The Relations Matrix by Samia Rahman
Spring 1999. With all the precocious privilege of a gap-year student, I walked into the police headquarters in Allahabad, India and strode up to the information desk. Looking every inch the backpacker in my creased linen trousers and retro shirt, I explained in carefully practised Urdu: ‘I’m the grand-daughter of Dr Sabir Hussain. I wonder if I could speak to anyone who knew him?’ It was my first time in Allahabad, the birthplace of my father and both sets of grandparents, and my first trip to India. I had visited Karachi on many occasions as it was where my mother was born and where most of my relations had moved after Partition, but now I was travelling around South and Southeast Asia with friends. An entirely different experience. They had stayed behind in nearby Varanasi while I took an early morning bus and set off on the two-and-a-half-hour ride to seek out relatives. My grandfather, the former Police Commissioner of Allahabad, had died a few years earlier and my parents had since lost touch with the few, rather more distant, relatives still residing in India. I had met him only once as a child when he briefly visited us in London. He would love watching Sesame Street on television and my mum had to make extra-soft chapattis for him because he wore dentures. He seemed so gentle and a million miles away from the austere and stern man I had grown up hearing about. His wife had died in 1943 when my dad was just three years old and by the late 1950s he had sent his sons to England, via Pakistan. My uncle, Dad’s older brother, excelled in his studies to become a professor of entomology and a writer of Islamic books, while Dad dropped out of his maths degree to work as a DJ at BBC Radio Nottingham, grew a long (non-Taliban) beard and soon resembled a latter-day hipster. He was eventually persuaded to finish his university studies on the promise that if he got a proper job he would finally be allowed to marry my mum, which he did on a trip back to Karachi in 1972.
There was a flurry of activity at the police station and before long I was introduced to some of my grandfather’s former colleagues who regaled me with tales of his much-feared discipline, authoritarian manner and great religious piety. The respect they obviously afforded him was extended to me and I felt a little embarrassed by their deference. I also felt keenly that I was absolutely not how they imagined the grand-daughter of Dr Sabir Hussain to be. Every time someone would enter the room I was certain I could detect a look of incredulity before murmurings of ‘she is from England’ would be offered as way of explanation, as if that made perfect sense. I began to hope I hadn’t done my grandfather’s reputation a disservice. Phone calls were made, relatives were tracked down and I was whisked away to stay with them. Their first gift to me as I entered their home: a freshly washed and ironed shalwar kameez and a copy of the Qur’an.