[CREATIVE NONFICTION] Pruned Branches
The year I turned eight, my cousin Yaqub was fifteen. One day that summer, I stood in the door to the tiny kitchen in their home in Lahore, watching his sister, Zainab, drop raw meatballs into a sputtering curry sauce. Aluminum woks teetered as usual under the stove and the counter was a clutter of knives and ladles, clean and dirty. Their wooden eight-section spice box sat by the door, enticing me with the fading turquoise and vermillion whorls on its lid. As I reached for its worn knob, a bony hand gripped my wrist. My body tensed. I dropped the lid.
It was Yaqub—known among the cousins by then as the Mad One. It was said that as a baby, he had contracted a hellish fever and tumbled off his parents’ bed. The fall had retarded his mental development and twisted his limbs. He would hobble around the house, chasing younger cousins playfully, and we would shriek, thrilled by his lurking unpredictability. His loud voice used to be the only aggressive thing about him.
But on that day I knew he had grown stronger, become more a man than a playmate. I could feel it in his grip.
As he tugged me out of the kitchen, I screamed. Zainab stood frozen, a pinch of cumin in one hand. From the veranda outside, their mother looked up from behind a pile of dirt-gray laundry.
“He’s a good boy,” she yelled out and thwacked a shirt on her washing stone as he dragged me toward the inner rooms. “He won’t hurt you.”
I can’t remember now what happened after Yaqub dragged me away, except for echoes of the din that ensued, sounds muffled by the cushion of time.
Curry Sauce—A Reliable Base for All Raw Meats: (This is simpler than you may think and more complex than you may imagine.) Sauté thinly sliced onions in hot oil until they wilt and turn to gold. Add some minced garlic and ginger. The second they give off an aroma, splash in some water. Don’t let it burn. (You see, you must let the heat have its way with each ingredient to draw forth the last possible ounce of flavor, and then stop. Stop right before the heat claims it, breaks it down past your optimal need.) Now, for the plainest curry, sprinkle in some salt, turmeric, coriander powder and cayenne, and stir briskly. Make the sauce your own with any combination of these whole spices: black peppercorns; cumin seeds; bay leaves; cinnamon sticks; cloves; cardamom pods. Whenever the aroma comes forth, temper the intensity with a bit of water. Stir in one finely chopped tomato and let the sauce become. (How? You are on your own. It must not be watery. Use your eyes and your ears and your nose. It must not be dry.) When the oil separates just so, add some well-drained raw meat of your choice. From here on, follow the requirements of the meat.
My new sister-in-law, Hina, is trying to make sense of our extended family in Pakistan that teems with what we call double-first-cousins. My mother’s brother is married to my father’s sister. Also, my mother’s sister is married to my father’s brother. My mother’s other four siblings and my father’s other two siblings and three half-siblings are not married to each other, but their aunts and uncles might be, sometimes merging generations. One of my cousins has two wives, both living, and another of my cousins is one of two wives. The current generation has successfully crashed the databases of several family tree websites—you just can’t render a four-dimensional Klein bottle as a two-dimensional silhouette of a bare tree. Hina doesn’t know this yet. So she sends me a hand-drawn map she’s begun by crawling through our Facebook relationships. She wants me to help her clean this thing up.
Every summer, our parents would take us back to Lahore and we would hop between relatives for two whole months. My mother’s eldest brother had a four-story home, if you counted the roof-top and the basement, the two places we kids spent most of our time either getting drenched in the rain or squabbling over card games by a kerosene lamp. The second floor was always let out to faceless tenants who we were not to disturb. But we didn’t mind because the main floor had erratically furnished bedrooms that opened from one into another, like a system of caves. The extended cousin-web was in agreement that of all the homes, this was the best one for hide-and-go-seek.
On Fridays, my uncle would return from the mosque and scooter off on his rusting green Vespa to the farmer’s bazaar. He would bring home jute sacks engorged with produce, the dirt still damp on protruding roots, and, whenever they were to be found, he brought back bitter gourds.
The women of his house were under strict orders not to discard the warty peelings from the gourds. My uncle insisted that the rind, the bitterest part of the vegetable, was the healthiest. Zainab, his eldest daughter, would dutifully gather the rind into her mortar. Squatting on the floor of their tiny kitchen, she would smash out the juice and use it to knead the dough for the day’s roti. Their older son, Wasim, was the only one who would openly refuse the roti, saying he had already imbibed his weekly dose of salvation at the Friday prayers. Their younger son, Yaqub, would eat whatever he was fed.
Rotis for One Compliant Family Meal: Sieve 3 cups finely ground hard red wheat to remove all the chaff. (The chaff would give your roti ragged edges, and then who would marry you?) Slowly work into the flour 1 cup of the hottest water your hands can stand. (The hotter the water, the softer the roti, so the scald will be worth it.) Knead the dough with a determined fist. (Be firm so that later, it will yield when you try to shape it.) Now let it rest. (Allowing some rest will make it further pliable.) Tear away a handful and form a smooth ball. Flatten the ball into a disc and roll it evenly into a perfect circle. (Here, you’re on your own again. The circle must be perfect. No one can teach you how. Your hands are your only hope.) Place the raw roti on a hot griddle. (How hot? So hot that it would instantly toast a pinch of flour, just shy of burning it.) When one side barely begins to blister, flip it over and let the other side blister well. Now comes your moment of triumph. Flick the roti onto an open flame and see it puff into a sphere. (If you have done everything right to this point, you will hold the world in your hands.) Don’t let it burn.
I admire Hina’s map as it lies on my desk. I’ve printed it out because I want to draw on it by hand, sketch in the stories that I recall. Her map is far from complete, but the network on the page reflects the essence of our family relationships more accurately than the hierarchical grids I’ve seen before. There’s Hina. There’s her husband, my brother. There I am. And here, my mother. And my uncle, her oldest brother. And his wife. (I remember when they joined Facebook, and I had to spend several minutes wondering what privacy level to set them at, so my lifestyle wouldn’t send them to an early grave.) Here’s Zainab (who got them on Facebook). And Wasim (who emigrated to Germany two decades ago, and stubbornly refused to get on Facebook until his teenaged daughter added him recently). Yaqub is not on the page. He was of course never on Facebook, but Hina hasn’t drawn him in either. I wonder whether she knows of him.
The summer I was fourteen, I think, I wandered into my uncle’s hushed drawing room, perpetually darkened by aubergine velvet curtains sewn in place. My uncle stood to one side, his arms crossed, my mother next to him, her hand on her mouth. Zainab, who had by now a challengingly disabled son of her own, had her mother by the shoulders, tears streaming down both their faces.
“Should I, too, discard my boy the way you did yours?” she yelled at her mother.
I glanced at my uncle, who shook his head, one warning eyebrow arched. I retreated into the curtains, unable even as a teenager, to insert my voice into a conversation of the elders. But I couldn’t make myself leave. I wanted to hear what my aunt would say.
She only wailed as she wrenched herself from her daughter’s grip, and threw herself at her husband, pummeling him with weak fists.
My mother left my uncle’s side, taking me out of the room with her. Later, with my head in her lap, she explained that Yaqub had been placed in an institution in the months after the day he had dragged me away from the kitchen. That summer was when the silence had begun; when the Mad One began to dematerialize from the collective family consciousness.
“Things were complicated,” she said. “Things were difficult.”
I wanted to ask her if it was my fault. But I wasn’t sure why I would think that it might have been; so, I said nothing.
After that, we, none of us, ever discussed him again. My uncle preferred it that way. He had saved all that rind, extracted all the strength he could from it. But some waters were too bitter even for him.
I stare for a while at the spot on the paper where Yaqub’s name should be. Then I call my mother.
“Where is Yaqub now?” I ask her.
She hesitates and says she heard he passed away a few years ago at an asylum.
“You heard?” I ask, indignant, as if this has been hidden from me on purpose.
“The only reason I know is because they had some trouble locating Wasim,” she explains. “He was the only one who visited him once a year on his trip back home for Eid. He would bring him a box of sweets and a new outfit.” She was crying now. “But then he stopped coming back to the country.”
I remain silent, giving her time to collect herself. Seconds slip by.
“The asylum wouldn’t hand the body over to the family for burial,” she adds after a while, her voice choking again. “They couldn’t confirm the connection.”
Hanging up, I consider the empty space where my cousin belongs. I glance at my uncle’s name. No arched eyebrows.
I draw in a box for the Mad One and write “Yaqub” in it for the rest to see.
Maya Kanwal’s fiction appears in Kalyani Magazine, Quarterly West and Squawk Back. Her experimental nonfiction appears in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review. She has completed a novel set in Pakistan and is working on a short story collection inspired by her roots in Pakistan’s Indus Valley.