Beyond The Cornfields

A Novel by S. A. Tameez

 

 

 

By action, life may become both paradise and hell;
This creature of dust, in its nature, is neither of light nor of fire.

Allama Iqbal

 

 

1

United Kingdom

1982

 

The first series of bangs shook the house’s window frames. Zayn’s eyes shot to the door, but not in alarm. He no longer possessed the power to feel anything other than despair. The second set of bangs must have rattled everyone else inside—heavy thuds emerged from the stairs. Panic was not uncommon when someone knocked on the door—more than half the nineteen men scattered around the small, three-bedroom, terraced house were not legally permitted to be in the UK. Some arrived by unexplainable means, others acquired fake passports, but most had simply outstayed their welcome. But Zayn knew this wasn’t about them, nor was that the Immigration Office outside, demanding entry. No, this was about him.

‘It’s the Police! Open up!’ a loud and authoritative voice emerged from behind the door.

Everyone froze. Like animals stood in the middle of a country lane, staring blankly at headlights charging towards them.

‘What’s going on?’ Khalid whispered as he inched towards Zayn, who was now stood near the front door. Khalid’s face was drained of colour, his eyes sagged, and his lips were splitting with dryness. It was as if he had aged five years overnight.

‘They’re here for him!’ Afzal hissed from behind in a raspy and menacing tone. Zayn wasn’t facing him to see it, but he knew Afzal was pointing to him. Who else would he be pointing to? There was only one person accountable for this.

Disruption. Police. Trouble.

‘Chup kar! Shut up!’ Khalid leapt to Zayn’s defence, which only made Zayn feel worse.

‘No!’ Afzal bit back. Zayn imagined Afzal’s fists clenched and eyes brimming with resentment, ‘I’m done staying silent. We were fine before this troublemaker turned up. I warned you about him so many times!’ There was a short pause before he spoke again from behind gritted teeth, ‘This son of a bitch has ruined everything! Zayn! Are you listening? You did this, you kutah, dog!’ His spiteful words ruthlessly coursed through Zayn and dragged out the guilt and shame he had fought so hard to suppress.

‘Open the door now!’ the voice emerged again, louder and more threatening this time. ‘Or we’re going to break it down!’

Zayn was transported to his childhood. Vague memories of his mother reading The Three Little Pigs surfaced… I’ll huff and puff and blow your house down. He felt the same shudders ripple through him that he did when he was a child imagining the terrified little pigs. Except the version of the tale his mother told him had a happy ending—this, however, was real life, and real-life for Pakistanis living illegally in the UK in the ’80s rarely had happy endings.

‘We need to do something!’ Khalid said in a trembling tone, bringing Zayn back to the present time, back to the present danger. ‘Get out of the backdoor or something.’ His bottom lip quivered. The trepidation in his friend’s expression and voice made Zayn want to crawl into a hole and die. How could he have done this to everyone? To all the people in the house? To his friend? His actions were reprehensible.

‘We shouldn’t have to do anything.’ Afzal spat, ‘They’re after him! I know they are!’

‘You’re not helping,’ Khalid said, ‘This isn’t the time to be pointing fingers!’

‘Afzal’s right!’ another man shouted from behind, ‘This hasn’t got anything to do with us! We’re being dragged into Zayn’s mess!’

Zayn didn’t recognise the other man’s voice. It wasn’t easy to keep track of who was who when so many new faces emerged in the house every month. The only feature they had in common over the recent weeks was their antagonism towards Zayn — condemning him for all the trouble they faced. Not that he could blame them. Young Pakistani men had been in and out of this house for five years without any problems. The plan was to stay at the house, squashed together like sardines and work laboriously in the factories until they had enough money to take back home. No one intended to stay—this wasn’t their home—they didn’t belong here. They were cheap, hardworking labour—UK’s short-term solution to a long-term problem.

Up until a few months ago, the house, owned by Khalid’s uncle, was considered a safe house. It was registered to him, and he had all the relevant paperwork. He was careful only to allow people from his village in Pakistan to stay—people he could trust and who had the correct documentation to work in the UK legally. The problem, however, was the cultural hierarchy in the village. The village elders possessed the sovereignty to override all decisions, big or small. Khalid’s uncle said he would not allow illegals to stay in the house; it was too risky, but the powers that be commanded him to take whoever came from the village irrespective of legitimate stay. And once they had said it, it was as good as law. Khalid’s uncle would have to allow anyone who knocked on the door and claimed to be from his village in Pakistan to stay. It was the price you paid to remain part of the clan. The village, back home, was all about clans and tribes. To defy the elders would be an act of treason and would result in extradition from the tribe. And exile was worse than death—a sheep left alone to be devoured by the wolves.

Zayn was grateful that Khalid’s uncle had returned to Pakistan for a few months and didn’t witness the chaos ensuing in his house.

Without looking back, Zayn walked towards the door. He had to face the inevitable. Every man knew that his choices and their consequences would, one day, come knocking—he was no exception. It was time to suffer the repercussions.

‘Zayn!’ Afzal hissed, ‘What the hell are you doing?!’

‘Zayn,’ Khalid called in a loud whisper, ‘You don’t have to do this. I’ll distract them, and you can get out the back.’

Zayn paused for a moment and smiled internally. Khalid was a good man. A good friend. Even after everything, he would continue to do what he could to help others in the house. It was as if he considered everyone who came to the house his family—his responsibility. But Zayn couldn’t run. That was no longer an option. If he ran now, he would be running forever and being on the run was not living; it was merely existing—existing in misery and fear. Zayn refused to live like that. Death would be a more peaceful alternative.

His mother’s voice echoed in his head, ‘You can’t run away from your problems. You must face them even if they wound you. And remember what Rumi once said, The wound is the place where the light enters you.’

What he didn’t tell us was that some wounds cut so deep that they pierce the heart.   

Zayn heard the men shuffling to get away as he turned the handle on the door. This was it—no turning back. No escape. When he peered back, the room was empty. Most of the men had escaped from the back door, while the ones fortunate enough to possess genuine paperwork stayed out of sight.

It was better he did this alone. As much as he despised Afzal, no one could deny he was right. The police were here for him. If he opened the door now, he could perhaps avoid them kicking it down and storming in, accidentally discovering that the house was teeming with illegal immigrants. He owed Khalid that much after everything he and his uncle had done for him and many others. They were good people, and they didn’t deserve this. He couldn’t be why so many people’s dreams of escaping poverty and making a better life for their families were crushed.

The door burst open. Red-faced police officers barged into the house; batons raised like swords. The ground quaked as the heavy boots of an entire battalion marched forward. There was shouting and an ear-piercing sound of glass shattering. Zayn felt a sudden blow to the side of his head, followed by acute pain. Then, there was a bright flash of light before everything went completely black and silent.

He fell in and out of consciousness as his limp body was dragged out of the house. The high-pitched ringing in his ears made his head explode. Pain and confusion swelled through him as he heard those devastating words.

‘Zayn Khan, you are under arrest for murder….’

 

 

2

 

Sulkhot Village, Pakistan

1972

 

There was something about mornings in Sulkhot village, something special, something magical—it couldn’t be described, it couldn’t be seen or heard, but if you woke up early enough and stood in the right place, at the right time, it could be felt.

Zayn ran to the only place where he could escape the noise—a place of solace where his mother once read the most wonderful and enchanting stories to him. A place no one knew of except his mother and him, a quiet place beyond the corn fields.

He stood still and closed his eyes. The birds sang praise, thankful that they had survived the horrors of the night. A gentle and warm breeze whistled almost silently, and the long strands of golden grass danced to its rhythm. An ambrosial aroma arose from the ground and the flower bushes. Mountains loomed proudly in the distance and watched over the secret place like giant guardians. He could sense the sky transitioning to a lighter shade of blue as the sun prepared to scorch the earth. It was here—precisely at that moment he felt it.

Serenity. Peace. Safety.

Memories of a time almost forgotten trickled back, inducing a smile on a face that had smiled very little in recent days. At this point, he would realise that his happy place was not a place at all — it was a time, and that time had passed.

He was thirteen now; thirteen, in the village, meant he was no longer a boy — he was a young man, and yet he secretly came here every morning imagining he was being cradled in his mother’s arms, listening attentively as she read. Her accent was different from the people in the village, her voice soft and angelic—how he longed to hear her voice again. He opened his eyes and felt the sun’s heat touch his face. He then, like every morning, sat under the large tree that once shaded him and his mother. He loved that tree, for it had witnessed the happiness and joy he once felt. And although it could never tell another soul, it knew how much she loved him and how much he loved her.

Truly. Unconditionally.

 

****

 

Zayn watched in fascination as his father delivered letters to the houses around the village. His father was a proud farmer who grew crops and had a few animals, but he was also the designated person to hand out letters if they came from the city. Occasionally, a tall man wearing trousers and a blue shirt would come to the village with a handful of letters. His father was selected to deliver the letters because he was known for his uprightness but mainly because Zayn could read the names and addresses on the envelopes.

A funny feeling would form in Zayn’s stomach as he thought about what was written in each letter. Something sentimental, something funny, good news, bad news, something formal — a mystery to everyone except the one who wrote it and the one who would read it. Trying to guess what was written inside was his favourite game. Unable to think of a more creative name, he called it Guess What?. He never told anyone about the game and played it silently in his head. His father often referred to him as a dreamer because he thought Zayn was always daydreaming, but he wasn’t. He was covertly playing.

The village was small, and everyone knew everyone. This made guessing a bit easier. He thought about each house his father was delivering to and asked himself some basic questions — who lived there? What did they do for a living? Did they have any family abroad? The answers to these questions and the considerations of seasons and celebrations were all vital clues to the letter’s contents. Over the years, he became familiar with different envelopes and stamps. He knew which letters came from abroad, which ones were local and which ones were official letters from an authority. This part was logical and largely fact-based — guessing what was written inside was the fun and imaginative part. It could be anything. The possibilities were limitless. A soldier writing to his family, telling them of his experience — the good, bad and the ugly. News of a baby. A notice from the government. A threat. A love letter. It could be anything. And that’s what made it so marvellous.

Zayn had never received a letter himself, but there was one time he got to read one. A while back, Uncle Jameel, who wasn’t Zayn’s actual uncle, was handed a letter and immediately shook his head in hopelessness after tearing it open. ‘I can’t read this!’ he grumbled, ‘It’s written in English.’

Zayn’s father shook his head, suggesting that he couldn’t help. Most people in the village couldn’t read or write.

The old man then looked down at Zayn with watery eyes, ‘Your son,’ he pointed, ‘he can read English.’ He wiped his nose with his arm, ‘Ask him to read it for me, please!’ he pleaded. ‘Beta, son, please read it for me?’

Zayn’s father nodded. Zayn didn’t need any convincing; his heart galloped like a wild horse as he snatched the envelope and the neatly folded paper out of the old man’s hand. This was it. Zayn would finally get to read one of the letters he had marvelled at for so long — he would get to unfold the mystery of Guess What?. He could barely contain his excitement. A fusion of hunger and queasiness overcame him, followed by the urge to urinate.

The envelope was brown with a few high-value stamps on the top right-hand corner. It was unquestionably from abroad, England, to be precise. Earlier, while playing the game in his head, he had guessed it was from a family member; now, he would know whether he got it right. He could hardly believe his luck.

The paper felt thick and heavy, unlike the paper used to wrap food sold by street vendors, but more like an expensive card. It was textured, pleasant to touch and screamed importance. The top of the letter had a trademark logo. Zayn gently ran his finger across it—it was subtly embossed. An icon of a bird sitting on a hammer. This was no ordinary letter. It was something incredibly important­—he could feel it in every bone in his body. For reasons he couldn’t explain, it excited and terrified him at the same time.

The text was printed on creamy white paper with black ink. Probably a typewriter. Although he had never seen one, his mother had told him about typewriters, and he would frequently get her to describe how they worked.

He bought the letter closer to his face to breathe in the ink. It was sensational. Nothing like he had smelt before. He was familiar with the scent of books and the wonderful aroma of the pages, but they were nothing like this. But his heart sank as his eyes fell on the letter’s message. That’s what it was all about, the contents of the message, not the premium envelope or the expensive paper or typewriter ink; it was the message. No amount of beautification or fragrance could disguise the anguish the message conveyed.

It was from England. A place that many of the villagers regarded as heaven. A place of dreams and money. The ultimate destination for success. Not that this letter reflected any such grandeur. Nothing — not the magnificence of the entire world could mask the letter’s contents.

It was from a company — a steel factory in England — regretfully informing the old man that his son had been involved in an unfortunate accident at the factory and died in hospital from his injuries. Zayn’s breathing intensified. His knees wobbled. This was the worst letter in the game.

The death letter.

‘Is it from Haroon?’ the old man looked nervous and excited, ‘He is in London. Working.’ He said proudly. ‘Why did the rascal write to me in English?’ he chuckled, exposing his missing teeth, ‘Always was a little jester, that one. Begairat, shameless. He knows I can’t read English, the scoundrel!’

The strange feeling in the pit of Zayn’s stomach resurfaced, accompanied by nausea. How could he tell the old man that his son was dead? That he was the unluckiest recipient in Guess What?. He got the Death Letter!

He couldn’t tell him — he didn’t have the courage. He should never have read the letter. It was a mistake, a big ugly mistake. The letters were better as a mystery. The game was harmless — even the Death Letter didn’t seem so bad while playing. But real life was cruel and unfair. Something Zayn was learning the hard way.

‘Well? Boy! Speak! What does it say?’ The old man looked uneasy. It was as if he had intercepted Zayn’s thoughts and knew his son was no more. Zayn could see beads of sweat forming on the old man’s forehead. He unravelled his white turban and used it to wipe the moisture from his face.

Zayn tugged at his father’s arm, and when he lowered himself, Zayn whispered into his ear. His father’s face turned red as he heard the news. He had a look of sorrow, suggesting that he regretted allowing his son to read the letter delivering such awful news.

The old man’s eyes shifted from Zayn to his father and then back to Zayn like a cornered animal. He knew. He knew everything. They didn’t have to tell him. He knew. Zayn could sense it. Stupid letter! Why did he read the stupid letter? The Death Letter.

‘Is anyone going to tell me what it says or…’ he snatched the letter out of Zayn’s hand. He was only asking for verification. He, without realising, just played Guess What? and won. Not a victory he would be celebrating, however.

Zayn’s father swallowed loudly. Zayn couldn’t stomach looking at the old man once he knew for sure, so he ran. He ran as fast as he could, away from the old man and the terrible letter. He heard the old man yell and cry as he ran into the distance. That was the first time he heard a grown man cry, aside from his father. The sound tortured him for hours. And not just because of the old man’s tragic loss but because Zayn was familiar with that type of suffering. The agony of losing someone — knowing that you will never see them again—it was hell.

Zayn hid his tears well to avoid judgement. People in the village used to say that men don’t cry. Not real men, anyway. Real men were strong, made decisions, spoke little, worked hard, and fought wars—real men didn’t cry. But Zayn often heard his father crying, at times when Zayn asked him about his mother and sometimes when he sat on his knees on the prayer mat. Occasionally, he cried for what felt like hours. After that, he usually fell asleep, and when he woke, he looked exhausted and had swollen red eyes. Sometimes he was in a good mood after waking; sometimes, it would be the opposite. When it was the opposite, he ignored Zayn and refused to talk to him for most of the day. One time, Zayn plucked the courage to ask his father if he had done something wrong. Was that why he was angry? His father smiled with watery eyes and said, ‘You look so much like her,’ a tear rolled down his face, ‘Sometimes that makes me happy,’ he then looked away from Zayn and stared at the wall blankly, ‘and sometimes it makes me sad.’

Zayn spent the next week staring at the mirror every night, using his face to visualise his mother — her face was fading from his memory, and his reflection didn’t help. She didn’t have a dull complexion, sucked-in cheeks, crusty lips, and lifeless eyes, that was for sure. She had glowing skin, big round eyes, and dimples — her smile was contagious and beautiful. Her presence would light up a room, and she represented everything good in his world. When the unkind world snatched her from him, it stripped all the good and colour in his life. Although he wasn’t completely alone, he still had his father, who loved him very much; his father’s love was practical, consisting of providing basic needs and discipline.

After Zayn’s mother was no more, his father became a recluse who avoided all his friends and even instructed Zayn to tell Uncle Faizaan, who was Zayn’s real uncle, that he wasn’t home when he came knocking. The cruel world wasn’t satisfied with taking just his mother. It also stole what his father once was—charismatic, confident, and content—leaving behind an empty frail man who was ageing twice as fast as he should. His hair and beard were now almost entirely grey, and his forehead’s wrinkles seemed much more visible than before. Zayn feared that if he continued ageing at this rate, he would soon die.

 

Zayn grabbed the bucket and headed out to the backyard. It had been a week since he had washed, and he thought it would be a good idea to get clean before his father noticed and gave him a thrashing. Of course, a week without washing would never happen when his mother was around. She would always make sure he looked clean and presentable, ‘You’re such a handsome prince, don’t make your appearance that of a peasant,’ she would say to him when she noticed his default unkempt look.

His grandfather was one of the first people in the village to have a water well in the garden, which meant Zayn didn’t have to walk for thirty minutes to the river and lug back a heavy bucket of water. All the more reason why he should wash more frequently. He still went to the river to wash his and his father’s clothes. He enjoyed watching Uncle Riaz, the dhobi, washerman, a friendly man with large, strong hands, add the clothes to a large bucket filled with water and soap. He would spin and squeeze the clothes until the water changed colour. He then rinsed them in the river before bashing them against a large rock. Zayn loved the sound of the wet clothes slapping against stone.

‘Ah, you cleaned up,’ his father said as Zayn walked back into the house, ‘Just as well. I have something important to tell you.’

Zayn’s heart sped up. He had the uncontrollable urge to scratch his scalp. Washing usually made his skin itch.

It wasn’t another letter, was it? He didn’t want to play the game anymore — he couldn’t tolerate another letter, especially a Death Letter.

‘Here, sit down,’ his father pointed to a wooden stool, ‘There is a good school,’ Zayn remained silent and tried not to show his excitement. A school? ‘But it’s not in the village. It’s in the town.’

The seed of excitement was rapidly growing into a beanstalk in the pit of his stomach. What did this mean? Was his father going to let him go to school? And one in the town? Zayn had only been to the town a few times. Too much hustle and bustle, and it isn’t a place for women and children to be walking around, that’s for sure, his father said at the mention of the place. Hussain, Zayn’s friend from a few houses down, went to town regularly, sometimes on his own and sometimes with his mother. He loved going; he said there was always lots to do there. But when Zayn told his father about Hussain going into town, his father became angry, said a lot of nasty things about Hussain, and disapproved of Zayn playing with him. He is a bad influence. There was a name for children who hung around town – Lofars!

‘Although, I’m not happy about you attending a school in town,’ his father said, ‘Your Uncle Faizaan seems to think it would be good for you. And I am beginning to think he is right.’

‘Really?’ Zayn said, unable to contain his smile. He started questioning whether this was actually happening. This wouldn’t be the first time his imagination had got the better of him. This couldn’t be real. It couldn’t.

‘There’s no point you sitting around here doing nothing, and you refuse to come with me to post letters after,’ he paused for a moment, ‘you know, after the letter incident.’

‘So, you mean it. I can go?’ Zayn asked, still in disbelief. A school. A real school where he would be able to read and study books on different subjects.

His father nodded, ‘But don’t you dare be hanging around the town like some Lofar! I won’t have any of that, you hear?’

‘Yes!’ he hissed, ‘Of course,’ he said, trying to look serious, ‘I understand.’

‘I mean it!’ His father’s brows raised, and forehead creased—which meant he was not messing around.

‘I promise,’ Zayn said, ‘No lofaring.’

‘Good.’ His father’s brows returned to their normal position, ‘Now, go and look for something smart to wear.’

‘Now?’ Zayn asked in shock. As in, right now? Was this a dream? Would he wake up to his normal day of trivial tasks?

‘No time like the present. Your uncle has already enrolled you and made all the necessary arrangements.’ His father reached into his pocket and removed a few coins. ‘Take this,’ he handed him the shiny coins. ‘This will cover your bus fare. I’ll take you to where the bus will pick you up. It’s a few minutes from here, and you’ll have to do it on your own after today.’

Zayn nodded, still in doubt that any of this was real. He made for his room.

‘Zayn!’ his father called, stopping him in his tracks, ‘Straight to school and straight back home! Understood?’

Zayn nodded and smiled.

‘And your uncle bought you some stationery. I left them in your room.’ More excitement. More disbelief.

No, this was real. Zayn even pinched himself on the arm, hard enough to leave a bruise, to make sure. This wasn’t his mind playing tricks on him. He was finally getting to go to a school—a real school in the town.

He found the stationery. A silver pen. A sharp pencil and a few blank books to write in. He had decided he would use one of the books as a journal—something he could use to collect his thoughts.

 

The bus was packed and smelled of petrol and sweat. Zayn could hardly see over the seat. He had to have been the shortest person on the bus. Noisy boys occupied the back rows of seats, and everyone else sat, stood and clung to whatever they could and as far away from them as possible. The boys wore smart shirts with long collars and trousers with a single straight crease running down the legs — that’s how everyone knew they were from affluent families. Zayn kept his head down. The less eye contact, the better. It was best to go undetected, or there could be trouble. That was his father’s advice whenever the wealthier casts were mentioned.

‘It doesn’t matter what you see, what they do, what they say. You don’t say anything to them. Don’t talk to them, and don’t make eye contact with them. Nothing. You’re nothing in their eyes, less than nothing. And that can be a dangerous thing if you’re not careful.’

But it was hard not to look at them. They laughed loudly and banged on the windows and the seats like wild animals. The driver looked into the rear-view mirror at the boys but didn’t say anything. He looked as anxious as everyone else.

Zayn’s father explained that casts were important in Pakistan — each acting superior to other. But it wasn’t superiority; it was about wealth because wealth equated to power, and power meant everything. No wealth meant no power, and no power meant you were the prey.

It was a relief when the bus stopped in the town and let the passengers out. Zayn was instantly struck with a strong aroma — a strange contrast of engine fumes and delicious food. It smelt both awful and amazing. People swarmed around the roads like bees. Zayn had never seen so many people congested in one place ­— that’s when it dawned on him; he had spent all his thirteen years in the village, surrounded by fields and hills. When he was a little younger, he never thought anything existed beyond the hills. The village was all he knew. His mother told him about the big world beyond the village. Explaining about cars and aeroplanes, and people travelling across seas and to different lands to experience different cultures. But it always sounded like the tales she read to him.

His mother wasn’t from the village; she was from the city — a place he often fantasised about visiting. Her father was a professor at a college in Karachi. He never really understood what a professor or a college was, but his curiosity made him ask endless questions, and she never got tired of answering them. She looked and spoke differently. Her complexion was much lighter than other people in the village, and her eye colour was blue. She loved reading books, often cited poems with deep meanings, and mentioned quotes from famous authors in random situations. It was as if she lived life through literature. Zayn’s father, in contrast, was a practical person who couldn’t read and seemed forever consumed by anxiety and scepticism. How she ended up in the village with his father was a wonder. But it was as if their stark differences were what attracted them to each other — they were always talking and always laughing.

But that all felt like a different life now.

Zayn silently screamed in shock as he fell to the ground, barged by people rushing past. He tried to get to his feet but found it impossible to keep his balance and hit the ground again. It didn’t help that he was the shortest 13-year-old he knew. He felt like an insect fighting to stop getting trodden on.

He noticed a boy a few feet in front. He wasn’t much taller than Zayn. His light blue shalwar kameez was dirty and torn in many places. His unkempt hair was below his earlobes. But what struck Zayn the most was that he was barefoot and flowed through the giants like water. He weaved in and out seamlessly. How? He was superhuman, must be!

Zayn tried to copy the superhuman boy’s manoeuvres, but he was back on the dusty ground before he knew it. He crawled to the side of the road and leaned against a wall, catching his breath. His eyes darted around the crowd, searching for the boy, but he had disappeared into the chaos. Was he even real?

He observed as people walked around each other without colliding. He needed to move as if invisible, just as his father had told him to be.

‘Don’t draw attention to yourself. Be invisible. You want to go unnoticed, or people will do nasty things. It’s a cruel world full of people who do horrible things!’ his father would regularly warn – more so since Zayn’s mother was no more. ‘We all have monsters buried deep inside us, son. And sometimes, the monsters come out, and ugly things happen. So be careful of the monsters. And be even more careful of the monster inside you!’

Zayn’s father frequently warned about the nature of people, with particular emphasis on dealing with one’s own demons. Zayn’s father was a great storyteller — he had vague memories of his mother, father and him sitting around a makeshift tandoor out on the land. The flames would light their faces and keep them warm on cold winter nights. While his mother would be preparing the flour for chapattis, his father would tell them elaborate stories of men and wars, love and romance and betrayal and treachery—each one stretching Zayn’s imagination and departing a strong moral lesson. His mother would listen carefully and then tell him that she was convinced he was a prominent novelist in another life. One who wrote stories imbued with wisdom—one who motivated the soldier heading into battle, one who reignited the ashes of two lovers and one who provoked a rebellion that changed the world. But his father would laugh and tell her that he was only good at the oral tradition of storytelling and reminded her that he could not write. Writing was for educated people. Zayn’s father didn’t go to school—he had worked on his father’s land since he was a boy and had been doing that ever since.

But his incredible stories, like his warm character, were no more after Zayn’s mother died. It was like the best parts of him had disappeared with her.

Zayn got to his feet and brushed the dust off his trousers. All he had to do was keep his head down and be invisible. Stop himself from getting knocked over and get to the school. He took a deep breath and jumped into the flowing crowd. He quickly got behind a man walking in the direction of the school and paced closely behind him, following his footsteps precisely. If he couldn’t master the art of manoeuvring around people, he would imitate someone else until he got through. It worked. He oversaw the man’s footsteps and mimicked them strictly, and after a few minutes of twisting around people, he finally arrived.

He thought of his mother as he entered the gates. She would have been so proud. Her son was going to a school, a real school. Her face would glow in delight. The corners of her lips would quiver with nerves and joy. But the only reassurance and confidence Zayn needed would be in her eyes. She saw so much more in Zayn than he did in himself — so, regardless of how terrifying this was, he had to do it. Not just for himself but for her.

 

3

 

It took Zayn nearly two months to find his feet when travelling to and from school. School was different from when his mother taught him how to read and write. It was intense. Back in his village, he was considered super-intelligent, even more now that he was going to school, but at school, he was behind and constantly struggled to keep up. He usually stayed back after class to ask for help, and although this probably frustrated the teachers, they admired his tenacity and enthusiasm.

After a year, he had arduously climbed to the top of his class. His inquisitiveness helped him ask the right questions even outside the realms of academia, and it wasn’t long before he was having philosophical conversations with his teachers. He discussed societal problems, the economy and even politics—most of which he read about in books he borrowed from the library.

All the teachers in the school knew him — he became known as the poor genius boy from the village. He continued to excel at a rapid rate. This made him extraordinarily popular with the teachers but the opposite with other students.

Most of the students in the school were from wealthy families. This was the type of school you needed to have considerable money to send your children to, which is all the more reason why Zayn didn’t fit in. Zayn’s father could not afford to send him there — his father struggled to get him decent footwear. Not that Zayn complained; he knew how hard his father worked and believed that whatever was written for you regarding wealth is what you will get. Not a rupee more or a rupee less. It was the only thing that explained how a man could work hard every hour of the day and earn very little, while another man could work half that and earn more. A child could be born with a large sum of inherited wealth — money he didn’t deserve but was handed down. The entire world was mysterious in a similar fashion. Some parts of the planet possessed most of the resources — some parts had the majority of the water — some parts had the majority of the population, and some areas had acquired the majority of the world’s wealth. It was as if there was no equilibrium.

Zayn attending this school was not down to wealth; it was thanks to his uncle Faizaan. And although he wasn’t particularly wealthy, he had some good connections. He must have pulled some serious strings to get him in.

The other boys in school were noticeably affluent. Expensive-looking shirts and belts with shining buckles, they wore watches that shimmered on their wrists. Many of them arrived by car. And although they were segmented into their own little groups based on their casts, they all had one common enemy — Zayn. The poor, short, scruffy-haired boy who wore the same clothes every day. The boy with shabby sandals instead of shoes and never ate anything all day. And yet, although he looked like a homeless boy, he spoke perfect English, was the top student in the school and was adored by the teachers. And this was precisely why he didn’t hang out in the playground, out of the protective sight of the teachers. This also meant that, although he loved the idea of using a seated toilet instead of a grimy, insect-infected hole in the ground from the village, he never used the school toilets—the last time he did that, a few of the boys beat him up. They then tried to dunk his head into the toilet bowl. Thankfully, one of the teachers heard the commotion and barged in, saving him from the humiliation. The boys walked out smirking and without any reprimand.

Wealth meant status and power.

The powerful were not frightened of teachers, the law, or anything else. It was quite the contrary. Teachers tiptoed around some students and turned a blind eye to some of the most horrendous incidents. It was after observing this type of behaviour that Zayn began understanding people. Their cast, where they were from, or the respected name of their families would reflect how they would behave and how they were treated. The higher casts walked and talked as if they owned everything and everyone around them. It was as if they were taught that the world was there simply to serve them in their every desire.

However, they still seemed miserable despite having everything, money, power, and status. Constantly under pressure to prove they were better than everyone else. They were rich and powerful but caged in the clutches of pride. The more Zayn observed the world, the more he was convinced that there was no such thing as equality and happiness.

The ones who had little were sad because they had little, and the ones who had more were sad because they needed more. It didn’t matter what anyone had. The price for living was beyond money; it was suffering. And happiness was not sustainable in a life of suffering.

Zayn, after giving up on the foolish pursuit of happiness, spent his time reading literature—he fell in love with books written by Charles Dickens and George Orwell. He formed a passion for the works of poets like Rumi. It was as if they understood people better than everyone else. Their work added more context to the behaviour of the people around him. It even explained the behaviour and attitudes of the teachers — their fear of speaking out against the rich and powerful casts. Even with all their knowledge and wisdom, teachers were not comparable to the children and nephews of wealthy business owners and politicians. There was an invisible war between the rich and the poor — neither side good or evil — neither side able to win or lose. They could only be, and nothing more. The rich acted as if they were superior to the poor because of their wealth, and the poor acted as if they were nobler because of their poverty.

The concept of polarisation became more prevalent in Zayn’s thoughts, as did injustice.

The additional hours of picking at his teachers’ brains and hacking away at English, Mathematics and Science textbooks up until the late hours of the night paid off in Zayn’s first set of major exams. After a while, his father stopped complaining to Uncle Faizaan about the amount of oil Zayn was burning in the lantern at night to read through textbooks. Of course, it helped that Uncle Faizaan was forever convincing Zayn’s father that this was the best thing for his nephew, that he would thrive in an academic environment. And when Zayn’s father would protest that he was getting old and could do with help when tending the land, Uncle Faizaan would gently remind him that this is what Zayn’s mother wanted for him.

It was true. Zayn remembered his mother and father’s last conversation regarding him and the future. One they didn’t know he was listening in on.

‘Zayn is an inquisitive and intelligent boy,’ his mother said, ‘Working the land will not stimulate him the way school and college could — he could become something — make something great of his life. Her saying this never offended his father because although he was proud of his land and who he was, he often whined about how difficult the work was, especially in the sweltering heat. And he knew how little interest Zayn had in the land. He loved running across the fields and playing with their few animals, but that was about as far as it went. He would often come back from the land with new ideas for making work easier and saving time when doing the laborious daily tasks. His father always put his short-cut ideas down to laziness. He was always looking for ways to avoid doing a hard day’s labour.

‘He’s a thinker,’ she continued.

‘That’s great, but the world runs on doers!’ his father responded. ‘Thinkers tell fairy tales and trick people into believing ridiculous ideas. The land provides us with the food and resources we need to survive. This is real, not some delusional dream for the foolish.’ He placed his face in his palms and then shook his head.

‘Since when was life solely about survival?’ his mother asked. She sat next to him and placed her hand on his knee, ‘Surely, living can’t be just about surviving day to day. I want more for Zayn. I want—’

‘Listen,’ Zayn’s father interrupted and looked up at her, ‘I need the boy to understand how this all works in case something, God forbid, happens to me. He will need to look after you.’

‘I can look after myself!’ his mother snapped boldly.

‘What? By teaching children how to read and write?’

‘What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with children getting an education?’

‘There’s nothing wrong with that,’ he said in a softer tone. ‘I know how much you love education and books, and that’s great, but you know what the folks around here are like. The neighbours have been talking.’

‘What do you mean talking? They’re always talking! They can never mind their own damn business!’ Zayn could see the vein on her forehead expanding. That’s how he knew when she was furious.

‘Some neighbours have been talking about you and your teaching — they don’t like it, especially you teaching the young girls. They don’t think it’s right.’

There was a short but uncomfortable pause before Zayn’s mother spoke.

‘I think there are a lot of intelligent and talented children in the village who could benefit from learning how to read and write. Especially the young girls!’

‘You’re probably right, but look around you; we’re not in the sort of place that will allow this.’

‘Allow this?’ She removed her hand from his knee. ‘What do you mean allow this?’

‘You know what I mean.’

‘I’m not sure I do… because it sounds like you are trying to tell me to stop teaching.’ There was a short pause before she spoke again, ‘So, you and everyone else in the village were fine when I was the quiet housewife, obediently getting on with serving the—’

‘That’s enough!’ Zayn’s father said authoritatively. ‘You are a brilliant woman, and it is something that I have always admired about you, but—’

‘But what?’

‘But I’m just worried that people won’t understand what you are doing, especially the type of people around here. They’ve never left this place and are so stuck in their ways that,’ he paused and took a deep breath, ‘Look, people do stupid things when they are scared or don’t understand things. People don’t like change around here, and you teaching young girls to read and write is a big change.’

‘You want me to stop?’

‘I just want you to be okay.’

‘What do you think is going to happen?’

‘Nothing. I… I don’t know. I’m just scared.’

‘Don’t be,’ she said gently. ‘I will stop teaching the children in the village.’

‘Thank you. I’m sorry—’

‘But on one condition,’ she interrupted, ‘Zayn gets an education. A proper, formal education. In a real establishment.’

‘Okay.’ Zayn’s father said after a moment, ‘But only after he has spent some time learning how to work the land. I can’t have him oblivious to how things work in the real world.’

‘Ok,’ she smiled, exposing her dimples, ‘Thank you.’

That was the last time Zayn saw his mother, from a small gap between the doors.