“Home sweet home, hey sis?”
My brother had, for the first time in twenty-four hours, regained his usual cockiness and beamed at me whilst flicking his overgrown hair, nearly walking backwards into a petite woman pushing a pram with one hand and dragging a child with the other. I pulled him away as we stepped onto the escalator and glanced around. There were people milling around in every direction, and I couldn’t stop looking at the many white faces all around me. My ears picked up on all the English words being spoken so hastily against the noise of squeaks and dull murmurs of wheels as luggage of various shapes and sizes were being dragged along the white polished floor. I gripped my black, battered suitcase and lugged it closer to me as the escalator rolled forward. There was an echo as the speaker blared into life every now and then, announcing flight details, the occasional lost person looking for a loved one, or sudden cancellations.
Names and signs seemed to overpower my eyes with their loud black and yellow colours. I looked away from them and unconsciously caressed my stiff neck. Sleeping on the plane between a mother with a screaming baby and a big man who seemed to lean into my space all the way through caused me to force myself to sleep in whatever way I could. My neck had paid the price.
Two girls stood awkwardly in front of me and I paused to look at them as I recognised them from seven hours earlier at Dhaka airport. Over there they were catching looks of admiration from onlookers as we had sat in the small lounge. They were confidently tossing back their shiny hair and digging their hands into the pockets of their jeans, chatting insistently with excitement. But here at Heathrow, they stood silently and closely behind a man who looked like their father, and they seemed to have grown darker. Their hair had lost its shine and style, and their eyes looked fearfully around at the airport. As I walked past them they disappeared into the mass of people but their eyes haunted me. I had seen that look before and another face emerged in my mind, the face of my father. I had seen that same expression on his face thirty years before I was even born.
It was during a general clear-out of my father’s steel cabinet when I happened to come across his old documents. I picked up a tired-looking passport, dark green and curled around the edges, and nestled it in my hands as the sharp smell of mothballs and old leather hit me. I flipped through the pages and it opened onto a picture of my father. There was a strand of hair falling over one sixteen-year-old eye, and a glint of youth and energy in the other one. His mouth was slightly open as if staring at something in wonderment and his head tilted slightly to one side. My father has never told me the story of how he arrived in England, but my mother has told it many times, especially on the days when they had argued over money again. Strangely, after his death, she never told it again. But I still remembered it and, as I walked through the airport, I could see my father in front of me as a young man about to make his fortune in the world. The story began to unfold.
Stepping off the plane at Heathrow, Monjur Khan was met by white; pale faces all rushing in different directions. He approached a man in uniform, who said something, but Monjur could not understand until the man pointed him in the direction of the arrivals gate.
Walking slowly, with a large brown suitcase tugging behind him, Monjur Khan walked through the gates and into a stream of people, feeling bewildered. Faces stared at him from either side of the barriers and his heart started to beat fast. How would he know where to find his father? He hadn’t seen him for nine years. Would his father recognise him? His hand gripped tightly onto his grey woolly jumper given to him by his aunt to protect him from the “English cold”. He remembered the photo of his father stuck up on the wall in the main bedroom, a tall man wearing a green army uniform with medals on his left breast. His mother would proudly point out the picture to the women of the village when they came round in the evening for their usual tea and gossip. “See?” she would exclaim, “My sons are so proud of their father; he lives up to his name as a Khan.”
“Monjur Khan, Monjur Khan!” He spun round towards the sound of the booming voice and searched wildly amongst the many faces for his father’s. A hand grabbed his arm from behind him, and he met the eyes of a man he didn’t recognise.
“Come!” the man barked at him, as he pulled him to one side. A younger man wearing blue flared trousers with a fringe of hair covering most of his face, rushed to his side and shouted “Brother, how are you?!” He pulled him into a hug. Monjur recognised his cousin’s goofy smile and high-pitched voice and hugged him back laughing, taking in the strong smell of aftershave. The older man next to him laughed, and said, “Don’t you recognise your own uncle?”
Monjur Khan took in the small and stout man with his gruff voice, wearing a grey cap perched on his head, and smiled as he hugged him. “My dear uncle, forgive me.” Stepping back, he paused before asking, “Where is my father?” Without answering him, his uncle shouted at his son to grab the suitcase and led Monjur Khan out of the airport, pushed him through the shivering rain and into a waiting cab.
After a couple of hours of driving through the dark and wet streets of London, the cab arrived at the flat shared by his father and his uncle. The two-hour journey had mainly been in silence as his uncle dozed off for most of the time, and spent the times awake shouting at the cab driver for taking the long way round and driving too slowly. His cousin asked incessant questions about everyone back in the village, and then trailed off when Monjur began to feel sleepy. Looking up at the tall block of flats, Monjur Khan could feel his heart beating fast. He gripped hard onto the banisters as he climbed up the dark staircase to the top floor and his head began to spin. The staircase smelt of urine and he could hear loud music blaring from one of the flats. His uncle came to a sudden stop in front of him and rattled his keys into the lock to open the brown wooden door. Entering a narrow hallway, Monjur Khan was led into a dimly lit room. There was a strong smell of gas and beetlenut, and he didn’t notice the figure sat hunched near the fire-place until he heard a wheezy cough. Standing closer he salaamed loudly but the figure clad with a grey cloak didn’t respond, sitting motionless.
His uncle shuffled over to the man and stooped down to shout in his ear, “Old man, can’t you hear? It’s Monjur Khan, your son.” Monjur Khan stepped closer, and felt a pain in his chest as he suddenly couldn’t breathe. The figure lifted its head to look at him and he saw the aged and wrinkled face of his father. The red-rimmed eyes blinked and then looked away back at the fire. In a low, steady voice he whispered “I don’t know this man and I have no son.” As Monjur Khan looked over at his uncle, who suddenly turned away from him, he began to remember the hushed whispers in the village bazaar about how his father, the famous and successful Harris Khan, had lost his mind in England.
Monjur Khan began to understand the pitiful looks which were shared by the women of the village when his mother bragged about his father. He collapsed onto the floor in a heap, exhausted and tired, and realised that he had come to England to replace his mad father and, as his mother had whispered to him when he kissed her goodbye, to “live up to the name of a Khan.”
My father’s sixteen-year-old face lingered in my mind as I continued to pace myself through the airport. I often wondered how he must’ve felt that first night in London. Was he horrified? Scared? Did he feel betrayed? How did he find the strength to carry on? Questions which always danced on the tip of my tongue but were never uttered for fear of upsetting my father.
I jolted as a burly-looking man wearing a suit pushed past me, muttering under his breath as he rushed towards the crowds. The smell of cigarettes lingered behind, and I had to stop briefly to regain my balance. My brother had stormed ahead towards the arrival gates already and my mother followed closely behind me, suddenly very quiet and lost in her thoughts.
I looked at her and suddenly saw how frail she looked in this place where the language was not her own and her history was lived through her children. I thought that I was happy to come back. Three months of being stuck in a village with no newspapers, no TV, and limited conversations had driven me crazy at times; I had wished to be at home so badly. But there were other times there when I felt a sense of belonging, which I had never felt before, and looking around I realised what I had come back to. I was a foreigner again.
I saw eyes staring at me as I walked in my ‘Bata’ branded sandals and green cotton dress made in Bangladesh. I peered at the pale faces, unfriendly, and the formal way people greeted each other. Our arrival in Bangladesh was met with my mother’s large extended family waiting for us at the airport, and coincided with a celebrity arrival, which meant drums and bells were ringing everywhere in celebration. It felt like we had walked into a warm hug. Here, I couldn’t help but feel the cold shoulder and the feeling that I didn’t belong.
I felt a hand tug mine as my mother’s tiredness began to overtake her and she leaned onto me. Slowing my pace to match hers whilst dragging my suitcase, I realised that I owed my life to my parents. My father had taken these steps many years ago so that I could walk here freely today. I walked taller, with firmness in my steps, and made a point of staring back at anyone who dared to look my way. Everything I had in my possession was not accidental, and a sense of gratitude followed by humbleness came over me. Looking at my mother, and remembering the long battle she had ahead of her to continue fighting her cancer, it dawned on me that I too was replacing the role of my father, and that I would have to live up to the name of a Khan.