This is the story of a person who has always sought answers to questions which are perhaps best left unanswered at the time. “Don’t ask,” they say. “Curiosity killed the cat”. Most rational individuals take heed but not this one. His mind agitates. He finds himself wondering what it is that the cat wanted to know. He fails to recognize that it’s ok for the cat. It has nine lives. A life lost in the quest for knowledge is no big deal for an inquisitive feline. It would still have eight left. A human has but one. It would be a sad obituary if one were to die trying to find answers to some silly, pointless questions. Yet, this individual has persisted throughout his life in this pursuit.
Shahid Kamal Khan; Karachi, Pakistan 3rd February 2014
His first near death experience took place when he was barely five years old. It all began at school, during recess while he was playing a game of ‘catch’ with friends. They were throwing a tennis ball at each other, hoping the other would miss the catch. And, as was bound to happen, one boy missed. The ball continued travelling and ended up in another group of boys at some distance. One of those boys, a mean looking individual, picked it up and began looking around to find out where it had come from. The thrower shouted, “Ball meri hai”. “It’s my Ball”. The mean boy looked at the thrower and then at the ball and then, quite falsely, counter claimed, “Ball meri hai”.
A shouting match followed with two boys standing at some distance alternately yelling, “Ball mine”, “Ball mine” while the rest of the schoolchildren watched resignedly. And then something extraordinary happened. It was an incomprehensible, shocking, turn of events. The boy holding the ball dropped it to the ground and advanced a step towards the thrower. This time, instead of repeating ‘Ball mine’, he shouted, in a far more aggressive tone, “Teri Ma Ke Ch**t”.
Even more shocking was the fact that the boy who actually owned the ball also relinquished his claim and replied identically. He also took a step forward and shouted back, “Teri Ma Ke Ch**t”.
A young, inexperienced mind was now witnessing two boys advancing menacingly towards each other demanding from one another something their mothers possessed. The claim to the ball had been replaced by something else of which he had no clue. The two boys came close; one punched the other, a fist fight followed during which the two kept repeating the demand for their mother’s possession whenever they got a chance. The inevitable nosebleed happened; the two were pulled apart, the fight stopped, recess ended and everyone went back to class.
The child was awestruck by the whole episode. He wondered why the demand for the ball had been replaced by another that made no sense to him. He came away from the playing field more ignorant than when he had entered it. He was now aware that there was something called “Ch**t” and the mothers of both the quarrelsome boys had it. It was obviously something more valuable than a tennis ball; it was something worth fighting over.
A curious mind had been awakened. He would now have to find out what this thing was.
And therefore it came to pass that an innocent five year old returned from school, raced into the house, tossed his satchel in a corner and sought out his mother with eager anticipation. Panting breathlessly, the curious child asked that venerable lady the question. “Mama, Mama, do you have “Ch**t” Do you? Do you?”
Mama was sewing; she was hunched over the Singer sewing machine which had come with her as part of her dowry. The child loved that device. He would always try and be around his mother when she would sew. She would let him rotate the wheel while she fed the material and as his tiny hand cranked the shiny wheel for what it was worth, he would watch in sheer fascination the serrated jaw of the machine pulling the material under the ‘foot’ and the shiny needle oscillating up and down. He loved the clickety-clack of this wonderful machine, its intricate arrangement of levers, rods and mechanical components. His biggest treat came when the shuttle under the machine ran out of thread. The body would then have to be hinged back, the shuttle removed from its housing and the tiny spool inside withdrawn from its complex case. The reel would then be mounted on a friction driven spindle, the big wheel would be declutched by turning a small knurled knob enabling it to rotate freely to spin the tiny spool on which the thread would be rewound. The child would then pump that handle for all it was worth and watch in delight as the bobbin danced crazily while the thread flew from it to the tiny reel. That was, for a five year old, pure bliss.
The machine stopped. There was a sharp, audible, intake of breath. The mother froze. Without looking up, without moving, she said, “What? What did you say?” Sensing that the mother had not heard the question; the child repeated it. In a tone of exasperation that only an innocent five year old can enunciate, he repeated the question, “Ma-ma, do – you – have – ‘Ch**t?”
That was when she looked up.
Mama was a beautiful person. All mothers are. The female who looked up was not. A dropped jaw, wide open horror struck eyes, nostrils flared, eyebrows raised, lip curled, cheeks flushed. It was a horrid face, it displayed abject disgust. He had never seen her thus and therefore was transfixed enough not to see her hand swing up and deliver a blow which sent him reeling across the floor. She then sprang up, grabbed her son by the collar and walloped him again as she began chanting ‘La hawl wila quat”, and unleashed a barrage of her ‘kosnas’. “Namurad”, “Kumbakht” etc. etc. (That’s another thing, the little boy had no idea what ‘bakht’ was but his mother would frequently remind him that he did not have enough of it). She then followed that tirade with the question she often asked, “Kya mein ne tujhe is din ke liye janam diya tha?” “Did I bring you into this world for this day?”
Of course, the child had no idea why she had brought him into this world. The very first time she had asked this question, the boy had tried to tell her as much. He had raised his shoulders, turned my palms upwards, rolled his eyes and tried to stammer, “I, I ….. er, I don’t know.” She had not let him finish the sentence; she had screamed, “Shut up” followed immediately with the same question, “Is this why I brought you into this world?” The child would grow up wondering why his mother asked questions without wanting answers.
He did however know that this was a question that did not require an answer and therefore remained quiet; even when she repeated the question; having now grabbed the frail child by his shoulders, shaking him forcefully. And then she began her dialog with God. She prayed for forgiveness for herself and her sinner child. Once more the child wondered why his mother would implore the Almighty for mercy while she herself did not consider it necessary to be merciful to her son. Being a somewhat precocious child, he had been in similar situations before.
But then, she did something completely unexpected. Grabbing her son by the scruff of his neck, she dragged him into the bathroom, forced his mouth open and proceeded to wash it. With soap.
There always were two cakes of soap in each bathroom. One was the square, pink colored, unpleasant smelling ‘Lifebouy’ cake reserved for bathing while the other was the nice, curvy, smooth, perfumed ‘toilet’ soap used for washing hands and faces. The second kind came in fancy wrappers and had names such as ‘Rexona’, ‘Palmolive’, ‘Pears’; the last having an added delight of being transparent. To be precise, there was a third soap also; it was called ‘Sunlight’ but it was used for washing clothes and stayed in the laundry area. It was sickly yellow in color, foul smelling and really ugly.
She grabbed the cake of Lifebouy soap, lathered up, yanked his head back, forced him to open his mouth and stuffed it full of the soapy goo. She then stuck a couple of fingers inside and washed the protesting orifice energetically. A nauseating feeling flooded his entire body, puncturing tiny, inexperienced taste buds causing him to retch violently. The child flailed his tiny arms, kicked and screamed, trying to extricate himself from the situation. After what seemed eternity, the mother finally left him sobbing in the bathroom and walked away.
The child had no idea what had just happened. And yet, strangely enough, his inquisitive brain never stopped working. Somewhere in the back of his confused, distraught mind was forming the question; “Lifebouy is an ugly soap and it tastes awful. Toilet soaps look, feel and smell better; I wonder if they also taste better”? More importantly however, his original question remained unanswered. The child remained ignorant about his mother’s possessions.
He would be given an answer of sorts later that night when the mother came to his bedside, tucked him in and then sat by his side, running her fingers through her darling child’s hair. In a soft and loving voice she explained to her son that there were some words that were dirty; that decent people never uttered them; that the word he had used was one such dirty word. Dirty words made mouths dirty and therefore they had to be washed. If her son ever uttered a dirty word again, she would have to repeat the cleansing. The child was never to use that particular word again. Although she did not mention the word, the child was smart enough to figure out which word it was.
Chastised, crestfallen and with a foul taste still echoing in his mouth, he went to sleep not knowing what ‘Ch**t’ was and whether his mother had any or not.
He would continue his quest, albeit in a somewhat cautious manner. Knowledge would come from a fellow student who was much older; more worldly. ‘Ch**t’, he would inform the child, was the name for a girl’s pee-pee. The fellow student would go further. He would also introduce him to the ‘L’ word. The name of a boy’s pee-pee.
And also, as the boy would later find out, a university in Sweden.