Zafar and Maqbool were brothers, with only two years difference. Their father had died when Zafar was two years old. Maqbool wasn’t even born then. He was born a couple of months later and, unfortunately enough, their mother died during the childbirth. For the orphans and the poor, sickness and illness become excuses for death. In reality, it is only the rich who eat food while the mere quest for food ends up devouring the destitute. So was the case with Maqbool and Zafar’s mother.
In our society, poverty is the most dehumanizing form of abuse. Maqbool and Zafar were raised under the umbrella of this humiliating curse and slander. A cousin of their father, Chacha Riaz, as poverty stricken as their own parents, had the choice to either take these miserable pieces of humanity under his wing or put them on a pile of trash. Dejectedly, he took them to his dusty, impoverished village to share with his family either meagre meals or hunger, whatever the day brought. Time passed and the two brothers were eventually seven and five years old.
At that time, their distant relative who worked as a servant in the city arranged for them to start work in a huge, castle-like home of a wealthy government officer in a senior position. The deal was that every month Chacha Riaz would collect their wages for the month and in return the two boys would get two free meals and a paltry corner in the servant quarters to sleep at night. During the day they would learn the ‘trade’; how to become obedient, hardworking servants for the wealthy.
Zafar was assigned to look after Sahib jee’s cat while Maqbool was given the duty to keep an eye on Sahib jee’s young son, barely three and a half years of age. Maqbool spent most the day pushing the Chota ‘younger’ Sahib around in his imported stroller. He kept feeding the child the snacks given by his mother and made sure Chota Sahib was also well entertained the entire time. This was particularly important when Madam Jee was taking a nap. The stars would look upon this desolate young servant and laugh at his destiny.
Sahib jee’s Pharoahistic pride and the unrelenting rigidity of his temperament was symbolic of his great status in society and his immeasurable wealth. Not a soul in the team of servants in his castle dared to raise their eyes, let alone their voices, in the great man’s presence.
The two young brothers were particularly afraid of Sahib jee and made their best not to be seen or heard when he was in the house. One time Zafar, nervous by the presence of Sahib jee watching over him, slightly overheated the milk for the cat. The creature was jolted by the shock of the hot milk and ran off. Sahib jee was infuriated and with a torrent of curses, poured all of the hot milk on Zafar’s head.
Poor Maqbool spent the entire night soothing the blisters on his suffering brother’s face with his small hands and meager scraps of cloth dipped in water. Though Chacha Riaz was poor, he had never used his hands or feet on the two boys. It was fate that the child was suffering now.
One wondered when the advocates of animal rights would finally stop stinging humans with their venomous tongues and behaviors.
Since Maqbool was assigned to the young child, he ended up spending a lot of time around Madam jee. Madam jee’s temper was just as hedonistic as her husband’s. The woman’s features and physical built was not even closely worthy of the pride and narcissism that dripped from her attitude. Hardly could there have been a real princess who was as proud as Madam jee. Maqbool sometimes seriously wondered if Madam jee was deaf. She seemed to hear no other voice but her own.
That night was the 27th night of Ramadan and there were guests invited to the huge house for iftaar. Everyone was dressed in new, jazzy outfits. Sahib jee was at home and was walking around in his white, crackling, starched shalwar kameez, helping everyone get settled before iftaar time. Muffled sounds of excited preparations for the night worship and for the iftaar could be heard on the loud speakers blaring from the roof of the neighborhood mosque.
The two young brothers had been working non-stop from dawn. By evening even their small, feeble fingers were wry to the bone and their legs could barely walk another step. Still, they were being yelled at and called to do one task or another. They seemed unworthy of even a single look of mercy from any of the social ‘Gods’ present in the house. The silent cries of the brothers’ hearts were lost in the sounds of Sahib jee’s grand and eloquent talk. Who would dare to talk above the words of Sahib jee? There was however one God fearing soul who took the two children to the kitchen and had the cook give them a plate of scrapes to break their fasts. It was difficult to say whether he did so out of the desire for good deed or to ease the discomfiture of sin.
Madam jee called out to Maqbool to come and watch Chota Sahib as she had to change and get ready for the religious festivities of the night.
Maqbool was too tired to run after the energetic child so he had seated him in front of the cat’s cage. The cat had been caged since morning to keep her safe from the hustle and bustle of the people. The animal, unused to being locked up, was now at the end of her rope and in a vicious temper. To make things worse, Chota Sahib was also proving to be a grave trial for her with his poking, and tail and whisker pulling. Maqbool tried in vain to keep the child from doing so and even tried to take him away but Chota Sahib wanted to be nowhere else but near that cage. It was a rare opportunity to have the cat in a locked up position to be teased to his little heart’s desire. Otherwise, it would dash under the sofa and stay there, always well out of reach of his teasing and prodding.
It wasn’t long before the cat had had enough. With a loud hiss and a snarl, she lashed out her paw at the child’s face leaving a long line of glaring, red scratches down the child’s cheek. Chota Sahib exploded in a volley of screeches, bawling at the top of his lungs. Madam jee burst out of her room and when she saw the now bleeding scratches she was horrified. She used one arm to grab her son and the other to grab poor Maqbool by his faded, tattered collar.
Maqbool was stunned by the sudden turn of events. Madam jee had now started to holler at the top of her lungs, the bawling of her child drowned by her own loud volley. She had handed her son to a terrified maid standing close-by and was now using both of her hands to punish Maqbool for the unpardonable offense. She picked up the cat’s cage and, with the cat still inside it, rammed it on his head. A rod near the cage pried loose and pierced through the child’s callow ear. She then resorted to slapping his small face till it nearly bled.
The walls and the roof of the house were aghast at this gut-wrenching treatment by a mother for a motherless, fatherless child. Sahib jee was also standing some distance away from her but was allowing his wife to continue walloping the culprit. Zafar was also there in the group of petrified servants watching the nightmarish scene, petrified and frozen. But no one had the courage to dare stop Madam jee.
At an age where children take innocent delight in watch cartoons, Maqbool was feeling the blows, kicks, punches, and slaps of hard hands and feet as a butcheress practiced her art on his body and soul. When Madam jee got tired of imparting her ruthless sentence, Sahib jee decided it was time for him to resume the duty of his tired wife. Sahib jee was nearly fifty now but people with the kind of wealth he had never get older but actually younger with each passing year.
Attempting to add novelty and greater color to the gruesome scene, he had his servant fetch the horse whip from his study and started testing his strength on the weak, sickly back of a child who barely got two meals a day and hardly a few hours of sleep a night.
It took less than five minutes for Maqbool to lie on a bleeding heap on the stark, white Italian marble floor in the corner of the huge hall. The spew of bad language that had emanated from Sahib jee’s mouth as he flexed the leather whip upon the frail skin and bones of the child were worthy of being recorded. For rarely would the world have heard anything so indecorous on the night of Shab-e-Qadr as this. Sahib jee then stopped, spat on the bloody mass of bones and skin on the floor, and kicked him towards the kitchen, ordering the servants to throw him out the gate. Horrified but powerless to refuse the order, the cook picked up Maqbool in his arms, his eyes brimming with tears and his own heart bleeding. With Zafar in tow, he walked out the house with heavy steps and lay him gingerly a little distance away from the house under a tree on the pavement.
Zafar, tears streaming down his face and wiping his eyes with his sleeves, half carried and half dragged his nearly dead younger kin to the small graveyard behind the close by the mosque.
Without a shred of remorse for how they had treated Maqbool, Madam jee and her husband were engrossed with pampering their son. Having gotten over his mild scratches, the child was getting irritated by the fuss his parents were creating and was repeatedly demanding to go play with the cat again.
After the night prayers of Isha, the Molvi sahib of the mosque cleared his throat loudly on the mike, preparing to start his carefully prepared sermon for the special night. He had researched extensively and well prepared the speech to especially elaborate upon the virtues and the magnanimity of the Night of Decree. So eloquent was his speech as he explained how a Muslim could easily reap the greatest benefits of the special night that it seemed as if the man had spent the entire past year in preparation for this single sermon. The love of Allah (swt) and the Prophet (pbuh) that dripped from his tone was enough to make anyone believe that he was the closest in worship to Allah (swt) and the Prophet (pbuh) than anyone on earth at the moment.
In the isolated, dark graveyard behind the same mosque, Maqbool was pathetically counting the last breaths of his life lying upon a dusty grave under the small neem tree that Zafar occasionally used to water when the weather was very hot. It seemed the only live thing on earth at the moment who grieved with Zafar right then were the branches of the neem tree, eager to be counted as the supporters of the two children on the Day of Judgment.
Zafar raised his emaciated, thin hands in dua and raised his eyes to heaven,
‘Oh my Lord,’ he whispered. ‘Oh the keeper of my soul, the listener of even the sound of an ant’s tiny feet as it crawls on mighty mountains, I am nothing but a sinful human, your humble servant. Oh the Lord of the skies and the earth, this servant, this menial slave deserves nothing but a very tiny portion of your mercy and your compassion. I have been ridiculed and discarded with contempt by no one else but your creation. Oh the owner of the sky and the earth and the king of mountains and the desert, you alone are the one who feeds man and animal. Oh the Lord of this Night of Decree, tonight is the Shab-e-Qadr. Your name alone is the mightiest, your word the most powerful, your mercy all encompassing, your magnanimity the deepest, listen to me beg for your mercy this night for there is none upon earth to attend to my plea.’
‘Allah! I beseech you as I sit alone now here in this desolate spot to attend to my crying and my wailing. You ask man to be patient, I beg you to weigh my patience now to see if I have fallen short of it. Accept my imploration and my supplications. Just as you hold control over drought and rain, so save my dignity. You are the most beneficent and forgiving, the knower of all that a man holds inside the heart and mind. I ask for refuge from the adversities of this world, from the torment inflicted by its people, the punishment of hunger, the pain of thirst, and from the height of grief and suffering. Oh the Lord of my soul, protect me from distress, give comfort to my heart, peace to my soul, a healthy and happy longevity to my life, and revenge for what has happened to my brother tonight. Listen to no one tonight my Lord, heed the pleas of not a single soul in this entire country tonight. None of Maqbool’s silent prayers and innocent desires were fulfilled in his piteous, short life. Listen to him now as he lies dying.’
‘Allah! You are as much the Lord of the dying as you are of the living. Take this dying body of my brother and accept the prayers that I make on his behalf tonight. You are the Lord of the rejected, dejected and insulted. My brother was thrown from the mighty castles of a man that You have awarded the might and who is nothing on his own. These mighty kings who walk the earth with their heads up and pride keeping their backs erect have no food for the hungry, no education for the uneducated, no compassion for the orphans, and no mercy for the destitute. Listen to not one prayer that these people make tonight. For the sake of your beneficence, listen to nothing tonight! Listen to no one else but me. In the name of the Prophet (pbuh), turn your ears from all supplications that the mighty Pharaohs of the land make.’
‘Oh my Lord! You were present tonight when vicious menace broke upon us. You are witness to the treatment inflicted upon my poor Maqbool. Were our fates and our existences even less worthy than that of a cat? Were Maqbool and I less in stature even than an animal on earth? Listen to no one tonight, I plead with you, I beg you, and I will lie on prostration under your skies till the night lasts to keep imploring you with this one supplication. Tonight I remind you of all the compassion you have promised for the downtrodden as I pray to you for justice.’
Suddenly, there was a weak, nearly inaudible sound from Maqbool’s lips as his tortured soul shook free of its broken, battered cage of bones, rising upwards in peace toward the One who has promised peace for all living things.
With tired, pained eyes Zafar took a long look at his only kin in the world. With a heavy sigh, he bent and softly kissed his brother’s forehead for the last time. He could hear Molvi sahib rounding up his long rambling sermon,
“All those who listen,” he spoke in a strong voice brimming with confidence, ‘believe me that all of your prayers have been answered on this auspicious night. Allah (swt) has listened to us and Allah (swt), the all merciful, shall grant every desire that we have so humbly placed before Him. You have all been absolved of your sins and now, as morning draws nearer, you are all as innocent as newborn children. After fajr, go home with a happy heart and a light mind and have a good sehri.”
Sitting in the very last row of the mosque, a sarcastic smile touched Zafar’s lips as he heard the last of the Molvi’s sermon and confident assurances,
“Ameen!” he said in a loud voice.