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Singing Bollywood on the veranda: Girl remembers her father as he was before COVID




Editor’s Note: Salman Wasti was an immigrant. A teacher. A cook. A collector of objects. A lover of plants. A homebody.

Born in Karachi, Pakistan in 1944, Wasti grew up in Lahore. In his early twenties, he got a full scholarship to the University of Hawaii. Eventually, he moved to New England, after accepting a position as professor of biology at Rhode Island College. He worked there for 37 years.

Wastis’ signature look was his bald head (he thought it made him look like Ben Kingsley). Her house was filled with books and tropical plants that she collected and worked to propagate on her veranda. He could do the New York Times crosswords faster than most.

Nina had been his wife for almost 40 years. Nadia and Noreen were his two daughters. He instilled in them an appreciation of Pakistan, which he called his ancestral home, and its rich and complex food – tahari, haleem, nihari.

Salman died on December 27, 2020, after a month-long battle with COVID-19 in hospital. He was 76, healthy and eagerly awaiting his coronavirus vaccine. (He was weeks away from eligibility when he died.)

Nearly 500,000 Americans have died during the coronavirus pandemic. The number is so large, it’s hard to understand – instead, they were focusing on one life.

It is Tooths second collaboration with Faces of COVID, a project that seeks to remember the people behind the statistics.

Noreen Wasti, Salmans’ youngest daughter, told her father’s story and her recollections have been edited for brevity and clarity.

My parents took all the precautions. They were masked. It was social distancing. I never thought they would have it in their small town.

I started to feel this guilt the week before Thanksgiving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and everybody said: don’t go anywhere for the holidays. But I thought, I have not seen [my parents] for so long. I feel so bad they are alone.

And I told my father, what do you think? Should we drive and see you?

He said, no, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Don’t come. And there are three very exciting vaccines on the horizon and we will meet when we are all vaccinated.

Salman, pictured at Noreen's wedding, September 2013 (Courtesy)
Salman, pictured at Noreen’s wedding, September 2013 (Courtesy)

I got married in September 2013 and my father gave a beautiful speech. Should I start playing it?

SALMAN: Welcome. Greetings. Greetings.

It was a surprise to all of us. He hadn’t shared anything he was going to say.

SALMAN: Please join me in wishing the bride and groom the best of everything in life. And we hope all your dreams will come true and you will live happily ever after.

The talk is just that there are no tears. There’s no, you know, an emotional tribute. It’s just very simple and sober. It’s just him.

And I always tell my mom – my mom is the most emotional – and I say, we have to be a little more like dad, sane and pragmatic. Let’s see how dad would have been in this situation.

The Wasti family - Nina (far left), Nadia, Noreen and Salman - at Eid in Chepachet, Rhode Island, 1986 (Courtesy)
The Wasti family – Nina (far left), Nadia, Noreen and Salman – at Eid in Chepachet, Rhode Island, 1986 (Courtesy)

I would certainly describe my father as a homebody. I used to say that even if someone gave dad a fully paid trip to where he wanted to go, he would rather stay home. He has to look after the plants and check the mail. That’s what he would say.

He was one of the first Pakistani Muslims in the region to launch community events for Eid and Ramadan and things like that.

My parents had a lot of musical evenings where they sang old Bollywood songs with their friends with a speaker system and a mic.

And the moment you enter our house there is a veranda. And there is a beautiful, worn leather armchair with all of his books he has collected. I mean, hundreds and hundreds, the library goes up to the ceiling.

The veranda in the Wasti family home, Chepachet, Rhode Island, which Noreen describes as:
The veranda of the Wasti family home, Chepachet, Rhode Island, which Noreen describes as “my father’s shrine.” (Courtesy)

When he visited Pakistan he went to antique shops and old bazaars and picked up large copper trays, Persian rugs and various knickknacks.

And I always told her, oh, I want them. Whenever I have a big enough space, I take it all.And he said, you can take whatever you want. They are there for you.

But this verandah was like his home and he was just still there. He used to sit with his feet in his baseball cap and he would run to open the door if you came home.

He was always there, so I just felt like I never took advantage of squeezing everything I could from him.

Salman, pictured in the late 1960s, in Honolulu, Hawaii.  (Courtesy)
Salman, pictured in the late 1960s, in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Courtesy)

So after my father passed away I started, you know, walking through the basement. And I just found boxes of documents from his life, letters, postcards. There was a newspaper from 1978 when he spent a few months at his home in Pakistan. And he talks about how this is my home, but i don’t feel at home here anymore.

You never see that side of a parent. You know, that’s me five years ago, emotionally overwhelmed by what I did for a living. To see it that way. He clearly had complex feelings, thoughts and experiences. So, I would like to know more about it. But he doesn’t know that part of me either. So, maybe that’s life.

Noreen, pictured with her parents, Salman and Nina, at Matunuck Oyster Bar, 2017 (Courtesy)
Noreen, pictured with her parents, Salman and Nina, at Matunuck Oyster Bar, 2017 (Courtesy)

My mom started to experience some mild symptoms. And then a few days later my dad started having the same symptoms. He tested positive [for COVID-19] right after Thanksgiving. And all week he’s been saying, I feel good.

The next week I had texted my mom and she said, Daddy feels really weak and slightly disoriented. And I said, what is his oxygen level? And she said, 80. I said, you have to go to the hospital now. She said, I dropped it off outside the emergency room. He refused a wheelchair. He came in and he never went out.

I would feel nauseous every time [the hospital] would call, because I never knew what they were going to say.

On December 27, they called. I can still hear them say to my mother, your husband, he did not succeed. And I can just, I can see my mother’s face. And that was it.

I always tell my mother, don’t let december be her life. He’s had so many other years of important things, that’s not what he was, you know.

Every night we would call and the nurse would keep the phone close to her ear and play her favorite old Bollywood songs from the 1950s to her.

These were the ones he sang solo with a microphone on our veranda.

And there’s one by the way, you know, the weather is so nice one day, and we played it for him while he was in the hospital and my mom was singing with it. And, I mean, we don’t know if he heard us. But we can hope he did.

Salman at home in 2016, Chepachet, Rhode Island.  (Courtesy)
Salman at home in 2016, Chepachet, Rhode Island. (Courtesy)

This piece was produced by Frannie Carr Toth and Cloe Axelson, with assistance from David Greene and Michael Garth.

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