The following is from Mirza Waheed’s Tell Her Everything. Waheed was born and brought up in Kashmir. His debut novel, The Collaborator, was an international bestseller, a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award and the Shakti Bhatt Prize, and long listed for the Desmond Elliot Prize. It was also a Book of the Year for The Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, Financial Times, Business Standard and The Telegraph (India), among others.
I DID IT FOR MONEY.
I’ll tell her. She may or may not understand, but I’ve decided to tell her everything, the whole truth, as straight as possible.
In fact, I don’t think anyone can fully understand. It’s not really understandable that I spent more than two decades in that town and I didn’t know the townspeople. Was it a town or a proper city, I do not know for sure. How do I explain to people that I, a grown man, not wholly unsociable, spent most of my time, over twenty years, between my home and the hospital? And home was less than a mile away. How do I explain that I lived in that mile for years without really getting to know the local people or cuisine, or what customs existed among those people? The reason is this: I lived from procedure to procedure, from case to case. That’s what.
There was just one tree on the street, at the lower end where the hospital compound ended. Sometimes I stopped beside it. Its bark was the color of cement.
I DID IT FOR MONEY.
When I arrived there all those years ago, it was almost always hot. Even when it was not. A small gap in the cold shield created by countless AC vents sometimes let in a quick reminder of the heat. Of how hot it really was. After about eight years or so, I began to feel cold. It’s the truth, Sara, I’ll tell her. All those cold draughts had probably crept into my marrow over the years. That lasted a few years too, during which I wore a light leather jacket—you might remember. You were four or five then.
In those early days, I had quite a lot of time on my hands. It took five minutes to reach the hospital, ten if I walked, which I often did. No one else walked, apart from the cleaning staff, Jan and the others, who lived in concrete cabins at the edge of the compound. They walked or pushed their trolleys. I looked at them and wondered if this was the colour of their skin or a consequence of having worked in these parts for years. Every time I saw any of them, I wanted to make sure they had a large wet towel around their neck. I was glad when they did.
There wasn’t much to do after work—you weren’t born yet—so Atiya and I watched a lot of TV. A lot of good and bad TV. Chinese, Malaysian, Turkish, and Indian films with subtitles. If you think Bollywood is melodramatic, you need to watch Turkish films from the Eighties. There was nothing else to do. There were no cinemas in the area. None at all. Yes, there were a few restaurants by the canal on the other side of the town, my colleague and only friend Biju said, but they were very expensive. Actually, money wasn’t the issue, they were just too far away and I was afraid of taking Atiya out for long. I’ll
explain later. Many years later, when I finally ate at two of them, I was glad I hadn’t taken her. The canal smelled of bleach. I didn’t trust it.
My friend Biju, single, with no obligations back home in Kerala, spent a lot on eating out. Almost every day after work, he went in search of a good meal and sometimes returned home having had two dinners. ‘I can’t go to bed with a disappointing taste in my mouth. It’s against my principles,’ he said. ‘You should join me some day, boss … Okay, at least come along to Gold City when I go next.’ Every month, usually on the first weekend after payday, Biju would disappear. Only after we had him over for dinner a couple of times did he say he went to Dubai to eat at expensive restaurants. ‘Say whatever about the city, boss, but you can eat, buy, do anything and everything you want. I had this Japanese beef curry and Japanese beer, and I just didn’t want to leave, boss.’
I knew Biju went to get drunk but I didn’t tell anyone. I liked him. I also knew he had worked out some kind of arrangement with the admin people, who frequently let him slip in and out.
The first year went very quickly. We bought quite a few appliances and a brand new Pajero, which was the main reason I preferred to walk, despite the heat. After a while,
I mean after the initial excitement, it felt silly to start such a large car, get it out of the garage, which wasn’t easy because of the clutter the previous owners had left, and then drive for a mere five minutes.
You see, Sara—I’ll definitely say this to her—it’s only now, with the knowledge that comes with age and experience, that I can say I’m pleased I left in the end. While I was there, I didn’t have the benefit of distance to look at things with clarity. Certainly not at the beginning. Of course I had the wisdom to make sure you left early. But what I, you, we, lost over there can never be fully understood, let alone recovered. We only have each other now, and I hope you understand that. Of course you do, of course you do. Why would I ever doubt that?
Before I lay it all out, before I recount everything, I should appeal to her heart; bring her closer to me. It might even be time to have a drink with her. That would be grand, wouldn’t it? We’ll sit here in the balcony, savor the breeze from the river, and I’ll tell her everything. Every single thing. We’ll look at the lights of this glorious, saddening old city, and talk. I’ll point out the new skyscrapers to her. She might like them. Many people in the city aren’t too fond of the towers and call them all sorts of names. What about you, she might ask? I’m sure she will. Oh, I don’t mind them. Lights in the sky, lights in the distance, are always welcome. They add color to the big smoke at night. I don’t get what people have against tall buildings. Do they worry that the skyscrapers will spoil their view of a clear and blue sky, eh? I’m sure you like them, Sara, you must be used to them … Yeah, I don’t mind them, Dad.
I mean I don’t notice them much. In America, we don’t, like, go on about skyscrapers much, you know. They’re just there, she’ll say, and probably smile.
Sara has Atiya’s smile, a slight upward curve to the left of her upper lip. So tiny, only I can spot it. Of course only I can spot it. I doubt anyone else remembers Atiya’s smile so minutely.
I think I’ll tell her about those early days first, about the hospital, my work, about Sir Farhad, about Biju, other colleagues, etcetera. We can surely have an ordinary conversation before I move on to the other stuff. I must tell her. This year, I am ready at last and I’m sure she is too. She should know the whole thing. I hope she isn’t too upset. Why would she feel upset with a story about her mother and father! I think she’ll like to stretch out on the settee, or perhaps relax in my rocking chair, and admire the views across the river. I’ll cook for her, and I’ll look at her every now and then from the kitchen.
From Tell Her Everything by Mirza Waheed. Used with permission of the publisher, Melville House Books. Copyright © 2023 by Mirza Waheed.