A story I wrote sometime last year, set in Bombay, India.
Our building was on the path to the ocean. Sadaf came over every morning with her red gumboots and fishing net; I recognized her from the way she rung the bell, outside our run-down 15th floor apartment. We spent our early mornings sitting atop the tetrapods, and counting the waves in the ocean. When it was time, we caught bus No.17, and made our way to school. After school was up, Sadaf took me to the park near the Old Woman’s Shoe. My grandmother remembers the Old Woman, she used to tell me. Sadaf’s grandmother stitched the strings of mysticism and curiosity in my fabric- she knew everything. She had eyes of two colours, brown and hazel. She said that it was because she knew the secrets of the ocean. She told me that she was there when the ocean was a pond.
Over the years, the salty days I spent in Bombay seem distant. School now seems like a thing of the past. Unknowingly, it feels like I left all my memories carved into the red sandstone, and in the dusty shattered windows that I once spent hours at an end staring out of. I do have some recollections, albeit warped by my unfaithful memory and sub-conscience.
My geography teacher always made Sadaf and me sit apart. I didn’t mind much. Geography happened in the afternoon, and if I got to sit by the window, I could see the Dabbawalla cycling on the narrow lane outside the school gate. But from the corner of my eye, I could see the way Sadaf looked at me: wearingly.
At home, Abba used to ask for my notebooks from school. Your handwriting has only gotten worse, Afzal, he used to say, softly. And to think that I pay all that school-fees for this! It was routine; I picked up my books, apologised, and walked to my room sheepishly. My father was a disciplined man. He told me that greatness is nothing but hard work and perseverance. Abba never told me what time he left the house in the morning- and after a while, I didn’t ask. All I knew was that he worked in the biggest textile mill in the city, and I better start preparing to fill in his shoes.
And it was after my sixteenth birthday that I realised that the tides had changed. After visiting the mill, I knew that it wasn’t for me. I left a note for Sadaf, whom I still miss with all my heart, and bought myself a train ticket for Delhi.
Trains still have the power to make my nostalgic. Even when I drop my children off to the station, as they begin their semester at boarding school, the steam sets ablaze my vulnerability. My mind is led to the waves; of water, of memory, of childhood, and of Sadaf. Of late, however, the tides have begun to ebb. Missing people is the toughest, Sadaf used to tell me, because you don’t know if they ever miss you back.