Fareeda sat so stiff-necked on the cool steel bench that, were her retired military father alive to witness it, she would’ve made him proud. Her hawk eyes, more intense than the unashamed salivating gazes of desperate men, prowled the station one end to another. Her red shawl covered her head and was tightly wrapped around her shoulders against the autumn chill. Every few minutes her hands rubbed together seeking warmth, though more so, out of sheer subconscious anticipation. After this brief interruption, once again she gripped her purse and the handle of the black suitcase with every ounce of her energy.
The morning sunlight spilled through the glass panels in the roof above, illuminating her surroundings; the colonial British architecture, the food stalls packed with chips, pops and samosas, and the newspaper stands filled with magazines such as Khawateen, women’s, Digest and a few expensive English newspapers.
The sights and the sounds of Pakistan’s Lahore Railway Station were nothing new to her, nor the hustle and bustle of platform number two’s crowd; passengers streaming in and out, teary-eyed relatives waving good-byes, the coolies in bright orange shirts lugging heavy bags or carrying them on their heads, and men chatting incessantly, standing dangerously close to the tracks as if in a park. Everything appeared to be the same. Only this time, she was traveling all alone; without her husband Anwar Aziz or her son Asif.
But Fareeda was the last person to back down; allowing her extended family to ostracize and proudly ridicule her for not making it to her niece’s wedding. There were already enough rumours about her husband’s unyielding ways; especially since the time Fareeda had insisted on buying an air-conditioner but Anwar had refused. He had wanted to save money for their sixteen year old son Asif’s education instead, and thus Fareeda
had to grudgingly stomp on her own desires. But that didn’t mean her cousins Karima and Naseema had to stop taunting her. That not-too-distant memory of her last family reunion was still emblazoned on her mind.
“Poor Fareeda!” said Karima feigning sympathy. “How much she must hate her stubborn husband, trying to sleep on those hot humid nights.”
Naseema snickered, “Don’t worry Fareeda. You need not wait too long to get an A.C. Just wait for Asif to grow up, find a job, earn enough and you’ll have your A.C.—unless he gets married and moves out with it!” This was followed by shrieks of laughter from all the women who were there to enjoy the dessert of Fareeda’s humiliation, after the dinner was done. No, she couldn’t let another of Anwar’s refusals ruin her reputation.
Fareeda was pulled back into the moment by the ear-splitting whistle of the broccoli-green engine departing from platform number three.
“Excuse me, Bibi Ji, Madam.” A small boy in navy blue shorts and a greasy white t-shirt appeared in front of Fareeda out of no where. She instinctively moved back though he hardly seemed to be a threat to the inapprehensive eye. The boy only looked to be six or seven, though he may have been older, with dry scaly skin and hair that must have been dark once but had now turned reddish. He extended his right arm forward that was holding a small plastic water-cooler. Fareeda clutched her luggage even harder, as if it was even possible.
“Please buy some boiled eggs, Bibi Ji. They are very yummy and fresh!” He began with a tone of a salesman.
“No, I don’t need any,” Fareeda responded flatly.
“I really need the money, Bibi Ji. God will be very pleased with you if you help a poor like myself. He will double your money for you, I bet!” He ended his rote prattle on an optimistic note, but hunched his shoulders upon hearing Fareeda snicker. “Please Bibi Ji, I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday morning. I need the money.”
“Then why don’t you simply eat one of your ‘yummy and fresh’ eggs yourself?” Fareeda mocked.
“Because the eggs can only feed me…the money, my whole family.”
“Maaf karo, forgive me,” said Fareeda casually rolling her eyes, an accustomed Euphemistic reply to beggars and kids on the street, understood rightly so as a “get lost” rather than an apology. The child left with his head down when Fareeda looked away to concentrate on more important things.
Why does this wait seem so long without Anwar, Fareeda wondered, checking the watch on her wrist every few minutes. If only Asif hadn’t dropped her at the station so early to get to school on time. He had refused to accompany her at the wedding too because of his exams. This damn education of his was starting to take a toll on her in so many ways. She sincerely hoped that she could at least bank on his education when he was a college graduate. Most of Asif’s cousins had not even seen the front of a college building.
The familiar aroma of McDonalds drifted off from platform one, and tickled her nose, combined with the dust and smoke in the air. But Fareeda had to stay focused on her surroundings, even if her stomach was suddenly grumbling and chiding her for sending the child away out of a force of habit. She knew she should have listened to Anwar that morning when he had told her to keep a few sandwiches in her purse for her journey.
“Are you crazy, Anwar? What if I drop my gold earrings or my silver anklet while pulling out a damn sandwich?”
“Why do you have to carry such expensive jewellery with you anyways? Why can’t you borrow some from your sister or mother when you get there?”
“You really have gone crazy! They don’t own jewellery stores that they can distribute it out just like that. And secondly, where else will I get to wear mine and show it off? I don’t even know when the next wedding in the family is going to be. This time I am going to shut up Karima and Naseema’s mouth for good!” Fareeda spoke with so much fervor and delight that Anwar knew there was no point arguing. He only shook his head which Fareeda pretended she hadn’t noticed.
Fareeda jerked away her reverie when she felt someone’s intent gaze emanating from her right. She quickly turned her head and spotted a mildly-dark complexioned boy of around fourteen standing about four feet away; looking in her direction. He was wearing a fairly clean light blue kameez and shalwar and was neither holding any luggage, nor any items to sell. Fareeda looked back with suspicion. The next second the boy disappeared into the crowd. When she turned her head to the left, he stood there again, this time looking at her hands and then around, perhaps to check who else was watching.
Fareeda could tell he was up to no good, though he seemed to be making it way too obvious, for some odd reason. It was a pity the boy was dense enough to try and steal from her, Fareeda, who had borne and raised a son older than this boy. The poor fool was certain to learn a lesson if he tried her. She decided to follow his movements from the corner of her eye. He walked towards her and sat on the ground a foot away, leaning against the wall.
Fareeda grew more alert and frigid and kept staring in his direction. It reminded her of the time when she had volunteered to invigilate during grade five exams with the classroom teacher. She was in grade six herself at the time, her last year of schooling. Doing completely nothing and staring around for hours was not just boring but excruciating. Fareeda had realized only after the first day that she truly hated it! Nonetheless, she forced herself to volunteer day after day because she knew it put her in a position above her classmates and over the intimidated fifth-graders. But soon enough she discovered another little pleasure, the thrill of catching that one foolish student, who dared to glance at their neighbour’s exam.
Later the numbers had grown when Fareeda couldn’t handle the boredom anymore. She was sure she had heard that doe-eyed girl Noori whisper a question during the exam, or almost sure. But it was a long time ago. Fareeda enveloped this discomforting memory in the petals of optimism, always convincing herself that that incident would have taught Noori a lesson for the better. Today, she believed, Noori would be highly educated, though she had been expelled from their school the very next day for cheating. Fareeda shrugged the nagging memory away once more.
After a little while she began feeling vary of the “thief’s” dormancy and a haze of drowsiness swept over her, drooping her tense body.
“Ah!” Fareeda jerked up at the boy’s shout and dropped her purse in amazement at her feet. The boy bent down agilely fumbling a little with the slippery exterior, and handed it to the enraged Fareeda, who impulsively struck the same purse on the boy’s lowered head.
“Ow! What the hell!”
“How dare you touch my stuff?”
“Huh?” The boy stood up, bewilderment condensing on his long face.
“I know you lowly people very well.”
“What are you talking about Bibi Ji?”
“You have been staring at my purse since a good twenty minutes.”
The boy smiled amiably and shook his head. “I’ve only been looking at your wrist-watch. I came to ask you the time when I saw it. Sorry if I scared you by shouting, but it’s quite loud in here.” He turned to leave but Fareeda grabbed and pulled his arm back.
“Lies!” she stood up looking him in the eyes. The fact that she towered above him gave her more confidence. She dug her nails into his arm threateningly, turning his eyes moist.
“I’ve only been looking for my father. I’m here to pick him up.” He spoke impatiently.
Ignoring both his expressions and explanations, Fareeda frantically began looking through her purse, letting his arm go. The boy stood still.
“The ring!” she suddenly exclaimed looking up.
“My gold ring…it’s missing.” She narrowed her eyes at him.
“If we want something to be missing, we’ll always find it to be missing.” The boy responded with a calm that hinted wisdom more mature than his age.
“Don’t talk in riddles! Tell me where it is.”
“I’ve no idea Bibi Ji. You’ll find that you know the answer better than me.”
“Don’t try to act smart with me. All the cleverness in the world won’t save you from the lashes of those brute police men!” She said shaking her index finger at him.
His lower lip trembled as he spoke, “I don’t steal. Please let me go.”
“That is for the police to decide! You just wait and watch.” Fareeda tried to sound as brave and intimadatory as possible but had no idea how she would actually be able to stop a young boy from running away and getting lost among the people.
“Okay, I’ll not go anywhere until you’re satisfied.” The boy sat down beside her bench, resting his head between his bent knees. Fareeda took one skeptical look at him, pulled out her cell phone from her purse, and then stuffed the purse into her suitcase. Was the boy just a good liar, she wondered? Or did he know someone working at the police station he could simply bribe? Or was he actually telling the truth? Fareeda decided to call Anwar first and consult on the best way to handle the situation, without sounding too incompetent and negligent to him, which she herself knew she wasn’t. After a few rings, Anwar picked up.
“Salaam. Did you board the train yet?”
“Um…not yet. Soon. I…a…actually looked through my purse and…my gold ring is missing.” Fareeda was over-come by a sudden rush of emotion as she said those words, for she had prided herself on acquiring the precious ring. Though it was bought mostly with Anwar’s money, Anwar was unaware of it, as she and her dear son Asif had saved the money by telling him that their regular expenses cost more than they had. Fareeda had rewarded her loyal son by buying him a cricket bat for all his help. When naïve Asif had asked her if it counted as stealing, she had clarified that if was only “strategy and future planning”. The rest of the money Fareeda had earned through her own hard-work, sewing clothes for the neighbourhood women day and night.
“Oh come on Fareeda, don’t cry now. I was about to call and tell you about it but I got busy at the construction site. You actually forgot it on the bedside table. I saw it after you had left.”
“Oh…oh right. Yes, of course. I was admiring it last night when the phone rang… I guess I must have forgotten.” She gave a sheepish look toward the boy who still sat with his head down. “Okay…um…I’ll call you when I reach Sialkot. Khuda Hafiz, bye.”
Fareeda did not know what to say to the boy now. He had acted like such a gentleman even when she had wrongly accused him. His innocent glazed eyes, like that of Noori, flashed before her. She would have hated it if an eccentric, jumpy woman had accused her son of something so grave. She felt ashamed at the very thought. Perhaps this idea of traveling alone was not so great after all. Her paranoia was playing around with her nerves like a child pulling on the strings of a kite. She loosened her firmly wrapped shawl and cleared her throat.
“Beta, son.” The boy, with visibly damp cheeks, looked up stunned. “I…um…I am…sssorry. Maaf Karna, I judged you wrong. I left my ring at home.”
“Oh…I’m very happy for you.” He smiled ever so slightly with a hint of sorrow. “I assume you’ll permit me to leave now.”
“Yes, yes, of course. But you know, I really am…sorry.”
The boy shook his head and gave an incredulous smile. “Actually, I don’t think you’re sorry at all, to be honest. You’re just…relieved.” The boy stood up and dusted the back of his shirt, kameez.
“I assure you, I am. I only got carried away with by fear. I should have trusted you.”
“Hm…I guess it’s okay. After all, trust is something that needs to be gained.” After a slight thoughtful pause he continued. “However, if you really do want me to accept your apology, you ought to show me you at least trust me now.”
“How so?” she asked curiously as she did not mind redeeming herself for both the present and past in one go.
“Simple, let me help you carry your suitcase to the train.”
Surprised, Fareeda chuckled a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me, but knew deep down that the punishment did fit the crime. “No, no. I do not want to trouble you any further.”
“You won’t be. I’m serious. And that way I can relieve you of your guilt as well. Guilt can even melt a stone you know, and you Bibi Ji, need to be stone-strong to finish this journey alone.” He smiled his sad smile when Fareeda remained silent.
She did not like to be challenged. But more than that, she did not like to graze her ego by losing a challenge. “Alright. Fair enough.” She meant to keep him close, just in case. It was not much of a walk to the train anyway, which was now waiting on the tracks.
“Thanks.” He said pleasantly and hoisted the suitcase onto his shoulder, holding it with both hands. They had taken a few steps when a middle-aged man, heavily-laden with luggage, patted the boy on the back.
“Oye Khalid! Beta, where are you going?” the man shouted, while stopping and relieving his load onto the floor.
“Abba Ji!” The boy turned around and exclaimed looking at the man. Fareeda looked from the father to the son and then towards her train that was quickly filling up. The boy put the suitcase down and gave his father a tight hug. His eyes twinkled with joy. He pointed to Fareeda. “This kind woman is traveling alone and I was just helping her out. And this,” he continued proudly looking up at his father, “is my Abba Ji. I was waiting for him all this time.”
Fareeda gave him a smile and briefly lowered her head at the thought of her blunder. “We should get going. I would hate to miss my train.”
“Yes of course. Abba Ji, stay here please, I’ll be right back. Bibi Ji, let’s start walking.”
Fareeda strode towards the train while turning back every five seconds to look at the boy walking with her black suitcase. She finally got on and the boy followed her inside, putting the luggage under her seat.
“Okay Bibi Ji, I’ll head back now; my work’s done here. Thanks for trusting me. Maine aapko maaf kiya, I forgive you for your mistake. Have a safe trip.” The boy spoke genuinely, without any hint of a grudge.
“I should be the one thanking you. Your father must be a good man to have brought you up so well. Jog jog jiyo, may you live a long life.”
Khalid got out of the train and walked back to his father and when the train passed by him, he smiled and waved at the good woman sitting by the window. As the train rolled on, Khalid is approached by a boy, not much older than himself.
“Salaam Asif , good timing.”
“Salaam Yaar, buddy. Thanks for taking care of my mother. Good job!” Asif Aziz said with a smirk and patted Khalid on his back.
“Hey no problem. Anytime.” Khalid responded with a wink. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Good idea.” Asif responded beaming, and the two boys left with Khalid’s father and “his” entire luggage, out of the station.
Inside the train, Fareeda made herself comfortable. She felt much lighter than she had in a long while, as if a burden had been lifted from her heart. She laughed at the thought of her husband’s words, his fear for her –that had eventually driven her to the edge: “I don’t think you should travel alone Fareeda. This world is too clever. There are people who are always waiting to take advantage of others’ weaknesses.”
On the way back, Fareeda decided that she would stay much calmer, bring a few sandwiches along, and perhaps even buy an egg. Luckily, a little girl came by selling roasted kernels of corn in a paper cone, and Fareeda was in no mood to stay hungry any longer. She called the girl over to buy some, then slid her suitcase out a little from under, managed to open the zipper and found…nothing.
Her heart skipped a beat. She pushed out the suitcase. Yes, this suitcase was black just like hers, but the sun had dulled its hue. Neither was it heavy like hers. Fareeda jerked up and looked back through the window, squinting her eyes to find, among the mere dots that were once people, her suitcase in Khalid’s father’s hands.
Memories began playing in her head like a film. The boy’s words reverberated in her head, over and over. “If we want something to be missing, we’ll always find it to be missing; trust is something that needs to be gained; guilt can even melt a stone.” How could she have overlooked his explicit attempts to catch her attention; creating suspicion, transforming it into guilt, and finally metamorphosing it into trust?
“I don’t steal.” He had been right in all that he had said. After all, it was not really stealing if someone willingly handed you their valuables themselves; only “strategy and future planning”. It was a ferocious blow. But it was alas the echoing laughter of Karima and Nasima that finally rendered Fareeda unconscious.