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 third-prize winner’s story, Iman Zamir is currently studying at Nixor College, Karachi.
Ever since I was a kid, I had stared at the left hand corner of our room. My sister’s bed and mine were side by side, right in the centre. Since I possessed the one on the left, that corner was always in my field of vision. The perfect perpendicularity of the two walls and the ceiling had always amazed me; the point where they met fascinated me. It epitomized human genius. I often caught myself wondering how the construction workers manage to get it just right. Why weren’t ceilings slanted just by a few degrees? Why couldn’t the wall parallel to my head as I lay down, be a little closer in than the part of it that paralleled my feet? How could it be so perfect?
Of course all these musings just happened in my young head. I never dared to make them verbal, except perhaps when I talked to myself alone in a room.
We shifted house when I was eleven. The colour of my corner turned from lilac to beige. It grew more personalized and more verbalized since I no longer had to share the room. The interest remained. It actually expanded to classroom corners and restaurant corners etcetera. It also deepened; I began to gaze more fixatedly at the point of impact, the smallest niche where the vast expanses meet. I wanted to discover its recondite depths, to know its deepest of secrets.
But sometimes secrets can be horrifying, perfection terrifying. Lessons and people’s experiences later in life would make me realize man was not perfect, and the more he developed, the less perfect he became.
Ten years later
When we first met, he saw a young lady with her jaw hanging open in awe, disbelief in her eyes as clear as sparkling water. He smiled and said,
“Hello ma’am. I’m Abimbola. And I’m not wearing contact lenses.”
I closed my mouth. The blue eyes on an African face had wiped my mind clear of all human thought. I was so stupefied I failed to even notice his accent. I smiled back, stuttered a meek greeting and pulling my icy hand out of my woolen coat, ushered him onto the chair across the table.
The man was around six feet two inches tall, which explained his struggle to adjust his legs under the table. His hair was jet black, cropped short like those of a soldier. The clean shave seemed not to be more than an hour old. His broad and muscular body was adorned in a plain stark white button down t-shirt with dark blue jeans and khaki sandals. With a little effort but effort nonetheless, I managed to force my gaze away, not wishing to violate my humility.
Overall, our pair must have looked quite out of place in the crowded Gloria Jean’s Café situated in the even more crowded Sindhi Muslim locality of Karachi. People around us stared, but I knew I was not the centre of their attention. I was actually a very normal person in a very normal setting. It was the man opposite me who was the cynosure of every eye.
The waiter came by. He gawked at Abimbola for a moment before turning towards me expectantly. I ordered a regular black coffee. My guest ordered a large one. This time it was his accent that caught me off guard. It was surprisingly normal, completely American, and not African at all. Soon I would get used to this abnormal normalcy as I would delve into the story he was about to narrate.
Yes, our meeting was not without purpose. Fate had deemed it to be the water that would bloom my career as a storyteller. Since the past two years, I had fended for myself by sitting at the same table at the same café every Friday at five in the evening with a placard in front of me that said, ‘Tell Me Your Story and I Will Tell It To The World’. I worked for a magazine. Every week I was expected to come up with a new story that as my editor put it, “should amaze the world”. I soon realized that real stories were of the best kind, and thus developed my practice.
At first, people were hesitant to approach, probably equating me to gypsy palmists most so ceremoniously try to ignore in Pakistan. But finally I started to attract attention. Mostly I witnessed tears, sometimes joy. I think my most popular narrative so far had been of the Pushtoon father who had lost his son in the Peshawar attack of December 2014. Attacks carried out people who were increasingly jeopardizing peace in the country, who were making corners less and less appealing. Indeed, while the human race had been perfecting corners, it had also been making guns and developing bombs; the same technology used by terrorists to kill those one hundred and thirty-two children.
Today this man had walked over to my table. My intrigue of him was shadowed by my intrigue and curiosity for his story. I clicked open my ball-point and flipped my notebook to a fresh page, putting down the date and a provisory title, ‘Abimbola’. The man opposite me just closed his eyes and sipped the freshly-arrived piping-hot coffee. Then suddenly his eyes shot open and the rumbling voice delivered its discourse.
The story begins with a love marriage. On the 25th of November 1989 Alice Mac Arthur and Joseph Baako departed their fateful nuptial ceremony having pledged to live their lives together “from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part”. Four years later they sat across their lawyers, signing for divorce.
Most couples try to mend the cracks in their relationship for the sake of their children. Mr. and Mrs. Baako ended their union for the very reason that they had accidently given birth to a child. For the first year, they tried not to panic and named their son Abimbola (meaning ‘rich child’).
But as time fled by, Mrs. Baako began to give up on motherhood. She hated being used by the baby like a maid, a slave, a milk-maker. Abimbola had inherited nothing of her except her Irish eyes. While everyone would be amazed at this awesome play of genetics, Alice Baako actually felt quite insulted. Why couldn’t her son look more like her?
The resentment over the months turned Mrs. Baako to the only means of escape; the basement cellar. The alcohol stock hidden there began to deplete. The baby was neglected.
As Abimbola’s health declined and Alice Baako’s eyes sank further in, Mr. Baako must have realized that something was amiss. So he purposely ‘chanced’ upon the cellar. What he found there, or rather what he did not find, brought about the first phase of real trouble in Abimbola’s life. His parents’ marriage began to break down.
Mrs. Baako made it the mission of her life to take away the one thing her husband cherished the most; Abimbola. Her skin colour won her an advantage and she eventually gained custody. Mr. Baako, too distressed with his life, left New York and returned to his native country, South Africa.
Alice MacArthur soon realized that victory was not as sweet as she had imagined. She wanted freedom. So one moon lit night, she did the most clichéd things ever. She left her son at the doorstep of an orphanage and fled to the country of her birth, the United Kingdom.
Of course, Abimbola did not remember any of this. These details were just fragments and pieces of the story he had gathered from the one time he met his father and through his mother’s diary. The diary was the only thing Alice had left for her son when she abandoned him. She had hoped it would explain her actions to her son when he grew up. What Abimbola gleaned from it though was only the darkness of her emotions and despise for himself.
Back at Gloria Jeans
Abimbola took a deep breath. He looked straight at me, probably expecting a reaction.
For now, I was not impressed. While it must have been nerve-racking for him, almost half of the children of the modern world see their parents separate. It’s a consequence of living in a world with too many corners, where long term satisfaction is a rarity.
The public my magazine caters to would not enjoy this story. It had no connection with our culture. It was not dramatic enough. But I planned to listen anyway. The crowd in the café was thinning out and apart from an occasional glance or two, people were beginning to ignore us. So when I did not say anything, Abimbola continued with the narration of his life’s events.
Out of the twenty-five years of Abimbola’s life, the birthday he remembered most distinctly was his twelfth one. At the Saint Patrick Orphanage, all the kids and staff members sang the birthday song. Per tradition, the cook had baked the cake. As Abimbola blew the candles, he wished with all his might for a miracle. He had spent nine tedious years waiting to be taken into a foster home, or being chosen for adoption. Yet he now was the oldest ‘orphan’ at St. Patrick’s.
Just when the boy of our story began to feel his birthday was not any special, the ‘visitors only’ doorbell rang. Abimbola hoped it would be a call of fate, like the first breath you take when you suddenly break to the surface of the water after believing for eons that you are going to drown.
As he rushed downstairs to embrace his destiny, he saw a dark tall man in conversation with Sister Catherine. Abimbola had close to no memories of his father, but in that moment he knew who he was looking at. There was only one thing he could to confirm his heavenly suspicion and shouted out loud his name, “ABIMBOLA”. He noticed the man’s shiny head jerk in his direction, observed the popped-out eyes, and knew.
Joseph Baako did not smile. He was actually quite angry. He had been lied to. He had always believed that Alice had taken Abimbola to the UK. But now, after all these years, he had a new problem.
Typically, this father-son reunion should have been a dream-come-true for both Joseph and Abimbola. But for the former, it looked like the coming true of his worst fear. He had run into a philanthropist friend of Alice’s at a super market. She was touring Africa. In the conversation that developed, she had amidst the inquisitions, told the father of his lost son and he had immediately flown to New York. This was not to take back custody but to confirm that the rumors were just rumors. As luck had it, they were not.
In a private room so promptly and generously arranged by Sister Catherine, Abimbola heard his father tell him how he had recovered after losing his beloved son, had moved on and was now happily settled in South Africa with a wife and two sons. He made it clear that he had no intention of reconnecting with his past. Abimbola had heard many times the phrase ‘heart shattered into a million pieces’. This was the first time he experienced it. Thanks to his birthday wish, he now hated both his parents.
Fast-forward a few years
At the Social Workers’ Conference of 2011, the twenty-one year old Abimbola sat in the second row of chairs observing keenly the people around him, and waiting patiently for the event to begin. Through his periphery, he saw a woman struggling through at least a dozen pair of legs in an attempt to get to the empty chair on his right. Moments later, she was seated. The young lady was garbed in a long loose garment and a headscarf that dutifully concealed her hair. Wishing to make acquaintance, Abimbola turned to his right. But before he could say anything, he saw her jaw fall open in pure astonishment. He smiled and said,
“Hello ma’am. I’m Abimbola. And I’m not wearing contact lenses.”
This was Abimbola’s first meeting with Fatima Noor. She was a social worker from Pakistan, touring the USA with the purpose of collecting funds for the privatized school system she was trying to inaugurate for poor and orphaned children. Abimbola was struck by the beauty of her endeavors and immediately offered his assistance. He had nothing to lose. This was the perfect opportunity to realize his own mission of helping the emotionally and financially needy children, an aim he had cultivated during his own time at St. Patrick’s. Contact numbers were thus exchanged at the end of the Conference.
Over the next month, Abimbola met Fatima Noor a number of times, lending a hand in the fund-raising campaigns and using his own contacts from the orphanage to help her out. They developed a good partnership, if that is what it was. Fatima Noor was a modest and humble woman. The walls erected around her were strong, yet they allowed the pleasant winds of her kindness to penetrate through. Her modesty did not hinder her enthusiastic pursuits. She amazed Abimbola. Consequently, he developed great respect and admiration for this woman.
Religion had always been a hazy concept for Abimbola. He had never fully embraced Christianity. He had followed the practice of the Sisters at St. Patrick’s as a child follows the rules and regulations of a school. After leaving St. Patrick’s, he never really paid much attention to the idea of a religion. He was not an atheist. He did believe in God. He just needed to decide which faith to commit to.
Meeting Fatima Noor and her team awakened the quest for a religion once again in Abimbola. He was inspired by their code of conduct. They were all Muslims from Pakistan; people notorious for being terrorists, people feared like the black plague. For Abimbola, they were like the first breath you take when you break to the surface of the water after having believed for eons that you are going to drown.
Abimbola travelled to Pakistan in 2013. Ever since Fatima Noor and her team had returned to their country, Abimbola had been planning the trip. It took eighteen long months to gather money for the ticket and other formalities. During this time, he kept in touch with both Ali Mohammad and Fatima Noor.
Ali Mohammad was Fatima Noor’s brother and Abimbola’s closest friend. Abimbola had asked for Ali’s help to discover Islam. Though he had not yet embraced the religion, he loved to hear about it. Besides, he enjoyed the acquaintance of this charismatic man.
Fatima Noor also remained in contact. She updated Abimbola about the progress of the Naya (new) Pakistan Project. The land for the school had been purchased, and the building was in its early stages of construction. The team had started its campaign to spread the word and persuade the poorer masses to put their trust in the project.
When Abimbola landed in Pakistan, he was bursting with determination to help the NPP realize its aims. As Fatima Noor’s partner, his first duty was the carrying out of the painfully slow process of interviewing prospective teachers. Abimbola was quite optimistic and very excited. He could not wait to start.
But the start never came. A week after his arrival, Fatima Noor disappeared. The NPP had been receiving anonymous threats for months, threats like “shut down the NPP or else…” These warnings were not paid much attention to, at least not until after the disappearance.
2015 (Present Day)
“For one entire year we halted the project. The team could not possibly focus. Its backbone was gone, vanished into thin air… We kept waiting for a ransom call. It never came. The police searched and investigated, but to no avail…. We were completely distraught. Each day seemed life-long… I still cannot describe my consociation with Fatima Noor. I cannot disrespect her by calling her anything more than perhaps a friend but she was the woman who had given purpose to my life and with her, it seemed that purpose was gone as well.”
Abimbola paused and took a deep breath. A single briny tear drop made its way down his glossy cheek, leaving a wet trail. I wanted to comfort him, to tell him it would be alright. But he was already recovering, calming down. The café window that separated our booth from the outside world gleamed with the reflection of the street lights that were turning on and as I noticed this, Abimbola resumed his tale.
“These past two months I have been trying to reboot the project. It’s what she would have wanted. I have realized that the world can be a bad place because of the people that live in it, but if we can make the people better, the world will become better too. I narrate my story to call upon the teachers of this nation. What I went through in my life is only the nib of a pin as compared to what…”
My ears were ringing. I could feel the shattered glass in my eyes, on my face, embedded in the folds of my woolen coat. For minutes, or was it hours or centuries I do not know, everything was still. Then slowly, very slowly, I opened my eyes. Abimbola was also covered in powdered and granulated and shattered glass. His eyes were wide open in shock. His jaw hung open. But it was his torso that caught my attention. His white shirt was turning red, like ink that is absorbed by a tissue if you leave an uncapped pen near it. His heart was bleeding out onto the café floor; it was literally shattered into a million pieces. The man of our story, Abimbola, was dead, gone like Fatima Noor, disappeared into thin air.
I cannot offer any appropriate end to Abimbola’s story. But the events of his life and the way it ended have enabled me to reach a conclusion about corners.
I know now that if man had not been perfect enough to make perfect corners, the gun used to shoot Abimbola so mercilessly and confidently would never have been invented. He would still be alive. The world would be a better place.
The depths of a corner have only revealed the paradox that crudity comes with perfection. As corners are becoming finer, hearts are becoming harder and the world is becoming darker…