I first met Hasan when I moved to a new school in grade five.

Abba had managed to get me admitted to an expensive school. I discovered, though, that it wasn’t half as good as it claimed to be. It was one of those pseudo-English medium schools that attracted parents with fancy labs, colourful Parents’ Days and festive events. One thing the school did was accentuate my inferiority complex. My dreams of our bungalow and a shiny car became more frequent.

Another annoying thing about the new school was the mandatory summer camp, which spoiled my holidays. Ammi said it was one more way of fleecing the parents and making them pay for something the children didn’t need. The school allowed us to wear informal clothes, rather than the school uniform, during the summer camp to make us think we were at a funfair. For boys like me, that was an additional worry because I didn’t have enough clothes to wear to school. Ammi said I could wear the school uniform, her one-dress-for-all-occasions solution. I had even gone to a wedding reception in my grey-and-white school dress. All I did there was hide from people’s mocking eyes.

“This boy always wears his school uniform. Doesn’t he have any other clothes?” was something I had heard a few times at school.

My approach was to pretend I had not heard it until one day another voice said, “Furqan, he wants to outsmart you with his expensive clothes because he knows he can’t beat your grades.”

Surprised, I lifted my gaze from the pavement and discovered that the words had come from Hasan. I knew little about him then, though we were in the same class. The plump boy with the expensive clothes had slipped away.

“Why do you let them talk that way to you?” Hasan asked, as he walked in step with me. “Hit them back.”

“Okay.” This utterance must have told him how hard I could hit back.

“You’re pretty good in your studies. Don’t be afraid of them. Let me know if someone bothers you.”

“You read a lot?” He found me sitting in the classroom another day, using the lunch break to read an Urdu novella on Tarzan. Most of the other boys were running around, screaming and throwing chalk at each other. “If you have some books to share, we can do an exchange. I have some too.”

Hasan and I became good friends because of our book exchange. From that first meeting until a few months before his death, I held him in awe. He was smarter, cooler, wiser, richer and better mannered better than me in every way.

I even thought he was good-looking, although he was slightly hefty.

He usually rode his bicycle to school, but sometimes we walked together. I visited Hasan’s home occasionally. It was nicely furnished and bigger than mine but by no means the mansion my eyes saw it to be. He had his own room, which was always untidy. I thought to myself, if I ever owned a separate room, I’d keep it sparkling like a car showroom. We studied together, read and discussed books, and watched movies. Sometimes, his grandmother, whom he called Dadu, trudged in, prayer beads in hand, and kissed him on the cheek. He pretended to be angry and asked her to make up for it by telling us a story. She made a few starts, only to be reminded by Hasan, “We’ve heard that one.”

“You’ve heard all my stories. I’ve nothing new, Bandar.” Often, Hasan agreed to listen to one of her favourite stories about Prophet Muhammad, Alif Laila, Ameer Hamza or one about his grandfather. She spoke slowly, with frequent interruptions, coughing and conversing with Hasan’s mother about one thing or another. These disruptions irritated Hasan, but I enjoyed even the breaks. They added to the story’s suspense.

We also flew kites. Lubna, his older sister, joined us sometimes. I never learnt to fly kites but Hasan and Lubna were champions. I held the kite until they were ready and gave it the initial push upward, or held the ball of string while they flew the kites. Once, her long, flowing dupatta obstructed her view. Hasan laughed, and I joined him. “Why don’t you take it off?” he asked.

“Can’t you see those men ogling at me from their rooftops? And that aunt over there? She will squeal on me to Ammi.”

Lubna adjusted her dupatta with one hand and handled the kite expertly with the other. “Tauba, look at this audacious girl!” She mimicked the aunt, sending Hasan and me into peals of laughter.

“Don’t worry about Ammi or any aunt,” Hasan said, eyeing the kite in the sky. “Dadu is there to take care of them. Watch out for that male chauvinist kite swooping in to cut your flying string off.”

“Don’t worry, Brother. I’m up to the challenge.”

A year later, when I met Ram and Mohan, I didn’t know it would be the start of a beautiful friendship. How it would end was even less foreseeable.

“Boys and girls, come to my place and get some toffees!” I shouted, not exactly at the top of my lungs, as I should have. Customarily, these words had to be shouted loudly with the right pauses, almost in a sing-song fashion, to let everyone know that a certain family was distributing eatables. This ritual of calling children always made me self-conscious because it drew everyone’s attention towards me. So when I saw a boy eyeing me inquisitively, I felt myself sweating.

“You want to grab a sweet?” I asked him.

“Are you selling them?” The boy looked unsure. He was thin, with a brown complexion. He was obviously new to the neighbourhood, else he would not have asked this question.

“No. They’re free. My Ammi asked for something from Allah. I don’t know what it was, but she got what she wanted so she’s giving out these sweets as a token of gratitude. I’m supposed to call the neighbourhood kids to come and grab one.”

“You want one?”

“I’m a Hindu. Am I allowed?” He looked funny, with his legs sticking out of his short shorts he must have outgrown them a long time back like two sticks.

It was my turn to be unsure. “Wait, I’ll check with Ammi.” Ammi sat just beside the door, holding a bag of sweets from which she handed out one sweet to each child.

“Can I give one to a Hindu boy?” I asked.

Ammi was too busy to think about it. Without much consideration, she said yes. I picked up a candy and gave it to the boy. He thanked me.

“You want to try calling the other kids?” I asked.

“Yes, sure. What do you want me to say?”

I told him the words. Rapt, he listened as if I were teaching him a mantra, and with the same diligence, he put his hands on either side of his mouth and shouted.

“Good job,” I said, relieved to be out of the spotlight. Kids kept coming, and soon we ran out of sweets.

“What’s your name?” I asked him as we stood aimlessly in front of my home.

“Ram. I know you. We’re in the same class. You and Hasan, right?”

“Yes.” His face looked familiar now. He smiled self-consciously as I stared at him.

“So how does it work?” he asked presently. “I mean, how do you ask God for a favour? Do you promise something in return? Did your mother say, ‘Oh, God, if you do such and such thing for me, I’ll distribute sweets to the kids’?”

“Well, kind of, I guess.” Before that day, I hadn’t thought about what Ram said. “Except you don’t have to promise. You ask for something and if Allah gives it to you, you thank Him by offering something. Do you guys do the same?”

“Yes, except that Ma spends more time in front of the god at the small temple we have in our home. And she promises to visit Jagannath, a bigger temple. We usually distribute homemade sweets. Ma’s a great cook. You should come to my place one day. She’ll let you taste what she cooks.”

“Thanks! My mother offers extra prayers too. We call them nafals. I wonder why all mothers are like that.”

“Women more than men, I guess.”

“But why?” I asked as we walked together up and down the street.

“Hmm…maybe we should ask my brother, Mohan. He reads a lot of books and is very wise.”

“Where are you from? Has your family only recently moved to Shanti Nagar?”

“Yes. We used to live near Faisalabad.”

“Why did you move? Because of your father’s new posting?” Ram thought for some time and a playful smile appeared on his face, making me wonder if he was thinking about something funny. I later learnt that whenever he faced a challenge on that occasion, it was how to explain to me the reason for their move he would look excited and amused. “Papa said the people in that town were not happy with Hindu festivals. So, most of the Hindu families migrated to other cities. When Mohan, my brother, finished his intermediate exam, we thought it was a good time for us to move out.”

Excerpted with permission from Blasphear, Sohail Rauf, Penguin India.