Getting to death

We Taufiq boys always die young, which makes us feel immortal
July 23, 2004

Two generations ago there was a Taufiq male, Nadir, who lived to the age of thirty-four. In family stories he is referred to as "the Old Man" because, by our standards, he was. In all the records of Taufiq births, thirty-four is as old as it gets for our men. The stories tell us that "none lived long enough to see a single grandchild," though we have always married young and procreated extravagantly. Outsiders are sometimes critical of this multiplication of our numbers; they see it as desperation or cruelty. Our weddings have the pall of funerals, and our funerals the stale air of re-enactment.

We are not to blame. It is the women who will not stop loving us. We tell them from the first that our hearts will stop, unaccountably, before our hair has turned grey. They laugh right back at us, those beautiful women (we have only ever loved beautiful women) and say, "We've only just met. Aren't you being a little presumptuous?" And we fall for them right away, for the way they look at us as though to say, "I'll never love you," allowing us to believe they could be right. We could just spend a few evenings in their company, leave them unscathed and live forever (or as much of forever is given to us) with the memory of their laughter and their immortality; for they seem immortal to us, they who we know will outlive us. Sometimes it really does work that way, or seems to. They flirt with us, let us pick them up for parties, let us dance very close to them, and then they're gone from our lives, with a backward smile that says, "Told you, you wouldn't break our hearts." But they always reappear at the funerals, their eyes hollow with loss, telling those of us who remain, "I only pretended not to love him. I've only pretended to love anyone since."

It is as much for the sake of the women as for our love of each other that we continue to live in the same city, no matter what opportunities arise elsewhere, or how much we sometimes yearn for a place where we can be free of our family's reputation for death. It is the women who will have to bury us, and raise our children when we are dead, and bury those children, and their children after. It is the women who will judge when Taufiq brides are ready to be told the great family joke: there are no wives here, only widows and widows-in-waiting. It is the women who prove us wrong when we say there is no bond stronger than the bonds between boys who know from the earliest age that their lives are a race against each other - who will die first, who last; and which of those two will be crowned the victor? When we see how the women refuse to make a race or game of their comparative losses, then we understand the selfishness at the heart of our fierce adoration of each other's company.

We grow up differently to everyone else. That's why, generation after generation, we have no choice but to be each other's best friends. The other boys in the playground cannot comprehend our losses, or know what to say to us when we are excused for failing to do our homework on account of yet another funeral in the family. When we try to put them at ease by making a joke of it, telling stories of our fathers and uncles who for three years never sat an exam because of the spate of May and December deaths, their responses never hit that midpoint of hilarity and resignation that we learn so early on. So we are left to each other, making up the rules of how to be middle-aged while still teenagers.

And yes, there is an arrogance to us. We know we'll never falter in our beauty, never fail to live up to our early promise, never have our lives taken for granted by anyone around us, never suffer a long disease or lose our minds or feel our muscles and nerves turning traitor to our desires. One day, our hearts will simply stop without warning or pain. We know the manner and, give or take a few years, the timing of our death. We know, too, that we are at ease around death, acknowledging in it the reason for our separateness. We have no religion, but much mythology. We know that there is a special afterlife for Taufiq men.

In our childhood games we "play dead" more elaborately than the other children. We learn to terrify our mothers by stopping, mid-bite, and falling face down into our food - it is the one thing that makes them really angry with us though we do it out of a deep love, trying to prepare them for what we will soon make them endure. We never weep for each other's deaths, but we are moved to sadness for our mothers. Why do they do it? Why bring so many of us into the world? Do they think if there are enough of us one will slip through fate? Do they think no further ahead than the death of the first child, believing that there will be solace in knowing there are so many remaining? Do they think, perhaps there will come a daughter? A girl cousin! Imagine it.

It is not only for the sakes of our mothers that we perform our own deaths, of course. We do it for ourselves. It feels like practice. It feels like something we can get better at, over time. Though this exercise abated for a while after the death of Babar, two years older than me, and so given to "faking it" that no one paid attention when he fell over in the garden during a game of cricket and didn't get up. He had just dropped a catch, and we were all convinced he was merely trying to detract our attention from his clumsiness. So we rolled our eyes at each other as he put a hand to his chest and fell, and turned away from him to make our way to the veranda for tea. His mother walked out into the garden to see the youngest of her boys grey-lipped beneath the bougainvillaea while the rest of us called out, "Babar's dead. More sandwiches for the rest of us." He was sixteen years and ninety-three days old. If he'd died eleven days earlier he would have supplanted our uncle Ali as "The Youngest Corpse." (There are, of course, those who die young through disease or accidents, unrelated to their hearts. A few generations ago this was particularly true. We don't talk much about those deaths. There is something almost shameful about them.)

For all the differences in our characters, to outsiders we always talk of ourselves collectively. It is only when one of us dies that he becomes an individual.

I am Rizwan.

No, not a ghost.

On my twenty-first birthday my mother came into my room with a photograph in her hand. "You have to prepare for your future," she said.

We are a wealthy family. We have vast land holdings, and our numbers subtract and multiply at an almost even pace so the number of mouths to feed remains consistent (this is mathematically unlikely, yet true). There has only once been a Taufiq v Taufiq property dispute, and the plaintiff died before the case was resolved. In other words, our finances are assured and uncomplicated. We do not work unless we want to. We do not study after the age of eighteen unless the pursuit of knowledge interests us (almost invariably, it does; we are infinitely curious, most of us, about the world we know we'll inhabit so briefly). That word, "future," which my mother so startlingly uttered exists for us as something impersonal. The future is where technology will make new breakthroughs, the ozone hole will expand, history will repeat itself. It has nothing to do with us.

My mother held out the picture to me. It was my face, but older. Vastly, improbably older, by our standards. Thirty-five or thereabouts. My lips thinner, my hair receding, my eyes slightly closer together and my nose more aquiline.

"Until you've held four sons in your arms and known that, barring a miracle, you'll outlive each one of them, you can't judge what I did," she said.

It was as though she had stripped me of godhood.

None of us ever resembles our fathers. The only thing physical we inherit from them is our hearts. And yet, we all look alike. Which is to say, we have the same look about us. It is a look you see in very old pictures belonging to less informed times - pictures of boys who have willingly enlisted to fight a war they believe is just. Boots polished, they stand with their arms around each other, ready to leave home, their eyes alight with the possi

bility of death and the certainty of glory. They are already composing in their heads the letters to loved ones which will be found among their things when they die, and they know without question that as they lie in the green grass of the battlefield the stiffness of their corpses will make reclining statues of them. But for the boots, we are those boys.

As soon as I saw that picture of my real father, I stopped looking like my cousins. It happened instantly. One moment, I was in my room, rehearsing the macabre jokes that accompany all our birthdays, and then my mother walked in, handed me a picture, and when I looked up from it, there were my cousins - the five closest to me in age - shouldering their way into my bedroom to find me, and I knew then that I would outlive all of them and all the ones who were waiting for me outside and all the ones too young to take part in our festivities. I turned my face from them, caught my reflection in the mirror, and saw in myself a stranger.

I left the next morning. I needed some purpose, so I went abroad to find my real father. He was an old friend of my mother's brother and when he heard of my birth he half suspected I was his, but said nothing. Still, he was more than glad to see me and acknowledge me as his son. He let me move in with him, paid my way through business school (I had always planned to study taxidermy), helped me shop for suits when I got a job at a bank, and told me I didn't ever have to go home again. He knew about the Taufiqs and was immeasurably patient with me as I unlearned all the rules of my former life. I had no reason any more to suspect I could ever break a woman's heart, no jokes to crack to enliven an evening (what once was defiance in my humour only seemed callous now), no collective noun to meld into when I needed to hide from the world. And time ballooned out all around me, turning my movements sluggish.

Each year, on my birthday, I called my mother and asked for a list of those who had died.

One morning I looked into the mirror and saw I had aged. Not merely grown older, but aged. For the first time since I was twenty-one, the inevitability of my own death wrapped itself around me. But now I found I was afraid of it. I threw out my cigarettes, made the first doctor's appointment of my life, joined a gym. It did no good. Somewhere in the mediocrity of my adulthood I had learnt the terror of extinction. I don't know if I really believed I could unlearn it by going back to that place of my childhood, but all the same I packed a suitcase and flew home.

Somehow, sixteen years had past. There was enough of my upbringing still in me that I recognised how vast a span of time that was. Only one besides me remained of those who had walked away from Babar as he keeled over, all of us laughing when one of the cousins (perhaps it was me) said death was no excuse for a dropped catch. That one remaining cousin picked me up from the airport when I landed, and we spoke as strangers on the ride home. He was eight years younger than me, and at the end of his life. I think he pitied me. In his place, that's what I would have done.

He didn't drive me to the house in which my mother lived with her five grandsons and three daughters-in-law, but to the house round the corner from it, the "Big House," in which I had spent almost every evening of my boyhood. When we drove in, there they were - a new generation of Taufiq boys playing cricket in the garden, regarding me with enough curiosity as I entered that I knew they were aware of my story. I found I had no interest in them. It was the women I had come to see.

They, too, had always been a collective noun to us. We saw in their inevitable survival a mirror image of our inescapable deaths. We would die, they would live. We would be buried, they would tend our graves. Their love gave our brief lives true romance, and our deaths gave their drawn-out existence an aura of noble tragedy. In this, as in all other matters, we had been selfish and blind. We assumed that because our deaths were identical, their griefs would be t

he same. We told ourselves that they raised mourning to an art through their constant performance of it, as we could never do with death.

In reality, the only thing they raised to an art was their ability to hide their true emotions from us so that we would not see how they suffered on our account. But when I walked into the drawing room to meet them, with lines at the edges of my eyes and mouth, they reached out to embrace me, and wept as I had not seen them weep before. They knew the truth yet they chose to regard me as wish-fulfilment - a Taufiq man approaching middle age.

My mother was not among the women in the drawing room. She was waiting for me on the balcony upstairs.

"Look at you," she said when I stepped out to where she sat, the fronds of a palm tree creating a canopy above her. "Your face has become interesting."

I knelt down beside her, so I could see her up close; but it felt like supplication. "How are you?" I asked.

"I want to die."

She had lost the first of her grandsons the previous year. It was enough, I suspected, to make anyone want to rid themselves of life. Even so, I asked, "Why?"

"So that my son can bury me. At last. The natural order of things." And then she burst into tears, and pulled me into her arms. Holding on to her, I looked down at the boys in the garden, no longer playing cricket but falling upon each other in something between a game and a fight with the ferocity of bodies that had no need to concern themselves with consequences and I thought, I am neither here nor there.

Later that day, I went to my great-grandmother's room. She was watching her favourite television show. "Write this down for me," she said, when the credits rolled. "It's a letter to the show's producer. Dear Sir, I am eighty-nine years old. What are the chances Aliya will decide whether to marry Arif or Sohail before I am dead? Yours sincerely."

It was to be another five years before I left my job at the bank and found my true vocation, but that moment with my great-grandmother marks the point at which I had the first inkling of where to find my place in the world.

Now I work with the very old. They are funnier about death than the Taufiq boys ever were because they are less self-conscious about it. That may be the only thing I can say that is true for all of them. Perhaps I am only assigned to look after the ones with a dark mirth about them. Or perhaps something in me draws it out of them. I don't know. But I know I am only ever at ease when I am in their company. It isn't that I like or admire them more than any other collection of individuals. It's just that, when I am with them, I see the promise of a future in which both my selves - the one that was a Taufiq boy and the one that is the man Rizwan - can come together.

Slowly, I'm getting there.