(I shared this somewhere else when it happened, but recent events have me thinking about it again.)
Sultan’s ears perked up to hear the mosque’s announcement. I usually ignore them because, in a slum of close to 10,000 people, the messages rarely concern my own circle. But I stopped and listened because Sultan wasn’t going to continue reading until the announcement was over.
“Ali the tailor…something something….lives near the recycling area…something something…prayers will be in Daliganj…..”
Ali? Ali is one of my best friends in the basti! Internally I started to freak out and asked Sultan what he had just heard.
“Ali, the tailor who lives near the recycling area…”
“Yes, yes, I know Ali, he’s my friend.”
I pick up the books and tell Sultan that the lesson is over. I rush across the basti. In the five minutes it takes for me to get from one side to the other, I pray over and over, “Let me be confused….let it be some other Ali….let there be some confusion about the message.” I think of his wife, his three sons, about the various difficulties they’ve been having. Could it have been a car accident? Could he have done something to himself?
When I got in view of Ali’s home, I saw the red chairs sitting outside, the sure sign of a death in the home. (Such chairs are always set outside the home for the visiting guests that precede any funeral.) But seconds later I catch sight of Ali sitting on his steps. He did not look good, but he was alive. My heart moved back down out of my throat and I prayed a cautious prayer of thanks that my worst fear hadn’t been realized. I asked him what was going on.
“My father…you know his health was not good.”
I can see the body lying inside. Ali, who had just lost his beloved aunt a month ago, had now lost his father as well.
There’s a conversation that has been stuck in my head a long time. A friend of mine who lived in the slum alongside us expressed the vulnerable realization that all of her friends were widows. Though this friend had a few years on me, she was not yet 50, and many of her friends were even younger. Yet the trials that befall the poor here had taken each of her friends’ husbands. It is difficult to be a widow in India, and to be a poor widow is especially difficult. These women in my friends’ life had a tough time of things.
With Ali’s father’s death, I realize that the mothers of all my friends are in the same boat. Danish, my language helper, lost his father when he was 10 years old and became the man of the house at that point. Salman, my closest friend in the basti and now the primary teacher who works under me, lost his father at the age of 20 while we were living with them. Hakeem, my best friend among my neighbors in the room we lived in for three years, lost his father when he was about 13. Ali, the first friend I made in the basti, is older than all of them were, only a couple years younger than me. That does not make it an easy thing for him, either. Now all four of my closest friends in the basti have experienced the loss of their father.
Ali at least had time to grow into being his own man by the time his father passed. What kind of effect does it have when you lose a father when you’re still half-grown? Many of the boys had already seen their fathers go through years of illness or inability to be fully present in their lives even before they died. They generally had to start working at young ages, support their family in numerous ways, worry about their marriages without a father to help work them out.
What difference does it make in a community when it’s not only you who is without a father, but many of your friends and neighbors as well?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. In what feels like a different world, my master’s thesis was on the life experiences of students who were achieving far below their academic potential. It wasn’t a very good paper, and I hesitate to draw anything from it at all. But in spending time in the lives of these boys, the thing that struck me the most was that every single one of them had either lost their father or had him absent for significant portions of their childhood. And that absence had a profound and negative effect upon their lives.
I don’t know for sure exactly how all the early deaths of fathers are affecting my community. But all my friends’ moms are widows.