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5 Queen’s Road

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A house is partitioned along the lines, and in the chaos, of the new independent nations of India and Pakistan.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/reconstructing-19261.jpgLarge_TOP-min.jpg
Paul Klee, Reconstructing, 1926. Oil on canvas.

In the beginning, 5 Queen’s Road was my Pakistan. The house didn’t belong to me, and although it was my grandparents’ home, it didn’t belong to them, either. None of which stopped any of us from believing it did. The house was partitioned shortly before British India was, in 1947. The border that cleaved the latter produced the independent nations of India and Pakistan; the border that cleaved the former shifted, growing or shrinking depending on perspective and the passage of time. When I first arrived as a child, the inhabitants had already been mired in war for so long their memories were blurred and no one I knew could accurately recall its trajectory. Only two facts were worth remembering: my family had neither instigated nor perpetuated the conflict.

The house came to my grandparents in the chaos of Partition. It had been built by the British in the early 1940s and eventually sold to Dina Nath, a Hindu, who decided against leaving Lahore for India in the summer of 1947. Instead, Dina Nath drew a line down the middle of the house and searched for a Muslim tenant to live on the other side, hoping that the presence of a Muslim might protect him from the raging violence against Hindus who had dared remain in Pakistan. My grandparents, their seven children, my grandfather’s mother, and several of his brothers moved in. For reasons that are unclear and now impossible to know, my grandfather and Dina Nath grew to dislike each other until eventually the men stopped speaking. By all accounts, Dina Nath’s initial partitioning was generous, but over time the border moved until all that was left of my grandparents’ side was the house I knew. It consisted of two bedrooms and bathrooms, oddly shaped living and dining rooms, a study, and, for some mysterious reason, the entire back lawn, of which a corner was an outside kitchen where my grandmother prepared all our meals.

Sixteen years after Partition, and in the winters that followed (thanks to the “home leave” benefit of my father’s UN job), I came to a house crumbling under the weight of their feud. Each man blamed the other for every new crack in the wall and leak in the roof, and neither would make repairs. A single exception was the replacement of an in-ground toilet with a Western-style toilet bowl and flush, in deference to my Dutch mother. According to my father, my grandfather refused to move because it would have been tantamount to giving Dina Nath the last word.

Their bad blood was a physical presence in the house, there in the stale air we breathed. It was sometimes possible to decipher a few words in the Punjabi-Urdu-English lexicon of my aunts and uncles, enough to understand something of the latest disagreement. Dina Nath sold off parcels of the property to car shops that set up in the front lawn. He paid the owners to keep the cars they were working on idling all night. He lavished bribes on the sweepers, so that they would extend their settlement into the driveway. He caused the fireplace mantel to pull away from the wall and the main sewer pipe to burst.

Dina Nath was invisible, a remarkable feat for a man who was responsible for all our misery. His family had its own driveway, a hidden passage through the car shop maze. My aunts told stories of early sightings: when the families still shared the back patio, they had seen Dina Nath’s wife serving her husband food. But at some point Dina Nath had ceded control of the backyard and never bothered to reclaim it. His kitchen abutted our lawn, but the windows were painted closed—a wise precaution during war.

*                      *                     *

The large yellow bungalow existed in a stranglehold. A mess of car repair shops extended from the road to the house and decimated what had once been carefully tended terraces of flowers. The semi-permanent structures had colorful tarps for doors and columns of tires for walls, and heaps of tools were scattered in pockets between the broken cars. With a generosity that enraged my grandfather, the owners volunteered to fix our car and bicycle tires free of charge. At the opposite side of the property, the sweepers’ colony was a dense adobe village. It was home to hundreds of sweepers, most of them descendants of pre-Partition Dalits who had converted to Christianity to escape the limitations of their caste, only to remain trapped by their livelihood. The colony had expanded into the driveway, until all that remained between the boundary wall and the car shops was an alley too narrow to accommodate more than a single vehicle at a time. Where the car shops were loud and haphazard, the sweepers’ colony was subdued, almost apologetic in its occupation of our property. No one could say when either first appeared, only that Dina Nath was to blame.

The open expanse of roof was mercifully free of adults. Up there we violated the line separating our family from the other with reckless abandon.

To stand on the flat roof of the house was to witness 5 Queen’s Road’s demise. In the distance you could see where the traffic on the street ended and the car repair shops began, and also the sweepers’ mud wall. Almost two stories closer to the sky, the roof was a refuge. At that height we could pretend to be safe from the exhaust fumes, to be above all that we looked down upon. If we squinted into the golden light of sunset, we could imagine a lush lawn into existence. Listening to the doors opening and closing in Dina Nath’s hidden carport, we tricked ourselves into believing that the sounds were those of the comings and goings of a single family rather than two feuding ones.

The open expanse of roof was mercifully free of adults. Up there we violated the line separating our family from the other with reckless abandon, drawing colorful chalked squares for our hopscotch games and jumping up and over onto Dina Nath’s side. I found a rusted metal rod to poke forgotten flowerpots and scratch my initials onto the roof. We collected broken glass as if it was lost treasure and once recovered frayed twine from an abandoned laundry line to play a string game we didn’t know was called cat’s cradle. We danced and jumped on the Hindu family’s portion of the house in a game of dare that kept us busy for hours. Too late, my mother would become aware of our mischief and race up the steep concrete stairs brilliantly concealed in a seam in our side of the house. When she was furious, she shouted “godverdomme” in Dutch, and when she was less energetic and more resigned, she inquired without inflection, “What in God’s name are you doing?” Both reactions put a firm but temporary stop to our fun.

So long as my grandfather wasn’t home, his study was my preferred entrance to the house. Often, the dark green doors remained open, inviting dust, exhaust, and stares from passersby. During the Christmas holidays, his doorway framed an elaborate nativity scene across the way, which I could look in on if I broke the rules and sat behind my grandfather’s two enormous desks, one directly behind the other. The backdrop was an extra wall just long enough to hide the entrance to the sweepers’ colony. The scene always included the same yellow plastic Jesus in a rickety hay-filled manger and strings of furiously blinking lights powered by electricity stolen from the house. All night, flashing light bounced through our closed bathroom windows and drew fleeting patterns on walls of flaking paint.

The winter I was eight or nine, the sweeper’s daughter became my favorite playmate; my sister was too small, and my brother, who was three years older, had outgrown any need for me. She may have been younger by a year or two, but she was worldlier than I. She wore multicolored glass bangles on her wrists, had pierced ears and a delicate sparkling stud in her nose, and in my memory she wore a chiffon dupatta that stayed in place on her shoulders even though she was too young for it. There was a language barrier between us, but language wasn’t necessary to share the wonder of a snow globe or to delight in the echo of stones thrown into the barren well on the lawn. We spent most of our time playing in the prickly brown grass that grew without water or care. I’m not sure I knew her name. The slight girl followed her mother to work every day, intuiting when she was needed to wring out rags and return them to where her mother scrubbed toilet bowls when she wasn’t sweeping carpets or washing the verandah. My friend wasn’t in school, but my mother bought her a pencil box, notebooks, and primary school readers from Ferozesons on Mall Road. That winter she was a regular presence at the house, and, however briefly, my way into the sweepers’ colony.

One morning, while our mothers were preoccupied and our fathers elsewhere, we snuck away, holding hands. She pulled me around the curiously stunted wall that hid the colony entrance and we arrived at a complicated maze of tight alleys and open sewers, which she easily navigated. As we maneuvered this way and that, all that was missing from my rooftop perspective came into sharp focus. The colony was alive with intense smells and textures: sautéing onions and raw sewage, a stray dog’s scratchy coat against my knee, mud walls I grazed with my fingertips, a bristle of straw that got stuck between my toes. Kids and radios played loudly. By the time we reached the simple structure that was her home, I was out of breath, coughing dust and whatever else we had kicked up from the alleys as we ran. She was about to pull aside the strings of beads that functioned as the door when a woman hanging laundry on an adjoining roof saw us. She dropped an armful of wet clothes and launched into a shrill tirade my mother would have called the rant of a fisherman’s wife, although she didn’t know any fishermen and the sea was a thousand miles away. I didn’t need Punjabi or Urdu to understand what was being said. The longer we stood there, the more furiously my heart pounded and the more I wanted to go home. When my friend let go of my hand, I was terrified. We’d attracted others, among them a group of small children giggling at our misfortune. The woman wagged her finger at my friend, scolding her for having led me there. At her first pause, we turned and ran as fast as we could, she barefoot, me in my flip-flops.

The colony was a dangerous place in which anything could have happened to me, but apparently not to her.

When we surfaced on the other side of the wall, my grandfather was waiting in the library doorway with someone I’d never seen. Both men gave us a verbal thrashing that kept my friend from visiting for days. Our transgression was poorly explained: the colony was a dangerous place in which anything could have happened to me, but apparently not to her. As punishment, I spent the afternoon confined to my grandparents’ room, where only my grandmother bothered to check on me. She recited prayers while kissing my head. When she left, I entertained myself by snooping through the tiny dresser drawers on either side of the mirror. I played with a pharmacist’s small envelopes, folded from newspaper and filled with chalky pills. My friend took her time returning to 5 Queen’s Road, and when she did, she had better things to do than play with me. A few years later, a cousin shocked us with the news that she was married.

Until the sweet scent of teak rose in my bedroom, decades later and on another continent, I’d almost forgotten our adventure. My mother had inherited my grandmother’s dresser first, but when my father died and our family home dissolved, it crossed the world in a shipping container and became mine. I unpacked it alone, my young children distracted by something else. After I cut the twine and tore away the layers of packaging securing the mirror, I opened and closed the two tiny drawers. It took me a moment to identify the earthy fragrance as ancient teak, but when I did, I remembered this: on that long-ago day, my friend’s shalwar kameez was maroon, her single plait was braided with a thin gold ribbon stained with hair oil, her hand was rough and solid in mine. As always, her silver-soled feet were silent on the ground.

*                      *                     *

The house had once been grand and beautiful, and there were still hints of this in the ruin. The ceilings were sky-high, and there were narrow clerestories in the bedrooms, as if someone had had the foresight to know that the outside walls would do well to be fortified rather than interrupted by standard windows. Every so often, a bird flew through a broken clerestory—they were all broken by the time I arrived there—and while trying furiously to escape, left warm gray-white droppings on our bedding. Ceiling fans on long chains swayed just enough to frighten us as we lay watching the grimy blades whip up a breeze. The walls were so thick that it was almost impossible for a child standing with her chest to the doorframe to grip them on either side. Here and there, oversized furniture—in one case, a lopsided armoire missing a leg—had been shoved into tight alcoves. Upon inspection, the packed recesses revealed themselves to be former doorways, arches intact, which marked the borderline. A long sheesham dinner table was able, by magic, to accommodate dozens of seated guests. It ran parallel to a built-in cupboard with glass doors behind which my mother stored oval tins of chocolate-covered almonds that we filched long before they were retrieved. The dining room spilled onto a verandah that was a magnificent reprieve from the fractured house. In a corner sat a wooden cabinet laden with wire baskets of fruit and jute bags of rice, the supplies poorly protected from swarming flies by flimsy screen doors that failed to latch.

The bathroom door also had a broken latch. That room was the only place of privacy in our house, but even there we were not alone: our constant companions were black carpenter ants thick enough to crunch like cockroaches. They came regardless of how many times the floor was scrubbed and soaked with Dettol. Almond shampoo and perfumed soap mingled with the smells of yakhni, chicken broth being prepared for palau in the outdoor kitchen, and the baser odors of a toilet that rarely flushed properly. I was afraid to drop my toothbrush in the stained pedestal sink.

In a faded Polaroid of my first birthday, I’m sitting on a table on the verandah, and a half-wall of lattice throws late-afternoon shadows on high-backed dining chairs. I’m thrilled to be the center of attention, my hands and feet dangerously close to a white cake, a lit candle erupting from a bed of sugar roses. My mother tells a story of another afternoon during the same visit, when she left me in a wooden playpen on the patio in my grandfather’s care. He watched over me from behind a stack of newspapers and a gurgling hookah. An eagle (or vulture, depending on who is telling the story) circled above, and when it swooped down to grab me, my grandfather looked up from his newspaper and jumped into the playpen in one continuous motion.

My grandfather was always old and almost deaf. He was sixty-five when I was born, seventy-five in 1972, when we moved to Pakistan. His thick crop of mostly black hair was the envy of his sons until the day he dropped dead on his early-morning walk in Lawrence Gardens. There is no kind way to say that he was feared. His grown sons stood when he entered a room and, if they happened to be smoking, expertly hid still-glowing cigarettes behind their backs. He didn’t tolerate being contradicted, and would shout down anyone who begged to differ with him. He had prominent cheekbones and sunken cheeks, a narrow mouth that drew attention to his dentured overbite. He was a rail-thin man who towered over us all—and not just in height.

A high court judge, he presided over disputes larger than the one that governed his home. The sheer volume of his work was evident in the hours he kept and in the chaos of his study, where all surfaces and much of the floor were covered with office files and heavy books. He had little time and few words for anyone, his grandchildren included. Sometimes, if we were present at the breakfast table while he drank his tea, and he noticed us lift our faces in his direction as he left, he paused to plant a wet kiss on our foreheads. He did his fair share of bellowing, but every so often he’d catch us by surprise. Safely out of adult earshot, he’d ask in hushed tones: “Going somewhere?” In these moments he smiled with his eyes closed, and wiggled his ears.

My mother, who was Catholic before converting to Islam and marrying my father, said she was a saint. Certainly the daily menu of chicken curry, keema, dals, and chutneys my grandmother produced was saintly.

My grandmother was older than my grandfather by a few years, and shorter by a few feet, and then more as the years passed and her back settled into a stoop. Although they sat together at the dinner table, he at the head, she at his arm, the two rarely stood side by side; when they did, it was hard not to gawk. She, too, had missing teeth, but in the absence of artificial ones her hollow cheeks made way for a wide grin that swallowed her face. Her voice was soft, and her laugh caught in a child’s giggle when she looked across the dining room table and her eyes fell on my father—or another of her children—and lingered, relishing his very being. She’d survived a difficult mother-in-law, too many brothers-in-law, the death of a young daughter, the births of eight children and a band of grandchildren, some of whom visited from the other side of the world. My mother, who was Catholic before converting to Islam and marrying my father, said she was a saint. Certainly the daily menu of chicken curry, keema, dals, and chutneys my grandmother produced was saintly. So were the bubbling chapattis, slathered with butter and rolled in sugar, which she made just for us.

My grandmother combed her striking white hair into a tight bun, and as she aged and her hair thinned, the teeth of her comb left behind wider lines of scalp. Her waking hours were spent low to the ground, either on a prayer carpet in private communion with God or crouched on a wooden piri, preparing the next meal. Sometimes she invited us to help clean the rice and lentils. We dropped beside her to pick out tiny stones and bits of dried pods, before dragging the heavy bowls across the stone floor to the spigot to fill them with water. Together, we swirled rice and lentils between our fingers until the water ran clean or we lost interest. Afternoon light danced on the rippling water in the tins and our hands melted into hers.

She had age spots and wrinkled hands, a dry patch on the button of a collarbone, and raised veins that crisscrossed her ankles. She was concealed in white cotton shalwars and lightly printed kameezes, and I was left to imagine her elbows and knees. But there were other ways to know her body. During lazy afternoons, when she chose not to retire to her room for a nap, my grandmother lay face down on the living room floor and waited for me to notice. She taught me to walk on her. I mastered a side-step shuffle that began on her buttocks and ended at the end of one leg before starting back up the other. Walking her legs was like navigating a living balance beam; I fought until the last second, arms flailing, finally falling and waiting for my grandmother to indicate where she wanted me to begin again. She groaned with joy as I sank my weight into her, and I can still summon the odd intimacy. Her buttocks were jelly, slipping underneath as I attempted to gain a foothold. Her tiny calves were mostly bone. The delicate groove behind her knee was designed for my childhood feet. I remember dropping to a crouch to check on her when she went quiet or her eyes stayed closed for too long. Near her face I felt whispers of prayer, but I still worried that my feet had kneaded the life out of her.

In accordance with her wishes, few pictures of my grandmother were ever taken. In a rare black and white image, she and my grandfather are seated next to each other in chairs that someone carried across the patio. She is looking away from the camera, trying to hide her face with a blurry hand, but her protesting smile is still visible. A sheer dupatta has slipped from her head and is barely discernible in the overexposed photo. My mother says she feared the evil eye.

No matter what time of day we left or how delayed our departure, my grandmother’s farewell ritual could not be hurried. She prayed continuously as the car was loaded and we hugged aunts, uncles, and cousins. She was last to embrace us, and she nodded and smiled her good-bye without stopping to recite verses from the Quran. We swallowed a pinch of sugar from her hand that she’d begun praying over before we’d gathered. Palms cupped, she blew her prayers in our direction, confident they would follow us through the sorry lane that wound along the sweepers’ colony and into Queen’s Road—and onward, into our other lives.

I was in my early twenties when my grandparents died, almost nine months apart, my grandfather one January, my grandmother the following September. In Miani Sahib’s graveyard, my father’s parents are finally the same size. Evidence of their lives surrounds them: their sons’ graves, my father’s too, the graves of a daughter-in-law and two grandsons.

*                      *                     *

In 1988 my husband and I moved to Syracuse, New York, and I began to write 5 Queen’s Road into reexistence. I could not envision the place all at once—there isn’t a single photograph of the house’s full façade—but there were moments in conjuring my novel when a shuttered, blacked-out window was thrown open and a room flooded with light.

Adnan* was a Lahori who was tutoring me in Urdu, and, one day, I asked him to help me with a scene I was imagining for the book. “How far is the post office from the intersection of Queen’s Road and that building owned by Sikhs?”

He was amused. “Where on Queen’s Road?”

“5 Queen’s Road,” I said.

“I know that place,” he said.

His mother and my father’s eldest sister had attended college together, and Adnan had gone to school with Dina Nath’s grandson. Adnan had heard that the grandson’s younger sister had hidden underneath a bed at 5 Queen’s Road the day her father was murdered in a business dispute.

I was consumed by the surprise, and still early along in the process of learning to write. Dina Nath, my grandfather’s landlord, had inspired a character I’d named Dina Lal.

I wondered if, in fact, I hadn’t heard the details of that murder before. The more thought I gave it, the more I believed the narrative wasn’t completely unfamiliar: that one of Dina Nath’s sons had been a jeweler, that a business deal gone wrong had resulted in his death. During my next trip to Pakistan, a few months later, I asked my father if he knew the story. He sighed a few times, then admitted he wasn’t sure.

“Why don’t you ask him?” he said.

“Who?”

“Dina Nath!”

I was shocked that Dina Nath was alive. Not only had he outlived my grandparents, he’d also outlived Dina Lal, my character, whom I’d recently killed off. A few phone calls later, my father had set up an interview and made arrangements for us to leave for Lahore. We spent some hours trying to reconstruct what my father knew of the landlord’s life, so that I could prepare sensible questions for an interview. But we arrived in the city one day too late. Dina Nath had died the previous morning.

*                      *                     *

I saw 5 Queen’s Road for the last time more than twenty years ago. The house had been demolished, and in its place was a neatly demarcated but vacant piece of land. A single wire secured its borders, distinguishing it from the car shop settlement and sweepers’ colony. That January day, the barren plot appeared too small to ever have accommodated a crumbling house and two warring families. It was dusted green and, for a moment, I wondered if it had been manicured. It was as if a bulldozer had buried the house’s foundation, and every patio brick and section of stone floor had been carried away. My father parked the car at the edge of the property, and while car shop owners scrambled to greet him, I jumped the low wire.

The chaos had given way to a quiet peace.

A quick walk later, I turned my back to where the house had stood and where the broken well and unremarkable tree still did, and tried to take in 5 Queen’s Road. Without the vantage point of the roof, I could see far less. The crush of the car shop settlement had abated. Further development, and a new alley-cum-driveway that veered away from the mud wall, meant I could not find the entrance to the sweepers’ colony. The chaos had given way to a quiet peace.

Even once it had all but disappeared, the place was kept alive in a decades-long court case in which my father used Partition evacuee property regulations to fight for the land. Dina Nath’s family battled to maintain full ownership, and the car repair shops built a case, too, based on possession. In the end, Dina Nath’s family maintained rights to one-third of the property, which contained an easement to the main road; the car shop settlement was given ownership of what had been the front lawn; and my father and his siblings were awarded what remained, but without an easement, it was worth little. By the time the court ruled, my father was also dead. Now our portion is the parking lot of a Queen’s Road business, for which my sister receives a small rent check a few times a year.

I must have imagined that my grandparents took 5 Queen’s Road with them, because after their deaths, and before beginning work on my novel, I rarely thought about it. The exception was when I visited Lahore and used the address to locate myself, as if the house were true north. No matter where I was in the city, I would insist that my drivers go out of their way to pass through what was renamed Fatima Jinnah Road. When I visit Lahore with my children now, I bring them on these detours. I try to find what was the house, but always I’ve been away too long, the landscape of the road has changed too much, and there is no one to ask, almost everyone is gone. I wave in the direction of one commercial parking lot, or another, and pretend the gesture’s not a guess.

G

*Name has been changed.

Sorayya Khan is the author of three novels, City of Spies (2015), Five Queen’s Road (2009), and Noor (2003). Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, North American Review, and Journal of Narrative Politics, among others. She is the recipient of a Fulbright award and Malahat Review Novella Prize, and City of Spies was the 2015 winner of the Best International Fiction Book at the Sharjah Book Fair. She is the daughter of a Pakistani father and Dutch mother, was born in Austria, grew up in Pakistan, and now lives in the US. See www.sorayyakhan.com for more information about her work.

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