“Ammi jaan, darwaza kholiye! Open the door! Ammi jaan!”
“Oh sweetie relax, I’m coming!”
Sahiba rushes to open the gate. A very excited Salim darts into the house like a bullet. Hurling his shoes straight onto the sofa, tossing his bag right beside the fireplace, the little boy nestled tightly into his mom’s chest.
“Ammi jaan, tomorrow is my birthday, right?”
“Mm hmm… and I’ll be preparing your favourite dishes,” Sahiba leaned in closer, “sewaiyaan too!”
The expression on the boy’s guileless face was priceless as it lit up to the thought of savouring the vermicelli pudding!
Salim was a handsome young boy, just about to turn seven. He had messy hazel-hued hair that fell over his forehead, curtaining his wide, milky white brow. Further down than this were deep muddy brown eyes that reminded of a whirlpool, yet gleamed with innocence.
Following the two hour long chit-chat between the mother and the son about their day so far, was the time for Namaaz. The duo sat to read their evening prayer, facing the Ka’ba, or the west side, where in Mecca stands the House of Allah. After seven minutes of offering their devotions to the Allah, Sahiba and Salim were back to their talks and gossips.
“So Salim, what do you want for your birthday?” asked Sahiba.
“The green kurta-pajama we saw in the bazaar the other day!” blurted out Salim, without even giving it a thought for a second. Obviously, he’d been planning the answer since long!
“Oh beta! That’s just another pair of a robe and pants!”
“But that’s what I want!”
“No Salim, forget about it!”
“If you don’t get it for me, I’ll complain about you to abbu jaan!”
“Well, then why don’t you ask abbu jaan for it? He’ll get it when he returns from Lucknow after a whole month!”
“If you- if you- don’t get, I will- um- leave you and run away!”
“Mahshallah, look at his cheeks, blackmailing his mother!”
The sweet little bickering in the courtyard of the house- oh how gratifying!
Soon, dusk settled in. The sun gracefully snuggled into the clouds, like a blushing bride would burrow into her veil. Darkness embraced the night sky. The moon elegantly rose up and beamed at the earth below. Mist enveloped the cold January night, while tens of thousands of people curled up in their blankets in the simple yet beautiful town of Akbarpur.
Here, a weeping Salim hit the sacks, a disappointed (to-be) birthday boy; there, a smiling Sahiba tucked herself in the bed, a proud and excited mother.
Next morning, the alarm in Salim’s room went off at 6 of the clock, as it did every day. The piercing sound brought Salim back from his post-sleep-early-morning dwam. He fluttered his eyelids open and rolled out of his bed onto the carpeted floor that tickled his little toes. Rubbing sleep out of his eyes, he walked towards the kitchen, cross with this mom, yet his eyes twinkling with anticipation.
Just as he pushed open the door of his room, he saw a green coloured kurta pajama lying on the threshold- just what he had wanted!
Salim rushed across the courtyard that was blanketed under thick winter morning fog, into the arms of Sahiba.
“Ammi jaan, bohot shukriya! Thank you so much! Now I will never leave you!”
“Oh beta! Happy birthday! Come on, now go, get ready for school. And wear your best clothes today; let everyone also know it’s your birthday today!”
“Yes ammi jaan!”
Salim hurriedly ran to the bathroom, brushed his perfectly arranged rows of milk teeth, none of which had fallen by then, and had a short bath following which he ate his breakfast. Afterwards, he bade his mother a sweet goodbye- a kiss on the cheek- and left for school. “Hallelujah!” murmured Sahiba looking at Salim in his new kurta-pajama.
Skipping all the way on the streets, he made such a delightful sight for the entire neighborhood (save those unfortunate people who missed him), while his mom prayed to nullify any evil eye on him. In school, people just couldn’t stop admiring how cutely handsome Salim looked in his clothes! And the pride and enthusiasm on his face- just so precious and enthralling!
Back there at home, Sahiba turned on the radio as she put milk on the stove to boil. Humming to the tunes of Kishore Kumar, she imagined what Salim might say when he would eat his favourite sewaiyaan.
“Ammi jaan, this is better than ever today!” he would exclaim.
“Hmm? Do you really mean what you say, or is it just buttering?” she would joke.
“No, ammi jaan, really!”
And then she would gather him up in a warm huddle.
At that very moment, the radio shifted from songs to news.
“And there goes another wicket! Yet another loss for the team!
And here we have a recent update. Terrorist attacks at a school in east Akbarpur.”
Sahiba rotated the volume wheel towards the right.
“Bombing attacks at IFR Public School in Akbarpur left 47 casualties, of which 38 were students, and over 60 injured, including more than 50 students. All the injured and the dead have been rushed to LACM hospital.”
The ladle slipped from Sahiba’s shaky hands as she leaned over the wall for support. She fell to the ground with her back rubbing against the wall. Tears were inevitable. Hurricanes arose in her mind, destroying all her thoughts. She could feel her happiness fade into hopes, hopes for her son’s life to be saved. The hurricanes grew louder, washing away her delight and leaving behind trails of worry instead.
Suddenly she heard a knock. She wiped off her dewy eyes and wet cheeks with her dupatta and tried to stand up on her trembling feet. Stumbling, limping, she somehow managed to reach the main gate. With baited breath she opened the gate hoping to see Salim. Instead, a tall man in the uniform of a school guard stood there with a school bag and a pile of neatly folded clothes.
Sahiba immediately took the clothes and unfolded them. It was the pair of green kurta pajama- she very well recognized- Salim had worn.
She covered her mouth with her hands. She tried to hold back her tears that now rolled down her cheeks in voluminous streams, while choking on her gasps. Sahiba could take it no more. She collapsed to the ground and ran her shaking fingers over the clothes.
In between her sobs, she could hear her little sunshine talking to her. His radiant face was still vivid in her brain, and so was his silvery voice in his dulcet tones.
“Now I will never leave you!”