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Short Story 2012- Third Prize
 

Birthday

By Muniza Tariq

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muniza tariq

Photo Credit: Steve Evans

“Ammi, I want to celebrate my birthday this time,” said Rehan as he threw his school bag on a worn out plastic chair that stood up on three legs and a wooden stick, defying all laws of physics.

One of Rehan’s friends had invited him to his birthday and Rehan was mesmerized. He loved the tiny white and pink cake, coloured balloons and most of all, the gifts that the birthday boy received. His birthday was a week away. He thought he might as well bring up the topic, well in time.

It was a usual afternoon in this humble abode with an unusual demand.

Rehan’s mom was busy making a paan for herself. Rehan’s words fell like a bombshell. She looked up like he’d declared he wanted to convert to some other religion. She used the next ten minutes to settle her shock and spread katha over a betel leaf. She, then, stuffed it in the cave surrounded by her paan stained teeth and pouted for what looked like a lifetime and mumbled something that made poor Rehan lose his heart.

Minus the red, messy impediment that she tried holding in her mouth but occasionally failed, here’s what the industrious mouth came up with, "We have never celebrated your birthday, because hell, we don’t remember when you were born. Only you do. Your younger sister is growing up hauntingly fast and we need to start collecting her dowry and God damn your father, because of his share of genes, she is the colour that no man would like to marry. And you better start going to your father’s shop before I throw you out. You can stay at that cursed school of yours that teaches you extravagance like annual day celebration and birthdays and all. Now go to your room and let me eat my paan in peace."

With a face that NGOs use to collect donations, Rehan went straight to Bhura. Bhura was a fine, healthy goat, a luxurious brown, with a white mark that sat on its forehead like a humble crown. Together, they made a fine couple.
A typical day in the life of ten year old Rehan started with Bhura. He would rush to his pet like an animal unleashed after years of bondage. The calm beast, tied outside their one and a half room house would do nothing but bleat, shaking its head, while, its ears, like big flaps clapped on to its conical face and sometimes, its teary eyes. Rehan would cling to it till his mother would come to drag him to the hand pump and forcefully stuff the red tooth powder into his mouth.

So after the relentless, almost indecipherable chiding that his mom served him instead of lunch, Rehan found solace in Bhura’s company. Nothing was said but all was understood.

Beside the dust-laden and reality-stricken Rehan stood Bhura, silent but sure as a mountain. Rehan rubbed the selfless, loving snout of the beast, wrapped his arm around its neck, brought his mouth closer to its ears and murmured gibberish. He then gently tickled Bhura who bleated in rhythm with Rehan’s movements. Later, after sharing several such light moments, Rehan tiptoed into the kitchen, past his snoring mother, conscious of his deceiving stomach growling for a meal and went back to Bhura with two chapatis. There, the two pals shared a silent, content meal and whiled the afternoon away. 

That night when Rehan slept peacefully in the yard on a small, shoddily woven cot, his mother sulked about her life of deprivation to his father, who was a tailor. While she ranted in the miserly light of a cob web covered yellow bulb, he wished if only he could sew her mouth shut, irrevocably. But there was little that he was capable of at that moment. Fatigue either makes a monster out of the kindest persons or turns them mute and indifferent. After a long, tiring and not a well-paying day, Rehan’s father would have done anything to get rid of the gigantic woman, smelling of paan and complaints. He chewed away his dinner, all quiet and restless. How long before she sleeps?
Her energy mocked his silent prayers.

Spraying red, she continued, sitting on a charpoy right opposite where he was eating from a steel plate with a dent. Her enthusiasm was much like a soldier, carrying out his duties.

“Do you know your stupid son returned home, saying he wants to celebrate his birthday. Can you imagine how angry that made me? I slog at home all day long. You won’t know. How would you? You are out at the shop, you meet women, chat with them, may be dally with them. How would I know? Don’t I deserve something? It’s been two years, we haven’t invited my brother and his family. I was thinking of calling amma and khala as well. But how could we, if people in this house have stupid birthday plans. If Rehan comes crying to you and you make some unrealistic promise, I will go away. One more chapatti? No? Why? You never like what I make. Who knows you have eaten at some other woman’s place? God, never make me live to see that day.”

By the time she halted to fuel her acrid speech with another paan, Rehan’s father had slept off, his fingers, daal-laden that had dried up to form a crust, his feet still on the ground and his head rested on an eroding light green wall.
Lucky man, he escaped what his wife produced after that point, till the next night.
“Call your brother, amma, khala their neighbours, call your entire village if you think we can park them comfortably and feed them well.” At last Rehan’s dad surrendered, hoping that for once his wife will see in his submission what he really wants to say.

“Yes go ahead mock me. Accommodating them won’t be a problem provided you really want them here. They don’t need queen size beds to sleep on. Mattresses will do just fine and feeding them won’t be a problem either. Bhura has been getting on my nerves. It’s only a goat but it eats like a bull and Rehan wastes too much time on it. I say we can feed my clan good mutton for three days.” She barked, panting like a buffalo.

“Listen to me before you say something. Little Rehan came to me this evening. He really wants to celebrate his birthday.  Nothing lavish of course, just four of his friends. So how about we have a small dinner on the day your family arrives?” he let out meekly, almost pleading her. “All right. But no more than four I am warning you.” and Rehan’s father thanked the sinister forces of the universe for granting him a smooth escape.

The next morning when Rehan left for school, he was dancing to the ‘Happy Birthday’ song playing in his head. He had already kissed Bhura before stepping out and declared it to be the Guest of Honour for his birthday. And like most days that matter, this one took its time to arrive but it did.

Rehan had secretly requested his dad to get him fifty orange flavoured candies which he planned to distribute to his classmates and teachers. The invitation to his birthday dinner was however extended to only four of his pals. His dad had insisted it to be strictly four and Rehan was too delighted to be more demanding.

The time at school was straight out of a dream. Rehan was the star of his class. His teacher kissed him on the forehead, his classmates took turns to wish him and he shared special secret smiles with his four close pals.

When he reached home, still exulting, he found his house was crowded with his mother’s relatives. There was his mama, mami, their four children almost of the same age, her nani, her sister and her late husband’s sister. There wasn’t a corner that wasn’t occupied. Before he could even recall their names, his mother called him into the kitchen, hurriedly gave him some money and a long list of things to be bought from a close by market, also the place where his father’s shop was.

There was so much to be bought and too little patience for the big night was just some hours away. After everything in the list was in Rehan’s hands, he went to his father’s shop. His father treated him to a cold drink and chips and called it ‘Abba and Rehan’s secret’. He quickly stashed half stitched clothes under the small table that also housed his sewing machine, brought the shutter down; put a rusted vulnerable lock on the latch. Together the father and the son sped home.

Three of his special guests had already arrived. They had occupied a corner in the yard, simpering away to the unknown faces, each holding a gift. Rehan ran towards them, cleared the charpoy for them to be comfortably seated. And the rest of the evening just slipped. One minute he was getting them water, the next minute he was making paan for his mother in the kitchen and the next one to it, he was helping his nani get up from the bed and walk to the washroom where her changes of falling were almost absolute.

He didn’t breathe till it was time for cake cutting. His friends and his father shared his enthusiasm. His cake was white and pink, just the way he had secretly mentioned to his father. Among the fuss that his mom created over her family, he cut the cake and that’s when he remembered that the Guest of Honour was missing.

After his friends and father fed him the cake, he rushed to the yard and as soon as his eyes met with the absence of Bhura, a whiff of mutton travelled from the kitchen window, landed in his nose. Before he could ask any questions, from among the noise, his nani’s voice found its way to his ears.

The meat is quite tender for an old goat. Tastes great.
Rehan shrank to his knees; right in front of the empty loop of a rope tied to a stub, black pellets and heard the party chomp away.

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