Tahera came into my life barely a week ago, joining the two other women already awaiting my arrival in San Francisco: Seema, my mother, and Nafeesa, my grandmother, who came all the way from Chennai, India, to be by her daughter’s side, defying her husband Naeemullah’s wishes. Tahera flew in from Irvine, Texas, leaving behind her husband, Ismail, and her son and daughter, Arshad and Amina, to fend for themselves. The three women are gathering together for the first time in more than fifteen years.
Here is Tahera, last Thursday evening, waiting at the baggage carousel at San Francisco International Airport. She stands a little distance away from the grating steel plates, while passengers mill around the circling luggage. Her black hijab is pulled low over her forehead, pinned at the neck, framing her face. She has tucked away escaping strands of hair. Her jilbab is a muted indigo, its soft folds falling to her feet, the fraying hem trailing on the floor. Only the tips of her dull black shoes can be seen.
She’s told her mother she’ll take a cab to Seema’s apartment; they’re not to bother coming to the airport to pick her up. So the sight of Seema and Nafeesa walking towards the carousel startles her. Instinctively she shrinks back, pressing herself against a nearby pillar.
Then, hoping they haven’t seen her yet, she attempts to lose herself in a clump of passengers by the conveyor belt, feigning preoccupation in identifying her luggage so she can buy herself a few extra minutes in which to ready a smile and a greeting. The tap on her shoulder comes quicker than she expected. Nafeesa stands behind her, smiling. A smile – saintly tired – plays on Seema’s lips too, her arm draped proprietorially across Nafeesa’s shoulders.
“I knew it,” Tahera says, throwing herself at her mother, forestalling thought with action. “Ammi, I knew you’d come even though I told you not to. You shouldn’t have.”
Her mother feels pencil thin in her embrace. She’s reminded of the stick figures in her daughter Amina’s drawings. Her arms can encircle Nafeesa, and still there is more arm to go round. She holds her mother in her embrace longer than she needs to.
She’s aware of Seema’s impatience. Seema shifts from one foot to another, waiting her turn, but Tahera ignores her. “Let me see how you look,” she says instead to her mother, holding Nafeesa away from her.
Nafeesa frees the edge of her saree from under her sweater and raises it to her face, dabbing at the corners of her eyes, now sparkling with unshed tears.
“Still my sweet, beautiful Ammi,” Tahera says.
Yes, beautiful still, but how shrunken her mother has become since the diagnosis, how skeletal – all skin and eyes and teeth, scalp showing white between thinning hair. The piteous smile her mother rewards her with spears her, and she turns away hurriedly, towards Seema finally, nuzzling her face blindly against Seema’s, arms tight around Seema’s shoulders.
Tahera squeezes hard. I feel the pressure, a compression of the amniotic fluid firmer than any I’ve experienced before.
Seema stiffens in Tahera’s arms. “Careful,” she says, pulling away and smoothing her top over her stomach.
Tahera lets go. A jolt shakes her as she’s returned abruptly to the glacial lighting of the baggage claim.
“Sorry, I wasn’t thinking,” she says, trying to smile, working to keep the anger out of her voice.
Where does the anger come from?
Consider this: Tahera has not seen Nafeesa and Seema together for nearly sixteen years. Seema, after all, was cast out of their family by their father.The intimacy that Tahera observes between her mother and sister – walking arm in arm down the aisle of the baggage claim, laughing at some private joke, leaning on each other for support – is unexpected, almost a betrayal.
And consider, too, Seema smoothing her maternity frock over her belly and pushing Tahera away during their embrace. The first sight of the ravages that time and disease have wrought on her mother had tricked Tahera into turning to Seema more warmly than she’d intended. She’d become her agitated twenty-year-old self, come to the Chennai airport to receive Seema, returning for the very first time after leaving for England for her master’s. The very same embrace, but –
Careful! What a cutting, rebuffing word.
As soon as they reach Seema’s apartment, Tahera insists her first priority is prayer, her maghrib namaz. It’s a refuge she can count on. The ritual of wadu begins to calm her down, the sensation of water on her wrists and elbows, her fingers skimming her hair and down the neck and under the ears. She feels a little more at ease each time she repeats the movements, each gesture small and precise and contained, and completely in her control.
After wadu, she spreads her janamaz in one corner of Seema’s living room. Facing the sage walls, the maroon of the janamaz under her feet, she is cloistered in her own private sanctuary. She focuses on her rakaat, the raising of the arms, the clasping of the palms, the bending down to the knees, the prostration, the whispered verses, till everything falls away.
Only when she’s kneeling in sajda, after her final rakaah, her forehead and nose to the floor, does she let the sounds of the apartment seep back into her consciousness. Seema and Nafeesa are laying the table for dinner. She sits back on her knees, and breathes out her apprehensions to the right and left, before she gets up to join them, some degree of equanimity restored. She folds the janamaz carefully, precisely, smoothing down the wrinkles, and places it squarely in the corner, claiming the territory as her own.
In the kitchen, Seema helps Nafeesa reheat the dishes for dinner. There’s the pulao, and the chicken, neither of which Seema made. Seema rarely cooks Indian food, or any other cuisine for that matter. The spices and provisions in her well-stocked cabinets are a concession to her mother’s visit, purchased at the Indian store the week of Nafeesa’s arrival.
Everything she can remember from her mother’s kitchen: rice and dal; chilli, coriander, cumin, turmeric; cardamom, clove, cinnamon; tamarind. Yet, over the week, she’s had to add to them daily under Nafeesa’s instructions. Her mother has been cooking every dish she can remember Seema liking.
“Ammi, you should not be spending so much time in the kitchen,” Seema has protested, but only half-heartedly. The mulish set of her mother’s jaw does not invite discussion. Then, too, Nafeesa’s eyes frequently tear up, and Seema knows what her mother leaves unsaid: This is to make up for fifteen years of not mothering you. This is the only chance I will have.
Also, Seema cannot deny herself a taste of everything she missed those motherless years, including the mothering.
But tonight’s chicken is from the supermarket. Nafeesa insisted on cooking Tahera’s favourite dish for dinner. Seema meant to find chicken from a halal store earlier that day, but it slipped her mind, and Nafeesa used the chicken in the fridge, waving aside Seema’s concerns. “Tahera won’t mind this one time, because I made it.”
Seema is uneasy. Tahera has, in fact, refused to eat non-halal meat before, during her visit to San Francisco earlier that year, in spring.
That was the first time Seema saw Tahera after a decade and a half, her only time meeting Tahera’s husband and two children. The day Seema spent showing her sister’s children around San Francisco was the happiest she’d been in some time. It awakened hopes she didn’t know she still harboured.
But there’s no misinterpreting what Tahera signalled by deliberately ignoring her at the airport: I’m here for Ammi, not for you.
In the kitchen, Seema is aware of the throaty whispers of Tahera’s prayers issuing forth from the living room.The whir of the microwave drowns her out, but when the microwave stops, Tahera’s voice in the kitchen sounds like the mutinous hum of a swarm of bees. A clear warning: Keep away.
Excerpted with permission from Radiant Fugitives: A Novel, Nawaaz Ahmed, Context.