THE first time I left home, it was to go to another town not far away to study. I was 16 then and had fiery ambition. I was convinced that going to this other town to study would lead me somewhere in life.
But once there, I missed home and kept going back every now and then. It was almost as if I was never away.
The all-too-familiar train would stop at the all-too-familiar station. I would get off, take a rickshaw and be back at the same entrance surrounded by big trees that leads to my father’s little bookstore.
On seeing me, father would get up from his chair with a surprised smile, hug me and say, “You should have called. I would have come to pick you.” And I would mumble the same thing about it not being necessary and that I was fine. Then we would walk together through the dark corridor into the place my brother, my parents and I called home.
Along the corridor father would call out to my mother – never by name, just proclaiming aloud, “Look who’s here!”
Mother would usually be sitting at the dining table near the kitchen cutting vegetables. She would lift up her head over her aluminium tub filled with potatoes, spinach or okra and, with the knife still in her hand, exclaim: “Oh, you are here. What do you want to eat?”
I wouldn’t run to hug her but would just fall onto one of the chairs or thetakhat (day bed) close by.
“Let’s have tea,” my father would say.
Within a few minutes, he would come out of the kitchen with a tray all set neatly with teapot, milk, sugar, strainer, three cups and some cookies. He would put the tray beside me, hand me my cup – no sugar – and then stand there stirring three heaped spoonfuls of sugar in his cup, all the while saying how silly it was to have tea with no sugar.
Then he would sit next to me and we’d start chatting. From politics to religion to sports, we talked about everything under the sun. He always had some interesting thing to tell me and listened to whatever I had to say. Soon he would ask if I wanted more tea and go inside the kitchen again to make it.
By now mother would be busy in the kitchen. With pressure cooker whistling and the smell of fresh dhal and vegetables getting into my nostrils, I would be all too ready for lunch.
Many years passed by like this. I came back after completing my studies and prepared to go even farther away to a big city that would, perhaps, take me closer to being rich and successful some day.
My father dropped me at the station. He looked tired and old but seemed happy for me. Perhaps he was happy that all our discussions over tea had at least made me a dreamer, one who wanted to pursue a dream. As we waited for the train, we talked politics, literature and philosophy. Then we said our goodbyes and went back to our respective lives – he to his pretty much predictable one and me to strange, unknown beginnings.
In this big city, I found work, married and had children. I kept going back to my little town and the homecoming was never much different, although my visits were seldom a surprise now. Father always insisted on picking us up at the station as I would be there my boys, who were as excited to see him as he was to see them.
It was strange how a 75-year-old and four-year-olds could share the same excitement. But everything else was much the same – the entrance, the tea tray, the chats …
Time passed and my husband got another job and this time I moved, not to another town or the big city, but another country.
Then came another homecoming. This time, it was different. We took urgent flights and train rides and arrived in the middle of the night at the same station in my hometown.
Only this time, my father was not there. He was in the ICU fighting to breathe, and waiting for me to take that long journey home and surprise him again, much the same way I had done for years. Only this time, there were machines all around him, monitoring him for the much-dreaded fourth heart attack.
He still smiled upon seeing me and asked if I could get him a cup of tea. I couldn’t – he died the next morning.
Two days later, I left my small town again. It has been five years since and I still don’t have the courage to go back. I cannot imagine entering the gate and not seeing my father sitting on his chair. I can’t fathom how I would walk through the dark corridor without him and lie down on the takhat, while nobody makes tea for me. – Saba Ahmed