They used to visit in summer . . . boiling, hot summers. My cousin, my brother, and I would raise hell. In our quieter moments we played Ludo. Meals were served on big dastarkhwans with our families sitting around it on the floor. For two weeks there will be respite from the monotonous, never-ending, mind-numbing summer homework. (We were asked to copy large portions of our textbooks, presumably to improve our handwriting and memory, though we were seldom, if ever, tested for memorizing what we had written down in our summer-homework.) The elders sometimes played carom but mostly cards was the game of choice: my aunt and uncle vs my mom and dad, or some combination of them for the four players card game rang (trump?). My parents disapproved of them, unless, of course, played with family, so I sat and watched the forbidden games being played openly, and learnt how to play from the very people who forbade them. Indian films, yes, lots of them. Since we didn’t have a VCR, it would either have to be rented or borrowed. It was a special treat.
I thought that both my Lahori uncles were hip. (Probably because they were from Lahore.) Most of all, I enjoyed the loud, laughter-ridden conversations between them and my mom and dad. It oddly made me feel closer to my dad. The first family vacation we took was with these two families. We went to Murree. That was my first time being in a hilly place and I loved it. The trees, the clouds, the chill in the air, the sounds, everything.
We would return their visits every year … Lahore. Dad would tell stories about how things used to be like when he lived in Lahore. We would go to parks and enjoy rides – cool electronic ones, like dodging cars (bumping cars) which I had only rarely enjoyed in my town, say, on Mela Chiraghaan. Oh and Ice cream! My phoopha used to get us Shahi Kulfa … yumz. He worked for a newspaper and so his work hours were odd. We would only see him on his day off or during the afternoon.
Then we moved to Lahore. Those family get togethers got spread out over Eids, weddings, etc. That weeks-long co-habitation was a thing of the past. But we would still have joyful moments and crack jokes. My phoopha would pick on me and ask if I had a girlfriend. He is fond of colognes, especially Quorum, and so I bring him one every time I visit Pakistan.
Today I got a text message saying he died and that I should call back. I drove to the nearest Indian grocery store to get me a phone card. Why do I have to hear about it in a text message? That angered me … instead of grief, I felt anger. But even that didn’t last long. It turned to panic. Was I lied to? Was this a fake bad news to soften the blow that was coming later? Half an hour later, I was on the phone and the first thing I asked when I got through was if my mom and dad are ok, not how my aunt was doing. It was the old and ever-present fear that had taken a hold of me. I felt relieved that they are alive. That’s what’s left of my relation with them. Only concerned about and connected to their being alive and healthy.
My uncles and aunts keep dying without me ever seeing them before they go or even attending their jinaza. But that’s the burden of being away, I guess, of being away from all of the relations and ties that have nourished you into a grown self.
What do I do after that phone call? I’ll probably go home and go about the rest of the day as if nothing happened …