In between the waves

Published: March 24, 2019
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In this bus, he was just another passenger. His body, another body. PHOTO: FLICKR

“Please inform them in Lahore.”

“Sure, Baba. Have a safe journey.”

She said after tucking him into the window seat. ‘Seat #2’ it said in black. She was glad it was in the front. He won’t have to walk too much to get off.

“Tell them that I’ll be there by 8:45pm.”

“Sure, Baba.”

She hugged him and ended up hugging part of the seat. She went to stand with her mother. The mother and daughter walked to the other side of the bus. Two eyes followed them, and as the bus made his daughter and granddaughter momentarily disappear, he brought his eyes to the window and looked at the spot where both would soon come to stand. And they did. They walked right into his vision.

He waved at them. And they waved back. They were talking to each other, both happy and sad to see him leave for a few days. He continued to look at them. People around him, including me, looked here. There. At the clock. At our phones. At other passengers. At the bus hostess. At our hands. But he looked at them.

He waved again. And they waved back.

Through the window, without moving his lips, he spoke to them. And I heard each word as clearly as the announcement that the bus hostess would do shortly. In his conversation, speech, monologue or dialogue, I heard a sigh. A lament. A joy. And an offer. The transition from one to the next was marked by his wave.

A sigh

I heard this just before the first wave. In this sigh, I saw the background of the man. Of his experience as an officer. Of his authority. Of those who respected him. Those who stood up for him. A time when his presence announced itself in any setting. And now? In this bus, he was just another passenger. His body, another body. His seat was the same shade of dull grey and as comfortable or uncomfortable as any other. He was aware that when the bus hostess would announce the departure and arrival, she would not mention his presence in the bus. And when the 38 passengers will go home, and open boxes of conversations with their families, travelling with him would not appear in anyone’s.

A lament

I heard a polite lament directed to life. And in life, specifically to life’s design. To age in particular and how cruel its nonchalance could be. How memories of the past were stored inside the few wrinkles that had tented on his skin. He lamented at the state of his health. At the number of times he had been to the hospital, so much so that being home now seemed like a foreign experience. He had also begun to forget things. It started with keys. Inside the car. Inside the door. And then it became names. And then pieces of memories. And the pain of remembering partial memories was much more than completely forgetting them.

A joy

I feel I heard this throughout the waves. Seeing his daughter and granddaughter, a lot of him smiled. At who these two individuals were and would become. At their love for him and for each other. At his granddaughter’s curiosity about a world that would never be able to exhaust it. At his daughter’s bravery in a world that would never be able to constrict it. And he felt a joy in being alive. Being able to witness sources of joy that were independent of him. The joy in seeing fields sway with the wind. The joy in knowing that everywhere there existed a landscape that called out to each traveller and took them in completely.

In the sound of the stream as it makes its way through stones, bushes and hills to your ear drums and the way it flows for everyone and no one. And in many ordinary things. In the way cloth was dyed. In the number of things humans could and could not make with their hands. In how sunlight rested on the right corner of his bed each morning. In the language of birds who continue to teach us to sing. In the way his wife laughed, as if she was laughing for the first time. In seeing men cry with ease and with conviction. In hearing the unique whispers of lovers, siblings, parents and friends, who effortlessly create packed worlds inside this expansive universe. A joy in promises that were kept and those that were broken and sewed again. And a joy in, finally, deciding.

An offer

This he didn’t allow me to enter.


The bus had now started to move. And after 20 minutes of silence between us, I asked,

“Uncle, are you headed to meet family?”

I knew I could have asked a prior question about where he was headed. It would have been more polite. But all the passengers were going to Lahore, so it would have been an obvious question. I could have also asked if he was going for work or to meet family. But I didn’t.

“Yes,” he said looking at me very briefly.

As if looking for a bit longer would have revealed the longer answer.

“Are you from Islamabad?”

I ventured again, hoping to get a bit more out of him.

He looked at me and nodded with a polite smile. The nod, I saw, did not suggest that he was or was not from Islamabad, but that our conversation had come to an end.

But I wasn’t ready to give up. My questions had been perfectly innocent, and his personal space, his thoughts, I really just wanted a small piece. I had constructed so much about him from those waves. Now if I could just verify those images. That story in my head. Validate it somehow. Or at least get it acknowledged.

“I’m from Islamabad. Living there with my family,” I said.

He was by now in deep thought and my words landed right next to me in the space between our seats. I frowned. I looked around. No one else had noticed.

One last try, I thought. What could I possibly ask that would elicit a response? That would force him to respond

“What does it feel like to age? To be dispensable?”

It was a rude and strange question. I was surprised I uttered it. But I was hoping it would be strange or discourteous enough to be answered.

After a moment of silence, he called the bus hostess and politely asked if he could get a seat at the back.

As he left, I was flustered to see no frustration on his face. No recognition of why he was switching seats. All my attempts had not only gone unanswered but there had been almost no reaction. The shell around his thoughts was tight. Who he was. Who he wanted to be. Who he loved. And how much more he wanted to. What he had seen. The sea of joy.  The mountains of pain. The decades of ordinary and extraordinary moments.

All of these were completely impenetrable. And my words, my attempts, were always meant to be in vain. I had been trying to open a world locked behind a calm face. And for the rest of the journey I sat there, realising that my story, my images of him, would always remain exactly that. Stories and images.

Zain Murtaza Maken

Zain Murtaza Maken

A teaching fellow at Teach For Pakistan, he loves to write and read.

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