Nihal Bhai was part of my life from the time I was 9 … and he died at our house in 2001. I wanted to write a tribute to him, but this piece, written by my daughter, Ragni, when she was nearly 19, seemed so much better to remember that wonderful person.
by Ragni Marea Kidvai
I watched intently as they lowered his body into the freshly dug grave. Concentrating hard on his face, I wanted the impression of every line, every bump, to remain clear in my mind. I took a deep breath, and the strong smell of incense combined with ammonia tickled my nose, and at once I was made aware of the tears streaming down my face. He’d left our lives just as abruptly as he’d stepped in.
Thinking back about all the memories we had shared as a family, I tried not laugh out loud amidst the many solemn faces. As I replayed incidents and conversations in my head, I remembered the first time I met him. He had laughed at how I put extra emphasis on the ‘ch’ in the middle of ‘Chacha’. And even though I later found out the word was pronounced differently, I continued calling him that for the 15 years that would follow that first encounter. Even at the age of three I seemed to be acutely aware of how much this seemingly content man pined for affection, and I often took it upon myself to play with him, hug him, climb on chairs to give him kisses – just so that void would get filled. Chacha, meaning father’s brother in my native tongue, soon became part of the family, and only two weeks after our first meeting I convinced my parents to allow him to stay with us.
It all seems a little odd now, but at that time, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. My parents had known his family for a long time, and when his wife ran off with his car, money, and more importantly his record collection, it just seemed like the perfect opportunity to give him a place to stay. I found out about his wife and the various escapades that involved her only when I got much older, and would often ask my father to entertain us at the dining table with stories about how he followed her and her boyfriend around India with a camera – taking pictures of them at the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and Red Fort as evidence for the court case he would later initiate against her.
And then there were the dining table conversations. Not a day went by without there being drama at our house – all of which involved him. His sporadic acts of extreme affection, like decorating our house with gaudy streamers the night before my birthday, were balanced by his anger about the way we lived our lives. Every conversation led to heated debates about how my mother was too much of a feminist, how she did a terrible job of keeping the household accounts, or how she constantly threw away pieces of junk that had latent value. It was this last point that was of particular concern to him, and somehow most of the things my mother threw out, miraculously found their way back into his room. Cane chairs with colorful string to fix the weave; tables with new legs that looked nothing like the original ones; useless electrical appliances with fresh, new-fangled parts; and so on. I don’t think we realized just how much junk there was until we cleaned up his room after he died – something he would have never let us do ordinarily, and often caused huge conflicts with the various maids that kept coming and going.
A lot of the drama in our house revolved around the maids. It was almost as if he felt they were competition, or were out to get him. In the event that he actually got along with one of them, he stood by her tooth and nail – no matter how much she lied or stole from us. I remember one incident where I asked our sweeper to help me cut potatoes for lunch, and how he got extremely angry with me for letting a Christian woman near our food. “What kind of Muslim are you!” he yelled. “Haven’t your parents taught you anything about Islam?” I wasn’t about to let him get away with his baseless comments, and yelled back a clichéd response about how the Quran talks about the equality of all people. He responded flatly with, “but it doesn’t say anything about her specifically.”
To reason with his twisted logic was a waste of time, as we had all come to realize over the years, and I let it go like everything else we argued about. It was this arguing that led him to believe I had been brought up all wrong. And it was his frustration with my ‘oh-so-modern’ lifestyle that made me realize that he lived in another era altogether. His obsession with people’s family histories and names, his disenchantment with my lack of spirituality, his distaste for the way my father spent his money all made sense now, and I learned to love this man unconditionally.
Loving him was easy, simply because not a day went by in those 15 years without him showing his love for me. When I was younger he’d iron my school uniform for me, and when I got older, he continued to do so sneakily because my parents didn’t approve of my inability to carry out simple tasks on my own. During his travels he’d scrape together his remaining money and buy me ridiculous plastic trumpets and dolls even when I was too old for them – making them invaluable gifts. On my birthdays he’d pull out dollar bills from his little treasure chest, and inform me of their rarity and high value in Pakistan. And almost every time, without fail, he’d intervene when my parents got angry with me – drastically changing the direction of the conversation, or taking the blame so I wouldn’t get into trouble.
Changing the direction of a conversation was undeniably what he was best at. Chacha absolutely loved to talk – about almost anything. He claimed to know everyone in our city of 11 million, and was the first person to give us news about their respective love lives, personal tragedies as well as neighborhood crime – however, getting directly to the point was definitely not his forte. He would often walk into a room and randomly quote the day’s statistics. I recall coming back from a wedding one night, and him yelling “73” the second I walked in. “73, what?” I asked, wondering whether he meant Degrees? People? Runs… only to find, (after endless verbal prodding), that it was the number of cars stolen that week. And that was exactly how we found out about the happenings within Karachi and around the world. He would read 5 different newspapers, watch 3 different news stations, and then bombard us with useless information in the most round about manner possible. I would be lying if I said we didn’t enjoy this little game and his endless peculiarities.
His room, much like a curiosity shop, was filled with random treasures. If I needed a watch, he’d hand me a working Mickey Mouse watch I threw away years before. If my parents couldn’t find their marriage certificates, he’d pull out a copy he’d made just for this kind of emergency. No matter what the problem, he had a solution. His endless supplies of shoe polish, glue, plugs, rope, doorknobs, tacks, bandages, ointment, were probably what kept our house running. Funnily enough, even when my father’s office needed historical stamps or newspaper articles for their various projects, staff members would call him first – knowing they didn’t need to check with other sources because Chacha would have just what they needed.
Like his age, what Chacha did for a living was a question we always asked ourselves, but never dared to ask him. He left the house early in the morning, dressed in his perfectly ironed safari suit, purse in hand, and came back by teatime with a bag of rusks. Where he went, we never knew, but people would often tell us they saw him walking in some part of the old colonial city, or another. Despite his inadequate income he made sure he dropped by everyone’s house on special occasions with a box of sweets. He was every grandchild’s delight because unlike most adults he valued seemingly insignificant occasions like doll’s weddings. And although his immediate family abandoned him, he went out of his way to be there for all his nieces and nephews.
Where Chacha came from was just as much of a mystery as where he went everyday. I would often try to piece together bits of information from overheard conversations and old photographs. While I never managed to figure out much about his family background, I did find out a number of very intriguing details. For one, he went to one of the most prestigious colleges in India, (Aligarh University), a fact I found myself doubting every time I encountered his broken English or lack of knowledge about anything remotely academic.
More exciting than that however, was his short stint in our films as a lead hero named Premi. An enlarged black and white picture, worn away at the edges was my proof, and I never failed to tease him about it when the time was right.
In retrospect, I realize that photograph, around thirty years old, probably managed to capture Chacha in his prime. His tall well-built frame, seemingly sturdy legs, died jet-black hair and perfect white dentures had fooled me for so long. And since he never really complained about anything beyond intestinal trouble, to me he looked exactly as he had when he first stepped through our front door.
When I think back about him, I see a man with more integrity than any other. Chacha’s honesty, and caring nature made him a favorite of friends and family alike. And even though he had an abundance of friends in high places, he never took advantage of them or gave up his appreciation for the little things in life. I remember the time he ran up a hill, after a couple of thieves, and came back extremely proud of his accomplishment. He was able to retrieve everything the thieves had stolen from us – a watering can, a bottle of strawberry jam and a can of paint – the value of which only he understood. Also when one of the richest and most powerful feudal landlords in Pakistan, a childhood friend of his, offered him land, a home and a monthly pension, Chacha refused to take anything. He seemed to be totally content with all he had.
Chacha died at 6:00 A.M, on the 11th of July. Sadly, his big and pure heart – tired of giving – was the part of his body that failed him first. As I sat there, at that funeral, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that someone so instrumental in making me who I am today would leave me like he did. I remember being angry at how his family, one that had never visited him in the 15 years he’d lived with us, suddenly felt the need to intervene, to have the funeral at their house, to bury him in their family graveyard. I was jealous of all those little nieces and nephews who had his ancestral blood to prove they were related, while the memories we had shared suddenly didn’t matter to anyone but myself. But most of all, as they continued to lower him into that raw grave, I was numb, overwhelmed with emotion.
Maybe it was the rain that washed away my anger. Maybe it was the snow-like shroud he was wrapped in. Or maybe it was just the knowledge that he was smiling as he lay there…
Labels: People, Personal