. His shoulders ached from sitting hunched over the steering wheel of a taxi for close to 14 hours a day. And his hands had developed calluses at the lines on his fingers that divided them into three neat segments.
The only place he could nap at the moment was the green grass that lay sprawling endlessly in front of him. Not a bad idea, he thought. But he was embarrassed at the possibility that he might start drooling as he often did when he slept, mouth wide open. Sometimes, wide enough to reveal stained teeth from years of tobacco chewing.
New Englanders did not accept public impropriety easily. That he was a man of colour wearing a worn bottle green windcheater that declared his modest economic background in this affluent city and his scraggly stubble that gave him an unkempt look would not be well received either.
Subhan’s apartment in Roxbury seemed so far away to him at the moment. An entire 20-minute train ride away. Even if he were to be transported to it immediately, he was sure that his insomnia would reappear as soon as his lumpy bed was within reach. So he just sat on the bench looking on to Frog’s Pond at Boston Common, holding the gently crumpled piece of paper.
There was a mud stain on one corner of the paper. Even after all these weeks of being stored in his jacket pocket, if he closed his eyes and took a whiff of that mud mark, he could remember what home smelt like. The way dust rose when a car drove past. The way it settled in hems of dresses and resided inside nostrils.
The handwritten letter in royal blue ink was beginning to fade. Some of it had disappeared in places. But he had read the text enough times to recite it in his sleep. The missing ink hadn’t bothered him before but for the past few days it seemed to convey a growing distance between the writer and him.
Subhan’s 20-year-old daughter, Shabana, was getting married in three weeks. She had written her father a letter three months ago asking him to come home to talk to the boy’s family and make the engagement official. But Subhan had been unable to make it home in time so his brothers-in-law, his wife’s brothers, had gone instead.
Shabana hadn’t spoken to her father for a week to make her extreme annoyance evident, although she knew that travelling at such short notice, or as frequently, was not even a remote option for him. But these are liberties a daughter is allowed. Now all that was left to do was for Subhan to fly back to India and attend the event like a guest.
Since Shabana had turned 16, her mother, Noor, Subhan’s beloved begum, had started worrying about her daughter’s marital fate. Suddenly, Shabana walking home from school under the Indian sun was a problem. The fact that it gave her a gorgeous tan to match her chestnut hair was lost on her mother.
“Who will marry her if she becomes so dark?” Noor lamented.
Absurd as the concern was, unfortunately it was true with the local marriage market demanding prospective brides of impossible fairness, comparing requirements to flour, egg whites and other common household products.
These verbal sighs were communicated to Subhan on weekly, long-distance telephone calls that sometimes cost more than he would send home. After trying to make his wife understand that there was no need to get so worried, he just remained silent as he listened to her incessant chatter on the other end.
He always found himself smiling when she talked because although most people would call it complaining, he was really paying attention to her voice. The same voice that he had fallen in love with when he heard it across a high wall for the first time.
The 17-year-old owner of the voice at the time had come to visit her aunt and was calling to the matriarch seated on a jute cot nearby, cooling herself with a hand fan, asking whether she needed to add more oil to the large jar of pickles that the pair had just prepared and were now about to set in the sun to ripen.
Twenty three-year-old Subhan had come out in the courtyard just then to fetch his father’s slippers when his ears perked up at the sound of the voice, which he couldn’t describe in any other way except like the musical tinkling of bells, coming from the other side of the parapet. He couldn’t see the person, but her voice matched the belled anklets that he could also hear. That afternoon, he playfully asked his mother to investigate who the young visitor was next door.
Subhan’s mother was giddily happy at the prospect of getting a daughter-in-law. Neighbours talked, shy eyes met and a few months later, Noor and Subhan became man and wife under the shade of a large tree as the rest of the village celebrated around the lovestruck couple. That was 32 years ago.
Apart from the three short years soon after their wedding that Subhan and Noor had shared a home, a bed, a life, an ocean of time had gone by between them, with only these weekly phone calls holding them together. That, and the three beautiful children they had managed to produce in sporadic moments spent together. Otherwise, Subhan had lived on his own in a tiny apartment in Roxbury since 1979, when he had left India for the United States.
Jobs were difficult to come by then in India. And opportunities were not promising. In other words, it was a staid life. Nothing exciting to look forward to. Nothing worth reflecting on. Subhan, then in his mid-twenties, had a young wife to support. After a conversation with Noor that stretched through the night until dawn, he decided to look for work in America. The promised land. Where opportunities abounded and dreams came true. Or so it was said.
He arrived in New York. It was like a typical scene from the movies landing in the city of the Statue of Liberty that carried a beacon of hope to everyone who wished for a better life. He bought a cheap ticket aboard a Greyhound from New York’s Penn Station to Boston’s South Station to begin work for the agency that had hired him as a cab driver.
Subhan’s day began at 5 am every day, including Sundays and national holidays. He could never sleep in an extra hour or remain under the covers, however cold it was outside. And it was often cold outside in this city. He would drag himself out of bed, get dressed, get behind the wheel and head for Logan International Airport.
There, he would park his taxi and wait for a harrowed traveller to emanate from the building’s sliding doors. If he craved a change of scene, sometimes he would drive to the quieter Kendall Street T stop in Cambridge and wait there instead, but performing exactly the same duty.
It would be unfair to not acknowledge the excitement that his customers brought to the job. There were mothers rushing to daycare to drop off their kids before work during mean phone calls from their boss because they were late just as the nail-painted-gum-chewing babysitter said she couldn’t take the kids this afternoon because she was getting a fourth body piercing. There was always a drunk passenger on the weekend.
The kind who was so inebriated that they forgot where they lived or how to count money. This was usually a barely-legal student from one of the many area schools. Or it was that young couple who canoodled in the back seat for warmth and other reasons. But he was just another cab driver in this city of four-and-a-half million and Subhan longed to be back in a place where he was recognised as more than that.
In all these years that he had lived away from his family, what had he gained? True, he earned more than he ever would have if he stayed in India. It was enough to send home and live comfortably. But he had lost out on time rocking his child to sleep, falling asleep next to Noor as he played with stray locks of her hair. He had missed special Sunday breakfasts of kheema and parathas and watching cricket matches on television with the neighbourhood.
He was still treated as something like a God each time he returned, which wasn’t often. If the fascination didn’t stem from the fact that people were seeing him after so long, it was mostly because he was still among the handful of people in his family who had it, made it overseas and managed to stay, as opposed to those who ran back within a few months, deeply disturbed by what it meant to live outside India.
And many of them, at least of the younger generation, were waiting for their pair of Reebok shoes or a new watch, which meant Subhan’s arrival meant more to them than anything. But now he craved to be home. How he craved. Not in Roxbury. But in India.
Where he could participate in the pre-wedding madness that is a staple feature of an Indian home. To arrange for the maulvi who would solemnise the nikah. To call for the shehnai players, florists and lightmen. To call the caterers and sweet sellers. To invite guests by personally calling on them in the afternoon where he would be offered plump gulab jamoons and kheer. But because he was so far away, these privileges were restricted to Shabana’s uncles and male cousins.
So he just waited for the day that he would fly back. This time, it was for good. He had turned in his papers a few days and said goodbye to colleagues who were the closest he had to family. He had packed his suitcases with 32 years of memories and things, which surprisingly didn’t take up much space.
The last time Subhan had been home was when his mother had been very sick. Five years ago. She was old and her dying wish was to see the son that she adored one more time before she closed her eyes on the world for the last time.
This time, Subhan was going back, not just for a few weeks, but forever. He was saying goodbye to a life, the only life he had known for what had seemed like forever. He stared at the printout of his e-ticket. It almost didn’t seem real.
On the day of his travel, Subhan went to Logan International Airport in a taxi which, for the first time, he didn’t drive himself. He got out, got his luggage and generously tipped the driver. Making his way inside the airport, he checked in his baggage, collected his boarding pass and headed for security.
During “random” checking procedures, he was called aside and scrutinised. His bags were opened and repacked. After a curt smile from the officer in charge, he was allowed to proceed to the boarding gate while the authorities continued to shoot furtive suspicious glances over their shoulders.
The plane ride seemed endless. There wasn’t enough leg room and the meals seemed too small. Subhan was sitting next to a larger gentleman who occupied most of the available space. That he was seated close to the bathroom did not help his wish to get some sleep during the journey. Even the on-board entertainment couldn’t distract him.
Many hours later, the plane landed on solid ground. After a brief period in transit in a foreign airport, the process was repeated. This time when the plane landed, it was in India.
As discreetly as possible, Subhan tried to sniff the air while still inside the aircraft to check whether he could smell the familiar smell of home. Nothing yet. His family would be waiting outside. He tried to be as polite as possible to the other passengers as he quickly grabbed his cabin baggage from the overhead compartment and made a beeline for baggage claim.
He was among the first in the immigration lines which he cleared quickly. Loading his bags on to a nearby trolley, he was practically running outside. And as he burst through the sliding glass doors, a wave of Indian breeze greeted him.
The smell of the familiar. The smell of home. There she was. More beautiful than he remembered. His memory did the reality no justice. In a cotton salwar kameez, dupatta draped over her head. Dark brown eyes, thick brown hair that peeked out here and there. And a smile that could kill a man.
Next to her, also in a cotton salwar kameez, dupatta draped over her head, was the work of art they had created together. One of three that was the pride of their marriage.
There were tears, embraces and joy-filled cries. But the details are blurry. After a two-hour car ride that had no space for silence, Subhan was finally home. He felt like he knew his future son-in-law more than he would have if he had spent three months with him. Shabana’s animated chatter made it seem like she planned to tell her father five years of stories in one afternoon.
Subhan got out of the car and stood in front of his parent’s house. The old Indian home where he had grown from a boy to a man. His parents had left this world a long time ago. First his father and then his mother five years ago.
He opened the wooden gate that led to a muddy front yard. Badi ma, the cook and resident staff, who had been with the family since before Subhan was born, came hobbling out, using a wooden stick for support. She wore a saree blouse and ankle-length skirt with a dupatta wrapped around her.
“Look how thin you’ve gotten,” she said, stroking his face.
Subhan’s stubble was as coarse as her palm. The result of more than 40 years of tirelessly performing household activities. Subhan just smiled and kissed badi ma on the forehead.
Once the jet lag wore off, Subhan was able to meet the guests who had started pouring in long before he was awake. Some for the wedding, some to see him. They exclaimed, pulled at his cheeks and asked him more questions than he had answers for. His son-in-law was not allowed to come home before the wedding. But Subhan’s brothers-in-law had introduced the two outside a tea shop one afternoon. He was a shy boy whose eyes seemed to say that he loved Shabana possibly as much as he loved his Noor. That was good enough for him.
On the morning of the first day of the wedding, the shehnai players found a spot in the garden that they would play at for the next three days, or week, if necessary. The florists transformed the front yard where the wedding would be held in a few days, a white curtain dividing the space in half on either side of which would be men and women. The lightmen hung like monkeys from the trees as they strung fairy lights and erected floodlights.
The caterers discussed particulars of the menu. Chicken kebabs, lamb sheekh, biryani, firni. The sweet sellers did the same. Doodh peda, jilebi, khubani ka mitha, ice cream. Subhan was slightly overwhelmed by all the activity. A marked contrast from his more than quiet life in Roxbury. Being back after so long, he kept thinking that he could hear the bells of the train outside his window.
He kept waking at 5 am, panicking that he had overslept and remembering that he could sleep in as long as he liked. It felt wonderful to be back with Noor again, falling asleep in her arms, his head against her chest that rose and fell with each breath that she took.
Playing with stray locks of her hair. It felt so wonderful to be with a woman after so long.
But they had so little to talk about. Noor wasn’t even complaining about Shabana’s complexion anymore since she had found a groom. Shabana was about to move away to another city with her husband who had found work there. She would become a fleeting presence like the other guests that walked in an out of the house all day.
In 32 years that he spent overseas, Subhan had never felt at home there. And now that he was back, how could he feel so out of place? He was surrounded by people he loved and they, him. Then why did he feel so alone? In a buzzing household preparing for the first wedding in years, why did he feel like he was screaming and no one could hear him?
He would have to shed New England to embrace India again. He would have to reconnect with a wife who had turned into a stranger. He would have to find the familiar in what he always thought of as familiar. Despite travelling so many miles across the world, Subhan’s journey was just beginning. The one that began in search of home.