“The road to paradise lies at the feet of your mother.” How often hadn’t he heard that verse mentioned in his childhood by his Quran teacher, or when he from time to time made it to Friday prayer at the mosque. “Mash’allah, mash’allah” people often chorused at weddings or private gatherings when he said that he took care of his aged mother. Someone at least, in spite of everything, was looking after her.
The house had been bought on an instalment plan. They had got a good price. The old man who lived there had been moved to an retirement home, and the daughter who was taking care of the sale seemed glad to be rid of it. He even got a small discount against emptying the house of furniture himself. If you included the basement, the house measured 214 square metres divided across three storeys. Once they had washed it down twice and painted, the sour smell of the previous owner’s cheroots could only be detected in the living room and the large bedroom. The house would have been perfect for Aisha, himself, the girls and his parents. When father died there was suddenly a lot of space, of course, but once the little one was born, his changing table, cradle, play mat, plastic motorbike, lego bricks and all the other junk that was collected easily filled the extra space.
At night he often sat in the easy chair down in the basement, illuminated only by the gleam of the streetlamp, which crept in through the little window. The chair was in the living room when they moved in. Like a relic of the previous owner. He had managed to lug it down to the basement. With its green velour upholstery and intricate wooden carvings on the armrests and headrest, it looked almost like a throne. The children had been told that they weren’t allowed to crawl around in dad’s chair, but the blotches on the seat and left armrest were evidence of a certain disobedience. No matter what, it was his. He sat there at night and stared into the dark, listening to the house and its noises: a bed that creaked, the cars that drove past on the ring road, tiptoeing children’s feet followed by a soft purling in the toilet on the first floor. And then of course coughs, grunts, and snores from mother’s room. She slept in the room next to the kitchen. They had moved her down when her knee no longer allowed her to take the stairs up to the top floor.
The basement had been furnished as a TV room and playroom for the children. Naturally, Aisha also used the washroom for all the sheets, bedclothes and large ladies’ pants smeared in mother’s accidents. Endless amounts of shit and piss. The municipality had offered them a laundry service, which would fetch the dirty linen and underwear twice a week. He declined the offer. They would manage by themselves. Aisha was home all day and had nothing else to do with herself. Things also improved when they started putting a nappy on mother.
There was peace and quiet in the basement. He sat in front of the TV with the sound turned right down. He wasn’t watching it. It was Pakistani TV via the satellite dish. Father used to watch all the news broadcasts he could. Aisha followed various series in which people regularly broke into song or dance. Apart from cricket and the Champions League, nothing interested him. Except at night when he watched endless Pakistani programmes in silence.
Mother’s room was on the ground floor. When she needed help at night, she knocked on the pipes with her cane. Yassin bought it once at a flea market because he was going to a fancy dress party at school dressed as Charlie Chaplin. Now mother used it.
Mother had started to get more and more confused. Dr Hussein had given him a long explanation about the connections between atherosclerosis, diet, and dementia. Mother started to forget all the same. Several times she got lost on her short daily walks around the local area. One Wednesday afternoon the shop manager at the local supermarket had called him at work. Mother was standing in the fruit and veg department eating grapes. When they tried to talk to her, she angrily told them off in Urdu. She had swung her cane at one of the teenage shop assistants. Luckily without striking. They had managed to slip the loud, threatening elderly lady’s bag away from her and found his business card. How mother had got there was still a mystery. At home she could do hardly anything without the help and support of Aisha or himself. But that Wednesday Aisha had been to a meeting at the school, and that apparently gave mother wings. After that he put an extra lock on the front door. It was for her own sake.
The children liked granny, though. She sang songs or told stories from her childhood. The story about the mad general in Kharian, who shot pigeons from the patio; the one about the smith’s recalcitrant donkey that guzzled maize from the village fields; or the risqué one about the mullah with the three wives who were pious and virtuous by day, but entertained themselves with the young men of the region by night. Really, they weren’t suitable stories for children. On the other hand, they stemmed very much from a distant, fairytale past and could therefore be understood in the same way as Snow White or Aladdin. Mother had told many of the same stories to Yassin, Ikram, Samara and himself when they were small, and it hadn’t done them any harm. For his own part, he had always liked mother’s jinn stories. All the families in the village had apparently been plagued by mischievous jinns or subjected to evil jaddu committed by jealous neighbours or relatives. Once mother had even seen a ghost down by the village cemetery. The children loved to listen to granny’s stories. You could see from her beaming eyes that she didn’t just tell the stories, she was actually reliving them. They were just as vivid every time she told them. It was less important whether there were any listeners or not.
Things had quickly deteriorated, however, after father died. First she had the heart attack, and later several stent operations. Now her knees were crippled with rheumatism, her hip creaked and she wasn’t able to remember very well. She often asked where she was, whether she was in Pakistan or Denmark. After he and Aisha had spent a few months telling her where she was 10-15 times a day, he had bought a large Dannebrog flag at Harald Nyborg and hung it in the living room. Aisha had written “This is Denmark” in Urdu on the white cross using a thick black felt-tip pen. That helped.
He had got hold of the wheelchair through the municipal home care. Mother hated it. But he insisted. When they had to go to a wedding, for example, she had to sit in the chair. It was for her own sake. Then he was able to wheel her around between the tables and she could talk to the other elderly people who were at the wedding together with their children and children-in-law. Often she couldn’t really recognise the other guests. She even struggled to remember friends from the families they socialised with at the weekends when he was a child. No matter what, it was good for her to get out a bit. She had nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone gets old. And he got to spend a few hours with acquaintances from school, the Urdu language class, or the cricket club. Their conversation often turned to taking care of their elderly parents, and he received many appreciative nods for taking care of his mother.
It was the same at work. His boss had offered to let him work from home one day a week because he was looking after his elderly mother. He still preferred, however, to go to the office at 8:30 and stay until 5 PM. He was also happy to stay a couple of hours more if there was an urgent deadline, or went in Saturday mid-morning to finish his tasks. Mother more or less looked after herself. And Aisha was there, of course.
After breaking with Yassin and Ikram’s egocentric choices, father had looked at him gravely and said that they needed to talk. “Now that your brothers have gone, your mother and I would like you to carry on living at home with us.” It wasn’t an offer or a question. More a statement. Honoured by his father’s trust he had said “yes”. Yes to everything. To living with them. To mother and father starting to look for a girl in Pakistan. And to becoming engaged to Aisha just three days later. She wasn’t a bad choice at all. They knew each other from summer holidays in Pakistan, when they drove from grandfather’s house in Kharian to visit his aunt and her husband in the house outside Lalamusa. Aisha was three years younger than him. She wasn’t classically beautiful, but he thought she had pretty eyes. She had attended one of the girls’ schools in the town and finished what corresponded to the first half of her A-levels. That wasn’t much use in Denmark, but it meant that Aisha saw many things the way he did. She was educated, not simply brought up to be a mother and a housewife like many of his other cousins. She was absolutely the right choice. Mother explained this to him as well and father grunted in agreement. Once his mother and aunt had confirmed the engagement he was allowed to speak to Aisha himself. It was a very awkward conversation on the phone, with a girl 6000 km away who he hadn’t seen in four years. Father, mother, and Samara sat in the sofa and pretended not to listen.
They got married in Pakistan that same summer. When Aisha’s application for family reunification was declined they moved to Sweden instead. While they were living in Malmö he spoke several times to a researcher from the university. Michael something or other… Rytter, perhaps. He wanted to know about their new life in Sweden. They invited him home to their modest apartment. Aisha made chicken with rice and salad, and kulfi for dessert, but otherwise left them alone in the living room. It was a great relief. To talk and air out all his frustrations. About their commuting and bad financial situation. About the ruined plans to live with father and mother. And about Aisha’s homesickness. That was during the period when she either cried or slept all the time. In the end she was so depressed that he didn’t dare leave her alone. So he took her with him in the car every morning and dropped her off at his parents’ terraced house. Michael had listened and nodded and taken a lot of notes. Later he and Aisha had been mentioned in some English book or other. It was fun, but it hadn’t made any difference.
After two years in Sweden they were allowed to move back to Denmark. Aisha started at language school. She wanted to become a pedagogue. It was a good idea, just not right now when mother needed help. They also saved a lot of money by having the little one at home instead of at a kindergarten. When mother was no longer there, Aisha could begin her education. Unless they had an afterthought.
Really, it was Yassin who should have lived together with mum and dad. While he himself was occupied with revising for one of his resits at the business school, Yassin had got engaged in Pakistan. A posh family from the village. They were the Chaudries, landowners. You could tell that mother thought this was a much better ristha than expected. Chaudry had given them his youngest daughter, the last member of the family not to be married. Yassin had seen Alina at one of the many summer weddings in the village, and had fallen for her hook, line and sinker. The whole atmosphere in Pakistan, with the food, heat, sounds and smells. Via a network of cousins and cousin’s cousins, Yassin had let Alina know that he was in love with her and couldn’t live without her. He smiled to himself in the dark: What a cliche.
Father and mother had visited the Chaudry family shortly before leaving. The Chaudries knew very well what the aim of the visit was, so it didn’t take very long. Everyone was happy. Yassin got his princess, and mum and dad half the kingdom. And the beautiful Alina got the chance to live a life in the West. Mother became quite giddy at the prospect of how people would talk about them when they went home. Since everyone was happy, why get engaged first? On the same day that they had to go to the airport, the local imam undertook their nikkah.
The arguments started soon after Alina arrived in Denmark and moved into the terraced house. Already on Alina’s arrival you could see that mother didn’t like her Bollywood-inspired shalwar kameez, which revealed both of her underarms and a little too much of one shoulder. Alina hadn’t dressed like that while she was living with her parents.
Alina moved into Yassin’s room. During the day, while everyone was at work or in school, only mother and Alina were at home. It was a difficult time. Mother took the role of mother-in-law very seriously, and made a virtue of teaching Alina how she liked things to be done. How the tablecloths should be ironed. How the hoovering, dusting and washing of floors had to be done every day. How the knives should be placed in the drawer. The biggest hurdle, however, was the cooking. They were a household of seven and there were often guests who stayed for dinner. There always had to be enough food. That was the responsibility of mum and Alina. Samara seldom showed herself in the kitchen. If she did, it was only to fetch a coke or some snacks. She always held books under her arm demonstratively, as though protecting herself against invitations or orders to peel onions or chop salad.
Mother cooked the way she had learned by helping Amma ji when she was a teenager. It was now Alina’s task to learn those recipes. But it often went wrong. Either the food didn’t taste of anything, or else it was so strong that even father sweated and coughed as he wolfed it down. Mother complained vocally about Alina: “My daughter-in-law can’t cook, she can’t keep a house.” No one defended Alina. But what on earth had mother imagined? Alina had grown up in a posh family, in a home with servants to do the cleaning, laundry and cooking. Alina, for her part, accepted the criticism. She really couldn’t cook and cleaning didn’t interest her. She was more interested in visiting her new friends, two Pakistani girls she had met in language class. They were also newlywed and had been granted family reunification. They went shopping together at Field’s or Fisketorvet. Alina also got a new haircut and started wearing sunglasses. One afternoon while he was playing on the Playstation with Ikram, Alina waltzed into the living room in a pair of tight jeans. Their jaws dropped. Mother didn’t say anything. She simply got up and slammed the door. Later he heard mother complaining on the phone: “no daughter shall dress like a whore in my house!” Fatma, who always seemed to have time to spend an afternoon drinking tea and gossiping, comforted mother and said that Alina would learn in time. She had been through the same thing with her first daughter-in-law: “Those girls are brought up like caged birds. If you open the door they try to fly away. It’s our job to teach them better manners.”
From his bed he could many evenings hear how Alina and Yassin either argued or screwed on the other side of the wall. The arguments were always about Alina wanting her own apartment. She cried and begged and shouted at Yassin that he was a mummy’s boy and why didn’t he love his wife the most.
The day after an argument behind the closed door it was always very quiet around the breakfast table. Father drank his tea and went out to the garden, and mum had a lot of things to do in the kitchen. At least until Yassin left for work. Then she had a lot of urgent tasks which Alina had to help her with, while she herself paid visits to other Pakistani mothers-in-law in the neighbourhood. Three weeks later the situation exploded. Mother screamed at Alina that she was useless, spoilt, and lazy. Alina shouted back that mother was a witch who wanted to harm her. Yassin was caught in the middle, but ended up running after Alina. They spent that night in a hotel. Then stayed with one of Yassin’s colleagues who had a spare room.
Mother had been in a trance of sorrow and rage until they finally moved to an apartment in Brønshøj. He helped Yassin to carry the bed and the dresser down to the trailer. As they stood facing each other, Yassin looked deep into his eyes with a gaze that was melancholy and roguish at the same time. “Good luck,” he said, as they shook hands. Then he turned on his heels and drove away without looking back.
Back in the apartment mother was sitting on the sofa wailing, “He’s dead, he’s dead, my son is dead.” Samara tried to comfort her. Father said nothing. Since then all contact had been broken off. They got a short phone call from Yassin on birthdays and Eid. He had said hello to him at various events. Once, shortly after Yassin broke with them, he had been in the Bilka supermarket with mum and dad. Their full shopping trolley had been on a direct collision course with Yassin and Alina until mother pushed the trolley so hard to the left that they made a sharp turn at the washing powder and slid towards the IT section. On the way home in the car mother cried again. Alina had taken Yassin away from her.
The basement was damp. A spider ran along the skirting board above the stained carpet. A man with an impressive moustache had just threatened another man with a beating and was now giving a third man’s daughter the eye. Mum was knocking on the pipes. The knocks were rhythmical. She was probably thirsty. Or else she wanted to take a walk to stretch her body a bit. It was the same every night. Why insist on drinking so much, when she knew she would have to pee? He sat quite still. It was easiest if she just turned over and went back to sleep.
“As they took care of you in your childhood, so you must look after your parents when they get old.” This free interpretation of the Quran had accompanied them all through their childhoods. Not just at home with mum and dad, but also among the Pakistani families they socialised with at the weekends and in the mosque. Children must look after their parents. A compulsory task granted by God. Once when they were children, while visiting their aunt and uncle in Oslo, they had being drawing together with their cousins. Samara had drawn a house with smoke coming out of the chimney, three stick figures and a smiling sun. “Look, auntie. That’s me, and mum and dad. We’ll be together forever.” Aunt Humera had, smiling, taunted her in sing-song Norwegian, “Silly girl. You’re not going to live with mum and dad. You’re going to get married and live with your husband’s parents.” Samara didn’t answer and she didn’t colour in the happy sun.
Many years later she married Hadi. He had grown up in Manchester, where he had also studied economics at the university. They met each other during Samara’s studies in London. He had never been told how it actually happened. That was probably for the best. No matter what, Hadi was okay. He had a lot of ideas and tirelessly told jokes and crazy stories from his student days. Dad bragged far and wide about his promising future.
For the first few years, Samara and Hadi lived together in a small apartment. Hadi was surprisingly quick to accept that his education was useless in Denmark. He sent the obligatory one hundred applications, then, a little resignedly, started to drive a taxi at night for one of father’s friends. It was good money, after all. He had greater ambitions and wanted to start his own business, but repeatedly ran into a wall because he didn’t speak very good Danish. But Hadi had some cousins in Birmingham who might be able to get him started. They had a company already and wanted Hadi to be a partner and investor. His entire savings went to the new company. Samara stopped at the school of dentistry and they took the children out of the kindergarten. Two weeks later they were on a plane to Birmingham. There was nothing to discuss. This was Hadi’s chance. Samara called several times a week and spoke to mother or Aisha. She also came to visit a couple of times a year and stayed with them. She did her bit, but also had a lot to see to in Birmingham.
Samara was gone. It was a similar case with Ikram. No one had ever expected anything of him anyway. Ikram wasn’t a real Pakistani — or in any case, they were so in different ways.
About a year after Yassin had left the family, Ikram announced one evening, out of nowhere, that he had met the girl he wanted to marry. You had to hand it to him, he had guts. No going around keeping it a secret. And with Sonya. They knew the family well enough. A good family, big house, children with educations and good jobs — no black sheep in that generation. But even though Sonya’s father, Mr Iqbal, claimed that his family came from Lahore, the gossip ran that they actually came from a hole of village between Jhelum and Sialkot. Worse, father and uncle Iqbal knew each other from earlier years, when they had met at gatherings for the many single Pakistani men who lived tightly packed in insanitary apartments in inner city Copenhagen. They had also gone out on the town together. Several times. One of them had even had a Danish girlfriend. That had to be uncle Iqbal. Sometimes when men from the older generation got together, the air grew thick with cigarette smoke and innuendoes. Many meaningful looks and throwaway remarks were exchanged. You could never quite understand what was going on, but they knew a thing or two about one another.
That evening, Ikram had looked mother right in the eyes and stammered his wish with flushed cheeks. He needed father and mother’s blessing and help in order to have his rishta accepted. The Iqbal family would never have been mother’s choice, but Sonya was a nice, polite and pretty girl, and none of her friends had anything bad to say about her. And mother had probably already given up trying to get Ikram married in Pakistan. It would never work. He was quite simply too Danish.
After two more or less planned meetings between mother and aunt Iqbal, the whole family had to go one Sunday afternoon. Now was the moment. Samara helped Ikram tie his tie, and did it so thoroughly that the tight collar made beads of sweat form on his forehead. Father and mother exchanged pleasantries with the Iqbal couple. Aunt Iqbal’s brother, his wife and four noisy children had come from Værløse, and a neighbouring Pakistani couple also filled the living room. Sonya continually served the tea, soft drinks and snacks without raising her eyes or letting her hands shake.
Everyone knew what the visit was about. Nevertheless it took a while before dad managed to get to the point and say that they had come to ask for Sonya’s hand in marriage for his son Ikram. Uncle Iqbal smiled, clearly relieved that father had finally pulled himself together: “Nothing would make me happier.” They embraced. Mother held aunt Iqbal by the hand. They both had tears in their eyes.
Only later did he find out that Sonya had made her parents stipulate that as newlyweds they should live on their own. Mother had had to accept it. In spite of this, they had to keep up appearances. So after the Iqbal family’s wedding party and ritual leave-taking with the sobbing family, Sonya and Ikram drove home to the terraced house in Brøndby Strand in a hired Mercedes and spent the night in the decorated bedroom on the first floor. The very next day they moved to their new apartment in Sydhavnen. They still lived there. But now with his two nephews, each with their own bedroom. They didn’t see each other very often. He didn’t understand Ikram’s priorities. It was a “dad-mum-kids” project. Even when father was still alive, Ikram only came to visit with ‘his family’ every other weekend and called every Wednesday to talk to mother a bit. This pattern had continued after father died. When they had gone home, he always had to listen to mother talk about how nice and well brought up the nephews were, about how beautiful Sonya was, and what a good and loving son Ikram was. Every other Sunday evening he hated his brother.
Now she was knocking again. More insistently this time. He sat quite still. With both hands gripping the armrests, staring at the screen. A large group of women in coloured robes holding water jars above their heads danced in a ring around a prince on a white horse. If he sat quite still, perhaps they wouldn’t notice he was there. Like being invisible. Mother knocked again. As proud as he was of honouring his promise to his father, as embittered he was with Yassin and Ikram. They had left him to deal with everything. It was a bit like when they were kids and were playing Matador or Ludo. He almost always lost, and while the others ran yelling for joy into the living room or out to the garden with their arms above their heads, he was left alone to tidy up.
The knocking with the cane got worse. She probably needed a clean nappy and linen. Again. Now there were steps on the stair and a door was opened. He could hear Aisha speaking Urdu to mother and beginning to shove the bed around. It was a good thing he had Aisha. There was another wedding the coming weekend.
The short story, “The man in the easy chair” is based on Mikkel Rytter’s ethnographic fieldwork and long-term engagement with Danish-Pakistani families. The characters and plots in the story are a mash-up of persons and families, that he has met in Denmark, Sweden and Pakistan. The story thematize some of the challenges and controversies related to marriage and old age, that many Danish-Pakistani families face these years as the original migrants from Pakistan are getting older and have started to die away.