Naina never really liked living in the hut. She wanted a home that was bigger. Warmer. Happier.
She didn’t understand what it meant by her being poor. She did know that it had something to do with why there were nights when she slept with an ache in her stomach and times when she held quietly onto the pain of the dryness in her throat before she could gulp down a few sips of water that didn’t look quite like the water she tasted at the house Ammi used to work at.
Naina never complained though.
Ammi was too sick to help herself and Abbu always seemed so sad. He never spoke anymore. She didn’t want to worry them any more than they already were.
When she turned seven years old and Ammi could no longer hold Naina’s frail body on her hip, Naina began her own journeys walking around the streets of Lahore that led to nowhere and everywhere all at once.
She looked at her long days of walking as her adventures.
She met all sorts of people in them. She tasked all types of food and received several varieties of gifts and hugs.
Her first day as a beggar was something she thinks back to often.
Ammi had given Naina a wooden bowl to collect money in. She didn’t look very happy when she was doing it. Instead, Ammi’s eyes bore a helpless tint, but Naina smiled in reassurance.
When you lived in the hut, you grew before other kids your age and no matter the circumstance, you learned to think of others before yourself. So even though Naina wasn’t feeling too well that day and her stomach hurt a lot, she touched her ammi’s face and gave her the brightest smile she could muster.
With a voice filled with sadness, Ammi told Naina where to go.
She told her to ask people for money and to let them know that her ammi was sick and her abbu could not talk. She told her to tell them that Naina had nothing to eat and at times nothing to drink.
And so, that fine Sunday morning, before the city was even awake and only a sliver of the sun had risen, Naina walked towards it in her oversized kameez which once belonged to her older sister who she never saw anymore.
Naina didn’t know where her baji went, but she had a feeling that whatever happened to her had made Ammi so sick and Abbu unable to speak. She remembered her baji with the same sad look other people in the hut bore.
It was their trademark, and Naina was determined to change it.
Her first day on the streets was the most difficult. She felt lost and she was very hungry.
She didn’t know how to say anything to the people who sat in the big cars looking at themselves in rectangular shaped things and laughing. They talked to it and made faces at it.
She also didn’t know how to approach the people who walked by her or looked at her from afar. They didn’t like her, sometimes. She knew it had to do with her kameez. It didn’t have the same look as theirs.
For most of the morning, Naina just scrambled from one place to another. Unsure of where to go or who to speak to. She felt scared and embarrassed.
People stared at her and she wasn’t quite sure of what she should do.
So she sat down at an intersection of two streets. Her butt hurt a bit with how hot the floor was. It was after all, a very sunny day.
She was wiping her face with the bottom of her kameez when a boy walked up to her. He had a beautiful blue car that shined like the sun on that day when it was put in the right angle. Naina couldn’t help the ache in her heart which wanted the car, but deep down she knew she couldn’t get it.
The boy stood in front of her, eyeing her as if she were an object. He cocked his head to his right and gave her a look, a mixture of disgust and arrogance. He tried to throw a penny at her bowl which missed and fell to the ground.
As the first rupee she got from anyone in those first few hours, Naina jumped for it and ran after it as it rolled away, accidently hitting a rock and falling down as the penny fell into a muddy water.
Without waiting a beat, the boy bursted into a fit of laughter, pointing at her and laughing like she was an animal playing tricks for him.
Naina immediately wanted to curl into a ball and disappear, but as she sat on the sandy road in that moment, she knew that she couldn’t. The stark smell of her sweat and days of not getting a bath was as evident as ever. Salty.
She wiped her forehead and with a body that rejected her every movement forward, she picked herself up, leaned over and took out the penny from the muddy water full of God knew what.
The boy still stood there laughing. His heartlessness hadn’t seized for a second as he took in the spectacle before him. A girl who was at a lost and helpless with the conditions of the world she was born into.
He didn’t care to think that maybe that penny meant more than anything for Naina.
After finishing his laughing session and feeling content with having enjoyed the ruckus of a show that had been Naina, he made a snide remark and walked away. His head held high even after he had just thrown little girl to the ground, leaving her forever staring at the dirty ground below her.
It wasn’t long before the boy left, that Naina broke down. Her tears fell quietly. She hadn’t cried for a long time, but in that moment of humiliation and desperation, her tears fell of her own accord and with them, her breathing grew erratic. She looked down. Looked down.
A few moments had passed as she repeated those moments of degradation in her mind and flipped the coin over and over in her fingers.
She hated that penny. But she knew she desperately was thankful for having it as well.
Just as she wiped the tears from her cheeks with the backs of her sandy hands, she felt a slight pressure of a hand on her head.
“It’s okay, beta.” A deep voice said to her.
She twisted her head up to see an old man sit beside her. He didn’t belong on the floors of the streets like she did. He wore an expensive looking suit that seemed to have never touched the dust of the Lahore streets.
“No one’s life is particularly easy, but your life is especially difficult. I can understand.” he said. He pulled out a wrapped shawarma from a bag and handed it to her with a box of mango juice. Although Naina felt uncomfortable taking it, she couldn’t help herself. Her stomach grumbled upon the strong smell of the chicken and she immediately grabbed it.
After, she had unwrapped it and took a bite, the old man leaned back and stared at the cars and motorcycles that flashed by. His eyes developing a far away look, as he reached down into the lane of his memories.
“You know, a long time ago, I was like you too. I used to walk around at the train station begging people for money. Then one day when I got older, I got a job as one of the boys who carry the suitcases. A few years later, one of my friends taught me how to read and how to study and then, I went to school. I used to study in the morning and work in the afternoon. At night, I would study and do my homework. From morning to night, that’s all I did. After almost 10 years of doing that, I finally became successful and created my own business. Today, I have everything.”
Naina listened intently to what the old man had to say, his brown eyes filled with emotions of the past struggles, but she wasn’t quite sure she understood what he meant.
“I tell you what, I’ll make you a deal.” he turned towards her. His eyes not really seeing a small seven year old, but himself. What he had wished he had gotten when he was her age rolling around from one street of humiliation to another.
“If you come here tomorrow at this time, I will meet you here and take you to a school. For every day that you go to school, I will pay you money to take back home to your parents. But you have to study with your heart. And every time you get good grades, I will give you more money. I want to see you become a very successful girl when you grow up, but you have to work hard for it and focus on your studies.”
Naina’s eyes grew big. Was he just going to give her the money that she needed and take her humiliation away so quickly?
She was surprised, confused, and did not know what to do.
He slipped a bill of 500 rupees in her bowl.
“Make sure this is the last piece of cash you get in that bowl.”
Naina picked up the bill in her tiny hands and examined the blue bill. The face of Quaid staring far away. He took out a book from his briefcase and gave it to her.
“I know you can’t read it, but keep it with you. The day you can read it, your life will change.”
The old man patted her head and handed her the bag filled with five other shawarma wraps and the remaining fix boxes of mango juice from the pack of six.
“Don’t forget to be here tomorrow!” he said.
As he walked towards a store on the opposite side of the street, Naina felt like she had suddenly been blessed with a piece of heaven. The man was a God-sent angel. He walked into a bookstore and turned towards her once he closed the glass door behind him and waved goodbye.
That was the last time she saw him. Like an angel, he had given her a message and left back to God. It wasn’t his fault, because the next day, he was walking towards her, but either God wanted to test her or she just had horrible luck, or maybe it was the old man’s time to leave because the next day exactly at noon, as she sat on the street, anxiously waiting for him to take her to a school and he left that bookstore of his with a smile brighter than anything she had ever seen, a car sped past and hit the old man to death. Leaving Naina with an image of his hopeful smile of relief from the prison she had been locked in and his welcoming hand that waved at her as a memory that would haunt and inspire her for the rest of her life.