In the sweltering Karachi heat, Asif ran away from home.
It wasn’t a monumental decision, nothing that would later turn into a story of a child abused on the streets who dedicated his life to helping others in the same position as he once was. No, it was none of that; Asif was just hungry, and in this unforgiving weather, thirsty. His stepfather had walked out on his mother again; things were tight in the household. Besides, it was better to be out here running through the streets like a maniac than to avoid the roaming hands of his cousin Abdul.
The sight of a child gradually losing weight is enough to inspire a deep sense of malcontent in a person; this feeling only intensifies as the child begins to hunt for food. Asif had enough dignity that he would not search through dumpsters. The dumpsters were dirty, and Asif was clean, simple as that. The child held no contempt for those who were forced to scavenge for food in dumpsters; he just liked being clean and knew his mother was too tired to always be washing his clothes.
In search of something, anything to fill his belly, the boy embarked on an adventure. He would have to become the man his father never was. Confusing, that phrase; grandmamma uttered it every time she had an unpleasant task meant for him, but he still couldn’t comprehend it. He had never known his father, so how would he know what to be? Couldn’t he be himself, until someone explained what his father had been like, so he would do better? Could he be himself regardless?
He puzzled over these questions too much. He needed to find food, and fast. He wanted nothing more than to surprise mama, and of course, fill his own belly too.
Asif ran away from home every evening, but this time, he made up his mind to bring back something for him and his mother to eat. He wouldn’t share it with anyone but mama. This time, he ventured outside of the familiarity of his town. He went to the next.
Asif marveled at the sudden change in surroundings.
This town was so…clean! In addition to no garbage dumpsters in sight, the place had numerous trees planted at every turn, along with the sidewalks, at every corner, one even in the middle of the street. He looked on in fascination as if he had stumbled upon a new world. Morosely, he thought, why didn’t his town have trees, and couldn’t he ask the elders to clean up the garbage? This new town had an earthy smell to it, like petrichor, whereas his smelled like rot and decay. He would have to plant a tree, maybe in his house? He could study underneath the shade of the tree, and the tree would drop fruits for him to eat. Then, he’d be fatter than Abdul, and bigger, and Abdul would never beat on him, or worse. He would grow up to be a better man than his father, although he still didn’t know what that meant.
He snapped out of his daydream when he spotted a mango tree. It had bright yellow mangoes on it, waiting to be plucked and eaten. He could almost imagine sinking his teeth into the ripe, juicy deliciousness…you’ve probably already noticed, but Asif daydreamed too much.
So he stealthily made his way toward the mango tree, and yet tried to blend into the town. Barely anyone was around, but it was best to proceed with caution. When he reached the tree, he first noticed the old fashioned water pump. Then, he noticed that the tree was actually half leaning out from behind a wall.
The tree belonged to someone.
A little conflicted on how to get the mangoes down from the tree and not get caught doing so, he swung the water pump up and down with all his might and was rewarded with fresh, cool, water. He gorged on the water until his stomach felt inflated like a water balloon. It was now time for action.
He cleverly located a few ridges and gaps in the brick he could fit his feet into until he was teetering atop the wall. Focus, he furiously thought to himself, and focus he did. In a matter of ten minutes, Asif had climbed into a sturdy branch. He took off his shirt and turned it into a makeshift shopping bag to hold the mangoes. Carefully, he plucked mangoes one after the other and secured them in his crude shopping bag. He sensed movement from his periphery and turned toward it. It was a man.
Asif let out a shriek of surprise and fell right off the tree.
He must have been unconscious for a while because when he came to his senses, two worried faces peered at him with concern.
“You were lucky you didn’t break something,” said the girl, “can you hear me?”
Mutely, he nodded.
“I just wanted to say hello,” said the same man he had spotted, “we never see kids around this village, and I know everyone. You could’ve always asked for the mangoes, we couldn’t say no.”
He whispered an apology, humiliated by his greed. He was so hungry, but the hunger had dissipated; only leaving guilt and shame behind.
The girl ruffled his hair, “I put the mangoes into a shopping bag, and is there anything else you need?”
“Can I have the mango tree?” he blurted.
The two looked at each other and broke into laughter.
“I’ll take you home, kid. Better make sure you don’t get lost, and fall off any other trees.”
The man had been talking, pointing out trees in his town, but he fell silent when they reached Asif’s town. The kid felt a deep sense of embarrassment at the dirty town he lived in. The nice man had probably never seen such filth.
When the man escorted him inside and Asif begged him to talk to his mother. She would assume he had stolen them, and would never believe if he claimed otherwise. Only when the man whose name he still did not know handed over the mangoes to his bashful, but grateful mother, was he deeply relieved, and then…
The man crouched to his level, “We’ll plant you a mango tree in the middle of your house, yeah?”
He vigorously nodded in agreement.
When the man left, grandmamma stepped into the open space in front of the entrance and glared at him.
“A Thief!” she screeched, pointing a gnarly finger at him, “Like father, like son, thief!”
Asif couldn’t care less about grandmamma or his father.
He was too busy daydreaming about the mango tree.