The previous episode was published on February 2, 2018
That night, their fighting begins earlier than usual. They scream themselves raw, throwing everything they can get their hands on at each other, blaming everyone from Maryam to God for everything that is wrong with them. I wait till Fajr for Maryam to slink into my flat.
No one asks after Mr. Number 18’s sleep schedule today, but I am sure I hear a high whimpering sound coming from a corner of the house during the entire fight.
My stomach knots into little loops and after a while, I slip down to the floor for no reason, leaving my pillow and my sheet on the charpoy.
The next morning, I go down earlier than usual, standing near Nazri’s tuck shop.
She emerges from the building in her little white scarf, carrying her school bag. She makes a beeline for Nazri’s, and it is only when she is standing at his counter does she notice me. Her body stiffens.
Nazri, who is smiling at her welcomingly, glances at me, then back at her, puzzled. I turn away quickly, hiding my face from Maryam. I don’t need her blue-green eyes to tell me I look like the coward she thinks I am. I know it.
That day, my thoughts move intractably to one epicenter; the little girl next door. Shame consumed me for not having rushed to her help, anger at not being able to bang her parents’ heads against a wall for fighting like animals over her in the middle of the street and unreasonable guilt at being who I was, knowing why I couldn’t walk up to Maryam, why I couldn’t tell her I was sorry for not helping her when she needed me.
That evening, when I return from work, I sink down in a chair in the midst of the many men gathered outside the chaye shop. Maryam’s father sits in the middle.
“And she says, but mister,” he assumes a shrill, whimpering voice when he speaks the dialogue. “There’s only one hole to spare!” he cracks up laughing after saying it. I understand it is the punch line to a joke he was relating and smile politely at the crude humor, wondering what situation could induce a person to say that. Raucous laughter fills the air and a few men bang the handles of their chairs and slap each other’s thighs in appreciation. I catch Nazri, sitting near the edge of the group, frown slightly. He catches my eye and rolls his slightly. I shrug as usual, as I receive the unordered but much required cup of tea from the teashop owner.
After a while, I see Nazri, looking bored, carry his chair off to his own shop where a group of children wait anxiously for him, Maryam among them. As soon as I can slip away without seeming impolite, I do, leaving a bit of change on my seat to pay for the tea, though it is highly unnecessary.
I watch from the footpath as Nazri chats indolently with the children, laughing at their little jokes and sympathizing with their little problems. Maryam, perched comfortably on the counter, where Nazri sat her when he came over, looks languidly down at the group surrounding her father, a strange longing on her face. When I am not looking, I could feel her eyes slip towards me. I do not know whether the expression of longing remains on her face then or is replaced by disappointment or plain hatred.
I stare at the grey road and imagine it transform from a dusty side street in Islamabad to the gleaming one of Defense in Lahore, wet from early morning dew, so clean that my 16 year old self does not want to put his old sandal, afraid to leave a footprint that shrieks cheap and broken at every passerby. I remember walking into the Judge Sahib’s sitting room, where she sat in a white T-shirt and blue jeans; a dress I had never really seen on a woman the age of my eldest sister in real life.
“Bibi ji.” I had bowed my head, looking down at my feet resolutely. All the sermons the local Khateeb gave every Friday rang in my head that day with a resolution hitherto unknown. I finally understood what it meant, the phrase dil ka phisalna. The Judge Sahib’s wife was the sort of woman you slipped for, ending up hurting inside and out, while she stood unharmed, gazing at you with a sardonic smile on her beautiful red lips.
“Khana bana letey ho (Can you cook)?” she asked me and her voice was all the shades of silver.
“Ji, bibi ji.” I had answered.
“Perfect.” She had smiled sweetly. “You’re hired. Don’t make me regret it, understood?”
I, who had expected at least a month’s trial without a salary, was overjoyed. “I won’t.” I had told her. “I won’t ever let you regret it.”
I hadn’t. Pain wrenches through me like a steel skewer. I hadn’t made her regret hiring me.
I realize the road is almost empty by now. I have been sitting on the pavement, motionless, for a long time. All the children are gone. The men near the teashop have retired to their houses too. Maryam’s father is loitering around still, talking to the teashop’s owner. His daughter sits near the bushes, far away from him, drawing in the dust.
I look around. Nazri is pulling down the shutter to his shop.
“Remind him to take the girl in.” I say to Nazri, nodding to her father.
“Oh, he probably will.” Nazri locks the shutter.
“He won’t.” I say. “He never misses his daughter at night. Irresponsible idiot.”
“Huh?” Nazri looks at me, mildly concerned. I realize what I just said and blush.
“I find her walking around the building at night, when her parents are fighting.” I try to shrug nonchalantly. I like Nazri but I will never disclose Maryam’s nightly excursions into my room; I don’t want anyone to know she sleeps in my bed and besides, it is the one good secret there is in my life. It has a way of keeping at bay all the terrible ones.
“Just.” I look at Nazri. “Just remind her father to take her with him, okay?”
“He really lets her wander around at night?” Poor Nazri looks a bit scandalized. “Doesn’t he look for her or something?”
“Something like that.” A part of me hopes Nazri will give the man a lecture about her safety, but another, more selfish part hopes he won’t and Maryam will forgive me enough to take away my charpoy from me again after a while.
I walk up the steep flight of steps to flat number 18 with leaden feet, wondering why I have become so captivated by a child. I have four younger siblings and I do not remember ever feeling even the slightest bit of compassion for them at all.
They were little at the time of my imprisonment and all I remember is my mother’s incessant wailing when the last one was being born in our house. The very sound drove me to hate the child with a vengeance I never displayed for fear my mother would thrash me, for she loved the younger children as much as my father loved us older ones, and why wouldn’t he? We were the ones who were earning the money. The younger ones were the ones consuming it like Yajooj and Majooj, the demonic creatures that emerge before the day of judgement in our Khateeb’s stories, to devour everything on Earth.
I lie down on my charpoy and as soon as I close my eyes, on cue the husband steps in and the wife growls, “Kahan thay aap ( Where were you)?”
Either the question or the tone it is delivered in invites his wrath and he answers, “Jahannum mein tha. (In hell) Tumhari maa ney salaam bheja hei.” (Your mother send her compliments).
The answer enrages the woman. “My mother is not in hell. Don’t you dare say that about her, you son-of-an-owl.”
“I am your husband, woman.” The husband crosses the floor in two steps and, judging by the sounds, pushes her into the wall with all his might. “Don’t you ever swear at me.”
Mister Number 18, are you awake? A little voice echoes inside my head. For a few minutes I try to shut it up, but it refuses to be silenced. Mister Number 18? Mister Number 18? It persists.
Resolutely, I stand up and push my feet into my chappal. I walk outside and climb up the three steps to the little door that leads to their room. I map out what I am going to say to them.
“Don’t fight in front of her!” How creative. My brain observes.
I am about to knock on the door when I glance down at the doormat where they leave their shoes. There are the father’s dusty black sandals, the mother’s flowery pink slippers. Maryam’s shoes are not there.
Immediately, I turn around and check my room again. She isn’t there.
With a thudding heart, I walk through the entire building, not daring to knock on a door. Nobody knows me very well and my asking after Maryam at night would have implications I’d rather not think about.
It is when I know surely that she is not in the building that I return to her flat and bang on the door. The shouts cease and after a minute, her father opens the door, breathing heavily.
“What?” he snarls.
“Where’s your daughter?” I ask, ignoring his unwelcome expression.
“In the bloody house, that’s where.” He gives me a dirty look before turning to point at a little cot in the corner of the room. Her mother’s, his and my eyes find the cot at the same time. It is empty.
Without waiting for him, I whirl around and run down the stairs, vaguely aware of her father and mother running down behind me, asking questions I either cannot or will not answer.
It is when we reach the ground floor that they finally catch up with me and the mother grabs my collar.
“Oye badmash, what have you done to my child?”
I glance at the father and realize that for the first time since I have had the honor of their acquaintance, my neighbours are in complete agreement with each other. Over the most wrong assumption they could have made.
I disentangle my collar gently from her fingers.
“I have done nothing. I just remembered that she was playing near the bushes when you were there and wondered whether you’d remembered to bring her home.” I look at the father. He immediately looks toward the bushes as if expecting Maryam to be there still, drawing in the dust. His wife gives him an accusing glare and drawing in a breath, opens her mouth.
“Please, bibi.” I interrupt. “Let’s find your daughter first.”
Her father walks down the street, peering in bushes, vowing to go to the market and slap that child raw if he finds her there at a candy shop. The mother runs off to the apartment building, telling me I hadn’t looked well enough for her. “Beti tou hei nahi tumhari jo tumhein fikar hogi.” She mutters as she walks off. (She is not your daughter, why would you worry?)
I wonder why I am worrying. I have no answer to give myself except a pair of blue and green eyes staring at me with hope in them, the expectant smile of a little doll dressed in blue. It is no answer, yet it is answer enough.
At midnight, in the light of the streetlamps above, I walk up and down that dinghy street in Islamabad, looking for the little girl next door.
It is at one that I finally sink onto the plastic chair Nazri carried to his shop in the evening.
“Nazri,” I think, and realize I said it out loud. I whip out the almost completely unused Nokia cell phone I acquired in jail illegally and dial the tuck shop owner’s number on it, which is printed in bold letters on the board that hangs above the shutter of his shop.
I have raised my phone only halfway to my ear when the phone on the other end starts ringing.
To be continued ...