“Mangoes are to us what Chocolate is to the Belgians!” Hashir announced to whoever would listen. And everyone present in the room did listen, save for the children who were engaged in playtime in the other half of the room.
“I’m sure the Belgians aren’t the only ones who enjoy chocolate!” his cousin retorted in response.
“It’s not a fair argument” his uncle spoke, “They can enjoy chocolate any time they want and we have to wait a whole year.” Everybody laughed in a synchronized agreement. The children continued to play and shout, their sounds competing with the adults for dominance.
Saim was around three years old at this time. He loved eating mangoes as much as Hashir did but their worlds were separated by meaning. To Saim, the mango was a squishy, bright, sweet toy. To Hashir, it was the joy on his son’s face every summer.
There was one other thing that Saim enjoyed as much as he loved eating mangoes: listening to stories. That was the forte of Hashir’s wife; every night it was either fairytale about cursed princes looking for love or sleeping princesses or vain witches.
One particularly good one was about a number of sisters who lived in an enticing palace that attracted visitors, but only the brave and clever could enter. Hashir liked that one and eavesdropped the night when the story first premiered. As with every other story, Saim was awestruck and satiated in the end.
When his wife returned to their own abode for the night, Hashir asked her if she had conjured that one on her own, but she smiled, “Moomal Rano”. Hashir chuckled and praised his wife’s storytelling abilities. She asked him if he could give her ideas for more because their son wasn’t on the verge of ending his obsession anytime soon.
Hashir raised his eyebrows to think. The scent of mangoes was still rife in their apartment, and it brought a story to mind. No, not a story; a memory.
Hashir and his cousin were cycling on their way home from the madrasa. It was mid-June and as anticipated, they passed wooden carts covered in ripe golden mangoes, their owners yelling at the top of their lungs marketing them as the freshest, ripest, or juiciest fruit one could find. Hashir darted past the carts, and when he got close enough to one, he outstretched his left hand and clutched one straight from the top. The owner was busy looking the other way to notice.
He turned to his cousin, who had his own mango in his right hand. They slapped their hands in unison and laughed. But Hashir laughed harder when he realized his mango was roughly bigger than his cousin’s. There was always this one competition.
It was a good memory and it made Hashir chuckle every time. But he never divulged the story to Saim. He simply told his wife to conjure a story about two boys who liked to steal mangoes. She responded with piercing eyes.
“Marvelous. Now, he’ll be a criminal before he’s started school!” she retorted.
Hashir laughed, so loudly they thought Saim would wake up from the next room.
“If you’re telling the story, I’m sure it’ll include terrifying punishments for those who steal! That’ll fix him, eh?”
She continued to glare at him, but her lips were curled so it seemed less threatening. Hashir continued to chuckle. Years later, he wondered why he never told Saim the story of the two thieves.
This year, the mango season descended sooner than usual. It was the last lap of April, the heat was blooming, and mango sellers were already seen treading about the roads and streets. Any perceptive person could tell that one should wait until the real heat began, despite the availability.
Saim and his friend were never that perceptive. They were never that good at cycling either. But they were fast runners, and that did the job well.
One evening, after the completion of one such job, Saim returned home. The odor of sweat was effusing from him and into the air of the apartment. His mother knew from the shutting of the door someone had come; she knew from the smell who.
He greeted her as he strode over to the sofa in the lounge, relaxing for a few seconds before he untied his shoes. It was one of his many habits that his mother had been unable to alter, but among the few that she tolerated.
She came to sit in front of him and watched; her grey eyes lurking about him the same way they lurked about his father once. Saim found it unnerving, while Hashir barely noticed.
“What?” Saim asked.
“You’ve been eating mangoes haven’t you?” she probed.
Saim raised his eyebrows. His mouth was on the verge of falling open.
“How did you know?” he exclaimed.
“I’m your mother.”
“Yes, a mother. Not a wizard!”
Saim sighed. As long his mother was the opponent, he could never win. But he smiled; it was fine this way. Better than being completely alone, he reminded himself.
She was still glaring at him. The last thing he said as he carried his shoes to his room, was a plea that at least this time, he paid for the mangoes before he ate them.
The first time he did it; she had used her magic skills to discover his ruse and scolded him for it. He remembered it, but fervor for adventure doesn’t go away easily. He and his friends had made it a summer ritual of sorts. When he explained it to her, she warned him against it, but the most baffling was the smirk on her face while she was lecturing him.
She had never told him where he had inherited this zeal from. She chose not to. If Hashir never bothered to tell him, why should she?
But Saim didn’t tell her everything either. He went to bed infuriated the night of the first scolding. Whatever he did, at least it was child’s play compared to his father. Saim’s ‘crime’ was barely a crime at all. Was she lashing out her hidden anger at him?
The next question hit him hard: Did he remind his mother of his father? His grandmother had almost declared the resemblance before pursing her lips. He never noticed it then but now the memory of his father’s mother’s embarrassment replayed in his head. As he was growing older, more and more events were becoming starkly clearer.
The memories stuck with him. The next day, he didn’t even look at the mangoes. The day after, his closest friend did not come to college. Two days later, they were again sauntering out of the gates and into the neighboring bazaar.
Like any other day, the sun was looming above. Fruit carts, people, vendors, and shops were merged into a chaotic mess. The mangoes were still sour but sellers were still roaring at the top of their lungs.
Saim and his friend don’t need to speak to each other; a smirk is worth more than spoken lines in their secret language. But the marketplace is crowded even more than usual. If they run, it will mark their guilt. All they need is a few seconds and a distracted vendor, preferably the one who is busy shouting over a cart with clumsily scattered mangoes. The carts with neatly arranged ones are more appealing but always leave behind evidence of the theft.
Saim’s friend heads first. Saim smirks and leans, his backpack pressing against the wall. He is counting the seconds in his head.
Something distracts him; was his friend calling him? No, it was a voice in the crowd. Maybe there was another Saim roaming about somewhere close.
“Saim!” the voice calls him again, more clearly than before. He turns to his right and sees a man coming close. He’s tall, wheat-skinned, and bearded.
A second ago Saim would have ignored him, but now he stares at the man. His beard is denser, and more grey than black now. He’s as tall as Saim himself and his eyes have the same cheeriness about them.
“Saim, it’s me” the man smiles. Saim breathes and doesn’t move an inch. He feels as though an invisible slab is pressing against his face.
Hashir halts, and now they’re both standing inches from each other. The pandemonium of the bazaar is engulfing. But between them, there is only silence.
Saim’s heart is tugging against his chest. He hasn’t seen Hashir in years. Should he walk away? Should he just resume what he had been plotting a few minutes ago? But how can anybody walk away just like this? He wants to say something but only tremors move about his tongue.
“How are you?” Hashir finally speaks. The silence is proof that Saim recognizes him, or else the boy would have said something by now.
Saim doesn’t know what to say, so he says, “Fine.”
“How’s your mother?”
‘You’ve lost the right to know’ he wants to say but all that escapes his lips is another ‘Fine’.
“You study here?” Hashir gestures to the towering terracotta building behind them. Saim nods. He raises his head to see if his friend is anywhere in sight. He doesn’t see him and briefly considers walking back to the college grounds, or going straight home. He looks at Hashir who looks though he’s just about as uncomfortable as him. Saim smirks at this.
“What’s so funny?” Hashir is smiling and Saim stares at it. It feels like a distant embrace to him.
“Nothing,” Saim says. Hashir wants to prod and says something. Saim doesn’t hear it, although the crowd is thinning around them.
Coolness is lifting in their air. More and more people are now descending into the marketplace but Hashir and Saim stand firm in their spots. Saim feels cornered, unaware that Hashir feels the same way. Saim considers walking home now, but fears that Hashir would want to accompany him.
Hashir widens his lips but before his words can escape, Saim says, “Why are you here?”
There, it’s out in the open now, like an exposed wound.
Hashir blinks and is scavenging his mind for an appropriate answer. Saim’s heart is racing, and his cheeks are warm. Inside, he is wagering with himself; would his father say that he came to see him, or would he say that he was just passing by?
“I wanted to see you” Hashir finally murmured. The sound of his words is almost smothered by the noises babbling around them, but Saim has heard him. Or at least he’s pretending to. He’s jerking his head about, looking for an excuse that will aid him.
“I’m going to get some mangoes,” Saim says, trying as hard as he can to not look at Hashir.
“Aren’t you going to wait for your friend? I saw him walk into that shop there before.”
He’s stalking me? Saim ponders. This, he wishes, he had said aloud.
“No, I need to take some mangoes home” Saim lies. Hashir continued to look at him, with a smile that is alien. Saim wonders why he doesn’t ask about his mother.
One by one, the shop and street lights flicker on. They’re like yellow orbs floating in the greying evening, as the two of them are still standing in something that mimics a duel no one was prepared for. The crowd is becoming dense once more. Saim doesn’t know where his friend has disappeared off to.
“I was planning to get some mangoes myself,” Hashir says. Saim groans; he does it louder on purpose. Hashir pretends to not notice it.
A vendor has brought his cart close to where they’re standing. There’s a pile of neatly arranged mangoes sitting on it. The vendor calls out to Hashir, offering him one as bait to buy some. Hashir takes the mango, and Saim turns his stare to the fruit. It’s more golden than the ones usually available during the month. When Hashir asks, the vendor predictably gives him a price higher than the sellers near him.
Hashir turns the mango towards Saim, “If your uncle was here, he would have swiped in the blink of an eye.”
Saim looks at him blankly. Hashir takes note of the confounded look on his face.
He sighs, “I never told you. Your uncle, my cousin, would sometimes grab mangoes while we were cycling” Now he chuckles, “Just an old, childish habit. Youngblood, you know.”
Saim continues to stare at him.
“I was the same age as you are right now” Hashir continues.
Saim’s eyes drift from Hashir to the mango in his hand. His feet shifted, and a heavy breath collected in his chest. He gulps and raises his eyes. His friend is standing across from them, on the other side of the vendor, staring at both Saim and the man holding the mango like a gold nugget.
Saim turns to walk. Hashir notices this and looks up. He opens his mouth to say something, but Saim says the words that were sitting on his tongue for so long. He treads ahead and is joined by his friend. Questions are still piling inside their heads when they walk out of the bazaar together, in the midst of the continuing shouts and chortles.
His friend is the first to speak.
“That man,” he says quietly, “He was your father wasn’t he?”
Saim isn’t listening.