Asharaf is a stomach sleeper. Only when upset does he lie on his back. And that's what is happening now.
Tasnim glanced at the clock. It's going to be 11.00 PM and this boy has not yet slept. She slightly turned to one side of the cot and looked down where Asharaf is. He usually sleeps on the floor.
"Ashu... Ashu..." She whispered. His eyes were open and fixed on the ceiling. Upon her calling, he got up as if from a nightmare.
"What ammi? Didn't you sleep?"
"I was about to ask that. What's your tension today? "
He always talks to mother if something is disturbing. But this time he was not willing to.
"Nothing ammi. I am alright. It's just that I was thinking about Salman's dog. It went missing and is still not found..."
"Oh, dear... Poor thing! What can we do? Will pray and hope it will be back someday. Don't worry too much. You will wake up late ahh..."
He nodded and pretended to sleep on his stomach. Else mother will dig out everything. Each time he closed his eyes the boy's face was flashing in front of his eyes like a picture-perfect photograph. At some point of time, the photo flew into his dreams.
Next morning he was acting like a machine while his mind was roaming somewhere else. For a few days he has been behaving weirdly. Tasnim was observing him and decided to end this drama today. Let him come back from school, she thought.
She was sure that it was not the dog story. Ashu looked worried. He always shared his worries with her. But this time he said nothing! Tasnim knew if she sat with him for some time he would pour his heart out. For a mother it is not that hard to read her child's heart.
As Asharaf reached the class, to his surprise the boy was waiting for him next to his seat. Actually, Ashu did not plan anything as such. But it happened that way. Sometimes in life, you listen to your heart instead of brain and later when it turns out right, you feel real happiness! Isn't it?
The boy was new to the class. It was the first time some child from another religion joined this school. Hence most of the children did not have exposure to any other than their. So it felt different and a new experience to all. Hailing from orthodox families, it was difficult for the children to accept an outsider like Harish into their group. Nobody spoke with him. No one sat with him. All were hesitant to talk with him. For them, he was from some other universe, just like an alien who did not believe in their God! Asharaf somehow did not feel anything wrong with the boy. He looked similar to all other kids except he wasn't wearing a topi(taqiyah).
During lunch break, a few children who looked little considerate approached Asharaf and asked, "Why are you sitting with him? Don't be friends with the boy. He is cursed. That's why he is not wearing taqiyah. Do one thing, why don't you ask him to join us? He will be saved then and we can let him in our gang."
Asharaf felt it was an absurd idea. If God created all of us then 'the boy' is also a child of the almighty. How can he be so cruel to his own children? He was perplexed. He thought for hours but couldn't find any answer. He wanted to ask ammi, then he dropped the idea because he felt it's not an appropriate topic to discuss with elders. He was also unsure about mother's reaction.
Anyways, he continued to sit with the boy. Soon he could feel the friendship was blossoming. But the puzzled thoughts never left him. Every night they turned into a big question mark and poked his sleep. He yearned to seek the answers to many questions which were undisclosed to him.
'The Boy' - that's what all call him in the new school. He has a name - Harish. No one in the whole 5th grade attempt to call him that way except Asharaf. That made a big difference to 'the boy'. He saw that everyone was apprehensive about him. It was Asharaf who chose to sat with him when all others were reluctant. Harish was much relieved by that act. He feels Asharaf is much considerate than other children. Otherwise, when no one was willing to sit with him why did only he choose the other way? People who are considerate and tolerant can do that.
Harish's father is a Government College Professor. This is his third transfer. Harish is a child who adapts to new surroundings easily. So this transfer too didn't bother him much. But unlike all other places, this place seems to be a little different. He is the only student from another religion. He feels left out in the new crowd. Perhaps he does not feel that way, the other children do. His excitement on his first day of the school burned into ashes by evening. All he could hear around him were murmurs and babbles. He couldn't figure out what was the matter.
The next day, one child who looked a friend to him asked, "We are all worried about you, friend. You know, those who don't believe in our God will never go to heaven. Why don't you join us? You will be saved then." He showed his concern and turned out to be a frenemy.
The humiliation received from that advice was unbearable for the boy. He did not know what to say. He got up from his place and walked out of the class. All his anger was on his father for choosing the wrong place, the wrong school for him. His eyes or heart, he couldn't make out which one was heavier!
His grandfather put forth the solution that night, "You tell him that those who don't believe in our God also will not see heaven. Problem solved." He was not satisfied with that logic though.
The only factor which made him look forward to going to school was Asharaf. He was the only one who sat with him and talked to him. He was hopeful to find a good friend in Asharaf, his only relief at school.
The Brand New God
That night Tasnim and Asharaf's conversation took a longer time than usual. He introduced 'the boy' to his mother. He sought answers to his questions.
"Ammi, will he be sent to hell? But he is a good boy, ammi. How can God send good people to hell?"
Tasnim had no idea what to answer. She held his hand, tapping with her other hand.
"Ashu, do you remember the precept from your favourite book 'Wonder'? "When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind." Always follow it. God is kind. He stays in our hearts. Listen to your heart. All the answers lie there. It's just how you perceive and pursue it!"
Ashu's father is keen about Ashu developing a reading habit. They buy lots of books for him. He has over two hundred books by now, a little library! For them, reading is the open window to the unseen world. They believe that books make people not only intelligent but also broad-minded and tolerant.
Ashu nodded but with no plans to stop the question & answer session.
"Hmm... I understand ammi. I have one more doubt. What is the majority and minority all about?"
This time Tasnim got into the flow. She was quick to respond.
"Darling, listen carefully. Everyone in this world is a minority in some or other way. Once in a lifetime, we all have to go through it. Maybe in school, amongst friends, office or country. Imagine all your friends are having a debate and you are standing alone. How would you feel if all others started to bully you? It is your privilege that you are born at this place. So, always treat others the way you want to be treated if you were in their place. A flip test, like flipping a coin to the other side. It's as easy as it is. Then there won't be any differentiation. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect."
Asharaf was half relieved. He got convinced that whatever his heart said was right.
"Ammi, if all the Gods are lovable and kind then isn't it better to have one God for all of us right?"
Tasnim smiled and hugged him tightly.
"That's a great thought Aashu. Unfortunately, human adults in this world are not so thoughtful. God, heaven and hell ...everything is inside us. You choose which one you want to follow. Now, go sleep honey. It's quite late. Sleep tight."
After many days, he slept on his stomach like a baby.
The next morning Asharaf was waiting to reach the school. He couldn't wait to see 'the boy'. As usual Harish was waiting for him too. Unlike other days they were indulged in deep conversations like best friends.
Harish eagerly shared his knowledge. "You know, my grandfather told me that those who don't believe in our God will also go to hell..."
Asharaf chuckled and replied, "Ha ha... That's wonderful then. We both will be together there as well!"
Both could not stop laughing. At that moment all others around them could see were...
"two children of heaven."
With a beatific smile on his face, that night Asharaf wrote his own precept in his diary-
"You can be a God to someone by just being kind. That way you make this place a better world, a happy world."