Abdul Rahim made his way through the rubbish-strewn alleys with the shabbily set up stalls. Here and there, he could hear the calls of merchants, each shouting out that his wares were the best in the world.
Once upon a time there were female merchants in these markets too, his father had told him. What he had left unsaid was what Abdul already knew; before people banned them to houses in the name of religion. His father was a man in his middle years. Mr Rahim had aged. Some would say gracefully. And gracefully it might have been. For his class. The lower class.
Mr. Rahim was dark skinned. His hair was graying. His ribs showed from the skin stretched tightly over what should have been his belly – a trait shared by the rest of his family. Equally weak, all of them. Mr. Rahim had tried his best all his life to remedy that. Now he had gotten old. His efforts hadn’t weakened though, only his energy. He could barely manage to provide just enough for his family.
At least we can put something in our bellies, Abdul thought sadly. That didn’t show on his face though. He kept his emotions inside, where they should be. Emotions that didn’t do anything to help anyone. He was practical that way. Wearing your emotions on your face was similar to telling people you were a baby with mithai that could be stolen.
He continued with his musings, There are those who can’t even do that. Most of the families in his building couldn’t. Abdul and his family lived in one small room in the low cost apartment – three floors, twenty-four rooms, three bathrooms (one of which was the landlord’s) – that housed over 50 families (some shared rooms). It was a miracle the structure hadn’t collapsed yet. They had a room to themselves. They could afford it. Only just. Even so, space had been limited. That one room, which was meant for four people used to house 9. Abdul, his two sisters, one smaller brother, his father, a pair of grandparents. Other rooms had up to three families in them.
His eyes flinched as he walked past a particularly filthy piece of trash, that seemed like melted plastic and the remains of something – judging by the bones, a fish. Fish was a rarity, good fish anyways. The fish the merchants did get on occasion, “Best fish here, best fish in world. Very healthy,” was just the opposite. People had died. Maybe they wouldn’t if they could afford hospitals. Maybe they still would have. Hospitals in Abdul’s opinion weren’t all that useful. They catered to the rich and the famous. They catered to the moderately rich and the moderately famous. They catered to the middle class that mostly wasn’t famous. They did not cater to the people who could not afford it. But then again, his was a give and take world. Nobody did anything for free. Except for parents. They love you for free. Always.
His eardrums throbbed as a particularly loud – all of them were loud, this one was louder – hawker shouted on the unnatural benefits of his wares. He definitely has the belly to prove it. I bet his belly can hold twice as much sound, Abdul thought wryly and then caught himself. He had not been brought up to think like that though it was hard to not think that way when you were surrounded by poverty on all four sides, and above, and below. The pot bellied hawker continued shouting about how his samosas were the best.
Samosas? Samosas? Samosas.
The sun was shining down on his gleaming face. A younger version of Mr Rahim – black, scraggly hair, weathered face but with less lines of age running on it, the eyes filled with worry and anticipation for the future though – a version of Mr Rahim that Abdul remembered with tears in his eyes.
This was the dad that had given him rides on his back when other dads claimed to be too busy for their children. This was the dad who had comforted him when other kids had made fun of him – that had happened only as long as it took him to reach maturity. Despite not having enough food to eat, he grew fast and grew big. Nobody bothered him then. In addition, with puberty came his confidence and ability to make friends. He had always had good intuition. He knew which of his friends would be loyal and how far that loyalty would extend. He knew which wouldn’t care a whit about him in times of hardship. Apart from the perpetual hardship that they all lived in. This was the dad who had been through his side through everything.
The sun made Mr. Rahim’s black hair gleam. Abdul, his father and his elder sister Fatimah were walking slowly down the bank of the canal. The dirty, canal that boys stripped to the waist were swimming (read: doggy paddling) in. Where housewives were washing dirty clothes in. Where girls were sitting at the edge of, giggling and gossiping. Covered completely, of course. To not in public would have been close to sacrilege. And someone would have commented on that. Leading to public outrage.
Fatimah punched Abdul on the arm as they walked. As he mused – he had been thoughtful as long as he could remember. He was jumpstarted out of his reverie. “Hey, that hurt,” he rubbed his arm and smiled at his sister. Theirs was a bond that was vexatious not only for their father but for everyone who knew the two siblings. They fought and argued as every pair – or more than a normal pair for that matter - sibling does but they smiled while arguing. They smiled while fighting. They were closer than any others Abdul knew. When he needed advice, he went to his sister. He was thoughtful; he was him courtesy of Fatimah. She was his “Shamsi”; his sunshine. She stuck out a tongue at him, “Of course it hurt pagal. Walking around like a fool with his head in the clouds. That should hurt.” He wrapped his arm around her and gave her a hug. She pretended to be choking while their dad just sighed, with his brows wrinkled in confusion. He understood his kids better than most fathers did but he understood them individually. He never understood the dynamic between them.
They hadn’t brought Sana, Ayehsa or baby Amaan with them. His dad claimed they were too little, preferring to leave them with the grandparents but Abdul wasn’t stupid. Neither was Fatimah. They knew their overworked baba couldn’t afford to pay for everyone’s day out. That was why he took the two eldest. Taking care of them would be easier too. And yes, this was their day out. Walking along the canal. And a surprise their dad had planned but they weren’t supposed to know. Guessing was half the fun. And Fatimah and Abdul had spent half the night pondering over what it could be. They were stuck between three options – each just as likely and at the same time, just as unlikely – the ‘old city’, the zoo and the Minar-e-Pakistan (a public monument that acted as the symbol of Pakistan).
They walked on.
The sound of children splashing one another along with the giggling of girls gossiping formed a sweet melody in Abdul’s ears. He could taste the hot moisture in the air. He could feel beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He shook his head to make them fall faster.
Fatimah sniffed and brightened. A second later, Abdul knew why. A tantalizing odor reached his nostrils and wafted deliciously in them. His mouth watered. It was the smell of samosas. He had seen them, he knew what they smelled like but he had never had one. That’s because he never had any money on him. That’s because he had never wanted to bother his father with the cost, even the minimal cost, of the samosas. Fatimah had the same inhibitions only less controlled at times. “Abu, can we please have samosas. Abdul has never ever had one.” She pulled at her father’s sleeve. Mr. Rahim, who never denied either of them anything agreed and they walked to the street vendor, Fatimah skipping, Abdul barely keeping himself from running to it – again, controlling emotions that would be of no use to anyone.
The vendor smiled a yellow smile as the children approached his cart. . It fell slightly as they came closer and he saw the patches in their clothes; the dirt caked beneath their fingernails; the straws of hair on their heads.
“How may I help you sahib?” the dirty yellow of his teeth seemed to be the color of the golden sunlight; only a version that has spent too much time below the ground and has the lost sight of the sun. In truth, he just didn’t have the money to buy the bark of the Salvadora pisca tree; the twig called miswak; the one that had scientifically been proven to have teeth cleaning properties. Even better though, it was much cheaper than toothpaste and toothbrushes. And it served the purpose of both.
Shaking his head and simultaneously dispelling the thoughts of the yellow teeth of the vendor – a habit of Abdul’s – he heard his father asking for three samosas. The vendor immediately drew three samosas. He handed them to Mr Rahim. He did wrap them in tissue occasionally. But only for customers who came in sleek, shiny cars. Scratch that. In cars. No, still not right. In motorcycles, no vehicles of any kind at all. Not pedestrians. They weren’t in the same social class. Mostly. His father accepted the unwrapped samosas with a tightening around the lips. At least that’s what Abdul thought he saw. And handed one to his son; one to his daughter.
“Fatimah beti go to the river with your brother and eat your samosas.”
“Come on you lazy gaddha,” she smiled as she pushed him to the riverbank.
Abdul smiled back and lightly tapped her shoulder with his fist, “Ok, idiot.”
His eyes sparkled as he walked past the vendors still shouting their wares with lungs that were black and huge. Black with the tar of their cheap cigarettes and huge with screaming their wares all day long.
The muddy slope they raced down was a palette of foliage. Here, there were tufts of dry, brown grass. Those were in abundance. The ever-present weeds also claimed their place in the ground. Lush, green grass was also present. But very little of it. And of course, who can forget the warm, chocolaty brown that made up the rest. That was host to litter that varied from old wet newspaper clips to the droppings of various animals that relieved themselves besides the banks of the canal. An earthy odor wafted into the nostrils. The air was wet with the moisture that surrounds bodies of water. The ground soft and muddy beneath his feet as he ran stumbling towards the bank. Sounds of splashing water and pattering feet as he pounded onwards.
Towards the end, he slowed clutching his chest and Fatimah beat him by a second.
“You stopped. Idiot. What’s the point in racing if you’re always going to let me win. Gadha.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Inwardly, he smiled. His sister knew him very well.
They sat down, feet submerged in the cold water, legs warmed by the rays of the sun.
And he took a bite.
He could almost taste those succulent samosas in the here and now. Fried potatoes, wrapped lovingly in fried dough. Smothered with oil. Made of calories. But oh, so delicious.
But more importantly, he tried to drown the memories that were emerging from this one; bury the emotions that would rise up like tentacles; burn the facts that he was still not strong enough to face.
The truth of the matter is; you cannot hide from your emotions. Sooner or later, the box they are locked in opens and you have to confront them. All the time they are locked in the recesses of your mind only serves to make them stronger and more maleficent. They come back. They overpower you. With a vengeance.
And right now, he could feel the box shaking; the memories groaning as if waking from a deep slumber; growling with the realization that he was the cause of that extended sleep; and grinning with the promise of retribution. The promise that they would end up devouring; would end up consuming all that he was and had been.
With a last mighty thud, the lock cracked open and out came the emotions in a tornado of stormy wind spirits.
How he was empty was beyond him. The emotions were filling him up and consuming him, yet he still felt empty. Drained.
Grief was always there. In the back of his head, he had always known that he would live with the grief forever. That. And the regret.
Pain. That was to be expected. Not that he could see anything beyond red spots and the darkness as he clenched shut his eyes and took it.
Anger. Hot liquid made his palms wet and sticky and he knew it was his blood. He tried to loosen his curled up fists but they would not budge.
Guilt. Why was he not the one? It shouldn’t have been her. It should have been him.
When the flashback came, he welcomed it. At least it would provide a temporary relief. From the emotions.
They were running through the streets playing tag. Even when he was ahead of her, Abdul was attuned to where she was. He would never forgive herself if something happened to her.
“Tag. You’re it,” she touched him and passed him as bent over, hands on his knees, panting and waiting for her to get a sizable lead.
Eyes on her and aware of her surroundings, he started running.
He bumped into a fruit vendor overturning two apples and a banana; all of which were stale incidentally.
“Hey, khotay ka bachay – son of a donkey. Who will pay for these? Your dad?”
The vendor screamed at him as he ran. Fatimah had disappeared. There. Blue shawl. That was hers. He ran after, catching up. Shouting her name.
With a roar that echoed loud and hard, as if born in the belly of a fire breathing dragon, a flame stronger than those that he saw being worked in the furnaces of trains, a flame stronger than the one he had seen when a warehouse blew up, a flame was born. A flame born of an explosion, a flame born of a bomb.
The time frame in his memory slowed down as if to cause him to deal with the pain as slowly and painfully as possible.
He could see the fire being born in the car. He could see it engulfing the car. He saw the explosion. Shards of metal flew in all directions. The ball of fire expanded as the car exploded and engulfed everything around it in it’s searing embrace.
Fatimah had stopped. She half turned. He saw the fear in her eyes.
And then she was gone.
Gasping, he was out of the flashback. His mind wasn’t playing the scenes but he knew what had happened next.
He had run towards the fire but strong arms had grasped him from behind. Abdul had kicked and screamed and bit. The arms wouldn’t let go. He had wanted to die.
It didn’t register then but he knew hot sticky tears were running through his eyes. His clenched fists were drawing warm blood. His nose was runny.
She was gone.
It began to rain.