‘Big cities only lend small corners, good enough to cram you’
HE WAS tired. I could sense the uneasy air between us as my father waved to me from Delhi’s Jamia Masjid Gate. He had just arrived from our home in Srinagar. I hadn’t seen him for months. We hugged. What relief it has always been to sink into his arms. His smell, the notes of which I always carried, had grown fainter now. He had grown older. His watery eyes, faintly green, had a pinkish tinge. He had returned to Delhi after 19 years.
It was morning but the heat was picking up. On the way, we spoke, as we always did, in measured, meaningful sentences. He kept rubbing his hands. I kept him talking. I knew this would stop him from thinking about his city. He had spent his lifetime in Srinagar and now he was supposed to live away — for three years. He had been transferred to Delhi.
He had left home determined to stay but I knew he would decay here. Silence and longing can rip you apart. I had felt it, felt it every moment I stayed here to pursue my education. Big cities only lend you small corners, good enough to make you feel crammed.
It was just days before Eid-ul-azha and I could tell from his nails and neatly trimmed beard that he wasn’t returning home for the festival. Festivals away from home are not festivals, they are mournings of what we have left behind. His every expression betrayed his determination to stay; I had read those like a book, throughout my life. Deciphered, tested and preserved them in my memories. Memories can both salvage and slay. I had felt it every moment I stayed here in Delhi.
We reached Zakir Nagar within an hour and half. I had carefully cleaned my room, brought a new dustbin, a new broom, got gas filled up, done the dishes and washed clothes. I had done everything that would make him feel relaxed and pleased. He freshened up as I prepared tea. He was perspiring; his otherwise white flappy skin appeared pale, dull. He said he felt suffocated, so I opened the windows, unwillingly. I knew it meant trouble. We sipped tea, silently. Only his expressions spoke the truth. He did not like it here. I asked, “Can we stop this; I mean, can we somehow stop this transfer.” He seized my words as if waiting for a push to break the inertia, called some people at his office and within an hour it was done. I was relieved. He was going back.
We prepared lunch and he took a nap. I brought oranges, I knew he loved them. In the evening, as we took a walk, he kept insisting that I should come home with him. I kept hedging. He kept coming up with new reasons. We returned pretty late, picking up curd and cucumbers on the way back. I had turned on the mosquito repellent back at my room. He said it wasn’t that hot and we should turn off the fan. We had a good dinner, a long chat and slept at 11.
I heard his breath — the rise and fall. And then the nightmare began. They came buzzing, I could hear them. I thought he wouldn’t. Fifteen minutes and he woke up. “Mosquitoes,” he said. He held my hands, he was warm.
Then in a tone that peeled me off my skin, he said, “Son, how do you manage to live here, tell me how do you manage to live here?” Then repeated the lines like a mystic hymn. “I have to complete my studies,” I said, “We should turn on the fan.” He tried sleeping again, woke up and said he was sweating.
“I am happy here,” I said, hugging him. He held me tighter, caressed my hair as he used to when I was a child. “Why don’t you come home?” he said. “We are not poor, are we?”
“I can’t,” I repeated. I bit my finger so that a sob might not pass. I cried, in the dark. He had felt it. We cried.