Stranger in the living room

When my Father The Engineer brought home Abdul The Carpenter for the first time, we said he was loud and dirty. He wouldn’t stop talking, his words tumbling out in the manner of one who couldn’t believe he’d found someone to talk to in his language. The desert sand and dust clung to his clothes and skin, giving him the sort of grey pallor that even scalding showers couldn’t wash off.

Abdul visited us once a week after that. Every Friday, he would catch a bus that brought him from Camp and deposited him in the city. My father would pick him up. He would eat, thanking my mother; sometimes so effusively she felt embarrassed, and later guilty for not cooking a bigger spread. He would then take out the international calling card from his shirt pocket, retreat to the balcony with our cordless phone, and call home. He would give his family his love in installments, small parcels every week. His wife and child waited for his calls, of course, but they were happier on days they received part of his salary. When the card came with few extra minutes, he would ask my parents to speak to his wife. They would convince her he was doing fine, yes, eating well, yes, we shall take care of him.

Abdul spent the rest of his afternoon watching TV with us. He didn’t tell us what he wanted to watch, but he always seemed happier when we switched to Tamil channels. Sometimes, if we had eaten too much, we would take a nap, and he would continue watching TV, eyes half closed, trying to keep himself awake with jerks of his head. He never missed his prayers, and we learnt to look the other way as he retreated to a corner. My father would deposit him at the bus stop after they had their tea, and Abdul would then wait to be ferried back to camp.

Sometimes Abdul would ask me questions, about what I studied, the friends I’d made, learning Arabic in school, if I remembered my family in India. He was generous with his affection, trying to place me in a daughter-shaped hole he possessed. He talked about her often, how he feared she might not remember his face, and how these days she didn’t seem too excited when he called.

“I’ve been away too long,” he whispered.

He constantly worried they would get used to life without him.

I told him I almost forgot my father before we came to Kuwait. He wanted to know why.

“Appa was in Kuwait for a long time,” I said, “before he came to take us.”

“I felt like I was meeting someone new.”

His face resembled crumpled paper then, but I went away to do my homework.

Over weeks and months, Abdul’s presence at home on Fridays became normal. He offered to make us a cot, and we didn’t refuse. He gave us a list and we bought those things for him. He cut and sanded the wood, smoothed it till it shone, made the sharp edges blunt. He said we shouldn’t have to pay him, but my father won the battle of wills, pressing into his hand dinars he wouldn’t spend on himself.

Abdul told us how he met Saar, which is what he called my father. A group of workers had been assigned some tasks where my father worked, and Abdul had observed him all day. Eventually, as the work day threatened to come to an end, he had felt brave enough to go up to this man and ask,


My father had bought him tea and they spoke: about where they were from, and this country they found themselves in, where it seemed like they were needed and not wanted. Abdul’s description of his living quarters, the Camp, was vile enough that my father asked him to come home for lunch, if only to get him to stop talking. Men on top of men, the race to the shower stalls every morning, the queue for dinner: makeshift houses in shifting sands.

One Friday afternoon, Abdul wasn’t seen at the usual spot. My father asked around and we found out he had left. In a great hurry, apparently. He had bribed someone to get his passport back and bought a one-way ticket with his savings.

A month went by, and we received a call. My mother answered.

“Akka!” she heard through the static.

It was Abdul.

Crowd Favourite and Editor’s Pick this week! Thank you for the votes and the thoughtful feedback.

This is what Asha had to say:

This week, in another strong grid, Anusha gets my pick. This was a carefully paced work that allowed the plot to unfold gently, while keeping the reader engaged with rich imagery. The mix of dialogue and exposition helped draw the reader into the lives of the characters, while the child’s POV allowed the reader to excuse a glossing over of less prominent characters. Anusha struck a good balance between curiosity, distrust, and disinterest in her narrator’s voice. This story was also notable for what was not in the text. The interaction between the narrator and Abdul was filled with subtext and emotion, as was Abdul’s sudden, unexplained departure, and the surprise phone call. The ending, because the threads weren’t neatly resolved, allowed the reader to continue the story off the page.

21 thoughts on “Stranger in the living room

  1. Anusha, thank you for sending Abdul back. Your story reminds me of ‘Behold The Dreamers’. I could feel Abdul’s longing, the stab of the little girl’s harmless yet life-changing remark, and the inexplicable way he bonded with the family. Not just the food and the language. But it shows that Abdul wanted that sense of belonging. The joy of being in the company of a family. This is beautiful, Anusha.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love how this story progresses – from the family being skeptical to Abdul’s presence, claiming he was loud and dirty, to him becoming a familiar fixture in their lives.

    A small critique – for me this seems a little unfinished. It’s a small relief at the end to know that Abdul is alive (and hopefully well) after his abrupt departure. But I wish we had more resolution – is he ok? Has he successfully been reunited with his family? Did his daughter remember him?

    I love the section where you depict Abdul trying to become close with the narrator – a daughter surrogate, if you will. Thanks for the engaging read!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love how what seems exotic to me feels very normal in your telling and what was unusual to you at first became part of your normal life. I loved that your father first brought him home to stop his talking. 🙂 I liked the ending. I thought there was just enough reassurance after his abrupt leaving.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was so thoughtfully and carefully crafted. The setting, the scenarios, the conversations, the characters were all authentic, appropriate and believable. I would have liked to see a little more of the narrator’s mother and siblings (I know… word count) just to flesh this out a little more, and I hope you consider expanding this story and sending it away somewhere for publication.

    I especially loved learning about Abdul through the child-narrator’s eyes. You did such a great job of that voice, of finding the balance between curiosity, distrust, and disinterest. This was my favourite line: “His face resembled crumpled paper then, but I went away to do my homework.” It so neatly captures the the way a child notices details, but is quite brutal in their lack of interest.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As usual, Asha’s feedback is tough to follow. 🙂 I too thought the moment between the daughter and Abdul was a highlight. There was so much subtext in that interaction. If anything, I’d love to see another specific moment with Abdul like the one with the daughter. I thought the pacing overall was great, and I thought the ending felt right too.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. He would eat, thanking my mother; sometimes so effusively she felt embarrassed, and later guilty for not cooking a bigger spread. — just beautiful! My favorite, though had wonderful gems of shifting sands and crumpled paper. I like this quiet, reflective piece and that Abdul got to go home and didn’t forget the people who took care of him. Though the setting is very different than I am used to, I never felt lost or like an outsider. Very immersive. My only inquiry would be why the narrator decided to remember Abdul enough to tell the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Anusha, this was beautifully told. My favourite line is: His face resembled crumpled paper then,… Also, the part about Abdul sending love in installments and his family waiting for the salary.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The story of Abdul is very similar to many Abduls who arrive in Singapore to make a living and send home love and money in instalments. Construction workers are often the focal point of many short fiction narratives in Singapore but in most cases they tend to go overboard with melodrama. I like that you’ve written this with a lot of restraint.
    A couple of good Singaporean works revolving around people like Abdul:
    A lovely short story focusing on the aftermath of a construction worker’s death in Singapore
    A Singaporean film that went to Cannes this year and has an Abdul-like protagonist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the restraint partly comes from the fact that I chose for it to be narrated from a child’s point of view, which helped me in not going overboard with the theatrics. I should develop this story and characters some more to make it more rounded…
      Thanks for those links! Will get on them soon.


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