Ambreen Gul Shah
Summer was a fading memory and spring was a long way off. A late winter afternoon. Dull, dreary, leafless trees manning the compound wall. The jagged mountains breaking and splintering into the horizon. That horizon beckoned, tempted one to try to cross it. What existed beyond those mountains? What worlds? What kind of people? It was all a mystery. Those mountains liberated and trapped at the same time. She was eyeing that horizon hungrily. Maybe as greedily as she bit into her apple. Huddled in a warm quilted jacket, it was a special day for her. Special, because she knew she looked good. After begging for months, her mother had allowed her to line her eyes with kohl. Those lustrous, dark, long eyes, over very high cheekbones had all the animation of a ten year old.
It was a boring day. There was no school. She had played with her neighbour Ayesha the whole autumn. Ayesha’s parents were too preoccupied to prevent them from spoiling the lawns and flowerbeds. Ayesha’s grandfather was very sick. Her mother had whispered that he was dying. Where do you go after you are dead? Her father said that good people went to heaven and bad people went to hell. Ayesha’s grandfather was good. He bought them ice-lollies. But, father also told her that she had to say her prayers or she would definitely go to hell. Ayesha’s grandfather never said his prayers. He was definitely going to hell.
She sighed eyeing the compound wall dividing her house from her friend’s house. She had not seen Ayesha today. Why hadn’t she peeped from above the wall and beckoned her to come over. Ayesha’s house looked gloomy today. Even the trees seemed sad.
“Sarah! Hey,” a girl’s bell like voice rang from the other side.
“I have been waiting for you!” Sarah jumped up in excitement. “Wait! I will come to the other side.”
Her mother had asked her not to go today. But, her mother won’t know. Or she will just say that Ayesha was really sad and begged her to come.
Ayesha was waiting for her on the other side, her mud brown hair tied in a ponytail. She looked morose and did not greet her with the usual enthusiasm.
“So, which game shall we play first Ayesha? Let us play tag! You catch me. Ok!”
Ayesha did not contest it. She just nodded. Being a fast runner, she got hold of Sarah’s headscarf after just one lap. It came off and Sarah began to rearrange it.
“Is my hair showing?” Sarah smoothed the folds of her headscarf.
“All of mine is!”
“Ah! You are a mere child. Just nine years old! Big girls have to act their age,” Sarah said with an air of self-importance.
“Let’s not play today. Let’s sit there,” Ayesha pointed towards the ledge in one corner of the lawn.
They sat there and watched people. A steady stream of people was coming to the house today. It was like at weddings. With one exception, that everybody wore a sombre expression. Maleeha’s mother, the lady, who lived at the end of the street came and hugged them until she squeezed all the air out of their lungs, and slobbered them with kisses. Most men did not pay any attention to them and some stopped to enquire how they were and what they were doing there. The girls customarily greeted everyone.
As the afternoon wore on, it started getting cold and the girls, rather Sarah decided to go inside. Ayesha seemed reluctant. She looked at the house with a grave expression, but soon shrugged her shoulders and followed Sarah.
The room was nice and warm. Ayesha’s mother was changing the curtains in the living room.
“Sit down children! You must be starving! Where were you? Your hands are so red. Warm yourselves!” she smiled at Sarah. Then peeping out of the window, “It is getting late. So dark already.”
She stood there at the window for a moment. The silver embroidery on her dress glistened. Then arranged the draperies and rushed to the kitchen. Ayesha’s mother was always in a hurry. Always busy.
“Yes! His condition has worsened,” she was speaking to someone on the phone. “I would suggest that you come now. Yes, I know! It is getting late. We can’t predict anything. Such things can’t be predicted. It is all God’s will. Hmm…Yes, you should come. Yes, a lot of people…..he was such a kind man.”
“Mother! Can I see him now?” Ayesha puckered her sensitive forehead.
“No, darling! Not yet! Your grandfather is sick. It is not wise to disturb him. Besides, your friend is here. It would be very rude to leave her here.”
“But, mother! There are so many people upstairs. How am I going to disturb him?”
“They are old people. He wouldn’t want children around him.”
“Oh! How do you know?”
“Don’t argue Ayesha! Good girls don’t argue! Look here, I will give both of you some cake. Now, you would like that. Wont you?”
Ayesha made a face but she knew nothing she said would change her mother’s mind. Her mother left them with two big pieces of cake, going upstairs with some refreshments for the guests.
“We should go upstairs,” Ayesha put a spoonful into her mouth. “Let’s finish this and go.”
“But, Ayesha, your mother said that we can’t. She would be furious if we go.”
“Nonsense! Don’t be such a baby. Besides, they won’t see us. I know a good hiding place.”
Sarah looked at her friend with a sense of foreboding. She was going to get them into trouble. And, her grandfather was dying. She had never seen anyone who was dying. It didn’t look good. All of a sudden, her throat went dry. She did not feel like eating anything, and pushed her plate aside. But, Ayesha finished hers, took their plates, and deposited them in the sink.
“Come! Let’s go”, Ayesha seemed happy for the first time during the day. “We have to be very careful. Nobody should see us. Come on now! Man up!”
Sarah followed her friend upstairs. How can this be? Ayesha loved her grandfather. Why does she want to see him like this? It was all confusing.
The hiding place was good enough. It was a dark nook on a staircase overlooking a crowded room. They could see the room clearly but nobody could spot them from the room. Sarah did not want to look inside. She looked at Ayesha who was staring into the room. Ayesha had pursed her lips and tilted her head and she kept looking up after short intervals. She stole a glance into the room. Emaciated…sunken cheeks, pale man lying on the bed. He did not look like Ayesha’s grandfather, who was always smiling and his eyes would shine when he laughed. This waif, a replica of his was not him. Sarah looked down immediately and did not dare to look inside the room again. But, Ayesha kept staring into the room as if there was some secret there that she had to decipher. She got a lump in her throat. She did not want to cry there. She had to leave.
“Ayesha!” she touched her friend’s arm. “I have to go.”
Ayesha nodded. But, kept looking into the room.
“Ayesha! I have to go,” she repeated.
Ayesha did not say anything. Just got up to leave. Sarah followed her downstairs. Ayesha opened the door for her.
“I will see you tomorrow,” Sarah hugged and kissed her friend. “We will play all day”.
Ayesha nodded. Then gasped. There was a muffled sound of crying from the room above. Sarah clutched at her friends arms to gain her attention.
“Ayesha! It is getting late. I have to go. My mother is waiting.”
Then without looking back, tears stinging her eyes, she ran towards her house…a warm home, her mother’s arms, warm fresh bread and hot tea, and everything that was comfort and happiness.
Ambreen Gul Shahis a PhD Scholar at Jawahar Lal Nehru University