“The Wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round. Round and Round!”
Nearly eight years of ongoing childhood, and yet Naema had never heard of this rhyme before. But the song was the least of the children’s concerns, and a girl behind Naema poked her from behind whilst the rest of the line kept moving forwards. Moving was, however, an understatement for how fast the little feet were going. The children were deep in concentration, but the adults cheerfully deafened the music with cheers and claps. Naema would later recall that the adults behaved just like spectators at the Gladiator games.
“All through the town-”
The music stopped. In a nanosecond, panic ensued. Children yelled, reaching for the edges of the chairs with their hands. Two best friends glued themselves to two side-by-side chairs while three other children battled for sovereignty over a single red chair. Naema’s hand had grabbed the head of a white chair right next to it, but in the seconds she took to turn and sit on it, a boy butted in, placing himself on top of the chair, as well as half of Naema’s hand. Naema pushed him, trying to pull her hand free. The boy however sat firmly on the seat, smiling, as Naema finally freed her hand.
The heat rose to her cheeks, and it became hotter when she realized she was the only one left standing.
But the adults continued to laugh, including the organizer who gently took Naema’s arm and led her away, concluding her defeat.
Her mother was smiling too, but her words, “It’s just a game” and “You’ll win next time” were like putting boiled vegetables on her plate.
“A moment!” she later complained that evening, “All she did was smile and pat my head for a moment and then she went back to enjoying the stupid game!”
The listener was Faiz, Naema’s grandfather, who rubbed the skin under his eyes with a fixed smile on his face.
“There was only one good thing that happened today!”
Faiz lifted his eyebrows, the look on his face speaking curiosity.
“That boy didn’t win” Naema grinned diabolically, but the resulting expression made her look tubby and winsome in Faiz’s eyes.
“That must have felt good” Faiz smiled.
“It did” Naema squealed. She made a mental note to herself that something better than the boy’s defeat happened just now: her grandfather siding with her.
“You know” Faiz added, “That boy must have felt bad when he didn’t win.”
“He should’ve! He stole my chair!”
“Did you see his parents?”
“Just wondering whether they too smiled and hugged him when he felt bad about losing.”
Naema didn’t give the boy a second or third thought. Even her grandfather’s words arrived at the same reception. She was after all only eight years old, as her father would have argued; she had all the time in the world to learn about the fundamentals of empathy and socializing.
Faiz ultimately accepted this too, and within seconds, his and Naema’s tête-à-tête transformed into a debate of which cake, between devil’s food and marble, was superior to all others.
More birthday parties came in the neighborhood in the weeks to follow, and Naema never saw the boy again. Another birthday party brought with it another game of musical chairs again. The same night Faiz braced himself for the frustrations his granddaughter would shower upon him. Nobody likes arguments or rants, but he liked her words, and that was all that mattered.
“Why do they like this game?” were Naema’s first words.
“The children?” Faiz wondered.
“No! The parents” Naema crossed her arms and pressed them to her chest. Faiz struggled with keeping an inquisitive face; it was the cutest expression Naema had made yet.
“They think it’s fun! But it’s not! All those kids fighting over stupid chairs! What’s the fun in that?”
Now, Faiz decided to empathize. He discovered, from the perspective of a child with few friends, the game truly was frustrating. In the end, it was about some people kicking each other over seats, seats that were removed one by one, becoming insignificant as the game proceeded.
“Come to think about it” Faiz shifted, “It really does sound discriminatory.”
Naema raised her eyebrows, “What?”
“It’s a word. It means to hate someone because of who they are or what they look like or what they do, or because they’re different.”
Naema stared at her grandfather for a full minute, attempting to arrange a puzzle in her mind that her grandfather handed her the pieces to. She thought of the game and like a stroke of fate, her little mind brought out the image of the boy who stole her chair. The boy with a frown on his face because he didn’t win.
“Is it bad?”
“But everybody does it.”
“Hate someone because they’re different?”
“Yes! Even Baba is dishmirary!”
Faiz chuckled, “No, no. It’s dis-cri-mi-na-to-ry.”
Naema repeated the syllables, but the word still didn’t settle well on her tongue. Faiz wasn’t in a hurry for her to learn the letters; the meaning was much more important.
“As I said” he added, “It’s wrong.”
“But even Mama and Baba do it.”
“I’ve done it too actually… But it’s still wrong.”
“Why did you do it then?”
“Too much candy is bad for your teeth, but you eat it don’t you.”
Naema puffed, fuming at this sudden change of topic. Faiz smiled however and shifted back.
“I actually didn’t know it was bad.”
“Your Dada didn’t tell you?” Naema pondered. ‘Dada’ was Naema’s pet name which made Faiz’s smile widen every single time.
“No, he didn’t.” Faiz’s ‘Dada’ had actually passed away years before Faiz was even born.
“Does Baba know it’s wrong?” Naema asked.
“Then why does he do it?!”
Faiz sighed. The answer would have to be well thought out this time. He wondered if Naema’s head would begin to ache from this conversation, but she had more curiosity stuffed inside her than her father at the same age, which to Faiz was a rosy sign.
With a deep sigh, Faiz breathed the words that he decided to say: “Let me tell you why. It’s a secret. Come close.”
Naema obeyed in bubbling excitement and brought her ear close to Faiz.
“Sometimes, parents do dumb things more than children.”
Naema blinked, and then flashed a wide laugh that deepened the dimple on her right cheek. Faiz joined in, and within seconds, they were competing with each other for the loudest roar of laughter.
One day in July, when the summer heat had begun its harrowing period, Naema visited her grandfather’s for the weekend. Naema sweated so much that even moving felt like a mammoth task. But nevertheless, her grandfather made her an offer she couldn't refuse.
“Want to play a game?” Faiz asked, bending down to her, “It’s simple. Like musical chairs.”
Naema scrunched her nose in irritation, but her grandfather kept looking at her with an innocent smile.
“We go round the tree. Round and round in circles, with your eyes closed. When you stop, you touch the tree.”
Naema straightened herself against the wall. She was trying her best not to look too curious but failed.
“And when you touch the tree, you make a wish. See? It’s simple.”
“It sounds boring,” Naema sighed. Faizan inhaled; this was one of the signs that Naema was growing up too fast.
“You won’t know if you don’t try.”
“Why do I have to make a wish?”
“Everybody wants to make a wish.”
“I’d wish for the season to be colder!”
Faizan chuckled, “Any wish you want.”
In minutes, the pair were in the small courtyard, surrounding a rich, tall mulberry tree whose height rivaled the house. Faizan had planted the tree years ago when he was Naema’s age. That tree was the reason Faizan refused to move from the city with his son and Naema’s father. The house held memories yes, but not many people would have appreciated a beautiful tree growing in the middle of the tiled yard.
Naema's interest in the game had begun to wane. The reason why she was still standing underneath the tree now was because of the shade it provided, and her desire to make her grandfather happy.
So they went, sauntering round and round the tree. Naema was moving slower and marveled at Faiz's energy even in this weather.
Finally, they stopped, and they both made a wish. As she had said, Naema wished for the weather to be colder. For the next ten minutes, she kept her hand glued to the bark of the tree while leaning her head back out to see if there had occurred some change. Nothing. Disappointment clouded her when she saw the sun gleaming brightly, and the sweat continued to drip from her forehead.