Here the perfectly aligned boulevard escapes the madness of downtown of this desert city. When the sun is up afresh and the moon had declined to leave, this roadway is an utter departure from dissonance. In twilight like ambience, lined only by trees on both sides it vanishes into the blue of the sky, looking mystically.
When I first arrived here posted by my newspaper employer it was ten in the morning and the deserted road has already been populated with move about shops on both sides, the considerable crowd, countless handcarts, the arguing rickshaw pullers, the incredible push sellers, the road cleaner; with his assembled dust from head to toe, the worthless passers-by, the artful pickpockets and the detached spies. It reminded me of a street scene from the movie ‘Casablanca’, nothing has changed here I wondered. I was directed to the house next to Amira’s for my office. I believed Amira to be some sort of an actress, every other man was calling her name and the last elderly gentleman smiled coyly peering away from me when I inquired about who she was. I found Amira’s house where the boulevard discharges its first side street on its way southward. The next was the little three storied office my newspaper has here, camouflaged by shops selling petticoats with kites, the unusual coexistence I had never witnessed before.
‘Got the office without problem?’ asked the regional manager. I responded hesitantly.
‘Anyway, whose Amira?’ I asked quickly without losing time.
‘The landmark,’ he too replied bluntly, but his smirk was same that I saw only minutes before in the elderly gentleman’s face. The disclosure came soon. I was allowed a one-room cave on top of the office, guaranteed that its shabbiness will be removed promptly, at least by a fake whitewash and cleaning and replacement of the dull yellow incandescents with new LED bulbs. But thankfully the toilet was clean and the view from the room endless and happening, opening straight onto the street one can look far away into the blue where it met yellow of the desert sand. Airy, as the departing manager said, not lying, and it was quite true as it often carried my papers out of the window. The next morning I took charge and bid goodbye to the man I relieved, the last manager whom I had never seen before. I had climbed only a few steps when he returned to my help. I thought he had forgotten something. He made me move to the one storied box shaped dwelling standing only next to ours and called aloud, somewhat noisily ‘Amira, Amira.’ Briefly out came the little agile of two, pulling her mother’s hand as vigorously as she could, her smile filling the air.
‘I’m leaving, tata,’ said my friend softly, keeping his eyes off her to hide his tears, I was convinced of that, but he didn’t hesitate to continue, ‘Don’t worry, this is a new friend of yours,’ he said pointing at me and left hurriedly. The little child had taken refuge behind her mother by now, shy, but the shyness was like a trance she knew well, I believed.
Quite early, even before the morning had turned up, the teleprinter sounded, I looked out of the window over the empty thoroughfare. Farhan was not alone there, the road still empty, his two year old Amira, sitting on her father’s shoulder, not awaken from her last night’s sleep, but wakeful and vigilant of the cold breeze that blows from the desert. This father daughter duo is inseparable, everyone knows them by heart, my impression was clear and assured. Farhan quickly looked at the window, aware of my standing there and watching him. I waved. He turned back abruptly to his home but soon arrived with a thermos and two cups. The tea was fuming. He laid the child on my bed, asleep, the diminutive holding her father’s index finger.
‘She is only two but loud and naughty as four, never leaves me,’ fretted the father caressing her golden locks, assuring her of his presence. Your daughter is quite a famous entity here, I must take it, said I when I found her other hand grasp my little finger. She was quietly pursuing us feigning half asleep, now her one hand held her father’s and the other; mine, in gratitude.
Ping-pong balls kept rolling from next door into our office, the shrill cry of the child when her father left in the morning and her mother often handing over the child to the editorial desk, as we did with our news items, when she left for the morning market, kept repeating. None in our office got bothered for that. Someone was always there to bring in a piece of chocolate or a cheap plastic doll tickling the child. The mother would come in soon complaining of no place left in her home for toys. But the child never stopped smiling. The parting smile she gifted each time from her mother’s arms was new and indelible. It lingered like a precious perfume for some time after she left the room, no less a gift of the magi.
A week later, half a kilometre away I discovered the city market followed by the only petrol pump the township had. A peaceful, upper class restaurant stood four blocks away, an air-conditioned one that allayed the blare of the bombs. Each time I looked at it I thought it was my duty to treat my neighbor a dinner there which they always shied off, a part of my committal as I would ever believe.
Farhan drove a taxi and leaving home each morning was no easy task for him. The child would never sanction his leaving and the mother usually failing in her endeavor to resist the child often found her hands over the child’s back. Pat came the reply each time from the father to the mother, the same way as hers, and our office bearers found themselves entering the troubled waters, negotiating.
Scorching summers faded into winters, then into desert storms but the bombs never stopped dropping. They said the tribals will soon consume the city. It’s only a matter of time. The sky filled with bizarre lights flying in unison, a sight of eventful fireworks that illumed the space. But only those who knew the color of those farcical brilliance spent sleepless nights. Nevertheless this city was far away from the tribals who came in from the north east in large consorts, armed with modern machine guns and rocket launchers, only rich governments could acquire. Bombs dropped throughout the day, people on road took shelters in nearby shops while smoke engulfed. It was a routine affair of dust and smoke and howls and clamor that faded into undesirable peace in an hour, coexisting with another brewing bloodshed and conflict nearby.
I still remember the day Amira went mad and reckless. She would not allow Farhan to leave for the taxi without her. I haven’t heard such prolonged brooding over since long. Her mother stood helplessly by the staircase while Amira sat on the floor with her legs spread dejected and inconsolable. Farhan took her on his shoulder reluctantly, the child still crestfallen. He took her in his taxi to fill it up. While they waited in the queue, ten in the morning it was, I still remember, a rocket launcher was fired over the petrol pump. The explosion quickly blew into a large cloud of smoke and sound ruining the eardrums. Body parts remained scattered, strewn over the place extending till our office. But we could find Amira no more.
When the sun was down, the coarse smell of gunpowder still filling the air and hurting, the owner of the petrol pump came rushing in. He was luckily saved while having his breakfast at the nearby restaurant a few blocks away, they have found Amira.
I found a block of charcoal, seemingly a pair of little hands pressed round the neck of a torso, an indiscernible shape of father and child. The next day when I followed the crowd to the burial ground, the charcoal block could not be separated and they put the two together in one grave.