The Boy Who Didn't
By Tehmina Khan
Heat rises from the asphalt in waves. Haseeb and I hang out on the road from which the cars turn into the Sunday Bazaar. We run after them as they roar dust in our faces. Our jute bags bang against the sides of our bodies. We both rush up to the begum as she steps out of the car. Haseeb is a step ahead of me. He stands straight, puffing out his chest, to look bigger. The driver pulls out bags from the trunk of the car and hands them to Haseeb. I step away, returning to my post by the road.
We earn a few hundred rupees during the course of the day. Not enough. Half is spent on the daal and naan that we have for lunch. Some of the begums tip generously, fifty to seventy rupees for carrying their groceries and following them around the bazaar as they shop. The shopkeepers drop the items bought into our baskets, and at the end of it, we help load the groceries into the trunk of the cars. Other begums, after spending thousands on the groceries, are stingy about spending any more. They dig into their large bags and drop the spare change found at the bottom into our outstretched palms. I have come to realize that the size of the tip has nothing to do with the size of the bag.
The work is hard, tiring. My back hurts almost constantly. Both Haseeb and I give our earnings to our mothers. We live in the same neighbourhood. In the evening, we sometimes play cricket together. Most days we are too tired, too hungry.
Returning home on a bus we pass large homes. The walls are high, the trees higher. Through the gates, I catch glimpses of lush grass. Haseeb says that it feels like a blanket. He used to work in a home like that, but he doesn’t like talking about it much.
Where we live, there aren’t any trees. The houses in our basti, erected on dusty, naked ground, embrace each other, their tin roofs kissing. Even the sea breeze loses its way in the maze-like dirt paths that run between our homes. The air is free, but while the rich breath easily, we are like the asthmatic, every breath a struggle against the sweltering heat.
Water flows abundantly in the homes of the rich. Shortages are compensated for by summoning water tankers. We see them parked outside large homes, the water rushing through a hose from the truck into the underground tank of the house. A servant on hand to supervise the transfer and pay the driver. We don’t have water. My elder brother wakes up at five in the morning, and he and my father line up to collect water in white, plastic jerry cans, which they carry home. This water is precious. On TV, at the tea dhaba, I once saw an ad in which children run through sprinklers while their mothers watch with smiles on their faces. My mother slaps my younger sister when she wastes water. Ami needs it to cook, wash our clothes, and for all us to wash with. Haseeb told me that in the big houses, they even water their grass. And, they don’t wash the way we do, with buckets. They have showers with water heads spraying them from all directions. That’s what rain feels like during the monsoon. My siblings and I run in the rain. It soaks through our clothes, plastering them to our bodies, but we don’t care. Rain means freedom from heat and work. Water streams down our lanes, onto the roads, and down to the ocean. Where it cannot flow, it sits in pools and is soon covered with plastic bags and green algae. Dry dirt easily disregarded on other days swells with rainwater, becomes sludge, and so we roll our shalwars up. I make paper boats for my little sister, Nazli, which we sail down the flooded gully etched through the middle of our lane.
Nazli. You have never met a child as beautiful. She has light brown eyes, a small nose, lips that are always curved upwards, and when she smiles, she tilts her head sideways and looks at you so that your heart dances at the sight of her. She looks like Ami, or rather Ami probably looked like her when she was younger. Sometimes, when Ami laughs, and the years fall away from her face, she looks like Nazli.
One of the other boys who lives a few houses down from us told me about a madrassah that just opened up close by. He says that they don’t just feed you; they give you a stipend as well. And, on top of it all, you learn how to read and write properly. I attend a local school occasionally. It is overcrowded, understaffed, and dirty. Most days, our teacher does not show up. Rumour has it that our teacher works full-time as a tea-boy at a bank, while collecting a pay cheque from the Education Department of Sindh. If I improve at reading and writing, perhaps I, too, could collect a pay cheque from the government when I am older.
At dinnertime, I mention the madrassah to my family, but they don’t seem enthusiastic.
Abu is a handyman and sits on his haunches on Gizri Road, his tool box at his side, waiting for customers: people who need an extra pair of hands, a strong back, and at times, skilled labour. Sometimes, he lands a longer contract, a few months of steady work, but more often than not, we don’t know whether he will return home tired but happy, or restless and dejected. Sajid, my elder brother, works as an apprentice at a car mechanic shop on Gizri Avenue. He works for food. One day, he wants to buy a car for all of us. Ami always laughs at this. Where will we park it, on top of our roof? Perhaps a helicopter would be better, she suggests. But tonight, she is serious.
“Free food. Free money. What do they want in return?”
“Ami, they are good people. They like to give charity.”
She looks sceptical. Abu eats quickly, in big bites.
“Your ami isn’t saying that they are bad people, but stay smart. Go there with Haseeb and see what it’s like. If you don’t like it, come home. You can always learn to do something with your hands. May be your uncle might take you on in his tailoring shop.”
“I don’t want to be a tailor, stitching women’s clothes all day and even worse, taking their measurements.”
Sajid sniggers and gets a look from Abu.
“What’s wrong with women? Nazli and I are womenfolk too.”
Ami winks at Nazli, who firmly clamps shut both eyes before reopening them. You can tell that she thinks her blink is a wink.
“Let me go see the madrassah. They will teach me to read and write well, to be sahib-loog.”
Sajid sits up straight, arranges his face into a serious expression, while his hand adjusts his imaginary bow tie.
“Sahib, your car is ready.” He smiles at me and I punch him with my clean left hand. Ami would not be pleased if I left curry stains on his clothes.
The madrassah has high ceilings and many small rooms, the floors of which are covered in jute rugs. Boys of various ages sit cross-legged in front of book easels bearing the Quran. They sway back and forth as they recite loudly. I am disturbed by the noise of the many recitations; it’s as if the walls are buzzing with the sound. The Sheikh Sahib notices Haseeb and me standing at the door and beckons us to him. He pats the spaces on either sit of himself. We are flattered by this attention and sit down. He introduces himself as Sheikh Idris. He gives us chocolates and white caps.
We attend the madrassah regularly and we even become accustomed to the noise of the constant recitations. Our backs don’t hurt anymore and in the evenings, we often play cricket with the other boys in our neighbourhood.
Haseeb is the class favourite. He is smarter than all the rest of us. He attended a private school before we became friends travelling to and from the Sunday Bazaar together. He assists the Sheikh in the class, helping the other boys with their work. He also runs errands for Sheikh Idris. Day before yesterday, the two of us walked down to the corner store to buy yogurt. The Sheikh felt like having lassi. Yesterday, I saw Haseeb carrying laundry home. He was going to ask his ami to wash and mend the clothes for Sheikh Sahib. I mentioned the errands to Sajid at dinner.
“Let’s hope your Sheikh doesn’t have a car.”
“But why is Nosheen mending his clothes for him?” Ami was tearing her chappati into little pieces, over which she poured daal, creating a soup-like mixture that she drank down. Ami lost most of her teeth years back, and so shreds her food before eating it.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Well, you better not bring any dirty clothes here for me to mend.”
Sometimes, Sheikh Idris slaps the other boys. But he never hits Haseeb and me. Often, he has us sit on either side of him. Instead of returning home with the other boys, Haseeb and I often stay on at the madrassah. Since we don’t understand the Arabic verses that we recite, he explains the Quran, the Five Pillars, and heaven and hell. The surest way to heaven is through Jihad. We are Allah’s soldiers and have to spread his message.
I realize that Ami was right in warning me to be careful at the madrassah. The food and money are not for free. It is the coin with which they purchase our obedience. I see the change in Haseeb. He idolizes the Sheikh. Whenever I criticize the sermons, Haseeb gets angry. But there are things that do not make sense to me. Islam means peace, so then how can war be the way to heaven?
On one hand, Sheikh Idris says that heaven lies under our mothers’ feet, but on the other, he says that women should stay at home. Why would anyone want to build walls around heaven? Surely only a selfish person would think of doing such a thing. Nazli and I play on our street together. How could we play together if she had to stay in the house all the time? We are not allowed to question the Sheikh. He says that the faithful do not question. This does not make sense to me either. All answers begin with questions.
Sometimes, when Sheikh Idris, Haseeb and I are together, the Sheikh ignores me. It feels as if on those days, he doesn’t see me. He has eyes only for Haseeb.
When Haseeb is not around, Sheikh Idris lavishes attention on me, and I can do no wrong. Under his gaze, I feel special in every way. But I am starting to wonder how the other boys feel about the two of us. Do their hearts burn the way mine does when Sheikh ignores me for Haseeb? I see envy in the eyes of the younger boys. They get slapped while I get sweets. Yesterday, for the first time, I hid away the sweet Sheikh gave me. I hid it under my knee and then gave it to the youngest boy in our class. He didn’t just smile at me with his lips but with his eyes, too. It made me happy.
Haseeb complains about our families. They don’t pray regularly; our mothers don’t cover their heads, or stay at home. And worse, his father takes drugs. Sheikh Idris tells us that it is our duty to bring our families to the correct path. I try it once with Ami.
“Sheikh Sahib says that we must pray fives times a day or we will burn in hell.”
“Allah created us and we are a part of him. You don’t have to stand on a prayer mat five times a day to talk to Allah.”
“But then you will go to hell.”
“Allah is merciful. We must be good to other people, everything else is forgivable.”
Ami brushes hair away from my eyes and wipes the sweat gathered on the tip of my nose.
“Be kind to other people. Allah doesn’t need your prayers but people need kindness.”
I arrived at the madrassah a little late today. I couldn’t sleep last night. There was no electricity, and therefore no fan, so we left the door open to allow in the night air. The open door was all the invitation that the neighbourhood mosquitos needed. I don’t know what was more irritating, the buzzing of the mosquitos in my ears, or the fabric of my shalwar kurta pasted to my sweaty skin. Ami and Sajid slept, while my father, Nazli and I tossed all night. Five bodies crammed into a small room. A feast for the mosquitos. In the morning, I had a hard time getting up. By the time I got to class, Haseeb was seated next to the Sheikh, and even though they both saw me enter the room, they did not acknowledge me. I sat by the door with the younger boys and watched Haseeb and the Sheikh.
After class, Haseeb came over.
“He wants to see you.”
I didn’t want to see him. I don’t like the way he switches between Haseeb and me. I have the feeling that he plays these games on purpose. He likes us to compete for his attention. When he asks us to run errands for him, it is as if he is the one doing us a favour by allowing us the privilege of waiting on him. He makes me feel like a loser, but Haseeb doesn’t get any of this.
“Haseeb, let’s go. I don’t want to run around doing his work.”
“You have no respect. Be grateful to Sheikh Sahib. He cares for us like a father for his sons.”
I stand up to leave but he grabs my arm and pulls me down again.
I brush his hand away.
I leave the madrassah with the other boys. The sun is blinding, and I shield my eyes with my hand for a minute while my eyes readjust to the bright light. I kick the dirt with my foot, sending dust flying in the air. I wander through the streets, and then close to home I spot Faiza. She is wearing a long, dark embroidered chadar and every few minutes the chadar slips and I catch a glimpse of her dark brown hair gleaming in the sun. Her hair is long and flows in waves down her back. I imagine running my fingers through its length. She lives down the lane from us, and we used to play together when we were younger. She hurries towards the vegetable stall at the corner. I follow and watch her shop and as she passes by me, I offer to carry her bag. She giggles and hurries along. I quicken my step and take hold of her bag, deliberately placing my hand over hers while I do so. She pulls away as if I have burnt her and, lowering her head, marches forward, so that I am left following behind her, carrying her bag. It feels like Sunday Bazaar. Faiza walks ahead like a begum and I follow. At the door to her home, I hand over the bag, but she stands at the doorway and looks at me for a second.
I blink. Did I hear her right?
“Where are they?”
“So, do you want to come in or do you have bags to carry for other girls.”
“I have bags to carry for other girls.”
The door rocks in its frame as she slams it shut in my face.
Idiot. I wanted to go in. I could have been inside right now. I hear laughter from behind me. It’s that harami-bastard from across the road, Adnaan. I glare at him and then walk away, my head high.
I spend hours wandering around. I feel like killing myself. What was I thinking? I had this one chance and I blew it. The sun has set by the time I return home, and Ami is waiting by the door.
“Don’t know. Must be at home. Why?”
“Nosheen was here. He’s not at home. Did you see him at the madrassah?”
“Yes, but that was while ago.”
“Go look around the basti. Tell him to go home if you see him.”
But I couldn’t find Haseeb.
The next morning, I see his ami sitting by the entrance to the school gate. She looks like she hasn’t slept all night. I say salaam but she just nods in return. I tell Sheikh Idris that Haseeb’s ami is waiting by the gate. I follow him out and hear his words to her.
“But do not think of those who have been slain in God’s cause as dead. Nay, they are alive.”
He brushes past me to re-enter the school. I am disgusted at his proximity. We all know about suicide bombers. It’s always on the news. People talk about boys recruited from madrassahs, but these were always just stories about other boys. There was another suicide bombing in the city yesterday evening. The TV was on at the dhaba when I walked past last night looking for Haseeb, and I watched scenes from the blast on the screen.
“Khala.” I approach Haseeb’s ami slowly. I am scared. She looks crazy, with her hair wild and her eyes frantic. She is lying in the dirt and crying loudly. Helping her up, I walk her to our home. I know that Ami will be home. It’s her day off from the beauty parlour where she works as a cleaner. Ami will take care of Haseeb’s mother. She will know what to do.
I sit outside our home. I don’t care who sees my tears. If only we had continued working at the Bazaar. If only I had known. I always envied Haseeb the attention he received from the Sheikh and the way the other boys looked up to him, turning to him for help with their work. But, perhaps, I was the lucky one. Haseeb believed that the Sheikh cared for him like a father for a son. He did not know what a father’s love feels like.
Sajid and Abu return home from work. They must have heard. They sit beside me. We don’t speak. There is nothing to say. His mother keeps asking for Haseeb’s body. No one has the courage to tell her what we know: the suicide bombing at the Shia Mosque and Haseeb’s disappearance happened around the same time. There is nothing left to bury.
I lay awake all night. I try not to think, but memories of Haseeb tumble around and around my brain. Images of him smiling, laughing, talking. How could he have been such a fool? Why did he idolize Sheikh Idris so much? And how could that man use my friend this way? Does he even have a conscience? On the day of Judgement, how will he face Allah? If only I had grabbed Haseeb’s hand and dragged him out of the madrassah with me. Even later, in the afternoon, instead of following Faiza around, I could have returned to the school and checked on Haseeb. Suddenly, there appear so many possibilities - specific moments in time - during which if he and I had acted differently, he would still be alive. All night, I replay each of those moments, and carefully select the alternate reality in which my friend is still alive and sleeping peacefully at home.
Finally, I hear Abu and Sajid get up. I follow them out of the room and slip my feet into my flip-flops. It’s a brisk ten-minute walk to the water pipe. It is still dark, but then the light starts changing, like a flame spreading across the sky. The first light of day. The birds are up and chattering. There, close to the water pipe, is a jasmine vine climbing up a wall. Its white flowers, with their pink centers, bob and smile at me. On the ground, white petals float in tiny streams in the dirt. I inhale deeply, drinking in the fragrant air in hungry swallows. I breathe, close my eyes, and feel the morning around me. I breathe because I can.
Tehmina Khan was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and holds degrees from Kinnaird College, Lahore, and Faculté des Sciences Humaines et Sociales de Tunis. She has her home in Toronto, where she lives with her husband, two children, and their dog, Luna. Mawenzi House published her collection of short stories, Things She Could Never Have, in the fall of 2017. Her writing has appeared in The Blue Minaret and ShedoestheCity. She is currently working on retelling seven stories from 1001 Nights.