"At the Park Lane bungalows
of Kamaal and Kareem sahibs Manpower exporters they call
themselves, sending people from one country to the other.
Actually their cook’s friend is an Afghan and when I reached
here, fleeing from my country, he’s the one who got me
about your husband?"
deserted me," she said in a matter of fact way. Continuing
in the same emotionless tone, she said, "I stood amidst the
ruins of our home and waited for days but when there seemed no
sign of him, my jewellery, money bag and bank books. I realised
Ibeen cheated.... I ran with these children." Tears welled
in her eyes. "My eldest son was killed in a rocket attack.
There was no money to even bury him. I just wrapped his body in
a sheet before lowering him into a hole dug in the backyard of
our bungalow...er, my earlier home."
The next day,
the side of the house leading to the garage came alive with
activity and cheerful screams as Marium and her brood moved in.
Within hours that stale odour was replaced by the mixed smells
of Dettol and smoke as she spent hours brooming the entrance,
wiping the ply doors and the rusted grill, and burning the
garbage heaps. And from the next morning one saw her following a
routine that seemed unhindered by mood swings, by the weather or
the frequent viral attacks her children suffered from.
At the crack of
dawn, when the two cocks and four hens she’d brought along
started their litany, the children and she would come running
out of the garage to see whether any eggs had been laid. Then a
twisted pan would be placed atop a stove and her hands would
delve deep into the kanastar. Putting handfuls of the flour into
an open tray, she would rock slightly as she kneaded it, and
then take to baking neat looking rotis. And then, with a broom
tucked confidently under an arm, she would enter our home and it
was the gentle swish-swash of her broom that used to finally
But by the time
we could try to interact with her she would be ready to rush out
again. She would brush aside all our queries about the ongoing
turmoil in Afghanistan or about the turmoils in her life, with
patent sentences. "Shh! Never talk about the past! My
mother used to say it is bad for the heart; and why talk of the
future for who knows what’s written here," she said while
pointing at her broad forehead.
the wire-meshed window of my room which overlooked the garage, I
used to be so distracted by the activities of this family that I
failed in three weekly tests. For though the books lay in front
of me, I could not only stare at how she’d be interacting with
her children. Rolling the rotis into different shapes to make
their drab meal exciting, mentioning names of birds and animals
in between those folk tales, breaking the monotony of washing by
singing some verse or recounting some fairy tale. And for some
strange reason, one particular fairy tale disturbed me to such
an extent that it is still etched in my mind.
children looked glum when she recounted how Bibi Birdie — the
mother of seven pigeons and the principal character of this tale
— flew away, never to return, when her brood troubled her. As
those details used to pour out — about how each baby pigeon
flew over seven seas searching for its lost mother — her
children would look pleadingly at her. And she would laugh
nervously and say, "I’m not a pigeon-mother. You scamps
can do anything but I’m never going to fly away. We’ll
always live together."
Barely had a
night passed after these utterances, when we were awakened by
high-pitched screams from the garage. We rushed out to find a
well dressed Afghan standing at the garage entrance. Amidst
wails, she shrieked, "He’s my husband. He wants to take
away the youngest."
you all go with him?" my mother hesitatingly asked.
"No, he is
fleeing to America and wants to take Khatoon away."
could say more, he let out an abusive volley and turning towards
us hissed, "Tell her to part with the child without any
stop him. We’ll be ruined!" She became hysterical,
clinging desperately to her wailing two year old daughter.
don’t hand her over, I’ll call the police and tell them such
a story that you’ll spend the rest of your life in
prison!" Then thumping the bulge in his coat pocket, he
threatened, "I have come prepared. Give me the child or
else I’ll start shooting."
do that! We’ll call the police and..." We had barely said
this when he fished out a revolver, snatched the baby into his
burly arms and ran towards the main road.
berserk and for minutes kept pounding her heaving chest, pulling
at her dishevelled hair, uttering incoherently. "He’ll
turn Khatoon into a prostitute. He’ll starve her. He has
ruined us all."
But even in
that state she vetoed all our suggestions of calling the police.
"No, no," she shook her head. "He has an evil
temper, he will pump bullets into her head, into our chests. She’s
gone. I know I’ll never see her again." She kept crying
morning it was her two boys who stood outside, looking dejected,
not even bothering to pick up the freshly laid eggs. She lay as
though dead in the interiors of that garage, directing us to
telephone the office of Kamaal and Kareem. By the evening two
men from their office came over, and there she was reading out
two lines from her handwritten will. "Please send my sons
to America as manual workers. They can do anything — wash
clothes, scrub floors, clean utensils." Then turning
towards her sons, she clasped their hands and in a feeble voice
said, "I’m sending you where you can watch over Khatoon.
Look after her, she is your only sister."
She died that
Just before the
two boys, Khanwar and Khurram, were being taken away by the men
who had assumed charge of exporting human beings, they crept up
to me and whispered, "Did we trouble our mother like those
baby pigeons? Is that why she had gone away from us
talk about the past, it’s bad for your heart," were the
only words I could utter.
And from the
day she’d died, the garage and the compound around seemed
almost ghost-like, as though Marium was lurking in the shadows.
And then emerging from them.
Then one day,
an old Afghan came to our house, looking for her. We presumed he
was her father. "No, no, how can a commoner like me be her
father? She was part of the erstwhile royal family but a very
unfortunate woman indeed...saddled with sorrow and deprived of
the last penny by her husband. Her father had been trying to
trace her for the past several months but it’s only last week
that he was informed that she was last seen in your house."
Looking at us
intently, he added, "Where is she? I have been especially
sent to take her back to her father who is now in exile in one
of the European countries."
dead! Her husband has taken away the youngest child, and the
elder two have been sent to America by a manpower
exporter," was all we could say.
face fell and after a while he mumbled, "What do I tell her
father? At least tell me about the children...some solace for
the old man."
The board ‘Kamaal
& Kareem’ gleamed in the strong sunlight as did the gold
toppings on each of their teeth. Teeth through which passed the
stale breath of the day before yesterday and which carried forth
these words, "Which Afghan children are you talking about?
America is a vast land and ours is a big business of exporting
thousands of such children."
boys’ mother had worked in your homes. Do you recall someone
called Marium? we persisted.
poked at his decaying teeth with a toothpick, Kamaal spat a
Just then my
eyes took in a strange sight. From across the ethnic chiks, I
saw the bent bodies of Marium’s sons as they sat forlorn in
the sun, each with a broom in his hand.
confronted the two exporters, they lisped. "Those two are
mere clones of the two-Afghan boys you are so fondly talking
Just then their
big-breasted secretary strode up and chipped in, "The
Welfare Minister is waiting for you, Sirs, at the meeting to
discuss the future of child labour. Thereafter you have to
attend the banquet in honour of the visiting human rights
delegation from the USA."
contentedly and strode out with their teryx-polyester trousers
going swish-swash, swish-swash, almost as though Marium’s
broom or its clone was in action.
Excerpted from Bad Time
Tales by Humra Qurashi Har-Anand Publications Pvt. Ltd. New
Delhi. Pages 130. Price: Rs 250.