Hamid Ismailov. Two lost to life (story)

Category: Uzbek modern prose Published: Saturday, 29 September 2012

Hamid Ismailov



Translated from Uzbek by Irina Buss-Zolotareva, with the author.

In the name of the gracious and merciful God!

In the evenings he would return from his solitary walks to an empty flat; he would put his stick in the corner and drag his tangled legs up the stairs to his room.  Something was creaking heavily – he wasn’t sure if it was the stairs or his old bones – and the same question, a question to which not even millstones could have ground out an answer, was going round in his head: ‘What on earth is happening?’ He would go down to the kitchen, but not in search of an answer to this question, rather in the hope of some calm; he would look around him, but he didn’t even have the desire to make a cup of tea.  He would move to the main room.  Here he could find neither a place to sit, nor the will to turn on the light; he would go to the bathroom.  After quickly washing his face, he would go to his bedroom and, without undressing, fall onto the bed.  Lying half-asleep, sensing with all his being the slow flow of the hours …

When you are young, even the most useless and pointless activities can distract you.  You can watch television, listen to the radio, read a book, or, as a last resort, entertain yourself with lewd thoughts.  But when you are old, it seems you hardly have the strength even to remember these activities.
At night, at about one or two o’clock, he would get out of bed and go to the loo.  While sitting on the toilet, he would watch the water dripping from the tap, listening out for the occasional sounds from outside.  His insides felt strange – like an empty wine vat?  The water from the tap dripped into the sink.  In the hope of picking up even the quietest echo from the empty, endless silence, his keen ears transcribed the many ways in which water dripped into the various musical moods.

Hafiz’s line ‘Love seemed easy at first, then difficulties arose…’ evidently reflects the opinion of a young person.
What really happens with time is that life becomes simpler.  Whatever your body feels – everything is reflected in your mind.  You don’t have the endurance for long thoughts.  There’s no time to be distracted or to look at things around you.  All you have left is the simplicity of breathing.

Makhsum was laid to rest two months ago to the day.  But it turns out that in old age, two months is a long time.  An instant that is comparable to a whole lifetime. Old age is hardly a happy time.  How can it be happy? Even if your past doesn’t make you shudder, you still feel some discontent in your heart, some kind of dissatisfaction.
Is anyone’s life truly fulfilled?
Till his last day, Makhsum had kept on talking about how everything in life was predestined.  It seemed that he had resigned himself to his fate long ago.  All the same, he didn’t want to leave this world – this was clear from his eyes, which were filled with sadness.  

He and Makhsum, it seemed, had lived under one roof for nearly five years… Their children’s leaving the country had brought them together.  Before that, their relations had been those of in-laws, based purely on etiquette.  But what did their children care about etiquette?  They had sold one of the two flats, bunged both the old men into the other one and then fled abroad in search of a better life.  At first, the two men could find no common ground at all; they just couldn’t get along together.  The roots of this incompatibility went back a long way, to the days when their children were courting.  To the time when Marlen’s  daughter, Clara, met Makhsum’s son, Abdumannab, at some get-together and then declared categorically that she was going to marry this bloke.  Marlen tried to talk her out of it, saying ‘To each their own, stick to stick, and stone to stone’.  But Clara was adamant and deaf to his forceful argument.  He was a Communist, he had said; how could he allow his daughter to marry the son of a mullah?  He had threatened to lay a father’s curse on his daughter, but she hadn’t so much as raised an eyebrow.  She had just said, ‘A father’s curse, is a religious leftover, isn’t it, Daddy?  It’s just an antiquated ritual from the feudal Islamic past.’             

At first he had wanted to go to court; he had thirsted for justice.  But whom would he be taking to court?  His own daughter?  As a communist, he could hardly make out that the in-laws had used magical powers; it might even be dangerous – he might even, God forbid, be accused of professing religion himself.  Marlen let off steam by cursing his wife in the most patriarchal of manners.  His wife had wondered about threatening him with the Party Committee.  She wanted to remind him that she had equal rights, but she had taken pity on her sensitive husband.  Meekly hanging her head, she kept silent.  Oh my dear, good, kind late wife, beloved of Allah! He had lived with his second wife for almost four years, but she had been only a step wife.  And a step-wife is always a step-wife!

Somehow his tangled thoughts always found their way back to Makhsum.  
Once, in a dimly lit room of the two-floor flat that their children had so generously bequeathed to them, he had been busy copying from a newspaper the portrait of today’s Father of the People.  Makhsum had entered the house without Marlen hearing him, and silent like an angel in his soft leather boots, had come up behind Marlen and begun to watch him.  Marlen started.  He looked around – Makhsum! The latter quietly began to mutter something in embarrassment: something about being at the Mosque and talking to people there.  But why?  Marlen hadn’t complained.  He hadn’t accused Makhsum of anything.  But the quiet mumbling had been more than Marlen could bear.  He had shouted at Makhsum.  In response, Makhsum had just gone silently up to his room.  And in the middle of the night he had come downstairs to perform a belated ritual ablution; Makhsum – of all people – had forgotten to wash before praying.  And he had woken Marlen up.  Once again Marlen had felt furious with his in-law.

And now he was all on his own.  Water, it seemed, was still dripping from the tap.  Nowhere was there any will or strength to get up and turn it off.  Where were the grandchildren that now speak English instead of Russian?  The oldest evidently resembled his mother.  Once, when they had been talking on the phone, he had asked his grandson, ‘What are you doing, sonny?’ The answer was: ‘Reading, Dad made me.’ ‘What book is it? Is it in Russian?’ ‘I don’t know, but it costs seven dollars,’ the little rogue had replied.

He had been a cunning little rogue from an early age.  About five or six years ago, before Marlen retired, he had had a car that came with his important job, a white ‘GAS-31’.  One morning he had rung his daughter.  His grandson had picked up the phone.  ‘Hey, why are you still at home?’  ‘I’m waiting for the car.’ ‘What do you need a car for?  The nursery is only two steps away.’  ‘Your work is also only two steps away…’  ‘Do you know who I am? I am a party leader!’  ‘So what? I am the grandson of a party leader!’
Marlen Saїdvakkasovich had been unable to think of a comeback.

But Makhsum’s favourite grandson had been the youngest.  The boy could read ghazals and intone suras from the Koran.  After their children had fled abroad in their version of a hijrah,  he had gone on bringing back sweets from the mosque – as if for the little boy.  Marlen would reproach him for this.  Makhsum didn’t take offence, just rubbed his watery eyes, went red and smiled.

Makhsum had some strange habits.  One day he would be listing his ancestors – all of them, apparently, Holy Saїds or descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.  Another day he would be talking with contempt about a descendant of this ancient family, his cousin Solikhan-Tura.  ‘I don’t know whether I did the right thing,’ Makhsum would begin.  ‘A few days ago he told me he had some business with my son, Abdumannab, and asked me how long it will be till Abdumannab comes back from America.  So I made out that I’d ask you to tell me.  I went to the chaikhana in Chorsu and spent the whole day there in conversation.  In the evening I went to see Solikhan-Tura again and told him that it would really be quite a long time before my son comes back home again.  Was I right to lie to my cousin?’  Marlen had never encountered such supreme simplicity.  He hadn’t known whether to laugh or to tell Makhsum off for displaying such devious cunning.

Makhsum had introduced Marlen to this cousin of his.  He was built like a strongman and he had a huge moustache; everyone bowed to him automatically.  ‘Hey, what are you so cocky about?  You’re not even as tall as my dick.  I’ll fucking smash your head in – and there you’ll be, out cold on the ground!  I’ll teach you to stare!’ he had once said to a militiaman struggling to keep people in line in the market.  The militiaman just opened and closed his mouth, like a fish washed up on a beach.

‘Stop it.  I don’t want to hear another word about those mullahs of yours!’ Solikhan-Tura had used to say to Makhsum, waving his hand in contempt.  ‘Those drunks of yours go off with the key to my flat and what do you think they do there?  They fuck tarts!’ Makhsum had never known how to answer.  On one occasion, unable to take back his own words of praise for these same mullahs, unable even to whisper a prayer on behalf of his own blasphemous relative, he had almost choked…

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