The room was pitch dark.
It flew. Like his pet owl taking silent flight. He caught the movement from the corner of his eye.
The raptor screeched as blood splattered across the wall, showering on its wings. A voice cried in agony,
“Hamza wait! Could you carry a message?”
Spreading its smeared plumage, the owl darted out of the room.
His scissors glided with purpose, making music as they ran. Meticulous and precise, his fingers danced like beams of light through the dark tresses he trimmed.
The lady in the chair, his subject, was chirpy. She rattled on about the upcoming trip with her colleagues, her love for the beach and her need to change her hair-colour.
He answered in monosyllables, with a child-like smile playing on his baby pink lips. His eyes were of the palest blue. They often seemed to change their tint, reflecting the walls and lights in the room he was in. Or the hair colour he worked with. They oscillated on either side of his direction of gaze. Symmetrically, rhythmically. Nystagmus.
He could not see very well, because his eyes were deficient in the pigment that enables sharp vision. The same pigment that gives us our complexion; sable, wheatish, peaches and cream. His skin was diaphanous owing to lack of the same pigment.
Yet, Zubair had more clients queuing for him than for all the regular hairdressers in the saloon. Because he had a way with scissors, a way with the cilia that men and women gave so much importance to. He had a superlative sense of proprioception, and touch. His auricomous fingers combed through the waves and knots, flapping like flippers on the surf. Tipping, pirouetting and emerging in a pattern only his wobbly eyes could decipher. His head bobbed synchronously in an attempt to let his shaky eyes fixate on their steady target.
He sat at the farthest corner of the saloon, away from daylight. Snipping away, smiling, and listening. From recent break ups to details of the wedding make up, his clients never ceased to amuse him.
“Here you go, little rabbit!”
Kafil, the gregarious, pot bellied owner of the saloon, his mentor and friend; threw a fresh apron in his direction. Zubair caught it mid-air, without lifting his head up. He shot a smile at the older guy. Kafil pumped his fist enthusiastically.
“That’s my boy! My star hair-dresser! My fighter!”
A melodious giggle put a halt on his scissors. Naaznee, his colleague and his good friend, looked at him teasingly. He blushed scarlet, his slate grey eyes averting her stark black ones. Her hair fell to her waist in stygian waves, as her bun loosened. She swept her locks back in a tight bun that matched her no-nonsense attitude. Her loose black T-shirt made her petite frame look more adorable. But it was her dark complexion that enticed Zubair the most.
Her pearly teeth flashed so very often, as her dark brown lips curved into a mischievous smile. Her cheeks shone like polished ebony. Zubair smiled inwardly.
It had chased his destiny right from the time he was born. The tint was smeared on the plate bearing his mother’s name, outside his home. Black.
He had always been fascinated by the pigment that eluded him. Melanin.
“Oye Firangi! Where is your umbrella?”
The mongrels dressed in tattered school uniforms squealed as little Zubair searched for his umbrella in every nook and corner of the school. The April sun beat mercilessly. The back of his neck burned red. The sunburns would soon turn purple and brown. His eyes narrowed to slits. He shielded them from the glaring sun that lit up the playground like a wok on fire. He pursed his lids together, dashing across the street. The mischief makers continued to hoot, brandishing his umbrella and pulling it apart, one chord at a time.
He sprinted, his eyes shut tight, deftly averting every obstacle, skidding to avoid bumping into people. The afternoon sun blinded him each day. He found his way home through the winding dark alleys behind his lidded eyes. Each day. Unscathed.
“Kaka, his regular sugarless black coffee for him.” Naaznee pretended to puke.
“And a cup of sugar with a few drops of coffee for her.” Zubair mocked in reply.
Naaznee tore open a packet of biscuits, feeding the familiar canines that were yelping at her ankles. She caressed them, giggling as her furry friends smacked their tongues.
The sun lay low now. A ball of fire sinking under the weight of its own brilliance, into the churning grey October sky. Zubair loved evenings. Neither glaring into his cat eyes, forcing him to pull a shield over them; nor dark enough to hide secrets and tears.
They walked back from the coffee stall, to attend to the last lap of appointments for the day. They walked past the iron-gate. The arrow in the hoarding pointed straight ahead.
Kafil’s Magic Hair Saloon
The saloon only occupied the front face of this bungalow in a plush locality in Bandra, Mumbai. It had an old world charm about it. Ivory walls, carved mahogany windows, a large porch. Chairs of cane wood were strewn on the cemented section of the porch. The waiting area.
Numerous pots of clay and plastic formed a neat beeline along the parapet of the bungalow, right upto the dingy back door. The part of the bungalow beyond, stood creaking on its rickety feet, like a malnourished twin to its flashy,renovated counterpart.
It was particularly busythat evening. Clients with labile temperaments and obfuscating demands seemed to have converged at the saloon. A middle aged couple walked in tentatively, asking to meet the owner. Kafil paced up to them with surprising agility for his rotund self. Naaznee followed the trio with her sooty gaze. The man coughed very often. A hacking, eroding kind of cough. Rich and desperate. Like all other visitors before them.
Kafil showed them around the two floors of the saloon, pointing out the exotic and quirky pieces of art adorning every corner. They were memories from the land of his birth, Tanzania, he revealed.
A speckled, full grown owl was perched on the balcony. It barked as its master approached.
“Not now, old chap! We have visitors.”
He ushered them into one of the inner rooms, which served as his office.
As they climbed up the spiral staircase, he showed them framed photographs that traced his journey. From the humble shores of Zanzibar to the dingy alleys of the slums of Mumbai. Right upto this vintage bungalow, purchased a decade back.
The lady’s gaze fell in a corner, and she gasped, gripping her throat with her cold palm. There sat an albino, glowing like platinum, feverishly chopping some poor chap’s hair.
In a bin, at the back door, a skinned lizard died a splintered death. Its skin lay in one of the rooms above, in a flask. Next to it sat the egg of an ostrich.
A baby python slithered in a funnel lined barrel. Its alabaster integument shimmered. Like that of the albino downstairs.
Little Zubair clasped his mother’s wrist tight, rubbing his runny nose on its insides. His mother breathed in short gasps, tears streaming down her face. His sister clung at her other arm. The three of them huddled behind the fastened door. He could hear his grandmother at her cantankerous worst.
He had witnessed this outburst several times in his life of three years.
Little Zubair and his older sister, Meher, were addressed by the same name in their household.
The night was quiet, maybe too quiet. Zubair pulled apart the curtains over the only window in his room. There was absolutely no movement in the cramped street below. Mumbai, the city that never slept, seemed to have dozed off just for a stealthy moment at this hour.
A train chugged by hastily, not bothering to acknowledge the presence of tiny suburban railway stations littering its path.
He knew sleep would elude him, like it had for many nights in a row. He switched on a light bulb, wrapped in blue cellophane. The blue hued diffuse light soothed him, as he set to work. His nystagmus amplified as he squinted attentively at the task at hand.
Minutes turned to hours as his fingers rolled, snipped and moulded an array of materials into tiny nothings. Snippets of plastic, clay, rubber and steel wires lay strewn across the floor. He began assembling them with a vision that went beyond mere eyesight. His spindly pallid fingers circled around each corners and ridge, adding a fixture here, tweaking a titbit there.
Arranged on a wooden stand in a corner were little architecture models. The ones he had crafted from memory. No picture for reference. His father’s house, his school; the cemetery where the two most beloved women in his life lay, hopefully in peace.
The sunrays filtered through the parted curtains, setting his ashen eyes on fire, to a bright vermillion. He sat back to admire his handiwork. There stood an exact miniature replica of the bungalow, complete with a tiny board and door to the saloon. The wrought iron gate with its delicate flowery petals added the old world charm. Feverishly he positioned dainty flower pots of cardboard and clay, dotting the parapet all the way to the back entrance.
He inhaled as he placed two largish pots right up the stairway, in-front of the two rooms at the dead end of the short corridor.
His eyes shot up at the sound of sliding doors, as a van halted on the street. Right under his window.
Fair little rabbit
“But why do you struggle, little rabbit? Why do you fight your fate?”
Kafil swiped a short sharp knife across the candle flame. To and fro. Several times.
The room was black, not just dark. The windows were heavily guarded with black curtains. The walls were thick, soundproofed. No light to enter, no sound to escape.
“Your fate was predetermined. We were all created with a purpose. Mine is to ease the suffering of folks with my wisdom. And yours, to be an instrument to bring luck, wealth and good health to those in need.”
Kafil slithered close to Zubair, holding the red hot knife at arm’s length. The clanking iron chains tying his ankles were fastened to the wall. Kafil patted his head. He firmly held the pallid handcuffed hands in his own, delicately positioning them flat on the floor.
“I have nursed you with love, little rabbit. You and your beautiful sister. Both pure as the silver moon. Did your sister not atone for the sins of others, in silent acceptance?”
He brought his knife down, on the left little finger, sawing it furiously. Till the bone gave way.
“Aaaah!” Zubair howled in anguish. He desperately pressed his bleeding hand over his stomach, writhing in pain.
The owl shrieked louder, incessantly circling the room at dizzying speed.
“Shoo Hamza! Quiet. He is in pain. Do not disturb him.”
Kafil sat next to him, his back against the wall, singing a lullaby. He tapped his feet, as he had, four decades ago. His mother sang well into the night, as he clutched his hollow stomach, waiting for sleep to ease the growling. He tapped his feet, to the Ngoma drumbeat, on the shores of Zanzibar, waiting for the tides to change.
The First Rose
Naaznee tipped the can, sprinkling water mechanically into the pots. The soil was cracking. The plants had not been watered for three days now. She noticed two new large pots right up against the blind corridor. There used to be a sickle that Zubair used to plough the mud. She looked around observantly.
Life seemed to be running at its usual pace, but she caught herself halting, almost compulsively, looking back. As if she had left something behind. As if, there was still time to reclaim it, before it was lost to obscurity forever.
A short gasp escaped her lips. She felt a weight on her shoulder.
The owl had settled, easing its claws into the weave of her dress.
“Hamza! I hardly get to see you these days. Did you finally meet your mate, smart guy?”
As the bird attempted to alight, she felt a tug on her dress. One of his talons was cut, leaving a rough edge. The uncomfortable feeling, like a dull tooth-ache, nudged her instincts again.
She stumbled at the lowest step of the back wing, her heart jumping impulsively. She whistled in relief eying bottles of whiskey. She sniffed hard. The smell of the spirit blended with another, salty odour…
As she rummaged through the densely cluttered saplings in the landing, she found herself staring at it in the eye. Her black sombre ones against its red ones, their pupils dilated till the extreme edges. It breathed laboriously, its pink long ears stretched in fright. It hobbled in panic, first towards her, then dragging away on three limbs. A trail of blood, dripping from the clotted stump of its severed hind-limb traced its faltering stride. Its intestines dangled from its gaping abdomen. Pain seemed to confuse the fleece white rabbit’s survival instincts, as it inched closer to her.
Amidst the shrubbery, a single rose bloomed .As pink as the scared eyes she had stumbled upon.
She dialled rescue service, with a sense of impending doom.
Zubair had often seen them on his mother’s wrists, her face and her neck. He knew the inflictor was his father, who also happened to be his mother’s first cousin. He also knew those gashes meant severe trauma.
Because unlike him and his sister, his mother did not bruise easily.
He wrung his arms free, trying to shake off the pins and needles’ sensations around his wrists. The ropes tying his hands were no match for the sickle blade. Luckily the blade had been trapped in the exact same corner he was tied. The thick iron chains at his ankles were however, beyond breakage.
His head reeled under the impact of what Kafil had revealed. His beloved sister had suffered in silence, resigned to fate. A fate dictated by distorted minds with their repulsive, self-suiting beliefs.
“You shall serve your fate too, blessed little rabbit. A finger, a limb, a bone at a time.” The volatile memory of Kafil’s parting words infuriated him beyond measure.
But he stayed calm. And listened.
Incantations in the adjacent room…no, he could not hear them. But he could feel the rhythmic vibrations. With his back against the common wall. Through his feet laid flat on the floor. He had an extraordinary sense of hearing. And he had a good aim. Better with his eyes closed.
He let his breath slow down, and his thoughts clear. Balancing gingerly on his tethered lower extremities, he flung the sickle blade in a neat upward sweep. It hit the only light bulb in the room, shattering it. The falling blade landed in his welcoming palm, blunt end first. He was not worried about the noise alerting the chanters in the adjacent room.
No light to enter, no sound to escape.
He waited patiently. Hamza mutely watched his antics clearly in the dark, with keen interest.
“Meher, look who’s here!”
Zubair sat licking the sticky candy on his palm, as his ten year old sister ran across the room, to welcome her favourite Uncle Kafil. He placed her on his lap, patting her head gently. “I’ll call her ‘Firyaali’, meaning extraordinary.”
Kafil was a distant cousin of his mother. When she walked out of her husband’s house, every single member of the family turned against her. Kafil had been the only one to stand in support. He helped her rent a tiny room and even found her a job as a nanny. And he showered both kids with love, which was what they craved the most.
Meher was a chatterbox, with reserves of energy that far exceeded those of their over-worked mother. Zubair was quieter, a dreamer and an artist. In the quiet of the night, they snuggled against their mother, as she told them stories. The tales always had ordinary people with extraordinary courage. And they laughed, sometimes for no reason.
“There you are, my boy.” Kafil had finished bandaging him.
Bile rose in his throat, but Zubair continued to gaze with blank eyes. Absolutely nothing in those eyes, green as the sea, tiding and ebbing.
Meher had grown from a bubbly cherub into a slender teenager. And she was quiet. She moved about her day in silence, smiling where she could have laughed. She walked to school alone. Often, Kafil would drop her home, when she returned late from tuitions. He often came home in the evenings, keeping the kids company till their mother returned from work.
Meher did not jump in joy anymore, even when her favourite Uncle Kafil showered both kids with gifts. She never nodded either, when her gullible mother sang praises of their benefactor.
A day after her fourteenth birthday, Meher fell sick. A week later she was dead. Her blood test on the last day for her life revealed she had HIV AIDS.
The label of being cursed only darkened with each passing day. Their mother breathed her last, succumbing as fate sucked her into its black hole.
Kafil hummed the lullaby his mother sang .He would sing that today, to calm poor Zubair. Rolling the wire of the Gigli saw into a hoop, he wore it over his arm. He tapped to switch on the lights, and flung open the door.
To his surprise, the room was pitch dark.
He fidgeted with the light switch. It flew towards him. Like his pet owl taking silent flight. He caught the movement from the corner of his eye. But it was too late.
The sickle blade, with a broken handle, clawed at his neck from a side. Its tip pierced him at the nape.
He fell at the entrance, into a toneless heap, paralysed neck down. A nicked artery spurted into a sanguineous fountain, spraying alike the black walls beyond the door and the whitewashed walls outside.
The raptor screeched, as blood showered on its wings. A voice cried out in agony,
“Hamza wait! Could you carry a message?”
Zubair desperately tore out strands of his flaxen hair, one after the other. Rolling them together into a spool, he tied it to the owl’s broken talon. The blood on its wings dripped onto the spool, staining it red.
Spreading its smeared plumage, it darted out of the room.
His hands shivering in excitement, his chained ankles throbbing with pain, Zubair tried to grab the saw in vain, sliding and stretching across the room. Help seemed a long time away.
“I thought I would have to wait until morning for my message to reach you.”
The air was fragrant, the breeze cool. Zubair and Naaznee were arranging flower pots in his crammed balcony. He limped, and the amputated stump of his pinkie finger still hurt.
She broke the silence.
“I always knew something fishy was going on there. I often found the poor fellow’s feathers clipped overnight. Then his severed talon…that rabbit…” Hamza hooted from his perch on the railing.
“How did you manage to get hold of a sickle?”
“Aah well. I had my guard up for some time now. I came across a dead rat in the garbage bin…It was umm…amelanistic.”
“I offered to make a model of the bungalow, conveniently exploring the back wing. I inched closer to the two rooms with my expanding array of plants. I knew one room held captive creatures, slithering, yelping and moaning. I could sense them, though I never heard any. And I spotted a broad crevice under the old door. But no, I never imagined Kafil doing anything violent.”
A large tear, as transparent as his irises rolled down his freckled cheek. He made no attempt to wipe it.
“When I was being shoved into the room blindfolded, I bumped purposefully against the pot, pushing the sickle blade across the room through the wide crevice under the door. I knew exactly where I would find it, with my eyes closed.”
Naaznee looked into his teal eyes, wobbling as they tried to focus into hers.
“I wanted to ask you something. Maybe not! You would think I am silly.”
“I know you are silly. And yes, I will.” The black of her eyes gleamed brighter, hypnotizing him with their unadulterated darkness.
“Oh, alright then.”He looked away, sheepishly running his hands through his hair. “I was actually talking about colouring my hair! Would you do me the honour?”
Naaznee crinkled her tiny nose in embarrassment, her ebony cheeks blushing with hints of the deepest brown.
“I will.What colour do you want?”
Firangi: Foreigner, typically a Caucasian
Ngoma : Swahili word for a type of drum used in traditional African music.
Gigli saw: A wire saw typically used to amputate limbs.
Albinism is an inherent lack of melanin pigment in the body. It can be varied in severity, with the most severe form affecting the eyes and skin of the entire body. It can occur in children of apparently normal parents, often in a setting of a consanguineous marriage.
Albinos have intolerance to bright sunlight, with susceptibility to sun burns. Photophobia is an aversion to light, which can practically blind them in bright lit environments. They may have congenital poor vision with shaky eyes, called nystagmus. But with proper supportive care, they can live independent, fulfilling lives.
Albinism has been a taboo in various cultures across the world. While few consider them evil, many believe them to be symbols of purity. Several disturbing myths have led to abduction, mutilation and abuse of albinos. Black magic and witchcraft practices involving bones of albinos are believed to restore health to those suffering from incurable diseases. Sex with an albino woman is falsely supposed to cure HIV infection. The sacrifice of albinos has been on the rise, especially in Tanzania. The United Nations is actively involved in measures to curb this menace.
Only awareness and empathy can help us build a safer, more inclusive society.
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