I look around and find myself in a big room with white walls and a red sparkling floor. I love it and secretly want to put my cheek next to it, to feel its cool, red surface. It is a room that I am going to share with my aunt and her daughter. For the next three years I am going to live with them. What fun! Everything is so different here. I don’t miss home at all. And tomorrow I will see my new school too!
It’s my first day in school. I have never seen such a huge school building before. They tell me it is a hundred and ten years old. The staircase that goes up to our classroom is in a dark tower with a tiny yellow bulb fighting a losing battle with the darkness all day long. I get a magical, frightening feeling going up them, as if I am in a storybook castle.
My English teacher, Miss Tring, is very dainty with china blue eyes that sparkle dangerously when she is angry. Miss Wilson is Irish with sooty blue eyes and the loveliest smile till she is offended; she is our head mistress and also our Mathematics teacher. The Science teacher is Miss O. Massey, a Goan Indian. I love her dark skin and tired beady eyes.
The girls look at me strangely. ‘You are not dark,’ the girl sitting next to me remarks.
‘Why should I be dark?’
‘They told us you have come from Bengal. So you are a Bengali and Bengalis are dark.’
‘I am not a Bengali and anyway Bengalis are not necessarily dark. Some of my Bengali friends are very fair.’ I end the subject with finality.
She looks at me and persists, ‘You like to eat rice and fish.’
I love to eat steaming white boiled rice and fish and daal and actually I may be a Bengali as I live there or a Punjabi as my grandfather was a Punjabi or a Badayuni as my grandmother was from Badayon or may be a Balochi/ Seraiki as I was born in Dera Ghazi Khan! Who am I?
I think I am Myself, I decide stubbornly.
I look at the girl then outside the window at the blue sky and the crows with their black feathers lustrous in the yellow sunlight.
I come out of my school and find my cousin waiting outside. He has come to pick me up from school. He will accompany me back on the bus for a couple of days till I am used to the way and then I will do it myself. He is from the Punjabi side of my family and dark as can be! I find him very comfortable to talk to and love to see him laugh. His small, very dark eyes crinkle up and shine out of the dark skin. He too lives at my aunt’s house, in the upstairs suite. Most of our extended family that comes to study or work in this city stays with my aunt at her house. She has a big heart, though not a very big house. The men share the upstairs suite and the girls the room with the sparkling red floor. Beds are adjusted accordingly. Right now this cousin of mine from Sialkot shares the upstairs room with an uncle from Karachi who is working for his bachelor’s degree; they are very different – one a dark rustic Punjabi and the other a fair, sophisticated city dweller, but they seem the same, each with his own brand of humour and easy camaraderie.
My cousin and I take the bus home from the bus terminal. I have never seen so many buses together.
‘Wake up! We have to get off at the next stop.’ I am startled out of my sleep. I crinkle my eyes to get a better look at the other passengers. We seem to be in an ocean of interesting faces. My cousin holds my arm and we swim past the bodies upstream; it is quite an effort but we make it to the exit. My cousin gets down as soon as the bus stops and I jump out too, proud for riding the bus with a sea of people.
We walk on a lane that should take us to our house. I look around and try to absorb as much as I can so I don’t lose my way when I have to do it on my own. We come across a small bridge over a stinking stream of greenish blackish fluid. As we cross it, my cousin tells me, ‘This is the drain that cleanses our living areas.’ So openly! It vanishes under the main road a little further down but is open and deep where it is coming from and has small huts and houses along one of its banks.
‘The milk man and the vegetable man who come to our house in their horse carts to sell their stuff live in these houses,’ he tells me.
On our right is the main road under which the green stream vanishes. A canal flows on its other side, flanked by eucalyptus trees. So this is why this area is called Canal Park!
‘Sahib, Sahib, wait for me.’ A lilting voice calls out from behind.
We turn. A man in a shalwar kurta sways towards us with a broad grin. He holds one arm halfway up his side daintily, moving his palm coquettishly, making the red mehndi on it play hide and seek. A small plastic bag dangles from his other hand. I have never seen anyone like him. He is both a man and a woman! I look at him enviously. My cousin knows him; I would like to get to know him too.
My cousin catches me staring. ‘He is Ghulam Qadir, our cook and cooks the most delicious food. In the evenings, he likes to go out to meet his friends. He sings very well and dances divinely, but doesn’t often perform for us.’
Ghulam Qadir has big, kohl lined, laughing eyes. Clean white teeth gleam from behind thick lips as he gives us a big smile. He has a cap on his head that hides his hair.
I have seen so much today. I skip happily behind my cousin.
We enter the gate of Bimla Das Estate. It has four houses enclosed in a boundary wall; all look the same, old buildings with red brick drives in a semi circle enclosing lush green lawns. The second house is my aunt’s. We turn right onto the dusty red driveway with a huge Banyan tree and cross it to go to the back of the house. What a huge tree! I am sure djinns live in it.
We pass a hedge of green bamboo-like reeds that separate us from the house next door. ‘These are called Sarkanda in Urdu,’ my cousin tells me. It reminds me of the story of Podna and Podni in which Podna makes a cart of Sarkanda to go and bring back his Podni. We pass the hedge and turn left to an inner courtyard with trees and roses and vegetables. My aunt stands at the kitchen door that opens onto this courtyard and as Ghulam Qadir runs inside, she moves to one side. I can’t take my eyes off her gharara. It is white cotton and matches the white in her hair; her short printed shirt has small yellow roses and her sweaty face glows pink.
‘Let’s go inside. He will bring the food.’ She smiles at me as we troop into the room with the red floor.
The room has three single beds on one side, a couple of chairs on each side of the fireplace and a big wooden takht next to a wall. It is covered with a white sheet and has three round gao takias, also white, next to the wall. The room smells nice and clean and the red floor provides the colour. I go into the dressing room to wash and change.
‘Food is ready!’ Ghulam Qadir says as we enter the room simultaneously – he with a laden tray and I ready for lunch. He has taken off his cap and I see soft brown hair tied behind with a golden band.
The food smells nice and my stomach gurgles in delight. My aunt has spread a red and orange printed oblong cloth on the takht, and Ghulam Qadir puts the steaming hot dishes on it. We sit on the takht on each side of the oblong, red and orange cloth and eat our meal with hot chapaatis that Ghulam Qadir keeps bringing in, holding the plate in his hennaed palms. I don’t miss my favourite hot white boiled rice!
It is evening. I sit on the stairs that lead up to a side room, looking at the clusters of twinkling fireflies in the reed hedge. It has been a month since I first came into this house. Ghulam Qadir has gone to visit his friends as usual and I am waiting for my cousin to come out and tell me a story about the reeds and the fireflies. He tells me a new story every day. A firefly whizzes past my face; I make a grab for it and it lights up my loosely closed fist as I caress it, gently.
A sudden scream jerks me out of the silky rich quietness. Somebody is wailing. Ghulam Qadir’s voice! As they come closer, I can see two women holding Ghulam Qadir on either side, his face is swollen and bleeding. But they are not women! They are Ghulam Qadir’s friends.
My uncle and cousin come out. ‘What happened?’
‘Sahab, they made fun of us. Laughed at us! They pinched Ghulam Qadir’s cheek and called his mother a bitch,’ one of the friends says in a frightened voice.
‘I begged them to let us be, but he slapped me and asked me if I wanted some red on my face too. He punched my face and smeared my blood all over it; slapped me over and over and asked me if the red on my face was enough for my singhar.’ Ghulam Qadir’s tears slowly wash away the blood from his swollen face.
My fist jerks open. The firefly rushes out to its friend.
I dissolve myself in the darkness, try and shrink away from the scene but my eyes continue to stare.
They take him to the hospital and I run inside. My aunt and her daughter are away. I sit on the chair huddled in fright. I don’t know what to do. The red floor beckons and I lie down on the floor with my cheek against its cool comfort.
Shahbano Alvi was born in Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan and lived for several years in what was then East Pakistan. A graduate in graphic design from the department of Art and Design at the Punjab University (Lahore), she has exhibited her woodcuts and portraits in pastel both nationally and internationally. She is also the founder and publisher of the independent publishing house Ushba. She lives in Karachi and is working on her first collection of stories.