Second grade – and I can’t utter a word. Something trickles down my forehead – sweat? Rain? Blood? I can’t tell – though my brain tells me I must be imagining it, my heart knows otherwise. For surely I must be bleeding – surely this is a river crimson flowing from my skull, a scarlet lake gathering on the ground, a pool carrying within it all the dirt and filth of a liar’s sin – surely I must now suffer a slow and agonising death, all the dark penury of Adam, for having lied to my own parents?
Fear is my companion, the only one I can trust to stay. Isn’t it fear I feel every time I look into my mother’s eyes and tell her – falsely, cheerily – that I have done well, better than anyone, in my exams? Isn’t it fear that makes my muscles limp, my legs loathe to move, my heart racing every time my father asks me genially how my day has gone? Fear lurks in corners, creeps with the shadows, looks out of paintings with eyes that laugh at my burning shame – because I have lied, and it knew, and I knew, and it knew I knew it. And I cannot stop: this is the worst part, the thing that makes my lies almost gruesome, blasphemous, a slight against all that is good and great and noble. Each time I utter a lie, it hovers above me, a dark, heavy cloud that diseases the air – and I go on uttering it, because once spoken I cannot dare retract it; because I am not a bright student, have never been a great student, and I – only seven, at the time – have not the courage to hurt them with the truth. Did I have a choice? An excuse? Only that I was a prisoner to love; only that I was a slave to fear. I went on nearly failing my exams, and I went on telling them I had done well, hating myself each time I did.
Eventually I would be found out, I knew. It was only a matter of time – sooner or later, my tormentors – a teacher, whom I had not the heart to love, and my mother, whom I loved very, very much – would meet, one way or another, and then my house of cards would tumble, one by one and then all at once, with all the speed of a snake intent on devouring its prey. I was powerless to stop it: I could not postpone the inevitable. And very quickly my doom approached: with a single bounding leap over the other days of the calendar, the day of the parent-teacher conference loomed over me, the tyrant of my hours, the embodiment of my fears – nothing less, nothing short of, nothing greater, than my own humble execution.
The day approached – and I was flung into a maelstrom of stark raving terror. I grew anxious, nervous, pitiful to watch, terrible to behold. Each hour that went was an hour lost – an hour closer to the splintering of a fragile world, the shattering of an ostensible peace. Life is dearest when it stands to cease – and my parents were my life. How could I possibly stand to fling them away? To forfeit whatever respect, whatever love they had for me? I had spat on their trust, spurned the sanctity of our relationship – this cold-blooded march to the end of all I held most precious, then, was fitting punishment.
I did not repent. Understand me: whatever I had done had been out of love. It was I who had failed – who had courted defeat, accepted dishonour; I had only tried to save my parents the shame of knowing. My choices, for all they would lead me to, had been all I had: though I regretted the end, I would have done it all over again, if given the chance.
No, I did not repent – but I was only seven. I was still young enough to succumb to my lesser impulses, and on the day of my execution, I moved to extract vengeance on my older brother. We had quarrelled – something small, petty and infinitely forgettable had come between us; I no longer even remembered what it was for. But, on that day, fear was presiding, a despot to the last – and weakness propelled me to my mother’s side, bade me open wide my lips and utter those words I knew would send my older brother howling:
“Mother, did you know Abdullah came sixth in his class?”
It was as if I had set gunpowder alight in a crowded room. My mother raced to find my father; together, they went to find my brother, from whose lips I – in the safety of my bedroom, my ear pressed to the door – heard first a stuttered apology, then a scream and a series of tortured cries. I enjoyed that instant; relief was pouring through my soul as if I was standing outside in the rain, with the glowing sun in the horizon, somewhere where the world was safe again. But it did not last – fear, vicious, cruel, terrible fear drenched me once more, and in the heart of my racing heart, I knew that it was my turn to face the music.
We embarked on the longest drive I have ever known: the journey to my school on that fateful day was almost too painful to experience. It was as if, with every metre more, I was inching closer to a demise I did not particularly want: to an end which would begin here, in the confines of a car with a woman I knew would be irreparably hurt the instant we would set down – a woman, who even now was handing me a book of prayers, as if she knew somehow what I had done, as if the guilt that was worming its way through my head was readily apparent, my shame sordidly transparent. Had I been a little less afraid, perhaps I would have understood what she meant by it then – but I was seven, in the grips of fear and naked self-loathing, and all I knew was that I had sinned, and that my mother knew it too. In silent shame, I took the book; in quiet disgrace, I did what had to be done.
We drove past the school gates, and I started to shake. At first, it was a tremor; with every second that passed it grew more and more pronounced, till earthquakes would have been proud to do as much, till I knew that if I tried to stand I would topple over, so unsteady were my legs.
And then my mother took my hand, and all at once I knew that if there was one person I could ever truly trust, it was this person who would never, ever give up faith in me. She gave me, in that moment, more courage, more conviction, more bravery than I have known since; I knew that if fate ordained me to walk to the heart of jehannum and back for her, I would do it, out of the self-same love that had brought me this far in the art of deception and deceit. No matter what happened today, she would love me; no matter what happened she would always love me. In that instant, all my fear was dispelled, all my terror banished – and I found myself whispering to my own ears: ‘Allah, bless mothers’.
I walked into a roomful of ferocious parents and humiliated students – of quiet remonstrances and furious scoldings. As I took my result, I could feel my mother’s eyes watching me – and I knew that I could not pretend any longer. I turned boldly and handed it to her, looking her straight in the eye all the while, waiting with bated breath for either disappointment or fury to issue from her lips.
And my mother smiled as she read what I had proferred to her. Bending down low, she swooped me in her arms and hugged me tight; and my eyes could discern the words scrawled on that thin piece of paper I had believed would seal my doom forever.
‘Awais Khan Leghari. Rank: First in Class.’
Mothers do indeed carry miracles in their pockets.