The Swing – I

Over the month of August I will use these pages to publish a short story. I began writing it the day after my chronicle about the Lahore bombing. In my article that weekend I wrote the first few paragraphs of an imagined account, and challenged you, kind reader, to take it forward. I wonder how we’ll match up.

 

The Swing

Peter Wibaux

 

Kuldeep

The little girl woke up very early. She knelt beside the window and said her prayers on this special day. She asked God to take care of her family, to help her father with his new business that made him so tired, she asked that he might smile more. And she prayed for chocolate.

Then she crept into the big bed, eyes shining with joy and mischief. She watched for a minute as her parents slept, then her impatience got the better of her. She put her mouth close to her mother’s ear.

Maa, I want an Easter egg,” she whispered.

Her mother stirred, her hand reached up and she stroked the girl’s long brown hair.

“Kuldeep, it is so early,” she whispered back. “Look, look how Pita sleeps, he must rest.”

Her father let out a loud snore, as if on cue. The hairs on his thick mustache quivered, making the child giggle.

“Mommy, it’s a beautiful day. It’s Easter, and I want to go play in the park.” She pouted.

Maa turned and looked at her baby, her beautiful baby with the dark eyes. She kissed Kuldeep. “Your name has a meaning, little one.”

“You told me, mommy. It means the ‘lamp of the family.’ Am I a lamp?” She giggled again, and snuggled into her mother.

“Yes. Yes, my love, you are our shining light, brighter than the sun. Go and put on your best clothes.” Kuldeep had only just learned to dress herself, and often her buttons needed fixing.

“Go, my jasmine blossom. When daddy awakes, we will go to the park. We’ll hunt for eggs, and we’ll play on the swings. But first, of course, we must go to church.”

Kuldeep went back into her bedroom and looked at Shashi. The cat lay curled on the pillow, back paws tucked under the sheet. The little girl tickled the feline’s tummy and whispered “Shashi, little moon, we’re going to the park.” The cat grudgingly opened one eye—just a slit, shielding herself from the sun that streamed in through the guillotine window.

The little girl picked up the cat, ignoring its protests, and held it firmly in her arms as she opened the window. Outside, the sweet, slightly putrid smell of the mango blossoms drew the beetles and the wasps in their mission to pollinate the tree.

Both child and cat wrinkled their noses. “Poo.” Kuldeep laughed. The feline wrestled free and parachuted onto the floor, scampering off in mock anger. “Moon, moon, moon,” the child teased. “Shashi the moon hates the sun.” The tabby hid under the bed and peered at the girl from a safe distance.

“Come here! bad girl!” Kuldeep dived for the cat. The animal calmly walked to the other side of the bed and stared the child down. She held that impassive pose that defines a cat—Shashi, lord of the universe.

“Well, Miss Stuffy Shashi,” the little girl scolded. “If you won’t be my friend, I know who will. Chann, come to mommy this minute.” Kuldeep picked up her doll. “See, Shashi! We don’t need you! Now…” she carried the doll over to the wardrobe and flung open the door. Together they examined the dresses, the brightly-colored tops.

She pursed her lips, as she had seen maa do on Sunday mornings. She flicked through the clothing, tutting to the doll in despair. “Well Chann, what are we going to wear? First church, but then the park.” She flicked through more dresses. “That one? No, Chaan, we need to be practical,” she admonished. How on earth did Chaan imagine jeans were appropriate? “You have a lot to learn about being a lady, I’m afraid!”

The doll looked crestfallen, so Kuldeep hugged and kissed her. “It’s alright, silly, don’t cry! Mommy loves you. And I shall give you lessons. Now, sit down here while I get ready.”

She plonked the doll on a small wooden chair and sat her upright. “Look, and you shall learn.” Maa peeked through a crack in the door. She smiled, hearing her daughter use daddy’s words, then opened the door an inch or two more—the cat seized the opportunity to make good its escape.

Aman left her daughter to dress herself and educate Chann, and went into the kitchen to prepare nāshtā, the first meal of the day. In Punjab meat is often served at breakfast, as is the custom in the rest of Pakistan. The Siri Payay, a lamb’s head and feet, is a Sunday treat, and in Aman’s household it was traditional to eat the dish at Easter—most uncommon in a city where the family were regarded as kufar, or unbelievers—a tiny Christian minority in a metropolis of millions, the capital of the old Mughlai Empire, and the southern gate of the Silk Road.

To each his own, Aman reflected. Her own name meant ‘the one who is peaceful’, and she prayed that Islam might see things that way also.

She placed the breakfast dishes out on the table. Khatchauri, corn roti, and fruit—the last of the winter citrus, papaya and guava, and strawberries from Kashmir. As the meat came to the boil, Shashi circled impatiently, yowling and rubbing herself against Aman—Easter was also the feline’s favorite day.

 

Sahir

The Jamir Eemaan Madrassa was the best home Sahir ever had. His maulana, or teacher, was kind, and had steered the boy onto the path of true religion.

The school furnished its students with a calm and studious environment, set back from the constant bustle of the big city. And for Sahir, who’d been hungry all his life, it provided the most precious thing of all—enough food to stop the stomach gnawing and twisting, the pangs shooting through him in the dead of night, when little children should be quietly sleeping in their beds.

It was like that in the countryside, the small rural villages of Southern Punjab. His desperately poor family had ten mouths to feed—mama, baba, seven kids, and grandma. Sahir was the fourth child, and there was never nearly enough food to sustain them—it was hard enough to scrape together the money for a few lentils and naan bread,  and the baby girl was constantly ill.

His eldest brother, Abasin, contracted polio as a child and was paralysed. Since the family had no money for a wheelchair, he dragged himself on a wooden board fitted with supermarket trolley wheels.

The kufar planned to use the disease to destroy Islam, his teacher explained. In the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the ibn-al-kalb CIA, the spies of the sons of dogs, had used doctors to poison innocent Muslim children. Osama, peace be upon him, had been dead these five years, and the faithful had responded to the polio vaccine hoax by killing seventy polio workers.

The hand of Allah was severe indeed, Sahir rejoiced, scratching his thin arms.

His father had sent him to a local madrassa where the boy could be educated and fed. Sahir was only seven years old, and for the next eight years it became his home. The clerics who ran the school did provide their charges with food, but they went about it in a singular fashion—the children had to beg for it.

Every morning after prayers the boys were loaded onto a flatbed truck and the creaking old engine would strain and wheeze as it pulled the rusted chassis to one of the nearby towns. Here, the boys would fan out and comb the market square and the nearby streets, bringing back what they received.

Sahir still bore the scars of this chore, a task he found both humiliating and frightening. At the tender age of seven, he quickly found out what happened if he failed to deliver food. The very first time his prize disappointed, the mullah gripped his left ear and led him into the store room. There, he kicked the little boy onto the flagstones, took the rattan cane from the wall, and whipped him mercilessly.

The child howled in pain, and nursed his welts and bleeding cuts over the next weeks. Every time he returned, trembling, from his morning excursion, he expected another savage beating—his begging skills improved rapidly, but from time to time out came the rattan cane and the bruises flared again.

His schoolmates were no luckier, most of them from destitute families like his own, kids whose start in life had been a tragic mix of hunger, violence, and disease. There were exceptions—his friend Mueez came from people with means, but his father had packed him off to the madrassa anyhow.

“Father told my maulana that in his life he has been a great sinner,” Mueez said. “He believes if I grow up to be a good Muslim, I can save him from the fires of hell.”

Sahir knew the kufar considered this a very special day. After prayers, he broke fast, giving thanks to Allah for the beautiful dawn. For the unbelievers, this was the day of the ressurection of Christ, the son of God.

The boy muttered a curse at the outrage. He remembered well the lessons he had been taught.

“Boy, if we are to find the right path, we must seek the truth. “ The maulana looked at the teenager, the thatch of black hair and the dark eyes, the reedy arms of malnutrition. The eyes widened.

“Yes, sir. My footsteps follow the Qu’ran, the one and only holy book.”

“Good. Now, to defend Islam, to prosecute our Jihad for Allah the exalted, and the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, we must know our enemies.” The mullah’s voice hardened. He gripped the boy’s shoulder. “We must know them, Sahir, so that we may destroy them.”

The boy sat, cross-legged, his worn leather sandals three sizes too big for him. The mullah saw him wince and relaxed his grip.

“The Christians, the crusaders, have inflicted much pain on the children of Allah. We are all sons of Allah, but the Lord could never have begotten a son. That is HERESY!” The maulana screamed the word in disgust, and the boy jumped back, cringing.

“That is the infidel’s filth, Sahir, this holy trinity.”

The boy was trembling.

“S-So their Jesus, sir…” he stammered.

“Their Jesus, yes. What can you tell me about him, talib?” The maulana used the Arab term for student.

“We call him Isa, may peace be upon him. But he is not a deity, sir, he is a prophet.”

“Exactly!” The teacher patted his talib on the head. “This is a grave error, an unforgivable error of the kufar doctrine. If Allah had begotten a son, what would he be?”

The boy looked perplexed. “The… son of god?”

“Exactly!” The maulana shouted. “And why is that impossible?”

“Because there is only one god, Maulvi.”

“Exactly!” A third time. “There cannot be two gods, or even three, since the crusaders add the Holy Spirit. This is nothing but blasphemy.”

The maulana stared at Sahir, reading the boy’s eyes, his thoughts. A good Muslim boy, this one, a true believer. But is he ready to do God’s work?

“These Christians, talib, these murderers of Palestine, and traitors of Jerusalem—“ the voice rose to a screech—“they dare to celebrate the ressurection of this false god! This… this insult to Islam even has a name. The kufar call it Easter.”

Sahir boiled with indignation as he remembered the lesson of his beloved maulana, a brave man who had lost an eye fighting the Soviets. Well, today will be a special day for me too.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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