Thursday, 18 December 2008

The airport

Mizan Rahman

    These days I don’t go to the airport much. Used to go a lot once, a whole lot in fact. Usually to attend professional meetings. Sometimes there would be invitations to present papers at special sessions. Sometimes without one. There was a meeting, so why not go? Money was coming from Uncle Sam, so who cares for invites?  Nowadays I get more invitations than before, but I don’t like flying much any more. I guess the blood has cooled a bit. The heart isn’t as strong as before, either. Climbing up a few stairs is no longer a piece of cake.  Even if I make it to a meeting I doze off very quickly soon after the talk starts. So what’s the point?
     If I do manage to visit the airport it is mostly on two occasions. Once, when my sons come home for a visit, then when they leave.  The day they come I forget my heart problems, just as my wife regains her youth. No one will say then that it was only 8 years before that she had a massive stroke that knocked out her nervous system and left her partially paralyzed, her body like a dump of waste. But who would dare remind her of that on the day one her boys arrives. She will spend the whole day in the kitchen. Didn’t forget what the boys would like to eat when they were young. Our older son’s favorite was a sweet dessert made of cream of wheat fried in pure butter that we call ghee. He doesn’t care for it much any more. Fear of cholesterol. In the past he was crazy for his mother’s special sweetmeat called chomchom. Whenever he would find out that there would be chomchom after the main meal he would leave some room for it in his tummy. Now he doesn’t get to eat them much, nor does he want to. His wife has a degree in health sciences, so she watches the sugar in the family dishes with a keen eye. But when the boy (now a grown man of course) comes home for a visit he has no choice but to give in to the old temptations. My wife cooks those things a bit too well, I’m afraid. Even now.  Chomchom is not an easy thing to make-----you need to keep standing by the stove for 4 hours at a stretch. Stroke survivors are not supposed to be near the stove for too long. But who is going to stop a mother whose son is coming home from far away? Especially mothers from our part of the world. Our younger son doesn’t care much for the sweet stuff. His favorites are hot spicy stuff. The spicier the better. Give him mashed potato mixed with plenty of red onions, salt, mustard oil, and of course a lot of fried dry chili, he’d not care for anything else. He also likes a dish of chick-peas prepared with, you guessed it, a lot of hot chili and fried onions.  He is our Canadian son with a very Bengali taste. I always marvel at the way his mother makes those things with her stroke-stricken hands that have hardly any feeling. It reminds me of my own mother who would also cook my favorite dishes with no trouble at all. It never occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, she was under a lot of stress or pain while making those things. Do we ever think of our mothers’ pain while they are alive?
     No sooner the boys enter the house my wife’s counting exercise gets into play. How many days are left for them to leave? That fateful day seems to get there in a flash. It’s only the day of arrival that seems to take ages to arrive, not the day of departure. You blink your eyes and it is there. They are at the door ready to leave. She doesn’t want to go to the airport. She starts complaining of not feeling too well. So she sees them off at the door. Then dashes upstairs to wave at them from the window until the car turns the corner and is out of her sight. I understand the real reason for her staying home. Blissfully the boys don’t, or they do but prefer not to talk about it. Sometimes silence is a better language to communicate. But I cannot be silent. I’m the father. I have no choice but to take them to the airport. I cannot stay home feigning to be not feeling well. So I drive them to the departure gate. They unload their bags. My old car feels a lot lighter. But my heart doesn’t. They are at the ticket counter to check in. I follow them to the departure lounge. My 2-yr old grandson starts running around the whole place with no concern at all if he might bump into someone. The wide open space is too irresistible for him. His father feels compelled to go after him trying to calm him down. The more he chases the faster the boy runs. Father and son get into that eternal game of ‘catch me if you can’. I keep looking at them wistfully. Reminds me of the bygone days when I used to run after my boys in much the same way. Now I can’t run, of course. Nor do I need to. Only this aching heart of mine, this blind blinking heart keeps wishing it could.
    Soon it is time for them go through the security gates. I keep standing there leaning on the railings. A kind of mental fatigue descends on me. My mind feels like it is swimming in a fog. Yet another chapter of my life seems to have come to an end---that’s how it feels, anyway. This void is not going to fill up again, ever. This is an empty space that will retain its emptiness till eternity. I suppose this is what is called man’s ultimate fate. I start slowly moving away from them, back to the car, away from the airport, away from the memories. I arrive home, back to my ailing wife, back to daily life, back to reality. She opens the door for me in total silence. No words are exchanged. Not even the customary ‘bye dear’ when I leave home to go to work. As if we took an oath of silence for an entire day.
    And yet, my mind goes back to a light year away when my father would be at the airport for me just as I do for my son. Not once, but twice. Once at arrival, then at departure. But they were different. On my arrival he would hug me with his arms tightly clasped around me, and cry like a baby. But when it was time for me to leave he wouldn’t even touch me, let alone hug. As if he was trying to avoid any physical contact with his son. He’d keep standing at a distance, away from the crowd, looking lost and forlorn. After finishing my check-in formalities I’d rush to him, kneel to touch his feet in the usual way, then dash off through the gates avoiding eye-contact completely. I never liked farewells. I dread to say goodbye to a dear one. And yet, farewells are man’s destiny. Perhaps more so for the fathers. When the children come home, they come not to stay, but to leave.
  My father used to tell me stories about his childhood, about his adolescence and youth. The same stories, again and again, and yet again. He’d tell me of all the hardships that his father had to suffer to put him through school and college. First he had to mortgage some of his farming property, then forced to sell them off to provide funds for his higher education. When my father got a job in town and was ready to leave home, my grandfather would go to see him off at the train station. During the rainy season the river boat would stop at the village ghat ready to take riders to other destinations. My grandpa would take my father’s bags on his shoulder and see him off at the boat. Then a day came when the old man could no longer carry the bags, nor go to the ghat. Just as a day came when my father, too, couldn’t go to receive me at the airport, or take me in his arms. A day will inevitably come when I, too, will not be able to drive my sons to and from the airport. The world has changed a lot from my grandfather’s time. Today people are much more modern than before. But the mothers and fathers never become modern. They will always keep standing in a lonely corner of the airport.
( Translated by the author from his Bengali article by the same name, written in January, 1998).
Dec.18, ’08.
Mizan Rahman, মীজান রহমান,

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