Ajir sat on the floor on top of a bamboo-netted mat, rubbing his eyes, trying to rid them of sleep. Today was an important day for him, the first of his working life. But it was too early to be awake, too early to be ready for work, too early to eat even, though his drowsiness did seem to disappear somewhat as the plate of hot food was put in front of him.
Maybe it was not too early to eat.
He had had the same meal for the past week. Rice with lentil-curry, but it still tasted good. He noticed his mother sitting opposite him, watching, smiling. She was proud of him, he knew, and a half-smile spread across his lips.
There was not much food about, and the small amount that had been on his plate, he finished quickly, making sure to wipe clean the plate. It would be different tonight. When he finished work, he would return home with food, enough for his mother, enough for his three sisters, enough for them all.
“My little man,” his mother said as she hugged him. “Going off to work already.” Her grip tightened around him and he stood there, for how long he knew not, but long enough to begin to wonder if she would ever let go of him. Eventually, she did. “Be safe,” she said as she kissed him on the head.
Ajir felt like crying. It was not the first time that week he had felt like crying. But he held it in, like he had for the past week. He had to.
“There’s a surprise in there for you,” his mum said as she held out his tiffin box. She was crying now.
He had seen her cry a lot in the past week, but it still did not make for comfortable viewing and he still did not know what to do. So he stood there, silent and still as he had been for much of the past week.
“You don’t go,” she suddenly said and she grabbed hold of him again. “You don’t leave my sight”.
His sisters had to pry her off him. They led her away, comforting her as they went. They were better at it than he was, they knew what to do, what to say.
The cockerel’s call was the only sound that penetrated the early morning peace as Ajir walked barefoot across the paddy fields that cut through the small village of mud-baked huts. He met his first group of early risers just as he stepped onto the main road. With hats on their heads and books in their hands, he knew the small group of boys were heading to the mosque for morning classes.
They stopped in front of him and one reached out and held his hand.
“Where are you going?”
Ajir did not reply. He had not spoken at all in the past week. He had not needed to. All who had spoken to him in the past week had either asked if he was ok, or they had simply told him things, given him advice. For the former, he would nod or shake his head, and for the latter, he silently listened.
He could not answer this question with a shake or a nod of the head. He lowered his head and looked down at the ground, unsure what to do.
“He’s going to work,” another of the boys said.
“Are you?” asked the one holding his hand.
Still staring downwards, Ajir nodded.
“Where are you going to work?”
Again, Ajir could not reply with a nod or shake of the head, but again, he did not need to. It was a small village. Everyone knew everyone else, and eventually everyone knew everything about everyone else.
“You’re going to work in that ditch, aren’t you?” another asked. “The one opposite the school,” he added knowingly.
Ajir nodded again.
“Ok, you go earn money,” the boy said, moving his head the way old people did when they thought they were giving invaluable advice. “Feed your family,” he said and he let go of Ajir’s hand.
The group of children walked off, and Ajir turned to watch them as they went, listening to the sounds of their voices, their words, their laughter. That was him a week ago.
The ditch was right opposite the school, on the other side of the road, and yet, he had never noticed it before. He had never needed to. Ajir walked down the small alleyway that led off the main road and stopped a few meters in front of the group of men huddled over a small fire. He stood silently and waited for them to notice him, to address him.
“What are you doing here?”
The voice came from behind and Ajir jumped, a little startled. He turned to see a woman standing over him, looking down at him, her eyes narrowed.
“What do you want?” she asked.
Ajir hesitated. The way her eyes stared obtrusively and her voice; there was none of that gentleness he had become accustomed to. He felt compelled to answer her. And so he spoke for the first time in a week.
“W-Work,” he stammered. It sounded odd, his voice, croaky even. He wondered if it had always been like that.
“Are you the one whose father died?” the woman asked bluntly.
He was running with the ball at his feet towards the goal. Behind him were over a dozen others trying to take that ball off him. Some were even on his team. But this was how they played football, with almost everyone running after the ball. The glory was in scoring really, and then celebrating. Nothing else mattered much.
It was the mosque announcement that stopped the running. “Innah Lillahi Wa Innah Ilaihi Raaji-oon,” were the words the muezzin blared over the loudspeakers. It was Arabic, the language, but Ajir knew what it meant. ‘To him we belong and to him we must return’. Someone had passed away.
“Who is it?” Ajir asked as the ball slipped away from him. “Who died?” he asked, as he dropped to his knees.
“I didn’t hear it properly,” his friend shrugged.
So they waited for the announcement to repeat. It was his father’s name. Everyone turned to stare at him. But Ajir laughed. His father wasn’t dead. He had seen him that morning just before he left for work.
But then someone came – he did not remember who – to tell him to go home. His mother was looking for him. His father was dead.
They were cutting away a hill that day, and his father had been at the top, ready with shovel in hand to break away the soil before they filled the truck with it. But the soil didn’t need breaking. It came down on its own, along with his father. It took them two hours to dig him out.
Ajir saw his father that night, wrapped in a white cloth, only his face left uncovered. He didn’t look dead. He looked to be asleep. They took him away that same night to bury. It was the last time he saw him.
Lots of people came to the house that day and some stayed the night. There was a lot of crying. His mother cried. His sisters cried. He wanted to cry too. But the men told him not to. He had to be strong for his family. He shouldn’t cry. So he held his tears back and somehow they kept his words back. He became completely silent.
The owner of the hill came the next morning with a bag of rice and lentil. He told them not to worry, that he would provide for them. But a few days later, he came again with a group of men to sit and talk to his mother.
Ajir sat with his sisters in the kitchen to eavesdrop.
He would not be able to provide for them, the hill-owner said, because of the damage the collapse of the hill had caused him. Apparently it was his father’s fault. He had been standing too close to the edge, though no one had told him that at the time. The men left that day and never came back. The food began to run out, and they had very little money to buy more.
The woman didn’t smile at him like everyone else had done for the past week. With her lips tight, and her eyes travelling all across his body, she sized him up.
“How old are you?”
Ajir hesitated. She was forcing him to talk, something that seemed foreign to him now. And he didn’t know how old he was anyway. “Class eight,” he said.
“You used to go to school?”
Ajir nodded. He used to.
The fire died out and the men stood up, ready for work. With spades in hand, some began to fill baskets with mud while others lifted the baskets of mud and carried them off, dumping them some twenty meters away on the other side of the alley.
“Are you sure you can do it?” the man asked, as Ajir stepped forward.
He nodded. It wasn’t complicated work. And he didn’t really have a choice; he had to be able to do it. The man helped lift the basket onto his head. It was heavy. He wondered if he would be able to last the whole day. They didn’t pay for half-days…
The day wore on and the sun rose up high, burning against his skin. Ajir’s vision blurred. His mind wandered. His thoughts turned to his father. He was always happy when he came home from work. He would bring them sweets sometimes. Ajir missed his father. He couldn’t imagine going home happy from a job like this.
It was finally lunch time, and Ajir collapsed onto the ground, exhausted. “Eat,” someone said to him. “We won’t be on break forever”. It was good advice and he reached for his tiffin. There was a surprise in there for him, his mother had said.
It was a small tiffin, his. Not as large as some of those around him. But it did have three containers. There was rice in the first, lentil curry in the second and a small piece of fish in the third. Ajir had the rice and lentil first, then savoured the fish.
His father used to bring home fish sometimes. Other times, after Friday prayers, they would go together to hunt for fish. They would never catch much, usually the leftovers of whoever’s land it was. But it didn’t matter really, it was fun.
He could hear the children from school, running around laughing and screaming. They must have been on lunch break too. That was him a week ago. His only worry back then was of the times he would miss school to go off wandering with his friends. It was his father he feared the most those days. If he ever found out Ajir hadn’t attended school… but he never did.
“You learn,” his father would say. “You don’t want to be like me when you grow up,” he would chuckle.
His dad would ask him how school was, and Ajir would tell him, even on those days he missed classes. He was good like that. He could talk a lot back then, a bit too much according to some. Maybe that was why he was so quiet now. Maybe he had used up his share of words.
Break was over. Work began again. Ajir carried basket after basket. His feet began to hurt, his arms too, and his back. It wasn’t long to go, he told himself. It wasn’t long to go…
With the day over, and his pay clutched tightly in his hand, Ajir wandered the market, staring at the stalls with their fruits and vegetables. The vendors shouted out their prices and Ajir wondered if they were trying to scare the customers away. Everything was so expensive.
“Look daddy, look,” a small child tugged on his father’s shirt and pointed, “an ice-cream van.”
“It’s too cold for ice-creams.”
“But I want one,” the child pestered.
“Your mother will shout at you,” the father said. “And then at me.”
“I’ll finish it before we go home,” the boy said earnestly.
The father laughed. “Ok.”
Ajir watched as the father walked with his son towards the ice-cream van. He watched as the father bought the ice-cream, as he un-wrapped the paper and gave it to his son, as he smiled and ruffled the little boy’s hair.
He felt his eyes bubble. And then a tear made its way down his right cheek before another followed on his left. He wiped them off but they were quickly replaced by more. He was crying now. He felt an urge to scream then, to call his father to come and hold him, hug him.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he stood there silently and waited for his eyes to run dry. They did eventually. And when they did, he moved along, for he had food to buy for his family.
His mother was waiting for him outside their house. She grabbed hold of him and hugged him tightly, much like she had that morning. She let go of him after a while and took the bag of rice and lentils from his hand.
Ajir walked into the house and sat on the bamboo-netted mat. His mother was cooking. He could hear the rice bubbling. His eyelids began to weigh heavy. He lay down on the mat and closed them.
He was falling asleep now, he knew. But it didn’t matter. They would wake him when dinner was ready. Everything was going to be ok now, Ajir reassured himself as he drifted off. Everything was going to be ok now, for he was the man of the house.
Shohirul Chowdhury asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work