The entrance to the old people’s residential home on Goldhawk Road in west London is like a fish-tank. Large glass panes separated by plastic rims painted a duck-egg blue like those graph lines in school maths books, face visitors waiting to be buzzed into the human aquarium. The soft blue is a soothing colour, the colour of retirement. There’s a poster of Sadiq Khan and Andy Slaughter firmly clasping hands, grinning that promising politicians smile from on top of the notice board next to the elevator. They peer out at visitors, the goldfish, the small fish, waiting to be let in. A smell hangs in the corridor, neither foul nor pleasant. It’s the smell of old age and cooking, a hint of fried onions, that sits on the threadbare carpet like a layer of dust. This olfactory memory of the place has been there from when I used to visit as a child over twenty years ago.
A residential home sounds like an odd place for a young woman of twenty-something to visit. But it had become tradition for my entire family and I to make a mini-pilgrimage there to pay our respects to one of its oldest residents, Muhammad Zarin, or Babajee (Grandfather) as he was affectionately known by all.
At a grand ninety-four years old, Babajee was a formidable man over six foot tall, with a booming voice and a well-groomed white philosopher’s beard. With his traditional Pakol hat encircling his shaven head, and a crisp, magnolia coloured shalwar kameez, he had the air of a proud Pashtun King who commanded authority, the gentle kind, from on top of the cream leather sofa he sat on in his living room. He would sit with his hands crossed over his walking stick in the manner of a man who knew his place in the world, his swollen feet laid out in front of him as part of his daily ritual since he stopped walking. It was his luminous faith in Allah and his Yoda-like wisdom that were one of the many reasons why young people like me gravitated towards his stationary orbit.
Like many elders, Babajee had a gift for telling stories forever imbibed with a moral lesson for the wayward young ones to learn from. He was a tall man who told tall tales, all of them true. When he was twenty-four years old, India was torn in two like a child’s play-thing in 1947. Back then he worked as a train conductor for the Pakistan Railway which to this day, is used by tens of millions of passengers who pass through it’s tin-can interiors, human cargo crammed inside rusty carriages packed like sardines. This particular story stuck in my mind not just because he had vivid recollections of travelling through Burma without travel documents, through pre-partition India where Hindu, Sikh and Muslim lived side by side; it was the way he laughed at how the English often mistook him for a white man.
His granddaughter, Sabah, told me once how ‘gassed’ he got when you asked him how good looking he was back in the day. To prove her point, she bellowed into his ear in Pashto one day, “BABAJEE, WERE’NT YOU REALLY GOOD LOOKING WHEN YOU WERE YOUNG?”
With a small twinkle in his eye, he replied very matter-of-factly, “Bacchae, zu DEERA khkolle wam!”
“Child, I was REALLY beautiful!”
You could still hear the remnants of his youth in the raspy boom of his voice and in the way his eyes lit up when he spoke with conviction, which was almost all the time. It was easy to see the young Muhammad Zarin in the green and blue hues of his pupils who emerged out of hiding every-time he spoke of the past until the pearly white of his cataracts, brought with it a vast cloud of old age over the surface of his small eyes, and with it the realisation that here was indeed an old man.
Babajee lived to see many things. He saw six of his newborn children die, his wife and his closest friends pass away. He raised one daughter, sending her to university in 1960s Pakistan at a time when this was completely unheard of. A man in his twilight years, he spent his days surrounded by shoals of young people. Sometimes I wonder if those years were ones of solitude since he was the last of his generation, a generation at dusk.
Education to Babajee was absolutely zurree, important, and he never let us forget it. After dropping out of school in Pakistan at the age of thirteen, his father brought him two cows to keep as a punishment. Curfew wasn’t an adequate disciplining technique.
“If you’re not going to school, then you can keep these cows for the rest of your life”, he said to his son. But the life of a cattle-herder wasn’t for Babajee. He ended up joining the Pakistani army, conning them into enlisting him despite the fact he was partially blind in his left eye after he accidentally stabbed himself when he was playing with knives as a child. He ended up operating canons, with the hands I often noticed were dotted with age spots, markers of a life lived under the sun of the motherland. In the end he almost got crushed by a tank he was operating after his foot got trapped until his chappal, the very same weapon that has been used to beat generations of south Asian children, miraculously tore, sending him sprawling onto the ground, saving his life.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in Babajee’s flat wringing my hands, hunched over with bad posture, the result of years of rocking back and forth on chairs at school despite exasperated sighs from teachers warning me I’d turn into a hunch-back. In those moments life weighed heavy on my mind, but Babajee had a way only elders know how, of driving away the darkness. He didn’t have a Freudian chair or a psychology degree to dissect my problems. Just that hoarse, booming voice, which chased away hardships in a dialect of Pashto I often struggled to understand. One piece of advice he gave me always comes to my mind whenever I think of him:
“Bacchae! Chi spee ghaapi, tu walle ghappe?”
“Child! If a dog barks, why bark back?”
He would screw his eyes shut with emphasis as he talked, as if it would drill the message in deeper, the way my mother kneads dough with her knuckles for chappattis. It always makes me smile, when elders speak in riddles, verbally dancing between what’s obviously being said, and what they really mean. What Babajee was saying to me that day was to pick my battles. As the recklessness of my young adult years slowly begin to subside, it’s only now I’m beginning to see the wisdom in his words, but then Babajee always knew that it would take time.
My earliest memory of Babajee was from when I was six years old. I was on my way out from Shepherd’s Bush mosque clutching at my grandmother’s hand as the green man on the traffic light beckoned us to cross towards Damas Gate, the most famous Arab super-market in west London. And there he was, Babajee, this giant of a man. It always surprised me how young my grandmother was compared to Babajee; she looked like a child next to him. I thought my grandmother was old, but Babajee, he was like the mountain, always there, looking very much the same with each passing year.
He turned to me eventually, asked after my mum and how I was doing at school. Then he reached into a pocket inside his gilet, and handed me a small paper bag which to my delight, contained a few glistening sugar-coated boiled sweets inside. You’d think Babajee had a corner-shop hidden in his jacket, a Marry Poppins invention of endless pockets with bags of sweets at the ready for dewey-eyed six-year-olds. There was a certain level of fear I used to feel in the presence of elders. But Babajee only ever emanated a gentleness like the soft flicker of a flame. Whenever I think back to my childhood, that small, seemingly inconsequential memory always comes in front of me. Babajee became the lighthouse of my childhood, all because of a few penny sweets.
The elders in my community say that when a good person dies, the world grieves for that person. Even the skies weep. ‘Pathetic fallacy’ we used to call it in English lessons, when the weather mirrors the mood of a character. It was one of those pompous words I used with relish, thinking it would rake in extra marks during exams. It’s easy to dismiss some of these sayings as old maid’s tales. But on the day of Babajee’s funeral, the rain fell as if a monsoon had swept into the island. There was a perpetual gloom clouding the skies and the faces of all those who were there to say goodbye, the kind that comes suddenly and goes just as quick when death comes knocking. The rain had metastasised with our grief.
The emerald green cloth embroidered with the shahada, the declaration of faith, was draped over Babajee’s coffin, a custom of some Muslim funerals. “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger” it declared sombrely. Many found themselves praying the funeral prayer at Shepherds Bush mosque for another departed soul they didn’t know, just another old man whose time had come. But to the young men and women like me who were utterly privileged to have known him, Babajee was a grandfather to the grandfatherless, a father to the fatherless, a voice of reason steadying the masts of our adolescent ships. He was the wise elder we were starving for. There was no one more true, more just. If Babajee said you messed up, then boy you had messed up. His steady moral compass guided those of us caught in the storms of our young, reckless lives.
A century is a long time to be on this earth. But it always felt as though Babajee had lived many lives. He had lived through the good times, the bad, through war, through elation, and through sorrow. All of this was marked on the age spots, the wrinkles, and the scars that sat on his skin and on his face.
There are two kinds of ‘coming of age’. The first, when you go from adolescence into adulthood. The second, when young adults step into the footprints left behind by their elders. It’s a terrifying thing, to ascend into this real adulthood. Not the kind defined by the number of years or the silvery hairs that spring out with each passing year on our scalps, or the kind sat in the fault-lines of age and experience that have now started to erupt on my forehead, but the kind where you now have to navigate through life alone, a rootless tree without the gentle guidance of elders who have passed on. In life, Babajee taught us many lessons. But with his passing, he perhaps taught us the hardest lesson of all: That he couldn’t protect us under his shade forever.
In the ninety-four years that he walked this earth, Muhammad Zarin, was a post-man, a soldier, a shop owner, a restaurant owner, a railway conductor, a radio telegrapher, a familiar face at the local mosque. But to the legions of young and old who loved him deeply, even after spending only an hour in conversation with him, he was simply Babajee. He was the grandfather of us all who sheltered us under his vast canopy. In Persian, ‘Zarin’ means gold. We knew it then when he was alive and we know it now in the wake of his death, that Babajee was our mountain of gold, if only for a short while.
There’s a beautiful saying in my mother tongue I learned from Babajee, which he used whenever we said goodbye:
“Pa makha di ranaa!” which roughly translates as, “May you have light on your face.”
In death, he has gone where none can follow. But in life, he cast a light so bright on the lives of all who met him, we can only hope and pray that someday, we will meet again.
May you forever have light on your face, Babajee.