I was sleeping when suddenly it started banging inside my ears, and I jumped up on the bed. As I looked out of the window, I could see the egg-yolk sun in the sky. Just then, Ab came running up to me, grabbed my arm and took me outside. Everything was broken all around us—big chunks of stones and concrete. As I walked out with Ab, I saw Umm standing outside the door. She was crying. Then I saw the fat blue bulldozer walking away—the monster machine that always smashed the walls of our homes.
When I came inside, I couldn’t find Husna on the bed. I dug under the pillow and bed sheet to look for her, but she wasn’t there. When I looked around, I saw everything mixed up on the floor. The calendar, the wall clock, which was broken, my favourite flower vase with Umm’s beautiful flower painting, Ab’s books, his glasses—everything was on the floor. I looked for my doll, but couldn’t see Husna in the mess. The walls were cracked and pieces of them were lying in the mix too.
* * *
I ran to Umm in the kitchen. She was boiling water for tea and making toast. I asked her, “Where is Husna? She’s not on the bed.”
“We’ll find her, sweetheart. Where could she go? She must be hiding somewhere in the mess.” Umm said with a smile, but I knew she was sad. The smile didn’t light her whole face like when she was really happy.
“Are we going to a new camp again?” I asked her.
“I guess so.”
“And my birthday? You said we will have a special celebration this time…” My voice cracked a bit as I said this, but Umm came closer to me, held my chin up and said, “That’s not like my Rasha. Of course, we’ll celebrate! We still have a week. Things will be fine, my angel.”
“Why do the bulldozer people break our homes all the time?”
“I wish I knew, Rasha. And I wish they knew themselves.”
I feel scared when Umm talks like that, when she doesn’t give me a straight answer and looks all so glum. So I asked her an easier question.
“When are we going to the camp?”
“Let’s see. Marouf uncle will come with some of his friends and tell us. Come, let’s eat something now. Would you go and call your Ab?”
So I ran back, then crossed the messy room on tip toes and walked out. There, Ab sat over some piled up concrete. He was holding his head in his hands. I went over to him, but his face was down, so he couldn’t see me.
“Ab,” I say, not too loud, “Come, Umm is calling you for breakfast.”
Ab looked up and held my hand. He squeezed them real tight. I found it funny that his palms were wet. I told him about Husna. He didn’t say anything, but hugged me to his chest. Then he got up, still holding my hand, and we walked back toward our home. Just before entering, I saw Husna’s head near the broken door. I quickly picked it up and started to look for her body, but couldn’t find it anywhere. I felt so terrible that I wanted to cry, but looking at Ab, I didn’t. He let out a big, deep breath.
At breakfast, all three of us were quiet. Just like we are every time the bulldozer people come and blow up our homes. Umm and Ab looked at each other a few times, then Ab turned his face away and looked out of the door.
Soon, Marouf uncle and his friends came over. Ab went out with them, and they all sat down on small stools Umm placed for them. I looked from the door—the faces of all the uncles were so sad, even though they never lost a doll like I did.
* * *
The new camp is so crowded. We now have just one small room in which we eat, sleep, do school work, and it’s the same room in which Umm has to cook too. And the stink from the open drains makes me feel sick in the stomach. There are no olive trees around either, and I miss those too.
It’s a new day, and Ab walks me to school. On our way, he stops before another crumbled building. That’s the hospital where he works. All the doctor uncles are his friends and give him medicines for free. I would be happier if they gave him ghraybehs instead, although I know nobody can make better ghraybehs than Umm.
Ab studied math at school and says he does counting work at the hospital, so they call him the accountant there. I count pretty well too, but the hospital won’t have kids as staff.
He looks at the broken hospital building quietly for some time and then turns away and slaps his forehead. I hold his hand, and when he turns around to look at me, I see tears falling on his blue shirt. The first time ever I see my Ab crying—I am so very scared.
I came back from school early—they let us leave because there were so few children today. Teacher Nabeeha dropped me and a few other girls back home. She is my favourite teacher, and I am happy she is also living in the new camp with us.
Just when I reach the door, I can hear Umm and Ab talking. Umm’s hand is over Ab’s shoulder and she says, “Don’t worry, Raed. It’s all God’s will. Insha’Allah, you will find work soon.”
“I guess God would want to employ us in his heaven only now. I don’t see any hope in this dark land.”
“Don’t say that, Raed. Look at our Rasha. Just a child. Is ten even an age to see all this? Yet she smiles, plays with her broken doll.”
I can tell Umm is going to cry any time now. Just then I think of my birthday and feel real sad. I guess we won’t have a party this year too. Last year I had fever so we couldn’t call my friends to play and sing songs. Umm had baked a yummy cake, though, and she also made such fantastic chicken fatteh and cream pudding that Ab and I were licking our fingers like we had never eaten food before.
I feel bad thinking about my birthday when Umm and Ab are so worried…
At dinner, Umm smiles and tells me, “You know what? Daddy has decided to come with a grand surprise on your birthday. And the best dress you’ve ever seen--a shawal at that. With embroidery as heavy as my lady has never seen. How is that?”
Shawal! I flash what Ab calls my “million candles smile” and hug him. He smiles and pats me on the back. He doesn’t say anything though.
I think of the new shawal as long as I am awake that night.
* * *
Ab has been gone for two days now—to get my new dress. I feel worried he’s taking so long to come back. It’s only to the next town he has gone. I ask Umm about him, she says, he would be back soon. But I know she’s just trying to make me feel good. Her eyes tell me she is searching for something real hard. She doesn’t tell me this, but I know it’s Ab she is looking for.
It’s my birthday today. Umm wakes me up with a kiss on my forehead. I smile to her, rub my eyes, yawn a bit, then stretch myself and get up. Umm asks me to close my eyes. Then she places something soft in my hands. When I open my eyes, I see a new doll! It’s a cloth one; she wears a pink frock with blue satin laces. So beautiful!
When did Umm make that? I never got to know even. I name her Falak and ask Umm if I can carry my new baby to school. Umm smiles and nods her head.
I walk back from school with my friend Diab and her Umm. On our way back, I only think of Ab and my new shawal. All my friends would come to our room for dinner tonight. Oh, can I wait that long?
But when I reach home, Ab still hasn’t come back. Umm is really worried and is crying. Hana aunty, our neighbor, holds her and says everything will be fine, Insha’Allah. She then gives food to Umm and me, but Umm only nibbles at the bread and keeps looking out of the door. I don’t feel like eating.
Just as we are about to finish lunch, I see Marouf uncle on the door. He has a few more people with him. I can see a big box. Marouf uncle has big strong hands--he is a porter and hauls heavy things every day. But I never thought one day he would carry a box with my Ab sleeping inside it.
Marouf uncle looks at Umm and asks her to come out. Umm scurries out, and I leave my plate to wash my hands. Then I run outside. I see Umm sitting on the ground, her head on the box. It’s a coffin, I now see. Umm is crying so loud and hard, it scares me, and I start sobbing too. I sit down next to her and ask her, “What happened? Why are you crying? Where is Ab?”
Umm holds me tight, and says, “He’s gone to God’s house, sweetheart…”
I know what that means. It means now Ab will never come back…ever. I never thought this was the surprise Ab was planning for me.
Marouf uncle tells Umm that Ab was returning with my shawal, when the police held him at the checkpoint. They asked for his ID card, and while he was still searching it in his pocket, one of them just took out a gun and…
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her first work of translation from Bengali into English, My Days with Ramkinkar Baij has been published by Delhi-based Niyogi Books. This work also won her the Charles Wallace (India) Trust Fellowship for translation. Her stories have appeared in Letters to My Mother and My Teacher is My Hero – anthologies of true stories published by Adams Media. Ghosh has a background in journalism and has contributed to several websites (including Humanities Underground, Global Graffiti, The Four Quarters Magazine, Parabaas, Asia Writes) and print magazines (Stealing Time, Teenage Buzz, ByLine, Cause and Effect). She has also written for major Indian dailies such as The Times of India, The Statesman and The Pioneer. She currently lives in Ontario, Canada.