‘What’s your name?’ Baji had asked.
‘Manu.’ I had replied.
‘Muneeb, baji ji.’ Chacha had corrected.
‘How old are you, Muneeb?’ Baji had asked.
‘Nine, baji,‘ Chacha had quickly chimed in before I could open my mouth.
‘They like them younger’ Chacha had explained later. He may as well have been talking about puppies.
And just like that, I, 12-year-old Manu, became nine-year-old Muneeb. Although, after a few weeks, baji and her kids, Ali and Zehra api, would give up on calling me Muneeb, and I would become Manu again, but I had already put on a coat of mock humility to look docile.
Chacha, who worked as a driver in the nearby kothi, would come at the end of each month to collect my wages. The 6000 rupees would be sent from a small corner shop in Karachi to a small corner shop all the way in Badoki - my village, near Gujranwala.
The city job was amazing. I would be given food, shelter, real English education and a handsome salary - was Chacha’s testimonial. Ama ji was reluctant, but I had acquiesced. No way I was going to let Ama ji go looking for work. Besides, Ama ji was thinking of getting Salma api married. No way I would let my elder sister be sold like that. I had packed all my respectable clothes in a gadhri and jumped on Chacha’s bike going towards Gujranwala train station; my baby brothers’ - the twin toddlers with perpetual snotty noses - screams ringing in my ear as we left.
My days as a servant had the repetitiousness of any housewife’s domestic routine, especially during that first winter in Karachi. Wake up; knead the dough (baji had taught me); make tea and paratha for Nasir sahab (he left early for work); wake up Ali (always feigned sleep); knock on Zehra api’s room (dressed already); make eggs and toast; wash the dishes; put the school bags in the car; eat; sweep, clean, dust; help baji with lunch; two hours nap; wash and iron clothes; make evening tea; go to the corner shops for grocery or Ali’s ice cream; dinner prep; put the garbage out; sleep.
Except that sleep would hardly gratify me that first winter. For one, I shared the servants’ room with a factotum employee, Razzaq, who loved passing gas throughout the night with as much gusto as he loved gorging on food throughout the day. Somehow, he had only developed a small potbelly which seemed unnatural on his otherwise slim frame. I tried dragging my cot outside but then the mosquitoes attacked, because I was the type mosquitoes would bite. Winters were hardly winters in Karachi. The spring breeze of the city was nothing compared to the frosty air of Badoki I was used to. Those first nights remained sleepless but full of thoughts and concerns.
How long would I need to work here? Ama ji would have never agreed to Chacha’s suggestion and sent me away, had it not been for the absolute absence of food in our kitchen. Aba ji never came back since leaving for Dubai two years ago. Chacha had mentioned something about the ‘other woman’ last year and since then the money had stopped coming, too. I had gladly left school, and would spend my afternoons daydreaming about this and that, just like I would that first winter, away from home. Loneliness would weigh heavily on my nerves and the thought of Badoki and Ama ji would sometimes drive me to the brink of craziness.
Baji reminded me of Ama ji in many ways. She, too, had the same sense of haste. All mothers have bodies with weird antennas that catch every kind of signal imaginable: she too, would know when little Ali was hungry, or why he was grumpy (which was often); why Zehra api hadn’t eaten; when Nasir sahab needed an extra roti. Baji had tried to teach me the Quran as a way to compensate for not teaching me English or math, but soon gave up. I, too, was not eager to learn anything except news from home, something that Chacha was always reluctant to divulge.
At nights, I would watch news with Baji and Nasir sahab as Ali would scream at his computer, punching the keys as if it was their fault that he always lost at Need For Speed. Zehra api would study in her room. She may not always have been this demure, though. Salma api was once very sporty and we would play pakan pakrai all the way home from school. But then, one day, she just became silent and distant, and stopped going to school. When did Salma apa arrive, as a fifteen-year-old, to the outer edges of womanhood?
The news on TV always showed a man with greying hair in an army uniform. The General - Baji called him. Baji said he would save Pakistan from all its problems. Would he bring Aba ji back? I would wonder. That first winter, I would squeeze my nose and cover it under the pillow to rescue myself from Razzaq’s farts. I would lay like this for hours, imagining my head on Ama ji’s collarbone - my favourite nook to rest my head on. My arm would be around her big belly and her arms, with flabs of fat hanging from it would cuddle me. Her neck was always warm and sweaty. It smelled of charcoal and ghee. Almost every night, one or both of the twins would wake up crying and Salma api would tend to their soiled sheets and knickers.
I would dream about Ama ji, with twins on either side, cuddled together. No space for me anymore. I would see Salma apa in a red dress, in someone else’s house, hiding her tears. I would wake up sweating, Razzaq’s snores filling the air. Only the full moon hiding behind the umbrella-like spread of the jujube tree would be my witness, and laugh uproariously at my condition.
Years later, when I would get the government job as head clerk at Wapda House, Lahore and my wife, a nurse at the nearby Ganga Ram Hospital, and fed up with my feverish nightmares, would suggest I see a dimag ka doctor, I would be told by a young man - who looked like the General who was supposed to save the country - that I had something called ‘separation anxiety’.
My last summer in Badoki leading up to that friendless winter was spent chasing around buffalos and playing cricket with Farooq in the blazing sun that made our heads swirl. Drenched in sweat we would then go to the river, undress and plunge ourselves into the cold, gushing water. We would make sure no girls were passing by before quickly emerging from the shore and putting on our shalwar kameez.
We would then head to the mango orchard, crossing the dirt roads, dodging the throng of tonga drivers, pushcart salesmen and pick all the fallen fruit to fill our entire kameez-bags. We would then walk to the shade of a huge banyan tree and squeeze out all the mangoes to the bone. Farooq’s father had a vegetable cart and Farooq and I worked with him in the evenings. But he couldn’t pay me more than Rs10 per day, and the cart was too heavy for me to peddle long distances anyway. Still, I remember that summer being the happiest of my entire life.
As December gave way to January, my restlessness grew. I’d begun to feel a strange uneasiness, a nameless anxiety. I wanted something to happen. I wasn’t sad or unhappy, just weary. Ali was getting on my nerves, too. He had looked spoilt at first, the way Ama ji had spoilt the twins but now he looked downright stupid. He refused to give up the cricket bat even after I had bowled him out five times in a row. Once I put water on the stove to warm it for my bath and he kept turning off the stove for no reason. I had to take a cold bath that day. I didn’t complain, for I wanted something that only he could give me.
But still, my hidden pride was shattered. I had always thought that the ones raised in the loneliness of bungalows, under their parents’ watchful gaze, tended to be really quite naive and innocent because they faced the realities of life much later. Now, a strange sense of my own lowliness and a feeling of disgrace gripped me. After all, I came from that house where the life of Colgate was squeezed out of it until it was a flat strip of thin tortured metal.
As winter (if one could call it) gave way to a humid spring, I knew that Chacha wouldn’t give me any news from home. My worst fear was that Salma api had been married off. Or that one of the twins had died from dysentery or lack of food. Or that Ami ji had slipped and cracked her head on the uneven bricked courtyard. I had to act. Ali was fuming on his big computer, trying to insert the CD into the giant CPU that looked like one of the towers in America that had recently collapsed. I approached him, knowing that inwardly, Ali and I were a little peeved with each other.
‘What?’ Ali asked sullenly.
‘Can you type a letter for me?’ I asked in all my phony humble servility.
‘What for?’ Ali said, more curious now.
‘I want to send a letter to my family, but I can’t write very well. I know you type very fast. If you can …’ I lingered.
‘Can’t you call them on the phone?‘
‘We don’t have telephones in Badoki.‘
‘So you dictate in Urdu and I type in English? Fine, but I will eat the cookies in the left corner cabinet and when Mama asks, you have to take the blame. Do we have a deal?’ That little stupid boy wasn’t so stupid, I thought.
‘Deal,‘ I replied.
I am Manu. I am fine. Baji takes very good care of me. I am very happy here. I am learning good English as you can see. Chacha ji comes to check on me also. Are you ok? How’s your knee pain? Are Tariq and Amir ok? I hope they are not giving you much trouble. Salma apa is still living in our house, right? Please don’t send her anywhere. I will visit you all soon with lots of money. Also, Ami, I really miss you sometimes at night. I-‘
‘Stop, I have to erase the last sentence-‘ said Ali, pressing one long flat key over and over again.
‘It will go on to the next page, that’s why idiot. And we are not allowed to print more than one page’
‘Can’t you type it on the back side of the page?’
‘NO, I CAN’T, YOU IDIOT. WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT HOW COMPUTER WORKS?’ Ali yelled.
I didn’t question him back. I knew he didn’t know how to fit it all on a single page. Rich people always get angry when they have something to hide.
I traced each word of that printed letter with my finger that night. For the first time since my arrival, I slept soundly. I felt proud. My thoughts had produced something tangible. For the first time in my life, I felt the yearning to learn how to write. By making an extraordinary effort, like a rocket moving out of the gravitational pull of the earth, I had shaken myself and picked my way slowly up to get this thing in my hands. I kept it safely under my pillow, and gave it a goodnight kiss, like baji gave Ali each night.
At the month’s end, when Chacha came, I handed him the letter to post it to Badoki. He laughed, nodding and took the carefully folded paper and put it into his pocket. All afternoon, I couldn’t concentrate on anything. As I washed dishes, I continued to observe Chacha, as he sat sipping tea with Razzaq in the garage, through the kitchen window. I only felt peaceful when he left. That was it. I had done it. Farooq, or probably Masterjee would be reading this letter to Ama ji anytime tomorrow or maybe even tonight !
I had a spring in my step all through the evening. Even the General on TV didn’t look sombre that night. I knew I would get the beating from Baji the next day, but I couldn’t care less.
Just as I was about to stretch out on my cot, Baji called out, ‘Manu, you haven’t taken the trash out, you lazy boy!‘
‘Coming, Baji ji,‘ cursing my excitement.
I quickly switched on the kitchen bulb and was about to tie a big knot on the black bin liner when my eyes caught something. It was a shredded piece of paper, no longer than a thumb. In English.
I tied the knot, and lifted the heavy bin bag out of the trash can to put it outside the gate for the garbage man to collect in the morning. Panting, I went back to my cot and shut my eyes. But not before squeezing out a thin layer of moisture that had formed inside them.