When the bicycle
bell rings twice at the door
I get up in a rush
forgetting that your cycle
is there in a storeroom
and it couldn’t possibly be you, my son.
The truth strikes me
even before, my head spinning,
I turn the handle of the door.
The summer sun is blinding.
I pray it is the postman who rang
his bell twice. Sometimes, it is.
Your letters come each week.
I am sorry I don’t write often.
And when I do
I can only speak
of waiting and loneliness.
These choices, somehow, were never mine.
I wrote the above poem and published it under the title ‘A Mother Writes In Her Letter’. I was a student at that time in Minnesota. This poem, on the page I had typed and mailed it, is under a sheet of glass on my mother’s desk in Patna. A few years ago, a publisher included it in an anthology for college students; students were asked to respond to the questions that followed the poem:
Memories are sustained through objects/sounds as well. In this poem what is it that reminds the mother of her son? The poem is also a commentary on the plight of women and their loneliness. Explain with reference to the general status of women in our society.
Ah, the deadening language of academia! The language of understanding instead of the confusion of loss! No, I’m not only talking about the questions asked of the students. I’m critical of my poem’s closing line. It comes from an academic understanding of the world: feelings exist so that they can be discussed in terms of their causes and consequences. Personal observations commonly find expression only as political grievances. Every poem must also work as an editorial. My poem sets itself up for responses that ask unsuspecting students to ‘explain with reference to the general status of women in our society’. I will offer no such closing to this book.
I went to the Khuda Bakhsh Library to meet its director, the historian Imtiaz Ahmad. I wanted to talk about that period in Patna’s history when it was called Azimabad. I had met Imtiaz before. He sent for tea and asked someone to make copies of a couple of articles.
I wanted to buy a book and a request was duly made. Imtiaz talked about many things, like the threats that students made these days when caught cheating. He had a theory about the stages of corruption—Patna was now at the third and final stage. There were opinions he had to offer on a string of historians. There was much that was explained but what I remember of our meeting was Imtiaz’s fortuitous answer to a question that had nagged me ever since I entered his office. There was a photograph on top of a safe to Imtiaz’s right. The young woman in the picture was seated in a studio, she was wearing a shalwaar-kameez. There was something—there is no way to say this delicately— odd about her. Not about her expression, but maybe about her posture or the shape of her head. I’m not on firm ground here, and am likely to sound stupid or prejudiced, or both. In any case, I wondered about her. Who was she? But how could I ask? When I was about to leave, I thanked Imtiaz for his kindness. He is a man of such unfailing courtesy that I began to pay him an extravagant compliment. Imtiaz smiled and stopped me. He said that his older daughter, and he gestured now at the photograph I had been looking at earlier, passed away in 1992. She was disabled. One day the family had gone for a drive, to buy Mughlai parathas from the stalls near Maurya Lok. When they were coming back, Imtiaz’s younger daughter, who might have been three or four years old at that time, said she wanted to visit the small expo near Gandhi Maidan. Imtiaz told the little girl that they hadn’t brought her elder sister’s wheelchair that day; he didn’t think the visit would be possible. But the child was insistent. The older one now said, ‘It is okay, Abba. You all go. I will stay in the car with the driver.’
But Imtiaz didn’t want to do it this way. He said that if they were to go, everyone would go. The older girl wasn’t a small child anymore, maybe ten or twelve at that time, but Imtiaz carried her in his arms. It was difficult. Imtiaz said that there were many steep steps, and he had long had a heart problem.
When he said this, I thought of my own children, and how much I loved them. I might have also thought that I too would have done the same; I don’t remember all that I dwelled on in that quick moment. Imtiaz now came to the point of his story, which my compliment had reminded him about.
He said that what he remembers of his daughter that day is her saying into his ear in English, ‘You are the best Papa in the whole world.’
How beautiful, I thought. And realized that the story wasn’t about the love that parents had for all their children, but instead, what children offered their parents in return. I was moved by this and, seeing the tears in my eyes, Imtiaz stopped. Apologizing, he said with characteristic concern, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you.’
‘I was touched,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry for the loss of your child.’
I’m telling you this because Patna for me will always be about parents and children.
Patna is where I grew up. Don’t people see a city in terms of their own lives—a woman recalling the movie theatre where she had her first date; the same woman remembering the name of the hospital in the city where her husband died? This thought has taken root in me because I see in Patna’s decline, in its pretensions to development, in its plain dullness, the stark story of middle age and death. It’s all hopeless, really—that is what Patna and I are saying to each other.
There is of course a sense I have of Patna that has to do with my youth. With the discovery of sex. It is a bit weird to return to that feeling. Like being at a school reunion, talking about one’s teenage crushes or the first awkward encounter with a girl who had been a prized object of collective lust. The real weirdness of my return to Patna is more like an unease: one eye is forever fixed on the past while the other is turned towards the future. I can recall during a single evening the youthful glories of sex, the distant terror of that yearning, and then be faced with, because I’m in my middle age and my parents are in the last years of their lives, the question of mortality.
To return to Patna is to find the challenging thought of death, like the tip of a knife, pressing against my rib. In a clip from a BBC documentary available on YouTube, British historian and traveller Michael Wood steps off a boat on the banks of the Ganga in Patna. In 300 BCE, when the Greeks sent their ambassador Megasthenes to India, he called what is present-day Patna the greatest city in the world. All along the banks of the river, a stretch of nine or ten miles, there were palaces and pleasure gardens. At the time Megasthenes was visiting, Patna was a new imperial city. The sunlight falling on his face, Wood gushes about modern-day Patna in the documentary. He speaks of the tangled roots of history, all still alive today. He declares that to walk through Patna is like making one’s way through the Indian version of ancient Rome.21
I felt pride when I heard that, but I have to admit that my view of history is not so grand. In fact, it is rather narrow and is measured in days. At most, months, and seldom years. There is no way to avoid it: when I step on Patna’s soil, I only want to see how much older my parents look. Rheumatoid arthritis has seized my mother’s limbs and she finds it impossible even to comb her hair. My father’s memory is as sharp as it has always been, certainly better than mine, but the contours of his body have begun to sag. He goes for a walk each morning, but I noticed last time that he was limping. I arrive in Patna and a few days later I leave. Each time I leave, I wonder about the circumstances under which I will need to return.