I’ll never forget the chickens.
It was my first time in Lahore during the monsoons, that I remember, and I was six years old. My mother, grandmother, and I were staying at my Great-Aunt Rifat’s house in the Cantonment area. The house came with Akbar the cook, his wife Sughra, the driver Hanif, and his wife Seema. They were all taking care of us since my great-aunt was in Karachi. My nanny, or “ayah” at the time was Parween. She took me on a tour of the place shortly after we arrived. There were two bedrooms on the ground floor with attached bathrooms, a sitting room, dining room, kitchen, veranda, and front lawn. All tastefully furnished with carved dark wood furniture, Persian rugs, and family portraits. The house was cozy and elegant. A side stairwell led to the roof where I made the most amazing discovery – chickens on the roof, complete with a rooster and newborn chicks. The rooftop had no railing just a ridge, barely a foot off the floor, and yet the chickens never fell off!
My mother was terrified of the roof and barred me from visiting the chickens without adult supervision, preferably her own. But for me, having been cooped up in an apartment where well-trained dogs almost seem like four-legged humans, Aunty Rifat’s house was the closest thing to heaven. On top of the wildlife in the penthouse, Akbar was a gourmet cook able to make both Western and Pakistani food. He had come to work for my great-grandmother as a young boy and had stayed with the family his whole life. He and his wife Sughra welcomed me into the kitchen, and they let me roll out the dough for chapattis and watch while he chopped vegetables and stirred various pots. The couple had two daughters, Salma and Saima who took care of the chickens. They called me Mahir Sahib. As far as I was concerned, I was a prince of a kingdom that counted chickens among its subjects.
The very first night at the house it began to rain. This was no ordinary rain with smattering of raindrops on the windows. It seemed as though buckets of water were being directly hurled at Rifat Aunty’s house and sheets of water surrounded the place. I slept well that night, lulled by the hum of the air conditioner in the bedroom till I was awakened by the sounds of the rooster crowing. I later found out that he did not have a very good sense of time and tended to sleep in. I woke up to the smell of parathas sizzling in the kitchen. As soon as I left the bedroom I could hear the rain pounding on the rooftop–the interior of the house was dark, and Salma whispered out to me.
“Mahir Sahib are you awake?” she asked.
“Yes, Salma. What’s going to happen to the chickens? It’s raining so hard!” I whispered back.
She laughed muffling the sound with her dupatta (scarf). “They’re fine,” she said. “Come outside and I’ll show you.”
I looked around for an umbrella and couldn’t find one. Surprisingly, in a country with annual monsoons, hardly anyone seemed to possess umbrellas. Salma urged me on and we opened the front door, and a wall of water engulfed me, my pajamas, my slippers, and all. It was hot, wet, and I could smell the earth … rich, dark, and chocolaty. Salma was laughing and dancing in the rain, her feet brown and bare, and her clothes plastered across her thin body.
“Challo, challo! Come out with me and dance in the rain. It’s barsat. (monsoon) Everyone dances.”
I hesitated, looking around for my mother and Parween. Seeing no one in sight, I stepped out into the driveway and scampered across to where Salma was pointing to the roof. In one corner, there was a makeshift shed; a thin sheet of metal supported by wooden poles.
“That’s where the chickens go when it rains,” said Salma.
By now, my absence in the house had been discovered and Parween came out to get me. I thought I was in big trouble–thoroughly wet, no umbrella, and no rain boots. But surprisingly, nobody cared. Even my normally over protective mother just laughed when she saw how wet we were.
“I used to dance in the monsoon rain when I was your age,” she said.
“Yes,” my grandmother nodded. “And she would only wear underwear.”
Before that image could take shape in my mind, thankfully Akbar came in with my breakfast and asked what the menu of the day should be.
“Lets get a bucket of mangoes to eat outside on the veranda today. Also, mango lassi, and ice-cream,” said my mother.
That afternoon, we sat on the covered veranda watching the rain pour down as we ate mangoes from a metal bucket filled with ice. Each of us had towels in our laps since eating mangoes the right way is incredibly messy. My Nani (grandmother) put on music, romantic songs that are typically sung during the rains since the monsoons are considered to be the most romantic season in the sub-continent. It is to that moment that I credit my
understanding of Bollywood films where there is inevitably a scene with a rain-soaked couple.
Even though I visit Pakistan every year, it would be another seven years before I saw Aunty Rifat’s house again. I usually stay, at my house, or with my paternal grandmother who has a single story modern house with sadly, an empty roof. The year I returned, I was thirteen and Rifat Aunty had passed away. Her son, who lived in Karachi had decided to keep the house and the staff for the time being. I had been instructed by my Nani to deliver some clothes to Akbar’s family. Hanif picked me up in the same little red car I remembered him driving, except that now it looked a little beat up, and shook more than I recalled. As we drove through the narrow lanes that led to the subdivision where the house was located, I leaned forward eagerly to ask,
“Hanif, do you still have the chickens on the roof?”
“Mahir Sahib, you remember the chickens? No, they’re no longer there. Salma and Saima are married now and Akbar and I are too old to climb to the roof and take care of them,” he said.
Salma is married? For some reason, I didn’t think she was too much older than me at the time. By now we had entered the driveway and an overgrown lawn greeted me in place of the well-trimmed patch I remembered. Akbar’s wife came out and hugged me lovingly.
“Mahir Sahib kitna bara ho gaya hai!,” she exclaimed making noises about how much I had grown. She in turn looked old and tired to me. I handed her the bag of clothes and walked into the house.
It was winter and the house was damp and cold. White sheets were draped over the elegant furniture. Rifat Aunty’s son had taken most of the family portraits to his home in Karachi. I could have sworn I saw a mouse scamper across the floor towards the kitchen. Akbar followed behind me, sensing my dismay.
“That was a lovely summer when you came and stayed with us,” he said. “A house must be decorated with people of all ages. Now it is growing old like the four of us.”
I nodded politely, without comprehension at that time. I just wanted to leave all of a sudden. There were too many ghosts in that place even though only one person had died, and she had never been a part of that summer.
Mahir Riaz, Age 15, Grade 10, Collegiate School, Gold Key