Houses

I

I am sitting at the table with the adults. My brother has been put to sleep but he is one and I am almost four so I get to stay up late. But then again, I have always been a bit of a night-owl. My mother sometimes tells me how, even as a little baby, I would often stay up late, occasionally until everyone else in the house had gone to bed.

I do not quite remember which house this memory is from. It doesn’t really feel like it belongs to the two-storey house we had in Southampton which initially came with the glaring red wallpaper with huge, spiky black, palm tree silhouettes along a wall in the drawing room that had scared me so much that I refused to enter the house until something was done about it. We spent our first day in that house dressed in old clothes, painting over the horrid wall with big buckets of white paint and rollers. Even I had helped with that.

No, this memory certainly does not belong in that house.

It is probably from the house we had on Nether Street, which was the last house we lived in before leaving England, and the largest, and the most inhabited. I hardly ever remember there being a time where there were just the four of us in that house; there were always guests and relatives and family friends visiting us and staying over.

Wherever I am, the adults are deep in conversation. I have always been an inquisitive child but I have not yet learnt when it is and isn’t appropriate to interrupt a conversation to ask what it is about. Something about the expressions on the faces of my parents and grandparents, however, keeps me from bothering them with my usual volley of questions.

“It feels like there is a cherry pit right here,” I hear my grandmother say. She places a hand on her side.

My father leaves his chair and kneels beside his mother. Then, with his doctor’s hands, the way he does when someone tells him they’re hurting somewhere, he probes her side.

“I feel it,” he says.

There is a collective intake of breath from the adults.

Soon, my grandfather will go back to Karachi but my grandmother will live with us for a while. My parents will tell me that she is sick but she will walk all the way to my preschool sometimes to pick me up because my parents are at work. She will be sick but she will push my stroller down the streets. Sometimes we will stop underneath the tree that little, round, red things grow from and she will reach up and pick some for me and I’ll toss them on the road one by one, just in time to be squished by a passing car.

II

It is hot and sticky and there are mosquitoes everywhere. They’re huge but smaller than the ones we had the misfortune of being bitten by in Istanbul, where we spent a week exploring en route to here – to Karachi. Those mosquitoes gave me bites that had swollen so much I could circle my thumb and forefinger around them.

My parents, my brother and I are all living in what had once been my father’s old room in my grandparents’ house. The room isn’t very big but we’re managing. My parents sleep on the double bed with the polished, white headboard. My brother sleeps in his cot which is positioned strategically right next to the side of the big bed on which my mother sleeps. I have my own bed because I am almost five. It’s one of the folding beds we found in the storage room with a foam mattress placed on top of it to make it more comfortable.

I like this arrangement. I like this house; it is the house I have spent my summers in, playing with the cousins who have not yet decided they are too old to play. Although I know recall my childhood in England fondly, I have been told I was never as happy there as I was surrounded by family in my grandparents’ house.

The room next to my father’s old room is the room that belongs to my grandparents. It is almost square but with a separate dressing area attached to the side, just before the bathroom. My grandmother’s large dressing table sits here. Sometimes I sneak into the room and open the caps of the many bottles of perfume that line dressing table and smell the fragrances. A white, plastic head also sits on this table, wearing my grandmother’s hair. When my grandmother’s shiny, black, ankle-length hair started falling out, she had it spun into a wig with an elaborate bun. The white head usually wears the hair but for special occasions and fancy parties, the hair goes back to my grandmother.

My mother tells me that we will not be living in my grandparents’ house forever. It is gradually becoming less fun to have the four of us living in one room, especially because my brother is still a baby and still cries at night.

My grandfather once bought two plots of land next to his house and had an identical house built in each, one for each of his two daughters. Since, at this point, neither of my aunts is living in Karachi, we will move into one of the two houses as soon the finishing touches have been made.

The marble floor of our new house will be so shiny, so smooth, and so new that I will be able to propel myself forwards by pushing myself with one foot and balancing myself on the other, gliding across the room like a jerky skater.  Everything will smell like polish and varnish.

We will move into the house closer to my grandparents’ house in early 1998, almost six months after leaving England.

III

It is September ’98 and we have been living in this house for almost six months now. The bedrooms have been carpeted and my brother and I have our own beds now with Disney characters painted on them. All my toys that had been travelling to Karachi from England along with a lot of our other things on a huge ship finally arrived some time after we had moved. The house was littered with cartons and cardboard boxes for a while.

It is September and I come home from school one day to find that my mother’s brother is visiting from Abu Dhabi. Among the gifts he brings for me is a green and red compass with a sharp metal nib. He is showing me how to properly use it to make sure it doesn’t slip off the paper while drawing circles when my mother walks into the room and says that we have to quickly go over to my grandparents’ house next door.

There are a lot of people in my grandparents’ room, sitting around the large bed my grandmother is lying on. She is asleep. My mother tells me that my grandmother has passed away. She tells me this is a good thing because my grandmother was in a lot of pain and now she isn’t in any pain anymore. I can only vaguely understand but I clearly remember how my  my brother and I had had to press cold, wet cloths to my grandmother’s forehead and arms and legs only a few nights before.

My elder aunt, who is living in Islamabad at that time, arrives with my cousins within hours. My younger aunt calls from Dubai and informs my father that she cannot get a flight for that day but will be flying to Karachi first thing next day and can the burial wait until she gets there?

All the furniture is taken out of the third bedroom of my grandparents’ house with the pink decorations and ceiling fan that barely does anything. Huge slabs of ice arrive from somewhere and are stacked all around the room and the air conditioner is turned on. My family places my grandmother on a bed amid the blocks of ice. The doors and windows of the room are sealed shut. Someone tells me this is the only way my aunt will get to see her mother one last time before the burial.

My aunt arrives in a flurry of sobs and tears. People, who seem to be everywhere, gather around her but she makes her way to the cold room and shuts herself in for a while. When she is done, the cold room is opened up. Someone helps wrap my grandmother in a shroud of pure, white cloth. Then she is carried away by the men, who will be going to the graveyard. My mother says I’m too young to go. I cling to one of my older cousins who is crying softly as the last of the men take my grandmother away.

A few days later my elder aunt returns to Islamabad. Not very long afterwards, she will return with her family and move into the other house next door. My younger aunt returns to Dubai and, aside from visiting every now and then, will not move back for another nine years. We continue to live in the house meant for her until 2005.

IV

It is 2004 and we are standing on what used to be the roof of my grandparents’ house and what will soon become the floor for the second storey we are having built. Right now it is a skeleton of brick and stone and metal and concrete.

“And here, in these windows, we’ll have stained glass. And over there we should get terracotta tiles for the patio,” says my father, pointing in the appropriate directions.

My grandfather is aging. He is still the most active old man I have ever seen, always hurrying about doing chores and refusing to let anyone do anything for him. Although we live right next door, he has been alone ever since my grandmother passed away. Right next door is still too far away to come rushing if he has a fall again – he has fallen a couple of times already – so we are moving into his house. Plus, my younger aunt has been hinting at wanting to renovate the house we spent a decade in and maybe move back to Karachi.

Like all men, my grandfather is not particularly keen about big, sudden changes. It is for this reason that my parents have decided that a separate semi-independent level must be added to my grandparents’ house so that my grandfather can still have the space he has now become used to.

It will take a few more months for the new storey to be ready. The move will be a slow, relaxed one. We will only move the large, essential furniture initially and then spend almost two weeks walking back to my aunt’s house and returning with clothes hangers and glass ornaments. I will get my very own room and the opportunity to pick out floor tiles for my very own bathroom. My bed with the Disney characters painted on it will finally get a new paint-job although I will be able to see the faint outline of Aladdin’s Carpet showing through the silvery-grey. I will have my have my thirteenth birthday in this house, and my eighteenth. When I finally get a close-knit group of friends I’d like to have over for more than just birthday parties and group projects, my house will become a place where we hang out frequently. My grandfather had always intended to leave this house to my father. One day he will decide that the transfer will probably be easier while he is alive and so he will make some arrangements and the house will suddenly become my father’s. It is in the study of this house that I will spend hours looking at the websites of various colleges all over the world, and even more hours typing out flowery essays for them. It is this house that I will leave when I leave the country and, when I return one winter, I will forget to come downstairs for dinner one day and my mother – who is very particular about everyone being present at the table for meals – will softly warn me, “You need to be careful about these things. You don’t live here anymore.”

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