Short story: Lappitop

Rich. That’s what they are. Terribly, horribly stuffed with things they don’t need. Like my grandmother’s brother’s plastic bag suffocating with free rice every Friday outside the mosque in Malpur, my village. My dado always spoke about luscious green giants of the Marghala Hills that protected our homes from the Djinns. I remember thinking about whether they’d protect us from the humans too.

My heart runs fast, almost like it’ll die if it doesn’t escape. I don’t like to wash these deeshes that baji ji’s(madam boss) sister brought from Englaaand. I also don’t like to dust the creepy faces baji ji’s uncle collected from Afreeka. My baji ji makes it a point to remind me every day. “I will throw you to the dogs if you break anything!!!” I always smile my big smile, but in my head when she threatens me. Everything gets worse when she sees me smile. Back home, we have plenty of fur-scratching homefull dogs. They have no home, but they have me and my sister.

Then there are the children. Ali is ten, a year younger than I am. Sara is only five and she is my secret city sister. That’s what she and I whisper to each other when I braid her hair or play hide ‘n seek. I don’t know what my ‘baji ji’ will do if she ever found out. Probably throw me to the dogs. I can’t help but smile again, but inside my head.

Unhappy. That’s what they are. Terribly, horribly unhappy. Baji’s husband, the rich man who gives me money at the end of the month is stranger than our village crazy person who goes around with a half moustache and screams that the world is going to end soon. Baji ji’s husband has angry eyebrows, like they will jump right out and smack you. He rarely speaks, even to his children. When he is at home, which is not often, he sits in his room, staring at something called a lattpop…lappitop or something like that. I think it’s what they call a baby compooter.

Once I was sent by baji to give him tea. It was a rare occasion when I saw his eyebrows at peace, while crazily punching the buttons on that thing. Like his fingers were tiny fly swatters and the keys, flies. We don’t have fly killers in the village. We roll up old papers and practice our aiming skills. He has tie-dyed marble eyes and a grey-greenish shaved face that reminds me of the sticky lizards swimming on our roof back home. Our roof with all the patchy cement looks like snake skin. Snake Vs. Lizard. I’d like the front seats to that show. Wrestling is serious business in my village. You can joke about the Mosque’s Imam’s crooked eyes, or about the neighbor aunti’s monkeyish screams at night, but never about wrestling.

Baji ji mostly speaks on four occasions. First, when she is scolding me. Second, when she is scolding her children. Third, when she is fighting with her husband. And fourth, when she is talking to faces on her lappitop or the phone. Ali stays in his room after school. His fingers crawling all over gadgets like spider legs. I once woke up to a spider scurrying across my face when I was six. My sister came to the rescue and smashed it on my nose, then ran away crying. Another time she cried till she couldn’t breath was when I was leaving for Islamabad. Abba didn’t say goodbye. I blamed his gangerine-infested leg.

I can’t talk to a ‘box’ like they do. I can’t even watch TV for long. The TV at my parents’ place doesn’t have a remote control. So my sister and I run to adjust the volume or change the channels more than we actually sit down to watch. One time, we were in such a hurry to win our abba’s praise and see who turned it off first, we almost knocked it off from the stack of faded beetroot coloured bricks used as its table. My amma had spread her favourite embroidered dupatta over the bricks to make the table look pretty. Abba didn’t mind the almost-accident and just muttered something about it being a good riddance. And that, “…it creates unhappy minds and unsatisfied hearts. ” I wonder how he came up with that. Baji ji never gives away anything until her husband forces it out of her. Like he did with this TV. It’s just her bad words that she can’t keep inside her teeth-brimming mouth. I’ve never seen so much white in one mouth. It reminds me of my dado’s funeral.

A light bulb hangs in the centre of our main room that’s the size of baji ji’s kitchen. I feel sad for the bulb, alone and hanging upside down like a post-sacrificial goat.But I like electricity. It lets me see my family’s faces when the sky tucks itself into its favourite black blanket. We only have one blanket. Baji’s husband gave it to us one winter morning after I heard her scream like a cat who’s tail got caught in the door and then the whole house caught fire. Fire does’t scare me. It lets me see my family’s faces when there’s no electricity. Amma says that the fire makes her see greenish-brown fairies of Malpur dancing in my eyes. I have my abba’s skinny arms, legs and broad feet. Amma says she only gave me her best, her perky nose with a bump at the end. The sort that would break the fall when rolling down a steep hill. And her almond-coloured skin.

We like to sit and talk around the fire that abba builds for us. We all merge into each other and form a giant sunflower, huddled towards the warm light. They are the happiest flowers I know. My mother doesn’t talk much when we gather. She just smiles wide enough for her thin lips to disappear between each other. Instead, she prefers stringing together colourful beads on weak threads that she sells outside our village’s one-door girls’ school. Colourful, small, round, shiny beaded bracelets are a hit with young school girls.

“Salma!” I hear Baji ji shouting my name. I try to numb by head by thinking of abba. Nights when he’d take me out for walks after a meal of lentils and roti. Nights when Abba still had his good leg, he gathered wood with hands that had veins protruding like roots from our Malpur trees. I’d tag along and watch the stars. My abba never went to school. But he knew his specks in the sky. An old employer when abba worked as a driver in the city taught him about the faraway worlds. The stars are the same here in the city. But they don’t seem as bright as my village stars.

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My ears warn me about Baji ji stomping towards me with her noisy shoes. I don’t think I will last long here. I say this every other month. I think I will go back home. I say this every other day. But then I think about Sara. And how few years from now she’ll be sitting locked in her room, getting sucked into a star-less world, with no light except from the TV or lappitop machines. That thought makes it hard to breathe. Like someone just sneaked in and strangled my neck from the inside.

“I am done with you! I will surely throw you to the dogs today!” Baji ji digs her nails into my arms and drags me. I remember the colourful beads nudging each other to keep hanging, keep shining, keep being. I remember my mother’s lip-lost face. I smile my big smile again, but inside my head.

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To the kid at the park, I owe you a hug.

 

I can’t seem to get his face out of my mind. That lost, indifferent look. That look that wanted to be understood. That day at the park.

Summers are finally here in Toronto, and I’d be an outright cruel mom if I didn’t take my children to the park often. So this is exactly what I was doing that day. Sitting back on a bench while my wee ones played around. Now as a parent I don’t hover. I let the munchkins run about and make friends on their own. An occasional interference is called for when my toddler decides to run towards the street.

So my son was playing with a boy he hadn’t met at the park before. He must have been a year or two older than my daughter but definitely younger than my son. He seemed like a good kid and was enjoying trying out my son’s bike. My daughter decided to join the two and somehow she got the little dude all curious. He started running after her and then blocked her way towards the slide and anywhere else she wanted to go. I watched for a while then decided to head over. I could tell that he wanted to play with her but he was doing it all wrong. I casually told him to take turns with the slide. He let her through. I backed off and it started again. I could tell my daughter was getting a bit bothered. So I told him, ” Hey buddy, please share and don’t block her way.” He just looked at me. By now my paranoid-hovering-mom syndrome had completely taken over. I waited a bit longer to see if he would stop. I had seen a middle-aged man telling him to stay inside the confines of the park a while ago. So when he didn’t stop, I decided the oldest threat in the book would work. Of course I had no plans to but I still said, “I think I should talk to your dad.” To which he replied,

“I have no dad.”

Now this is the moment where all the blood drained from my face, an unnerving string of music began playing in the background, and I felt absolutely distraught. I leaned forward to hug the little kid and somehow vowed to help him. If it were a movie of course.

Unfortunately this was real life, and I was totally unprepared to handle such a response. I asked,

“Who do you live with?”

” I don’t know.”

“Where do you live?”

” Oh somewhere there”, he pointed across from the park.

And that was that. It was unbearably windy that day and with all the sand in my eyes and maybe even my brain, I couldn’t think straight. It was time to head home.

I thought about him all evening. I felt bad about threatening him like a tattle tale preschooler. I felt even worse about him going back to a home that he didn’t even know about , and a father he had no idea of. I wondered what his story was. Whatever it was, one of the main characters was missing. Possibly even the other protagonist too, the mom.

Isn’t this how it all starts? An unruly child that no one understands. A boy or a girl who acts out and gets rude stares and comments in return? An unknown dad, a missing mom, or neither?! A broken family where most pieces are beyond recovery. Do we stop to think why a child is acting this way? What’s eating him inside? What’s missing in his or her life? No. We don’t. We just pounce at the chance to show our superiority because we may have oh-so well-behaved children, and that gives us the right to judge another child. Just like that.

Isn’t this how bullies are formed? Instead of empathizing, the society reacts negatively and with intolerance. Sure this doesn’t mean that out of undue sympathy we should let kids get away with bullying or misbehaviour. But it does mean that we should not label them with that one belittling word or action. It does mean that there are other ways to handle a disturbed child besides hate. How can we expect children to understand their wrong actions where all we give them in return is harsh rebuke and lack of faith?

We don’t like giving others second chances. It’s always easier to label a person, even a child, for what he or she does, and not for what he or she is. That’s where the messed up cycle begins. One doesn’t understand the other. And inevitably, ‘that kid’ becomes the outcast; a lost cause; all are names we use to satisfy our egos. Because this somehow excuses us from the responsibility that we might have towards such children. It makes us pack our bags, shrug our shoulders and run back to our homes  pretending that none of it is our concern. Exactly like I what I did that day. I judged him in my head without thinking things through, I acted all self-righteous and then ran away like a scared mouse.

I know that it’s not all this simple. There are always a zillion other factors involved. I am no expert, but I know that it all starts from home. No child is born a bully or a miscreant. It’s life and people like you and me who push the wrong buttons.

I hope I see that kid again though I am not sure what I’ll do. I’ll always jump to protect my children, that bit will never change. But at least I’ll know better than to play a presumptuous role.

Maybe if I see him acting up again, I’ll stop him and just give him a hug.

And maybe, just maybe, he’d understand why it was important to listen to what I was saying. Not because he had to. But because I cared enough.

Wednesday Wiseness: Funny Hair. A Not-so-funny life.

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My nose is like a mountain, in-your-face-kind-of unavoidable. My dark skin makes me want to go through a permanent whitewash. My skin colour is ghastly transparent, like a cross between Casper and Aloe vera gel.  I have crooked teeth, strung together like abstract art. I have a pimple brigade fighting for territory on my face. My chin has its own continent. I’m thinking of using my scrawny hands and feet for a scarecrow business. I’ve decided to rent out my butt, it’s taking up too much space.

Are those some things we grew up saying or thinking about? Maybe our versions weren’t disguised in such light-hearted banter. Maybe our versions were more alive, more heart-breaking, and more horrific.

What makes us turn on ourselves like parasites? There is one answer that makes more sense than others. It begins real close. At home. At School. At a friend or relative’s place. In the playground. At the mall. It begins in our bedrooms, in the kitchens, with permanent abodes in our bathrooms; where the mirror plays a huge supporting role.

And this is how it starts. Replace the characters, plot, dialogues and setting, but the heart of the story remains eerily similar.

One fine day, a happy little toddler becomes a pre-schooler. Subtle sparks of thought and the alien concepts of comprehension begin to sprout in that little head. It almost feels like spring, with so much to marvel at and discover, until it doesn’t.

“You have funny hair“, says a friend, on an unfortunate day, to the unfortunate little lady. Nearby class fellows gather around, make a circle and start snickering and pointing.

Sure, her defences creep up, like mutated tree roots, sheltering from outside crap. She might say something mean in return. She might even push or shove, feigning bravery. She might stay silent and act as if it doesn’t bother her.  Oh, but it does. It bugs her bad. Her defences are not strong enough to shield her from the worst critic of them all, herself. That remark right there and then, imprints a painful and permanent bruise, like a medieval branding iron meant for lifelong torture. Next time the girl stands in front of the mirror, with half-opened eyes, trying to brush her milky-teeth, she notices her hair. For the first time. And she doesn’t like what she sees.

Family isn’t too welcoming either. As she adds a few inches to her height, squiggly strands transform into frizzy monsters. Or so her siblings say, in between occasional teasing ventures by other loved ones. She smiles at first. The second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth,…millionth time too. But then she doesn’t.

She painfully sheds her pre-puberty skin and discovers the world of, and for, the ‘pretty’. Makeup. Clothes. Fashion. But the pin bursting her bubble is always her hair. She wants to show-off her pretty-card. She is desperate.

Then, she discovers magic. A device that could crease out the ugliness. She saves up her pocket-money and birthday money to buy her enchanting wand. She turns thirteen with her new best friend safely tucked in her bathroom cupboard. Her hair straightener.

She straightens her hair more than she eats. More than she laughs. More than she cries. Because she can’t imagine stepping out of her room with Medusa-like entities hanging over her head. She sometimes hates her hair so much that it hurts her heart. And unknowingly, her hair too.

Along with the hair hazard, she gathers other common inflictions of her age, like insects on sugar. The weight bug. The skin bug. The voice bug. Her self-esteem melts away, like the wicked witch of the West. Wicked, because it is a cowardly, sad little excuse of an emotion that is too weak to stand up for itself.

  One day, she opens up to an old friend. With tears blurring her pupils, she says that her hair’s as dead as a door. And that she sometimes thinks of letting it stay in its natural form. But when she  catches a glimpse of her burnt mop in her bathroom mirror, she quickly reaches for the straightener.

She tells her friend that she doesn’t have the strength to fight.

She never did.

Or, that fateful day many years ago, she would have gone back and told her mom and dad everything. And if her parents had the hindsight, they would have convinced her that she had the best hair in the world. And that she should never let anyone make her feel otherwise.

Next day, the girl would have gone back to school, a bit scared but ready to take on the world with her funny hair. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Wiseness: Children run after the simplest of things with the seriousness of the world

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Ever notice how children run after the simplest of things with the seriousness of the world? Maybe we can learn a thing or two from them about sincerity and devotion. Nothing is insignificant or unworthy of attention in their eyes. They give it their all despite a limited attention span. 

Scribbling with crayons like a little Picasso

Watching cartoons as if witnessing the Apocalypse

Planting a flower in the backyard like a caring parent

Jumping on the bed like a trained astronaut in space

Asking questions like an avid historian

Who says children need to grow up? They are brilliant and perfect just the way they are.

It’s us ‘adults’ who need to ‘grow-up’ a little less.

So what have you noticed in your children (or grandchildren) that takes your breath away?

 


National Blog Posting Month - November 2014

I am participating in the National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo) – November 2014. This is an awesome venture of Blogher.com. In their own words:

“Every November, thousands of bloggers commit to posting daily. But it’s about much more than getting that post up—it’s about community and connection. It’s also about honing your craft, challenging yourself, and taking your blog to the next level.”

I will write every day of November. This is my fifth post.

#NaBloPoMo – Day 5