I am in an exceptionally good mood today, sitting at my desk making headway on my novel when my cellphone goes off, displaying a number that is not registered in my contact list. Hmmm…
‘Hey Kisukaali, vipi? How are you, my friend?’
‘Good, alhamd’Allah, who’s this?’
‘Allah, wacha wewe, you think you are so savvy, travelling the world, you forget your best friend?’
‘Umm, sorry, I do not recall your voice…’
‘This is Gulaam, Bwana, Gulaam Chotaaro! Remember me now, you Jumping Jack Jitentra! Hahahaha…’
I remember him now, that laugh and the name certainly, (changed for the sake of his privacy). Gulaam and I studied Form 2 at Kinondoni Secondary School in Dar es Sallam, Tanzania in 1971 and were inseparable as friends. His dark skin color and somewhat curly hair earned him the nickname Chotaaro. His Dad, bless him, was doomed to earn a even nastier label – Khangaaro. For those unfamiliar with Kiswahili, khangaaro is a (very) derogatory term for phlegm that gets stuck in your throat and is difficult to dislodge. The Khojas of East Africa had (still have?) a nasty habit of ascribing (usually insulting) nicknames to people within their community.
I am unsure why we chose to call Gulaam by the label Chotaaro; I think it had to do with his father marrying a dark(er) skinned, curly haired Arab wife. It used to drive him wild if others called him by this tag, for he would come to blows with anybody that dared, but I was special; I could call him Chotaaro, or anything else for that matter. His Dad had a habit of a rich, prolonged, deep hack followed by loud expulsion of phlegm through our mosque windows during salaat sessions, thus the nickname.
Gulaam hated his hair and would go to extreme lengths to straighten them. He idolized Rajesh Khanna, the aging seventies Bollywood actor and constantly lamented God for not giving him similar tresses. Never mind that Rajesh Khanna eventually went bald and relies on wigs to sustain his faded image, but that’s another tale. Once, Gulaam bought hydrogen peroxide from a pharmacy and used it on his hair, hoping it would straighten the curls, to dreadful results; he was the laughing stock of the entire (unforgiving) school and community because of resulting bad blond hair color, let alone the thumping he got at home. He called me Jumping Jack Jitendra in turn, after another Bollywood actor, for I fancied his crazed jerky jumping, dressed in tight white pants and white shoes around pretty heroines.
Gulaam was the son of an exceedingly zealot religious father, so his upbringing was rather rigid at home; regular on-time prayers, madressa classes, no movies, no loud laughter, no smoking, no staying out late at night…certainly no girlfriends; Gulaam flaunted all these rules. Except for girlfriends, his luck was a zero in this score (family titles a handicap?) His dad and him were thus constantly at odds, with some very public and vivid quarrels at the mosque sometimes.
Gulaam loved Bollywood movies and would to considerable troubles and risks to squeeze hard to come money for movie tickets. He would either sway his mother or skim it from his elder working brother. Aping Rajesh Khanna, Gulaam would break out into a stanza from the latest Bolywood movie at the sight of (fair skinned) maidens; they would squirm and run for cover. Like other friends I had then, we lost contact; I vaguely knew him to be somewhere in Canada but never got a chance to contact or speak with him. Until today.
‘OMA! Gulaam Chotaaro? How in the world are you? Where in the world are you?’ I exclaim, genuine happiness in my heart. OMA, I used to be so close to this guy; talking to him immediately brings about happy memories with him.
‘I am in Vancouver man, (city name changed). I have been following your blogs and always wanted to get in touch, but you know how it is…work, wife, children…’
So we chitchat a few minutes, asking about each other’s life events over last 40 years since we saw each other. But then, suddenly, we are quiet, awkward, run out of things to say and I find this bothersome. I mean we could not stand to be apart more than a day and now, we are spent discussing 40 years of happenings after mere 10 minutes?
‘Kisukaali,’ he says, ‘I want your advise and help. I mean you are kind of religious, unlike me, although Dad was very religious, but he is no more.’ Before I can correct him about the worthiness of my holiness, he continues. ‘I have a problem with Sameer, my son. He is 18, supposedly in college and a huge heartache to my wife and I…’
I get about 10 minute litany of Sameers ills, from defiance, to smoking, to terrible school grades, to bad company, to girlfriends; in other words, Gulaam was describing himself when he was 16, except for the hair (and girlfriends). It seems Sameer inherited his mothers looks and hair; thick, silky, almost blond. Gulaam, you see, ended up marrying a white, blue-eyed Canadian, possibly trying to mitigate his own dark skin, curly hair ancestry. Perhaps defying his Dad’s choice of wife by marrying an opposite? Maybe. Anyway, Sameer’s greatest evils (in his parents eyes) are all his muttah relationships; his exceptionally good looks attract girls like flies to rotting fruit.
‘When he was younger, I persuaded my wife, (a non-practicing Christian) to send Sameer to the local madressa, hoping he would pick up some akhlaaq and discipline. Bloody hell, the only thing this khabees picked up was how to do muttah! Can you believe it? They hid this concept from us very well, but make it mandatory teaching these days! Sameer says he is doing nothing haram, shows me how do it all from a bloody website, can you imagine!’
I laugh, ‘Lucky Sameer,’ I quip.
But Gulaam gets mad, rebukes me for making light a serious matter. He has tried everything, he says, from counseling to several taweez, except whack his son for fear of arrest and imprisonment.
‘At least my Dad could relieve his frustrations by thumping me to a pulp; I can’t even pinch my son, even though the urge is immense.’
He is despondent and his wife so down, she suffers from depression, even. I am quiet for a few seconds, stumped for a suitable response. I am hardly the person for advise on such personal and complex issues of a wayward teenage son. I have my own battles to fight with my teenage son, nothing that comes close to Gulaam and his son, thank Allah, but battles nevertheless; common to all families, I reckon.
I have to disappoint Gulaam in the end; I feel real sad for him, poor fellow. I sympathize and speak kind soothing words to him; offer to speak to our young aalim here in Sanford, perhaps he can recommend a possible solution? He is reportedly good at counseling troubled teenagers. In the end, Gulaam says something that depresses me even more.
‘I think my problems are punishment from Allah for all the distress and heartaches I gave my parents, especially Dad; the shoe is on the other foot now. I think I’ll have to cut Sameer loose; seems it’s either him or us that can be happy, not together.’
I agree, but urge him not to lose hope, have faith, pray much and hope things turn around; through difficulties, Allah always steers us towards better alternatives.
My good mood nosedives.
Still, lucky Sameer.