Uncle Awan was a hero. Throughout my childhood, he was my favourite member of the family, and I felt more connected to him than with my brothers. He taught me cricket, gave me my first ever wallet and took me to movies, where I always got a large tub of popcorn and a lime soda.
Uncle Awan lived near to our home; so he would visit us often. He was younger to my mother, but she always treated him like an elder. He would often advise her on matters that concerned the family, which I would be listening to, while pretending to be engrossed in video games. That’s how I knew about the occasional quarrels between my parents, the partition of the land where we cousins used to play and even about how esteemed and well-known our great grandparents were.
When going out with him, standing in the front space of the Vespa, there will always be people greeting him; he’d even stop at times. But I loved all these and never got tired of it; it made me admire him more. I knew he was not financially well off, but I have seen him lending money to others. He used to even pay us money for sarbath after our cricket matches, where he and I always teamed up against seven or eight of my friends. The Vinex cricket bat he bought me is dearly preserved under my bed, to this day.
I remember how he danced at Minnu’s wedding. He sang vintage mapila songs and danced like a youngster trying to impress the girls present. My mother had shouted out to him if he was shameless. In response, he winked at me and told me if he was rich one day, he’d build a house made of glass and dance inside as he pleased. I never understood that statement, but it stayed with me all these years. He had continued in his style, his grace overpowering the stout figure.
No one else in our family had so many acquaintances as Uncle Awan had; I used to wonder how he remembered all those faces and names. My mother had once remarked him as the ‘most popular guy in town.’
And that is why no one could understand why, on a rainy morning in June, sixteen years back, he jumped off the cliff at Maatoly Hill.
He had told no one. For days, we feared he went missing. Those days, the entire town, police and mullahs filled our neighbourhood. Sympathies, questions and duas squeezed in where there was space. Then, several days later, “Seventeen”, as recounted by my weeping grandmother on innumerable occasions to countless listeners, Zuhra aunty discovered a note from underneath the Vespa’s seat. I never read the note, but whispers and whimpers told me ‘Maatoly Hill’ was the only information it held.
His body was never found.
For me, his death was a turning point in life.
My 12-year old mind suddenly felt traumatized by the lack of affection from family life. A huge void was left behind, which a few tried to fill over the years. But later on I realised that I had chosen to make that void a shield to feel secure from a world that seemed less genuine after his demise.
Years, eras and people passed by my life. Yet, I never understood or was not even able to sensibly conclude as to why he jumped off the cliff.
Maybe that lack of understanding was good. It saved me. From substantiating. Substantiating why I stood here now. At Maatoly Hill. The perennial mist created a deceitful bed of cotton below me. It was a perfect sight to end an imperfect life.
I looked around. There was no one in vicinity. I imagined Uncle Awan here. We had such drastically different lives, yet here I was, stepping into his shoes. Legacy.
There was a gush of air. A cold one.
I wanted to see what lay beneath the mist – the wonderment felt by every visitor at Maatoly Hill. But the wind was overpowering. With eyes shut, I fell free.
After what felt like an eternity, my body touched something. I startled in the air. But in fact, I bounced up, and then landed again. Eyes shut, I sensed a net clinging to my body.
My heart was pounding. I opened my eyes. The mist was gone. I looked around. I was flat on an enormously stretched fibre net. Bewildered, I tried to comprehend. And then to get up. Both, in vain.
Then I felt the net was lowering gradually. Ground was only a few feet below, which I realised as my body touched it. Cold, yet natural. Still, unreal.
Several hands reached out to me. I was astonished to see loosely dressed people gathering around me from nowhere – both men and women. My now numb body complied with their whims – I was made to stand up and supported to walk.
“Who…who are you?” I asked, breathing heavily. The young guy to my left looked at me. He had unkempt hair and beard, but looked graceful. He replied, “You are safe. And away from where you wanted to leave.” They continued to make me walk.
Questions poured into my mouth. I asked impulsively, “But where are you taking me to?”
“To the Gathering. That’s the norm.” Another guy replied with a smile. He had a bald head, with lined eyes.
“To your leader? King?” I sputtered, reminded of Hollywood movies. The men laughed. The bald one replied, “No. we don’t have a leader. Gathering is where we all spend time together. But I’m sure Awan will take a look at you first.”
The name blazed me. The numbness was gone. The other guy replied, “Yeah. He is always the keen one!”
I was speechless.
“Aa… Awan?” I murmured. But the guys were not listening.
I looked ahead. There were structures visible now. They were of all shapes and sizes. There was the rustle of a gathering in a clearing ahead of us. I gaped at the surreal village. Then, beside a huge tree that had windows carved on it, I saw a single-storeyed house – made of glass!
A world. Out here. Perhaps made by him. My mind raced. The heart pounded harder.
Another gush of air. And that was when my head hit the ground, and my skull crac-