Saturday, December 27, 2014

Famine

A Short Story by Ehtisham Rizvi


Art by Mahir Ates


Art by Mahir Ates
Prayer for Rain by Mahir Ates



There was a time when Abdul complained about the scorching heat of the sun, the dry air of the desert, and the fact that his tribe didn’t stay in one place for too long. There was a time when he questioned how God gave everything to some people and nothing to others. But those were the good times. Now, there was nothing to eat. The claws of hunger twisted and turned his stomach from the inside until the pain left little room for questions or coherent thought. The land where he lived had gone through a drought, and now there was a famine – the kind no one had ever seen before.

After putting his third and last child in a shallow grave, he didn’t know what hurt more – his heart, his shoulders, the blisters and callouses on his palms, or his stomach. If he had to choose one, he would choose the stomach. He hadn’t eaten anything resembling a meal in days, and whatever little he had stored away was already gone. His children had died, his wife was starving, and he had nothing left to sell. And even if he could find a buyer for his shovel, there was no food in the market. He was standing there, three small graves in front of him, when a loud noise got his attention.

“The minister is here with his welfare team.” The announcer spoke through the loud speaker. “There will be relief for all. Come to the relief camp and get in line to get food and other supplies.”

To Abdul, it was not just an announcement – it was a message of salvation. No singer in the history of the world had sung a song more melodious, no poet had written a ballad so sweet. With a renewed life, he went inside his hut to get his wife. He saw her sitting in a corner, her face that of a woman 15 years older than her. With strands of grey hair and an expression of eternal grief, her vacant eyes stared into nothingness, and he could feel that she wasn’t there. After losing three children to famine, the woman had accepted her fate. She sat there motionless, her back and head resting against the wall and her knees jammed against her chest. He tried calling out her name, but his voice got stuck in his throat. He got close to her, placed his hand on her shoulder, and tried to shake her gently, hoping against hope that she had gone to sleep with her eyes open. It wasn’t so.

The relief camp wasn’t far from Abdul’s place. It was barely a five minute walk. But those were the longest five minutes of his life. With no shoes on his feet and no food in his stomach, he barely made it to the line where hundreds like him were standing, waiting for their turn to get help from the generous and benevolent minister. Abdul knew most of the people in line, and those he didn’t know, he could relate to. They all shared a unique bond – a bond of starvation, a bond forged by the common loss of loved ones, a bond of poverty. One by one, the minister handed everyone a sack of flour, and every time he did, he posed for the media. The cameras captured every moment of the minister’s generosity, of his selfless act of rescuing the pitiable from the monster called hunger. One by one, the people in the line took their sack of flour and moved on. Inch by inch, Abdul moved closer to his savior.

When he finally got to the minister, their eyes met for a split second and the minister looked away. In that one moment, he felt himself becoming eternally grateful to the minister. This man…this amazing man had come to rescue him all the way from the city. This man that God clearly loved, and had therefore showered his blessings upon – this man who smelled of expensive perfume, who wore clothes that were worth more than Abdul’s annual income – this man had come to save him from starvation. If only this magnificent saint had arrived earlier, my wife and kids would still be alive. But the man was here now, and he was about to hand Abdul a whole sack of flour – a sack that would last a long time now that he only had himself to feed.

“Take this my brother.” The minister said aloud so the people watching at home could hear him clearly. He worked the camera like an expert and handed Abdul the sack of flour. Abdul took the sack and moved along.

The walk back home was easier than the walk to the camp, even though he was lugging a sack of flour with him. While the desert seemed as monotonous as ever, his hut was clearly marked by the three fresh graves, like a haunted island in an ocean of sand. Once inside, he saw his wife’s dead body still curled up in the corner of the room. I will dig her grave after I eat some bread. I wish she wasn’t dead. She made such good bread. He was a little irate at the thought of having to make his own bread. With trembling hands and the eagerness of a child unwrapping a gift, he opened the mouth of the sack and his lips curled up in a smile. The sack was full of sand. With both his hands on his head, he tried to laugh but he was simply out of energy. He thought about grabbing his shovel and going back to the camp to teach that bastard of a minister a lesson, but his legs simply refused to move. With everything he had left in him, he dragged himself towards his wife, and curled up next to her in the corner of the room.
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