Image Credit: Hilal Ahamd Fine Photography (Facebook)
There was a constant buzz of moving cars that sometimes came to a halt and then all one could hear was the merciless honking of cars trying to get past each other, impatiently. Separated by a narrow unfinished pathway was a line of shops in ancient wooden frames, doors and glass. It was a beautiful sight of an old market set right in the heart of downtown. Her shop was exactly in the middle, in broken blue paint rested the wooden frames. Beautiful hand woven wicker willow baskets hung from all the four sides with only a little space that showed off what little were left of the blue paint. There was no board, no hoarding that named her shop. Yet everyone who passed by, knew it was her shop; Fatima Bibi’s Basket Shop. She was the old sweet lady who gave handfuls of ganhaar (sweet puffed candy) to every passing child. She was an amiable lady, in her later 80’s who was known in her locale as the most friendly and generous woman who smiled at every passerby and blessed abundantly anyone who stopped to have a word or two. Moreover she was known as the soft grandmother of the naughty brat who would turn the whole town upside down in mischief. But no one knew the heavy burden she carried behind her smile. No one knew what dark wounds ached her heart.
Fatima Bibi seated herself at the corner of her shop staring aimlessly at the road and the cars that went by. Smiling at the children, nodding to the greetings of the passerby, she would sit there until the sun would set, getting up only for her meals and prayers to the upstairs room which was her home. This was her daily routine unless there was a rush of customers in her shop, which would rarely be. Her shop had hosted the same willow baskets for over more than 3 years, the same beautiful wicker willow baskets in all shapes. She made enough money to suffice her house of two. Herself and Murad, her sole purpose of living, her grandson, the only family she was left with.
Murad was a sturdy lad, lean but strong. At sixteen he was a riot. Naughty, full of mischief but kind at heart. He loved to play cricket and took great pride in boasting the number of glass panes he had broken with his mighty shots. He had his own group of followers, the neighbor kids of all age who idolized him. The neighbors always complained about him to his grandmother who would scold him to no avail. He once told her that he was the Afridi of Downtown. Cheer for me while you still can, after that I will be gone and you will only see me on the TV. That just set his grandma to laughs. He loved to see her laugh, her little happy laugh. Ever since he had gained a sense of understanding he had realized that it was she who was his mother, his father, and his friend, she meant everything to him. He was a curios lad who flooded her with questions about his parents and their situation in life. She would make up stories to calm him down but he never believed her. He knew something was just not right. He had seen her crying in her prayers during the nights, her long hours of sobbing when she thought he was deep in sleep. That sadness in her heart which he could not ignore rested in her soft moist eyes even amidst her laughs. But whenever he tried to enquire she would talk him off and he would ask no more.
The thought of Murad troubled her. She remembered how weird he had been the day before. But she had let it pass off as one of his teenage tantrums. Today was a normal day except that it was colder and the street was less noisy than it usually is. Fatima Bibi wore a gray floral print white summer Phiran and an off white cashmere shawl over her head. Her eyes were kind, face wrinkled in age, and a few missed teeth altered her warm smile. She was exceptionally tired, as if she had moved a whole mountain by herself. She wondered why it was. She was weak and feeble in her physique but inside her was a strong heart who had braved the cruelty that life had thrown at her face.
Murad rushed into the shop disturbing the quiet of her thoughts. “Bobai (grandma), where are we from?” he asked her in his bursting outrage, a tone she had never heard before.
“Tell me the truth, tell me now! Where are we from? Where did we live before? Tell me, tell me the truth.” He rambled on, poking her arm.
Fatima Bibi shocked inside at this sudden outburst of emotions , deceived a look of calm. Stroking his hair, she said to him, “What do you mean by where. We are from here of course.”
“Don’t lie, don’t lie to me anymore. I am not a child. Tell me where are we from. Bobai, tell me.” Murad raised his voice to her. “This time I want to hear the truth about my parents. What is it that you are hiding from me? Why do you cry every night? You think I don’t know? Tell me, tell me now or I will run away. I will disappear.”
Fatima Bibi felt a pang in her heart. As if someone had poked on her wound, plunging deep inside. She knew she would have to unfold the events of that disastrous night to Murad. He was adamant and could not be turned away, not today. Fatima Bibi looked into his raging eyes. She could see anger and impatience in them. And she saw the pain of not knowing the truth; of being left alone to feed on the thoughts he had had all these years. It is time, she thought to herself. It is time he knew.
She took him by his arm and sat him right beside him. You are a strong boy; you are growing up to be a good man. That is how I have been raising you, to become a strong headed kind man. Just as your father was. He was a good man; a good husband and an exceptionally good son. After your grandfather’s death, he took the responsibility of our home to himself. He was a hardworking man with a heart of gold. He was a basket maker just as I am. He had a little shop where he would sit and weave strong beautiful willow baskets that everyone admirably bought. Everyone in our village loved him for his friendly nature and his strong wit of mind. He and your mother got married at a very young age, as was the norm of those days. She was a beautiful woman, whose beauty surpassed all other women of our small town. We were a happy family. And soon God blessed us with more happiness when you came into our life. The laughter doubled in our house and everything seemed as if nothing ever would go wrong.
That year, you had turned four. I remember that night, as if it was yesterday. Every detail set in the cracks of my broken heart. Your father had just come from his shop and your mother was preparing our dinner. We all sat down in the small living room, when suddenly there was a loud knock on the door. It was an unexpected time to receive some one that late. Your father asked who it was. But there came no verbal response just that the thumping on the door got louder and louder. Your father stood up to open the door, when the door came straight to his face. They broke it down. “What is the matter, my frightened son asked the group of men in uniform. One of them shoved him with his gun to the corner of the room. Drunken hooligans looked around the room. While I held you tightly to myself, your mother came out from the kitchen to see what the matter was. No sooner had she stepped in, one of them bastards took hold of her hand and shoved her inside another room. Your father protested, tried to stop him but in vain. He held his gun to his throat while the other three had theirs on us. He beat your father to pulp and then went into the room. All we could hear outside were the screams of your innocent mom. One by one, all four got in and took their turns with her. Her screams still linger into my ears. She was gang raped by the demons in uniform. Your father fought with them. He punched one of them on his nose and his blood came out. He in retaliation thrust four bullets into his chest. He fell down to the ground silently, motionless. Blood all over his white shirt. All I could hear was her screams. All four went together onto her in that God forsaken room. More screams over the dead silence of the village. She kept screaming, crying for help, till her last hell breaking scream was heard! Another gun shot. My life turned upside down in one hour while I stood shocked, unable to breathe, unable to move, with you clinging to me unaware of your fate.
Fatima Bibi relived the horrors of that dreadful night yet again. Murad, speechless sat paralyzed just as Fatima Bibi had been. As he absorbed the horrifying truth of his past, he got quiet, quieter every day. There were no more complaints of broken glass from his cricket shots, no more fights to pick on. The neighbors passed by Fatima Bibi’s shop, she nodded to their greetings and returned their smiles. She handed out ganhaar to the little kids that came to her; she was the old feeble granny of her downtown.