by Nazia Kamali
a mug of hot chocolate
Aaram Bano came to Dehradun after seventeen long years to attend her brother Jamal’s granddaughter’s wedding, hoping to get a chance to meet the extended family after a long time. The house she had spent her childhood in had changed a lot. An additional storey comprising four bedrooms, a long veranda, and several round pillars whose history was unknown to her had come up. The open courtyard where she used to play had turned into a parlour. The colour of the walls had changed and so had the shapes and sizes of several of its residents.
Aaram loved the gathering. She met several old friends and cousins, and together they reminisced about their childhood. She sang and played dholki with the girls and laughed out loud. However, the noise that the younger ones made while dancing to the beats of the latest rock music they played on a full-throated speaker became unbearable after some time. So, giving some trouble to her wobbly knees, she went out of the house in search of a few seconds of peace.
Taking small, steady steps, Aaram walked, observing the changes in the neighbourhood. Buildings, houses, and complexes had come up everywhere, leaving hardly any room for air. New families had shifted to the area. The old landmarks etched so clearly in her memory were nowhere to be found. Most of the previous inhabitants had sold their houses and left. The shops that lined the lanes along which she ran up and down were replaced by modern outlets and convenience stores.
It used to be such a beautiful and spacious locality, she thought.
Aaram Bano hobbled a little further to find the ground where she played with her friends, but it was gone; vanished in the new concrete jungle that had cropped up in the modern times.
Dejected at the loss of her favourite place, she entered the miniscule replica of the playground built around the corner and sat on one of the benches lining its perimeter. There were hardly any trees. Few small swings stood at some distance. At half-past three, the place was almost empty. The late autumn afternoon felt pleasant. Aaram let out an audible breath and peered around.
When she was young, everything looked big and new to her inexperienced eyes. Very few people lived in the neighbourhood. The houses were huge and interspersed. A vast expanse of land was left open after the last one.
Gigantic trees of Mango, Peepal, and Lychee filled the open landscape. A small stream gurgled at its other end.
Women of all ages gathered there for household activities; drying chilies and peppers, making pickles, planning festivities. They would gather in groups and discuss what happened in which household - who was getting married to whom, who disobeyed his parents and ran away from his responsibilities, who spent all the money in vain and who made the most.
Aaram had spent countless hours in that ground. Her happiest memories of childhood were from that place. She and her friends would play all sorts of games – hopscotch, hide and seek, and blind man’s bluff. Sometimes the girls would climb high up on the trees and hide, giggling until someone’s mother roared at them to come down. They had no gadgets, no fancy toys, and no television sets to glue in front of yet; their hearts were content.
The quiet in the place was welcoming. Aaram closed her eyes and rested her back as the brisk breeze transported her back to the time when she was one hell of a runner. No one in the entire neighbourhood could defeat her until Nimra came along - three years her junior and already as tall as her at the age of ten.
That girl broke every rule set upon them by the elders. Her unkempt, long hair, hung loose instead of being tied up in tight plaits like the rest of them. Though she wore salwar kameez and slippers like everyone else, most of the time, her slippers were of different colours or sizes as if she had left home in a hurry and wore anything she found. She rubbed fruits that fell from the trees upon her kameez and ate them without washing. When any older girl scolded her for the deed, she stuck out her tongue in defiance. She feared no one and usually played alone, starting one game after the other spontaneously - now she is climbing the tree, and just a second later, she jumped into the stream, splashing water all around. There was nothing predictable about her except the fact that she was a winner.
Running was the most popular sport with girls their age. They had to run and touch the Peepal tree standing at one end of the ground and then return to the starting point. Chatty as she was, Nimra always started late, being busy talking with a friend; and was often last to touch the tree. However, she never finished second. Every time Aaram smiled inwardly when Nimra reached the tree after her, the girl would beat all others and win. She was swift as an arrow and dashed past her competitors without a moment’s notice.
Aaram began loathing her. There was no minute, no second when she did not hate the girl. Nimra, on the other hand, was oblivious to all that hatred and jealousy. She had no desire to please anyone. An air of nonchalance surrounded her at all times. She never followed the herd of girls; instead, she came and went all around the neighbourhood as she liked. Aaram had often seen her play all by herself in the middle of summer afternoons when the sun shone mightily. She hated Nimra’s guts and yet admired the ease with which she carried herself.
As they grew up from little girls to young teenagers, everything that Nimra touched turned into gold. Every person she met fell in love with her.
Nimra became tall and thin with full lips and big brown eyes that had a language of their own, while Aaram remained short and carried a tadpole belly. There was nothing extraordinary about her looks, and every time she looked at Nimra, she wished for something bad to befall her. Whenever the girl dressed herself up for any occasion, it became impossible for people to tear their eyes away from her. Aaram hated the attention they paid to her.
Wherever there was a gathering in the neighbourhood, her name echoed.
So young and yet so smart.
Does math far beyond her age.
Have you seen the bed sheet she embroidered recently?? So beautiful. Such exquisite design.
I wonder how a girl her age is able to manage such precision.
Aaram's life became an unending competition with a girl who didn't even bother to enter into one with her. She tried doing everything that Nimra was praised for - she studied her elder brother’s book and painted a bunch of flowers on the cushion covers, she imitated her laughter and nonchalance during ceremonies but nothing seemed to work, or maybe it did but to Aaram, it was never as good as her adversary.
She spent hours and hours going over detailed plans to defeat Nimra, dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every‘t’ meticulously - how she would run with all her might in the next race and beat Nimra, or how she would embroider an elaborate and intricate pattern on one of the bed sheets to impress every woman in the neighbourhood. She became obsessed with the idea of excelling, of going far and beyond to claim victory over the girl.
And then came Sarmad.
The local doctor's son, who studied in Delhi, returned one summer after passing out of high school. Aaram saw him from the terrace of her house as he walked with long confident strides on the road outside. It was love at first sight. His glorious aura captivated her, and the entire summer, she could see nothing but Sarmad all around. Every corner she looked, she saw him - standing, sitting, smiling, laughing, talking, eating, and walking. He had captured her senses until one day when the news of his elopement with Nimra reached her ears.
Aaram's insides were set on fire. That girl was bad news since day one. She had stolen everything from her, everything. A blanket of hatred enveloped her as she ran away, hiding tears of dejection.
Soon she married and moved to Saharanpur. Whenever she came to see her parents, Aaram asked after Nimra, and to her dismay, there was always something good going on in her life – Sarmad came back and apologised to his parents who accepted their union after all. He went to a medical school. Their firstborn was a son. They had four children together. Sarmad named his clinic after Nimra.
She would listen to everything and think that all this would have been hers had that girl not come in between. It took Aaram decades to forgo that feeling.
For the past several years, she hadn't thought about Nimra at all. It was only after reaching Dehradun, that she remembered the girl with long unkempt hair and big brown eyes. Upon asking, she was told, that Nimra passed away seven years ago. Sarmad followed soon after. A tinge of hatred showed itself in Aaram's eyes as she imagined them together in the heavens. The girl's Midas touch worked even in death. She rested in the hereafter not alone but with the love of her life.
Now, as she sat on the bench and recalled everything and then she realised that she would never see Nimra again, never hear her voice. The girl did not breathe anymore. She didn’t share the sun and the moon with her any longer....
Despite sun still being there in the sky, the air felt chilly, she rubbed the nape of her neck and then crossed her arms tightly. A feeling of emptiness seemed to be closing in from all sides. A loud gasp escaped her mouth.
Aaram suddenly longed for her rival - to run up to the aging peepal tree and lose to her in the race once again, to see her play those spontaneous games and never bother to include others. She longed for the touch of her warm hands and the smile on her soft baby-like face that never failed to enrich those oval eyes of hers. Aaram wished to see her outdo everyone else by her wit and intelligence one more time.
Tears flowed from her eyes onto her cheek, making their way to her chin and hence the lap as she realised after seventy long years that she had never hated the girl.