The Torch

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Nuhash Humayun November 13, 2013

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I was ten years old, on a bicycle, taking the only path I knew. I was going from my mother’s place to my father’s. People would ask me what it was like, having parents who were separated. I never really had an answer. Honestly, it wasn’t strange for me, it was the only life I knew. It was always like this, as far back as I remembered. My sisters would tell me that we were once this one big happy family, but those were just stories to me, fairytales almost. I had almost no recollection of seeing my parents together, ever. As far as I knew, this was life. I had a happy family too, just a little separated. And separations were temporary, right? It’s just one big fight that takes a while to fix.

People would ask me what it’s like living with your mother and only seeing your father once a week, or even less. My friends would ask me how I “picked” who I would live with, they asked if it was like the movies with a court and a judge and a lot of drama. It was fairly simple. It was kind of a given that I would live with my mother and my three sisters. My father was always busy anyway, how would he even take care of me? It was fine. I was fine seeing him once a week, maybe even less. And it didn’t really matter who I lived with did it? Because sooner or later, it would be all of us living together. Just like the old days.

I got my first cellphone when I was eleven. I went to my father’s place one day and he casually asked me if I had a cellphone. I said no, he seemed to have no reaction. Except the next day he came over to my place (as in my mother’s place) with a brand new phone. I was really happy with it. It was small and grey. It had eight different ringtones. It even had this torchlight. And what was even better, I was one of the first kids in my school to have his own phone. I went to school the next day and told my best friend about it. He was really excited too, the two of us went to all three sections of my grade and wrote down my phone number on the blackboard. It was a good day.

Did I mention I hate afternoon naps? I hate afternoon naps. The next day, I came home from school and almost instantly fell asleep in my sister’s room. This wasn’t going to be a long nap, I’m sure my sister would wake me up once she comes home from her college. She didn’t, I slept for hours. I woke up at around 8pm. I thought I would get scolded, for sleeping the entire day, not doing my homework. I didn’t even change out of my school uniform. I walked around the house, everyone was home. It was 8 pm, I was walking around in my school uniform looking very confused. No one seemed to notice me. I felt invisible.

My sister was the first to tell me, my parents got divorced. I wasn’t sure what that meant. Everyone looked shocked and really upset. I could only guess, this was worse than a separation. This wasn’t just one big family living separately anymore. I wasn’t sure what this was. I felt bad. It was strange seeing my mother and my sisters this upset all at once. A part of me wondered why I didn’t feel the same way, why I wasn’t as upset. I guess I would be just as sad, if I remembered our big happy family.

The first few months were particularly cold. It was like something had happened but no one was to speak of it. Every path I could take in this unspoken tragedy seemed morally ambiguous. Was my father to blame? Should I stop talking to him? Or would that be wrong, wrong on him? Should we stay in touch, or would that be wrong on my mother, would that hurt her? The questions weighed me down, there seemed to be no way out without hurting someone close to me. The guilt that was eating me up from the inside was so much worse than the initial shock of the divorce.

There would be long stretches of time when I wouldn’t see my father but we would always talk on the phone. My father was a writer by profession, an immensely popular one, but he referred to himself as a storyteller. His novels were national bestsellers every year, his films were just as popular and his television dramas were the highlight of every holiday season programming. Storytellers occasionally need rather bizarre facts for their stories and he would thus call me sometimes with rather strange requests: What are ten of the rarest phobias? Do animals dream when they sleep? How long is a gold fish’s memory? I was essentially the middleman between him and an Internet search engine. Urgent storyteller requests aside, we would talk about my day, how school went and a bunch of other things. It was strange really, I still don’t know how to explain what gradually happened. I guess a little time apart can say a lot about what really matters. As time went by my father and I grew closer.

391556_477941988901389_959954807_n1-300x241I was 13 and was reading A Brief History of Time in my father’s library while he wrote. Once he was satisfied with the day’s writing we would head to Rifles Square and pick out DVDs. He would pick One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and No Man’s Land, all the movies he wanted me to watch. I would pick Spider-man and Space Jam. Once the stack was large enough I’d review the titles we picked. Much to the chagrin of the store owners, I’d point out the movies in our stack that we had already watched (my father was a little absent minded, if it weren’t for me these people would’ve been selling him four copies of the same movie in a month). We would watch all kinds of films, I can confidently say I’ve watched more movies with him when I was younger than with anyone else, ever. Sometimes, when I would spend my weekends with my mother and not at his place, I’d get a text in the middle of the night, “Baba, I miss you. I’m lonely.”

That’s all he would say. My mother never said a word about how I spent so much time with him, well, not to me at least. I overheard her on the phone once, I think she was talking to my aunt.

“You know how he is, he has a way with words, he has a way with people. He knows how to mesmerize. Nuhash is obsessed with him. – And it’s great how close they are, it would’ve been terrible if they grew apart, but, Nuhash doesn’t know what he’s in for. His father takes him on trips and watches movies with him. I scold him about his grades. It’s only natural he loves his father more. But the man never takes responsibility. I’m just afraid someday he will really hurt the boy.”

She sounded deeply concerned; I wasn’t sure what it all meant. By then, I tried not to feel guilty. I devised a philosophy that I still live by today. Love is specific, different, for every person. You can’t show your love for one person by taking away your love for another – you can’t even if you wanted to. You can’t take away love, right?

My mother wasn’t too far off, I was crazy about my father. I was very much fascinated by my father and his world. My early teen years were a race to be like him, I paid acute attention to everything he did, whatever he said, how he spoke. When he spoke, the world stood still. Everyone in the room listened to him. He wasn’t loud, he wasn’t a roaring politician or a passionate performer. He told stories. Everything was a story. His morning walk was a story and so was what he had for lunch. He turned mundane anecdotes into enchantments. He told the best stories. I have no idea how he did it. I used to spend hours in front of my mirror, trying to talk like him, move my hands like him – pause like him. Those pauses gave me chills. He would pause in the middle of a story, eyebrows cringed, eyes wandering off. You would be afraid, afraid he had forgotten what he was saying, drifting off into another story, another world that’s just as mesmerizing. And the silence would clench your heart still. It wouldn’t beat until he spoke again. I started reading his books, wondering if his written word could capture his magic. They changed my life. When my friends were reading Harry Potter, I was reading Himu. Himu is one of his most popular recurring characters. He’s a delightfully witty young man who wanders the streets of Dhaka in a yellow panjabi. My sisters found my obsession with this Himu character endearing, one of them made me my own yellow panjabi. My father was ecstatic when he saw me wearing it, his face lit up. It meant something to him. It was me embodying his work, his creation. His one seed in the vessel of another. It didn’t quite make sense to me how childishly excited he was about all this. He wasn’t anywhere near as taken the day I told him I got all A’s in my O Levels – he calmly looked at me and went, “Of course you did Baba. You’re my son, I expected no less.”

Scan-4 e s2A lot changed over the years but we had one ritual that was incorruptibly consistent. Every Eid, I’d go to his place early in the morning, wake him up and head off for prayer at the Eidgah mosque. When I was younger, he would be afraid I’d get lost in the crowd so he would carry me on his shoulders; I had the most beautiful view of the entire field, hundreds of people quietly making way in their white prayer hats and a blotch of colour in the distance — a few balloon salesmen circling the gates. I was 18 now, the prayers were done with and my father invited me over for breakfast. The necessity of an invitation said plenty — things had been different for a while. His house, which now smelt of chips, chocolates and baby powder, was now fully equipped with a fancy Macbook and high speed Internet. The apartment that was once my safe haven, my second home, was now home to new racks of DVDs. Tom and Jerry, 4 in 1 cartoon collections, 8 in 1 Hindi movie collections. Three copies of ‘A Beautiful Mind.’

Gone were the 3 am texts telling me he misses me. I wished him the best of luck, he didn’t need me to be happy (good luck watching the same movie thrice though Baba). I just wish he had told me himself, I had to find out about his marriage from some tabloid. We never spoke of it, time went by and we let it kill us from the inside. One day he asked me what my plans were for vacation, I casually said I had plans with my family. It took me a while to notice how hurt he was. Another day I called and said I was on his street. He said he wasn’t home. Out with his family. He didn’t notice how hurt I was.

I was 19, in university, everyone doing classes with me was at least a semester younger than I was. See, a few months back, my father was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. I dropped the ongoing semester at BRAC University as soon as I found out. My father had once mentioned, in passing, that he would love it if I went to Dhaka University. I spent the coming months studying for the entrance exam. As supportive as they were, my mother and my sisters told me it wasn’t the best idea, even if I passed the exam on such short notice I might not fit in. I wasn’t thinking about any of that, I was determined to get in. I rarely left the house, I studied seven to eight hours a day, it kept me busy. It gave me a sense of purpose. I couldn’t cure him but maybe I could make him proud. The results were out, I went to visit him. He smiled calmly when I told him I didn’t get in, shrugged it off. We shared a few laughs.

I picked up the next semester at BRAC, my father left the country for treatment. The news moguls had the prolific writer’s health covered through frequent updates. Some days they said he was getting better, other days he was doing worse. I would stop reading the articles before the line, they always ended the same — “He is residing in New York with his family…” I could take separation, I could handle divorce and I could take the news of cancer, but I never got used to feeling invisible. I felt broken and forgotten. Not a son, just a stranger reading up on a star.

He was back in Dhaka again after a long painful run of chemotherapy in New York. He called me and told me to come over, he mentioned having some things to say. There were a lot of people in his house. He was attending to them the entire night. I quietly paced around his house, I never liked crowds. It was getting late and the guests were leaving, he called me to one corner. I was shivering a little, I don’t think he noticed. He said he misses my sisters, and he should’ve stayed closer to them. I wondered if he had anything else to say, I waited. He started talking again, he spoke very slowly these days. He said he’s worried about his family, what would happen to them if he doesn’t make it. He said he can’t sleep at night, thinking about his two little sons and their future. He paused, I waited. It was a long pause. My heart stopped beating. I kept waiting until I finally realised what had happened, he had things to say, just not things to say to me. I turned around and left the house, slowly, hoping he would have something else to say. He didn’t. It wasn’t a pause. This was the last time I saw him.

Photo: Rittika AliPhoto: Rittika Ali

Winter came along, I was still 19. It was his birthday, he was still in New York. I wished him over a video-call. I couldn’t recognise him without his hair. Winter went by fast, it was my 20th birthday. I didn’t really do much. A friend of his showed up at my door with a cake. It didn’t say happy birthday. It was a plain chocolate cake that said, “Baba, I miss you.” It was a good day, I was happy. I was always happy with my strange little family.

Mid July that year, my sister woke me up. She said my father wouldn’t make it. He was in New York, unconscious in the ICU of a hospital there. She said he had an hour. After an hour, his bodily functions would stop and he would be declared dead. The house was eerily quiet. I almost lived this day before. I hated afternoon naps.

Whenever writers describe painful events they write things like, ‘It was all a blur’ or ‘everything just went by.’ Or sometimes, ‘I felt nothing.’ That hour took exactly an hour, time didn’t care. My sister got the call, she told me he was gone. There were no blur. No lapses in memory. I remember every detail that followed. I felt everything. I remember every text, every phone call.

I felt like I was born again. Born dead, empty. The next few days were meeting every friend, every acquaintance and every stranger; every girl you’ve ever loved, every girl you never knew love you, everyone who never cared and everyone who cared the most came and found me, looked into my eyes with all the sympathy, all the care they could muster and see nothing but emptiness on the other side. It’s not a wound, a separation, that mends and heals, it’s one that spreads and makes your body its home, your very own personal cancer.

It was early morning. They would bring him back from New York today, for his janajah and burial. Everyone was quietly getting ready. I woke up to find a white panjabi, nicely ironed and folded, left at a side of my bed. My sisters told me we would leave in half hour or so. I said nothing. They were about to head out, they were waiting for me to get ready. I came out of my room, they looked shocked. They said nothing for a while.

“Do you really want to wear that?”

I said nothing.

“You know…everyone’s going to be talking about this. You won’t like it. They are going to think — they are all going to think you’re trying to be Him-”

My other sister interrupted her and came up to hug me.

Motu, wear whatever you want. Whatever makes you happy. Whatever you think would’ve made him happy.” My sisters always called me things like Motu or Potka. I used to be a very chubby kid, the nicknames stuck.

My father’s death was a national phenomenon, a public phenomenon. The entire nation was mourning. The cameras flashed. There was no quiet, no moment alone. My final goodbyes to my father was being telecast live for the entire country to see. It didn’t matter. The crowds didn’t matter. This is where I wanted to be. The time had come for his janajah, the final prayers before his burial. All eyes were on us — me carrying him through the sea of people that filled the Eidgah mosque, reliving our tradition one last time. I carried him over my shoulders, he would never be lost.

This wasn’t the first time he left, but this time, I could carry his weight on my shoulders. This time, I knew who I was. That should’ve never mattered. I am his biggest fan, his harshest critic and his eldest son. I knew who I was. They all knew.

I’m 21 years old. I have lived a very privileged life, I’ve never had any complaints. I have an amazing mother, who understands me and supports me in whatever I do. I have the best sisters, and they all have their own children now, and being an uncle is great — a lot of fun, little to no responsibility. And I’m a proud son of a father who told the best stories. It’s a little strange how close we were despite all the odds, and it kills me to think of how we slowly grew distant. Whenever I’m alone and idle, my mind wanders off into its darkest corners, where a tiny voice whispers, telling me I was nothing but a hobby he distracted himself with till he found happiness. My lifelong journey for his approval shaped all my interests, habits, traits that never left. Made for him, but not enough for him. I never listened to that voice, his was always louder, my father and his stories. He wasn’t always there for me, but his stories were. And he loved me. I’m sure he did. And maybe we got distracted, maybe he found happiness and stopped being lonely, but see, no one can ever be replaced, you can’t take away love.

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Nuhash Humayun, a physics student in BRAC University, is the son of writer Humayun Ahmed.

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