“Six naans please, Uncle Ashraf.”
The old man sat next to his cart beside a stove and pot, in a dusty little street of Karachi amid the wild sounds of traffic and people. He wore a brown shalwar kameez with a threadbare beige shawl around his shoulders that did not look like it would retain much heat. Obscuring part of his salt-and-pepper hair and receding hairline, on the top of his head was perched a flat khaki cap which was more holes than cloth. He had a weathered kindly face whose texture resembled that of a crinkled brown paper bag. Crow’s feet appeared around the edges of Uncle Ashraf’s eyes when he smiled at Ali, a regular customer.
Ali, whose grandmother had sent him that afternoon to buy half a dozen naans that day for lunch, watched as the roti-wala plunged a knobbly hand into a pot and pulled out a handful of dough clenched in his fist. He proceeded to swiftly swirl the dough around in both hands with artistic precision, and the dough gradually began to stretch into a flat, oval-shaped disc. Ali watched the dancing dough with mesmerized eyes.
He snapped out of his trance and finally broke the silence with, “Do you like your job, Uncle?”
“Well, beta, I don’t have a choice.”
“Why don’t you have a choice? If I were grown up I would never do anything I don’t want to. I’d have as many chocolates and ice-creams I want to, with no one to stop me! I would go to bed late—in fact, I wouldn’t go to bed at all!” was Ali’s fierce declaration. He added, a little remorsefully, “I have to sleep on time now or else Nani gets vexed,”
The roti seller smiled. “All your life you’ll find yourself doing things you don’t want to, little Ali.”
“Catch me! But why do you have to sell naans and chapatis anyway, Uncle Ashraf?” persisted Ali.
“I have to make a living, and this is the only way I can. I must feed my family, send my children to school, pay the bills…” Uncle Ashraf’s eyes wandered into space, and then, after returning to reality after a moment, he said with a smile: “Come now, why am I pouring out my woes to an innocent little boy like you.”
“But isn’t it fun being grown-up? All the time I yearn to be how old you are. Isn’t yours a grand, grown-up age? I can’t wait to be as old as you are, Uncle Ashraf! The fun I’d have!”
“Every aspect of life has its pros and cons, I suppose,” replied the wise naan-maker. “I fear that being as old as me will not be as gratifying as you have imagined, little one.”
“But why ever not?” asked the surprised Ali.
“That is because when a person is young as you are, Ali, they are full of zest and enthusiasm for the years to come. A child possesses many dreams that he is eager to fulfil in the future. They look at the world through rose coloured glasses, through the eyes of hope and optimism, and from a vantage point of beauty. An old person like me, on the other hand, has, perhaps, lost hope and accepted his lot in life.
“Why don’t old people see beauty in the world?” queried Ali with wide eyes.
“A child has hope, innocence and is often shielded from the harsh realities of life,” was the reply he received.
“But being grown-up is undeniably better, isn’t it? Adults like you have so much more experience, they are so knowledgeable and well… know so much more than me!” protested Ali.
“It is being young that is undeniably better, actually,” mused Uncle Ashraf with his eternal smile as he deftly tossed a naan into the burning kiln. “Young people such as yourself have so much energy and are much stronger and more flexible than old people. Now, an old person wouldn’t even dream of climbing a mountain, while here we have a mere lad of 13 who climbed Mount Everest! See, children are willing to embrace new ideas, experiment and take risks, unlike narrow-minded adults who are afraid to try new things.”
“Really? Did a boy actually climb the Mount Everest? When?”
“Oh, some years back,” Uncle Ashraf airily dismissed the matter with a wave of his flour-speckled hand.
“Anyhow, from what I have observed from Nani, grown-ups tend to stay calm in extreme situations too. Unless, of course, if I get mud on my clothes… But that’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it? Staying calm?”
“Yes, and no. You see, Ali, adolescents like yourself are burning with zeal, a passion, a need to change the world. Youth are seldom satisfied with mindless traditions practised by old people. This may be simply zany in adolescence but could later on bring about a revolution, particularly when accompanied with anger at an injustice. You see, in such circumstances staying calm would do no good at all.”
Uncle Ashraf was on the last naan by now.
A few moments of silence passed between the two debaters, during which Ali pondered over the fact that being his age just might be more advantageous than he had imagined.
“Here you go,” smiled Uncle Ashraf, handing Ali the bag of soft, steaming rotis and accepting the exact change Nani had meticulously calculated.
“Thank you.” mumbled Ali, hopping onto his bike, lost in thought, as his mind continued to swing from thought to thought like a pendulum, to and fro.
As Ali reflected on the pros and cons of being his age, he realised that like most things in life, every age and stage has its boons and banes, but contentment comes to those who focus on the positive and utilise the perks of their age as a springboard to soar.
Ali and the bread-maker
“Six naans please, Uncle Ashraf.”