I did well in my annual exams and have been promoted to the 10th grade. This will be my last year in the school. Come next spring, and I will be in a college, maybe in another city or a different country, away from my family. The thought makes me both, anxious and excited. My father is yet to decide about a number of details regarding this. “It is very difficult for girls to become doctors. You must work very hard.” This is all that he has ever said, but it is enough to let me spend good deal of my time playing the thrilling ‘what-if’ anticipatory game with myself.
If I did move to another town, I would miss most this ‘morning walk’ with my friends and classmates from home to school – the daily ritual has become a very personal, cultural event.
From our street we take a right into the main bazaar, it is short and safe at this hour. But we have to take a different, and a bit longer route on our way back in the afternoon as the bazaar is busy and full of men at that time.
I have walked this path for the past 10 years. I know it brick by brick, plant by plant, and ditch by ditch. However, I’m still unsure about whether the path knows me just as well. We move in droves like many prey animals in jungles do. They are watched over by predators all the time and being together works as a deterrent for them.
My school fellows walk to my house and wait outside for my two younger brothers and me to join in. My uncle jokingly calls us sheep and shouts, “the herd without the herdsman is at the doorstep, hurry up and join.” He once told me about his village life where herdsmen had contracts with villagers under which they used to go door-to-door in the mornings to collect sheep and drop them back in the evenings after grazing them in pastures all day.
My uncle is a lovely character. He calls himself a ‘horseman’. He drives a big truck in a large convoy which ferries iron ore to India. Since he remains away most of the times, his wife, my aunt, lives with us. She has very few relatives in Kabul anyways. Many of them, in fact, had been killed in the wars. Her elder brother serves in the army and is deputed in Helmand these days. He seldom visits us.
Whenever my uncle returns from his long hauls, he brings us sweets and a number of interesting tales to tell. They make perfect bedtime stories as they give one sweet dreams. Last time, he told us about how all of his driver friends went to watch a film in a cinema in India. I shared this with my ‘herd’ the next morning and it became an instant hit! They would miss a few steps to come backward to me, popping their heads over my shoulder, they asked silly questions. Who was the hero? Was it Khan? Do girls go to cinemas too? That day I was the center of ‘the herd’, walking like a celebrity surrounded by lots of fans.
But not today. My brother came to the rear twice to remind me that I was ‘the wagging tail’, walking alone at the end. “It’s OK,” I tried to tell him off and he decided to walk besides me instead of joining his chattering friends. He must be following one of the 101 rules that my mother has set for us about how we should behave when out of home.
Boys and girls are covered under separate chapters in her list of rules. She makes sure that we remember all of them, all the time. She does not want to leave anything to chance, and runs down her final checklist quickly and loudly as we’re step out of our house. “And watch out when you pass by that old broken bridge. That area is infested with drug addicts,” she took an extra step out into the street to complete her sentence.
My father taunted from behind with a chuckle, “Are you going to school? Kids, take her too. Maybe she’ll get a little wiser.”
“I know your anxiety,” my mother hit back, “you, hungry man”.
My mother serves breakfast to my father immediately after we have left. He too has to leave early to catch the bus that takes him to the site office of the gas pipeline company where he works. The pickup point is on the same route as ours, just next to that busy tea stall. This is one of the few shops in the bazaar that are open this early. It is bustling with loud chatter and laughter. A TV stuck to the wall facing the road is always blaring and the tea sippers have newspapers spread out in front of them like prayer mats. They always seem to be engaged in some heated debate.
I know politics is the men’s favorite topic, almost always. My father had invited his newlywed colleague and his wife, and some others for dinner over the past weekend. While my mother was busy preparing food, the bride chatted with my aunt. They did not know each other but since both had spent time in Peshawar as refugee children, they had a lot to share. They talked about the bygone days the entire evening. Many in the bride’s family still live in Pakistan and frequently come here as they do some cross-country business; I heard one of them deals in mobile phone sets.
My aunt is pregnant and thus my mother tries to spare her from the household work. I was doing the dishes and assisting my mother. I would take the tray topped with food to the door of our guest room, where all the males were seated, and then my brother would come out to carry it inside. I could overhear my father and his friends. America, China, Pakistan figured repeatedly in their talk. At times, their voices echoed happiness, at others these were laden with feelings of excitement or surprise. “Could you even think about this peace just a few years back?” This was my father. “I had thought that the bloody militancy would never end and I would die like a dog on some road,” his friend endorsed as their moods turned grim and the environ heavy. They sighed and were kept silent for some time as if mourning their loved ones who did die like dogs on roads.
But when I returned to the door with the next serving of kebabs, they were already past that mood and were laughing at something silly that one of them did at the workplace. One of my father’s friends who worked at a Chinese company was a fond storyteller.
There is another tea stall on this road but that is at the other end, right next to the corner of a street. Towards the end of the bazaar, there is a new plaza with a shiny glass front. We see a watchmen dozing on a chair here daily. On the ground floor of this building is a new restaurant named Kabul Fried Chicken. This is a hot spot for all the kids. It has a play area, many large TV screens and employees a few girls at the cash counter. From among my fellows, whoever has been there finds it necessary to ask everyone the next day, “Have you been there?”
We turn left from this plaza onto the road that is lined by a row of trees on both sides. This time of the year the trees are full of purple flowers and it seemed that they have evicted the leaves and themselves occupied the nodes on all the branches. The sun shines low, right in front of us, and straight into our eyes. We have to shade them with our books.
The fallen bridge and its broken ‘inhabitants’ that my mother had warned us to be watchful of, comes on our side of the road. We walk on the new bridge built besides the old one on this drain that once used to be a stream.
I know what mother meant by asking me to be watchful when crossing this point. I shall look down and straight, and not sideways, and watching my steps, shall pass as quickly as possible. I do that easily. I am used to it.
My mother is great. It seems that she already knows everything that could possibly happen to me. She has stretched for me a rope extending from the doorstep of my home right upto the gate of my school and then she has trained me to walk this tight rope. It looks easy when you watch from outside but you can never take it easy. One wrong step and you fall down in the ditch filled with filth, slime and gore. Maybe those heroin-addicts lying idle under the old bridge had fallen down from their ropes or maybe they had no parents to have stretched ropes for them at all.
But I cannot stop to make a query. There is no space for such adventures in my instruction manual. So pretending to be ignorant, I quickly walk past that bunch of men.
But I find it impossible to ignore an old man living on the footpath just ahead of my school. He surprisingly does not figure in my mother’s handbook of dos and don’ts. Does that mean I should not be afraid of him? He looks just like those addicts that come with strict warnings.
He is dirty, in tatters and sitting or lying on a filthy rug. He keeps a few bundles of probably old dresses and other things and empty cartons around him. He is always busy doing strange things, tying things together or arranging them in awkward ways. One of my mates told me that when young he was hit by a landmine and that all of his family had also died in the wars. He keeps a crutch but I have never seem him walk.
I am not sure whether I should pity him or be afraid of him. I don’t want to point it out to my mother, lest she updates her instructions manual. I wanted to “handle” this myself but was clueless.
During our exams, ‘the herd’ breaks down as the date-sheet and the time-table for every class are different. One such morning, only I had to go to school. My brothers refused to rise early and my father decided to get ready and have breakfast with me so that he could company me to school and then come back to the stop to catch his bus.
Walking the same road with my father felt very different. I was elated, fearless and happy. I wanted to dance the tight rope today. I talked to him non-stop. It was rare that he gets to listen to me only and not my brothers, and that too without anyone interrupting and volunteering with their pearls of wisdom.
But then my father did a strange thing. He stopped to meet that man in tatters. I waited uneasily at a distance. He sat down, shook hands with him and talked to him and probably gave him some money as well; I saw him put his hand in pocket to take out something.
I was restless and anxious. As soon as he joined me again, I erupted. “Are you not afraid of him? Isn’t he dangerous? Don’t you find him filthy?”
My father didn’t answer and that had an impact on my tone. “Do you know him? Has he been your friend?”
My father’s grim face was converting my anxiety into worry. “Father, say something, who is he?”
He put his hand on my head and stopped for a while. “Kid, he is our past.”
We didn’t talk to each other the rest of the way.