I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
17 April 1969
Hoof beats clacked across the driveway. Horns honked. “The horse! The horse!” someone shrieked. “Oh, he’s so beautiful!” Jimmy recognized the voice of one of his girl-cousins.
He was sitting on a plastic lawn chair in the garden in a silk shirt and trousers and a thick brocade coat. “Give me the most expensive one you have,” his mother had thrown the bolt of fabric across the sheet, sending the sock-footed assistants scrambling after it. “My filmstar son is getting married. Finally.” She harrumphed and looked at the equally self-righteous salesman (himself, he had a wife cooking his dinner and four children at home), his legs crossed on the bedsheeted floor.
“Well, if Mallika Begum’s oldest son is getting married, what else but the best? And every performer wants to look his best when he’s in the public eye,” he acquiesced, a chubby finger pushing a strand of oiled hair from his forehead. “All the stars in Bombay buy only from Ali Kamali’s, didn’t you read that article about my shop in Stardust?”
So now Jimmy is wearing the heaviest silk brocade from his neck to his knees. 46 degrees centigrade. Even the fans and air coolers blowing full blast don’t make a difference. Jimmy can’t breathe. They’ve hung the sehra over his face. The ropes of jasmine flowers are unbearably sweet and thick. Sweat is dripping from his face and getting stuck at the tight collar. The shirt is soaked and Jimmy can feel the rings of sweat forming on the coat around his neck and under his arms.
Now and then there is a scream of delight as one of his female relatives walks in and sees him. “Oh look, look! Just see what a darling he’s looking. No, no, not one more luddoo before the party. I cannot.” The second sentence is addressed to one of the 20 servants stumbling through the crowds of guests with silver trays full of sweets piled in sticky mountains.
A manicured hand squeezes his cheeks. Fingers stuff yet another buttery sweet into his mouth. He chews. Swallows. Water, he thinks. He has to have a drink. If he doesn’t, his mouth will cleave shut. His tongue is congealing into a sugary mass.
“What? A horse? Who said we were using a horse?”
“A horse? In this weather?”
“A horse? That’s mad, the boy can’t even ride!”
“He doesn’t ride himself, there’s the horsewallah with him.”
Jimmy’s mother’s voice ended the discussion. “My son is going to the wedding in an air conditioned car!”
Jimmy is ceremoniously helped to his feet by too many people. He almost falls. “Ha!” shouts his brother Muzzafer, “Drunk already!” Somehow he manages to make it down the stairs and into the car.
“No need for sunglasses this time, my boy,” his father thumps him gruffly on the back.
The car pulls out of the driveway amid cries and horns.
In the reception hall, Jimmy is sitting on the platform for two hours, the jasmine beginning to turn brown and wilted on his face. “Where is she? Where is she?” murmur the guests. He can hear his mother and his sisters moving frantically through the crowds, their polite conversation tense and shrill. Someone falls down into the chair next to him. “So, heard the news, I guess,” Muzzafer pats him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, old man.”
“What are you telling him, Muzzafer?” his sister Amna approaches. “Jamal, Farida is saying that she’s changed her mind. No one knows where she’s gone.”
And above all the din, his mother’s voice saying, “Syed Jamal Noor Al-Hussain, the recording star genius, with hundreds of hit songs and ten gold records, educated in India and in Europe, and the oldest son of the Noor Al-Hussain family. This handsome boy is looking for a wife. A good and homely girl to love him and take care of him, to become the wife of … a star!”
Zenab stood up. All through the chaos of the wedding, she’d been trembling in her chair. Listening to Jimmy’s mother, she’d broken out in a cold sweat. Her own mother, sitting beside her, usually attentive to her daughter’s every whim, had been distracted by the excitement. The bride had run away! What a delicious scandal! It would be conversation for months. Zenab, on the other hand, was overcome by the sensation that her moment had come. She knows it’s time. She stands up. “I will,” she pronounces clearly and definitively to the “ahs” of the crowd.
Zenab had been in love with Jimmy since she was 12. His record, Love is a Flame in My Heart, was the first record she ever bought, after saving her pocket money for weeks. She’d had to bribe her brother to go to the record store and buy it for her. And then bribe him again not to tell her parents. She and all her friends had cut out his pictures and glued them inside their desks at school. He had been her inspiration all through her singing lessons. And what luck when she’d been an extra in the film he was in and been asked to sing part of a song with him because his partner was unwell. Zenab had been paralyzed for a few seconds, it was just too wonderful. She’d felt the blood rushing to her face and she’d started to feel breathless and faint, spots of color danced in front of her eyes. Somehow, she’d managed to sing with him, and even a year later, she sang along with the record of the film at least once a day, “How can you hide your eyes from me, my darling? They are all the light. Without them, I am blinded, alone in the darkness.”
As Jimmy’s mother puts the embroidered dupatta over her head and kisses her cheeks, her sister hisses, “What are you doing Zenab?” And her mother thinks, Now I’m the gossip, but she cheers herself up realizing she has the inside scoop on the story. It’s lucky Zenab is wearing her new pink gharara. It’s the most beautiful piece of clothing she owns. Her grandmother had embroidered gold flowers on the skirts and the gossamer kurta. The heavy satin drapes her limbs like an altar cloth and she glides across the room like a fairy princess, her mother and sister trotting nervously along behind her.
There is a chaotic hour in the ladies toilet with ten attendants painting her hands and feet with a quick liquid dye, no time for real henna or complicated cake decorating patterns. Someone braids jasmine into her hair. Someone else puts lacquer on her fingers and toenails. Jimmy’s sisters and cousin-sisters wander in and out of the room saying, “She’s quite pretty, isn’t she?” Blue velvet boxes are opened in front of her, the glittering jewelry lifted and hung on her forehead, around her neck, on her ears, around her ankles.
Flashbulbs explode as she walks out. The guests cheer. Jimmy’s mother is right, she is marrying a star. And now, she too is a star.
Jimmy sneaks a look through the ropes of jasmine over his face. “Who is it?” he whispered to his brother in the hour the girl had been in the dressing room. “Who is it?”
“How should I know?” said Muzzafer. “I’ve never seen her before in my life.”
One of his cousins came up, “Not bad, yaar, she’s better looking than the first one.”
“Who is she?” Jimmy demanded.
“Someone said her name is Zenab Memon, an actress or something.”
“No wonder she does such dramatic things. Better watch out, Jamal-Jim. Next thing you know she’ll be breaking plates on your head. These filmi girls are very independent.”
“But she saved your skin, old man.”
“Shut up, that’s my wife you’re talking about.”
And Zenab climbs the stairs, looking down, transformed from an outspoken young actress to a shy bride, surrounded by six young women singing and holding a cloth above her head, her father walking slowly beside them, holding up the Quran.
Zenab, Zenab, thought Jimmy. Where have I heard the name before? Had she acted in something he’d sung in? He couldn’t remember.
Now they were sitting together on the platform, as they should have been all along, as Zenab knew they should have been. When she was 12, an old man who smelled of beetle nut had held her pale hand in his brown wrinkled one. “You will marry the first man you love,” he had told her. “A man with a mustache. A very famous man. And it is through your own strength that you will marry him. Yes, you are a very lucky woman.” Of course, she had nothing to do with the fact that Jimmy’s fiancee had run away with a French diplomat. But there she is, sitting beside the man intended for her by fate. Jimmy is her kismat.
8 October 1982
“Sabah, do you want to come in?”
“You should. All the women should do this.”
Sabah didn’t. Anyway, she was 15 and everyone who saw her thought she was a boy. She gripped her sister’s arm and felt her organs shrink inside her, pulling away from her ribs so that she felt hollow, cold and hollow. She wished she could shrink inside this room the same way. She nodded her head yes. She tried to say something, but her voice wasn’t coming out. She thought of the white-faced Mr. Goldstein, shaking her hand, pressing her palm in his cool, waxy one. “Anything we can do here at the Golden for you, please don’t hesitate to ask. Please give that message to your mother,” his pale eyelids flickered and his mouth twitched as he spoke.
“Oh Sabah,” wailed her sister and the two of them, holding each other so tightly they could barely breathe, walked into the embalming room like Siamese twins. The room was white and scientific, long counters running around the sides like a high school chemistry classroom. Their grandmother was lying on a metal table, her body half-covered with a white bedsheet. One of her aunts was lighting incense.
“Sabah, Yasmine,” wept her mother. “Come here, you should see this. You should help.”
“Here, come here,” sobbed another aunt. “Come on, don’t be afraid.”
Sabah squeezed Yasmine’s arm harder, feeling her fingernails digging into the flesh, to keep herself from screaming. They were walking in slow motion toward the body as if huge magnets were trying to pull them back, dragging them backwards into the plush darkness of the funeral parlor.
There was a splash, someone was filling the sink with warm water. Steam rose above the sink. “Does the table have wheels?”
“No, I think we’ll have to move her. Oh God. Oh God.”
“Here, I’ll lift this side. Oh, look at her poor legs. Oh, her poor, poor legs—”
“She was in bed for such a long time, my darling mother,” her aunt kissed her grandmother’s cheek.
The women lifted the table and then pulled her grandmother’s body closer to the stainless steel sink. Sabah was surprised at how heavy the body was, how unwieldy. She thought people’s bodies became light when they died. Her grandmother’s skin looked like pale pink tissue, crumpled rose petals. They were washing her body now, with warm water, with scented soap and still her skin was so cold, her flesh was ice cold and limp. Sabah and Yasmine started crying as well as they helped wrap the body in white cloths, the tears flooding their eyes, pouring in sheets down their faces so they could barely see.
“Look at her, look at her skin. She’s still so beautiful.”
“You know, in the hospital, they never believed she was Indian. They kept saying, ‘Mrs. Siddiqui, don’t you have some English blood?’”
Sabah’s mother cradled her grandmother’s head in her arms, caressing her hair. Sabah looked up and saw the faces of the five women, red and smooth from crying. Each face tilted slightly towards her grandmother. For a minute, it looked as if the light was coming from her grandmother’s body, illuminating the ivory faces, their heads covered with scarves, like a pieta, as their fingers smoothed the white fabric around the body.
“Oh Sabah and Yasmine, will you do this for me when I die in America?”
In the funeral parlor, her grandmother was wrapped up to her neck in white cloth, only her face, like a pink doll, showing through the cloth. She looked like she was made of wax, like a pale pink candle. Sabah and Yasmine stood around, they tried to sit and recite prayers but they couldn’t. All the folding chairs around the casket were full. People came in, one after another, and sat quietly with their thusbees, their lips moving as they pushed the beads through their fingers.
Her uncle came late, wearing his motorcycle jacket, his helmet under his arm. His jeans were stained with car grease. “Why didn’t anybody tell me?” he cried. “Why didn’t anybody tell me she died? No one called me.” He had just got off work at the garage and was on his way to his bartending job. He threw himself down on a chair and cried into his huge scarred hands. Then he stood up and grabbed Sabah by the arm. “Come on,” he said. They walked out of the funeral home.
They walked down the sidewalk in the darkness. “Want a cigarette?” he asked.
“No thanks, I don’t smoke.”
“Good. Good. When did she die?”
“This morning, I think. Where were you?”
“I spent the night at a friend’s house. I tried to call. I did once, but the line was busy and I had to get out. There’s just too much going on in that house. I had to get out. You know, I had this dream. Umma came to me in a dream. When Abba died, everyone dreamed about him. Everyone but me. I kept praying. I kept saying my prayers and praying at night and I never dreamed about him. And then Darrell, this guy I work with, told me about Christianity, about Born Again Christians.”
“So I thought, why don’t I try it? Because I’d been praying and praying and nothing ever happened. I decided that Allahmia wasn’t working for me. And I prayed to Jesus Christ. And that night I dreamed about Abba. Do you understand that?”
“I guess.” Sabah tried to understand. Jesus Christ. She’d grown up with Jesus Christ, every American grew up with Jesus Christ. She liked Christmas and Easter, but Jesus Christ was them, was everyone else, all those Americans, not us. We’re Muslims.
“Last night I dreamed about Umma. She was calling me. She was telling me to come home. And I didn’t pay attention. I just couldn’t come back to the house.” They stopped and watched a car drive past. For a few seconds the street was illuminated by the headlights, the rows of brick houses with red doors and neat gardens. Sabah kicked a pile of raked leaves off the sidewalk. “How have you been?” he asked her. “I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
“O.K., the usual stuff. Fighting with my parents. Trying to get through high school.” They started walking back.
“Yeah, well, take care of yourself. I worry about you, you know.” The light from the funeral home shone down in a wide circle on the pavement. His motorcycle was there, black and glistening. “I have to go.”
“O.K.” said Sabah. “Bye. Khudafiz. You can still say that. It just means God be with you.”
“I know,” he said. His motorcycle roared away as the rest of the family was walking out into the parking lot.
3 July 1989
Zenab’s dupatta slams in the taxi door as they get out and she briefly risks the same end as Isadora Duncan, until she and Alia shrieking, stop the taxi from pulling away from the curb. Jimmy doesn’t notice. He’s looking at the Cafe de Paris, at the hordes of young people pushing their way up to the ropes. They’re horrible-looking. Black, black everywhere, black coats and black trousers and dyed black hair. And the girls. Girls wearing nothing but their underwear, black bras and black net stockings. Jimmy can understand what Adam sees in this place, but he should have known better than to call his mother and sister here. Jimmy forces through the crowd with a grace learned in third world mobs. He’s used to this, these are like the crowds at his own concerts, though, he hates to say it, his audiences are better dressed than these English. “Come on, Alia. Stay with your mother. I’m looking for my son, his name is Adam,” he tells the doorman, a black man, also wearing black. Jimmy looks at him closely, the boy’s wearing false eyelashes and lipstick. He steps back a little and Alia moves forward. This is the closest she’s ever been to a black man. She’s excited, he’s even a friend of Adam’s. She’d heard that black people all carried knives and robbed people. He looks nice, though and she can’t see his knife.
“Oh, you’re Adam’s dad, are you? He’s been waiting for you,” he unhooks the velvet rope and lets them in, ignoring the screams of the women waiting behind them. “Hi,” he smiles at Alia, and winks, “have fun.” Alia sniffs hard as she passes to see if he smells different. She’d also heard that black people smelled different. He smells nice, like after-shave lotion and hair gel. Alia likes him. She wishes she could stay outside.
Zenab pulls Alia inside. She’s sure that if Adam had known what kind of a place this was he would never have called them here. “Don’t worry,” she tells Alia. “We’ll leave as soon as we find Adam. Don’t stare at that man, he could be dangerous,” she warns, in Hindi.
Inside, Jimmy feels like he’s on a film set. The question is, which one? All around him are people in costumes and make-up. Girls in their underwear, girls dressed like boys, boys with no hair. He sees some Indians or Pakistanis, they probably recognize him. How embarrassing. They’ll probably go home and tell their parents, “Do you know who we saw in the disco last night? Jimmy, the singer and film star.” Instead, they stare at him blankly. He’s just another old man to them. He turns back to look for Alia and Zenab and finds his face inches away from that of a blind man, must be blind, his round black sunglasses would make it impossible to see anything. “Hey, good-looking,” says the blind man, “what are you looking for tonight?”
A rainbowed face pushes itself close, “Are you an agent? I’m the dancer tonight.” The boy blinks his long false eyelashes, blue and purple and red and orange and yellow eyeshadow crinkling and unfurling like flags behind his eyelids.
Perhaps this is a costume party tonight, thinks Zenab. But God, what costumes. Really, some of these girls should be ashamed of themselves. There are even some Indian girls. She wonders if their mothers know what they’re wearing. And some of the boys, too. She’s worried about Adam. She hopes Alia is not too shocked.
Alia pulls her mother’s arm. “Oh, this is fun, Umma,” she pulls her into the darkness. “Come on, Ummiji, please. Let’s go and dance. I’d love to dance. I’ve always wanted to go to a disco.” The two of them mingle into the crowd, their flowered salwar kameezes melting into all the Indian printed psychedelia and flower power dresses.
“Zenab, Alia, come back here,” Jimmy calls after them, but he is surrounded by hopeful talent.
“Ted here’s not so good, you’ve got to see my mate Linda, she’s the best dancer in the club. She even does topless, y’know? I mean, she can make the two tassels swing in different directions at the same time. That takes practice, don’t it?”
“He’s an agent? Listen, guv, here’s my card. You only looking for dancers?”
The faces and bodies press against him. He is pushed into a corner and then down, on to a sofa. “Sit down, you should sit, guv, relax. Can I get you a drink?” There are people sitting all over the sofa, squeezing in beside him and sitting on the arms. There is even a boy, he’s not sure anymore which ones are boys and which ones are girls, perched like a parrot on the rounded back of the sofa, not even gripping the mirror that hangs dangerously near his head. A few of the faces look Indian, too, but they’re strange, like masks, like hijras, and their voices are the same as the rest of the people around him.
Just then, a smart young man with a cool pink face and a gray suit, his tie a clean red slash across his shirt, cuts through Jimmy’s admirers just as he’s considering starting an agency. “Excusez-moi, Monsieur,” he says, the right words but the wrong person. “I am very sorry, tres desole, you are Adam’s father?”
“Yes, yes, but—one minute, my dear, you have a very lovely face. You might be just the type I am looking for in my next film. I am a singer, but I do some acting as well. Of course, you can sing, my dear. You must sing at my next performance. Why don’t you give me some place where I can reach you? Your phone number?” Jimmy has found one of the rosy English beauties he loves.
“Bloody hell, Phoebe, I found him first. What the fuck do you mean stealing my break?” the rainbow-eyed boy shouts.
“You don’t want her. She can’t dance, can’t sing, can’t act to save her life—”
“Monsieur, I am so happy to meet you,” the cool young man says. “I am so sorry we are late.”
“In fact the only thing she is good for—”
“Please Monsieur,” says the young man. “Come with me.”
Jimmy stands up. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he tells his English rose. He pushes aside the rest. “Excuse me, I’m sorry. You’re just not right for the part. Pretty girl, so English, eh?” Jimmy puts his arm around the young man’s shoulder. “So what are you two doing in London? French girls not enough for you?”
“Marc Cosnard de Closets, Monsieur. I am very pleased to meet you,” he shakes Jimmy’s hand firmly.
“Well, well, very pleased to meet you,” says Jimmy. He’s impressed. Marc is polite, well-dressed, nothing like the rest of the garbage in this place. And what a strong handshake, a handshake that gives you confidence. Jimmy can’t believe what Qureishi said. No pooftah handshake that. Qureishi just wasn’t used to the French, that was all. “So what have you boys been doing, eh?” he chuckles. “When you’re young, you don’t think before you do things like this, do you? Now where is that son of mine?”
“He has just joined your wife and daughter inside. I think perhaps they are dancing.” Marc leads Jimmy down the long round passage way. They walk in a circle looking down at the dance floor which seems like a pit of writhing bodies, a torture, a scene from the inferno. Jimmy stares for a minute at the horrifying sight. His dinner lurches in his stomach. He can’t make out anything recognizable.
Marc is descending into the pit and Jimmy feels the sweat rising like steam above the gyrating crowds as he follows his son’s friend down the stairs. They sit at a table on a little platform, beneath a huge gold clump of cherubs and swirls and flourishes that hangs down from the staircase.
“Perhaps you know already that the Cafe de Paris was bombed in World War II?” asks Marc. “This was a very popular place for jazz musicians at one time.”
“No, I didn’t know that, that’s very interesting. Where do you think Adam is?”
“There,” Marc points at the dance floor. Jimmy follows his finger, but it seems to end at a dark trembling mass.
But then as his eyes get used to the light, he sees Adam, followed by Alia, climbing the long staircase out of the pit. “Oh, there you are,” says a voice. Zenab plops into the chair next to him. “You must come and dance. It’s so lovely. We’ve been having such a lovely time. Adam and Alia just went up to look for you. I decided to come back and speak to Marc—isn’t he sweet?—and here you are. Janoo, let’s have something to drink, I’m dying of thirst.” She’s smelling of alcohol. Her face is swollen and wet and her kurta is sticking to her in a very unbecoming way. That’s why women shouldn’t drink, thinks Jimmy. A few glasses of champagne and they lose their heads. She’s put on weight recently as well. He sees Adam’s head over the edge of the balcony. He’s joined by Alia. Somehow, there’s a light shining on their faces, they seem to be spotlighted. Jimmy watches them wave at him like a slow motion scene from a film. They wave and he swallows his drink and waves back, his arm moving across his vision like a windshield wiper, all the worry and frustration of the past few days clearing away in a smooth arc. He raises a glass of champagne which has miraculously appeared on their table. Suddenly, he feels a pain like a huge stone has been thrown at his chest, he’s thrown backwards, he feels like he’s flying backwards in space. He hits the ground hard, choking with the force. He’s being crushed under the stone, he can’t catch his breath, he’s pressed against the ground under the weight of the stone, he tries to catch his breath. He tries to breathe and he gasps and he can’t see anything.
Ameena Meer is a fiction writer living and working in New York City.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee