“What you seek, is seeking you.”- Jalaluddin Rumi
She stood behind the tombstone of one of the lesser known Sultans of a dynasty that once soared into the skies higher than its international counterparts. Only now, it looked desolate, forlorn. Like a mansion that’s abandoned in a fire, left hurriedly, and never returned to. She stood at its edge, eating the leftover edible skin of the raw mango, consumed more than half by the army of ants. Her sister, Masoom, stood at a distance, trying to make a perfect throw at the tree with the wild berries with the pebbles she’d collected this morning, chosen especially for this task. After all, she’s been eyeing the maroon berries for quite some time now. They look scrumptious, they’d make a nice breakfast, she tells herself. Masoom comes back to where she is standing, a few berries in her hands. “They don’t taste as good as I thought they will. Not bad either. Here, take some”, she offers a generous share of her already meagre share of natural resources.
They’d named her Afrah, her folks. It means happiness, one of the few English words she’s learnt over these years. When curious foreigners ask her what her name means, she’s learnt to tell them, Afrah. Khushi. Happiness. They smile and give her small tips, sometimes an anna, sometimes two. She likes working in the petty eatery, peeling vegetables, washing the glasses, and even though Faizal mian doesn’t pay her much, she relishes the roti-tadka, and the occasional beef nahri. They come here to explore ‘the true Dilli’, the one they’ve read in history books and watched in historical movies. Some of them come here for photoshoots, to add fancy portfolios to their résumé, she overhears them talking. She wonders what hers would say, Afrah Saleem, Vegetable peeler by day, ragpicker by night. Faizal mian treats her as his child, for that she’s grateful. Without him, she and Masoom would have died of hunger long back. But he’s not their father; he can’t send them to the madarsa to study, he’s paying her, she has to work, that’s how the rules are.
The apartments in Mehrauli are quite well-maintained, she observes on her way to the tombstone, her home, their home. She’s heard they charge 8 rupees per unit for electricity. “Saara paisa current ke paise mein hi jaata hoga”, she thinks. (They probably spend all their money on electricity bills.) She laughs in her head. It’s funny, even in her weirdest imagination, that someone could spend money in amounts she only dreamed of on something that she never had access to in her entire life. When she’s led a life of roti and kapda, without the makaan, things like electricity seem like a faraway dream.
She doesn’t remember her Ammi, she died when Masoom was born, she was only two at that time. She doesn’t recall how her Abbu used to look, but that’s a different story altogether. He was always in hiding, either from the police or from his fellow comrades, as he used to call them. Few days after he realised it’s not worth the risk and left the movement, someone shot him at 4 in the morning when he went to pee in the field. Afrah was four, Masoom was two. They didn’t have preschools then like they do in almost every street now, and Afrah had just begun to learn the alphabet, a bit of English, a bit of Urdu. Abbu used to teach her in the evenings when he was home. And now, they had no Abbu and no home. The first few months were terrible, they felt like an infant who’s sent to a marathon but never taught to walk, like the world is a matchstick and they’re a forest fire waiting to happen, vulnerable, exposed. Then, it started to sink in, the wholeness and the emtpiness, the gravity of it all-they were orphans, they would have to put an extra word before their parents’ names-“late”, the idea that they were all alone was unsettling, terrifying, especially if you’re the elder one, and especially when you’re hardly five years old.
She puts her finger on the engraving on the tombstone, she couldn’t read it, no one taught her Urdu after Abbu, but it looked like someone had carved a prayer that couldn’t be said because so little time is allotted to the ones who live, like there’s an assurance with the dead, they’re not going anywhere, they will stay dead. She tries to understand its touch, like its written in Braille, like it’s meaning will find her, tell her something about wars won and kingdoms lost, but it doesn’t. Masoom watches her from a distance, she’s the smarter one, more practical. It’s the beginning of Ramadan tomorrow, and she knows there will be good food all over the city. “Beggars look cleaner than rag pickers, so we need to look like beggars for the next 40 days”, she wisely tells Afrah, who’s half-listening to the crickets and half wondering the meaning of words she’s not able to decipher. Masoom shakes her head in disgust, she knows Afrah will spend a good half hour thinking of things that aren’t meant to be. She goes from grave to grave, picking up their clothes that she’d left to dry. Once she’s done, she braids her hair hastily but skillfully, applying coconut oil out of a used Parachute tin. After two whole minutes of persuasion, Afrah does the same. They don’t have doors to lock, windows to bolt. But it’s a habit, they look back at the graveyard once to check if everything’s in place, like people check their homes before going out, only their home looked like no one lived in it.
They go to one of the 8-rupees-per-unit-electricity-paying apartments, and knock the first door. A man in a Pathan suit, probably in his early sixties, opens the door. “You’re just in time for iftar“, he says. In a strange way, his warmth reminds her of Abbu. He leads them to a room where a few people had gathered and food was being served.
“What’s your name, beta?”, someone asks.
No one asks her what it means. Either they know, or they assume that she doesn’t. Either way, it saves her the trouble.
Happiness, Khushi, Afrah, Masoom tells her when she sees the food on their paper plates, that for once, they’re not required to wash.