All this greenery and grayish asphalt road look so new. But all these birds, these dogs wandering, this song and my own existence reminisce me of something that I can’t haul out of my body. It rests there just like my heart does. Beating and stuttering. Stops some time. Accelerates with more power, the other time. Ailing me. Inflicting the inside of me. Making me go again in the world of daunting memories. They come again and fight the emotions in me. Making the sleep runaway. And I usually wake at night. Propelled on the bed, I draw my knees to my chest. Curl my arms around them. Interlace my hands. Quiver because of what I have gone through. And I dread them coming back. Looking for me to kill. Looking for me to pay.
It was more than a usual night, we just crossed the Autobahn road and I pivoted the sound spindle to make Enrique’s song more audible. I marveled at the palm trees before the Ghangra Mori. We were coming back from a marriage ceremony our relatives had organized. The road was under construction and was full of bumps that were taking their toll on my new Corolla. A long truck passed by with not a mundane speed. It had reflectors all over it with a blue base oil paint.
I turn my gaze towards the back mirror to see the car honking from a long time and a braying mule comes to road out of nowhere. I apply the brakes. My car screeches and inches towards the mule. Might kill it. I turn the steering to right, making it around half feet away from him. I reverse the car and hit the horn three times before it starts to creep. I look around to see the location. It is where it all happened. I can see those fields and trees that still daunt me. Threaten me. The crops that flutter. The air touching them brings with them the terror of that night. Making my hair stand still attentively. Sensing the menace in the air. Waleed had told me before. He advised me not to go. He told me about those who showed off the little they had in that area.
I used to commute on daily basis. All and sundry roads were familiar to me. But what was not, was that they lived here. Looking me. They knew everything about me. What I used to wear. At what time I used to leave the office. What speed did I maintain…..everything.
After a drive of not more than two minutes, I had to stop my car. The truck, that just passed us, was blocking the highway. Making an obstacle. I saw two men coming out of the bushes. Kalashnikovs in their hands and their face cloth wrapped. The only thing I could see that time was the barbarousness in their eyes. They knocked the window. The other guy was pointing the gun at my wife. And then swinging it to my son. The first man motioned his fingers that meant draw the window down. And I had no option. I did. He craned his hand in, unlocked the door and opened it himself. Hauled me out on the road. Making me kneel down and pointed gun on my forehead. Najeeb was in his slumber. Unaware of anything happening. And I wished, everything would remain same for him. I wished, he may see his father playing with him the other morning. But wishes are always wistful. They make you kneel down and beg for them to become true. I begged them with my hands holding his legs. A weird staunch swirling from his boots. Which I later realized was manure.
‘Come with us’ one of them said.
‘But why? Take everything I have. Here’ I tossed out my wallet, my cellphone. I saw the jewelry in the air – being tossed out from the car. Zareen crying.
Despite of all the jewelry, the wallet and the cellphones, they started to haul me over the road. My suit frayed from the knee now. I saw him hitting me with the butt of his gun.
Next morning, I opened my eyes in a place littered with manure. Before me, there were long trees. Trees akin to those on which we used to climb. I always dreaded them. They made me fall once. I broke my leg then. But that day, the trees were drearier. All I could see around was manure, trees, crumpled leaves and a stream of blood on me. The wound was still not cured but tied with a musty cloth. I could hear the ominous voices. Chirping of cricket and grasshoppers, cawing of crows and murmurs of those people. I asked for help and they riposted with some abuse. Few hours later, when the sun started to rise they gave me something to eat. A Phulka, some onions and some chilies. Accompanying them was an earthen pot filled with a pint of dirty water to console my tasting buds.
‘This is all you get for today’ one of them said. And continued ‘You might get at night. But I can’t guarantee that’
‘What do you guys want’ I asked in a low voice. Fear in it.
He chuckled and moved. And I kept thinking about him. His beard, his shoulder-length hair, his blood-filled eyes. He was wearing a Salwar Kameez and shoes akin to those I used to wear in my school years. He had no socks on. An axe near him and a gun drooling by his shoulder. A lethal smile stuck on his face.
‘You might have misconstrued me. I am not whom you are looking for’ I said. A bit raised voice to make it audible to them.
‘We are not mistaken, Mr. Rahim. You are a banker. And you own lands. Your father’s name is Rahman.’ They assured me that they weren’t mistaken. And it was me that had been in to real bad.
‘What have I done to you?’ I protested.
‘Silence’ one of them yelled. ‘No one raises his voice before me’
I started looking from one tree to another. Birds looking at me. Commiserating my loss. Wind saying something in my ears. A shouting silence rampant. I finished my food and felt drowsy. Perhaps they had mixed something in to it. I closed my eyes and felt someone tying my hands again. More fastened this time.
Zareen has gone to her father’s. It has been months since she has met her father. He can’t drive. In fact, he can’t even move. He has been hospitalized for almost a week. He had been suffering some kind of heart disease. Doctors suggested bypass surgery but his diabetes doesn’t allow them to execute. They have taken him in their hospital until the diabetes is maintained. I left my job and my brother is taking care of the lands. He provides us enough to survive. A youngster passes by and shouts something in my window. He doesn’t like how I drive.
Robberies and kidnappings have dwindled to zero after the construction of this highway. Cars sprint on these roads not less than 120 km/hour. But I prefer to drive at around 100.
Zareen just texted me. The operation has gone well and uncle’s now at home.
I take the right and then left and here I am in his father’s colony. I look for the yellow house in the row and stop there.
‘Ami……….’ Najeeb roars. ‘It’s Papa’ and runs away to bring Zareen on the door.
It was all red before my shut eyes until he slapped me. He was there just before my face. His eyes looking at mine.
‘Eat the food’ he said. And, left.
I saw the same Phulka, onions and chilies that I had been eating since days. I had no idea of what day it was. The only time they untied my hands was for eating or for excreting. I peed sitting there sometimes when they didn’t answer me. I could feel the beard on me. Hair all around me.
Something crawled over my feet. Lurching. I dreaded insects. I shook my feet many times, but it stood there. I popped it with my bigger toe of the other foot. It made a little click sound. Sound that only the worm and I could hear. Dug it in the dust to make the sticky substance go away.
Whole family is here to receive me on the door. Zareen leading them. Salam alaikum, Assalam-o-Aaikum, Jani. Different voices that I might be hearing after months. I had talked to all of them on phone and some even came to meet me. Hands shaking mine.
‘Where’s uncle’ I ask. ‘Is he okay now’
‘He’s in the room. Waiting for you’ Aunty said.
Entering the room I see uncle laying on his bed. White bedsheet and thin pillows. A blanket wrapping him and air conditioner bursting on its full. Seeing me, he tries to push himself up.
‘Keep lying, chacha’ I said. Uncle.
‘No’ he coughs. ‘I am fine now’
We shake hands. Both quivering. I feel his loose skin on mine and ask about his health.
‘I am sorry. I couldn’t come to the hospital’ I apologized.
‘It’s okay’ he sighs. Looks at the bed corner. Empty jug there. ‘Can you get me some water’ he asks.
‘Jiii’ I said. Yes.
I glide out to the lounge and find Zareen with her siblings on the couch.
‘Chacha needs water’ I said. ‘Where’s Najeeb’
‘He’s playing with his cousins’ she smiles. Galloping towards the kitchen.
I smilingly nod to the other people seated there. Excuse me it meant. Strolling back to the room, I see a row of ants carrying their food. Entering a crevice in the timber door.
‘Zareen’s getting the water’ I said.
I perch on the seat beside the bed. Zareen comes with a jug of water akin to the one I saw before. She exchanges the jug and leaves.
I fill a glass of water for uncle and help him lift himself. He grasps the glass of water. Shaking. Drinking. Dripping on his blanket. Takes the kerchief and wipes the residue from his lips.
I take one of his books to read that I find boring. All about current affairs and history of Pakistan. I riffle through the pages of sundry books and after failing miserably I look at him. Sleeping.
I was there for months in those fields. The reason for being there was still alien to me. One day, they untied me and asked me to come with them. We had to run through the orchards. Fields and barren lands. Two of them were wearing black slipper shoes and the remaining one was barefoot like me. I stampeded a number of ants, insects under my foot. I could hear the clicking voice again. One more click and I was on the ground. A thorn intruded my foot.
‘What now’ one of them shouted.
‘It’s a thorn’ I replied, painfully.
‘We have no time to wait’ he yelled. ‘Stand up’. Smacked me with his elbow.
They were moving in a proper procession. All the feet lifted and rested at once. Two of them were running forward and the barefoot one behind me. I hobbled with them. It was dark now. Voices of different animals. Howls. Chirps. Caws. We ended up running when we saw a mud-built shack. A lantern lit that I could see from the window. I was put in there that night. Like everyone else, I got a pot filled of water. I slept untied that night. On a straw mat.
Next morning, I opened my eyes to see new faces. Faces that borne same beards and shoulder-length hair. A hirsute chest and sweaty underarms that smelt from feet(s). My hands were tied behind me. Perched on the chair, I had the same feeling of being in the fields. People before me were more vicious than animals.
‘Who are you’ I asked.
‘We bought you’ he said. ‘We shall get the ransom money now’
He galloped out of the room. Leaving me there. It was my food time. I yelled for food. None riposted. I could listen their chuckles. There were two voices. Chattering about the snake one of them had killed. Deciding the ransom amount they would get on my return. I looked down on my feet to see the sticky substance had gone away. The thorn was still there in my foot and touching the ground was painful. They had a different timing for the food. I used to get it twice a day. Lunch and Dinner. The insects here were different. None that I know. I have seen some in my biology book when I was in my ninth. They all looked so lovely in the book.
‘The food is ready’ said Zareen entering the room. Her sister following her.
Uncle’s having food in his room while we eat properly in the dining room. Doctor has suggested him to take light food for some time. Several dishes before me. Phulka, White rice, Biryani, Fried chicken, Curry, Dal and Salad. I take two pieces of chicken and a Phulka. An iota of salad along with that. Dal on the right. Touching a bit of onions from my salad.
‘Have some Biryani, it is tasty’ said Waleed – Zareen’s sibling.
I finish my food fast. Everybody else is still busy. I take the salad. Cucumber to dally my appetite. We all leave the table and head to our favorite washroom. I take the one in uncle’s room.
Uncle’s already done with the food. I think of what he had for his lunch. Was it more special than what I had?
I take the silver of the soap and make foam on my hands. Above the basin there’s a mirror fixed. I put my hands in the running water and gaze my face in the mirror. My eyes. Fear lingering in them.
I used to hear them talking. It took me days to realize that they had made a setting. One of them used to sit there for me. They had shifts. Commitments. The one who used to feed me for the lunch was a hefty man. The other was slender. His arms had no muscles. All the power lied in his gun. It would be a lighter one, I used to think.
Waleed and I had been good friends since a long time. I saw Zareen once. She was on the door of the drawing room. Tea in her hands. Waleed’s completely different. They both have different nose, eyes and lips. None of their instinct resembles. Zareen took all her features from her mother. While Waleed is his father’s copy. We exchange a lot of laughter every time we meet. We maintain the same demeanor this time as well. I can see Zareen smiling every time I laugh. She keeps looking at me from the corner of her eye.
‘Zareen, leave the romance right now’ taunts Bhabhi. ‘Look at this beautiful dress my Ami has gifted me.’ A laughter following this. Zareen passes a pallid smile.
I take my leave from every family member. Zareen standing beside me. Najeeb still playing. Snaking his way between our legs.
I glide toward uncle’s room. Shake my hands. He smiles.
‘This little operation has brought me and you back to the life’ he said. I smile back.
I am again on the same road. Fear lingering in a corner of my heart. I pass the Ghangra Mori and take a sigh of relief.
One day, I asked that man to untie me. I have to pass the stool, I said. He untied me and set his gun between my shoulders. Just below my neck. We walked through the bushes. Chirping. The cold metal still touching my body. The thorn still there. But the pain was gone. I craned down and smacked the man. Another smack on his face. The gun was on the floor. Dust on it. I had no idea of what I had done. I took the gun and darted him. Motioned thrice.
‘Stay away’ I shouted. ‘Let me go, please’. Crying.
He started to glide towards me and with a breeze of cool air touching my hair, I pushed the trigger. I was on the floor. So was he. Blood stream touched my hand. A little smoke swirling from the barrel. I stood up. Looked at his body for minutes. Sat cross-legged there.
I snaked my way through the jungle for hours. A weird sound in the air. Crumpling of leaves. I ended up when I saw a light. Lurched forward. Puffing. I was on the road now. Hands in the air. Gasping. Tears.
Najeeb’s on Zareen’s lap. Playing candy crush on her cellphone. I look at her and we smile at each other. Eyes on the road again.
A truck passes by.