Slightly above average.
School, college, work, relationships. You can be really good at them or really bad, and yet, there’s always the one that’s “slightly above average.”
At 27 years old, Mahmud Siddiq II seems to have done reasonably well for himself. He started working very early as a paralegal with his father while still in law school. As he’s been told countless times, his father, Mr. Mahmud Siddiq I is one of the most respected attorneys in the country, having accomplished a great deal in his time at the bar and no doubt managed to make both friends and enemies in pretty powerful places. Which is a blessing since no one in the legal circles will make fun of the younger Mahmud’s shared name. Mahmud the Second? If it’s supposed to show aristocracy, it doesn’t work. Not because either father or son are undeserving of it, but it does have a lot to do with his father’s character & wit firmly rooted from humble beginnings as a school teacher. The younger Mahmud is not at all surprised that his father managed to make sure his children know how to work hard for their success. Whatever influence his father may have, it’s all on him to build himself a future of his own. Before even thinking of how to use the influence and of course the connections his father has, he’ll have to crawl on his own before he can run. That’s a cycle that includes studying hard, working an entire rear-end off, fighting privilege at every turn and eventually make a name for yourself.
Such efforts & ideals were no doubt in vain when it came to Mahmud II who was never the best student at school; in fact he was, as expected, slightly above average. On trying, and eventually failing at different business ventures, he at last realized that he was never going to escape his father’s shadow. Though still studying law while he tried his dab hand at fashion photography of all things should have been a sign. Still, it’s another blessing. Fashion photographers called Mahmud Siddiq The Second will never be taken seriously in showbiz, and getting the nickname ‘Sidd’ is something he’s always hated.
“Ugh… mmm,” he clutches his head almost in pain, but it’s not physical. It’s like a sea of thoughts & memories started flooding into his mind. Something… something about television production? Why was he suddenly thinking about producing TV shows, of all things?
“You feeling okay?” He recognizes the voice instantly and is relaxed, even though the tone was that of concern. His better half, the love of his life and mother of his children. Just thinking about it makes him forget any troubles he might have.
“I’m fine Riva, just a little pinch in the head that’s all.” He looks around in the taxi cab where both he and his wife are seated in the back as they’re about to pull up at the hospital maternity clinic. They’re expecting their second child soon, just a couple of more months. He hopes it’s a girl, as having one boy is already a handful. He does feel lucky about his son Zaviar, especially with all that happened during the birth. Premature delivery always carries a lot of risks and a lot of worries, but he does feel lucky. Lucky enough to have a son that isn’t named Mahmud for a change. Still, things could have gone wrong… very wrong.
He looks at the hospital and is struck by how clean it is. Incredibly clean, almost like they were entering a bio dome. All the white makes it look like something out of a Hollywood future utopia flick. It’s after he pays the fare that he notices the car is the latest Toyota Corolla. In an orange and blue color scheme? “Weird,” he wonders, “must really have my mind on something else.” He was always prone to distractions, “flights of fancy” as his father put it and of course attributed to his slightly above average success in all walks of life. Mahmud II can’t help it. He likes being imaginative, he appreciates creativity, and he certainly has scant regard for anything monotonous. Sure he’s a bit timid but he wouldn’t mind living a little, but now that he has a family of his own, any adventurous tendencies are obviously on hold indefinitely.
As he was walking away from reception, he gets a call and instinctively clicks his earpiece. “Dad? What’s up?… Wha– really?… Yeah I’m right there too with Riva… Of course, I’ll pop over there in a few minutes. We can go home together.” He clicks the earpiece again and walks over to Riva in the waiting hall.
“Is everything okay?” she asks.
“It was dad, he’s…”
“Calling you back into the office?” she interjects.
Almost used to her interruptions, he carries on without even asking. “He’s actually here, at the hospital, in the neuro ward of all places.”
“Oh,” Riva now sat dumbfounded. “Is he okay?”
“I don’t know, the doctor’s called him up for something. I thought, if you’re going to be here for another 30 minutes, I may as well check on him. I told him we could drive back home together.”
“Right, because obviously he has the car to himself.” she replies, a little coldly.
“Now now,” he realizes they’ve had this conversation before but he’s learned how to keep his cool while stating the obvious, “we both know the Family Car law will only let us have a car of our own once we’re at least four members in the family. Which’ll be in a few months and…”
She interjects again, “And even then we won’t get one, not till you’ve obviously earned the money for it, every single rupee of it. Which, with the new Honda City, will take you a good while.”
“Have a little faith, please. And it’ll be a Honda Civic.”
“Oh great, that’ll make it happen soon!”
“Look,” he knows he should get moving before this gets more out of hand, “I’ll be back with him in thirty minutes. We’ll go back home together, alright? Let me just check on him and hopefully you’ll be done by the time we get back.”
He walks out of the waiting hall, with a few curious glances from the other women. Great, just what he needs: judgmental soon-to-be moms thinking all sorts of things about him. He shouldn’t really let them get to him. It’s not as if he’ll be seeing them again anytime soon. And he shouldn’t let her get to him either. She’s not entirely argumentative, but she can be like a brick wall at times. It’s not that they don’t have a good life. He’s got a good job, they all live together in the same house along with his family, but sometimes the little things do tend to come out in the open. Or it could just be one of those days in the pregnancy.
As he asks for directions, he is still astounded by the hospital itself. He could just spend his entire life here, taking in the rich azure-blue sky and the perfect air, with the beautiful greenery all around in the lawns. He watches some kids playing, little girls on swings along with their parents. Someday, he’ll be taking his little girl to a park and on to a swing. Will she enjoy it? Or be scared?
He smiles as he finally walks up to the building with the sign “Neurology”. He’s about to enter when, without warning, a gentleman bursts out, walking away in a huff holding onto what is no doubt an envelope of medical reports. He’s immaculately dressed in a black coat & tie, with a crisp white shirt & grey trousers, and shiny black shoes. Perfectly immaculate, just like his perfectly combed gray hair and horn-rimmed spectacles hanging off his neck with the aid of a thread. He’s no doubt kept himself fit even at the age of sixty-six and has every bit of a temper towards everyone. Even for Mahmud II, who just smiles as he watches his father walk away without even noticing him.
“Dad? Wait up!”
“Oh,” Mr. Mahmud I turns around finally noticing his son calling out to him. “It’s you.” No pleasantries, no handshakes. “I hope I didn’t hit you with that door.”
“No of course not, I’m…”
“You should watch where you’re going. No telling how hard someone could burst out of a door and slam your face in.”
Mahmud II now realizes that he’s had a lifetime to get used to being interrupted. It’s why it comes so easily to him.
“I take it you’re done with the doctors. What are you doing here anyway, and in the neuro w…”
“Oh it’s not important!” Not important? If his father tells him something’s not important and it’s keeping him out of the office during working hours, he’s obviously lying. And ouch, now even he’s buying into the urban legend that ‘lawyer’ sounds exactly like ‘liar’.
“ Well, where’s that wife of yours?” the older Mahmud finally asks. “You said she was here for her checkup. I’m sure you’re eager to get home so where is she?”
“She’s probably just about to meet with her doctor. Should be another twenty minutes or so.”
“Perfect! More delays.” he grumbles, rubbing his forehead and looks around. Something really is troubling him, but it is hard to tell with the level of grumpiness he exhibits every day. “Well, this place has a canteen or such so let’s go there and wait. Dry sandwiches will have to do. Come along boy, don’t dawdle!”
Mr. Mahmud I walks off without even waiting for his son who momentarily stands behind, speechless as always, before following him. “Yes sir.”
Dry chicken sandwiches, chicken patties and milk tea. What more could anyone else want in a hospital canteen. Mahmud II forgot he barely had any lunch as he hungrily wolfs down the last of the mini sandwiches while his father sips his tea.
“These doctors, with their complicated medical terms which are difficult to pronounce even for the most learned people.”
“What’s complicated about ‘dementia’?” Mahmud II asked his father.
“Congratulations,” his father replied. “You’re probably the only person who’s not a doctor that can say that with a straight face.”
The younger Mahmud is left stumped. All the years spent with his father, and the last few years when he crossed fifty five should make him careful while talking to him. Of course, it’s not easy when his father himself is as blunt as ever. That’s the benefit of old age apparently. You can get away with saying absolutely anything without having to worry about what anyone else has to think. Talk show politicians have made that art a cash-cow.
“But no, it’s dementia in their books and so dementia is what it will be just to make them sound amazingly superior.” the older Mahmud continues while sipping at his tea. “Why can’t they just say memory loss and end with the cure? Oh no, there’s all sorts of nonsense now. Therapy, counseling, talking about your everyday feelings. What is this, anger management? Doctors!”
Mahmud II instantly smirks, “Says the man who’s own son is about to graduate from med school in a few years.”
Mahmud I coughs, almost spilling his tea. “You know what I mean.”
“I’m messing, dad. You know I am.” Mahmud II has been listening to his father explain about his diagnosis: short term memory loss, inability to recall certain events or minute details of life. It does however explain a lot of the obvious recent changes with him. He’s claimed to have lost his glasses several times, a quarter of which ended up in laughs as he discovered they were on the top of his head the entire time. Other times he’d leave them at the office, therefore having to buy two different sets. That of course involved getting another prescription for new glasses and that’s another can of worms. It was Mahmud II’s genius solution of tying them with a thread around the neck that the old man now considers his son’s finest moment. One time Mahmud I accidentally jumbled the numbers on his particular hair color at the market and ended up turning his hair into a rich shade of grey. He would simply not accept that he could have made an error and no one could convince him otherwise since none of the previous hair color packaging was available to compare with. It wasn’t until his own natural grays blended with the synthetic that he realized he preferred this new color. Probably the only change he’s accepted in a decade.
“Well you did say this was the most senior doctor, so he obviously knows what he’s talking about.” Mahmud II gently puts his point across as he sips on his tea. “Wouldn’t be wise to disregard his diagnosis.”
“Yes I suppose that’s true,” his father responds after simmering down a peg. Mahmud II smirks again as he realizes his hypothesis is correct. In the mind of his father, anyone as ancient as he is automatically always right. And anyone even older might just be considered holy. So it’s obvious what the opinion of anyone younger means to him.
“But there’s so much that I still need to do with my life,” his father continues. “So much yet to accomplish. You may not believe this but a man doesn’t get by his life without regret. There is so much that I do regret and now, with this dementia business, I may never get around to fixing any of it!”
To Mahmud II, this was incredible. Denial, anger, bargaining, guilt; his father’s already gone through four out of seven stages of grief in the middle of a casual tea break. He’s shuddering to think just what’ll happen by the time they get to the car. “Hmmm, well what you don’t remember won’t be there to bother you then, will it?” He smiles.
“Not amusing.” his father responds. Just then, Mahmud II clicks his earpiece for an incoming call.
“You done? … Alright we’re on our way … Oh he’s fine … huh? … I’ll TELL you when we get home, okay?”
“No. You. Won’t.” his father speaks as Mahmud II clicks the earpiece off. “Not a word to anyone, especially to your mother. You know how she gets at things like this.”
Mahmud II exhales, “I also know how she gets when she finds out much later about things like this and how cross she’ll be on learning I’ve known about it a lot longer.”
“I’ll tell everyone when I’m good and ready. I haven’t even decided how I’m going to go forward with this. So till then, silence.”
“Fine but what harm will come of telling Riva?”
“You forget: women talk! Speaking of whom, let’s get that wife of yours and be off. Getting a bit chilly here.”
They rise and walk out of the canteen, continuing their conversation. “Still not considering an ultrasound to find out the gender?”
“Not at all!” Mahmud II replies. “I prefer the suspense. Personally though, I do hope it is a girl.”
“Ah yes. I remember how happy I was when your sister was born. Three sons and a daughter, that’s what I had hoped for and that’s how I was blessed. You think I should buy some of those brownies your sister likes on the way home?
“You can’t because firstly she’s in New York and secondly, that bakery closed down a year ago.”
“Hmph! I knew that…”
“Heh, sure you did…
His voice trails off in an echo that seems to go on forever. He feels his body numb as he tries to feel everything around him, but his fingers don’t respond to him. It isn’t till the echo begins to subside that he gets the glimmer of feeling back into him, his heart pounding away like a beating clock. His eyelids open slowly, gently and finally clearing away from the blurry haze. He wakes up and looks at the ceiling fan, humming and spinning away. He wipes off the cold sweat across his forehead while sitting up to take in the surroundings.
Mahmud Jr. is in his bedroom, waking up from what may have been the most vivid dream he’s ever had. Sure he’s had many, many more dreams but this was something else entirely. If he didn’t know better, he’d say his life as he knew it was a complete lie and what he saw in the dream, what he felt in it was real. And how could he not? A life just like his, but different. He wonders, who calls himself Mahmud II these days? As if Junior wasn’t bad enough. He looks next to him on the bed where his wife Riva is sound asleep. He looks at her and their unborn child still safe in her, waiting for another trimester till the big day. He hopes it is a girl.
He looks further on at the bed but there is nothing there. No, he never had a son. There were… problems. “Intrauterine death,” that is what the ultrasound report said last year when it happened. Those two words are forever seared into his mind. He was so devastated but not as much as Riva was, and much like his whole life, he’s had to keep a cool head on his shoulders to get through this. So he bottled the grief in, seldom letting it out. But how does one bottle up the saddest moment in their life?
No, not the saddest.
Mahmud Jr. gets up from bed and walks to the wardrobe, gently sliding the door open so as to not wake Riva. He turns on the door light and looks around for something in the upper drawer. He picks up his office identity card at GRT Retail where he’s recently been promoted to manager. So, not a lawyer then. And yet it was all so real. Another person just like him but leading an entirely different career? He picks up his wallet, opening it to see his father’s old identity card from work. Only, much like him, he wasn’t a lawyer either. Producer at National Television Network; so that’s why he found it strange thinking about television production when he was in the taxi cab. But was he in a taxi-cab? An Orange and Blue color scheme Toyota Corolla that looks nothing like the Corolla he knows.
He quietly steps out of the room and into the living room. It’s six am, still a few hours or so before he has to wake up and get to work. He looks back at the ID Card. He’s had a color copy of it ever since his father passed away seven years ago. He thinks back to how far he’s come ever since, how he left the media industry after, how he decided to make something for himself in something else entirely, how he’s now a seven year professional in corporate retail management. And much like the Mahmud II in his dreams, he finds that he’s also slightly above average.
He tries to recollect as much as possible, as dreams have the tendency to fade away like cheap aroma sprays, but he’s managed to piece together the important facts: somewhere in his dreams there’s another him in another Karachi which is by and large the cleanest & organized city he has ever imagined. Certainly decades ahead than the metropolitan nightmare that his Karachi is, with crime, pollution, gang-wars, ethnic strife and pretty much all the pains of a metropolis boiling in a single powder keg. Somewhere in that city he’s seen another life, where he’s married to the same woman, with a son that he never had, with another child on the way. Just like him, the other Mahmud also hopes that it is a girl. And unbelievable as it may sound, his father, who’s been dead for the past seven years, who has been the most important person in his life, is still alive. A bit more cynical and world weary, but still alive.
But was it only a dream? Was it his sub-conscious mind working into overdrive and creating the most amazing reality he could have hoped for? Was it a glimpse, a premonition? A view of the world as it should have or could have been?
Or was it something much, much more?
END OF CHAPTER 1: DREAMS
EARTH BETA by MUHAMMAD ALI SAMEJO
The events depicted in the above are a work of fiction loosely based on events in the life of the author. Any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental; unless you’re related to the author, in which case you were most likely the inspiration behind it.