Two years after Bhaskar and Ratnam left the country for good, with Abbas’s baby in Ratnam’s womb, Abbas received a courier from India. He opened the brown envelope and a black- and-white photograph slipped out of it. Abbas picked up the photograph from the ground and read the word written in black ink: “Thanks!”

He quickly turned over the photo. It was of a toddler, lying on its stomach, its head lifted. It was smiling.

It was his baby. His heart pounded. He smiled at it. “My baby!”

Along with the photograph came a tuft of soft hair. He took it in his hands, delicately, as if he were holding the baby, and kissed it. Then, he brought it close to his nose and smelt it, desperate to get a whiff of his baby’s scent.

He left office early, and back in his apartment, he kept looking at the baby. Is it a boy or a girl? There was no way he could find out. All babies looked the same. In photographs in which they were fully dressed, at least.

Abbas doubled his drink and, lying on his back, held the photograph against the bedroom lamp and kept watching it – smiling at it, sometimes laughing. It filled his heart with joy until reality hit him: he was being teased by Ratnam. The promise remained. He was not supposed to spill the beans; he could not go in search of the baby either. Then why did she send the photograph and the tuft of hair? Why?

He tried to unravel Ratnam’s intention, trace her thoughts behind sending the photograph.

What was she trying to communicate? Did she want Abbas to know that he had become a father, or did she want to inform him that the Reddys had become parents to a beautiful baby? After all that she had done to him, had she not had enough of making a fool out of him? Did Bhaskar know about it?

Lying on his bed, next to the photograph of the baby, Abbas went through a sweep of emotions – from joy to anger to self-pity to frustration to sorrow. Sometime in the watches of the night, he drifted off to sleep in a state of inebriation. He woke up the next morning with swollen eyes. He put the photograph back into the envelope and kept it in the drawer in his cupboard. He had hardly taken it out since.

Abbaz gazed nonchalantly at the night traffic around the Corniche. He continued to drink, as usual, until late at night, slumped on his balcony chair.

When you get older, things will be taken away from you. You will just watch people walking away with your possessions – one by one, a little at a time, until you are left with nothing but your own old age and its predicaments. The lust with which you chased things – women, wealth, keepsakes – loses its vice-like grip on you. And desire its mesmerising, fey edge.

“But my own child was taken away from me when I was as young and bright as the morning sun.” Abbas rued his decision to let Ratnam and Bhaskar walk away with his child, and soon regretted his own sexual proclivities.

Was it a boy or a girl?

He wanted to drive the thought away, and wished he could scream at the top of his lungs until the last bit of anguish had been drawn up from the innermost depths of his heart. Unlike bile and undigested food, you cannot vomit sorrows out of your system. You cannot thrust your fingers into your throat to bring it all out. Memories and regrets linger deep inside a person’s heart.

The small desert country, he often felt, was like a hive of bees – of expatriates who arrived from different parts of the world, in different forms of transportation, only to work. To bend their backs in the sun and merciless heat, to turn their blood into money they could send home. And, during the bitter winter months, work even harder without proper warm clothes, with the cold wind biting the skin like needles of ice.

But there, too, Abbas was alone. He was not a worker at a construction site or a tea-boy, living in squalid camps, or in a room with eight or nine people, or a domestic help at the mercy of an indifferent, illiterate Arab. He was an editor of a newspaper. Part of the purple-collared workforce – a minority. Even the hardships of life spared him, left him alone.

When you are left alone in life for long, birthdays become a sad reminder of the emptiness in life. When he turned forty-eight the previous week, Abbas marked the day quietly, just like tucking a bookmark into a boring book. He lit a single yellow candle, fixed it on a ripe mango, and blew it. There was no one to clap or sing. He then cut the mango – his fingers shaking – and ate it, picking each slice with a small silver fork in which he caught the splintered image of his own face, like a sad epiphany, before drinking late into the night, alone.

The mangoes at the hypermarkets were never as tasty as the homegrown ones his mother had sent him a few months before his parents died prematurely, and together, like conjoined twins. The emptiness in his life spread out before him like the undulating sand dunes under a metallic sky. Abbas wished he could turn the clock back and set the wrongs right.

He had mostly been alone in life except for a brief spell of love and lust, the loneliness had now become unbearable. Most of his hair was gone, and his pate gleamed like a polished ebony husk. Following the habitual sleepless nights, the black moons under his eyes became more prominent against his dark complexion.

Each day, his three-bedroom apartment by the Corniche grew emptier. The silence within the walls became so thick and palpable that he wanted to tear them apart. Once he came back home from office after signing off the next day’s edition, he switched on the television, which was hooked on to the drawing room wall, but sat in the balcony, except during sultry summer nights when the heat and humidity were unbearable, with the usual paraphernalia: vodka, cold soda, slices of lemon, cubes of ice, and sliced green chillies.

Shamal Days

Excerpted with permission from Shamal Days: A Novel, Sabin Iqbal, HarperCollins India.