It’s funny the people who come in and out of your life. This random thought, plus my latest bout of nostalgia for the place I grew up, combined to dig up the story of Robert from deep in my memories.
First, I need to set the tone. My hometown where I grew up is Bahawalpur, currently in the top 10 of Pakistan’s largest cities. But back then, it was a sleepy sort of place. The city has been built on land snatched from the desert, which regularly reminded us of its original claim with spectacular sandstorms. It was hot and dusty, and foreign visitors were few.
There wasn’t that much to see there anyway. So when Robert (not his real name), turned up at our door, I just assumed he must be a relative from my mother’s side of the family. My mother is Indian and her family is scattered all over the globe. Apart from my grandmother who visited every two years from the UK, and an actual Aunt Flo who visited once from India, we had very few foreign visitors in our house.
I’m not going to tell you the story of the two hippie backpackers which my parents put up in our house after the girl took too much of something and ended up at the hospital where my father worked, because I don’t remember this incident. Apparently she just slept for three days, so there isn’t that much to tell. More amazing than the story is the fact that once upon a time in your living memory, Pakistan was part of the hippie trail.
Back to Robert. Robert was American, which was horribly exciting to me and my sisters. As far as we knew, there was only one American in all of Bahawalpur and he was staying at our house. Did he know President Bush? Did he know Michael Jackson? He was American! He must! We told everyone, and invited our friends around to witness this phenomenon.
Growing up in Pakistan, we were used to a culture where adults made a big deal of children. Sadly for us, Robert had absolutely no interest in talking to us or answering our stupid questions about America. He generally tended to just put up with us rather than indulging us. No cheeks were pinched, no sweets were lavished. He had no postcards or pictures or magnets or stories of his hometown to share with us.
One day, we bought a coconut with its entire husk still on. Hours of fun ensued while the adults tried everything to get the husk off (pro tip: next time just let the guy with the machete do it). Robert was finally triumphant, using the little hammer from my DIY kit which had mini versions of actual working tools, including a saw which I tried and failed to saw the garden’s eucalyptus tree down with. He placed the narrow end on the coconut and used a full-sized hammer to bash my little hammer. Sparks flew, and finally the coconut was open.
We waited patiently to be offered some rather than jump in on the coconut, and we watched as the white and brown crescents disappeared one by one into Robert. He didn’t offer us any. “I don’t think he likes children very much.” was my only thought.
The next day, Robert had a very bad stomach. Wherever he came from, it was obvious that they didn’t have coconuts there.
Then Robert went away for a day, and when he came back, he was grumpier than normal, and my mum made her delicious salt and pepper lamb, pressure cooked until tender which was her specialty for foreign visitors with delicate stomachs, of which we were not allowed to have any. We were instructed not to pester him, which was fair enough because his obvious discomfort with our company meant that we’d lost interest in him anyway.
And then he was gone. So who was he? “A friend” my parents would say. And why did he come to Bahawalpur of all places? “For an operation.” In the context of our young ages, that was all we could get out of them at the time.
It wasn’t until I was old enough to understand when I remembered Robert and asked my parents again what that was all about, seeing as he’d never come back to visit. My mother stifled her giggles.
Gentlemen, cross your legs.
It turned out that Robert was a very devout Christian, and I’d hazard a guess that he was also suffering from a serious mental issue, who said he had received a vision from Jesus saying that he should have his family jewels removed because they were unclean. Having failed to convince any doctors in the US to carry out the surgery, he’d managed to locate one willing to perform it in Pakistan. And that’s how he ended in and out of our lives again.
When I first heard this, I roared with laughter. Of course, with time and maturity I feel sorry for Robert, who obviously suffered from deep-seated problems he’d not been able to resolve except for handing over a wad of dollars to get what he had convinced himself was the cure.
My mother told me that years later, Robert called them out of the blue while we were still living in Pakistan. He’d had another vision. This time Jesus had told him that he should marry and have children with a pretty cousin of mine who had happened to visit while he was with us.
My mother said “I told him ‘I didn’t think that was going to be possible, Robert. For one thing, she’s got married since then. And, you know…'” She didn’t bother to colour in the details of what the other, very obvious thing was.
Poor Robert. I do wonder where he is today, how his life went after he left us, and what he remembers from his visit. Perhaps he thinks of us now and then, like he came to my mind randomly two days ago. Perhaps he hung up the phone that day and Jesus told him never to talk to us again. Who knows.