A DISTURBED CHILDHOOD
By Tahir Hamid
Ali was a young boy who was hardly seven. The sounds of his parents having heated arguments scared him a lot. He wished that the crying, the sobbing, the screaming, the exchange of heated arguments would end but it did not. There were times when he locked himself in the washroom locking the door and sitting in a corner placing his small hands on his ears praying to God that it would end. Quite often the arguments would commence on financial issues and small arguments would end in physical brawls between the two.
But things would often restore to normal after a few hours. Otherwise, his parents were very loving and understanding. However his mother had a nasty temper and not doing well at school would often earn him his mother’s wrath. She would slap him on the face and scream at him quite often.
At night lying on his bed, he would often have horrible nightmares. And in every nightmare, he would see the same horrible creature dashing down the hall and he would seize him in front of his parents; usually the people about Ali would appear as if they were transfixed motionless whilst the creature seized Ali and made off with him. Ali would usually wake up in the middle of the night sweating all over. His heart would be beating erratically. Seizing his pillow, he would tiptoe into his parent’s room and pull at the toes of his mother who would always allay his fears and allow him to sleep with her much to the irritation and annoyance of his father.
Ali had a lot of friends his age and one of them was a young pretty girl named Hina. There was that one time when they together ventured into the washroom. Ali and Hina then proceeded to take his mother’s Revlon lipsticks and they were in the process of throwing them into the flush when Ali’s mother appeared on the scene all of a sudden. Hina’s mother was also there. They let out a scream in unison and Ali’s mother was understandably angry and upset.
This was not the only stupid thing Ali had done. There were frequent occasions when he had stood out in the balcony of the apartment on the second floor and watched as the dinkies he threw fell down. It fascinated him but it would anger his father and mother.
There was this one time when his mother told him not to touch the iron for it was very hot. By chance his mother happened to go to the washroom and the iron was on. Being of a rebellious and curious bent of mind, young Ali thought that he must touch the base of the iron. However when he did so, he burnt his hand and he let out a loud shriek that bought his parents by his side. His mother was visibly shaken but they soon bought some ice and placed it on his hand. Luckily his dad had an ointment for burns which soon soothed his burnt hand.
At school, Ali was amongst the good students. However he was often caught day dreaming by his teachers. During his English class, stories such as ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and ‘Hansel and Gretel’ would often carry him to distant worlds where the characters would come alive. Reading books soon became his favorite past time.
Whenever they went to the supermarket, the first thing that Ali would catch a hold of was a pack of bourbon chocolate biscuits. There was this time when a spideman watch caught his fancy. After much cajoling and begging, his parents finally succumbed to his whims. Alas he soon broke the watch.
There were times when Ali’s father could not afford to buy his mother something that she desired. It would often lead to quarreling between the two. Quite often Ali’s mother would throw tantrums and it was only after cajoling and much coaxing that she would give in.
Ali would often look down onto the dusty road that ran in front of the high rise building. He would see different vehicles including rickshaws, vans, buses, trucks, bicycles, motorcycles, horse driven carts, donkey carts and flashy four wheel luxury sedans moving about. It was the ice cream vendor that always caught his attention. At times, his mother would give him some money to buy ice cream and there were times when she would not.
Quite often, his friends living in the same building in different apartments would come to play with him. Whether it was Monopoly or ludo, they would have a good time. Often they would sit together and watch different cartoons munching away at the popcorns and chips that Ali’s mother had prepared.
On weekends, Alis parents would often drive to the seaside in Benghazi, Libya and they would often take some sandwiches and soft drinks along. The gentle breeze in the evenings, the rolling waves of the ocean, walking on the beach and picking up seashells and building sand castles all made the trip to the seaside so exciting.
Then there were occasions when expatriates from Pakistan in Libya would hold get togethers, picnics and parties. These were occasions when Ali really enjoyed. He made many friends in no time. Quite often at such occasions, watching movies on the VCR was a feature. Ali and many other children, young and old would sit together and watch a movie whilst the elders gossiped with one another.
There was this one function where Ali had been running after another child when he banged head first into a window. The sharp edge of the aluminum window perpetrated a large gash near his forehead. Blood ran down his blue shirt staining it. He was hurried to a nearby hospital where the doctor applied ten stiches to seal the wound.
It took some time for the wound to heal. Time passed by and it was near his tenth birthday, that Ali and his parents made a trip to Malta for their vacations. It was a small island in the Mediterranean which was a tourist’s paradise. The multicolored sea, the magnificent beaches, the ruins from wars past, the wonderful weather and good food made Malta the place to be. It was during their stay at Malta that his parents decided to admit him to one of the schools over there. Many of the Pakistani expatriates in Libya had admitted their children over there and therefore Ali was also admitted to an educational institution named Saint Edwards.
Ali cried a lot when he got to know that his parents were leaving him in the boarding school. However seeing one of his close friends named Adeel over there helped him get over the departure of his parents.
St Edward’s Catholic School for Boys, later known as St Edward’s College, came into being thanks to the kind generosity of Baroness Strickland, Countess della Catena, who offered the necessary financial backing to build a school given that an appropriate site was found. The College, built on British Public School ideals, offset the void left in the Maltese education system by the departure of the English Jesuits and the closure of their school, St Ignatius College in 1908.
It was there that Ali was admitted to Junior School in grade four. There were a lot of nuns and fathers around. Ali had never been outside his home before and being in a new country in a new environment without his parents felt strange to him. However he soon found out that a lot of Pakistani children he knew back home were also studying there. Ali had suffered from severe asthma back in Libya but the cool Mediterranean climate helped him overcome it.
The school building was a two storey one built from bricks and had numerous arches. It seemed to be dark and forbidding from afar. However it had huge grounds about it. During break time, Ali would often play with other students or on occasions watch adults from the senior school play soccer. After school, Ali would often sit with other boarders in the television room watching cartoons. One of his favorite programmes was a British science fiction show named Dr. Who.
The food at the canteen was good. Ali loved to have tuna sandwiches and roast beef with boiled potatoes. Every day before turning in for bed, the children in his dorm all had to shower. It was a public shower and quite embarrassing for him to stand naked in the showers with other children.
The dormitory was a long hall with large windows and a door that opened onto the balcony. It was situated on the second floor. There were about six beds on either side of the huge room. And then there were three small rooms for the dorm monitors who were responsible for ‘tormenting’ the younger occupants of the dorm. This was what Ali thought. The younger children had to be in bed by eight at night which was a rule. Ali found out that the children his age in the dorm were pretty naughty. Alas the monitors would identify those who made trouble and punish them. Punishments involved having the monitor use a foot ruler or his sandal to lash out at outstretched hands or send those guilty of excessive displays of indiscipline to the office of a ‘father’ who often meted out the punishment. Once Ali was also taken to his office where his hands were beaten with a foot ruler. He cried out in pain and tears filled his eyes.
But the children in his dorm were naughty and Ali had tried to imitate them. Quite often they would listen to loud blaring music emanating from one of the monitors rooms. And the children in the dorm would often jump around. The real deal was to jump back in bed before the monitors discovered what they were doing.
The monitors were tormentors. Quite often at midnight they would stroll through the dorm room over turning bed and asking the occupants to make their beds again. These were instances which terrified Ali at first.
With the passage of time, Ali started sleep walking. Why it was so he did not know or realize till one night he walked into one of the monitors room and slapped him many times before wandering to the balcony. He was without knowing in the process of trying to jump to his death when the monitor that he had slapped had come to his rescue.
Malta was often hit by freak storms and tempests. On several occasions it was flooded. Quite often at night, gale force winds were accompanied by fierce lightning and rolls of loud reverberating thunder. Lying in his dorm room at night, Ali would often be terrified by it. So he would often sneak up to a friend’s bed and ask him if he could lie with him.
There were occasions when the principal would visit their dorm rooms and meet all of them. Ali proceeded to make friends with the kind gentleman.
Then there was this one time when a lot of people at St. Edwards College fell sick. They had flu accompanied with fever. And at such moments the sick were moved to rooms especially for those who were ill. Nuns and sisters took care of them. They were very caring and kind. However Ali did not like the idea of them undressing children and forcefully washing them clean.
It was perhaps on winter break that he flew back to Benghazi, Libya. However he was saddened to learn that his parents had decided that he could not study there anymore because his dad could not afford the tuition any longer.
A year later, they left Libya for good. It had been decided that Ali was going to live at his aunts in Islamabad, Pakistan along with his mom. His dad had secured a job in Saudi Arabia and he was going there. At his aunts place, he soon found his uncle and aunt to be loving and nice. Their two sons were busy studying at college.
Islamabad was a small and beautiful city located near several mountains and hilly resorts. It was clean, quiet and peaceful. The weather was cool except during the summers when it was quite hot. However frequent rains would ensure that the weather remained pleasant. On the other hand the winters were extremely cold and chilly.
At school in Islamabad, Ali made many friends. Time would pass by quick and his father would frequently fly over on weekends bringing Ali and his mother several gifts.
Ali would often play cricket with his cousins or watch cricket matches on the television. However there were frequent arguments amongst his mother and her elder sister who was a doctor. The cause for such arguments centred mainly upon food. The food was being rationed according to my mother. And then one fine night, the heated argument amongst his mother and his aunt caused his mother to walk out of the house. Ali still remembered that night so vividly. His mother had been sobbing uncontrollably as they wandered off in the night. She had hailed a taxi and they had headed off to another relatives place. It was nearing midnight.
After spending two days over there, Ali’s mother announced that they were now moving to the city of Lahore where they would now be living with his mother’s eldest sister. Ali was slowly realizing that even your near and dear loved ones could turn out to be pretty nasty when you lived with them for extended periods of time.
The upper portion of the house had a separate approach. A winding circle of stairs would take you to the upper part of the house. It had been done intentionally so for the purpose of renting it to tenants. And it was agreed that his mother would pay her sister about four hundred dollars. And that did not include gas and electricity costs.
His mother had to hire a cook and a maid for cooking food, for scrubbing the floors, for washing the clothes and ironing clothes. They soon bought a television of their own. Pick and drop from school was provided by the school. The school van would pick him up at seven in the morning and drop him off at school at seven twenty. Classes used to commence by seven thirty in the morning.
Standing in assembly listening to the dean speak to the students was tedious and boring. Some of the teachers would make their lessons very interesting whilst there were those who would make the whole thing one monotonous affair. He would often dose off only to come back to the real world by a heavy slap on his cheeks. Often the punishment for sleeping in class was either standing in the corner of a room with the face to the wall or a trip to the dean’s office. The dean was a strict disciplinarian not averse to caning students who were naughty. Luckily Ali got off with a warning.
At school, students in the school had penned different names for their teachers. The seventy year old female English instructor was named ‘Boderick’ for some odd reason. There were a lot of naughty children in Alis class who would often throw chalks at the board and the teacher when he was not looking. Too often the whole class would be punished with the help of the physical education teacher would take them into the sweltering sun and do sit-up’s, push-ups and fair amount of jogging before they would head back to the class room tired and exhausted. Such punishment would work wonders and the students would soon realize their folly.
Ali would always look to the English class. He had always enjoyed reading and writing and he continued to excel in the subject. Mathematics was also fun but he hated science for some odd reason. Playing cricket during break time or learning gymnastics during the Physical Education period was really engrossing. At home, Ali would often be busy doing his homework under the watchful eye of his mother or playing cricket with his elder cousins.
However he found out that he and his mother were not invited to private parties thrown by his aunt. There would be a lot of relatives gathered downstairs at such gatherings but they hardly cared about visiting them. Then three months later on, his cousins would use the main box to shut off electricity to them. It was something that Ali had not expected and neither had his mother.
It was at this juncture that Alis father decided to call them over to live with him in Saudi Arabia. And it was there that Ali and his mother lived a happy life for a long time to come.