CW: natural disaster
Aslam sucked on his lower lip, concentrating hard, as a rogue wind lashed against a glossy pamphlet in his scrubby hands. It was a menu card from the recently pulverised Rose Honeymoon Hotel in Swat, Pakistan. He had memorised it better than the multiplication tables he was made to rote learn in school under the auspicious rosewood cane his tutor, Shahab Gul, (known tyrant for all ten year old dissidents like him) held like an extension of his arm. It was auspicious because Aslam had so far escaped its imminent wrath.
He read the menu card, imbibing comfort from its familiarity. The typed words filled his rumbling stomach with the fluttering notion of food, like an agitated bird in his fist. In his imagination, he could conjure up the plat du jour and taste it on his tongue. Maybe if he shouted loud enough in his heart, Allah would hear him and feel sorry for him. Maybe the cruel skies would tear apart and manna would float down from heaven.
Chicken Corn soup Full
Chicken Corn soup Half
Hot and Sour soup Full
Hot and Sour soup Half
Aslam licked his dry lips. He wouldn’t mind the soup right now, even the half portion, which was still a sizeable amount. He hadn’t eaten a meal in four days. He skipped over the sea food section. Fish reminded him of water. His stomach lurched at the lava-like horror roaring beneath him. He sat perched on a boulder, and filthy, grey water rushed by like a curse. A few days ago, this same river was milky white and sweet like it belonged in Eden.
In the distance, he could hear the desperate wailing of villagers whose homes and all earthly possessions, including food, had been swept away in the biblical flood. Another house, another building collapsing, crumbling like the deck of card castles he made with his friend. The village elder, Haji Raza Khan proclaimed that he had never seen a flood like this in his lifetime, which spanned hundred and fifteen years. He was forty years older than Pakistan, but many million years younger than the Hindu Kush mountain range that gleamed in the horizon, glaring down at them all. The melting Himalayas issued an ominous warning, but no one was listening.
His eyes skipped to the rice section.
Chicken Fride Rice
Egg Fride Rice
Aslam knew ‘fride’ was spelt wrong, not because he had been taught English well by Shahab Gul but because a newly married woman had thrown her pretty head back, glossy long hair rippling behind her and gold bangles jingling. She had pointed her henna patterned index finger at the word. ‘Look how they’ve spelt the rice.’ Her inferior half, the husband with the oily forehead, winked and whispered something to her which made her blush. ‘Not in front of the boy!’ Oily forehead had snapped his fingers to dismiss him. ‘Scoot.’ And that’s how he had lost his tip that day.
Aslam didn’t know how 'fride' should have been written. He only knew it was an embarrassing slip-up on the part of the printing company, Red Apple press, situated near the post office on mall road. He wondered if the newlyweds had gone back to their plush comfortable mansion in Karachi. Dry, still-standing house.
When he had tried to explain the blunder to the restaurant manager, he had been awarded a shove and an ear yank. ‘Do what you’re hired to do boy, get back to serving.’ Over all, he had been happy and earning well in tips as waiter and errand boy at the hotel. He ate his fill from kitchen leftovers and took food home most days. It contributed to his meagre household income, which wasn’t much to begin with. His father’s paltry government pension barely made ends meet. His mother, Amma, had taken to sewing clothes on contract, and tending their flock of goat and chickens. His two older sisters helped his mother in the chores. Amma had accepted Aslam’s offer to help out, but she had insisted he go to school in the mornings. Being her only son meant he was their sole hope out of poverty, like a crack of light in a depths of a cave.
‘Amma.’ He whispered, a gigantic tear that was as powerful as the monster flood hurtling beneath his feet, broke the dam of his eyelids and rushed forth. She was somewhere at the bottom of all that murky water in her aqueous grave. His house had been washed away in the gushing swat river as it changed course, rising thirty feet high like a demon, swelling and growing, flaunting its appetite for complete annihilation. For many days, men had gathered the tattered remains of their lives stacking them on wheelbarrows and makeshift boats to cross the river at its shallowest points in search for higher, safer land. Many men looked towards the highway or strained their ears for a whirring sound of a helicopter dropping food supplies.
For a moment, he wanted to jump off the boulder and bury himself in his mother’s welcoming, warm arms. He was interrupted in his morbid thoughts by an Urdu poem that resounded around the doom like a war-cry.
‘Ek muddat se miri maan nahin soi 'tabish'
Main ne ik baar kaha tha mujhe Dar lagta hai’
My mother hasn’t slept in ages, Tabish,
I had once said that I’m scared.
Kohinoor Baba seated beside him, shrivelled and rigid, burst into random pieces of poetry as the mood struck him. His unkempt white beard and hair billowed around him like cotton candy. He hadn’t left Aslam’s side since the catastrophe. Aslam was aware that the baba was a raving lunatic. He begged under the sacred fig tree in the graveyard in tattered clothes and subsisted on wild berries. He had turned up in Swat a year ago and talked nonsense most of the time. Everyone pitied or humoured him. ‘I am Kohinoor, the diamond that must return. Must return.’ Besides his gibberish, he had a remarkable talent for reciting poetry. Some were amused and some irritated. Aslam didn’t mind him, and in his current impoverished and orphaned state Kohinoor baba had become his comfort blanket. The only constant in a rapidly eroding landscape. They were both strays, unwanted and unwelcome.
Aslam had dozed off on the muddy banks of the river, hoping it would rise again and claim him. In his dream, he was reunited with his dead mother and sisters who waved to him from a sepia hued heaven. He felt a violent shake. ‘Come!’ Aslam tried to shake off his companion, too weak to budge from his grimy bed, but Kohinoor baba persisted. He shook his arm. ‘Food.’
At the word ‘food’, Aslam opened his eyes and pushed himself up. They ran to the truck driven by army men in khaki uniforms, parked on the road coming from the highway. Rations were going fast, a crazed scrambling of snatching rice and flour bags. In the blink of an eye, all food bags were gone. Aslam’s heart sank and he fell to the floor. A bearded man in his thirties, knelt down beside him. ‘Are you hungry, boy? Where is your father, do you have any living relatives?’
‘Dead. I have no family left.’ Aslam breathed out, too dehydrated to summon tears to his eyes.
‘What’s your name?’
‘My name is Rahim Pasha, I live in Kalam. It’s a thirty-four kilometre trek from here. You can live with my family. The truck will come again next week, hopefully, and we will get more food. Don’t worry, we have enough food for now.’
Aslam pushed himself up with all his remaining might. He looked around for Kohinoor baba who was nowhere to be seen. It was as if he had disappeared into thin air. Aslam sighed, too weak to look for him. ‘Here boy, drink water and eat a biscuit, it will give you some strength.’
When he felt sugar rush into his blood, he called out for his companion, but Kohinoor baba had gone for good. Maybe he had snatched some food supplies for himself and run off, not wanting to share. ‘Come along, now.’ Rahim led Aslam down a rickety bridge and soon they were charting their course to Kalam.