Friday, May 26, 2017

Chapter 8: Innocence and Foolishness

Author: Rizwan Ahmed Memon

I felt that I was walking on a path bathed in light, so I never worried or looked back. I always had faith that those around me cared about my well-being, but, unfortunately, I was eventually proven wrong. It was too much to expect that my three brothers—Jamil, Papoo, and Irfan—would ever change.

With our family elders’ permission, Papoo married a girl among our relatives in the village, and Jamil was engaged to Seemi’s older sister, who lived in the city. Desiring to make more money, my brothers were considering starting a new venture in the city as well—a general store. “Looking after buffaloes is a tedious job compared to running a shop,” Jamil tried to convince Papoo. “Why don’t you open a shop in the city? Our father’s house has been rented out for a long time, so you can live there while you run the shop.”

Papoo was ambivalent. His mind was trapped between agreeing with Jamil and longing for life in the village. Forcing himself to be dedicated to either option was proving difficult. After a few days, they rented a shop in an underdeveloped area because there were not many shops in that neighborhood. They thought their new shop would succeed there. During the day, Papoo would run the shop in the city, and at night he’d return to the house that our father had purchased back when he was still alive. I had once been to the city house with Jamil when he went to collect the rent. It was an old, two story house that needed some repair. Since Papoo decided to become a store owner, he could no longer tend to the buffaloes, so he sold them.

The long summer days passed by, and, thankfully, I was about to complete the 10th grade. Jamil and Irfan continued to run their general store in the village, and Papoo continued to run his store in the city. After two years, Jamil got married to Seemi’s older sister, Shabana. On his wedding day, he threw a big party with all his friends and relatives. Hundreds of people, from different walks of life, attended the wedding. The party must have cost him a fortune, for he spared no expense. Since Jamil was in charge of the house, it was not customary, or acceptable for someone to ask about the cost of the wedding.

Jamil’s wife was a proud and strong-willed woman, who threatened the peace and tranquility of our home. Thankfully, everything, for the moment, went smoothly at home. I was cautiously optimistic that it would continue. I was eagerly teaching and working on my English and computer skills, and my brothers were also happy with their lives. I knew that it was only a matter of time that soon Shabana would show her true colors. Jamil never payed any serious attention to how Shabana mistreated my mother. He firmly believed his wife to be a perfect woman. He was busy enjoying life and making money.

Upon realizing I could speak English and use a computer, Jamil became excited about my skills. He proudly told everyone in the village, “Our brother speaks English and can use a computer.” He introduced me to all of his friends who came to the shop. I had to force myself to smile when I met strangers. I hated meeting strangers and wasn’t very sociable. One day, a boy came upstairs while I was drawing flowers on the walls of my study room and said to me, “Rizwan, Mulan Jamil is calling you to the shop.” I knew that new introductions awaited me.

“Tell him I am busy,” I said to the boy. He left, but shortly returned, with a stern message from my brother.

“He insists you come down,” said the boy. I went to the shop and discovered three obese men who looked like businessmen on a mission. I greeted them apprehensively while trying to force my mouth to utter “How do you do, sir?”, to each of them. They asked me about my studies. Fighting against my reluctance, I briefly talked to total strangers about my studies. I didn’t like to boast about my skills. Jamil went on, telling them that I was planning to attend the university in the future.

Having become fed up with meeting such people, I confronted Jamil that night, “Your friends are not my friends. I no longer want to meet any of your business acquaintances. Being able to speak English and use a computer is not a big deal to me. Please do not embarrass me by forcing me to hug and shake hands with people I don’t know at all.” I thought he probably would feel upset, but I didn’t want to be treated like a showpiece. I had a tendency to live life according to my own rules.

After that day, Jamil somehow changed his attitude towards us. His wife also stopped helping my mother with household chores. She would even argue over household issues with my mother. I remained silent while the heated talks between my mother and sister-in-law raged. I thought Jamil would make his wife understand, and everything would be all right. I hoped that peace and tranquility would return to our home.

When I was about to finish 12th grade, Irfan said to Jamil and our mother, “I want to marry Papoo’s sister-in-law.”

“That would be great!” said Jamil in an excited, loud voice. He probably thought that with another new woman in the house, his wife would not be burdened with the household chores.

“I want you to go to them immediately, and ask for the girl’s hand for me,” Irfan told them. “I will get married in a few years, but for now I just want to get engaged.” Irfan’s urgency showed that he wouldn’t wait for years after the engagement.

My brother was very happy to go to our relatives to arrange for Irfan’s betrothal. Within three or four days, Irfan was betrothed. “I want Rizwan to choose a girl, too,” my mother said to Jamil and Irfan.

“My fiancée’s sister, Papee, is the best match for him,” Irfan blurted out excitedly. I had never even thought about the girl he was talking about. Irfan thought that his fiancée would feel more at home if her sister were with her.

“Yes, who could be better than her?” said Jamil and my mother in unexpected unison. “We hope you will agree with our decision.”

“Well, you may be right,” I replied with more than a little trepidation. “She is a good girl, but I have never given her any thought.”

“You should give her some thought. You should get engaged to her; she will be a good life partner,” said Jamil.

“What is your choice?” asked my mother. I told them about the girl with dimples that had been in my dreams.

“What? Are you crazy? They are not close relatives. They will never give you her hand,” said Irfan raising his eyebrows.

I stared at Irfan, “Why won’t they give me her hand? I am a good-looking guy and above all, I am getting a good education. Who would be a better choice from our family?”

“You don’t know what life is, or how to deal with it. We know what is best for you,” said Jamil in a soft tone.

“And you don’t earn enough money by teaching a few kids. You’d rather live on our money,” Irfan added while rudely gesticulating.

My mother listened to my brothers silently. “You should obey your elders, Rizwan.”

“Mother, why not go to them and just ask?” I begged her.

She looked at me softly and said, “Your older brother is in charge of the house, so he should agree first.”

Knowing that I was never going to agree with them, Jamil said in a thoughtful manner, “Alright, we will go to them.”

After that day, they never talked again about my engagement. In return, I never mentioned it either. I thought that maybe it wasn’t the right time.

After just a few days, Irfan told my mother and brother that he wanted to get married. Within three or four days, the marriage date was decided. Every day, Irfan played love songs on our old family tape recorder at full volume. Within a week, he got married. During this period, I was taking my intermediate examinations.

I didn’t like crowds of people, but of course I attended his wedding, which was held as a traditional Nikhah ceremony. All of our relatives and his friends had money garlands in their hands. Everybody was beautifully dressed. I congratulated him, and he was very happy on his wedding day. I, somehow, felt surprisingly detached. I wished I had been engaged that day. The innocent face of my dream girl came before me as I saw his bride. I thought how beautiful the girl with dimples would look in her wedding dress. Deep down in my heart, I was hurt by how my brothers treated me.

I saw Seemi beside the bride. I felt that she looked at me with eyes that had something to tell me. I just gazed wonderingly at her as if I were seeing her for the first time. Flashbacks from our childhood started to pass before my eyes: How we would gather berries in the Flower House, put our feet in the canal, and trick the old man at the shop. In that huge crowd of people, she also seemed as detached as I was. Looking at me, perhaps, she was also remembering about the days we had spent together. Sad violin music was slowly playing in my heart. I sighed while staring at her. She had grown into a beautiful, young lady. Her moles on her right cheek had added to her beauty. Her dark hair had grown long, and elegantly framed her innocent white face. In the kind and cruel mill of time, we had lost our foolishness and spontaneity. I felt that we were happier in our childhood. It was a time when we didn’t have any worries, and we were free to choose what we liked and free to go where we wanted.

The wedding was over, and after a few days my exams came to an end—everything returned to normal. Irfan and Jamil continued to run the village shop and lived their lives happily with their wives. Papoo went his way, claiming the city house and shop belonged solely to him now. They got busy in their lives ignoring my feelings. They thought I was only born to study.

I sometimes pleaded with my mother about meeting with the parents of the dimple-faced girl, who had arrested my heart. She always told me it was in Jamil’s hands. I wished I were free to choose my life partner, too. It was my life; I should have the right to decide. I thought it would be useless to talk to my brothers again. They knew what I wanted, but they deliberately turned a deaf ear to me. I started to prepare for the university entrance examination.

By that time, they had children of their own and they became even busier with their lives. They never talked about my engagement. During the hustle and bustle of those days, I realized that if people’s hearts care not for others, relationships have no real meaning and will never last. I realized the importance of financial independence as well. I learned that people decide matters important to them very quickly. However, when taking into consideration others’ feelings, their attitude is not the same. I was selected to attend the University of Sindh Jamshoro as a Computer Science major, and Jamil willingly helped me throughout the process and told me that he would pay my university expenses. Maybe I was a little ungrateful, but I thought that sending me to the university, which was about four hundred kilometers away from my hometown, would give him one more way to brag about me with his friends. I wanted him to be proud of me, but not like that.

The atmosphere created by my mother and Shabana at home was sometimes peaceful and sometimes as wrathful as a war. With hopes and dreams, and a longing for the girl with dimples, I left home for the university. That day I came to learn that money can get you many things, but sometimes it doesn’t bring peace to your heart.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Chapter 5: Innocence and Foolishness

The Geometry Box
Author: Rizwan Ahmed Memon

While casually walking to school one foggy morning, I wondered what I should say to my primary school teacher if he asked about the geometry box again. Mr. Nasrullah was our teacher. He was a one-eyed man with mustache. He wore long, loose kameez and salwar. I decided to tell him the truth, even if it’d cost me a beating.

Mr. Nasrullah asked all of the students that hadn’t brought their geometry boxes and drawing books to stand. In a gruff voice he shouted at me, “I told you not to come to school without them!” I meekly responded that my brother had only given me enough money to just buy the drawing book. Seeing that my teacher was not impressed with my first excuse, I quickly told him that my older brother said I wouldn’t need the geometry kit.

“You all have to buy geometry boxes, and they are available at my shop,” said an adamant Mr. Nasrullah. “Look at Abbas and Asif. They have already purchased the boxes from me!”

“Sir, I will purchase one tomorrow,” I replied to the teacher as I shyly looked down at the drawing book on my desk.

“You all must have a geometry box by tomorrow. I will not accept any excuses,” he said glaring at all the frightened students. Then he asked us to sit. He started the lesson by deftly drawing an olive shape on the board for all to see. “Does this olive drawing look beautiful?” he asked the students rhetorically.

“Yes, Sir!” replied all the students in unison.

“This will look even more beautiful in the future. I will tell you how once you all have purchased the geometry boxes from my shop.”

Mr. Nasrullah asked us to draw the olive in our drawing book. I liked drawing it; it was interesting and fun. In the evening, I opened the jar where I saved my pocket money. I counted all of the coins one by one. I had fifteen rupees.  I went to Mr. Nasrullah’s shop. “So your brother finally gave you money to buy the geometry kit, huh?”

“No, Sir. I am going to buy it with the pocket money that I’ve been saving for two months,” I replied with a soft tone. “How much is it, Sir?”

“Only twenty rupees!”

I grew worried and told him that I will have to buy it in another two or three days because I had only fifteen rupees.

“No problem. I will give you a discount of five rupees. Tomorrow never comes,” he said as he quickly took money from my hand. I brought the geometry box home and hid it in my school bag. I feared my brother might get angry upon seeing the geometry kit. At night, I took it out of the bag and checked every single tool in it. I didn’t know their names, especially the one that looked like it had legs and some kind of needles. I could only recognize the standard, unsharpened pencil with an eraser sitting on top of it. I was curious to know how to use the other tools in the kit.

The next day was chillier than the day before, so my mother told me to just wash my face instead of taking a bath. I wanted to take a bath because I had dandruff in my hair. I took a shower with cold water from the hand pump. However, it warmed up after a few minutes as more water flowed through. Before I left for school, I put on my lucky half-sleeve sweater. Mr. Nasrullah always said that it was a lilami (cheap) sweater and that he had better sweaters available at his shop.

All the students were showing their geometry boxes to each other. They all had the same size and color boxes. It was obvious that they had purchased them from Mr. Nasrullah’s shop. As the teacher entered the class, he asked the students who didn’t have geometry boxes to stand. Nobody stood; they had all somehow purchased the geometry boxes. Even the poorest student of our class, Nadir, didn’t stand. The teacher was very happy. “Abbas and Asif, go to my home and bring lasi and roti for me,” he said it every morning to them. He then looked at the olive shapes on each student’s drawing book.

“Now that you have purchased the geometry boxes, I want to tell you how you can make this olive drawing look more beautiful. Actually, if we fill it with colors, it will look more beautiful. And you know what? The colors are available in my shop.”

I got tense as he said the sentence “The colors are available in my shop.” I knew he would force us to buy them. I didn’t have any pocket money left, and I was sure my brother would say I don’t need them. Every day Mr. Nasrullah ate his breakfast in the classroom. After eating breakfast, he would read the newspaper, and leave for the city to buy the merchandise for his shop on his old bike.

Our teacher made us stand every day and scolded us for not buying the colors from his shop. Everyone else had purchased the colors within a week. I still didn’t have the colors. I thought about the geometry box that had been long-forgotten by the teacher. He never talked of the geometry boxes after we purchased them. I didn’t want to be embarrassed every day, so I decided that I would sell my favorite duck.

I told my mother that I am going to sell my favorite duck. She said it was a beautiful duck that laid eggs, so it was a shame. I didn’t tell my mother why I was doing so. I purchased the colors and it was fun to fill the olive shape. Mr. Nasrullah never talked of colors after I purchased them. All the things he had made us buy were just sleeping in our bags. The promise of summer vacation made me feel relaxed. I wouldn’t have to hear the phrase “Available at my shop” for at least two months.

“Dear students, the summer vacation starts on the first of June, so I have to give you some work for the holidays,” said the teacher. “There are times table booklets available at my shop. Buy them and memorize the times tables during the holidays.”

In my culture, birthdays are not celebrated much. I wished I could’ve gotten all these things as my birthday gifts. We all were happy to go on vacation on our last day of school. Mr. Nasrullah said, “I don’t like vacations much. Well, if you need anything during the holidays, you know everything is available at my shop.”

Hoping to learn how the tools in the geometry box were used, I kept the box in my school bag from primary school to high school. Unfortunately, no teacher ever talked about the tools. When I asked some of the teachers, they silenced me by saying the tools were not for me. Perhaps, my brother was right—I wouldn’t need them.