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Homes away from home

We stopped to get some food at a small desi restaurant in the Des Plaines area yesterday. The order took a while, so I dropped by the nearby Owais Foods, an ethnic grocery store.

I approached the counter to pay, and took a quick look at the young man. “Are you Owais?” I asked. Yes, he said. Somehow, glancing at him, I knew that he had inherited the shop from his father, and was running it. I have a desi spidey sense. I just sensed a paternal love emanating from the shop, and from the young man, I sensed a comfort, a confidence in the young man, a knowledge that, while laboring, he was resting in the labors of a loving father. Owais Foods reminded me of my father’s private practice. He opened it in 1974, in Gulberg, a small clinic, but one that ran for a long time. He named it Imran Clinic, after my brother, hoping that one day, Imran would run it with him.

As I paid for my okra and my kulfi, my eyes fell upon these two handwritten signs. I don’t see much handwritten Urdu these days, and these signs felt – I don’t know, alive. I took a picture. Owais asked me why I’d taken the photo.

I told him.

“I don’t know what it means,” he said, “But my father wrote it.” So he left it there.

“The sign says: ‘Borrowing is like magic: if I let you borrow, you’ll vanish,'” I told him, relishing the terse, acidic caress of the words. So do you work with your father?”

“Yes, he set this up,” he said. “And he named it after you,” I said. “Yes, he did, and now I have this store,” he said. “He passed a couple of years ago. He was in Karachi, and he died there. He lived here for years, and he died there. I didn’t even make it to the janazah in time; I was on the plane, two hours away.” Owais and I immediately connected, in our loss, in our shared experience of rupture. “My father passed last year,” I told him, “and I didn’t make it to the janazah either.”

Owais is still cradled in the love and labors of his father, who worked for years in this cold city, far away from home. In the aisles crowded with spices, rusks, ghee, and lentils, I can feel Uncle’s gratitude that Owais is going to be okay.

The second handwritten sign, also by Owais’s father, says: “Such a beautiful relationship between me and Allah. I don’t ask for a lot, and He gives without measure.”

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