“What shall I take with me when I return home after so many years?” wrote Shabbir. He died before he could return. He jumped from a bridge into the Potomac and had sailed to another world before they brought him out.
And what he called ‘home’ was not his home. Shabbir had no home. He was born in America but his parents always wanted him to believe Pakistan was home. His heart told him otherwise, but his parents forced him to deny his heart and it killed him.
Shabbir’s father arranged my first meeting with him several years ago, when he found out that his son wanted to marry a Sikh girl, instead of ‘someone back home.’
When I met Shabbir, he was able to convince me, so I left without asking him not to marry his Sikh girlfriend. However, they did not marry. Her parents were against the marriage too and she did not have the courage to defy them. So she left Shabbir.
When I met him again, Shabbir was deeply under his father’s influence: saying prayers five times a day, no girlfriends, no alcohol. But he also had a strong sense of guilt for doing all these in the past. So I knew he will have a relapse.
I tried to argue with his father not to instil this guilt in him but he did not understand me. So one day Shabbir rebelled. Then I heard from some friends that Shabbir had become a drug addict. I met him. He was no addict. He was not a rebel either. He was an ordinary American kid who wanted to live like most Americans do.
His father did not understand him. He also did not understand why having fun was so important for his son. “We did not have this kind of fun back home,” he argued.
He told me that they had only one TV in the entire village and no cricket ground. He and his siblings grew up in dusty, dirty streets. “But we had a sense of purpose. We wanted to do something for our family,” he said.
Shabbir did not understand why it was important to have an extended family. He wanted to live for himself, “not for 500 relatives back home.”
I asked Shabbir if he was having problems with his father. “Yes, plenty,” he said. “My father needs to understand this is not a Punjabi village. This is Washington, DC, the capital of the United States of America.” He paused and then said: “My father should know I am not an FOB (freshly off the boat). I was born here. I am an American.”
American he was but his father turned him into an ABCD, an American born confused desi. The tussle between the father and the son continued. And neither side was willing to give the other any breathing space.
Once, a Muslim scholar came to town on the moon night, the night before Eid. His father wanted to take Shabbir to the scholar’s lecture. Shabbir had other plans. So they had a huge fight. Shabbir did not spend the Eid with his family.
Meanwhile, his father’s niece was growing up fast in the village. Her parents wanted an answer: yes or no. So one day his father told Shabbir to get ready. “We are going back to the village to find a bride for you,” he said.
“Me, marrying a village girl from Punjab?” asked Shabbir. “No way, not me.”
“Yes, you. Even your father will have to say yes,” said the father, using a Punjabi proverb.
“OK, then. Let my father marry her,” Shabbir said. The father slapped him across his face. The slap broke something inside Shabbir. He never recovered from the shock.
He left home. I never met him again but kept hearing bits and pieces from others: he is back with his family, he left again, he is living with a girl, he has become an addict again, he has reformed, goes to mosque five times a day, etc.
And then one day, I read a small news item in a Pakistani newspaper: “Young man jumps into the Potomac.” I put down the cup of tea I was holding and cried. But I also understood why Shabbir had to do it.
His father did not. “What did I do wrong?” he asked everybody at the funeral. “Nothing,” his friends said. “You did what a father should.” He asked me too. I did not answer. I did not want to.
I went to the funeral, saw his smiling face and said to him, in a fake British accent that he always found funny, “rest in peace, mate.”
I returned without saying goodbye to his father.
When driving home, I recalled a conversation I had with his father when Shabbir was in his religious phase and his father loved to show off how good a Muslim his son was.
“What will you do if your son turns into a rebel?” the father asked me.”
“I will let him be. After all, it is his life,” I said. The father looked at me hard and said: “I know you would. Someone was telling me that you said you will keep your child home even if he becomes a gay.”
“Yes, it will remain his home, gay or no gay,” I said. “You liberals,” he said and then cursed me. “I will slaughter him with these hands if my son becomes a gay,” he added.