The Tribune - Spectrum

, May 5, 2002

Not really needed now

THE interiors of the garage attached to our home were dark, suffocating, heavy with the strange smell of stale garlic. And when our Baby Hindustan was to be disposed of, a long line of people waited their turn outside, to jam weary bodies into this garage hole. One of them was a tall Afghan woman whose sharp features seemed wracked by prominent tension lines. She had come with her three young children and pleaded in broken sentences. "I’ll do any possible work. Clean your toilets, sweep the floor, throw the garbage, but do give me this room. My children will die in this heat of India. Have mercy on us!"

She didn’t have to say any of this, for her eyes revealed much more. Tortured eyes. Absolutely tortured eyes. And as they stared at us with that look of desperate appeal that was tinged with a flicker of hope near the corners, we hesitantly opened the creaky doors of our garage.

Her face lit up for a fraction and then she looked worried again "Will you ask for rent? I have no money at all. I work as a part-time cleaner in two homes and that’s how we feed ourselves."

We shook our heads, "No, just clean our floors and throw out the garbage. But where else do you work?"


"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 employed."

"What about your husband?"

"He has 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, 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 awaken us.

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.

Peeping from 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.

Even her 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."

"Why don’t you all go with him?" my mother hesitatingly asked.

"No, he is fleeing to America and wants to take Khatoon away."

Before she could say more, he let out an abusive volley and turning towards us hissed, "Tell her to part with the child without any drama!"

"Stop him, stop him. We’ll be ruined!" She became hysterical, clinging desperately to her wailing two year old daughter.

"If you 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."

"You can’t 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.

Marium looked 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 bitterly.

The next 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 night.

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 forever?"

"Shh! Don’t 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."

"She’s 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.

The Afghan’s 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."

"But the boys’ mother had worked in your homes. Do you recall someone called Marium? we persisted.

Whilst Kareem poked at his decaying teeth with a toothpick, Kamaal spat a definite "No".

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.

As we confronted the two exporters, they lisped. "Those two are mere clones of the two-Afghan boys you are so fondly talking about."

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."

They grinned 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.