Third Prize Winner
Katha Fiction Contest
Mrs. Rahman’s main con-cern was food. How many dishes to make? When to serve them? The chicken pulao, the lamb curry, the tikka chicken, the fish filets dipped in batter and fried in sizzling ghee, of course. She also wanted to cook several vegetable dishes that had to be served soon after they were ready, not to mention the appetizers—the pakoras and shami kebabs—which turned a meal into a feast. Granted, she had a big kitchen in a large, suburban home. But problems persisted: how to bake the bread, for instance. Then, Jamal (oh, he was bright all right, her son: Mr. Computer) located an Indian restaurant nearby, run by a Sikh family. They made excellent tandoori breads, fluffy naans and kulchas.
Still, she fretted.
“Will they be ready on time?”
“For sure, Mummy,” Jamal said.
“They must be hot—I mean really hot. You know how your father hates eating naans that have cooled off.”
“Of course, of course,” he assured her.
Not quite convinced that he understood the importance of such matters, she changed the subject.
“Now tell me, how many people? I need to plan. I need to know how many people I should cook for.”
“Tarik and Sameena and little Nasir are definitely coming on Friday. I got an e-mail from Tarik yesterday. Their plane arrives at 6:30. I’ll pick them up at the airport after I leave my office.”
“Inshallah! All the way from Cleveland,” Mrs. Rahman said. “Thank god, your brother got a few days off. I really want to see my little grandson. He’s almost 7 now.”
“I’ve also invited a few people from the office. Some of the people who work in my group.”
“Just a couple of guys. They’re programmers. I told them they could bring their girlfriends or ‘significant others.’”
“I hate that term,” Mrs. Rahman sighed. “What can it mean?”
“It’s just a catch-all phrase, Mummy,” Jamal said. “It just means bring anyone you like.”
“Then why not say, ‘anyone you like.’ Why do Americans have to torture and twist the Queen’s English?”
“It’s not just the ‘Queen’s English’ anymore, Amma-ji. It belongs to anyone who makes an effort to learn it.”
“Who else? Who else have you invited? Is Bobby coming? Have you invited him?”
“You already know the answer to that question,” Jamal said, turning his face away.
“Hai Allah,” Mrs. Rahman moaned. “I wish you hadn’t. You know how your father hates him.”
“Mother, you know Bobby is my closest friend …”
Of course. She knew. She knew much more than she wanted to know. And she suspected even more than she dared suspect. A nice enough fellow, this Bobby. But such a bad influence. Never did finish college. Never found a job he liked. Had no career, no profession, no visible means of support. Except the money his mother sent him off and on. Mostly, he borrowed from Jamal. Such a disappointment! But he wasn’t dull or stupid. Rather intelligent, really. Seemed to know a lot. But hopelessly impractical. Always drifting, drifting from one crazy scheme to another.
Bobby admired everything Indian: the food, the music, the philosophies, and religions. But he never studied any subject like a real scholar. He merely dabbled. A little of this. A little of that. A little yoga. A few sitar lessons. Dropped that to take up the tabla. Dropped that to take up Hindi. Always hoping for quick results, instant answers to life’s problems. He seemed to want instant nirvana. It never occurred to him that it took years of hard work to learn a language or master a musical instrument.
Bobby hung around Jamal’s neck like a big weight. They were close friends, yes, but too close. Jamal would never get married as long as he kept wasting his time with Bobby. But when she pondered the matter, when she thought about his childhood, even then, she had known that Jamal was different, not at all like his older brother. Always self-absorbed, introspective, he seemed to be listening to some inner voice. Tarik became a doctor. Jamal got into computers, preferring contact with machines to human beings, it seemed.
But his father never noticed anything out of the ordinary about him. Perhaps he did notice something, but refused to acknowledge what he suspected. No father wants to admit that his son is “different.” Nor any mother, for that matter. Of course, ultimately, it was all in Allah’s hands. Human beings could only try to behave rightly, try to obey His commandments.
Right from the start, Jamal had never caused her pain. Even his birth had been painless. Tarik made her suffer. Twenty hours in labor. Not Jamal. He just slipped into the world, hardly making a sound. And he grew up into an obedient, loving son. Mild-tempered. Quick to laugh. But also serious and studious. No mother could ask for a better son. Until … until … he came to America. Until he found Bobby or Bobby found him and …
Now, here in this most pleasant of valleys, badly named “Silicon Valley” where gentle summer weather prevailed almost year round, something awful—an explosion—was coming. It would damage them all. The battle lines were drawn. On one side, Jamal, on the other, his dad. Both stubborn as donkeys. She knew her husband would never accept his son’s “relationship” with Bobby. And in the middle on an extremely narrow strip of No-Man’s Land, she had dug for herself a defensive trench and raised a white flag, trying to be the peacemaker, trying to establish a détente or, at the least, a “cessation of hostilities” between the two belligerents.
On Friday morning, soon af-ter Jamal left for work, Mrs. Rahman made up her mind to talk to her husband. Facts were facts. There was no use in pretending that all was well. For three decades, they had been together. She understood all his moods. She knew when and why he would lose his temper. She knew when he would start to shout. He was really quite predictable: the sum total of a lifetime of set attitudes, established customs and firm habits of thinking and behaving. A respectable and respected civil servant. He could no more change himself than a tiger could change his stripes. And being in unfamiliar surroundings made him even more inflexible and intolerant. Her pulse fluttered at her throat and her voice trembled when she spoke.
“Now, don’t lose your temper,” she said soothingly.
“Who’s yelling?” Mr. Rahman said. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, Jamal has invited Bobby …”
“What!” Mr. Rahman’s voice took off uncontrollably towards higher keys as though he had received an electric shock.
“Don’t shout, Allah kay vastay. I don’t want you making a big scene on Saturday night in front of all the guests. Tarik and Sameena and all the others. You know how Sameena is. All the gossip gets phoned back to Delhi. And when we return, we’ll have to face her parents.”
“I won’t have it!” Mr. Rahman said in a tight, hoarse whisper. “I’ll throw that haramzada out with my own hands.”
“No, you won’t. Now, listen to me!”
“I won’t tolerate this. I told Jamal, if Bobby steps into this house, I am leaving. I’m taking the first flight out of here. That’s it.”
“Now wait a minute. He has the right to invite anyone he wants. It’s his house, remember? He’s a grown boy, a man …”
“Man? Bah! What’s the matter with him? What has America done to him? I just don’t believe it. This society, I tell you, it’s sick. Corrupt! It’s corrupted him. He’s not the son we raised. Why doesn’t he just get married the way his brother did and have a proper family? And now this … this … Bobby! It’s disgusting, I tell you. I won’t have people back home—all my friends and relatives—talking, talking, talking, mocking us, making jokes about him … about us.”
“Calm down, Rahman-ji. You know perfectly well that members of your family and mine, all of them have skeletons lurking about in dark corners of their houses. They’re not all pure and holy. You know that.”
“That’s not the point,” Mr. Rahman said, smashing a balled fist into his left hand.
She could see his blood pressure going up. His face turned purple and a vein stood out on in the middle of his forehead. He paced up and down in the narrow space between the bed and the closet.
“Will you sit down and think rationally for a moment?” she said.
“I won’t. Don’t tell me to be rational. I am rational. You tell him, if Bobby comes, I am leaving. I will not condone this sort of behavior, or as they call it here, ‘lifestyle,’ or accept it or tolerate it or give it my blessings. And I don’t want to hear any psychological mumbo-jumbo either. What is wrong is wrong and that’s all there is to it.”
Never, during all those years that she was raising the boys, did she think that she’d have to face something like this. Okay, in the real world mothers face all sorts of surprises. Sons grow up to be thieves and murderers. Wife-beaters. Wife-cheaters. But she always thought her sons, the Rahman boys, would be 100 percent normal, strong, healthy fellows. They would become accountants and lawyers and doctors and get married and make babies. That was life. She always tried to teach them good from bad. As a schoolteacher, she possessed a keen awareness of the value of education. So she taught them to love learning. Study hard, she said over and over again. We aren’t rich. There won’t be any farms and houses for you to inherit. Your father is a civil servant and civil servants don’t make money unless they are corrupt.
Rahman Sahib, naturally, supported her efforts. But somewhere along the marital road, at the intersection of “Motherhood” and “Dedication-to-the-Job,” Rah-man Sahib disappeared. She lost him—not physically, of course—but mentally, emotionally. He vanished into a closed sphere of “responsibilities” and “duties.” She raised the boys all by herself.
What’s a mother to do when sons don’t turn out exactly as hoped for? What could she have done?
She’d grown up in such a different world. So conservative, so simple. When she was a girl, there was always talk of some strange relationships. Dirty jokes about boys and men. But that was all. Just jokes. No one took those things seriously or turned them into “political” causes. Then there was Azra, the younger sister of her best friend, Amina. A very pretty girl. She became a schoolteacher in a girl’s school. Azra lived inside this sheltered, hidden world, protected from the outside world by high walls. To get in, you had to pass through a tall metal gate made of sheets of corrugated steel and guarded by a Pathan chowkidar with a fierce mustache. But within this safe zone, she formed a relationship with a mannish woman called Nina. Once in a while the two would emerge to attend some family event—a birthday party or a wedding—always together, inseparable. Neither one ever married. Years went by. Everyone talked about them, especially about “Mr. Nina,” or “Nina Sahib.” A joke, you see. But they weren’t rejected. They were always included in all family celebrations and festivities.
No one knew of such matters as “gender-conflict.” She’d never even heard of such terms until she got to the States and turned on the television. And there it all was. The world of sexuality—confused and confusing, filled with joy and torment. People crying, screaming, shouting. Look at me! I’m different. I am not what you want me to be. Don’t try to fit me into some pre-fabricated moral box. Men who did not want women. Women who didn’t care for men. And the ones in the middle, the ones who enjoyed being with both sexes as easily as people go from eating vegetables to eating fruit.
Life was simpler back home, back in the oh-so-polite world of upper middle-class Indian society. No one mentioned unmentionable matters. People didn’t talk about intimate aspects of life openly, certainly not on television. Even wives and husbands didn’t discuss their sexual needs or preferences. You did not parade your private life in public. Of course, she had heard that things were different in the West. You traded stories in hushed whispers at tea parties or during post-dinner Canasta games, after alcohol had made the husbands a little tipsy—stories about the wild promiscuity, the drinking, the drugs, the decadence. Nevertheless, it was one thing to hear stories or see Hollywood movies but quite another to face reality first-hand.
On Saturday, she could al-most feel the tension in the house. Rahman Sahib sulked most of the day and didn’t say a word to Jamal. Tarik spoke to her in sign language, standing behind his father’s back. Miming, making faces, shrugging his shoulders. Keep me out of this, he appeared to say. He was a medical man, a man of science; he should have had some advice. But he had nothing to say. I’m a mechanic, he told her once. I can fix a person’s body if something is broken. But I know nothing of what goes on in anyone’s mind. His final judgment on his brother: there’s nothing wrong with him physically. He’s healthy as mule.
Sameena kept to the bedroom, obviously unwilling to be dragged into the Rahman family’s war.
The television blasted away in the living room as little Nasir flicked through the channels. No one stopped him. No one had any interest in watching anything anyway. Everyone stared blankly at the screen as it went from mayhem in the Middle East to romances and talk shows and sports and cartoons and tips on gardening and cooking and crime thrillers and science fiction—all in seconds. Nothing made sense.
After a joyless lunch of re-heated lentil curry and lukewarm rice during which nobody spoke, Rahman Sahib went up to his bedroom. She followed him quickly, leaving the dishes in Sameena’s care. He had taken out his suitcase and was starting to pack.
“What are you doing?”
“Leaving,” he said.
“Don’t be silly,” she told him. “Where will you go?”
“A hotel, I suppose. Then I’m catching the next flight back to India.”
“This is absurd. You’re acting like a child.”
“Am I? Am I the one who is acting like a child or your spoiled son? I don’t even want to set eyes on him.”
He grabbed his bag, his travel documents, and strode out of the bedroom, down the stairs and out the front door.
She sat down on the bed suddenly, head in both hands, overwhelmed, defeated, thinking, thinking of the men in her life. Father, husband, sons. They looked tough and strong on the outside. But they were really very fragile. Such vulnerable egos. So unsure of their male identities.
Then she heard footsteps on the stairs. The door opened. It was Jamal.
“What happened?” he said.
“He doesn’t want to stay here. He wants to go back to India as soon as he can.”
“But that’s ridiculous.”
“I know. I tried to calm him down. But he wouldn’t listen.”
“It’s Bobby … isn’t it?” Jamal intoned gloomily.
She nodded, staring at her feet.
“This is so stupid,” Jamal said. “Why is he making such a big deal out of this?”
“He wants you to get married. Have a wife, children.”
“But I don’t want a wife and children. Aren’t there enough children in the world already? Do we really need more?”
“You can’t change him, son. He’s too set in his ways.”
“But where will he go?”
“I don’t know. Go after him, Jamal. Talk to him. Make him come back.”
“Go, Jamal,” Tarik said. He had followed Jamal and stood behind his brother. “He didn’t say a word to me,” Tarik added. “He just stomped out. He can’t walk far with that suitcase. He probably thinks he’ll catch a bus or taxi.”
“There is no bus service to this area,” Jamal said, turning wearily to go down the stairs. “And the only way to get a cab is to call for it.”
She followed Jamal to the front door and stood there.
“Go,” she said. “Hurry.”
She could see her husband’s figure, a block away in the strong afternoon light. Rahman Sahib was trudging onward, his unwieldy suitcase in his right hand. Jamal started after him, half running, half walking.
Mrs. Rahman stood there, filled with a horrible anxiety, tears dimming her eyes, wondering what her son would say to his father, or if there were any words at all that could explain that which could not be explained.
Born in Pakistan, Javaid Qazi has lived and worked in San Jose, CA for over 20 years. He teaches English at San Jose City College and San Jose State University.