They had come to the city, just a week ago. Amaan had long back wanted to be transferred to the city.
Sonu climbed up oil the plastic table and opened the little door of the snacks cabinet and found a variety of biscuits, cakes, cookies and several other refreshments, and for just one moment he disregarded the anguish tearing at his heart and smiled. Wiping the fresh tear from his tear-stained cheek with the long sleeve of his night dress, he caught hold of a tin of biscuits and dragged down his five year old body from the table. He was feeling hungry…badly hungry. He had had nothing to eat since the morning and his two and a half year old sister Sobia was also hungry. She seemed to be exhausted, having spent the whole day crying for her mother, lying on her bed. Too much of crying had weakened her, she laid her little head with its curly hair down on her mother’s outstretched arms. Perhaps, she had been sleeping the whole day and had just then entered the drawing room.
They had come to the city, just a week ago. Amaan had long back wanted to be transferred to the city. But, there was a major hurdle, it was difficult to get accommodation. Anwar, who belonged to the same town, also worked in the same company. But he was connected with the head office and lived in the city. The company had allotted residential accommodation to him. having been serving the company for more than twenty five years. Very few employees, who had joined after Anwar had been provided with a flat. Bachelor employees would share a room in twos or threes like a hostel.
It was a difficult situation for married employees. Amaan was the branch manager of his company in the town. Anwar would visit his home town every two or three months on some company work and see his parents. This time, Anwar had brought some dreams for Amaan, like living in the big city, educating children in prestigious schools, and exploring the new avenues of promotion while working in the head office. He had sought retirement and had arranged Amaan’s transfer.
Had Amaan not reached in time, he would have had to wait for many years for a family flat and be compelled to stay in bachelor quarters. Anwar had not deposited the keys of the flat in the office, as he wanted to do it in Amaan’s presence. The Deputy Director respected Anwar and Anwar was confident that he would comply with his request. In fact, Anwar wanted that the decision in Amaan’s favor should be taken before others came to know of it.
Amaan completed all his preparations within two days and left for the city, along with Zeba and his children.
Anwar’s flat was the topmost flat of the fourteen storied building. There were three flats in every storey, except for the topmost one. There was only one flat in that storey, the rest of the space had been occupied by water storage tanks on one side and Dish antennae on the other. There was a big terrace over it. Looking down from there, the city looked like a gem-studded stole on the dress of a bride. Two flats on the second last story were occupied, the third one was under dispute. One of the two flats was occupied by Mr. Bhasin, who worked in the same company where Amaan worked. Zeba had liked the flat and Amaan had liked the city. It was a spacious flat with three bed-rooms, a drawing room, a kitchen, dressing room and attached bathrooms. The roof was quite high and there were big doors and windows. The flat was furnished and decorated within three days, with all the requisite goods in place, except a telephone. The telephone bill for the last three months had not been cleared, but Amaan was expected to do this bit in lieu of ail the favors extended by Anwar, whose gratuity could otherwise be affected. Amaan had to settle the pending electric bills for the electric connection to be restored. In fact, he hadn’t gotten time to settle the telephone bill. He hadn’t been able to visit the office after he joined. He knew it would be impossible to live in the city without electricity. He went to the office on the second day, after receiving a call through Mr. Bhasin. He had to go for a visit to the site for a day. He couldn’t renira the next day. because of the work there.
When the door bell rang in the morning. Sonu woke up. Zeba and Sobia were still asleep. Sonu went to the door, opened the lower bolt, but his hand couldn’t reach the upper bolt, though he was standing on a table. He had called out, "who is there?" But. there was no response. The caller might not have heard his voice and left. He even called his mother "Mummy, somebody is ringing the door bell" but Mummy didn’t wake up. She seemed to be sleeping a strange kind of sleep. His loud call woke up Sobia (sobi-for short). She opened her eyes, sat up on the bed. looked here and there hearing her brother’s voice, she too started calling her mother- Mummy Mummy wasn’t speaking at all.
When her mother didn’t reply, Sobi began to weep. Sonu shook her and said, "Be quiet, why are you weeping? Mummy is sleeping", trying to console her.
When the door bell rang again. Sonu tried to awaken his mother. He went to the door and said "Who is there? – again there was no response. He returned to the room. Sobi was sobbing. Sonu looked at her and then studied his mother’s face. He shook his mother with all the strength he could muster, but she continued lying there insensitive and unconscious, with no trace of a feeling. He was silent for sometime, and then went to his sister and wiped her tiny tears with his small hands. "Don’t weep. Sobi. Mummy is sleeping". But Sobi didn’t stop weeping. He shouted. "Be quiet" and then burst into tears. The two wailed, but the mother didn’t speak nor make any movement to quieten, tliem. Tired, Sobi fell asleep.
Sonu went to his mother, holding her face in his hands, he tried to move it. He cried. "Mummy, Mum…m..y.ieee..". With much love and affection. No reply. He went to the drawing room, shifting the curtain of the window, he began looking outside. There was a big park in front, and children looking like colourful toys were playing there. There were swings, of different types installed there. Many handcarts, were moving here and there selling their wafers, ice-creams wafers etc There were bottles of cold drinks also on a cart. On the road adjoining the park, countless cars were racing. Sonu had never seen so many things, and in such a diminutive form. Strange thoughts came to him and many questions confronted him. He returned to the bed room. ‘Mummy’ he moaned and lay his head on her chest and sobbed. Her nightdress quite drenched with his tears. But, she didn’t open her eyes. Exhausted he fell asleep.
"loo-loo" came Sobi’s voice who shifted her look from her mother to Sonu. You want to go to toilet?" Sonu said. Sobi nodded. Sonu opened the door of the bathroom. It was dusk now. Sobi returned from the bathroom and lay down near her mother. "Mummy, Mummy," she tried to open her mother’s eyes with her forefinger. Having failed, she resumed weeping. Sonu looked on helplessly. "Mummy, wake up. Sobi is weeping. She is hungry", he said in a tearful voice. He too was hungry. He hadn’t thought of it. but Sobi’s hunger reminded him of his own. He went to the kitchen. All the utensils were washed and neatly arranged. But, there was nothing to eat. He opened the fridge. There were apples in it. He took out two apples and returned to the room. He tried to nibble at one of the apples. The second he gave to Sobi. Sobi tried to eat. But her eight tiny teeth couldn’t bite the hard peel of the apple. She could only leave a scar on the surface. Silently, she looked at her brother. Sonu bit a piece of the apple and gave it to her. She tried to chew it move it in the mouth and finally swallowed it. When both the apples were consumed, Sonu got the last apple from the fridge, and tlie children struggled with it for some time. Again they tried to wake up their mother. She didn’t speak. The children tried to shake her, weeping all along. It was so hot in the room, yet mummy’s body was cold. Who knows why, finally, sleep overpowered the children.
Mummy didn’t wake up the next morning. The door bell rang and Sonu got up once again, he called, "Who is there ?" No response. Perhaps Sonu’s weak voice couldn’t penetrate the strong walls or the door. Sonu returned, and Sobi got up. She started weeping, went to her mother, and being disappointed she came back sobbing. Her tiny face seemed to have withered. Sonu was in the kitchen looking into the fridge . The previous day’s milk had turned sour. Seeing Sobi, he put his arm on her shoulder and very affectionately asked, "Will you have some milk?" "yes’, she said nodding. He tried to pour this milk into Sobi’s feeder and in the process a lot of milk was spattered. When he succeeded in pouring some milk into the feeder, he handed it over to Sobi. She lay on the floor and tried to drink the milk. When something obstructed the flow of milk, she would suck the nipple with full might and stamp her feet. Sonu also had some spoonfuls of milk. When the feeder was emptied, she went to the bed room, calling out "Mummy" Sonu also came into the room and standing at the door, looked at his mother.
Mummy didn’t look nice today.
Mr. Bhasin’s part time maid servant had come up in the morning but nobody had opened the door. As it is. Amaan had phoned Bhasin that he had been held up for a day and would return the next day. He wanted the message to be conveyed. Because he knew that Zeba would get depressed and apprehensive. The maid had returned, thinking that the family was out or still sleeping or whatever.
Sonu said, "come on Sobi, we shall have a look at the outside". She shook her head, "no, no, with Mummy".
"Mummy does not speak. Come", he said very sadly. His face had a pale look and his lips were parched. Sobi was sucking her thumb with her head on her mother’s outstretched arm.
Sonu went near Sobi. He felt that a bad smell was coming. From mummy’s arm. Mummy hadn’t bathed yesterday nor changed her clothes that’s why. They too hadn’t there bath. He sniffed his own clothes, but got a whiff of the baby powder used the day before. Again he looked at Mummy. Her appearance seemed to have undergone a change. Walking back slowly, along the wall, he reached the other comer of the room. His looks were concentrated on Mummy’s face. Then he sat down. A strange fear was there. Though feeling sleepy, he was still thinking, not being able to comprehend. Opening his eyes, he cast another look at the face from a distance. He could see the soles of the feet of his mothers, then other parts of the body and finally her head. His heart was thumping. He hurriedly covered his eyes with his hands, remained like this for a few minuets and fell asleep, squatting on the floor, chin touching the knees
Next morning the door bell rang. Sonu got up. went to the door helplessly and returned. Had he been at his home, he would have opened the window and called out. But here, he could neither open the door nor the window. Even if he would be able to open the window, who would hear his call from this height? Looking at his mother, he felt that her face looked like old withered flowers in a flower pot without water. She had changed. Her colour seemed to be that of the clay. It couldn’t be Mummy. She had a fair complexion. Had she changed? Or is it somebody else, a strange creature resembling a human being? These thoughts made him to scream. Sobi opened her eyes and joined him in crying. Crying loudly, he rushed out of the room, and came in to the drawing room, hiding himself behind a sofa. His whole being was trembling, tears rushing down his cheek. Sobi cried "Brother, Brother" and came after him. A sense of responsibility gave him fresh courage and he came out of his hiding. Holding his sister’s face in his hands, he wiped his tears. He felt that Sobi was running temperature. She sobbed, “water". “You have fever. Come here and lie down. I shall get water for you", Sonu said. He helped his sister to sit on the sofa and went to the kitchen. Taking out a bottle from the fridge, he poured water into a glass. The bottle had to be emptied to fill the glass. With the glass of water and a spoon, he went to his sister and helped her to drink water, taking an occasional drop himself.
"Are you hungry?" he asked Sobi who shook her head. In the morning the door bell had been rung by Bhasin’s part time maid servant. Arnaan had telephoned and the maid had been asked to convey the message. She had pressed the bell three or four times and then left.
Sobi was lying on the sofa in a very weak condition. Like a responsible brother, Sonu was sitting near her. Sometimes they would doze off. Perhaps, this was due to the constant fear they had been experiencing or/and because of their having been living in this polluted atmosphere for so much time. Sometimes, Sonu would look stealthily towards the bedroom, but would quickly turn away his face, and tears would rush down.
When Sobi woke up, she began to cry. The way mummy asks in an affectionate voice Sonu asked, "Will you have milk? But there is no milk. O. K. I will bring something else.” He was also feeling the pangs of hunger. Dragging a plastic table, he stationed it near the cupboard. When he came back with a tin of biscuits, involuntarily he looked towards the bedroom. He wanted to escape into the drawing room. He was conscious that it was not his Mummy lying there. He didn’t know what it was. He observed that this Mummy – like "thing" had "expanded" or "swollen", the closed eyes seemed to be sunken, the limbs were of a strange colour. He shrieked and ran towards the drawing room. His face had lost all colour because of fear and he was profusely sweating. He would have lost his consciousness, but his sense of duty towards his sister, suffering from fever, lying there on the sofa, kept him standing. He stopped himself and controlled the shriek. With a smiling face, he went to his sister. "I have got biscuits", he said in a shaky voice. "Will you have some" he asked very affectionately. Sobi kept on staring at his brother.
Translated by Miraan Panjabi
Dr. Tarannum Riyaz is the recipient of SAARC Literature Award 2014. She is a Senior Fellow with The Ministry of Culture, Government of India. She was born and educated at Srinagar, Kashmir. She has authored more than 16 books of Fiction, Criticism and Poetry and her works have been the subject of Ph.D and M. phil degrees. She has been lecturing in several prestigious universities and educational institutions in India and abroad.