What had started off as a joke, was a full-on mission now.
It had begun a week ago when my father’s entire family had arrived to spend their summer vacation with us. The games with my cousins took on a new level, because we all happened to be competitive. That day, it was an intense daring game and I played it no matter how much I despised it because, after all, we were together only once a year.
We were all sitting cross-legged in the living room, ready to begin the game. Our living room is pretty large and furnished well so that we had to moved all four sofas and coffee tables to the sides to make space for all seven of us. It started off easily, but soon the dares turned audacious, and before long the bottle rotated towards me.
All my cousins had joined their heads to decide on a dare when the front door opened. All the elders were outside and the sound of a door slamming shut echoed through the house. We all poked our heads out of the living room to see Hassan Bhai standing in the hallway with his eyes lowered, looking at something in his hands. It was a picture.
At the worst possible time, my cousin Ali sneezed loudly and Hassan bhai looked up to see all of us staring at him.
Anger laced his words as he shouted, “What are you all looking at?” He immediately went upstairs and soon after that, we heard another door slam shut.
I didn’t realise that I had been holding my breath. I relaxed and looked at Ali, who asked everyone, “What’s wrong with him?”
I sighed heavily, “I don’t know.” Silence ensued.
I looked up to six faces grinning mischievously as Sana spoke, “But you could find out. Right?”
But I hadn’t been lying about not knowing what was wrong with Hassan bhai. He was four years elder to me, hence in college, but that didn’t stop him from acting like a typical older brother whenever we were around each other. Nevertheless, he had good looks and a soft-hearted nature that attracted girls to him whenever we went out. I was his sister after all, I noticed everything.
However, last month, we had come home from dinner to an enraged Hassan Bhai pacing in the living room. I didn’t know what my parents saw in his eyes, but they immediately sent me to my room. For hours they had a heated conversation, and the only thing stopping me from eavesdropping was the lock outside my door. The next day, I expected more shouting or at least anger, but I came downstairs to my father drinking his morning coffee as usual.
Upon looking at my questioning face, he simply answered, “Your brother went back.” And that was that. A week later, my brother returned for summer holidays, but he was somehow distant.
I thought I had been the only one to notice, but everyone saw between his aloof attitude and clipped conversations. Which was why, when I was given the dare, all seven of my cousins agreed to be my accomplices in this mission. But only Ali happened to be helpful, by starting to observe my brother’s schedule. A week later, Ali sent me a text.
“We are going to look in his drawers.”
I was pacing furiously in my room while I waited for them to leave, and the clothes scattered all around my room didn’t help a bit. Once, I was sure that I had heard the front door close, I went to his room and knocked. There was no answer. I took a deep breath in, let it out and entered his room. Since he had exploded in front of all the cousins, I hadn’t been in his room but it appeared to be the same. It was a mess all around with piles of clothes everywhere. I wondered how his jeans had reached the fan! There were piles of books, CDs and disposable razors.
An awful smell invaded my nostrils and I quickly pinched them to survive in that den. Remembering the purpose of me being in his room, I started looking around for the picture. Ali had told me to look into his drawers.
I started rummaging through his drawers. Side table drawer — nothing. Desk drawer — nothing. Cupboard drawer — thank God I knew what it had. My hopes were diminishing every second, and I was about to shut the cupboard when I saw a small box hidden away behind his hanging clothes.
I quickly sat on his bed, my back to the door. Sure enough, when I opened the box, there was a picture of a woman who seemed to be in her late thirties, sitting on a rock, wearing a full-length dress. It was hard to describe her face, but there were wrinkles on her forehead. I was so absorbed in remembering the picture that I didn’t notice a shadow looming over me until Hassan bhai’s voice shouted, “What are you searching for in this room? You have no right to be here!”
I jumped frantically from my place on the bed only to look at his enraged face. “Oh no, he’s mad at me!” I thought.
“What are you doing here?” he yelled again.
“I… I was j… just here to… clean your room!” I stammered.
I tried to hide the picture behind my back, but it was too late. He marched towards me to take the photo out of my hands before yelling, “Get out!”
Knowing it was useless to apologise, I walked to the door before stopping and turning around to catch him looking at the picture with his mind lost in thought.
I spoke quietly, “It was just for a dare.” I paused, “No. Actually, I was worried about you. Everyone is. But all you care about is yelling and shouting at everyone. ”
I turned around again when I heard him whisper, “You don’t know anything.”
I walked over to him and said, “Then tell me.”
He sighed before covering his mouth with his hands so that his words came out all jumbled up and only one word was clear: “Adopted.”
I, being me, took it wrongly and panicked, “I knew it! I knew it! I don’t look as good as you. And my grades? Nowhere near yours. I knew I was adopted! But … but why didn’t they tell me before?” I cried.
“Hey, dumbo!” I look at him waiting for him to continue, “I am adopted.”
I opened my mouth to speak and then shut it. It took me a moment to register what he had just said, “What?”
He lay back on the bed, an arm covering his eyes. “You heard me right. Mum and dad adopted me when I was a year old.”
As if like a clock ticking away time, all the events of the past two weeks clicked together and I could only ask one thing, “How?”
“How did I get adopted or how did I get to know about it?”
“Both,” I replied. He hesitated for a second before answering, “I can’t exactly answer the first question. But how did I get to know? It was through my friend, Rayyan. I met him that day I came to talk to mum and dad. Apparently, his parents somehow got to know about it through dad, and they told him. He thought I already knew it.”
“We didn’t call their families ‘the busybodies’ for nothing,” I muttered. He passed me a warm smile. “So that’s your mother?” I asked.
Immediately, his posture changed, and he set up, looking at me right in the eyes. It was a little creepy, to be honest. He nodded, cleared his throat and spoke, “Yes. Mum gave it to me that day. She said it was the only thing in the portfolio that could help me … if I wanted to find her.”
I quirked an eyebrow, “Do you? I mean, do you want to find her?” He chewed on his lower lip before answering, “I am not so sure. I mean, it would be nice to see my biological mother. But I am afraid that Mum and Dad will be upset, and I don’t want to upset them.”
“If they gave you her picture, they want you to contact her.”
He sighed heavily, “I guess.”
“Good.” Thinking about this situation, a slow smile spread across my face as I asked, “Can I ask you something?”
Unsure of what I was going to ask, he simply nodded.
“I dare you, Hassan bhai. Go talk to her.”
Published in Dawn, Young World, February 15th, 2020