This Story has been awarded the Third Position for Short Story Writing Competition.

ven the skies are shedding tears of happiness, Akbar thought to himself as he hurried to the chowk that had been his workplace for the past five years. The rain, which had begun as a drizzle typical of Lahore’s sporadic wet weather, had now matured to a torrential downpour. Any other day, the roads would instantly start to clear, but today was not just any day. According to Akbar’s count, folks had been able to come out for the first time in two hundred and thirty-six days since the coronavirus lockdown.

He had counted religiously for every day during the lockdown had presented him with sundry challenges; from brutal pangs of hunger to bouts of depression for not being able to do anything about it. Hence, although to the sight of pitying (yet indifferent) car drivers he was a luckless beggar drenched with rainwater, Akbar felt quite content. If only he could muster out a few pennies from the passerbys, he could go buy himself a chapatti – for the first time in weeks! Such a happy delight!   

With some difficulty, he reached the pavement that was now caked with mud. Realizing he should keep his clothes dirt-free, he began to roll up the ends of his shalwar but quickly gave up- they were already smeared with his bright red lipstick and cheap drugstore foundation. Bari Baaji had dolled him up in the fleeting hopes that people would be more generous today.

Now Akbar wishes she hadn’t because her efforts had all but gone down the drain – literally. He chuckled at his own little joke as he sploshed through the muddy water and finally reached the chowk. This was the perfect spot for a few reasons: first, it was an intersection which meant that people would have to stop their cars here rain or shine, second, it provided an open view to judge who to approach and who not to, and third, the trees on the green belt allowed him to sit in the shade and take a breather when the roads were clear or the weather ruthless.

A quick glance at the closest car driver told him he was being watched too. He dashed to approach her but she quickly faced ahead like they always did. He wondered what had made her look in the first place. It was probably his ghost-like appearance. During lockdown he had gone on for days without food which was why his face now looked pinched, eyes unnaturally large and body horribly emaciated. Even though Akbar was accustomed to worse, he felt overwhelmed by a wave of disappointment.

He had imagined the days following the end of the pandemic to be nothing like before. In his naïve mind, mankind would turn over a fresh new leaf. Having felt the bitter feeling of having their hands ties back while their loved ones suffered would have made their hearts a little less stoic to the plight of those who struggled every single day of the year. Alas, he had been too optimistic for his own good.

As soon as the light turned green, engines restarted and motor bikes sped ahead. Somebody was too slow to notice and earned them self a few impatient horns and angry fingers. Life was back to normal; fast paced, chaotic and ugly up close. The rain was beginning to slow to a steady drizzle, much like Akbar’s earlier jovial mood. Nonetheless, he trod on to the road, head hanging low and gently knocked at another driver’s window once the red light brought the world to a standstill.

Again, the same thing happened; the man did not even bother turning to look at him. When a boy, probably his son, sitting in the passenger seat prodded the man to listen to the deathly pale stranger at the window, he wearily gave him a cursory glance of reproach, shoved out his wallet and rolling down the window the teeniest bit, handed him a five rupee coin. Akbar then saw him quickly pocket the wallet and wearily sanitize his hands, rubbing his palms aggressively as if he had touched a grotesque insect. 

While Akbar stood bemused at the man’s ludicrous routine, the traffic had come to a stop all around the intersection. Since the lights were all red, the drivers were compelled to stop even if they did not particularly oblige to traffic rules.

A loud conversation about the airs of Paki politicians in the rickshaw beside him sufficed to inform Akbar of the cause of the commotion – a renowned politician was passing nearby, as was invariably the case. Quick to make hay while the sun shone, he started going car to car, never pestering the drivers again if they asked him to leave. Some went as far as tooting their horns at him while others would wag a finger, as soon as they saw him coming, almost like a reflex action. He often wondered how anyone could be so desensitized? It was unnerving, to say the least.

By the time Akbar reached the last car in the lane, a sleek black Corolla, it had stopped raining. Within seconds, the sun emerged from the clouds, unleashing its full wrath, sapping him of what little energy he had left. Praying that this woman would not rebuke him like all her Corolla owner contemporaries, he tapped at the window and spread his palm before her. The woman looked up from her phone, pressed a button to automatically roll down her window, and removed her shades. 

“What’s your problem?”, she asked irritably.

“Baaji, I haven’t had anything to eat in weeks, please spare me a few pennies if you can. God will give you so much more, you’ll see!! , he tiredly repeated what he had said to thirty something drivers already.

“Don’t expect me to buy that. You’re young and able, go do some real work,” she rolled her eyes.

“Baaji I have tried but the government won’t allow me to get an ID card made, without it it’s impossible to…” 

“Oh quit it, I don’t want to listen to your bullshit. All damn excuses. If its work you’re really seeking, come I’ll take you home. I’m in need of a new servant,” she challenged him.

Akbar could not believe his ears. He would not only be able to feed himself now but had also landed himself a job!! He could not wait to tell Bari Baaji! He eagerly opened the backdoor and stepped into the car when a hand cracked across his face, slamming him onto the pavement. A startled little gasp of pain escaped him as his brain registered what had just happened. As Akbar struggled to stand up, he could only catch a fleeting glance of the woman swearing at him spitefully through his eyes floating with tears. 

In a state of numbness, he began walking towards the other side of the road, not caring where he was headed. Momentarily he was blinded by his tears and shocked to find out he was crying. He was not even upset, just plain tired. And so hungry. In the throes of starvation, all his emotions of anger and self-esteem had been switched off. He felt almost inhuman as he went and sat at the foot of a shoe store. Putting his head between his knees, he silently wished for death; anything to escape the perpetual gnawing pain in his empty stomach. 

By and by, he looked up to see the shoes tapping against the pavement; strappy Sunday sandals, flip-flops, red sneakers, kolhappuri chappal, stiletto heels, black leather boots. In his head, he imagined the kinds of lives their wearers had if they were as indifferent as they were before the pandemic, or had they become God-fearing? Had they learned what God was trying to tell them all along? As if on a spur, he gazed up in wonder to see a rainbow that now stretched across the sky. What did he know? The loaf of bread handed to him by white loafers was just enough for him. 

Writer – Khadija Hassan

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