—That makes exactly four kilos.
When she heard these words a smile spread across her lips and she looked at her little son…
The shopkeeper kept talking:
—Sister, take this money…it’s eight rupees.
Once again she reached out her hand from her chador and took the money handed over by the shopkeeper. In the afternoon sun, she set off in a hurry toward her home. She walked in haste and held her little son’s hand tightly. Her grip was so firm that he suddenly said:
—Dear Mother, you’re hurting my hand.
—Your mother does everything for your own good. I’ll loosen my grip, now it will be better.
She said this in a most gentle voice, with sincere compassion.
A whole year had passed since she had left her beloved country; she was now despairing in a foreign country, night and day. Early in the morning she and her little son left their tent and collected paper in the city’s bazaars and alleys until late in the afternoon. When the evening drew near, they stopped by a shop to sell the paper they had collected during the day. Usually, they were paid four or five rupees, but today she was in high spirits since they had received eight rupees. Some afternoons, she stood there with empty hands, since all the paper had blown away, and just as the paper had been carried away to foreign climes, her happiness had taken off in a similar direction. But today she had walked back toward their tent with a light heart. On the way home she bought some bread, tea, and a little sugar, and when she looked in her hand she saw that two rupees still remained. She went through the throng of earth-colored and black tents to her own tent. As she lifted the old rug that hung down in front of the tent and went inside, the evening call to prayer began. She performed the ablutions and her prayers, then picked up the hurricane lamp. Realizing that there was no oil left, she turned to her son and said:
—My son, there is no oil. Take this money and this bottle. Go to the shop and buy some oil. Her son stood up, took the money and the bottle from his mother, and said:
—Mother, it would be good…
—. . . if you don’t stop on the way to play with the other children. Hurry now, it will soon be dark.
After she had said this, she sat down by the fireplace to make a fire. As the fire flared, thoughts surfaced; memories tormented her as ghastly dreams. Tears trickled from her eyes and the tongues of fire licked the air, as the flames of exile and migration always flared up in her wounded heart, and got her thinking about returning to her homeland . . .
Night and day, in that dark tent, she worried about the uncertain future. She thought about times past, not very far back in history, but about the previous year, about everything she had had at that time: a loving husband, a house, respectful duties, and, most important among all, a country of her own. But now she had nothing. Except for her little son, she did not know what had happened to her other relatives, where they were, and if they were alive or not. The thing that troubled her the most was that her son had not received the education he should have. She thought about the days when she worked as a teacher in an elementary school class back home; she used to teach a class of ten, and now her son was illiterate. She tried to teach him a little now and then, and her most powerful longing was to continue his proper schooling; but that was something else. In the tent, when she remembered the schoolchildren from back home, she was relieved of her affliction, since this sorrow leveled the other grief, and she was embraced by dreams.
This morning, as all the other mornings, when she left the tent with her son, she was met with a cold wind. In the sky clouds were swirling and a few drops of rain fell to the ground. As the clouds piled up, a feeling of anxiety grew within her. On rainy days, they could not walk far, and there was a risk that a heavy rain would soak all the paper. In haste, they set off toward the main bazaar.When they were almost there, the rain increased. They stopped in front of a closed shop; her son pressed himself close against her and they waited for the rain to abate. After an hour, the rain stopped and they headed out on the streets and into the alleys of the city, in the hope of finding dry paper somewhere. But by afternoon they had not found any dry paper, and they had no lunch since yesterday’s money was all gone. Later on in the afternoon her son got hungry. How strange it was; this year she and her son had spent many days in hunger. Most days, they had no money left from the day before, and her son had to content himself with only the morning tea until late in the afternoon, and sometimes late into the evening, when they sold the paper and returned to the tent to have a little to eat. She had accustomed her son to this, but lately he had become restless and opposed this routine, and complained constantly that he was hungry. She strained to soothe him, to explain, but that would not do. She did not know what to do. Who should she reach out to, at what shop should she stop, or which passerby should she address? To do such a thing would demand courage, and even someone very brave might not do it; when she could not even imagine herself doing it, how could she do it in real life? But now, her son had become even more willful. A couple of times she picked out a shop and also looked at some passersby, but she could not do it. In that very moment, another idea occurred to her, and she said to herself, “If only I would dare to knock on the door of someone’s house.” This idea appeared possible at least, since it was most likely that a woman would come to open the door. With this in mind, she approached a house. Her hands were shaking and her body was dripping with sweat. She was wavering between using the door-knocker or not. Her heart was split in two; on the one hand was a mother’s love and affection, and on the other was shame and the fear. She felt confused and could hear her heart beating, and her mouth was dry. Finally, she reached for the door-knocker. After a short while, the door was opened by an old woman. In a trembling voice she said to the woman:
—My son . . . my son is very hungry and I have no money with me, if I could . . .
Before she had finished the sentence, the old woman turned around and said as she went back into the house:
—This home is yours.
She could see through the half-open door that the woman was returning. In one hand the woman held a bowl, in the other some bread. At that moment, she could hear the voice of a young girl from inside the house:
—Mother, I have told you several times to throw that to the dogs, not to give it to the Kabulis . . .
When the old women reached the door with the bowl in her hand, she saw that the woman and her little son were gone. She stepped out through the half-open door, looked in both directions, and saw that they had already reached the end of the alley . . .
(Karachi, 28 April, 1995)
Copyright TK, From the short story collection White Pages (1374/1996).