Happy Birthday!

From wealth to outright scarcity, Jack takes his family for a ride not many fathers can afford. What remains in the end is, however, only joy, derived from grim acts. Happiness, after all doesn’t come cheap.

A solitary yellow lamp sufficed the meagreness of the room that Jack and his daughter, Petra occupied. The four walls of a battered house was where they had camped since the past few weeks and Petra agreed that it was better than the previous arrangements that her father has been able to provide. It was a euphemism for having illegally occupied. She knew it was only a matter of time until they would be found trespassing and would be thrown out like garbage, but the anxiety associated with that anticipation stopped bothering her five houses ago.

Petra was approaching her 16th birthday and she had now started to believe that Jack’s promises of being able to afford her education for Medical Science were beyond his reach. Just like the previous hundreds of times, she did not let his failure bring him guilt. Nevertheless, she remembered Jack’s lessons vividly. She knew the organs, their placement and also how to cut open each one of them.

What’s up, skank?” barged in Tom, her elder brother, with a brown glass bottle in his hand and ugly insobriety on the rest of his body. Petra resisted her fury. But no matter her restraint, these words rang in her head like a bee in a bonnet. She hated those words, she hated that abuse so much that it made her cringe out of helplessness. She knew he only envied her for going to school and acing it despite the social difficulties, nothing else. Deep inside, she felt that he loved her.

For the last time, Tom, this is not the way to speak to family!” Jack’s voice boomed across the walls of the dilapidated room as he got up, and stared at his wasted son with bloodshot eyes.

Alright, jackass,” Tom responded with noxious apathy and found himself a corner behind where Petra sat and passed out into momentary bliss.

Jack could not meet Petra’s sorry eyes. “Whatever happened with mom and whatever is happening to Tom is on them. It is not your fault, dad.”

Jack was taken back to the days when they prospered in a house four times bigger than this and moreover, a permanent house. His salary as a surgeon sustained them on pillars of safety, security and prosperity. What missed was love. While Jack had given his all to Mary, his wife, she had her love reserved for someone else. Despite having given her several chances, she did not budge and continued with her external love affair. Her destitute paramour influenced her to run away from Jack, which she did. Had the misery ended there, it would have been mercy for Jack. But, Jack’s fate was written in a sour mood. Mary went after his wealth.

After a few months of her running away, she sued him for his money under the pretext of spurious charges, which her genial husband couldn’t defend. While he lost his job, his reputation, most of his savings and his house, he was surviving through his two children, the burden of whom Mary did not want to deal with. One of those two children, Jack knew, would only spell his doom.

Tom, an under-achieving student, broke under the pressure of parental expectations early in school. What the parents deemed motivational, Tom saw it as a deluge that pressured him to the ground face first. Whatever hopes he had of trying harder at school melted away along with his parents’ relationship. Now, he had an excuse for failure. Hiding behind an excuse felt easier than studying hard for school. But, as life had it, no choice is bereft of consequences. It was this first step that took him towards befriending failure and reclaiming accomplishments that fate snatched away from him. He stole, borrowed and begged for his indulgences and he learnt exactly how to. Influence of intoxicating habits started to weigh heavily on his relationship with his family, what was left of it.

His unfiltered anger cut through every fibre of love of warmth that Jack and Petra had for him and his constant abuses made it only easier.

I know it was not my fault and yet I seem to be the one down in the dumps, no?” He brushed away his tears. But those tears returned nimbly when he saw his son on a path of self-destruction. However, this time, Petra did not sympathise with Jack. She did not feel sorry for Tom; not only was he undermining her father’s genuine love and care, but was also abusing it.

I promised you,” he said sobbing with giant drops of tears in his eyes. “I promised you to make you a surgeon like I am.” He repeated these words until he cried himself to sleep, his hands clasping Petra’s, knowing little that she abandoned that dream long ago, given the circumstances.

One evening, she returned to the borrowed room from school. The walk back was long and it was almost dark by the time she reached. Upon entering the door, she was surprised to see the room so dark and his brother not around to insult her.

When she dropped her school bag in a corner, Jack appeared and handed her a pair of surgical gloves and showed her a tray brimming with surgical tools. “Happy birthday, sweetling. Come, walk with me.” He took her to the centre of the room and turned the yellow lamp above them on and Jack was pleased to note Petra’s joy. “I know I may never be able to make you a doctor, but the least I can do is to walk you through an autopsy. You remember the drill, right?”

Teary eyed, she affirmed. “Yes, dad, I remember.” She jumped with joy and then Jack pulled off the sheet that covered the body. Tom’s dead eyes looked straight up at Petra’s lively ones. Her blood turned to stone in that moment. Her face took a menacing turn under the yellow glow of the solitary lamp above her. Jack saw her quickly shake her fear off, snap the surgical gloves on, hold the scalpel expertly in her right hand and saw her speak to the corpse. “What’s up, skank?”

A Cry of Deliverance

Deploying tools of insensitivity, succumbing to the easier way out, the society today stands proof to the fact that not everyone is alike – some put the cart after the horse, some before.

“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.”