‘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.


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