The boy was awakened by the recurrent screams and shouts. Half-awoke he hustled himself out of the window to grapple the mood of the situation. Hordes of people, men and women, young and old, were pointing towards something and crying. His half-conscious mind was only able to discern these words out of the ear-popping situation: ‘Aag'(Fire) and “Koi tou bachao meray bachey ko” (Someone save my child). The faces were glistening with orange and yellow sparkles of angry flames. He quickly scrambled into his shirt and ran out the door. People were running in delirium; women and girls crying for help and looking for their loved ones, and men were trying to tranquilize the women by telling them: “Don’t worry, no one will get hurt”.
The picture didn’t smack him together until he saw Michael’s house (His Christian classmate and the captain of the local cricket team of their street), at the corner of the street, on fire. Flames have wedged their way onto the next two houses in the same row. His heart was pounding fast. His enlarged eyes were looking for some familiar faces in the crowd. ‘Bhago’ (Run) was the only word that his mind could hear then. Without any plan for himself, he was a part of gallop, running for his life, which seems like only the tactical judgment at that moment.
After a two or three minutes undirected bolt along with other people, he finally stopped when his dopamine assured him that then he was far from the danger. He was panting. His athletic body took him less time to revitalize the breath than his dyslexic brain to regain the absolute senses. And then he apprehended that he has left his old father back in the home.
A spooky thunder of guilt and fear struck him. His teacher’s comments started rushing in his thirteen year old mind, “Daud, you are dumb in studies and you are even dumber for your alcoholic father”. An anxiety of the situation has entirely drowned him in the darkness of the new-moon sky which was as silent as the Muslim’s graveyard.
He tried to close and open his eyes again and again to think clearly about his action plan. The usual practice that he follows in school to understand the alphabets on the page. Everything was blurry, tears were flowing from his eyes, and he was cursing his stupid mind as why he was not that smart like Michael, who is good at everything. But the voice of Azan was distinct in his ears. Eyes shut again.
The light was brighter than the last time, when he again opened his eyes. A man was standing puzzled beside him with two kids circling him. Daud was on a bed. The man passed him a sheer smile and inquired him about this health. And then began a chain of questions; out of which he answered only few.
All he could tell him was that he lived in Joseph Colony (Christian populated area in Lahore) with his ill father. Last night, his street caught fire and he ran away, leaving his father alone there. Depressingly, he told the man that he didn’t know why he ran and left his father. But he ran along with other people to the playground, which was couple of streets away from his house. He couldn’t recall more of that night.
“You live in Lahore?” the man asked.
The boy nodded but with a slight change of expressions on his face. “You live in Lahore too, I live there too. This is Lahore. Isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid. This isn’t Lahore. You are in Gujranwala right now.”, the man replied in unruffled voice. “I found you outside my house, in the cold. You were unconscious.” he continued. “You must be hungry; do you want breakfast or lunch as you were unconscious for the last seven hours?”
The boy was startled. He didn’t reply instead he gave the man a resentful gaze.
“There were more important things to ask and tell than the breakfast and lunch.”, his thoughts told him.
“I want to leave, now, to go home. Can you lend me some money? I will return you, I promise.” the boy requested in a genuine tone of innocence. The fear, of a likely rebuff from the other side, in his voice was obvious.
The man nodded smilingly for a moment and then left the room with the kids. He came back alone with a tray in his hand. The tray has two plates with slices of bread on one and another has fried eggs.
“My name is Ibrahim”, man asserted.
“I am Daud”, Daud replied in a low-pitched tone. His throat was dry.
Ibrahim asked Daud to take the bench on the other side of room and settled himself in a chair which directly faced a fat man with a big brown table between them. The place was police station. Fat man seemed like the head of the police station, but Daud have no clue as what to call the head of the police station. Ibrahim started the conversion by exchanging greetings (salams) with that fat man. Daud tried to listen carefully, but his attention got distracted by Ibrahim’s beard, which was long and dark and looked like it was grown with utter carefulness.
Daud was abashed. It was his first time that he was in police station but he knew that it was for his good. Ibrahim started to tell fat man about Daud that how he found him and what had happened to him that night. Fat man was listening the story with a continuous faint grin on his swollen face and radiant amusement in eyes was obvious as if Ibrahim was telling him a fable. When Ibrahim finished, fat man looked at Daud and ordered him to come closer.
“So, Daud Maseeh?” fat man emphasized on Maseeh. “You are looking for your father; did he let you go or you left him there in you burning house?”
Daud didn’t reply.
“Huh?’ the fat man said. His eyes began to suspect Daud, but went not so far when stopped on Daud’s neck. He was wearing a cross around it. Daud clutched it and flapped it under his shirt.
“You think his father would be still alive?’ The fat man turned to Ibrahim. “Didn’t you hear of those two deaths there?” fat man conceitedly inquired Ibrahim.
“There’s always a hope. We could try, at least.”, said Ibrahim.
The fat man tottered in his chair, “Leave him here Ibrahim Sahab, we’ll see and try.”
Ibrahim looked at Daud for an assurance but saw tears rolling down Daud’s cheek.
Ibrahim shifted his eyes to the man.
“Don’t you believe us?”, fat man’s reaction.
“I do but I don’t see him doing the same. After all, it’s all his choice.”
“His choice doesn’t matter anymore; he’s broken.”
“He’s fragile, not broken. He needs someone to trust.”
“You are one of the holy men of this town, you should leave him here. He can be a trouble in your peaceful life.”
“I don’t see him as a trouble.”
“These Christians are trouble, that’s why their houses were burned.”
Ibrahim stopped. Silence floated in the air, but for seconds only.
“Troubles are those Muslims who burned their houses.” Ibrahim said and stood up to leave the place.
“You’re making a wrong choice. You are walking on a wrong path, Ibrahim Sahab, an unpaved way.” the fat man yelled while jumping on his feet.
“You see, I don’t really like to walk on paved ways. They are too crowded.”
The fat man gazed Ibrahim with a sea of detestation rippling in his eyes, when Ibrahim and Daud left the police station.
They were heading towards the bus station, when Ibrahim told Daud that he saw the news on television yesterday that the riot broke out on the night before yesterday. When Daud demanded the whole story, he explained that the fire was a consequence of mob’s rage. That was not an accident, the fire was kindled intentionally. He told Daud that when the houses were burnt, there wasn’t any police there for help.
“You are lucky, boy.”, said Ibrahim.
“Are you really going to help me?’” Daud questioned. He was not feeling lucky.
“Yes, I will help you find your father.” his voice was reassuring, “Well, Don’t believe me if you can’t. Believe in God, you can always believe Him, without thinking once.’
“But what if He doesn’t want to help me, then what?”, Daud questioned Ibrahim’s integrity of faith.
“He will help you. He always does, but at the right moment. Wait for that moment, boy.” Ibrahim replied, with a calm voice.
Daud smiled back with some hope, for the first time, after that night.
Daud chose the seat beside the window in the bus; he wanted to see the dying sunset. The sun was going down with all its glory. But what was about to come after this was a contrary, a night – a night with a darkness that can swallow the wails. That can hide each flurry of ashes in its hollowness. He closed his eyes, expecting the night would never come in his visions. But it did. He saw the burnt houses again; he saw each hurt soul again. But this time, he saw his father too. He was standing in the crowd. He had his filthy bottle of alcohol in his hand, but he didn’t seem under its effect. He gave a smile; the very same smile that he used to give in the morning after the absolute absence of whole night from home. Daud‘s mother had died two years back.
Suddenly, his thoughts vanished, when the bus bumped on the speed-breakers. Daud eyes were full of confounded tears of both happiness and pain.
“Are you alright?”, asked Ibrahim.
“I don’t know.”, answered Daud.
The sun drowned again behind the houses. Daud has always hated the sunsets because it reminds him of his despicable life: his life of poverty, disturbed dyslexic mind and his alcoholic father.
“What does your father do?” Ibrahim asked Daud.
“He drinks”, said Daud morosely.
“Huh?”, Ibrahim demanded an explanation.
‘He doesn’t do anything. He just wanders aimlessly and drinks.’
“Well, almost everyone in this world wanders, aimlessly while I’m not sure about drinking.”
“And, certainly, you’re not one of them – who wander.”
“I was of them,’ Ibrahim sighed. ‘And then I found you.”
“You found me, a way. I’m the way; the unpaved way, full of dangers and risks which one shouldn’t take.”
“You are not exactly the way. You are the person who encouraged me to take that way,” Ibrahim continued after a pause, “I, strongly, believe that only unpaved ways can take you directly to your destiny. The others are way too long.”
Daud said nothing.
“Daud, you’re fortunate enough to change other’s life.”
Silence hit Daud again.
“That’s the irony; Most Unfortunate is that who is considered fortunate.” thought Daud.
“And what is your destiny?” Ibrahim tried to resume the conversation.
Daud said, “I work in Dhaba. But, in future, I want to build my own hotel. Nothing would happen the way I wanted.”
“Let’s see, there’s an advice. No matter what happens, don’t let your dreams die. In this world of pains and sufferings, dreams are the only thing that makes you abided to this place.”
Daud made his way to his house through the narrow streets which were covered with black dirt. His every single step was crushing the parched ashes of the possessions of the unfortunate dwellers. Ibrahim was following his steps carefully. Daud entered his house and found everything destroyed. But his father was there who hugged Daud immediately and greeted Ibrahim and thanked him for all the help.
“How did you find Daud”, Daud’s father asked Ibrahim.
“I think some angel dropped him at my gate, your son must be strong believer in God.”, Ibrahim replied conceitedly and left.