Where Is Mama?

Photo by Adeel Shabir on Unsplash

Bhai is going to take care of it all. He always does.

Mama is late. So is Maryam Apa. But sure, Bhai will take care of it all. But he has decided to be funny today. I don’t like funny. I hate funny, especially when they join forces to make fun of me. I just told them the best dream I ever had, and they made fun of the best dream I ever had. And suddenly, Princess Nur of House of I-Don’t-Care is relevant. Stop it. Ugh. And somehow, Bhai is friends with her. I know exactly why. She’s sick, you know. And where is Ammar? Why can’t he just grow up and fight beside me?

By the way, I saw the Blue Saint today just before school. Mama said innocent kids see saints in their dreams. But I’m not innocent. I pushed Bhai off the stairs… um… I'm not sure when. It’s been eternities, I guess. But I’m sure I saw the Blue saint today. And all my stupid siblings had to say was that I saw Nana. Nana is dead, you know. He died 58 days ago. And if you see dead people in your dreams, you are going to have to die. That’s what Bhai said. That’s what Princess Nur said. I don't believe it. Why should I? I can’t die. I am just seven and a half! I don't want to go to that blue area too soon. It was beautiful, sure, but it was boring! It was all the shades of blue and white and silver. Still boring! Heaven is not for kids, you know. Too soon for heaven. Plus, I can’t stay with Nana all the time. I want to stay with Mama and… I just don't want to die. You die!

I’m tired of fighting now. Bhai and Princess are tired of laughing. Ammar is tired of waiting and not eating. We are STARVING! Not seeing Mama after school, Bhai has promised that he will take care of it all because Nur is sick, you know. But she’s the only one who knows how to boil food. And we don't like fire since we burnt the TV room with candles 26 days ago. We were trying to communicate with Nana, you know. Don’t be too curious, it doesn’t work. But Bhai says he will take care of it all just like he did 26 days ago. So, the ad showed the kids making noodles. We are kids, we can make noodles.

“Let's go, Rida. Let's go out to Uncle Iqbal’s.”

So we run, run, and run. But before we run, Bhai picks up the lock and keys from the TV room, locks the gate, checks which key he’d need to unlock it, and locks the gate again. He never forgets his very important ritual of locking and unlocking and locking the gate again before going out to school, Uncle Iqbal’s, or Sherry Bhai’s house five days a week. But he always forgets which key actually works. Genius!

“They all look the same! You take the responsibility if you’re so clever.”

“Only if you take care of Ammar.”

“Yeah, yeah. Hold Ammar’s hand.” So, I hold Ammar’s hand. The hands I washed after school are sticky once again with his saliva. No problems.

Hey, Rida. It’s a race! So I forgive and forget the sticky hands and run with Ammar chasing Bhai for forty-one seconds until we’re there.

“I won!”

“I won with Ammar!”

Uncle Iqbal’s tiny shop stands on the opposite side of the lane just forty-one seconds to the left of our very pretty house. The shop shines with toffee jars and Uncle Iqbal’s bald head.

“Assalamualaekum Uncle, noodles please,” Bhai says in a breathy voice. So I just have to add, “We are starving!” I just learned the word ‘starving’ at school. Miss Gulshan says it means that you die if you don’t have food to eat. We don’t want to die, Uncle.

“Only if you get a note from your Mama Jaan.”

“Mama’s not…,” Bhai pinches my hand and takes over. He shows Uncle the note Nur had written with Mama’s signatures. ‘ONE PACK SPIGHETTEE,’ it says. Thanks, Nur.

Uncle Iqbal looks at the three of us. “Hmm.” Annoyance on his sweaty face.

“So Bacha party is going to cook?” Saad pushes Bhai from the first step near the shop just for fun. I don’t like fun; I hate fun. And I hate Saad. SPIGHETTEE falls off Bhai’s hand into the mud down near the road. And Bhai falls over Saad’s fat existence. Seeing Bhai jump over his fat existence, I and Ammar decide to jump over his fat existence. We fight, fight, fight. We get beaten up as we try to kick, punch, scratch Motu Saad. When we see Saad struggling to stand up from the road, we run, run, run. But where’s Ammar? We turn back and find him following us with SPIGHETTEE. Bhai picks him up and we run for our lives!

Bhai unlocks the gate, shuts it close, and runs with us up to the terrace. We wait for angry Saad to come by our pretty home so that we can make faces at him. Motu, Motu, Motu! We say in unison.

Motu is fat. In fact, very fat. He is big. Bigger than a house, his skinny friends from the Seventh class say. But he looks like he is in tenth or eleventh. Loser! Loser is tired of beating the door as much as we are tired of calling him Motu. But he is also tired of his fat existence. So, when he leaves with a half-angry-half-sad face, we leave the time of our lives for our hungry fate.

Reaching the kitchen downstairs now sounds like a task. The sky is red-purple. It’s Maghreb time and Mama isn’t back. And Ammar is turning into a two-year-old again. He’s three!

“Riza, Riza, I want to slide.”

“No slides, Ammar… One step at a time…” Bhai reminds Ammar in his big Bhai manner. Ammar refuses to follow his instructions and still wants me to pick him up and put him on the rail. But I just can’t. I don’t want to, you shrieky little adorable thing!

“If you want to stay up with Bhau, stay. We’re leaving.” I lied, just like Mama. Ammar still thinks that Bhau is real and won’t let me tell him horror stories. But I just know horror stories. Last Monsoon, when I told him the story of Bhau with long snake-like hair and needle-like nails, Ammar got a fever and wouldn’t stop trembling. He also knows through experience that I can be really, really mad. But he doesn’t know that I will never be mad at little Ammar. Be affectionate with the little ones and respectable towards your elders. It’s easy for me to be affectionate with the little ones. Respectable towards elders? Um, I’m not so sure. They lie and die, but don’t want you to lie or die.

So, one step at a time is the only choice Ammar has. I hold his still sticky forefinger that has now accumulated extra dirt from Uncle Iqbal’s counter, sweat from Motu’s oily hair, and dust from the cemented fence on the terrace. And so I hold all the accumulated filth in my hand while I help Ammar step down the stairs. The sound of Azan fades with every four steps. And twenty-one long stairs later, we wash our hands and nails and arms in the sink under the stairs before running straight towards the kitchen.

Bhai lights the match, throws it into the stove, turns on the gas, and jumps back as the gas responds. It smells sulfur for a little, but then it smells nothing.

“Kids, this is how you fire the stove without putting yourself on fire,” Bhai laughs at himself. Ammar giggles because Bhai laughs. The noodles look like spaghetti. The ad we usually see during Half Ticket Express time shows the recipe for noodles. Add two cups of water, chicken powder, and noodles to the pan., and wait for two minutes.

“Easy!” Bhai always says he would take care of it all. He tries, you know. But we are just kids. Ammar brings his mini clock he can’t read to assist Bhai. Two minutes seems like an eternity. But nothing has yet happened in the pan. So I pick up the rectangular packaging to read the tiny recipe. Blah, blah, blah… For 10 minutesTurn off the heat now. Put on the sauce and enjoy!

“10 minutes! And we don’t have the sauce, Bhai.”

“Yeah. Maybe, we should cook a little more.”

A half eternity later, it seems like boiled flour. Bhai is also getting nervous now.

“We should add spices.” So we add all the spices.

“Taste it.” So I taste it.

“It tastes like boiled flour with spices.” Bhai keeps getting less excited. “Where is Maryam Apa?” I don’t know where she is, so I shrug my shoulders. Ammar starts to crying. “Mama... Mamaaa…” So, Nur comes over to the kitchen from her room and tells him to stop crying.

“Maryam Apa slid a note under the gate. Her Mamu is home, so she can't come today.” Thanks, Nur. This helps.

“The strict one?” Bhai just throws words into the air.

“Of course, the strict one. I don’t know if she has other Mamus.” Nur leaves with her burning face and annoyed expressions. Her eyes get smaller, her forehead shows three vertical lines, and her nose and lips move a little upward whenever she is annoyed.

“I will make you lemonade,” Bhai consoles crying Ammar. “Rida, pick a few lemons from the garage.”

“How many?”

“I don’t know. All of them.”

Okay. I go to the main door that opens up in the garage. I pluck all the lemons from the lemon plant sitting right next to the door with nice-smelling Jasmine and run back to the kitchen.

Cut, cut, cut. Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze. One cup sugar, one tablespoon salt, one teaspoon pepper, and four glasses of water. Ghrrrrr. Wait. Bhai notices something. It’s not supposed to be like that. He says without saying it. I stand on my toes to look inside the jug. It seems like someone had cut nails into the jug.

“Oh, black magic!” I look at Bhai. He looks like I’m right.

“Nur, look black magic in the jug!” Nur is sick and annoyed, but she has to turn her back to the door and look at the black magic her little siblings had conjured up. “What did you guys do?”

“We were making lemonade.” Bhai and I say in one voice.

“Did you put the seeds too?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Doofus! It’s the seeds.”

“But look at the nails. They are nails, see? Touch it.” I offer her to experience once in a lifetime experience.

“No, I don't want to.”

“You’re scared.” I giggle. Ammar giggles, seeing me giggle.

“No, I’m not, leave me alone!” So we leave her alone. She was sick, you know.

We can’t drink it even though Nur sounds right. So Bhai makes Ammar his feeder while I wait on the swings Baba had made us in the lounge.

“Close your eyes, Ammar!” Ammar closes his eyes and holds Bhai’s finger in his left hand while lying on the sofa next to the wall, behind which Nur tries to ignore her temperature. We silently wait for him to sleep. Twenty-eight minutes of absolute silence.

“Why hasn’t she come yet?” I ask Bhai sharp at 8 o'clock.

“I don’t know… Can I tell you something? Promise you won’t tell anyone!”

“You think Mama’s dead?”

Bhai doesn’t respond for another minute. And then he says, “I want Mama.” Giant drops in his giant solemn eyes. His ears turn dark pink. His nose drips transparent liquid. He sniffles and snivels silently, without making too much noise. He cries and cries for a few seconds. I can’t count all the time!

Ammar opens up his eyes, sits up beside Bhai, and hugs him with one hand. “Don’t worry, Bhai. Mama can’t die.”

The doorbell rings as Ammar’s mini clock reads 08:01:12.

Author’s Note: Mama’s home.





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Zainab Jafri

Zainab Jafri


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