An unsynchronized chorus of Fajr azaans ricochets through Gali Haji Ali. Rabia opens her eyes. Sleep had blessed her just an hour ago. She tries to see in the dark room if someone has stirred around her yet. Ami is snoring, clearly not in any mood to wake up anytime soon. Zubair never wakes up either. It is only Abu then, who can be heard moving around in the other room which he shares with no one.
Rabia thinks it’s a perfect family arrangement that the three people who don’t wake up to pray share a room together. That way, no one is disturbed. Abu is now walking out through the front door at a snail’s pace. 30 seconds later, Rabia hears the main gate of the house closing with a metallic bang. She wonders if she, too, should get up, do the wuzu, the way Ami had taught her and mumble the surahs Ami had made her learn. But she always gets stuck, an ayah slipping away right when she needs it, during namaz.
Ami says whenever this happens, she should say ‘Allah Allah, Allah‘ and continue. She doesn’t like that, though. It is almost funny to be half bent and customize the namaz if you have forgotten what you are supposed to be saying. At almost nine, she is already two years overdue in her prayers because Ami had read somewhere that a child needs to start praying regularly after seven.
Rabia lies there knowing she will fall asleep again with the dying hum of the azaans. She closes her eyes and feigns sleep as Abu comes back and takes a look at the sleeping trio before heading back to his room to salvage two more hours of morning sleep. Finally, all four souls in the single story, two-bedroom house at the corner of Gali Haji Ali, manage to shut their minds and be at peace with the world.
‘How was school?’ Ami asks without looking away from the chana daal that makes sounds like Abu gargling in the bathroom. Zubair heads for a shower straight away. Rabia had seen him play cricket all through recess and even an hour afterwards. He stank as he had sat next to her in the cab. The other two kids who share the cab with them would surely be telling this to their mum. The story of the stinking boy would be the headline in the neighbour news bulletin (telecasted from one balcony to the next) this evening. This makes Rabia sad. Yet another reason to be ashamed of her existence.
‘Fine. Usual.’ Rabia lies
The day had not been usual at all. Rabia had managed to convince Miss Afshan to let her sit in the library during recess for the next whole month. Maybe her excuse that she needs to read all thirty Enid Blyton books on the shelf for an English assignment, had worked its magic. Or maybe Miss Afshan was too polite to refuse the begging eyes with which Rabia had made the plea. Rabia believes the latter to be the case. Anyways, no more getting kicked in the shin by the tennis balls, footballs and basketballs (all balls gravitate towards her as if she is the north star); no more stares from Maleeha and her surly gang of pretty girls (what’s so interesting about a lone girl standing with half eaten packet of super crisps, Rabia wonders). Maleeha, with her perfectly fitted uniform (Ismat Aunty had it professionally tailored) and waist length hair with no lice. It’s a wonder how all rich girls turn out to be pretty and neat and smart, with names that sound rich. Rabia - the name itself screams poor. Not to mention the oversized uniform (‘you will grow out of it in no time’, Ami had reasoned). No wonder Muneeb doesn’t even glance at her, except for that one time when he had hit the ball towards the boundary and scored fifty runs. Rabia had been the boundary.
Rabia wakes up again, convinced that her afternoon nap has made up for the mostly sleepless night and that the dark half-moons under her eyes won’t become full moons.
‘Good, you’re up. I want you to come with me to the darzan. She has made the neck too deep on all my kameezes.’
Rabia watches as Ami rummages through the family closet to pick out a decent shalwar kameez for the trip.
‘Is this ok? Or does it need ironing?’ Ami asks, to know one in particular.
Rabia is always baffled by the ability of all of Ami’s shalwars to get creased as if they had been trampled upon by Zubair during one of his moods. Ami decides to iron the shalwar with her bare hands as she tries to find her maroon lipstick amongst the knick-knacks in the first drawer of the dressing table. Maroon is a decent colour. Ami had established that the moment she had turned 40. Anything red became out of bounds for her then. She is now patting Stillmans on her face, trying to smoothen a thousand wrinkles with just one pinch of the cream. Rabia wonders why she never applies Fair and Lovely like all neighbourhood moms do. But then Ami is Ami. She is set in her ways. Unlike moms of Mehru, Zainab and Hiba, she has never set foot in Ayesha Beauty Parlour to get her arms waxed or her skin bleached. Rabia wonders if that would change once her hair starts turning grey?
They step out of the gate, mother and daughter. Ami triple checks the padlock. As they start walking towards Azra Aunty’s house at the other end of Gali Haji Ali, Ami takes Rabia’s hand in hers. It is already sweaty, more out of anxiety than heat. Ami mutters her usual curses as they pass by Malik Sahab who, as usual, sits with his two buddies gaping at any soul who dares to cross their gali. It was Malik Sahab who had first narrated the story of how Gali Haji Ali got its name. That was before he became creepy. A man named Ali saved money in a gulak for 35 years in order to go for Hajj. One morning, he got out of bed and he broke the gulak in desperation as he had had a dream of circling the Kaaba the night before. Thinking it was a sign, he started counting all the wrinkled notes and coins. He was right. He had saved more than enough. He became the first person in the gali to go to Saudia Arabia and perform Hajj. Upon returning, he put the remaining funds into construction of the mosque that now sits at the turn of Gali Haji Ali.
Rabia has never been inside the mosque. Girls aren’t allowed. Nor are mothers. Only female babies can cross the threshold of the big iron gates, and only when they make too much noise and only fathers can calm them down. Those special fathers who pick up their babies as if they really want to, without that look in their eyes betraying a hint of disdain or burden. The look that Rabia is too familiar with. As Ami and Rabia keep trudging along, they cross Masjid Haji Ali. Zubair has told her many tales about it, even though he has never set a foot inside. He claims that after midnight, when the Imam closes the iron gates, drunkards can be seen sitting on the steps leading to it. Some are completely passed out lying flat under the shadow of the sole minaret. Others are putting needles through each other’s skin. Zubair never explains why they do that. Rabia fears injections more than anything and this story alone is enough to make her skin crawl every time Zubair is in a good enough mood to enact it for her.
Rabia and Ami are heading back to their dingy house at the corner of Gali Haji Ali. The visit to the darzan has put Ami in a foul mood. Not only did Azra Aunty not offer the duo any snacks, she also charged Ami extra for altering the necklines. There is no hand-holding on the way back. Anger has replaced Ami’s social anxiety. Rabia likes her Ami best like this, she now takes long confident strides with a sense of purpose. The scowl is a natural jewel in her loose skinned basket of expressions. She wears it from the moment Abu returns from the office up to the moment he leaves for it in the morning on an empty stomach and nearly empty pockets.
A few months ago, Rabia had salvaged an old family album from the raddii, due to be sold for ten rupees per kilo to the man who looked like Shakti Kapoor. The album had Ami’s pictures from her college days. She was so slim - like Karishma Kapoor, not a single fatty pouch that needed to be covered with her massive white chador. Her face, angular, skintight. Her lips in a reluctant smile. Her eyes with a smidgen of mischief. She looked like a rich girl. If only Rabia had that woman walking by her right now. How proud she would be of her. How boastfully she would present her Ami to Maleeha and Zain and all those who snigger behind her back, which is pretty much everyone at this point. Except Mehru. Although Rabia isn’t all too sure about that now.
Rabia is jerked out of her reverie as she realizes a mob of clamorous boys passing by them. Zain is amongst them. Ami tsk-tsks at them but Rabia has gone numb. As Ami is muttering under her breath about how amazing Zubair is to be at tuition at this time and not amongst this lot, Rabia is suddenly all too aware of her body. She wishes she wasn’t wearing the half-sleeved kurta that couldn’t hide the mane of dark hair on her arms. The kurta is now sticking to her back, the source of the sweat being more than just summer heat. How embarrassing it is to walk with her fat Ami with a creased shalwar. How she wishes Zain would not notice her or if he does, not recognize her. She sneaks a peek at Zain who is leading the rowdy group of ‘good-for-nothing’ lads to the video game shop two gallis down from Gali Haji Ali. His hair landing in rough curls; his lanky stature towering over all others; thick round glasses slipping from the super thin nose. His nose is so angular and slim, it can probably cut through paper. Mehru says Zain’s eyesight is so bad - minus six or something - that even with glasses he sees two projections of each person. How Rabia wishes it was all true at this moment. How she wishes to puke out all that chana daal from lunch.
Zubair was supposed to teach maths to Rabia tonight. Ratios and Proportions. But he had flung his bag across the room after returning from tuition and dashed out to play more cricket in an empty car lot behind the gali. She misses him. Abu is also not back yet. He had to visit a hakim at the other end of the city to get some medicine for dadi. She isn’t missing him. But then, Abu is never missed by anyone here. Ami says Abu will be changing two buses just to get ten puris of some strange herbal concoction. According to Ami, they owned a car once, right after her wedding but they had to sell it to buy this makaan. Rabia wanted to see this red Suzuki whose existence is questionable given Ami’s history of making stuff up when her kids get too depressed over their poverty. At least for tonight, Ami’s scowled face can rest a bit.
As Rabia attempts her maths exercise, her thoughts wonder. Soon, the drunkards will be gathering near the gate of Haji Ali Mosque to pinch each other with needles. How easily people can be put to sleep. Ami says the reason Rabia can’t sleep at night is because she isn’t tired enough. She may have a point. Zubair can doze off as soon as he hits the bed because he plays all day. Ami, too, can snore all night because her body is aching after a full day of cooking, cleaning, washing and scowling. Abu’s favourite pastime is sleeping (Ami claims). How can Rabia sleep when she can’t play like Zubair? She doesn’t know anything about housework either, except making tea that tastes like toilet water.
Sleep has just blessed Rabia. It is not a vision-free sleep, though. In her dream, Rabia sits up in the bed. Ami and Zubair are deep into their well-earned slumbers. Rabia goes out of the room. Clock chimes 2 a.m. She tiptoes by Abu’s room and in no time she is out of the front gate. Her heart is thudding. What has she done? Is she running away? Why? The gali is dead silent. Only a dog can be heard at a far distance, howling. Rabia, barefoot, makes her way to the elusive mosque. Maybe she can look at what’s inside if the door is open. She glides towards the mosque which is lit as if it were Rabi ul Awal, draped in golden twinkling lights like a bride. There are people there. She is drawing their attention. All men. But they aren’t lying flat or needling each other. They wear white frocks. Some are sitting, legs crossed, on the stairs leading to the mosque, humming to themselves. Others are standing. Some start to swirl. One arm pointing to the sky, the other to the earth. Necks tilted as if sprained. Round and round they spiral, some faster than the others.
All of a sudden some of the men, bored of watching the swirling men, start closing in on Rabia. She screams but only bubbles come out of her mouth. She wants to yell ‘Ami, Abu’ but sound is not something her vocal cords can produce right now. Then, she hears ‘Stop’. She turns around to see Zain, in a cop uniform, waddling towards her in his peculiar gangly fashion.
‘Why are you here?’, he sounds like Akshay Kumar from Khaki.
‘I am not talking to you. You hit me with the ball,‘ Rabia tries to say but no sound comes out. Still, he somehow hears her.
‘I know. I did that so you would come to me and complain,‘ he confesses with a shy smile.
‘Really? I really don’t have time to talk to boys. I am actually busy with an English assignment.’
‘I know. I have seen you reading The Naughtiest Girl series in the library.‘ Somehow the cop uniform has made him talkative.
Rabia knows now. She knows that Zain knows that she exists. She makes a ‘I really don’t care who watches me read’ face.
‘C’mon. I will drop you home on my bike,‘ the Zain-Akshay Kumar hybrid cop says.
A chorus of fajr azaans blasts through loudspeakers. Rabia opens her eyes. Her body feels lighter, as if she hasn’t eaten for two weeks. But her mind is as clear as the bottled water Abu reluctantly orders when they go out for dinner at hers and Zubair’s birthdays. She hears stirrings in the next room. She waits for the metallic clang of the front gate and leaps out of bed to perform wuzu. Somehow, she feels like she owes a thank-you to Allah today.