In Foreign Lands

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In Foreign Lands

Wednesday, 20 October 2021 | Arin Idhant

Spices...

Munir’s hand lay perfectly still over the drawer. An eerie calmness fell over our penthouse. Everything was static. The dust was suspended in the 3 o’clock sunlight. The heat that had penetrated our concrete roof refused to budge. Summers in the Gulf made one seriously reconsider renting a penthouse. The heat was getting unbearable.

Within moments a sweat patch developed over his hunched back. I too could feel drops of sweat racing down my back leaving behind a trail of irritation.

With all my will I resisted the urge of sinking my nails into my back. For I could not dare disrupt the anticipation; it was his moment. I could feel myself entering an unspoken agreement: the next move was his, regardless of how long it took in its coming. He had waited long enough, how long he wanted the moment to last was entirely up to him. Luckily for me, the answer was not eternity. With a quick yet careful jolt, he flung open the top cabinet.

Inside the cabinet, stains of turmeric and red chili powder smeared on the oak wood greeted us. Their edges were (and continue to be) smeared and fuzzy, the consequence of several futile efforts to wipe out their existence. Yet at their core, they remain ever so vibrant and imprinted standing victorious against Mr. Clean, baking soda and bleach, standing the test of a thousand miles across the seas.

A couple dozen dainty jars lay stacked in neat rows; their contents appeared enchanting in the golden rays. Their strong aroma restrained behind the drawer broke free and consumed us.

Our suburban apartment melted away; walls of mud engulfed us. Our feet sunk into the paddy fields. The soft mud cool and pleasant enclosed our feet in a cloud-like casket, rooting us in the moment. Dragonflies hovered over the paddy in their chaotic paths. A feminine figure emerged from the magnificent cascade of green encompassing us. Streams of joy poured down his face at the sight of Amina, ever so beautiful and divine. They embraced each other and in that instance, nothing else mattered.

The blades of the exhaust disperse the scent into nothingness, diluting it to oblivion. He turns to me. His eyes are red, veins bulging in irritation. I can sense his displeasure. The sense of familiarity fading, threatening to abandon him.

A lot has changed since our first interaction. We no longer remain a family of three and Munir no longer remains a mere cook to us.

Munir has been nothing short of a savior. Leaving India was never going to be easy but what we had never realized was how much we would miss the food. Munir’s expansive South Asian culinary skills allowed us to feel just a bit closer to home.

Munir left Bangladesh eight years ago in pursuit of a better life and has only managed to visit home once since then. He moved to the Gulf in order to make a living as a cook. He failed miserably at first but eventually found a desperate family eyeing someone with his particular skill set. Our expansive collection of South Asian spices allowed him to feel just a bit closer to home.

Razia.

The labor ward’s fluorescent light cast a pale white glow on the room. The plaster on the walls was wearing off, time had taken its toll on it. The paint on the walls had lost its charm. The once bright blue sky that adorned the wall carrying hope for a better future had paled in despair. The illustrations of animals- tigers, monkeys and elephants appeared grotesque due to the gaping holes in the wall. The ward was a fever dream, a figment of a horrid imagination which was someone’s reality… Amina’s reality.

Abbu paced outside the ward. Inside the ward Amina lay on the bed, resting beside her was a nurse. The wait was getting unbearable. As the arms of the clock struck half-past ten, the doctor appeared; he was the only one working the shift. Abbu began his prayers.

At 11:35 pm Razia graced the ward. She was born perfectly healthy. Her cries resonated throughout the ward and across the hallways breathing life into them. And for that enchanting moment (and that moment alone) the ward was vibrant again. She radiated warmth. Warmth that locked Amina and Abbu in an embrace. Warmth that extended outwards, seeking a void.

Munir was on the verge of finishing his 9’oclock shift. Broken utensils, burns and cuts. Everything that could have gone wrong had gone wrong that day. The day had been extremely draining. As he made the final touches on the curry his phone rang. It was an international call. It was Abbu.

Munir was unprepared for the surge of emotions his words were going to bring.

 

“Razia…”

His remaining words were drowned by a static noise. Marbles sprung to life and vanished into nothingness. One by one they popped out of the darkness. They cast marvelous shades of red, green and blue against the pitch black. They began extending their stay, persisting for a few seconds now before disappearing again. Tiny hands grasped onto a red marble. Razia’s hazel eyes were fixed onto Munir’s. They were in their urban apartment in Dhaka. A cool breeze swept across their face; their new air conditioner worked like a charm. Munir rolled a green marble in his palms, planning his next move. Amina sat at the very edge of the bed, a passive spectator. She could sense the heat of the moment. Munir carefully placed the marble at the tip of his index finger, with a quick flick he launched the marble. Three pairs of eyes closely followed its trajectory with great anticipation. Munir winced as the marble barely managed to land on the plate. He knew it would be an easy win for Razia. Razia knew too. Her face twisted into an evil smirk.

Razia giggled in joy as her red marble launched her father’s marble out of the plate. 3-0. Razia had defeated Munir by a landslide. Amina and Munir burst into laughter at the sight of her Charmander plushie flailing in her arms as she took her victory lap. She took three whole laps of their family bed before leaping onto the bed in exhaustion. Panting in her red pajamas she appeared uncannily similar to her stuffed companion. Munir fondly gazed at her. Her eyes bright and passionate, deserving of so much more, intently gazed back at him.

 When I found Munir leaning against the door in our kitchen his face lacked emotion, it showed only… purpose. The sheer happiness of Razia’s birth was nullified by the horrifying and daunting realization that he would be absent in her formative years. Devoid of these emotions a pressing sense of rationality dawned over him. He knew exactly what he had to do to realize this future. And he would do it… no matter the costs.

 

We have met Razia over several video calls. She has lovely eyes and her favorite color is red. She loves watching Pokémon in the community hall. Her favorite animals are monkeys and turtles (it's actually dragons but that is our little secret). She calls Munir “Baba”. She loves Baba. A lot.

Munir was absent when Razia was born. He has never held her in his arms, nor has he kissed her. He missed her first words and her first steps. He missed her first day at kindergarten. He has, at present, missed four of her birthdays.

He has, however, been present in her school fees, in their new lease agreement and in Abbu’s hospital bills. He has been nothing short of an invisible guardian.

He is still quite far from realizing his Sunday afternoon dream and returning home. His worst fear: Razia will be too old to play marbles by then.

The paddy fields were his past. Razia is his future. His present is in foreign lands, in pursuit of that Sunday afternoon.

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