“I am going to break your bones when I see you next,” a shrill voice pierced through the slum as a crone voiced her anger at me for drenching her in a water balloon.
“What does it matter to you,” I provoked her. “It is already raining, what harm can a water balloon do to you, aunty?” I resumed laughing and chortling, only to have it interrupted by a loud crackling sound of a threatening thunder from kilometres away. It was scary and I was sure that it was God’s punishment for my misbehavior. I felt proud to remember the lessons my father teaches me about the God.
The old lady ambling without an umbrella had vanished in between the narrow passages of the slums, when I had my eyes back on the courtyard, two floors under.
My thoughts circled back to the time. It was 10 PM already. At least that is what his beaten wristwatch displayed. I honestly could not yet tell apart minutes from hours. I wonder how adults do it. At times, I find it amusing to assume that they are simply making up words with numbers. Past fifteen, quarter, etc.
It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back and I sprang back to life. Mom and Dad got out of their rooms and hurried to the door. I played my classic act of keeping my eyes shut next to the window. So far, it has successfully fooled them into believing that I was fast asleep. However, the beans are spilled when I am not able to get up for school in the morning. And, tomorrow is the first day! Wonder who it is and I wonder why neither mom nor dad has thrown metaphorical rocks at me!
The knock on the tattered door was louder than the regular creaky knocks that our regular intruder – winds. It was only a few months ago since I began to tell apart from a breeze and a human knock. Saves me a lot of trouble now, believe me.
This knock had inspired my parents very differently. An odd hour. They know I was awake and they were not surprised at a visitor this late. They must be expecting someone. As a matter of fact they looked happier; dad more than mom. Mom had a dull undertone of sadness that I could see through her false pretense of delight. A man in a dress as white as milk, a skull cap on par with his dress in colour and a voice thick as the swooshes of wind outside brought a glow to the house, which was subsumed by an even powerful glow of the tube lights.
He was welcomed, greeted with water, and refused any offers of food and sweets. He kept looking at me with a friendly stare, but he received back none until my parents introduced him to me.
“Ashraf, he is a very close friend of mine. He is the one who has helped your father through all the difficulties that your father was going through in the past few months.”
I pondered on it for a while and although too late, it wasn’t too little for it to dawn upon me that my parents seemed jollier than the usual quarrels that they used to have.
“Does that mean that you will not hit my mom anymore?”
Embarrassed, my father did own up his sins and bravely confronted them. “Yes, beta. I will never hurt anybody ever again.” Tears welled up in his eyes, which made me feel little inside, a feeling that I could not describe so well.
A part of me considered him an angel already. The boisterous days and querulous nights, the sounds of which travelled through half the slum attracted gossip and back-biting to a level which was hard for me to handle. While some kids in the slum made fun of me, elders cheered me up and sent undue pampers, which I could barely digest. Apart from my difficulties, my mother used to get beaten so much. My mother hid behind several excuses. Her most favourite one was that she slipped and fell in the kitchen. She thought of it as an excellent excuse, and I let her believe it.
If someone comes home saying that he resolved all of this, then he is angel to me. I dreamed of playing normally with the kids again, without being the centre of the bullying.
And my dream was then interrupted by another pleasant surprise from a man, an angel whom I saw first only a few minutes ago. A gift. I quickly unwrapped the pink foil sheathing the gift underneath, while his thick voice spoke.
“It’s for your first day in school, son.”
I jumped in joy as I saw a new school bag. I used the one that my brother used to for three years, which he had used for over many years – I can’t remember how old he is than me. This bag was a brand new, pure black bag with cartoons over it. I remember some cartoons from Sumi’s TV, but can’t recall others. It didn’t even matter. I’d be happy for this bag even if it had no cartoon on it.
My mom I saw was in tears again, perhaps the tears of joy or perhaps the tears of seeing me joyful, I didn’t look deep enough for I allowed myself some moments of refined happiness.
I hugged the new man who’d come in our house and thanked him hard. I was then asked to go inside the bedroom and that my mom and dad would come soon. Having handed over the remote control of my happiness in their hands, I agreed to go to bed immediately and thus began my presence game.
“Is this the only way, Bhai? Is there no other way to find peace and heaven?” I heard my dad speaking softly with the visitor. The rain had stopped and winds gave way for words to flow from our living room to the bedroom.
“If not this, there is no other way. God is forgiving, and it asks for very little. You’re doomed to this fate for it is what He wants from you. My sermons never fail to stress on the fact that God gives ten in return for one. With your jewel so precious, you’ll be soon rid of debts, will have a house of your own and also a car. You’ll have more kids.”
At this point I got bored of their talks. I wished they would rather discuss about more gifts for me.
Early morning, I woke up with a surprising zest and energy that my dad had not seen before he said.
“Will I please take the new bag today?” I begged. I was told that I look cute when I say please. So, I said it until he gave up his shield and agreed for it.
“Of course you can, beta. It’s for you only. And it’s all packed with your books and tiffin. Go, get fresh.”
Like an obedient one, I hurriedly got dressed, mom combed my hair flat on my little skull and I put on the bag. Had we had some money, which I think this angel will give us someday, we’ll buy a camera to take my picture with this new bag.
“How do I look mom? I think I look very good. See, I assure you that all the kids in the school are going to be so awed.”
My mom knelt down and hugged me for quite long, tears again in her eyes. “You’re the blessed one, Ashraf. May God look after you.”
“You too, mom.” I said in a kind of a hurry that one would have who wants to eagerly show off his new school bag to the world.
Dad dropped at school. While I had forgotten, he reminded me of his promise. “Beta, remember my promise? Believe me, it will come true today itself.”
I simply had a very hard time trying to contain the rush of happiness within me. I got a bag yesterday and will get to see my brother too after so long. “I will return his old used bag to Shasha today. But I’ll never give this new one to him.”
My father laughed a little on my childishness and that is the last I saw him for the moment. School bell rang and all kids fresh with memories from summer vacations found it hard to focus on the studies.
When I pulled up my bag to take out the books, I saw that the bag didn’t have any books at all. It had a strange box. Curiously, I pulled it out gently and I fell asleep. I do remember harsh cries and heat radiating through my head and body, but I remember it faintly. I tried to check if my new bag was okay, but what he saw barely looked like his school anymore. Where his classroom walls were white, now there was a dancing fusion of yellow and orange. Where I remembered my friends seated in excitement and new school clothes, I then saw undisciplined order of enflamed wood and broken furniture.
I was feeling an odd sort of a pain, and especially since my bag wasn’t in sight, I cried. I remember falling in a deep slumber before I was done crying.
When I woke up a few hours after, I ran and I ran very fast to my mom because I could not wait to tell her about what happened with me. As strange as it was, I was free of pain and my mom needs to know or else she will cry again. Probably she was already crying. And she was!
I approached her. “Mom, look I am here. My bag, my clothes, it’s all here. I am all fine.”
Dad tried to calm her down too, but she kept crying harder and harder. I spoke louder. My voice passed through her. I was confused. I touched her cheek because I knew that was always calmed her down. But my hand went through her body. I could not touch her. I could not be heard. I started to sob and I sobbed hard and heavy.
Dad spoke to her. “The sacrifice was necessary!” He shouted. “It was necessary. We will now be free from all our miseries. This is God’s will and he is now going to be so happy with his brother, playing together once again in His paradise, His heaven.”