Warning: Contains disturbing content.
Sabiqa wrapped the shawl around herself. The edges were frayed and some threads were loose. She traced the heavy floral design with her fingertips. She placed a finger on a leaf and continued onto a spiraling stem. She then outlined the half-bloomed roses embroidered on the fabric. She lifted her fingers off the pattern and held onto one corner of her shawl as she came to a stop.
From her current position, she could see the Empress Market to her right. A vision from the past, the bustling marketplace was a memento left by the angraiz (1). The angraiz had left many years before but they had left relics behind all over the city. These old buildings stood with authority, presenting themselves as monumental and daunting. Their stone facades were cold and unapproachable and their language alien. Many of them were crumbling, remnants of a colonial past slowly disintegrating. A large concentration of buildings was present in Saddar, where Sabiqa was currently standing.
Looking around, all Sabiqa could see were huge buildings rising towards the smoky sky. The atmosphere of the city was polluted but this area was even grimier. One of the oldest districts of Karachi, Saddar was a bustling town with markets, institutions and even a food street. Rahim used to work at a dhaba (2) a few years ago. She thought about her older brother fondly. He would always bring back leftover some nan (3) and curry-of-the-day. Then they would all sit together and have dinner. She missed those times. She only had memories left. Rahim was dead and Abba (4) was as good as dead. Yes, these were different times.
It was a year ago that her father had shown up at home with blood down his shirt. To answer all their worried looks and poking questions, he said nosebleed. But that nosebleed became frequent and then came the coughing bouts. Some of those bouts would last forever. Many nights, Sabiqa would not be able to sleep because of the sound of Abba coughing. But she had grown used to that too. What followed the coughing was the scariest thing: coughing with blood. That scared everyone. Even Rahim, who said he wasn’t scared of everything. He took one look at the blood on Abba’s handkerchief and shot up. His face pale, eyes flitting left and right and hands fidgeting with his kurta. He mumbled a few incoherent sentences and went straight out the door. He didn’t return till the next morning. Amma (5) was angry but strangely, Abba didn’t say a word. He beckoned Rahim and patted his shoulder, saying it will be alright.
A few months later, Sabiqa realized everything was not as perfect as she was imagining. Abba was looking frailer with every passing day, his eyes sunken and hair thinning out. It was exactly eight months ago that she was finally told that Abba was ill. Really ill. She remembered feeling numb. She remembered that she froze. She remembered Amma and Rahim talking to her. But she also remembered nothing. What broke her out of the stupor was nothing less than extraordinary. Two days after she was told about the inevitable, something even more unpredictable happened.
Sabiqa was sitting by Abba’s charpai (6) helping him have dinner, when there was a knock at the door. Amma was sitting by the stove, preparing Abba’s night-time chai (7) and feeding Jamal bits of nan. Her little brother was cooing and spitting everywhere. The night was heavy, making them all wonder who was at the door. She got up and opened the door. Saleem and Salman, two of the boys who lived next door, stood at the door. Their eyes cast down, their expressions solemn. They came in and talked to Abba in hushed tones. Sabiqa watched as Abba’s expression turned grim and his eyes dampened. She wondered what they had told him. Having relayed their message, they left. Abba turned away, trying to calm himself. And with the four words he uttered, their world came crashing down. Rahim had been shot.
Rahim. Her brother. Shot.
The honking of a car broke Sadiqa out of her trance. She saw that she had walked onto the road and a dusty Honda was behind her, honking at short bursts. She quickly crossed the road and jumped onto the footpath. She sat there, her back leaning against a stone wall. Putting her head in her palms, she closed her eyes. She had to think. She had to do something. She had to think about what to do. A week ago, Abba had died. Her father had been ill and now he was dead. So was Rahim. He was dead too. It was just the three of them now. Amma, Sabiqa and Jamal. She had to do something.
Someone pressed the top of her head and she looked up. A man with a thin moustache was looking down at her. He opened his mouth to say something. But Sabiqa didn’t want to hear anything. She did not want to answer any questions. She jumped up and ran across the road, towards the old marketplace. She could hear the man calling after her. Larki (8)! But she didn’t slow down. She ran past the front of the market. Famous for being a spot to buy exotic birds, Sabiqa sprinted past the colorful macaws, parrots and canaries. The cawing, chirping and hooting subsided as she entered the old structure.
Passing the threshold space, she was amazed by all the stalls. She smelt spices from the stall directly in front of her. The sharpness of red chilies, the sweet and spicy cinnamon. Passing by a shop selling umbrellas, she stopped right in front a food stall. Looking to the left and then the right, she hastily picked up a whole loaf of bread and wrapped it in her shawl. After all, these were desperate times!
- Angraiz [un-grayz]: The English.
- Dhaba [dha-baa] (singular): A roadside restaurant.
- Nan [naa-n]: A type of leavened bread, traditionally cooked in a clay oven.
- Abba (ub-baa): Father.
- Amma [Um-maa]: Mother.
- Charpai [ch-aar-pi-e]: A bedstead of woven webbing or hemp stretched on a wooden frame on four legs, common in the subcontinent.
- Chai [ch-i]: A type of Indian tea, made especially by boiling the tea leaves with milk, sugar, and sometimes cardamom.
- Larki [lurk-i] (singular): A girl.