Kafka and the doll


If it weren’t for Facebook, I would have never heard from my cousin Naeem bhai ever again. I looked at the photograph of myself sent to me by him after all these years. My entire life spun before my eyes. It has been forty years since my dad died and we had lost touch with his side of the family.

Franz Kafka, the story goes, encountered a little girl in the park where he went walking daily. She was crying. She had lost her doll and was desolate.

Kafka offered to help her look for the doll and arranged to meet her the next day at the same spot. Unable to find the doll he composed a letter from the doll and read it to her when they met.

“Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world. I will write you of my adventures.” This was the beginning of many letters. When he and the little girl met, he read her from these carefully composed letters the imagined adventures of the beloved doll. The little girl was comforted.

When the meetings came to an end, Kafka presented her with a doll. She obviously looked different from the original doll but an attached letter explained: “My travels have changed me!”

Many years later, the now grown girl found a letter stuffed into an unnoticed crevice in the cherished replacement doll. In summary it said: “Everything that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.”

My dad had settled in Sukkur, Sind, Pakistan after immigrating there from Aligarh, India after the partition. That’s where I was born. I don’t know exactly how it transpired, but my phupi convinced my parents on one of her visits to Sukkur to let her take me to Hyderabad.

In the English language, all aunts are aunts, but in Urdu every kind of aunt and every kind of uncle has a specific word for them. Phupi is your dad’s sister while Khala is your mom’s sister. Phupi’s husband is Phupa and khala’s husband is Khaloo. Your dad’s older brother is Taya and his younger brother is Chacha. Dad’s older brother Taya’s wife is your Tayi and Dad’s younger brother Chacha’s wife is your Chachi. Your mom’s brother is your Mamoo and his wife is Momani. South Asian families are typically large, and this vocabulary is crucial for our ability to gossip efficiently. Cousins are typically called Bhai meaning brother. Cousin marriages are still very common and when you get married, you stop being brothers and sisters. Please don’t marry your cousins! Your children will have higher chance of having genetically transferred diseases like Thalassemia, Metachromatic leukodystrophy and Pseudologia fantastica! Ok, I made up the last one, but you get the point.

My dad was the youngest child of his parents. He was six years old when both of his parents died in the same year. He moved to Pakistan a few years later at twelve years of age to live with his sister in Hyderabad. This is where he completed high school and learned from Phupa how to draw maps. He later moved to Sukkur where he started his own construction company. He built lots of homes, schools and the Anwar Paracha hospital in Sukkur. He designed our home which was very beautiful. The walls had fluffs and shiny parts in a beautiful wall material that you mix in glue and paste on the walls. I have never seen such beautiful wall coverings anywhere else in the world. We had nice things and three servants. When I look back, I can see that my dad was very creative. He had a very English lifestyle with suit and ties, polished boots, choice of furniture, the tea cozies and his vespa. He was riding that darn Vespa on that unfortunate evening when he was involved in the road accident that took his life a month later after several failed surgeries. He put me and my little brother in Saint Savior elementry school before transferring us to the private school. He was hired to build a board room for the private school in Sukkur which is called a public school but it’s not a public school. He liked it better than Saint Savior and enrolled me and my brother in it which was brief because we couldn’t afford it as soon as he died.

My phupi only had two teen boys and she terribly wanted a daughter. I am not sure how old I was or how long I lived with this adopted family until my mom got me back but my earliest memories are from Hyderabad. My phupi was one of 9 children of my paternal grandparents. When British raj ended with partition of India, four of them moved to Pakistan and the rest of them stayed in India. The british left South Asia after ruling it for a hundred years. The bloody partition of India in 1947 resulted in millions of deaths, mass migration and the largest homelessness in the history of humanity. My Taya told us his own story of migration. “I was seventeen years old. I got on a train to Pakistan. It stopped on a station and someone announced all muslims on the train to go to one special cabin. Nine men went to the specified cabin but I remained frozen in my seat. By the next train stop all nine of them were dead. They had been slaughterd.”

Phupi lived in Hyderabad and two of her siblings lived in the northern part of Pakistan. Why did they lived so far apart from each other in the new country? I am not sure. It was probably work related. Phupi just died last year. From what I have heard, it sounds like she had a fragility fracture due to underlying osteoporosis. She was the last surviving sibling of my dad. Phupi and Phupa lived in Latifabad, Hyderabad in a modest size simple house with a front yard with a small pomegranate tree. One time, I looked up at the pomegranates and pointed to them.

“I want one!”

“They are not ripe yet, guriya!”

But Aleem bhai, the younger son of phupi caved in and picked one for me. It really was very sour and I couldn’t eat it. Like the pomegranate, they gave me anything I asked for, carried me around and read me stories. Phupi and phupa, and both of my cousins in this adopted family, took care of me while I lived with them in Hyderabad. I was treated like a princess. Because I am the oldest kid in my own family, it was nice to experience being a baby in a family.

Phupi kept her little house tidy and stayed home while my phupa worked as an architect. They didn’t have a refrigerator like we did in Sukkur and we drank water out of the clay pots that kept water cool enough in summer months in Hyderabad. There was a television set in their small living room with only one channel that aired from 3pm until 11pm every day. Phupa read the newspaper every morning and both of my cousins went to school. It was a very peaceful quiet small family and everyone loved me very much.

My parents were not religious. Phupi was a devout muslim woman and she prayed everyday. I didn’t know the words and I just copied her movements. Everyone fasted during Ramadan, the month of prayer and fasting, in the Mulim religion. I asked them repeatedly to wake me up for Sahri (the morning meal before fast starts) because I wanted to fast just like all the grown ups but they wouldn’t.

One of my earliest memory is standing behind the bathroom door eating toothpaste. Yes, it was minty, cool, and delicious; and I was eating it when phupo found me. I pretended to rub my teeth with a finger and said to her that I was just cleaning my teeth, but she knew what I was doing. She took it from my hand and said, “Don’t eat that, guriya.”

I have no recollection of ever being scolded or punished by any of them. I don’t know when my mom got me back, but I was reunited with my own family before my dad died. I was six.

We lost touch with his side of the family. Later, my mom’s brother sponsored us to immigrate to America and we left Pakistan. I was able to go to India in 2015 after jumping through many hoops to see family in Aligarh, New Delhi and Agra. Some of them live behind the Taj Mahal! Can you imagine?

When I was little in Hyderabad, I was catching ants in the front yard and trapping them in small paper envelopes but they kept getting out. I was trying to figure out how these ants were escaping when the little window of Naeem bhai’s (phupi’s older son) room popped open.

He looked outside and asked, “What are you doing, guriya?”

“Nothing!” I said to him.

He reached his pocket and pulled out candy. He bought me one everyday. It was a short plastic sleeve with usually four little hard candy balls and sometimes five if you were lucky. It was my favorite kind of candy. I remember him as a skinny young man in tight jeans. He would buy tape recorder cassettes that were twenty rupees each, and blasted music in his room all day long. “Dekho maine dekha hay ye ek sapna!” played for weeks! Naeem bhai smoked secretly as well. However, he never smoked in front of phupa out of respect.

I looked at the photograph of myself sent to me by Naeem bhai after all these years. My entire life spun before my eyes. July 31st of 2020 will mark the 40th death anniversary of Abu (meaning dad in urdu/arabic).

The clinic was slow and I was able to talk to Naeem bhai last week.

Me; “I hope you don’t smoke any longer!”

Naeem bhai; “You remember that? I quit smoking after having an angioplasty and stents.”

Me; “Good! Make sure to never smoke again and take your cholesterol medicine regularly. “

Naeem; “When did you guys moved to America?”

Me; “1993”. I have lived here most of my life, travelled the world and met lots of people from around the world.

Naeem bhai; “How is momani?” (His mom’s brother’s wife, meaning my mom)

Me; “She is doing well. She’s working for Ali’s (my brother) company. Rest of the time, she stays busy growing vegetables.”

Naeem bhai; “She is the last surviving person from all nine children or their spouses of our grandparents.”

Me; “Oh, I didn’t realize it.”

Naeem; “I am happy to see that you are successful in your life!”

Me; “Thank you”.

Naeem bhai; “Are you in good health?”

Me; “Yes.”

We shared some of the memories of Hyderabad. He said he went to Sukkur last year where everything has changed and all of our old neighbors have moved away.

Naeem bhai; “Do you ever visit Pakistan?”

Me; “I haven’t in last twenty years.”

Naeem bhai; “Tell me, were you happy in the good old days or now?”

Me; I have lived in many places in different circumstances. I lived in Larkana for five years in the dorms far away from all family to go to medical school, all of my class mates spoke the local provincial language, Sindhi that I didn’t know very well but I learned. I spoke Urdu because we were a mohajir (immigrant) family from north India. I made good friends there and did ok in school.

I married my class mate with a beautiful face and he was a good student!

Most people in the world are good.

When we first came to America, mamoo helped us get an apartment for two months and then we were on our own. We didn’t know anyone here. Strangers helped us. Everyone struggled but we are doing ok now.

Naeem bhai; “How many children do you have?”

Me; Two! Both of my children are very intelligent, studious and nice young people. I have my patients, co workers, friends. I am happy.

Naeem bhai; “Do you fast in Ramadan?”

“No,” I laughed. He was disappointed but I wasn’t going to lie to him.

Naeem bhai; “When people succeed in life, they don’t remain religious.” He said.

Me; “I agree! Data shows people with more education, IQ or money are less likely to be religious.” I almost stuttered. It’s hard to say that to someone you love!

Naeem bhai; “Well, I can’t win. You have read more than I have. Stay happy! “

After talking with my cousin, I realized how ironic is it to have the nickname guriya, meaning the doll! It reminded me of the story and its moral:

“Everything that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.”

Life teaches, time teaches! I feel calm.


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