One promises oneself the night. The story is ready for the world even if the world is not ready for the story. And so I sit in my black pyjamas. In a black top. Before a black laptop. At a white desk. Before a mirror filled with my own face. I have not shaved. I see black circles beneath my eyes. It is already late. It is not the time for writing. One half of my mind says not to write. They will not read. They will not understand. They will not agree. The other half persists. There is something to be lost if I do not write, it says. Something will be lost. Something must be ventured.
And so the tale begins. It is a true tale of the truth. A truthful tale. Truthfulness in a tale. In fact, it is a little history that is truthful. There is not anything that did not happen in the story. It is a slice of my life as it once was. It is of the before when I was someone else. When my family was something else. A stranger to the past writes. Yet the stranger to the past is the only one that remains to tell the tale.
The tale has many beginnings. One beginning was the place where I worked. I worked with nurses. Hundreds of them. How many nurses I once knew! There was lovely Jane who would flutter her eyes at me to get her way. Jane with the shoulder length brown hair and the petite figure. Then there was Irish Caroline, with the Irish temper to boot. She had a freckled face and brown eyes. She would scowl at me and I would tease her. There was one other freckled nurse who slapped me on the bottom when I bent over the desk. She had a husband in another country. She slapped men’s bottoms indiscriminately, insistently, insolently. Michelle with blonde hair would always flirt. There was the descendant of Dryden the poet. What audaciously green eyes she had! Beautiful like the leaf of a tree or the skin of a cricket.
And then there was Anna. Her very name fascinated me. It is a name that can be read from back to front, from front to back, in the same way. A palindrome. Like “mum” or “mom”. Like “dad” (how curiously palindromic are the names of our parents in English). I saw Hannah at the head office the first time. She was the only British Asian nurse I had seen out of all my hundreds of ladies. Her hair was dyed a succulent brown and she had light skin. Dark brown eyes danced in her face. She was slim and just slightly shorter than me.
When I made my way over to her to introduce myself, she did not run away or cower. How different she was from some of the women in our country! She greeted me warmly. She had great confidence in herself. She had come over from Kenya, she said.
I got to know her more over the coming months. We would meet at events in the organisation. She would tell me about the challenges of being a newly qualified nurse. She told me about the challenges of being new to England. She extended the hand of friendship to me. She would call me up in the office sometimes. One time she called me up to ask for help with setting up her broadband. It was always a pleasure to talk to her.
As a nurse, Anna began visiting my grandparents. My grandfather had a problem with his foot. It had grown black and swollen. I would look at it in incredulity. The ability of the body to transform itself was startling. The foot needed bandages and regular attention. It needed a nurse. I knew that it was Anna that visited the foot and my elders. I had asked my grandparents to describe the nurse that came to visit them and guessed that it was her.
One day, Anna was talking with me about my grandparents at an event. I had never spoken to Anna about my religious background. I do not consider it important. Anna had told me before that she was Muslim. Suddenly, she asked me if I was a very religious Muslim. I looked at her in some surprise. After all, I wasn’t Muslim. I told her so. Now she looked at me in surprise.
“But your grandfather says “As-salāmu ʿalaykum” to me every time that I come to visit him!” she protested.
I smiled. This was typically like my grandfather. My grandfather was an idealist. He had come from a Hindu background. He believed that all religions were equal. He believed that all gods were the same. I explained to Anna that he was speaking to her in a lingua franca. He knew that she was Muslim so he was showing her respect and friendship by greeting her in Islamic fashion. The greeting was a demonstration not only of tolerance for, but also his acceptance of all other religions.
Anna was quiet. The conversation died. Suddenly, in one moment, our friendship was over. Anna would still speak to me at events. However, now there was nothing personal in the conversation. She wouldn’t call me up. She got on with her life and I got on with mine. Two different paths had opened up in our lives.
Such is our fate in the world. The injustice in the world is not only that we are hurt. It is also that we must hurt others. We hurt those that we care for and love every day and in each moment.
The trouble was not only my secular silence, but also my grandfather’s greeting. The greeting brought difference into our friendship. When the greeting was used as a lingua franca, there was no problem. My grandfather would say “As-salāmu ʿalaykum,” and Anna would reply “waʿalaykumu s-salām”. The words would bond the two speakers. It created a community. It fostered concord and acceptance. It was only when I drew attention to it being a lingua franca that the greeting became transformed into a farewell, a farewell to our friendship. A death blow. For now, the greeting had no truth. It came from the lips of a kafir. It could no longer bind in trust. It was no longer natural and authentic and spontaneous. It was suspicious. It was fabricated. It was alien. It was unnatural and deceptive. It was an act of deception.
Anna was not ready for the “As-salāmu ʿalaykum” of a Hindu.
And the world is not ready for that greeting of a Hindu. The world is not ready for a lingua franca. Is the world ready for the story of that greeting? The story is ready for the world even if the world is not ready for the story.
And so the tale ends. It is a true tale of the truth. A truthful tale. Truthfulness in a tale. In fact, it is a little history that is truthful. There is not anything that did not happen in the story. It is a slice of my life as it once was. It is of the before when I was someone else. When my family was something else. A stranger to the past writes. Yet the stranger to the past is the only one that remains to tell the tale.