When munna turned three years old, it was as if he was trying to make up for all the previous years of silence. Every new word he would try to form in his mouth and would push it out whichever way smothered in jets of saliva. He especially loved airplanes. He would point to a distant kite or hawk and raise his shoulders and then his face would go red, his eyes widening as his cheeks filled with air and the word “plane” would come out with such force leaving him breathless. I was two-and-a-half years older than munna but I started talking much sooner than him and it took all my will power not to finish his words for him or correct him. But ammi would get cross with me. “Let him speak or he will become intimidated”, she would say. So I kept quiet but looked intently at him as if impressing him with the right answer. In a few months we would discover munna had a stutter but it was not clear then.
In our garden, in the house in Nazimabad, there was plenty to inspire munna. In a narrow driveway, all dust and pebbles, Iqbal the chowkidaar had built a thatched roof of dried coconut leaves where abbu’s off-white Mercedes was parked. Munna would go ‘vroom vroom’ as he watched the car reverse towards the gate, the pebbles popping underneath the tires. The gates would close as quickly as they opened giving us barely a glimpse of the road outside. Above the gate a yellow twine hung limply. “Shaitan bail,” abbu told me this was an evil vine that killed a tree it took a fancy to. The tree, taller than the sky, had lost all its leaves now. Every morning, Iqbal took me to the school at the end of the street. I would sometimes ride on the back of his bicycle or he would walk me to school. I was always too sleepy or too tired to notice the black spray painted walls. Scrawny cows grazed on the stinky garbage heaps. The cows always reminded me of this guessing game my cousin and I played. “Laal gaaye paani daalo mar jaaye,” he said. The correct answer was fire. The red cow that died of water. But I could not bring myself to see the red cow for fire. Also, fire was in my opinion yellow. At school, the teacher was stern and I seldom paid attention but I loved to sing nursery rhymes and the teachers always made me stand in front of the crowd of students. One day a boy had brought small bottles of perfume with him, a tiny sachet full of tiny bottles. I broke a bottle when no one was looking. Munna was playing in the mud when I came home. After Iqbal washed the front porch, earthworms wriggled out floating in the small puddles. ‘Snake snake’ munna accused them, pointing with his small fingers, his eyes wide.
Abbu flew airplanes. He was away for weeks. Ammi would sometimes take us to naani’s place. But mostly we were inside the house. Naani was afraid to come to our neighborhood. Once when khalu came to drop us he brought a guard along. He took off his wrist-watch and turned off the music player and honked nervously as long as the chowkidaar did not open the gate. It was nighttime and the headlights cast a harsh glow on our gate. A colorless lizard sat motionless next to abbu’s name plate. It was one of the few times we could see the gate from outside. Mostly we stayed inside. Ammi would rent Indian movies that we would watch after dinner. We would learn all the songs by heart but we never sang them in front of abbu. He would not approve. Ammi even let us dance and I would tie a dupatta across like a sash tied at my stomach and pout moving sideways. Munna stood in place moving up and down, saliva dripping down his chin as he grinned. Disco dancer playing in the background as the movie star in a sparkly bandana jerked his shoulder up and down.
We played in the garden all day where there was plenty to inspire munna. After Iqbal washed the front porch, earth worms wriggled out onto the muddy soil, floating in the small puddles. We would place them on the acacia leaves and pretend they were sailors. Other times we made caves out of the wet soil. You had to place your palm on the ground and pack wet earth on top and then slide your hand out quickly. You had to get it right or it would crumble. We knew the sound of the van that brought abbu home from flights and we would run shouting towards the gate then step aside as we waited for the gate to be opened. He always brought with him the smell of far away places.
In the summer we went to visit mamu in London. The neighbor boy, Sheikh saab’s son as my mamu called him, let me ride his bicycle with one training wheel. He did not laugh when I fell scraping my knee badly. Back home my cousins would have been in tears with laughter. Munna and I ran to the ice-cream truck whenever we heard it drive up. Munna would get a cone and I always wanted the strawberry popsicle. After we flew back munna would cry every time he saw a mini bus, “aishhhh kreeem aaaaaish kreem“ the thing speeding towards us with the blaring horn and the bright colors and the coiled snake and the flowers made him think this was the ice-cream truck. Even abbu smiled when he did that. The drive from the airport past naani’s place to our home was long.
Abbu made us see Karachi from the cockpit window before we landed. “This is Karachi?” I asked pointing where I thought Karachi was. “Right here all of this area,” Abbu said. “See this is the coastline.” My nose was making smudgy prints on the window. Munna was laughing. Ammi said our area got the worst curfews. I noticed she was wearing the pearl earrings and necklace she only wore on special occasions. I wanted to know when we would go to London again. She let me play with her bracelet. I raised my arm and it slid all the way down to my elbow. I sat with my arm up the whole way. Munna kept crying.
At home ammi made us sandwiches with the Kraft cheese triangles abbu brought from his trips abroad. Munna had learned that the word cheese had both an Urdu and an English meaning. Ammi would bring him one thing after another trying to guess which cheez he wanted. I would turn my face and cough trying to cover my laughter after ammi would give me a stern look. When someone in the neighborhood died, Munna went around saying “inqitaal” instead of “intiqaal.” Ammi swooned that he learned to say such a big word. I wanted to correct munna but then abbu was asking ammi about the death and I wanted to hear about it as I had never seen anyone die but then abbu was watching TV. I balled my hand into tight fists and went and sat in abbu’s lap. He had changed into a white shalwar kamiz. He always took a shower and changed into his white shalwar kamiz and then prayed before sleeping. I sat and watched him lean back and forth on the jaaye namaaz. I could smell cologne and the metallic smell of sink water on him.
The nine o’clock news was on.
The same mustachioed man in uniform was shown marching in a parade as soldiers on either side saluted him in unison, then he was seen shaking hands with a man in a black sherwani, then another man in a similar uniform. Munna had walked into the room when I looked again there was a big room and then the men were all sitting around an oval table looking stern. Glasses of water next to them looked stale. It looked like the water the maulvi saab breathed on and made me sip. He said the glass would be heavy if there were bad spirits but the glass just seemed dirty. I swallowed slowly under his gaze. The general was president. Naani said he hung the prince and his daughter, the princess, will one day come and take revenge. She told me the same story every night I went to stay at her place. But Abbu liked the general. Abbu had been in the air force and he showed us a movie from a camera placed under the body of the airplane. It was a scratchy video. A small black pellet flew out and abbu said it was a missile. Munna and I wanted to watch Tom and Jerry. The same woman read the news every night. Her head was covered in a thin dupatta and her voice was heavy. Munna and I sat back, eyes half-closed and started to yawn. But then at the end of the news the song played. We saw green meadows and flowers as far as the eye could see and tanks and airplanes and soldiers saluting under a giant green and white flag. Munna’s eyes widened and he pointed whenever a tank and an airplane was shown but the images changed too quickly and he would say “juz” or ”aaa” and abbu would say “yes tank airplane”. He would watch munna. “Say airplane.” “Aaaaa” munna’s body would stiffen and would be screaming. It was difficult to tell if he was joyed or frightened or both. I tried to sing the song and got all the words wrong. “Meeer” munna tried his teeth all showing as he stretched his lips. “Aaaahaaah” I laughed at him. “Abbu where is Kashmir?” I asked. Ammi had gotten up to clear the table after the 8 o’ clock drama was over and she came to put us to sleep. Abbu had not been home in weeks as he had been away on a trip and we began to protest loudly not wanting to sleep just yet. “If you go to sleep now, I will take everyone to the prawn place,” Abbu said prawn like brown. That’s how munna said the word. He loved prowns. The place on Tariq Road was ammi’s favorite place. I dreamt of fish crackers that night.
The next day we ate cheese sandwiches with butter on white bread and sat down in the living room to watch danger mouse. “Dinner mouse” munna called it. All day I had played with Rukhsana, Iqbal’s little sister. We had strung together small garlands out of jasmine flower for my doll. Rukhsana told me she was going to keep my doll safe in her vanity case that ammi had given her. But when she opened the top the dolls inside were smeared in red. The packet of henna had leaked and had covered everything. There was streaks of red on my doll’s face. Ammi washed it in bleach but it made her eyes vanish. I ate in the same plate with Rukhsana and Iqbal, the oily curry had made my mouth burn for hours. Rukhsana sometimes climbed up on the wall to watch the neighbors but Iqbal slapped her. She cried with a funny look of disbelief on her face and I laughed. She too was not allowed to go outside and it made me happy.
Ammi said it was time to get ready. I wore my favorite frock with the teddy bears all over it. Munna and I jumped up and down and munna waved as the car reversed out of the driveway. Iqbal watched us, the mirror on his topi gleaming in the moonlight, the sound of the popping pebbles all around us. On the way abbu pushed the cassette in the player and our favorite song from Tarzan played came on. Munna mimicked the animal sounds and I sang along to the words bending my head side to side. We went past the walls and the garbage. There were no cows at night. I could not see much but I knew the streets would be bright once we were out on Tariq Road. As soon as the car was about to reach the main sharah, a torch beam hit our windscreen and created red spots in my eyes. I blinked. Two soldiers stood far ahead. Abbu turned the player off. Ammi spread her dupatta. The car rolled to a slow stop. The soldier lightly jogged as he came over to Abbu’s side. Abbu gave a quick sharp nod that conveyed to the soldier that he too had been in the forces. His hair was longer than a buzz cut and he had the same neat side sweep as the soldier. Abbu rolled down the window. “Sir, you cannot proceed ahead. There is a curfew tonight. You must turn back.” Abbu was about to say something but then he nodded, his expression turning stern. The gravel made sharp popping sounds. Ammi turned on the radio. “Karachi sheher mein mukammal nakabandi, Sadar janaab Zia…”
“Zia has called for a complete shut down” abbu said. He said something else but munna and I were looking outside the window. In the swerving headlights I saw the blank faces of the two soldiers, the guns slung on their shoulders and then we saw a tank. Munna and I both leaned and pressed our faces to my side of the car. The tank was next to a small chowki with sandbags and raw bricks behind which I could see two men lying under white sheets. Munna’s hands were making prints on the window. It must be cold on the grass, I wanted to ask ammi if this was how you die but I kept looking. “Kushmeer” it was a hoarse whisper at first. “Kushhhhmeerrr,” munna was crying too loudly now his saliva smearing the window. Abbu said something angrily to ammi. She reached back and pulled munna down on the seat with and kept her hand on his knee. “Shhhhh,” she said. “Be calm or else you will wake the whole neighborhood up.”
Back home Ammi made us cheese sandwiches. Abbu turned on the TV. We waited to see Kashmir.
Annie Ali Khan is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism. Her latest story was a cover feature for the the August issue of the Herald magazine on honor killings. After living in New York for seven years, Annie moved back to Karachi and has published stories on the Malabari hotel and its famous daal fry, the Hinglaj – a revered pilgrimage site in Balochistan – and an essay on rickshaws.