Then I am 9, spending sticky summer afternoons at their house, Chacha Jee making the hot chai such a hot day calls for.
Then I am 25 and sharing sly smiles with my brothers because Chacha Jee is singing his favorite song: “Tu Ganga ki mauj main Jamna ka dhara /Ho rahega milan yeh humara tumhara.” (You are the wave of the Ganges, I am a stream of the Jamuna /Our union is bound to happen.)
These are the happenings of yesterday, yet far more real than the ephemera of sun grazing the backyard, my foggy breath, my mother’s voice over WhatsApp, saying that Chacha Jee has passed.
My father was only 30 when my grandmother died, and often relatives would try to reminisce about her with him. Abbu, resolutely private in his mourning, firm in his belief that one takes grief to the prayer mat and leaves it there, would quote the poet Ahmed Faraz. “Dukh fasana nahi ke tujh se kahen /Dil bhi mana nahi ke tujh se kahen.” (Neither was my grief a story, that I may tell you /Nor did my heart agree, that I may tell you.)
In the style of a child forever looking up to her father, I aspire to that, but that is not how I process grief. Instead, even as I am on the phone, I think to myself, I will write into and out of this.
“What skies this earth has inhaled,” wrote Ameer Minai, and Chacha Jee was that — a benevolent sky over everyone who knew him. Born in a rural Punjabi village where men rarely spoke to children and never showed affection to their wives, Chacha Jee carved out a path of his own. I remember him arranging saucers, pouring out cups of chai for Baji and himself. Complimenting the little frocks my cousins and I wore for Eid, when every other man would consider that frivolous.
The sun is now setting upon that world, but without a doubt, that world was there. I saw it — where the worth of a man was his brooding silence, his coldness, his anger. There was that line of fathers, haughty and unforgiving. And there was that childless father of us all, Chacha Jee, laughing his shrill, girlish laughter, joking with everyone, treating even the youngest child with wonder and love and curiosity.