November 2, 2008

We returned to my old home, in the way a place of birth with no other involvement is a home of sorts, after three years of promises and cancellations. We have to go there, my wife had said, sensitive to the political undertow of my large family: “Nahi to achcha nahi lagega.” These dull words have always held a sharp threat. Disapproval in family is slow but heavy, and once borne, its weight is never quite forgotten. To not visit my home – in official documentation, if not in spirit – would mean the overlapping circles of interest that hold family together would shrink even further.

Many years ago, before Dubai was an inkling, a large, industrious family lived in a room on the upper floor of a structure built without consideration. In that tiny room the ambitions of eight children were packed together, vibrating furiously like molecules on slow burn for decades. They fixed radios, bound pages, trimmed yellowed book edges, picked apart their bicycles and clocks for cleaning, and foolishly stepped out of second-floor windows to clean the exterior, below which was a steep drop cut short by a safety net of crisscrossing live wires.

Cows sauntered below the boarded windows now, in the cool shadows cast by a harmless morning sun. Inside the Scorpio, we looked up past the electric wires, above the clunky neon signage boxes, at the fabled room. It appeared beyond redemption, kept alive only by nostalgia. Perhaps it was unfair to drag my uncle there once more. The Maharani Road room was a void now, all brick and concrete and wood, still standing, but without a trace of the unique humanity that made it so symbolic.

This sadness was contained to me, however. Leaning forward above the steering wheel, my uncle peered at the wires, trying to recall which sister lost her footing and fell on an unprotected wire. He laughed, yes, there was an electrocution. But who was it? The three sisters are alive and live well in Middle Eastern comfort. He continued giggling. With some help he remembered the hapless victim and, in a rush, how they pulled her to safety, what happened afterward, and that a second sister too had fallen from the roof.

Just then, a man in tattered clothing stood quite still below the wires, and fell to the ground. It was a violent fall, completely self-imposed, as if falling hard was an art to be perfected. He rose, dusted his shoulders, and threw himself backwards again with such force that his legs flailed above him, and landed with the finality of a full stop.


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