Shahryar and those sharksby HUMRA QURAISHI April 17 2020, 9:06 pm Estimated Reading Time: 9 mins, 50 secs
“As I stood there, I could see Shahryar walking around. And even as I kept calling out to him, he didn’t respond. Perhaps, didn’t want to”, Humra Quraishi
Before Shahryar came into our lives, his mother Shameema did. Wearing a cotton printed gharara, this frail woman would come to our home to clean the floors and wash our clothes. What had struck was not just her petite looks but also the gharara she wore. Only Avadhi women from the upper middle-class could think in terms of wearing this rather elaborate flowing garment.
This woman owned not just the confidence to carry it off but also the required grace… I would sit pretending to be engrossed reading those half-open text books duly placed on the study table but my focus would be directly or indirectly on her, as she’d tuck the gharara ever so gently before bending, along with the broom and the mop. Her lean arms and her bony hands more than determined to carry on with the cleaning chores. Till that particular noon when she fainted on the verandah floor. There she was lying feeble and fragile, even as my mother and the cook continued sprinkling water on her face together with rubbing her hands and feet.
Within minutes her children were called from the corner kothi’s outhouses, where they lived with her. That’s when I had first seen her children – eight year old Shahryar and nine year old Shaheen. Their features and poise made them stand out. No, they didn’t look the usual ‘servant class’. They looked somewhat aristocratic. Ah, yes, aristocracy fallen on hopeless days.
I vividly recall that particular noon when they’d rushed towards their mother. Sitting close to her, clasping her rather too nervously… And later when we’d asked the children what they’d eaten in the morning, there was an ongoing stretch of silence, till Shaheen muttered, “Nahee… Kuch bhi nahee … kal bhi bilkul bhukai thai.”
We knew Shameema was a widow, battling and surviving all by herself ever since her husband was charred to death when the canteen where he worked as a cook was reduced to ashes in a short circuit fire. But we had no clue that her home situation would be so grim that hunger held sway. And in-between rubbing Neem leaves on her mother’s feet that young girl had continued offloading: her abba would carry home adequate leftovers from whatever he’d cooked at the canteen, but the last few months had been very tough for them. They were surviving in the hope that the family would receive adequate compensation money. When that hope was lost, despair hit. All that they had was that outhouse roof over their heads, given to them by some distant relative’s charitable streak.
From that day onwards my mother would make sure to give Shameema the basic breakfast - two full-boiled eggs together with several well- baked rotis and a large mug brimming with gur - wali - chai. She would sit at one end of the courtyard, sharing this with her two children tagging along with her.
Few changes had come along in the following months. Though both the children were enrolled in a nearby Missionary school but poverty dragged miseries along a set strain.
Shaheen fell seriously ill. Diagnosed to be heavily infected by tuberculosis. And Shahryar developed a dislike for school; running away from there on more than one occasion.
Back to the front lawns of our home. Sitting hunched, fiddling with my younger sister’s broken bicycle. He had tried settling it to such an extent that he could cycle along the outer and inner lanes. And almost every morning he would carry my younger sister’s school bag on that bicycle. The pattern unchanging - the minute he would see her at the front door he’d rush towards her, more than enthusiastically taking the school bag from her hands. And whilst she’d walk on the pavement, he’d be cycling along, right till the school gates.
I wonder why didn’t we enrol him in the same primary school where my sister studied. Maybe he would have attended the classes, but for some reason we didn’t think along those lines. To this day I feel terribly guilty for being thick- skinned; bypassing him so very completely.
As years passed by, it didn’t really hit us that Shameema was getting frailer by the day. Till that day came when she just gave up! She’d murmured she couldn’t cope!
How would she manage to run her household? How will she raise her children?
She had looked at Shahryar, saying with an emotional strain to her voice, that his sole obsession was cycles and cycling, so he’d set up a cycle repair shop under that Tamarind tree just down the main road.
Day after day Shahryar would be there, under that tall tree, settling punctures, fixing chains, filling air in worn-out cycle tyres. From a distance I could spot him because of his hunched frame and that somewhat aristocratic look to him.
Over the years, visits to my home town Lucknow lessened. Last summer when I was in Lucknow, thoughts had continued drifting towards those bygones. And one evening, as talks centred around those good old cycling days, the very word ‘cycle’ spread out that distinct image: Shahryar standing hunched under that tall Tamarind tree, with several cycles assembled under its branches.
‘Amma, where’s Shameema and her children?’
‘That boy Shahryar came here… just couldn’t recognise him, all too skinny and withered… had come only few months back to say his sister is getting married this coming winter.’
‘Shaheen getting married?’
‘Haan… I gave him some money and clothes.’
‘They still staying on in that outhouse of the corner kothi on Park Avenue?’
‘Not sure… high-rise structures coming up all along that road.’
‘Good we moved from there and…’
‘Still miss that place but its okay… getting used to this little apartment. Where’s the choice!’
Years stood shrunk, as the very next noon I headed towards Park Avenue.
Though just about three kilometres from where my mother now resides but with Lucknow’s chaotic snarls it wasn’t an easy drive. The destination distancing itself, with traffic peaking, vehicles vomiting poisonous fumes.
Locating that corner kothi on Park Avenue wasn’t difficult as there was only one lone sprawling structure standing out amidst the newly constructed towering high- rise buildings.
An old-fashioned iron gate leading towards the countless mehndi shrubs encircling that kothi, further encircled by stray dogs. Before I could rush backwards or forwards, hazy glimpses of a hunched man moving towards the compound wall, not too far from the gates.
What with the dogs barking, I couldn’t walk ahead. Instead, turned towards the back lane, presuming the strays concentration would stand limited to the front gates.
Once again a faint hazy glimpse of that man. This time around the inner courtyard to this kothi. Before I could call out, a rather strange sight - a row of kuttcha graves at one end of this courtyard. And not too far what seemed remains of an old red coloured bicycle. Coincidence or not, my sister’s old bicycle was also red in colour.
Several peered from the two corner shops jutting out from one end of this lane. One of them peered more than the others, coming out, throwing around more than inquisitive looks towards me, ‘You! Who?’
‘Looking for Shameema. She here… where?’
‘She resting and …’
‘Can’t see anyone. Where are all those who lived in the outhouses… in the servants quarters?’
‘Pulled down. Gone! Hammering going on for months. This entire area shook, our bhejas gone! My head pained and pained for days and days!’
‘But where all the kothi people?’
‘Gone… this kothi donated to the sarkari zulmi log! So much pressure on Begum Haider Ali Shah Hussain sahiba to quickly exit… to donate this kothi to all those sharks in the sarkar.’
‘She’s left? Where the rest… all gone out or what?’
‘Lie there… resting in those graves.’
‘Their graves. There lies Shameema, Shaheen and …’
‘There he goes… walking about in that strange restless way… See, he too restless! He going haywire from the day his red bicycle crushed under a truck!’
‘His what... bicycle?
‘He used to keep it next to him… too small for him but he wouldn’t part with it… used to tell us that he loved it and the girl who’d given it to him… don’t know more… what more to say.’
‘But who crushed it… that bicycle?’
‘Builder’s truck… what else! They’ll kill him too. Last week his cycle crushed, this week he’d be crushed! Only he remains. Others all packed off!’
As I stood there, I could see Shahryar walking around. And even as I kept calling out to him, he didn’t respond. Perhaps, didn’t want to.
The stray dogs coming in way of my walking towards him, well-inside this kothi gates.
All I could do was to keep standing there. Looking towards him… Till he turned back, this time holding that broken red bicycle.
Then walking away all too quickly… his fragile form fading away.
He no longer around.
(End of the short story - Shahryar and Those Sharks - by Humra Quraishi)