A Sense of Loss
A passport is no identity, not really. We left our real selves across the border in 1947, and when anyone called us ‘Pakistani’ for years we grinned shiftily as if to say, ‘Is that what you think we are? No, no, we’re not, not deep inside, not really as yet, no!’
Bit by bit we bought things, such as a dinner set, from a Hindu family leaving for India. It was delivered by mistake to the house next door. I went around for it with our servant. There was a car in the driveway. We knocked, but no one appeared, except fleetingly a face at an upstairs window. Finally, a door to our right cracked open, and a short, bald man peeped out.
‘I’m from next door,’ I gestured over the wall. ‘I…’
The man held up a finger. ‘Wait,’ he said, and shut the door.
Some while later, a man servant hobbled around the house with my package. I asked him to thank his employers, and left.
‘They don’t seem used to visitors at all, in that house,’ I mused, after telling my husband the story when he came home at night.
He frowned at me above his spectacles. ‘Which house?’ he said.
I recognised the signs and did not pursue the subject, but I started keeping an eye on that house. The servant was the only person to leave or enter the house every day.
The owners themselves rarely went out. We only ever saw the bald man in the back of his car, being driven by the same old man servant who appeared to double as chauffeur. On the rare occasions our cars crossed, he did not acknowledge my husband’s salute.
The wife was never accompanied by her husband, always by the same old servant. She was pretty in an almost kitschy way, with tightly crimped hair parted on the side, a great deal of make-up and dangly jewelry.
In July, the rains came. The maids brought in the washing and the cook the red chillies drying in the sun. The gardener ran to place a bucket under a rain spout near the front door that overflowed whenever it rained. Lightening struck trees, and brought down wires, and the city became pitch dark by day.
With the wind keening the way it was, it was a miracle we heard the thumping on the front door. When my husband opened it our neighbours’ servant blew in, a lantern swinging from his hand.The door slammed behind him, and he clamped on to my husband’s arm, gibbering frantically. Clearly something was wrong next door.
My husband followed him into the rain, and after a moment’s hesitation, I ran after them and immediately sank in beyond my ankles in mud, and was soaked through and through. I could see the lantern as it disappeared next door. When I reached it I saw, I saw a woman in the middle of the lawn wearing something white; it clung to her like my clothes clung to me. Her hair hung in wet strings over her pale face, and she danced, eyes shut, hands held out on either side, her face lifted to the sky and rain and as she danced, she laughed, a wild laughter, and sang, a strange song.
Suddenly, in a flash of lightening I saw her face.
It was the man. The one who had asked me to wait.
Between us we brought him into the house. When his wig slipped off in the process, it was almost an indecent exposure and I pushed it back, as one would push back a woman’s dress if it slipped inadvertently off her shoulders; but he only giggled slyly, as if to say, ‘You thought I was a woman, didn’t you? Well I am, deep inside, but not really, no, no!’ Then, even while supporting the man’s sodden weight against him, my husband snatched the wig off and threw it into a corner. Wearing those white clothes all tangled with the dupatta, the completely bald head, and the still scarlet lips; surely there was little difference between us? We were all trapped inside alien identities, cataclysmically transformed from one to the other.
In 1947, Pakistan inherited three psychiatric facilities. It was to the facility in Lahore that relatives of this man took him soon after that night, where we were the only people to visit him.
He died shortly afterwards wearing the same wig which, in a fit of remorse and unsure why he did it, my husband retrieved on his way out that same night, and returned, washed and cleaned to its owner the following day. Somehow that felt like the most important thing to do, under the circumstances.