A Refugee Soul

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After Mom died in 1998, Dad spent most of his time with my brother and me in Seattle. Although he never said it in so many words, her absence left him miserable in New Delhi. That was where the two of them had built their home and raised their two children and lived happily for the better part of thirty years. Everywhere he turned, a memory from their life together waited to ambush him. Seattle couldn’t turn off thoughts of Mom—nothing on earth could do that—but its foreignness prevented it from ghosting his days the way New Delhi managed so effortlessly. Moreover, he had his two sons there.

Back then, my brother and I were teaching at the same college. We’d leave right after breakfast to take our classes. Dad would stay back in the apartment and read, or listen to Punjabi music, or watch one of the Indian channels on cable television. That day in April 2002 he was watching the news on an Indian TV channel, when an item about an Indian diplomatic mission to Pakistan to ease border tensions commanded his attention. As part of her report, the journalist spoke to an old Pakistani woman who was born and raised in India. The woman told her, in a breaking voice, that her greatest wish was to see her ancestral home in India.

By the time I got home, the news was over and a raucous Punjabi song was surging out of the television set. Dad had a faraway look in his eyes, as he slumped in the drawing room sofa with his chin resting between his thumb and forefinger. He didn’t see me come in. He had travelled too far from the apartment for that. When I said, ‘Dad,’ he startled.
Wondering why he was so preoccupied, I asked, ‘What’s the matter, Dad?’
There was a short pause before a sigh climbed out of him. In a voice teeming with longing he said, ‘I want to go home once before I die.’

New Delhi was his adopted home. He was born and raised in Rawalpindi in an old, rambling house where his family had lived for generations. He left home in 1942 to become a lieutenant in, what was then, the British Indian Army. He was twenty-two years old. He served in the Asian theatre during the remaining years of the Second World War. After the war ended in 1945, he was stationed in Japan. By the time he returned to India in 1947, the country had been partitioned. His hometown of Rawalpindi had gone to Pakistan. His ancestral home in the neighbourhood of Lal Kurti was lost forever. Members of his extended family had been killed in the Hindu-Muslim riots accompanying Partition… He had barely recovered from the challenge of fighting a war. Now he was faced with the task of forging a life for himself and his family in a country that had changed beyond measure.

He knuckled down to it with the stoic industriousness that was typical of his generation. All he owned, when he got off the troopship from Japan in 1947, was the clothes on his back and what he had in his bags. What he got for a welcome home was a re-union with a broken father and siblings rendered destitute by Partition. He had no time to grieve what was lost. A family had to be saved. A life had to be forged. It was no occasion to let his shoulders droop. He needed to put them to the wheel with all the strength he could muster.
By the time I was born, more than twenty years later, we were well-settled in New Delhi. I heard little about Dad’s life in Rawalpindi while growing up. Dad didn’t talk about it. Mom, who was from Lucknow, did not know too much; she had never been to Rawalpindi. The only scraps of information I received came when one of my paternal uncles visited and made a passing reference to Rawalpindi in the midst of conversation. Those were far too meagre to pique my curiosity. And I doubt I would have cared even if they had been more substantial. Back then, I had no time for the past. My eyes were fixed firmly on the future, more specifically my future, to which I wished to rocket with all the restless impatience of youth.
It is the immigrant who leaves to remake his or her home elsewhere. There is a part of the refugee that never leaves. No matter with what determination refugees seek to supplant themselves, a part of their soul refuses to be supplanted. I heard that loud and clear in Dad’s voice on that April day in 2002.

After that day, he often spoke about his life in Rawalpindi. After exiling himself from the memories of his hometown for more than half a century, he dived into them with the joy of an exile coming home. Much of the reminiscing took place in a Starbucks he and I frequented near our apartment in Seattle in the evenings. We made a curious pair; an old father and a grown-up son bonding over the past in a café teeming with couples and adolescents. Old-fashioned in terms of dress, Dad would insist on wearing a suit. I, on the other hand, would be in a sweater and track pants, or a t-shirt and flip-flops if the weather permitted. Even though he walked with the help of a stick, Dad retained enough of his military bearing for a barista to recognise the soldier in him. ‘He was in the army, wasn’t he?’ she asked me once. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He was a brigadier.’ Her brow wrinkled in confusion before I remembered they don’t have brigadiers in the American army. ‘A brigadier-general,’ I translated into Americana. Evidently, she passed the word on, for Dad was greeted as the General after that day.
His china mug of cappuccino would begin brewing the instant he walked in. No sooner had the mug emptied than an eager barista would rush to fill it; that wonderful American custom of handing out free refills of coffee. Hunched over his cappuccino, Dad would launch into anecdotes about his life in Rawalpindi. Pranks with childhood friends, evenings spent strolling in Raja Bazaar, the eccentricities of his teachers at Denny’s High School, the foibles of his professors at Gordon College… He opened up without reservation. Much of what he told me has fallen away over the years. Yet I continue to see him in that Starbucks. By then, old age had shrunk him so much that the overstuffed chair in which he sat practically swaddled him. Despite a bad back, he insisted on sitting as straight as he possibly could. The years may have reduced him in size, but they hadn’t dampened his enthusiasm for Rawalpindi in the slightest. It practically poured out of him. After sharing a funny memory, he’d laugh with the abandon of a man seeking to squeeze all the joy he could from the moment. More than anything, he was purged of the bitterness that I firmly believe prevented him from acknowledging his longing for Rawalpindi for more than half a century; a deep-seated bitterness that I witnessed firsthand when a group of Hindu zealots tore down the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. Whereas I was disturbed by the event, he was unapologetically triumphant. When we clashed, he brought up the atrocities Muslim zealots had heaped on his generation during Partition. In his mind, the Hindu zealots of 1992 were simply settling a score. He refused to listen when I tried to argue that two wrongs do not make a right. That day was the closest I came to hating him.

Ten years later in Seattle, however, that bitterness had been overrun by an intense desire to go home. The light in his eyes was of longing rather than anger. His voice rose in mirth rather than retribution. I am glad I got to see him recall Rawalpindi in that manner. It goes a long way towards expelling the hate-filled rant of 1992 from my thoughts.
There were times where listening to him became tedious and I mentally checked out of the Starbucks so utterly that he could have been speaking to a mummy placed in the chair in front of him. These years later, however, I am grateful for the time those conversations allowed me with him. One of my abiding regrets is that I was never able to get Dad to Rawalpindi. I draw some comfort, though, from the fact that he got to go home in conversation in the time we spent together.

He was eighty-two years old in 2002, with a bad back and arthritic knees. There was no way he could make it to Rawalpindi on his own. He needed his family to get him there. My brother and I meant to do that, but we had plenty to distract us in our lives. We kept putting the trip off; first we were going to do it during the summer and then over the Christmas vacation and then the following summer holidays… Before we knew, it was early 2004 and Dad’s health had deteriorated alarmingly, making it impossible for him to travel. He would die in October of that year.

It was my brother who finally made it to Rawalpindi in 2006. I had embarked on a PhD in Britain by then and he had moved back to India to take up a position at Delhi University. A professor of business administration, he headed a Delhi University delegation to the Lahore University of Management Sciences. While he was in Lahore, he asked his hosts to take him to Rawalpindi where he visited Dad’s alma mater of Gordon College and brought back a priceless copy of the college magazine Dad edited in 1939. He also went to Lal Kurti to see what was left of the old house.

About a week after he got back to New Delhi, I took a break from my PhD in Norwich to return to India. My brother met me at the airport. Soon after we got home, I began questioning him about the trip.
‘It was uncanny,’ he said when I asked about Lal Kurti. ‘I had never been there before. Yet the moment I got out of the car I knew exactly where to go. The place was a maze of narrow alleys, all of which looked the same. Yet I didn’t have to wait for the driver to ask about. It was as if Dad’s spirit was guiding me. I knew exactly which alley to take, where to turn. And even though the house no longer stands—it’s a bunch of shops now—I knew when I had reached the right place.’

His voice choked up as he finished. My eyes were all tears. I could see Dad in Lal Kurti, soaking up the earth he had never been able to dust off his shoes despite a lifetime of trying. Two years after his death, his refugee soul was home.

Vikram Kapur

About Vikram Kapur

Vikram Kapur is the author of two novels--Time Is a Fire and The Wages of Life. His short fiction and nonfiction have been published in a number of publications in the United Kingdom, the United States and India . These include, among others, World Literature Today, Wasafiri, Litro, Ambit, the Dublin Quarterly, New Writing, Driftwood, The Hindu, The Times of India, Frontline and Firstpost. His short stories have been shortlisted or longlisted, among other competitions, for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, the Fish International Short Story Prize, the Summer Literary Seminars Competition and the Aesthetica Annual Creative Works Competition. He has a PhD in creative and critical writing from the University of East Anglia where he received the India-Africa bursary. He is currently Associate Professor of English at Shiv Nadar University. Right now he is working on a new novel. His website is www.vikramkapur.com

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