No Ordinary Boy

Photo by Aman Bhargava

I wrote this piece of flash fiction a few months ago, and at first I wasn’t going to share it.

I don’t often talk about religion here, unless it comes up in the context of my characters. There are so many facets of identity, and for me, being Muslim is one of them. Personal faith is a better fit for me than organised religion, and my instinct is to keep it private.

Still, I’m proud of this story. Usually, I’d let the story speak for itself, but this one was written with a particular community in mind, and probably needs an explanation for other readers. It was written for an arts competition to commemorate a religious milestone, and although it didn’t make it through the first round, it perfectly expressed how I felt. In it, I talk about the sacrifices of leadership, and the weight of responsibility over the years.

No Ordinary Boy

Once long ago, under the same stars and moon shining tonight, a small boy danced in a courtyard. Like other boys, he dreamed of ball games and space ships, but this wasn’t an ordinary boy. Neither did he come from an ordinary family. The marbled walls around the family stood tall, yet the boy’s heart was soft. 

His tutors taught him about lost worlds, fallen empires and soaring architecture. He learned mathematics, philosophy and to converse in many tongues. He studied religions of old, as well as his own. He read literature and poetry, and when the world’s greats came to dine at his table, his gentleness and finesse charmed them. 

He could have been anything, but his grandfather chose him to be ours.

“You are next,” they said. “It is written. Make your grandfather proud.”

The boy, now a young man, worried he might fail. The robes they placed around his shoulders hung heavy with the weight of human suffering and riddles he didn’t know how to solve. His life would be over as he knew it. He would live in a gilded cage. Still, he loved his faith and his kind, wise grandfather so he prayed for strength and resolved to do his best.

The years passed, and the world grew dark, and humankind teetered on the edge of one disaster after the other. But the young man was the Imam for the Atomic Age, and he grew with his task. Enmities rose and faded, war erupted, despots emerged, missiles pulsed, tanks rolled, big business went bust, and his people lost their homes and lives in great wanderings across borders. There came a time when his faith caused people to recoil in fear and mistrust.

The man trembled but he stood resolute. The world bled. He longed to enfold it in gossamer bandages and wait for it to heal. But that is a child’s response, and the small boy was not forgotten but submerged under a hundred other identities: a leader, a parent, a lion, a guide, a diplomat, a translator, a teacher, an explorer. 

Photo by Andrew Ruiz

He prayed, and he worked. He stood against the dark. For his weapons, he chose not just rhetoric and ritual, but bricks and mortar to educate and elevate. His actions rippled out into communities far beyond his own. 

Time can’t be halted, even for those as blessed as he. Sixty years passed, and the young man, now old, questioned his worth, for all good men doubt. Sometimes, when the world slept, he rubbed his weary eyes and looked to the stars and asked, 

“Do I make you proud?”

He still asks that question today. And in the bending of the trees, the swell of the ocean and the creaking of his old bones, he thinks he hears the answer. When he lays his head on his pillow at night, his heart hurts, but it is full. 

Underneath it all, that little boy lives. Once in a while, he remembers the other paths his life could have taken. His dreams have been stretched over time, twisted by fate and moulded by faith. He marches on, with a back curved by responsibility, a face worn by cares, on a road made of hope.

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