My grandfather never used a knife to cut a mango. I grew up thinking he was afraid of sharp objects. He didn’t cut his hair and beard either.
He would bite the aureole, spit it out. Then, with his thumb and fingers, he would apply gentle pressure on the reddish yellow skin of plump fruits with names like sand-hoori, and totah-pari, and dus-hair-i, squeezing against the direction of gravity.
We used to visit him during the mango season, end of June beginning of July, when the sun desiccates the streets of Punjab, sending people and animals indoors, and the fortunate ones to houses equipped with cooling devices.
Inside a tiny room with a ceiling fan and a “desert cooler,” he would offer us Coke and biryani and mangoes. Eating fruits would transport him to the house he had left behind in Lahore, Pakistan, when India was dissected by the British in 1947.
His recollections were long, and sometimes, in mid-sentence, he would abruptly close his eyes and stop speaking. The whole room would feel strained with his silence. We would hear his asthmatic wheeze and the hum of the cooling machines. Suddenly he would break the spell like a child breaks a favourite toy. With mist in his eyes, he would command us to connect random words together:
He sat cross-legged whenever he sat down in a chair. On the floor, his shoes were always visible and always looked older than him. He possessed only two pairs. One had moved along from Lahore—brown oxfords, with eyelets stitched on the vamp. These received more attention and care from him than his other pair, the one he bought in the new land.
When I received admission to an engineering program at a Canadian university, Grandfather wore his Lahore shoes to see me off at the Delhi airport.
Mother was not pleased with my move. Already a vast distance existed between us because of my interest in technology, and moving to Montreal meant creating new fault lines. Grandfather managed to persuade her.
“Education has never harmed anyone,” he said. “It will help the boy cross many borders.”
It was minus thirty-five in Montreal when I landed. For the first few months of my studies, I lived in a poor neighbourhood with four other students, all from India. Winter bit like a wild animal and imprisoned us all. The smell of curry would stay indoors for days on end, and through the double windows we would look out at the Catholic cross up on the mountain, and the rich people’s cemetery, and ominous icicles hanging from the neighbour’s window.
In Montreal, I developed many new fears. I was afraid of failure. I was afraid of being frozen in my tracks, like an animal. But the real fear was of the phone ringing in the middle of the night.
Exactly four months after my arrival, in the middle of the night, my mother called me from Punjab.
“Grandfather is dead,” she said.
Phone calls were not cheap those days, and I couldn’t visit home because of my exams.
Mother mailed me an article from the local paper, the Tribune. It was only two columns long, with a title I didn’t like because it suggested that grandfather took his own life: “Sikh botany teacher sets his house on fire.”
The Tribune included the maid’s eyewitness account: “The old man asked me to light a candle at eight in the evening. All day long we had no power. I served him dinner. He stared at the candle for a long time while eating, and when the candle fell on the floor he kept staring and did nothing to extinguish. By the time I approached, flames were eating the furniture fast like a tiger.”
“We couldn’t save the old man,” said the fireman, “because he didn’t want to live. Instead of heading towards the exit, he hurried to the kitchen.”
The only items Mother was able to rescue from the remains of the house were the botanical samples of rhododendrons Grandfather had collected during a college trip to Kashmir. His Lahore shoes, too, escaped the fire. Flames touched only the laces, before changing their mind.
I spent a lot of time touching his shoes, leaning over them. I tried them on, but they refused to fit my small feet. Still, I managed to carry them along to places that mattered.
My foreign degree helped me obtain a fast-track position in the Transport Department in Delhi. Unlike my friends, who stayed behind in Canada, I chose to return home. One feeling kept growing stronger with passing years: to understand my grandfather better. But all I had were his shoes.
“When you were away,” Mother told me, “Grandfather would often talk about his shoes, not the house but his shoes. He would eat the mangoes in that usual way of his and talk.”
He came from a poor family, she told me, and they didn’t even have the money to buy shoes for his wedding. Grandfather rushed to his friend’s house shortly before the ceremony to borrow a brand-new pair. Month of August, 1947, it was, and India had just been partitioned by the British. Thousands of Sikhs in Lahore suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the border.
His friend, Mohammed Hafiz, a Muslim, belonged to a rich family, but the two boys had the same size. Grandfather had wider toes, but that was all right.
Dinner was ready, but the shoes had to be borrowed that very night. Grandfather’s mother had cooked biryani, and moments before he left to see Mohammed Hafiz, she picked mangoes from the tree in the yard. In her usual way she laid them on the kitchen table, the way roadside vendors do to save space. She packed the mangoes tight, and the pile glistened in the half-light of a kerosene lamp.
“Grandfather left his old shoes with his friend and walked back in Hafiz’s new oxfords,” Mother said. When he got home, he found all the doors open and the water faucet running for no particular reason. In the kitchen, on the oblong table, he found the pile of mangoes exactly the way he had left them, but next to them was a new pile, created moments ago by an angry mob. After chopping off the heads of his father and mother and siblings and other family members, the killers had piled them up neatly like the pile of mangoes.
That evening, Grandfather boarded the train to Amritsar, where the Golden Temple is, in the Indian Punjab. It was there, before stepping inside the Temple, he realized he had crossed the new border in his friend’s shoes.
Fifty-six years after the Partition, I was appointed the director general of ground transportation in India. The same year, India and Pakistan started talking about establishing the first bus service across the border.
I flew with twenty-three delegates on a special plane to Lahore to hold talks with our counterparts about the mechanics of the bus service. The Pakistani transport minister hosted me at his own residence, which was not far from the Lahore museum. Our sessions were long and filled with heated arguments. During tea breaks, I would relax by walking up the steps of the Lahore museum to look at the cannons, the guns. Especially Zamzama.
Zamzama—I had studied the gun during my student days in Montreal. Rudyard Kipling’s father, the Lahore museum’s first curator, had acquired it for display. Little Kipling grew up learning the mechanism of Zamzama, before he began supporting the violent ways of British colonialism.
One evening, after a long meeting, the Pakistani minister’s men helped me locate my grandfather’s old house. One must never return to old houses. Disappointment awaits. The house, we discovered, had become a madrassa, and it had been split into two wings. I was not allowed to take photographs or to enter the girls’ wing, but the girls stuck their scarved heads out of the second-storey window and one of them giggled.
I stood in the doorway, inquired about the mango tree.
“The tree in the yard,” said the man who ran the madrassa, “had to be chopped when the road was expanded during General Zia’s regime.”
The Lahore meeting was a significant moment in South Asia. Both sides yielded and we even agreed on a firm date for the bus to begin running. The most surprising thing about the development was that it happened right after the two enemy nations tested nuclear bombs in the desert.
The meeting almost made me forget Grandfather’s shoes. Mother had packed the oxfords along. She, more than me, wanted them returned to their rightful owner.
The day I was to depart, the minister’s beautiful, extremely affectionate daughter-in-law, Mariam, packed my bags herself. She noticed the old shoes and was curious. It was then that I shared the details.
“Abba-ji, Mohammed Hafiz has become a heathen,” she said. “The mullahs in our country say that all painters are heathens.”
Mariam persuaded her Cambridge-educated husband to drive me to the house where Hafiz lived.
The Pakistanis (with some help from Korean engineers) have built fine roads and highways, superior to the ones in India, but they have something else no one in the world can match. Nowhere else have I encountered such reckless hospitality. When it comes to indulging the guests they go to utmost extremes, and in that sense they could be called extremists.
Hafiz lived in a ruined bungalow by the canal. For political reasons—quite understandably so—the minister’s son didn’t desire to meet the old painter. He waited outside in his Mercedes, and I walked alone to the gate with a plastic bag containing the shoes. A nervous-looking maid appeared on the doorway and I handed her a note: “Hafiz sahib, I have come all the way from India to admire your art.”
She disappeared for a while.
Paintings saturated the living room walls. I stood for a long time in front of his sketches of Punjabi romantic folk tales: Heer-Ranjah andSassi-Punnu. It was then I noticed the woven portraits, which might have offended the man at the madrassa. Cleric Washing Feet. Cleric Examining a Watch. Cleric Playing Polo. The technique used to render the portraits was almost as innovative as the message. Painted warps and wefts demonstrated clearly, in my opinion, the parallel between looms or machines of threads and digital machines. Hafiz, I feel, was trying to say that weaving was no less revolutionary than the digital web.
Earlier in the Lahore museum, not far from the Zamzama gun, I had come across a fine scarlet-yellow “woven” painting, but it didn’t occur to me then that the great work had been created by my grandfather’s lost friend. Hafiz had titled the painting Mangoes Are the Only Fruit, and for a long time I simply stood there, staring. Six variations of the same painting hugged the walls of the living room.
He walked in slowly, the old painter in his nineties with a shock of white hair. He embraced me and crushed me with that embrace. “Welcome to this house, Singh sahib. After fifty years, a name like yours has stepped on this carpet.”
He lit a bidi and sat down on the chair. His whole body continued to shake. The wrinkle on the edge of his right eye twitched.
“I know you don’t smoke, Singh sahib. And I’m not offering,” he said. “You see the authorities are planning to ban my displays in the museum. But nothing can fatigue me. I will go after them with a cricket bat.”
“Hafiz sahib,” I said, “often I fail to see meaning hidden in an image. What really is the meaning of your paintings?”
“Sometimes meaning gets in the way,” he said. “Painting is simply a machine which calibrates the way one sees.”
As we spoke, I thought of raising the topic of Grandfather, but failed to do so. Something within me was not ripe yet to raise the topic; I felt paralyzed. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to restore the past, not there, not then. In the end, I extended him an invitation to India, now that the bus service was becoming a reality. He looked at me in the eye and smiled as if he wanted to say, “Better here than there.”
I asked: “Did you ever have a Sikh friend?”
“Sikhs don’t make good friends.”
His cell phone rang. Hafiz excused himself. Soon a young man arrived and drove him towards the courthouse. Later in the evening, Mariam and her husband drove me to the airport, and I flew home.
Eight months later, when the first bus arrived in Delhi from Lahore, we all knew that Hiroshima had been avoided in India and Pakistan. Mother accompanied me to the bus terminal to receive the “enemy” passengers.
The terminal was filled with flowers—huge roses and marigolds the size of soccer balls. The flowers looked almost radioactive. Mother said that they were the flowers for wasted time.
Most female passengers were my mother’s mother’s age, complete strangers, and they stroked Mother’s face again and again and kissed her as if she were a sacred object. I convinced our ministry to provide free transportation and accommodation to all passengers who had been forced out of their houses in 1947.
Mariam had also sent us a special gift. The bus driver delivered the package personally to our residence. Mother, despite her age, was quite taken by the ornate salwar-kameez the young woman bought for her from Anarkali bazaar. Then we opened the smaller packet.
Dear Mr. Singh:
Sat Sri Akal and my Salaam.
I take nothing for granted these days. My apologies for not recognizing you. However, the items you left behind in the plastic bag, I did recognize.
The items inside this packet, on the other hand, belong to my dear friend Ishar Singh. All these days I waited for him, but he never came. So I am returning his possessions. You will notice that the leather is worn down and has acquired a few cavities, but I assure you I am returning the shoes in the same condition I received them.
May Allah be with you in all your endeavours.Mohammed Hafiz
Same evening, a few hours after we received the shoes, Hafiz shot himself in the head. We watched the news of his death on TV. He used an old British gun—.38 calibre.
After dinner, Mother cut a mango with a sharp knife. She dissected two fleshy cheeks and then began treating the flesh around the pit. She offered me a slice, but I asked her if it was possible to eat the fruit the way Grandfather used to.
“Not all mangoes,” she said, “are meant to be sucked on.”
I applied gentle pressure on the reddish yellow skin with my thumb and fingers. Thick braids of fibre invaded my mouth, but I couldn’t stop eating. Every time I eat a mango, I try to comprehend the pain of my grandfather. I don’t think I can, but with passing years I become more and more like him.
I, too, hold a mango a little differently.