you teach me how to read & i'll put it in my pocket - alisa husain

alisa husain


In the Winter, there is a thin sheet of grey over the sky. Zakir liked to believe that past the clouds, the sky was as blue as it was in the spring before the monsoon turned everything brown. Zakir did not know it yet, nor would he ever know, how it came to be. When Winter refused to leave.


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The sun was bright, so much that it made Zakir’s eyes sting when he tilted his head up. In his house, there were other men, out on the veranda. They always seemed to find a way in, past the guards at the gate. It wasn’t like that when his father was alive. The men didn’t freely wander in and out. But he liked how it was now. He was sitting on the left side of the big jhula, and his friends, so close they could be brothers, were scattered on lawn chairs and chaarpais. They were laughing. They were always laughing. Zakir liked it like this.

Babban came with the chai. For as long as Zakir could remember, Babban had lived with them. Once, he was quick on his feet, but he was slower now and had started to grow his beard long. His hands were shaking a little, making the teacups clink against the saucers. He set the tray down on one of the chaarpais. He walked over to Zakir and handed him the loose change from the sauda that morning. In his good mood, Zakir shook his head, and let Babban keep the change.

In his house, there were other women, curtained inside the big room. His wife was inside, nursing their twin daughters. Rihanna and Rukhsana were born three months ago in the springtime. Zakir knew, and so did the rest of the world, that the two girls were the most beautiful. Everyone who had come to their aqiqah had said so, especially the women, who had made the effort to go look at the babies. The men had been in the garden, sitting in small clusters in cane chairs with their plates full of food on their laps.

Zakir made to get up, but his best friend, Arshad, grabbed his forearm and held him back in his spot on the big jhula.

“Where are you going, Zakir mia?” He said so in a teasing tone, showing his teeth, brown around the edges from munching on unnecessary tobacco and lack of manjan.

“Nowhere.” Zakir replied in kind, “Just going to go check on Begum Sahiba.”

The rest of the men laughed like Zakir had made an actual joke. He didn’t understand. Then, he looked around his circle of friends, lazing around, the buttons of their sherwanis undone and white kurtas showing through and soaking in sweat, their toupees abandoned around their feet. He understood. Zakir shook his head and got up, picked up his toupee and unfolded it. After placing it on his head carefully he reached for his cane. It was polished wood, a deep brown, with a gold ring around its handle. The handle itself was circular, so Zakir could fit his hand around it with no

discomfort. It had belonged to his father, but now, it was his. He took out the pocket watch, the chain pulled on the crisp fabric of his own sherwani, and gazed at it. The ticking sound. The birds chirping. He took in a breath. He put it back in his pocket.

“I will return shortly, please enjoy your chai,” he said to their coterie and then turned to look at Arshad. Arshad gave him a small, knowing smile. Zakir found relief in that, he nodded.


It was now night. The moon was lost and the stars were brighter. As Zakir was finishing his prayers, he felt the cool summer breeze. Assalamu’alaykum-warahamat’ullah. Assalamu’alaykum-warahamat’ullah. First to the left and then to the right. He brought his hands close together, palms rounded just a little bit, bringing them closer to his face. Ameen.

He got up from his kneeling position on the ground and heard his knees crack. Shurkha’allaham-dulillah. He picked up the mat. It was his mother’s, she had brought it with her from Mecca when she had gone for the Umrah. Zakir folded it, draped it over his arm and went down the stairs.

When he walked through the door of their room, Begum startled and moved to sit up from her lying position on the diwan. He motioned her with her hand. The other woman scarped to get her dupatta over her head from where it had fallen over her shoulder and got up from the floor. Her foot got caught in her salwar in haste and she tumbled sightly. She rushed to leave, stopping slightly a little way from Zakir, muttered a quick “Salam”, and disappeared through the door. Zakir put his cane on the hook by the door and walked over to little bed where Rihanna and Rukhsana lay

sleeping, with a pillow on each side. Rukhsana’s hands were clutched around a silver rattle. Zakir slowly untangled her fingers and held then. He bent down and blew first on Rihanna with his eyes closed, and then on her younger twin. He kissed both their foreheads. They were breathing lightly, silent moans escaping their lips. His favourite sound. Hope. He moved over to their bed and walked over to Begum. She was watching him with curious eyes, quickly reverting them to her lap as he neared. Zakir put a gentle hand on her head, where her dupatta was half-covered her silky dark hair which shone slightly in the candlelight. He looked down at her and blew on her head.

Assalamu’alaykum”, her voice was light and breathy, as if her heart was beating fast.

Wa’alaykum-as-salam”, Zakir greeted, maybe louder and bolder. He didn’t realise. For him, he was her equal.

He took off his toupee and folded it along its crease. He put it away in the drawer. He patted the pocket of his cotton sherwani and pulled out the pocket watch. It had a gold frame and was studded with small diamonds along the circumference. It made a ticking sound, they all did. But for Zakir, this particular one was his third favourite sound. Time. The pocket watch had belonged to his grandfather. It had the numbers in Roman-numerals. Once, when he was younger, his grandfather had sat Zakir on his lap and showed him the watch on a late summer evening. He taught him the alphabets that translated to numbers. Zakir had been amazed, staring at it, barely making out the words Rolex through the shiny surface. Zakir unclipped it and set it down on his dresser, and then took off his rings. He undressed, taking a while like he always did. He hung his clothes back into his almirah and put on his other kurta fresh from the wash.

The bed dipped as Zakir sat down, raising his legs to lay down. The right one first and then the left. He blew out the light from the torch next to the bed and pulled the razai over him. Begum’s bangles made a sound as she adjusted herself, curling to her left like she always did. Zakir moved his forehead closer to her and touched it to her shoulder.

Shab’ba-khair.” Zakir pulled back and rested his head on his own pillow.

Shab’ba-khair.” Her voice was dreamy. It was his second favourite sound. Love.

And when Rihanna would wake up crying a couple hours later, Begum would feed her. Zakir would get up to hold her and rock her back and forth until she quieted down, holding his finger. And Zakir would let her even when her silver kadda would dig into his forearm. He would smile.


The boy slept soundly in the room upstairs, content. He had spent the evening with Baba. Baba had shown him the library, and he sat near the window and read.


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When Rukhsana got married, it was bitter-sweet autumn. The house was full, all three stories. And when Rukhsana cried on Rihanna’s shoulder, Zakir’s heart broke. He walked away to a secluded corner of the room, and took out his pocket watch, and held it tightly. He put it back and wiped the estranged tear from his cheek. He walked back to the commotion. Ladies he didn’t know were weeping. Men he knew were sitting in clusters on metal chairs covered in satin cloth with plates full of food on their laps.

When it was time for Rukhsana for leave, he held her. She wept, and he found the red of her gararah too bright. He cradled her head and closed his eyes. He muttered a prayer and blew on her. Then he kissed her forehead and he let her go.


Begum died a year after that. Her hair had turned white, and her body had been weak. She no longer turned her head away from Zakir, and he had seen her beauty. He had loved her. Zakir had returned from the veranda when Arshad left after drinking Babban’s chai. He complained about the rising prices of the sauda. When Zakir moved to go check on Begum, Arshad had smiled.

He found her on their bed, not moving. He laid down next to her and brought his forehead to her shoulder, “Shab’ba-khair.


He kept Rihanna with him for four years after her mother died. People had started to talk. Rihanna, too, should get married soon or otherwise. Otherwise, Zakir did not want to believe them, but Rihanna was getting lonely.

Rukhsana came to the wedding, and Rihanna had held onto her. Zakir had smiled. Arshad was with him, but he could barely walk. Ladies wept, Zakir did not know them. Men ate, but he did not know them either.

He held Rihanna and cradled her head. He closed his eyes and prayed. He blew on her and kissed her forehead. Then he let her go.


In the Winter, when it was new, he called over to Babban. He asked for the keys and the loose change. Babban’s eyes widened slightly but he complied without hesitation.

Zakir walked over the chest in the corner of their room. His room, he forgot sometimes. He bent down on his knees. He unlocked it and put the lock aside. He took off his toupee and folded it. His hands traced the crease. He laid it down in the trunk. He picked up his stick and laid it down, too. The gold ring around it was shinning under the light of the “bulb”. He took his mother’s praying mat. And he put in there. He had found Rukhsana’s rattle and Rihanna’s kadda from when they were babies. He put them next to his toupee. He had Begum’s dupatta, from the night that Rihanna cried. He brought it to his face and smelled it. His love was laced within it. He smiled and cried at the same time. Zakir turned to lock the trunk but stopped as his hands touched the cool metal of the lock. He put his hands in his pocket. He took out the pocket watch and looked at it. He heard its ticking. He unclipped it from his sherwani and set it down carefully over the dupatta. He locked the trunk.


Zakir called for Babban and handed over the keys. When he left the room, Zakir undressed and put on his sleeping kurta. He sat on his bed and raised his legs over. The right one first and then the left. He turned off the switch to the “bulb.” He pulled the razai over himself and then he slept.


The boy wasn’t asleep miles away. He was distressed and he didn’t know why. He had the feeling that Baba wasn’t well. He didn’t know. The night was cold.

art: ré ní fhloinn

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When the letter found him, the boy had returned from the café with his friends. It was a cold day, but he had fun. His friends were loud sitting on red plastic chairs and never tucked in their shirts. They always flirted with the waitress who wore jeans and she flirted back. She also flirted with him, even when he never said anything to her, expect a quick “thank you” when she had set down his cappuccino. She even winked at him, which didn’t go unnoticed by his friends, and he had blushed.

The boy had returned to his apartment, and turned on the lights and put away his shoes. He took off his watch, a 1993 Titan. It had a buckle and a stainless steel frame. He had bought it with his first salary from the office. He took off his belt and rolled it up and put it in the drawer.

The letter was written in Urdu and it took the boy a little while to read it. He couldn’t make out all of it, the writing was shaky as if an old man had written it. He recognised the address. He hadn’t been in a while, ever since he had left for college. He hadn’t known what had happened since then.


The boy reached the big gate. There was no guard. He pushed it open and it made a high screeching noise as it scratched against the concrete ground. He walked through the garden, or what he remembered to be the garden. It was dry. He reached the veranda. The big jhula had chipped paint. The lawn chairs and chaarpais were pushed to the corner. Suddenly, a man appeared. He had a long beard, white as cotton, and he wore a light blue kurta which had a hole in the front. The boy recognised him. He recognised the boy. The boy remembered drinking his chai. He cleared his throat and motioned for the boy to follow him.

The old man took his keys out and unlocked a door. He pushed it open and the dust

unsettled. He waited patiently for the boy to go inside, handing him the keys and walked away. The boy did not know what to do. He hadn’t been inside this room since he was a child. He never liked sleeping on the diwan.

The boy saw it the trunk. He didn’t remember it. But it looked as old as the rest of the

furniture in the room. He walked over to it and bent down on his knees. He touched the lock, it was cold. He fingered the keys and tried to figure out which one would unlock it. It clicked roughly and he put the lock aside. He opened it slowly. The joints were rough. His breath caught in his throat. He reached to touch.

The glass surface was cool against the boy’s figures. He picked it up. The weight of it was familiar. The face was unscratched, but he wasn’t surprised. He smiled. A knowing smile. The hands had spotted moving, it no longer made that sound. In the chilly wind, the curtains swayed, letting in a ray of sunlight. It reflected against the diamonds. The brightness scared him because it was still Winter.


In the cold, when it was grey, the boy stuffed his hands into the pockets of his overcoat. He had hope, beyond the clouds it was spring. He shuddered, but for a different reason. The waitress smiled at him, and he smiled back. He felt it in his chest, and his forehead touched her shoulder as she passed him. The boy felt the coolness of the stiff gold frame in his pocket. It had belonged to his mother’s husband. The one she married after his father had died, but he had admired the man as his own father. Zakir, they called him. He called him Baba, the same way Rihanna and Rukhsana had. Hope, Time, and Love, he had taught them. He had taught him how to read. Baba would pull him onto his lap and show it to him. The golden chain and the clip attached to his pocket. The boy hadn’t gotten it fixed. The hands laid as still as the day they were first locked away. It would have changed the sound, the boy did not like to think about that. But he had it now. He would keep it so Winter could pass.