She stepped in quickly as the doors closed. She silently heaved a sigh of relief for making it on time. By the time the next train left from Piccadilly stop, it’d be a little too late. All the seats were taken—as expected—except one at the far end of the car. She made a beeline for it; she would squeeze her way through even if she had to. Although few people were still standing, she had succeeded in getting herself (and her over-sized bag) a seat, setting herself between the wall and a big white guy.
She looked her phone. 1:35 pm. I’ll make it in time. I’m just being overly anxious. While she was putting the phone back in her pocket clumsily, her unzipped bag on her lap fell upside down. And it was a chaos within the two square feet. Old receipts, scribbled notes, a wrist watch, her wallet, old bracelets, pens and colored markers and things and broken pieces you could never put together or let go off came out spilling on the floor. It was like your secrets suddenly being revealed to the world of what you’re not sure yourself. She hurriedly started picking up the things and stuffing them in her bag, too embarrassed to even look at what might even have fallen. The white guy beside her grunted before bowing down and helping her pick up a few things for her. ‘I’m really sorry’, she kept muttering to him, ‘so sorry, please don’t bother’, until he got embarrassed and turned the other way completely facing his back on her. The only other person who was now helping her pick her stuff up was an old man sitting right in front of her, who had left his seat slowly and come down on his knees to help pick up her things. She repeated her lines, ‘please don’t bother’ as she put her wallet and several colored pens back in the bag. He merely waved his hand and smiled like it didn’t matter anything for him. She turned red and looked down for more dropped things, not knowing what to say. Several moments passed between them silently collecting things and putting them back in her bag. ‘You are lucky this one didn’t break dear.’ The old man nodded towards an old watch—leather belted, brown dialed. ‘You should wear it, not tuck it away in that purse of yours.’ He smiled and his whole face smiled with him. ‘Flaunt it like the young lady you are.’ How can two people from two different worlds resemble each other so much? She thought.
She looked at the watch and then him, ‘it’s too precious’, she smiled and put it back in her bag. He smiled and nodded. ‘Hmmmm. Hmm.’ He almost said to himself and then struggled to get up from the floor with the help of his wooden cane.
She felt guilty.
‘May I help you getting up, erm, sir?’
‘That would be very kind of you dear.’ His head was bowed in a struggle to get up.
She quickly got up and took an arm of his while he put the rest of his weight on the cane and tried to get up. ‘There there. I got it.’ The old man sighed as he sat back on his seat. She could see how his wrinkles had doubled from this physical activity of getting up from the floor.
He reminded her of her dada so much.
He always had that white beard for as long as she could remember. It led her into believing that all the grandfathers of the world had long white beards—like it was a pre-requisite. So when her friend Sara took her once to her place to meet Sara’s grandfather, she told her that Sara was mistaken and that it could not be her dada. Sara was furious. ‘But how can he be your dada when he doesn’t have a white beard?’ Maryam had asked her.
Going to their village was the favorite time of the year for Maryam (and her siblings). For Maryam’s two brothers, it would mean more Cricket. For their oldest sister Aashi, it would mean cousins. For Maryam, it would mean more time with dada jaan.
Dada had been a retired school headmaster which was why he enjoyed a certain status in the bigger part of the neighborhood if not the whole village. He had a strong built, and a loud rattling voice when angry which scared all his children (even to this day) and grandchildren if he ever made use of it. Ali, Maryam’s five year old cousin used to hide, even when Dada would laugh, because ‘it vibrates my skin’, Ali would say.
Dada had a room right in the center of the house, with a full view of the square courtyard. Tall windows of his room would open in the large airy courtyard while the door would open to a corridor whose other end would steep into a set of an old wooden staircase towards the roof. Since the house was built during pre-partition days, dada feared that the roof of the house had outlived its life and needed to be renewed. And so dada was also the guardian of the roof. Any movement of any kind towards the wooden stairs by the kids and dada’s voice would rattle, ‘LARKAY!’ (always larkay never larki–he always thought only boys could disobey him) enough to explode your heart out with scare. And then he would scream ‘Nalaaik’ until he would hear the hurried footsteps running away out of the corridor, into the courtyard and out of earshot. He would also hear the laughter along with the fading footsteps but no one knew Dada would smile to himself later. Maryam’s cousins would often play this game of sneaking to the roof as a dare by making it there without warning Dada. But Dada never let them win.
For Maryam, her Dada was the best teacher ever—he had taught her something she had feared she could never learn. When Maryam was eight, all her friends knew how to read time except her; she was worried she would never learn how to tell time. Her father would buy her digital watches because she couldn’t read time from the analog ones until one fine winter morning Maryam was sitting on the windowsill of his room watching her Dada weaving an old charpoy with jute strings.
‘Maryam what time does the clock say child?’, he asked as he pulled the jute strings.
Maryam looked inside the room at the clock, ‘Dada it’s a clock with hands. I can’t tell.’
Dada smiled at her. ‘Let’s see. Tell me the position of the fat small hand and the tall thin hand.’ Maryam squinted back in the room. Determined to give Dada the most accurate positions of both hands, she told him, ‘the fat hand is between 10 and 11, and the tall hand is about to leave 6, and the other tall thin hand is now on 3. And now it’s on 4. And—‘
Dada laughed. ‘My dear, this hand keeps on moving. You won’t be able to catch it my child.’ His firm hands patted the jute strings on the charpoy, ‘it’s around half past 10 in the morning. In your digital watch, you call it 10:30 am.’
‘But it’s very difficult to read what the hands are pointing.’ Maryam looked again inside the room from the window and back at her dada. Dada laughed. ‘Then we shall make it easy for our Maryam. Run, bring my watch on the side table.’ So Maryam jumped from the window sill inside the room and brought his watch to him. It was an antique watch with a big brown dial and a brown leather belt. Dada told her the composition of twenty four hours, minutes in each hour and seconds in each minute. He showed her how each number contained five minutes in it if we looked from the point of view of minute hand and how it contained five seconds if we looked at it from the perspective of the seconds-hand. By eleven in the morning, Maryam proudly told him the time in his watch.
‘And for that you get a little gift,’ he told her and gave her his brown belted watch that she carried with her to this day.
Dada also reminded Maryam of Santa Claus sometimes from her story books, only better. All the grandchildren would gather around Dada at night in his room after Isha prayers to listen to a story—a different story each night, and candies afterwards—don’t tell your mothers, he would wink. Dada told the children stories of Adam, of Noah and Abraham, of Ismail and Ishaq, Moosa, Yousuf, Younis, Issa, Muhammad and his companions. It was these stories that built up Maryam’s interest in comparative religions later to pursue her higher studies into.
‘My grandfather gifted me this when I was a child.’ She looked at the old man now reading his newspaper. He looked up. ‘Did you say something child?’ He looked at her through his round shiny spectacles.
‘My grandfather gifted me this watch when I was a little girl,’ she said and smiled. ‘You remind me of him very much.’
‘Then it must be my lucky day, my dear girl,’ he said and folded his newspaper. The Tube stopped and a few people got out. The old lady sitting beside him moved towards the door. ‘Tell me about him.’ He smiled and patted the empty seat beside him. His wedding ring glinted in his old wrinkly left hand.
And so she told him the stories of her dada. Of their house in the village, of his laugh, of his milky white beard, and the candies he used to give to his grandchildren—their little secret—while the parents had no idea. The old man smiled and nodded.
‘I’m just going to pick him up from Heathrow today.’ She told him excitedly. ‘His flight is in two hours. He’s coming to see me on my graduation.’ Her eyes shined.
‘Well, he’s a lucky man.’ He patted her on her hand.
The train began to slow down again. ‘That would be my stop, I’m afraid.’ The old man slowly started to stand up, the cane clutched in his left hand and the newspaper in the right. She stood up, took his right arm gently and walked him towards the door. ‘Thank you for your help Sir,’ she said. ‘With the bag I mean,’ she quickly added. ‘I hope I see you again, I guess? Somewhere?’ she smiled awkwardly. ‘Around here I think?’ She didn’t know what to say. So she smiled again.
He nodded and smiled for a long time. His face pale beard shining in the station lights, his round glasses reflecting her warm embarrassed smile, ‘we all want lovely little grandchildren like you, don’t we?’
I like small places. Places with low ceilings, faded rugs, round coffee tables, colored cushions and early morning rays of sun through open windows. Where you could sit at a corner, detached from the world and yet feel connected to everyone in the crowded room who is here to have breakfast, drink coffee, or read a book. Where you could meet your friends or the person you love and show them the secrets this world holds through that window from where the sun shines. Where you could listen to everyone’s voices and whispers and could tell the language they speak—of love, goodness and beauty—but not be able to tell what they might be thinking. Where you could marvel at the people and the life that exists outside that small coffee shop, like a silent movie, without judging their motives unlike those of big places and high ceilings.
Big places with high ceilings and glass floors and high tables make me anxious. They hold mysteries and secrets people are not sure to reveal. Big places give refuge to high pitched laughter which doesn’t reach the eye and to people who are more concerned about what purpose you bring them than whether you would like to have tea or coffee—they wouldn’t care if you like to have both. It’s difficult to gauge their feelings. So I choose small places with big hearts. Small places with memories of seeing each other the first time. Small places and dog-eared books. And paragraphs you’ve read a hundred times and still cannot get over them.
Small places and Sunday mornings and Friday nights, when you have all the time in the world to discuss with them, how time flies and why days change.
Small places where no one cares whether the wooden table is newly polished or why the rug still has coffee stains.
I choose small places because they make me realize of the connection I have with the things that are still alive, and with people who still believe in the magic of faith, truth, love and beauty.