Advertisement

Singing Bollywood In The Sunroom: A Daughter Remembers Her Dad As He Was Before COVID08:51
Download

Play
Salman Wasti and his daughter Noreen Wasti, pictured at Noreen's wedding in Bristol, Rhode Island, in Sept. 2013. (Courtesy)
Salman Wasti and his daughter Noreen Wasti, pictured at Noreen's wedding in Bristol, Rhode Island, in Sept. 2013. (Courtesy)

Editors' note: Salman Wasti was an immigrant. A professor. A cook. A collector of things. A lover of plants. A homebody.

Born in Lahore, Pakistan in 1944, Wasti grew up in Karachi. In his early 20s, he earned a full scholarship to the University of Hawaii. Eventually, he settled in New England, after accepting a job as a professor of biology at Rhode Island College. He worked there for 37 years.

Wasti’s signature look was his bald head (he thought it made him look like Ben Kingsley). His home was full of books and the tropical plants he collected and worked to propagate in his sunroom. He could do the New York Times crossword puzzle faster than most.

Nina was his wife of nearly 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, complex food — biryani, haleem, nihari.

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

Nearly 500,000 Americans have died during the coronavirus pandemic. The number is so large, it’s hard to fathom — instead we’re focusing on just one life.

This is Cog’s second collaboration with Faces Of COVID, a project that seeks to remember the people behind the statistics.

Noreen Wasti, Salman’s younger daughter, shared her father’s story. Her recollections have been edited for brevity and clarity.


My parents took all the precautions. They were masked. They were social distancing. I never thought that they would get it in their small little town.

I started feeling this guilt the week before Thanksgiving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and everyone was saying, do not go anywhere for the holiday. But I thought, I haven't seen [my parents] in so long. I feel so bad, they're alone.

And I said to my dad, what do you think? Should we drive up and see you?

He said, no, it's better to be safe than sorry. Do not come. And there's three very exciting vaccines on the horizon and we will meet when we're all vaccinated.

I was married in September 2013 and my dad gave a lovely speech. Should I start playing it?

SALMAN:  Welcome. Salam. Greetings.

It was a surprise to all of us. He hadn't shared anything of what 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 come true and you live happily ever after.

The speech is just… there are no tears. There's no, you know, emotional kind of tribute. It's just very simple and understated. It’s just him.

And I always tell my mom — my mom is the more emotional one — and I say, we need to be a bit more like dad, like sensible and pragmatic. Let's be how dad would have been in this situation.

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

I would definitely describe my father as a homebody. I used to say that even if somebody gave dad a fully paid trip to anywhere he wanted to go, he would rather stay home. He has to take care of the plants and check the mail. That's what he would say.

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

My parents used to have a lot of musical evenings where they would sing old Bollywood songs together with their friends with a speaker system and a mic.

And the moment you walk into our home, there is a sunroom. And there is a beautiful worn leather armchair with all his books that he's collected. I mean, hundreds and hundreds, the bookshelf goes up to the ceiling.

The sunroom in the Wasti family's home, Chepachet, Rhode Island, which Noreen describes as, "my dad's sanctuary." (Courtesy)
The sunroom in the Wasti family's home, Chepachet, Rhode Island, which Noreen describes as, "my dad's sanctuary." (Courtesy)

When he would visit Pakistan, he would go to the antique shops and the old bazaars and pick up big copper platters, Persian rugs and different knickknacks.

And I always said to him, oh, I want those. Whenever I have a big enough space, I'm taking all of those. And he'd say, you can take whatever you want. They're here for you.

But that sunroom was like his abode and he was just always there. He used to sit with his feet up in his baseball cap on and he would run to open the door if you came home.

He was always around, so I just felt like I never took advantage of extracting 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 dad passed, I started, you know, going through the basement. And I just found boxes of documents from his life, letters, postcards. There was a journal from 1978 when he had spent a few months back home in Pakistan. And he talks about how this is my home, but I don't feel at home here anymore.

You just never see that side of a parent. You know, that's me five years ago, emotionally turmoiled about what I was doing in life. To see him in that way. He clearly had intricate feelings and thoughts and experiences. So, I wish I knew more about that. But he doesn't know about that part of me as well. 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 feeling a few mild symptoms. And then a few days later, my dad started feeling the same symptoms. He tested positive [for COVID-19] right after Thanksgiving. And the whole week he said, I feel fine.

The next week, I had messaged my mom and she said, dad's feeling really weak and slightly disoriented. And I said, what is his oxygen level? And she said, 80. I said, you need to go to the hospital right now. She said, I dropped him outside of the E.R. He refused a wheelchair. He walked in and he never walked out.

I always tell my mom, don't let the month of December be his life. He had so many other years of important things, that's not who he was, you know.

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

On December 27th, they called. I can still hear them telling my mom, your husband, he didn't make it. And I can just, I can see my mom's face. And, that was it.

I always tell my mom, don't let the month of December be his life. He had so many other years of important things, that's not who he was, you know.


Every night we would call in and the nurse would keep the phone next to his ear and we would play him his favorite old Bollywood songs from the 1950s.

Those were the ones that he would sing solo with a microphone in our sunroom.

And there's one about, you know, the weather being so beautiful on a certain day, and we played that for him while he was in the hospital and my mom was singing along 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 help from David Greene and Michael Garth.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.

This segment aired on February 19, 2021.

Related:

Frannie Carr Toth Twitter Editor, Cognoscenti
Frannie Carr Toth is the editor of WBUR's opinion page, Cognoscenti.

More…

Cloe Axelson Twitter Editor, Cognoscenti
Cloe Axelson is an editor of WBUR’s opinion page, Cognoscenti.

More…

Advertisement

Advertisement