Smoke

Smoke

Maida Aslam

Haji Habib was driving on in silence with his wife sitting beside him. The spatter of rain falling on the wind screen was stirring up a calm and cold, crystal liquid depth of a lake somewhere within him and he felt as if he was asleep and a child was making a racket which pulled him in a realm where consciousness and unconsciousness, concern and apathy are divided by a line with the breadth of a hair-strand. There was a stillness about this buzz inside him and he had poured out all his anger and irritation at the little boy who jumped up, trembled and ran out at once and Haji Habib could not let his slumber overcome him again. Years had passed and today, he was going to collect his son from the airport after five long years – just as he used to when he was a school-going child. He was always late to pick him up but not today!

“Oh how I wish we could be there in the blink of an eye!” his trance was broken by his wife who was wearing an expression of eagerness, care and concern marked with impatience. The note of irritation in her voice, the clenched fists in her lap, the lips that were now moving as if in prayer, had brought his musings to an end and as retaliation, he kept silent. The rain lessened and he drifted back to the frail pages of his memory, furling through them and stopped at the one that marked a very significant event. It was the day of his boy’s first birthday that marked his promotion and the grant of a large bonus. That day, his mother and father had also come and celebrated with Zohra and the child but for some reason, Zohra didn’t talk to him for the next week and he, having taken control of his new position at office, had had very little chance to think about it.

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It was her son who made her overcome the grief of her daughter’s brutal murder, carried out even before her birth, at the hands of the man sitting right beside her.

Drizzle… Zohra was sitting in the front seat, praying under her breath for him to reach safely and for them to reach in no time. She wished she could somehow fly to the airport but she did not have any wings – she had never had any. Her son, her oasis was coming back… she badly wanted wings! Haji Sahab was not very comfortable today but there was nothing new about it. For thirty years, she had been witnessing these mood swings and now she dealt with them casually. When she was married to him, he had given her great love and in return, wanted only one thing – a son. When she did give him one, however, his attitude began to change and he became more volatile over the next few years. She remembered being severely scolded at an occasion when she couldn’t hand him the newspaper at once on account of doing up Abdullah’s shoe lace. She had been a strong lady all her life – Abdullah was her strength. She had realized it the day he was born. It was her son who made her overcome the grief of her daughter’s brutal murder, carried out even before her birth, at the hands of the man sitting right beside her. A shudder crossed her body and attracted a quizzical look from her husband, to which, she simply attempted to smile. She was and would always be dependent on him, which was why she had locked the worst memories of that chapter, away in the darkest, deepest and smallest chamber of her heart. She would see her son today, after a span of five long years.

The car pulled up in the parking area. Zohra had a sparkle in her eyes and swiftness in her steps she walked beside the towering figure of Haji Sahab. If she was anxious, Haji Sahab was only keen, but this keenness meant a lot to him. He was beginning to visualize what his son would look like. Oh, he must be the true image of his father. His chest inflated a little as he recalled his reflection that he saw in the mirror before leaving for the airport. His graying beard fell on his chest, his kurta in a subtle creamy color and his ankles were bare under the hem of his shalwar.

As they looked around in the waiting area marked, “International Arrivals,” even his wife at his arms seemed to him to be a part of the crowd that he felt oddly aloof from. And then there was an exclamation, “there he is! There’s my boy! My angel! My love…” and she let go of his arm, running towards a tall, handsome boy wearing trendy denims and a sweatshirt with sleeves pushed back. A hand with a Rolex shining on the wrist moved up to remove a pair of Ray-Bans before the arms parted and took her – his wife, Haji Habib’s wife – in a close embrace. He was left there to digest the attire of his son which sent his beard and ankles in a complex and he became awkwardly conscious about them.

Zohra was finally carrying her universe in her arms. She could smell her own blood running in his veins and could sense her own milk in the strength of his muscles. He was so beautiful. He was like no one else in the world. The deep blue of his shirt suited him so well! He could have worn anything and have looked better than everybody else in the world. She wished for time to stop but Haji Sahab had come forward and she stepped aside. He was a little annoyed at the goatee his son had grown but he hugged him and immediately let go – his son’s cologne was too strong for him.

Abdullah insisted on driving back home owing to his father’s gout. Haji Sahab again felt the way he did back in the waiting area – oddly aloof… and there was more to it now. He was feeling as if his place had been conquered by someone else – an outsider, an intruder. His son was not his son after all; he was his mother’s… or was he?

After a dinner taken in utter unease and with silence prowling like the shadow of a stealthy cat, Haji Sahab went out to light a cigarette, not noticing that he had not brought his lighter along. Abdullah picked it up from the table and went after him; something began to form inside him – a misty haze solidifying or bits of quicksilver merging together. He tried to look straight into his father’s eyes, mustering up all his love for hi, and channeling it to his eyes, tried to pour it all in his father’s heart right through his eyes. Haji Sahab met his gaze for an instant and pulled back as if he had tried to wink directly at the sun. He looked at the lighter in his outstretched hand, took it and tried to find words. “I’m fine dad and I request you to please let me drive. You’ve already had enough of it today.” Spoken back in the parking area, Abdullah’s words rang in his mind and he could not think of anything else to say to him. It would be lame to ask, “How are you?” again. But Abdullah stood there – expecting. The mist was intensifying into smoke, gathering strength and speed. He wanted to reach out for the wrinkled hand that had slapped him at many occasions. He wanted to hold it close to his chest and cry… he wanted to break that stone-wall that enclosed a soft heart in his father’s chest. He wanted to make him say he was proud of him but somehow, his body parts could not co-ordinate.

“It’s late. We should sleep,” was all Haji Sahab said before he went indoors and that ghost of courage or hope or expectation that had begun to form a few moments back, was now collapsing. A vial of quicksilver broke… a string of pearls smashed… a crystal shattered… a mirror cracked… and a heart crushed when a flame turned to smoke…


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