Flash Fiction- What is normal?

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He didn’t have the most normal reaction one expected at the loss of a parent. There were no tears, there was no grief. If I were to identify with the one emotion that he displayed it could perhaps be cataloged as relief. The kind of relief one experiences when a great and terrible burden has been lifted.

Then again, he wasn’t the most normal person, how many people you know would list a bullet proof jacket as their ideal gift? Sameer was, for lack of a better word, unique. We first met as toddlers in the playgroup in our neighbourhood.  All the other children would be kicking and screaming all over the place (yours truly included) he would just sit down in a corner with six blocks of “1,2,3” and ABC. He would build two perfect towers one- one for the alphabet and one for numbers, both towers would be perfectly straight with one plastic cube perfectly placed on top of the other. After admiring his work for a minute of two, he would bring the tower down and start the whole process again.

I had never seen him smile.

Sameer lived at home with his parents, his uncle and his uncle’s wife his father’s only brother. Growing up, we were not financially comfortable, our living quarters were cramped and the occasional meal would be skipped but the sense of community made life a lot more easier. There was a principal of fairness instilled in us from the very first day of education. Whatever we brought from home would be pooled in to one huge communal meal. Sameer never brought any lunch throughout our schooling life. Sometimes, I gave him my lunches so that he could share it with the class as his. That’s how our friendship started.

Sameer always had a methodical approach to every thing he ever did, be it stacking blocks as a toddler or tackling any task. I remember when we were in 8th grade, someone donated a bunch of computers to our school, some 5 or 6 monitors were dumped in a large crate and all the wires, keyboards and mouses had been shoved in another box.

The computer systems donated were ancient, dusty, huge and heavy. They had been in a corner of a warehouse gathering dust for god knows how long. Just opening the flap of the box released a puff of dust in our faces. The students of the 8th grade had been instructed to assist the teachers in assembling the computer systems. No one in our school knew anything about computers, but Sameer volunteered to assemble them. Sameer and I stayed back after school to assemble our school’s computer lab which was basically made up of five broken tables pushed together a long extension board which Sameer fashioned from loose sockets, switches and floor boards. He worked very methodically but there was a touch of elegance to his work which made it seem like an artist was working.

After 5 hours of tedious labour, we finally managed to turn on the computers, I think it was in that time that our friendship bond really strengthened. That day we opened up to each other about our dreams. We asked each other what we wanted from our lives. I said that I wanted money, success, comfort and luxury, Sameer on the other hand after some hesitation muttered- “Peace”.

After that I found out that his father was an addict and use to regularly beat up his mother, Sameer had never told me this, the one thing that his father had taught him was never to air his dirty laundry in public. Every new bruise was explained as the result of a “fall”

One day he “fell” so hard that his arm was broken and his mother had also “fallen” with him which resulted in her breaking her ribs. People had asked her what happened and she just brushed it off like her son and said that she had fallen.

Now what I’m about to say next is just speculation based on the facts that I pieced together.

After the aforementioned fall where Sameer and his mother got injured, he complained to me about too many rats in his house. I suggested he get some rat poison from the hardware store around the corner. At the store, Sameer discussed his rat problem and asked for some potent rat poison. When the shopkeeper asked him how much he needed, Sameer replied “Enough to kill a rat no matter how big the bastard is” We took the poison to his house and grinded the small squares into fine white powder and placed it on his center table. We clearly labelled it “Rat Poison”.

I greeted Sameer’s father who only responded with a dazed look. He noticed Sameer standing next to me and asked him “Sameer when will you teach me how to read?”

Sameer did not respond and left the room, beckoning me to follow him.

A few days later, I saw a lot of people gathered around Sameer’s house, an ambulance was parked outside his house. His uncle and aunt were arguing with Sameer’s mother about something.
“But don’t you want to know how he died?” Sameer’s uncle angrily inquired, his aunt was bobbing her head in agreement with her husband.
“We all know how he died,” Sameer’s mother began “Why spend money finding out what we already know?”
“Don’t you owe it to him to find out?” Sameer’s aunt protested
“No.” Sameer’s mother’s eyes flashed dangerously signalling the end of the matter.
I had joined the crowd who were now enjoying watching the drama unfold
An acquaintance in the crowd whispered that Sameer’s father passed away from a drug overdose in the morning. Sameer spotted me in the crowd and beckoned me inside the house.
“Help me tidy up, we’ll be having a lot of visitors soon” he requested picking up shards of glass with his hands. I spotted a small translucent bag sealed lying on top of the sideboard with the sofa. Sameer picked up a similar bag from the center table marked “RAT POISON”, resealed it and placed in his pocket.
“At least the rat problem’s solved”

The lying lady- Flash fiction

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This is a translation of a short story that was written in Urdu.

The sun was at its hottest when he reached home from school. Upon entering the house, he felt his mother’s face light up at his sight. She smiled and said wash up and change your clothes, I will bring your lunch.
He changed his clothes, he wasn’t looking forward to lunch. Instead of the usual vegetables and lentils, a plate of his favorite dish was steaming on the table along with a bowl of dessert and juice.
He asked his mother if everything was alright? She said guests had come over today which is why she cooked so much. He asked his mother to eat with him. She said she already ate with the guests and was completely full.
“Eat up the food is getting cold.” His mother told him lovingly as she left for the kitchen to tidy up. He used to detest lunch everyday, but today his favorites were on the table and he quickly gobbled up his food.
He picked up his plates and went to the kitchen. Upon entering the kitchen he saw the lying lady sitting on the floor eating stale bread with water like a starving person.

Sun in my eyes

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When I was younger, I had very weak eyes. No one in my family wore glasses. On top of that, my eyesight was constantly weakening. I had regressed from -4 to -10 in a span of 6 months. My birthday present when I turns six was a bottle of Vitamin C tablets. The odd thing was that I did not indulge in any activities that stressed my eyes. I did not even watch tv.
My parents were very worried as an optician had once told them that at the rate which my eye sight was deteriorating I could be legally blind by the age of 10. My parents tried everything to improve or at least stabilize my eyesight, but unfortunately could not do anything to arrest the slide.
We were not really well off, my father worked as a foreman in a factory, barely making ends meet. We were able to make ends meet only after my mother’s income, which she used just to pay the rent. After quick breakfast of tea and a small piece of flatbread, father left everyday at 7am to the bus stop with last night’s leftovers packed as his lunch. He came back around 9 at night, eat dinner and then chat with me for a while and then go to sleep.
One morning I was gently shaken awake, “let me sleep” I murmured groggily.
“There will be plenty of time for that later,” my father replied gently, wiping a wet wash cloth on my face. I got up and splashed some water on my face.
We walked to the top the hill near our house.
“What time is it?” I asked grumpily as we made our way up the hill in semi darkness.
“5,” my father replied cheerfully
“Hurry up, don’t drag your feet or you’ll miss it.”
“Miss what?” I asked yawning.
“The most beautiful sight in the world.”
We finally reached the top and we sat facing the city.
Even after more than 30 years I vividly remember all details of my first time on the top of the hill. An ancient truck was making its way into the city of Karachi. We were perched on two flat rocks my father and I, it was surprisingly cool to sit on. We sat there just watching the sun rise and just talking. My father never looked at me when we were talking, and he told me to look ahead after taking off my spectacles, which was odd, as I could only make out shapes without them, and watch the sun rise. He was right, it was a most magnificent sight, seeing night turn into day. However, not wearing glasses meant that I only got a blurred view of the magnificent sight in front of me. I stared in front chatting with my dad till I couldn’t see due to the sun in my eyes. Finally the heat and sun light became too much and I said “Can we go? I have sun in my eyes!”
My father smiled and asked” Tell me Asad, how can a twinkle of my eye get sun in their eyes?”
Not getting the joke I finally turned to face my dad and moaned”I don’t know Baba, just take me home!”
We made our way down the hill and came back every day for the next year. I began to look forward to these trips, making idle conversation with my dad. The calmest time of the day in a busy city like Karachi and the beautiful sight from the top of the hill. Everyday we went to the hill and just talked. Each day we only got up when I said that I have sun in my eyes. My vision began to gradually improve until after one year I didn’t need my glasses. That last day promised myself that today I won’t say that I have sun in my eyes. After watching the sun rise, my dad and I kept talking and he told me how a friend told him to try this sun rise treatment and how worried he was about my eyes. He kept talking and then stopped, “Asad, you’re not getting any sun in your eyes today?”

 

“How can I when I can’t see it?”

my father looked at me to see that I was facing the other way and laughed. He ruffled my hair and said”Fine, I will say it this time. Lets go, I have sun in my eyes!”

we got up and made our way back home.

INSANE

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Protecting does not stop at physical safety alone. In fact the biggest part that needs protection from others is the mental physical and visual anguish that people face.

So now you know the problems that I faced, you will also see how intelligently I handled it- yet people still call me mad.

I was always this protective because that I was brought up. Since cable television because common, visual horrors and obscenities increased tenfold. The first thing I did was cut off television in my house. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But it was necessary to protect my family from getting their minds corrupted. My kids were taunted in school for their ignorance for their lack of TV time; I didn’t care about my kids’ social standing with other kids as I was doing my job.

Music was allowed in my house and initially so was radio, but it gradually phased out after we got a computer. Radio was only allowed to be used under my supervision at the prescribed times between 7-9 pm. There was also a collection of a few music cassettes and a few audio stories which were of course my choice.

Everything was under my control until we got a computer. That’s when it started.

One day, my son asked me to buy a computer as he needed to learn it for school. Protective as I was of my family, I wasn’t one to stand in the way of progress and learning. So, we got a computer. I allowed them to use it under my supervision. The children wanted to play games again my protective instinct limited the types of games they could play to only sports and those games which were of the learning nature. Strategy and shooting games were not allowed.

My kids, it appeared, had never been happier. They would take turns of thirty minutes each on the computer. It was a win-win situation, they had something that helped them fit in with other kids and I was also happy that they weren’t exposed to any violence, vulgarity or any other sort of evil.

Then came the internet and my son asked me to get a connection. I had heard from my colleagues about this internet. Internet was amazing, they said; imagine accessing the whole from the comfort of your home. It couldn’t be as good as they said, my gut said there was something wrong with it. I asked around if someone knew about the drawbacks of the internet, which I could use as a basis to dissuade my children. Unfortunately, none of my acquaintances had any arguments for this. One of my friends suggested searching on the internet for its weaknesses. I scoffed at the idea, that anything would tell its own drawbacks, however, since there were no other sources from which I could obtain this information, so I thought why the hell not?

My friend invited me over to his house one day to show me what the internet does. I was intrigued by it especially when it revealed its disadvantages itself. My friend was patient enough to clarify any misconceptions I had about the ‘net’ as he referred to it. There was this thing called yahoo, it was a called a search engine. You could type in anything that you wanted and find it. It was like a virtual encyclopedia, it had the answer to everything.

Enlightened and impressed by the internet experience at my friend’s house, I gave my consent to get an internet connection.

I again imposed the condition that it could only be used under my supervision. After the introduction of the internet in my house, I noticed gradual changes in my three children. They were more knowledgeable, confident and in general more sure of themselves.

When my eldest son turned 16, and was about to start his last year in school, he approached me with a proposal to get a faster internet package and why he should be allowed to use the computer more. As I mentioned before that I didn’t know much about computers, so I didn’t understand most of his reasons as they involved a lot of technical jargon. The manner in which he presented his case impressed me; I reasoned with myself that if limited computer time has that much impact the effects of unlimited internet and more computer time would be massive.

After consulting with my eldest son and taking into the loop, a few tech savvy friends, I not only upgraded the internet connection but also upgraded the computer system. I also instructed my children to teach me how to use it.

Shortly afterwards work commitments made my work hours much longer and as a result my children’s computer time suffered a lot. After a week or so of this, I changed my supervision policy a little; I delegated the task of supervision to my wife and my elder son. Given the level of maturity he had been showing lately, I decided that his computer time did not need to be supervised anymore. I also started to pick up a few basics of the computer and the internet or the ‘web’ as my children called it.

They taught me that instead of typing up then name of any website I frequently visited I could simply go in history and click on the link again. I found that usually after every time my elder son used the computer the browser history would be wiped clean. I inquired about this from my son and he told me that sometimes having too much history saved on the computer’s memory can slow down the computer’s performance. The answer seemed satisfactory enough and I didn’t probe any further into this matter. Come to think of it, maybe I should have, perhaps I could have prevented my children from descending into the abyss of vulgarity which I discovered a while later.

My children had again begun to change. My younger son had started to become more ill-mannered, he had started to talk back at his mother and his siblings. My wife also told me that he had even begun to swear when conversing with friends or siblings.

My daughter had also changed; she was now more cheerful and upbeat. She was apparently listening to more music as she was always humming to some new tune. She told me that her friend had a good music collection and that she had loaned my daughter a small contraption called an ‘mp3 player’ which could store hundreds of songs. I could feel things slipping out of my control; at least my eldest child was away from it all. He was always so busy at the computer, I usually found him staring at the screen and when I would go near the computer to see what he was seeing, it was usually either the desktop screen or the document typing software called ‘MS Word’.

I let these things go, as I guess, this was just part of my children growing up. Protective as I was; I just couldn’t completely let this go. Consciously I had made an effort to let it all go, however, subconsciously; I guess I was noting it all.

Finally then there was the incident which ultimately became the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was after dinner time, somewhere around 11, if I remember correctly, I found my son at his now customary perch in front of the computer. As he saw me coming, my son pressed a few keys on the computer and by the time that I reached him, he was staring at the blank screen and was wearing a slightly guilty expression on his face. It was a combination of pursed lips and a determination not to look me in the eye as I approached him. The expression aroused my curiosity, so I sat down with him. I noted that a few windows had been minimized. I asked him to open all the windows. With slightly trembling fingers, he clicked on the minimized tabs one by one. The first one was the internet browser, the second one was a report he was typing on Word and the last window was of the media player. There was something playing on it and it was paused. I asked my son what it was, he told me it was an animated movie; I nodded at him to play it.

The animation was different, it wasn’t the Technicolor animation that I was used to; it was different, almost lifelike. I really marveled at the progress in technology. The media player was showing that ‘Shrek’ was playing. It was pretty decent for the first 20 minutes or so, a talking donkey, a lonely ogre and a princess. After that I was appalled at how much vulgarity they managed to sneak in a kid’s movie. Three things in the movie really threw me off.

  •   They showed an almost naked man lying on his bed looking at girls, granted that he had a blanket around his lower half, but you see what they were trying to imply.
  •   They introduced the sickening concept of inter species love- the dragon and the donkey
  •   Finally it was the ending that threw me off, where the green guy kisses the girl and turns her green permanently as if he had infected her.

What disturbed me even more that despite all these visual horrors, barring the kissing scene, my son made no attempt to forward the scene; voice his disapproval or even look away. After the movie ended, I instructed my son to turn off the computer and left the room, not discussing the movie with him.

That night I could not sleep, I spent the whole night tossing and turning, thinking how I had failed as a father. How despite taking all possible precautions did I fail to protect my children from the vulgarities, the evils of the world? I knew then that I had to do something drastic to protect the innocence of my children.

What I did next was not insane, quite the opposite, it was an act of extreme love. It was a very difficult decision to make; in fact I must confess here it was the hardest decision that I have ever had to make. In retrospect I still stand by my decision and given the chance to do it again, I would probably make the same call. I must stress again upon the fact, that I never was or have been at any point in my life, insane nor did I ever pose a threat to the society ever. I have never been violent to anyone nor have I tortured anyone.

If you examine how meticulously I planned out my decision, I daresay you might find flashes of genius in my acts but not a shred of insanity. First I needed some time off from work for 3 days so I could research and get supplies. I spent the first day getting surgical supplies, researching online and most important of all, getting 2 key components of my plan- chloroform and anesthesia.

I surprised my wife with a 3 day trip to her parents’ house up country. She had been dropping hints for quite a while, so understandably, she was quite delighted at my surprise. After dropping her off at the airport, I grabbed the rest of the supplies from office on the way to my house. I left everything in the car except the chloroform and cotton gauze, which I managed to sneak into the house.

That night my son told me that he had brought another animated movie and this time all 3 of them would be watching it and I was welcome to join them. I politely declined their request stating that I had work to do. This was true as I had to bring in the supplies from the car and set up in the basement.

That night around 2 am when I was sure that all my children were asleep, I soaked a wad of gauze in chloroform and placed on the face of all my children so they were knocked out. I checked this by shaking them vigorously after I presumably knocked them out.  I then carried each of them down to the game room in our basement where I had moved a lot of things and set up my equipment there.

The floor was carpeted and I also brought some blankets and pillows for all three as I lay them down side by side. I handcuffed each of them. Each handcuff was linked to an individual steel chain used for towing vehicles. The chains were around 6 feet long and the end of each chain was linked to the end of the old grill of the basement window. The children were really out of it, they didn’t wake up till noon. I had prepared a little snack for them.

It was really fascinating to gauge the reaction of my children to their predicament. My eldest son was the first one to get up; he was puzzled at first, as he recognized his surroundings, he grew somewhat calm. The discovery that his hands were chained made him anxious and that anxiety turned to fear when our eyes met.

My daughter had the same puzzled look initially, but when our eyes met, there was no fear or even anxiety for that matter. All I could see in her cold grey eyes was defiance. This was something unexpected; I never took my daughter to be the rebellious kind or even have the mental strength to hold her own strange situations.

The most heart breaking of the reactions were from my youngest one. He stretched and felt the handcuffs, he yelled out “Fuck!” just like that. He then opened his eyes and saw his siblings also chained. He tried to yank himself free unsuccessfully. He then tried to squeeze his hands out of the handcuffs, he was again, unsuccessful. Realising that his exertions were useless and that he was trapped; the color left his face and his brow furrowed. Then our eyes met, his lower li began o quiver and his eyes began to well up. He started bawling like a new born baby has fat dollops dropped on his cheeks from his amber eyes and slid down his cheek. He cried so much that his nose started running and he threw up a little as well.

It broke my heart to see my son crying like that. Granted I was not the most affectionate father in the world, but I was still a father, and it pained me to see my own flesh and blood so upset. I gently wiped my son’s tears away and comforted him so he quietened down a bit. The only sounds in the basement were his occasional sobs and the clanking of chains as he wiped his face clean. All through this little episode, my other two children were silent and did not move. Apparently they did not care for their sibling- another reason to go ahead with my decision.

“Here guys, eat up, I made a little snack for you,” I said as I gently as I could, nudging the tray of snacks towards them “After this we’ll have a bathroom break and then I’ll tell you guys why we are here.

Not much was said as the meal was finished in silence. I cleared my throat and began “As you probably wondering why you are here and why there was a need for such drastic measures”

I paused and waited for my words to sink.

“Drastic times call for drastic measures,” I remarked noting that fear was gradually becoming more prominent on the faces of the children; this was softening my resolve, so I chose to focus on the grill of the basement.

“I’m not going to lie to you, this is going to hurt. I will try to be as gentle as possible. You know what they say, short term pain for long term gain.” As I said this, I reached for the bottle of local anesthetic and placed it in front of me. There was complete silence in the room as six eyes focused on me as I unpacked the supplies which I had procured over the course of the last two days. I placed the bottle of antiseptic next to the anesthetic along with a few packets of syringes and big khaki paper bag containing cotton swabs, crepe bandages and gauze.

I filled up three syringes with anesthesia and began speaking, my focus again on the grills of the basement. “I’m going to inject you each with anesthesia and while it takes effect, we will take the bathroom break I mentioned before and then I will explain to you what I’m going to do.” As I said I pulled my younger son close to me and said as gently as I could “Open your mouth and stick out your tongue.”

He again started sobbing and mumbled incoherent apologies. I brushed the hair out of is eyes and repeated myself in the same gentle tone as before. He timidly stuck out his tongue, I gripped his face from the side in such a way that my fingers were on the nape of his neck and my palm was on his cheek. I couldn’t inject on the first attempt as his constant sobbing made his face wet and consequently very hard to grip. I managed to do it on the second attempt.

“Why are you doing this?” My son asked me speaking to me for the first time since he woke up in the basement.

“I’ll tell you after the bathroom break”

“I don’t think that anyone’s interested in going to the bathroom. We want to know why we are here.” He demanded, looking me in the eye.

“Why are we in chains? What’s with all the medical equipment? Why the sterilizer?” His tone was now bordering on rudeness.

This was a real watershed moment for me; one I hoped would have occurred earlier- my elder son taking charge, becoming his own man. It was a real bittersweet moment for me, on the one hand I was lucky enough to witness my son coming into his own as a man. On the other hand it was also appalling the way he was disrespecting me, disregarding everything I had taught him about the etiquette of addressing his elders. The other children were quiet and I could feel three pairs of eyes staring at me. Slightly taken aback by the outburst, I took a few moments to compose myself.

I sighed and started to speak. I speak as slowly and as clearly as I possibly could. I focused on putting the scalpel in the sterliser as I spoke. I was extra careful in my pronunciation, I was very conscious of what words left my mouth, weighing up each syllable carefully before speaking it. It was very important that my concerns were conveyed to my children exactly as I perceived them.

“Evil interacts with us in many ways. Sometimes through the deeds of others, other times through the deeds of our own or by chance. We can’t control how evil interacts with us through the deeds of others, however, we can control the other two ways,” I paused and looked up from the sterilizer, which was now filled with stainless steel scalpels of all sizes ranging from the tip the size of a ball point pen to the size of a butter knife, to check the reaction of my children. Their faces were impassive with furrowed brows betraying anxiety and furtive glances between the little surgical setup I had made in the basement and me. I paused to gather my thoughts and continued “We interact with evil primarily through three of our major senses- we speak evil, we see evil and we hear evil.”

My younger son’s eyes started to grow misty again, I chose to ignore this and continued “Now, I’m not heartless enough to keep you tied you up in this basement for the rest of your life or make you deaf and dumb for that matter, I will just be minimizing the impact of certain senses which you are most likely to use when committing evil. Please believe me when I say that I have thought long and hard about this. It is not an act out of spite; it’s a very rational decision and the most difficult one I have had to make in my entire life.” My voice cracked, I felt my lower lip quiver, my eyes misted briefly as I felt a warmth slide down my cheek. I had forgotten how it felt when a person cries, it was the first time I cried since my childhood. I wiped the tear, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The room was completely silent except for the sounds of my breathing and whimpers. I opened my eyes to see all three sobbing. I took another deep breath and asked my youngest son “Can you feel your tongue?” He nodded. I again injected his tongue and took the plates of breakfast up to the kitchen.

When I returned, I signaled my son to come forward. I placed two pieces of gauze on both his eyes and wrapped crepe bandage around his head. He couldn’t see anything through this make shift blindfold.

“Don’t move,” I instructed him, “Open your mouth”

“I’m sorry, I’ll be better, I promise” he started trembling again. I knelt down but I couldn’t find the right angle to make the cut. I placed a couple of pillows on top of each other and placed his head on it. He started sobbing again; I shushed him and held his head steady with one hand whilst holding the scalpel in the other hand. I couldn’t get a firm grip as the bandage was pretty damp from his tears. My hand started shaking as my son finally managed to stop sobbing and stuck out his tongue. I composed myself again- I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. I dried his temple with gauze so I could get a better grip on his head.  His eyes were shut tight in anticipation of a lot of pain; they were shut so tight that his upper lip was dragged up exposing his gums.

I placed the scalpel on his tongue and pressed the sharp edge on the tip. The saliva caused the scalpel to slip, so I used gauze to dry out his mouth by placing small gauze balls in his mouth to absorb new saliva generated by the glands. I gripped the scalpel more firmly and pressed the scalpel on his tongue; this time I was successful in making the incision, the cut was pretty shallow, but I still managed to draw some blood. A thin sheen of blood appeared on his tongue, I had forgotten how queasy blood made me. I leaned back to gather myself again. I saw my daughter look at the bloody tongue of her brother and she let out an ear piercing scream. I raised my hand to silence her. What happened next probably took place in under a minute, but every time I go over the events I’m about to describe next, it seems so much longer. I felt something cool pressing against my throat.

“The keys to the cuffs!” my first born growled in my ear as he tightened the linking chain of the cuffs around my throat.

“You don’t understand son,” I croaked, “It’s for your own good- the world’s and evil place-“

“The keys” he hissed in my ear, his voice was dangerously low. His tone was very threatening “the only thing evil in my world… is you! Now give me the damn keys before I put a stop to the only evil in my life,” he paused as he tightened the chain on my Adam’s apple constricting my windpipe, “permanently”

“Okay, okay,” I gave in as I rummaged my pocket for the keys. I tossed them the whole bunch on to the carpeted floor. My daughter picked it up an unlocked herself and her siblings as well as the padlocks on all the chains. We all watched her in silence as the grip on my throat loosened slightly.

“Now cuff him” he instructed her.

“But –“she started to protest

“Now” he said in that dangerous tone again tightening the chain on my throat, although his wrists were now free, he was still maintaining his grip on my neck with the linking chain. I was then cuffed and chained in a more restricting way than I had bound my children. All my limbs were cuffed and tied to the basement window.

What happened next is quite a blur, as I was shifted to a medical facility immediately afterward and spent a lot of time heavily sedated. There are a few recurring flashes of the tear filled face of my wife, a court hearing and the judge’s condescending look. I’m not sure whether they are hallucinations, memories or just recurring nightmares.

 

The Imam

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Sohail was sitting in his chair, waiting for the people to arrive so he could start the evening prayer. The call for prayer or the Azaan had been given. There were still five minutes left for the prayer to begin. The congregation for the evening prayers was usually small due to the fact that this particular mosque was located in a posh area. Evening time meant either family time for the older men and for the youngsters “koi scene banana” meaning a program to hang out and do nothing but chat about stupid random stuff while blowing away their parent’s money on Sheesha, cigarettes and fast food.

Sohail had led the prayers in this mosque for 20 years, his father had worked on this mosque as a mason and had managed to persuade the mosque committee’s members to let Sohail lead the prayers for a period of 3 months while the existing Imam of the mosque took a vacation to his village. Sohail had made such a good impression on the committee members that they managed persuade the existing Imam, who was getting on in years to retire. At that time the area was not that well off, so the mosque was almost always packed at all five prayer times. When Sohail took charge, he managed to scrounge up enough donations to start a Madrassa- a centre for religious studies.

Gradually as the lives of the residents of the area improved, the donations to the mosque increased and Sohail was also earning a decent amount from both the mosque and as principal of the Madrassa, however the number of people coming to pray decreased.

Sohail glanced at the clock again, it was time to start. He surveyed the room, around 20 people, best count of the week. He was about to start when someone tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a piece of paper. The brother of the mosque committee head had passed away; he was one of the few regulars who came five times a day without fail. Then again he was also unemployed and slightly mental. He had a very promising career as a lawyer, a brilliant lawyer, but a girl broke his heart and he just lost his mind. His older brother took care of him but just barely, that was because the younger son was the favourite and he had a lot of property named after him and the older brother inherited just the mosque and a house which he had to share with his brother. It was just a wrong decision because the older brother despite being the mosque committee head just came for the Friday prayers and even when he did he often smelled of booze, there was also a rumour that this man was also having an affair. Sohail had long since decided maybe that was the reason he was so irregular here, his habits did not let him stay in a state in which he could enter a mosque, sober and clean.

Sohail started the prayer, but he was just going through the motions, he was leading a congregation, but that didn’t matter as he was very thrown off by the news. Every time he prostrated, Sohail prayed with all his heart that the bastard got what he deserved. As he finished the evening prayer, after reciting the last dua, he requested the members of the congregation to stay back for the funeral prayers. He quoted the Hadis of the Prophet relevant to funeral prayers. Of the mere 20 people, a few left, Sohail heard the hall door close and he addressed the people sitting on the rituals of the funeral prayer, when the door opened again and a strong smell of alcohol filled the room. It was extra strong tonight, he looked as if he was celebrating. Sohail got up from his chair and greeted the mosque committee head. “So sorry for your loss Sir.” He consoled his employer

“Thank you” His employer smiled, there was no sorrow on his face, and he could hardly hide his glee.

Sohail returned to lead the funeral prayers, after completion, he helped out the body in the Edhi van for taking for burial. As he placed the body in the vehicle with the help of the ambulance driver, he overheard loud whispering

“You should go with us, you’re his brother for crying out loud, if you’re not going to take your car let’s take mine.”

“No, you go, I’ve been taking are of the fucker for the past 5 years. You’re his best friend, you go, and I’m not spending one more second attending to this bastard’s needs”

“Is there a problem sir?” Sohail interjected, knowing fully well what was going on.

“No, not at all Sohail, ummm I was just explaining to Waleed here, how I have to go to this…. Thing, it’s really important.”

“More important than your brother? Please Sir, I do request you, whatever it is, your brother is more important. You are his only family.”

“OK, ummmm Sohail, just give me a couple of minutes, I’ll just tell my wife.”

“We will be waiting Sir,” Sohail smiled amd climbed into the back of the van with Waleed.

After twenty minutes, he staggered into the front of the van.

The smell of alcohol was stronger than ever.

 

A New Beginning

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Beep! Beep! The alarm clock went off like a patient whose pulse is racing just before going into cardiac arrest. That’s the picture that popped into my head every single morning when my alarm went off. Too much House I guess. That’s how I start my day. Everyday is the same, get up, go for classes, and come back, rest. Watch some TV, study, argue with my mom that I am too tired to do anything else and then coax myself to sleep in the hope that tomorrow will be a better day. I used to think that I have been waiting in vain as I hope for something to break the monotony. The environment around me was too depressing- an over anxious mother, strict father and two highly irritable siblings who were just biding their time waiting to get out.

Even the vacations were the same, some dirty old relative used to come and stay with us for almost the entire summer. We used to become their personal slaves, literally doing everything for them, acting like we don’t have any purpose of existence other than to serve them.

My brother did find a way out; he left the house immediately after finishing school. He was going to college in Lahore, on his own merit. My dad had to pay what was at that time considered normal tuition fee for schools, but this also included the boarding house.

For me however, it was the same thing all my life over and over again, but today was different. Today I break the monotony once and for all. All these years of hard work were finally paying off. Today is going to be a new beginning. I am finally breaking the shackles-freeing myself from my strict father, my anxious mother. Today I was starting my first job- as an apprentice in a large accountancy firm. I am very happy. For the first time in my life, I can wear a tie and not be scolded for it. I am on the way to becoming my own man. I smile at my reflection in the mirror, ties looked good on me.

I go down stairs to see my mom up and about and my dad reading the morning paper. My mom was bustling around in the kitchen- her routine for the last thirty years. I greeted both of my parents good morning; my dad acknowledged my greeting with a nod of his head and my mother responds with a knowing smile. It is big day for all of us; I was finally breaking free of my father, another sign for him that his time is coming to an end. The atmosphere in the house today was slightly different; it felt as if a war was over. To another person it might seem that it was just a normal family having breakfast, but it was something very different. There was a spring in my mom’s step, a victorious gleam in her eye and that smile of hers made her look much younger. My dad on the other hand looked slightly crest fallen as he knew that his time at the throne was coming to an end. Although he did not acknowledge it, but he liked being in charge, steering the ship or the king of his castle as he liked to put it. Even at the age of sixty, he after gaining a lot of weight and losing a lot of hair, the air of authority in his tone of conversation and the arrogance in his strut suggested that he was used to ordering every one about. However, slowly but surely he was losing his grip over all of us – his family. My brother as I mentioned before was the first to get away when he finished school, my sister was the next one when she got married a few years ago, and now, it was my turn to break free and spread my wings. For my mother, this was her dearest ambition – see us making our way into the world.

It makes one think though, how quickly time passes. It seemed like yesterday when the house rang with the sound of laughter and arguments. How after getting scolded and at times caned by my dad, she would take me into a corner and comfort me. “Have patience son, your time will come,” She always used to say, “But remember when your time comes, don’t forget that you were also once weak and helpless, don’t exert your dominance on others like your father does. When he becomes old and weak never treat him the way he behaves but treat him the way I’ve taught you how to treat others.” From the time I was around five years till last year, my mom kept on repeating this like a mantra, ‘your time will come’. Every night I would say this to myself and drift off to restless sleep.

Now it looked as if my time had finally come. Maybe my mother was thinking the same thing, she used tell me what my father had said to her all those years ago: “you’re not good enough to raise my children” She used to say to us work hard and prove our father wrong. Today, her wish had come true, we had proven him wrong. Maybe she was thinking the same thing today when she smiled at me; the worst was over, it was all better from here on. The future was bright.

The Next Three Days

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There are two types of powers found in the world- one is the power of science, the other is the power of love. The former can be easily explained and identified, but the power of love is something that people have discovered and identified for centuries, but no one can describe how it works. All the miracles we see today are in one way or another connected to love and/or faith in one way or another.

We begin our story at the Aga Khan Hospital, the year was 2004. My 5 year old niece Fatima was visiting the doctor after her finger tips and toes had turned blue in her Montessori. We were assured by relatives that we had nothing to worry about, but my brother was really worried so he and I took Fatima to the hospital. I was pretty sure that we had nothing to worry about. The doctor was a very pleasant person he had white hair with flecks of grey sprinkled all over his head, an army style moustache and rectangle glasses gave the impression of a learned person on the verge of retirement. His eyes were onyx black, and made him look younger than he was. We had brought the Ultra Sound and chest X-rays of Fatima, although we had spent most of today morning examining it but we couldn’t come to any conclusion except that the tests were expensive.

“Aah Mr. Ali, how are you?” The doctor rose up from his chair to greet us.

“I’m Dr. Shah”, he introduced himself, “Please have a seat.”

“Thank you,” my brother said as we both sat down.

“Here are the reports you asked for Dr. Shah,” my brother handed him the large white envelope bearing the AKU logo on it.

“Yes, thank you, and you must be” he addressed my niece who was sitting on my lap, after glancing at the reports, “Fatima, how do you do beta?”

“OK” my niece replied shyly, which was new for me as she was the most talkative child of her Montessori group.

“Good! Can you at least shake my hand?” the doctor asked her smiling. Again the shy smile, I remember thinking we should bring her here anytime we wanted peace and quiet. My niece extended her small hand into Dr. Shah’s hand when the hands parted the little hand was full of sweets and Fatima’s eyes widened in delight and all the shyness went out the window as she resumed being her normal bubbly 5 year old self.

“Thank you, doctor uncle!” She exclaimed and then looked over to my brother for permission to eat them; he was very controlling when it came to sugar and caffeine consumption. A weary nod and a resigned smile was all he could muster, but even then he instructed her to deposit the rest of the sweets with me.

“You are most welcome beta.” Dr Shah replied as he sat down to examine the reports, the pleasant expression was gradually replaced by a more concerned and grim look.  Meanwhile, Fatima had busied herself in rearranging the good doctor’s table which involved basically picking anything up in her reach looking at it for a few seconds and placing it on another corner of the desk. All the while, I had a firm grip on her to prevent her from climbing on the table and causing real havoc. After a couple of minutes my brother finally had had enough and pried the name plate of the doctor bearing the legend ” Dr. S.H. Shah” from Fatima’s hands and glared at me “Asad why don’t you say something to her? Fatima beta, stop this please.” I was a bit disappointed that the entertainment had stopped, so I got up and took her hand and told Ali that we were getting something to drink.

Dr. Shah smiled at her and told us to shut the door on the way out. Something was a little different in those eyes; they were looking dim and sad. When we left the room, Fatima said that she didn’t want to drink anything but another sweet would be great.

“You can explore the hall if you want, but only till that red door ok?”

Fatima nodded her head and skipped all the way to the end of the hall and back. She stopped to look at the plants and examined the leaves. I leaned against the wall of Dr. Shah’s office to eavesdrop on their discussion.

Ali asked Dr. Shah “So doctor how is she?”

The doctor countered with another question “Where is Fatima’s mother?”

“She ummmm….” Ali hesitated “She’s not with us; she passed away two years ago.”

“My condolences,” Dr. Shah sympathized, “There’s no easy way to say this.” He paused

“Fatima has a hole in her heart the size of a thumb pin head, and you told me on the phone that she has shown these symptoms before?”

“Yes, but we never thought that it would be anything serious.”

“Does she sweat very much while eating or otherwise for that matter?”

“Yes, she has done that since she was born.”

“hmmm ok, and does she sometimes experience shortness of breath?”

“Yes, doctor but I think it’s only after she has been running or playing”

“Fatima has a very rare congenital heart defect and the hole in her heart has been expanding rapidly.”

“Isn’t there anything you can do to stop it?”

“I’m afraid it’s too late.” Dr. Shah replied. There was a few moments’ silence, before Ali protested “There must be something you can do, this is Aga Khan can’t you put a laser or ultra something to help her?”

“No, sorry there’s nothing we can do. It’s too late for her” There was another silence which was interrupted by soft sobs and sniffles. I thought it was Ali crying but when I put my hand to my cheek, I found it that it was moist.

“How long does she have? A month?”

“No, at the rate by which her symptoms have worsened I’d say around 3-4 days” Again there was silence broken only by Ali’s sniffles and sighs. I felt something tugging my trousers, I looked down and saw that Fatima was tugging to get my attention, when she saw she had it, she asked innocently” Chachu, why are you crying? Big boys don’t cry” She said using the same expression I had two years ago when her mother had passed away.

I wiped my damp cheeks and said smiling “Big boys can cry when someone eats the last sweet that I was going to eat”

“Oops, I didn’t know you liked orange candy so much.” She giggled, “I’ll keep it in mind the next time I eat orange candy, Baby Chachu!”

I heard conversation starting again inside, so I gave Fatima a fifty rupee note and said” Here get me some orange candy and buy anything you want ok?”

Fatima’s eyes lit up at the fifty rupee note and she skipped away to the canteen.

“Are you a religious man Mr. Ali?” Dr. Shah asked him.

“Not particularly, I mean I try to pray regularly but don’t always succeed in doing so.”

“Will you be willing to try a spiritual solution?”

“At this point I’ll try anything”

“Legend has it that the mazaar of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar has a well on the way. If you make the journey from the well to the mazaar by foot, drinking the well water after making your wish at the mazaar makes it come true. I don’t know the details but I know this person who can guide you.”

“How will I know it has worked?” Ali asked

“After making your wish, put your head to the girl’s chest and listen to her heart. Right now there is an after beat, an echo if you like, we call it the murmur of the heart. When her heart heals, there will be no murmur”

“Ok, I’ll give it a try, what do I have to lose?” Ali said,”Where is this molvi you speak of?”

“He’s not a molvi, he’s a Sufi follower. His name is Ghulam Shahbaz, he lives near the old cinema in Lalukhait near the fan market.”

“Ok, thanks” I heard chairs moving which meant that Ali was getting up to leave. I looked around to find Fatima; she was standing in front of me staring at me with those big black eyes I could never say no to. She was holding a can of mirinda in one hand and a bag of sweets in the other. She asked me slowly”Is it true Chachu?”

“What beta?”

“What the doctor said? That he can’t make me well?” She asked

“Yes- but he is sending us to another doctor who will make you well again.” I explained hoping with all my heart that it would be true. The explanation satisfied her temporarily at least.

“Papa what did the doctor uncle say?” Fatima asked a red eyed Ali. Ali smiled half heartedly and said

“We’re going to a colleague of his and then we’re going on a holiday, how does that sound?”

“Great, but what about school?”

“It’s only a few days, you won’t miss much ok?” Ali said a bit more convincingly.

“OK”

We left the hospital and Ali asked me to drive, he usually never did that, but now every moment was precious. He got in the back seat of his new Suzuki Alto and handed me the keys, Fatima hopped in the back seat with him and asked “Where are we going now Papa?”

“We’re going home first to pack and then we need to make one stop and then road trip!” Ali said smiling

“One condition, I get to pack my own clothes ok?”

“Done, Asad lets go home!”

I nodded my head and we left for Ali’s flat in the posh area of M. Ali society, he had been very thorough in searching for the perfect place to bring up a family. His wife Sara, had assisted him in searching for the perfect neighborhood and although the rent was a bit on the higher side, but it was worth it. I had moved in with Ali around a year before, I was single so I had no problems just picking my stuff up and moving in. Although he did not ask me, but I chipped in with half the rent and also took care of Fatima. As we turned into our apartment complex, the watch man gave us a smile and waved hello, he was greeted by two sober smiles, a nod and one lively smile accompanied by vigorously waving hand.

We took the elevator to the first floor and watched as Fatima skipped ahead of us to open the door. When we entered the flat, Ali told Fatima “Go pack up beta, we’ll leave tomorrow in the morning.”

“How long should I pack for?”

There was an awkward silence as Ali and I glanced at each other, after which he replied slowly “At least four days”

“OK! Are we going any place cold? Do I need any warm clothes? I don’t have any warm clothes; can we go and buy some?”

I was bombarded by these and a million other questions as Ali left the room, presumably to make a phone call as he had his new Nokia 1100 out. Fatima’s demeanor was so much like her mother, even though she had barely turned three before her mother passed away, she was so much like Sara in everything she did. She had that infectious smile, the same frown that Sara had when she was thinking, she even had the same cheerful nature. The likeness was uncanny. Sara was always nice to me, she was like the sister I never had, I missed her so much and I can only imagine that Ali’s grief was ten times worse than mine.

“Are you done?” I asked Fatima wearily

Fatima got on that adorable frown but still had that twinkle in her eye which meant that she was only acting upset. She crossed her arms and her frown deepened and she said “No, you didn’t answer any of my questions.”

“Arrray baba! I am human not a computer and I don’t know anything except that we’re not going any place cold and the road trip will be fun.”

The frown was replaced by that infectious smile at the sound of fun.

“OK, I’ll go and pack for four days.”

She left the room as Ali came back and sat next to me, he looked around to make sure Fatima was out of earshot before telling me the plan. He was remarkably calm for someone who had just been informed the next three days with his daughter could be the last time they spend together.

“I know you heard everything so I’ll just tell you my plan.”

“OK”

“The sufi guy whose number the doctor gave me has called us now to talk. He wants to see Fatima himself so he can tell us what to do. We have to do certain things during the trip which he can only explain in person.”

“So when do we leave?”

“As soon as Fatima’s done packing, I’ll go check on her” Ali got up from the sofa and glanced at the picture of Sara on the side table.

“She looks so much like her doesn’t she?” I asked Ali

He smiled and said” Yes, she does” and left the room.

Ali’s marriage was done in the traditional way, the elders of the house searching for the perfect girl to add to their family. The judges (My mom, Khala and my Phuppo) were undecided with the last two girls- Sara and another doctor girl, Ali had only glanced at Sara’s picture for a micro second and he said” I like her.” So Sara came into the family, she slotted in seamlessly in our family it was only then that I understood what match made in heaven meant. A year later Fatima was born and we were ecstatic, six months later Ali moved in here and all was perfect until one day…

“Chachu!” Fatima startled me,“  Let’s go!”

Ali handed me the keys

“Wow, papa two times in one day. Why are you letting Chachu drive our new car? Aren’t you the one who’s always saying that even I could drive better than him?” Fatima eyed me with a mischievous smile.

“No when did I say that?”

“hmmmm lets see last Tuesday, Wednesday, yesterday…” She began counting on her fingers and started giggling.

“Did you remember to call Mishal to say thank you for the birthday present? No? I guess you only remember important things like cartoon network times or the number for KFC?”

“Papa those are important things, how can I survive without food?”

“OK, OK get in the car.”

The journey to the Sufi guy was pretty uneventful except for the fact that we stopped once to ask directions. When we reached the address, Ali got out and left Fatima and me in the car. I braced myself for a guy in green clothes, with a mass of tangled unwashed hair, a million beads around his neck and five rings on each finger. A middle aged man with graying hair and a short beard opened the door, there was no holiness look about him, and he was dressed in a plain white kurta shalwar. I assumed he was the assistant because he did not in any way look mullah babaish.

“Come inside Asad and don’t forget to lock the car.”

I helped Fatima out and locked the car, checking the locks twice, with Fatima checking the locks again herself, satisfied; she grabbed my hand and led me inside. The house was rather small, pretty much like our flat, but it felt more congested. I felt Fatima grip my hand a little tighter as we made our way through the narrow passage way leading inside the house. It looked like an ordinary enough house. No religious quotations were written anywhere, we took our slippers outside the door step before entering the room, I later found out it was only done because the house was carpeted. We found Ali sitting with the same man who had opened the gate; I looked around expecting the holy man to pop inside anytime soon beads and all. I asked Ali “Is he the- you know?”

“Yes” came the reply from the guy who opened the gate.

“I am Ghulam Shahbaz” he said shaking my hand

“So what are we waiting for uncle?” Fatima asked shyly

“Some magic,” Ghulam said,”Give me your hand”

Fatima tentatively extended her hand, Ghulam placed his hands on hers closed his eyes, and when he removed his hands Fatima’s hands were again full of sweets, oddly enough they looked like the same sweets Dr. Shah had given her earlier in the day. The reaction was also the same, the wide grin and the chirpy ‘thank you’, Ghulam’s face grew serious and he began his explanation. He addressed Fatima first and said “I can make you well again, don’t worry beta, but you will have to do exactly as I say ok?”

Fatima nodded

“You will have to do everything your father and Chachu tell you to do over the next three days ok?”

Again she nodded

“Good” then he turned towards us and said “I’ve found her problem, how long ago did her mother pass away?”

“It was two years this October.” Ali replied

“And have you been working full time since her passing away?”

“After two months yes”

“Ok, Ok.”

He looked at Fatima who was also listening intently, he offered her to go in the other room and play with his daughter. She looked a bit hesitant but I said” Don’t worry jaan, its ok, you can go and play.”

After Fatima left the room Ghulam said “Most children need love from two figures in their life, relation doesn’t matter. The love should be unconditional, when there is a severe lack of love; it hampers the development of a child’s heart a little, or in some cases like Fatima’s the hindrance is severe.”

“Now you spend the day completely with her, let her know you’re there for her. Hug her, kiss her, do anything and everything to show her your affection and after you have spent time which is equivalent to five time Namaz, you take her to the well on the way to Sehwan Sharif, draw the water from it. Stir the water seven times anticlockwise, say Bismillah and share the water with your daughter and who ever accompanies you on your journey and Inshallah, her heart will be whole again.”

Ali and I just nodded; there was nothing else that we could do.

“Is there anything else?” Ali asked

“Keep her close to you at all times, so she feels a presence beside her, this gives a sense of security to the child.”

“Thanks” Ali got up and called Fatima to come out. He fished out his wallet and asked “How much do I owe you?”

Ghulam smiled pleasantly and said “Her smile is payment enough for me.”

We shook hands and then we left. I tossed the keys to Ali; he looked at Fatima and then threw them back to me.

“Really?” I asked a bit shocked

“Yeah, why not?” Ali replied, “I could get used to someone else driving me around.”

“Cool!” Ali had always been a scrooge when it comes to letting others use his things. Today was a first for me.

Fatima and Ali got in the back seat, with Fatima sitting behind me. She reminded me of the fact over and over again by punching and kneeing the back of the seat, now I knew why Ali was letting me drive. Fatima did this to almost anyone who drove when she did not get to sit in the front.

“Next stop KFC!” Fatima shouted

I glanced at Ali in the rearview mirror to get his confirmation, he nodded again and off to KFC we went. We parked in front of the KFC near our apartment, Ali helped Fatima out of the car and told me “Order something, I’ll be right with you guys”

Fatima strode purposefully to the counter and stood on her tiptoes and called out “Uncle, please give the menu card!”

The cashier knew us, so he just played along like always “Madam, do you really need to see the menu card or shall I just order you a chicky meal?”

As always Fatima nodded solemnly and replied” One chicky meal with a 7up and two pieces chicken and a Pepsi for my Chachu and one zinger and 7up for my Baba.” She was so confident for a five year old, another trait she shared with her mother.

“Who’s paying?” The cashier asked

“That would be me,” Ali said as he walked into the restaurant and fished out his credit card.

“Have you ordered for me also?”

“Yes Baba, one zinger and one 7up for you.”

“Good girl” Ali ruffled Fatima’s hair, “Now where do you want to sit?”

“Right here in front of the counter.” She slipped into the booth where we always sat.

Everyone was ecstatic after Fatima was born; Sara named her after her mother as is the tradition in our family. Naming the girl is the responsibility of the mother of the child, but the son’s name is the responsibility of both the parents. So we named our Fatima binte Ali, which was done surprisingly quickly and without any hungama.

Ali and Sara were really happy when Fatima was born and then searched for the perfect place to raise a family, as I mentioned before, they looked for the perfect place for at least a year before moving in. Ali was a partner in an accounting firm; he was relatively well off, on top of that Sara also came from a financially sound back ground, consequently, money was no object.  I was in college when Fatima was born and I used to tag along with Sara when she went apartment hunting Ali only saw four places which we had short listed from around 50 apartments.

Ali could not have been happier, but one day when he came home and found Sara sitting in the drawing room massaging her temples. She complained of a head ache and took a couple of pills and fell asleep never to wake up again. Brain hemorrhage was the cause of death written on her death certificate. Ali was never the same again.

“Asad, your food’s here.” Ali said

“Huh?”

“I said your food’s here”

“Ok, thanks.”

“Fatima, can you get us some ketchup please?”

“Ok Baba!”

She wandered off to the ketchup counter, and Ali said

“We leave tomorrow morning, don’t tell anyone anything, except that we’re going on a road trip to Sehwan Sharif.”

“Ok, have you informed your office?”

“Yeah, I just cleared it up with the senior partner, it’s all set.”

“So what’s the plan? Do we drive or take the bus?”

“I was thinking driving, you know, she’d be more comfortable in something familiar”

“Of course”

Just then Fatima came with our ketchup and slid in beside me. She sipped her drink and then started her meal. On reaching home Fatima sank on the couch and exclaimed “I’m tired!”

Ali crouched down to her level and asked her “How would you like to have a slumber party?”

Fatima’s eyes lit up “Does that mean I can stay up late?”

Ali nodded and Fatima was ecstatic, she went to her room and came back in a little while in her night suit with her blanket and stuffed goat she slept with, she called it Goatay.

Ali and Fatima went to his room, Fatima switched on the TV and Ali went to change his clothes. I sat there on the sofa contemplating whether I should go in there or not. In a little while Fatima came out to call me

“Chachu aren’t you coming?”

“Beta, there won’t be much space on the bed.” I replied not wanting to intrude on Ali’s time alone with Fatima. They rarely got to spend time together. Fatima then said something that is kind of our family motto; she said “There should only be room in the heart, other spaces you can make”

I smiled and told her that I’ll be there in a bit. I went to my room and packed for the trip and then went to shower and change.

When I went to Ali’s room I saw that Fatima was already asleep, I mouthed good night to Ali and then tried to sleep. I couldn’t sleep, there were so many emotions I was experiencing, I was restless, and I was helpless, finally after two hours of tossing and turning  I got up to get something to drink and found Ali sitting on the kitchen table with a glass of water and a water bottle in front of him. The water was untouched.

He looked at me and remarked “Can’t sleep either huh?”

I shook my head.

“Do you want to talk about it” I asked

Ali nodded and he talked. We talked all night, he talked mostly and I listened. The upside of bad events is that it usually brings people closer, for Ali and I it was a first, we never really talked about anything really, but that night was the first time I really felt like we had connected, like we were brothers.

We stopped talking at dawn when we heard the call for prayer or the Azaan, after the Azaan was over, Ali mentioned Fatima the first time in our conversation, a fact that we told each other repeatedly.

“She looks so much like her mother, doesn’t she” he asked

I nodded.

I packed my bag and put everything in the car so we could leave as soon as Fatima finished her breakfast. Fatima came out of the room yelling “Road Trip!”

Ali patted her on the head and said “Not so fast beta, breakfast first, then road trip”

Fatima scowled and then sighed muttering “Fine”

“Go brush your teeth and comb that nest on your head please.”

“Ok baba, I’m just coming in a bit.” She yawned and went out of the kitchen.

After finishing breakfast we went to the parking lot of our apartments and Ali gave me the keys again, Fatima and I stared at him with a bewildered expression on our faces.

Ali just shook his head and said “Get in”

Like last night, Ali got in the backseat with Fatima and commanded “Next stop- supplies! Driver let’s go to Jumbo!”

Playing along I nodded my head and replied “Yes sir!”

We went to Jumbo, which was a super stores and they had a wide range of products from edibles to grocery stuff etc. Controlling Fatima in the store was always a difficult task and that day proved no different, heart condition or no heart condition, that girl was quick. She was literally, a kid in a candy store.

Although she appeared to be serenely wandering the aisles of the store, but five minutes of following her and preventing her from picking everything in sight left me feeling as if I had run a marathon. Finally I managed to convince her to end her shopping spree and as we made our way to the counter Ali was standing there smirking.

He bent down and asked Fatima “Beta, are you sure you’ve got everything you need for the trip?”

“Yes” I interjected

“Asad, please, I’m asking my daughter here. She can answer for herself” Ali said addressing Fatima again, he asked “Well?”

Fatima nodded her head.

Ali paid for the stuff as we made our way back to the car. Fatima skipped to the car but her limbs went stiff and she tripped. Luckily she was near the car so she steadied herself and didn’t fall face first on the asphalt.

“Oops, I tripped” Fatima giggled.

Ali let out a sigh of relief and glanced at me. I knew at that moment we were thinking the same thing- was this because of the expanding hole in her heart?

After setting all the supplies in the passenger seat, Ali sat in the back with Fatima again. Fatima let me know that she was seated comfortably by kicking the back of the driver’s seat.

“Let’s go Chachu!” Fatima exclaimed.

“Yes ma’am” I replied nodding my head solemnly.

We drove in silence the whole way, Fatima was surprisingly quiet. The silence was not awkward, it was oddly comforting. We were alone with our thoughts but together at the same time, I guess at that point in time it was exactly what the doctor ordered. We stopped at a gas station in Hyderabad, to stretch our legs and fuel. Ali held Fatima’s hand all the time she was walking, following Ghulam Shabaz’s advice to the letter. After fifteen minutes we got back on the road, the atmosphere in the car was visibly more cheerful. Fatima was back to her chirpy self, commenting on everything we passed. She fell asleep in the afternoon, around four. We reached the well that Ghulam had mentioned at ten in the night. Surprisingly, the place was packed. Ali was staying in the car as I made my way to the well with a cooler I had brought from home. The well was the old style with a bucket and long rope, the kind we saw in the movies depicting villages and older times. I lowered the bucket as long as the rope would allow and I pulled it back up, but it was empty.

I stood there scratching my head thinking what to do. The guy standing next to me asked “What’s the problem?”

“There’s no water”

The man smiled and said “No problem,” He then turned to the crowd and yelled “Naraa-e- Haaaideriiiii!!!!” Haider was a name by which the Holy Prophet referred to his cousin Ali. The man had yelled out to people to cry out the call of Haider.

The people responded by crying out “Ya Ali!” The crowd responded by crying out ‘O Ali’ which was the real name of the Holy Prophet’s cousin.

The man turned to me and said “Try now!”

I dropped the bucket again and less than halfway, I heard a splash. I drew the bucket up and filled my cooler. I turned to thank the man who had helped me, but he was no longer there.

When I got back to the car, Ali was looking slightly worried; I asked what the problem was.

“Her breathing’s becoming irregular. Hurry up with the water.”

I stirred it seven times anticlockwise, said Bismillah and blew on the water softly. I passed the glass to Ali, who made Fatima sit up to drink it. I switched on the car light to make it easier to drink it. Fatima was looking very pale; she looked very different from the bouncy bubbly girl who was chatting with us in the afternoon.

The water made a difference, some of the colour started to return to her face. She took another sip and remarked “This tastes like the water that grandfather had brought back from Saudi Arabia.” My father had gone on pilgrimage earlier in the year and he had brought back the holy water from Mecca. She handed Ali the glass, who sipped it and passed it to me. I took a sip and both of us nodded in agreement to Fatima.  The holy water reportedly had healing powers, but how did we get it in a well in Pakistan?

“Let’s go to the shrine now.” Ali said

I started the car and drove in silence for the next hour. We arrived at the shrine at midnight, Ali carried Fatima and I had the cooler of well water. We gave her the water again and Ali and I also took a sip of it. After muttering a small prayer, he asked me to check her heart beat. I knelt down and put my ear to her chest. I listened hard for a couple of minutes but fortunately, I did not hear a murmur. I looked at Ali and smiled who was looking quite anxious. On seeing me smiling he looked at me in disbelief and mouthed ‘really’. I nodded and he also confirmed the fact himself. We both started screaming and dancing, Fatima also joined us in our celebration.

We seemed to have kicked started a party because suddenly someone started banging a catchy beat on the dhol, the traditional drum of Pakistan. People started dancing and shouting praise for Lal Shahbaz Qalandar the mystic at whose shrine we had come. Ali said “Come on, let’s go inside and say thanks”

We went inside and said our thanks and offered gratitude prayers in the mosque. We read the inscription on the door of the tomb it read “Hazrat Laal Shahbaz Qalander born Syed Hussain Shah preached tolerance to the Hindus and the Muslims and was often found in the company of his loyal disciple named Ghulam Shahbaz or ‘servant of Shahbaz’ because of his loyalty to Hazrat Qalandar. Legend has it that both of them still assist people in their lives appearing to them as normal people”

Ali and I looked at each other and both of us said the same thing “The doctor”

Fatima looked at us and said “I know we have to thank him”

We left for home and drove nonstop on the way back. We reached back home in the afternoon, we immediately called the Aga Khan Hospital to set up an appointment with Dr. Shah. We were told that no Dr. Shah worked there. We spent the next two months looking for Dr. Shah and Ghulam Shahbaz, but we never found out. Maybe they were really the mystic and his disciple, maybe they were not. I guess we will never know.

We haven’t told anyone about this, but there is no other explanation for it all other than that it was a miracle. Never a day goes by that we aren’t grateful for our blessings. Every day is a gift, I guess that’s why they call it the present.

Explanations of local terms used

This story is inspired by true events, but it is a work of fiction.

Kindergarten- We refer to preschool as Montessori in Pakistan

Doctor uncle-It’s the way we refer to our elders if we have no relation with them. Strangers are referred to as uncle and aunty if we don’t know their name like in this case Fatima refrers to the doctor as ‘doctor uncle’

Beta means ‘child’ in Urdu language

Mazaar means tomb in Urdu

Molvi is the muslim equivalent of a priest it should not be capitalised.

Khala refers to maternal aunt or mother’s sister and Phuppo refers to paternal aunt or father’s sister.

Mulla babaish This refers to appearance mullah baba is slang for molvi, ‘ish’ is added for the same effect that sports writers use ‘-esque’ when describing a play or player or stat for e.g. lionel messi’s style of play is often described as maradona-esque. meaning he plays like maradona.

Namaz- This refers to muslim prayers. offering prayers is called Namaz

Inshallah- Arabic expression meaning God willing