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The Battle of Dust

Sumaira Khalid

This is not my own story. So you have to understand that I cannot answer for anything that’s reported in this account. Nor can I vouch for the veracity of the story. I am just reporting, in good faith, the story as it was told to me by Saleem:

“My father is the headmaster of our village school. He is a good, capable headmaster; strict disciplinarian: yes. Very much so. But he cannot otherwise contain the legions of unruly boys of the village. I have no issues with his strictness at school. What are headmasters there for, if not punishing little boys? After all, what can be more dangerous to the fabric of society than an unruly boy? No, that is not an issue with me. The problem arises, when while leaving school — at 2:00 in summer and 2:30 in winter — he forgets to hang his whip on his office wall. He brings it home, the whip and the whipping attitude all.

That makes my life difficult. My life is hard enough anyway. You probably don’t understand what it means to be the youngest and the ONLY boy in a family of eight female siblings. They positively smother me with their doting. The worst part is that I cannot even sneeze without having to drink eight cups of joshanda (herbal tea) in a row, prepared by eight doting, well-meaning but ruthless sisters.

A boy of twelve or so is bound to get into scrapes; get a few scratches here and there. Throw in a healthy punch or two, and life is all set. That’s what ‘boyhood’ is all about, isn’t it? My eight sisters, headmaster father and authoritarian mother think otherwise. And often I have to face unpleasant consequences for failing to fall under their description of acceptable behavior. I try to take it all in stride, with as much good humor as one can muster after a generous dose of:

   a) Thrashing by Abba Ji

   b) Eight different lectures by eight sisters, all with the same refrain, ‘all our hopes are pinned on you’ etc.

   c) Amma’s silent treatment: that is the most unbearable of the tortures heaped upon me.

Living in our house is like living in a military camp. My mother is in charge of the said facility. Even Abba Ji cowers in front of her, whip and headmastership and all!

It is all wake up at this o’clock. Eat at this o’clock by that o’clock. My day generally goes something like this:

1.     Study.

2.     Study.

3.     Study.

4.     Practice writing, to improve my handwriting.

5.     Study some more.

6.     Practice writing some more.

7.     And so on.

Of course, my father completely overlooks the ‘all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ adage. I know this for a fact because on at least four different occasions I have asked him what this proverb means. All he did in response was scowl at me.

My life was further complicated when I was challenged to a ‘battle of dust’ by Suffiyan — The Ruffian. Wait a minute. You don’t seem to know what a battle of dust is. Let me enlighten you. In simplest words, it’s a ferocious battle between two bands of boys, who try to outwit and outsmart their adversaries by throwing fistfuls of dust, or sand, whichever is readily available, at each other. Until one group is completely overcome or forfeits.

Suffiyan-the-Ruffian is no ordinary scoundrel. He cheats. He steals. He gets you framed for his misdemeanors and smirks while you are being penalized for a crime you have never committed.

This particular battle of dust was imminent. Not too long ago, The Ruffian had sent a cheesy love letter to Amna Ashfaq: the daughter of the deputy headmaster. And the cutest, snootiest, prettiest-snootiest girl alive on the face of the earth. Between you and me, I confess that I have a huge, secret crush on the aforementioned Amna. Somehow, as it turns out, the crush was not so secret after all. The Ruffian suspected it. Naturally, since I was after the girl, it was a given fact that The Ruffian would also covet her. The filthy pervert! As if Amna would even care to look his way. But his goal was to get under my skin. And so he sent a cheesy love letter to her, as I already told you. The filthy villain, scum of the earth, no good worm signed it off with my name!

It was not a stroke of particularly bad luck that that piece of paper fell into the hands of the deputy headmaster. The Ruffian had designed the events in a way that ensured the letter reached the deputy headmaster. The deputy headmaster is by no means humble, meek or faint-hearted. He could easily have flogged me publicly. As deputy headmaster, he enjoys the privilege to flog boys at a whim and get away with it. But perhaps he thought the better of it. Like a typical man of our area, too sensitive about his sense of honor, he simply brought the letter to my father. He came to our house in the evening, just as my father had returned from the Maghrib prayer. Master Ashfaq refused to drink tea or lassi, and just handed the piece of paper to my father, who was sitting on a charpoy, apparently hanging his head in shame at the alleged dishonor I had brought upon him.

I didn’t mind the flogging that followed, or getting no dinner afterwards. These are minor things, a routine part of growing up. What incensed me was the news that Deputy Headmaster Ashfaq had beaten Amna and locked her up in her room for over a week, as punishment for the ‘crime’ of receiving a love letter.

All that week I suffered from an unprecedented rage. The Ruffian had crossed the invisible line. He must be taught a lesson:

      a)   For daring to eye my girl

      b)   For getting her beaten and locked up in his quest to get me beaten and locked up.

It was only natural that I beat The Ruffian up at the earliest available opportunity, and so I landed a sharp blow on him the next time I saw him. We were prevented from beating each other into a pulp by the untimely intervention of Master Karela. (I swear everyone in the village has forgotten his actual name. Though it’s pretty obvious why he’s been named Karela — a bitter gourd!)

The Ruffian had gotten the shorter end of the stick in the fist fight, and the ensuing reprimand by Master Karela. Naturally, he had to salvage his damaged reputation by challenging me to a battle of dust: the ultimate test of who ruled the turf. I accepted it instantly. There was no time yet to think about the consequences that would follow if my father found out about it, and he was bound to discover it sooner or later. At this point, I couldn’t care about that though. The thought of the unjust beating of Amna was enough to make me firm in my resolve.

We decided to meet outside the main part of the village, in the fields near Amman Daro’s house. Amman Daro is a miserly old lady. She is so careful with her money that it is said about her that when her clothes get dirty, she wears them inside out, to prolong their ‘usability’ and thereby has saved untold amounts of washing powder. Amman Daro is also notorious for being a no-fun-party-spoiler. The sight she hates most in the world is little kids enjoying themselves. She regularly tells us off for making too much noise or for having what she thinks is too much fun. How can you have too much fun; I ask you?

Anyway, even the danger of being thwarted by Have-No-Fun-Amman Daro didn’t cause me to waver from my resolve to avenge Amna’s beating and crush The Ruffian. I suspect he had been hoping I would turn down the proposed challenge, because of the arena being in the vicinity of Have-No-Fun-Amman Daro’s house. He clearly underestimated the extent of the hatred he had ignited in my heart by hurting the prettiest-snootiest girl in the world.

All afternoon, I fretted about exactly how I would manage to hoodwink all eight of my sisters, give them the slip you know. When the appointed time arrived, it was a kind of relief. The worst part was over: the waiting, worrying, mulling over needless apprehensions part.

Baba Fika was constructing the outer walls of his haveli (mansion), to stop the wayfarers and other village folks from casting an evil eye on his beloved Rano: the queen of all buffaloes in the world. (That’s solely Fika’s point of view, and I’ve no interest in contesting the claim.) Anyway, the construction of an outer wall to preserve the coveted Rano worked out well for us. We, my friends and I, had managed to sneak many ‘shoppers’ of sand and cement from the construction site. (What! You don’t know what a shopper is! A shopper is a flimsy plastic bag, usually employed for carrying the highly-priced groceries you buy from the general store. There. Hope now you know what a shopper is.)

We had duly filled many small ‘shoppers’. We had also brought our slingshots and the mud pellets. Just in case. The Ruffian is notorious for playing it dirty, so we didn’t want to be caught off-guard.  It was a good thing that we did too. The Ruffian’s gang had brought the guns they had bought at the recent village fair. You know the ones that use those small, plastic balls as ammunition; that continue to sting long after you have been hit by one — even though it’s just fake, you know.

And then the battle started!

The battle was fierce. You bet! We managed to repulse the initial attack successfully by pelting them with our slingshots and handy fistfuls of sand, dust, and cement alternately. My best friends Aamir-the-wanderer — for he loiters all over the village; and Vicky-the-vivacious (always bouncing on his feet, for there is boundless energy in him that he can hardly contain) stood their ground bravely while being mercilessly hit by the shots of stinging plastic balls.  We were gaining ground fast — Akka-the-laggar-bhagar (nicknamed so because of his hideous laughter and his uncanny resemblance to a hyena) ran away. Akka is the right hand of The Ruffian, mind you.

All was going well when the trouble started. It all began when a ‘shopper’ of cement hurled by Vicky-the-vivacious landed squarely in the handi (cauldron) of Have-No-Fun-Amman Daro! She had slaughtered her ancient, much-beloved rooster today because he was too sick and was going to die in a few hours/days (who knows?). Amman Daro had been very fond of that rooster. But shrewdness dictated that she should not let all that ‘good’ meat go to waste, should the rooster die of natural causes. Thus, the beloved rooster was sacrificed at the altar of frugality and miserliness!

The howls she raised when the cement-filled ‘shopper’ landed thud in the pot of killed-before-he-died-rooster curry were enough to raise even the dead sleeping in the nearby cemetery. Fleeing was the only option left to us. With great regret, we had to run away from the battle we were clearly winning. Vicky-the-vivacious managed to hit the enemy with a few pelts from the slingshot as parting shots, even while retreating from the crime scene. That’s my boy!

Though I got another session of flogging by Abba Ji (naturally), I report with great satisfaction that The Ruffian was caught by the scruff of his collar, by an infuriated Amman Daro!”

Sumaira Khalid, a Dubai based freelance translator with roots in Lahore, is a writer of diverse talents. She crafts engaging short stories, insightful nonfiction, and evocative poetry. Her work has featured in the publications such as Akéwì Magazine and The Hooghly Review. A selection of her Urdu poetry was recently featured on Rekhta and Sufinama, and reveals a deep connection to her native language and culture.