Eating a baguette with hummus and chutney on my IKEA futon that is no longer in production, I think of my mom, dad, and sister, who are moving into a smaller house, still in the suburbs of Coquitlam. They’ve made several trips to IKEA and Winners in the past few weeks, sometimes unnecessarily. But I don’t make a fuss, because they’re happy. Things aren’t extremely difficult for what might be the first time in our lives.
I feel guilty for being grateful that our lives have never been as difficult as my grandpa’s life, and his father’s life. I take a big bite of the baguette and wash it down with black rose tea. I place the last hard nub of it on my plate and remember my dad saying of his grandpa—my great-grandpa, whom we call Babaji: “he wouldn’t even leave one grain of rice on the sahani. It was always saaf.”
Sahani is Swahili for “plate.”
Until recently, I thought saaf was Hindi for “clean.” But it’s Urdu and it’s Arabic, and it means clean in the sense of “clear,” but also in the sense of “sincere.” It is similar to the Swahili word, safi, which roughly means “fresh” and “clean.”
The monsoon is coming. You can feel the hot humid air blowing off the Arabian Sea.
Last fall when the snow came, I was with a boy who was from another coast, one in Eastern Canada. One morning, I woke up remembering my dream: I was playing a harmonica and watching the moon; I was so calm I could have been dead. The boy with blue eyes was in the other room, fixing breakfast, rifling through my books and records. When I got out of bed and went to him, he said: “Do you play the harmonica?” Its shiny silver armour flashing in his hands.
He had found it in my mess of papers, a harmonica I bought at least ten years ago to accompany my guitar. His discovery felt like an intrusion into my dream. I wasn’t ready for it, and I didn’t want the harmonica to turn into a thing I played to impress him, so I kissed him and gently took it from his hands, tossing the harmonica back under the stack of papers, where I could find it when it was ready to call me, like it did my grandpa, who played it when he went for walks in the afternoon, in a potholed-road country that is one of my homes.
The monsoon is a gigantic sea breeze, created by a difference between the temperature of the land and the ocean.
I arrive at our new family home in Coquitlam. It’s bright, sunlight exposing a luminous white in the eggshell-coloured walls. I grab my little sister in a tight hug and give her the orange juice I bought because it’s fresh, because she loves oranges. My parents are busy talking about my grandma, who is living with my dad’s sisters in Dubai. She has gotten older and has fallen ill. They want to see her, take her nyumbani, take her home. My grandpa is already at peace there.
A few months ago, I was working on my novel and got an almost-crying sort-of-choke in my throat when I asked myself again: Who are my ancestors?
I knew there was a home video of my great-grandpa telling us his stories. I had seen it and taken notes, but my house is messy, so the notes are lost.
I recall him saying, “We were waiting for the monsoon,” in a language that is not quite Gujarati, not quite Hindi, not quite Urdu.
I look at my parents fussing over the new curtains like childhood enemies who have become friends, enjoying each other’s jabs. I feel blessed and lucky. It wasn’t always this way. Because they’re in a good mood, I entertain the possibility of asking them about the monsoon. Surely, they must know. But I wait. I don’t ask, just in case it makes all of us sad.
The monsoon is most extreme around the Indian Ocean, where it has changed people’s lives.
A couple of weeks later, I’m eating another baguette with garlic butter. I’ve just finished promoting my first book of poetry and am reeling from socializing, but I’m still in a good mood, with the monsoon on my mind, because it’s raining. I call my mom.
“I don’t know anything about monsoons,” she says.
“I just know that it rains heavily.”
“But—what about—Does dad know?” I try to hide my disappointment and my voice gets high-pitched.
“Dad’s going to say ‘what kind of soon?’ He’s not going to know anything.”
“But I remember! From the video. Mom! We watched the video and Babaji said he was waiting for a monsoon.”
“I don’t remember sweetheart, but it must be.”
“Wouldn’t it make sense for there to be a monsoon for them to come—for them to come home?”
“Dad’s calling on the other line, from work. I’ll call you back, ok?”
“Can you ask dad about the monsoon?”
“Ok, ok,” she says, distracted.
“Wasn’t Babaji a farmer? That’s what he said! I remember! He said he was a farmer, right? Usually if the rains don’t come, the farmers have to leave, because of droughts and famines, right?”
After a couple of seconds, she says, “He had ducks.”
I am about to say a stupid thing and I know it, but I can’t help it. “Mom! Aren’t ducks Canadian? How can there be ducks on a farm in Gujarat or Sindh!”
“Honey, there are ducks everywhere. Amir-jaan brought a duck home.”
“A duck? Home where?”
“In Mombasa, when we were little. He said he picked it up outside the halwa shop because it looked so depressed. He brought it inside on the steps of the flats and then it died.”
“Your brother killed a duck! Mom! In Mombasa?”
“Bechara duck,” she says. Poor duck.
“Mom! So Babaji was a duck farmer? Or—oh my god, was Amir uncle a duck farmer too?”
“Shaz, I don’t know what monsoon you’re in, but it’s going to come if you keep asking silly questions. Let me go now, dad is calling.”
The monsoon brings water, brings life
My family is scattered across various cities in Canada and England, as well as Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the coastal cities of Kenya, and its capital city, Nairobi. My family has been on the Swahili Coast since the late 1800s. There are many stories about how that happened, and all are bittersweet. Some are painful.
Babaji slept and lived in a mosque for years when he was young, because he didn’t have a home. This was in Bombay in the 1930s.
His father collected gunny sacks for a living. This was also in Bombay. He didn’t know how to count, but his wife did. At the end of the day, he would take the sacks to her and she would make a tally, which he would take to his boss, who would give him his money, from which he bought food.
I don’t know what they ate. Babaji was thin and gaunt, with bright eyes. I’m also thin. So is my dad.
Before the gunny sacks in Bombay, Babaji’s father must have done something else for food, in Sindh, which is now in Pakistan.
Before Sindh, something happened in Iran that made them move further east.
This is one story.
Later, I will visit a Persian restaurant and eat koobideh with my British-Canadian partner. The people around me will eat their meal, unwrapping small pieces of onion from cling film, melting butter into rice. It’s the first time I remember that my grandma ate exactly like this, a bite of onion after a morsel of meat and rice. I had never seen anyone outside my family eat that way before that night.
The monsoon is coming. You can feel the hot humid air blowing off the Arabian Sea.
My family visited Kenya seven years ago. When they returned after a month away, I went to our home in Coquitlam. A foot-long model ship with tall white sails was on the mantelpiece. It had taken the place of an intricate, ornamental plate with Bismillah in calligraphy, which was now off to the side. The ship had “MV Fort Jesus” painted on its dark wood hull in what looked like white-out, as if a kid had built the ship with great care then lost patience when adding the final touches.
“What’s that?” I asked, giving my dad a quick hug and making my way to the kitchen.
“What?” said my dad, watching someone make ghormeh sabzi on TV.
“The pirate ship!”
“It’s from Mombasa.”
“A random pirate ship?”
“It’s a dhow.”
“A dhow, DHOW. That’s how Babaji came to East Africa from Bombay.”
My mom gave me kebabs then and I promptly forgot about the dhow, because I was in my early twenties and very hungry. I was also a functioning addict, but now’s not the time for that story.
We call it Bombay, even though the city was renamed “Mumbai” in the mid-Nineties, supposedly to erase the unwanted colonial legacy of British colonial rule. Almost every weekend, I go to a convenience store close to Drake Street in Vancouver, where I buy big bars of Galaxy chocolate. British chocolate.
A few years ago, BBC News was on TV at my parents’ house. I wasn’t watching, but I could hear it from the kitchen, where I was hunting for food to take home, because I can’t cook and I needed to save money. Then I heard it coming off the TV, a sound I woke up to when I was younger. A shrill and grating sound, broken by intervals of air, like a gallop: the Tube, the London Underground. I cried suddenly, muted breath coming out of me as if from a gut-punch reflex.
That place has made a home in my body.
I’m on my third baguette this month. This time it’s because my landlord has increased the rent and it might be money-wise of me to continue eating baguettes. Each year he increases it a month earlier. Today, I texted him and asked him why he does that, and if we can go over the previous forms to make sure it’s yearly, and not 11-monthly or 10-monthly. When I talk to him, I look him in the eye sternly and use the language of the law.
“I belong to the East Vancouver Tenants Union,” I remind him. “They do free inspections for all homes and tenants in the neighbourhood can file reports at any time.”
The Union, its inspections, and its reports are something I’ve made up entirely, but he corrects the form without hesitation, so there’s no reason to unmake my lies.
Relieved to postpone the rent increase by a few months—back to the date of a legally eligible rent increase, I begin clearing my sink, washing the plates first and leaving the frying pan with burnt egg for last.
“Monsoon” is derived from the Arabic word for “mausam,” which means season.
Months ago, in the summer, I had wanted a world map. I needed to get one for the novel, I decided. How else was I going to understand and be able to visualize where the Swahili Coast was in relation to Bombay, in relation to Sindh, in relation to Iran, in relation to the U.K., in relation to Canada?
A week after I knew I had to get one, I went for a run to be closer to myself. I stopped by three boxes of books left on the side of the road, seemingly by a university student who may have been studying Philosophy. After half an hour of digging, at the bottom of the box I found a world map. I put all the books back and ran home. I pinned the map above my sink.
This is why it takes me an hour to wash a few bowls and one frying pan. This is why the water in the frying pan has settled so that the protein in the egg has begun to grow out of itself, like the bioluminescent lure of an Angler fish. It looks strangely unmoored, yet I can see it stuck firmly to the bottom of the gray pan. I lean in to look at it closely and my breath makes it waver. I’m on my tiptoes and my body waves back.
Is this a little bit of what Babaji felt like when the monsoon came to carry the dhow he was on from Bombay to Kenya? Did his entire being wave for a still-to-come shore?
“Monsoon” is derived from the Arabic word, mausam, which means season. “Season” is derived from the French word, saison, which means “at the right moment, or at an appropriate time.” I understand why I didn’t care to know what a dhow was when I was in my early twenties and drugged out. It is the same reason I hid the harmonica from myself, waiting for it to call me. It is the same reason we are afraid to call love “love,” in case calling it by its name will diminish its gift. It is why my parents feel at home fighting about the new curtains. It is waiting for the other stories, waiting for them to come. I understand now why I want to know my ancestors. It is the season, the right time. It is the monsoon.
*Monsoon-related facts in italics are borrowed and adapted from the Deutsche Welle documentary Monsoon Season in India.
**Some names have been changed.
It struck me recently that I still hold a childhood belief: I see books as my friends. I see books as my friends now too, even if their authors are dead and famous. I am unable to see dead writers I admire as celebrities.I first noticed this when I was “obsessed” with Rimbaud’s work and Rimbaud when I was in my late teens. I still believed he was alive somehow, even though I knew that he was dead. I would repeat his lines at night before I slept and I would talk to him. I didn’t expect him to speak back and I didn’t expect he was alive, but I believed that he would understand me, that he would understand even if he was dead, because we spoke the same language—beyond English or French, we spoke the same language. I believed he spoke with others too, if they spoke the same language.This could be categorized as an “obsession” or a symptom of mental illness. It was so casual, similar to the way one speaks to a partner they’ve been with for a number of years, asking about dinner and what time they might come home. I knew it was absurd, but I still did it. I had friends, but this kind of friendship was different.I still believe in this kind of friendship; I still believe I speak with the dead.I began feeling a yearning for this kind of friendship again when I began thinking of my grandparents, particularly my great-grandfather, who made an ocean journey from Bombay to the Swahili Coast in the 1900s. When I thought of him, I felt on the verge of tears constantly, as if I were about to speak or cry. Often, this feeling would lead me to the guitar, and I would pick a little and try to sing something, then I would feel calmer, as if I was finding rest. It would also lead me to write poems, and the feeling would rise all over again. The realization that I needed to write about my family grew out of these emotions. It was the influence of Rimbaud and other writers that allowed me to recognize and accept this experience as a part of myself, and not to fear it.The etymology of “influence” has the sense of “a flow of water, a flowing in,” but also an “emanation from the stars that acts upon one’s character and destiny.” The more I think about it, the more fatalistic “influence” seems, especially in the face of my agnostic stance, but there is no better description for what it feels like to write: the thing I am doing when I trust that deep friendship that reaches; the thing we do when we come close to others and so, come closer to ourselves.