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A Long Voyage Home

A Long Voyage Home

For Omar, It was not strange that in the shelter, almost all the children were screaming out of hunger, except Jamal. He knew his boy was brave and strong, and he would get through, it was only a matter of a night. Omar did not want to stay at that crowded place with his nine-year-old son; last night, they were stopped by a police officer who was wearing a mask and waving a flashlight in their tired faces.

“Where are you coming from?” The policeman looked into Omar’s deep sunken eyes, inspected his thin face.
Omar waited and replied, “Delhi.”
“Where are you going?”
Omar hesitated for a minute, and stepped backwards.
“Where will you go?” the policeman repeated.
“How?” another police officer who was taller and standing with his back against the ambulance asked. He seemed some sort of senior. Omar dared not to respond to him. “Wait,” the first policeman commanded. Helpless Omar was, he stood there for a minute with their eyes down, and he was glad that Jamal didn’t do anything stupid in front of them, then a fat doctor stepped out of the ambulance which stood across the road, ahead of him him him the barricades.”Cover up your damn mouths.” The tall one commanded from behind in a dry, loud voice while the doctor, who was completely covered up in a white nylon suit, came to them and put a weird white machine in front of Omar’s eyes and then Jamal’s. He examined them very carefully.
“He has a fever,” the doctor said, looking at both the policemen, and then he grabbed Jamal’s wrist with his gloved hands. “The boy has a fever.”
“Does he have a cough or cold?”
“No!” Omar replied.
“Any problem with breathing, child?” he asked directly to Jamal, not to his father.
“No, not at all,” Omar replied instead, pulling his boy closer to him and looked down at him. “He is perfectly alright.”

However, Jamal had a fever five days ago, not now. He was alright now. If he had a fever now, I’d have known, thought Omar. Every time, fever made Jamal sad and gawky, and when he got sad, he started blurting about his mother. Jamal had also vomited multiple times back then. But after that, he was all right, and he was just all right now. All day, the young boy walked along, they crossed cities and towns together under the sun, however, onto Omar’s shoulders most of the time, but Jamal was surely not sick. Omar knew it. At least he does not look sick now.

“Tonight, you both have to stay here.” The small policeman said.
“We cannot…sir,” Omar requested, “Please, sir, let us go, please.”

They’ve already completed half the journey. How could they stop in the middle? Even before all this chaos which was just a nightmare for many, Omar always knew how to go on a long journey on foot. JUST KEEP WALKING! If you have stayed in one place for more than the required time, you are finished. They cannot waste the whole night.

“Please let us go, Sir,” he urged.
“Listen, we are arranging a bus in the morning for all of these people.” The small one pointed towards the camp. “And still, if you love to walk as if you don’t care about your sick son, then you can go, Yeah, Go on!” He gestured mockingly with his arms.”Are they stupid?” The tall one said before Omar could say anything. “They stayed here for the bus, look. Are they all stupid?”

Both the policemen exchanged gaze and the first one looked down and went away behind the ambulance with the doctor. “Go to the camp now.” The tall one ordered. Omar stared at the barricades that stood between him and the endless road. They stayed there in the camp, but not in the hope of the bus that could surely ease their journey, but because he thought a little rest would have been good for his son. If the doctor is right…no, no he cannot be, I know it for sure. The doctor is wrong. “He’s alright,” Omar said to himself as he lay down with his boy in the tent in the dark. “Everything will be alright.”

By the morning, there were many in the camp waiting for the bus to take them home. All of them waited for two hours, and they saw the sunrise together as the only normal thing of the day. And many of them, as hopeless as Omar was, began to walk. “Once you reach home everything will be alright. Jamal will be alright,” he contented himself and picked up the bag. “Can you walk?” he asked his son. “Yes, papa, I can,” Jamal answered with a smile.

As they were to leave the camp, a van from another side came in their way. It wasn’t a passenger van but a small one with a red flag waving on its top and a loudspeaker attached to it. “Packets of food!” They were calling. “Packets of food! Come over here y’all.” People rushed to the van. At the request of the young gentleman in white, they stood in two queues. Omar was happy that he got two packets because he stood in the first row and his son in the second. The rest of the families were given only one. And unfortunately, many were left behind, empty-handed, watching the van rushing back on the bare road. Omar told his son to put the packets inside the bag as fast as he could because four of the men were staring at their greedy hands. Yes, they were hungry too, Omar knew. If it was another day, he would have given the extra packet to them, but it wasn’t another day…and he had to go far, far away.

For five hours straight, Omar and Jamal walked on the highway where he had always seen trucks and cars and buses coming and going very fast, horns honking. Sometimes even miles-long traffic jams, but it was strangely empty today. It was scary. They both continued to walk on the deserted road, and many others, too, walked along like a flock of birds. Even though they didn’t know each other, they became companions for the hardest time of their lives and separated. It took Jamal and Omar two hours to cross the valley, which was a difficult road for the cars. They made a half-circle of a large lake and, with it, left five more towns behind. All just looked the same. But, many people kept coming across, No one knew who was from where, but walking shoulder by shoulder, everyone looked alike, dragging shoes with bags on their backs or shoulders, gasping, but striding, tired but hopeful to go home.

They both kept walking among them even when the sun was right over them, and it was getting hot. They stopped two times, rested their legs and backs, and washed their faces and neck. Jamal looked happy every time he got up after taking the rest. “I can walk, papa. We have to go home. Keep walking.” he’d say. Omar had repeatedly been touching Jamal’s forehead. Jamal no longer had a fever, but to avoid the direct sunlight, Omar wetted the handkerchief and covered his son’s head with it. Jamal also liked it.

They came down from the main road and took another shorter route. “Look, Papa, trees are just like they are on our farm.” The boy said, looking up. Omar saw the blue gum trees which shadowed the long narrow road from both sides and then looked behind at his son; there were sweatdrops on Jamal’s forehead, and he was walking with his shoulders bent low. “Now, we should eat. It’s a good place to sit,” Omar said.

Under the rustling trees, they ate their food, and shortly after, Jamal vomited. His face looked red when he turned around. Omar was afraid and they had a long way ahead. It was difficult, he thought, but it’d be easier to sit here than staying in the mad city. He made the right choice, yes he knew it for sure. Once he reached home, everything would be fine. Jamal would be fine.

“Are you okay ?” Omar asked.
“Yes, papa.”
Yes, he was fine, only he needed a little rest. They lay down on the meadow for an hour, and he glared at the tree branches, dancing with the air, making more noise than ever. Yes, such trees were on both sides of his farm when…when he had the farm. He had seen them growing up like he had seen Jamal growing up, getting taller and one day the trees were gone, and the farm was gone, and they both, father and son, left the village.

“I like this road, why don’t you make such roads ?” Jamal asked when they started walking again. Jamal knew what kind of work Omar used to do in the city. Omar was not ashamed of his work of providing his labour for road and gutter construction agencies.
“All roads are alike. Here only trees are on both sides.”
“But there are many trees in my school too, and I don’t like it.”
“Oh,” Omar said, “I thought you like it.”
“No, I don’t.”
“So what do you like then?”
“Our farm … will we go there?”
“Yes, we are going right there,” Omar lied.
“And then, we come back to the city again?”
“Don’t know!”

Omar trudged, and Jamal followed. Without uttering a word, they walked for half an hour. Crossed two bridges, watched the water flowing down there, uninterrupted, and they crossed a town, then, Omar picked Jamal up on his shoulders and walked.

“I know you’ll go back to the city, Papa, when it’s all over,” said Jamal, sadly when both of them sat down on the side of a drain to wash their legs and hands. It was too hot. Omar got many cuts on his dusty feet throughout the journey and his tight muscles were aching now. And, pouring the water onto them again and again, cooled the legs, and relaxed him entirely.

“I’ll be with you all the time, my son, don’t worry.”
“And you’ll take me back with you?” Jamal asked.
“You don’t want to come to the city again after all this ends?”
“No, I never wanted,” he said bitterly. “You took me there.”
“You don’t like the city?” Omar asked, “wasn’t it a wonderful place?”
“No, it was very bad, bad, bad. And, I don’t have a friend there.”
“You’ll have many if you know how to make friends,” said Omar remembering his lone past.
“I know one thing, I hate them .. all of them. Why did you take me to the city? it was all good when I was in the village and I was with my mommy.”
“Okay, we won’t go back to the city if you don’t talk about mommy again, okay now?”
“I know you’re lying, I know.” Jamal stood up. “I have to go home…and to my Mommy.”

Omar touched his forehead, it was hot. “Listen, Mommy no longer lives with us, I told you,” Omar said and grabbed his skinny wrist, it was also hot and soon it will be burning, he knew.

“You are lying,” Jamal released his wrist from the grip of his father and started walking by himself. “We must be walking, I have to go back to mommy.” Omar stood up and followed. “I am not lying Jamal, if you’ll stop talking about your mommy, we will not go back to the city, I promise.”
“You always do lie papa, I always wanted to live with her,” he shouted and kicked a pebble away. “Why did we come to the city, we were so, so happy at our home.” Jamal turned, he was gasping for air, almost sobbing.

Omar was getting more and more worried after listening to his son, he didn’t know how to calm him down or stop him talking about his mommy.

“Papa, I want to meet mommy.”
Omar, without saying anything, put his arm on his forehead, it was burning now. His tiny eyes also turned red.
“We sit here for a while,” Omar said.
“No, I don’t want to sit.”
“See how beautiful this place is. You like such places, don’t you?” He pointed to the waving trees and there was a river, flowing beyond that.
“No,” Jamal said.
“What’s the matter, son?”
“Nothing! I got a headache.”
Omar came to him and made him sit on a flat boulder.
“You should sleep for a while, here in my lap.”
“No. I don’t want to sleep. I just want to go home.”
“Don’t think about anything Jamal, please.” He put his arm around his bony shoulders. “We’ll soon be at our home, dear,” he kissed his forehead, delicately.
“So why are we sitting here?”
“Across that hill is our home. look, we’re already home. You can sleep in my lap for a while.”

When Jamal fell asleep and was in deep sleep, he took him on to his shoulder and started moving towards the village again, as fast as he could without disturbing his sleep. Omar may have lost everything he left behind in the city. He had already lost it, he knew. All he had was his son on his shoulder and many thoughts that never let him live and work happily. Jamal always had a cute smile whenever Omar came back to the village from the city. So cheerful was his son, and always greeted him with a hug. Always! Now the good days had gone, and his son lost his precious smile. Sometimes he thought, he, himself snatched everything away from his son. Who else is responsible for Jamal’s state? Who else is here to blame? With all those thoughts in his mind, he kept on walking.

Meanwhile, he climbed the hill when it was almost dark, and, next to it, was his village. He exhaled heavily and then smiled to himself. He reached the crest of the hill as a very strange noise coming from the other side and getting louder. It was the sound of clanging and shouting. Omar became curious to know what was going on there.. he climbed hard on his last steps. Behind the hill, there were many dancing light beams in the sky. What was it? he wondered. Omar woke up Jamal to look at the view he had never seen in his village before. But Jamal was in deep sleep. “Jamal.. look !” he said, “Jamal! we are home, look how beautiful it is now.” He looked down at his face and his tightly closed eyes. “Jamal? Are you okay, Jamal?”

Omar laid him on the ground, checked his forehead, the hotness was gone, it was now surprisingly cold. Then his frantic hands rushed to check his son’s whole body and it was now cold. Cold and numb. He checked his pulse.

“Jamal… Jamal wake up.. my child, we are home… Don’t you want to see your mother? See, she is coming up the hill with so many flashlights in her hand.” Omar patted Jamal’s soft and cold right cheek and then both the cheeks together. “Wake up my child, please…wake up.” But, his son’s body didn’t respond. Omar laid on the ground beside him, looking at his face. Even though his heart was pounding so loud now, he could still hear the clanging of bells and steel plates and people shouting and flashing, like it was all over. Yes, it is over. The chaos is over. The journey is over. Over his head, light beams were passing, coming and going as if they were searching for something in the dark of the sky beyond the stars. As he looked at his boy, tears were rolling down his cheeks. “This can’t be true.. he was so brave, he was so strong ..this is not true.” He choked and he choked harder, lying flat on the ground beside his son.


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