Three pieces by Samina Najmi

for Brynn and Nikiko

A mixture of several things – Cambridge Dictionary

To cook, steep, or simmer
To concoct
To conspire
(of tea or coffee): To become stronger in taste in the container in which it is made – Cambridge Dictionary

All those years that I was chasing after them, wiping their noses, reading and singing them to sleep, I was brewing. I was trying to concoct the perfect brew. You’re handed the raw material you have to work with, but brewing is by definition an interaction among those ingredients, the brewer, the cup, and what the brewer pours into the cup.

Take tea, for instance, or the South Asian chai. You have limited control over the quality of the tea leaves; geographic, economic, historical, and sociopolitical forces greater than you have grown, picked, packaged, and transported them. But they await the labor and attentiveness of your one little self. You must make sure the cup has been warmed in anticipation before you drop the leaves into it because the cup is the crucible. And the water you pour over the leaves–has it boiled sufficiently, to the point where its vapors find expression through the kettle’s spout for a solid thirty seconds? Then, too: have water, tea, and cup been allowed their full four minutes of togetherness?

And who are you, Brewer? Do you make this cup of tea for yourself, to keep you company on the patio on a lonely afternoon? Do you make it for the friend who will scatter the loneliness with conversation? Or are you the artist whose focus in this moment is not on yourself at all, but on creating the one perfect cup as though nothing else in the world matters? And in so doing, you’ve poured your dreams and demons into the brew. The Carnation, the cardamom–who are they, but you?

Brewer Mother, what have I learned? That besides the leaves, the cup, the brewer’s hand, there’s the reckoning with Time. All measurement is temporal. The brew evolves, unfurls, blossoms or blights, in time. No ambition may rush it, no yearning slow it down. In brewing, all proportion is temporal. Too little, and there’s no strength, flavor, or aroma. Too much, and the strength alights as bitterness on the tongue. Patience and vigilance, yes. Know your leaves, know your water, know your cup. Know the steadfast gentleness of your own hand. But Time seeps and steeps, infuses everything. Vital and exacting, it concocts the brew. Not you.

Let me know that. And let me savor the cup.

The Sky That Didn’t Fall

The most shocking thing about grief is that the sky doesn’t fall. The unspeakable happens, the news reaches you across two oceans, the world is about to fold in on itself and collapse as you must. You shiver, you shake. But in the end you don’t end. And the sky is still there–serene, expansive, indifferent.

So a life ended, as all lives do. What’s so special about your loss? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. So many people don’t have a father at all. Others have fathers who leave them with little to miss. Some fathers die young, a tragic disruption of the natural order of things. Mine was none of these.

Abbu had just turned eighty-one. That was longer than anyone in his family had lived. His mother died in her thirties, his father in his forties, one brother at fifty-two, another at sixty-eight, two half-sisters in their fifties and sixties, and a much-loved nephew at forty-five. So Abbu had been expecting to die for forty years. And the end, when it came, was at the hands of a familiar opponent, heart disease. There was nothing extraordinary about Abbu’s death.
As reliable in death as he was in life, Abbu left us clues with which to reconstruct his final hour. His alarm was set for 3:57am that morning, for the extra-credit Tahajjud prayer before dawn. Predictable, reliable, in death as in life.

And yet there has been nothing predictable about grieving him these four years. The sorrow balls up in my throat without warning, sometimes without context–while I’m teaching, or while engaged in an assigned, 3-minute conversation with a fellow Summer Arts student. Abbu was about to visit his children and grandchildren in California in two and a half weeks. Instead he died alone, leaving us a list, in his precise and pleasing hand, of items still to pack. Four years later, I have accepted that nothing will bring him back, but the heart mutinies because he deserved better than to die alone, eight thousand miles away from his flesh and blood. This is what remains indigestible, what won’t go down but wells up through the eyes and in the cracked edges of my voice. This, finally, has taught me jealousy. This is what makes the third Sunday in June a day of avoidance, of self-imposed social media blackout, because those images of fathers with still-beating hearts smart the eye and sting the still-grieving heart, and suddenly it’s possible again–and again–for the sky to heave, cleave, come crashing down.

Café Convo

Maya and I resolved to create
more café time
for the two of us
this year.
Busy as we both are, we’re averaging only
once a month so far. But what a special day it is
when your almost-18-year-old,
sipping her latte,
remarks that the conscious choices you made
for her earliest books and toys
were a good idea. Astonishingly,
she remembers
that when you read her stories, you would ask her what
she’d like the gender of the protagonist
to be–and that invariably
she’d superimpose a “she”
where the animals were almost always “he”;
that you’d invite her to retell the fairytales, so that
in her version
Cinderella became a nurse after marrying her prince;
that any dolls she had were made
of different shades of plastic.
She says you always commented
on the “beautiful brown skin”
of the darkest girl in her preschool,
and on her own
“beautiful brown hands.”
You listen,
Because you had forgotten,
because she
Because today
she’s sitting in a café with you,
telling you that
it mattered.

Samina Najmi is professor of English at CSU Fresno. A Hedgebrook alumna, her published personal essays have appeared in World Literature Today, The Rumpus, Entropy, The Massachusetts Review, and many other literary venues. Samina grew up in Karachi and London, and now calls California’s San Joaquin Valley home.

3 responses to “Three pieces by Samina Najmi”

  1. Three pieces by Samina Najmi is a delightful and engrossing read. Simple,lucid yet engaging! Loved reading them.