Earlier this year, we ran a creative writing contest for young writers between the ages of 16 and 19. It gave us the opportunity to read through hundreds of excellent submissions received from all across the country. Presented here is the second-prize winner’s story, Shantul Khalid is currently studying at Beaconhouse School (P.E.C.H.S. Campus) in Karachi.
The bazaar was alive with its usual clatter; women bargaining boisterously, vendors loudly advertising their unreasonably priced merchandise, and children staring longingly at the toys hoping their mothers would buy them. The only thing that was out of place was a scrawny boy running through the narrow streets, crashing into people and carts alike, as a bulky merchant chased him shouting obscenities.
“Stop that thief!”, the merchant shouted as he stopped to catch his breath, but the boy, quick and clever, found refugee in an alley before anyone could see him. He stood frozen as he heard a crowd outside possibly searching for him. What seemed like an eternity passed before the crowd outside grew bored and dispersed, too busy with the tumble of their own lives to let a small pickpocket distract them. Everyone had their own problems.
The boy made himself comfortable on the ground. He reached into his pocket to pull out the beaded pouch that he had so skilfully taken from the merchant, but his hand met only the ragged cotton of his shalwar pocket. Panicking, he stood up and put his hand in all the way through. Surely, the stitches had not given away and the pouch had fallen out during his pursuit, but the stitches were intact. He punched the wall in frustration, disappointed that all his hard work had gone in vain.
There was a rustling sound from behind, the pickpocket quickly turned and came face to face with a sight that both reassured him and made his blood boil. Standing tall, with a smirk on his face, the beaded pouch held up high in his hand like a trophy was another boy. He was clad in the same mud streaked shalwar and ragged vest that the pickpocket wore. The only difference was that the new comer did not wear the Muslim prayer hat that the pickpocket wore. Instead adorning his neck was a black yarn from which hung a silver pendent sculpted into Ganesha- the Hindu Elephant God.
“You little thief, give that back to me,” the pickpocket said, his voice shrill from anger and exhaustion. The “thief” raised his eyebrows, looking amused.
“Or what?” he answered, dangling the pouch in front of him like bait.
“Or I will kill you,” the pickpocket retorted hoping he sounded intimidating, but the intruder merely laughed.
“I thought Islam did not permit killing the innocent or stealing,” he replied his baby brown eyes twinkling with mischief. “Besides from the little havoc you caused out there, it is obvious that you’re not experienced enough to steal let alone kill.”
Knowing that there was nothing else he could do, the pickpocket slumped back on the ground in defeat. On other days, he would have laughed at the irony of the situation, the thief getting stolen from. But today he really needed the money. The rent was due soon and his Ma, his hardworking beautiful Ma, needed her medicines. There was nothing to eat at the house either. He started playing with a loose thread from his shalwar hoping that the rogue in front of him would go away and leave him to his misery.
Suddenly something was thrown on the ground in front of him causing earth to rise up and form a cloud around him. This sent him into a violent coughing fit. When the dust finally settled, he was puzzled to see the beaded pouch that he had lost possession of earlier lying in front of him.
“Take it,” the Hindu boy said softly, looking at him, his eyes betraying a hint of pity and understanding. As if suddenly remembering something else his face changed, and he addressed the pickpocket in a curt, business like tone, “I have proposal for you.” When he was met with curiosity and a motion to proceed he continued. “You have just experienced, it’s not easy pocketing someone without facing some difficulties,” he said, putting emphasis on ‘difficulties’ to remind the boy in front of him about his earlier encounter. “If we were a team, it’d be an effortless task so… what do you say?” he ended and held out his hand hoping to form an alliance.
The pickpocket looked at the boy in front of him and evaluated him. He was a miscreant like himself and he would never trust himself, but he had also returned his little bag. He met his brown eyes with his own hazel and a minute passed before he reached his decision. The Muslim captured the hand of the Hindu with his own and shook it firmly.
And this was the start of a brotherhood that would be spoken of for years to come; a brotherhood that would extend beyond religion and borders.
India was wrapped in a blanket of struggle. Hindus struggled against the Muslims, Muslims struggled against the Hindus, and both struggled for freedom against the British. Freedom protests, marches and meetings often turned violent, leading to the loss of precious lives. But down in the village of Marimpur, the only thing that terrorized the inhabitants were the antics and pranks courtesy Raj and Ali.
Physically they had grown, no longer were they scrawny little boys that had pocketed and tricked many a folk. They now stood tan and tall. They had both filled out due to tiresome farm work and labour, their frames now lean and muscular. They looked so strikingly alike that people often asked if they were brothers. To which they’d always reply, “In everything but blood.” For there were no truer words, no one celebrated Holi with the same zeal as Ali and Raj fasted proudly all thirty days of Ramzan, his excitement knowing no bounds as Eid came closer. It did not matter that where everywhere communal riots shook India, both religions existed in beautiful harmony in the hearts of Ali and Raj, their brotherhood more holy to them than the Quran or Geeta.
That is where the similarities ended. Character wise, they could not have been more different. Where Ali liked poetry and the serenity of the river side, Raj craved attention. He was quite popular with the ladies often charming them with well versed poetry (written by Ali of course).
They had grown from being inexperienced little pickpockets too. Gone were the days they’d be seen scrawling around in the market place, their sharp little eyes on the most vulnerable target. They were infamous now, poorly drawn posters of them were scattered all over the big cities warning people to be weary of men that looked like them. If you asked the tax collector in Calcutta what he thought about them, you’d hear a stream of colourful words from his mouth and a long tale of how they had conned him out of his fortune.
The sound of horses galloping, their hooves hitting rhythmically against the ground, could be heard and children sprinted, each trying to outrun the other so they could welcome their heroes first. Raj was sighted first, with Ali trailing not far behind him. Raj beamed at the sight of the children, and halted his horse to a stop dramatically. He posed for the children and they giggled at the little show he put up for them, where Ali merely shook his head, trying to hide his amusement.
“When you’re done, meet me back at the house,” Ali said as he rode past Raj, fleeing when he saw a group of young girls at a distance blushing and spying on them. Raj would stop to flirt with them and Ali did not want to put up with Raj and his cliché pick up lines that seemed to work wonders.
“Ma! That smells absolutely lovely,” Raj said as he entered the house, but instead he was greeted with the sight of a very solemn looking Ali. Raj could tell Ali was tense from his half hearted smile and the lack of twinkle in his hazel eyes, but he did not push the matter yet.
“Where’s Ma?” Raj questioned Ali, fearing the worst. Had something happened to their Ma while they were away?
“She’s over at Aunt Neelum’s house,” Ali answered back not meeting Raj’s eyes. He was playing with a loose thread from his kameez.
“I don’t like her,” Raj said and scrunched his nose in disgust for added effect. He sat down, where diner was laid out for him on the floor. “She says I am inappropriate around her daughter,” he continued as he helped himself to lamb and potatoes.
“You are inappropriate around her,” Ali said matter-of-factly and sat down next to him.
“Hey, it’s not my fault she can’t resist my allure,” Raj said and grinned at Ali. He was disappointed when Ali merely shrugged. That was not the response he was hoping for. They both ate in silence for a while; the only exchange during this duration was “Pass the rice.”
Raj grew tired of the ominous silent and cleared his throat drawing Ali’s attention.
“What is it?” he said impatiently.
“What’s what?” Ali looked at him puzzled.
“Stop playing around,” Raj’s tone was turning sour as minutes passed by. The mischievous smile from his face had long disappeared. “You’d think I wouldn’t notice your glum face? We’re brothers for Allah’s sake. Now spit it out.”
It then dawned on Ali and he looked at Raj gravely. He took his head into his hand and sat in silent for a few minutes. When he looked up, there were tears gathered in the corner of his eyes.
“Have you heard of the Pakistan movement?” Ali said calmly. Raj nodded his head. He clenched his jaw, trying hard to swallow the lump in his throat. His hands formed a tight fist and his nails dug into his palm drawing blood. His brain knew what was happening and his heart had just been torn and was only held together by a thread. He asked Ali to proceed, wanting to hear the words of Ali’s mouth.
“Well, they’ve succeeded. They’re getting a separate country for Muslims and Ma… Ma wants us to migrate there.” The words like dagger cut through the last thread that was holding Raj’s heart together and he broke.
What he did next surprised him more than it surprised Ali. His fist collided with Ali’s jaw and sent him spiralling back. If it was someone else, Ali’s pride would have forced him to retaliate but this was his brother. He looked at him and let out a laugh, a cold laugh that echoed through the empty house and was replaced by sobs that shook his whole body. In between sobs he managed to say something about how it was only a little time before communal riots tore apart this village, how it was the last dying wish of his grandfather to see a separate Muslim state and how his mother wanted to fulfil that, but Raj was deaf to any justifications. Rage had taken over his body and he felt betrayed. He told himself that he did not want to hear any pathetic reasons and that is why he took off, but his heart knew he could not bear the sight of his brother come undone and cry.
As the last worshipper from the temple left, the pundit asked Raj if he would be leaving anytime soon. Raj’s bloodshot eyes met the pundit’s and he smiled sympathetically at him.
“May the Lord ease your hardship,” he said and patted Raj’s shoulder before leaving. Hours passed by and Raj lay on the stone hard floor of the temple looking up to the inky black sky. Heaven’s got a plan, Raj thought as he stared at the glittering stars across the dark canvas.
“Ganesha, help Ali. Allah, help me,” he whispered into the dead of the night and got up. It was a long walk to his destination.
Ali pretended not to be awake when Raj sneaked into his room and snuggled in bed with him. Ma did not bring the matter up when she entered the room in the morning and saw both her sons sleeping soundlessly together, and the rest of the village noticed but did not comment when Raj did not leave Ali’s side and clung to him like a child to a mother until the day he left.
Not much is known of what happened after the boys separated. What we do know is that Ali greying and ancient is paralyzed from the waist down, and still dances during Holi with zeal that no youngster can match. Elderly Raj is bedridden, yet still as charming as ever, fasts all thirty days of Ramzan and looks forward to Eid. Ali and Raj, the little pickpockets had grown together, each completing the other. The bond they had was made of the highest form of love. It was a brotherhood that mattered to them more than their religion, more than borders and more than blood ever did.