This story is by Nausheen Ahmed and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
You don’t have to be on your deathbed to have your life flash before your eyes. In my case, the cruel outtakes of my innocent childhood often overtook my thoughts and dreams. The image of my small, dirty hands barely able to grasp the bunch of flowers I had to sell haunt me even today. The thought of what path my life would have taken if I hadn’t met Sonia Apa that evening was even more terrifying.
“10 rupees! 10 rupees! Flower bracelets, only 10 rupees!” I managed to get the attention of the lady in a white Suzuki, but by the time my little 7-year old feet warily dodged the Karachi traffic, her driver already decided the light was taking too long, leaving me with my basket of flowers nearly as full as when I started selling them.
I made my way back to the crowded footpath amidst the lighted shop signs and sat on the steps of the corner shop. Hassan and Wali never took breaks. Wali was only three years older than me, and Hassan was just 12, but they knew how to meticulously move through the flood of cars to get to the ones that promised a sale. It had already been 2 years since Mama died and Baba brought me to live with Ameena Apa in the city, but I knew I still had a lot to learn about this new life I’d been thrust into.
Don’t get me wrong, the streets didn’t scare me anymore. As a matter of fact, I felt more at home here than I ever did within any four walls. Even at the tender age of seven, I knew that some of us faced a harsher reality than others. I could see the wealthy sahibs going from the seclusion of their cars to the cocoons of their big buildings, turning a blind eye to what their selfishness took from us each day; I could see the beggar beating the window of a car asking the sahib for money that he himself could have been earning, had he been afforded the right to go to school; I could see myself, a poor child selling flowers to the uninterested passersby well into the late hours of the night, while their own kids slept in beds made by kidnapping my childhood.
“Kashif! Wake up! You can’t keep falling asleep.” Wali shook me violently. “Ma won’t give you any dinner again!”
“I’m really tired, Wali.”
“I know, so am I. Come on, I’ll help you sell some of your flowers.” As I stood up, I spotted a woman with two young girls sitting in the back seat. I decided to make a dash for the car in my last attempts to sell a bracelet or two. Suddenly, the sound of screeching tires and a blaring horn stopped me in my tracks. Ready to get yelled at, I took a step back as a begum sahib got out of the car.
“Are you ok??” I braced myself for a smack on the head. Instead, she put her hand on my shoulder. “You really shouldn’t be out on the street so late at night, beta.” Her voice was kind, just like Mama’s.
“I’m sorry,” my voice quivered.
“Don’t be sorry, just be careful.” The traffic had started to go around us with a few loud honks here and there. “Tell me, how much for the rest of your flower bracelets?”
“Here’s 500 rupees. You can buy a treat for yourself.”
“500 rupees? Thank you!”
“You should hurry home now.” I nodded, still looking at the crisp new 500 rupee note, as I made my way onto the curb towards Hassan and Wali.
“Look! I sold all my flower bracelets and begum sahib let me keep the extra money!”
“Wow!” They shouted excitedly.
“Let’s get some ice cream!”
“Wali! Kashif! Ma is going to be back soon, and we haven’t done any chores yet!” We used a flashlight to read to each other every night after Ameena Apa fell asleep and were often tired in the mornings. She didn’t believe in books and had sternly warned us not to let them distract us from our real work.
No sooner had we finished, the gate opened. I recognized the familiar face of begum sahib as she walked in with Ameena Apa.
“Salam, begum sahib!”
“I saw this sister asking around the main road for you. She came to see if we needed anything.” Ameena Apa seemed unusually happy. Maybe begum sahib had given her a 500 rupee note also.
“Come, sit,” she pointed to the old rattan chairs in the veranda. We gathered to see if begum sahib had bought anything for us too.
“What are your names?”
“That’s Hassan and Wali, and I’m Kashif.”
“I’m Sonia Apa. It’s very nice to meet you. How old are you?”
“My boys are 10 and 12, and Kashif is 7 years old. He was just 5 when his Baba brought him to me after his mother, my half-sister, died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Not as sorry as I am. I was barely getting by raising my own children, and since then I’ve also had to take care of him.” Ameena Apa cleared her throat. “Emm…you said something about helping us?”
“Yes, of course…You see, I work with the Haq Foundation, and would like to help send the boys to school.” Hassan and Wali looked at each other as Ameena Apa’s expression changed to one of disbelief. “But you don’t have to worry! The foundation will pay for their schooling, and I myself will pay you the money the boys earn from selling flowers.”
Ameena Apa snickered, “My sister also believed schooling would make things better. It did nothing except cause a lot of problems for him, and for us, when he had to deal with real life. She did him an injustice by wasting his time with books instead of teaching him how to survive. Besides, they will never be able to work, eat, and socialize with people like you anyway. You are all quick to give a few handouts to make yourselves feel better, but no one wants to give up power and status.”
“I won’t deny these injustices exist–”
“My children will do as I say, but if you care so much about this orphan, you can take him and do as you please.”
“Take him? I…I hadn’t really thought about that,” Sonia Apa looked my way.
“Well, now you can think about it.” Wali squeezed my hand. I had often shared stories of what it was like to go to school, even though my school consisted of only a few students sitting on a mat in Ms. Surraya’s veranda.
“I understand…I will see what I can do. Here is a little something for the boys.” Ameena Apa eagerly took the 500 rupee note she had been waiting for, while we sadly went to close the gate not expecting to ever see Sonia Apa again.
“Raza, I tried. She refused my help. She said school was out of the question for her boys…but she did say one other thing.”
“You know how we’ve been talking about adoption…”
“She said if I really wanted to help Kashif, I should just take him.”
“I can’t explain it, his innocent face, his small hands dirty from hours of labor on the streets. My heart felt a connection to him. I don’t want to be childless anymore, and he needs a mother who will protect him.”
“Raza, what are we waiting for?”
Ameena Apa was heading out to her second job after lunch when Wali came running into the kitchen. “Sonia Apa’s here! There’s a man with her…they’re looking this way.”
Hassan pushed me out. “Go see what she’s saying. This could be your chance.”
“Salam, Sonia Apa.”
“Walaikumasalam! This is Raza Uncle, he wanted to meet you.”
“I’ve heard so much about you!” Raza Uncle reached out his hand. “What a strong grip, I’m impressed!” I chuckled.
“Sister Sonia has come to get you.”
“Yes, but we wanted to ask him what he wants first.”
“He’s just a small child. What does he know about what’s good for him? Us elders have to make the decisions.”
“Still, I’d like to hear it from Kashif. Beta, how do you feel about coming to live with us?”
“Can I go to school?”
“Of course!” They put their arms around me as I nodded with unsure excitement.
I did cry when leaving Hassan and Wali. We had become brothers. But Sonia Apa promised we could see each other whenever we wanted. As we pulled up to a large black metal gate, it opened to reveal a beautiful brown bungalow. For me, it also opened a new chapter in my life. One where dreams had a chance of becoming real.