The Regent’s Park Mosque was filled with people who had come to participate in his namaz-e-janaza after the Friday prayer and pay their respect. His body was to be buried in the Trent Park cemetery in Cockfosters. I stood on a side outside the mosque after the namaz, a little away from the throngs of people. He was a well-known and well-liked person. I couldn’t see his son; so many people must be condoling with him. I wondered what his thoughts were. But then what does one think when one has lost a dear one? It is the numbness that sees you through the bereavement, isn’t it?
“They haven’t told his elder brother about his passing away.” I heard a voice from a group of people standing next to me.
“Why?” someone asked.
“The two brothers were very close. The older one is also not too well and his son hasn’t the courage to let him know about it. He lives in Karachi.”
I recalled the son telling me that his uncle had called the day his father passed away and had insisted on speaking to his brother. They had told him he was not home.
I gave up the idea of meeting with the son in this crowd of so many important people and slowly walked in the direction of the Baker street tube station; I had condoled with the son on the phone a day earlier. The deceased was a student of my uncle and had later become a dear family friend of his family; I had known of him all my life but had never met him in Karachi. It was later when he was living a retired life in Finchley road, London and I had bought a flat in Swiss Cottage that we had chanced to meet and then had kept in touch. He was a kind man with a naughty gleam in his eyes and a wicked sense of humour.
I walked on leisurely and glanced at a sign on the other side of the road that said ‘Mumtaz Mahal’; the aroma of fried fish wafting towards me made me realize I was hungry. It was a sunny day with a crisp breeze. I entered the neat and well-lighted interior of the restaurant and waited to be seated. There weren’t many people around and the waiter who guided me to a table was young, cheerful and talkative.
“Where are you from?” He asked me as he pulled a chair out for me.
“I am from Pakistan.” I told him.
“Are you a Punjabi?” He seemed a curious soul. I glanced at the menu.
“I am from Bangladesh.” He grinned good-naturedly as he waited to take my order.
I softened and smiled. “I am a Pakistani born in Bangladesh.”
“Oh, Oh, where? Where were you born?”
What an excitable chap, I thought to myself as I told him I was born in Kushtia.
“I am from Jashore, a neighboring city.” His eyes sparkled as he informed me. “Why don’t you go over the menu carefully and I will come back in a bit.”
As I gazed at the menu my mind wandered back in time. Kushtia was a quiet, lazy little town with gracious and friendly people. Our neighborhood had houses with adjoining walls. The houses on either side of our house belonged to my friends. I was eleven years old at that time and went, with my elder brother, to the Residential Public School for boys in Dhaka―then Dacca―and during holidays when we returned home we would climb over the wall into each others houses in the afternoons when our parents rested instead of taking the road.
The evocative memory of one summer night surfaced in my mind with a vividness that shocked me. That evening I was reading in my room when I sensed that the house seemed unusually quiet; the servants tiptoed around. Curiosity took me to my parents’ bedroom; I saw my baby brother―he was a beautiful baby and I loved to play with him although he was only two years old. He seemed in a lot of discomfort. He had a mask on his face and he was breathing in gulps. Dr Mahmood, our local physician, was bending over him. My mother was sitting on the bed next to him and my father stood on one side looking at the doctor. I scampered back to my room and lay down in my bed; I don’t know when I went to sleep. It must be the middle of night when my father woke me up and took me to his bedroom. The room was filled with people. My mother was sitting on the bed with my baby brother sleeping in her lap; I sighed with relief. My father took him in his arms from my mother and lowered him towards me. “Have a look at your brother.” He said and I looked at his face; he was sleeping peacefully. My father then took him outside the door into the garden. I trailed behind. There was an enclosed area in a corner of the lawn and there were big gas lanterns lighting up the area. It seemed eerie to me and I ran inside hovering on the edge of the people gathered inside. My mother was quietly sitting on one side with her head covered.
And then my father came inside with a small white bundle. He brought it to my mother; she kissed it and then my father went out holding it on his out-stretched arms. Somebody put an arm round my shoulder and I looked up to see our old cook, Sattar Mian, standing next to me.
“Why are there so many people in our house?” I whispered to him
“To bid farewell to your brother.”
“But he is sleeping so peacefully. They might wake him.”
Sattar Mian hugged me and wept.
“Sir, would you like to order now?” I was startled back to reality and saw the grinning waiter standing next to me, ready with his pencil and note pad.
“Yes, of course.”
“May I suggest our fish tikka, sir?”
I had lost my appetite.
And then he lowered his voice and whispered, “Kushtia is now a breeding ground of terrorists, you know.”
I looked up at him blankly. A picture of my mother covering the top of my baby brother’s tiny cemented grave with red roses swam in front of my eyes and faded away.
Shahbano Alvi is the founder and publisher of the independent publishing house Ushba (founded in 2001), which publishes academic, educational and general books.
She writes short stories in English and Urdu and compiled ten books of children’s poetry in 2001. Her stories in English and Urdu have been published in various prestigious literary journals eg Kitaab.org, Adb-e-Lateef and Ravi (the Government College University’s literary journal). Her first collection of English short stories, A woman and the Afternoon Sun, was published in 2021 and a second book, House of treasures: Perspectives on Urdu literature, co-edited by her was published in 2022. Her collection of Urdu short stories Aaj seh hoja razi is forthcoming in December 2023. She has also translated works from Urdu and English. Her second collection of short stories is ready to be published. These days she is working on her collection of Urdu poems.
Her first film Mera Dost Ayaz (written and directed by her) was completed in July 2023 and has been selected in the Gandhara International Film Festival to be shown globally.
She is a print maker and photographer and has exhibited her woodcuts and portraits in pastel both nationally and internationally.
She set up the design department of OUP Pakistan in 1991 and worked on a contract as a designer of Educational Trade Books for Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, in the year 1999. She helped design the text formats of the millennium editions of the Oxford Children’s Dictionaries, Oxford School Dictionary and Oxford Study Dictionary.
Irfan Abdullah, born in Lahore, where he lives and works, majored in painting from National College of Arts Lahore, and graduated with a Distinction in 2022. He works on capturing the experiences of human bodies through the manipulation of different materials and cultural ideologies, to build installations and figurative sculptures. Irfan has exhibited in many galleries including O Art Space, VM Art Gallery, Pakistan Art Forum, Koel, Full Circle Gallery, Alhamra Art Council, Haam Gallery, Lakeer, Ejaz Art Gallery, Art Chowk, Dominion Gallery and Como Museum.