When Saad was born, he was like every other baby. But when he was a few months old, Umma’s mother noticed that something about him was different. He couldn’t turn over; he couldn’t grasp things or kick his arms and legs and do all the things babies did. He didn’t even smile. And it took a very loud noise to make him turn towards it.

Their father, Yusuf, said that it was general weakness and nothing to worry about. How could anything be wrong with his baby boy? He had snarled at Umma’s mother demanding she mind her own business. But the doctor at the Primary Health Centre didn’t agree and said that they had to show him to a specialist doctor.

The specialist doctor gave Saad’s condition a name: ce-re-bral pal-sy. The specialist said it was a condition that couldn’t be cured. Umma’s mother said that thereafter Vaapa couldn’t even bear to look at Saad. Each time he looked at the baby, he ground his teeth. And he shooed him away from sight when he was a little older.

Bipathu was born three years later exactly on the same day as Saad. On 3 October, and everyone was happy to see it was a baby girl. Except Yusuf. For as long as Yusuf was alive, he ignored the baby girl and railed and ranted against the world and Allah for making his son a cripple and his second born a girl. It was Saad who sat by the cloth cradle Bipathu lay in. It was Saad who called Umma excitedly when Bipathu began crawling. It was Saad who watched Bipathu when their mother was busy. So no one was surprised when the first word Bipathu said was Ikka.

Ikka was Bipathu’s east and west, north, and south. He was the crescent moon and she was the star alongside. They were inseparable and even when they fought, they couldn’t be angry with each other for too long.

When Faesal was born, Yusuf had been overjoyed. Faesal would make up for Saad and be his support and shoulder to lean on in his old age, he told everyone, including Saad. “Here is your little brother,” he said placing the baby near Saad. A moment later, he moved Faesal Kutty away afraid that Saad might harm him.

On Faesal’s first birthday, Yusuf decided to host a big biryani feast. He went to Cherpulassery to buy everything they would need for the biryani. He bought Saad new clothes and, after a moment’s hesitation, he bought Bipathu a dress with sequins and spangles.

On his way home, a lorry from a narrow road hurled into the bus he was travelling in. The bus driver tried to swerve but the lorry hit the tail end of the bus where Yusuf sat and he died on the spot, people said.

“What’s ‘on the spot’?” Bipathu, who was six years old then, asked everyone. They glared at her and said, “Hush, you mustn’t ask such things.”

That was three years ago. Then Covid happened and all their lives changed. Bipathu was nine years and three months now, and Saad was twelve years and three months, and the two of them knew that their Vaapa was never coming back.

Bipathu didn’t join the children playing near the madarsa. Instead, she sat at her usual place. She didn’t particularly care for hopscotch or hide-and-seek – the games the girls played. What she wanted to do was join the boys when they kicked a ball around. But the Ustad had forbidden them from playing football. In fact, he had forbidden all of them from playing any games. If you have so much time to waste, try reciting the Surah Al-Fatiha he had said, tapping the table with his cane.

Ustad was a very learned man, Umma had said. “I don’t want any complaints about you. Do you hear me? It reflects on me and how I bring you up.” Umma’s nostrils were pinched and her mouth a grim line as she had scolded Bipathu for playing at the madarsa. Ustad, it seemed, had complained about her behaviour to Umma. Bipathu was afraid of getting into trouble with Umma so she decided she would do exactly as he said. Sit quietly in her place and play football in her head. No one could stop her from doing that. She was so quiet that the Ustad looked at her suspiciously. A quiet Bipathu was a lot more trouble than the rambunctious one. If only Ikka too could be here, Bipathu sighed, as she saw the children come in.
The Ustad rang the bell so that the stragglers could hurry in. Suleiman, the football star, who lived near the Primary Health Centre ambled in lazily.

Excerpted with permission from Bipathu and a Very Big Dream, Anita Nair, Puffin Books.