by Saudha Kasim
If I think about Yasser, then I think about chickens.
And if I think about chickens, then inevitably my mind wanders to biryanis and the family's annual reunion lunch held on the hottest day of the year, and there too Yasser is the one person who stands clear from the rest. Mainly because during this annual crowding of our house, he would take charge of the very important task of hiding the hardboiled eggs in each plate of biryani. He would always miss out on a few plates because, when you have to shove eggs into plates of hot biryani, the thing you need the most is asbestos skin—which Yasser didn't have.
Disgruntled mutterings would begin among the various egg-bereft cousins. These whispers and darker rumours would rise up through the ranks to the women on top, who would then descend on the men in the kitchen—these lunches were always organised by the men of the family—and loud quarrels and threats of talaq would rend the air. The biryani specialist, Ummar, hired for the day would take out his long-handled ladle and use it as a defensive weapon, his junior staff cowering in the corner of the temporary marquee set up to cook the feast. Yasser would then do his Jesus act and calm everyone down and agree to hide the eggs under supervision.
I suppose I should really think of the sea when I think of Yasser. The sea plays such a big role in our lives—a friend, a threat—that I think it's better to think of chickens. Plump, juicy, comforting chickens.
My family has lived in Kadaloor for many generations. Kadaloor, on the map of Kerala, is a speck on its coastline. My father, my uppa, Abdul Jameel—owner of one of the largest fleets of fishing trawlers in our neighbourhood—insists our family has been here since the days of Malik Deenar. Our ancestors came in the first boats with the first Arab Muslims to Kodungalloor and then set out a bit south, sticking close to the coast and setting up here just a few kilometres from the shore amidst a landscape bristling with coconut palms and dependent on the vagaries of the sea. "We all have the salt of the sea in our blood," uppa would say when high on sentiment and my umma's fish curry. If we questioned this story, uppa would be sure to pull our ears or throw a spoon at us if we weren't within arm's reach. "Do you think I would have made us ordinary folk if I wanted to glorify our past?" he would ask while umma stood behind him trying to serve him more rice. "I would have made us a Thangal family like every fraud Thangal family around this place. Then we'd be lying to everyone that we have the blood of the Prophet—Peace-Be-Upon-Him—flowing in our veins."
"Keep the blood pressure down," umma would say as she dumped more rice on his plate.
Our house sprawls in several directions at once. My paternal grandmother is still alive and has been bed-ridden for as long as I can remember. The only sounds she makes most of the time are while reciting prayers five times a day and opening her brass box freshly stocked daily with green betel leaves and nuts. She meditatively chews and dribbles and eventually spits into a spittoon that Amala, our long-serving kitchen maid, holds for her on demand. My uppa is her eldest son and next in line are my uncle, Jabbar kunjippa, and my aunt, Salma kunjimma. Our grandfather died young. "And that's why you only have an uncle and an aunt," umma would say as she whacked grandmother's bedclothes on the washing stone. "If he'd lived longer, there would have been twenty uncles and aunts. See what a horrible life you escaped? It's all Allah's plan—he didn't want you to be in a large family with less."
"How come you and uppa had seven children, then?" I would ask.
"Don't you have anything constructive to do? Girls shouldn't be so curious. Go study," she commanded, thumping the sheets harder.
"Careful, Hajira," elema said from her perch on the well wall where she was peeling shallots. "You'll tear those and then there will be hell to pay."
Yasser is my cousin and Jabbar kunjippa's son. Kunjippa, whose been working for an oil company in Dubai since the seventies, named him after Arafat, a one-time hero. Of course, much later when Arafat had fallen from grace and was as popular as a butcher at a convention on vegetarianism, my uncle would curse the day he'd named him after the Palestinian. But changing his name would require spending too much money on newspaper ads and government clerk bribes, so Yasser's given name remained. Yasser's mother Rahmat would join in the cursing as well, accusing kunjippa of hubris and bringing upon the family a headache the size of an elephant. Rahmat kunjimma was a great believer in destiny: when she was twelve, a face reader had passed her while she skipped along to school and, pointing a finger at her, had said in a sonorous voice that she was fated to see her universe swallowed by a fish. Kunjimma claims that not long after she'd given birth to my cousin Shahana, a fish had indeed landed on the beach just a kilometre away and it had been huge. Whale-huge. Kunjimma wasn't sure what species it was, but it was not a whale. No, said Shahana, not a whale. But it had apparently swallowed kunjimma's father's tea shack when it flapped up the shore, breathless and hungry. Her father died the next day in his sleep. The fish returned to the sea. See, kunjimma would say, it was destined.
Back to Yasser: he was always a bit off, always seemed to be moving to another clock. Probably the one on Mars, another cousin, Ahmed would sneer. We'd be walking to school together—this was before I became a big girl and had to wear long skirts and cover my hair and walk to school with my sisters rather than the boys of the family—and he'd be picking caterpillars off bushes along the way and keeping them well-fed with mango and mulberry leaves in plastic boxes. When they eventually cocooned and transformed and flew out as moths or butterflies—one September not long after Onam the huge hall in the house had been filled with the fluttering insects—he'd be disappointed.
"Why the sad face?" I asked.
"They were better fuzzy and plump," Yasser replied.
"But they are beautiful like this." The butterflies settled on our arms and heads, and umma and kunjimma dashed around the room trying to chase the insects away with the long sticks used to clean out cobwebs.
Yasser grumbled as the butterflies settled on his nose: "Things shouldn't change."
It was not just caterpillars that he brought to the house, but also injured birds—mostly crows—and forlorn kittens and the occasional snake that had been minding its own business, sunning itself on a bare patch of sand near the beach before finding itself trapped in a basket. This lovingly collected zoo would be stowed in the store next to the firewood and dried coconut leaves. Eventually, the crows would get well and attack the snakes and the kittens would become aggressive adolescents that ate the crows. Umma would scream at the bloodbath she had to witness when she opened the door some days and would run after Yasser with a rolling pin in her hand, threatening to break his skull open. "Iblees," she'd scream and we'd watch them from the kitchen windows while eating our morning puttu and bananas before school. Yasser would eventually find refuge behind elema who'd be cleaning the fish near the well, and umma would give up the chase, still cursing him: Satan's son, no-good imp, pest.
In '92, when I was ten years old, uppa married again. Elema, as we children called her, was umma's first cousin and had been recently widowed when her husband died in a fishing accident at sea.
The wedding was quite an elaborate affair—family had come from all over Kerala, and even uppa's distant relations and their offspring from the Gulf had turned up. We children played games and sang songs and promised everlasting friendships and shared the lice on our heads with our non-resident Indian cousins dressed in clothes from "Persia" as our grandmother called it. Not long after midnight, there was a loud boom. The men ran towards the sound, which echoed for almost an hour. The lights went out and the lanterns and candles came on. In the dark, the news came to us: the large house of one of the fraud Thangals, who were now living in Bahrain, had collapsed into the sea, helped on by the incessant rain.
The next morning, uppa woke me and Yasser from the fog of sleep, and we stepped over sleeping cousins, uncles and aunts and stumbled towards the changed shoreline.
"It's gone, children," said uppa. "It's gone."
And so it was: a small parcel of land uppa had inherited from his father, where he tied up four skiffs for fishing near the shore. The water lapped closer to the road now.
"It's like it never existed," he said, his great shaggy hair and beard wet in the sea spray. I thought he was crying, but, no, he said, it was just the salt stinging his eyes.
I think we'd have mourned our loss of land longer that year if it hadn't been for elema and her tart tongue.
Elema was tall and built like a mountain, and she would single-handedly chop down bushes and take down coconut palm boughs. While elema was strong and sturdy, she couldn't have children. So there was no real friction with umma who welcomed her with open arms into the family. Years later umma would tell me that she had hoped that elema would ease her burden of childbirth: "I thought I could rest while her belly swelled every year and her skin would fan out."
At least, our grandmother would sigh, it's not like what's happening over at Khader's house. Two wives, two cradles, two mouths to feed every March. Some afternoons, on the way home after school, I would peek into the small room where the cradles were tied and watch Khader's two wives rock them with strings attached to their big toes while they nursed older infants in their arms.
With so many children in the house, it was easy to lose your identity. Uppa would spot us in Kadaloor town centre when school was out and shout, "You!" We would turn, confused. Seeing so many small brown faces together would confuse uppa as well. "Rehana," uppa would shout, "your mother is waiting for you back home." And I would reply, "I am Khadeeja, uppa." He would ignore the correction and glare, his bushy eyebrows knitting together furiously.
For elema though, my seven brothers and sisters and Yasser and his five siblings and Salma kunjimma's three children were distinct individuals. She appreciated each of us—but not equally. It became clear to us soon enough after she'd entered the house that Yasser—then thirteen—was her favourite. Together they would sit out on the verandah after sunset and talk about the day's news gleaned from the Madhyamam and Manorama and hail passing neighbours in the gathering dusk.
The year Yasser turned fifteen, the sea ate up a good portion of the beach road and Rahmat kunjimma's extended family lost their homes. They bought a part of uppa's land close to town and away from the shore and set up their houses there.
That same July, Yasser fell in love with Kamini, the daughter of the owner of the only bakery in Kadaloor. Yasser had never noticed Kamini till the day she passed by and her anklet came loose and fell near his desk in class during a mid-term mathematics exam. He kept the anklet in his pocket, and he showed it to me that evening.
"What are you going to do with it?" I asked, extending my hand towards the delicate silver links.
"I don't know," Yasser replied. As soon as my fingers brushed against it, though, he pulled it away and pocketed it. "You can't touch it."
"She is mine. No one else in this house can have her. We all share everything. That Cinthol bar we boys have to use for bathing in the morning—there's a dozen of us using it, and it finishes so quickly."
"That's because Mansoor uses it up to do armpit farts," I giggled.
"I just want her to be mine and no one else's. And don't you dare tell anyone here about her. Especially Mansoor—he's sick in the head."
One hot April morning, Kamini's father, Sudarshan Panicker, turned up on the verandah demanding to speak to Jabbar kunjippa.
Kunjippa, who was at home for his annual holiday, stayed suave and business-like during the whole encounter. We watched from the hall windows as Panicker dissected Yasser's character and described his moral corruption. Elema came round the corner from the kitchen garden and kept a watch on kunijippa and Panicker.
"Your son is a lecherous good-for-nothing," Panicker said. "He's going around corrupting innocent girls."
"Girls are not so innocent anymore," elema replied.
"He's singing songs to her outside her bedroom window."
"I saw her in town buying film magazines."
"He's got her anklet."
"She's got posters of half-naked men on the walls of her room."
"Madam," he roared now, "keep your gross insinuations out of this discussion."
"She thinks she's Sridevi? Oho! I will show her the heel of my slipper."
Panicker, trapped and furious, banned the whole family from entering his bakery. "And keep that old crone," he pointed his umbrella at elema as he departed, "away from my family. And your useless son, too. You don't want this to become political."
As he marched off, mundu at half-mast and issuing threats, elema cackled loudly. "Yasser, come out from wherever you are hiding." Yasser emerged from the bushes near the gate and came up to the verandah. He didn't stay too long though—Jabbar kunjippa had unleashed his cane and was already arcing it through the air. The last we saw of Yasser that evening was the sole of his foot as he raced away from home and towards the lighthouse.
The lighthouse was always Yasser's refuge. If you couldn't find him at home or in school or in Kadaloor town, he would be up at the top of the lighthouse looking down upon our world. The lighthouse was government property, but the keeper—not exactly the most conscientious, a Latin Catholic named George—was asleep in an alcoholic haze most of the time. He got a pitiful salary from the government and used it most evenings to be at the head of the queue in front of the government liquor store. He had been married, but his wife ran away just a year after the wedding. It was not the usual story of drunken beatings that drove her away, but the lure of Gulf gold promised by a much younger and more good-looking man. When sober, George was bound to repeat the story many times—and the whole town and surrounding villages knew it well. So well that all of us were bored of it and refused to expend any pity on him except for Yasser who lent him a sympathetic ear each time and a few rupees out of his pocket money each week. In exchange, George allowed him the freedom of the lighthouse.
I was the only cousin Yasser took up to the top. Here he sketched the shoreline every day—he filled books with line drawings and said that he would become a geologist. "What's that?" I asked, preparing to spit over the railings onto the treetops below.
"Someone who studies the earth," Yasser said, cuffing my neck before I could let go of the finely formed spit ball.
"Why do you want to do something so boring?" I asked after I'd stopped coughing.
"Because uppa said there's huge demand for them in Dubai. Not just Dubai. Anywhere they explore oil."
"So you will go to Dubai and become a Sheikh?"
"I will go to Dubai, make money and return to marry Kamini."
"Don't be an ass. You can't marry Kamini. There will be a riot."
"She wrote me a letter in class today," Yasser continued unruffled and dreamy. "She has promised to marry no one but me."
Kamini married Harikrishnan Paravoor, a young man from Ernakulam, a few months after her eighteenth birthday. No one from our family was invited to the wedding. At the time, Yasser had just started engineering college in Thrissur. When I called him up to tell the news, he wasn't particularly troubled.
"Didn't you say you wanted to marry her?" I pressed, hoping to draw blood. Or tears.
"Yes, but that was before I discovered how truly dim she was."
"When was this?"
"When we were sixteen."
"So your love lasted only a year? Why didn't you say anything at the time? We could have gone to the bakery. Do you know it takes me two buses to go to the one in Chavakkad? We could have saved so much money in bus fares."
"Is that all you care about? Bus fares and bread?"
"You know we have to buy so much when we have visitors over. And for tea, too. Mixture. Banana fritters. Murukku. Not to mention all those cookies."
"You won't get very far in life, Khadeeja, if all that you think about is what should be in your stomach."
"Like you care about more profound things."
"Of course I do."
"I can't tell you right now, but I am working on something that I have been brooding on for many years."
"Well, keep brooding. I am off to Panicker's bakery to get some plum cakes. We have visitors today." I hung up, stung to the marrow.
Yasser came back with a civil engineering degree, the first in our part of Muslim Kadaloor to do so. He hadn't been able to quite convince Jabbar kunjippa to let him study geology. "I am not struggling under the hot sun in Dubai, so my son can get a useless Bachelor of Science degree," kunjippa had said during his visit four years ago. "Get that engineering degree, so I can hold my head high in the community."
"Well, Khadeeja," Yasser had said—a tall, handsome Yasser—after he'd dumped his one suitcase in the room he shared with my brothers and pulled out his provisional degree certificate. "There it is."
"What are you going to do now?" I asked, reading the certificate.
"Study the earth."
"So you are going to do what exactly?"
"I have been making studies of the coastline, and I have been measuring the erosion year on year."
"The government does that."
"The government fudges things—it's worse than what they've been revealing in their studies."
"So what are you going to do about it?"
"Join this NGO that's campaigning to build a proper coastal defence."
"Kunjippa's going to be really furious."
"Let him. Half his cousins and relations have lost their land to the sea in the past two decades, and he sits on his rig in Dubai and sucks the petroleum out of the earth for the Americans to burn in their elephantine cars. And then our land disappears into the ocean thanks to global warming."
"Don't let him hear you talk like that."
"We haven't been talking much since I told him I am not going to Dubai to look for a job."
Over the next year, I didn't see much of Yasser. I had started engineering college myself, making news headlines after becoming a top ten rank-holder in the state. The media pressure, along with elema's hard campaigning on my behalf, had forced uppa and umma to send me off to study. Yasser, too, had helped in getting me to the engineering college in Thiruvananthapuram. On my brief weekend visits home, I would occasionally meet him at tea time. He didn't talk much about the work he was doing with the NGO. He didn't live at home anymore; instead, he rented the top floor of a house nearer Kadaloor. It was nice, he told me, to have some space to think and not be in a place overrun by cousins and also to able to get away from the disapproving stares of the elders in the family.
Jabbar kunjippa had also come home for a month, and, by all accounts, the visit had not gone well. The annual biryani get-together was ruined with Yasser walking out before all the eggs had been done.
Rahmat kunjimma was a puddle of sentimentality and sadness, stroking my head when I came home one weekend shortly after the party "You should have seen him, Rehana."
"Oh Khadeeja—I know who you are."
"I don't know why everyone mixes me up with Rehana. When did she become a rank-holder like me? She's clearly Home Science material. You can marry her off to the first fool who comes along."
"Don't talk like that about your sister," umma scolded.
"They are no longer talking to each other," kunjimma wailed, desperate to get the focus back on her misery. "Yasser called his uppa an American fascist, and his father called him a Marxist toady. He's been forbidden from coming here. My sweet, sweet boy." More tears and snot and chest beating.
"Hush, Rahmat. What is this? A Muharram procession? Control yourself," said elema.
"You control yourself." They continued squabbling and my sisters pulled me aside to talk about their schoolwork. Two of them were going to be writing the engineering entrance exams soon and they wanted help.
I went to bed that day with a headache. Before I fell asleep, however, I stared at Yasser's drawing of the coastline stuck on the wall—one he'd made during the days he spent on top of the lighthouse. Through the open window, I could hear the waves on the shore.
As my eyes closed, it seemed to me that the waves were getting closer and could drown us all. We each drifted off in different currents, the sea blue and black and big. I could see a silhouette a short distance away, and, as it came closer, I saw it was kunjimma's big fish. It opened its mouth to say something but all that came out were bubbles. Yasser swam up to my side and said, "Come on. Let's go further—we can swim up to the top of the earth now."
A year later, on a Saturday afternoon before my final exams, Shahana called me on the hostel phone asking that I return home right away. She didn't have the time to explain why.
When I reached home that evening, people were pouring in and out of the house in a steady stream. I pushed past the crowds and entered the house. Uppa sat with his head in his hands while my siblings and cousins milled around. Shahana saw me and pulled me into the kitchen, which was the quietest part of the house. "They've got him," she said, eyes bright and fingers pulling at the edge of her dupatta.
"For theft of property."
"What did he steal?"
"We don't know. They haven't been to the station yet."
After a while, uppa came to us and, pointing at me and two of my younger brothers, said, "Come. We have to go to the station."
"Me, too?" I asked, surprised.
"Yes, of course. That sub-inspector will be an arrogant bully. If I take along my daughter, the rank-holder, he will behave properly."
As we hurtled down the beach road in our car, I asked, "Who is the sub-inspector?"
"Rajan uncle's son? But he is so nice."
"That was before he became a policeman. Now the khaki has gone into his brain, and he's going to be like the usual thugs in the force."
Which, as might be expected, was not how things turned out. Kadaloor police station was in a small house with a smart garden a little way away from the main road in the town. Constables sat outside, drinking tea and chatting. They saw us approach and waved us through. Go in—the sub-inspector is waiting.
Sub-inspector Pillai was efficient and professional. He explained the charges to us: Yasser was accused of stealing the wall of the house of Waleed Punnarakkal.
"Isn't that the big house with those cement umbrellas on the roof?" I asked.
"Yes. Yasser has stolen one of those umbrellas as well."
"Why?" asked uppa.
"He was building a sea wall."
A fit of giggles broke out among my brothers. Uppa stretched out a hand and slapped the heads of each one. The giggles trailed off into hiccups.
"Stupid boy. His obsession is going to kill us," grumbled uppa.
"You mean it would protect our land," I said.
"Are you taking his side?"
"I am saying he's building that wall for a reason."
"Then use proper methods to do it. What does he mean by stealing our neighbour's property?" uppa said, his tone sharpening.
The sub-inspector cleared his throat. "He says that when Mr. Punnarakkal was working for the Public Works Department, he stole funds given by the World Bank to build a sea wall at Kadaloor."
"I am going to flay him," uppa said, getting up from his chair.
"Sir, please sit down." Uppa sat down.
"The thing is, he's got documents to prove that funds have gone missing, and it's true that Mr. Punnarakkal has built a lavish house here. But he doesn't have any direct proof connecting these two things. And he did steal the masonry from Mr. Punnarakkal's property's perimeter wall and was using it to build the wall."
"Where was Punnarakkal when all this was happening?" I asked.
"He's in Saudi Arabia. He's taken a three-year leave from his PWD job and is in Riyadh, working."
"He took leave?"
"Oh, they all do it—it's a good way to make some money before retirement," the sub-inspector grinned broadly.
"What do we do about this?" uppa asked.
"I would recommend settling this whole deal—Yasser is a bright young boy, and we don't want the media to get hold of this. Lots of people will have mud on their faces."
"Mud that's going off to the sea," I said.
"Talk like that again and you will join him in the lock-up," uppa said.
In the end, it took a week of long phone calls between Kadaloor and Dubai and Riyadh for the whole matter to be resolved. Elema drove the negotiations from Kadaloor, pushing Jabbar kunjippa to compromise and save his son. Punnarakkal accepted a payment for damage to his property and also a court order banning Yasser from going within fifty metres of his property.
Yasser returned to us, thinner and scruffier. Elema was the first to pull him close in a bear hug. Rahmat kunjimma hopped impatiently for the embrace to end and then hugged Yasser close before slapping him hard on his left cheek and then hugging him again. "Come and eat. We've roasted a whole goat for you," she beamed.
That evening, I joined elema and uppa on the verandah. Yasser was roaming around the front garden, staring at the sky.
"He'd better stop this nonsense now," said uppa.
"You are so naïve," elema retorted. "He's not going to."
From inside the house, a bunch of children, a long-legged and laughing mass of bodies, tumbled out the front door and into the garden. They surrounded Yasser and shouted, "What are you going to throw into the sea next, ikka?"
Yasser looked at each of them in turn. "Nothing."
"So your great revolution has stopped?"
He considered this for a moment and then said, "Laugh now—when you have children of your own, this house will be below the sea. And you won't have any fresh water." He stalked away from the now silent group of children.
"What did I tell you? He's never going to stop." Elema was triumphant.
"It's a useless endeavour," said uppa.
"He's right—those children are going to get a world with no land and no water," I said.
"Allah will provide," uppa replied.
"Don't burden Allah with so much," said elema. "Sometimes we need to take things into our own hands."
"I think that all the women in this house have spoiled our sons," complained uppa.
"Someday you will thank Allah that there were women like us to spoil your sons," elema said.
I left the two of them to their arguments and joined Yasser at the far end of the garden by the jasmine shrubs.
"I once had a dream that we were all beneath the sea and your umma's great fish appeared, and it tried to say something. I couldn't understand it at all," I said. I pulled a flower off the shrub and sniffed at it. "You said not to worry, and we were to swim up to the top of the world."
"That doesn't sound much like me," he smiled.
"You're a good person, Yasser. Don't ever change."
"I always hated change."
"I know. But the world can't stay still."
"I wish it would."
We stayed there, in the dark garden, listening to the wind in the coconut palms above our heads and the waves on the beach. The moon popped out from behind a cloud and the jasmine flowers turned silver under its light.
Yasser was right: it would have been good, sometimes, to have the world stay still.