I was born a manhoos; ill-fortuned is the closest English translation, the verdict decreed by our next door neighbor Ramjanbhai, when I was born. This recount came from Salma, when I was old enough to understand what the word meant. My dislike for Ramjanbhai, and his for me, proceeded long before I understood the meaning of the word. I made rude sounds from my mouth whenever he passed by our house, sounds I heard him let out from both ends of his body constantly, even through the thin, porous walls that separated our hovels, for Ramjanbhai suffered from a severe case of flatulence. My insults drove him wild, for he attempted an assault on my nimble self, only to give up moments later, heaving, coughing, muttering obscenities and curses. He then went complaining about my awful behavior to either Abbu or Salma, but they paid him no mind.
Ramjanbhai was not technically wrong for calling me a manhoos, for I am one really, if you hold those kinds of viewpoints. My Ammi, you see, ceased breathing at about exactly the same moment I commenced life; a bad omen for everybody in the family, more so for our neighbors and almost everybody in our basti who knew my family. Many relatives and some of our neighbors, like Ramjanbhai, who made a fuss every time we met, shunned me. About a week after I was born, a major fire destroyed much of slum settlements just two rows beyond our house and the local government, instead of helping rebuild these homes, brought out bulldozers and flattened everything left standing. The destroyed homes were illegal, said the local municipal commissioner, the local authorities were just polishing up what nature had taken care of. So you see, my birth was not an auspicious event.
My immediate family, except for my dad, did not care and loved me unconditionally, especially Abbu and Salma. Tabu was of a different nature, not prone to much emotion, busy with fashion, boys and Bollywood pursuits. Baarish did not comprehend the meanness of the whole affair. Abbu doted on me, for he saw his future linage in me, the only male descendent worthy of mention, for he had expunged his son from memory. My world of comprehension began with Abbu as I followed him around when he was not selling fruits at the market. Salma fed and cleaned me then, but it was Abbu who meant the world to me. I remember the first time he tried to make me to go pee, when I was about three years old.
‘You have to go pee, Salman.’
‘You drank a whole glass of sugarcane juice and you been sucking ice all day, you must go pee. I don’t want you peeing in your chuddies and on my bed. Then I’ll have to wash everything before I say my prayers and Salma will yell at you for making me use up all the water. Hurry up, let’s get you to pee.’
‘No, no, nooooo…’
‘I’ll buy you the red lollipop you like…’
We stared at each other; I wanted to make sure I was not being set up. Abbu was a man of his words so this was not a bad deal at all. It’s not that I didn’t want to go pee, but proper toilets were at least half a mile away and the corner shed we used for peeing stunk real wicked.
‘Will Abbu go pee with me?’
Abu looked at me in astonishment but then smiled. ‘I’ll buy you two lollipops if you go pee, else I’ll have Salma take you and no lollipops.’
Salma, although always nice and kind to me, had a temper when things didn’t go her way. She had tons of things to do around our house and pee cleaning was not something she had on regular schedule. So I ran outside, tangy taste of strawberry flavored lollipops already on my tongue, ahead of Abbu and dropped the loose cloth piece that served as my training diaper. Suddenly, the force on my bladder was unbearable and I would have let go standing but Abbu pushed me down squatting and I peed and peed, like the proper Muslim gentleman Abbu was training me to become.
Later on, Abbu returned with the two lollipops he had promised and I went pee again, in a controlled manner, squatting like a gentleman, exactly the way Abbu wanted me to. The lollipops were a super treat and I made a meal of them both; Salma gave Abbu disapproving looks as I always fussed at dinner and Tabu sulked because she got only one lollipop. As always, I finished the lollipops and carefully licked all sugar crystals from the wrappings. Abbu always found this greediness strangely endearing and so it was that day as well. He scooped me up in him arms and hugged me, planting kisses all over my face, I twitching and squealing in ticklish delight.
‘What did Salmaan do today?’
I said, ‘Pee pee.’
Book One – Chapter One
Abbu would swipe dust off from a solid empty wooden crate with a flick of his withered wrist, carefully lay a frayed rag on it and gratefully sit down, easing pain from aging, inflamed joints of his feet.
‘Bolo, bolo,’ he would shout at the top of his voice, adding to the chorus of cries from others around, ‘fresh fruit and subzi, cheap fruit, cheap subzi. Best pick from this morning, tomatoes, only eight rupees a kilo.’ Only his voice would quaver with age and not carry as loudly as others around us. Bolo was the first word I remember in my life, even before I learned how to walk.
Before I started attending school, Abbu made sure I accompanied him to the market every morning, placing me atop a wheelbarrow full of fruit and vegetable picked from trees in the backyard or bought wholesale from vending women who sold their pick early in order to return to their villages in time for tilling land or other household labors.
‘He will grow up to be a fine man, you’ll see, a doctor or an engineer,’ he would explain with a toothy grin to anyone who cared to listen, pointing to me as I sat in a smaller version of his chair, only this one was upturned and hallow, padded by cast off rags for my yet to develop bones and softer skin. Actually ‘Abbu,’ was the first word I uttered and ‘bolo’ came a close second. By the time I was three, I could repeat that whole pattern of Bupu’s sales pitch word for word.
Nobody from my family knew exactly what date I was born. My father was out and about, probably in Surat where rumor was he had taken on a second wife and my mother died before I took my first gulp of air. Abbu thought it was a Friday and he was certain it was either in October or November as everybody was in a buying frenzy for Diwali festivals. I am still unsure of the year but I reckon that’s really not very important.
As I mentioned before, Mummy, or Ammi as the rest of my family refer to her, died on the same bed I was conceived. As a child, I always wondered how a person could die giving birth seeing many mothers still alive and felt guilty about Ammi dying on my birthday. I learnt a lot about her from my sister Salma, who went on and on about what a wonderful person she was, how she sacrificed everything for her family and got no peace from her husband, our father. He, I was told, was bekaar, useless, a sot, a drunkard. He worked when he was sober, which was rare, spent money on woman and booze and came home only when he ran out of money and could not find a free bed companion.
My family comprised of two sisters; Salma, the eldest, who was nine years older than I and Tabu, short for Tabassum, four years older. We also had an infant aptly named Baarish, whom Abbu had very reluctantly taken in only when it seemed certain she would die from the lashings of monsoon rains beating upon her frail body. She was left abandoned outside our door one thundery July morning. These ages I am approximating, nobody knows for sure; they could be a year older or younger. Except for Baarish, of course. She was an infant then, probably not more than six months old with lungs, I thought, of a grown up, the way she sometimes bawled nonstop. She would turn crimson crying in colic pain and rage, only to be quieted after agonizing long periods of Salma’s cooing and hip bumping, few farts and burps later.
We all lived in a two-room hovel close to a filthy stream that cut right in the middle of our slum community called Naroda Patiya. This hovel had tin roof that leaked profusely during monsoons, flooding the floor, making a mess of everything and leaving Salma in a disagreeable disposition almost the entire three months or so; she did most of the cleaning and was fussy about how the interior of our palace looked and felt, never mind the ruin and decay outside. During the super hot months between March and June, it was an oven, which left all of us near naked and short tempered, especially Tabu, as the heat and humidity would create havoc on her cheap makeup. We considered our two ceiling fans luxury; both antiques that wobbled and creaked dramatically but miraculously, never gave way. We had neighbors across the stream, on the left, right, and above our box home.
The walls were so thin, I could hear Ramjanbhai repeatedly fart and burp from next door, even through the complaining fans. I also heard other sounds that I could only figure out much later in life, Ramjanbhai’s son and daughter-in-law making love. Abbu, who slept alone in one room because he was a light sleeper, would bang at the wall and shout at them to shut up while Salma would giggle knowingly. The four of us were packed together in the other room. Our bedroom was reduced even further as a comer of it was used for cooking and stacking dishes. We had no running water so the girls woke up very early every morning and hurried outside with pails to stand in line at the public supply; the water stopped running by the time the sun rose. The bathrooms were outside, a block away; ten families shared ours. We considered it very lucky if we ever found one empty and a wait of half hour or more was not uncommon. Visitors, these were few and far apart, who come to our house were revolted by the stench from the sewer stream outside; I found that odd as a young boy; why, it did not bother me at all.
Abbu, who worked a small garden that we owned at the back of our hovel, vended the yields in a corner spot outside Parekh Brothers, a banya shop at the center of Naroda Patiya market. By the time I was old enough to crawl out of my box seat next to Abbu’s, I realized he was much respected and admired, not only for his selling skills, but also for his honesty and integrity. Abbu, you see, hailed from Jamnagar, in our state of Gujarat. He was a son of a zameendaar, a landowner, rich and powerful in his own right. But fate and an emotional heart were unkind to him, for he fell in love with and impregnated a Hindu maiden from Kutch. This act, in his youth days, was like writing a death sentence on your life. The enraged father of girl rallied his community and began planning for Abbu’s execution while his father cut him off all assets and family wealth. Abbu escaped with his unwed pregnant ‘wife’ and ended up in our slum of Naroda Patiya.
In contrast, Akber, my father, or just bekaar admi, as Salma called him, hardly ever worked. The little he earned was spent on cheap brew at dingy haddas and on women. When he did come home, he was always in a foul mood, ready with a quick whack to the back of our heads for no apparent reason.
If it hadn’t been for Abbu, I would never have attended school. Jaffery English Elementary School was about a mile away, in a plot of land that was always impeccably clean and well maintained even though the main open sewer lane of Naroda Patiya ran right behind it, exposing all to a terrible stench and a frightening eyesore. In fact, it was the only building for miles around that had a decent coat of paint. I attended school but there was not much teaching in the classrooms. I sat at my depilated desk that wobbled so much I had to hold it upright most times and listened to our class teacher yell at us, banging a menacing looking cane on his desk to silence the class.
Preeti, only daughter of Harshad Parekh, one of the brothers who owned Parekh Brothers, sat one row ahead of me in class. She always smelled of Lifebuoy soap and coconut oil oozed from her scalp. She was quite clever and snotty, which bugged the hell out of me. She had a nasty habit of turning around and sneering at me whenever she correctly answered a question or when she got all her homework right. I pulled her oily pigtails in punishment whenever she did that. She cried and complained to our class teacher sometimes and I either got caned or was made to kneel in front of the class for hours, glaring at her while plotting revenge I knew I could never follow through.
Two o’clock in the afternoon was my favorite time of the day when the rusty bell in the play yard would clang, signaling the end of classes. I would jump up, not caring if my desk toppled over and together with other children, jam the doorway in a gleeful attempt to flee the confines of the room. I would run all the way to Naroda Patiya Central Market and try to squeeze into the box crate that was now much too small for me. From there, I would then polish all fruits to a glossy shine.
In case you are scratching your head wondering what this is all about, please dont fret. This is a preface and part of Book One – Part One from my second novel (title still being debated in my head) that is slated for completion and eBook publishing (all profits to benefit Comfort Aid International, off course!) end of 2011, insha’Allah. I am looking for feedback really, good and bad, hopefully more good? If you do care to comment, please do so to email firstname.lastname@example.org. I will really appreciate it.
Allah bless and thank you.
Your writing is amazingly absorbing and I am looking forward to read the entire book.