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a m e mo i r
by amin ahmad
called me late one night from his crumbling apartment in Calcutta, India. He was supposed to spend the summer with me in Boston, and I had already bought the plane tickets.
M y s e v e n t y-y e a r - o l d fat h e r amin ahmad was born in Calcutta, India, and educated at vassar College and MIt. his stories have received award nominations, and an essay was included in the anthology The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. ahmad lives in Washington, dC.
“I don’t know if I can come, sweetie,” Papa mumbled. “Who will look after my fish?” I imagined him sitting in the dark, his silver hair immaculately combed, staring at his lit aquarium. He could watch his fish for hours, mesmerized by the glinting neon tetras, the glistening baby sharks, the thuggish, whiskered catfish. His pride and joy were the pearly, translucent angelfish, each as big as a fist. “Papa,” I said to him, “you haven’t seen me for three years. You’ve never even seen your grandson. You have to come.” My wife and I were too scared to take our two-yearold to Calcutta. Germs lurked in the water, the milk, the very air itself. We decided it would be easier for Papa to visit us since he was retired and had all the time in the world. Though what he did all day, nobody knew. But when asked, Papa retreated, as always. “Well, I have to see a chap about some things, and my blood pressure is up, and one of my fish is sick.” Years ago I had given up trying to have a real conversation with Papa, and I knew little about his life except
for a few family stories. He was from the old generation, born while India was still ruled by the British. In 1947, when India was partitioned, Calcutta was torn apart by religious riots, and my father, then a little boy, saw one of his favorite uncles hacked to death by a machete-wielding mob. Later, during the Maoist uprisings of the 1970s, masked men entered the bank where Papa worked, pointed their machine guns at him, and made him open the safe. Of all this, he had said not a word to me. But I had fantasies of Papa coming to Boston and spending time with my round-headed, twoyear-old son, telling him all the stories he had never told me. On the telephone, I pressed and pressed till Papa agreed to visit. After much deliberation, he decided that his sixty-three-year-old younger brother, Zia, would care for the fish. Zia lived in a small apartment on the ground floor of Papa’s building and spent all day dozing in his battered leather armchair. The two brothers looked alike, with the same aristocratic profile and shining gray hair, but Zia’s two front teeth had fallen out, and he had developed a round, pendulous belly. He hadn’t worked for decades and was completely supported by my father. It was clear to me that Zia was mentally ill, incapable of working, but my father would never accept it. “Rubbish,” Papa said. “Boki is just bone lazy.” My father’s nickname for his younger brother in Bengali meant “stupid.” My father locked up his apartment, took two planes, and arrived exhausted in Boston. The first thing he did was get on the phone and call his brother. “Boki, how are the fish?” Papa yelled. He always shouted on long-distance calls, as though his voice had to travel all the way to India. “Absolutely fine, no problems, not to worry. Don’t forget to bring me some chocolates from America,” Zia said. “Now, don’t just sit around,” Papa exhorted. “See if you can find a decent job soon.” “Yes, Bhai,” Zia said meekly. Papa worried about his fish for a few weeks, ignoring my son, who toddled helplessly around him. It soon became clear that my fantasy of Papa turning into a wise, indulgent grandfather was just that—a fantasy. Left to himself, Papa settled down to a new project: clipping discount coupons from the newspaper, in search of the cheapest blood sugar–monitoring machine in the greater Boston area. Back in Calcutta, each morning Zia struggled out of his armchair and panted up three flights of stairs to Papa’s apartment. Entering the darkened living room, he switched on the aerator, which sent glistening bubbles of oxygen through the aquarium. Following Papa’s instructions, Zia sat on the sofa and waited for exactly an hour,
all the while muttering to himself. After switching off the aerator, Zia fed the fish from a pail of thin, struggling worms, and then he went down again. Zia did this faithfully every day but grew bored of watching the bubbles. He noticed that Papa’s rotary phone, an archaic hunk of black Bakelite, was still plugged in and working. Anticipating his younger brother, Papa had cut off international dialing, but the phone could still make local calls. Something about the unmonitored access to the phone stirred a hidden ambition in Zia’s murky mind: while Papa was away, he would find himself a job. So Zia started calling. He telephoned acquaintances he hadn’t spoken with in thirty years, he called my father’s friends, he called the surviving members of my grandfather’s generation. Because Indians don’t have answering machines, Zia always reached someone when he dialed. “Hello,” he’d say. “Perhaps you remember me? This is Zia-Uddin Ahmad. I hope you remember me? I need a favor.” The person at the other end would politely say, “Oh, of course we remember your family. How is your elder brother? Gone to America, has he? Now, what can I do to help?” “I’m looking for a job, something in advertising. A senior position, preferably. I was very high up at Coca-Cola.” The person at the other end would politely inquire about Zia’s job experience. “Well, I haven’t worked since 1974. I’ve been taking a break. But, really, not my fault at all. The last place I worked, this bitch—excuse my language—said, ‘Mr. Ahmad, we’re letting you go. Perhaps your talents are required elsewhere.’ And all because I kept my own time. I refuse to conform to this petit bourgeois notion of starting work at nine sharp.” Everywhere he called, Zia was met by evasions and polite refusals. Soon it was clear that there would be no job for him. His telephone calls became more and more frantic. He talked to old family friends and begged for money, for free meals. He called to inquire about people who were long dead. In the end there were no people left to call, and Zia sank into the twilight of a deep depression. If my father had been there, he’d have yelled at his younger brother, “Boki! Stop this nonsense! Take a bath! Shave, damn it! Do something concrete!” But alone, faced with a dark apartment and a tank full of fish, Zia was completely lost. He could not sleep at night, and without telling anyone, he doubled his dose of sedatives. When Zia climbed up each morning to Papa’s apartment he was exhausted, his mind numb and rubbery.
He switched on the aerator, not noticing that the pipe connected to the head had come loose. Within the aquarium, the motor hummed away, but no bubbles appeared. The fish, though well fed, were not swimming vigorously. The angelfish, which were larger and needed more oxygen, drifted through the tank, as dazed as Zia himself. In Boston, I was not getting along well with Papa. The initial good feelings had all faded. I would come home from work, hot and exhausted from a construction job site, to find that my father hadn’t moved from his chair all day. One evening Papa looked up from clipping coupons, stared at my hard hat and dirty boots, and sighed deeply. “I don’t know why you’re an architect,” he said. “It’s not too late to get a business degree.” I said nothing, but in retaliation, I returned home later and later and ignored his requests for outings to obscure pharmacies. Halfway into his stay, Papa told me he was not feeling well. I took him for a checkup, and the doctors discovered that he had been coughing up blood for a month and that he had cancer. When I asked Papa why he had hidden this fact, he looked vague and said that he had not wanted to bother me. There was no choice but to undergo a major operation. If Papa survived it, he would need to recuperate for two months before he was well enough to return to Calcutta. The morning of the operation arrived. I leaned over my sedated father as he lay on a gurney, clad only in a paper-thin hospital gown. He had been stripped of his old Rolex watch, his battered wallet and pocket comb, but the part in his gray hair was still razor straight. “I love you, Papa,” I said. “Well, let’s just get this over with,” he replied, closing his eyes as they wheeled him away. Papa survived the operation, though they cut out a large part of his stomach. He returned to my apartment, and I overheard him talking to Zia on the phone, hiding the fact that he had been ill. Though Zia sounded quite manic, he seemed to be managing. Each conversation ended with my father inquiring about his fish and Zia’s booming voice reassuring Papa that the fish were absolutely fine, in fact, were flourishing. After my father recovered, I did not want him to leave Boston. Who would look after him in his dusty flat in Calcutta? Who would follow up on his doctor’s visits? “I’ll be all right,” Papa said curtly. Color had returned to his face, and his hair had regained its silver luster. “And anyway, Zia’s there, in the downstairs flat, in
case I need any help. Now, before I leave, there are a few things I need to buy for my fish tank.” I took my father to a pet store, and he amassed all sorts of equipment for his aquarium, including drops to remove the fungus from the fins of diseased fish. I spent a small fortune on excess baggage and sent my father home business class. The entire time in Boston Papa had hardly talked to me, commenting only that my son’s wispy baby hair should be shaved off so that it would grow back thick and strong. At least he’s not going home in a coffin, I thought, as Papa vanished into the maw of Logan Airport. When my father landed in Calcutta, eighteen hours later, his younger brother was there to meet him. Zia was freshly shaved, wore a clean white kurta, and smelled strongly of aftershave. “Bhai, brother,” he said joyfully, “so good to see you. I’ve taken care of everything. The fish are well fed.” Zia talked nonstop all the way home from the airport. They reached their crumbling apartment building, and the power was out, so Papa struggled up the stairs, pausing on each landing to catch his breath. When he entered his apartment, he saw that it was spotless. Zia had called in a cleaning woman, and the stone floors gleamed, the furniture had been dusted, and all the windows were flung open to let in fresh air. Then, from across the room, Papa saw his beloved aquarium. From the green stillness of the water, the way the plants were choking thick, he could tell that something was wrong. As Zia sweated and babbled and asked about his chocolates from America, my father could see a pale gleam in the tank. The white-bellied angelfish were floating upside down. The other fish had eaten through the angels’ long, silken gills before they too died of oxygen deprivation. The aquarium was full of dead, floating fish. My father turned to his brother, his mouth moving soundlessly. Then he sank down onto the couch and just stared at his aquarium. When I talked to my father a few days later, he didn’t mention the dead fish. He went on and on about the power outages, the rudeness of the customs men at the airport, the fact that he had mislaid one of his handkerchiefs in Boston—could I look for it and bring it when I came? I called Papa a week later, but he was out and Zia answered the phone. Sleepless and riddled with guilt, my uncle immediately launched into the story of the dead fish. I listened to him, and my heart ached when I heard about the fate of my father’s
beautiful aquarium. And then, perhaps because his mind was so fluid, Zia launched into another story, something involving my father falling out of a mango tree, which in turn segued seamlessly into a story about my father breaking his wrist while fighting a pack of boys. I slowly realized that he was talking about events that happened more than half a century ago. I listened closely, trying to make sense of the fractured narrative, confused images of my father’s childhood flashing through my mind. I could have listened all day, if only my own son hadn’t been pulling at my sleeve, pointing across the room at something he wanted. When I put down the phone, Zia was still talking, his voice quick with excitement. He seemed to have returned to the fish. “They didn’t all die, really,” he was shouting. “The ones at the bottom were perfectly all right. Those whiskery ones.” I knew then that Zia was talking about the catfish, bottom feeders that survived by eating rot and algae. I imagined them lying in the murky green water all those N months, barely moving, dull and sluggish, but alive. n