In his final years, the old man abandoned the cold, calculating certainty of data and facts for the nebulous mysteries of the whimsical.
All the sparkle and promise he had shown in his heydays had come to naught. It was evident to anyone that set foot in his lonely abode. The richly textured Persian carpet had become threadbare and worn. The glittery crystal chandelier was missing quite a few of its Baccarat baubles, which had been ferreted out of the house, hidden in the sari reams of his lone maidservant. The mahogany furniture had lost its sheen and acquired a patina of dust. Still, she loved going to see him.
He had taken up this new habit of greeting all and sundry by asking them to state a colour and name a number, whereupon he would squint dramatically up at the sky, before giving them his “reading”. Some of his predictions and pronouncements actually hit the mark. Most didn’t. Most people lost their patience, and his visitors dwindled.
None of this deterred her. He was, and had always been, her favourite uncle. She continued to indulge him with the same patience that he showed when she had been a child—he’d sat cross-legged on the carpet in her parent’s bedroom, waiting for the gears in her brain to click in place so she could solve her math problems, while simultaneously engaging her mother in a game of Scrabble or Monopoly, and her father in an animated discourse about whatever cricket match was showing on the television at the time.
Numerology gave way to astrology, graphology to palm reading. Slim volumes on all kinds of woo-woo began to appear on his shelves, next to the leatherbound tomes about religion, politics, and other “responsible” pursuits. She found all of this as fascinating as he did her newfound passion for theatre.
Every time her little troupe took the stage, she would look to the front row, and he would be there, a toothy brown paan-stained grin splitting his sunburnt face. These shows were never advertised outside of the small drama collective she was part of, and she never invited him, and yet somehow, he would be there at every single one she was in, and it was enough just to see him there.
His interests turned to the occult, and he began to frequent dubious locales, inviting fakirs, shamans, and other less savoury characters back to his place, rambling about communicating with djinns. Her mother expressly forbade her from visiting him, so whenever she saw a light in his kitchen, she would yell through her window, inviting him over for dinner. If he didn’t have company, he would sheepishly oblige. He always ate like he was starving, and looking at the way his jute-cotton punjabis hung off his frame, she surmised that he often was.
On the evening she was to set off for foreign shores in search of a degree and perhaps an adventure, he came to give her a brand new copy of the Quran, with his favourite dua inscribed in his elegant hand on the flyleaf. She dutifully offered up a colour and number and waited for his pronouncement. Instead, he placed his hand on her head and left it there until she looked up at him to find him staring sadly at her through glassy eyes.
She would come back the next year and take the stage one last time. When she looked down at the front row, despite the packed hall, there was one seat empty.
Sabrina Fatma Ahmad is Features Editor, Dhaka Tribune.