Friday, February 17, 2017

Chapter 1. Innocence and Foolishness

Author: Rizwan Ahmed Memon

It drizzled on and off all night. The lightning flashed and thunder roared. I always asked my sister Shahnaz the same question when it rained, “Where do clouds come from?”

She would say, “An angel named Michael brings them at God’s command.”

It was February 12th, 1996. I was waiting for dawn so that my cousin Seemi and I could gather berries from the “flower house”. The “flower house” was huge with many different fruit trees and flowering plants in its gardens. It was on the same street where I lived. It belonged to Hakeem Ali Nawaz, a physician who treated villagers at his little clinic. He was kind and allowed all the neighborhood children to take fruit from his garden.

A constant, cool wind was blowing, and the slender tree branches were swaying gracefully. The roses danced wildly in the wind. The irrigation canal that flowed past the flower house was overflowing. A raft of ducks continually quacked as they swam smoothly across the canal towards the reeds on the other side. The salubrious wind heralded that spring was near. We collected a lot of fallen berries that were strewn all over the ground. When our pockets were full of berries, we put some in our wicker basket. Then we went and sat on the edge of the irrigation canal, put our feet into the water, and began eating our berries.

“Rizwan, the old man at the shop has gone senile,” said Seemi. “He is so old that he cannot count properly. Yet, he still runs the shop.”

“He is quite old, but I think he can run the shop.”

“His eyesight is weak too,” she said.

“But why are you telling me this?”

“We can trick him for fun!”

“Oh, yeah. That’s a good idea.”

At twilight, we decided to execute our plan. I went to the old shopkeeper with a fake five-rupee note. “What do you need, boy?” he asked.

“Biscuits,” I said. “Please take the money.”

He just put the note in the drawer without looking at it properly. Just as I was leaving the shop, Seemi approached the counter. “Do you have candies?” she asked as she handed him a two-rupee coin.

“What kind of candies?”

“The lemon candies.”

“Yes. How many?”

“Just four, please.”

“But you gave me only two rupees.”

“I gave you a five-rupee coin, Grandpa.”

The old man looked at her and gave her four candies and a one-rupee coin back. We jumped into the street laughing. We did feel a little bad, but we thought it was funny. The darkness started to deepen, so Seemi went to her home, and I returned to mine. At night, my sister talked about the stars and their constellations. She always tried to make me see the patterns that looked like a triangle, a boat, and a scorpion. I could never make them out, but I liked our discussions about the stars all the same. She told me, “All these stars are the good deeds of Hazrat Umer.”

The next day, when I got home from school, there were a lot of relatives and neighbors at our house. Everyone was beautifully dressed. I went to our bedroom. There were a lot of women. I asked my mother, “Where is Shehni?”

“She is sitting in the corner. She is going to be betrothed today.”

I did not pay attention to what she was telling me. “Okay, but ask her to give me lunch first.”

“She cannot. Wait. I am going to bring it.”

My sister was not looking at anybody. Her head was down, looking at the ground. Seemi arrived in a beautiful dress. She had not gone to school that day. “Come. let’s eat some chips,” she said, while tossing her purse into the air, suggesting she had a lot of money. She tricked the old shopkeeper every time she went to the shop.

At night, I said to my sister, “You did not even look at me today.”

“I was supposed to be silent.”

I took her hands in mine and saw that she had henna designs on her palms. “You will always be with me, right?”

“Of course. Forever,” she said.

Our mother looked at us and sighed. “Come here, Rizwan,” my mother beckoned.

“Girls have to go to their real homes one day,” she said.

“But this is her real home, Mom.”

“Yes, but not her true home.”

“Don’t boys have to go to their real homes? Where is my real home?” I asked my mother.

My sister and mother laughed at me. “You will understand when you are older,” my mother added.


The days kept on going by, and winter set in. My sister, my elder brother and I used to sleep in the same bedroom. Our mother slept on her cot in the veranda. In winter, the barking of the dogs from the flower house could be heard clearly, even with the door to our room shut. Those sounds terrified me. One night, I woke up at midnight, lit a candle, and put it on the window beside the cot I was sleeping on. I did not know that what I was doing could be dangerous. I fell asleep, and the candle toppled over onto my pillow. It started to make a lot of smoke. The smoke made me feel like I was suffocating, and I started to cough. I suddenly woke up, and realized that something was wrong. When I saw my pillow burning, I shouted, “Wake up, everyone! Wake up! Someone has set our room on fire! Wake up!”

“Stop shouting!” my sister said, as she quickly woke up and silenced me. “Don’t wake the others.” She brought a bucket of water and doused the burning pillow. “Relax, everything is all right. I know it must have been you. We will discuss it in the morning. Sleep now,” she said, patting me on my back.

I grew worried. I thought she would tell mother, and mother would scold me. I thought I should do something with the burnt pillow and quilt. I woke up early at the Fajr Azan time—at the time of morning prayer—and took a pair of scissors. I tried to mend the burnt side of the quilt. I tried to sew it, but I couldn’t. I hid the burnt pillow in a space under the stairs.

“What were you doing last night?” my sister asked as she gave me a cup of tea and some bread.

“I don’t know. I just lit a candle. I think someone dropped it on my pillow!”

“It must have fallen on its own. Well, do not mention it to Mom. She will get very angry with you. It was a new quilt she made only recently,” my sister told me.

After a few days, when I got home from school, the house was full of women again. They were dressed even more ornately than the first time. They were all eating spicy foods that our relatives had brought. The women kept my sister away from me. At night, my mother made me sleep on a cot.

The next day, when I woke up, all the women had left. There was silence in the house. My mother was making tea, and there were tears in her eyes. “Where is Shehni?” I asked.

“She went to her real home,” my mother replied.

I was sad, and the morning tea did not have its usual charm. My mother got me ready for school. I met Seemi in school and said, “My sister went to her real home last night. My mother says all girls have to go to their real homes. Will you go to your real home, too?”

“I don’t know. I just want to live where I live. I want to play Wanjhawati and Kuhre with you and the children in our neighborhood. I don’t want to go anywhere.”


I thought she did not know. I knew, from that day, that someday she would go to her real home, too. Life without my sister was lonely and dull. I wished that she could be with me forever. That day I learned that people won’t be with you forever. Seemi and I stopped tricking the old man at the shop. However, we often went to the flower house, put our feet in the irrigation canal, made paper boats, and let them drift on the flowing water.


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