A mild winter morning in Karachi; smoky fog, smog. It makes Wasif's eyes water a little and his nostrils prickle. Irfan meets him on the broken footpath, dressed, as Wasif is, in school uniform –
a white shirt, greying at the cuffs and collar, and badly ironed trousers in a drab brown colour. Both of them wear backpacks.
With a flourish, Wasif takes out the cigarette packet stashed in his trouser pocket. He runs his fingers through his hair and lights a precious, forbidden cigarette. He takes a long drag and feels manly. Then, with a munificent air, he hands Irfan the cigarette.
There is an unspoken understanding between them: they will not go to school. They stand together, smoking in turn, wrapped in smog and brotherhood.
Hunger stirs in Wasif's stomach. It yowls and sharpens its claws, waiting to be fed. There wasn't much to eat in the morning. Ammah left without having breakfast, for the school where she teaches Islamiat, though she left a small paratha for him and a mug of tea. He wanted to make another paratha and he looked in the tin where Ammah keeps flour. But it gaped back at him emptily.
The precious cigarette is finished.
"Two tobacco paans, yaar," Wasif pleads with the paan-wallah who stands in a tiny kiosk at the corner of the neighbourhood and sells packaged juices, water bottles, cigarettes, biscuits and paan. "I'll pay you later."
A man in a tracksuit steps out of a shiny grey car and waits politely by the kiosk as Wasif pleads for paan. The paan-wallah looks at Wasif sceptically. "You owe me for three paans already," he remarks. But he sighs resignedly and gives Wasif two paans laced with tobacco. Wasif pushes a folded-up triangle of betel leaf into a corner of his mouth and chews, relishing the nicotine. The man in the tracksuit asks for a bottle of water and then turns to Wasif. He has a neatly trimmed grey beard and a slight paunch. He looks really old, must be about fifty, Wasif thinks.
"Don't eat too much paan," he says kindly to Wasif as he pays the paan-wallah. "It's filled with betel nut. I'm a doctor and I see many people who get mouth cancers from eating betel nut."
Wasif stares at the man for a moment. A dark fury rises from his empty stomach like octopus ink, and clouds his mind. "What's it to you?" he asks, in a voice that has not yet found its proper pitch. He tries to speak clearly but the paan in his mouth makes it hard to articulate the words. "I'll get cancer, not you. It's my life. Who are you to tell me not to eat betel nut?" Little flecks of spit fly out of his mouth, coloured red from the katha paste in the paan.
The doctor looks at him ruefully, then shakes his head, walks back to his car and drives off.
"He comes in his car and tells me not to eat betel nut!" Wasif sputters furiously to Irfan. "It's his car…cars like his…all this smoke. We're all going to die anyway from this smoke. And he's worried about me eating betel nut." Secretly, he begins to regret his rudeness.
Wasif has just turned sixteen. He is thin, a little like the lean, angry, sand-coloured dogs that roam the streets, biting people and giving them rabies. A neighbour of his was bitten recently by a mad dog and he died because anti-rabies vaccinations were not available in the government hospital where they took him. Since then, Wasif carries a stick, especially in the evening, in case a dog comes near him. Sometimes, he just thwacks a passing dog for the fun of it, to hear it yelp, even if it is not mad.
They walk down a narrow lane near the building in which they live in small, dingy flats. It overflows with garbage like a river in flood. They pick their way through plastic bags, animal and human faeces, used sanitary napkins, plastic bottles and other detritus.
Sometimes, Wasif feels like garbage himself.
They emerge out of their neighbourhood and stand before a large park beyond which there is a posh, residential area. Maybe the doctor lives there, thinks Wasif, the one who sees people with mouth cancers. Maybe he walks in the park
"Let's go to the park," he says on a whim.
They go, but there is an entrance ticket and they cannot go in. They peer through the gates of the park and see people walking on a circular track within the perimeter of the park.
Wasif hoots with laughter. Why do these burger log walk in circles? Why don't they walk on the streets? Isn't there enough space to walk?
"They're scared we'll eat them up," Irfan snickers.
The guard at the gate looks at them with disfavour and motions to them to move on.
Wasif fishes out the cigarette packet and peers inside it hopefully. But it is empty, as empty as the flour tin in Ammah's kitchen. As they walk away, Wasif tosses the empty cigarette packet over his shoulder. It falls through the bars of the gate and lands just inside. A young woman, dressed in black slacks, a fashionable pink top and expensive running shoes, reaches the gate just as the packet falls. She calls to Wasif and admonishes him.
"Excuse me," she says in English. "But you shouldn't litter." Wasif looks at her blankly and she repeats herself in stilted Urdu.
He does not pick up the cigarette pack. He will do no one's bidding, not with Irfan watching. He shrugs and walks away, pretending not to care. But his cheeks are hot under the fuzzy hair which has recently begun to sprout on his face and which he has not bothered to shave. It was just a cigarette pack, he thinks, what's all the fuss about? She should come and see the street where I live.
It is not yet noon. They walk around aimlessly. There is no money for food or paan or cigarettes and a deep gloom descends on them. Wasif tells Irfan that his mother will not buy him a smartphone. Can anyone survive without a smartphone? All the other boys have them.
An uncle has given Irfan a smartphone made in China and he has spent all his money on an internet package that is valid for a month. He wants to use it sparingly but the internet calls to him like a siren, luring sailors to the rocks. Wasif and Irfan sit on the edge of a footpath and, from time to time, Irfan plays games and checks out videos on TikTok. He shows Wasif pictures of muscular bodybuilders on Instagram, flaunting bodies made of granular rocks and boulders – the kind of bodies Irfan and Wasif covet. They stalk a girl from their school on whom Irfan has a crush. Sometimes, Irfan lets Wasif play a game on his phone. But, more often, he journeys alone into his online world. He is oblivious to Wasif, oblivious to the traffic, oblivious to the garbage.
Wasif eyes the cheap smartphone with lusting eyes. He watches Irfan and envies his ability to weave his way back and forth between the dirty, crowded street and an alternate reality. He feels as though there is an exclusive club to which he has been denied entrance.
Irfan says that he wants to buy a used computer, but his stingy father will not give him the money. Wasif feels angry but does not know why or what to take that anger out on. He kicks a stone, then an empty carton, then a plastic bottle. Wasif and Irfan walk back to their neighbourhood. They go to Kaka Gaming, a small shop where they sometimes play video games. The owner is Wasif's older brother Junaid's friend and he lets them hang out there, even if they have no money to play games.
The owner is ordering tea for his friends from the dhaba next door. For some reason, he orders two extra cups for Wasif and Irfan. The tea comes with small, round biscuits that are salty-sweet and studded with cumin seeds. Wasif gulps down six and restrains himself from eating more. But his eyes keep coming back to three uneaten biscuits that no one seems to want. He tries to ignore them but they obtrude into his thoughts.
They pass the afternoon in the coolness of the shop, gossiping and watching slight, spectacled boys transform into fearsome warriors who curse when they miss a kill. It is the last day of the month and Wasif hopes his mother has been paid her salary. He hopes she has cooked chicken.
It is more than a month since she cooked chicken.
It is almost evening when they come out of the shop. As they leave, Wasif quickly pops a cumin biscuit into his mouth. They pass through the small bazaar which fronts the neighbourhood. Guddoo's gang has congregated there under a tree, flyaway plastic bags blooming on its dusty branches.
There are about twelve of them – bullies, thugs, most of them two or three years older than Wasif. Some of them used to go to the same government school as Wasif and Irfan. They call out now to the two boys and they stop. Wasif and Irfan push out their narrow, scrawny chests and attempt to swagger as they walk towards the boys of Guddoo's gang. Wasif is glad that the four top buttons of his shirt are not done up. He hopes that his chest looks muscular.
There is some backslapping, some manly talk. The group breaks off as a couple of girls, well wrapped in chadors, pass by demurely. They leer at the girls in the accepted manner and try to make out their contours under the chadors. Guddoo makes kissing noises as the girls pass and the group laughs snidely. The girls scurry past and hastily disappear into a thin lane, like bullets shooting out of the nozzle of a rifle.
"I have some tharra," Guddoo looks at the others and winks slowly. He includes Wasif and Irfan in his look and they are elated. At last, they are men. Inside, dread rises at the thought of facing their mothers. But they go with the rest of the gang to drink home-brewed alcohol.
An hour later they walk back, staggering. Wasif throws up and Irfan says he feels sick. They part in the building and go to their flats. Ammah opens the door and lets Wasif in. His head swims. He immediately goes and lies down in his room so that she won't notice anything different about him.
"Aren't you eating?" Ammah asks suspiciously.
"No," he says, his face buried in his pillow, "I don't feel well." And he goes to sleep on a bed of thorns.
Ammah finds out about the alcohol the next day from Irfan's mother because Irfan was sick after he returned home. She screams at Wasif, "Isn't one addict enough in the house?"
Wasif hates it when Ammah talks about his father. He is in rehab for his heroin addiction but Wasif has heard innumerable times about how he never worked, how Ammah had to earn, how he ruined her life, how he once set himself on fire, how he used to beat Junaid and fractured his wrist, how he almost threw Wasif down from the balcony, etc, etc.
Ammah weeps and Wasif says, "Oh, be quiet! Women just cry all the time." Ammah looks hurt, as though she did not expect this from him, but his face is hard and unrelenting.
Ammah picks up the threads of her tirade again. She knows that he has not gone to school on theprevious day. She knows he was loitering in the streets with Irfan. She knows that he wasted the afternoon at Kaka Gaming.
Wasif seethes. How much did that fool, that donkey, Irfan, tell his mother?
"Is this how a Muslim boy should behave?" Ammah shouts. "Your father is a heroin addict and your brother doesn't work regularly. Even after his marriage, I am still giving him money. Am I supposed to earn for the three of you for the rest of my life?"
Wasif goes out of the house, propelled by anger and frustration. He has had enough of Ammah's whining and complaining. But as he stalks out of the building, guilt worries him, shoves him and smacks him. It plays with him like a cat plays with a dead rat. He wants to say sorry to Ammah but he does not know how to.
That night, Ammah is quiet but her eyes are swollen and red. She has been paid her salary and at least there is food in the house. He eats the vegetable bhujia she has made and he dreams. He dreams of a smartphone. He dreams that he is engaged to his cousin Saba, his maternal uncle's daughter.
He has asked Ammah many times to speak to Mamoo, his uncle and her brother, about an engagement with Saba – but Ammah always fends off his attempts to convince her. She says Mamoo is well off. He has a job in Saudi Arabia. Their daughter goes to school in a car. Mamoo's wife will never agree to Saba marrying someone who doesn't earn well.
"If you study and start earning well," she always says, "Then I'll talk to Mamoo.
After a few days, he brings up the topic again. "Get me engaged to Saba," he pleads, "they'll marry her off to someone else."
But as always, Ammah says, "Do your matric, then we'll see."
He rages and says that he won't go to school then, "what's the good of studying anyway? Guddoo says he'll help me find a job."
"I told you to stay away from Guddoo," Ammah shrieks. They argue and yell. For a few days, they are distant, as though a wall of glass has grown between them.
Eid comes and Mamoo, who is home from Saudi Arabia, invites them for lunch. His house is small but it is in a decent neighbourhood. Wasif and Ammah arrive there in a rickshaw.
Mamoo's car stands proudly by the gate. At the door, his wife greets them quite graciously, almost as though she is happy to see them.
Wasif meets uncles, aunts and cousins from the maternal side of his family, after almost a year. Understandably, they never come to his flat because the lane outside the building stinks and is full of garbage. But once or twice a year, they meet at Mamoo's house. With his salary which is paid in Saudi riyals, Mamoo has become the patriarch of the extended family and his house is their Mecca.
Wasif notices changes in the house. The old side tables in the sitting room have been replaced with new gilded ones. The centrepiece on the coffee table is made of artificial silk flowers. The sofas have been recently covered in shiny, embossed cloth. Everything speaks the alien language of middle-class prosperity.
The young cousins flock to one side of the room. Wasif is dressed in a new shalwar kameez and he is wearing new leather sandals. For once, he has shaved. But he feels a misfit, an ungainly crow among a group of sleek mynahs.
His cousins are not truly 'burgers' – people who speak English better than their mother tongue – like the young woman a few days ago at the park gate. But they go to third tier English-medium schools with names like 'Green Gardens' and 'Happy Angels,' while he studies in a government school. He notices that they use more English words than he does. They embed them in their Urdu sentences like glittering jewels.
All of his cousins have smartphones. Soon, they are bored with the small talk and retreat into their own virtual worlds, texting and browsing on their phones. Wasif sits in the shadow of a large plastic shrub and plays with his fingers.
On the other side of the room, the older people make a lot more noise than the teenagers. Grey-
haired siblings and cousins tease and reminisce. The men slap their thighs and guffaw loudly; the women laugh shrilly. In her element again, Ammah seems happy. But she looks like what she is: a poor relative, despite her Master's degree in Islamiat. She looks older than her age, her shoes are worn and she is wearing the same outfit she wore to the Eid lunch a year before. Wasif worries that everyone will remember the outfit and he feels ashamed of Ammah. Then he feels ashamed of his shame.
Then Saba walks down the stairs. He sees her from the corner of his eye. Her pretty face seems to glow and her shiny hair hangs down to her waist. The group of young cousins rises, laughing and greeting her. Wasif stands at an unbridgeable distance and greets her shyly. She smiles at him nicely. Then she runs off to help her mother in the kitchen. A woman helper, a maasi, carries steaming dishes of chicken biryani, kebabs and mutton and potato curry to a table in an adjoining room.
People take food on to their plates and find new places to sit. Wasif heaps biryani on his plate. Chicken at last! But he finds he cannot eat because of the ineffable feeling of being in the same room as Saba. She does not seem to notice.
After lunch, Mamoo grandly offers to send Ammah and Wasif back in his car. The driver has to go to that side of town anyway to collect some papers. In the car, Ammah glances at Wasif's dejected face but does not know what to say. She strokes his back but he stiffens and pulls away.
He is no longer her little boy.
In the evening, Irfan comes to their flat with an Eid cake and Wasif steps down with him into the street. They smoke a cigarette and stroll through the garbage in their Eid finery. Irfan is curious about Saba. Did Wasif manage to talk to her alone? Did anything happen? Did he score? Wasif tries to look knowing and mysterious. He smiles a little, an accomplished philanderer who will not tell tales. But he soon finds an excuse to go back to his flat.
Wasif and Ammah eat dinner in silence. Then he goes to his room and tries to sleep. Instead, he cries. Ammah comes into his room and sits at the edge of his rickety bed. She studies his tear-stained face and puts her arms around him. His long wet lashes seem to her like butterfly wings.
"Na beta, no, my son, don't cry," she soothes. For a while, he forgets the code he must live by. He forgets to worry about his mardangi, his manliness. He lets Ammah kiss him on his forehead and smooth back his hair.
Read our editorial reflections on the 2019 short story competition.