Abdul was running for his life. Little Hussain, who was feather-light when he had started out, seemed to get heavier as he ran. Behind him was a village in flames consumed by the unreasoning hatred fanned by communal tensions. Hussain’s father and mother lay hacked to death back there.
Despite the fear riding his shoulders, he felt a spark of happiness. Nobody knew that he had been to the village or that he was carrying Hussain away. Hussain’s uncle Shahid would only think that his nephew had perished in the flames. Rehman was still staying near his home and had offered Rs.5000/= for a child to be sent to Mumbai with him as a household help. Allah seemed to be favoring him with a golden opportunity.
There could be no truth in the rumors that Rehman maimed the children he took away and set them to begging on the streets, could there? The thought that the innocent hands, which clutched his neck so trustingly, would be cut off made him shudder. The picture of the sparkling eyes of the child he had dandled on his knee being blinded made him blanch.
He shook himself to rid his mind of these vivid pictures. None of that would happen. Even if it did, the thought of the money and all that it could mean to him hardened his heart. He ran on though there was no sign of any mob chasing him.
* * * * * *
It is fun sitting on Abdul Chacha’s shoulders. It is like flying. Chacha is running so fast. I am holding him tight. I am not afraid. I am a brave boy.
Kishan Chacha scared me badly in the morning. He came with other men and shouted from outside the house. He was banging on the door. Ammi and Abbu were afraid. I was so afraid that I hid under the bed. Why was Kishan Chacha so angry with Abbu? Only yesterday they were playing cards together.
There was a loud noise. Then lots of men were shouting in the house. I curled up and closed my ears. Still the noise was there.
Then Ammi gave a loud scream. There was more noise and then it was silent. I was still afraid and stayed under the bed. Abbu and Ammi did not call me out.
After some time, I crept outside. Ammi was sleeping on the floor with gulaal all over her. Abbu also had gulaal on him and was sitting near the door. No one told me today was Holi. All my friends play Holi and I play with them. We do not have Holi at home.
Then Abdul Chacha came. Abbu was talking to him. He told me to go with him to Shahid Chacha’s place.
Why did Abbu not take me there? Why was Ammi sleeping in the afternoon? She never does. I feel like crying now. I must not cry. I am a brave boy.
* * * * * *
The little boy on his shoulders gave a pitiful little sob. Then stifled noises of weeping came to his ears. His heart melted for a moment. Memories of his little son came to his mind. If Ayesha and Hamid had to have enough to eat then there was no choice. He hardened his heart again.
Fate did play scurvy tricks on him. He had come over to Hussain’s house for help. The eerie silence in the village had already given him some premonition of disaster. His premonitions were proved true when he found Hussain’s mother hacked to death and Hussain’s father bleeding from a dozen cuts and on the verge of dying.
One single runaway couple – of different religions – had set both Hindus and Muslims at each other’s throats. The violence that engulfed the village had cost his friend and his wife their lives at the hands of people whom they had always considered their friends. The little boy, who crept hesitantly from the bedroom, had now become his responsibility to safeguard and carry to his uncle’s place.
He had been lucky that the scene of the conflict had shifted elsewhere and he could safely make his escape. He, however, had still not got the money that he came to get. Now, of course, he had his chance in the form of this little boy and Rehman back at his village.
* * * * * *
Why is there no one in the fields? I wanted to wave at them. My friends are also not there to see me riding on top of Abdul Chacha’s shoulders. Even Ammi and Abbu did not wave to me when I left home.
I feel like crying again. Was Ammi sick? Why was Abbu sitting like that? And why did he not come out to wave to me? Abdul Chacha told me they would come later to Shahid Chacha’s house.
Abbu and Ammi normally make me walk. Abdul Chacha is good. He is carrying me all the way. Every time he comes, he plays with me. His house is far away so I can’t go there. Abbu says it will be trouble for him if I go.
Shahid Chacha is also very good. I can play with my cousins and Chachi would give me nice sweets. I want to reach there soon.
* * * * * *
The boy had become silent again. Abdul was now walking. Some people were walking towards the distantly burning village, drawn by curiosity. He ducked his face down in order not to be recognized even though he was well outside the village limits now. By nightfall he should be back home. Maybe it would be best to go to Rehman and sell the boy before he reached home. He did not know how his wife would react to his selling Hussain. Women were too tender-hearted.
The half-starved look of his wife and the hungry look on the faces of his children turned his heart over. Whatever his wife may say, he was not an evil man. What could he do with his harvest failing him two years in succession and the baniya threatening to take over his land? Working on other people’s farms when the opportunity arose only kept his family just about alive. If he lost his land too they would all have to starve.
When things had become so bad that he was actually considering giving his son to Rehman, what was a man to do? How could he hand over his son to someone who would maim him and set him to begging on the streets? Surely his wife would understand that he was doing the best thing possible for all of them.
A pang of misery shot through him. So he did believe all those rumors about Rehman. So he was condemning this trusting child to a maimed life of beggary. What else could he do? If he gave this child to his uncle and went back home penniless, he could not pay the interest on the loan that was due this month. His land would be lost and his family reduced to starvation.
He swept aside his momentary weakness. Life was harsh and if this child was to be sacrificed for the good of his family, then it had to be. After all, had it not been for him, the child would probably be dead by now.
He started walking faster towards his village as though afraid that given more time he would change his mind again. In his haste he tripped over a stone and fell. Without a free hand to break the fall he banged his head so badly against the ground that he was momentarily unconscious.
* * * * * *
Abdul Chacha fell down. I too fell but it did not pain badly. Chacha did not get up. I was scared. I started crying.
Abdul Chacha started groaning. Poor Chacha! It must be paining him so much. Ammi used to pat me where it pained and the pain went away. I started patting Abdul Chacha’s head.
Chacha slowly raised his head. He was crying. I wiped his tears away.
* * * * * *
He regained consciousness and raised his head. The ache in his head was so piercing that tears of pain sprang in his eyes. Little Hussain started wiping his eyes.
“Bad Ground! Why did you hurt Abdul Chacha”, said the child and hit the ground with his little fist.
“Chacha! The ground is saying sorry! Now please do not cry!”
In the little hands that were wiping his tears off again, Abdul saw the hands of his son Hamid. When Hamid had taken a fall, he had done exactly as Hussain was now doing in order to console him. In the way of children, Hamid had taken to consoling him the same way whenever he saw him in distress.
The innocence of the child’s concern for him and his actions to console him moved him. If he could not think of selling Hamid to Rehman, how could he think of selling Hussain? This, too, was a child he had cared for since his birth; a child he had played with; a child whose every little step he had rejoiced in and a child who was as affectionate with him as was his own son.
What, then, of his family and their future? Life ahead seemed filled with despair without the money that he could get from Rehman. He could sell Hussain and keep the baniya off for the next couple of months, at least. By then something would turn up. If he did not take up the opportunity now, however, he would lose his land within the fortnight.
Hussain was prattling away innocently. He thought of all the innocence and joy drained away and replaced by maiming and misery. He shuddered. Buying two month’s grace at the cost of condemning this child to a living hell seemed like the act of Satan. He thought of his Hamid being maimed, set to begging and living a life of hunger and unfeeling callousness. It shamed him that he had even considered the idea of selling any child into that sort of slavery, leave alone the child of his friend.
Uncontrollable tears gushed down his face washing away all thoughts of selling off this innocent child. Hussain’s face puckered in distress at the sight of his tears and his little hands were busy wiping them off.
“Please do not cry, Chacha!”
Abdul swept up the child in his arms. How could he have ever thought of selling this little one, betraying his innocent trust as well as the trust of his friend? It seemed to him that the child had dragged him back from the very gates of hell with his little hands. His life ahead may be one of misery but, at least, he would live it as a decent human being.
He lifted Hussain to his shoulders and directed his steps towards Shahid’s house. Whatever would happen to his family would happen. It would all be as Allah wished.