Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Gentle Man

When I first came to the United States, I lived with some friends in the Great Lakes area. We don't have any family here and I needed somewhere to stay while I interviewed for residency. I was relatively new to the country, didn't have much money and had no idea what interviewing would be like. I just knew that I wanted to be a pediatrician and that I needed a residency. It was October and the trees were were still dressed in amber. I had never before been in that part of the country and was instantly enamored of all the beauty that I saw.

Baji's family and ours have known each other for a few generations. They moved to the same city after Partition and have stayed within a few minutes of each other for the past sixty years. When I was looking for a place to stay, Baji immediately offered to have me stay with her. I knew her only briefly, as a shadow figure from my childhood. She was much older than the rest of us children and usually kept to herself. She had an enviable stack of Archie comics that we were always trying to break into but, short of petty thievery, our interactions had been limited. Prior to coming over, I had asked her sister what she was like now, as a grown-up.

"She's the same" Sana said. "Make sure you make your bed every morning. Baji's obsessive about keeping the house clean."

It was a beautiful house. Set in its small plot of land with a rolling lawn and deer in the distance, it felt idyllic to be there. Baji and her husband, Kashif bhai, were friendly and caring and in all the time I spent there, and in spite of my curmudgeonly ways, they went out of their way to make me feel at home. The first night I was there, I got up at four in the morning. New to jetlag and curious to explore their massive fridge, I put on some socks and went to get something to eat. The kitchen lights were on. I thought it must be Baji getting a late night snack. I walked in and found an old man, sitting at the kitchen table, eating cereal and almonds. Sana had told me Kashif bhai's father lived with them for part of the year but I hadn't expected to find him so suddenly, at four in the morning! I introduced myself and asked him how he was.

"What did you say your name was?" he asked me.

I told him again.

"And who are you?"

I explained how Baji's family and mine had known each other for so long.

"Oh," he said, smiling. "You're Khursheed's grandson?"

"Yes," I replied, grateful for the recognition.

"Of course I know you," he said warmly. "Your grandfather is one of my friends. Here, sit down, have some almonds." He took some in his fist and passed them to me.

"How is your grandfather?" he asked.

I explained that he was fine, just getting older. His Alzheimer's was getting worse and he would have trouble remembering who we were.

"It happens to everyone, son," Uncle said. "We all pass through the same stages. Would you like some fruit? The apples are very good."

"No, thank you. I think I'll just get some water and try and go back to sleep."

"It's going to be Fajr in a little while," he said. "Pray and then go to sleep."

He was my grandfather's friend.


Yesterday, as I was browsing through Facebook, I found out that Uncle had passed away on Thursday. He had been diagnosed with colon cancer and it was terminal. He spent his last few months at home, with his son and daughter-in-law. I didn't know him very well but the news upset me. In all the time I spent in his home, he was very kind to me. Always infallibly courteous, he shared his experiences and gave me advice about life. I was too preoccupied at the time to try and remember it but now I wish I had written some of it down. People come and go but it's the kindnesses that remain. A gentle old man and a young fool, sharing almonds in the middle of the night. I don't think I want to forget that.

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