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        The shehr of Lahore held many juxtapositions. A bustling city carrying the nostalgia akin to that of a small town. Hamid’s Dhaba was no less than a relic placed in the heart of Anarkali Bazaar. It seemed invisible among the glossy outlets of luxury brands, yet shop owners and workers of the bazaar would stop by for a cup of chai several times a day. The space was mostly occupied by tired looking men, that is until one dull morning a mother came by with her small, frail son in tow. 

        The boy hid behind his mother’s tattered black shawl. He looked no older than twelve. He had brown wide-set eyes, a short pudgy nose and hollowed cheeks. There was a harshness in his facial features that made him look stern. Hamid saw his little hands folded in a self-pacifying manner and his brown eyes glued to the cement floor. The boy was jittery. His mother requested Hamid to take the boy under his wing. She wanted Hamid to teach him the daily operations of a dilapidated roadside Dhaba. A place that never dared to become anything more than a tea shop. The boy remained silent while his mother talked, as if he was trying to delay talking to Hamid as long as he could manage it. Hamid noticed a black string around his neck. It disappeared underneath the fabric of his Kameez. Hamid couldn’t see what the string was connected to. 

        It must be a Ta’wiz, he thought. 

        Hamid wore one around his bicep too. His mother had gotten it from a Pir who was believed to be blessed by god. When he was fifteen, Hamid became severely ill. His high fever kept him either unconscious or delirious. Days later when he came to his senses, his mother told him that he had been healed due to the blessing of the Pir. A generous sum of money was given to the Pir in exchange for a few verses of the Quran, which he copied down on a small piece of paper, folded it, and put it inside a black leather amulet.

        “I do not take a fee Bibi!” The Pir chided Hamid’s mother when she inquired about the amount he typically charged. He was offended by the insinuation that he was in this trade for the money. 

        “I only take what is owed to Allah! He gave your boy his life back. He returned him to you from the cruel clutches of death. Even if you stay bowed down before Allah for the rest of your life, you will not be able to repay Him!” 

        Hamid’s mother shuddered due to the Pir’s shrill voice. Afraid of Allah’s wrath and the Pir’s owlish eyes ablaze with undisguised fury, she gave up a majority of their family’s savings in the name of god. This gesture of gratitude resulted in years of poverty for Hamid’s family. Even when Hamid was fully healthy, his mother urged him to keep wearing the amulet. 

        “May Allah have mercy on us all,” she used to utter under her breath and tremble slightly while looking up towards their dingy ceiling. Her eyes would widen, as if she could see god beyond the skies, fuming just like the silver-bearded Pir, getting ready to rain balls of fire as punishment upon the world. 

        The boy’s mother sobbed. The woman had started crying while Hamid was busy reminiscing. More shopkeepers, stall owners and hawkers started arriving to begin their daily chores at the bazaar. Some of the passers-by glanced inside momentarily. Uninterested in the scene unfolding inside the grim-looking shop, they moved on. Hamid patiently listened to the boy’s mother talk about her husband who had recently died in a car accident. He was a driver to a wealthy landowner in his ancestral village. A day after her husband’s death, the woman was asked to leave the house along with her son. 

        “My mistress said she didn’t want a widow inhabiting the same space as her young unwed daughters,” the woman told Hamid as her sobs gradually receded.

        “If you do not help us, we will die of starvation,” she said matter-of-factly. Her despondent words made Hamid uncomfortable. Her helplessness matched his own mother’s vulnerability all those years ago. He cringed with the realization that in this scenario, he has a role similar to that of the Pir. 

        “Alright Bibi, he can work for me. But I will not pay a penny more than 3,000 rupees per month,” he said flatly. 

        The amount was meager. Even if the mother and son only had one meal a day, they would run out of money within a couple of weeks. Yet, it was the only reasonable sum he could offer her without making himself impoverished. The woman’s face, which was previously marred by signs of distress, relaxed visibly. She thanked Hamid, advised her son not to wander around on his way back home and left the pair to go about their day. 

        A few people had occupied the wooden benches positioned outside the shop. The sun had moved upwards. The bazaar was now teeming with an influx of shoppers, vendors, masons and noisy rickshaws emitting clouds of bitter gray smoke. The sellers had become louder, putting their goods on small tables outside their shops and shouting their prices at the people scurrying around the street. A man with leathery skin yelled an order for a cup of chai at Hamid. 

        “What’s your name, boy?”

Hamid asked the boy while putting a saucepan filled with milk on a stove attached to a cylinder. 

        “David,” the boy said, his eyes following Hamid’s movements. 

Hamid stilled, taking a second to process the information. 

        “Are you a Christian?” 

The boy’s eyebrows perked up, suddenly apprehensive, as if he had been trained to keep this to himself. Hamid put a spoonful of tea leaves in the boiling milk and turned back to face him. 

        “Listen to me very carefully,” Hamid said, bending over in order to look him in the eye. 

        “From now on, your name is Daud. Not David. You will bring the customers their chai, take the money and come back inside. Do not linger around and most importantly, never tell anyone your real name!” 

        The boy trembled, intimidated by Hamid’s stern tone. Hamid sighed and gently put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. 

        “Listen kid, there are far too many people in this city and far too few work opportunities. Nothing is permanent in their lives except misery; and in their misery, they are easy to incite. They latch onto things that give them power over others. The key to surviving here is to keep your head down. Let them tear each other apart, but never get tangled in the crossfire.” 

        The boy nodded, trying to grasp Hamid’s advice as much as he could, however, his previous nervousness had now eased. Hamid gave him a half smile as he poured the brown liquid into a beige ceramic tea cup placed in a plastic tray. “Here, take this to the customer.”

        Hamid handed him the tray. The boy took it into his small hands and stepped outside towards the wooden benches. 


        Lahore saw many regimes. Once, the Mughal kings had called it the capital of their empire. They adorned it with beautiful gardens and erected glorious monuments. Some in the name of power. Some in the name of love. Hamid’s father, when he was alive, told him legends about Lahore. One that particularly remained stuck in his memory was about a Hindu god. Prince Lava - The son of god Rama and goddess Sita. Hindus believed him to be the true founder of Lahore. He named it Nokhar (city of lava) after himself. Hamid thought that the city often manifested its true essence. Perhaps there truly was a lava bubbling underneath the surface, triggering everyone’s blood to boil, melting their brain so they couldn’t retain rational thoughts. Perhaps it was the silent fire brewing just below the surface which turned ordinary people into jackals hungry for blood. 

        Hamid spent all thirty nine years of his life in the same city that took on many names over the course of history. He ran the same Dhaba made out of bamboo canes, with a patch of dead grass underneath its seating area. He never sought change. He was familiar with all the crevices of the city. Its penchant for violence and the extent of that violence. He knew those who incited it. They knew him as their brother in faith. If the city burned, Hamid made sure that the flames wouldn’t reach him. 

        It was a hazy Saturday morning when Hamid heard about the woman from a small village on the outskirts of Lahore who had disrespected the Quran. He found out from Qazi - a mason who worked on contracts. He sat with another man whom Hamid didn’t recognize.

        “Those bastards who witnessed it, let the police arrest her. They just stood by and watched.” He paused to give Hamid his order of ginger chai.

        “If I was there I would have killed that bitch right then and there!” Qazi thumped his fist on the wooden bench which rattled with impact.

        A few steps away, Daud sat under a vine of bougainvillea which rested on the low wall of a shop next to the Dhaba. It had belonged to a watchmaker who closed up shop a few years ago. Towards the end, the owner would spend his days looking over at the big stores that had taken over their little stretch of the road. Hamid wondered how the vine had survived over the years. Every other piece of plantation on this street had withered away. The shopkeepers neither had time, nor interest in watering the plants which somehow managed to grow out of the mud patches at the side of the road. Daud sat under the vine drawing the image of a tree on the concrete floor with a tiny piece of pink colored chalk. 

        Meanwhile, more people gathered around Qazi. Hamid recognized some of them. The shopkeepers who came to the Dhaba every day around noon. Some hawkers who prowled the bazaar. Others he didn’t recognize. They were all different from each other. Some had beards, some had mustaches, and some had clean shaven faces. Their figures were different. Tall, lanky, short, stout. They all came from different areas. Some from the northern regions, some from the southern parts of the country. Some of them never got along. Hamid had witnessed their petty arguments which sometimes bordered on physical violence. Now, they had something which united them. Something that gave a sense of purpose to their mundane lives. Each one of them clung onto it. 

        Hamid called Daud over and handed him a tray full of tea cups.

       “What do you expect from the police or the judiciary? They are all corrupt. Faithless dogs!” said a man whom Hamid had never seen before. His statement was met with loud cries of affirmation. Hamid could hear them over the loud pattering noise of the rickshaws passing by. They agreed on closing down the bazaar early during the following week. A leader of a prominent religious party had declared week-long protests in different parts of the country. All of them wanted to support the cause. 

        “What are your thoughts, Chacha?” A young man in his early twenties asked Hamid while Daud was handing over cups of chai one by one to the men occupying the benches. 

        They all turned around and looked at Hamid. Qazi’s eyes, fiery with a shade of red, bore into Hamid’s skull, awaiting some kind of a verdict. Hamid relented. “You are right. If they think that we will remain silent while they protect someone who disrespected our Prophet, they are wrong!” 

        Was it the Prophet, or the Quran? Hamid wondered. It seemed as if none of them cared about the specifics of the matter as they all vociferously agreed with Hamid’s declaration and then resumed their conversation. He sighed and hunkered near the tap to wash the dirty saucepan. 

        “Can I come along with you?” Daud asked when he brought the empty tea cups back inside the Dhaba. 


        “To the protest. I have never seen one before, except in the news.” Daud said as he placed the tea cups on the floor near the tap.

        “I’m not going. I pretended that I would go, so they wouldn’t desecrate my Dhaba. Trust me, some of these idiots who haven’t   overtly scorned that woman will bear the brunt of their rage.” 

        Hamid gazed at Daud who was unconsciously tracing the string around his neck. Hamid had noticed that the string changed colors every few days. Upon asking Daud, Hamid came to know that it was a cross that his father used to wear. The chain had broken during the accident. Daud didn’t have the money to replace it so he used whatever practical material he could get his hands on when the previous one wore out. Shoelaces. Yarn. Once, Hamid even saw him sporting an elongated rubber band as a substitute. Hamid had promised to buy him a new chain if he worked hard. Daud’s eyes had lit up upon hearing Hamid’s proposition. Daud never slacked off during work. He was feeble but quick on his feet. His hands were steady. He never dropped a single spoon. Hamid just needed time to save up some money. He was curious to see how much more dedication Daud could give to serving tea and washing dirty dishes. 

In the following days, Daud stopped taking his daily breaks. Hamid had told him to play with other boys during the hours in which they received less customers. Daud refused. He would sit under the bougainvillea vine, and follow Hamid’s movements with his eyes, anticipating his next command. When Hamid looked over, it seemed as if Daud would run towards him as soon as Hamid opened his mouth. Daud’s childish determination endeared him to Hamid. 

        “I will buy you the chain. I promise! You can take a breather.” 

        He looked at Hamid with furrowed eyebrows and said, “No, thank you.”

        Hamid laughed and shrugged. He knew Daud wouldn’t budge. It was something he had noticed about him. He would give single-minded focus to all his tasks. Whether it was beating other boys at playing marbles or the humdrum act of serving chai. 

        During the week of the protests, Daud had interlaced his father’s cross in a pink yarn. Its color was vibrant like Daud’s beloved bougainvillea vine. Every day after the Maghrib prayer, the market would be closed and men from different backgrounds would gather at the major streets of Lahore. They would shout religious slogans and demand retribution. 

        On Tuesday afternoon, Hamid stood next to the lime-colored counter of the Dhaba looking over the bustling bazaar. Daud washed dishes squatting down next to the tap. Within the span of a few minutes, the air around the shop shifted. The dull hum of customers bargaining with the shopkeepers turned into muted panic. Some shoppers stood by the side of the road, signaling rickshaws and taxis to stop. A collective sound of shutters closing down reverberated throughout the bazaar. Daud turned off the tap, got up from his crouching position and asked Hamid what was happening. His small hand pulled on Hamid’s sleeve. He was about to answer him when he saw Rasheed, the owner of a paan shop across the street, running towards them. 

        “Hamid bhai, close your Dhaba! People are about to riot!” he said trying to level his breathing. 

        “What happened?” Hamid asked. 

        “They sent the woman out of the country. Some judge declared her innocent and they flew her to god knows where. You need to leave. Today, the people are hungry for blood. They will not recognize a friend or foe!”

        An uncomfortable feeling settled in Hamid’s gut. He nodded to Rasheed, who left taking swift steps. 

        Hamid looked at Daud. He looked back at Hamid with his arms crossed and shoulders perked up, silently awaiting his instructions. Hamid bent over, put his hand on Daud’s shoulder and looked him in the eye. 

     “Go straight home. No detours. Do you understand?” 

        Daud seemed confused but he nodded his head in affirmation nonetheless.

        Hamid softly caressed his hair before ushering him out. He closed the Dhaba and started walking home. It took him longer than usual. He avoided all the main roads, instead took narrow alleyways of scanty mahallahs lining the peripheries of the city. From the sidelines, he could hear the mob of rioters shattering glass. He could see clouds of smoke rising up towards the sky. In that moment, he thought of Daud. Hamid wondered why he had never bothered to ask him where he lived. Perhaps not too far as he always came to work early. Perhaps it didn’t take him long to get back home safely, Hamid thought. 

        Hamid’s breathing became shallow as he took hasty steps. He pictured Daud entering a small colorless house located in a narrow alleyway just like the one he was passing through. He pacified himself by imagining the look on Daud’s face when he would give him the silver chain. He could visualize his bright smile and the sparkle in his eyes. 

        It took him a long time to even out his breathing after he reached home. An uneasy night awaited him. He was awoken multiple times by muffled screeches coming from a distance.

        The next morning, he saw the remnants of the riot while walking towards the Dhaba. Burnt tires, charred remains of signposts and broken glass lay scattered on the roads. Some sweepers were busy brushing the glass shards away. 

        When Hamid reached the Dhaba, he didn’t find Daud waiting for him under the bougainvillea vine like he did every day. Hamid decided to wait for him before opening the Dhaba. He rarely received any customers during early morning hours. Especially after a night like that, people were hesitant to step out of their homes. 

        Hamid strolled towards Rasheed’s shop. The dark bags under Rasheed’s eyes indicated that he hadn’t gotten much sleep either. Rasheed nodded his head in greeting when he saw Hamid coming over. Neither of them was eager to initiate conversation. They both settled for silence. 

        A bulky television set in the corner of the small paan shop relayed news about last night. A female reporter stood on Mall Road holding a mic in front of a large green bus. The green color was tarnished by the ashy black elthat ascended from its sides, indicating that it had been set on fire. Most of its glass windows were broken. 

        The reporter said that the rioters had not only desecrated public spaces, but also targeted civilians. The houses of some activists who spoke in support of the woman were attacked and broken into. None were injured as they had already anticipated this and moved to emergency hideouts. The reporter then stated that some of the civilians were not lucky enough. 

        On the television screen, the footage switched to the inside of a house. Cheap furniture lay scattered all around the floor. Some of it was broken. The reporter spoke of three men in Neela Gumbad, two women in Bilal Ganj, a mother and child in a mahallah near Urdu Bazaar, who were killed in aggravated attacks. All of them belonged to the Christian community. In the footage, the floor of a bedroom was littered with personal belongings. Amid a pool of broken crockery lay a vibrant pink yarn attached to a silver cross. The reporter started stating the names of the victims.

        “Muraad, Asiya, David…” 

        “David…” Hamid repeated under his breath. 

        How could he have forgotten? This was Daud’s name. The name that belonged to him. And he belonged to it. How could Hamid have taken it away from him? His Ta’wiz rested heavy on his arm while his eyes remained glued to the small pink yarn sitting brightly on top of the wreckage. 

        “David. David. David.” He chanted. 

        Hamid would keep repeating it for years to come. In sleepless nights and shapeless dreams. He would dream of wide eyes and bright smiles. He would dream of bougainvillea vines and silver chains. Nothing that ever happened in this city had fazed Hamid. He and his Dhaba had always remained rooted. They survived. Now he could envision its walls wavering. He could see the tall affixed Bamboo canes catching fire. The flames finally reached him.

City of Lava

Nawal Awan

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