For the first six years of my life, I lived in a dusty cement building in a small, dusty village in Northern Pakistan. There, date trees scrape the skies and men herd cattle and goats through muddy scribbles on the earth that pass for roads. Children covet tiny plastic animals found in gritty cracker boxes. Familial meadows are a refuge from the scorching silver ball of sun.
Broken bits of memories lodge in the current of reminiscence stirred daily by my mother and aunts and uncles. They sit and talk of who has died, married, birthed. Their affairs focus on gold and land and stake and slight. I let their talk wash over me. It has all the pathos of a Greek tragedy, and in their words I see the flitting of years and the suns swallowed and moons released.
I remember little, and yet it is everything. A dune colored blanket edged in black, the blazing white of my grandfather’s kurta, his crinkly, textured beard wagging around cheeks like apples. My grandmother, tall, gaunt, and silent, perpetually a silhouette with a broom constructed of dried fronds, generating great clouds as she swept an eternal sea of sand. A soothing liver-spotted hand and a cup full of warm milk.
They discuss my grandfather in all his glory, authority and capriciousness. He indulged select fantasies. Brought my youngest aunt an exquisite doll from Arabia, and caused little girls all over the land to simply expire from envy. Covered his ears while my uncles, then a tumble of scrawny elbows and scabby knees, set off firecrackers on the roof. He demanded their obedience. Music and foolish delights, nail polish and magazines, were forbidden. Meals were to be served promptly, dishes scrubbed thoroughly, clothes beaten exhaustively.
And yet, I hear, my grandfather snuck his first cigarette when he was twelve. Now at the grand age of seventy-six, he sucked slowly on a golden hookah. Clouds of blue-grey steam floated above his head, danced in a pale, heated joy, tendrils of smoke wisped and furled with a sinuous grace. It was our servant’s job to load the hookah, and slowly stoke the embers, blasting them with a powerful breath until they were blazing. The gleaming pipe was heavy, burdensome, and beautiful. It squatted on splayed legs, a Polyphemic tyrant. Bubbling and belching, it wheezed the asthmatic gurgle of a phlegm-coated throat. Carved with loops and swirls, etched black by smoke and time, it had the density of dark matter, and required a fearsome grunt and a great wrenching motion to move. With a little coughing, and much sweating, I would crouch close, and watch my grandfather puff away, floating in a marvelous cloud of nicotine and habit, with a feeling that I was receiving an infusion of the narcotic myself. This was routine, and comfort and safety.
I could set my watch, had I possessed such a wondrous amenity at the time, to my grandfather’s smoking. I was soothed by the rough smoke and sharp smell of tobacco. Sticky fingered with syrup or spice, alternately, depending on whether I had managed to coax my grandfather into slipping me a shiny coin to use at the local sweet shop or been forced to eat my dinner without the tooth-rotting goodness of fried dough. In reality, my coaxing had little to do with whether I got a treat or not. I was a little dancing imp, and my grandfather was perpetually ready to yield, his hand already on the coin in his pocket.
I knew with as much certainty as I did that I would wake up with a fresh mosquito bite on my leg, no matter how tightly I had wrapped the blanket around me the night before, or that my mom would force a comb through my knotted hair, or my cousin and I would squabble over ballpoint pens and rubber-bands, that my grandfather would smoke his hookah in the shade after we had eaten. The hookah was an anchor and a post around which I darted, absorbed in my childish amusements, having little to question, and much to explore. I was wise and old, the hookah older still, and my grandfather eternal.
I returned to Pakistan twelve years later, and a few feet taller. My grandmother, skeletal arms thrusting long from a faded sleeve, drags the faded, bronzed hookah across a dusty floor to my grandfather’s bedside. He sits wearied and dark-eyed. Her stooped form etched in frieze, legs braced and taunted, back hunched, angles and planes in contest with metal and gravity, tiny scraping sounds in lurches and leaps. She is moving, and frozen, only the winds puff grainy clouds around her feet.
Their laughter a jagged piece caught in an eddy, spun in a dark current, breaks apart and tinges a color I cannot quite place. A purple bitterness, a pale fondness, like remembering a wiry old rooster that no longer dots fingers with angry bloodspots. Plumed feathers gone limp, bald patches, and straggling ends. They served so I would not have to. A love as amorphous as the blue vapor. I cannot begin to categorize, solidify, judge. My grandparents sit on parallel rectangular beds a few feet apart. An equal sign in bird’s eye, and I a fly on the ceiling watch the smoke and the fan spin lazily, blades cutting through the hazy air, the two side by side wading through the hours.