That Family Feeling by Parvati Sharma

It was one of those gorgeous February mornings. The light of the sun was deep and warm, the sky,unending blue. A koyal sang on a tree nearby, its call a wistful anchor for the scattered chirpings of less melodious birds.


Satnam ‘Naamo’ Hussain walked amongst her pots, admiring the bold stripes on her petunias, the cheerful yellow of her nasturtiums, the fine upstanding dignity of her shoe-flowers. She paused by her small bush of mandarin oranges; a new batch was ripe already and while this pleased her gardening self, the householder within her sighed. Once more, it would fall upon her to decide: should she leave the plump little globes upon their branches, to offer their undeniable aesthetic pleasure … or should she makesomething of them?


She glanced at her son, knowing not to expect any aid from that quarter, but something about his reclining posture, eyes half-closed against the sun, a green bottle of beer held loosely in one hand, made her say: ‘By the way, have you been having my marmalade at all, or not?’


‘Haan?’ his eyes flickered open and he turned his head, though not quite enough to actually face her,‘What?’


‘Did you have the homemade marmalade at breakfast today?’


‘What marmalade?’


‘What marmalade? I like that. It’s on the breakfast table every day. I made it, with our own oranges. And I notice it’s not getting eaten.’


‘Oh Mum.’


‘Oh Mum? What does that mean?’


‘You make too many things with your oranges. How many oranges can we keep eating all day?’


‘I like that. There’s only a little marmalade…’


And the achaar…’


‘And a little achaar, okay…’


And the jam, and you dunked one lot into Dad’s brandy, now nobody knows what to do with it!’


Despite herself, Naamo laughed as she sat down by her son, ‘That’s not fair!’


Ali took a lazy swig of his beer. ‘Not to mention all the competing versions your friends keep sending. You should all get together … you know, like those wine-and-cheese soirées. You’ll make a first-class narangi-chutney club.’


‘Well,’ said Naamo, with some dignity, ‘I seem to remember you couldn’t get enough of them at one time.’


Ali frowned in thought. ‘I never said I don’t like them.’


‘Nani’s murabba?’


‘Yeah. That was nice.’


‘You and Noor would fight over it!’


‘Yeah, so that was nice. And anyway, it was rare, wasn’t it? She sent one tiny bottle every two years.’


Already, Naamo wished she hadn’t mentioned her mother. The good memories always brought with them the bad. Apparently, though, her son suffered no such trials of equivocation.


‘Because she hated Dad.’


‘Ali please, I wish you’d not…. And anyway, I keep telling you, call him ‘Abbu’, you know he likes that better. Where this Mum-Dad business started, I don’t know.’


She did know, of course. It started with Emma, introducing them to her, to her parents, to all of Great Britain it felt like, sometimes. ‘Meet my Mum and Dad’ – as if, somehow, this would make them as palatable to the English tongue as Fish ’n Chips. But even so, when it started, it started as a joke between them, nicknames he gave his parents, for public consumption but in their full confidence. And then, one day, it was clear he’d never call them Mummy and Abbu again. Naamo was less troubled by this than Haroun. She was less troubled, for that matter, by the sight of her divorced son sipping beer in his pyjamas at noon on a weekday, so one could argue her judgement was impaired by the mitigating pleasure of having her younger child home after many years. But even so, it was true, Haroun was more troubled by everything, these days.


And Ali, clearly, didn’t care. ‘It’s true, but, isn’t it? You think she was hoping murabba scarcity would make us leave him?’


She looked up at him sharply, not smiling. ‘That’s not funny, Ali. There’s no ‘us’ that doesn’t include your Abbu.’


He rolled his eyes, O lord the drama, and took another sip from his bottle.


They sat in silence a few minutes. Then, Ali spoke again, ‘Why don’t you make that, then? Nani’s murabba, with all your oranges?’


Choosing to interpret this is an apology – or, at least, an admission of embarrassment – at any rate, a concession to keeping the conversation alive, she replied, ‘I don’t know how.’


‘How can you not know how? Didn’t she make it at home, all the time?’


‘Well, no, actually. She started making it much after I got married. Her friend, that poor old woman taught her.’


‘What, who?’


‘You remember, poor old Mrs Singhania. She lived next door and became Mummy’s great friend. They’d go for their walks together. That is, whenever her husband would let her.’


‘Why, what was his problem? He thought Nani was a corrupting influence?’


Naamo clicked her tongue and ignored him.


‘What? Go on, you can’t stop now!’


Naamo looked uncertainly at Ali. This wasn’t the track she’d have chosen for their impromptu little chat. But then, he smiled that smile of his and nudged her playfully with his knee. ‘Tell, no?’


Naamo relented.‘He was a horrible man, horrible. He used to make her … no, it’s too horrid.’


‘Oh, tell.’


‘He used to make her put her hands,’ she spread open her palms before him, ‘put her hands under the legs of their bed…’


‘What for?’


‘And then he’d lie down and go to sleep on it.’


‘Oh come on!’


‘It’s true, I’m telling you.’


‘That’s not possible! Her hands would break. How’d she make her murabba, then?’


‘Well, maybe they did break. We don’t know.’


‘But if Nani knew about it, she could’ve called the police. That’s torture!’


‘She could have…’


You could have called them too, for that matter.’


‘Oh Ali,’ now it was her turn to roll her eyes, ‘it’s never so simple.’


‘Somebody should have.’


‘Well you’re right maybe.’


‘Her children…’


‘Her children! They were worse. After her husband died, her son and daughter-in-law started living in the house, and your Nani complained she couldn’t sleep at night from all the wailing.’


‘What wailing?’


Her wailing, of course, poor old Mrs Singhania’s. They used to lock her up and she’d cry, hou-hou-hou,howling half the night.’


‘Oh please, Mum, no sound effects!’ She could see his cheeks twitch, straining against laughter, and felt a dizzy, guilty little giggle build in her own throat. ‘What is this, some Gothic horror?’


‘Gothic horror!’ she snorted and the laugh came out. She wiped at her eyes with open hands. ‘It is horrible. What do you mean Gothic horror? It’s entirely too common nowadays, and your generation, I’m afraid…’


‘My generation? Her husband started it!'


Naamo sighed. ‘I suppose…’


‘And you all never did anything to help. Wow. Did Dad know?’


On cue, the terrace door squeaked open and Haroun Hussain walked into the light, a book in one hand and his usual tired expression upon his face.


‘You can ask him,’ Naamo smiled cheerfully at her husband, who did not reciprocate. Instead, he turned to Ali, taking in last night’s pyjamas and this morning’s beer, with a slow and discomfiting deliberation.


Ali’s features slackened.


Ali wasn’t just good looking: he was handsome in the manner of film stars. Tall with strong bones, and a clean, open face. When he talked and laughed, you wanted to inch closer to him; he glimmered charm. But when in repose, or when, like this, under not entirely sympathetic scrutiny, Ali looked distinctly, well, how to put it… he could look distinctly stupid. The light went out and the dullness verged on the worrying. You wondered how a mind could be so empty.

It was a bewilderment Haroun had begun to voice, with increasing annoyance and diminishing returns, over the past weeks. Now, as her husband opened his mouth to speak, Naamo hurried to intervene.


‘You remember poor old Mrs Singhania?’




‘Of course you do, Haroun! Mummy’s neighbour, with the horrible husband.’


‘Hmm…’ he sat down, his frown growing deeper.


‘She used to howl…’


‘Yes, yes. What about her?’


‘Ali’s very shocked. He thinks we should have called the police and I agree. Why didn’t we? It’s strange, we never even thought about it.’




‘Yes I suppose,’ said Naamo, extrapolating wildly, ‘it could have become ugly, you’re right, but even so. We all knew how much that poor woman was suffering.’


‘Hm. It’s good to see our young prince developing a social conscience.’


‘Haroun. He is right, after all. I feel quite ashamed now, thinking about it.’


‘It’s easy to pass judgment on the past. One beer down before lunch and we all become social crusaders.’


‘Great one…’ muttered Ali.


‘What did you say?’


‘I said,’ Ali sat up in his chair and put the beer bottle on the table between them, deliberately,‘you’re a great one to talk about judging the past. That way, you’ve spent the last twenty years judging people for Babri. Let that go also – there must’ve been exterminating circumstances.’




‘Extenuating, I know.’


‘I really don’t think you do, Ali. Explain to him,’ he turned to Naamo and waved a hand at their son, ‘explain to him his foolishness, or shall I?’


Naamo held her husband’s gaze a moment, ‘Maybe we should go down for lunch. It’s almost time.’


Haroun shook his head and opened his book. Ali rose and began to walk away.

For a rebellious moment, Naamo thought she might return to her flowers, and quietly ignore the feeling of having disappointed both men. But, as always, this proved impossible.


‘Ali, wait!’ she called,‘We’ll all go down together, wait.’


‘What for?’ Ali stopped at the terrace door and turned towards them. ‘He only wants me to agree with him, otherwise I’m wrong. How all of you keep worrying about dictators and there’s one sitting right here!’




‘It’s true, admit it! You have to agree with him on everything. It’s as bad as Mrs What’s-her-name!’


‘Ali, stop!’


‘No, no,’ Haroun took off his glasses and wiped a hand across his face, ‘let him say what he has to say. But please remind your son: for all my shortcomings, at least I have yet to raise a hand against my wife. Or my son, for that matter, though I cannot imagine daring to talk to my father in this fashion.’


There was a pause. Even the koyal hushed, drawing in its breath. A crow, less tactful, cawed raucously as it swirled above them in the suddenly warm air.


Ali took a step backwards. ‘I am sick…’


‘And I am ashamed.’


‘I never touched her.’


Haroun looked up at his son. ‘I did not raise my children to lie.’


‘And I did not hit her. I’m not lying. Mum, tell him. I never touched her.’




‘Beta what? I don’t know where she got that photo, I don’t know who did that to her. It wasn’t me. I can’t believe you guys will trust that crazy bitch –’




‘Fine, fine, I’m sorry. But she is crazy. And she was a –’


‘I won’t have you speak like this,’ Haroun rose. He was shorter than Ali, had been for a while now. They never joked about it. ‘I won’t have it.’ The two men stood facing each other and Naamo felt that familiar twinge in her gut, the bile rising. She reached for her husband’s hand.


Ali turned and left. They heard him hurtle down the stairs, they heard the door bang. When they followed him down for lunch, he had left. Later, in the evening, Naamo called to ask if he’d be home for dinner. He didn’t reply, but a moment later, there was a beep and a message: Home late. Tell Dad he’s welcome.


With a sigh, she put the phone aside. Inside it, there was that other message, the very last one in a Whatsapp group cheerfully titled ‘That Family Feeling!’ – Emma, with a bruised eye and blood on her lip, and a caption below: Your son did this.


She wished she could delete it. Ali had shouted once, saying why do you keep it, it’s garbage. But she’d snatched the phone back from him. She needed the photo. If it wasn’t there, after all, how would she ever believe it had been?



Parvati Sharma is the author of The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love, Zubaan, 2010 and Close to Home, Penguin-Zubaan, 2014. She is currently working on a novel about Satnam Hussain and her family.