I've been slowly making my way through Cutting for Stone during this busy summer. One section in particular left me awestruck. "Our slippers" is a term that has made its way into our family vernacular.
It was a tale well known to children all over Africa: Abu Kassem, a miserly Baghdad merchant, had held onto his battered, much repaired pair of slippers even though they were objects of derision. At last, even he couldn't stomach the sight of them. But his every attempt to get rid of his slippers ended in disaster: . . . when he dropped them in the canal, the slippers choked off the main drain and caused flooding, and off Abu Kassem went to jail...
"One night when Tawfiq finished, another prisoner, a quiet dignified old man, said, 'Abu Kassem might as well build a special room for his slippers. Why try to lose them? He'll never escape.' The old man laughed, and he seemed happy when he said that. That night the old man died in his sleep.
"The next night, out of respect for the old man, we lay in silence. No story. I could hear men crying in the dark. This was always the low point for me. Ah, boys...I'd pretend you both were against me, just like this, and I would imagine Hema's face before me.
"The following night, we couldn't wait to talk about Abu Kassem. We all saw it the same way. The old man was right. The slippers in the story mean that everything you see and do and touch, very seed you sow, or don't sow, becomes part of your destiny...I met Hema in the septic ward at Government General Hospital in India, in Madras, and that brought me to this continent. Because of that, I got the biggest gift of my life--to be a father to you two. Because of that, I operated on General Mebratu, who became my friend. Because he was my friend, I went to prison. Because I was a doctor, I helped to save him, and they let me out. Because I saved him, they could hang him...You see what I'm saying?"
I didn't, but he spoke with such passion I wasn't about to stop him.
"I never knew my father, and so I thought he was irrelevant to me. My sister felt his absence so strongly that it made her sour, and so no matter what she has, or will ever have, it won't be enough." He sighed. "I made up for his absence by hoarding knowledge, skills, seeking praise. What I finally understood in Kerchele is that neither my sister nor I realized that my father's absence is our slippers. In order to start to get rid of your slippers, you have to admit they are yours, and if you do, then they will get rid of themselves."
All these years and I hadn't known this about Ghosh, about his father dying when he was young. He was like us, fatherless, but at least we had him. Perhaps he'd been worse off than we were.
Ghosh sighed. "I hope one day you see this as clearly as I did in Kerchele. The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don't. If you keep saying your slippers aren't yours, then you'll die searching, you'll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only your actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny."