Samina Najmi remembers Abdul
Najmi recounts a life on the periphery of her family's history @ Map Literary.
As a professor of multiethnic American literature, I often teach the writings of immigrant authors. We ponder what it means to speak of “home” and belonging, and their opposites: homelessness, exile, and the experience of displacement so layered that people can spend their lifetimes unpeeling, unfolding, and repackaging it.
In my family, the layers of displacement are multigenerational: my grandparents’ post-1947 migration from Bihar, India, to the port city of Karachi in the new Muslim state of Pakistan, followed by their move from East Pakistan before it became Bangladesh in a second bloody secession. My parents and their siblings chased after the red balloons of their dreams in Sindh and Punjab, in Denmark, Nigeria, and Malawi, and in suburban London, heart of the former empire that had, for better or worse, held their families together. As young adults, my own siblings and I scattered to different parts of the New World in the 1980s, while the puritanic General Zia-ul-Haq, with dark shadows beneath his eyes, took hold of Pakistan as a toddler might grab a wind-up toy, and reset it on an Islamist course.
But these family histories of migrations and the search for belonging are easy to recount. The story that never makes it into the classroom centers on a man who was family but not family, dependable and dependent, central to our lives yet inhabiting its peripheries. Present, but irrelevant to me.
Abdul had been working in our extended family in Karachi long before I was born. If he had a family name, I never asked what it was, and nobody seemed to know his early history. Family lore has it that an uncle of my father’s discovered Abdul as a young man working in Karachi’s Nigaar Hotel shortly after Partition. Detecting the rhythms of his own birthplace in Abdul’s singsong Bihari accent, my great-uncle offered him domestic employment, and Abdul exchanged his life among Karachi go-getters for the promise of room and board with fellow Bihari immigrants. A self-respecting but ultimately willing heirloom, Abdul served in this or that branch of the family as our vagaries dictated. Each time prospects overseas lured employers like my parents away from Pakistan, Abdul adapted to new masters and mistresses, new working conditions, new rules, new beds.
Image: A Q Arif at Essex Art Gallery
Post a Comment