Ghani Baba was in his 80s when I met him. When the doctors asked him not to swing, he would simply go and sit on one, often for hours. And he always needed two swings, one he sat on and the other he talked to.
The other swing, he said, was for his sister. Because he insisted she was alive, people stopped trying to convince him that she was dead.
He would talk to her, tell her to hold the chains properly, not to pitch high and be very careful.
“Remember Zaitoon Bibi, the last time you fell you had six stitches. We had to take you to the city as there was no doctor in our village,” he would say. “So don’t do it again.”
Listening to him, I often wondered why people die. And if they have to die, the love others have for them should die with them.
But Ghani Baba believed he was living in Pakistan not only because his sister was there. He was so used to living in Pakistan that he could not imagine living anywhere else.
He was already in his 70s when he came to America. He was born in Pakistan, was educated there, worked there and retired there. He came to America only because both his sons had settled here.
His sons say he was like everybody else in other matters. I believe them because I had discussed politics, cricket and poetry with him and found him very knowledgeable. But he would get upset whenever someone tried to convince him he no longer lived in Pakistan.
If it was dementia, it was a strange dementia.
In the beginning, Ghani Baba used to argue. When he noticed he made others uncomfortable, he stopped arguing. He would simply go out in the backyard, occupy one of the swings and start talking to the other.
Zaitoon Bibi was born five years after him and unlike other families in rural Pakistan; their parents had only two children. He was strong, tall and dark. She was petite, fair-skinned and very delicate.
So from a very early age, he took it upon himself to look after her; bringing her food, books, and flowers. While walking to school, he would make sure that she was on the side shadowed by trees.
Yes, their parents sent both to schools although it was uncommon in those days to educate girls. Actually, many small farmers, like their father, did not even send their sons to school. Instead, they put them to work. But their parents were different.
When their father died, Zaitoon was 10. Ghani, who was not a Baba yet, had just completed his matriculation. The death shattered their lives. Zaitoon, who was very close to her father, was devastated. She cried for months; talking quietly to her father, recalling the tales he used to tell her.
That’s when Ghani decided he would be like a father to her.
There was very little money at home. So he had to discontinue his studies and go to the city, Rawalpindi, where he became a typist.
New responsibilities also bring new courage. So Ghani decided that he will fulfill his father’s dream of making him a government official. For this, he would have to complete his education.
So he worked during the day and went to a tuition centre at night. He spent the next eight years working like a machine. Completed his education and became a government official as his father desired.
And he also fulfilled his other pledge, to be like a father to her sister. He shared a room with five other people, bought his clothes and shoes from the market that sold used goods, ate little but always sent money home.
He hardly bought anything for himself on festivals like Eid but always bought gifts for his mother and sister. It was his mother who bought him new clothes whenever she could. She made some money sewing clothes.
After he got a government job, Ghani faced tremendous pressure to marry off his sister but he let her complete her studies, up to the 12th grade. He also found an educated man for her and the only time he borrowed money in his life was for his sister’s marriage. Everybody in the village acknowledged that even if his father had been alive, he could not have arranged a better wedding.
Then he rented a house in the city and brought the couple to live with him for as long as it took Zaitoon’s husband to find a suitable job.
He got married only after his sister was well settled.
The two families lived in the same neighbourhood, so they met daily and often had dinners together.
The idea was to live like this forever. Their definition of forever was simple, one dying in the other’s arms, as his mother did with her children and grandchildren around her bed.
But even Ghani Baba could not plan everything. He wanted his children, and those of his sisters, to live together too.
His children had other plans. After completing their education, both his sons came to America for further studies, found jobs and settled here.
Ghani Baba refused to go. His wife Aisha stayed with him too.
But when the doctors discovered that his main arteries were almost completely clogged, his sister persuaded him to go to America for treatment.
When he was returning home after a year, Aisha, who was with him, became seriously ill so he prolonged his stay for two more years.
Meanwhile, the unthinkable happened: his sister died in her sleep. Ghani Baba and Aisha took the first available flight to Pakistan.
He cried like a baby. Did not eat for days and when he overcame his grief, he decided he had only one desire left, to be buried next to his sister.
And one day his wife died too, as suddenly as his sister had. This further increased his determination to be buried in the village graveyard where Aisha and Zaitoon were.
This was when, the doctors say, he started seeking refuge in the past, often pretending that his sister and wife were both alive. He would talk to them for hours.
So his sons brought him back to America, leaving behind his desire to be buried next to his wife and sister. Since he could no longer decide where to live, Ghani Baba convinced himself that he was where he wanted to be, in Pakistan.
I first saw Ghani Baba sitting on a roadside bench in Springfield, Virginia. A police officer was trying to talk to him. He was speaking Punjabi with the officer, although he knew English.
The officer asked me to talk to him.
I asked where he lived. “In Pindi,” he replied. I tried but could not get any other answer from him.
The officer found a piece of paper in his wallet, describing his medical condition with instructions to call a particular number if he was found somewhere.
The officer did and his sons came and took him away.
A month after this incident, I met him again in a social gathering and he was as normal as the most normal person in the room. He did not remember anything about our first encounter but we discussed everything else, from politics to cricket.
After a few meetings, I became friendly with his sons and we started seeing each other.
One day, I saw him on a swing in his backyard.
He called me and said: “Take me to Karachi.”
“Why Karachi,” I asked.
“To buy gifts for my wife, sister and our children,” he said.
“But you are in America,” I said.
He looked at me and said: “I thought you were a sensible person.” Then he turned his face away, trying to hide his tears.
“See, Zaitoon, they think I am crazy,” he said to the other swing.