My Family and Other Tragedies
ILLUSTRATION BY SHREYA CHATURVEDI
“Laila, do you remember the mutton pulao Nani used to make?”
“You’re a fucking goldfish.”
The car was stifling. My sister was in the driver's seat and this was enough to set me on edge - Sara was good at driving, but not as good as I was at worrying. “Stop bitching, and focus on actually braking at traffic lights,” I told her. “We’re already late. The road was empty — only idiots brake for nothing.” “I would rather be an alive idiot than a dead genius.” “Why is everything about dying with you?” Sara huffed, adjusting the mirror slightly, and pausing to pout at her own reflection. “Don’t pose while you’re driving!” “Laila, chill. Think happy thoughts.” I tugged at the seatbelt, performatively securing it just to irritate her. It irritated her. “Oh, fuck off.”
There was a brief pause in the conversation. A gruff male voice crooned something that sounded sexual over the radio, voice dipping and rising at a dizzying pace, and I only caught every third word: limits, tripping, cigarette, find, yours. The seat was sticking to me, leather clinging to my back like a weathered second skin. We were on our way to our cousin’s engagement party. Zara had informed us that we had to dress nice, because we couldn’t embarrass her in front of her in-laws - and this had annoyed me enough that I had responded: “We’ll see,” even though Sara and I had picked our outfits out weeks in advance. I had known that I would forget the exchange, eventually, but while it was fresh, bubbles of shame and anger rose in steaming bursts to the top of my skull. Sara banned me from creating issues about Zara’s dictum: “Don’t make it a thing. She’s just nervous.” “What, she expected us to show up looking like trolls? She’s such a bossy little brat.” “Oh don’t look so shocked. You showed up to Eid lunch in sweatpants last year.” “It was cold!” Sara raised an eyebrow. I frowned back. “I’m not going.” “Shut up, Laila.”
The text exchange had already been deleted from my phone in a fit of pique — and in the car, with the window rolled down slightly, I could feel my annoyance soften into something quieter, more painful. Zara was not like me. She took responsibility for the emotions (and the outfits) of everyone around her — in the pictures she had taken of me and Sara last Eid, she had made sure to only capture me from the waist up. She meticulously positioned everyone in the best possible light, as if it would reflect back on her. Maybe, I thought, vaguely recalling the stern set of her father’s eyebrows, her mother’s primly coiffed hair— it would. Her parents appeared like a gruesome autopsy in my mind , in vivid bits of anatomy that I couldn’t quite put together. But there was a certain sadness to the shape of Zara’s command. Someone, sometime, told Zara that she should single-handedly make the world beautiful, that she was responsible for the sins of her unruly relatives. If it didn’t piss me off so much, it might have devastated me. Still. Bossy little brat. I hoped, for her stupid sake, that the sweat pooling on my back wouldn’t be visible through my light blue kameez, that I would look like a human being when we reached rather than a red damp symptom of how the Body Deteriorates Under Stress.
“It had raisins in it, right?” I asked. Sara glanced over, and I managed to fight off the urge to tell her to look at the road. “Nani’s pulao. It had raisins in it. I fucking hate raisins.” Sara laughed. “I know you do,” she said, “I remember.”
Sara was the keeper of memories in our relationship - tending to our shared history like a sailor would a light-house, keeping the flame lit, making sure there was something to be spotted in the dark. I bet she remembered Zara’s parents in their entirety, that she knew their middle names. Maybe that was why she was so unbothered by Zara’s commands, why she had laid out her pink satin kameez on the bed and sent Zara a picture for approval, why she had reminded the maid to take my outfit out of the closet and iron it. Sara was good at forgiving — but not as good as I was at forgetting. She was always standing next to me at family functions to whisper the name of the aunt who hugged me tight, reminding me about birthdays and anniversaries, telling me why exactly we stopped talking to that one uncle on our father’s side. I was almost comically inept at this particular kind of memory — mostly because I didn’t really care about our extended family for longer than it took to receive and transmit all the juiciest morsels of gossip about them. It was too much. I cared about Sara. I cared, in a distant, respectful way, about my parents. How many people was I expected to fit in one tiny heart, one atrophying mind? There was limited space. How many frantic nights did I have to spend worrying, because someone Important was on a plane, and plane crashes were rare, but always possible, mostly fatal? How many people did I have to yell at when they looked away from the road for one second? No, three was enough. Three was too much. I could hardly bear it.
So no - I didn’t remember much about Nani. I remembered the antique slouch to her shoulders. I remembered the white dupatta, carefully wrapped across her chest and over her head, like a mini-mummification. I remembered the blood-stains on the parking lot floors. Every Eid, the family would descend like a swarm of loving locusts into Nani’s apartment complex. The goats would be milling around outside, blinking their limpid eyes, nuzzling each other and letting their tongues loll in the heat. The rows of white fleece left me feeling strangely vertiginous, like I was walking past chewing bleating spitting clouds. We would walk inside, and I would sit on the plush cushions by the back wall - I remembered the carpet was old, expensive, with hand-stitched images of a hunter spearing a deer. The deer was ribboning pink across the floor, the hunter had a harsh black line across his face that was maybe a smile. The table was oak, and the legs had been scratched up by Nani’s feral pet cat. The cat was called Jangli - Wild Thing - and she was my nemesis. I didn’t recall ever standing up and seeing what was on the table, though. I didn’t recall the sofa, or the cushions, or the walls, or how Nani looked leaning over the stovetop, or whether she took her glasses off while stirring so the lens didn’t fog up with steam. I only experienced Nani’s apartment from my seat at the children’s table, a fixed perspective. There were many things I would never, could never, know about that apartment by the seaside, about Nani and all the little ways she made life happen. Maybe Sara had a point with the goldfish comment — I peered through memory like it was a glass bowl, the past remaining stubbornly concave, responding ceaselessly to the angle of my gaze.
The children had never been allowed to see the actual moment of sacrifice. So I missed the slitting of the goat’s throats, although I vaguely recollected the sounds of screaming. But no one could have shielded me from the aftermath. When we emerged after Eid lunch, bellies full with the (disgustingly raisin-ed) mutton pulao, the air would smell like iron, and the scarlet, congealed liquid would have collected on the gravel in small pools of devotional mess. Sometimes, when we left, the animal corpses would be hanging upside down in the drive-way, in a grotesque puppet show. I didn’t remember looking at the corpses. But I didn’t remember looking away either. The image somehow impressed itself on my subconscious, moss clinging to the side of the mind.
I remembered Nani’s thin, reedy voice recounting the story of why we sacrificed the animals - in commemoration of Hazrat Ibrahim’s bravery, his willingness to give up what was dearest to him for God. I personally thought it was a very sad story. And an unrealistic one. I would take up arms against heaven itself before considering slicing open the throat of someone I loved. The prophet Ibrahim must have thought, for a second, that he had killed his own son - must have spent a second or two, deep in annihilating grief. I wonder if the grief ever left him. I wonder if the grief-staying was the point. A pre-mourning - everything will be lost to you, except God. The day Nani died, the other children (Sara, and various insignificant others) sobbed for hours. I cried too, but only a little bit, feeling vaguely guilty that it didn’t really affect me as much. It was just — grief only works as a retrospective feeling. If you couldn’t really recall the exact contours of how a person fit into your life, you wouldn’t notice if they left. And it seemed like a blessing, then, to not remember much — to not have to walk through life aware of a gaping absence, like the ghost of a childhood home, like a vacant apartment where love used to live.
“Oh - we don’t like Zara’s fiancé, but we have to be nice to him,” Sara said, jolting me out of memory’s dark waters. “Why don’t we like him?” I asked, hyper-aware again of the red car on our left that was almost speeding, of the sound of the engine’s monstrous little grr. “He talked shit about Annie Khala.” Noting the blank look on my face, she added - “Zara’s aunt. Mama’s second cousin. The one with the blonde highlights.” “Wait - what the fuck? What did he say? Annie Khala’s an angel!” Sara’s bangles clinked on her wrist as she turned the car right. “He said she was kind of a social climber.” “Well, yeah - but so is Zara, and he’s marrying her.” “Zara is 20 and a size six — her sins don’t count yet.” “None of this is making me want to be nice to him,” I said, balefully. “Tough shit. We love Zara. Zara loves him. We have to be nice.” “You love Zara. I tolerate her.” Sara rolled her eyes, reaching over blindly to poke at my face with one pale, henna-ed finger. “Liar,” she said.
I watched Sara navigate a U-Turn, and she pretended not to notice me watching her so that we didn’t fight about my paranoia. Sara had been ill, as a child. Asthma. I had never outgrown the habit of making sure she was breathing easy. I noticed when she was in hospital, noticed on days when she didn’t talk as much because the air didn’t sit right in her lungs, noticed when she pushed the food around on her plate without making an attempt to swallow. I noticed, and noticed, and noticed — remembering where her spare inhaler was, what the hitch of her shoulders looked like when inhalation became more of a saving grace than a habit. The mind and the heart had limited space. This was it, this was too much, there were no vacant apartments, it all fucking over-flowed. She was wrong — I wasn’t lying. I tolerated Zara. It would have been too exhausting to do anything else. Zara and Sara were the exact same age: I had watched them play together, draping our mothers old wedding clothes over their polyester dresses, stealing lipstick from dressers and coloring their whole faces bright pink, making Barbie have an elaborate affair with the dinosaur. I had never joined in, because I was shit at imaginary games that didn’t involve catastrophizing. I had never been invited back to the sleep-overs either — the one time I went, Sara and I had a screaming match because she forgot to bring her cough syrup with her.
The only time I ever bonded with Zara was at Nani’s funeral. The way her black kameez hung off her little shoulders, how her dupatta dwarfed her. She was only two years younger than me, but she seemed so young then — collarbones pressed to her skin like little birds about to take flight, hair cut in the shape of a malformed bowl, like something a drunk made in pottery class. She had sobbed so quietly. No one would have even noticed, except for the glossy trails of wetness sliding down her face. “It’s okay,” I had said, almost embarrassed by the sheer, silent weight of her sadness. “Nani’s in heaven. We’ll see her again someday.” “I know that!” she had choked out, with all the confidence of a 12 year old who still hasn’t learnt what Agnosticism means. “But - Mama Baba will die one day too, right? And I’ll die? I don’t want to go to heaven! I like it here!” A pre-mourning. Everything will be lost to you, except God. I wondered if Ibrahim thought that was a good deal. “Just don’t die yet, then.” I told her. This seemed to comfort her slightly, and she nodded once before scampering off somewhere, disappearing from my recollection of the event. I thought about what I had told her. Not dying yet. Seemed to be a simple enough solution. How hard could it be? Making sure to kill the goats, not the sons, sacrificing everything except what you held in one clenched fist behind your back, ‘Not this, not this, not this.’
“Go inside and find us somewhere to sit — I’ll park,” Sara said, stopping the car outside Zara’s alley, where a veritable army of cars were circling like vultures. I pushed the door open and stepped out, letting the humid air envelop me, being reintroduced to the cacophony of shrieks that was Lahori streets. I watched Sara drive away with a stone lodged in my chest — noticing how delicate the back of her neck looked, how she pushed her bangs away from her face and bit her lip in frustration, how the surrounding cars seemed so big, so frightening. It was too much. I let myself forget about Zara’s terrible fiancé, loosened the gossamer threads of memory that had been creeping up on me the entire drive, and watched the red of Sara’s car dwindle like fading candle-light into the neighboring alley. Not this, I thought, as I turned to join the throng of ornamented strangers walking into Zara’s gate, not this, not this, not this.
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