Omar mopped the sweat on his brow with his dark and stained handkerchief as he furiously pedalled towards his university. His sister had lazed over his breakfast again which had led to an unpleasant tiff between them as getting in late to class was becoming a common occurrence.
“If only we could afford some hired help”, he thought moving his legs laboriously up and down on the pedals, willing the effort to get him to University faster.
As the road curved , the sprawling campus buildings loomed ahead; warm and inviting red brick architecture still reminiscent of the Mughal kings who had reigned over the city of Lahore for close to two hundred years. Omar braked sharply to avoid a motorbike coming from the other direction and weaved into his customary bicycle parking spot. Skipping over the verdant hedge, he cut through the vast expanse of green running up the stairs towards the hall where his class on “Anatomy” was taking place. The door creaked when he pushed it to enter the hall, and making himself as inconspicuous as possible, he made his way to where his friend Ali was sitting. He opened his notebook, and the rest of the lecture continued with the boys focusing all their attention on Dr. Khan’s drooping moustache, shiny head and droning voice.
Omar was the eldest son of a family plagued with incessant struggle and misfortune. His father had never risen above the ranks of a clerk in the post office, compelling his mother to supplement the meagre family income by stitching clothes for the more affluent ladies of the locality. Being the eldest of four siblings including three sisters, Omar felt the unsaid pressure of a better future weighing down on his lean shoulders. His younger and most beautiful sister Saba had recently been divorced by her husband owing to her inability to bear a child. Though his parents did not voice their emotions, their eyes followed her with a look of hopelessness which was a mirror to how they felt inside. The burden of two more unmarried daughters was now more apparent in the stoop of their shoulders. Omar’s mother, once a strong and formidable woman, had become an almost unrecognizable shadow of her former self. Fiercely protective of her, he hoped someday he would be able to smooth the lines on her brow, now etched deep with a sense of permanence in them. A higher education seemed to be the only light at the end of this dark tunnel, hence he put in all his energy and focus in studying for his Medical degree.
After the lecture, Omar and Ali made their way in the rising heat towards the University canteen to have their usual cup of tea amongst a horde of students all fighting for a place under the slowly whirring fan.
“Chotu, do chai” yelled Ali in his booming voice whilst sitting on the corner table.
The two friends were like chalk and cheese! Omar was dark skinned, lanky with a medium height and a quiet presence. Years of hard work and struggle had given him the countenance of an old man trapped inside a young body. On the other hand, Ali who was from the Northern region of Pakistan, was tall and broad built with a fair complexion and a loud voice which compelled people to notice his presence when he entered a room. He came from a well-to-do land owning family and had traveled to Lahore with a dream to improve the medical conditions in his antiquated village with the help of his Medical Degree.
“We have to meet this Saturday to complete the Final Year Project” said Omar. “The exams and the Project submission are very close to each other and I don’t wish one to affect the performance of the other”.
Ali raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “Omar, the exams are six months away. Take it easy and enjoy the last few days of freedom before reality hits us”, he smiled.
The steaming tea arrived along with a plate of samosas perched precariously on Chotu’s hand. The hungry young men forgot all about exams and Projects and turned their attention to gratifying their gastronomic need. The canteen was a cacophony of loud sounds exaggerated in Lahore’s boiling heat, but was nevertheless, a welcome break for the students who had devoted five years of their prime life in this campus! A close look at each student’s face would have revealed a vigorous energy, propelled with the need to survive, but which would eventually take them towards hope and a better future. A few more months and this campus full of verdant fields, burnt brick buildings and airless halls would be left behind, and only the memories of tea drank with friends in the hot canteen, sleepless nights before exams and rushed bicycle rides would be left behind. But the treasure each student would take with him would be a certificate which would open doors to a more prosperous future. Omar looked forward to this more than ever; much as he loved his father, he envisioned a life beyond the stairs of the Post Office on which his father had stepped for twenty five years. His knees and legs had permanent scars collected after years of riding his bicycle in narrow and bumpy lanes, and he aspired for more and better.
By the time Omar found himself pedaling back home, the sun was rapidly descending and the shadows were growing longer. Hunger was gnawing in the pit of his stomach and the anticipation of a hot meal cooked by his sister boosted his energy, making the effort of cycling a trifle easier. The street near his home was teeming with people in white skull caps heading towards the mosque for the evening prayer. Omar valiantly fought the urge to answer his gastronomic need before his religious duty and headed towards the mosque after securing his bicycle to a pole outside his small house with the peeling paint.
As he left the mosque, the sun was setting and leaving in its wake a red and orange hue in the horizon. Seeing this creation of the Almighty, his heart surged with hope and at that moment he knew this his present days filled with anxiety, stress and worry would soon be replaced with bounty and a change in his destiny. Upon entering the house, he carelessly flung his satchel in the corner and before heading towards the kitchen in the hope of a hot meal, he gently swung his arm and shut the door on yet another day!