Moni Mian’s eyes filled with tears again. This time I asked why.
“Are you afraid of death?” he asked.
“Perhaps not afraid but it is not a comfortable thought,” I said.
“The more attached you are to this world, the more difficult it is to die,” he said.
“The life involves you, doesn’t it?” I said. “It is so intense and you have to go through so much that it is difficult not to get attached.”
“You are telling me! I almost died fighting for our freedom,” he said, “and I am happy that I did. But when you get old, you are forced to think if you should have taken yourself so seriously.”
Now we were both silent. We could feel the weight of our thoughts and it made us tired.
After a long pause, he went behind the curtains again and played a Bollywood song on his CD player: “Yara sili, sili birha ki raat ka jalna (Simmering emotions of a lonely monsoon night).” “What simmering emotions. What rainy night,” he said to himself. “We were together for 40 years and then she went away, forever. Leaving me alone. Yara sili, sili… what a farce!”
I tried to change the subject.
“You know who wrote this song? Gulzar, a Pakistani-Indian. I mean, he was born in Pakistan,” I said.
Moni Mian said he knew that and then asked me: “If Punjabi and Bengali Hindus can live peacefully with each other, why couldn’t the Muslims? Why did you kill so many Bengalis?”
A young woman walked in, saving me from the embarrassment of answering that question.
“Hello Liz,” he said in English and then said to me: “This is Lailun Nehar, my daughter.”
I introduced myself. We shook hands and then she asked me: “Has he been bothering you?”
“No, we were having a nice conversation,” I said.
She shut off the CD player. I finished my tea and got up to leave. She insisted on coming to the parking lot with me.
“He is a nice man but has a bipolar disorder. It became worse after my mother’s death. He still believes he lives in 1971,” she said. “Sometimes he does not even remember his name.”
I said I did not notice anything disorderly in her father. Whatever he said made perfect sense.
Days later, I met Moni Mian at a South Asian gathering. He ignored me but his daughter came forward, said something about the weather, stayed for a while and joined her friends, leaving her father with me.
“How are you, Sir?” I asked him.
“Has my daughter hired you to look after me?” he asked.
“No, she has not. Remember, we met at the flower shop?” I said.
He did not. We sat silently, watching others. A friend came over and I excused myself.
The next week, he came over to the tavern, made me stand up and embraced me. “Where did you disappear? I have been looking for you all over Virginia,” he said.
“We met last week at a party,” I reminded him.
“We did?” he said, pulled up a chair and asked me to order green tea for him. “I always take green tea,” he said.
“The last time we met, I was telling you about the Bangladeshi national anthem,” he said.
“No, you were not. You were quiet,” I said.
“Never mind, I want to talk about the anthem today,” he said.
Without waiting for my response, he added: “The Pakistanis wanted us to forget this poem. They banned it. It could not be played on Dhaka Radio.”
I conceded that it was a stupid move. A poet of Rabindranath Tagore’s stature and a poem as powerful as “Amar shonar Bangla” cannot be banned.
“No poem can be banned. No one should try to do so,” he said.
And then he started humming the last few lines of the poem:
“O ma, tour chorone te dilem eʿi matha pete, deo go tore payer dhula, se je amar mathar manik hobe.”
“Yes, but some of these lines are not included in your national anthem,” I reminded him.
Tagore wrote this song in 1905 against the partition of Bengal and it ends with a condemnation of the British effort to divide Bengal.
“Hey, do not bring politics into this,” he chided me, then changed the subject: “We, in the subcontinent, have had more than our share of suffering, haven’t we?” he said.
“How?” I asked.
“One migration after another, some physical, some mental,” he said. “I was born an Indian, became an East Pakistani, then a Bangladeshi and now an America.”
“Yes, it was not easy,” I said.
Now he had a big smile on his face. “Sometimes, I feel like listening to an Urdu ghazal. What was that poet’s name, the one from Delhi? Ghalib, right?” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Recite a few of his couplets, please,” he said.
“Will you understand?” I asked.
“You Pakistanis, your arrogance never ends. It is destroying your country too. Before 1947, we all learned some Urdu, Persian and Arabic at our neighbourhood madrassahs,” he said.
I recited a few ghazals. Some he understood. Some he asked me to explain. Then he asked for more tea but dozed off before the tea came.
Later, his daughter came and took him home.
His abruptness surprised me. He – a complete stranger – walks up to me and forces me to come to his shop. Then he engages me in a very intimate conversation that only close friends do. Days later, he refuses to recognise me but comes again and embraces him. Orders tea and goes to sleep before the tea comes!
I did not see him for a few days. Then his daughter called: “My father is not well and wants to see you.”
I could have said no but there was something in him that attracted me too, perhaps common pains.
I noted the address and visited him the next day. He lived in a small but beautiful townhouse. There were large pots of Gandhraj and Bela, two jasmine varieties popular in Bangladesh, outside the main door. Their fragrance could be felt from quite a distance.
“How did you get those?” I asked as the daughter opened the door.
“My father brought them from somewhere,” she said.
“Baba, your friend is here,” said Liz. I entered a small but very clean room, decorated with fresh flowers, mostly jasmine. Moni Mian was all covered in a blanket, only his face was visible.
He smiled and gestured for me to take a seat. I did and asked how he was. “I have seen better days,” he said and started coughing.
“Don’t talk, Baba,” said Liz, reminding him that the doctor had asked him not to strain his lungs.
Moni Mian gestured her to bring some tea for me.
“No, thank you. I am fine,” I said.
But Liz insisted, saying that green tea was good for her father too if he did not spill it over. She brought a cup for me and a glass with a straw for her father.
The tea warmed him up and he asked me if I knew what was happening in Egypt and Syria. “I have been totally disconnected with the world because of this asthma,” he added.
I told him what I knew. We chatted until he had another attack of asthma.
I looked back while leaving. He looked bad. “May God give him a full recovery,” I prayed and walked out.
His daughter called again next week. She was crying. “He is dead, my Baba,” she said, choking with grief.
“To God we belong and to him we return,” I recited the customer Muslim prayer and asked: “When?”
“I don’t know. He was OK last night but when I went to his room this morning with tea, he was gone,” she said. “Can you please come over?”
I reached Moni Mian’s home in 15 minutes. Liz held me and started crying. I calmed her down and asked if she had informed her relatives and friends.
“I have phoned my two brothers in New York and Florida. They are coming,” she said. “Now I need to go to the shop to get the telephone diary. It has the numbers of all our family friends and relatives.”
I entered Moni Mian’s room after her daughter went to get the diary. He looked the same as he did a few days ago. I felt as if he would get up and say: “You Pakistani, why did you think I was dead. It was only asthma.” But he did not.
I recited the kalima for a few times and then I had this uncontrollable desire to play “Amar shonar Bangla” for him for the last time. So I took out my cell phone, went to the site he once showed me and played the last few lines that he had recited for me:
“As the day closes … I put aside all my games and run to your lap, ma.
At your feet, oh Mother, I have laid this head. Grant me, the dust of your feet, it will be a gem for me.”
I went out, brought some soil from the Gandharaj pot and rubbed it on his forehead.