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.