In a valley near the K-2, a mud-brick house stands lit up amongst the dim-lit houses around it. In the death of night, amid the scuffle of running feet, shouting men, and howling winds outside, the wails of a baby pierce through. The infant is quickly wrapped up to save it from the chill piercing through the house. Everything is done so fast, nobody has a chance to verify its sex. They are cutoff from all kinds of medical assistance, thus having no way of predicting the sex beforehand, other than through the guidance of the divine and corrupt, shrouded in holy cloths and called pirs. The mother of this child had visited one of these pirs, and been given full assurance that her first child would most definitely be a boy. The whole tiny town had celebrated this news, a boy bringing the hope of carrying the family name forward, caring for his parents and being the future bread-winner. A man among men. On this fortuitous night, everyone sat tight in their houses, praying for a healthy baby and for joy to the family. The infant will be celebrated as a boy that whole night.
After the news has spread, sweets distributed, and warm hugs exchanged, the tired mother and father of the infant lay down, their little baby in between them on the charpai, exhausted and happy. The night passes peacefully, well, as peaceful as it can get with a baby. In the morning, the chill of the night has passed, and although there is still a kind if crispness in the air, the sun shines brightly upon the valley. Well wishers gather around the infant’s house, singing their prayers from last night to the baby’s grandparents, parents, future non-existent in-laws and future non-existent wife. Meanwhile, the mother, humming happily, takes her new baby for its first bath, accompanied by its maternal grandmother. It is then that the truth is revealed. As the little hand-knitted wrap-around comes off, the new mother gets the shock of her life. Its not there! Where is it? Did it fall off? Turning the baby around, she looks around in confusion. In her panic, she screams for the grandmother, who is checking the temperature of the water. She comes out, wiping her hands on her kameez. The mother moves aside, revealing the bare baby, lain flat on the charpai, sucking its thumb and kicking its now free legs.
The grandmother runs out, ripping her hair, screaming, moaning, and gagging on sobs. The father, who was sitting with the men of the family, drinking cha, rushes to her as she collapses on the floor, mumbling something inaudible.
‘What is it? Is he okay? What happened? For god’s sake woman SPEAK CLEARLY!!’
‘HE’S A GIRLLL!’
‘What do you mean? That’s not possible, is it?’
‘Th-th-the p-p-piir, h-he read it all wrong, y-y-your child, i-is a girl!!’
On the brink of tears himself, the father gets up, and marches towards the room with the mother, now laying on the floor crying her eyes out, and the infant, still bare, looking around with interest at the light brown ceiling and streaming sun from the glass-less window. One look and the father’s sure of it too. Towering over his wife, he screams,
‘Y-you, you bitch!! You’re the reason I have no heir!!’
With that, the mother receives blow after blow, the punishment for having faulty parts that are the cause of his son being a daughter. The little infant starts howling, sensing the danger around her. The family, hearing the mother’s screams, rushes in, the paternal grandfather pulling his son away with the words,
‘It is not her fault son it is not her fault!!’
‘THEN WHOSE FAULT IS IT!!’
‘The pir’s, son, it’s the pir who wrongly predicted this!’
The scrambling father is pulled out of the room to be calmed in their equivalent of a drawing room, and the mother, bleeding and swollen, is taken to the kitchen, where the maternal grandmother and aunts tend to her wounds, both physical and emotional. All that is left, is the little baby, still crying. Her paternal grandmother carefully limps into the room, aided by her wooden stick decorated with beads and marble. For a second, she stands over the baby. The baby stops crying, and looks back. Carefully leaning her stick next to the charpai, she takes the baby for its first bath. The grandmother has never been loving, not to her own sons, and definitely not to their children. But for some reason… she feels a kind of connection with the babe, the first daughter in the family in a decade, as she softly wipes the little feet, little hands, and spindly hair with lukewarm water. Dressing the infant up in the knitted set of a cap, mittens, sweater and blanket she had made herself, she takes the baby onto the verandah, away from the chaos inside the house.
‘poor, poor, little one, only loved when you were a boy.’ The baby drifts off to sleep in her grandmother’s rocking arms.
‘I promise you, whatever actions I take, no matter how crazy they seem, are all for your sake. For you to have a better life. Don’t worry about these bastards, they’ll pop out another one and forget all about you in a little bit. Yes, sleep now, little Dua.’
That night, Granma Lalay takes her granddaughter Dua to the river side in a hand-woven basket, cushioned with all the little clothes she had made for her in the last nine months, and a piece of paper, which stated Dua’s name, written by one of her vile cousins Granma Lalay had managed to corner and swear into secrecy. Carefully putting the basket on the muddy bank of the river, she stares down at the little bundle, sleeping peacefully. She dips a hand into the water. Temperature, cold to medium. Kissing three fingers of her other hand, she gently grazes them on Dua’s tummy. Quickly, she places the basket in the water, and watches as it rocks forward and away. Raising her hands towards the heavens, she prays,
‘God, keep her safe. Give her a life better than this one, give her the best in life. Keep this journey towards that life safe, look over her as you looked over Moses on the Nile. Give her my blessings, and please, dear Almighty, give her happiness and joy from all the corners of the earth.’
Granma Lalay stands there, on the muddy bank, till the hand-woven basket disappears into the fog. Turning on her wooden stick, she makes her way back to the mud-brick house across the wild shrubs, wishing the basket could have taken her away as well.
Arezo sits on the banks of the river Ravi, watching the sun set across the horizon, pink and orange shades above her head that blended into a dull gray as they came closer to the ground. The overspill of buses, trucks, cars, motorbikes and donkey carts from Lahore, the city 16 km away, creep over the narrow bridge, horns blaring and curses flying. Jeez, is there any way she can escape it? The city seems to follow her everywhere, in her apartment building as her annoying landlord, when she goes home it comes as her mother’s screaming, when at work it’s her petty, nosy colleagues. Then, in the depths of the never-ending markets it comes as the wailing vendors, low-hygienically made dahi-bhallas, samosa chaats, and corn-on-the-cob generously covered with lemon and a secret recipe of masalas to blow your brains out. On the streets, as the screaming traffic and the screeching tires of motorbikes trying to maneuver in between cars and break signals by speeding away, and getting cussed at by the whole city in the process.
Arezo couldn’t say she hated this life. She’d kind of grown accustomed to it. It was like, a person who has spent her whole life in the heart of Manhattan, suddenly deciding to move to Texas. For her, the Texas is her grandma’s luxury farmhouse on the outskirts of Islamabad, the capital city. She had decided to give “country life” a try, and stayed there for about a month, before running back to the claustrophobic, grey, pollution ridden embrace of Lahore, bored out of her mind in just that month. Just the recollection of it now sends shivers down her spine. How do people stay ridiculously happy in such dull, monotonous lifestyles? How are they ever satisfied without the daily gossip, fights, bitching and backstabbing? ‘Ahhhh’, she leans on the palms of her hands as they slowly slip back into the mud, ‘the flaws of society.’ A gypsy family on the opposite bank stare at her, mother and father dressed in colorful yet worn clothes adorned with beaded necklaces and the woman wearing bangles all the up her arms; and the children, one dressed in shabby clothes but no jewelry, and the youngest, wearing nothing. Arezo stares back, squinting her eyes and scrunching up her face, which they probably don’t even see. The staring contest goes on for about two minutes, before the family decides they have better things to do than stare at a weirdo sitting in the mud, and make their way towards the jammed-up traffic, putting on their desolate begging faces and ready to add to the annoyance of the already frustrated drivers.
Smiling, eyes half-closed, she faces the sun, soaking in its warmth before she has to face her cold, empty apartment. Living alone seemed like a dream when she was in college, a chance to get away from her mother, a chance to have the independence her ID card hadn’t been able to give, something that she could call her own. The moment she hitched her first job, the minute she had collected enough money to get a decent apartment, and the second her application was accepted, she had whizzed out of her childhood home, just short of shouting ‘BYE BITCHES!!!’ She wanted a new life, not to give her grandmother a heart attack in the process. Living alone had been fun, dancing around, singing at the top of her lungs, staying awake for as long as she wanted, doing whatever the hell she wanted to. For the first week, at least. Then adulthood struck. Chores had to be self-appointed because she could barely see the carpet after one week of not cleaning; a strict bedtime was a must because being the grinch at work wasn’t fun at all (‘can’t really tell your boss to go to hell’, Arezo had learnt the hard way); and she was so busy the only time she could hum along with her playlist was while driving to and from work, with two other women who lived in the same apartment complex, and worked two buildings away from where she worked. And then, when the endless goodbyes ended and the door closed, she was greeted by her dark and humid yet chilly 3rd floor apartment. Sometimes it got so bad, she actually considered calling up her mother and telling her she was prepared for an arranged marriage. Just thinking about it in the enriched mud makes her shudder internally and outwardly, sending needles down her back and goosebumps up her arms.
‘God, I need to get a goldfish,’ she concludes, shaking her head and cautiously picking herself up, careful not to put too much pressure on the soles of her feet lest they sink into the soft soil.
The awkward stares she gets from the malang in his brightly colored beads, and a family of 12, who had miraculously fit into one Suzuki Mehran and come to the river-side for a picnic, make Arezo acutely aware of her mud-stained kameez, but she damn cares. Sighing contently, she gazes towards the near vanishing sun to capture an image to take home as a souvenir. As she stares, something comes bobbing along the gentle ripples, disrupting her view. She is just about to cuss under breath at the person who has ruined her candid view by throwing trash into the river, when she realizes it looks…. kind of…. Like…. A basket? Too far to make out, she squints her eyes, trying to get a clearer image but only managing to give herself a headache. At a pace slower than her grandmother, the thing comes into her line of focus.
‘Yep, definitely a basket,’ she mumbles to herself, ‘but why…?’ One hand on her hip, the other a shade over her eyes, she waits. The malang, concluding she’s even more crack than himself, dances away, looking for a tree to sleep under, and the picnicking family squish themselves back into their car and leave. So, when the basket finally comes in view, only Arezo stands to greet it.
She hears it. Crying. Hysterical crying. The kind that begs for nourishment and a warm touch. Coming from the basket. Arezo stands, shock paralyzing her, unable to move a muscle, with a cold sweat breaking out on her forehead. The howling grows louder as the basket passes next to her in the water, as if the thing inside can sense her standing there, and is begging her to raise the basket out of the water. Her body has a stroke, losing all contact with her brain as she leans down, her hands miraculously clasping onto the spiky handle of the basket. With some unknown force she pulls it out of the current and onto the muddy bank. She lets go of the handle. She stands there, staring at the now silent basket. The numbness escapes through her tingling fingertips. Her breathing is heavy, uneven, and cold as the weight of what she has done hits her. The commitment, the responsibility that has just entered her world in one simple move. But there is no expected panic with this realization. More……. joy. Something to look forward to. A little…. What? She suddenly realizes she still hasn’t opened the basket to see who is inside. The poor thing, she thinks, it must be starved!
Arezo lifts the lid, to find a bundle of cloth, and somewhere in between she makes out big, beautiful eyes, a little nose, chapped lips, and a mostly bald head. The eyes stare back at her, blinking in the grey-pink light that seeps into the basket. Arezo lifts the child into her arms, realizing how thin it is. The head rests on her bosom, the eyes shuttering themselves with beautiful, long eyelashes. In that moment, Arezo forgets everything. The world melts into oblivion around her. Nothing in the world matters but the bundle in her arms. Rocking to-and-fro, she gently whispers,
‘as long as I’m alive, no earthly power can hurt you.’
The words have barely left her lips before the moment ends, as the baby’s slow breathing dawns on her. There is no time to waste. With a super-human surge of power, she grabs the basket, tightens her grip around the baby, and runs towards her car. Hastening in, she quickly switches on the heater, and, with no other place to put the baby safely, puts it gently back into the basket and that in turn she carefully places on the passenger seat, the lid open. She keeps nervously glancing at it throughout the drive, torn between giving her attention to the baby or the road. A nervous fifteen minutes later, she pulls into a hospital whose name she doesn’t register, screeching to a halt in the center of the parking area, picking up the baby and running into the emergency amid honks from the car behind her and parking guides yelling at her to get back into her car. Panting, she reaches the counter, gasping to the receptionist,
‘Baby…. basket in river……. I found………. Very thin……. slow breathing…. please help.’ The receptionist, a woman in her early 20s, with hair slicked back into a tight bun, tries to decipher what has just been conveyed to her, but before she can react, an elderly doctor pulls the baby out of Arezo’s arms and calmly motions her to follow him. With many years of practice behind him, he had seen many a baby come in in worse shape than this, and knew that with just a little extra care, it would be healthy again. But there is no time to convey this to Arezo, who follows him nervously to the children’s ward. Arezo is ordered to wait outside by an older, burly nurse as the doctor takes the baby into the ICU. Arezo stands outside the door, trying to catch a glimpse of what is going on through the tiny glass window, until the nurse comes back and scolds her into a chair outside. But still, her body doesn’t stop moving. Her hands keep fidgeting with the bracelets around her wrists, twirling the rings on her fingers, or pulling at her mud-stained kameez. Her legs keep jiggling as blood rushes through them unevenly, sometimes shooting out from underneath her, the tremors uncontrollable and alarming. Every time the double-doors leading to the ICU open, her heart jumps around in her ribs, making her quirk up like a deer caught in the headlights. And every time it’s someone else; a nurse taking in a tray, a stretcher coming out, a doctor coming out, shaking his head and looking for the relatives of the newly-deceased. Arezo slumps back in her chair after each of these entries and exits, until, after an hour of waiting, she drowns into a disturbed sleep, dreaming of baskets and babies, icy sunsets and rivers with curdled water.
Fifteen minutes later, Arezo is woken up by the chubby hand of the nurse on her shoulder. Jolting up, she searches the nurse’s small eyes for any hint of bad news. Sensing her despair, the nurse smiles at her.
‘She’ll be alright,’ she says, in a voice like honey now that she isn’t scolding Arezo. ‘We will keep her for the night just to be sure everything’s okay. The doctor would like to see you, though, in order to discuss her.’
Nodding, with a panic ball slowly forming in her throat, Arezo gets up and follows the nurse down the hall to a mint-green door without a glass pane, but a plank in its place, stating that the office belongs to ‘Dr. Khan, Pediatrician’ along with some other mumbo-jumbo about his Ph. D and whatnot. Standing outside, she suddenly realizes what the nurse has said. It’s a…. she?? The baby, is a baby girl! In all the chaos that had occurred, she had completely forgotten about that. A giddy joy starts in her stomach, working its way to her limbs and making her want to dance about right here in the hall. She will be alright!! It takes all the remaining energy in her to stop herself from whooping out loud.
The nurse softly knocks on the door, leaning against it until a far off ‘come in’ answers her. The door swings open, Arezo is ushered in, and swings closed with a soft but rusty click. Without getting up, Dr. Khan glances at her over his reading glasses, and with a wave of his hand, he motions her to take a seat. Not a man of many words, Arezo thinks, sitting down on the cracked leather chair, its foam as good as gone as the wooden panels dig into her thighs.
Arezo stares expectantly at Dr. Khan, as he stares intently at the paperwork in-front of him. Sighing heavily, he takes off his reading glasses and looks at Arezo properly for the first time. She is young, but her eyes show a wisdom far ahead of her years. Her milk yet dark chocolate hair sticks to her face, and her clothes are covered with mud. The face, which could be considered pretty, is now deathly pale, the eyes swollen and red with dark bags underneath, and the lips still trembling slightly and bleeding from being constantly being chewed. Despite her not being the mother of the child, the aura of worry surrounding her is that of a mother. Not wanting the meeting to go on for long, Dr. Khan takes out his notebook and jumps straight in,
‘So, Mi- I’m sorry, is it Miss or Missus?’
‘Right, Miss Khanna, you said earlier that you found the baby. Could you please tell me how and where?’
‘Yes, of course, well, um, I was on the banks of the river Ravi, enjoying the sunset.’
Dr. Khan looks up at her from his notebook, confused and wondering what has happened to this generation. Understanding his confusion, Arezo quickly explains,
‘I had had a hard day at work, and the Ravi is a kind of safe haven for me. Anyway, it was probably about…’ Arezo looks down at her watch for the first time, and is shocked to find that it is already 9 o’clock at night. ‘about six-thirty, when I saw a basket floating down the river, towards me.’
‘Were there any other people around when this occurred?’
‘Well, right before I saw the basket, there was a family out for a picnic, and a -how do I put this gently- a pir, but they had left when the basket reached me.’
‘Hmmmm,’ Dr. Khan mutters under his breath, writing it all down in his notebook, ‘so no witnesses apart from you…’ Unsure whether he is talking to her or some invisible third party, Arezo whispers,
‘Yup, no one but me.’ An awkward silence surrounds them, Dr. Khan looking for a way to tell Arezo the inevitable, and Arezo mustering up the courage to ask about the inevitable. Finally, taking a deep, shaky breath,
‘Doctor Khan, what does this mean for the baby? I mean- ‘
‘As far as we’re concerned, she had been abandoned. This means that as soon as she is well, she will be handed over to a foster home, and- ‘
‘With all respect, I really don’t think that’s necessary. I am more than willing to take care of her, and have enough, financially, to give her a comfortable life.’
‘That is well and good, but she will have to go through the adoption system, as this hospital does not hold the authority to decide who adopts such children, nor can we hand them over to the person who has brought them in.’
‘There is no other way to go. I realize how much you care about her, and have no doubt that you will be a good mother to her. But I cannot bend these rules. She is in safe hands for tonight, and I am sure she will be fine in the foster home as well. If you want to adopt her, you will need to apply for adoption, but under this special circumstance you will need to specify that you want to adopt her specifically. I must warn you, though, that there is no telling whether your application will be accepted or not.’
Just as this bomb is dropped, the landline on Dr. Khan’s desk starts ringing pleadingly, and picking it up in one swift practiced move, he listens to what the other person has to say. Banging it down two seconds later, he gets up, kicking his chair back and, shuffling the papers on his desk, tells Arezo that he needs to go, that she should please see herself out and that she can go home for tonight, the baby will stay in the hospital for tonight. All that Arezo sees next is the tail of his white coat in the doorway, the door clicking shut behind it. Damnation. She doesn’t want to leave the baby alone here at night! How can Dr. Khan be so heartless? And sending an infant to a foster home? Preposterous! The mixture of anger and sorrow building up inside her, she gets up from the uncomfortable chair, her legs numb, and storms out of the room, hating the fact that she can’t bang the door.
Five minutes later, Arezo gets into her car, slamming the door behind her. After being left in the middle of the parking lot, her 2007 Volkswagen Beatle had been towed and placed on the pavement just outside the hospital. With her fury at 140%, even the police officer was scared of her. Now, the fine paid and her car brought down from the pavement, she is finally able to start her journey home. She can’t think of anything that has happened in the last few hours, fearing she might drive right off the road if she does. So instead, she listens to the crappy music on the radio, cussing to her hearts desire on the late-night traffic. Reaching her apartment, a steamy fifteen minutes later, she switches off the engine and sits back in the tired leather seats, ready to think about everything as open-mindedly as she could manage. With her eyes closed, she takes a deep breath, letting the voices in her head take over…
The Captain begins the Emotions Round Table Meeting, asking the question to be decided upon. ‘So, straight to business. Do we keep the kid or not?’ A buzz of yeses, absolutely-s, and ‘ehhh’s answer him. ‘One at a time now,’ the Captain replies, hushing them with a subtle movement of his hands. Rationality speaks up,
‘Well, as great as it seems to have a baby, there are a million things to think about before taking her in. First, babies are expensive. Even if we have enough money to pay for immediate expenses, what will we do when the time comes to send her to school, and then college? Even if we forget college for now, pre-schools are so expensive and competitive too! Nor is insurance, if the child falls ill or has some other medical issue. And not to mention the baby’s increasing demands as she grows, “mother I want this, mother I want that, mother can we go to the moon? Mother- ‘
‘Oh, shut it, will ya?’ Love cuts in. The Captain passes her a look, the look he uses to keep the Emotions in line. ‘Don’t ya’ll see the love this gal will give us? She’ll bloody complete us, finally give our life some reason! That adorable sugar plum is what will finally give us the feeling of home without some ‘significant other’ up our ass! The baby’s gone be somebody we can call the love of our lives! She- ‘
‘Spiraling, sweetie,’ scoffs Loner, making the Captain bang his fist on the table. ‘Okay, okay, mister, relax now please. Before we make any decision, I’d like to point out that our life has been epic till now. Not giving a damn about the world, partying on our own, having no commitments, chilling, living life to the fullest on my watch. You aren’t getting my vote on this.’ He leans back into his chair, a stoned smile creeping onto his face.
‘HA!’ bellows Depression. ‘Are you blind? I have been the one in control for these lord-knows-how-many years! We have been sitting around, moping, trying to find reason in life and now, it’s finally here! Not that I agree with Love much, well, I never do, but I need a break, so HECK YES BRING THE BABY IN!’ After this speech, he falls into a fitful nap, mouth agape, snoring like his life depended upon it.
‘Oh my god oh my god oh my god!!’ Anxiety squeals, waving her pom-pom hands about, ‘Why isn’t anyone realizing how stressful this is going to be! Like, we’re thinking of adopting a baby! Like, not even a toy baby, a real one! Which like, sleeps and cries and poos and eats and poos and cries like oh my god!!’
‘Oh God miss drama, cut it out,’ Loner yawns.
‘Ya’ll just don’t wanna see the benefits ‘a keeping this baby do ya? Think of the- ‘
‘But see how much this asks for financially! Not that the baby isn’t cute or anything it’s just- ‘
‘Nooooo, but the dirty diapers and the burping and- ‘
‘QUIET!!’ the Captain bellows, waking up Depression. ‘Enough said. Now we vote to get this over with. All for the baby?’
Love and Depression raise their hands first. After a moment’s consideration, Rationality and Anxiety follow.
‘All against?’ Loner raises his hand, the rest giving him ‘the eye’, and him giving them a massive, vile smile.
‘So, we have reached our decision. We shall be adopting a baby.’
Arezo is jerked out of sleep by a wood-pecker knocking on her car’s window. Startled, she realizes she has spent the night in her car. Jumping out, she rushes up the stairs and into her apartment, going over her to-do list. But not the kind with groceries on it. No, this one has the title ‘Baby Action-Plan.’ Her decision now clear, it is time to act.
The next few days pass as a blur, Arezo only remembering flashes from it; seeing the baby from across a glass pane, longing to hold her and never let go, finding the small paper that stated her name in the basket, and finally holding baby Dua in her arms as she signed her name on the paperwork that stated Arezo as Dua’s mother.
Now, Arezo carries baby Dua into the Beatle, and gently straps her into the car seat. Pushing her seat back into position, Arezo gets into the driver’s seat and adjusts the rear-view mirror so she can have a constant eye on Dua’s car seat. As she sees the little feet dancing about, an affectionate warmth spreads all over her body. Smiling, an ecstatic tear clinging to her eyelid, she says,
‘Let’s go home, shall we?’