By Raheel Raza

My father was unique and I loved him dearly.  He was a gentle, kind and sensitive man who could do no wrong in my eyes.  I am the youngest of three children and although I spent the least time with him, he was a friend and a mentor.

He was a dynamic young army dentist at the time of British colonialism in the subcontinent. I have photos of him in uniform as a young army officer. He looks dashing – a bit like Errol Flynn who he admired.  My grandmother said that British nurses would bat their eyelashes at this six foot plus tall, handsome young Lieutenant.

My paternal grandfather saw that Abbajaani had the makings of a playboy, so he wanted him married and settled.  He chose my mother who was his favorite niece.  Abbajaani did not want to get married because he relished his bachelor life.   He loved to party and have a good time so he tried to avoid the match, but nothing worked against the invincible law of the family patriarchs.

They were married and posted at a small cantonment where Abbajaani immediately proceeded to woo my mother and fall in love with her.  She was young, fresh and unspoilt. He taught her every nicety of growing up as the wife of a popular army Captain. Abbajaani adored my mother. I have read letters he wrote to her the first few years of their marriage in which the romantic poetry makes me blush. Ammi  had my brother and sister one year apart.

I came late in my parent’s life – as an unwanted addition at a bad time. From the beginning Abbajaani adored me.  I loved to hear about the day I was born.
“It was a dark, stormy and cold night” he would begin dramatically.  Then a smile would curl the corner of his mouth and he’d continue, “and this dark, child was born – screaming.”  At this point, seeing my teary face, he’d hug me and say “but she’s my special princess who’s brought me immense joy, and I love her more than anything in my life.”  I knew he meant that.

Earliest memories of my Abbajaani are warm, cosy times.  Abbajaani would put me on his lap and promise, “when you grow up and become a dentist, we’ll open a private practice together and you can have as many gold teeth as you want.”  I can still recall the warm tweedy smell of my Abbajaani’s coat. He smoked a pipe with Erinmore tobacco. The mixed aroma of his aftershave and tobacco was my favorite smell.

Abbajaani taught me swimming, took me riding and wanted me to be the son he missed because he wasn’t close to my brother.  He would take me bicycle riding and we’d talk about everything under the sun – about life and about why no one understood him – he had his own demons to deal with.  I learnt more about life and living from Abbajaani than I would have from anyone else. As a result I was mature for my age. We would go to the library and he’d insist that I read literature, philosophy, history and psychology.

On my school holidays he would take me to his dental surgery.  His patients loved him, because he was gentle and caring, with precise hands and a wonderful sense of humour.  He would ask me to talk to the patient’s to divert their attention.  I was so proud of him.

After work, he would put me on his bicycle and take me to the club where I could have mango juice and he would have a drink, which was a big no no and constantly got him into trouble although it didn’t bother me.

Later my sister went to boarding school, and my brother went to America.   Since I was the only one who was home, Abbajaani  began to depend on me for everything to the extent that he wouldn’t eat unless I was beside him.  He would tell me “I want you to become famous and do something great with your life.  Always reach for the stars” he advised, “and they will come down to you to fill your life with light and joy.  Don’t settle for mediocrity. You have the potential to achieve greatness in your life.”

Another person who understood Abbajaani and stood by him unconditionally was his old army butler, Sarwar Shah who was like a family member and we could only call him Shah Sahab.  Sarwar Shah had been with Abbajaani since he was a young cadet.  He was a faithful valet and a friend to Abbajaani and me. When things would become really bad I used to go to Sarwar Shah and cry.  He would say, “don’t let Sahib see you cry because you are his strength.  Go and make him laugh. Make him forget his problems and talk to you.”  Many nights I sat and talked with Abbajaani so he wouldn’t be alone. If I ran out of words, I would recite his favorite poetry.  He, in turn, had told me his life story so many times, I knew it by heart.  I heard tales about his sojourn during World War 2, his times in Baghdad, his friend Joe who had a gold tooth and how he wanted to take me with him on travels to Spain so we could see the bull fights as Errol Flynn had done.

I joined college and those were the happiest days of my life. I had visions of a bright future.  Every day at recess, Abbajaani would be waiting by the college gate to take me across the street to buy pastries.  Ammi ranted and raved that he spoilt me. He would look at her and say gently  “Hush. Please don’t be harsh with her. She brings me great joy and peace.”
He had a great sense of humour and fun – one day he wore a burqa and we went all over the city in a tonga laughing like kids.

It was a cold, crisp November day and I skipped to the college gate planning my gastronomical treat.  News on radio was about Kennedy’s assassination and the college buzzed. Instead of Abbajaani, Sarwar Shah stood there. He said we had to go home.  I asked why, but he did not look at me and said those were his instructions. He took me home and fed me.  After I had eaten, he said, “Sahib is gone.”  I thought he meant my Abbajaani had gone out. Sarwar Shah was weeping and I felt a sick kind of dread. I did not ask any questions.  He took me to my uncle’s house where my grandmother lived. There was a huge crowd and from the gate I could hear the women wailing.

No one paid much attention to me.  Ammi and my grandmother were hysterical.   I heard the words “heart attack.” Through a haze I saw my brother being comforted by the men in the family, my sister sat with her arms wrapped around mother and I felt cold and alone.  There was a block of ice around my chest. Sarwar Shah sensed my agony and kept holding my hand but I shrugged him away and went inside the house – searching.

My instincts guided me to a dark room, cooled with ice, in the middle of which lay a body on a single bed, covered with a white sheet.  I softly padded over to the bed.  Lifting the sheet I saw Abbajaani’s serene face.  He looked like he was asleep. I sat there and held his hand and talked to him. I patted his forehead and touched his face. It was still warm and I was convinced that there is a mistake. He was just sleeping. I don’t know how long I sat there and talked to him – willing him to reply.

I heard a commotion around me and came to senses when someone tried to pry my hands away from Abbajaani.  There was much distress at discovering me sitting with a dead body.  Elders of the family said I was always a ‘strange one’ and I was reprimanded soundly for “disturbing the dead”.  I crept away and found Sarwar Shah blubbering like a baby in a corner of the garden.  We cried unashamedly for the friend we had both lost.  Abbajani has not reached his 45th birthday.

I was thirteen and a part of me died that day.