Saleem jerked awake at the break of dawn, a dream fast fading from his conscious. He paid no mind to it, for a new day had begun, and what a day! It was time for a new government, for a new country to start its day by casting their votes and exercising their democratic right. He would also walk to the polling station set in his town and vote for the candidate he had carefully decided upon.
He thoroughly scrubbed his face, and marveled at the gleam of excitement in his eyes, reflected in the mirror. He had ironed his clothes last night when the house finally received some electricity, a blessing by God so he could look like a respectable citizen come to fulfill his duty to the state, the next day. He was only eighteen, and glad he had come of age right before the elections, it was truly a blessed day. He stood farther away from the mirror and inspected himself. Crisp, white clothes, shaved face, and neatly trimmed hair; he was almost handsome, as his mother used to tease after a haircut. Sadly, she had passed away in an accident at the factory, or she’d have remarked so. This giddy excitement was far too childish for a man, so he puffed up his chest, and tried to school his expression into something thoughtful. In his opinion, he looked rather educated, an individual who spent great time philosophizing.
The sun shone brightly overhead, as Saleem walked toward the town square where the polling station had been erected. He had recently graduated high school, and was met by several congratulatory greetings on his way; being the highest scorer in his district was a dream his father had vivaciously expressed. Father was an uneducated man, working the fields for their landlords and often regretted not going to school. He had made father’s dream come true. Unfortunately, his old man hadn’t lived long enough to witness it. He had died due to liver failure, and they couldn’t afford treatment. It was alright, that Saleem was still alive, healthy, and educated and would go to a university for better employment opportunities and – he secretly admitted – to get away from his old town. Cities were the place to be, with the bright lights and fast traffic, and all the food in the world. He would sit in an office, with his very own desk and sign papers, and give orders and come back home after a fulfilling day at work. His stream of thought quickly became a daydream, and he didn’t even notice the important man who had walked right up to him.
Sardar Allah Dino’s son, Somroo had strolled to Saleem and smiled brightly with all his white teeth on display. Saleem envied those teeth. If he had been in Somroo’s position, he would never stop smiling.
“Saleem, my friend,” exclaimed the shiny teeth, “My friend!”
Saleem weakly smiled in response. Somroo was an unknown entity for his life was spent outside of the country in some elite boarding school. To Saleem, any school outside of the province was elite, which put the grinning man on another level. Despite being the son of the Sardar, he couldn’t help but respect Somroo; he was, after all an educated man and education deserved respect. He still didn’t know why he was being greeted by a boy he hadn’t seen for years, since they’d once played together.
“My heartiest congratulations on your high scores, you’ve made the entire district proud!” Ah, so he wanted to bring forward his felicitations too. Saleem was no longer wary; clearly this man had his best intentions at heart. But then, something changed in his face, and Somroo looked more calculative than proud.
“You’re going to vote too?” He inquired, then slyly looked around and slung an arm around his shoulders. He asked Saleem to sit down on one of the benches outside the milk shop and ordered sweet, cold, milk for them both. It was all rather polite and friendly, but Saleem still felt as if he had no choice but to listen.
“I have a proposal for you,” Somroo declared, and the firmness of his words didn’t sit well with Saleem. Why did he make a proposal sound as if he was doing him a big favor?
“You’re educated, and smarter than most of our residents. I know you dream of going to university. My father also dreams or running the town until he dies, after which the mantle of responsibility will pass to my eldest brother, for which we require the majority vote of the public; this why we need a voice from the public, and you shall be our voice.”
Saleem sat with his mouth gaping like a fish. “But what can I do? I’m just one man!”
Somroo smiled indulgently at him, like we do at children, who utter sweet words of naivety. “You’ll vote for my father today. You’ll also make it clear that you’re on our side. You’ll give speeches, and write them for father too. I let go of the old speech writer, just so you could have a job. You’ll work for my father, and look,” he pulled out an envelope from his gold-trimmed waistcoat, and shook it at Saleem, “this envelope contains admission forms from the best universities of Pakistan. If today you convince the people to vote for us, we’ll fill them out together. You’ll be in a good university in no time. You’ll still work for father, but we’ll make sure you go to school.” At Somroo’s dumbfounded expression he added, “Father has a few friends, so your spot is guaranteed.”
Saleem remembered how his mother’s death had been passed off as a tragedy, when really; the old machines at the factory had caused her death. He wasn’t even allowed to see the body. His father’s liver disease had been discovered after his death; he had writhed in pain before his body gave up on him, on the same cot he now slept on. He had a choice to make. He would never give up the desire to serve the people of his town, but then he recalled his mother’s bloodstained clothes and his father’s pleas in his last moments.
“I’ll think about it,” he murmured to Somroo, who sat like the son of a wicked man that he was. Later, he realized as he cast his vote, Somroo hadn’t bothered to stand up at his departure.
At the polling station, people were only just beginning to show up, which made him one of the first voters. The Sardar stood next to the ballots, a large smile on his face.
“Come to prove that we are a democratic town too, Saleem beta?” He had never called him son before. At that moment Saleem made his decision; he would not live a life of poverty and indignation like his parents. He would become his own man. The Sardar grinned like the Cheshire cat as he saw Saleem’s vote.
“I knew you would do the right thing, beta,” he called out from behind, as Saleem went back outside.
Once outside, he stood on a makeshift podium and delivered a great speech; he waxed poetic about traditions, inheritance, honor, dignity, and pride. He told the story of martyrdom, of the blood his ancestors had spilled to gain the freedom they all possessed today. The townspeople listened rapt with attention, eyes wide with enlightenment, nodding and agreeing with their new spokesman, breaking out in chants of, “Pakistan Zindabad,” every now and then. By the time all adults had voted, Saleem had screamed himself hoarse. The Sardar aristocratically waved at his subjects and drove away in his shiny black car.
Saleem walked back to his house among his new fans, who constantly praised him for becoming their voice. He was one of them, they said, and he couldn’t be wrong.
He took off his sweaty clothes and poured water over his head. He was almost afraid to look at his own reflection in the mirror, but after a minute or so, he finally found the courage to look. Peeking shyly from beneath his lashes, damp hair matted to his forehead, alien eyes gazed back at him. This man was not who had looked on himself in pride only this morning – he could pass off the morning giddiness of a child as someone else’s life – yet it wasn’t a man who stared back, but a distraught child. He felt ancient but as small in the world as a child.
In securing his future, he had given up his legitimacy, his honesty and deceived his people. The determination had washed away like sea waves, leaving behind only some foam.
This was what his dream had been about.