Haroon Tahir is a 21 year old Dubai kid, originally from Lahore. An avid reader, he has a degree from AUD with a major in Economics and a minor in Journalism. It may not seem like it, but he is a poet and has had work published in several publications
“I can’t believe Ammi and Abbu still give in to your silly demands,” said Rahil in his thick American accent, glancing faintly at his brother as he aggressively pressed the car’s horn. They nearly missed a red motorbike as it turned towards them, one of the many that had dotted the rough road ahead like a swarm of red fireflies that had huddled together. Rehan, his younger brother, did not reply, staring dreamily outside into the poorly-lit road ahead of them. He could not wait to get to his friend’s birthday.
The lush green manicured lawns speckled with statues of various animals, the tall and imposing L.E.D streetlights, the wide, smooth, clearly-marked roads, the palatial residences and shopping complexes to their left and right, and the flock of Japanese sedans that accompanied them like a pack of wolves had all vanished into darkness. Instead, there was a dimly-lit, narrow, pothole-ridden road ahead of them with miniscule cottages sprinkled to their left and right. This was not Rehan’s Lahore. This was a different city altogether. Rehan finally mustered the courage to reply. “But he’s my best friend,” Rehan murmured softly in Urdu. His brother barely heard his voice over the Kings of Leon song playing in the background.
“Dirty eels swimming at the bottom of the river can’t be friends with pigeons flying high up in the sky,” he replied, slightly turning down the volume. “And how many times have I told you to talk in English? You will end up like these illiterate fool, you call your friends.”
Rehan chose to purse his lips and remain quiet. He had realized early, at the age of 8, that the best way to get your way with adults was to softly campaign for your demand and keep silent afterward. He remembered the image of a closed pair of lips with a finger pressing towards it, fixed to his classroom’s board. It read: “Silence is Golden.” A slight smile crept across Rehan’s face. He could not wait to get to his friend’s birthday.
There was not an exact day where he could have pinpointed where his brother had grown to become a different man. His beloved car playlist of loud and brash Punjabi music had now turned into a playlist full of American indie-rock records. He would refuse to talk in Urdu or Punjabi, and would now only talk and reply in English. His passion for helping the poor had now morphed into a seething, poisonous form of hate, where he blamed them for the city’s chronic problems of overcrowding, traffic and pollution. His pack of Marlboro Reds accompanied him everywhere and he missed no moment to light his cigarette. Maybe it was the 4 years of college he attended in New York. Maybe this was how everyone becomes when they grow up. Maybe this was how all 23-year-olds acted.
Back at home, Sagheer was fervently arranging his room. His room, his parents’ room and the living room were all the same. No matter how hard he tried to fix his bedsheet, clean his table or fix the arrangement of the chairs, his room would still not look as good as Rehan’s. The blue walls with stickers of the stars and the moon, the lucid black-leather furniture, the massive flat-screen L.E.D T.V, the cool little cube-shaped lamps on either side of his bed – he could only dream of having such a room. One day, he will be as wealthy and affluent as Rehan’s father. Yes, that was for sure.
His mother smashed his dreams, like the wrecking balls destroying the British Raj-era buildings in old Lahore, in her piercing, loud voice, “He is the master’s son. So treat him with respect.” She placed a pot of steaming chicken biryani on the table. It had seemed eons since Sagheer had tasted chicken, since he had had the chance to tear away at the succulent flesh and gnaw at the soft bones.
“I don’t know why you were so bent on doing this stupid thing. It’s haraam. Birthdays are not meant for people like
us,” his mother added, motioning towards the small plate of fruit cake kept on the table. His father was still at work, working as a chauffeur for Rehan’s father’s real estate business. He, usually, had much nicer things to say.
Before Sagheer could phrase a reply, his 11-year-old cousin walked in, swinging the door open. His gait was that of a middle-aged man, his hands were weathered and calloused and his skin was even more tanned than Sagheer’s. There was always a deep, permanent scowl on his face.
“You are just one of his silly toys, he can pick up and throw you when he wants,” Maqbool had once said, with his
trademark scowl on his face, his eyes squinting under the harsh summer sun. Sagheer punched him in the face. He would never talk about their friendship again.
Today, Maqbool had seemed much more jovial and went on to greet Sagheer’s mother and him, giving him a loose hug. He had refused to wish him a happy birthday, however, for he would not participate in this stupid, rich-boy spectacle.
“Where’s your friend?” he asked. Sagheer couldn’t tell if it was a genuine question or one of his condescending comments. He still chose to reply coldly, “He should be on his way.”
Rahil swiftly turned right into a narrow lane that barely fit his Toyota Corolla sedan. The car’s tires screeched under the pressure. The lane ahead of them was pitch dark and even bumpier. It was less of a lane, and more of a rocky sand pit. Cottages lay to both sides of the lane, their red bricks and skeletal, incomplete structures gleaming in the full-moon light. Rahil parked the car to the fifth house on the right, tugging at the handbrake as if they were the reins of a well-bred horse. “Go inside, I’ll stay here in the car. This neighborhood is way too unsafe. Don’t take long, be outside when you hear the horn.”
“What… What about his gift?” Rehan mumbled, barely above his breath, this time in English.
“I’ll just give him a few rupees when he comes outside,” Rahil said, swinging the car door open.
Sagheer’s house was much worse than how he had described it, the garden was simply non-existent, the terrace was just a measly line of tiles outside of the house and the house itself was a ghastly grey color.
Rehan knocked the rickety door at the entrance. Sagheer keenly pulled it open and gave his friend a tight hug. Rehan wished him a happy birthday in English, in a slightly American accent. Sagheer mumbled back a barely-audible thank you, he was embarrassed of his thick Punjabi twang showing through. Even though he was almost a year older than his friend, Sagheer was much shorter in stature, skinnier in frame and darker in complexion.
He was disappointed to see no gift in his friend’s hands. No action figure that shoots plastic spears. No toy car with those big squishy wheels. There was nothing.
Rehan was just as disappointed, if not more. There were no birthday banners, no balloons, no decorations, and no birthday hats or horns. There wasn’t even any icing on his cake. “What kind of birthday was this?” Rehan thought. But, on the surface, he gave a big, hearty smile. After all, he was happy to see his friend.
The cake was cut. Rehan was the only one who sung happy birthday. Maqbool and Sagheer’s mother stood there with a blank, stoic expression on their face. Dinner was, then, served at the table. Rehan sat in the middle, in the most comfortable chair. The rice was too soggy, too miniscule for him while the chicken was emaciated and stringy, with no tenderness in the meat. Rehan could barely finish the plate of the tasteless biryani and, eventually, pushed the plate aside.
Meanwhile, Sagheer keenly finished three. With the recent rise in prices, a plate of wholesome biryani was a blessing to him. The cake, the food, his two friends there – this was the happiest day of his life. But it didn’t last too long.
After dinner was over, the kids went to the terrace outside and engaged in a game of playing police and thieves, where two of the thieves would hide and the cop would look for them. Naturally, Rehan wanted to be the cop while Maqbool thought the game was silly and childish. Each round would end quickly as there was little space for the children to hide, as they scurried across the terrace, like rats confined to a small hole, and counted to ten, under the gloomy glow of the moon and the faint light emanating from a scrawny lightbulb.
During the fourth round, a loud honk tore through the still summer air. It was Rehan’s brother. “It’s time for me to go,” said Rehan, with a sullen face. As he was about to walk away, he remembered a picture he saw on the pale blue walls of a swanky American-style diner in downtown Lahore. It was an image of a thick, expansive and misty forest with the words, “Money Can’t Buy You Happiness” in big, black, bold letters set against the background. It was today that Rehan realized what those words really meant.
He hugged both the children goodbye, while giving Sagheer a tighter hug. Out of courtesy and out of expectation, Sagheer dropped his friend outside, with a shining glint in his eyes. Maqbool was happy this farce was finally over.
Outside the terrace, Rahil was taking the last puff of his Marlboro as his brother and the driver’s kid made his way outside. His white complexion was glowing faintly in the moonlit lane. “Happy birthday, kid,” he mumbled in a pitiful tone. He threw his cigarette to the floor, crushed it and patted his pants’ pockets for his wallet and scrambled to look for a few rupees, struggling to make out the denominations in the dark.
Finally, he handed Sagheer a few crumpled notes of 10 rupees each, like he was a clingy beggar asking for alms on a busy street. It was barely enough to buy a new toy. Barely enough for even a kebab burger down the street. Sagheer could barely muster a thank-you.
A hot breeze blew by, unsettling the stillness of the night. Trickling tears welled up in his eyes as his cold gaze shifted towards Rehan. Sagheer would never call him a friend again.