What I think when I see Alia…

By Shama Askari

I look out of my bedroom window as I sip my morning tea. I can see two little children playing together happily.  I have already penned the three-year old’s thoughts on his school. Here is my attempt at reading a five-year old’s mind, who speaks in Seraiki.

It’s going to be a challenge, to say the least. The language barrier is scaled effortlessly by the little boy who speaks only in English. But I cannot say the same about myself though I can speak Urdu fluently.

The thought process of this little girl is complex, as she is my neighbour’s (who happens to be a relative) cook’s daughter. This four-year-old was taken away by her father to their village when her mother divorced him. She was returned to the mother after a year, after a hefty amount was given as ransom, I don’t know what else to call it. A traumatic event such as this will cause separation anxiety. With this in mind I observe the little girl.

She is full of beans. She loves the outdoors. She adores the little boy, he is the only friend she has and does not step back from defending herself, even if that means giving him a tight slap when no one is looking. She is aware that her mother is on the receiving end and that she is a paid employee, therefore the rules of engagement for her are different. She feels her mother’s discomfort after an unruly event. In spite that, Alia is master of her own destiny. I only hope that her fierce little spirit will  remain intact and she will continue to protest when her turn to ride the cycle is taken away by the little boy. She is well aware that all the toys strewn around belong to him. She is clever enough to understand that he has been told to share them with her on equal terms. I am also certain she knows that he has more possessions than her.

 I overheard Alia’s conversation with her grandmother the other day.

 Alia: ’Why haven’t you called?’

Grandmother; ’My phone broke,’

Alia:’ When I grow up, I will buy you a new one, when I have lots of money.’

 My cousin was telling me the other day, that every afternoon Alia promptly arrives and tells her that she must put her book away and drink her tea or it will get cold, Alia arrived the other day and asked my cousin to build a room for the part-time help, who was complaining about her husband. She is aware that the little boy can jump on my cousins’ bed while she is not allowed to. I am certain she questions the disparity.

Her experiences have not been too happy – quite different from the children who play with the little boy. She is very small in size and eats only boiled rice. An introduction to eggs gave her diarrhea. The not eating could have been a form of protest against her father. Her mother told me that on her return to her mother, Alia had given her specific instructions of how she should be bathed with soap, and not salt.

The other day my cousin organised a small tea party for her friends in their play area, outdoors because of COVID-19. Alia was most excited dressed as she was in her favourite pink net dress, with little diamantes on the skirt. In her pink stochings and her new show  she was aware that there was something unusual in the air. She wore matching pink stockings and new shoes, her little face shone brightly in spite of her ghastly haircut (she had developed boils on her scalp and her hair was mercilessly shorn). From a distance the scene was picture perfect, a glorious winter afternoon, flowers in bloom, a big balloon to humour the two children and elderly, who were as eager to forget their misery of Covid days and celebrate their confined freedom, I noticed as soon as a couple of people arrived that Alia had slunk back to the kitchen, almost as if she knew her place, and no amount of cajoling could bring her back. The utopian bubble had burst.

Of course, her only fighting chance is a decent education. But will she get one.

The whole question of her schooling has made me wonder, if online education is the answer, does it really matter who sits behind the computer? I almost want to swap the children, the one sitting behind the elite education system and the other behind the not so elite and see what I get. I overhear young mothers speaking about the increase in emotional disturbances among children these days and I marvel at this brave, resilient little girl and say a silent prayer that may her spirit remain intact.