Friday 5 October 2018

Short Story 2018, Second Prize, Javeria Kausar


An eerie silence prevailed in the room until a mournful sigh followed by muffled sobs dispelled it. The sigh and the tears belonged to a shattered middle-aged man. As he sat there with trembling shoulders, the other man in the room looked on, unmoved. He had witnessed similar scenes of sincere sorrow more times in his life of fifty-seven years than he had ever learnt to count. His dry eyes, which could best be described as ‘lifeless’, eyed with negligible interest, for the umpteenth time, a soul torn by loss.

“I-I am so-sorry,” the middle-aged man said, in between tears and intermittent fits of coughing, “I-I-I never thought… never thought that I would live to see this day. My- my- my wife… She was s-s-so young…”

The middle aged man was overcome by a greater wave of grief and a frightening bout of coughing fit. He used his tattered muffler to wipe his tears. The old man’s withering wife, as if on cue, darted into the room with a tiny earthen pot filled with water. She faithfully positioned herself beside her white-bearded husband, just as she had done numerous times before. Her husband took the pot and offered it to his middle-aged customer without uttering a word. The latter gratefully accepted it. Then, he took a few deep breaths, wiped his face with his muffler again, and returned the empty pot to the old man. The old man’s wife almost immediately took the pot from her husband’s stiff hands and disappeared from the room just as promptly as she had appeared.

The middle-aged man took off the prayer cap he wore at all times, revealing a prematurely greying head. He wiped his brow and then cleared his throat, “At least it was peaceful. She didn’t die on the roads, as I used to fear. She died in our hut, and I find comfort in the fact that her face, after her demise, acquired a certain glow-”

“Spare me the details, brother,” the old man said in voice as flat as flat could be, “Just tell me by what time you want the grave ready.”
“She passed away just moments before sunrise…”
“So her janazah, the funeral prayer, would be in the afternoon. Is that right?”
“Yes,” the middle-aged man sighed a deep sigh, “Yes that is the plan. We are supposed to bury our dead as soon as possible according to Islam-”
“Young man, I know the Islamic laws and rules regarding burial. Perhaps more than you do,” the old man said with a slightly palpable sense of pride.
“Ah that- that is true. I’m sorry.”
“I shall have the grave ready by one in the afternoon. And then I will also fill it up after you have lowered your wife’s body into it.”

“Y-yes. Thank you”
“There are other rituals to be taken care of- like bathing and enshrouding. I don’t do any of that.”
“My family members will look after all that. We cannot really afford to hire a separate person for bathing and enshrouding… I am only a fruit vendor. I do not even have a stall, I have only a cart and a basket…”

“Bad times and good times in this world have something in common- they don’t last forever.”
“You are right, brother,” the man was surprised to sense a bit of sympathy in the old man’s voice. He eyed his white beard and felt assured that the old man was a religious person. Surely he would uphold the ideals of charity and kindness for a brother in faith. Although his face seemed hardened by the long years, surely, his heart must be just as soft. Surely he would extend his helping hand to a distressed brother in the time of need. Surely… surely.
The fruit vendor wanted to ask the old man about the money he would have to pay for his services. But he hesitated. What if the rate was too high? How would he pay? What if he was asked to pay on the spot? How would he manage?

But still, the question of payment was inevitable. He was the only gravedigger for miles around.
The fruit vendor cleared his throat and shuffled under the silent and unnerving gaze of the old gravedigger. He could not bring himself to face the man, due to his utter lack of money; so his gaze darted in all directions. The room in which he was sitting seemed rather old. It had nothing more than a bulb, a few utensils, a prayer mat and a few candles. The old man must indeed be very poor, he thought to himself, he must be very kind to not take much money from the grieving customers. That must be why he has not many possessions.

The fruit vendor felt a bit assured by this thought. He remained silent for a few moments and finally asked, “Brother, how much will I have to pay? I hope the cost won’t be very high,” hoping that, out of pity, the old man might lower, or better yet, waive his charges.
The old man closed his eyes briefly, counted something on his fingers, and then spoke, “I take a lot of things into consideration,” his voice turned business-like – curt and calculating, “But the most important thing- you approached me just four hours before the burial-”
“That- that’s because I live very far away from here,” the fruit vendor was taken aback, “There are no other burial grounds I know of. I came on foot, all the way from my hut on the outskirts of the –”

“Three thousand rupees.”
The fruit vendor’s heart seemed to drop to the floor.
“I will take only three thousand from you, brother.”
The fruit vendor found his voice, “B-but brother! How can I… H-how can you… Please brother, I do not have so much money. I’m merely a fruit vendor.”
“Sorry, brother.”

“You call me a brother, and yet…! Think of my wife your sister and reconsider… Please.”
The old man thought for a while. He sensed his wife glaring at him from behind the curtains and sighed, “You are my brother in faith, but I too have a family to feed. I ask you simply two thousand five hundred rupees now. I cannot do much more.”

The old man said nothing. He simply looked at his prospective customer with a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ expression. The fruit vendor found no conviction to speak against the hard eyes that looked at him without a speck of pity. He knew that there was no graveyard or gravedigger for miles around. He sighed, agreed to pay the money to him, and left with a spirit more broken than when he had arrived at the gravedigger’s hut.
 Amir dug graves. That’s what he did for a living. ‘A man’s got to do something to keep his family and himself alive,’ he sometimes reasoned, perhaps to ease his conscience.

 ‘It’s not that I chose this job,’ he thought to himself rather smugly, ‘It was the only right thing for me to do.’ After all, no other job (according to him), required the tremendous amount of strength of body, heart, and soul that he unfortunately possessed. He knew from a very young age that he had a remarkable amount of strength in his arms, and that his mind and heart were equally strong; he did not want to let that rare blessing go to waste.
But what could he do?

He could not bear static jobs. He hated having to deal with bargaining customers like those vendors had to. He could not tolerate being an odd job man. Begging was out of question.
He always lamented not having a father whose business he could continue. His earliest memory of himself was of possessing nothing – no home, no family, nothing. But this memory was buried in the biggest grave he had dug in the deepest part of his heart. And he had spent nearly all his life trying to bury those early memories deeper and deeper, but in vain. His nothingness existed like an open grave in his heart, and it stung like an open wound.

 The earliest tolerable memory which he allowed his mind to savour was that of his first day with his adoptive parents, who occasionally had a shortage of funds, but never had a shortage of love or good advice. His mother once told him, “Only your kindness can drive away the nothingness of your past, Amir.” They were devout Muslims who valued love and kindness above everything else. Although they could not drive away the emptiness of his past completely, they managed to make his life bearable. He no longer remembered how he came to stay with them; but that did not bother him at all. On the contrary, it gave him a faint hope that perhaps his painful memories of nothingness were just nightmares. Perhaps he really belonged to that elderly couple. Perhaps his life did not begin with loss, and that the nothingness he felt was, in fact, nothing to worry about.

“Eh-ehm,” he sensed his wife angrily clearing her throat. He could almost picture her furrowed brow and clenched fists. No doubt she was angry with the way he had dealt with the fruit vendor. He sighed and turned to face her.

Indeed she sported a furrowed brow and clenched fists. “What is this, dear?” she said, with the ‘dear’ devoid of any love, “What have I always told you about fixing your price?”
He saw for the millionth time, a body weakened by poverty, but a spirit unbowed and ablaze. He remained silent.

“Haven’t I told you a hundred times before that you must not take too much from the poor brothers who approach you? They are your brothers in Islam. You are supposed to help them, not exploit them during their difficult times.”
He refused to speak or even meet her eye.
“Why are you so stone-hearted?”
He winced.
“Do you even possess a heart-”

Amir shot up. He looked at his old wife with eyes burning with pain and anger. Just one glance silenced his wife, “Remember Zara, this stone-like heart is the reason you have medicines to take, your grandson has a school to go to, and we have a home to return to.”
He stormed out of their hut. He felt hurt, but had no tears as proof. But what did it matter? In this world, the tears of the poor had no value. The last time Amir had cried was when he initially worked as a construction labourer. All he had to do was to haul the huge sacks of sand and stacks of bricks on his strong back and take them wherever he was asked to. Although he hated that work, he took up the job for the sake of his mother who was in dire need of medicine.

At the end of the first day of work he lined up along with the other labourers to get his wages, and when he finally got his first earning in his hands and saw how meagre it was, he cried. He approached the makeshift accountant who was sitting beside a pile of rubble, handing out money to the labourers with an irritated look. Amir hesitated a bit, but soon asked the accountant why he had been paid such a tiny amount when it was clear that he had done the most work that day. He pleaded, in between uncontrollable sobs, that he really needed the money for his sick mother’s medicine.

“Stop shedding your ghadiyali aansu – your crocodile tears,” the accountant spewed venom, “Everyone present here has a sick mother or father, of course, and we all know about the medicine you speak of,” he said with a sly look. He showed a ‘thumbs up’ sign, motioning the thumb toward his own mouth as though he was pouring alcohol out of his thumb into his mouth, “You think I don’t know you labour brats? Chal phutt! Get lost, boy!”
Amir did not want to pursue that memory longer. Indeed no one paid attention to the tears of the poor; and every tear the poor shed seemed ghadiyali to the people.

Amir sighed and sat under the banyan tree which had been his refuge for many years. From there he could look over the entire graveyard with one sweeping look. He looked at the graves intently for a brief moment and said, “Assalamualaikum – Peace be upon you” to the dead. He sat under the banyan tree for four whole minutes, wondering when he could savour some peace. He closed his eyes and tried to drift back into the better moments of his past. Those were the only peaceful times he could remember now. One particular memory replayed before his tired eyes every single day-
“Your name is ‘Amir’ from now on. Remember it, okay?”
“But what does it mean, Ammi?”
“It means ‘rich’, my son.”

Amir remembered checking his holed pockets then, “But I don’t have any money.”
“Silly boy,” he remembered his mother’s echoing laugh. He could never forget what followed. His father gently nudged his chest with a malnourished, bony finger and whispered, “Money is not what makes you rich, Amir. It is your heart that makes you rich.”
“My… heart?”
“Yes, son. Your heart…”
Do you even possess a heart?

 His wife’s words sliced through his most cherished memory. He shut his eyes tighter and tighter until they hurt; but he could not force those cruel words out of his mind. He got up, reached for the shovel he always kept by the banyan tree and walked uneasily to one empty space at one corner of the graveyard. With one swift motion he was able to make a pit on the ground. He started digging a grave for the fruit vendor’s wife. With each shovel-full of soil, he also unearthed a shovel-full of feelings he seldom addressed.
Was he really that cruel and stone-hearted? Why could his companion of forty years not understand his behaviour and the fears that compelled him?

Did she not remember how no one gave him any work that, for once, did not crush his integrity? Did she forget how all the employers he had worked for never gave him his due? Did she not remember how people always demanded from them more money than they could ever manage to pay?

“I have to be this blunt and cruel. How can we live without money? If I give a discount or give free labour to every other fellow who approaches me, how can I pay for my grandson’s school? How will I pay for my wife’s medicine? My wife… my wife’s medicine…”
An image flashed before his eyes. He could see himself kneeling by a tattered cot, holding a cold skeletal hand in his strong ones. His eyes were hollow, averted from his adoptive mother that lay in front of him, lifeless. Had the makeshift accountant given him his due, he could have brought his old mother’s medicine in time. Perhaps, perhaps his mother would have lived… at least for a few more days.

His due. He only asked for his due; nothing more, nothing less.
He dug with more force, his heart more hardened than before, “That was the first day I ever buried anyone. This is the right job for me. I am not at the mercy of anyone, and… and I at least get my due. There is nothing wrong with this.”
Convinced that he had dug enough, he climbed out of the grave and sat at its edge. He wiped his brow with the piece of cloth that hung by his shoulder. He then looked at the other graves that peacefully lay before him, “Zara doesn’t know what she’s talking about. But I will not let that stop me.”

His weary gaze shifted to the freshly dug grave in front of him; and all he could think of was his wife’s declining health. His heart trembled and then hardened, “Let her taunt me as much as she likes, I am not going to change. I don’t charge my customers too much. Other gravediggers probably charge more. Besides,” he said aloud, “Besides, I am at least not the reason for somebody’s death.”
“But you are the reason for somebody’s agony.”

Amir turned around. It was his wife. She held out an earthen tumbler filled with cool buttermilk. Amir took the tumbler quietly. Life was too short to be fighting with his wife. He quietly gulped the sweet buttermilk down and returned the tumbler to his wife. She sat down beside him and wiped the traces of buttermilk from his lips with her old cotton shawl. A sad thought crossed his mind that even his loving wife could not wipe away the nothingness he often felt in his life.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m sorry for the way I spoke to you. But, but you scare me now.”
Amir said nothing.

“When I see the way you deal with people, I shudder. Since when did you become so unkind? You have always been so good to me. Why are you not good to those around you?”
Amir remained quiet and averted his gaze. Zara clasped his rough wrinkled hands with her weathered ones. Her warmth entered him.

“I know you fear falling back into poverty. I know that you do not want to be at the mercy of someone,” she sighed, “I know that you endlessly worry about my health, and that you want us to have a good life with all the comforts of the world.”

Amir felt his brows raise in surprise. If she knows, why does she not support me in this?
“But… but, my dear. Why don’t you understand… Why do you not realise that we cannot build our happiness on someone else’s misery. By making the people who approach you miserable, you think you are acquiring money, that you are acquiring happiness… that you are rich. But,” she wiped the tears that clouded her sight, “But, you earn nothing… Nothing but ill will and sadness.”
Amir felt as though somebody was mercilessly squeezing his old heart.

“That sadness affects me, my dear, it truly affects me. It pains me to see you act so, it pains me to see people hate you… it pains me that you do not realise that it is your unkind behaviour towards others that worsens my health every passing moment. It pains me that you do not realise that you cannot be Amir because of your money. Your heart, and the kindness that resides within it is what makes you Amir… Your faith is the only thing that can make you rich.”

Amir blankly stared at the grave before him. He then slowly raised his head and looked at his old wife who tenaciously clung to the basic teachings of Islam—that of kindness and humanity. He recalled all the times she had gone out of her way to be good to others; indeed she had coerced him into giving the last bit of food they had to a poor traveller. Indeed she had spent four sleepless nights, tending to an old woman who was left for dead by the road. Indeed she had vowed to act as their grandson’s mother soon after he had been orphaned. Indeed she was the one who fed the dead dog’s only surviving puppy till it reached senility. Indeed the good she did filled her stomach more satisfactorily than the food Amir brought home from his hard-earned money.

Indeed, he thought, indeed she had patiently served her stupid old husband her whole life, even though he never fully understood her. Amir opened his cracked lips to say something but he was interrupted by a tiny funeral procession that entered the graveyard. It was the fruit vendor and some men.

Amir’s wife silently got up and left the scene. The fruit vendor’s wife’s body was slowly brought near the grave. Amir guiltily looked at the fruit vendor who looked irreparably broken. The sense of nothingness that had marked his own early life, seemed to now haunt the fruit vendor. He intently stared at the fruit vendor to try and estimate, for the first time, the gravity of the pain his customer felt. And for the first time, his heart was filled with pity for the broken fruit vendor; for he understood truly what nothingness felt like.

The body was slowly lowered into the grave. All the men that had accompanied the fruit vendor threw three fistfuls of soil into the grave and Amir got ready to cover the body with soil. The fruit vendor stared at the shrouded body of his wife as though he was looking into his wife’s eyes and talking to her.

As Amir threw the first shovel-full of soil in the grave, he heard his wife’s words, “Why do you not realise that we cannot build our happiness on someone else’s misery…” Almost instantly his old mother’s voice rang in his ears, “Only your kindness can drive away the nothingness of your past, Amir.” And then his father whispered, “Money is not what makes you rich, Amir. It is your heart that makes you rich.”

Amir was overwhelmed. He seemed to become stronger by each passing second. Each bit of soil he shovelled into the grave seemed to also fill the deep grave he had dug for the nothingness in his heart. And before he knew it, the grave was filled. As he patted on the last bit of soil over the mound he was surprised to find one solitary tear roll down his rough cheek and fall, for the first time, on the grave he had dug and filled.

“Brother, I- I could manage only one thousand rupees. But- but don’t worry, I will bring the rest of the amount to you soon. I will sell my cart if I have too… I- I… I am not rich, I really am not… But- but I will manage…”

Amir looked at the fruit vendor holding out the bunch of bent coins and torn ten, twenty, and hundred rupee notes. He could no longer control his tears. He cursed himself for having caused such misery when his parents and his wife had always strove to drive that very thing away from everyone’s life. Amir placed his hand on the fruit vendor’s shoulder and looked at him with utmost sorrow, understanding and regret. He embraced the fruit vendor, patted his back with kindness, and whispered, “Forgive me, brother.”

He once again held the fruit vendor by his shoulders, firmly, reassuringly. He then said in a broken voice, “I will pray for you, my brother. I surely will,” and even before the fruit vendor could respond, Amir gently nudged his chest with a bony, yet rejuvenated finger and said, “It is your heart that makes you rich.” He then took two steps backward, smiled ever so slightly, and took staggering but quick steps in the direction of his hut.
The fruit vendor looked at the old retreating figure, puzzled. In his hand were the tattered notes and coins he had brought with him, untouched.

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