Children’s stories that endure are often those that need an adult’s understanding— Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland come to mind. This is mirrored by those stories, ostensibly intended for adults, but in order to be truly grasped, require a child’s helplessness. I believe Zakir Khan’s short story is one such story. Most adults have enough control over their relationships not to be driven to murder. But children, I suspect, experience this desperate desire far more frequently and in far greater numbers than we adults might wish or pretend.
The siblings in Zakir’s story wish to murder their father. The author doesn’t bore us with reasons for why that’s necessary. What matters is how they go about it, and the consequences. Zakir uses the matter-of-fact common to fairy tales, and indeed, this story has some of the fairy tale’s characteristic terror. Unlike a fairy tale however, it doesn’t come with the obligatory castor-oil spoonful of morality. The siblings have the moral innocence of children in the Der Struwwelpeter tales, but they aren’t made to fail for their desires. Were I a child who could grok this story in their bones, I would have savoured, perhaps, as wish fulfilment. That’s a terrible idea, but then, this is a comic and terrifying story. We have the world we have made, and so, we also have this story.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
In Pursuit of a Father
There’s a bug in my father’s matchbox, my sister placed it there to keep it away from the lizards. I put that in his pocket expecting him to open it, get bit and die. I watched him put on his shirt that morning. His breast pocket bulged with many bunches of folded papers and the matchbox on top of them. I went to school and was highly elated when returning home. My sister asked me about the matchbox in the evening. I lied. And then we played with the candles during the load shedding, while I secretly awaited the news of my father’s death. I don’t exactly remember when we fell asleep but I remember waking up at midnight to my father’s ugly snores. His lips fluttered when he exhaled. Next morning there was a new matchbox in his pocket. I didn’t talk to him for a week. I doubt he ever noticed. A week after the incident, I confessed to Dimpi.
“You should’ve told me before plotting such a stupid scheme. I could’ve come up with better plans. Anyway, next time when you do something like that, salivate your navel. It brings good luck.”
“Dimpi, I did that but I forgot which finger to use. See, now I know, it was only because I didn’t use the thumb that father didn’t die. And we lost the bug too.”
“We will get another bug, don’t worry about that. But you’re cursed for twenty one days now. So let me plot against him while you watch and learn.” She pointed two fingers at her eyes and then at me, like the villains in English movies do. She recently had her head shaven, which made her look tougher than she actually was. I’d cringe behind her whenever Chopchop, the bully, closed in on me. But once she had grown her hair back, she stopped looking tough, and I’d run away at the sight of Chopchop.
She sprinkled a fistful of salt in father’s tea. When we returned after a brief stroll to celebrate our feat, our door was teeming with people. We waited until the crowd dispersed and we crept inside. Mother lay quiet in a corner with a thin stream of blood trickling down her temple. Arfa aunty was mopping up the blood, and hurling filthy abuses at our father who was long gone. After enough of the tender efforts, Arfa aunty succeeded in stopping mother’s tears and blood. Our home reverberated with a series of wild comments. Then out of boredom the remaining one’s left; Arfa aunty too. I stared at Dimpi who didn’t realize that mother was bleeding because of the salt, and because of her.
“I hate you,” I said and left her alone with mother.
Father didn’t return that night, and his share of soya bean curry turned stale overnight. Mother packed that in our tiffin boxes the next morning, and we left for school.
“Dimpi, do you think father is impossible to kill?”
“No, but we need a different approach, something stronger this time.” We were doing our homework sitting on the footsteps of Nissan Villa, the biggest in our locality. There was a dog inside, a shiny black Labrador. We never saw anyone come out or get into that house, but through the foliage designs of the gate we got glimpses of the Labrador. One time it got close to the gate, so close that we could almost touch it if our hands would only pass through the gaps. We could only manage to throw a slice of roti. Wiggling his tail, he sniffed at it and then receded back to the corner and growled. I retrieved the roti somehow and restored it to my lunch box.
“Dimpi, he’s getting near, get up, get up!” Standing behind the door, we heard him playing with a soft ball. I said “tchk tchk”. He took a brief pause, reached the door in a leap, and tried shoving his muzzle through the gaps. I touched the soft ball, rather, pushed it deeper inside his mouth. The ball slipped out and he fiercely barked at us. We ran with such fear and frenzy that only after reaching our classroom did we heave a sigh of relief.
We took a different route back home, and Dimpi came up with a promising plan on the way. This time we needed patience as much as we needed precision. There was an upturned photo frame behind our TV. It was the only photo of our parents standing together. Both had changed entirely but dogs are intelligent beings; Ravi sir has extensively praised their intelligence and loyalty. So, we bet on it. I had a magnifying glass mother bought me from a fair. That’d come handy since father’s face in the photo was too small to be seen from a distance.
Standing in front of Nissan Villa, with fear kicking my heart to my throat, I cropped out father’s face from the photograph. Dimpi held the magnifying glass and I held the photograph behind it.
“Stop shivering like an old man,” Dimpi yelled loud enough to summon the Labrador. We made sure to keep the photograph steady. The dog took many passive glances at first but from the next day onwards he seemed to pay more attention to the photograph. Sometimes he’d ignore the photograph and would stare at us instead, but we held on to our indefatigable patience. It would creep me out, the dog’s needle-sharp teeth and his drooling cavities. When I couldn’t control the dread of the immense threat, I’d avoid looking at his ferocious eyes and occupy my mind with his wagging tail, a sign of friendly gesture, and gentle acceptance from his part. My fear waned in the subsequent days and we were sure the dog had seen enough of father’s face. Now we prayed for the dog to recognize him in the street and attack. Thus we awaited news of father’s death yet again.
Monsoon arrived and we started seeing more of father. That meant more of mother’s blood, more of terror pervading the air around us. We would leave the house at the slightest scope, and invest our time perfecting ploys against him. We failed so many times that father’s immortality seemed an unquestionable possibility. Dimpi still believed that we need a different approach, and one day while Arfa aunty was wiping mother’s blood, and may be tears too, we overheard their conversation that struck a chord in Dimpi’s mind.
“Where’s the photograph? I need to crop mother out.” The photograph had remained in my school uniform for a couple of days until mother washed it. I found crumpled shreds of paper stuck inside the pocket the next day. It smelt of detergents and I loved it so much that I chewed at it. The salty flavor wasn’t delicious so I spat it out in the drain.
“I won’t give it to you. Will you ploy against mother or what? And also I don’t trust your ideas anymore.”
“Try to understand, I need that. Okay, I think by now we should accept that father is impossible to kill. But we can bring another husband for her which is very much possible.”
“What will you do with the photograph?”
“Only if you hand me that over.”
She reacted with a fiery jab and I got a bruised knee when I told her how the crumpled photograph tasted like. Her eyes glittered with a cryptic hatred that reminded me of mother. Dimpi was a smaller version of her except for mother’s meek timidity. I wanted to skip the present for the future where I’d be elated to see her retaliate against her husband in similar copious rage. But time froze when she grabbed my hair and shook my head back and forth. I was left with no option but to cry. I reached school alone that day. When I entered the classroom, Dimpi was swearing at Chopchop, who backed away eventually at my sight. Dimpi didn’t accept but she was relieved at my presence.
“Can you draw her?” she asked after recess.
“Don’t talk to me.”
By the evening we patched up over a deal that she would not conspire mother’s death. Soon we forgot our hatred and busied ourselves collecting dead moths inside a jar. Dimpi believed if we lit a candle inside, the dead moths would reincarnate as butterflies. We stuffed the jar with food grains and flower petals in preparation for the baby butterflies. Within a week everything crumpled into an ugly mix of dirt. It became impossible to delineate the moths amidst the useless debris of unidentifiable mix. Boredom caused us to fill the jar with water that lay abandoned under our bed for many days.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Why, I did tell you I don’t know where your eraser is.”
“No, not that. You didn’t tell me if you can draw mother.”
“Dimpi, please don’t kill her. I know where your eraser is.”
“There’s half of it in your pencil box, and don’t tell me you didn’t chew the other half. Now answer me or I’ll tell father you waste erasers like that.”
I’d been greatly praised by our art teacher. I could copy almost anything but it had to be a drawing. The intricate folds of clothes, dense bushes, boatmen, fishermen, the complicated undulations of the hills, high steppe of grasses- I could draw any of them, albeit copy them down to the precision of placing even the tiniest of random strokes of the artists; say a tiny stroke that seemed a twig jutting out of a thatched roof and a dry leaf hanging down its tip, I’d draw them too. When we ran out of blank pages in our sketchbooks, Dimpi suggested that I erase the old drawings and create something new on them. I’d erased them so many times that the pages were lost to many deep creases and indelible dark patches. The freshness of the pages was lost, and no matter how good my drawings were, they never looked good enough. And one day I gave up drawing altogether.
“I can give it a shot but I need a drawing to copy it from.”
“Silly! Keep your goofy face out of my sight.” I secretly commenced on the project but failed miserably. After that I never brought up the topic.
In our school, we had a rule for fee defaulters. If fees were due for a month we’d stand on the back bench. Two months of dues were enough to be expelled from the class and to get our attendance rejected. And all those students who had not paid their fees for three straight months would stand on one leg for the entire first period, including the loss of attendance. Dimpi and I would cheat by leaning on the wall; standing on one leg didn’t seem as bad as standing on the back bench where everyone would call us Mr. and Mrs. Eiffel Tower. This was the last week of the month, and the consequences of not paying our fees for four months doused us in a terrible apprehension. Dimpi was afraid of what would befall us. And I was afraid because Dimpi would lose her cool. Running away from home was on the card but mother would pay for it, Dimpi speculated. We chose to stay, and bunked school frequently. One day while father was in an unprecedented light mood, Dimpi blurted out, “They made us stand on one leg, because we didn’t pay the fees. It has been four months now.” Mother slapped her hard before father could. “How many times do I’ve to warn you that you mustn’t discuss grown-up stuff with your father?” Mother repeated her slaps. “Next week,” father cut her short with a stern tone that lingered in the air for some time. “Sure father, next week?” Dimpi used her treacherous voice that she often used in order to sound cute. “If not, then ask your mother if she has a quick way to make money.” And then father took a vindictive sneer at mother. Dimpi was beaten so hard that the entire night she cried inconsolably.
Dimpi was burning in a revenge mode since waking up. From under the blanket, she growled at father lying in the corner like a huge leech wrapped in a soiled tissue paper. She ended her morning ablutions in haste. Mother took pity on her and asked her to skip school. I followed along. We did nothing fun that day but later she crept under the bed and fetched the jar half filled with the carcasses of moths. With a deft rigor she emptied the jar in the curry, and stirred it thoroughly. We starved while mother and father relished every spoonful of it. Dimpi felt guilty for mother when next week she gave us a sum to pay a month’s school fee. With this consoling gesture, Dimpi rejuvenated her resolve to secure mother.
“I’m your teacher, and you’re not my patron. Get out of here.” Before our art teacher could take a harsher approach, Dimpi thumped the school fee on his desk.
“Sir, we will pay for it. We need the sketch since this is what we’ve planned to give her on Mother’s Day.”
“You sweet little pumpkins, come here.” Sir was overwhelmingly responsive to Dimpi’s cunning devise, and gladly accepted the sum to sketch mother. He gave us his camera to click mother’s picture and started working right away. To our luck he even assured us to keep the project discrete. From that day onwards Dimpi shone with a spark of contentment, and I couldn’t yet conclude my stand on the matter.
Days swayed in quick succession, and on the final day we prepared for the last rendezvous. Dimpi flared her nostrils and said “You don’t mess with Dimpi, huh!”. She walked like a chimpanzee and I hated her when passersby laughed at us. Sharply taking a left turn from a lane ahead of school, we walked towards the spot- an abandoned tea stall, whose thatched roof was as black as the soot on its walls. Our art teacher was already there, taking gentle drags of his cigarette; a roll of paper was poking out of his loose waist coat. He looked very poor, almost like our father’s friends. “Dimpi, do you think Sir is also a rickshaw puller?”
“Keep quiet, you dumb. He’s an artist, a great one.” Sir didn’t seem glad to see us, and seemed to be in extreme hurry. Without waiting for our comments he left. When we unrolled the paper, mother was there, as ugly as ever. Dimpi rolled it back and we walked home.
A slight miscalculated equation cast us into another predicament. The class teacher’s untiring humiliation for school fees was growing day by day. Dimpi had recently learnt a new word, “self-respect”, which she brought up endlessly in our conversation.
“Don’t talk like an actress. Have you ever looked at your face when you say a fancy word? Exact as a cunning swine.” I was jealous because she always kept learning new things, and was way smarter than me in all terms. But she couldn’t kill father, so I knewshe wasn’t that smart. But what if she gets a new husband for mother? I’d wonder and look for other drawbacks in her demeanor to mollify my damaged self confidence. She was sure to succeed in her endeavor to save mother but we didn’t have a clear picture of how were we going to get her a new husband or how were we going to get rid of the humiliation in class. We mutually agreed to keep skipping school until we had found a new father, or our present father has paid the fees. Before any of the two could be consolidated into a concrete result, Sambu, the peon, visited our home. It was a holiday so we didn’t have to go through the pain of rambling about the streets. The imminent threat pushed us out and we broached the subject under the shade of a tarpaulin, stretched out for a makeshift sandal store.
“Dimpi, we need to find a new father or we’re dead.”
“Salivate your navels, quick.”
“What do you think about Sanjay uncle? We’ll get to eat noodles and momos all day long.”
“But he looks so old. What if he hits mother with forks? He’s got so many under his pushcart, did you see?”
“What about Shibu’s father? He never hits his wife.”
“Yeah we can think about it but Shibu won’t agree to lend us his father. And I think his mother will tag along too. Our home is small, how’re we going to manage with all of us together?”
“Silly or what? Married men don’t go with other men’s wives. I was checking how smart you are. You’re so dumb, Dimpi.”
“Do you have sand shoved in your ears or what? Didn’t you listen to Arfa aunty the other day? Didn’t she mention how father lends himself to another man’s wife once in a while? This is very much possible. All we have to do is ask for Shibu’s permission, and talk to his father.”
We were so engrossed that we didn’t hear our mother calling from the top of her voice. We rushed home at once. When we having our lunch, father, while dabbing his face with a towel, abruptly said, “We’ll go to your school tomorrow.” Dimpi yielded an unbelievably loud hiccup. She drank two glasses of water in one go, and I was sweating profusely between my fingers. That was the longest night to endure. I didn’t know whether Dimpi slept at all but I woke up to see her scrutinizing mother’s sketch in the corner. Mother was preparing us breakfasts and father was intervening with his gruesome snores. The events sped fast, and soon we were out walking towards the school. Dimpi flung some silent messages that I couldn’t comprehend. Unable to calm her senses, she changed her position and walked next to me. “I think I’ve a plan,” this was all she could say before we entered the principal’s office.
Like every other student in our school, I disliked the principal without having a clear reason to do so. He resented the students who wore dirty uniforms. That might be the primary cause since our uniforms never shone bright like others. I think my hatred sprouted the day he punched my back because of my uniform. I gagged on my breath.
“Sit down please,” said the principal followed by a brief introduction of my parents. He flipped through a thick notebook and stumbled midway. Undoing the pince-nez type glasses, he said,
“You see, we’ve expenses to cover for the school and we’re running three year low in business. Can you imagine? And if you, the honorable parents, block four months of fees, which in your case comes to eight months of fees, since you’ve two gem-like kids studying in our school, how’re we supposed to grow?” I don’t know if my father was curious enough to sniff at the sizzling sarcasm served at our expense. I stared at him but mother spoke up.
“Sir, I think the due amount is just for six months. I’ve paid for two months recently, one for each of my kids.” Father turned at her. In other times, this turn of head meant assault. But he kept calm and let mother do the talking. The principal ran through the pages once again. Dimpi shivered in her legs.
“I’m sorry but we didn’t receive any sum from you during the last four months.”
“I’m pretty sure of it, sir. Dimpi, would you please show us the receipt?” Dimpi unhooked the safety pin from the bag, shoved her hand inside and pretended to excavate. Her expression was that of a frightened lamb. She was taking longer than it should, and they were losing patience. “Dimpi!” Father raised his voice and I heard a feeble cry immediately. Standing behind them all, I couldn’t confirm if she was crying or growling in rage, but I could sense her shivering joints that threatened to give away any minute now. Very cautiously she pulled out mother’s sketch from her bag, and stretched it flat on the desk, closer to the principal. Father was fidgeting, enraged, and lost all patience.
“What is it?” He asked loudly.
“Marry my mother, please, dear Sir.” Cried Dimpi and peed her pants.
Image credits: Wilhelm Busch, author and illustrator of the Max und Moritz series of children’s books. Zakir Khan’s story “In Seach of a Father” is a story about children, presumably it is not intended for children. Also, its lead characters are a brother and sister, not two boys. Nonetheless, the story’s tenor, black humour, and general irreverence suggested a family resemblance with Busch’s worldview. Ergo.
Zakir Aatish Khan
Multidisciplinary self-taught artist Zakir Aatish Khan lives and creates in West Bengal, India. Owing to his decade-long familiarity with the delicate nuances of visual arts and literature, he observes literature as the most effective approach to draw the concepts arising out of conflict. His works have appeared in Kitaab, The Bombay Review, Muse India, IHRAF, Squawk Back, and one The Aleph Review (forthcoming).