Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Tattered Shoe

The following post is a work of fiction, revolving around the picture below.

The world looked so different today, sitting atop his father's shoulders. There was an unknown warmth inside him, a flicker of hope and he was not even sure why. Even with the billowing smoke behind them, Aalim was calm, he felt protected and kept pondering over the reason for this sudden trip. He knew he was supposed to be happy because his father seemed at peace and he was seeing a smile on his father's face after a long, long time. 

Aalim knew if his father was happy, there was something on the other side, that was more welcoming than the bleat of their herd of sheep, their only family. He and his father had been walking for about an hour and he had seen a lot of other people too, hiking the cold mountain with their children. Wherever this place was, it must be a safe haven. Otherwise, the Afghan parents would never let their kids out on the mountains, which was open ground for violence. Aalim had been perched on his father's shoulders for about an hour and was now getting very curious as to why so much effort was being put into reaching this place. You see, Aalim was the kind of child who was demure, yet intelligent. He would get curious, but would find answers himself. He did not like to question anybody, especially his father, whom he trusted more than anything. So he kept designing images in his head, of what would be on the other side of this mountain. 

Maybe it was an Ice-Cream shop, he had heard about it from some of the American soldiers, and from what they said, it must be a delicious treat. Or maybe, there was going to be one of those things that flew in the sky like a bird, and people could travel from one place to another in it. He had always seen planes in the sky, and had been told it was a bad omen, since they were almost always followed by a string of explosions somewhere. But, he had heard these planes could take you to far off places, where you could see big buildings, lights, and the warmth of heaters. But, his father had left behind their sheep; he would never move to a new place, without their family, their sheep. So what could be on the other side that was worth all this trouble? Was he going to find a new family, a mother, a sister, grandparents? He had heard of these family members, but never experienced that bond. Was his father taking him to see the Circus, or the Zoo; he had seen pictures of these places in the letters written to an American Soldier. The soldier had pointed out the pictures made by his son, describing the things he had seen that summer. 

Aalim belonged to the region of Jalalkot, in Afghanistan; a region that had been ravaged during the conflicts between the American forces and the Taliban. This war had gone on for such a long time; since the time he was 3; that he wasn't sure what home meant. Right now they lived in bunkers, and would be moved around depending on the threat to that area. He wasn't sure what the war was about, but he had been told the Americans were looking for a very dangerous man. He had also been told by many that the Americans were the ones who were dangerous. They had the big weapons, and bombs that would hurt people. Aalim was too young to understand the undercurrents to the different sides of the story. It was his father, who had taught him though, not to judge any one. "It is the side that you view it from, that defines whether someone is good or bad"; said Aalim's father, Akhdan. 

Photo Credit: Gazing at the flag
Akhdan was a very sensible, and unbiased man. He was industrious and righteous. As long as his family's needs were being met, he did not indulge in conflicts, and was in general, a happy man. Even though, he had lost a lot in this war, his wife and daughter, his parents, his house; he was glad he had his son and a decent meal. The benevolent person that he was, he would even share his possessions, with others in need. It was under Akhdan's support then, that Aalim became friendly with the soldiers keeping guard in Jalalkot.  It was weird that people thought these soldiers were scary, but it was these soldiers who would share their food treats, something very tasty called 'Cheese Crackers', it was also they who played catch with the little kids around. The thing is, for everybody stuck in those bunkers, it was these lighter moments to keep them human. With the sound of explosions, panic and painful screams, it was difficult to maintain sanity and not be pulled down by the dark side of human nature. So, the soldiers too did not mind the welcome breaks. 

A friendship with the soldiers meant, taking a peek in their lives and finding how life could be different for different people. Some of the amiable soldiers shared their letters and showed family pictures to Aalim. It was strange how they would communicate across a language barrier, using sign language and expressions. But, soon Aalim was learning things he would never have known, had he not befriended these visitors. He started gaining knowledge about simple things like a Circus, a Zoo, a Library and a School. And then went on to more complicated things like iPODs, computers and what not. He had never seen any of these things in Jalalkot. There used to be a small school 15 miles away from Jalalkot, but that too had fallen to the perils of war. He had been hoping he would go to that school when he grew up. But he wasn't so sure of that anymore. Based on what he was being told by the soldiers, he started imagining school; lots of colorful toys, beautiful books with pictures of animals, songs about the moon, the sky and the trees. That was the best he could do, imagine and feel like he was there.

And that was what he was doing even today, imagining what it would be like, in this special place his father was taking him to. When he had thought of all possible surprises, he suddenly popped a question to his father, "Abbu, it is a good surprise, right? It is not like you are going to leave me there with someone? That would be a really bad surprise". Akhdan smiled from ear to ear and said, "I am sure you will like this surprise. It will be fun for both of us. And yes, I would never think of leaving you".
"So, where is it that we are going? It has been such a long time, I think we are lost", said Aalim.
To which, his father said, "We are almost there, but you have to save all your energy for there. So try to be quiet for sometime, okay?".

Aalim thought finally the day had come for him to help his father. He wondered: "Father did say that I have to save up my energy, so I must have to help him with the farm and the sheep". Aalim had requested his father many times to let him work at the farm, but Akhdan insisted he was too young to work, this was the time for him to enjoy the wonders of life. And this was the time he could learn something from the books and stories of the soldiers. It took everything in Aalim to curb his curiosity, and then he heard something really cheerful. The sound of laughter, the sound of children running around with enthusiasm. What was it that made them so happy? He was so excited, trying to stretch himself enough to see what was happening; that he almost fell off from his look-out point.

As they approached the noise, Aalim came across a colorful play set, a red slide, a blue swing, green monkey bars. He had never been on any of those, but remembered seeing a picture in a book. As Akhdaan kept walking, Aalim excitedly asked him, "Please Abbu, tell me this is where we stop. Is this what we were coming for?". Akhdan nodded his head in assent, and Aalim had a grin as wide as the crescent moon. Akhdan added, "But this is not all. You are going to learn about the world, learn to count and add numbers, learn new songs about different places, and meet new friends. Do you want to do all that? Do you want to go to school?".

"Yes, yes, father, I have always wanted to do all this, maybe that American Grandfather with a long, white beard and red sack heard my wish and thought of letting me go to school", said Aalim. He was talking about Santa Claus, of course. The soldiers had told him about the legend of Santa Claus this last Christmas, mentioning that such a good boy would surely be rewarded by Santa. And like all young children, he had instantly believed in the miracle of wishing, and had done exactly what he was told. He had eagerly put his little, tattered shoe, out under the winter sky; that was the closest he had, to socks or stockings; left one Kebab beside the shoe, and made his wish, a wish to explore the world, write his own name, write letters like the ones the soldiers had, and be able to read the wonderful stories in the books, he had only relished by looking at the pictures. The next day he ran out to look at the shoe, but it was empty. Little as he was, he was not sure, how such a gift would fit inside a shoe. And he assumed that Santa had lost his way, trying to find the gift, but was sure that Santa would figure out a way to get his gift. He was running around that whole day, telling everybody about the Kebab that Santa had eaten and his gift that would soon arrive. All the soldiers were amused by this story, especially Sgt. Matt Bedford, the soldier who had shown him pictures of his children at the Zoo. He insisted Aalim should tell him what his wish was. And soon enough, Aalim blurted out that he wanted to go to school.

Aalim was right in thinking that Santa Claus had listened to his wish, because it was Sgt. Bedford who had revealed to Akhdan about the mini playschool-like unit the United Nations was trying to set up in Bilalkot, about an hour from their home in Jalalkot. Akhdan was thrilled to know that his son might actually be able to experience what school felt like. But it worried him that they might ask for money and he didn't have any to spare. With the bombings, his crops had suffered and he could see that the year would be difficult anyways, without even having to pay for school. "I don't think Aalim could go to school this year, maybe next year....", muttered Akhdan. Sgt. Bedford was quick to add, "No, no, don't worry, you will not need money. The United Nations is trying to train the men and women in your country to run a school and teach children. This is a project they are working on. So all children will be welcome". Akhdan could never forget that day.

Recollecting the events from that day, Akhdan thought to himself, "Today I will finally see Aalim embark on the journey he was meant to take". As Akhdan lowered Aalim from his shoulders, he had tears in his eyes, tears that had built up inside him since the day this inhumanity had started in his country, since his family had been wiped off, since the day he had started worrying about his son, Aalim's future. He contained the tears again somehow, and with misty eyes, spoke to his son, "This is where you become exactly like the other kids in the world. You will enjoy a childhood, play with toys, use the wings of your imagination to fly off to mystic places and come home with lots of stories". This is where Aalim would forget about the violence, the injustice, the prejudice of life. This is where he would enjoy the liberties only being a child can bestow one with. His thoughts could run free, he could ask questions, in no fear of punishment, he could find himself, he could experiment with his ideas, and most important, he could enjoy life's little pleasures. He would find friends, share dreams and hopes, be creative and portray a different character every day. He would learn that running always need not be out of fear; it could be out of joy, in exhilaration. And there were multitudes of discoveries he would make over the years, some about himself, some about human nature and some about life itself.

Akhdan was so overwhelmed by this momentous occasion that he forgot he was still holding tight to Aalim, who was jumping up and down with pleasure. He was brought back to reality by Aalim's shouts, "Abbu, Thank you, for bringing me here, but can I go, can I go?". Akhdan then loosened his hold on Aalim and walked him over to Sgt. Bedford, who was already waiting there to introduce Aalim to the teachers. Akhdan nudged Aalim and he blurted out, "Thank you, Uncle". Sgt. Bedford picked up Aalim and swung him around, to add with a smile,  "Now you too can draw pictures of all the new places that you will learn about at school. I will wait to hear your stories". The teachers enrolled Aalim and took him over to the meet-and-greet with the other kids. They ensured Akhdan of his son's safety and asked him to come back for Aalim in two hours.

Akhdan had nothing but gratitude for these noble men and women, who had helped all these troubled children find a ray of normalcy in these frightening times. Things had been getting better after the forces had decided to recede, and there were Social Organizations like these, trying to smooth out the process of resettling, for the natives. The Afghan administrators were being pursued to open up schools, recreation centers and playgrounds for kids. And lucky was Aalim, that he was sent here to the school. Life had changed for Aalim after starting school. He would smile more, talk more and ask questions too. He was no longer subdued and petrified; he no longer wanted to just help his Abbu in the farm; he wanted to be one of those men that would visit the moon. His eyes would twinkle with hope and aspiration. He was finally on the path, he was named to be on; the name Aalim means a scholar, and 20 years from that day, he had become one!

Aalim was lucky to have a father like Akhdan, but it was now his time to be the Akhdan, the friend, in other children's lives. He was running schools all over Afghanistan, and other war-ravaged places around the world. Aalim had written poetry books for children, with hand-drawn images made by kids themselves. And he would distribute these books to regions of the world, where children had no easy access to schools. He had an organization, The Tattered Shoe, that connected children around the world, across borders and helped them communicate through letters. It was these letters that had opened up a whole new world for him. A world that had taught him many lessons that his little hut would not have been able to.

It was at school that Aalim had reveled at the differences between the kids from across the world: color, language, attire, food. But, it was also here he had realized that all kids yearned for the same things: the confidence to express themselves, the liberty to ask questions, the freedom to dream and the right to be a child, responsibility-free. It was also there that he had sensed the presence of a tattered shoe in the lives of such children. Sometimes, it is a tattered shoe, sometimes a wrecked house, a shattered picture frame or even a broken heart. But, every child hopes that this devastation still leads the way to a happy place where there is freedom of joy and the right to knowledge!

This post is part of the contest A picture can say a thousand words.. on


  1. You have outlined the importance of the education that we take so much for granted. kudos

    1. Thank you, Sir... A person's education truly molds his/her life and everybody deserves that opportunity, irrespective of biases!

  2. lovely imagination! All the best :-)

    1. Thank you for your comment and wishes!! Keep visiting the blog for more :)

  3. This article is really worth reading, it has too much details in it and yet it is so simple to understand, Thanks for sharing it :)

    High School Diploma

    1. Thank you John... I am happy you liked it. Hope to see you on my blog more often :)

  4. Brilliantly written. Absolutely loved the narrative. The detailing of every situation was so good and elaborate that I was able to picture every scene in my head. And the whole story brought out the essence of humanity and how people come together even in despair and make a life out of it. And more than anything else, you have stressed the importance and value of education in one's life and how it fills us with perspective and helps in seeing the world and bringing about change as well. Beautiful story! And all the very best for the competition.

    1. Wow!! Thank you so much for your insightful and generous comments. Coming from such a creative writer as you, it really means a lot to me that you enjoyed reading this story.
      I am a firm believer in the fact that education makes or breaks an individual, and thus a school serves many more purposes than just providing knowledge.. I am glad I could put that across :)
      Good Luck to you too, for the contest!!

  5. So beautifully penned. It was like watching a movie:)Best of luck...

    1. Thank you so much Panchali Di... your comments are valued :)

  6. Hi Amruta

    There were quite a few entries in the contest based on war ravaged places...But they all ended on a negative note of melancholy...Yours is a feel good post with war as the backdrop...The little world of the child described in the initial para s to the whole lot of positivity in the end, its fabulous....Awesome Amruta...Kudos :D

  7. I really liked the positivity you offered to your characters... and indirectly to the reader, too. I, for one, like happy endings. Good luck with the contest, Amruta! :)

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