Some childhood memories are etched so deep on our memory that they remain fresh for decades. One such that I am going to recall today dates back to 1941. I was ten years old. We lived in Karachi in a building named Mohammad Ishmael Building. Our apartment was on the third floor. There was one more floor above us. A Muslim family lived in the flat directly above us. This family was not a normal family, for it consisted of a woman and her four children. There were two boys and two girls. The oldest was a boy, Iqbal, about 20. Apparently he did not have a stable job. He often got into tiffs with the neighbors usually over trifles. But this gave the family a bad reputation. The mother and the two daughters rarely went out of the house. The boys did but they hardly talked with any one. We children were in awe of the big boy and wanted to talk with him. But he neither smiled nor made any friendly gesture. So we never talked, but we knew all members of the family.
Once when my mother’s two brothers were seriously ill, my parents went to Punjab to see them. My three sisters, an uncle, and I were at home. In the middle of the night when I woke up to go to the bathroom I heard a low sound in the other room. I froze. After a few minutes I saw Iqbal emerging. He saw me, stopped, came to me smiling and held my hand. I was still half asleep and quite puzzled. Iqbal led me toward the door, opened the latch and quietly walked out. As I latched the door I noticed a rolled up shawl in the grill just above it.
Everything happened so quickly that it left me in a daze. I went in and lay down in my bed. The idea that a thief had visited our house and walked away with things of some value did not enter my mind. After some time I got up and went to the outer door. The shawl was gone. I then realized what had happened but raised no alarm. Everyone was fast asleep and I did not want to disturb any one. I too quietly went to sleep.
In the morning I told my uncle what had happened during the night. He asked why I had not raised an alarm and woken him. He went out to the staircase shouted threats to Iqbal but there was no response. We knew the family living below us and told them what had happened. They thought it was best to ignore it since there did not seem to be much loss.
When I told the story to my friends in school they called me a big fool. I began to think and I realized my stupidity. My parents returned and inspected the only steel trunk in the house. My mother’s gold jewellery and her woolen shawl were missing. The total loss was not high. Both my parents were thankful that my sisters and I were unharmed. They did not scold me for my stupidity.
To this day, after 67 years, I remember every detail of that incident. But I still do not know if I acted foolishly or not. At age 10 what dominated my mind was that Iqbal was a neighbor and a ‘big boy’ whom I admired. This weighed more in my mind than gold or money. How could I have labeled him as a thief? May be I was naïve. Perhaps I still am.
17 December 2008