A short story: Alas, it wasn’t meant to be

I snapped this photo of that house on a trip to Karachi in 2010.

Politics is a dirty game. Family politics is even dirtier. I know because in 1998, when I was fourteen years old, my family was officially evicted from what was our ancestral home in Karachi, Pakistan.

Blame the system, blame religious law, blame the scummy people who were behind it all, the point is that it was my home and it was taken away from me. Under Islamic law, it is assumed that parents usually divide property primarily among male heirs, while also giving some to female heirs. But in particular, it is the eldest son who holds more sway than the rest.

The mistake which my grandparents made was that they never divided the property while they were still alive, and didn’t leave a clearcut will, either.

The address of that house rings clear as crystal in my mind even today: B-158, Block A, North Nazimabad, Karachi, Pakistan, the world, the universe, etc, etc. I used to write that over and over, in my school books, when I was a kid. So, yes, it was my home, whatever the context. I grew up there, and formed relationships and experiences in that neighbourhood, which I remember until now.

Over the years, my father has narrated innumerable stories about how that house came into formation. The tale begins soon after the partition of India in 1947, when the subcontinent was divided into two, strangely-bordered countries. But that’s a story for another day.

My father’s mother, my daadi, who was an admirably stoic and calm-oriented woman from my father’s accounts, convinced her family to migrate to (West) Pakistan, because as she saw things, it would be a new country, with new beginnings, and opportunities. That optimism, which she displayed at moments of hardship, that’s the same spirit that guided my father throughout his life.

So, they left for the port city of Karachi from Bombay, a few years after India’s very bloody formation. My father was young enough to recall how he would run up and down the ship with his sisters, and other children. He once recounted to me, “It was a huge ship. And it would sail very slowly.”

My father had four siblings, three older — two brothers and a sister — and one younger sister. Upon settling in Karachi, my grandparents bought a large property. The land was mostly bare, having the semblance of a house. My father recalls it not being fully completed, but times were tough, and they all lived together, trying to make the best of the circumstances.

After my father completed his schooling, and enrolled at College, he got a job at Pakistan Airlines. It was a decent job at first, one where he would rise slowly among the ranks, and would even end up at high posts.

He was intelligent, and worked hard, never cheated the system, even if the system cheated and treated him unfairly. He was able to support his family from a very young age. He got the house built more, turning it into separate sections, where more than one family could live. He would also end up financially supporting the entire family, sending money back home, wherever he happened to be working in the world.

We would eventually call one of those sections our home. The house was reminiscent of a joint family system, something which is common in South Asia. As luck would have it, my father’s older brother’s family lived next door to us. The rest of his siblings had gotten married, and moved elsewhere.

Things had started to turn sour between my father and his older brother’s family, especially with his wife, who started showing her colours, before my parents were even married. I won’t list all the grievances, but I’ll certainly highlight a few.

Let’s call the brother’s wife Cersei for the purposes of his tale. If you’re familiar with Game of Thrones, then this name should hopefully help paint a more vivid picture of who this person was capable of being: evil, conniving, manipulative, etc, etc. You get the picture.

Growing up, I was aware of simmering tensions between our family and Cersei’s. But it was purposely kept hush-hush, or at a minimum, carefully constructed so by my father and mother. Neither family talked to one another, definitely not the adults. As a child, I was sheltered from skirmishes as much as possible.

But it wasn’t always so simple. The epitome of sheer malice, which Cersei exuded when I was eight or nine, came in the form of water, or lack thereof. Cersei decided to shut off clean drinking water for us. We would come to rely on the kindness of neighbours and family to accommodate us and our dozens of Jerry Cans and other water bottles. In a country where there are power and water shortages on the regular, water was especially treated like a commodity at our home.

I recall that the home had an enormously tall coconut tree, which my dad had planted a long time ago. I remember, from time to time, some servant would get sent up to break off as many coconuts as possible. There were times when those coconuts weren’t shared with us. How life twists and warps itself so strangely: we couldn’t reap the fruits of the very tree which my father planted.

It became clear that we were unwelcome, unwanted. In the early nineties, if memory serves me right it was in 1993, a formal court case was lodged against my father. It alleged that we were encroaching on private property, and must vacate. The property was transferred to Cersei’s name, after my grand parents, and Cersei’s husband’s deaths.

Cersei held a good two-faced facade. On one hand, I had personally witnessed her turn into a monster, she even, according my to mother, practiced black magic. But that same persona could be meek and most humble and demure, shyly covering her head when grownups in the family called ‘meetings,’ the purpose of which was to work out a solution between my father and Cersei. I remember when the adults would talk amongst themselves, I would be outside playing in my frock and knickers.

My father always maintained that if Cersei, who was so pure, and so sure that my father had contributed nothing to the house and to her family’s livelihood, then she should take a Koranic oath. All he wanted was a small share in the house, nothing more, nothing less. My father wasn’t a greedy man. And, there would be nothing to fear. If she was telling the truth, Allah would be on her side. But it wasn’t so simple. The oath was never taken. The case proceeded, the meetings unfruitful.

Luckily, we had a connection to Canada, thanks to my father, who had Canadian immigration since 1971. In fact, he even brought Cersei and his brother’s family to Canada once. They rejected it, and never settled there.

My family had been visiting Canada since 1989, when I was five-years-old. Since ’89 to ’96, we would travel to Canada countless times. I would sometimes study half a year in Toronto, then go back to Karachi and complete the rest of the school year there.

My dad wanted us to settle in Toronto, but it was difficult to coordinate since he wouldn’t live with us because of his work, and was reluctant to leave his job, as he would have to start from scratch in Canada. So, it was eventually decided that in 1996, my mother would accompany me and my older sister to Toronto and we would live there instead.

I think my father finally realized what my mom already knew, that there was no point living in that house in Karachi, not with so many personal problems, as well as so much political strife in the city. No one was safe. If the Prime Minister’s own brother could be gunned down, with police standing nearby, in broad daylight, it was futile living in that city by the sea.

So, we left the house and moved to Toronto. Its contents distributed amongst family and strangers alike, strewn left, right and centre. The beautiful hand-carved wooden furniture which my dad got custom-made still flashes in my mind. Whenever I look at my childhood photos, I re-live those memories once more. What can I do, I’m sentimental like that.

You might be wondering, whatever happened to Cersei. Well, Cersei is now dead. She died many years ago, and when she died, I was the one who received a phone call from a common family friend about her death. Me, being who I am, never fully able to control my emotions, burst out and told that family friend how dare she call our home, and I could care less about Cersei’s death. I was angry, very angry.

Before Cersei died, she made sure she got what she had always wanted — that house to herself and solely herself, and obviously her children inherited it since her passing.

We were visiting Pakistan one summer in 1998, and the case had reached its verdict. It was, not surprisingly, ruled against my father, simply because the papers weren’t in his name. I initially wasn’t supposed to find out. Who knows how long it would’ve been kept secret. In fact, it was my mother who broke the news to me. When my father heard about it, he asked my mother concernedly, “You told her?”

I was hurt, obviously. I’m still hurt. But in the bigger scheme of things, I feel for my dear, most gentle father. It was he who made the sacrifices, who dedicated so much to family, only to inherit one China bowl, which once belonged to his mother. My mother recently revealed that Cersei brought over a sweet dish in that bowl once. Who knows what her intentions were with that gesture, I didn’t bother pressing my mother with further queries. That bowl still sits in my parent’s living room, and I have laid claim to it. I desire it because it reminds me of my father, of that house in Karachi, of my grandmother, whom I sadly never got to meet.

Despite the unfair treatment which my father received at the hands of Cersei, I’ve gotten to learn many lessons about love through my father. He didn’t at all become resentful of people or even the situation. He merely desired a fair trial and a fair resolution to the court case. Alas, that didn’t happen.

One of the reasons why I don’t see a point in going back to Pakistan so much now, is because I think about that house, that street, that coconut tree. And I see no point. Why toy with old wounds. They’re better left unfettered.

My father turns seventy-two this month. At this point in his life, I would find it too sad to ask him about how he feels about the whole ordeal. I gather he’s moved on. I also wonder if he remembers the details of that house, of his beloved mother who he shared that house with, the happy memories with us, the neighbourhood’s many stray cats who loyally followed him everywhere. But even with his dementia and all, I know deep down, that he remembers, he quietly remembers it all.

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