Habib poured water over the boy’s head, gently wringing out his hair. He then bathed his limbs, slowly lowering each arm onto the table after scrubbing it clean. He rubbed the grime and muck the boy had collected from the pavement off his feet. He clipped his overgrown nails, making sure the sharp edge of the nail cutter did not stray close to soft skin.
He patted the body dry and clothed it in the kafan.
He ensured that the boy’s eyes were closed, noting their strange coloring, for one was brown and the other a hazy grey. He lovingly swept the hair back from his forehead. Finally, he lifted the kafan over the young face.
The boy was ready for burial.
Habib had been bathing all the unclaimed corpses that turned up at the city mortuary for ten years now, preparing them for burial. He would stand next to the bodies, silent and still as they were, and watch the water, stained a murky brown and smelling of sweat and urine, wash away from their bodies and into the drain, out of sight, perhaps to melt into the sea hugging Karachi’s shore line.
All that was left behind was the clean scent of soap, the smell of fresh warm cotton.
The tiles shone bright and clean, and the scent of lavender hung in the air. Dr. Waris cleared his throat and peered into the mirror, the bright bathroom light reflecting off his bare dome-shaped head.
With a deep sigh he shook his head and ran his comb under the water. He angled his face first right then left, then began gingerly combing his greying hair over the luminescent expanse.
He sighed again, straightened his tie, and slipping his comb in his pocket, he walked out and returned to the hall where the awards ceremony was taking place.
He gently lowered his girth into the chair which creaked in protest, then waited contentedly, graciously shaking hands with students and faculty members, storing their names and the praise they offered him in his memory, to be produced later at dinner parties.
The Dean had told him he was an asset; the Chief of Surgery had stopped to enquire after his health.
Finally, his name was called and he walked up to the stage, where he firmly grasped the Dean’s hand and turned to face the photographer, blessing him with a smile designed to show wisdom, dignity, and honor. The photographer smirked and turned the flash down. The reflected glare from this bald pate would be too much for the camera.
The camera clicked as the Dean handed Dr. Waris an award honoring him for his lifelong service to the hospital.
“A real hero, an inspiration and source of guidance for our students,” the Dean said, as the hall rang with applause.
While Dr. Waris dug into his kebab paratha at the ceremony that night, Habib sat down to a solitary meal of naan and onions.
Earlier that day, Dr. Waris had been busy dipping biscuits in a cup of sweet chai in his office when he was informed there was a body waiting for him in the autopsy room.
“Some charsi, sir, an addict,” the ward boy said with a disgusted sniff.
Dr. Waris grunted to show he had heard and picked up the Autopsy Form. He put his legs up on the table, leaned back and scratched the back of his head with a pen. Time to get inventive.
Age: (“Hmm, I’ll just write mid-thirties.)
Cause of death: Overdose.
Attire: Shalwar Kameez.
Procedure: He wrote the reply he had rote learnt in medical school: Body inspected for trauma,
Y shaped incision made, all viscera inspected. Standard.
Time to think.
Dr. Waris took a long, loud sip of chai, then swore as some of it fell on the form. Wiping it clean with his white coat he started to write again.
Findings: No obvious sign of trauma. Finger tips stained black due to tobacco, needle tracks on arms, white deposits in nose, ulcerated nasal septum.
A pause in the scratching of the pen, another sip of chai.
Lungs blackened due to smoke, heart size normal, vessels show age-related atheromatous plaques.
Enough information, he thought, for a report no one would ever read.
Artwork: Do I dare disturb the universe by Usman Khan (Artist’s Instagram: @usmansarchives)
He threw the form in his “completed” bin, called the ward boy back to his office and told him to take the charsi downstairs to the morgue.
The boy’s body was wheeled into the morgue at 3 p.m., the tired front wheel squeaking in protest. It cooled down to the temperature of the morgue in fifteen minutes, the cool hands frozen like the metal they lay on.
While the boy lay frozen and heedless, a police officer, black shirt stretched tight over expanding belly, searched halfheartedly through missing person reports, ignoring the groans from an ancient fan trying to move heavy summer air, waited for enough time to pass to declare the search futile.
At 10 p.m. the next day, the boy was finally delivered into Habib’s care.
Shafqat’s lungs felt as if they would burst. His short legs stumbled on the rocky ground. Up ahead he could see Wali had reached the mountain top. Wali turned to look at Shafqat and smiled coaxingly: hurry up, little brother.
“Look at this, Shafqat,” Wali said. He flexed the kite frame between his two hands. The paper rustled, and Shafqat giggled.
Wali had made the kite himself, using twigs stolen from Ammi’s jharoo and the brown paper students at the local school used to cover their notebooks.
He showed Shafqat how to attach the string to the kite, and handed him a wooden plank with thread wrapped around it. The boys began running, Wali holding onto the thread, Shafqat running behind him with his short steps, holding the attached plank as if it were precious.
The kite jumped, stumbled, jumped and stumbled again.
Wali laughed. It reminded him of Shafqat learning how to walk.
Suddenly, a sharp breeze caught the kite and carried it skywards.
Behind Wali, Shafqat stumbled. The sound broke Wali’s concentration for a minute. He turned back to make sure Shafqat was okay. The wind was greedy that day, and making use of Wali’s momentary distraction it tore the kite out from his hands.
The boys watched as the kite was battered here and there by the wind. Shafqat played at catching it, while Wali laughed. Finally, Shafqat gave up and fell to the ground on his back, watching the small brown dot disappear into the horizon.
They said the umbilical cord clamped around his neck as he slipped out of the womb, as if to drag him back in. They said it might have obstructed the blood flow to his brain.
To his eyes.
Whatever the cause, one of Wali’s eyes was a firm, resolute brown. Local, normal. The other was a misty ethereal grey, the edges between the iris and the sclera a little blurred; indistinct.
The villagers had said all sorts of things about him: they said he was a magician, that he would grow up to be a man of God, that he was the son of a jinn.
The wild rumors frightened Sakina, but she found comfort in the idea that her son might enjoy God’s special favor, so she named him Walliullah, God’s friend.
The cord clamped around his neck didn’t just earn Wali his name; it also starved his young, growing brain of oxygen.
When he grew older, he showed aptitude for making things with his hands. He could dismantle Sakina’s old transistor, and put it back together. He could fix a broken socket or wire in a trice. But he never managed to read. He would learn what his Qari Sahib told him, and then forget it the next day. He would sit, poring over the letters that never made sense to him, until Sakina began to fear for his eyes.
For this, Sakina always blamed the dai who had botched the delivery.
Finally, exhausted from watching him worry and fret over his books, she made the decision to send him to Karachi, where he could work as an apprentice at a mechanic’s shop.
The sun beat down upon Wali’s head as he squirmed, trying to find a comfortable position on the burning curb, hard beneath his bony feet. The tap tap from a leaky faucet outside the shop broke into his already jumbled thoughts and the frown lines on his forehead deepened with each passing second.
Saqib, who had been watching Wali, sauntered over and plopped down on the curb next to him.
“Something bugging you, Wali?”
Wali shook his head and looked away.
“As you wish,” Saqib shrugged and began chewing on a half-eaten paratha he had pulled out of his pocket.
Wali watched Saqib out of the corner of his eyes while Saqib pretended to watch the traffic, ignoring Wali’s hungry stare. Finally, he dusted his fingers clean and looked over at Wali.
“I haven’t eaten since yesterday, Saqib Bhai, of course I’m hungry.”
“You should’ve said. Here, take this, it will take care of your hunger.”
“It’s what the old crones in your village fill their hookahs with.”
“Yeah, of a special kind. See, it’s white, instead of the cheap black tobacco you get in your gaon.”
“Why are you giving me tambaku? How on earth does this help, yaar, Saqib bhai?”
“You’re an idiot, Wali. If I’m giving you this, of course there’s a purpose for it. Tambaku kills your appetite like nothing else, gadhay. Here, let me show how we in the city use it.”