A traditional occasion

The Abdul household did not have many distinctive customs, and if it wasn’t for Saliha Abdul, they might not have had the few they did. As it was, she was the most involved in keeping them alive, sometimes to the extent of annoyance and always to the extent of the tradition being dubbed a “Salihan” one. A few days before Eid-ul-Azha she brought her latest case to the study table, where her brother Anas was grappling with algebra.

“I’m totally uninspired,” she announced as she slipped into a seat, diary in hand. Anas momentarily stopped doodling on his textbook to shoot her a quizzical look.

“I’m trying to record the upcoming Eid in Abdulian history, but the material just kills imagination,” she explained. Anas knew she was referring to her practice of dedicating a single line to every major event of the year in her diary; she had it open at the page for 2008 already. Drawing the wheels of the unfinished car zooming across “exercise 10”, he replied, “How can you record something that hasn’t happened yet?”

“By writing it down,” Saliha grinned.

“No, I mean–“

“I know what you mean,” she interrupted. “It’s just that I already know each and every thing that’s going to happen. There’s no chance of something noteworthy occurring this time.”

“Why?”

“Don’t you know?” Saliha made a face. “We’re getting some shares in a cow this year. No animal market. No calling the butcher over. No watching the meat being prepared, even. The only way anything different can happen is if the meat flops out of the package and does the bhangra.”

Anas paused before replying. “You know, some people would like being spared all that trouble.”

“But ‘all that trouble’ — that’s the whole point!” Saliha answered impatiently. “If we didn’t have to go out of our way to do something we don’t usually do, it wouldn’t be special.There’s no fun in waiting for a packet of meat to arrive on the kitchen counter. That’s the end result of bringing an animal home, I know, but it’s the process itself that’s interesting, don’t you think?”

“Easy for you to say,” Anas remarked. “You don’t have to do the work of getting the animal and everything. You’re just the spectator.”

“Just as you don’t have to cook it to the satisfaction of the extended family,” Saliha countered. “You’re just the diner.”

“OK, OK,” Anas said hastily. “My objection is overruled.”

Saliha kept her eyes on him for a few moments to make sure he was serious before she spoke again. “Anyway, seeing an animal being sacrificed is good. Not entertainment-wise, but education-wise.”

Anas smiled. “Yeah, if it doesn’t go overboard. Remember last year?” Reaching out for Saliha’s diary, he flipped the page back. At the head of the page was written, “2007, The Year of…” followed by a list of continuations. His finger came to rest on “…The Two-day Vegetarian”. Saliha chuckled. Their six-year-old cousin had freaked out upon seeing the goat being slaughtered. He had vowed never to eat any kind of animal’s meat. He faltered in his undertaking when he discovered that this included biryani, chicken nuggets and other favourite foods. In a few days, he had reverted to his old diet, the only exception being goat. A dish of meat on the dining table would always be met with the inquiry, “Is it goat?” On being invariably (and often untruthfully) being informed that it was beef, he would happily consume it.

“Zain is a funny little thing,” Saliha said, “but people more than twice his age act even funnier. You should see the way some of my friends react.” She began an exaggerated mimicry of disgust in a high, peevish voice. “I really can’t stand the smell of all that meat of sacrifice on Eid-ul-Azha…phee-yew! I can’t eat it, either.”

“Hey, some folks are sensitive,” Anas interjected.

Saliha giggled abruptly, as if struck by a sudden thought. “Too sensitive,” she said, flipping back several pages of her diary. “2001, The Year of the Pre-Eid Goat,” she read out.

“Aw, man.” Anas grimaced. “You don’t have to remind me of that.”

“Why not?” inquired Saliha mischievously. “The heartless parting of Lala and Anas. A tragedy to rival Shakespeare.” She was talking about the time the Abduls had bought a goat two months in advance in a bout of misplaced enthusiasm. They had arranged for its food and water, even set up a goat stall to protect it from the elements, but having taken all inputs into account, failed to consider the goat’s output. The maid refused to clean up after Lala, and Mrs. Abdul did not last long as head of maintenance. Consequently, the Abdul children came home from school one day to find Lala on the menu. Anas, who had developed a strong attachment to his four-legged friend and had spent many afternoons feeding it from his own hand, not only refused to eat Lala, but spent many days in mourning in his room. Saliha, on the contrary, was quite amused by the whole business. “I’ve always said that was movie material. In the usual animal film, the protagonist ends up releasing the creature back to where it really belongs, in the wild. This film could have you releasing Lala to his true destiny…the dining table!”

“Ha-ha, very funny,” Anas said in a flat voice. Then he perked up suddenly, as if he remembered something the same way Saliha had. Turning over a few pages of the diary, he jabbed a finger at an entry and smirked. “The Year of the Rampaging Cow,” he said. “You couldn’t stop screaming.”

“I wasn’t screaming, exactly,” Saliha said defensively. “I was simply exhibiting a perfectly human reaction.”

“Known as screaming,” Anas added smugly.

“Known as alarm,” Saliha contradicted.

“An external sign of which is screaming,” Anas persisted.

“I merely yelped,” Saliha conceded, “which is a very natural thing to do when a thing that big charges past you.”

Anas put his hand up to break the swift exchange of rebuttals. “Two things,” he said. “One, whether it was natural or unnatural doesn’t matter. Two, it kicked the butcher and rushed off in the opposite direction to you. I think the shock registers better in your memory than the actual scheme of things.”

“Whatever the ‘scheme of things’ was,” Saliha bypassed the point, “it made a real mess out of the car.”

“Yeah,” Anas agreed, remembering the dented side doors and shattered windows. “But it was really funny about Sameer.” Sameer was their elder brother.

“Funny?” Saliha raised her eyebrows. “It’s a mercy he was in the right side of the car and the cow rammed into the left. What was he doing in there, anyway?”

“Um, fetching an extra coil of rope for the butcher, I think. But he came out crying.” Anas rolled his eyes. “Big, independent Sameer, too good to mingle with us small fry, bawling like a baby!”

“He didn’t have any warning,” Saliha said seriously. “Having a few hundred pounds of angry cow smash into the side door from nowhere isn’t exactly a pleasant experience.”

“I would have thought your natural emergency siren was enough warning,” Anas chortled, swinging back to the subject.

Saliha sighed in response and began flicking through her diary. “Here’s another one — The Year of the Camel Buffet.”

“When did we have a buffet of camels?” Anas frowned.

“It means that the camel had a buffet,” Saliha replied.

“Oh, that.” Anas shook his head at the memory. In their excitement over getting a camel, they quite forgot to consider the reach of its long neck, and tied it near the wall, moreover, the wall bordering the neighbour’s fruit and vegetable garden. The creature had a nice night sampling everything within range, and Mr. Abdul ended up paying for the damage from his own pocket.

“That was the time Papa perfected his money-worried look,” Saliha said thoughtfully, referring to the partly anxious, partly peeved look their father wore when financially challenged. “That’s why it doesn’t take him a second to whip it out now.”

“Like today,” Anas reflected. “Only I thought it was because Mama was hankering after the Eid sale at Rose Boutique.”

“Not this time.” Saliha opened her diary at the section for 2008 again. “Everything’s already so expensive that this year is going to be The Year of the 2/7ths of Cow…which is the flattest line I’ve ever thought of. Some help, please?”

Anas knew it was no use telling her not to give so much time and thought to the idea. Instead, he said, “Look at it this way. Focus on what we’re getting, not what we’re not. It’s still a lot compared to what many people have.”

Saliha raised her eyes to the ceiling. “The moral lecture doesn’t exactly answer my–“

“Try considering what I just said,” Anas cut across her. “This Eid may not be so predictable after all.”

“How?” Saliha was skeptical.

“Why don’t you consider this case study…Experimental little cousins. Generous adults. Put the two together, and what do you get?”

“The Year of the Car Key Stew.” Saliha rolled her eyes. “If Chachoo knew his keys would end up in the cooking pot, he would have thought differently about giving it to the kids to play with.”

“And we were dumb enough to think the poor cow had somehow eaten the keys, until someone pointed out that the dish from which we found it was brain masala.” Anas chuckled. “The fact that no digestive tube goes up there killed that theory.” He spoke more forcefully then, about to drive his point home. “Tell me, could you have foreseen that?”

“No,” Saliha replied immediately, with a half-smile.

“Are the factors that governed that particular outcome absent from the equation this time?”

“No…” Saliha drew out the word slowly, as if she was busy considering the meaning.

“Then there’s no reason to lose hope,” Anas declared confidently. “If it’s not the kids, it’ll be some grownup. If not one of them, the neighbours will do something. As long as you have the human element, you can’t be bored.” He smiled. Saliha had to smile back. “I’ll take your word for that,” she said.

“You won’t be disappointed,” Anas replied. “If nothing happens, I’ll do something.” His sister rolled her eyes at this pronouncement. “Don’t worry, Salihaa-aa.” He said her name in a goat’s voice. Saliha burst out laughing. Anas, who had expected her to be irritated, frowned slightly.

“Wow, you’ve done something already. Thanks,” she said gleefully. “It seems you’re possessed by Lala’s spirit. I’ll have to make this year The Year of the Haunting Goat.”

“Not unless you want to make it The Year of the Shredded Diary,” Anas replied silkily.

“In that case, it would be The Year of the Mangled Gameboy,” Saliha returned just as smoothly.

“At this rate, it will be The Year of the Failed Mid-terms,” Mrs. Abdul said, coming up to them. There was a touch of severity in her voice. “You’re never going to let each other study, are you? It’s talk, talk, talk the moment I turn my back. I’ll check back on you in a minute; you two should be doing something useful by then.” She turned on her heel and started to walk away.

“Sorry, Mama,” Saliha got up from the table. “I was just wishing Anas Eid Mubaa-aa-rak.” She grinned. Anas scowled. Their mother was already out of earshot. When she returned, she saw Anas alone at the study table, seemingly engrossed in simultaneous equations. She didn’t see what he was really doing: drawing torn diary pages under the wheels of the sports car sketch. Whether that actually turned out to be the fate of Saliha’s prized possession is, of course, another story.


Originally published in Us Magazine on 5. 12. 2008. Original link:

http://jang.com.pk/thenews/dec2008-weekly/us-05-12-2008/p22.htm#1

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