Changing Hands

With great difficulty, they lowered Fathma’s corpse into her grave. Nobody who attended her funeral had a tear to spare. Except for little Khalid, Fathma’s five year old son. He stood there leaning next to his grandmother, sobbing quietly. 

Fathma, who was just 25 when she died of cardiac arrest, was morbidly obese. She was the youngest of eight children to Hashim and Haleema Al Buraidi, and was 12 years younger than her preceding sibling. Her father was a renowned Saudi socialite, her mother was the only daughter to very rich parents.

The Al Buraidis’ home was a sprawling mansion, situated in one of Riyadh’s affluent communities. The house was always swarming with all sorts of important people, and all sorts of houseworkers. While Hashim Al Buraidi tamed politicians, businessmen and lawmakers in the living room, Haleema ordered maidservants, gardeners and drivers. It was draining work, trying to uphold that small empire that either of them had very little attention to give Fathma. She was raised by the many nannies that came and went in her family.

At eighteen years, she was married to Abdullah. After being married for barely a year to her, Abdullah sought a second wife. “She is like a buffalo, both on the dining table and in bed,” he once joked to his friends at the shisha joint. Fathma was three months pregnant at Abdullah’s second marriage. 

There were very few desirable adjectives that one could use to describe Fathma. She lacked the poise and elegance of what was expected from an Arab woman of high descent. Other women refused to shake hands with her because she was often spotted digging her nose in public. She never sported a smartphone; she never owned a social media account. She was unaware of the modern forms of dandyism which had so clutched the Arab society by its underbelly. 

She lacked the fierce possessiveness that was required of married women. That is why she never protested when Abdullah told her that he wanted to marry a second woman. She agreed with readiness, which other women did with reluctance. 

She was devoid of ambition, even when patriarchy was the softest it had ever been to ambitious Arab women.

Then what is her story, one might ask? Her story begins with the birth of her son. Khalid came out after nine hours of labour. Fathma experienced a genuine sense of wonder and could feel a huge wave of emotions wash over her when she held him for the first time. Khalid was subject to some outstanding acts of diligence from her part, which surprised everyone who looked on.

Despite her adoration for her son, she was a lax mother. She was well behind in her duties as a caretaker, so much so that her mother hired a nanny to cater to his infant needs. Her own sheer size made it laborious for Fathma run behind him when he became a toddler. Khalid grew without any kind of discipline, and had very brash manners. Lightweight as he was, he could spread destruction wherever he went. His Indonesian nanny would curse her own life while trying to wrangle him away from fist fights with other children.

Fathma was blissfully blind to Khalid’s unruliness. She was selective in how she wanted to coexist with him. She loved playing with him under the lush bougainvillea that grew in the courtyard. Even though she could barely move, she laughed and cheered behind him as he did his somersaults and his sprints. 

“My sweet son, you are a hero! You will become the next.. What’s his name? Hussain what?” She would ask Momina the nanny. Momina would give her an empty smile.

When Khalid cried for reasons that were varied, Fathma would cry with him. She even demanded Abdullah to buy him a smartphone so that he could play and watch videos as much as he wanted.

She shared Khalid’s best moments, and stayed out of his worst. Which was why Khalid associated his mother with all that was merry. Even when he wreaked havoc with other people, he was sincerely at his best boyish behaviour with his mother.

The day that Fathma died, Khalid felt a kind of eerieness engulf the house. Though the adults customarily kept the news away from him, he came to know of it from his six year old cousin sister Dalal.

“Your mother died today. She died because she was fat. I think she is going to hell because my mother says that she is an idiot” Dalal said matter-of-factly. Needless to say, Khalid sprung on her and attempted to decrown her of her hair.

Momina rushed over and pulled him away. He fell limp into her arms, crying. Khalid, for the first time ever, cried in the arms of someone other than his mother. His mind was too small to grasp the permanence of death, but he felt like something had been taken away from him.

After the funereal rituals were over, Khalid sat quietly under the bougainvillea, picking mindlessly at its dust covered flowers that almost touched the ground. The gassy smell of eucalyptus wafted through the afternoon air. A friendly pigeon fluttered down by his side. It cooed and danced around him, until a shadow that approached from behind scared it away.

Abdullah had slowly walked up behind Khalid, the afternoon sun forming a blazing crown over his head. Khalid looked at his father intently, his expression a mix of confusion and hope. Abdullah studied his first born; they were mirror reflections of each other. The high forehead, the handsome nose, thin lips and enormous ears. 

The stillness of the scene sent Abdullah into a moment of deep thought. He had two other children from his second wife, but neither of them bore such resemblance to himself. Now when he has seen Khalid up close, he feels for the very first time that he has sown a seed. A sense of pride emerged in his heart, inadvertently tinged with narcissism. 

“Come,” he said to the child.

He held Khalid’s hand, and made his way to his car. 

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Preordained Ties

“They say everyone who looks into their family history will find a secret sooner or later,” Yusuf said simply, looking up from his book. He had been engrossed in reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code this whole weekend. He finally had gotten his hands on the popular book. Only ten years too late. 

As I lay down his favorite biscuits with tea, I took a long look at Yusuf. He had his teeth clenched. I briefly remembered how gripping the book was.  

I went back to my laptop. I opened my email folder and found the email I had been anticipating for the past one month.

“They’ve replied,” I said. I was afraid to make apparent the excitement in my heart.

“What’d they say?” he asked.

It was the adoption agency. They sent a mail asking us to meet with the orphanage head next week. As bland as the email sounded, I liked to think that the orphanage was happily ready to give us the child. But of course, that would be reaching too far at this stage.

The following week, we dressed up and left our flat in order to reach the orphanage an hour earlier than our appointed time. 

Yusuf was driving. I was lost in thought. My stomach was rumbling. I was tensed about how our meeting would go, and all the things that could go wrong.

“Maybe we should start looking for our birth parents,” Yusuf suggested.

“Don’t be silly.”

“Why not? It would be good to speak of a family lineage to the child when we get him.”

“Wonderful. I can’t believe you are saying this.”

He looked perplexed.

“Okay, let’s assume they are still alive and not dead already. Firstly, why would you want to search for people who didn’t want us in the first place. Secondly, how will you search among one billion other people?” I asked, without containing my annoyance.

“You can’t make such judgments. Just because we ended up in orphanages doesn’t mean our parents didn’t want us. Maybe they couldn’t afford to look after us. Orphanages are meant to give safe environments for children. And to your second question, we can always segregate the population according to age. And maybe narrow our search down to the locality of our orphanages.”

“Yusuf, we both are living examples of the fact that lineages don’t make a person who he is. It is the experiences and the people around him who makes him who he is.”

“Yea. I’m just curious, though.”

“Also, nobody has social security numbers here like in the U.S. You just can’t go to a database and find people,” I said. I was trying to crush his every last hope.
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Yusuf was adopted by a travelling couple from the U.S. An american man of South Indian origin and his Irish wife had come to meet him at the orphanage. He was seven years old then.

The man had a hearty smile, and kept looking at his beautiful wife. The first impression Yusuf had gotten from her was that she seemed nonchalant about the whole deal. The three flew back to U.S. after fetching Yusuf a passport and a visa.

Having been very self-sufficient, Yusuf got by with the very little support he got from his adoptive parents. When he was sixteen, his mother suddenly left his father for another man. His father fell into the habit of heavy drinking. 
One night, his father approached his room and stood at the door in drunken stupor. ” That whore left me. Why do I need you anymore?” he said. And threw the empty liquor bottle at Yusuf before collapsing onto the ground. Yusuf packed his bags and left the next day to lodge at his friend’s place.

We met through a mutual friend when he had come to Mumbai for a holiday. We got to know each other. A certain kind of kinship developed between us, mainly after knowing that we both grew up without knowing our real parents. 

Ever since I can remember I grew up in the house of Geeta Shukla with twenty other little girls. Geeta Amma was a widow who dedicated her life and her home to children like us who had no one to be looked after by. Aayimma, an old woman who cooked and cleaned for us also lived with us.

None of us were interested in our past. We were already happy in believing that Geeta Amma was our mother. But sometimes, one of us would be overtaken by curiosity and would ask Aayimma how they ended up in this house. We knew that Aayimma had always been around, and knew the secrets to our pasts. I asked her once, and she told me that one night a stranger came and left me at the doorstep. I was just a year old and I was sleeping. Geeta Amma never called behind the stranger, and lifted me up like somebody had sent her a courier. 
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We arrived at the orphanage and were directed to the head matron’s room. She beamed at us and asked us to sit. She ordered coffee for the both of us and called for the attender to bring the child.

“Yusuf, Nargis, meet Isa,” the matron said and motioned at Isa to come closer. 

He had curly hair and olive skin. He smiled at us and wasn’t shy to show the cavities on his teeth. He was just two years old. His roundish face was already making my heart burst. He looked nothing like the either of us. Perfect.
I looked at Yusuf and I found tears glistening at the corner of his eyes. I could see he was trying to say something to the child, but couldn’t because of the lump in his throat. 

I waved at Isa. He gave me a semi wave without lifting his arms. We spent the afternoon with him in the courtyard. Isa was just learning how to talk. And I enjoyed how he would take ages to speak a word, trying to perfect it as much as he could.

We left without wanting to leave Isa behind. We wanted to take him with us as soon as possible. The matron assured us that it was just a nominal visit for us to get closer to the child. Nevertheless, she said that more such visits would be needed before Isa actually relocates to our house. I decided that I would come everyday to see him.

As we got on our ride back home, Yusuf said like he had an epiphany, “You are right. Let’s not search for our real parents. I think the universe wants us to form a family without being tied to each other by blood. That is why we have had so much difficulty conceiving a child. For some of us, the secret starts at who our real families are. A secret that isn’t worth being revealed, right?”

“Right,” I said, with a peck on his cheek.