by Tahseen Khaleel
Runestone, Volume 1
Irfan Parvez had three pictures of Madhu with him in total, but his favorite was neatly tucked into a plastic, silver frame he had picked up at a Chevron the day he’d landed in Lihue. The frame stood like a silent guardian in the left-hand corner of the large architect’s desk he had pushed into his dingy suite in Kauai Palms Extended Stay Hotel, watching him as he pored over blueprints and scratched his eyebrow with the back of a Sharpie. Whenever the wet, midday heat crept in through the windows, as it was doing now, seeping into his brain and turning the numbers in his mind to putty, he would toss aside the marker and grab the picture frame, tracing his fingers over the cheap glass.
She looked like a princess in this photograph: she was wearing her wedding sari, the sparkling ghunghat veil pulled over her head, golden sequins glimmering in the photographer’s flash. Her smile was shy and her kohl-rimmed eyes were lowered, the vermilion bindi between her brows glowing like a ruby. He sighed. It was because of that tiny, scarlet spot that his parents had not come to the wedding.
“You can die with your Hindu bitch for all I care,” his father had spat at him when he came home to invite them. The old man had then turned in his chair and refused to look at him. His weeping mother asked him to leave. So Irfan had promised Madhu he would do exactly that, as he took her hand in his some days later, and walked around the ceremonial fire, whilst a fat priest wrapped in orange robes recited marriage vows and had them repeat after him.
Irfan pushed the frame back to its corner on his desk. He tried to return to his schematics, but the measurements and calculations he had jotted down seemed to turn into little black fish, swimming away as he followed them with his eyes. The humidity was getting to him. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he had just begun to unbutton his shirt when he heard a knock on the door of his suite.
“Cheh, I gave her last month’s payment two days ago,” he muttered, buttoning his shirt back up. He made his way to the suite’s tiny foyer and opened the door. It was not Mrs. Nalani as he had expected– the elderly, portly innkeeper who always wore one of what seemed to be a collection of only three muumuus– but the bald man who had recently moved in down the hall that Irfan knew was Indian but had never gotten around to speaking to.
“Salaam, brother,” said the man sheepishly.
Irfan blinked in surprise.
“Maaf karo!” the man apologized, his eyes turning wide with embarrassment. “I just thought you were Muslim because of your name–”
“Nehi, nehi, you’re absolutely right,” Irfan said quickly. “Walaikum assalaam. I was just surprised. It’s silly, but for a long time I thought there weren’t any others in Kauai.”
“Hahn ji, that’s why I’m here!” the man said excitedly. He suddenly looked around and lowered his voice, as if he were sharing a secret, and held out his hand. “I mean, I’m sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. My name is Sadiq.”
“Very nice to meet you, Sadiq,” Irfan said, shaking his hand. “You said you knew my name?”
“Ahh yes, Irfan bhai, I asked Nalani memsahib. Forgive my curiosity.”
Irfan chuckled at the juxtaposition of the Indian honorific with the Hawaiian name. “It’s so good to hear someone speak Urdu after so long,” he told Sadiq. “Why don’t you come in for some chai?”
Sadiq looked truly apologetic. “I would love to, Irfan bhai, but I’m late for namaaz. That’s actually why I stopped by; I was wondering if you wanted to come pray with me?”
The question made Irfan uncomfortable. He had never been one to pray– after his wedding he had stopped whatever little he used to do– but his first month in Kauai he had been diligent, going so far as to buy a world map to determine where Mecca was in relation to the tiny island he now had to call home. He wanted to start the job out right; currying favor with God seemed necessary. But as the months compounded into a year, his prayers became sporadic, faltering until they altogether stopped. He didn’t think anyone was listening.
“Nehi, Sadiq bhai,” Irfan said finally. “But thank you for the invitation.”
“Oh, achi baat.” Sadiq fell silent for a moment, and Irfan could almost feel the man’s disappointment.
“Where do you pray?” Irfan asked encouragingly. “Is there a mosque anywhere near here?”
“Yes, Irfan bhai, that’s what I meant earlier,” said Sadiq, brightening. “You’re not alone here, don’t worry! I found some brothers who work over in Niumalu, only a few miles away. They pooled together their resources and have rented out a small space where we can pray whenever we need to. May Allah reward them for their efforts!”
“Ameen,” agreed Irfan. He’d only known the man five minutes, but Sadiq’s enthusiasm had already begun to grate on his nerves.
There was an awkward pause between them before Sadiq cleared his throat.
“I should get going, bhai. It was so nice to finally meet you.”
“Likewise,” said Irfan. “Come by any time.”
“You as well!” Sadiq paused, then began to fumble with his pockets. He pulled out a scrap of paper and a pen, leaned against the doorframe and scribbled something, handing it to Irfan when he was finished.
“In case you change your mind,” he told Irfan. “Salaam, Irfan bhai, and take care!”
Some evenings, when he felt particularly restless, Irfan would make the drive out to Anini Beach. Tonight was one such evening. Mrs. Nalani, who was in the habit of asking him where he was going and when to expect him back on the rare occasion that he would saunter out of his suite into the lobby, could never understand why he bothered driving that far when Wailua and even Kapa’a were so much closer.
“Because it is … nani–” he explained to her one evening, hesitantly trying the Hawaiian word, “–beautiful. Also, no other malahini!” Here, he put his hands to his face, and pretended to wildly click a camera and gawk about. His pronunciation was horrible– no amount of consultation of an English-to-Hawaiian dictionary would ever fix that– but this seemed to please her.
“E malu `oe,” she had told him, grinning, and she said it again now: “Be safe.”
Irfan smiled at the old woman and made his way to the beat-up Jeep the company had provided him upon his arrival to Lihue. It was eleven in the evening, and the road was empty; the twenty-five mile drive would be painless tonight. He coasted along the Kuhio Highway with the windows down, breathing in the omnipresent ocean salt. The drive was monotonous– the miles of pristine white sand and crystalline blue-green waves ceased to impress him long ago– but he resisted turning on the radio; most of the programs were in pidgin anyway. Thirty minutes later, he was able to make out the battered sign in the distance: anini in red letters, with a faded W before the A. Why they had formally changed the name rather than simply replacing the W that had fallen off during a heavy tropical storm, as Mrs. Nalani had told him, he would never understand.
Pulling off the road and alongside the sign, he got out of the Jeep and stepped over a low metal fence, clambering onto the black rocks below. The moon was beginning to wane, and the sea was calm. Irfan had just enough light to carefully make his way along the black coral strip, avoiding broken bottles and angry hermit crabs. When he could no longer see his Jeep behind him, he knew he was near his favorite spot.
Hopping off the coral path, he stretched out on his back on the glowing white sand, propping himself up on his elbows. The faint moonlight illuminated the larger granules of sand, making them sparkle as the languid sea pushed weak waves not quite up to his feet. He listened to the palm fronds dipping in the breeze above his head and the faint, rhythmic crashing of larger waves on the hillside east of him. Irfan took a handful of the sand and let it fall in a mist over him. It had never been this clean in India.
That was the funny thing about Hawaii. It reminded him so much of India at times, with its rich, riotous flowers and scents, its people’s endearing insistence on leaving one’s shoes outside before entering, and its wandering roosters that squawked every time of day except dawn. But Irfan had a keen sense of feeling marooned here that he had never known back in dusty, bustling Mysore, the city of his childhood. He doubted that even God could see him.
This was supposed to be America, and yet it did not even feel like the America he knew. Only two years ago, after his marriage, his sister Maham had helped Irfan and Madhu apply for green cards, and wonder of wonders, they were able to take the first plane ride of their lives to Chicago. They did not care for the cold at all, much less the people, but they had done well for themselves. Irfan swept floors and made sandwiches for a year at a Subway while finishing his engineering degree, till he could move his new wife into a proper home: a tiny studio on Ashland and Taylor.
The night of his graduation, he and Madhu gathered as many newspapers as they could from the 7-Eleven owned by the Gujju on the corner of their street. The kindly old man had handed them small cups of Italian ice when they told him the news. Irfan had once approached him for a job– unsuccessfully– but the elderly man had kept in touch with the couple ever since.
“You’ve done well, beta,” the Gujju said, thumping Irfan’s back and smiling.
They made their way back up to their little apartment, and Madhu spread out a chawdar on the hard wooden floor, opening up each of the newspapers to the classifieds. She found several markers and stretched out onto the sheet, bossily instructing him to mark all the civil engineering listings he could find. They made a game of it, drawing circles around places with fantastical names– Kalamazoo, Tallahassee, Los Gatos, Hanapepe– laughing as their clumsy Indian tongues tripped over syllables, till they were thoroughly bored and made love instead.
He ended up applying for all of them, and a month later, Madhu marched into the studio, dropping a thick package on his lap, the top conspicuously torn open.
“Heavy construction service specialist, Lihue, Hawaii!” she announced, pronouncing each word carefully. She grabbed his face and kissed both his cheeks. “For the Molokoa Development Company!”
“Yes, yes!” Madhu was practically bouncing. “Look at the salary!”
“That’s very far from here, no?”
“It says temporary, full-time.”
“What is that?”
“Temporary! You won’t be gone long!” There was no stopping Madhu once she started. She waved the papers in his face. “Look at this! You deserve this, Irfan! Look how well you’ve done. I’m so proud.”
How well he had done. Irfan chuckled. The money was definitely good, more than he had ever earned in his life. He had enough and more for himself and to send home to Madhu, but at what cost? He spent his days toting buckets of wet concrete and steel beams on his back at the Molokoa Subdivision construction site, sweating like the brown-faced coolies he had grown up pitying. At night he furiously scribbled infrastructure diagrams and piping and wiring plans to hand in the next morning, overworking the brain his framed University of Illinois engineering degree assured him he had.
“The listing said service specialist, sir,” Irfan carefully told the project manager, Mr. Kingston, on his first week. “I think so I should not be doing all this.”
The ruddy-faced white man, haole, as the other workers would whisper behind his back, wiped his sweaty brow on his already wet shirt and squinted at him from under his hardhat. Patting Irfan’s back roughly, he said, “Emphasis on the ‘service’, son. Besides, we need all the hands we can get. I think so you’re exactly where you need to be.”
How well he had done indeed.
But Irfan never told Madhu all this. He would instead write to her about the sunsets, the sea, the woman who only owned three muumuus. And she would write back about her job at Macy’s, the snow, the kindly Gujju who owned the 7-Eleven on the corner.
And that she was pregnant.
He had called her long-distance from a pay phone, clutching the letter she had sent him during his second month in Lihue, counting how much each minute was costing him; there was a reason they had opted to write to each other instead. He listened as she babbled about buying diapers and bottles, whether they would have enough room in their studio, what they would name the child.
“I’m missing all of it,” he said finally, his tone accusatory.
“As though I could have planned it, Irfan,” Madhu said dismissively. “Why so sour? You’ll be here by the time he’s born!”
“I’ll write you everyday.”
“And I’ll get the letters every other week, only.”
“Don’t be that way, Irfan.”
Irfan sighed and got to his feet, shaking out the sand from his hair, as though the memories would fall out as well. His right foot had gone numb, and he stepped gingerly, extending it towards the gently lapping waves, hoping the cold water would shock his foot back to function. He glanced at his watch, squinting in the dimness of the moonlight. He needed to head back.
Madhu was more than eight months along now.
He clambered back onto the mounds of black coral, making his way back to the lonely Jeep along the road, praying to his, and whichever of his wife’s gods he could remember, to watch over his unborn child.
“Great job today, boys!” Mr. Kingston boomed over his clipboard. He pointed his pen at Irfan. “The pipes look great too, Parvez. Really nice design you hashed out for me.”
Irfan blinked. “Thank you sir,” he managed quietly, but Kingston didn’t hear him. The sweaty man turned around and glanced at the sun as it slipped quickly down the horizon, seeming to set the Kuhio behind them ablaze.
“How ‘bout we call it early today? Let’s go down to Kapa’a. My treat.”
The men whooped and cheered.
“Hey, Kingston’s not so bad after all,” said Kai, a tall muscular fellow Irfan was sure couldn’t have been more than nineteen or twenty. He stretched his tattooed arms above his head and behind his back, and punched Irfan’s shoulder playfully.
“I guess not,” Irfan replied, grinning.
Their drive to Kapa’a was pleasant. Irfan had chosen to ride with Kai in his pickup truck, and sat in amusement as the younger man blasted rock music and punched the roof of his car. They pulled into the Kinipopo Shopping Village and met the other men and Kingston at a Monico’s.
“Haole’s really pulling out all the stops today,” Kai whispered to Irfan as they seated themselves at the bar. “Probably got laid last night.”
Irfan was sandwiched between Kai and Kingston himself, so he could not have replied even if he wanted to. Everyone had already ordered their drinks. He tried to busy himself with the menu. It all seemed to be some variation of sliced-up island hog. He had never eaten pork in his life. Irfan put the menu back down.
“Not eating anything, Parvez?” Kingston asked, nursing a beer. “Let me get you a drink then.”
“No sir, thank you. I actually don’t drink.”
“Don’t drink?” Kingston was amused. “What kind of crazy fuck doesn’t drink on a Friday?” He called a pretty waitress over and ordered Irfan something. Irfan watched helplessly as the waitress returned and placed a bottle in front of him, giving him a lingering look. Her eyes were utterly black and almond-shaped– like Madhu’s. He glanced over at Kai for help, but the younger man was yelling and wolfing down nachos, pointing wildly at the game on TV.
“Mahalo,” he told her simply, and she winked and walked away.
“Doing well at work, and with the ladies!” Kingston laughed, slapping Irfan on the back. He pointed at the Hula Hefeweizen bottle in front of Irfan expectantly. “Loosen up. Tell me where you’re from.”
“I’m Indian, sir,” said Irfan. He unscrewed the bottle cap and listened to the hissing of the fizz. “I–”
“Indian, huh? So why don’t you have the …?” Kingston pushed a thumb onto his own forehead.
“I’m not Hindu.” Irfan grew quiet and contemplated the fizzing bottle in front of him. I’m Muslim, we don’t drink, he wanted to say, but my wife can. He chuckled at how ridiculous it sounded. He did not pray, and now he was insisting on not drinking. He could feel his brain turning to putty again; he felt smothered by the heat of the crowded bar. His eyes followed the pretty waitress, her hips swaying back and forth as she delivered nachos.
“Mmhmm. They have, what, five hundred gods, right? Elephant heads and all that?” Kingston paused to take a swig of beer. “Can’t really say anything about all that though. We got so many gods right over here.”
He gave Irfan a hard look. “I know the old ways. I’m half-Hawaiian, you know. My mama was full.” His speech was beginning to slur. He hadn’t even had that much, Irfan noted. “So none of you can be calling me haole like you all do.”
Irfan turned red.
“Drink your damn beer,” the haole told him aggressively.
Irfan obeyed. It was fizzy and aromatic, and he didn’t care for the taste, but he liked the way it warmed him up. I’ve already married, fucked, and impregnated a woman who worships cows, he mused. I don’t pray, and here I am whining about putting alcohol in my mouth.
“Hapa-Hawaiian,” Kingston repeated. “Not haole.”
Kai dropped Irfan off at Kauai Palms around midnight.
“You’re a real friend,” Irfan told him. He couldn’t see straight.
“And you’re real drunk, brah,” Kai laughed. “Be safe, okay?” And he drove away.
Irfan staggered into the lobby and knocked over the pot of orchids Mrs. Nalani kept by the door. Hearing the commotion, the portly woman, clad in her purple muumuu this time with curlers in her hair, hurried into the room and nearly tripped over him.
“Lolo!” she hissed at him. She uttered a stream of words; they sounded fuzzy to Irfan, but he knew she was cursing. “Have you been drinking?”
“Yes,” said Irfan happily. “I’m alone, Nalani memsahib. I don’t know where God is.”
“He’s not with you right now, that’s for sure. Wait here,” the woman said shaking her head, and she hurried away.
“Alone. Marooned. Muslim.” The tiled floor was cool to his cheek. He stretched out his arm, tracing the starfish designs on the tiles with his fingers. “Madhu is Hindu. I’m having a baby. It’ll be hapa. Half and half.”
Mrs. Nalani bustled back into the room, dragging a tired-looking Sadiq behind her. The bald man’s eyes grew wide when he saw Irfan on the floor.
“Arey, Sadiq bhai! So good to see you!” Irfan grinned at him, sitting up shakily and outstretching his arms. Then he turned and vomited onto all of the starfish tiles. Mrs. Nalani cussed some more.
It was about midday when Irfan woke up, blinking away dreams of the pretty waitress dancing hula before him as he lay in a hammock, her clothes slowly falling away with each sway of her hips. He was back in his suite. The light streaming in through the windows felt like it was piercing his brain. He smelled of vomit and piss. He sat up in bed and looked at his desk. The photograph of Madhu in the silver frame seemed to be staring at him. He wondered if she knew what he had done.
He struggled out of bed and pulled off his shirt, taking shaky steps towards the bathroom. Before he could get into the shower, the phone suddenly rang, and he groaned, turning and lurching towards it instead.
“Hello?” he said groggily. His voice did not sound like it belonged to him.
“Good, you’re up.” It was Mrs. Nalani. “There is someone named … Magoo here on the other phone for you.”
“Come down quickly, it’s long distance, and I’m not paying for this.” She hung up.
Irfan hurtled out of his suite and down the stairs.
Mrs. Nalani was horrified. “Irfan, you’re not wearing a shirt,” she said. She wrinkled her nose. “And you smell pilau.”
“I am so sorry about last night, Mrs. Nalani. I’ll pay for whatever I broke. Can I speak to my wife?”
“Auê! Your wife?” She looked surprised, and then shook her head. “That poor girl,” she said, handing him the receiver.
Madhu’s voice was bubbling with excitement. “Irfan!”
“Madhu jaan. How are you?”
“I had the baby!”
It was like someone had knocked the breath out of him. “What?! When? Who took you? Are you all right?”
“Maham didi, who else? She’s been so helpful. He came early!”
“The baby, Irfan!”
“It’s a boy!”
“A boy.” Irfan felt a small tug in his chest.
“He’s so perfect and small. I wish you could see him, Irfan. He has your eyes, I think.”
“A boy with my eyes.”
“His name is Sameer. It’s a Muslim and a Hindu name. Do you like it?”
The breeze was gentle as Irfan drove the company Jeep down the back roads Mrs. Nalani had described in her directions. Irfan pulled out the crumpled piece of paper Sadiq had given him earlier from his shirt pocket: Mah-Kauai Mosque. 4-1579 Kuhio Hwy, Suite # 205, Niumalu. He looked at the cake and knife in the passenger’s seat that he had picked up at the Safeway before leaving Lihue. It was frosted with white buttercream, with red hibiscus flowers around the edges. The lady at the bakery had asked him what the occasion was. He said that he wasn’t sure.
He soon pulled up to what appeared to be an old office building. Irfan made his way to the receptionist’s desk, and handed a bored-looking girl with red nails Sadiq’s slip of paper. She nodded and told him to go up to the second floor.
Finding Suite 205, he removed his shoes and gingerly entered a bare-looking room with a few prayer rugs pointing to where he presumed was east. A few sad-eyed, pot-bellied, bearded men sat against the walls, counting their prayers on their fingers and rosaries. Sadiq was among them. He looked up and met Irfan’s eyes.
“Irfan bhai,” Sadiq said, getting up and coming towards him. “How are you?” He gave Irfan a light hug.
“Much, much better. Thank you for taking me to my room last night. I….” Irfan shifted uncomfortably on his feet. “My wife just had a baby. His name is Sameer.”
“Arey! Mubarak, bhai!” Sadiq beamed, clapped him on the back, and hugged him again. “I’m so happy to hear that. May Allah bless and protect the child.”
“Would you help me cut this?” Irfan held out the cake. “I wanted to give it to these brothers.” The men sitting by the walls were now looking curiously up at him. Irfan gave them a small smile.
“Of course,” said Sadiq, taking the cake.
As Sadiq cut and distributed slices of cake to the puzzled men, Irfan walked to a prayer rug in the corner of the room and knelt upon it, pressing his face to the ground. He knew Sadiq was probably watching him.
He had long since forgotten what to say. But as he knelt, he imagined with every fiber of his being that his soul had sprouted wings, and was racing towards Mecca from his little island. It was skipping across oceans and continents; it leapt over Chicago, soared over dusty Mysore, and rose higher and higher until it found its way to whomever was up there watching him, watching his son. And for the first time in so long, Irfan felt whole.
Tahseen Khaleel is a senior at Loyola University Chicago majoring in biology and minoring in biostatistics and English. She enjoys reading and writing about the intersectionality between religion and nationality, as well as the experiences of immigrants in the South Asian diaspora in various forms of media.