I have trouble remembering things, I forget to pick things up, I don’t remember what I had for lunch last week, I even forget to match socks in the mornings sometimes. But there are some moments that you don’t forget. The event as a whole may not be exact, but certain moments you just can’t forget.
I remember a clear night sky, void of any clouds. I don’t remember with any clarity whether the moon and stars were out. But I’m sure they were, I’m sure they were witnesses.
We had just finished dinner at a restaurant, one you couldn’t classify as a road-side dhaba, but not a high class joint either. It was past 10pm and we were in Rawalpindi. Rawalpindi was just one stop on our tour around Pakistan, but I don’t remember what the other spots were. I remember mountains and rivers and single lane roads (mountain-side single-lane for two way traffic, yes, both ways on the same single lane). I was either 9 or 10 years old, I don’t remember which.
We decided to go for a walk, I remember us stopping at a roadside shack. One that sold packs of biscuits and bubble gum, some also sold soap and toothbrushes. Not exactly your corner convenience store, but I’m sure it was convenient for many. I remember a cigarette lighter hanging off a cord from the roof of the shack. It was for those who purchased a single cigarette to light up immediately. You can do this in Pakistan (and India), you can purchase singles: a single cigarette, a single biscuit from a pack of 12, a single pain killer pill (sometimes even half a pill).
I was asked if I wanted anything. “Spout!” (at least I think it was called that), a type of gum with a liquidy centre filling. Maybe the flavour was mint or maybe spearmint, I remember that the colour was green. Green wrapper and green gum. I popped a couple into my mouth, then I held the packet in my fist, not bothering to pocket it.
We were walking in a group, mummy and baba, brother and sister, aunt and uncle. All of us in one group, not groups of two apart. A newly married couple, the uncle and aunt. I don’t remember if they accompanied us on the trip or if we accompanied them. I don’t even remember attending their wedding, maybe I didn’t. I remember getting along well with the aunt. “Bas theek hi hai (it’s just about alright)”, that became our response to many questions, we laughed every time either of us said it. And we made sure to bring one eyebrow down a little, or maybe blink, as we said the words.
I don’t think we were walking too slow, nor too fast. A gentle pace, if anything. Then, I fell.
This is a moment in which you no longer exist. One second you are present, the other second you disappear. If no one is looking too carefully, no one would notice that you were gone. Before anyone could say, “Look out for that open man-hole” (and nobody ever did), I was gone. I was covered head to toe, entirely submerged in shit and piss. I was lucky, however, people were looking and they did notice.
I’m not too sure what was going on above the ground, but below I was trying to rise up through the substances. I didn’t have much success, trying to move my hands and legs as a swimmer would, it just wasn’t working. My father jumped in. Moving my hands around I was able to find his leg, I held on to it. I remember somehow hearing him call out my name, “ADNAN!!”. At that point I thought he wanted me to let go of his leg, maybe I was causing him to lose his balance? I let go. Of course, he was just calling out my name hoping that I would respond. He couldn’t actually see me.
He found me and proceeded to lift me up. Folk above ground held my hands and pulled me up through the same hole. Later my uncle and brother would tell me that as my head became visible it looked like a monster scene out of some horror movie. I was dripping wet, my hair a nest of sorts, my glasses fully covered and thus my vision blurred. The globs on my glasses were too heavy and fell on their own, my vision still blurry but slightly better.
I quickly located my mother. This wasn’t very difficult, she was shouting and screaming. “Mera baccha!!”, “Mera beta kahaan hai??!!!”, “Mera baccha kahaan gaya??!!!” (“My child!!”, “Where is my son??!!!”, “Where did my child go??!!!”). There were a few people trying to calm mummy down. Nearly everyone else stood still, they were all silent witnesses, not too different from the moon and the stars above.
I went up to mummy and tried to calm her down. “Mein yahaan hoon.”, “Sab theek hai mummy, mein aagaya” (“I’m right here.”, “It’s okay mummy, I’ve come”). That wasn’t enough. Her screams didn’t stop. I remember raising my hands half way, wanting to take a hold of her hands. I looked at my hands and wondered if I should. I noticed that I was still holding on to the Spout packet. Nowhere in between the falling, the swimming, the lifting and the walking did I let go of the Spout. I dropped the packet. Covered in shit, right out of the gutter, you’re not exactly in a state where someone would embrace you. I don’t remember if I held mummy’s hands to calm her down. I’d like to think I did.