Le Haluwa | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 07, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, May 07, 2020

Le Haluwa

Ma comes home with a tiny little piece of haluwa wrapped in taut plastic—the kind you get at hospitals. She holds it up in the air, her fingers a jeweller's vice, and says, "See the haluwa?"

"No," I reply.

She stretches out her arm as far as it can possibly go, and as if the haluwa is in control of this operation now, it leads her straight onto the only light bulb in the room. "Now?"

"I can't see anything," I reply.

"Come closer, then."

I was sat at the far end of the room, next to the window where one could watch the dogs sleep before the corner store lights turned in for the night. My mother held the haluwa even higher and I got closer. "Can you see it now?" she asked. I shook my head. My mother pondered for a moment. "Maybe the bulb is getting old," she says and aligns the palm of her hand right next to the light bulb. My eyes followed her hand, turning slowly, wading through imaginary resistance. The tungsten hues reminded me of how our microwave needed repair. "The bulb seems fine," my mother says, her fingers scratching the light. Heat is a peculiar sensation. "Perhaps it's not the bulb. Perhaps the haluwa isn't bright enough," I say.

"Is that even possible?" my mother replies.

"I think I could see it if you put the haluwa inside the light bulb."

The lightbulb dangled from a rusty chain on the ceiling, far out of my mother's reach and certainly out of mine. I contemplated getting on her shoulders, but my mother was convinced it would not be enough. The apartment was sparse and the only chair was in the room that wasn't ours, at least not for another fourteen weeks. The room had been rented out to the only person who could possibly reach the bulb. "Space is a luxury we could do without," my mother said. The temptations of a boost to the finances were too powerful. "At least it's family," she said. The kind of distant family that exists solely to compare notes with. I was convinced he wanted to see our downfall from day one.

Ma continued to struggle with the lightbulb. "If we put the haluwa inside the bulb, you'll have to see it, right?" Offended, the electricity snapped off and everything slowed down. Without light, I took the initiative and fumbled for my phone. Heat is a peculiar sensation that can always seem to get worse, like power outages in the summer, and the phone was worth far more as a flashlight than all its pixels. My mother's haluwa-holding hand clattered with elbow and the haluwa vanished into the abyss. The light panned left and right, but the haluwa was gone. "It must be here somewhere," I said, tentatively searching for the piece with my toes. Our apartment was small. The largest room was occupied by the relative who had moved in thirty weeks and thirteen days ago. The two of us were hardly ever at home, leaving early and returning only after sundown. After the relative moved in, Ma and I spent our weekends visiting more intimate family. We were never quite sure if he ever left. That couldn't be true. He had many visitors though, guests who would bring containers full of home cooked meals for him every time. Ma always found it strange how every single offering was cooked personally and brought in plastic boxes instead of from a store. "It's a bit much, isn't it? They never come back to take the boxes," she said to me once, "And he never offers us any." Stranger still was that the relative's friends never seemed to visit twice. Everyday, someone different.

The relative's presence was stronger in the dark. From inside the room, we could hear him on the tail-end of a phone call. It wouldn't be the first time Ma and I eavesdropped on his conversations. Meandering, routine dialogues beginning with formal niceties quickly strayed into salesman speak. "The best you'll find", "You won't find a better deal" and talk of numbers that only existed in movies. Cash amounts far exceeding the slim band of notes he handed to Ma every month.

We knew we didn't have much time. The relative would step out soon and neither of us wanted any part of that. The room he rented lacked windows, so he would step out whenever the fan shut off. Standing, waiting for the electricity to return in front of a window that was so close to the next building that you could reach out to touch its walls. The stale stench of sweat and decaying food wafted through the apartment. Ma could sleep through everything (and deservedly so), but the musky odour woke me up. Instinctively, I would bury myself under the blanket, hoping that out of sight for me meant out of mind for him.

On cue, the relative's doorknob started turning. I moved the rays of the flashlight onto his door, and just there, a foot in front of it, lying lazily on its side, we found the haluwa. It's plastic exterior reflecting like a star.

The relative entered stage left and in his hand he held a new prop. I couldn't make out what it was. It was blinding with star power. I want to believe Ma yelled, imploring him to wait, halt, stop, freeze, and pause. That it had been too late de facto and past the point of intervention of God or magic. As soon as his foot landed on the unsuspecting haluwa, the relative went flying, and with him, something else went flying towards Ma.

***

Months had passed and the relative had extended his stay with us. Ma stopped going to work because people in wheelchairs were patients in hospitals, not nurses. The money we received from the relative was the only income we had. I never saw another piece of haluwa again, but one day I came home and found Ma staring at the lightbulb. I looked up and saw a haluwa cube sat on top of the filament inside it. She smiles. I want to reach it but I know it's impossible, because the light bulb is too high and the only person who can bring it down is the relative with a bullet from his pistol.

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