I was roused from a dreamless, fidgety, power-cut-induced-sweaty nap in the late afternoon, by the throb of an idling diesel engine under my first floor bedroom window. Unknown voices were shouting instructions in Sindhi, accompanied by the sound of heavy objects being dragged and dropped onto the metallic platform of the back of a pickup truck. It was the unmistakable commotion of someone moving out, and I peeked from behind the blinds to get a clue to who it might be…and felt that weird stomach-lurching sensation of something resembling sadness as I realised who it was.
We were the first ones to inhabit the new ground-plus 2 apartment building, with a beige exterior and white painted balconies, on a hill in old Clifton. More people moved in a month or two later, a 30-something bachelor-type with six cats and great taste in music in the apartment directly above ours, a couple with two boys on the ground floor, an Iranian family (who didn’t speak a word of Urdu or English) on the second floor, a pretty, friendly yet annoying woman, with husband and two kids in tow, into one of the penthouses on the top floor; the apartment diagonally across from ours was first taken up by a family with lots of kids under the age of 8. They moved out a year later, and after a few months a new family moved in. We’d see them sometimes getting in or out of their car in the parking lot downstairs, and got to know them as a friendly young couple with a very adorable little son.
They were both originally from Lahore and Islamabad and had come to Karachi soon after getting married as Osman (the husband) got a job in a multinational based here. Leena (the wife) was a stay-at-home mom, who had her hands pretty much full with their almost 3 yr old toddler, Abdullah. The trio made up a rosy-cheeked, happy little family and I was glad and relieved to have such nice neighbours. They had quaint manners, and always spoke with a good-natured politeness whenever I ran into them on the staircase.
The politeness blended into a neighbourly friendship as Leena came over bearing a plate of homemade ‘zarda’. I’m not a big fan of this dish of sweet, nutty yellow rice, and the one made by Leena was frankly pretty bad as zardas go; but I invited her and a very shyly smiling Abdullah in, and over the next half hour or so, as we got to know each other a bit better, I felt an instant kinship with her. She was a lot like me in many ways, very do-it-yourself, completely unglamorous, chatty and prone to punctuating self-disclosures with fits of giggles. I think she felt a bit lonely sometimes, as she didn’t know a lot of people here and she worried about her sister and father in Lahore who were alone after her mother passed away.
Abdullah had apparently just learned to talk, so it was only a matter of time before he opened up. At first he was happy to cling to his mom’s kameez and stand close by or sit on her lap. He got bolder with every successive visit though, and soon enough he had explored each room in the house in search of my elusive cat, examined every DVD on the shelf (and torn some covers off in his enthusiasm), flung some books around with the joy of familiarity in ‘Muinyya Aunty’s’ house….and he was fascinated by Amu, whom he inexplicably called ‘Bhai’. After that first visit, Leena claimed Abdullah was a huge fan of Muinyya Aunty and Bhai, and always pointed to our door on his way home and told his mom he wanted to go ‘there’; sometimes he would wake up in the morning and say he had dreamt of Muinyya Aunty and so it was very important for his mom to bring him over. I was immensely flattered, as I had never had the adoration of a 3-yr old before…..apart from Amu, though I’m not too sure about that (maybe little boys are more affectionate than little girls).
All buildings need a formal or informal committee to run it, and this includes regular maintenance and upkeep, paying and keeping an eye on the chowkidars and the sweepers, making sure that we all had a regular water supply, and resolving any other issues that arose. A lot of friendships sprung up and were torn down within our committee, largely due to a couple of unpleasant incidents that led to an atmosphere of resentment and suspicion in the microcosm that is our building, and I would need to write a whole other blog about those. More than a year had gone by but Osman and Leena kept a low profile through it all, until it was time for them to pitch in too when things just fell apart, and Leena agreed to look after the accounts. It was then that I realised she had a good head for calculations and a sharp eye for irregularities that was in complete contrast to her roly-polyness.
Things seemed to stabilise again, and it seemed the worst was behind us until one day Leena turned up at our doorstep and let us know that she and Abdullah were leaving for Lahore for a month or two and that she wouldn’t be able to handle the accounts anymore. She was vague about reasons and attempted to laugh away our concerns, but my sixth sense told me something was amiss. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more to her abrupt departure, and that too without Osman. After a few weeks she let us know by email that she probably wouldn’t be coming back, and she would greatly appreciate our discretion in not asking why. We understood immediately.
It wasn’t as if we met all that often, but I missed Leena’s unobtrusive presence. We didn’t see much of Osman either anymore, but we knew he’d lost a dramatic amount of weight after a tryst with hepatitis-A. His status updates on Facebook were forlorn verses of Sufi poetry, full of loneliness and loss, and the money plant outside their door wilted and eventually died.
Discretion is inhibiting, and several months went by… and I never wrote to Leena. Osman moved out today, and I’m left wondering if I’ll ever see them again.