“Zubair! Zubair?! Why is this larka always so hard to get a hold of!”
“Zubair, the guests at table twenty-three still haven’t been served their drinks! Where have you been?!”
“Sorry Sir, Ahmed couldn’t come to work today so I’m covering his shift as well.”
“Stop wasting time and get to it.”, replied the manager and strutted off.
Zubair grabbed the tray of drinks from the counter and rushed off while the manager looked for somebody else to yell at.
It was Zubair’s second year working at the cafe; so far he’d been threatened with being fired enough times that he didn’t even give it a second thought now. He was always running late; breaking a plate here and dropping a glass there; sometimes even serving up the wrong order. The only reason he was still here was because he worked with all his heart: he’d started off as a janitor and worked his way up to a waiter.
It was the best job he’d had in years; earlier he was working as an apprentice at a tailors workshop but it closed down when a designer offered the master saab a job at her company. The next two months had been difficult for Zubair, he wasn’t able to pay rent for the room he shared with his cousin Nasir. He couldn’t even ask Nasir to cover for him because he’d just started working as a laborer for a small contractor company and his pay barely covered his half of the rent.
The pay wasn’t great at the beginning but at least he was able to pay for a roof over his head again. He now shared a room with Ahmed. He was his senior by a few years and had taken Zubair under his wing since the first day. He’d taught him how to lay out the table, how to interact with the guests, and most importantly how to avoid being fired.
The manager was a balding man around forty. He was pretty lenient with his staff (whom he treated like his own children). There was only one rule that he never budged on: the customer was always right. He had been at The Cafe since the beginning; it was less like a place of employment and more like a second home to him.
Since they were understaffed today, Zubair stayed later than usual and helped in tidying up the cafe. By the time he got done, it was pouring cats and dogs outside: the monsoon had officially started and he was drenched to the core when he got to the bus station. The bus itself was half an hour late and the driver was in a terrible mood. He barely stopped the bus and Zubair had but a minute to hop on, or he’d have to walk home.
Ahmed opened the door of their one-room apartment when Zubair finally got home, a big smile on his face.
“What happened, Bhaiya?”
Ahmed hugged Zubair in response and told him that his uncle had arranged for a job at the restaurant he was head waiter at. In Dubai! He’d even sent him the money to apply for the visa and buy a ticket!
That night they celebrated with the rest of the boys that stayed on the same floor. One of them was finally getting a shot to make it; all of them were ecstatic. At least one of them was getting out of this hell hole.
“I’m really going to miss you, bhaiya” said Zubair, lying on the charpai.
“Just wait chotay, I’ll find you a job in Dubai as well. You’ll be waiting tables at one of the best restaurants in the world! And we’ll get a big room with real beds and an air-conditioning system as well!”
“Hahaha bhaiya, I think you’ve had one too many, you’re talking nonsense”
That night both of them went to sleep dreaming bigger dreams than they’d ever thought possible.
Ahmed had already headed off to work by the time Zubair woke up next morning. Sheesh, Ahmed’s too punctual, he thought to himself. Nah, he’s probably just excited about telling the manager the good news.
Somebody started banging on the door while Zubair was showering. Is Ahmed back already?! he wondered as he put on his uniform and went to see why somebody was trying to tear down the door.
It was one of the boys from the ground floor, he was breathless and panting to get the words out,
That morning, a man wearing a jacket packed with explosives had decided to end his own life and the lives of many innocent others. It had been a Sunday, and the cafe was packed with people having breakfast with their friends and families.
In a fraction of a second, he stole the lives, identities, and dreams of others.
He turned them from people to victims.
It was a Haadsa. A tragedy.
Ahmed’s dream ended before it had a chance to begin. His life ended before he got a real shot at it. Less than twelve hours ago, he was celebrating and hoping for a better future. No trace of him was left now. Some say he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, he wasn’t on a battlefield. He wasn’t fighting a war. Ahmed lost his life for no reason. He went from playing the main role in his own life to being a victim in somebody else’s deranged story.
Although alive on the outside, Zubair shared Ahmed’s fate on the inside. He had lost the closest thing to a brother and a mentor. His workplace had been blown to smithereens. The manager would never yell at him again. No couple would ever get to sit on table twenty-three by the windows again. It was all, in the blink of an eye, gone.
There was a gaping hole in the fabric of Zubair’s world where The Cafe had once stood.
That man might be born again.
And that man might wear a mask again.
The question is, what are we willing to do about it?
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