Too afraid to make a phone call

This is a tale of three sisters. I know one of them: she is in her seventies and lives alone in a small town in India. Her older sister lives with her sons, who are dedicated government servants, in a bigger city in India. And her eldest sister, who had moved to Pakistan with her husband’s family during the post-Partition years, lives with her children in Karachi or Islamabad. I am not sure which city, but it is a Pakistani city. This situation is not unusual for the older generations of middle-class Muslim families, who saw one or more siblings leaving for Pakistan in the 1940s and ’50s.

Only a phone call away

All three sisters are widows. As their children have either moved to other places for work or are busy with their careers, these three sisters, who have not come together for decades, have very little to do except reminisce. Their greatest pleasure is to chat on the phone, a process made easier these days with digital options. After decades of worrying about the cost of phone calls, now they can ring each other up for next to nothing. The eldest sister calls every few days, for some of her happiest memories are of India.

Of course, I did not know all this until I received a call from the youngest sister, who is the only one who knows me, some days ago. After I had recovered from my surprise and we had exchanged the usual greetings, I asked her why she had called. “Is everything OK with you?” I enquired in Urdu.

“What can be wrong with me, beta? Allah looks after me, and my neighbours help out.”

I did not ask more, as I knew that she was a childless widow and lived alone. So I asked a direct question: Why have you called me? (I don’t think she had ever called me before, not even when I was still working in India.)

I needed to ask you about my sisters, she said. I do not have anyone else to ask, and I know you live abroad, you know officers, you are a journalist.

It was then that she told me about her two sisters, of whom I had not known until then (or had forgotten about). But I still did not understand her problem. I did not know her well enough for her to call and ask for money, and in any case she belonged to an affluent (though not rich) and proud family, which would never borrow from strangers or even friends. She explained the matter to me.

Border problems

This was her issue. Her oldest sister, the one in Pakistan, was used to calling her and her other sibling twice a week. But now a problem had cropped up. Neighbours and relatives had told this old woman, living alone with her iPhone, that she should not respond to any call from Pakistan. It might be considered anti-national, they had told her. The other sister had already stopped responding to calls from her Pakistani sibling, because her sons were government servants in India and she did not want to cause them any trouble. The eldest older sister in Pakistan was worried about at this sudden lack of response and was now calling even more often.

As I listened to the story, the tragedy of Partition flashed through my mind: all those millions killed and dislocated! And it was a tragedy that never seemed to end. Why was a woman in her late seventies afraid of receiving a phone call from her older sister, now in her late eighties, just because a political border separated the two? Why had another sister stopped taking these calls because she was afraid it would cause problems for her sons?

This old woman wanted answers from me, because she knew I wrote for newspapers. What could I say to her, except reassure her that at least in India we have politicians, officers and bureaucrats who would not persecute someone like her for talking to her sister in Pakistan? But she was nervous, worried. Neighbours have told me stories; both Hindus and Muslims have advised me not to talk to my sister, she murmured, only half-convinced by my assurances. “I am an old woman,” she said. “I do not want to choose between my own welfare and my older sister. And how can I tell her not to call? What do I say to her when she asks why my other sister is not responding to her calls?”

I could not really answer her, because it is not an answer for an individual to give; it craves a collective voice, a collective conscience. It requires a collective voice with a collective conscience, for a collective voice without a conscience can only be the violent baying of a bullying mob.

Let us act decisively against terror of any sort, of course, but let us not divide the hearts of ordinary people. Let us not create an atmosphere of paranoia. We owe Mahatma Gandhi’s India — and basic humanity — at least that much. Let us not give in to terrorism by infecting ordinary families with fear.

Tabish Khair is an Indian novelist and academic who works in Denmark

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 3:48:42 AM |

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