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Another day in paradise

The following story is based on true events

Evening descended swiftly, and the city gasped with the shock of the sudden chill that settled over the open streets.

In the relative warmth of her car, Fatima folded her arms and tucked her cold palms into her armpits to warm them up. Phil Collins crooned softly into her ear, his voice flowing through her earphones to her heart.

She calls out to the man on the street
'Sir, can you help me?
It's cold, and I've nowhere to sleep.
Is there somewhere, you can tell me?'

As she listened, she became aware of a tableau being enacted right before her eyes. A thin, scrawny girl was standing at the window of the car in front of her one, begging for alms in that whiny voice that at once inspires pathos and irritation. The recipient of those entreaties, a balding palate and the pale grey collar of a suit the only things visible from Fatima's position, was a study in indifference, as he sat immobile, unmoved by the thin girl's pleas.

Fatima shifted uneasily in her seat. Normally, she too, would have simply ignored the girl, but with the song in her head, her conscience would not let her. Carefully scanning the road for signs of other street urchins who would surely swarm her car if they scented an alms-giver, she reached for her purse, while trying to catch the beggar girl's eye at the same time. Their gazes locked, and at that moment, the lights turned green, and the cars surged forward, leaving the intersection.

**
Meena stepped back as the cars rushed past her, sending a draught that made her thin skirt billow about her legs. As if she wasn't already cold enough. She shook her head, frowning at the memory of the girl in the car who caught her eye just as the lights changed, and the look of remorse on her face.

Her curiosity didn't last long as a fresh bout of shivering overcame her. She glanced around her and realised it was already dark, and the rush-hour traffic had begun to peter out. Not having flowers or candies to sell, she doubted she would have any more luck at this spot tonight. Better to find something to eat and a place where she could get warm.
**
She calls out to the man on the street
He can see she's been crying
She's got blisters on the soles of her feet
She can't walk, but she's trying.

Hasan interrupted his crooning and took a long, deep drag of the cheap bidi he held between his fingers. A week since he left home to 'rough it out in the city', and he was already beginning to resemble the subjects of his study. Already his beard had begun to obscure his face, and his clothes and skin were equally caked with dust and grime. It would take a keen observer to notice that under the dirt, the clothes he wore were less ragged, that the bundle slung over his shoulder was actually an old schoolbag in a reasonably decent shape, and that he actually had shoes on. It would probably shock the accidental listener to hear this 'Komlapur beggar' singing in English.

As he dropped the dwindling stub and ground it under his heel, he spotted the girl limping along the station, whimpering with each painful step. Her skin and the tattered clothes she wore were that indeterminate shade of greyish brown that he had come to associate with a life on the streets. Her limp was real for once; his experience over the past few days had taught him to discern the fakes from the genuine ones. It had also taught him not to get involved…in this city of millions, there were only so many people he could help. A wry smile twisted his lips as he recalled the numerous debates he'd had with his best friend on the subject of charity and Samaritanism. It was amusing to think that he was finally seeing things her way, now that he was so far away from her. Lost in thought, he went back to his singing as he watched the girl find a spot to settle down in.
***
It was so cold now, that Meena could no longer feel the pain from her cracked and bleeding heels. She'd walked the length of the station, hoping to find a beatnik or one of the usual groups warming themselves around a makeshift fire, but tonight, there seemed to be none.

Tired now, she found a corner that provided shelter from two sides, and proceeded to make herself a nest of papers and rags to crawl into. Pulling her skirt as far down her legs as she could, she curled up to preserve heat. The cruel wind tossed ice daggers at her, and she was seized with a violent fit of trembling.

Across from her, the shawl-clad young man continued to watch her with what seemed to be a mixture of sympathy and regret, while he continued to sing a song in a language she didn't understand…
***
Fatima shivered as another neo-arctic blast of cold air gusted in through the window. Outside, the fog hung as thick as porridge, obliterating everything from view. She wrapped her woollen shawl tighter about her, revelling in its comforting warmth. Reluctantly extending her hands beyond its cosy shelter, she began to type up her assignment.

Suddenly a blue window box jumped up at the corner of her screen, announcing her friend Salim had just come online. He knocked on her messenger window as soon as he spotted her, and proceeded to update her on a fundraising project he started.

Salim: I feel like kicking out all these members...

Salim: They're sitting there sucking their thumbs, not doing anything worthwhile

Salim: They don't even post messages…the least one could say was “I'm donating a used, torn muffler

Fatima: I feel the same way about most of the people on the editorial board.

Salim: This is urgent

Fatima: It may be...but you can't change human nature.

Salim: yeah...sighs

Fatima smiled at the screen. Some people were so idealistic… She crossed her fingers in the hope that Salim's efforts would pay off, and then went back to her own assignment.
***

The girl had curled into a foetal position by now, and, even through the thick mist, Hasan could see that she was trembling very violently. Her eyes were shut, and her lips had turned blue. Muttering a silent curse, he got up, whipped off his shawl, and placed it over her. She was too far gone to notice. Sighing in frustration, Hasan sat down next to her, drawing his jacket tighter about himself. Dawn was still a few hours away. He wondered if she would last that long.
***

The sound of the azaan woke Fatima from a restless sleep. She shrugged off the seductive warmth off the thick blanket and sat up. The cold hit her like a physical blow, and she gasped out. Levering herself out of bed, she winced as her feet touched the floor. It was freezing.

Hobbling her way to the washroom, she turned on the faucet and began her ablutions. The ice-cold water sent darts of pain shooting through her fingers. By the time she finished, her hands and feet were numb with the cold.

As she stood on the prayer mat, the wintry air gusting around her, causing her to shudder violently, she remembered the beggar girl at the traffic intersection. Here she was standing in her flannel pyjamas, feeling like a human popsicle, and that girl had nothing more than a thin cotton frock on.

“Please let Salim's efforts work out” she prayed in earnest this time. “Please let Hasan be right; please let us be able to make a difference…”
***

Meena had long stopped shivering, but not because she was warmer. In fact, she couldn't distinguish between hot and cold anymore. She was vaguely aware of someone hovering around her, and thought she heard music somewhere, but she couldn't find the strength to move. She felt drowsy and breathless at the same time. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling, though. Anything was better than the cold.
***
The sounds of the waking city roused Hasan from his stupor. He glanced at the girl beside him, and the sight drove all sleep from his eyes. She lay unmoving beneath the thin shawl, her eyes half-open, a half-smile frozen on her face. Oblivious to the tragedy of yet another urchin, the station came to live with the sound of bustling porters, busy tea-vendors, the real victims and the fakes, swirling around him in a riot of colours and smells and sounds. The sun shone golden through a thin veil of mist.

Oh, think twice.

It's just another day for you and me in paradise.

By Sabrina F Ahmad


The salty blue sea


Don't drink the sea water, dear” Tuni's mother warned her. The blue waves of the Bay of Bengal splashed on to their bare feet. Tuni gripped her mother's forefinger in her tiny five-year old fist.

“Why can't I drink it Ma?”

“Because it's salty.”

“Ma, why is the water of the sea blue?”

“Because of the salt.”

Tuni let go off her mother's finger and picked up the stick she found nearby. She started drawing different shapes and lines on the sand. The wave kept wiping them away whenever in touched the shore. But Tuni relentlessly went on with her work.

Mumtaz had become taciturn nowadays. She did not like speaking much. She went towards the part of the seashore where dry fish were hung in a row in the sun. Working for other fishermen was the only source of income after her husband had gone missing for the last six months. He went to the sea with the fellow fishermen and was captured by the monstrous storm. The whole fishermen community considered the sea as their Mother Fortune and worshipped her. But Mumtaz could never consider the sea as the Mother Fortune.

Tuni followed Mumtaz to their machan. She started picking up the dry fish. She loved to help her mother in household chores. What she had loved most was to help her father. She carefully watched him sew the fishing net and use different kinds of food as baits. Suddenly the thought of her father made her curious: “Ma, when will Baba come home?”

Mumtaz always dreaded the innocent queries of her daughter. Most of the time she tried to divert her attention. But she did not know for how long she would be able to do that.

“Tell me Ma; tell me, when will father be back?”

Tuni wrapped her arms around Mumtaz's waist and shook her mother vigorously.

Mumtaz kept silent.

“When will he come back Ma?”

The soft voice of the little girl pierced through Mumtaz's heart. She looked towards the crimson sky of the evening. Her husband used to love the end of the horizon where his Mother Fortune and the sky merged together and created a mauve aura all over. She remembered the first day after their marriage. Both of them were walking by the seaside in the evening. Mumtaz was always trying to control her long dark hair that got messed up in the wind. She wanted to tie it into a bun. But her husband forbade her to do that. He loved the way wind played with her hair and brushed his skin.

“Bou, I would buy a mauve saree for you in next Eid. You'll look beautiful in it.”

He used to tell Mumtaz that she smelt like the jasmine…intoxicating.

“Tuni, look at the sky there. See the mauve line there, your father went there.” Mumtaz said.

“Where? Where?” Tuni jumped up. She tried to see the sky using her right palm as a shade on her forehead.

“There? I can't see him!”

Mumtaz took a conch shell from the seashore and washed it with the salty, blue, sea water. She came back to Tuni and sat on the sand beside the machan. She took Tuni into her lap.

“Take it to your ear.” Mumtaz placed the conch shell to Tuni's right ear. Tuni held it with her hand.

Tuni did not understand what her mother was telling her.

“Listen carefully, and you'll hear your father's voice.” Mumtaz told.

A moment later, Tuni stood up and started jumping ecstatically.

“Ma, I heard him. I heard baba's voice. He'll be back soon.”

Tuni could not understand why her mother was not happy to hear it.

In the glowing light of the setting sun, Tuni saw the sad face of her mother. Tears flowed incessantly on her golden cheeks.

Tuni went to Mumtaz and sat on her lap.

“From where do the tears come, Ma?”

Mumtaz cradled Tuni in her arms. A lump of pain rose to her throat. It ached as the wind blew mercilessly through the hollowness of her heart. She opened her mouth, but instead of words, a howl escaped from her lips.

Tuni was surprised to see her mother crying like this. She took a drop of tear from her mother's cheek on to the tip of her forefinger and tasted it.

It was salty as the sea water!

“Ma, why aren't your tears blue as the sea?”

By Sabreena Ahmed

 
 
 

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