By Zuha Siddiqui
“Out of this house,” said rider to reader,
“Yours never will,” said farer to fearer,
“They’re looking for you,” said hearer to horror,
As he left them there, as he left them there.
~ ‘O Where Are You Going?’, W. H. Auden
My mother doesn’t let me go to Auntie Pam’s house anymore. She stopped Munaf from letting me go last week – even though I had packed my satchel and sharpened my pencils and was really looking forward to playing tag with Rufus in the yard outside his house.
Bua’s favourite words are haye baba. Always exaggerated. A loud haye baba and a clap louder than the sound of Daddy’s rifle on hunting day means exuberance – elicited, for instance, when my mother gives her a fat packet every month or when Munaf cooks sarson ka saag. And a soft haye baba – chapped, betel-stained lips curved into an o, wispy brows furrowed – always implies fear. I heard it for the first time when my mother assembled Bua and Munaf and the gatekeeper and the cooks in the hall downstairs and told them to keep the gates locked because tigers were on the loose. We had been cornered by one on our way to the club.
That’s when we first played the game.
Mother calls it The Quiet Game. And then she says sshh. But Daddy just says shut-the-hell-up. I don’t always understand what Daddy says. I ask Mother what his words mean and she says that grown-ups sometimes say things they don’t mean and that little boys shouldn’t repeat their words – and then mother says sshh. There is only one rule: Make no noise. But chotu makes noise anyway – he’s a baby, mother says, and he can’t talk or understand what we say, so he cries – and so mother shoves a pacifier into his mouth.
We’ve been playing The Quiet Game a lot lately, especially after Daddy comes back home in the evening. I’m also not allowed to go outside and play because Uncle Kapil saw our house being marked. Mother says that it means that they know who we are and that we should move to Khala’s house soon. Khala lives in Karachi. It’s very far away, Daddy says, and he can’t leave the tea-gardens unattended. I don’t understand why, though. It’s not like he plants the tea himself.
I’ve also started playing The Quiet Game on my own a lot, especially at night. Mother puts me to bed at eight every day, even though I told her that I’m a big boy now – I’m seven and I know my times tables up till eight and I can add and subtract in my head and I will be going to boarding-school in Lahore with Bhai next year – and I can stay up with the grown-ups but Mother said no and Daddy said that Wee Willie Winkie will come and get me if I’m not in bed on time.
Bua puts me to sleep at night. Last night I saw her with Daddy’s old lighter. I know it was Daddy’s because it was silver and it had his initials, I and A. I think she was playing with it and I was supposed to tell Mother but I forgot. She has it again tonight. I know because she’s switching it on and off but it’s not working because it’s spoilt. That’s why Daddy threw it away. I tell her this but she tells me to keep quiet and sleep.
I don’t know what it means. Bua and Munaf call me Chota Saab in front of Mother and Daddy and Bandhorr when Mother and Daddy are not there but never Boka salaa.
Bua wears rings on her fingers – on every single finger. One of her rings is bigger than my nose. The ring’s blue stones glitter in the darkness. I ask Bua why she’s playing with Daddy’s lighter when she isn’t supposed to and she twists my ear. Hard. Her ring digs into my skin and it stings and my eyes burn and a scream escapes from my throat. She clamps her hand down on my face.
“Nirbodha sisu. Keep quiet else I’ll push your screams down your throat.”
I taste the grime stuck to her fingers. They smell like the trunk of Daddy’s car and the rotten fish that Munaf discards every Saturday. She presses harder and I wriggle and hit my feet against the bedposts. Mother always told me to never talk to strangers because strangers can do bad things but Bua wasn’t a stranger. Bua woke me up in the morning and gave me a bath and picked me up from school. I stop struggling and she lets go. I close my eyes.
I sleep and dream of Wee Willie Winkie wearing a pointed hat and a grey nightgown, playing with Daddy’s silver lighter. The lighter works and Winkie sets my periwinkle, polka-dotted curtains on fire. Rufus and Auntie Pam rescue me and we run down the hill where Mother and Daddy are waiting for us. The sky is grey, like Winkie’s gown. It starts to rain. Sheets of water fall from the grey sky. Daddy starts the engine. The car begins to rise and flies through the rain and the lightening. Wipers swish swashing, the car rises above the angry clouds.
We leave the tea gardens behind.
When I wake up, my Yogi Bear and Chiming Alarm Clock – that Daddy calls a pain-in-the-ass, after which Mother says sshh as if she and Daddy are playing The Quiet Game – are missing. Mother says that Bua has gone. I then tell her what happened last night and Mother strokes my hair and kisses my forehead and says that the bad woman’s gone. I feel like asking her why the bad woman was with me – because bad strangers are not with us, they’re outside and Daddy says that the walls of our house are impenetrable. He always says this loudly – but I don’t because Munaf has fried fish fingers and I’m hungry.
Finally, after weeks, we go to the club and I look for Rufus and Auntie Pam but I don’t see them anywhere. Auntie Pam smelled like honey and flowers. She always carried candy in her bag. Nice candy that didn’t make my eyes water. The candy that Munaf got me made my throat itch. Daddy said she was a fine-example-of-bad-parenting and mummy called her a deer. When I asked Auntie Pam if she was related to deer, she just laughed. Maybe that’s why daddy didn’t like her. I miss Auntie Pam and Rufus. Daddy makes me sit with Colonel Saab – he looks like a buffalo and I look at him and laugh – and his wife. She has fishy lips. Maybe Colonel Saab’s wife is part fish like Auntie Pam was part deer. She calls me and kisses me on my cheek. Her kiss leaves a red stain on my face. I try to rub it off but red goo sticks to my fingers. It smells bad – Like the horrible pink syrup mother made me swallow when I fell ill and then Daddy had to take me to the big hospital with the green walls in Dhaka. I rub my fingers on my shorts and now they’re red too. And they’re sticky and they smell bad. I want to cry but Daddy says that I dare not cry in front of other people because big boys don’t cry. I’m a big boy. I’m the eldest when Bhai is in Lahore.
Now that Rufus is gone I have no one to play with except Munaf. I want to swim but the pool has been lying empty for months. I saw a dead pigeon lying in it the other day. Daddy says that we are conserving water and that conservashun is necessary – I write down the word on the car’s dusty windscreen – just like finishing your food and sleeping on time and drinking milk in the morning is necessary. And playing The Quiet Game by the rules is always necessary. But Daddy is always the first to lose.
Mother tells Munaf to play football with me in the afternoon. He kicks the ball and it flies across the boundary wall and into the road.
“Foul!” I cry. “Go get the ball for me!”
“Go get it yourself! Satti tor moto eto chudi chele dekhini!”
Daddy got me that ball from England, where the Queen lives, where Mother wore pretty dresses and had sparkly eyes and sparkly nails. I want to cry but I can’t. My stomach hurts. Munaf grins and I see his silver tooth. He looks like a pirate. Like Captain Hook – only he isn’t missing an arm and a leg. He puts his hand on my shoulder. His nails dig into my skin. I bite my lip and taste something salty.
“Tell your Murha father to run away. Your house has been Cihnita. They are coming soon.”
I run inside the house and bury my face in Mother’s lap. She is sniffling, as though she has a cold, but I know she doesn’t because Mother doesn’t let me or chotu go near her lest we catch the infecshun. Mother is as particular about infecshun as Daddy is about conservashun.
She sniffles some more and tells me to go to my room.
I lie in bed after supper. Mother and Daddy are taking in loud voices outside. Daddy says grown-ups are allowed to talk in loud voices but children should be seen-and-not-heard, like the lizard on the wall. It crawls into my wardrobe through the cracks beneath the closet’s door. I imagine what the lizard would look like if it wore my clothes.
The windows are shut and the curtains have been drawn. Bua never shut the windows. She said evil spirits escape at night and if the windows are shut, they stay inside and possess sleeping bodies. I feel heaviness inside my stomach, as though I swallowed a tiny watermelon whole. Bua used to tell me stories when I couldn’t sleep at night – this was before she started playing with Daddy’s lighter and turned into a stranger. She once told me a story about an old man in the village who killed a snake and the snake’s partner swallowed the frail old man whole.
“Baboo, snakes should only be killed in pairs. If you kill a snake and its partner survives, it will track you down and get its venom inside you. Snakes are deadly creatures.”
Bua said that the old-man-who-got-swallowed was older than her Daada and Bua’s Daada was very old. He had drooping skin – looked like he had many, many layers of skin and I wondered if he felt cold in the winters – and walked with a broken stick up our hill and he looked like the C for Carrot that Auntie Pam used to make me trace on green and blue papers. I know this because he came to pick Bua up a few times and Mother made me go outside and greet him and told me to call him Daada too even though he wasn’t my Daada. My Daada twinkles in the sky at night with the stars. I try to talk to him sometimes and I pretend that he can hear me.
But there are no stars in the sky tonight. And even if there were, I can’t see them because the curtains have been drawn and Mother told me to not open them. I’m all alone and I can’t sleep, and so I play The Quiet Game. Who can keep quiet for the longest time? Me or the crickets or the owl hooting outside? The door opens and Mother tiptoes in. I don’t hear the jingling of her bangles. Her face is wet. I know this because she brings her face close to mine and I can see droplets of water on her cheeks. She asks me if I’m okay but I don’t say anything because I’m playing The Game and instead I nod my head.
A black rock is in Mother’s hand. Her rings are missing. Mother wore pretty rings – not like Bua’s big rings that dug into my skin. Mother’s rings felt cool on my cheeks when she kissed my forehead. She rubs the black rock on my face and then tells me that we’re leaving. Why are we leaving at night when Daddy always says that night is for sleeping and day is for working?
The lights haven’t been switched on in the living room. Mother lights a candle. I hear Daddy and Uncle Kapil but I can’t see them.
Escape. Calana. Helicopter. Karachi.
I open my mouth to ask her why but then I remember that I’m playing The Game and I’m going to win this time.
Mother is sniffling again.
Munaf is standing in the corner of the room, near the door. I can see him because his eyes are shining. Like cat’s eyes.
I finally see Daddy. He lights a cigar and it glows orange in the dark. I reach out to catch smoke between my palms but it escapes.
But I haven’t said a word. Only moved close to Daddy’s chair.
“It’s time, mera laal.”
I lift my arms so that Mother can pick me up because my head feels heavy and it’s much past my bed time but Daddy picks me up instead.
“Take care of Mother and chotu. Be well-mannered. You are from a good family. You are not a ruffian.”
Infecshun, conservashun, not-a-ruffian.
I nod and Daddy ruffles my hair.
We get into Uncle Kapil’s car. Daddy doesn’t come with us. The car isn’t like Daddy’s Ford. It’s much smaller. It also smells like dirty water. Mother puts chotu’s crib near her feet and puts the pacifier into his mouth even though he is asleep. She then covers his crib with a blanket. I open my mouth to ask her why but then I remember that I’m playing The Game and I’m going to win this time.
Mother is sniffling again.
I wonder why Daddy didn’t come with us. Perhaps he was busy again. Perhaps it was because of the grown-up talk he and Mother had in loud voices before the lights went out. Mother calls them disareements. Sometimes, when Mother tells me off, I don’t feel like talking to anyone either.
Infecshun. conservashun, not-a-ruffian, disareement.
I see chotu’s feet poking out from beneath the blanket. He isn’t wearing shoes.
Uncle Kapil doesn’t drive like Daddy. When Daddy drives, mother sits in the front and chotu and I are at the back. And Daddy always drives fast. When I sit close to the window, I can feel the wind hitting my face.
But this is different.
Mother is sitting at the back with me and she has made me sit in the middle – far away from the window. I try to go close to it so that I can see what the trees and the river are like at night but she holds my wrists and shakes her head.
And she puts her finger on her lips.
It always takes us very long to drive to Dhaka. When Daddy, Mother, chotu and I drive to Dhaka for a vaycaysion, we leave after Munaf serves us lunch and we reach just when the sun sinks and the moon has come out.
I wonder if it’s Dhaka that we’re going to right now.
When Uncle Kapil finally stops the car, we’re at the airport – only we don’t go in through the big metal doors and into the pretty room with purple flowers. Instead Uncle Kapil takes his car towards where the airplanes have been parked. I see many airplanes.
White and green.
We go towards a plane that looks a lot like the lizard in my cupboard. Greenbrown. Black eyes. It’s not like the airplane we took when we, Mother and me, took Bhai to Lahore.
There’s no staircase next to the airplane either. Just a ladder. I think they forgot and had to use the ladder because they were in a hurry. How will we take chotu up the ladder? Daddy would have picked him up and taken him up the ladder on his shoulder.
Where is Daddy?
My eyes burn and nose hurts and I want to sniffle like Mother.
“Tbara, tbara! They’re coming!”
Uncle Kapil is the first to lose, like Daddy. He carries both me and chotu up the ladder. He must be strong.
Mummy comes up behind him.
The airplane isn’t like the one we took to Lahore from inside either. The seatbelt is like a jacket. There are no pretty ladies in greenbrown clothes either. They didn’t wear saarees like Mother but were still pretty. They gave me crayons and colouring books.
Uncle Kapil’s gone and the plane starts to move. It rocks and moves like a car, only much louder. If I wasn’t playing The Game and had said something, I wouldn’t have been able to hear myself.
I can sit near the window now and I see the sun rising. I wonder what Daddy is doing back home. I wonder if Munaf has made him breakfast.
Mother holds my hand and says that we’re going to Khala’s place for a while and that we’ll come back soon.
Soon is what they first said when Auntie Pam and Rufus first left the Tea Gardens.
Soon is what they said when the gates were locked and I asked when I’d be allowed to play outside again.
The plane turns and flies over the blue sea.
I wonder what soon means.
Zuha Siddiqui is an aspiring journalist, undergraduate student at LUMS and writes under the influence of occasional bursts of inspiration.