I vividly remember my last day in Lahore. An hour or so before Maghrib, I went to see my father. Khan parked the car in the usual place, under the sprawling banyan tree and took out the bulging bag of fragrant rose petals. Munawar, the caretaker, who was yawning whilst sitting on his haunches, got up, stretching himself like a cat after a nap and silently started walking with Khan, two steps behind me. The crows cawed in the distance. The pavement meandered, and every now and then smoky incense trailed down the path. As I turned left, to reach Babajaan, I felt a tug at my heart. There in the distance, perched on a hill, surrounded by his favourite colour red, lay BabaJaan, the ink on his tombstone still fresh, the dried rose petals from yesterday rustling in the evening breeze, the memories of his life vivid and technicolour. As I took rushed steps to meet him, I could feel the dupatta soaking up the tears that streamed unchecked.
Munawar set to work pouring water over the red brick grave, washing it and clearing it and watering the plants that had sprouted in the centre, in the short time since Babajaan’s death. The saplings that we had planted were beginning to take root and they now stood a bit taller, a bit surer of themselves. The wet bricks dried quickly in the setting sun. After having read Fatiha, Khan took a few steps back and re-engaged with the world and his extended family tribe. There was always someone to be placed as a driver or a cook and Khan oversaw a huge recruitment and placement drive when he wasn’t driving. But Khan was a good soul and “a good chap” as Babajaan would have said, so we didn’t say much to him, other than not to answer his phone whilst driving.
Behind BabaJaan, and in the short time span of a few months, two rows of graves had already filled up. Until my father’s death, I visited the graveyard every now and then, mostly to pay my respects to my grandparents. Now, I looked for every opportunity to come visit BabaJaan. We knew who were the regulars at the graveyard and they knew us. Sometimes, we nodded in acknowledgement, and sometimes, we silently passed each other by, longing to reach our loved ones and have a one sided conversation with them.
I was told by many a well wisher and loved one, that he is with you, he sees you, he is watching you, but try as I might, I couldn’t see how Babajaan was with me. He was gone and there was a finality to that going.
The anatomy of grief is a strange thing. It stays with you. It lingers on and never leaves one’s side, a bit like a shadow. Sometimes, the shadow is long drawn out and at other times it’s shorter.
Around me there were groups of people visiting their loved ones, some in groups larger than others. Sometimes, there was just a solitary figure, sitting by a grave, lost deep in thought, perhaps recalling a lifetime of memories and moments, of words spoken and words left unspoken, of times gone by.
For us, it is eighteen months since we lost our father. At first, I counted the hours since he had gone, then the days, then the weeks. Weeks became months. In between, Eid came and went, quietly. Birthdays came and went without much fanfare. Then a year went by. Then a second summer went by, and surely, time kept marching onwards. Sitting at the edge of his grave, I also realised how quickly the rows were filling up behind him. Behind the rows was an empty, uneven, dusty ground, where children played cricket, kicking up huge dust clouds, oblivious to the fact that they were at the outskirts of a graveyard.
A cool breeze started blowing as the sun inched its way further down the horizon. Loud speakers started crackling, as muezzins got ready to recite the azaan. At the hint of the evening prayer approaching, the cricket teams disbanded and started heading home. Munawar’s work complete, his bucket empty, he looked at me for a tip. I scattered some of the rose petals on the grave and the rest on the nearby graves. Some were unmarked heaps of mud. Some were elaborately and ornately finished in marble. Some had incense sticks poking out of them. Others had roses strewn on them. Each tombstone, telling its own story, someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s sister, someone’s best friend, someone’s child, someone’s wife, one person at the centre of the wheel with spokes to some many relationships, now all severed.
Somewhere in the distance, I could hear Khan closing a deal and walking towards me to indicate it was time to go. I got up, reluctantly, and said bye to BabaJaan. Even as I walked away, I turned around to take one last glance, always hopeful, I had been wrong and that he might just be standing there, his eyes lighting up to see me, just as they always had.