“This is the story of a little boy and his mother who were poor but honest,” I told my sons when they asked for a story. “His father was dead, so they lived on whatever money his mom brought home, working as a domestic help.”
Although I had a wide range of stories to choose from – fairy tales to Alif Laila, I decided to tell them a positive story from my homeland, a land they have not yet seen but are keen to know about.
When I was a child, I thought there were plenty of positive stories. Now I am not so sure. Are you?
On Eid day, the mother said to her son: “Wake up, beta, it’s time for Eid prayers.”
“Didn’t she go with him to the mosque?” asked my son Ramiz.
“No, she had to clean up their little hut and prepare something for Eid,” I lied.
I did not tell him that in my country mosques are for men only.
It would have confused my children. Their mother goes to the mosque with them. Also, at school they pray with girls, not separately.
“I hope she made a cake for him because I do not like Eid dishes,” said Ariz.
“No, beta, she did not make a cake and cooked no Eid dishes either.” This time I could not lie.
“Why not?” asked Ryan.
“Because they had no money,” I said.
“They were poor, don’t you see,” said Ariz to his brother. “They will get food from the community kitchen.”
“They lived in a small village where there was no community kitchen,” I said, not telling them that many sleep hungry in my country, Eid or no Eid.
“Why are there so many poor people where you come from, Baba?” asked Ramiz.
I did not know why but Ryan saved me. “Let’s proceed with the story,” he said.
“The boy went out of the hut and started washing himself,” I said.
“Out in the open? Didn’t they have a bathroom?” asked one of the three.
“Most people do not have bathrooms there,” I had to admit.
“They do not have bathrooms?” this time all three shouted together. “How is it possible?” asked one. “How can you not have a bathroom?” asked another.
Not sure how to respond, I said: “They had not yet built one.”
“OK, OK, so they go to a public toilet,” said the third one.
I could not tell him that I once went to a public toilet back home and could not eat the whole day.
The boy washed himself and said: “Mom, I am ready. Where is my Eid dress?”
The mother gave him his dress: a pair of old Shalwar Kameez with patches to hide the holes.
“But mom, people wear new clothes on Eid,” the boy protested.
“You know, beta, we cannot afford new clothes,” said the mother, wiping her tears.
The son, being a poor boy, understood and put on the dress. He then asked for food. The mother gave him some pieces of bread with pickles. The son, being poor, understood and ate what his mother gave.
“How could he understand so much, he was just a little boy?” asked Ramiz.
“He did,” said I, without daring to explain that where I come from poor boys and girls understand everything. They have to because they have no choice.
After he finished eating, the mother sent her poor son to the mosque, wiping her tears.
“Why just cry?” asked one of the three. “She could have done some extra work and bought her son a pair of new clothes and food for Eid day,” he said.
I could not explain that being a young widow, she did not have too many options.
The mosque was far from his hut. The boy walked slowly, with a heavy heart, looking at other boys in new clothes and with filled stomachs.
He went to the mosque and sat in a corner. No one greeted him and he greeted no one.
When the prayer was over, he got up quietly and walked out of the mosque. Nobody hugged him or said ‘Eid Mubarak’ to him.
“No, that’s not true,” said Ryan. “So many people greet you and you have to hug so many that it hurts.”
It reminded me of his comments after the Eid prayers, “enough of Eid Mubarak, dad. Let’s go home.”
“But this boy was poor,” I said.
“So nobody says Eid Mubarak to a poor boy?” asked Ariz. “That’s too bad.”
“Not exactly, there are a lot of good people too,” I defended my homeland. “They give food and clothes to the poor and say Eid Mubarak to them as well.”
It was a half-truth. I have seen people giving food and clothes but never saw people saying Eid Mubarak to the poor.
The boy was very sad. He too wanted new clothes and Eid food. Also, he did not like the way people treated him in the mosque, pushing him to the last row.
When he thought of this he too started crying. And that’s when an angel came to him.
(As I brought this angel into the story, I thought: “If the boy tells his neighbours that an angel came to him, they will accuse him of blasphemy. If they are lucky, his mother and he will spend the rest of their lives in prison. If not, they will be killed.”)
The angel came to the boy and gave him a large packet, full of new clothes, and asked: “Is this yours?”
There were plenty of clothes, for both him and his mother. So the boy felt like saying, “this is mine” but instead said: “No, this is not. I am a poor boy I do not have such clothes.”
“He was a very honest boy,” I told my children. I could not tell them that even if he were not honest, he could not have accepted those clothes. Had the neighbours seen him wearing those clothes, they would have brought the police to their hut. He could not take such risks.
The angel disappeared and came again, this time with a basket full of sweets, cakes and chocolates. The boy had seen them in city stores but had never tasted them. So when the angel asked, he almost said yes but then said, “No.”
“Honesty again,” I told my sons. I did not tell them that fear too played a key role. Since the boy did not have the resources to buy such things, he would have been accused of stealing them from a shop.
The angel disappeared and the boy went home. He told his mother how someone had tried to get him arrested by offering him new clothes and food and how he saw the trap and rejected the offers.
And the mother thought of one of the Sahebs she worked for. He lived alone, his wife lived in another city, and he often tried to take advantage of her situation. The woman told him that after her husband’s death, she had devoted her entire life to her son and had no interest in anything else.
“Is he trying to get my son arrested, so that he could have his way?” she thought. “I will stop going there,” she resolved.
Obviously, I did not say any of these to my sons.
And while the mother and the son were still discussing the incident, someone knocked. When the boy opened the door, he saw the angel again.
“Mom, it is the same man who tried to get me arrested,” said the boy. But I did not share this with my sons. I told them that the boy opened the door and invited the angel inside.
Imagine a young widow inviting an angel-looking man inside her home! How could I tell my children that had her neighbours seen this, both could have been sentenced to “death by stoning,” if not actually stoned by the neighbours themselves.
The angel showed them a box of jewellery, real gold, pearls and stones, no imitation.
“What have we done to you? Why are you after us?” asked the woman, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Tell the man who hired you, he can never get what he wants.”
The man explained that he was an angel and was here to help them. What they experienced was aimed at testing their honesty and they had passed the test. Now was the time to reward them.
“I like staring at the moon but I am not lunatic,” said the women. “Angels do not come knocking at poor people’s doors.”
But the angel showed them evidence and convinced them that he indeed was an angel.
“But how will you help us?” asked the woman. “If you gave us money, we will be accused of stealing and end up in a jail. If you built a palace for us, as you say you can, the land mafia will kill us and seize the property.”
“I can set up a business for you and teach your boy how to be a successful businessman,” said the angel.
“That is a long-term plan. Where will you live while you execute this plan?” asked the woman.
“Here with you,” said the angel.
This alarmed the woman again. “So I was right, your intentions are not good,” she said.
“No, no, no. Do not doubt my sincerity. I will come back tomorrow with a solution,” he said.
The next day, an old woman knocked at their door. “Who are you?” asked the widow.
The woman laughed and said: “I am the angel who came yesterday. I consulted other angels and they also said that in your country people can stone an angel too. So I came back as a woman.”
“But this is just a disguise and it may not work,” said the widow.
“No, it is not a disguise. I can take any shape I want,” said the angel. Obviously, I did not share any of this with my children.
The story I told them was simple: The angel stayed there as a man, bought cattle, hired people and established a successful dairy farm. He also helped the boy establish a shop in the city and returned to his abode after accomplishing the mission.
The reality is, I do not know if the angel accomplished his mission. All I know is that many men, women and children still live in abject poverty. All are waiting but no angel comes to them.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC