Call Me:

My love affair with books began with the Children’s Complex Library in Lahore. I had never been inside one before then. As my elder brothers took part in karate classes downstairs, my mother would bring me up to the library where we would pass the hour looking at books. It was peaceful. I was eight years old. Both of us needed the respite. At home, my brothers would bully me constantly. They had the enviable bond of twins, but they were mean and much bigger than I was. After narrowly escaping strangulation, poisoning and a spine fracture, and getting away with nothing more than a broken nose at age 8, I thought I was doing pretty well for myself out there in the sibling jungle. My mother on the other hand was not. My father was bigger than all of us and he was always in a terrible temper. He ran a store that sold groceries in central Lahore and all his customers knew him as a cheerful store owner. Somebody who went the extra mile for his business, ordering tinned fruit and Danish cookies at the behest of clients. He would call them up to let them know when their favourite deliveries arrived. He always had a smile on his face behind the cash counter at the store. But as soon as he got home, he would become different. He would sweat more. He would yell loudly and hit me on the head. Many nights he would beat my mother with his shoe and then lock her inside the room with him. My brothers would fall asleep. He scared them but they got used to him. I never did. I would sit by the wall between our rooms and cough loudly all night so my mother would know I was there. So she would know I was around, just waiting to get bigger. So she knew I understood he hurt her. My father sometimes came into my room and beat me for coughing too much.

And so, four days a week, when we piled into my mother’s little Suzuki and she drove us to the Children’s Complex Library, I was happy to spend time away from the house. It was something to look forward to. I was not allowed to take books from the library so I would mark the pages and hide them at the back of the shelves at the end of the hour. My mother would read Archie comics and smile. The comics made her happy. They made her eyes shine. I read the Secret Seven series by Enid Blyton. Peter, Janet, Jack, Barbara, George, Pam, Colin and of course, Scamper the Dog. I used to pretend I had a Scamper the Dog of my own. I would set him on my father and he would growl and protect us. Whenever we went out to have ice-cream, I would imagine Scamper the Dog was sitting alert by my side. I would sneak the cone to him and pretend he was eating it with me. Years later when I finally got a dog, of course I called him Scamper.

My father died of a heart attack when I was 15. My mother cried and cried at his funeral, and I couldn’t understand why. She was finally free of him. She called us orphans and felt sad. She mourned for him and read the Quran for days. So many of his customers came out to pay their respects and remembered him as a good man. But my brothers and I didn’t care that he was gone. One of the twins got his visa and left for Kuwait. The other started his own business. So I took over at the store. Behind the counter, I would read. It was the Russians then, when I was younger. Chekov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogul. I spent hours around the flies, the milk, the stale banana bread, the customers walking in and out as I distractedly handed them their change and receipts. I only wanted to get back to my reading. In all this time, the books have been my only salvation. My only real happiness. I still work at the store and you will still find me reading books behind the counter (these days: Junot Diaz, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). I’m married and I have two children. I love them but even they cannot make me happy like the books. They’re still young, but I’ve started building a small library for when they are older. I hope no matter what happens in their lives, they can always depend on the words for comfort. All these years, the books have helped me survive. It was never an escape. It was just a way to be happy and understand the joys and tragedies of other people. Like small coughs coming from the other side of the wall letting me know there was always somebody else there.

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