I always felt as if you were judging me mama, the pupils of your eyes following me like hissing snakes across the room. You said nothing but I knew exactly what you were thinking each time – I could have done something, anything; I could have protected him; pleaded with them to let him go – let my brother, my beautiful everything, who sacrificed everything so that I could live.
But neither you nor me mama could call this living. We lay comatose watching the outside world drift by. Media headlines roused me now and again from my somnambulistic state, as excited reporters spoke about the cafe, the college cafe where we once all sat, discussing things that seem so foolish and pointless now – when they burst in shouting loud phrases in Arabic that I didn’t understand. Azaan pulled me under the table, where we lay, stupidly hoping that we would not be found. It was as I said – stupid and took less than a minute. We were yanked out, put in line with the others, told to face and touch the cold graffiti wall – filled with cartoons of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck – as angry, hurried discussions took place behind us. The stench of fear hovered in the air as the hours passed by and the loud weeping soon subsided into the sounds of deep prayer — Christian, Muslim and Jewish — all of them seeking salvation from an unknown Father. It was strange, all of us who had been so conscious of our differences in religion were now united by the Almighty in the face of certain death.
Even today, I remember Azaan’s shaking fingertips clutching mine and I cannot help but smile. Even in the end, he was trying to play the big brother; trying to tell me it would be all right, everything would be all right in the end. He always had that gift, my brother, of making everything all right for me. From my maths homework to my refusal to eat because of my constant furious rows with you– he always managed to get me to eat. Azaan lived for us mama and it’s not right that we did what we did. Why did we efface his presence, why did we act like he never existed and why did you blame me for being alive! Yes, let me say it! You wished I had died didn’t you, and that he had lived; you wished it was him rather than me being the world’s hero, giving soundbites, retelling a story of my bravery in the face of fear.
Perhaps you detested me because of the lie. Yes, I should admit it. It was easier, more practical to paint me as a hero, as someone who survived by fooling the kidnappers by telling them I was married and recently pregnant. The fact is it wasn’t me who said this at all, but Azaan, quick thinking Azaan who thought of it. Having paid more attention in Koran class than me, he knew enough conversational Arabic to understand what the men were saying. And when the man came and held the knife against my throat; Azaan’s fingers against my hand tightened as he shouted to the man in Arabic. It worked because all of a sudden the knife was ripped away and I was pulled up, pulled up and thrust through the back door of the cafe. I was running, cowardly running towards safety, conscious only that I was alive.
The lie transformed everything for us didn’t it mama? Media interviews, money, lectures to admiring men and women, I ran from place to place in a bid to persuade myself that I was a hero. I didn’t need you, mama to tell me that I was not; I did that very well myself. I relived the screams, the cries and the sobbing that echoed from my brother’s throat, as I pulled my fingertips away from his, knowing that it would be the last time I would ever see him. Yes, mama perhaps I was wrong and selfish but did you ever realized how hard it was for me? To be something I am not and to be it every day.
It was no surprise for either of us when I left. After my doctorate, I moved, far away from the confines of our small beautiful home to a small corner in the UK – no I won’t say where. You were trying to hide it but the relief in your eyes gave everything away. For the first time in a long time you looked alive, the sunken look disappeared, and the mandatory tears – when an Indian daughter leaves home to go overseas for the first time – just didn’t come. I don’t blame you, mama. I couldn’t wait to get away from you either. Azaan’s death should have brought us closer instead it ensured we remained cold strangers to one another.
It was away from the loud noises of India where I found myself. Though the news and the internet were here; my fame was non-existent in this small countryside, and finally the world treated me as it should, as a human being, rather than a hero. Farming, gardening, teas with neighbors who had the tacit courtesy to ask but not ask too much, I slowly started to discover strange things about myself that I could live and laugh. What I did not count on was falling in love with Aaron, big handsome Aaron. That was the beginning and the end of me.
Perhaps even you could understand this mama. You were in love too with a man who never deserved you, but Papa was a man who could do what Azaan, and certainly I never could, make you laugh out loud. You would pretend to be angry when he openly flirted and even try to kiss you in public – an anathema, even among married Indian couples – but you loved it, loved the attention, the possession, the hungry attraction of a man for you. You were, sorry to be harsh mama, never pretty, nor witty. Men did not queue up for you, and the fact that an openly attractive and masculine man wanted you was everything. Family, jobs, kids came secondary, and it was no surprise that you were broken when he left. It was left to Azaan to be the father figure, a task too heavy for his young shoulders. With terror striking our home and taking him away, all you had was me and bitter memories – neither of which was wanted. Terror had destroyed our little world, and broken us as a family, none of which ironically was ever seen by the outside world.
I hoped to set that right mama. I hoped that in time Aaron and I could build a new life, a life away from you. With you, I succeeded but not with Azaan. Yes, my brother was now my ghost, the intruder in my marital bed. Every time I went to a movie, went shopping, made love to Aaron, he was there tapping me on the shoulder as if to say ‘what about me?’ It drove me mad, it drove Aaron mad. Therapists, psychiatrists, marriage counselors – I even contemplated getting an exorcist – came and went with no luck. Aaron tried hard, I know he did, but how can you fight against someone who is a ghost and that too your wife’s brother. It was too much to ask of him and one day I came home to a set of keys, and a note which explained just where I should mail his belongings to. Ah Azaan, protective stubborn Azaan, you had won the battle.
I knew then that the only person I could turn to was you, only you could banish Azaan from my life. I called you and for the first time in a long time, I broke down. I told you things, things you had never known before, about me and Azaan, how he had not looked upon me as his sister; how he had raped me. Yes mama, the same Azaan who you and me – why should I exclude myself – had idolized, the self-same Azaan who had heroically sacrificed his all for his sister was also a rapist. Both selves resided in him, both were expressions of his love. It did little to console me. All I know now is that Azaan my ghostly brother is here and I can’t let him go…
I see you looking at me mama with great tenderness, tenderness which seems to be tinged with great sorrow, as you talk to a woman with large spectacles and a white coat. The conversation is unclear to me but words like terror, psychological trauma, post-traumatic stress, come wafting by, none of which I understand. I also don’t understand why my purse and other items have been taken away only to be handed back without my scissors and the little razor I use to shave my legs. I understand it even less when I was asked to change into a very unfashionable robe and led to a room which reminded me a bit of my college dormitory room.
I am scared, but then you’ve come mama and spoken cheerfully about me, Azaan and papa and I ’m happy because with you I know I am safe, that nothing bad can really happen to me. I ask for them and you say they are coming but then you quickly conceal a newspaper beyond you which I noticed has a headline about some terrorist attack with some gunmen attacking a café and killing hostages. I really hope you will drop it off but for some reason, you purse your lips as if you are trying to stop yourself from crying, say goodbye and carry it home.
It’s been days but for some reason, I am still here. Many people have come and told me the same thing that I have been unwell but I am getting better soon. I, however, am not deaf and the sisters – at least I have learned to call them that – on our floor, or rather ward, are not the most discreet, so I hear the word pagal quite a lot. From the people in white coats – I am encouraged to call them by their names – I get to hear the word ‘transference’ quite a lot. It turns out that some poor woman has been so traumatized by the deaths of her family members in that horrific café terror attack that she ‘internalized’ the experience and has started reliving the other experience with herself as one of the protagonists. The experimental treatment is being done on her, says the morning sister cheerfully as she hands me a cup of tea and I can’t help but shudder and wonder where on earth is mama. I haven’t seen her since she dropped me off here, and I must confess I am getting angry now.
I need to find answers and quickly but lately everything is a blur. The friendly people are not so friendly now. I am in a strange room where my food is often being pushed through the door. I have also been told on the times I have been lucid, that I have become increasingly aggressive and violent especially when I have been told about my brother and father who are – according to them – dead. I hasten to correct them; I was the one who survived the café terror attack for which I had become a celebrity. Dad, I explain cheerfully, had left mama for some time but he was back with the family and coming soon to see me. Azaan was absolutely fine as he had been sick and hadn’t wanted to go out that day. So, I explained patiently, no one was dead and all I needed to do was wait for my mother to come and pick me up so I could go home.
After this, no one says anything. I am led into a room where soft music is playing. I see other people caught up in an intense discussion, and soon I realize most of them are talking about the café terror attack and how lucky they were that their loved ones escaped. I rush to join this group and feel that I am finally among friends who understand me. Life is not so bad here after all. I’ll make sure to tell mama that.