Two Hundred and Thirty Four Steps
By Alizah Hashmi
‘Two-hundred and thirty four steps,’ I puffed, my rushed breaths clogging my throat. In my right hand I clutched a few bars of Choci, liquid chocolate tubes that went out of fashion soon after I turned 15. I remember scouring grocery stores for them years later.
‘That many?’ Saadat gave my left hand, firmly secured in his, an appreciative tug. ‘One side?’
‘468 altogether,’ I confirmed. Our quick trip to the grocery store round the bend had taken a total of 468 steps. Last time it had taken 512. The time before that, 475. These had been my count though, Saadat’s stride was longer and I had to take fast, small steps to keep up. My heart was left thud-thudding a protest.
I don’t know if I had been tabulating our commuting figures out loud, but even if I hadn’t, Saadat knew what I was thinking anyway. ‘What’s the mean?’ he asked, pushing the small gate wedged at the side of the big one open.
The chowkidaar saw us and snorted. Saadat slipped him a note and his custom cheerful bearing returned.
I had my way with numbers. They zip-zapped along shiny trails in my head and fell into synchrony without much effort. I couldn’t understand people that couldn’t understand math. ‘485, Saadat,’ I announced proudly, once inside.
Our veranda led straight into the kitchen, and I headed for the freezer above the fridge to hog my merchandise. I understood this needed to be done quickly; they were turning soft and limp in the heat of my palm already.
‘Saadat bhai,’ Khala corrected, from where she was cutting things on her chopping board, her voice one of thin exasperation.
I ignored her and climbed on top of the kitchen counter, using Saadat’s broad shoulder for leverage. Saadat was at least three times my size, and twice Khala’s.
His dark hair brushed against my cheek as I carefully planted all my Chocis, save one, with the rest. Saadat saw me doing it, but he was privy to my secreted stowage, and I had never found any missing on his account. Whenever the count did not add up, Asad’s chocolate smeared face bore testimony.
Saadat had ignored Khala, too. It irked me sometimes that a simple lexical variation in our form of address seemed, to Khala, the underlying contour of our relationship. Saadat wasn’t my brother. He wasn’t even really my cousin. He was my mom’s cousin. I had long ago refused to suffix his name with 'bhai' like I did with the chowkidaar and the maali, and Saadat had long ago made it clear that I didn’t need to.
He bit off the top of the Choci I had peeled – it was a small bite, so I forgave him. Mostly, Saadat’s friendship came at little price. Unlike Asad’s, who couldn’t even locomote yet, and Amna’s, who didn’t understand math. Saadat loved to indulge me by indulging others with accounts of my preternatural intellect. Saadat was my friend of convenience; I now see he was who I wanted him to be –whimsical, always willing, never disagreeing.
‘Her math is amazing,’ Saadat was saying instead to Khala. ‘Look at how brilliant she is.’
Khala chose not to respond, dunking the vegetables she had cut into her cooking pot. This was a more favourable outcome – alternatively, she could have chosen to berate her niece’s existence with loud and well-supported counterpoints.
But Saadat was an inveterate charmer, and he continued, leaning against the counter, stilling my swinging legs by putting his hand on my knee. ‘And she’s only 9!’
‘Yes, Saadat, only 9,’ Khala repeated through her teeth, as if there was shingle in her mouth.
Saadat’s face had turned somber. ‘Faryal,’ he looked at me disapprovingly, ‘you’re warm. Did you sleep with the A.C on again?’
I rolled me eyes with a deliberate toss of my head, so profound it flipped my short hair over in an arc. Khala found this an opportune opening to itemize the behavioral ills of children these days in general, and her niece in particular.
No one paid her much attention. Saadat had pulled open our so-called therapeutic drawer, rummaging through the miscellany of medication accumulated through years of sick children in the rubbish of Lahore’s weather. No one in the house but Khala was a practicing doctor, but every adult yielded the authority of one. And while no one had ever checked me for a cold, Saadat had long since prescribed and administered unfailingly effective treatment from this drawer of medical miracle.
He asked me to read the expiry of a detached bottle cap before forcing a tea spoon down my throat.
‘Are you going back next Thursday?’ I asked, as he handed me a glass of water to wash down the taste. He had told me this repeatedly, but I stayed out the hope that asking again and again would delay his departure.
‘Next Thursday?’ Khala interjected. ‘Didn’t you say this Friday?’ She looked almost violent as she eyed Saadat, as if she wanted to rid her house of her only son as soon as possible.
‘Change of plan,’ he said smoothly, in a way that made further argument redundant. ‘You should come visit,’ he said, undisputedly to me.
I sighed in a way that was more triumphant than helpless, and splayed my hands. ‘They don’t let me, you know. They think you’re a bad influence,’ I added, loudly. Khala banged a pot against the slab in response. Saadat only laughed.
In the year I turned 13, Saadat was finally done with education. He got a job. I envied him, because that landmark was at least a decade ahead of me. But I also rejoiced – because his job came with a salary, some of which he allotted to me as pocket-money, and didn’t mind if I splurged.
Abu had trimmed the frequency of my trips to Lahore, but I fought for my winter vacation with Khala, and in the end he was defeated. Saadat picked us up from the airport, my mom having come with me.
I had begun to feel the familial string of amenability strain between my mom and Saadat. They had gotten along well until Ami and Khala had joined forces in demanding his marriage with immediate effect. When I had asked him, he had said in the instance it should happen, my monthly stipend would remain intact, growing as a tentative function of his salary, and then he had passionately insisted that it wouldn’t happen.
Even now, Ami pushed me to the back of the car when I began to sit beside him. Ami didn’t talk to him. When he told me that he had gotten a dog, I bounced in my seat, flinging my arms around his neck, until Ami had to produce her slipper from somewhere and shush me into inactivity.
The initial days of my vacation passed in the agony of quarantine. I had been moved to the guest room, prohibited now from sleeping in the small annex of a room adjoining Saadat’s, because he was very busy with his job.
I did not buy this for an instant. Saadat was never busy for me.
Regardless, there were vocal objections when I carried my disruptive presence to his room during the day, so we eventually resolved to spending our days outside, loitering in the garden, or eating at fashionable, extravagant cafes that had popped up like mushrooms in the heart of Lahore in the past few years.
These excursions were met with disdain. One night we turned up later than usual, Saadat carrying a bag of books that we had brought and my mouth still tasting of bun kabab we had picked up on the way.
Ami stood in the doorway, but said nothing. As soon as I was within arm’s reach though, her hand caught my wrist like iron, and my heart tumbled down the stairs of my anatomy, landing in the acid of my stomach.
‘You don’t understand what I say, do you?’ She said, her voice so cold it sounded ominous. The back of her other hand connected with the back of my head as she drew me in, dismissing Saadat’s presence. My eyes stung, both from the spasm and the humiliation.
When she struck me again, I cried. I would have fallen, but Saadat grabbed my shoulders. A part of my brain, removed from my reality, assessed the situation. He had put the bag with the books away.
‘It was my fault,’ he said, but not as if he was offering a defense; as if he was enunciating a verdict. He and Ami stared at each other for a beat. My mom’s eyes held only a warning.
If Saadat was on my side, I thought, he was stronger than my mom. If she hit me again, he could stop her. His fingers dropped from my shoulders and I knew he had given way. He stood there as Ami dragged me upstairs to my room, where I was beaten again, but less intensely. As always, by the end my mom tucked me in and I fell asleep. My last conscious thought was if Khala had beaten Saadat, too.
I didn’t see Saadat the next day, or the one after, simply because I didn’t leave my room. By this stage in my life, daytime confinement was becoming routine at home. Other things were happening too. My body was bloating uncomfortably in inopportune places and I was receiving my first stray expressions of masculine attention at school.
The dry ambience of my house, however, was not conducive to a brazen discussion of any of this. My mom had threatened filicide should my menstrual milestone become public, when it came to pass a few months ago. Only Saadat had been informed, in an excruciating bout of stomach cramps, that it had happened.
He had then got me pain relief tablets that the doctors in my family had not even mentioned, dismissing my plight as my bodily incompetence.
I was making a grudging pilgrimage to the kitchen when Saadat intercepted me. I scowled.
‘Sorry about that night,’ he said, with forced joviality. ‘I put your books in my room. Want to come collect them?’
‘No,’ I said flatly, because my body was still sore from Ami’s large, meaty hands.
‘Want to go out for lunch?’ He tried. I was old enough to see that Saadat’s eyes were weary and his patience was reedy. His hair were ruffled as if he had been sulking away coiled up around bedsheets, too.
‘No.’ I was pushing him and I knew it. I wanted to see if I could break Saadat’s obdurate calm, if he really was as good a friend as four years ago, now willing to abandon me when I was in trouble with my mother.
‘Want to do some math?’
Saadat had played me like a violin, lying around with its flimsy strings at his disposal. He knew how to work them, how to tighten them until they played their old song in cadence with our friendship.
‘Out in the garden,’ I conditioned cautiously, and Saadat vanished up the stairs to grab paper and writing utensils.
An hour into our academic session, I realized his subterfuge from that night could be absolved. In the past few months, my family had accused my cognitive capacities of decline – but Saadat still thought I was a prodigy. He was my talisman, I think. With him my mind sailed down a levitating rail into a brilliant light – not just a cohesive world of numbers and operations, but an abstraction of dreams and confidence sundry like a mottled palate. His large, calloused hands squeezing my fingers when I slipped up in a sum, his fingers sometimes running through my short, sticky hair to mildly reprimand me for not washing them, and sometimes for no reason at all.
He taught me that day that the product of two vectors could be both a vector and a scalar, lauding my eventual inference that vector multiplication would not be commutative.
I was saddling his knee in a plastic chair in the lawn, doing a cross product on a notebook wedged between my legs, when Ami came in through the gate, followed by Khala, followed by small committee of more aunties and an uncle.
They didn’t particularly look at us, hustled into the house from the other door which led into the living room, but something about that moment remains transfused in my recollections. The fact that their coming felt like an intrusion, an unfriendly invasion of a world with no corporeal existence, of a world no one but me and Saadat could understand anyway. Saadat had become inelastic beneath me, his neck craned at a dangerous angle, following the intruders as they vanished.
The rim of his reading glasses prodded my temple as he turned his face back to me, without warning. ‘You done?’ He asked, looping his arm around me so he could, in a way, hold both me and my notebook.
Khala’s voice from the porch jolted me, but not him. She said it in such a debilitating way, as neither question nor address. Saadat only squinted, as if he was trying to concentrate at my working through some recalcitrant distraction.
‘Saadat?’ I said, and my voice quivered. When he only breathed through his nostrils, I said again, ‘Saadat bhai?’
Even at 13 years old, I knew this was an adroit card. When I was younger, Saadat had been impassive about me calling him 'bhai'. Now, he was patently angered.
‘Saadat,’ he revised, plaintive. His voice was more disarming than Khala’s had been. ‘How many times have I told you not to call me bhai?’
I only pointed in Khala’s direction. I now sometimes think Saadat waged some fantastic battle in his head that day in those few minutes, his face distorted with its force. It frightened me in a way I thought Saadat never could, and I got off him and scrambled to Khala, who only patted my shoulder to steer me inside. I didn’t go immediately, watching my friend of as long as I could remember from the distance that stretched like a portentous moat between us. I felt if I walked into it I would drown.
His arms were still slightly bent, skewed and open around the space I had been sitting. His face looked remorseful, and then morose, and then livid. I ran the rest of the way to my room.
Later that night, I was told Saadat was dining out, so I collected my serving of khichri and sat on the big swing in the porch, with our dog at my feet. He ate half a spoonful and spat the rest.
The plastic chair had been moved, but I avoided the grass as if it had been branded. Khala later came and joined me, showing me pictures of her daughter-in-law to-be, asking if I could remember her from earlier today. I told her I didn’t. She told me Saadat had taken a great liking to her when he saw her in the evening, that the wedding would be in two months. I heard, when back in Karachi, it had happened in one.
She left eventually, somehow not noticing that it was past my bed time. I was only made conscious of Saadat’s presence when he whisked my plate from my lap and deposited it on the floor. He made no attempt at conversation, only sat next to me, so close the thick fabric of his shalwar grazed my thigh.
For some time I let the heat from his body seep into my numbed legs. When I felt they had thawed, I drew them up and crossed them under me. ‘How was dinner?’
I don’t know how he heard my question, if at all. He made a guttural sound – like an injured animal. Or an angry animal. ‘She’s okay,’ he said after a minute had passed, softer, and more human. ‘She isn’t you.’ This he said with more conviction.
I suddenly was too tired to point out that dinner had no gender.
Saadat, however, had been injected with some nocturnal energy. His gestures were confused, erratic. ‘Aren’t you angry, Faryal? Why aren’t you angry?’
‘Why should I be angry?’ I countered, defensive. ‘Why are you angry?’
In the dark, I saw Saadat’s face open and shut, like a sea anemone, racked with waves of something I didn’t understand then. He grabbed my elbow – painfully – but when I voiced my discomfort, he let it go.
‘Don’t you see anything?’
I am now almost glad I didn’t see his face – it was so late, but not late enough for the stars to have come out. I shook – my body, and maybe my head, too.
‘Go away, Saadat.’ I said only, my chest rising and falling with a fear that before today I didn’t know I could feel. For a moment, I thought he would do something. Something violent and unthinkable.
But then I just felt the whoosh of air as he walked swiftly past me into the house, and it was slightly later that I realized that Khala had switched on the light to the corridor that led inside.
I now think back and there is nothing of the old uneasiness – not disgust, not hate. I see Saadat, my friend, as a constellation in my memories. I sometimes traverse it alone when I am in Lahore, the now solitary rail of recollection, leaping through an arc of too-bright truths. Sometimes, when I am in Khala’s house, she rocks in her chair in the porch and I lie down in the grass, just as I did later that night, my face against its prickles, my heart shred by them, the shreds too heavy to let me get back up.
Bhai – brother
Ami – mother
Khala – maternal aunt
Chowkidaar – gatekeeper
Maali – gardener
Bun kabab – a Pakistani variant of burger
Khichri - a traditional dish of rice and lentils
Shalwar - pants