There are two things you should know about me: one, I hate cricket, and two, I hate Tom and Jerry. You might be shocked to know that these resentments were fostered in me at the exuberant age of 10, when life is nothing if not impregnated with hope, and these two things are usually part of the pinnacles of childhood.
You might be even more shocked to hear about the fate that intertwines these two resentments.
It was sunny that day, I remember. But then again, it was sunny most days in Karachi whenever I went there on holiday. The heat always faltered in comparison to my spirit, so we took it upon ourselves to play outside every day. It was in broad day light, then, when we were playing cricket in the street.
One minute I was swinging the worn-out bat and hitting a chakka and the other I found my skinny form scouring the next street over for the ball. When I arrived, I could still hear the slowly fading echoes of the voices I left behind: the feet tapping on the road, the children’s voices laughing heartily, the resounding smack a bat makes against the ground. They were replaced by new ones: the wheezing throats, the menacing laughs, the blaring of loud noises from a television set.
It was a rather unfamiliar road but close enough to the neighbourhood that when a strange man beckoned to me that the ball was in the house behind him, I followed. There was no gut-wrenching feeling that would ward me off of this path, and no ominous music that played in the background like in the movies. I never blamed myself because it’s not as if he carried a sign that said “beware: sexual predator.”
He led me upstairs. Whether it was to the servant quarter or to the second floor of the house I cannot recall, for the necessity of such divisions becomes blurred when more significant barriers have been broken. I remember bounding up the steps, taking them two at a time. I remember stepping into the room, but it was too late before my eyes adjusted to the sight before me.
I saw men, several of them, lying around. Maybe they were sleeping or stoned. Maybe they were dead. Smoke leaked from their lungs as they chuckled to some harmless delight the television brought. I didn’t need to look to know what they were chuckling at: the all too familiar and welcoming sound of ‘Tom and Jerry’ was the last thing I noticed before my eyes were suddenly covered by some material that my assailant pulled harshly across my face. The texture of it told me it was a rag, and the smell of it told me it had been used one too many times, perhaps for this very purpose.
Screams were quite literally muffled as my frail body was pushed onto a sofa and my face was buried deep within. The intensity of the pain brought on by the man on top of me, accompanied by the sound of a delighted Tom managing to get his gnarly paws on a sorrowful Jerry were enough to numb me of most of my senses. My mind was racing with incoherent thoughts because I had no idea what to think. I didn’t even know the term for what was being done to me. All I knew, as I crumbled amongst the jigsaw puzzle of realisation, despair, and surprise, was that it was utterly inhumane.
My memory of the occurrence is hazy, and even as I recount the details to you today, I fear that I may have gotten it wrong. Perhaps it didn’t happen, or perhaps I made it up, because how could that have happened to me? But it did happen. I know it happened because for years afterward I would never let myself be alone in the presence of a child; the thought paralyses me.
Did it happen more than once? I don’t know. Did he do this to the other kids on the street? I do not know. I know that I stopped wanting to play cricket. I know that I stopped watching cartoons. I know that I stopped loving children and started fearing men.
I lost time. By the time I was returned to the open streets, my friends had all scattered to go home, so I began my way back too. It was only as I walked past the street we were playing on that I realised that I had never found that ball. I reached home to find my grandmother in shambles, bawling over my long absence. But as soon she caught sight of my disheveled figure, there was silence. That silence. I recognised it. I’ve lived with it for what feels like an eternity.