Ticket to India
A Rose Is a Rose
THE MOMENT THEY ARRIVED, after an exhausting twenty-hour flight, they found the house, usually an oasis of calm, in chaos. Zara stumbled through the carved wooden doors first, while Maya entered last, sweaty from the soaring temperatures outside, a sharp contrast to cool, temperate San Francisco. She closed her eyes for a moment, watching a kaleidoscope of colors flash behind her eyelids—vibrant images that assaulted her senses each time she arrived. The sun seemed brighter here, more gold than yellow, raining heat down over the dusty city of Karachi. She opened her eyes and her pupils adjusted to the shadowy foyer,
decorated in calming white, cream, and powder blue.
While her sister pushed past teary relatives to launch herself into her grandmother’s arms with a dramatic sob, Maya stood back. She was stunned to see how her grandmother appeared to have aged a decade since she last saw her. Her usually meticulously wrapped sari was askew, and her silver hair, always pulled back in an elegant chignon, was wild around her shoulders. Naniamma had always been the strong, solid partner in her grandparents’ marriage and Maya had never seen her cry, let alone fall apart like this. But as soon as Naniamma set eyes on Maya, she beckoned her for an enveloping hug. Before Maya could loosen her tongue and come up with something comforting to say, her mother gently pulled Naniamma away.
“Ammi,” Dalia whispered, “I just can’t believe Abbu is gone.”
They clung to one another for a long minute, until a tight-lipped great-aunt guided them to the living room, with its ornate wooden sofas and embroidered cushions. As the adults and Zara huddled together, passing around a box of tissues, Maya stood, forgotten. Fighting the urge to hide under the dining room table as she had when she was a child, she spotted one of her grandfather’s paintings hanging across from
her, an abstract swirl of cool blues and beiges. She remembered the day he’d painted it, while on a picnic on Hawksbay beach. When he had been alive and healthy. Heart heavy, she slunk off with her backpack, up the stairs to the empty television lounge.
Longing to hear a comforting voice, she picked up the phone and dialed her home number in California. She wanted to tell her father that they’d reached Karachi safely. When the rings rolled over into voice mail, she realized he was probably out, dealing with burial plots, headstones, and other preparations for Nanabba’s funeral, which was to take place in San Francisco in a week. Restless, she went to the towering bookshelves that lined the room. She passed business, mathematics, poetry, and old novels, until she reached the section on history and politics. She pulled out a history book, titled The Struggle for Pakistan. On the way to the sofa, she switched on the television to a soap opera in Urdu. While her brain tried to adjust to a language she understood but didn’t speak much, she glumly opened her backpack.
Sixth grade had started two weeks before, and Maya had been thrilled that her best friends, Olivia and Kavita, had been assigned to the same homeroom. But even before she could get used to a new
class schedule, the news of her grandfather had come. And now, being away for more than a week meant completing take-home assignments: a stack of math sheets, a book report on Sacagawea, and a detailed journal describing her trip. With a sigh, she grabbed the journal like a lifeline, along with the new box of colored pencils she’d gotten for her art class. They’d just begun analyzing the works of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo when she’d left for Pakistan. Frida’s paintings were instantly recognizable by their bold, earthy colors—rainforest yellows, blood reds, vibrant blues, and neon pinks.
She flipped open the history book and froze. On the first page was a date, along with a signature: Malik Humayun Ahmed. Her grandfather. She stared at the blue ink, thinking back to a summer day, five years ago, when she’d gotten into a particularly nasty fight with Zara—over what, she couldn’t remember. But it had ended how their fights usually did, with her sister throwing verbal daggers at her while she stood there mute, unable to formulate a good jab in response.
Later, it was Nanabba who’d coaxed Maya out of a tree and set up an easel for her in his office. Painting, for him, he’d explained, was like meditation. He’d shown her how to use a brush, demonstrating how the
strokes could disentangle her thoughts. Each color, he told her, meant something different as it formed an image on the canvas. Red was danger, pink meant love, yellow hinted at cowardice, blue resonated calmness, green was renewal, and brown symbolized the earth. Maya fell in love with the process and later found that writing served the same purpose.
“And he was right.” Maya sighed, writing a title on the front of her journal: “My Journey to Pakistan.” On the next page she sketched a rectangular stretch of land, bordered by Afghanistan, India, China, and the Arabian Sea along the bottom. Then she began to write, soothed by the rush of words spreading across the page.
Thursday, September 15
Here are some facts about Pakistan:
1. The name Pakistan—pak (“pure”) and stan (“land”) means “land of the pure” in the Persian and Urdu languages.
2. Islamabad is the capital, though Karachi is the biggest city.
3. The population is 193 million people, making
Pakistan the sixth most populous country in the world.
4. The national language is Urdu, the official language is English, and Saraiki, Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, and Baluchi are also spoken.
5. The official currency is the Pakistani rupee.
6. Cricket is the most popular sport.
My mom’s family is from Karachi, Pakistan, but my dad was born in Chicago. His parents came to the United States from Pakistan in the 1970s so his father could get a PhD in engineering. As soon as he graduated, they moved to the West Coast and settled in Berkeley, California. My parents met when my dad went to Karachi to visit his grandparents. They liked each other instantly and decided to get married.
Maya paused. There was no avoiding it, she realized. Her grandfather was the reason they were here, and she had to say something about him.
The day before yesterday, my grandfather went to weed his garden in the cool part of the afternoon, as he usually did. A few hours later,
that’s where they found him, lying peacefully in a patch of tulips. He’d had a heart attack.
He was the eldest of three boys, and his greatest wish growing up was to fly. And so, even though his dad was totally against it, he became an air force pilot for the Pakistani military. But he didn’t stay in the sky long. He came tumbling down to earth when he crashed during a training drill, and broke his back. His flying career over, he joined his father’s accounting firm. When my grandfather told me this story, he wasn’t sad. He just accepted what had happened as the will of God. He told me that as he buried his dream of flying, he uncovered something else—the joy of gardening.
My last memory is of him sitting on the porch, holding his pipe. I can still smell the smoke rising in the warm night air, mixed with the scent of musk and cedar wood—his Old Spice cologne. He’d been telling me one of my favorite stories about his childhood—about the time he and his best friend climbed up a mango tree and hung their schoolmaster’s bicycle from its branches.
Maya exhaled a pent-up breath, the air rushing out of her lungs as her eyes filled with tears. She had been his favorite, she knew. He had never said it, but in his quiet, gentle way, he’d hinted at it as they both worked together on some shared interest or another—painting, gardening, collecting old coins, eating unripe mangoes sprinkled with chili pepper and salt. She clutched the journal to her chest and leaned back against the sofa, comforted by the words that were bringing her grandfather back to life, even if just for a moment.
• • •
Hot. It’s really hot. Eyes flickering open, Maya found herself in a large four-poster bed with her sister sprawled beside her, a rumbling snore whistling through her nose. The window stood like a velvety black square, facing the garden. Jet-lagged, she must have conked out on the sofa and been moved here. She kicked off the too-warm blanket and sat up. I should record her, Maya thought gleefully, momentarily forgetting where she was. Her sister would have a conniption if she heard herself snoring. Maya sighed, staring at Zara’s tranquil, pretty features, usually animated and full of life. But the momentary thought of embarrassing her popular, perfect sister filled her with
quiet satisfaction—it hadn’t been easy growing up as her younger sibling.
A junior at Berkeley High, Zara came home with straight As and had just been elected captain of the debate team. At Sunday school at the local mosque, the teachers were always perplexed that Maya was Zara’s younger sister, since she couldn’t memorize the passages from the Quran as fast as her older sister could. She’d wanted to reply that she took her time to analyze what she was memorizing to understand it better, but as usual, she couldn’t muster the courage to do so. Maya’s hands twisted the blanket. It wasn’t as if Zara went out of her way to be mean to her—it was just so hard growing up in her shadow. Maya felt like she was forever trying to reach her, figuratively and literally, since Zara also towered a good foot above her.
Maya glanced at the clock on the side table, which glowed 5:23. A grumble below her belly button reminded her that she hadn’t eaten any dinner. A particular eater—or “picky,” as her sister would describe her—she stuck to the few things she liked. Right now, toast with jam sounded perfect. It’s nearly noon back home, she thought. If only none of this had happened and she could be in school with her friends, huddled over a lunch of her usual cheddar and tomato
sandwich. Slipping from bed, she headed downstairs, through the dark hall leading to the kitchen. She felt for the door, twisted the knob, and stepped inside—and was enveloped in a rush of icy air redolent with the scent of roses . . . definitely not the kitchen.
Illuminated by the small coffee table lamp lay Nanabba, wrapped in crisp white sheets, covered by garlands of his favorite flower, Rosa bourboniana. They’d been cut from his garden, where they were in full bloom, after a good soaking from the monsoon rains. The glorious pink roses filled every nook and cranny of the small sitting room. In the morning he’d be taken to the morgue, then fly back with them to San Francisco to be buried. Her gaze fixed on the body, she crossed the threshold, pulling the door closed behind her.
As she listened to the hum of the air conditioner, cranked open on full blast to keep her grandfather’s body cold, Maya stood in the shadow of a bookshelf, staring at the long, ghostly shape. Her toes curled against the marble floor. She just couldn’t walk over to look at her nanabba’s face, which had been left exposed.
She turned her gaze toward the shelf, laden with pictures: a shot of her first birthday party, her face covered with cake; Zara’s Ameen celebration when she’d finished reading the Quran in Arabic; her twin cousins
after they were born; her aunt’s graduation from Boston University; and a family picnic at the beach a few winters ago. Nestled in the center sat a small, faded color photo set in a silver frame. A giddy young couple stood in their wedding finery, eyes glowing. Instead of a traditional blood-red bridal dress, Naniamma had chosen a turquoise gown, setting tongues wagging and adding fuel to the gossip. Nanabba loved talking about the tumultuous events that had led up to the happy occasion; the story of their relationship had caused quite a scandal in the old days, as was usually the case when a young man from a wealthy family married a penniless orphan.
As Maya stared at the picture, taken nearly half a century before, she heard the door swing open. She shrank into the shadows, spotting a tiny shape float inside the room. It was Naniamma. At first, her grandmother paused; then she hurried over to her husband. Head bowed, she collapsed beside his body and clutched the corner of a sheet. As she cried, Maya averted her gaze, embarrassed to be spying. Although Maya and her grandmother were carbon copies of each other on the outside, sharing the same small frame, thick, wavy hair, and large gray-brown eyes, on the inside it was Naniamma and Zara who were two peas in a pod: outgoing,
opinionated, and extremely stubborn when backed into a corner. As Maya huddled beside the bookshelf, she was torn by indecision; should she rush over and hug her or just give her some privacy? Zara would have rushed over. . . .
It was the clang at the front gate that made the decision for her. Not wanting to bother her grandmother, she slipped out the door and ran upstairs. The chowkidar, or guard, was letting in her aunt, Syeda Khala, who’d arrived from Chicago.
• • •
“Hey, Maya!” chorused the twins, Zaki and Ali, as they barreled through the dining room later.
“Hey,” said Maya, putting down the butter knife to receive their exuberant hugs.
The boys had turned four a week before and were full of energy, since they’d slept most of the journey from Chicago.
Syeda Khala, on the other hand, looked like she hadn’t slept in days. “Maya jaan,” she said, giving her a kiss on her head. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” said Maya, watching her pour a cup of steaming tea.
“Where’s Zara?” asked her aunt.
“Sleeping,” replied Maya. “She always has a hard
time with the jet lag. It takes her a day to adjust.”
“Syeda!” cried Maya’s mother, entering the dining room.
“Oh, Dalia,” wept Syeda Khala, her eyes spilling over with tears as she clutched her older sister. “I still can’t believe Abbu is really gone.”
“I know,” said Dalia. “It was so unexpected—he was in such good health. It was Ammi I was more worried about, with her high blood pressure.”
Realizing that her mother and aunt needed some privacy, Maya grabbed a stack of toast along with a jar of jam. “C’mon, guys,” she said to her cousins. “We’ll have a picnic and watch cartoons.”
• • •
After breakfast, as mourners paraded through the house, Maya’s youngest aunt, Sofia Khala, finally arrived from Little Rock, Arkansas, with her husband, Uncle Jad. Zara and Maya were tasked with keeping the boys busy upstairs in the television lounge while the adults huddled over stacks of papers and made phone calls. Zara had finally stumbled downstairs at noon and now sat nursing a cup of milky tea, laboriously taking notes from a thick biology book to keep up with classwork.
“I’m hungry,” complained Ali, looking up from his coloring book.
“Me too,” Zaki chimed in.
“Can you get them something?” mumbled Zara, waving her pen in Maya’s direction.
Maya’s nose flared at her sister’s bossiness, but she held her tongue. She was kind of thirsty herself. Shutting her journal with a snap, she rose.
“Oh, I’ll come down too,” said Zara, taking her cup. “I need more sugar in my tea.”
As they approached the kitchen door, the echo of strained voices floated toward them. Zara slowed, grabbing Maya’s arm.
“What?” grumbled Maya in irritation, as her sister put her finger to her lips.
Zara stepped into the kitchen and pulled Maya into a hiding spot beside the bulky refrigerator.
“Alia Bhabi,” said Great-Uncle Ahmed to Naniamma, his voice gravelly, “I know it’s hard, but you must sell the house and take care of financial matters before your daughters leave.”
“But this is all too soon,” said Naniamma. “There is so much to do. . . .”
“Ammi,” said Maya’s mom soothingly, “we’ll help you sort everything out. If things are left, Uncle Ahmed will take care of it.”
“It’s overwhelming for all of us,” whispered
Sofia Khala, “but you and Abbu had already started planning your move to the United States to retire. Unfortunately, we just have to speed things up.”
Maya crouched down to peer around the metal edge of the fridge and saw Uncle Jad gently patting his mother-in-law on the back.
“There was a fair offer on the villa from one of the neighbors,” said Great-Uncle Ahmed, running a weary hand over his balding head. “Alia Bhabi, you should take it.”
“He’s right,” said Sofia Khala. “Once news is out that Abbu is gone, crooks are going to come out of the woodwork to try and swindle you out of your home and possessions. The lawlessness in Karachi is increasing day by day and the political situation is very unstable, especially with elections around the corner.”
“Yes,” echoed Syeda Khala. “The cars will be easily sold, and we’ll all help you get packed up.”
“But what about our trip to India?” said Naniamma, out of the blue. “We were all going together in December, in less than three months.”
A hush fell over the kitchen table. “Ammi, I don’t think we can go,” said Dalia.
“But you don’t understand,” said Naniamma, her voice strained. “I must go to India.”
Maya stared at her grandmother, surprised that she still wanted to go to India, so soon after her grandfather’s death.
“We’ve been trying to go to India for over forty years but the Indian government wouldn’t give us visas!” cried Naniamma. “You know how difficult they make things for Pakistanis, especially those who’ve served in the military, like your father. We had to file special papers to get the right approvals and clearances. Finally we got our visas, and only after that could we purchase our tickets.”
“Yes, Ammi, we know all the trouble he went through,” said Sofia Khala, her voice breaking. “And we know what the trip means to you, but this is not a time to go looking for—”
“Ammi, they’re right,” interrupted Dalia. “We all got our passports stamped with Indian visas and bought our tickets too, but it’s just not possible to go now. We have to leave for San Francisco in a week—Abbu needs to be buried. Already we are breaking tradition by not burying him within twenty-four hours of his death.”
What does Naniamma want to look for in India? Maya wondered as her grandmother continued.
“Your father promised me. . . . It’s been my dream
since I was a little girl,” insisted Naniamma, sadness settling over her fine features as Syeda Khala tried to dab her tearstained cheeks with a crumpled tissue. “Once my visa expires, you know it will be impossible to get another one.”
Hearing the desperation in her grandmother’s voice, Maya felt her heart grow heavy. This trip is really, really important to her.
“I know, Ammi,” said Dalia. “We were all looking forward to going, but we’ll find another way to go, I promise.”
At that moment, the cook came in from the market through the side door where the grown-ups sat, carrying a plastic bag from the butcher. With so many people in the house, he had been cooking nonstop. As he crossed the room, a line of blood trickled down along the tiled floor. Glimpsing the crimson puddle, Naniamma paled. She rose abruptly and turned to leave.
“Ammi,” called out Sofia Khala, about to go after her, but Maya’s mom grabbed her arm.
“This has all been a lot for her. Let her be.”
Zara emerged from the hiding spot beside the fridge, about to say something, but their grandmother hurried past. Shoulders slumped, Zara joined the adults,
but Maya inched toward the kitchen door, watching Naniamma grab her purse and head toward the garden. Gray clouds were building in the distance, a signal of an approaching monsoon shower.
Where is she going? Maya wondered. She followed, pausing at the door and watching as Naniamma rounded the fountain and hurried deeper into the garden, which was a riot of colorful blooms. All shades of the rainbow except for red, Maya thought. Once she’d disappeared behind the jasmine bushes, Maya slipped out the door and traced her footsteps, pausing on the opposite side of the foliage, breathing in the heady scent of the small white flowers. Through the foliage, she heard her grandmother unzip her purse and rummage inside. Maya’s toes sank into the warm, moist soil as she leaned forward, catching a glimpse of silver—a cell phone.
“Muhi, it’s me, Alia Auntie,” said Naniamma, her voice tight with urgency. “I need you to do something for me . . . but please keep it strictly between us. . . .”