It was happenstance, of course. Lady L and her old adversary Reza Shah fell in the same year. He from his throne, she from her bicycle. A broken limb meant that, given the battle of succession that followed, she never did reclaim her role as High Priestess of Persian in our department.
Lady Jane would have been more appropriate a title: she was born into the minor nobility but had never married, and would not have been addressed as Lady Lambert. In the hallowed halls of Middle Eastern Studies she was known as The Professor. Reputed to be a martinet, or, at her less than benign best, an academic Mary Poppins. She was tall, thin and hollow-cheeked; she scraped back her steel-wire hair into a little bun. She wore masculine tweed jackets over severely-tailored skirts. But she had a soft accent when she spoke Persian, and sometimes she wore an agate brooch coquettishly pinned above a breast.
Marco, my Italian classmate who’d dubbed her Lady L, would tell me I was her ‘fiore all’occhiello’, because I usually got my verbs right and elicited her approval. Marco was a bit of a lad: spry and bespectacled, he looked weedily serious at first glance until you saw the wry grin on his thin lips. He loved good films, the theatre, food, lots of sex (he said), smoking dope and (very occasionally) getting drunk on beer, red wine or grappa. Sometimes, on a Sunday, he attended Mass at Brompton Oratory. He'd travelled all over Asia in his teens, worked in Catholic convents and Buddhist monasteries, and had joined University a year before me: he was studying Urdu and History, and had taken Persian as a minor in his second year. He'd wanted to leave Italy because, he said, classes there went so slowly that it was difficult to finish your studies before you were thirty. One advantage of being with Marco was that we spoke either Italian or Urdu to each other and didn't need English at all, which gave us a special kind of intimacy.
There was a rumour in the corridor, repeated to me, as usual, by Marco, that once Lady L had loved an Iranian, to whom she'd almost certainly been secretly married; he was almost certainly of lesser breed than she was. She'd left him, chosen never to go back to Iran (or Persia, as she called it), but kept her faith with the foreign land she knew in her youth by teaching verbs, clauses and nouns to one generation after another in the language she might have learned for her lover who knew no English. And he - how knows? - he may have given her the agate, which was the kind of stone people often wore, set in rings and lockets, with prayers in Arabic letters carved into its deep orange.
I thought my moment of disgrace had come when Lady L summoned me to her office one afternoon after class. What had I done wrong? My knees trembled, my shoulders quaked.
‘Mr Malik,’ she said, ‘are you a sporting man?’
(So I’d been accused of gambling? But wait.)
‘I mean, do you play cricket, football, tennis’…
‘I was merely asking in case you wanted Wednesday afternoons off in order to play.’
(She made some reference to my being young, energetic, and in need of constant exercise. But if I could ever get away early from classes, I’d rush to an office a mile’s walk away to file papers for a small sum that kept me in Jacques Brel LPs, cigarettes, paperbacks and cinema tickets for the month: I didn’t have a student grant. Although the time off to work would actually have helped, my studies, too, were important that first year. I was twenty-three, had dropped out of another degree to fulfill an ambition to study Persian, and I wasn't going to take risks.)
‘I wouldn’t want to miss a class.’
‘Oh, good man. But if someday you’d like a game of badminton, I play on Thursdays.’
I didn’t play badminton, and, as a consequence, perhaps I fell from grace.
Or perhaps I never did lose her favour in the few months - was it even six? - I spent under her tutelage. I don’t remember. Life has a way of taking over from memory. I recall the hours spent over verbs and tenses and subjunctives, and the fall of the Shah, and the hanging of Bhutto, and the gentle middle-aged Persian native who took me over from Lady L when she went on protracted sick leave. Marco laughed at me (he dropped Persian in his third year to switch to Hindi) - ‘Trust you to choose to study Persian, Mehran, just as Iran’s star is falling and the stock of Arabic rises.' And Thatcher won the elections at some point. I remember thinking that after Pakistan had let me down by letting Bhutto be hanged and ogre-faced Zia come in with his henchmen, Iran, which seemed to offer me some sort of alternative, was now becoming some kind of dictatorship too. I remember breaking up with Tina the Venetian, my fashion buyer girlfriend who spent more time in Venice and Milan than in London and was too absent a partner for a twenty-four year old; hanging around University bars with Marco and others, and going to midweek socials in the evenings in the idle hope of meeting someone new; rushing between work and classes when I took on more of the former and attended fewer of the latter; and often spending Saturdays alone at the cinema, a concert, or with a record or a book.
And I recall, in the first year of a new decade, sitting my finals in Persian, doing quite well, and leaving it behind as an academic subject for ever. Lady L had come back by then, her hair cropped close, but now she was a shadowy figure among the library shelves, and it was too late for me to learn any more from her.
As for me, I abandoned the rhetorical delights of the book of Persian grammar for the joys of my mother tongue, which I'd only discovered in my early twenties. It was so easy. In my first two years at University, Urdu was in a way my default subject, and I’d only had to attend one seminar a week in which a student deconstructed an Urdu poem; in my second year, we discussed classic lyrics, Wali and Quli and Sauda and Ghalib, for two hours on a Tuesday. My spelling was atrocious, but I discovered a gift I’d never suspected I had for unravelling elaborate similes and undoing the multiple knots of a metaphor. Much of the time, I just had to pick up xeroxed copies of Urdu texts like Bagh-o-bahar (The Tale of Four Dervishes), read them alone without supervision, and deliver a scribbled exegesis, report, or translation now and then.
In the third year, we read long romantic poems by Mir and Shauq and Anis's laments for the martyrs of Karbala, all eloquently expressed in the simplest words. If there was any excess at all it was not of verbiage but of emotion, which didn’t disturb me: it reminded me of a more intense and somehow purified version of the sentiments in the film songs on the radio I'd grown up listening to and still hummed. I didn’t have to think much, or prepare much; just prise open the text so it would reveal its mysteries, or read the words out loud and let the poems talk to me, their rhythms sing in my ears. Now I realised that the rolling cadences of Keats and Tennyson had always been a music as distant to me as the assonances of Mir or Ghalib or Faiz were close. Once, in class, Marco was reading out the lines 'dekh lo aaj ham ko ji bar ke/koi aata nahin hai phir mar ke' from 'Zehr-i-Ishq', the mid-nineteenth century set text we were looking at, and listening to his voice which sounded like the leafy afternoon outside I could just hear the silk-wrapped arpeggios of Tahira Syed who'd recently recorded a musical arrangement of that section of the poem echo in my head. Suddenly our lecturer - an Englishman, as they all were in South Asian Studies - guffawed: 'Oh, like so much Urdu literature this is at the level of Victorian penny dreadfuls.' And I, who'd never even heard of Edward Said or his emerging theories, exploded: 'But that sort of comparison is facile! I don't see why you're making it.'
'Zehri-Ishq' or 'The Poison of Love' was the story of two youths who fell in love at first sight and had an affair in a society which secluded its women and didn't allow romance. Its heroine spent a long, long time dying. Why couldn't the hero, I'd ask myself, simply have asked his parents to bring her to their home as his bride? Even in my childhood I'd heard accounts of unfortunate love affairs that had ended in family reconciliations. But her death-throes gave the language one of its most stirring romantic ballads.
I must have been disappointed, even shocked, on hearing that Lady L wouldn’t be teaching me again. But I soon adjusted to the newer, gentler rhythm of poring over texts, without companions or classmates, in the company of my new teachers. Now there were close readings and discussions of poems by Iqbal or Faiz. I’m sure, when I look back now, that learning Persian had helped me to navigate the maze of my own language, but I can’t remember studying Persian poetry at all, with Lady L or any of my other teachers. Rumi I’d read with my mother as a teenager; Hafez I would strugggle with later, on my own. What the joys of Persian literature contributed to making me the dreamer I was becoming I can’t say. Persian studies for me meant the subtle disciplines of word order and subjunctives and parsing, and then of translation, which - I was too often reprimanded by my sandy new teacher, an Englishman who didn't quite seem to know what he was doing with the Persian canon - I practiced too freely or too literally. Or hunching over the homiletic verses of Sa’adi, or Qabus’s advice to his son in which all manner of conduct from letter-writing to personal hygiene was strictly codified.
But if Persian taught me the discipline of grammar and translation, and Urdu the joy of lyricism, I was also acquiring new vocabularies of emotion.
I’d met Riccarda - another Italian - in my Persian class. She had cat eyes and a tigress’s body and her allure crept up on you like a feline’s, too. Like Marco, she spoke to me in Italian. We’d study together some evenings at her kitchen table with another classmate; sometimes we'd go to watch Persian films with titles like 'The Bicycle' and 'The Cow'. Then she left University to take photographs in Turkey and India. With her departure and Marco’s defection I was left entirely alone in the Persian class, and didn’t really have friends in Urdu or History (except, again, Marco, whom I always seemed to be helping with vocabulary, syntax and pronunciation) .
I don’t know when it was, precisely, but in one of those post-adolescent moments of crisis that men in their twenties go through, I turned to Riccarda instead of Marco for advice and knew she’d always been there for me, even while we conjugated Persian verbs together. (She didn't like Marco; she found his Roman accent grating, his tastes philistine, and couldn't understand why he was doing South Asian Studies.) I must have known her about a year, then. I posed for her camera in the park. The photographs she took of me in the summer of '80 show a youth more rough and rugged than I imagined myself to be. 'How happy we look,' she said about a photograph a passerby (incidentally, a PhD student who'd taught us basic Arabic broken plurals in Lady L's absence) had taken of us against the sunlit backdrop of the Serpentine.
But all too often she wasn’t there. And again it was Marco's presence that filled my narrow room; his surprisingly deep voice intoning planned trajectories, dreams, activities, always navigating the future, while my map was scaled very small. Occasionally he'd fall asleep with his head against the wall and I'd pull him, grunting, down to my carpeted floor, cover him with a quilt or a sheet and let him sleep on till it was time for him to rise, make coffee and heat up whatever he could find - pasta, lentils, rice, cold meats - then shower (or not) before leaving for classes. Once I woke from a deep sleep to find him recumbent next to me, fully clothed, on my narrow bed, snoring softly with his head on my shoulder. I didn't move, but at some point he rose and, half-asleep, I watched him rise, stretch, look around him, strip down to his briefs and lie down on the floor again. ('You drop me when she beckons,' he complained. I'd try to take them out together, but they'd argue about everything - the pronunciation of the word 'cotolette', the architectural merit of the Hayward Gallery, the films of the Tavianis or Wajda. Then he'd find an excuse to turn on me and say: 'You're only an anglophone, all your knowledge of Urdu poetry comes from listening to recordings of ghazals by pop stars and pretty female singers - it's the music and the easy lyricism you love, not the underlying metaphysics.')
When Riccarda was here she'd take me on a tour of my own city to discover a London I hadn’t charted at all. My first taste of sushi and raw fish in a wooden bar in Covent Garden. Sian Phillips singing in 'Pal Joey' in the West End, Bob Hoskins in 'Guys and Dolls' at the National. Pasolini’s 'Medea' at the art house cinema in Brunswick Square. The Impressionists at the Tate, the Contemporary Dance Theatre at the Place in Euston. (I’ve forgotten to say that Riccarda was, I think, forty-seven when we met. She’d been a singer and a dancer once, and though she’d been caged in glamorous seclusion by her Austrian husband in a Ligurian town by the sea for years, her yearning to spread her wings had never left her.)
On my twenty-fifth birthday, I told her over candles and champagne that I'd fallen in love with her, had loved her for a long time without even knowing that I did. (I have a photograph of that evening; she's dressed in a blue outfit, a long, clinging shirt over narrow trousers, she'd bought in India; her blue eyes smile at the camera, while I grin into my glass.)
A narrative of love, Riccarda’s and mine, that was to remain unfinished. I won’t attempt to give it closure here.
My university days came to an end as the new decade and my travels began. The year I graduated I spent a summer fortnight in Rome with Marco, then travelled with him to his parent's house in the country near a lake. I had a few very happy days alone with Riccarda back in Rome. Later that year I went to India and wandered round a country I hadn’t seen for a decade. During that trip, when I met him in Delhi where he was living in a hostel for local students and spending a lot of time listening to music at Sufi shrines, I fell out with Marco - over our differing attitudes to India or to the rich, or over his disapproval of my relationship with Riccarda, I've forgotten exactly why. I just remember anger (his), coldness (mine), hurt.
I returned unwillingly to London and I told Riccarda we’d only be friends from now on as I had a life to live that didn’t include a secretive love. She had a son of seventeen and a husband from whom she was emotionally separated, but for the son's sake they were still a couple. Either, or both, of the males in her life could turn up, or demand her presence, at any time, except when she was hiding away in the pied a terre she'd inherited from her mother in Rome.
And I had plans. I wanted to travel, to write essays or poems, to live in an Asian country, to make a film, perhaps. Then, I thought, I'd like to settle down and have a child, or adopt one, while I was still young. It was that no man's tract between late summer and autumn and we walked up and down on the bridge over the Thames after a showing of La Femme de Boulanger. I talked and then fell silent. 'Talk to me, tell me,' she said, and I responded: 'But I thought I had.' (For a few months, she was silent; two years later, she left to live in Rome.)
But life didn’t work out the way I’d planned. I didn’t go back to my university to complete my PhD, though in my early thirties I began to work there, in the extramural division of languages, teaching Urdu to foreign students. From time to time I'd be reminded I belonged to the enchanted confraternity of the Students of Lady L; I'd smile, and never say I'd only studied with her for a few months and away from our class her interest lay in the economic demography of Qajar Iran, not in prosody. My knowledge of Persian poetry was self-acquired. Legend was turning Lady L into a Hafez-quoting mystic:but there were other stories too, about how she'd been a spy of some sort and the brains behind the fall of Mossadegh in '53. It's easy enough, though, to live with a legend. I wasn't being deceitful when I didn't correct such impressions. I think I'd just forgotten how short my time with her had been, and just how much - or little - she'd taught me. I'd forgotten a lot.
Someone else came into my life when I was thirty-two. I was invited to a birthday party by an old friend and it happened to be at Nina’s house. (Tina, then Nina! But it's true. And there were a few others in between. One had been important, a long engagement, which had been interrupted by, and survived another sudden, unwritten passion.) Nina was an unusual Pakistani; tall and quite dark-skinned, with light brown eyes and cropped black hair, and the body language of a European in the very short black dress she had on. She'd come to London as a teenager. She was an economist; a migrant from Karachi like me, she was four years younger. The mother of two but unhappily married, I found out. Living in London meant living away from her husband.
We spent evening after evening listening to music, singing, drinking wine and talking. Sometimes I would be filled with yearning when I felt the sense of belonging she clung to by going back, every year and sometimes more often, to Karachi, to Lahore, to the small feudal town in Sind where she'd spent childhood summers with her grandparents. She'd struggled with her family as a teenager when she'd run away from a Hampshire college with a vagabond actor, but when she'd married and then gone back to complete her studies at LSE she'd laid fresh claim to her father's love. 'I spend my life longing for the place I'm not in but when I go back I never fit,' she lamented; I knew what she meant, though I'd been back to India just twice and never returned to the place of my birth. I preferred to wonder outwards: home, if there was any longer such a place, was where I was with the people who loved me. And that, at the time I met Nina, was Rome, where Riccarda was.
I'd only known Nina a month when, during a to Riccarda at summer's end, I heard she'd had an accident on a skiing holiday in Austria. She was semi-paralysed, and she had to abandon a promising academic career. My other relationship ended, the long engagement which had become friendly make-believe when Samar left for Harvard on a fellowship, but I didn't, and don't, connect its end directly with Nina.
For the next four years, I watched Nina undo herself with cocktails of painkillers (she injected herself with pethidine) and vodka. And though I tried to help, I wasn’t strong enough; by being with her I felt I was undoing myself, too. Yet when I tried to escape her I'd feel drained and empty and it would take me days to refill myself. But more often I'd succumb to her calls and go back because I was too tired for anything, anyone else. Except Riccarda, who was my refuge during those years, in which, for a while, I could pretend to forget Nina.
Riccarda had had a sudden, rapacious cancer five years after moving back to Italy, but was in remission. Ironically, it had been diagnosed just after her son found a job in a prestigious New York law firm, and she'd finally left the mysterious husband for ever. The first time I spoke to her on the phone after her operation she was under sedation and said: 'Ti voglio molto bene, amore.' Later, she didn't remember the call, or what she'd said. I travelled to meet her in Rome, and she came to London too. Disease had made her thin but also incandescent. She looked so beautiful people would stop and stare at her in the street and children wanted to touch her.
Nina and I had almost ceased to touch each other by then but from time time she'd still reach out to me for warmth. I'd hold her thin body with its fragile bones in my arms for hours, or kiss her skin all over, until my own body would rebel against the constraints of hers and then she'd cry and say she knew I had to go elsewhere for the pleasure that she could no longer give me, and one day I'd leave for a saner, stronger woman. And at other times she'd say I was obsessed with Riccarda's cancer, it was separating me from my friends and those who loved me: 'I know I'm crazy. But you're a fucking ghost.' At thirty-six, I did feel ghostly, as if I'd died in some other era. I'd become used to being unfulfilled, and even if I did find myself in other beds it didn't matter, I was still Nina's and still alone.
But things had also changed in the world, some for the better: Benazir Bhutto had come into power and even the disappointments that dogged her supporters during her first term didn't succeed in vanquishing hopes for a new era in Pakistan. In response, I'd started reading contemporary Urdu writing, and my interest had turned to that. I wanted to teach it and translate it and write about it, at least for the next ten years. I spent hours in the University library, searching out unread, uncut fiction and poems freshly arrived from Pakistan. In the early evenings I'd sometimes meet a colleague for a drink in the Senior Common Room or a bar nearby, and wouldn't go back to the empty flat I'd moved into till 10 or 11.
Marco suddenly rung me up after eight or nine years of absence to say he was attending a conference on Iqbal and the Concept of the Self at SOAS and wanted to come and stay. I didn't think he'd changed much, but something about his air made me try to understand why people had once called him plain and now called him handsome. His spare frame had filled out, he wore contact lenses, and his longish hair was streaked with grey; his once-edgy manner was expansive and tactile. He dressed baggy, elegant clothes and had travelled to places- the Seychelles, Bali, Kenya - that seemed to have little to do with the academic pursuits to which he was still dedicated. He'd moved to Venice, married a Tamilian he'd once introduced me to in Rome where she was living with a musician friend of his; they'd had a daughter, but seemed to be involved in a rather acrimonious battle. 'I live like a hermit now,' he said. 'No money, no home, and half a job. How are you?' But still he had a city he'd lived in all his life, faces he'd known since his childhood around him, places - lakes, beaches, cemeteries, streets - he went back to for solace, a native language he inhabited and that lived in him. 'Well,' I said, 'you know, quite well, all said and done. Work's steady, that helps.' I was like a phantom on the streets I'd known for twenty years. From time to time I'd be possessed with a longing for something I'd never known, that would turn me restless at times and at others listless; some nights my blankets weighed heavy on my skin and when I laid my head down on a pillow it felt like a stone resting on a stone. I could tell Nina about it all, and she understood though it hurt her and she used it against me in her rages, but I couldn't tell Marco these things.
In the three days he spent with me Marco acted as if we'd never been apart for eight years, but instead of regaining my trust he had some sort of drunken interlude with Nina. During one of his tipsy late-night calls after he went back in Rome I told him I'd walked out on her in anger some months after his visit - not because she or I had found someone else, but because of her drugs and her drinking, because she'd lied to me once too often, because it was all dead. He told me he had something to confess. 'About Nina and me.' 'She told me all that,' I said; I was willing to forget, but he was obviously embarrassed and wanted to put things right.
I heard his version about a year later, in the EUR flat he'd borrowed from his parents with whom, until recently, he'd been living in Frascati after his marriage fell apart. He sat there as the night wore out, drinking wine and smoking Marlboros, shirtless and in shorts, his eyes threaded with red, his large hands with their short fingers resting palm-upwards on his bare knees, and he told me, in a hot torrent of broken phrases, how Nina had sat beside him and kissed him on the mouth, in her sitting room one evening when I'd left him alone with my key and with her, kissed him and touched him till he was on fire, and when I came back slightly earlier than expected from the evening class I taught he'd heard the bell ring and pushed her away, hard, so she'd tripped and twisted her wrist. He was helping her up when I'd come in and they said she'd fallen. 'She told me you were the one who made the overtures,' I said. 'But it hardly matters.' I knew the games she played to make me feel something but I'd ceased to care.
As we talked, I must have told him something about my new routines -'reading around in search of textual satisfaction', I used to say - thinking he'd be pleased I'd found a direction. But really I wanted to talk about Riccarda: about the trip I'd taken with her the winter before, in a car we'd hired, to San Francesco's tomb in Assisi, where I'd lit a candle for her and prayed by that Catholic shrine that she'd live a few years longer, though I was lazily mystic rather than religious and a Muslim, not a Catholic.
(It was the last time I'd seen Riccarda. One April morning, four months after that pilgrimage, our friend Lilla had phoned at dawn to tell me: 'Be strong. She's dead.' I'd been wondering why Riccarda hadn't called on my birthday a few days before, as she always did. She would have been sixty-one in May. She lived like a warrior, someone said: she didn't give up fighting, even at the end. Neither Lilla nor I had gone to her funeral. I'd spent some weeks in silence. And then Lilla had called again. 'Come over to Rome. Take the next flight you can get. We need to grieve a little together.' I'd hesitated. She'd said: 'I'll drive you to Assisi. She'd like that.' I booked a flight and flew out two days later. When I reached Rome, I'd called Marco - on impulse, or from a sense of duty to the past, I don't remember why - and he'd driven over immediately to pick me up. 'I'm sorry. I don't really know what to say. I know how much she meant to you.' Somewhere, I thought, he held a part of the young man I'd been who'd fallen so briefly in love, and a memory of the woman I'd loved then, though he'd never liked her.)
I may have been quiet, or seemed uncaring, as Marco spilled out his stories about Nina over red wine, because when I tried to tell him about my conversation with Riccarda he began to shout. 'You're the coldest and most narcissistic man I've ever known. And you're dull and lazy. You haven't even written a book or made a film or done anything else with your life. I'm disappointed in you . You used to be fun, Mehran. You've lost all sense of poetry and your love of it: you're teaching foreigners the dullest details of your language to turn them into spies. You can never have a real relationship, you aren't capable of that, you've been attached for years to the apron strings of a sick woman who summoned you to entertain her when she was bored and always took advantage of you, and now you're obsessed with her ghost. Very convenient. And what you've played at all these years with Nina, who is also a walking - or should I say limping - disaster, is a vicarious, virtual game. I'm not shocked that she walked out on you; even her betrayals were only attempts to bring down your walls of ice.'
'You're paralytic.' I got up to leave, feeling unsteady myself. (I'd always hated red wine.) He didn't offer to drive me back, which was as well because he'd been drinking so much and smoking hashish, too. I should have been drunk as well, but only felt cold in the mild night weather and my eyes were stinging from lack of sleep. I took a couple of buses to get back to Lilla's place in Trastevere at dawn. We were leaving early for Assisi.
I wished I'd reminded Marco that I was the one who'd walked out on Nina in cold anger; that even when she'd given me an ultimatum I had never turned back. Marco seemed to be discontent; along with the Tantric philosophy he'd been endlessly researching, he was studying psychosynthesis or some such arcane discipline that was shadowing the oddest angles of his life, including the fragile corner that was our friendship. I hadn't really wanted to see him; I was too preoccupied with Riccarda's death.
'What's with that man?' Lilla asked on the road from Rome to Assisi. Years before, they'd had a long argument, over plates of gnocchi and glasses of white wine at Riccarda's table, about the architectural politics of the South Bank and the Hayward Gallery where Lilla was exhibiting her sculptures. He'd called it a concrete rabbit hutch, the living prison of culture; at one point, I'd thought she was going to throw her glass of wine in his face. Then she'd seen him the night before when he came to pick me up from the cafe at the corner near her flat. 'He seems tormented. So much anger. And envy. Or jealousy. Something left unsaid between you? He looked so...confrontational.'
Guilt, I thought on the slow drive out of Rome, often makes the guilty offend the innocent.
He'd been so close to me that Roman summer ten years before that I'd been able to let my joy in my passion for Riccarda spill over into our friendship, and reliving that joy in words, or in his silent company, had nearly doubled the pleasure of my yearning. He'd taken me to Como and Bracciano and Frascati and we'd talked and talked and sometimes we hadn't; we'd climbed hills, and played games in ancient Etruscan cemeteries or in the Ostian sea. Then, at some uncertain moment, we'd let it all slip away, the companionship and the conversations and the unvoiced tenderness. Or maybe I had. At some point restlessness had become my real companion, closer to me than anyone I'd ever known.
I remembered how we'd struggled once, on a hot Roman evening by the river bank in the shadow of Sant'Angelo, to translate those words of Shauq that ended 'The Poison of Love':
'Ishq men hamne ye kamaai ki
dil diya gham se aashnai ki'
I'd come up with something like this: 'For love's labour, this is what I earned/My heart I traded/and the craft of grief I learned'. And Marco had laughed and said, 'But all it means is this: ''Questi sono i miei guadagni dell'amor/Ho dato il cuore e conosciuto il dolor. So much easier in Italian!'' It really was much closer to the bareness and musicality of the original.
Driving in the pale sunshine past Umbrian fields on that trip to Assisi, I told Lilla, as I'd tried to tell Marco the night before, how I'd recounted, on another drive, in another season, another chapter of my story and Nina's to Riccarda, and I must have shuddered then because Riccarda had said: ‘Don’t do that. Have you ever thought that in some way you might have hurt her - might still be hurting her - as badly as you feel she hurt you? Let go, Mehran, let go.’
Three years after Riccarda died I visited Karachi for the first time in twenty-seven years. Somehow I wasn't surprised when Nina rang me from the café below the apartment block I was visiting in Zamzama, as if it hadn’t been nearly seven years since we'd parted. We talked all day until she dropped me off, too late for dinner, at the Defence house of the aunt I was staying with. She’d almost given up drinking but was still depending on painkillers to see her through everything.
She moved back to a flat across the road from me in London that autumn. I was over forty, taught long hours at the University (I'd been appointed a lecturer) and spent a lot of time alone, reading or listening to music, and most winters I'd travel away from the sting of winter, to India or Bangladesh or Java, because I could afford to now. But often in the evenings I would walk over to Nina's place and, sitting shoulder to shoulder holding hands with all attraction spent, we'd listen to the songs of Noor Jehan or sing or recite verses we remembered by heart; sometimes we'd read to each other from books of poems we'd brought back from Pakistan, that jagged free verse our contemporaries were writing and I'd learnt to understand. She'd say she liked their work, but it was the old masters she loved best. Not even Faiz could make her thrill like Ghalib, or Daagh, or Meer. But then we discovered Parveen Shakir: I'd dismissed her for years as a lyricist who could only write about the malady of love, but when she died in a freak automobile accident the obituaries forced me to look at her work again. Thought it was the discipline of her syntax and the almost Persian grace of her complex vocabulary that drew me to her verses, I could hear something in her voice - a yearning, vulnerable intimacy, born of our time and our generation - that spoke to Nina. (And there were verses that could have been about our relationship .'We ought to have met/in a kinder age/in the hope of a dream/in another sky/or another land.') We planned for a while to translate her into English. But it was Parveen's broken marriage, her life as a single mother, and most of all her early death Nina was obsessed by. 'She'd done so much at that young age. She didn't reach her forty-second birthday. Look at me, I've done nothing yet, and I'm not even going to live to see forty.'
At thirty-eight, Nina was shrunken and skeletal, her eyes huge and leaf-brown in her little wax-lantern skull. 'I look like Morticia Adams,' she'd groan when she caught casual sight of herself in a mirror. She was almost always in a wheelchair: if she took too many steps without a stick, she'd fall. The rumour was that during the years she lived in Karachi she was taking heroin. She'd come back to London to escape from the habit into the relative ease of prescription drugs. I'd learnt not to ask more than she told me. But she'd been a part of me I'd torn out long ago, a part I'd never understood, or even admitted to losing, and now that I had ceased to feel the pain of amputation I could care for her from a distance.
At imes she'd kiss the tips of my fingers and tell me that if she did live on a year or two I'd have to stay with her, and other times she'd turn her head and say we never would have made it, she and I, even if she had been well. 'We met too late. Or too early'. (In another sky.Or another land.)
One summer evening she said: ‘I’ve become a liar: I lie all the time to doctors to get my painkillers. I make my children lie. I feel like a thief. If it weren’t for my kids I’d just jump out of the window. I can’t live like this any more’.
On the last evening of '98, she rang to ask what I was doing: she was on her way to dinner at a friend's. 'I've got bronchitis,' I said. 'I'm in my dressing gown. I've cancelled an outing. These years that come and go don't seem to matter much, any more.' 'Well, maybe see you...tomorrow, then?' I settled down with a book of wonder tales in Urdu and switched the TV on to a cable channel that was playing mellow jazz. At 9, the doorbell rang, and there she was, wrapped up in a great beige cape in a wheelchair pushed by her Javanese carer. Her eyes were lined with kohl, her lips blood-red; her face, nestling in a hood, had some of its prior glamour. She'd brought me two brown paper bags full of my favourite Persian food, grilled lamb and buttery rice and yoghurt with dill and hot bread fresh from the oven, and she sat and watched me eat before she went off in her wheelchair to see the old year out with her friends. 'I'm moving to Brighton this month,' she said at the door. 'I'm happiest by the sea. It takes me back to Karachi.' I left the curtains undrawn and watched fireworks light up the London sky.
A few days before her birthday in April, she rang me up to invite me to celebrate with her in Brighton. When, a day or so before the party, her cousin rang to say: 'Come over immediately, she’s been run over, she's in and out of a coma, she asked for you this morning.' I thought she was joking, but it was true: she’d kept her word, about not living to see forty. A hit-and-run truck-driver had smashed into the car her cousin was driving. The drivers survived, she didn't.
Among the cassettes I'd left with her when we parted years before was Tahira's recording of the lover's lament from 'Zehr-i-Ishq':
Dekh lo aaj ham ko ji bhar ke
koi aata nahin hai phir mar ke
khatm hoti hai zindagani aaj
khaak men milti hai javani aaj
chup raho kyun abas bhi rote ho
muft kahe ko jaan khote ho
samjho is shab ko shab baraat ki raat
ham hain mehmaan tumhare raat ki raat
chain dil ko na aayega tujh bin
ab ke bicchre milenge hashr ke din...'
Nina died six years to the month (and almost to the day) after Riccarda. Two days before the fortieth birthday she'd always said she wouldn't live to see. I saw her face one, final time, almost free of pain, at the mosque in Whitechapel where we read funeral prayers before they flew her coffin to Sind, to bury her in the cemetery by the shrine where her ancestors lay.
Nina, Riccarda. My night-guests, my dream-visitors who died at dawn, interred in the twentieth century.
I left for my first trip ever to New York a day or two after Nina's funeral.
Lady L, on the other hand, lived to be ninety-six. I came upon the notice of her death by accident last winter, when my sister was trying to remember the name of an aristocratic bounder who had murdered his nanny. 'Wasn't he Lady L's nephew?' 'It's Langdon you mean,' I said. 'Her nephew was Lambert, the Tory politician.' I looked her up on the web and discovered she'd been dead a few months, since the summer of 2008.When she retired she'd returned to the Northern town where she was born, and had a late flowering as a fire-breathing Evangelist in the local parish church. The obituaries confirmed the rumours about her activities in the world of espionage and political skullduggery. But unlike the shock of some many death notices - when you discover someone you once knew or cared for as been gone a while without your knowing - the only surprise this time was her late-blooming religious mission, and that she'd lasted so long. I'd thought she'd been dead many years.
We are born, we die, and sometimes, for a while, we do something in between. Sometimes we live as though we were dead, or we die while we're living. Most often, though, our lives are just afterthoughts, bookends, epilogues.
I’m in Rome again, for a conference and a book launch. It’s April. I haven’t been back since Riccarda’s funeral sixteen years ago. I’m having dinner in that Trastevere flat I I first visited twenty-nine years ago with Riccarda; Lilla and her long-time companion Flavio have invited me over with a group of his academic colleagues.
Of all of us, Lilla has possibly traversed time best. Her once-spare body is imposing now, her long blonde hair a grey rain-cloud. She has her grandchild, her garden, the wounded animals that come to her for shelter. At sixty-nine, she only carves in driftwood; she says time's too short for working with stone. She lives in the country and only comes to Rome for moments of what she calls digression. But she writes poetry, too, and translates verses from the east: Kabir, Meera, Roopmati. (Years ago, she guided Riccarda into Lady L's classes, though I never really understood why.)
Lilla, I reflect, lives life like a continuous prelude.
An archaelogist friend of hers is talking about a man called Marco, who spends six months of the year leading workshops on spiritual self-development in Delhi, where he lives in a flat beside Humayun’s tomb, and the other six in an Umbrian farm, from which he emerges occasionally to teach a seminar at some Institute in Rome. He's apparently had a succession of partners, and a couple of children with different mothers.
(Yes, it’s him.)
‘I told him to join us tonight, said he'd be here, rang to say he was on has way, but hasn’t showed up. Your name seemed to register with him, though. Do you know him? He was in London - oh, years ago, says he studied with Professor Lambert too, graduated around the same time…'
‘Only vaguely. We weren't in the same year.’
(Apparently he’s made a lot of successful documentaries about Sufi shrines all over the world, and is now translating Rumi into Italian; he's seen as something of a Sufi philosopher in certain circles, not a convert to Islam, but an advocate of Schuon and Burckhardt and their theories of the essential oneness of all faith and of eternal knowledge. He must, at some point, have resurrected his Persian. Or, knowing him, acquired a willing apprentice to do the hard work for him. I wonder whether he ever forgave me for whatever it was that made him so angry with me, though I've long forgotten exactly what it was.)
The after-dinner conversation turns to metaphysical poetry, to the relative merit of the Indian and the Persian mystics, and Lilla, whose new translation of The Poison of Love I've introduced and am here to launch, says: ‘Ask Mehran, he studied Persian Classics with Lady L. He must be something of an expert on Rumi and Hafez.’
‘Lady L? She only taught us grammar and translation.' I pause, pour myself some water, light a cigarette. 'We learnt the austerity of Persian's rules, not the glory of its excesses.’