The Good Son A Novel
By Gruber, Michael
Henry Holt and Co. Copyright © 2010 Gruber, Michael
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780805091281
The phone rang at a little before one in the morning and I knew it was my mother. I didn't even have to look at the number there on the little cell- phone screen, I just said, "Mom."
Next to me, my not- really- girlfriend, Gloria, heaved over and jammed a pillow on her head and said nasty stuff about people calling in the middle of the night. I ignored this and added, "Anything wrong?"
My mother said, "No, of course not. Why do you always ask that when I call you?"
"Because that's what people do when they get a call at one A.M. You forgot about the time zones again."
"I didn't forget. I thought soldiers always rose at dawn."
"When they're on duty," I said, "which I'm not. I'm at Gloria's place. What's up?" "I'm at Heathrow on a plane for Zurich. I'll be gone for a couple of weeks. Could you tell your father?" "Why don't you tell him yourself ? I think they still have phone ser vice in the District of Columbia." "Please, Theo. If I call him we'll get into a big argument, and I don't need that just now." "Because you're going to Zurich for a few weeks? Why should he object to that?" "Because I'm not going to Zurich. I'm just changing planes there. I'm going to Lahore."
That stopped me; sweat popped on my arms where they stuck out of the quilt. I said, "Lahore? Mom, you can't go to Lahore. There's a fatwa out on you. You can't go to the Muslim world anymore."
"Oh, don't be silly! In any case, I'll be traveling on my Pakistani passport; no one will bother S. B. Laghari, the Pakistani begum, the professor's wife, in a proper head scarf. Besides, I'm not going to Iran. It was a Shi'a fatwa anyway. No one is going to pay any attention to it in Pakistan."
"You know, that's right," I said. "Only thirty million Shi'a in Pakistan and the ayatollahs are right next door and Sunnis and Shi'as have been killing each other in Punjab for the last twenty years and there's a heavily armed Shi'a militant group based in Lahore.... Are you fucking out of your mind?"
"Please don't speak to me like that, Theo," she said, after a pause. "It's unseemly. I'm your mother."
I felt my face flush. She was right. The army messes with your manners. I said, "Look, could you just, like, think about this like a rational person? Why don't I get on a plane, we'll sit down, we'll talk "
"Darling, there's nothing to talk about. I'm going. I'll be back before you know it."
"No, this is insane!" I shouted into the tiny perforations. "How can you do stuff like this to me? You've always done it and you're still doing it. For God's sake, I'm wounded! I'm your wounded son. You're supposed to be here, taking care of me, not going to Lahore."
This was disgraceful, I knew, pathetic, but it was one of my buttons. Unfortunately, my mother has guilt handles the size of a little girl's earrings. She said, "Well, if you'll recall, I did come to your side when you got back. But it was made perfectly clear that I was in the way."
Not true, although what she meant was that she was not up to much in the nurturing department. My father is the main nurturer in our family, and she knows it and it makes her feel bad.
"I have to go," my mother said. "They're closing up the plane. I'll call you from Lahore. Remember to call Farid."
I was still trying to talk her out of it when she said a firm good- bye and I was listening to the ether.
I cursed in a couple of languages, and this brought Gloria into full wakefulness. She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and smoothed her long hair away from her face. She said, "That's the one problem with the cell phone, in my opinion. You bring some bozo home with you and he can talk to other women when he's actually lying in bed with you. Which one was that?"
"It was my mother, Gloria." "That might be even worse. Why does she call you in the middle of the night?" "She was calling from London. My mother is a famous world traveler who doesn't get the whole time- zone thing."
"And this is why you started screaming?"
I told her why.
"So what? She's a grown- up. Why shouldn't she go to Lahore? Where is Lahore anyway?" "It's in the Punjab. In Pakistan." "That's where you're from." "Originally." She'd propped herself up on one elbow and she had that look, her
pumping-for-information look, on her smooth, tan, flat face, with that hair hanging loose and thick on either side. Maybe you have to grow up in a Muslim country to understand the erotic appeal of long black hair. It still knocked me out to see American women just walk through the streets with their hair hanging down for anybody to see, a little fossil of my upbringing. Especially this kind of hair, Asian hair, thick, glossy, blue- black, although Gloria is a Latina and not from where I'm from.
I said to the look, "It's a long story."
"You say that a lot," she said. "Mr. Mysterious. If you think that makes you more, like, attractive, you're wrong."
"You're delving, Gloria. I thought we were going to keep it simple and shallow."
"Asking about your mom isn't delving. Delving is who did you go out with and what did you do with them? Or, you know, what you did in the war."
"You want to know this? It's interesting to you?"
"Yeah. We have to talk about something. I told you about my folks, my brother, and all that shit, so you tell me about yours. It's what normal people do. We can't have sex all the time."
I snaked my hand under the quilt. "We could try," I said.
She moved her legs to make a space for my hand. "Yes, but tell me: Why can't she go back to Pakistan?"
"Okay," I said, and suppressed a sigh. "My mother is Sonia Bailey."
"She used to be pretty famous back in the seventies. When I was about three she left me in Lahore and traveled through what was then Soviet Central Asia, disguised as a Muslim boy. She wrote a book about it that got a lot of play, especially from the feminists. Then she hung around Lahore for a few more years, and when I was ten she went off again, but this time she went on the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca."
"Also as a boy?"
"Yeah, and that was the problem. She polluted the holy places with her transvestism. The Muslim world went crazy. Death sentences got issued."
"Like that guy, what's-his- name?"
"Salman Rushdie, but this was way before that."
"And nobody found out she was a woman?"
"No, not until she wrote a book about it. She's small and wiry, like me."
"No tits, huh?"
"Pretty flat. Narrow hips, too. And she had an artificial dick."
"Uh- huh. She had it made in Lahore. She could pee through it, so when the guys saw that, it closed the deal; she was one of the boys."
"Did she take you along on that trip?"
"No, she left me again," I said and I didn't want to talk about it anymore then so I got to stroking her in the way she liked, which she'd already told me about. Gloria is good with the details. She lives a very controlled life, and after a few minutes of this she said, "Jump on me, quick," and I did.
After we finished, she popped immediately out of bed. I always thought women liked to cuddle after that's their favorite part, is what I understood but not Gloria. She was getting ready for her early shift. I heard a shower going for what couldn't have been more than ninety seconds and got strobelike sightings of brown skin and sensible underwear, and there she was in her pink scrubs with her long hair coiled and pinned into a shining black bun.
She leaned over a quick kiss and said, "Toss the key through the mailbox; don't forget, okay?"
I said I wouldn't and she was gone in a flash of pink. A minute later I heard the sound of her old beater starting up, and off she rattled.
Gloria is a nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in the north end of Washington, D.C., where I'm being treated, and she was a soldier too, once, and is now a civilian employee. She is the child of Mexican immigrants and a big striver, which I am definitely not. I am what they call a lifer; I will probably be in the military my whole life. When your average troop says this, it means twenty- and- out or thirty- and- out, retire on the pension, maybe get another job, and have a pretty nice life what with the benefits and all but I will probably get killed, considering what I do, so I will really be in the army my whole life.
I fell asleep and awoke at dawn like a good soldier. Then I took a lot longer than a ninety- second shower and helped myself to some of Gloria's coffee and cereal. The milk was bad, so I ate the cereal dry, washed down with the coffee, which was some store brand I never heard of. Gloria doesn't spend freely. She has a plan, which she explained to me on our first date. She was working two shifts a day, seven days a week, and going to school on top of that, so she could become a nurse- anesthetist, and really rake in the money, and she thought that in ten years of doing this she would have enough to finance medical school. She also explained, on the same first date, that she wasn't after a regular boyfriend, she just wanted someone nice who was out of town a lot and wouldn't try to control or otherwise fuck up her life, which, as I say, she had all planned out.
I was planned too, so that was cool. How I hooked up with her was I go for physical therapy three times a week at Walter and a while ago, on one of those days, Brenda Crabbe, my PT, had handed me a piece of paper with a phone number on it and said that Gloria Espinosa wanted to meet me. I asked her who she was and why me, and she said, "Half the doctors in this place been trying to get into that girl's pants for a year and she won't have anything to do with them. This is your lucky day, Sergeant." She had no idea why, she said; she said, "It can't be your face."
So I called the number and we arranged for a date and I got cleaned up and drove my rental to her house, which was in Riggs Park, a section of D.C. I had not been in before. Hamilton Street, where she lived, was rows of two- story brick buildings that someone built for people who needed a roof and could pay but who didn't have much of a choice. Her building had a sagging metal awning in front and a pile of plastic lawn furniture under it, designed so that the people who lived there would have a place to sit when the Washington summers made it impossible to stay inside. That was before AC and TV; the furniture looked like nobody had used it in a while.
She opened the door and she was beautiful: the cheekbones, those plush lips, and a curved nose with all kinds of character. She was smaller than me, which was nice, because I am not a large man, and she had a neat figure- eight kind of body, which appealed to my Middle Eastern tastes, that and the hair. And she gave me a beer, a National Bohemian, as a matter of fact, and I thought she was being funny, because Natty Bo is the beer soldiers in the Washington area drink by the case to get drunk, because it's really, really cheap.
So we had a beer each and talked, or she talked mainly, and she gave me the plan; she had to be careful about dating because she absolutely could not get involved, not seriously involved, with anyone. It was a little like being interviewed. She was looking intensely at me, to see if I was maybe concealing a guy who would give a shit, and I told her that was fine with me; I just wanted someone to go to a movie with and I didn't want to get involved either.
She said, "You're career- oriented too?" I said, "In a manner of speaking. I'll probably get killed, and I don't think it's fair to saddle a family with that."
Her eyes got wide when I said this and she asked me what I did in the army and I was going to use the lame one I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you but she was not the kind of woman to be put off with that so I said what I was allowed to, which was some bullshit about long- range scouting.
"That's why you're working with Brenda. You got hurt in Iraq."
"No, Afghanistan," I said, our first lie. I'd known the woman for twenty minutes, so this was something of a personal best.
I'm in an organization called the Tactical Intelligence Support Detachment, which is its name just now. It's had a lot of names, but what it's been doing for the last twenty years or so is going into various places and gathering military intelligence, mostly what they call comint, which is eavesdropping on telecommunications but also just looking around and getting the feel of a place that the army might want to go into. Running agents too. The unit has three kinds of troops in general: knob turners who get the signals or what ever, spooks who gather the humint from live local types, and shooters, people who make sure the others don't get caught doing it. Sometimes rarely the shooters are ordered to commit some other form of necessary violence. I'm a shooter. The army is officially not supposed to do stuff like this. It's covert operation, which is supposed to be the domain of the CIA. But the CIA doesn't belong to the military, it does not salute and say hoo- ah when the army wants something from it, so the army decided it wanted its own little CIA, which is us.
Obviously, we've been busy since this whole terrorism thing started, although not as busy as we could've been. One thing a general hates is risk. The way they got all those stars is by not taking a risk and not ever getting a bad grade on their report cards, so when they get up there in the Pentagon the last thing they want is a bunch of cowboys in disguises slipping into some supposedly friendly country and listening to guys plotting bombings or, even worse, taking the guys out, as they say, extrajudicially. What if someone got caught: scandal, questions in Congress and the media? So half our missions get scratched, but the one I got hurt on didn't.
As it happens, I'm fluent in Dari and Pashto and Urdu, languages spoken in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, which was where this abortion actually went down. The target was a guy named Hamid al- Libiya, a comrade of Mr. bin Laden, who was tracked via comint from his dwelling place in Waziristan to Riyadh in Saudi, where he apparently picked up some funds from our wonderful allies there and went back to Waziristan. I guess al- Q has learned by now that they can't just send messages via sat phones because we're all over that, and they don't have broadband cable yet in Waziristan, so in order for the bad guys to keep their operations together they have to travel from time to time. They can't seem to stop using cell phones, though, so that's how we triangulated in on Mr. al- Libiya, who was in a place called Baggan, which was all Taliban all the time.
I was with two other guys, and we were posing as militants, armed to the teeth and so forth; we had beards and we smelled right and we blended right in; we had our own house and everything. After a day or so, we observed the arrival of several tinted- glass SUVs during the day, and from our house the knob turners are picking up intercepts of the subject's cell phone, and they learn he's meeting with a couple of senior Taliban commanders. So we got set to run in there that night and snatch the bunch of them.
We ran into a little problem, which is really part of a big problem. Okay, the army hates Special Ops, but it's like the bad girl on the block; they know she's bad but they can't keep their hands off her. So instead of being a self- contained operation there's levels of sign- off on every mission, which tends to compromise our security and slow things down; also, when we actually get clearance to go in, everyone in the area wants to be involved in this real exciting stuff and get part of the credit, if any. For this thing, they gave us a reinforced platoon of Special Forces guys, under a Captain Lepinski, who were supposed to hover in the area and provide backup and extraction in case we got into trouble.
We actually didn't get into trouble. Everything was going okay; we snatched up our insurgents and a little firefight broke out, nothing we couldn't handle, but Captain Lepinski got his signals crossed and the fuckhead painted the house with his laser target designator, and an F-16 loitering way up high dropped a 250 kg GBU- 12 bomb on it. The explosion caught me and Billy Olin going out the door and killed eighteen people inside including women and children. Ritten house died too.
It could've been worse for me, I guess. My left leg was broken in three places and my right shoulder was smashed up some and my right wrist was cracked. Fred Rice and Buck Claiborne and the LT came running back and dragged me and Billy and Steve's body out of there, not that I was personally aware of anything at the time.
We got air- evacuated to a hospital, first in Afghanistan and then in Germany. They covered the whole thing up per usual, because as a unit we don't exist, and the story that surfaced was internecine fighting between insurgent factions, and the Pakistanis lied too because they never admit that the U.S. has boots on the ground in Pakistan even though we do all the time. No one said a word about the blue- on- blue shit.
None of which I told to Gloria then, and she didn't press me for war stories she probably got her fill at work so we chatted and drank our beers and I asked her if she wanted to go out for something, drinks, a movie, a club, but she surprised the hell out of me by saying, "No, why don't we stay here and have sex?"
I have to say that I have not had much experience with regular women. I was too young in Pakistan and I grew up in the middle of a war surrounded by men. Then I was in jail and then in the army. There are plenty of women available around army bases, and not only whores; there is a particular kind of woman who is a groupie of the elite formations, they like being around lethality and hard bodies, and a small number are interested in marrying someone with a short life expectancy and G.I. insurance.
I'd been with groupies enough, and lots of fun too, but we all regarded them as a kind of gym equipment. Maybe they felt that way themselves, I don't know. Anyway, I'd never had a direct invitation like this and it threw me; what was the catch? I asked her, why me? and she said she liked my look, I had what she called the wolf look; I was a loner basically and so was she, and she said she used to stand in the doorway of the PT suite and watch Brenda torture me and also she would get a whiff of my sweat and she liked it; she thought it was chemistry. Which I guess it was, but confusing a little, American women being so much like boys are where I come from and not like women in that country at all. So that was our first date, and it became a couple- of- times- a-week deal, always the same.
After I left Gloria's I drove to the PT clinic at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for my date with Brenda Crabbe. I'm renting a junker while I'm in D.C. I don't care what I drive, unlike many of my comrades; that's another thing I didn't get growing up, the whole American you- are- what-you- drive thing. I get in, it goes, I get out, and I could care less what it looks like.
It's strange, driving in the real world again. You never get your cherry back; I mean, except for the odd drunk, driving long distances in the U.S. is pretty safe. But I still keep my foot on the brake most of the time and my eyes are scanning like a motherfucker, looking for death on wheels. Like just this morning driving up Georgia Avenue a woman in a Dodge van swung out of a side road and cut me off and I practically ran off the road, and what I was thinking was that if someone had done that in Iraq the grunt on the fifty cal above me would've trashed her and her little van, probably killed her and six kids. It happens all the time over there and no one even slows down.
And I look at the neat rows of houses here and imagine them with their fronts blown out and all the domestic shit exposed: the TV and the couch, dishes, letters, and photographs all strewn like leaves in the fall; also, I can hardly look at my fellow citizens, like in a mall or on the street, without imagining them lying in blood, nicely dressed bureaucrats or businesswomen, reading their Posts, with their clothes blown off, no legs, a long streamer of guts running down the street and people stepping daintily over it.
They tell us that we're over there so it won't happen here. High strategy is not in my job description, but you know, when you come back, you kind of secretly want your fellow citizens to get blown up a little; we don't admit it but it's true. How the fuck can they be so I don't know, normal, like in a dream of shopping and careers and ordinary daily bullshit, while what's going on over there is going on?
Brenda gave me a big smile when I showed up at her station. She spends all her time with guys who are resentful and bitter because their bodies are fucked up beyond repair, and I try to ease the tension some by a little flirting through the pain, although she is a large powerful woman and plain as a manhole cover.
So for an hour I lit up her life and she made me wish I was dead, and afterward I had some lunch in the cafeteria and walked over to Building 18, where they had Billy Olin. This is one of the crappy old buildings where they keep soldiers who are too busted up to fight but who the army hasn't got around to kicking out yet. Peeling paint, black moldy walls, really decrepit; they were supposed to fix all this up but they haven't got around to it yet. Personally, I'm not surprised or shocked. This is how the army is. What surprises me more is that people think they'll get anything different from an organization whose main purpose is to kill people and whose leaders are easily distinguishable from Mother Teresa.
There's a couple of squashed water bugs on the floor of Billy's room and he's sitting in his wheelchair watching an animal show on a portable TV. I mean the show was playing, but I couldn't tell if Olin was watching. He's got a dent in his skull now, from a chunk of debris probably, and it's hard to tell if anyone's home in there. I try to go see Billy when I come for my sessions here; I've known him for a long time and I feel bad about what happened to him. I was the senior guy so I should've been the last man out, covering his back, but I went out first. Stupid thing to think, really, a bomb like that goes off and it's more or less random what happens, but still.
It's not like we're a band of brothers or anything. There are about three hundred of us, I don't know for sure, and they arrange us in task forces for special missions, mix and match, shake and bake. Also, we're not really soldiers, we're spies, and spies have a different standard of unit cohesion and comradeship. We're not warriors either, although that's the bullshit they pass out in the kind of training people like me go through elite warriors, Special Forces, SEALs, Delta: each level more elite warrior‚Äìish than the one before, until you're so elite you can't get killed or shrunk down to a husk like this poor sucker. As it happens, I've fought with actual warriors and there's a difference. The warrior's an individual before anything else. Sure, he has a family, a clan, and a tribe, maybe even a national movement, but the main thing that drives him is personal: his honor, his fame. A soldier is a whole different thing. I take the silver solidus from the Man and I kill on command, nothing personal about it. The reason there are a lot more soldiers than warriors nowadays is that soldiers will beat warriors every time, if they're well led and paid on time. This whole warrior thing is a sick fantasy to protect guys who've grown up secure in the burbs from realizing what business they're in. I could give a shit, myself. I've been killing people since I was nine years old; it's the only thing I'm really good at. And like I say, I'm not even much of a soldier anymore, given the outfit I'm in.
I didn't even know if Billy knew I was there, but like I always do I pulled up a chair and talked to him awhile. I talked about what was on my mind, which was mainly about my mother and the crazy thing she was doing. I guess I really didn't think he could hear me, because this is a subject I would never bring up with the people I work with. As far as anyone knows, my life began at age eighteen when I enlisted. People ask where I'm from, I say D.C.: my mother's a writer, my father's a college professor. How come you know all those languages? I tell them I grew up bilingual in Urdu, and that Dari and Pashto are related languages I picked up as a kid on visits to relatives. A little exotic, yeah, but I'm not that forthcoming, I don't expand, I don't share those amusing family anecdotes that people seem to have, especially in the South, where so many of our troops come from. It's not a big deal because most of what you talk about in military circles besides the strictly professional stuff is sports, fucking, and the shit the army pulls. I'm not known as a conversationalist, which is sort of okay in my part of the ser vice. An advantage, in fact.
So I went on about my mom, how she was traveling to Lahore from Zurich, probably on PIA. A good airline and it helps get her into her Muslim head. She'd be traveling as a Pakistani, in the full costume and the head scarf, and she'd ask to be seated next to a woman, which of course they oblige if they possibly can. She flies business nowadays; she's got the money and she's paid her dues. She'll fly east over the hot dry lands she crossed years ago, on foot, in rattletrap buses, and in trucks loaded with oranges or wailing sheep, back when she was a man, a rubber dick strapped to her crotch.
Billy made no response when I got to this part, which kind of convinced me he was somewhere I couldn't get to, although you do hear about guys in his condition who pop out of it years later having heard every word people said when they were in the vegetable state. I told him, just for background, as it were, that in 1979 she decided that she wanted to go on the haj. I didn't have to explain to Billy what the haj was because he's done the cultural sensitivity course too, just like me, although I didn't need it. She went on haj not by plane direct to Mecca the way people do nowadays but overland and by coastal sailing ship, like they used to in the olden days. That's why she went as a man. And when she got to the holy city, she switched and saw what it was like for women too, slipping into a burqa and hanging out with the ladies.
And then she wrote a book about it and got essentially barred from the umma, the Islamic world. Infidels are prohibited from setting a toe on the sacred soil of Mecca, so that was one thing they had her on, although she always maintained she was a Muslim and would recite the Shahada at the drop of a hat, and had whole chunks of Qur'an memorized and could spout Hadith like a sheikh. So then they got on about how she'd violated the rules about the separation of the sexes, she'd shown her face outside the family, and her reply to that was since no one knew she was a woman how could she inflame the lusts of men? A fine point there, a little too fine for the ulema, because it's also haram for one sex to wear the clothes of the other, and the Iranian ayatollahs issued a fatwa against her shortly after the book took off in the States.
Our family in Pakistan said it might be a good idea if she made herself scarce for a while, maybe a century or two, until things quieted down, and Farid agreed, but despite the family's wishes he stayed married to her. So after various other catastrophic incidents they eventually moved back to D.C. and my father got his post at Georgetown, and she stayed there for a while, but she started feeling antsy in the city and pinched by the life of a faculty wife and author, so a couple of years back she got a little adobe house in the Huerfano Valley of Colorado, and she works part- time at a mental health clinic in Pueblo, probably the only Zurich- trained fully loaded Jungian therapist in the poverty zones of southern Colorado. I wonder what the meth freaks and drunk Indians she gets in there think of that. Probably that she's writing a book about them. Probably true.
I went on that way for a while. It's better talking to Billy than to the assholes at the post- traumatic stress disorder clinic I'm supposed to attend. I don't have PTSD. Civilians think PTSD is what you get when something bad happens to you. It isn't. People get scared and neurotic when something bad happens to them, or if they're in stress too long. It's a physical thing, really; the body fluids are telling you to run away, and if you get out of the stress you'll pretty much recover. For example, speaking of amusing family anecdotes, my mother has had some pretty traumatic things happen to her, but each time she pulled up her socks afterward and went on to live what most people would call a successful and interesting life, if you don't count risking her neck whenever the opportunity arises as a defect. Or the way she treated me.
Real PTSD, on the other hand, is from doing bad things to other people. It's what gives you the nightmares and sends you to the drugs and booze and makes you shoot your wife, kids, and self. Most of us aren't designed to do the kind of shit you have to do in a war zone, especially in a war zone with lots of civilians. Or even to see what you see. Little girls in embroidered dresses lying by the side of the road like dead dogs, cars full of some family that was in the wrong place and they're sitting there Dad behind the wheel, Mom holding the baby next to him, three kids in the backseat and they're all roasted meat, teeth grinning out from the char. And so on. A small number of people don't seem to get PTSD a group that includes your basic concentration camp Nazis, your gulag operators, your professional secret police torturers and obviously our own ser vice has any number of such people, of which I am one. I haven't cracked yet, is what I was explaining to Billy, and he kept quiet and listened, nodding and drooling a little.
Sometimes I think I will kill someone, my CO maybe, or my mother, or a bunch of strangers in a public place, and then kill myself, but these thoughts fade, like they belonged to someone else. I love my mother, and if anyone harmed her I would definitely kill whoever. I have been through a lot of hard shit, but I believe I have a solid base and maybe, if you have that, nothing life throws at you can really touch you in your core; there'll always be a magic circle you can hide inside. My mom always said that, and looking back I think I had it in the house of my grandfather, Bashir Bilal Muhammad Laghari, in Lahore, where I spent the first nine years of my life.
I ran down after a while, said good- bye to Billy, and went over to the pharmacy. I was waiting for my pain pills, when something on a sign they had there reminded me it was a Thursday. Thursday is a big deal in Lahore, as in most Muslim places, kind of like Saturday night is for the infidels, party time, and that got me thinking about Thursdays at the Laghari house, my grandfather's haveli, as they call it, on Bhatti Street near the Urdu Bazaar in Anarkali, in Lahore. Most Thursdays he would hold a mehfil, a gathering of his friends, who were the cream of Lahore society across all political factions. B. B. Laghari Sahib, Baba as we called him in the family, was a judge and a legal scholar. A more or less honest judge in a society where corruption is the national sport, he was respected by both the Sharifs and the Bhuttos, the major clan factions in Pakistani life, and his Thursdays were one of the few places where the warring tribes could meet in a halfway civilized way. I felt a little bad about not recalling what the day was. If you grow up in a religion your interior clock is geared to the holy days and the cycle of the festivals, but I don't practice Islam much anymore.
What they mainly did at the mehfil was listen to people sing ghazals in Urdu, to the music of the sitar, the surbahar, the sarangi, and the tabla Indian versions of the guitar, bass, cello, and drums. Ghazals are all about heartbreak and longing, feelings familiar to me from an early age. My colleagues have country music and I have the ghazals. I often sing them to myself, and sometimes to girls. Laghari Sahib entertained most of the famous ghazal singers of the day, people like Muhdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali, which would be like us having Madonna or Pavarotti to a private party. I started getting invited to these things when I was around seven, along with my foster cousins and Wazir, my best friend, who was the son of my grandfather's Pashtun bodyguard. While my contemporaries were watching Bullwinkle, I was listening to geniuses sing the poetry of Háfiz and Ghalib.
So that was a kind of base, that house full of beauty and love and the most amazing generosity. It was unheard of in the social circles the Lagharis moved in for a man like Baba to take in a waif, a woman like a wild fox, my mother, and let his oldest son marry her, and love their half- breed child, me. And look what I did with it! As I walk out of the pharmacy clutching my dope, there in my head Ghalib is singing:
I am neither the flower of song, nor the tapestry of music, But the sound of my own breaking. Continues...
Excerpted from The Good Son by Gruber, Michael Copyright © 2010 by Gruber, Michael. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.