L___ is my country. Neatly whitewashed with a pretty garden and a big oak tree, my house stands tall in Market Street. My grandfathers and their grandfathers have always lived here. We were a huge happy household long back. Just like the oak tree. Slowly, its leaves frittered away and so did our family. Aunts got married, Uncles went abroad, Oldies passed away and all that remained was me, my hubby, Atif, and my son, Saif.
One secret I never want Saif to know is that I never finished school. I know to read a little, write a bit and do some sums but I never read newspapers and books. That is why I was so ignorant about all that was happening around me.
One fine Tuesday afternoon, I got the first inkling of it. Rita, my friendly neighbor, came running to tell me a hurried good-bye. It seems she was returning to her native country, India, immediately.
“A war may break out soon. So, I thought it is better to get back to India. I miss my country and my parents, too. This will be the best choice for me,” she said.
I agreed with her, “Never leave your motherland again because that is where you belong.”
“Take care!” she said anxiously. Her words seemed pregnant with a lot of meaning.
Very soon, it happened. Yet, I was happy and safe. Why should I worry? Everything remained the same in my life. I continued to walk up to the market and pick up the groceries, one hand clutching my purse and the other around my son sitting on my hips. I brought back the bulging bag on my shoulder and cooked a wholesome meal. My husband came home every afternoon and we ate together. At times, we even playfully fed each other. I nursed and played with six month old Saif and snuggled into bed with my darling husband at night. Yes, war had not affected me.
The school which I detested as a kid still remained. The oak tree from which I fell and fractured my arm stood tall. The hotel where I met my husband for the first time still catered. The hospital where I delivered my son still functioned, though it seemed to be filling with burnt and hurt patients now. My world was safe.
The first quake which shook the foundations of my heart came when the hotel was bombed. As soon as I heard the news, I recalled that brown square wooden table beneath which me and Atif secretly held hands for the first time. I cried and ran to that spot where the hotel stood. Nothing remained except the charred remains, ashes and volunteers. I picked up a small piece of burnt brown wood. I kissed it and cried once again.
That night, I showed it to Atif. He was very angry that I went to such a dangerous place. He forbade me to step out of the house. From the next day onwards, even the groceries were bought by him. I felt stifled and imprisoned. Can I never again walk on the street with my son on my hips, swaying and playing with him?
Atif is a happy-go-lucky guy and I loved the way he made me laugh. But, he changed after this incident. He became silent and withdrawn. He stopped coming home for his afternoon meals. He stopped playing with Saif. He came home late in the nights and dropped into bed without his usual glass of milk. I crept silently into the bed and slept beside him. He never hugged me. In the middle of many nights, I caught him staring blankly at the ceiling. I was worried, 'did Atif ever eat or sleep?'
Almost immediately, the school and the hospital were bombed. Without Atif’s knowledge, I visited each site after the bombing. That night Atif’s shop was also burnt down. I thanked God that he was not in it at that time. All our friends and neighbors had fled to various places. In a few days, our entire lives had been shattered.
Then, we were evacuated to a camp in an open field. Food and water packets were thrown from helicopters above. Life became torturous.
I have always been a shy and modest woman. I have not been without a shawl draped around my shoulders - even before my mother. Now, everything has changed. Privacy is something we cannot even think of. We have our bath in a common women’s toilet whose latch never works. I have to nurse my son before all the prying eyes at the camp. Beggars cannot be choosers. Still, I never realized this miserable life could get any worse but it did. My house…my home also succumbed to the fury of the bombs.
I remember that day clearly. Mustafa was the one who brought the news to us. Me and Atif wept bitterly. Can all the palaces of the world replace the love you feel for your childhood home?
Me and Atif were childhood pals and neighbors. We enjoyed countless hours playing hide-and-seek in the winding passages of my huge house. We loved that house even before we fell in love with each other.
“Atif, I love this house and cannot bear to leave my poor old Dad in it alone. I love you but I cannot marry you, unless and until you agree to live with us here... please, will you?” We were on the open terrace of my house when I uttered those words to Atif.
He took my hands in his and told me, “I am ready to travel across seven mountains and seven seas to marry you. To live in this beautiful house is a blessing.” Though, all acquaintances and relatives dissuaded Atif from residing in his wife's house, he turned a deaf ear to them all.
We lived two wonderful years in that house and now, it was gone!
After sometime, Atif went away to meet somebody and I went to Mustafa's mother with Saif. She was also evacuated and lived in a tent near us.
Mustafa's grandparents were a homeless couple who knocked our doors for help on a cold night. From that day on, they had stayed on at our place and served us for all these years. They cooked and cleaned and looked after the house. I told her our house is gone. We hugged and wept together. War is a great equalizer too!
“Ma, Will you please look after Saif for sometime? I want to see what has happened to the house... please!”
“Carry on but be back soon,” Mustafa's mother said, “Atif will be very angry if he knows you disobeyed him.”
I ran along the road fast – too fast, slipped and fell flat on my face just near the gate of my house. I lifted my head up and saw the first sight of my house demolished. All my senses failed me. I couldn't get up. I put my face flat on the ground and banged my head. My hands and feet were thumping up and down in desperate fury and hopelessness. The hour slipped by and I returned back to the camp, a small piece of the oak in my hands.
That night, my husband told me there was no reason for us to continue to stay at L___. He urged me to pack whatever little we had. He told me we were going to leave this country tomorrow morning. My head was whirling. I mentally argued with my husband’s words but my mouth remained mute.
'People don’t stay in their motherland for any ‘reason’. They stay in their motherland because of love, bonds and memories that are so strong. They stay because this is where they belong.'
The next day, I packed all that we had into a little bag. I collected some food and water packets for the journey. As I was waiting for my husband to join me, I took a deep breath and savored the air of my country. I then saw Saif sleeping on my lap. He smiled blissfully in his sleep.
Someday, I will tell my son about the proud country where he was born. I will tell him about the oak tree, about the school from which I played truant, the hotel where I met his dad, the hospital where he was born, the house where we lived and the Market street where we roamed. Better still, I will show him all this.
Unknown to my husband, I have some burnt sovereigns in my bag and each will tell a story to my son. Maybe, one day, he will come back here and rebuild this nation.