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30 Minutes of Solitude

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It was a cold December morning in Karachi, the largest city of Pakistan. Though, winters barely ‘touch and go’ in this city, this year, it seems they extending their stay. Outside, the air was crisp and chilly, laden with the scent of burning fire wood that the Samads, the next door neighbors had used to cook haleem, a type of porridge that is a concoction of wheat, lentils and meat, cooked in a huge pot and ground in to a semi-thick paste using large mashers. The sound of the morning ‘azan’ – the call to prayer started just as my Mickey-mouse alarm clock starting ringing.

Haris, a tiny pixie faced, 5 year old boy rolled over in bed, covering himself with his pillow. A knock on his door finally woke him up. “Haris beta! (son), wake up sweety. It’s 6 a.m., time to get ready for school!”, said his mother. “Ammi (mother)…just 5 more minutes plz!”, replied Haris.

He climbed out of bed, unsteady and sleepy and looked into the mirror. “Just one more day to go Haris. And after today, it’s a long 2 week vacation. Just one more day”, he spoke to himself. After going to the bathroom, taking a bath, and getting ready for school he got out of his room and walked towards the breakfast table. His grandmother catches him on the way as she gets up from her praying carpet. She whispered a prayer and blew lightly on Haris’ face. “Dadi! (Grandma) You know I don’t like that!”, said Haris. She replies, “Beta, it’s a prayer for your protection. You’ll see, by the grace of Allah, angles will be with you throughout the day”. “Ok Dadi… whatever makes you happy”, he said, as he wriggled himself out of the hands of his grandmother and ran towards the table.

“Ammi? It’s the last day of school before the Eid holidays. Can I pleaseee skip school today? You  know nothing’s going to happen at school.”, said Haris. “No way. Last day or not, you are going to school.”, she replied. “But Ammi, Eid is just around the corner! I want to go shopping!”, Haris insisted. “There is not use quarreling with me young man. You better finish your breakfast before the school bus gets here. Or else your Abba (father) is going to be furious.” Finally, after trying hard to convince his mother, Haris gave up. “Alright Amma, whatever you say…But as soon as I get back, can we please go then? I want a blue kurta with golden embroidery, My classmate Hamza says he got a red one.” His mother smiled at her child’s innocent insistence. “Sure honey, but only if you go to school”. Just then, the school bus honked outside.

“Hi Haris! Ready for the last day?”, said Hamza excitedly as Haris climbed the school bus stairs.”As ready as ever my friend. Ammi is going to take me shopping right after school.”, Haris replied. “And I’m going to give you a surprise at the Eid namaz”, he added. “Ha! Getting me a box of chocolates eh?!”, said Hamza. “You wish…”, replied Haris with a wink.

The school was a couple of blocks down the road. It was a huge building with a vast dusty playground. It was established during the times of the British raj and was more than a century old. As the kids got down from the bus, they could see a vast number of street vendors with their carts trying to sell their tasty goods to kids going into the school. A cotton candy vendor called out “Come on kids. Tasty cotton candy! Eid special!” Another vendor selling fried samosas, triangular crisps stuffed with potatoes. As Haris and Hamza crossed the vendors, a stooping, stumbling figure approached them. Hamza froze in place.

As the figure drew closer, Hamza pulled at Haris’ arm. “Haris, we need to go. NOW.” Haris looked up to see what Hamza was pointing at. It was the beggar. That’s what everyone called him. No one knew what his real name was, only that he lived on the streets, searching dumpsters for food and begging for money to get by. Every once in a while, he used to come to Haris’ doorstep, Sometimes, his mother would give him roti (bread) and leftover curry, Sometimes, his Dadi would give him some money. Hamza on the other hand had a completely different opinion of the beggar. “Come on Haris, we need to go now! He is going to catch us and cook us!,” he said urgently. “What!,” Haris burst out laughing. “He just wants some food. Wherever did you get such an idea? Grab us and cook us! Haha!”.

“Oh God. Here he comes,” Hamza waited for the impact. “May I have some money to eat please? I haven’t eaten in days”, said the beggar. “Aaah!,” yelped Hamza as he hightailed out of there and ran towards the school gate. Haris couldn’t stop giggling. “Sorry, I don’t have money, but you can have my sandwich. I don’t think I’ll be eating today”. “Thank you little one, may Allah bless you.”, thanked the beggar. “I wonder what happened to the other little one. Maybe he got scared like all the other kids. You on the other hand are special. I see great strength in you boy.” Haris chuckled. “Thank you. Ammi says Islam always teaches us to help the poor and needy. We should do a good deed whenever we can, Allah will then send blessings on us. Anyways, I need to go now. School’s going to start.” With that, he ran towards the school gate.

The day turned out to be just what Haris suspected, completely uneventful and boring. Teachers mostly gave out homework for vacations. Finally, the last period of the day arrived – Science. But instead of the science teacher, the P.E. trainer walked in. “Don’t get your hopes high kids. We are not going out to play. The Science teacher hasn’t shown up today. I’m just covering for her. I want you kids to put your heads down on the table and take a nap for half an hour. That’s all I need you kids to do.”. “Oh well…I guess this is a better way than any to kill time. Can’t wait to get home and go shopping for Eid. I wonder how much Eidi will I collect this year. Abba gave me a hundred rupees last year. Maybe he will increase it to one hundred and fifty this time! I really hope so.”, thought Haris. He was sitting on the last bench, which was completely empty. “Guess I’ll make full use of this bench then.” With that, he stretched himself on the bench and went to sleep.

Haris woke up with a start. He was having a strange dream, where he was standing in a window and the beggar was beckoning him to come down. As Haris sat upright in his seat, he froze in place. The entire class was empty! “Oh my…”, was all he managed to say. “Is this a dream as well?,” he said to himself as he got up. As he did that, he nudged his knee on the bench and felt the sharp pain travel up his leg. Nope, not a dream. He ran towards the classroom door and started banging it. “HEY! IS ANYONE OUT THERE! I’M LOCKED IN HERE! CAN ANYONE HEAR ME!” He shouted till his throat was hoarse. That is when the realization hit him. I’m locked in here...for a week! This thought acted like an energy booster for him. He shouted and banged the door with all his strength. In the end, exhausted and scared, he collapsed on the floor sobbing and crying. His eyes fell on the window. Yes! I can open the window and cry out loud! Maybe somebody would hear me. He ran towards the window and flung it open, only to realize that the window opened up in an alley towards the back of the school. All he could see was dumpsters and trash. Not a soul in sight.

Defeated and distraught, he sunk down into one of the benches and started crying. Would someone come looking for him? What if no one notices that he is missing? He thought of Eid. He won’t be going for the Eid prayer with his father in the morning. He won’t be having the delicious dessert of kheer. He would miss its milky creamy taste. He won’t be going shopping with his mother or wearing the golden embroidered kurta. Thinking about the Eid delicacies, Haris started getting hungry. The sun was about to set. Haris rummaged through his bag. Just then he remembered, the only food he had, he gave it away to that beggar. Is this the reward for a good deed? He Next, he checked his desk and felt something that was sticky and gooey. He pulled it out to notice that it was a half eaten banana. Did I have this yesterday? Not knowing what else to do, he started eating the stale banana almost coughing it up due to its terrible taste.

Just then, something clattered outside the window. Haris froze. Another clatter followed. Haris rushed to the window and peeked down. It was the beggar rummaging through the trash. “HEY! HELP! PLEASE HELP!”, cried out Haris. The beggar looked up and was startled to see that it was the same boy who had given him the sandwich that morning. “What are you doing up there little one!”, the beggar called out. “Please help me! I’m locked here in class!” replied Haris. “Hold on little one, don’t be scared. I go get help!” The beggar ran towards the front of the building where a guard was dozing off in his cabin. “Hey! Help!,” cried out the beggar. Startled, the guard ran out of his cabin. “What’s the matter old man?!” The beggar stopped to catch his breath. “Help…there is a kid in the school…class at the back…small kid.”, he said, wheezing. “Are you crazy old man? Are you seeing things?” “No! I saw him myself. Please, just go check once. I beg you. Please!”, he pleaded. “Arrite Arrite, I’m going. You better be right, or else you are not coming here anymore.”

As the guard opened the main gate and climbed the stairs, he could hear a faint echo of someone banging on the door. Ya Allah! There is somebody there! With that, he ran towards the classroom door which Haris was desperately banging on. As he unlocked the door, Haris flew into his arms with tears flowing from his eyes. “Hey…hey kid. It’s ok. You are going to be ok now.”, said the guard. He turned around to see that the beggar was standing just behind him. “Are you ok little one?” Haris was too distraught to reply.  “We need to take him home.” the beggar said to the guard. “I know where he lives.”

As they walked down the road towards his house, Haris got his bearings back. He turned towards the beggar and said “Thank you. You saved my life sir.” The beggar just looked at him and smiled. Finally, Haris was home, safe and sound.  The next day, right after the Eid prayer, Haris was getting out of the Eid namaz, wearing his brand new kurta. As expected, the beggar was at the doorstep, begging for food. Haris had a package in his hand. He walked towards the beggar and gave him the package saying “Thank you for the other day. My ammi said to give this to you as a gift”. He handed the package to the beggar and walk away with his father. The beggar opened the package and almost had tears in his eyes. In front of him was a brand new kurta and a bowl filled with kheer. 

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