Series 8: The Green Thumb Part 1 ‘Death changes everything, even innocence’
The house at the end of the street was possibly one of the most spacious and attractive ones in the area. With its tall French windows, red bricks, and magenta bougainvillea covering the carved front door and climbing to the roof of the second floor, it was as lovely as it was mysterious. Friends of the owners were also aware of the fruit trees in the open, spacious lawn at the back.
The gardens had been lovingly cared for by the now deceased, green-thumbed Mrs Faizan. Mr Faizan did not have a green thumb and he was least bothered by the fact. His wife had enough of it for the both of them. The gardens were now looked after by a gardener. After the passing of his wife, Mr Faizan himself was leading a very quiet, empty life.
Zareen wiped the sweat off her brow. The heat was suffocating and the air-conditioning in the old, run-down Suzuki hardly ever worked. Her black abaya and scarf, her regular outdoor attire, did not help either but they were necessary. In a society that viewed any single woman, even a mother of five kids, property for loot, it was her defence. Fahad, 14-years-old and growing quieter by the day, was seated next to her, staring glumly out the window into the depressing traffic outside. Her second son Ali, 13 and very talkative, was as always having an argument with the 11-year-old Aiza about the social benefits of begging.
The topics Ali chose were always extremely random. Azam loved his interesting conversational topics and enjoyed them very much. But this was not a time to think about Azam. She had monumental problems to worry about. The most immediate one, as on all days, was to pick up her eight-year-old twins, Sara and Saad, from her friend’s house, get home and feed them all.
“Sorry Faiza,” she apologised quickly as soon as Faiza answered the door.
The twins were standing right behind her, as eager to get out of there, as Faiza seemed eager to let them.
“Traffic again?” She asked a little tonelessly.
“Yeah,” Zareen sighed. “It’s getting worse by the day. Anyway, I’ll talk to you later,” she said her goodbye quickly.
Faiza lived in a joint family and it was a huge favour for her to allow Zareen’s kids to stay at her house even for the short while until she could pick them up. She had no other option. The two were now pleading with Ali and Aiza to let them sit next to the windows since it was so hot. She let them resolve their little issue on their own. Fahad remained quiet throughout the noise and all the way home. He seemed so disinterested in everything after his father’s death.
The three-bedroom apartment was in a simple apartment complex that was kept tidy and clean by the homeowners. Despite serious water and electricity issues, she had to make the best of it; it was the only roof she could afford over all their heads. She taught in a school and the three older kids went with her. She got a discount for them. It wasn’t much but it was a consolation. The twins went to a different, much less expensive school. She couldn’t afford a better one or else there’d be no money for rent or food.
She had barely fed the five of them daal and roti when the doorbell rang, indicating her first tuition for the evening. As often, she had forgotten to eat herself. Food was usually the last thing on her mind.
Maryam called Zainab that afternoon. They were in the same time zone on the US East Coast. The two sisters often talked.
“When are you leaving for Karachi?” Maryam knew Zainab was busy with her upcoming summer trip.
“I’ll leave in the middle of June,” Zainab replied. “Why don’t you come too? We could ask Bhaijan, and Sadiq to come from Islamabad and get that home issue resolved.”
“That’s not a bad idea but the kids don’t want to come,” Maryam thought about it for a moment before replying. “They get so bored there. There’s nothing for them to do.”
“It’s the same problem with all the kids,” Zainab agreed. “I’m not taking my kids either. Faraz told me not to force them. I told them Daddy would love to see them but they still don’t want to go.”
“So how long will you be there for?” Maryam asked.
“Not long. Just two weeks. I’m mostly going for shopping for my sister-in-law’s daughter’s wedding,” Zainab informed her. “Seriously Maryam, let’s just get that problem solved. I can really use the money right now.”
“Hmmm…” Maryam was suddenly interested. She could use the money too.
“Call Amina Apa and see what she says,” Zainab coaxed her to call their eldest sister in New York. “The four of us should just go from here and have Bhaijan and Sadiq come from Islamabad.” The fourth sister, Rida, was in California.
“Let me call Apa and see what she says,” Maryam quickly wrapped up her conversation. She decided to call right away.
Was that Maryam?” Amir walked into the room to see his wife Amina in a deep thought. “Everything alright?” Amina looked up at Amir.
“Yes, everything is alright. She was asking me to come to Karachi for a while and get the inheritance issue resolved. She says he won’t listen until all of us go together. And we all have to be there anyway for the sale of property.”
“She’s right,” Amir agreed. “As the eldest daughter, you should be more forceful about it. I’m telling you, if anything happens to Daddy, your sisters will be running after the brothers for your shares forever.”
“What do you mean ‘running after the brothers’?” Amina raised her eyebrow distastefully. “My brothers are not like that…” Amir interrupted her with a loud laugh.
“You really are very innocent,” he told his irate wife. “Your sisters are smarter than you are. They want to settle the issue before anything happens to your father. Your brothers will use that house and the apartment for their own reasons and never give you any legal shares. Just you watch.”
If Amir had intended to create doubts in her mind, he had succeeded.
“But I know Daddy won’t agree to any such thing. He loves that house.”
“Then do whatever you wish,” Amir told her. “You father is not going to die anytime soon. He was in the Army and with his health, he’ll live another good 20 years, perhaps longer. If you get your share now, there’s so much we could do with it.” Amir egged her on.
Although inwardly she agreed, she didn’t say anything. She would talk to Bhaijan.
Fahad rang the bell and waited for the gate to open. He was there for his tuition session with Faizan sahib. Fahad liked Faizan sahib, perhaps it was because Azam, his late father, had requested him to coach Fahad in math. Zareen taught younger grades and Fahad needed help with his math. Azam often met Faizan sahib at the local mosque and they were on friendly terms. Upon asking if Faizan knew of a good tutor, he had offered his own services. He thought it would be a good way to pass time. After Azam’s death, Faizan had grown sympathetic towards the young boy.
The guard opened the gate and let him in. Fahad quietly walked past the well-kept lawn, keeping his eyes on the ground. He was so indifferent towards everything after his father’s death. He didn’t want to feel that way, but he did. He was trying not to let his grades slip but they were.
“Are you having too much of a hard time with math, Fahad?” Faizan asked him.
He was going through his notebook and he noticed more errors than usual. Fahad shook his head in frustration.
“No…” he replied quietly. “I really don’t know why that’s happening.”
“You have to pay attention when you work,” Faizan told him kindly. “You have to be very good at math if you want to get into a good engineering college.”
Fahad nodded his head. He realised that.
“I know uncle, but I just can’t seem to concentrate,” there was a hint of helplessness in Fahad's voice.
Fahad would never admit this to Zareen. But he felt more comfortable saying it to Faizan. Maybe it was a ‘man’ thing.
Faizan felt sorry for him. The child was visibly depressed and it was understandable. And how much time could his struggling mother give him with four younger ones to tend to.
“Tell you what,” Faizan sat back in his armchair. “I’d like you to come here five days a week instead of two and do all your homework here and then go home.” He thought Fahad would be excited but he wasn’t. He shook his head.
“I can’t do that. Mama can’t afford to pay you that much,” Zareen insisted on paying Faizan a minimal amount for his help with Fahad but she couldn’t possibly do more. “Plus, she needs my help with the younger brothers and sisters while she’s giving tuition to her students.”
Fahad’s sensitive nature and his awareness with his home issues touched Faizan.
“I’ll talk to your mother,” Faizan was still not willing to give up on his suggestion. “I’m sure she’ll manage.”
At the end of their tuition session, Faizan went to open the gate for Zareen himself. He hadn’t seen her in many months. He was saddened to see her worried face in the confines of the black scarf atop her black abaya. There were dark circles under her eyes and her complexion was sallow. He had only met her fleetingly during Azam’s lifetime but she hadn’t looked like this.
“I would like Fahad to come here every day from now onwards,” he told her. She was startled.
“Is he doing that badly now? What happened?” Her voice was as deeply concerned as her face.
“He isn’t doing badly but I would like to see him do even better,” Faizan tried to soothe her a little. “He has very important years ahead and he has to be very good if he wants to get in a good college,” Fahad explained.
“I understand, Faizan sahib,” her gaze was lowered now, her voice a little embarrassed. “But I can’t afford to send him for five days. I hope you understand.”
“I understand,” Faizan replied. “But I’m not asking for additional money. And it’s only until he picks up a little. Then he could go back to his two days a week schedule.”
The fact of the matter was that Fahad was a nice break in Faizan’s silent routine. Zareen looked dubious. She looked at Fahad. She expected him to give her a sign to refuse this offer because he wasn’t interested in tuition five times rather than the usual two. But instead, she saw an expectant, hopeful look on her son’s face. The decision was made.
“How come Fahad gets to go there five days a week?” Ali wasn’t too happy about it. “It’s really not fair.”
“Nothing in life is fair,” Aiza answered him promptly. The twins snickered. Ali glared at his sister.
“Jaani, he needs help with his math,” Zareen tried to explain. “He doesn’t go there for fun.”
“He sure has fun even if he doesn’t go there for it,” Ali grumbled. “He gets to sit in that nice, AC room for at least two hours a day and study in peace.”
Fahad felt sorry for his brother.
“I’ll tell Faizan sahib not to turn the AC on for me, okay?” Fahad tried to console Ali. He felt so responsible for them after his father. “Will that make you feel better?”
“Just a little bit,” Ali thought about the offer and took it.
It was 8pm. Time to watch the daily drama. Whether he liked it or not, Faizan watched it anyway. It reminded him of Samina, she had loved dramas. Plus, it was a good way to pass time. The blare of the television filled his large, empty home with human voices, with life. He knew the house was too large for him but he loved it. He could feel Samina in it. He could see his children in it as they grew and then left one by one.
They had six children. He used to tease Samina that if she had a green thumb for plants then he had a green thumb for breeding their next generation. She always laughed. She told him that the same way her plants would continue to add colour to the gardens, their children would continue to bring life to the inside of the house. She was wrong. Though her plants still splashed colour and gaiety outside, the kids had failed to do that inside. They had their own homes to make happy.
“Uncle, can we sit without the AC when I’m here?” Fahad did not forget to remind him the next day.
“Why?” Faizan was surprised at the unusual request. He laughed aloud when he heard the reason.
“Tell Ali I want to talk to him tomorrow,” he told Fahad. “Bring him with you.”
Zareen just sighed in exasperation when she heard. But she decided to let the boys handle it. She had enough troubles on her mind.
“I hear you have an issue with your brother sitting in the air-conditioner if you can’t,” he started his talk.
Ali listened attentively. An adult was trying to resolve an issue that he had brought up hence, it was very important.
“Don’t you feel this is very uncaring of you?” Faizan asked Ali.
“No, I don’t think so,” Ali surprised him with his matter of fact voice. “You see, Abbu had told us that all humans are created equal and no one is better or worse than the other. Therefore, if I can’t sit in the AC for five days and do my homework, then Fahad shouldn’t either. Especially because he is my brother.” Faizan had a hard time controlling his laughter.
“But the problem is, I’m not used to sitting without an AC. But Fahad has to keep coming here too. Do you have a solution for that?” Faizan threw the ball back in Ali’s court.
Of course, Ali had a solution.
[To be continued...]
The next part of the series will be published next Sunday. Stay tuned to see how the story unfolds.