A lot of our evenings that year were spent on the exotic tales of Raheem kaka when we were a little boy. On the foot hills of the Himalayas, where I was born in a small village called Khaurali in Pakistan, day changed into night uneventfully till Raheem kaka came to stay with us. Every evening, it seemed as if he said some words, like the old magician who used to fumble some peculiar rhyming pair of words and transform something into something entirely different, and the sky would change its colors and get darker at his behest. We would be engrossed in his tales when suddenly in between the stories he would point his finger towards the hill and ask us to bid good-bye to the sun.
Raheem kaka was a very mysterious man. He was a strict vegetarian, something that we had never heard in our part of the world. He carried mysterious tools with him which made him more enchanting than the old magician who visited us. One day, he produced fire to burn my baba’s beedi without striking any visible match stick. He just pressed the lid of cubical jar filled with colorful liquid and a flame erupted. The whole scene was so breath-taking that we asked him to do it again, and again and, again. We never grew tired of watching him do this particular stunt.
He came from a very far place which he called China but, they said he was born in our village which was a very strange thing in itself. Kaka did not seem to belong to this world, let alone this village. And then, China made a very strange sound when pronounced. At first, I thought it was the name of a material from which China cups were made. He was so fair that I could easily believe if he had said that he came from one of those materials, but instead, he said that it was a place beyond the mountains. Baba obviously knew all about him but we never listened from him. Instead, we always insisted kaka to tell us his stories. It was due to my persistent requests that he agreed to visit us every evening at the school playground.
I don’t know why he agreed on the playground, though he knew it very well that the school playground was the most profane place for my visit. I thought I will never talk to him for choosing the playground as the venue. But, I knew I could not resist his stories of shiny clothes, fair women, concrete roads, large dams and skillful legendary warriors. So, I decided on a middle path. I decided that I will go to him because it would be very rude if I did not. But at the same time, I would not talk to him properly as a way to show my displeasure. I was sure that he would acknowledge my changed behavior and think about changing the venue.
I secretly fancied being his favorite. But, I also hated him for making me go to the playground every day. During school hour, when the bell rang for tiffin, I sat on my desk while all other kids rushed to the ground. My inertia was not a subject of choice but a command of destiny. I was born handicapped.
I hated my disability because it reminded me that I could not go to all those places that kaka talked about. But, strangely enough, this never stopped me from being curious. Every evening after I heard him, I had a mixed feeling of yearning and curiosity. I felt yearning to see all those places through my own eyes and curiosity to know more about them. My days were spent waiting for the evening and my nights were spent dreaming about the tales of the evening.
Baba on his way back from the fields would carry me home from the playground. Sometimes, he would sit with us, sometimes when he was late he would just stand and wait to take me home. I did not like the playground, also because baba had to come to fetch me. Raheem kaka was so insensitive to my agony, I thought. Did he not know how painful was it for me to sit in the playground with all the other kids running and frolicking around?
One day, he saw baba coming to fetch me and raised his voice.
He asked me,” Don’t you think you should come with me to China at the end of this month?
My heart sank not because he had asked me but I was sad because he would leave me and go back. He was my only window to the outer world. I was also sad because he did not tell me about his plans beforehand. There were only five days left in this month. Will he be gone so soon? My heart skipped a beat at his announcement.
He asked again, “Tell me Kashif, will you come with me? I have asked your baba, he says you can come.
My heart skipped a beat again. Everything had been planned already and they did not even bother to inform me. I did not expect them to seek my permission but they could have atleast told me a little earlier. I know I am very small to make a decision on my own but if they had informed me earlier I could atleast make up my mind.
I saw kaka’s face. His eyes were fixed on me and I saw baba also looking at me intently. I imagined or it was really there, baba’s pupils were wet. I leaned on baba and asked softly, “How do you think I can go without you so far when I can’t even walk to my home?”
I thought, now kaka would understand why I was so sad about the playground but surprisingly he was smiling at me. Was he smiling at my condition? My heart shrank at the possibility of being mocked.
He lifted me in his arms and put me on baba’s shoulder and smiled as he said, “That is you Kashif, always bothering about little details. Let me show you how you look right now with all those anxiety flowing on your face like you were to decide about Indo-China relations.”
I didn’t understand anything that kaka said. I just hugged baba’s head. I did not know how many days were left for me and him together after listening to kaka’s latest plan in collaboration with Baba.
Suddenly he produced a strange box like thing from his pocket and put it on his eyes. It was too big and strange to be a pair of spectacles. But, with kaka anything was possible. He held the peculiar thing with both his hands and asked me to look at him. The thing made an audible click sound and it sent a flash of light on my face which went off before I could notice. From that machine came out a little paper and here I saw baba’s face and on him I was sitting, hugging him like the monkey’s newborn.
My face looked so sad. Kaka pointed at me and said that I had very calm eyes. I did not know if it was a compliment or something else, but I thought I looked as if I was in deep thoughts.
I liked my face; I looked better than baba and even better than kaka. I smiled at the guilty realization that I was comparing my face and establishing my handsome-ness by competing with two older men.
Kaka put that photograph in my pocket. He waved to us saying, “Enjoy the ride with your baba, son, I will soon take you to a ride across the hills… across the nations. We will fly soon.”
When baba and I were on our own, I asked him how kaka could go away so soon, he had been here only for few months. Baba explained that he had come to sell all his lands and other properties.
I asked him, “Why does kaka want me to come along with him?”
Baba lifted me and kept me on the cot lying in our courtyard and said, “He thinks you are a very bright boy and you have got very sincere eyes. He wants you to study in China and be a rich wealthy man like him.
I pulled the photograph out of my pocket and looked into my eyes. They looked good, but where was the sincerity and brightness they were talking about. Probably, I was too young to understand, after all.
Next day, kaka came with a pair of new crutches and said, “Use these till I get you a nice wheelchair.” I wondered what did a wheelchair look like but I felt good to have a nice pair of new crutches to go around with. The crutches were nothing like the wooden thing that I had at home. It was made of iron or steel and it was much more comfortable and elegant. I roamed around my courtyard exuberantly. I was already flying, from one house to another, announcing my departure with kaka to the exotic land of kaka’s promises.
Twenty years now, this photograph still means a lot to me.
When kaka caught me staring at the photograph last year, I took the opportunity to ask him about the mystery behind choosing the playground as the venue. He said, “Kashif, I had seen sincerity and brightness in your eyes. I knew that I if I brought you here, you would do something good with your life. I did not want you to waste yourself for lack of opportunities. But, I wanted to see if you had the passion to go after your dreams. I saw the passion when you agreed to come to the playground to listen to the tales of great men who became great when they made good use of great opportunities.
I still can’t locate the sincerity and brightness that kaka thought I had. Probably, I am still too young to understand and decide. For me, this is the only evidence of my childhood. This is my only memory of my baba, my home, my land.
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