“Shame, shame, shame, SHAME,” the class chanted and clapped, as Sara tried to slide open the door of the class room. She had her water-bottle hanging down one arm and her bright pink Barbie bag pack slipping down the other, as if it were giving up on her. All the other students were seated in their assigned seats, rising up and down with excitement, as if they were spectators at some circus. Sara, on the other hand, tried to flee from the scene.
She had refused to apologize to Maryam after snatching her new ruler and hitting her on the head with it. In Sara’s defense, it was rightfully hers and had been stolen by Maryam. A long triangular plastic blue object, adorned with little drawings of flowers all over it, Sara earnestly remembered bringing the same thing to school that day.
Miss Gulshan had rebuked her and coerced her into an apology which Sara downright refused. Sara seered with contempt as the ruler was snatched from her hands and returned to Maryam. She had never liked Miss Gulshan; her face looked like that of a sea lion’s and she smelled funny. Ek number ki churail, she thought to herself.
Instead of apologizing, Sara chose to run away. With her little green frock fluttering in the wind, rushing in from the only window in the ill-lit classroom, she tried with all her might to pull open the door. At last successful, she ran straight into the arms of Miss Arfin, the principal.
That was the first time Ammi slapped Sara. She spoke of principles and respect and manners. She spoke of disappointment. Sara could not for the life of her understand why Ammi wanted her to have ‘principals’. How can I HAVE Miss Arfin? She thought to herself, in the middle of Ammi’s rant. But more importantly, Sara could not decipher why Ammi was so mad at her.
“Stand up for what you believe in”, Ammi would often say. Sara could not stand theft and she had unabashedly stood against it by hitting wretched Maryam on the head. If Ammi could hit her, why couldn’t she hit Maryam?
That night, whilst collecting her books from the study table, Sara witnessed a similar blue ruler with flowers adorned all over it, slip from a notebook and fall onto the floor.
It was late December. Karachi’s winter had finally arrived, after fervent prayers and Ammi’s incessant commands that all the children wear two layers of warm itchy vests under their uniforms. Sara never understood this logic, considering how the sun still managed to burn her skin and make her frown till she saw nothing but blobs of orange and red floating before her eyes as if they were balloons suspended in air. But, she went along with Ammi’s instructions, in fear that she might be denied the customary busri (homemade paratha smothered with melted sugar and honey), a winter favourite she had been yearning for ever since she saw Muneer Bhai offload the required ingredients into the kitchen cabinet two weeks ago.
Feroz Chacha had come to Karachi from Abu Dhabi with his wife and children for the winter holidays. Sara never really liked them. They were the kind of family whose noses were much higher than their heads and their egos much larger than their stomachs. She wasn’t even looking forward to their arrival and had even refused to allow her older cousin, Ayesha Apa, a place in her room despite Ammi’s lecture on “Sharing is caring.”
The night before they came, whilst oiling her long and thick hair with hot almond oil mixed with vinegar, and sliding the nit comb through the tangles, Ammi forewarned Sara; “They are family. Don’t disappoint me by doing anything rash.”
Sara’s cousins would often make fun of her English and call her names such as Malfoy and Unibrow. She would run to Ammi, tug at her long kameez, and beg her to scold them like she scolded Sara. But Ammi always denied these little demands and told Sara off for being petty.
On their first night, they drew a moustache on her upper lip with a permanent marker. Sara screamed in horror when she saw herself in the bathroom mirror the next morning. Vigorously scrubbing her face with every soap, shampoo, lotion, toothpaste available in the house, Sara ran to her parent’s room with seething rage and hot tears streaming down her red face.
Crying in Ammi’s lap, Sara vowed to get back at them. Ammi grabbed Sara’s right ear in her hand, twisted it and said,
“Treat people the way you want to be treated or there will be no difference between you and them. You want revenge? Is that what I’ve taught you Sara Khan?”
Sara thought long and hard about what Ammi had said, but that night when she saw Ayesha Apa, prancing around the living room in her bright yellow socks, an idea sprang into her mind.
With the help of Umar, Ayesha’s younger brother, she filled a bucket of water and splashed it on to the marble floor right before the living room. Umar promised to give Sara a packet of his peanut M&M’s which he safely kept at the bottom of his Star Wars backpack, if only he was allowed to be a part of this mission. Sara didn’t question his eagerness; as long as she was getting her revenge and those peanuty treats, she was more than satisfied. Sara always had her eyes on these M&M’s but never had the guts to allow herself the pleasure of sneaking into Umar’s bagpack. They were small and colorful and reminded her of the balloons that scattered themselves all over her room on her fifth birthday.
Minutes after the deed was done, Sara and Umar heard a loud thud followed by a long painful wail. Peeking from behind the kitchen door, they saw Ayesha Apa sprawled on the floor, lying on her back like a dying whale, bawling incessantly. Sara ran to her room and jumped on her bed while stuffing her face with her M&M’s. Don’t mess with Sara Khan, she said to herself, as she waved to her imaginary audience, kissed one M&M and popped it into her mouth, relishing in the sweet chocolaty taste of victory.
The door was forcefully opened and banged against the back wall. Ammi entered, her dupatta tightly tied around her body and her hands swathed with the flour she had been kneading in the kitchen. She grabbed Sara’s long rough hair and dragged her all the way to the living room, indifferent to the shrieks and kicks that followed. Sara was slapped on the face and forced to apologize to Ayesha Apa.
Later, during dinner, Sara was made to sit on the floor and eat her food whilst everyone else was seated at the dining table. She stared at the triumph with which Ayesha Apa chewed on to the piece of busri, which Sara was denied. The smell of roasted honey filled her nostrils with warmth and she tried to lick the air with her tongue in order to salvage some of the lost, beloved, busri. Ammi watched Sara from a distance, walked up to her and hit her on the head with a spoon and said, “You are not a dog”. How could Ammi be so cruel?
That night, Sara wasn’t able to sleep. She twisted and turned in bed, struggling for the comfort her limbs demanded, until she angrily got up, opened the drawer of her bed side table, took out a purple marker and wrote “I hate Ammi” on the wall opposite her bed. The message, inscribed in bold block letters, juxtaposed itself with her pale yellow Winnie the Pooh wallpaper. She smiled to herself in the dark, went back to bed and fell into a glorious slumber.
It was a Sunday and Baba had decided to take the entire family to Sea View.
Sara had never been to the beach before. She had always observed the sea from a distance on her way from school, and wondered why the wind blew stronger and the air suddenly started smelling saltier, more fishy, and why Ammi would always pull her window down, smile to the sea as if it were an old companion and allow her hair to be completely disheveled by the wind.
On her visit, Sara stared with awe at the majesty that lay before her. The water wasn’t blue like they had taught her in school; it was a dirty green. But it didn’t matter to her. It was beautiful. What seemed like a mere line of water from a distance was a quivering, murmuring, roaring body which refused to stay still. She gazed at the beautiful union of the sky and the sea; how they met and she wondered, if she swam far enough, would she be able to meet the sky too?
Ammi laughed at the fascination with which Sara stared at the sea. She grabbed her hand, ran towards the shoreline, and showed her how the ocean kissed their feet and then drifted away. Sara giggled with joy every time the water tickled her feet and tried running after it after it had retreated. Ammi always held her back.
“This is happiness. Just like the water touches you and leaves you; happiness too will leave you. But that doesn’t mean it won’t come back.”
Ammi taught her a new word that day. Optimism. Expect the best.
In the car, on their way back, whilst sitting on Ammi’s lap in the front seat, Sara told Baba about the new word she’d learnt that day. Optimism. Baba made her make sentences with the word and Sara struggled till she gave up. Baba and Ammi both laughed.
Ammi’s arms tightened around Sara’s waist and she planted a kiss on the top of her head.
“Ullo ki Pathi!” blurted Sara.
She knew she shouldn’t have said it the second the words slipped out of her mouth. Ammi let go of her arm, her face fell, eyes widened as if she had just encountered the supernatural and she whispered back, “What did you say?”
Sara was too scared to repeat the word.
Earlier that morning, she had heard the girls say it to each other in Science class, while Miss Gulshan was blabbering about photosynthesis. Maryam had heard her driver say it to her maid, and had shared it with the other girls who had gasped in surprise. Seated at the other end of the classroom, alienated from the rest of the girls because of her dark skin and bad temper, Sara couldn’t make out whether they were horrified or excited. Whatever it was, she wanted to be a part of their little world of secrecy and reckless abandon. She knew it was a bad word because she’d heard her Dadi whisper it under her breath every time the Aya Baji misplaced her reading glasses, and then look around to make sure nobody heard her.
When they whispered Ullo ki Pathi to each other and giggled, Sara whispered it to herself; amazed at her own audacity.
The day’s homework was writing the letter M multiple times on one sheet. Ammi had warned Sara not to erase any of the work until it was complete and ready to be checked by her. She had placed the Fabre Castle eraser in the first drawer of the study table, glared at Sara and said, “If you use it, I’ll know”.
Whilst Ammi was in the shower, Sara felt the urge to erase half of her work. Her M’s looked a lot like N’s, with one half of it overlapping the other. She knew if she erased it and rewrote it, Ammi would get angry and if she did it all wrong, Ammi would still get angry. There was no way Sara was not in for a good bashing.
She opened the drawer, stared at the pristine white of the clean, uncontaminated eraser and thought to herself, “If I use it very very very lightly, there’s no guarantee Ammi will find out?”
Before she knew it, the eraser was in her hand and half her work had been rubbed off and written in the required form. As soon as she heard the buzzing off of the bathroom exhaust fan, she threw the eraser back in the drawer, hunched her back and acted as if she was writing.
“Have you completed your work, Sara?” Ammi called out.
“Yes!” Sara yelled back.
Ammi walked up to her, picked up her sheet, scrutinized it in the same way she scrutinized the clothes the aunties wore at the tailor’s shop, and smiled at Sara.
“Not bad”, she said.
She opened the drawer, picked up the eraser with two of her fingers, and stared at it. One of the edges was slightly round with a blackish grey tinge to it.
Ammi knew; and before Sara could yell anything in defense, she had grabbed hold of her arm. A million possibilities flashed before Sara’s eyes. She felt fear at her fate and that’s when she said it. She knew she shouldn’t have; but she did.
Ammi retreated to her room in spite of the thousand apologies Sara cried at her. Her expressionless face had left Sara mortified. Sara ran to her room and saw her mother sitting on the bed, her hair still wet from the shower, a tear escaping her eye.
Sara sat on the floor right next to the bed, clutched her own stomach and tried to grab hold of her heart which had sunk. She had never felt this way before. She tried to swallow the feeling away as if it were a sour medicine. Repeatedly swallowing and clutching her stomach, curled in a corner, Sara learned regret. How could she be so cruel?