Small Father

"People of Chilmark" (Figure composition), by Thomas Hart Benton, 1920

Content Warning: This piece of literary nonfiction includes racial slurs.


The Thanksgiving I’m sixteen, Dad lets me drive the Infiniti SUV the whole way to Tampa. Among our relatives, we have the most space at our house, in Pembroke Pines, a palm-tree-lined suburb bursting with new homes outside Miami. But we’re headed to the Gulf Coast, because that’s where my Nanu Chacha—who passes, we joke, as Dad’s more American twin—owns a gas station. The gas station he’s chained to, it feels sometimes.

Outside, behind the melaleuca trees on Alligator Alley, wet sawgrass shimmers in the sun. Melaleucas are a foreign species, I was once taught, brought in a century back to drain the swamp. Now they’re so pervasive, so established, you would never believe they didn’t grow here naturally.

It’s 1998, the year of the CD-burner. Technological change, gigahertz and cell phones and modem speeds, one thing after another. It’s personal change, too, I’ve been seeking, especially since age twelve, when I realized my windowpane glasses weren’t helping me fit in. I’ve since taken to contacts, and avoiding at all costs the Indian foible of pronouncing v as we. Wery well, thank you. Branded clothes feel important now, too, as do huge jeans, big sneakers. With these changes, I managed for the first time to catch the eyes of a few girls at camp—Muslim camp—resulting in an innocent, long-distance girlfriend—more intense highs and more surprising lows than anything I’d ever known—and then breakup, all of it almost entirely over AOL IM.

More change feels set in motion, too. The tide of progress, or something like it. Our new house. The new SUV. College applications coming up in a year. My grades are strong, my ambition high, but I don’t yet know where those will get me. I’m not the smartest kid at school but I know how to work—if I have to, I’ll spend an entire night making sense of a single calculus integral. The question though is what to work toward. Fitting in? Feeling American? Winning at sports? Grades? Or what Dad harps about, perfect attendance at family gatherings. “You don’t know, beta,” he’ll say. “You don’t know in future if you will have chance to be together with whole family.”

The asphalt skimming by, I turn down my mix—hip hop downloaded bit by bit—Canibus dropping all kinds of fucks and niggas, too fast for Dad to register, but stirring up my guilt. These days, though Dad will waste a half hour finding the cheapest gas, he’ll hardly say “No” when I ask for a tech toy. Show the computer, beta—show the American Online, he’ll say, on Nanu Chacha’s short visits, visits made more special at the novelty, never getting old, that two brothers can look so much alike, despite a 17-year difference in age. The same pattern of baldness, the same belly, the same thick hands, and thinking, shadowy eyes. What’s different, and what I focus on, is that years back, my father came to this country at 37, while my Chacha came a year later, at 21, an age that feels to me better suited to understand my American world. On his visits to Pembroke Pines, Chacha—literally Small Father—will join me at the computer while the modem shrieks its fax noises, and simply in praise of my being able to log onto the internet—something presumably out of reach, at that point, to him and my father—he’ll lay his dream-like smirk on me, like nostalgia, already, for the moment at hand, a look of pride between us, not unlike his warmth when we joke about the Knicks and the Heat, teams Dad knows nothing about, or when Chacha celebrates, laughing about how much I’ve grown, that I’ll likely grow to be taller than either of them. Chacha’s pride will crescendo when You’ve got mail rings out, and his face will brighten—as earnest a fascination as I know—like a warm reminder that, being the oldest Americanized son of the family, I hold some special responsibility.

Riding in back are my mother, my sisters—Laila and Almas—and my grandmother Ba. Behind them, the turkeys in the trunk are covered with foil, but the spicy smell of stuffing pulls at my hunger. Crispy on the crust, moist, nutty, with dhana giro baked in, Mom’s stuffing is like a cross between her juicy lamb kababs and perfectly golden cornbread. At eight years old, I was there beside her at Publix the night she first asked a woman in the poultry department for help. That woman and another then explained, patiently, respectfully, how to clean and stuff a turkey, how to prepare the gravy. Mom, wearing her reading glasses from the clinic, carefully jotted notes on the back of an envelope. She had landed in this country, with my sisters and me in tow, two years after Dad; in India she had never roasted any sort of bird, never had an oven at her disposal, but after years of us coming home in Florida with construction paper pilgrim hats, while the whole supermarket transformed for the holiday, she decided to give it a try.

There was the first turkey, I remember, shiny and golden, but still frozen at the center. That was the year we first invited family, and the rows of us, more than fifteen cousins, sleeping in the living room—or not sleeping, playing Mario 3 half the night. Another year, someone brought an electric carving set. Dad and Chacha went in to drill. Shredded meat and hunks of cartilage soon piled up on a platter. We still serve it that way, on trays, not the golden bird carved at the table, like on TV. We manage to avoid the cartilage now; we set out one aluminum tray for dark meat, one for light. Forty people wrap around the buffet. All the kids sit on bed sheets lain on the carpet, our Styrofoam plates drowning in spicy gravy, all of us talking about the basketball I’ll convene, as I always do, later on. In these small ways, our own takes on what we see in the culture around us, Thanksgiving has become our holiday, bigger than Eid and Kushali, Muslim holidays that never earn days off from school. It’s become our Christmas, which, despite the discounted shopping, we don’t feel comfortable celebrating.

At Thanksgiving, though, what’s come to feel more important than turkey is basketball, sparked equally by Nanu Chacha and myself, especially these adolescent years while I’ve become what Dad calls, with a bit of distaste, more Americanized. Before turkey, or after, or the next day, or all of the above, we find a hoop and bring the entire family to join, playing games as large as seven-on-seven sometimes. My shy cousin Asif, a year younger than me, and I laugh while we each lead a team. Uncles and adult cousins and kids, my sisters and girl cousins included, do their best without knowing the rules, without having grown up around the game, some traveling, some drop-kicking the ball as if it were rugby. Asif and I go back and forth trying to correct, teaching our family the rules, but also laughing, almost to tears. Everyone else laughs, too, when Nanu Chacha—his belly a little bigger than Dad’s—backs up toward the basket, kids falling behind him, like a pickup truck reversing over plastic cones. “HOOOK SHOT,” he belts when he shoots the ball over his shoulder. His shots often sail over the basket entirely, but while they hang in the air they hold our attention, his mouth curling, too, into a wishful smile. Seeing Chacha’s smile, the way he’s so able to enjoy the moment at hand—his contagious grin a fixture in my memory, of birthday parties, of family picnics at Clearwater beach, of simply sitting next to him, signing into AOL—I’ll wish, too, that his hook shot would go in. Hitching up his shorts—he’s the only uncle who wears baggy jeans shorts, like me—Chacha, make or miss, will say, in his own sweet brand of grammar: “I’m like the Patrick Ewing. You gotta give me up the hoook shot.”


Inside Chacha’s Spur gas station, grittier than the Shell across the street, but cheaper, the office is a converted storage closet. Small crates of merchandise line the walls: two-liter Cokes, Ramen Noodles, cases of beer. There is just enough room at the center for a desk. Once, I asked Dad why Chacha didn’t own a Chevron, or Amoco, or something with a brand. “Because big company loots you, beta,” Dad said.

“Ya Ali Madad,” Nanu Chacha greets me from across his desk. He’s penciling numbers into a ledger book, an accounting calculator beside it, the white ribbon spilling to the floor. A single bulb hangs low over Chacha, and in that light, in his small reading glasses, he looks to me somehow out of character. But when he takes the glasses off, I finally see his mischievous smile.

“Be well, be happy,” he says in Gujarati, as I bow for blessings. “May God make you number one basketballer, and may you become millionaire,” he finishes, mostly in English.

“Ameen,” I say.

While Dad and the others help Ba out of the car, Nanu Chacha takes me by the shoulders, walking me up the chip aisle. “Wo ho!” he laughs, squeezing my bicep. He looks over my Air Jordan t-shirt, baggy jeans shorts, size 12 Nikes with the laces loose—all products of my newfound confidence. “Kya, height!” Chacha says, beaming at me, realizing that now, indeed, at sixteen, I’m a few inches taller than him.

Keeping one arm around me, Chacha says, “You gotta, uh, tell me up the truth, Hafeez.” His smirk changes to one of poking fun. “How many, uh, girlfriends you got em? You can tell the Chacha, you know?”

He’s joking, I’m aware, but I sense an earnestness, too. A fatherly compliment. As if he’d be surprised if I wasn’t garnering some attention. I only look at the linoleum, though, because I’m not used to talking about girls with Dad, who’s so much older than Chacha. But I feel an urge, too, to tell Chacha about Kulsum, the girl with the wild eyes I approached at an Eid picnic not long back. She wears a perfume I find intoxicating. I’ve been meeting up with her down the street from her house, so her father won’t see us. From there we drive to Hollywood Beach and make out until the car smells like sex and roses.

“No, no girlfriends Chacha,” I say, suppressing my urge. I don’t tell him about Kulsum, but I know his offer means something. An ear that I appreciate.

Chacha leads me past the coolers packed with beers. He doesn’t drink, nor do Mom and Dad, but Chacha would have no business if he didn’t sell alcohol. “You like em the Coke?” he asks.

“No, no Chacha, no, no,” I say, remembering the warnings from Dad when we were kids—Don’t take anything from Chacha’s store—after I’d run through the candy isle a few times, thinking everything was free.

“You like em the Sunkist?”

“No no, Chacha, really.”

“Oh yes, I know you like em this,” he says, opening a cooler door. He pulls out a Grape Fanta, what I loved to pick out at eight years old, back at his store in Queens.

“One minute, huh,” Chacha says then, rubbing my back.

“How you doin, boss?” I hear him say from behind the register, in something like a Southern twang for customers. His employee needs some help; he’s busy at the Lotto machine, Jackpot $103 Million scrolling across the screen. Through the merchandise, I can hardly make out Chacha, the counter crowded with newspapers, lighters, Tampa Bay Bucs flags, porno mags on the overhead rack, an ad of a pretty brunette smoking a Kool cigarette. Sipping my Grape Fanta, witnessing Chacha in action, though, I’m reminded of that winter I was eight, when Dad sent us to visit Chacha in New York. “How you doin brotha?” he said to a scruffy man one night outside his store. The man smelled like urine. He was drinking from a paper bag but Chacha still shook his hand. He cupped palms with him, gave him a chest bump, pulled his hand back with a skillful snap. The man was a regular, I could tell.

Another night, after closing, Chacha drove Laila, Almas and me to the Empire State Building. It was too late to go up, but it was still awe-inspiring to stick our heads out the car window, in the icy wind, to try to see the top.

Afterwards, through the rearview, Chacha asked me, “You want em the Nathans, right? I think they got em the 24-hour Nathan’s, you know?”

I nodded, in disbelief that he remembered. I’d seen a commercial—The Original New York Hot Dog—and asked if he’d take us. In the back of the car, though, eight years old, I was in awe, too, that Chacha seemed to approve of so American a food; Dad would have dismissed Nathans as junk food. So after midnight, my sisters falling asleep, I leaned forward from the back and admired Chacha as he wrestled with the wheel. I listened carefully when he shouted in Hindi to cab drivers for directions. It felt like I was watching a different version of my father, one that was more like me, one that was quicker to laugh. But soon a long time passed, and Chacha found a Nathan’s but it was closed, and another, that was also closed, and I began to grow sleepy. After a while Laila woke up and pinched my arm, and I had no choice but to say, “Chacha—we don’t need to find Nathan’s.”

“Don’t worry, I got em right here,” Chacha just said, his face still intent and optimistic. It was sometime after three then when I heard some tapping on the glass, and Chacha calling for me. There outside his old Camry, he held two hot dogs smothered in ketchup, one for each of us, with a sleepy smile swept wide across his face.

For a moment I couldn’t think of what to say. “Th—thank you,” I managed in the cold.

This made him blush. “Ey,” Chacha said, his face turning to serious. “You don’t gotta say the thank you to Chacha, you know?”

Kya Habeeb Bhai!” Chacha says now, as Dad walks into the store. They’ve helped Ba get out of the car; my sister is helping her walk over. “Isku kya gym karare?” Chacha signals to me. You’re really working him at the gym, huh?

In a button-down tucked tight over his stomach, a pen with a pharmaceutical brand clipped to his pocket, Dad smiles awkwardly. Maybe because Nanu Chacha is the brother who knows more about sports.

By late afternoon, cars are lined up outside Nanu Chacha’s house, a three-bedroom rental. Inside, it’s still all women and kids, hardly any men.

“Where’s Rahil Bhai?” I ask my cousin-brother’s wife. Rahil Bhai once lived with us, and it’s a shame he’s not here for basketball. “Where’s Shahid Bhai?” We used to idolize Shahid Bhai at the carrom board back in Hyderabad; he’s since made it to Tampa with his wife and three small kids. Standing with the wives then, I nod, because it’s understood that they’re working—at other people’s stores, trying to save for their own. “The American people are buying plenty of beer on Thanksgiving,” Naaz Bhabi explains.

Out on the driveway, Asif and I start shooting around. Home from the store—something I don’t yet realize is a sacrifice—Nanu Chacha joins us, having changed into his Patrick Ewing jersey. As six of us gather to play, I notice the hoop is a little low, a little crooked, maybe because my cousin Ali is only nine, maybe because the screws are loose. “Chacha, look,” I say, and I jump up and grab the rim. My cousins gawk at my big shoes, my vertical, and Chacha smiles, too, flashing for one second his far-away grin of relishing the moment. “Oh yes, you can jump em up,” he laughs. “But do you got the hoook shot?” The teams are: Asif, who’s my height, taller, as Chacha noted, than our dads now, Asif’s dad, an anesthesiologist, the only other dad who doesn’t own a store, and Asif’s little brother, versus me, Nanu Chacha, and little Ali. Asif checks the ball, and it turns out his little brother’s worked on his shot; he shoots and drains it twice. When I get the ball, I drive to the hole, once successfully, and then again, but it isn’t easy because Asif is pretty quick. Then Nanu Chacha calls, “Here, here, Patrick Ewing, Patrick Ewing.” In the spirit of Thanksgiving I pass, though I want to win, and I hear “HOOOK SHOT” and the ball flies over the basket. And then HOOOK SHOT the next time. Then HOOOK SHOT again. Soon I’m tripping over cousins trying to get through the lane, and in the interest of scoring I’ve stopped passing, which I don’t like but that’s what feels necessary in order to win. Then, as Asif dribbles in front of me, his team a point from winning, two teenagers walk up. “Hey, can we get in next?” they ask. “Yeah,” I say, craving a real game, just as Asif steps back and shoots, and I trip over somebody, and Asif wins.

“Fuck,” I say, though I know I shouldn’t curse around my cousins. “Motherfucker.” Seeing my frustration, Nanu Chacha comes over and puts an arm around me. He’s trying to calm me down, but his belly is heaving, his breath short. The crown of his head is beaded with sweat. “It’s okay, beta,” he huffs. “We got the Patrick Ewing. We gonna get em next game, you know?”

I look then to Asif, who’s already shooting with the neighbor kids. They look like me—bald fades, Air Jordan t-shirts, loose mesh shorts. They look like they have some game. And I think then about how many times I’d tripped over a nine-year-old earlier. I think about how these family basketball games—some Indian cousin of the sport of basketball—are beginning to feel frustrating, how I just want to play hard and compete and not worry about hoook shots flying into the grass.

“Um, Chacha,” I say. “Do you, uh, think, maybe we could play two-on-two this game?”

“You want it just the me and you?”

“No, I mean… me and Asif… versus these guys. They’re like, you know—waiting.”

Waiting. As the word, and what it suggests, leaves my lips I watch every line on Nanu Chacha’s face turn downward. If I looked hard enough into Chacha’s eyes then, low, far away already, below his brow always raised for a laugh, I would see that something disappeared at that moment, something that will never return. Time freezes that way—my watching Chacha, Chacha watching his shadow—before he turns silently and makes his way back to the house, his Patrick Ewing jersey sagging from his shoulders.

“Chacha, wait—”  I say. It’s only then I feel the regret. Like a punch in the stomach.

Please, Chacha.” I run, pull at his arm. “Actually, I want you to play. Really. We need the hook shot. We need the Patrick Ewing.”

But he can hardly look at me. “No. You don’t need no hook shot,” he says. “Play. Enjoy, beta. Chachi needs it my help inside.”  He avoids my eyes as if they might hurt him—and all I want then is for his playful smile to return. I want to imagine his far away grin, as if we were simply waiting in anticipation while the modem screeched its fax noises—so fond of how far we’d come. I want nothing more than to go back. To take my words back.

With Chacha returned to the house, the sad two-on-two is forced to begin, the challenge I thought I was looking for. The game unfolds at full speed now, slashes and hard cuts and spin moves in the post, so much contact, so competitive that I don’t notice until I see his taillights that Chacha walked out of the house, got in his car, and left to go back to the store.



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