Thursday, August 30, 2012

Upon Earth She Promised That In Heaven Shall They Meet

She dashed down the stairs. Her dad always yelled at her whenever she rushed down the steps, telling her she’d trip over those stairs one day. Stalling at the very last step, she paced it down with uber decency to spare that ‘you’re-gonna-trip-over-those-stairs’ lecture. She stole a glance to check if anyone had seen her violently rushing down those steps. Nobody had. In fact, she could only see her uncle and aunt when she entered the family room. They had come all the way from London and it had been over a week now. Her house was their staying spot and she loved it when they’d come here. In fact, everyone at their house loved to have their presence around. Entering the living room, she could tell something was going on.

‘Are you guys going somewhere?’, she asked.

‘Yes, to the graveyard.’, her aunt replied.

‘Oh. Just you two?’

‘No, your dad’s coming as well.’

Never would they miss to visit this ‘family graveyard’. Every time they would come to Pakistan, paying a visit to the graveyard was always a must-to-do task at their hands.

‘Do you want to come along’, her aunt zipped her purse close and wore it on her shoulder.

‘Me? Uhh.. ok yeah sure.’, she seemed unsure at first but then suddenly something told her she had to go there.

She didn’t have anything to do at home and besides, she thought it would be exciting to visit a graveyard, particularly this family graveyard where her ancestors, whom she had never actually seen in her life, were buried. Except one though, her dad’s sister. She still remembered that day when she got the news about her death. They were out of town, staying in a city that was a few hours’ drive away from her hometown, when late at night her dad got a call that broke this tragic news to him. She remembered how time felt stranger with every minute that passed by after that call. She and her family hopelessly tried to sleep that night. The night only kept on stretching longer. She lay on a couch with her eyes closed and waited for the sunlight to fall through the windows. Next morning, they set off for the journey to the town where a lifeless body awaited them to bid her farewell for the very last time.

‘We’re about to leave with your dad’, her uncle’s voice snapped her and her instant recollection of murky memories withered away. ‘You better get ready.’

‘I’ll take a minute’, she yelled as she rushed swiftly back upstairs to her room. ‘Don’t leave without me!!’, she shouted from her room.

The afternoon sun blazed upon their heads as they advanced towards the graveyard. Her dad pointed out a black iron gate located inside a narrow, roofed street.‘The graveyard is on the other side of that black gate’, he told her. It wasn’t like she had never come there before. She had come there once.. or twice at the most. But that was quite a long time ago. She was only a kid when she last visited it. She needed a fresh view of that graveyard to be saved in her mind. It was their family graveyard, after all. There were a few small houses on both sides of the street and right ahead of them was that big black iron gate. They approached the gate and her dad unlocked a rusty padlock that was hanging there, lifelessly. A small door was forged within that black gate. The door was so small that when the four of them entered through it to the other side of that gate, they practically had to duck to ward off knocking their heads against that iron gate.

She stepped through the gate and saw several mounds of earth aligned perfectly in a row. Not that there were a lot of graves. The first row had some eight graves and the second row held only two, just below the graves of the first row forming the perfect symmetry. Just one glance of everyone’s ultimate dwelling made every cell of her existence melancholic. Her feet dragged her towards those tumuluses. Her family lay beneath those heaps of soil. The rest of the land was bare. It’d take quite a while to get it filled, she thought bluntly. And with that another thought popped up in her mind right away. Those who would die first would take up their places here and then there’d come a time when there’d be no space left for anymore graves. Where the rest of family members would be deposited then? She motioned towards her dad in hopes to get a fair answer. But her dad, along with her uncle and aunt, was already standing in front a grave with his head bowed down and hands postured to pray. Dutifully she stepped beside her dad and did the same. As she prayed, for the salvation of whoever was beneath that heap of soil, she noticed something that was too conspicuous to be ignored. That grave in front of her. It was relatively smaller than the rest of the graves. Another query of the day. It was an obscure place for her. Curiosity had set in. She had a lot to ask.
Her dad raised his cupped hands to his face and his palms brushed his face, a signal that his prayer was over. He moved to the next grave. But her uncle and aunt stayed there, looking affectionately at that small grave. She heard a sniff that progressively grew into rhythmic sniffles. They were in a cemetery, someone was definitely crying. She turned her head to see who it was. The answer was quite obvious. Men do not usually cry. It was her aunt who was crying. She stood there, stared at her aunt and let her heart feel sorry for her teary eyes. She didn’t move, nor did she try to soothe her crying aunt. Her aunt calmed her crying self down and wiped her tears.

‘Do you know whose grave is it?’, a tear appeared in the corner of her aunt’s eye.

‘No. But I want to know.’

‘That’s my daughter under that mass of soil.’, her aunt ended her sentences with a sniff.

She had heard a lot about her cousin, a physically & mentally disabled child since birth, who fought with her disability for four grand years of her life. Her cousin had died long before she was born. Now she knew why that grave looked smaller than the others. It was the grave of a 4 year old. It was the grave of her cousin who died at the age of 4. Feeling awfully sorry for her aunt, she looked down at that grave once again. Uncontrollably, a tear rolled down her cheek. Emotions are a funny thing, she thought. She was crying for someone whom she had never even seen.

They started moving to the rest of the graves and paused before every grave sequentially. Her dad would tell her which grave belonged to whom and then they’d pray before it and a tear would dribble down in her prayer-postured palms. The pattern continued and they reached the last grave. She raised her hands to her face, finished her prayer and looked around. She was standing in the middle of a graveyard. A place where everything seemed lifeless to her. Gloomy and lifeless. The air of that graveyard smelled gloomy. The soil beneath her shoes felt forlorn. Even the chirping sparrow above her head sounded like it was wailing. She cried once again, thinking how it would have been like if those people buried in this gloomy place, that included her grandparents as well, were alive. Oh how she had always missed her grandparents. While she was mentally communicating with God, complaining why He didn’t let those relatives of hers live long enough to see her, her dad called her out from a corner of that graveyard. She mopped the tears from her cheeks with her sleeves and went over to where her dad was standing.

‘What is it, daddy?’

‘I need to show you something.’ he said pointing towards the uneven surface of the crude graveyard floor.

She seemed inquisitive. ‘You want me to show what? That’s just a corner. An uneven corner.’

‘There’s someone buried under that corner.’

She did a double take.

‘Buried? In that corner? Who?’

‘Your brother.’

Flabbergasted, she stared at her father. She didn’t have any brother. She only had three elder sisters and she was the youngest one. She loved being the youngest one and she loved her sisters too. She always used to think if God had given her an elder brother, her family would’ve been so complete. She loved elder brothers. She envied her friends when they mentioned their elder brothers in their talks. And when they’d say their brothers were annoying, she would call them ungrateful for such a blessing. ‘Don’t call them annoying!,’ she used to yell at her friends. ‘There’s a void in my life, a void that could never get filled up. A void that fate has destined me. I crave for a brother’s company. I don’t have a brother and I know how it feels like.’ But what did her father just tell her? That she had a brother? A dead brother?

Her dad comprehended what was going on in her mind. He continued, ‘You had a brother. Long before you were born. If he were alive, he would have been about 4 years older than you. But he died as a premature baby. This is where I had buried him.’, he pointed again at that rough corner.

A tornado of emotions set in. She felt happy to know there actually was someone whom she could call her brother. She felt sad with the sudden realization that he was only a premature baby who had died long before she was born. She felt angry because she thought life had been highly unjustified with her. She felt helpless because helpless she was. ‘I actually had a brother?’ Her secret mental conversation with God continued once again. I had a brother, God? You had given me a brother?  But why didn’t you let him breathe in the air of this world. Why didn’t you let him survive? Why? God! Then she felt a smile appearing on her face. I had a brother.

She gathered her sanity and looked at her dad, ‘But that’s not even a grave.’, she felt it was unfair that her brother was buried in a corner. A corner that was far from looking like a grave, much less anyone would know there actually was someone buried down there.

‘A pre-mature baby he was. There wasn’t even a proper funeral. He died even before he came to this world. I took him here alone. Buried him with my own hands.’, her dad said in a nostalgic tone.

‘But you should hav…’, she paused abruptly halfway through her sentence when she heard her uncle calling out her dad’s name. Her dad turned around. Apparently her uncle was trying to read a gravestone’s inscriptions but couldn’t seem to make out what was written on it. Her aunt seemed to be failing to decipher the text as well. Her father went over to help them and secretly she felt thankful for it as she needed some time alone. In that corner. With her brother’s grave- or what seemed something like a grave. A moment of solitude. A moment of mediation. A moment with her.. brother!

She thought she had had enough of this crying for a day. She was wrong. After hearing the news her father broke to her, she realized she had never been this gloomy before in her life, ever. Knowing that she didn’t have a brother was a sad enough reality. But now she knew she had a brother who couldn’t survive. That was depressing. She sat down, gazing at that corner and never wanting to take her eyes off that rough, cracked spot. Tears, like an avalanche, flowed down her already wet cheeks. Like a leaky faucet, they kept dripping down. ‘Brother!’ she said, her voice sounded more like a whisper and she felt glad for it as she didn’t want anyone to hear her teary voice. Nor did she want anyone to soothe her. She wanted to cry. So she did. ‘Brother! I shall meet you in heaven.’, she whispered with a crooked a smile but that smile couldn’t hold her tears back. Spontaneously, she let them out. Gladly, they came down running.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

As My Memory Flips Back The Pages..

Every day when my dad would come back from work, I would run towards him. He would take his shoes off and I would ask the same question from him a thousand times in a row, like a broken record, until he would finally answer me.

“Have I got admitted to the school?”
“Have I got admitted to the school?”
“Have I got admitted to the school?”
“Not yet, Yusra!”

And then I would frown and start praying for that day to come quick and with that I would picture a school building. Every time when I thought about school, I couldn’t help but imagine a dark room with a fat lady sitting between two piles of sacks, scrutinizing the class. That fat lady was what I thought how a school teacher looked like.

One day, to my extreme happiness, my dad told me that we were going to the school and it dawned upon me that I would have to take a test before the admission because that’s how children get admitted to the school. My mom dressed me up and my dad drove us to the school. On our way, I asked my mom what I was going to be asked. She told me that I was taught all the basics at home so I did not have to worry, it would not be difficult for me. We reached the school and it looked nothing like what I had imagined. A big gate. A large school ground with swings, surrounded by a good number of classrooms that I couldn’t event count. Oh, so that’s how a school actually looks like. I highly doubt that I managed to see that view without dropping my jaw.

My mom was right. I knew just about everything on the test. The Urdu/English alphabets. The forward and backward counting. Spellings of some words. The first and second kalma. It was a piece of cake and that too with generous amount of chocolate sauce for me. Of all the tests I’ve taken in my life, this was the easiest one. The principal smiled at me and patted my cheeks and told me that I did great on the test and gave me a juice pack and a bag of chips.

I got admitted to the school.

I woke up early in the morning for my first day of school. Out of sheer excitement, I didn’t even want to eat my breakfast. Mom dressed me in my school uniform and did my hair. With my school bag perched on my back, I shoved my feet into my new shiny brown shoes and my mom stooped down to buckle them up for me. While buckling my shoes, she looked up at me, smiled and said, “Don’t forget this day and time when you grow up.” I had no idea what to say to her, so I just smiled back at her. That was a five-year-old’s response. A way of ensuring her mom that this day would be remembered. Forever. So, right then and there I promised myself that I would not let this day slip out of my memory.

And now it’s safe to say that after all those years, I still haven’t failed to keep my promise that I had once made to myself in secrecy.

My dad dropped me off at school. The day I had been waiting for eagerly had finally come. He came inside the school with me and took me to the principal’s office. The principal asked a lady worker at the school to show me the way to my classroom. My dad kissed me goodbye and told me he would come to take me home when the school hours were over. Being left in absolute unfamiliar surroundings and watching my dad leave me in the hands of a perfect stranger was that episode of my imagination about First Day Of School which I never watched. My heart started pounding in my ears and I tried in vain to keep myself from crying. Suddenly, I didn’t want to go sit in a classroom. I didn’t want to discover more about that school. I just wanted to run back to my dad. I wanted to go home. All I could see around me was an enormous building and alien faces. I was crying. The people at school were brutal. Like robots with no feelings, they watched me cry my eyes out but no one took me back to my dad. I was taken to the classroom instead.

I was assigned a roll number. 43. It took me a while to settle down and observe my surroundings. This time, too, the scene around me caught me by surprise. There were no piles of sacks and no fat teacher. Instead, what I saw before me was a big black rectangular thing on which, a pretty, happy faced teacher was scribbling down the English alphabet in different colors. Fat? No! Fat was absolutely not the word for her. With time, I started to acknowledge what I was seeing in my vicinity.

The bell rang after sometime and everyone started to get out of the classroom in pairs, with lunchboxes in their hands. This is lunch break, I was told. A girl, (let’s just call her ‘The Nice Girl’) while leaving the classroom with her friend, halted where I was seated and said that I could come with her if I wanted to. I didn’t have any friends to have my lunch with. I hesitated a bit at first but then I realized I was a total loner at this new place so I took my lunch box out of my brand spanking new school bag and tagged along beside her.

I don’t know why but I have always been the weird one since my childhood. I have weird desires now and I had weird desires back then. I wanted to see how school toilets looked like. I decided to ask The Nice Girl to take me to the lavatory but I found it so embarrassing to tell her that I only wanted to go to the loo just because I wanted to see it. I thought she would laugh at me. Even though she was really really nice, it still seemed a bit embarrassing to me. So I fibbed. I told her I wanted to go the loo really bad. She, being as nice as she could, told her friend that she was going to show this new girl (that was me, of course) the way to the loo and she handed our lunch boxes to her friend and said that we would eat our lunch once we get back from the lavatory.

So instead of eating my lunch and playing on the swings, I was heading towards the toilets just to see how they looked like at the school. The Nice Girl took me where the school toilets were. She stayed outside while I went inside and counted the number of toilet doors. After examining that place, I came out concluding that I didn’t really like the school toilets. Too small. The classrooms were a lot better. Wide and colorful.

I was feeling hungry and so was The Nice Girl. She suggested that we should start munching on what our mommies had packed for us before the bell rings. So we got back to where her friend was but what I saw next brought back that I-want-to-go-home-RIGHT-NOW feeling within me. Her friend was not at all nice like she was. She had hogged on my lunch. She was laughing devilishly, running around the school ground still chewing on the last bite of my lunch and giving me that same bully look they show in those school bully movies. She was just making me want to kill her. But I couldn’t kill her of course. Standing in the middle of the school ground, helpless like a fish out of water, I broke into a fountain of tears and cried my heart out. The Nice Girl got all mad on her friend. She told her that she was a bad girl and tried to calm me down from crying by offering me her lunch. Although, feeling like it was the end of the world, after all that had happened, somewhere in between the weeping and the longing to see my parents' faces, I couldn’t help thinking how nice, caring and sweet The Nice Girl was. I wonder if I had told her that. I highly doubt I had though.

Nevertheless, I made a friend that day.

I had learnt a lot that day. Like how hard and challenging it was to say goodbye to your loved ones. And that the school classrooms didn’t have piles of sacks. And that the teachers did not necessarily have to be fat. I finally knew how school toilets looked like. But above and beyond all, I had learnt that I could then proudly call someone my friend.