Ever since Hu and Javed and I started making music together, I’ve been trying to tease apart whether Noor’s sense of humor is obligatory-host-dad, ingratiated-Midwestern-sarcastic, or something else entirely. It can’t possibly be Pakistani, can it? Late yesterday afternoon he greeted me with a stonefaced stare:
“You are not welcome here.”
He didn’t crack a smile.
Does he not know?
Until Sunday night, Rafta1 hadn’t rehearsed at Javed’s parents’ house in nearly four months; Hu spent all of February getting married in Gujarat—three full-day ceremonies, each limited to “only two hundred people” on account of India’s public health crisis. Hu drummed regularly and professionally in India, but he’s relatively new to the Twin Cities—he’s studying and working here as an engineer—and he’s voracious for opportunities to perform here. So, since meeting in August, Hu and I have enjoyed an easy friendship with an unspoken quid pro quo: I’m versatile on keyboards, sure, but, more importantly for him, I’ve been instilled in this music community for a long time. That means good gigs. Going the other direction, my delight in jamming with a tabla player is obvious—how many of those are you going to find in Minnesota? —and I’m always pestering Hu with questions about his family in India. On some level, I’m sure he knows my investment in our relationship, beyond the music, comes from an eager grasping at my own roots.
After most Rafta rehearsals, we disperse: Javed retires upstairs while I don my shoes and jacket in the foyer, and, at Javed’s parents’ tireless plying, Hu hangs around the kitchen, nibbling roti or waffles and debating cricket players with Noor or recounting Bollywood actors with Javed’s mother, Shahida. Hu is basically their found family member, presumably through some network of aunties. Noor proudly describes Hu as their son.
Just after 7 p.m. Sunday, anxious to extricate myself from the Khan house and make the most of an April evening alone, I was irritated to find Noor blockading my exit at the top of the stairs. He insisted I join their family and Hu for dinner — “unless you have a life-or-death emergency.” Lingering in the doorway, piano slung over my shoulder, I couldn’t suppress a sheepish smile: South Asian hospitality is irrefusable, imperious in its earnestness, and the Minnesotan in me was afraid it would be rude to decline. Reluctantly, I nodded.
“One half-hour,” he promised. “That’s all it will be.”
I set the keyboard down. I’ve spent enough time at the Khan house, and I know from my own limited travels with my mom’s relatives, that family time in the East does not run like this.
“We ordered tons of pizza,” Noor told me as he shepherded me from the foyer toward their kitchen table. “We’ve been fasting all day,” he explained, “and the sun is going down in fifteen minutes.”
Ah—it’s late April. In a moment I understood, and my impatience to leave disappeared.
Javed ambled down the stairs.
“You’ve been in awfully high spirits for someone who hasn’t eaten all day,” I said.
Javed never fails to ooze an even-keeled, que-será-será pragmatism. (I can’t relate.) “If I get cranky, it will make someone else cranky, too. Then the whole house will be cranky.” He shrugged. “It’s a domino effect.”
While the sun set, we gathered around the Khan kitchen table, flush with three or four boxes of pizza, a large white dish of Shahida’s homemade broth, a mobile four-spice platter—peppers, sriracha, soy, and something I didn’t recognize—a skyline of seasoning canisters, and, just before me, a fully loaded blender.
“Mango lassi.” Noor gestured for me to dispense my share of viscous coral into a tiny Dixie cup.
I was astounded. “This is one of my favorite things,” I blurted. “In the world.” To my own surprise, I felt a pinprick of a tear form behind each eye. An overwhelming phantom limb: Nostalgia for something I’d never quite experienced.
I began to pour, immediately overdoing it. The lassi spilled over the sides of the paper vessel and onto the table. Mortified, I scrambled to right the Cuisinart.
“Shit,” I hissed under my breath.
Suddenly endowed with preternatural hearing, Noor shifted back into sarcastic Midwestern-dad mode. “Yes, it is shit.”
“No, I—” I felt helpless, self-conscious, too flustered to explain, as I looked for something to rectify the mess. “It’s just—this is special. I’ve had mango lassi a million times, but I’ve never had it homemade.”
Noor smiled and shrugged, precipitously warm again. He handed me a roll of paper towels. “Sometimes… people get excited.”
* * *
Having chanced on sundown dining in the Middle Eastern restaurants gracing long stretches of Central Ave during Ramadan, and from friends’ firsthand reporting of the street carts of New York, I expected the Khans to descend on the pizza and soup and spices before us with a rush and ravenousness I can only associate with my own testiness after just a few hours’ hungry waiting. But once the sun had set, almost everyone at the table plucked away, unhurried, at the broth and Domino’s chicken side dish with a distinct calm. (Shahida had ordered and prepared vegetarian dishes for Hu.) Traditional Midwestern diffidence—any passive-aggressive “you go first” —would be anathema. This was a family relaxing and celebrating together.
While we ate, Noor pointed to the clock in the living room, which is laden with quirky math equations—“102.1-100.1,” for instance, in place of an Arabic or Roman two o’clock. He told us there were three total mistakes on its face, enjoining us in a parlor game to identify each and call them out.
The equation in place of nine included 𝛑 somewhere, I noticed.
“That’s probably roundable to nine,” I guessed, “but it wouldn’t be exact. Right?”
Noor confirmed. Hu quickly caught the other two errors.
“Are you a mathematician by trade?” I asked Noor.
Javed began to slip into my-dad-is-embarrassing reticence while Shahida informed me Noor holds a Ph.D. and works as an engineer. Spurred by my enthusiasm, Noor went to his study and returned with a small, neatly bound blue notebook.
After taking a full minute to scrub pizza grease from my hands, I opened the booklet. Noor Khan, University of Kentucky, the introduction boasted. 1993. It was his dissertation.
Noor frowned at my long investment in the first page. “You don’t have to read every word. You won’t understand most of it anyway.”
He was right: The document was made up of electrical engineering terminology and equations so obtuse I could barely pretend to decipher the title.
“In the early 90s,” he said, “my English was not so good.”
“Your jokes are all in English, and they work,” I said, earning the table’s unanimous laugh. “Plus, in here, you write English better than I do.”2
I imagined aloud how cool it must be to possess the physical book of one’s dissertation. Noor shrugged. He explained he had lost the original years ago and had had to write the University of Kentucky to acquire the copy on the table. He said this process is difficult to undertake without citizenship.
“You were here on a student visa?” I asked.
Noor dismissed the topic with a physical push, suddenly done with the conversation.
“What difference does it make, Dad?” Javed grumbled. “Student visa, work visa.”
“America is very bad to immigrants,” Noor said sharply. Then: “This society is a circle of people holding hands.” He stretched his arms outward at austere angles to demonstrate, fists clenched as if locked onto forearms. “And everyone is dancing. And in order to join this society, we have to break in.” He locked both his eyes with mine. “Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, I do know what you mean,” I said, defensively. Based on my light skin and total paucity of accent, I’m not certain Noor knows: My mom is full-blooded Indian—a first-generation immigrant born in New Delhi. My grandparents speak in vibrant Hinglish when we’re around, and their English, while replete with a hundred-dollar vocabulary, comes in thick accents. Immigrant values played the major role in my upbringing. And my grandfather holds a Ph.D., too. The U.S. wouldn’t have let him in without one.
All my mixed or Asian friends and exes have put it together without much thought: My relentlessly spiky black hair, my thick brows, my sharp-sloping nose, apparently all speak for themselves. (“Oh,” they’ll shrug if the topic arises. “Yeah, I just knew.”) So maybe Noor did, too. Plus, I’d dropped a few hints at my roots by then in hopes of ingratiating myself within the Khan home. Often, though, men Noor’s age need to hear something four or five times before the message gets across.
“This country has been especially unkind to Native Indians,” he continued. “Indigenous people. Everyone in this country” —he gestured broadly around the table— “is an immigrant. This was their country before.”
Shahida corrected him quietly. “Native Americans.”
“Indians, indigenous people,” said Javed, staring into his lap. “Whatever you want to call it.”
“Have you seen Dances with Wolves?” Noor asked. Somehow no one else at the table had. He urged us to watch it, then tried to recall the name of the male lead.
The whole family loves this game.
“Tom Cruise,” Javed ventured, but that wasn’t it. Relieved at the diversion, we all took turns calling out late 80s and early 90s American actors.
Once we’d agreed on Kevin Costner, Noor reclaimed the helm, sticking with American movies: “May the Force be with you is a brilliant expression of God in everything.”
I smiled. “My dad always says that.”
Noor didn’t hear me. “Allah is with you,” he said, eyes up, palms outstretched. “Hindu deities. The eternal. The divine being. The Almighty.” He looked around, pleased with his explanation. “God.”
Javed nodded. “Tom Cruise.”
* * *
After dinner, Noor took me into his study and checked his email while I stood next to him, enjoying a small thrill of pleasure at three or four lengthy surnames—heavy with V’s and S’s and N’s and K’s and D’s—on a 3M engineering project. A third laptop, positioned between two others and facing into the room, he said, “is where I watch cricket.”
“D’you watch cricket every day?”
“Every day.” Noor grew up playing street cricket and was quite competitive in his time, he told me. He trekked to the garage and back to show me his cricket bat, whose inscription proudly proclaims,
“MADE IN PAKISTAN.”
Javed says you can get cricket equipment at Indian grocery stores in Minnesota, but the material here isn’t very well-made. Noor had brought the bat to the U.S. on one of his return trips.
Then we all gathered in the living room so the family could show me Willow, a streaming service that only broadcasts cricket games and highlights. It’s one of the top bookmarks on the Khan television. Willow owes its name to the wood most commonly used in cricket bats, and its logo features cricket’s iconic leather ball in place of the “o.”
Together we watched T20, the short-form version of cricket devised by Indian networks in the 2000s to make the game more globally accessible and entertaining than the historic “test match” format. Test matches are very British, famously lengthy, and easy to mock for their formality. The test-match iteration was the norm before India, Pakistan, the West Indies, Australia, and New Zealand all figured out how to beat their colonizers at their own game.
Javed can’t stand T20; he prefers the old method.
Noor says he taught both his sons to play cricket in their driveway in Eagan. He justifies their training this way: “If they ever go back to Pakistan, or to India, or any other former colonies” —and here I felt that prick behind my eyes again— “they will not be strangers.”
He’s having me over on Saturday to teach me.
1 Hu’s proposal for a band name, quickly ratified for booking purposes. Rafta approximates to “gradual change or development over time” in both Hindi and Urdu.
2 For many first-generation immigrants, this is actually true: More than once per hangout, Hu outpaces the precision of typical written American English communication in his speaking. This dinner’s flawless preposition placement included, among other instances, “the Bollywood actor about whom we were talking.”
Zaq Baker is a half-Indian songwriter, pianist, singer, multimedia artist, and keyboard player living in Minneapolis, MN. He holds a BA in English Literature from St. Olaf College. Zaq’s story-driven catalogue can be streamed on all major channels and includes albums This Time It’s Personal (2022), Maddie’s Delivery Service (2021), Cardio (2020), Getting Younger (2018), and Housewarming (2017), as well as standalone singles “Ojos,” “Molly’s Song (The Woes of Marketing for an American National Dairy Farming Subsidiary Best Known for Exporting Milk Products, e.g., Cream, Cottage Cheese, Yogurt and Other Novelties),” “Cavemen,” and “Never Getting Older.” Music videos for Zaq’s singles “Spearmint” and “I Wanna Be Your Night Owl” can be found on YouTube. Zaq is extremely active on Instagram @zaqbaker.