"To be human is to be complex. You can't avoid a little ugliness -- from within -- and from without."
— James T. Kirk
Growing up in Pakistan must not have been easy for my father. A high school dropout and morbidly obese at 5 feet 9 inches, his alcoholism seems all but inevitable when I reflect on his life and upbringing. Making himself the butt of every fat-person joke and hiding his shame for not finishing school behind a thin veil of self-deprecating humour, it’s almost painful to imagine what went on in my father’s head as he tried to go about his life in Lahore.
One summer after the fifth grade, my family and I took a road trip up north in Pakistan. My school had assigned us some summer reading over the holidays, so I had my science books in tow with me. With a driver at the helm, mom and dad seated together in the back seat, my brother and I converted the cargo space in the back of our Land Cruiser into a little reading den for ourselves.
On one of our drives, my science textbook slipped under the car seat, resting at my dad’s feet. He bent forward to grab it and the book flipped open to a chapter on the Milky Way Galaxy, complete with illustrations and drawings of our solar system and stars. Instead of handing it back to me, Dad silently started reading those pages and was soon lost in the text. I don’t think I have any memory of my father reading a book prior to this moment.
After a few minutes of reading, my awe-struck father turned to my mother and said, “Did you know that the second closest star to the Earth is called Proxima Centauri, and it takes four years for its light to reach us?”
Mom was looking out the window, and without turning to my father, replied, “If you had gone to school, maybe you would have learned it then.”
Dad didn't say anything. He kept reading in silence and didn’t bother my mother again for the rest of the drive.
The daily indignity of having his family and friends remind him of his failure to secure an education must have played a role in driving my father to the bottle, which fed into a tumultuous marriage and an unstable family life in my home.
However, amidst the chaos, I could always count on one thing to bring my father calm and genuine joy -— Star Trek. The swagger of Captain Kirk, the pragmatism of Spock, and their camaraderie with Bones; the characters on screen were in a way, companions to my father. In them, he found mentors and friends; people who wouldn’t judge him for his lack of formal education, and who would instead allow him to shamelessly enjoy learning about space and science.
Reruns of the original series often played on channels in Pakistan, and back in the 90s, watching TV together was a family activity. Mom didn’t enjoy watching Star Trek, for reasons that are still unclear to me. My brother was indifferent to the show, but Dad and I couldn’t get enough of the campy dialogues, bold colors, and Captain Kirk’s smooth-talking ways. Nestled close to my father on our living room sofa, the air-conditioning on full-blast to drown out Pakistani summers’ smoldering heat, the voyages of the starship Enterprise allowed my father and I to explore strange new worlds together.
While watching Star Trek, Dad’s body language was different from how he otherwise carried himself. He often intertwined his fingers across his abdomen, resting his hands on top of his turnip-shaped belly, as though he were getting ready to offer prayers. Sinking into the sofa, his head tilted slightly to one side, I could tell Dad was on his own journey in his mind, hypnotized into an altered state of consciousness by the show.
Piecing together my childhood, I can go further back and see the show’s influences on my father’s psyche. Dad used to tell us bedtime stories when my brother and I were around 4-5 years old. These were tales of adventure and discovery he imagined up and narrated to us, complete with sound effects and vivid descriptions. The protagonist was a Kirk-like character, and his trusty sidekick was a Spock-like, wheelchair-bound partner-in-crime. I didn’t realize till much later in life that my father had modelled the wheelchair-bound character on his own father (my grandfather), who became wheelchair-ridden the year my father was born. The youngest of four brothers, Dad never got the kind of father-son interaction with his dad that helps lay the foundation for a man’s life. The intrepid voyages my dad dreamed up were probably the things he wanted to do with his own dad, but never could. One story Dad told us, its plotline was inspired by the Assignment: Earth episode from season two, complete with time-travel and a cat and mouse game of cosmic espionage. I loved every moment of it.
Dad was beamed up to the great beyond in 2013 — he died in an accident not unrelated to alcohol on May 4th, Star Wars Day. We had immigrated to Canada in the decade prior, and after I moved away for undergrad at 19, Dad and I didn’t have much to bond over when I’d visit home for the holidays. Nothing, except Star Trek, which we would watch together on the sofa, just as we had when I was a little girl in Pakistan.
In 2016, to commemorate Star Trek’s 50-year anniversary, Canada Post released a limited edition, collectible stamp booklet featuring pictures of iconic characters from the original show, including Captain Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Scotty. At the post office one day to mail a letter, I saw the booklet in a display cabinet and knew I had to buy it. It’s hard to describe what exactly compelled me to make the purchase, but after I did, I placed the booklet neatly into my wallet where it remains to this day. A “highly illogical” gesture to be sure, but it’s one of the few reminders of my father that take me directly into my childhood living room, cozied up next to Dad, boldly going where neither of us had gone before.
Hina Husain is a Pakistani Canadian, Toronto-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in VICE, CBC, Matador Network, Toronto Star and other publications. You can find her on twitter @HinaTweetsNow.