Finding an autorickshaw at 10 pm had never felt this dangerous of a task to Hajra before. As she kept scanning at the passing vehicles with the alertness of an owl, she continuously held onto her valuables using both hands, clutching onto, from one arm, her purse in which she had kept the little jewelry she had donned, while firmly holding onto her seven-year-old son using the other hand. A few buses passed by, and so did a taxi, or two, that slowed as they passed along, in attempts of finding a passenger. But Hajra made no attempts to hail them. She would not travel in a taxi at this time of the night, considering how unsafe they made her feel. She had recently come across a Facebook post that warned how some taxi drivers deliberately activate child locks to prevent passengers from opening the door from inside. Hajra did not want to take such a risk. Her phone buzzed suddenly, making her flinch as the ringtone reverberated into the hollow stretch of the street.
“Hello, mummy! No, I am still waiting for a rickshaw,” Hajra exclaimed, half-relieved to hear a familiar voice on the other end of the line and half-scared to have taken her phone out from her purse at such a lonely street. Phone muggings were on the rise again and having her phone out on the side of a rather forlorn road was the last thing she was hoping to do.
“Don’t worry, honey! You’re still standing by the mall’s entrance, right?” They have guards there. It will be safe there”, Hajra’s mother tried to reassure.
“No, mummy, I have crossed the road now. With all those cars exiting the basement parking, I couldn’t see any public transport from there,” Hajra explained, pulling little Ahmed closer with a stern grip, as he fidgeted restlessly.
“Honey, that side of the road is usually deserted at this time of the night. Does that side of the road even have working streetlights? You should go back and wait by the entrance,” Hajra’s mother was understandably very worried now, and Hajra could sense that from the quavers in her voice.
“The streetlights are all working, mummy. It’s fairly bright and not deserted right now”, this time Hajra tried assuring her sixty-five-year-old mother who lived all by herself now. Hajra was now regretting her impulsive, yet naïve decision of calling her mother earlier and informing her about her predicament when she was at the mall. It would have been better, had mummy been kept unaware. ‘Why bother her, when she could not do anything but only get worried about her daughter and grandson’, Hajra lamented to herself.
“Beta (child), I am telling you. Go back and stand by the entrance. Maybe ask one of the guards there to help you find a…”
“Mummy, I see a rickshaw approaching. Talk to you later!” Hajra interrupted, as she hurriedly raised her right arm to pull over the approaching vehicle, only to realize that she had let go of Ahmed’s hand in doing so. She quickly pulled her arm back to resume clutching onto her son.
“Assalam o Alaikum, chacha (uncle), I have to go to North Karachi,” Hajra said, faking composure and an air of bravado in her voice. She did not want to sound meek or desperate.
“Walaikum as Salaam, beta, sorry but I am heading home now. I am done for the day. I stopped to see if you wanted to go somewhere along my way back home. North Karachi is all the way on the other side of the city,” the driver explained. He was a rather old man, possibly in his seventies, who, one could tell, was rather short, even while he sat. He wore magnifying glasses for spectacles that accentuated his eyes to an extent that made it seem as if his eyeballs were on the verge of falling out of the sockets anytime now. He donned a white shalwar kameez with an embroidered prayer cap and had a thick, white beard, that seemed to be weighing his head down since his gaze remained lowered, even as he spoke to Hajra.
“Please, chacha. Please take us to North Karachi. I will pay you more,” Hajra insisted, though still trying to maintain her composure and courage in her voice. She felt a strange sense of safety and assurance in this stranger’s presence though. Looks can be deceiving, and Hajra was aware of that. Yet, she chose to trust the old man, probably because the man resembled her own late father in many ways.
The old man paused for a moment, sensing the urgency in the woman’s tone, and after noticing her being accompanied by a small boy, decided to make an exception and detour for this one last ride. He nodded his head gently, indicating Hajra to get in.
As he restarted the rickshaw engine with a Bismillah, Hajra murmured the travel prayer herself under her breath, blowing over her son first, herself second, and finally the entire rickshaw.
The rickshaw began picking up speed in the damp August night, and as it roared along the rather empty road, Hajra could not help but enjoy the breeze that brushed against her forehead, wiping away any bead of perspiration that remained. Hajra suddenly remembered her idea of putting her house keys in between her knuckles during the ride as a safety weapon, in case she felt anything suspicious. She thought for a second about it, and even took her keys out, but she did not stick them between her fingers as planned. She just held the keys loosely in her hand instead.
Little Ahmed had gone to sleep by then and rested his head on his mother’s lap. Hajra gently stroked his hair, taking his hand and kissing it gently, but repeatedly. It pained her to see her son like this. She felt very sorry for him. It was his seventh birthday after all, and all he had requested for his birthday was for his mama and baba to take him together to the playland in the mall. She felt tears welling up, even thinking of how disappointing it must have been for him to not have his only birthday wish granted.
“You know, beta, my grandson is about the same age as your son. He sometimes can be quite a handful, but I love him dearly. He tells me he will grow up to be a pilot”, the driver broke the silence that imbued inside the rickshaw, which was otherwise rattling by the sound of the vehicle’s roaring engine.
“Is that so? How many grandchildren do you have?” Hajra tried to push her tears in.
“Just one. I have three daughters. The eldest is only married, while the other two are still studying. They say they don’t want to get married anytime soon. They want to complete their studies and work. I respect that. One of them is studying to become a nurse, and the youngest is still doing her Intermediate Education, but she tells me that she wants to become a computer engineer.”
“You know, beta, God has been extremely kind to me. All my daughters are extremely gifted. They all are so bright to an extent that their schools and colleges have waived off their fees to reward them for their academic prowess. Not only that, their school and college pay for their books and notes as well. It is like an award they get, some word they told me. It ends with some-ship. I don’t remember the name of the prize.”
“Oh, you mean a scholarship?”
“Yes, yes! Each year they get the prize for their performance and hard work. I cannot be more grateful to my Lord for His blessings.” Hajra caught a glimpse of the old man smiling in the side view mirror, as he said that.
“This is amazing, chacha. You must be one proud father.” Hajra remarked with awe.
“I am,” the old man replied, beaming. Hajra felt so heartened to hear this.
She herself felt lucky to be a proud mother of such a sweet boy. Well-mannered and soft-spoken, but most importantly, very mature for his age, Ahmed was never a handful to Hajra. He instead was a four feet tall pillar that stood by her mother, comforting her after each of her quarrels with his father at home. He understood the nuances of matters even better than some adults to some extent, let alone any other kid his own age. This, in turn, made it all the more painful to see him being stood up on his birthday today by his father, who with time, seemed to be growing more and more distant. Hajra feared that Ahmed would be left scarred by this and all other, seemingly small things, he had not only witnessed over the years but endured himself, at such a young age. From continuously being disappointed by the absence of his father in every of his life events to the daily squabbles and fights between his parents he had to sleep to every night, to his father’s mostly cold response, and inattention, whenever around at home. It all seemed overwhelming. Yet, Ahmed tried to handle matters with as much maturity and sensitivity as he could muster.
The rickshaw started to slow down. Hajra raised her head to find a packed street close to an array of brightly lit marriage halls now. Cars outside the hall were vying for every parking space available, while some cars did not even bother finding a space and parked literally in the middle of the road in form of double parking, which consequently created a bottleneck for the traffic to pass through.
Hajra looked around outside. She could see the entrance of one of the venues very closely from the rickshaw. She could see the BBQ items being prepared just outside the hall, with the smoke and fragrance of spices wafting in the air. A few young boys, dressed in unison, stood outside, cracking up every now and then, sharing high-fives as they guffawed. Two older men stood a few feet away, looking dismissively at the young boys while smoking their cigarettes. Waiters were seen rushing out with large metallic containers, collecting the prepared BBQ items from the station, and rushing back in. Hajra could tell that the dinner was about to begin, from the way the boys and the two men quickly rushed inside soon after the army of waiters went in. All this hustle and bustle surrounding these marriage halls reminded Hajra of her own wedding days. How everyone was so happy, including Hajra as well as her groom, Qasim. Qasim donned like a knight in shining armor during the baraat (wedding), and Hajra could vividly remember how he took Hajra’s hand from her father’s on the stage. She remembered how Qasim and his friends danced on three different songs, how Hajra’s cousins teased and toyed with him during all the small ceremonies and how Hajra had to convince the jubilant Qasim to empty his wallet for his sisters-in-law during those ceremonies. It all felt so surreal at that time, as well as the first year of marriage, but somehow, with each subsequent passing year, she could see Qasim drifting away from her slowly, but surely. Qasim seemed more and more emotionally absent at home, and even bitter at times, as their marriage aged. And this all stemmed from the pressures of his job and honestly his self-created lofty ambitions. Qasim, on the other hand, never acknowledged his overzealous drive. He always insinuated as if this was all for Hajra’s sake, but she honestly never asked him to do so. She was, in fact, more than satisfied with whatever they had. It was honestly unfair to have Hajra be blamed by her husband for his work-life imbalance and his daily frustrations, while it was, in fact, Qasim’s ambitious desire to climb to the top of the professional ladder that had overtaken him entirely. After Ahmed’s birth, Hajra felt that things might start to improve. She thought that with Ahmed in the equation now, Qasim would change himself, spend more time with them and prioritize his family over his work. Yet, nothing changed, and it was heartbreaking to see how her son had to live with an emotionally devoid father.
Hajra’s phone began buzzing again all of a sudden.
“Hello?” Hajra enquired, forgetting to check the number before answering the call.
“Hajra, honey, where are you? Why is your tracker not moving?” Her mother was on the line again.
“Oh, mummy, it’s you!” Hajra recollected herself from her memories. She had totally forgotten the fact that she had also shared her live location with her mother on WhatsApp earlier, before leaving the mall.
“Are you okay? I am worried sick,”, mummy seemed distraught.
“Oh, yes, mummy, just some traffic here. We will get past the traffic jam in a bit though, don’t you worry.” Hajra could not help but chuckle at the thought of realizing how the tables have turned, as they were using this tracking strategy the other way round this time. She was the one, who had introduced and taught her mother how to use this feature and had requested her mother to use it every single time her mother went out, for her safety. Hajra this way was always abreast of her mother’s whereabouts. This was the first time, however, when her mother had to use this technique on Hajra.
“Oh, thank God! You stay alert, sweety. You’ll be home in no time. And by the way, I called Qasim and gave him a piece of my mind. I am very disappointed in him”.
“Oh, mummy, why did you?” Hajra was slightly miffed to hear that. She did not want her mother to do that.
“Beta, this was an irresponsible thing that he did. He did not even bother picking you up or making sure you reach home safely. How upsetting!”
“Mummy, I know but honestly, I also know how to handle the situation. You shouldn’t have called him up. I was trying to avoid getting into another squabble with him at least tonight. I don’t want to dismay Ahmed further with a verbal spat to finish off his already disappointing birthday.”
“I am sorry, honey, but I just couldn’t stand the sight of him being nonchalant while you were there all worried.” Her mother was apologetic for overstepping.
“I know, mummy. I know how you feel. No need to apologize, mummy. I will handle things. You go to bed now. It’s past your bedtime now, and I have already kept you up and worried till now, sorry about it.”
“I will go to bed, once my child has safely returned home.”
Hajra, while wishing for her mother to stop worrying, on one hand, felt strangely comforted when she heard that. To have her mother worried sick for her was the last thing Hajra wanted, but somehow, it also was reassuring to know that there was someone out there praying for her and her son to reach home safely.
“I will be home soon, mummy, don’t you worry now. You try going to sleep now. I will send you a text once I have reached. Take care, mummy. Love you!”
“Love you too, hon. Allah hafiz”, the call ended.
Hajra could feel the cool breeze again. She noticed that they had crossed the bottleneck by now as the multi-colored gleams of the festivities rapidly thinned into the faint and periodic glows of the streetlights. Their rickshaw was in full throttle.
“Sorry, beta, I could not help but overhear that it’s your son’s birthday today,” the rickshaw driver chimed in, rather nervously.
“Why, yes. His name is Ahmed and he is seven now.”
“Masha Allah! They grow fast, don’t they? I remember my daughters when they were this little. Wonderful memories. Remember to cherish every single moment with him, beta. You will not get this precious time back. All that shall be left would be the memories then.”
“Agreed, chacha.” Hajra nodded. She very well understood what the old man was talking about. How she wished dearly for Qasim to realize this too. She was mad at Qasim. He should have been with her and Ahmed at the playland tonight for his birthday. Hajra had, in fact, reminded Qasim repeatedly for the past few days. She also brought it up during breakfast today, while Qasim was buried in his cellphone. Hajra later left him a voice note later during lunch, reminding him to reach the playland by 7:30 pm. Yet, he still forgot. His text was simple: CAN’T MAKE IT TONIGHT. FORGOT ABOUT IT AND BUSY RIGHT NOW. CAN GO LATER THIS WEEK. Hajra and Ahmed were already on their way to the mall by the time she had received Qasim’s text message. She was appalled. She knew planning later was never going to work with Qasim, so she decided to go ahead with the plan by herself and have her son enjoy his birthday at the playland, just like how they had initially planned. To see her son have fun at the playland was the only joyful moment Hajra had during the entire rather bleak day, and she wouldn’t trade that pleasant sight for anything in the world. Ahmed was understandably disappointed at first to find out that his father would not be joining them, but by now, he had become so used to such sort of disappointments, that he did not pry further about his father’s whereabouts.
They finally reached home. Hajra texted her mother as the rickshaw stopped close to the gate of her house. She rummaged through her purse for the fare money. She did not ask the old man about the fare but instead gave a handsome amount for the ride. The old man protested, explaining how Hajra was paying him way beyond the fare. Hajra, however, explained to him that this was his reward for helping her out when she needed it. She thanked the old man and began to carry little Ahmed in her arms, who was still asleep. The old man quickly fished inside a plastic bag placed beside his seat to retrieve two chocolate bars from the bag.
“Beta, please accept this as a gift for Ahmed on his birthday,” he offered the chocolates to Hajra.
“Oh, chacha, that’s very kind of you, but you don’t have to,” Hajra was genuinely heartened by the kind gesture.
“No, beta, I insist. They aren’t much to give. I was taking these sweets for my grandson. Don’t worry, there is still a lot of sweets left for him. I insist, beta, please”.
Hajra graciously accepted the gift from the old man, thanked him, and made her way inside her home.
Qasim was already at home. Hajra could see the dirty dishes lying on the dinner table. Hajra carried Ahmed to his room, changed him to his night pajamas, and tucked her son in bed, making sure to disturb him as little as possible while doing so. She then picked up the dirty plates and proceeded to the kitchen to clean them up. It was almost midnight.
She saw Qasim in their bedroom, working on his laptop. His expressions were blank. He did not even seem to notice her presence. He clearly had no remorse for his actions, or lack of, in this case. Hajra was enraged, but she did not have the energy to fight with her husband right now. Besides, Ahmed was sleeping in the adjacent room, and the last thing she wanted was to wake his son up by all the commotion that might ensue from the argument. She, therefore, decided to stay calm.
“When did you come back?” Hajra addressed Qasim, in an attempt of breaking the uncomfortable silence that permeated the room.
“What is that supposed to mean? Are you taunting me? First, your mother needlessly goes all crazy at me, and now you? I WAS BUSY. I COULDN’T MAKE IT. Why make such a big deal out of it?” Qasim retorted defensively. The man did not even make any attempts to call Hajra and enquire where they were, during their return home, yet he had the audacity to holler at his wife and purposefully ignore whatever had happened.
“Let's not get into it tonight. Ahmed is asleep. I don’t want him to wake up.” Hajra responded, composed.
“I know, I know. Why did it take you so long? I told you we can plan this activity some other day later this week.” Qasim, for once, showed an ounce of humanity by lowering his voice, yet still behaving defiantly.
“That won’t be necessary anymore. We went to the playland ourselves.” Hajra’s reply was calm and crisp.
“Oh.. okay. Good!”, Qasim tried to act cool now. It was pretty evident that he was rather glad to know that he would not have to take his son to the playland anymore.
“Make me my night tea, will you then? I have been waiting for you forever for my tea. You know I cannot sleep without a cup of dhoodhpatti (milk tea) at night”, Qasim tried changing the subject.
Hajra obliged, trying her level best to remain level-headed, all while fuming up inside. She went back to the kitchen and began preparing the tea. She felt the rage bubbling inside her. As the tea leaves brewed in the milk, so did her anger towards her husband. The man had no regret. He instead was clearly unfazed by whatever he did today. Hajra knew Qasim well enough to not expect an apology from him, but she at least hoped to see some remorse after tonight. Yet, he was completely indifferent. Hajra was beyond frustrated, and she decided to avenge, albeit in the silliest way possible. Instead of reaching for the sugar jar, she picked up the salt jar, and instead of putting the standard, three teaspoons of white sugar for her husband, she chose to add three teaspoons of salt in the tea. She took the tea back to the bedroom and kept it beside her husband at the nightstand. She stood in front of her husband now, pretending to fold clothes, just so she could see the sight of sweet (or in this case, salty) revenge on his face. And so she did, though just momentarily, when Qasim took the first sip, only to be overwhelmed by the saltiness of the tea. He spat the tea and banged the teacup on the nightstand. Hajra watched all this happen, concealing her true emotions during the moment.
“What the hell! Woman, you added salt in my tea!” Qasim bellowed.
“Oh, did I? Must have been an accident.” Hajra played it off innocently.
“How could you not know the difference?!”
“Please don’t shout, Ahmed is sleeping. Do you want me to make you another cup?” Hajra responded calmly, all while she discreetly relished her small revenge.
“No! You ruined it now,” Qasim responded, irked, as he closed his laptop, and stormed to the washroom.
Hajra picked up the cup with the leftover tea and began advancing towards the kitchen. She could hear herself humming gently now. As she walked past the corridor towards the kitchen, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She could see herself, tired yet with a small, yet placid smile.