Friday, 3 August 2012


“Ali?” I clink my spoon against his plate to bring him back to reality. “Your ice-cream is turning into chocolate shake. Quit playing with it.”
He nods absent-mindedly, his eyes still fixed on a spot in mid-air. His fingers distractedly drum the edge of the table. I stare at the blob of caramel floating on my own plate. I had once been told my smile was contagious; I guess they had lied. Or maybe, along with some of my most important possessions I lost it, too, last summer.
Eleven months earlier, this ice cream parlour hadn’t been much different. Only, the walls had been cleaner, the lights had been brighter, and the smiles didn’t stop at the lips but went all the way to the eyes. I remember the caramel had been sweeter; it always was when the three of us were together.
Summer break had started and it was after a whole year that we were back together in our neighbourhood.
“Chocolate fudge brownie with vanilla icecream for Taha bhai, two scoops of coffee swirl for Ali bhai, and an extra large scoop of caramel delight for Beenis baji,” Akhtar bhai half sang in his croaky voice.
“Say thankyou Beenis,” Taha snickered.
“Bee-nish, Akhtar bhai; as in shoe, sugar, ship,” Ali corrected him while I wrestled with Taha.
Akhtar bhai shook his head like he’d get it right next time. We all knew he wouldn’t.
The brighter side of life was that the three of us were finally back where we belonged. With Taha in Canada, Ali in Lahore and I in Karachi, we’d been like three pieces of a jigsaw puzzle strewn in three corners of a playhouse. Now, the puzzle was complete and life was picture-perfect.
I was busy picking out pieces of crunch from my ice cream when Taha nudged me on my arm. He pointed at Ali who was so lost scribbling in his diary that he didn’t realize when Taha tiptoed his way past me and was standing right behind him. He winked at me and I knew what I had to do.
“Ali there’s a fly in your ice cream!” I shrieked.
Before anyone could say ‘ass-krimm’—as Akhtar bhai puts it—Taha made a grab for the diary. Ali wrestled relentlessly, only to fall back with the leather cover in his hand. Taha marched to his chair victoriously and waved his trophy above his head, smiling like a champion.
“Don’t you dare, Taha,” Ali warned.
“I think I just did,” Taha shrugged carelessly, knowing Ali wasn’t going to fight for it.
I folded my arms around my chest and watched like a spectator at a tennis match. Ali rolled his eyes like it all didn’t matter but the defeat was evident on his face. By now, Taha was close to rolling on the floor with laughter and now even Akhtar bhai was curious to know what was written in the diary that Ali never let go of.
“Taha read it out aloud!” Akhtar bhai appeared from behind Ali and rested his hands on Ali’s shoulders. Ali turned an embarrased shade of crimson and buried his face in his hands.
“Ahem,” Taha began.
“I dream of you every night
and even during the day
we may be miles apart, my love
but your name is embossed on my heart
like an imprint on clay.
The grief may be hard to bear
But the thought of uniting pulls me through
The wait is almost over, dear Saira
Six months and I’ll be with you.
In our little house
As husband and wife
We shall together
Live a blissful life.”
“Wah wah! We have a poet in our parlour today!” Akhtar bhai clapped his hands above his head.
“Please yaar,” Ali whined.
“Dear Saira! Ha! She’s the same girl who punched you in college, right?” Taha hi-fived me.
“She didn’t know me then,” Ali defended.
“Yeah, now she kicks you instead! She’s beefier than you anyway, chicken-legs,” I added, and shielded my face with my plate.
Ali just glared and stuffed his diary back inside.
“Let’s get going, guys,” I stood up. “Ammi wanted me back before sundown.”
“Yeah, we had better get going before your bhai jaan gets suspicious again,” Taha chuckled.
“That’s an old story, Taha. The money’s on the table Akhtar bhai,” I called out before we left.
“The ass krimm was delicious, bhai!” Taha wiped his hands off my dupatta.
“Badtameez,” I pinched him before we stepped out of the parlour.
The mid-June heat didn’t stop us from walking; we were always looking for ways to prolong the journey home. Besides, Taha was the only one who owned a car. His grand-father had named it Gulabo and given it to him six years ago. Now, none of its locks worked, the paint job was ruined, and a tyre had to go flat every time he drove it. Hence, we left it to our feet to get us home.
Ali was quiet that day. Taha and I, whom Ali expected to be apologetic, showed no sympathy and discussed how Saira would beat Ali up after marriage and bet on how heavier Saira was compared to Ali. We laughed until we cried and ran out of breath and Ali had turned the same shade of red twice that day.
“You guys are too insensitive to understand what its like,” Ali retorted, at last, when we were ten paces from the gate of my house.
“If being sensitive means crying over soap operas and writing mushy poetry, then I’m glad to be the cold, stone-hearted woman I am,” I shrugged proudly.
Taha opened his mouth to speak when an air-piercing screech made the three of us jump out if our pants and shove into a bush. A sleek, low roofed Merc sped past us at hair raising speed and rammed mercilessly into an old Vespa parked two houses away from mine. We watched in horror as three men of about our age stepped out of the vehicle, laughing raucously at their stunt. They walked towards the rubble they had created and kicked it around, swearing and mocking as they did so. Like a child that gets tired after playing with a toy, they left the pile of metal and rubber lying there and drove off faster than they had come.
“Who the hell was that?” Ali whispered.
“Khalid,” Taha and I chorused, teeth gritted.
Taha swore out aloud.
“Its okay Taha,” I calmed him down and turned to Ali. “Ever since his father became mayor, Khalid and his posse rule the streets of our town. Whoever owns this bike will probably clean up the mess himself, let alone be compensated for it.”
“I don’t remember seeing him last time I was in Karachi,” Ali settled on my doorstep.
“That was a year ago,” Taha replied, his voice now gruff. “Been six months since we’ve been runnin’ the town on his fingertips.”
“What about his father?” Ali inquired.
“Oh that man? He’s bought the town as a doll-house for his sonny boy and disappeared somewhere in Australia,” Taha scoffed bitterly.
“Does that make me Barbie?” I cheerfully interrupted, attempting to break the tension. I was answered with stern gazes that reminded me I needed to work on my timing.
I sat down in silence between the two. The street was fairly empty; an occasional bicycle, a trio or two like ours, a tramp retiring from the day’s work and preparing to go to bed on the footpath. Salma aunty, who lived right across my house, was wringing clothes and hanging them on a line. Her five year old tugged at her shirt and whined until she picked her up. I laughed to myself. Here we were;an economist, a writer and an artist sitting on a doorstep, watching a woman wring clothes, like there was nothing else we’d rather be doing.
“Bee? Its late,” Bhai jaan’s voice startled us all.
“Yeah, we should get going,” Taha stretched his hand out for me to get up. I could feel my brother’s eyes on my back and knew why, too. Sadly, telepathy wasn’t really Taha’s piece of cake. I glued my eyes to his and stood up on my own. He casually let his hand fall.
I waved a final goodbye and shut the door behind me.
“Beenish how many times –,” bhai began.
“Five million six thousand and fifty four times,” I curtly replied and ran upstairs to my room. I fell face first on my bed and cried out in pain. I had hit my nose on a rock the size of my fist. I pinched my scratched nose tightly and ran to the bathroom to make sure it wasn’t bleeding. I came back looking for a tissue when the window caught my eye. It had been smashed to pieces that lay almost invisible on my marble floor. I was dizzy. Too tired to make sense of anything, I threw the rock back outside and drifted to sleep within seconds.
My nose was throbbing when I woke up. I felt for my phone under the sheets and checked my reflection. There was a prominent red scratch at the tip of my nose. Great, now I go around looking like a Rudolph. My phone buzzed under my hand. It was Ali’s text message. He had asked me to come downstairs and it was urgent. I rushed to my smashed window, carefully missing the pieces of glass scattered below it. Ali and Taha waved from the bonnet of my car. I mouthed ‘five minutes’ and raced to the bathroom. I pulled out a green ankle length shirt and jeans, grabbed a pink dupatta, threw back my hair in a ponytail and rushed downstairs. Ammi and bhai were on the breakfast table.
“Beenish, breakfast?” Ammi asked when I sped past her, grabbing a slice of bread and stealing a sip of her tea.
“Na, I’m good,” I kicked the door open.
“Beenish, behave like a woman for a change,” Bhai called out.
I rolled my eyes and shut the door behind me. Both the boys were lying with their yes shut on my car.
“What is it? It’s not even nine, yaar,” I whined.
“Come here,” they both led the way. Puzzled, I followed them outside our gate.
“Behold,” Ali pointed to the gate.
In paint blood red, my gates had been filled with graffiti ranging from every swear word I knew and didn’t know.
“Who could’ve been behind this profanity?” I whispered, my mind racking through all the suspects.
Taha walked towards the corner of the gate, sat down on his knees and circled a single word. There, in messy, but legible writing said ‘Khalid.’
My eyes widened in disbelief. For the first time in years, I felt unsafe.
“We’re going to have to get this repainted As soon as possible,” Ali murmured.
“And teach this little don of ours a lesson,” Taha added, thumping a fist in his palm.
“Don’t be insane Taha,” Ali said, louder than usual.
“Yeah Taha. Ali’s right. Let’s not let him ruin our vacation.”
“We hardly have a week till we go back to Lahore.”
Taha calmed down after I assured him I’d write to the authorities. We took a quiet walk in the street. All the three of us were quiet bewildered from the day’s event.
“The engagements been scheduled on the 13th; Ali quite glumly broke the silence.
“Oh my god! That’s amazing!” I exclaimed, all thoughts of the gate, the red paint, of Khalid evaporating.
Taha paused, and looked at Ali with the sadness of a mother bidding her daughter goodbye and abruptly pulled him into a long hug.
“Bro, I’m not going anywhere,” Ali laughed.
“I know that, I just feel so sorry for you!” Taha pretended to wipe tears with my dupatta.
While I clutched my stomach and laughed, Ali chased Taha around the streets, cornered him and wrestled him till they ran out of breath.
A week after our gates got repainted, someone or the other in the neighborhood was getting a wall painted, bike repaired or a window mended. Khalid was like an unleashed animal on the loose and there was no dog catcher skilled enough to catch him. Ammi and I met Mehwish aunty on our way to the grocery store yesterday. She whispered, white with fear, about how Dhorajee wasn’t safe to live in anymore and that she was goint to rent a flat in the apartments her son and his wife lived in. As sad as it made me, I suggested to Ammi that we do the same. I was tired of hiding inside, fearful of any unrest in the area. My protective letters to the authorities went in vain too and the worst part was that Ali’s engagement was in two days and I hadn’t bought him a gift yet. I called up Taha a day before the engagement party and we planned to buy Ali a pair of shoes and a few shirts the next day. Morning seemed like a safe time, although we’d have to wait until the mall opened.
After going through hundreds of shirts and shoes, Taha and I couldn’t decide on a single piece of clothing. If I liked checked shirts, Taha liked stripes; if Taha preferred to buy sneakers, I wanted to buy leather shoes. In an hour of shopping, all we had bought was a sundae, a bracelet and a pair of sun-glasses. Taha suggested that we bring Ali to the mall and let him make the choice. We rang Ali immediately. Ali resisted initially saying that there were only a few hours left till the guests arrived and that he was busy with the preparations. But I used my blackmailing skills to convince him and we were on our way within a minute. Gulabo rattled and clattered all the way and screeched in pain as Taha sharply turned into Ali’s lane. A group of five men were huddled around his gate. I figured they might be the decorators, but I couldn’t see any tents or flowers or ribbons. As we drove closer, I noticed that two of the men had cans of red paint in their hands. Taha was frowning confused too when, with a bolt of enlightenment, his eyes widened in realization and his fist tightened around the steering wheel, the veins on the back of his hands throbbing vigorously,
“Taha is that…” I read his mind.
“Khalid,” Taha muttered between his teeth.
Taha jammed his foot on the accelerator and I fell back in my seat. I shrieked in horror as he sped towards Khalid and braked just an inch before we hit him. Khalid reeled back and hit his head on a wall. He got up panting and swore out loud. Before I could gather my wits, Taha was raging towards Khalid. A boy of not more than 18 clutched Taha’s arm and tried pulling him away. Taha turned around and, with fury I’d never seen before, he slapped the boy across his face, sending him staggering backward.
“Who do you think you are, haan?” Taha yelled loud enough for all the houses in the lane to hear and grabbed Khalid by the collar.
I fought with the stubborn door lock to let me out but it wouldn’t budge.
“Taha let him go!” I called out through the window.
All five men wrestled to get him off Khalid but Taha had lost his temper now and there was no one who could fight his anger. I rolled over to the driving seat and freed myself. I considered stopping Taha myself but dashed to Ali’s place instead.
I stopped short when I entered the lounge; the walls were laden with the festive orange of marigolds and air was scented with henna.
The noise outside was getting louder.
“Hello dear, looking for Ali?” Alia aunty pulled me into a quick hug and scurried away without waiting for my reply.
Ali appeared from his room looking startled.
“What’s all that noise?” He asked aloud, and then realized I was the only one in the lounge. “Hey, what took you guys so long?”
“You need to come outside Ali,” I stammered worriedly.
Ali, who was donned in an off white sherwani that seemed a little too formal for the occasion, followed me hastily.
The scene was worse than where I gad left it a minute ago. About a dozen spectators gathered around to watch the show either too lazy, or insensitive or afraid to interfere. Taha and Khalid wrestled fiercely, punching at each other’s faces. Taha was winning this fight but there was no way Khalid wad giving up. Ali hesitated, and then jumped between the crowd.
I urged the audience to pull the two apart, but to no avail.
“Taha, stop it!” I heard Ali cry out. I knew Ali was helpless in there; he hadn’t ever won an arm wrestling match with Saira.
“No! This piece of filth of finished today!” Taha yelled and rammed a jaw-breaking punch at his opponent’s nose, causing him to lay flat on the ground. Khalid lay still for about a half a minute, his nose dripping red on his blue kurta. The onlookers knew the show was over and began to disperse.
“Taha are you okay?” I hurried to his side.
He wiped the blood off his nose and sat cross-legged on the footpath.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he mumbled.
“Is he okay? Is he okay? He almost killed this man and you ask if he’s okay?” Ali shook me by my shoulder. “He’s become an animal, Beenish. What he did today was --,”
All three of us ducked as a string of gunshots pierced the silence.
“Run,” Ali ordered. He took my hand and we darted towards the gate with Taha at my heel. About ten paces away from the gate, we heard another gunshot, this one louder than before.
“Taha quick, get inside!” Ali panted, stepping inside the gates. He held the gates open to shut then immediately after Taha entered.
A moment went by. Another agonizing later, Taha was not inside.
Realization hit me like a bullet, and hit Ali a fraction of a second later.
I kicked the door open and raced outside only to witness the horror of watching my closest friend writhe in agony in a pool of blood, before three men on a motorbike, waiting for him to give up the ghost. I recognised the three; they were from Khalid’s gang.
“You monster! You animal! I’ll kill you all!” I cried hysterically. My brain, my body, my senses were numb. All I knew at that moment was that the blood on my hands was Taha’s and they did this to him. Ali dragged Taha to the footpath and called and ambulance, his sherwani dyed in red.
One of the bikers made a phone call ignoring our presence. Taha coughed out a mouthful of blood.
“Taha hold on. The ambulance is on its way,” Ali sat beside him.
Gradually, Taha stopped kicking his legs around. His chest did not move, my fingers on his wrist no longer throbbed, and his eye balls froze. Ali buried his face in his palms and muffled a cry.
I did not cry. I did not shed a tear. I picked up a rock beside me and hurled it at one of the men’s face. Ali threw himself over me and I heard the last gunshot for the day.
If it hadn’t been for sheer luck, I wouldn’t have been staring at a blob of caramel on my plate, recalling events that changed so much.
If it hadn’t been for Ali, I would not have been able to bear the loss we both suffered eleven months ago.
I look at him drinking his ice cream from the bowl, just like Taha used to, and I smile.
“It’s late; Saira’s calling,” Ali says.
“Can’t keep the queen waiting, can we?” I wink at Ali and he laughs, turning red.
Ali pays Akhtar bhai’s son, Kamal, who now runs the shop after his father’s death. I gather my crutches from beside me and make my way to car; the cold of the metal never fails to remind me of the bullet that I exchanged my left leg for.


  1. Please tell me this is not a true story please ?
    Oh GOD!
    You've had my stone-heart down to tears.
    I'm glad you had the strength to write all this.

    1. uff Lubaina ur so dramatic. No I wrote this for a competition I didn't win :] glad you like it.