The Beads and the Bottle by Jawad Haider - 3rd year

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 KELS 0 Comments Category :

Township was a town unlike any other in the city, what with an area large enough to engulf half a dozen university campuses in itself, it was a blend of different life styles all with the same name of the town succeeding their house addresses. There were those neighborhoods which seemed like an office area in the morning owing to the incredible number of cars exiting from each house; then there were those with a normal morning with a mom shouting at her eight children to get up for school who would emerge from their shabby little homes with their shabby little figures to walk to the school in their second-hand uniforms. The diversity didn’t end here because while most tend to overlook the few neighborhoods which rest in harmony with a crowded bazar, I think there’s always a gap that is left behind which I must fill with the eternal hush that exists in these habitats. These houses were the ones at which one looks at but never tries to observe from roof to ground because the smell that follows their sight is often, but not always, an unpleasant one that drives even the lowly from the streets.
One of these streets started its morning with a silence which was sometimes broken down by the loud snores of Haji Basharat. No one emerged from the street (except for a green car at 7) at the break of dawn, yet you could see a couple of bearded nearing-their-death fellows walking away from the mosque after their morning prayers. A din entered the street when the bazar opened and people from different towns came to buy uncovered meat and unlabeled groceries at a cheap price. This street however kept on reverberating with the snores of Haji Basharat even at 10 in the morning with occasional sounds of motorbike engines. It was at 11 when the street faced the world.

Long before the bazar opened and the occasional snores made a din together with the sound of engine, Fatima and Basit got up while there was still a dullness in the sky. He offered his prayer, a long one which lasted half an hour and went into the bathroom for a shower. She offered her prayer, a longer one which lasted an hour and started making breakfast for the husband.
They found themselves at the table at 6 and Basit started eating while Fatima looked at him with a thoughtful look at her face.
“Is everything,” Basit shoved a spoonful of yolk in his mouth, “alright?”
“Yes, why do you ask? – we need to see your brother today.” she added without waiting for his answer. “Hafsa asked me to come.”
“Why the sudden invitation?” Basit asked while guiding another spoon in his mouth.
“Well, your brother, Mohsin, has bought himself a new house,” she said and looked as if a stream of relief flowed down her body as if she had been wanting to tell it for some time. “Hafsa told me last night – I didn’t want to wake you up,” she added as she noted the incredulous look on Basit’s face.
“My brother needs to hold his horses,” he laughed as he took a gulp of water. “What’s this, his fifth house in three years?”
“Yes,” Fatima said, splitting a crispy edge of the egg white from Basit’s plate and putting it in her mouth. “I think we should go. They’ll be happy and what’s it to us if they move a lot, right?”
There was an actual question in that ‘right’ and Basit seemed to notice it too but he left the idea as soon as he grabbed it.
“On a side note, sometimes I do like to wonder if they’d be a little careful with their money. I mean saving up is good for future, isn’t it?” Eesa didn’t seem ready to let go of the topic.
“Well, yeah but where else are they gonna spend their money, what with no children and –,”
Fatima gave a gasp and he suddenly realized the slip of his tongue, turning red. He had pressed the wrong button…
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he insisted. “I just said, well, they try to find bliss in other things and that’s good –,”
“Say no more,” Fatima squeaked. “We haven’t had our first child yet,” she looked down at her bulging belly. “What if –,”
“I am sorry,” Basit interjected. “I didn’t really mean to say it. It slipped. I don’t wish ill for my brother and – and I pray every day for his happiness. I love him. I love my family.”
Basit was lost at words so he simply held Fatima’s hand and the sudden beast that had risen on the breakfast table purred.
“I just –,” Fatima looked at her belly again, “I just don’t want any evil to come to our child. And I really wish Hafsa finds this happiness that I have.”
“I am really sorry for what I said,” said Basit. “We’ll meet Mohsin and Hafsa today. I’ll be back at three. You know where they bought their house, right?”
“Yes,” she suddenly zoned out again and seemed as airy as she had been at the beginning of the breakfast.
“I should be going now,” Basit got up. “Take care of yourself… and her too,” he nodded at her belly and smiled.

They left for Mohsin’s house at 3.30. They were stopped before they could reach the end of the street by Haji Basharat whose shouts were even louder than his wakening snores. He approached with a small packet containing a bottle of Zamzam water, a few dates and a set of prayer beads. Apparently he had been to his third Hajj and had forgotten to give them their packet of sacred trinity. Basit put the set of prayer beads around the rear-view mirror and got Haji Basharat’s approval since he thought it good luck to have something associated with the Holy City along with you all the time.
With a fervent gratitude they left Haji Basharat in the street where his eleven sons, seven grandsons and one granddaughter lived too.
They turned right on the College Road and went straight in their green car until they reached a main crossing where they turned right again and turned on the first left onto a commercial road which led them straight into Model Town. This was where Mohsin had bought his new house. It was almost the same distance as his previous house but in opposite direction. Wondering how he enjoyed the cold coffee near Wapda Town, where Mohsin’s last house used to be, he stopped before a nice cozy-looking house with shade of fainting blue and white. It seemed expensive, but then where else could he spend –
…Basit stopped in his thoughts at once and looked suddenly at Fatima, fearing that she might have listened to his thoughts but she kept staring at the house and she let out a sigh, finally turning to look at him.
“What?” she inquired as soon as she saw him looking at her.
“Beautiful,” said Basit suddenly.
Fatima blushed and smiled.
“I was talking about the house,” he joked, receiving a punch in his arm, and rang the bell.
“Who’s there?” came out a voice from the intercom which Basit recognized as Hafsa’s.
“It’s your brother-in-law and –,” started Basit.
“Oh my God! Tell me how many people are there,” said Hafsa. She had taken a liking to this question ever since Fatima got pregnant and she asked this question whenever they met, hoping to hear a ‘three’.
“Umm… Well, two,” said Basit and he heard Hafsa scoff, “and a half. Are you sure you don’t want us to come in?” He added immediately.
“Oh my God. Sorry!” she said apologetically and Basit heard her run away. “Mohsin, they’re here. Hurry up! Why don’t you hurry up? Oh gosh, you are fast whenever I don’t want you to, but when I really want you to be fast you turn into a tortoise…”
Apparently, she had forgotten to turn off the intercom.
A few seconds later the front gate opened.
“When are you going to let the poor soul out?” Hafsa asks Fatima jokingly.
“She’s still in her eighth month,” said Basit.
“I’ve gotten really tired of the ‘how many people’ question. Can’t you hurry up?” she said and let them in.
“You’ll be the first one to know and I am thinking of letting you give our daughter her gurti,” said Fatima gleefully. “Your house is amazing.”
But she never got a thank you in reply. She looked around and realized that Hafsa had stopped in her tracks. The other two noticed it too, but before it got really emotional for Hafsa or really embarrassing for Fatima, Hafsa spoke out.
“The house, yeah,” she said suddenly. “It’s quite pretty, isn’t it? Mohsin chose it. You know that old hag from Wapda Town? When she saw this house she said –,”
But Basit never got to learn what the old hag said because Mohsin started conversation.
“So how’s your job? – in here…” he opened the door to the living room.
“It’s fine. Saving patients as always,” Basit said, half aware of what he was saying because he was suddenly struck with the brightness of the room and it was brilliant enough to steal a heartbeat. He couldn’t even imagine to buy a house like this.
“You should go in for specialization… I know it’s difficult,” he added as he saw Basit opening his mouth to disagree, “with Fatima pregnant and all, I understand it must be really difficult for you to study further but as a big brother I had to say what I thought was right. The decision of course rests with you.”
They sat down in the living room and Hafsa went to the kitchen, coming out a few minutes later with tea, biscuits and a few servings of bakery items.
“Oh I forgot something in the car,” Fatima suddenly cried out and turned towards Basit. “Can I have the keys?”
Basit handed her the keys and she left at once. Mohsin got up.
“I’ll be back,” he said. “Bathroom.”
Just as he left and Basit decided to start a conversation with Hafsa, she stood up, slapping a hand to her forehead.
“Oh crap! The tap is broken. I need to tell him so that he washes his hands in the other bathroom,” and she left.
Basit sat there, taking in the yellowish tinge that seemed to engulf the room. They really had worked hard towards setting the house into looking the best. He started burping with ever sip, something he used to do when he was little and used to attract a lot of encouraging gasps of shock from other children.  
Fatima came in from the outside as soon as Mohsin and Hafsa entered from the other room. She was holding their housewarming gift.
“You didn’t have to,” said Hafsa lovingly, taking the gift from Fatima. “Thank you so much.”
They spent a few hours chatting and looking around the house. Mohsin had installed a home theatre which really impressed Basit. Hafsa and Fatima however kept their normal faces as they walked around and the evening finally turned into night when finally Basit decided that they should leave.
“Stay for dinner,” said Mohsin. “Hafsa has been cooking up some really good stuff lately.”
“Lately? Excuse me?” Hafsa eyed him keenly. “My cooking has been chef-standard since my mother taught me how to make a perfectly round chapatti.”
“Yes it has been,” Mohsin laughed and turned towards Basit. “But anyway, the point is that you should stay for dinner…”
“Maybe even stay the night!” cried out Hafsa. “I want to talk with Fatima about so many things – about her pregnancy, about how we’ll celebrate the birth of your daughter, and shopping for her clothes, and gurti that I will give her, and –,”
…and she suddenly went silent.
And so did the rest of them…
“Hafsa?” said Mohsin. It was more like a call to remember than a query.
“I – I just feel so happy as if I am the one becoming the mother,” stammered Hafsa. “It isn’t possible for me but – but –,”
“Hafsa,” said Basit, realizing that it would be stupid to pretend that there wasn’t any tension in the room. “I am sure my daughter will get as much motherly love from you as she will get from Fatima.”
“I know,” said Hafsa, tears welling in his eyes. She immediately wiped them away. “I am sorry. I shouldn’t have acted like that. It’s just – it’s just –,”
No one wanted her to finish the sentence. It was obvious what she was thinking and there wasn’t any embarrassment in sharing it with everyone. After all, they were a family and that’s what a family does – they stick together.
Fatima opened her purse in a slow movement and took out the small bottle of Zamzam water.
“You know Haji basharat, don’t you?” Fatima asked Hafsa.
She nodded.
“Well, he told us once that his wife couldn’t conceive, and then he performed his first pilgrimage and got a bottle of Zamzam which, he said, was touched with all the sacred places of Holy City. He gave it to her wife when he came back and a year later he had his first son – he has eleven now.” She added hastily, not looking directly into Hafsa’s eyes and trying her best to avoid making any eye contact with Basit. “I asked him to get one for you when he left for his third Hajj a few months ago. He got this for you.”
She held out the bottle of Zamzam that Haji Basharat had given them a few hours ago. Basit kept looking at Fatima but she gave him a do-not-say-anything look which kept him quiet. Hafsa took the bottle.
“How do I drink it?” she asked Fatima.
“Umm…” Fatima hesitated. “Just face the Kaaba and drink it.”
Hafsa did immediately what Fatima told her.
“I am going to put this bottle where everyone can see it,” she said and looking at the confused looks around her, she added: “Well, obviously something this sacred can’t be thrown away, can it?”
“No, of course not…” Mohsin smiled. It was when Hafsa left for her bedroom that he spoke again: “I am sorry. You know how touchy she is about the subject – it isn’t really the Zamzam that helped Haji Basharat, is it?”
“It is!” Fatima said with a finality in her tone before Basit could say anything. Mohsin seemed to believe her.
“I think we should leave,” said Basit.
Mohsin simply nodded.
Not until had they gotten into the car and drove to the Link Road that Basit finally spoke.
“Why did you have to lie?”
“I want her happy,” replied Fatima simply.
“So do I but that does not mean we give her false hope,”
“I gave her something to look forward to… And who’s to say she won’t be blessed with children.”
“It’s not about that. She could’ve been blessed without the Zamzam that you gave her. She’ll know you lied.”
“How?” asked Fatima.
“Everyone knows Haji Basharat had seven sons before he went on his first Hajj.”
“Everyone in our street. She won’t know.”
“But she’ll have some idea if, god forbid, she never conceives,”
“Basit, you don’t understand, do you?” said Fatima plainly. “Do you know they forgot to turn off the intercom?”
“How’s that related?”
“When I went outside to get the housewarming gift,” she said, “I heard Mohsin telling Hafsa not to boast about the house. You know how she gets carried away with such things and speaks before thinking.”
“Okay. So how does it justify your lie?”
“Don’t you understand?” said Fatima. “Mohsin thinks we might never be able to buy a house like his!”
Basit gulped and felt an uncomfortable lump inside his throat. “He just wanted to avoid an awkward situation, that’s it. And you know very well that we’ll buy our house very soon. But I don’t see how this relates to the Zamzam water that you gave away as a fertility potion.”
“Well, Hafsa told him off that I was going to have a baby and I never stopped boasting about it, so why should she. I never boasted!”
“You know she hasn’t been able to conceive and whenever she looks at you –,” Basit didn’t know what to say. “Well, you can understand.”
“Yes, I do understand! And that’s the reason I gave her the Zamzam. I don’t want her to think that we aren’t worried for her or that we’re happy with her situation. It is hope that she needs,” said Fatima.
 “Okay,” said Basit. “But try not to give her a false hope again. I wouldn’t!”
An expression lingered on Fatima’s face for a while. It seemed as if she had been waiting for it. With a cough, she cleared her throat and looked outside the window. “Are you sure you never gave anyone a false hope?”
“What do you mean I –,” spoke Basit but before he even finished, he knew what she meant. This had been happening since the morning when Fatima told him that Mohsin had had a fifth house now. Fifth, while they were still stuck with the first one that had been Basit’s father’s and his father’s before him. The signs were all there and he thought that he had been grasping them all day but had been deciding again and again not to respond but it had to come eventually. She too wanted a life outside that street which had more unemployed persons than the children living there. They were like a different kettle of fish there. Basit was the only certified doctor in that block and had enough money saved up to buy themselves a nice cozy home somewhere near Mohsin’s, somewhere in Model Town. He would just need to borrow a little from Mohsin and he would be on his way into a new home but asking Mohsin for money was an act he never wanted to commit to. It was not a matter of fear of being rejected but a matter of self-respect because Mohsin would never let him return the money he had borrowed from him…
“It’s about the house, isn’t it?” he asked.
Fatima kept her silence for some time before replying: “Yes…”
From the corner of her eyes, Fatima saw him dial up a number on his phone and talk to someone. She decided not to listen and instead looked out the window. For the greater part of the conversation she kept her ears shut with her mind but she opened her ears to the conversation, eventually giving in.
“…yes yes, of course… I am at Akbar Chowk… how long? Fifteen minutes? Perfect… yes sure, I’ll be waiting.”
“Who was it?” asked Fatima.
“A friend of mine,” said Basit. “He’s a property dealer –,”
“You didn’t have to. I am sorry.”
“It’s fine. I am doing it for our daughter. She needs to grow up in a better place.”
Both of them had made up their mind as Basit turned on the service lane on Akbar Chowk and turned off the ignition. There was no room for modesty and both of them showed their excitement at the very idea of buying a new home.
“We’re finally doing it,” said Basit enthusiastically.
“Yes. Oh I can’t wait to tell mom,” said Fatima.
“Just wait, we need to finalize everything before we tell everyone about it,” said Basit. “Hold your –,”
“– horses, I know,” she laughed. “Why are we meeting him here anyway?”
“His office is closed, obviously. It’s night. So he’ll come with us to our home and we can discuss it over tea.”
“Or coffee!” said Fatima. “Coffee tastes good. He’d like it, won’t he?”
“We’ll ask him,”
And then there was silence. They sat, waiting for the dealer, imagining different houses in their heads. They imagined how they’d like the front door to be, the garage, the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom and the lounge. They wondered what furniture they’d put into it, and what accessories they’d have to buy. They imagined a little girl with a vague face, their daughter, playing with the neighbor’s kids, the kids that went to good schools and whose parents had respectable jobs. They imagined a home facing a park where they’d go every Sunday, or perhaps every weekend with their daughter and play with her. And as they kept imagining, the house got bigger and their family got bigger. They imagined two daughters and two sons. They imagined five bedrooms with attached baths and a wide living room like the one Mohsin had and a home theatre and whatnot. They imagined what they could never achieve with the salary Basit had been earning at that very moment but they kept imagining because where their thoughts roamed free, money was the least of their concerns.
They imagined a lot in a few minutes, and then they heard something snap…
“What happened?” asked Fatima.
Basit lowered his hand to his foot and held up a few beads. The set of prayer beads that Haji Basharat had given them had apparently snapped and all the beads were scattered.
“Beads. The string must have been awfully weak to have broken down like that without anyone even touching,” said Basit.
“Basit,” there was a troubling tone to her voice. And all her prayers that she had offered at dawn and during all her life came rushing into her mind. “Prayer beads don’t break easily.”
“I know,” agreed Basit. “Strange, isn’t it?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” replied Fatima and started crying. “It was a sign.”
“Sign, what?”
“It’s not the right time to get a house. Not yet…”
“We need to save up for our daughter and also for your specialization if you ever decide to study further,” she said, getting a hold on herself. “It just isn’t the right time. I know we’ll get a house, but not today. It surely is a sign. Prayer beads, from the Holy City, breaking like that – surely a sign.”
“Fatima I know it’s difficult but I know we’ll manage –,”
“Take me home, please.”
Basit stared at her and wondered what had happened in a few minutes. And then it struck it… The house was never his priority; Fatima’s happiness was. There wasn’t any need to lend any further thought to it. If she said it was a sign, it definitely was one and if she said she didn’t need a house right now, they weren’t getting one until she said otherwise. And with that, he turned the key in ignition.
“Text the dealer we don’t want the house, will you?” said Basit, taking out his phone. “And we need to a new string for the prayer beads.”

Years passed and they lived on. The bazar never changed. The beast of unemployment in their street never purred. Haji Basharat had three more grandsons and his snoring never stopped, instead it got even noisier. The stillness of the street until 11 never changed.
The most anticipated moment finally came and went. Fatima gave birth to a healthy girl, Fatima, and sure enough it was Hafsa who was the first one to wrap her arms around her when she came out of the labor room and as planned, it was Hafsa who gave Fatima her first taste of gurti. And as years passed, Fatima grew up into a happy four-year-old and once while running around the small house she had been born in, she stopped and looked up at a frame. Out in the street a motorbike sounded a horn but it didn’t disturb Fatima since she was now accustomed to Haji Basharat’s troubling snores and occasional horns of motorbikes but for most of the four years of her life, she had seen nothing as fascinating as the frame in which a mended set of prayer bead was placed carefully.
“Baba, what’s in that?” she tugged on the sleeve of his father who was reading a newspaper at the time.
“Our fate,” he said simply.
“What does it do?” she eyed it with real interest.
“It breaks,” he said, smiling at her.
The answer seemed to satisfy her innocent mind but she never realized that a few kilometers away a family would have given all their worldly possessions just to hear the words: “Mommy, what does that empty bottle does?”

Jawad Haider
3rd Year MBBS