Once upon a time I had a brother………

Today I am febrile and in my feverish state I feel his gentle presence. The heel of his soft hand gently kneading my aching forehead and asking me “does it hurt here? Bringing solace with his touch. Sensitive, kind and gentle at this moment, cuttingly sarcastic at the next. A man of many layers.
He is no longer in the realm of the living. A wall of smoke came between him and me when I was fifteen and he nineteen. He had started to smoke. Once standing in the outer garden of my father’s house, the petunias blooming in a garden the size of a field, he pulled out a cigarette. “Do you want to try?” His eyes were sarcastic. I with my bravado was never one to refuse a challenge. Visions of Dames of Hollywood flitted across my brain as I envisioned myself with a slender cigarette between my fingers, and me nonchalantly exhaling slowly into the face of some gorgeous hunk.
He lit it for me and I took it and inhaled. The smirk was in his eyes. He wanted an ally in me but felt I would not be able to make the par. I inhaled and all my breathing tubes closed, collapsed, and a burning sensation rent my chest. My windpipe turned into a raging inferno. I coughed and coughed and coughed. That was the end of my effort to join him in his adventures. From then on it was a strange association, I would want to be with him, but when he smoked I would end up with such a miserable headache which I later discovered was a smoke triggered migraine. The ironies of life that I never connected the two. As long as he was in the vicinity, my chest burned and my head hurt, so my heart and my body were always at war with each other about his presence.
“Come and listen to this” he would say with the volume of banned poetry of Mir in his hand, he would liltingly recite a couplet, I would run to get my red diary to write it down, he would say “just listen”, but in the end I would make him repeat it to write it down. He was my intellectual oasis.
He was also the most popular of all my brothers with my friends, he was polite, answered the door and actually asked them if they wanted to come in. He very politely informed them if I was not there and offered to take a message. One would think that was normal behavior, but in my house this was very gracious behavior.
My dear friend of my childhood was once sick and a friend of his had come to fetch him. I quickly made a bouquet of jasmine from the vine in our yard and gave it to him. “Please deliver it to Shehla, and tell her to get well soon” I said as he took off sitting behind his friend on the Vespa, clutching a bouquet of flowers, a lock of straight dark hair fallen on his forehead. One would have thought he was carrying the bouquet for his sweetheart not for the sick friend of his little sister.
I have many vignettes of childhood memories with him. He was the silent gracious caring person in a house of hellions.
One clear memory is of my mother, bidding goodbye to him when he was leaving for Boarding school. He was wearing his blazer, which said on the pocket “Never give up” or something like that. A boarding school in Murree, hundreds of miles away from home. He was standing forlorn by his suitcase and “bistara”. The pathos of the scene hit me in my heart, he was too small too vulnerable even to my five year old senses, the boarding school had mean boys, he was only nine!
He left with my brothers silently, and my mother wept for days. Even to my young eyes I could see the mother son bond that I later saw mentioned in the Quran and Hadith. Later Ammi told me that he wrote her one letter every day of that first year at the Boarding school. It was there that I think he developed the outer crust that none of us could ever get past. One thing became evident when he returned that it was going to be difficult to get close to him.

My chronology is mixed up as he went in and out of our home so many times starting at the tender age of nine. I was fourteen and he was an English major at the University. Through him I read all the scandalous books of those days: Lady Chatterley’s lover, Madame Bovary, the Scarlet Letter and The Confessions of an Opium eater and several others. Where these books intrigued him, they left me confused. I felt they were far from reality, I found it hard to identify with these characters. These were people from another culture, another way of life, another level of ethics; it was like reading a fairy tale.
He went to one of the elite private schools in Karachi and broke all records of academia in the entire commonwealth. His intellect did not bring him peace, he was restless, and flowing with whomsoever showed up, reading whatever was available. I thought he was all grown up since he was at University. He was only 18. At nineteen he had completed his Masters in English and passed his civil service entrance exam. We said goodbye to him again as he went away to Lahore and was now going to be trained as civil servant.
Academia came easy to him but life was difficult for him, I always felt he was something else internally that was exposed to no one after that first year at boarding school.
He could be cruel and cutting in his selection of words if he wanted to, he was a verbal fencer and no one could win an argument from him.
Ammi and I went to Balochistan, The land of the feudal lords, to visit him. It was a memorable visit, driving through the hills, and the furrow on his forehead telling me that he was worried. Later I was told that we had driven through the highway where no official had passed unharmed. Allah SWT was looking after him and us.
The smoke always interfered between me and him, it made me non functional, and I waited for the time I could leave and when I left I wanted to see him again and listen to his stories that even though had to be pried out of him, were worth the effort.
He was like a spirit that came and went from our home at will, without permanence or stability. His intellect was always understated; he never proclaimed himself as intelligent but in his early teens he was many times puzzled how dense other people were.
Do I miss him………? it is difficult to evaluate. He communicated with me by letter three times in the twenty-six years I was away from him, and yet my leaving home for advanced studies was thanks to him. My mother wanted me to marry and not go alone to the States, he said “ If she gets married how can she go to the States, her husband may not be ready to do so” For this I am eternally grateful to Allah SWT who sent him to help me.
Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be upon him) said that when one’s book of life closes, our deeds cease. However one leaves three things behind after death:
* Righteous children, who continue to pray for their parents
* Good deeds that are continuous (sadaqa jariya) and
* Written ilm (Islamic knowledge) that others can benefit from.
Even though I do not fall in the three-abovementioned categories, I continue to pray for him in every prayer: now, in Hajj and in Ummrah. I hope Allah (SWT) accepts my prayers.
I have not seen him in many years; even years before he left the realm of the living and yet, he is alive in my life, absent though alive as he had always been.
I feel I have just left him sitting at the dinner table, a book in hand, a lock of hair fallen on his forehead, a lit cigarette in his fingers and a half sipped cup of tea in front of him, he was passing life by.

2 thoughts on “Once upon a time I had a brother………

  1. My dear Asma, I remember him vividly from the limited encounters I had with him. I recall his love of books; he was distressed that when I moved from USA to Pakistan I left my books behind. Yes, in his cutting tone he said , ” so you brought your wooden furniture and other junk but could not bring your books.”
    Your eternally gracious mother stepped in and said, ” she is going to enjoy building her library again.”


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