Fatima Khalid is an Islamabad-based engineer.
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When Ibrahim had left home ten years ago, he had done so without much of a story. He was not running from a troubled past; much time had passed since both his parents had passed away, his first and only girlfriend had long since been married to someone else – even his sister had been married off and was leading a well-settled life with her husband and son. By the time he had decided to leave home, all these had become ‘insignificant details’, as he called them. He left only because he had been offered a better job than the one he had, and also because he was extremely tired of home – or so he told himself.
So, with much of his past buried and forgotten, Ibrahim had packed his bags and left – no teary relative wisely entreating him to not forget his roots, or old lover crying for him to not go. His manner of departure had been so eventless that even Ibrahim himself had been somewhat disappointed. At the time of his departure, the only connection with his past that remained intact was the house his parents had left him and his sister, and that he’d been living in ever since his mother had succumbed to cancer. He had decided against selling it at the time, telling himself that if the market price were to rise he would consider selling. He had also not been particularly keen on renting it out. He had simply shut it down and left.
Now, after so many years, home was calling – and he was only slightly confused by its call.
When Ibrahim had left home ten years ago, he did not have much of a story to tell – only that he had lived in a home, and that that home was his.
Abroad, he had drifted. His first job had only lasted a couple of years, and then he had been ‘consumed by wanderlust’, as he would say. He never stayed too long in one place, began to take on increasingly menial jobs, and experimented with different women (never too seriously though, as he was wont to point out). Whenever he teetered on the edge of complete pointlessness, he drew up a list of options for what to do next. Strangely, returning home, for whatever reason, had never been one of them.
Now, when home was calling, it took him quite some time to recognize the call, and even longer to choose whether or not to ignore it.
When the call came, his home at the time was a cramped, decrepit apartment that consisted of a single room with a kitchenette in one corner, and a small, grimy bathroom that always smelled of sweat and was impossible to use in the summer. A single worn-out mattress covered most of the stained, musty carpet, and sprawled across it on his back was Ibrahim, languidly sucking at the end of a cigarette and gazing at a spot on the ceiling where a pipe had burst and the paint had swollen up and was beginning to flake off. When the call came, Ibrahim happened to be thinking of the home he had left behind, after a long time.
Specifically, Ibrahim was thinking of his mother’s plum-headed parakeet. An old neighbor had given it to them as a gift as he was leaving, to move in with his daughter and her husband. No pets allowed, he had glumly told them, extending the bird in its shit-covered cage towards Ibrahim. His mother had been thrilled. Even during its initial period of complete silence, she would stand over it cooing and whistling while the bird edged away from the bars of the cage. When she was confined to her bed by sickness, they had moved the cage to her bedroom. The bird had long since settled into its new surroundings, and expressed this by chirping out unexpectedly – a happy, controlled tune; always the same pattern, always the same notes. His mother observed that it was usually when the house had been quiet for some time, or when a song played on the TV or the radio. ‘That bird, it sings to the devil’s tunes,’ she would chuckle, and shake her head. Sometimes the bird would hang upside down in its cage and look at them, glistening purple head cocked to one side and tilted upwards, listening carefully. Then his mother would point at it and say, ‘That bird, it is mad. Mad!’ Then she would laugh.
A week after she passed away, his sister had suggested they release it and he had agreed. They had done so together, standing on the porch of their parents’ home on a pleasant afternoon – one of those rare occasions on which they were alone together, united in what they had turned into a symbolic farewell to the long, difficult years of illness that had plagued their house lately. He had opened the cage, and the bird, after much prodding and rattling, struggled through the small door and flew out to the branch of a tree in their garden. They had watched it for a while, hoping it would make a dramatic flight into the setting sun, but it only hopped from branch to branch, appearing satisfied with its new surroundings. Two days later, a stray cat dropped the bloodied body of a headless green parrot in what used to be his father’s vegetable garden and had grown into a hardened, barren piece of land, with the occasional wild grass clusters sprouting up in some spots.
When he had been thinking of home before, he had been imagining it exactly as he had left it – sprawling but cozy, strong, airy and sunlit like most old homes tend to appear in flashbacks.
Ibrahim was thinking of this because he had seen a dead, limbless rat squashed up against a wall on his way back home from work the previous day. This had inevitably led him to think of home. Thus, when the call came, he was caught slightly off-guard.
He picked up the phone and carefully spoke in to it.
He listened to his measured tone stretch out and settle, and then his sister spoke, ‘Ibrahim?’
‘Yes. How have you been?’
‘Well. Where have you been? Where are you now?’
He told her, and she pretended to mull over it.
‘No, actually. I wanted to talk to you about something.’
‘What about it?’
‘I think we should sell.’
Ibrahim did not say anything.
‘Did you hear me? I sa –’
‘Yes, you think we should sell.’
Ibrahim was silent again. He did not really know how to respond.
‘Because I need the money.’
‘We’re under debt, Ibrahim. There’s only one breadwinner in the family, and his salary isn’t enough to provide for everything. I need to pay for my son’s education.’
‘What about the land back in the village?’
‘I sold it two years ago.’
‘And you need money again already?’
‘The economy here is bad, okay? That money barely met our expenses back then.’
‘We’re not selling the house.’
‘Ibrahim, please don’t be difficult.’
But Ibrahim was not being difficult. He simply could not see anyone else living in the house besides him.
‘Where will I live when I come back?’
‘You haven’t been back in ten years!’
‘Maybe I want to come back now.’
‘The house is a mess. It’s a money pit. We can’t afford to fix it up. There’s so much we would have to spend on – the plumbing, the paint, fumigation, renovation. You can hardly go into the house without worrying about the entire structure collapsing on you. It’ll be a miracle if we can sell it at all, let alone get a good price on it. Besides, you’ll always have a home with me.’
Ibrahim also could not bring himself to believe this. When he had been thinking of home before, he had been imagining it exactly as he had left it – sprawling but cozy, strong, airy and sunlit like most old homes tend to appear in flashbacks.
‘You don’t know what you’re asking me to do.’
‘You don’t understand the gravity of my situation.’
They were both quiet then. He could hear her breathing silently, hotly into the receiver. He pictured her chewing her lip and absent-mindedly fighting off some skin under her thumbnail.
‘Remember Ma’s parakeet? Without the head?’
‘That’s what I’d feel like if you sell the house.’
‘What? You’re not making sense.’
Ibrahim could sense her frustration bubbling up.
‘If you sell the house, I’d have no reason to come back.’
‘The house has been here for ten years. You haven’t come back once. Besides, what about me?’
‘You stopped needing me fifteen years ago.’
‘I can’t decide now. I’ll think about it.’
‘Listen to me. You –’
‘I have to go now.’
‘Ibra – ‘
After he hung up, he did not think about it. He did not think he needed to think about it. He turned off the lights and went to sleep.
Ibrahim dreamt of his mother’s plum-headed parakeet that night. He saw his mother standing over its cage in the verandah back home, cooing and whistling to it. He saw it flapping its wings and hopping about in the cage, and he heard its song – the same controlled tune it used to sing. He saw its magnificent purple-red head gleaming in the sunlight. He saw how the bird in its cage brought so much joy to his mother. And then he saw an empty cage on an empty verandah, sunlight streaming through it, shit-covered swing creaking desolately.
When Ibrahim had left home ten years ago, he did not have much of a story to tell – only that he had lived in a home, and that that home was his. The next morning when he woke up, he took out his tattered suitcase and began to throw in everything he owned. He wondered if his car had enough gas.
On his way out, he chucked his phone into a trash can. He would get a new phone and a new number wherever his car stopped, wherever he could find a piece of home.
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